You can find out more about his work on Nick Bostrom’s website.
You can find out more about his work on Nick Bostrom’s website.
Today, I protest. But not against the government’s public sector cuts, university fees or the pension reforms. Yes, these are all bad and in an ideal world our government would provide everything for free, keep wages high and prices low, and we’d all skip gaily in a meadow of economic success. However, that is not the world we live in now, and I protest against the protesters.
Protests and strikes achieve very little. The best that can be said about them is that they are a mark of a healthy democracy, if by that it is meant that your government allows you to stand outside all day in the cold wind, holding your homemade placard to announce to the world that you’d rather like to ‘F**K FEES’. Expressing your opinion sounds like a very noble thing to do. But what does it actually achieve? Is George Osborne going to turn on the television tonight, watch footage of the marching crowds and say “Crikey, I never thought people would dislike my idea of reforming pensions. I suppose I’d better take that off the agenda.”? Will David Cameron feel obliged to step down as Prime Minister after seeing his face (complete with devil horns) waved around on the streets with the slogan ‘Cameron OUT’? Somehow I doubt it.
That’s not the point of the protests! I hear you cry. So what is the point? To demonstrate to the government that it is not okay to make such drastic economic cuts? Although it may not feel like it right now, governments do actually have an interest in keeping the electorate happy so they can get their votes in elections. Economic policies are not made on the principle of being mean and unreasonable towards the entire population. Some of the cuts may not seem fair, but without going into specifics I think it is fair to say that the general economic programme is justifiable. Whoever you blame for the 2008-9 economic crisis and the financial potholes on Britain’s road to recovery that have followed since, the government now needs to take harsh measures to try and solve the problem. Protesting against this may indeed display public discontent, but it is not going to change the economic circumstances which led to this financial policy crisis in the first place. Therefore, the government will not change its policy on the basis of the people’s disapproval.
So, the protests have no effect on political decisions, but they are still demonstrations of free speech and democracy. Why bother to criticise them? One simple reason: they are annoying. Protests inconvenience everyone in the country apart from the government, rather ironically. People can’t get to work, schools are shut, lectures are cancelled – you can’t even go to the shops for some milk without being confronted with a cacophonous crowd of protesters (in Oxford at least). And then they try to make you feel like an unworthy citizen because you are going about your daily life instead of loyally supporting the public sector. While the democratic motive of the protests is admirable, the fact that they’re not going to achieve anything practical makes them all the more irritating.
The unions’ promise that these protests will be bigger than the General Strike of 1926 is frightening. But it is frightening for ordinary people, who want to get to work, send their children to schools and be able to go out on the weekend without finding that all transport is cancelled and that there’s a massive crowd in the way in any case. I doubt that the government shares the same dread of the protests, and for this reason it is futile to continue them.
A sign has gone up in my local café in Beirut that reads ‘Political discussions forbidden’. But a day after the Arab League’s announcement that it was to suspend Syria, the café owner seemed to have forgotten her own rule. Sitting with a friend, staring into her thick Arabic coffee, she muttered about the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and the possibility of a coming war.
In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph in October, Assad warned of ‘an earthquake’ if his government fell or foreign powers intervened in Syria. The fall of Gadhafi and Mubarak were momentous occasions for the region, but the fall of the Assad regime could have far more explosive consequences.
The political make-up of the Middle East would be very drastically altered. Syria is seen as Iran’s main source of influence in the Arab world and it is at the centre of a delicate balance of alliances that includes Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. After the IAEA recently reported that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, tensions between Iran and Israel are at an all time high and some think Israel is preparing for war.
Lebanon was one of only three countries to vote against the Arab League’s decision. The other two were Yemen, which is violently crushing its own uprising, and, naturally, Syria itself.
“We have no say over our destiny”, George, a Lebanese Christian explained. Although Lebanon has largely avoided the protests of the Arab Spring so far, everyone is watching the news about Syria with deep concern.
In the presence of a Turkish delegate, Assad recently threatened to launch hundreds of missiles towards Tel Aviv and the Golan Heights in the likelihood of Damascus being attacked. Fuelling anti-Zionist sentiment has proven in the past to push internal problems aside. Were this to be the case, it is very likely that Damascus would ask Hizballah in Lebanon to join in such an attack.
The two main political blocs in Lebanon are deeply divided over the Syrian issue. Actions including recent kidnappings of Syrian dissidents living in Lebanon and violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty with cross-border raids are rubbing salt into the wounds of Lebanon’s recent civil war.
But with more and more members of the Syrian army defecting to what they call the ‘Free Syria Army’, it is Syria that is closest to civil war. The King of Jordan, Turkey and the Whitehouse have now joined the list of those calling for Assad’s resignation.
Naturally, rumours of foreign intervention in Syria are flying around the Arab world. A political analyst from Damascus, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that although he supported the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria’s membership in protest to the bloodshed, it is a “very dangerous move indeed” as it paves the way to intervention.
“I, personally, would support Arab intervention”, he continued, “but Western intervention must be out of the question as it would remove all legitimacy – you must understand that America, the country who calls us part of the ‘axis of evil’, are not overly popular in Syria.”
The tension in Beirut is tangible, as it must also be in Tehran, Jerusalem and across the Middle East. The pressure against Assad is gaining momentum and his fall is becoming inevitable. Syria’s neighbours are now preparing for all eventualities, and it is hard to imagine any scenario without significant bloodshed. Assad’s warning of an ‘earthquake’ may prove to be the case if the fall of this Arab dictator nudges the region over the edge into large scale war.
We all know that giving to charity is a good idea. You may genuinely care, you may wish to remove some guilt and hope to improve your karma, or perhaps it now seems, you may just want people to you leave alone.
In the last few years there has been a dramatic increase in the call for donations and aid to the extent where frankly it’s time to put a stop to it, and it’s edging dangerously into our personal autonomy. You can’t walk down the street without some overly excited 20-something student come bounding up to you with some poor introduction about why they want to talk, or turn on a TV without being faced with images of starving children or dancing bears that put you off your food or hurt your senses. It’s everywhere and it’s endless.
I appreciate that the idea behind these adverts is to have exactly the effect I’m talking about, and the hope is people will feel bullied, I’m sorry, encouraged into giving, but there comes a line where it has gone too far. In fact, this line is so fundamental and important, it’s governed by law.
The law states the no man (or woman) will be guilty for an omission, save for special circumstances. These circumstances include relationships of responsibilities such as parent and child and similar alternatives, but on the whole, not TV-viewer and charity organisation. On face value it seems a cruel rule, and very anti-social – to have no legal duty to help your neighbours and friends – but the reasoning behind it is understandable. It’s a floodgates problem. You make someone liable for one person and without a logical reasoning for why it is just that one person, suddenly they are liable to everyone in the world. Where is the line to be drawn?
The law does not feel there is a need to make a legal obligation, regardless to the fact it would be near practically impossible, because society works well when we feel morally obligated. We help our friends and neighbours because we can and it’s a nice thing to do, but somewhere along the line the charities started taking advantage of this. The activity of those high street volunteers we all try desperately to not make eye contact with has been called ‘chugging’ – charity mugging. It has now gone too far and started to step into our personal living.
The worse thing about it all is that the charities that are trying to get us to give money are going about it the wrong way. The people of Britain do give donations, billions in fact. The problem is not that we aren’t giving; it’s where it’s going. Some years more money is going to animal charities than to children organisations. Perhaps this should be addressed and a solution found here, instead of simply asking for more money.
My issue is not charities asking for money, or even necessarily the guilt trip that I’ve failed to avoid, even though I donate each month myself to Cancer Research and volunteer in a help centre each week. My problem is that when you have seen the same advert so much you change channels, or when you purposely take a different route to college to avoid being harassed by people asking you to give them you card details, it’s gone too far and the situation needs to be evaluated and reigned in.
It’s often noted that the anonymity of the internet fosters a sense of “cyber road rage” – in other words, users with hidden identities on comment forums are much more aggressive than they otherwise would be. I believe a similar phenomenon exists with Facebook political debates, but instead of making people aggressive, they become much more annoying.
For some reason, perfectly nice people turn into arrogant, pretentious posers when discussing a political issue on Facebook. Perhaps it’s because they know that, though only arguing with a few, all of their friends can read what they write, and thus they try to impress everyone. Or maybe it’s because, comforted by their other open tab (probably a blog post by some obscure professor whose ideas will be stolen in the hope that no one notices they aren’t originally theirs), they become convinced of the flawlessness of their argument. Either way, though I enjoy discussing politics with my friends, I neither participate in nor can stand any longer the tedious drivel that constitutes Facebook political debates of our generation.
Don’t get me wrong – Facebook can be a fantastic tool for politics. Social media, in particular Facebook, have played an important role in the Arab Spring, with a BBC programme even entitled “How Facebook changed the world” about this very subject.
Yet all too often, it is a vehicle for sanctimonious, ill-informed and arrogant idiots to trumpet their supposedly superior knowledge and political awareness. In principle, I would have no objection to Facebook being used for political debate, especially when people genuinely want to gauge their friends’ reaction to a news story or article, but instead, what comes out is an endless stream of political posturing.
There is nothing wrong with flagging up a controversial piece written by some little known academic about the Eurozone crisis, but why do some feel it necessary to link to a BBC News article on the latest unemployment figures with a comment along the lines of “Yet again, George Osborne’s fiscal policies aren’t up to scratch”? Now I’m no fan of George Osborne, but he is the Chancellor of the Exchequer and it is a breath-taking form of conceitedness merely to dismiss his policies without providing any reason. Indeed, what’s worse is to make yourself sound superior – as if you could know more about economics than he does, and, joking aside, it’s highly unlikely you do.
Yet even when users do give their reasons, the ensuing Facebook political debate is probably going to be even more frustrating. Now, I have seen and read some fascinating debates about a variety of political subjects on Facebook, from Sudan to veganism, but the vast majority have left me wanting to tear my hair out. Unfortunately, I seem to have the same masochistic desire which makes liberals watch Fox News and which means that, when I log on and see a status about the EU with 23 comments underneath, despite my audible groans of frustration, I’m compelled to read all of it. And when I do, there are a certain practices that annoy me most.
In particular, to all those using Latin, you are the bane of my existence. I don’t care if you think “in re” or “qua” help your argument (and yes I’ve seen them both); it’s just incredibly pretentious and unnecessary. Typically, moreover, those who use Latin tend to be the essay-writers – those people who seem to have nothing else to do online between reading BBC News and masturbating, and so write literally thousands of words on their chosen topic. They usually begin with something innocuous along the lines of “@Mark: You’re completely wrong.” and then off they go. So I’m going to spell this out for them: no one can be bothered to read pages and pages of rambling on Facebook. Bear in mind that this is also where people come to look at pictures of club nights; they don’t want your regurgitation of the New Statesmen.
Even worse, though, are the debates which self-perpetuate due to the fact that everyone skims what everyone else is writing (probably because they’re writing such boring essays in the first place, but there you go). For instance, I have seen the Libyan intervention discussed endlessly, with the same argument (“we stopped the citizens of Benghazi being massacred”) coming up against the same counter-argument (“Why didn’t we intervene in Syria then?”) until someone eventually has something better to do (in my experience, this can usually take quite a while). If you’re not interested in hearing the views others but just want to do some political posturing, that’s fine, but do so in private, with your equally self-centred, superior friends. Facebook could be a place to have intelligent discussions with friends of friends, and actually learn new things on issues of mutual interest, but too often, it’s about showing off to as many people as possible.
This seems to be even more the case for some topics than others – anything with an Israeli-Palestinian dimension tends to provoke long and vociferous debate. Anyone who has seen the comments underneath the Facebook event page for the Israeli ambassador’s attendance at the Union will realise just how quickly sarcasm can degenerate into genuinely nasty remarks being directed at others. It’s neither courageous nor clever to be so openly hostile, and it’s ironic that those who lambast the failure of the peace process are the same ones who themselves cannot seem to debate amicably and reasonably, even on Facebook.
So my general plea is this: don’t let yourself sink into the abyss of cyber road rage on Facebook. Instead, use Facebook to keep in touch with friends, use it to organise political events, use it to share articles that interest you with others – use it to do all things political, except having in depth, political debates. Chances are, instead of learning anything or persuading others, you will just lose friends and alienate people.
Christmas makes people irrational. It is the one time of the year when people suddenly discover an urgent need to visit all their long-lost (probably long-hated) relatives; use of credit cards goes into overdrive; and it becomes acceptable to bandy about clichés such as “the spirit of giving” even as we are mentally compiling our wish lists and plotting ways to ensure that we are paired with someone more thoughtful and generous at Secret Santa than last year.
Yet even as many people forget or ignore the religious purpose of Christmas, they still seem to search for some kind of deeper, ‘real’ meaning of 25th December. As spending a day or two with the whole family becomes ever more tiring, the ‘real’ meaning of Christmas is moving away from the ‘family’ theme towards the idea of ‘giving to charity’.
Charity Christmas cards are therefore becoming ever more popular among the British public. The concept is appealing: you combine the unavoidable task of sending out cards to all your relatives, friends and acquaintances with the soul-warming act of donating to charity. Moreover, charity Christmas cards are a very public way of doing so; each recipient will be able to see, on the back of the card, that you have been a Good Citizen who has carefully chosen to transcend the commercialisation of Christmas by using the opportunity to donate to charity. Even if you have always walked past Oxfam and the Red Cross or ignored those annoying pamphleteers on Cornmarket Street, Christmas seems like a good time to give something back to society.
The sad point is, charity Christmas cards actually give very little back to society. Some would argue that buying them is a waste of time. A recent report by the Charity Advisory Trust found that the highest amount that charities can hope to receive from sales of Christmas cards is between a fifth and a quarter of the selling price on the high street. Considering that an average pack of charity Christmas cards costs £5, that is only between £1-£1.25 which goes to charity. For a good that is marketed almost entirely on its moral and social appeal, this is a pathetic amount. [Editor's note: The Charity Advisory Trust encourages people to buy Christmas cards from organisations specifically dealing in charity cards like Card Aid, an organisation they run that gives 40-60% to charity from each card costs and all of the profit.]
Yet the most shocking finding of the report was that more than two thirds of charity card retailers give less than 5% to charity, and more than one quarter give less than 2%. This would be 25p and 10p per a £5 pack of cards respectively. The trend is particularly worrying among online retailers: the company CCA Occasions donates only 1.1% of the total cost of their cards to charity. Surely it would make more sense for people to give directly to the charity, rather than waste money on overpriced charity cards which do not actually fulfil their advertised purpose of supporting charities? Moreover, some retailers try to enhance the appeal of their Christmas cards by crowding the packaging with logos of various charities to give the impression that your purchase will support a huge range of charities; but all this means is that each individual charity gets an even more pitiful share of the small fraction of the money you spend.
So this Christmas, be a Scrooge about charity Christmas cards. Don’t waste your money on overpriced cards because you want to feel better about yourself or show off to all your acquaintances. Get normal, cheap cards (if you must get any at all) and donate a fiver directly to charity. That really would be in the ‘true spirit of Christmas’.
When driving down the M1, we’re known just as ‘THE NORTH’: a definition of a different part of the country, a different place entirely and somewhere where we say ‘bath’ and ‘scone’ just a bit differently. But after spending eight weeks in Oxford, having left the equally culturally sophisticated Manchester, I’m forced to take a perspective on my new-fangled southernness. What makes me a northerner? What makes you a southerner? Are we really that different?
My friends gave me one warning before I came up to Oxford: ‘don’t become a southern fairy’. When I’m living up north my accent is apparently posh, whereas in Oxford I’m told that I sound ‘well northern’. Should I ever want to lose my northern accent? Does being branded a northerner make me any different to anyone else here? I mean, we’re an obvious minority, but are we any different to you southerners?
I mean sure, you guys might drink wine by the glass, whereas the typical drink up north is the cheapest cider you can find. Pennying down here, we call ‘saving the queen’. We all have our fair share of lovely accents, senses of humour and ‘interesting’ people (Geordie Shore and The Only Way is Essex highlight these awkward social stereotypes). But then whilst we do have more rain up north, we’re also the home of Greggs (the bus journey to nearest branch in Abingdon gets more tempting as each week passes).
Of course these are stereotypes at their worse. Most southerners aren’t posh, stuck-up types and, of course, most people from the ‘bleak north’ aren’t completely unsophisticated and uneducated.
At this point some readers may note the emphasis on the word: ‘most’. There are of course differences between us, but my time in Oxford has proven that these aren’t as huge as first thought. I don’t think I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s treated me differently because I’m a northerner. Everyone has been hugely friendly and welcome, and although I have met people who don’t know who Peter Kay is (how this is the case, I don’t know), most people haven’t responded to me as a member of some kind of alien race. Perhaps the whole ‘north/south divide‘ doesn’t really exist, but is just a perpetuation of stereotypes.
I certainly don’t feel like I’m turning southern. I still miss certain accents, senses of humour and possibly even the rain. The water you have down here tastes funny and I’m pretty sure that cafés charge around 547 times more down south than in the north. But I’m a medic, so you still have 6 years to convert me into a southern fairy. Perhaps you’ll convert this northern lad into a proper southerner by the end of my time here.
I know that as I go back home for Christmas, I’ll return to my friends highlighting to what degree I’ve become a southern fairy. I kind of hope that they don’t think I’ve changed all that much. I hope that I’m still the normal guy they all know. I do wonder whether, eventually during my time down south, I’ll change for the good, or for the bad. Perhaps over the next year I’ll find out, but all I know is that in a few days I’ll leave the Oxford southern bubble for a while, to return in January as a renewed northerner, and for the process of becoming a southern fairy to begin again.
Try to name the current coalition front bench. Better still, do your best impressions of a few ministers and see if anyone can guess them. Go on, have a go at ‘doing an Andrew Lansley’. No? Well, it hasn’t always been like this. Our politicians used to be interesting. Lord David Owen was one of them.
David Owen belongs to that generation of politicians who were around in that fuzzy period after the war but before us. Some of you may have heard of him, a few might even know the rough outlines of his career, but, sadly, to most, he is just another irrelevant historical figure – one of those odd characters who crop up in textbooks and documentaries, but are strangely still alive. Most of these people are too old to do anything newsworthy, but not only is Lord Owen still very much involved in politics, he is no less charismatic now than he was at the zenith of his career.
The former Foreign Secretary tore up British politics in the early 80’s, as one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who left Labour to create the Social Democratic Party (later merging with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats). An instinctive iconoclast, his bravado and self-assurance were legendary; the satirical show Spitting Image once imagined him leaving the SDP to form the David Owen Party for all those who support Social Davidowenism. He went on play a controversial role in the peace negotiations between the warring sides in the Former Yugoslavia and now serves as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords.
And he hasn’t mellowed with age. During the BBC election coverage last year, a short interview with him conducted by Jeremy Paxman provided the most acerbic two minutes of the entire broadcast (a taster: “you must think I’m an idiot to ask me that question”). Last week, during a visit to the Oxford Union, in between charming the Bursar and upbraiding his fellow speaker for their naïveté, he took some time out to share the fruits of his vast experience. Evidently still passionate about politics and equally enthusiastic in pointing out exactly where the current crop of ministers are going wrong, the past master at ad hominem now speaks the truth to the man. The easiest man in politics to caricature is now the one providing caricatures of our leaders.
Lord Owen, reclining in a suitably old-looking chair, looking rather like a caricature of himself and surrounded on all sides by ancient tomes, stares purposefully into the middle distance and launches into his analysis of contemporary politics. The travails of his progeny, the Lib Dems, and in particular of the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, are never far from his mind. Clegg “needs to have the backing of a full government department. He’s not well briefed, he doesn’t understand many of these issues and he needs more support. He needs a big department – where there are economists and lawyers – so when he goes into meetings with Cameron, he is as well-briefed as him.” Owen is clearly still in the loop: the Constitution Unit, a respected think-tank, subsequently published a study which argued that the deputy prime minister’s office is indeed ineffective, under-resourced and over-stretched.
Praise does not come naturally to Lord Owen; heavy-handed criticism and scathing condemnation slip off the tongue far more easily. Clegg may escape his wrath, but there is no shortage of alternative targets. First on the list: the House of Lords. “An awful place” according to Lord Owen. “It was better in the old days, when we had hereditary peers. We now have a patronage House of Lords par excellence, even Lloyd George would blush. Blair packed with his people, you can see them there – that person was a friend, that person paid a cheque – and now Cameron and the Lib Dems are doing the same”.
David Cameron recurs often during our conversation. While justly bemoaning the “endless presentism” of modern-day politicians, he rather loses track of his point as soon as he mentions the prime minister’s name. “If you’re prime minister, you don’t go on interviews every day…He’s just like Blair: constant comments. If he wants to last as a politician, he will ration these things…He’s got to learn pretty fast”. The subsequent brief pause in the conversation represents an invitation to offer a separate, entirely unrelated, critique: “He behaved very badly to Clegg. Allowing the ‘No to AV campaign’ to make such a personal attack on him was not fair. Of course he could have stopped it.”
The policies, no less than the personalities, of the current government are ruthlessly dissected. Before his stellar career as a politician, Lord Owen was Dr. Owen. He thus feels particularly strongly about the coalition’s putative health reforms. Though change is certainly necessary – “there is no status quo for the NHS” – evolution, not revolution, is called for. “Medicine is about the individual relationship between the doctor or nurse and the patient. You can’t organise this on purely commercial principles. Bring in the disciplines of private sector and of good management…go on slowly, making these evolutionary changes. We know what is best practice and what is cost-effective.”
He rejects out of hand the notion that the government’s plans are merely continuing the gradual reforms of the previous government: “This is an absolutely massive piece of legislation. One of the most senior people in the NHS said you can see it from space. It’s far bigger than the 1948 Act which introduced the NHS.” Owen offers a stark vision of what the Health and Social Care Bill could lead to. “It’s a dog’s breakfast. It’s conceptually flawed. I hope it will be withdrawn…The government is stepping away from even providing a comprehensive health service…this is not just about GP consortia, there is a stepping back from very idea of a NHS”. The spectre of Cameron looms again over the conversation. “This man actually convinced us that he did believe in the health service, that he was not going to go on with the Blairite reforms. The effect will be very, very bad. It’s bad politics, bad economics, bad health care. He will have it wrung round his neck.”
Still very much a performer, an orator, a caricature; Lord Owen plays a role brilliantly. There is, though, no detectable element of dogmatism or arrogance within him. He mercifully adapted his interview style to the interviewer (I doubt he would have advised Paxman to “make sure the tape recorder is on”) and was generally even-handed in his appraisals: Cameron is “very intelligent”, Miliband needed to show “more passion and emotion” but had “done very well” and Clegg has been “outflanked by the knowledge and seriousness” of the prime minister. He came across as thoroughly reasonable and decent, but offering a caricature makes for a more interesting article.
Caricaturable politicians make for more interesting politics. Lord Owen hasn’t ruled out a return to front bench politics. The satirists are counting on it.