Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Just Ask Barbie...

I'm aware my last couple of posts have been a bit depressing. So I thought I would lighten the mood with some journalistic ineptitutude.

Now I know that MEPs aren't generally well known in their respective countries but I am surprised that those employed by the parliament don't seem to know who they are either.

(I definitely suffer from this problem: two women had plonked themselves at the table we'd reserved in a Thai place - one of my favourites - after a very long day at work. I asked my colleague, in a rather loud voice, what 'those girls' were doing there and shouldn't we ask them to leave: sadly for my career one of them turned out to be an MEP from my delegation...I guess it always pays to pay attention).

This months prize mix-ups are truly hilarious, stemming I think, from a combined ignorance of politicians AND the English language which is endemic in Brussels. I was reading the 'what's on' guide to the last session to see the Members' activities. And I discovered that Mary Lou 'Macdonalds' was giving a press conference on food safety. That made me laugh pretty hard. But it was nothing compared to "Barbie de Brun" leading toy safety campaigns.

I wonder what Sinn Fein's feisty Bairbre de Brun and Mary Lou McDonald would think of that.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

But Shariasly

Two phrases that don't normally go together attracted my attention today: 'EPP Working Group' and 'Sharia in Europe'. But there it was, advertised on a poster in the main lobby as I dashed to a meeting of the - wait for it - Working Group on the Separation of Religion and Politics to discuss apostasy. What the bejeezus is going on?

Gone are the days when European Parliament debates ranged from the proper curve of cucumbers to distribution of structual funding in outlying regions of Greece. Religious issues are enjoying the kind of political currency in our corridors of power unheard of for most of the twentieth century. A fact which is used to further various political ends, bóth electoral and ideological.

Fearmongers from the left of the political spectrum warn of the retreat of secularism in Europe and the abandonment of our humanist heritage. Cultural relativism and weak defence of enlightenment values by government and the media, they claim, has resulted in the birth of new forms of totalitarianism whether in the guise of Islamic extremism or papish plots to ban abortion and demonise homosexuals.

For many MEPs, their aim - thinly veiled, if you'll excuse the pun - is to sideline the 'backward' forces of religion and promote their own aggressive brand of secular humanism. Abolition of religious education in schools, bans on religious symbols in public spaces, and an emphasis on civic ethics is their endgame, and one which exhibits as much exclusivity as your average religious fundamentalist.

On the other side of the bench, conservatives and ultra-nationalists point to the revival of 'Judeo-Christian ethics' - exemplified by the heated debate over the place of God in Europe's tentative Constitution and Polish attempts to put 'values' firmly back on the political agenda - as an example of the EU reclaiming its heritage from the mistakes of multiculturalism and liberal neutrality. In their version of reality immigration is responsible for the widely cited 'breakdown' in European society, providing a pretext to forcibly assimilate or deport non white citizens.

Both are allied against liberal apologists whose 'flabby' thinking is supposedly handing the field to Islamists prepared to misuse the discourse of human rights and religious freedoms to undermine the very values liberals seek to protect. In reality, of course, many critics of liberalism dislike the freedom from social conformity which is its corollary and are more than happy to seize on reasons for curtailing individual rights which they deem in opposition to necessary state control and surveillance.

In all versions, the demonised Muslim minority is used as a lever to force political change. So pervasive has the motif of mad mullahs on the streets of Europe become that the stereotype has been normalised - a fact which constitutes simply one more example of the mainstreaming of far-right policies in the political life of our continent which has taken on an increasingly xenophobic and nationalist streak.
Liberals, of course, are wrong not to condemn political islamists of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir persuasion and deserve all the pummelling they currently receive for lying down in the face of would be theocratic despots. Equally, their opponents are wrong to tar all Muslims with the same brush, By synthesising the programme of Political Islam with religion in the public mind, anyone who declares themselves to be a Muslim (whether Salafi, Reformist, or downright secular) is deemed a suspect, a traitor, and the antithesis of all things European.
Just yesterday two far-right politicians - Frank Vanhecke and Filip Dewinter of the Belgian Vlaams Belang - were arrested outside the European Commission for protesting against the Islamisation of Europe. Shouting 'No to Sharia Law' and 'Democracy Not Theocracy' supporters clashed with the police and bemused immigrants in the EU quarter of Brussels.

Their numbers may have been small - in the hundreds rather than thousands due to a ban on the grounds of maintaining public order issued by the mayor - but they hit the headlines big time. Not allowing them to demonstrate may prove a major mistake by the authorities as it rallied the supporters of free speech to the side of people who are fundamentally racist, misguided, or both.

What I saw in the parliament today did nothing to dissuade my fears for the future. It is time politicians and the media (who don't generally have strong theological backgrounds) started to put much greater distance between the jihadi rhetoric of extremist political groups and ordinary followers of the Islamic religion. Likewise, governments must have the guts to institute formal bans on all Islamist groups and their cover organisations which promote violence and undermine democracy. It is frankly outrageous that leading lights from organisations like the Hizb, having been expelled from Muslim countries, continue to enjoy the right to speak out against a Western way of life that they do not respect and in many cases wish to destroy. That way alone lies compromise and a return to a middle ground that too often seems to have been abandoned.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Of Pride and Prejudice

How can you spot a friendship is dying? Most of the time friends who exit our lives do so slowly, and in stages. You start seeing them less and less (rarely intentionally, and with the best intentions of rectifying the situation) until the fact that they have moved, or married, or got a new job, sinks in and they recede to the back of your facebook page. Such changes in our personal priorities are rarely painful. Indeed, they are rarely anyone's fault. Most likely, they come about naturally, and with assent on both sides.

Every so often, however, someone carves you out of their life with a decisiveness which is as startling as it is unexpected. The last time it really happened to me was at high school - with all the psychological brutality teenage girls normally reserve for one other. I remember the pain of it still: my best friend turning against me from one day to the next, and of spending about two years trying to work out why apologies and explanations hadn't ironed things out. I've also done the same to some others in my life - people who thought I was angry with them, and thus refused to communicate, when in reality I was just indifferent and wanted them to go away.

The fact of the matter is that sometimes we need to move on from certain people in our lives. Perhaps we have little in common; perhaps we have grown out of them; perhaps we simply don't like them; perhaps we need to prioritise; or perhaps our relationship is somehow inappropriate. That happens. We develop. However the real question - and the ethics, if you like - is how to go about making the separation. I still feel rather guilty after leaving an ex-boyfriend (who was always calling me 'as a friend') high and dry. Every so often I would agree to meet him for coffee and invariably, when the moment arrived, I would find a reason to cancel. I'm not surprised he hated me afterwards. I simply wasn't honest enough.

Nobody likes being rejected by someone they care for. Especially not by being given a chronic cold shoulder until they get the hint. Sometimes it is fairer to be cruel than to be kind, even if that is more difficult for the perpetrator. So many people take the attitude that if you ignore something it will go away. Very often, all that happens is that this breeds resentment and self-hatred in the injured party. Fundamentally, if you are indifferent to someone who cares for you, that does not mean to say you wish them ill. Just that you no longer wish to see them. As such, damaging someone's self-confidence for the sake of an easy way out is egotistical in the extreme. The 'its not you, its me' line might be cliched - but it saves a lot of worthless soulsearching in the long-run.

So much for responsibilities. What about rights? To what point can the injured party blame the other for their hurt feelings or sense of loss? And to what point are they entitled to an explanation? Personally, I think that if someone respects you enough to break ties with you, and tell you why - as is done in many breakups, if we're honest, which, however unpleasant at least have the relief of finality about them - you should respect them back and bother them no longer. However, if they refuse to confront the issue, or deny there is a problem, they do bear responsibility for that.

In that case, you can just tell them so, I suppose. And be done with it

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Counter Terrorism and the Surveillance State

As news breaks that the Germans have foiled a 'massive bomb plot' aimed at Frankfurt Airport and Ramstein Army Base, as well as the usual infidel haunts like pubs and clubs - in probable commemoration of the September 11 attacks in a few days time - we have been discussing current anti-terror measures in the European Parliament.

The debate was scheduled in July, and, given that the summer was clearly some sort of down-time for Europe's Al-Qaeda affiliates (perhaps they were off in warmer climes, enjoying the sun n'surf or a bit of jihadi training after the cock-up that was the flaming Jeep 'attack' on Glasgow airport) we had prepared a lot of statements about EU laws not being proportionate to threats. Today's revelations throws that into relief somewhat. But I still stand by the Liberal line.

Let me expand. Compared to, say, the Cold War period or even the IRA's reign of terror in the 70s and 80s, Europe is actually a safer place today than it was for many years. That many believe it isn't is testament to the success of propaganda designed to manipulate our sense of insecurity for political ends, most especially those of state surveillance and control of ordinary citizens, like me.

Before you protest against my loony liberalism in the face of fundamentalism I should point out that there is a big difference between introducing a) measures that actually combat terrorism, b) those which are designed to reassure the public -the legislative equivalent of a press release - and c) those which are really designed to deal with domestic issues under cover of the foreign threat. 3 obvious examples would be a) improving cross border police cooperation and harmonising extradition procedures for suspects, b) not letting liquids - or indeed lipsticks - on board planes and c) retaining sensitive data on the population at large, for indefinite periods of time.

All three have been legislated at European Level as part of our response to the terrorist threat. Yet only one, as far as I can see, is actually of any use at all (that's a, not b or c, in case you didnt work it out). B is mostly designed to reassure the public we are doing something (or indeed anything) while we think of a useful response to the problem, and C is designed to bring in through the backdoor a law which will be used against citizens of that state and would never, in a million years, be passed by a democratic parliament back home. In fact, the only reason it can be passed at European level is because deals are done behind closed doors in Council. Once the Ministers shake hands, no parliamentary scrutiny is ever brought to bear on their decisions. We are supposed to take them on trust.

The deficiencies of such a system are quite obvious. First, we have no method of evaluating - in a transparent manner - the laws which are put through in private. As such, with no sunset clauses to speak of, legislation can remain on the statute book without proper scrutiny. For any rational person this is clearly damaging to civil liberties. Insisting that such and such a law is in fact imposed by Brussels is just another way of getting round the legal safeguards to our rights that Constitutions are supposed to establish.

I uncovered a little historical snippet in the New York Times to illustrate the dangers of such a situation. In the autumn of 68BC the world's only superpower suffered a terrorist attack by a loosely organised band of pirates. In panic, according to Plutarch, the Roman Senate granted Pompey "absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone" through the Lex Gabinia.
By the oldest trick in the book, the military high command subverted Liberty, Democracy and the Constitution with the assent of Rome's frightened citizens. Sound familiar?

It should do. News that DNA storgage in Britain is higher than any in the world (we do manage to do the surveillance state better than anyone else: we also have 50% of the world's CCTV cameras, or something) is frightening. Since 2004, the data of everyone arrested for a recordable offence in England and Wales - all but the most minor offences - has remained on file regardless of their age, the seriousness of their alleged offence, and whether or not they were prosecuted. Now thanks to the EU Data Retention law - pushed through during the UK Presidency after the government failed to get it through the Commons - the scope of such institutionalised surveillance has been vastly widened.

Tellingly, according to Home Office Figures, that amounts to 5.2% of the UK population including nearly 40% of black men, 13% of Asian men but only 9% of white men. What we are creating, in effect, is a system of racial profiling that will lead to many more being prosecuted for crimes they did not commit.How so, sceptics will gasp? Well, as with the Criminal Record Bureau database, its not as watertight as it sounds. Seemingly, over 2000 people have been refused work or arrested because their details ressembled those of known paedophiles and criminals. Yet, judges now want to extend DNA profiling to everyone in the UK, including foreign visitors. Reassuring, non?

Let's go after the terrorist types. But let's do it in a manner that doesn't undermine our own freedoms and culture at the same time. If we let our governments go down that line we may as well be living in a dictatorship like Saudi Arabia. The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect. Let us hope that Europe's anti-terror laws do not do the same.

Problem Solved

Success. Somehow my curmudgeonly computer decided - in its own good time - to act on instructions issued to it hours ago. I feel like an all-powerful computer programmer now...

Technologically Stumped

No, my campaign to free journalist Alan Johnston long after he in fact left Gaza is not due to a hazy awareness of world news (though lord knows, with the situation there, its possible that he or another ill-fated sort will have been kidnapped again by the time I get around to removing it). Rather, I am unable to master the, apparently simple, technology required to get the icon off my sidebar. I did the obvious and went to 'templates' where I chose to erase said 'page element'- unfortunately, it has failed to budge since. If any helpful readers with a more developed understanding of HTML can advise me on what to do to edit the text I would be most grateful.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Happily Ever After...Until Death You Do Part

Marriage. Few words inspire such profound - and often violently different - reactions amongst those of my generation. In previous eras it was more or less regarded as a fact of life - a bit like queuing for the bus, eating fish on Fridays, or looking after your parents in their senility. And, like aforesaid activities, you could either moan about them or extol them when you met your friends to gossip over a cup of tea. Question them you did not.

Like many things in the modern world, however, that has changed dramatically. Sure, people - by and large - still go out and reproduce but the concept of pledging yourself, til death you do part, is, if anything, regarded as a touch anachronistic. Instead, our lives are complex webs related to our own self-image - and this informs much of what we think about marriage. Are we independent careerists, carefree creatives, the mothering type or too picky? Are we ready? Have we met the right person? Will our priorities change? And what about our biological clocks? Can medical science work wonders once we're forty? Who's willing to bet on the advances of the future to save their career today?

Negotiating what was once an unthought transition into a new phase of life is now fraught with philosophical difficulty. Rather than simply choosing someone and living with the consequences - or indeed simply dumping them when it got too much- many of us are anchored in a semi-permanent state of self-inflicted pyschological warfare. Confused by conflicting desires, social pressures and - if we're honest - the experience of an irresponsible yet liberating individualism which permeates our twenties and thirties, the idea of bringing other human beings into your sphere on a PERMANENT BASIS can seem a trifle terrifying. It is the psychological equivalent of being born again, with the same turnaround in lifestyle that religious conversion brings. At least once the kids come along.
Despite our reluctance to get legally involved with the opposite sex until well into our maturer years, we seem to understand, au fond, that there is a 'good age' to do these things, somewhere between 25 and 35, and it's then you have to decide if you're going to do them. Once you reach said age the existential process of banging out your stance on the issue becomes both normal and necessary. In case you haven't followed this rather garbled explanation up to now let me give you a concrete example. Twice this week I ate with a hoard of girlfriends, all aged between 26 and 32. Somehow, regardless of cultural and career differences, all these women had only one thing they wanted to talk about over dinner: marriage.

A year or two ago they were focussed on jobs, travel, degrees, political causes or their latest bedtime reading. Now, it seems, they were either defending their desire to commit - or, conversely, their determination not to. Only one girl was actually married, a fact which provoked a certain degree of incredulity from the others as if she were 16 years old when she walked down the aisle and not 30 years old already! Either way, for what post-modernists have dubbed the great non-issue of the twentyfirst century, the 'm' word has taken over our lives. as successfully as it did previous generations: the only difference being that it is in theory rather than practice.
As for me, not wishing to waste too much more time thinking about men - that's years of my life down the drain already, lost on a succession of suitors I no longer even talk to - I have decided that being single is simply too demanding on one's time. I would rather just make up my mind to be with someone and then think about something else...preferably food, philosophy, or both at the same time.
All joking aside, I am quite unconvinced by so called feminist libertarian arguments against marriage. It seems to me that most women's problems are caused by scoundrels not stepping up to their obligations. Absolving them of their responsibilities towards us completely (as per the 'laissez faire, do what you want' school of relationships) instead of reforming said institution, seems to have handed the more misogynistic variety of male success on a plate.

Why don't we want men to protect us, to care for us and our kids, to earn their keep, and ours too, while they're at it? Why is it preferable to work all the hours Gods sends, AND look after your children, and the house, simply to say you're independent? Why is it better never to commit, all in the name of some formless notion of choice, even though that could mean you never have children or a happy home? Isn't it about time feminists started suggesting more ways to balance our commitments and our careers instead of keeping men out of the picture completely? Isn't making women's lives easier a definition of what feminism should be about?

I understand why the first wave of feminists had a problem with marriage as a social phenomenon at that time. After all, women had barely been let into the workplace by the time Germaine Greer came along. And I do agree that when men felt they could control women financially, have full legal rights over her, or simply take her for granted, there were real problems.
Yet their valid critique of failed marriages in what were, frankly, quite different social conditions has caused us to throw the baby out with the bathwater for, what seems to me, few very good universal reasons. Both men and women are now used to the (concept, at least) of gender equality, human rights and equal ops at work. Why couldn't a better form of marriage now work in our favour?

Perhaps the time has come - with more than 50% of kids born outside wedlock - to rethink the patterns of our behaviour. Whether that means shelving or accepting marriage remains to be seen. But we should at least step back and reflect on our reasons for dumping one of society's main building blocks, lest it should come back to haunt us all in our (potentially lonely) later lives. To be continued...