Pic of the day

August 30, 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pakistan’s cricket manager Yawar Saeed is the chap on the right reading The News of the World, at Lord’s yesterday.

It’s good to know that they seem to know as much about this business as the rest of us. Probably.


Want a solution? There’s no quick fix

August 29, 2010

I’ve never felt so numb after an England win, which is heart-breaking for me, especially at the end of such a brilliant Test. We should be remembering it for the humdinger of a second day: Amir’s bowling to reduce England to 102-7, Trott playing his way into the hearts of a certain kind of cricket fan, Broad playing some orgasmically brilliant drives through the off-side. Even without the match fixing, the joy of the win would have had some gloss taken off because of Pakistan’s inept capitulation in the face of some good, occasionally great, bowling. You could still sympathise with with a young side who have played six Tests in seven weeks in unfamilar conditions, whilst their homeland was under water.

With the allegations of fixing flying around, it puts Pakistan’s performance with the bat into a whole new perspective. For every moment of madness, like the silly pull shots Farhat and Yousuf got themselves out too, is scrutinised as possible cheating. These shots look to me like those of players who have mentally “gone”, not the result of talking to bookmakters. But where do you stop? Do you scrutinise every no ball, every dropped catch. Jarrod Kimber wrote an article on fixing for the Cricket Sadist’s Quarterly, in which he said: 

 

I wouldn’t want to be the person in charge of finding spot fixing. Look at any Pakistani cricket game. Saeed Ajmal dropped three catches in one T20 match, Kamran Akmal refused to glove a ball cleanly against Australia, Mohammad Yousuf captained like it was his first game of cricket in the same game, Shahid Afridi’s whole batting career must raise red flags and that is just the really blatantly obvious ones. It could be that all of these are match fixing, or that none are. How the fuck could we know?

In Gideon Haigh’s collected articles The Green and Golden Age there’s very good stuff on match-fixing, including this bit which is relevant for our present purposes:

You see, it’s the simplest thing in the world to raise “questions” by inverting the burden of proof, implying guilt through rumour and hearsay, then leaving it to the injured party to establish his innocence. For innocence frequently relies on nothing more than an individual’s word and, in an age where the vogue is for cheap cynicism, that counts for little.

Part of the beauty of sport, and cricket in particular, is its unpredictability; that very gifted people can do silly things at crucial moments. That Australia can win a Test match despite being effectively 49-8 on the fourth day; that England can post a world-record 8th wicket partnership after being 102-7. That one of the best batsman I’ve ever seen will play a daft half-pull to deep square leg. If you start questioning these things, you bring the soul of cricket into disrepute.

I don’t think this is an exaggeration. I don’t mean in a dewy-eyed romantic way the NOTW implies when they write that Amir “sealed cricket’s shame on the pitch once illuminated by legends including WG Grace, Ian Botham and Don Bradman”. W.G. Grace was a cheat and philanderer; Don Bradman was, to put it mildly, a humourless bugger; and the life of I.T. Botham is hardly an unblemished journey of a saintly man. But to question the authenticity of cricket matches, and to wonder whether what we are watching is “real” or merely manufactured by a betting syndicate, is to put cricket on a par with tosh like WWF Wrestling.

Let’s try and work out exactly what is going on. First off, arrests have been made, so this isn’t a huge practical joke by the NOTW, however much we may wish it all were. Second, this isn’t technically match fixing. “All” we have so far is good evidence that Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif bowled three no-balls for financial gain. This is deplorable of course, but not on the same level as fixing matches. The idiot caught in the NOTW sting talked of fixing Tests and ODIs, but it’s hard to know whether these boasts should be taken seriously. He could easily have been exaggerating to impress a potential business client.

Then again, he may not have been. This NOTW report could be the tip of an iceberg. The article by Jarrod I mentioned earlier – which is worth the price of the magazine alone – says that several players had contacted him talking of match fixing in the Indian Premier League, Indian Cricket League and other one-day matches. He also says that in one ICL match both teams were trying to lose parts of the game at the same time because both had been paid by different bookmakers, which evokes a Tom Sharpe-esque image of ludicrousness, until you realise just how much corruption must exist for that to be true.

So far only one international player, the former Bangladesh captain Shakib al-Hasan, has spoken publicly of being approached by bookmakers. This season we have also had Essex players being arrested for match fixing, Lalit Modi accusing Chris Cairns of match fixing, even reports of Flintoff’s auction being fixed. All this had come out this year before these spot fixing allegations.

At the risk of sounding like a crusty MCC egg and bacon blazer, it is one thing to fix an ICL/IPL match, or even a mainly pointless ODI. It is another thing to indulge in fixing during a Test match. At Lord’s. When you need to draw the series, which looked eminently possible after the last match Pakistan played. As Jarrod writes in this emotive piece, the feeling is like someone has been cheating on you.

The other reason this episode evokes complete and utter sadness is because Mohammed Amir was one of the players involved. He is only 18 and has bowled beautifully all series. An international career of fifteen years would have seen him – probably – become an all-time great. That future lies in tatters now.

I’ll leave you with some thoughts on how cricket could perhaps get out of this mess.

1) Cut the amount of international cricket

Curbing match fixing isn’t the only reason for doing this. England’s last two captains – both tough characters – resigned in tears, such was the pressure of the job. The amount of cricket being played is surely part of the reason. As crowds this summer are not quite as numerous as you’d hope, it seems cricket is suffering from over-saturation. The fact that there is so much meaningless cricket is a Godsend for bookmakers, and means that players are more likely to fix matches where everyone will have forgotten the result in six months time.

2) Legalise betting on the sub-continent

As with drugs, if you criminalise something the people that provide it will be criminals, and often criminal gangs.  Bumble tweeted earlier that players’ families have been threatened if they don’t comply with the bookmaker’s demands, which certainly puts a different light on Amir’s actions. Alex Massie is correct when he says:

A legal gambling industry – that is, one less in hock to and controlled by gangsters – would surely be better placed to combat this kind of corruption.

3) Improve pay for Pakistani cricketers

According to Dileep Premachandran:

The £4,000 cheque Mohammad Amir received for being Pakistan’s player of the series was three times the monthly retainer he gets from the PCB. It is just over half what Ishant Sharma, India’s most exciting bowling prospect when he signed for the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2008, received for every ball he bowled in the Indian Premier League.

Pakistani cricketers were banned from playing in the IPL and, if they signed a central contract with the PCB, also prohibited from playing cricket for an overseas side. It’s therefore probable financial motives played some sort of role, and that improving pay would perhaps help keep a lid on corruption.

Add to this a complete overhaul of the ICC and PCB. But there’s not enough time to go into that…

Cricket will emerge from this mess, but needs to change in order to emerge stronger from it. I don’t want to speculate or write much more, because it’s too painful and I’ve written enough already.. We are all just going to have to sit and grit our teeth through whatever revelations come out next.


Our futile war on drugs

August 29, 2010

This is the fuller version of an article I submitted to Broad Left Blogging on Channel 4’s Our Drugs War.

I used to think that making certain drugs illegal was a good idea. This film is about why I’ve changed my mind. Because it doesn’t work.

That’s how every one of the three parts of Angus MacQueen’s Our Drugs War opened. I recommended it a few weeks ago, and it has now come to an end. In a sense, MacQueen was preaching to the converted as I watched this film. I’ve already said that I don’t like banning things, and Our Drugs War compiled a great deal of evidence that suggests our drug policy isn’t working.

The first episode, which is the strongest, looked at this policy in more detail. Britain spends £1.5bn every year fighting drugs, and in America the figure is a staggering $40bn a year. Given that an academic interviewed by MacQueen (and a police officer also interviewed said this guy knows what he’s talking about) estimated that 99% of smuggled heroin into Scotland successfully goes through this money could be far, far better. I can definitely think of one example. As a senior police officer admits, we could never have enough police officers to stop all drugs coming into the country.

Criminalising drugs does not stop people taking drugs. Instead, it stigmatises drug takers as criminals, making it harder for them to go and seek help or treatment for addiction. As MacQueen argues, legalising drugs would make fighting drugs a health and social issue, rather than one of crime.

As the now-notorious Professor David Nutt has argued, and does argue in Our Drugs War, if the regulation of drugs was “merely” all about health, we would have a different misuse of drugs act. It is only for moral reasons that we ban certain drugs, such as cannabis, but cigarettes and alcohol remain legal.

Anyone who has read their Mill should appreciate that the state cannot legislate on moral matters. It’s the same for prostitution and abortion, for instance, which one cannot ban no matter what you think about the morality of either activity.

These laws also do not apply equally to everyone. This is highlighted nicely by the second slightly disjointed, but very powerful at times, programme in the series. MacQueen argues that America’s drug laws are racist. All sections of society use and supply drugs. Bankers on Wall Street take cocaine, and white dealers supply drugs in posh neighbourhoods. The reality is that 90% of those in prison for drugs-related offences are black and Latino.

The second episode was so disjointed because part of it was a travelogue. MacQueen followed Thomas Winston who had recently been released from prison for drugs-related offences. He was stabbed to death in December last year. Winston received no rehabilitation in prison  – no help to prepare him for life outside the prison walls. And when he was released from prison, he had a choice. Should he go straight and take a minimum wage job which, after 24% of his income is taken for child support, would leave him with $110 a week? Or does he want to go back to selling drugs, and earn %15,000 a week? Do the math(s). It would take a lot of willpower to remain law-abiding in those circumstances.

Another side-effect of criminalising drugs is that the major groups that produce and sell drugs are, well, criminals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the poorer countries which produce drugs before importing it to Britain. MacQueen’s travelled to Afghanistan for his third programme, where he argues that UK involvement in the war on terror have helped fuel the growth of a narco-state. Bear in mind that half of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from the drugs trade and corruption, and that the country also provides Britain with 90% of the heroin that ends up on its streets.

Essentially MacQueen’s logic runs something like this:

a) The US and UK are expending lots of cash and soldiers on supporting lots of cash and soldiers on supporting the Afghan government.

b) Many government officials are corrected to the drugs trade. Officials which tried to prosecute drugs offenders often found they would receive death threats. MacQueen interviewed someone who was sacked by Karzai for asking too many questions about the drugs trade. There seemed to be “a sophisticated netweok able to drive straight through police checkpoints because the drugs trade had agents inside the police and the government”.

c) Consequently, propping up the Afghan government is also propping up the agents connected to the drugs trade. So “The War on Drugs is undermining the War on Terror”.

America’s main action on poppies in Afghanistan was to destroy the poppy yields, as they were thought to be the Taliban’s main source of income. 60% of the Taliban’s income is estimated to come from the drugs trade. This action did no damage to the Taliban whatsoever, but did alienate many farmers who depended on poppy yields for income. After spending hundreds of millions of pounds, the scheme has now been scrapped. Many are now of the view that some sort of controlled legalisation is definitely worth trying.

Current drugs policy is not working. The prohibition of drugs in most Western countries has not caused drug consumption to fall. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 200m people – 5% of the world’s adult population – take illegal drugs, which is the same proportion as a decade ago (Economist March 7th, 2009). Furthermore, the production of cocaine and opium is the same as ten years ago, and cannabis production has actually increased.

Some form of drugs legalisation is the least worst option. MacQueen argues that money spent trying to stop drug use, and in penalising criminals (in America, 40% of prisoners are inside for drug-related offences) would be better spent on a public education programme about the dangers of drugs, not to incarcerate drugs users. MacQueen devotes little time to dealing with how he could legalise drugs, which is the main flaw I have with the problem. But then, he is a film-maker not a politician, so we can forgive him for not having a decent plan.

Instead, I’m going to quote the Economist I referenced earlier, which has one suggestion of how legalisation can be managed:

Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking  and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.

Selling even this flawed system to people in producer countries, where organised crime in the central  political issue, is fairly easy. The tough part comes in the consumer countries, where addiction is the main political battle.

Drugs taking may well rise in the event of legalisation, as the Economist admits. Yet it still argues that drugs should still be legalised for two reasons. The first is on liberal principle:

Most consumers of illegal drugs, including cocaine and even heroin, take them only occasionally. They do so because they derive enjoyment from them (as they do from whisky or a Marlboro Light). It is not the state’s job to stop them from doing so.

Secondly, legalisation has to means governments can deal with addiction properly.

By providing honest information about the health risks of different drugs, and pricing them accordingly, governments could steer consumers towards the least harmful ones. Prohibition has failed to prevent the proliferation of designers drugs, dreamed up in laboratories. Legalisation might encourage legitimate drug companies to try to improve the stuff that people take.

In summary, Our Drugs War was a thought-provoking argument for a more sensible drugs policy. Anyone interested in society generally should ensure they try and watch it.


The Lib Dems in government part 3 – How have they done so far?

August 28, 2010

The latest installment in a very occasional series. Part 4 is “in the can”, so to speak, which is me gazing into a crysal ball. This post will critique the Lib Dem’s record in government so far:

When I first began drafting this article, the scandals involving David Laws and Chris Huhne were still fresh in the memory. That alone shows how long I’ve spent thinking about this issue. Yet it is also a reminder of the honeymoon the coalition once had (which, judging from the poll data, is now over). After all, both had issued leaflets during the election campaign either emphasising their probity (Laws) or their family values (Huhne) that in the light of the revelations looked deeply hypocritical.

Instead, the focus has been on the Lib Dem’s influence in government, which has amounted to little so far, however much they may protest otherwise. Clegg promised a great repeal of civil liberties, but all that seems to have happened is the establishment of a website. He also pledged the biggest shake up to our democracy since 1832, but House of Lords reform won’t be announced until January, and the referendum on AV still needs to be won. Other attractive Lib Dem policies, such as scrapping Trident or a partial amesty on illegal immigrants, have fallen by the wayside.

Barring a 9/11-style upheaval, this Parliament will be defined by the issue of cuts and deficit reduction. It’s been pointed out here that the coalition’s Budget, and its plans for tax cuts, are daft. Hopes that the Lib Dems would be a moderating influence on the Tories have gone largely unrealised. Some Lib Dem policies did get into the Budget, but they were quite watered down. In the TV debates Clegg pledged to raise the threshold at which people started paying tax to £10,000; it will instead go up to only £7,500 with an “aspiration” to eventually raise it to £10K. He wanted capital gains tax – the one which allows CEOs to fiddle the figures and pay less tax than their cleaners – to rise from 18% to 40%. It only rose to 28%. The other policy Clegg points to is a pitiful £2bn levy on banks. Meanwhile, the coalition still managed to find the money (presumably down one of the settees at No. 10) to cut corporation tax.

Instead, the main contribution of the Lib Dems to the budget seems to have been in the rhetoric. George Osbourne showed in the budget he is a skilled performer. How else could he have stood up in the Commons and said that this was a “progressive” and “fair” budget with a straight face?

We now have confirmation – if any were needed – that this talk of a “progressive” budget was window dressing. The budget is regressive, not progressive. To quote Larry Elliott, a report this week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded:

Far from showing that “we are all in this together” (Osborne) or being an example of “progressive austerity” (Clegg), the IFS concluded that the budget was “clearly regressive”. The poorest 10% of households will lose 5% of their income as a result of all the changes to come between now and 2014, while the top 10% will lose less than 1%.

This graph from the IFS report illustrates it nicely:

The response to this report from the coalition has been amusing, if you’ve got as dark a sense of humour as I have. To see Nick Clegg denounce the IFS as “partial” after previously praising it – a hypocrisy also shared by the Tories – I find grimly comic. The Treasury’s defence of the budget – that the IFS ignored their plans for job creation – also seems to miss the point, seeing as economists such as Paul Krugman and Elliott have criticised the budget for making a rise in unemployment and a double-dip recession more likely.

Before anyone tries to say that these scale of cuts are necessary, please read Red Pepper’s excellent summary, as well as Hannah’s previous blog.

These plans are, understandably, causing some outcry amongst the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party. Previously this was rather low-scale: two MPs rebelled against the increase in VAT and the vice-chair of their policy committee has warned of the party’s lurch to the centre-right. Nick Clegg is now being promised a stormy conference:

Mike Hancock, a veteran Lib Dem MP who has a special status in the party as a founding member of the SDP, attacked the leadership after the institute concluded that the coalition government’s June budget was clearly regressive. The MP for Portsmouth South said: “We didn’t sign up for a coalition that was going to hurt the poorest people in society, and I certainly didn’t get elected to do that ever.”

All sides of the political spectrum, from the New Statesman to the Spectator to the Financial Times, are urging Clegg to give the Lib Dems a separate identity, and give his party “wiggle space” from the Tories on some issues. The upcoming conference is the best place to do that. But I don’t think this will happen, for reasons I have explained earlier.

If they don’t, then the consequences could be disastrous for the Liberal Democrats. I’ll look at those in my next post.


Funny Friday (5) – “Aggers for goodness sake stop it”

August 27, 2010

It’s rather late in the summer for it, but there’s actually a Test Match at Lord’s going on at the moment. So it seems a perfect time to post one of the most famous – and funny – cricket commentary clips of all time. The late Brian Johnston starts corpsing on air, after Jonathan Agnew explains that Ian Botham was out because he “didn’t quite get his leg over”. It’s impossible not to laugh at this, probably because laughing is contagious. My favourite bit is when Agnew tries to take over from Johnston and says “Lawrence……..batted extremely well”, and then starts laughing himself. Marvellous stuff:

Now seems as good a time as ever to give a shout out to Test Match Sofa, the alternative cricket commentary, who are all very funny and do know their cricket. If you want to listen to the cricket this weekend, give them a try.


Guest post – The Deficit Buster

August 27, 2010

by Hannah

In a bizarre move last week, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats held a joint press conference attacking the last Government’s economic record. At the same time the Conservative’s launched this video:

which seeks to pass the buck for its spending cuts onto the previous administration by rebranding them “Labour cuts”, a gambit I expect we’ll hear repeated ad nauseum in the near future. This kind of finger-pointing is nothing new, but the orchestrated nature of these publicity stunts still leaves a bad taste in the mouth, particularly as its main claims are built on rather shaky foundations.

The primary point made during the press conference (besides a rather pathetic swipe at the severance packages of former cabinet ministers) was that Labour had left the public finances in such a bad state the new government has “no choice” but to cut spending now. In the words of outgoing Chief Secretary of the Treasury, Liam Byrne, in an extremely ill-advised note to his successor, “there’s no money left”. The urgency of the cuts is predicated on the claim that the metaphorical bailiffs are practically at the door, bolstered by inappropriate and simplistic comparisons with the situation in Greece.

Unfortunately, this is complete rubbish. Due to the length of time until our debt matures, and our higher level of assets, the UK can survive with its current deficit for some time to come (although it is better if we reduce it in the long run). In fact, it is preferable to continue spending in the short term, to invest in industry and infrastructure, thus increasing and widening the country’s tax base, than cut now, while the economy’s still weak, creating a poisonous legacy of unemployment. The government’s oft-repeated mantra that “there is no alternative” to spending cuts only begs the question of its own preoccupation with perfectly balanced accounts. Gordon Brown may just as well have said that he had “no choice” but to spend at high levels during the nineties, because of the Conservatives’ prior neglect of public circumstances. In fact, Labour has often made that very claim, albeit with less zeal, but it is a fallacy. We could have limped on with decaying public facilities and substandard healthcare, just as we can now survive with a higher deficit, but for all its many, many faults, the Labour Government decided this was unacceptable.

It’s all about choices and values, and the Conservative ideology is fundamentally at odds with a large, proactive state, and so seeks to cut it back at the first opportunity.

The second sleight of hand the Coalition is seeking to perpetrate is to portray the recent high deficit levels as entirely a product of excessive public sector spending. This is an extraordinary rewriting of history. During the joint conference, Chris Huhne stated that:

Labour leadership candidates say that spending was not the problem, it was taxes. Nonsense. In just two financial years up to the election, public spending rose by 10% in real terms. That’s a rise after inflation of £59bn. Spending went from 44p in every pound generated by our economy in 2007 to 51p in 2009. Taxes went down by 1p in the pound.

This was for one reason, and one reason only: the multi-billion pound bailout of Britain’s beleaguered financial system after the economic meltdown. It’s a mark of the Cameron Government’s talent for image management that it has succeeded in expunging the significance of such a well-publicized crisis from the collective memory. In its place they are concertedly pushing their ludicrously counterfactual line that Labour tried to “buy” the last election, with a sudden spending splurge. All this is sustained by the constant conflating of the nation budget with the concept of a household budget. This idea is very intuitive and so has had a great deal of success with the public, but it is very far from the reality of the national and global economy. Paul Grignon’s excellent documentary “Money as Debt” gives a clear description of a very complicated subject, and is a must-view, although be warned: it will make you very angry.

A high level of government debt (that is the cumulative historical deficit) is unavoidable in the present economic system. The only solution is, ironically, to do what no party will consider, and completely nationalise money creation. This country was vulnerable to the crash, not because of high public spending, but an economy overly dependent on the financial sector. To change this governments need to invest in and protect British industry, something the Labour leadership is beginning to, belatedly, come round to. For now, we have every reason to be very uneasy about the future.

UPDATE: I’ve embedded the “Money as Debt” video into the blog as well, for ease of access. Cory.


An exploration through the turd-strewn swamp that is the “Ground Zero Mosque” Debate

August 26, 2010

There have been two stories floating around the news agenda recently that I have wanted to write about. It’s taken this long because I only got round to watching Richard Dawkins’s documentary on Tuesday. The two incidents are useful to illustrate the boundaries that religion ought, and is entitled, to have in a liberal society. On the one hand, we have the ongoing saga of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Balancing that, we have the increasing presence in Britain of Faith Schools, criticised by Dawkins in the documentary. Both these illustrate the need for the state not to interfere in religious matters. To approach the issues correctly, you need to appreciate the fact that Church and State must be separated.

Why is this separation so fundamental? It is because religious persecution stems from the desire to correct error. This, in turn, arises from a desire to save souls. It’s hard for different religious groups to shrug and sigh “Live and let live”, when the consequences of being wrong are potentially disastrous – you could end up in hell. All this makes it harder for a religious group to tolerate another group setting up next door and proclaiming that they are the true path, not the other lot.

If there is an official state religion, this institutionalises one particular religion, or one particular branch of a religion, as the officially-sanctioned “chosen path”. This could give the state a legitimate right to convert, even forcibly, people who do not follow this official faith. Remember Weber’s definition of a state: that it has a “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order”. See, for instance, the horrendous treatment of the Jews and also of heretics in Catholic Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Blurring the boundary between church and state does not inevitably lead to pogroms, but does make it easier to discriminate on religious grounds. It’s no accident that the most repressive type of state is a theocracy.

The state must ensure that there is freedom for people to practise whatever religious faith they wish to. Most of the time this can be done by doing nothing. A great case in point is that the government should not intervene to stop the building of what everyone should not be calling the Ground Zero Mosque. The fact that it’s being called the Ground Zero Mosque at all shows that the media narrative of the right is winning. There are two key reasons why the “Ground Zero Mosque” should not be described as such:

1) It’s not actually a Mosque. It’s an Islamic community centre, and will be open to the public. This centre will also have a basketball court. And yes, it will have a mosque, but before any idiot says, “See – it’s got a MOSQUE inside it”, just consider this. The Guild of Students at Birmingham University has an Islamic prayer room, and a Chaplaincy. Airports and hospitals also have spaces to pray. This does not make them religious buildings. I hope you understand this stonkingly simple argument.

2) It’s not actually at Ground Zero. It’s two blocks away. In a building that used to be a coat factory. Hardly “hallowed ground”.

Henceforth, I will refer to the Ground Zero Mosque as the “Lower Manhattan Community Centre”.

The debate about whether the Lower Manhattan Community Centre should be built seems so stupid, even by the standards of political debate in America. Let me direct you to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The text is all constitution; the italics are all mine:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg have both made eloquent speeches defending the right of the Lower Manhattan Community Centre to be built. Both emphasised the fact that neither could intervene, even if they wanted to, to stop this centre being built. The courts would immediately overturn such a block as unconstitutional.

The right are, therefore, trying to make this not a matter of religious freedom (which is obviously is) but instead are trying to paint the approval of the Lower Manhattan Community Centre as a victory for Islamism; just one more step towards a global caliphate. See, for instance, these two tweets by Newt Gingrich:

And this one:

The fact is, an establishment of a Manhattan Community Centre; open to all, with spaces to commemorate the victims of September 11th, would actually be a triumph for moderate Islam. It would be a sign that Islam is compatible with “The West”, as Fareed Zakaria argues. Above all, it would send a message that not all Muslims are crazy Jihadists who fantasise about blowing up McDonald’s.

Also, Gingrich is wrong to play down the fact that the outcry is not about freedom of religion, specifically the freedom of Muslims. These protests against the Manhattan Community Centre should be put into the context of other protests against the establishment of Mosques in Wisconsin, Tennessee and California. There is a vocal section in American against the building of other mosques, fuelled by the same sentiments that drive on the English Defence League here: hatred of Muslims and Islam. The Lower Manhattan Community centre must be built. We must  ensure that all religions can practise freely and fairly, without discrimination. We cannot give in to the racists on this point.

Thankfully the controversy over faith schools is conducted in a more sedate fashion. This was reflected by Dawkins in “Faith Schools Menace”, which is an excellent documentary. There was none of his shrill polemic that tends to put many people, including a great deal of atheists, off his work. He talked to almost everyone connected with faith schools; from teachers, pupils and parents to Charles Clarke and the British Humanist Association.

I had no idea, until Dawkins mentioned it in his programme, that one-third of all state schools were actually faith schools. This expansion is thanks to New Labour. It was Charles Clarke as Education Secretary, who wrote against faith schools in a 1978 pamphlet, who authorised the creation of 42 academies run by Christian groups, as well as one hundred schools run by other faith organisations (such as Islam, Judaism or Hinduism). Previously, in return for some special powers over their curriculum, religious groups could fund and run schools. Labour gave these schools millions of pounds, but the schools retained their exclusive controls.

Government money should not be going to schools run by religious institutions. It’s as simple as that. Faith schools ghettoise children at a very early age, when they should be mixing with kids from all backgrounds.

Also, despite the now cliched stories of parents faking a religious conviction and attending church to get their child into a faith school – and Dawkins finds a lot of evidence of that – there’s no real evidence that faith schools are better at teaching than other comprehensives. Steve Gibbons of the LSE, who Dawkins interviewed, compared the results of thousands of pupils. When comparing pupils with the same postcode, when one child had attended a faith school and one had not, Gibbons found that their academic record was very similar, regardless of the school they went to. What really matters, in his view, is the child’s social background and motivation of their parents.

Furthermore, as Johann Hari has written:

On average, [faith schools] get higher grades. But look again. A number of studies, including by the conservative think thank Civitas, have blown a hole in this claim. They have proven that faith schools systematically screen out children who will be harder to teach: children from poor families, and less bright children. Once you look at how much a school improves the pupils it actually admits, the only real measure of a school’s success, it turns out faith schools do less well than other schools – which isn’t surprising given they waste so much time teaching them crazy nonsense like Virgin births and Noah’s Ark. 

Perhaps the worst aspect about faith schools is that their RE curriculum is not monitored at all by the independent OFSTED, but is instead by religious authorities. This fact seems to be abused by certain faith schools: in “Faith Schools Menace” the British Humanist Association  provided examples of a Jewish school that had eight hours of timetabled RE lessons a week, compared to six for science. Some Catholic schools taught their sex education lessons in RE, so that what was being said could not be monitored by government regulators. Combined with what can euphemistically be described as a “lacklustre” teaching of evolution in the faith schools that Dawkins finds, it’s worrying that these schools continue to by funded by the taxpayer.

The argument over faith schools hinges of the issue of parental choice. You need to balance the right of a parent to choose how to educate their child with the right of the child not to be brainwashed. It feels that at the moment the balance is tilted too far in favour of the parent. If the parent wants to instil their child with religious values, there are other ways of going about it – Sunday Schools for instance – without it being funded by the taxpayer.

Britain and America are supposed to be secular, liberal democracies. This means that we can have mosques should be built without an outpouring of bile from the usual suspects, and the state shouldn’t fund faith schools.


A worthy plug

August 25, 2010

Getting into journalism is a bloody difficult business. It’s not just that the probability of making it big is very low, but also that there are so many different ways you can try to get into journalism. Should you read journalism at university, take lots of internships, or do you throw yourself in at the deep end, writing and writing to see if you get a break?

Thankfully, there is one blog trying to find a way through this morass of options. Wannabe Hacks has only been going for about a week or so, but already has some interesting posts on it. There are four main writers, all of whom are taking different routes into journalism: one is reading a journalism degree, another is interning (currently at the New Statesman), one is freelancing and the fourth is hoping to get into investigative journalism. Two of them – “The Intern” and “The Freelancer” – I knew from my Redbrick days. In fact, I was Nick’s predecessor as Redbrick’s Features Editor, and this means that I, naturally, take all the credit for whatever success this blog has.

But seriously, there is some very good stuff on Wannabe Hacks. There’s an interesting discussion on the merits, or otherwise, of doing a journalism degree, and I particularly like Matt’s article on freelancing.

For anyone wanting to get into journalism, I’ve no doubt that this blog will become a must-read. I’ll be keeping an eye on it, because I’m very interested in seeing how the four contributors to the site get on in their journey into journalism, and which method is most successful. A site to bookmark, definately.


Slightly delayed Musical Mondays (2) – Graham Parker

August 24, 2010

No posts since Friday, which is the longest fallow period since the relaunch of this blog. Still, it was my birthday on Sunday and I was seeing relatives over from New Zealand on Saturday, so I hope that the loyal readers of Paperback Rioter will forgive this lapse.

You will have noticed that it’s Tuesday night, and so an odd time to have musical Mondays, but I wanted to blog about something that has restored my faith in humanity.

One of my favourite musicians is Graham Parker. I first discovered him about three or four years ago. It was probably inevitable that I’d do so – he was on Stiff Records, backed by former members of Brinsley Schwarz, produced by Nick Lowe and compared to Elvis Costello. There were too many connections to ignore him. And Graham Parker is not ignorable, once you’ve heard his songs. He was quite influential as well; I can definately hear his influence on some of Bruce Springsteen’s stuff (who provided guest vocals on one of GP’s albums). I’d even go as far to say that “Born to Run” sounds like a bad Graham Parker and the Rumour album, but that argument should probably be had another time.

The Rumour were electrifying live, as these two songs testify:

For four years filmaker Michael Gramaglia has been making working with Parker to produce a film about his life and music. However, it would be brutally expensive for this project to ever come to fruition, because, as Gramaglia explained:

This project has been a labor of love funded by my credit cards which are now, maxed out. We need to cover the expensive responsibility of showing Graham at his pinnacle with his band the Rumour for all the unfortunates who never had a chance to see them. The many clips we have compiled, are costly.

Now the project has been funded, because 326 Graham Parker fans have pledged the $47,000 needed for the project. I find this infinitely inspiring, both in terms of what people can achieve with a labour of love, and also I am in awe of the power of the internet.

If you still want to back the film (you can get an advanced copy of the DVD for $25, which is £16) you can do so here. Please give generously.


Guest Post – Iraq: The End?

August 20, 2010

Hannah might be on holiday at the moment, but her dedication to Paperback Rioter remains. Here’s her take on the American withdrawal from Iraq:

I’m on holiday in Paris at the moment.  So far we`ve managed to visit most of the main sights associated with a trip to Paris: the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Seine.  One of the other stalwarts of any foreign holiday is the reassuring presence of the BBC World Service on the hotel cable TV.  It was from this source, this morning, that I learnt that the last US combat troops are leaving Iraq

So ends the seven-and-a-half-year long occupation, and the formative geopolitical event of the new millenium.  It was also one of my formative political moments.  I was 14 when the “Coalition of the Willing” invaded Iraq in the March of 2003.  I woke up, got up as I would any other morning, made my breakfast as usual and turned on the television to see the Americans’ “Shock and Awe” raining down on Baghdad, lighting up the night skyline.  At school assembly, our Head of Year lead prayers for Iraq; she may have lit a candle – my memory isn’t clear – but it was a sombre moment; but in truth, not entirely unexpected.  While the moment the war began came as a surprise, it had been foreshadowed by a long and fractious political process.   Several members of my school year had attempted to organise a walkout in protest, and not those you would have imagined as tuned in to politics.  In the end the teachers got wind of it and put a stop to the idea, although they bought us with for the opportunity to write letters to the Government in school time.  I enthusiastically joined in, as did a great many others in this country.  Around 1 million people demonstrated in London, out of a normally politically sluggish population.  It did nothing.

So what has this year’s long conflict achieved?  The other thing about BBC World is that, released from the watchful eye of the government and querulous and organised conservatives, it is free to drop the pretense that, to the extent that there is objective truth, it always lies equidistant between opposing positons, on any given topic.  I’ve therefore been able to watch the BBC’s finest telling it like it is, on Iraq.  The report opened with an American soldier speeding out of Iraq in convoy crying, “Wooh!  It’s over! We won! America, I love you!  We’ve brought democracy to Iraq!”

The report then cut to BBC correspondent, Hugh Sykes, who called this “triumphalism” and told us that 100, 000 Iraqi civilians had been killed; that Iraq now had a chapter of al Qaeda, which it had never done previously; security was low due to the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi army in the wake of the invasion; even those Iraqis who do not want Western troops to leave didn’t want them to come in the first place; finally and most, damningly, Iraq, far from being a successful democracy, is now completely without a permanent government

What he did not say is that, however much its apologists resist their classification as such, this conflict has brought civilian casualties on the other side as well, with 191 people being killed in Madrid, in 2004, and 52 in London, in 2005.   

 Jeremy Bowen was even more blunt, on the main 10 o’clock evening bulletin.  It was “impossible”, he said, “to call this a victory.”  4,500 American troops had been killed and 30,000 injured; “huge mistakes” had been made in the execution of the occupation. “We don’t want them” said a representative Iraqi.  It was, the report summed up, “one of the most damaging military adventures in (US) history.” 

They are right.  Judged by any of its publically stated aims, the occupation has been an utter failure: the WMDs Iraq was, ostensibly, invaded to contain never existed and to say that its citizens are better off now is to conjure up this absurd image.   

This news comes the same week that fresh suspicions emerged over the death of WMD inspector and whistleblower, David Kelly.  Truly, this whole period was a shabby, shameful episode of British history. 

Sadly, some mistakes cannot be fixed.  Western forces may be able to extricate themselves from Iraq, but the hundreds of thousands of dead will remain dead and democratic Iraq is unlikely to survive its internal struggles.  To quote Hugh Sykes: “It’s over? We won? No and No.”


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