Archive for October, 2009

It’s a small world after all.

Sometimes the world seems so large it’s overwhelming, but othertimes it’s charmingly small. Tonight I ran into two friends from Australia in the same Malaysian restaurant I’ve never been to before. In fact we weren’t even planning to go to it, but another nearby Malaysian place was closed so we thought we’d check it out. And they weren’t even there together, they don’t know each other. We ran into the first on our way in, then the second came rushing over to us as soon as we sat down. I think this might be the least-likely thing that has ever happened to me, I can’t even imagine what the odds of such a thing happening would be.

In true DC style they were both here for conferences.


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Censorship or Protest?

I was interested to watch the kerfuffle in England over the past several days over the appearance on the BBC’s premier political talk show, Question Time, of Nick Griffith, leader of the neo-Fascist and overtly racist British National Party. Critics from across the political spectrum have condemned the BBC’s decision to give a far-right party such exposure while the BBC have said it is not their role to censor and if a legally-constituted political party has a fair degree of public support they should be included in the debate, and subjected to fair questioning.

The BNP won two seats in the elections for the European Parliament and have several council seats, including in London where they won over 5% in the Mayoral elections.

A protest was held outside the BBC’s studio during taping on Thursday which resulted in several protesters breaking through police lines and into the BBC’s foyer.

A debate which began prior to airing of Question Time has continued after it, centered around the question of how to best deal with extremism in a democratic society. Is the BNP better ignored or exposed? Is it more effective to protest outside or ask informed pointed questions inside, as the Question Time audience did?

One aspect of this debate, which I’ve largely been reading through the pages of the Guardian newspaper, is how strikingly thoughtful it is. Unlike in America when people talk of fascism the thing they are describing is at least somewhat fascistic. The commentators seem to be geniunely wrestling with hard questions, not simply scoring political or culture war points.

The incident reminded me of a time while I was at university when the deeply unpopular (to university students) Minister for Education visited the campus to give a speech. A decent-sized student protest took place outside the hall he was speaking in. I was one of the protesters and, like most of the others, filed into the hall for the speech itself when the time came. The boos and cat-calls began during the introduction and rose to an impossible volume, accompanied by feet-stomping and chanting, when the Minister himself got up to give his speech. He soon had to abandon the attempt.

I was both saddened and annoyed at the time. Despite my passionate opposition to much the government was doing, and my active participation in the protest prior to the speech, I had wanted to hear what he had to say, and was looking forward to the tough questions I was sure would follow. And I strongly felt, and still do, that actions of this kind present the advocates for your cause, and by extension the cause itself, in a very unfavourable light.

I think all three of these actions – protest, listening, and questioning – are critical and fundamental to a democracy. When protest becomes an alternative to, or is used as a tool to prevent, either listening or genuine questioning, as has been the case with the Tea Party protests at Town Hall meetings (and, on the left, by Code Pink and others), our democracy is diminished but so too is our cause.

I find it hard to believe that anyone is ever convinced by shouting. When people shout at us our reasoning shuts down. We stop listening, because we know that there will be no reciprocity, no dialogue.

The people who most effectively stood in opposition to the vile policies of the BNP were the Question Time audience inside, who exposed these policies through informed questioning, while still giving Nick Griffith his chance to speak, not those who threw themselves at police lines and chanted outside.

Protest is a vital part of free speech and can be an effective political tactic, but when it is used to deny the speech of others it is neither.

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I found this video so moving. This is the heart of the gay marriage debate – the right of all people to be equal, to have their love honoured and recognised the same as anyone else. Phillip knows that giving these rights to others not only does not threaten straight marriage but ennobles it, and the country. Freedom is only real when it is shared equally. What on earth could those who oppose equal rights say to this?


Good morning, Committee. My name is Phillip Spooner and I live at 5 Graham Street in Biddeford. I am 86 years old and a lifetime Republican and an active VFW chaplain. I still serve three hospitals and two nursing homes and I also serve Meals on Wheels for 28 years. My wife of 54 years, Jenny, died in 1997. Together we had four children, including the one gay son. All four of our boys were in the service. I was born on a potato farm north of Caribou and Perham, where I was raised to believe that all men are created equal and I’ve never forgotten that. I served in the U.S. Army, 1942-1945, in the First Army, as a medic and an ambulance driver. I worked with every outfit over there, including Patton’s Third Army. I saw action in all five major battles in Europe, and including the Battle of the Bulge. My unit was awarded Presidential Citations for transporting more patients with fewer accidents than any other [inaudible] I was in the liberation of Paris. After the war I carried POW’s back from Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, and also hauled hundreds of injured Germans back to Germany.

I am here today because of a conversation I had last June when I was voting. A woman at my polling place asked me, “Do you believe in equal, equality for gay and lesbian people?” I was pretty surprised to be asked a question like that. It made no sense to me. Finally I asked her, “What do you think our boys fought for at Omaha Beach?” I haven’t seen much, so much blood and guts, so much suffering, much sacrifice. For what? For freedom and equality. These are the values that give America a great nation, one worth dying for.

I give talks to eighth grade teachers about World War II, and I don’t tell them about the horror. Maybe [inaudible] ovens of Buchenwald and Dachau. I’ve seen with my own eyes the consequences of caste systems and it make some people less than others, or second class. Never again. We must have equal rights for everyone. It’s what this country was started for. It takes all kinds of people to make a world war. It does make no sense that some people who love each other can marry and others can’t just because of who they are. This is what we fought for in World War II. That idea that we can be different and still be equal.

My wife and I did not raise four sons with the idea that three of them would have a certain set of rights, but our gay child would be left out. We raised them all to be hard-working, proud, and loyal Americans and they all did good. I think it’s too bad [inaudible] want to get married, they should be able to. Everybody’s supposed to be equal in equality in this country. Let gay people have the right to marry. Thank you.

Maine votes on Proposition 1, which would overturn the state’s law allowing same sex marriage, on November 3. The current polling is 48% in favour, 48% opposed. Go to No on 1: Protect Maine Equality for more information.

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America was transfixed on Thursday last week by the story of an experimental home-made hot-air balloon which lifted off from a Colorado backyard, supposedly with a 6 year-old boy named Falcon inside. As you’ve no doubt all heard Falcon turned out not to have been in the balloon at all and the whole thing was, it seems, orchestrated by the father who hoped it would help land him a reality TV show he desperately wanted. So all in all a pretty weird story. I mean, who names their son Falcon?

But even weirder, in many ways, was the media’s reaction. They dropped everything and covered the story minute-by-minute as the balloon floated over Colorado. President Obama was literally giving a speech in New Orleans when the feed was cut and the presenters breathlessly announced the urgently-breaking news of what has become known as “balloon boy”. On Twitter, where I first heard of the story, #balloonboy instantly became a trending topic, being talked about by seemingly everyone. For the next couple of hours it was constant coverage, the excitement, trepidation and commitment of the reporters and fascination of the public at large undiminished by the lack of any new news to report.

This is a common pattern in America cable news coverage – the unceasing coverage of a simple story with good visuals. Hurricanes are always a great example of this, as we cross live to reporters who confirm that yes, it is still raining and still windy but beyond that add nothing to our understanding of the situation.

The constant refrain on twitter and TV was concern for the safety of six year-old Falcon, with prayers and speculation focused on his well-being and mental resilience. This concern was no-doubt real, but at the same time completely ephemeral. Falcon was flying through the air in a UFO-shaped balloon, so therefore was worthy of our concern. But this is not how a society shares their concern for six year-olds, it is how a society shares their love of spectacle.

There is plenty to worry about in America if you do care about six year-olds and other children.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, in the United States:

A child is born into poverty every 33 seconds.
A child is abused or neglected every 35 seconds.
A child is born uninsured every 39 seconds.
A child dies before his or her first birthday every 18 minutes.
A child or teen is killed by gunfire every 3 hours.

Every year 3 to 10 million children witness domestic violence, and 1 in 12 high schoolers are threatened or injured by a weapon annually. 5.7 million children live in extreme poverty and 8.9 million are uninsured.

But these are not issues that get covered by the news. They don’t lend themselves to hours of monotonous footage or breathless reporting from the field. They are too big, too complex, too much of a downer. Better to focus on an individual fairytale story, use up the airtime, get through the day, hope for another spectacle the next day.

The tragedy of America is that it often seems obsessed with ephemera. I get angry at the news media for being so inane, for containing so little real news and analysis, but could it be that a country get the news media it deserves?

Since the hoax came to light the media has been filled with hand-wringing and condemnation. Most commentators are blaming the ‘reality-TV culture‘ because the parents were veteran reality TV weirdos, having twice appeared on ‘Wife Swap’ and pitched ideas for their own show to several cable channels. But this isn’t so much about reality TV culture as news media culture. It seems to be only too easy for lunatics to manipulate an industry ever-eager for spectacle. There’s no room on a 24 hour news network for coverage of the German elections (only the world’s fourth biggest economy) but a homemade balloon with an oddly-named boy on-board? Scramble the choppers!

The objective of people like Falcon’s father is always fame, and when America obliges by making them famous it can only be seen as a winning strategy.

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Image courtesy of Brent Danely on flickr

Image courtesy of Brent Danely on flickr

Climate change is the over-riding challenge of our age. Even as I sometimes despair of our capacity to take action there is a small thrill in living in such a historic time. The whole of human history has come to this and we must make a choice as a civilization to adapt or, in all liklihood, die. In the very least there’ll be hell to pay if we fail to rise to the needs of this moment.

As is often the case with complex problems we are challenged by climate change on two levels: adaptive and technical.

Technical challenges require the use of existing knowledge and skills to find a solution. The technical challenge here is political; we urgently require legislative action to limit and wind back our carbon expenditure. We must ensure that the price of goods reflects their true cost, not simply in the manufacture, distribution and marketing but also in the cost to the environment. We need an international agreement which has the developed world taking the lead but also the developing world following, with technology transfer to assist them along.

The only way we’re likely to get this progress is through sustained organising and advocacy which will embolden far-sighted political leadership to facilitate a consensus. We did it with CFC’s and can, and must, do it again.

This may be enough to prevent a catastrophe. The increasing cost of carbon and removal of government subsidies will make coal power increasingly uncompetitive and spur investment in renewable technologies.Cars will move through hybrids to plug-in electric vehicles and beyond. The cost of travel will rise and food grown locally will gain a cost advantage over that which prices-in thousands of miles of travel. The value of preserving forests for carbon credits will outweigh that of cutting them down, so much so that governments take their protection seriously.

We can progressively decarbonize in ways which will have surprisingly little impact on most people’s lives, except those in the specific industries affected. No-one cares where their electricity comes from, they just want the light to work when they flick the switch. Likewise with cars, for most people they just need to work efficiently to transporting them from A to B. New cars invented in a carbon-conscious world will make today’s internal combustion vehicles look like the dinosaurs they are.

However as we rise to the challenge of the climate crisis there is a second possible dimension we can address it on, as an adaptive challenge.

Adaptive challenges go beyond what we know how to do and require us to consider our values. Adaptive problems are often seen as threatening to someone or a group. There is often compromise and loss involved. In other words, adaptive problems are cultural, they force us to consider our values systems and priorities.

Climate change is an adaptive challenge because in addressing it we must consider our relationship with the planet. We must weigh profit in the present with environmental stability in the future; our wants against the next generations needs. We will have to give something up, from overseas trips to new appliances. For many it will cost them their job, forcing disorienting and frightening restructuring of communities. For some countries it may be the end of boom times as the world weens itself off coal and oil. While legislating is a largely technical exercise, reaching international consensus on action also requires adaptive leadership.

If we can manage these compromises, stand by those most affected both by the crisis and its solution, decarbonize our power and redesign our neighbourhoods,  the change to our civilization could be much more profound than simply lowered levels of carbon emissions.

We could reconsider our relationship with the earth, understand ourselves as a part of a greater whole, and live in way which honours this symbiosis, focused on stewardship, sustainability and respect.

This is the change we should be aiming for.

This post was written as part of Blog Action Day 2009. Blog Action Day takes place each October 15 and united bloggers around the world in posting on the same theme, with the aim of sparking discussion of an issue of global importance. This year’s theme is climate change.

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American news channels are really quite amazing in their ability to cram as little news as possible into the 24 hours/day they have to work with. I watch more hours of news programming here than I used to in Australia but I know vastly less as a result. No international news. No real analysis of anything except the political posturing. No ability to separate fact from rhetoric. And that’s just CNN, Fox is a whole different absurd story.

Check out Jon Stewart nailing CNN for their insipid “we have to leave it there” approach:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Video: CNN Leaves It There | The Dail…“, posted with vodpod

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Obama’s Nobel

I’ve been thinking about Barack Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize quite a bit over the past couple of days and, as excited and hopeful as I am about the Obama administration, it really doesn’t feel entirely right.

Regardless of how you feel about whether he deserves the award I think we would all agree that giving a President only 9 months into his term the world’s foremost career-achievement award makes it only too easy for those that wish to dismiss both the President and the award while leaving many supporters surprised and non-plussed.

It is not hard to make a compelling case that Obama deserves the award according to the criteria outlined in Alfred Nobel’s will:

during the preceding year […] shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

I believe that Obama’s election, in-and-of-itself, created an extraordinary change in the world’s view of America and America’s understanding of itself. The way he ran his campaign and the ideals he expressed empowered millions of Americans and inspired many millions more around the world to believe another world was possible.

Changes in atmosphere, in tone, in people’s conception of what is possible, constitute real changes which can indicate a deep, cultural shift in a society. Communicating, defining and inspiring are important parts of the president’s role, and a crucial element in what Ron Heifetz calls ‘Adaptive Leadership‘. This is leadership that produces a shift in values and allows society to understand and confront the real issues, in contrast to ‘Technical Leadership’ which is focused on the application of existing knowledge for incremental fixes.

However I still wish the Nobel Committee had waited. There’s no doubt that Obama will be at the center of world events for the entirely of his presidency, and I believe, and we all must hope, that in many of the years ahead he will make more concrete steps towards peace and disarmament, the protection of human rights and real action on climate change than those that have occurred thus far.

However necessary it is to bring about changes in atmosphere and behavior it is insufficient to be considered a great, or even effective, president. For that these changes must be leveraged into legislative and policy progress. And Obama has a lot of work to do to achieve this, and the places where progress has been made are not those most related to peace building but rather domestic concerns, especially the American economy and next, it is hoped, domestic health care.

I am hopeful that over the next year or two Obama will finalize the closing of Guantanamo Bay, withdraw US forces from Iraq and lead the world to an agreement to take meaningful action on climate change (and then get domestic legislation passed to make this action real). I even hope he will find time to focus on pushing for a final Israel/Palestinian peace agreement. Any of these things might justify receiving the Nobel Prize and would make it easier for supporters to unabashedly celebrate the win and harder for critics to dismiss it. And there were certainly other strong candidates from the past year. Morgan Tsvangirai would also have been a deserving winner for instance.

In the end I hope that this Nobel Peace Prize is, as Obama said, “a means to give momentum to a set of causes.” These causes need all the momentum they can get.

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