Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Tony Blair: Britain's Don Quixote

In the early 17th century Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra published a critique of Spanish society as it had emerged from the inquisition. Don Quixote de la Mancha is a brilliant and hilarious parody on a stupidity that poses as virtue accompanied with delusions of grandeur. Enthused by endless stories he read about brave knights the elderly main character of the book sets out on his own adventures seeking fame but repeatedly courting disaster. His overexcited imagination blinds him to reality. He mistakes windmills for giants, perceives flocks of sheep as enemy armies and tries to defend the honour of the fair maiden Dulcinea his own imagination has conjured up. His old horse and his loyal servant both have to suffer unduly to facilitate the extravagant skirmishes of this fantasist.

Catholic Spain has no exclusivity on duplicity and a self-righteous belief in a pious cause that turns out to be all folly. To judge from Tony Blair's farewell speech at the Labour party conference in Manchester, "Great" Britain is also headed by a Don Quixote character. This comical figure is going to fight terrorism wherever it might be found, warning it will take at least a generation, and he is dedicating the rest of his life in office to bring peace to the Middle East. Noble aims of a dreamer.

Don Quixote's windmills and flocks of sheep were more real than Tony's perceived enemy. "Terrorism" is neither a people nor an ideology. It is a method employed by different people at different times. To declare war on terrorism is about as stupid as to declare that we are not fighting this or that nation, this or that belief, this or that ideology, but we are fighting war itself. We are declaring eternal war on war. Naturally, it will take time, since the defined objective makes it impossible to win.
Nor is peace being brought about by invoking its name. Peace requires justice. And justice is what our government is denying those who seek peace in the Middle East. When Tony Blair backed Israel in their incursions into Gaza and refused to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon he aided and abetted Israeli aggression and chose to be one of those politicians John Dugard, UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, called "those accustomed to turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering of the Palestinian people". Dugard blames Israel for having turned Gaza into a prison and states: "What Israel chooses to describe as collateral damage to the civilian population is in fact indiscriminate killing prohibited by international law …Israel violates international law as expounded by the Security Council and the International Court of Justice and goes unpunished. But the Palestinian people are punished for having democratically elected a regime unacceptable to Israel, the US and the EU… In effect, the Palestinian people have been subjected to economic sanctions - the first time an occupied people has been so treated."
Addressing the Labour faithful, Blair talked to them about his perceived victories: "Over these eight years we have won the battle of values. The age we live in is democratic not deferential. We believe in solidarity. We believe in social justice, in opportunity not for a privileged few but for all, whatever their start in life. We believe in tolerance and respect, in strong communities standing by and standing up for the weak, the sick, the helpless", he claimed, forgetting conveniently that no other government in British history has ever contributed as much as his to the destruction of those very values. Instead, he has offered up his people to the Mammon of the globalising market economy. "Some day, some party will make this country at ease with globalisation", he said, "Let it be this one." And worse, he promises "a radical extension of summary powers to police and local authorities", the very antithesis of democracy. In Manchester, police were busy preventing anti-war protesters from exercising their democratic right outside the conference hall.
This may not be 17th century Spain. But de Cervantes would have found plenty of inspiration in Labour's hero, the valiant knight Tony.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Back off, Johnny come lately

I don't remember any of John Reid's predecessors having the audacity to patronisingly lecture Irish parents on keeping an eye on their offspring lest they be radicalised, although the IRA did have a political wing capable of, and actively involved in, recruiting for their cause. And, of course, the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland and terrorist attacks on the British mainland did not end because parents started talking politics with their children, but because the government eventually started to realise that the sledge hammer method of knocking people with a grievance into compliance does not work. British Muslims are nothing as organised as the Irish Republican movement was back then, but they will not accept responsibility and blame for the disastrous failings of British policy.

Direct rule did not work in Ireland, and thinly disguised direct rule will not work in Iraq or Afghanistan. Colonialism failed, and neo-conservative neo-colonialism espoused by New Labour will also fail. People's aspirations cannot be silenced with brute force. Threats and creating fear will not destroy dissent. Ex-communist Reid might admire Stalinist methods, but even Stalinism was ultimately defeated.

Reid's argument is that Muslim youth are being radicalised into becoming suicide bombers. He considers suggestions by parliamentarians from his own party that British foreign policy plays a part in disenfranchising Muslim youth as misguided. It must be the upbringing, and here only the home environment, not their experiences at British state schools and in British universities. Maybe the next step would be to serve anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) on Muslim parents who do not sufficiently instil the love for our government in their children. The bizarre nanny state New Labour has created wants to be appreciated whilst deceiving us.

The Hungarian people took to the streets this week because they were lied to by their government. Here in Britain, our government, our security services and our police lie to us all the time. They lied to us about weapons of mass destruction, they lied to us about trying to have a moderating influence on US policy in the Middle East, they lied to us about princess Diana, they lied to us about Dr David Kelly, they lied to us about Charles de Menezes, they lied to us about Ricin factories, they lied to us about chemical weapon depots in Forest Gate, they lied to us about liquid explosives, they lied to us a plot to blow up aircraft departing from Heathrow. Today's youth are internet-savvy and they ask why no proper evidence has ever been produced concerning the official story of events on 7/7. They ask why the multitude of surveillance cameras in London did not produce a single picture of the alleged bombers, they ask why the government wants to censor the nuclear ambitions of Iran, a country that has never threatened its neighbours, yet nod with approval when Israel, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons wreaks havoc in neighbouring Lebanon. Muslim parents stand a better chance making their children believe in Santa Clause than convincing them that our government has their best interest at heart.

Maybe John Reid, this Johnny come lately of New Labour's crusade to convert Muslims to "our values", should listen to Muslim youth instead of preaching to Muslim parents. Instead of removing hecklers and protesters with brute force, just as they did with an 83-year-old anti-war protester at the last Labour conference, the government should afford them some freedom of speech and start listening to what really bothers them. It won't be comfortable listening and it is highly unlikely that Reid and company have the stomach for it, but it remains a necessary step to halt the growing disillusionment of today's youth (and not just Muslims) with politics and politicians. Instead, almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy, our guardians of society want to antagonise and radicalise their own people in order to cement their power.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Pope is embarking on a dangerous course

Commentators trying to portray the Muslim reaction to the pope's latest pontifications as exaggerated are repeatedly claiming that his words were taken out of context, that indeed he intended no offence and was merely quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor he did not agree with. The full text of his address at Regensburg University, however, reveals that what he said is even worse than has been made out and shows not only that Papal analysis and politics are not infallible, but can be outright wrong and dangerous.

First of all, the pope tries to add to the American war against terror crusade by postulating that Islam is a violent religion. He makes the claim that the verse insisting that there be no compulsion in religion only applied during the early period of Islam when, according to those the pope considers experts in the matter, Muhammad "was still powerless and under threat". He claims that later those instructions were revised and replaced by the concept of "holy war", whereas the Christian emperor viewed conversion by violence as "something unreasonable".

For serious students of history this is, of course, quite a bold statement. The very emperor Manuel II Paleologus was amongst the war-mongers travelling the lands of Europe to incite their rulers to participate in the "holy" crusade against the Muslim and Jewish infidels. The Church has blood on its hands. As to conversion, the pope is blind if he is not aware of the unreasonable missionary activities amongst the "savages" by which the Church provided both rationale for colonialism and benefited from the spoils. For the pope to quote a crusading emperor responsible for violence against those of other faith as an advocate for non-violence in religious interaction seems rather ludicrous.

But the offence caused to Islam goes deeper. First, there is the mistaken Orientalist idea that the Qur'an was written to suit the politics of the time, thus disclaiming its validity as a sacred and revealed scripture. Secondly, there is his main argument that Christianity is a religion of reason which, together with the Greek concept of logos, created the basis of the modern world, whereas Islam is characterised by blind conviction.

Putting aside for a moment that rather the opposite holds true and Islam can be credited with having introduced reason and empirical science into the superstitious world ruled by Church during the dark ages, the pope is actually reversing the policy of his predecessor who had adopted the spirit of Lessing's ring parable by seeing the monotheistic religions as of a similar strand, each containing some truth. The new pope has displayed a true crusader mentality where only the Judeo-Christian tradition is worthy of reason-endowed mankind, Islam and probably the rest of religions are either conveniently engineered belief systems or irrational blind convictions worthy only of savages.

Viewing the other as inferior is in turn going to lead to the same violent excesses as Christian theology sponsored during the crusades and during the colonial conquests. With his lecture the pope has given his blessing to the "war against terror" or modern crusade against Islam, unlike his predecessor who repeatedly criticised the American adventure as lacking moral authority.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Who cares who leads Labour!

The British media is feeding on a frenzy of leadership speculation. New names for deputy leader of the Labour party emerge by the day, calls for Tony Blair to resign as leader before his personal milestone of having been prime minister for 10 years flood in from various quarters. Can he ride the waves or is he clutching at straws? Will Gordon Brown succeed him without much contest or will there be no coronation? Will the leadership row damage the Labour party's electoral chances or is anyone better than the lame duck prime minister? Questions after questions, yet nobody is asking the most important of them all: Does it really matter?

Of course, we are tired of listening to Blair's meaningless business management jargon being delivered with deliberate punctuation pauses after every two or three words to pretend that his brain was engaged in fresh thinking and the occasional high-pitch to mime real enthusiasm, so anyone would be better than him. Yet, it would only be a change in style, not substance. Gordon Brown's platitudes sound just as hollow, and John Prescott who either refuses to or is incapable of using consultancy speak is not going to be let loose on the public as he might damage the smug image of New Labour. But even if Prescott headed the party and the government, he wouldn't write its policies.

For that matter it wouldn't make a jot of difference either if Cameron or Campbell were elected. Successive alternating Tory and Labour government have hardly ever cancelled out each other's unpopular tax policies, for example, or ever opposed the main establishment view in anything but trifle issues. They are the puppets, they do not pull the strings. They use the same financial consultants to write their corporation-friendly economic policies to appease banks and financial institutions. They equally support the war-mongering and are similarly supine in the face of American dictate. They didn't become leading politicians by showing morals, values, convictions and backbone. They sold their principles to further their careers. We haven't had a Liberal government yet, but if ever they became electable in the eyes of the media they too would be non-distinguishable from the other two parties in this respect.

Maybe here lies the clue why the media are so obsessed with discussing leadership: it is a convenient way of avoiding a debate about policy. Only a minority of the British adult population bother to vote, for they know too well that they are not given a real choice. Focusing on personalities, as if they were the driving force behind the country's direction, is a convenient spectacle to fool the public and distract them from realising the real affects continuous government usurpation of power has on their lives and those of their children. We'd be better off watching neighbours, at least the soap opera's programmers do attempt to tackle relevant topics.

Britain liked to describe Westminster as the mother of parliaments, but she can hardly assume the title of mother of democracy. British democracy has become barren and her people haven't got a say. The groundswell of opposition to the Iraq war could safely be ignored by government and opposition parties alike, because they were never really answerable to their constituents. Compulsory voting would not make much of a difference, but there is something which could double the turnout at the polling booths without needing much persuasion: give us citizen-introduced referendums with binding outcomes. Over night politicians would have to listen to the will of the people, and nobody would want to miss the opportunity to tell them what to do.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stifling technology

Whilst the technological advances of the past few decades are truly amazing, somehow we also have the propensity to turn every new achievement into a headache. Take air travel, for example, which shortened the distances between difficult to reach places. The UK was once served with a well distributed multitude of small airfields. Gradually, most of them closed to make room for other developments, and with them disappeared the hope for a transport network much more sensible than road traffic. I recently visited the Orkney islands where Logan air operates an inter-island service using small propeller-driven passenger aircraft in regular intervals at cheap prices, and their time-table reads just like that of a metropolitan bus service.

With the exception of such laudable isolated examples, however, we have deluded ourselves with bigger being better, like the new Airbus super jumbo jet. Huge airport hubs have established mass travel and reversed the benefits of quick point-to-point travel by air. A passenger jet can get you from London to Glasgow in an hour and a half, but you will first have to spend two hours driving to the airport in slow-moving traffic, arrive three hours early for check-in due to extra security, wait an hour at the other end before you can collect your luggage and join the traffic jams at your destination. All in all, the flight will take longer than driving all the way. It is still cheaper, of course, but only because it is subsidised. Airlines don't pay duty and VAT on their fuel like the rest of us.

Email was the great new communications tool replacing couriers and postal services. Today it is a battle to sift through an inbox flooded with spam messages, just as the internet is awash with virus threats, Trojan horses and spyware. The moment someone develops something to make our lives easier, we get down to spoiling the experience and turning the new-found blessing into a nightmare.

Electronics have become smaller and smaller, which means more portable. A little USB hard drive the size of a pocket calculator can hold more Gigabyte in storage than most laptops are kitted out with. Yet, we all have to wield weighty laptops around because software companies don't want us to enjoy the freedom of technology without fleecing us first. Software, although paid for, becomes tied to a single machine, although the technology exists for portable software registration via a soft key, allowing users to move their software from one computer to another as many times as they like provided they only use one instance of it at any one time.

Much more of a problem is, however, the operating system. I can copy or image my whole computer content onto my little USB hard drive which I can plug into any computer in the world, but I am still waiting for somebody to develop a way of booting from it. This is what I would call a real personal or pocket computer. I can carry it around with me and could plug it in at any internet café, and within a few minutes I would be greeted with my familiar software programmes, files and settings. And airport security wouldn't have to bother me any longer with switching my computer on and off, a practice about as silly in preventing a potential hazard as emptying drinks and after-shave bottles into liquid containers at the check-in desk.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Red Bull Air Flop

"The Red Bull Air Race is returning to the Longleat estate in Wiltshire on Saturday 2nd September and organisers say this year's event will be bigger and better than ever." Thus the BBC Wiltshire announced the event and predicted more than 100,000 people to attend. In the end, no racing took place due to adverse weather conditions. According to the organisers "The Air Race safety committee, in conjunction with the police and the local authorities, made this decision based on continuous weather reports of strong winds which made it too dangerous to fly." Elsewhere they stated "The Red Bull Air Race team and Longleat regret any disappointment caused by the cancellation of the event due to the weather, but the safety of both pilots and spectators is paramount". The last bit is more than economical with the truth.

Paramount was the hope to make as much money as possible in spite of the advance knowledge that the race would not go ahead. Under general info and weather the Red Bull website continued to tell potential visitors throughout the day that "We have no current plans to cancel this event and it would have to be pretty bad weather for the event to be cancelled. If we are informed the day before the event that it cannot go ahead, we will text all ticket holders with this news. As long as you supplied a correct mobile number when you booked your ticket you will be kept informed."

Pretty bad weather it was. The forecast of the previous day and all day long on the Saturday of the event was for low cloud ceiling and strong gusting winds. There was a chance for maybe an hour long window of calm in between two passing weather fronts, but only the most daredevil pilot would have risked committing to a flight in a light aircraft on Saturday afternoon, and to approve aerobatic competition flight over hilly terrain under such conditions would have been reckless. The organisers must have known this.

Yet, there were no contingency plans. There was no alternative programme on offer, e.g. live entertainment, to keep the crowds engaged during the afternoon. Throughout the day they were kept with upbeat announcements in the hope that the weather would definitely improve and the race would kick off. As late as 4pm the race was officially opened by the Earl of Bath in front of the cameras, watched by the spectators on big viewing screens, only to be officially cancelled within half an hour after that. I suppose, having to refund tickets, they wanted to make sure people spent as much as possible at the food, drinks and accessory stalls to make up for lost revenue.

Misinformation was also evident with regard to other aspects of the event. As the race was delayed, people were invited to visit the "pit lane", the location of the hangars housing the participating aircraft and pilots. The only way to get there was over a narrow bridge, causing heavy congestion and a real risk of crushing. Yet when people managed after an hour or two of negotiating the crowds they found that the pit lane had been closed to entrants long ago and was not being reopened. On the screen they could hear the commentator announcing that its opening times would be extended to ease congestion. Media dishonesty experienced first hand.

In many ways the event was a lesson in how poorly organised this country has become. To choose September, not known for its clement weather, as the date of the UK event of this international spectacle was folly to start with, but the previous year organisers struck lucky and banked on good fortune once more. They did not adequately prepare for anything else. And when they intervened they made things worse.

Crowds flowed at trickling speed over the bridge until security staff and the police got involved. In their wisdom they ordered people to stop moving in both directions which, evident to anyone with common sense, would not ease congestion. In separate VIP and services access corridor next to the bridge you could see the police debating what to do and a sergeant losing his temper. There were more officers engaged in discussion than deployed in crowd management. Amongst the crowds Polish workers hired by event security had a good time chatting to each other in their own language rather than paying attention to the task in hand; maybe they thought that if you get a low wage you might as well enjoy it.

I personally managed to bypass the bottleneck with my 3-year-old grandson (in order to reunite him with his mother) by climbing over a fence right behind a police officer into a forest path and emerging at the other side, again climbing a fence behind a totally oblivious uniformed police officer lacking situational awareness. They were as incompetent as they are in catching make-belief terrorists.

When people were eventually told that it was all over and they might as well go home there was chaos at the car park exits. The BBC referred to it such: "There was also a battle with massive congestion problems as thousands headed for the Red Bull Air Race at Longleat near Warminster." They then repeated the originally projected figure of 100,000 without revising it downwards as they would usually do with demonstrations, although the actual number of attendants was probably less than half that figure.

For the first hour after announcing the cancellation no security staff were in evidence at the Red Car Park (we have no first-hand reports from the other car parks) as several lanes of parked traffic tried to narrow down to enter the single lane access road. Ordinary people volunteered to direct this traffic and did reasonably well, using common sense, until security staff and the police arrived, took charge and made an utter mess of it. Once more, nobody was moving for a long time whilst security staff and police debated amongst themselves how to best manage the crisis.

If there was a positive side to this disastrously mismanaged Red Bull event it was the stoical nature with which the crowd accepted their fate. In spite of the frustration there was no evidence of people losing their temper. They had come to see an aviation spectacle and they accepted that the weather spoiled their plans. However, just like the event organisers, authorities in the UK rely on this good-will of the British people and take them for a ride, knowing that they are not going to mount the barricades any time soon.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Muslims must do more to help police combat terrorism

With terrorist sympathisers amongst Muslims numbering several thousands, according to Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism chief Peter Clarke, the police are having a hard time keeping an eye on them all. They keep making arrests left, right and centre, but frequently seem to get it wrong since most of the people initially held after raids on various premises are neither charged nor convicted. Clearly, the police need our help.

Government ministers have repeatedly warned that it will take years to overcome the threat of terrorism in Britain, and Home Secretary John Reid told us that we must all be more vigilant and most likely will have to give up more of our freedoms in return for security. Muslim community leaders in particular should shoulder more of the responsibility to eradicate radicalisation and terrorist leanings amongst their midst.

As responsible citizens we must not ignore these calls for cooperation. We must assist in every way possible to make it easier for our security and law enforcement agencies as well as the general public to rid our society of the evil scourge of Islamist terrorism. I think I know how we can do so efficiently without stretching already scarce resources too far.

The key to combating terrorism, so we are told, is to have the right intelligence. It is difficult to figure out whether somebody is a terrorist, or sympathiser, by simply looking at them. When a Sikh with a turban got beaten up after 9/11 it was because his attackers mistook him for a Muslim. Then there are people like me, white European converts, whose number is increasing fast the more Islam keeps dominating the news. Again, it is very difficult to tell a Muslim and a non-Muslim apart in such cases. Even compulsory identity cards would not solve this problem.

We could all help by voluntarily wearing a yellow star and crescent clearly visible on our outer garments. This would restore public confidence. At airports special handling lanes could be set up to process those wearing a star and subject them to more thorough scrutiny, similar to the red and green customs lanes. Check-in delays could be reduced over night. When filling in job applications we could mark those clearly at the top as "I am a wearer of a yellow star" to prevent the difficulty of having to guess whether a foreign sounding name is Muslim or not. This could reduce the number of rejections for Polish applicants who should not have to suffer due to the Islamist activities in our society.

I am not suggesting that all those wearing the yellow star and crescent are potential terrorists, but this should not prevent us from doing our duty to Queen and country. Those who are innocent have nothing to fear and should be glad to assist the police with their enquiries. With such a gesture we would put an end to racial profiling and non-Muslim Brits of immigrant origin would thank us for it. This move could go a long way in repairing soured community relations. We could all proudly demonstrate that we are playing our part, instead of constantly having to apologise that we're not doing enough.

And who knows, in the long run it might even provide us with a group identity that has so long been denied to us by the race relations industry and those in power. Wear your yellow start with pride!