Area man unable to work red button on TV, blames Papist plot

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I genuinely can’t let this gem pass unremarked. Newt has already done a fine deconstruction, so let’s allow the full text of this press release from Stormont Assembly member David McNarry (UCUNF, Strangford) to speak for itself:

Speaking after he was unable to watch the GB/NI relay team competing in today’s Athletics World Championship Finals, David McNarry said:

“The ‘Radio Times’ schedules for Sunday indicate a choice for viewers at 3pm on BBC2. Those who want to watch the Croke vs Tyrone semi-final at Croke Park can tune using Analogue. While those who want to watch the Athletics World Championships can tune in using Digital.

“I don’t have Sky, but I am able to activate a Digital service on my television. But when I tried to do so on Sunday afternoon the available menu would not let me tune into the World Championships.

“I ‘phoned BBC NI and was told that the engineers had blocked the signal. But blocking a signal is not a choice for engineers alone: the decision must have been taken further up the line.

“As deputy chair of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure Assembly Committee—as well as a BBC licence payer—I will be urgently pressing for an enquiry as to why the signal was blocked this afternoon and why many viewers would have been denied the opportunity to watch the World Championships. What is the point of the schedulers offering a choice and then blocking the signal?

“It strikes me that this is just another example of the BBC’s preference for moving NI viewers towards a more Irish agenda. The World Championships’ Finals, which have been running all week, are sacrificed for a GAA semi-final being held in another country!

“What I want to know is—is BBC NI being used politically to groom and condition local viewers towards a more Irish agenda?

The word from within the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force is that in the runup to the Westminster election they’ll be selecting fresh-faced, dynamic young candidates including possibly one or two Catholics (shades of Shaun Bailey) and women (just not the woman who currently holds the sole Ulster Unionist seat at Westminster). It is particularly hinted from Sir Reggie’s camarilla that David McNarry’s disastrous run against Iris Robinson in 2005 should debar dinosaurs like him from getting another chance.

I don’t know, though. On the evidence of this press statement, McNarry at Westminster might provide some entertainment. He may not be possessed of Iris Robinson’s Marie Antoinette demeanour, but he is not without his quirks and his keen interest in broadcasting should qualify him for a tag team with Philip “PC Gone Mad” Davies. If Cameron was daft enough to ally with the Unionists in the first place, he deserves all the David McNarrys that are coming to him.

A note on cognitive bias

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Last week, Brian Feeney devoted his regular Irish News column to the anniversary of August 1969. In particular, Brian was interested in why it seemed to be only nationalists who were marking the anniversary, while unionists were staying very quiet. Thus Brian:

Very few unionist politicians have come forward to offer an explanation of the events from August 12 to 15 1969, not of course to account for the onslaught on Catholics in north and west Belfast because after all no senior unionist who was in power at the time is still alive. It’s true the occasional unionist commentator has tried to explain that unionists thought there was an IRA-led insurrection or that there was an imminent invasion from the south.

Maybe so, but few unionist politicians then or since have condemned the traditional unionist response to such fears, namely to attack as many fenians as you could get your hands on.

Furthermore, in the context of all these recent articles, features and reminiscences there have been few examples of unionist politicians putting their head above the parapet to say that burning Catholics out of their homes was a bad thing and let’s face it, 1,500 of the 1,800 families who ran for their lives were Catholic.

There is little evidence any of them has said unionists should never and will never do anything of that kind again.

And Brian brings this up to date by looking at recent outbreaks of sectarianism, notably around Coleraine, and wondering loudly why it’s been nationalist politicians who have been by far the most outspoken, while unionist representatives have been, well, perfunctory.

Brian is onto something here, but perhaps not quite in the way he thinks. As far as 1969 goes, unionists often find it extremely difficult to admit that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the old Stormont. The usual narrative is that Stormont was either a basically sound system or one that was flawed, but not in an irreformable way, and that our wee country had its peace shattered by the machinations of republicans and Trotskyists. As for reactions to loyalist violence… there’s something else going on here in terms of group cognition.

Perhaps some illustrations are called for. Currently, Stormont culture minister Nelson McCausland (DUP, North Belfast) is getting his knickers in a twist about a hunger strike commemoration held at the GAA ground in Galbally. Nelson, never a man to miss an opportunity to bash the GAA, believes that this breaches GAA rules against allowing Association property to be used for party political purposes. Tyrone Provos are countering this with the somewhat specious argument that the Republican Movement is not a party, but is open to all, and hence the commemoration is not in breach of the GAA’s ban on party political activity. However, Galbally is a very republican village, and a hunger strike commemoration there is not going to be controversial – as this one wouldn’t be if Nelson hadn’t thrown a wobbly about it.

Meanwhile, unionists have been rather unexercised about the trouble surrounding the weekend’s loyalist band parade in Rasharkin. What this entailed was forty loyalist bands, many with paramilitary associations, parading through an 80% Catholic villiage. This is on the back of a summer of sectarian tension in north Antrim. (See the indefatigable Daithí McKay for details.) To put it another way, if forty republican bands, many with paramilitary associations, had applied to hold a parade in, say, Bushmills or Cullybackey, Nelson McCausland would have denounced it as a provocation and rightly so. It does not occur to apply the same standard to Rasharkin.

Now we’re getting closer to the matter, and north Antrim is a good illustration. There has been a lot of talk about how Protestants are being driven out of north Antrim – the term “ethnic cleansing” even being bandied about – which may strike you as being a bit overheated in describing an area where Protestants are still an overwhelming majority. Most of the trouble there – which has been spread across the sectarian divide, but has probably impacted more on vulnerable Catholic minorities in loyalist villages – has been on a low level: criminal damage, the odd drunken fight and so on. As a general rule, whenever there’s been trouble in the area local nationalist politicians have spoken out against yobbery on both sides – Daithí McKay has been particularly active, at some physical risk to himself. But unionists, while they spring into action like Batman if an Orange hall or Presbyterian church is vandalised, are hard to locate when it’s Catholic premises that are being targeted. In fact, the latest urban legend doing the rounds in north Antrim is that attacks on Catholic premises are being carried out by republicans as a false flag operation, for the purpose of blaming the Prods.

This is actually quite an important point. When Brian Feeney accuses respectable unionists of turning a blind eye to loyalist violence, he isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s a lot more subtle than Brian would have it. It’s not that respectable, middle-of-the-road unionists condone loyalist violence – far from it. But many – not all – of them have a set of predictable responses. The first is not to notice it. The second, on having it drawn to their attention, is bemusement, as if to ask “What’s it to do with me?” The final response is to become quite irate if you suggest that it’s a problem that unionism as a whole has to address, in terms of putting its house in order, rather than by producing the condemnatory formulae when required. If you think this is out of step with the loud demands for nationalist politicians and Catholic clergy to denounce every bit of vandalism carried out by drunken Celtic supporters, you’re missing the point. (Or see also Gail Walker’s slightly desperate attempt to blame the GAA leadership in Dublin for what happened at a small club in the back end of Tyrone.)

It has to be remarked, too, that although this can be disingenuous on the part of unionists, it isn’t necessarily so, and I’m not sure that it’s even usually so. You’ll often find that the outraged “What’s it to do with me?” response is entirely sincere. It’s just a matter of being used to looking at things in a particular way, and not noticing what goes against your preconceptions. Psychologists have done a lot of work in mapping cognitive biases, and here in Norn Iron we have enough cognitive biases to keep an entire university psychology department busy for years.

Back to the concrete. During the marching season, Provisional leader and occasional beat poet Gerry Adams has been conducting a bit of megaphone diplomacy with Orange Order Grand Wizard Drew Nelson. If he’s hoping to appeal to Drew’s pragmatic and reasonable side, I’m afraid Gerry is whistling in the dark. The correspondence, so far, has had a predictably circular nature. Gerry wants to talk to the Orangemen to get a resolution to contentious parades. The Orange won’t meet Gerry unless he personally apologises for the death of every Orangeman killed by the Provos. At this point, Gerry does his mote-and-beam thing:

Drew Nelson accused me of glorifying IRA killings and demanded an apology, in particular for those 273 orange members killed by the IRA.

In my open letter I tell him that I have never glorified IRA killings and I again ‘expressed my sincere regrets for the deaths and injuries caused by republicans. This includes members of loyal institutions.’

But I posed a number of questions to him. The 12th resolutions state that 335 members of the order were killed. Who killed the remaining 62? ‘Was it a direct or indirect result of membership of Loyalist paramilitaries? Were some brethren killed by members of the British Crown Forces, the same Crown who you reaffirm your devotion and loyalty to every 12th? How many nationalists were slain by Orangemen in Loyalist paramilitary groups? Or in the British Crown Forces?

I draw his attention to some examples of paramilitarism with the Order, for example, one Belfast lodge, that is renowned for its UVF connections, is the ‘Old Boyne Island Heroes’ LOL 633. Their bannerette listed 6 UVF lodge members who were killed in the recent conflict.

Six years ago this same Lodge took part in the contentious Whiterock parade along the Springfield Road. One of those taking part was Eddie McIlwaine, adorned with Orange sash who was sentenced to 8 years for his part in the Shankill Butcher’s campaign of terror.

And yes, Gerry justifies his argument by waxing biblical, on the apparent assumption that this will cut ice with the Orangemen:

There is a reference in the Bible which seems very appropriate at this point which says: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote of thy brother’s eye”. Matthew 7:3-5 (King James Version)

The trouble with this is that Gerry’s invocation of the mote and the beam will just not fly with the Orangemen. More than most unionists, they’re conditioned to view themselves as always, or almost always, sinned against rather than sinning. Evidence pointing in the other direction is rarely an occasion for self-criticism – more often it just doesn’t compute. If you mention, for instance, the late Billy Wright’s Orange affiliations, and how that might appear to Catholics in the Portadown area, the average Orangeman will stare at you as if you’re insane and say, “Well, what’s that got to do with me?”

Let’s conclude by taking the issue away from sectarian whataboutery. Patrick Yu of NICEM was in the paper last week complaining, not for the first time, about Sammy Wilson’s grandstanding on immigration, and demanding the Stormont Executive pull its finger out and do something about the increase in racist incidents. Or at least deliver the diversity strategy it’s been promising for ages. Patrick takes exception to Stormont’s complacency in the face of attacks on East Europeans earlier in the year, and he’s certainly got a point.

But, while it’s true that the folks on the hill are not exactly putting an anti-racism strategy at the top of their agenda, there’s a further aspect that Patrick is too tactful to mention, which was the response of local politicians to the attacks on the Roma a while back. It was immediately noticeable that it was nationalist and Alliance reps who were making the running on the issue. Now, I don’t mean to say that unionist representatives failed to condemn the attacks – they, in particular area MLAs Michael McGimpsey and Jimmy Spratt, said the right things in their statements. But an outsider might assume that, since the perpetrators were coming from the community they represent, it might have been worth their while showing some leadership and demonstratively standing in solidarity with the Roma. Why, then, was it left to Martin McGuinness and Naomi Long to do all the touchy-feely stuff?

This is something that Rankin’ Dave Cameron might like to consider, in light of the UCUNF project. And I know I’ve said this before, but I still can’t quite figure out what’s in it for Dave, why he would have thought it a bright idea in the first place, and why the Spectator hasn’t been full of articles from people like Douglas Hurd or Tom King warning him not to go anywhere near the Unionists. But Dave has pressed ahead regardless, and even promised Unionist ministers in the next Tory government, for the benefit of those legions of Home Counties electors who are just dying to have Reg Empey or Basil McCrea in the cabinet.

I was thinking of this, and Dan Hannan’s praise of Enoch is relevant here, after reading the very funny new book True Blue by Chris Horrie and David Matthews, which I may get around to looking at in greater depth. Anyway, towards the end of the book there’s an encounter with Shaun Bailey, and a sharp reflection on what the Bailey phenomenon means. The authors point out that appealing to black voters has never made much strategic sense for the Tories, as black voters are heavily working class, heavily Labour supporting, and mostly live in inner-city constituencies that the Tories don’t have a prayer of winning. In the 1970s and 1980s, it made more sense for the Tories to issue coded appeals, via cricket tests and such, to the racist end of the white working class, who actually could dent Labour majorities in places like Lancashire and Essex. But this hasn’t worked so well lately, with the dog-whistle “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” campaign in 2005 going down like a lead balloon.

Hence Shaun Bailey. Many black Londoners seem to regard Shaun as a chancer on the make, and they may be right. But they aren’t the point of the exercise. The point of the exercise, as so often with Cameron, is to detoxify the Tory brand and shed the image of being the nasty party. Shaun Bailey may not appeal to black voters in any great numbers, but for nice affluent liberal-minded white voters he conveys the message that the Tories are no longer racist. It’s a similar situation to Alan Duncan – you’d have to be a very strange gay person to vote Tory because Alan Duncan is in the shadow cabinet, but for the party of Section 28, Alan’s presence at the top table neutralises gay hostility and presents a diverse image. Ditto Sayeeda Warsi, although she’s turned out to be something of an unguided missile. It’s all about the optics.

So this could pose an interesting question for Dave and his new unionist friends. Let’s assume that there are some more racist incidents next summer – and, given the close proximity of the Village to concentrations of ethnic minorities, that’s a reasonably safe bet. Look at the enormous media coverage the attacks on the Roma generated in the British media. Dave, who’ll be extremely conscious of the need to maintain his anti-racist credentials, will be expecting his compañeros to demonstratively show leadership. If they restrict themselves to pro-forma statements, well, Dave just might look askance. And what price then the Tory-Unionist alignment?

Ask not what you can do for Bananastan, but what Bananastan can do for you

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A friend of mine once got an up-close look at a general election in Abkhazia. By his account, there wasn’t much in the way of suspense, as President Ardzinba was the only candidate, so you couldn’t have made much money betting on the winner. Mind you, the whole proceedings were certified free and fair by the international observers from Kabardino-Balkaria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Retrospectively, the great thing about that sort of puppet show is that, by having the sham out in the open, it provides a nice counterpoint to the Debordian Spectacle that constitutes mature democracy.

So, as the polls have closed in Afghanistan, there’s something bracingly Third World about the puppet show over there. For one thing, just about everyone cheerfully admits that there’s been fraud on a massive scale, as befits a government that’s corrupt from top to bottom. The BBC correspondents have at least been putting a brave face on things by faithfully relaying the talking point that the fraud on various sides will cancel itself out and not affect the actual result. As if to put a scud on that, we’ve just a few days ago seen that gruesome old thug Abdul Rashid Dostam resurfacing to endorse Hamid Karzai. Since Dostam has spoken, we may assume that Karzai will win by a mile in the Uzbek-speaking provinces, where the peasants know better than to cross their chieftain. We are agog to learn just what pay-off Dostam has got in return for his support.

One expects it’ll be Karzai again in any case. The man may be a dead loss, but there’s nobody else credible. Just in the final stages the foreign media have been puffing the pseudo-reformist candidate, the splendidly named Dr Abdullah Abdullah, which suggests they haven’t learned much from Iran. It’s not likely that a former sidekick of the fundamentalist warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud is any sort of genuine reformist, as opposed to a huckster who wants to score some more patronage for the Tajiks. But then, the ability to cut a dash on CNN counts for a lot.

Further evidence of the charade is that the Yanks and Brits lost faith in Karzai a long time ago, since he’s managed to be both ineffective in his formal role as president and a downright pain in the hole in his informal role as leader of a vassal state. During the Bush administration, there was some desultory talk of getting Bush’s UN ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, an American citizen of Afghan descent, and drafting him in to be president. This never got off the ground, probably because Khalilzad was none too anxious to swap New York for Kabul – and who could blame him? Then there was the Brits’ plan to send Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader turned King of Bosnia, to Afghanistan as an imperial proconsul – a plan thoughtlessly vetoed by Karzai.

So it looks like they’re stuck with old Karzai for the time being. We shall see in due course if the rumblings from Washington about reducing him to a figurehead and appointing a more amenable “chief executive” amount to anything more than the previous Baldrickesque plans.

Apropos of this, there is the question that lots of commentators have been asking – namely, whether it’s possible to have a democracy in Afghanistan. Well, the current House of Warlords is a pretty poor excuse for a functioning democracy. But is it possible? Why not? I don’t believe the Afghan people are congenitally incapable of running an effective state, much as history suggests they haven’t often had one. Democracy, of course, is not just a matter of making your mark on the ballot paper, there’s also the issue of the lack of an effective civil society. But then, if civil society means lots of “civil society” NGOs funded by the Americans, the EU and the Soros Foundation… Eastern Europe is full of those guys, and the thing that strikes you is that you’ll see conferences on Roma rights going on with very few Roma in attendance, and at the end the situation of the Roma hasn’t been much advanced, but everyone has had a pleasant lunch and got their grant application packs. That’s a luxury Afghanistan can’t afford, and the fact that NGOs in the country are mostly doing humanitarian relief is probably for the best.

No, of course you can have a democracy in Afghanistan, it’s just questionable whether, given the country’s social mores and history, you can have a liberal democracy. If you’ll forgive me returning to a well-worn theme, the classic mistake liberals make is to confuse the democratic process with liberal outcomes. When democracy leads to illiberal outcomes, the liberals start screaming about “populism” and demanding that liberal outcomes be imposed from above. That’s why the bright idea of sending Paddy Pantsdown to Afghanistan – the liberal dictatorship he ran in Bosnia would fit in well with the liberal idea of bringing progressive politics to Afghanistan.

On the other hand, let’s take as an example the reactionary Shia marriage law that foreign observers have been getting so het up about. One thing that can’t be stressed enough is that this law did not emerge from Karzai’s left ear, but is a direct product of what’s a very limited form of democracy. That is, the political and religious leaders of the Hazara community had demanded the marriage law. The old communist government wouldn’t have stood for such a thing, but Karzai needs votes, and is aware that the Shia clerics are as good at delivering Hazara votes as General Dostam is at delivering Uzbek votes.

So, do you stand for democratic process or liberal outcomes? It’s not a problem if you’re a non-interventionist – you can just lend solidarity to the people who are fighting for values you identify with, if you can find such people. But it does pose a terrible dilemma for those who think it’s the job of imperial armies to go around setting up liberal democracies in every corner of the world.

Jim, Joan and that Muslim wedding

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Amongst the ranks of MPs who don’t impress me, few impress me less than Jim Fitzpatrick. Perhaps this is because, prior to his being a New Labour hack, Jim served a political apprenticeship in the Socialist Workers Party. Like many former revolutionaries who moved over to the greener pastures of NuLab, Jim has abandoned what he used to believe, but taken with him many valuable life skills learned on the far left, most of them to do with the efficient shafting of one’s factional enemies.

Anyway, as many of you will know, Jim has been in the news recently. This has to do with him being invited, along with his wife, to the wedding of two Muslim constituents. By Jim’s account, he and the missus arrived at the venue to discover that male and female guests were gathering in different rooms. Apparently Jim didn’t know this sort of thing went on at Muslim weddings, and had a rush of blood to the head at the sight of people who were obviously Islamic extremists blatantly gathering in separate rooms in front of Jim Fitzpatrick. (It is possible Jim is telling the truth, and just doesn’t mix much socially with his Muslim constituents. Alternatively, it is possible that Jim, who has in the past assiduously courted Muslims, and actually gone all the way to Bangladesh to canvass for votes, is being a little disingenuous.) But, according to Jim, he didn’t want to cause any embarrassment to his hosts, so instead of remonstrating with them, Mr and Mrs Fitz left quietly and discreetly. And then Jim proceeded to contact the media and tell them all the story.

One may simply assume from this that Jim Fitzpatrick is an ignorant ganch. Such is the line taken by Sunny:

One of these days I’ll hopefully get married and a ceremony is likely to be held at a Sikh Gurdwara (more because my parents will want to have a ceremony there rather than on account of my own religiousness). In a Gurdwara the guys sit on one side and girls sit on the other side, and the bride-groom in the middle. If some MP came and didn’t like it, buggered off, and then sent a press release to all the media going on how about insulting he found it – I wouldn’t speak to that tosser ever either.

It’s one thing to raise the issues of female foeticide, forced marriages or other activities where people are forced to do things against their will. It’s entirely another to try and squeeze votes out of a situations you may not agree with. Let minorities deal with their own issues as long as it’s within the law. How about that for a revolutionary idea?

I have a suggestion: why don’t Labour MPs ban the practice of British women adopting the surname of their husband once they get married? That’s a pretty unequal situation too and I know plenty of feminists who won’t do it. It’s only right these MPs register their disgust and refuse to stand for it.

Sunny makes his case well. In fact, while the practice at weddings varies between the different Muslim communities, this sort of thing is quite common in other religious communities as well. Had Fitzpatrick attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding, he would have seen a very similar segregation of the sexes; if you go to Mass in an Eastern Orthodox church, you’ll immediately notice the men standing on one side and the women (wearing headscarves) on the other. Customs pertaining to weddings and such aren’t really all that integral to women’s oppression. And one may note that MPAC have been doing a lot to challenge traditional patriarchy in Muslim communities with frig all support from the likes of Jim Fitzpatrick. (Note also that Jim was a firefighter in a previous life, so he’s not exactly unfamiliar with all-male environments.)

But then, there’s the political aspect. Many commentators have remarked that this sort of grandstanding is a bit rash on Jim’s part, as a third of his constituents are Muslim and they might be sensitive to a white bloke telling them how to celebrate their weddings. Not to mention that in the next election he’ll be facing up against George Galloway, whose ability to appeal to East End Muslims is well established. But you have to look at the matter in a Machiavellian sense. For the last five years or so, Labour strategy in Tower Hamlets – which Jim has played a key role in shaping – has been based on squeezing the Tory and Lib Dem votes with the message that only Labour can defeat Galloway. This tactic of the squeeze actually worked for Oona King in 2005, it just didn’t work well enough for her to win. One should also note that, Tower Hamlets politics being what they are, this sort of campaign very quickly polarises the vote on racial lines. Fitzpatrick will have weighed up the consequences of alienating Muslim voters as against appealing to the non-Muslim majority who are more likely to be resistant to Gallows’ charms, and will be Jim’s target audience.

There may also be a game within the game. Fitzpatrick made oblique reference to the nefarious influence of an outfit called the Islamic Forum Europe, which is active in the area and is rumoured to have some influence amongst the Bengali component of the Tower Hamlets Labour Party. Set that alongside Labour’s ongoing purge of East London councillors, which has been ongoing next door in Newham and will surely be hitting Tower Hamlets soon.

But no matter, there will always be someone willing to defend Fitzpatrick. Yes, in a touching display of comradeship, it’s his SWP contemporary Joan Smith .[Actually, it appears I was misled by there being a plurality of feminists called Joan Smith. Thanks to Harrods and Phil in the comments for clearing that up.] Joan is now ensconced at the Independent, and, given her strong Decent affiliations, is not likely to miss an opportunity to bash teh Mooslims in the name of feminism. Thus Joan:

Two countries, two weddings, two outcomes. In the first instance, a minister in the British government has been accused of bad manners for leaving a Muslim wedding in east London when he was asked to sit in a separate room from his wife. In the second, 41 women and children died when fire broke out in the women’s marquee at a wedding party in Kuwait…

As the ghastly fire in the Gulf state demonstrates, insisting that men and women occupy different spaces is common in states where Islamic law is in operation. At last weekend’s wedding, male and female guests were directed to different tents and children sent to sit among the women, which is why no men died in the conflagration.

I honestly don’t understand Joan’s argument. Is she saying that the Kuwaiti fire would have been less of a tragedy had men died in it? She sounds here like a Private Eye caricature of a wimmin’s studies academic.

This kind of segregation is often presented as a custom which has nothing to do with religion, but it’s far more common in countries where people subscribe to religious ideas about purity and the need to curb sexual expression. In secular countries, the idea that men and woman should not mix socially – whether in public spaces such as nightclubs or at private parties – is regarded as at best out-of-date and at worst offensive.

One assumes that Joan never goes on a girls’ night out. A mixed-sex hen party would be dreadfully dull.

There’s no way of squaring this with any notion of universal human rights, and Fitzpatrick’s response seems to me both polite and principled. Years ago I argued against gender segregation in bars and golf clubs, and I’m no keener on it when it happens in religious buildings.

I don’t know if Joan plays golf, but I suspect she doesn’t spend a great deal of time in working men’s clubs. And, at the risk of boring readers, I note that Joan is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society. For someone who believes in the separation of church and state, she’s very keen on politicians telling religious organisations what they can and can’t do.

Joan Smith, incidentally, is in a romantic relationship with Muslim-bashing MP Denis MacShame, and used to be married to Muslim-bashing journalist Francis Wheen. If this sounds a bit incestuous to you, you’ve latched onto an important fact about the interface between the political and media classes, especially their Decent component. Not, of course, that one judges Joan’s opinions by her other half of the moment. No, that would be sexist and wrong. She’s perfectly capable of being idiotic on her own account.

How devolution works: the Megrahi case and the discreet washing of hands

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Let’s say for talk’s sake that you are Mr Tony Blair. Let’s further suppose that you have in your prison system a foreign national convicted of 270 counts of murder. You can probably be confident that he’ll be out of sight, out of mind for ten or twelve years, but eventually his health is likely to fail him, and you might be faced with the question of what to do with a dying man, to whom it would be deeply politically problematic to give a compassionate release. What do you do?

If you’re a skilled politician, or a treacherous weasel, you might do something like this:

  • Sign a treaty with Colonel Gaddafi.
  • Include in that treaty a clause on prisoner transfers, which is realistically only going to apply to one man.
  • Devolve responsibility for this area to the Scottish government.
  • When the time comes, stand back and chuckle as Alex Salmond and Kenny MacAskill wonder how they ended up with this steaming turd of a decision.

You think that’s overly cynical? Maybe you didn’t see Alastair Darling suppressing a definite smirk on the news. The beauty of this is that, as the media, American politicians and victims’ families get het up, it’s the SNP that’s going to take the hit for a situation not at all of their making. The Westminster government has washed its hands of the matter, and the O’Bama administration, which has no responsibility in the matter, can throw as many hardline shapes as it likes without affecting the outcome. We can rest assured that, whatever the huffing and puffing in London and Washington, nothing will be done to seriously affect relations with our new friend Gaddafi.

Taken on this level, the Megrahi case just illustrates a common approach by politicians to the criminal justice system, which is to indulge in tabloid-friendly grandstanding (in this respect we can mention Michael Howard, David Blunkett and John Reid as particularly culpable Home Secretaries) while at the same time avoiding taking unpopular decisions. You may remember a few years back that there was a minor scandal about paroled convicts committing serious crimes. Who, it was asked, had taken the decision to parole these men? It turned out that they had been paroled by a computer programme, which I would guess had been set up precisely to avoid any individual having to take the fall.

In principle, I suppose, one would like there to be an individual who will take the decision and stand by it. That would be the democratic, as opposed to technocratic, position. On the other hand, having seen Jack Straw’s contortions over Jack Tweed and Ronnie Biggs, sometimes you just want to shake your head and say, “Feck this for a game of soldiers, let the computer do the heavy lifting. It’s less likely to be living in fear of what the Sun and the Mail will say tomorrow morning.”

Great discussion at Aaro Watch, and special thanks to Flying Rodent for background.

Take up thy Kant and walk

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Also spricht Normski:

Grayling underestimates the problems of ignorance and prejudice by writing as if it is only religion and totalizing ideologies such as Marxism that close people’s minds against inquiry, experiment, the critical scrutiny of received ideas, and so on. The situation is much worse than this. He must surely have noticed how, right across the political spectrum, and right across the metaphysical spectrum, people can become dogmatically attached to their viewpoints, unwilling to be persuaded by contrary evidence, inflexible in changing their minds, locked in to certain combinations of belief which they share with their peer group.

Yes…

The virtues of open intellectual inquiry may not be spread evenly across human populations, but the vices of dogmatism and resistance to a change of mind are to be found far and wide. Hardly anyone is altogether free of them.

Maybe this is just my cynicism talking, but I am instantly reminded of the good professor’s recent line of argumentation on Iraq. Which goes roughly like this: “All right, the Iraq war turned out to be a disaster, and in retrospect supporting it might not have been such a great idea. But I still hold that supporting the war made me, Norm, morally superior to those who predicted from the start that it would be a disaster.” Ain’t dialectics brilliant?

Elsewhere, Norm ruminates on whether Holocaust denial should be criminalised. I actually agree with Norm that it shouldn’t, but I’m not dying about his line of argument:

However, by extending the meaning of harm to cover the propagation of ideas, the dissemination of words, they loosen the principle so that it becomes next to impossible to apply in an objective way, despite their own plea to the contrary. Violence against persons, and therefore against groups of people, is obviously a harm; and direct incitement to violence in situations where this clearly helps to bring on its occurrence may be included in the same category as being a proximate cause. But the further back you go from the criminal act of violence, the more difficult it becomes to establish a clear connection between someone’s speech-act in spreading a belief or idea and the violent harm itself.

This isn’t bad so far. A lot of well-meaning attempts to restrict “hate speech” fall down by moving away from the concept of direct incitement to that of restricting speech that may form the mood music for things we don’t like. Norm could have mentioned, but didn’t, New Labour’s attempted crackdown on “glorifying terrorism”, which was justified under the rubric of “indirect incitement”, a deeply dubious concept. Norm could also have mentioned, but didn’t, Denis MacShame’s current campaign to legally restrict criticism of Israel, on the alleged grounds of combating anti-Semitism.

Punchline:

To criminalize putatively harmful beliefs opens the way to such notions as the defamation of religion.

This will not do, Norm. We expect better from you than arguing from consequences – aren’t you supposed to be the first principles maven? I’m also struck by Norm’s oblique reference to defamatory attacks on religion. Generally, Decents will at this point talk grandiosely about the Enlightenment and Voltaire[1], but I can’t help the cynical side of me thinking of something else. Far be it from me to suggest that Ethics Man might have a base motive, but my mind keeps turning to the enthusiasm of many of Norm’s mates for Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia gobbledegook, aka The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Islam. Just look at HP Sauce on an average day. One doesn’t accuse, one merely throws out the suggestion.

[1] Given Decents’ fondness for proclaiming themselves the heirs of the Enlightenment, it’s striking that they never reference Voltaire’s thoughts on the Jews. Some of which were so pithy, the Nazis helpfully compiled them into a single volume.

More gems from the wacky world of militant secularism

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Regular readers will have noticed that this blog hasn’t covered the Decent Left much of late. Truth be told, apart from the new book by coincidence theorist David Aaronovitch, and Nick Cohen’s increasingly desperate attempts to commit suicide by cop at the Observer, there isn’t all that much to report. The end of the Bush-Cheney administration took the wind out of their sails, and they’ve never really recovered. I hear that Alan (Not The Minister) Johnson is planning a big new reinvention in September – or at least another one of his thousands of online vanity projects – but even NTM will be hard pushed to inject some life into it.

No, I expect it will be more of the same old crap. Norman Geras boring on about universal values, how the values that he, Norm, stands for are truly universal, and how (insert fancy footwork here) these universal values are consistent with special pleading for Israel. David “Mr” T running more exposés about Gilad Atzmon, in between lunches at Nando’s. Marko D Ripper holding forth on how the Serbs are trying to sap and impurify all of his precious bodily fluids. HP’s resident guest lunatic Morality Blog popping up in the comments boxes to dishonestly accuse people of being dishonest. This will all be bound together by a portentous manifesto that will sink without trace after two weeks of frantic puffery.

The trouble is, I get bored easily, and while one can always get some enjoyment from shooting fish in a barrel, you don’t want to always be shooting the same fish in the same barrel. A bit of variation is nice. So, while I may come back to the Decents if they say or do anything interesting, in the meantime let’s keep with a theme from recent weeks and pop over to the “National Secular Society”, a body that is to secularism what Mel Gibson is to Catholicism. The NSS’s weekly upload of articles normally has something to pique the interest. And indeed, Titus Oates decides to eschew Papist plots this week in favour of bashing the Presbyterians. But more of that later.

I was first struck by this article on the withering away of Judaism in the United States. The article hails the growing number of “secular Jews”, by which it apparently means atheists with Jewish surnames. Actually, the spin is that increasing numbers of US “Jews” are choosing to identify themselves by ethnicity rather than religion. Well, it depends what you mean by Jews, I suppose. Orthodox congregations aren’t doing too badly, and of course haredi communities are growing rapidly. There is, on the other hand, a noticeable decrease in religious observance, and increase in marrying out, amongst those liberal Jews who weren’t very observant in the first place.

I saw this and wondered how it fit in with the article run by the NSS the other week on the court ruling in the JFS admissions case, attacking the idea that the organised Jewish community (in this instance, the United Synagogue with which the JFS is affiliated) could decide who was Jewish for the purposes of admission to Jewish schools. The two don’t mesh together very well – and the JFS article was deeply confused – but the “secular Jews” line is probably a safe one to take, lest the NSS annoy their mates at Harry’s Place. The Saucers, particularly the Jewish ones, are very big on Jewishness as a racial category but don’t particularly like Judaism.

Just so the Catholics don’t escape for a week, there’s also a piece on how the Sarkozy administration in France is destroying the constitutional separation of church and state. This seems rather unlikely, given Sarko’s frequent appeals to laïcité whenever he wants to bash the Muslims. And indeed, all this amounts to is foreign minister Bernard Kouchner creating a panel of religious experts to provide guidance to French diplomats in being culturally sensitive in whatever countries they’re stationed in. This doesn’t seem problematic to me, unless you belong to the missionary school that says that cultural sensitivity is an expression of weakness, and western diplomats’ role is to elevate the natives to our level of civilisation.

But now to the main event, and NSS head honcho Titus Oates bursts into prose to lambast Gordon Brown. The occasion for this is an interview Brown gave to Premier Christian Radio. Now, Brown doesn’t talk very much about his Presbyterian background, but when he agreed to go on Premier it was only to be expected that he would be asked about this background, and about his thoughts on issues of Christian concern. Which is what he spoke on, although in rather general terms:

In Britain we are not a secular state as France is, or some other countries. It’s true that the role of official institutions changes from time to time, but I would submit that the values that all of us think important – if you held a survey around the country of what people thought was important, what it is they really believed in, these would come back to Judeo-Christian values, and the values that underpin all the faiths that diverse groups in our society feel part of.

It’s not really exceptional, if you’re talking about the values of the culture and where they come from. If we say that the cultural values of Spain or Poland are informed by Catholicism, or that Moroccan or Iranian culture is shaped by the Islamic tradition, that’s no more than a statement of fact. Indeed, as Friedrich Nietzsche liked to point out, the morality of secular humanists is basically New Testament Christian morality minus its theological underpinnings. For some reason, secular humanists get very irate when you say this.

Brown continues:

I think it’s impossible because when we talk about faith, we are talking about what people believe in, we are talking about the values that underpin what they do, we are talking about the convictions that they have about how you can make for a better society. So I don’t accept this idea of privatisation – I think what people want to do is to make their views current. There is a moral sense that people have, perhaps 50 years ago the rules were more detailed and intrusive, perhaps now what we’re talking about is boundaries, beyond which people should not go. And I think that’s where it’s important that we have the views of all religions and all faiths, and it’s important particularly that we’re clear about what kind of society we want to be. So I think the idea that you can say: ‘What I do in my own life is privatised and I’m not going to try to suggest that these are values that can bind your society together’, would be wrong.

Again, this is not outrageous, unless you believe that political leaders have no place talking about values – and again, I hold that you have to be a pretty extreme utilitarian to believe that values and morality shouldn’t have any place in political discourse. What Brown says is more or less in tune with the mainstream of British liberal Protestant thought. It isn’t consonant with the common British view that morality should be totally privatised, but that isn’t something that many politicians could state openly.

Anyway, Titus waxes wroth here, taking as a jumping-off point some remarks Brown makes about diversity, cohesion and integrating immigrant populations:

What are we to make of this in relation to Mr Brown’s claims that this is a “Christian country” run on “Judaeo-Christian principles”? What must the Muslims think of that? The Government seems to be plying the “Muslim community” (i.e. the “faith leaders”) with bribes on the one hand and then telling them their religion is secondary to Christianity on the other.

Leaving aside the faux concern for Muslim sensitivities, which is belied by the “appeasement of Islam” stuff Titus puts out on a regular basis, the trouble is that I don’t think Brown said what Titus said he said. Did Brown say that Britain was a Christian country run on Christian principles? No, he did not. He talked in a somewhat woolly way about the Christian derivation of British values. But to Titus, that’s as near as damn it Brown advocating a theocratic government.

Not for the first time, the NSS’s output reminds me a little of the Workers Revolutionary Party of blessed memory. Gerry Healy would always take one of two tacks: either the revolution was around the corner, or the fascist coup was around the corner. Titus has a rather similar shtick, based on alternating triumphalism about the decline of religion (which often includes suggesting that lots of people who identify as religious are lying, and should really be counted as atheists) with his “OMG! The theocrats are taking over! If we don’t watch out, Britain will be just like Iran!”

Gerry understood very well that this sort of thing helped to galvanise the troops. But it can be a bit enervating, and it leads me to think that maybe Titus would do well to cut down on the caffeine.

Carlton-Browne of the FO

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A rather anachronistic outbreak of colonialism in the Turks and Caicos Islands, which sounds like a pirate republic but is actually a British colony – or an Overseas Territory, as these more politically correct times would have it – to the south-east of the Bahamas. The Ts and Cs, despite being almost impossible to find on a map, have emerged from a long period of poverty following the collapse of the salt industry to become a popular holiday destination with Americans, who like the lovely weather and the laid-back lifestyle. They are also, as is the case with many small island nations down that neck of the woods, a popular destination for the trans-shipment of drugs.

As is often the case with small nations that come into money all of a sudden, there have been persistent allegations of corruption against the local elected government. Back-handers have been talked about. Members of the islands’ parliament are said to have benefited from dodgy land deals. You may immediately think of the expenses scandal at Westminster, but the two aren’t really comparable. As there are only about a dozen members in the Ts and Cs parliament, it’s really very small beer.

This has not, however, prevented the Brits getting on their high horse about malfeasance in the colonies. Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant has taken time off from posing in his underpants on the internet to dismiss the elected government and impose direct rule from London, via the appointed governor. Happily, the handful of remaining governors in the FCO still get outfitted with goose-feather headgear, so as to lend an appropriately Terry-Thomas air to proceedings.

Needless to say, dismissed chief minister Galmo Williams is not at all amused:

However, Mr Williams told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “We have a British governor who’s responsible for good governance; who’s responsible for civil servants.”

This made the British government equally responsible for systemic weaknesses, he said, adding that his administration could have worked alongside the UK to address the problems.

“It’s a very sad day for us in Turks and Caicos to see… that democracy has been taken away from the citizens,” Mr Williams said.

He said his administration had not been given the same opportunities as British politicians, who were being allowed to put right the issues exposed by Parliament’s expenses scandal.

I think Mr Williams is right. If the inhabitants of the Turks and Caicos want to be governed by a bunch of crooks, surely that’s their democratic prerogative. The people of Italy can elect as their prime minister a degenerate spiv with the morals of a rat, and he’ll be welcomed at all the best international summits. And, given all the scandals at Westminster, it’s hardly edifying for Chris Bryant to act as moral arbiter for some black men in the West Indies. Yes, the spirit of the pith helmet lives on.

1969, the persistence of sectarianism

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There’s a lot of coverage at the moment of the fortieth anniversary of what’s often held to be the real outbreak of the Troubles – that is, the serious escalation of violence in Belfast and Derry, and the deployment of British troops. And a watershed it certainly was, although unsurprisingly all parties are pushing their own libertyvalanced versions of August 1969. Provisional leader and occasional beat poet Gerry Adams has been ruminating a little on his blog, and there’s this account from Spike Murray, who has a prose style that I find pleasingly direct after my weekly dose of Gerry. If you’re in West Belfast and minded to attend such things, Spike will be addressing a commemoration rally this Sunday. And for those not of the Provo persuasion, there will be other events if you have a look around.

But what I wanted to do was to briefly pose a question – are the Troubles over? I don’t mean by that the armed campaign, although it does indeed continue on a very low level. What I’m thinking more about is sectarian tension at the social level, something that the New Dispensation hasn’t really resolved. The odd clashes there have been, the rioting in Ardoyne, the murder of Kevin McDaid and so on, are on one level the sort of thing you would expect over the summer months. It’s well known that the marching season has that sort of effect on a certain type of person.

But there’s also a sort of geographical displacement that’s quite interesting. The peace process, you see, has really been geared very much towards pacifying Belfast and Derry. Tensions do persist in Belfast of course, mainly in interface areas, which is to say mostly in north Belfast. Those are the areas where you’ve got long-term deprivation and associated problems like criminality, rubbing up alongside the sectarian tensions inherent in the patchwork of interfaces, and the two factors playing off against each other. A lot of this manifests itself around the issue of housing, specifically the huge waiting lists in some nationalist areas, and masses of empty housing stock in loyalist areas that remain off-limits to Catholics.

That, though, is the persistence of something we’re familiar with. There’s something else that’s been coming up on the rails, however, in the form of sectarian clashes in small towns and villages. By and large, too, these are places like Coleraine, Banbridge and Larne that in the main escaped the Troubles. You’re talking about places that would traditionally be considered part of the unionist heartland, where there was little trouble in the past because the Catholic communities were small, and believed in keeping the eternal low profile so as to avoid trouble. It may not have been expected that sectarian trouble would resurface in places like this under the New Dispensation.

Yet such is the case, and perhaps the New Dispensation, with both the diminution of fear and the property boom, has had something to do with it. During the trouble in north Antrim around the Twelfth fortnight, I was startled to hear of attacks on Catholic churches and GAA halls in villages like Cullybackey, Dervock and Ahoghill. Startled, you see, because in my memory these were villages that were exclusively Protestant. Some of them were as near as damn it exclusively Presbyterian. Sectarian clashes weren’t supposed to happen in areas like this.

And yet, demographic shift has been changing that. You’ve got provincial towns where there used to be maybe one Catholic estate, or even just dispersed families, where the Catholic population has grown significantly. In a given town it might have gone from 10% to 25% within the space of about ten years. And a growing Catholic population, in this era of power-sharing and Section 75 and all that, means an uppity Catholic population. At the most passive level, it means churches and schools and GAA clubs, the things that make a Catholic community visible. At the more energetic level, it means young lads deciding that, if the Orange are going to cover their town with flags and bunting in the summer months, they may as well hoist a flag or two on their estate. After all, there’s supposed to be parity of esteem.

And in the north, every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. You’ll recall that Big Ian launched his political career in the 1960s on the back of tricolours being flown in West Belfast. This is why I get the sense that some of these provincial towns are almost rerunning the birth of the Troubles – or maybe better, the immediate pre-Troubles period – on a forty-year time delay.

The context is wholly different, of course. We have the federal presidency at Stormont rather than the nakedly supremacist unionist government that existed back then. The old system is gone, smashed forty years ago, and isn’t coming back – but that doesn’t mean that the hangovers of the old system don’t exist in the the unionist backwoods. Especially when facts on the ground call into question the separate-but-equal thesis that a lot of unionists thought they were buying into with the peace process.

And this brings us back to what the peace process does and what it doesn’t or can’t do. Pacifying Belfast and Derry, through both a baroque system of government and the disbursement of peace funds to combatants willing to behave – not unlike what the Americans are trying to do in the Bananastans – has been raised to a fine art. But the New Dispensation is not very good at all when it comes to dealing with these sub-political tensions. The cops have plans in terms of public order, although they very often don’t work out very well. The political actors… well, it’s a bit like expecting a vacuum to show leadership.

The man who’s even less popular than Gordon Brown

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From MRzine:

The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which began with a dispute over the 21 November 2004 run-off vote between the leading presidential candidates, ended by installing Viktor Yushchenko, the Western favorite who cried fraud, into presidency on 23 January 2005. Ian Traynor of the Guardian put the price tag of the Orange Revolution at about $14 million. [1]

So, what is the Ukrainian opinion of Orange Revolutionaries today, a little over four years after the Orange victory? According to Gallup, it is, to put it mildly, jaundiced:

Eighty-five percent of Ukrainians in May told Gallup they disapprove of the job performance of their country’s leadership, up from 75% in 2008 and 73% in 2007. The 4% of Ukrainians who approve is not only the lowest rating Gallup has ever measured in former Soviet countries, but also the lowest in the world. (emphasis added, “Approval Ratings in Ukraine, Russia Highlight Differences,” Gallup, 31 July 2009)

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That’s the voice of the people whose leadership came to power through a color revolution. In contrast, the top Russian leaders — who didn’t come to power through the same colorful path and are actually known for their vigorous opposition to color revolutions — apparently enjoy high levels of popular support, according to the same Gallup survey.

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Orange Questions

. . . for imperialists:

“Isn’t ‘democracy assistance’ for color revolutionaries a waste of money?” [2]

. . . for leaders of nations bombarded with “democracy assistance”:

“Isn’t the best way to make the opposition unpopular sometimes to put them into power?”

. . . for opposition leaders favored by the West:

“Isn’t the quickest path to the dustbin of history to vault into power, leveraged by ‘democracy assistance,’ without knowing how to run anything bigger than your little political faction?”

[1] FYI, the FY 2009 funding for the “governing democratically and justly” programs targeting Iran is $65 million: “The $65 million for Iran is equal to roughly one-third of the FY 2009 funding allocated for the entire sub-Saharan African region, excluding Sudan” (David Price, “Global Democracy Promotion: Seven Lessons for the New Administration,” The Washington Quarterly, January 2009).

[2] E.g., “USAID has spent well over $9 billion over the past two decades to promote democratic governance in more than 100 countries. For the past few years, the annual investment in USAID democracy assistance programs has grown to about $1 billion dollars, and the median budget for such countries is now approximately $5 million” (US AID, “Initiatives to Improve Evaluation of USAID DG Assistance Programs: Strategic and Operational Research Agenda [SORA]“). And that is just one US government agency, not counting others, let alone NGOs, real or nominal. By the way, do you know what Freedom House is saying about the Barack Obama administration’s “democracy assistance” budget: “Freedom House is encouraged by the request to increase funding for democracy and human rights by nine percent at this critical time” (emphasis added, “Administration Takes Strong First Step with Democracy Budget Request,” Freedom House, 1 July 2009)?

There should be food for thought here for exponents of colour revolutions. If such was not an ideological position impervious to argument.

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