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Some thoughts from Greece, before I enter the polling booth

January 25, 2015

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I have no problem with people voting self-centredly. It is how it works. If you and your kids have food on your plate and a roof over your heads, you should protect that by voting for an option you deem safer. Fine. I have no problem with that. But to somehow elevate your choice to the status of the only moral or sane one and diminish the choices of people who have nothing as stupid, is intellectually dishonest. You choose who you think is best for your kids and others will do the same. Accept this may not be one and the same.

Honestly, the only promise Alexis Tsipras has made that matters to me is that he will try and give “dignity back to everyone”. Of course, he cannot deliver that. Only we can deliver that for ourselves. But even mention of that word – “dignity” – in a political context is striking to me. It is hugely refreshing to have someone speaking that sort of language, instead of the Thatcherite dogma that has destroyed entire countries. A system which collapsed globally and spectacularly only a few years ago. A system which eschews taxation but required unprecedented bail outs from taxation. A system which, somehow, has now gone back to being considered infallible, supreme and self-correcting. To me voting for that is irrational and trying something different, however risky makes sense.

Dignity may be an abstract concept, but its complete absence is a very real and practical thing. Go outside a central Athens supermarket at closing time, to see elderly women, dressed in black, rummaging through the bins for food. Meanwhile the wicked accountant we have for Prime Minister boasts of a surplus.

“I won’t be a sponsor” said to me someone planning to vote for the New Democracy party. A sponsor? A sponsor for whom? Let’s be specific. Are you a sponsor for my mother, for instance? She and her generation built every, tiny particle of the country on which you stand, after a devastating occupation and civil war. She worked two jobs (sometimes three) for over 45 years and raised three kids in the process. Paid every penny in tax, and bought every IKA social security stamp. She invested in the system which promised her dignity in her old age. She now has Alzheimer’s, no medical provision whatsoever and a pension of €400 per month. Are you her sponsor? Or is she maybe yours?

I have played this game too many times. I offer specific policy X, you shoot it down on a practical point and vice versa, so let’s not. I think everyone understands the general debate instinctively. We will either, as a country, continent and planet, put life ahead of money or not. Either the markets, currency, trade, business, state are in the service of utility, of making life better for as many as possible, or utility is secondary (to something – what?). In my view, we have slipped to that latter state. We anthropomorphise the abstract on the news – “markets are sceptical”, “markets are nervous”, “markets are angry” – and offer human sacrifice to the volcano. Free market fundamentalism with a religiosity as extreme as any caliphate.

To me Syriza is part political choice, part resistance movement. I am fully aware they will probably fail – everyone and everything is against them. But this is about putting down a marker and saying “No more. Currency, Markets, the EU, Government – they are all tools in our service; not the other way around.” Ultimately, this is just one battle in a much larger war. This attempt might be unsuccessful, but (judging by the panic emanating from the Troika) the message has been received loud and clear.

Vote for whomever you deem the right longterm choice for you and your loved ones. Vote bravely. Most of all, vote.

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UPDATE: 9:43am

“That was quick!”, said the man guarding the ballot box.

“Well, very few choices and very clear ones”, said the lady crossing names off the register, as she handed me my identity card.

I smile, inscrutably, and say “Καλημέρα σας”. I step outside the school, into the morning petrichor. The island seems brighter, cleaner, after the night’s deluge.

What a day.

The debate about the debates

January 20, 2015

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Everyone is sagely offering reasons why this or that party can’t or shouldn’t participate, as if we have done these debates for centuries, always exactly so. We haven’t. We only had the first ones in 2010 and the political landscape has changed significantly. So, since we are making it up as we go along, why not make it inclusive, diverse and interesting?

At the very least we must keep the criteria internally consistent. There is not a formula which could yield the result of Conservatives and Labour in three debates, LibDems in two and Ukip in one, with all others excluded. Not a single logical formula. I have read both the watchdog’s recommendation and the BBC’s leaked draft coverage proposal. They are, frankly, bunkum.

If we go by the last election result, Ukip shouldn’t be included. If we go by number of MPs several other parties should be. The DUP has the fourth highest number of MPs currently. If we go by poll popularity, the LibDems should not be anywhere near two debates and the SNP certainly should be. If we go by the last European Elections, then the Greens should be in. The current composition smacks of dodgy, reverse-engineered sophistry, used to justify a result already predetermined by some grey man who evidently knows what we need to see.

On top of everything, this questionable methodology has ended up excluding all female, all non-English leaders. As a matter of fact, the debates will take place entirely among white, straight, rich, well-off, middle-aged, English blokes, from a tiny area in the South East.

Nor do I have any time for this “not a national party” nonsense. No parties stand in every constituency in the UK – none. We assume that a party which only stands in one nation has nothing to offer to the political debate. We spent the last year being told how valuable the UK’s constituent nations are and how they make us the great nation that we are (whatever, but different blog). What if one of the major parties has to enter a coalition with Plaid and/or SNP after the election – would it not be useful for the electorate to get to know them?

There are no hard and fast rules. We are making this up and the conventions we establish are important. Let’s be inclusive in our national debate. Let’s not complain about stale politics, then do our very best to keep it stale.

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Tolerance

January 20, 2015

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What is tolerance? It seems to be something we all think we have amply in general, but rarely when it comes to specifics. We all like to think we are tolerant, but happily confess we can’t stand X, Y and Z. “We pride ourselves in being a tolerant society”, dither faceless leaders, while introducing legislation to victimise this group or that.

It is a quality I hear much about, in Britain especially. But I have to tell you, social awkwardness so crippling it ensures aggression is repressed is not tolerance. Bitching about each other quietly, in an interminable private internal monologue, isn’t tolerance. It’s just dysfunctional bigotry.

In any case, what sort of goal is “tolerance”? I don’t want to live in a society where we merely tolerate each other. What a mean little abstract noun to aim for. Understanding, compassion, support , love, grace, generosity – apparently, they’re just too lofty. The most we can hope to leave behind now is a sort of passive-aggression, masquerading as forbearance. My generation’s legacy.

Can we hurry up with Humanity v.2.0 please?

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Growing Art

January 12, 2015

Today, I was reminded of the work of Jason deCaires Taylor, which I find deeply touching. He makes sculptures – really quite beautiful, technically accomplished and thought-provoking – which he then plunges into the sea and plants with living coral. He allows the work to grow and photographs it. The results are quite haunting.

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Jason deCaires Taylor (born 12 August 1974) is an English sculptor specialising in the creation of contemporary underwater sculptures which over time develop into artificial coral reefs. Taylor integrates his skills as a conservationist, underwater photographer and scuba diving instructor to produce unique installations that encourage the habitation and growth of corals and marine life. His early work includes Vicissitudes, Grace Reef, The Lost Correspondent and The Unstill Life. All are located in the world´s first public underwater sculpture park in Molinere Bay, Grenada, West Indies, commissioned in 2006. More recently his most ambitious project to date is the creation of the world’s largest underwater sculpture museum, MUSA, situated off the coast of Cancun and the western coast of Isla Mujeres. Works in the museum include Hombre en llamas (Man on Fire ), La Jardinera de la Esperanza (The Gardener of Hope), El Colecionista de los Sueños (The Dream Collector) and La Evolución Silenciosa (The Silent Evolution).

His website can be found here.

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The Most Radical Thing You Can Be Is Moderate

January 11, 2015

Many commentators have chosen this moment to be very brave and intellectually honest about Islam. But if we are going to be brave and intellectually honest, especially in the aftermath of events this incendiary, then let’s be brave and honest about the whole thing, including our relationships with each other.

The reason criticism of Islam as a religion is often branded as racist is that it often is. Not always, but often.

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(Photo: Thibault Camus/AP)

Of course, if you don’t experience this prejudice in your everyday life, it is easy to be blind to it; to deny that people use the mantle of legitimate criticism of a religion to justify their own secret, ugly prejudice that is bundled up within the concept. But I suspect, privately, unfashionably, we might all acknowledge the possibility that there are many more people than we would ever admit, who make assumptions about, distrust or even hate brownish looking, foreign sorts.

And so, in the same way that we demand of Imams that they take particular care, that they all come out and condemn the attacks – because there is a provably significant percentage of idiots who need such unequivocal guidance, we must demand the same of intellectuals with a platform. We cannot recognise the power of others’ words, but not ours. Confirmation bias is a wondrous thing in the context of a digital age.

I know I’ll be jumped on for saying this, because it seems that to ask for calm moderation is tantamount to terrorist apologism right now, but we have a choice to either amplify the terror being spread or douse it with an ice cold bucket of calm logic. I think some comments, both by politicians and in the press, have not quite stayed the right side of that equation. They weave rather tenuous evidence into an “all people who are Muslim are an imminent threat to you” narrative.

If a panic is created about Muslims in general it is, in my view, entirely foreseeable that people who look Muslim, regardless of their actual status, ethnicity or views, will bear the brunt. People can shrug their shoulders and go “that’s not what I intended” all they want, but that is what will happen. We know this. In this context – and knowing this to be the case – one can choose whether to fan the flames or not.

I’m not talking about not telling the truth (whatever your truth is). I’m talking about not sensationalising that truth. Measure every single word with care. And I’m not asking this because of some vague wooly pinko fear that people’s feelings might be hurt. I am talking about real harm. People do terrible things when they’re scared.

So, next time someone rolls down their car window and shouts at me “take your sharia law and fuck off home” (even though I am a Greek atheist, but when have facts made a difference to the terrified?) I shan’t be thankful for the sort of public comment that you think makes you terribly brave and edgy. When people who fled these regimes are spat at in the street, they won’t praise you for your scattergun intellectual honesty.

Hysteria is the black teat from which forces of darkness suckle nourishment. Panic is the terrorists’ aim. The sort of hysteria and panic that makes the police put seven bullets in a Brazilian’s head on a crowded train, just because his features were swarthy. Hysteria and panic is what we must absolutely avoid.

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Was There A Death Fatwa Against Charb?

January 9, 2015
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Stéphane Charbonnier

It seems to me highly relevant, in light of recent events, that a prominent Afghani cleric by the name Faroq Husaini had issued a death sentence against Stéphane Charbonnier, the cartoonist and Charlie Hebdo editor known as ‘Charb’ and offered a reward of $100,000 in October 2012.

According to the AFP report at the time, he made the pronouncement in a mosque in Afghanistan’s third largest city, Herat. “I will sell all my properties, including my lands in Herat, to collect the money,” Husaini said.

Maybe there is a reason mainstream media do not seem to have picked this up at all. Maybe I have misread the original material. Please leave a comment if you have more information on this.

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The Ukip Fallacy

January 5, 2015

I just watched a video of some lovely Ukip supporters being, well… Ukip supporters.

I was particularly struck by the nice lady who suggested that a French person who has been living and working in the UK for years, should just be forcibly repatriated because “well, yeah, we all go home to our own places”. This (apparently, totally acceptable and not xenophobic at all) standpoint is justified with simple pragmatism: “This country cannot support any more people”.

It is a common view. It is also utterly misconceived.

A country is its people. There is no vague, mythical construct that “supports people”. People support each other. And in a service economy, numbers matter greatly*.

So, if you advocate deporting a couple of million people, it is true enough that you will have fewer people to support. But – and this is the bit of the equation on which Ukip and their supporters are always strangely silent – you will also have fewer people who do the supporting.

The result of such a move boils down to whether the people you wish to deport are overall an asset. Study after study (for instance UCL here, report here, IIEA here, OBR summary here) shows that EU migrants are net contributors. Not only in the UK, but more generally (OECD here). Migrants cost disproportionately less in terms of health, education or social security.

The fatal flaw in the typical Ukip supporter’s logic is in seeing public services as somehow fixed; they are not. They can increase as well as contract and they depend on tax take. The idea that getting rid of contributing migrants will magically free up spaces in schools and beds in hospitals is a nonsense in the medium and long term. As the population and tax take reduce, hospital beds and school spaces will diminish by the equivalent. If the population leaving are net contributors, these services will shrink disproportionately. Getting rid of migrants will make school places scarcer, reduce social housing capacity, make hospital waiting lists longer. It is as simple as that.

Moreover, it could precipitate a grudge match in which Brits living elsewhere in the EU are also ‘repatriated’ – the rise of the xenophobic right wing is sadly not limited to England. The view of migrants into the UK as useless ‘scroungers’, but Brits living abroad as valuable ‘expats’ is nothing other than a romantic post-colonial affectation. It is as real as a turn-of-the-century E.M. Forster novella. The profile of the typical Brit living abroad (Spain, for instance) is very different to the sort of migrant coming to the UK. The data paint a less economically active (and older) person. A sudden and widespread population swap of net contributors for pensioners (300,000 UK pensioners live in Spain alone) would be unmitigated catastrophe for public finances.

Now, it could be that the majority of Ukip support would still, out of cultural dysphoria, opt for a party whose policy boiled down to: we want to be more anglosaxon, even if it means being much poorer. Because, make no mistake, that is what is being proposed.

The Office for Budget Responsibility is under no illusion when it comes to migration. All things being equal, Cameron achieving his goal to bring migrant numbers down to the tens of thousands is a terrible scenario assumption for the national debt. Bringing the number down to zero is disaster, not utopia. The chart below is fairly self-explanatory.

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Zero migration means either unprecedented cuts in public spending or debt at 150% of GDP in fifty years.

Ukip not only dislike migrants, but they also dislike systems that financially facilitate maternity. With the current absolute reliance on growth and the population bulge of baby-boom pensioners living longer, the UK needs young people desperately to work and contribute. They can either be birthed the old-fashioned way or they can be invited over. Pick one. ‘Neither’ is not an answer. We can’t all be pensioners.

Economic activity flows from people, not from nostalgia and St George’s flags. There is no land of milk and honey waiting on the other side of xenophobia. There is only a dystopia of suspicion, hate, isolationism and abject poverty.

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* There may be arguments for returning to a pre-industrial, agrarian society, where the land supports people, or a “steady state” economic model which eschews economic growth, but I very much doubt that is what Ukip has in mind.

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