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13
Nov 2012

An alternative plan

It has become a mantra of the mainstream here in Ireland… “it’s all very well to criticise”, they say, “but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

You hear it trotted out regularly by government politicians in the news and on current affairs programmes. Usually in response to a challenge from one of the small cohort of usual suspects from the Irish Left. It goes like this:

Clare Daly

Socialist TD, Clare Daly:
A saner voice than most, but still not sane enough

Perhaps in a Dáil (parliamentary) question, or maybe from behind the desk on the Vincent Browne show, Joe Higgins or Clare Daly or someone from Sinn Féin* will remind a minister of the basic injustice of the bank guarantee strangling this country.

The minister will then respond thus: he or she will acknowledge that mistakes have been made. There will be a rueful reminder of the complete mess they’ve inherited from the last lot. The phrase “to an extent our hands are tied with regards to…” will be used. We will be reminded that nobody wants to be in the current situation and that our politicians certainly don’t want to make the tough decisions they’re being forced to make. But those tough decisions do have to be made for the good of the country. And remember, to an extent our hands are tied…

The minister will then finish with the well worn coup de grâce. “Well”, he or she will announce with feigned gravitas, “it’s all very well to criticise, but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.

And with that, the debate in the media is won. That same discussion has been happening on our screens for the past two years, and those on The Left don’t appear to understand that every time it happens, they lose the argument yet again. And losing the same argument over and over, every night on TV for two years, makes you look like a bad bet when it comes to choosing who to run the country.

Now, some of you might be wondering why “I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan” wins the argument. Why don’t The Left just propose an alternative plan then? After all, if they can’t do that, then they probably don’t merit your vote. Except it’s not quite that simple. See the challenge is not simply to propose an alternative plan, it’s to propose an alternative plan that can be coherently communicated to a mass audience in approximately two minutes. As Chomsky pointed out (and whatever you think of Chomsky, he’s right about this) complex or radical ideas can almost never be coherently explained to a mass audience in a soundbite. Especially if those ideas challenge pre-existing beliefs about the world.

That’s one theory why The Left is losing the media debate right now – losing the debate despite a growing groundswell of discontent with the government. Basically they do possess an alternative plan, but because it involves massive structural changes to the way Irish society works, it can’t be conveyed quickly without sounding wild or risky or just plain mad (of course, it’s only our familiarity with current social structures that obscures the wild, risky madness they represent). So those on The Left shy away from their alternative and instead talk about burning the bondholders, defaulting on the bank debt, revoking the promissory notes, overturning the bank guarantee. Repetition has hollowed out those phrases… they’ve become like marketing slogans for a product you’ll never afford. The other side has their own set of course. They talk about a return to growth, of fiscal responsibility and of being on-track to meet our targets. And they look wistfully into the middle distance and speak in hushed tones of the glorious day when we proudly rejoin the bond markets.

My other theory is less charitable to The Left. The reason they don’t discuss radical alternatives in the media is not because they’re worried about appearing incoherent when forced to shoehorn their plan into soundbite form. It’s because they don’t actually have a radical alternative. See, compared with a hundred years ago, general political discourse has today been narrowed to a tiny segment of the spectrum. The Irish Labour Party… the party of James Connolly and Jim Larkin… is now entirely wedded to the notion of free market capitalism. And they are the “centre left” member of the coalition government. But there’s a sense that even those who critique the government from further left are trapped in that free market capitalist paradigm.

They talk about ending the “casino capitalism” that has helped plunge this country into debt. But they don’t talk about ending “capitalism”. Remove the casino but leave the rest of the edifice standing. It’s reform they want… they don’t want to replace the system with a radical alternative, they just want to tinker with the way it’s running.

All of which makes it impossible for them to be coherent. By aligning themselves with the forces of market capitalism they are forced to accept the internal logic of the markets demanding Ireland sell its future.

Personally, I do have an alternative plan. Unfortunately though, when I describe the plan it sounds risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. I don’t believe it’s any of those things, but decades of free-market indoctrination makes it seem that way from a mainstream perspective.

My plan involves radical reform of the political structures (starting with freeing TDs from party whips and strengthening local government), a wave of nationalisations, the end of a free market in non-renewable resources, the removal of the profit motive from essential industries and services, a radical localisation of those essential industries and services, the introduction of a Universal Living Income coupled with significant tax increases for those who earn more than three times that amount, a rise in corporation tax to bring us close to the European average, the implementation of secondary regional currencies which would exist alongside the euro, the immediate repudiation by the sovereign of all private debt transferred to it, a complete structural reform of NAMA, investment in local infrastructure projects and a far-reaching redefinition of “illegal activity” within the financial and political sectors. I would also radically reform Ireland’s social policies in a number of areas (drug law, marriage equality, etc.) and I’d ensure that Ireland unilaterally embarked on a journey towards a decarbonised and sustainable future… hopeful that others might follow our example.

As I say… risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. Accurate descriptions to those living in a society that has lost its ability to re-imagine itself and therefore abandoned all attempts to do so. Instead we blunder down exactly the same path we’ve been on for the past few decades; a path destined to lead us to disaster. Me? I’d rather take a risk on a different path, even if we don’t have an accurate map of where it might lead. Especially when we know the one we’re on ends with a plunge into the abyss.

* On the subject of the financial crisis – and is there any other subject right now in Ireland? – Sinn Féin qualify as part of The Left.

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12
Nov 2012

Send in the drones

Last Tuesday – mesmerised as I am by coloured maps – I stayed up late enough to see Barack Obama hold onto the US presidency. So I went to bed early Wednesday morning knowing that Mitt Romney wasn’t going to be President of the United States. And I was glad about that. The lesser of two evils won. And as a friend pointed out, “The lesser of two evils is still evil, but is also lesser. That’s just maths.”

When I awoke the following day though, I was a little taken-aback when I watched his victory speech online. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the people in that convention hall were precisely the people who will feel strongest about an Obama victory; but I found the sheer distance between their euphoria and my resigned fatalism a little disconcerting. Then I read an article about that mass re-tweeting of Obama’s “victory tweet” with the attached photo, and it floored me. According to a different article, that creepy photo of Barack and Michelle embracing has been shared by almost three quarters of a million people on twitter and 3.6 million Facebook users. That was last Wednesday; I feel certain the numbers are higher by now. And I’m pretty certain the vast majority of those people weren’t forwarding the photo as an example of “a creepy thing”.

And then I had three different discussions on social media forums which led me to realise that quite a lot of people seem to be relatively heavily invested in Obama; intellectually, emotionally, politically… however you want to put it. Mostly those on the American centre-left, but plenty of non-Americans too. They didn’t find that photo – and the shared urge of millions to forward it to their friends – at all creepy. They found it celebratory, uplifting, inspirational even. And that sense of disconnect I’d been feeling continued to grow.

Political puppets

Hey! There’s one guy holding both puppets!

Once again, let me stress that I’m glad Obama beat Romney. If someone put a gun to the head of someone I loved and told me to choose the next US president from between those two men, I would – of course – choose Obama. I’m not sad because the greater of two evils failed to win the election. I am, however, pretty sad that the entire world – but Americans in particular, as it’s their president we’re talking about here – appear to passively accept a state of affairs in which they choose between two evils every four years. Here in the 21st century, is that really the best we can come up with? Because it’s far from the best we can imagine. Is the gulf between our imagination and our ability to shape our society so vast? And have we completely abandoned all attempts to bridge it?

I understand that relatively rational, relatively liberal Americans are consumed by a fear of the right-wing crazies in their midst. There is a fundamentalist religious movement in America (along with a bunch of Machiavellian politicos willing to exploit it) whose views on many issues are right off the chart – whether it’s legitimate rape, the death penalty for rebellious children or that whole “teaching creationism as a scientific alternative to evolution” thing; there is a segment of the US population who appear to want some kind of psychotic theocracy. And I understand the celebrations of those who see Obama’s victory as having prevented that outcome.

But those celebrations rest upon two very dubious foundations (in my view). The first is the idea that a Mitt Romney victory represented such an outcome (I’ll explain in a moment why I don’t believe it would have). The second is the idea that returning a murderous war-criminal beholden to corporate America to the White House should be a cause for celebration under any circumstances. Even if the only alternative to Obama had been a bizarre genetic experiment comprising equal parts Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Osama bin Laden… even then, the proper reaction to a victory for a murderous war-criminal beholden to corporate America should be some brief muted applause followed by an immediate decision to change the system so that the lesser of two evils is not the only option next time around.

Mitt Romney: He’s no Jim Jones

Firstly, let’s clear up a few misconceptions. While Mitt Romney would have offered the occasional bone to the Tea Party movement and other religious fundamentalists in America, he’s certainly not one of them (Mormon or not). As president he would have had to take them more seriously than Obama; so yes, once again, I’m glad he didn’t win; but Romney represented the rich, corporate wing of the Republican Party; not the poor, deluded, religious wing. His position on things like homosexuality and gender politics is less liberal than Obama. But he’s far from the religious extremist that many Obama supporters saw him as. Just as Barack Obama was painted as a far-left, ultra-liberal communist Kenyan by the US right, so Romney was also demonised by the US left (admittedly, not to quite the same extent). Those on the left who cannot see this, or deny it happened, or insist that “their side” would never use such dirty tactics are – sadly – just as deluded as those who believe the nonsense spewing from Fox News.

First and foremost Mitt Romney represented the wealthy elite. And exactly the same is true of Barack Obama. To suggest otherwise is either ignorance or wilful self-delusion. It’s almost certainly true that Obama doesn’t view everyone else with quite so much contempt as Romney (see: the 47 percent) and is willing to throw them a few more crumbs, but the fundamental changes necessary to rid America of deep economic injustices are just as far away under an Obama presidency as they would have been under a Romney administration.

Barack Obama: Liberal-lite

When it comes to social policy, there is some clear water between Romney and Obama. And it’s on this subject that the various Obama fans I have spoken to always want to focus. And yes, to return to the gun-to-head-Romney-or-Obama scenario, it’s here that I too would base my decision. Obama’s support for gay marriage is to be welcomed (though his unwillingness to be proactive on the subject is a bit of a cop out). And he doesn’t appear to view women with quite as much disdain as the Republican party – certainly if he does, he’s too smart to blurt out dodgy statements about “legitimate rape”.

But Obama’s presidency to date has seen no attempt to reform drug policy. And given the monstrous incarceration rate in the United States (with most of those in prison for non-violent drug offences) this is not “a minor issue”, as someone described it to me in a conversation. Far from it; this is one of the fundamental human rights issues facing America (indeed the world) right now. The US prison population is disproportionately made up of poor, young, uneducated men from ethnic minorities. The US state is destroying the lives of millions of these people for doing something that – at most – should be viewed as a public health issue, and in a lot of cases shouldn’t be anyone’s business at all. It’s called a “war on drugs” but it’s really a war on poor people (or as Bill Hicks described it, “a war on personal freedom”). And Obama has been fighting that war on poor people just as enthusiastically as any president before him.

And that’s not the half of it. The effects of the American drug war on places like Mexico and Colombia have been little short of devastating. Torture, corruption and tens of thousands of violent deaths… all because the United States refuses to take a rational approach to the issue. Some analysts believe Obama has plans to revisit US drug policy in his second term. If this does prove to be the case, then I have two reactions:

  1. Yay! Well done. Finally!
  2. Hang on, you waited until your second term to do something about this? Presumably because you were worried it might affect your chances of re-election? You spent four years trampling over local democracy by cracking down on popularly-mandated medical marijuana initiatives in your own nation, and watching while tens of thousands died horrible deaths at home and overseas… all because you were worried that to do otherwise would threaten your job security? Seriously? You absolute bastard!

But let’s hope he does something about this insane drug war over the next four years, even if it will demonstrate he’s a typical cynical careerist politician with no moral compass.

Cluster bombs and predator drones

And here, finally, we get to the main reason I felt such a disconnect with the euphoria surrounding Obama’s re-election… the main reason I found that photo of him and his wife hugging so very creepy…

The man’s a child killer. And not just kids. He’ll kill pretty much anyone – man, woman or child. And not just one or two of them either… Barack Obama has ordered the deaths of dozens – perhaps many hundreds – of children. And people are sharing a photo of him hugging his wife? Seriously, I just don’t understand it. So what if he’s better than Romney? He murders children, what the hell are you celebrating!?

I have addressed the issue of cluster bombs on this blog before; but it’s not an issue that can be discussed too often. Handicap International “is an independent and impartial aid organization working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster.” They – along with many other campaigning organisations – have highlighted the role played by the United States in the “production, stockpiling, trade, and use of cluster bombs”. In fact, during the past four years the Obama administration has been hugely instrumental in obstructing international efforts to ban the production and eliminate the use, of cluster munitions. Despite the fact that the use of cluster bombs clearly contravenes several international treaties (including the 4th Geneva Convention and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions), Obama has consistently reasserted the right of the United States to deploy these heinous weapons – weapons which, let us not forget, disproportionately result in civilian casualties (note: the US is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions but boycotted the Convention on Cluster Munitions when it was signed in 2008 and continues to do so).

Only last week UK Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the use of cluster bombs in Syria citing them as “further evidence of the brutality of the Assad regime.” He went on to insist that “the apparent use of cluster munitions shows an appalling disregard for human life.” I completely agree with Hague’s statement, but I find it pretty weird coming from him of all poeple. While the UK was actually instrumental in setting up the 2008 Convention, it is one of the closest military allies of the nation most responsible for the use of these weapons. Furthermore, Hague’s government – unlike the previous New Labour administration – appears to be quietly backing US efforts to overturn the Convention.

Let’s not be under illusions; any state military or non-state militia using cluster bombs is an enemy of humanity. It’s that simple. Barack Obama – by asserting the US right to use these vile things, and furthermore to actively obstruct international attempts to end their use – is a goddamn monster. When you forward that photo of the Obamas, you may as well be fawning over a photo of Syria’s Assad hugging his wife. Or Saddam Hussein hugging his. Because to knowingly use cluster bombs is to knowingly murder and maim children. There is no other way of looking at that issue. In the murky world of global politics you rarely find a black-and-white issue. Well, cluster bombs is one of the rare ones. And if you think it’s not; then go do some bloody reading on the matter. And that’ll be “bloody” in both a literal and an expletive sense.

Predator droneAnd then there’s the predator drones. Imagine a scenario where the Pakistani government regularly flew remote control weapons platforms over Texas. Platforms that periodically launched missiles at buildings suspected of housing enemies of the Pakistani state. Imagine a large proportion of those buildings also contained innocent civilians; sleeping families, students studying for their exams, average Americans watching TV. Imagine if the US government had issued repeated statements forcefully demanding that Pakistan cease their bombing campaign. Imagine this went on for years.

I’ve heard people argue that “while the number of drone strikes has increased significantly in the last few years, US intelligence is getting better and there are now fewer civilian deaths”. Would that placate the population of Texas, I wonder? “Hey Hank, I know you lost your kids in that last drone attack, but actually the Pakistanis have killed less children this year than they did last year. So chin up, eh?”

Maybe you’re happy with a US president that oversees such a policy. Maybe cluster bombs and drone attacks are cause for rejoicing in your world. They’re not in mine. And they never will be.

And no, Mitt Romney would not have been any better in that respect. He wouldn’t have halted drone strikes. He wouldn’t have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. But that just means modern politics is deeply screwed up. If the best we can do is manufacture a false choice between two murderers every four years (or a murderer and a would-be murderer), then we really don’t have much to celebrate at all. I’m glad that Mitt Romney is not the president of the United States. Truly I am. But don’t expect me to jump for joy at the re-election of a mass murderer. And next time you see that victory photo, try to remember that the man with the satisfied smile on his lips also has the blood of children on his hands.

UPDATE: Worth mentioning that I didn’t even get around to Obama’s lamentable environmental record… worthy of a blogpost (nay! a book!) all its own. “Clean coal” my arse!

Note: I had intended to illustrate this blogpost with an image of a cluster bomb victim, but I felt uncomfortable posting such a photo as I would inevitably be using an image of an individual in great distress to make a political point (albeit a valid moral point as well). However, I suggest you do a quick google image search on “cluster bomb injuries” if you are in any doubt about the horrific nature of these weapons. And if you do so, note the high proportion of children… because of the nature of the devices; cluster bombs disproportionately target children. How? Well, they leave lots and lots of shiny unexploded bombs lying around – the kind of things that most adults would know to avoid but which attract the inevitable curiosity of children and toddlers.

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2
Nov 2012

Sean Quinn jailed for nine weeks

Sean Quinn: looking down on the rest of usIt’s only a few years ago that Sean Quinn was Ireland’s richest man. Today he starts a nine week jail sentence. How the mighty have fallen.

Of course, it’s possible to argue that Mr. Quinn – along with the rest of the “mighty” who helped plunge Ireland into decades of crippling debt – hasn’t fallen nearly far enough. For years, it was impossible to switch on an Irish television without being assaulted by adverts for ‘Quinn Direct’, Sean Quinn’s insurance company and flagship of his business empire. These days… not so much.

All the same, despite his declaration of bankruptcy and his very public fall from grace – and despite the fact that nine weeks in prison is a bit more than just a slap on the wrist – Quinn’s punishment hardly seems sufficient given his part in our downfall. Because while nine weeks is indeed more than just a slap on the wrist, it’s not much more. And surely he deserves much more.

At least, morally speaking he does. Legally? Well, the best the court could do was hand out a custodial sentence for various charges of contempt of court. See Quinn’s real crimes aren’t actually “crimes”. That is – in a world driven into the abyss by a neoliberal ideology little short of psychotic – a shameful cabal of bankers, politicians, property developers and financiers can destroy the very fabric of our nation and yet still not be seen to have broken any laws. So we trip them up on technicalities and get to see them poke their heads briefly behind bars before emerging to a life of continuing luxury. And nor does Quinn’s version of “bankruptcy” amount to worse than a slap on the wrist either. By passing tens – if not hundreds – of millions of euros in assets to family members, despite owing billions to the Irish people, Quinn once again avails himself of a corrupt system set up specifically to ensure contemptible men like him always land on their feet.

Meanwhile the rest of us eye the forthcoming budget with concern as we wonder whether it’ll be the home heating or the grocery shopping budget that will need to be slashed this winter.

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