28 March 2009

Obama’s plan for word domination

By Liam Carroll

"Our next challenge, as a species, is to learn how to negotiate between and transcend our cultures." – Dr M Tyrell, anthropologist.

"What we say goes" declared George Bush senior in the aftermath of the Gulf War with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the collapse of the Soviet Union, way back in 1991. Some of America's enemies, however, declared their opposition to the proposal through attacks against US embassies in Africa, the USS Cole, and ultimately against the US homeland itself in September 2001.

Those attacks were seen by some as a vindication of a theory put forward by political scientist Samuel Huntington, who had predicted 'a clash of civilisations' between what he saw as 'the West' and 'Islam'. His theory was based on the notion that both 'civilisations' believed themselves to be superior cultures that would never compromise their principles, and would thus be destined to 'clash' in what Huntington called 'the remaking of world order'.

George Bush junior, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, continued the theme of bold global leadership with the declaration that "you're either with us, or you're with the terrorists". The theme owed something to the fact that the US had a remarkably powerful military and presumed that if people were to forced to choose sides, they would choose the side of the US.

The reality of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rising insurgency in Pakistan, and the testing of a nuclear warhead in North Korea, have left those notions of bold global leadership in tatters, and have instead left Huntington's grim prediction emerging as a frightening possibility.

In the light of this unhappy state of affairs it is indeed refreshing to see the new presidency of Barack Hussein Obama attempting to cast out Huntington's essential belief that 'the West' and 'Islam' are, to all intents and purposes, incompatible cultures. The US president is himself in some ways a direct contradiction to Huntington's notion, as his Kenyan father was born a Muslim and the American president bears the common Islamic name of Hussein.

Recently, on the occasion of the Iranian festival of Nowruz, which marks the beginning of spring and the first day of the Persian new year, President Obama took the opportunity to extend a message of goodwill to the Iranian people with an interesting emphasis on Nowruz as an 'ancient ritual' and a 'moment of renewal'.

These are key words to all cultures because 'renewal', as embodied in the spring, is a reminder of the cyclical nature of the seasons and the earth which has been appreciated by all known civilizations since ancient times. Indeed the Nowruz spring festival, the most significant holiday in the Iranian calendar predates Islam; a clear indicator (amongst many others) that 'civilisation', even as we know it today, is an ancient and complex product of thousands of years of human cultural maturation and not the product of a single short period in history.

Whilst the speech also runs through some standard diplomatic messages about 'rights' and 'responsibilities' he returns at the end to the trans-religious theme with a quote from the medieval Iranian poet Saadi: "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence". The reference to Adam is significant because the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Able and those of Abraham and other early Hebrew prophets, are all shared by the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which in their own right are based on even earlier religious forms.

By using a shared cultural language President Obama has made a welcome attempt to change the script of the Bush years, which sounded to many like a claim of world dominion. The world needs a shared narrative, not a divisive one, and we must hope that Obama's mastery of language can bring that a step closer.

21 March 2009

Civic self-harm or self-esteem?

By Marguerite Finn

A small light was extinguished in my local community yesterday. My neighbour's black and white cat was killed, outside its own door, by a car using the loke as a 'rat-run'. The driver did not stop, and was spared the horror of the residents who had to pick up the remains of the much-loved family pet and comfort its distraught owners. It could easily have been a child. It happened close to the Village Hall, which hosts a pre-school group. The hall was not built to accommodate the number of cars that regularly overflow its car-park on to the grass verges and pavements alongside the nearby houses.

Car-fouling is changing the nature of the village. Grass verges are disappearing under a sea of churned-up mud – with some of the ruts so deep they have standing water in them. Then there is the litter that accumulates along what is left of the verges. With the arrival of spring, the timely publication of the Litterbugs Report, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, has seen a blossoming of articles in the press about the increasing problem of litter.

Terence Blacker, (Guardian, 11 March), says: "It is not difficult to find symptoms in everyday life of our low self-esteem as a nation. Binge-drinking is one, casual violence another. But the most obvious and universal sign of Britain's dislike for itself is before our very eyes on pavements, by the side of the roads, on public transport, down country lanes. Litter is the nation's favourite form of self-harm."

I read this with a sense of shock but I also realised the truth of it.

Research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Chaurand & Brauer, 2008), listed the types of behaviour that provoked most anger and stress. They were:
  1. Failure to pick up after one's dog
  2. Littering
  3. Illegally parked cars
  4. Graffiti
  5. Aggressiveness towards others
Jeremy Paxman, (Guardian 6 March), writes: "The ludicrous 'respect' culture, that sees knife-fights start because someone has failed to accord due deference to another person's trainers, is just the most extreme expression of a cast of mind that now seems universal. The flipside is not merely increasingly frenetic attempts to persuade us to spend money on things we don't need. It also encourages a belief that what is not personal property has no value. I might respect your trainers – but I couldn't give a toss about the park or the bus shelter that belongs to all of us."

What does this say about our values? If Paxman is right, then surely we need to move from such a pathologically individualistic mindset to a more community-oriented one?

Moves are already being made in that direction, beginning with an acknowledgement that limitless growth in the number of cars and roads is not only unsustainable but also is harming both the environment and the community. However, as reported in the EDP (Letters, 17 March), North Norfolk has been named as the 'Cleanest District' in the UK. This was achieved by volunteers from the local community giving their time to cleaning up local areas and enhancing this part of Norfolk.

Norwich City Council and City Centre Partnership (CCP) have organised volunteers from Norwich businesses and schools to join together for a one-hour litter pick in the centre of Norwich on 25 March. CCP Manager, Stefan Gurney, says: "We want to involve the community, schools and businesses. Everyone who lives works and shops in the city centre must take responsibility for the cleanliness of the city centre and our environment."

Good for local government! Since our national masters show no inclination to discipline themselves - let alone us - it is our own self-discipline locally that will make us feel better and therefore act better.

14 March 2009

Media under fire

By Juliette Harkin

The Media Standards Trust (MST), an independent charity, issued a report last week highlighting the greater pressures than ever before for journalists and media managers, as the current recession negatively impacts on the newspapers and broadcasters we rely on for information.

Our media is reliant on advertising revenue as well as, for example, revenue from newspaper sales. But, advertising budgets are one of the first things to get the axe when times are hard. On Wednesday the Financial Times reported that the ITV group expects its advertising revenue to decrease by 15% this year and that is was reduced to selling off assets to meet its budget deficit.

The quality and accuracy of our media is at stake as the recession deepens and this danger has been growing over the years as executives put profits before content. As the MST highlights, there has been a growing trend among national newspapers to "sacrifice standards in order to maintain sales" and the defamatory reporting of the Madeleine McCann case is cited as a prime example of sensationalism to drive up sales.

Last year has witnessed a steady increase in job cuts in the media industry. TV has been hit, with 250 staff layoffs at BSkyB and 87 existing jobs to go at Channel Five as it introduces a comprehensive restructuring plan to safeguard profits. The print sector has not escaped. At the Daily Mail and General Trust which owns the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and the London Evening Standard 300 staff have been laid off (or, 6% of the workforce).

Cuts have been painful and commonly account for around 10% of the workforce. Managers have been at pains not to decimate editorial and programme production, so IT, Marketing and non-programming staff have been greatly affected. But more recent cuts have seen journalists, sub-editors and feature writers all being affected. Employees at the Independent newspaper, who already produce content on a shoestring, are facing the prospect of compulsory redundancies. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has reacted to this by considering industrial action.

Our own Norfolk newspapers now face the same threat with Archant Norfolk proposing large cuts to the editorial staff working on the Eastern Daily Press, Evening News and other publications for Norfolk. Our local press offers a distinct and relevant voice for the public on issues in our towns and cities that directly affect us; this is of critical importance in sustaining democracy.

Can standards in the media be maintained in the face of job losses in critical editorial positions? It is Ofcom's job to regulate the broadcast media and to protect and represent the public interest. However, as the MST report points out, our print media has always operated under a system of self-regulation and can be held to account by the Press Complaints Commission which has a much more limited role than Ofcom in the broadcast sector.

Self-regulation has protected newspapers from the government and courts that might hold back freedom of expression. The members of the Media Standards Trust who were involved in the evaluation of the media see the danger in moving away from self-regulation to other forms of control like the government and the courts. But as public disquiet about standards in the media has grown (as shown in the YouGov poll commissioned by the British Journalism Review in 2008) there is a groundswell of support for government intervention, a move that could jeopardise precious press freedoms.

So, we need to preserve the integrity of our media by ensuring that job cuts do not attack the very heart of journalism, so that reactionary calls for increased regulation do not drown out the news that we have a right to know about.

7 March 2009

International Women's Day

By Nicola Pratt

Around the world, including in this country, thousands of events are taking place to celebrate International Women's Day on 8 March - including fundraisers, networking events, debates and public rallies, aimed at celebrating women’s achievements and promoting support for women's progress.

In 1909, the first women's day was declared by the Socialist Party of America on 28 February, and, in the following year, the International Conference of Working Women, held in Copenhagen, decided upon an international women's day so that women of all countries could unite to voice their demands for women's rights to work, vote and to hold public office and for an end to discrimination. Leading up to the First World War, more and more women, as well as men, became involved in campaigning for better pay and conditions for working women, women's right to vote and against war in Europe. On 8 March 1917, Russian women led strikes of over half a million workers protesting the deterioration in living conditions as a result of the war and thus helped to bring down the autocratic Czar. The newly installed provisional government granted women the right to vote. From then on, 8 March became the international date for women's day.

Today, the radical and progressive origins of International Women's Day (IWD) are rarely discussed. This is surprising because although women have achieved many of the original demands that formed the spark for IWD, there is still much to be desired. More than 80 years since the Equal Franchise Act, only one in five British parliamentarians are women and the UK parliament rates 69th in the world league table of women in parliament. Nearly 40 years since the Equal Pay Act, women working full time across the UK still earn on average 17% less an hour than men working full time and for women working part-time, the gap is 36%. The glass ceiling continues to exist, with only 11% of directors of the UK's top 100 companies being women.

Women still carry out the bulk of unpaid work in the home, whether they have children or not and women in full-time employment spend nearly 30% more time on childcare than men in full-time employment. This 'double burden' creates a vicious circle, making it more difficult for women to achieve equality in the job market. Reflecting this unequal status, women continue to be vulnerable to violence. Over two women per week are killed by current or ex-partners and one in four women in the UK will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

Some people argue that it takes time for societal attitudes towards women to change. Yet, societal attitudes towards the highly addictive habit of smoking have been revolutionized in a matter of a few decades. As a result of repeated public health campaigns and changes in legislation over the years, the number of smokers has halved since 1974 and it is predicted that less than 10% of British will smoke in 45 years. Meanwhile, it is predicted that it will take 150 years at the present rate of progress for the pay gap between men and women to disappear!

Some other people argue that it is 'women's nature' to shun the rat race and take responsibility for childcare. However, it is not possible to talk about 'natural desires' until women have a real choice about whether to combine work and motherhood. In a context where glass ceilings, unequal pay and double burdens continue to exist, it is rational for women to want to dedicate themselves to homemaking. This is why the ideas behind International Women's Day still remain relevant and why we should not abandon the struggle for equality between men and women.