Saturday, October 30, 2004

Democracy in action

I was reading the excellent A fistful of euros blog yesterday, and was making some points regarding the eurosceptic press and its reaction to the actions of the European Parliament. My views on this are quite simple, in essence: the eurosceptic press cares not about making the EU more democratically accountable. In any case, here are some of the thoughts I posted there in the comments section yesterday, slightly edited...

The last thing that the Eurosceptics want is for the European Parliament to get any democratic legitimacy. In fact, if you want a laugh, suggest that the problem with the EU is that its overly bureaucratic and as a result more power should be given to the Parliament. The reaction you get is usually adverse, and usually very amusing. What it proves is that the arguments of the eurosceptics are against the EU (and, often, against internationalism in general) rather than the fact it is bureaucratic.

Indeed, I have long believed that if the EU in general could avoid its "rocking-horse maximum height" legislation then it would be accepted much more readily in the popular perception. This is a fault of the Parliament as much as the bureaucrats, for they pass the legislation, even if it is just about all the power they possess. (Of course, leaving the EU wouldn't change how much we were affected by these pieces of legislation - it is pure fantasy to think that we would suddenly be allowed to trade with the EU with products that didn't meet their uniform standard. The fact that they shouldn't be legislating on this is beside the point.)

Eurosceptics, especially the press, in Britain are highly xenophobic, but cover this up most of the time because it is much more convenient for them to attack bureaucracy, which is a generally unpopular thing. Basically, they want Britain out of the EU almost totally, and they think that we have "surrendered too much of our powers" already. So the anti-Parliament beef is more to do with trying to deny the EU any democratic legitimacy.

The EU needs some urgent reform. It all too often falls guilty to the dreadful French trap of centralisation, although I think to some extent this is a product of government and jurisdiction in general. There is no need for Europe-wide directives on working hours, for example. And whilst a Charter of Fundamental Rights is necessary, in my opinion, it must be accepted that there had to be a great deal of latitude given to each individual government. Of course, no national government will ever give up powers it considers fundamentally necessary - the major reason why fears regarding the EU foreign minister are totally and utterly misplaced - but there is a lot of meddling legislation that could be removed.

This is one of the reasons that British reluctance to get involved in the EU irritates me greatly. A British-German alliance could have seen the reform of the institutions so that the EU provided a governmental framework, and allowed an international outlook on issues such as asylum which are probably best sorted out through general discussion and co-operation. I am being somewhat idealistic here, I accept, but if the concept of Europe is truly to work, then it must have a popularity it does not possess at the minute.

I support the EU constitution. This is not just because I am a constitutional pedant, although this plays some part in it - it certainly makes sense to have one document detailing how an institution runs rather than an amorphous mass of negotiated treaties. And, as stated earlier, no powers will be ceded to the EU if any member state feels sufficiently protective of them. Yet we keep missing a trick in Europe. Federalism does not have to mean - indeed, I would say it does not mean - that we move towards an increasingly centralised bureaucracy. Much good is to be gained from a European outlook - greater acceptance for regional identities; an institutional framework for the positive discussion of important continent-wide issues. And Britain will be left behind. I've travelled a lot around Europe, and quite often the first question I am asked is "when will Britain join the euro?" The youth of Europe is in favour of the EU. Well, OK, the youth of most countries of Europe. Why does Britain always have to be the isolationist exception?

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Rough Justice

There has been a controversy in the EU recently regarding the comments of a man soon to be appointed to the European Commission. Senor Buttiglione, the Italian nomination to the Commission, has been quoted as saying that he believed homosexuality to be a sin; as a result there has been the predictable indignation from the self appointed defenders of European values. There is talk of the whole commission being rejected on the back of his comments.

Many issues naturally arise from such a controversy. Perhaps first of all the whole process of nomination demonstrates better than anything the administrative muddle that currently operates within the EU; the member states nominate a commissioner each, but they then have to be ratified as a bunch by the Parliament itself. Something seems quite strange about this process - for example we will have a European energy minister who knows the square root of sod all about energy - and it shows the uneasy balance between the European Parliament and the national governments of the member states. Of course, a lot of this could be circumvented by actually introducing a much greater degree of democracy and choice into the whole process of choosing commissioners - but this would lose the much-vaunted "commissioner per country" scheme; and besides, the last thing the Eurosceptics want is for the "unaccountable and bureaucratic" EU to actually have a mandate!

But more interesting, certainly in the way the debate has assumed, is that it is assumed that private views can impinge on the ability of someone to do a public job. Matthew Parris was particularly scathing in his article in The Times on Saturday; saying he had had enough of freedom of religion justifying archaic views. Certainly there is an argument for this - but to actually implement it would be impractical, highly controversial, and ultimately wrong. Yes, evangelical Christianity and Catholicism may abhor abortion and homosexuality; many Muslims disavow Western liberal values in their treatment of women; Jews and Muslims kill animals in a barbaric way so that they are religiously able to eat their meat. Yet democracy, if it is to mean anything, must allow these people to hold their points of view - they are not anti-democratic until they become coercive or demand the enforcement of these viewpoints. They must be allowed to hold their views, just as much as we are allowed to tell them that they are wrong.

Additionally, there seems to be no actual evidence that Senor Buttiglione will take any action to attack the rights of Muslims once he has assumed his position. His words may make us question this, but he himself makes a distinction between seeing homosexuality as a sin and seeing it as a crime; the latter would make his position untenable. As far as I can tell, in any of his previous jobs there was no evidence that he has taken action to prevent homosexuals holding civil rights - whilst I may think there are probably better suited candidates for such a position, the structure of the EU doesn't allow for them to be chosen. Indignation at his proposed appointment, however, is counter-productive, for all it does is reinforce the negative view of Europe that it has a particular political line to tread. And in this particular case, whilst large swathes of opinion may disagree with the proposed commissioner's views, there are also large swathes of opinion which agree with him. The EU will not convince people of its merits while it seeks to impose its own private agenda on institutions which do not possess a democratic mandate in the first place. As I will post later, diversity is the best way of finding effective and practical solutions; silencing views we may not agree with is the quickest way of arguments becoming irrelevant.

Back to the major point - I have still not seen any evidence that suggests Buttiglione will be unable to make a distinction between his professional and personal opinions. My favourite episode of The West Wing was the one discussing the death penalty - in particular making the distinction between the office of the presidency and the President himself. The President decides he cannot commute a death sentence because he is fearful of the precedent it would set; this despite the fact he considers putting someone to death an immoral act. Now, I know we should not take too much from television programmes - perhaps especially from ones so clearly idealised on a political line (who would object to Josiah Bartlet being in charge of their country?). Yet I see no reason why we should not give the commissioner the benefit of the doubt - until he proves otherwise. For many people his views may prove unpalatable (although, as so often in today's culture, we are guilty of pigeonholing views on matters such as these into all-too-simplistic camps). Unless he actually hinders homosexuals in his role as justice minister, however, there is no reason, based solely on his public pronouncements, to deny him the role. After all, I thought another of the Western liberal values we were supposed to believe in was "innocent until proven guilty".

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Wonders of Modern Communications

Reading the samizdata blog yesterday, I came across a wonderful article by Brian Micklethwait, regarding the Internet and the fact that politics has now become an entirely global affair; the events in any particular country can now be relayed right across the globe, and it does not take a significant amount of effort to become knowledgeable fairly quickly on any given subject. One of the joys I have found is that I am capable of reading all sorts of articles regarding the American election - a huge advantage over the British coverage, which I find generally narrow-minded in scope and full of the typical misconceptions of Europeans regarding America.

Of course, the wonders of the Internet go far beyond this, as I was remarking with a friend tonight. The friend was on his year abroad in Germany; instant messenger services allow me to keep in a far more direct contact with him than would otherwise be possible. Yes, the art of the letter may be disappearing, and lamentably so, but the trade-off for this is a much richer base of knowledge and contact at our fingertips.

The article to which I was referring earlier suggests that this may be a bad thing - to paraphrase his argument, whilst all of us now can have some sort of global perspective, this can lead to the formation of self-contained communities. As I argued in my last post, the coalescence of groups bound by narrow perceptions is almost always dangerous. Views need to be challenged to make them valid; without challenge, small errors cannot be picked up, nor can ways of improvement. For this reason I usually find myself playing Devil's Advocate if consensus emerges - last night, for example, I decided to put up strongly anti-hunting arguments with pro-hunting friends of mine. Whilst I broadly sympathised with them (I have no time for hunting, but I do not think the government needs to waste its time legislating for it. The actions of pro-hunt protestors, however, are making me less and less convinced we should be wasting our time repealing the legislation too) it is all too easy to fall into the trap of listening only to people who agree with you, and ignoring arguments such as the fine disregard many hunters show for the rights of landowners. Or indeed the rights of the fox - rather than simply controlling fox numbers, I have heard from many reliable sources that they are beginning to trap the foxes and release them specifically for the hunt.

In any case, I digress. The thing is, the point being made by Micklethwait in his article is simultaneously a curse and a blessing. Yes, it allows people to move in narrow circles. Yet at the same time it opens up a vastly wide range of resources and forums for discussion; allowing the challenges I described earlier as necessary. Of course, I don't advocate living life solely through a computer, and challenging the ideas down at the pub or wherever is just as important. A local as well as a global perspective on events is needed. This is the benefit of the Internet - we can now be far more informed than ever before when we actually take these matters to a closer discussion.

I am convinced of the benefits of travel. I think the more that we meet other people, especially from different backgrounds, the more our own views are challenged, the more respectful of other cultures we become. And in many ways, the Internet is just a simplified form of travel. Not as interesting; nowhere near the same excitement. Just being in a different place, often even thinking about being in a different place, energises me in a strange and peculiar way. But if you cannot afford the expense of getting out and experiencing those cultures and meeting different people; the Internet is a brilliant, if impersonal substitute. As with all things, be aware of its limitations and its effects will mostly be for the good.

PS Sorry for the seeming vagueness of this post. One of the points of the blog is that it allows me to develop my own ideas - given comments and time, and this may well be re-written or I will visit the same topic again.

Monday, October 25, 2004

I wanted to hate the Red Sox

A strange thing has happened this week. There have been many interesting articles in the press that I wished to comment on in broader fashion - hysteria because someone seemed to suggest the Queen should apologise for the bombing of many German cities during the war; an intriguing article regarding the Mongolians and their new adoption of surnames; the controversy currently brewing in the EU regarding a right-wing commissioner. And yet, whenever I have sat down to consider writing something new for my blog, my thoughts invariably turn to the World Series.

Even stranger, I am starting to root for the Red Sox. This worries me, as my last few years have seen me develop a growing dislike for their uncanny ability to sign all of my favourite team's players for large sums of money, thus rendering us unable to keep them. However, the one team that I despise more than any other is the Yankees. They stand for the most ugly, profiteering type of corporatism; they consistently outspend all other teams by a quite disgusting margin; their players are the swaggering, gamesmen types that embody the bad things about sport. As Bill Bryson put it, they are the team for the kind of people who take two parking spaces. And yes, they buy up all of our best players too.

For any of you who have read the newspapers thoroughly this week, you will probably have come across the incredible story of the Red Sox victory over the Yankees this week. 3-0 down in a best of 7 series (a deficit never before overturned in the 100-year history of the league), they survived two cliffhangers, before demolishing the Yankees on their home turf in the final game to win through to the World Series. Staying up till about 3 in the morning to see Johnny Damon (one of the aforementioned stolen players) smash the home run that ultimately put the Red Sox in an unassailable lead was a great moment. Of course, in the past I have always been accustomed to rooting for the Sox ahead of the Yankees. The fact that never before have I been rooting for the winning side made things much easier for me, as I could continue with my Yankee-hating habits.

Yet now I realise how difficult it is to overturn that support for the Sox. Firstly, their players embody something about sports that I personally feel should be universal. Damon described the clubhouse atmosphere as that of "a bunch of idiots"; whilst this may be doing them a bit of a disservice, they clearly have a pure joy for playing the game and playing together, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Secondly, they have some of the best examples of pure baseball skill. Tim Wakefield, their starting pitcher last night, is what is known in the trade as a "knuckleballer" - a mystery pitch incredibly hard to master, but if mastered, also incredibly hard to hit. Pedro Martinez, another starter, is on his day one of the most dominant players you could hope to watch. Damon is not only a great hitter but a stylish fielder. And David Ortiz, so far their player of the playoffs, has an incredible batting stance. His whole physique shows you how much power he has to release; when he stands at the plate there is a palpable sense of impending doom.

All of this adds to the emotional intensity that was undoubtedly felt by the entire city of Boston, and most probably half of New England, when Game 7 was finally over and the Red Sox had finally vanquished their hated rivals. That their team, with its infectious and independent enthusiasm, had beaten their smarter, wealthier, more corporate rival less than a couple of hundred of miles away - the embodiment of a city that had overshadowed theirs in almost every which way - was a cause for elaborate and extravagant celebration. And the delight and the intensity of the series caught me too. Ultimately, I've been caught by the dictum that "my enemy's enemy is my friend." But more importantly, I think I've been shown why sports take up so much of my life. The emotion that is inherent in them, the drama of human contest, is something that directly excites me. I had every good reason to hate the Red Sox. Yet the power of sports has meant I'm following the World Series in a way I never expected.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Once again, Tomlinson misses the point

What is it about education and the teaching profession that gives morons a long career path? Mike Tomlinson has always seemed to me to have the intelligence of a small gnat - I saw him absolutely taken apart by the Education Select Committee, and yet no-one picks up the fact that this may make him somewhat unsuitable for the commissioning of a report looking for the complete overhaul of secondary education as we know it. I admit, I have an in-built hatred of the man following the abysmal and utterly outrageous whitewash of the inquiry into A-Level marking in 2002. But for him to have become the head of Ofsted to me beggars belief - going far, far beyond the Peter principle. He must surely have been promoted three or four levels (at least!) above his level of competence.

His report into the overhaul of secondary education merely confirms this to me. Admittedly, there are some good ideas hidden within it - most notably, the realisation that good students can be fast-streamed and reach their potential more quickly than others can - but this is lost in a stream of egalitarian rhetoric of the worst kind. Unfortunately, none of the alternatives hit the point any more, despite the fact there is so much consensus regarding the problems facing our education system. Worse still, there is no constructive political opposition to prevent the adoption in some form of the recommendations of the report.

The idea of an overarching "diploma", which will cover all kinds of skills and education taught at school, is typical of the notion that all schoolchildren can have prizes. What it fails to address is the real reason why students remain uninterested in classroom teaching. For, from what I understand of the report, the recommendations don't change a huge deal. They may cut back on the amount of examinations; they may rename assessments, and at the top level, it will institute differentiating grades. But in general, the system will remain largely the same. Curricula may be changed to have a more direct impact on literacy and numeracy but, again, the framework is no different to that which has gone before it. Indeed, this is typical of the Labour government in many areas, and most especially in education - it tinkers with systems to make it look as if it is doing something good. These changes are almost invariably for the worse, and heap additional responsibilities where none are necessary.

What causes most of the problems in the educational system is that we continue to pretend that academic and vocational education can be treated as intrinsically equal. Therefore examining them through the same system and giving them supposed equal weight and merit in all areas can be portrayed as a logical and sensible thing. Of course, lumping them together in this way cheapens both. We see the vocational as nowhere near the academic rigour of the traditional exams they are supposed to be equal too; at the same time, there is a reweighting of the skills required in traditional exams which leads to perceptions of dumbing down.

I am not saying vocational qualifications are not worth as much as academic qualifications. What they are is a reflection of how good someone is at different skills. Therefore they should be tested differently. If anyone wanted to make a genuine contribution to educational excellence in this country, then they would separate the two systems as much as is practical. That way, we would be able to keep people more interested. Rather than having "A-Level lite" qualifications still largely taught in a traditional manner in schools, we could move towards a much more practical-based qualification. I don't hold out much hope in this regard. Educated opinion in this country has been arguing for better provisions of technical education since before the turn of the last century. Yet it is the only way to restore confidence in what are widely perceived to be failing standards. Paradigm breaking, outside-the-box thinking can bring about the best results for education. Lose the comprehensive, "traditional" mindset (comment if you want a further explanation of what I mean here), and actually rethink whole swathes of the system. I'll elaborate further in due course, no doubt, but only if we separate academic and vocational education, and are thus able to hold them to greater respective rigour, can we effect genuine improvements.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Do the drugs work?

Moving back to more English sports, the "sensational" news in football the past few days has been that Adrian Mutu has tested positive for cocaine. Apart from the fact this doesn't surprise me - there are bound to be more than a few football stars on some sort of recreational drug given the amount of money they make and the fame that comes upon them so quickly - I can't help be struck by the hypocritical reaction of much of the media.

Now, I may dislike the use of recreational drugs, but when we are dealing with them in a sporting sense, they are of little material benefit to a sportsman's performance. Mutu may be stupid on many counts - not just in taking the drug, but arousing the suspicion of his manager, greatly reducing his position as a role model, damaging his chances of lucrative sponsorship details, and so on - but as far as actually being a cheat is concerned, he is innocent.

Not much more than a week ago, Arsene Wenger made far more dangerous, worrying, and sweeping allegations about prevalent drug use in many leading clubs. In particular, he accuses leading clubs of systematically injecting their players with EPO - the drug which has caused such trials and tribulations in professional cycling, and is undoubtedly performance-enhancing. And yet, under the WADA code that the football authorities have signed up to, the maximum bans for being found taking cocaine and EPO are exactly the same. Even worse, the FA do not systematically test for EPO - not before Wenger's allegations, not afterwards. And evidence in Italy suggests that the Juventus team of the mid-1990s was full of people with abnormally high red-blood cell counts - a classic sign of EPO use (and indeed the test for EPO in professional cycling).

Football is not the only sport to have a hypocritical attitude towards drugs. American football punishes the use of cannabis more strongly than players found to have used the "designer steroid" THG, on the grounds that those caught using THG did so when it wasn't on the banned list - again, completely ignoring the fact the only reason for taking THG is to artificially improve performance. Cyclists, too, take action to limit the success of riders who make accusations of widespread drug use. Protecting their own, maybe, but doing nothing to help reclaim the image of a sport irrecovably tarnished by the image of doping.

And yet all the moral indignation at any kind of drug use is irrelevant if we are not actually going to make strident efforts to rid the game of people gaining an unfair advantage over the others. I hold a fairly controversial opinion on drugs - namely, that if we have no efficient means of testing who is and who isn't using drugs, we might as well allow the use of all of them. Otherwise we only punish the honest and the stupid. If, as I suspect, masking agents are becoming increasingly effective; if, as I suspect, sporting organisations tolerate large amounts of doping to allow their athletes to be the best, then we might as well level the playing field. If everyone is allowed to take whatever they want, knowing the risks that they take while they are doing it, then no-one sportsman gains an unfair advantage over another. Yes, it might give an advantage to those who can work with the best doctors, but that's no different to the advantage given to players and teams working with the best coaches. It would just become another factor in preparation.

I must stress I don't actually want this situation to come to pass. But when you see cyclists travel at the pace they do, up mountains, day after day; when you see abnormally huge American football players; when you see players with previously normal physiques become chunky and muscular, then you have your doubts about whether our current testing systems are appropriate. And if it is then considered that football doesn't test at all for one of the most well-known drugs in sport, you have to wonder what people do get away with using. If we have no way of knowing what top sports stars put in their bodies, then punishing them for using certain substances becomes ridiculously arbitrary.

And we still persecute those stupid enough to use recreational drugs. I in no way condone Mutu's decision to break the law. He was a bloody fool and to a certain extent deserves what punishment he gets, in the same way Rio Ferdinand deserved to have the book thrown at him for missing a drugs test completely. Yet it is hypocritical to hit those who, however stupid, do not cheat, whilst we take no action against those who undoubtedly do.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

A new hero

The Boston Red Sox have never been one of my favourite teams. I may sympathise with their fans as they continually fail to reach baseball's Holy Grail of winning a World Series, but they use their strong financial position at the expense of my favourite team, buying up all our best players. However, I have to salute their star pitcher, Pedro Martinez. Their rivalry with the New York Yankees is well documented; in their last few meetings, the Yankees have "owned" Martinez, making him seem a shadow of the devastating sportsman he is at his best. This prompted him to make the remark that in their recent meetings, the Yankees had been his "daddy". Unsurprisingly, the next time he made the visit to Yankee stadium, this time in the playoffs, the Bronx was electric with chants of "who's your daddy?" And the end result of the game was ultimately disappointing , for although Martinez pitched very well, he made just enough mistakes to allow the Yankees to creep home.

But the reason I really admire him is for his statements after the game. He was asked if he regretted making those statements, given that it implied the Yankees had got into his head and prevented him from performing at his best. Here was his reply:

""It actually made me feel really, really good. I actually realized that I was somebody important because I caught the attention of 60,000 people. If you reverse time back 15 years ago, I was sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to actually pay for a bus. And today, I was the center of attention of the whole city of New York. I thank God for that."

How refreshing to hear a sports star with a sense of perspective. Not that I don't admire competitiveness - of course I do, for I am one of the most ridiculously competitive people I know. Yet at the same time, it is easy to overlook the enjoyment that playing sports can bring. Now, I could have used the comments to show just how important sports are in the popular psyche - the northeast of America is buzzing at the significance of the series - but this time I will do my best to refrain. Instead, I wish to commend Martinez - a pitcher who has caused me untold frustration - for realising how lucky he is to live out the dream of millions of fans. And I wish, also, that he can show a return to form next time he pitches, so I can have the satisfaction of seeing the Yankees beaten.

The Fallacy of Iraq

In my more charitable moments, I have no doubt that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken with the best of motives. Not because the invasion got rid of an evil and savage dictator, whose horrors become more and more apparent day by day - the issue of the pre-emptive strike was always to a greater or lesser extent fraudulent. In any case, despite all the furore over the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, it would only be the most naive or foolhardy person who believed that Saddam had no desire to create such weapons, or that if he succeeded in creating them, that he would have deployed them.

This is not to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the doctrine of the pre-emptive strike; although I do have fears over the constructs of international law and fear that they may well prove ineffective if we ever do find ourselves face to face with someone with the capability and intent to destroy civilisation as we know it. Yet for those familiar with some strands of neoconservative thought, they would have known that all these sorts of arguments were at best secondary to another motive - the panacea of liberal democracy.

Again, I will not hesitate to point out that not only do I not support the idea of invasion of other countries sheerly for the purpose of imposing democracy - we have no inherent claim to moral superiority and the more lives we cost the less superiority we can claim in the eyes of our opponents - but that it is an inversion of the original neoconservative thought. It is significant that Francis Fukuyama - author of the neoconservative bible "The End of History and the Last Man" - has broken ranks with his former allies and criticised the policy of the Bush administration strongly. His book points towards the general economic strength of liberal democracy, whilst accepting in the short term state central planning can induce huge leaps forward. Yet what the neocons in the Bush administration fail to realise is that liberal democracy has been most effective when it has been instituted by a popular movement from within the country.

Of course, there is an oleological side to intervention in Iraq that is all too often ignored, replaced instead by crude claims that the US wanted to invade Iraq purely to gain control of its oil supplies. Whilst having such a large oil source in the hands of a regime as unstable as the Ba'athists was clearly undesirable, France, Russia and China all negotiated with Saddam to open up the oil supply, and the US could have done the same if they wanted. Instead, part of the motivation behind the invasion was the belief that the installation of a stable pro-western deomcracy in Iraq would give a greater stability to the world economy (naturally benefiting the US, but it is easy to overlook the fact that the current volatility of the oil market is due to the fact that worldwide black gold is able to support some of the most odious and corrupt regimes).

Yet far more important in the minds of the US administration was surely the idea that they could install a democracy in Iraq with the minimum of trouble - in a remarkably candid moment, Geoff Hoon accepted that the aftermath of invasion in Iraq had been fare more difficult than the British government had expected; given their mismanagement, I imagine the US have found the same. Of course, it is very easily to belittle them with the benefit of hindsight. For all my reservations regarding the invasion of Iraq, I felt that if a stable democracy in Iraq had been created, with the immense benefit of assisting the stronger reforming movements in Saudi Arabia and Iran, then the positive historical legacy of Bush and Blair would have been great. Probably ridiculously false optimism, and, as I will show later, I still think these were the wrong reasons to go to war. Yet if the right things are done for the wrong reasons, we have still made progress.

The intervening months since the fall of Baghdad have filled me with growing disillusionment. It is clear that we did not have a clear and realistic exit plan when we entered. It is embarrassing to see Baghdad divided into "green" and "red" zones. In the haste to capture Baghdad, we did not spend sufficient time securing control of towns on the road - leading to the problems of insurgency we see today. Worst of all, little thought was given as to the huge ethnic tensions that were inevitably to be sparked in a scramble for control of the new Iraq. Creating an independent Kurdistan may have been an impossibility due to Turkish concerns, but the way that the country is being run at the moment, civil war does not seem as remote as we may wish.

What does all this prove? You can't go around forcing democracy on people at the point of a gun. Aside from the most obvious point - if we think it is OK to impose one kind of rule on another sovereign nation, how can we ever prevent the annexation of other countries because they think their form of rule is best? - liberal democracy works because it allows the people to decide how they want to be ruled, and because it allows debate, and upholds the right of people to tell others what they don't want to hear. We are repulsed by the Taliban because women who don't want to wear burkas had no chance to speak up. We hate Saddam because those who refused to legitimate his government in the "referendums" on his rule were fed rat poison. But just because we - and millions who lived under their rule - hated them, doesn't mean that instituting our preferred forms of government will work.

Indeed, we lose the moral high ground when we bomb the cities of Iraq. In the same way that families affected by murder have a high propensity to believe in stronger punishments, so those who lost loved ones to cruise missiles are less likely to believe the coalition forces truly have their best interests at heart. And when pictures of the abuse at Abu Ghraib are shown, the link between Islamophobia and the western world is made ever stronger. By all means, fund groups pressuring governments for democratic reform. As dubious as this might sound, it is definitely preferable to keepin Hamas operatives on a UN payroll, and would hopefully lead to good in the long run. But if we are to establish a fully functioning liberal democracy in the Middle East, and truly create a modern day "city on a hill" to be a beacon to the rest of the region, it cannot be achieved by force. If, by wholeheartedly supporting grass-roots movements to overthrow evil regimes, we can act as a great force for good. But any democracy established in Iraq will, for at least a generation and probably much longer, be seen as nothing but a stooge of the Americans. The bungle of Iraq has greatly decreased the possibility that we can see Islamic democracy flourish. Invading Iraq was idealism gone too far - and the world is a far poorer place for it.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Aspiration - Addendum

My comments in my last post seemed to incite a much greater degree of comment than usual (ie all three of you who comment regularly all spoke up!). Anyway, a few other points were raised which I didn't really deal with in my original post, so I thought I would follow up on them a bit.

One of the concerns raised about the test was that it is much easier to be coached for this test than it is for the interview. Certainly, this is a much greater problem, as a well coached pupil can more easily be taken out of his or her comfort zone in a direct interview, where every single point has to be backed up, where glib generalisations are unacceptable. And therefore to a certain extent I can understand concerns about the use of the test to whittle down the number of applicants actually interviewed from 85% to 50%. However, in defence of the History Faculty, every year there will be a significant proportion of candidates who really should not be applying to Oxbridge - not necessarily that they aren't sufficiently intelligent, or even that they would not get the necessary grades, but more that they just wouldn't be suited to an Oxbridge education, with the special rigours of the tutorial system and the increased academic intensity. Provided that the interview does not get abolished, and a suitably high number of applicants are still interviewed (and even whittling down to 50% on the basis of the test will mean that there are over two candidates per place, if my memory serves me correctly). Furthermore, good coaching for the test can still be cut through; instead, the reasoning test gives further information as part of the applications process, and certainly much more relevant information than the essays that are currently demanded.

The other big argument put forward was that, although the arguments regarding "middle-class" language were misplaced, they could have some merit if twisted to mean that the introduction of a new test may put state school candidates off from applying. Now, I think that arguing this in quite that way is operating as a voluntary spin doctor for the SHA, but, nevertheless, there is some merit to that argument. Coming from a private school myself, I know that one of the factors influencing future aspirations is that you see a steady number of pupils in the years above you going to Oxbridge - when you reach that stage, you are quite easily able to make those sorts of comparisons, and, of course, benefit from a greater expertise both through the experience of your teachers and knowing the students personally.

The problem, however, is not that private school pupils are overprivileged for finding themselves in this situation. It is more that the state school system does not encourage greater aspirations in its own students. If a test that allows a student to show off his or her capability of achieving great things academically deters bright students from state schools, it is a sad indictment of the teaching they receive. Any educational system must have at its heart a desire to encourage the best and the brightest to try to achieve the most that they can, and more. Yet this week I read that study showed that 40% of state school pupils achieving three grade As at A-Level did not apply to ANY of the top THIRTEEN universities in the country. No wonder there are such constant accusations of bias against state school pupils - large numbers of the best aren't even putting themselves in the position where they might be accepted into Oxbridge. Blame can be shifted around as much as you like - accuse Oxbridge of not doing enough to encourage applications from certain schools (although this is most definitely misplaced); blame the government for continually "running down" the academically elite institutions for their own political purposes (but God help anyone who criticises the NHS...) - but at the end of the day, the state sector must do its own soul searching. There is no good reason why the introduction of any sort of test should deter anyone capable of taking it from applying to Oxford. Yet rather than getting down to the business of selling this to their pupils, leading figures in the state sector prefer to bleat about bias. If their candidates are good enough to get in, they should be able to get in whatever the system. And their teachers should be encouraging them, not moaning to the press about how unfair everything is.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

"Middle-Class Language"

Yet again, the attempts of Oxbridge to introduce greater rigour into their admissions processes meet with the derision of those who are supposed to have the best interests of education at heart. Oxford has announced it will introduce a historical reasoning test as part of the application process - from all appearances, a well-designed test, that does its best to overcome the difficulty that in history you have to test both what a candidate knows and how a candidate thinks. Some people, however, are never pleased. And once again, it is the bleating of elitism that gets published in the national press.

Nothing that Oxbridge can do, other than ripping up their entrance procedures and allowing a statistical formula to decide who attends their institution, seems to be able to placate those hell-bent on destroying our educational standards. First the entrance exam was elitist, or favourable to public schools. Then that was abolished under government pressure, and the interview system was deemed to be elitist. Now that subject specific tests are being used as a supplement to the wealth of other data that Oxford collects, accusations are being levelled that it uses "middle-class language" and therefore inimical to the ridiculous and offensive "benchmark targets" of access.

Many of my posts before have hinted at my disgust for introducing quota figures, and I will probably deal with this in greater detail at a later date. What angers me greatly about the new benchmark targets is that they are deliberately designed to create the impression that Oxford is an out of date, snobbish institution, when those of us who study here know that, certain limited circles excepted, nothing could be further than the truth. Worse still, coming from a body that is supposedly knowledgeable about education, it bases its figures on the UCAS points tariff, which includes vocational qualifications almost totally unsuitable for education at an academic institution like Oxford. Not that these qualifications are not valuable - but confusing the vocational and academic spheres only serves to cheapen them both.

It is equally disappointing that those criticising the introduction of the new test are those who are supposed to be upholding the standards and aspiring for more - in this case, the head of the Secondary Heads Assocation. They claim that A-Level is a perfectly useful gauge of a students ability in terms of university application - ignoring the soaring number of pupils who get A grades (rendering it increasingly unhelpful in discerning the best candidates) and informally blocking moves towards A* grades at A-Level because private schools would have an even greater disproportionate success. Furthermore, it is possible to go through an A-Level history course without ever really developing skills that are fundamental parts of the university education, and still achieve very high marks. Indeed, the new curriculum 2000 gives greater assistance to less well-prepared pupils, given the relative paucity of the curriculum actually examined. In any case, A-Levels serve a broader function than that of the university degree, often testing different skills (and certainly a lower level of logical reasoning), and to suggest that sheer statistical formulae can be applied to test the reliability of Oxford admissions is foolish and futile.

I wonder what would happen if these people had existed in a time when entry to Oxbridge really wasn't open to the working class, when situations in education were genuinely prejudiced on the elite looking down on those from a lower social station. We live in a culture of culpability, where anyone but ourselves are to blame. What the hell does "middle-class language" mean anyway? All tricky terms in the test are defined in a glossary - and if, as I suspect, they are referring to the use of conceptual historical terms, why the hell isn't our state education system teaching everyone capable of going to Oxbridge what they mean? Oxford has no interest in taking anything other than the best candidates - the tutors have to teach them themselves, and they have their worldwide reputation to defend. Forcing change in admissions procedures will not do anything to secure the world-class education we should be demanding our best students receive. If the head of the SHA really thinks these tests are biased and unfair, then he is unfit to be head of the SHA. In education we want skilled people who can instil in the children of today the ability to learn more than we can. To cry foul at any intellectually rigorous measure that can be introduced insults all of us, not least the pupils the SHA are supposed to be looking after. Raising standards, and giving people the most appropriate education, should be the only criteria in judging the education system.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Anti-Federalists all over again

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is the whole wave of different resources so easily attainable. Reading this article on it opened up a completely new insight into the forthcoming US election for me. Not the constant building up or knocking down of expectations (particularly interesting is the Republican's claim that Kerry is "a better orator than Cicero"), or the wider issues of presentation (is Kerry a 'flip-flopper'?), or even whether Bush or Kerry would be stronger on terrorism/homeland security/economy/Medicare/insert key issue here - I saw. But the difference between the two international visions put forward from the neoconservatives on the one hand and the 'internationalists' on the other.

Bush undoubtedly believes - strongly - that freedom can be brought to the world through a certain mixture of force of arms, persuasion, and leading by example. Now, I would strongly argue that his policy in Iraq was the wrong way to go about this, even if I admire the fact he made it clear from the outset that he was getting rid of Saddam because he was morally odious. I supported the war, but because once we got to September 2002 to have backed down would have been a show of supreme weakness on behalf of the West, not because I ever thought we should have been making an issue of it in the first place.

I also have no doubt that he went into Iraq with, in some cases, the noblest of intentions. Yes, oil was an issue (and having such an oleological cabinet was not a clever move from someone who is normally a master at creating the right image), and from the whole world's point of view, having the oil supply in the hands of stable, free-trading governments is a good thing - although this does not of itself justify going to war against any state. Yet creating a stable democracy in Iraq could act as a beacon to the greater reforming movements in Saudi Arabia and Iran. I think Bush was highly misguided in thinking the invasion of Iraq was the correct means to achieve this end. But I will return to this theme in a later post.

What is more of interest is the rhetoric he - and now Tony Blair (in a clear shift from the arguments he was making before the war) - is using to justify the war in retrospect. Bringing freedom to the Iraqis was the main aim of the war. Giving them the right to choose their own leaders, the freedom from the fear that Ba'ath party agents were waiting to feed them rat poison, giving them the chance of seeing some of the benefits of the huge resources possessed by the country. And if - a big if - the coalition succeeds in bringing democracy to Iraq and seeing off the Islamist insurgency, then there can be no doubt that the Iraqis will be much better off. Whether this can be achieved without at worst a civil war or at best a division of the country giving autonomy to the Shi'ites, the Sunnis and the Kurds is another question entirely.

But everyone agrees it is better to have Saddam in prison, rather than in power. The deeper issues that run through the whole question of war in Iraq focus on whether it was right to blow apart the international community to launch an invasion. Indeed, the seeking of a second UN resolution explicitly justifying military action on the basis of WMD does weaken the coalition's argument that they wanted to fight for the freedom of the Iraqis. And it is on this issue that the clear divisions between Bush and Kerry are highly apparent. At the most basic level, Bush believes the freedom of each individual is the most important issue. Kerry believes that state sovereignty is the key issue.

Ultimately, although the article I linked to above makes comparisons between aspects of Lincoln's and Calhoun's thought, I think there is a huge amount of overlap between the debate here, and the Federalist vs Anti-Federalist contest for the ratification of the US Constitution. Indeed, it is a sign of America's remarkable growth in the last 225 years that such a debate can now be transferred to the world stage as opposed to what was, at the time, a peripheral debate in many ways to contemporary power politics. Naturally, this argument cannot be stretched too far, for otherwise it suggests that the USA has legal jurisdiction in areas of the world it does not, and as of right should not, have. Even the most ardent anti-American in Europe, however, does not deny that the significance of the US election is that it elects the leader of the free world. Arguments that the interventionist stance of the US, if it were to be continued, should entitle the rest of the world to a vote are somewhat far-fetched but not without some merit. To be more to the point, however, I think looking at the ratification debate from 1787-9 does provide a highly interesting and revealing prism through which to view the opposing world views currently locked in combat.

In many ways, the bad guys won. The majority of the population would probably have voted against the constitution, but a number of factors conspired against them - the hasty calling of many state conventions, which prevented a true mobilisation of opposition; better access to the press on the part of the Federalists; the fact that only 9 states were needed for ratification, which meant that the recalcitrant states were voting on whether they wanted to join the union. Of course, crucially important was also the fact that the Federalists quickly acceded to their opponents' demands for a Bill of Rights.

The salient division, however, between the two sides, was where they felt the basis of government lay. The Federalists, in their rather interesting take on the meaning of the word 'federal' (one source of their political potency was their presentation), argued, essentially, that the freedoms of each individual American should be protected largely by the national, as opposed to the state, government. Although their preferred "Virginia Plan", with an even stronger national government, was heavily modified, the basis of the new government was to reside the balance of power firmly in the central bodies, with sufficient coercive powers to enforce their will. And with the addition of the Bill of Rights, the theory that the nation was the guarantor of individual freedom became much stronger.

The Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, were worried about the implications of control by a remote central government, with far greater powers than it had been given before and far greater powers than most people were actually willing to give it. Instead they believed that popular sovereignty meant government had to be instituted from the bottom up, and that control on a local level, where politicians were more accountable to their immediate electorate, and would have a much greater knowledge of local desires. Indeed, a reading of this suggests that they share my view of the Declaration of Independence, which wan't really a polemic in support of individual rights, but claiming that the colonies of America were every bit as entitled to the status enjoyed by the mother country, Britain. It spoke far more about community than it did about the individual. But the key thrust of Anti-Federalist thought was that democracy and the will of the people was best contained within the state, and that issues of greater importance could be dealt with by the states meeting collectively and deciding upon measures as equals.

Of course the situation isn't entirely analogous. The US, even as the world's only superpower, technically has no legal sovereignty over Iraq. But at the most basic level, Bush believes that the freedom of each individual in the world overrides the nation state's right to govern within its own borders. Kerry believes that each sovereign state has responsibility for its own internal security, and that change can only truly be brought about through discussion and encouragement. States rights have always been a sticking point in US history - from the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil War, through to the Civil Rights Movement and even the controversy over gay marriage. It is highly interesting to see that a form of this debate now governs the way we view the international community.

Underheralded Heroes

Josh Gibson may not fit most people's idea of a true natural athlete. Often overweight, he had shaky knees, and his game was not multi-faceted. But he had one incredible skill - the ability to launch a baseball incredible distances with his bat. Indeed, he is heralded with several of the longest hits ever to have been seen in Griffith Stadium. His batting average was one of the highest in the league, he was feared by all pitchers who threw at him, led his team to numerous league titles, and indeed his achievements were such that he ended up in the baseball Hall of Fame.

The story of Buck Leonard is not entirely dissimilar. Indeed, in many ways it fits far more easily the over-stated and all-too-conventional path that heroes claim nowadays - not that Leonard would ever have wanted himself to have been seen in such a way. He took up baseball because he had been sacked from his job, and needed to earn money for his mother and siblings following the death of his father when he was young. Playing first base for a sandlot team, his talent quickly became apparent, and became scouted by and played for some of the best teams in the country. Over a period of many years, he became the team's leader, and, as a team-mate of Gibson, proved to be essential to the team's success. It was fitting that both men were elected to the Hall of Fame in the same year.

Yet we will never know just how good these players truly were. The simple reason is to do with the colour of their skin. Jackie Robinson 'integrated' baseball when he was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 - Gibson died in January 1947 (and was already a shadow of the fearsome hitter he was), and Leonard was already past his prime and incapable of being an everyday player. These two players, more than any others, were the front-runners in the case for integration, and would have been a major league asset for any major league owner brave enough to sign them, but fell victim to prejudice and greed (many Negro League owners were remarkably quiet in the cause for integration because of the threat to their profits). By the time a major league owner stuck his neck out and brought players to the level they deserved to play at, these players were past their best.

Some old-time stars did manage to make it into the major leagues, most notably Satchel Paige, who achieved the remarkable feat of pitching three shut-out innings in the majors at the age of fifty-nine. But the stars who were too old to showcase their talents at the highest level, although honoured through the Hall of Fame, never have the satisfaction of seeing their statistics appear in the annals of MLB history, and all their records seem to have an asterisk played against them. For example, see this extract from Tom Verducci's mailbag on

"Never mind Bonds vs. Ruth. What about Josh Gibson? He had a lifetime average above .350, hit 84 home runs in one season and nearly 800 for his career. I believe he is still the only man to hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium. I know it's apples vs. oranges, but can any comparisons be made? -- John Menninga, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Unfortunately, comparisons can't be made, at least on a strict statistical basis, because Gibson was never allowed to compete with major league players. Given his prowess in the Negro Leagues, there's no doubt he would have been a major star in the big leagues. I'm glad you mentioned Gibson, because we should make it a point to remember such great players who never got their proper due."

But why should we consider Babe Ruth's records, for example, any more valid than Josh Gibson's? He never had to prove himself against the best black pitchers - a fact which surely diluted the quality of the opposition that he had to play? I am being slightly facetious here - serious problems dominated the organisation of the Negro Leagues, such as the irregular league schedules and the questionable business dealings of many of the owners. Additionally, the Negro League World Series often saw competing teams "loan" players from other teams. Yet in the same way that Gibson never had to face the best white pitchers of his era, Ruth never had to face Satchel Paige. Surely this means he was able to pad his statistics against poorer players? Just because Ruth was eligible for the major leagues because of the colour of his skin does not mean his records should be considered more legitimate than others. Both the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues are tainted because the top players in each never faced off against each other. We know full well who is more to blame - the stubborn racist attitudes of men like Clark Griffith, Connie Mack and Walter Briggs - but asterisking one set of records and not the other shouldn't be done.

Can you imagine nowadays if Randy Johnson didn't throw against Barry Bonds? Moreover, it would be used as a point for further discrimination - 'that Barry Bonds sure can bat, but put him up against Johnson and he couldn't live with it'. Or in a football context, if Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira or George Weah had been prevented from playing against white opposition. Of course, in South Africa it continued until much more recently, and now the tables have turned, for there is a minimum quota of black players in each side (which is also wrong, as it can only be injurious to deserving and talented white players. Merit should be the only criterion). Rank prejudice can never be condoned.

And yet, ultimately, the baseball players had a huge role to play in the energising of black society to push harder for their civil rights. It is not a struggle that has yet been won, and problems still exist on both sides, in the same way that although the Major League owners were prejudiced, the Negro League owners didn't call for integration in the vocal way other unheralded heroes like Sam Lacy or Wendell Smith did. But deep in their hearts, as the black fans watched the Baltimore Elite Giants, or the Kansas City Monarchs, or the Homestead Grays, they knew "their" players were as good as the "others". The confidence this must have given them - to have in people like Robinson proof of how unjust US society at the time was, and how blacks could succeed in a predominantly white world - will have been enormous.

So the memory of great men like Gibson and Leonard must be preserved. They serve as reminders of how unjust discrimination, on any basis, can be. In the title I used the word underheralded. Sure, people know of them and of their feats. But the asterisks against their achievements still remain. They may not have been the ones to step into the Promised Land, but they were certainly the forerunners. And the more we think about these remarkable men the more we will remember how important values such as liberty, opportunity and justice for all really are.

PS Much of the information here has come from reading a wonderful book called "Beyond the Shadow of the Senators". For those of you who have stuck it out until here, I can recommend this book wholeheartedly.