Jul 2013

A new age of censorship

David Cameron gave a speech today in which he called on British Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to implement filters on the internet in order to block pornographic content. Certain types of pornography would be banned entirely (obviously those that are already illegal, but also “simulated rape” imagery) while other legal forms of pornography would require a person to explicitly “opt in” with their ISP in order to be able to view it.

Now, this is obviously a sensitive subject (particularly when we’re talking about something like “simulated rape”) and it’s not something I want to spend a huge amount of time on – the blogosphere is full of commentary on the subject and I probably don’t have a great deal to contribute to the debate. However, I do want to add my voice to the calls for extreme caution with regards to this issue.

I’m not going to deal with the moral issues surrounding pornography. They are ably covered, from all sides, by a myriad different writers. However, I would like to request that those who are calling for filters and bans, define their terms. Because nobody seems very willing to do so. A ban on “simulated rape imagery” would obviously cover some deeply depraved stuff. The kind of stuff that would turn the stomachs of most of us.

SRIBut such a ban would also ensure that a whole host of films and TV shows are banned from our screens. Jodie Foster’s powerful Oscar-winning performance in The Accused would clearly never be permitted in Cameron’s Britain. If you claim the film does not contain “simulated rape imagery” then you have not seen it. The same is true of Platoon, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, The Outlaw Josey Wales and dozens of other excellent films (plus probably thousands of films that are less excellent but I’d argue are a long way from being worthy of a ban).

Hell, even Akira Kurosawa’s acknowledged masterpiece, Rashômon, while showing very little of the crime that forms the heart of the film, nonetheless contains what can only be described as “simulated rape imagery”. The entire film – as with The Accused – centres on the aftermath and consequences of a rape. Are we suggesting the subject is entirely off limits? Or that it can only be obliquely referred to as an off-screen event?

On the (very few) occasions that defenders of the proposed ban have tried to define exactly what it is they are banning, they fall back on the “intent” of the film or scene. If the simulated rape is intended to titillate or arouse a viewer, then it should be banned. Which means these people are willing to allow – nay demanding – the government be given the power to ban films based on their interpretation of the film-makers intent. If that’s not close to the definition of a slippery slope, then I don’t know what is.

I know, I know, there will be clear cases where a simulated rape scene is obvious pornography. But how do you write that into law in such a way as to ensure that the government cannot decide to use that same law to ban The Sopranos, Twin Peaks and Breaking Bad from our screens? And as someone has already pointed out on Twitter, David Cameron himself owns the TV series ‘24‘ on DVD. Yep, you guessed it, “simulated rape imagery”. Nobody is arguing that there aren’t deplorable things out there; things I don’t want to see and I suspect the vast majority of those reading this don’t want to see either. But I want to be able to draw that line for myself. I certainly don’t want David Cameron or Enda Kenny or any politician drawing it for me.

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Jul 2013

Solar activity Vs anthropogenic Climate Change

I read the news today, oh boy.

New research has been published indicating that solar activity has been in steady decline since the 1940s. This suggests that there is a tug-of-war currently under way between the effects of reduced solar activity on the climate (making the globe cooler) and the effects of human carbon (and other) emissions on the climate (making the globe warmer). Right now, it seems humanity is “winning” the battle.

Solar ActivityHowever, it does seem possible that might change if solar activity continues to drop as is predicted by the new research. Far from offering ammunition to climate change sceptics (how long before fossil fuel companies seize upon this as a marketing opportunity?) this presents an even more terrifying prospect for human (and other) life on this planet. Because it seems to me that this research conclusively demonstrates that we have passed the important tipping points with regards to atmospheric changes; the worst effects of which may have been masked by the decline in solar output.

So even if we do find ourselves drifting into a mini-Ice Age, the historical precedent for this drop in solar activity seems to suggest it will pick up again after a relatively short period of time (there was an 80 year period in the 17th century during which solar output went through the same kind of decline). One assumes the atmospheric changes we have wrought with our industrial output will be massively magnified once the sun starts to ramp up again. From Ice Age to near-global desertification in the space of a century?

We need not only to radically cut our emissions, but we need to return large areas of arable land to uncultivated woodland in order to capture some of the carbon we’ve already released. I suspect that’s politically impossible right now… let’s hope for a more enlightened tomorrow.

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Jul 2013

Free Trade, Subsidies and the CAP

There’s a post over at the Liberal Conspiracy blog that’s getting a bit of attention today. It’s called Why are UKIP silent supporters of the biggest EU rip-off of all? and it is primarily an attack on the hypocrisy of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

UKIP, it seems, are quite unequivocal about their support for the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and wish it to continue making large payments to farmers. And yes, given the stated aims (and general attitude) of UKIP, this does represent an interesting hypocrisy – one that appears to demonstrate UKIP’s allegiance to class above principles. Whether you agree with the principle of the CAP or not is irrelevant; it clearly represents a centralisation of power in Europe. Dishing out almost 50 billion a year makes it powerful. It’s enough to torpedo the economy of a small nation after all. The CAP should be against UKIP principles. They should be lobbying hard for its abolition (even if they believe food production should be subsidised, they should surely want it done by the UK government).
That they are not lobbying for the abolition of the CAP may well be because the CAP currently benefits, to a disproportionate degree, those who least need it… the wealthy. Where small farmers are being supported by the CAP – and yes it does happen – the argument is more fuzzy, but when the 8th richest man in Britain is being subsidised by the citizens of Europe to the tune of almost a million euro per year, clearly something is wrong with the system. The benefits – to the citizens of Europe – of giving a million euro of their money to the Duke of Westminster is surely vastly outweighed by the benefits of giving 100k each to ten struggling small-hold farmers. If you’re going to spend limited funds on subsidising food production, then do it properly. Otherwise just be honest and call it by its real name… theft.

The ultra-wealthy have gamed the system, and they have bought the support of – not the individual political parties, though they come with it – but the entire modern mainstream political system. Which is why a political party that all but defines itself by its opposition to European power can support those aspects of European power that unambiguously redistribute wealth from the bottom and middle to the top.

But what about The Principle of The Thing!?

Yes indeed. The principle of European food production subsidies… what about it? I have heard right wing ideologues argue that the CAP represents a distortion of the free market and should be abolished entirely. I’m not going to address that argument right now. The people who make it are fools. The citizens of Europe can distort the markets any way they damn well please. The citizenry is not subject to the market. It is subject to them.

On the other hand, there is the “global development” argument against the CAP. The Overseas Development Institute (anyone know how reliable these people are? I have a basic distrust of organisations that call themselves a “leading think-tank”, and an initial flick through their website revealed an awful lot of fluffy management-speak and PR waffle, but very little of substance) published a short paper in which they argue that the CAP could be damaging agriculture in “developing” countries. And while they admit that the damage can’t be quantified without further research, the fact that the CAP budget far exceeds the annual total value of African food exports does give a person pause for thought. And when you couple that with the fact that the African continent is a net food importer, you can’t help but think that the CAP might be giving European farmers an advantage that their African counterparts simply don’t have access to.

And while the sophisticated right-wing ideologues might claim that’s actually a restatement of their argument, they’d be wrong about that. One argument states that “distorting markets is primarily wrong, because free markets are in principle the best way to run things”. The other argument states that “distorting markets is not necessarily wrong, but in this specific case it may be because it might be causing some people to go hungry”.

The latter is a valid argument. The former is a dangerous delusion.

The trouble is though, I think the latter argument is a good deal more complex than it appears to be… as is so often the case. And this additional complexity gets lost when people on the liberal left shout about starving children in Africa and people on the neoliberal right insist that everything would be so much better if we’d only allow the market to be free*.

Of course, first there’s the issue of just how much of the CAP actually goes to the already wealthy. I genuinely doubt that the Duke of Westminster’s land is any more productive than it would be if he wasn’t receiving that million euro prize from Europe’s citizens for owning so much land. And realistically, I doubt he’d need to charge any more for his produce if he wasn’t receiving that money. If anything is distorting the market in the case of the Duke of Westminster, it’s his own vast fortune. A free-market argument for high wealth taxation? Not that they’d ever admit it.

So there’s that… if the CAP is truly an instrument of wealth redistribution within Europe (from poor to rich) then it’s unlikely to be affecting global trade all that much. Which, weirdly enough, suggests that those most concerned with overseas development may well want to abolish the CAP, but if that is unachievable then at the very least prevent any reform from which the European citizenry could derive benefit.

Here’s the thing though… I feel strongly that the CAP should be reformed precisely with that goal in mind. And yes, even if that distorts global markets. This probably puts me on the opposite side of the fence to almost everyone discussing the CAP right now, bar small scale farmers (of which I’m not one, by the way), but fact is, I’m not a supporter of the principle of global free trade. I believe very strongly that the essentials for life should be produced as locally as possible. Yes, the scale of modern population centres makes that vastly more difficult than it’s ever been. In some cases, impossible – the island of Britain would probably have some difficulty feeding itself if all food imports were to stop tomorrow for example. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the principle completely.

Food shortages and poverty in large areas of Africa and other “developing” countries need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But it should not be done at the expense of European self-sufficiency in food. Let’s everyone get self-sufficient and then we can trade our surpluses in a sustainable manner; I have no problem with that. But if subsidies help ensure food production thrives in Europe, then that seems like a damn fine use for our collective wealth. Of course, we need to ensure the subsidies are targeted at those smaller farmers to whom it would make the biggest difference. Giving our money to multi-millionaires is just bloody stupid. And I hope it goes without saying that we should also be helping our global neighbours achieve thriving and sustainable food production for themselves. It’s just so important on so many levels.

Helping others achieve sustainable self-sufficiency is a moral obligation. Ensuring we achieve it ourselves is just basic good sense.

* I can actually recall using the “but there’s no market for starving children” argument back when I briefly dallied with libertarian capitalism in my teens. As a political philosophy for a grown adult, it’s a distressing state of affairs… but it’s a useful enough way-station on the path to a fully rounded intellect I guess.

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