Archive for February, 2006

Hitchens documentary

28 February 2006

Given the recent furore over the current government’s policies, I haven’t seen too many people blog about last night’s Dispatches: Stealing Freedom with Peter Hitchens, detailing the various assaults on civil liberty the government have been inflicting. It uncovered some stories which were both fascinating and repugnant, such as the trainspotter given a full bodily search after having the temerity to stand up to a stationmaster, or the student who despite being totally innocent of any crime had his fingerprints kept on file after witnessing a bar fight, and was later arrested for mail tampering; it turned out his prints were on the letters in question as he, er, had posted them himself. Particularly craven was First Flatmate Lord Falconer (a man who has never been elected by anyone to political office in his life, yet sees fit to pontificate about how to best govern) justify retaining the fingerprints and biometrics of all innocent people on file, just in case it helps solve a crime. Maybe Hitchens realised it would be too tabloid and cheap to ask whether Falconer himself would willingly hand over his prints to the police despite his (presumed) innocence, and he would be right…. but he really should have done.

Sadly, Hitchens’ sense of history and sociology let him down – he happily suggested that the (in his view) leftish opinion of crime being solely a product of social deprivation rather than individual nature was a prime motivation, even though New Labour have happily maintained the gulf between rich and poor and done little to improve life chances. Hitchens himself studiously avoided anyone poor or dodgy-sounding; even the least likeable victims of the government’s thought police, a strictly religious couple who politely wrote to their local council’s objecting to its policy on same-sex partnerships and were subsequently threatened with a hate crime charge, were still respectably middle-class. The poor and deprived have been targeted more than anyone else – council estate teenagers slapped with ASBOs or with their DNA taken by the police, Muslim terror suspects stopped and searched at stations or detained without charge, did not feature at all in Hitchens view.

As well as that, he (along with his chum Freddie Forsyth) couldn’t help make a snipe at Europe, with a sweeping generalisation that Napoleon’s invasion of the continent 200 years ago has created a continental attitude that the police there are agents of the state (I’m no expert on the history of European law but even I know there is more to it than that) while ours are agents of the law; tell that to the Birmingham Six, or the family of Jean Charles de Menezes. Don’t get me wrong – our boys in blue are not devils, but they are not flawless paragons of jurisprudence either.

In all, it was hit and miss. Hit in that it provided well-told, concrete examples of how the impingement of freedoms affects us all; miss in that it quite obviously served Hitchens’ belief of who “us” was. Hit in that he made Falconer a tit of himself and show him to be the craven, spineless headline grabber he is, but miss as Hitchens failed to land a killer blow. Hit in that it showed the terrifying potential for misuse in a national identity database without sufficient legal protections, but it failed to make any sort of sustained or unified critique on the crucial difference between post-surveillance and pre-surveillance; the former uses specifically extracted information to detect and punish crime during or after it has taken place, the latter uses vast pools of data (partially complete at best) to try and divine behaviour and civil conformance – something that even our erstwhile continental chums have not tried. CCTV tied with facial recognition, a crackdown on dissent and opting out from the conformance, virtually compulsory identity cards with RFID, police powers to retain your fingerprints and DNA regardless of guilt, with underlying dire warnings of how the terrorists/criminals/extremists/dole scroungers will “win” if you do not comply – these are all backed up with centralised databases controlled by an executive with as few checks and balances as it is willing to allow. These new systems (or rather, components of a much larger supersystem), simultaneously technological, legal and social, are new and menacingly revolutionary. Hitchens’ underlying tone that we are slipping back to the Dark Ages, going the same way as many other illiberal regimes, was misguided; where we are heading if this continues unchecked, while just as menacing, is distinctly new and uncharted territory.

Before this starts to ramble (if it hasn’t already) I’ll stop. I have not been as perceptive or clear-headed as I have would have liked recently – I think it’s a lack of sleep. In related news, Liberty Central is up and running and there’s plenty more there to chew on, so head over there and take a look. I’ll be back once I’ve had some shut-eye…


Lost weekend

26 February 2006

Ow ow ow. A weekend spent in Cambridge getting an entirely unwarranted anachronism of a degree (photos here), eating, drinking, partying, not sleeping, and then spending the following day lost in the Cambridgeshire countryside as part of an ill-conceived “walking will cure our hangovers” adventure (my sense of direction, while fine in urban environments, is totally foiled in the sticks). And now I’ve got back home with extra letters on the end of my name, far fewer banknotes in my wallet and whatever the equivalent of a bulging mailsack is for RSS feeds. I need to start hiring someone to read them for me and give me a brief breakdown.

In the meantime… this excellent post by Murky shows just how appalling our government is, and why Geoff Hoon’s nickname should not be “Buff” but “I’m such an insultingly incompetent politician that I can’t even give a tenth of an answer, let alone a half-answer to a serious constitutional question, instead resorting to potshots of mind-boggling irrelevance and that makes me a complete shithead” (note to self – may be too long; may just have to trim down to “shithead”).


Where were you when it started?

23 February 2006

Well, looks like the Iraqi civil war has properly kicked off now. Three years of simmering insurgency and unrest, brought to the boil with one single act of terrorism. Over 100 dead in fighting (semmingly tired of killing policemen and foreigners, they’re now turning their attention to factory workers), Iraq’s highly sectarian alliances have broken off talks, and everyone’s laying into each other over who’s to blame. And it’s barely been a single day so far. It certainly puts the ongoing saga of the Mohammed cartoon furore (and the associated “clash of civilisations bullshit) into perspective now. The only civilisation under threat right now is Iraq’s, and it’s all thanks to the kind intervention of the Coalition of the Willing.


Separating powers

21 February 2006

Right, after my previous post (and others’), a much-needed clarification on the Anyone But Labour thing:

That brings me to the one big misconception that is emerging, in relation to the ‘Anyone But Labour’ tactical voting campaign. This is NOT the first stage of Liberty Central, it is a parallel development that has emerged out of the same ‘mood’ of opposition to the present govenment’s authoritarian legislative programme that also gives impetus to the Liberty Central project. Some of those who are working on this project are working on that campaign, some aren’t – its not an ‘official sanctioned’ offshoot of Liberty Central mainly because we’re not in business of officially sanctioning anything or sanctioning/constraining anyone in their actions.

Good – in the flurry of blog posts we (including, I’m sure, the main instigators) were all getting a bit confused, and this clarity is a good thing. Sensibly, at the same time MatGB‘s toned down the strapline of his blog (it no longer targets New Labour specifically), and “Anyone But Labour” (which always smacked of the “Anyone But United” mentality in football from a few years ago, and of the “Anyone But Chelsea” one which will kick off in a few months) has been abandoned in favour of a more anodyne (and possibly misleading) working title of “Tactical Voting Campaign”. As I think tactical voting is rubbish, I probably won’t be joining them. In fact, I can see a point where the two campaigns might clash, if LibertyCentral takes a pro-PR stance while TVC doesn’t mind hacking the current system to make it work.

At the moment a lot of ideas are swirling around the blogosphere, some well-matched and others quite oppositional. Many people who are pro-LibertyCentral are also feverishly anti-Labour, while many others (myself included) think Labour is a broad church and that to make it party-focused risk alienating not just MPs and councillors, but ordinary party members and grass-root activists who would otherwise be sympathetic. Some sort of separation is needed, not just in their scope, but of technological and methodological approaches. TVC, with its emphasis on personal rhetoric and direct opposition, is heading to be first a post-oriented group blog or aggregation service (with perhaps, later on, psephological tools to help co-ordinate tactical voting); while LibertyCentral’s philosophy of consensual discourse and the slow building of a campaign implies discussion forums, wikis and perhaps a MeFi or Slashdot-style comment-oriented group blog. Maybe. It would certainly help, I think, in having each project’s goals properly embedded in their technological setup from the start, rather than just drift towards two indistinguishable blog sites that end up mimicking each other’s content and style.


Missing the point

21 February 2006

Oh dear, and it was looking so promising too. The latest on LibertyCentral:

Anyway, Anyone But Labour is crystalising…

No, no, no. I’m not voting for, say, Robert Kilroy-Silk ahead of Labour. I wouldn’t vote either for the Tory Sir George “Brian Haw is helping the terrorists” Young, nor dictators’ friend George Galloway. It’s not a case of being against any one party, or even against just the current government. It should be a cause of being for liberty, for the freedom to protest in Westminster, the freedom from detention without trial, freedom from being stopped and searched in a Tube station because the police think you look funny (i.e. not white), the right to go about your life without having your movements logged by a centralised register of identity, the right to not have your DNA kept on record despite you being innocent of any crime, the right to demand it’s an elected Parliament and not the executive to make laws.

The easiest conjuring trick of them all is to create threatening figureheads who “threaten” our way of life – to single out particular figures as evil and nefarious because of their facial hair, military garb or prosthetic hooks, to make them into easily-demonised figures. It’s cheap, it’s quick and it bypasses any intelligent treatment of the subject, it discards more complex notions of what we are for, in favour of who we are against. It’s the political equivalent of an anti-paedo witch-hunt – it’s how the current war on terror is being fought by the UK and US governments, and the pro-civil liberty rush in the blogosphere is surging the same way in the way it’s tarring the Labour Party. Yes, the current Blair government is passing all manner of illiberal laws, but they’re not the only part of the political spectrum keen on doing so. Just as the nascent pro-liberty movement is broad-based and across political wings, so is the cause of those who push for stricter laws. Tony Blair might be a Labour MP but so are Bob Marshall-Andrews and Jeremy Corbyn.

As a result, I’ve altered my earlier musings on voting Tory (or whoever) to turf Labour out of power; it’s no good throwing out the good MPs with the bad. The issues being debated are too important to reduce to typical party politics – we should be voting for pro-civil liberty MPs and councillors and kick out those who are against, whether they be Labour or Tory, Lib Dem or Monster Raving Loony. Puffing on about “Anyone But Labour” doesn’t just risk missing the right target, but also risk failing to engage an electorate who will see it as just another partisan stunt, rather than the very real issues it is trying to tackle.


Going down

21 February 2006

So, David Irving’s going to jail. I would write about it, but Nosemonkey gets there ahead of me:

David Irving is an idiot, not a criminal [...] His kind of questioning of the Holocaust may be hurtful, it may be distasteful, it may be based on dubious evidence and on the utterly unhistorical discounting of thousands of eyewitness accounts, but someone needs to question the accepted version of history, even if only to be roundly debunked and ridiculed. Just as the late, great Conrad Russell was not sent to prison for challenging the received wisdom on the origins of the English Civil War, David Irving should not be sent to prison for challenging the received wisdom on the Third Reich.

Or to sum it up even more succinctly (and with apologies to TISM) – he might be a cunt, but he’s not a fucking cunt. Jailing David Irving makes nobody safer, doesn’t make society any less racist. All it does is risk making him a martyr, and his own terrible cause seem that little bit more alluring and underground.


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