25 February 2011

Dead: social blogrolling

Yet another Yahoo! service bites the dust.

I received the following e-mail from Yahoo!

We will officially discontinue Yahoo! MyBlogLog effective May 24, 2011. Your agreement with Yahoo!, to the extent that it applies to the Yahoo! MyBlogLog, will terminate on May 24, 2011.

The other social blogrolling service, BlogCatalog, became quite unusable about 5-6 months ago, so that's the end of that. I wonder if it's a sign that blogging itself is in decline?

Yahoo! has a long history of taking over useful online services and then abandoning them. First it was Webring, then Geocities, and now MyBlogLog. That means that the last useful service they maintain is their listserver, Yahoogroups. It's also something they took over from someone else, an outfit called e-Groups. If they abandon that, there'll be nothing left that will make it worth remaining a member of Yahoo!

24 February 2011

Electoral reform

In the past couple of weeks I've been seeing and getting into quite a lot of discussions on electoral reform.

Here in South Africa our last four elections have been held under the proportional representation system, which, when it was first introduced in 1994, seemed to be a vast improvement on the "winner takes all" contituency system. Now we've had it long enough to see the disadvantages, and we've been discussing the merits of possible alternatives.

Then a friend in the UK, a retired Anglican bishop John Davies, who was in South Africa in the 1960s, raised the same question, which is also being discussed in the UK, and I've recently read some blog posts about it, for example Purple Words on a Grey Background: Electoral Reform. As John Davies put it:

What both of you are saying is that the difference between SA and UK is great - greater than I had realised, really; that is not to be wondered at. I still think that the principle of 'my MP' is so important in practice as to be non-negotiable; but in the SA process it may well be an unaffordable luxury. It would be nice to be able to say that we in UK can treasure such a principle because of our greater maturity as a democracy. But this is not a viable claim, really, in so far as only a smallish proportion of our electorate actually takes the democratic facilities seriously - if the strength of a democracy is measured by voter turn-out, we are much less credible than SA as a functioning democracy. But I think that it is a sign of a degree of maturity that there is at present a serious critique of our electoral process; and it may well be that we should move closer to the SA method, rather than assume that SA (or Egypt, for that matter) should move towards ours. At times like the present, people who function as 'world leaders' tend to express the hope that troublesome nations should become 'genuine democracies'; but when it comes to spelling out exactly what that means, rhetoric has to give way to nuts and bolts - and nuts & bolts can come in very many shapes and sizes, as any mechanic knows.

The question John had posed to us was: How, in practice, do you, with the present SA system, relate to the legislature?

And my answer was that in practice, we don't.

There are no such things as "surgeries" here, because MPs don't have constituencies, and they represent their parties. Their reelection depends much more on their standing in their parties than on the votes of the electorate.

That is why many people are dissatisfied with the present PR system, and have been discussing possible alternatives.

I think it was the right thing to do in the first democratic election, and perhaps the second. Under a straight constituency system most of the smaller parties would have been wiped out, but I think it was important that they be represented. They represented people who had never before been represented in parliament, and they needed a platform to be able to contribute. In the first democratic election, for example, the PAC got 1% of the vote, and that gave them 4 MPs. Under a constituency system they would have had none.

In the event they turned out to be a bunch of bumbling old men who lived in the past, and perhaps few people would now care whether they were represented or not. But in 1994 it was important, and so with the other minority parties. Only those that got less than 0,25% of the vote would have no representation at all.

If we had a constituency system and a general election now, I think that ANC would take about 85-90% of the seats, with the DA and the IFP sharing the remainder between them. And I wouldn't feel happy voting for any of them at the moment. At least PR gives me a wider choice.

The great advantage of proportional representation is that it allows minority views to be represented, but it makes MPs accountable to their parties rather than the the electorate, because it is the parties that decide who is on the list of candidates, and their relative positions on the list. This means that ordinary people don't really relate to the legislature.

In local government we have a mixed system. There are some members of the city council elected by proportional representation, and others elected by wards, so we have two votes - one for the ward candidate, and one for the PR list of party candidates. That seems to give the advantages of both systems, and perhaps we should do that nationally as well.

One of the systems that came up in discussions was the idea of a single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. It sounded complex, and I don't pretend to understand it, but it seemed to me that it would fall between all the stools. There would still be no concept of "My MP".

So I think that the best system would be one that extended the local government system to national and provincial government as well, where one would vote for both a party-list candidate and a constituency candidate, perhaps with the refinement of the Alternative Vote system for the constituency candidates.

Maybe that would be the closest we could get to having our cake and eating it.

22 February 2011

Thousands Protest After Wisconsin Governor Threatens to Deploy National Guard to Intimidate Unions | Moral Low Ground

They're rioting in Africa, there are earthquakes in New Zealand. It's all over the TV news channels. The US government has been expressing disapproval of an armed forces crackdown on demonstrators in Libya, but I had to turn to Russia Today to learn that the Governor of Wisconsin in the USA is threatening to use armed forces to intimidate demonstrators there, and that those protests have been going on for longer than the ones in Libya, but have gone largely unreported in the rest of the world.

Thousands Protest After Wisconsin Governor Threatens to Deploy National Guard to Intimidate Unions | Moral Low Ground:
ThinkProgress reports that Governor Walker has threatened to call out the National Guard if state workers resist his draconian rollback of their rights. Walker told a reporter that the Guard is “prepared… for whatever the governor, their commander-in-chief, might call for.” Veterans groups denounced the governor’s threat to use the National Guard, traditionally deployed to help citizens in times of natural disasters or other life-and-death emergencies, to settle personal scores. “Maybe the new governor doesn’t understand yet– but the National Guard is not his own personal intimidation force,” said Robin Eckstein, an Iraq War veteran, former Wisconsin National Guard member and member of the veterans group VoteVets.org.

I wonder if any National Guard members in Wisconsin will be defecting to Canada, as the Libyan Airforce pilots defected to Malta?

21 February 2011

Cheap iPads

If you are interested in getting an iPad, I can get hold of them through a contact.

The numbers are limited and he has 2000 iPads going for less than half price It's first come, first served.

He has already sold quite a few (pic is attached below so you can see which model you're getting they are from a cancelled Health Department contract due to the overused budget)

Get back to me as quick as you can if you want one. Check below

Dr A.W. Barday models the cheap iPad (eye-pad)

18 February 2011

Obituary: Joanne Siegel, model for Superman character Lois Lane, dies at 93 - latimes.com

Joanne Siegel, who played a role in the creation of the Superman saga in the 1930s as Joe Shuster's teenage artist's model for Lois Lane and later married the Man of Steel's co-creator, writer Jerry Siegel, has died. She was 93.

Siegel, a longtime resident of Marina del Rey who successfully fought a long legal battle to regain her late husband's copyrights to Superman and related characters, died Saturday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, said her daughter, Laura Siegel Larson. The cause of death has not yet been determined.Obituary: Joanne Siegel, model for Superman character Lois Lane, dies at 93 - latimes.com: "Joanne Siegel, who played a role in the creation of the Superman saga in the 1930s as Joe Shuster's teenage artist's model for Lois Lane and later married the Man of Steel's co-creator, writer Jerry Siegel, has died. She was 93.

Siegel, a longtime resident of Marina del Rey who successfully fought a long legal battle to regain her late husband's copyrights to Superman and related characters, died Saturday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, said her daughter, Laura Siegel Larson. The cause of death has not yet been determined."
Now that takes me back to my youth, when I used to listen to Superman at 4:45 pm on Springbok Radio on washing day, because we didn't have mains electricity and that was the day my mother ran the generator to run the washing machine, and Clock Kent (that's what his name sounded like) used to desert Lois to change in a phone booth or somewhere.

15 February 2011

A Dozen Bad Ideas for the 21st Century | Free Christian Press

Here is a list of of a dozen bad ideas for the 21st century, which I came across on a web site. Actually, I didn't just come across them, a tweet on Twitter led me to them.

On the whole I agree that they are not good ideas. Looking at them, I can't see any one of them that I think is a good idea, and, more important, I can't see any one of them that I would think of as a true idea.

I've met people who believe some of those things, and and who regard some, at least of those propositions as good ideas, but what is it about those ideas that make the author of the list say that they are so bad?

  1. The belief that all religions are the same.
  2. The belief that religion is irrelevant as a cause of anything.
  3. The belief that we all worship the same God.
  4. The belief that one can justify anything from any sacred text.
  5. The belief that the Christian Reformation was a progressive movement.
  6. The belief that dispelling ignorance will increase positive regard for the other.
  7. The belief that everyone is good and decent, and if you just make a sincere effort to get to know another person, you will always come to respect them.
  8. The belief that putting something in context will always produce a more innocuous interpretation.
  9. The belief that extremism is the problem, and moderation the solution.
  10. The belief that the West is always guilty.
  11. Two wrongs make a right reasoning.
  12. Belief in progress: everything will always get better in the end.
It seems a very bland list, and they are the kind of things that might be believed by bland and innocuous people, and they don't seem worth making a fuss about.

Until you put them in context.

Then they take on a whole new meaning.

As the the author says, one of the bad beliefs is:

The belief that putting something in context will always produce a more innocuous interpretation. This is not true. Attending properly to context can make a text even more offensive than it would otherwise have been. Conversely, if you take something out of context you may regard it more positively than you ought to.

So let's put it in context:

A Dozen Bad Ideas for the 21st Century | Free Christian Press:
Here is a list of false beliefs and modes of thought which make it hard for people in the West to come to terms with the challenge of Islam today. If you are deeply attached to any of these ideas or ways of thinking, you will have difficulty accepting the truth about Islam’s teachings and their impact.

And when you put it in context the whole thing is an anti-Islamic rant, and the impression one gets is that for the author the only good ideas for the 21st century are:

  1. To promote as much hostility as possible between Christians and Muslims.
  2. If you meet a Muslim on the road, kill him.
Actually one group that would probably agree that the author's 12 points, or at least 11 of them, are very bad ideas are Wahhabi Muslims. They would disagree with the notion that the West is always wrong, because they would see the other 11 points as characteristic of the West, and therefore exemplifying everything that they see wrong with the West.

Let's reword the opening statement, but substituting Christianity for Islam:

Here is a list of false beliefs and modes of thought which make it hard for people in the West to come to terms with the challenge of Christianity today. If you are deeply attached to any of these ideas or ways of thinking, you will have difficulty accepting the truth about Christianity's teachings and their impact.

Isn't that equally true?

And shouldn't Christian theologians be more concerned with positively promoting the Christian faith rather than promoting the religion of anti-Islam?

As it is, the whole piece is so perverse that it smacks of perversity even to attack its perversions.

Mazes and labyrinths

Several of my blogging friends have written about mazes and labyrinths, so if any of them are reading this they might like to take a look at this post on Cherie's Place.

Cherie's Place - Leeds Castle – Maze:
...walked into the Maze. The puzzle was quite challenging and we thought we had tried all avenues to get to the centre, but we were still lost within the Maze. I decide we should test out plan B, a tested way to reach the centre of the labyrinth, it worked (it always has done in the past). One of my party members divulged what we had done to the ‘guardian of the labyrinth’ who advised that the thinking was erroneous and that, that strategy would only work from a certain point in the Maze…

I need to go back and test out the theory!!

Once in the centre of the labyrinth the only way out is via the underground grotto containing the elements of earth, air, fire and water; not to mention a legendary giant.

I'd love to know what the theory was!

Cherie writes about all sorts of things, including quite a lot about historic buildings, with photos.

13 February 2011

Crisis teams

The following account of a teenager being killed in a road accident highlights some strange (to me) US cultural practices, which seem to be spreading to other places, and I wonder if anthropologists or sociologists have studied them. It also illustrates one of the effects of secularisation on modern (or is it postmodern) society.

Orland girl, 16, hit by plow truck dies — Maine News — Bangor Daily News:
A paramedic who lived nearby performed CPR on the teenager until an ambulance arrived. Hayes was taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor where she was pronounced dead at 11 p.m., police said.

According to Roy, speed and alcohol were not factors in the crash, and no charges were filed against Malenfant.

Hayes had been a student at Bucksport High School last year, but was being home-schooled this year. The school’s crisis team was activated and teachers informed students of the accident during an extended homeroom period Friday. School counselors were available during the school day and were busy meeting with students throughout the morning, according to Assistant Principal Dan Clifford.

What seems strange to me is that the school activated "crisis teams" and that "counselors" spent many hours meeting with students.

I could understand such activities if this were one of those incidents where a pupil went berserk and shot and killed many pupils and teachers at the school, as has happened from time to time. In such a case one could understand the need for trauma counselling for the classmates of the killers and the killed. I can understand it in a case where a mine dump falls on a school and a large proportion of the pupils are killed, and those who survive had a narrow escape.

But this accident involved an ex-pupil, and didn't even take place at the school. Why the need for the school's "crisis team" to be "activated" and for "counselors" to spend many hours with pupils?

I wonder if some of this is media-driven. In news reports of such incidents, one sometimes sees reporters asking school officials whether such counselling is being provided, and asking in a way that seems calculated to make the school authorities feel guilty if it isn't.

The report was posted on the alt.obituaries newsgroup on Usenet, and most of the people there, even the Americans, could remember no such "crisis teams" when classmates were killed in road accidents in their school days in the 1970s and 1980s.

In my own school days in the 1940s and 1950s I can remember three fellow pupils being killed in road accidents.

One, when I was in Standard I (Grade 3) at Fairmount School in Johannesburg, was a girl called Valerie, who was killed when going to Vereeniging over the weekend. I learnt about it from fellow-pupils. Her empty desk was a reminder for some days afterwards, and then the teacher rearranged the class seating. Another, Keith Littleton, a couple of classes below me, was killed when going home from school on his light motorbike. The third, George Jefferay, was in my class at school, and a friend, and he was killed a few months after we had left school, also riding a light motorbike. Crash helmets were not compulsory in those days.

In the last two cases, we went to the funerals. Keith Littleton died after a day or two in emergency care in hospital, and so the school had special prayer meetings for him. In the case of George Jefferay, I made prints of photos I had taken of him at school, and took them to his parents, whom I had not met before.

In all these cases, the concern at the school was with those who had died and their families. Instead of the school providing "counselling" for the pupils, the pupils were focusing on ways of comforting the families of those who had been killed. And also in the last two cases, a memorial service was held at the school. OK, that was a church school, and American schools are not allowed to have prayer meetings and memorial services, because of their idea of "separation of church and state".

But what happened in the case described as happening in Maine looks very much like the "establishment" of the secular religion of psychotherapy.

My own children, who went to school in the 1980s and 1990s, also experienced the loss of school mates. One was electrocuted when he was playing with some electrical appliance. Another was also killed in a road accident. My son, who was 12 at the time, was in the same Boy Scout troop, was a pallbearer at his funeral, along with the other scouts.

And why is it that "counselling" is given such priority? There seems to be a tendency to promote "victim counselling" for crime victims. I can't help feeling that a more urgent task of a "crisis team" would be to organise a collection to help be bereaved family with funeral expenses, or to help crime victims to replace what has been stolen by robbers, and in the case of death, showing solidarity by attending the funeral.

It is surely not the job of the school to provide counselling, unless, perhaps, for something that happened at the school itself.

But I get the impression that if a family lost their home in a fire or flood or some other disaster, possibly with some members of the family being killed, these schools would not seek to collect food and clothes and find shelter for the survivors, but would concentrate instead on counselling those who ought rather to have been helping. And the media will not ask whether their "crisis teams" provided those things, but rather whether they provided counselling for the other pupils. Instead of spending huge sums of money on "crisis teams", rather help the family with the medical and funeral bills. Help the victims, not the spectators.

If my computer was nicked, I'd really appreciate help from someone who would help me to recover my data. But counselling me on my loss would thrill me as much as a time-share sales talk.

That may seem like a banal note to end on, but the whole thing seems to epitomise the banality of modernity.

11 February 2011

Vote with your wheels

Someone has suggested a protest against the new Gauteng freeway tolling system -- a #votewithyourwheels campaign. Tweet and retweet #votewithyourwheels

Here's what to do:

  • On the day tolling starts, every taxi, bus, truck and car should make for an onramp to one of the tolled freeways and stop. Block it. Have a taxi strike, bus strike, whatever.
  • In the coming municipal elections, find where candidates stand on the tolled freeways, and don't vote for any candidate or party that supports tolling. Vote for those who oppose it.
Back in the bad old days the National Party government stole money from the Road Fund (paid for by a fuel levy) to finance its wars and destablisation in Angola, Mocambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. They then introduced toll roads to cover the deficit -- on some of the roads.

What's the ANC's excuse?

The fairest way of paying for roads is a fuel levy -- the more you use the roads, the more fuel you use, and the more you pay. The new Gauteng toll system places an unneccessarily heavy burden on those who have to travel to work, whether they travel by car, bus or taxi.

Vote with your wheels - tweet and retweet #votewithyourwheels

Don't take it lying down. At the other end of the continent, the people of Egypt are not letting the fat cats get away with it. Why should we let them get away with it here?

10 February 2011

FF Plus - Tollgate Petition

I never imagined that the day would come when I would sympathise with any cause promoted by the far-rightwing Freedom Front Plus Party, but I do sympathise with their campaign against the new toll roads: FF Plus - Tollgate Petition.

Toll roads were introduced to South Africa by the National Party (remember them?). Roads were paid for by the Road Fund, and were funded mainly by a tax levied on fuel. The National Party nicked this money, because they wanted to use it to fund their attempts to destabilise Angola, Mocambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and other countries.

I wonder what the ANC's excuse is?

They have simply continued with the old NP policy, with no "transformation" in sight.

The NP then privatised the busiest roads and allowed private companies to make profits from the tolls. At the same time they deregulated transport, which resulted in more and heavier vehicles using the existing roads (often to avoid the toll roads). And that too has continued. Check, for example, the road from Bapsfontein to Standerton. It is the quickest and least congested route from Pretoria to KZN, and it is in bad condition because of the number of heavy vehicles usuing it to avoid to tolled sections. With even more tolled sections it can only get worse.

I wonder what the ANC's excuse it?

There's certainly been no transformation there, just a continuation of the old NP policies.

The fairest and most cost-effective way of paying for roads is a fuel levy. This also uses the "user-pays" principle -- the more you use the roads, the more fuel you use, and the more you pay.

But if they insist on charging 66c per kilometre, I suggest that those who have the special number plates that can be read by the toll gantries should be given a discount of R6.60 per litre on fuel. That would compensate for the cost of travelling between the toll gantries, which are about 10 km apart.

As for us, well, it will cost us about R300.00 more to go to church on a Sunday.

I'll certainly support the FF Plus petition.

I don't know if I'll vote for them, though.

But I might volunteer to distribute petition forms and leaflets at taxi ranks.

09 February 2011

Religion and politics

Religion and politics don't mix -- well that's what the pietistic evangelicals of the religious right used to tell us back in the days of apartheid. Therefore, they concluded, Christians should not criticise political leaders and their policy of apartheid and the ethnic cleansing that resulted from it. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's".

Now the boot is on the other foot, and it is the secular humanists and the "new atheists" who are saying that religion and politics don't mix, and one gets the impression that if they had their way there would be two voters rolls, an A roll for atheists, to elect 350 members of parliament, and a B roll for agnostics, who would be allowed to elect 50 members of parliament, and the rest would have no vote at all, and everyone knows that all war, hatred and oppression in the world has been caused by religion, and until the superstitious have come to their senses they should not be allowed to vote.

But what about the politicians themselves?

Over the last week there have been several news items about prominant politicians and their religious views, practices or utterances, to wit Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and Jacob Zuma. These have been interesting, but even more interesting have been the responses.

Let's start with Jake the Fake. So far no one has put it better than Tinyiko Sam Maluleke's Blog - Thinking Allowed!: Welcome to Jacob Zuma's Heaven:
“When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork … who cooks people.” Thus spake the son of God to loud cheers and unstoppable giggles. And not for the first time, mind you. He spoke before, he is speaking now and he will speak again. How many times before, has he underlined the intimate relationship between the ANC and the Lord? With uncharacteristic calm and collection, our Jacob has pointed out that until the Lord returns, the ANC will rule. To the ANC has ruling authority been granted during this interim period of uncertainly — the in-between period — the period between the ascension of Jesus and the return of Jesus. Only those who hide in the ark called ANC will survive the trials and tribulations of the current age! You have heard it said before that Jesus will return to fetch the righteous and the holy, but in Mthatha last Friday, Jacob the son of God said to you, Jesus will return to fetch those clad in the black, green and gold.

'Nuff said. If you want to read more, go and read the rest of it on Tinyiko's blog.

Then there was this: Putin on Mount Athos pilgrimage:
Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited the monastic community of Mount Athos in Greece, one of Orthodox Christianity's holiest sites.

He was the first Russian leader to visit the male-only community, on a narrow, rocky peninsula east of Thessaloniki, Russian TV reported.

The trip was part of Mr Putin's two-day visit to Greece.

He has openly embraced the Orthodox faith, despite having served the atheist Soviet regime as a KGB officer.

Well, I suppose that makes him an apostate atheist, but at least he has gone to the source, unlike the days when the leader of the Russian Communist Party, anxious to acquire some of the magic pixie dust that fell from the church, which public opinion polls showed was more trusted by the people than politicians, decided to visit a church one day for a photo-op, and lit a candle with his cigarette lighter.

And then there is Barack Obama.

If Putin was a convert from atheism, Barack Obama, was a convert from agnosticism and, rather touchingly, seems as much concerned about his own family as about religion in the great affairs of state or the fortunes of his party. Barack Obama affirms his Christianity | The Guardian:
The US president told the national prayer breakfast in Washington that he prays for peace in the Middle East – and that he also asks for God's assistance with his 12-year-old daughter, Malia.

'Lord, give me patience as I watch Malia go to her first dance, where there will be boys. Lord, let her skirt get longer as she travels to that place,' Obama recounted.

Obama's speech today was laced with Biblical references in his most public affirmation of his faith. With many Americans under the illusion that he might be a covert Muslim, Obama explained: 'I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace him as my Lord and Saviour.'

Obama described his upbringing as 'not religious', his father as a non-believer and his mother 'grew up with a certain scepticism … she only took me to church at Easter and Christmas – sometimes'.

The response of one American (but typical of other responses) to this news was to say "The Koran permits lying if doing so benefits Islam."

We are urged to pray for rulers and civil authorities, so let us pray for all these leaders. But especially Barack Obama, because he is evidently president of a nation of lunatics.

08 February 2011

Zimbabwe: Harare Descends Into Chaos As Ruling Party Militia Loot Shops

What's the difference between Zimbabwe and Egypt?

In Egypt they're protesting for democracy; in Zimbabwe they're rioting against it.

allAfrica.com: Zimbabwe: Harare Descends Into Chaos As Ruling Party Militia Loot Shops:
Harare came to a standstill on Monday when a ZANU PF mob engulfed the city in chaos, destroying property worth thousands of dollars, mainly belonging to foreign owned companies.

Our correspondent Simon Muchemwa told us that dozens of shops were looted when the ZANU PF militia went on a rampage, as police details stood by watching ordinary people and shop owners being abused and brutalised. Shops belonging to Zimbabweans were also caught up in the crossfire.

04 February 2011

False neutrality

Yesterday the Western media were full of stories about Egypt. Australia might have vanished off the face of the planet (is it still there?) and we wouldn't have known. "Breaking News" strips at the bottom of the screen told us that Queensland was about to be hit by the mother of all cyclones, but all they showed were repeats of the same footage of protests in the streets and squares of Cairo.

I had just read one of the most lucid and clear eye-witness accounts of what was happening in Egypt at Robert Fisk: Secular and devout. Rich and poor. They marched together with one goal - The Independent:
It was a victory parade – without the victory. They came in their hundreds of thousands, joyful, singing, praying, a great packed mass of Egypt, suburb by suburb, village by village, waiting patiently to pass through the 'people's security' checkpoints, draped in the Egyptian flag of red, white and black, its governess eagle a bright gold in the sunlight. Were there a million? Perhaps. Across the country there certainly were. It was, we all agreed, the largest political demonstration in the history of Egypt, the latest heave to rid this country of its least-loved dictator. Its only flaw was that by dusk – and who knew what the night would bring – Hosni Mubarak was still calling himself 'President' of Egypt.

Then I watched a report on Sky News, with an entirely different description. It described "clashes" between "pro-Mubarak" and "anti-Mubarak" factions, and "violence" in these "clashes". One report described protests against an oppressive dictator, while the other described a divided society, on the brink of civil war. And it became clear that the media's attempts to be "fair" and "impartial" and to "give both sides of the story" actually distort the news.

I know I've succumbed to that temptation myself. When I was young the former Belgian Congo became independent, and erupted into civil war, which has continued sporadically ever since, for fifty years, and is still going on today. Reports in the local newspapers (no TV in those days) were less than informative. They reported "clashes" and "violence" and gave the impression that the people there just liked fighting. Only much later did I realise that this false neutrality was actually designed to obscure the real causes of the conflict.

Twenty years ago (was it as long ago as that?) we had the wars of the Yugoslav succession. There was a tendency for people remote from the conflict to make the same shallow judgements -- "those people are always fighting". That view even affects the English language -- "Balkanisation" is a pejorative word, suggesting instability and fragmentation. It was used to describe the creation of "homelands" in South Africa under the apartheid policy, and in the 1990s we saw Balkanisation actually taking place in the Balkans.

At an Orthodox mission conference in Athens in 2000 Dr Tarek Mitri of the Patriarchate of Antioch spoke on Orthodoxy and other religions. He said that the many conspiratorial interpretations of the role of other religions blur the role of Orthodoxy. These interpretations were based on the conservatism of survival, and aggravated fears of seeing Orthodoxy marginalised. Globalisation meant that there was pressure for uniformity. National government structures are less able to make decisions. Orthodoxy and Eastern culture are regarded as archaisms in the West -- there is talk of "ancestral hatred", but it is not "ancestral hatred" that
is the cause of war, it is war that is the cause of "ancestral hatred". If the past does not meet the needs of the present, another past can be constructed. The more people look alike, the more they wish to preserve their differences, and the smaller the differences, the more important they become. We are caught between the voices of homogenisation and those who advocate religion as a marker of nationalism and ethnic identity.

The media that tried to be "neutral" often used the "ancestral hatred" argument -- that Balkan Wars were caused by "ancestral hatred". But most of the Western media did not try to be neutral in that case, though they did try to obscure the fact that much of the violence was fanned by foreign intervention. "Ancestral hatred" was a convenient red herring to promote the cover-up.

And now we come to Egypt. This article discusses some of the ways in which "neutral" reporting can distort the truth, or, as Dr Mitry puts it, construct a new past, even the quite recent past of news reporting.

The nomenclature of a protest | "The people want to bring down the regime":
To describe the attacks on protesters as clashes presumes some sort of ineffable, sectarian sort of sporadic violence, skirmishes on an already named front. What we saw today was a peaceful protest being borne down on by horses and camels, then later thousands of thugs armed with white weapons, rocks, Molotov cocktails and guns. Moreover the thugs had a plan, they came at the square like it was a castle or hilltop to be besieged and overtaken, amassing at all sides of the square and waging simultaneous assaults on people who had been, this whole time, checking their own to ensure there were no weapons in the camp. To describe these military tactics (and paramilitary weaponry) with the same words as the protesters’ attempts to resist the state’s violence shows either ignorance or callousness, or both.

Part of this, of course, arises not from a desire to be objective and to report factually, but because conflict sells newspapers. If every difference of opinion can be magnified into a "clash", then the media swarm in, like flies to a rotting corpse, with the attitude of "Let's you and him fight". So a polite difference of opinion can be presented in the media as an angry confrontation. If it doesn't actually take the form of such a cofrontation, then the media try to milk it for all it's worth by describing it as a "looming" clash (does anyone outside the media use "loom" as a verb?) But as long as they present both sides in a "balanced" way, the media can wash their hands in innocence.

This is not to say that the media sparked off the present situation in Egypt, but rather that their "balanced" reporting of it can actually lead to a very unbalanced picture.

03 February 2011

Book Review: Portobello, by Ruth Rendell

PortobelloPortobello by Ruth Rendell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

London's Portobello Road got its name from the War of Jenkins's Ear and is the setting of this book, where several people's lives intersect in various ways, sometimes accidentally, but also sometimes with far-reaching consequences, including two murders.

Ruth Rendell writes two kinds of crime novels. Some are whodunits, featuring her detective protagonist Inspector Wexford. Others concentrate on the characters, and how people's character and circumstances lead them to commit a crime. Perhaps one could call the second kind whydunits. This, in a sense, is neither. The crimes are almost incidental to the story. The main focus is on the interaction of the characters and how their lives are changed as a result, often in unintended ways. Rendell's characters are well drawn, but while reading it I found myself more drawn to another book, Nine lives which I bought while still reading the Rendall one. I found the real-life characters more interesting than fictional ones, no matter how well drawn.

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