Friday, 20 May 2011

Ugly, Ugly, Ugly Republican Lawmaking


This is how debate on a Voter ID bill in Wisconsin ended yesterday. The bill is designed to make it harder to register to vote because first time voters tend to vote Democrat.

Republicans are systematically dismantling the ability for Democrats to get elected in the state of Wisconsin. Not only are they passing a bill that means you can't register to vote unless you have you have a photo ID handy, but they have also taken away the collective bargaining rights of unions in the state, who are the chief fundraisers for the Democratic Party. They have also stripped the powers of the last Democrat with any power in Wisconsin, the Secretary of State, and given those powers to the Governor. The Secretary of State was not allowed to debate the move, nor was he allowed to speak on it in the State senate.

Also part of this Voter ID bill: period you have to live in a district to be able to vote there has been tripled; the length of time absentee voters have to get their ballots in has been halved; 20% of Wisconsin residents do not have the particular photo ID required to vote. All of these measures will hurt the Democrat vote.

Add the Citizen's United case, which allowed unlimited corporate donations to political campaigns through 'Super Political Action Committees' (some of which only have a handful of donors worth millions and millions) and it is clear the Republican's are playing hardball.

Unfortunately, as has been well documented by many, especially Jon Stewart, Democrats are pussies. So they get fucked (in the parlance of Team America).


Thursday, 19 May 2011

Ken vrs. Ed: Political Calculus

I'd love it if politics wasn't a game with a scoreboard and was, instead, a profession of productive dialogue. However, it is not.

So let's look at the scoreboard:

The law that Ken Clarke apparently thought governed statutory rape wasn't as he described it. In fact, what he described as not really being rape is, as of 2003, not really rape.

So that's minus one point off Clarke, Secretary of State for Justice, for not knowing the law (which is, of course, no defense in court).

Ed Milliband attacked Ken Clarke for describing a situation in which an 18 yr old and an 15 yr old have consensual sex as not as serious an offence as forcible rape.

The government which Ed Milliband supported in 2003, however, changed the law to comport with Ken Clarke's common-sense views.

So that's minus one off Milliband for deriding a common sense view and a further minus point for his ignorant hypocrisy. Then there's another minus point for opportunistically attacking instead of researching the law and correcting Ken Clarke, which would have got him a plus mark.

Ken Clarke gaffed all over the place, as he clearly thought statutory rape was AKA date rape, which it is not. He gets a minus point for using words he doesn't understand.

However, there is no legal term 'date rape' as what the media describes as 'date rape' can fall into a plethora of different legal terms. Being a QC, he just wouldn't have used the phrase 'Date rape', a term which is not specific enough for use in a court room. No points awarded here.

So that's Clarke -2, Milliband -3

No one looks good.

This is the first thing that Ed Milliband has done as Labour leader that anyone has noticed. Unfortunately, it is to attack someone for supporting the thinking behind a change to the law that happened under a Labour government. He didn't just attack him, but called for his resignation. That's pretty lamentable.

Clarke didn't know the law, which as Secretary of State for Justice is kind of his fucking job. He also didn't know the meaning of a media term that has been around for twenty years, which is baffling.

This is an example of a political storm that passes and doesn't affect anyone's thinking other than to disenchant them with politics.

If Milliband was a skilled politician, he could have had Clarke for not knowing the law, simultaneously painting the Tories as ignorant toffs who only get jobs because of who they know, not what they know. Instead he took a pot-shot that boomeranged.

His ignorant shouting only makes his ignorance clear.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Kenneth Clarke: Not a Complete Idiot.

One needs to be careful when discussing rape. I have been wrestling with the proper way to express my own views on 'Slutwalk' for the last couple of days, which I see as intrinsically linked to how society treats claims of rape and talks about prevention (as this is what sparked the movement).

Then I see on Yahoo news this story: It describes how Kenneth Clarke was being targeted by Ed Milliband for comments he made that, it was reported, caused outrage . The line that caught my attention was this:

"Mr Clarke sparked calls for his sacking after appearing to say that some rapes were less serious than others during a BBC Radio 5 Live interview." http://uk.news.yahoo.com/clarke-must-over-rape-comments-112949184.html

Of course, this could mean a range of things. The reporting made it sound like he was drawing a distinction between cases of withdrawn consent and those of forced sex.

However, he was not. He was drawing a distinction between statutory rape and other forms. Here is the important quote, from the BBC:

"When BBC interviewer Victoria Derbyshire interrupted to say "Rape is rape, with respect", Mr Clarke replied: "No it's not, if an 18-year-old has sex with a 15-year-old and she's perfectly willing, that is rape. Because she is under age, she can't consent... What you and I are talking about is we are talking about a man forcibly having sex with a woman and she doesn't want to - a serious crime.""

As a Q.C., Clarke knows that cases of statutory rape and forcible rape can be treated differently in court, with statutory rape being open to being treated as a lesser crime where the age gap is insubstantial.

Where it is a case of 'consensual' sex between a 14 year old and a 35 year old, it is a very serious offence. Where it is a17 or 18 year old having consensual sex with a 15 year old it can be (not always) treated as a lesser crime.

That is not an opinion, that is a fact. Courts are allowed to interpret the law with a modicum of common sense. To point this out does not reflect on Kenneth Clarke and his views about rape or women in any way.

As a former teenager, I know that stuff like this goes on all the time and to call it as serious an offence as forcible rape is ludicrous.

Where one person is older by a matter of months than the other, the letter of the law says it is rape, but often it is nothing so sordid: it could be an expression of love between high school sweethearts who go on to have a long relationship, or who grow tired of each other over time. Either way, they might not be demeaned or scarred for life by it.

For that to be treated the same in statistics and in language as being brutally restrained and forced to be violated in a demeaning and scarring fashion is quite absurd.

The opportunistic attacks by Milliband and by shrill commentators are detrimental to having a grown-up discussion about these issues.

I sent a long, rambling message to a friend about my views on Slutwalk in which I used some quite clumsy language, which she kindly pointed out.

At some point I will publish a better expression of these views. It will be thanks to my friend's patience and intelligence in seeing that I'm not some kind of entrenched chauvinist, but someone genuinely engaging with the subject.

It is through that discourse that I understand both her views and my own better.

If public figures are chastised and attacked and lose their jobs for saying only what is demonstrably the case about different kinds of rape then our public discourse suffers.

Men with questions and thoughts on the subject will feel it necessary to keep quiet and not express them publicly.

If a man has chauvinistic views, they will never be exposed, picked apart and corrected if they cannot first be aired. If he can speak without shame and then have the meaning of his words explained to him, maybe he'll consider his views and maybe change them.

Shrill, unthinking attacks, by opportunistic politicians and others, create a taboo around an area that is to the detriment of actually dealing with the problem in the first place.

Take this gem as an example of the sort of (poorly written) diatribe that gets spat at the man:

"Kenneth Clarke the convicts (sic) friend and champion, he blames the victims for being victims,a total disgrace as an MP in a shamed and out of touch profession. Politicians are totally untrustworthy and incompetent and have no intention doing what they promised in order to get elected."

So, for saying only the most common sense thing possible about the subject in careful language, Kenneth Clarke has shamed his whole profession.

If we can't talk about something as serious and as widespread as rape without saying only that it is awful and must be stopped - in all forms, everywhere, castration is the only answer! - we are denying ourselves cultural evolution.

Discourse is how we grow. Presenting one view and then being opposed is not the same: that creates intractable disagreement. Actual discourse is considered and patient and promotes mutual understanding.

We don't learn anything by shouting the same inoffensive, reactionary, absolutist shit over and over again.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden and The Innuendo of Omission

I have been watching with some shock as the western governments and their media have rushed to condemn the Pakistani government for being unaware of Osama Bin Laden's presence in their country. I find it a challenge to follow their thinking, but will try to formulate it as forcefully as I can here.

So: Argument 1. OBL lived in a multi-million dollar compound in an affluent 'Garrison' town - built especially to hide him. Surely someone in the government knew of his presence there? How could they not - such a huge structure being built must have raised questions in the local prefecture.

Problem 1: It was built in 2005, four years after the US + allies invaded Afghanistan to find and kill OBL, destroy the Taliban and uproot Al Queda. Four years of people saying OBL was in the mountains of Tora Bora, 4 years in which rumours of his death were circulated, 4 years for security services to relax their questioning.

Problem 2: All we have is questions like "How could the compound be built without its connection to OBL being recognised?". There could be perfectly reasonable answers to this question without implicating some vast conspiracy in the Pakistani government, e.g. OBL had a businessman with a reasonably clean history register as the owner of the property. When questions were raised he answered them with a believable fiction that satisfied the planning department of the local council.

Argument 2. Abbottabad is a 'Garrison Town', filled with ex-military brass and a barracks for the training of army officers. Surely someone there suspected something to be amiss with a compound with 12 foot high walls springing up?

Problem 1: As a garrison town, it is populated by people used to accepting that there are those higher-up the chain of command who know things they do not. Asking too many questions will not help in having a long military career. Their thinking might be "So what if there is a new compound built in town? It's probably some general's residence or even a presidential hideaway. Best not to ask too many questions, or you might get implicated as a terrorist sympathiser."

Problem 2: Soldiers in the garrison are trained for a finite time there. Every term some leave for active duty and fresh faces come in. To fresh eyes, the compound might have looked like it had been there forever. They better not ask questions, or their commanders might think they are trouble, or some kind of terrorist sympathiser. Whatever the case, it's in a residential area, so it's nothing to do with them.

Argument 3. OBL was there for 6 years and no-one saw him. Either the locals were blind or they were in league with the terrorists.

Problem 1: For 5 of those 6 years OBL never left his bedroom. We can reasonably assume that he stopped going outside after year 1 because of concerns someone might see him over the 12' walls. If he was in league with the local prefecture and police force, why would he take such paranoid precautions?

Problem 2: It is not the duty of the police force to raid residential buildings without cause. The only way they would have found him is by searching every room or by doing what the Americans did for 6 months and watching the compound around the clock. Even at the end of 6 months, the American agents were still unsure there was really anything amiss with the place. When Obama ordered the mission, it was rated 50/50 that the tall shadow they sometimes saw pacing one room of the compound was their target, or just some weird hermit.

Problem 3: With the construction of the compound, the locals must have been used to supply trucks going in and out with bricks, steel and other building materials. It would be easy to hide OBL in one of those trucks, drive him from wherever he was (Afghanistan?) and install him in his new hideout without anyone raising an eyebrow.

Conclusion: There may be some complicity at some level on the part of the Pakistani government in the hiding of OBL. It would be foolish to rule this out. However, it is not necessarily the case and no evidence has been forthcoming to show it to be so.

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Simply because he was present in their country does not mean that some alarm goes off in Islamabad and all the Muslims have a chill go up their spines, their spidey-senses start tingling, and a loud speaker says "Don't look now, but Osama Bin Laden has entered the country. Act natural and don't tell the Americans."

Their government has said that it was as much a failing of the international intelligence services as their own ISS that they didn't know he was there, which is a case of letting themselves off easy. But there is yet to be any actual evidence of complicity, or of flagrant incompetence, on their part that has been released or unearthed by any media outlet or government. All we have is the innuendo of omission.

It seems that Pakistan is being attacked for not being enough of a police state: for not going door-to-door in every town every month, searching every laundry basket and compost heap for a man no-one was sure was even in their country.

If a man stays locked in one room behind 12' high walls for 5 years, I would expect no-one to notice him if that room was in Hampstead or in L.A.

Why would it be different in Pakistan?

Friday, 6 May 2011

Campaigning 101

I find myself unsurprised by the shellacking doled out to the "Yes" campaign in the AV referendum. While all the results are not as yet in, 70% of the electorate decided they didn't want AV. And who can blame them?

Were the virtues of AV talked up? Not really.

Was the trouble with the current system explained? Not to me.

Did the the 'Yes' campaign, such as it is, concentrate on celebrity endorsement over substance? Reportedly - I never actually heard from them.

Was the whole thing a total shambles? Like Shambo the Holy Cow with bovine TB.

Today I chatted with my dad about AV. He is not a political animal and is open to a certain amount of persuasion on such matters. I gave him the run-down on my reasons for my vote of 'Yes' yesterday. We had a reasonable conversation about it.

The 'Yes' campaign failed to sell this conversation around the country.

"Vote for AV because celebrity no. 4 thinks its great" is not a conversation sane people are going to have.

The key to successful campaigning is leading the discussion. If you can't do that, you are lost.

Blair did it (by saying 'New' a lot, as I recall).

GW Bush did it (with a swagger, "trrrist evil doingers" and smear campaigns).

Obama sure as Hope and Change did it.

Major didn't do it (or anything at all of note).

Kerry didn't do it (he was a war hero who got painted as a coward and didn't fight back).

Kinnock couldn't get her done ("balding Welsh bloke wants to charge you more tax" is not a great slogan).

Neither did anyone in last year's general election, leaving us with no one in charge.

Central to any successful campaign is an ethos that can flower into an actual conversation between ordinary people who do not have all the facts at hand.

The Lib Dem's started their campaign for this referendum by saying to the British people "We know you're not going to get excited by or particularly like this...". When you start like that, nothing else you say is going to be relevant. Not to me, not to anyone.

AV was the big promise to their base, a wild gamble to secure more seats at the next general election and finally become a real party. AV was why they went into coalition in the first place.

They completely screwed the pooch.

Over the coming years, the Liberal Democrats are going to fall apart, fracturing along fault-lines created, not by this loss, but by going into coalition with the Tories, who are a party with an ideology they are diametrically opposed to.

Without any hope of redemption at the ballot box, the Liberal Democrat party is going to shatter like the teeth of some cartoon cat who just got hit by an anvil.

We may laugh: it is, after all, pretty funny.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Osama Bin Laden: Slave to The Man

The news that Osama Bin Laden had Nestle and both Coca Cola and Pepsi delivered to his compound is quite astonishing.

For a man who railed against the consumer capitalism of America to be ordering in crate after crate of Coca Cola, surely the no. 1 American export, should be enough to dispel any lingering romanticism surrounding him.

Hamas, the Palestinian authority in the Gaza Strip, mourned his death as the killing of an "Islamic holy warrior". Somebody should show them the Coca Cola: what kind of holy warrior enriches the beast he is supposed to be slaying with both his money and his body?

I was so appalled by the disgusting ethics of Nestle in Nepal - how they sold poverty stricken mothers "mother's milk substitute", on the promise that it would be better for their baby than breast milk, when in fact it was lacking in vital nourishment - that I have boycotted Nestle products for seven years.

An Islamic holy warrior should at least be able to maintain the level of personal discipline required not to buy Nestle and Coke.

It isn't hard.

I know it may seem strange to concentrate on this point, what with the guy being responsible for thousands of deaths and the terror of millions, but it is telling.

There are those who we, in the UK, would call heroes, who are responsible for the deaths of thousands and the spread of terror throughout millions.

Our heroes, we might say in their defense, were just.

We know OBL was not just, but he is also not merely a hero to his erstwhile followers. Some blind fools, like those within Hamas, claim him as a martyr, so they must hold him to a different standard.

A martyr must live a life consistent with at least his own beliefs. OBL wasn't consistent at all.

With one side of his mouth he damned the imperialist, capitalist devil infidels of the west; with the other he chugged Pepsi and Coke and chowed down on Chunky Kit-Kats ("truly a confection fit for Allah himself" he might have mumbled to himself, wiping the biscuit crumbs from his lap and washing it down with some Diet Coke: "Nothing like the real thing". He smiles to himself and leans back, before returning to his Playstation 2).

Not even the shadow of a martyr, a poor excuse of a warrior, unholy is perhaps too kind: Osama Bin Laden was nothing more than a criminal, and one who was witless enough to imprison himself in a single room for 5 years, before getting his brains blown out by a nameless soldier.

What a gormless waster.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

AV or First Past the Post? Yes or No?

I mentioned in a previous post the idea of an independent commission that should have run tomorrow's referendum.

The idea being that, instead of getting slanted leaflets coming through your door distorting the facts of what AV is, and what voting Yes or No would lead to, you'd just get a simple description of the two systems.

That way you'd just make up your own mind without being cajoled by party loyalty and celebrity endorsements.

So, here is a nice, uncomplicated description of what AV is and what First Past the Post is.

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Alternative Vote (AV) - YES

To vote, you rank the candidates in order of preference, with "1" signifying your first choice and "2" your second, etc.

If, after all of the votes are counted, there is a candidate with "1s" from more than 50% of the electorate, then they win.

If not, the candidate with the lowest number of "1s" is knocked out of the process and the second preferences ("2s") of their voters are distributed amongst the remaining candidates.

If then there is a candidate with 50% of the vote, they win. If not, the above process is repeated until there is a winner (a candidate with 50% + of the vote)

In practice this means that you, the voter, can vote for not only your favourite party, but also for a second and even a third choice.

First Past the Post (FPP)- NO

You tick the box for the candidate that you like the best.

The candidate with the most votes wins.

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(Above is as objective as I can be, below is opinion)

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So, as you can see, FPP is a lot simpler to explain. However, it has been known to cause problems that are not simple in practice.

In a situation where there are two parties with similar agendas which share by far the majority of the vote, but a third party wins while representing, in essence, a minority opinion, democracy has not really been served, in my opinion.

So, imagine a constituency where 33% vote for the Greens, 31% vote for the Hippies and 34% vote for the Globalwarming Is a Myth Party with 2% voting for the Vegans Ask God party.

In an FPP election, GIMP win, despite representing a minority opinion. In an AV election, the Greens would win, as they represent a more broad sweep of the electorate. The VAG party's 2% would be evenly divided between the Hippies and the Greens, then the Hippie vote would presumably go to the Greens leaving the result as Greens with 66% and GIMP with 34%.

The Hippies and the VAG would combine to screw the GIMP, turning the seat Green.

My finest hour? Perhaps not.

But anyway, if you have not understood what we're voting about tomorrow, I hope this has somewhat demystified the whole thing a bit.

AV is not complicated - voting in AV just means that you rank the candidates that you like 1,2,3 until you don't want to show anymore preferences. FPP gives you one 'X' on the candidate you like the best/think will represent your views best amongst the field of those likely to win/might beat the guy you really don't want to win. Vote YES for AV and vote NO for FPP.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Obama before the Weekend

On Friday, Chris Mathews put together this great piece on Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Towards the end of the piece, Bob Schrum cited a piece by Lawrence H. Tribe, written with the assistance of Obama, called the Curvature of Constitutional Space. Schrum said it was so elevated that it was difficult to read.


So, sporting my Philosophy degree, I marched to the Google and found the PDF of the piece (http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~daw/D_Realism/Tribe.pdf) in order to find out how elevated it was.

I made notes as I went (included here) to find out how complex this sort of work it is. I have to say, it isn't massively complicated. All the tricky concepts are familiar to me from other reading, so maybe I have a head start.

However, it shows a level of understanding of law and physics that I am heartened to find in Mr. Obama. He's clearly a great guy, he's smart and is deeply thought.

The comparison between him and Donald Trump, and many other Republican candidates, is stark.

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Notes on "The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers can Learn from Modern Physics" by Lawrence H. Tribe (Barrack Obama assisted with analyses) 1989

Intro.: "Metaphors and intuitions that guide physics can enrich our comprehension of social and legal issues"

Opposes dogmatism (strict ideology) because it shuts down debate - he thinks that fluidity of thought is better than ideological intransigence.

- there is an interesting footnote, damning cost-benefit analyses as method for finding preferred conclusions - against utilitarian views

- there is no certainty to be drawn from science into law/philosophy - it is not an infallible referee that can be appealed to in cases of law or ethics.

- he feels law has not kept pace with science in the way that it understands and talks about the relationship between perception, reality and judgment.

- the American Constitution was written from the perspective of people who understood their world in non-mystical, Newtonian, mechanistic terms ("checks and balances", etc.)

- later, the theory of evolution inspired constitutional scholars to look on it as "a living, evolving thing."

- Tribe does not want to view the constitution as a 'Thing' at all, but wants to concentrate on the process of interpretation, in accordance with our scientific milieu (quantum physics and relativity).

-Tribe sees Newtonian physics as relying on a metaphysic that involves God and absolute laws.

- Tribe goes on to explain his view of the new physics in order to then construct a new mode of Legal thought/argument/"paradigm"

General Relativity

- Space is curved by masses - everything falls at the same rate, even light: reality itself is bent by the presence of material.

- Planets are not 'connected by gravity', but rather gravity is the bend of space under the weight of a mass.

The sun creates a bowl in reality, which the planets roll around in orbits. (Tribe's understanding seems to be somewhere between 2D and 3D - where masses are 3D and space is 2D, however his explanation is a brief summary, not an in-depth explication)

Curved Legal Space

- Decisions made in law affect the law itself. By interpreting a law anew, as is done with every decision, the law is changed - it does not remain unaffected by an impossible, objective obedience.

- Laws exercise power over their citizenry and so create obligation on the part of the state to maintain the personal freedoms which they are designed to regulate.

- The state is not a disinterested observer or referee, but by its nature it affects its citizenry and acts upon them. (there are some great examples in the paper, the details of which are too important to be abridged here)

Quantum Theory

- Act of observation affects what is being observed - we affect what we see by seeing it. (Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle)

- We can never be certain whether the observation affected the thing in a certain way.

- Both General Ralativity and Quantum Physics deny the possibility of isolation, of a pristine observer - of objectivity.

-- the state alters the order of society by providing a framework for order within society.

- It expresses judgments that lead society along a path. Like putting your finger on a sheet of linen will create a bowl into which fluff will tend to fall, so judging a case a certain way will coerce other cases to be decided in that way. In this way, courts are not observers, but are interacting with society through their judgments.