Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Great White Farce

Apoligises in advance. For most of this post I am going to sound like a ten year old who has been told they're not going to Disneyland after all. This is because I had been led to believe that someone had seen a great white shark here in the UK. Now as you may have gathered from the first post on here, I am fascinated by sharks. So my reaction to the news that the surfers and swimmers of Cornwall might be eaten was not 'oh dear' but 'oh cool!'

I should have paid more attention to where the story came from. The Sun splashed the sighting all over its front page and breathlessly reported how 'shocked tourists told of their terror last night over the Great White shark sighting off Cornwall.' Now, supposed great white shark sightings in UK waters are nothing new. I remember seeing a report of one on Newsround and since I haven't watched newsround for the better part of a decade this sighting must have happened I while ago. Nor are these claims totally implausible. Great Whites are regularly spotted off the coast of Northern Spain and it would be quite possible for one to swim from there to the UK.

What made this story different is that there was video of the 'shark.' This makes it easy to tell whether this really was a Great White. Which is exactly what today's Guardian does. They showed the video to David Sims, who leads the only scientific study of large sharks in the UK. His conclusion was that the 'Great White' was in fact a dolphin and a harmless Basking shark. Dr Sims cuttingly remarks "The Sun seems to run this story every summer. Just because parliament has gone into recess does not make this a great white shark."

There is a serious issue which this story raises. It is yet another illustration of just, how bad the Sun's journalism is. There was nothing preventing someone at the Sun showing the video to Dr Sim or another shark expert. They apparently did not do so and as a result printed a story that was inaccurate. But this is not the first howler from the Sun and they are often far from harmless.

Thanks to the Sun, thousands of people now wrongly believe that there are Great White sharks off Britain's shores. Which makes me wonder, what else do they believe just because the Sun told them?

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Secularism and its discontents

It is a cliché to say that Turkey is the bridge between East and West but it is undeniably true. To be shaped by a collision of the Islamic and the Western is both a great blessing and a dreadful curse. The richness and variety of Turkey’s culture would not be possible were it not able to draw on these very different civilisations. But if it did not sit between civilisations then Turkey might have been spared the divisions and tensions that have marked its history.

None of these divisions is more painful than the conflict between Turkey’s Islamists and the secular nationalists. This is a conflict that needs to be followed far beyond Turkey’s borders because it challenges many of our assumptions about religion and politics. We tend to associate secularism with freedom, democracy and tolerance. The experience of Turkey shows that there can also be a dark side to secularism which we must not ignore.

Like so much else, the roots of this conflict lie in the aftermath of World War I. Before the war, Turkey had been at the head of a great empire that stretched across the Middle East ruled by the Sultan based in Istanbul. Now it had been defeated and its empire occupied. It was against this desperate backdrop that a group of nationalist army officers, known as the Young Turks, were able to seize power from the royal family. The leader of these revolutionaries was the famous war hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The Young Turks attributed Turkey’s defeat to what they believed to be its backwardness and believed that rapid modernisation to be the only way to secure the nation’s future. To this end they launched a program of westernisation which transformed Turkey’s government, schools and even its language. The new government took a dim view of Islam and did everything in their power to reduce its influence and harass its adherents.

It is important to remember that all this westernisation and secularisation did not mean democratisation. There was only one party in Ataturk’s Turkey and he became a virtual dictator. Minorities such as the Kurds and Armenians faced repression by nationalist governments which saw them as a threat to the integrity of Turkey. The wearing of the headscarf in public buildings was banned, effectively excluding devout Muslim women from attending University and taking government jobs.

Nor did the secularist’s malign influence die with Ataturk. Subsequent attempts to move Turkey towards democracy have been frustrated by the militaries willingness to stage coups against any government it believed to be insufficiently devoted to secularism.

All this history makes Turkey’s present government rather surprising. It is committed to democracy, economically liberal and Islamist. It has achieved a lot during its first term: the economy is booming, the political role of the army has been curtailed and the position of the Kurds improved. Even on Women’s rights, an area where an Islamist government might be expected to fall down there has been progress: ghastly laws that allowed rapists to escape charge if they married their victims have been repealed. There have been blotches on its record, most notably an ill-conceived attempt to ban adultery, but the on the whole it has been positive influence.

Driving much of this reform has been the governments attempt to take Turkey into the European Union. This has been opposed by the secular opposition which knows that membership of the EU would end once and for all the political influence of their allies in the military. The irony of the ideological descendants of Ataturk, the great westerniser, opposing membership of the EU is a bitter one.

The deeply unpleasant nature of the secularists and the generally progressive policies of the Islamists show us clearly that there is nothing fundamentally liberal about secularism. It is a force for good if it means government leaving spiritual matters to individuals. If, however, it becomes about government trying to force atheism on its people then it is as oppressive as a theocracy and liberals should treat it the same way.

My Unlikely Hero

I am perhaps an unlikely admirer of Milton Friedman. As a general rule, nice centre-left Liberal Democrats do not sing the praises of Margaret Thatcher’s second favorite economist. However, I feel that he has been much maligned and too often dismissed by people who would actually find that they agree with him on most issues. This is probably because the popular image of him is almost completely false. The heartless conservative who sides with the haves over the have nots and backed Pinochet’s dictatorship simply did not exist.

Many people forget that Friedman was far from being a standard conservative, who fights tooth and nail for their freedom to make ‘loads of money’ while trampling on the rights of foreigners and non-conformists. His commitment to socially liberal causes was beyond reproach. He was an implacable opponent the practice of drafting young men into the military, which he believed was nothing less than a form of slavery. He devoted more time to campaigning on that issue than other and considered his role in bringing it to an end to be his greatest achievement. He is also one of the few prominent public figures to break the greatest public policy taboo of all and call for an end to the prohibition of drugs. Many self proclaimed ‘radical’ politicians have proved unwilling to take such a controversial stance and it is to Friedman’s credit that he was willing to be so honest about such an inflammatory subject.

Nor as is often supposed was he unconcerned with the plight of the poor. As the child of a poor immigrant family he was all too aware of the grim reality of a life for the ‘have nots’. But far from making him into a socialist, this experience made Friedman an even more fervent supporter of capitalism. He contrasted the mass affluence enjoyed by most people in the West with the grinding poverty that most Soviet citizens endured. Joseph Schrumpter’s view that ‘The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls’ was one that Friedman would undoubtedly have shared.

One of the least considered but most influential parts of Friedman’s writing, were his forays into social policy. He gave considerable thought to trying to find ways to help the poor without disempowering them. His prescriptions have been followed by a wide and often surprising range of governments. His idea of using the tax system to pay benefits was adopted first by Clinton’s Democrats and then by Gordon Brown in the form of tax credits. These credits have boosted the incomes of millions of poor families and helped thousands to get into work. Friedman’s plan to give poor parents vouchers with which to buy schooling for their children was to see its most faithful adoption not as you might expect in the US, Hong Kong or Chile but in social democrat Sweden. This scheme has gone a long way towards making the Swedes one of the best educated nations on earth.

Probably the cruelest myth about Friedman is that he was a supporter of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal Chilean junta. The repression that the regime engaged in was anathema to Friedman and he said so repeatedly. True, he did provide advice on economic policy to the Chilean and delivered a series of lectures n Chile while Pinochet was still in power. But he had given the same lectures and offered the same advice to the Chinese government. I doubt anyone would claim that this made Friedman a communist.

Friedman can be seen at his best in the enormously influential TV series, Free to Choose: http://www.ideachannel.tv/

A fuller account of his life is provided by Samuel Brittain: http://www.samuelbrittan.co.uk/text262_p.html

Friedman was a great economist, a great thinker and a great liberal and his work deserves attention from the left as well as the right.

Sorry about the name

I have spent ages trying to think of a witty, intelligent name for a blog.

I've tried everything: puns, historical figures and other even stranger things. They were all without exception RUBBISH.

Then I realised that the only thing preventing me starting to post was the fact that I didn't have a name. So I've settled on the least awful of my ideas: Shark Attack.

At primary school my nickname was 'Mark the Shark.' This was not (I hope) a reflection of my personality but something to do with my enthusiasm for all things marine and in particular sharks.

If you have any better ideas (you'd struggle to think of worse) then let me know.