Saturday, 1 December 2007

Where's our American vote?

Back in the 18th century, our cousins in America were extremely unhappy that one of Hanover’s Georges, sitting on the British throne, surrounded by his Ministers in Whitehall, was making insane decisions that affected numerous lives on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet they had no say. They could not vote in their own representatives for Parliament, and they could certainly not vote out the man whose every executive decision they despised. So they issued an ultimatum – give us representation or we would rid our land of your political control.

Now the table has been turned. One of Texas’ Georges is sitting in the Whitehouse, firing off one senseless decision after another, jeopardising the entire world. As President of the US, Bush has destablised the Middle East with a military campaign against non-existing weapons of mass destruction; opposed efforts by the rest of the world to tackle carbon emission; disrupted plans to prevent AIDS by putting religious dogma against the use of contraceptives above the saving of innocent lives; and fuelled an unsustainable credit expansion strategy with irresponsible tax cuts for the rich, and growing insolvency risk for everyone else.

Since the Americans founded their country on the principle that no political institution should be allowed to impact on the lives of those who could not democratically hold it to account, they ought to be sympathetic to the plight of those who now find the decisions of Washington all too often adversely affecting their lives. This applies not just to their British kin, but to virtually everyone around the world living in the shadow of the one global superpower.

All of us come under the de facto jurisdiction of America, and none of us without formal US citizenship can have any say about who in America gets to make the critical world-shaping decisions. Our wellbeing and patience are indeed daily taxed without any kind of representation offered in return.

Alas we are not in a position to issue a similar ultimatum. There is no prospect of us getting rid of the vast influence American Presidents and Congressmen will continue to have over the entire world. The only alternative is to press for proper representation. We should all be given a vote in all the American elections which have significant consequences for us.

US foreign policy has frequently led it to seek to limit the powers of the United Nations. It does not want to be subject to checks and balances from people who reside abroad even though their lives could be transformed – for better or worse – in so many ways by US policy decisions. Like the old Hanoverian George, delirious with power, it wants to do as it pleases without having to persuade or bargain with minor figures in a distant land.

But the spotlight should shift from the UN to the US. Never mind trying to get the UN to be more effective in helping to hold the US to account for its unilateral actions. Let us ask the most powerful nation on earth directly, make yourself democratically accountable to the rest of us. It's time to give us all a vote.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Let them eat bullets

Do you know how far the spiritual descendants of Marie Antoinette have developed the art of pacifying the poor?

Take a look at the richest nation on earth, where they also happen to have the widest gulf between the wealthy and the poor in the developed world. What do the powerful in America do when they see millions of their fellow citizens left far behind with no prospect of any improvement? They offer them a way out. Join the military. In one stroke, those who do not have any hope of getting a good education, a well-paid job, health care, or any of the things the privileged can take for granted, are given a highly attractive option.

And when in large numbers they take up that option, it means that the country can afford to give up on conscripting a citizens’ army. In the days of the Vietnam War, every American family (except for the super rich who can use their influence to ensure their sons stay well away from military action) stood an equal chance of bearing the responsibility of fighting their country’s war abroad, and they watched the development of the conflict with intense personal as well as civic interest. When a growing number felt that the risks and sacrifices demanded of them far outweighed the alleged gains to be made from the war, they vocally called for an end to America’s military role in Vietnam. When their own were killed day after day, the body politic spoke with one voice to call off the misadventure.

Now predominantly the poor make up America’s cannon fodder. They voluntarily sign up for a career their better-off fellow citizens gladly leave to them. They are patriotically saluted off to fight in a distant land. Should they be killed in action, no publicity is allowed when their bodies are returned to America. The civic minded do not want them to be forgotten, but those who only really care about their own families, and those who advocate violent actions against others so long as the repercussions are to be borne by less fortunate souls, barely register their loss.

So today the poor, instead of congregating outside the mansions and palaces of the upper class, shouting for bread and justice, wait quietly in line to join the establishment which has reserved for them a special place. Here, in return for support which progressive reformists of the last century tried to secure for everyone without prejudice, they, and they alone, would have to take their turn to face snipers and shrapnel, brain damage and death.

Imagine what Louis VI would have done in the face of the angry crowd calling for a fairer society, if he could simply point them to form an orderly queue over at the military registration office. With offers of decent pay, special discounts, scholarships, helpful mentors, loans, plus numerous other benefits, not to mention a wide selection of cakes, the revolution would never have even got started. Rather than threatening the powerful with militant confrontation, they would march off and get themselves killed instead. It’s a lesson the present day George II has learnt well.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

The Alpha Male Syndrome

Natural selection has left animals with a wide variety of survival instincts. The alpha male tendency is common amongst predators that hunt in a pack as well as primates. But domination by an authoritarian male is not the only route to biological success. From the social cooperative nature of emperor penguins and dolphins to the individualist behaviour of foxes and squirrels, it is clear that one does not need to submit unreservedly to a snarling leader to make something of one’s life. Without the cerebral capacity to examine and compare, it is not surprising that once a species has developed a way of being, it sticks to it. Human beings, however, have no such excuse.

For thousands of years the alpha male instinct directed human interactions. In return for order, an allotted place in the group, and protection from ‘outside’ threat, one surrenders oneself to control by the most determined and aggressive in taking charge. This mindset is projected ‘upwards’ in the theological representation of ‘God’ as an absolute ruler who will punish dissent with eternal suffering, and ‘downwards’ in the social validation of oppression through the lower rungs of the hierarchy. The lord could treat his peasants as he pleased, the head servant could treat his subordinates likewise, and similarly with the priest and his underlings, the man with his wife and children.

It was only when the right conditions for related intellectual and political development converged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the movement towards a democratic as opposed to an authoritarian way of life began. It has been a long and hard struggle. And what remains the most challenging aspect of the struggle is to expose the grip the alpha male syndrome retains to this day.

Alpha male authoritarianism is not displaced just by opening the door to women, people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, or lower socio-economic classes, especially when those who take control are no less ‘alpha male’ in their power disposition.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have been fed stories that authoritarianism has been roundly defeated by democracy. But if that is the case, why is power at almost every level still concentrated in the hands of those most ruthless in securing and exercising power? Why are corporate barons able to sell arms, destroy the environment, or promote addictive consumerist behaviour when these are blatantly against the interests of the vast majority of people? Why are only those capable of destroying their enemies through the modern weapons of mass communication and subtle (or not so subtle) character assassination in line to compete for the most important political offices? Why can the wealthiest go on rewarding themselves more while subjecting their employees to pay restraints and perpetual job insecurity? Why is domestic violence still a blot on our moral landscape? Why are human beings, including young children, exploited as mere cogs in faceless production lines?

We need to ask ourselves who get to wield power in the world around us. Democracy has won many battles in the last few centuries, but it still has a long way to go. The alpha male psyche is deep in our evolutionary make-up. The aggressive few are inclined to push their way to the top. The silent majority are all too ready to acquiesce for fear of a backlash. But if authoritarianism is to be combated, we have to start unmasking the alpha male holders of power in every sphere of society. The legitimacy of power does not come from defeating their competitors, but only from engaging with us as equals in pursuit of our common good.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Variations on a theme of ransom

What do you do when an entire city’s transport system is totally disrupted because there is another all-out strike? You stress, you curse, and you wish someone would end this nonsense.

Then you hear about others, baggage handlers at airports, even prison officers, going on strike, causing so many problems for other people. And you think it’s the unions. You don’t see those without a strong unionized workforce going on strike. They just get on with it. Whereas those backed by the power of their unions are quite ready to hold the rest of society to ransom. Meet our demands, they declare, or else there will be unpleasant consequences for you all.

So when the leaders of society stand firm and pronounce such actions irresponsible, if not outright contemptible, people look up and welcome their intervention. At last someone to protect us from those who use their power to secure what they want at our expense. It is outrageous that some people can keep playing the “or else” card to force us to comply with their preferred scheme of things.

But what protection are we getting? Let us take a closer look. When those who are in fact the most economically powerful proclaim that in their scheme of things, they must have an utterly disproportionate share of what they in conjunction with numerous others produce, what happens? Do we hear resounding condemnation of these corporate barons? Do we hear revulsion that they are getting away with establishing a society where they can pay themselves millions, and further year on year increases of 10%, 20%, 30% and more above the rate of inflation, when many ordinary workers find that their pay does not even keep pace with inflation, their jobs are constantly under threat as management might sacrifice them to boost share prices, and whose pension terms are deteriorating when their bosses are getting extra benefits in every conceivable way?

What we do hear is this: “we must accept this, because …” wait for it, “or else”, yes, that’s the crunch point, “or else, they would leave and take their skills elsewhere, and we would all lose out”. In other words, out of fear that these corporate barons would do a walk-out – which of course is precisely what they threaten to do every time someone questions the absurd benefits they award themselves – nobody dares to challenge them.

This is mistaken on two counts. First, it is a myth that people, even the most greed-soaked ones, are only motivated by getting hugely more money all the time to do what they love doing anyway. Look at the top footballers’ contracts. None of them seriously thinks that they could not be bothered to fight hard to win a competition because they are not paid another million pounds on top of the X millions they are getting already. But it does become a problem if a few super elite are getting another million, then they want it too. What’s the driver here? A need to minimize differentials – not to maximize.

Secondly, when the powerful at the top are left unchallenged, vulnerable individuals have no choice but to band together to protect themselves. Unions are to workers as Robin Hood and his followers are to the exploited folks of old Nottingham. And there is a crucial difference between the Sheriff of Nottingham holding wretched peasants to ransom lest they allowed him to grab his grossly unfair share of what the people had produced, and Robin Hood holding the good Sheriff to ransom lest he agreed to let them live a decent life. It can be summed up in one word. Justice.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

The Crisis of Civic Disengagement

So what if people are less inclined to band together to shape the decisions that affect them? Fewer and fewer people join political parties or trade unions, organise themselves in deliberating and questioning public policies, vote or stand for public office. Some embrace this phenomenon as a minor side effect of the spread of consumerism. But for those of us who have not forgotten how throughout history the powerful few get away with exploiting the many when the latter give up on collective action, it is a serious crisis indeed.

The Roman Republic and the early days of America witnessed citizens who were similar in status, working to achieve comparable rewards for their families, and were thus willing to take action through their public institutions on terms of mutual respect. But when those with the military strength and corporate muscle started to amass power in themselves at the expense of others, republican virtues gave way to irresponsibility, inequalities, and imperialist hubris. Powerful elites know that by fragmenting the public into strangers separated by widening gaps of wealth and social standing – from those too rich to have to worry about being accountable to anyone else, to those pushed so far down the hierarchy that they feel they have nothing to lose however self-destructively they behave – they can dissolve the citizenry into a multitude of disconnected individuals.

For too long, society’s readiness to allow those at the top to secure better and better terms for themselves while making lives for those at the bottom more precarious and insignificant, has left those lower down the towering pyramid with dwindling self-worth and deepening alienation. Not surprisingly, rights for workers to seek better treatment are now branded costly red tape to be cut, while rights for employers to exploit the weak bargaining position of others are celebrated as essential freedom to be enhanced.

The problem of civic disengagement we have today is not going to be solved by encouraging a few young people to volunteer to help run the odd charitable projects, or enticing a few more rich philanthropists to donate to good causes. It is a manifestation of the onslaught on civic cohesion at the heart of the rise of global plutocracy. We need to stir our democratic conscience and challenge the hegemony of the so-called ‘wealth creators’ – the corporate elites who between them dominate the private media, the lobbying of lawmakers, the consumerist industries, the arms and surveillance business, and much else besides. To adapt Niemöller’s observations, doing nothing is not a sustainable option:

First they came to strip the trade unions of their power,
One did nothing,
One was not a trade unionist.

Next they came to halt state bodies from interfering with their ‘wealth creation’,
One did nothing,
One was not a member of a state body.

Then they came to undermine the authority of public broadcasters,
One did nothing,
One was not a public broadcaster.

Finally they will come for the rest of us,
If one still has not done anything by then,
It would all be too late.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

What’s wrong with being all-powerful?

Take a house with a dozen people, a neighbourhood with a few hundred, or a country with a few million, would it be better if in each case one single person is all powerful and everyone else is to live or die depending wholly on this person’s mercy, or if power is more evenly and fairly spread so that no one has to bow down to the commands of any almighty despot, regardless of how benevolent the latter is supposed to be?

Anyone who has any historical knowledge of the exploitation, oppression and injustice which come from power being concentrated in the hands of someone who is not accountable to anyone else will have no doubt which is preferable. Absolute power does not only corrupt its holder, it enslaves those subject to its exercise. If this observation holds for a house, a neighbourhood, a country, then surely it holds for the entire universe.

The world would always be better if there isn’t a single person who possesses limitless power to dominate everyone else. If God is the embodiment of perfection, it would follow that God cannot be an all-powerful entity unaccountable to no one else. As power is better distributed in a progressively more equitable manner amongst all those who can be affected by that power, perfection is reached when power is shared out so evenly that all can decide for the good of all, and none can arbitrarily dictate to the detriment of any single one.

The primitive infantile mind craved for a powerful parental figure to look after everything and projected God as an all-powerful being. Fixated on this naïve premise, theologians and their critics, for centuries argued about whether there is proof that an all-powerful being rules the universe. But what they have in fact arguing about is the likelihood of, not God’s existence, but cosmic tyranny. Perhaps all concerned can now wake from their intellectual slumber and recognise that what moral goodness calls for is not the absolute concentration of power in a single being, but its very opposite – the fair dispersion of power to everyone on equal terms.

The erroneous conception of God as all-powerful has for centuries lent itself to be exploited as a justification for papal, monarchical, patriarchal, fundamentalist oppression at every turn. Only a ‘God’ so twisted in its core meaning can be invoked to back wars, tortures, and suppression of love and free-thinking. God, properly understood as the ideal state of power shared by all in a just commonwealth with no boundaries, is real in so far as it is the guiding principle for life.

So it’s time to put aside flawed theology and invite the religious minded to embrace God as the path to a fairer society. Forget about worshiping all-powerful tyrants disguised as saviours. The only future worth striving for is the one where the gap between the powerful and the powerless is finally closed.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Together We Can

Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ continues to resonate down the age. It is so true that when citizens give up striving to hold the powerful to account, and allow themselves to be tricked or bribed into leaving those in command of their fate to act without due public constraint, they end up weak and vulnerable. Without a collective platform to challenge, and if necessary, halt those with power from charging forward, they become mere pawns in someone else’s game plan.

And tyranny adapts with time. If the first half of the twentieth century was still stirred by rallying calls to band together against Caesar-like dictators, the contemporary world is seeing a multiplicity of social, political and corporate leaders who seek to control others by fostering fundamentalist beliefs, handing the public realm to creeping private interest, and promoting addictive consumerism. There is no single imperial figure to confront, but a shifting alliance of the rich, the irresponsible, and the ‘let’s invoke God when it suits us’ brigade.

Against this chameleon axis of oppression, what can we do? In England, an initiative which began in 2005, is proving that solidarity can be cultivated through the focused collaboration of both the state and citizens. The Together We Can campaign, developed to encourage and support active citizens and public servants to cooperate in finding solutions to public problems, brought 12 Government Departments together with a shared commitment to improve citizens engagement with the development of their policies and services. The annual review of 2006 featured the Secretaries of State of all those departments reflecting on the diverse achievements, from citizenship education for all pupils, through greater local say in setting policing priorities, to wider adoption of deliberative engagement in developing environmental policies (see

Now an interactive resource on the web has been launched to enable all those, who believe that citizens can together exert far greater influence than acting alone, to utilise, contribute to, and promote ideas and practices which will strengthen that influence (

Together We Can cultivates a robust civic culture, to give citizens, from an early age, the skills, confidence and opportunities to work together in raising issues with and getting answers from with public institutions. Of course, this will not by itself prevent democratic life from being damaged by those who want to infect the public realm with their brand of ‘spiritual’ or commercial values, but it is an important inoculation against civic atrophy.

For example, approaches like participatory budgeting are spreading and people who had previously been sceptical about the prospect of civic solidarity have not just witnessed, but deeply moved by young people changing their minds and switching support to back projects which were to benefit primarily the elderly, and ethnic groups voting on spending priorities irrespective of racial factors. Women who had been marginalized, and people with learning disabilities had acquired new skills and confidence to make their voices heard.

Without fanfare, but with quiet determination, a new generation of civic-minded activists are coming through. Together they will stand up to any modern Caesars, in whatever guise they may appear, who threaten the precious solidarity of democratic citizenship.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Long live the Con

When so many commentators in Britain and America are queuing up to congratulate France for electing a President who’s prepared to drive through ‘reforms’, take the ‘tough decisions’, and bring about ‘greater flexibility’, you have to start worrying for the French people. What have they done?

They have for decades struck a nice balance between work and life – producing sought after designs and goods all round the world, and enjoying a decent quality of life sustained by economic security. What exactly went wrong? In short, they began to be undercut by corporations which made more money by squeezing their employees dry. Corporations which are celebrated by Anglo-American pundits for ‘thriving’ in the global marketplace by being utterly committed to cutting back on employment protection, demanding longer hours, polarising between the bosses who could do more and more as they please, and the dispensable workers. The message to France and other socially minded countries in Western Europe has been simple: embrace this style of governance or perish.

But why would the citizens of any democracy, in France or anywhere else, give up the power they have through their state and let new leaders dismantle the precious apparatus for securing liberty and equality for all? Well, you have to use the old divide-and-rule trick, but give it a contemporary twist.

Here’s the new con – a compassionate one as some like to put it, for it hinges on showing how caring you are – challenge people to choose between trusting themselves or some faceless public institution. Put this to them bluntly: Wouldn’t you rather trust yourself than somebody else? To keep your destiny in your own hands, you must distrust, nay, reject anyone trying to regulate things on your behalf. Keep these meddlers away, and what happens in life would be down to your own efforts. You can’t get fairer than that.

Once the gullible bites, you can feed them the rest. Why pay ever more taxes to the state when you know better how to spend your own money? Why let anyone dictate to you how many hours you can work, or indeed what conditions are acceptable for you to work under, when all that would do is to hamper you from earning what you deserve? Why allow busy bodies to interfere with what can be sold to you, or how it should be sold to you when it would just add to the costs of what you want to buy? Why do we have to pool our resources to invest in schools and hospitals for everyone, when we should be able to choose the health and education services we want from successful private companies?

Con artists at the service of plutocratic barons have refined their message with a reference to globalization here, and a nod to post-modernity there. But their intent is the same as it ever was – ensure those who have amassed wealth and power over others can take the fullest advantage of them without any intervention from collective forces acting in the public good. They want people to see taxes, civic institutions, public standards, state inspection regimes, regulations and controls as all inherently bad. They invite to us to cut them right back, so that we can be more free, more flexible, more ready – to be picked off one by one. They are counting on each and everyone of us to be foolish enough to be tricked into enslavement in the name of individual freedom. Vive le con.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Give restorative justice a chance

I have heard so many people say that the youths of today are getting out of control. They cannot be made to behave and they ruin the lives of others, old and young. The ‘tough’ proponents argue that the only solution is to target those who are threatening others with much more stringent measures. Punish them, and possibly their parents too if they are to be found, with eviction from public housing, cuts to their benefits, and prison sentences. Hit them hard until they submit.

The ‘soft’ advocates, on the other hand, maintain that more support should be given to parents and children to help them cope with living in a society with relentlessly growing income inequalities. More supervised time for out of school hour activities, more play facilities, more leisure events which are affordable without being branded as second class, and generally better response to the unmet needs of the marginalized.

But between the tiny minority of young people who really require the most punitive treatment to prevent them from harming others, and the general needs of young people who would otherwise be made to feel neglected and insignificant, there is a substantial group of youngsters who deal with their own deficiencies and low self-esteem by being unpleasant to others. There is no evidence whatsoever that either the tough or soft approach is necessary or sufficient in changing their behaviour.

The only evidence that anything would make a real difference is that gathered by the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales on the impact of restorative justice in schools. Schools in many different areas were introduced to the practice of restorative justice where teachers, and in some cases pupils, were trained as facilitators to bring perpetrators of undesirable behaviour and their victims together to talk through the problems. Crucially the process was to guide the perpetrators to see the hurt they have caused, make a sincere apology, and offer to behave differently. At the same time, it would give the victims an opportunity to have their say, and secure for themselves the assurance they needed.

Apart from the most serious, though thankfully few, cases of violent behaviour, all forms of insulting, bullying, teasing, aggravating behaviour were picked up by the restorative justice approach, and in 93% of the cases across the participating schools a resolution was reached with an agreement signed up to by the perpetrator. But are these agreements worth the paper they were written on? Does anyone take them seriously, you ask. Well, 96% of the agreements were honoured. No wonder, pupils and teachers alike were delighted with the improvement to their schools and confident that they would be sustained. In some schools, the pupils who had trained and practised as facilitators asked their head teachers if they could offer their support to other schools as the problem of abusive and bullying had virtually vanished from their own schools.

So why shouldn’t we have restorative justice practices in every school? Apparently some of those who favour the tough approach believe that they absolved the perpetrators of blame for their bad behaviour and should therefore be rejected as a legitimate way to deal with wrongdoing. But the essence of restorative justice is the recognition of blame and the embrace of personal responsibility to rectify past wrong. Let’s cast dogma aside and give restorative justice a chance.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Weapons of mass confusion

What is it about America and weapons? Why does this country stockpile more weapons of mass destruction than anyone else and yet is permanently poised to strike at any country thinking of acquiring a few of their own? The biggest threat to its own citizens in terms of being injured or killed by gunfire comes not from abroad but their fellow Americans. And what is the American response when the umpteenth tragedy strikes with more of their own slain by some gun-obsessed shooter? That it is a fundamental right of the American people to bear arms.

But why should this peculiar right be so important in America, when it is utterly alien in every other civilized country in the world? It may have something to do with the culture of distrust that goes right back to the origins of the USA. People who did not want to live under various European regimes migrated to America, and when the British government tried to retain control over their affairs, they took up arms and declared themselves independent. But once their own system of government was put in place, the American people were not prepared to surrender their weapons. Even with one of the most elaborate checks and balance form of governance, individuals wanted to have ready access to their own guns should they fell out with those they put in temporary charge of their collective affairs.

To this day, the deal remains that whoever runs the American government has to acknowledge that its own citizens rightly cannot trust it with sole possession of weapons. It is odd then that it should expect the rest of the world to trust it with having the most powerful weapons imaginable. Is it because feeling impotent in relation to its own arms-loving citizens, it wants to exert control over people outside its borders? Or is it trying to translate the historical belief of American people that only they can be trusted with weapons into a global policy of preventing non-Americans from having powerful weapons of their own?

Yet, just when one thinks any of this might make sense after all, we are reminded of the fact that the world’s leading exporter of arms is none other than the United States. Not only do American weapon makers dominate the international market for destructive instruments, their government faithfully supports them by cultivating new buyers in its tireless sales pitch to foreign states. So whatever their rhetoric may be about weapon proliferation posing too great a risk to peace and security to be tolerated, they in practice do more than everyone else combined in arming the world.

Logic of course cannot by itself make sense of the actions of people who are seriously disorientated. A symptom of persistent distrust is the spread of paranoia eroding the capacity to work with others collectively to find sensible solutions. Why sit down with others to seek to reach an agreement on a way forward when one can shoot down any opposition (real or perceived). The infantile American colonies of the 1770s, feeling in turn neglected and repressed by the father figure of a deranged monarch, grew up into a 21st century superpower who celebrates the freedom to wield weapons everywhere so long as the deadliest weapons of all stay in their own hands.

To be fair, a significant number of people in America – derided as liberal or progressive – have over recent decades developed a much more mature outlook which recognises that juvenile macho obsession with weapons has to be displaced by proper controls nationally and internationally, and pressed for reining in arms sales at every level. But until they become the majority, America and the rest of the world can expect many more innocent people to pay the price of this armed mayhem.

Saturday, 31 March 2007

Of frogs and men

A sign by the road along the stream nearby warns drivers of frogs crossing in the breeding season. It was put up in the early 1990s when every year a large number of frogs headed towards the stream to spawn. But in the last few years the sign is largely redundant. The common frog (Rana temporaria) has become very uncommon indeed around these parts.

Changing land use, scarcity of ponds, sharply fluctuating ‘spring’ weather, have all cut down the survival rates of these amphibian creatures. Their decline may not be as visually dramatic as that of the polar bears, but it provides us with yet another reminder that the irresponsible use of resources is wreaking havoc with life on earth. There is no escape. However much large corporations commission researchers on their payroll to deny that there is any problem, the damages are everywhere to be seen.

So in spite of all the objective evidence piling up, can it be that the corporate sponsors of relentless pollution really believe nothing is going wrong with our planet? Or is it more likely that they take the view that when the proverbial hits the fan, they would as usual be able to buy their way out of trouble, and leave the poor to bear the brunt of it all. Isn’t that what happened when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, where the rich got themselves safely out of the city, leaving those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder to literally drown? Isn’t that what they expect that when tobacco induced illnesses push up the costs of healthcare for the state, they can rely on their private clinics to look after themselves? Or when dangerous waste is generated from their industrial plants, they simply ship them off to poor countries which see it as a means to make some desperately needed foreign currencies?

Yes, they are convinced that their harmful drive for profits will make them rich enough to enjoy themselves while the harm is all pushed down to the poor, powerless lot around the world. And what response to this aggressively greedy strategy is being developed? Those who are truly progressive minded would have expected perhaps a call for genuine solidarity – a commitment to share out the control and utilization of limited resources more equitably. After all, when the Second World War threatened all, rationing for all was the progressive strategy to unite people to fight the common threat together.

But rationing, solidarity, economic justice are not on the agenda it seems. What we are presented with are more variations of the rich man’s game – environmental protection through market mechanisms. Introduce tax incentives to shift people away from damaging activities. Establish carbon trading so the responsible can sell their shares to those willing to buy rather than behave more responsibly.

What will this bring? Those who are at the bottom of society already are penalised with taxes when they have little choice over their daily routines (whatever happened to the investment to improve their public transport system?), whereas the rich are assured that they can indeed buy their way out of any sticky situation. If they are rich enough, they can buy their way to legitimately pollute even more.

Life for those without a fat wallet, frogs or men, is looking more ominous by the day.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

What exactly is pro-family?

On the whole, children having to grow up in unstable, dysfunctional families tend to suffer more problems than children brought up by loving, dependable adults with a steady relationship. The more parental figures there are – biological, adoptive, grandparents, guardians – the more support there is likely to be compared with a single individual with no help. For the sake of all children, it is fairly obvious that we should all be in favour of strong, happy, caring families everywhere.

But if you think that means ‘pro-family’ ideas must be about identifying and countering what undermines flourishing families, you’d be in for a surprise. Many of the self-styled champions of the sacred, precious institution of family are actually fixated about the legal protection of heterosexual marriage as the respected norm in society. They want to give people in that form of relationship more rights, more tax benefits, more dignity than anyone else. Whatever causes them to think like that has very little to do with the parental capacity of different forms of family arrangements.

There is no evidence that married heterosexual couples raise children more effectively than an aunt and her companion, two devoted dads, a loving mother supported by her mother, or any other combination. The only constant factor is sufficient attention being paid to the needs of the children by adults who share a deep concern for the wellbeing of those children without being torn apart by stresses and strains placed on their own relationship.

So anyone whose real interest is in the upbringing of children would focus on the factors which prevent those with a parental role from carrying it out effectively. And it is here that we come upon the obstacles about which many ‘pro-family’ advocates are so resolutely silent. The long hour work culture that keeps parents from their children, the work pressures that spill into destructive stresses that pull apart parental partners, the diminishing job security that creates uncertainty at home, the expectations to uproot families or leave them behind to get work, the consumerist measure of parents’ ability to buy things for their children linked to their level of earnings, the substitution of time with one’s parents by the acquisition of status symbols (from toys through to cars) via their purchasing power.

These factors are of course inter-connected. They are all related to the socio-economic changes which have been accelerating since the second half of the twentieth century. It is not some mindless defiance against the moral duty of being good parents that suddenly erupted and destroyed the capacity of families to bring up intelligent and responsible children. The Anglo-American market model which values above all economic growth as an engine to drive the plutocratic concentration of wealth in the few has been growing in strength from the late 1970s, when its political sympathizers on both sides of the Atlantic won the power to roll back the checks and balances against corporate greed.

Now we see the consequences of this relentless expansion of the commercial hierarchy – the top rejecting taxation and regulations as fettering their golden ability to generate wealth (for themselves), the middle perpetually anxious that they would be ejected as inadequate and must therefore work harder than ever to prove themselves, and the bottom convinced that they (and their children) have no future, no respect from anyone else.

Anyone wanting to stand up and claim they are pro-family had better from now on start by explaining how they are going to tackle corporate irresponsibility.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Why single out the freedom of discussion

It’s exasperating when quite distinct ideas are conflated to make a mockery of a crucial principle. Just look at how the important case made for the freedom of discussion has been thrown into confusion by interpreting it as a license for every kind of irresponsible behaviour imaginable.

You start by defending the value of allowing people to exchange ideas and evidence, then suddenly someone pulls along a bandwagon and on to it jumps advocates for the unrestricted freedom to do just about anything. The essential freedom to discuss the merits of any given claim – so that its justifiability can be openly and rationally tested – is in no time stretched beyond all recognition to cover the freedom to insult, deceive, provoke, threaten etc. But why should anyone be free to ‘express’ oneself irrespective of the harm that could cause to others?

It is vital to remember that the very specific freedom of discussion came to be championed as part of the 17th century intellectual and political movement against authoritarian attempts to stamp out rival claims to knowledge. On the one hand there were the monarchs and religious leaders who had for centuries invoked what they claimed to be indisputable truths to justify their authority over all around them. On the other hand there were the new breed of philosophers and political activists who dared to challenge the veracity of these ‘truths’. What made the latter revolutionary was that they declined to back their own claims by the traditional ‘might is right’ route of scaring people (through the sight of amassed troops or threats of eternal damnation) into submission. Instead they pointed out that the only reliable way for intelligent people to assess if any given claims deserved to be believed was through an open, calm, rational process of evidence-based discussions.

To the extent that what one has to say, how one collaborates with a wider group to decide what to say, or when a group gathers together to give their views, contributes to the quality of the discussion, then it was paramount that people should have the freedom to participate accordingly. Without this foundational freedom to discuss contested claims, there would no non-arbitrary basis to show up the groundless assertions of the powerful and pave the way to overthrow them.

However, this precious freedom must not be perverted into a license for abuse and exploitation which have nothing to do with the rational examination of contested claims. All too many people who have forgotten why the freedom for discussion is really uniquely important have already acquiesced in its mutation into a catch-all freedom of expression whereby individuals can confront others with nasty and hurtful language and symbols, media barons can propagate misleading views to suit their own corporate interests, businesses can promote addictive craving for their products, dogmatists who loathe the freedom of discussion can set up their own schools to instruct children to believe untenable claims, and extremist groups can circulate vile fabrications.

To safeguard the freedom of discussion, we must re-focus on why it needs to be protected in any society which values democratic openness and continuous learning, and weed out the irresponsible behaviour which undermines rather than supports the public and reasoned examination of claims to truth.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Belief is not enough

If someone said he wanted someone locked away because he believed the person posed a threat to him, would we allow him to do that, or even help him just because that was his belief? Of course not. And in anticipation of those raging cries of “Are you calling me a liar!”, we can calmly remind them everyone can make an honest mistake. People can sincerely hold a belief but nonetheless get it wrong. There is nothing problematic with that unless someone starts to behave as if his belief is all that matters in how he behaves.

If we permit people to do whatever they want on the basis of what they happen to believe – regardless of the evidence available – then chaos beckons. Beliefs can be spectacularly wrong. People can believe utterly harmless individuals to be the most dangerous enemies who must be struck down. People can believe that they have a uniquely correct view of what the social order must be and others must conform to it or face retribution. People can believe the deranged voices in their heads to be divine commands to bring misery or even death to others.

Sadly when a few rhetorical speeches about the pride and glory of someone’s unshakeable belief ring out, all too many people start to hesitate about challenging the behaviour of the believer and his followers. Worse still, they even fall backwards and concede that their sincere belief gives them a right to act in accordance with their beliefs.

For centuries, women, children, those in poverty, racial minorities, have been mistreated by others who hide behind their self-righteous belief that they have God, tradition, or whatever else they want to invoke on their side. But the stupidity, nastiness, callousness, in how they deal with those weaker than themselves are as real as their deeply held beliefs are erroneous.

The post-modern anti-enlightenment culture which embraces any kind of groundless belief totally beyond the validation of objective evidence, so long as the belief is held faithfully has enabled people to brush aside restrictions to their actions, however misguided and harmful these may be.

Children can be taught that human babies first arrived on earth courtesy of a few mysterious storks or created through any equally absurd means with no reference to actual biological processes. Girls and women can be instructed to be submissive and let the men folks take charge of the public as well as the private domains. People who resent the aggressive stance of groups who pick on their appearances or private behaviour can be told to accept their lot. All this can go on so long as someone says “In good faith, that is what I believe.”

No, no, and no again. Belief is not enough. Beliefs which cannot be justified – and let’s not forget, the grander the claims contained in a belief, the higher the critical threshold should be set for its validation, not lower – have no place in paving the way for ill-conceived and hurtful activities in society. And the next time you hear people try to hide behind “But my belief transcends evidence”, tell them they can indulge in their groundless belief so long as they do not try to ruin other people’s lives in its name.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Who's against the Enlightenment?

Although the Enlightenment is usually depicted as an intellectual movement of 18th century Europe, its ideas were embraced and developed by thinkers and reformists across the world throughout the succeeding centuries. Today the Enlightenment ethos of promoting free enquiry – based on empirical reasoning – to improve social, political and technological practices for the benefit of human wellbeing in general, remains a source of inspiration to many in overcoming reactionary forces.

Yet far from being universally welcome as a decent and positive philosophy of life to be widely disseminated, the Enlightenment outlook is fiercely attacked by a mix of people. But what have they really got against the advocacy for rationality, tolerance and progress? There are at least three different camps.

First, there are the romantic tribalists, people on the authoritarian right who look back fondly to a time when they could be in charge and flaunt their primitive passions without having to seek to understand the needs of the ‘others’ – be these women, non-whites, the poor or any other group which was in those days utterly excluded or ignored. They see the Enlightenment as a bringer of soulless reason wiping away the ties and values which bound people (or their particular sub-set) together. They resent being told to engage with others in reasonable and respectful terms when they want to be left to their long held prejudices to view others as inferior or alien. They think this eradicates what stirs their pride and cultural heritage, when all it does is to facilitate the growth of broader and deeper emotional bonds beyond the flawed ties of inherited bigotry.

Secondly, there are the repressed people on the puritanical extremes of both the right and the left. You can spot them easily by their tendency to rant against the 1960s precisely because that decade embodies the modern flowering of the Enlightenment rejection of false self-denial. The leading Enlightenment figures stressed cordiality in relationships and a sensible exercise of self-control to function as an effective human being, but they refused to accept arbitrary limits handed down to stop people exploring new ways of making life more bearable, indeed enjoyable. And what the Enlightenment celebrated – the liberation of natural and harmless human desires for comfort, excitement and fulfillment – is what repressed puritans detest as mindless craving for pleasures which should be locked away lest civilization collapses under the weight of irresponsibility.

Thirdly, we have those, whose perspective is basically of the anarchic left, complaining incessantly that proponents of the Enlightenment philosophy try to impose a narrow Western-centric viewpoint on the rest of the world. But what is being put forward for universalising is a set of practices which have found to be better for human existence – tolerance for differences, respect for the law, equal treatment of citizens, prevention of torture, etc. It is odd that while these strident relativists should oppose the promotion of these practices (from which they themselves benefit) across the world as a kind of objectionable cultural imperialism, they stay silent about the undeniable desirability of the other fruits of Enlightenment thinking – such as experimental-based medical advancement.

Some critics even randomly select a few features of the Enlightenment and link it to Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism as a way to secure condemnation by partial association. But anyone who views the Enlightenment ethos as a whole will see that it is not about cold reason displacing all emotional ties, allowing desires to run wild without any constraint, or forcing strange Western practices on other cultures in a damaging way. Least of all, its central concern for human decency and free enquiry renders it the firmest opponent of any form of totalitarianism. It is supportive of greater liberty for people to pursue happiness, within a framework of cooperative empirical reasoning, so that all can get a better chance for a good life, and none gets victimized for the class, race or gender they were born into.

People who hate what the Enlightenment stands for have serious difficulties in accepting attempts to break down the barriers in every part of organisation hierarchies, every family, every country, every aspect of social and political life, which still block individuals from developing their capacity to reason, love, and build a better life in partnership with others. They may appear in different guises, but they share a common contempt for the mission to secure human progress through continuous and open learning. At every turn, the Enlightenment outlook must be defended against them.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Aren’t they all Human Values?

Why do people persist in trying to ascribe certain values to particular nations or religions? Decency, honesty, respect, compassion, love of freedom, commitment – can anyone really seriously say that these are found exclusively in a particular country or faith, implying they are not present in others?

It’s obnoxiously erroneous to claim that the propensities to hate, injure, lie, murder, etc. are to be associated with the people who have nothing in common except a geographical commonality or historical link with an established religion. Every country or faith has had its share of shameful deeds perpetrated by some of its members, but it does not condemn for all time every single person growing up in its confines. By the same token, it would be absurd to suggest that because some people have championed good human values, that should be used to trumpet the moral greatness of the nationality or religion of those individuals.

There are Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus who hurt others as well as those who devote themselves to helping others. How can any deduction be made to designate some of the religions concerned here as embodying good values as if others were by comparison evil! The only coherent line is between the good humans and the bad. The same is true of patriotic celebration of great national values as if the people of America, Britain, France, or anywhere else wanting to hoist their flag, somehow reflect a range of positive human values in a deeper, more significant way than the people of distant shores. Can this really be accepted as simple, wholesome national pride? Or should it be exposed as barely disguised prejudice which looks down on other countries and cultures as morally inferior?

The golden rule of treating others as one would have others treat oneself is found in all cultures, religions, basic moral teachings in every country on earth. Ideological interpretations or personal inclinations which move some towards self-centred individualism, some towards oppressive collectivism, and yet others towards fair and sincere mutualism, occur in every part of the world with no one having a monopoly over sound ethical dispositions.

Is it not time to recognise that there is in fact a considerable consensus over the positive values associated with the human race? Compassion, fairness, honesty, defiance against tyranny, the pursuit of happiness, care for dependents, these are not values of any single country or religion. They are human values, and they set the standard by which we judge ourselves. Of course we don’t all succeed in living up to them consistently, but the failure is a personal one. Our race, country, religion, may through the long course of history have been associated with deeds, good and bad, but each of us has our own responsibility to live up to the best moral aspirations of our times.

If we want to strengthen the moral character of individual citizens, or enable them to live in harmony and cooperation with each other, the last thing we should do is to single out one country or religion and celebrate it as the torch bearer of good values. What we should do is remind everyone that we all – regardless of our national, ethnic, religious roots – share an inspiring range of human values. And to live in accordance with these values is the basis of our true moral solidarity.

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Why tolerate the Power Gap?

In every sphere of life, if some become too powerful in relation to others, the risk of injustice and oppression surges to intolerably high levels. In international relations, once the balance of powers is lost, hegemony and aggression show their ambitions. For centuries, nations have known the importance of not allowing a small minority to attain the capacity to invade others at will. In the privacy of our homes, exclusive male domination of households has for a long time put women and children at the mercy of many arbitrary domestic rulers. Across the world, the rebalancing of power in families has a long way to go.

But even though an increasing number of people recognise the need to close the gap between those with too much power and others who stand in their shadow, our global economy is built around a widening power gap between those with ever accelerating wealth accumulation and those who drop by comparison to growing insignificance.

Richard G. Wilkinson has shown the indisputable correlation between income inequalities and social problems such as violence, poor health and discrimination (see his book, ‘The Impact of Inequality’). There is mounting evidence that the greater the gap between those who are richer by the day and those left behind, the more likely the quality of life will sink. For those pushed down the hierarchy, there is the loss of self-esteem, loss of efficacy to control their destiny, fermenting resentment against being marginalized. For those climbing to the top, there is dwindling sensitivity to the needs of others, naïve embrace of ‘equal opportunity to climb’ as a bridge to a fair society, and obsession with pushing their own agenda as the only respectable one in the world.

Hurricane Katrina illustrated all too vividly how in the most unequal city in the most unequal developed country in the world, a rich nation could so readily see the wealthy escape while the poor drown.

We’re not asking for everyone to earn the same, just to close the insanely widening gap. Do people really need to earn 1,000 times more than others to be motivated to do things which benefit society? For many doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers, their readiness to help others is not limited by the desire to be richer than everyone else within a hundred mile radius. A world in which the richest is no more than 100 times wealthier than the poorest is not going to implode – only deranged modern descendants of Midas might think that.

The power imbalance between countries, regions, households, and individuals is all inextricably linked with the power gap fuelled by the obsession to attain superiority through wealth accumulation. There is nothing more urgent now than to begin to reverse the growth of the power gap.

Monday, 1 January 2007

Is Redemption Possible?

The media have fed on the death of Saddam. A tyrant has been executed. & the world should rejoice?

Is it ever possible for people, whatever evil deeds they have committed, to attain a deeper realisation that they have been wrong and that they should repent so as to change their ways? Except for those who believe that no evil-doer can ever sincerely embrace repentance, it has to be acknowledged that a change of heart is a possibility.

And with that possibility in place, what could justify its removal? Of course, when faced with an imminent threat, and we have to strike back to save the life of oneself or others, we can say that killing the perpetrator is a necessary option. But in many cases, the wrongdoer is in custody already. The crime, once established, can be granted as horrific and beyond excuse. In time though, if the spirit of humanity engages with the convicted, enables him to face up to his guilt, to initiate a change in his moral constitution so that he craves for nothing more than a transformation of his character, can we not allow that he may reach a point where his journey on the path to redemption is beyond doubt.

Some may say that there are villains so vile that they will never change. Let us not argue if Saddam is one of those - but in general, how do we tell those who may change, who indeed are changing, from those whose soul is rotten to the core? One argument would be to say that only those who beg others NEVER to forgive them, who demand to be executed or never to be released, can be truly regarded as having genuinely repented. Thus we have the eternal condemnation paradox - only those who can convince us that they must be condemned for all time deserve to be condemned no more.

Most of us do not want to forgive evil people. We want to see them punished - nay, suffer. But if we can choose between redemption for the wicked and their persistent suffering, which one should we choose? At least those who concede that the precise choice would have to be informed by the exact circumstances have moved from retributive hatred to restorative empathy. Let those who feel no remorse suffer - but respond to those who are capable of being redeemed accordingly too. And how can we tell if there is a chance of redemption if there is no reaching out to them.

Lord Longford was criticised and ridiculed for his concern for Myra Hindley. But if the door is forever shut on the possibility of redemption, no one could ever come through from the other side.

To save the good is a moral imperative. To reach out to those who could yet be good is no less so. But can we ever learn to differentiate when the bad can and should be given a second chance to amend for the evil they have done? Just because not everyone is redeemable (some may dispute that), it does not follow that none is.