Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Republicans don't have a monopoly on patriotism

If you listen to Republicans, and given that most are either enigmatic businessmen or Ted Stevens, it's often hard not to, you'll hear that Democrats are soft on defense, they flip-flop, they don't care about the troops in Iraq, they are elite liberals out of touch with real Americans and should you elect them into office following Bush's tenure, China will invade California and the entire country will attacked by a giant French airliner the size of Texas.

To back this up is the fact that the military, composed solely of "real Americans" who are clearly not soft on defense, act decisively and are ready to shoot the gooks, is generally Republican when it is enabled to vote.

So why is it then, that of over ten military veterans confirmed to be running for office this year, only one is doing so under the banner of the Grand Old Party? Is it because the military has switched its allegiance following a war in Afghanistan that didn't really accomplish much at all and another in Iraq that looks more like an Asian jungle with every new report off the wire? Is it because they don't like the way the Bush Administration has sought to dodge fire by standing behind honest officers who have attempted to blow the whistle on situations such as Abu Ghraib? Or is it because Democrats are opportunistic spinners, keen to move with whatever they can muster against the government? Some of you might be tempted to believe the latter, but let's be honest. If the Democrats were really opportunistic they'd have won the last election easily. It takes balls to move when you see the opening and unless I've missed something lately, the donkey's lacking in that area.

Tammy Duckworth no doubt knows more about this situation than I do; the former army helo pilot lost both her legs in Iraq and is now running for Congress in Illinois' 6th district as a Democrat. The 37-year-old is able to walk now due to what she calls "really good healthcare" and is keen to see the positives in her situation pointing out that, "my feet don't get cold" and sports a T-shirt which reads, "Dude, where's my leg?" But why run as a Democrat?

Well for starters, Duckworth feels the Iraq war was a mistake and isn't too keen on the handling either. "I think it was a bad decision," she says, "I think we used bad intelligence. I think our priority should have been Afghanistan and capturing Osama Bin Laden. Our troops do an incredible job every single day, but our policymakers have not lived up to the sacrifices that our troops make."

In the black and white world of widespread public perception, the fact that Duckworth was a Major in the army makes her qualified to comment on Bush's War on Terror. It does not of course, because being a US citizen gives her all the qualification she needs to criticize a policy of her President's. But the perception is key. Duckworth by all accounts, would be a great Congresswoman and representative of her people, and her issue stances though carefully uncontroversial beyond the War, seem reasonably good. Her official website says, "education is the economic defense budget of the 21st century" and acknowledges the problems that America faces in this regard. She admits that in some cases, tax cuts to middle-class Americans are needed, but millionaires could probably survive without them. She supports providing healthcare for all children and who could argue against that?

Most importantly however, Duckworth is able to both support the troops and criticize the war free from the fear of being labeled a flip-flopper or unpatriotic by Republican media whores such as Sean Hannity because she has actually fought, voluntarily and proudly for her country. So what does this mean for the military and the Democrats in the next election? Will one support the other and oust the Republicans from the Oval Office? It's certainly possible.

What I feel this indicates most importantly of all however, is that being a Democrat does not make someone unpatriotic. Though right-wing organisations have fought hard to convince America that criticism of one idea equals support for an opposite one, this is simply not true. Despite this, Democrats have had trouble communicating this to the public because their most vaunted military figures have been "caught out" either through their own mistakes or via well-made videos shown ad naseum on Fox news. Kerry, the Democrat's Vietnam war hero was perhaps ultimately beaten in the election by the Swift Boat Vets, and Sen. John McCain, the 'nice' Republican who said torture doesn't work, admitted in his 1999 biography that it does!

The real test will of course come with the next Presidential election where Republican 'patriotism,' which has resulted in overzealous and ridiculous spending on defense, a near total disregard for the poor of the country and an international front that only Britain and Israel can pretend is not a farce, will once again be presented to the public as an option for the next four years. The Democrats need not spin to win on this front for Bush's calamities are well documented and plain for all to see, and though the man will not fight the next election, his party will carry his name on its back and all the dead weight that comes with it.

Of course the election will not solely be about defense. Good Christian values will come into play as well, and if you are a Christian and believe that your religion has a place in the Executive branch, then you should feel free to vote red. But don't let those same people you're voting for convince you that criticisms of a corrupt and inadequate Administration are the same as ignoring the sacrifices people have made for freedom in Iraq. Bush may have given the order to invade for oil, and he may have done so simply because his father didn't like the finale of the First Gulf War, but the soldiers on the ground have fought because they believe in an ideal and everyone realises that. Patriotism is defined as a love for one's country. It cannot be argued that people like Duckworth do not carry this love inside of them, and an attempt to repair the US following six years where the rest of the world has watched in horror as it declines, is very simply, the action of a patriot.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Islam can't be blamed for a common failing, but it can't be excused either

It's odd that I always seem to take a break from the news when the more interesting things happen, and indeed am largely ignorant about said happenings until they've blown over and the world has forgotten about them. That's probably what would have happened with the Danish cartoons except in this case, the issue has been blown so far out of proportion that even by willfully ignoring the issue for other "more important" ones for days, I was unable to avoid learning about the situation.

As everyone now knows, the cartoons (or rather, the most publicised cartoon) portrayed the Prophet Muhammad with a turban-shaped bomb on his head, emblazoned with the Islamic creed. Given that Islamic tradition prohibits portraying the Prophet at all, let alone in a deliberately provocative manner guaranteed to offend Muslims, this kicked up a fuss.

Predictably, some in the Danish Muslim community spoke out against the cartoons. Less predictably, the issue was spread around the world, news organisations were boycotted, flags were burnt and embassies were attacked. It's a safe guess that more than one comedian has seen the irony in opposing a cartoon which depicts Islam as violent by acting in a violent manner, but the odds are out on whether anyone has actually spoken up about it in an open house.

The trouble with the situation is of course, lying at Bush's feet. Or under them, to be more precise. America's War on Terror, a thinly veiled attack on Those who are not Godly, has rightly drawn criticism from those on the left. Because Bush's political base is so strong however, and he is able to continue almost daily with ruining the world, the left see the need to confront him, and his supporters at every turn. Because much of what his supporters say is often anti-Muslim, the left fight back against this. And it goes too far. By desperately attempting to stamp out hate speech, anything which could be considered even mildly offensive runs the risk of being censored. In this particular case, because anti-Islamic sentiment is so commonplace, the attempts to quash it are doubled and cartoons such as that not seen above are condemned as racist, and free speech goes out the window. For all the rhetoric about criticising a President being patriotic and good, when it comes to whomever the President may be opposing at that time of the month, the rules are changed, and even a tree-hugging communist such as I must point out that the Left is partly to blame for this furore.

Of course, the threat of violence against those who publish the cartoons is also a factor. And because of this shameless oppression of expression, it is now okay to come out and say Islam is a bad religion. It is a violent religion. But is it true?

Of course Islam is a bad religion. It has incomprehensible views of the world, and more specifically, women's' roles in it. But guess what, so does Christianity, so does Judaism and I'm pretty sure Hinduism does too. That's religion. So is Islam to blame for this oppression of free speech? It is after all, the basis for the objection to the cartoons.

Well, look at it this way. When someone bombs an abortion clinic in the name of Jesus, we blame and hold to account the person, not Christianity. When Israel sticks its fingers up at democracy over the border, we question the government, not Judaism. Why isn't the same true for Islam? Like Christianity and Judaism, it is based largely on texts that are thousands of years old. It's no surprise and no exception that some of those texts have no place in a modern world. The matter is now as follows. Islamic tradition does not allow for depictions of the Prophet. Non-Muslims should not be bound by this rule and the recent attempt to change the West's idea of free speech was wrong.

It was not however, an excuse for the idea to become popularised that Islam is a 'worse' religion than Christianity. Both are out of date, both promote bigotry and both inspire people to horrific violence. Because one is endorsed by the United States of the South does not make it better. Both are very valid targets for criticism, and opposing hate-speech whilst good, should never equate to silencing such speech. Beyond that, it's only a few short steps away from the point where I can't write this, and you can't read it. Free speech can be a damned hard thing to live with sometimes, but if we lose it, we're all fucked.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

You're hired! (But don't ask about benefits)

US Vice President Dick Cheney recently proudly proclaimed that it was becoming harder and harder for the President's critics to say that tax cuts did not help the economy. The cause for this bold statement? Since May 03 the Bush administration has watched as the unemployment rate drops and 4.6 million new jobs have been created. This clearly sounds pretty damned good.

Of course Cheney didn't take the time to talk about how much these new employed citizens were being paid, or how many people were still in poverty or how it's becoming harder and harder for poor people to survive in the United States. Democratic critics such as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi point out that, "middle-class Americans paychecks are flat or dropping, while health care costs continue to rise and home heating costs are skyrocketing... and yet the Bush administration is cheerleading policies that help the wealthy while doing nothing to address these fundamental problems." Dick Durbin (D-IL) adds, "since President Bush took office, prices at the gas pump has increased 55%; healthcare premiums 57%; winter heating costs 79%; tuition fees are up 32% at four year private colleges; 57% at public colleges."

This is ignored by VP Cheney and President Bush who says in unusually articulate fashion, "one of the real drains and real threats to our economy is the inability of Congress to be able to confront the Medicare and social security issue; the unwillingness to take on the tough political jobs."

So it's the fault of Congress that the estimated budget deficit from the Office of Management and Budget will increase from $319 billion to over $400 billion by the end of business, 2006? But aren't both the House of Representatives and the Senate Republican at the moment? So Bush is blaming his own party? Maybe he's seeking retribution for Harriet - whatever the case he's not getting much support from people on this. Steve Forbes, editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine and a big fan of tax-cuts blames the President himself in part for the deficit, saying his reluctance to veto spending bills has been a huge contributor to it specifically saying, "spending is the problem, not revenue." He adds that the Federal reserve prints too much money which has led to the increase in costs across the board for consumers but claims that the US has the "fastest growing large economy in the world today."

Former economic advisor to the Clinton White House, Gene Sperling disputes some of Forbes points, namely by saying that whilst the tax cuts of 2001-02 gave a needed kickstart to the economy, since 2003 they have definitely hurt it. Since '03, wages for hourly and weekly paid workers have gone down, poverty is up by 5 million people, family income has gone down every year since Bush took office and as a result, 75% of expected deterioration of the economy in the coming year is due to loss of revenues; "If you put this stuff in any form of historical perspective, the President's cheerleaders can't respond."

What sort of perspective is Sperling talking about though? Well to return to Cheney's shining stat of 4.9m new jobs in the last three years, the average rise under Clinton was 6.5m per annum. The job growth so vaunted by Cheney is actually the worst in such a period of recovery since the 1930s.

Whilst pursuing the 'pork projects' criticised by Forbes, Sperling notes that the Bush administration has cut spending on the National Institute of Health and funding for Head Start programs - programs needed by the nation in order for it to be competitive on the world stage. Sperling also reminds us that these tax cuts, for the most part go to people who are earning over $400k per annum. This doesn't come as a shock to anyone who knows Republican economic ideals; the rich pay the most taxes thus reap most of the returns. But who's going to value $200 the most? A CEO with more than a few million tied up in stocks, or a family of four struggling to keep warm in January? To paraphrase Sperling, returning these moneys to the rich is bad for the US's growth, bad for its fiscal future and bad for its values. Don't allow yourself to believe the US economy is doing well because a noticeboard showed 11000 last week.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Information is power, and power doesn't come cheap

Freedom of Information Act logoThe Freedom of Information Act created by the British government in 2000, since 1st Jan 2005, allows for any person or organisation to request any information from their council concerning the government, subject to some exemptions. It is designed to create a more open and accountable governmental system, whilst allowing people to better understand the inner workings of government by using their newfound rights.

And well they did. Thanks to the Freedom Act, information is now freely available on local services, the amount of money paid to the country's wealthiest landowners, how government ministers blocked the civil marriage of Princess Margaret and even who the Prime Minister entertains at Chequers. But of course, the system is not perfect. As revealed on The Times front page today, many government departments do not respond to questions devised using their own websites, with some claiming they do not have the requested data.

And then there's the cost of it all. When people call up and ask for data, there has to be someone on the other end of the line who can find (or not find, as the case may be) that data. And with 36,000 requests, that's a lot of man-hours spent looking for the number of windows at the Department of Education. So now, the government is considering introducing charges for requests of information. This is not a new idea; it was only shortly before the act came into force that planned charges of up to £60 for requests were dropped, apparently against the will of senior Whitehall figures who claimed the charge should be higher.

Unsurprisingly, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel is not happy with this, and claims such a move would undermine the entire Act and deter the public from using it, citing Ireland as an example: "when the Irish increased their fees considerably three years ago, their volume of requests fell to a quarter of what they were the previous year."

But this is where stylish liberals must take a step back and consider things. Of course it costs money to run such a scheme and paying for information is neither a ridiculous nor new idea. Consider how many companies have details stored about British citizens on their computers. Under the Data Protection Act, you're allowed to see what information an organisation may have on you, but they are allowed to charge you for it. Why then, should you be given free and unfettered access to data regarding other people?

Prices should be kept as low as possible, and the practice of using high costs to restrict information should be monitored and discouraged, but the costs themselves will not undermine the act - stupidity and inefficiency will. Despite the above problems, 67% of the 7,500 requests made between July and September last year were granted in full, but if enough people call up asking how much Ruth Kelly spends on toilet paper, that number will fall. If a charge will discourage such requests, then at least in one way, it will help the Act.