Sunday, 28 September 2008

On the inevitable consequences of neo-liberalism

It is, it almost goes without saying, a decidedly rare event when a working class anarchist finds himself in agreement with a multi-millionaire Texan venture capitalist. And yet, this week, I have found myself in precisely that position.

The US treasury and the Federal Reserve Bank have received preliminary approval for the $700bn bailout plan for the financial institutions proposed by treasury secretary Henry Paulson. Peter Orszay, head of the Congressional Budget Office, warned that without the bailout we would see "a financial meltdown" on the scale of the Great Depression "that would cause severe dislocations." However, it has been a hard sell. A poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times gauged opposition to the plan by the US public at 55%, whilst a similar poll by CNN found that 65% believed the bailout to be unfair to taxpayers.

Bill Perkins, head of venture capital firm Small Ventures USA, also opposes the bail out, and placed a full page advertisement in the New York Times - at a cost of $1.25m - to that effect. His reason, cause of the rare and unexpected convergence of anarchist and capitalist viewpoints, is that government intervention "in a gladiator´s arena where only the strong survive" isn´t capitalism. I can wholeheartedly endorse his opposition state subsidies for those who live "fat and high on the hog of the real estate boom." But, of course, where Perkins is a devout believer in the virtues of the unregulated free market, I see such dogma as no more than empty idealism which has proliferated the current crisis in the first place. Even Adam Smith admitted that the "invisible hand" would only work well in a hypothetical situation of perfect equality, and in practice we can see the corruption - from state subsidies to monopolies and price-fixing - that a free market brings with it in the real world. And so the chasm between the anarchist and the venture capitalist reopens. This bailout is not, as Paulson insists, "trickle down communism" but a desperate act by neoliberals to repair the damage caused by their own policies of deregulation and minimal government interference.

As to the bail-out itself, taxpayers´money is wiping out the debt and loss incurred by the banks´own unscrupulous lending policies. Is it too much to ask, then, that as repayment the taxpayers see the erasure of their own debts - mortgages, credit cards, loans - that are often also the result of the banks´unscrupulous lending policies?

Thursday, 25 September 2008

A step in the right direction

The recent revelation, as reported in The Guardian, that the government is planning "the end of the Anglican crown," present the hope of important progress on three fronts. Proposals have been drawn up to revoke the rules, established in the 1688 Bill of Rights , the Act of Settlement 1701, and Act of Union in 1707, that prevent non-Anglicans from ascending the throne. Republicans, secularists, and equality campaigners all have reason to take note.

The most obvious potential development from such constitutional reform, which MPs want "passed quickly in a fourth term," is the most vital step towards making Britain a wholly secular state. The country´s laws are already largely secular in nature, largely providing equality for people of all faiths (or none), and the recent abolition of the archaic blasphemy laws has removed a cornerstone of Christian privilege within the UK´s legislature.

The change in the laws of succession, which bar the crown from anyone "who holds communion with the church of Rome or marries a Papist," presents the opportunity to take the final, necessary step towards secularisation: the annexation of the Church of England from the state. As long as the constitutional monarch remains nominal head of the Anglican communion, a secular state is out of reach almost by definition. But this would be an impossible tradition to uphold if the monarch has no obligation to follow the faith of the Church of England. thus, the annexation of the Church from the government is necessary if the proposed legislation - preferably run in tandem with the removal of the Bishops from de facto holding seats in the House of Lords - is to be enacted.

Republicans, too, can view this proposal with some optimism. Though reform of the line of succession isn´t an automatic precursor towards creating a republic, even if "proposals [that] also include limiting the powers of the privy council" hold such promise, it does raise the suggestion by challenging the long-held taboo against any reforms of the traditional role of the crown. Even now, it remains hard to engage in serious dialogue about the monarchy, especially as monarchists are fond of using "republicanism" as an accusation, on par with cries of "heresy" and "treason" in days of yore. The outrage, vocalised by the Tories, against Tony Blair´s "presidential style of leadership" - i.e. acting, reasonably, as though being elected gave him a greater democratic mandate than a hereditary monarch - and absurd scare stories about potential presidents in a British Republic reveal how much the discourse on the crown has to mature.

As well as removing the bar on non-Anglicans from ascending to the throne, the proposals include another reform that equality campaigners can welcome; the abolition of the doctrine of male primogeniture. At the moment, the first born male always takes precedence as heir, with females only able to succeed in the absence of suitable males. Even aside from the fact that such heredity is an unwelcome relic of the rigid class system of feudalism, the doctrine cements gender discrimination into the highest level of the state, and any change in the status quo is more than welcome.

There is still further to go, of course. eradicating the doctrine of primogeniture is necessary, but with it the ridiculous tradition that the wife of the heir to the throne must be a virgin must also go. The most recent casualty of this injustice being Diana Spencer, with whom Charles Windsor was forced to enter into a loveless marriage because his love for Camilla Parker-Bowles didn´t meet virginity requirements, whose subsequent mental (and, ultimately, physical) destruction is too well-documented to need repeating. Likewise, removing the obligation of the monarch to be an Anglican must incite a move towards secularisation of the constitution. And, of course, reform remains a long way from the abolition of a hierarchy that cannot bear the burden of proof to its legitimacy. Nevertheless, the proposed reforms are a welcome step forward.

Friday, 19 September 2008

A necessary act far too long in the making

Seventeen years after it first appeared, the British government is at last to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to BBC News. At first, one might have cause to wonder what has taken the government so long to sign such a progressive, and necessary, agreement on protections for children. Once put into the context of the main thrust of British political discourse, however, it all soon becomes clear. As the BBC report explains:
The UK has for the past 17 years retained an opt-out allowing child migrants and asylum seekers to be locked up without judicial scrutiny.


The opt-out has meant the "best interest" rule does not apply to immigrant children in the UK and makes it easier for officials to lock them up, sometimes for weeks or months, pending planned deportation.

The story goes on to say that though the new rules will "force the UK Border Agency to put migrant children's welfare first" in deportation decisions, which any civilised person can see as the more humane course of action, the government has "argued that immigration control should take priority over signing the convention" since 1991. Moreover, it did not come to the decision to sign because it realised how callous this policy was, but only because "ministers became convinced it would not become a loop-hole which frustrates effective immigration control."

It took a while before I could let this sink in. The Government turnaround was not inspired by the recent revelation that we detain 2,000 refugee children per year, and the accompanying outcry from refugee and children's charities. Just as it remained unmoved by Save the Children's legal challenge against the barring of refugee children from attending mainstream schools in 2003, and the reports that children of asylum seekers were being born in jail and locked in detention centres. No, it had to be sure that this would not become a "loop-hole" in immigration law or, more accurately, that there was minimal risk of the right-wing press attacking them for being "soft."

That the government would worry about such a thing over and above the welfare of the most wretched and desperate children in the country, and that the media would attack a law protecting children on the grounds of hypothetical abuse by "bogus" asylum seekers is a damning indictment of the callous right-wing populism of both parties.

The cost of religious indoctrination

Today, the Independent published an article about the increasing number of Britons who believe in creationism. Whilst this is worrying in itself, creationism isn't the focal point of this article. What I want to draw attention to here is another issue, highlighted by the following passage from the story:
On first appearances 12-year-old Caitlin McNabb is very much like any other schoolgirl. Sitting on the sofa with her parents, Wes and Jane, at their home in Greenwich, south-east London, Caitlin talks excitedly about her friends, her favourite subjects and the new school year.

But there is one difference between Caitlin and the other pupils at Plumstead Manor: she is reluctant to believe everything she is told.

"I was in a geography lesson and there was a lot of talk about 'this is how old the Earth is'," she says. "So I just said, 'there are different sides to it if you look at it in a religious way'. And the teacher said, 'Oh yes, yes that's true'."

"My friends have completely opposite opinions to my beliefs – but we get on fine." Her brother Caleb, six, is quieter, but asked if he believes in God and what is being discussed, he says: "Yes."

Caitlin and Caleb are two of a growing number of British children who are being brought up as creationists.
Yes, that's right. Being brought up as creationists. Imagine the uproar if a story emerged of children being brought up as atheists, anarchists, liberals, conservatives, ultra-nationalists, or any other non-religious line of thought you care to think of. The parents would (rightly) be accused of indoctrination. It should be the child's choice, and theirs alone, what they believe.

A six year old child cannot possibly have any coherent thought on political science or economics, much less the scientific, philosophical, and theological reasons given for the origins of life and of the cosmos. So, when they are labelled as a "Christian" or "Muslim" or "creationist," it is plainly obvious that these are not their own views but those of their parents.

You cannot even say that this label is only applied until they make up their own minds, as they have no choice. Their parents, especially more devout ones, will instruct them in "their" faith, take them to religious services, send them to schools made entirely of children whose parents are of the same confession, and the "virtue" of faith and "sins" of apostasy, blasphemy, and heresy will be fed to them in religious education. Their knowledge of competing world views will be little to nothing.

The potential effects of such an upbringing were confirmed by another story in today's Independent, reporting that "Britain's youngest terrorist was today locked up for two years after plans to cause death and destruction were found hidden in his bedroom."
Schoolboy Hammaad Munshi was just 15 when he was recruited into a worldwide plot to wipe out non-Muslims and longed to become a "martyr".


Sentencing him at the Old Bailey today to two years in a young offenders' institution, Judge Timothy Pontius said that he "fell under the spell of fanatical extremists".
One might well add that, since these fanatical extremists profess to having the strongest faith in God, and since Munshi likely went to a school where religious education taught him the supreme virtue of faith, his falling "under the spell" and recruitment once coming into contact with the Jihadis was all but inevitable.

What is still surprising is that people still refuse to discuss this when the issue of "freedom of worship" comes up. If adults should be free to believe as they wish, so surely should children be free to make their own minds up based on all the evidence and rival doctrines without being shaped through "education" into one denomination because their parents happen to follow it?

As with my hypothetical case of "atheist children," "fascist children," or "communist children," labelling children with religions that are not their own, and teaching them from the cradle that this is what "they" believe, is nothing short of indoctrination and needs to be stopped.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Why "Sarah's Law" is a terrible idea

Yesterday, The Sun reported that "parents will have the legal right from today to information about paedophiles who may harm their children." However, considering that the paper has been at the forefront of the issue with its vile "name and shame" campaign, the triumphalism seemed rather muted. The paper announces that "campaigners last night hailed the measure as a step towards a full “Sarah’s Law”" and yet fails to give itself any credit.

Perhaps the reason why is because the Sun and its sister paper, The News of the World, succeeded only in inspiring rabid vigilantism in its readership. The most shocking and surreal example being that reported a while back in The Guardian, which I have previously cited;
Self-styled vigilantes attacked the home of a hospital paediatrician after apparently confusing her professional title with the word "paedophile", it emerged yesterday.

Dr Yvette Cloete, a specialist registrar in paediatric medicine at the Royal Gwent hospital in Newport, was forced to flee her house after vandals daubed it with graffiti in the middle of the night.

This kind of behaviour is precisely what we would expect in the wake of such a campaign, and indeed with the full introduction of "Sarah's Law". I have gone into depth about how the hysteria about paedophiles does more harm than good in another article on this site - from the violence it inspires, often towards innocents, to the increased risk towards children by driving paedophiles underground - but I think it is worthwhile now going over the most recent story again, particularly the criticisms of the move, as omitted by The Sun, but thankfully picked up by more reliable newspapers such as The Independent and The Times:
Martin Narey, the former head of the Prison Service, who is now chief executive of Barnardo’s, said: “Disclosing the whereabouts of sex offenders will not necessarily make children any safer. We still remain concerned that this is not the best way to protect children.

“Children’s safety must come first, and disclosure will only plunge children into greater danger. I am gravely concerned that the effect of greater disclosure will prompt more sex offenders to flee police and probation supervision, at which point they become very dangerous indeed.”

Police and children’s charities have already forced the Government to rule out a wider publication of the names and addresses of child sex offenders as happens under “Megan’s Law” in the United States.

My previous comment on the issue and the quotes above illustrate all the main arguments against the absurd culture of "Tabloid Vigilantism" and its fulfilment in "Sarah's Law," but I would make one last observation. hen their ideas are not only shown to lead to carnage and chaos, but are strongly refuted by charities whose purpose is the protection of children, what deficiency is it in these people's minds that makes them think there remains any justification for their course of action?

Friday, 12 September 2008

How to respond to the rise of creationism in the UK

Rev. Professor Michael Reiss, the Royal Society's Director of Education, has announced that one in ten British schoolchildren comes from a family with creationist beliefs, and that he believes this should be addressed in science classrooms. Speaking at the British Association’s Festival of Science in Liverpool, Reiss said, "I'm trying to make it less likely that students will ignore science, that they will detach from it, because it makes them feel that they cannot continue with science because it conflicts with their beliefs... But I feel if a science teacher feels comfortable with it then it could reduce confusion."

As reported by The Independent, The Guardian, and The Times, a great many of his peers were quick to distance themselves from his statement, saying that Creationism "is a world view in total denial of any form of scientific evidence" and "should be [taught] in religious studies" not in science classes. This is in line with National Curriculum guidelines, which state that:
Creationism and intelligent design are sometimes claimed to be scientific theories. This is not the case as they have no underpinning scientific principles, or explanations, and are not accepted by the science community as a whole. Creationism and intelligent design therefore do not form part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study.
This case presents the latest development in a worrying trend towards religious fundamentalism in the UK, and scientists and science teachers are right to be worried at the implications of creationism having a place in the science curriculum. I would, however, like to put forward a way that they could take advantage of such a move.

Let's say that the guidelines change and teachers are told that creationism should be addressed in the classroom. In such a case, I would suggest doing so head on, in one (or perhaps two) intensive lesson(s).

During this time, it would prove relatively easy to go through the key points of the debate and utterly shatter the creationist case. After explaining how creationists have undertaken no research or evidence gathering of their own, the teacher could go through the most common areas of "controversy" - i.e. where the creationist has either desperately contorts the facts in a vain attempt to fit them to his predetermined faith position or decried the evidence as false with no genuine grounds for doing so - and patiently explain why the creationist theory is wrong. If that isn't quite enough, the teacher could then follow on by taking the pupils through some of the many, many things that creationists hate besides evolution, for completely contradicting their entire worldview.

And, if that isn't enough, perhaps allowing creationism to be discussed in science class should come with a proviso: that Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, and its implications, be discussed alongside it.

If such a rigorous approach didn't immediately stem the rise of creationism in the UK, it would at the very least sow the seeds of doubt and free inquiry, put creationists off trying to force themselves into science lessons.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Misleading statistics and the myth of "balanced" migration

On Monday, an All-Party group of MPs and peers, led by Labour's Frank Field, came forward to call for a policy of "balanced migration." According to Mr. Field, low-paid Britons have "disproportionately borne the cost of immigration, through pressure on wages, longer waiting lists for housing and increased demand for public services." As such, the group wants to cap the number of immigrants to the UK and match it against the number of emigrants. It has also suggested that the majority of immigrants should have to leave after four years.

Unsurprisingly, the right-wing press splashed this across their front pages with glee, exploring the details of the group's proposals - including a 56-page framework provided, predictably, by MigrationWatch - and taking only moments to sneer at quite reasonable comments by the likes of Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, that the group's proposals "completely ignore the positive contribution migrants make to life in the UK."

I have already dealt with both the economic arguments that immigrants cause "pressure on wages, longer waiting lists for housing and increased demand for public services", and the cultural argument that, as Mr Field put it, immigration leads to"a transformation of their neighbourhoods from settled working-class communities to societies they can barely recognise." The anti-immigration arguments never really change, so they need little rehashing here.

What I do want to address, though, is the way the anti-migration propagandists twist figures that either do not impact the argument or go against their viewpoint in order to scare people into believing that immigration is a bad thing. The Daily Mail printed the following table with their coverage of the story:

We'll set aside, for the moment, the pictures of poor and desperate people living in shanty towns in Calais, with the vain hope of moving to a better life in Britain, that give the article its context. The clear intention with these is to provide a specific, negative image of immigrants in readers' minds and we need not delve much deeper to see why the Mail has done this. What I want to examine for the moment are the figures the paper presents.

It states that, whilst the annual net migration (those coming in minus those going out) between 1982 and 1997 was 50,000, the net migration in 2004 was 244,000. There is no denying that this is a drastic increase, and there are two clear implications: first, that this problem has specifically arisen since New Labour took office, and second, that immigration is "spiralling out of control." What the figures don't show, however, is that the figures for 2004 are, overall, an anomaly. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that net migration fell for 2005 and 2006 to 200,000. The ONS also states that "[s]ince 1991 more immigrants are intending to stay in the UK for a shorter period of time. In 1991, 33 per cent of immigrants intended to stay for one or two years and this increased to 45 per cent by 2006." Many economic migrants reside here on a short-term basis, and much of the inflow from one year contributes to the outflow of the next. Moreover, increases in the number of British citizens emigrating are also dampening a trend that shows no signs of being permanent as it is.

That 68 percent of immigration in 2006 was from outside the EU is a largely irrelevant piece of information, unless it intends to tap into subconscious racism with the fear that non-EU equals black. Even this would be mere conjecture, however, as the same ONS figures cited above state that said non-EU migrants included 24,000 New Zealanders, 32,000 Americans, and 48,000 Australians. Any potential arguments about "cultures" or "socio-economic benefit" could hardly be applied to people from these countries.

The same applies to the fact that there are 1338 schools where more than half the pupils don't speak English as a first language. The obvious implication is that their inability in the language is slowing the progress of others. Where that is true, the answer is simple; invest more money either after-school classes or extra-curricular tutoring to help those pupils improve. However, this particular statistic says nothing of the level of competency these pupils have in their second language, and to suggest that the larger portion, if not all, are poor with it is at best dishonest.

When somebody says that 14 percent of prisoners are foreign nationals, the first question to ask is "what are they in for?" Given the amount of crimes that one can go to jail for, starting low with petty theft and minor drug offences, we can safely assume that the majority of that 14% are not rapists, murderers, and paedophiles. It should also be noted that they are not representative of foreign nationals as a whole, because people are individuals, responsible only for their own actions, and so this point remain irrelevant to an argument about immigration as a whole.

And finaly, because it can no longer be denied that immigrants benefit Britain rather than "bleeding us dry," the Mail tries to play this down by presenting the figure as 62 pence per week, per head. However, as clearly stated in the House of Lords' Economic Affairs Select Comittee report, this adds up to a staggering £2.5 billion average per year, with the figure often as much as £6 billion. Framing it as an amount per head is also misleading, as this money goes to the treasury in the form of tax and spent as all of our tax money is, so it can be argued that the benefit of 62 pence per week, per head in tax money is much greater than that of £62 per week, per head in income.

So, whilst the anti-immigration lobby get excited about the fact that, as the MigrationWatch blog puts it, "there is massive backing for a substantial cut in immigration levels from supporters of all parties and shows that a programme of ‘Balanced Migration’ into the UK could have a major effect on voting intentions in a future election," it would be worth remembering that most of their arguments are fallacious and their facts twisted purely to suit their needs.