“But there’s no danger. It’s a professional career” – Humanitarian intervention in Libya

March 22, 2011

“Doing precisely what we’ve done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they’ll expect us to do this time.” – General Melchett, Blackadder Goes Forth.

The debates over whether we should intervene in Libya have been another opportunity for those supporters of the Iraq war such as Christopher Hitchens, Norman Geras and David Aaronovitch, not mentioning any names, to don their tinfoil hats and argue for military intervention in Libya.

I, and most people I speak to, seem to be of the opinion that the Rebels are Good, Gaddafi is Bad, and that Something Must Be Done. The problem is that by saying that we are falling into what Sir Humphrey called “Politician’s Logic”:

We must do something
This is something
Therefore we must do this.

In contrast, the two questions that need to be asked, and are conspicuous by their absence in being answered by those arguing for military action, are:

1) What are we going into Libya to achieve?
2) What do we do once we’ve achieved that?

Take the seemingly basic, first question of “Is the aim to remove Gadaffi?”. Here’s Alex Massie in the Spectator:

For instance, here’s Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisting, again, that the operation is strictly limited“The goals are limited. It’s not about seeing him go.” And here’s National Journal’s Marc Ambinder, quoting an administration official who says “We have multiple scenarios but none of them end with Gaddafi in power.”

However, based on information from here and here, Liam Fox and William Hague have been repeatedly saying that  targeting Gaddafi could “potentially be a possibility”. The Press Association quoted a “a senior No 10 source [saying] that under the UN mandate it was ‘legal to target those killing civilians’.”

In contrast, Obama and Cameron have said that the aim is to protect the Libyan people, not necessarily to get rid of Gadaffi. In Parliament’s debate yesterday, David Cameron said that the UN resolution was “limited in scope”. Furthermore, both American and British generals have said that Gadaffi is not a target. Head of the US Africa Command Gen Carter F Ham said attacking the dictator was not his aim, as did the head of the British armed forces General Sir David Richards.

This was tweeted on BBC Breaking News some minutes ago:

If #Libya‘s Colonel #Gaddafi implemented ceasefire and met demands, including those made by UN, ‘our job would be over': US Admiral Locklear

To quote a different Spectator blog:

The collective response to the idea that Gaddafi might remain after the bombs have fallen appears to be: a-wha?

Surely Gaddafi’s position is now untenable, once military intervention has started? One of the best arguments for intervening in Libya is on Hagley Road to Ladywood, who wrote:

Gaddafi is winning. What is currently looking like a massacre will turn into genocide the moment the entire Libyan territory returns under his complete control. That is possibly the only thing we can be sure of. The man is a sanguinary madman and he’s already promised “a bloodbath“.

In that circumstance, are we really going to believe Gaddafi when he says that he’ll impose a ceasefire and everything can go back to being hunky-dory? After all, the justification for the UN Resolution is that Gaddafi has reneged on his promise of imposing a cease-fire.

I repeat again: what exactly are we aiming to do? Does anyone know?

To come to our second question, of what happens when the military intervention has achieved its aim (whatever that is). The nearest we have to an explanation from Cameron is what he said in the House of Commons yesterday:

Cameron says it is for the Libyan people to decide their future. But his view is clear; there will be no decent future for Libya with Gaddafi in charge.

So do you want to get rid of Gaddafi or not then, David? Oh, never mind.

Letting the Libyan people decide their future sounds very sensible. I wonder if those agitating for an intervention are aware of the different tribal makeups present in Libya. Robert Fisk, as you’d expect, is against a military intervention. What he has to say is very interesting:

We talk now about the need to protect “the Libyan people”, no longer registering the Senoussi, the most powerful group of tribal families in Benghazi, whose men have been doing much of the fighting. King Idris, overthrown by Gaddafi in 1969, was a Senoussi… Now let’s suppose they get to Tripoli (the point of the whole exercise, is it not?), are they going to be welcomed there? Yes, there were protests in the capital. But many of those brave demonstrators themselves originally came from Benghazi. What will Gaddafi’s supporters do? “Melt away”? Suddenly find that they hated Gaddafi after all and join the revolution? Or continue the civil war?

And what if the “rebels” enter Tripoli and decide Gaddafi and his crazed son Saif al-Islam should meet their just rewards, along with their henchmen? Are we going to close our eyes to revenge killings, public hangings, the kind of treatment Gaddafi’s criminals have meted out for many a long year? I wonder.

I don’t know the answer to the questions Fisk poses, or the sensible ones asked by arabist. I don’t expect you do as well. What really concerns me is that I’m not sure Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy have thought through the answers to those questions either.

It’s not as if we haven’t been here before. It was eight years ago this month that another ill-planned military intervention began. 1 million people died because of a lack of post-war planning. British troops are still fighting, and being killed, in Afghanistan because of “mission creep” and the lack of a clearly defined exit strategy.

You would have thought that, next time we thought about intervening in a foreign country, we would have been clearer about what exactly the aims were, and what happens when they are achieved. This is why I began this post with that quote from General Melchett.

That attitude is encapsulated in the fact that British troops were sent into action on Sunday, whilst MPs debated whether they should be deployed on Monday.

Dear House of Commons: Stable Door. Horse. Bolted. Yours etc.

It is impossible for me to be in favour of this military intervention in Libya, because I am not sure exactly what it is I would be supporting. Are we aiming to remove a murderous dictator? Possibly, but possibly not. If we talk about wanting to reclaim “Libya for the Libyans”, what sort of Libya are we talking about, and which Libyans? I have no idea. Nobody does. And that’s the problem.


Paperback Rioter’s Review of 2010

December 29, 2010

This is the seemingly obligatory end-of-year roundup. Like this blog, this review does not intend to be comprehensive or systematic, and instead hopes to be personal and idiosyncratic. With that in mind, let’s roll:

Worst moment of 2010: After delivering leaflets and door-knocking until 9.30pm on election night for Elwyn Watkins, and then staying up until 2pm waiting for the result to come in, finding out that Phil Woolas had been elected MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth by 103 votes.

Best moment of 2010: Finding out that Phil Woolas had lost his appeal, and was indeed kicked out of Parliament and barred from standing as an MP for three years.

Subject I have been unhealthily obsessed with this year: Go on, take a flying guess…

Other highlights of my year:
– My two weeks shadowing at a primary school, which I absolutely loved, and I realised that primary teaching was what I wanted to do.
– Finding out that some people actually like what I write on this blog.
– Brad Haddin getting out to make Australia 77-7 in the last Ashes match.
– I also attended my first wedding (congratulations, Becky and Nick!).

I could list many more, but that would get a bit dull for you. Basically, in 2010 I had a great time.

Quote of the year: “Yes we can. But…”  – Barack Obama on the Daily Show.

Ironic fact of the year: The Daily Telegraph and the rest of the right-wing press conducted a desperate smear campaign against Nick Clegg in the last week of the election campaign. Who would have thought that the best way to make him unelectable and discredited was to appoint him Deputy Prime Minister?

My favourite news clip of 2010: The Daily Show coverage of the BP oil spill, back in the days when you thought the leaking would never stop.

The fact that proved Test cricket is still the shizzle in 2010: I had completely forgotten that England won the World T20 cup until Aatif talked about it on Test Match Sofa yesterday.

The biggest Pyrrhic Defeat of 2010: England not being given the rights to host the 2018 World Cup. The build up to this year’s was bad enough as it is. Then when England had not been given hosting rights, the Daily Mail blamed it on the fact that our promotional video had lots of black people in it. All the talk of “passion” and the soft-core xenaphobia exhibited by some England fans after the vote was nauseating as well.

Sobering sporting fact of 2010: I have been punished for my sins in a past life by being made an Oldham Athletic fan in this one. Earlier this year our two owners, who have bankrolled the club since saving us from bankruptcy six years ago, have said they are unable to continue funding the club. Oldham’s annual turnover is less than the amount that Manchester United pay Rio Ferdinand. A striking example of the poisonous inequality affecting English football (and society) at the moment.

My five best discoveries of 2010:

1) Test Match Sofa
I cannot believe that it was only this summer I discovered this online cricket commentary station. I’ve written about them before, so don’t need to drone on about them here. Thanks for keeping me company while I wrote my thesis, chaps.

2) The Shield
I spent most of the first half of 2010 watching this TV series with my housemate John. (John, if you’re reading this, please come back! Question Time isn’t the same without you!) John glibly summarised it as “The Wire for Republicans”, and that isn’t too far off the mark. It’s a police procedural that’s absorbing, entertaining and has some damned good acting. Worth buying with your Christmas money.

3) Twitter
I set up my @goldenstrawb Twitter account last year, but only really started tweeting this year. Since then it’s helped me make some new friends, brought my attention to some very impressive blogs, and kept my sanity during Question Time (just about) by being able to live-tweet it. What’s not to love?

4) Tony Judt
I sadly only found out about Tony Judt and his work after the publicity that surrounded his tragically early death in August. I’ve been making up for lost time since then: I’ve read Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet, read some of Reappraisals, and bought (but yet to read) Postwar. He is a wonderful historian and political thinker, and shall be sorely missed.

5) Tom Lehrer
It was my very dear friend Ed who introduced me to Tom Lehrer, courtesy of this song. I can’t believe I’d lived without his sense of humour for so long.

Album of the 2010: Obviously this is Elvis Costello with National Ransom. Another very impressive album, and his most interesting since The Delivery Man in 2004. Listen to the title track, be impressed, buy the album. Or listen to it on Spotify.

Song of the Year: John Hiatt, The Open Road. I found that Hiatt’s latest album as a whole was a little bit “meh”, mainly because it was all overshadowed by this opening track, one of the best songs I’ve heard in years. 

My favourite Paperback Rioter post of 2010: The Hunt for Raoul Moat did not take place. I’m quite proud of this one.

My favourite blog post of 2010: Probably Laurie Penny’s gonzo-style piece on the Millbank Riots.

My favourite piece of writing of 2010: Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land. I found it incredibly inspiring, especially given the circumstances in which it was written. Buy the book. Just buy it.

Five reasons to be cheerful for 2011:

1) There’s a referendum on the voting system! And you should all vote Yes to AV, as I shall be explaining on this blog in tedious detail. If you don’t, expect me to come round to your house and give you a stern talking-to.

2) The student protests: It’s nice to see some political action rather than political apathy. Keeping it non-violent, and gaining support from outside the student movement, is key for the next year.

3) The implosion of the BNP in the May elections: Obviously the rise of the EDL is incredibly worrying. But let’s just be happy that there was no massive increase in vote for the BNP as some doom-mongers had thought there would be.

4) ENGLAND HAVE RETAINED THE ASHES! We’ll hold the urn until at least 2013. In your face, Australia.

5) The detention of child asylum-seekers will end during 2011: I don’t like a great deal of what this coalition government is doing, but we might as well celebrate the good stuff they do before the cuts hit/while it lasts.

If this is insufficient optimism for you, then go and read the Independent’s 21 reasons to be cheerful.

Two inspiring quotations for 2011: both by Bertrand Russell on the subject of happiness:

The secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible.

And

The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.

Have a great New Year.


My interview with Norman Finkelstein

November 24, 2010

Norman Finkelstein is speaking at the University of Birmingham again tonight. So I thought that I would dig this interview I conducted with him for Redbrick out of the archives. I interviewed him in November 2008, and it didn’t get published until January 2009. It’s quite ironic reading the passages about Barack Obama’s Presidency now.

I enjoyed the interview, and think it’s one of the best ones I’ve conducted. My main problem with Finkelstein is the same issue of contention I have with journalists like John Pilger and Noam Chomsky: everything is a bit too black-and-white with them. I think that comes through in the article. Still, it’s an interesting piece and I hope you like it:

Norman Finkelstein was at the University of Birmingham giving a talk called “Israel and Palestine: Roots of Conflict, Prospects for Peace”, arranged by the University’s “Friends of Palestine” society.

He is one of the most controversial academic writers on Middle Eastern politics. Finkelstein’s most famous works, and one of his most controversial, is The Holocaust Industry. Published in 2000, its central thesis is that Israel exploits the memory of the Holocaust to cover up its own human rights crimes.

He no longer holds an academic position of his own. For six years he taught at DePaul University before being denied tenure there in 2007. Although never out the news, what we discussed in the interview seems more relevant than ever, after hostilities broke out once more in the Gaza strip.

How does Finkelstein think we can create “roots for peace”? “The UN General Council proposed a two-state settlement based on the June 1967 borders. All world votes and the same group abstain: Israel, America, Marshall Islands and Australia. There is no debate on how to solve it – it’s the least controversial international dispute.”

Why does this not happen? “For the same reason the British didn’t leave India until after World War Two. For the same reason France didn’t leave Algeria. Power doesn’t concede without a demand. The Israelis have to be forced out.” Can it be done peacefully? “No.”

This seems a little extreme. Both Israelis and Palestinians are limited in their ability to compromise by their extremist elements. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a member of a far-right Orthodox Jewish group in 1995 for merely proposing that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. Similarly, Hamas, who won the Palestinian Authority elections in 2006, do not even recognise Israel has a right to exist.

We talk about Barack Obama’s victory in the US Elections, which at the time of the interview was only four days old. Finkelstein sees the election as a significant moment. “It is a genuine credit to the American people. The early part of my life [Finkelstein was born in 1953] was not much past the era of black lynchings. Now they have elected an African-American as President. You would be blind to deny something fundamental has changed for the better. I am hardly a flag-waving patriot, but you have to look in honour and respect of what happened.”

Finkelstein, however, continues by saying: “Obama is a typical centre-right Democrat. I have no expectations. His Presidency will be similar to the Clinton era but without the economic prosperity, in a general and literal sense.” He gives the example of appointing Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, a former member of the Clinton administration. Finkelstein then goes one step further. “Barack Obama is a typical wretched opportunist conman”. He must have noticed my eyebrows raise at this comment, because he continues: “He is! I don’t see why we should be politically correct about these things.”

Finkelstein does not think Obama’s election will see a great change in America’s Middle-East policy. “It will probably get worse, because he has to prove to the world he is not a Muslim”. So what does he think of the comments of “Joe the Plumber”, who said that Obama’s election would lead to the death of Israel? “In America the political system is detached from reality. Some of the labels they were giving Obama – calling him a socialist and a communist – I wish they were true!”

On Finkelstein’s personal website is a link to a piece entitled “In Defence of Hezbollah”. In 2006 he met one of their top officials in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s military wing is considered a terrorist organisation by the British government. Why does Finkelstein think they should be defended?

“Because of the same reason the Communist parties helped end the occupation of Axis forces during World War Two. Whatever you might say about Nasrallah, is he really more brutal than Stalin?” That would admittedly take some doing, but Nasrallah did say that it’s alright for all the world’s Jews to live in Israel, “because it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide”, which doesn’t sound like the talk of a reasonable man.

In any case, is comparing ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine to the occupation of Europe by the Nazis a little unfair? “You can use any you like. It is still an occupation. The resistance in Afghanistan versus the Soviets were the same who would turn into Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Nobody minded when gave we them weapons to fight the Red Army.” I am not convinced that comparing Israel to Al-Qaeda is an altogether more flattering comparison.

Norman Finkelstein paints a picture of a world where the only wrongdoers are the United States and Israel. The reality is not that one-sided. The rockets that Hamas are firing into Israel do constitute war crimes. Israel is surrounded by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and countries like Iran, who wish it wiped off the map.

Hamas is a vile group of Islamists who are suppressing dissent in Gaza and lead an increasingly authoritarian rule. But the international community’s shunning of Hamas since their election win in 2006 has only made the situation worse. To use a cricketing analogy, you can only bowl to whoever the opposition send in to bat. The only way to make peace is to somehow negotiate with Hamas.

At the time of writing, a ceasefire has been declared in Gaza. Over 1000 Palestinians have been killed, including 350 children. Israel and its supporters maintain that the firing of rockets into Gaza is justified, after Hamas fired rockets into Israel, and that most of those killed are Hamas operatives. But you cannot fire rockets into an area the size of the Isle of Wight with a population of 1.5 million and then be surprised that the your killing of innocent civilians is condemned worldwide.

Peace in the Middle East is increasingly elusive, and I am sure that many will think I am a fruitcake for even thinking you can negotiate with Hamas. One thing is for certain: rockets are not the answer.


Guest Post: The Guardian’s Tea Party blogger

October 27, 2010

I asked Danielle Blake to write something on Lloyd Marcus blogging for the Guardian ahead of the November mid-term elections. The fact that it’s been so late in being put up here is because of my uselessness, not hers. Danielle blogs at Neither Here Nor There, and tweets at @DCPlod. Enjoy!

As part of its US midterm election coverage, The Guardian now has a Tea Partier blogging for it. That itself is hardly worth mentioning. What is worth mentioning is that Lloyd Marcus is black. The vast majority of African-Americans vote Democratic for a couple of reasons: since the Civil War it’s the Democrats who’ve done the most to guarantee black people equal treatment, and secondly, the Republicans have, since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, used what has become known as the “Southern Strategy”; wherein they pandered to the disgruntled white racists in the South which solidified virtually the entire region as a reliable GOP voting bloc. So for an African-American to be a conservative is highly unusual.

Anyone who’s seen photographs from the several Tea Party rallies that have taken place around America will know that they are so monochromatically white that the only colour is to be found on their signs. Signs which frequently have subtle or blatantly racist overtones. 

Then we had the actual leader of one group (the Tea Party is a patchwork quilt of factions rather than one organisation), Mark Williams, calling the NAACP a racist organisation for advancing black people’s rights,  saying he won’t ask racists to leave protests and writing an incredibly racist open letter from ‘the coloreds’ to Abe Lincoln asking him to revoke their emancipation because they’re dependent on white people (you have to read it to believe it), amongst many, many other things.

All in all, not the most welcoming or attractive group for black people. So why is Lloyd Marcus a conservative Tea Partier? Using the same blinkered reasoning behind the principle of ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’, he saw that his family made it without help, so he believes everyone can or should be able to. He was fortunate enough to have a solid family and father who had a good job, and fails to realise that not everyone is as lucky as he was. 

Sympathy and empathy are not Marcus’ strong points, as is made clear here:

So, my early experience living in the government project taught me that some folks simply have a ghetto mindset. I also witnessed the trap of government welfare. And why were so many around me angry and violent – despite getting free housing, food and healthcare?

 

 

 

Marcus says later in his post that in ‘the late 50s’, after they saw their rent rise to $72 when his father gained a new job as a firefighter, he and his family left the projects. From that we can infer that these ‘angry and violent’ black people witnessed the following: the Civil Rights Movement only began properly in 1955 with Rosa Parks’ act of defiance in refusing to move to the back of a bus; the necessity of the Missisippi National Guard, the US Army, and Border Patrol personnel to ensure one black student, James Meredith, enrolled in the state university in 1961; in 1963 four black children were blown up and peaceful protesters and bystanders were brutally attacked with fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham, Alabama; the South maintained the Jim Crow laws of 1876 which enforced segregation and reduced blacks to second-class citizen status, and some were still in force as late as 1965 (it took the Voting Rights Act of that year to finally end discrimination at the polling booth); the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination was finally passed in 1964, however segregation in schools continued (and indeed continues) to be a serious problem in America. You’ll notice of course, that it was the much-demonised government, together with immense pressure from the Civil Rights Movement, that secured these measures.

And yet Lloyd Marcus actually has to ask why so many blacks were angry, some to the point of violence during the 1950’s, when blacks were still years from achieving full equality? For a black man to be that ignorant of the history of both his nation and his race is, if I’m honest, shameful. It goes without saying that during that period many blacks would have been ‘trapped in welfare’ due to still widespread racism. Unemployed whites would have been preferred to unemployed blacks. Marcus continues:

So, when I hear politicians, such as Barack Obama, pandering to the so-called poor of America, it turns my stomach. I’ve witnessed the deterioration of the human spirit, wasted lives and suffering that happens when government becomes “daddy”.

“So-called poor”? Marcus would’ve undoubtedly said ‘welfare queen’ there if that term didn’t have obvious racial connotations. Even a black guy who’s been spitting on his own race throughout his blog post has his limits, I guess. There’s a reason people are on welfare, and it isn’t because they’ve forgotten the details of their Swiss bank account. And Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill of 1996 changed the landscape entirely – since then, welfare has no longer been an entitlement. People who are able-bodied now have to work for their payments. 

In short: Lloyd Marcus is, despite his race, indistinguishable from any other Tea Partier – he uses welfare recipients as convenient punching bags, and hates government though he and his have personally benefited from it. And he even shares their attitude towards blacks.


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.


Another possible Republican nominee for 2012

July 22, 2010

Following on from Danielle’s blog about Sarah Palin, it seems there’s another darling of the American right who wants to be President in 2012.

Bachmann, whose district is a sprawling stretch of farms and small cities, has used her theoretically modest political platform to catapult herself to the forefront of conservatism in America. She does not shy away from extreme opinions, lambasting President Barack Obama as a socialist threat to the American way of life. She is stridently anti-government, pro-business and socially conservative. She has even called for her fellow congressional politicians to be investigated to see if they are “pro-America” enough.

To many on the left of US politics, her outlandish statements seem a poor joke. She is regularly lampooned on liberal blogs in a similar manner to Palin, whose family life dominated the gossip magazines last week after the unexpected engagement of her daughter. But as Palin becomes more of a media force than a political one, Bachmann is rising to replace her. Her verve and anger have entranced a significant section of the population, one expected to vote in huge numbers in this November’s mid-term elections. “Bachmann is media-savvy, energising and charismatic, just like Palin. But unlike Palin, she is a seasoned politician. She is not a political lightweight; she is serious,” said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.

I must confess I know little about Bachmann, but here are some of her more exotic observations. Amongst them:

“Back in the 1970s swine flu broke out then under Democrat President Jimmy Carter. I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”

Not much to add to that really, is there?


Sarah Palin: President of the United States? (guest post)

July 18, 2010

Another guest poster now: Danielle Blake on Sarah Palin’s presedential ambitions.

She couldn’t name a newspaper she reads. She thought living in the closest state to Russia gave her foreign policy experience. She didn’t understand the role of Vice President of the United States, the role she was running for. She quit halfway through her first term as governor of Alaska. You’d be forgiven for thinking this Palin’s first name was Michael and not Sarah. 
Yet Sarah Palin remains firmly in the public eye, and is considered to be a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Why is someone so obviously unfit for office given any attention at all, let alone seriously considered as a potential presidential candidate? Ironically, it is the very media Palin regularly expresses contempt for (she refers to them as the ‘lamestream media’, and bans the press from her public appearances) that ensures she stays in the spotlight. These days the purpose of American cable news is not to inform or fact check but to maximise ratings, and so to them, the most controversial VP pick in history is manna from heaven. This is why, despite poll after poll showing the American people can’t stand Palin, the media continues to hype her as a serious and important figure. Even in the print media, so-called journalists follow her every tweet, Facebook post, and speech as they degrade themselves and their profession by keeping this irrelevant, childish, ignorant person in the news.
Is she likely to run? Initially, after her stunning decision to resign in July 2009, the consensus was Palin was finished in politics. Who after all, would vote for a quitter for president? And surely someone unwilling/unable to handle a governorship would not seek higher office? With a resignation speech from Bizarro World – by quitting she was fighting; only ‘dead fish go with the flow’ i.e finishing the job one is elected to do is a sign of apathy; she was tired of all those bothersome ethics investigations (not because she was guilty, of course, but because she wanted to save taxpayer money) – Palin gave yet more notice that she was incapable of leading. Soon after, Palin realised that she would make far more money and maintain a higher level of exposure by hitting the ‘wingnut welfare’ circuit, where many conservatives have been given jobs and money on the basis of ideology, not any discernable talent. Sure enough, after a brief absence from public life she resurfaced as a contributor to Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing propaganda machine Fox News; she published a ghostwritten and fact-free autobiography, and charged extravagant amounts to give speeches and read crib notes off the back of her hand. 
This might suggest a woman more interested in lucre than laws; who prizes the trappings and status of power over the actual exercise of it. But make no mistake – Palin has been very active, if incoherent, in pushing her right-wing agenda. She has her own political action committee, SarahPAC, which fundraises for and donates to candidates who fit Palin’s idea of conservatism. She has made several high-profile endorsements, albeit to little effect. She has jumped aboard the Tea Party bandwagon and set herself up as the representative of thousands of other angry white people mistakenly outraged at what they believe is outrageously high taxes, out of control spending, and a socialist takeover of America. It looks very much like she is positioning herself for a run at the nomination.
If she did run, would she win? In 1964, Barry Goldwater infamously declared at the Republican convention: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice! Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Due in no small part to his uncompromising conservatism and that kind of extremist rhetoric, Goldwater went on to lose the election in a huge landslide to Lyndon Johnson, a lesson evidently lost on the current GOP base. For all the American right’s harping about the US being a ‘centre-right’ nation, they make the mistake of putting emphasis on right, not centre. There is a great swathe of Americans who dislike extremism or at least the appearance of it on either side, as Goldwater and George McGovern can attest. These are the Americans a candidate must win to win the White House. So if history is anything to go by, if Palin were to run and win the GOP nomination, the result in the general election would be a crushing landslide win for Barack Obama. 

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