Monday, September 30, 2013

Useless toil

It's party conference time when amidst all the bluster and the carefully orchestrated comments, the seasonal cry of help for small businesses and cutting red tape is heard. Well I can suggest one way of helping them would be by stopping the harassment of the unemployed. Let me explain.

I was talking to a friend who works in a small firm. They may need to take on a new member of staff in a fairly junior position. My friend was in despair. By advertising in the job centre the firm will get hundreds of applications, hardly any of them suitable or meeting the criteria for the post. It takes hours and hours to sort through them, time they could do without wasting. The reason for this is that claimants have to hit their targets for job search activities and so apply for everything going, especially at times like this when employment is scarce.

This is a brilliant example of the dysfunctions of bureaucracy. To prove that claimants are morally worthy to receive the benefits that they, in most cases, have already paid for out of their taxation, they have to meet a target that satisfies bureaucratic bean counters. The result is that they engage in a totally useless and meaningless activity, applying for multiple jobs regardless of criteria. But amongst the chorus of sternly paternal state guidance, nobody seems to think of what happens at the other end, to the poor employers who have to wade through mountains of unsuitable applications.

And this applies throughout the system. The focus is on the claimant, satisfying the Daily Mail that undeserving scroungers can be forced to become the deserving poor through forced labour. But what about those organisations that are supposed to take them on? There has already been a few scandals and very bad publicity for some supermarkets who used unpaid claimants to stack shelves as part of the Work Programme. I'm not sure they would be too keen this time round.

I am all for actively helping people, but this means individual support, personal guidance and helping them get suitable employment or education and training for a change of direction. This is good for both sides. Instead, there is a political race as to who can best reflect the unforgiving attitudes towards the poor that they themselves have helped produce. It results in a colossal waste of time for everybody. Someone please save us from poorly researched populism.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Blood sport

The people's game that kills the people.
Every year, almost 400,000 Nepalese men and women leave their towns and villages for jobs overseas. More than 100,000 head to Qatar, where a booming construction industry and insatiable appetite for cheap labour has been fuelled by its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, celebrated by the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his wife, pictured below. Yet instead of the salaries and prospects they have been promised, many of these workers are led into a web of exploitation, corruption and deceit and, increasingly, slavery and death.
There is more.

The decision to give the World Cup to Qatar stank. It now smells worse. FIFA should be ashamed, but then they seem to have none.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Peace news

So what is action that promotes peace really like? Here are two examples. On the one hand we have the continuing round of negotiations opened by the Russian proposal on Syrian chemical weapons. This has had the press salivating at the prospect of their favourite panacea, a negotiated peace agreement by all sides. The reality is perfectly encapsulated by Douglas Feith:
Clever dictators will realize that they can barter their chemical-weapons arsenals to buy time to crush an insurrection and then rebuild the arsenal after the population has been pacified. 
This is what comes of focusing on what Mr. Obama legalistically calls the "international norms" barring chemical weapons use. By choosing not to tackle the difficult strategic and humanitarian challenges posed by the Syrian civil war, the president is now rewarding the very offenses that he said he wanted to punish. In the name of arms control, he is incentivizing the proliferation of chemical weapons. In the name of international law, he is undermining respect for treaties. In the name of U.S. interests, he is emboldening America's enemies.
Then there is this. Grass roots humanitarian assistance for, and solidarity with, the victims of grotesque state violence:
Reuters reports Syrians are growing increasingly aware of extensive Israeli efforts to treat victims of the two and a half year conflict raging inside the Arab country. 
Israel set up a field hospital early in the conflict. Within a few months Syrians were being transported to regular Israeli hospitals – to the point where one northern hospital became a key hub for treatment – and stories were filtering out about care being provided to everyone from Syrian fighters to wounded children.
Who knows what the long term effects of such help will be in shaping attitudes towards a resolution of the wider Middle East conflict?

So there we have it. The machinations of statesmen against the dedication of medical professionals. And what is the greatest threat to those who inflict barbarous cruelties on human beings to preserve their power? I think that Assad gives the game away. He has welcomed the Russian proposals, but as for Israeli medical treatment:
For all the advantages it brings of excellent medical care, it is a journey fraught with risk for those who fear the wrath of President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “There was one man, where I am from, who was treated in Israel. The regime forces killed his three brothers,” the teenage girl’s mother said. “They will kill my sons and my husband if they ever find out we were here.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sick joke

There is a piece of political humour floating around the Internet. I have been sent it several times. It isn't funny. I find it revolting.
"Syrian President Assad crossed a red line. He used chemical weapons. Using harmful chemicals to hurt your own people – who does he think he is, Monsanto?"
Bill Maher
I know that it was intended to attack Monsanto rather than comment on Syria, but despite being a neat line, it is as contemptible as it is glib. Why?

Let's unpack this. "Harmful chemicals"; "hurt your own people"? Chemical weapons aren't "harmful chemicals"; they don't "hurt". They are indiscriminate weapons designed to deliver an agonising death to as many people as possible. They were deliberately used in the most recent case to empty a strategic suburb, which the army had been unable to control, by killing the people who lived there. They had been used in violation of international law specifically to challenge that red line and to terrorise a population by showing that the thugs who run the regime have no limits to their barbarity. It was an act that said, 'cross us and we will kill everyone. No one will help you.'

You can't make a joke about this level of horror. Whatever you think of the controversial claims about Monsanto, if you read the harrowing accounts of the sadistic brutality of the Syrian government it is impossible to associate the two without belittling grotesque crimes against humanity. The bare facts are easily available and are deeply shocking. This is from an impassioned plea by Yassin al-Haj Saleh in the New York Times.
While the world has dithered, Syrians have experienced unprecedented violence. Around 5,000 Syrians were killed in 2011. About the same number are now being killed each month. The regime has targeted lines outside bakeries; it has used Russian cruise missiles to bomb densely populated areas; and local activists say they have documented 31 occasions when it has used chemical weapons (United States officials have confirmed only some of these attacks).
Countless Syrians, among them women and children, have been subjected to arbitrary detention, rape and torture. A staggering seven million people — one-third of Syria’s population — are now displaced, either internally or externally. 
The personal experiences are even more revealing than the figures. I recommend people explore this resource to access Syrian writing on the catastrophe to understand the sheer scale of the grief and anger.

But this 'joke' is also very interesting. It is deeply revealing about the juvenile, narcissistic and self-centred liberal mind-set as it confronts the worst humanitarian crisis of this century. It says, 'we are the real victims, corporations are the real enemy, ours is the real struggle'. And it is this attitude that underpins one of the great foreign policy failings of our time, the decision to postpone action to pursue chemical weapons control in isolation, whilst blustering about futile attempts at a negotiated settlement that does not challenge the legitimacy of a criminal regime. In the meantime, Russian arms flood in and Assad is left free to escalate the slaughter. A device has been found to make dithering sound worthy.

And, of course, we have the Stop the War crowd trying to prevent any Western action to bring an end to the systematic murder. Again, they are self-centred – 'our wars are worse than yours'. I actually agree that we should stop the war, albeit a different one. Here is Yassin al-Haj Saleh again:
We Syrians are human beings of this world, and the world must stop the Assad regime from killing us. Now.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A fool and his money ...

... are soon parted.

Well let's hope so because it is published today, but is expensive. This is one of the depressing features of academic publishing. If you can hang on, there will be a paperback in eighteen months, but in the meantime order it for your affluent library. If you waste your life reading this blog, you will certainly want to read the book.

It is cheaper direct from Bloomsbury than from Amazon (they only have one copy left in stock - I rather think that it is because they only had one in there in the first place).

Follow the links to the series too, there is some good stuff in there.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

World peace

If the new Russian sponsored proposal to quarantine Syria's chemical weapons succeeds, the world can breathe a sigh of relief. America will not strike and Assad will be confined to using tanks, planes, missiles, shelling, bombing, sniper fire, death squads, torture, and sadistic murder to kill Syrians in increasing numbers with no worries about some pesky intervention to stop him. That will be nice.

Monday, September 02, 2013

"I mentioned it once ..."

"... but I think I got away with it." Syria that is.

Amongst the self-congratulations doing the rounds for the wisdom of Parliament in defying the government and voting boldly to do nothing, something is missing. We are hearing much about the revival of democracy, Britain's place in the world, the reassertion of the power of Parliament, the respective performances of the party leaders, and on and on; so much so that you could almost forget that this was about Syria. This piece is a typical example; all about Britain, rampaging through contentious history without overmuch concern for scholarship and finally including one line; "It is right that people feel we should do something about the Assad regime", whilst not bothering to mention that the decision was not do anything about the Assad regime.

Don't bother reading it. Read this instead. It is by a Syrian who is also a British citizen. Alisar Iram writes:
This article has two voices: my voice as a Syrian and my voice as a British citizen. My duality is a duality of vision and culture. Since the chemical attack, life has been very tough because the British Media became unhinged and the British TV channels choked to death with conflicting points of view and more often than not, with distorted, confused or absurd speculations, forecasts, expectations and a mumbo jumbo of truths, half truths, lies, allegations and misleading conclusions which politicians, members of Parliament, political and strategic analysts of every known and unknown orientation, party and affiliation have been presenting to a gaping, puzzled public.
The article fingers the demeaning attitudes that underly the arguments of the anti-war brigade:
...the West does see us, the other, as less than human, people living at the margins of the civilized world, ready to butcher, rape and pillage. They see the armed men, the rogue presidents and the dreadful bearded shabiha of both sides, but they do not see the millions of women, children, peaceful young men and pitiful old men, they do not see the refugees, the starving and the disabled by war. It is those they would be defending if they strike, not Al-Qaeda or the Islamists who have converged like vulture on Syria because of the failure of its regime to defend it instead of annihilating its citizens and cities, thus adding to the Syrian tragedy another horrific dimension.*
And finally,
Some are advocating that they are morally bound not to interfere in a civil war. Is this a civil war? Assad unleashed warplanes, helicopter gunships, ballistic missiles, cluster bombs, white phosphorous bombs, TNT-filled barrel bombs and surface-to-surface missiles, including Scud missiles, not to mention hunger, imprisonment, rape and torture against his people, ending with chemical warfare, yet the world watched indifferently with its morality intact. Please drop the word civil from civil war. This is a war against children, women and the vulnerable. This is a naked, savage, ruthless war against those who are weaker, a war that is spawning and attracting all the evils and all the evil men and the criminals of the world. ... The Price of International inaction is the quagmire we find ourselves immersed in now.
If there was one other thing that disappointed me, particularly from the Labour Party, it was the failure to develop and propose an alternative strategy. The motion in front of them was feeble, Obama's proposal for military action was nothing more than half-hearted tokenism. This was one reason to reject it. But to simply replace it with inaction is unconscionable. Parliament replaced inadequacy with negligence. The consequences remain to be seen.

*For some excellent reportage on the Islamist presence in Syria read this piece by Elizabeth O'Bagy from the Wall Street Journal.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Carry on killing

Something inside me felt queasy at the sight of an MP punching the air in delight that Britain will do nothing to impede the mass killing in Syria. It didn't feel like a moment for joy.

This was a rerun of an old argument; one clouded by rhetoric about peace. It began in the 1870s with the response to the Bulgarian Atrocities. The Peace Society found itself caught between its own campaigning against the massacres, carried out by the Ottoman Turks, and its determination to oppose the liberal interventionists who wished to support Russia against the Turks when they declared war in 1877. Here we see the first manifestation of the dilemmas of deploring the actions of a government and rejecting the means to end them. It is a recipe for inaction. Peace and non-intervention became interlinked.

And we haven't moved on. The same arguments were rehearsed over the Boer War and split the anarchist movement in World War One. They had a disastrous manifestation as the intellectual underpinning of the appeasement of Hitler and have reappeared countless times in the post war period. Their hand maidens are apologia and sophistry, but the main problem that dogs these 'peace' activists is their understanding of the word peace. The vote has been seen as a victory for peace campaigners. Unfortunately we have few of those; we have a noisy and self-righteous anti-war movement that spans both left and right. They define their position purely negatively, usually on the basis of the non-involvement of their own countries in war, regardless of the consequences. They were the winners.

If peace is seen as positive, based on equitable social relations and the absence of violence, then a peace movement has to face the realities of the grotesque, deliberately sadistic, mass murder being visited on the Syrian people by their own government. Pacifists will demand that resistance is non-violent, but they will still want and will take direct action, often at great personal risk. Peace activists who believe in just war will advocate the use of military force to end acts of barbarity.

I heard little of this from the opponents of military action in the debate, merely isolationism and sophistries about the preference for a negotiated diplomatic settlement that is not possible. It is an excuse for doing nothing. The confrontation here dramatically exposes their bluster when faced with reality. Labour's abandonment of principled internationalism is one of its most shameful, opportunistic moments. It may yet come back to haunt it. The suffering of the Syrian people demands justice, an end to the regime and the opportunity to rebuild civil society despite the many obstacles in the way; positive peace. I see little chance of that happening without the use of force to defend them.