You’ve probably seen the video of racist-tram-woman ranting at “non-English” people on a tram in South London; it went viral yesterday, culminating in the woman’s arrest. The arrest was predictably followed by moronic screams about attacks on free speech or authoritarianism. But the woman’s behaviour was clearly within the definition of hate speech, and was clearly upsetting to those she chose as targets. It also came close to inciting a violent response. It was a textbook example of why hate laws exist.
People who have never experienced such an attack may have difficulty understanding how it feels to be on the receiving end. As I’ve mentioned before, I have experience of being a “visible minority”, to use the politically correct terminology. At my London school, I was among a white minority of around 10%. Through my adult life, largely because of choices I’ve made, I’m often in a minority of one among black people. And black crowds are no more enlightened in their treatment of minorities than white crowds are.
I experienced something very similar to yesterday’s incident, a few years ago on the Subway in Brooklyn. I was the only white person on my train carriage; this didn’t strike me as weird or frightening, as I’m used to being in that position. Nothing happened until I caught the eye of a man staring at me; my natural response was to nod in greeting, to which his reaction was to scream at me: Who the fuck you looking at, you White Bastard? My initial response was rage, then a mixture of fear and embarrassment. In London, I’d know how to respond, but in New York, I didn’t know where I stood. Unlike the other passengers in the South London tram incident, nobody on that train stood up for me. Every coward or racist on that carriage found something else to stare at. If there’s a shred of comfort from the London video, it is that people stood up to the racist bully; London 1, New York 0.
There’s no such thing as “reverse racism”; it’s a myth. Racism is racism, and it’s always moronic. The idea (that I’ve heard from liberals at times) that racism directed at white people is somehow more excusable due to the actions of other white people towards other black people at other times is ludicrous. Because some other white people were/are guilty of “oppressing” some other black people somewhere else doesn’t make my skin colour a valid target of hatred.
I’ve experienced racism many times – usually in subtle forms. Walking with a black woman in London, New York or Accra I have been met with confrontational stares from passing men. My only option as a man on the receiving end is to puff out my chest and stare back. To look down, to back down increases the risk of an attack escalating. This can become tiring; it drains you, makes you angry, makes you start to misjudge people’s attention and see racism where there isn’t any. Those black and Asian people on the London tram have all faced racial aggression before – probably not so overt, but nonetheless, it’s hardly a novel experience for any of them to know that a person dislikes them for their skin colour or accent. I fully understand the reaction of the young black man who rose to respond; but was glad that he was persuaded to sit down again.
People have the right to ride a tram or walk the streets without facing aggression. The moronic woman broke hate laws and it’s right that she was arrested. A failure to react condones the behaviour; at a time when racism and nationalism are on the rise, failing to deal with hate crimes will inevitably result in the crimes multiplying and becoming more serious.
The same applies to hate speech everywhere; for example, South Africa too is experiencing increased racial tension, not just against the white minority but against foreign blacks too. South African minorities need hate laws to be enforced every bit as much as (or perhaps even more than) minorities in the UK need protecting. So do minorities in Rwanda, where hate laws (for obvious reasons) are ruthlessly enforced. Racism is a universal problem, affecting minorities of every race, tribe, religion and colour. To protest that arresting the tram moron was an attack on free speech is simply moronic.
Remember Freedom? It was that thing we were going to deliver to Afghanistan and Iraq. OK, so it was a little embarrassing when Iraqis joined the Arab Spring to demand the end of the US Occupation, but good intentions and all that…
So anyway, it turns out that the whole “War on Terror” thing may have backfired on us. As the Bush administration was warned, if you’re going to undermine rights on your own territory in order to “fight terrorism”, then, well – the terrorists can claim to have won. And so it now seems. Asian and African leaders can laugh out loud when the US State Department slaps their wrists for doing all the same things that the US has been guilty of over the past decade.
The slide from democracy into a police state is subtle. Some of the very people trumpeting the danger are the same ones supporting attacks on civil liberties. Here is a list of ten ways to spot the trend:
The prison population increases. This isn’t due to increasing crime, but increasing fear of crime resulting in more laws and harsher punishments. Large prison populations are incompatible with freedom – that seems obvious, but morons don’t seem to have noticed. The US has the world’s biggest prison population (24% of total), followed by China (17%) and Russia (9%). Smell the freedom!
You hear a lot about a “terrorist threat”. This is an excuse that has been used by dictators from Hitler to Gaddafi. The tiny number of successful attacks on Western targets in recent years is an indication that the “threat” is hugely exaggerated. But don’t expect morons to understand that.
You hear a lot about “crime increasing” even if it isn’t. Crime is at a historic low in much of the Western World. Crime surveys agree with the official figures: people feel safer in their own neighbourhoods. However, the conservative media’s job is to convince people that life is becoming more dangerous, and the drip-feed of scare stories about crime takes its toll on morons. Fear of crime means that the police are allowed to get away with more abuses, most of which aren’t noticed by the frightened middle classes (though working class people in the inner cities certainly feel the pain of all that extra police attention).
You hear about “knife crime epidemics” that don’t actually exist. This is a favourite in London. A growth in knife crime was “discovered” by the British media just before the mayoral election in 2008, just in time for the right-winger Boris Johnson to be elected. This led to more stop and searches by police (largely on young, non-white males). The UK murder rate has remained extremely low throughout. But morons are frightened, and fear allows the police state more leeway to act as it likes.
You hear scary new phrases like “sexualisation of children”.“Sexualisation” was a clever PR invention by a UK-based Christian lobby group. This was drip-fed through the media so that the average moron has come to believe this is a sudden new problem, indicating some kind of moral breakdown in society. The truth is, all children become sexualised; it happens when they hit puberty, just as it has always done. However, it’s now being used by the UK government (and others) to justify new censorship measures, from Internet filtering to attacks on “explicit” music videos. The S-word has also recently been spotted in the US and Australia.
Minorities become a “threat”. This, of course, is standard far-right methodology. Find a scapegoat that is too powerless to fight back, and imbue it with threatening attributes. It worked against the Jews and this time Muslims are taking the brunt. Moronic attacks on Muslims are gathering pace, especially in mainland Europe. Many morons believe in this “threat”, as a glance at my Twitter family will reveal.
The police are allowed to stop and search someone without good reason. One of the foundations of a free society is that you don’t get harassed by the police unless they have good reason to believe you have committed a crime. This has clearly slipped a long way already, especially in the inner cities. And when young people finally get sick of it, the police are given even more powers to harass them.
The police start finding new reasons to stop people. Terrorist laws are always (yes, always) used to attack free speech. In the UK, terrorism law has been used to harass press photographers who might expose police behaviour. In the US, the Patriot act has been abused to attack Occupy protesters. But the most pernicious of all are the drug laws; while these aren’t new, they are enforced, or not, at the whim of the police. Millions of people use illegal drugs, and always will, but that’s not the police’s concern; the drug laws are simply a proxy for being able to stop anyone, anywhere, any time.
The police get ever-better weaponry, despite crime falling. The police recently deployed rubber bullets for the first time on the UK mainland. Because of increased violence? No, to create increased violence. This adds to the increasing armory of the police, already carrying tasers, batons and pepper spray. Thirty years ago, with much higher crime rates, the police managed without most of these weapons.
Fellow citizens take an increasing interest in your private life. Before we go blaming the state for everything: remember, a police state depends largely on a moronic, frightened citizenship that believes the scare stories served out to them on a daily basis. Effective police states like that in Communist East Germany require citizen spies. Today, citizens are stoked up into constant fear about crime and terrorism and asked to report on “any suspicious activity”.
We’ve got ourselves into a mess. Many things need doing, including:
Repeal the Patriot Act and similar “anti-terrorist” laws elsewhere.
Make concerted efforts to cut prison populations – however much the morons may squeal.
Decriminalise drug possession, removing the police’s single biggest excuse to stop people.
Tighten stop and search powers to prevent their random use.
Confiscate the police’s arsenal of anti-citizen weaponry.
Strengthen laws against police violence – almost no officer is ever prosecuted, even when someone is killed.
Educate the morons: their fear drives a vicious circle of ever more aggressive state behaviour.
The British press is among the best in the world. And among the worst. We have some of the most intelligent journalism that can be found anywhere, but also some of the most moronic. There are five daily newspapers (Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Independent and FT), from across the political spectrum, that are worth reading; of these, the Guardian often stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to providing high-quality journalism. The Guardian, for example, carries much of the credit for exposing the corruption at Murdoch’s News International. When it comes to challenging dangerous abuse of power within the British state and corporations, The Guardian is often alone in publishing stories ignored by the rest of the British media.
At a time when social conservatism is on the rise in many pernicious ways, it was good to see a Guardian article yesterday by Zoe Margolis (aka The Girl With The One Track Mind) challenging the anti-sex crusade spear-headed in parliament by rightwing Tory MP Nadine Dorries. And yet, on the broad subject area of sex and sexuality, The Guardian, more often than not, comes down on the side of repression. The paper comes very much from the liberal, middle-class, English tradition, and the one subject the English middle-classes have always had trouble dealing with is sex. The Guardian also tends to take anti-sex campaigners more seriously if they adopt the “feminist” label than if they crusade under a more old-fashioned “morality” banner. On this subject, the Guardian’s coverage can swing from liberal to deeply conservative in the blink of an eye.
I blogged recently about the UK Government’s steps towards Internet censorship, using the excuse of “protecting children from pornography”. The Guardian, normally a warrior against censorship, lost its mind in an editorial on the subject, using Daily Mail-type phrasing such as “…bombarding of people’s homes and children by pornography…” and “…the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values…“. The editorial also mentioned a recent government-commissioned report on “sexualisation”, neglecting to mention that it came from a Christian lobbying organisation. The idea that anyone who doesn’t want to see porn is “bombarded” with it is of course laughable, and serious research on porn has yet to reveal the harmful side effects claimed by conservatives of various shades.
And this wasn’t a one-off: on the icky subject of sex, The Guardian is often deeply conservative. I recently interviewed strippers who are defending themselves against campaigners who threaten their right to work in the London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets (podcast coming soon). These women are articulate, well-paid and belong to trade unions. Yet, the Guardian is apparently convinced that stripping is bad, and refuses to take seriously the voices of the women themselves who earn a living that way; instead, they give a platform to “feminist” (aka sexual morality) groups who use fascist-style propaganda methods (such as claiming a non-existent link between strip venues and rape) to attack the venues and the people who work in them. While women who strip have offered to write for the Guardian about their experiences, only one ex-dancer, Homa Khaleeli is published, because she tells “the truth about lap dancing” – in other words, she makes the “exploitation” and “objectification” noises that Guardianistas want to hear.
The Guardian has a confused idea of defending sexual freedom. While Gay, Lesbian, Transgender issues are treated with the appropriate straight-faced correctness, other forms of sexuality and sexual freedom have Guardian journos giggling like school children. Fetishes, swinging, polyamory, BDSM, open lifestyles, bisexuality and sex work… these aren’t causes for free speech but excuses for The Guardian to pander to middle-England prejudices (and have a good, Carry On giggle in the process).
It’s not that I’m asking for the Guardian to become a campaigner for sexual freedom; but it should be delivering the quality of journalism it does so well elsewhere. Repeating misinformation about porn leading to marriage break-up, lap dancing leading to rape or most prostitutes being “victims” isn’t good journalism. Accepting the word of a woman simply because she calls herself a feminist but ignoring the many voices of women who earn their money this way isn’t fair or balanced. Ignoring researchers in these fields but listening to morality campaigners lets down the readership.
It’s not that The Guardian is the worst offender – not by a long way! – but it’s the one (or am I being naive?) that should “know better”. In fact, the most level-headed coverage of sex and the sex industries comes from the Financial Times and its stable mate The Economist, but these are targeted primarily at business people. Among mainstream press, the Guardian, often alone, has the courage to expose police brutality and corporate corruption. Why not maintain the same high standards on the difficult subjects of sex and sexuality? Up your game Guardian, and stop being so damn English about sex!
It was fashionable (and desirable) until the mid-80s to question how well capitalism worked as a basis for running society. Then the social “greed is good” changes brought about by the Reagan/Thatcher revolution began to take hold of the Western (or at least the Anglo-Saxon) psyche, and it became a form of sacrilege to question the magic power of the free market to fix any problem, anywhere. That superstition gradually became established fact – until, of course, the system began to show its deep flaws in 2008.
Saturday’s Guardian carries a comment article from Tim Montgomerie (editor at the ConservativeHome web site) titled Capitalism is amoral – we’re our own worst enemy. The piece tries to make the case that the ills of recent years have been caused by “extraordinary government activism”, not by out-of-control markets. However, the examples supplied are weak – the author seems to accept, for example, that the main problem with Obama’s $787bn stimulus is that it was too small, given the scale of the crash. Another example given is the Iraq War, seeming to forget the huge profit motive of the oil, arms and reconstruction industries to make that senseless war happen.
But let’s challenge the core assertion, one that is so often repeated without challenge: Montgomerie repeats the popular idea that “Capitalism is not immoral but amoral. It does what its users demand of it”. Is that true? Does the profit motive always work for consumers? Montgomerie gives food and transport as examples, so let’s examine these industries: amoral or immoral?
It’s true that competition has given us more food choices that ever before. That applies to the wealthier parts of society, at least. In young markets, competition creates an explosion of choice, which is certainly a good thing. But once corporations became established in the food industry, strategies changed. Choice is just one way to attract a customer base, but there’s an easier way: make your customer dependent on your product. This is where the needs of the market and the needs of the consumer diverge. Humans are designed to seek out rare ingredients that we need. Meat fat was such a rarity in pre-history (before hunting tools were developed) that we find it highly attractive and addictive. Refined sugar is an addictive drug, only discovered in recent centuries. Salt is a generally rare and necessary substance that, again, we have a natural addiction to. So in the amoral world of the market, it makes sense to add increasing amounts of these ingredients to food, not because users are demanding them, but because profitability naturally rises as a result.
So far, as suggested by Tim Montgomerie, this is amoral behaviour, not immoral. No harm is intended. The next stage is this: scientific researchers (state-funded usually) begin to notice that people are getting fatter; that tooth decay is increasing; that diabetes and other diseases are rocketing. This information starts to spread to the consumer. It’s at this stage that markets lose their claim for amorality. The food industry now has three options:
Moral: listen to researchers and make food healthier, even if that hurts profits.
Amoral: continue to address the evolving desires of the market as consumer demand dictates. Of course, this does happen, but as the history of the food industry suggests, it’s far cheaper (and thus more profitable) to use healthy-sounding language than it is to take addictive substances out of your products.
Immoral: begin propaganda operations to counteract scientific research that might hurt profits. Most markets end up here. Once you have a consumer base hooked on your product, the logic of profit is remorseless: attack anyone or anything that threatens your bottom line.
In a young market, amorality (following consumer needs) is the way to go; but in mature market, the immoral choice is often the most profitable. Rather than simply track consumer demands, it’s more profitable to control them. Many examples can be found of immoral behaviour by the food industry in pursuit of profits: in the US, private corporations have often won contracts to supply schools with food and drink. The result is a fall in the quality of food eaten by children. Now they can get consumers addicted to junk ever younger, and resist the pressure to educate children about food and health, thus crushing future consumer demands for better food. In a perfect example of market immorality, in 1998 Oprah Winfrey ran a show exposing the appalling way the American beef industry was rearing cattle. The amoral response would have been to track any change in consumer attitudes, and change production techniques; but that would be hugely expensive. Far cheaper to shoot the messenger, as Oprah found to her cost. She immediately lost advertising and faced action, both legal and propaganda to discredit her. She backtracked quickly, providing a non-critical “interview” with a beef industry rep. to “set the record straight” (i.e. lie without interference). Examples like this are legion: the food industry will viciously attack anyone that questions the health of its products (remember McLibel?)
We can apply the same approach to transport. Mass transit (when not starved of investment), offers the fastest, cheapest and most fuel-efficient way to carry large numbers of people and goods. From the 1940s, the car provided an alternative that was more glamorous but slow, expensive and fuel-hungry. Sure, people desired cars, but they wouldn’t trash superior transport systems for an inferior one. Given that cities only had the space for a fraction of their population to use cars, would people destroy their environments just to own cars?
Enter the car mafia, comprising several industries: car manufacturers, tyre manufacturers, road builders, and of course, oil producers. Car transport requires far more resources than rail, trams and buses: huge, multi-lane highways which require vast amounts of space. More space still needed for parking (most private cars spend most of their lives wastefully parked). And most important of all, cars burn far more fuel than mass transit to move the same numbers of people. Would consumers abandon cheap, fast transport for slow, expensive transport? Of course not; but they were never given the choice.
The car mafia set about destroying mass transit, which they could never have competed against in a free market. Across the US, between 1936 and 1950, mass transit systems vanished as the car mafia went into action, destroying electric transport infrastructure. History tells us how happy post-war consumers jumped at the chance to own cars, and that’s undoubtedly true; less is said about the abolition of transport choice. Free market fundamentalists claim markets create choice, but the opposite is often true.
In the UK, the world’s greatest rail system was cut to pieces; between 1950 and 1975, the railways were slashed from 21,000 miles to 12,000. The most significant steps were taken in the 1960s by Dr Richard Beeching, Chairman of British Railways. Beaching was encouraged to cut the railways by Ernest Marples, the Conservative Transport Minister. Marples also happened to be a major shareholder in a construction company that made huge amounts of money from motorway construction. This story is an important part of modern British history, and the name Ernest Marples should be remembered as one of Britain’s best known crooks. But the car mafia, and their tame media, have ensured the British people have forgotten what happened to our transport system
The transport market has failed; we make ever slower journeys for ever higher cost, and most people use the car not by choice, but because choice was taken away to increase profits.
And The Rest
Given the choice of being amoral and following consumer needs, or immoral and crushing competition, the car mafia did what any market does: follow profit at any cost to society. The consumer doesn’t lead; he takes what corporations offer, which is often the most inefficient and expensive (and hence profitable) option. Markets do work, when they’re young and genuinely competitive, but that is a temporary phase. Endless examples can be found of market immorality: the Iraq War was fought so that the US taxpayer could be fleeced of $trillions by US corporations; the millions spent on climate change denial have shored up billions in oil industry profits; the tobacco industry likewise denied the cancer link for decades after the evidence was available.
Markets are good at creating and incubating fresh ideas and new technology. They liberate individuals and societies from bureaucracy and make societies more creative. But this is always a temporary effect. Established markets will support literally anything – murder, slavery, war – to hold on to their privileged positions. So Tim Montgomerie and other “markets are amoral” fundamentalists are disingenuous, only telling half the story. Markets are immoral; only a strong, well-funded democratic state can hope to keep them in check.
I’m under no illusion that the world will run short of morons any time soon, any more than the Sahara will run short of sand. Sometimes good news seems hard to find, and it can be hard to find new words to describe the sheer craziness of politics. But progress does happen, and although optimism isn’t always easy, morons don’t win every battle. It’s worth noting, and celebrating, three significant moron losses in the past day or so.
Bye Bye Russell Pearce
Arizona became famous in 2010 for introducing the Support Our Law Enforcement And Safe Neighborhoods Act. When an act has a sensible-sounding name that couldn’t offend anyone, you just know it’s going to be moronic. The law, better known as SB1070, was the most draconian anti-immigrant law in modern history, and was sponsored by Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce. SB1070 has been copied by other conservative states in attacks on illegal immigrants (or anyone who might possibly be an illegal immigrant… think Mexican-looking) and people who employ them. Alabama’s equivalent law, introduced this year, led to immigrants fleeing the state, crops rotting in the fields and huge losses for farmers: morons would rather damage the economy than allow illegal immigrants to harvest their crops.
All this closeted-racist stupidity became too much even for many conservatives. A recall was issued against Russell Pearce, and yesterday the result was announced: Pearce lost by a good margin and was thrown out of office. His replacement is the conservative Jerry Lewis, but this result is a loss for right-wing extremism and the Tea Party which has backed authoritarian laws across the US to hound illegal immigrants.
Mississippi Personhood Law
Talking of moronic laws, the good people of Mississippi voted this week on the introduction of a “Personhood” law. This is a piece of “pro-life” extremism that declares life begins, and should be fully protected, from the moment of conception, giving a single fertilised cell the same rights as a person. It would not only outlaw ALL abortions (yes, including pregnancies brought about by rape and incest) but also ban the use of some contraceptives such as the morning-after pill, and prevent many fertility treatments. As usual, the “pro-life” brigade has shown that they care little about abortion, but a lot about preventing the spread of sexual freedom. Their actions are designed to actually increase the number of unwanted pregnancies – presumably thus punishing people for daring to enjoy recreational sex. They also fail to explain why miscarriages take place, and whether God would be in breach of the proposed law for allowing them to happen.
In the event, the initiative was soundly rejected, again showing that extreme religious-right views may not be as strong in Mississippi as many had believed.
In these bizarre times, the ebb and flow of ideas happens faster than ever. The far-right Tea Party has been on the march for a couple of years, apparently trampling progressives in its path. Now, with the sudden rise of the Occupy movement and a series of defeats for the moronic right, it looks like moderates are fighting back, and are perfectly capable of winning.
Last week, the most comprehensive (and expensive) deal so far was put together by the European Union to save Greece (not to mention the rest of us) from uncontrolled default. Billed (naturally) as the deal that would solve all of Europe’s problems, it was inevitably oversold; yet it was a serious and worthy effort to draw a line under the Greek debt crisis and prevent the spread of the Greek disease to other countries. The deal would write off a portion of Greece’s debt and underwrite banks and governments that may be thrown into difficulties as a result. Markets rallied, as they always do when a little tension is relieved, then slid downward again once the financial dealers of the world returned to work the next day, having consumed a little too much cocaine and fine wine the night before.
Then the unexpected happened: Greek Prime Minister Papandreou decided, without even first warning his cabinet or other EU leaders, to call a referendum on the deal. Europe’s leaders were mortified, as were Papandreou’s fellow cabinet ministers, and of course the markets. The decision was bizarre at many levels. Greeks have been hugely punished for the atrocious financial management of Greek governments (mostly not Papandreou’s, but the conservative administration that preceded it). Incomes have fallen by a shocking amount in a short time, and many Greeks are unable to make ends meet. But the decision was a moronic one: it was impossible to organise a referendum before Greece was owed €8bn from the EU, meaning it would have to default on some debts, and be unable to pay public workers at a time when they are already living on the bread line. It was a slap in the face for other EU countries (chiefly Germany) who were keeping Greece afloat at their own, huge, expense. And the concept of the referendum itself was simply moronic – the Greek people would effectively be asked whether to face financial hardship or the meltdown of their democracy. One can’t help but sympathise with Papandreou who is under unbelievable pressure, but the decision seemed to show he had lost the plot completely.
A rebellion in the government forced Papandreou to U-turn and the referendum was cancelled again within a few days.
I had tweeted that the referendum decision was moronic, and was met with a response from a number of tweeters, left and right, that I was “opposing democracy” or “opposing the right of the Greek people to decide”. I’m not ideologically opposed to referendums, but I can’t think of many cases where they make sense. We (in most of Europe and the US) have representative democracies rather than direct democracies for good reason: most of the population don’t have the time or the inclination to inform themselves on complex issues, nor should they have to – that’s why we have professional politicians, and provide them with the funding to employ economists, historians, political scientists, statisticians and so on.
Attempts by economists to quantify the options have put the cost of preventing a crash at €1tn to €2tn – a mind-blowing amount of cash. Attempts to quantify the alternative are difficult, as chaos is basically unpredictable: would the EU unravel? Would that lead to trade wars or actual wars? The only firm answer seems to be that the cost of not saving Greece would be many times higher than of saving it. Does it make sense to allow the people to make that decision?
The question would seem simple enough: Should Greece accept or reject the EU deal? But more honestly, it would say: Should Greece continue with this pain and try to turn the economy around, or should we face economic collapse, a likely military coup, and drag the rest of Europe down with us? Is it ethical to give Greeks a say as to whether Italy, Spain, France and eventually the rest of Europe down with it? What right do they have to decide that? In reality, Greeks had their say years ago: they elected weak or corrupt leaders who failed to tax the wealthy, and who funded improved lifestyles for the Greek people using cheap loans from European banks. It’s harsh, but it happened. Why not give the Norwegians a referendum on whether it should be sunnier in mid-winter? Surely they have the right to decide that? It would be equally nonsensical – the poor Greek people need and deserve leaders who will make tough but informed decisions on their behalf, not useless paper exercises of “choice” when there is no choice.
The nationalistic British right is becoming equally agitated in their demand for a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU. If you listen to the small minority who actually understand the implications of that choice, you’ll hear that an exit would cause huge, lasting damage to the British economy. A referendum may fairly be phrased: Do you want to see a large cut in your standard of living or not? To which the average Brit may actually make an informed decision. But masking that as “do you want to exit the European Union?” would be another question which 90% of the population is unqualified to answer. You could, of course, make voting contingent on demonstrating a good understanding of the economic and historical issues – which thankfully would exclude most of the electorate. But if you did that, why not just ask those people who are actually qualified instead?
Earlier this year, the British people heavily rejected the Alternative Vote, a minor change to our voting system that would have improved the quality of our democratic process and given us more of a say over who governs us. It was a moronic decision – but how were most voters to know that? They took their lead from the moronic tabloid newspapers. And they represented the interests of the two main political parties, which would have lost their power duopoly under the new system. So rather than spend time and money asking the electorate, why not just ask unelected newspaper owners instead? It would be fast, cheap and give exactly the same result.
Referendums allow the mob to decide, and the mob is easily swung. Two years ago in Switzerland (which runs a system of direct democracy), the people voted to ban the building of tall towers. But not all tall towers: specifically those attached to mosques, also known as minarets. The Swiss, not the most racially diverse people, basically ran an exercise in minority-lynching, in full public view. Democracy at its best? If democracy is another word for lynching, I’ll give it a miss, thanks. As a member of the Jewish minority comprising about 0.3% of the UK population, the thought of such a system of “democracy” makes me queasy.
And look at California: the state adopted a system of direct democracy, allowing measures to be added to every ballot and voted on in each election. Given that most people have little time to research every ballot proposition, the propositions that make it are usually backed by big money interests. In trying to give more power to the people, California instead gave more power to wealthy vested interests. The results? More people in prison (thus profiting prison operators and prison unions). And the biggest debt of any US state. Why? Because people, quite naturally, vote for better services but no tax rises. Who wouldn’t?
Wouldn’t I like referendums on issues of concern to me? It may have been nice to stop the Iraq war from going ahead, for example. Except, we wouldn’t have been able to stop it. If a referendum was called, we’d have been bombarded by the media with the same lies and fear that MPs were, and the majority of people, unable to separate fact from fiction, would have buckled and voted for war. Love or hate our MPs, and moronic as many of them are, they’re still far better informed on world issues than the average Brit. They took the wrong decision on Iraq. So would have most British people.
There are many ways to improve our democracies: elected employee representatives on corporate boards, the right to recall our representatives, freedom of information so journalists can tell us what our politicians are up to, and proportional forms of voting so no vote is wasted. But referendums? They don’t improve democracy, they’re just a straightforward race to the bottom.
I try to maintain a global perspective in my moron-watching, but that’s difficult: just trying to keep track of moronic activity in Europe and the US is hard enough. However, Africa is a continent that has always held great fascination for me, and I’ve enjoyed travelling to a number of countries there. Sub-Saharan Africa is a wonderful place to travel. Sadly, the Western media is interested in reporting little other than famine and war in Africa, ignoring most of the other 99% of happenings there. The BBC used to produce an excellent radio programme/podcast called This Week In Africa, which gave a good, weekly overview of African events – sadly that was lost to the UK government’s moronic austerity measures.
Focusing on African morons may make some liberals uneasy; because African heritage is deeply entwined with racial issues in the West, many will miss the obvious: Africa itself isn’t a racial issue. Furthermore, the politically-correct version of African history tries to explain away every failing of Africa by blaming colonialism. Colonialism did represent resource-theft on a huge scale, and the colonial “scramble for Africa” carve-up by European powers created long-term political headaches that still rumble on; yet the colonial era (approx 1880s to 1960s) was also an unprecedented time of development for the continent, during which the population increased around sixfold and the continent’s great cities of today were born. The “it’s all our fault” school of Western liberal thought is a fine piece of subtle racism; while white supremacists like to say everything good in Africa is a foreign import, liberals say everything bad is. In reality, Africa is capable of both success and failure without our help. Africa is rich in many resources, but perhaps one of its most abundant resources is bad leadership; if moronic and crazy leaders were tradeable currency, Africa could be the wealthiest continent on Earth.
Africans themselves generally have a clear view about where their problems originate: after all, they are the ones who are daily extorted of money by the police, who face discrimination based on which ethnic group they belong to, who struggle to make a living at the roadside while their politicians drive past in fleets of expensive SUVs, who see their countries’ resources skimmed off into Swiss bank accounts. A Sierra Leonean businessman I met was refreshingly straightforward about his country’s problems: “Our leaders are a bunch of illiterate savages”.
The African story isn’t just the gloomy tale of war and famine that’s dripped out through our media. Despite a handful of countries that can truly be said to be “basket cases”, the average African economy is growing at a very healthy pace. Schooling is becoming ever-more standard, and literacy is growing fast. The lack of good communications across the continent has been rapidly solved by the arrival of mobile telephony, with mobile phone ownership approaching levels seen in developed countries. Africa’s final hurdle is to improve its governance. African countries will no doubt soon experience their own civil rights era; with more educated and demanding populations than ever before, we can expect, within a few years, to see black Africa rise up in pursuit of better leadership, as we’ve seen in North African and Arab countries this year.
So here is a brief tribute to a few of Africa’s moron leaders – those people who by theft, suppression of free speech or just downright idiocy, are slowing Africa’s emergence into the developed world.
Robert Mugabe is the perfect example of a revolutionary hero who turned out not to be such a great national leader once the revolution was won. Mugabe served over 10 years in prison during the struggle against white minority rule. In power since the formation of Zimbabwe in 1980, Mugabe quickly revealed his moron credentials by attacking his opponents and committing mass-murder against a tribal minority, the Matebele. Gradually, Zimbabwean opposition was crushed. Mugabe then set out on a populist land-grab from white farmers, handing land to his friends and supporters, with the result that harvests failed and a once-prosperous country fell into poverty. Indeed, hunger is a favourite weapon used by Mugabe against his enemies. Despite being electorally defeated, Mugabe refuses to let go of power, and will remain until death (he’s 87), or until his ZANU-PF cronies finally find the guts to depose him.
Traditional “medicine” and superstitions are rife in Africa, and this extends even to the ruling classes. Nelson Mandela’s successor in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, allowed himself to be convinced that AIDS wasn’t related to the HIV virus, and acted to prevent antiretrovirals from being made widely available, despite South Africa having the world’s worst AIDS epidemic. After several years, Mbeki’s stance was overruled, and antiretrovirals were made available, but only after an estimated 365,000 people had died due to his ignorance. Mbeki’s successor Jacob Zuma showed himself to be no more enlightened about AIDS when, standing trial for rape, he revealed he’d had unprotected sex with a woman he knew to be HIV positive, and had showered afterwards to “protect himself”.
Resentment between African tribes has often been hugely exacerbated by the hasty drawing of post-independence borders as European colonial rulers left and African leaders replaced them. Every African country is ethnically divided to some extent, and leaders (elected or not) will often represent their own group rather than the national interest. It’s hardly surprising then that African leaders tend to use power to discriminate against rival tribes, which in turn heightens tensions and makes conflict and genocide more likely. This happened most starkly in 1994 in Rwanda, where the minority Tutsi ruling group was suddenly turned upon by resentful Hutus, resulting in the loss of around 800,000 lives.
In Kenya, the 2008 elections collapsed into ethnic violence between the dominant Kikuyu tribe and others; political leaders on both sides were accused of stoking the violence for political gain.
Sierra Leone has racist laws on the statute that prevent any non-native from being born a Sierra Leonean citizen, however many generations his family may have lived in the country.
Africa’s most multiracial country, but also a fragile one, is South Africa; a Cameroonian man recently told me of his difficult experience working in South Africa, saying that black South Africans were the most racist people he’d ever encountered, especially against other black people. South Africa’s ANC leaders have generally been careful to tackle racism, seeing the danger it could cause to such a diverse country, but recently a leading ANC figure, Julius Malema, was convicted of hate speech after leading the singing in public of a song that advocated “killing Boers”. So far, South Africa is largely peaceful and politically stable, with the ANC easily winning every election. But with growing anger against ANC corruption, and the rise of an opposition party led by a white woman, watch out for more race-baiting coming from the ANC as its monopoly on power becomes weaker.
Africa is perhaps the worst place to be gay. While homophobia is widespread pretty much everywhere on earth, African laws against homosexuality tend to be the most draconian, and the most enthusiastically implemented. Liberals often try to blame this on the West, pointing out that many of these laws originate from the colonial era, and that African homophobes are enthusiastically supported by American Christians, but that’s a subtle piece of liberal racism which assumes Africans wouldn’t know how to be homophobic by themselves. The laws may descend from colonial times, but then so do almost all sub-Saharan African legal systems. African homophobia is homegrown. Europe has now abandoned its homophobic legislation, but African nations (with the laudable exception of South Africa) seem to show no enthusiasm in doing likewise.
If one country can sum up the greatest hopes and worst fears for Africa’s future, it’s Nigeria. A large, federal nation of 36 states and 155m people, it has oil reserves that bring huge revenue flows into the country. Unfortunately, much of that is embezzled within the corrupt political system, and rapidly exits the country again. Nigeria has the wealth to build good education, healthcare and electricity infrastructures for its people; but has largely failed to do so. By rights, given its mineral wealth and human resources, Nigeria should be ready for a place in the G20; but that is a distant dream.
A figure that best illustrates Nigeria’s problems is the salary paid to its politicians. Incredibly, while three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 per day, Nigeria’s elected representatives earn around $1,500,000 per year (no, that’s not a typo: I really said $1.5m), and are the world’s highest paid politicians. By contrast, US politicians earn around one-sixth that amount. This huge reward for winning elections helps explain the corrupt and violent mess that is Nigerian politics – and the perks of political life go far beyond the salary.
Nigeria’s economy is growing and the country is becoming more wealthy. But unless its wealth is shared among the population, the nation risks falling back into bloodshed. No country can have a stable existence with the world’s worst poverty sitting alongside enormous wealth. And the oil won’t last forever; if the proceeds are not invested wisely, Nigeria could see catastrophe as production goes into decline. If Nigeria destabilises, the entire West African region, and beyond, would be flooded with refugees and collapse into chaos. Probably more than any other country, Nigeria is key to Africa’s future.