American dreamer   (30.11.11)

But sadly, a Southern one.

Black Coffee   (29.11.11)

What a great song.

Williams against (some) prejudice (sometimes)   (29.11.11)

Notwithstanding the underlying constitutional problem of having unelected clerics in government -- a situation which afflicts only the United Kingdom and the Islamic Republic of Iran -- Rowan Williams is to be admired for going out on a limb and saying women bishops should be fast-tracked to the House of Lords. The sooner sexism is removed at least from the Church's institutional arrangements, the sooner it might also be removed from people's attitudes.

However, given Williams's contrasting record on the subject of gay bishops, and given that women's ordination is just as contentious, I can only conclude that Williams regards homophobia as in some way a lesser form of prejudice than sexism. No doubt he would have an eminently moderate way of explaining why this is not the case. But sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Cameron on higher education funding   (29.11.11)

David Cameron answered a question from film-maker Mike Leigh a few days ago:

Mike Leigh, film-maker
What is your moral justification for the state not providing free further education for everybody, and for the principle of student loans? And I do want to hear your moral reasoning: not any economic, political or historic excuses.

"I think there is a strong moral case for this, which is the evidence that going to university brings a benefit to that individual person over the course of the rest of their life. Therefore, I think it is morally right that they make a contribution to the cost of that course, which is what our fees policy does. And I think it would be morally wrong to ask the taxpayer to bear all of the burden of that cost, not least because there are many taxpayers who don't go to university who don't have that benefit."

As I've said before, anyone is at liberty to disagree with Cameron's moral reasoning here. But more often than not, those who do disagree try to claim that there is no moral reasoning at all in the government's position. Cameron's answer shows that claim, at least, to be untrue.

Squeezed pensions   (28.11.11)

There are many things to say about public sector pension reform and the many spurious justifications for striking on Wednesday. But one thing that is not said so often is just how regressive the funding model for public sector pensions is, reform or no reform.

Currently, minimum wage earners working full time pay just over a thousand pounds a year in tax and national insurance contributions. Minimum wage earners generally have no private pension provision; and yet they are taxed in order to pay for the pensions of civil servants earning their salary several times over. Social contract considerations go a certain way to justifying an arrangement that would otherwise be patently unjust. But only a certain way. In this light, the government's demand -- that individual public sector employees take greater personal responsibility for their pension provision -- looks just that bit more reasonable, wouldn't you say?

Of course, the credibility of this line of defence for government policy would be reduced if low earners were taken out of income tax altogether. This would be achieved by (say) raising the tax-free personal allowance to about £12,000, a figure which is at the lower end of a spectrum of figures being asserted as a "living wage". But that would necessitate a substantial hike in the basic rate of income tax -- something to which leftwing public servants should readily assent. But, were such a redistribution of the tax burden ever to happen, I'll eat my hat if the unions don't complain about the "squeezed middle" and start bashing a banker.

In short, public sector unions want generous pensions, but they don't think that their money should pay for them. I would suggest some possible names for this school of economic wisdom, but this is a family restaurant.

Ranty racist   (28.11.11)

But this one appears not to have considered that people like her are going to increase the appetite of employers for migrant labour, rather than reduce it. Indeed, I wonder if she does still "work", after being arrested?

A scandalous verdict   (25.11.11)

Larry King

Murdered gay teenager Larry King

Brandon McInerney was found guilty this week of the second-degree murder of his 15-year-old classmate Larry King. King's effeminate behaviour and choice of clothing enraged McInerney to the point that he brought a handgun into school and shot King twice in the back of the head during a class.

There are three scandalous things about this verdict.

  1. McInerney was found guilty only of second-degree murder under a plea deal. Second-degree murder is the offence of committing an illegal killing that is not premeditated or planned. Exactly how much evidence of premeditation does the jury need, beyond the threats he made towards King in the days preceding the murder, and the fact that he brought in a weapon with the previously expressed purpose of using it?
  2. Much political commentary, and indeed the verdict itself, is strongly informed by victim-blaming. In what other circumstances would the victim's choice of clothing be taken as a reasonable mitigating factor in their murder? Testimony was made in court that King used flirtation to subvert homophobic bullies. I can well believe it, as it's a strategy I used myself at King's age. If one of my classmates had chosen to kill me, should he be able to defend himself on those grounds? Or, to look at things another way, if a teenage girl were to choose to flirt with a gay teenage boy, who responded by killing her, would the victim be in any way responsible? The answer to all of these questions is, clearly, "no".
  3. The ease with which McInerney was able to bring a lethal weapon in to school is perhaps the worst thing about the whole case. As wrong as homophobia is, it is pervasive in schools, and sometimes there will be violent expressions of it. All the more ridiculous, then, to allow guns to be lying around the average American home. Better to have a punch-up than a shoot-out; better for the victim of the attack to be bruised but alive; better for the perpetrator to be expelled than thrown in jail.

This was a hate crime in which the hate element became a mitigating rather than an aggravating factor. The only relief is the harsh second-degree murder sentence: McInerney will serve 25 years. However, if he had been convicted on all the initial charges, he would now be facing a sentence of over 50 years. The jury has failed Larry King.

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Mugabe an authority on Satan   (24.11.11)

When Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, describes as "Satanic", "diabolical" and "stupid" the British government's new policy of tying foreign aid to the regime's record on human rights, we should be reassured that the policy is a right one.

The Occupy movement and the need for public space   (20.11.11)

An inaccuracy has been repeated ad nauseam amongst the mainstream press in recent months. Namely, that those involved in the Occupy protests are "anti-capitalists". On the part of some this is innocent parroting of something that is assumed to be true; on the part of others it is a deliberate attempt to marginalise all of the concerns expressed, however imprecisely, by the protesters.

It is an inaccuracy because, of course, many of those involved in the protests, and a larger number of those sympathetic to them, are not anti-capitalists at all. You do not have to be an opponent of the capitalist "system" in order to take exception to high levels of wealth inequality in society; and you do not have to be an opponent of free markets to criticise the entanglement of powerful financial institutions with government and other important civic institutions. Quite the reverse, in fact: many involved in the Occupy protests want markets to be free of such cronyism.

However, recent incidents such as police brutality at Berkeley and the dispute over tents outside St Paul's Cathedral in London also demonstrate a shortcoming in our countries' democratic arrangements. Anglo-American liberalism/libertarianism generally has a far weaker concept of public space than the democracies of our continental neighbours. At best English liberalism views public space as the domain of the state, while at worst American libertarianism would prefer all land to be privately owned. Both attitudes impoverish the positive liberties to freedom of expression codified in the Human Rights Act and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In this area, classical liberalism is firmly on the wrong side of history, and we see it in the brutal stance taken towards many peaceful protest groups occupying what should be public space.

None of which is to say that the Occupy groups' tactics are good and considerate ones, or that they will ultimately be effective. But it is to say that those groups have the right to pursue such tactics in public space without being evicted or harmed, for as long as they pose no threat of harm to others. It is up to others to persuade them to pursue their cause using less obstructive methods. But to persuade, not to force.

By authorizing the use of force in this manner, governments not only breach the human rights of their citizens, but ultimately send the message that the political status quo is one they are incapable of defending through the medium of language. If the Occupy movement chooses to be in the business of claiming victories, alerting people to this fact would be their first.

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Newfred is where Andrew Wilshere blogs about
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