Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Which means no free speech at all

The Islamic campaign against free speech continues to pick up steam. With the backing of the visiting High Representative of the European Union for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Mr. Javier Solana, and of a visiting Russian delegation, the Permanent Representatives of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Member States convened at the OIC Headquarters in Jeddah on February 14, 2006 to approve the following five points (emphasis added):

* the adoption by the EU of necessary legislative measures through the European Parliament against Islamophobia;

* making joint efforts by the EU and the OIC to adopt UN Resolution on the lines of existing UN Resolution 60/150 (Combating defamation of religions) which should prohibit defamation of all Prophets and faiths;

* the adoption of a code of ethics for the European media;

* the adoption of an International Communication Media Order by the United Nations which should cover a definition of freedom of speech in case of religious symbols;

* the inclusion of an operative paragraph prohibiting blasphemy, defamation of religions and incitement to hatred in the text of Human Rights Council resolution presently being negotiated.

Kofi Annan is on board. Seeing no problem with using his own bully pulpit in matters such as the cartoon caricature controversy, he has endorsed the language prohibiting blasphemy or defamation of religions which the Organization of the Islamic Conference wants to add to the text of the new Human Rights Council resolution.

Somehow, Annan has convinced himself with his own doublespeak that there is no contradiction between mandating what is acceptable to say or write on a particular subject and opposing censorship of the press. That should not be a surprise, since he continues to display his own animus toward reporters who dare to ask critical questions about the United Nations while having his spokesman maintain that "the United Nations respects the right of the press to ask questions". It has gotten so bad lately that the normally pliant UN Correspondents Association sent a complaint to Annan's press spokesman about a testy exchange between the Secretary-General and one UN correspondent on February 16. The correspondents stressed to the spokesman that all journalists should have the right to have their questions answered. In true UN doublespeak fashion, Annan's spokesman denied what had really happened, saying only that the Secretary- General had been asked a question and simply chose to answer with a question of his own. http://www.un.org/News/ossg/hilites/hilites_arch_view.asp?HighID=502

It is best to judge for yourself. Here is the actual exchange on February 16 between Annan and that reporter who was the object of Annan's wrath:

Q: These rapporteurs are considered independent, they are called independent. How much do they represent you, considering that you have called to actually overhaul the mechanism which they are appointed by?

SG: Do answers to any of your questions make any difference to your paper? Next question.

Kofi cannot be permitted to paper over the broader issue of press censorship with the kind of UN doublespeak he has his spokesman spouting at the daily briefings at UN headquarters. If we were only talking about voluntary codes of responsible journalism, there would be no issue so long as reporters were truly free to decide whether or not to comply. We can agree that the publishers of the offensive cartoons were irresponsible and should have exercised better judgment. But as soon as we enter the realm of legal sanctions against unacceptable speech that are incorporated into an instrument of international law, we are talking about something else entirely. Such compulsion - no matter how attractively packaged - completely undermines the liberties of thought, belief and expression guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

Justice Samuel Alito, who was just recently confirmed to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, expressed the core First Amendment value this way in an opinion that he wrote as an appellate judge dealing with the constitutionality of a `hate speech' code: "There is of course no question that non-expressive, physically harassing conduct is entirely outside the ambit of the free speech clause. But there is also no question that the free speech clause protects a wide variety of speech that listeners may consider deeply offensive, including statements that impugn another's race or national origin or that denigrate religious beliefs. When laws against harassment attempt to regulate oral or written expression on such topics, however detestable the views expressed may be, we cannot turn a blind eye to the First Amendment implication.This sort of content- or viewpoint-based restriction is ordinarily subject to the most exacting First Amendment scrutiny."

We are at the cusp of a fundamental clash of values with the escalating demands that Islamists are incrementally advancing in the international arena. We respect the beliefs of all religions - including Islam - and protect the rights of those who peacefully adhere to those beliefs. We also protect the rights of those who wish to publicly express their personal disrespect for all religious beliefs or to criticize particular ones, so long as they confine their disrespect to peacefully expressed speech. We urge responsible speech, but we do not mandate it with the force of law. We can criticize those who use their freedoms irresponsibly and decide not to buy their products or services, but we cannot criminalize speech that we disagree with if we are to remain a free society. The line for legally impermissible behavior in our society is drawn against violent actions or intimidation as a way of forcing one's point of view on others.

Most Islamic legal systems draw this line differently. They mandate respect for Islam above all other values, including particularly over the freedom of critical thought. Now they want to export their legal system on this core issue to the rest of the world along with their oil. Even the representatives of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, who may spurn violence as the answer to settling disputes, use the fact of such violence to insist on respect for their own religion under penalty of law. However, they remain silent about the daily desecrations sanctioned by some Muslim governments and clerics against the symbols of non-Muslim "infidels".

The United Nations is being pulled inexorably toward the Islamic worldview. They appear to have the votes in the General Assembly to push forward their agenda, where many member states who pay an infinitesimal fraction that the United States pays toward the UN's annual budget regularly band together to oppose the United States at virtually every turn. And the Islamists also have the help of enablers inside the UN bureaucracy, within some European countries, and among the "politically correct" crowd --- all of whom are too craven, too cynical or too naive to resist. But resist we must in order to protect the freedoms that we have fought for, even if we have to declare our independence from the United Nations and its entangling web of `international laws.'



Male drivers who are involved in a car crash are more likely to die if they are obese, a US study suggests. The Milwaukee team says this may be due to the driver's greater momentum in a crash and because of the effect obesity has on the body's ability to recover. But the bodies of moderately overweight men appear to cushion the blow, reports the American Journal of Public Health. The authors said their findings, based on crash data involving 22,000 people, had implications for vehicle design.

The team from the Injury Research Centre of the Medical College of Wisconsin looked at information on 22,000 people from a nationwide crash data collection programme sponsored by the US Department of Transportation. The fatality rate for motor vehicle crashes was 0.87% for male drivers and 0.43% for women drivers.

The team found that male drivers who had a body mass index that was either higher than 35 or lower than 22 had a "significantly increased risk of death" compared to those with an intermediate body mass index (BMI). BMI is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in metres and is a standard way of assessing whether a person is underweight, overweight or within a healthy weight range.

Lead author Professor Shankuan Zhu said: "The increased risk for death due to motor vehicle crashes associated with a high BMI may be caused by some combination of momentum effects, comorbidities (side effects) of obesity, and emergency post-operative treatment problems among the obese. "Furthermore, obesity imparts anatomical and physiological changes that may either protect or interfere with the body's response to injury."

He said the increased risk for those with a BMI lower than 25 may be because they lack some fat which could provide a cushion effect and absorb some of the energy of the crash. "It may also be because the reason they are thin is because they have some underlying disease," he added.

But there was no significant link between BMI and women drivers' risk of death, the researchers found. They suggest the reasons for gender difference in BMI and motor vehicle fatality might be due in part to the different male and female body shapes.

More here

Gender pay gap: what's it worth?

There's more to life than equal pay

The UK government's Women and Work Commission has found that the gender pay gap is worse in Britain than anywhere in Europe. Women in full-time work earn 13 per cent less than men in full-time work, based on median earnings (1). To compound this injustice, women who work part time earn 32 per cent less per hour than women who work full time and 41 per cent less per hour than men who work full time.

Prime minister Tony Blair hailed the report as a 'ground-breaking piece of work', and said that a 'massive amount of work' remains to be done to close the pay gap between men and women (2). He has appointed minister for women Tessa Jowell as a Cabinet 'champion' to produce an action plan. Meanwhile, the Commission has come up with 40 recommendations, involving everything from challenging gender stereotypes to additional regulation.

Katherine Rake, from women's equality campaign group the Fawcett Society, argues that a major problem is widespread discrimination within the workplace, while commission member John Cridland of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), counters that employers are not to blame: the problem is cultural, because the UK's education system 'completely fails' to alert schoolgirls to the fact that their choices will determine what they earn (3).

Whatever the causes of the gender pay gap, everybody seems to agree that it is a big problem that needs some kind of official resolution: through the law, through government campaigns, and through individual attitudes. But how much of a problem is the pay gap really, and do official 'solutions' work?

There seems little doubt that there remains a disparity between women's pay and that of their male counterparts. This seems to be accounted for by a continuing tendency for women to be paid less than men for doing equivalent jobs; for women's employment to be concentrated in the lower-paid, lower-skilled professions; for women to take time out of the labour market around the birth of their children; and for women with children to be more likely than men to work part-time.

From the standpoint of women whose primary goal in life is career advancement, these are sobering findings. But when they are placed in the murkier context of most women's - and men's - everyday lives, it becomes increasingly difficult to point the finger at those old bogeymen, inequality and discrimination. Because how, in that case, would we account for choice?

For all the official concern about cultural problems leading young girls to choose lower-paid careers, it is worth remembering some more general facts. Girls may well opt for arts degrees over engineering, but that's not because nobody has told them that engineers earn more than academics - it's because the 'male' professions have fallen out of favour even among men. In 'Creative Britain', where everybody wants to work in PR or TV, careers advisers can hardly be blamed if girls are even more likely than boys to follow their hearts rather than their wallets. The fact that the government has, in the past, felt driven to compensate for the national shortage in plumbers by coercing single mothers on to vocational courses shows how thinly the veneer of 'equal opportunities' is sometimes stretched to suit instrumental ends.

At school and university, young people make choices - and even if it were right for the government to want to change those choices, it is not going to do so through such initiatives as the Women and Work Commission's call for single-sex classes to teach girls computing, or government advertising to encourage 'non-stereotypical portrayals of women and men at work'. It is also worth remembering that the pay gap for young women - under 30 - is significantly smaller than that for women over 40. Figures from 2003 showed that for women aged 18 to 29, the mean pay gap ranged from three to five per cent, compared with a mean pay gap for women aged 40 to 64 of between 15 to 24 per cent. For both age groups, the pay gap was decreasing (see Women: are we equal now?, by Jennie Bristow).

This tells us two important things: that the younger generation is reaping the benefits of equality legislation, employment practice and cultural shifts in a way that the older generation could not; and that the problems regarding pay inequality kick in when women have children.

In the absence of time travel, there is nothing that can be done to improve the lot of women who began their careers 30 years ago, when life was that much less equal. On the other hand, there is a great deal that could be done to improve the career chances of women who have children today. This is not rocket science - it simply means more and cheaper childcare, with longer working hours that do not force women into a truncated working day, and an official approach to childcare that seeks to assuage parental guilt rather than increase it. This, however, seems way down the list of official priorities - if it appears at all.

Of the Women and Work Commission's million-and-one recommendations for improving equality at work, only one deals directly with the question of childcare provision - arguing the need to focus on women who work 'outside "9 to 5" hours and black and minority ethnic communities'. This is clearly perceived as far more boring than the several recommendations focusing on social engineering (manipulating girls' choices and the ambitions of women returning to work) or tightening up the regulatory framework, through reviews and equality reps and the governmental appointment of 'a ministerial champion of procurement as a means of spreading best practice in diversity and equal pay matters'.

No doubt such garbled syntax does great things for policymakers sitting on committees. Unfortunately, it does nothing at all for women, their partners or their children.

The big problem with the gender equality discussion today is the extent to which it eschews obvious, practical solutions to obvious, practical problems in favour of highly complex governmental strategies for cultural and behavioural manipulation. Policymakers are happy to bang on about childcare when it is part of a strategy to push single mothers or former housewives into work, whether these women want a paid job or not; when it comes to the simple proposition of making childcare better for those women who already use it, the interest wanes considerably. Why? Because rather than making political gestures about the choices that women and their families should make, such a strategy would amount to condoning the choices that women and their families do make - regardless of how these choices may fit into some rigid framework of equal opportunity and behavioural conformity.

Given the choice, some women with young children would (and indeed, already do) take maximum advantage of the childcare on offer in order to pursue their careers to the full while raising their families at the same time. Others choose to adapt their working ambitions, either temporarily or long-term, to spend rather more time with their kids and rather less on their career, with a consequent impact upon their pay. Some women even (shock horror) choose to stay at home full time. Who is the government to make value judgements about which of these choices is the most valid?

All women, regardless of their 'work-life balance', would benefit from having greater flexibility in the childcare domain, whether that means working until 7pm three days a week or having somewhere to leave the baby once a week while they go to the library, or out for a drink. None of them benefits from the contradictory carping that emanates from official quarters, telling them that their responsibility is to get out to work and thus reduce the pay gap, or that full-time daycare is not the ideal environment for young children, or that fathers should be changing more nappies so that mothers can familiarise themselves with the technicalities of plumbing.

When it comes to the tension between work and childcare, as in all other areas of life, women and men make what choices they can and what compromises they have to. In a society that likes to talk the talk on equality while keeping its hands clean on childcare provision, the line between choice and compromise is often less than clear - so in an ideal world, many women may not opt to leave work early to get to the nursery, or stay home for a fortnight when their child has chickenpox. But that does not mean that women or their partners are not making choices - about work, about children, and about how they want to shape their family lives.

What is blindingly obvious, however, is that pat explanations like 'discrimination' or 'gender stereotypes' don't wash when it comes to explaining why some women with young children work part-time. Reality is messier than that, and requires practical solutions, not empty political gestures.

It would be nice if the pay gap did not exist. But there is more to life than equal pay, and couples do not organise their family lives according to strict notions of fairness and equality. Furthermore, when closing the pay gap means such patronising recommendations as offering women who have never worked 'a voluntary session with a Personal Adviser at Jobcentre Plus' who can give them advice on how to dress, and creating government information campaigns showing men as parents and carers, one wonders who equality is supposed to be for these days (4). Is official equal opportunity something that benefits women, or another stick to beat us with?


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