Saturday, January 29, 2005

Something to die for ....

"Well, people are threatening to kill them if they vote," said the British person. "I wouldn't vote, if I was there!"

And yet, many Iraqis are really keen to vote. What's this about, then?

I'm not endorsing the war. I am no friend of Saddam Hussein, but the acceptance that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and the Iraqi army were unable even to defend their own nation underlines the fact that the war should never have been undertaken. Whilst one country may be irritated by the leader of another country, it doesn't have the moral right to depose its leader. Even if it is a superpower. That's why we have the United Nations. The US/UK alliance has set a dangerous precedent - they may not always be the dominant military power, and somebody may not like their choice of leader .....

However, given the situation that the nation of Iraq is in now, and that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, many people are overjoyed at the ability to exercise democratic rights for the first time in decades. They value this so highly, they are prepared to do it at risk of their lives.

Meanwhile, democratic rights are so unvalued in the UK that turnouts even for general elections are at their lowest ever levels. People have lost sight of what a privilege a democratic process is, and what a price has been paid for it in the past.

If you are a Brit, make sure you vote! People are prepared to die for the privilege elsewhere in the world! It shouldn't matter if it's local, national or regional, or if there isn't a political party that adequately represents your views - if there is no other option, write "Protest" across your ballot paper. But don't simply scorn the privilege you have that so many people around the world are prepared to risk their lives for.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Justice - the sublime to the ridiculous. Or not ...

I would like to make clear that I have no penalty points on my licence, and don't think I have any on the way either ....

Imagine four cars, one in each lane, going under a traffic gantry on a motorway - speed limit 70 mph. The one in the second lane is doing 62 mph, with no traffic in front, and is therefore obstructing the free flow of traffic. ILLEGAL. The one in the inside lane is doing 68 mph, and has got fed up of being stuck behind the one in the second lane whilst traffic outside him won't let him pull out to overtake, so is overtaking on the inside. ILLEGAL. The one in the third lane is doing 78 mph. ILLEGAL. An automatic speed camera takes a picture of his car as he goes under the gantry, and he gets an automatic fine and three points on his licence. The one in the outside lane is doing 85 mph. ILLEGAL. However, the camera is only switched on in the third lane, so the driver in the outside lane doesn't get a fine or any penalty points.

So what? The problem as I see it with traffic laws is not that they exist - traffic has to be regulated for safety. The problem is that they are enforced arbitrarily. When the driver of only one of two cars doing the same illegal speed at the same place and time will be punished, the law is no longer just: it is arbitrary. When speeding laws are enforced (partially) because it's easy, but other safety related laws aren't, the law is failing. A just law ought to treat people the same all the time. We need a better way!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Salvador in Iraq

Interesting item on From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4 - see the article here. Basically, what it is saying is that some Americans would like to see an El Salvador model of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq. What they mean by this is that they would like to see the Iraqi army strengthened to provide a shield for the developing democracy, which would eventually undermine the insurgency. They believe that the model of operations in El Salvador overcame the mistakes made in Vietnam.

What actually happened according to the journalist is that American special forces sought to "out-terrorize the terrorists" in El Salvador to give rise to a culture of fear - the civilian population were more afraid of the government and special forces than they were of the insurgents, and so did not support them. The journalist talked about the six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter who had their brains blown out by the counter-insurgency forces, and other people who were beheaded and left in public view. Even the democratic elections in El Salvador didn't lead to the end of the insurgency - it only ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent loss of funding via Cuba. And not one of the leaders of the insurgency in El Salvador was captured by the counter-insurgency forces - in a country the size of Wales!

Please do what you can to prevent this ever happening again.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Intolerant of intolerance

David Bell, HM Chief Inspector of Schools, said in a recent widely-reported speech that he wanted to ensure children were "intolerant of intolerance". This comment was particularly addressed to children being taught in faith schools. The Muslim community has reacted with indignation - there are around 100 such Muslim faith schools. There are also around 50 (I think - see the link for more details) Jewish schools, and over 100 evangelical Christian faith schools - so of all groups, it is arguable that evangelical Christians are addressed as directly as Muslims.

Now, what exactly did he mean? Did he mean that we need to make sure that people taught in faith schools have an appreciation for the fact that people have different worldviews, and even when we disagree with them, we recognise that they have value and dignity because of their humanity?

If so, then evangelical Christians can all say, "Amen!" Tolerance in this sense is a Christian virtue - evangelical Christians were martyred - in Britain, and Western Europe! - trying to secure tolerance from society for their beliefs.

But I'm worried that it's possible he was using the world "tolerance" in its modern, "liberal" sense - in other words, that children brought up in faith schools need to learn not to disagree with anybody else, and either regulate their beliefs so that they exist in an entirely private, subjective realm, or limit the scope of their beliefs to those things that won't clash with anybody else's beliefs. Why do I suspect this is the case? Because these remarks are related to citizenship as taught in faith schools, not citizenship as taught in general. Of course citizenship as taught in non-faith settings is bound to have this kind of post-modern, pluralistic perspective - because this is the prevailing worldview of most of academia, including teacher training institutions. People choose faith schools for their children precisely so that the children aren't being taught by people who have a prior commitment to the denial of absolute truth.

But if even in faith schools, people have to teach that one's faith is to be relegated to an entirely personal domain, then this undermines the whole reason for their existence. And despite Ofsted's earlier affirmation of the appropriateness of choice for parents in this regard, this sort of imposition represents another threat to the religious freedom of faith communities. If this is what Bell was getting at, it represents the appearance and espousal of tolerance masking the implementation of religious intolerance.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Speaker for the Dead

It's ages since I read any science fiction, but a chance discussion about funerals led me to get out "Speaker for the Dead" by Orson Scott Card - to lend, but I thought I'd read it first.

I'd forgotten how much you can get from science fiction. There are so many more things in the book than I could even have been aware of last time I read it (which must have been in 1987, or thereabouts!). Some thoughts:

- an interstellar human community in which different creeds have continued significance, and have found a way to co-exist - as opposed to a kind of universal rationalistic humanism;
- fiction written with a real appreciation of different Christian theologies (Calvinism, catholicism);
- a concept of interstellar community with a plausible extension of different national identities - as opposed to the Star Trek "americanisation" of everything.

Science fiction at its best can be so much more powerful at exploring meaty issues than most other modern forms of literature - The Matrix and Minority Report were possibly two of the most philosophical popular films of the last few years. It's a shame that most people think that science fiction is no more than blasters and bug-eyed monsters.

Some, two, three, fourteen

Maximum respect to U2 and all that - they have been a major part of the soundtrack to my life for years - their music is excellent - they are stunning live - they have survived more than 25 years with an unchanged line-up - and in terms of world politics, I have loads of time for everything that Bono is doing for justice, debt relief, AIDS awareness and so on.

But what is it with Vertigo? Don't they know how to count to four in Spanish? Or is it some subtle comment on the vacuousness of club culture? ITWSBT.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The power of language ... to obscure

The following is a quote from the legal section of today's Times

The Immigration Appeal Tribunal failed to justify upholding an adjudicator's flawed decision that a Nepalese police officer, having been terrorised by Maoist insurgents into leaving his job in Nepal and fleeing to the United Kingdom, had failed to establish a well founded fear of persecution should he be returned to Nepal.

A (metaphorical) prize goes to the first person who manages to express in language that the man on the Clapham Omnibus might hope to understand what exactly that sentence is about.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Global disaster

The earthquake/tsunami in the Indian Ocean may have had the most global impact of any natural disaster. In a group of seven people I was with today, one was Swedish (there are thousands of Swedes still missing in affected areas), one was Sri Lankan (in touch with parents, but no other relatives) and one was South African (knew four people missing in the area). Three continents represented in one group of people, all directly affected by the disaster.

People will probably ask how it is possible to believe in God when things like this happen. Jesus was asked about a then-recent disaster - here is a passage from Luke 13.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”