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Archive for August 2010

England in the Eighteenth Century

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I’ve just been flipping back through some old A-level books and came across JH Plumb’s beautifully-written (1950) “England in the Eighteenth Century”. Partly inspired by Paul Kingsnorth’s “Dark Mountain” project, I’ve been looking at what life in the UK was like before we got our hands on the resources that fuel our modern economy and society. I’m trying to get a sense of where we may be headed when those resources run out, if we fail to make a smooth switch to effective alternatives.

Plumb’s account of England in 1714 – when our population was just a tenth of its current figure – makes for grim, albeit eloquent, reading…

Most cellars were inhabited, not only by people but by their pigs, fowls, sometimes even by their horses and cattle… All houses and cellars were desperately overcrowded- ten to a room was common in Manchester… Disease was rampant and unchecked… In the early part of the century, only about one child in four, born in London, survived…

Though some elements seem rather more familiar:

In the midst of death, the people sought palliatives and found them in drink, gambling and violence. The consumption of gin – drunk mixed with fruit cordials – was prodigious, but largely confined to London, where it may have affected the death rate in the thirties, although virulent influenza epidemics also took their toll…

…the ordinary merchants and prosperous shopkeepers… were still deeply attached to the puritan attitude… They were also Whigs, but it was an old-fashioned type of Whiggery which did not always see eye to eye with Walpole, for they believed in plain, fair and honest dealing, and the control of government by a Parliament – not the reverse, which was Walpole’s way…

What loyalty they had to Walpole was strained by the opposition’s exposure of corruption in high places. Their natural suspicion was aroused by the talk of England’s interests being sacrificed to Hanover. They were devoted readers of The Craftsman, the vigorous opposition newspaper, which played on their prejudices; some were taken in and voted Tory, most of them kept to the politics of their fathers…

Written by Richard Wilson

August 19, 2010 at 10:08 am

Posted in Democracy

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Alexis Sinduhije: “The international community, obsessed with stability… chose a rigged election managed by a police state rather than a vibrant democracy where the opinions of all are respected”

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From Alexis Sinduhije in The East African:

John, 35, the youth leader of UPD, the Union for Peace and Development, was arrested by Burundi intelligence in early June and accused of being a security threat to the state.

He was taken to their secret offices where he was tortured, his right ear cut off and his penis and testicles shoved into a gourd.

He was later moved to the central prison but the damage has been done; he is now infertile.

//

Many members of different opposition parities have been arrested, tortured and threatened throughout the country.

The official count according to human-rights organisations is 200 but that is only those we know of; many more incidents are happening in military posts and police stations across the country.

Those that have been arrested, threatened and tortured are the lucky ones – others have been killed in broad daylight, in their homes.

On June28, Ladislas Ntiharirizwa and his wife Christine were at home in Muramvya province relaxing after their evening meal when grenades were thrown into their house and they were both killed, leaving behind a small baby of 3 months and a child of 3 years.

Their crime was to be members of MSD, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy.

The same night, in the same town, a grenade was thrown into the house of a Frodebu leader killing his 7-year-old son and leaving him gravely injured.

Later, in the far east of the country, in the small town of Gisuru bordering Tanzania, the Imbonerakure (the youth militia of the ruling party CNDD-FDD) with the support of the police, attacked several families, members of the FNL party, in their homes with clubs, pangas and jembes.

The result was the death of four and the hospitalisation of five others, most of whom are still in hospital.

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Many young members of the opposition have fled their homes and jobs across the country. Their future is uncertain.

They thought they were growing up in a period of democracy in Burundi, after the years and years of war that their parents and grandparents suffered through.

However, they have learned that today, in Burundi, being a member of a political party that is not the one that is in power is a crime and your life will be destroyed.

They have learned that freedom of expression and opinion is a right held only by the party in power.

The opposition does not have much room to manoeuvre in.

The one choice open to them that they should not even consider is to cease to function.

The opposition in Burundi cannot afford to disappear or become puppets of the regime.

Although the political space is growing smaller and smaller as Burundi falls under the influence of the Kagame regime next door, political diversity is a must in this country that knows too well the impact of decades of military dictatorship.

The second choice is to flee the country and operate from exile as has happened across Africa under oppressive regimes.

Already this option is being witnessed as three leaders of opposition parties have fled the county fearing for their lives and many members of opposition parties have gone into hiding within the country.

//

This is hardly surprising given the large number of arrests and assassinations that have already taken place.

The third option is to return to the violence and permanent civil unrest that the country has known since Independence.

This is not a choice that the opposition, or any citizen would welcome.

However – given the fact that all attempts at dialogue requested by the opposition have been refused and that the international community has sat quiet while electoral fraud, abuse of human rights and violence has taken place this option – sadly may yet become a reality.

The international community, obsessed with stability has turned a blind eye to all these manoeuvrings and abuses of human rights and of freedom of expression; they chose a rigged election managed by a police state rather than a vibrant democracy where the opinions of all are respected.

In June the opposition leaders called for support from the East African Community.

They naively thought that the leaders in the neighbouring paper democracies would insist on transparent electoral processes.

They had hoped that the region’s leaders would call upon the party in power to stop arresting, torturing and assassinating the political opposition.

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But they forgot that the East African Community was an old boys’ club and no one was going to rock the boat in this period of multiple elections across the region.

They forgot that leaders across the region have the same attitude to democratic elections; that across the region elections are rigged and the results of the elections known before the populace even goes to the polls. The EAC has chosen to support the perpetrators of abuse and not the victims.

We realise that if democracy is to be saved, it is for us to do it.

Political opposition and civil society need to stay strong and courageous in Burundi. We cannot return to the dictatorships that have oppressed our country for decades. We, the political opposition of Burundi, need to be an example to the region. We need to show how political pluralism can build a country, not destroy it.

What is the value of the East African Community if its members hide their heads in the sand and support oppressive regimes that do not respect basic human rights?

If we are serious about democracy in Africa we need to stop this Mickey Mouse game.

We have power holders who create fake opposition parties merely to show that there is “competition” – while there is no real diversity of opinion.

The naiveté of the foreign ministers in the region was is revealed in statements such as the one Kenya’s Moses Wetangula made in June when he said, “The EAC will insist on the democratisation of all member states to avoid a situation that could lead to disharmony and to ensure that they contribute positively to the wellbeing of the region.”

What form of democracy is he talking about?

Is it a democracy where parties that speak out against the regimes in power are destroyed, their members arrested, killed and tortured?

We need to hold our leaders accountable so that all can have their basic needs met and their rights respected.

As Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian political scientist says: “If Africans want democracy, they must be willing to pay the price. No one will pay it for them. Nor will they obtain it on credit.”

Alexis Sinduhije is president of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 16, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Support Jean-Claude Kavumbagu – Guest blog for Index on Censorship

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From Index on Censorship, Free Speech blog:

While Burundi’s war criminals go unpunished, my friend faces “treason” trial over critical article, says Richard Wilson

What do you do when someone you love gets murdered in a distant country you know almost nothing about? A decade ago my sister Charlotte died in a massacre in the small Central African state of Burundi. In the years that followed I was consumed by a need to understand why she had been killed, who had been responsible, and what, if anything could be done to bring them to book. Only a handful of people in the world could help me. Almost all were journalists. One of them was Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, editor of Burundi’s Netpress news agency.

The information, advice and contacts Jean-Claude gave me proved vital when I came to write the book about my sister’s life and death, Titanic Express. With truth comes a certain kind of cartharsis. To the extent that one ever can, I’ve “moved on” from what happened. But I will always remain endebted to those who helped my family find answers, asking nothing in return but that we do what we could to focus attention on the outrages happening in their country.

Jean-Claude has been a thorn in the side of successive governments in Burundi, both Hutu and Tutsi. His views are often controversial, but there is no questioning the price he has paid for them. In 1999, a year before my sister’s death, Jean-Claude was arrested by the Tutsi-led regime of Pierre Buyoya and held for two weeks on charges of operating an unregistered newspaper. He was detained again in 2001 by the same regime, and accused of insulting the public prosecutor. 2003 saw the installation of a new, Hutu-led government, which loudly proclaimed its commitment to peace, democracy and human rights. Three months later, Jean-Claude was arrested yet again and charged with “insulting the authorities”.

Elections in 2005 saw a landslide win for the Hutu ex-rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza, who has gained plaudits for his talk of “forgiveness” and “reconciliation”. Sadly, Nkurunziza has been markedly unforgiving of critical coverage by the independent media. While no serious efforts have been made to prosecute those responsible for the ethnic massacres that have plagued Burundi over the last two decades, in recent years dozens of independent journalists have been detained or threatened over their work.

[Click here for full article]

Written by Richard Wilson

August 14, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Posted in Censorship, Democracy

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Robin Esser: An apology

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In an article published yesterday on this website, I invited readers to vote on whether the Daily Mail’s Executive Managing Editor Robin Esser was a “total fliphead” or an “utter nincompoop”.

In comments elsewhere, I said or strongly implied that “total fliphead” was a truthful and appropriate description of Mr Esser. Following the results of the poll, I now accept that this description was inaccurate and wrong. A clear majority of respondents (57% at the time of writing) have concluded that Mr Esser is not, in fact a “total fliphead” but an “utter nincompoop”.

I apologise unreservedly for any offence that these comments may have caused, both to Robin Esser himself and to any total flipheads who felt tainted by this association with Mr Esser and his newspaper. I withdraw the allegation and am happy to set the record straight.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 13, 2010 at 7:58 am

Poll: Is Daily Mail Managing Editor Robin Esser a total fliphead or an utter nincompoop?

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Every so often the Daily Mail surpasses itself in its quest to retain its status as the UK’s number-one reactionary antediluvian hate-rag from the dark ages. Today was one of those days.

From the Daily Mail

They are hormonal, incapable of leaving their personal lives at home and only too happy to talk about their staff behind their backs.

Female bosses are a nightmare to work for, a survey of employees concludes.

And it is not just men who think so.

Two-thirds of women said they preferred a male boss because their straight-talking, ‘get to the point’ attitude makes them easier to deal with.

It turns out this story was based on a survey which the excellent Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics Society took back in June, as part of an investigation into dodgy online polling. Marsh writes:

forced-choice where no answers actually fit is a recurring theme in these polls… take for example, as a first question: ‘Who do you prefer to work for, men or women?’ Binary choice. Go on, choose. This is followed up with ‘If you prefer to work for a man, why is this?’. Tick-box choices on offer were amazing – ‘Less likely to get involved in office politics’, ‘Easier to reason with’, ‘They’re able to leave their private life at home’, ‘Less mood swings’ and my personal favourite ‘No time of the month’. Fortunately, they’d given a box for ‘Other’, in which I merrily explained to them what sexist bullshit they were perpetrating – but I expect many chose an option, banked their 10p.

The next question was even worse: ‘If you prefer to work for a man, why do you think women make bad bosses?Bad bosses?! Question 1 forced me to choose who I preferred, now I’m suddenly labelling women incompetent! And the options? Classics – ‘they’re hormonal’, ‘they bitch all the time’, ‘they will stab others in the back’, ‘they spend too long worrying about their appearance’ and – again my favourite – simply ‘they lie’. I clicked Other, but how many people clicked at random to get through quick and bank their 10p? We’ll see, if it makes the newspapers as fact.

I hope to write more soon about the Daily Mail’s reckless disregard for the most basic standards of journalistic integrity, but in the meantime I thought I’d put together an online poll of my own, following similar methods to those that created today’s Daily Mail story. Enjoy!

Written by Richard Wilson

August 12, 2010 at 9:16 pm

The War on Wikileaks: Thiessen’s paradox

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Torture apologist Marc Thiessen has been having fun this week calling for the deployment of “military assets” against Julian Assange, and the destruction, if necessary by force, of his whistleblowing website, Wikileaks.

Wikileaks, Thiessen tells us, “is a criminal enterprise”. Its activities (which include the publication of classified military documents) are “likely a violation of the [US] Espionage Act” and “arguably constitute material support for terrorism”. Julian Assange is therefore “a criminal, not a journalist”.

Ideally, says, Thiessen, the US government should work with those countries where Julian Assange is believed to operate (including Iceland, Sweden and Belgium) to track down, arrest and extradite him by lawful means. But if these countries refuse to play ball, “the United States can arrest Assange on their territory without their knowledge or approval”.

Thiessen cites a 1989 US Justice Department memorandum which he suggests authorises the FBI to arrest Julian Assange anywhere in the world, even where such an arrest would violate “international or foreign law”.

But here lies something of a paradox. If Julian Assange is to be considered a “criminal” on the basis that his actions violate US national law – in this case the Espionage Act – then so too could anyone who broke international and Icelandic (or Belgian or Swedish) national law by snatching Assange by force, without permission from that country’s government, and spiriting him away to the United States.

In principle, any US agents who attempted such an unlawful arrest could be liable to prosecution themselves by the country in question. There’s a precedent for this: in Italy last November, 23 CIA agents were tried and sentenced in absentia over the 2005 kidnapping on Italian territory of an alleged terror suspect, Abu Omar.

If Wikileaks can be considered a “criminal enterprise” for its practice of publishing information in violation of national secrecy laws, so too could the CIA for its “rendition” and torture of people it claims to suspect of terrorism, in violation of international law.

Yet Thiessen appears to believe that the CIA’s activities were morally justified, even if they were illegal under international law, because, he claims, they helped to prevent terrorism, thereby serving a greater good (I’m not at all convinced that they did, but he’s entitled to his view).

Julian Assange, likewise, clearly believes that the activities of Wikileaks are morally justified, even if they break national secrecy laws, because, he claims, they are helping to deter corruption and abuse by governments and corporations, thereby also serving a greater good.

Now it may be that Thiessen only considers activities which break the laws of the United States (rather than international law, or the laws of other countries) to be “criminal”. But this definition of the word would seem somewhat parochial, and unlikely to win much sympathy outside of North America. Or it might be (as his arguments around torture and terror seem to suggest) that he believes some “criminal” activities to be morally justifiable. But if that’s the case then describing Julian Assange as a “criminal” doesn’t seem, in itself, to get us very far in resolving the ethical questions around Wikileaks’ activities.

Throughout history, all sorts of things have been considered “criminal” under a particular country’s national laws – criticising the government in the Soviet Union, inter-racial marriage in the Southern United States, homosexuality in 20th century Britain and modern day Malawi. It has generally not been widely accepted that a particular activity is morally wrong simply and solely because a particular government somewhere in the world – even the US government – has passed a law against it. Theissen might view Wikileaks as a “criminal enterprise”. Others (this author included) see it as an exercise in peaceful civil disobedience against national secrecy laws which serve more to cover up corruption than protect our “security”.

Of course part of what Thiessen seems to be getting at is that the United States can do what it wants to Julian Assange and Wikileaks because, legal and political niceties aside, no other country is in a position to stop them. He might be right – but again this argument has some parallels with the rationale behind the whistleblowing website. Wikileaks does what it does, in defiance of national laws around the world, in part because no-one has yet found a way to shut it down.

Even if the United States succeeds where China and North Korea has failed, and manages to arrest everyone involved with Wikileaks and locate and destroy every server in the world where the website is hosted, short of scanning every hard drive and memory stick on the planet it will be impossible to be sure that the huge database of yet-to-be-released Wikileaks secrets has not been safely stashed away somewhere, for release online, on a new website, at a later date.

Peaceful civil disobedience has a long and noble pedigree. The lesson to date seems to be that heavy-handed action against the leaders of peaceful civil disobedience movements can sometimes badly backfire.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 5, 2010 at 10:23 am