Friday, 14 December 2007

Curtains in the Arena

With Christmas looming, and another New Year hard on its heels, I have decided to take a rest from blogging, except occasionally. Other more necessary tasks claim priority on my limited energy, and after a year of continuous posting I feel I am becoming repetitive and too predictable.

So thank you, my regular readers and commentators, and also my silent audience, for your interest and support. I shall continue to look in on other blogs and post comments there from time to time when the mood takes me.

A merry Christmas everyone, and may 2008 bring some of the blessings of peace and greater tranquillity which everyone of goodwill surely desires.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Reason, religion, and reality

Here is another post which first appeared about a year ago and has topical and seasonal relevance:

Discussion of religion is becoming more and more hazardous in the 21st Century as believers of various stripes all over the world engage in increasingly irrational, aggressive, and violent antics in the name of their faiths. Apologists for the creeds in question, or for religion in general, are fond of saying “Ah! But you see, what these misguided people are doing isn’t the TRUE Christianity, Islam, etc. They woefully misunderstand the lofty teachings of their faiths.” On the contrary - it is abundantly clear that religion makes otherwise good people do bad things.


What, in fact, IS religion? And how “real” is it? I am increasingly coming to realise that religion, like all other constructs of the human mind, has no objective reality outside the imaginings of those who profess it. Of course, the actions religious belief generates impinge, often horrendously and disastrously, upon millions of non-believers; but the reality of religiously motivated behaviour does not make religion itself any more real.


To clarify: unless one believes in Platonic universals, there is no “perfect” archetypal Judaism, Roman Catholicism, or Islam “out there” in the abstract, any more than there is a perfect archetypal Platonic table or chair. Institutionalised religions have history, traditions, possessions, priests and other functionaries, but these do not make the religion any more “real” than it is in its individual living believers’ brains.


Religions are based upon faith, not reason. At some point – however sophisticated their self-regarding arguments – all religions demand the suspension of reason and a crucial leap of faith. They have no room for sceptical doubting Thomases. That being so, they will always attempt to ring-fence their “sacred” doctrines from reasoned criticism, which they denounce as blasphemy or - in the case of lapsed believers - apostasy, and regard as heinous crimes, sometimes even punishable by death.


So even if we confine this discussion to the three monotheistic religions, we are confronted with the spectacle of a myriad of conflicting sects each claiming that they are the “true” brand of the religion in question, and that those who disagree with them are wicked heretics: “My doxy is orthodoxy; your doxy is heterodoxy.”


What is the non-believer to make of all this? In the first place, we should be very wary indeed of taking sides with any religion, creed, or sect against its self-designated enemies of the same or other religious traditions. “A plague on all your houses” is the only rational response. We should seek to confine the propagation of religious dogmas to those which do not incite hatred of other faiths, or of non-believers, and which are privately funded. The state should give no public countenance to, and much less subsidise, any religious education. On the contrary, the state should ensure that all children, whatever their religious or community background, are educated in a cohesive system of national education which treats all religious beliefs even-handedly and encourages children to think about them, and everything else, in an open-minded way.


Above all, we must recognise that what religion means to those who count themselves as believers is the only “real” aspect of the whole business. If Catholics are brought up to believe that theirs is the only “true” faith, and that Protestants are wicked heretics, and vice versa, the results will be as we have seen in Northern Ireland for the past couple of centuries and more. If Muslim youths continue to be indoctrinated with the notion that Allah commands them to prevail over “infidels” by whatever means necessary, all we can expect in the foreseeable future is far worse threats of terrorism and sporadic violence than we have yet experienced. If “twice-born” Christians in the USA and elsewhere believe that a nuclear Armageddon in the Middle East will result in their being wafted up to heaven in Rapture, it behoves all who do not share that delusion to do everything possible to disabuse them of it and to abort any possibility of such a scenario occurring.


It has been said that people who believe nonsense will experience awkward consequences. Unfortunately, it is not only the believers in the nonsense who suffer because of it. Indeed, it is those of us who simply want to be left alone in peace to think what we choose and to live as we wish who have most to fear from religion. As a society, we cannot afford to extend tolerance to the intolerant, or to pay respect to the disreputable.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Anti-Crusading zeal

More Muslim umbrage-taking here. They'll be telling us to haul down our English national flag, the Cross of St. George, next....

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Does reason matter?

From time to time, I shall reproduce posts which have appeared previously in Anticant's Arena and Anticant's Burrow because I believe that they still have topical relevance.

Because of the fascinating dialogue currently taking place with Ibrahim Lawson, headmaster of a UK Islamic school, on Stephen Law's blog, I have decided to reprint this which first appeared in the Burrow a year ago.

Reason, we believe – it’s a matter of faith, of course – is what distinguishes the human species from all others. Or, rather, articulate reason: it’s quite clear from observation that some animals possess and use intelligence, and work things out for themselves by a process if reasoning, but they cannot exchange thoughts with us about it or anything else in a meaningful way, as adult human beings can do.


For centuries there has been an ongoing battle between reason and faith. Religious faith, being grounded in the supernatural – itself a speculative concept – claims human reason as its handmaiden, and always seeks to trump it in any argument. One sometimes feels, in arguing with religious people, that they are convinced they know all the answers: they know them right or they know them wrong, but they KNOW them. Their faith is invincible, so why bother to argue? Does it really matter whether the Earth is flat or globular, or whether prayer actually works? Yes it does; because if people base their actions on false assumptions, awkward consequences are bound to follow - not only for the perpetrators, but also for many others who don’t share their beliefs.


Logical reasoning, which is the basis of scientific method, proceeds by testing the probability of various hypotheses against the available evidence to obtain the best ‘fit’. Reasonable people are prepared to abandon even a cherished hypothesis if this is overtaken by a more convincing one. The upholders of faith are not; they know what they know because they BELIEVE it, sometimes against all the evidence. Evidence is not important to them; only faith is. The faith of many believers is grounded in a Holy Book which they are convinced was written by, or at any rate dictated by, a God. The trouble is, there are many Holy Books to choose from, and how do you know which is the “right” one? Jews have the Torah; Christians have the Bible; Muslims have the Koran; Mormons have the Book of Mormon; Christian Scientists have Mrs Eddy’s outpourings, and Scientologists have the works of L Ron Hubbard. A rich smorgasbord of faith! But according to each, theirs is the only true Word of God and the others are all fakes. A good beginning for harmonious inter-faith relations!


The irony of it is that, while denigrating reason, the religious use ingenious displays of it to bolster their irrational creeds. Their persistent casuistry is quite remarkable. The Pope, for instance, loses no opportunity to denounce the insolent hubris of the Enlightenment, an intellectual project which forms the foundation-stone of Western democracy and technological progress.


And of course, religious people are the first to avail themselves of the wondrous creations of modern science such as the internet, the jet airliner, and life-saving medical drugs. With few exceptions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they do not refuse to benefit from the very thought-process which they are constantly denouncing as impious. But where would we be, I wonder, if religion had succeeded in stifling independent scientific thought? Still convinced that the earth is flat and the centre of the universe? [There was, and maybe still is, a Flat Earth Society presided over, I believe - ah, there we go again…- by a Mr Huttle-Glank.] Still travelling by foot, or on horse, camel or mule? [“That person who invented the wheel, impious they were, knew better than God, they did; good thing we put a stop to that by crucifying them. If God had meant us to travel on wheels, He would have built them into the human frame.”] Still relying on witch-doctors and herbal remedies to treat cancer, tuberculosis and malaria? Still burning harmless old women as witches?


Which reminds me, apropos of nothing, of the tale about the hell-fire preacher haranguing his subdued audience about the dismal prospects awaiting them in the nether regions. “And there will be weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth” he yelled. A little old lady in the front row quaveringly piped up: ”But I haven’t got any teeth.” “Make no mistake, Madam”, the preacher retorted, “TEETH WILL BE PROVIDED!”


Creationism is now the religionists’ favourite wheeze for attacking scientific method. It is a hypothesis based entirely upon faith, not evidence, but they want it to be taught in schools as a possible alternative to evolution – a hypothesis with a great deal of evidence to support it which has stood up for 150 years. I have no objection to Creationism being taught in schools, but not as “science”. It should be taught, if at all, as part of religious studies, or to illustrate the crucial differences between faith-based and scientific thinking.


The more religionists succeed in their attack on reason and its proper use, the more the world will descend into a chaotic, strife-ridden mess. It’s time to call a halt to the revolt against reason.

Multiculti madness

Even on April Fool's Day I would have thought this story a bit steep.

The lunatics have not merely taken over the asylum. Now they are running the hospitals as well.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Should the State fund political parties or religious bodies?

IMHO, definitely NOT!

Political parties, churches, and other 'faith-based' institutions are all special interest groups ideologically supported by some members of the larger society who should be prepared to support them financially also, and should not expect those who do not share their political or religious beliefs to contribute to their upkeep.

As a taxpayer, I submit - sometimes grudgingly - to my taxes being used for purposes which the government conceives to be in the national interest, such as education, health care, and defence. Even though I strenuously disagree with some of the policies being pursued in these areas I recognise that they affect the entire population, and therefore cannot be funded privately.

However, where political doctrines or religious dogmas are concerned, I think it is utterly immoral for the State, or those who subscribe to such notions, to expect me and other taxpayers who disagree with them to fork out public money - OUR money - to bail out organisations which can't drum up enough support from their own adherents to keep going. They should cut their coat according to their cloth, or go out of business.

Soft Centre

British politics in this dismal decade resemble a failed sponge cake – brittle and bitter at the edges, and soggy and inert at the centre where the meaningful action should be taking place but isn’t. As W. B. Yeats so eloquently put it in “The Second Coming”,



‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.’


Anyone concerned about the political health of our democracy ought to be worried about this malaise; and a ‘liberal conspiracy’ should be seeking to rectify it.


Today’s public debate is dumbed down in most respects, yet at the same time often snarly and ill-tempered. An interesting perspective is provided by Frank Furedi in Politics of Fear and Invitation to Terrorism. His thesis is that we – the West – have lost our bearings and are confused about our identity and purpose. The public is frightened by the shadowy threats of terrorism and mounting global violence which are hyped up by our elected leaders who, though they mouth platitudes about ‘freedom’ and ‘democratic values’, are bewildered by the nature of others’ hostility to our way of life and respond by encroaching on our own cherished traditional freedoms under the guise of ‘protecting’ us.


So far as Britain is concerned, it is undoubtedly true that over the last couple of decades we have moved into a ‘dependency society’ where more and more groups of people are identified as ‘vulnerable’ and therefore in need of an army of State nannies and supervisors to run their lives. Although we tend to think of our existence in sharply contrasting ‘before and after 9/11’ terms, this trend has been going on far longer than just since 2001, though it has accelerated sharply since then. After a decade of New Labour, we are approaching the point of no return: it is no longer inconceivable that within our lifetimes British citizens will be chipped, tagged, and spied upon by hidden cameras and eavesdropping devices from the cradle to the grave. All in our own best interests, of course. George Orwell’s worst nightmares are coming true.


As a democratic liberal who believes that the State exists for the benefit of the individual, and not the other way round, I find these trends dismaying though not altogether surprising, and certainly not so daunting that I feel constrained from protesting vigorously against them. I do believe, however, that time is getting short; and that the mobilisation of an active Centre majority which will fight every inch of the way for the recovery of our liberties is a highly urgent task for democrats.


By an active Centre, I don’t mean a return to the stale old consensus politics where the Labour and Conservative parties jostle with each other for the middle ground and the difference between them grows less and less. The Tories pulled off this trick in the post-WW2 years so successfully that it ultimately resulted in social and economic stagnation which was only broken by Mrs Thatcher’s plucky but misguided radicalism and ‘dash for freedom’. This has now morphed into New Labour’s embrace of neo-liberal economics, which is the perverse flip-side of its over-nannyish social policies. With this un-Labourlike and unSocialist scenario compounded by Blair’s headlong rush to be Bush’s poodle, it is no wonder that so many on the Left are angry and disgruntled, and feel bitterly betrayed.


This, surely, is where a promising opportunity lies for those of us who seek pragmatic rather than doctrinaire solutions to set out our stall before an increasingly bothered and bemused public. As Furedi rightly points out, the old labels ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are obsolete, and the meaningful divide is between those of us who believe that real national security and social progress will be achieved through trusting the maturity and common sense of the public and those who – wherever on the political compass they envisage themselves to be – seek to control and hobble others because they are frightened that they are losing control.


The spectrum of politics is not semi-circular; it is a full circle where the two extremes of undemocratic Left and Right are near neighbours so indistinguishable that their labels don’t really matter. At present, their strident, angry voices are far too dominant. Impelled by fear, they strive to compel all the rest of us to conform with their political, social, and religious dogmas. The open, tolerant, pluralist Centre is still, I believe, the political preference of the majority of level-headed, shrewd British people who are increasingly depressed and derailed by the raucous voices shouting over their heads and attempting to impose unwanted curbs on how they think and behave.


After a decade in office, Labour is obviously tired and stumbling. It’s worst mistake has been a growing tendency to invade, in Nannyish fashion, the citizen’s right to privacy and integrity. We need a government elected at Westminster that is far more sensitive than the present one to the inalienable values of liberty and what that actually means in terms of policies.


It is time for the commonsense Centre to bestir itself. We should listen less to the feverish chatter from the fringes, and restore a more balanced political discourse to our affairs.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Brown makeover or Mugabe takeover?

A new name for our ruling [just about] party:

ZANU LABOUR

I like it!

[hat-tip Dennis on Nanny Knows Best blog.]

Faith schools and 'truth'

A highly important discussion of Islamic schools here on Stephen Law's blog.

Please read the post, and the comments, carefully. This debate hinges on the nature of Truth as perceived by people of faith, and the distinction between education and indoctrination.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Global rottweiler

A huffy comment on my Open Letter to Yankee Doodle taxed me with ignorance of "what America is all about". America is, of course, about many things: one of them, it would seem from this item in today's Sunday Times, is a delusional belief that the USA's government and laws are above those of all other countries so that reciprocity in international relations does not apply.

Apparently it is now the US government's contention that because bounty-hunting 'rendition' [a euphemism for kidnapping] is a good ol' American custom dating back to 19th century Wild West frontier days, their agents are entitled to kidnap anyone anywhere in the world who is 'wanted' by the US courts, regardless of whether or not extradition treaties exist.

And then they plaintively enquire why the rest of the world doesn't love them! Perhaps if they watched fewer Hollywood movies in which the Good Guy is always American, and always comes out on top, they might catch a glimpse of the real world. Only that would be far too painful.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Mrs Grundy rides again

According to today's Guardian, the Government is exploring the possibility of criminalising payment for sex, and a minister is to visit Sweden to examine how the system works there. It is thought that such a law would help to crack down on sex slavery and forced prostitution, but sex workers' spokespersons maintain that it would lead to increased violence and extortion, and that the proper way to proceed is to legalise and license brothels instead of driving prostitution still further underground and making prostitutes even more vulnerable then they now are.

Memories are very short, and the dire social consequences of Prohibition in the USA during the 1920s seem to have slipped from most people's minds. One salutary bi-product of outlawing payment for sex, though, might be to make London a less attractive venue for unsavoury visitors such as Saudi princes - though they would doubtless claim diplomatic immunity if caught in the act.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

The Oxford debate

There is an excellent eyewitness account of Monday's events at the Oxford Union here. Also some very interesting comments/discussion.

From the point of view of a defender of free speech, I find it dismaying that so many commentators apparently cannot distinguish between free speech as an inviolable principle, and the merits of the issues being discussed. Surely, whether or not a view is mistaken, obnoxious, or downright wicked is irrelevant so long as it is not advocating coercive violence against others.

In my view, those who maintain that free speech should be limited to the expressions of opinions they agree with, or do not consider harmful, are clueless as to its actual nature. It is always the 'hard cases' - the racists, the Holocaust deniers, even the defenders of paedophilia - who put the free speech principle to the test. Those who would ban or prevent the peaceful expression of such mistaken views because they believe they will do harm by seducing the unsophisticated are themselves the enemies of free speech, democracy, and an open society, as was quite clear at Oxford on Monday night.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Mob rule trumps free speech

The disgraceful scenes at the Oxford Union last night are a salutary reminder of the decay of free speech in this country. Not only the illiberal ‘hard Left’ [what a misnomer!], Islamist and Zionist protesters – a curious coalition – and their rowdy hangers-on, but the mainstream political parties and the various semi-official organs of Political Correctness such as the ludicrously titled ‘Equality and Human Rights Commission’, pay lip-service to freedom of speech as in duty bound; but in practice they attack and undermine it wherever it clashes with their own opinions and prejudices.


If we are to continue to be in any sense an open democracy and a pluralistic society, free speech should be sacrosanct and indivisible. But it is far from being so in the mealy-mouthed Britain of today, where unpopular and obnoxious opinions are not merely frowned upon and derailed from public expression – increasingly and ominously by scenes such as last night’s gratuitous violence at Oxford – but are curbed by an ever growing array of new laws against ‘hate speech’ deemed offensive to those criticised.


This attempt to shelter the allegedly ‘vulnerable’ from honest criticism as well as from poisonous prejudice strikes me as totally undemocratic and wrong.


The traditional principles of free speech are crystal-clear. If it has any plausible meaning, it involves the right to say publicly whatever one wishes to so long as you do not directly incite violence and breaches of the peace, or libellously defame another’s character. As Voltaire is alleged to have said, “I detest what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it”.


Saying it lawfully, of course, does not extend to group demonstrations intended to provoke violence and counter-violence, such as the fracas at the Oxford Union last night. Like Evan Harris MP, I am astounded that the police allowed demonstrators to scale the walls and gain uninvited entry to the Union’s private premises, and even more astonished that the police then washed their hands of their duty to remove the intruders on the pretext that it had become a ‘civil’ and not a ‘criminal’ matter. Something distinctly fishy there, which calls for a public enquiry.


Having spent most of my life actively campaigning for gay rights, often against viciously hate-filled opponents, I am the last person to wish for sexual minorities – or any other minority – to be abused, mistreated and discriminated against. But I am far from convinced that criminalising the verbal expression of ignorant prejudice and even hatred is the wisest way of dealing with bigotry. What counts is the battle of public opinion – the candid convincing of hearts and minds – and this is never won by curbing freedom of speech. On the contrary, it is only by exercising the fullest freedom of speech without fear of legal restraint or physical violence that honest, sincere, open-minded people will reach sensible conclusions based on factual evidence rather than on lies, prejudice and fiction.


Unfortunately, so many of today’s political and social arguments are less and less reality-based. In the scary atmosphere created by the government’s over-hype of the terrorist threat, the distinction between fact and fiction is increasingly blurred until it no longer seems to exist for many people, even including front bench spokespersons.


If the charge against David Irving is that he denies facts for which there is copious and convincing evidence, the proper way to demonstrate this is by demolishing his arguments – as was conclusively done in his unsuccessful libel action against Deborah Lipstadt – not by rioting against his freedom to speak. If the British National Party’s views are wrong-headed, obnoxious, and fuelled by hate, the proper way to combat them is not by denying them platforms and rioting which lets them pose - with a smidgeon of justification – as aggrieved martyrs; it is to out-debate them.


But if the self-styled anti-fascists – who all too often act out a passable imitation of fascist street thugs – prefer the sort of behaviour they perpetrated last night, it is they, and not their enemies, who are among the worst betrayers of our hard-won democratic freedoms. Whether knowingly or not, these misguided people are contributing to the destruction of our increasingly fragile open society.

Blessings of religion

Another example of religious idiocy here.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Nutty, and flaky at the edges

Tony Blair complains that as prime minister he didn't feel able to talk openly about his religious beliefs, in case people thought he was a nutter. What escapes him is that millions of us think he is a nutter regardless of his religious beliefs.

Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury moans [to a Muslim magazine!] that Americans are deluded by their “chosen national myth...that what happens in America is very much at the heart of God’s purpose for humanity”, and doesn't draw the obvious conclusion. But then he wouldn't, would he?

Saturday, 24 November 2007

From the Fox's mouth

Rupert Murdoch says he controls the political line of the Sun and News of the World, but not those of The Times and Sunday Times. [Although he often asks their editors what they are doing, and it would be very surprising if he didn't bend their ears if not their policies.]

The Australian-born US citizen media tycoon also believes that if Sky News acted more like his US Fox News it could become "a proper alternative to the BBC"! This throws a fascinating insight upon the Dirty Digger's conception of fair and balanced reporting. Not that the BBC is perfect in this respect, but it's streets ahead of Fox.

Friday, 23 November 2007

A shocking business

In today’s Independent, Joan Bakewell inveighs against the reluctance of feminists to protest against a horrific sentence recently meted out in Saudi Arabia upon a nineteen-year old woman who was ordered to receive two hundred lashes and be imprisoned for six months. Why? Because she had been the victim of a gang rape!


Shurely shome mistake? you ask. Not at all. Because, you see, this saucy lass had broken Saudi law by brazenly travelling in the same car with her boyfriend. They had the misfortune to be waylaid by a gang of seven men who proceeded to rape them both. And for their unIslamic immodesty they, as well as their attackers, are both being punished.


As Joan Bakewell says, “this is so totally at odds with the way we think and behave towards women that it’s hard to know how to get any purchase on the mind-set behind it”. But do we really need to? Must we be forever empathising with and seeking cultural excuses for barbaric brutality? This is sheer multicultural idiocy. Does it really matter whether Muslim susceptibilities are offended if we dare to say that such laws and such behaviour are primitive, disgusting, and utterly unacceptable to any 21st century person who considers themselves civilised?


It does, of course. Coincidentally with this verdict, HM the Queen was welcoming King Abdullah, the absolute ruler of Saudi Arabia, to a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, and there was much governmental prattle about the “shared values” of our two countries. It would be interesting to know precisely what these “shared values” are thought to consist of. Obviously there is a common interest in oil, petrodollars, and lucrative armament contracts lubricated by slush funds. But the common cultural, religious, and social shared values entirely escape me.


Predictably, the Bush Administration has refused to condemn this wicked sentence because it is “an internal Saudi decision” and the USA, as we all know, NEVER interferes in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. But one might have hoped for better from the British government. No doubt there is official reluctance to criticise the Saudis over anything whatsoever in case they cut off the oil, or maybe even our heads. The one thing they are unlikely to cut off is the flow of Wahhabist preachers – funded, needless to say, by the petrodollars we pay for Saudi oil – who infest British mosques preaching hatred of Western values, ‘infidels’, and fomenting violent jihad.


It really is time that this mealymouthedness ceased, and that our elected rulers spoke out for decent human values. As Frank Furedi observes in his new book, Invitation to Terror, Western effectiveness in combatting our shadowy and imprecisely defined enemies is currently paralysed by a fear-induced unwillingness to speak obvious truths, and to call a spade a spade. For my part, enough is enough and until official British voices muster sufficient self-respect to speak out loudly and clearly against this atrocity I hang my head in shame for my country.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Was 9/11 an inside job?

The jury is still out, and Yankee Doodle is promising some highly interesting posts on this in the near future - keep watching his blog.

Meanwhile, a comment by 'AntiFascistMajority' on a CIF article:

Here's the official 9/11 story in a nutshell:

OSAMA & THE 19 MUSLIMS

Once upon a time, in a remote cave in Afghanistan, there lived a multi-millionaire CIA asset named Osama bin Laden who suffered from kidney failure. I know what you are saying: “Why would a wealthy man who was seriously ill choose to live in a cave when he could afford a top-of-the-line modern health care facility?” Sorry, this fairytale doesn't answer that type of question. (Maybe he had a generator and a dialysis machine in the cave?)

Osama decided to attack America. His motive was simple: “He hated our freedoms!"

Osama left no evidence because he conspired with his followers only through mental telepathy. They were 19 devout Muslims living in the USA who--oddly enough--liked Las Vegas, alcohol, pork, prostitutes, and lap dances. (Is all that in the Koran?)

The 19 armed themselves with boxcutters, made themselves invisible, sneaked onto four commercial airliners and flew around US air space (these know-nothing playboys turned out to be phenomenal pilots and navigators!) crashing them into buildings in New York City and Washington DC. For two hours, the mighty US Air Force just sat on its hands and watched passively.

An hour after the crazed fanatics crashed into the Twin Towers, these steel buildings mysteriously pulverized themselves (they looked like peeling bananas!) and dropped to the ground. The young men made one plane invisible before crashing it into the Pentagon. They crashed another in Pennsylvania, leaving no wreckage. To top off that very strange day, several hours later a third steel skyscraper, Building 7, sunk into its own footprint just like a controlled demolition!

And it's not over yet! After 9/11, nine of the men who had been identified as hijackers stepped forward (alive, obviously) and proclaimed their innocence!

And Osama lived happily ever after.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

A timely cock-up

The glum faces on the Treasury bench at today’s Prime Minister’s Question Time spoke volumes, as Bruiser Brown floundered under the taunts of his bantam-weight Conservative and LibDem opponents. The Prime Minister’s honeymoon is well and truly over, and he increasingly comes across as boastful, bothered, and inept. 25 million personal confidential records have gone astray, and all Brown can muster is a tepid apology for the “inconvenience”[!], while protesting that there was no systemic failure – just a slip-up by an incompetent junior, and the error was, like the Victorian maidservant’s baby, just a little one.


This, coupled with £25 billion of public money being shovelled in to shore up the reckless banking practices of Northern Rock, constitutes the writing on the wall for this increasingly tired and clueless administration. But will it deter control-freak Brown from his hot pursuit [egged on by the Sun, and so presumably with Rupert Murdoch’s blessing] of a national identity card data base and the amassing of yet more personal data which spells the end of personal privacy as we have hitherto known it in Britain? That is, I fear, unlikely.


Last weekend a few – too few - journalistic voices sounded the alarm at the continuing governmental rape of our freedoms. In the Observer, Henry Porter said: “Welcome to Fortress Britain…a state that requires you to answer 53 questions before you’re allowed to take a day trip to Calais. Welcome to a country where you will be stopped, scanned and searched at any of 250 railway stations, filmed at every turn, barked at by the police…There is no end to Whitehall’s information binge…In a few years’ time…there will be very little the state won’t be able to find out about you. And because this is a government database, there will be huge numbers of mistakes that will lead to suspicion and action being taken against innocent people.” A prophetic forecast in view of today’s stunning news, following hard on the heels of the revelation that thanks to Home Office ineptitude, upwards of 10,000 ‘security guards’ may be illegal immigrants.


More sinisterly, Porter reveals that the £1.2 billion cost of this Big Brother operation – which WE, the taxpayers, will have to stump up – is largely going into the pocket of Raytheon Systems, a US company that developed the Cruise missile “and which, no coincidence, has embedded itself in Labour’s information project by supporting security research at the party’s favourite think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research.”


In The Times, Simon Jenkins castigates Brown as “a tentative, uncertain leader, reluctant to confront admirals, bankers, property developers, American presidents, and now his own security apparatus.” The public realm, says Jenkins, “is being medievalised at the bidding of Osama bin Laden. We are witnessing a drift towards banana republicanism, towards regimes that survive on perpetual states of emergency, in thrall to some bullying police chief or paranoid spymaster. This is not responsible government.”


And in the Telegraph, Jenny McCartney forecasts a ‘Shambles Britain’, in which the dull threat of terror hangs permanently in the air, making every journey a nightmare.


Finally, a newly released DVD, Taking Liberties, rehearses the successive encroachments on traditional civil liberties perpetrated by the Blair/Brown ‘New Labour’ government since 9/11: infringements of the right to protest, the right to freedom of speech, the right to privacy, the right not to be detained without charge, the right to be deemed innocent until proven guilty, and the right not to be tortured, or handed over for torture by others.


We live in perilous times and, as in the 1930s, find that our personal and private lives – which are the most important and precious aspects of our existence – are increasingly encroached upon and disrupted by the outside world.


Of all the threats – terrorism, international military and economic lawlessness, the spectre of nuclear attacks, religious and cultural conflict, ecological meltdown – by far the most immediate and menacing is this onslaught by our own government upon the historic civil liberties which, until this opening decade of the 21st century, British citizens assumed had been finally won and could be taken for granted.


One crucial aspect of this, which is hardly ever mentioned, is the competence and integrity of the faceless super-snoopers who will police all this mountain of data. As Jenkins points out, “Whitehall’s 450 counterterrorism officials [doing what all day?] are to be reinforced with hundreds more to run courses on terrorist detection for all staff in cinemas, theatres, hotels and shopping centres.” And quite junior civil servants [including illegal immigrants?] will be charged with the juicy task of monitoring all our movements and communications – including our phone calls and emails – to sniff out suspicious behaviour. Well, as we have just seen, junior – and senior? - civil servants are more than likely to make monumental mistakes.


I do not like the putrid smell of this panicky government. Nor, I hope, do you. It is all too reminiscent of the Stasi-policed East German regime, where no-one knew who was a friend and who was a government spy.


I have always believed much more in the cock-up theory of politics than in the paranoid conspiracy version. Yes – sinister and unsavoury people in powerful positions DO cook up schemes to disadvantage and rip off the long-suffering public – but the real danger and evil of the ‘surveillance society’ is that it is bound to be not only corrupt, but crassly incompetent in crucial respects, and so it is actually no protection against terrorism or any other danger.


It’s time for us all to wake up, before we sleepwalk into a post-1984 Orwellian world.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The War on the Unexpected

Bruce Schneier has kindly permitted me to reproduce the following article from his Crypto-Gram Newsletter [November 15]


We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.


This isn't the way counterterrorism is supposed to work, but it's happening everywhere. It's a result of our relentless campaign to convince ordinary citizens that they're the front line of terrorism defense. "If you see something, say something" is how the ads read in the New York City subways. "If you suspect something, report it" urges another ad campaign in Manchester, UK. The Michigan State Police have a seven-minute video. Administration officials from then-attorney general John Ashcroft to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to President Bush have asked us all to report any suspicious activity.


The problem is that ordinary citizens don't know what a real terrorist threat looks like. They can't tell the difference between a bomb and a tape dispenser, electronic name badge, CD player, bat detector, or trash sculpture; or the difference between terrorist plotters and imams, musicians, or architects. All they know is that something makes them uneasy, usually based on fear, media hype, or just something being different.


Even worse: after someone reports a "terrorist threat," the whole system is biased towards escalation and CYA instead of a more realistic threat assessment.


Watch how it happens. Someone sees something, so he says something. The person he says it to -- a policeman, a security guard, a flight attendant -- now faces a choice: ignore or escalate. Even though he may believe that it's a false alarm, it's not in his best interests to dismiss the threat. If he's wrong, it'll cost him his career. But if he escalates, he'll be praised for "doing his job" and the cost will be borne by others. So he escalates. And the person he escalates to also escalates, in a series of CYA decisions. And before we're done, innocent people have been arrested, airports have been evacuated, and hundreds of police hours have been wasted.


This story has been repeated endlessly, both in the U.S. and in other countries. Someone -- these are all real -- notices a funny smell, or some white powder, or two people passing an envelope, or a dark-skinned man leaving boxes at the curb, or a cell phone in an airplane seat; the police cordon off the area, make arrests, and/or evacuate airplanes; and in the end the cause of the alarm is revealed as a pot of Thai chili sauce, or flour, or a utility bill, or an English professor recycling, or a cell phone in an airplane seat.


Of course, by then it's too late for the authorities to admit that they made a mistake and overreacted, that a sane voice of reason at some level should have prevailed. What follows is the parade of police and elected officials praising each other for doing a great job, and prosecuting the poor victim -- the person who was different in the first place -- for having the temerity to try to trick them.


For some reason, governments are encouraging this kind of behavior. It's not just the publicity campaigns asking people to come forward and snitch on their neighbors; they're asking certain professions to pay particular attention: truckers to watch the highways, students to watch campuses, and scuba instructors to watch their students. The U.S. wanted meter readers and telephone repairmen to snoop around houses. There's even a new law protecting people who turn in their travel mates based on some undefined "objectively reasonable suspicion," whatever that is.


If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn't be surprised when you get amateur security.


We need to do two things. The first is to stop urging people to report their fears. People have always come forward to tell the police when they see something genuinely suspicious, and should continue to do so. But encouraging people to raise an alarm every time they're spooked only squanders our security resources and makes no one safer.


We don't want people to never report anything. A store clerk's tip led to the unraveling of a plot to attack Fort Dix last May, and in March an alert Southern California woman foiled a kidnapping by calling the police about a suspicious man carting around a person-sized crate. But these incidents only reinforce the need to realistically assess, not automatically escalate, citizen tips. In criminal matters, law enforcement is experienced in separating legitimate tips from unsubstantiated fears, and allocating resources accordingly; we should expect no less from them when it comes to terrorism.


Equally important, politicians need to stop praising and promoting the officers who get it wrong. And everyone needs to stop castigating, and prosecuting, the victims just because they embarrassed the police by their innocence.


Causing a city-wide panic over blinking signs, a guy with a pellet gun, or stray backpacks, is not evidence of doing a good job: it's evidence of squandering police resources. Even worse, it causes its own form of terror, and encourages people to be even more alarmist in the future. We need to spend our resources on things that actually make us safer, not on chasing down and trumpeting every paranoid threat anyone can come up with.


Ad campaigns:
http://www.mta.info/mta/security/index.html
http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1000/...
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/04/...

Administration comments:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/...
http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/...
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?...

Incidents:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/6387857.stm
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/09/...
http://www.lineofduty.com/content/view/84004/128/
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/05/...
http://www.startribune.com/462/story/826056.html
http://dir.salon.com/story/tech/col/smith/2004/07/...
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/10/...
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/10/...
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20441775/
http://www.thisisbournemouth.co.uk/...
http://alternet.org/rights/50939/
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/04/...
http://www.mercurynews.com/breakingnews/ci_7084101?...
http://www.boston.com/news/globe/city_region/...
http://www.postgazette.com/pg/06081/674773.stm
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/04/...

CYA:
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/02/...

Public campaigns:
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2005/12/...
http://www.winnipegfirst.ca/article/2007/09/24/...
http://www.underwatertimes.com/print.php?...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_TIPS

Law protecting tipsters:
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07245/813550-37.stm

Successful tips:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/...
http://www.pe.com/localnews/publicsafety/stories/...

This essay originally appeared in Wired.com:
http://www.wired.com/politics/security/commentary/...

Some links didn't make it into the original article. There's this creepy "if you see a father holding his child's hands, call the cops" campaign:
http://www.bloggernews.net/18108
There's this story of an iPod found on an airplane:
http://forums.worldofwarcraft.com/thread.html?...
There's this story of an "improvised electronics device" trying to get through airport security:
http://www.makezine.com/blog/archive/2007/09/...
This is a good essay on the "war on electronics."
http://www.cnet.com/surveillance-state/...


Saturday, 17 November 2007

Trends in global politics

Following on from my Open Letter to Yankee Doodle, there’s an interesting discussion happening on Richard’s Gatwick Forum about the likely shape of a post-UN, post-US ‘full spectrum dominance’, new world order. The question was asked whether Americans realise that their present policy of seeking to impose their will by military force is bound to fail – indeed, has already failed. Richard expressed the opinion that they do realise it, but are unable to admit it. I disagree, for the following reasons:


“You say that 'they' already realise their war ['on terror'; for 'full spectrum dominance'; or whatever] is lost - but I'm not sure they do. 'They' - the men [it's nearly all men] now running the USA in government and business - are mostly aged between 40 and 70. They have never known a time when America was not 'top dog'. They cannot conceive a state of affairs in which their will, if they are determined enough, does not ultimately succeed. They are in denial over the actual situation - it is even said that 'reality based' assessments are not welcome in Bush's Washington, which is ruled by conviction, hunches, and prayer meetings. It is all delusional, and the delusion is not confined to the current administration - the notion that the next presidential election will resolve things for the better is another false dawn, because the US electorate are not sufficiently awake to the actual situation they face.


“As I see it, the trauma of the 9/11 twin towers atrocity has deranged and derailed world politics. It was greeted as a 'wake up call', but its actual impact has been the opposite - to send those controlling US policy into sleepwalking mode. Whoever engineered that catastrophe - whether bin Laden, Mossad, or a neoCon 'inside job' - has scored a brilliant victory by exacerbating world tensions and conflicts, as they obviously intended. Immediately after 9/11, the USA enjoyed the sympathy of the whole world. They could have mobilised international backing for an effective razor-sharp police operation against the group of terrorists whom they boastfully swore to bring to justice [and haven't]. Instead, they made a 'category mistake' and launched military operations first against Afghanistan and then, much more foolishly, against Iraq which had the effect of arousing the hostility and anti-Western sentiments of the entire Muslim and Middle Eastern world. We now have a situation where, because of fear of the impending consequences of terrorist and military escalation, more and more people, politicians, and countries are succumbing to angry paranoia and hurling threats and hatred at one another. So-called 'peace initiatives' are merely a facade, because hardly anyone in positions of power genuinely wants them to succeed. Everyone wants 'victory'.


“Unless the great majority of the world's population, who are peace-loving, can assert themselves against these crazed maniacs, I fear the worst. It's symptomatic of our weakness that so far, fewer than 50 people have signed the - entirely apolitical - global petition against violence which some of us launched on the internet six months ago. What has happened to the sane, moderate, democratic, peace-loving solid centre in national and world politics? At the moment, it is nowhere in evidence.”

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Open letter to Yankee Doodle

Hi there!


You’ve several times taxed me with being ‘anti-American’ – on one occasion, ‘venomously anti-American’ – as if this is some sort of sin or crime. My response has been that I am NOT anti-Americans as human beings or individuals, or as citizens of the USA, but that I AM very much against certain aspects of American foreign policy, and some global actions carried out by the US government, private US corporations, and some individual Americans, which strike me as being harmful to the future peace and prosperity of the world; and that I am also very critical of some widespread American attitudes and assumptions. I may be right or I may be mistaken to hold some or all of these opinions, but there is nothing inherently wrong or improper in doing so.


The histories of Great Britain and the United States have been intertwined since Colonial days, and since the Revolution there have been periods of varying closeness and conflicts of interest – of affinity and some antipathy. The latter has, I believe, always existed towards Britain on the part of even Anglophile Americans, because the myth of 1776 and the years preceding it dies hard, and the Brits are perceived as would-be oppressors and imperialists, while on our side there is an over-sentimental feeling for a wayward daughter who has outgrown her parent. To my mind, both these sentiments are obsolete and should be dumped, as should the stale fiction of a “special relationship”. While this served a useful purpose in World War Two and beyond, it is no longer apposite in the dramatically changed world of the 21st century.


Apart from all else, the United States is no longer predominantly a ‘WASP’ country, and its demography is changing rapidly so that within another couple of decades it will be a nation with far fewer racial or sentimental ties to the United Kingdom. A common – or largely common - language is sometimes a barrier to mutual understanding, as well as a help. It is time to recognise that Britain is, in fact, just as much a foreign country to Americans as any other European nation; and that we each have our separate, legitimate interests as well as those things we still share in common. I hope this does not come across to you as ‘anti-American’.


The impression I get from your posts, and those of other Americans whose blogs and comments I read, is that most Americans are disdainful of Europeans because we don’t embrace your values and your culture with open arms as the best in the world. You assume that American-style democracy, free competition, and the ‘American Way of Life’ as typified by Big Oil, Wal-Mart, Disneyland, and Macdonalds – not to mention US military bases worldwide, Guantanamo Bay, and extraordinary rendition - is the be-all and end-all of a desirable existence, and that anyone who doesn’t rush to embrace all of this with open arms is defective in intelligence and even morality. [As I have said before, I would not wish to generalise about the opinions and attitudes of over 300 million Americans; and when I say ‘you’ I do not mean you personally; but I trust that you will accept the substance of what I am saying.]


You are scathing and continually sneering at Europe having sold out - as you perceive it – to the social welfare state and lax moral ‘relative’ values [whatever ‘relative’ means]. The problem here is that from this side of the Atlantic, American politics - of all parties – appear to be far more right-wing than those of any mainstream European political party, in a devil-take-the-hindmost way which the European experience during and immediately after World War Two made unacceptable to our voters, and obsolete in terms of winning elections. As for our alleged moral degeneracy, lack of religious underpinning, etc., I shall refrain from saying more than that from our perspective the behaviour of the oh-so-much-more moral and religious Americans leaves a great deal to be desired. The text to be applied here is “By their fruits shall you know them.”


I know many personally amiable Americans, and I have always been struck by their anxiety to be liked and thought well of. The fantasy of the ‘American Dream’ which you are taught from childhood blinds all but a minority of Americans to the dark underside of American policies and actions during the period since World War Two. Of course, no nation is free of stains and blemishes on its historical record – the British most certainly are not. But for a great country such as yours which is proud of currently being the world’s only superpower to blind itself to the many discreditable things that are being done in its name is the hubris that can only lead to nemesis. My major criticism of the USA is that she is always quick off the mark to criticise others, and admonish them for their shortcomings, but will never admit to her own errors of judgement and policy.


You may say that it is none of a foreigner’s business to tell Americans how to conduct theirs; and that any remedial action has to come from within. I agree: but if America does indeed aspire to be the world’s policeman, her citizens should recognise that the way they run their country is no longer solely their concern; and that those of us who sometimes feel that we are being dragged along willy-nilly in America’s slipstream like a beer can tied to a puppy’s tail are entitled to some opinions on these matters.


You yourself, in your blog, have repeatedly made clear your concerns about widespread corruption and dishonesty, amounting to treason, in the highest levels of the US Administration. If this is the case, it is your and your honest compatriots’ first duty to clear out this Augean stable before the world is plunged into further mayhem and misery by the follies of ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’.


If this strikes you as ‘anti-American’, I am sorry, but it is the truth as I see it.


Your friend over the pond,


ANTICANT

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

False dawns

Eighteen years ago, the Berlin Wall came down. Twenty-eight years ago, Mrs Thatcher became the first woman prime minister. Ten years ago, New Labour swept the discredited Tories out of power.

All euphoric moments for many. All false dawns. Whatever the 'end of history' theorists and apocalyptic believers may say, history has no happy endings. It just keeps rumbling - and every now and then exploding - along.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Why buy Snake Oil?

One of life’s puzzles is why people pay good money for rubbish. Shoddy merchandise – useless ‘remedies’ – crap art – brainless talk – the purveyors of all this ghastly stuff rake their profits in and run laughing all the way to the bank. Why?


Cannot people discern between products and ideas of value and those which are scams? It seems not – or else my junk mail box would not be flooded with messages urging me to buy bogus Viagra or to invest in the latest stock market hot tip ‘guaranteed’ [of course] to be a winner. Happily I have enough sense not to send these hopeful guys and gals my credit card details, but hundreds obviously do or it would not be worth their while to write and email their pitches.


I see the Chinese [some of them, anyway] are kicking themselves for their stupidity in paying Tony Blair $500,000 for a three-hour visit to a luxury housing complex and a vapid speech witheringly described by China Youth Daily as “full of pleasantries and clich├ęs” and no more insightful than the reports of local officials. Having been subjected to Blair’s blatherings for a couple of decades, we British can only sympathise with the Chinese for their yawn-provoking
experience.


But Blair, egregious though he be, is small beer as an earner compared to the top US televangelists – the Swaggarts, Haggards, Robertsons, Bakkers, and Oral Robertses – who coin in the dollars with their unashamed invocations of the Golden Calf and their proclamations that Jesus is the God of Success [theirs, first and foremost]. Why Americans are so prone to lap up this pitiful appeal to credulousness and greed remains a mystery. But far too many of them do.


Free competition, in ideas as well as goods, is all very well but there does need to be some quality control. Unfortunately Western society is suffering from slippage in this respect, which makes it all the more necessary and important for those of us who don’t want to be patsies and suckers to speak out against the encroaching tide of material, mental, and intellectual garbage.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Religion has nothing to do with it?

Will those who persist in their purblind insistence that religion has nothing to do with US global political and military actions please read this article and reconsider!

Dump the dollar!

An interesting article by Paul Craig Roberts here forecasting the knock-on effects of global loss of confidence in the dollar as a reserve currency and the implications for the USA's future as a world power.

During the Reform Bill crisis of 1831-2, when the Duke of Wellington's minority government vainly tried to block the measure, his opponents used the slogan "To stop the Duke, go for gold!"

Today's slogan should be "To stop the warmongers, dump the dollar!"

Thursday, 8 November 2007

"One hell of a business"

An eye-opening 1936 US Congressional Report here on the influence of what President Eisenhower later called 'the military-industrial complex', both American and European, in fomenting global wars and civil strife to promote armaments sales.

It would seem that US Congressmen had more moral sense and greater bottle in those days; it is difficult to imagine such a report coming from the Congress now.

The whole report is compelling reading. These are just a few highlights:

"The statement of a Federal Laboratories salesman that 'the unsettled condition in South America has been a great thing for me' is the key, and also, 'We are certainly in one hell of a business where a fellow has to wish for trouble to make a living.'

"The Committee finds, under the head of sales methods of the munitions companies, that almost without exception, the American munitions companies investigated have at times resorted to such unusual approaches, questionable favors and commissions, and methods of 'doing the needful' as to constitute, in effect, a form of bribery of foreign governmental officials or of their close friends in order to secure business...

"The committee finds such practices on the part of any munitions company, domestic or foreign, to be highly unethical, a discredit to American business, and an unavoidable reflection upon those American governmental agencies which have unwittingly aided in the transactions so contaminated...

"The committee finds, further, that not only are such transactions highly unethical, but that they carry within themselves the seeds of disturbance to the peace and stability of those nations in which they take place...

"The committee finds, further, that the intense competition among European and American munitions companies with the attendant bribery of governmental officials tends to create a corrupt officialdom, and thereby weaken the remaining democracies of the world at their head...

"It will remain for commissions with full powers in the large European nations to report on the provocative activities of their companies, particularly to investigate the statements made in the French Chamber of Deputies, that Skoda in Czechoslovakia, a subsidiary of Schneider-Creusot, financed the Hitler movement to power, which, more than any one other event, can be credited with causing the present huge rearmament race in Europe, so profitable to the European steel, airplane, and munitions companies...