Friday, April 14, 2006

South Park vs. Self-censorship

South Park has attempted to take a stand over the cartoons of Mohammed. It appears that when they put a show based around the cartoons to Comedy Central they were told that the network would not show any episode depicting Mohammed. In defiance the South Park staff put out a show based around censorship of a fictional Family Guy episode which offends Muslims. Over two episodes they make a pretty complete, and utterly correct, case for freedom of expression.

South Park can clearly not be accused of victimising Muslims. Early in the first part Cartman asks Kyle how he would feel if a cartoon made fun of the Jews; South Park has endlessly done so. Equally, it is clear that the same self-censorship is not being applied to the sensitivities of Americans; at the end a fictional Islamist response is shown which has Jesus, the President and the US flag defecating and/or being defecated upon. By contrast the censored image of Mohammed is of him passing an American football helmet with a salmon on top of it to Peter; hardly dynamite stuff.

For a while after the airing of the show there was considerable confusion. Ed Morrissey and many of those posting on the South Park Studios BBS thought that this was all a joke and that the South Park staff had not wanted to show an image of Mohammed at all. However, reliable reports and statements now indicate that the censorship came from the network. There were good reasons to suspect that Comedy Central would not prove a worthy partner to South Park Studios as they had removed an episode concerning Scientology from the rotation just a few weeks earlier but even so it is a shock that they would prevent an unmodified episode seeing the light of the day at all.

If a show as famous as South Park is not able to express itself clearly then there can be little doubt that one of the West's fundamental principles is in danger. Freedom of expression is a right which has important functions in enabling creativity, proper debate and accountability as well as being a value choice. Fear of terrorism cannot be allowed to endanger free speech.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The death penalty and 9/11

I don't support the death penalty. I think that the act of killing someone who is defenceless and a danger to no one (as they must be when strapped down waiting to be electrocuted or injected) makes a coward of the state. However, some people really do make opposing the death penalty difficult.

I think that the documentary on Channel 4 looking at the 9/11 hijackers experience in the months leading up to the hijacking which aired a year or so made something of a mistake. There isn't necessarily a problem with attempting to humanise the attackers if it is done well and the documentary did make sure to highlight the betrayal of families that was involved. However, in choosing to end when they boarded the planes it managed to avoid dealing with the fact that the hijackings, as can be seen in the account of the recordings above, clearly required utter brutality.

While humanising the hijackers the film lost sight of the human consequences of their attacks. Holding a knife to a woman's throat, killing her, stabbing the unarmed passengers fighting for survival, barricading yourselves in the cockpit while bringing the plane down. These are the actions of cowards and monsters and humanising them cannot get around the fact that they possessed free will just like the rest of us and chose a truly evil path. This is a good illustration of the challenge that liberalism poses. Opposing the death of someone responsible for something so utterly horrible is an ugly business.

Blair's failure of leadership

I think that the mainstream press has somewhat missed that neither the Tories nor UKIP can match Labour for putting closet racists in positions of power. As such I think I'll send the following letter to the Prime Minister so that at least he might see the reality of the situation:


Dear Mr. Blair,

London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, has recently been in China and has compared the Tian’anmen Square protests, in which thousands were killed opposing a dictatorship, to the London Poll Tax riots, in which no one was killed opposing an unpopular policy of a democratic government. This suggests that he puts an incredibly low value on the lives of Chinese demonstrators. An attitude such as this is entirely inappropriate for the mayor of a cosmopolitan city such as London.

Prior to this Mr. Livingstone has demonstrated anti-Semitism on two occasions: Firstly, by repeatedly comparing a Jewish reporter to a guard at a concentration camp. Secondly, by telling the owners of a company running a regeneration project in Stratford to “go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs”.

All of these actions hurt race relations in London and demean Mr. Livingstone’s office. The High Court has ruled, quite rightly, that the standards body does not have the right to suspend officials with an electoral mandate. For this reason it would appear that this is a situation in which free speech combined with a desire to avoid gratuitous offence is best served by not suspending Mr. Livingstone from office but, instead, expelling him from the Labour party.

Recently, when a Conservative candidate for councillor stated that an ethnic minority candidate would not be appropriate for their ward Phil Woolas complained that David Cameron had “failed the test of leadership by refusing to take action”. Doesn’t that logic apply here as well?

I would like to ask you, as leader of the Labour party, to take action to sever links with a man who is an embarrassment to the Labour party, London and, by association, yourself.

Matthew Sinclair


Any chance of a response? Not much but you get the point.

New Conservative Movement Awards Launched

Conservative readers of this blog should go and take a look at the new Conservative Movement awards being launched by ConservativeHome. Seems like a good idea as a networking event for the Conservative movement as much as anything.

At the moment they are discussing the categories. I would suggest that it will be important to include best newcomer in many of the categories. While these are the inaugural awards I think there is still a function to noting those who are less well established. A balance needs to be struck between giving the huge blogs like Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes the awards they deserve but also giving real amateurs something to play for.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Chirac scraps Youth Job Law

It appears that Chirac has surrendered to the protests against the CPE. While the replacement policy he has promised could revive moves towards greater labour market flexibility it seems unlikely he will risk a revival of the protests. Most likely the law will be replaced with a new measure which either introduces no significant change or an active harm such as 'job creation' (as Marginal Revolution notes even the economists still support such ideas in France).

As I have noted in an earlier post this situation appears to be the result of a political mainstream able to put the interests of an employed population interested in stability above those of the unemployed even with staggering numbers out of work. All this requires is a belief that the unfortunate are best helped by the state and a disturbing desire for security at any cost among French youth. The Economist was right to note that, for all their rebelliousness, they display a "chilling lack of ambition" when asked to face the more mundane risks of the job market.

If there was a chance for Sarkozy to demonstrate that he is something more than a political fighter this was it. Instead he has chosen to play this as another political game and humiliate a rival. While this is evidence of some political nous it does not suggest that he can be expected to achieve much if he becomes leader. While he has talked of a need to change the system this change will not come easy and is unlikely to be achieved by a leader who is not steadfast in its support. Perhaps this is not such a surprise, his support for 'industrial champions' over the years suggests that he shares the preoccupation of the French political class with an long out of date mercantilist approach to capitalism.

France has the potential to be an enormous success but if its leadership does not start showing some statesmanship it faces the same fate as Italy; chronic and banal decline. Even if a French Thatcher is not on the cards the competence and steady improvement of a Merkel would make a huge difference.

Oliver Kamm on Political Violence

Oliver Kamm does an excellent job of spelling out the difference between the violence of the democratic state and the violence of terrorists.

Cameron's Gamble

All of the talk we are hearing at the moment about Cameron's lack of policy misses the point. We aren't supposed to have policies yet, that's what the policy groups are studying. That the emperor has no clothes is no particular revelation; the tailors are at work. To take longer to come up with policies does not indicate that someone is in any way policy light, however. If you were policy light you would be happy to come up with policies quickly. Instead, it suggests sustained thought which will, hopefully, produce the right policies.

The problem is that repetition can secure even the most questionable of ideas in our common consciousness. Cameron's gamble is a bet that once the policy drought comes to an end, with the various commissions reporting back, the media's characterisation of him will actually change. This is a substantial risk, these stories do not change quickly and good policies could be written off as lightweight for their association with Cameron thanks to his "media darling" reputation.

There is little to be done about this now beyond toughing it out until the policy comes. If we get bad results at the council elections the strong mandate from Cameron's overwhelming victory in the leadership contest should see him through. This problem does suggest, though, that it might have been better to have the policy groups making interim reports rather than leaving the party with so little to talk about for so long.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Amartya Sen on the West and Democracy

Reformist Muslim, on Picked Politics, links to an article by Amartya Sen written for the Wall Street Journal in which the economist attacks the notion that democracy is "owned" by the West and innapropriate for those from other cultures. He does this in two ways: First, by questioning the legitimacy of Europe and the modern West as a successor to the Greek democratic pioneers. Second, by noting that concepts such as religious and academic freedom have been followed in other cultures including those now seen, in some quarters, as inimical to democracy. He concludes that cultures are not and should not be overly restrictive of the futures of their constitutents.

His second line of argument is most welcome. All those engaged in the struggle for or against the advance of liberalism in the Islamic world should be aware that they are not entirely trying to create something new. The contribution to mathematics and literature of the old Muslim nations was the creation of cultures open to new ideas and people. Those who attack the advance of liberalism should know that they are attacking the basis of some of the proudest moments of their own culture's history as well. Those in favour of reform should be heartened that their task cannot be impossible.

Equally, his conclusions are intellectually important. As an economic historian I study in a discipline which has seen culture used to explain far too many phenomena and it is, unfortunately, often the mark of a poor understanding of the conditions that individuals are facing. When Africans are faced with a lack of property rights which leaves them unable to trade beyond immediate communities or be sure that the fruits of their labour will not be arbritrarily confiscated there is no need to explain a lack of entrepreneurial activity through resort to their "culture". Explaining the behaviour of nations or people through culture is toxic to any programme of improvement and usually fails Occam's razor.

However, I do have to take issue with his first line of argument. His argument that the West of the Greeks has no special connection to the modern West requires a twisting of history. While the Greeks may have had little to do with the Goths a line can be traced, with major overlapping institutions, from the Greeks to the Romans through the Church to the present day West. This is a civilisation which, while it has seen good and bad times, has always conceived of itself as distinct from the rest of the world; the ancient Greek concept of the barbaroi (foreigner) never quite left. While many of its values are also held by others and are not entirely constant it is a feat of pedantry not to see a common tradition. The modern West rightly takes pride in being the heir to this tradition.

Sen could make his point more effectively by arguing instead that some values are important and worthwhile regardless of their origin (values like government by discussion) and for all people. The arrogance with which Western universalism has often been expressed has hurt its case but clearly there are many values which are currently found most well developed and widely spread in the West which are simply correct answers to questions about how people should best form societies. Sen has made the important point that many of these answers, such as allowing free thought, are not new to Muslim and other civilisations and that government by discussion is neither alien nor unattainable to any people.

Hamas confronts reality

Hamas is turning its back on suicide bombing and suggesting that it might accept a two state solution. This marks solid progress from that organisation that introduced suicide bombing to the Palestinian conflict (it originated with the Tamil Tigers) and until recently maintained an "into the sea" policy on Israel. While there are all sorts of messages coming out of the PA and declarations should not be accepted at face value this does appear to be movement in the right direction.

It has to have something to do with the suspension of funding that has been implemented by the US, Israel and Europe. This cost and the difficulties it created with sustaining the Palestinian Authority forced Hamas to confront reality. The Europeans, as the largest donor, are particularly significant here with Angela Merkel in particular, proving again to be a superb international operator, having played a large part in introducing a stick to policy towards the Palestinian Authority. A few of the arguments against a suspension of funding were always somewhat questionable:

1) They will get funding from other sources: Firstly, this contradicts all of the other reasons given not to reduce funding. Secondly, if this doesn't involve substantial costs why aren't they doing it now? Being funded by the crusader West surely has to involve substantial political costs for the PA.

2) This will shut down services essential for the running of the Palestinian state: It will involve costs to the people but that is the nature of any kind of sanction against another state, however, most of the budget goes towards a paramilitary police force and paramilitaries are political bodies who, at least in the short term, will turn up regardless. That they are a paramilitary can be seen in a group of the police officers storming the parliament in protest after Hamas were elected.

3) This is undemocratic: No, believing in democracy means that we defend the sovereignty of democratic states, it does not mean that there cannot be costs to political choices. If a state votes in Communists it will become a lot poorer as the result of a legitimate democratic choice but this does not mean we need to step and provide financial aid in if we believe in allowing "free" democratic choice. We have to tolerate democratic choices but we don't have to give them our money.