International Peace Day

On the 21st of September…

News media has long been known to be a bit of a balancing act. The media shows us things it knows we want to see. It tailors its content to its market guided by years of finding out from its customers “what interests you?”.  But the media doesn’t just react to its readers, listeners and viewers. It plays a rather more elusive and pervasive role. The media also tells us what it thinks we we ought to know. As well as giving us what we want, it manages our expectations and tells us what we should want to read about, watch on our televisions and hear on our radios.
From looking at the front page of a newspaper we get a heady and hard to distinguish mix of what we want and what we should want.
Today is the International Day of Peace. A global day of celebration of cooperation, nonviolence, justice and equality. This event doesn’t feature on the top stories of news sites or radio shows. It isn’t a national holiday or the subject of much activity like a religious holiday might be. But all is not lost.
From looking at news sites and newspapers the top stories for planet Earth today are very much about peace.
News of the terrorist murder of Afghanistan’s peace envoy features as the top story. News of Mexico’s ongoing drug war, their state of negative peace is discussed. Stories of a typhoon in Japan threatening the Fukushima Daichii nuclear plant gives the headlines an environmental edge. Hopeful news of another Gaddafi stronghold falling to the Libyan government and their acceptance at the United Nations as the official representatives of the Libyan people are reported. Finally Obama’s peace mission to the middle east concludes global top stories.
Peace is about terrorism. Peace is about drugs and law and order. Peace is about protecting our environment and sustainability. Peace is about humanitarian intervention and global governance. Peace is about diplomacy and interstate conflict. Although there is no mention of this important date in today’s headlines every story leading the news today is fundamentally about peace. Murdoch doesn’t control the news, we do and today the news was about peace. That means that we the consumers of the news are desperate for news about peace. Not only that but the media executives agree with us. They think that we ought to know about peace.
Although no one has mentioned International Peace Day the outlook isn’t bad. Happy Peace Day, keep up the good work.

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Cuba and the right to property – capitalism or equality?

The Cuban Government announced last week that it was going to allow its people to own property for the first time. This is a huge change in what is arguably the only country in the world that still runs a centrally planned socialist economy.

Marxism demands the abolition of private property as one of the most important points in the move away from the free market so allowing it is surely a sign that Cuba is now moving closer to capitalism.

In all fairness Cuba does allow people to ‘sell’ for example their house but it more closely resembles a complicated system of bartering and government monitoring through officials that usually need to be bribed. It’s more like a state sponsored trade where the government acts like the mafia and demands a cut of the profit.

What does this mean for the Cuban people? For the first time since the revolution Cubans can now they say they own their house or a piece of land. This could trigger the most rudimentary market, cause Cubans to recognise this as their right and cut out the state from the process of allowing individuals to buy, sell and exchange their property for goods or services.

I’ve just inadvertently made an assertion that is pivotal in the next section: that Cubans have the right to own property and the state should be cut out of the process of buying or selling it.

There are several human rights that would support the presence of a free market in property, the right of individuals to own things and the right to be left alone by the state when you’re conducting private business.

Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states our right to privacy and to a home, denying the state the right to interfere with the process of buying or selling things or owning our home at all.

Article 17 of the Declaration explicitly states we have the right to own property; therefore there is no reason why we cannot buy and sell things, the basis of the free market.

I am unimpressed by the Cuban Government’s statement that it will ‘allow its people to own property’. It simply isn’t empowered to say which human rights Cubans do or don’t have. Cuban people have always had the right to own property and the right to be left alone by the state; the Cuban Government just didn’t respect it. I don’t think we should dismiss this important move towards greater freedom for Cubans simply because ‘they’ve always had it’ but I don’t think we should stand up and applaud Raul Castro for not denying his people their human rights. We wouldn’t say ‘well done’ if he announced that the Cuban Government had decided not to deny the people the right to life would we? It’s an extreme parallel to draw but human rights are indivisible, you can’t have one without the others. The right to life is part of the right to property and vice versa. They are also interdependent, they rely upon each other.

The right to property is one that comes up against attack from left of centre governments and ideologues more often than the others. They claim ‘property is theft’, ownership is taking away from the environment or property instead of being an individual right is a collective right belonging to society. All of these arguments have their merits but simply put, guaranteeing the right to property, with all its inherent connotations such as buying or selling goods or services, is guaranteeing equality in a market economy. Let me give some examples, the right to property prohibits a person of one ethnicity refusing to sell their home to a person of another. The buyer is human being therefore has the right to own property. It prohibits a gay person being refused service in a restaurant, that person is a human being therefore has the right to buy a service. It prohibits women being denied inheritance, she is a human being therefore has the right to own land and to receive and pass it on without interference. A wheelchair user can expect an access ramp into a cinema because they have an equal right to use the service as someone who can take the stairs. To paraphrase: the right to own property is not just the right to acquire a house, it’s the right of all human beings to participate in a market as equals, irrespective of any personal defining characteristic. The right to own property might be arguably the most capitalist of our human rights, it’s inextricably tied to the market and ownership, but it is also a great equaliser and without knowing it I am sure many of us invoke it every day.

Stereotypes, injustice and the power of the media

You can now find the audio version of this post on my youtube channel or by clicking here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/willvswatson?feature=mhum#p/u/0/43K4neDHSOg 

When you watch a film there are lots of characters that are unusually pretty incongruous. They’re there so that the lead character can explain things to them (for the benefit of the audience) and help smooth the narrative. Sometimes these characters are a sassy black best friend or maybe a noble man in a wheelchair or a flamboyant gay man.

These characters are in films intended to appeal to a broad audience on subject matter that everyone can relate to. They show that whilst the protagonist of the piece, our hero with whom we have a relationship with, is stoic and brooding, he is also modern and sophisticated. Of course, because our lead is willing to drink coffee with his Japanese friend who will use her superb knowledge of comic books or maths to help solve the crime, he must be 21st century and worldly.

This seemingly random selection of prejudicial stereotypes does not broaden the appeal of the film to a wider audience. It does not make it appear cultured or in touch with modern trends. It doesn’t help watchers of the film who are Japanese or disabled identify with characters in it. It just makes it look stupid and bigoted.

How transparent can you get? Even white, straight males know that all black nurses aren’t feisty and religious. They know that sometimes gay men like to drink beer and play football. They aren’t all stupid or narrow-minded so if the makers of films are trying to appeal to them in this way then they’re really missing something.

So my question is this, when will I get to see a film where the hero of our story, our protagonist, is in a wheelchair? But not just that, when he is in a wheel chair and ‘him being in a wheelchair’ is not part of the storyline and won’t even be mentioned? When will they start to portray a man in a wheelchair as an average guy on whom a film might be centred around?

No, he won’t be overcoming adversity to his disability. He won’t be lobbying the government for a change in disability laws or fighting his reluctant doctors to give him stem cell therapy so he can walk again. He will just be in a wheelchair and that’ll be fine by him.

When will I see a film in which a gay woman is our lead and her relationship with her partner isn’t ‘on the rocks’ or where they aren’t pulling together through the condemnation of society and the rejection of their families? When will they be portrayed as ‘just a typical family’?

Essentially what I’m asking is – when will we have reached the threshold of societal tolerance that the media will start to appeal to the majoritarian audience by portraying the minority?

We’ve been waiting a while now, it’s not like the rights women or ethnic minorities are a new fad and this isn’t something that’s gone unnoticed. Stonewall, the LGB lobbying group in the UK, have criticised television broadcasting as portraying gay people as “promiscuous, predatory, or figures of fun”. They go on to link this to a vicious circle that sustains prejudice in society. When people (particularly children) from backgrounds in which they are not exposed to gay people encounter them they refer to their knowledge of them from the TV screen. Which is often less than congratulatory – their report says “just 46 minutes out of 126 hours’ output showed gay people positively and realistically”. http://bbc.in/gYqfzN

The media may claim it only produces what is sought after. That it is simply a factory for programming that the public demand. That is unbelievable. In an age when we are all aware of the awesome power of the media to place an idea in someone’s head (and not the other way around) it is they that should be leading the offensive against injustice. In a broader sense business has a responsibility to counter act negative effects it may produce as a by-product. Chemical companies clean up toxic waste spills. It’s about time that film and television started clearing up the toxic waste that is their products and start recognising their duty to do something about the prejudice and intolerance that they sustain through their negligence.

Gun Crime – the 2nd amendment, Human Rights and protecting society.

For British people who are not necessarily familiar with what a written constitution means imagine it as 1 part case-law, 2 parts statute, 2 parts European law, 1 part tradition and the rights of the Monarch, and 3 parts the European Convention on Human Rights. Traditionally written constitutions describe the relationship between the governed and the government and both of them with the state.

So, the typical argument against gun crime regulation in the United States is that people have a constitutional right to ‘bear arms’. This is not inaccurate, the 2nd amendment to the US constitution enshrines “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”. Upon looking at this for a moment one might think “hang on, they’re right, whether we like it or not the constitution is pretty clear on this one, people have a right to bear arms”. No matter which way you look at it, it could be argued that human beings have a general freedom to do what they want. But take a second look… and now specifically at the commas. Those are the tricky part. The commas here set out what is the law and what describes the law. We all know how a single comma can fundamentally change the meaning of a sentence and I think now is one of those times.

Let’s try this again but this time I will change the font style to make it clearer. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”. So this time the parts in bold is the right that is being set out whilst everything else describes the right. Now hang on, wait, the 2nd amendment suddenly means something completely different! This right describes accurately a state-run, regulated, police force of private individuals working on behalf of society and appointed by the state to protect the both of them, who may or may not be armed. Much like exists in the form of the FBI or any national force elsewhere.

This all comes back to the intentions of the writers of the Constitution. These intentions are constantly debated and scholars of the intents of these men are highly trained legal experts in their field. In fact an entire, extremely powerful, institution exists to interpret the meaning and intention behind the words of the Constitution: The United States Supreme Court.

I cannot begin to fathom the intentions of these people, nor do I think I need to. Of course it would be great to have consensus on the meaning of the 2nd amendment, or … one better, it would be great to have consensus with my interpretation, not the opposite, but that simply isn’t possible. This brings us to the issue of human rights. Do we have a human right to carry an instrument that has the highest conceivable (and no practical other use) potential to remove the human rights of another person, permanently? One of the cornerstones of human rights law is that when human rights conflict one must back down. As far as I am concerned the Right to Life is going to win against every other human right in the book. to put it glibly: what use are other rights when you’re dead? It seems a matter of no contention that human beings should not be allowed to increase their killing potential a hundred fold because they have a right to freedom to do as they like.

This is where the word regulation comes into it. The amendment clearly states that the right to bear arms should be well-regulated. Now what we consider ‘well’ regulated on either side of the Atlantic differs massively. In the United States many argue that current legislation on guns already represents heavy regulation, in the UK we tear out hair out at the very thought of an unloaded gun being within a 10 mile radius of us. This may be a difference in culture but in fact I think that it is our cultural similarities causing the trouble. In Britain we are well accustomed to state regulation and although we grumble at it we don’t reject it outright, we don’t have that frontier spirit of pulling yourself up by your boot straps and doing it for yourself. So we look at our TV screens in horror as a Congresswoman gets shot and go ‘how could this happen, we’re so alike the United States and Britain, how can we be so sensible with this one and they so irresponsible?’ We think to ourselves ‘what could possibly be causing this, why have we outlawed guns so completely and they not taken the same decision, when the effects are so clearly beneficial?’ It’s got two more facets to it. In the UK we have rejected the question behind guns: ‘are they the disease or the symptom?’ essentially after Dunblane we said ‘both, who cares, let’s get rid of them’. Whilst in the United States that old maxim reigns supreme, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. On the surface this may be true… but if you take away the guns, as so many countries across the world have done and which I would argue has now become the hallmark of a modern liberal democracy, you may notice a dramatic decline in the number of people killed by them.

Age, it’s a question of mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

Age used to be one of those things you obsessed over as a child. Either you yearned to grow up and envied those slightly older than you or were desperate to remain a child, the darling of affectionate aunts. Songs have been written in favour of being older, or usually being younger. People go to vast lengths and expend vast sums of money on reducing the appearance of age.

I think we can all broadly agree (the first of many fabulous generalisations contained herein) however there is a certain grace period in which your age no longer really matters. I’m talking about between 18 and 30(…ish, forgive me please if this offends you I am just trying to make a point)

Now, why does it matter? I think it’s because age is so closely linked in to expectations, appearance and to your rights.

As for expectations, you acquire responsibilities. Society places a huge burden on you practically overnight on your 18th birthday. Will you get a job? Move out of your parents home? Go to university? Get married? It’s all suddenly expected of you whilst hours before you were allowed to wake up at midday and didn’t have to worry about taxes. These expectations from society are manifested in almost every way. You can’t act a certain way, you can’t hold the same opinions and you can’t even buy the same clothes. Age is ticking away and you’re expected to cling on to it as some sort of foundation from which to live your life. But… it’s just so hypocritical! Think of the storm of condemnation that flows from the media at the sight of an older woman with a younger man, but yet not at an older man with a younger woman, which receives knowing chuckles and worse, slaps on the back. How dare she think that it’s ok to do that? Why? Because society says so. Society is the infallible arbiter of what is appropriate for your age and you will conform.

You appearance is closely linked to this idea. Think of the derision poured onto people like Simon Cowell when he pulls his jeans up too high. Or when a parent dresses their daughter up in something ‘not fit for children’. Who says so? Should clothes come with a health or age warning? “This t-shirt has the potential to cause serious harm to your child” or “Failing to dress your 7 year old in Calvin Klein jeans will traumatise him for life, sincerely – Society” I heard the dreadful phrase used the other day (about a middle aged woman dressed in trendy but not revealing clothes) ‘oh look, it’s mutton dressed as Sienna Miller’… I must admit I burst out laughing, partially because the remark was quick witted but also for it’s searing cruelty.   Why on earth can I not put on clothes I like? This idea of what is appropriate extends to all corners, from books to music and further.

As for your rights (if you’re a previous reader you’ll know this is a bit of a hot topic for me) they come and go with age. Well they don’t really leave you with age but your ability, realistically, to have them respected and acknowledged diminishes to almost nil after the age of 65 (once again, a staggering generalisation but it’s just for effect). Your right to dignity is like something slowly sapped from you by the sudden condescending tone that your treatment by society takes on. It’s not just for older people, young people have a complex set of rights that gradually phase in during their first 21 years. A veritable mine field of do’s and don’t’s and definitely don’t do that’s! This process of gradual phasing in of rights is completely arbitrary. Who says that at age 17 you are ready to drive a car? What qualifies you as being ready? Have your leg muscles reached their peak potential for brake-pressing? As for the acquisition of civil and political rights, the voting age at 18 is complete nonsense. What is it about the sudden age change from 17 to 18 that means you are aware of the power of your vote and will choose to use it, and wisely?  Should we, heaven forfend (I am deeply, deeply disgusted by this idea), test people for their readiness to exercise this, most sacred and profound, of our rights to expression? Is there a biological switch that gets flipped at the exact moment, 18 years later, that turns on your voting mechanism? Maybe we should introduce a system that means that we are ruled by the decisions of the very intelligent? Paradoxically I would not advocate changing the voting age.  Full stop. There is no age by which every member of our society can be expected to understand their vote and use it well. None. There are plenty of 14 year olds who are far more clued up on politics than people in their 50s. Lowering the voting age is a bizarre idea which doesn’t solve any perceivable problem, raising it the same. Either we reconsider every single situation where we use someone’s age to verify their readiness for something, (drinking alcohol, having consensual sex, donating blood) or we leave things as they are. So we are left with a situation where the status quo seems to be the only real answer. We can’t find a fair or better solution, let’s just leave it and see what happens. Which is interesting in itself, doubtless this problem has occurred to decision makers in the past, perhaps they went through exactly the same though process we did too?

And now for a funny cartoon to finish us off, this was not made by me.

A cartoon on age.

Human Rights and Wrongs – When Human Rights Conflict

To start off with, if any of you are unfamiliar with the exact definition of ‘Human Rights’, that’s fine, they are hard to define, click here http://bit.ly/bELI7l and look at the very concise definition provided by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

So, Human Rights are a bit of paradox. They can seem unrealistic, out-dated or unnecessary. Worse still, some can appear to negate others, reduce their effectiveness or seem out of place.

For example, we all have a right to an education, but do you think if I went to the European Court of Human Rights (undeniably the most effective mechanism to date for the enforcement of human rights, internationally) and demanded that I be given the education of my choice, for free, they would uphold my rights? I don’t think so.

Or another example, we have an inalienable right to property but then we all have a right to the environment, which frequently infringes on someone’s right to own a bit of land and do what they want with it. Go figure.

But we live in a world where we accept that human rights are important and universal and innate… allow me, as I’m sure you will, to briefly digress – I generally believe we do, no nation state is entirely innocent from human rights abuses but almost all of them place the furthering of human rights objectives as part of their foreign policy aims, they are just lying and badly. Plus there are far too many bad people on the planet that operate as non state actors perpetrating human rights abuses (including corporations). So, the point I’m trying to get across is that inevitably we’re going to be in a position where we have to pick sides. We can’t have them all, human rights by their nature as absolute and inalienable,  if they clash with each other both will come out weaker or one will win hands down.

So, what if we do have to decide which rights are most important? I’m not suggesting we rank them (although the obsessive organiser in me wants nothing more than to list them 1,2,3 ad infinitum) but I am suggesting we take a moment to recognise that, whether we like it or not, human rights are not equal.

What does it matter if we have a right to privacy if the state can condemn us to death at will? Who cares about the right to an education if we are deprived of freedom? This sort of exercise is a little extreme but I find it useful to put things in perspective. It is impossible to deny that some rights are essentially more important than others. If only because they provide a basis from which to exercise our other rights. We exercise our right to marry and found a family because we are, just by virtue of being alive, intrinsically, biologically free. There’s nothing the state can do about it, it’s in our nature and sooner or later it’s going to come out.

So, should we be streamlining rights? Or how about only enforcing the ones that matter the most and overlooking infringement of the ‘less important’?

No. Quite simply, establishing a precedent that some rights are to be enforced and some rights are not to be enforced undermines them all. They are interdependent and indivisible.

What we should be doing is searching for something deeper. What do rights have in common? Are they the rights of the individual, such as privacy? Are they group rights like that of the environment? Can we identify something more base about certain rights? As I mentioned earlier, some rights are exercised by the existence of a predecessor. Can we decide therefore that some rights are the foundations of others?

Human Rights flow chart
Human Rights flow chart
Human Rights flow chart

I’ve chosen to drop this image into the mix, I made it (obviously, considering how basic it is) in a few minutes on Word to describe what I mean. It isn’t exhaustive, it doesn’t include all the rights by a long shot and it’s very primitive but I think it does the trick. To elaborate we have the right not to be enslaved and tortured because we are, as human beings, inherently dignified. We can express how we think and feel, and we are entitled to maintain a private life that is no business of the state because we are born free. We have the right to make decisions about our bodies and the right to preserve our own life and expect it to be respected because we have an inalienable right to remain living and breathing and no one is allowed to take that away from us.

This isn’t ranking rights, it’s acknowledging that some are more primal than others and without them the rights that stem from them are meaningless. It’s not quite saying that they are more important, it’s just recognising that without them, we couldn’t expect or demand more specific rights.  We don’t have to give up the interdependence and indivisibility of rights to acknowledge that some come before, literally and figuratively, others.