venerdì, luglio 16, 2004

More thoughts on Racism.

This has all lead me to consider a little more what we mean by racist. I gave a definition earlier in this Blog that describes the meaning as; "someone who believes that other races are not as good as their own and therefore treats them unfairly". Obviously, there is a bit more to it than that, as we are including Muslim and Jew as racial descriptives now in our everyday speech and thought - certainly the words and thoughts of the popular media and the 'ordinary' person in the street. But, are we? Are we conflating the terms for race and religious belief because we are confused? or is it more for political expediency? I would consider the latter as the principle reason for this conflation of terms. The fact that followers of the Jewish faith have long being considered as belonging to a racial group - when patently that is an absurd idea, given the wide ranging mix of ethnic groups that are represented by Jews around the world - has caused confusion in the public eye. A Jew is still considered by many to be a member of a single racial group, despite all of the evidence to the contrary.

Of course, we must consider that with the hyperbole that is surrounding the current fear of terrorism that is affecting the judgement and thought processes of many people in the western world now, we cannot really expect a rational appraisal of race or racism. The US administration has launched a campaign to try and stem the number of attacks against anyone of Arab or Muslim descent or name in the US. A similar situation has been happening in the UK - more especially in the North of England, where the BNP has long had notable support.

Religious wars have long been a feature of life, from the days of Christian persecution during the Roman Empire - and long before, even - we have created our own groupings of like minded people and been prepared to sacrifice our lives for that belief. In the UK, we have seen the religious differences between the Catholics and Protestants being used to define the two sides of the troubles in Ireland. Most rational people there would conside the difference to be slight - certainly not a reason in itself for any kind of civil war. But it is used by politically inspired people to create a division that can be used to their own advantage - to give them a definable power base, if you will.

The desire to see things in an oversimplified way brings us back to the racial definition of a Muslim - or even a Jew - again. People of one racial group are not particularly adept at seeing a great deal of difference in people of other groups. Take the traditional western view of someone of East Asian origin. We see tham as 'Chinese' or 'Japanese'. We don't find it easy to characterise someone from, say, Japan as being of Japanese race. Although in the context of someone of Japanese origin, they would be horrified to be considered to be of anywhere other than Japan. I have an acquaintance living in Japan that is married to a man whose Grandparents originated from Korea. He was born in Japan - his parents were born in Japan - he speaks only Japanese (and English) but does not have a Japanese passport because he is considered to be Korean.

Racial stereotyping is something we all tend to do at times. I mention our own inability to see specific racial differences in East Asians. If you were from that region, on the other hand, you would feel the same way toward Caucasian types - whether of Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, Celtic, Slavic, Latin or Arab extraction, the difference in your eyes would be indistinguishable.

So, is racial difference something we 'make up'? Something we create for the purpose of allowing us to see ourselves as being something different? Something special? I consider myself a Welshman - although, in point of fact my father was Scots and my mother Welsh. I used to, when I was younger, have black hair and an easily tanned skin, making me look very 'un-English'. Why do I mention that? Well, in my time at school I experienced what it was like to be taunted because I 'looked different' - even though my own ancestors had been in the UK for considerably longer that my taunters. Our society seems to thrive on a percieved difference in order to make it feel more confident in itself.

Returning for a moment to the question of what is race. Perhaps race is no more that a group of self-identifying people declaring themselves to be different? Going back to me again for a minute, I said that I had black hair and an easily tanned skin before. I spent some time in the Middle East many years ago, gaining in the process a tan, which together with my moustache that I then had, meant that I looked and was constantly mistaken for a native Arab. What racial difference was there then in reality? I could 'become' an Arab by simply getting a suntan? Doesn't that rather lend the lie to a racial difference in any case? Of course, the principle difference between me and the local inhabitants was my religion - or rather, my lack of it.

Back again to the question of race then. What is it and why do we make so much fuss about it all when we can't actually tell what race someone is a member of, other than in remarkably broad sweeps of the coloured pen?

giovedì, luglio 15, 2004

British National Party.

The term "racist" is used most often as a form of insult, an attack againt the person it is aimed - but what actually IS a racist?

The dictionary description is pretty simple and straightforward. In the Cambridge Advanced it is defined as; (1) noun "someone who believes that other races are not as good as their own and therefore treats them unfairly"

I only ask the question because the BBC, in the UK, is showing a television documentary, Secret Agent, that involved a BBC reporter, Jason Gwynne, working 'underground' inside one of the more extreme, fringe political parties in the UK today - the British National Party (BNP). For those not aware of the BNP, it is a group of people, commonly considered to be a bunch of ex-skinheads and football hooligans, proclaiming white, Anglo-Saxon supremacy as a means to justify physical assaults on other people. The fact that their victims may be of another colour, creed or race is a bit of a side issue for most of the members, as they really just want an excuse to beat people up and cause as much damage and violence as they think they can get away with. The roots of the party lie firmly in fascism, with the origins of the BNP being with the British Union of Fascists, formed in 1932 by Edward Mosley.

The BBC, as a fair and even-handed public broadcaster, advised the BNP that the programme was due to be shown and invited their comments in an email exchange with the BNP press officer, eventually overshadowed with a message from the leader of the BNP himself, Nick Griffin. He, along with several other BNP members, now faces a police investigation into his activities, where he has been recorded on video saying, "You have got to stand up and do something for the British National party because otherwise they [Muslims] will do for someone in your family, that is the truth". Griffin went on to say, "For saying that, I tell you, I will get seven years if I said that outside." He goes on to call Islam a "wicked, vicious faith" that "has expanded through a handful of cranky lunatics" and "is now sweeping country after country", yet he commented to the BBC after hearing of the allegations, "It's still not illegal to criticise Islam". Strangely, Griffin is still sticking to his claim that neither he nor the BNP are racist in either action or thought.

Getting back for a moment to my earlier dictionary description of what the definition of a racist is, I would confidently say that Griffin, along with the rest of the BNP, are indeed, racist in every possible sense of the word.

mercoledì, luglio 14, 2004

Constitutional Treaty for Europe

With the Constitutional Treaty for Europe now finally passed the initial approval stage, having been discussed and formulated by the Constitutional Convention for the past year and a half, I was interested to take a look to see how the Constitution was actually created. Predictably, the Daily Mail printed front-page headlines claiming that it was a blueprint for tyranny, marking “the end of a thousand years of British history”. The remainder of the British press have presented the whole thing as the work of various Brussels bureaucrats and formulated only for the self-seeking interests of Europeans.

Well, they are right about the 'formulated for Europeans' part - although their intention is to attempt creating a division between the British people and the rest of Europe. The part about being written by Brussels bureaucrats is, however, completely wide of the mark.

The Constitutional Convention included representatives from the 28 countries of the then soon-to-be-enlarged European Union. Composed of one Minister from each government, two MPs from each national parliament (normally one from the majority and one from the opposition), 16 MEPs and two European Commissioners, it is a radical departure from the usual way of preparing treaty revisions - in the past, they have all been decided by working groups of foreign ministry officials. This Convention has held all its meetings in public, consulted NGOs and social partners, received submissions from hundreds of organisations, and made every draft document, amendment and proposal available in real time on an interactive website for anyone to see exactly what was being discussed at any time.

So, what exactly IS the new Constitutional Treaty for Europe all about?

* It will replace the complex and overlapping set of EU treaties with a single readable document, clearly spelling out the EU's powers and their limits.
* It will make the adoption of all EU legislation subject to the prior scrutiny of national Parliaments and the double approval of both national governments (in the EU Council) and directly elected MEPs – a level of scrutiny that exists in no other international structure.
* It will oblige EU institutions to conform to the same standards as regards fundamental rights as all our countries have signed up to.
* It will identify the existing European Union as a single legal entity and structure.
* It will simplify EU instruments and their terminology, to replace jargon by more easily understandable terms (for instance, 'EU regulations' will become 'EU laws', 'EU directives' will become 'EU framework laws').
* All Council decisions to be by Qualified Majority Voting (to be a “double majority” of both states and population, with a few exceptions (notably tax, social security, foreign policy and defence).
* Parliament to elect President of the Commission.
* Better information for national parliaments who are given right to object to draft legislation if they feel it goes beyond the EU's remit.
* The EU's foreign policy High Representative (currently Javier Solana) and the Commissioner for External Relations (currently Chris Patten) to be merged as a “double-hatted” special status Vice President of Commission/EU “Foreign Minister”.
* The European Council (the three-monthly meetings of Prime Ministers) to have a 2½ year chair instead of a 6-month rotating President.
* The Council of Ministers' Presidency to have separate rotation for different Council formations (subjects), but Foreign Affairs Council to be chaired by EU Foreign Minister.
* Commission to be reduced in size after 2009: fewer Commissioners, with Member States taking it in turn to nominate (full) Commissioners.
* New budget procedure to abolish distinction between “obligatory” and “non-obligatory” expenditure, giving EP final say on each year's spending (within a multi-annual financial programme to be agreed by EP and Council). This means that Agricultural spending will no longer be ring-fenced, but will be brought under full democratic control.

What is it not about?

* Any significant expansion in the EU's field of competence.
* Any change to the fact that the EU is a union of Member States who themselves determine its powers and responsibilities.
* Any change in the nature of the European Commission: its job will still be to make proposals and carry out what is agreed – it is not to become an all-powerful central government.

Now that the EU leaders have reached agreement on the new Constitutional Treaty for Europe it will be for the people of the individual Member States to consider the content and use their own voices to discuss, construcively it would be hoped, the content of the new Constitutional Treaty for Europe. Many countries are using the opportunity to present the Constitution to their voters to consider at the polls.

The comments by Bertie Ahern were interesting - as well as telling insofar as the mood of the many governments that were in agreement about the new Constitution. He said:

Our success in agreeing the European Constitution is a success for the people of Europe. The Constitution brings the Union's basic law into one document for the first time. It reflects the needs of a community of nations that has dramatically broadened its membership. That community will continue to expand and face new challenges into the future.

The European nations that were party to the creation of the new Constitution as Member States together with the three remaining Candidate Countries that were on the commitee, had these comments to make upon the finalisation of the Constitution.

Is it raining?

Today in Europe

Reading an article in today's Guardian about the consequences to London of the melting of the ice cap, I was reminded of a discussion I had had recently about the whole issue of Global Warming and it's subsequent effect on the planet.

Of course, the comments and analysis are not new or unheard of, are they. We have all heard of the effects of Global Warming before. What drew my attention to the article was, however, more to do with the parochial view presented in it.

Something that is often overlooked in all of the discussions about the effects of global warming and the continuing rise in world sea levels is the global nature of the ensuing problem. Much of the inhabited world is at or very near present sea levels. By this I am including the coastal areas of India and China, which between them, account for some 30 million people that would be displaced should sea levels increas by just 40cm. With the rise currently in the order of 2.5mm a year, with a projected increase to 5mm within the next 10 years or so, it will only take some 90 years to rise to the level where there will be 30 million homeless people in those countries alone - as well, of course, as the food producing areas for far larger areas being rendered useless by the ingress of salt water.

It makes the potential flooding of parts of London look wholly insignificant, don't you think?

So, why do we continue to ignore the reality of global warming? We all know it is happening as we are all experiencing some change in our established weather patterns. Still we act as though nothing is happening and it "isn't our fault" at all. Well, it actually IS our fault. Sorry and all that, but the longer we stick our heads in the sand and pretend that nothing is amiss, the more difficult it will be to deal with the consequences of our tardiness. The Kyoto Protocol has hit the rocks because there are a great many people that make an awful lot of money out of processes that produce copious quantities of carbon dioxide - as well as other more obvious toxic gasses. The worst offender is, of course, the USA - followed closely by Russia, who is also refusing to join the Kyoto protocol. Self interest always wins out, doesn't it.

martedì, luglio 13, 2004

European Court of Justice

The European Court of Justice struck down in a landmark ruling today a decision by EU finance ministers that had frozen deficit sanctions against France and Germany.

The decision came after 18 months of bitter debate over whether to make the pact flexible in light of persistent economic weakness that have stretched the budgets of key EU members.

The union's council of ministers, ignoring a EU commission recommendation to pursue France and Germany for soaring public deficits, had created a difficult situation for all of the Member States, leaving a clear gap under the economic door of control which was skillfully used last week by Italy to avoid censure for its own breaking of the budget controls imposed by membership of the EuroZone.

Romano Prodi said today, “The commission welcomes the ruling… since it confirms the central role of the Stability and Growth Pact regulations in the European budgetary surveillance process”. But in a clear warning to France and Germany he noted that the Brussels recommendations previously overturned by governments – including fines – were back on the table.

On a completely different note, il Presidente del Consiglio, Silvio Berlusconi, announced a few days ago that the ratified EU Constitution would be signed on November 20 2004 in Rome. The signing ceremony will take place in the Campidoglio Palace where Europe's 'founding' Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957. If the constitution is ratified by all the 25 member states, it will be set to come into force in 2006. Of course, there are several Member States holding a referendum for the people of those Member States to make their own voices heard by way of voting for or against the adoption of the Constitution.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.....

A piece of news which seems to have managed to avoid publication in most of the world press concerns the US planning to build a couple of new missile defence sites - here in Europe. The intention seems to be to build a huge missile facility in Poland with another in the Czech Republic..

The negotiations with the Czech Republic and Poland have been in progress for several months now - Polish government officials claiming that the negotiations have been under way for at least the past 8 months.

These are not small facilities that the US are discussing - they are all part of a missile shield project, dubbed "Son of Star Wars", that will include long-range radar and listening facilities as well, of course, as many underground silos which will hold fully armed intercontinental missiles for the protection of the "US and her allies".

So, who are the enemy this time? Korea? China? Pakistan? every Arab country? With the demise of the Soviet Union, the traditional enemy of the USA has evaporated - but a new one has emerged to fill the gap that the USSR has left behind. But, this time there is barely an actual country that can be targeted. Of course, the battle that the US had before was with Communism - but it had a focal point - a country that could be actually targeted. Terrorism doesn't have any borders that can be defined by country. After all, several of the terrorists that were suspected of involvement with the Twin Towers atrocity in New York actually came from the UK anyway. Hardly a suitable target for US nuclear missiles - we hope!

The arms race is still with us though, even though the old "Cold War" protaganists are no longer sparring in the ring together, the war machine that drives the US must be still fed. There are further sites planned around the world for missile sites. There are the two actually in the USA - California and Alaska - with further sites under discussion in Australia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria - probably several more are in earlier stages of negotiation.

It looks like Ronnie Reagun has certainly left his mark of the planet! Lets just hope that it won't be a terminal mark!

lunedì, luglio 12, 2004

What's up in Afghanistan.

Cowboys & Iraqians

I was reading an article on CNN about the arrest of 3 "American citizens" in Kabul last week. Nothing particularly unusual about that, apart from the fact that these US citizens were arrested for running a "fake prison" inside a private house in Kabul, close to the Intercontinental Hotel. A FAKE prison? Unbelievably (almost) these men had rented a house for the sole purpose of setting up a prison in which to hold people they "arrested" because they thought they might be members of Al Qaeda. The grounds for suspicion were, apparently, that the "suspects" had a beard.

This wasn't something that was a new situation, either. They were holding people in their "jail" that they had kidnapped several months earlier, long before they were 'busted'. In a statement to the press last Thursday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher identified all three as American citizens, noting "the U.S. government does not employ or sponsor these men." Well, that's a relief. For a second there I was thinking they might have been acting for the US in their activities. The State Department spokesman went on to say that the men were identified as Jonathan Idema (better known for his role in "The Hunt for Bin Laden", where you can see him striding across the desert in the photograph on the book cover) and Brent Bennett - but that he couldn't give the name of the third man (purportedly an Edward Caraballo? or is it this Edward Caraballo? - or even this "Third Man") because he had not signed a Privacy Act waiver. Really? So, a suspect now has to sign what is in effect a Model Release Form before his identity can be released? What happened to the Patriot Act then? Isn't it applicable in Afghanistan then? But of course, the Patriot Act is designed to protect Americans from the spectre of a terrorist in their midst, isn't it, not the other way around.

We can be assured, however, that this was no embryonic Abu Ghraib torture prison though. Apparently, according to the CNN report, the Americans did not torture their prisoners, but did administer "some beatings". I would be interested to know what the difference between "some beatings" and torture is though? Is there an actual definition of the term "torture" that is only in use in the USA, perhaps?