The Obscurer

Month: December, 2004

Quinn's Feeling for Snow

Well, more ice than snow, really. Not much time this week for serious blogging, so instead here is a cautionary tale for all of you out there, dear kind, gentle readers, as the frosty mornings set in.

I was bought one of those insulating frost sheets you put across your car’s windscreen, so that when you leave for work in the morning (or leave work in the morning if you are on the night shift) you have a wonderfully clear and frost free windscreen and can set off in minutes. Super.

One evening, as the frost set in, I decided to make use of the sheet, with the idea that I could grab a few extra moments in bed in the morning rather than have to get up early to scrape my car. This involved a bit of jiggery-pokery at first, as I tried to jam either end of the sheet inside the front doors of my car, without also trapping part of my hand. Finally successful, I retired to bed, and looked forward with a certain smugness to my swift departure the following day.

During the night, I surmise, the weather did something like this; there was an initial downpour, which covered all the cars on my street in a thin veneer of rainwater; this duly froze as the temperature dropped below freezing; there then followed a change in the weather, a warm front and a thaw, so the ice on the cars had melted by the time I was ready to leave for work.

I left my house on the last minute, as I had prepared to do, and noticed all the frost-free cars parked along my road. Clearly I had put the frost sheet on in vain, but no matter I thought; I had not lost out on anything.

I approached my car and pulled off the frost sheet; or at least I tried to. It was stuck fast. I pulled again and slowly, gradually, I peeled the sheet from the car. It seemed that, during the night, when it rained, the water had fallen and flowed behind the sheet, where it had frozen, as on every other car. Then, however, as the temperature rose, the insulating nature of the frost sheet had prevented the ice on my car from thawing; as a result I now had a 2 centimetre thick covering of ice across my whole windscreen. Thanks to my special “frost-defying cover sheet” I was now the only person on my street who had to scrape their car that morning. Correction; I didn’t just scrape it, I had to hack at it and chip away at the ice, it was that thick. God alone knows what my neighbours thought, seeing me clearing ice from my car when there was not a hint of frost anywhere else on the street.

The moral of the story, of course, is don’t buy one of those evil devices; unless it is a present for someone you really don’t like. Perhaps that is how I came by mine?

Unless something weird happens, this will be my last post before Christmas, so have a good one. In the meantime, read this from Harry’s Place; a series of mock Christmas articles supposedly from well known journalists and other bloggers. Plenty of chin-stroking fun as you congratulate yourself on recognising their individual styles. Take care.

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Nicked Griffin

I obviously didn’t shed a tear when Nick Griffin was arrested on Tuesday for inciting racial hatred but I wasn’t exactly cheering either. It was probably because the first I heard of it whilst watching Channel 4 News was seeing the BNP leader being released on police bail, punching the air, before a crowd of cheering supporters. It was not a pretty sight. But then he is not a pretty man.

Unfortunately, I also have my doubts about the law under which he was arrested. Now clearly I am not suggesting that I agree with inciting racial hatred; but I do believe in free speech, and I am very uncomfortable with any law which tries to undermine it. We can agree that inciting racial hatred is wrong, but at what point should it become a criminal offence? The famous quote often attributed to Voltaire, that”I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” seems as relevant now as it ever did. When I was at University there was a “No Platform” policy towards the National Front (I don’t know if there still is) and I always argued against it. These people should be engaged in debate and defeated; otherwise their lies and misinformation will still be heard but will go unchallenged.

Of course, I don’t think you should be able to say anything; if Griffin roused the crowd into a call to attack and burn Asian houses, then I would be happy for him to face severe legal consequences; but there already is a law against inciting violence. Fair enough, we can take into account whether or not any incitement to violence is racially aggravated, that seems fine by me; but do we need a separate law, and is it effective? Surely we should be free to hold opinions some may find offensive, and be able to speak our minds; if you go too far, then there are other laws which can deal with you. I am not sure there exists a point at which I would be happy for free speech to be compromised, but which is not covered by other more general laws on incitement, discrimination, public order or defamation; in which case, the law on inciting racial hatred causes me some concern with regards free speech. Perhaps I will change my mind when the case comes to court and we fully learn what Griffin has said; but this is my current position.

At the same time the debate has started up again regarding extending the law to cover religious hatred. Charles Moore of the Telegraph was recently criticised for saying “It seems to me that people are perfectly entitled – rude and mistaken though they may be – to say that Mohammed was a paedophile, but if David Blunkett gets his way, they may not be able to.” The interesting thing here is that were one to say that “Jesus was a paedophile”, then that could fall foul of the current Blasphemy laws which are in fact stronger that the proposed law on inciting religious hatred; this somewhat blunts Rowan Atkinson’s belief that the law could result in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian being banned. But his basic point, as stated again last week, that “the freedom to criticise ideas is one of the fundamental freedoms of society” is surely right. The Home Office asserts that comedians jokes will not be compromised, but the reaction to Charles Moore’s comments shows how freedom of speech could be affected when potentially offensive but non threatening comments could be dragged to the courts.

But perhaps the main reason to criticise these laws is the fear I have that they will be counter productive. I haven’t looked at the BNP website since Griffin’s arrest, but I don’t have to. They will be saying that the arrest is due to an out-of-touch political elite, ignorant of the problems suffered by native brits. They will say it shows that immigrants and asylum seekers rights are prioitised ahead of the the concerns of the majority of law abiding (white?) citizens. They will say it shows how scared the major parties are of the electoral threat posed by the BNP, and illustrates again how the opinions of immigrants are affecting Britain’s longstanding principles and traditions such as freedom of speech. They will say that only the BNP truly understands what you understand, about the threats facing the nation, and only they can do something about it. These opinions will be repeated from now until the case comes to court; but unlike Griffin’s original statements which were made to a small rally of far-right knuckleheads, these comments will be played out across the national press and media, to a far larger audience. The BNP will get more free publicity, and some people will be stupid enough to believe them.

Then we will see just how effective the law has been in trying to prevent racial hatred.

IDeology

Eagle-eyed reader(s?) may have noticed the NØ2ID button which has been added to the sidebar of this site; between the search box and the adverts (which you are free to click on, by the way, and so provide me with another 10 cents revenue!). This is because I have decided to finally get off the fence on the issue of ID cards.

I should explain that the reason I have been reluctant to take sides up until now is because I have been one of the “I’ve got nothing to hide” brigade, as ridiculed recently by Jarod Borries. If people really want to collate a load of information about me, I thought, then good luck to them; I can’t imagine it being of any interest to anyone. I have always thought that, should I attract a stalker, rather than trying to hide away and be secretive I would welcome them into my home, talk to them and tell them all about my life. They would soon be so bored that they would just leave me alone and pick on some other, more enigmatic prey.

On the other hand, although I haven’t any huge civil liberties fears, I have always thought it would be a complete waste of time. Once ID cards are up and running, I’d give it about 6 months before there are forgeries out there; perhaps sooner. With regards terrorism, unless you have to specify on the application form that you are a member of a terrorist group, I cannot see why terrorists are not perfectly legally entitled to hold an ID card; after all, most Irish Terrorists held British Passports. Concerning social security fraud, I don’t know how an ID card will have any effect on those employers who currently illegally employ people on a cash in hand basis.

So it may be a harmless waste of time, but should it be actively opposed? Well, the more I think about it, yes. For one thing, the “I’ve got nothing to hide” argument relies on the fact that we don’t live in a South American Dictatorship; but the recent Queen’s Speech, with a heavy accent on more authoritarian law and order measures, along with recent legislation which has resulted in the situation of the Belmarsh Detainees (terrorists so dangerous that they are free to go to any country that will have them!) makes me wonder just what direction we are going in; the lazy phrase “the thin end of the wedge” springs to mind.

And then, this week, there was the news that the authoritarian wing of the Conservative Party had outflanked its libertarian wing, in deciding to support the Government in next weeks vote on ID cards. All of a sudden it seems like a done deal, and to prevent ID cards we are going to have to rely on Liberal Democrats and whip-defying backbenchers. This is the shock which forced me to make up my mind. When I then read on the “NO2ID” website that there are over 50 pieces of information which could be accessed via your ID card, it confirmed my opinion that this is something to be fought against before it is too late.

Of course, it won’t be David Blunkett, but Charles Clarke who will implement the ID cards scheme, following Blunkett’s resignation last night. I can’t see there being a massive change in the direction of the Home Office under Clarke, but we shall see. He seems to exhibit a similar sort of arrogance to that which Blunkett displayed, and which to my eyes made him a poor Home Secretary and the worst kind of politician. It is often said that the best ruler is one who would have to be reluctantly dragged to the despatch box; in fact we we often seem to get egotists desperate to flex their muscles, and to expand and display their own powers. That certainly appeared to be the case with Blunkett; someone who introduced rafts of legislation conveying more power to the state and to himself. An illustration is the 2002 Police Reform Act, which allowed the Home Secretary to suspend a Police Forces’ Chief Constable. Once it was introduced I always got the impression that Blunkett couldn’t wait for an opportunity to put it into practice, and indeed he didn’t wait long; requiring Humberside Police Authority to suspend Chief Constable David Westwood following the Bichard Enquiry into the Soham Murders.

However, I do feel a certain sympathy regarding the manner of his exit. His paternity battle was unpleasant and ugly, but I understand and can empathise with his position. This led to the allegations surrounding the visas and train tickets, and which ultimately led to his resignation; but how many other people have fiddled their expenses or given preferential treatment to friends in a professional capacity? I am not saying it is right, but it is hardly a hanging offence. In the end I think it was the daily accumulation of negative headlines, along with the incredibly ill-judged criticisms of his colleagues in Stephen Pollard’s biography which left him friendless in Westminster, and so made his position untenable. He probably went for the wrong reasons, but he has at least gone.

However, as I said earlier, I don’t I think it will make much of a difference to the behaviour of the Home Office; and judging by Tony Blair’s eulogy in accepting his resignation (“You leave government with your integrity intact and your achievements acknowledged by all. You are a force for good in British politics and can take great pride in what you have done to improve the lives of people in this country”) I doubt he will be out of Government for long.

Bias And The BBC

I know I have already spoken about peoples’ attitudes to the BBC in a previous post, but seeing today’s front page headline in The Independent, and reading the article reporting “BBC viewing figures fall to all-time low” made me want to revisit the subject.

In the first instance, I am surprised that The Indie feels this is an important front page story; but personally, although I think it is generally a fine paper, its current fashion for dramatic front pages, which are often prone to editorialising, is not to my taste. Still, what they put on their front page is up to them; so what about the article itself?

Well, we learn that the combined viewing figures of BBC 1 and 2 have fallen by 9% since 2000; BBC1 to around 25% of the audience and BBC2 down to 10%. That still means 35% of people are watching the two main BBC channels, which seems to me like quite a lot in this day and age, but whatever. Surely it is inevitable that as more and more channels spring up, the BBC’s market share will drop. However, reading further into the article, it states that ITV1 has suffered “even more severely than the BBC – since 2000 the channel’s audience share has fallen 22 per cent to 22.8 per cent of all television viewers”. Why then is the front page headline solely about the BBC? Why is not not about both organisations? Why not talk about the traditional terrestrial broadcasters all struggling as the number of channels has increased?

Ah, because they are not. According to The Independent, “Channel 4 has proven it is possible for a terrestrial broadcaster with a public service remit to improve its audience share against such a competitive backdrop”. The reason Channel 4 has been so successful? For one thing they have bought “The Simpsons”, but it is apparently also because of home-grown successes; its “range of popular factual programmes, such as Wife Swap and How Clean Is Your House?”

“Wife Swap” and “How Clean Is Your House”? For fucks sake. Is The Indie suggesting that this is where the BBC should be going in order to arrest its slide in audience share? And can you imagine the headlines if the BBC decided to produce this sort of out and out tat?

For me, this article is indicative of the double standards many people seem to apply to the BBC. It is perfectly highlighted by the famous case of the death of the Queen Mother, where the BBC got into a right old muddle because some factions of the media (and, I guess, the general public) thought they didn’t cover the story in enough detail; this despite the fact that I know people who abandoned a planned Saturday night-in to race to the pub once they realised the TV schedule was going to be overturned wholesale and there would be blanket coverage of the news. I also remember reading at the time that the BBC only actually resumed their normal schedule once they were certain that ITV had done the same.

Why one rule for the BBC and another for ITV etc.? Take a look for example at “Biased BBC”, one of the websites devoted to the Beeb’s perceived left-wing bias. They make the occasional fair and reasonable point, but it is often lost among the authors’ prejudices and one-sided nit-picking, usually rounded off with a call for the licence fee to be scrapped. And I guess this is why the BBC gets so much stick; partly because they are the most prominent broadcaster in the country and so are there to be shot at, but mainly because many people just disagree with and object to the licence fee.

Which is fine. I personally think the licence fee is the worst possible way to pay for the BBC; that is, after advertising, by subscription or from general taxation. Whatever I may dislike about the fee (and it goes against my basic ideas of what constitutes a fair tax) I cannot imagine any of the alternatives improving television in this country, and this surely is the most important matter when discussing how the BBC is funded. And even though people can pay up to four times the licence fee for their Sky subscription and the mass of absolute shite they get with it, and pay more in advertising revenue to ITV than they pay to the BBC, the element of compulsion means that the BBC will always get both barrels. This is probably not fair, but I can understand that this is the way of things. But why is this argument not separate from the whole matter of what the BBC produces? Once the decision is made on how the BBC is funded, why can we not treat them just the same as we would treat any other broadcaster, and subject them to the same criticisms and judgments; because at the moment that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Anyway, this is now my second post about the BBC, and that is at least one too many. There are so many more important thinks in the world to discuss; Sudan, Ukraine, Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe. Just don’t tell Biased BBC that. Or the editor of today’s Independent.

Andmoreagain

Were I to meet Norman Geras, I get the feeling that, overall, I would quite like him. He seems a reasonable person. In fact, based on Jonathan Derbyshire’s description of him as the “Sage of Didsbury”, he probably only lives a short hop across the Mersey from me. Perhaps we have met? Perhaps we both saw Fahrenheit 9/11 together in the UGC Cinema at Parrs Wood? Or perhaps not.

Of course, were we to meet, we would probably argue a lot over Iraq. Norman is in the pro-war camp, and made some interesting points in his post a couple of weeks ago entitled “The Four Wars for Iraq” (I know this is far from topical now, but I have been very busy recently with work, childcare and Christmas shopping, and there are a few points I would like to make).

The gist of the post, apart from separating the conflict into four distinct wars (which I don’t really agree with, but can’t be bothered arguing about) is that many in the anti-war fraternity seem to blame everything that is wrong in Iraq on the Americans and the Coalition, including the actions of insurgents and terrorists, and that this is unfair. You would think this didn’t really need to be said; that clearly the actions of al-Zarqawi and the other hostage-takers and head-hackers are there own responsibility and should not directly be blamed on the Coalition, but perhaps I am wrong. One criticism of the anti-war movement has always been that they seem happier to criticise Bush than Saddam, as if Bush were the real dictator. Of course, there is nothing worse than someone on your side of the argument making a stupid point, and I wince when I hear people say jokingly “We need regime change in Washington” as if Bush is a worse person than Saddam. But I think there are two reasons why the anti-war camp acts as it does. One is that they do not criticise the murders perpetrated by the insurgents that much because what is there to say? Murders are wrong. Full stop. There is not much scope for argument, you would think. Secondly, the reason the Coalition comes in for such criticism in the west is that it is our Governments that have committed themselves to the invasion; it is understandable, therefore, to criticise your own Government and its allies for a war being fought in your name. This does not mean you like the Baath party and admire Saddam. It is wrong to have a pop at much of the anti-war camp for blaming all the problem in Iraq on the Coalition; but for those people who do blame the Coalition for everything, Geras is right to criticise.

If Geras had left it at that then I think any reasonable person would agree with him; unfortunately he wants to go a little further. He criticises what he calls “all-or-nothing” thinking with regards apportioning responsibility for the problems in Iraq, yet in effect he tries to do just that. He tries to effectively chop the conflict up into four wars, and then suggests you can ascribes 100% blame to one side for each individual event. Therefore, although he does blame the Coalition for the “lack of post-invasion planning, the brutalities at Abu Ghraib”, the Coalition gets a free pass (in Geras’s article at least) for anything ugly which may have been a result of the War as a whole, but where the actual crime such as the murder of a hostage was the action of forces opposed to the Coalition. Geras starts by saying things are more complex, that the Coalition cannot be held wholly responsible for everything that has gone wrong in the war and its aftermath, but seems to end up by saying that it is very simple; and that the brutal actions of the insurgents are entirely the fault of the insurgents, and are divorced from the actions of the coalition. By way of analogy, he says “Adolf Hitler was responsible for many terrible crimes during the Second World War. But the fire bombing of Dresden?” But can actions really be so separated from their consequences? Sure, Hitler and the Luftwaffe did not drop the bombs themselves on Dresden, and Bomber Harris and the RAF must take ultimate responsibility for this action, but did Hitler bear no responsibility at all? Were the seeds for Dresden not sown in the decision in September 1940 to launch the Blitz, and deliberately target the civilian population of London. Or do the roots not lie further back, in the invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia, the anschluss with Austria, the desire for lebensraum. I don’t think we can let Hitler off the hook over Dresden, and I don’t think we can let the Coalition off scot free either.

Of course, traditionally people have played fast and loose with responsibility during conflicts, and have twisted things according to their own politics. This is something that has long fascinated me. When the IRA planted bombs in British cities, they said it was not their fault but the fault of the British Government. The British suggested that the blame lay solely with the people who themselves planted the bombs. But when we were the ones with the bombs, and were dropping them over Serbia in 1999, this all changed, and it wasn’t our fault; it was the fault of Milosevic. We always want to have it both ways, to suit our own needs. The masters of this are the Israelis and Palestinians, who both seem to think the blame lies 100% on the other side. I have my own ideas on the whole Palestinian situation which I won’t go into now, suffice to say that I support the right of the Israeli state to exist, and for the Palestinians to have a homeland; that I abhor the actions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but I also am sickened by much that the Israeli security forces get up to. But when you hear Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen on TV I find it hard to believe they are talking about the same conflict. Their statements of fact are diametrically opposed, and they feel that one action cannot possibly beget another.

A fictional analogy now. I am a Manchester City fan, and let’s say I decide to go to the Manchester derby, but to sit in the United end. Before going I speak to my friends and tell them that I intend to sing Munich songs throughout the game, and cheer any (unlikely) City goal; I am advised against this action, but go ahead and do it anyway. What would happen? Well, I may escape with my life, but probably not all my teeth, or indeed with many of my limbs intact. I would be battered, I expect; seriously assaulted. And who would be responsible? Ultimately, and legally, my attackers would be at fault. There would be no justification for their actions, and the offenders would probably turn out to be common or garden thugs, used to meting out summary justice on a Friday Night to anyone who looked at their pint funny. But somehow, I feel, I would have to bear some responsibility for their actions, if I carried out a stupid and ill-considered act, in the face of the warnings of my friends. I may not be wholly, or even primarily, responsible for my predicament; but to some extent I would have to shoulder some of the blame. By the same token, surely the Coalition must take some responsibility for a situation they instigated.

On the other hand, I wonder? If, as Geras seems to be suggesting, Hitler bears no responsibility for Dresden, or the Coalition for the insurgency, then surely the opponents of the war cannot be associated with whatever atrocities Saddam’s regime would have inflicted on the Iraqi population if they hadn’t been toppled by the United States and its allies? The moral guilt tripping by some pro-war commentators is therefore faulty. As I have said previously, my main concern when opposing the war was that I knew I was also opposing the most obvious means of deposing a tyrant. Had I known before the war what I know now, that I am in the clear and that Saddam’s crimes and criminal intent cannot be held against me, then I would have argued against the war even more strongly than I did at the time.