Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Technology and insidious authoritarianism

Here's a comment I made on a recent Guardian story about bugging etc. As soon as I used the word "bugging" I recognized that this is not an absolutely new phenomenon. I worry about what happens when you put two trends together:

a) the authoritarian impulses of ordinary people. This includes the impetus to make more and more laws, and more criminal offences (I think 3000 new offences were created under New Labour), but also modern attempts to control what people say and think, which seem to be in vogue in recent years.

b) at the same time, advances in technology mean that it is a thousand times easier to do things far more intrusive than bugging phones. Security services can look at emails, texts, records and content of phone calls, on a massive scale. They can certainly amass more information about the people of the UK than a thousand spies and analysts would ever have the time to look at.

This is why the discussion is even more relevant today. It would be quite easy to put in place a database of information about people that could be plundered at will.  All we then need is a sufficiently authoritarian government - and they could misuse it horribly. We'd instantly have something worse than the frightening Stasi of East Germany.

We've been quite confident that such a thing couldn't happen in the UK. But the further the Cold War recedes into history, the less people remember about the benefits of free speech (and one or two other freedoms), and the less we teach our children, the more political of whom now enthusiastically spout about what kinds of speech we should forbid - lest particular victim groups be offended. We have ridiculous new "hate speech" laws, as though hate were something that could even be defined, let alone measured or verified.

People are getting more and more confident in the intensely enjoyable game of policing language and thought.  And the technology is there ready to spy on us. Unfortunately, this isn't paranoid, it's the way things are going.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Lego for girls scandal!

You will think this is a small matter, and you will be wrong.

For years, it seems that more boys than girls have played with Lego, especially after the age of 4 or 5. This desn't seem like the most earth-shattering news, nor does it strike me as an urgent problem to be solved. But for some people it is. I wonder if you can guess who?


Lots of girls begging their parents for Lego would of course mean a huge increase in sales for that company, and make its owners very rich indeed. They have tried 5 or 6 times to make new ranges that will appeal to girls. These tend to come in pink coloured packaging, to be easier to build, and are centred around the social play that girls prefer. (feminists will have to get angry about the continued gender stereotyping if and when girls actually buy the stuff)

Yet members of the sisterhood are so busily looking for signs of patriarchy everywhere that they SERIOUSLY believe that the makers of Lego don't want to sell their products to young girls. These are probably the same people who think it is insidious social programming of some sort that is forcing young girls to choose My Little Pony instead of Star Wars toys.

I think these people belong in a secure psychiatric ward. Many of us laugh it off as an unimportant piece of lunacy. But this kind of thinking is everywhere. The sad fact is that not only women but also many men accept this sort of nonsense and repeat it with a straight face (then wait for approval like a good dog). Women 'harness the power of Twitter', destroy free speech on Facebook, get YouTube videos that they don't agree with banned on dubious grounds. They want to control the language we use, they are even starting to suggest in some countries that anti-feminist writings be censored. What I'm writing could one day disappear from Google searches, because a deeply stupid group of individuals feel threatened by my not agreeing with them.

This is how free speech dies. It's all justified by the same political rhetoric that persuades grown adults that toy manufacturers are more interested in maintaining a mythical 'patriarchy' than they are in selling more toys or keeping their shareholders happy.

Trying to understand the EDL

This is one of those things that one feels afraid to talk about - therefore we probably should do so.

We've seen some ugly behaviour, from people associated with the English Defence League, in response to the Woolwich murder a few weeks ago. There has been anger in the UK press about this. But I wonder if members of the EDL may in fact have a good deal in common with those who are seduced by radical Islamism.

  a) they are often poor, young men with a grievance,
  b) they think that society has sold them down the river,
  c) they have a prejudiced fear of each other, which is encouraged by politicians

When you start to look at the differences, you realise they are actually just different kinds of alienation. Young Muslim men have become or been made so conscious of their religion, and of the colour of their skin, that they sometimes don't know whether they are imagining prejudice, or whether it's really there. Perhaps they resent this effect on their lives as much as any single, mindless act of racism.

Having talked to many Muslims, I can't escape the impression that some cultivate a 'seige' mentality, this old and rather dangerous idea that the Christian (or godless) West has got it in for them, so Muslims have to stick together. It's dangerous because, as we know, us-and-them distrust tends to breed the same attitude in reply*

We're lectured by the Guardian newspaper on a nearly daily basis about how this must feel. But, oddly, noone bothers to imagine what is fuelling EDL members' feelings. These are humans beings, after all, and it won't help anybody to just dismiss them out of hand. Indeed, it's rather strange that we're told to sympathize with hackers-off-of-heads and to vilify another group for prejudice. I can't speak for EDL members, but here's a first attempt.

  • They and their fathers and grandfathers never agreed to the huge influx of immigrants into the UK, and those without work may wonder why so many are being brought in to do the few remaining jobs. Around 2.5 million people are unemployed in the UK, and there are apparently around half a million job vacancies.
  • They also have a perception that the immigrants have brought a whole lot of trouble with them, and many headlines about grooming scandals, bombings, failed bomb plots, and now beheadings just reinforce that belief. They've seen a way of life crumble and die, replaced by uncertainty and fear. They are then told that even to mention any of these feelings in connection with immigrants is disgusting racism. It's not surprising that they feel abandoned by the UK ruling elite.

These are just different reasons for both groups feeling alienated. Politicians know that if they encourage these feelings of alienation, they will be able to exercise influence over these young men. 

I will never join either group, but to self-righteously understand one group and vilify another is to take sides. It is not impartial journalism or analysis. If anyone reads this, I imagine I will most likely be accused of 'hatred' for even daring to think about the EDL, but that would just be an indication of how stupid we're being about this issue.

*after 9/11, an angry young man went on Channel 4 news saying that an attack on one Muslim, was an attack on all his brothers - perhaps as justification for what had happened. The presenter, Jon Snow asked what about the Muslims who had been killed in the twin towers, but the young hot-head ignored him