Archive for November 2010
It seems like such a simple question. What year is it? Well, the newspapers, the BBC Microsoft, Apple and almost everyone else we come into contact with all say it is 2010. However, November 2010 falls in about 7519 in the Byzantine calendar, 5771 in the Jewish calendar, in Islam 1431… there are more.
This is of course because the majority of Western technology uses the Gregorian calendar, once you’ve been brought up with this it is very difficult to think about the centuries and millennia in any other way.
The 21st century sounds so futuristic – hell it’s only 4 years until Marty McFly hops on a hover board!
And think about the months, the names of which are etched into so many people’s heads. Sept means 7, Oct means 8, Non or Nov is 9 and Dec is 10; so why do the names of these 4 months not equate to their numbers? Well it is rather complicated to trace it all, put simply civilisation has changed things since the Roman Empire fell.
Julius Caesar and the Roman emperor Augustus give July and August their names and the origins of the other months can be traced back to Roman gods with March (after Mars, god of war) being the first Roman month – hence September being the 7th.
Well, I’m afraid this is all more complicated than just a bit of trivia or a few historical facts with no real bearing on real and current life.
In fact, this is information about history, it is relevant to anyone using a computer or living in Britain. The very grammar and language that we use every day can be traced back to one of the most famous and vast empires the world has seen. Even 2 millennia after its fall the Roman Empire can still be seen all around the Western world, its language and its technology prevail still, albeit modified.
The words speak to us through the ages. The ideas have stood the test of time.
So when is now, that will be looked back upon in years to come? Now is the Age of Information, the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason.
Now is a very good starting point to look both backward and forward from. The Industrial Revolution changed almost everything and we continue to build on the work and efforts of our recent ancestors over the last 200 years. Now, we are enjoying the golden era of a technological revolution, and hopefully changing everything, again.
After the 7519 years, or 2010 years, or 1431 years how come so much only just got here so recently? Skyscrapers, the Internet, the combustion engine, penicillin and aeroplanes are only a few things that simply weren’t around more than a few hundred years ago. (In fact lets go back to basics – gas, electricity and running water in the home, light bulbs, Sellotape, Post-Its, biros and paperclips are all pretty recent too).
The advances of the last 20 years alone have been extraordinary. Perhaps reason and democracy have enabled people to lift their bowed heads and really look up at the stars in the last 200 years, in a way similar to the philosophers of Greece or China all those years ago? It plays as a stark contrast to the ever-raging war in Israel and Palestine, to the fights in Ireland, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the oppression of Iraq or the Orwellian (and frankly scary) North Korea.
Building on the wisdom, culture, language and philosophy of the ancient Greeks and technological advances of the Romans along with the adoption of many more ideas from too many cultures and civilisations to mention, the Age of Enlightenment took flight.
The technologies, democracies, police forces, health care systems and secular education are not finished yet, they need work and support and care and attention but they are already a marvel of modern civilisation.
Those Britons becoming enraged with immigration policies and complaining about national identity (whatever that means), those Britons who attack Muslims in the street, those Britons who want to re-introduce the death penalty for terrorists – they are missing the point and can do little more than to fuck off.
No totalitarian regime is allowed; this is a democracy, not a Christian democracy and not an Islamic one either, but a secular one. Anyone who attempts to judge or punish based on personal beliefs or force any personal beliefs on others must be resisted, even if they were born in Britain.
The power of a free, democratic, critical, secular and fair society is immense. It is not only our right to be a part of it but our responsibility to protect our freedom and our openness for future generations.
If the Internet is akin to books – in that it gives us a medium to record more information than we can hold in our heads – then Wikipedia is equal to many libraries. It is central to the community it serves (in its case, humanity), it is organised, easily searchable and ridiculously cheap to add to and read from.
As a source of information it may turn out to be one of the most important gifts we give to the generations as yet unborn, the generations as yet uneducated.
So long as freedom of speech and information continue through an open Internet, a free press and projects like Wikipedia, they will remain the greatest weapon democracy has against tyranny, totalitarianism, terrorism, idiocy and all those driven by aggression.
It really is important that Wikipedia continues. If you want to do something good for your country, civilisation and your way of life, go and update 1 Wikipedia article a week – or write your own about a place or person you know. Or simply make a donation to keep this important machine running.
We live in a time of unrivalled communication abilities, with such incredible freedom to say whatever the hell we want and to search out opinions about almost anything.
It has long been the aim of free-thinking societies to create such an environment and nurture and use it to great effect. The literary greats and human rights heroes of centuries gone could perhaps not have imagined the beautiful freedom we now have. Indeed the freedom we now take for granted.
Recent events however have caused many people to rethink just how free this communication should be.
The news channels on most evenings contain stories about a member of Al-Qaeda posting a video on YouTube. Maybe Anwar al-Awlaqi will be encouraging various disgusting acts that should be carried out on the western world in the name of Islam. Or perhaps images of some training camp in a suitably dusty landscape or in an anonymous, disused warehouse are portrayed to a distinctly Arabic soundtrack. I’ll only briefly mention the abhorrent images of dying soldiers or of bound and blindfolded victims who have only hours before a vicious execution.
The war against Germany’s Nazi party took its toll on the country and is still remembered today by those that fought and the stories handed down through the generations. That generation fought and died so we could have our day; through what eyes will our descendents look back on us?
The years and decades ahead may well be extreme. It is worth remembering that the atomic bomb, that biological and chemical warfare, that high speed jets and missiles and guidance computers and armed space satellites did not exist in 1939 (or at least not in the same excessive way they do in the 21st century). Imagine how different the war and the world would be now if even half the technology we have in our arsenals today existed pre-1939.
However, there is something that should be favoured even above the avoidance of war. Indeed it is possibly one of the few things that would justify a war in order to defend.
Freedom: one of the basic rights that our ancestors fought for, and died for. One of the basic rights we owe to our descendants to pass on. The freedom to speak and be heard and the freedom to seek out and listen are at the heart of so many struggles throughout history.
I tried searching for a Jihad video today, in 15 minutes I could not find anything to watch; a few pictures and plenty of news coverage but I could not go to any original source. To be clear I’m not interested in seeing violence or witnessing disgusting scenes for their own sake. But search for ‘violent porn’ and see how many hits Google returns, if my mind is really that malleable to corruption how are such non-religious, non-political images of rape and torture so openly available without making headlines?
I can read the views of Al-Qaeda sympathisers on a number of websites and (after wading through the tawdry pages of uneducated drivel about Islam and the Qur’an) we can quite quickly get to the extreme views. The views of the defiantly confident supreme Muslims who set themselves apart from everyone else, including those Muslims who simply do not agree with their fanatical views.
The scariest part of this however is not the extreme views that are there to be read, scorned, debated, considered or rebutted, but the campaigns of people and powers in the western world who seek to silence these videos and these opinions.
Imagine if they succeeded, imagine a terrorist organisation not taking our freedom away from us by force but using our freedom of speech against us; to encourage us to abandon our liberty voluntarily. The first principle of this cannot be accepted.
To ban these videos on all websites, to silence these repugnant opinions, would be an insult to those that fought and died for our freedom and would do a great disservice to our children (as a side note – younger children are particularly vulnerable to these repulsive ideas and should be protected as a special case). However, even if none had fought for this freedom before and if we were to have no children, freedom of speech is still a right worth fighting for.
How can censorship possibly be acceptable only in cases where the powers that be, or political organisations deem it so, the point is that ‘they’ can’t do that? If it is acceptable where does it stop? Who would I appoint to decide exactly what I’m allowed to watch and hear? Who would you?
The enlightenment, the great European and American cultures, the technological revolution and so much more all owe so much to freedom and to those who gave their blood and their lives so that we may be free.
If some young, educated and charismatic men want to publish videos persuading me that so many innocent people should die as payment for so many innocent already dead – let them publish. But those videos will be subject to the same level of scrutiny and rebuttal as everything else; they will not be immune from critique. Nothing is immune from critique. Nothing. That’s the point.
An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty because it can accustom a nation to stretch, to misinterpret and to misapply even the best of laws
He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his own enemy from repression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself
Who is next to be silenced, and who will decide?
The question is not whether a relationship is perfect but whether the partners are perfect for each other
In mechanical and scientific arenas a relationship between 2 things, or entities, is typically quite static – it doesn’t appear to change much. Usually because in these arenas the 2 entities involved in the relationship are themselves unchanging.
In practice the entities, whatever they are, may well change over a long time and then the relationship changes. Take the relationship between a lock and a key; the key turns every time… for years… until the lock breaks or the key wears down, then the turning suddenly doesn’t happen any more.
From here it is quite easy to make a jump to relationships in a social arena and imagine intangible, and often tenuous relationships, hanging between ever changing, self-aware entities. People, social groups, organisations, whatever…
Think of your own relationships and remember that the people on the other side of each of the relationships you are involved in are changing. While they are alive they will always be changing, as the hours, days and years go by they will change a little or a lot – but they will change.
If someone ever tells you that you are too irritating, analytical or gentle, or if you tell someone that they are a coward or a bully; remember that next week that may have changed – a little or a lot. If you want a relationship with something predictable and unchanging, go buy a car or an iPod – all they do is work and predictably degrade and depreciate.
The brilliance of a relationship with another person is that they will change – and watching the progression over time IS the beauty of it.
Of course fear, anger, frustration, aggression, apathy and sometimes hatred can come with a changing relationship (so beware!) but so does excitement, affection, comfort, purpose and love. There is only one other option if you don’t want to accept the risks… and that’s a very lonely option indeed.
If you do decide to take part in a scary, daunting, active relationship, do just that. Take it for granted at your peril. Complacency is as destructive for it as almost anything else.
Why now? I keep asking myself… Whatever.
Though only a few may hear my voice, I hope it does some good. I sit here reading numerous, frustrating news reports and I find Tony Soprano drift into the forefront of my mind.
An episode of The Sopranos from my student days many years ago saw Tony worried by some news report about terrorists attacking America. Here is one of the toughest gangsters in the city, frustrated because he doesn’t know how to defend his family and country against terrorists. It is clear that the episode is referring to religious terrorists – specifically ‘Jihadists’ or ‘Muslim Fundamentalists’… or whatever was in the headline of the last news report you read.
Now the war is most definitely on British soil, on the doorstep of a democratic nation. Terrorists in a far away country have made bombs inside printer toner cartridges and these have been delivered, and detected, in the UK.
Stephen Timms MP may or may not be a good man, he may or may not be a useful MP, I don’t know. He is, however, lucky to be alive after Roshonara Choudhry tried to murder him because he voted in favour of going to war with Iraq. I do not want to discuss his intentions, I don’t know anything about the man. Though I do know that he did not himself commit war crimes, he did not rape any Iraqi women nor murder any Muslim children. I may well look into his background, if only to make the point, for now though I would put money on his condemnation of the atrocities that took place. I would also bet that he was very worried about a ruthless dictator building an army in Iraq, threatening western civilizations and possessing ‘weapons of mass destruction’; and that these factors (rightly or wrongly) weighed in heavily on his vote. In other words based on the evidence he had at the time he made the most just call he could.
I worry about the headlines next week? Next month? Next year? Will a bomb or nerve gas or some biological weapon result in thousands dying in some UK city centre? In Paris? New York? Amsterdam?
And the question keeps coming back to me, how the hell can I do something about this? I wouldn’t know a ‘terrorist’ if I walked past one in the street. Even if I wanted to debate and talk to someone who freely admits she wants me and all of my friends and family to die regardless of the consequences – the nature of the argument ‘I’m going to kill you now in God’s name, and that’s that’ isn’t an argument that can be debated. I doubt any amount of reason or logic would make the slightest difference.
(Incidentally all that Tony did was smash the bar tender round the head for saying ‘well, you’ve just gotta live for today’. I think the bar tender lived but lost hearing in 1 ear and Tony didn’t address any terrorist threats.)
So what can one do?
Firstly, do not treat that question as rhetorical. Answer it.
Secondly, do not be the ‘just live for today’ bar tender. Putting it to the back of your mind, leaving it for someone else to deal with is a shameful act. The fight is here, it has been for years.
Thirdly – very important this – do not be Tony. Half killing the nearest person to you is no answer. Attacking the nearest Muslim, the nearest Mosque or the nearest Pakistani or Indian (because you have confused ethnicity, race and religion) is an act of cowardice and ignorance. It is and should remain punishable by an impartial and secular justice system.
So what do I do? What can I do?
This country is mostly secular, it is generous and kind, it is powerful, it is intelligent. In ways of science, of reason, of logic and of education this country is advanced. The age of enlightenment began many centuries ago. We have pushed painfully through industrial, political and technological revolutions. This country has many problems, but it has many great qualities and virtues. It is a democracy in which everyone is granted the freedom to speak, and coupled with right to listen comes the freedom to be heard.
Turning to age-old barbarism and attacking terrorists would be an insult to our ancestors, an insult to our own intelligence and a step backwards in our difficult journey of discovery. This includes condemning any guilty terrorist to death – we do not do that in this country!
We have the right to speak about religion, about politics and about terrorist acts. We have a right to uphold our values. Values like freedom, like justice – just because we are so angry that someone is willing to attack our loved ones and our basic freedoms does not mean we are entitled to break our fundamental principles.
Now here’s the tough part – freedom and justice are powerful and positive words, but there are few rights that one can have that don’t demand the loss of other rights and the addition of further responsibility.
I demand the right to not be murdered – I therefore lose the right to murder and I have the responsibility to prevent murder where I can and bring murderers to justice.
The right to freedom of speech means I lose the right to not be offended – and that I have the responsibility to defend those that are being silenced.
These things are tough. Tough to understand and to admit but they are the building blocks of our society. It is these that are under fire and it is these that we may be tempted to give up in a counter-attack.
I implore you not to.
Retaliate by fulfilling your rights without fear and face up to your responsibilities without shame or hesitation.
One of the fundamental rights of our society – to be able to voice an opinion without fear of violent reprisal – is being attacked. To keep quiet about that is to lose by default. To become violent in retaliation is to lose by default. To continue to exercise this right and face this fear of violence is the toughest thing to do and the best weapon we have.
I’m writing this not to change the world, not to stop the next bomb exploding nor to discourage the next terrorist, but as a call to arms. To arms far removed from those we see throughout history. Our weapons are reason, forethought, humour, imagination, education, generosity, humility, scientific study, curiosity, questioning, exploration and hope.
This is war different from others in history and we would do well to understand exactly what is being attacked, for therein lies our defence.