Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Time For The EU to Lighten Up?

Although a Europhile in theory (and even occasionally in practice, all needless money-wasting initiatives aside) I was amused by reports that the EU celebrates 50th birthday with massive joint

Sources at the Berlaymonster say that the European Commission is planning to roll a massive spliff to celebrate 50 years of mind-numbing policy-making. It will be rolled in waste paper created by the culling of fourteen directives, planned for next month.

The Joint-EU-Treaty as it is affectionately known will measure 24.7 metres and will be propped against the side of the Berlaymont for all to toke on to their heart’s content.

Last week, Commissioner Kovacs visited a specially created indoor farm in Finland where the weed is being grown (see picture).It will be lit by Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs at a special ceremony which the commission’s press service is calling “Get Off Your Tits for Europe Day”.

All jokes have a hint of truth in them, don't they? And this one more than most. It's time for the policy wonks to lighten up and regulate less, dontcha think.

Monday, 26 February 2007

Tomb Raider

I was interested to see that a new controversy is in the air in Jerusalem. For once it's not the Israelis or the Palestinians but the Christian sects which are at its centre. Archaeologists have uncovered a tomb that appears to belong to Jesus and his family - including his putative son and Mary Magdalene.

Da Vinci Code meets reality I hear you say...and the church is no happier about this revelation than it was about filming that particular 'heresy'. The hyped-up version of the story's coming to a screen near you soon, courtesy of James 'Titanic' Cameron.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Raisins, anyone?

Think of a food. Think of a heavenly food. For me, this is indisputedly cheese in all its many and varied forms. I know that because when I was living in China dairy products were in short supply. In fact, the only contact between my lips and cheese (substitute) came on the rare occasions that I ran across a McDonalds and was able to 'savour' a double cheeseburger. I dreamed of the stuff, for heaven's sake. We went to Hong Kong to get our visas renewed and what did I bring back but two packs of New Zealand cheddar and some proper coffee which was carefully rationed throughout the summer.

But would I kill for cheese? And if I wouldn't kill for cheese would I kill for raisins?? This isn't as daft as it seems. For our Islamic brothers are dying in their dozens for the sake of 70 white raisins. I came across this astonishing contention in Irshad Manji's book 'The Problem With Islam Today'. In it, she claims that "according to new research, what martyrs can anticipate for their sacrifices aren't virgins but raisins! The word that Quranic scholars have for centuries read as 'dark-eyed virgins' - hur - might be more accurately understood as white raisins" - pricey goods in seventh-century Arabia....Thanks to Dry Bones for his memorable sketch on the misunderstanding. But is it correct? Virgins or raisins, what's your vote?

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Testing Times

It's Lent just now. And it ends in 35 days. 35 days of no alcohol! (This is a first for me). Not that I observe Lent regularly. I just decided to try and exert a bit of self-control over my life and rid myself of some bad habits. Which many might say form an intimate part of 'me' - or at least the 'me' that they know.

The first few days, of course, I was puffed up with a sense of pride about this difficult and entirely-out-of-character decision. And I felt pretty good too, bouncing round campus with my squash racquet at the ready, relishing the sheer wholesomeness of it all. But that visit to the pub today - where I sat holding a nasty orange cordial concoction - was one temptation too far. And now I have to endure self-imposed sobriety for another month for having publicised my vain attempt to be good and not wishing to lose face.

But seriously. Alcohol, and other stimulants have taken over our lives to an extent I don't think many recognise. Now, I admit that I am at the more addictive end of the personality spectrum but I suspect a wide cross section of the UK population would admit to regularly (over) indulging in the following:

1. At number one, natch, it's alcohol - the motor of national cohesion in the absence of religion and common culture
2. Cigarettes/the odd drag on reefer, even if you don't inhale
3. Processed food - yes, just about everything we eat that comes conveniently ready-prepared is full of the kind of nice but nasty fats, sugars and salts that human beings just love to poison themselves with
4. Television/computer games - hours spent passively as a human receptor in catatonic state. Normal, eh?
5. Branded Lifestyles - today's lifestyle choices, from fashion to face-lifts, are part of our endless desire to brand ourselves, and live as marketable 'concepts'. No longer are products functional, and secondary to the real business of human relations. They have become our raison d'etre. That make anyone else nervous? In some places, kids will kill you to steal your watch and trainers.
6. Caffeine - only the most self-punitive health radicals I know have accomplished the feat of replacing coffee with camomile tea.

To take these out the equation in my case would require nothing short of a REVOLUTION. Though TV I could happily live without these days. Perhaps Channel 4 is trying to do us a favour by dumbing down even further. It's part of a mental-health strategy to get us all to turn the damn gadgets off.

Human guineapigs? Us? Yes, all of us. The implications of this takeover of our bodies and minds are pretty scary.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

The Thought Police Cometh

First Google bowed to Chinese pressure for censorship. Now 'internet policing' has been taken to a whole new level. Egypt - famed for its moderate response to reformers such as Ayman Nour, leader of the liberal opposition, who was imprisoned on trumped-up charges - has become one of the first nations to sentence a blogger. In this case, the unfortunate Abdel Kareem Soliman, aged only 22, who has been given four years in jail for denigrating Islam and one for insulting President Mubarak. I can see the value in anonymity myself...

To express your disgust at his treatment why not try writing to one of your major newspapers or your country's Egyptian ambassador. As Adam B says on the Sandmonkey's blog, 'I think I’ll author a nice little acidic letter to one of our major newspapers… Not much in itself, but if enough people follow suit, it might amount to a nasty slap in the face of the egyptian government around the western world - not a pleasant thought for a culture obsessed with keeping a straight face…! '

Right On!! And lest we forget, I'll leave you with the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller -

'First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for meand there was no one left to speak out for me.'

Freedom of speech is a right, but one that is too easily taken away.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Squaring the Circle

I'm at that age when you start realising that youth is not an interminable condition (despite the best efforts of Botox, lipo, and wrinkle creams to convince us otherwise). Maybe my fear is heightened by the fact that I subsist primarily off coffee and cigarettes, which do not exactly do wonders for my complexion. However, whatever the reason, I have been thinking alot about what is casually called the next stage of life: career (finding one would be nice), partner, kids.

Now I know that this is not exactly unusual as far as ambitions go. But then let's consider what's involved. You have to find the right sort of guy, who wants the same things you want, and has the same kinds of principles. You have to be living in the kind of place you want to settle (ideally). You have to consider how best to make this situation work. How you will bring up your kids. Who will bring them up. And all of a sudden what seemed like a pretty simple step is full of agonising questions that don't suggest any immediate answers.

As a philosophy student the first question alone could keep me occupied for years (how do you determine who is 'right' - and do you know yourself well enough to allow your current self to make those sort of life-changing decisions when you might well be under-informed, deluded or simply ignorant about the good life?). As far as I am concerned, the fact that I live my life out of a suitcase, am crippled with a certain ethical schizophrenia, and am entirely unsure what sort of person I should aim to form from this mass of contradictions indicates a recipe for disaster as far as choice of husband is concerned.

The same goes for culture. I've been brought up in a society where women and men both work full-time; couples live their twenties lifestyle for as long as possible; and neither side is happy with too much in the way of compromise or sacrifice. We're encouraged to look after our individual selves first, after all. And to bask in the luxury of choice and diversity. Where, in that heady concoction, are we prepared for sitting at home with a bawling baby, while your friends are all out at the pub, and your husband is sitting surly in front of the telly?

This could go some way towards explaining the fact that 50% of marriages end in divorce. Something somewhere is clearly going wrong. But what? Is marriage indeed outmoded or is it our current attitudes that fail to equip us for the long-term, for the non-satisfaction of all desires, for endurance or to live for others (notably our children?). Do our lifestyles jeopardise the harmony of relationships by constantly placing us before temptation? Or is it simply an old-fashioned and oppressive world view that demands that kind of sacrifice?

I don't know the answer. But maybe all we can do is take our best guess, take the plunge and hope for the best. Human beings are social and adaptable animals after all.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Autonomy, Choice, Self-Respect

"The idea of seeing the value in our activities is very important. It's crucial to what [John] Rawls calls self-respect, the 'sense that one's plan of life is worth carrying out'. Self-respect, as Rawls says, isn't so much a part of any rational plan of life, but rather a precondition of it. If we thought that our goals in life weren't worth pursuing, then there would be no point to our activities. To ensure that we have this self-respect, we need the freedom to examine our beliefs, to confirm their worth. This is why liberty is so important to Rawls, and why he gives it precedence over material benefits and the prerogatives of office. Once material security is ensured, so that the conditions necessary for the effective exercise of liberty exist, it is irrational to trade off liberty for more wealth.

So far that seems unobjectionable. But we need to look more closely at those beliefs about value which are said to give meaning and purpose to our lives. Where do they come from? Liberals say that we should be free to accept or reject particular options presented to us, so that, ultimately, the beliefs we continue to hold are the ones that we've chosen to accept. But the range of options can't be chosen. In deciding how we live our lives, we do not accept, de novo, but rather we examine 'definite ideals and forms of life that have been developed and tested by innumerable individuals, sometimes for generations [Rawls, 1971 pp563-4]. The decision about how to live our lives must ultimately be ours alone, but this decision is always a matter of selecting what we believe to be most valuable from the various options available, selecting from a context of choice which provides us with different ways of life.

This is important because our range of options is determined by our cultural heritage...From childhood on, we become aware both that we are already participants in certain forms of life (familial, religious, sexual, educational etc) adn that there are other ways of life which offer alternative models and roles that we may, in time, come to endorse....we make judgments precisesly by examining the cultural structure, by coming to an awareness of the possibilities it has, the different activities it identifies as significant."

Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture Ch 8

Wednesday, 7 February 2007


European Politics has been trying to give itself a bit of a make-over to address public disinterest and dissatisfaction. The result? A spate of comics that the Parliament's political groups have been producing to garner interest in their activities on the environment committee or whatever, and prove that our elected representatives are paid to do more than lunch royally at the taxpayer's expense.

Although I'd have expected that the Liberal Group's effort - Operation Red Dragon - would provide at least passing amusement for visitors on open day, I was suprised to see that it had made it all the way into the Sunday Telegraph. Yannick, the guy who 'inspired' it, was awfully pleased with being quoted - until it transpired that 'he' was quoted as 'she'...

4 February 2007, The Sunday Telegraph

WHAT do Euro-MPs do when they are not lunching or filling in expenses forms?
It seems that they fall in love with investigative journalists, brave assassination attempts and single-handedly take on corrupt Chinese generals - according to the Liberal group in the European parliament, at least.

Tired of its staid image, the 106-strong group has spent pounds 25,000 printing 40,000 copies of Operation Red Dragon, a cartoon storybook depicting the glamorous and daring life of "Elisa Correr'', the personification of the "new breed'' of "exciting'' Liberal Euro-MP. While real parliamentarians fret about whether an amendment to the latest European Union directive might offend the committee chairman, the fictitious Miss Correr is ready to torpedo inter-continental trade deals or take on hit men for the sake of her principles.

Cosy compromises are just not her style, especially when her boyfriend Tony, a British photo-journalist, is being held prisoner by a renegade oriental general.

"The Liberal Democrats have principles to defend and this is a question of human rights, so we must take that risk,'' she says, when asked if it is worth upsetting one of the EU's biggest trade partners.
In one sequence of the 38-page giveaway, a scantily-clad Elisa is taken aback to find her boyfriend hiding in the wardrobe of her hotel room during a trade mission to "Dong Fang'', a country easily recognisable as China. "I had to see you, Elisa, but in private,'' he says, passing her photographs proving that an EU arms embargo is being flouted.

"Come back with me!'' she pleads. "They won't let me leave,'' he replies, "I'll have to chance my luck.'' The two depart after a lingering kiss.

After threatening to scupper the trade deal - and fighting off an assassination attempt - she forces her boyfriend's release, winning the praise of a Dong Fang counterpart who marvels at her courage."It's not courage, Mr Li. Just a few principles,'' she responds.

Yannick Laude, a Liberal group spokesman who was responsible for the storyline, said the objective in producing the book was to try to hold the attention of visitors to the parliament.
"We noticed that they took the umbrellas and the pens, but threw away the policy leaflets before they walked out of the door,'' she said. "This way we can get them to take some information back into their homes.''

The closest the Liberal group has to a real-life Elisa Correr is said to be Sophia in t'Veld(CORR)(CORR), the glamorous 43-year-old Dutch Euro-MP known for her tenacious pursuit of a civil liberties agenda.

But how do the 12 British members of the group match up to the new James Bond image? Group leader Graham Watson says that Baroness Ludford, "while not quite as young'', is probably the most dynamic. The 55-year-old has been a key mover in the parliament's fight for the US to recognise its CIA "rendition'' flights over Europe.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Liberal Malaise it possible that the reason people in wealthy, healthy, liberal democracies tend to be so hooked on anti-depressants is that they have no idea who they actually are?

To expand, I was reading on multicultural citizenship when I chanced upon this comment by Margalit and Raz.

"Identification is more secure, less liable to be threatened, if it does not depend on accomplishment. Although accomplishments play their role in people's sense of their own identity, it would seem that at the most fundamental level our sense of our own identity depends on criteria of belonging rather than on those of accomplishment. Secure identification at this level is particularly important to one's well-being" (Multicultural Citizenship, Kymlicka, p89)

This interests me because it explains why our society's obsession with ambition, status and competition has caused individuals to become so stressed out. Once we conceive of competing to climb the social ladder as the necessary precondition for self-worth, we must also be aware that the threat of decline and fall is always present and demands constant vigilance. When value is entirely dependent on such outside factors it creates a situation where nobody and nothing is permanent. And adult human beings, as we well know, desire security and predictability as much as children. In the words of Isaiah Berlin: “the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past”

However, fulfilling that desire for a stable conception of identity and the good life is extremely problematic in the modern age, both from a societal and an intellectual perspective. Those within an insulated culture (though such a thing may be no less than hypothetical) may find security and fulfillment through its tenets or alternatively, develop internal methods for criticising it that leaves the epistemogical foundations of their thought intact. Either way, the coherence of their modes of thought or identity remains secure since it has been developed from within a closed, though potentially expanding, circle.

However, in plural societies, rejection or critique of the individualist liberal credo is likely to be based on reference to the diverse range of visions of the good life with which we are familiar, coming from a range of traditions whose premises may all be different. The problem is that it is not always possible to weigh these choices in any rational manner. They may in fact be incommensurable.

That fact does not, as such, preclude as from making choices, though it does mean that a choice between incomparables is equivalent to simply 'plumping' for one option over another on the basis of those traditions of thought and experience which we, as individuals located in a particular time and space, have accumulated throughout our lives. As Berlin goes on to say:
“In the end, men choose between ultimate values; they choose as they do because their life and thought are determined by fundamental moral categories and concepts that are as much a part of their own being and conscious thought and sense of their own identity as their basic physical structure” (Two Concepts of Liberty, p57)

So we can only choose within a framework that makes sense to us whilst remaining aware that the nodes that form and link our thoughts together are highly historically contingent and therefore lack universality. As such “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet to stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian”. To demand more is perhaps a metaphysical human need but it would be immature to allow this to guide our collective practices.

So choice can be based only on what we know at any one time - and must therefore be open to revision depending on the kind of lives we lead, who we encounter, what we read, and in which societies we live.

Doesn't sound so bad as long as our nostalgia for the grand narrative doesn't override this tentative, though ethical, conclusion.