Thursday, May 26, 2011

like literacy taught by illiterates

The government has decided to abolish the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV and set up a new group to help with policy. The seat held on the old forum by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service has been given to the anti-abortion group Life.

At the same time, there was a parliamentary launch for the Sex and Relationships Education Council, an umbrella group of anti-abortionists, homophobes and abstinence promoters, with a resounding endorsement from Education Secretary Michael Gove.

One member, Christian abstinence advocates Silver Ring Thing, say they want to see "value-based, parent centred" sex education. Which is odd given that most times people have sex they would feel that something has gone wrong - in some instances even crossed the lines of the biologically impossible - if they ended up becoming parents as a result.

Of course, we know what they mean by 'value', and the most cursory look at their materials shows it; heterosexual patriarchal monogamous marriage. It's interesting to note their use of 'value' in the singular, like they've subconsciously wanted to be clear that there is one God, one model of sexual relationship, and all else shall burn in a lake of eternal fire.

Not that it's actually all overtly religious, as The F Word points out

Challenge Team UK, one of the organisations on the Council, is not a Christian organisation. Their volunteers are so passionate about the choice they have made to save their virginity until marriage, which is their choice so fair play to them, that they want to tell the world about it.

The FAQ part of the website includes, to my non-religious eyes, a fairly sensible question: “What if you save sex for marriage and then find out that you are sexually incompatible?” To this the answer is “Men and women are sexually compatible.”

But all these seats on panels and pressure groups is just an advisory thing, it's doesn't translate into actual real-world influence does it?

In Richmond, south-west London, the Catholic Children's Society has taken over the £89,000 contract to provide advice to schoolchildren on matters including contraception and pregnancies. Another Christian-run charity, Care Confidential, is involved in providing crisis pregnancy advice under the auspices of Newham PCT in east London.

This is not just about a clash of values, it's about outcomes. Abstinence-only sex education actually causes greater teenage pregnancies and STIs. Evidence published in the British Medical Journal shows that abstinence-based programmes

were associated with an increase in number of pregnancies among partners of young male participants. There were significantly fewer pregnancies in young women who received a multifaceted programme

This is real-world data about abstinence education, as opposed to the Silver Ring Thing telling us

God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honour.

What comes next? A council of avowed illiterates to decide how English is taught?

As George Monbiot wrote a few years ago when Silver Ring Thing first came to the UK

The two western countries at the top of the disaster league, the United States and the United Kingdom, are those in which conservative campaigns are among the strongest and sex education and access to contraception are among the weakest.

The United States, the UN Population Fund’s figures show, is the only rich nation stuck in the middle of the Third World block, with 53 births per 1000 teenagers – a worse record than India, the Philippines and Rwanda. The United Kingdom comes next at 20.

The nations the conservatives would place at the top of the list are clumped at the bottom. Germany and Norway produce 11 babies per 1000 teenagers, Finland eight, Sweden and Denmark seven and the Netherlands five.

So that's more than ten times the number of teenage pregnancies in freemarket, abstinence-heavy, anti-abortion USA than in the Netherlands. The Tories think this is something to emulate.

Monbiot concludes

The catastrophe afflicting so many teenagers in Britain and America, in other words, has been caused not by liberal teachers, liberated parents, Marie Stopes International and the Guardian, but by George Bush, Ann Widdecombe and the Daily Mail. They campaign against early sex education, discourage access to contraceptives and agitate against the social inclusion (income equality, the welfare state) which offers young women better prospects than getting knocked up.

Abstinence campaigns like the Silver Ring Thing do delay the onset of sexual activity, but when their victims are sucked into the cesspool (nearly all eventually are), they are around one third less likely to use contraceptives (according to a study by researchers at Columbia University), as they are not “prepared for an experience that they have promised to forgo.”

When Health Secretary Andrew Lansley calls in PepsiCo, McDonald's and Mars to write health policy it is an outrage, but it also makes sense as the government is there to grease the path of corporate power and increase the associated profits. To the Tories the payoff for that - more misery for the population and an expensive increase in demand for health services - pales in comparison.

But with this handing of power to the bigoted sex-hating monotheists, there's no such profit bonanza. This is simply the cruel claws of the Tories tearing into the flesh of the nation on general principle, acting out of opposition to any liberation or pleasure that is not paid for, and out of Francoesque deference to the vicious values of the traditional church.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

bin laden: no justice no peace

I know I'm a little late out of the starting blocks to talk about the killing of Osama bin Laden, but still.

If the American government could find him unarmed, subdue his associates, shoot him in the face then take his body away, they could have taken him alive. He could have been brought back and the Americans could have given their reasons for taking him. More importantly, he could have given his reasons for doing what he did.

Had he been made to stand and speak, allowed to define his position, it would have made the majority of muslims actively go 'hell no, he's not speaking in my name'. By being subjected to summary execution he becomes a pliable cipher to be claimed by all manner of causes, the silence he leaves can be filled by a myriad of future propagandists to further division and violence.

The White House says releasing pictures of Bin Laden's body would give the Islamists a 'propaganda coup' and may make things worse. Yet killing him in cold blood clearly does exactly that.

After the Second World War, the Allies faced the problem of what to do with Nazi war criminals. Winston Churchill opposed the idea of any trials, saying with good reason that there can be no doubt about Nazi guilt, and giving them a platform to mitigate or prosetylise would only help them.

Justice Robert H Jackson answered for the Americans, saying

Undiscriminating executions or punishments without definite findings of guilt, fairly arrived at, would violate pledges repeatedly given, and would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride. The only other course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times and horrors we deal with will permit and upon a record that will leave our reasons and our motives clear.

The Soviets agreed, and we had the Nuremburg trials. This was a major step forward from previous victories where the spoils were carved up by the victors who made a point of humiliating the vanquished. It set a tone for post-conflict activity from which we can trace a line forwards to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Irish Good Friday Agreement.

If we are so right, it should be easy to demonstrate it. If our enemies are so wrong, let them spell it out for posterity. Let there be due consideration and evidence declared for all the world to see, now and in future. This is humane, this paves the way for peace, it speaks of a concern for justice that sets some folks apart from others.

The phrase 'brought to justice' is commonly used as a synonym for a tribunal or trial. So Barack Obama - his Nobel Peace Prize gathering dust at home - does a disservice to those progressive peace-seeking deeds set in train by his predecessor Harry Truman in 1945 by saying that the summary execution of Osama Bin Laden was 'bringing him to justice'. Justice is the process that ends with sentence. The killing of Bin Laden had no such process, it leapfrogged straight to punishment.

Obama has been keen to talk of "what makes us different" from Bin Laden with respect to the treatment of dead bodies. However, in the treatment of people who are alive, the Bin Laden operation is not easily distinguishable from the actions it punished.

There can be no claim that Bin Laden's deeds were worse than the Nazis. If people long before us, brought up in a world of empires, eugenics and all manner of supremacist thinking, could find a way to step forward, then we have no excuse for not doing the same.

The people whose policy of perpetrating crimes against humanity on those they intern in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are not concerned with creating justice, let alone peace. Indeed, killing an unarmed captive who poses no immediate threat is in itself a war crime.

History shows that a preparedness to use force is not contradictory to the creation of peace, it just needs to be applied with intelligence, with forethought about the view from other parts of the world and from times yet to come, and with an abandonment of short-term Vin Diesel movie urges for retribution. When we yield to those impulses we pollute the moral high ground with the seed of future conflict.

Peace is the most precious of our intangible resources. It does not mean we cannot sacrifice some of it, but it must always be done reluctantly and with awareness of the consequences, actively concerned with minimising how much peace we lose.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

glastonbury: a load of bull

Next month's Glastonbury Festival is to have a 200 seater bullring built from old canal lock doors. Festival head honcho Michael Eavis told the BBC

I've got this bullfighter coming over from Portugal with a cape to fight an artificial bull in a mock bull fight.

They can't get any British bullfighters for the simple reason that such cruelty to animals is illegal in the UK.

What's going to be new for next Glastonbury? Paying convicted badger baiters and dog-fighters to hold mock fights?

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

why i'm voting yes

It doesn't feel like a country with an imminent referendum. I remember seeing flyposters in 1997 in Wales. I remember seeing posters in house windows in 1975. I've seen neither this time.

It is perhaps because - oh the irony - AV is nobody's first choice of voting system. One of the No campaign leaflet's main points is that only three countries have it. But take a look at the swathe of countries that emerged from the Soviet Bloc twenty years ago; none went for AV but none went for First Past The Post either.

Another of the No campaign's arguments is that we should vote No because Nick Clegg wants us to vote Yes. Appealing though that sentiment is, there is a more persuasive point for a Yes vote; David Cameron wants you to vote No.

Meanwhile, outside the infant school playground, this is not about which party wants you to vote which way. It's about parties of all shades off into the distant future.

First Past The Post only works if there are two candidates. This is why only an institution as retrogressive as the British Parliament - still swearing an oath of allegiance to a ruler who holds her position because she is vaguely descended from ancient foreign robber-barons - sticks by it. The Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Greater London Authority all use more representative methods and none of the evil things the No campaign talk of are going on there. Hell, even the Tory party don't elect leaders that way.

The No campaign says AV will cost £250m. Most of this will allegedly be the cost of electronic voting machines; yet such machines are not necessary, are not planned, and indeed Australia has AV without voting machines and gets along just fine.

Contrary to the No claims, AV will not let extremist parties in, because they are never going to get over 50% of the votes no matter how many run-offs happen. Channel 4 found the BNP are not even going to have enough votes to make their second preferences swing a seat, not even close. If and when fascist parties rise it is fascists and fascism we should be fighting rather than rigging systems to exclude all small parties.

The Yes campaign's not afraid of being disingenuous either, though.

The beer poster presumes most of us want beer; the cat video presumes we mostly want cats. This works if you're the fraction of a percent who vote for the various socialist parties who would like to support each other as second preference, but not far beyond it. The implication - that all non-Tory parties are essentially the same - certainly doesn't apply to party politics as the British public know and vote for it.

AV will not put an end to tactical voting; we'll still be scared that if we don't put the main Tory-challenger second then it'll let the Tory in. AV might make centre parties work harder to get second preference votes from the margins, but then again it's also easy to imagine that it may - like First Past The Post definitely does - drag the policies of candidates to the centre. AV will not stop elections being fought by vested interests, nor will it make MPs more accountable. It will not stop candidates lying, nor will it end cheapshot polices.

But what AV will do is widen who elections are aimed at. Currently, it's all about a few thousand easily swayed gullibles in a handful of swing seats. Under AV, it'd be about a greater pool of slightly-less-gullibles in a larger number of swing seats. The leverage becomes greater. Most importantly, AV opens the door to further reform, to a greater plurality of voices being heard. Look at the make-up of the UK's institutions run by other electoral methods and you plainly see that.

In 1997, Wales voted Yes to having a Welsh Assembly by the narrowest of margins; 50.3% to 49.7%. On the same day, Scotland was asked if it wanted a parliament with tax-raising powers and overwhelmingly voted Yes. Polls in Wales showed that had they had the same offer as Scotland - and I defy anyone to give a good reason why they weren't - they would also have voted a strong Yes. Many people were not against devolution but actually against such a crap offer.

But as this year's new Welsh Assembly powers demonstrate, grey politics tends to work incrementally. Had Wales said No in 1997 they wouldn't have had this year's chance of improvement. Don't let the UK make that mistake, thinking that a vote against AV will somehow advance the chances of a fairer system. The reverse is true.

The only thing to be said abstaining from voting at all is that, as with any election, you give your mandate to the power-crazed fuckheads in charge. But the only reason to abstain is if you genuinely think that it will make no difference at all. As the switch from Labour to ConDem has proven in stark terms, there is a spectrum of how wrong government can be. Lives and livelihoods exist in the gap between bad and worse.

The only strong reason to vote No is if you genuinely believe First Past The Post is a fairer system, in which case you are too hard of thinking to deserve a vote at all.