Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

donkeyWe do not consider ourselves to be either Robinson Crusoe or Nostradamus in predicting a poor day for the Democrats today in the USA. It does not require us to be especially prescient to predict a dark day for the centre left, and a big celebration night for the centre-right. Commentary and polls have been running strongly that way in the last ten days.

Many races will be a lot closer than people have been predicting, but in general we expect the Republicans to do better tonight USA time. We are ambivalent on whether they will take control of the Senate: on balance, we have suspected JUST not until very recently, but as the counting continues it is increasingly possible, undoubtedly, especially if the Democrats are in trouble in a swathe of Southern and Western States where they had hoped to hold off GOP challenges, as in states like Arkansas and Colorado.

Why the Republicans are doing well is perhaps more interesting.

A referendum? Maybe. But on much more than just the Presidency.

Barack ObamaThere is a general assumption that the result will be a “referendum” on President Obama, who has been struggling in the polls for some time now, despite a strong bounceback in the American economy.

There is a pervasive view in America that the economy is not doing well: despite a recovery from the depths of the recent recession, markedly higher employment levels and a soaring stock market, the economy remains the top worry for voters, with an overwhelming majority pessimistic that conditions won’t get better soon, according to Tuesday evening exit polls.

When Bill Clinton won the Presidency he famously had a large sign on his campaign headquarters walls that cried out “It’s the economy, Stupid”, to remind him and all spokespeople to focus on the economy as by far the most important issue for voters. Well today, 78% of Americans said they are worried about the economy, according to CNN reporting on national exit polls. Another 69 percent said that in their view economic conditions are not good. Nearly half of voters said the economy is the most important issue facing the country at 45 percent. Health care, foreign policy and illegal immigration are also top concerns, but ranked well below.

Overall, 65 percent said the country is on the wrong track and 31 percent said it’s headed in the right direction, the exit polls found.

The survey of 11,522 voters nationwide was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results from interviews conducted as voters left a random sample of 281 precincts Tuesday, as well as 3,113 who voted early or absentee and were interviewed by landline or cellular telephone from Oct. 24 through Nov. 2. This will bias the results against the Democrat incumbent, as pre-poll votes favour the Republicans, and the poll quotes a sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. Nevertheless, the broad thrust of the poll is essentially right.

But Republicans shouldn’t celebrate too hard

The voters have thoroughly had it right up to their yingyang, according to exit polls released Tuesday evening. The national survey of voters showed broad dissatisfaction with both parties, the Obama administration and Congress.

58% of those casting ballots in the midterms were either dissatisfied or angry at the White House, while just 11 percent said they are enthusiastic with the administration and 30 percent said they were satisfied, according to CNN.

Another 54 percent said they disapprove of President Barack Obama’s job while 44 percent said they approve.

But the winners are winners by default. The Republican leadership does not fare well in the eyes of voters either, with 59 percent saying they are not happy with GOP leaders in Congress.

And as for the parties as a whole, 56 percent view the GOP unfavourably, while 53 percent say the same of Democrats. Hardly a crushing endorsement for the Republicans. More like “a plague on both your houses”.

And a whopping 79 percent said had a negative view of Congress, according to CNN. This statistic has hardly changed since the Republican-led shut downs of Government some time back.

Politics as a whole is the loser

Meanwhile, voters are split on how much the federal government be involved in people’s lives, as 41 percent said the government should do more and 53 percent said the government does too much.

The trust level is also staggeringly low. Sixty-one percent said they trust lawmakers in Washington only some of the time. Democracy itself is under question here. Accordingly, we expect to see some solid swings against incumbents of both parties tonight.

voter IDWe also expect to see a bigger turnout from Republican voters than Democrats, favouring the GOP, and that’s before we factor in the ludicrous “Voter ID” push from the right which may have effectively disenfranchised as many as 7 million Americans, almost all of whom would have voted Democrat. If the Republicans take control of the Senate by less than those 7 million votes in the States that have enacted voter ID legislation then what we will have been watching is little more than a legalised coup d’etat. It won’t be the first time, either. Remember the Gore-Bush fiasco in Florida?

Whatever you believe about the ID laws, the other factor is that GOP voters are currently more motivated to vote partly through their visceral hatred of Obama – some of which is undoubted racially-based, sadly, but also through perceived American weakness on the international stage, and other hot buttons – but also through deep concerns about the size of Government debt, especially on the far right with the Tea Party and its fellow travellers. The other significant factor is that voters that identify as Independents can expect to break heavily in favour of the Republicans, reversing recent trends, and again reflective of the generalised malaise with all incumbents and with Democrats in particular.

There is little question that along with a generalised dislike of Government per se in the Western world at the moment, there is a pervasive concern about the size of Government, and the arguments of small government libertarians have gained some traction with those who feel especially disgruntled. Whether this will turn into a broadly-supported consensus for what a small government democratic society would look like is, to our mind, far less likely. Small government is all very well until they start to abolish the bit you happen to like.

Building agreement to substantially reduce the role of Government following sixty years of mixed-economy high-touch post-WW2 consensus politics will be much more difficult than promising to keep expanding spending inexorably. We suspect pork barreling is not about to disappear anytime soon.

Ye will reap what ye sow. So be careful what you sow.

However, what we see in this election is the net result of years and years of relentlessly negative campaigning by the Republicans, in effect “talking down” the economy, talking down the President’s performance, and talking down confidence generally. In our entire adult life of closely following American politics we do not recall ever having seen such a sustained barrage of brutal criticism, virtually entirely unsupported by any serious policy alternatives.

In reality, apart from the race card, this is due to one factor above all others. Let down, in our opinion, by an inability to strike the right note in promoting their successes, the Obama Administration has actually been one of the more successful in recent American history, in a variety of areas, but this news has completely failed to cut through the miasma of rabble-rousing from the Republicans.

wall streetExamining just one of the key areas of Obama’s activity (there are many we could point to) reveals this to be true.

The economic cataclysm of the Global Financial Crisis can be laid squarely at the feet of two very contrasting Presidents, Messrs Clinton and Bush, who both bowed to pressure to de-regulate Wall Street and American banking practices, which led directly to the economic crisis and cost millions of innocent little folk worldwide their savings, and worse, their homes and jobs.

The resulting “austerity” measures didn’t touch those who played fast and loose with the world’s money, none of which was their own.

What the f*** did Obama ever do for us? Well, this lot, for a start.

In response, in terms of Consumer Protection, the Obama government has been one of the most involved and proactive in history. Just consider, he:

Ordered 65 executives who took bailout money to cut their own pay until they paid back all bailout money.  http://huff.to/eAi9Qq

Along with Congressional Democrats, pushed through and got passed Dodd-Frank, one of the largest and most comprehensive Wall Street reforms since the Great Depression.  http://bit.ly/hWCPg0http://bit.ly/geHpcD

By signing Dodd-Frank legislation, created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau http://1.usa.gov/j5onG

Created rules that reduce the influence of speculators in the oil market.  http://bit.ly/MDnA1t

Fashioned rules so that banks can no longer use consumers’ money to invest in high-risk financial instruments that work against their own customers’ interests.  http://bit.ly/fnTayj

Supported the concept of allowing stockholders to vote on executive compensation. http://bit.ly/fnTayj

Endorsed and supported the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2009 that closed offshore tax avoidance loopholes.   http://bit.ly/esOdfBhttp://bit.ly/eG4DPM

Negotiated a deal with Swiss banks that now permits the US government to gain access to the records of criminals and tax evaders.  http://bit.ly/htfDgw

Signed the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act, which closed many of the loopholes that allowed companies to send jobs overseas, and avoid paying US taxes by moving money offshore.http://1.usa.gov/bd1RTq

Established a Consumer Protection Financial Bureau designed to protect consumers from financial sector excesses.  http://bit.ly/fnTayj

Oversaw and then signed a bill constituting the most sweeping food safety legislation since the Great Depression.  http://thedc.com/gxkCtP

Through the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, extended the False Claims Act to combat fraud by companies and individuals using money from the TARP and Stimulus programs.  http://bit.ly/SLTcSa

That’s quite a list. Yet these directly attributable, unarguable and very welcome successes – and this is just one area of government we could look at – have been largely drowned out by the constant cat-calling and nay-saying across the aisle.

No matter how much we support historic measures like Obamacare, the “pivot” towards Asia in foreign policy, and other historic changes, we freely concede as natural supporters of Obama that small revolutions are never without controversy, and even the success of a reform like the new health insurance system in the USA will always be something of a “curate’s egg”. Massive reform always involves partial failure, and results in future trimming of the sails. This is natural, and acceptable.

Just one of thousands of examples of the disgraceful tactics employed by the right to rubbish Obama.

Just one of thousands of examples of the disgraceful tactics employed by the right to rubbish Obama. Just pop “Obama is a Socialist” into Google and see for yourself.

What bemuses us is how so much of our politics has descended into complete opposition to the party in power, and viciously so in many cases, whereas previously the role of Opposition was to oppose with principle, to achieve bi-partisanship where possible, and to propose alternatives where the difference of opinion was unbridgeable.

We condemn this drift into mindless yahoo-ery as unhealthy for society.

The fault is by no means all on one side of politics – indeed there will be those who leap to accuse us of the very same failing, and possible sometimes justly, (we are only human) – but in general the verbal (and sometimes physical) thuggery is demonstrably more common on the right, often hiding behind the cowardly anonymity of the Internet – the modern equivalent of scrawling on a wall – to spread their ridiculous and offensive “memes”. And overwhelmingly, the target for these memes has been Obama himself, and his family. No President in history, even George Bush who was viscerally detested by the Left, was subjected to this level of abuse, vindictiveness, and outright falsehood. As my mother would say, “give a dog a bad name” … Well, it’s worked.

Disgusting "humour" like this is freely available all over the internet. Should concepts of "free speech" protect those who produce it from sanction? In our opinion: No.

Disgusting racist “humour” like this is freely available all over the internet. It seeps into the body politic and corrupts it. Deliberately.

Which is why, as they celebrate their likely successes tonight, we urge thinking Republicans to crow less and think hard that this is a very dangerous furrow to plough.

What we are seeing is a wholesale abandonment of decency and consensus as principles worth following, and that is a very dangerous and unwelcome step.

The GOP need to pause and consider that if they achieve some measure of power tonight by winning control of the Senate, then if they are not careful they will - in due course -find themselves hoist by their own cruel and destructive petard.

Is it too much to hope that faced with the reality of power the right will abandon their childish name calling and rediscover a sense of purpose beyond blind obstinacy and negativity? Yes, we rather fear it is.

We will post comment on the individual races in due course.

tuni-MMAP-mdThe so-called “Arab Spring” was hailed at the time in the West as the beginning of a creeping democratisation of the Middle East, belatedly joining most of the rest of the world on the faltering path to democracy, separation of powers, and so on.

What is clear is those expectations were vastly overblown.

What happened in Egypt was one nasty dictatorship was replaced by an even nastier one when “democracy” elected a Government unacceptable to the military, to the capitalists, and to the West. In Libya the West got rid of Gadaffi but a lack of central leadership meant we replaced him with a series of vicious tribal warlords controlling their own little chunk of the country. We fomented an uprising against Assad in Syria and ended up with a brutal civil war and IS. In the deeply conservative Gulf States any change has been entirely negligible. If nothing else, the West has learned that involvement in the Middle East is always a matter of herding cats.

But there is one shining example of success. In the cradle of the revolutions that swept the Arabic-speaking world, the secular party Nidaa Tounes has now won the largest number of seats in Tunisia’s parliamentary election, defeating its main rival, the Islamist party Ennahda, according to two analyses of results across the country. The Islamist party has apparently accepted the result with good grace. “We have accepted this result and congratulate the winner,” Lotfi Zitoun, an Ennahda party official, told Reuters. Zitoun said the party reiterated its call for a unity government, including Ennahda, in the interest of the country.

North Africa expert Michael Willis, a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford University, said the decline in Ennahda’s electoral popularity reflected public discontent with their handling of the economy. “On the doorsteps, the economy was the main issue. Nidaa Tounes is seen as having the expertise to get the economy back on track.” Nidaa Tounes is 10 percentage points ahead of Ennahda. It has won 83 seats, with roughly 38 percent of the popular vote, to Ennahda’s 68 seats, representing about 31 percent of the vote, the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported after tabulating its own count of 214 of the 217 parliamentary seats.

A parallel tabulation conducted by a Tunisian election observer organization, Mourakiboun, placed Nidaa Tounes at 37 percent and Ennahda at 28 percent. Those figures were based on a random sample of 1,001 polling centers across the country, with a margin of error of 2 percent and 1 percent on the respective totals.

Young Tunisians, in particular, engaged enthusiastically with the new political process.

Young Tunisians, in particular, engaged enthusiastically with the new democratic political process.

Officials from both parties said that although premature, the counts matched their information.

Official results have not yet been released, and parties are restrained by law from announcing their own count before the election commission does. Provisional results are expected on Monday, but final results will take at least 48 hours.

Early results also showed a surprise gain for the party of the Tunisian tycoon Slim Riahi, who ran a flashy campaign that included handouts and pop concerts. Some of the smaller political parties fared badly under a new voting system, in particular Ettakatol, a coalition partner in the former government.

Nidaa Tounes, led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, 87, is an alliance of former government officials, liberals and secularists that was formed in 2012, largely in reaction to the post-revolutionary chaos under the Ennadha-led government. It was sharply critical of the Islamists’ performance and ran a campaign for a modern, secular society.

The results, if confirmed, would be a blow for Ennahda, which won a large popular vote and 89 seats in 2011 but struggled to manage rising insecurity and a sliding economy.

Tunisians filled polling stations on Sunday to elect a new Parliament, expressing a strong desire and some trepidation that, after months of political turmoil, the country would turn a corner nearly four years after a revolution.

Officials said the provisional turnout was nearly 62 percent, which election observers said demonstrated Tunisians’ support for democracy.

24The elections are the second in Tunisia since the popular uprising that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and set off a wave of change that was later dubbed the Arab Spring. They will bring in a new Parliament and government for a five-year term. Presidential elections are scheduled for next month.

The immediate return for Tunisians in maintaining a lid on tension and achieving a peaceful transition will be, of course, yet more tourism dollars flooding into the country. The country has also maintained close relations with Europe, and with France and Italy in particular, with growing mutual trade.

colloseumAn island of sanity in troubled north Africa, it is also an exceptionally interesting and beautiful country, with a fascinating history of civilisation going back thousands of years, notably being the home of the Carthaginian Empire which was so dominant in the Mediterranean area in centuries before Christ, and it was later occupied by Rome which made good use of its vast fertile soils to produce huge amounts of cereals, plus olive oil, figs, and more. Various waves of conquerors including Ottoman, Arab and French have created a multi-layered and outward-facing culture.

The country lies within a couple of hours flight from the major population centres of Europe. No-one could begrudge them this “peace dividend” and let us hope they continue to provide a beacon for sanity for the whole Arab-speaking world. Indeed, the rest of the region can learn much from Tunisia beyond its peaceful transition of power – it also has a large number of women MPs, a highly progressive code of individual freedom for women, Islamic extremism is rare (although not non-existent), the country enjoys a relatively open low-tariff economy, and it is accepting of Christian and most significantly Jewish minorities.

Today, we salute the Tunisian people for their fortitude and commonsense. When we rail and wail at the inability of much of the region to behave intelligently, let us look to the example of Tunisia, and hope.

This very important article in Vox, based on Russian research, reveals an apparently staggering level of support for ISIS in Europe, and in France in particular, where one in six people report supporting the extreme terrorist Sunni group that has been slaughtering Christians, Shias, Sunnis who don’t agree with them, and anyone else who gets in their way.

And the level of support rises as respondents get younger.

 

Very, very worrying.

Very, very worrying.

 

We somewhat doubt the veracity of the research and wonder if people are confabulating “ISIS”, “Gaza” and “Hamas” in their minds. In any event, it’s a sad and sorry finding even if it’s only partly accurate, and the radicalisation of Islamic youth is one of the most distressing and tragically predictable outcomes of the growth of so-called “identity politics”, which is now playing out throughout the West, and increasingly in a new black-white divide in America, as well.

But despite this survey it would be wrong to see this phenomenon as something unique to young followers of Islam. Indeed, as one of the sources quoted in the article remarked:

The rise of identity politics has helped create a more fragmented, tribal society, and made sectarian hatred more acceptable generally. At the same time, the emergence of “anti-politics,” the growing contempt for mainstream politics and politicians noticeable throughout Europe, has laid the groundwork for a melding of radicalism and bigotry. Many perceive a world out of control and driven by malign forces; conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of politics, have become mainstream.

It is so. This isn’t a religious thing. It’s all about contemptuous disenchantment and disempowerment.

That said, the fact that we actually find most interesting in the graph above is the much LOWER figure – virtually negligible, in fact, in polling terms - in Germany.

In our analysis, this can be explained by three simple factors.

Whilst there is racial tension within Germany – particularly where the Turkish immigrant population is concerned, it is less of a problem than elsewhere.

Even with the persistent (if small) growth in Neo-Nazi skinhead violence, the vast majority of Germans utterly reject the balkanisation of politics based on race. Given their recent history, and the efforts the State makes to prevent racial abuse or anything that smacks of it, this is laudable and not at all surprising.

Another differentiator, of course, is that much of the Islamo-fascism currently being exhibited in the world is explicitly anti-Israeli and by extention anti-Jewish, and expressing sentiments that could possibly be interpreted or misinterpreted as anti-Jewish in Germany is still well-nigh impossible, again for very obvious reasons.

The third reason, and this is very significant, is that the German economy is significantly wealthier and more successful than the British, or the French. There is plenty of education and work to be had, and both are the perfect balm for the vast majority of young people, of all racial backgrounds, who might otherwise be led into more extreme conclusions about society.

Recent riots in France were painted as "Islamic" by commentators, in fact, as the placard being carried by one demonstrator, it was more accurately an explosion of frustrated youth violence, like previous riots in the UK and elsewhere.

Recent riots in France were painted as “Islamic” by commentators, but in fact, as the placard being carried by one demonstrator says, it was more accurately an explosion of frustrated youth violence, like previous riots in the UK and elsewhere.

Unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is the perfectly fertilised and endlessly productive seed bed for extremism of all kinds, whether you look at 1789 France or France last year, 1917 Russia, 1933 Germany, 1970s Northern Ireland, the “Arab Spring” of 2011, or America, France and Britain today.

And where that unemployment falls most onerously on any particular racial or religious groupings, particularly a grouping that considers itself as a minority, then you have a recipe for immediate and predictable disaster.

But even when that miserable judgement is made, it is the generalised “anti politics” trend that concerns us most – even more than any passing fad for Islamic extremism that threatens us today.

The simple fact is that when people perceive their leaders as corrupt, when people perceive them as petty, when people perceive them as habitual liars, (with plenty of evidence), when people perceive them as lacking in required levels of intelligence or leadership skills, then they do not blame the individuals as much as they blame the system. And variously, they turn (and they can turn very quickly) to revolutionary creeds – Marxism, Fascism, religious extremism: whatever is around and easily grasped as a panacea, really.

Anti-democrats don't start out carrying a sign saying "crush democracy". They know it frightens the horses. And they can be alluring - Stalin was quite a hunk as a youngster.

Anti-democrats don’t start out carrying a sign saying “crush democracy”. They know it frightens the horses. And they can be superficially attractive - Josef Stalin was quite a hunk as a youngster, for example.

This is precisely why we have frequently labelled America a ‘pre-Fascist” state* – not because we believe there are organised groups of people seeking to subvert the American constitution and replace it with some Hitler-style figure – there are such groups, but they are still largely fringe dwellers, and there are also big money groups that wield far too much malign financial power over the political system, such as the Koch brothers, but their influence is still basically visible and trackable – rather, it is because the fracturing of America into potentially warring tribes is so very palpably obvious when viewed from a distance, matched (equally obviously) by an increasingly careless disregard for civil rights and privacy from the authorities.

A frightening realisation that often comes later in life is that democracy, in all its expressions, contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. The very thing that makes democracy so worth preserving – freedom of opinion and the resulting freedom of speech – is the very weapon that can tear it down.

History teaches us, again and again, that there is a tipping point when a majority of people despair of the system and when they do they are prepared to consider a replacement – any replacement. Or it can be a highly motivated minority, with good organisational skills.

Shorn of the wonderful, soaring rhetoric of its core principles by the behaviour of its key players – our political leaders, and the media – democracy simply seems increasingly and hopelessly out of touch and irrelevant. All it needs is a half-credible populist to repeat the people’s complaints alluringly, and the complaints are worldwide, and they are devastatingly simple and enticing:

“I don’t trust them”, “They’re all just in it for themselves”, “They don’t know what to do”, “They’re just taking the piss out of the rest of us, and we’re paying”, “They don’t care about us.” “What can I do? They won’t listen to me.”

At one and the same time, powerful cabals in business and the military foolishly consider they can take advantage of such unrest to position themselves to take over as “a strong voice”, to run things (skimming off the top, of course) while the hubbub of dissent dies down, until – inevitably – they realise they have seized a tiger by the tail, and they can’t control it. “Temporary” restrictions on freedom become permanent, and apply to these fellow travellers as much as they do to the rest of us. They imagine themselves isolated from the crackdown by their money, except – as they invariably discover – they are not.

Anti-politics. It is louder in the West than we can remember at any time since we started paying attention in the 1960s.

“They don’t care about little people.” “Just a bunch of snouts in a trough.” “They’re all stupid.”  “There’s no real difference between them, anyway. It’s all a game.” “I just don’t trust ‘em. Any of ‘em.”

Indeed, as we write these phrases, it is all we can do to stop from nodding in agreement. They are so seductive.

A son of the aristocracy, Churchill never lost his early passion for democracy that was often found in those days in the ranks of the independently wealthy.

A son of the aristocracy, Churchill never lost his early passion for democracy that was often found in those days in the ranks of the independently wealthy.

Except if we are seduced by them, we will hate what comes after. As Winston Churchill supposedly famously remarked:

“Democracy is the worst form of government, it’s just better than all the others.”

Actually, and somewhat ironically, the most famous defender of modern democracy might not have actually generated those words, although in his lifetime he did say a lot about democracy, especially when its survival was threatened with the horrors of German and Austro-Hungarian Nazism, Italian and Spanish Fascism (amongst others), and Soviet-style “marxism”.

Churchill did say something like this in the House of Commons on  11 Novem­ber 1947) but it appears he was quot­ing an unknown pre­de­ces­sor. From Churchill by Him­self, page 574:

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

So, although these are Churchill’s words, it is an amusing historical footnote that he clearly did not orig­i­nate the famous remark about democracy. We wonder who did. Anyhow, here are some orig­i­nal things that the great man did say about democracy over 70 years in public life:

If I had to sum up the imme­di­ate future of demo­c­ra­tic pol­i­tics in a sin­gle word I should say “insurance.” That is the future — insurance against dan­gers from abroad, insur­ance against dangers scarcely less grave and much more near and con­stant which threaten us here at home in our own island.
Free Trade Hall, Man­ches­ter, 23 May 1909

At the bot­tom of all the trib­utes paid to democ­racy is the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or volu­mi­nous dis­cus­sion can pos­si­bly dimin­ish the over­whelm­ing impor­tance of that point.
House of Com­mons, 31 Octo­ber 1944

How is that word “democ­racy” to be inter­preted? My idea of it is that the plain, hum­ble, com­mon man, just the ordi­nary man who keeps a wife and fam­ily, who goes off to fight for his coun­try when it is in trou­ble, goes to the poll at the appro­pri­ate time, and puts his cross on the bal­lot paper show­ing the can­di­date he wishes to be elected to Parliament—that he is the foun­da­tion of democ­racy. And it is also essen­tial to this foun­da­tion that this man or woman should do this with­out fear, and with­out any form of intim­i­da­tion or vic­tim­iza­tion. He marks his bal­lot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and together decide what gov­ern­ment, or even in times of stress, what form of gov­ern­ment they wish to have in their coun­try. If that is democ­racy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.”
House of Com­mons, 8 Decem­ber 1944

Stirring stuff. And how unlike any modern politicians that come to mind, except, perhaps, the trio of dead American heroes, JFK, RFK, and MLK. Little wonder that they seized the imagination so thoroughly, and are still revered to this day, even though their feet of clay have been comprehensively documented. They talked about the principles of Government, not just the outcomes.

Democracy is more than a system, it is a concept.

Democracy is more than a system, it is a concept that breeds a system.

In today’s world, once again – and urgently, in our view – we need to make the argument for democracy itself. Not for nothing do the appalling leadership of extremist Islam, epitomised at its most horrible by ISIS, reject the very concept of democracy at the very same time as so-many of their co-religionists seek to acquire and embrace it. ISIS and others of their ilk know they are engaged in a death struggle for their narrow view of the universe against the very principles that democracy uniquely espouses: the principle of protection under the law whoever you are, whatever your creed, sex or colour, true justice that is separated from the government and which can hold the government itself to account, freedom to express oneself fearlessly, genuinely participatory government, the rights of women and minorities to be treated as equals, and much, much more.

For our own internal stability, and in defence of those who dream of democratic freedom everywhere, we need to make our passion for democracy loud and clear, recapturing why we believe it to be superior to the alternatives.

Even if we don’t care about personal freedom, let us carol from the rooftops that it has been shown to be more economically successful – and more sustainably – than any other system.

Even Communist China, containing fully one-third of the world’s
population, enjoying its hugely successful democracy in chinaexperiment in State-directed capitalism, is increasingly recognising that it cannot endlessly stifle the opinions and behaviour of the governed.

They have recognised that they can release a gale of innovation and improvement by asking the opinion of their own people (a truly alien view for the whole of Chinese history thus far) and thus they are taking faltering steps to introduce more freedom into their system without triggering a cataclysm of change.

As just one measurement, the level of openly critical comment in China today is measured in vast multiples compared to even ten years ago, as is the nationwide passion to tackle corruption, which has been endemic in China since time immemorial.

How ironic that the People’s Republic of China – until recently a vile and periodically vicious autocracy – is cautiously embracing a belief set that we seem essentially content to see wither on the vine. Certainly when measured by the public behaviour of our elite.

If nothing else, our leaders and opinion formers should be arguing for the success of liberal democracy as an economic vehicle – not, please note, arguing in favour of unfettered capitalism – as the proven way forward for humankind.

The evidence is that democracy spreads wealth better than any other system, to the widest possible number of people, even while it grapples with the excesses of the runaway freight train of capitalism. Democracy actually restrains the worst features of capital’s behaviour – environmental vandalism, for example. (And if you want to see the results of capitalism that is not fettered by democracy, both in terms of economic failure, cronyism, violence, and environmental vandalism, just have a look at Russia today.)

But more than mere words, more than argument, we need to make democracy work for the governed.

As a beginning, we need to act with utter ruthlessness when evidence of corruption or rorting the system is uncovered.

Sad Statue of LibertyWe need to be deeply suspicious of centralising power, and passionate and enthusiastic about devolving power to the lowest practical level concomitant with effective decision-making.

(For this reason, we are tentatively in favour of Scotland voting for its independence next month, despite acknowledging that it might not appear to be a sound decision economically, at least in the short term. Not that we think it will.)

We must watch our security services and police like hawks, ensuring that the work they do is effective, but that their understanding of the proper limits on their powers is thorough and genuine.

We must defend and encourage media diversity, because a plehtora of opinions expressed openly is the best possible way to generate the ideas we need to successfully navigate our new century and beyond. Anything that compresses media ownership into fewer and fewer hands, blithely covered up with promises of editorial independence that everyone knows are false – is actively dangerous. NewsCorp, and those like unto it, are bad for the health of democracy. “State-owned” news outlets – unless protected by the most rigorous legislation – are a contradiction in terms, wherever they are.

We must encourage bi-partisanship, not because we want our democracy reduced merely to fudge and lazy compromise, but because the public needs to see - to witness – people of good faith working together on their behalf or the social compact with the governed will collapse.

It follows that the role of Opposition is to oppose what it truly believes to be wrong, rather than simply “everything”, and that Government should habitually respect and consider the opinions of those who disagree with it. The impasse between Obama and the Congress in recent years was an economic annoyance, to be sure. But it was a political catastrophe.

Where disagreement is genuine, then the debate should be conducted with civility. Even when one considers another person foolish in the extreme, misguided, or lacking perception, the skill is to make that point in such a manner that they will at least consider you may be wiser or in possesion of a better idea, and also so you may carry public opinion with you. And so that the public can see your good intentions, and not just your muscular antagonism.

We “dumb down” our debates at great cost and at our peril.

If something is “dumb”, the people know they can do without it. When politicans dumb down their discourse, when they are relentlessly trite or scathingly negative, encouraged, aided and abetted by a media that has an increasingly – vanishingly – small attention span, they are not playing some clever stratagem.

In risking a backlash against democracy itself, they are lining themselves up to be thrown in a prison, or worse, by the tidal wave that replaces what they blindly thought was inexorable and irreplaceable. They are beating ploughshares into pikes, and putting them into the hands of those who - when they aren’t even offered complex, thoughtful or educated opinion to consider - can see no reason why they shouldn’t adopt simpler ideas expressed in slogans.

working mensAs democracy swept across Europe in the mid-late 19th century and into the 20th century, it was buttressed by wise souls who ensured that every village, every town, had facilities for the dis-semination of ideas and knowledge, for the edification of the working poor, (such as with the Working Men’s Institutes of Britain), so that they would become participatory members of a new compact.

The privileged who led these conscious efforts to uprate the skills and learnings of the poor were driven by belief, not by an empirical calculation that they were providing a safety valve for the expectations of the people. They believed that a government of all cannot exist if the all is disenfranchised through ignorance or lack of opportunity. So they set about creating the knowledge that would let people fully participate.

Yet today the efforts of those great communicators have been hijacked. Today they are largely directed into providing an endless diet of sport, or reality TV, or mind-numbing time-consuming soap opera and unedifying “popular” drama. Modern media resembles nothing more than an electronically-delivered diet of “bread and circuses” – a tactic for mind control, remember, employed by the Roman dictatorship very successfully for 400 years. “Don’t worry about how we are governing, or who for – here’s a load of bread and a free ticket to watch the gladiators. Come back tomorrow for more of the same.”

And today, devoid of any understanding of why democracy matters, the governed have essentially lost interest, and satiate themselves instead on a diet of moronic “entertainment”.

Ask yourself: where are the civics classes in our schools and universities? Where are our unions, who taught people not just how but why they should defend their rights? Where are the rhetoricians, stirring our minds with ideas and concepts? (Answer, making a “Ted Talk” to their fellow intellectual and financial elite.) Why have our political parties shrunk to be miniscule mockeries of their former selves, with memberships so ludicrously small as to make them nothing more than stripped-down bureaucracies, homes for duelling apparatchicks?

Un-engaged and uncomprehending, the people are ripe to be captured by that simplest and most terrifying of ideas.

“It’s all their fault. Let’s go get ‘em.”

Who “they” are varies from theatre to theatre, of course. Alarmist? Look at that graph at the top of the page again.

Democracy is not the natural form of government for humanity. Violence is. Democracy has been hard won with the stout arms and often the lives of millions, for over 2,000 years.

Democracy will not persist if it is dysfunctional. Democracy will not persist if it is not protected. Democracy will not persist if we lose the argument.

Think about it. Discuss.

 

*For history buffs, there is a famous quotation, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

  • Many variants of this exist, but the earliest known incident of such a comment appears to be a partial quote from James Waterman Wise, Jr., reported in a 1936 issue of The Christian Century that in a recent address here before the liberal John Reed club said that Hearst and Coughlin were the two chief exponents of fascism in America. If fascism comes, he added, it will not be identified with any “shirt” movement, nor with an “insignia,” but it will probably be wrapped up in the American flag and heralded as a plea for liberty and preservation of the constitution.
  • Another early quote is that of Halford E. Luccock, in Keeping Life Out of Confusion (1938): When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”
  • Harrison Evans Salisbury in 1971 remarked: “Sinclair Lewis aptly predicted in It Can’t Happen Here that if fascism came to America it would come wrapped in the flag and whistling ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’”
Wot he said.

Wot he said.

We thoroughly enjoyed the recent TV mini series on the life of John Adams, second President of the United States, Dear Reader, not least because of the joy of watching the marvellous Paul Giamatti give it his all playing the title role.

In fact, we tend to enjoy anything which looks at the soaring ideals behind any major change in society that affected the course of history – the revolution against Charles I is another era where we voraciously consume both drama and documentaries.

We were pondering the life and thoughts of Mr Adams today who floated briefly across the environs of our internet world wide webby consciousness thingy, and were minded to look up some of his more brilliant aphorisms. And lo and behold, some of them as as valuable today as a few hundred years back.

On “Innocent before proven guilty”

“It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”

A very good point, well made, right there.

On “Facts”

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

We need to remind more than a few of today’s politicians of that comment. And while we’re about it, this one, too:

“Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.”

John AdamsWhen one witnesses the lengths so-called democratic Government today goes to keep information away from the Governed, (you and me), this strikes us as a huge issue.

Do we, indeed, enjoy the liberties that for many decades now we have believed we do, or has the pendulum swung back the other way in so many gradual movements that we haven’t noticed the change?

Given the challenges faced by “liberal democracy” in the world, I must admit I found the next quotation rather chilling for a number of reasons.

On “Democracy”

“Democracy … while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

Hmm. Is democracy inherently more bloody than authoritarian rule? There are many humanists and respected philosophers who have wondered so, despite their instinctive affection for democracy.

We have oft heard it said, for example, that “Left-wing Governments start more wars”, and our reading of history supports that notion to a degree. People of a progressive mindset tend to believe more passionately that things can be “fixed”, if necessary by the use of force, whereas the conservative mindset tends to preserve the status quo more deliberately.

Why would anyone prefer a powerful central government to democracy? Well, if one stifles dissent, one also stifles the painful struggles that invariably accompany dissent. But if one accepted that uncomfortable notion for a moment, then how would one ensure that any dictatorship is “benign”? And in any event, does not the very nature of a dictatorship mean that it cannot be benign, because it’s essential throttling of dissent is an act of violence against free expression?

Interesting stuff.

Decision making in a centralised system is also faster and more dramatic than in a democracy. Then20071025_JohnAdams again, that is something of a mixed blessing, is it not? Slower, more cautious decision-making processes can often lead to better decisions as well as worse ones. Not for nothing has the world been advised to Festina Lente since Roman times.

He destested anti-intellectualism.

On “Knowledge”.

“Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.” And also:

“I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough … the more one reads the more one sees we have to read.”

And then again, ever the lover of liberty, he also saw the danger of over-cherishing the knowledge of the elite.

On “Power”

“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak.”

Quite so. We can list a dozen or so major world leaders off the top of our heads who exhibit that failing in spades. As communications is our lifelong obsession, when we were actively involved in politics (many, many moons ago) we never tired of counselling our colleagues thusly: “Never under-estimate the understanding or wisdom of the common folk: they may not speak in our sophisticated political language, that doesn’t mean they don’t know the answers to what ails them.”

Indeed, as a brilliant and inspirational (albeit somewhat irascible) wordsmith himself, he railed against politicians that used smart language to obscure or mislead.

On “Language”

“Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society.”

But it was two of his longer and more thoughtful mental meanderings that really caught our eye. The first was on the very nature of American society, which Adams understood as a “work in progress”, a great on-going experiment. He said:

“While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice our local destination.

But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world.”

Thoughts On Government Applicable To The Present State Of The American Colonies.: Philadelphia, Printed By John Dunlap, M,Dcc,Lxxxvi

It has always been our belief that America is both the worst of times and the best of times. For example, it is easy to forget that (despite turning up late, twice, as my sainted Mother always pointed out) the country made huge sacrifices in the cause of freedom in both World Wars. Yet did any country ever engage in a more brutal series of quasi-colonial adventures that have (usually entirely predictably) resulted in the impoverishment, injury and death of millions? It is easy to forget that America is hugely generous in terms of foreign aid just as it can simultaneously appear to be an economic tyrant, raping and pillaging its way across the globe. Internally, it is a country engaged in a permanent and roiling debate about the nature of society itself, and it’s civic discourse can reach depths (heights?) that are breathtaking in their profundity, and yet it’s everyday political discourse can be as mind-numbingly idiotic and ill-informed as an unsupervised kindergarten full of chimpanzees. It produces more “high art” than any other society on earth, and more dross, as well.

It seems Adams clearly saw both the opportunity and the risks.

The last, which is absolutely fascinating, refers to the relationship between America and Muslims.

If only ...

If only …

The relevance to today is obvious. In submitting and signing the Treaty of Tripoli more than three hundred years ago, Adams wrote:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims], and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Thoughts On Government Applicable To The Present State Of The American Colonies.: Philadelphia, Printed By John Dunlap, M,Dcc,Lxxxvi

If only he’d been as right on that one, too.

(Partly sourced from Reuters)

Security forces arrests pro-Mursi female protesters during clashes in Alexandria November 1, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

Security forces arrests pro-Mursi female protesters during clashes in Alexandria November 1, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

Two high-profile Egyptian trials, both arising from years of turbulent protests, have delivered sharply contrasting sentences in the space of just a few months.

In March, a policeman was convicted of shooting at protesters, deliberately aiming at their eyes, during demonstrations in November 2011.

The man dubbed the ‘eye sniper’ was sentenced to three years in prison.

This week, 21 women and teenage girls were found guilty of obstructing traffic during a pro-Islamist protest last month. The 14 women were imprisoned for 11 years, while the seven under the age of 18 were sent to juvenile prison.

You read that right. 11 years in an Egyptian jail for peaceful protest. So much for the democracy of the “Arab Spring”. Yet despite this palpable injustice, the West, and other power blocks, have remained very cautious about criticising the Egyptian military too strongly, obsessed with the fear of another fundamentalist Islamic state being established on the broken bones of what has been in recent years both a key Western ally and in earlier decades a co-operative partner to countries like Russia and China. Everyone seems to prefer a military crackdown to another Islamist Government to deal with.

The verdicts stunned local opposition and rights campaigners, even by the standards of a crackdown in which security forces have killed hundreds of Islamists and arrested thousands since the army overthrew President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July.

“The ruling was shocking. We could not believe that Egypt would lock up its girls with the excuse that they are a threat to security,” said Ramadan Abdel Hamid, whose 15-year-old daughter Rawda and wife Salwa were among those sentenced. One can only imagine his anguish.

“Is this what is going to calm Egypt?” he asked. The answer is surely “no”.

As army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi implements a promised roadmap towards elections, the United States and other countries are watching closely and has repeatedly urged the interim government to treat its opponents with restraint.

Since Mursi’s fall, the US has frozen some military aid to Cairo. The European Union has been encouraging political reconciliation in a bid to stabilise Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the strategic Suez Canal.

PARDON SOUGHT

The security forces have been lionised by state and private media which denounce the Brotherhood as terrorists. But convicting women and girls who peacefully back Mursi has raised the campaign to a new level that could risk provoking a backlash.

So far there have been no street protests against the sentences, but criticism has appeared on social media.

Even leftist leader Hamdeen Sabahi called for a presidential pardon, even though he is a fierce opponent of the Brotherhood.

The sentences could give the unpopular Brotherhood some political ammunition as it tries to recover from the crackdown that has all but decimated the movement.

In a statement, an alliance of pro-Brotherhood parties said: “The judiciary rules against the girls of Alexandria within days and goes at the speed of a tortoise in the trial of Mubarak and his gang.”

It said the verdict “proved that the independence of the judiciary has passed away”.


In the picture above, An anti-government protester waves a flag with a picture of youth activist Gaber Salah, during a rally against a new law restricting demonstrations, in front of Egypt’s Parliament in Cairo. Photo: Reuters.

DELICATE ISSUE

women protestingStreet protests are a highly sensitive issue in a country where people power has led to the downfall of two presidents in less than three years, beginning with veteran autocrat – perhaps kleptocrat would be a better phrase – Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The sentencing of the women and girls coincided with tensions over a law passed on Sunday that tightly restricts demonstrations.

While many Egyptians support Sisi and his roadmap, and while Mursi could never be considered to have ruled with any great skill nor restraint himself, even non-Islamists are becoming more critical of the military, suggesting the authorities may have to tread more cautiously.

“I was surprised by how quickly this case was decided,” said Anwar El Sadat, a former member of the People’s Assembly and chairman of its Human Rights Committee. “I was hoping they would show some mercy, especially because it’s women and girls.”

Tamara Alrifai of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch described the case as “shocking”.

“The seven girls are underage and considered children,” she said. “It is part of a wider campaign to put a halt to protests. People seized the right to protest in 2011 and they are trying to take it away from them.”

Relatives of the women and girls have condemned the court ruling, but said it would strengthen their resolve against what they call the military coup to remove Mursi.

womenSohanda Abdel Rahman, 13, said she could not believe her mother was sentenced to 11 years in jail.

“This is an oppressive and political sentencing,” she said after visiting her in prison. “But we began the path and know what will happen to us and we will not retreat.”

Those words should cast a chill through the collective consciousness of the Egyptian military. Here at the Wellthisiswhatithink desk, we would simply like to advance some arguments that invariably seem to be ignored time and again by politicians and military men the world over, with the same inevitable effect, and the same inevitable suffering for innocent people. As sure as night follows day:

  • History shows that the will of a people cannot be overcome forever.
  • People who disagree must eventually be brought to peaceably agree, no matter how far apart their opinions seem to be.
  • Peaceful protest can never be wrong.
  • Jailing innocents solves nothing.
  • Persecution is sooner or later served back ten-fold to the persecutors.
  • Local conflicts become civil wars in the blink of an eye.
  • Civil conflicts spill beyond a country’s borders like water finding its own level.

 

As many warned with Iraq, as we warned on this very blog with Syria – a conflict that we said was about to hurtle utterly out of control when the dead still numbered in the dozens not in the hundreds of thousands – Egypt is a live powder-keg and the fuse is lit. Anyone who thinks that moderately advanced countries with modern cities cannot stumble into chaos is ignoring Greece after the Second World War, they’re ignoring the Balkans, they’re ignoring Lebanon. Hell, they’re ignoring Europe in 1939.

And if a major conflict breaks out in Eqypt, one can see an Al Qaeda (and fellow travellers) fuelled insurrection right across the top of northern Africa, and spilling down into countries like Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Central Africa Republic, Chad, Sudan … essentially a brushfire that could rapidly become uncontainable, setting Africa back a hundred years, destroying the trade its people need to live, with potentially millions of casualties, and cruelling fledgling moves to democracy. Meanwhile the Syria, Iraq, Iran situation continues to destabilise that region – with Israel uncomfortably co-existing between warring Sunni and Shia tribes, then Afghanistan without a sufficient American and Allied presence descends into turmoil, then Pakistan, then India …

Welcome to World War 3.

Over alarmist? We suggest you Google “Gavrilo Princep”.

Gestures can change perceptions. They can affect the public mood. Dramatically.

So: time to release those women? Well, that’s what we think. And fast.

corruption-corruptionblog-blogspot-comIn a minute, you will find a link to a must-read article by blogger Valentine Logar.

But first: wedon’t care what your politics is. This woman is right.

Yes, of course, Val is coming from a Democrat perspective, but she is actually speaking for all Americans who care about the quality of their civil society.

About a truly participatory democracy, with freedom and justice for all.

It’s this simple.

Democracy in America is for sale, and the last chance to prevent it becoming completely corrupted is right now.

If you’re American, read this. Read it now. If you are living anywhere else in the world, but you value a vibrant and growing American democracy as a key bulwark against totalitarianism, read it now. Click now:

Wake Up Citizens.

There is a concerted effort by the extreme right in America – by which I mean the extreme corporatist right, “big business” that is – the 1% – to BUY the American government. Legally. Under the “cover of law”.

corruptionAll of it, not just the Republicans, but Democrats too.

The Republicans apparently could care less – or maybe they are already so controlled they can’t fight back – although I strongly suspect many Democrats are equally compromised – but the people of America, those who value the land of the free, it is the people that must wake up and realise what is happening to their democracy.

The shadow men that have always circulated behind the seats of power obviously no longer think they need to fear people realising what they’re doing. They are using the froth and bubble of the debate over healthcare, and the upcoming possible debt default, to mask far murkier moves.

The land of the free. For all our sakes, bury your differences, before you become the land of the bought and paid for.

Which would make the whole world tremble.

Please, America, the reforms you need are not that difficult:

  • Stop your election funding laws becoming an international joke
  • Stop allowing political parties to gerrymander boundary changes – create an independent electoral boundaries review commission
  • Insert a circuit breaker in your Constitution so that governmental logjams cannot persist forever.

 

PS On a related issue: if you do default on your debt ceiling, America, and throw the entire world economy into chaos again, just please remember who did it. As trade dies, as your jobs disappear, as your prices rise, as your programs are cut, as you can’t afford new roads, or schools, or your armed forces, please remember those politicians who really refused to negotiate. And remember this, too: some people make money in a recession just as easily as they make it in a period of growth. They have the levers, they can throw them whichever way they want, and still buy and sell at a profit.

Just remember, as you hurt, they won’t be.

In Michigan, the Republican-controlled legislature succeeded in passing a new “right-to-work” law, which weakens unions’ ability to negotiate and has serious negative implications for all workers in the state. They had no public meetings, no debate, no time for review, and most offensively had Republican staffers sit in seats in the gallery to block interested citizens from even being in the room to hear about it.

So this guy decided to say something about that.

Whatever your view of the legislation, (and I think it stinks), don’t you just ache to have someone representing you who speaks from the heart like this, eschewing all the weasel words and obfuscations?

This man will go far. Brandon Dillon, Democrat, Grand Rapids. Remember the name.

If you want to tell him what you think, try tweeting with the hashtag #brandondillonrocks, or tweet him direct @brandondillon75.

In case you hadn’t noticed – and Dear Reader, if you had not, then exactly where have you been? – the Guinness Book of Records just officially announced that Asia-Pop artist Psy has just officially become the most watched video ever on video-sharing site YouTube. Ever. Phew.

I really like the song. The original (very funny) video can be seen here:

And a live performance here:

But the really fascinating story is that the first video has now been watched – get this – 879,634,089 times. 

And the live performance is already over 150 million views, too.

As one of the posters put it on the YouTube of the first video, “let’s aim for a billion hits on New Year’s Eve”. A billion views? Of one pop song? A BILLION? Really?

Now as at June 30 this year, this was the breakdown of internet users in the world.

Two billion and four hundred and five million and some users worldwide. Getting on for half of them are dancing with their legs like John Wayne and waving an imaginary lasoo in the air ...

Two billion and four hundred and five million and some users worldwide. Getting on for half of them are dancing with their legs bowed like John Wayne and waving an imaginary lassoo in the air … Er, well, why not?

That means, essentially, that about half of the world’s Internet users have viewed the video on YouTube, let alone seen it on TV, on other websites, heard it on the radio, danced to it in a club … now that’s a hit, eh? I even have a vague memory of myself waving my arm around one night at Fusion nightclub at Crown, but honestly I was a bit over-trained by that stage so I might have just been waving my arms around aimlessly anyway. Pop music and I have an interesting relationship after I’ve had a few beverages. Think Rowan Atkinson on speed.

And now look at that big red wedge. That’s Asia. 44.8% of world Internet usage.

So can anyone still think that the 21st century is not going to be the Asian century? They are taking Western culture, merging it with their own, creating something vibrant and new, and then selling it brilliantly, both to their fellow Asians, and to the West.

Somehow, you know, I really don’t think my passable schoolboy French, which I have always been so proud of, is going to be much of an achievement – or of much use – in my declining years. Quel dommage.

At least, thanks to the abundance of brilliant Asian restaurants of all types in Melbourne, I can now say “thank you” in about a dozen nearby languages.  Cám ơn. Xie xie. M goi. Arigato. Komapsumnida. Terima kasih. Khawp khun. Khawp jai. Istuti. Shukriya. The effort is always greeted with a polite smile and sometimes genuine pleasure. The fact that the people serving us all speak my language – often near-perfectly – is never lost on me.

Somehow though, I think that the way things are headed, “please” may very well end up being more useful word to know … it is hard to imagine that the West can ever now catch up with the sheer exuberance and hard work, not to mention massive human resources, of Asia.

The Australian government just announced yet another push to get us “Asia ready”. But it’s too little, too late, I fear. We are a massive country with a tiny population, and already decades behind Asia itself in genuinely understanding the potential of the area. We have inadequate knowledge of their languages, their customs, their culture, and their needs. Faced with a considerable degree of disinterest from the West until recently, they have simply decided to “do it for themselves”.

Apart from the resources under our land and sea I strongly suspect we are already largely irrelevant to the coming century. I don’t think Asia will take us over. I simply suspect we will become largely irrelevant. A social, cultural and business backwater. Europe is broke, and confused. America appears mired in debt, out of energy, and incapable of pulling together as a nation any more. In short: I am beginning to suspect that the West, as a whole, is really rather yesterday’s news.

Which is a shame, because Western culture is, we often forget, thousands of years old, (as we are constantly reminded Asian culture is), and it is a fascinating amalgam of influences stretching back to pre-history.

Whilst it is popular to denigrate Western culture (and it has been a curate’s egg, for sure) it has also been responsible for some of the most important advances in human history – specifically, the evolution from feudalism, anti-authoritarianism, rationalism, science, humanism, the rule of law, democracy, and that’s just to name just a few.

It will be a sad day indeed if those things gradually come to mean less and less to the world’s population.

So let us hope that Asia takes up some of those principles as enthusiastically as they have made short shirts, tight trousers, and syncopated pop music their own. We can only hope, as it is no longer our place to demand.

Does this man now “own” the Republican Party?

Did billionaire David Koch bribe the Romney campaign to put Paul Ryan on the ticket?

If this allegation is true – and if it is, it is presumably illegal – will anyone do anything?

If this is illegal – and the story has been very widely covered – will it be investigated?

Will charges be laid?

And ultimately, what does this do for Romney and the Republican Party’s credibility?

Watch the story here. It is a story ALL Americans, indeed all who believe in freedom and democracy, wherever they may live, should watch and make up their own minds.

If you can’t see the video, here’s the story in essence.

On Friday night’s edition of “The Young Turks,” host Cenk Uygur highlighted a report by controversial Republican political operative Roger Stone. The report alleges that vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) arrived at his place on the ticket through the machinations of David Koch, half of the powerful billionaire Koch brothers.

Stone claims to have heard from sources inside the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that the governor was approached at a fundraiser in the Hamptons (the notorious “We are V.I.P.!” bash) by David Koch and his wife.

Koch, who has worked cheek by jowl with the Wisconsin Republican cabal that launched the career of Gov. Scott Walker and famously stalled out that state’s government for months in 2011, reportedly offered Romney an additional $100 million in campaign donations to C-4 and super PAC organizations dedicated to Romney’s election on the condition that Romney take Ryan as his running mate.

“In other words,” said Uygur, “a flat-out bribe. Now, I give you a $100 million for your campaign, and you give me the VP selection that I want. Now this is not a Democrat or a reporter reporting this, it’s a Republican, and that’s fascinating. If it’s true, by the way, 100 percent illegal.”

Uygur specifically points to one key piece of Ryan’s platform as a possible motivation for the billionaire conservative’s investment in his own vice president. Ryan wants to lower the capital gains tax — already low at 15 percent — to zero, which would bring David Koch personally an estimated $187.5 million per year. ($750 million over a four year term.)

“That’s why they bribe the politicians,” Uygur said. “What’s outrageous is that we allow them to do it.”

20120818-234012.jpg

The sort of young person that Vladimir Putin should be drafting in to help him run the country – virbant, toughtful, well-educated, unselfish. So what does he do? Throw her in jail for daring to criticise him. How much longer will the world tolerate this petty tyrant turning Russia back to the days of Stalin, and before that, the Tsars … how much longer?

I am indebted to mishato for posting thisinformation as a response to my earlier piece on Pussy Riot, the music group being disgracefully persecuted by the morons in the Kremlin.

Religion Dispatches has posted an English translation of 22-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s closing statement in their trial for singing a song, which saw them jailed for two years having already spent months in jail. Please: read it. It’s long, but read it. It was spoken by a woman facing an unknown period in jail simply for daring to speak her mind – and nothing else.

Please: read it.

I was literally moved to tears by her words – tears of sympathy, tears of rage – and very impressed by the breadth and depth of the arguments she puts forth. Please: take the time to read this, and then join the fight to free these incredibly brave women, which even the might of the Russian pseudo-democratic dictatorship will not silence.

http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/theeditors/6295/pussy_riot_members_sentenced_to_2_years_for_offending_russian_orthodox_church/

I confess I really have a hard time finding common ground with those on the right, even though I know that civility demands that I do – and possibly the survival of liberal democracy insists that I must.

It’s not that I think all right wingers are bad and evil people – clearly they are not. I mean, I have right wing friends.

(Why does that feel like you could add the word “Black”, “Jewish” or “French” in there?)

It is just that my experience of right wing politicians and their apparatchiks is that they never truly compromise – that they have no concomitant respect for the other side of politics, and any accommodations they arrive at with people like me are merely tactical, and never of the heart.

Putting it simply, they are not to be trusted. They hate progressive thought, and they despise those who engage in it. They mistrust innovation, they dislike equality, and they don’t really believe that anyone but them should be running things. Ever. It’s been called the “born to rule” mentality, and I have seen it everywhere for as many of my 55 years as I have actually been attuned to such things. I prefer “born to exploit”, but then, that’s me*.

And then I came across this little cartoon and it explained it eloquently, and simply, and, er, well, forever I guess. Recent right wing opposition to healthcare reform in the USA, to the mining super-profits tax and carbon pricing in Australia, and to rescuing the planet from man-fuelled climate change generally around the world, have merely confirmed me in my view.

So I don’t expect I will be offering much compromise anytime soon, unless the right changes its stripes, which I am frankly not expecting. So much as I love my right wing friends, please don’t ask me to change which side of the barricades are on. Because until we are met halfway, I won’t.

And to my left wing friends, the message is “Maintain the rage”.

Er, yup. That’s about it, right there.

*I exclude genuine entrepreneurs from this judgement, those who actually make something, make it at a price that can be afforded, and sell it to people who gratefully receive it. They are the lifeblood of liberal democracy, and I salute them.

Protect free speech

An historic moment looms

As British blogger Cranmer (aka His Grace) discusses here http://archbishop-cranmer.blogspot.com/2012/01/we-must-be-free-to-insult-our-neighbour.html, Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 outlaws ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ words or behaviour if they are likely to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’.

The matter is also discussed by civil freedoms campaigner Old Holborn here: http://bastardoldholborn.blogspot.com/2012/01/pay-attention-your-last-chance.html

Whatever you think of His Grace’s religious views, (or Old Holborn’s ruminations, for that matter), he argues persuasively that this is increasingly being used by certain people to get the police to arrest and silence Christian street preachers, prosecute hotel owners for chatting about their faith with a Muslim hotel guest, and to prosecute a teenager for calling the cult of Scientology, well… a cult. (Which it is. So sue me.)

The Home Office is conducting a wide-ranging online consultation to help them decide whether or not to introduce an amendment to clarify the situation in the proposed Protection of Freedoms Bill, and the Christian Institute, along with others, is campaigning to have the word ‘insulting’ removed from this Act.

The campaign has cross-party support, including Edward Leigh (Con), Tom Watson (Lab), and Alan Beith (Liberal Democrat), along with very many others inside and outside of Parliament. They believe that the freedom to disagree and to challenge received wisdom lies at the heart of a democracy, leave alone healthy religious discourse.

My thoughts on this are simple. When we remove the right for people to make pejorative remarks in defence of an argument or position because they could be considered insulting (as opposed to threatening, or abusive, where abusive clearly means many things, but to my mind primarily meaning an insult unsupported by facts, argument or logical principle), then we weaken democracy, and perhaps irretrievably.

For example, if I call an idea idiotic, or an action (say bad driving), am I therefore also referring to the proposer/practitioner of that idea as an idiot?

And if I am construed as doing that, should that person be entitled to make a complaint against me for being insulting? And should I then be liable for prosecution?

In a robust democracy, ruled by commonsense, my answer is “No, of course not!” Ideas are frequently idiotic. Indeed one of the most insulting activities around – racism – is, in itself, is an inherently idiotic idea. And those that propose racist ideology are, in my considered opinion idiots. Should I not be permitted to call them such?

But what if there were safeguards? Should a court be allowed to decide what is reasonable and what is an insult? Would reasonableness be a defence to such a charge?

Quite apart from the infringement on one’s rights as a free citizen to be forced to defend the matter in court (with concomitant costs) the answer is again “No”, because it arrogates to the courts the right to decide what is reasonable, instead of using our own commonsense as free individuals.  It is just another drift to a centralised, nanny state where freedom of expression (and freedom to scrutinise the actions of others) is curtailed.

Imagine it. Eventually a body of case law builds up on the question of reasonableness. Then one day, dismayed by the matters clogging the courts, Government decides to legislate all the possible situations where one using the word idiotic can be used reasonably.The courts then continue to further develop case law. Eventually, rather than risk prosecution, we the People simply stop saying “that’s idiotic” for fear of prosecution.

And now multiply that effect by a hundred words, or a thousand.

Alarmist? Perhaps. But words are the currency of freedom. They each have vital nuances of meaning. They allow us to freely participate in discourse, with each other, with those who influence our lives, and with our State. The very complexity of English is its strength, it is why it stands head and shoulders above other world languages in its ability to explain, reveal, illuminate and inspire. Anything that reduces our right to revel in its range of expression is lunacy.

I am on record as saying that I support rules that prevent us racially abusing one another. Consistency demands that I here explain why. The history of the world, especially in the last hundred years or so, reveals racism as a uniquely pernicious habit of human behaviour, the genesis of which is speech, and the result of which has been unimaginable suffering. It is also the least supportable bias, when analysed through any prism, that we humans are prone too. Under these circumstances, I believe it justified to curtail our right to racially abuse one another, as a deliberate exercise in mass opinion and behaviour moulding, just as I believe poor driving can be legitimately curtailed by speed limits and the breathalyzer.

When the laws to prevent racial vilification were initially formulated, in the UK and elsewhere, the most common argument against them were that they were a slippery slope towards a general curtailment of freedom of speech. At the time, I recall clearly liberals of all political persuasions vowing to prevent that slippery slope from becoming a reality, myself included. This far, and no further, was a clear agreement amongst politicians and commentators of varying ages, backgrounds, and political hues.

Which is why I raise my voice now in support of the campaign to have “insulting” removed from the law. It is far better to have a ruling principle in a free society that people have recourse to other, civil arenas to resolve feelings of distress. Apart from continuing the conversation, which is always an option, of course, strong libel and defamation laws (at least in the UK and Australia, albeit less so in America), also protect people from being the object of obviously unreasonable aspersions.

Take the survey yourself, but hurry

You are welcome to take the Home Office survey yourself, but I warn you that you have less than a day to do so. It ends on Friday 13th. (Spooky, or what?) And you don’t have to answer all the questions if you don’t want to, just answer the ones on insulting words, and then skip to the end.

https://www.homeofficesurveys.homeoffice.gov.uk/v.asp?i=41428bwhlr

But in any event, internal consultations of this kind are very rarely of any major use in either promoting greater freedom of or preventing infringements of civil liberties, as they are usually a cynical PR exercise.

What works best is the white hot glare of publicity when laws are actually formulated.

So feel free to re-blog this article, Facebook it or whatever. And then keep an eye on the news for the moment when consultation turns to law making, and the restrictions placed on us are re-legislated. And when that happens, defend, with every fibre of your being, my inalienable right to call you an idiot. And to be called an idiot.

And if you don’t agree that’s right and proper, then frankly, you’re an idiot, and slippery slopes were made for people like you.

Those lovely people over at at Fox News just don’t get it.

They smear Obama for three years … secretly a Muslim, giving in to the Ay-rabs, wrecking the economy, not born in America, actually a Kenyan, a secret socialist (lol) … and all the rest of the crap that they actually make up, or blithely re-report, with innocent gleaming denti-white smiles.

Then suddenly, the American people pretty clearly seem to think that Obama is going to get re-elected in the 2012 election. Something to do with the fact that the Republicans are busy chasing around promoting a bunch of complete turkeys, you reckon?

Watch their suprise – nay, disgust. It’s hilarious.

I think they started to believe their own publicity, poor saps.

Fox News – Rich people paying rich people to tell middle class people to blame poor people. Only they forgot the poor people get a vote, too.

Gotta love democracy, sometimes.