Monday, 19 July 2010

The Big Society - Brought to you by your bank account!!

First we had the unveiling of the ‘We’re all in this together’ mantra (subsequently repeated with the same conviction as, ‘I am a tiger, I can do this, grrr’), then we had the ‘Erm, in the interests of democracy, obviously, why don’t you give us your ideas for where we’re going to find these eleventy-six bazillion pounds in cuts...’, and now, fresh from Conservative HQ, we have - *drum roll* - Big Society funded by Dormant Bank Accounts!!

Yes, our glorious leaders, our new saviours, have now decided to scrape the bottom of the barrel (and by barrel, I obviously mean personal bank account).

According to Cameron:

"The big society bank will be established using every penny of dormant bank and building society account money. These unclaimed assets, alongside the private sector investment that we will leverage, will mean that the big society bank will – over time – make available hundreds of millions of pounds of new finance to some of our most dynamic social organisations."

To be fair to Davey-Dave-Daver-Daverson, it’s not his idea per se, and the door to stealing your money was in fact prised open by his equally astute predecessor with all that brute, roguish force, apparently so terrifying to Messrs Blair and Mandelson.

According to the Guardian,

“When he was chancellor in 2005, Gordon Brown mooted the idea of using dormant accounts to fund youth and community projects but was forced to back down after critics warned there would be administrative chaos and questioned whether the government had the legal right to seize the funds.

He raised the idea again in 2007 and in 2008 the Dormant Bank and Building Society Act was passed, giving the government the right to collect and distribute unclaimed money from dormant accounts after 15 years.”

Anyways, now, given that the new coalition has seemingly taken the ‘no such thing as a bad idea during a brainstorming session’ idea, and applied it up to and including the actual policy making process, here’s where we’re left:

  • The Banks fuck-up the economy.
  • Government gives them shit loads of our money, to prevent liquidity and lending crises.
  • The Banks don’t actually bother with any of that jazz, deciding to just, you know, keep the money, stop all lending, and focus instead on ‘redistributing’ the funds amongst themselves in the form of, and you really couldn’t make this bit up, Performance Related Bonuses.
  • In the meantime, we do one of those 'pretending we actually live in a democracy' whatsits, which results in two of the three parties cobbling together a new coalition using, to all intents and purposes, a combination of will power, borrowed time, and sticky back plastic.
  • This ‘new way of doing politics’ (or Dave and Nick to their friends), quickly decide that, despite the above behaviour by the banks, we must all make sacrifices to ‘turn this once great nation around’!
  • This means, in reality, that sweeping public sector cuts, a draconian decimation of all forms of benefit, allowance or assistance, the gradual privatisation of the NHS by the back-door, and the erosion of essential public services, will hit largely the most vulnerable in society. And hard. (Those who caused this crisis – not so much! Those who have vast amounts of wealth stashed away offshore – fugeddaboutit!!)
  • And now, to add insult to injury, Cameron introduces the ‘Big Society’, whereby charities, benevolent individuals and ‘dynamic social groups’ sweep in, plugging the gaps he created, and do so, funded by private, ‘Dormant’ accounts, that are held in the Banks that fucked us all over in the first place!!

Issues of fairness, justice, and good-practice aside, you have to admit, it’s got a rather nice circularity to it!!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Multi-Party Systems: anarchy, shmanarchy!!

Following on from Philippa’s mathsy bit on the UT2, here’s a wordy bit that briefly looks at multi-party systems, hopefully in a way that avoids the ‘it’ll be bloody anarchy, I tells ya’ rhetoric. It was mostly hastily cut and pasted from an essay, so it might have a few errors arising from that, and be a bit boring, but hopefully it’s still fairly readable.......

In the Liberal Democratic tradition, parties, and levels of competition between them, are considered essential because they ‘process and structure the options to be made available to the electorate, thereby converting millions of votes into a collective decision about who will govern’.[1]

Given the implications for democracy attached to this interpretation, criticism of multi-party systems has been extensive, and charges include, but are not limited to; the fact that there are too many parties; they are not well-rooted in society; and, perhaps as a result of these factors, tend to contribute to political stability and policy outputs in uncertain ways.[2]

I will firstly take the charges of the great number of parties and the extent to which they are rooted in society, and examine them together.

I will do so in the context that political parties, wherever located, have a dual purpose; that of aggregating interests, preferences or opinions, but also of then translating them into government policy.[3]

Of the first point, it seems almost counter-intuitive to argue that a greater number of parties is less beneficial than fewer in aggregating opinion, or ensuring that particular interests are adequately represented in government and policy-making decisions. Indeed, the presence of differentiated political parties almost certainly affects positively the capacity of the subordinated classes in particular, to pursue their interests or concerns, when perhaps a two or three party system does not.

Although it could, and has been argued, that high levels of representation could threaten stability, particularly where the masses pursue a radical or redistributive agenda which may threaten elites or the privileged classes, I would argue that if significant portions of the public are left unrepresented, they may well withdraw support from the regime, and thus create serious ‘legitimacy/mandate’ issues (of the kind we’re seeing recently) and, essentially undemocratic forms of government.[4]

With regards to the charge that parties are not well-rooted in society, in an M-PS, the number of parties must surely also go some way to counteracting this claim.

With so many alternatives from which to choose, parties must reach some level of acceptable accountability or face the risk of losing support. Politicians or parties who refuse to be responsive to their constituents needs, demands or preferences, or who fail to perform effectively, will be held accountable by them, and may no longer receive material contributions, support or votes.[5] Essentially, if you remove the ‘wasted vote’ thing, and you also eliminate ‘tactical voting’, each party must compete for their votes on merit.

However, as I mentioned, the aggregation and articulation of preferences is but one role of political parties, and for all the arguments in favour of diverse representation, one must consider the part it plays in policy performance and generation.

Here one might reasonably suspect that a large number of parties, particularly when they may be diverse and distant in terms of ideology or programme, can not bode well for an effective and efficient legislation process. Once again, an investigation of this reveals interesting, and perhaps surprising results.

In an article about the effect of multi-partyism and party discipline on legislation, Josep M Colomer found that multi-partyism can in fact be a beneficial feature in the legislative process where it reflects appropriately the pluralism of citizen preferences and concerns.

Although a large number of parties has been hypothetically associated to a lack of democratic and policy success, empirical tests have not borne out this theory.[6] In contrast, in legislatives with a small number of parties, and with strong party discipline, there is more tendency for bi-partisan confrontation and more instances of gridlock.

Where there is a greater number of parties, or high levels of party indiscipline, this tendency is reduced, and has proved much more favorable for a smoother decision-making process.[7]

Similarly, if the number of parties present in the legislative arena is high, and accurately reflects the diverse interests of the society it is supposed to represent, it is more likely that policy output is more acceptable to the greater number of people.

The degree to which compromise and concessions must be sought will necessarily entail that the resulting legislation is acceptable to more than just one party, and therefore more than just one section of society.

This can be illustrated further by reversing the argument. A small number of disciplined parties, with a clear position on a given issue, are likely to come into conflict with each other – either meaning that the legislation is gridlocked, or, if passed by a small margin, is unacceptable to nearly half of the peoples’ representatives in congress.

However, the presence of a larger number of parties, with either an undisciplined or disciplined nature, ensures that significant compromise must be achieved, from a diverse section of representatives, and this is reflected in the resulting legislation, which will more likely have been at least in part acceptable to more than one group or party.

Therefore, not only does the number of parties in an M-PS necessarily reflect the number of interests amongst the citizenry in a given country, but it can mean, and frequently has done, that the policy output from any given legislative assembly comprised of this diverse group, often reflects this delicate balance of interests and preferences in society at large.

Finally, interestingly, with regards to the number of parties, and their effect on the quality and durability of a regime, it is perhaps illustrative to draw parallels with those liberal democracies in the West, against which an M-PS is so often judged unfavourably.

Low, and falling, turnout in these so-called ‘established democracies’ has increasingly been attributed to a general feeling that ‘all parties are as bad as each other, and pretty much the same’, offering no real alternative to the voter.

In this respect, PR and a truly Multi-Party System seems to, at least in part, create solutions to the problems of legitimacy that so often coincide with the lack of adequate representation and the poor electoral turnout that results.

For this reason alone, I would argue that it’s most certainly worth a pop!!

[1] John Peeler, Building Democracy in Latin America, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2nd Edition, 2004), Page 102.

[2]J Foweraker et al, Governing Latin America, (Cambridge: Polity Press 2003), Page 95 -110.

[3] J Foweraker et al, Governing Latin America, (Cambridge: Polity Press 2003), Page 97.

[4] Juan P. Luna and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, ‘Political Representation in Latin America: A Study of Elite-Mass Congruence in Nine Countries’, Comparative Political Studies; 38; 388 (2005)

[5] Herbert Kitschelt, ‘Linkages between Citizens and Politicians in Democratic Polities’, Comparative Political Studies; 33; 845 (2000)

[6] Josep M Colomer, ‘Policy making in divided government: A pivotal actors model with party discipline’, Public Choice 125: 247–269 (2005)

[7]Josep M Colomer, ‘Policy making in divided government: A pivotal actors model with party discipline’, Public Choice 125: 247–269 (2005)

Monday, 19 April 2010

Locke, Rousseau and the Democratic Deficit.

In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, John Locke suggests that:

‘Whensoever [the legislative transgresses fundamental rules of society] and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people, by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to assume their original liberty, and by the establishment of the new legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own security….’

Whether the current ‘legislative’ has transgressed fundamental rules of society, is, perhaps, open to debate (although the expenses scandal provides quite a damning case), but I think it’s fair to say that there is a growing number of people who feel that it, at the very least, has usurped many of the fundamental principles of our ‘democracy’, and that accordingly, conditions are right for a more accountable governmental system.

The thing is though, I don’t see it happening.

Sure, it’s election season, and we’ve been thrown our ‘you decide’ bone, but, realistically, what can we hope to decide in our current, ‘system’?

A system where ‘infrequent elections in conjunction with a competitive party system puts a positive premium on deceiving and manipulating the public, by altering policy in the run up to an election…..then imposing unpopular measures immediately afterward when elections are far away’!?

The answer, I’m afraid, is probably not much.

In our present FPTP system, with it’s safe seats, parachuted candidates, and underlying party system with whips, corporate backing and media cohorts, we’re all pretty much banging our heads against a brick wall anyway.

This election will, I suspect (and I’m willing to take bets with anyone on this) involve the usual amount of vague national issues, dog-whistle politics, and, particularly in ‘marginal seats’, some candidate throwing out a few local issues that their researches were kind enough to look up for them.

This is, of course, a tactic endorsed and heavily tested back at party HQ, where it was mostly funded by some corporation or other (and possibly, with all three parties having been funded by the same corporation), ensuring that said ‘local issue’ is presented in manner x, y, or z, which ultimately benefits this corporation in some way or another.

Jean Jacques Rousseau warned, in his ‘Social Contract’, that ‘Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests’ and stated that this would inevitably result in the corruption of the legislator.

So erm, another tick there then, I reckon.
Because, when we look at it, when we really ask who benefits from the current system, it certainly doesn’t seem to be anybody other than them, right!?

Finally, Rousseau, in a similar vein, wrote that ‘the peoples deputies are not, and could not be, its representatives; they are merely its agents...... ‘the moment a people adopts representatives it is no longer free; it no longer exists’ .

Well, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. I certainly think that once we have ‘adopted’ our representatives, we cease to exist on any practical level.

Indeed, once our MP’s have touched base on the campaign trail, they’re off for another five years, backing the aforementioned corporate interests, because, you know, they’re all so close, and therefore harder to forget than ‘them funny little constituency people that talk all funny and that’!

Because, even if we were lucky enough to vote in a marginal constituency, and even if that MP makes a promise to do something about that issue, and even if they do get elected, the chances of that issue making it past the realities of corporate influence/party discipline are so small as to be laughable.

So what am I saying, what am I calling for?
To be honest, I’m not sure.

I think though, that when a political campaign openly uses ‘vote x, but get y’ as a legitimate strategy, we’re some way beyond f@cked. And, perhaps, merely acknowledging that is a start, and getting angry about it a further step in the right direction.

I also suspect that voter apathy is a severe obstacle to reform, but one that is probably caused by the above, and, whether by design or luck, this has created a catch-22, a self-reinforcing democratic deficit that we have becoming increasingly powerless to overcome.
(I also suspect that, should I urge people to look into what Rousseau and Locke had to say on this subject, most people would immediately think I was talking about the characters on the telly from ‘Lost’!).

I guess, what I really want are some ideas, and any would be gratefully received, because, as Rousseau also noted:

‘ Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium’ – Better freedom with danger than peace with slavery’

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The end of an affair!?

I grew up in a North of England decimated by years of Tory policy, where the hatred of the Conservatives was so intense and consistent, and where, accordingly, the very idea of a Labour government had become an almost mythical, utopian one, destined to bring back the light of dignity and justice to those who had barely survived the long and brutal siege of the conservative lords to the South.

Indeed, when Tony Blair posed with Noel Gallagher, it meant more to some than just ‘Cool Britannia’, it was a symbolic and meaningful gesture. For years, the conventional wisdom had held that, in order to escape the poverty, to break the cycle, we had two choices: Music or Sport. Noel, whether you liked him or not, was coming back for those he had left behind, and Tony Blair was leading the mission.

After thirteen years of utopia however, we aint so fucking convinced.

Many thousands of words have been written on the subject of ‘so-called’ Labour’s abandonment of their core constituency, and I don’t wish to repeat them all here, but, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems fair to say that, at the very least, the more optimistic of us were certainly misguided.

For the reasons outlined above, the ‘working-class’ vote was relatively assured for Labour in ‘97, and the major coup of Tony Blair, and, perhaps his enduring legacy, will be the extent to which he made his ‘New’ Labour project palatable to those who would perhaps, historically have feared the firebrand politics of a powerful Labour government.

Under his guidance, the acceptable, white collar face of a new kind of labour replaced the grey, dour face of the past. Vague notions of a ‘Third Way’ replaced concrete promises of policy, except of course, some shit about fox-hunting, and substance was ultimately replaced with style.

And while the ordinary folk were dazzled and distracted by all the fun of the fair, and the snake-oil salesmen promising eternal ‘social justice for all’, New Labour sounded the dog-whistles to those higher up, those who, unlike many of us, perhaps had something to lose.

The message though was clear. We’re New Labour. We’re acceptable. We’re more of the fucking same. There’s no firebranding – just branding.

And, after those first few years, things seemed to be going well. The working classes played the faithful domestic partner at home, gratefully accepting the scraps thrown to us by our masters, and lapping up the attention given us after so many years of neglect, while New Labour, in reality, continued to court the middle-classes, wining and dining those who had really got them elected, focusing their time and energy on this newer, more exciting relationship.

And eventually our scraps became less frequent, and with more ‘conditions’ attached. We’d lost our right to representation by virtue of being complete fucking morons, and watched helplessly as we became controlled instead.

The dignity of self-determination became the safety of proscription.

And, finally, one day, the ‘attention’ became authority, and the gentle caress was replaced by a warning slap, delivered with just enough force to keep us in place, but enough ambiguity to keep us questioning our own culpability.

Again, the real effort, the gentle, charismatic approach was reserved for the more appealing, more rewarding, sexier, liaison.

By this point, most of us knew this of course, but we pretended we didn't.

We ignored the ‘working late at the office’, and the business trips out of town, and we even looked the other way when we found the receipts in the pockets of the trousers we still faithfully washed and ironed in our ‘new utopia’. Hell, we had our brand new call centre jobs that had made us so much better people, and we really couldn’t rock the boat because of a little infidelity, could we!?

Some even sought to re-ignite the relationship. Seeing the newer, more refined tastes of their beloved, they tried to make themselves more attractive in a similar mould. Using easily obtainable credit some made more of an effort, re-inventing themselves in the image of these newer objects of affection, pushing themselves to the limit, climbing an ever steepening stairway, and refusing to look down, lest the illusion be shattered.

Ironically though, they needn’t have bothered, because now, thirteen years later, it is the (lower to middle) middle-classes who have become the gimps, albeit slightly classier and more eloquent ones.

Where once they provided the opportunity for something new and exciting, a fresh upwardly mobile partnership, they’ve now too become an albatross in much the same way that the lower classes did all those years ago. And consequently, they too have been abandoned in favour of better, more powerful bed-mates.

But, whereas a few extra cans of spam have nearly always been enough to keep the working classes quiet, the middle classes require something a bit more substantial to keep the betrayal unrecognised, and ultimately unpunished.

While they suffer from crashing house prices, the rising cost of credit, failing schools, and shrinking pensions, Labour send out the big guns of identity politics to keep them distracted and placated:

Yeah, you’re struggling a bit now, sorry about that, but them lot, they’re fucking racists/homophobes/misogynists, innit!?

OK, so your pension’s disappeared as a result of the ‘only game in town’, which, by the way, we made a hell of a lot easier to play, and sure, now you’re going to have to work an extra five years while the cock-knocker who fucked it up for you is living it up with his multi-million pound bonus, but remember, you’re black/gay/a woman, and, well, that lot, they don’t like any of the above, do they!!??

And it’s a clever strategy, to be fair. Because after thirteen years of Labour Government, after poverty and hardship have increased throughout the bottom and the middle sections of society, and after the most prolonged and grievous erosion of civil rights and liberties in living memory, we’re all going to vote for Labour anyway, because they’re still better than the other lot.

Because, sure, Labour have beaten the shit out of us, most of us, but they’ve promised they’ll change, and that they won’t do it again. We tell ourselves that they love us, deep down, and that it’ll all be different this time. And besides, we ask, ‘where else are we going to go?’, ‘what other option do we have’?

Well I, for one, am not buying it.
I refuse to vote for Labour because they’re not the Tories, and, likewise, I’m not voting for the Tories because they’re not Labour.

In the UK, we do have another, relatively viable option, and, if now isn’t the time to use it, then when the hell is?

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Andrew Brown. A legend in his own mind.

So, a week has passed since ‘Summerislegate’, and, quite rightly, his Lordship has now been allowed back to CiF, and in many ways, the dust seems to have settled on what was quite an interesting, yet ultimately brief episode in the grander scheme of The Guardian website and its history.

Having maintained my non-posting stand over the last seven days, and after enjoying the period of cool, considered reflection this afforded me, I began to re-consider my own ‘flouncing off’. After the ‘break’ from a 14 year relationship, I’d even started to imagine what might constitute an online newspapers version of ‘make-up’ sex.

Then I saw this beauty from everyone’s favourite columnist, Andrew Brown:

I have been sitting quite hard on the comments in the last few posts on the Catholic scandals, and I wanted to thank everybody who played along, and to point out exactly what has been gained as a result. I could say that the comments have been much more interesting and pleasurable to read if they weren't full of expressions of disgust and accusations of complicity in paedophilia or its cover-up. That's true so far as it goes, but you might object that there are plenty of people who delight in abuse and love to breakfast off a cappucino of hot frothing outrage on a base of acid bitterness. Why should those poor souls have to go elsewhere for nourishment? Because we don't learn anything from them, that's why.
The great thing that comments can supply is contact with the people who do know better than the writer does about the story, either because they are smarter, nicer, better informed, or more experienced, or have spent longer thinking about it. These aren't always the people they think they are.
Like any decent journalist, I am confident that I know more about any particular story than 98% of the readers. This may sound horrendously arrogant, but that's the nature of news. The person who has it does think themselves better informed than the one who hasn't.
I am also conscious that I know a lot less about any given subject than the remaining 2% of the readers. These figures are of course adjustable up and down to taste, and depending on the subject involved. If I were to write about piano music, or football, the novels of Charles Dickens, or East Enders, almost anyone interested in the subject would know a lot more than me. But on religion and some sorts of science I do know a decent amount. I am correspondingly grateful to the people who know more and point out the errors. Certainly I have learned a lot from the discussions of the last few blogs, and been forced to think a lot. Thanks.
This sounds as if it is all about me, but it isn't. It's for the benefit of everyone who reads the site. But it won't work without reasonably strict moderation, because it's much harder to think clearly when you're being called an ignorant idiot and the accomplice of criminals. I don't believe that expressing sheer naked contempt changes anyone's mind; it certainly doesn't work on the despised object. With a subject like this, where sentiment runs all the way from Old Bathrobe to Stevhep it really matters that we play the balls and not the men.
This isn't a plea for agreement. A good thrash will often sharpen and widen disagreement especially when it's on a subject of real importance, as this one has been. But that happens only when the participants think they are being listened to and there's no quicker way to kill off that feeling than angry pre-packaged responses. Whether these are personal abuse or trolling, they are clearly banned in the talk policy and that is quite strictly enforced here.

Now, this is something a bit special, for several reasons, but particularly in the context of events last week.

Indeed, one of the ‘strikes’ accrued by Lord S, prior to the third that led to his banning, was a result of comment he made on an Andrew Brown thread, after AB had made some quite erroneous claims about Terry Sanderson and the NSS ATL, that were widely disputed and criticised by many BTL, and after Brown had then himself joined the debate to casually mention that he thought the ‘majority of those below the line had a mental age of less than 10’.

Therefore, to me at least, this would seem to fly right in the face of Andrew Brown’s claim to know more than 98% of readers (who were, on this occasion, more than willing to show Andrew his errors, even using proper links, facts and quotes and that, which for us non-journo types, was surely a very challenging business).

Likewise, the episode would also seem to undermine Brown’s stand against personal abuse, what with his original errors amounting to a personal attack on someone by, at best, deliberately twisting and mis-representing their position to suit his own ends.
I mean, I’m no expert, but making unjust, unsubstantiated claims against a ‘person’, in an attempt to vilify them, would seem to me like quite a good example of personal abuse, would it not?!

Finally, Andrew Brown’s own BTL salvo, embarked upon with the purpose of calling us all mentally retarded, would, again, seem to be an almost textbook definition of the ‘trolling’ phenomenon that he seems so keen to take a stand on, right!?

Seriously, you couldn’t make this shit up!!

But wait, just when I thought that I could never possibly agree with Andrew Brown, on anything, ever, he then joins in Below the Line too, offering us this little gem:

It may sound arrogant, but finding out about stuff quickly is one of the core skills of journalism, and if I'm no good at it by now, I might as well give in.

Well, Andrew, to be fair, you’ll get no argument from me on that one....

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Bobby Kennedy and the Guardian Fiasco

"Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice."

These words, from Robert Kennedy, have stayed with me since I first read them, and have, I hope, influenced and shaped my actions and my approach to life.

Most recently, the sentiment has been at the forefront of my mind in a ‘row’ over moderation and censorship on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ website. OK, no law had been flouted, but other than that, the Kennedy quote seemed apt.

I first read the quote in a book lent to me by a great teacher, who also, when I was about 14 years old, used to let me read his copy of The Guardian at lunch. At the time, I instantly felt drawn to the ‘worldview’ offered me by the paper, and recognised that, perhaps for the first time, I seemed to be seeing important events through a lens that addressed the questions and concerns that I myself had, from a position that closely reflected my own.

Like another Bobby quote:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”

The Guardian seemed to me, to be standing up for the ideals and values that I too held, and sending out the ripples that I thought the world most needed.

I stuck with the paper, through the changes in my own life, and through more seismic ones in the ‘real world’ until, upon relocating to ‘abroad’, I naturally honed in on the newspapers website as a link to the land I’d left, and onto the CiF part in particular, as both a way to compensate for a distinct lack of friends/social life, and to provide a source of entertainment, humour, and at times, wisdom, that reminded me of friends and family back home.

In the relatively short period of my own participation, however, I have noticed a drift from the very things that drew me to the Guardian all those years ago. I don’t intend to make a huge list of their faults, but generally (in my opinion), there has been a very biased approach to articles around particular subjects, a very capricious and inconsistent approach to moderation, and, perhaps most worryingly, a definite hint of contempt for those posting ‘Below the Line’ on the website.

All three of my concerns were highlighted and proven true, in the recent Lord Summerisle case.

An article was posted, by an uber-feminist lesbian, who seemed to be making some quite outrageous and derogatory claims about a certain celeb, who had been unfaithful, and then, by extension, most men who cheat, claiming to offer an authoritative view into the minds and psyches of ‘offenders’.

Lord S questioned whether the authors experience, sexuality, lifestyle etc, put her in such a position of authority as to be able to make such broad, sweeping claims, and asked if he, writing as a heterosexual male, made similar assertions about females in same sex relationships, it would have been accepted and published by the Guardian.

When this comment was deleted, LordS then asked, why, and, whether, had he written the above article, such a question of him would have been justified, and indeed, allowed to stand. After a small debate on the ‘What Do You Want to Talk About’ thread, news reached us that Lord S had been banned from CiF, and given that this was his ‘third strike’, it was to be permanent.

This caused a bit of a furore, and many posters, myself included, took issue with The Guardian, and its moderation/editorial policy. After considerable backlash, and vocal opposition over a couple of days, The Guardian eventually sent out the troops, who, although I’m paraphrasing, came up with some variation of ‘yeah, well, if you don’t like it, fuck off, or ‘the moderation issue again– boring – get over yourselves, everyone else thinks we’re great’.

Now, this response, I suppose, was slightly better than no response (which had until that point, been the stock policy with regards to calls for a discussion on/clarification of moderation policy, and the one they rapidly re-adopted after being called on the many problems with how they had responded), but, for me at least, it offered a definitive insight into how The Guardian views those who comment on ‘their’ website, and how much of a flying fuck they give about us Below the Line, who, ultimately, make the site something more than a collection of pseudo-intellectual journo buddies, writing to each other on a social networking page.

After hanging around for a little while, in a futile and final attempt to prompt a debate, I made the decision to leave the site, for the foreseeable future at least.

Now, this was by no means, an easy decision. Regardless of how sad this may be, the absence of CiF in my life, leaves a pretty gaping hole, with not many other options with which to fill it.

Consequently, the end of my fourteen year relationship with The Guardian has, lest things there change substantially and rapidly, come to a sudden, and for me, bitter end. And while I’m certain that they themselves don’t give a shit, and though I fully acknowledge that my walking away will ‘leave no ripples’, I have done it anyway.

Once again, this decision, this course of action, knowingly adopted despite its futility, can also perhaps best be expressed by Robert Kennedy, a person whose words, at one time, thanks to a twist of fate, were synonymous in my mind with the once great Guardian, but which now provide me with the incentive and desire to walk away from it....

“First, is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills - against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man”.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Me and my vegetarianism

The British, I believe, are culturally pre-disposed to dislike anything that appears too bossy, too smug, or too preachy. It’s why, I suspect, that signs requesting us to do perfectly reasonable things (and things we would normally do anyway) come with a ‘please’ in front of them, or a ‘thank you for not’.
If they didn’t, I genuinely think that many of us would be inclined to walk on that grass, you know, on principal.
If you’re like me, you might even make a detour to said grass, and walk on it while defiantly mumbling ‘how d’ya like them apples, ya bunch of fascists!?’.

I have sometimes, likewise, distanced myself from arguments or causes I would otherwise have completely supported, purely because of the way in which they have been presented. ‘Shouty’ this, and ‘preachy’ that, tend to make me uncomfortable, in a kind of instinctive way.

For these reasons, and a few others, I have chosen, for the most part, to keep my vegetarianism to myself. I’ve been vegetarian for fifteen years, but explained only when asked, and even then, offered merely a ‘well, it’s just a choice I made’ in the hope of avoiding serious discussion.
To be preachy, I surmised, would be to the detriment of whatever cause I could be said to support.

At times, my lack of zeal has been taken as a lack of commitment, and frequently this has led me to be on the defensive, particularly since I relocated to Brazil, where the BBQ is often an altar, and refusal to worship at it can create ‘issues’.

I now seem to spend roughly half my time explaining to people why chicken, bacon and turkey are, indeed meat, and why I can’t eat it, despite protestations to the contrary, and the other half apologising for causing either offence or embarrassment.
Yet, despite increasingly numerous ‘opportunities’, and commonly being referred to as ‘the gringo who talks with the animals’, I have still never put across an argument for, or even a defence of, my own vegetarianism.

Recently however, I have started to reconsider my position.

It would seem that many of the most pressing issues impacting our present world have at least some link to how we, particularly in the ‘developed world’, support our omnivorous lifestyles.

The vegetarian cause is no longer such a fringe one, and I think it’s time for the old image of vegetarians as either militants, or ‘tree-huggers who insist on wearing sandals with socks, and therefore cannot be taken seriously’ to be finally, and conclusively dropped.
Regardless of how vegetarians, or vegetarianism, may have been viewed in the past, it is no longer possible to deny that the cause intersects with many others, that very few of us have any trouble supporting.

Climate change for example, is frequently debated, and rightly so, yet very rarely have I seen the impact of animal farming mentioned, let alone focused on. According to extensive research conducted by The FAO, animal agriculture makes a greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined. It is the number one cause of ‘climate change’. From the land cleared for grazing, through the levels of methane, nitrates and carbon dioxide released by the millions of animals destined for human consumption, to final product transportation, the way we eat our meat is very much a part of the wider issue.

Of course, we must all, to some extent, ‘pick our battles’, but it would strike me as a very bizarre example of cognitive dissonance if we were to tackle carbon emissions from vehicles, fossil fuels etc, yet fail to consider current farming practices that have an even greater impact.

And in our world of rising sea levels, and diminishing land mass, nearly one third of the planet is currently dedicated to livestock – either for the animals themselves, or the stuff that becomes their feed. As we potentially stand to lose habitable land at alarming rates, can we continue to justify using so much of it, for a foodstuff that we can so easily reduce our intake of?

There are serious worldwide health implications too. And they are worrying, to say the least.
Aside from the long-term impact of the ‘stuff’ added to meat, the bacteria that accumulates in modern meat processing plants etc, the potential for a global pandemic is being greatly increased by our desire for cheap meat in high quantities.
Factory farming practices are essentially providing optimum conditions for the incubation and mutation of zoonotic diseases, such as the H1N1 virus. It therefore seems weird to me that, in the aftermath of this recent panic, the debate has been about whether the extent of the danger was exaggerated by scientists, rather than the practices that made it even a possibility in the first place.

I strongly believe that we now need to open serious debate around these issues. I decided to become a vegetarian, as a (precocious) thirteen year old, based on some wishy-washy ideals about animal welfare, and these reasons still hold, but in the mean time, the paradigm has shifted, and dramatically so.

And I’m not saying that everybody should become vegetarian, and I’m still going to refrain from being too ‘preachy’, but, given the stakes (or steaks), next time I’m asked with that mixture of contempt and confusion, why I’m a vegetarian, instead of apologising meekly, I think that I will answer the question properly, with both honesty and conviction.

Of course, it might not make me too popular, but it would seem to me that we have reached a point where popularity and social stigma are the least of our worries when it comes to the question of ‘eating meat’.

(Most of this was originally written in the hope that it would be printed in the comment or lifestyle section of a newspaper. It wasn't. Probably because it's shite!)