Sunday, February 26, 2006

Girl In the North Country

I just went and saw North Country and it was a powerful movie. Powerful enough to inspire me to read about it some more on the internet - and I stumbled across this summary of the true story. Enraging, sad and worth reading: simply to get some tiny idea what those women went through.

In this "post-feminist" age it is far too easy to take for granted the achievements of feminism; and to forget just how much more needs to be achieved. To do so would be a huge injustice.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

if we were serious about the "war on terror"...

Can someone please explain to me why this front of the war on terror hasn't been fought on more vigorously? Conflict of interests perhaps?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

More On Lott

Tim Lambert has written a special post to help celebrate John Lott's arrival in New Zealand. Lambert has spent much time debunking Lott's "research" (remember the conference that Lott will be talking at claims to be about "solid research, not pious hopes"), and Lambert's latest post is worth a read as it links to other posts explaining the flaws in the particular "research" that Lott will be talking about while here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Fukuyama Almost Has a Point...

Francis Fukuyama in the Guardian:

Now that the neoconservative moment appears to have passed, the US needs to reconceptualise its foreign policy. First, we need to demilitarise what we have been calling the global war on terrorism and shift to other policy instruments. We are fighting counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and against the international jihadist movement, wars in which we need to prevail. But "war" is the wrong metaphor for the broader struggle. Meeting the jihadist challenge needs not a military campaign but a political contest for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims around the world.

Now I am not normally a Fukuyama fan and there is still stuff that I would quibble with in there. But, nevertheless, the bit about hearts and minds indicates that he is closer to sanity than most of his conservative buddies.

Whole Lott-a Baloney


The New Zealand Police have organised a conference on "gun safety" and one of the keynote speakers is John Lott. There are at least four other pro-gun speakers at the talk including a lobbyist who has been paid by the NRA in the past.

Fair enough, I guess, that the conference have speakers expressing different perspectives (although, really, the conference should probably have a different theme like "Debates on Firearms Legislation and Safety"). But I've just heard one of the conference organisers interviewed on National Radio (the interview doesn't seem to be on the schedule though) and he argued that the keynote speakers had been chosen for the quality of their empirical research.

Indeed the subtitle of the conference is: "solid research, not pious hopes".

Solid research? Honestly those are not two words that I would normally associate with Lott. As Tim Lambert shows here and here and here and here and here and here (most of these links are to categories - that is, pages of multiple posts on Lott as opposed to individual posts) Lott's research is contestable to put it politely. Not only that but Lott appears to be unafraid of stooping to using sock puppets when debating his opponents.

Given that the police are co-organising this conference, no doubt some of my tax-payer dollars are going into giving Lott a platform. Personally, I don't mind taxes being used to fund debate (enhancing our democracy) but I draw the line when it comes to crank pseudo-lobbyists masquerading as researchers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

another blog break

arrgghhh....busy busy busy - two jobs, a surf contest to organise, all the constraints of my illness too.

all of which means that there will be no blogging - up until this weekend at least.

Neal - I owe you a couple of replies - I'll get round to this (hopefully in the weekend)

On top of everything else, I am also working on a longish blog post on why I have converted to libertariansim

[Update - ok ok that was a typo - should read why I haven't converted to libertarianism]

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Hardest Part of an Already Hard Job

I’ve never envied police officers; it always seemed to me that their job must be an incredibly difficult one. And it always seemed to me that, a particularly hard part of an already tough job must be when they have to pass on news of a death to next of kin. God only knows I would dread doing this. But I also thought that perhaps police officers got used to this, or that they were trained in a way that made it easier. However, I’ve just read this post, written by a detective, and it turns out that I was wrong: for that particular detective at least the task is every bit as hard as I’d originally guessed.

Have a read.

Also worth a read is this post about crime against immigrants.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Those other cartoons...

I don't have any time to write, but I just wanted to take two seconds to condemn the Iranian newspaper that intends to run a cartoon contest based on cartoons denying the Holocaust. Words fail me really, what a stupid, evil, pointless thing to do.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Those Cartoons…

Who ever would have thought that a few cartoons would lead to embassies being ransacked? (Technically, apparently, this is an act of war). Personally, I’ve got to admit that I find the whole furore depressing. Little that has occurred says much positive about the respective “sides” in this debate.

What follows are – approximately – my thoughts on the matter:

The Cartoons Themselves

They are gratuitous and offensive; what’s worse, the worst of the cartoons (Mohammad, with a bomb super-imposed over his turban) reinforces a too-commonly held (and profoundly untrue) prejudice in much of the Western World: that all Muslims are terrorists. My whole feelings on the episode might have been quite different if the cartoons were simply depictions of Mohammad (which, according to the Wikipedia at least, isn’t directly prohibited in the Koran, and which is tolerated by most Shi’a and many Sunni Muslims).

The Republications of the Cartoons in Two New Zealand Newspapers

Two New Zealand Newspapers re-published some of the cartoons (the Dom Post and the Christchurch Press). I’ll focus my attentions here on the Dom as it’s Wellington’s local paper.

It doesn’t really surprise me – given the joy that some of the Dom’s editorial team (and senior journalists) appear to get from kicking vulnerable sections of society – that they were one of those “brave” newspapers who felt it necessary to “defend free speech” by republishing the cartoons*. Such was their right. But were they displaying any responsibility in exercising it? Not in my mind. After all, in this case, freedom of speech could have simply been defended by an editorial criticising the actions of the protestors and supporting other paper’s right to publish the cartoons. Publishing the cartoons themselves, on the other hand, without explicitly criticising them (and neither the Dom’s editorial nor its other comment on the matter does this) is very hard to read as anything but tacit endorsement of the subject matter. Particularly, given that their two alternate explanations for publication are unconvincing: letting readers see what all the fuss was about; and defending free speech.

The first of these explanations is disingenuous to say the least: Um, guys, ever heard of the internet? Ever thought that simple descriptions might suffice? On top of this I can think of all sorts of other areas where the Dom hasn’t bothered to show its readers what ‘all the fuss was about’ in the past (White Phosphorous burnt bodies in Iraq etc…)

And the second reason is just silly: freedom of speech in New Zealand isn’t under threat or, at least, it isn’t from the country’s Muslim population, who – thus far – have protested only peacefully. On the other hand free speech – which doesn’t actually exist here anyhow – is under threat from other directions. Like the chief censor banning an issue of the Canterbury University magazine 'Critic'. Right in our own back yard! Yet the Dom has hardly been at the forefront of protesting this. Which begs the question: why did it leap into the free speech fray on the particular issue of cartoons and Muslim sensibilities, and not on other such issues? You can draw your own conclusions on this one.

The Actions of the Protestors and Certain Governments

Yet while I don’t think the Dom should have published the photos; I’m certainly no apologist for the actions of some of the protestors. Not all of the protestors by any means: all protests thus far in New Zealand have been dignified and peaceful, and many of the protestors in Europe have been similarly law abiding (and, as such, have been exercising another important right – the right to protest). But some of the protestors in Europe, and a lot of the protests that have taken place in the Middle East, have been violent and threatening. And this is completely reprehensible. And very worrying (as I will discuss below).

Much of the protest (at least that which is taking place in some Middle Eastern Countries) is also completely hypocritical given that these countries are regularly home to anti-Semitic cartoons, movies and TV shows (warning: the ADL link contains offensive cartoons). Memo to the Middle East press: if you want to criticise racism (and you should), you’ll do so much more effectively if you move beyond racism yourselves.

And What Does All This Mean

Of course all these points are trivial when compared to a much bigger question. How can we move forward in our relations with the Muslim world? Or, indeed, can we move forward at all, or are we inescapably heading towards a clash of civilisations? Personally, I don’t think that any such clash is inevitable. And – even if one did occur – I doubt it would pose an existential threat to the West in the same way that Fascism did. But any 'clash' which does occur (and even the clashlets that currently sprinkle the globe at present) will lead to suffering, and this is something we ought to strive to avoid. The question is how though? To an extent I think that certain military responses can be justified in combating Islamic extremism; and I certainly think that some Police responses are. But, at the same time, when fighting against something as nebulous as an idea, the ultimate battle (unless you want to turn into a police sate, or engage in endless war) is a fight for hearts and minds. And, in this particular case, it ought not to be such a hard battle to win. Really and truly I think that given the choice (behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance say) between a tolerant, prosperous and pluralistic society, and a totalitarian pre-modern theocracy, the vast majority of people will choose the former. The trouble is that, at present, we aren’t offering the former as an alternative to the latter. We are half offering it at best. Our actions in the Middle East are (largely) self-serving and hypocritical. And, in our own countries, we tend to subject Muslim immigrants (and their descendants) to racial prejudice as well as stuffing them down the bottom of the socio-economic heap. None of which is to excuse the actions of Osama Bin Laden or to say that we should never actively fight against him and his ilk. What I’m simply saying is we’d do a lot better at this if we were a bit more just ourselves.

Human Rights (and wrongs)

Along with causing me to worry about Huntingtonian clashes of civilisations, the matter of the cartoons also, in my mind, explains why rights – human rights – aren’t always as easy to protect as you would hope.

Now let me be clear here. I strongly support the ideal of human rights. You only have to look at situations like Rwanda to see why placing the protection of human rights ought to be at the forefront of national and international actions. Moreover, I reject post-modernist critiques that argue along the lines of “human rights are a Western construction”. Nonsense! Human rights are exactly what they claim to be – a reflection of elements of the human condition that are universal (aversion to torture, aversion to seeing your children gassed to death etc.) Sure plenty of cultures have ignored them, but when you scratch under the surface of this, elites in these cultures (the people calling the shots) were usually pretty active in trying to protect their own human rights (or at least approximations of them). The only premise you need is that all human beings are equal. From there human rights follow.

What really makes makes human rights difficult, however, is the fact that rights are – too an extent – rivalrous That is: my use of a particular human right can diminish your ability to enjoy another such right. Or, for example, if I use my right to freedom of speech to persecute a minority, I will be diminishing their right to live free of persecution. Or, to get back to the original point, if I publish a cartoon that perpetuates a negative stereotype of an already somewhat threatened minority in my country, I am engaging in a pretty bloody irresponsible use of my own right. Dom Post, take a bow here.

None of this means that we should abandon the concept of human rights just because things get tricky at times (sound effect: the wailing of the baby as it goes out with the bath water). But it does mean that a certain level of maturity and consideration (as opposed to chest beating) is required when considering how we put our rights to use.


Amongst all the mess there has been some good news as well though. For example, like I already mentioned, thus far, all protest on the matter in New Zealand has been peaceful.

And much protest in other places has been the same.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, showed why he is clearly one of the best reasons for hope in the wreck of post invasion Iraq by condemning the images but also extreme protests.

The NZ Herald didn’t run the cartoons. And published a great editorial explaining why.

Worth Reading

Personally, I’ve found the following articles/posts useful reading in framing my thoughts on the matter (which is not to say that I agree with everything said in the following links).

This Observer article on the affair is great.

The Wikipedia is informative (and, surprise surprise, locked down).

The excellent Tze Ming Mok has a great Public Address column.

And – also from Public Address – Russell Brown has a good, link rich, column on the topic. In particular he points out that the Arab press isn’t the only home to free speech hypocrisy, the right wing New Zealand blogosphere does that just fine too, thank you very much.

The Guardian provides a summary of the views of the English press on the controvery (no English papers have published the cartoons).

Simon Jenkins also has an interesting take on rights and how they are used (one which I don’t completely agree with but have some sympathy for).

The Guardian has an excellent debate on decisions to publish or not; one in which Gary Younge (as always) says things clearer and more eloquently than I ever could.

While Brownie at Harry’s Place talks some sense on the English press not publishing (warning offensive cartoons in the link).

And finally, Norightturn feels differently from me, but makes a good argument.

[Update: Johann Hari feels differently too; while Timothy Garton Ash contributes intelligently]

[Update 2: I've just been through and tidied up grammer and writing - all the points have remained though].

* Just by happy co-incidence the Danish paper that originally published the cartoons was pro-fascist before WW2; at the same time the Dominion (one of the predecessors to the Dom Post) was host to an openly anti-Semitic columnist, (or at least it was according to a Jewish lecturer from Victoria University, who I have no reason to doubt on the matter). Of course, neither paper is openly pro-Fascist or anti-Semitic nowadays. But neither of them have proud pedigrees in these areas.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Great Political Slogans

Crooked Timber has a discussion on whether Terry Pratchett is a libertarian or not. In the comments to this discussion Kieran Healy makes the following post:

There’s a great line in Guards! Guards!, which is about a dragon who terrorizes the city, where a lone protestor tries to stand up to the dragon and attempts to rally the people behind him with the excellent slogan “The people united can never be ignited.” Sadly, this sentiment is shortly afterwards proven to be mistaken.

Points for best political slogan of the week…

Recommended Reading for Treasury Officials

There’s a good article in the Melbourne Age discussing the argument that lower taxes don’t lead to better economic performance. It also discusses how lower taxes have higher social costs. Here’s hoping that a few people in Treasury take note of the points made.

The article also has a succinct summary of why Adam Smith was a great social thinker; but also one with limited relevance to today’s debates. Here’s the relevant extract:

Tax is at best a necessary evil. [This is]… a view with a long pedigree. Back in 1776, Adam Smith, founder of economics, famously declared: "Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice." Many believe him, but was he right? Smith had no experience of the modern world; government to him was corrupt, incompetent officials in 18th century Britain. He could not imagine governments providing universal education, a comprehensive public hospitals system, subsidised health care, and comprehensive income support for the aged and the poor. Nor could he imagine governments managing industrial development so well that its output doubled every few years, as happened in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China and Ireland. Mozart's music may be eternal, but social ideas must evolve.

Hat Tip (and thanks): Tim