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

Far-Right Racists Are Just Fundamentalists With Western Names

Whether through the violent extremism of Anders Breivik or the legitimate democratic process used by Marine Le Pen, we are currently witnessing a groundswell in far-right feeling and actions throughout the populace of Western Europe. Many people here feel resentful of the immigrants who have arrived in the past few decades and the governmental policies that allowed them to do so.

I am not a fan of the term ‘far-right’, as it implies that ‘centre-right’ politicians are a little bit racist but not enough to be illegal and that ‘centre-left’ politicians are not. I would much rather the economic and social aspects of politics be separated from the labels ‘left’ and ‘right’. I would put myself on the right economically but the left socially, most people would class me as an economic and social liberal. The irony is that most politicians of the ‘far-right’ appeal to a voter base which is anything but right-wing economically. It is the poor and disenfranchised, those who feel they have more right to a share of a country’s wealth than those who have spent less time in their country who are voting for Geert Wilders. It is not the rich, be they industrialists, bankers, or sport stars that Nick Griffin is appealing to for votes, despite the popular opinion of the political spectrum and its ethnic grouping. The reactionary movements being seen throughout Europe are not ‘far-right’, they are racist and they work by appealing to the base instincts surrounding a fear of ‘otherness’. Lets not forget that the racist element in politics has always been there, as far back as you want to go populations were grouped according to ethnicity. The mass migrations started in the middle to the 20th century from the former colonies to Western Europe brought the general populace face to face with people from other cultures and the results have not always been positive as seen by the 1958 Notting Hill race riots and the rise of movements like the White Defence League, the National Front and the British National Party today. However, it is only in modern times that these types of organisations have become political parties of any note and not been generally supported by open violence against those who they perceive as ‘non-white’.

This is not just about religion or culture. Whereas in the past much talk of immigration was based on broadly ethnic grounds, with the immigrants arriving in a country being highly visible due to their different skin colour from the existing population, now much of the immigrant population is from within Europe, more specifically the EU. Despite the separation between the end of World War II and the late 1980s between East and West, much of Europe has a shared history with religious and cultural practises crossing national borders without impediment. Language and dietary tastes are often the only differences between immigrants from other European nations and the current residents. This has proven to be much more difficult for governments to deal with, the regulations within the EU allow for the free of movement of labour between member states, it is impossible to remain a member of the EU and restrict the movement of other member states’ citizens within one’s own borders. Politicians of mainstream parties have tried to tackle this issue by restricting numbers of immigrants from outside the EU but this has unintended consequences. Many of the immigrants seeking to come and work here from Asia or Africa are highly skilled graduates and therefore of obvious benefit to the economy but many unskilled workers also come illegally (or remain longer than legally allowed), changes to immigration policy alone will not solve this. The majority of immigration between EU member states happened during the boom the mid 2000s, when several former ‘Communist-Bloc’ nations were added,  before the financial collapse of 2008. Those most affected by this immigration were ‘blue-collar’ workers, especially labourers or skilled tradespeople, who found that their prices were often being undercut by the new migrants who had lower overheads by living communally or not having to support families. It is these people who find the appeal of the ‘far-right’ parties most powerful, although their feelings towards the immigrant population is not unlike that felt by the Luddites of the 19th century towards the mechanised working practises of the industrial revolution.

Some may see a correlation between the rise of the ‘far-right’ across Europe and the rise of fundamentalist Islamic ideologies throughout the world, especially among 2nd or 3rd generation immigrant muslims in Europe, as evidenced by the public transport bombings in Madrid and London following the invasion of Iraq. While it may be true that some have a ‘I hate them coz they hate us’ attitude, it should not be forgotten that the causes of fundamentalist ideological groups are almost identical to the causes of the ‘far-right’ political movements opposing them. The overriding fear of losing one’s way of life, feeling ostracised from your local or national community and a feeling of persecution by foreign powers can drive people to commit horrendous acts, as we have seen throughout history via revolutionary wars and the fall of colonialism. Whether those feelings are caused, in the modern world, by immigration, foreign policy or global capitalism, the effects are the same. People feel that the only way to maintain the way of life they enjoy or believe is ‘right’ is by violent opposition to any change, especially change proposed by or for the benefit of those who they see as ‘other’ or ‘different’ from themselves. This sentiment is evident currently in the French election campaign, with the Front National party led by Marine Le Pen pledging to virtually stop immigration and pull out of the single currency if elected, following the European parliament’s decision to limit member states’ budget deficits. These type of feelings are rooted in the fear of the unknown which is present in everyone but they are truly irrational. Why would the European parliament want to weaken the economy of an EU member state? Disagreeing with governmental policy is not the same as knowing they are ‘out to get you’, there is no ‘master plan’ of European ministers, socially engineering the nationality and culture out of all EU citizens, there are just people trying to do what they feel is right, trying to make the best of a bad financial situation.

I think the current economic situation is highly relevant to this situation, with people not only having less spending power due to wage inflation lagging behind the increases in the cost of living, help that people previously had from public bodies is decreasing due to the lack of available funds. The perceived injustices created by the myths perpetrated by certain sections of the media (immigrants do not, for example get preferential treatment in social housing) that could be tolerated during times of plenty, have come to a head with many people believing that allowing people from poorer countries to live and work here is not only an affront to those born in their country of residence but that it is also a major factor in the privations now being felt. That many immigrants work jobs often unwanted by the local population into which they move, continue to pay taxes while being unable to access the benefits afforded to those who are work-shy or benefit dependant seems to be regularly ignored.

How then, to solve the problems (if you see them as problems, which I do) of the feelings causing this divisive drive?

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”
 – Abraham Lincoln

There is a difference, in my opinion, between diversity and multiculturalism. Diversity does not affect how people interact with each other, it is the objective aim of good governmental policy, rather than the policy itself. Multiculturalism, is the governmental policy that has failed in this aim. It is the policy of preserving individual cultures by keeping them separate from each other, ghettoising whole communities, forcing them to become even more insular. In a diverse, cosmopolitan city such as London, multiculturalism can never work because the density of the population forces some overflow into the surrounding areas but with multiculturalism still at the heart of much local and national government policy, it can only ever happen at the fringes. This causes resentment as people see their neighbours change and now living in ‘white’ or ‘British’ pockets feel isolated and resentful towards their new neighbours, who they feel are ‘swamping’ the area and the new residents turn to what they know, their own culture, exacerbating the problem. As is so often the case, education would appear to be a solution on many levels. If a person from an immigrant background becomes educated, they often want more from their lives than can be offered by staying in the areas the grew up in, driving them to integrate fully into wider society. This is also the case with those at risk of becoming ‘far-right’ sympathisers or even voters. Sadly this does not happen often enough.

This does not mean I want the whole of Europe to become some kind of huge homogenous cultural and ethnic blob with no differences between people but that with experience of other people comes understanding. I wouldn’t want to go back to 1950 when shops didn’t sell pasta or rice, nobody knew what a curry was or how to hold chopsticks and the closest most people got to another country was the seaside. Nor should you.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Big Gay Bus? Or Ex-Big Gay Bus?

I woke up the radio news this morning to learn of a London bus advert that has been banned by TFL (Transport for London). If you’re in Britain you may already know about it but if you haven’t yet heard you can read the story from the bbc here. In summary, an advert from an organisation claiming to be able to ‘cure gayness’ has been banned for being offensive. This is the text (capitals intended as on the advert) that was to be printed down the side of the buses:

“NOT GAY! EX-GAY, POST-GAY AND PROUD. GET OVER IT.”

It was meant as a response to (and copied the style of) the advert by Stonewall, the LGBT charity which, since 1st April has 1000 buses with this on the side:

“SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT.”

My initial reaction to the story was, ‘good, I can’t believe they thought it was ok to say stuff like that in public’ and I still feel like that. The sentiments behind the ad, although not explicitly printed on it, are that homosexuality is some sort of mental illness or disease that can be cured through therapy. That is what the group who put the advert forward, Core Issues Trust, promote:

“CORE is a non-profit Christian initiative seeking to support men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression”

Clearly with a mission statement like that, I think we should be wary about promoting their adverts. However, there is a part of me that is uneasy with the banning of any advert merely on the basis of it being offensive to some people. It is, after all, not obscene, crude or crass. This is a topic over which two of my most strongly held beliefs, freedom of speech and freedom from prejudice, are in direct opposition with each other. That the advert is offensive and designed to be so is not in question, that it is designed to cause controversy and promote discussion is also clear. The same could also be said of the humanist ‘there probably is no god…’ bus advert from a few years ago, yet that was not banned. Should these groups be free to express their views in public forums? My ‘freedom of speech’ head tells me yes, one cannot claim to live in a free society without having to listen to opinions one thoroughly disagrees with, just as those who disagree with me should not be able to silence me for the same reasons. My ‘freedom from prejudice’ head tells me no, you cannot allow those among us who have such horrendously outdated, divisive and bigoted views to promote the concept of homosexuality as something that is to be cured, akin to drug addiction or gambling.

Is it the subject matter that’s the difference between this and the humanist advert? What if the British National Party wanted to run an ad campaign based on race? ‘Stop being so Black’ or ‘Asians should be in Asia’ ? This, I think, would attract nearly unanimous negative attention and would certainly be banned, rightly. There are fundamental differences between ethnicity, sexuality and religion. While I don’t personally believe that religion is a true ‘choice’ in the same way as a political vote, it is certainly a lot closer to choice than ethnicity, over which one has not control whatever or sexuality, where the only choice is whether or not to practise. A person can choose to learn about different religions and beliefs and may well change their views with age. Openly projected sexuality may change with age but it is normally a ‘coming out’ experience from a repressed position rather than some sort of ‘switch’. Prejudices on any grounds have no place in the public sphere but debates over the subjects of the prejudices can be welcome. It is when the subject is a matter over which one has no control, that the debates become unwanted, unwarranted and often truly offensive, this is where the metaphorical ‘line in the sand’ is drawn in many people’s minds.

I think the difference between the adverts in the news today and the humanist campaign from a few years ago is the sentiments behind them. The humanists did not openly criticise anyone in society who believed in god or attended any religious congregation, they merely pointed out their own beliefs. They did not attempt to lure people into an atheistic ‘conversion’ or even assert that one belief system was better than the other, only that you shouldn’t worry if yours doesn’t quite match up to what people expect of you. The advert by CORE, on the other hand, is directly aimed an already victimized section of society. A minority who, despite recent advances, still face prejudice and persecution from many vocal and sometimes violent members of our society.

Do I believe in free speech? Yes, of course. Do I believe in untrammelled freedom of speech? Yes, but not on the side of a public bus. I believe that I (or anyone else) should be free to say whatever I think using certain mediums, public buses are not one of them. In short, the demography of the readership and their sensibilities do need to be taken into account. Thats not to say that all public adverts and promotions should be mundane or banal but there is a balance to be found and I believe Boris has found it on this topic.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

I’d love to hear some of your comments and opinions on this as I’m not fully committed either way.

God Does Not Own Marriage

Today marks the beginning of a 12-week consultation on the introduction of same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Since 2005, same-sex couple have had the option of a ‘civil partnership’ with some of the same but not all the legal rights given to married couples. The proposed legislation would make no distinction between any married couple of whatever gender mix. It would also allow currently married people to legally change their gender but would not allow same-sex marriage in any religious ceremony.

As expected, all the usual church spokespeople have been screaming their bigoted bile about this ‘grotesque’ plan which, they say will ‘shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world’ and ‘undermine the traditional idea of the family’. Given that none of these ceremonies will be held in churches, I’m not really sure what it has to do with them.

When I married my wife in 2007, we were forbidden from using any religious text as a reading during the ceremony,. Despite the passage we wanted having no reference to any ‘god’, we were not allowed to use it because it was from the bible. This is due to an archaic law introduced when civil marriage ceremonies first started, separating entirely civil marriage from religious while keeping them equal in law. This separation was to allow people who were not Anglican to marry legally in the UK, recognising that many of the citizens of the time were not of that denomination and that people should have the legal freedom to be equal in the law while maintaining their freedom of religion. I think most people would agree that this is right, I’m not really sure how many people could have too many objections. If you follow that principle through, one cannot allow same-sex couples to exist without giving them the right to marry.

I personally have 2 issues with the proposed legislation

  1. Not allowing same-sex couples to participate in religious marriage ceremonies is, in my opinion, hostile to both religious freedom and freedom of sexual orientation. If a religious body wishes to conduct a ceremony for a same-sex couple that it is allowed to conduct for a couple of differing sexes, I can see no reason for not allowing them to if that ceremony is recognised by law when conducted in a registry office.
  2. If same-sex marriage becomes legal, I can see no purpose for keeping the civil partnership scheme currently available to same-sex couples, especially if the option is not available for couples of differing sexes.

Both the Catholic and Anglican churches seem to have a massive problem with the idea that same-sex couples should be allowed the same legal rights as those of differing sexes, their reasoning seems to be based on the idea that marriage is in itself some sort of ‘gift from god’. It’s not as if nobody got married before Jesus, plenty of pagans had the idea of 1 woman, 1 man – together for life etc, well before anyone outside the Levant had ever heard of Moses and his laws. Despite the monopoly granted to state approved churches during the dark ages, the concept of a lifelong joining of a couple in love really has little to do with any religion. The idea that the Roman Catholic church, which banned its priests from marrying to avoid having to make payments to widows, should have a say in who may and who may not make a public and legally binding declaration of their love for each other, is frankly laughable.

I’m not sure how allowing more people to marry will ‘change its meaning in law…will have a knock-on effect in everyday life’. What knock-on effect would that be then? More people feeling a part of mainstream society rather than excluded outcasts? More stable long-term relationships between equal partners? What exactly are they scared of? Are they worried about their congregations ‘turning’ gay and eloping to the registry office? Do they really think that allowing same-sex couples to marry will make more people ‘turn’ gay? As for its meaning changing in law, it is now rightly illegal to discriminate between the sexes on almost any grounds, why should marriage be any different? Either we’re all equal or we’re not, I think we should be.

Of course what the religious figures we hear on this matter are really scared of is losing the ever fading power over their flock. The idea that people are thinking for themselves and coming to different conclusions than those set down in a set of rules imagined by bronze age shepherds before being rewritten and reinterpreted to strengthen the grip of the current incumbent power of the day is, to those in positions of religious power, abhorrent. Any change in the law that allows people who are not religious to live a lifestyle without the need for approval by religious authority will always be (and has always been) opposed by the members of that religion.

After stripping back all the hatred and homophobia, what the issue rarely comes down to is equality. Do you think that people who have a different lifestyle to the majority should be granted the same rights as the majority? Or do you think that being in love with a person many people disapprove of should prevent you from access to the legal benefits that are accorded to those who happen to be lucky enough to love a person many people approve of?

The concept of a lifelong union between humans has probably been around longer than any organised religious belief and is certainly far older than any monotheistic system. They may have embraced marriage and incorporated it into their own dogma but it gives them no right to issue diktats over who it applies to, certainly no power over democratically elected governments, the voters who elected them or a peaceful minority who want nothing other than to be treated equally.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Can Assad Hold Back The Arab Spring Tide In Syria?

More than a year since the start of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ it has become clear that the predicted collapse of the numerous dictatorships throughout North Africa and the Middle East will not be happening at the pace some had hoped. It certainly has not happened in the same way the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe changed in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. With hindsight, it is clear why this could not have been the case. Almost all (Yugoslavia excepted) of communist Europe relied heavily on the central authority of Moscow for military, security and financial support, as was shown by the responses to various popular uprisings in the 1950s and1960s, most notably Hungary in the Autumn of 1956. This created an atmosphere of mistrust among the citizens of the country, with the state feeling no need to curry popular support from any section of society. With the start of Perestroika in the USSR during the middle to late 1980s, the governments of Eastern Europe were left with an empowered populace determined to change the status quo and little state power to prevent them. This has not been the story in North Africa and the Middle East. There is no single dominant central power dictating and enforcing policy in the region, much of the income of the region is dependant on the export of natural resources to foreign markets (most notably crude oil) rather than heavy industry, tending to empower an autocratic despot still further by not relying on near full employment levels for economic stability. The history of European communism since the death of Stalin seems to suggest that ruling by committee without an unchallengeable tyrant was the government of choice (Yugoslavia & Romania excepted), this gives greater stability when the state is strong by spreading the strain or pooling resources and loyalties but once cracks appear under severe pressure, the lack of a central authority figure for those in power to gather around can lead to further rifts and fragmentation, possibly precipitating governmental collapse.

However, the overriding factors in the success or fall of governments under popular revolt seem to be:

  1. Does the current government accept there must be a change and will they go without being forced?
  2. Has the current government lost control of the military?
  3. Do the rebels have adequate resources to fight or do they have any outside (foreign) aid?

When we look at this list in this order and compare them with the list of states to have had successful rebellions in the ‘Arab Spring’ and the order in which they fell (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) we can see that as soon as a ‘no’ answer appeared to a question, the government fell. It may seem fairly obvious that if the government has no will or resources to hod on to power they will lose it but it is also quite unusual for those in power to relinquish it easily and not to have contingencies in place to support them, especially within the military.

Clearly, Syria has not reached any of these points yet. Assad will not go anywhere willingly and excepting a few deserters, the majority of the armed forces are still under his control. The international community is wary of supporting a dispersed and disorganised rebel army whose leadership, power and political polices are largely unknown. Currently, the situation appears to be unwinnable for both sides, the uprising is too powerful, numerous and widespread to be crushed by Assad and his government forces but without outside assistance the rebels have little chance against a trained, organised and well equipped army. The current trend in the international community is to look for a peaceful solution based on government reform and more popular representation. However, many of the diplomats pushing these ideas are from The ‘Arab League’, whose membership consists of states who are (in the most part) dictatorships. Clearly instability in the region is bad for all of them but the thought that another of their number could fall victim to a revolutionary movement that still threatens them must surely be a worry. It is stability and peace that concern them, not liberty and justice.

In Libya, the geography and demography of the country made rebel support fairly simple and almost risk free. Almost all the population centres and military installations are near the coast, using modern aircraft carriers and battleships to provide air support for the rebel fighters proved an effective way of removing a largely unpopular dictatorship without the use for ground troops. This could not happen in Syria. With many of the population centres far inland and at altitude, effective air support for untrained guerilla fighters would prove difficult and would be unlikely to succeed without providing active ground troops to support the rebel forces. Given the close political links between Syria and Iran and the incredible worldwide unpopularity of the war in Iraq, ground troops are really not a viable option.

Nor should they be. One of the major failures of Western foreign policy in recent years has been the underlying belief that governments in the developing world should be encouraged, coerced or cajoled into running their economies for the benefit of us rather than their own citizens. The conviction that what is good for them cannot be good for us and vice versa is a long-held misconception that is prevalent in the corridors of power throughout the Western world. The conservative short-termism implicit in this belief is undeniable. Flourishing, developed economies need partners to trade with, the more equal or near-equal trading partners you have the stronger you will all be. Imposing Western-dependant governments, even if those governments are democratically elected, in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan is not a long-term solution. Propping-up pro-Western despots like the Shah in Iran or Mubarak in Egypt may provide temporary stability but only at the expense of long-tem development. Allowing (Egypt) or enabling (Libya) the citizens of a country overthrow their own government and giving them the choice to run their state affairs for their own benefit is the only long-term solution. Much of the political and religious instability and fanaticism throughout the region could be tempered and moderated by fair and equitable development. Treating them as political equals rather than noisy, troublesome peasants who deserve to be tricked into selling their prized assets on unfair terms will only exacerbate the ill-feeling towards the West many of these people feel.

It’s not the decadent, modern lifestyle that we lead that leaves many Arabs feeling resentment towards us. You only have to look at the popularity of many aspects of Western culture and technology throughout the region to see that. Its our arrogant belief that only we deserve it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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

Students should be grateful for what they’ve got

If you were offered the chance to make a no-risk, high-gain, long-term investment, would you? Here are the terms:

  1. No payment up front, someone else will pay the initial fees, you will be billed on account at a very favourable interest rate (far better than you could even hope to get from a bank) and are guaranteed to have no real-term increase in the cost of your initial investment.
  2. You only have to settle the account after the investment has paid off and is generating an income. In fact this investment will not only pay for itself, it will (if it pays off) give you a raised income for the rest of your working life.
  3. If your investment does not work, don’t worry, you don’t have to pay anything at all. All the risk is being taken by other people on this one.
  4. If, after 30 years, you still haven’t paid off the cost of your investment, don’t worry. It will all be written off and you will be debt free with all the benefits of your investment your to take.

I wish I could get a deal like this from my ISA.

This, then is what all the student protests are about. They feel that the investments should just be given out freely to everyone who wants one. That may sound fair to you but is it not right that those students who go on to have high earning careers pay back some of the capital invested in them by the state? After all, is it not them who will see the most benefit from their investment? Nobody is seriously suggesting that all students will have to pay back £27,000 for their 3 years, only those for whom their time at university has been productive and beneficial to their career. Even with a degree, many students would struggle to get a job paying more than the £21,000 a year cut-off with no experience in their chosen sector, meaning they would be paying back precisely nothing. Yeah, really expensive.

 

Lets debunk some myths:

  • What about students from poorer backgrounds who can’t afford the fees?

 As stated above, they won’t have to pay them until they are earning enough to be able to start the repayments. Even once they reach the £21,000 starting point for repayments, the amount being paid back will be tiny, nowhere near enough to cover the full costs. Is paying back £1,000 a year until your early fifties such a huge expense when you will only be billed if you can afford it? Until now fees of over £3,000 a year have had to be paid up-front, surely that is more likely to put off poorer students than the proposed system?

  • What about all the students with rich parents?

 Won’t they have an advantage by being able to pay the fees early and become debt free younger? The current proposals are that early repayment will be possible but will cost you 5% more than the standard contributions taken from a monthly salary. So yes, they will but it will cost them even more, further contributing to the SLC (student loans company) and helping to cover the costs of graduates who have not earnt enough to pay back their fees.

 

The real tragedy of the new scheme has been the systematic mis-reporting taking place throughout the media world and the seeming inability of the so-called ‘future’ (god help us) to find out the truth for themselves. The facts are out there and I cannot see why or how anyone could have even the slightest problem with them, unless they are simply envious of the generation putting these plans in place, a generation who had free access to university. “They had it, why can’t we?” ‘They’ presumably being the MPs running the show. I’ll tell you why, too many people now go to university for the current taxation system to fund them. Hardly anyone went to university 30 years ago, certainly not anyone who wasn’t academically gifted. It must be considered a good thing that the aspirations of an entire generation of ‘working class’ children have been raised to such an extent that they now expect, and are indeed expected, to stay in education until the age of 21. However, the increased costs of educating these people, combined with the costs of supporting them and the loss of their economic input in the workplace between the ages of 16-21 have affected the treasury to an extent that it is no longer viable to keep the old system. A new revenue stream must be found. Although this need not necessarily be directly from the students themselves, if it was from other sources, it would still need to be paid in full by taxation. There’s no getting away from the cold, hard fact that governments have no money of their own. Almost all government funding comes from taxation of different forms, if the government pays for it, we all pay for it. Why should the users who benefit most from the service not pay a bit more than those who benefit less?

One of the positive outcomes proposals I can foresee is the renewal of interest in more academic degrees, especially science and engineering. Why would you pay £27,000 for a degree in ‘History of Art’ or ‘Media Studies’ if it is unlikely to help you in the workplace? There are more degrees awarded in Media Studies each year than there are total jobs in the media nationwide. If you go on to a successful career in another sector your degree costs will still have to be paid back, it must be a better option to choose a degree that endows you with easily transferable skills. True, all degrees give you a certain level of ‘life skills’ that can help you in any job, all the more reason then to ensure your high level of employability by getting as many skills as you can with your degree (assuming of course that your degree is not for a set pre-chosen career path such as medicine or law).

The fundamentals of this argument are that the costs of educating and supporting students throughout their university life will have to be paid by someone. Whether you feel the burden should be spread evenly across the taxpaying public (e.g. NHS) or if you feel the users and beneficiaries of the service should contribute to the costs they create (e.g. Transport infrastructure) is a matter of opinion, unlikely to be swayed by me. What many of the protesting students seem to have missed is the cause of the change in policy. Without having the privileges of university education available to all based on merit rather than family wealth, no change would be necessary. All modern teenagers should be grateful for the wealth of career choices available to them, choices not available during their parents education. You may not want to pay for yourself but don’t confuse having these fees with restricting access.

Remember, it’s a no-lose investment.

Thanks for Reading.

Rowan

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

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
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