Thursday, 24 May 2007

I'm a Believer!

Something has happened to shake my sense of postmodern relativism and replace the void at the heart of my existence. A revelation of sorts. Nothing earth shattering in the schemes opf things - no angelic appearances, speaking in tongues, or transportation to the heavens, but we have to start somewhere. I believe in Garry Kasparov, the Chess Grand Master and longtime Russian pro-democracy campaigner.

Now that sounds ridiculous. But I had just finished another one of those conversations yesterday in which it was generally agreed that working in politics is bad for morale because all politicians seem interested only in a) sex b) power c) sex d) expenses claims e) sex f) column inches g) policies, etc.
In the absence of real, inspirational leadership, we were saying, our lives lacked ideological stature. Where were the real men, the real battles, a belief worth getting out of bed for in the morning? At least those who work outside the political process can still believe in human governance. To those of us subjected to its mechanisms it seems all too flawed and pragmatic.
Well, Mr Kasparov answered at least some of those questions for me when he came to address our Group Meeting last night. Here was real intelligence, real authority, wit, sincerity, playfulness, gravitas, all in one person. Here was someone who spoke passionately about what he believed in - while all the while remaining absolutely rational and in control of the facts. It was beautiful watching him talk - his argument, like his chess-playing, clearly highly strategic. I'll give you a brief run down of it now because I thought it was highly interesting.

There is only one rule in Putin's Russia he said - there are no rules. Putin's regime is totalitiarian and oligarchical. Its motto? "Expenses nationalised, profits privatised", to the extent that the 100 richest Russians have wealth amounting to 30% more than the entire country's budget revenue. This gang of thieves, in Kasparov's opinion, is a threat only to the Russian people since cold wars can only be fought on an ideological basis and Putin's regime is ideologically empty.
Despite being a nominal democracy, there are laws in place which ban criticism of the opposition during electoral contests - which are rigged in any case because candidates must first be approved by the Kremlin. Democracy, liberalism, etc, in Kasparov's mind, are like convex mirrors in a Russian context because all such labels are more marketing ploys than descriptions of reality.

As such, political survival is the primary objective of the various opposition groups, who are forced to trade secrets about each other (thus preventing, at least in any official sense, a united front from forming against the regime). Nevertheless, these groups coalesce around a couple of key issues in a programme, and attempt never to stand against each other, thus maximising their chances of election.

They are continually undermined in their quest for a more democratic Russia by a regime which respects neither its own international obligations nor its own Constitution, which contains a clause on upholding Human Rights. During the EU Russia summit the police cracked down on peaceful protest in Samara at precisely the same time Putin promised Merkel to uphold freedom of association and expression.

This brazen duplicity - and the West's refusal to confront it - is, according to Kasparov, one of the chief problems for the democratic opposition. Every time Putin is seen on a podium with respected European leaders, the regime is legitimated. And Putin can pretend to the world that those who oppose his regime back home are an illegitimate and trouble-making minority. Thus Western recognition = political repression in Russia. The solution is thus to treat Putin's regime like that of Ahmedinejad, Lukashenko or Mugabe's. Or demand that it lives up to its democratic credentials.

Kasparov also advised that EU nations pay much more attention to the amount of Russian money being laundered through financial capitals, particularly London. The danger that countries could freeze these (stolen) assets is one area of weakness for an otherwise untouchable regime and makes it vulnerable to outside pressure. The same goes for Putin himself who has spirited billions of dollars out of the country and is rumoured to be around as rich as Bill Gates.

The key to effecting change will be when Putin stands down next year. Regime infighting means there is unlikely to be consensus on a successor - since a weak one would provide Putin with protection and a strong one could secure the survival of the oligarchical system. This may provide the opposition a chance to make real inroads. But only if the international community stops legitimating the current government.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Face to Face

Facebook. It scares me. I joined somewhat absent-mindedly today cos someone sent me a message. Next thing I know I am in contact with everyone I have ever met. OK, I accidentally emailed everyone on the global address list, including ex-Ministers of the Crown, a woman I did work experience with 8 years ago in the flower of my youth, and several ex-boyfriends who are very welcome NEVER to get in touch again. So it's not surprising that they were a wide and diverse bunch.

But the truly amazing thing about this Facebook is its reach. Just for the hell of it I typed in random people's names, people from all over the world. The next thing I knew, there we were, face to face...A guy I worked with in China, a girl I last saw on the Paris metro 5 years ago. Have now wasted much of my working afternoon - following a long lunch by the river - communicating with what were, til today, the ghosts of Christmas past.

I can't decide whether I am excited or terrified by this technology. In a way, the world will never be the same again. The mystery of sending letters, to have them returned to sender, googling someone - and finding all kind of possibilities to guess at. Did the shy schoolboy you're trying to find end up an artist? A conman? The guy who got in the news for setting fire to his own hair? It's a matter of psychology, and finding the right language domain as much as anything else.

But facebook - it's all there just in front of you.

A word of warning though. My officemate tried to add his fiancee - next thing you know 600 Yolanda's pop-up asking him to add them! Shows that it's worth having a good photo to boot...

Saturday, 19 May 2007

False Consciousness?

Sometimes I'm unsure how sure we can ever be of anything. I mean, when you think about how difficult it is to have absolute knowledge of anything then you have to conclude that our understanding of reality - indeed our entire lives - is somehow haphazard. I don't know that Jupiter or DNA exist. That's simply received wisdom. I've no way of proving it one way or the other.

The same goes for all (opposing) ideological discourses. They assert their truth - and posit certain proofs - but for the lowly bystander, assailed by all this information, it is hard to discern the true from the false proof. In the end we err with those that we like the sound of. Or have a 'good intuition' about. But in the end doesn't that just mean that reality is just a hall of mirrors?

Still, sitting in ethical paralysis never helped the world go round. So we choose. Or are chosen - by our family, culture, background, experiences - to act in particular ways. These cultured actions then take on the appearance of truth for those who live by them. The problem, it seems to me, then comes when you put into question the cultural attributes you grow up with. In many ways it is a normal and necessary process, particularly since, with travel and migration making the world smaller, we always have bases from which to criticise our own foundations. Indeed we are encouraged to do so. Seeking knowledge, after all, is one of the great injunctions of history.

Yet how dangerous to break something down without putting anything else in its place. From my - albeit scant - reading of postmodern thinkers so far that seems to be the greatest problem. Smash the false gods, unravel the building blocks of sense and meaning and what you create is a void of incalculable dimensions. What postmodernism gives us is a life without sense, without points of reference. It leaves us with the chronic, and incalculable stress, of a nihilism brutal in its rejection of the ties that bind. It leaves us washed up alone on the shores of a desert island knowing neither where we are nor where we came from.

We live this nightmare, most of us in Western Europe, at various levels of consciousness. And we survive our nostalgia for meaning by means of escapism - drugs, alcohol, and distractions of all sorts. But stop for one minute, just one minute, and the house of cards can come crashing down. We must have the courage to build something that can withstand this corrosive cynicism. All my exhaustive reading has taught me so far, however, is that this has to be built with the heart as well as the head.

Monday, 14 May 2007

A Modern Aesop

Discovered this rather charming fable on Mando's Transformation. Have nicked it - the blogosphere is not yet copyright, mercifully - for your edification. Though with credits going to the man himself, natch.

"Before man ever walked the earth virtues and vices lived in harmony, traveling the world together, feeling very bored, with nothing to do but wander around.One day creativity came up with an idea.They should all play a game to pass the time.He decided to call it "Hide and Seek"Everyone else loved the idea, and so they started to play. Insanity screamed "I wanna start, I wanna start, I wanna start"

And so it started, she closed her eyes and started counting."You should all go hide now" said Insanity, as she leaned with her elbows on a tree."One, two, three..."And so one by one, they started finding places to hide in.Kindness hid herself behind the moon.Betrayal jumped in the middle of a pile of rubbish.Passion went deep into the caves of the earth.Deceit yelled out loud "I'm gonna hide behind this rock" then jumped into a lake.And all that time, Insanity was still counting, "Seventy nine, eighty, eighty one…"

By that time almost all of them had found a spot to hide, all except love.He wasn't much of a decision maker, and so he couldn't really figure out where to hide. It wasn't very surprising, as we all know how hard it is to hide love.Insanity kept going on "Ninety five, ninety six...""One hundred !"As soon as he heard it, he jumped into the nearest rosebush hoping not to be found. Insanity opened her eyes, "Ready or not, here I come".

Laziness was the first to be found, because she didn’t put any effort in hiding herself.Next was kindness, peeking from behind the moon.Deceit came out from the bottom of the lake, all blue and out of breath after a while.Being pissed off about getting caught like that, he pointed out passion's hiding spot.Insanity found them all, one after the other, one by one…All except love… She almost lost hope, when envy whispered in her ear "He's hiding in that rosebush over there"

So she went there and picked a wooden branch from the bush.And started stabbing the bush wildly and frantically, hoping to finally find love. She didn’t stop until she suddenly heard a very sad crying voice coming from inside.Love came out, his hands over his eyes all drenched and dripping blood. Insanity cried " Oh, what have I done, what can I do to fix this horrible mistake, after I made you lose your sight"

Love said "There is nothing you can do to help me regain my sight, but there is something else that you can do" "What is it, whatever it is I'll do it" said insanity."Be my guide, show me the way for I am now blind" Said love. And so it was, ever since that day … Blind love wandering around, guided by insanity.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Blogging for Democracy

In much of the Arab World the media is state-controlled and has its hands tied by despotic government. Bloggers, by contrast, have stepped into the fray as the indymedia of the Middle East and it is they who are opening up debate and proposing reforms. However, internet freedom is now being severely curtailed and - as Sandmonkey said in his final post (due to police harassment he has now had to quit because of fears for his personal safety) :
"Bloggers have been intimidated by the authorities in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Bahrain, just to name a few. It seems like the period of hope and reform that the bloggers of those countries have pushed for and represented in the past 2 years is now coming to an end, with the authorities more and more focused and intent on shutting us up, using everything from intimidation to imprisonment. And we have no defenders, no one to protect us, or champion our causes or lobby for our rights and safety. There used to be the Committee to Protect Bloggers, but that went defunct due to lack of funding, its media-pressure- only strategy and wide scope".
He proposes a coalition of bloggers, mainstream media, human rights organisations, thinktanks, and, of course, politicians and their staff, to campaign for freedom of speech in the Arab World - and for bloggers wherever they may be - and pressurise repressive governments into halting their unjustified arrest and imprisonment.

If you think you could contribute, contact him at I know that many of my political friends should have at least some decent contacts to make this initiative work.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Pass the Remote

Sometimes we Europeans are given the impression that misogyny is the rest of the world's problem (Italians and Greeks excepted of course). As my post on Mernissi (To Starve or Not to Starve) was meant to show, Western women are often oblivious to the subconscious training in submission to male values they receive. How refreshing, therefore, to have encountered a dose of good-old-fashioned in your face sexism on the bbc website today.

Sir Patrick Moore believes women are responsible for dumbing down television. When asked what the problem was he replied:

"The trouble is the BBC now is run by women and it shows soap operas, cooking, quizzes, kitchen-sink plays. You wouldn't have had that in the golden days...I used to watch Doctor Who and Star Trek, but they went PC - making women commanders, that kind of thing. I stopped watching...I would like to see two independent wavelengths - one controlled by women, and one for us, controlled by men"

Sorry, I didn't think today was April 1st - more fool me I guess.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Start of The Braveheart Era?

"It's time". This was the slogan the Scottish Nationalists' campaigned on to turn what should have been a policy-driven Holyrood election into a referendum on independence and Blair's political legacy. The net result, as you will have seen, is a nationalist victory by the slimmist of margins (47 seats to 46) over Labour, which has been Scotland's biggest party for the best part of 50 years.

The decisive seat of Cunninghame North separates the two parties, and is hanging in the balance because it was won for the SNP by a mere 48 votes over the Labour incumbent Allan Wilson - significantly fewer than the number of spoilt ballots in that that constituency. The result also spells the end of the rainbow of parties which have hitherto figured in Scottish politics. The Socialists lost all six seats, while the Greens dropped from 7 to 2, with 17 Tories and 16 Lib Dems, who did disappointingly in comparison with predictions.

That the SNP is only one seat ahead means attention has shifted to the other big electoral issue: disenfranchisement. Widespread incompetence in the voting booths (who said Scottish education was the best in the world? My proud people cannot even follow basic instructions like 'mark your preference with a cross. Do not vote more than once') combined with flawed counting machines which broke down right left and centre and a cock-up regarding the distribution of postal ballots means 100 000 people were disenfranchised. Not to mention the bizarre incident of the disgruntled punter who took his golf club to the ballot boxes of Edinburgh West and destroyed significant numbers of votes.

This enormous number of spoiled ballots could have made a serious difference to the distribution of seats. Yet, in a situation reminiscent of the hanging chads incident, while the Electoral Commission is busy wringing its hands over what went wrong and, sensibly, advising a return to the traditional method of manual counts and metal boxes, the horse trading surrounding the formation of the new Executive is well underway and it is hard to see how we can now go back on those election results.

Coalition-forming, too, has thrown up some surprises. The media anticipated an alliance of SNP, Lib Dems and Greens which would form a very small overall majority. Lib Dem Leader, Nicol Stephen, however, has ruled that out now, on the basis that the Nats won't drop their demands for a referendum on independence. However, having read Iain MacWhirter's piece in today's Herald I am inclinded to disagree with this decision, however much I may dislike the idea of Scottish Independence.

The Lib Dems have already advocated more powers for the Scottish Parliament, particularly fiscal federalism and control over energy, through reopening the Constitutional Convention which led to the devolution settlement in the first place. The Nats must know that there is no majority in favour of independence in the House so any Bill would be voted down. The only way they can save political face is to advocate an Independent Commission to examine the relative merits of the status quo, greater autonomy, or independence itself - with non-binding results.

It is hard to see how such a commission could have recommended independence on any kind of non-ideological basis at the current time. As such, the Libs had little to lose - so long as they phrased the compromise properly. Now they have been cast in to opposition, and with them a long line of policies they would have done well to implement in the absence of a labour majority - particularly their commitment to PR and Local Income Tax, which the SNP also supports. Of course , there is no reason this cannot be accomplished on a consensual basis - but now the Lib Dems will be unable to make the running. And a minority government which could be taken down at any time might actually increase public support for embattled Nats when they see that noone is prepared to work with the largest party.

But I wait to be proved wrong. And the negotiations are not over yet. Not by a long shot.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Laicité vs Pluralism: Turkey's dilemma

Abdullah Gul's Presidential candidature has been declared nul and void by Turkey's Constitutional Court, triggering early parliamentary elections. Millions marched in defence of secularism on the streets of Istanbul and May Day riots saw 600 leftists arrested over fears that a Gull/Erdogan premiership would undermine the separation between religion and state which the army has traditionally defended.

Yet curiously it is the the unholy alliance between the military and political left, rather than the AK Party's Islamic agenda, which poses the greater threat to Turkey's democratic institutions. The cause of the Constitutional Court's decision to invalidate the first round of voting, in which Gul was nominated for President, was that there were insufficient MPs present to constitute a quorum.

That only 361 were actually in the Chamber at the time was no surprise - because the opposition parties had decided to boycott the vote. Indeed, of those who did cast their ballot, only 4 voted against Gul. Having thus rendered the procedure nul and void the AKP's opponents called upon the Court to overturn the decision, stirred up dissent on the street, and sent the stockmarket spiralling downwards in the process.

True, if a 'Christian Solidarity' Party were marching to power in Scotland I might think twice before letting it take office - and even take to the street. However it is difficult to view the AKP as militant. They bear rather more comparison to our 'family values' Conservatives (more specifically the Christian Democratic centre-right in Europe) than an Al-Qaeda cell.

Indeed, what are the 'radical Islamist' misdemeanours for which the europhile reformist Gul is reproached? Allowing university students to wear hijab on campus and promoting Koran-reading competitions for schoolkids on Turkey's national day. Replace Koran with Bible, and you'll find that in school assembles in Britain every day of the week.

I am a secularist myself. However, my beef with its defenders in Turkey is that democracy should be one of the fundamental principles of secularlism. If they are prepared to overturn their own democratic processes for the sake of laicité they will simply have done what they accuse the Islamists of and turned secularism into an ultimate value - or religion in its own right.
For more views on the matter, see the following article published in Zaman.

Urban Living

Neighbours. Europeans love to hate them. Not me, I was always one of those who believed in tripping round there with some cookies to introduce yourself and offer to water their plants when they are on holiday. However after being in my new apartment for two days I must say that some of my new voisins are singularly inconsiderate.

Now, it may be that the walls are much too thin in this concrete bird-cage of a building. But then, I would have expected the neighbours to have caughtebned on to that fact some time ago. So between upstairs 'faisant la fete' until about 2am last night and some other sod getting his hammer out at 8.30 am (and on a public holiday, so it can't be any workers they've hired) only to FINISH what he was doing at 9.30, my zen state went out the window and I found myself screaming "SHUT UP" at the walls in general. I'll purchase some ear plugs and see how that goes.

However it got me thinking. Either I was much too spoiled by the sound of silence (and occasional birdsong) at my parent's place when I was growing up. Or urban life just isn't good for you. All boxed together in these concrete shacks, surrounded by constant noise, from the wailing of sirens to screams in the night - not to mention the fact that everytime someone flushes the toilet it reverberates around the building. Is this the kind of progressive society we wanted to build? What happened to dreams of space, privacy, calm? Of home as a retreat? Or even of home in general. So many people I know treat their apartments as somewhere to sleep (though even that is kinda difficult) and spend all their time out the house. I guess it's cos we all live on our own these days.

I think it's sad. If I had the choice I would live in a big house with a courtyard, lush gardens and fountains. With my family round about me, somewhere on the outskirts of town. I'd have friends round regularly for dinners, games, and simple pottering. Their kids could run around the grounds safely, rather than being boxed in in front of the TV. I'd grow vegetables and cook. Learn to draw. Maybe even play some more tunes on the guitar. What is funny is that, despite the simplicity of all I've just outlined it seems unattainable. My current life gives me (some) money, status, excitement. But it also traps you in a vicious circle. Maybe I should think about trying something completely different in a year or so?