Friday, 23 January 2015

Mark of disrespect

Westminster Abbey's flag has been flying half-mast as a "mark of respect" for the late King Abdullah...

Let's put, for a brief moment, aside any specifics of particular religions, religious institutions, international politics and, oh yes, very recent outbursts of pro-freedom rhetoric in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre... as many of those who came out in favour of freedom of speech are now commemorating the late Saudi king...

Let us just be, plainly and simply (idealistically?), humans for that moment.

King Abdullah has presided over, and enforced, a brutal regime of torture, barbaric murder as a means of oppression of any free thought.., and of women.

When one says brutal or barbaric, one is using that plain and simple human(e) dictionary. It really doesn't matter what ideology or cultural/social context one may attempt to use in an attempt to defend what has been going on in Saudi Arabia.

The "fighters" funded and/or sent by the regime to various all-too-well-known areas on the map have established both Al-Qaida and ISIS.

Oh, and that minor aspect... Raif Badawi, the victim of the most recent outrage, was condemned to 1000 lashes for having written some thoughts on his blog.

Westminster Abbey, no need to elaborate on what it represents and the power of the symbolism, decided to pay its respects to the Saudi king.

It is one of the rare moments when the possibilities of English language (and one's own, infinitely more limited, capabilities) fail to describe this act...

Personally, I am deeply outraged that on the 25th anniversary of Ceausescu's death, a person paraded up and down on the very avenue situated right in front of that Abbey by the powers of the time, was not remembered by them.

Although I understand that, in comparison, Ceausescu (or his indirect mentor, Stalin) was an incomparably smaller figure compared to the late King Abdullah...  so it is unrealistic to expect Westminster Abbey to mark its respect for such minor characters, too.

And yes, this is sarcasm... but mostly disgust of some immeasurable order. 

Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Untouchables (pardon: The Unmockables)

The vast number of articles on the necessity to introduce blasphemy laws (as magical wands that protect us against any aberrations like the extremists' actions in Paris) are increasing - and they have, in unison, the same fundamental failure in logic.

One key (partial) fact quoted by many is that Finland, rated No.1 in terms of press freedom, has a blasphemy law.

A slight problem with tendentiously applied partial truths: that law has been only applied three times in the last 70 years. In all three cases, there wasn't a "straightforward" case of blasphemy... and it concerned issues that spread into other areas of (even criminal) law. 

Hence the law merely exists, but it is basically a de facto dead letter, in spite of formal attempts to repeal it have failed so far. Clearly, emotions vs. reason, personal sensitivities vs. objectivity are difficult to balance. Nothing new here. 

Let us not get into the debate on why religious views, institutions, doctrine would be immune to criticism, mockery, etc. Granting them special status is plain wrong, as any objective and logical person would conclude - simply because their special status will be, by definition, at the detriment of others... and it is just a veiled totalitarian censorship.

Instead, let's just look at cold facts. Let's reproduce here the facts found by the 2010 report from Freedom House, which studied seven countries where the blasphemy laws are being actually applied:
  • Governments have abused blasphemy laws to silence the political opposition, government critics, and other dissidents.
  • Individuals have fabricated charges of blasphemy against others in their communities to settle petty disputes.
  • Religious extremists have exploited blasphemy laws to justify attacks on religious minorities, thereby fostering an environment of intolerance where discrimination is effectively condoned by the state.
  • Religious institutions, often with official or unofficial government backing, have used blasphemy laws to impose the state-sanctioned interpretations of religious doctrine on members of minority sects that are deemed deviant or heretical.
Let's then hope that magically, this time round the invention and enforcement of blasphemy laws, as a knee-jerk reaction that in some minds holds the answer to all the fundamental multi-cultural issues again revealed by the Charlie Hebdo massacre, will solve what they are after without any of the above issues... which, in every single studied country, have surfaced as side-effects.

I happen to come from a society that knew a bit about censorship... and still, media there is advocating the adoption of such laws. 

Vox populi seems to be, this time, too, based on short-term memory and selective amnesia.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Powertrip for... freedom

With a speed that surpassed several times the W. Bush administration's post-9/11 expediency in demanding more powers for the intelligence and security agencies, David Cameron has firmly demanded the same...

The logic, coming from the same PM who at the start of his first term has vowed and indeed proceeded to undo many of the former Tony Blair regime's attacks on civil liberties, on privacy and even basic human rights, is the same as ever...

More information means, in the familiar thought process, more security... more protection against potential extremist attacks. We heard this before, numerous times, and this time, too the press is mostly writing about the correct side of equation...

It is obvious, as it was underlined countless times by press, by security experts, by ISPs etc., that the gathering and analysis of the vast amounts of data about potential suspects (or isolating the latter in the ocean of communications stored by ISPs) presents huge technical and analytical problems. These lead to vast human resourcing problems, as MI5 has reported that on average twenty people are needed for a single suspect's surveillance...

What is slightly irritating however: so far the tiny detail about the past cases where there was significant and relevant information in the security forces' possession is not mentioned...

What I am referring to is the series of events ranging from 9/11 itself to Lee Rigby's murder to the perpetrators of the Paris attacks. In the case of all of these events, there were copious amounts of information on the perpetrators, but the various security forces in possession of that information either deemed the suspects harmless, or concluded that there was no risk, or failed to act at all.

Under Cameron's new tirade, that included even a demand to ban certain messaging apps (!), more information will somehow turn this so far statistically frankly ludicrously disturbing trend.

Stalinist snooping of private communication will somehow make the security forces more able to reach the right conclusions and act in time...

As a senior MI5 official stated today, don't give them more information, Mr. Cameron... give them more funding! So far the key problem was not in the realm of what amount and what kind of personal information they held about potential suspects or the public in general...

Only the mentioned speed with which Cameron has reacted in this way is more worrying than the content of his speeches. Before any analysis, any calming of spirits, any lucid investigation of British threat levels could take place, the first and blatantly exploitative emotion-centred reaction from the British Government is that of a resurrection of worst excesses of the Tony Blair regime... and more.

Congratulations again on this exercise in rational thought and, oh yes, democratic freedoms. After all, the latter is what is supposedly being protected by the proposed measures... 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Caricatures of freedom

The number of printed and online articles debating the contents of Charlie Hebdo issues has skyrocketed in the last few days - not only in Romania, but also in the more "Western" media.

A number of points one finds remarkable...:

  • First of all, the debate on the level of "good taste" and "decency" in the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is forgetting the fundamental fact that any definition of good taste and decency is strictly connected to social, historic and cultural context. As soon as anyone, as many so-called journalists did, debates whether the content of Charlie Hebdo was violating some limit of decency or taste inevitably ends up in logical self-contradictions. A major Romanian media figure, Ion Plesu even suggested that self-censorship would have been the answer to avoiding the massacre...
  • This then leads us to the frankly outrageous journalism that insinuates that the content in Charlie Hebdo was directly responsible for what happened. The, again fundamental, failure in this is that anybody insulted in any way by any publication has numerous proportional means to respond... and none of those means include machine guns.
  • Such articles have avoided two minor details consistently (if, for a brief moment, we do look at the content-related twisted logic followed by these journalists and bloggers): firstly, Charlie Hebdo attacked myriad other faiths, communities, minorities... not just Islam. Secondly, as not just the Koran, but also major muslim personalities have underlined in last few days, the terrorists placed themselves in direct contradiction with the Koran and Islam.
  • The discussion about Charlie Hebdo content vs. the massacre seen as a response to that content (one article in Romanian press even stated that this was "to be expected"!) is tantamount to misinformation of the worst kind. It is beyond irrelevant noise... People lacking the knowledge on the current, very difficult, French context, on the ISIS vs. Al-Qaeda PR campaign rivalry, on the fundamentals of Islam, are dragged into a debate that is completely avoiding the central issues. Judging from the myriad online comments, such articles have indeed successfully diverted attention from the real problems.
So then... the real issues... One does not always easily resort to quotes of Sam Harris, but so many luminaries (from Karl Popper to Levy-Strauss) have essentially led to the point one is about to quote: the only problems with islamic fundamentalism are... the fundamentals of Islam.

Sure, it needs to be revisited and taught in a way that it doesn't radicalise... the same way that Christianity and Judaism has gone through revisiting, toning down, and even reformation. This is not about whatever Charlie Hebdo published and whether that in some deranged minds triggered something. Latter has nothing to do with Islam, as many more lucid articles have stated repeatedly - not just now, but also in the aftermath of many other atrocities.

Many articles stating that what happened had nothing to do with Islam are partly correct in their polemic. However, if one deludes oneself by ignoring the glaring fact that only a specific radicalised element is committing these atrocities, then that is a truly harmful delusion.

If one does accept that there is an issue with this specific radicalisation, then one hits one key problem: that there is no central, hierarchic authority in Islam... Apart from numerous isolated voices again stating their outrage and muslim apologetics endlessly repeating again that Islam is a peaceful religion, there is no practical possibility of conveying that message. 

Also, one has to agree in face of facts with certain philosophers who have pointed out that mechanical apologetics are actually causing a huge amount of harm... by not facing the facts of the very text they are talking about and not proposing an honest admission that there is a problem  that needs to be addressed.

Until there is no possibility of revisiting and toning down the most dangerous sections of the scripture that have always been the key means for radicalisation (by literal, or even more tendentiously re-interpreted use of those passages), one will endlessly debate what "triggered" certain radicalised elements of Islam... and will forever fill internet bandwidth with empty discussions on limits of "decency" in published content that has to avoid "triggering" such elements' reactions...

Debates on certain publications' decency in the context of freedom of expression, and how this freedom needs to be self-regulated (or, as some even proposed from a society that should know better after decades of stalinist suppression of such freedoms, even to be regulated by the state), remain therefore very sorry caricatures of freedom.