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Entries in UK (51)

Sunday
Mar252012

Bruisyard, Suffolk

Bruisyard Hall

St Peter's Bruisyard

Tuesday
Feb142012

Oxford

 

Monday
Feb062012

Advertising Standards Authority concludes: God doesn't heal

The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK is required to investigate claims of false advertising that are reported to it. Their job:

The ASA is the UK's independent regulator of advertising across all media, now including marketing on websites. We work to ensure ads are legal, decent, honest and truthful by applying the Advertising Codes.

Especially important are claims of medical origin: it is illegal to claim that your Boost Juice has the power to reduce the duration of your flu, or your Snake Oil can cure cancer, unless you actually have clinical evidence demonstrating that this is so.

Recently a Christian leaflet was reported to the Authority. It claimed:

Need Healing? God can heal today! Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction ... Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness?

We'd love to pray for your healing right now!

We're Christian from churches in Bath and we pray in the name of Jesus. We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness.

The Advertising Standards Authority received complaints, looked into the claims made by the group, and correctly concluded that there was a lack of clinical evidence demonstrating that God or prayer could heal any of these conditions, and banned them from making these claims in the future. In their statement they said, "We are not here to stop religious or faith-based organisations from promoting what they believe in. But if they are making absolute claims about curing serious conditions then we have to see that evidence to back it up." Absolutely, what a fantastic decision. Religious claims should not be exempt from the law, and should be scrutinised in exactly the same way as secular claims.

Wednesday
Jan042012

Promoting universal human rights is not cultural imperialism

In the past few months have heralded a titanic shift in international gay rights. In October, advancing international gay rights was a topic of conversation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, with UK Prime Minister David Cameron stating that gay rights in Africa is a major concern, and that respect for gay rights should influence foreign aid decisions. Then in December the US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement indicating a similar shift in US foreign policy, that the US would use all of the tools of American foreign diplomacy to promote international gay rights and fight criminalisation of sexuality. 

These statements were aimed squarely at Africa, where gay rights have lagged behind the rest of the world, and in particular countries like Uganda, where gay rights are actively being destroyed. In Uganda there has been a major backlash in response to these comments, such as from John Nagenda, a senior Presidental advisor, who said in response "Homosexuality here is taboo, it’s something anathema to Africans, and I can say that this idea of Clinton’s, of Obama’s, is something that will be seen as abhorrent in every country on the continent that I can think of.” One Ugandan commentator summed up the response: "It is unfortunate that Uganda is now being judged on the actions of opportunists whose ideas are based on violence and blackmail and even worse, on the actions of aid attached strings. It is regrettable that government is pretentiously expected to observe their 'human rights', yet, by their own actions, they have surrendered their right to human rights."

Persecutors of homosexuality, both in Africa and in developed nations, commonly shout "cultural imperalism" or "ex-colonial mentality" to defend their "right" to kill gays. Cultural imperalism is a major problem, and leaders like David Cameron do show signs of a deep-seated racism in their policy decisions. However defending gay rights in Africa does not met any of the criteria for cultural imperalism, for three reasons.

Firstly, universal human rights is not a "Western construct". It is too easy for non-Western governments to claim that the human rights agenda is simply an import of Western values. This is a cop-out, and disgracefully ignores the non-Western contribution to the concept of human rights. To understand the basis of universal human rights we need to accept the contribution of multiple historical strands, which independently derived universal rights and built on each other. Ancient Greek philosophy, Zen Buddhism and Confusionism all sewed the seeds for individual rights. Early Islamic scholarship, the European enlightenment, the American Revolution and the labour movement all built on these foundations. The leading figures in the modern human rights movement were global - from Gandhi in India, Mandela in Africa, and Martin Luther King in America. Today if you are looking for beacons of gay rights you can include countries from South Africa to Argentina to Nepal. In fact, only half of the people who live in countries allowing gay marriage are in Europe or North America; universal rights has been a global collaborative venture. 

Secondly, African homophobia is actually the cultural import. Ironically, those people who scream "cultural imperalism" when they are asked not to kill gays in Africa are actually defending a cultural import. The virulent anti-gay culture is based on the British import of Christianity and the recent evangelical campaign from America. In fact, African leaders such as Nelson Mandela have been among the bravest politicians in the world in standing up for gay rights. In short, there is nothing authentically "African" about wanting to kill gays. 

Thirdly, Gay rights is (sadly) not "Western culture". Western countries do not have a long history of accepting homosexuality. As previously mentioned, they actively exported homophobia; sexuality equality is a recent development that has grown from the concept of universal human rights. In the case of Uganda, the two main imperial players have been the UK and America. Both have a long history of persecuting people based on their sexuality. Removal of persecuation of homosexuality started in 1967 in the UK, with equal sexual rights only achieved in 2003. The US was even worse, with laws against homosexuality standing until 2003 and discrimination laws still in place in parts of the country today. Neither country today provides for full equity. 

When conservative thugs try to excuse their thuggery by citing "culture" it is tempting to simply echo the sentiment of Charles Napier, the British General who stopped the practice of suttee in India: "Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs." With both telling and pithy, we can come up with a better attack than this. Mrs Clinton is exactly right when she argues that gay rights are like other universal human rights, transending cultural, religious and national boundaries. Afterall, "universal" does not mean "everyone but the gays".

Most people would argue that the right to maintain your culture is also a universal right. This I would agree with, and for example I have actively defended the right of Islamic women to wear the headscarf or burqa, even though I disagree with the practice. So how is wearing a burqa different from imprisoning gays? Quite simply, the right to maintain your culture is a personal right. If you want to wear a burqa or a kippah based on your culture, go ahead. If you want to hate gays or women based on your religion, that is your right. But, and this is a big but, everyone else also has the right to maintain their own personal culture and rights. Cultural rights do not only go to straight male bigots. Women have the right to wear a burqa if they chose; no-one has the right to force them to wear a burqa against their will. A gay evangelical can chose to punish himself for violating his own religion, or even seek out punishment from his church, or he can chose to accept his sexuality - it is a personal decision.

Conservative thugs always invoke their culture or tradition when defending their right to persecute others. Whether it is slave owners invoking culture for keeping slaves, men invoking culture for dominating women or heterosexuals invoking culture for persecuting homosexuals, we can't let them get away with it. Their personal right to culture and tradition does not over-ride everyone else's rights to their own free choice in culture and tradition. If an Islamic woman wants to say that she is making a cultural choice to wear a mini-skirt, or a Ugandan woman decides to live openly as a lesbian, then that is her choice, and her choice alone. We are ethically bound to support those choices.

Friday
Nov112011

Guy Fawkes Night

We just had a great weekend in London. Saturday night we went to the Guy Fawkes fireworks with friends. Hayden was completely blown away, staring with wide-open eyes at the brilliant display of sparkling lights in the sky. Guess your first fireworks must really be something.

Then on Sunday night I got to see Billy Connelly live. He's getting old, nearly 70 now and it shows, but boy he is still funny.

Wednesday
Nov022011

Things that made me angry this week

In response to a request from David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, all of the constitutional monarchies in the Commonwealth agreed to change their law on succession. Under the current arrangements, when determining the inheritance of the British Crown, within each degree of relation, men take priority over women, and anyone married to a Catholic cannot accept the Crown. In the words of David Cameron, "The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic - this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become." Yes, it is quite archaic indeed. As is the basic idea that someone should be crowned ruler of a country and the head of the State Church simply because of an accident of birth. Good grief, if we are going to rationally discuss who inherits the Crown in three generations time, perhaps we could have a conversation on whether Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, Barbados, Grenada, Solomon Islands, St Lucia and the Bahamas should be endorsing the entire concept of royalty. 

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Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, the disgraceful weasel, blamed the Unions for shutting down air-traffic in Australia. Joyce has been ripping Qantas apart for years, outsourcing jobs and cutting real wages. The Unions involved have been trying to negotiate some job security and a wage rise, and what does Joyce do? Gave himself a 75% pay rise, to $5 million / year, and then shut down the entire airline rather than negotiate with the Unions. After the government stepped in to force a negotiation, the bastard blamed the Unions for industrial action, when it was not the Unions who went on strike but the management who locked out all the workers.

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The United States massively overreacted at Palestine applying for membership at the United Nations. 126 countries, representing 75% of the world's population, have recognised the State of Palestine. Palestine is now pushing for recognition by the United Nations, and is coming under severe criticism from the United States for doing so. The US is criticising Palestine for acting "unilaterally" and encourages it to take a more diplomatic route. Huh? Isn't asking the United Nations for diplomatic recognition the very definition of mulitlateral diplomacy? The UN (rightfully) recognises Israel, it should equally recognise Palestine, and the world should not have to wait until Palestinian recognition suits domestic Israeli politics. The other criticism from the US is that UN recognition would only be symbolic, in effect saying that there is not much gain to be made from it. Perhaps, but then why expend so much effort to destroy the effort? Now Palestine has been accepted as a member state by UNESCO, the agency which looks after World Heritage Sites. And the response from the US? To withdraw all American funding from UNESCO, slashing its budget by 20%. Israel in turn applauded the US and is considering its future within UNESCO. How is that a reasonable response? UNESCO simply allowed Palestine to join its mission "to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information". One would have thought that US and Israel would support such a mission being extended to Palestine, and UNESCO cannot be accused of being anti-semetic - they run holocaust education programs around the world, they protect holocaust memorial sites such as Auschwitz, and they actively support the preservation of sacred Jewish sites within Israel and around the world. How horrible for Palestine to want to be a part of that!

Sunday
Aug282011

Evolution prevents revolution, political edition

I was thinking today about the diminishing effect of democracy as a progressive force. Democracy is (or at least, should be) entirely a numbers game, so it is very effective in creating change when the majority are denied a right. When, however, it is a minority that is denied a right, democracy is often found lacking. When the vast majority of the population were below the poverty line it was straightforward to petition for welfare, education and social mobility. Now that we have pulled a majority over the poverty line, that same majority tends to look with contempt on those remaining underneath.

One of the most interesting examples to me is the diverging history between England and France. Prior to 1214, both countries were absolute monarchies, yet in 1214 King Philip II of France decisively crushed the armies of King John of England at the Battle of Bouvines. From that year on, the fate of the monarchies of two countries seperated. King John, weakened by defeat, was forced to slowly capitulate on the absolute rights of the monarch, signing the Magna Carta in 1215. King Philip II, by contrast, passed on the crown to his son, Louis VIII, who ruled with even more authority. For 500 years, the influence of the Magna Carta led to a slow erosion of the monarchy and a strengthening of the rights of the people, with limited elections in 1265 and a slow progression to the English Bill of Rights in 1689. The writers of the Magna Carta certainly did not want the common people to have independent rights, but the effect was to provide a release valve, where social pressure for equality could boil over and produce minor changes. In France, by contrast, the iron first of the King prevented any social change, with the French Revolution of 1789 the final result. Now, 800 years after the Battle of Bouvines, France is a modern Republic, while in the UK the monarchy has still been able to hang on, by just giving up drips of power every hundred years or so. Evolution prevents revolution.

Another interesting comparison is between South Africa and Switzerland. Switzerland was one of the cradles of equality, considered to be a functional democracy since 1848, and yet women did not achieve the right to vote until 1971 - a 123 year wait! South Africa, by contrast, was the posterchild of injustice until 1994, when Nelson Mandela won the first multiracial elections, with the jump in equality occuring simultaneously in men and women. And this is not just true on gender equality, South Africa now has a more liberal constitution with regards to sexuality than Switzerland. I would hazard a guess that among the population, Switzerland is less homophobic than South Africa, but at the constitutional level the polarity is reversed. By becoming a democracy earlier Switzerland locked in some profoundly regressive policies, while South Africa, writing its constitution in 1997, does not have these archaic notions of the 19th century engraved in stone.

Or look at democracy in the United States. While it was not the first democracy, the democratic movement in the US was one of the earliest and among the most significant. America, in principle, became a democracy in 1776, yet women only gained the vote in 1920 and the Civil Rights Act was only passed in 1964. Today among the functioning democracies, the United States has among the most unrepresentative Congress, with 5 million citizens denied the vote due to geographic location (Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the other territories), another ~5 million with voting rights removed due to criminal records. And don't get me started on the Senate, where a resident of Wyoming has a vote >65 times more powerful than a voter in California, or the two party first-past-the-post system which essentially locks out independents and third-party candidates.

The point I am trying to make is not that the US has a bad democracy (although it does), it is that when the democratic revolution occured in a country early, the revolution locked in some very undemocratic ideals. Countries that had later democratic revolutions were more able to learn from the mistakes of others, and the pressure-cooker of social inequality had longer to boil before it exploded - creating a greater leap forward.

I've given a handful of examples, but of course it is easy to come up with counter-factual examples. Does the principle hold true in general? What would you see if you plot the year that a country became a functioning democracy versus the number of years women had to wait to participate in that democracy? The graph below shows an inverse relationship - indicating that the earlier a country became a democracy, the longer on average women had to wait to gain equal voting rights. The first stirrings of democracy gave rights exclusively to rich white men, who (once they gained power) were happy to keep power exclusive to themselves. Countries that had to fight longer for democracy were more likely to grant it simultaneously to all.

Description of graph: A scatterplot of the year a country first became a democracy, versus the number of years that female suffrage was delayed. The year of first democracy was taken to be the year that the country first achieved a Polity score of 6 or above, indicating basic functioning democracy. The data of female suffrage was taken from wikipedia. All countries for which both data points were available were included. Countries are colour-coded by region - red indicates the Americas, blue Europe, orange Pacific, green Africa and purple Asia. The trendline is calculated across all countries as a linear regression, and has a r2 value of 0.803.

 

What are the political implications of the observation that incremental change can actually be a detriment to reaching the destination? Could the message be to insist on total equality in a single step, as partial equality may simply entrench the remaining inequality? In sexuality rights I can imagine this as a real risk. I would have preferred to see a bill before the US Congress granting full equality based on sexual and gender equality, rather than the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" alone. To me, if we could have kept same-sex marriage and gay military rights as a single cohesive issue we may have reached the destination of equality faster. Likewise the idea of "civil union" may undermine the push for marriage equality. Denmark was the first country to pass civil union rights, with the registreret partnerskab in 1989, ten years later France passed the pacte civil de solidarité, before any country in the world had legislated for same-sex marriage. Today the LGBT communities in Denmark and France are still living with second class rights, with the social conservatives using civil unions as a shield against same-sex marriage.

Tuesday
Aug162011

It's in the Muggle News

Friday
Jul222011

Average house size across three continents

Monday
May162011

SlutWalk

Constable Michael Sanguinetti set off a firestorm recently in Toronto when he gave advice to female students on how to avoid rape. "I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised".

In response, women in Canada started to organise SlutWalk, a parade of women wearing whatever they want, because... well, because women should be able to wear whatever they damn well want without being afraid of being raped. In the words of the organisers:

'All over the world, women are constantly made to feel like victims, told they should not look a certain way, should not go out at night, should not go into certain areas, should not get drunk, should not wear high heels or make up, should not be alone with someone they don't know. Not only does this divert attention away from the real cause of the crime - the perpetrator - but it creates a culture where rape is OK, where it's allowed to happen... after all, she must have been asking for it, right?'

Because sexualisation of young girls is such a modern phenomenon

The event has now spread to the UK and Australia, for just cause - the same sentiment is frequently expressed internationally. Just recently in the UK a Tory MP, Bill Aitken, speculated that a rape victim may have been a hooker, as if that was a mitigating factor in rape. And who could forget the disgraceful comments of Sheik Hilali in Australia, "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem." Perhaps there should be a SlutWalk in Texas, after the justification for an 11 year old girl being gang raped was that she "dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s".

So the problem is women not knowing which cabs they can take without being raped?

The Guardian hosted quite an interesting debate about the merits of SlutWalk. The main point is that rape is currently treated as a natural consequence of male sexuality, with the way to stop rape being to educate women about what will and will not set off men. The threshold may be set differently, but in essence Constable Sanguinetti, MP Bill Aitken and Sheik Hilali all have an identical view of women's rights to that of the Iranian government - women must be modest to protect themselves, if they are immodest they are bringing trouble down on themselves. I was particually interested in the view of Shaista Aziz in the debate, who said that the reason she wears a headscarf is because it makes her feel safer and empowers her in her interactions with men. Something to keep in mind with the constant burqa/headscarf debates (yet another example of men deciding what women should and should not be allowed to wear).

Whatever you think of the name of the event, the intent is undeniable - women should be able to wear whatever they want, whenever they want. Dealing with the crime of rape requires making men truly understand that rape is always a crime, no exceptions, rather than constantly focusing on women having to change their behaviour.