On Tolerance

I like to describe myself as a tolerant person. Not tolerant in terms of being patient with incompetence or having a high pain threshold, I tolerate difference. I have no problem with people thinking differently, looking differently or acting differently to the way I would (or at least the way I’d like to think I would). I think that tolerance of the differences between people is a fundamental part of any modern, humane society. I think many of the world’s problems could be solved if the starting point was tolerance and the next step was discussion. I’d like others to be tolerant of me in the same way that I am tolerant of them. Many are not.

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves” – Bertrand Russell

It is not just religion that breeds intolerance and bigotry (although that is the largest driving force behind it in the modern world), uninformed ideology can also contribute, although many of the features of religion are present in fascism and communism and some would describe them as secular religions. There is an underlying force behind all of this, when people become divided on any grounds and the two sides become somehow ‘other’, it becomes all to easy for those in authority driving the divide to dehumanize the two sides, separating them still further. Humans are tribal by nature and putting people into boxes which suffice to summarise their entire character without any direct contact happens without any conscious effort. There are clear evolutionary benefits from this tribalism, being more wary of people who have less genetically in common with you is an obvious way of keeping you (and your close family) safe. People from other tribes who are not related to you will ‘look after their own’ first and if this means an action that is detrimental to your safety, so be it. Altruism towards people who you have less genetically in common with at the expense of those with whom you share more genetic material doesn’t work in evolutionary terms. It seems perfectly natural that when people are separated into groups, the feelings or needs of the group to which you belong become more important than those of another.

The easiest and I think most obvious way of combating the inherent tribalism within all of us is to cut it off at its source. The only reason people are ever seen as different or ‘other’ is because they are (but only in a geographic or social sense). Separating people of difference without encouraging a full and all-encompassing mixing (to avoid dilution and assimilation) is the theory behind multiculturalism, it doesn’t work and only serves to strengthen the feelings of difference. It has been tried in almost all major cities in Western Europe and many others around the world. When people are allowed to mix naturally without the fear of their own culture being in any way harmed or lessened by pressure from outside, the ignorance that exists between separate groups evaporates and the clear common ground that exists between all people regardless of race, culture or religion becomes apparent.

What exactly do we mean by tolerance? To some it may mean voting for a candidate who believes that homosexuality should not be illegal, to others it means smiling through gritted teeth while your son brings home his first boyfriend, while to others it means being the proud parent at your son’s gay wedding. Personally, to me tolerance means treating people in an equal way whatever difference they may have from you (or each other) to the point of ignoring the difference, not even noticing it. A person’s choice (or inherited genetic tendency) of lifestyle, should not be judged by the way it affects them but by the way it directly affects those around them, not in a ‘I don’t approve’ way but in a ‘their children aren’t safe’ or a ‘driving like that is dangerous’ way. Not doing what you would do in a given situation is not grounds for persecution, doing something that has negative affects on other people is. Maybe ‘acceptance’ is a better word to use but tolerance is the word in common usage on the subject so I’ll continue with that.

What are the limits of tolerance? Should I tolerate unlawful behaviour? Unethical practise? Cruelty?

No, these are not things I think anyone should tolerate. They all have a clear victim, all freedoms of action have a boundary around which stand the other members of society who could be affected by those actions. Granted there are many examples of ‘victimless crimes’ such as drug use but I don’t really want to get into the whole ‘legalise drugs’ issue. Suffice to say that in this piece I mean crimes that have a clear victim (I would include children of substance abusers in this category). Poor ethics are not constricted to the corporate world, we all know examples of religious leaders driving expensive cars and wearing designer suits, while the charities and causes they claim to support struggle with lack of funds (or no funding at all if they dare to break one of the requirements set down by the church). There are many examples of cruelty that are only permissible in law due to dietary restrictions, or bodily requirements placed on the religious. These actions are still cruel, whoever or whatever orders you to do them. Tolerance does not extend to allowing actions against an unwilling victim (I include all children in this) or to slaughter any animal in a way that causes any more than the bare minimum of suffering and for any reason other than necessary pest removal or food.

These are so far examples of toleration with regards to behaviour, what about tolerating intolerant thoughts and views?

Many people may disagree with me on this but I cannot allow the suppression of intolerant views to be more important than the freedom to express them. I do not believe that they are (or can ever be) correct or valid but for tolerance to be truly tolerant it must cover all members of society not just those who I agree with. It is only through frank and open discussion that the enemies of tolerance and freedom can be engaged, silencing one’s critics without exposition is a surefire way to encourage them, ensuring their continuance. Deconstructing and refuting their arguments in front of those they are attempting to convert in the most public forum possible is the only way to show people the falsity of their claims. The irony of the religious fanatic standing on a street corner screaming about the evils of free speech is not lost on me but it almost certainly is on him or her. However, tolerance of this sort is not really comparable to the tolerance spoken of above, if a person has views you do not agree with it is not only your right but also your duty (time and place allowing) to challenge them, point out any errors, inconsistencies and errors before expressing your own opinions and backing them up with the reasons you hold them and any evidence to support your claim. Just shouting ‘Shut Up You Nutter!’ before walking off without giving them the option of reply won’t convince anyone of anything other than your own intolerance and inability to accept criticism.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire

We all live here, in this now global society, it is no longer enough to peer through the once murky camera lens of a far away country, wondering how people could treat each other like that. Metaphorically walking by when one witnesses harassment, bullying or victimisation of any member of society be they part of a vulnerable minority or just unlucky enough to be surrounded by ignorant idiots is not an option anymore. It is only by standing up and confronting the peddlers of hate head on that we can start to build a world we would be proud for our children and grandchildren to live in.

We are not just members of society, we are society.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Why An Atheist Speaks About Religion Every Day

In my personal experience, when questioned about their religious beliefs, most people seem to find it difficult to reconcile their underlying mistrust of global religious institutions with an inability to wholly reject the notion of an omnipotent god (clearly this is only people I converse with in ‘the real world’, most people I only know through their online personas have much more polarised opinions on the matter). This is not normally a result of independent inquiry, concluding with a summation of available evidence but a relic from the mild Christian schooling most of us were subject to through our childhood (or not so mild in some cases).

I personally went to Church of England schools and although I was taught the literal truth of many bible stories, I’m not sure if any of my classmates every went on to believe those literal truths into adulthood. Certainly many of us realised the hypocrisy of religious classes teaching us the insignificance of material wealth while all other teachers pushed us to succeed in their subjects to facilitate the accumulation of that wealth. This left very few in the school who could be classed as truly ‘devout’, of which I was one (however surprising you may find that). However, when my religiosity in my teenage years led me to read the bible along with much of the apocrypha, I was interested to find out why the apocrypha had been proscribed and how many of the beliefs of the modern Christian churches have been established from the diverse and often heretical beliefs and practises of early Christians. I felt it my duty as a Christian to attempt to discover as much as I could about the original meaning behind the scriptures and decided to read as much as I could about all ancient and classical near-eastern belief systems. Nobody with a logical or scientific way of thinking like me could do this without losing all belief in the literal validity and veracity of any and all religious books.

Most people seem to have been whitewashed with a kind of ‘soft’ Christianity, which leaves the way open for tolerance of others’ sin, providing those are only the personal sins that do not directly interfere with the lives of others. I use the words ‘soft’ and ‘pious’ in this context so as not to be confused with moderate or fanatical, a person can be moderate and pious or pious and fanatical but not moderate and fanatical. It is really to describe the depth of the subjects religious belief rather than the strength of their opposition to those who have differing beliefs to their own. Despite the underlying racial or sexuality based bigotry inherent in almost all cultures and the subsequent loose definitions of ‘good’ or ‘just’, most people try to adhere to the pre-Christian teachings from the philosophers of the classical world:

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” – Marcus Aurelius

While there is nothing wrong at all with the views expressed in the quote, indeed I believe the world would be a much better place for all of us if a lot more people thought along those lines than the ones they do, this is not a Christian worldview. The idea that one should live what the Stoics (and Aristotle before them) referred to as ‘the good life’ has been around long before it was ever written down, living in a way that benefits those you live with and around and deriving pleasure from this existence without the necessity of any higher power or authority to dictate the minutiae of everyday lives is the philosophy of the first humans to live in groups larger than immediate families. It is not compatible with any of the 3 major monotheistic/Abrahamic religions that dominate the vast majority of the world’s landmass. Understanding the truth of the quote yet referring to yourself as a Christian, Muslim or Jew is the sort of religious belief born of ignorance and apathy, a way of thinking cobbled together piecemeal over a person’s lifetime without recourse to logical analysis or critical thought.

What is not always apparent however, is the far darker side to this form of religiosity, while the individual believer may have ‘soft’ beliefs, those that harbour much stronger feelings toward their religious doctrine are to be praised for their piety. It allows for a reverence towards religious buildings, leaders and institutions far beyond that of anything secular. It allows for special status and exemptions, breeds a culture of divergence and holds up the pious and devout as examples, role models for children or paradigms of virtue to be imitated by the masses. Those holding ‘soft’ religious views think they know what is taught in the books they have little knowledge of, do not feel strong enough to follow those teachings to the letter, yet they feel an admiration for the celibate priest or the veiled woman who claims to be following the right path. It is the ignorance of so many ‘soft’ believers that offers protection to all religions, the belief that religious faith and piety is somehow special among human character traits and cannot be criticised, even when it interferes with other social norms we have established. Genital mutilation of children and the inhumane and painful killing of conscious animals is not only condoned but also a necessary part of being a member, domestic abuse and rape are routinely unreported or blamed on the victims and the image of the institution is far more important than the risk posed by known sexual predators to vulnerable children.

It is not just the perpetrators of these actions who are to blame for their continuance, it is the willful religious ignorance of the vast majority of citizens throughout the Western world that allows these despicable practises to go unchecked. This is why I believe that religious education is very important and should be taught in all schools, not just the bits that help indoctrinate children into a particular religion but all the nasty and disgusting bits of all religions. More importantly still is the context of those who originally wrote the texts and the content of the texts that didn’t make it to the final draft. Only by undermining the ‘god-given’ authority of a religious text can its content and meanings ever be tested in a productive way.

This is not about race, culture or ethnicity, all the far-right parties in Europe profess a strong Christian belief. I couldn’t care less about your genetics or if you prefer to eat with sticks rather than cutlery. Believing that your god gives you the right to commit acts of cruelty counts for nothing with me, cruelty is cruelty no matter who commits it or by what orders. ‘Just following orders’ was not a valid defence when used by Nazi concentration camp guards and whether your commanding officer is yahweh, allah, god, Hitler or Stalin means no difference to me. Allowing people who profess to be good to act in evil ways is no better than collusion.

“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”
“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” – Voltaire

These are the reasons that I, as an atheist bang on about religion every day even to people who don’t want to hear it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Both the UN and Al-Assad are the Enemies of the Syrian People

We have today witnessed the first cracks from within the core of the ruling Ba’ath party in Syria, with the resignation of the deputy oil & mineral wealth minister Abdo Hussameddin. More importantly, he has not merely resigned because of the regime’s brutal oppression of the rebels, he has chosen to side with the revolutionary forces in their cause and questioned the legitimacy of a regime whose grip on power can only be maintained by overwhelming force and even reported massacres of dissidents.

The significance of this action remains to be seen. Will we see a domino effect of Al-Assad opponents from within the regime switching sides? Or will the inevitable destruction of Abdo Hussameddin’s property and persecution of his family be enough to keep quiet any dissenting voices within the party?

As yet, all those switching sides have been from within the armed forces, mostly from lower ranks, the political power base has remained steadfast in its opposition to the popular uprising seen in some cities. In the Arab and North African regimes that have fallen so far; Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the regimes found it difficult to maintain internal support from ministers and the military, handing the revolutionary forces priceless political capital and legitimacy in the eyes of the external world. If those closest to the leader desert, it becomes near impossible for any outside observer to remain neutral in a civil or revolutionary war. A dictator who can only rely on the support of his overpaid generals cannot be granted any degree of legitimacy by the world when an active opposition movement is in progress. This is why the latest political development in Syria could prove to be so significant. Without the internal support from his party, the backing given to Al-Assad from the permanent UN Security Council members of China & Russia becomes ever more farcical. For now, they can hide behind the maxims of ‘stability’, ‘security’ and ‘opposition to regime change’, safe in the knowledge that, having learnt painful lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Nato and the Arab League have no desire for active military intervention in a country with a strong, if hugely unpopular, governing regime and no stable political opposition.

It remains one of the aspects of modern humanity that I find most abhorrent. Our inability to act in a supportive, coherent manner to stop known acts of genocide in foreign countries is, for me, evidence of how far humanity has to left to go before we can call ourselves truly humane. Be it in Rwanda, Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sudan, Sierra Leone or Syria, the facts that those affected are ‘not like us’ or ‘far away’ has no bearing on the suffering endured. This is not the middle of the 20th century, no-one in the outside world knew of the atrocities committed in German death camps during WW2 or the forced labour camps in Kampuchea (Cambodia) until well after the events, there was no opportunity to prevent them in action. Now the information and communication technology exists to make the world aware of what is happening almost instantaneously. Even when the incumbent government shuts down communication networks, getting an arresting grip on the slippery multi media messages coming out from any conflict zone is now impossible, some will always squeeze out. To what end? So politicians can sit around for months debating ‘sanctions’ and ‘non-lethal aid’ or ‘peace-keeping missions’. Even these insipid measures take months if not years to occur, yet when they do they achieve nothing. The records are littered with cases of victims being murdered in clear view of UN soldiers with no fear of reprisal because of the pathetic terms of engagement given to the soldiers, in some cases not even allowed to return fire when engaged.

Please don’t mistake me for a war-monger. I am always opposed to unnecessary military conflict, it is the inability of the international community to reach a consensus on a positive course of action that I find so frustrating. It is clear to all what is wrong, we all know it must be stopped. It is not so much the wrong action we need be so scared of, no action in these instances is the worst course. Iraq is not to be seen in this way, Saddam Hussein was, despite his reputation, not in the active process of eliminating whole sections of society opposed to his rule. He may have been portrayed as a threat to democracy but this was not, in my opinion, enough to justify his removal.

I do not want any military intervention in Syria but I do think the international community could do far more to prevent further violence. It is understandable that China & Russia would want to stop the UN preventing the brutal oppression of a dissenting of rebellious movement, after all they want to be able to continue to do the same to their own domestic opposition. It is the construct of the UN Security Council that is to blame. Too much emphasis is placed in universal consensus and power invested in vetoes by the permanent members. One of the purposes of the UN is to prevent rogue states from doing as they please without repercussions. If a dictator knows that getting China or Russia onside grants you the equivalent of immunity from prosecution, why would they worry? It is the overly hierarchical bureaucracy of the UN that slows its effectiveness, it is democratic compromise rather than universal endorsement or veto that will affect a solution to worldwide problems.

None of what I write can help the people suffering on the ground in Syria, my blogging is just another part of the diplomatic waffling that only serves to lengthen the process of helping the victims. Until people start to realise that not only are all the people of the world deserving of a basic standard of living, that not only should the leaders of other countries opinions be equal but also that their own opinion is of no more import than that of any others will the principles behind the founding of the UN be truly implementable.

Hopefully, the Al-Assad regime will realise the futility of their current position and start a strategic withdrawal from power without foreign military intervention but I fear there will be much more blood spilt before then. This blood will be on the hands of all politicians and political lobbyists around the world who believe that their opinion is, because of their financial or military power, more valid than any others who disagree.

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

 Voltaire

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All Morality Is Relative

I think the starting point in a piece like this should include a definition of what is meant by ‘relative morality’. To me the term encompasses a belief that what one person believes to be morally right cannot be proven to be morally wrong by another because it would involve nullifying the first persons belief system. This allows the acceptance of judicially sanctioned torture and mutilation in foreign cultures without condemnation on the basis that we cannot know any fundamental ‘truths’ about morality, that every person or state’s individual morality is equally valid.

I do not think this is a sustainable point of view in the modern world where, due to worldwide media and globalisation, we all occupy the same global space and time. This is not the same as a refusal to condemn the murderous and barbaric acts of much of the European nobility during the middle ages, the rulers of those times had no access to the moral education available in more modern times. We all know now that religious persecution is wrong but there is a huge difference between the execution of Socrates for impiety (among other things) in classical Athens and the execution (often public) of an apostate in a modern Arabic country (or indeed the media character assassinations of ‘unbelievers’ by irrational sensationalist journalists who know better but choose to forsake their ‘Christian’ morality to get better copy).

The opposing view to moral relativism is known as ‘absolute morality’, which, to me, is defined by the belief that actions and beliefs are always either wrong or right independent of the contexts of culture, time or emotion. We all, from whatever cultural background, believe murder to be wrong; this is often used as evidence for ‘god-given’ morality, how could so many nations and cultures share the same moral notions without a divine cause?

As it turns out, quite easily. My dog is quite large and powerful, he would easily be capable of killing other, smaller dogs if he so wished, I have never trained him not to and he is not (as far as I know) religious, yet he is yet to so much as bare his teeth at another dog. Even dogs that are naturally aggressive will not kill other dogs without provocation and/or training, did god give them that morality? He must also then have given my cat the moral compass that allows him to catch a mouse and play with it until it eventually dies of fright, maybe god allows torture for fun but not murder.

Despite the bestial tangent, there are a number of holes in the argument for the kind of god-given absolute morality preached by so many modern Christians seeking to combat the inevitable social liberalism that comes with scientific advancement (independent documentary evidence backing up bigoted beliefs is hard to come by). Firstly, if this morality is truly absolute, unchanging with time or context and given by god, why are there so many biblical tales of apparently ‘righteous’ men doing terrible things that we would today find abhorrent? Lot seems to have been quite willing to offer up his two daughters for gang rape as long as his guests (who he did not at the time know to be angels) were spared the same ordeal. Despite Jesus’ calls later for us to honour our mother and father, it is not hard to see why a child of Lot could become a sexual deviant as shown by their later incest. Joshua commits a string of heinous war crimes that amount to genocide and the ethnic cleansing of an entire nation on the basis or religion and race, which were (at the time) interchangeable due to the prohibition of intermarriage. Many of the laws and punishments given in the early chapters of the bible would be considered horrendous by modern standards, yet they were apparently gifted by god to his ‘chosen people’. How fair, true or ‘moral’ could these laws have been if we are told by a controversial later Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth that the greatest commandment was the love of god and the so-called ‘golden rule’ or treating others as you would wish they treat you (I’m guessing god forgot to tell Joshua that last bit, or maybe he changed his mind later). Jesus also tells us that enforcers of the law must themselves be ‘without sin’, which seems to have gone unheeded throughout history; that charging interest on loans or money exchange is wrong, a belief understandable without a modern knowledge of economic inflation; forgiveness, asceticism and humility feature in all four of the Gospels although they seem to be much less popular with the organised church at large yet he seems to have been peculiarly quiet on homosexuality, despite the modern Christian obsession with the topic.

It seems to me, an outsider from Christianity (although formerly a church-going, confirmed Anglican, believer) that despite the name ‘Christian’, the belief system of most of the followers of Christ since the establishment of the orthodox early church in the 4th century C.E. have owed more to the teachings of St Paul and the Torah rather than the Gospels which seem instead to have been used both as proof of the miraculous power and the historical authenticity of a man for whom we have very little other evidence.

Despite the clear problems with a belief in an absolute morality prescribed by god, the arguments between absolute and relative morality are not confined to the religious sphere. Many atheists are not, as some would have you believe, true moral relativists. Many modern humanists do believe that there are absolute moral boundaries, they just tend to have differing opinions to religious groups as to where these boundaries are.

I do not think this is the end of the story however. I believe that these ‘absolutes’ are not truly absolute. They can and do move with time, they are in a constant state of flux, affected and moulded by us just as we are moulded by them. Until fairly recently in Europe and still in most of the rest of the world, homosexuality was and is socially unacceptable and/or illegal. What has changed our value system to permit this behaviour in modern Britain? With the gradual relaxation of religious orthodoxy in previous centuries the level of tolerance in the general population progressively increased and a sense of ‘live and let live’ came to pass. Eventually it became clear that allowing those previously known as sexual deviants to fully participate in society was of detriment to nobody and most of us now wonder what all the fuss was about. This has made Britain a better place to live, constant hatred and persecution on the basis that god may have said it to someone thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago cannot be of any benefit to anyone.

Our morality is exactly that, ours. Not ours to choose, not consciously anyway, its is ours because it is both unique to us and uniquely made by us. All our societal knowledge and experience, our successes and failures, our fears and hopes all pooled together and shared through the new media. Just as a person entering middle-age often mellows with their accretion of wisdom, so too should humanity as a whole. Despite the ‘mid life crisis’ being experienced by religious zealots worldwide, there can be no going-back on this. Pandora’s box is indeed open and no amount of pious screeching will make me disbelieve what I know to be right.

All morality is absolutely relative.

This is a follow-up to a previous piece – “The True Origins Of Morality” – http://wp.me/p1TXXQ-2N

Thanks for reading.

Rowan

Economic Sanctions Will Not (And Cannot) Work In Iran.

The aftermath of the “1st Gulf War” of the early 1990s was the first time I remember hearing the phrase “Economic Sanctions”, which were to be used against the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, with the intention of pressurising the then dictator, Saddam Hussein into cooperation with UN weapons inspectors. At that time I was in my early teens with a still highly idealised and polarised world view, the cold war with its threat of nuclear oblivion was still fresh in the collective memory and the modern financial superpowers of China, India and their smaller neighbours were still thought of as stagnant economic backwaters. The continued dominance of Western industrial imperialism seemed unstoppable, communism had fallen in almost all of Eastern Europe and the devastating military power of NATO had just been in evidence. It seemed to us that the only way to power and success was by working with the West, that fighting was futile and could only postpone the inevitable fall. The political opinion of the time (having just witnessed the events following the fall of the Berlin Wall) was that large-scale military conflict would be no longer necessary, that external political pressure and internal civil unrest would be the modern, safer (for the West) and cheaper (for the West) way to wage regime changing wars. It was on this background that economic sanctions were proposed and agreed against Iraq. Knowing that the Iraqi economy was (and still is) highly dependant on the export of crude oil to the Western powers who would be implementing the sanctions, the collective opinion in the UN was that Saddam Hussein would be forced to cooperate with the weapons inspectors or risk losing power completely in a violet coup d’état brought on by the impoverishment of the civilian population.

As we know, this is not how it happened.

While it is unquestionably true that economic sanctions on a country such as Iraq in the 1990s can and often do have the effect of reducing their power on the world stage by crushing the financial muscle available to them and driving their economic development backwards, the supposition that this is probable or even likely to lead to inevitable rebellion and regime change is at best questionable. Crippling the economy of a rebel state may make its leader unpopular with its population but the financial losses imposed upon Iraq led to a humanitarian crises with a disputed but huge number of children and vulnerable adults dying or being severely affected by malnutrition and a lack of both clean water and medical supplies (between 200,000 and 500,000 child deaths), the per capita yearly income in Iraq fell from over $3,500 to less than $450 in the years leading up to 1996. The outside world was not unaffected by the suffering caused by the sanctions and various UN resolutions were passed allowing Iraq to trade crude oil in return for humanitarian aid. However, while much aid was bought using this system, it all had to come through centralised government agencies, further strengthening the dictator’s control over his people and making civil unrest (let alone open rebellion) nearly impossible. Without Saddam Hussein’s blessing, the populace of many areas would have starved to death, they were simply not strong enough to even consider a popular uprising. The sanctions had not just failed in their attempts to get Iraq to tow the line and cooperate with the UN resolutions, they had caused millions of ordinary Iraqis pain, misery and suffering, while further reinforcing the vice like grip Saddam held over the country.

Now the new fear, as perceived by Western governments, is the proliferation of nuclear armaments spreading to Iran, a volatile theocracy openly opposed to “Western Imperialism” and the state of Israel (also a nuclear power). This opposition is not without cause, the Western backed Shah of Iran was openly put in place following the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry by a democratically elected government. The Shah went on to be increasingly autocratic and brutal becoming ever more unpopular until the islamic revolution of 1979. Western governments have almost all been unilaterally opposed to the government in Tehran since this time and mistrust of Western governmental policy has become embedded in the political structure of the country. Despite Iran’s protestations that their nuclear programme is wholly for civilian purposes, it is widely recognised throughout the international community that the level of uranium enrichment being pursued could easily result in the manufacture of weaponry; combined with the use of Iran’s domestically produced missiles, a large number of countries could theoretically become vulnerable to attack.

However, despite the continued hostility of the Iranian government towards the West, when asked (in confidence) many citizens will express a belief in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the US. The general population in large Iranian cities like Tehran live highly modernised lifestyles, compared to the states surrounding them (due mostly to revenues provided rom state oil exports) and have much more political and expressive freedom than most islamic states (partly due to the differences between Shiite & Sunni attitudes to discussion). Contrast this to Pakistan (a current nuclear power) where scenes of celebration following the September-11-2001 attacks were broadcast worldwide, large sections of the country are under tribal rule and corruption is rife throughout both the military and political establishments. It is however, a democracy which, although unstable, has a stated (though not always actioned) aim of aiding Western military forces in their pursuit of the Taliban and other religious fundamentalist and fanatical organisations hostile to Western involvement in Islamic politics.

We have recently seen various military maneuvers in and around the strait of Hormuz both by the Iranians demonstrating that they could close it and the Americans showing that they could keep it open. Given the stated Iranian military aim of deterrent rather than engagement and the American desire to sustain stability in the region I don’t believe that this posturing and flexing of muscles is likely to come to anything more than slightly heightened tensions between neighbours. The idea that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be used as any more than almost all have them have ever been used for (a deterrent) I find equally implausible. The Iranian government may be theocratic but they are not suicidal. Neither are they genocidal, whatever you might hear in loaded news reports. The only overtly aggressive statement to come out of Tehran in recent years was the highly dubious Farsi translation of a speech by President Ahmadinejad when he appeared to predict the elimination of the Israeli government, although he did not say how or when. Given that the president is not the “Supreme Ruler” and the verbally belligerent yet reluctantly pragmatic approach normally taken by such states in foreign affairs, a nuclear Iran could well be a stabilising influence on the region to counterbalance the military and diplomatic power of Israel.

It should also not be forgotten that nearly 60% of all Iran’s exports go to China, India, Japan and South Korea, not Europe and North America. With these figures set to rise as the Eastern economies grow more rapidly than their Western counterparts, stricter restriction on oil exports to the West will most likely result in strengthening bonds between Iran and the Far East, further loosening any controlling influence Western governments may feel they have in the region.

It is my belief that only by engaging with states like Iran on an equal diplomatic basis rather than treating them like errant teenagers needing to be ostracised from the community can stability, peace and equitable, sustainable development be achieved, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world. I do not mean in a Kissinger “Realpolitik”, condescending way just to deal with them because one has to. Treating another’s opinions or values as equal and as valid as yours is fundamental to a belief in democracy and free speech. Persuasion and debate through the use of evidence are the only tools needed here, not intimidation and coercion with threats of force. We should not be surprised if others are offended and defend themselves aggressively if they perceive us as aggressors trying to change them forcibly, if we listen we’ll probably see that most of us want the same things in life, just wrapped up a little differently.

Thanks for Reading

Rowan

Is there an alternative to Capitalism?

Am I the only one getting thoroughly sick and tired of the protesters in front of St Paul’s Cathedral? I get their point, they think life in a capitalist system is unfair and should be made more fair. Yeah great, any suggestions about what a better system than capitalism is? No? What a fucking surprise.

The Church of England is not, at least in principle, in favour of huge profits by either individuals or corporations (except themselves, they do have a large portfolio of stocks in the FTSE). When stopped by the police from entering the London Stock Exchange, the protesters decided to block the entrance to probably the only organisation in the local area not wholly obsessed with profit at any cost. A bit of a PR coup really, even if it was an accident, as the general public are more likely to care about the obstruction of a church of a god than a church of money. One major thing they seem to have overlooked (a fact which seems to be overlooked by most modern protesters) is the provision of a viable alternative.

In 2003 when many people marched throughout Europe to show their displeasure with the planned invasion of Iraq, the alternative was to not invade. Whatever your personal views on the invasion, not invading was always a valid option and was given as the chosen alternative by the protesters in that movement. In more recent times, many protests have been due to economic circumstances. From university tuition fees to public sector pensions, today’s protesters all seem to have the same message. “It’s not fair” and not much else other than to say that another way should be found. This is not an alternative, none of the major political parties have viable options due to the current hamstrung nature of the public purse, there simply isn’t enough money in the treasury for students or public sector employees to be given special treatment anymore. All that seems to come out of the current protest camps are a variety of ways of telling us “it’s not fair”, “it” being capitalism or at least life under a capitalist system. I have yet to hear anyone give a viable alternative or to even explain what they mean by “capitalism”. As far as I can make out, it was the removal of knowledge in the marketplace by obscuring the products for sale that caused much of the financial distress being seen now.

Imagine a farm produce wholesale marketplace. All the producers have their wares on show and you are free to barter with them for the prices you will be prepared to pay. You can see and touch the produce, you can tell the quality and know what it will be worth to you once purchased. However, as time goes by some producers start to pre-package their products, making it very difficult to tell the quality of the goods before purchase. Not only that but you cannot even open the box after purchase because you will be re-selling it on to another dealer with the eventual owner only knowing the quality when it is too late to do anything about it, you only have the word of the producer to go on for any knowledge as to the quality of the product. With no checks on the producers, is it any wonder this modern-day version of Jack’s magic beans economics failed? Whatever anyone tells you, this is not capitalism. Blocking the workings of Adam Smith’s invisible hand by making the marketplace opaque not only prevents free access to the markets by those who do not understand the jargon or etiquette of the stock exchange, it limits the scope of the free market system. Poor products will not sell well at a fish market, why should their stocks rise in the FTSE? True capitalism may be inherently unstable and volatile but as long as transparency is maintained, long-term rises in stocks with no worth (and slow falls in valuable stocks) will be kept to a minimum. It is not less capitalism that is the solution, it is more freedom, transparency and accountability in the marketplace that can return us to economic growth.

Whatever you hear the protesters say, we are all better off in many ways than our parents generation. They in turn were better off than their parents and so on. This is not only in terms of material consumer goods such as cars or televisions (although many of these, such as washing machines or dishwashers, could be said to have improved the lifestyles of their users) but also in terms of working hours and conditions (including paid holiday, much safer working practices and conditions, minimum wage etc), higher life expectancy both in terms of quantity and quality (retirees going on activity holidays would have been unheard of decades ago) and also in the education and freedom of career choice available to the modern school/university leaver. In the early part of the last century many men and indeed children worked in mines, dangerous factories and other industrial sites. Regardless of the education received at your local school, you where unable to choose a career, it was provided by the local works, you did what your father did, you were unskilled and could work nowhere else, hence the fear felt by many of these communities when the global market made many of these works unprofitable and left them out of work. Instead of seeing the opportunity provided by these closures, many sought in vain to stop them by protest, making the situation for their communities worse. Embracing the changes in the modern world and changing with it, rather than fighting to hold back the tide, is the only way forward today. We can all be better off by using the free market to better our own situations, trying to halt globalisation can only work against you, resulting in you been left behind those who have chosen to press forward into modernity.

The only examples of non-capitalist policies given by the current protesters that I have heard have included using co-operative banks or shopping at The John Lewis Partnership. These companies exist inside the capitalist system not outside and are subject to all the same forces, unless you force people to run companies in this way, many will not choose them. Given that many of these people seem to not be in full-time employment (or at least don’t have to go to a permanent place of work every weekday), they shop at John Lewis & Waitrose and use banks which are more expensive to the users than most on the high street, I presume they are not those most at risk from the ravages of this inhumane capitalist system. Without the modern economic booms of the late 1980s and early 2000s I doubt if many of them would be in a situation to afford to protest in this way.

The continual flow of population from states with restrictive economic policies to those with higher levels of economic freedom is evidence enough that living in these kind of nations is not popular with those who have no choice in the matter. From Cuba to the former Soviet Bloc to South-East Asia, the general populace have never been happy to live under repressive, far-left regimes. Fully socialist or communist states have never been (and can never be) maintained inside democratic systems, people will always want more freedom to choose.

Scandinavian countries so-called social-democractic polices are often touted as a kind of “3rd way” in between the extremes of capitalism and socialism. The results of their policies are plain for all to see: high GDP, high human development index scores and low Gini coefficient all sound almost too good to be true. There are however certain factors which have helped them (especially Norway & Sweden). Being generally sparsely populated, often mountainous and forested has given them easy access to sustainable timber, hydro-electric & geo-thermal power, iron-ore and other minerals. Fertile fishing grounds and the discovery of North Sea oil & gas when combined with their relatively low population have also helped boost their ability to fund large welfare states, resources that are simply not available in the levels required to most Western European states. Restrictive immigration policies (until recently) and a lack of former imperial colonies contributed to high levels of social homogeneity. This, combined with some of the freest movement of labour in Europe (hiring and firing is surprisingly easy for such ‘left-wing’ governments) has hindered the abuse of the welfare state so often seen in this country. Other than high tax rates and some nationalised industries, their economies are free-market based with emphasis on foreign exports of both natural resources and high-end technology. High levels of population density, a relative scarcity of natural resources and a pre-existing welfare dependency culture mean that these models cannot be copied into the UK wholesale and although there are aspects that could be adopted they would, despite their long-term benefits, be expensive to implement and would increase the expense of government borrowing in the short-term.

In both the long and short-term, I can see no viable alternative to free-market economic policy. It remains to be seen how much state intervention is necessary or desirable to maintain (or start) growth and prosperity while continuing our inevitable progress toward human health and happiness. My own feelings are that people and companies should be left to trade as best they can with as little government intervention as possible. Laws and policies that ensure free trade and equality of opportunity can, in my opinion, only ever be good but laws that restrict these freedoms should always be avoided.

“It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.”
 
“No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”
 
“There can be no liberty unless there is economic liberty.”
 
– Margaret Thatcher
 
 
Thanks for reading
 
Rowan
 
All comments are welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can

Sack the Lazy

This week we hear of a leaked report, commissioned by Downing Street, recommending the laws on unfair dismissal being reformed in order that lazy or unproductive employees can be dismissed by their employers easier, freeing up space in the jobs market for more productive workers.

The usual suspects are out, showing off their dyed-in-the wool tribal loyalties, the unions have described the report as“profoundly unjust” and attacked the report as showing the true face of the “Nasty” Tories.

Despite being self-employed now, I have previously worked in several workplaces and job roles, from stacking shelves in supermarkets to scanning documents in offices to installing telephone points in customer’s homes. In each of these jobs, we all knew who the good workers were and who were the slackers. They also knew that we knew, the bosses knew, even the customer’s could tell when they were dealing with an employee who couldn’t be bothered. This is where we get to the heart of the matter. People won’t be bothered to work hard and be productive if they don’t have to. They won’t be sacked if they spend half the day on Facebook and if the work they do complete is sub-standard due to their being more interested in looking through the  endless email photos of cats dressed as ballerinas with mildly amusing captions rather than concentrating on the fine details of the report they’ve just typed to be sent out to a client, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because they have no fear of being sacked, everyone’s on Facebook all day, sacking someone because of this is victimisation. Singling them out because they aren’t able to cope with their normal workload and tag photos of themselves being sick on Dave’s birthday within the 8 office hours available is just unfair. Work will always miss out, workers will always prefer not to work. It’s good to have a large pile on your desk, it makes you look busy and makes your co-workers less likely to give you more, freeing up still more time for looking at pointless novelty items on Amazon.

What other reason is there for an employer to hire you, than to be productive? Without productivity there can be no job for the employee, no company for the employer and no product or service for the customer or client. Following this logic, surely the most important reason for dismissal should be productivity, or rather lack of it, be it directly (that of the employee concerned) or indirectly (the effect the employee concerned has on their fellow employees). Workers in any industry slacking off or coasting at a time when 2.75 million people are registered unemployed seems to me a perfectly valid reason for their dismissal. If there are job seekers who can do a job better than the employees currently at your company, why should you not be able to employ them? Why should you be forced to continue employing staff who are slack and unproductive? Why should a person who has just started a new job (and is therefore likely to be more financially insecure) have less rights in law than a person who has been working at the company for several years (and is therefore more likely to be financially secure)? I am unsure (unless it is to promote borrowing by the longer term employee on the basis that they are more likely to still have their job in the forseeable future).

I am of course not advocating a kind of revolving door policy in any workplace. This will almost always be counter productive, by removing any sort of loyalty an employee may feel towards their employer, one will always promote a kind of ‘may as well be slack for as long as I can as I’ll be sacked soon anyway’ mentality among staff. Treating employees badly will result in the best ones (the ones in demand from other, rival companies) leaving to find work elsewhere, a company with these policies will be left with a workforce consisting of people who cannot get work elsewhere, this is clearly not the way to go about running a business. The other side of this argument is that if an employee is free to move jobs (after a set notice period) in order to improve their pay and/or conditions, why should an employer not be free to change the members of their workforce when it becomes clear that some of their current employees are not working as hard or as well as they should and better or more productive ones have become available?

Of course, there are ways to dismiss staff from your employ if they break certain rules or laws but generally, if an employee does not want to leave, turns up on time, is generally pleasant but continues to do very little work, it is very difficult to find sufficient grounds (using current legislation) for their dismissal, even if there is a queue of qualified applicants from the job centre begging to be given a chance to prove their work ethic. The free movement of labour is one of the fundamental necessities for Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to fully work, ensuring a balance between consumers and producers and, I believe, should not be prevented in its endeavours.

In these times of high inflation, across the board pay-cuts and increasing competition from overseas, as a consumer I want my products and services to be cheap, this means efficient working practices by the companies concerned. One way to improve a companies competitiveness is to ensure productive working practise by its staff, if this means keeping them on their toes with the threat of dismissal for repeatedly wasting company time and resources, I fail to see how this can ever be a bad thing.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can.

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