Friday, December 29, 2006

A bonfire of liberties

2007 will see a smoking ban introduced in public buildings in England. Most significantly, no provision is allowed for private clubs who may wish to allow smoking.

As a cigar smoker myself, I am acutely aware of the degree of moral hysteria surrounding this issue, where there has been an intertwining of public health concerns (often based upon exagerated misinformation), and an acceptance of the basic principle that the government should legislate against behaviour regarded as anti-social.

On the public health issue, some otherwise sane people lose all sense of proportion over the dangers of second hand smoke. As social animals living in collective, industrial societies we are exposed to constant diverse health risks due to the activities of others – traffic fumes, industrial waste gases, pollen, food additives – second hand tobacco smoke is only one of many.

And the evidence of health dangers from second hand smoke are presumptive projections that are not empirically established. Everyone understands that buying a lottery ticket doesn’t mean you will win the lottery, and in the same way slight exposure to second hand smoke does not necessarily pose any significant health risk. Public policy considerations need to balance an actual assessment of risk, against the requirement that individuals must be able to make their own choices, not idealise a risk-free environment that can never exist.

What is more, the ban on private clubs allowing smoking was allegedly based upon the entirely specious hokum of health concerns for bar workers. But cigarette smoke is measured at around 1 micron, whereas a good extraction system will remove particulates down to about 1/3 micron. Good air circulation will also dilute and disperse any gaseous components, so that a smoking environment with air purification can be cleaner than a non smoking environment without extraction. I have worked in factories where much more toxic substances than cigarette smoke are handled, and appropriate extraction systems can and do provide a safe working environment.

Had the health issue been the genuine cause of concern then legislation could have enforced extraction systems, and other measures. But the real issue is that people support the ban because they think smoking is anti-social – “why should I breathe your smoke?” Now to a certain degree this is sensible, and a choice of non-smoking and smoking venues should be provided. But of course a choice has precisely not been allowed in the current legislation.

This is what ties the smoking issue into the wider politics of New Labour, with its preoccupations about anti-social behaviour. Or more specifically, using legislation to enforce arbitrary social preferences of the majority against minorities, in order to enforce shared community of values.

For example, Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) are, to the best of my knowledge, an internationally unique form of legislation because they do not criminalise specific behaviours, but rather any arbitrary behaviour that anyone else find anti-social, provided a magistrate agrees: then if you breach the order the behaviour is criminal. The only international precedent for this form of legislation I have been able to find (and this is not just a cheap shot) is Himmler’s proposed legislation of 1944 against Gemeinschaftsfremde. (Community aliens). This was more liberal than New Labour's law, because it required a compulsory referral to social workers before imprisonment if the Nazi equivalent of an ASBO was breached, and only proposed prison if social work referral failed. Interestingly Himmler's law was not enacted as both the German judiciary and the police opposed it for being unworkable and in principle contrary to natural justice to imprison people for arbitrary anti-social behaviour.

It is no coincidence that the Nazis were also the first country to ban smoking. A myth is propagated by today’s anti-smoking campaigners that the Nazi ban was racially inspired due to Jewish influence in the tobacco industry, and therefore different to their own campaigns. This is entirely false, the concerns of the Nazis were exactly the same issues of public health, and even echoed leftist criticisms of smoking that tobacco comapanies were making profits at the expense of public health. The 1944 national ban on smoking on public transport was personally initiated by Hitler over the issue of passive smoking risks, and Nazi scientists Franz H Muller (in 1939) and Eberhard Schairer and Erich Schoniger (in 1943) were the first to publish good research demonstrating provable links between smoking and lung cancer.

The question is whether the state should restrict choice in order to enfoirce healthy living. The anti-smoking campaigners, (including the Nazis!) believe the state should play this interventionist role - and the spurious arguments about second hand smoke are a stalking horse for their full agenda, which is to ban smoking altogether.

Now clearly New Labour are not Nazis. But there is a tendency within New Labour that shares the Nazi ideology of communitarianism. This was expressed by the Nazis in terms of Volksgemeinschaft – a national community with shared values that were rather arbitrary (for example, against swing music and English style clothes). The logic of New Labour is “triangulation” around the issues that affect swing voters, to win electioons at any cost. As seen in the 2005 Hodge Hill by-election this can lead Labour to conduct a basically far-right election campaign, pandering to the prejudices of voters, in echo of Thatcher's defence of "people like us".

Nor was this an aberration, Liam Byrne the victorious labour candidate is an affirmed Blairite who is now immigration minister! You can view all his election material here. Labour decided to contest this marginal working class constituency on the issues of opposing immigration, and authoritarian measures against anti-social behaviour. More recently we have seen New Labour orchestrate a moral scare about Moslem women wearing a veil – largely demonising people because they are different from the arbitrary values of the majority.

I have argued elsewhere about the changes in the Labour Party: “the Labour Party has a broadly progressive electoral constituency, and historical links with the trade union infrastructure, but it is in continued antagonism with both of these elements. Nevertheless, although the Party no longer articulates the aspirations of these support groups, they do provide a constraint upon it, and mediate the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.” The important point here is that the electoral support of Labour is broadly to the left of the party over a number of issues, such as the Iraq war, opposition to privatisation, support for trade unions, etc. But New Labour also know that on the issues of race and immigration, and social conformity, they can mobilise their electoral base around a right wing communitarian agenda.

Interestingly, no voice within the Labour party distanced itself from the far-right campaign in Hodge Hill. There does need to be a serious debate about whether socialists should be more actively arguing for opposition to Labour and union disaffiliation from the Labour Party, given its irreversible shift to being a neo-liberal authoritarian party.

It is in this context that New Labour have introduced the smoking ban, and ban on hunting with dogs - because they believe it is a defensible role of the state to legislate to enforce the preferred choices of the majority, even where the minority activity does not harm other people. This is whipped up by moral scares, and ill-informed arguments.

Unfortunately many on the left do not realise that we have to defend the rights of all minority activities that do not inherently harm other people, even those who make life-style choices different from our own,

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Child is shot in Bethlehem

Here is a Xmas story for 2006.

On the afternoon of December 8th 2006, Miras Al Azzeh, a 12 year old boy was shot whilst playing at home in Aida Camp, Bethlehem.

The Israelis claim that "IDF (Israeli Defense force) troops identified several armed Palestinians in the Al Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. The troops fired and hit one of the armed men after clearly identifying him as an armed adult Palestinian"

In contrast, a Western volunteer who has been working in the camp for the last two years reports:

What the IDF in fact saw was a group of children aged between 3 and 12 years old playing in a room. The children had been playing in that room for over two hours when the shooting occurred. It was morning so light and visibility was good. The assorted Al Azzeh children often play here so that was nothing unusual, it is after all their house. The watchtower from which Miras was shot is clearly visible from the house, probably about 70 metres away.

Anyone standing next to the Watchtower is clearly visible from the room with the naked eye, and the same is true in reverse. That said, soldiers do not look with the naked eye. Soldiers are equipped with high powered binoculars and have equally high powered sights on their weapons. Miras had been playing with a toy gun but was not holding it when he was shot. At around
midday, in good visibility, it is inconceivable that from this distance highly trained soldiers using high-tech viewing equipment mistook a group of children aged between 3 and 12 for "armed men". Miras is the oldest child that was there. At 12 years old he is about 130cm tall and weighs around 45kg.

The IDF boldly lie and say: "It is important to note that in the past three months there has been a large increase of terror activities against IDF troops from Al Aida refugee camp area, including the hurling of dozens of explosives and the shooting onto the roads between the refugee camp and city of Bethlehem."

Our British witness contradicts this: "Having been living in Aida Camp until two months ago I can personally testify that this just was not happening whilst I was there. In the first half of this year there were more IDF incursions into Aida Camp than there had been from August onwards. Sometimes during these incursions some children may throw stones at the IDF jeeps as they race around the camp or fires may be lit. The children believe they are trying to protect their camp and their families. There hasn’t been any armed resistance in the last couple of years whilst I have been there and people say it has been this way since 2002/3. People in the camp tell me that nothing has really changed in the camp recently and things have still been relatively quiet. There have been IDF incursions, mainly on a night time into the camp, but there haven’t
been the often daily incursions, shootings and tear gas that there was earlier this year. And there is still no armed resistance coming from the camp."

In fact my own personal observation is that one of the most remarkable things about the West bank is how relaxed the IDF soldiers are, this is certinly a marked contrast to the nervy vigilance that we saw in Brit soldiers in the 6 counties while the war was going on in Ireland. There simply is hardly any armed resistance to the occupation, becasue the retaliations are too brutal, and the balance of military force too uneven.

Fortunately Miras is doing well. His uncle says: "He is amazingly recuperating very fast and his family is cooking a big meal on Sunday, they have invited many friends and family, and all the neighbours, and the doctors and staff at the hospital where Miras spent his time after the surgery. We all wish that you too, our friends, are present at this time of celebrating life and hope for the future of Miras and all children of Palestine and everywhere."

On Tuesday this week there was another disgusting reminder of this continued
IOF policy of targeting children, it sounds all to familiar.

A 13 year old girl, Do'a Nasser Hamid, was playing with friends near the Apartheid Wall in the village of Far’un, near Tulkarm. She was shot by an IDF sniper from one of the Watchtowers in the Wall. Do’a was not as ‘lucky’ as Miras. Her funeral was on Wednesday…

For the sake of Miras and D’oa, for all other Palestinian children, and for all children of the world, please continue to spread these stories and work for justice.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Children of Bethlehem


I visited Bethlehem at the beginning of the Eid festival in November, when most children receive presents, and are dressed in their best new clothes.

Everywhere the girls were dressed in smart fashionable outfits, but what was most noticeable was that all the boys had toy guns, and new combat fatigues. Of course when I was a child in the 1960s in England we also had toy guns and played war all the time; and most of our fathers had been soldiers. Play has an important role in helping children make sense of the world they are in.

These young boys of Palestine are not play acting a war from the past, but dreaming of a war for the future. This is what Israel has created. The pictures here are from Aida refugee camp, where until this summer the boys could go into the fields and play football, look for turtles or fly kites. But just ten metres from where these scenes were shot the Israelis have built the 8 metre high apartheid wall, cutting these children from the land.

According to the relief workers at the camp many of the children, especially the boys, were traumatised by the construction of a wall that blocked them into their narrow streets and by the nonchalant and impudent brutality of the Israeli soldiers. There is now a high incidence of bed wetting and sleep disorders among the children. Now they cannot go out to play, their fathers and uncles cannot tend their land or harvest their olives, they cannot travel to Jerusalem, just 5 minutes away by car.

In the English language Peace has two meanings. It means absence of conflict, but it also means tranquillity. The apartheid wall is an attempt by the Zionists to create “facts on the ground” that any eventual “peace” settlement will reward them with their colonial land seizure, as they herd the Arabs they see as Untermenschen into ghettos and reservations. But the wall is torture to the souls of these children, and in their hearts they have no peace, nor will they have peace while they are treated like animals. Next year will see the 40th anniversary of the Zionist annexation of Lebensraum in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet through all those years not a solitary Palestinian voice has argued for acceptance of the occupation. Not a single Palestinian has been prepared to kneel at the proud feet of their conquerers.

The children of Palestine deserve a better future than war and hatred and violence. Yet that is the future that the Israeli wall, and the colonisation of the West Bank with half a million Zionist settlers inevitably brings to them.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Flags of our Fathers


Clint Eastwood's new film is built around the most iconic image of victorious soldiers raising the flag.

Good idea, perhaps, but he used the wrong picture and the wrong flag! (It is a symptom of our cultural domination by the USA that the equally iconic image of Russian soldiers hoisting the red flag over the rubble of the Reichstag is rarely seen in Britain)

The second world war has taken on a mythic status, as seen in the films of Steven Speilberg, etc. And the generation, like my father, who fought in that war, are regarded as the heroes, the good soldiers who fought in a clearly justifiable war.

But there was more than one war. There was a war to keep the British colonies, and there was a war between the Japanese empire and the British Empire and USA to determine which brutal superpower would dominate Asia. This is the war that Clint Eastwood celebrates.

Let us remember the other flag of our fathers, and the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who enlisted to fight in the other war, the war against facism. Many soldiers in the British army who wanted to fight Hitler were diverted by the bosses to serve Britain's own sordid imperial interests in the Far East, but at the same time there WAS a people's war here in Britain - a popular mobilisation that overthrew Mussolini and Hitler. There was a war in Europe against fascism, a just war.

The defeat at Dunkirk had destroyed the authority of the Colonel Blimps and chinless wonders who wanted an unpoliticised "professional" army, and instead for the first time since the Putney debates at the end of the English revolution the British army were involved in democratic debate about war aims, and what they were fighting for. An unoffical soldiers parliament was convened in Cairo, the first act of which was to demand the nationalisation of the land and banks; and every army unit had an official political education programme, and the education officers were often CP members.

It as become fashionable in recent years to twin together Hitler and Stalin as equally terrible tyrants. What a travesty. The Soviet bureucracy was brutal and undemocratic, but they were not fighting to promote racial supremacy and they never created an industrial process to destroy human beings and turn them into lamp shades. Were the crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy worse then the crimes of the British government during its own industrial revolution?

The victory of the Axis forces would have thrown the human race into a dark barbarism beyond our most fevered nightmares. Fascism was halted in the Streets of Stalingrad by the Red Army, and the hundreds of thousands of partisans who harried the fascist armies, in the Ukraine, Belorus, Italy, France and elsewhere. But let us not forget the paradox that for those brief few years Churchill and Roosevelt also fought fascism, and young men from Britain and America were the people's soldiers.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

on prostitution and the debate about prostitution

'thay say a black man is a pimp
Well let me tell you the biggest pimp
on planet motherfuckin Earth, is her momma
It's her MOMMA that told her,
"Get a man that got a good job girl!
Make sure he got a good car girl!
Make sure he can take you out and buy you somethin girl!'

I do not usually turn to Dr Dre for political instruction yet i think that this well written passage is very relevant to the current dicussion on sex work. With these words Dre shows that sex work does not merely exist because of the immorality of a small number of outcasts. Instead he shows that certain aspects of prostitution exist very widely within society at large. We may not be a society if pimps clients and sex workers. However, when we use conspicuous symbols of their wealth in order to attract the opposite sex, or alternatively when look for those symbols as a criterion for choosing a sexual partner, our behaviour is not a million miles away from those practices which we condemn as prostitution.

The point here is that prostitution is not something that emerges out of the personal immorality of a minority but out of the social structure. It is in the context of massive inequality, of economic insecurity that people turn to sex work. And what of the clients? Well if people can use their economic power to jump the cue for healthcare, or to have someone else scoop the shit out their toilet, then why expect them to feel morally obliged not to use their money to pay for sex. My aim here is not to exonnerate the clients, but to suggest that, like CEOs and debt collectors, clients are a product of the way things are.

Max Horkheimer, i believe, once said that those who are not prepared to talk about capitalism should remain quiet on the subject of fascism. On this matter i would suggest that politicians whose governments are not prepared to do shit about capitalism and inequality (that means you harriet harman) should remain quiet on the matter of sex work.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Colin Fox at RAF Brize Norton demo

I am pleased to be able to give you a link to the audio of Colin Fox speech. Colin is convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party. He travelled a long way to make this speech, and I wish we could have given him more time.

His attendence shows the commitment that the SSP has to the anti-war movement. We should remember that Colin's SSP colleage, Rosie Kane MSP, has only just been released after a week in prison for opposing Britain's nuclear arsenal!

Thanks to Simon Bridewell for audio of all the speeches, which can be heard on Indymedia.

Listen to Colin Fox's full speech here.

Simon summarised Colin's speech as follows:

“Whilst he was coming along the road to the rally, Colin saw one of the aircraft taking off, and he said it reminded him of the more than 120 British soldiers who took off from the base and never came back home alive. And that figure, he said, was dwarfed by the more than three thousand American soldiers that didn’t come home either. And that figure itself was dwarfed by the 660 thousand Iraqis who haven’t come home, who have been murdered by this illegal occupation. We’ve been told, he said, that if we bring out the troops from Iraq, there’ll be civil war. The latest figures released by the UN, he said, indicate that by the end of this year there will be more than thirty six thousand five hundred people slaughtered in a sectarian civil war. We have a 9/11 happening virtually every month in Iraq, he said. Regime change in Iraq, he said, is the sole and inviolable right of the Iraqi people themselves. We are watching the endgame of a catastrophic political failure at the hands of Bush and Blair. We are watching the endgame where Labour politicians who supported the war are recanting and openly begging our forgiveness. What will Tony Blair be remembered for, asked Colin. Will he be remembered as the man who brought twenty years of the hated Tories to an end? Will he be remembered as the first Labour leader elected with a working majority? Will he be remembered as the first Labour prime minister to be elected three times? No he won’t. He’ll be remembered as a liar and the worst leader this country has ever had.”

RAF Brize Norton demo report

Around 800 marched on Saturday.

Overall it was an excellent demo, and did receive press coverage, including the news on Classic FM, an Arabic language Iranian TV channel, and the mass circulation Sunday People.

The turn out was just enough, but is revealing of the current state of organisation of the anti-war movement. I carefully say a problem of“organisation” rather than politics - because while there does need to be a strategic debate about the direction of the anti-war movement, in my opinion the real weaknesses are to do with lack of grass roots confidence and in some areas the peace movement is insufficiently inclusive (so for example we have the ludicrous situation of their being two separate Stop the War groups in Oxford)

Anyway, those towns and groups who did organise for Brize did well, while some other towns didn’t mobilise at all. For example there was a coach from Coventry but not Birmingham, and as many people came from Bristol as from London, which are the same distance. Indeed, nearly as many people came from Reading University as from the whole of London!

I have absolutely no criticisms of the national CND or Stop the war organisations, both of whom worked really well to support the demo. But there does seem to be a weakness generally of the London left who don’t realise that there are 40 million English people outside the M25!

Local activist Brian Shakespeare reads the names of the dead at the base, along with Iraqi, Hayder Sayed. With them are Felicity Arbuthnot and gulf war vet Tony Flint

For me the three highlights of the event were:

i) The deeply moving ceremony at the gates where flowers were laid, the names of the British dead were read by local activist, Brian Shakespeare, and a sample of Iraqi names were read by a Swindon resident Iraqi refugee, Hayder Sayed. The march spontaneously fell silent to hear the names.

ii) The two minutes of silence in the barracks town of Carterton. What was brilliant was that this united the demonstrators and town’s people in a common observance of respect for the dead. All the shoppers in Somerfield’s supermarket, and in the cafĂ©’s and shops observed the silence as well as us.

iii) The inspirational speech by Colin Fox of the Scottish Socialist party. We have an audio recording of this, which I will add a link to later.

The speakers were Lindsay German (Stop the War Coalition), Tony Flint (gulf war veteran and DU victim), Kate Hudson (CND), Felicity Arbuthnot (researcher and journalist), Gwyn from At Ease (independent advice line for service people) , Andrew Murray (Stop the War), Jeremy Corbyn MP (Labour), Colin Fox (Scottish Socialist party) and Caroline Lucas MEP (Green).

I also spoke at the beginning on behalf of the local groups who organised the demo. I was very pleased by the way that all the speakers were interesting, and didn’t cover the same ground. Kate Hudson in particular encouraged everyone to throw themselves into the campaign against the obscenity of a Trident replacement.