Hope and Obama

Before I start writing this post, a brief disclaimer; I am not American, do not live there and do not have extensive first-hand experience of the political situation over there. This post is inspired entirely from stuff I’ve seen other people talk about online and a few bits of joining the dots from me, but if anyone feels I’ve gone wildly off-target please drop me a line in the comments. OK? Good, let’s get started.

The ascendency of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency of the USA in 2009 was among the most significant events in recent history. Not only did he become the first black person to sit in the Oval office, he put the Democrats back in power (representing a fairly major shift in direction for the country after eight years under George Bush Jnr.) and manage to put his party in control of Congress too, the first time any Democrat leader had been in that position for quite some time. With bold claims regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which had been… talking points  during Bush’s time in charge, and big plans regarding the US healthcare system, this had all the hallmarks of a presidency dedicated to making change happen. Indeed, change was the key buzzword during Obama’s campaign; change for the punishing effects of US society on its young and poor, change for the recession-hit economy, and even change for the type of person in the White House (Bush had frequently been portrayed, rather unjustly for a man of notoriously quick wit, as stupid and socially incapable by satirists and left-leaning commentators, whilst even the right would find it hard to deny Obama’s natural charisma and intelligent, upright bearing) were all promised to voters, and it was a dream many took with them to the polling stations.

One of the key demographics the Democrats targeted and benefited from with this ‘pro-change’ style campaign was the youth vote; early twenty-somethings or even late teens, many of whom were voting in their first elections, who had grown up both physically and politically during the Bush administration and railed against his management of everything from the economy to the welfare system with all the ardour and uncluttered train of thought of young people everywhere. I should know: living through the period as a young person in a left-leaning family getting my news via the liberally-inclined BBC (and watching too much satirical comedy), one could hardly escape the idea that Bush was an absolute moron who know nothing about running his country. And this was whilst getting daily first-hand experience of what a left-wing government was like in Britain- I can imagine that to a young American with a similar outlook and position at the time, surrounded by right-leaning sentiment on all sides, the prospect of a Democratic president dedicated to change would have seemed like a shining beacon of hope for a brighter future. Indeed, the apparent importance of the youth vote to Obama’s success was illustrated during his 2012 re-election: when the news broke that Microsoft were planning on releasing a new Halo videogame on election day, conspiracy theorists had a wonderful time suggesting that Microsoft were embroiled in a great Republican plot to distract the youth vote by having them play Halo all day instead, thus meaning they couldn’t vote Democrat*.

Now, let us fast forward to the 2012 election. Obama won, but narrowly- and given he was up against a candidate whose comments that he ‘didn’t care about the very poor’ and thought that the windows in passenger aircraft should be able to be opened were very widely circulated and mocked, the result was far too close for comfort (even if, despite what some pundits and conservative commentators would have had you believe, all the pre-election statistics indicated a fairly safe Democrat victory). Whilst the airwaves weren’t exactly awash with anti-Obama messages, it wasn’t hard to find disillusionment and cynicism regarding his first term in office. For me, the whole thing was summed up by the attitudes of Jeph Jacques, the cartoonist behind the webcomic ‘Questionable Content’; reading through his back catalogue, he frequently had to restrain himself from verbalising his Obama-fandom in the comments below his comics during the 2008 election, but come election season in 2012 he chose to publish this. That comic pretty much sums it up: a whole generation had been promised change, and change had refused to come on a sufficiently large scale. The youthful optimism of his rise to power was replaced by something more akin to the weariness Obama himself displayed during the first live TV debate, and whilst I’m sure many of these somewhat disillusioned voters still voted Democrat (I mean, he still won, and preliminary statistics suggest voter turnout actually rose in 2012 compared to 2008), the prevailing mood seemed to be one less of optimism than of ‘better him than Romney’.

Exactly what was to blame for the lack of the promised change is a matter of debate; apologists may point to the difficulties had getting such radical (by American standards) health reforms and similar through a decidedly moderate congress, followed by the difficulties had trying to get anything through when congress became Republican-controlled, whilst the more cynical or pro-Republican would probably make some statement referring to the corporate-sponsored nature of the Democratic party/American political system or suggest that President Obama simply isn’t quite as good a politician/person (depending on the extent of your cynicism) as he came across as in 2008. Whatever the answer, the practical upshot has been quite interesting, as it has allowed one to watch as an entire generation discovered cynicism for the first time. All these hopes and dreams of some brave new vision for America went steaming face first into the bitter reality of the world and of politics, and the dream slowly fell apart. I am not old enough to definitively say that this is a pattern that has repeated itself down the ages, but nonetheless I found the whole escapade fascinating in a semi-morbid way, and I will be intrigued to see if/when it happens again.

Damn, I’m really going for conclusion-less posts at the moment…

*Interestingly, this kind of tactic has, so the story goes, been deliberately used in the past to achieve precisely the opposite effect. When Boris Yeltsin attempted to get re-elected as Russian president in 1996, voting day was designated a public holiday. Unfortunately, it was soon realised that many urban Russians, Yeltsin’s main voter base, were going to take this as a cue for a long weekend in the country (presumably hunting bears or whatever else Russians do in their second home in Siberia) rather than to go and vote, so Yeltsin went to the makers of telenovela (a kind of South American soap opera) called Tropikanka that was massively popular in the country and got them to make three brand-new episodes to be aired on election day. This kept the city dwellers at home, since many country spots didn’t have TV access, and meant they were around to go and vote. Yeltsin duly won, with 54.4% of the vote.

Collateral Murder Part Two

This is the second in a pair of posts analysing this video, a version of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video released in 2010 by Wikileaks. The last time covered the first five minutes of content, analysing the strange tactics used by the US military in Iraq at the time, but that isn’t why the video was released. The reason this caused such a stir is thanks to the next ten minutes, as an Apache helicopter opens fire on a group of seemingly inoffensive people, including a pair of journalists.

Watching this portion of the video is more tragic than anything, because so much of it could be considered standard military procedure. As mentioned in my last post, with so few men on the ground trying to cover such a large area (the problem that, ultimately, caused all the issues the video explores) the US army had to rely on its superior air force to provide cover for the foot soldiers it did have. The helicopter’s pilot identifies the group as ‘six or seven men with AK-47s’, and despite the point that the video makes that the journalist’s camera was mistaken for a weapon, there were armed insurgents in the group (hence why said journalists were filming with them). As, presumably, the result of a breakdown in communications, the proximity of Ethan McCord’s little group of soldiers is not relayed to the chopper and they are given permission to open fire on the group.

If opening up a 30mm cannon on an unaware group of disorganised insurgents seems an excessive use of force it’s because it, frankly, is, and reflects how desperate the army had become just to kill every insurgent they could find (slightly losing sight of the point of a counter-insurgency operation and probably prolonging the war; but that isn’t the soldiers’ job to know). Not only that, but it is a reflection of the rules of engagement at the time, that McCord describes later, which allowed you to open fire on anyone who you ‘felt threatened’ by. Quite how a group of trained soldiers in the most heavily armed helicopter used by any army in the world  are feeling threatened by a group of unprotected, unaware men armed with assault rifles 3 miles away rather escapes me, and reflects the complete idiocy of that system. Because ‘feeling threatened’ is not a quantitative, provable description, it is not possible for any claim that these rules were being violated to be upheld; even if the victim is unarmed, they could still be shot if it is claimed the soldier thought they could have been wired to explosives. Though, to be honest, such claims would likely have scarcely ever been made even in the worst instances; the high-ups care too much about their previously stated goals to ‘kill every mother f***er’ available.

Regarding the deaths themselves however… this is war, and bad guys get killed: arguing over the niceties of that opens a whole new can of worms. The carnage McCord describes is part and parcel of modern warfare, horrible though it may be, and the role of an army in this situation is to ensure that the damage it inflicts is less than the damage that would be caused were the situation allowed to get out of hand. The very title of the video, ‘Collateral Murder’, offers a sense of bitter irony at the Pentagon euphemism of ‘collateral damage’ used whenever innocent people are killed in an operation, but in this situation this is not a result of the US Army actively deciding that these lives are expendable. This is not deciding to bomb a town despite knowing there are innocents present, but about opening fire on a group of suspected terrorists and misidentifying innocent journalists. It is an accident; a deadly one to be sure, but an honest accident nonetheless.

No, the really shocking thing about this section of the video is what comes afterwards: the way that the crew of the Apache seem so blasé about the fact that they’ve just gunned down eight people. I can well appreciate that these men are soldiers; killing people is, ultimately, their job, and they wouldn’t be good at it were they to burst into tears every time somebody dies. But the fact remains that they have just slaughtered eight people and seem positively elated at the prospect, as if killing in this way is their idea of fun. This could be argued to be the result of their elevated position; they don’t have to get down & dirty, to see what they have wrought. At the risk of sounding preachy, killing for enjoyment is among the single worst traits any human could have, and such people are patently unsuited for being left unrestricted on any front line.

Worse is to follow. The gunship then proceeds to open fire on a people carrier containing young children; hardly a technical or APC. Although the children could almost certainly not have been identified from the gunship’s position, the act of opening fire on clearly unarmed men in an unprotected, unarmed vehicle is so against every rule of warfare and rule of engagement that it is positively ridiculous. It doesn’t matter that by clearing up bodies and weapons they are ‘on the other side’: they are not acting as a threat and they are not to be engaged. That’s what these bloody rules are for. Hell, the chopper’s crew even know that there’s a group of infantry on their way in vehicles, and it surely wouldn’t have been too much to simply wait for them to deal with the whole mess properly. Here, the term ‘collateral murder’ seems a little more appropriate. Again, we see more evidence (especially when they continue shooting the ‘disabled’ van, and are able to laugh about it afterwards) that these men in the Apache are shooting because they find it fun. And, indeed, that there are far too many people giving orders who are quite happy to let them do so.

Most of the rest of the video deals with McCord & his platoon’s reaction to the horrific scene left by the Apache; the scale of death and destruction, his desperate efforts to help in any way he could, the death of a child in his arms, and crucially the (entirely justifiable) immense shock and emotional kickback he felt in response to the incident. Even for a soldier, this is ugly stuff, and McCord is clearly a man in need of sympathy and help. It has taken a long time for the world to realise the importance of mental health to soldiers, but after studying the domestic abuse figures for soldiers post-Vietnam, its importance becomes clear.

Except that sympathy is precisely the opposite of what he receives. Perhaps his platoon commander’s response of ‘you need to stop worrying about those f***ing kids and pull security’ is understandable; they are, after all, still unprotected in dangerous territory and they still have a job to do. On patrol, emotions have to be put to one side purely for everyone’s safety and wellbeing. One could also argue that his platoon members’ reaction of having ‘pretty much ignored what just happened’ is also justifiable, for these men are soldiers and are used to death and pain surrounding them; hell, McCord even says that the army told them, quite rightly, never to let their emotions take over whilst on a mission. That the whole debacle has affected Ethan McCord differently to them is just a product of the experience and his mind, so his decision to see a mental health counsellor, someone trained in this most strange of fields, is an eminently sensible one.

What makes absolutely no sense is the idea that, as McCord says, ‘needing to talk to someone could constitute a crime in the army’; even in the field of operations, just ‘sucking it up’ is most often not a sensible long-term strategy. Soldiers go on tours of duty for very long periods, up to a year on occasion, and that is a long time to try and ‘suck up’ a serious mental health issue. If a soldier’s mental stability is compromised that makes them a potential liability in the field, and it makes absolutely no sense that counselling, one of the best tools we currently have to combat these issues, is in any way restricted to soldiers. Sometimes, even the toughest need a hand, and to prevent them from getting it is just plain old stupid. One only needs to listen to the rest of McCord’s speech to see how profoundly this has affected him.

It’s not easy to summarise this video. It’s a story covering so many different aspects; of the need for manpower when combating an insurgency and the consequences thereof, of how confusion and lack of information can lead to catastrophic consequences, how different people suffer different things in different ways to different extents and of the importance of properly enforced, sensible rules of engagement. But the primary theme governing the actual mistakes made by the US military in this situation concern man management; of managing the deployment of soldiers incorrectly for the situation (albeit whilst somewhat caught between a rock and a hard place), of giving the wrong people access to unrestricted, no strings attached lethal force, and of failing to take care of people when they need it. Those mistakes cost the lives of several innocent people, two of them children, cost the US army a soldier, and cost Ethan McCord his mind and his happiness. The lessons they offer should be heeded.

Air Warfare Today

My last post summarised the ins and outs of the missile weaponry used by most modern air forces today, and the impact that this had on fighter technology with the development of the interceptor and fighter-bomber as separate classes. This technology was flashy and rose to prominence during the Korean war, but the powers-that-be still used large bomber aircraft during that conflict and were convinced that carpet bombing was the most effective strategy for a large-scale land campaign. And who knows; if WWIII ever ends up happening, maybe that sheer scale of destruction will once again be called for.

However, this tactic was not universally appreciated. As world warfare descended ever more into world politics and scheming, several countries began to adopt the fighter-bomber as their principle strike aircraft. A good example is Israel, long-time allies of the US, who used American fighter-bombers early on during the 1970s Middle East conflict to take out the air bases of their Soviet-backed Arab neighbours, giving them air superiority in the region that proved very valuable in the years to come as that conflict escalated. These fighters were valuable to such countries, who could not afford the cost of a large-scale bombing campaign; faster, precision guided destruction made far better fiscal sense and annoyed the neighbours less when they were parked on their doorstep (unless your government happened to be quite as gung-ho as Israel’s). Throughout the 1960s, this realisation of the value of fighter aircraft lead to further developments in their design; ground-assault weapons, in the form of air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs, began to be standard equipment on board fighter aircraft once their value as principle strike weapons was realised and demand for them to perform as such increased.  Furthermore, as wars were fought and planes were brought down, it was also realised that dogfighting was not in fact a dead art when one’s opponents (ie the Soviet Union and her friends) also had good hardware, so maneouvreability was once again reinstated as a design priority. Both of these advances were greatly aided by the rapid advancements in the electronics of the age, which quickly found their way into avionics; the electronic systems used by aircraft for navigation, monitoring, and (nowadays) help flying the aircraft, among other things.

It was also at this time that aircraft began experimenting with the idea of VTOL: Vertical Take Off and Landing. This was an advantageous property for an aircraft to have since it limited the space it needed for its take off and landing, allowing it to land in a wider range of environments where there wasn’t a convenient long stretch of bare tarmac. It was also particularly useful for aircraft carriers, which had been shown during WW2’s battle of Midway to be incredibly useful military tools, since any space not used for runway could be used to carry more precious aircraft. Many approaches were tried, including some ‘tail-sitting’ aircraft that mounted onto a vertical wall, but the only one to achieve mainstream success was the British Harrier, with two rotatable engine vents that could be aimed downwards for vertical takeoff. These offered the Harrier another trick- it was the only aircraft with a reverse gear. A skilled pilot could, if being tailed by a hostile, face his vents forward so his engines were pushing him in the opposite direction to his direction of travel, causing him to rapidly slow down and for his opponent to suddenly find himself with an enemy behind him eyeing up a shot. This isn’t especially relevant, I just think it’s really cool.

However, the event that was to fundamentally change late 20th century air warfare like no other was the Vietnam war; possibly the USA’s biggest ever military mistake. The war itself was chaotic on almost every level, with soldiers being accused of everything from torture to drug abuse, and by the mid 1960s it had already been going on, on and off, for over a decade years. The American public was rapidly becoming disillusioned with the war in general, as the hippy movement began to lift off, but in August 1964 the USS Maddox allegedly fired at a couple of torpedo boats that were following it through the Gulf of Tonkin. I say allegedly, because there is much speculation as to the identity of the vessels themselves; as then-president Lyndon B. Johnson said, “those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish”. In any case, the outcome was the important bit; when (now known to be false) reports came in two days later of a second attack in the area, Congress backed Johnson in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which basically gave the President the power to do what he liked in South-East Asia without making the war official (which would have meant consulting the UN). This resulted in a heavy escalation of the war both on the ground and in the air, but possibly the most significant side-effect was ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, which authorised a massive-scale bombing campaign to be launched on the Communist North Vietnam. The Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, Curtis LeMay, had been calling for such a saturation bombing campaign for a while by then, and said “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”.

Operation Rolling Thunder ended up dropping, mainly via B-52 bombers, a million tonnes of bombs across North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail (used to supply the militant NLF, aka Viet Cong, operating in South Vietnam) across neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, in possibly the worst piece of foreign politics ever attempted by a US government- and that’s saying something. Not only did opinion of the war, both at home and abroad, take a large turn for the worse, but the bombing campaign itself was a failure; the Communist support for the NLF did not come from any physical infrastructure, but from an underground system that could not be targeted by a carpet bombing campaign. As such, NLF support along the Ho Chi Minh continued throughout Rolling Thunder, and after three years the whole business was called off as a very expensive failure. The shortcomings of the purpose-built bomber as a concept had been highlighted in painful detail for all the world to see; but two other aircraft used in Vietnam showed the way forward. The F-111 had variable geometry wings, meaning they could change their shape depending on the speed the aircraft was going. This meant it performed well at a wide variety of airspeeds, both super- and sub-sonic (see my post regarding supersonic flight for the ins and outs of this), and whilst the F-111 never had the performance to utilise them properly (since it was turboprop, rather than purely jet powered) the McDonnell F-4 Phantom did; the Phantom claimed more kills than any other fighter aircraft during Vietnam, and was (almost entirely accidentally) the first multi-role aircraft, operating both as the all-weather interceptor it was designed to be and the strike bomber its long range and large payload capacity allowed it to be.

The key advantage of multi-role aircraft is financial; in an age where the massive wars of the 20th century are slowly fading into the past (ha, ha) and defence budgets are growing ever-slimmer, it makes much more sense to own two or three aircraft that can each do five things very well than 15 that can only do one each to a superlative degree of perfection. This also makes an air force more flexible and able to respond faster; if an aircraft is ready for anything, then it alone is sufficient to cover a whole host of potential situations. Modern day aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon take this a stage further; rather than being able to be set up differently to perform multiple different roles, they try to have a single setup that can perform any role (or, at least, that any ‘specialised’ setup also allows for other scenarios and necessities should the need arise). Whilst the degree of unspecialisation of the hardware does leave multirole aircraft vulnerable to more specialised variations if the concept is taken too far, the advantages of multirole capabilities in a modern air force existing with the modern political landscape are both obvious and pressing. Pursuit and refinement of this capability has been the key challenge facing aircraft designers over the last 20 to 30 years, but there have been two new technologies that have made their way into the field. The first of these is built-in aerodynamic instability (or ‘relaxed stability’), which has been made possible by the invention of ‘fly-by-wire’ controls, by which the joystick controls electronic systems that then tell the various components to move, rather than being mechanically connected to them. Relaxed stability basically means that, left to its own devices, an aircraft will oscillate from side to side or even crash by uncontrollable sideslipping rather than maintain level flight, but makes the aircraft more responsive and maneouvrable. To ensure that the aircraft concerned do not crash all the time, computer systems generally monitor the pitch and yaw of the aircraft and make the tiny corrections necessary to keep the aircraft flying straight. It is an oft-quoted fact that if the 70 computer systems on a Eurofighter Typhoon that do this were to crash, the aircraft would quite literally fall out of the sky.

The other innovation to hit the airframe market in recent years has been the concept of stealth, taking one of two forms. Firstly we consider the general design of modern fighters, carefully designed to minimise their radar cross-section and make them less visible to enemy radar. They also tend to shroud their engine exhausts so they aren’t visually visible from a distance. Then, we consider specialist designs such as the famous American Lockheed Nighthawk, whose strange triangular design covered in angled, black sheets of material are designed to scatter and absorb radar and make them ‘invisible’, especially at night. This design was, incidentally, one of the first to be unflyably unstable when in flight, and required a fly-by-wire control system that was revolutionary for that time.

Perhaps the best example of how far air warfare has come over the last century is to be found in the first Gulf War, during 1991. At night, Nighthawk stealth bombers would cross into Hussein-held territory to drop their bombs, invisible to Hussein’s radar and anti-aircraft systems, but unlike wars of old they didn’t just drop and hope at their targets. Instead, they were able to target bunkers and other such fortified military installations with just one bomb; a bomb that they could aim at and drop straight down a ventilation shaft. Whilst flying at 600 miles an hour.

The Price of Freedom

First of all, apologies for missing my post on Wednesday, and apologies in advance for missing one on Wednesday; I’ve had a lot of stuff to do over the past week and will be away during the next one. Ah well, on with the post…

We in the west set a lot of store by democracy; in America especially you will hardly be hard-pressed to find someone willing to defend their ‘rights’ and freedom to the hilt, regardless of how dumb you think that particular right is. Every time a government attempts to ban or restrict some substance or activity, vast waves of protesters will take to the streets/TV/internet that their right or ability to do X or Y is being restricted in direct contradiction to every document from the Magna Carta to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

However, if we were permitted to be totally free (the ‘Altair’ end of the Order of Assassins/Knights Templar spectrum), with no laws restricting our activity, then we would quickly descend into an anarchic society. Murder, rape and theft would go unpunished as the minority of the evil-minded quickly became the majority by simple need. Various models of a system of anarchy, including mine predict an eventual return to an ordered society of laws and structure, and we can all agree that serious crimes are Bad Things that probably are worth restricting, even if it requires us to restrict our ‘freedom’ to a certain degree. Clearly, freedom is not worth such crimes, and thus we have laws.

In fact, most of our legal system can be counted as a direct result of the law-setter in question asking ‘what is freedom worth?’. If the law is in place to restrict an activity, then freedom is counted as not being worth this activity for either moral, financial or practical reasons (or a combination of the three), whilst other, more unrestricted, activities, freedom is considered worth allowing. And, perhaps more interestingly, a vast majority of political debate can be essentially boiled down to two people’s different opinions concerning what price we are prepared to pay for freedom.

Take, as a simple example, the British government’s recent ‘pastie tax’, levied on hot baked goods. This was partly an attempt to bring in some much-needed cash for the government in their efforts to cut the deficit, but also has some  degree of a health motivation. Such food is frequently sold cheaply from fast food retailers and the like, meaning it is an easy source of hot, tasty food for the poorer or lazier sections of society; but their fat content is not kind to the waistline and an overconsumption of such foods has been linked to ‘the national obesity epidemic’ that everyone gets so worked up about. This obesity problem is a major source of concern to the NHS, and thus the government who pay for it, since in the long term it causes a dramatic upsurge in the number of diabetes cases. This is an expensive problem to combat and presents a major health hazard for the country as a whole, and the government (or at least George Osborne, whose annual statement the tax first appeared in) decided that this dual cost is not worth the freedom to enjoy such a snack so cheaply. This, as with all vaguely new and interesting decisions in a rather dull report concerning how poor the country is, was debated aggressively in the media, with the healthy eating people and economists broadly speaking backing the idea (or complaining that there was not enough done/government is stifling growth/insert predictable complaint about economy here) whilst others criticised the plan as just another example of the Tories targeting the lower rungs of society who most frequently enjoy a cheap meal from these sources. To these people, today’s world is an expensive and difficult one to live in, and the ability to have a hot, greasy, tasty meal for a price that they could easily budget for in the long run is a freedom well worth whatever obesity problems it is causing. Such fundamental differences of opinion, particularly concerning taxation policy, are the irreconcilable forces that mean two political opponents will frequently find it impossible to back down.

In some other cases, the two participants of an argument will agree that freedom isn’t worth cost X, but will disagree on the mechanism for restricting said cost. The debate concerning the legalisation of drugs is one such example, for whilst part of the debate centres around a difference of opinion as to whether the freedom to get stoned is worth the cost of a country full of stoners and the consequences thereof (don’t believe anyone who tells you marijuana is a harmless drug; it isn’t, although the degree of harm it causes is generally the cause behind such debate), another cause of disagreement concerns the problems of the drugs war. Opium is the biggest source of income for the Taliban (and a very large one for Afghanistan as a whole), whilst the gangs and cartels who operate the Latin American drugs trade have been directly linked to human trafficking, prostitution and other atrocities during the ongoing drugs wars with their local government. This is a particular problem in Mexico, where since the government’s announcement of the ‘war on drugs’ there have been over 47,000 drugs-related murders. Everyone agrees that this is a Bad Thing, but a difference of opinion arises when considering which course of action would prove the most successful at combating the problem; the ‘legalise’ faction say that to legalise drugs would be to force the small-time criminals out of business as the well-policed official channels of trade took over, where sourcing and supply is performed by businessmen held accountable for their actions. At the very least, they suggest, it could do us good to lessen the sentencing of drug offenders and try to encourage quitters rather than just clamp people in jail, as this allows us to discourage people more easily and get to know more about the problem. This approach is implemented to an extent in Europe (especially the Netherlands), whilst the more stringent laws of the United States (states such as Colorado excepted) take the opposite line; they say that to relax drug restrictions simply encourages use, gives more trade to the cartels and only increases their power. Whether they are right or not is very much up for debate since the alternative hasn’t really been tried on a large scale, particularly in America; but the growing movement to look for an alternative solution to the problem, combined with the statement from former presidents of Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia that ‘the war on drugs has failed’ means that we may soon see how the other approach ends up. For the record, I remain undecided on the issue- the stats from the Netherlands tell me that drug use will increase with decriminalisation, which I don’t especially like the prospect of (that stuff’s not for me, and I’m not entirely sure why it should be for anyone else either), but it strikes me that this approach may reap dividends when it comes to combating the secondary problems caused by the drug wars. A friend who is kind of into this business (and, incidentally, comes firmly down on the ‘legalise’ side) recommends the YouTube film ‘Breaking The Taboo’, which you may want to watch if this kind of thing interests you.

…OK, that one slightly got away from me, but the discussion got kind of interesting. The key message here, really, is one of self-examination. Take a look at your political views, your outlook on life in general, and then ask yourself: to me, what is freedom worth?

The Slightly Chubby Brigade

As the news will tell you at every single available opportunity, we are living through an obesity crisis. Across the western world (USA being the worst and Britain coming in second) our average national BMI is increasing and the number of obese and overweight people, and children especially, looks to be soaring across the board. Only the other day I saw a statistic that said nearly a third of children are now leaving primary school (ie one third of eleven year-olds) overweight, and such solemn numbers frequently make headlines.

This is a huge issue, encompassing several different issues and topics that I will attempt to consider over my next few posts (yeah, ‘nother multi-parter coming up), but for many of us it seems hideously exaggerated. I mean yes, we’ve all seen the kind of super-flabby people, the kind the news footage always cuts to when we hear some obesity health scare, the kind who are wider than they are tall and need a mobility scooter just to get around most of the time. We look at these pictures and we tut, and we might consider our own shape- but we’re basically fine, aren’t we. Sure, there’s a bit of a belly showing, but that’s normal- a good energy store and piece of insulation, in fact, and we would like to have a life beyond the weight-obsessed calorie counters that hardcore slimmers all seem to be. We don’t need to worry, do we?

Well, according to the numbers, actually we do. The average height of a Briton… actually, if you’re stumbling across this at home and you consider yourself normal, go and weigh yourself and, if you can, measure your height as well. Write those numbers down, and now continue reading. The average height of a Briton at the moment is 1.75m, or around 5’9″ in old money, and we might consider a normal weight for that height to be around 80 kilos, or 170 pounds. That might seem normal enough; a bit of a paunch, but able to get around and walk, and certainly no one would call you fat. Except perhaps your doctor, because according to the BMI chart I’ve got pulled up a 5 foot 9, 80 kilo human is deemed clinically overweight. Not by much, but you’d still weigh more than is healthy- in fact, one stat I heard a while ago puts the average Briton at this BMI. Try it with your measurements; BMI charts are freely available over the web.

This, to me, is one of the real underlying causes of ‘the obesity epidemic’- a fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘overweight’ consists of. Whenever our hideously awful everyone-dead-from-McDonalds-overdose etc. etc. diet is brought up on the news, it is always annotated by pictures of hanging bellies and bouncing flab, the kind of bodies that make one almost physically sick to look at. But, whilst these people certainly exist, there are not enough of them for the obesity issue to be even worth mentioning in everyday society; whilst the proportion of morbidly obese people is significant, it’s not seriously worth thought for most of us.

No, the real cause for all the chilling statistics we hear on the news is all the people who don’t look to be overweight. The kind whose diet isn’t appalling (no 24/7 McDonaldses), who are quite capable of exercise when it suits them, and who might take a rough glance at the dietary information of the stuff they buy in the supermarket. But these people are nonetheless hovering on the overweight borderline, pulling up the national average, despite the fact that they don’t consider anything to be wrong; in fact, some women who are according to the evil numbers overweight, may consider it almost dutiful to not become obsessed over shedding every pound and to maintain their curves. Having a bit of excess weight is, after all, still better than being underweight and anorexic, and the body image pressures some young women are coming under are just as much of an issue as national obesity. Even for those who don’t have such opinions, many of the slightly overweight feel that they don’t have any weight issues and that there’s surely no significant health risk associated with a ‘bit of meat on your bones’ (it’s actually muscle, rather than fat, that technically forms meat, but ho hum); as such, they have absolutely no motivation to get their weight down, as they don’t think they need to.

I won’t waste much of my time on all the reasons for this statement, but unfortunately even this slight degree of overweight-ness will significantly increase your risk of major health problems somewhere down the line, particularly that of heart disease (which is going through the roof at the moment); diabetes isn’t likely to be a risk for the overweight unless they’re really overdoing things, but that’s also a potential, and very serious, health hazard. The trouble is that many of us find it hard to make this connection if we basically feel healthy. Despite what the doctor says and no matter how much we trust them, if we are capable of going for a nice walk and generally getting about without getting out of breath or feeling bad then we probably feel justified in thinking of ourselves as healthy. Our heart doesn’t seem about to give out, so why worry about it.

The thing to remember is that the heart is just a muscle, so if it isn’t stressed it will degrade just like any other. You know those triceps that haven’t done a press up in five years? Feel how small and weak they are? Yeah, that kind of thing can quite easily happen to the muscles that are responsible for keeping you alive. Your heart might be pumping all day long and be a different type of muscle, so the process will be slower, but give it twenty years and you might start to see the effects.

But anyway, I’m not here to lecture you about your health; that’s far too depressing and dull for my liking- the only point I was trying to make is that many of the accidental contributors to ‘the obesity epidemic’ are probably unaware that their health is in any way a problem, and not really through fault of their own. So whose fault is it then? Well, that one can wait until next time…

Leaning Right

The political spectrum (yes, politics again) has, for over 200 years now, been the standard model for representing political views, adopted by both the media and laymen alike. It’s not hard to see why; the concept of judging every political view or party by a measure of left-ness and right-ness makes it very simple to understand and easily all-encompassing, allowing various groups to be easily compared to one another without a lot of complicated analysis and wordy explanations. The idea comes from the French revolution towards the end of the 18th century; in the revolutionary parliament, factions among political figures were incredibly divisive and the source of open conflict, so much like home & away fans at a football match they attempted to separate themselves. Those sitting to the left of the parliamentary president were the revolutionaries, the radicals, the secular and the republican, those who had driven the waves of chaotic change that characterised the revolutionary period. However, as the revolution went on, another set of views formed running counter to the revolutionary ideas of the left-sitters, and who quickly found their way into an equally tight-knit group on the right hand side of the hall; those who supported the principles of the monarchy, the prominence of the church in French society and politics, and the concepts of hierarchy and rank. It goes without saying, of course, that those populating the right-wing, as it would become known were mainly those who would benefit from these principles; the rich, the upper class (well, what little of it that hadn’t been killed off) and the high-standing.

And, according to the Big Book of Political Cliche’s, right wing=bad. Right wing means uber-capitalist, aristocratic, a semi-tyrannical overseer extorting money from the poor, innocent, repressed working classes and supportive of stealing from the poor to give to the rich. The right is where racists are to be found, old-fashioned bigots out of touch with the real world, those who think slavery was an excellent business model, and the neo-Nazis (I realise I may be pushing the envelope on what the stereotype actually is, but you get my point).

However, when one analyses the concept of right-wingedness (far more interesting than the left, which is all the same philosophy with varying degrees of mental instability), we begin to find a disparity, something that hints that our method of classification itself may be somewhat out of change and in need of a rethink. Right wing is considered to incorporate both a socio-economic position (pro-capitalist, laissez-faire and ‘get the poor working’ in very broad terms) and a social equality one (racism, sexism, discrimination etc.) akin to Nazism, and nowadays the two simply do not align themselves with the same demographic any more.

I mean, consider it purely from the ‘who votes for them’ angle. In Britain, the (nowadays fairly nominally) right-leaning Conservative party finds it power base in the country’s richer areas, such as the Home Counties, and among the rich & successful capitalists, since their quality of life can be put down to the capitalist model that Conservatism is so supportive of (and their benefits from taxation are relatively small compared to the help it provides the poorer demographics with). However, far-right parties and political groups such as the British National Party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL) tend to seek support from right at the opposite end of the social ladder, seeking support from the young, working-class, white skinhead male sphere of existence. Both of them draw support from a predominantly white power base, but beyond that there is little connection.

This is not something solely prevalent today; the Nazi party are often held up as the epitomy of right-wing for their vehemently racist ‘far-right’ policies, but we often seem to forget that ‘Nazi’ is just a corruption of ‘Natso’, short for ‘National Socialist German Workers Party’. The party’s very title indicates that one of their key areas of support was for ‘the German Workers’, making a similar appeal as the communists of the time. Although their main support was eventually found in the middle  and lower-middle classes (the upper end of the social ladder considering Hitler a poor upstart who would never make anything of himself, demonstrating exactly how out of touch they were with the real world), the Nazi economic policy that put Germany through an astonishing economic turnaround between 1933 (when the Nazis took power) and 1939 was closely centred around the socialist ‘public works & state-controlled business’ model that Franklin D. Roosevelt had recently adopted to lead the USA out of The Great Depression. Many socialists and communists would doubtless have approved, if any of them hadn’t been locked up, beaten up or on their way to forced labour camps. In terms of socio-economic policy then, the Natso’s were clearly less ‘National’ and more ‘Socialist’.

We are, then, presented with this strange disparity between the economic-policy based ‘right’ and the racism-centric ‘far right’. The two were originally linked by the concepts of nationalism and traditionalism; from the earliest days of the political spectrum the right wing have always been very much supportive of a return ‘to the old ways’, of thinking nostalgically of the past (usually because there was less left-wingedness in it) and that the modern world is getting steadily worse in the name of ‘progress’. One feature identified in this vein is that of immigration, of foreign-born workers entering the country and ‘stealing our jobs’ (et cetera), in their view devaluing the worthiness of their own country. This has made the idea of nationalism and extreme patriotism a stereotypically right wing trait, and the associated view that ‘my country is better than yours’. This basic sense of the superiority of various races is the key rhetoric of ‘Social Darwinism’, a concept pioneered by the Nazis (among others) that suggests that Charles Darwin’s ‘Survival of the Fittest’ principle should be applied to the various races of humanity too, and that the ‘better’ races have a right of superiority over the ‘lesser’ ones (traditionally ethnic minorities in the west, such as middle eastern and black), and this too is a feature of many far-right viewpoints.

But the field has changed since those ideas were pioneered; the modern world that we live in is for one thing a lot easier to traverse than before, meaning that those rich enough to afford it can easily see the whole globe in all its glorious diversity and wonder for themselves, and our increasingly diverse western society has seen a significant number of ‘minorities’ enter the top echelons of society. It is also true that using cheap, hard working labour from immigrants rather than from workers with trade unions makes good economic (if often not moral) sense for large corporations, meaning that the ‘rich capitalist’ demographic who are so supportive of conservative economic policy are no longer the kind of people who worry about those ‘stealing our jobs’. This viewpoint has turned to the opposite end of the social spectrum, the kind of people who can genuinely see their jobs being done by ‘foreigners’ and get jealous and resentful about it; it is these people who form the support bas for right-wing populists and think the EDL know what they’re talking about, and in many ways that is more worrying. The rich having dangerous, extreme views is a serious danger, but there are comparatively few of them and democracy entails just one vote each. The number of young, angry, working class white men is far larger, and it is this demographic that won the BNP a seat in the House of Commons at the last election. Will this view get more or less prevalent as time goes on? I would like to think the latter, but maybe we’ll just have to wait and see…

“If I die before I wake…”

…which I might well do when this post hits the internet, then I hope somebody will at least look down upon my soul & life’s work favourably. Today, I am going to be dealing with the internet’s least favourite topic, an idea whose adherence will get you first derided and later inundated with offers to go and be slaughtered in one’s bed, a subject that should be taboo for any blogger looking to not infuriate everybody; that of religion.

I am not a religious person; despite a nominally Anglican upbringing my formative years found most of my Sundays occupied on the rugby pitch, whilst a deep interest in science tended to form the foundations of my world beliefs- I think (sometimes) to some personal detriment. This is a pattern I see regularly among those people I find as company (which may or may not say something about my choice of friends)- predominantly atheists with little or no religious upbringing who tend to steer clear of religion and its various associated features wherever possible. However, where I find I differ from them tends to be when the subject is broached when in the present of a devoutly Christian friend of mine; whilst I tend to leave his beliefs to himself and try not to spark an argument, many others I know see a demonstration of his beliefs as a cue to start on a campaign of ‘ha ha isn’t your world philosophy stupid’, and so on.  I tend to find these attacks more baffling and a little saddening than anything else, so I thought that I might take this opportunity to take my usual approach and try to analyse the issue

First up is a fact that most people are aware of even if it hasn’t quite made the jump into an articulate thought yet; that every religion is in fact two separate parts. The first of these can be dubbed the ‘faith’ aspect; the stories, the gods, the code of morals & general life guidelines and such, all of the bits that form the core of a system of beliefs and are, to a theist, the ‘godly’ part of their religion. The second can be labelled the ‘church’ aspect; this is the more man-made, even artificial, aspect of the religious system, and covers the system of priesthood (or equivalent) for each religion, their holy buildings, the religious leaders and even people’s personal interpretation of the ‘faith’ aspect. Holy books, such as the Bible or Torah, fall somewhere in between (Muslims believe, for example, that the Qur’an is literally the word of Allah, translated through the prophet Muhammed) as do the various prayers and religious music. In Buddhism, these two aspects are known as the Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community), and together with Buddha form the ‘three jewels’ of their religion. In some religions, such as Scientology (if that can technically be called a religion) the two aspects are so closely entwined so as to be hard to separate, but they are still distinct aspects that should be treated separately. The ‘faith’ aspect of religion is, in most respects, the really important one, for it is this that actually formulates the basis of a religion; without a belief system, a church is nothing more than a place where people go to shout their views at those who inexplicably turn up. A religion’s ‘church’ aspect is its organised divisions, and exists for no greater or lesser purpose than to spread, cherish, protect and correctly translate the word of God, or other parts of the ‘faith’ aspect generally. This distinction is vital when we consider how great a difference there can be between what somebody believes and what another does in the same name.

For example, consider the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban currently fighting their Jihad (the word does not, on an unrelated note, technically translate as ‘holy war’ and the two should not be thought of a synonymous) in Afghanistan against the USA and other western powers. Their personal interpretation of the Qur’an and the teachings of Islam (their ‘church’ aspect) has lead them to believe that women do not deserve equal rights to men, that the western powers are ‘infidels’ who should be purged from the world, and that they must use force and military intervention against them to defend Islam from said infidels- hence why they are currently fighting a massive war that is getting huge amounts of innocent civilians killed and destroying their faith’s credibility. By contrast, there are nearly 2 million Muslims currently living in the UK, the vast majority of whom do not interpret their religion in the same way and are not currently blowing up many buildings- and yet they still identify as Islamic and believe in, broadly speaking, the same faith. To pick a perhaps more ‘real world’ example, I’m sure that the majority of Britain’s Catholic population steadfastly disagree with the paedophilia practiced by some of their Church’s priests, and that a certain proportion also disagree with the Pope’s views on the rights of homosexuals; and yet, they are still just as Christian as their priests, are devout believers in the teachings of God & Jesus and try to follow them as best as they can.

This I feel, is the nub of the matter; that one can be simultaneously a practising Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever else and still be a normal human being. Just because your vicar holds one view, doesn’t mean you hold the same, and just because some people choose to base their entire life around their faith does not mean that a person must be defined by their belief system. And, returning to the subject of the ridicule many practising theists suffer, just because the ‘church’ aspect of a religion does something silly, doesn’t mean all practitioners of it deserve to be tarred with the same brush- or that their view on the world should even matter to you as you enjoy life in your own way (unless of course their belief actively impedes you in some way).

I feel like I haven’t really got my point across properly, so I’ll leave you with a few links that I think illustrate quite well what I’m trying to get at. I only hope that it will help others find a little more tolerance towards those who have found a religious path.

And sorry for this post being rather… weird