Saturday, June 11, 2005

My mother was right

I hate to admit it - but she was, eventually.

"Those celebrities are halfwits. That Geldof's asked thousands of people to go to a place where there's just one toilet!" she said. It was the G8 summit, and the Cancel the Debt demos that she was talking about.

I disagreed - Trade and Debt are important issues, and it's right that people be allowed to protest about decisions being taken in their name that will affect the livelihood and survival of many in the "3rd World".

Then Geldof said: "let's have them cross the English Channel in a flotilla of little boats - just like the Dunkirk evacuation!"

Those celebrities are Halfwits!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Political correctness, tolerance, or censorship?

It sounds like we will soon have laws against religious hatred, according to Home Office Minister Paul Goggins, yesterday. It's going to be hard to define what exactly should be banned, though.

So far as I can tell, the test seems to be: words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up religious hatred. What a court may make of "likely" to stir up religious hatred is anyone's guess - certainly there are some people (you meet a lot of them in debate on the internet) who are likely to be stirred mightily by an apparently innocuous remark.

Racial hatred laws are right and proper. Nobody can pick or change their race. More than that, there's no valid reason to denigrate another race, or mock people for their race - apart from Americans and the English, who clearly deserve it ;-)

But philosophy, culture and religion are all very different from "race". This is about thought, ideas, and speech. It's dynamic, not static. It's about growth, discovery, development.

It's a fundamental part of many ideologies that those who do not share The Truth™ need to be convinced of the error of their ways. Preventing this infringes religious freedom and freedom of speech. Suppressing ideas attacks the freedom of thought of those who are denied access to forbidden concepts. How shall they believe, except they hear...?

Some belief systems teach precisely contradictory positions (Athiests and Moslems, on God, for instance). People must be permitted to call another religion or pholosophy "wrong" - even (or especially?) where we disagree with the speaker, or agree with the belief under attack!

The notion that there is no absolute truth, that all beliefs are equally valid, is an idea like any other. It would be the ultimate irony to treate it like an absolute and fundamental truth itself, making the belief that someone else is mistaken the only sin!

The right to change or abandon your religion, and to participate in the necessary free debate, is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Are we allowing an entirely spurious right not to have your beliefs called into question to trump the more fundamental rights of freedom of speech and religion. After all, freedom of religion does not mean the right to immunity from challenge to your beliefs. Like protectionism in trade, that ultimately futile strategy weakens what it claims to protect. Freedom of religion means the right to freely choose or change your own beliefs. And someties the right to grow up, and move on.

As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a journalist of Ugandan-Asian extraction, put it: "sometimes our community is wrong, and we need to criticise them." This freedom must not be challenged by well-meaning attempts to shield anyone's sacred cows!

Civil debate is usually more effective than confrontational, angry, hostile debate. But it's not going to be easy to legislate about how civil debate must be, and it's going to be utterly impossible to do that without stifling the debate itself - the oxygen and lifeblood of Democracy and Freedom.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Big Brother is watching you -- yes, you!

A long time ago, fingerprints left at the scene of a crime were used to track down criminals. Known offenders' prints could be compared. Suspects could be fingerprinted, and if they were eliminated from the investigation their fingerprints weren't needed any more.

Then, a few years ago, the government decided that they'd keep fingerprints of suspects on file indefinitely - even if they turned out to be innocent after all. More recently they decided to fingerprint the entire population, possibly in case we might be considering a career in terrorism. Naturally, we all need to have voluntary identity papers as well, so the police can tell who we are. Then they realised they needed a huge database with files on everyone, to go with the fingerprints, and the optional-unless-you-need-to-do-anything identity papers.

Of course it's not going to be a crime to leave your papers at home - not at first, anyway!

But as if it were not enough to know where every citizen lives, and to be able to identify them (and access their data) at any time, a whole new surveillance network was proposed this week.

They want to track where you drive - every last journey. The time, the date, the destination - and, as a side effect, even the speed! The stated reason is for a "pay as you go" driver tax. It might even replace road tax or petrol tax. Yeah, right!

It's going to be hugely complex, with different costs for different types of roads, and compulsory spy circuitry in every car. You won't be able to work out how much a journey will cost you without a computer.

It will cost a fortune to build (we'll be paying), and it'll have a few unintended consequences.

It will drive traffic away from expensive motorways and bypasses, onto cheaper country roads and through small towns, which won't be able to cope with the new traffic.

It'll hit low earners, those living in isolated areas, and anyone else who really needs a car.

It will remove incentives to use economical cars (unless of course they keep petrol tax as well, or introduce further complexity by tiered per-mile costs).

There will be masses of data on each driver, which will be safeguarded only by the government that tried to grant access to your phone records to just about everyone - from the Food Standards Agency to your local council.

It's possibly not the smartest way of financing roads - and it has staggering scope for intrusive monitoring of yet more details of our lives.

And if you thought GATSO speed cameras were a bit devious... you aint seen nothing yet!