Tuesday, 28 July 2009
The Daily Rant is going to take a break - I'm off on holiday for the next week or so, merrily sticking up two fingers at lousy exchange rates, indifferent budget airlines and the global economic depression. So although the blog will be collecting dust for a short while it'll be good to get back to it when I return.
Monday, 27 July 2009
Nationalist computer geeks in Northern Ireland are up in arms; game developer Electronic Arts is apparently failing to recognise 'Ireland' as a distinct nationality and is instead lumping players together with the old enemy across the water, Great Britain. The game in question is Second World War title Battlefield 1943.
Feelings are running high on the online game forums. "By God I will not accept this nonsense" raged one player. "Its common sense as Ireland is not in Great Britain, perhaps EA should go back to school and sit their exams again!" moaned another. And among the more predictable statements was the droll "EA succeeds where years of attempted English oppression fails."
The problem, it seems, is that players in Northern Ireland who consider themselves 'Irish' - identifying as such with the Republic of Ireland, rather than the United Kingdom - are not been given the option of identifying themselves as such in the game. Angry Republicans are citing the Good Friday agreement, which states that "it is the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose."
But, curiously, in some ways EA - historically speaking - might actually be right. Ireland, in its transitional period between Free State and Republic, was famously neutral during World War II and so the easiest way for Irish soldiers wanting to fight was to join the British armed forces, which they duly did in their thousands. There were no ‘Irish’ soldiers in 1943, in that the nation of de Valera's government did not take part in the war and thus did not send their own national forces.
Further, whilst citizens in Northern Ireland have the right, under the GFA, to describe themselves as ‘Irish’ and to hold passports of the Republic, the fact remains that they reside in an integral and constituent region of the United Kingdom and thus it is reasonable - not to mention politically expedient - for businesses and corporations to regard them as such. If anything EA are guilty of the common mistake of erroneously interchanging the terms UK and Great Britain, the latter of which of course explicitly excludes Northern Ireland.
EA's response to the controversy has thus far been muted, no doubt in the hope that it will simply disappear. But given that the issue of identity in Northern Ireland has been a contentious one ever since that state's creation it's unlikely to go away any time soon...
Friday, 24 July 2009
I want you to imagine that the Prime Minister is in trouble. Already under fire for 'sexing up' election candidates that would ultimately prompt a divorce, for a peculiar relationship with a teenage 'aspiring actress', and for hosting parties at a private estate attended by a harem of attractive half-naked beauties, he has now been recorded having sex. With a prostitute. Congratulations - chances are you're Italian.
Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon and billionaire businessman who is also the leader of the Italian Republic, is no stranger to controversy. The latest scandal has the prime minister on tape having intercourse and then discussing his performance with call girl Patrizia D’Addario. This is the third tape to have been released in as many days, leaving Italians of all political persuasions wondering what'll happen next - Berlusconi himself chief among them. He has shrugged off the scandal thus far in pseudo-Gallic style by casually declaring, "I'm no saint."
It's hard to imagine what the public reaction to such allegations would be in this country, but it's highly unlikely that a career as colourful and as controversial as Berlusconi's - this is his third stint in office as Italian leader - would have lasted so long. All you have to do here is make a few unwise expenses claims and you might as well kiss your political life goodbye. That he has so easily dismissed the ongoing saga whilst declaring that he will stay on as leader until 2013 - when his term ends - says much for the man's cojones that he can ride this storm out.
An important difference between the media in Italy and the UK is that over here we have a press independent of the political elite. This does not mean that newspapers are not political - on the contrary, rags cover the full range of opinion from trendy lefty (The Guardian) to thinly veiled bigotry (most of the rest) - but it does mean that, as a self-regulating industry, the press can print most of what it likes on political issues in safety. And even broadcasters, which do have more obvious legal restraints, have a requirement of impartiality.
Not so in Italy. Here Berlusconi owns several television channels and various national newspapers and magazines. Such joint control of both the media and political establishments is unprecedented in other European nations; indeed, that only one major national newspaper in Italy is actively covering the allegations against Berlusconi - left-leaning L'Espresso, which has announced that it will sue the prime minister after he declared the publication 'subversive' - says much about the innate conflict of interest that surely arises from such a privileged position.
The allegations against Berlusconi are serious, and merit a thorough investigation. That such activities took place in private are irrelevant; voters have the right to expect their political representatives to maintain a certain standard of behaviour at all times. Besides, cynics have already pointed out that since evidence of such activities have been released in the public domain that right to privacy no longer exists. But the main concern for the Italian electorate is that their leader owns much of the means of communication within the country. Skepticism must be their most natural default position.
Wednesday, 22 July 2009
Another day, another rejection from one of the various awards and bursaries that I'm so fond of entering. This time it was for an award from the Tom Walker Trust, a foundation set up in memory of the former Times journalist. The award offers a truly fantastic opportunity - a £1,000 prize and four weeks of work experience on the Sunday Times foreign desk. To be shortlisted all one had to do was to submit an idea for a foreign news story.
Given a recent diplomatic spat between the government of Bermuda and the UK authorities over the former's acceptance of four Chinese Muslim Uighurs recently released from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, I suggested a piece looking at who the Uighur are, why there is a flourishing separatist Uighur movement in China, and how Chinese support for the US War on Terror has affected the authority's crackdown on Uighur nationalism and other ethnic minorities within China. An interesting idea, I thought, on a topic long overlooked in the Western media.
And then this happened.
I knew this would affect my entry in one of two diametrically opposed ways; either my journalistic nous - in correctly identifying a problem that would suddenly erupt so dramatically and go on to dominate global headlines before it actually happened - would be rewarded, or - if entries were not dated and merely judged together after the deadline - it might look like I'd made a rather uninspired suggestion after the event already occurred.
As it happens I'll never find out - rejections at the pre-shortlist stage rarely carry feedback and this particular entry was no exception. All I can do is console myself that competition for such a career-making award will without doubt be extremely fierce, and then get started on next year's proposal...
Tuesday, 21 July 2009
Here's an odd blogpost, which claims that the liberalisation of divorce laws is responsible for multiple murders within families. Referring to a recent case in the United States where a man murdered his children before killing himself, author JPT believes men and women should remain within abusive relationships for fear of their spouses going on a murderous rampage should they dare to break their wedding vows. That adultery and infidelity have existed for centuries, and that such cases are still extremely rare - whilst divorce, sadly, is increasingly not - does suggest something of a flaw in this peculiar logic.
Britain Awake's response to these points was more forthright...
The reason this cunt was so 'profoundly disturbed' was because cunts like you have destroyed society with your wishy-washy, touchy-feely bollocks!
Perhaps all this bitch needed was a good slap now and again to let her know who's boss! You know like muslims do to their wives!
Funny how muslims never get divorced isn't it?!
Perhaps it might be safer not to get married at all...
Monday, 20 July 2009
On the way home from work I pass through an area frequented by prostitutes. Their commercial activities are not restricted to the hours of darkness; come 5pm and the rush hour home, and they'll often be there, their profession made obvious not from their clothing - though it can be something of a giveaway - but from rather frank attempts at soliciting business. More than once I've had to decline offers whilst walking past.
The world's oldest profession is hardly an enjoyable one; aside from the pertinent dangers of venereal infection and physical abuse from clients there is great risk inherent in an activity without the benefits of legal protection. At the extreme end are those cases such as Steve Wright, currently serving a life sentence for murdering five Ipswich prostitutes in 2006. Such violence towards sex workers is nothing new, for it is as old as the profession itself. Murders of prostitutes rarely register with the national press; it's only when there are multiple murders, such as the Wright case or the Yorkshire Ripper, do the media typically sit up and take notice.
And yet working conditions for prostitutes have barely changed. The upswell of sympathy created by the Ipswich murders has all but died down, and the police have settled back into their familiar role of driving prostitutes from the streets. That the police work in partnership with drug rehabilitation agencies is a good thing, but it is not enough.
The answer, it would seem, is a radical and controversial one. Prostitution needs to be legalised.
Think about it. If prostitution was legal, it could be regulated. State-run brothels would not only provide a safe and clean working environment for women but it would enable an effective way of delivering help and advice on work, drugs and mental health. Daily Mail readers won't like it, but that'd be a small price to pay to guarantee the safety of women at risk more than most.
Friday, 17 July 2009
Despite the best efforts of 'call me Dave' Cameron and co there's something I still don't quite like about the Conservatives. It's not that I find the current leadership particularly disagreeable - at least no more so than previous incumbents - it's just that, despite promises not to cut public services and the like, at heart Conservative politics is still the politics of selfishness. It's about keeping more money in your pocket and screw everyone else. That you'll never hear a senior Conservative admit it is intensely irritating.
Talking of dishonesty, there was something of the hypocritical in the Tory's criticism of the BBC's decision to keep on business celebrity Alan Sugar as frontman of reality show The Apprentice despite his elevation to the House of Lords as a kind of 'Enterprise Tsar' working for the government. They claimed that such a position would compromise the Beeb's infamously strict controls on impartiality.
But wait a darn second - didn't maverick Tory MP Boris Johnson serve as host for Have I Got News For You on several occasions whilst serving on the opposition front benches? Wasn't his position within the Conservatives at the time far more senior than Sir Alan's will be? And doesn't the scope of a satirical news show allow the possibility of openly partisan commentary on national primetime television?
CONservatives? You bet...
Wednesday, 15 July 2009
One of the more interesting outcomes of the European elections a while back was Conservative leader David Cameron's rather peculiar alliance with a marginal ragbag of various far right nationalist and populist parties from Eastern Europe after fulfilling an earlier pledge to pull out of the large, mainstream, and powerful centre-right grouping the European People's Party. Among the more controversial members of this ultra Eurosceptic group - which includes Poland's homophobic Law and Justice party and the climate-change denying Czech president Vaclac Klaus - is a Latvian political party known for casting members of the Latvian Legion (the Latvian units of the Waffen-SS) as brave patriots fighting on the side of the Germans against Soviet domination.
Every year, the Fatherland and Freedom Party supports a march of Latvian Legion veterans from the tall Freedom Monument in Riga to the cathedral. In the past they have worn their old uniforms, many bearing nazi insignia. Some members of the Legion - the infamous Arajs gang - were implicated in atrocities against the country's jewish population. It's thought some 80,000 Latvian jews lost their lives in the war.
I've always found symbols of national regimes profoundly interesting; they are, after all, the ultimate shorthand of political power. Their public display not only provides a focus for the nationalistic aspirations of the local citizenry - think of all those flag wavers at the Olympics - but can also mark the dominance of any given political ideology at that time. That they are typically associated with totalitarianism is no coincidence.
And yet the nation state and the symbol do not always share a reciprocal relationship either; symbols can prove powerfully evocative years after the regimes that spawned them - or appropriated them - have crumbled into dust. Who can look at a nazi swastika and remain completely unmoved, even though as a symbol the swastika has a much older history?
The destruction - or retention - of symbols associated with deposed and rejected regimes can tell us a lot about the political values held by the successor states that replaced them. In postwar Germany, for example, nazi iconography was utterly destroyed and their public display has been illegal ever since. Similar events took place in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, where statues of the great leaders of the proletariat were removed from their public plinths and consigned to the scrap heap.
Sometimes, however, these symbols remain. In a visit to Belarus last year my father and I were amazed by the amount of Soviet iconography that still remained. There was even a statue of Lenin outside the parliament buildings modelled on the photograph of that famous speech in Sverdlov Square in 1920. It was like nothing had changed since the days of the USSR, and it was easy to detect something more than mere nostalgia for the good ol' days of global superpowerdom.
Closer to home, a similar battle over symbology as a proxy for demarcation of territory has taken place in Northern Ireland, as witnessed by the aforementioned green post box. Both hardline Republican and Loyalist areas proclaim their allegiance with a multitude of flags, banners, murals and painted kerbstones. That Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom has not prevented the sizable Nationalist population from letting their political allegiance be known.
So what, then, would happen if Northern Ireland were to become a part of the Republic? Would those red, white and blue symbols of the outgoing regime be allowed to remain whilst, as Republican leaders would tell us, Britain has no place on the island of Ireland?
It's an interesting conundrum, particularly as both components of the existent political dichotomy appear to be so mutually exclusive. What would happen, for example, to those war memorials scattered throughout the North and dedicated to the lives of local men and women lost in the service of the British armed forces in two world wars, even as the rest of the island remained neutral during the second of those wars?
That Ireland could unite at some point in the future is a real possibility. Given the painful history of the Republic's creation, and the Republican dream of driving Britain from Ireland's shores - a goal enshrined for many years in the infamous articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution - it is debatable whether toleration of the Union Jack would exist at all.
And yet there is evidence that such a possibility could actually arise. There are Orange parades in those parts of Ulster that lie within the Republic's borders, and the crown can still be seen on some of Dublin's older buildings. It may not be much - it will hardly satisfy the political aspirations of Unionists trapped in a united Ireland, just as they currently fail to satisfy Northern Nationalists - but it is a start. That no one has chipped that crown from the prominent Bank of Ireland building in the Republic's capital, or destroyed the murals of the Short Strand or the Bogside, demonstrates that there is much more mutual toleration between the cultures then first meets the eye. May that continue long into the future.
Tuesday, 14 July 2009
Another year, another load of trouble during the 12th July parades throughout Northern Ireland. Worse hit was North Belfast, where rioters hijacked cars, threw blast bombs and injured 21 police officers. Similar confrontations took place in Londonderry, Rasharkin, Armagh and elsewhere.
Quick to condemn the unrest were representatives of Sinn Féin who, in a vivid demonstration of their conversion to the ballot box, were quick to distance themselves from the disturbances by condemning the violence as the work of a small minorty of dissidents. MLA Gerry Kelly was acutely dismissive: "The Real IRA, or whatever they may call themselves, and some other splinter organisations sent people over here with the sole aim to cause riots, to bring this further down into sectarianism."
Times have certainly changed. Many of Mr Kelly's political colleagues, himself included, once fervently believed in opposing the British state through any means possible - including violence - in the erstwhile tradition of physical force Republicanism. Whilst it may have become politically prudent to reject the armalite after the failure of a 30 year armed campaign to unite Ireland, the move does call into question one of the central tenets of Republican ideology.
Throughout the various strands of Irish Republicanism Britain is frequently caricatured as an exploitative and oppressive force that continued to operate as such within the 'Occupied Six Counties' after the rest of the island achieved independence in 1921. Indeed, the openly sectarian policies of pre-1972 Stormont rule in the North - the infamous "Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State" of James Craig's speech - did little to dispel this accusation. Such oppression is woven deep within Republican mythology - the 'pogroms' of August 1969, Bombay Street, the Battle of the Bogside; all invoke the spirit of the fight against British domination and the yearning for freedom as part of an independent Irish Republic.
And yet by and large the political representatives of Republicanism are slowly starting to accept that the British administration in Northern Ireland is no longer oppressive or discriminatory; witness Sinn Féin's active partnership with the DUP in the Northern Ireland assembly, a political association that not long ago would have been considered both impossible and implausible in the extreme.
One curious - and unintended - consequence of this is that, aside from the apparent legitimisation of British rule, part of Republicanism's raison d'être has been seriously called into question. For if Britain is no longer the imperial overlord of old then should the concepts of 'Irish' and 'British' continue to be treated as mutually exclusive in the way that 'Scottish' and 'British' or 'English' and 'British' or 'Welsh' and 'British' are not? Could it be that, after all this time, it really is possible to be culturally Irish and politically British without fear of conflict or contradiction?
Friday, 10 July 2009
A while ago, cycling through Leeds city centre, I got hit by a car. I wasn't particularly hurt, but unfortunately my bike didn't fare so well; the front wheel had buckled, rendering my trusty steed temporarily out of action until I'd found a replacement.
The reason I got hit was because I had stopped at a red light; when it went green I moved forward, only for a taxi coming from the opposite direction to gracefully arc into a right turn, straight into me. Either the rules of the road had changed drastically without my knowledge, or the driver was somewhat unsuited to his chosen profession.
As a cyclist it's often extremely tempting to jump red lights, particularly when there's no one else around; the temporary wrath of other road users is a small price to pay not to wait. The temptation is only increased when, as in my meeting with the taxi driver, disobeying the rules of the road would have resulted in a safer cycling experience. And it would seem I'm not alone; apparently the problem of naughty cyclists is getting so bad locally that a bike shop up the road in York has launched a so-called "StopAtRed" campaign.
Authorities in the capital, it would seem, do not share the same view. The idea that cyclists should be able to go through red under certain circumstances is being actively considered by Transport for London.
Legally jumping red lights is not as unusual as you might think. In the United States, for example, cars are permitted to turn right at red lights provided there are no obstructions. The net result is that traffic flows more steadily and - in a society characterised by high car ownership - there are far fewer jams.
But, interestingly, traffic flow is not the primary concern of those backing cycling reforms. A study undertaken a couple of years ago to examine why women were far more likely to be killed by lorries when cycling then men came up with a surprising conclusion; that women tended to obey red lights.
The problem, it seems, is that cyclists waiting at traffic lights are frequently caught in drivers' blind spots, a problem exacerbated in the case of lorries and other large vehicles which cannot easily see riders directly in front of them. Lorries turning left also account for a high proportion of the deaths.
Cyclists are far more likely to come to harm on the roads than drivers, particularly during the morning and afternoon rush-hours. That many cyclists involved in fatal collisions have met their deaths whilst obeying lights primarily designed for motorists is indicative of the urgent need for a change in the law.
Wednesday, 8 July 2009
The southern Polish town of Jasło is facing something of a quandary; whether a tall oak tree that sits in the centre of the town should be ripped up or conserved in situ for future generations. The debate has gone international, with commentators from as far away as Israel lending their support to both camps in the polarised community.
So why is this particular tree, unremarkable and indistinguishable from any other oak, stirring up such strong emotions? The answer is a simple one; it was a present from Germany to celebrate Hitler's birthday during occupation in World War II.
It's not the first time Nazis and trees have come to the fore; in 2000 a large swastika in a German forest - planted in the late 1930s as homage to nazi rule - was destroyed to prevent it becoming a pilgrimage site for the far right. The trees also contravened Germany's strict laws concerning the display of symbols associated with the Third Reich.
But Jasło's case is different. Many locals are outraged by the mayor's belief that the tree is damaging the town's image. Her proposal that a roundabout be built in the tree's place has led to claims that the authorities are attempting to erase part of the town's history, however troubled that history might be.
It's not surprising that the presence of a tree which owes its existence to German occupation will serve as a painful reminder of a traumatic period of history. And yet, as that history begins to slowly slip from living memory, it is difficult to think of a more fitting or moving memorial to those killed in the name of militant nationalism. It is imperative that the tree stays.
Friday, 3 July 2009
Belfast, like other towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland, is famous for its murals; often graphically depicting the political aspirations and historical events of importance to the local population - and not to mention the delineation of territory - the large building-sized paintings are widespread in both the Republican and Loyalist traditions.
Following last week's news that both the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force are to put their weapons beyond use it will be interesting to see whether this will accelerate the shift away from the more militaristic murals that have until recently been so much in evidence in Loyalist areas. Already several of the more hardline murals I saw in my trips to Belfast have gone, painted over with far less politically loaded subjects. Recent paintings often pay tribute to local heroes such as George Best; indeed, such is the momentum behind the new mural movement that celebrities are now demanding their right to be immortalised on a gable wall. It sure makes a change from the times when many murals served as memorials to paramilitaries killed 'on active service'.
The cult of martyrdom is also widespread within Republicanism; it permeates and predominates not only murals but in numerous other memorials and in propaganda publications like Saoirse. And yet there is change here, too; a mural in the Short Strand demanding the withdrawal of British troops that was in place when I was in the area in 2006 has now changed to something far less overtly political.
A mural act as a kind of barometer for measuring the mood of the people living around it; that so many murals now celebrate culture rather than guns is indicative of the progress made by the ongoing peace process. It'll be interesting to see whether the latest announcements from the paramilitaries will transform the landscape of Belfast even more.
Thursday, 2 July 2009
I had a meal in a restaurant the other day. I know; rather an ostentatious act given these lean times we live in, but then I've always found 2-for-1 offers rather hard to resist. So, pizza for two it was.
At the end of the meal came a very real predicament; should we tip, and if so how much? Unsurprisingly, my partner's opinion differed widely from my own; she felt obliged to tip - the service, after all, had been friendly and efficient - whereas I was far less enthusiastic. The subsequent 'debate' put something of a dampener on the entire evening.
This isn't the first time I've been caught short by the act of tipping. In Los Angeles the taxi driver who picked up the group of friends I was with to take us to the airport was apoplectic with rage after we refused to tip, despite having arrived at the hotel to collect us over half an hour late. We put the dramatics down to cultural difference, that the English way is to reward performance above and beyond what is considered normal service. Tips should be earned, not expected.
And yet, secretly, I am loath to tip even when service is exceptional. And the reason for this is simple; I've worked in the service sector myself.
Barwork is not particularly hard. It's tiring, granted, but it's also great fun; that's why so many students, myself included, have been employed in pubs and clubs throughout the duration of their university lives. And thanks to government legislation we enjoy the benefits and security of a guaranteed minimum wage.
Factory work, on the other hand, is not so fun. Nor is working in a supermarket. I should know, because I've done both. Yes, workers also enjoy min wage protection, but good performance is almost always never recognised. Why should those who slave away on production lines be barred from the remuneration opportunities afforded to those who serve those same products to the consumer at the other end?
Needless to say, such arguments curry little favour with those who tip regularly, and truth be told I was far more amenable to the idea when I was on the service front line. And yet I'm still not entirely comfortable with the idea; tips can become expected - witness the LA taxi driver or the barmen who now return change in the little metal trays that double as begging bowls - or can be used as a stealth tax by exploitative employers.
Or perhaps everyone else really is right - I'm just rather mean. Bah.
Wednesday, 1 July 2009
Across the sea in France last week President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke out strongly against the wearing of the burqua by French muslims. Arguing that the body covering garment reduced women to servitude and undermined their dignity, he has also giving his backing to the establishment of a parliamentary commission to look at whether to ban them in public. This isn't the first time the issue of Islamic dress has stirred controversy in la République française - back in 2004 Islamic headscarves were banned in its state schools. Given that France has the largest population of muslims in Western Europe the President's comments have provoked fierce debate among friends and critics alike.
Similar debates in this country have proved more controversial still, if only for the reluctance of the political elite to engage it. In 2006 Jack Straw outraged sections of British society by suggesting to The Lancashire Evening Telegraph that Muslim women who wear veils - the niqab - can hinder inter-community relations and that he would rather wearers remove them in his constituency surgeries. After some weeks of handwringing and debate ranging from those who believed such comments to encourage prejudice to the right-wingers at the Daily Express who wanted an outright ban on all face-obscuring garments (in addition, one suspects, to a ban on foreigners in general). And then, somewhat predictably, it slipped from the agenda and hasn't been re-visited since.
I once worked in a government charity organisation which employed several niqab and burqa wearers, and many of the employees had introductory leaflets which they would take with them whilst on home visits to various local families. On the front of each leaflet was a picture of the case worker which featured - yep, you guessed it - the case workers completely decked out in that all-consuming costume. No face, no eyes, nothing; just a black figure, with a name underneath. Even at the time I thought this slightly surreal.
It is this problem of identification which provides the most immediate manifestation of Sarkozy's concerns; wrapped up in clothing which conceals identity robs women of the ability to, say, open a bank account, or get a passport, or drive a car. But there is also a far more dubious reality to the burqa; it is a way of creating and sustaining a subservient female underclass that is unable to properly interact with the society around it.
There is something of the paradox of tolerance around the whole issue. How much should we, as a liberal and multicultural society, tolerate what we see as illiberal aspects of other cultures whilst at the same time demanding mutual cultural equality and respect? And should religious beliefs themselves be used as a kind of catch-all defence against charges of bigotry?
And yet the burqa is not a requirement of Islam; it is a purely cultural phenomenon, with a traceable cultural lineage. Whilst an all-out ban would almost certainly be unworkable as well as morally questionable - should wearers on the streets be arrested and forced to remove it? - and liable to inflame conservative Islamic opinion, politicians and the rest of society alike have a duty to point out that covering the body is not the will of almighty Allah, but of men.