Friday, November 12, 2010
It’s time to stand up for courage and conviction
Machiavelli and other humanists would have been appalled by today’s bureaucratisation of everyday life that threatens vital public virtues. Whilst there is an obsession with ‘public engagement’ today, the very virtues necessary for a public spirit - risk-taking, devotion, courage - are stigmatised
There has been considerable discussion in recent years about the lack of public engagement in civic and political life. But this discussion suffers from the fact that it’s conducted from the perspective of a political elite that is itself socially isolated. This elite therefore has a perception of the public as an object with which one engages. That itself tells me straightaway that when we use the word ‘public’, we’re almost invariably not talking about the public in the way that it’s been historically understood.
In many respects, the public has become a project, a project of inclusion. New Labour loved having these projects. So every museum would start saying ‘we’re showing fine art, but we’re also spending millions of pounds on including the public’. The moment the public becomes a project that you seek to include artificially, it acquires a fantasy-like character. Hence, virtually everything we say about public engagement – counting the numbers, checking whether the voter turnout has gone up by two per cent since last time and so on – all represent this kind of fantasy of trying to create a link that really isn’t there. Just because you vote at a particular time, just because you come to a meeting, this does not involve or imply the reality of a public.
Historically, a public referred to a group of people with an idea of themselves as distinct and independent, as having something in common, and a sense that it had some power and influence. So therefore the idea of empowering the public is a contradiction in terms: power is gained, not granted. When you ‘empower’ people, you’re not empowering them, you’re enfeebling them.
Today, it seems that almost every form of public engagement – of public relations – is a kind of impression management. People make a lot of money out of it, but it really doesn’t bear upon everyday life. I think the problem is a cultural one and that’s the domain we should be addressing.
The cultural problem that we have today is something that Machiavelli identified over 500 years ago. He grasped that the strength of a body politic is determined by the extent to which it was infused by public spirit. As far as Machiavelli was concerned, a real public spirit accounted for the strength of the Roman Empire – the Roman republic specifically – and also the incredible things that were going on in Florence, Sienna and so on during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And Machiavelli made the point that public spirit presupposes a set of virtues, forms of behaviour that you expect people to have as part and parcel of everyday life. These virtues would include devotion, courage, patriotic conviction, risk-taking and so on. (That all this seems so terribly old-fashioned now is part of the problem.)
I would argue that almost every single virtue that makes for public spirit is stigmatised by our society. Having recently been listening to people’s recollections at the inquiry into the 7/7 bombings about what happened that terrible day in London in 2005, what really struck me was that you had stories of people wanting to do things for the hurt and injured but who were being told by fire officers that for health and safety reasons they could not go anywhere near these people.
Just imagine: here are all these people, they’re trying to help others, they’re trying to do the right thing, but to do so they have to adhere to a very clear process. All these processes, all these procedures, serve to displace public interaction. They make public virtue dependent on adhering to different codes of conduct.
This displacement of public virtue happens in all sorts of ways. Just this morning, for instance, I heard yet another plea for volunteering – I almost felt like throwing up, I’ve heard it so many times. Now call me old-fashioned, but when I was young you volunteered because you believed in something. You wanted to help people; you wanted, for instance, to give blood. You didn’t do volunteering because it looked good on your CV. So, while volunteering certainly has a virtuous potential, it has been turned into a process that you adhere to much in the way that you clock on to a job.
An example of this stigmatisation of virtue relates to something I feel strongly about, namely, devotion and care. During the course of writing a book a few years ago called Therapy Culture, I noticed that aspects of devotion and care had become increasingly stigmatised, often being expressed and defined as a marker of a disease. In fact, any manifestation of love, friendship, loyalty or altruism was potentially labelled as a form of addictive behaviour. Altruistic behaviour – which hardly seems a bad thing – is actually diagnosed as compulsive helping. According to this definition, compulsive helpers disregard their own needs and feelings and focus on helping another person. That kind of sums up our current situation with regards to public virtue: in a different era, in a different society, this so-called disease would be seen as a positive thing.
Rhetorically, responsibility and loyalty are still upheld as public virtues, of course. But in practice these are undermined, time and time again. Something happened to me recently that made me think about this in a way that I hadn’t before. Last year, my mother died. While she was in hospital, I used to go to visit her all the time. And the very first time I went to visit her, I introduced myself to the nurse: ‘I’m Frank Furedi, I’m Clara’s son.’ The woman looked up at me and said, ‘You mean you’re her “carer”’. ‘No, her son’, I responded. But she was insistent: ‘No, you are her carer.’
It was very interesting that she used the word carer. This kind of terminology displaces the idea that there’s some kind of spontaneous and informal relationship with a bureaucratic typology. It reminds me of the way in which very elementary forms of compassion, of human interaction, have been pretty much blocked out altogether.
For that reason, the public can never have the virtues we want the public to have because we’ve done such a brilliant job at undermining those virtues. It is worth recalling that Machiavelli and other humanists feared the professionalisation of public duty. If you look at their writings, time and again they point to the danger of their city states relying on mercenaries instead of the services provided by citizens. From their perspective, the employment of mercenaries absolved the people from taking responsibility for the future of their community and served as instruments of the corrosion of public duty. That’s more or less what the bureaucratisation of public life has achieved today. It leads to a world where even family responsibility can become outsourced to ‘carers’. In such circumstances the public can’t do anything until a bureaucrat ticks the right box.
So we need a change in cultural attitudes towards the public.
When I was in Australia this summer during the election, the prime minister, Julia Gillard – who I don’t particularly like, but who has her strengths – decided that she would set up a citizens’ assembly to discuss climate change. ‘Why not?’, I thought, ‘this is a good thing’. After all, it affects the citizens, so why shouldn’t they get to discuss it?
But climate change experts opposed to the idea were saying ‘these are citizens, they are not experts on climate change’. The environmentalists were even worse. They were saying, ‘we don’t want citizens because ordinary folk are selfish, they only care about guzzling gas, they want to have big carbon footprints. So we want a proper committee of experts.’ And in the end, when the assembly was set up, Gillard had basically got rid of the idea of an assembly of normal people and had stuffed it with the experts instead.
In a press release she explained that instead of a committee of people, we have a group of experts who have a greater understanding of the challenge of climate change. ‘While the commission will set up a website’, she continued, ‘there are no plans for a major advertising campaign’. The committee concluded that the proposal for a citizens’ assembly should not be implemented and that there would be other ways of harnessing public dialogue and engagement in the science of climate change and engagement in questioning the price of carbon.
This illustrates how the language of public engagement, public dialogue, public inclusion are self-consciously used as a means to push people away. And I don’t blame Gillard or any other politician. I think politicians are in a very difficult situation. It’s not their fault.
What I do have a problem with is the fact we don’t recognise that ordinary people have been silenced, that we’ve forced people to censor themselves in terms of what they actually believe and what they think. And most importantly, instead of culturally validating people’s active, positive side – all the good things about human beings – what we’ve done is subjugate them to the most boring, flattened out form of bureaucratic rule. As long as that’s the case, any form of public engagement will simply be a caricature of itself.
Gingerbread 'person', the PC pudding: Now even biscuits can't escape Britain's politically correct brigade
In the nursery rhyme, the Gingerbread Man fled from the clutches of an old woman and her husband. But now he has been cornered by an even more unforgiving foe – political correctness. Council bureaucrats have stripped gingerbread men of their gender and renamed them gingerbread ‘persons’ on menus for 400 primary schools.
Parents in Lancashire were astonished when they discovered the change. ‘It is absolutely ridiculous,’ one mother said. ‘Someone has obviously taken the effort to change this and it is almost offensive. ‘I am all for anti-discrimination but this is a pudding. The gingerbread man is a character from a rhyme in a book, for goodness sake.’
Laura Midgley, of the Campaign Against Political Correctness, added: ‘It is totally ridiculous political correctness, nobody wants to talk about gingerbread people. They are what they are. ‘It is not just an innocent mistake. Whoever did it, I hope they will think long and hard about it. ‘If these sorts of things go unchallenged, they become the norm.’
The wording went out on the new autumn-winter weekly menu provided by the Lancashire School Meals Service. Preston MP Mark Hendrick described the change as ‘daft’.
The outcry has since forced officials into an embarrassing U-turn. They now claim renaming the biscuits was a mistake and that their gender will be reinstated as soon as possible. Last night a spokesman for Lancashire County Council confirmed the gingerbread man would be back on school menus after Christmas.
It is not the first time the gingerbread man’s gender has come under threat from the PC brigade. In 2006 branches of Bakers Oven in the West Midlands changed the name of gingerbread men to gingerbread persons, but reversed the decision after opposition from the public.
It follows a series of similar decisions by councils nationwide, including the renaming of school dinner favourite Spotted Dick to Spotted Richard last year by officials in North Wales. They said they were fed up with customers’ childish sniggering.
Palestinian held for Facebook criticism of Islam
No free speech in the Muslim world
A mysterious blogger who set off an uproar in the Arab world by claiming he was God and hurling insults at the Prophet Muhammad is now behind bars — caught in a sting that used Facebook to track him down.
The case of the unlikely apostate, a shy barber from this backwater West Bank town, is highlighting the limits of tolerance in the Western-backed Palestinian Authority — and illustrating a new trend by authorities in the Arab world to mine social media for evidence.
Residents of Qalqiliya say they had no idea that Walid Husayin — the 26-year-old son of a Muslim scholar — was leading a double life. Known as a quiet man who prayed with his family each Friday and spent his evenings working in his father's barbershop, Husayin was secretly posting anti-religion rants on the Internet during his free time.
Now, he faces a potential life prison sentence on heresy charges for "insulting the divine essence." Many in this conservative Muslim town say he should be killed for renouncing Islam, and even family members say he should remain behind bars for life.
"He should be burned to death," said Abdul-Latif Dahoud, a 35-year-old Qalqiliya resident. The execution should take place in public "to be an example to others," he added.
Over several years, Husayin is suspected of posting arguments in favor of atheism on English and Arabic blogs, where he described the God of Islam as having the attributes of a "primitive Bedouin." He called Islam a "blind faith that grows and takes over people's minds where there is irrationality and ignorance."
If that wasn't enough, he is also suspected of creating three Facebook groups in which he sarcastically declared himself God and ordered his followers, among other things, to smoke marijuana in verses that spoof the Muslim holy book, the Quran. At its peak, Husayin's Arabic-language blog had more than 70,000 visitors, overwhelmingly from Arab countries.
His Facebook groups elicited hundreds of angry comments, detailed death threats and the formation of more than a dozen Facebook groups against him, including once called "Fight the blasphemer who said 'I am God.'"
Husayin is the first to be arrested in the West Bank for his religious views, said Tayseer Tamimi, the former chief Islamic judge in the area.
The Western-backed Palestinian Authority is among the more religiously liberal Arab governments in the region. It is dominated by secular elites and has frequently cracked down on hardline Muslims and activists connected to its conservative Islamic rival, Hamas.
Husayin's high public profile and prickly style, however, left authorities no choice but to take action.
Husayin used a fake name on his English and Arabic-language blogs and Facebook pages. After his mother discovered articles on atheism on his computer, she canceled his Internet connection in hopes that he would change his mind.
Instead, he began going to an Internet cafe — a move that turned out to be a costly mistake. The owner, Ahmed Abu-Asal, said the blogger aroused suspicion by spending up to seven hours a day in a corner booth. After several months, a cafe worker supplied captured snapshots of his Facebook pages to Palestinian intelligence officials.
Officials monitored him for several weeks and then arrested him on Oct. 31 as he sat in the cafe, said Abu-Asal.
Husayin's family has been devastated by the arrest. On a recent day, his father stood sadly in the family barber shop, cluttered with colorful towels and posters of men in outdated haircuts. He requested that a reporter not write about his son to avoid being publicly shamed.
Two cousins attributed the writings to depression, saying Husayin was desperate to find better work. Requesting anonymity because of the shame the incident, they said Husayin's mother wants him to remain in prison for life — both to restore the family's honor and to protect him from vigilantes.
The case is the second high-profile arrest connected in the West Bank connected to Facebook activity. In late September, a reporter for a news station sympathetic to Hamas was arrested and detained for more than a month after he was tagged in a Facebook image that insulted the Palestinian president.
Gaza's Hamas rulers also stalk Facebook pages of suspected dissenters, said Palestinian rights activist Mustafa Ibrahim. He said Internet cafe owners are forced to monitor customers' online activity, and alert intelligence officials if they see anything critical of the militant group or that violates Hamas' stern interpretation of Islam.
In neighboring Syria, Facebook is blocked altogether. And in Egypt, a blogger was charged with atheism in 2007 after intelligence officials monitored his posts.
Husayin has not been charged but remains in detention, said Palestinian security spokesman Adnan Damiri. He could face a life sentence if he's found guilty, depending on how harshly the judge thinks he attacked Islam and how widely his views were broadcast, said Islamic scholar Tamimi.
Even so, a small minority has questioned whether the government went too far. Zainab Rashid, a liberal Palestinian commentator, wrote in an online opinion piece that Husayin has made an important point: "that criticizing religious texts for their (intellectual) weakness can only be combatted by ... oppression, prison and execution."
Big Brother society is bigger than ever: New technology is ‘undermining privacy by stealth’
The march of Britain’s ‘Surveillance Society’ was exposed last night in a devastating report. Experts warned that a raft of new technologies were intruding ever further into private lives. And legal protections were struggling to keep up with the ‘Big Brother’ onslaught, the Surveillance Studies Network said.
The academics praised the Coalition for ditching ID cards and some state databases but they identified a string of threats including:
* Social networking sites that have ‘exponentially’ increased their holdings of personal data
* Body scanners at airports that invite ‘voyeuristic opportunism’
* Automatic numberplate recognition cameras
* CCTV cameras in schools that measure teacher performance
* Aerial police drones that are ‘more pervasive than CCTV’
* GPS devices that can track the movements of staff such as cleaners to within a few yards
* Software that allows users to track their friends but which could be hacked by outsiders
* Databases that sort individuals by their ethnicity or social class.
The network’s last report – in 2006 – warned that Britain was sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Yesterday it raised the alarm over surreptitious and unaccountable surveillance practices and weak legal protections.
‘Much surveillance also goes beyond the limits of what is tolerable in a society based on the rule of law and human rights, one of which is the right to privacy, the report said. ‘Some technologies have gone from being a subject of speculation to being in mainstream use in many different areas.
‘Given the relatively low level of public and political understanding of technologies such as databases, it is too easy for functions to creep surreptitiously without exposure to widespread comment, debate, or procedures for deciding on the acceptability and accountability or uses.’
The network said that numberplate cameras were first sold as a crime fighting tool that would allow police to track serious criminals. Now however they are being used to follow political protesters and hand out fines for minor parking and traffic infringements.
The network called for compensation for individuals placed under unlawful police surveillance and a requirement that those being watched are told afterwards.
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said: ‘Many of the new laws that come into force every year in the UK have implications for privacy at their heart. ‘My concern is that after they are enacted there is no one looking back to see whether they are being used as intended, or whether the new powers were indeed justified in practice. ‘One example of this is the use of covert CCTV surveillance by local councils to monitor parents in school catchment area disputes under powers designed to assist in crime prevention and detection.’
A Government spokesman said: ‘The new government believes there has been too much intrusion into the private lives of people in this country. ‘We have put civil liberties at the heart of our policies and our first piece of legislation was to scrap ID cards. ‘We are committed to rolling back big government and state intrusion.’
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here or Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.