Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The anti-Jihad narrative

The Guardian has just published a story about a 15 year old Bristol girl who has just left her home to go to Syria. To quote from the story: she is feared to be on her way to Syria to join "extremists". Looked at from afar one man's extremist is another man's freedom fighter and I'm sure the girl herself does not see things quite like that. So, while I hope the girl returns home safely, I would more characterise her journey as that of a young person who is sick of the way the UK and the US use the Middle-East as a military playground. Put like that I am sickened by the tone of the article that takes it as given that the girl is suffering from being "radicalised" (a term which is used at least 6 times, along with the claim of "brain-washed").

There has been a lot of concern over young people making their way to Syria to fight on one side or the other. The Guardian reported on Monday that hundreds of girls were leaving the UK to fight in Syria. And the US is actively tracking would-be fighters travelling to the Middle-East. Of course, the concern stems from our perception that we are right and all other sides are wrong.

We should all ask ourselves: if young idealists feel compelled to leave their homes to go to war, what does that say about our pathetic excuses for bombing the crap out of innocent civilians (quite apart from the fact that, as A C Grayling has convincing argued, bombing is impossible to target properly, has little military effect, and is insanely expensive).

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The curious rush to war

The caution of Western nations to engage once again in military action in the Middle East has vanished. For a short time it seemed that they (and the US in particular) appeared to have learnt some lessons from their disastrous adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year we saw President Obama draw back from attacking Syria and the UK parliament voting against military action there. In some ways it was like the aftermath of another American disaster - their war in Vietnam whose abject failure curtailed their overt military interventions for a decade. I use the word "overt" deliberately of course because their covert operations to undermine regimes they dislike have never ceased.

But within the last week President Obama has authorised military force against the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL) and the Levant, and the UK parliament have voted to add British support. What has so suddenly changed?

In one sense probably nothing much has changed. There were hawks in London and Washington who always wanted to re-engage in Iraq for realpolitik reasons to do with oil, support of Israel, fear of losing influence etc. But while the public at large opposed military intervention it was hard to force war-like actions through elected assemblies. The thing that has fundamentally changed is the public mood who now clamour for action against ISIL. In my opinion the public mood has been skillfully manipulated by the media who have exploited to the hilt the public brutality of ISIL. The revulsion to the YouTube beheading videos that ISIS have released surely explains why the man in the street is now so trigger-happy but the media have been grossly negligent in whipping up public sentiment.

At least three things have to be borne in mind which all suggest a more measured reaction. First of all, shocking though it is, a beheading is just another way of killing. Indeed in some countries such as Saudi Arabia (which last month beheaded more than one victim per day) beheading is a normal occurrence. Furthermore, if we recognise that summary executions, no matter the manner of them, are the real sin then we have to recognise many other greater sinners (and I can't avoid adding "such as the USA").

The second thing is that ISIL clearly wanted to provoke an armed response by Western nations (why else would the axe-wielding thugs address the leaders of the US and the UK so directly on the beheading videos?). It seems obvious what their motivation is: to garner support by encouraging so-called "Christian nations" to make war on Middle-eastern soil so that they can be painted as the real villains.

And thirdly, are we really so sure that ISIL are some super-army overrunning territory in Iraq and Syria? I do not believe that their original numbers (a small number of thousands) were so savage and efficient fighters that the Iraqi army and police (numbering over a million personnel trained by the US and armed with modern weaponry) laid down their arms without a fight. It is surely much more likely that many of them, quite likely a majority, had great sympathy with a Sunni insurrection. It is much more likely that we are witnessing further unravelling of the band-aid wrapped around Iraq before the Americans left declaring "Mission accomplished".

We are making a shocking mistake by yet more intervention in Iraq and Syria. Wasn't killing around one million Iraqis, devastating their country's infrastructure, and earning the hatred of so many of them enough? It is astonishing how we just haven't learnt from our mistakes.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A chance for Scottish emancipation

It's the British political sensation of the year: will the Scots vote for their independence on 18 September? The most recent YouGov poll suggests, for the first time, that the Yes votes are in the majority (with 60% of those under 40 in the Yes camp).

The 1707 Act of Union merged the English and Scottish Parliaments. It was bitterly opposed by most Scots (most of whom did not have the vote) and supported in Scotland mainly by the nobility who had been financially ruined in the ill-fated Darien Scheme and were the main beneficiaries of the £400,000 grant to Scotland. Discontent was so acute in the remainder of the 18th century that there were two armed rebellions against the English (1715 and 1745) the latter leading to savage treatment of the defeated Scots and presaging a period (the Highland Clearances) during which Scots were systematically thrown off their land with no compensation.

In one sense that is ancient history which should have no bearing on how Scotland chooses its political future in the upcoming referendum. Scots should make their choice in the context of the 21st Century. Does political union with England serve its people better or not?

I am not a Scot (although I have lived and worked in Scotland) but I am still outraged by how they have been treated since the Thatcherite '80s. Their remoteness from London (a problem shared with some English regions) has meant that Westminster MPs are not as conscious of Scottish issues as they should be. Scotland is the UK's nuclear missile repository. They were the first UK region to endure the hated poll tax. And for more than 15 years there has been no more than one Scottish Conservative MP - in other words the now ruling party in the UK represents virtually no-one in Scotland.

That last fact has many consequences. For example the rise and implementation of a surveillance state in the UK has arisen without the Scots having any chance to challenge its creation.

To say that Scots are oppressed by the English jackboot is over the top. But it is still the case that policies that are devised by Englishmen are applied to Scots and many of these are deeply unpopular. Imagine that Scotland was an independent country and there was to be a referendum on whether it should surrender its sovereignty to England, allow the English to station their nuclear missiles in their countryside, be spied on by the English GCHQ, and be governed by a party that in no way represents Scottish aspirations. Would it not be unthinkable that Scotland would vote Yes?

So go for it Scotland! Being part of the UK allowed the English to screw you over completely in the 1980s by devastating your industry without softening the effects by using the North Sea oil bonanza: that fine resource was wasted on tax cuts for the rich and expensive foreign wars. Seice control of your destiny and vote Yes to independence!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Dirty Politics: Kiwi style

If only politics was about having rational discussions about the best way to run your country! But hardly anyone nowadays can believe that. In a democracy most voters will not be influenced by discussion anyway - and fair enough that opinions can be held with unshakable conviction. Still, most of us would like to believe that our society still allowed enough public information and discourse that electors could, if they wanted, come to informed decisions on how they should vote.  Once that belief is undermined we naturally see widespread cynicism about politicians that discourages voter turnout and possibly hands control of a nominal democracy to a small group of manipulators.

The degree of this cynicism varies from democracy to democracy. In countries where the financial rewards of political office are highest (such as the US) we naturally see politicians gaming the system the most. And of course "first past the post" electoral systems vest power in one political party only so allow politicians to gain the greatest power. Here in New Zealand we took another step in the direction of cynicism with the publication of Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics.

For readers who don't live in NZ (or anyone who has not heard of the book) I'll give some brief details. Chief among the cast of characters is Cameron Slater who manages the right-wing blog Whale Oil Beef Hooked. The blog is ostensibly an independent forum for Slater's opinions that has achieved notoriety from publishing scuttle-butt leaked to it by sources many of whom are highly placed.

Nicky Hager is a left-wing investigative journalist who has written some hard-hitting critiques of the ruling National Party (The Hollow Men), NZ's role in the so-called war on terror (Other People's Wars) and many other establishment targets. A vast trove of Slater's Facebook postings and emails was leaked to Hager earlier this year and his present book is a distillation of this material and a commentary on what it means for the political forum.

What emerges from these transcripts is a picture of Slater as a thug who has no scruples about the truth and whose vaunted independence is a joke (much of his income comes from publishing material supplied by tobacco companies, soft drink manufacturers etc. as though they were his own opinions - and this gives the material more respectability than if it came directly from the companies themselves). This tactic is one that has been exploited by the National Party who have used Slater to disseminate information that they do not want to actually say themselves.

Had this happened in the US very little comment would have been made. Indeed this is so far merely a case of a rather unpleasant foul-mouthed pretend journalist spouting opinions (some planted) and you might merely breathe a sigh of relief that your daughter hasn't brought the man home. But Hager's analysis show there is something more sinister afoot. From the material that he has been given it is quite clear that some members of the National Party have been abusing their positions. Chief among them is (former) Justice Minister Judith Collins who resigned her ministerial portfolio last week because (so the material alleges) she used her position to bully the (former) Director of the Serious Fraud Office Adam Feeley (this was actually the last of several abuses of power for any one of which she could have been sacked).

It is clear that there is a well-used conduit between Cameron Slater and Jason Ede (formerly Prime Minister John Key's senior advisor and now a ministerial staff member working for the National Party). The very many messages that passed between Ede and Slater paint a picture of an enduring National Party strategy to smear their political opponents through Slater as a third party thereby maintaining the fiction that the smears do not originate with them. So widespread is the campaign that it may reach right to the Prime Minister himself although John Key continues to deny his own involvement.

It is beginning to look like some classical political scandals in which the accused vehemently denies any wrong-doing but, day by day, is confronted with more embarrassing revelations until their guilt is undeniable. Watergate anyone? Or the behaviour of the NSA as they reacted to Snowdon's revelations?

Unquestionably this story is not going to go away. It is already the case that Cameron Slater's journalistic reputation has been discredited and difficult to see now why anyone would take any further stories from him seriously. The NZ General Election is just round the corner and will already have taken place before any in depth conclusions about the culpability of National's senior politicians can be reached. Nevertheless the party has taken some damaging blows and if it is elected again may still face some serious fall-out.

In some sense NZ politics is at a cross-roads. An independent inquiry must establish exactly which politicians have behaved wrongly and they must be brought to justice. The inquiry will certainly begin with Judith Collins but other politicians figure in Hager's book. If justice can be seen to be done then voters can begin to take their politicians more seriously. If not there is every likelihood that voting numbers will continue to decline - any democracy should view that prospect with alarm.