Archive for the ‘politics’ category

Revolution day

October 23, 2011

This day – October 23 – has been declared by the new Libyan government to be ‘liberation day’, the day on which the uprising against the now deceased dictator was completed. Although this is probably not much on the minds of Libya’s National Transitional Council, October 23 is a date with all sorts of revolutionary associations, with exactly the kind of mixed results and messages that one might expect. It is the date (at least according to some calculations) on which Russia’s October Revolution began that quickly brought the Bolsheviks into power. Ironically it is also the day on which, in 1956, Hungarians began an uprising against the Soviet occupiers, a revolution that was crushed a couple of weeks later on November 4. However, Hungary actually announced its new post-communist Republic on this day in 1989.

Purely statistically, most revolutions in history were quickly followed by dictatorships or tyrannies. What might however give the Libyans hope is that this longer historical trend may not apply in quite the same way today. The revolutions in Eastern Europe of 1989 have on the whole produced working democracies, and while the jury is still out on the impact of this year’s ‘Arab Spring’, it may well be leading to much greater freedom in the region. While the bloody events of the last few days might give a little cause for concern, it is possible that the relationship between revolution and terror is being broken. Certainly Libya deserves a chance to succeed.

The Scottish dimension

October 15, 2011

It is still too early to say whether the people of Scotland will, in the referendum promised for the term of the current Holyrood parliament, vote for independence. It will of course depend on exactly what question they will be asked. But right now the signs are that the vote will be in favour: the news today is that, for the first time, an opinion poll has found a decisive shift in favour of an independent Scotland, and moreover there is now a slim majority in the UK as a whole for this proposition.

As a newer resident of Scotland, I am still learning about the country and its history and its ethos and its traditions. But I believe I have come to understand what for me are some important considerations. First, the noises from some sources south of the Border are missing the point. There is a lot of chatter from some political and media voices in England about the economics of separation, and the ability or otherwise of Scotland to manage its own affairs. This is annoying many in Scotland not least because of its patronising nature, but also because the key driver of Scotland’s search for a new status is not really about economics, but about values. The Scottish sense of community, whether it is better or worse than that in England, is at any rate different. This has become particularly clear to me in the debate about tuition fees, which is actually a debate here about a higher education ethos at least as much as it is one about funding.

Secondly, Scotland has a very different cultural and social identity from England, and there is a growing sense of confidence that the time is right to express this constitutionally.

But thirdly – and maybe crucially – I detect a sense that Scottish independence can be achieved without any hostility towards England. People I knew who lived in Scotland a couple of decades ago found little taste for independence but often quite visible antagonism towards English people. That has mostly gone, and has been replaced by a sense that the two nations can co-exist in a friendly manner but with each controlling their own destiny, to the extent that this is possible in today’s globalised world. The fear of independence has gone, and with it the sense of insecurity that may have accompanied it.

Of course independence should not be assessed sentimentally, it has to be evaluated in a sober way. But the backdrop to this assessment has changed. And that makes it a very interesting time to be in Scotland.

 

Choosing a president

September 19, 2011

Readers outside Ireland may not be particularly aware that an Irish presidential election campaign is under way; on the other hand, hardly anyone in the world will be unaware of the US presidential election to be held next year.

Let’s stick with Ireland for a moment. The country’s formerly dominant (but now devastated) party Fianna Fail is currently affected by internal convulsions, caused by the desire of one Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú to be a candidate for the post. I hope it will not sound disrespectful to him if I say that, outside the traditional music community, he is not a household name.

A growing consensus is that none of the candidates who are in the ring, with the exception of Senator David Norris (whose nomination is not secure), would excite the general population. This is causing people to wonder whether the post is actually a necessary one for the country at all; which is a shame, given the equally widespread consensus that the present incumbent, Mary McAleese, has performed her tasks with great distinction. One reason for the disaffection may be related to the nomination process, designed to give the political parties a gatekeeper role.

The gatekeeper function belongs even more emphatically to the two major political parties in the United States, but in a much more complex process. Each party’s committed voters determine the choice of the candidate, and because this is so the candidates have to appeal to the core supporters, which in the case of the Republicans in particular means that an ambitious candidate needs to place him or herself on the right wing; before shifting rapidly to the centre when it comes to the actual election.

It seems to me that the credibility and acceptability of a presidency depends on the credibility and acceptability of the electoral process. A key element in this is how candidates emerge and are chosen. Right now this is not ideal in either Ireland or the United States. This is an aspect of democracy that needs urgent attention. The paradox is that a good process must ensure that candidates who stimulate thenpublic interest are able to secure a nomination, while those whose credentials are less obvious, like the good Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, are not necessarily hurried into the ring. It’s not an easy process.

The future of higher education: the key issue is autonomy

September 6, 2011

The recent speech by Tom Boland, chief executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, on what he called ‘directed diversity’ prompted a lively debate in the comments section of this blog. The key element of this speech appears to have been the proposal that  universities will need to have their strategic objectives approved by the HEA, to ensure that these are in line with government policies and that there is no unnecessary duplication of provision.

The proposal as described will almost certainly be strongly opposed by at least some groups of lecturers, perhaps because it could remove the discretion from universities as to how to plan their teaching. Some lecturers with this perspective argue that  national strategic coordination will remove the relative freedom and discretion that academics currently enjoy.

However, there is also a wider university dimension. The autonomy of universities is protected in Ireland by the Universities Act 1997, and any change in current practice would arguably require a new statute. But leaving aside the legal dimension, the autonomy of universities ensures that they can address the educational, social, scientific and cultural issues of the day and respond imaginatively to them.  Furthermore, autonomy is not about having the right to decide how to implement strategic objectives that have been set. Rather, autonomy is about determining those strategic objectives in an independent manner.

I doubt that a framework of ‘directed diversity’ can work, because it will have to handle too many inherent contradictions. I would strongly argue that institutional autonomy must remain a major higher education strategy. I am not convinced that Tom Boland’s vision, if implemented, would allow that to be the case.

The political academy?

September 1, 2011

At a function I attended a little while ago a fellow guest expressed the view that public money given to universities was too often spent on disseminating partisan political views. It was no secret, he suggested, that universities were dominated by academics with left-wing views, and that these academics were being paid to indoctrinate impressionable students. I asked for an example of this dangerous phenomenon, and he proceeded to name a lecturer in the university from which he had graduated, and who is indeed a socialist. I pointed out to my fellow guest that, in the same university department at that time, there had been three lecturers with well known conservative views. Ah, but you can’t count those, he said, not entirely logically.

In fact, allegations of political bias in universities, and left-wing tendencies in particular, are not particularly new. In the European tradition, it was argued during the Weimar Republic in Germany that the faculty in some of the best known universities were often socialists. A little later, in 1968, French and German universities in particular became hotbeds of socialist agitation, starting with students (led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Rudi Dutschke in particular) but with active support from some professors.

More recently again, in 1982 in Britain the retired Oxford historian, Lord Beloff, alleged that the Industrial Relations Research Unit at the University of Warwick had a left-wing, pro-trade union partisan agenda; and the dismissal by its staff of that allegation may not have been helped when, apparently, a letter of support arrived asserting that ‘any attack on the Industrial Relations Research Unit is an attack on the whole trade union movement’.

And these allegations continue: in 2007 it was argued at a conference of the American Enterprise Institute that ‘universities are tilting to the left’ with a ‘growing liberal bias’.

For anyone wishing to establish such a case there is of course the tricky issue of academic freedom, under which the right of professors to hold and publish any opinions (or at any rate, all those that do not transgress laws, including those relating to incitement to hatred or discrimination) is seen as sacrosanct. And there may just also be the problem that the overwhelming majority of key writers and thinkers who, from the mid-20th century, espoused conservative or right-wing views also came from a university background: Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman are two obvious (but not isolated) examples.

The problem may be that, in certain academic departments, it is likely that the political frame of reference of a professor would inform their specialist views on their subject. For example, notwithstanding what may sometimes be claimed, economics is not an objective science, but rather the application of particular perspectives, some of which will have an ideological foundation. But if you are working in a non-academic job, while you may hold ideological views your work will not normally involve your expressing them. But then again, the same is true of much academic work: on the whole we never hear what political views, if any, your Professor of Chemistry holds.

Those who remember me from my teaching days will, I suspect, recall that I often expressed political opinions, some of them strongly. I no longer hold some of these opinions, but I have no regrets about expressing them back then. In fact, it produced – I think – a good basis for lively discussion and the expression of contrary opinions, which I believe I encouraged. The only thing that is required is that the lecturer in question is up front about their perspective and shows a willingness to hear and discuss other frames of reference, making it clear to the students that any argument that is well expressed and properly documented is a good argument.

I am not saying that academic freedom cannot be abused, or indeed that universities should not be vigilant to ensure that the expression of political or other views does not involve or lead to indoctrination. But I doubt very much that much damage is being done by political bias in universities; and in any case I would find it hard to be sure what direction any such bias might take.

Fidelity

August 12, 2011

If you’re the kind of person who celebrates people’s birthdays, you may want to note this one: today Fidel Castro, former Prime Minister and President of Cuba, celebrates his 85th birthday. Certain people, whether considered generally good or bad, become icons of their era, and Fidel Castro is one of these. Icons are hard to judge, because their reputations are not based on a balance of their actions and policies, but on a kind of mystical sense of who they are or were.

But even if you were to dig a little into the Castro legacy, it is hard to present a balanced view. Here is the man who saw off an unloved dictator. Here is the man who established single party rule and locked up dissidents. Here is the man who presided over 100 per cent literacy and universal healthcare. Here is the man who ran a bankrupt and incoherent economy. You get the idea.

I have never visited Cuba, but really would like to do so while it is still Castro’s Cuba; in the same way that I rather regret never having experienced Hoxha’s Albania. If I were to visit, I suspect I’d be impressed with the levels of social care. But I’d also be horrified at the denial of personal freedom.

I hope the lesson taken from the life and work of Fidel Castro, and of those like Hugo Chavez who want to emulate him, is that in the end all the social progress in the world is not enough when it is not part of a state of freedom. But also that social conditions count, and that ‘freedom’ in a world in which it cannot be exercised in any way that matters is inadequate.

Something like that.

E-petitions: democracy in action, or a waste of time?

August 5, 2011

In the United Kingdom, anyone who can gather 100,000 signatures in support of an online petition can have that petition debated in parliament, under a new scheme introduced yesterday. So how worthwhile are the petitions entered so far that you might choose to support? Well, at the time of writing the first petition that comes up on the site, introduced by one Joseph Blurton, asks of the House of Commons: ‘Don’t listen to idiots signing e-petitions’. The proposer elaborates as follows: ‘We, the people, are idiots. Please, for pity’s sake, ignore us more often.’  In fact, about a quarter of the petitions showing up on the first page relate to the framework of e-petitions, a curious characteristic of the system.

When you look at the petitions that have so far gathered the most signatures, they relate either to capital punishment (both for and against) and EU membership (mainly against). Another reasonably well supported one asks that we should ‘make prison mean’, the proposer of which (Katie Wallace) elaborates:

‘I think that Prison should mean exactly that. It is defined as a place in which people are physically confined and, usually, deprived of a range of personal freedoms. To give such luxuries as gyms and time out for good behaviour is obviously not working so lets go back to the good old days of just bread and water. Will cost you and I alot less and will be a deterrent for people wishing to commit crime.’

E-petitions are not unique to the UK, nor indeed within it. Scotland also has an e-petition system, and currently open petitions can be found here. They are in general rather different from the UK-wide ones, sometimes local in intent, but with far fewer ones focusing on what one might describe as conservative impulses.

So how should we evaluate all this? Is Mr Blurton right, that this is just an outlet for ‘idiots’? Or is there a democratic purpose to the whole thing? We live is a representative democracy, in which we do not ask the people to direct specific policy initiatives, but where they are invited to elect politicians who will do so. Do e-petitions subvert that principle? Or are they useful guides for the politicians? Or are they just a kind of democracy wall on which people jot down some graffiti that enables them to get things off their chest?

The test will come, perhaps, when someone manages to collect so many signatures in support of capital punishment that politicians come under pressure. When that happens, if it does, I may finally conclude that this is not a good idea.

Not having a party

July 31, 2011

It’s nearly three years since Barack Obama won the US presidential election. To many people outside America, this marked what people assumed would be the return of ‘normal’ politics to America. For non-Americans it had been almost impossible to understand George W. Bush and his retinue; they seemed to be driven by various impulses that, for them, signified US influence and leadership, but which to the rest of the world appeared to be somewhere between zany and dangerous. The Bush administration took on almost unimaginable costs, ranging from the various wars to massive (and unfunded) tax cuts.

Oddly enough, right now US politics are convulsed by two outputs from the Bush era: the amazing deficit that his policies bequeathed the American people, and the ‘Tea Party‘ movement that is a spin-off of sorts from his ideological positions. This dual legacy is so odd in part because the Tea Party are treating the deficit as an Obama creation, which it actually is not. As the graph in this article shows, overwhelmingly the over-spending is a creature of the Bush government, whereas Obama has been relatively frugal; indeed Obama’s main expenditure relates to issues (or wars) that were put in play by Bush.

If you visit America, as I have been doing these past few days, you get a very direct sense of how US politics are now anything but normal. The debate here about raising the debt ceiling is so totally irrational as to have mind-bending attributes. A solution to the by now somewhat real threat that America could default on its financial obligations (though probably not its loans) is held in abeyance by driven ideologues who, when you listen to them being interviewed, clearly do not have an even basic understanding of the economic issues involved. They share the Republican Party with an established leadership that is increasingly aghast at their antics. On the other side is a president who may not be acting as decisively as the situation requires. As the outcome of this drama will affect us all, it has rather chilling properties.

The United States is, and notwithstanding occasional exaggerated predictions about the growth of the BRIC countries will continue to be, the leader and trend-setter of the global economy. This makes it rather important that its economic policies are the subject of rational debate and decision-making, guided by informed analysis. The current battles being fought on Capitol Hill won’t do. It is time to stop humouring the Tea Party ideologues, and to stop pretending that their arguments merit real debate. There are perfectly legitimate differing positions on the economic crisis, but they need to be based on an understanding of the issues. It is time for America to end the ‘tea party’ and to let the adults take over.

Letting the voters vote is a good idea

July 22, 2011

Depending on what country you live in, you may or may not be aware of what is going on in the presidential election campaign in Ireland. The actual election will take place later this year, and on the ballot paper will be all those candidates who have managed to get nominated. However, nomination is not a formality. A candidate will need to secure support either from a number of local authorities or from a number of the members of the Irish parliament (the Oireachtas).

A number of candidates are now lining up, and it is going to be a hotly contested race. All opinion polls confirm that there is a clear frontrunner: independent Senator David Norris. But whether the voters will actually be able to vote for him remains uncertain, as he has not so far secured the necessary nominations. In addition, his task is made more difficult by the fact that his rivals include Gay Mitchell of Fine Gael and Michael D. Higgins of Labour, and these two parties dominate the councils and the ranks of parliamentarians from whom Norris will need to secure the nomination. Indeed Fine Gael appears to have instructed its members not to support nominations for anyone other than their candidate.

So right now it looks possible that David Norris, the apparent choice of the people, will not be able secure a nomination. If this happens it will be seen by many as an outrage, and will in addition fundamentally undermine the mandate that the then winning candidate will claim to have secured. It is in fact in nobody’s interests that this should happen.

Some politicians have agreed to nominate David Norris even though they will actually be voting for someone else, and that is an entirely honourable position. Others, including members of Fine Gael, should follow this lead so as not to bring the whole election into disrepute.

Whether David Norris should be elected is another matter, or rather is a matter for the people. That he should be a candidate seems to me to be beyond any reasonable doubt.

News of the World, and the state of democracy

July 15, 2011

Guest blog by Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, Lecturer in Physics at Waterford Institue of Technology

The News of the World scandal and the demise of that paper brings a much larger issue to the fore: the enormous influence of media barons such as Rupert Murdoch, and their political viewpoints.

For example, it has been claimed that at the time of the first Lisbon treaty referendum journalists at The Sunday Times, a Murdoch-owned newspaper that is extremely influential, could not get pro-treaty articles published. The Wall Street Journal, a Murdoch-owned newspaper that is extremely influential in business circles in the US, regularly publishes prominent editorials by a tiny group of climate change skeptics. On the BSkyB takeover, Mr Murdoch has stated that, if successful, he would like its news delivery be more like Fox News.

Does any of this matter? Surely as long as every citizen has the facility to choose which newspaper/TV/radio station they are informed by, there isn’t a problem? I think there is a problem. I really distrust the modern idea that strong political bias in the media is OK as long it is balanced by other viewpoints in other media outlets (a principle memorably articulated by the journalist Kevin Myers). In other words, it’s OK if this newspaper/channel gives you this slant, because balance is provided by another paper/station that gives a different slant.

The problem is that as one listens to a favourite radio station, TV station or newspaper, one’s views are reinforced instead of tested and questioned…so positions become more and more entrenched and polarized. Have you ever noticed that protagonists in a TV debate seem to be coming from parallel universes that do not intersect? This is often because they choose to be informed by different sources and therefore cannot agree on the basics.

If science and technology operated like this, planes would fall out of the sky. At some stage opinion should be constrained by the facts, as far as they can be established. ‘You have a right to your own opinion, not your own facts’, as an Irish politician memorably said recently. Yet as a scientist, I regularly encounter media pronouncements on scientific issues that are totally at odds with well-established facts, most obviously in the area of climate science.

Doesn’t independent editorship have a role to play? It should do, but I see less and less evidence of it, at least in English-speaking countries. It’s an interesting exercise to compare directly articles on the same subject in organs such as the NYT and The Wall Street Journal, or The Guardian and The Times; it’s impossible not to notice that differences in outlook have long since strayed beyond what used to be called the opinion columns.

There is a legal aspect to this that puzzles me. Many years ago, we introduced laws to protect the individual from slander or libel. If I publicly accuse Ferdinand von Prondzynski of stealing my cat, I need supporting evidence to prove my statement or I am I trouble. However, I can make public statements with impunity on science (say) that are completely false, because no individual was defamed. Yet such statements can do tremendous harm to society, whether they be on the dangers of tobacco or on global warming (I draw a distinction between denialism and skepticism here).

It’s interesting that The Irish Times, a paper that is considered reasonably balanced by many colleagues over here in the US, is owned by a trust. For example, the IT syndicates a column from a prominent US republican every few years, alternated with one from a democrat. It’s a very good idea, because it allows readers to see the two viewpoints. Perhaps this is part of the solution – not to allow whole sections of the media to be controlled by one individual, with their individual political opinions. One only has to look at Berlusconi media empire to see that such monopolies really do have a direct effect on democracy. The Murdoch influence is simply less visible, which makes it worse in my opinion.


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