Saturday, 31 March 2012

Ed Vaizey - "Let the Bookworms Gnaw His Entrails..."

For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no sur-cease to his Agony till he sink in Dissolution. Let Bookworms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye. 
— Curse Against Book Stealers 
Monastery of San Pedro, Barcelona

The curse is pronounced against one who would steal a book. But what more torments might assail one who steals not just a book, but a whole library, or ONE HUNDRED LIBRARIES?

100 libraries have been closed down since the Con Dem "Culture Minister", Ed Vaizey, took office in 2010. As the Government has wielded its axe on public services across the country, our libraries have not been spared. At best, they might hope to survive in a twilight zone of "Information Points", where it is assumed that everyone now has access to the internet and is happy to download stuff to ipads or Kindles. Books? So last six millennia!

Yet this cultural Armageddon comes at a terrible cost and potential threat to our society. Ever since humans first gathered in the cities of Sumeria back around 2,600 BC, libraries have been a hallmark of civilised life, of access to knowledge and of the fostering of learning and citizenship. It was the loss of the great classical era libraries such as that in Alexandria that marked the decline of learning and reason that led to the superstition and persecution of free thinking during the Dark Ages of Europe. And it was the recovery of knowledge in libraries such as those of Islamic Spain and Renaissance Italy that set us on the path to the Enlightenment and the birth of the modern age. And Karl Marx of course constructed his mighty opus Capital on the tables of the British Library.

Cultural tragedy or real estate opportunity? The great
Library of Alexandria burns, c 30BC
But when times are troubled and resources scarce, the ruling class views knowledge as dispensable at best and dangerous at worst. If people know, they will question; and if they question, they might act. And so Mr Vaizey and his ilk, while decrying poor education standards and the collapse of community in their patronising "Broken Britain" strap line, are content to close libraries down in the name of efficiency savings. Google, it seems, is the way forward, copyright of the elite, monitored by their minions.

And so, as we head back to a world of superstition, half-truths and net-powered rumour, let me be the first to dust down the ancient book of curses and gladly heap them upon the brows of the morons who ascribe to themselves the custodianship of our culture.

May the worms bury deep...


Thursday, 22 March 2012

Little Children, Big Guns and Dark Hearts

Miriam Monstango, 8 years old - her face a little apprehensive but full of life as she looks to the camera. How apprehensive it must have looked on Monday morning as she ran for the safety of her schoolroom at a Jewish school in Toulouse in France, only to have her hair caught by the gunman who was firing at her classmates. When he tried to shoot Miriam, his gun jammed. But he gripped onto her while he switched to another weapon and shot her in the head. On the same day, he killed a rabbi and his two little children - the youngest just three years old.

This was apparently done, in the gunman's mind, in revenge for the hundreds of Palestinian children killed by the Israeli Defence Force in Gaza and the West Bank. As blogged before here, the IDF routinely blames Hamas and others for the so-called "collateral damage" that occurs when Israeli jets strafe Gaza indiscriminately, or when IDF tanks fire illegal white phosphorus shells into Palestinian hospitals, allegedly having "no choice" because of the presence of enemy fighters in the vicinity. For collateral damage, of course, the decoded words should be civilians and children - especially the more than 1,400 Palestinian children killed by the Israeli military during the last decade, most of them when they were committing such dreadful acts as playing football, going to school or even shopping. No more excusably, though perhaps demonstrating the massive imbalance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during the same period, 125 Israeli children were killed in Palestinian attacks. (The western media tends to ignore this fact, just as, while it has already designated the Toulouse gunman, Mohammed Merah, as a Muslim extremist, it is hard at work mitigating the murderous rampage by US soldier Robert Bales, who killed at least two babies in his slaughter of 17 Afghan civilians last week, as the product of prolonged stress.)

We will never know for certain Merah's state of mind or motives now that the French police have shot him dead. But his apparent claims of revenge and self-justification of his terrible deeds echo the words of all too many political leaders who seek to sanctify their worldview with religious beliefs that place the fate of individuals, no matter how innocent, below the proclaimed, divinely-ordained interests of the respective Faith community.

Yet what minds think like this, on either or all sides? Under what religious law, what political ideology or vaguely humane rationale do children become collateral damage? By what mindset does it become acceptable to kill a child - any child, anyone's child - because of the loss, however appallingly, of a child of your own, or your faith community?

A Gazan childhood: The final, terrifying moments of the life of
Mohammed al Doura, a 12 year old Palestinian boy killed in 2000.
More here.
Well, there is a mindset which contradictorily both condemns such a viewpoint and validates it. It is a mindset found within the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Between them, these three faiths are followed, at least notionally, by the majority of the people on this planet. They are linked inextricably, although many of their followers vehemently deny this fact, or are unaware perhaps - but their God/Allah is the same Divinity, their prophets - Abraham/Ibrahim, Moses/Musa, Jesus/Isa are often the same people; and the Muslims' final prophet, Muhammed, enjoined his followers to give special protection and respect to Christians and Jews as fellow "People of the Book".

Each faith universally decries killing of humans and prescribes forgiveness and love of neighbours and all humanity. But some followers of each of them doggedly hold to the concept of "reciprocal justice" or like for like punishment - an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth as the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament set out their bloody tariff of vengeance. In Islam, although the Koran mentions rather than promulgates the principle, the other holy writings, the hadith (laws developed over centuries by Islamic scholars) sanction revenge and some versions of sharia law interpret and implement the rule literally. In all these faiths, although all their prophets advocated generosity of spirit and forgiveness, the concept continues to be held by many believers to be both just and holy.

And so we end up with the dreadful, twisted self-justification for shooting up a school playground in France or shelling schoolrooms in Gaza; or the rarely mentioned rape camps of Bosnia set up by Serb Christians with their avowed aim to breed Muslims out of existence - many of the Bosniac Muslim victims were children, some as young as 12.

In the old days of polytheism, by default, pagans held that there are many ways to the same Truth, while philosophers such as Aristotle identified good and evil acts as the deliberate choices of humans, not the mystical interventions or injunctions of God or Satan. But the potential logic of revealed monotheist faith and its potentially exclusive nature means that a gospel of love can be twisted into one of hatred by those so-minded to do so. This is all the more likely if The Word divides the world so sharply into good and evil, into fellow-believers and the unfaithful or Fallen.

Mahatma Gandhi lamented that  - "An eye for an eye simply makes the whole world blind." Those who seek revenge are blind people - blind to the hypocrisy of revenge; blind to the destruction of the justice they seek by acts of injustice; blind to the beauty of the Creation they claim to be the gift of their God.

An eye for an eye - it is not a holy concept at all; it is simply the red mist of the psychopath's pathetic self-regard. Those of any faith or nationality who adopt its tenets do so at the cost of extinguishing the very humanity they claim perversely to supremely epitomise, and almost certainly betray the intent of the founders of their faith and the beliefs of most of their co-religionists. Whether Anders Breivik, or Ariel Sharon or Mohammed Merah, their empty souls are the antithesis of the lives they sacrifice for their own vanity - the lives of the children of Gaza and Toulouse, or the youths on Utoya; lives now gone, but remembered and valued far beyond the banal egos of the small men with big guns and dark hearts.

In the Name of God: since 2000, 125 Israeli children have been killed by Palestinian attacks; in the same period, the Israeli armed services have killed 1,471 Palestinian children.


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Repugnance of George Osborne

"I regard tax evasion and – indeed – aggressive tax avoidance – as morally repugnant," Mr Osborne said. 

And so, today, in his latest national Budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Gideon Osborne (whose personal fortune is valued at around £4 million) handed the very richest in society a huge tax cut - a 10% reduction from 50p in the pound to 45p on earnings above £150,000 per year - on the spurious grounds that because it was allegedly so high, it deterred our wealthy compatriots from paying their tax. So, by creating perhaps the biggest piece of tax avoidance in history, he has legitimised their non-payment - balancing the cost of doing so by freezing age-related tax allowances for pensioners - greedy old sods that they are (in George's universe, not mine dear reader!).

George is worried that the rich may desert us and go elsewhere. You might wonder where, exactly. Tax havens, George warns - except the British Government, more than any other in the world, could act to end the curse of these pirate enclaves where multinationals and the very richest individuals move their money to avoid contributing a fair share to the societies they live in - seven out of the fourteen non-sovereign tax havens  belong to the British Crown, but our neoliberal Government is doing precisely nothing about the exemptions legally enjoyed by these. This although the havens deprive the UK Treasury of somewhere between £2 billions and £12 billions in lost revenue every year. 

Yes, this is the logic of the new moral crusader in 11 Downing Street, hoisting high the flag of fiduciary purity on his crusade against the repugnant and immoral. Time for us all to pay our way. And if the billionaires don't magically cough up more tax on a lower tax bill (????), well, we'll just slash another £10 billion off the beleaguered welfare budget, ignoring the needs of an increasingly larger elderly population.

Yes, this is the logic of the moral crusader who preaches the virtues of contributing to the common purse while quietly "aggressively avoiding" a huge tax bill himself.

This is the George Osborne who has allegedly avoided paying at least £1.6 million in taxes himself  by means of a Trust Fund that will benefit him personally and family members - however aggressively or not he has done this, we will never know. That is a secret between him and his accountant.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Twisted Cable Whips the Youth of Today

So Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, is at it again. Somehow this man twists logic in on itself in a way that would leave Steven Hawking at a loss to explain. Perhaps reflecting some dark, inner turmoil over serving in the most right wing government in history while continuing to harbour fantastical delusions about being able to press a nuclear button to destroy the evil Cleggeron, Vince has today announced a tiny increase for people on the national minimum wage - just 11p per hour, taking it to the princely sum of £6.19 per hour from 1 October. (The current assessed Living wage, by contrast, is £7.20 per hour outside London, £8.30 in the capital.)

That's if you're old enough to have the "key to the door", as Vince's Mum probably told him would be his 21st birthday present sometime back when young people knew their place. Because Vince reckons that, if you are younger than that, you should work for less, even if you are doing the same job just as competently as older people.

So much less, in fact, that this year, in spite of high inflation and cuts to tax credits, he reckons young minimum wage earners should not have an increase at all. So, if you are aged 16 or 17, your £3.68 per hour rate stays put; and if you are 18 to 20, it remains at £4.98. (Apprentices, who the Government makes much of creating lots more, will see a whopping rise of 5p per hour to as much as £2.50!).

Now, this differential is not entirely Vince's fault. The Nu-Labour regime of Messrs Blair and Brown created the differentials when they introduced the national minimum wage (NMW). They even introduced legal exemptions to the laws against age discrimination to allow lower rates of NMW to be paid to younger people.

This was and remains really counter-intuitive. Employers can discriminate legally against younger people as long as they keep workers on the national minimum wage. As soon as they pay them any more than that, the exemptions no longer apply and they have to pay all ages the same or they can be sued for age discrimination. Quite rightly too, I say - except that this provides unscrupulous employers with a justification for keeping their lowest paid workers on the NMW.

Vince of course could be sweeping this ludicrous arrangement aside. He could be telling employers that if 19 year old is doing the same job as a 21 year old, they should be paid the same rate. Why on earth not? Would we accept such a distinction between a man and woman any more? Or a white person and an Asian? It is rightly illegal to pay older workers less - you can't differentiate between a 40 year old and a 75 year old. So why is it ok to pay young people less to do the same?

And why on earth has Cable made the gap 11p per hour worse? Well, here is the really twisted logic...

He claims it is to prevent young people being uncompetitive in the workplace and stifling job creation. How so? How can the very lowest rate of pay of all be uncompetitive? Who would be able to outbid them? And what employer would not create a real job because it was going to cost another £4 or so per week to pay? Only illegal gangmasters and ruthlessly exploited Chinese cockle-pickers come to mind. Is this really the sort of economy the Coalition is benchmarking its employment policies against?

In the Budget this week, the Lib Dems are hopeful that they will finally gain their nirvana of a £10,000 p.a. tax allowance for workers. Very nice - it will deliver an across-the-board tax reduction to everyone earning above the current tax allowance threshold of £8,105 per annum. So millionaires will be better off by the same amount as someone earning dead on £10,000 p.a.

However, with a pay rate of £3.68 per hour, working say 40 hours per week, a 17 year old on the national minimum wage has an annual pay of just £7,655 p.a., so will not benefit at all - and in real terms their paltry earnings will in fact buy even less as prices rise. Their employers, meantime, with both the rise in tax allowance and likely abolition of the upper tax rate for earnings over £150,000 p.a., look set to be quids in.

The other week in the Guardian, as he prattled on in some sort of mysterious way about some mild disagreement with Nick Clegg, Cable reveled suitably self-effacingly yet still sickeningly smugly in the faux appellation of the Karl Marx of the Lib Dems. What a load of twaddle. This grandee of social-lite liberalism is more Groucho than Karl when it comes to Marxism, his social concern worn as shakily as the bleeding-heart-on-his-sleeve.
Celebrity Come Shelf Stacking - Cable can still see off these
young dudes

Still, at least once he is out of government post-2014, when he picks up a job working the aisles in age-enhanced-friendly B&Q, Vince won't need to worry about being undercut by some young upstart racing up from the glue section.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

God Spare Us from the Uninformed Lawmakers...

Well, first we had Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg calling for a "new" right for employers to have "off the record conversations" with employees they wanted to leave because of misconduct or bad performance.

Except the right already existed in the form of "without prejudice discussions" to resolve disputes that can not be entered as evidence to Employment Tribunals.

Next, Government adviser Adrian Beecroft thundered that employers should have the right to ask employees if they intend to retire any time soon. Their inability to do so prevented panning ahead and was choking off the flexibility and innovation needed for entrepreneurial-led recovery.

Except, again, this right already exists and is explicitly set out as a right in guidance from the current Government to employers. Check it here.

And now.....

Norman Lamb,MP, Lib Dem, has called for employers to have a right to be able to offer employees a payment in return for which they will waive the right to claim unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal.

This just takes the biscuit. What the hell are we paying these MPs for?

Compromise agreements, where employers pay an agreed sum to employees to terminate employment in return for waiving their right to go to an employment tribunal, has been a feature of employment law since the early 1990s.

If our political masters are really keen to make laws, it would be helpful if, first of all, they could take a small portion of time to check out what is already law. The three statements from these supposedly expert, high-paid men betray a total lack of research and simply a wish to pander to the ignorant or deliberately devious agenda of the right wing press that prints repeated lies about it being impossible to dismiss anyone.

Twenty minutes with an employment lawyer would have put them right about their ingenuous "new" ideas. And maybe saved the public some wasted money paying them for unnecessary work.

Personally, I'd fire the lot of them for gross negligence.

And yes, as long as I followed a fair process, if I was their employer, I could.

Oh, it turns out, I am their employer - and so are you!

Perhaps we should do something about their moves to allow employers to sack anyone with less than two years' service without needing any reason at all; and to remove employment rights for the millions working for small businesses. Smacks of definite breakdown of mutual trust and confidence...

"You fool! Check your facts! You're fired!"

Monday, 12 March 2012

This Is Not Who We Are?

This is not who we are.

The words of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton today as she reacted to the brutal murders of 16 innocent Afghan villagers - including two year old babies shot in their heads - by a US trooper who set out on a long walk from his base with slaughter his sole aim. Clinton looked suitably shocked as President Obama called Afghan President Karzai to offer apologies and condolences.

Not who we are?

Doubtless, within hours, or days at most, the American soldier will be declared insane, his terrible act of destruction the foaming fury of a madman out of control, a man possessed by crazy delusions. Not one of us at all. Perhaps, deep down, not even responsible for his own awful actions - gripped instead by some sort of traumatic stress disorder, in turn a symptom of the great stress he was under while on his fourth tour of duty in war torn Afghanistan. Indeed, when you look at it that way, perhaps his actions were caused by the Afghans. Maybe, deep down, these unruly people with their civil war and unholy faith were really asking for it. Perhaps, he had become one of them in his red mist blood lust...

Not who we are?

Tell us another Hilary. The soldier's actions were extreme, in some respects, but his only "crime" was to do what he did without being under orders at the time. Because increasingly, the American military has become defined by precisely this sort of arrogant brutality, a death-soaked zeitgeist that lifts so-called western civilisation above the value of troublesome mountain peasants and Muslims. This was evident in spade in Farenheit 9/11, when Michael Moore interviewed American tank crews who revealed that driving into Iraq in 2003, they sat in their tanks with their MP3 players streaming music to kill by as they shot up the ill-equipped Iraqi fighters outside their mobile armoured fortress - "It was like a computer game!" one gunner approvingly revealed."The ultimate rush!"

And so it went on - the horrors of Abu Ghraib, where American troops subjected Iraqi prisoners, many taken there on the slenderest of pretexts, to tortures and "heavy interrogation" that a good number did not survive. Photos that were released were just the tip of the iceberg - showing hooded prisoners menaced by dogs or threatened with electrocution. President Obama decided in the end to suppress hundreds of photographs, including many allegedly showing the rape of many of the women prisoners kept by the US soldiers in the former Saddam prison.

And then there was the case of six US soldiers charged with plotting for some weeks before seizing a 14 year old Iraqi girl, Abeer Qasim Hamza, and repeatedly raping her. They then murdered her, her 5 year old sister and her parents and set their bodies on fire. The crime only came to light when one of the soldiers revealed the incident months later to his psychologist.

Abeer - raped and murdered by the US army
The same army later spawned the "Kill Squad" in Afghanistan under one Sargent Morlock, who led his men in killing innocent Afghans for sport. Other instances that have come to light - collecting body parts as trophies, playing football with the decapitated heads of Afghans, firing at random into queues of civilian vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pissing on the corpses of the dead. There are many, many more, few covered by the mass media and, of course, there will be many others we know nothing about. 

What drives them to these things? The standard excuse is stress and fear - except that nearly all these cases have taken place outside of combat zones, where the perpetrators were in no fear of their lives and where their victims represented no threat at all. The arrogant dehumanizing of their enemies by these men reaches something of a hubristic crescendo in their apparent eagerness to display their exploits, caught on ubiquitous mobile phone cameras, on youtube and Facebook. The immensity of their war crimes seems to slip by these "warriors".

Referring to the Kill Team in an interview following yesterday's atrocities, Mark Boal, screenplay writer of the Hurt Locker, explained a key motive was boredom and frustration with lack of kills of Taliban fighters. He reported a high level of racism endemic among the regiment involved and how this, in turn, affected their attitude and behaviour towards the Afghans. No hearts and minds here - just pure, brute force. Brute force and profit, of course - because alongside the US army in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Blackwater mercenary company has implanted thousands of security contractors into both countries. Even less disciplined that the regulars, Blackwater has been associated with dozens of violent incidents, including killing 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Nisour square in Bagdhad in order to "clear a path" through people shopping at market.

From the My Lai massacre of 500 innocent villagers in Vietnam to the gunning down of ambulances and children by whooping helicopter gunners above Bagdhad in the video below (released by Wikileaks), the brutality of the American army is frankly far beyond doubt. If the Taliban are vicious, the US forces are constrained purely by the light restraint of vaguely possible bad publicity, a factor that clearly has little impact on what happens on the ground.
American soldiers raped and killed over 500 people at My Lai.
But then, it is not just the poor bloody infantry on the front line defending the corrupt Karzai regime, the young western lives being thrown away on a pointless war, that are responsible for the brutality of the American war machine. The massive carnage among non-combatant civilians that goes by virtually unacknowledged, allowing both the alienation of the Afghans and the continuing brutalisation of often young soldiers, is in fact a product of formal American military policy and planning.

In spite of the dreadful deaths and injuries, Afghanistan actually represents one of the safest wars for US and allied troops in history. The casualty rate pales into insignificance beside the tolls of the second world war, and even of the Korean war. This is because, ever since Vietnam, driven by the exposure of sensationalist 24 hour TV news, US policy has been to promote military adventures as being comfortable, even risk free - the safety of their own troops utterly paramount regardless of the impact on innocent civilians - defined now by the sick and sinister sanitised term, collateral damage.

Hence the use of drones, piloted from thousands of miles away, to spy on and increasingly attack ground targets - indiscriminately causing collateral damage. And plans are increasingly concentrating on making the US military capable of massive armed interventions with the use of fewer and fewer soldiers by means of "smart" weapons and robot technology. Popular with western media for its protection of western soldiers, this strategy will simply make armed conflict all the easier for the Pentagon and the collateral damage all the more acceptable, and the bitter harvest of terrorism and war without end all the harsher and more severe for decades to come.

The American soldier's "inexplicable" actions yesterday then become very explicable indeed - the mindset developed to turn ordinary humans into brutal killing machines inevitably dehumanizes their targets, whether combatants or civilian bystanders. With much military training neatly segued from increasingly life-like computer gaming into training programmes into reality, the boundaries are blurred between fact and fiction, like the tank commanders storming into Bagdhad to the sound of drums: and what the rogue soldier did becomes routine, becomes precisely who we are. It may not be what many of the troops put into the front-line start out being, but the cynical exploitation of their commitment - and often their dire economic circumstances when they sign up - means that the strategy and tactics of the Armed Services sooner or later makes it what they become. And, as America seeks to shore up its declining world power, we will see more and more of this in the years ahead as  the USA continues to spend more on its military than every other nation on the planet put together.

So, this is not who you are?
Are you so sure Hilary? As you stand next Commander-in-Chief Obama, you should know better.