Archive for February, 2008

Meet the new Russia, same as the old Russia?

February 28, 2008 Leave a comment

EUIn a government made up of the best liberal minds, if Friedrich Hayek was to be Chancellor of the Exchequer then Timothy Garton-Ash would have to be Foreign Secretary. His most recent article is an intriguing analysis of the inadequacies of European policy in regard to all powerful countries, but most specifically Russia.

Garton-Ash attacks the contradictory approach of the European nations to Russian autocracy and intimidation of its neighbours. Each country, he claims, can be seen ‘coming cap in hand’ to the powerful nations to make separate deals that will individually benefit their own national interest. He cites the lack of proper response to aggressive Russian energy policies.

He’s absolutely right of course; Europe is frequently divided over all issues relating to foreign policy. Most recently this is visible over Kosovo, where various European governments made very clear their opposition to Kosovar independence from Serbia, even though NATO – W.E.U. troops are all standing between Kosovo and Serbia at the moment.

I have to ask though, what’s the alternative? For all that Chinese, Russian and US policymakers may vary between “skeptical and contemptuous” opinions of how credible Europe is as a foreign-policy determining entity, I’m not sure that’s all bad, particularly for the populations of the countries involved. Europe not agreeing largely means inaction – and mostly that’s good for safety of whatever region there is contention over.

Moreover, think about the ‘patriotic’ guff that unitary governments engender when they get all gung-ho about foreign policy. The Russians have anti-American rallies at the drop of a hat, upon orders from the political leadership of United Russia. The American response to decisive foreign policy can range from ignorance and racism to outright political bigotry. Cold War history provides plenty of examples of just what emotions a ‘united’ response on the part of government to foreign problems can involve.

Personally, I’ll live with Europe’s division.

Categories: News from Abroad

New Terrorist Outrage!!

February 27, 2008 Leave a comment

Breaking NewsBreaking news: radiation emitting substances have been found in a school in Edinburgh. Police and radiation experts are investigating a package, found in a cupboard, that contained radioactive materials of some description.

Conveniently labelled “radioactive materials” or something similar, the terrorists clearly thought the hiding in plain sight approach would be the most subtle. Police were first alerted when science teachers started turning green and developing a disturbingly high ability in the martial arts.

One rat found at the scene said, “What is the country coming to. Bloody Muslims and their bloody terrorism. I blame TV, Litvinenko and immigrants!” When queried further about how immigrants got into the picture, the rat, known to friends as Splinter, muttered, “Same way they got into the country most likely!”

(FAO: All national headlines tomorrow morning).

Categories: Miscellaneous

Mottram makes it official: politicians lie.

February 27, 2008 Leave a comment

Richard MottramJoint Intelligence Committee chairman, Sir Richard Mottram, has come out against the suggestion that minutes of the Cabinet relating to the Iraq War should be released publicly. His reasons? Apparently if they know it will be later released, Cabinet ministers will be more careful about what they say. If one words it another way, ministers are wholly prepared to say things in private but god forbid that they might have to defend them to the electorate.

If Gordon Brown is a ‘conviction’ politician, as has been said, then he should have nothing to worry about in releasing the Cabinet minutes. If he and his ministers really believe all that they said at the time, then where they stood in cabinet discussions should be released for the rest of us to check their claims against the facts. This would have the added bonus of stopping self-serving politicians unsubtly leaking things that were said in Cabinet for their own benefit, as Peter Hain did during the deputy leadership elections.

For those on the right of the Labour Party, it would prevent people like Clare Short making political hay out of Cabinet discussions in the middle of serious debates. People could read what was said, the media could quote what was said, without having to rely on possibly tendentious sources for that information. Mottram says debate within government would be harmed. I’m inclined to think that debate across the country would be helped.

Additionally I think the idea that if the Iraq War cabinet discussions were released, politicians would be less likely to speak up is a spurious argument. The Iraq War discussions took place five years ago under a different Prime Minister, with a largely different Cabinet. The most senior placed members besides Gordon Brown are no longer in position – John Reid, Charles Clarke, David Blunkett, John Prescott,  Clare Short, Robin Cook, Alan Milburn and Peter Hain, to name a string of examples.

The Iraq War cabinet documents are incredibly important to writing the histories which our children are going to be studying ten years from now and to significant chunks of the Labour Party for re-assessing their opinion now. That re-assessment has profound implications for our Party, particularly since popular participation has now been reduced to a bare minimum and everyone is wondering what to do about it. The extent to which our leadership was complicit in engineering an illegal war could have massive implications.

Since they can have little effect on most of the individuals involved, but could have a profound effect upon the course of the Labour Party, these specific minutes should be released, even if the remainder of Cabinet minutes remain protected. If in fact it is possible that a current member of the government has something to lose, well that’s regrettable – but the rank and file deserve to know who was where on one of the most divisive issues we’ve ever faced.

In sum total, I think anything less than full disclosure is a cowardly attempt to hide behind the rules.

Categories: Labour Party News

Would you like banality with your ice-cream?

February 27, 2008 Leave a comment

Ice-creamI am so dog-tired of the media. I’ve spent the week reading Nick Davies’ new book, “Flat Earth News” and a review of his devastating critique of media practice will be forthcoming soon. While I was looking over a few web pages this morning, to find a couple of comments by a Northern Irish politician – a racist, Christian bigot, I found an example of just why I hold the media in such contempt.

This story in the Torygraph is about Morelli’s ice-cream shops refusing to pour sauce on to their ice-creams for fear that it will drip off and someone will slip. This is the equivalent story in the print version of the Daily Express. I have long reconciled myself to the fact that the media prints stories which no reasonable person should care about, so it’s not just the banality of the stories I’m reacting against.

There are two things that really infuriate me uncontrollably. The first is the editorial that surrounds the Daily Express version. “In another example of nanny state rules blighting Britain” is a quote from the Express which just screams oppression, just demands opposition to political correctness in any and all forms. What bugs me is that the story is probably nothing to do with political correctness at all.

Instead of this being a story about how Morellis have probably laid off the staff they formerly used to clean up spillages before they became a problem, it’s about the ‘nanny state’ – as though the rules of the state had absolutely anything to do with this new private policy of an upmarket ice-cream shop. More likely it’s a fear that they’ll get sued – which is less to do with the nanny state and more to do with the emphasis on the individual in society.

The second thing that really bugs me is that this story is probably a ‘plant.’ I’d never have picked up on this without having seen some pretty good examples in Davies’ book but look halfway down the Telegraph piece. There is a quote from John Midley of the Campaign Against Political Correctness going on about how it’s all barmy. No doubt John thinks we’re all going to hell in a hand-basket.

This Campaign Against Political Correctness has probably phoned a journalist with this story and whined about how it’s nanny state Britain blah blah blah until the journalist has decided that, since it fits with the editorial line of the newspaper, it can go in. He’s then called Morellis (and if you read the quotes, especially the word “liquidy” he’s definitely spoken to someone senior) to verify all of this.

And that’s how a nonsense story about a non-issue gets into two of Britain national papers.

Categories: General Politics

Of Pulpits and Straw Men

February 26, 2008 6 comments

SokratesPossibly the oldest rhetorical trick in the book is to ascribe to one’s opponents a position which the readers of, or listeners to, your polemic dislike. This tactic is evident all through Plato’s dialogues, Xenophon and pretty much all of the surviving court speeches from ancient Athens. Commonly known as ‘building an argument against straw men’ this tactic has not gone away.

Reading through an article the strap line of which is, “Those who say the teaching of religious belief to the young is a form of child abuse are blinded to human rights,” the straw man tactic appears along with a couple of other rhetorical forms that bear mentioning. No doubt any budding rhetoricians will be familiar with these strategies for making an opponent feel stupid, but everyone else can sit back and enjoy.

Tactic 1. Impute false arguments to the enemy.

“We’re all familiar with the evil things done by religious believers blinded by the love of God.”

This is the first line of the article cited above. At one brush stroke it claims the consensus view that crimes are not committed by religions, crimes are committed by people. The events this calls to mind – the crusades or the burning of a million European women as witches – exist in the popular consciousness.

Many anti-religion commentators have ascribed these events purely to religion and thus sought to designate religion as evil. The article is attempting to generalise this half-formed view into a talisman held as truth by all atheists – which is of course not true. This is a neat trick which might lure opponents in to arguing in favour of the fallacious view of some atheistic commentators.

Once opponents are lured into that argument, they make a web to trap themselves because however sensible the argument might appear on the surface that religion is to blame for the crusades or whatever, it does not stand up.

Tactic 2. Tar your enemies with the same brush.

“There have been states that treat religious believers like that, and I have talked to some of their victims. The Russian state used to exile Baptist parents to Siberia and put their children in orphanages. The Chinese are still doing very similar things to the children of Muslims, Buddhists, and even followers of Falun Gong.”

Do you think the author has mentioned enough totalitarian states which are popularly considered to be atheistic? By mentioning these the author invokes the spectre of human rights violations against atheists. Having differentiated between religion and the religious as mentioned previously, the author invokes the opposite argument against the atheistic.

It is at this point that a very common rhetorical topos, or ‘place’, is offered.

“I don’t want to claim that atheism must lead to a totalitarian view of human rights.”

The function of a rhetorical topos is to deflect attention from the goal of the preceding statement. A very common idea in Athenian law courts was to say, “I could talk about my opponent’s anti-democratic sentiments, but that is forbidden by law and I don’t want to.” The rhetorician has mentioned the anti-democratic sentiment and held himself out as respecting the law.

In this case, the author has connected atheism to crimes committed by supposedly atheistic regimes and then attempted to distance himself from the connection by denying he was trying to make it – making himself look like an honourable opponent at the same time.

Tactic 3. Dig out the least palatable skeletons in the enemies’ closet.

“And then there is Sam Harris, one of the dimmer lights of the New Atheism, who spends quite a lot of one of his little books constructing an argument for the torture of Muslims.”

That tactic pretty much speaks for itself. There are few people, atheists or not, who aren’t repulsed by the idea of torture – whether Muslims or otherwise. So here is the author of the article declaring an atheist to be engaged in an attempt to “[construct] an argument for the torture of Muslims.”

Whether or not that is what Sam Harris did in one of his several books I have no idea – I have never read anything by the man, and nor, I suspect, have most of the audience of Comment is Free. So the author is taking a risk-free leap to secure once more the connection between atheism and torture.

Tactic 4. Equate your chosen proposition with a universal positive.

“Logically and psychologically, belief in human rights and religious belief are independent of one another. You can have both, either, or none.

But I want to make one slightly wider point too: that human rights and religious belief do share and have to share a certain attitude to hope and truth.”

Did you note the rhetorical topos in the first paragraph? The authorial disclaimer this time precedes the statement with which the author anticipates argument.

Now, in truth, there is no such thing as a universal positive – but the concept of human rights is certainly widely enough respected that it can serve as such. Moreover, fewer still are going to dispute the positive attributes of ‘hope’ and ‘truth.’

The author has quite subtly packaged all these things together and added that these conceptual qualities of human rights are shared with religious belief. Whether or not these are actually positive concepts is not discussed, which leads to the final tactic.

Tactic 5. Jump over any premises in dispute.

“I don’t want to get into arguments about the metaphysical realities of either human rights or deities. I merely want to observe that both have a metaphysical dimension if anything does. We want to say that they exist even when they are ignored, and even when no instances of their being can be observed.”

Hopefully readers will immediately have picked up the rhetorical topos in the first line quoted above. Mention something you don’t want to engage with, then dismiss it, neutering the counter argument. The premise dismissed is the question of the validity of ‘metaphysical realities’ – a question central to the whole concept of religion and central to the concept of human rights as the author understands them.

Of course if you deny the metaphysical reality of both, then religion collapses just as human rights collapses and the whole article disintegrates. From a Marxist point of view, I have no problem with that contention. Talk of ‘human rights’ obscure real class antagonisms which would be better fought through to a conclusion by winning such rights not in the name of objective good – which doesn’t exist – but in the name of the working class determining its own destiny.

Yet even if we don’t dispute the question of metaphysical reality overall, the question of human rights are still not set on a metaphysical plane with religion. Human rights have a long philosophical history which is ultimately grounded in empirical observations regarding how the world works, such as social contract theory. Human rights are empirically derived with the goal, not of ‘good’ or ‘happiness,’ but as a tactic to cushion the status quo against destabilising influences – whether those influences are capitalistic or socialist is irrelevant.

Behind the 1945 United Nations and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights stood Churchill and Roosevelt and their much more pragmatic Atlantic Charter.

Some thoughts.

Simply because someone uses rhetorical device, we cannot say their argument is wrong nor can we say it is right. Though in this article I have explicated the rhetorical device and then proceeded to attack the argument, that is not to say that any argument which makes use of rhetorical device is flawed or somehow lesser for it.

One of my long-standing contentions is that children should be taught the actual components of advanced argument – that is, rhetoric. Many arguments are judged persuasive simply because the reader cannot see through the rhetorical subtleties, which often perform sleights of hand with facts and concepts which are heavily in dispute.

Having a knowledge of rhetorical tactics inures people to their charms and perhaps we might take a rather more detailed view of exactly what charismatics say. This is something I feel to be particularly relevant since the US elections are nigh and one of the candidates is gaining support all over the place because of his charisma.

Training in debate – not the half-assed, public speaking-style debate that most schools wastefully indulge in – is important in a democratic society where argument can rule the day. It gives us some protection against those material interests who do not have our interests at heart but who can employ in devious ways such tactics.

Nader, the one and only?

February 26, 2008 1 comment

NaderThere’s an excellent article at the Daily (Maybe) which sums up quite a bit of what has been swirling around in my head since I heard Nader had declared himself a candidate for the 2008 Presidential elections. It is a welcome antidote to the often hysterically affirmative material which can be read from the Trotskyist sects on Nader, for example the US Socialist Alternative.

A great attempt at re-writing history deserves to be reported from that source;

“In particular, the Green Party’s leadership refusal to support Nader in 2004 out of fear of enraging their friends in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, has weakened Nader’s ability to get on the ballot and weakened his campaign.”

This was written by Philip Locker, who is one of the senior members of the CWI-affiliated Socialist Alternative in the USA. Nader probably failed to get the Green endorsement because he said he didn’t want it in December of 2003. It was at this point that some Green leaders came out in favour of the Anybody But Bush rhetoric of letting Kerry have his run at the Presidency unchallenged.

The eventual nominee, David Cobb, only scraped by with 408 out of 767 delegates, no doubt because Nader didn’t turn up to the nominating convention and didn’t seriously compete in terms of organising Green Party supporters. Certainly this indicates to me problems with the view that Nader himself is the right person to be leading a grassroots campaign for the Presidency.

Despite his seeming indifference, Nader won the nomination of the Reform Party and several independent groups such as “the Better Life” ticket in a couple of states. Nader was also supported almost universally by the far left sects, no doubt because they saw in him a chance for reflected glory by using his pre-existing popularity.

The opportunism in this policy has by now been thoroughly exposed as disastrous for building a solid independent labour movement in the USA. It’s no wonder that none of the socialist groups have yet developed a policy for the upcoming elections. Regardless of whether a party is actively involved in the contest for office, elections involve political ferment. They are exactly the right time to be taking new ideas to the broad layer of workers in America who have been called on to fight for their rights this year, particularly in the industrial states where jobs are directly under attack.

An independent political movement hoping to appeal to workers above and beyond the cries of the media should surely have called together as many allied elements as possible to decide on a common policy for this great opportunity? If one peruses the articles written by various members of the American bureaux of the Trotskyist organisations, it’s pretty apparent that there’s a big gaping hole where election strategy should be. The gaping hole yawns into a chasm where the other far left sects are concerned.

Green PartyDoes this mean that the Green Party is the last, best hope for independent labour in the USA?

If supporting Nader is not building up caucuses of activists across the country that will not disappear between elections like so much ephemera, then certainly a different strategy is called for. I don’t know if that means the Green Party. As a party it has plenty of disadvantages – not the least of which is a leadership which is mostly just watered-down Democratic leadership and a tendency to employ overly radical rhetoric about revolution without backing it up in policy.

I’m not convinced that the Greens are anything other than an electoral alliance of convenience between certain disaffected groups. Not much can come of electoral alliances unless they are organising for more than just elections and I don’t see the Greens taking an active hand in disputes that go beyond ‘green’ issues to labour and dare I say socialist matters – such as the teachers in Washington State who were recently reinstated despite participating in student protests aimed at getting rid of military recruiters from the school.

That such a victory can still be achieved by a combination of union activism and grassroots community support demonstrates that all is not doom and gloom. Yet nor does it answer the question of what to do with one’s vote come November, if you’re an American progressive not enamoured of the Democratic Party and the ambiguity which so neatly encapsulates its front runners.

So long as there is no genuine alternative movement, I’d probably cast my vote for the Democrats if I lived in one of the battleground states and for the Greens if I lived in a safe Democratic or Republican state. What I must insist upon is that a consensus be developed which challenges the notion that politics begins and ends with elections. If we recruit activists willing to challenge corporate tyranny on the ground then a left wing movement is liable to build influence out of proportion to its electoral numbers. It is that strength which we will need more than anything.

This is not to dismiss the importance of electing a less rabidly conservative, anti-worker candidate – but all too often electoral activism seems to become an end in itself. It’s not. Unfortunately that is the route that Nader has always traversed since his activist hey-day and which the Greens seem to have embarked upon also, with or without Nader.

Categories: US Politics

Wales 47 Italy 8

February 25, 2008 Leave a comment

Wales v ItalyThere was a hum of anticipation and expectation around the Millenium stadium as the early match proceeded towards kick off. With two questionable and far from convincing wins under their belts the arrogant Welsh were already drawing parallels with their surprising 2005 Grand Slam win. This game could have been so much different if it weren’t for two major turning points in the game, giving Wales in the end a flattering scoreline.

The game started off poor from an Italian point of view as the Latino passion effected Delappe’s discipline, with the Italian second row blatantly coming into the side of a ruck in front of Nigel Pearson the strict English referee. An easy three points from Stephen Jones to settle the nerves of the Welsh, surely remembering the embarrassment in Rome the year before.

When watched back the first ten minutes of the game will surely embarrass most of the Italian backline. The inability to kick and clear their lines ultimately leading to constant pressure from the Welsh. This pressure told as Masi, kicking the ball for only the third time in as many games, tried a deft yet ultimately daft chip on his own 10 metre line. This was promptly caught by Gavin Henson. Masi, in his eagerness to make up for his mistake, went straight over the top of the proceeding ruck thus gifting Jones with another easy three points.

This six point cushion so early in the game gave Wales some immunity. Peel a constant thorn in Italian sides, keeping the back row honest with some lethal snipes from rucks. He was unlucky not to find a winger in support on one occasion when a try looked odds on. Also in the following phase Shanklin was under the posts if it wasn’t for Jones holding back an Italian defender.

Yet throughout this barrage from Wales, due in part from Italy’s poor kicking, their defence remained strong and often dominant. Italy’s pack turning over some Welsh ruck ball. This dominance up front started to pay dividends as the Leicester prop Castrogiovanni took advantage of some wayward lineout throwing from Matthew Rees and bulldozed his way over the line after 11 minutes, leaving Peel in his wake. Marcato the young debutant missed with the conversion.

The Welsh players now started to feel the pressure as Italy gained the upper hand. It was at this moment Italy failed to capitalise, thus proving to be a pivital moment in the game. A quick lay off from an Italian lineout got the backs slicing through the Welsh defence like a hot knife through butter. Mauro Bergamasco`s pull back to Galon, who had timed his run to perfection easing through the gap off loading to Canale who had the line at his mercy, promptly proceeding to drop it. Nick Mallet the new Italian coach knew it was crucial they score, the agony on his face showing when they didn’t

It seemed like the previous let off had sparked Wales back into life. Shane Williams spotting slow forwards in the defensive line and promptly making a scintillating break off-loading to Matthew Rees the Welsh hooker who had worked hard to support. Sadly for the Welsh the pass came too late and the tenacious Italian defence survived, just. The relief was short lived as a penalty given for an Italian offside was tapped quickly and the Welsh grounded out an overlap on the right for Lee Byrne to stroll over for another try close to the half hour mark. Jones obliged with the conversion to leave the score 13-5.

In the last ten minutes of the half we began to see the start of errors creep into the defence of the Italians. A tackle count of more than double Wales was starting to take its toll. Yet it wasn’t all doom and gloom as an Evans obstruction on Mirco Bergamasco gave a debuting Marcato an attempt at three points. He couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity, hitting the left post as he had done with his previous conversion attempt. The margin for error so small in the international game.

Wales v ItalyThe Italian full back was to redeem himself in the final moments of the half making a scything run through the Welsh ranks only for a lack of support and poor kicking to rob them of something more tangible. Italy were able to get a penalty after some dogged physical work by their pack. Marcato able to reward this work with a valuable three points leaving the half time score 13-8 and the game far from over.

Wales must have been relieved to hear the half time whistle. This was yet again not exactly an inspiring half of rugby from the Welsh, and the Italians were notoriously slow starters. Warren Gatlands new Welsh team were facing an uphill struggle even if they were at home.

Relative optimism from the Italians brought forth a second sucker punch in the early stages of the second half. The Italian backs, with their heads still in the changing rooms from half time, began to throw reckless wide passes. It was inevitable that the inexperienced outhalf Masi would be intercepted. Shanklin was the grateful recipient making his 50th cap all the more memorable with a score under the posts. The score now 20-8 with the successful conversion.

The writing was on the wall for the Italians. The early try had put to bed any attempts of salvaging anything from the game. We now started to see the blue wall of the Italian defence creak and crumble from the onslaught of Welsh attacks. Mike Phillips, who was on for an injured Dwayne Peel, showed this with a searing 50m dash. Luckily for the Italy making the poor decision to not off load to the flier Mark Jones who would have been easily under the sticks.

Within the first ten minutes of the restart, discipline for the Italians started to faulter also. Two quick penalties dispatched by the prolific Stephen Jones. The second resulting in a yellow car and subsequent sin binning for the Italian centre Mirco Bergamasco who was blatantly killing the ball, trying to stem the red tide.

Wales v ItalyEven when the Italians brought on the talismanic second row Bortolami the game was lost. A creative run by Lee Byrne eventually setting up a simple chance for Shane Williams to increase his already impressive international try tally. Lee Byrne then capped off a fine display by scoring a try of his own, taking advantage of some loose tackling by Italian defenders. Italian heads began to drop and lungs burning as they struggled on with 14 men.

It was Shane Williams that capped off a record breaking win over the Italians. His suave, smooth footwork fooling the tired Italians to take his own try count to 40, level with the record holder Gareth Thomas (“The Thug” as we affectionately know him). Hooks converted after being recently substituted on for Jones as outhalf. This put smiles on the Welsh faithful inside the Millenium stadium.

Ultimately this seems a dream game for Warren Gatlan`s Welsh side. Yet looks can be deceiving. The Italians lack of an effective kicker to quickly achieve any kind of territorial game plan and the inability to reach touch meant a constant onslaught of attacks from the talented Welsh three quarter, which included man of the match Lee Byrne. This led to an incredibly high tackle count, twice as much as their Welsh counterparts. Fitness took its toll in a disappointing second half as Wales scored 34 unanswered points.

The 28 unforced errors will also be a thorn in the performance when they watch the match back in the sobering day after. Wales done well to trounce a below par performance from a disappointing Italy. But if they played like this against a technically gifted side such as France they would struggle. Only time will tell.

Categories: Sports

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