Show Don’t Tell

The recent shocking murder in Woolwich has understandably taken up a lot of media attention this week, but as ever the wave of commentary after the event has started, and one piece in particular drew my attention this week. At LibDemVoice, Ewan Hoyle argued that the media had failed the public, and indeed that certain members of the public had failed the greater public, by not handing in the footage of the murderers into the police. He suggests that government ‘guidance’ is necessary, and even darkly says that if ‘guidance’ isn’t successful it may be necessary to ask if these members of the public are aiding and abetting terrorism by enabling these videos to be widely seen. It’s an argument I instinctively disagree with, being a libertarian – you could argue along lines of property rights, press freedom, free speech… Yet do video depictions of a crime count as property? Does reporting on an act of terrorism count as terrorism, or is it a duty of the state to suppress information to avoid panic? And whilst there is no obligation to give terrorists airtime, is there an obligation to censor them? To show the act, but not tell of the message?

I’m not sure of the answers to all of these, although I know my position leans towards information being spread as widely as possible in the interests of openness, that knowledge is better than ignorance. I want to discuss two interesting historical examples of depictions of death in loose relation to this, one famous, one less well-known. Neither captures the message of the murderers, but both capture the act, and the message, I would argue, is obvious – that these events occurred is in itself a message, that no-one is safe from terrorists and murderers. This is really the main argument against Hoyle’s proposal; the Woolwich murderers’ message was that no-one is safe, and to truly keep that from the public you’d have to keep the murder itself from the public. That the murderers said this, and were recorded saying this, is less important than the act itself, and preventing people from knowing about acts of terrorism in a modern age is impossible, even if it were a worthy goal.

The first example is a video recording of probably the most famous assassination of the 20th Century, the film shot by Abraham Zapruder that inadvertently captured JFK’s death. It’s a vital historical artefact, a record of a murder that chilled America and much of the world, and something that became the focal point of a legal battle between Zapruder’s heirs and the US government in later years, as this Vice magazine article describes. One quote from that especially stands out to me – Don DeLillo saying that the film “could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics.” This isn’t some sordid video shot with the aim of making money (although Zapruder sold the film to Life magazine for the modern equivalent of $1m) but knowledge, part of history, and even intellectual fuel like little else. It’s also a grisly, shocking depiction of the death of a human being and of his wife’s confusion and horror, and if Hoyle’s ‘guidelines’ were followed would never have been seen. No, there was no footage of the murderer ranting as there was with Woolwich, but it was proof positive that the most powerful man on earth could be felled by criminal means, and there was certainly widespread discussion about Oswald’s motives (not least because he didn’t survive to explain them). Neither is Zapruder deserving of being tainted with the same brush as Oswald, as Hoyle’s logic suggests; the film was printed frame-by-frame in Life magazine, it was shown on television in 1975, even formed part of Oliver Stone’s JFK movie. It’s part of the American (and arguably the world’s) national consciousness. In addition, as the Vice piece states, the frame that showed the exit wound from Kennedy was withheld from publication according to Zapruder’s instructions – ‘guidelines’ just aren’t necessary in every case (similarly in the Woolwich case there have been no images released of the actual murder itself, to my knowledge). Human decency is ever underrated.

The second example is less well-known, and with a reason – it was published, then withdrawn and buried after complaints. Also detailed in a Vice article, it’s the image of a man jumping from a burning Tower on 9/11, captured by photographer Richard Drew. As the article points out, it’s a strange, eerie image, different from the horror of the Zapruder film in that the (still unidentified) man’s death is not visible but we know it to be inevitable. It’s almost artistic in a bleak way, ironically less destructive than the famous pictures of the burning towers yet rarely seen, censored by the public who widely complained to the media. As the documentary linked to states, the Falling Man represents a horror greater than that of the destruction of the buildings, as it showed the human side to 9/11 and the high numbers of deaths, a historical document of an even darker side to a horrific event. The public and the media made the decision themselves not to spread the image and make it part of the memory of the day, and to focus on other things, such as heroism, hope and bravery.

Images and videos from both of these events are part of the historical record, and even with the natural impulse of people to remove the most visually horrific parts they still exist in public knowledge and are still important historical details. Zapruder has been described as the first citizen journalist, and as technology that enables people to self-publish images and videos becomes more and more widespread, it will only happen more often. A tough but necessary question is at what point does a picture or video turn from a horrific depiction that taste and decency demands is buried away to a historical document that should be preserved? Turning back to Woolwich, those chilling seconds of footage of the murderer explaining his actions with blood-soaked weapons in his hands could (and probably will) define 2013 in the future, in a similar way to Eddie Adams’ Saigon execution photo. It could perhaps be one of the most important moments of citizen journalism in future years. After all, journalism, the reporting of events, is less and less solidly defined as technology advances – we are all potential journalists, all capable of Pulitzer Prizes for images and videos that tell a story, and this should be something that is protected and valued, even though it may offend on taste. And yes, having thought about it a lot I would argue that this applies even to the murderer’s captured words. Are we aiding terrorism by spreading fact? Was Zapruder aiding Oswald by selling his video? I don’t believe so in either case.


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Sisyphus Shrugged

By now the emails will have gone out and news of my resignation as co-chair of Liberal Reform will have hit the Twittersphere. What will perhaps be more of a surprise is my confirmation here that yes, I am resigning my Lib Dem party membership too. I’ve already sent the email, in fact, my original membership card and renewal certificate have already gone in the paper recycling; hard to escape, this Lib Demmery! It’s been an interesting three years, in which my innate classical liberalism and membership of a political party have found themselves often at odds, but I’ve mostly chosen the latter over the former. Well, no more. There actually are a variety of reasons for leaving, far too many to explore in depth – some ideological, some practical, some local, and some national. It eventually came with simple clarity, however: I wanted the party to be something it wasn’t, and in the natural arrogance that so quickly comes to the political, tried to change the party so that it reflected my image. That didn’t happen, of course – I may have stepped aside from the nannies, the interveners,  the statists, but by continuing my membership and support of the same party I may as well have been one. And my beliefs became secondary to fitting in with the system, and my beliefs thus became devalued. So my attempt to push my particular political rock uphill became pointless, always frustrated, never achieving anything, yet I didn’t see it and kept pushing.

It’s hard to be an individual in the Lib Dems, you see. You easily get sucked into the party mindset, the cultlike little rituals and celebrations, the us-vs-them point of view that so readily undermines the claimed plurality, and instead focuses inwards. There’s always been something about party politics, however, which makes for a particularly unchristian eagerness to seek for and rejoice in the downfall of your opponents, for whatever reason. And the Lib Dems are no more immune than the good folk of, say, Political Scrapbook, even if LDs are generally less crass about it. I say generally – examples are always around, from Graham Watson’s silliness to Guy Verhofstadt comparing David Cameron to a suicide bomber in a HuffPost article. There’s nothing against liberalism or democracy to seek to control the EU budget, and with his disdainful tweet Watson showed he put his own party’s good above that of everyone else. And I stopped and wondered just what I really had in common with such people…

Here’s a theory I’ve been working on: political parties are cults. They should be clubs for the like-minded, but instead become repulsive repositories that make the people inside more similar, not less, and farther away from the general public, not closer. They encourage closed minds, adoration of party leaders, disbelief of crimes committed, putting the good of the cult above the good of other people – in this case the country! Look at the way canvassers go from door to door, enquiring about votes, the currency of the cult, rather than ideology. We don’t want to change the minds of the electorate, we want them to support our particular cult getting into power instead of that other one, and ideally joining the cult and helping spread the membership. What’s the difference between cults? Some claim to ideology, sure, some sure-to-be-broken promise of action, but when it comes down to it, often nothing more than colour or logo. Political people see themselves as above the apolitical, that they are more intelligent than them, or care more. It’s an automatic expectation, when they speak to you, that all you will care about is the surface, the shallow – not in-depth questions with such import that only the political can answer them. And if you disagree, woe betide you, then nine times out of ten you’ve simply been brainwashed by the wicked meedja, whether left or right.

Zooming in a little, Lib Dems should be about liberalism and democracy, wherever it is found. Instead, they are about the Lib Dems, a self-electing machine that wants power for the sake of power and then, when it has it, prefers to keep hold of the previously-won power rather than institute liberalism or democracy. Yes, yes, the Lib Dems have achieved some decent things in government, but they aren’t ruled by these principles, these ideas that individuals should rule themselves as far as possible, and so we get spectacles like Jeremy Browne, one of the party right’s few ideological champions, banning legal highs. What price liberalism now?

And after various such cases, I decided that I’d had enough of that, and realised that a far simpler, more elegant solution to this struggle, this rock in my path, was to stop pushing against it. It’s easy, you see, to set a group up, to find like-minded individuals and carve out a little niche for yourselves so that your opponents are not the only ones organised. The Lib Dems certainly has no shortage of liberal-minded individuals, who together could form a wonderful nucleus of a new movement. But the rock they’re pushing against is too large, in my view, the distance removed from the particular ideal too great, and the steps needed to get it there too far. No doubt some will think ’tis nobler to continue, to keep pushing the rock up this particularly impossible hill, but I decided simply to stop. All of the various, buzzing, insistent little whispers that were easy to swat away individually came together and spoke with a clear voice, and it was clear what I had to do.

So, I have resigned from Liberal Reform, and from the first and only political party I’ve ever been a member of. I’m proud I joined, back when I did, and I’m proud that I had the idea of an economic liberal grouping, and helped to gather pebbles together to start the slow and arduous process of pushing the rock uphill. But it’s time others took over, those fresher, with more enthusiasm and a better idea of how to push than me. Perhaps levers will be involved, perhaps there’s some sort of magical pulley system that will make the job much easier. You never know, perhaps I’ll rejoin and start pushing again one day. For the moment, however, my place is best elsewhere. I might still push, of course, in a different way, trying to get the same rock up the same hill, but without having to struggle so hard. And that doesn’t mean I’m off to join another political party, that I believe others are better at pushing rocks up hills – no other mainstream party offers a more compelling ideological set-up, above all else, and I can’t see myself being comfortable in the ones that are even superficially similar. It just means I’m still quite certain that I chose the right hill, but am certain I was misguided in my choice of rock.

I’ll miss certain things, but less than I thought. I’m glad that membership of the Lib Dems led me to meet so many interesting, fun people, that I hope remain friends even now – not least of whom is my girlfriend, Emma. But when you strip away the vainglorious angst and emotion, the hype wrapped around the central deceit that operates this political party, you find mere emptiness, the same ‘I am right and you are wrong’ nanny-state social democratic thinking that is the centre ground of British politics today. Will classical liberalism make a comeback? Perhaps. But not through the Liberal Democrats, certainly not in this decade. And I’ve had enough of chasing the dream, of pushing the rock uphill, of trying to convince myself that vaguely ‘liberal’-tinged centrism is the same thing as my political beliefs. So, I’ve shrugged.

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Lords Reform: Money Where Our Mouths Are?

News that the abject failure of the Coalition to reach a compromise on Lords reform has brought forth a distinctly typical response from we Lib Dems – dang it, we’re going to make speeches about it!

The motion itself is fairly typical – conference notes, conference resolves, conference calls for, etc. In terms of actual meat, it calls for the coalition to deliver a ‘wholly or predominantly’ elected second chamber, which is gender balanced from the start, and for all Lib Dem members of the House of Lords to support its democratisation. Much of this is designed so that party members can shake an outraged fist in the leadership’s face, and get a few headlines about Clegg’s shaky leadership, etc – the chances of a gender-balanced elected House of Lords by 2015 is up there with the chances of a Lib Dem majority government. Not going to happen.

Yet it’s interesting to read between the lines of the motion and see what was not mentioned – specifically, Lord Steel’s bill that introduces a retirement mechanism into the House of Lords and a system for removing peers convicted of serious crimes, neither of which currently exists. As is discussed here by the Beeb’s Mark D’Arcy, this is rather a Liberal victory, considering the length of time that our party has been agitating for reform. So why not give the bill the party’s backing and get it made into law, so that we can at least come away from the coalition with some reform, rather than the none that we currently have? As Roger Williams MP notes, it keeps the dream alive at least!

Some reject Lord Steel’s bill out of hand, however, not least the unnamed party sources here who suggest that his bill would legitimise the Lords in their current, icky, undemocratic state. I agree with David; his bill undeniably improves the Lords, and if the party doesn’t take his bill on, it will be keeping the Lords as it is. We could take serious steps towards reforming the Lords away from the ‘outrage’ and ‘stain’ that it currently is if we supported Lord Steel’s bill, as small steps as it admittedly contains. Instead, many activists seem happier to perpetually moan about ‘conservatives blocking progress’. Since when is nothing better than something?

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Libertarian Optimism

We’ve all done a Kerry McCarth in our time (if not been as daft as to tweet it from the position of being a public servant!). It used to happen to me a lot. Yet it’s something that simply doesn’t happen to me these days, because I no longer tend to view my fellow human beings as an automatic nuisance deserving of death. Yes, you could bemoan the state of public transport and the various forms of scum that hang out on it, and indulge in fantasies of gunning them down – except that’s mental, and likely to make you even more miserable. A personal milestone on my lifelong journey towards being a better human being was the moment I realised that I wasn’t a misanthrope, that I don’t hate strangers automatically and view everything that they do as designed to harm or annoy me. Some people view humanity as inherently doomed, as a cancer on the face of the planet that deserved to be wiped out – and not all of these people are the hardcore nihilists that they sound like…

Yet those of a more liberal mindset see humanity as something wonderful and brilliant, see the existence of life as the existence of hope. We trust the individual with control of his life, so we strive to take power away from the state and devolve it downwards; we are inherent, eternal optimists who see existence itself as wonderful. We want everyone to have as much control as possible over their own lives, that liberty itself is a desirable thing and that you can’t be truly happy if you’re enslaved to another. This simple idea – that *you* are best-placed to decide what is best for you – is the spark that drives freedom as an ideology, that strives to shrink the state and give the individual control of his life. It’s an ideology of happiness, of joy, of love for humanity, far from the grim-faced stereotype of Randian selfishness. We don’t look at an individual and see failure, we see untapped potential that will flourish if set free. Ayn saw vast swathes of humanity as inferior to a select few, and sought to protect those few rather than increasing their numbers. Of course the individual is superior, but guess what? We’re all individuals! We are equal in potential and are just as capable of great accomplishment.

This, then, is where Ayn slipped up; yes, the individual is inherently superior, yet all individuals are equal in their vast potential and freedom should be widespread, not reserved for the so-called best. Remove barriers to entry to the market, remove the restrictions, and talent will flourish. This is what differentiates libertarianism from the isolationism it’s all too sadly portrayed as. Wanting the government to leave you alone is because it prevents accomplishment, it holds you back. Governments exist, supposedly, to protect the poor, the weak, and yet poverty and weakness exist because of government. Libertarians don’t begrudge the money that goes into the safety net, they begrudge that it has become a trap to hold people down, a device to remove freedom – not just the economic freedom of those who contribute, but the economic freedom of those affected. Socialists are pessimists, view people as unable to succeed on their own terms – libertarians are optimistic, allow people to strive and succeed on their own. Heck, even those libertarians who are against a welfare net completely are optimistic of people’s charitable nature. They don’t see the poor starving in a libertarian world, because humankind as better than that. Optimistic free-market trust in limitless human potential, vs pessimistic statist reliance on an eternal master/slave dynamic…

…it’s rarely that simple, of course! But libertarians are undeniably optimistic, and as one who shares that view of humanity as capable of great things, how can I not lean towards the libertarian viewpoint?

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Minimum Alcohol Pricing – Bottling It

Today’s news that the Scottish government is planning to increase the minimum price of alcohol to 50p a unit rather than the previously-stated 45p has been welcomed by Willie Rennie and the Scottish Lib Dems, despite the largest impact of this falling on the poorest. Public health as the excuse for intervention in our lives in hardly a new phenomenon, but it’s always a disappointment when this is championed by those who lay claim to the liberal heritage. When challenged about the detrimental effects of MAP, the sunset clause of six years is highlighted as a good thing, whereby if the policy is not seen to be working it will be repealed (the Scottish Tories’ demand for support of the policy).

Yet there are already disclaimers woven into the narrative around MAP, talking about the low impact that it will have and how it isn’t a magic bullet… Given that the original stated price was to be 45p, the price has already risen – when the much-vaunted thousands of lives saved fail to materialise, the obvious reaction will be for that price to rise rather than to repeal the whole thing. Even if they were to accept failure, which as we all know politicians are infamous for, the damage would still be done in the short-term. I’ve written for LDV before about the impact of MAP on the poor so I won’t repeat that here, but the meat of the argument – that the poor would have to pay a higher proportion of their income in order to drink the same amount – holds true. It is an attack on the poor on mistaken ideological grounds, driven by ‘something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done’ logic, as seen in this Daily Record piece. Sadly, the very valid liberal arguments against MAP, such as that made by the ASI’s Sam Bowman here are ignored as all agree for the sake of political expediency.

Collective punishment for the behaviour of a minority is not the liberal response – and let’s not pretend that forcing people to pay a higher price for alcohol isn’t ‘punishment’ simply because alcohol is not a luxury. This piece by Conservative councillor Simon Cooke sums it up well – politicians’ snobbery against the honest poor as decided by the middle classes who think that they know better. In my aforementioned LDV piece I spoke of ‘the stench of Tory moralising’ – I now feel that I should, if not apologise, certainly change that to the stench of politicians’ moralising. No party is above it, even the pseudo-libertarian UKIP.

So what can be done by those of us who still oppose MAP, when all the parties appear to be in favour of statist nannying? Apart from signing petitions, sadly, not much. England and Wales are planning a 40p price, so at least there’ll be cross-border activity and a boost to the economy as Scots flee southwards in search of cheaper booze! When the coalition is pushing ahead with dodgy policy like the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, there are many battles to fight – in the face of a patronising, paternalistic government, ultimately and inevitably losing the war is depressing indeed.

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You Gotta Fight For Your (Right To) Party!

It’s no real surprise that Roger Helmer MEP has defected to UKIP, the man becoming known as a right-wing fringe Conservative thanks to his views on, well, take your pick. I’d previously held a certain amount of sneaking respect for Helmer – not for his views, but for his unwillingness to compromise, and honour in fighting for what (he believed that) his party stood for. So much for that, as Chris Heaton-Harris MP noted.

Interestingly, in Roger Helmer’s 2011 book Sceptic At Large (a copy of which I own but did not pay for!) he lays into Bill Newton-Dunn for defecting to the Lib Dems, calling him Bill Turncoat Dunn (page 61). Whether his colleagues will return the favour to Helmer will be interesting to see – many Conservatives simply seem glad to be rid of the embarrassment…

There’s a wider point to be examined, though, as to what we want from our political parties and what our parties may reasonably expect from us in return. Truthfully, political parties in Britain are not parties so much as clubs, associations for a group of people with similar views. Being a member of a party these days means more in cultural terms than logical ones, many people ‘being’ Labour or Tory because that’s the way they were brought up. It’s something that Liberal Democrats have had to fight for years, blue and red teams seeing us as merely another shade of their opponents. Yet Lib Dems are far from just the middle selection in the British political venn diagram – we have a culture of our own, based around local politics, leaflet-delivering and putting up with attacks from the others! Defections hurt as much personally as politically; you’re not just turning your back on your party and its principles, but also on the culture and friendships that go with it. And whilst people will understand the former (“I didn’t leave the party, the party left me”, etc) they won’t understand or forgive the latter.

As RebelRevell points out, people who stay and fight for what they believe in are far more deserving of respect than those who jump ship. But there’s certainly a feeling of annoyance when sensible people defect – I’m not the only one who’s expressed a wish in the past that the Luke Boziers and Tara Hewitts of this world would join the Lib Dems rather than the Tories. Their claims that Labour are no longer a party of aspiration, that the Tories are the true radicals engaged in small-p progressive politics are hard to hear for us Lib Dems, who see ourselves as forward-looking radicals who believe in both aspiration and fairness – have the Tories really stolen that ground from us? Even if they haven’t and the problem is one of perception, this is a perception that we should be fighting to change. That the most radical figure in the coalition is seen to be Steve Hilton should be cause for concern across our party, from left-wing radicals to radical centrists. We’ve gone from being a radical alternative to being the conservative partner, stuck watering down the ideas of others instead of getting our own radical ideas implemented. Why are we content to be the brake on the Conservatives when it’s them that should be a brake on us?

Sadly, there seems to be a lack of fresh policy ideas in the Lib Dems currently, as Mark Pack notes. Hopefully this malaise will be cured once groups like Liberal Reform get off the ground properly and start to add to the debate. It’s fair to point out, though, that few people join political parties because of the wonderful work they do in watering down other parties’ ideas – if you agree with radicalism, you want to see it implemented in full, if you disagree, you want it rejected in full. Little room is left for the tinkerers and the amenders, and there’s little respect for them from either side. I can’t see many Lib Dems, from Liberal Left to Liberal Vision, disagreeing with the idea that we should be bolder than we are being in government. It’s time we fought for our own party to be radical, time we started attracting a few defectors of our own, and time we started seizing the rewards of coalition – not just with policy passed, but as a serious party capable of doing serious things, one that believes in fairness and aspiration, and one that it’s worth joining.

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Liberal Reform – The Aftermath

It’s been an especially exciting time in internal Liberal Democrat politics of late, as Liberal Reform took its first faltering steps into the world and received a wonderfully positive response, as laid out here. As mentioned there, my Lib Dem Voice piece officially heralding the launch of the group went most of the way to explaining the reasoning behind it, but there seem to be a few points that still need to be cleared up.

Let’s make it perfectly clear; Liberal Reform are a broad, radical centre-aligned grouping, set up with the intent of providing our party’s economic liberals a forum for debate, but open to all. It should go without saying that we have no precedence in regard to which of the Labservative illiberal duopoly we would rather see ourselves in coalition with! They’re as bad as each other… social conservatives and economic illiterates exist in both parties, and both have a dreadful track record on civil liberties. Frankly, neither should be trusted in government alone, and any future coalition deal should be examined in pragmatic, realistic terms – no biases, no pre-deals, no preferences. The Liberal Democrats were, are, and should always remain an independent electoral force, agitating for freedom, fairness and democracy; not left, not right, just liberal, as Clegg said. (Although how a political ideology as broad and beautiful as liberalism can be dismissed with a mere ‘just’ is beyond me!)

Yet we’re so used to being dismissed, we liberals, by the conservatives and socialists who dominate British politics, that we’ve adopted something of a bunker mentality of late, tending to view any internal subgroupings as harmful to the family. The gut reaction of some seemed to follow this out – Alexandra White’s blogpost heralded ‘friends falling out’ and bemoaned ‘bitching’, ‘sniping’, ‘deriding the opposite opinion’… yet I hope it’s obvious that that’s the last thing I, or any member of Liberal Reform wants. Construction, not destruction, is the name of the game. I remarked on Twitter of the not-at-all curious phenomenon of people choosing to join both the Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Reform, and of course such ‘Social Reformers’ are welcome.

Yet Liberal Reform is already a good thing for the party. We’ve encouraged people to join the Liberal Democrats, we’ve even had an effect as far afield as Australia – in mere days of existence. It’s hard not to see a goodly portion of the party as simply waiting and seeing before passing judgement, though, which is fair enough! You could probably look to the sudden creation of scores of comic Lib Dem ginger groups on Facebook and elsewhere (in favour of Diet Coke, cakes, biscuits, curry, beards and even ginger people) as a symptom of the party’s nervousness when it comes to itself. So used are we to our outsider political status that the mere suggestion that there may be more internal groupings than just being ‘those nice people who deliver leaflets’ has some freaking out… and as many are noisily nervous, you can be sure that plenty more are quietly worried.

There’s really no reason for this – we may be a family, but we are also a political party, sternly resilient enough to see off innumerable internal trials, from Thorpe to Oaten. Don’t forget that our ‘little’ party has been through a lot, from polling above Labour to below the Greens… The family ties forged through our years in the political wilderness will be more than enough to keep us together now that we’re finally a serious party of power rather than a leaflet-delivering cult. Don’t forget, friends and family can argue together and drink together. And rest assured, Liberal Reform have as loud voices and thirsty throats as any other Liberal!

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America 2012, part 2: The Little Guys

American politics is a bottomless morass that will suck you in deeper the further you wade into it. Such has been my experience, and now one randomly-planned and hastily-written blogpost has become three. Ron Paul’s day, as ever, is not today. No, today is the turn of the little guys, four Republican Presidential candidates that you’ve probably not heard of, that don’t stand a hope in hell’s chance, but that have too important a message – or are too entertaining – to ignore completely.
Starting with the two that I might have  seriously considered supporting, then, Fred Karger is not your average Republican. Like the sainted Reagan, he was once an actor, but then moved into politics. Unlike Reagan, he’s gay, and proud to declare himself as such – instantly dropping his popularity amongst the US right to next to nothing. Which is a shame as he has experience, having worked on nine previous presidential campaigns, on a senior position with the campaigns of Presidents Reagan, Ford and Bush Snr. He has declared himself the ‘anti-Romney’ candidate and apparently ran deliberately to wreck Mitt’s chances. He is very pro-equal marriage, in favour of immigration reform and opposed to nation-building in the Middle East – all laudable positions in my view, which deserve to be heard. If nothing else, he deserves mention for his work in fighting California’s Prop. 8 anti-gay marriage law. Watch an interview with him here. You’ll note that, like all of the other candidates here and unlike, say, Rick Perry, he is more than capable of stringing a sentence together – as the first openly gay candidate for President from a major party in American history his voice should have been heard in the debates, and it’s to the GOP’s discredit that it wasn’t.
Buddy Roemer is a bit of an enigma, a former Democrat who defected to Republicanism and is running for President after time spent as representative and governor of Louisiana. He failed to meet the threshold for the debates, and therefore his voice will not be heard by most in the 2012 election. Yet it deserves to be; he has crippled himself by limiting donations to his campaign to $100 per citizen, and all refusing all PAC, super PAC and corporate donations. This is deliberate, as part of his appeal are his frequent railings against money in politics and the great harm that (he claims) it does . Watch an interview with him here.
Moving on, Thaddeus McCotter was running for President, until he dropped out in September last year. He was an interesting candidate, simultaneously conservative on the issues, being pro-Afganistan and Iraq wars, yet also surprisingly pro-union in voting record, and even sponsoring a bill to allow tax breaks for pet owners. Clearly he’s not my ideal of the perfect candidate by any means, having also gone on record as supporting Mubarak over the democratic protesters. Yet there’s something of the Lembit to him, as he plays the guitar and announced his candidacy at a rock festival. Check him out here, doing some rockin’ on Fox News. No Jimmy Page, sure, but who wouldn’t want to see Fox doing this 24/7?
Finally, you may actually have heard of Jimmy McMillan – this video will jog a few memories. He’s now running for the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Why? Well, the rent is still too damn high. But he’s a wonderful candidate, a Vietnam veteran, former private detective, and karate expert, who has campaigned in the past by dousing himself with gasoline, climbing the Brooklyn Bridge and refusing to come down, and staying in homeless shelters. He wears gloves to hide (invisible) agent orange damage, believes that global warming is a natural occurrence every 15, 000 years, and supports same-sex marriage and free college tuition. I only agree with one of these, but find the others more sane than some of the mainstream Republican candidates’ pronouncements. His voice should most definitely have been heard in the debates, if only because I’d like to see Michelle Bachmann coming back on some of these points!
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America 2012, part 1: Obama vs Romney

I’ve been following the run-up to the American election this November more casually than many of my fellow political aficionados. To be frank, I’m not yet embedded enough into party politics to be the sort of person who views the mainstream process as automatically worthy of engagement. There’s a lot to be cynical about! Bluntly, Barack Obama is the very definition of a bad president, someone who promised the earth and delivered little, riding into office on fake hope and real dollars. Just because the man makes fewer grammatical errors and, erm, can sing better than his predecessor doesn’t make him a better president. No, he may not have invaded Iraq. But being more illiberal than George W Bush is an easy charge to make against Obama, whether it’s on the issue of civil liberties or immigration. After all, let’s not forget W’s attempt to bring in a kind of amnesty for illegal immigrants, something similar to Liberal Democrat policy in 2010!

Despite all this, plenty of Liberal Democrats of wings both left and right are desperate to see Obama re-elected, citing the current Republican line-up and claiming him as the lesser of two evils. Clearly, an examination of the Republican candidates is necessary, and yes, it’s hard not to be downhearted by the likes of Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann. It’s actually Ron Paul that summed them up best – Bachmann really hates Muslims, Santorum hates gays and Muslims. And the less said about the moronic likes of Perry and Cain the better…

Yet three candidates have shone from the start, if two have fallen by the wayside. Ron Paul deserves a blogpost of his own, and shall receive one shortly. Otherwise, first and foremost, former governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson’s pro-pot, pro-equal marriage, Everest-climbing brand of libertarianism is exactly the sort of thing that appeals to me, yet he never stood a chance in the heavily small-c conservative Republican party, and is now seeking the Libertarian party nomination for President. You have to wish him luck – were I American I would have signed up to that particular third party long ago, yet it’s also largely obvious that in the personality-obsessed Presidential race the straightforward if mumbly Johnson doesn’t stand a chance.

Sadly, Jon Huntsman never stood a chance either, the former governor and ambassador crippled from the start with his eminently reasonable pro-science views. His popularity amongst certain left-leaning liberals is slightly baffling when you examine his record as Utah governor, having signed laws that restricted abortion and being very conservative in terms of fiscal policy. Yet he’s adopted Chinese orphans and is a prog rock fan, even going to a Dream Theater gig  which is more endearing than your average US politician! Huntsman is, in mainstream terms, the ideal candidate to pick up independent support, and it reflects poorly on America that he’s failed to gain more traction. Allowing the Republican party to drive itself into a wall by pandering to the right, and coming along to pick up the pieces subsequently, David Cameron-style, would be a good tactic for Huntsman in future years. As things are, his dropping out of the race in January could have been predicted by anyone… a wasted candidate if ever there was one.

The only candidates left that I’d even consider supporting are the oily flip-flopper Mitt Romney, and libertarian flag-carrier Ron Paul. Mitt is the only one capable of beating Obama in terms of mainstream debate, so will win the Republican nomination if the GOP is still sane enough to care about such things. It doesn’t make him perfect, however, and deciding whether to support Romney or Obama in 2012 comes down to which of certain issues you hold to be more important. Romney certainly has the hair to carry off the presidency, but tends to support whichever opinions are popular at whichever time you check – so his mind has changed on stem cell research, on gay rights, and on sex education over time, not from facts, but from popularity. The more you read into his campaigning history, the more his lack of principle becomes clear. If that didn’t make him enough of a shit, the story of his tying the family dog to the roof of his car rather sums the man up to this particular animal lover. Faced with an Obama-Romney ballot, I would cheerfully spoil my paper by writing something rude, and I wouldn’t be the only one – US politics is not so much binary as unitary, a choice of two statist teams who talk different talks but walk the exact same walk. At least in this country we have the illusion of choice… pity the American who wants genuine change.

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No-one seems exactly sure who it was that first said ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ (it’s been attributed to everyone from Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa) but it’s a favourite of mine, a wonderful summary of the difficulty that comes from describing the ineffable with tools that are all too effable! As an artform, music affects everyone in different ways, provokes thousands of different emotional responses, and cutting all that down into a readable, informative review is one of those subtle skills that you think is easy before you have a go at it yourself. The mini-religious experience that a truly powerful piece of music can be has to be experienced to be understood – and being reduced to tears by art is the closest to touching divinity I’ve ever been. This is despite having lived parts of my life in two out of the three major religions, despite various private experiments with some of the minor ones… nope, religion generally leaves me cold, and it’s this lack of connection that forms the basis of my a-theism.

As a child living in the lush countryside, the highlight of early Sunday Church trips was not the service, but the ride there in the back of a family friend’s pickup truck and the chocolate biscuits at the end of the service. I remember these pleasures as clearly as if they happened yesterday; I couldn’t for the life of me tell you about any of the sermons given. The moment those vanished and Christianity was reduced to prayer groups and psalm-readings, my cheerful memories of wind in face and sugar in mouth are replaced by darkened rooms and boredom. Religion to me from then was a dull mystery that adults indulged in every so often, something as lifeless as electricity bills; ‘you’ll waste enough time on it when grown-up, so why waste time on it now?’ summed my childish opinion up.

A sudden family conversion to Orthodox Judaism just at the cusp of my teens brought me into a strange new world whilst still too intellectually immature to appreciate just what had happened. And, of course, there was no sudden revelation or religious awakening for me, merely an enormous cultural shift and adoption of new rules for living that first puzzled, then frustrated, eventually taking me through a range of emotions from rage to depression. Not once did I catch a glimpse of the inner light of religion that has fed the flames of my family’s belief, never did I truly feel the stately chill of Yom Kippur or the historical euphoria of Purim. It all felt, and still does, like you do when you hear a representative of another religion on Radio 4’s Thought For The Day – polite bemusement at the exoticness, at best. No matter what I did, how hard I tried, it made no difference; the automatic, emotional response of others to religion was an exclusive club I seemed eternally denied entry to.

I had my years of angry, rebellious anti-religious atheism in response, of course, but the one constant mellower was that I’ve always been able to catch glimpses of what religion meant to the people around me. My aforementioned personal reactions to fantastic pieces of art is a fraction of the religious euphoria I’ve seen reflected on others’ faces – I honestly wish I had belief that had that impact on me. It’s how I tend to view religious experience at its most individual level; other people and their personal connection with what they consider divine. If there’s a tolerant, laissez-faire, compassionate atheism out there, the older, wiser brother to the almost stereotypical outrage of the Dawkins/Hitchens brigade, then that’s what I’d feel closest to. I can and often do appreciate religious art, from Cathedrals to Coltrane, for what it is, the effort and praise invested in it often stunning. Why waste time as some do, ranting at the experiences of others, enraged at their beliefs and rituals which bring joy and meaning to a world all too sadly lacking in both? Prayer may ultimately have as much personal impact on me as ballroom dancing, but I’m not going to spit venom at anyone for wasting their time with either – because, of course, to them, that time isn’t wasted.

Religion is a difficult topic to raise as it is, especially in most situations nowadays where it is not personal religion but organised religion that comes in for most criticism, putting adherents at their most defensive. Treating any group of individuals as if they have a single, uniform ideology is the cause of multiple ills as it is, but especially so when the historical crimes of a religion are brought up as a reason to attack the belief of individuals who have nothing to do with them, whose only connection is that personal belief. Accusing someone of implicit complicity in said crime by linking it to their most private feelings is hardly a recipe for peace, even when said crimes are Catholic child abuse or Islamic terrorism…

I’m not a fan of thoughtcrime, of trying to control what people can or can’t believe, or even trying especially hard to change their minds; the trouble comes when religion, or any ideology, is imposed undemocratically on others, crushing personal freedoms and ignoring rights. In a modern, western, liberal democracy this is a two-way street, however, and atheists that ridicule belief are the equal of any religions that ridicule the lack of it. I was slightly disturbed at a conference fringe event when I heard people referring to FGM and forced marriages as though they were an integral part of modern Islam, and that the setting up of Sharia ‘courts’ in this country was an attempt to legalise such practises here. There’s a lot of ignorance flying around, sadly, which can be an excuse for attempts to restrict the freedom of individuals to practise their religion as they see fit. Yet when I appealed for religious Liberal Democrats who have felt victimised by their fellow atheists, for reference here, the response has been paltry – which either suggests that the circles of my enquiry have been too narrow, or that we are so secularised as a party that even the religious are content for their beliefs to be kept strictly private. A reasonable place for us to be.

Religion is still very clearly an issue, however, in the general political realm, as was proven when one of these appeals turned into a religion vs atheism debate with over two hundred responses. One participant in these discussions was self-described liberal Catholic Maria Pretzler, and her subsequent blogpost is worth reading in full. I agree, largely, with what she says – ever more-polarised debate with the blinkered perceptions of group atheism vs organised religion is unhelpful to all. The arguments of secularists who want a level playing field is worth considering, if (controversy alert!) not necessarily accepting in principle. I’m no more in favour of state financial support of religious institutions that I disagree with than I am of that of non-religious institutions I disagree with, but I don’t see the former funding as more worthy of abolition than the latter simply because of the ‘religion’ tag attached. No, the religious should not receive preferential treatment, on the whole. For example, there’s no reason for Bishops to sit in the House of Lords without being elected. But if we’re going to start unpicking the tangled webs of government spending and House of Lords reform (both of which need their own blogposts!) then it’s surely logical to strike at unfair entitlement above all, rather than specifically targeting unfair religious entitlement? Can’t blame the religious for wanting an invite to the same party as everyone else, after all.

Ultimately, there’s no fitting conclusion to such an eternal, circular argument as that of belief. Me, I’m perfectly comfortable with living in a universe ruled by chance and chaos, where personal moral compass, rule of law and free will are my guides. I nourish whatever part of me reacts to art, to music, to sunsets and nature in the same way that the religious do with prayer and ritual, and see no problem with addressing this ‘spiritual’ side of life in whatever way individuals choose to deal with it, be it church or concerts. To end with a Rush quote, eminently suitable for the 21st day of the 12th month:

I don’t have faith in faith, I don’t believe in belief, you can call me faithless. But I still cling to hope, and I believe in love, and that’s faith enough for me…

Happy Chanukah, and merry Christmas.

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