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So this is the week in which Barack Obama came out in favour of ‘gay marriage’, the Queen remained silent (in her address to parliament), David Cameron seemed a little less sure about where this is going politically (despite the renewed commitments of equalities minister Lynne Featherstone), and Mitt Romney reaffirmed his conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman.

In an editorial this morning the Times said this is ‘a cornerstone issue of civil rights’. You can see how this ‘framing’ of the question closes down any serious debate; it turns it into a battle between the good people who are for civil rights and the bad people who are against them; it completely avoids the much more serious and consequential issue of whether this proposed legislation in favour of same-sex ‘marriage’ will actually change the nature of marriage and the family or not, and what the effects of this change will be for individuals and for society. The Times doesn’t acknowledge that you are not just giving an apparent right to gay people, you are also redefining – for every person and for the whole of society – the nature of marriage and the family as it has been almost universally understood.

There is still time to respond to the Government’s consultation – see the link here. And to sign the Coalition for Marriage petition here.

There is no space for lengthy replies on the consultation website – they limit the word count quite strictly. It’s good in some ways, because it means you have to clarify your thoughts and cut out the flannel.

Here is the reply I wrote for the consultation, and sent to my MP:

I am against this proposal for five reasons.

First, it radically transforms the meaning of marriage for all couples (not just same-sex couples) and turns it into simply a committed relationship between any two consenting adults.

Second, it makes different forms of family life equivalent, and disregards the evidence that it is in the best interests of children to be brought up by their own natural/biological parents. Marriage between a man and a woman is the only relationship that allows children to be conceived by their own natural/biological parents and raised in that lifelong family unit, which is why it is given a special status. This is not a prejudice but a natural reality.

Third, this proposal will increase prejudice and intolerance against those who believe and teach that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Fourth, it drives a wedge between civil and religious views of marriage, which can only harm society. At present there is a single understanding of marriage, shared by both religious and non-religious people, but celebrated in different contexts (civil or religious).

Fifth, this proposal has been ‘forced’ onto the political agenda; it was not in any party manifestos; it is not a pressing political issue for most people; and 70% of people support the traditional understanding of marriage (according to a recent poll).

[This is slightly over the consultation word count, so I had to cut a couple of phrases – I can’t remember which!]

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This story, from Andrew McLaughlin, illustrates both the political power of the internet to discomfort governments, and the enduring power of governments to shut down the internet when it suits them.

As recently as a week ago, Egypt‘s internet was extraordinary in the Arab world for its freedom. For more than a decade, the regime has adhered to a hands-off policy, leaving unblocked everything from rumours about President Hosni Mubarak’s health to videos of police beatings. Unlike most of its regional neighbours and other authoritarian regimes, Egypt’s government never built or required sophisticated technical infrastructures of censorship. (Of course, the country has hardly been a paradise of free expression: the state security forces have vigorously suppressed dissent through surveillance, arbitrary detentions and relentless intimidation of writers and editors.)

Partly as a result of its liberal policies, Egypt became a hub for internet and mobile network investment, home to a thriving and competitive communications sector that pioneered free dial-up services, achieved impressive rates of access and use, and offered speedy wireless and broadband networks at relatively low prices. Indeed, Egypt is today one of the major crossing points for the underwater fibre-optic cables that interconnect the regions of the globe.

But last Thursday, the Mubarak regime shattered a decade’s worth of accomplishment by issuing the order to shut down the mobile networks and internet links. Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt’s reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime’s brutal and hamfisted response to last week’s emergence of citizen protests.

The internet cutoff shows how the details of infrastructure matter. Despite having no large-scale or centralised censorship apparatus, Egypt was still able to shut down its communications in a matter of minutes. This was possible because Egypt permitted only three wireless carriers to operate, and required all internet service providers (ISPs) to funnel their traffic through a handful of international links. Confronted with mass demonstrations and fearful about a populace able to organise itself, the government had to order fewer than a dozen companies to shut down their networks and disconnect their routers from the global internet.

The blackout has proved increasingly ineffective. A handful of networks have remained connected, including one independent ISP, the country’s academic and research network, and a few major banks, businesses and government institutions. Whether these reflect deliberate defiance, privileged connections, or tactical exceptions –one might imagine, for example, that members of Mubarak’s family and inner circle would want to have Internet access to move money, buy tickets, or make hotel reservations abroad — is as yet unknown.

Moreover, innovative Egyptians are finding ways to overcome the block. They are relaying information by voice, exploiting small and unnoticed openings in the digital firewall, and dusting off old modems to tap foreign dial-up services.

For democracies, one lesson here is clear: diversity and complexity in our network architectures is a very good thing. Likewise, enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality – the principle that access providers should not be permitted to control what their customers can do online – are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis. For dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, however, the lesson will be quite the opposite.

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Google is extending its reach ‘upwards’ and ‘backwards’. The ‘upwards’ direction is into ‘the cloud’, as it encourages us to store our data and software offsite on its remote servers, instead of in our homes and offices. The ‘backwards’ direction is into cultural history, as it becomes the market leader in scanning, storing and analysing the trillions of words that have been written since the dawn of history.

"The Cloud"

There are some wonderful possibilities and one or two dangers in all this. Charles Arthur reports on some of the dangers.

Google’s new cloud computing ChromeOS looks like a plan “to push people into careless computing” by forcing them to store their data in the cloud rather than on machines directly under their control, warns Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and creator of the operating system GNU.

Two years ago Stallman, a computing veteran who is a strong advocate of free software via his Free Software Foundation, warned that making extensive use of cloud computing was “worse than stupidity” because it meant a loss of control of data.

Now he says he is increasingly concerned about the release by Google of its ChromeOS operating system, which is based on GNU/Linux and designed to store the minimum possible data locally. Instead it relies on a data connection to link to Google’s “cloud” of servers, which are at unknown locations, to store documents and other information.

The risks include loss of legal rights to data if it is stored on a company’s machine’s rather than your own, Stallman points out: “In the US, you even lose legal rights if you store your data in a company’s machines instead of your own. The police need to present you with a search warrant to get your data from you; but if they are stored in a company’s server, the police can get it without showing you anything. They may not even have to give the company a search warrant.”

“I think that marketers like “cloud computing” because it is devoid of substantive meaning. The term’s meaning is not substance, it’s an attitude: ‘Let any Tom, Dick and Harry hold your data, let any Tom, Dick and Harry do your computing for you (and control it).’ Perhaps the term ‘careless computing’ would suit it better.”

He sees a creeping problem: “I suppose many people will continue moving towards careless computing, because there’s a sucker born every minute. The US government may try to encourage people to place their data where the US government can seize it without showing them a search warrant, rather than in their own property. However, as long as enough of us continue keeping our data under our own control, we can still do so. And we had better do so, or the option may disappear.”

It might sound a bit paranoid, but remember that Amazon recently removed Wikileaks from its cloud computing on the grounds that they had breached its terms and conditions.

Alok Jha, more positively, writes about the new science of ‘culturomics’ that has emerged to analyse the vast databases of newly scanned literature.

How many words in the English language never make it into dictionaries? How has the nature of fame changed in the past 200 years? How do scientists and actors compare in their impact on popular culture?

These are just some of the questions that researchers and members of the public can now answer using a new online tool developed by Google with the help of scientists at Harvard University. The massive searchable database is being hailed as the key to a new era of research in the humanities, linguistics and social sciences that has been dubbed “culturomics”.

The database comprises more than 5m books – both fiction and non-fiction – published between 1800 and 2000, representing around 4% of all the books ever printed. Dr Jean-Baptiste Michel and Dr Erez Lieberman Aiden of Harvard University have developed the search tool, which they say will give researchers the ability to quantify a huge range of cultural trends in history.

“Interest in computational approaches to the humanities and social sciences dates back to the 1950s,” said Michel, a psychologist in Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. “But attempts to introduce quantitative methods into the study of culture have been hampered by the lack of suitable data. We now have a massive dataset, available through an interface that is user-friendly and freely available to anyone.”

What can it actually do? Just take two examples. First, an analysis of the changing nature of fame over the last two centuries.

By looking at the frequency of famous people’s names in literature, they showed that celebrities born in the mid-20th century tended to be younger and more famous than those of the 19th century, but their fame lasted for a shorter period of time. By 1950, celebrities were achieving fame, on average, when they were 29, compared with 43 for celebrities around 1800. “People are getting more famous than ever before,” wrote the researchers, “but are being forgotten more rapidly than ever.”

Another example: tracking censorship across different cultures.

The database can also identify patterns of censorship in the literature of individual countries. The Jewish artist Marc Chagall, for example, was mentioned only once in the entire German literature from 1936 to 1944, even though his appearance in English-language books grew around fivefold in the same period. There is also evidence of censorship in Chinese literature when it comes to Tiananmen Square and in Russian books with regard to Leon Trotsky.

Google will know us better than we know ourselves. Although that is probably already true just from its analysis of what we have searched for over the last few months.

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I live on the site of St Thomas More’s home in Chelsea. It was here that Holbein drew the sketches for the celebrated More family portrait. The sketches survive; but Holbein’s finished image, sadly, is lost. It was not a canvas or board, but a huge linen wall-hanging, about nine feet high and twelve feet wide.

In the 1590s Rowland Lockey made various copies of this image, with sometimes major adjustments in the composition. The best of these ‘reinterpretations’, from 1593, now hangs at Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire.

Margaret, Thomas’s favourite daughter, sits at the front of this group, holding a book in her lap, with her fingers pointing very precisely to some specific lines. There have been two puzzles. Were these lines present and given such prominence in Holbein’s original (if so, presumably on More’s instructions)? And what would their significance be?

John Guy, in his book A Daughter’s Love that I referred to a few posts ago, thinks he has the answer:

What Margaret holds up to view is no less than Seneca’s classic defence of the ‘middle way’ or unambitious life, the passage in which he counterpoints the security of a lack of ambition with the dangers of a public career.

His message is about the relationship of human beings and fate. No one can predict what will happen to those who enter the counsels of princes. Fate is an irrevocable series of causes and effects with which not even the gods can interfere. Rather than urge an honest man to take the plunge, Seneca points out to him the perils of high office and the inevitability of fate.

Using Plato’s metaphor in The Republic of the ship of state, he says if he were left to his own devices, he would trim his sails to the light westerly winds: ‘May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; may life bear me on safely, running in middle course.’

Most compellingly, Seneca cites the example of Icarus who, attempting to escape from prison with his father, Daedalus, flew too close to the sun so that the wax melted on his wings and he fell into the sea, where he drowned. And it is to the very line in which Seneca describes how Icarus ‘madly sought the stars’ that Margaret points with her finger. [175]

I’m not discouraging people from going into politics – far from it! But it is fascinating to discover the coded warnings given by someone as astute and involved as More to those who seek high office.

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Beneath the election froth, there is a genuine debate going on within British politics about the role of government, and particularly about the distinction between the state and civil society.

It’s not just David Cameron’s pitch for a ‘Big Society’. It connects with recent discussions about faith schools, adoption agencies, universities, the right of government to impose a particular form of sex education, and much more.

Is the government responsible, top-down, for every form of social provision? Is the relationship between government and the institutions of civil society one of ‘contracting out’ services that it cannot itself provide? Or are these civil institutions constitutive parts of society with their own particular motivations, purposes and values?

This is what the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales wrote in their recent document Choosing the Common Good:

Have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the myth that social problems are for the government to deal with? Politics are important but there are always limits to what any government can achieve. No government can solve every problem, nor make us more generous or responsive to need. The growth of regulations, targets and league tables, which are tools designed to make public services accountable, are no substitute for actions done as a free gift because the needs of a neighbour have to be met.

Acts of willing generosity to help others are not taken because the rules and regulations say so, or because money can be made out of them. Both regulation by law and market forces have a role in modern society. But what has been increasingly overlooked is this third form of motivation, the offer of time, energy and possessions out of the spirit of good citizenship and genuine neighbourliness. If we are to have a society worth living in, this third form of motivation is crucial. Local institutions expressing good citizenship and neighbourliness, which are not beholden to the government, form a vital part of civil society. Without solidarity and the friendships that express it, many of those living alone – now Britain’s most common form of household – become still more lonely and isolated.

Many factors lie behind the decline in this spirit of solidarity of one with another, without which society starts to break down and life becomes intolerable. An excessive emphasis on each person simply pursuing their own interests is no doubt one such factor. This flows from a limited understanding of ourselves as human beings. Far from being self-contained individuals, we are, in truth, always mutually dependent. We are made for one another. This is verified by the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction we experience when we act in generosity and solidarity with those in need. We are not isolated individuals who happen to live side by side, but people really dependent on one another, whose fulfilment lies in the quality of our relationships. [p.7]

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I didn’t know much about Michael Oakeshott before reading this short piece by Timothy Fuller. The subject is conservatism with a small ‘c’, and its influence on politics, lawmaking, social theory, etc. 

He thought that to be of a conservative disposition was to enjoy the possibilities of the present moment without excessive anxiety for what we had been or what we imagined we were going to be. He thought that maturity meant to live in the present, neither in a state of guilt nor of heroic aspiration. Heroic aspiration he thought was proper to the individual striking out on his own to seek his fortune, but was not an attitude for governments to impose on the polity as a whole. 

We should, he said, “attend to” the arrangements that had brought us together by chance or choice. Living in the present did not mean to him living self-indulgently, but rather living to the highest possible degree without the distraction of an endlessly regretted past or a wished-for but illusory future liberation from all our problems. He understood that many of our “problems” were recurrent predicaments that we had to manage but from which there would be no permanent liberation.

It can sound complacent. But in this way of thinking, the conservative disposition is to affirm the values and traditions that have guided a concrete society, instead of trying to re-build a society on the foundation of abstract ideals. It doesn’t mean that everything from the past is necessarily good and beyond questioning. Nor does it mean that new ideals are incapable of provoking radical transformations. It just means that the instinct, the default position, is to trust first in that framework of habits and institutions and values that have made a particular way of life possible – however imperfect. And then to wonder how these could be built upon. This might sound dull; it’s certainly pragmatic. But it’s not without ideals – it just requires that these ideals are rooted in contemporary realities. You could say that they have to grow ‘organically’ out of the present.

Revolution by Blakes Seven.

Oakeshott’s conservatism is a fear that revolution, or even an apparently purifying return to the sources, might do more harm than good. It’s a suspicion of ideology, encapsulated in the adage ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. This connects with contemporary discussions in theology about the importance of preserving a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ whenever you are assessing a doctrinal or liturgical development.

I’ve no idea whether I agree with Oakeshott’s philosophy – I need to read some of his own writings! But I do believe, to put it in a slightly different way, that any worthwhile reform needs to be accompanied by some sense of gratitude for who you are and what you have received from the tradition to which you belong.

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