All entries for Sunday 08 October 2006

October 08, 2006

In the States, religion is above the law.

There’s a fascinating article in today’s New York Times. Diana Henriques reports on the growing trend for U.S. legislation to have exemption clauses which benefit religious groups over others. For instance, in Alabama, day care centres are subject to rigourous inspections to ensure that children are not being abused. But for no especially good reason, religious-based day care centres are not.

In Boulder County, Colo., the Rocky Mountain Christian Church is using a new federal law to fight a county decision preventing it from expanding on land designated for open space.

In some places, religious organisations are not subject to planning restrictions, meaning they can build in locations that others can not.

The Inland Revenue aggressively investigates all businesses in the U.S. to ensure they are paying their taxes correctly. But not religious organisations, even those that aim to make huge profits. The I.R.S’s ability to investigate these investigations has been limited by legislation.

Religious organizations defend the exemptions as a way to recognize the benefits religious groups have provided operating schools, orphanages, old-age homes and hospitals long before social welfare and education were widely seen as the responsibility of government. But while ministries that run soup kitchens and homeless shelters benefit from these exemptions, secular nonprofits serving the same needy people often do not. And rather than just rewarding charitable works that benefit society, these breaks are equally available to religious organizations that provide no charitable services to anyone.

It’s a brilliant article, and while long, well worth reading to understand who governs the world’s most influential nation.


8.2m less than merry men?

Robin Hood (BBC)

Like John Kentisbeer I was disappointed by last night’s Robin Hood on BBC One. The trailers promised much but the first programme delivered little. There was none of the humour that I’d expected and very little chemistry between Robin and some of the other characters.

Keith Allen was a notable exception when it came to the acting – his Sheriff of Nottingham was very funny and if he’d had the lines to read, would have hit a home run.

But the plot was laboured. Yes, it was an opening episode, with a lot of exposition, but the whole programme plodded along. 8,200,000 watched it (helped by an England match just before it), but I’d be surprised if 7m tuned in next week. Reaction to it seems to have been lukewarm, and the show that promised much, delivered very little.


I Don't Feel Like Dancing

BBC One ident (No, it’s not a reference to the Scissor Sisters’ latest track, but to the end of the fairly poor BBC One idents that have graced our screens for the past four years. When the former BBC One controller, Lorraine Heggessey, introduced the ‘dancers’, no-one much liked them. True, the hot-air balloons that preceded them were slow and didn’t exactly make the channel pacey, but at least they were well shot and easily identifiable as BBC One.

So when Peter Fincham announced the end of the dancers, many believed the only way was up. And they were right.

BBC One presentationThe new idents, based on the theme of a circle, are far better shot than the last batch. Apart from ‘Hippos’, there’s minimal use of CGI, and they’re all in HD. And with the exception of a football-based one, they’re all fantastic. My personal favourites are Surfers, Hippos and Bikes.

As well as this, the general presentation of the channel has changed (left picture). Trailers for upcoming programmes are very nicely done, with a much better graphics effect than the previous – very lazy – shutter effect.

Generally the channel looks a lot nicer, and rather than some meaningless ‘cultural’ idents, we’ve now got something that’s a) nice to look at, and b) has a common theme which gives the channel a much-needed identity which has been missing since the balloons burst.


Why is Foreign Policy so reliant on bombs, not brains?

We have 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of the population. In this situation, our real job in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which permit us to maintain this position of disparity. To do so, we have to dispense with all sentimentality… we should cease thinking about human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation. – George Kennan, US Foreign Policy advisor, 1948

I would characterize current U.S. nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous – Robert McNamara, former US Foreign Policy advisor, 2005

It doesn’t sound like much has changed, then. Foreign policy seems to be the most influential, potentially dangerous and ideologically-divided type of politics, yet it is also the area of politics in which there is the least debate and where elites have the greatest say over our lives. In 2003, the Parliamentary debate on war in Iraq was an unprecedented exercise in debate before destruction. Only because of the incredible pressure put upon the government was there any debate in the Commons. They won because the Conservative opposition wished to play up the divisions in the Labour Party.

Daily Mirror, 6th October 2006The effect of poor foreign policy has been clear to see from the headlines this week. The Muslim population of Britain and other Western countries have been angered not only by the closed world of foreign affairs, but also by the blinkered reporting of it by newspapers, television and radio. Jack Straw’s remarks this week tackled one of those issues denied a hearing because different communities are afraid of stepping on each other’s toes. Henry Porter in the Observer and Martin Kettle in the Guardian both defended some of Straw’s words, while warning of the likely reaction from those who hadn’t read what he actually said in his newspaper article and radio interviews. But the – fairly predictable – reaction to Straw’s comments wasn’t the fault of a nervous Muslim population (in fact most moderate Muslims have shrugged it off), but was the fault of a British population not used to such open discussion of delicate issues. The media doesn’t prepare us for the identification of acceptable difference that is needed in a modern, diverse society where things aren’t only in shades of grey, but in full-blown technicolour. And the media isn’t helped when the government restricts debate of things like the replacement of Trident, nuclear power and our foreign policy generally.

When Tony Blair talks of a ‘roadmap’ for the Middle East, only he and his transatlantic allies seem to know what this roadmap is, and only they helped define it in the first place. There was little discussion here in the UK and in America of what would be required, just as there was little involvement of citizens in Israel and Palestine, and that’s been reflected in the fragility of the process. Similarly, no-one seriously thought to ask what should replace Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and only a few hours was given over to Parliamentary debate about the inevitable invasion.

Jack StrawTo refer back to George Kennan’s remarks in 1948, is it the case that military planning is done without reference to human rights and democracy? Events since 2001 suggest that it could well be. 2,973 people died on 11th September of that year, and the reaction to it has – at least in terms of casualties – been seriously overblown. Iraq Body Count – an independent body – suspects that between 43,799 and 48,639 civilians have been killed in Iraq since 2003, far more than in New York and Washington, and far more than were murdered by Saddam Hussein. Where is morality in this situation? Yes, one can blame the ‘insurgents’, ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’ for many of these deaths, but it is clear that the British and American invasion triggered them.

George Bush does not seem a sentimental man, and Tony Blair does only when he’s performing for the cameras. But has sentimentality gone the same way as informed debate amongst ordinary people and our governments? The past five years and the closed-door world of Western foreign policy suggest that it has.


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