Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Chess: The Scourge of our Times

Sitting in the pub the other week, me and my friends decided that one of the problems we have in achieving an integrated, harmonious society in Britain is the continued existence of the game of chess. It is self-evidently racist. White is always placed on the attack, forcing black to defend itself semi-constantly. And then it's no surprise that white wins twice as often as black does.

But the scourge goes even further. Knights are present, with their crusading undertones. And the only religious figures on the board are bishops. Why not rabbis or imams? Although, I suppose, seeing as the bishops can only move obliquely, maybe that's less contentious after all.

What do republicans and believers in social justice do? The king has to be protected at all times; and the pawns are kept in subjugation by only being able to move slowly and in small measures.

Then again, they are able to promote themselves if they get across to the other side of the board. So perhaps it's all a metaphor for social mobility?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Getting A Hammering

The one thing that really annoys me (OK, one of the things) is when free trade is sacrificed at the altar of protectionism and inefficiency. Now, I'm not necessarily an advocate of totally unregulated free trade - pitfalls are too great, and in all economic matters there needs to be some degree of stability.

The recent decision to impound imports from China, however, and the decision of George Bush to ignore a NAFTA ruling regarding levies on Canadian lumber, however, seem to me to have little or no justification. If we are to have a free trade agreement with China, then we can import any of their goods. We don't then use embargos to prop up inefficient and overexpensive items from France, Italy and Spain. If people want their quality, then they can pay for the quality. If they want the item at a cheaper price, then they should have the opportunity to do so.

Free trade isn't an a la carte issue that we can pick or choose. It is about encouraging enterprise, efficiency and innovation. It is about ensuring that choice remains a crucial aspect of our economy. We can lament the decline of the rural bakery all we like - the fact is, if we wanted the bakeries badly enough we'd shop there and make it profitable. The consumer controls the destiny of the business, not the government. And it should stay that way. It might mean making uncomfortable choices. But more often than not protectionism is used as a means of hiding inefficiency and propping up failing industries. If they aren't up to scratch, we should get rid of them.

Monday, August 29, 2005

From the OxBlog

OxBlog lament the sneering attitude towards America that seems so prevalent in educated European circles:

It's really quite amazing how little has changed in almost forty years. For many of the Americans I knew at Oxford, nothing made them more certain of their country's basic virtue than the vitriolic denunciations of the United States considered socially acceptable at Oxford. Now it seems to me that there are three possible lessons to be taken away from the surprisng similarity of Oxford c.1968 and Oxford c. 2000-2005:
1. Anti-Americanism is a constant because America today is just as bad America once was, and vice versa.

2. America today is morally superior to the America of yesteryear, since it managed to produce a presidential contender (John Kerry, that is) whose victory would have been welcomed by progressive Europe.
3. As Edward Said observed in his landmark work, Orientalism, the imperial powers of Europe have made a long-standing habit of reducing the inhabitants of their (erstwhile) colonial possessions to a set of condescending, reductionist, and simply insulting caricatures.

I wish I could come up with a stunning defence to the contrary. I'm sad to say, however, that it seems to be almost the only political constant in Oxford - that one can expect the US to be slagged off on a pretty regular basis. It's actually worse than the insular mindset we attribute to the Americans, because if they said the things that we do, we'd lampoon them for being small-minded - whilst we are being intelligent and measured in our remarks.

For what it's worth, I think option 3 is right, although with less of the imperialist overtones, and more to do with envy. Europe's favourite music is American. Europe's favourite films are American. Europe's favourite TV shows are American. Europe's favourite authors are, often, American. Yet because European culture is "high", whilst America's is "low", we look down our noses at the US. I think there's a large amount of snobbery that's designed to try and justify the place of Europe in the world, when it is so obviously overshadowed by the power, wealth and culture of the US.

PS: This will probably be the first in a long line of American-related posts. I'm off travelling there for a couple of weeks, and hope to keep the blog active in the meantime. This means there may well be more travel observations than usual, but expect some cricket messages - hopefully gloating - around about the 12th.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

GCSE Languages Decline

Last year I wrote that if, in making GCSE languages non-compulsory, teachers and examiners actually start stretching the brightest pupils more, then a great service to the learning of languages in Britain would have been achieved.

This year was the first year that languages weren't compulsory at GCSE level; unsurprisingly, the number of entries trailed off quite sharply. The detail of the argument highlights the loopholes in the government's enacted policy quite well, but again the overall thread of the argument is that only by everyone learning a language will standards improve. That's not right. GCSE languages are already pretty vacuous, and the gap between GCSE and A-Level is a chasm for all but the brightest candidates. For once, I have to agree with a spokesperson from the Department of Education when they say:

"We need to be realistic about what will make language learning flourish in our schools.

"Forcing 14 to16-year-olds to learn a language won't achieve that. What we need to do, and what we are doing, is getting children involved in learning languages at a much younger age."

The principle of the change is underlined by the fact that the percentage pass rates in languages have shot up this year - by 7 percentage points in both German and French. The weakest candidates are abandoning the exam. Without wishing to sound elitist, this isn't a bad thing. They should be spending more time on English and Maths - the really vital skills - rather than learning a foreign language they will barely use to a woefully inadequate standard at any rate. The danger only comes if the best students start giving languages up. The candidate figures at A-Level are worryingly low. But if we don't stretch the brightest candidates early, and really show them the fun of learning a language, then they're not going to take it up at a more advanced stage. If we actually get people truly interested and stretched by the subject, a level of fluency by 18, and if not then, certainly by 21/22, is by no means a ridiculous goal. As strange as it may seem, if less people take GCSE languages, we might actually get more top-class candidates.

The Power of Language

John Steinbeck's East of Eden revolves around a translation. The story of Cain and Abel is one of sixteen verses, and yet has been remembered for centuries. The characters in the book wonder about the different versions it has taken according to translations of the Bible. In the King James version, God promises to Cain "if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him". By contrast, the American Standard version says "Do thou rule over him".

The importance of such seemingly small differences came home to me at the weekend, when I was reading in Church. The reading is quite a well-known one, beginning

"I beseech thee, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye commend your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service." (Romans 12:1)

Or rather, that is the version I remembered from a long time ago. The reading in the new translation of the Bible my church uses is:

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your spiritual worship."

For me, the difference between the two pieces is as profound as the difference established in East of Eden. If the commending of your body to God is a reasonable service, it emphasises that the rule of God is one that is based upon reason, of covenant; that the will of God is ultimately knowable. If it is a spiritual worship, there is a much more emotional nature to the following of God, which instantly makes Him more unknowable.

Especially when we try and rationalise disasters of epic proportions, the nature of God is vital to our understanding. An unknowable and omnipotent God can wreak havoc on earth simply as an exercising of his power; a reasonable God would surely need more concrete reasons, based on wrongdoing and the breaking of covenants, to wreak such destruction.

Unfortunately, unlike Steinbeck's character Lee, I don't have a family of Chinese elders which I can encourage to go away and study the original Hebrew. The changes that can be made on a seemingly simple translation, however, underline the power of language. Words and commands have meanings that aren't necessarily easy to transmit between cultures - despite their ultimate power.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Blast From The Past

I'd long assumed that my fervent interest in the connections between sport, politics and history first started when I read Beyond A Boundary by CLR James (peerless among sports books). I was clearing out my room today, though, and came across a few speeches I'd made when I was in the sixth form, running my school's debating society. Here's an excerpt from a debate opposing the motion "This House believes the Olympic spirit has gone up in flames":

"The Olympics also create moments which transcend sport. The four athletes who entered Stadium Australia to represent East Timor signified something special for their nation. The rapturous applause they received both in the stadium and the crowds gathered round whatever TVs could be found back home was the first sense East Timor had of being a nation since voting for independence. To them it was recognition of their struggle, not to reach Olympic standard, but of their battle to become a nation."

I'm not sure I could put it any better myself now.

National Monuments

Fans of the Boston Red Sox want their ballpark, Fenway Park, to be made a national historic landmark. The linked article shows the obvious immediate benefits - tax credits to help with renovation and expansion. However, leaving those considerations aside, the designation would make perfect sense.

Baseball is part of the spiritual heart of America. To read a collection of good baseball writing helps explain an awful lot about American culture - I would particularly recommend a collection of writings by Stephen Jay Gould called "Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville" for placing the role of baseball in New York's and America's culture.

More than that, millions and millions of Americans will have visited Fenway Park in the years since its creation. Memories of games there will live on long after the game has finished. And it is part of a dying breed - a ballpark that has existed for nearly a hundred years, and in many ways a far cry from the new super stadia springing up across America as we speak. Sport really is an essential part of the fabric of twentieth century history. I hope sincerely that the bureaucrats in charge of the decision make the right choice.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

The Ashes series so far this summer has been nothing short of wonderful. Gripping cricket from start to finish; the matches have been played in a great spirit and cricket is knocking football off the front and back pages. We could hardly wish for anything more - other that actually bringing home the bacon and finally wresting the Ashes from the grip of the Aussies.

I fear, however, there are parallels with an even more popular and famous story here. When the three wise men came to visit Jesus in his manger, they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The first two seemed logical enough for a celebration, but why on earth would a material used for funerals and cremations be given as a gift to a newborn child? The symbolism, of course, was highly apt and deliberate - whilst gold and frankincense promised the joy of God's son walking the earth, myrrh was the promise of the cross.

English cricket may well be treading a similar path. Last winter, it was decided to sell the rights to England's home Test matches to Sky. Undoubtedly this was a move which brought in more cash in the short-term - but at what cost? The cost of a massive amount of TV exposure for the game. Next year, unless you subscribe to Sky TV, it will be impossible to watch a game of domestic cricket on terrestrial TV. How on earth will this bring new fans into the game? How will it allow an interest in the game to be nurtured amongst those who currently find it boring?

The gift we have been given so far this summer is frankincense - the fragance of scintillating cricket, played at a frantic pace and with competition as its hallmark. When watching Warne bowl, Flintoff and Pietersen bat, or the brilliance of Michael Vaughan's 166 in the last Test, it is difficult to think of cricket lovers as anything other than totally blessed. The series is cricket as it is meant to be played - and it is attracting a huge audience because of that.

Whether the present of gold will be granted to us is far more uncertain. Whilst England seem to have the upper hand and the momentum in the series, any side that possesses three all-time greats (McGrath, Gilchrist and Warne), two of whom would be automatic selections in an all-time World XI, cannot be written off. If England play as they did in the last two Tests, they should win. The vagaries of weather, and the likelihood that the Australian third seamer will put up a stronger performance than the horrendously out-of-form Jason Gillespie.

This will count for little, of course, if the inevitability of death hangs over the game like a shadow. For cricket to continue to be strong, it needs to have a vibrant fan base and a lot more young people willing to play the game. That can only be done by placing the game in the shop window - with the top internationals broadcast live on terrestrial TV. Otherwise the casual viewer whose interest in kindled by what he sees unfold in front of him will be lost to the game forever. The smell of frankincense and the potential promise of gold are all well and good; but if the lasting legacy of the summer is to be the gift of balm for cricket's burial, will it all have been worth it?

Monday, August 22, 2005

A Sense of Irony

From the BBC, an article entitled "Brazilians to probe Menezes case":

Arriving at Heathrow Airport, Brazilian government official Marcio Pereira Pinto Garcia said he and colleague Wagner Goncalves wanted "to understand a little bit better how the system works, how the IPCC works and what's the legislation that's going to be applied".

From the Amnesty International Report 2002:

Police officers and ''death squads'' linked to the security forces were responsible for numerous killings of civilians, including children, in circumstances suggesting that they were extrajudicial executions. Land reform activists, environmentalists and indigenous peoples in rural areas were killed or assaulted by military police or gunmen hired by local landowners.

...Members of both military and civil police continued to be responsible for numerous deaths, often in situations which indicated excessive use of force or extrajudicial execution. In São Paulo, the police ombudsman's office received reports of 481 police killings, the majority by military police, over the whole year. This was considerably higher than the 364 reported in 2000. ''Death squads'' continued to act with impunity in many states, with the participation or collusion of the police.

Now, any regular reader of this site knows that I am not the greatest fan of the Met's handling of this case. But where Brazil is concerned, the words pot, kettle and black come to mind.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Goodbye to Gaza

I'm not one of the people who rails against the BBC virulently. I'm not the biggest fan of the license fee, as I think that people should have the freedom to choose which TV services they wish to receive, and thus pay for. I also think that BBC News, TV-wise at the very least, does have a slightly left-leaning bias - and that there is no harm in admitting that. If you are open about your influences, it allows your content to be judged more fairly, rather than giving grist to the mill of ideological enemies.

However, the main news picture on the BBC website when I logged on this afternoon was the picture in the top left of this post. I don't pretend to understand the complexities of the Israel-Palestine debate; as far as I can tell it is too far enmeshed in memory, identity and history to be solvable. What I am fairly sure of is that a withdrawal from the Gaza settlements was a hard and courageous decision of Ariel Sharon to make; whilst I feel for those who have lost their homes in the withdrawal, hopefully gestures like this can be the first tentative steps on the way to peace.

However, I can't help but feel that the BBC is playing into the hands of forces they really do not want to be encouraging with pictures like that. The Israeli flag is not just the symbol of a country; the Star of David is the symbol of a religion - and a much-hated one. Seeing the Israeli flag shrouded in flames is a highly inflammatory picture (no pun intended); and, to my mind, almost certainly is encouragement to those who wish to see the state of Israel destroyed. The picture is undoubtedly striking and effective; for a national, taxpayer-funded organisation known around the world to be broadcasting it is far more questionable.

Friday, August 19, 2005

al-Taqiyya

Like Chicken Yoghurt, the bombings have been a strong learning experience for me. I have now done much more reading into the Muslim community and into Muslim beliefs (if only, when moaning about 'Western ignorance' of their beliefs, Muslims underwent the same process regarding Christianity). It's been enlightening - but the most significant thing I've found out about profoundly worries me. The concept of al-Taqiyya is one which validates lying about one's faith if it is to be used for the advancement of the faith.

Now, there is still a lot I don't know about it, for example. I know that Sunnis tend to frown upon the concept, yet Shi'ites argue that the Sunni tradition should validate it as well. Within a British context, I don't know what proportion of British Muslims are Sunni or Shi'ite, and so my concerns about it may well be less significant in a British context. Nor am I entirely happy with the definition given on Wikipedia - is the allowance of telling deliberate untruths really so sweeping as to be for "the furthering of one's faith", or are there more specific limitations for those using the principle?

However, the possibility that any Muslim could be lying to me, if he considers the lie to be in the interests of Islam, makes many of the Labour-sponsored initiatives in terms of "community outreach" a moot point, surely? If such a principle is admitted to, where can anyone have any trust? More to the point, how can we possibly hope to integrate when there is no firm community founding?

If anyone has answers, or reassurances, please get in touch. As things stand, I'm getting very pessimistic that a cultural impasse is avoidable.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Devaluing the Brand

David Cameron has warned Malcolm Rifkind not to "trash the brand" of the Conservative Party by criticising its past activities. Quite apart from the fact that Sir Malcolm has correctly identified the biggest millstone around the Tories' neck, Cameron's comments emphasise the huge weakness in the so-called "Notting Hill Set". What does it stand for? Not wearing a tie, having gay friends, and looking after your hair is not a political philosophy.

The attitude of treating the Conservative Party as a "brand" is indicative of the political class. No matter how easy it may be to try and apply marketing techniques to the political sphere, people do not think of their elected representatives as a product to be bought and sold. The likes of David Cameron may find it naive and touching, but the majority of the public still believe in Parliament as the bastion of democracy and a place for their views to be represented.

Until the Conservative Party realise they need to know what they stand for (and that what they have stood for in the past is unappealing to the people of Britain as matters stand) they will not get re-elected. Politics is not about just about slick advertising. Cameron must forget his background in PR and actually start working towards creating a positive policy.

Incandescent With Rage

I posted last month about the Stockwell shootings. In one of those two posts, I included the following sentences:

The caveat, is, of course, that the information we were given is true. There's already been a large amount of positive disinformation that has been given out regarding the terrorist incidents, starting from the immediate news of the bombings themselves.

Now, it seems, there is even more to add to our list of police lies. We know the explosions weren't caused by a power surge, as we were first told. We know that they were suicide bombers, despite police press conferences explicitly denying this. Although I suspect the two terror cells involved in bombing the Tube were linked, intimations that the bombs were made by the same bombmaker, from the same batch of explosives, are more questionable in the light of more recent information (especially relating to the specific design of the bombs). And now we know that almost everything that justified the shooting of a suspect was completely false.

Words can scarcely describe how incandescent with rage I am about this. I previously wrote "this is all grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists". Whilst I now hope that the police weren't just bloodthirsty, I cannot now be sure. The police concerned seem to have abandoned all thinking skills. As Edward at a Fistful of Euros said,

It is extremely important for the effective conduct of the UK anti terrorism policy that we all have the highest possible confidence in the veracity and efficacy of the police services.

No-one who follows the news can believe in the veracity and efficacy of the police services. Officers of the law have a very simple prescription for their job - to uphold the law. If they fail to do that, inquiries must be held and action must be taken. Of course, upholding the law is hardly a simple task; it requires in no small part help from the public. The public will only be conducive to giving this assistance if they have confidence in the law services themselves. When we are lied to on a systematic basis, something is badly wrong.

It is bad enough when the government chases headlines and cynically covers up the facts. At least we can vote them out come a general election. We have no such fortune with the police service - by and large, we are stuck with the structure. I am not advocating an elected police force, for this would only serve to make the desire to chase headlines and subvert the due process of law yet further. What is manifestly true, however, is that lying and covering up mistakes as part of a cynical self-interest operation means that the public cannot have confidence in the operation of the police service. What else are they covering up?

As things stand, the most certain way of dealing with the uncertainty of the London bombings is to listen to what the police say. And then assume the absolute opposite.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Travails of Fandom

One of the most frustrating things about being a sports fan is being trapped, unable to watch a match while it unfolds, having to rely on incomplete sources for updates. My friends will tell you that whenever I watch a match live (especially an England rugby match), I often give the appearance of being on the verge of having a heart attack. My frustration only increases the further from a TV screen I am.

When England were knocked out of the 1998 World Cup, I was wandering around my school grounds, backstage in a school play, desperately trying to find a radio. The only information I got was through hearing the cheers and cries of the pubs down the High Street - and trying to interpret them was a pretty difficult task! Similarly, a friend and I probably drove the rest of our halls of residence mad in our first year when we started screaming at my computer - all because of a moving American football helmet on my screen, updated at irregular intervals.

So it was today with the England-Australia match. Trapped in an office, I was reliant on text updates from my brother - that only served to raise my hopes when I saw that Australia were seven wickets down at half past four. Imagine my frustration to be driving home at half past six, with only Test Match Special on the radio to listen to, reliant on the opinions of someone else to relay the information!

Somehow, England's failure to win was all the more frustrating for my being unable to watch the match live. Partially, of course, my irritation stretches from the fact that I will now be out of the country during the crucial Test match, and be reliant on similar means of update (Cricinfo's ball by ball) to find out the ultimate destiny of the Ashes. Yet whilst watching a match live, you feel, as ridiculous as it seems, more in control of what's happening. At least you know for sure that what you are seeing is real.

Having to listen to England coming tantalisingly close to getting their first hand on the Ashes, on the other hand, cannot be good for my blood pressure.

Friday, August 12, 2005

A Classless Man

There was I thinking that a funeral should be to mourn the passing of a friend and to celebrate his life. Obviously it's not - it's for half-bit Z-list celebrities to have a go at making a political remark.

Sweet Irony

It feels awful to have a little smirk at this story, but I almost can't help myself. Ronnie Biggs never showed any remorse for his crimes, and after spending 36 years on the run only came back to England to serve his prison sentence when his health was in such a bad state that he needed treatment on the NHS to keep him alive. It almost feels deserved that it's the NHS that killed him, as worrying as the MRSA superbug is.

As for the argument that he should be released if he's close to death, I'm not so sure. The only grounds for his release are that he would be of no danger to the public if released. Dying men with deeply-held grudges can't always be trusted, however.

Hang Time

Terry Alderman thought that Australian batsmen should "go and hang themselves" if they got out to Ashley Giles this summer.

Let's just look at the King of Spain's record:

Second Test - First Innings

*RT Ponting c Vaughan b Giles 61
MJ Clarke c GO Jones b Giles 40
SK Warne b Giles 8

Second Test - Second Innings

SM Katich c Trescothick b Giles 16
+AC Gilchrist c Flintoff b Giles 1

And today:

JL Langer c Bell b Giles 31
ML Hayden lbw b Giles 34
DR Martyn b Giles 21

Australia won't have much of a team left at this rate!

Homosexuality is bad for your tummy

The BBC is reporting that Omar Bakri won't be let back into Britain. No doubt this will placate the bloodthirsty readers of the Daily Mail and such like - but what will this really achieve? It won't stop him running his own website; it won't stop his contact with radical Islamists across Britain and the rest of the world. Indeed, he still has family and "spokesmen" residing in Britain. Do we really think we can stop him?

There is another thing I want to know, however. Why, if he is such a danger to Britain, has it taken us well over a decade to take this action? It isn't as if his radical views were kept secret until now. The journalist Jon Ronson wrote a book entitled "Them", about meeting with various extremists. The first chapter is about how he followed Bakri for approximately a year; this was back in 1996. Here is an excerpt about his leafleting experiences outside Holborn station:

"How's it going, Omar?" I asked.
"Oh, very good," he smiled. "The message is getting across that there are some deadly diseases here and there."
He turned to the passers-by.
"Homosexuality!" he yelled. "Beware the deadly disease!"...

I expected to see some hostility to Omar's leaflets from the passers-by. But the shoppers and tourists and office workers seemed to regard him with a kindly bemusement. Nonetheless, after ten minutes nobody had actually taken a leaflet.
"Beware the hour! There are homosexuals everywhere! Beware the hour!" continued Omar, cheerfully. "Be careful from homosexuality! It is not good for your tummy!"


This passage ends with him having to shout "Help the orphans!" to get anyone
interested in his leaflets. Later on, Ronson, giving him a lift, asks:
"I'm meeting someone in Soho, so can I drop you off there?"
"No," he said, anxiously. "It is forbidden for me to go into Soho. Please don't take me there."
Soho would be razed to the ground, explained Omar, once the Holy War had been won...
"Have you ever been to Soho?" I asked.
"Oh no," said Omar. "It is forbidden."
"What do you imagine Soho to be like?" I asked.
"There are naked women everywhere," he replied. "Naked women standing on street corners".

The whole chronology of the chapter is taken from around the time of Tony Blair's first election. It describes a media storm about his efforts to hold an Islamic conference with various extremists speakers in the London Arena - and his miserable failure to attract any interest. It describes how even radical Islamists were wary of him and considered him detrimental to their cause, especially with his split from Hizb ut-Tahrir. It shows that his organisation is pretty pathetic - when he arranged a postcard campaign urging jihad, to be spread by balloons flying out from Trafalgar Square, the cards were too heavy to allow the balloons to fly.

The man, quite patently, is a nutter. A hate-filled nutter, certainly, but nothing that someone armed with a small amount of logic and an ability to debate can't counteract in less than a couple of minutes. In fact, I wonder if the need for the media to have their hate figures actually is causing bigger problems in terms of spreading extremism. No-one with any sense would ever take Omar Bakri seriously.

Yet when his face is all over the papers; when he is met with blanket hostility as much because he looks funny and used to claim benefits rather than the content of his message - that is when his danger is greatest. It's all a conspiracy against Muslims, he argues. We're telling you something they don't want to hear - because they know they are sinfully perverting the word of Allah. That's lending credence to his message. It's allowing bands of conspiracy theorists everywhere to rally behind him. If we ignored him, like we ignore the message of the far-right, he wouldn't be much of a problem at all.

The fact is, banning Omar Bakri from the country is a publicity stunt. It's another blow in a long line of New Labour's eye-catching initiatives that get a lot of headlines, create the right image, yet fail to achieve anything. They aren't intended to achieve anything, just to convince people that things are being done. And in this case, I think it probably increases further the danger posed to us by Bakri and his disciples.

Al-Muhijaroun will be forced even further underground than they currently operate. Meanwhile, their leader, who will presumably have been under constant surveillance when in Britain, won't be tracked anywhere near as much. The man is not capable of logical reasoning - he could be destroyed in five minutes of cogent arguments. Instead, the mass hysteria of the tabloid press hates him because he's a benefit scrounger and looks foreign. And they trumpet him in their desperate search for stories. It's pathetic - and it's pathetic the government are pandering to them. Because this is exactly what Bakri wants to happen. If he wasn't a threat in 1996, if he wasn't a threat in 2001, why does he suddenly become a threat when some lunatics blow themselves up on a bus in 2005? It's going to be portrayed as yet more conspiracy. If we're going to combat extremism, we should fight them on our terms, not theirs.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Freedom of Speech

The Pub Philosopher argues that Hizb ut-Tahrir shouldn't be banned. I must say, I agree with him. Last November, Belgium outlawed the Flemish "Vlaams Blok" for being too right-wing. I wrote then:

The question will be asked, why do they seek to silence us? Banning these parties outright is giving fertile ground for conspiracy theorists to develop and work their evil ways... A democratic society demands debate, even if it is uncomfortable. The way to combat opponents with whom we may disagree vehemently is to defeat them in such debate. If their arguments are incoherent and rambling, then demonstrate this to all and sundry and they will quickly disappear.

I still agree with that now. We should force the radical clerics, the Islamofascists out into the open, engage them in debate and rout them totally and utterly. There are existing laws to deal with incitement to commit crime which we can punish them under if necessary, but supressing them is not the way forward. If we're right about defending freedom, it's the only logically consistent way of dealing with these extremist groups.

But there's another, self-interest argument here, too. Do we really think that the radicals and extremists will go abroad and sink into obscurity? Do we really think that bombers in Beeston are going to be unable to contact these extremists? Of course not. We live in a global world, with communication to the other side of the planet available at the click of a button. The Islamists know this - and they will find ways of staying in touch with suicide bombers here. Banning the groups in Britain will be as successful as razing Fallujah to the ground - the insurgents will simply go elsewhere.

The Vlaams Blok has a very strong cautionary tale for us. There's a new party in Flanders now, the Vlaams Belang. To paraphrase a well-known saying: "if it looks like the Vlaams Blok and sounds like the Vlaams Blok, it's probably the Vlaams Blok". Banning them didn't shut them down. It was as effective as using a sticking plaster to heal a broken leg. We shouldn't be going in for cosmetic change. We should show our fundamental belief in freedom, democracy and debate and engage the extremists in it. That's the way we'll win our war.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The American Right

And why they aren't respected in the wider world.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Some Militantly Moderate Changes

What Tim Worstall tells me to do, I do. At least as far as trackbacks go. Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog. Now I just need to work out where to put the pings...

Additionally, Richard has now decided that his real life is too exciting to waste his time working on a collaborative blog with me. So, I'm reverting to being the only Militant Moderate here, although I hope that I can persuade someone to join me soon. I'm not holding my breath!

UPDATE: Trackbacks have only supposedly been added to this blog. I'm a bit confounded, as I have no idea whatsoever as to what is going on. They seem to disappear every time I edit the post. Can anyone help - please!

Shane Warne - Man of the Match

Andrew Flintoff was awarded Man of the Match for the second Test. No question about it, his performance was outstanding. His partnership with Jones at the end of our second innings was crucial; his bowling yesterday evening took wickets just when England needed them most. It was a vital component in England's eventual victory in what must have been the most compelling sporting theatre ever known.

That said, I still don't think he deserved Man of the Match - although he was unquestionably England's most valuable player. Strangely, it should have gone to a member of the losing team. Shane Warne was quite simply phenomenal. After England had built a first innings lead of 99, the match shouldn't have been close. Even allowing for quick scoring, a lead of well over 300 should have been built, making the target beyond the wit of almost any team - even the strongest batting line-up in the world.

That the game was at all close was down to Warne. The delivery that bowled Strauss turned a full foot more than the delivery that bowled Mike Gatting in 1993 - and that became dubbed "the ball of the century". It is rare that a spin bowler is given such a new ball to bowl with. However, such was the brilliance of Warne that it was the only sensible decision. The Australian pace attack looked rudderless without their talisman McGrath; Warne was their most dangerous threat. Even watching England under the cosh on Saturday morning was not as painful as it might have been. When an all-time great is putting on one of his greatest ever displays, it is always a joy to watch. More than that, though, Warne is jocular and good-humoured with a crowd and doesn't let banter phase him.

Not only that, but his batting this morning gave Australia their best chance of winning the match. If he hadn't had an aberration and inadvertantly kicked his stumps, the English press would instead be writing about Australia getting out of jail against us yet again. The position that England were in on Saturday morning and Sunday morning was hugely commanding. At many times during the day's play, however, the result looked it doubt. For that, Australia can be very thankful Shane Warne wears the baggy green.

Of course, England's performance, as exciting as it was, left a lot to be desired. The hallmark of Australian excellence is that when they have the chance to hold the opposition by the throat, they seize it with both hands. England didn't go full throttle. Changes probably need to be made - in particular, someone needs to take responsibility for sticking in and letting the team bat around them.

Vaughan, in particular, had a very poor match indeed. Three times now in this series he has been bowled, the Aussies finding a gap in a woeful defensive technique. The entireity of their batting line-up seems more likely to score runs than Vaughan does. If only we had another fit batsman capable of batting number 3.

Nor was his captaincy inspired this morning. Harmison and Flintoff are two of a kind, style-wise - Jones and Hoggard have the ability to generate swing; Jones being particularly good at reverse-swinging the old ball. Bowling Giles helped to make a change of pace; but against tail-enders I would have backed Jones to take a wicket first. That said, Ashley Giles proved this match what a valuable player to England he is. He consistently took crucial wickets, and was parsimonious in runs allowed, too. John Buchanan didn't single out Giles for criticism because they thought he was expendable; he targeted him because when Giles performs, England are a very difficult side to beat.

The other downside to the match this week was the quality of the umpiring. Many dodgy lbw decisions were given, some batsmen not out when really they were plumb; others falling victim to the trigger-finger. Pietersen and Bell were desperately unlucky to be given out caught behind when technology shows that they were nowhere near out. Now, more than ever, technology has to be used more in cricket. Bad umpiring threatened to ruin one of the greatest games of all time. We might not be able to make Vaughan bat, but we can make sure that the umpires are right.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

It's Serious

At first I was worried by this news story. David Blunkett and John Prescott running the government? It's the sort of thing that makes you wake up in the middle of the night with a cold sweat. (It says something about Prescott that it is a reassuring thought that Prince Charles, not Prescott, is a heartbeat away from being head of state).

However, when the official line is this, then I'm not quite so worried about Blunkett:

"I obviously have the experience and the knowledge and I help out in terms of having to take, with John Prescott, the necessary decisions in the next couple of weeks," he said.
But he insisted: "Hazel Blears substitutes for the home secretary, she is his deputy and she is doing extremely well."
On Tuesday minister Ms Blears said she, not David Blunkett, was in charge at the Home Office while Mr Clarke is away on holiday.

BritBlog Roundup

Tim Worstall's said some nice things about me on this week's Britblog roundup - go and check it out!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Why Oh Sky?

I've been watching the cricket most of the past few days. The Test itself has been hugely exciting - runs scored quickly, wickets falling regularly, and a great atmosphere from the Edgbaston crowd. If Test cricket were like this every game football would soon have a run for its money, I'm sure.

What I realised, though, was how much I'm going to miss Channel 4's coverage when the Test rights go to Sky next summer. It is a quality production from top to bottom. Take the production in the tea break today - an in-depth analysis of how field placings affect the outcome of a match; how cutting off boundaries can add to pressure as much as packing a slip cordon.

The same goes for the commentary. Every single commentator in the team is superb. Michael Slater and Geoff Boycott are probably the worst in the box, yet are better than anyone in the Sky team. Analysis is usually spot-on, and most of the time the commentators add to your understanding of the match - the reverse is the case on Sky.

Quite apart from the disastrous effect that taking cricket off terrestrial TV will have for the game, Sky's coverage will ruin the fun for the cricket-lover, too.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

What Is A Culture of Respect?

For the second time, a Blair government has been overshadowed by terrorism within months of its election. In 2001, we were told how much Labour were going to put schools and hospitals first - of course, after 9/11, the only thing that was put first was the War on Terrorism, and foreign policy. Similarly, the Queen's Speech this year promised to create a "culture of respect", yet that seems to have been placed on the backburner after the London bombings.

When a young man has an axe embedded in the back of his skull purely because of the colour of his skin; when another young man is murdered by someone who carries a knife as a matter of course, for the heinous crime of asking someone to stop throwing chips at his girlfriend, something has clearly gone wrong.

Now, I'm not going to argue for a return to some supposed golden age. Many police chiefs think that it is the advent of 24-hour news that has led to a growing feeling of insecurity. Violent rapes that happened in the past, for example, rarely got reported; now they will all get into the press. Reading the Economist earlier this year showed some very interesting statistics, too - as petty crime decreases, complaints about anti-social behaviour rise. In short, there is a certain amount of fear within society that is going to remain whether or not we like it. Even when statistics suggest that we are safer, we can still feel threatened.

What, then, do people actually mean by a "culture of respect"? Certainly there are basic good manners that we should expect from people simply as part of living in society. Holding doors open for people, and saying thank you when they do. Not dropping litter. General politesse, if you like. There is something slightly more sinister, however, when you get people complaining about disrespectful youth. I always get the feeling that the curmudgeons who blame children all the time do it because they see children as beneath them in the natural order of things, not because of anything they've actually done.

There was a letter in the Times about a month ago which commented on children on a radio show saying that "they would respect their teachers when they respect us" - and complained that no-one on the programme had sought to challenge their viewpoint. The subtext to the letter was that teachers should be respected simply by virtue of the position that they hold.

I respectfully disagree.

The logic of the children is obviously self-contradictory. If everyone in society held the viewpoint that they do, there would scarcely be anything left recognisable as society. At the end of the day, someone has to make the first move - even if it means gritting your teeth and behaving politely to people who are really irritating you for whatever reason. Yet there is a distinction between this sort of behaviour, and proper "respect". It isn't an easy term to define exactly - which is precisely why Blair and friends love talking about it. It conveys a certain image, whilst being very difficult to actually argue against. Another sign of the debasement of our political culture.

But I digress. The definition that I would take for respect is number 2 at dictionary.com - The state of being regarded with honor or esteem. This sort of respect, to use an old cliche, is earned, not demanded. What the curmudgeon in the Times wants to see is deference; where the teacher is 'respected' not because of his merits as a teacher, but simply because he is a teacher.

Deference, as opposed to respect, runs right throughout traditionalist view of British society. Even our constitution depends on it - we're supposed to bow to the masters and submit to the Lords, not out of our own choice, but because they are specially appointed with special merit. It's the same in the military - their attitude is one where they expect respect as a result of their position, not because of their personal talents. For all the faults of America, there is one thing I admire greatly. John Adams wanted some flowery official style for the presidency; instead, the republican simplicity of "Mr. President" was adopted. A style that reflects that there is importance to the office, but still leaves it up to the individual to command personal respect through his actions.

As a committed meritocrat, I cannot accept a culture of respect that doesn't aim at respecting people for their actions, but instead demands deference. Children shouldn't be disruptive in class, but not because they should respect their teacher - instead, because there have to be certain rules in society to be obeyed; furthermore, it is only fair to the other children in the class that they behave. Even if they don't want to take opportunities available to them, they should not wantonly close the door for others.

Creating a genuine culture of respect will be a completely different task to the one New Labour envisage, if nevertheless desirable. A culture of respect is far more than just a society with manners. It is a culture where the actions of the individual, not the position or title, determine his standing.

Drugs and Baseball

At last, the first high-profile player to have tested positive for steroids in baseball has been caught. Rafael Palmeiro, who less than a month ago was receiving the plaudits for becoming the latest member of the elite 3,000-hits club, is now banned and labelled, officially, as a drug cheat. Hopefully this will have an effect on whether he gets voted into the Hall of Fame; then again, given that countless other players have most likely been injecting themselves with cocktails of steroids for years with impunity, it probably seems a little harsh.

Palmeiro has, however, been undeniably stupid. He's at the end of his career; allegations have already been made against him as regards drug-taking; he absolutely denied taking steroids before a congressional hearing in March. This Question and Answer says pretty much what I think on the matter. While there are drug rules, every player is totally responsible for what he puts in his own body, whether recommended to him by anyone else or not.

As for the question on the efficacy of the penalty - well, I'm sceptical about the value of drugs laws, to be quite honest. It seems to me improbable that the testers are keeping up with science; both in the development of new drugs, and in terms of masking agents beating the test. While those factors remain the case, I wonder whether drug laws are actually desirable at all. Certainly from a competitive point of view, there isn't much justification, for it is only the honest who get punished (the real issue is in whether it encourages children to use drugs when medically it is inadvisable).

What I do know is this, however - whilst there are rules against drugs, they should have some sort of stiff penalty. Palmeiro's ban amounts to little more than a week and a half off baseball. As pointed out in the linked article above, another player was banned for nearly three weeks for pushing a cameraman to the ground. That's mad. Both players have damaged the image of the game; Palmeiro has deliberately tried to gain an unfair competitive advantage over the honest. He should be banned for months at least. Otherwise it makes a mockery of the whole system - a slap on the wrist. Because Palmeiro is the only high-profile player to have been caught so far. It was said at the start that "naming and shaming" would be punishment enough. Rubbish. Only hardcore baseball fans would remember names like Alex Sanchez and Rafael Betancourt. Yet they were trying to cheat their way to succes. A slap on the wrist isn't good enough. If drugs are to be banned from sport, make the punishments have some teeth.

More IRA Fears

I've already blogged about how concerned I am about British actions regarding the latest IRA statements. As far as I am aware, we still haven't seen a single shred of evidence that any more arms have been decommissioned since the announcement of an end to the "armed campaign" last week. Yet we're in the process of dismantling watchtowers and announcing the phasing out of Army regiments in the area already. I bet there are a large number of IRA members who are laughing at the British government right now for their willingness to accede to all these demands. As a result of the Good Friday Agreement there has already been all sorts of appeasements made to murderers. And as I wrote in my last post, if something is wrong it is wrong. Would the shooting of a soldier by a criminal, not a republican terrorist, really have been punished by a one-year prison sentence?

Anyway, this article on Slate suggests that the IRA still considers itself at war; that it will continue with its criminal activities. Apparently even with disarmament, according to the provisions of the constitution, a General Assembly has to be called for the abandonment of "war", rather than just a ruling council.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

If Something Is Wrong, It Is Wrong

This post at Samizdata contained the following lines which I found somewhat worrying:

We noticed that there were two or three Asian men holding camcorders and filming stairwells, restaurants and the maps of the ferry. This may be innocent behaviour but we took photos of them. The photos have been passed on to the Kent constabulary. This could be something or nothing, but vigilance is the purview of the alert citizen, not a monopoly of our less than competent authorities.

What worried me was not the act of good citizenship - this is indeed responsible and correct behaviour, that should be encouraged. It was the fact that the race of the men concerned was considered something worthy of note. If behaviour is suspicious and worrying, it is suspicious and worrying regardless of who carries it out.

I asked whether the poster would have taken the same action had it been men of any other description doing precisely the same actions. The poster has not yet replied; however other commenters have basically said that he was right to single the men out for being Asian. When I pointed out that radical Islam was an ideology, not a racial stereotype, people responded by asking if I was aware of any caucasian radical Islamists.

Thankfully, I am not so well acquainted with those circles that I can answer those questions with any degree of certainty. What I do know is this, however - it is possible for caucasian men of whatever religious upbringing to convert to Islam. Whilst I may not have heard of a caucasian suicide bomber, there is still very much the possibility there may be one.

There are drug runners in San Diego who thrive by getting drugs across the US-Mexico border. How do you think they achieve this? Not by giving the drugs to those who fit the stereotype. No, they pad the walls of ambulances as they go with lights flashing across the border. They hide them in the boots of elderly drivers' cars. In short, they succeed in their drug running by hiring smugglers who do not fit the stereotypes.

That is certainly not beyond the wit of al-Qa'eda. We may be more suspicious of someone Asian than someone caucasian, that is true. But, in reality, that doesn't mean we are necessarily right - we are responding to a pre-prepared stereotype. If it is possible for suicide bombers to live perfectly normally within a community, then anyone among us could be a suicide bomber. It is an uncomfortable truth. Al-Qa'eda and all sorts of other nasty groups (eg the BNP) want us to fall into the trap of thinking anyone with coloured skin is our enemy, anyone with white skin is our friend. But if someone's behaviour is suspicious, it is suspicious because of the nature of the behaviour. Not because of someone's origin.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Why Some People Are Destined Only to Coach Derbyshire

This article from last week's Times shows why Dave Houghton's greatest coaching success has been keeping Derbyshire rooted firmly to the bottom of the County Championship.

“No disrespect to Ashley Giles, but what use is he in the side?” he said. “He’s not going to get wickets against the Aussie batsmen and he’s not going to make any runs against their bowlers. With him, England are effectively playing ten against 11. They should either include another specialist batsman and use the off spin of Vaughan and Pietersen or pick a spinner who can bat, like Gareth Batty, and or one who’ll get wickets — Gary Keedy is the guy.”

For a start, why is he making this judgement after just one Test match? Giles has been highly valuable for the last few series; whilst Australia are in a different calibre to any of the teams we've played, we don't have a better spinner. And our ill-fated attempts at picking five seam bowlers in the past have failed miserably. If four guys can't get the job done, why will a fifth person doing the same thing fare any better?

His lack of judgement is shown even more by suggesting Batty or Keedy are up to Test standard. Picking Gareth Batty for the Test side is an insult to off-spinners up and down the country; I haven't seen any evidence that Keedy will prove more successful than Giles at Test level (besides, if we were picking spinners based on performances in the County Championship, Shaun Udal would have been the only one in contention throughout the nineties).

We should leave the team as it is for Edgbaston; otherwise we are showing that we are scared of the Australians. Besides, does anyone think that County Championship form is worth a damn against McGrath and Warne, two of the best bowlers the world has ever known? Dropping Thorpe was a big mistake, for he has proven class at the highest level (maybe Bell should have been asked to wait a series). We're not going to beat the Aussies if there's uncertainty about team selection.