Sunday, May 25, 2008

"proper study" - an update

posted by k

Many blogs have taken up the case of the students arrested under terrorism laws at Nottingham University. I have no time to post a full update but there are some useful points and links at a small blog run by Beeston Quakers.

I'd like to draw particular attention to the case of Hicham Yezza. After his undeserved arrest, he has suddenly been charged with immigration offences, even though he has been resident in Britain for thirteen years and is currently employed by Nottingham University. (Universities are usually very careful about visas, etc.) Hicham may be deported as early as Tuesday. You may wish to email your MP urging that his case is considered fully and scrupulously before any action is taken.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

"The proper study of mankind"

posted by k

It was big news. The first ever terrorist arrest in Nottingham - on the campus of Nottingham University. The local paper said the police had been tipped off by "senior university figures." There were plenty of students willing to tell journalists how shocked and outraged they were. The 7/7 bombings were mentioned and the press were briefed that the two men arrested of Pakistani descent.

Police were given extra time to question the men, so that they could search "premises connected" with them. (This probably meant their homes, but "premises" is a more alarming word.)

Then, nearly a week later, news was released that the men had been released without charge. It wasn't such a big news story. One had been re-arrested for possible immigration offences. It's strange how often that happens. It makes me think that, with all the forms immigrant have to fill in, it's probably quite easy to make a mistake.

But this time one of the men arrested is speaking to the press. The Nottingham Evening Post offers a fuller story tomorrow.

The Times Higher Education Supplement is also reporting the story. E-mails are giving the background. It seems there weren't any terrorists. There was a registered postgraduate student working towards a Ph.D. on Islamic terrorism. As part of his research, he downloaded an Al-Qaeda training manual. He didn't join a terrorist cell to find it - he went to a United States government website which had made an edited version publicly available. Then he sent it to a friend - a member of university staff in another department - asking him to print out. The extension to the warrant was given because the two men owned computers and mobile phones. And the university is now saying that the police were tipped off by a junior clerical employee and not a senior member of staff.

The student's tutor, who knew all about his research, is shocked that police could cause problems for a student pursuing such relevant research. But a university spokesman says that the edited version of the Al-Qaeda handbook is "not legitimate research material."

That seems strange to me. If I were researching Islamic terrorism in a politics department, I'd want to read what Al-Qaeda says. Research involves acquiring knowledge and researchers may have to look at material they don't much like.

I don't know all the details of the case. But if knowledge and learning are valued, academic freedom is vital.

Two men were arrested for looking at material which was made publicly available by the United States government. I don't think that should be grounds for arrest.

Press stories of the arrests raised fears of a terrorist threat in Nottingham. How many people are arrested like this, with great publicity? How many are then released without charge and without apology? And what happens next?

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Labour plays the race card

copied from Kathz's Blog

I'm too young to remember the 1964 election in which local Conservatives are said to have used a notoriously nasty slogan to win Smethwick. Patrick Gordon-Walker, the defeated Labour man, may also have pandered to racism on occasion.

At least the Tory slogan in Smethwick was unofficial. In the Crewe by-election, called in indecent haste before the previous MP's funeral, the Labour Party is putting out an official leaflet which carries a picture of the Conservative candidate and the question, "Do you oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card?"

Maybe the Conservative party policy isn't clear on the issue. But Labour (government) policy isn't just about foreign (non-EEC, by the way) nationals.
Soon we shall all have to carry ID cards. The government is preparing to collect our biometric details so that it can store them on a database. The ID scheme targeting foreign nationals is simply starting with a soft target - people who don't have votes.

The Labour leaflet in Crewe hasn't been published to open up a debate on ID cards. The government has made it very clear that the introduction of ID cards is not open to debate. This leaflet is about race. It's about fuelling fear and race hatred to hold a vulnerable seat in a parliamentary by-election. The implication of the leaflet is that foreigners are dangerous and only the Labour Party will keep them under surveillance.

Spreading suspicion is dangerous. Mistrust is often a two-way process. And for many the word "foreigners" doesn't just mean citizens of other countries. It means immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. It includes people whose families have been British citizens for generations but who happen to be a different colour or follow a different religion.

The Tory slogan at Smethwick wasn't on leaflets. It was part of an unofficial whispering campaign. I don't know whether it was approved by the local Conservative Party or their winning candidate. But in Crewe the slogan is on official leaflets, produced by the Labour Party and endorsed by
the Labour Party candidate. (Of course, she says it's just about policy.)

In fact, no-one, not even foreigners, will be required to "carry" an ID card. The national database will make this unnecessary - and it won't be secret or secure.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

"no false patriotic wreath"

posted by k

Loyalty oaths are back in fashion. In California, Quakers, Jehovah's Witnesses and others have been barred from public employment for refusing to sign the oath the state requires. Quaker Agitator has been commenting on the case of lecturer Wendy Gonaver, prevented from taking up her job at California State University because she is not allowed to amend the oath to clarify her pacifist convictions.

The United States has a history of imposing loyalty oaths and hounding dissenters. Luckily there have always been brave people prepared to protest in public. In Britain, the imposition of loyalty oaths causes barely a ripple of objection.

Fortunately, recent suggestions that all school-leavers be asked to swear a loyalty oath as part of a celebration of "Britishness" seem to have died away in the face of general objections and mockery. But the attempt to summarise and enforce "Britishness" continues. We may yet be asked to sign up to a national motto chosen by a citizens' summit - though no-one seems to know how the citizens will be chosen. And oaths of allegiance remain an almost unquestioned aspect of British life.

A new campaign, "Challenge the Oath" has been set up by Republic, the campaign for an elected Head of State. This includes a useful list of people required to pledge allegiance to the crown. Many offices and jobs are forbidden to honest republicans while naturalisation procedures mean that only monarchists and liars can become citizens. Challenge the Oath has launched a petition against oaths of allegiance to the crown. Another petition on the Downing Street website calls for an end to oaths of allegiance for MPs and Lords. (There are more details of this elsewhere on Areopagitica.)

These petitions don't go far enough, although they deserve support and signatures. The Challenge the Oath petition assumes one oath can be substituted for another - it suggests individuals should pledge allegiance to their country instead of the crown. But oaths themselves cause problems, as Wendy Gonaver's case demonstrates.

It's time to look behind the demads for patriotism, national identity and oaths of allegiance in Britain and the United States. They restrict our sense of humanity. I don't know where it will end.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid

posted by k

Is she mad or am I?

The Home Secretary is supporting a new policy: the police are encouraged to harass and hound persistent offenders and give them "a taste of their own medicine." The police have been practising already. Persistent offenders are repeatedly stopped and searched and the police visit their homes again and again.

I expect the police find this very satisfying. I can see that it may amuse members of the public. But surely the Home Secretary is supposed to address questions of "crime and the causes of crime". That needs more than a joke and a headline.

I suppose there's no point in suggesting that the Home Secretary should protect human rights and civil liberties. She's not very keen on those.

But surely the Rt. Hon. Jacqui Smith can see that encouraging police to harass individuals, even if they have ASBOs or criminal records, opens the way to all kinds of abuse. Police officers are human beings. They, like all of us, have prejudices and, in selecting victims for harassment, may act on those prejudices. This may happen unintentionally. Even if victims are chosen at random, by drawing names from a policeman's helmet, there's a good chance that the police will be suspected of prejudice.

I suspect that the people selected for police harassment will be young, male and working-class. This is what the press releases suggest. Middle-class offenders who fiddle expenses, tax or insurance claims, thus raising the cost of living for the rest of us, are unlikely to be harrassed. I don't suppose the Bullingdon Club, which includes David Cameron and Boris Johnson among its former members, will be expected to endure such treatment.

But the idea of "giving them a taste of their own medicine" is surely crazy. The police will annoy people who annoy others - presumably in addition to any sentence passed by the courts. (Bypassing legal processes is another dangerous habit of this government.) So where will it end?

Will we see police burgling the homes or burglars or taking to the roads on a mission to knock down careless drivers? Will they defraud fraudsters, rape rapists and kill killers, on the Home Secretary's advice?

The police force should behave better than the rest of the population. Officers should not take part in this silly, offensive game of tit-for-tat.

Meanwhile, Bullingdon Old Boy Boris Johnson is attempting to demonstrate how authoritarian he can be. He's banning the consumption of alcohol on tubes and buses. I travel a lot on tubes and buses and it's never seemed much of a problem. Mind you, I once drank alcohol on the tube. I was given a free sample of Beaujolais Nouveau at Waterloo Station and carried it with me onto my underground train. I don't think it made me behave badly. Boris is also suggesting Saturday schools where young people would be compelled to drill and learn manners. I wonder how many Bullingdon members were in the Officers Training Corps of their public schools.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

"The sword, the mace, the crown imperial"

posted by k

When I was quite young, I was fascinated by the cast gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was partly because of the stern notice on the door, forbidding children under 15 from unaccompanied entry. I assumed - and still think - this was because of the fragility of the exhibits though it may have been because of the cast of Michaelangelo's David. I was too young to find his nudity particularly interesting or surprising. There were plenty of nudes in the National Gallery and British Museum and, for that matter, on public statues. But although I gazed in fascination at other works - Donnatello's little David and the massive cartoon-stories on Trajan's Column, it was Michaelangelo's David I liked to see. I visited the museums with my younger brother and would lurk outside the cast gallery, looking for a friendly-seeming grown-up who would act as my escort. Nowadays the whole idea would fill parents and social workers with anxiety, but my younger brother and I came to no harm. After all, at eight or nine I was old enough to be sensible and independent on a day out.

It was David's expression that fascinated me. Was he confident or was he afraid? I could never decide from the smooth, white, imitation marble. I still didn't know years later, when I saw the original sculpture and outdoor, in Florence.

I didn't know what David was meant to signify: the idea that he signified anything beyond his own story would have seemed strange to me. Now I learn that he stood for Florence itself and that the huge figure represented small, vulnerable Florence as an embattled city state. David seems to have retained that meaning through the centuries as various rulers and governments have co-opted him. Even the wealthy and powerful like to think of themselves as vulnerable defenders of peace and liberty.

I grew up with different myths of vulnerability. Like most myths, they were founded on a truth. What happened to Britain in the Blitz was terrifying (so was the bombing of Dresden and Nagasaki) and the courage of Londoners and others was rightly praised. I heard enough of air-raids and fires from my parents to know that it had been very bad indeed. Living through bombing, coping with daily news of death and injury and simply carrying on took immense courage - a courage that became a way of daily life.

From tales of the Blitz, from the story of Dunkirk, I learnt a myth of Britain: plucky little Britain, defender of liberty and democracy, standing alone against the fascist foe. This was merged with later knowledge to suggest that Britain fought Germany because of Nazi treatment of the Jews and other oppressed groups (gypsies, homosexuals, communists, dissidents, etc.). That wasn't so, although many individuals joined up because of the known evils of Nazism. Britain fought because Germany invaded Poland and because Britain itself was threatened. The treatment of minorities was seen as a domestic matter. There was considerable anti-semitism in Britain, even during wartime, and the opposition to Jewish immigration in particular prefigures current prejudice against asylum seekers who flee to Britain from torture and death.

Suffering did not make Britain a better, more tolerant place. It didn't prevent Britain from pursuing brutal imperialist policies elsewhere. The myth of small, suffering Britain enabled people - including me - to look away from the truth. I didn't notice what was happening in the Chagos Islands. I've only recently realised that the barbarous mistreatment of the islanders - which continues as our current Labour government refuses to obey court judgments and let the islanders return - was part of a well-established imperial agenda.

We in Britain are so used to the idea of our country as a guardian of freedom that this reads like mad extremism. But what else can I call it, when I read the words of the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir John Harding, in 1955? He had been sent to ensure Cyprus continued as a useful British base; his mission was to prevent independence at all costs so that Cyprus could remain as a useful base for operations in the Middle East. Sir John Harding wrote to the British cabinet that, if Cypriot self-determination were to be prevented, "a regime of military government must be established and the country run indefinitely as a police state." The British cabinet accepted Sir John Harding's advice. Ministers were happy to run police states elsewhere if they contributed to Britain's safety or economic advantage. That is what imperialism means.

It's one of many passages that struck me in a long, informative article by Perry Anderson on the recent history of Cyprus in the London Review of Books. I hadn't known much about the history of Cyprus before. When I was at school, the British press treated Archbishop Makarios as a figure of fun but he emerges from the LRB article as a figure of far more integrity than the British cabinet ministers, civil servants and soldiers who opposed him. The British government encouraged and orchestrated brutality for its own interests, regardless of the rights, well-being or lives of its Cypriot subjects. And when things went wrong, Britain's Labour government, under Prime Minister James Callaghan, asked the United States for help - "an instinctive reflex in Labour," Perry Anderson comments.

The United States also presents itself as small and vulnerable. The myth of the frontier is still strong and U.S. citizens rightly recall the courage of people who trekked across the country and built communities in the wilderness. But the wilderness wasn't uninhabited. As the new settlers established themselves and finally fought back against the oppression of imperial Britain, they also sought to subdue the original inhabitants of their country. George Washington outlined his strategy in his commands to General John Sullivan in May 1779:

"The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more."

"I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed."

"But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them."

Terror was Washington's weapon in the American War of Independence - or the American Revolution as it is sometimes known. The settlers who were becoming a nation thought terror a fair tactic to achieve the just society they envisaged - and that America's original inhabitants were proper victims. Less than three years previously, Washington had signed the Declaration of Independence, which included the words:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, ..."

Today, Britain and the United States continue to use terror to further a modern imperial agenda. But we are constantly told that terror is what other people employ, and we have complex organisations - not fully accountable to democratic government - to defend us from the "terrorist threat". Liberty is curtailed in the United States and in Britain, with popular support.

The myths we hold dear talk of ideals - liberty, democracy, equality - which are still valuable. But unless we unpick the myths and look at historical facts - and our current practices - we'll find it hard to safeguard the values we should hold dear.

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