All entries for January 2008

January 31, 2008

No Platform May Be Necessary

Why I hesitantly feel I must agree with last week’s Boar column on No Platform practices against the BNP.

In last week’s Warwick Boar an opinion writer whose name slipped my mind argued strongly in favour of the so-called No Platform policy which in short argues in favour of excluding the British National Party (BNP) from as many public debates as possible: they should not be granted a platform. Rather than being undemocratic voice oppression, the columnist argued, it is in fact the exercise of one’s own democratic rights which eventually help democracy to stay healthy: in a mass democracy as that of the UK, we choose who we want to listen to (i.e. consider relevant), just as much as we welcome some people into our house and keep others out [NB: my metaphor, not his].

Close as it comes to the truth, things are not entirely so: the house, after all, is the UK, and the BNP is already inside. Similarly, as the author already seemed to hint at, BNP radicals will – even in the face of overwhelming counterevidence and refutation – continue to speak their unchanged minds. Perhaps sadly, extremist nationalism is a pocket that will continue to exist in all countries, but we must be realistic, recognise it as such, and act accordingly.

As a convinced democrat and social liberal, I feel all groups in a society must be heard and let others be heard to come to genuine reflections of the democratic will. This is a condition which applies to all groups, and it serves to keep the body politic healthy. However, what the BNP appears to be doing, seems very much like tactics of the communists in central and eastern European countries after the second world war: play a double game of democracy (broad national platforms, cooperation, etc.) on the one hand, and coercion (infiltration, targetting political opponents and eventual subjection of all parties to their will) on the other. A party seeking to place its own agenda above that of democracy must be handled with velvet gloves.

If what the Boar column states is true, extremists affiliated to the BNP have bombed a leftist bookshop in 1993, continue to target vocal opponents on the internet inciting violence against them, and seeking invitation to debates to foster an image of party equality. In this light, the last practice seems suspiciously much like an infiltration technique through seeking a platform: the acceptable tip of an ugly iceberg.

For me, this seems enough not to invite them into my house. This is the way democracy ought to protect itself against extremist protuberances: through watchfulness and civic decency, which does not always means engaging in discussion. Eventually, No Platform stands or falls with the number of people denying the BNP their platform.

January 30, 2008

Being a Refugee

Writing about web page

Refugees along the wayToday I had a workshop on asylum questions in the Coventry Refugee Centre.

We were split into groups and presented with a scenario which we had to elaborate upon. “Imagine the BNP wins the elections in Britain”, it said, “and your situation is no longer safe inside the UK. You decide to flee to Kazakhstan. How would you go about this?”

It seems a pretty absurd question, but with the little training we had had about asylum seekers and their stories, tried to throw ourselves onto the case with as much realism as we could conjure up. And we ran into a lot of trouble even before we had imagined our way out of the country…

Just the following considerations:
- How exactly are you planning to get out of the country (by car, train, boat)? and how quickly?
- Will you fake a passport, try to get out of the country with your existing papers, or try to cross the border illegally? (The first seemed a bit impossible to us, given the hi-tech status of UK passports, the second a bit risky, the third a bit difficult.)
- Where will you go to arrange your way out of the country? (London, Dover, Portsmouth?) And who can you trust?
- What about your wife and children? Can you leave them behind? This seems difficult to feel comfortable with. But fleeing from the country and getting to Kazakhstan with wife and child isn’t easy either.
- How much money do you have at your disposal to pay for people’s (smuggling) services?

From here, a highly complex and stressful picture already comes into existence. And now try to reconcile this with the following likely events upon arrival:

- What will you tell the authorities when you seek asylum? Will you be entirely honest? Will it help your case in front of highly suspicious authorities?
- You will be asked why your documents are fake if they are, and if you can prove your actual identity and nationality. If you do have normal documents, you will be asked how you managed to get out of the country if your situation was under threat?
- They will ask you why you came all the way to Kazakhstan and not to another country? In case you admit to having travelled through other countries before, you will be asked why you didn’t apply for asylum there? (Asylum seekers are obliged to seek asylum in the first safe country they enter.)
- If you let your wife and child follow through a different route, you will be asked why you left them to themselves and did not travel with them? Etc.

After all this, surely we still have no idea what it must be like to be a genuine asylum seeker. An attempt to empathise can only point us in the direction of the experience.

January 29, 2008

Careful Where You Flyer!

Flyers fly around too much...Student promoters go around with bags of flyers and they don’t seem to give a blast where they leave them.

Our Hurst flat is small. Whoever needs to go to the loo, passes by the front door. I find a bunch of pizza flyers half sticking through the letter box. Annoyed I pick them up. When, a half hour later, I open the door for some friends, there’s another pile of wet, sticky flyers. Union events, Battle of the bands, One World Week. All in six-fold of course. They lie on the table for a while until someone throws them away. On the way out to classes the next morning, I also find flyers all over the lawn of Hurst residences.

To me this seems the most wasteful and pointless thing. If the Student’s Union and its Societies were really committed to reducing the paper waste and making sure the campus stays fresh, they would simply leave a flyer – maybe two – in our tiny kitchen, and no worry, all of us will see it all right.

For the moment, I’ll just pick up the leaflets from the grass that a doubly left-handed street team incapable failed to place inside our letter box, unable to believe that those green words are more than mere words.

January 24, 2008

Is Identity Relevant for Citizenship? An Instinctive Approach

Writing the above question down, I feel almost instinctively inclined to say: yes, of course, how can we be citizens if we don’t identify ourselves as such? But what does “identifying with” mean? Three meanings come to my mind: the relationship between me and this citizenship, the relationship between my small group and this citizenship, and the relationship between my small group and other small groups which are also granted this citizenship. Is there enough common ground for us to unite as citizens? Does it serve our interests evenly? Is the language in which this citizenship is defined couched in the words that the other groups feel comfortable with, or have I also had my say, and can identify with its rights and obligations? And then, how much do I need to agree with it, which part of my identity is called upon to identify with my citizenship?

Although “part of my identity” may in fact already appear significantly less instinctive, this certainly isn’t the case. Although we are at all times citizen, we are only so often reminded by it, which means that at all times we are not, our identity must be focussing on something else. It may be with our village, our student community, our group of indie friends or our climbing club mates. It this which is meant by: “multiple identities”, a concept in fact significantly less post-modern than it may at first glance appear to be. More than anything else, looking at the individual as a posessor of multiple identities, we apply on this individual a sophisticated, fluid mechanism, in which points of reference and focus vary in time and space. All of these identities have their own context, and might not even be coherent, or in the most extreme cases even mutually exclusive. In everyday language, this would mean that in some instances, you are something which at other moments, you will have to conceal. Not an ideal situation, of course, and it would seem preferable to possess a set of identities that is roughly referentially coherent. You then become a thing that at every moment reveals another facet, but at least of the same thing.

So citizenship? In a small community, it can require “thick” characteristics of coercion and obligation. In ancient Greece, city officials would walk the streets with a rope drenched in paint to force their citizens to the meeting. In our time, citizenship has tended to focus more on delivering, i.e. rights, than on coercion. Apart from the absolutely necessary (e.g. taxes and public order) it has tended to enforce little. This is a necessity deriving from the sheer size of our conglomerates of citizens (democracies), asking of the state to respect diversity. This citizenship is “thin”, a thing we have tended to praise, as it is a liberal and tends to value the individual.

Unfortunately, although citizenship in the modern state (or in the current EU, for that matter) does not ask of you to walk and talk in line, it’s requirements of identification are reified in no other way than other identities: they require renewal and participation, they need reshaping according to needs of time, and understanding for the diversity across space, to go short, citizenship needs affiliation. When citizens begin to demand without wanting to contribute, the nation state will start to tear. When citizens are asked to affilliate but are effectively barred from participating, the EU will eventually disintegrate.

January 21, 2008

British Peculiarities, Part IX

Part nine of the series. A photo I took in the changing room of the sports centre. Its peculiarity speaks for itself, methinks.


January 18, 2008

Hard Dollars

“The thoughtful man must shortly say, ‘I would as soon leave my son a curse as the almighty dollar’ and admit to himself that it is not the welfare of the children, but family pride, which inspires these enormous legacies.”

As was written down by Andrew Carnegie in 1889, a “great American capitalist” in the words of the Economist.

Where from comes the word dollar? That is what we’re concerned with here. When I was doing editing work for a publication on wages and currency in different historical periods two summers ago, I came across a theory which I from then on always held to be true. The word dollar is an ethymological evolution of the German word Thaler (“from a valley”), a coin which was previously used in Austria and which was then brought to the United States.

I Wiki-ed it (Wikipedia knows everything!) and found that this theory is broadly true, however, the entire history of the word is slightly more complicated and more fun.

First, there was a silvermine in Bohemia called Joachimsthal. Many coins were made from the silver that was dug up, so soon silver coins gained the popular nickname “Joachimsthaler”. Its shorthand, thaler, is found in the names of many old currencies: tolar (Slovenia, already pretty similar to dollar), daler (Norway, Sweden, Denmark) and daalder (the Netherlands). I am not sure of these names in other countries, but what I do know is that the daalder existed as a name up to the introduction of the Euro, and represented 1,50 gulden, it’s cousin the Rijksdaalder being 2,50 gulden.

As often, the Dutch earn a footnote in history on this account. Their Leeuwendaalder (lion’s dollar) was already known across Europe, and they then brought it with them to New Amsterdam, the city which later came to be known as New York. From Bohemia via the Netherlands to the US, and from there all over the world.

The dollar sign ($), however, is said to be to the credit of the Spanish. It might have come from a P written on top of an S, representing the word pesos.

January 17, 2008

It's A Big World

A maxim I thought up today. I call it the policy paradox.

The more an ordinary citizen moves towards a policy maker’s perspective, the more she or he realises that things or not that simple. The more a policy maker moves towards an ordinary citizen’s perpective, the more she or he realises that they actually are.

As always, open for comments.

January 16, 2008

Nederlanders door buitenlandse ogen

Writing about web page

Een beetje druk hier...De gangbare wijsheid is dat God de wereld schiep, maar dat de Nederlanders Nederland schiepen. Misschien is het dan ook niet zo vreemd wat de Fransman Christophe de Voogd over ons constateert: “Veel Nederlanders denken écht dat ze een rechtstreeks product van God zijn.”

De Voogd, voormalig directeur van Frans cultuurhuis Maison Decartes in Amsterdam, is een van de zes goed geplaatst identiteitscritici die zich op de Volkskrant-website uitlaten over wat volgens hen de typische Nederlander is. Ik ben gek op zulke stukjes, en niet alleen omdat ik denk dat mensen met een visie van buitenaf soms dingen stukken scherper kunnen zien. Ook vertelt het ons iets over wat ons volgens hen onderscheidt van andere cultuurgroepen, over hoe “het buitenland” ons uitlegt. Alhoewel dit slechts in beperkte mate waar is. De Fransman, Poolse, Amerikaan, Duitse, Brit en Marokkaan wonen allemaal sinds langere of kortere tijd tussen de Nederlanders.

Aspecten van directheid grenzend aan het botte worden door allen herkend. Een moraal meerderwaardigheidsgevoel, volgens een. Een “mentale barrière” volgens een ander. Een gelijkheidsprincipe zo ver doorgevoerd, dan “anti-autoritaire opvattingen zich wel eens uiten in botheid en onhoffelijkheid”, volgens de Amerikaanse hoogleraar Nederlandse geschiedenis James Kennedy. Vriendelijk uitgedrukt, dunkt mij, maar of onhoffelijkheid nog iets te maken heeft met gelijkheid valt te betwisten. De Marokkaan Fouad Laroui is in elk geval blij schrijver te zijn en zo zijn positieve beeld van Nederlanders te kunnen blijven vasthouden: “Als ik in een fabriek of in een kantoor werkte [...] zou ik alle soorten Nederlanders noodgedwongen meemaken.”

“Veel Nederlanders hebben de neiging overtrokken zelfverzekerd en luidruchtig zeer direct op anderen af te gaan”, wordt gezegd. Met name in de buitenlandse context herken ik hier veel in. Nederlanders mogen zich graag als de joviale en ietwat excentrieke snuiter profileren, maar natuurlijk niet op hun achterhoofd gevallen. Maar weet de Nederlander het wel echt beter? Jovialiteit en zelfverzekerdheid zijn toch ook zeker zeker muren die Nederlanders om zich heen optrekken. “Extreem gedrag [wordt] hier al snel [...] gezien als ‘normaal’.” In feite werkt onze weet-het-allemaal-wel-houding als een soort buffer die onzekere situaties absorbeert.

Maar ook de verdediging in de aanval werkt toch niet altijd? Zeer zeker niet, en daarmee blijft de Nederlander ook iets kleins houden hetgeen bij nadere kennismaking toch niet valt te verbergen. “Nederlanders zijn uitzonderlijk gastvrij, tot aan hun voordeur”, constateert de Britse freelance-fotograaf James Stokes, “Daarna kiezen ze voor enige afstand, hetgeen past bij hun tot op zekere hoogte onhandige manier van feestjes organiseren.” Kennedy: “Je gunt de ander de ruimte, als je er maar geen last van hebt.” Moderniteit als een glimmend jasje dat existentiële onzekerheid moet verbergen? De Duitse Helga Fassbinder: “Alles wordt gauw in het praktisch oplosbare getrokken. Helaas, niet alles is praktisch oplosbaar.”

January 14, 2008

A Monger of Hope

Much talk in the current American presidency race centres around the future, which is anticipated with gloom. While a part of the electorate clenches on to Obama’s message of hope for change, American voters do not seem to look at the future in quite positive terms at all. A recent Economist poll stated that around 50% of Republican voters and around 70% of Democratic voters believe that America’s best years were behind it.

Yet this sense of endemic pessimism does not remain limited to the United States. Europe finds itself currently plagued by an identity crisis centering around the future of the EU, while in countries like the UK, the Netherlands and Poland (but not just these) populists have been able to mould this discontent handsomely into political capital. Issues of immigration suddenly seem to rally people around Christianity in opposition to the Islam, in the case of the Netherlands to newer further-from-the-centre political parties that attack the political establishment, while politicians are increasingly mistrusted. Newspaper columnist Wagendorp to the Dutch daily De Volkskrant registered severe disbelief within his circle of friends when he made the case that the world was getting better and better. They simply could not believe it.

Instead, what can be observed is on the one hand an increasingly blasé and disinterested attitude with political affairs, on the other an increasing sense of irritation with what can be called the “honesty deficit” of politicians and institutions. Where this blog reported last year on the massive scale of CIA operations outside of any form of legal systems with many a European government implicated, we now a UK and Dutch government which refuse their citizens a referendum on the new EU Treaty on the outrageously dishonest claim that it has been substantially altered. We see a US administration which until a few months ago denied the link between global warming and human activity, while many a citizen feels like a disempowered bystander.

What is also worrying is the number of instances in which politicians manage to stay on despite obvious breeches of promises or, worse, straight-forward dishonesty. Bush and Blair (“Bliar”, another message on the wall) stayed on despite a provoked war, the Dutch Labour party denies with a straight face that it ever promised a new EU Treaty referendum, Wolfowitz insisted that he walk out of the World Bank with an unsmothered name despite arbitrarily giving his girlfriend a well-paid job, and the world’s two mightiest trade blocs throw mud at each other over their agricultural protectionism and lack of commitment to environmental protectionism.

The crude and instinctive question that arrises is: who is going to break the cycle? And however much more simplistically put than may do justice to the complicated truth, this may be at the core of the Gordian knot. The problem is that however often we vote, certain policy makers won’t go away. However much we protest, politicians won’t draw their conclusions. However urgent a situation pushes itself to the forefront, institutions are too inflexible to address it in a satisfying manner.

Obama presents himself as a monger of hope. For all that it may be worth, let him and others capitalise on this hope through four old and proven methods: transparency, democracy, honesty, and the rule of law. For the moment, my view of the future remains gloomy.

January 10, 2008

British Peculiarities, Part VIII

The search for a British essence continues…
Everything Moves For Cricket

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