The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'democracy'
Der Spiegel has an interesting interview with Adam Michnik, former Polish Solidarność dissident and now editor of the broadsheet Gazeta Wyborcza, talking about democracy, authoritarianism and civil society in Europe, looking partly at the hardline authoritarian-nationalist turn Hungary has taken, and to a lesser extent the Catholic-nationalist right in Poland:
SPIEGEL: Orbán is trying to direct his country into a "system of national cooperation without compromises." What does he mean by that?
Michnik: British historian Norman Davies called this form of democracy a "government of cannibals." Democratic elections are held, but then the victorious party devours the losers. The gradual coup consists in getting rid of or taking over democratic institutions. These people believe that they are the only ones in possession of the truth. At some point, parties no longer mean anything, and the system is based, once again, on a monologue of power. The democratic institutions in the West are more deeply embedded in the West than in Eastern Europe. Democracy can defend itself there. Everything is still fragile in our countries, even two decades after the end of communism.
Michnik: Back in 1990, I wrote that nationalism is the last stage of communism: a system of thought that gives simple but wrong answers to complex questions. Nationalism is practically the natural ideology of authoritarian regimes.
The latest front in the War On Piracy: Britain is setting up a national intellectual property crime unit to hunt down illegal downloaders wherever they may hide. The most interesting thing about this news is that the unit, which will operate across the length and breadth of Britain, will be part of the City of London Police; that's right: a national specialist unit that's part of the local constabulary of one square mile of a city.
The reason for this, presumably, has to do with the unique governance of the City of London, a system inherited from the feudal era and adapted seamlessly to the neoliberal age. Being the corporate centre of Britain's finance industry, the City's office bearers are elected by the corporations who have offices in the square mile; each corporation's share of votes is proportional to its global employee count. As such, it is the ideal post-democratic governing model for the New World Order, reflecting the realities of neoliberalism far more efficiently than the alternative of “democracy plus lobbyists plus corporations-are-people plus unlimited campaign expenditure” (as seen in the US) does.
The City of London taking responsibility for enforcing corporate monopolies on cultural exchange (“intellectual property”) across the land could be merely an early step in its ascension to being a branch of Britain's government, and one which wields real power. Perhaps in a few decades' time, we will see the parliaments of Westminster and Holyrood (by then, packed with a motley crew of wild-eyed socialists, foamy-mouthed right-wing populists and Pirate Party types) reduced to student union-style talking shops with no real power, with executive decisions devolved to the City of London's eminently level-headed corporate appointees?
For a purely decorative monarch-in-waiting, Prince Charles is somewhat of an interventionist. Perhaps its his strong opinions (be it about the efficacy of homoeopathy, the terminal decline of architecture after about the 18th century, or about hidebound traditionalism in all areas generally being a Good Thing), but he has never been content with the role of figurehead, passively waving at well-wishers and mouthing the words of the government of the day. Now, it has emerged that he has exercised a secret veto over various pieces of legislation in Britain, doing so under a 14th-century law that allows the Duke of Cornwall a say over any legislation that affects the Duchy's property, in a broad sense of the word.
The details of the laws have been kept secret, as has whether any changes were made to the laws to help them pass muster with the Prince of Wales; however, the subjects of the laws over which his advice was sought apparently include everything from gambling to road safety. This isn't the first time Charles has seen fit to give British society the benefit of his enlightened guidance, whether it wants it or not: a few years ago, he famously had a modernist architect sacked from a London project, and replaced by a neo-traditionalist of Charles' own stripe, using his friendship with the Qatari royals funding the project to go over the heads of those actually in Britain involved in the project.
Charles' interventions have been controversial on both sides of the fence; the Grauniad doesn't like the reactionary populist emphasis on leaden-handed traditionalism in Charles' views, comparing it to the Daily Mail, while the Torygraph is not entirely comfortable with his dippy-hippy tendencies:
The Prince does not seem to have actually exercised his right of veto, although The Guardian's attempts to access papers have largely failed. But the discovery that he can block legislation is alarming given his established willingness to interfere in political matters. It is all too easy to imagine him vetoing a bill loosening the planning laws, or widening the use of GM crops.
That's not to say he's wrong on every issue, although I'm happy to say he's wrong on a few. The point is that he is making the Royal family seem less like a stately and dignified ceremonial presence, and more like a cross between a fogey-hippy crossover activist group and a vast whole-foods retail company. Without the goodwill that the Queen generates, a Charles-headed monarchy will be subject to both mistrust and ridicule.The Conservative-led government has ruled out changing this law, in the Burkean Conservative spirit of not fixing things which can be passed off as not entirely broken, and/or the spirit of The Old Ways Are The Best. And so, another asterisk and paragraph of small print gets added to the assertion that Britain is a modern democracy.
Which is not to say that Britain's monarchy is remaining firmly in the undemocratic past; last week, the Commonwealth approved constitutional changes to end gender discrimination on the rules of royal succession, a change which could affect literally dozens of women. You go, girls!
On Thursday, Britain had a referendum on changing the electoral system from first-past-the-post (i.e., every voter sees a list of candidates, picks one, and the one with the most votes win, which means that you either choose one of
Democrats Labour or the Republicans Conservatives or, for all practical purposes, you might as well have stayed home) to the alternative vote (i.e., each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference, so if their first preference doesn't get in, their vote gets transferred to their second, and so on). And the results came in, with the status quo winning with about 69% of the vote. The British people have looked at reform, found it too confusing, and said no. The results by district show an interesting, though not unexpected, pattern, with inner London, inner Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge showing up as islands of strong yes votes, most of England being a sea of conservatism, with Scotland and Wales being slightly less conservative. The place with the highest yes vote in Britain was the London Borough of Hackney.
(One must grudgingly admire the way the Tories handled this, from a purely tactical point of view: offering the Liberal Democrats (until then, seen as a progressive, centre-left party, and voted by many left-leaning voters sick of Blairite New Labour which had been captured by the right) their precious little referendum in return for supporting their agenda of radical cuts, and manoeuvring the Lib Dems into being their human shields, so that by the time the referendum came around, the bitter taste of betrayal was too strong for many natural reform supporters to vote for anything with Nick Clegg's name on it. And so, cunning and betrayal win the day again. Well played, you loathsome bastards.)
The big winners in this are the Tories, and, to a lesser extent, Labour (who supported reform in this election, though it must be remembered that electoral reform was one of Tony Blair's pledges in 1997, though Labour kept first-past-the-post throughout their government for pragmatic reasons). Big business and the media proprietors are also big winners: with MPs not having to compete as hard for votes, they have more time to listen to the real stakeholders, rather trying to placate the little people.
Too much democracy, after all, is bad for business. Let the little people have too much of a say, and you get fractious parliaments full of Greens and religious parties and such. In that sense, first-past-the-post is slightly superior to the alternative vote (and greatly superior to proportional systems) in that it distorts the aggregated views of the people into an uncontroversial median, and helps keep the levers of power well away from the rabble. The ideal system for the stakeholders' interests is a low-fidelity form of democracy: just enough to keep anyone too unpopular from outstaying their welcome and prevent the "bad emperor" problem (where corrupt or inept leaders can arise beyond the power of anyone to remove them), and give the little people the illusion of being stakeholders in the system. If anything, the US system, with its electoral-college system which almost completely eliminates third parties, is superior to UK-style FPTP for this. Once there are only two parties, they will, by necessity, become so large that they become unanswerable to the little people, and become instruments of a homogeneous policy, as seen in everything from copyright-law expansion to the accelerating increase in income inequality.
Anyway, Britain's democracy is essentially a somewhat expensive low-pass filter on Rupert Murdoch's decisions, and this vote will ensure that it remains so for the foreseeable future. Some are saying that electoral reform has been set back by a generation, though I think that's overly optimistic. With the no case having won by 69%, despite the yes case having more campaign funds, I can't see the question arising in 25 years' time. It's probably safe to say that another electoral reform referendum in Britain will not happen in the lifetime of anybody who voted on Thursday. And so, in the next election, one will be faced with voting for the lesser evil (which, in the past, has turned out into voting for Tony "PNAC" Blair because he wasn't a Tory), or just giving up and letting Murdoch's zombie hordes decide. In fact, why not just give up on democracy altogether and install Murdoch as Emperor? It'll have more or less the same effect, but save considerable money.
In other election news: the Greens have emerged as the largest party on Brighton and Hove's council, and in Scotland, the Scottish National Party has won a majority, paving the way to a referendum on independence. I wonder whether the Tories' cunning will be enough to scotch this one.
The Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democracy Index, a ranking of countries from most to least democratic, is out. The actual report requires registration, but the Wikipedia page contains a list, and various news sites across the world accompany this with explanatory commentary. A press release is here.
The report divides the world into four blocks, in order from best to worst: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. The largest group, by population, is flawed democracies, followed by authoritarian regimes and, some distance behind, full democracies.
The four most democratic countries are—quelle surprise!—Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden. They're followed immediately by New Zealand (which is looking increasingly like a chunk of Scandinavia in the Antipodes) and Australia. That's right, Australia is more democratic than Finland, Switzerland and Canada (#7. #8 and #9). The United States is at #17 (with a score of 8.18/10) and the UK is at #19. (The US loses points due to the War On Terror, whereas the UK's problem seems to be political apathy. Though is that the cause or, as Charlie Stross argued, a symptom?)
Meanwhile, France under Sarkozy has fallen out of the league of full democracies, and been relegated to the flawed democracies; there it is kept company by Berlusconi's Italy, Greece, and most of the Eastern European countries (with the notable exception of the Czech Republic, who are one step above the US), along with South Africa, Israel, India, East Timor, Brazil, Thailand, Ukraine and a panoply of African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Below the flawed democracies lie the hybrid regimes; these include Hong Kong (a notional democracy with Communist China keeping it on a leash), Singapore (a model of "managed democracy"), Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, Palestine and Russia. And at the bottom are authoritarian regimes, including the usual suspects: Cuba, China, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Saudi Arabia and such. It will surprise few to learn that the bottom spot is held by North Korea, with a score of 1.08 out of 10, followed by Chad, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Burma.
The press release states that the democracy ratings are worse than in previous years, with democracy declining across the world. Several factors are cited for this decline, including the economic crisis, the War On Terror, and declining confidence in political institutions. The press release also says that the crisis may have increased the attractiveness of the Chinese authoritarian model.
The scale of the rankings is, of course, not scientific. A rating of 9.8/10, as Norway has, would suggest that 98% of policy is decided at the ballot box, rather than in negotiations with other states, interest groups, bondholders and the like. And if 81.6% of Britain's decisions were democratically made, grossly unpopular decisions like trebling university tuition fees or invading Iraq would not have happened. One could imagine a more accurate scale, which estimates what percentage of a country's public affairs are decided through democratic discourse. A better measure would also have to take into account media pluralism, the education levels of the public, and access to unfiltered information; if a country's media is controlled by a few media tycoons, the will of the people will act as a low-pass filter on their opinions.
John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, claims that the internet has broken the US political system, with the deluge of information rendering the country "ungovernably information-rich":
Barlow also said that President Barack Obama's election, driven largely by small donations, has fundamentally changed American politics. He said a similar bottom-up structure is needed for governing as well. "It's not the second coming, everything won't get better overnight, but that made it possible to see a future where it wasn’t simply a matter of money to define who won these things," Barlow said. "The government could finally start belonging to people eventually."That's one perspective; another one is that the true stakeholders are not the plebeians who vote but the corporations who buy government bonds, and that, to keep an economy stable, the levers of power have to be moved well out of reach of the ignorant rabble and those who would pander to them; i.e., that governments' hands have to be tied by international treaties on anything that might affect the bottom line, reserving democracy for largely symbolic issues. Of course, with the people empowered from the edges by new tools, and the stakeholders pushing to seize more power, things could end up getting ugly.
A study by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism has revealed that more than half of news stories in Australia were spin, driven by public relations. The Murdoch tabloids were the worst, with 70% of stories in the Daily Telegraph being PR-driven, while the Fairfax "quality" papers are as good as it gets; only 42% (only 42%!) of stories in the Sydney Morning Herald were PR-driven.
These statistics probably say as much about the Australian media landscape as anything else. Australia's media is quite homogenised and uncompetitive; a handful of proprietors have the mass media sewn up (there are two newspaper proprietors and about three commercial TV networks). The lack of competition has resulted in low standards of quality; for example, the Fairfax papers (The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are the biggest ones) are generally regarded to be the "quality" papers, but compared to the British equivalents (such as The Guardian and The Independent), they come out poorly, heavy on the sex, sensationalism and celebrity gossip and light on content and analysis. (The effect gets worse as one moves away from Sydney and Melbourne; for several weeks a few years ago, the most-read story on the front page of Fairfax's Perth paper was "Man gets penis stuck in pasta jar".) Or compare The Australian (Murdoch's "serious" paper in Australia) to its UK equivalent, The Times: The Australian is more nakedly biased.
The Australian press, controlled by an incestuous oligopoly and not subjected to the indignity of competition, has become a stagnant pond. (Australian television, mind you, is much worse.) This is bad news for the kind of discourse required to sustain a mature democracy; a public fed simplified half-truths leavened with gratuitous doses of sensationalism will be in no state to engage on a meaningful level in debate about where their country is heading, leaving all that boring stuff to technocrats and vested interests. The internet provides some competition, but the alarming open-ended censorship firewall plans (all content "refused classification" will be filtered; this includes sites advocating euthanasia, illegal drug use (including offering safety advice) or video games unsuitable for children; the list itself will be a state secret, giving plenty of scope for other sites to be "accidentally" banned if convenient to do so) which look set to become law before the next election, leave a lot of scope for rival sources to be nobbled. (Not surprisingly, the Australian press has been quiet about the plans, echoing the official line that the plans are to "combat paedophilia" and are opposed only by some anarchistic extremists.) As such, it doesn't surprise me if Australia's press oligarchs make the most of their privileged position and cut costs by bulking their papers out with press releases to a greater extent than in more competitive markets.
(via Boing Boing)
President Barack Obama has been sworn in, and the door swings closed on the Bush era (and good riddance too).
For what it's worth, here is the text of Obama's inaugural address (thanks to
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.
To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.Also, for perhaps the first time, Obama explicitly includes atheists and nonbelievers in the idea of America in his speech, arguably the highest-profile inclusion of atheism since the McCarthy-era administration put "In God We Trust" on the dollar.
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.Were I American, I would be pretty proud of my country now. Though, of course, fine words butter no parsnips, and Obama will be judged on his deeds. Still, at the very worst, he will be a stellar improvement over Bush.
Update: The inestimable Mr. Frogworth informs me that, right on cue, whitehouse.gov has been replaced with a newer model. The new, Obama-era site has a blog, with an actual RSS feed, though only headings on the front page. Though more Presidential use of new media is promised:
Transparency -- President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history, and WhiteHouse.gov will play a major role in delivering on that promise. The President's executive orders and proclamations will be published for everyone to review, and that’s just the beginning of our efforts to provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government. You can also learn about some of the senior leadership in the new administration and about the President’s policy priorities.
Participation -- President Obama started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he saw firsthand what people can do when they come together for a common cause. Citizen participation will be a priority for the Administration, and the internet will play an important role in that. One significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.If the Whitehouse sticks to these plans, this will be a bold precedent for democracy in the age of post-broadcast media, and one which other democracies will sooner or later have to follow.
The street finds its own uses for things; in this case, the things are iPhones (though the concept could easly be ported to other, less fashionable, smart phones; an Android version is in the works), and "the street" is FixMyStreet, a system that lets you notify the relevant public authorities of any local problems. At least it does if you live in Britain, where the system runs,.
Meanwhile, Namco have decided to milk the Katamari cash cow once more, with a version for the iPhone:
No new twists here; just an adaptation of the classic Katamari game. It uses the iPhone (and iPod Touch)'s tilt sensor as a control mechanism. Unfortunately, the hardware seems to be a bit too slow; when I tried it on my first-generation iPod Touch, it ran infuriatingly slowly. (Perhaps the second generation will work better with it?) The fact that the developers kept the screen-warping effects when you reach a size milestone probably doesn't help either. As such, I can't recommend buying this unless you're desperate for a Katamari fix.
On a tangent: I wonder how Keita Takahashi is getting on with Noby Noby Boy. I haven't heard much about it for a while.
(via Gulfstream, Boing Boing Gadgets)
In the 1990s, Two Russian-born, US-based conceptual artists calling themselves Komar and Melamid created what they intend to be the world's most unlikeable song. The 22-minute opus is assembled from a palette of elements determined (through a poll) to be the least desirable aspects of songs, and includes things like an operatic soprano rapping about cowboys over a tuba-backed bassline and bagpipe breaks, a children's choir singing inane holiday ditties and advertising Wal-Mart, and someone shouts political slogans over elevator music. It is, in its own way, awesome:
The most unwanted music is over 25 minutes long, veers wildly between loud and quiet sections, between fast and slow tempos, and features timbres of extremely high and low pitch, with each dichotomy presented in abrupt transition. The most unwanted orchestra was determined to be large, and features the accordion and bagpipe (which tie at 13% as the most unwanted instrument), banjo, flute, tuba, harp, organ, synthesizer (the only instrument that appears in both the most wanted and most unwanted ensembles). An operatic soprano raps and sings atonal music, advertising jingles, political slogans, and "elevator" music, and a children's choir sings jingles and holiday songs. The most unwanted subjects for lyrics are cowboys and holidays, and the most unwanted listening circumstances are involuntary exposure to commercials and elevator music. Therefore, it can be shown that if there is no covariance—someone who dislikes bagpipes is as likely to hate elevator music as someone who despises the organ, for example—fewer than 200 individuals of the world's total population would enjoy this piece.Komar and Melamid also produced what their research pointed to as America's most wanted song; it's somewhat less interesting, being a schmaltzy assemblage of Kenny G-esque sax, FM electric piano, R&B female vocals and husky male vocals, not to mention the obligatory guitar solo and not one but two truck driver's gear changes. It is, quite literally, a statistical average of early-1990s commercial radio music; if you're morbidly curious, there's a MP3 here. They also did a survey of what the American public liked to see most in paintings, and produced the resulting work of art, an autumnal landscape with wild animals, a family enjoying the outdoors—and, standing in the middle of it, George Washington.
From the artists' own website:
In an age where opinion polls and market research invade almost every aspect of our "democratic/consumer" society (with the notable exception of art), Komar and Melamid's project poses relevant questions that an art-interested public, and society in general often fail to ask: What would art look like if it were to please the greatest number of people? Or conversely: What kind of culture is produced by a society that lives and governs itself by opinion polls?
(via Boing Boing)
Blogging has been sparse over the past few days, as Your Humble Correspondent has been away in Berlin.
Anyway, a round-up of things I've noticed from while I was away:
- After the European University in St. Petersburg, Russia, got involved in an EU-funded project to ensure the fairness of the election process, the Russian authorities shut down the university, claiming that it is a "fire hazard". Opposition figures accuse the Kremlin of moving Russia back towards totalitarianism (or is the goal a Singapore-style "managed democracy"?)
- While we're on the subject of democracy, Charlie Stross weighs in on why forms of democracy are becoming increasingly prevalent these days, with even otherwise illiberal regimes adopting aspects of democracy, rather than autocratic systems.
Anyway. Here we have three ways in which democracy is less bad than rival forms of government: it usually weeds out lunatics before they can get their hands on the levers of power, it provides a valuable pressure relief valve for dissent, and it handles succession crises way better than a civil war.
- Barack Obama, it seems, is doing well in the US primaries; so much so that someone in the Clinton campaign seemingly decided to resort to dog-whistle politics and took it upon themselves to circulate photos of him wearing scarily Middle-Eastern-looking attire, in the hope that enough Texans are sufficiently prejudiced to be unable to vote for someone whose name not only sounds like "Osama" but who once wore similar headgear.
- After writing a piece on the mainstreaming of neo-folk music, Momus has discovered Emmy The Great. His great revelation has little to do with her music, mind you, and much to do with her being young, (half-)Asian and fanciable.
- Apple have finally released a new MacBook Pro. It gets the Air's multi-touch trackpad, and the usual quantitative bump in specifications, alas, a higher-resolution screen isn't isn't among them, so if you want 1600 pixels across on something that doesn't look comically oversized, you'll have to buy a Windows machine.
- Meanwhile, Microsoft have been slapped with a US$1.4bn fine by the EU, as well as having made vague promises of being more open in future, and apparently they're working on a Windows Vista-based GNU rival named UNG ("just like GNU, only without all that pesky freedom").
Berlin, for what it's worth, was great; four days, though, is nowhere near enough time to see everything and enjoy the city. Though I was surprised that the attendants on the Deutsche Bahn sleeper train didn't seem to speak English. Hopefully they'll remedy this by the time they start running services through the Channel Tunnel.
For what it's worth, photos are being uploaded here.
When voters in Chicago found that the pens they were given to mark ballot papers didn't work, the officials told them not to worry, as the pens contained invisible ink, which would be counted by the scanners. Surprisingly, 20 people accepted this and turned in blank ballot papers.
(via Boing Boing)
As the US braces itself for another bitterly contested Presidential election, computer-crime experts are warning that it's only a matter of time before botnets, phishing and DOS attacks are used to nobble campaigns or disenfranchise voters:
Dirty tricks are not new. On US election day in 2002, the lines of a "get-out-the-voters" phone campaign sponsored by the New Hampshire Democratic Party were clogged by prank calls. In the 2006 election, 14000 Latino voters in Orange County, California, received letters telling them it was illegal for immigrants to vote.
Calls could even be made using a botnet. This would make tracing the perpetrator even harder, because calls wouldn't come from a central location. What's more, the number of calls that can be made is practically limitless.
Internet calls might also be made to voters to sow misinformation, says Christopher Soghoian at Indiana University in Bloomington. "Anonymous voter suppression is going to become a reality."
An independent commission has launched a report on how to revive public faith in British democracy. The Power commission's Power to the People report claims that political parties are killing politics; its proposals include the replacement of first-past-the-post voting with a system that ensures that all votes count towards the final outcome (one suggested alternative is the single transferable vote system, which is used in Australia and known as "preferential voting"), as well as curbing the powers of party whips, devolving more power to local authorities and reducing the voting age to 16.
Mind you, the report also proposes allowing the public to initiate legislation. If that is brought in, I suspect the bloody-minded types who keep the Daily Mail in business will have a field day submitting laws reinstating capital punishment/public flogging/disembowelment of suspected paedophiles/asylum seekers/Gypsy travellers/drug users/"scum" and such. There probably is such a thing as too much democracy.
The successful Iraqi election, with its broad participation of all ethnic groups and relative lack of bloodshed, has sent Bush's approval rating soaring; however, looking more closely at the situation, the triumph of democracy looks rather hollow. The country is divided along sectarian lines, hardline Islamists dominate all three parts of it, and the pro-Western secularists Washington had hoped would prevail look like getting fewer seats in the new parliament than the hostage-beheading militants. In short, Iraq seems to be fissioning into two or three theocracies, with the Shia faction enthusiastically joining Iran's (Ahmadine-)jihad against Israel and the West and the Sunni part becoming an al-Qaeda fiefdom not unlike Taliban Afghanistan; either that or the whole country turning into Somalia.
"People underestimate how religious Iraq has become," said one Iraqi observer. "Iran is really a secular society with a religious leadership, but Iraq will be a religious society with a religious leadership." Already most girls leaving schools in Baghdad wear headscarves. Women's rights in cases of divorce and inheritance are being eroded.
The Demos thinktank in the UK claims that democracy is facing a crisis of legitimacy, with the public losing faith in the trustworthiness of leaders and the integrity of the political process. This appears to be result of the Blair Doctrine, which holds that in the short term, honesty is a liability and a mastery of weasel words and spin, a good relationship with the press and a faith in the public's short attention span are what counts.
It probably also has to do with the disconnexion between the polite fiction of democratic accountability and the reality of where the power really rests. For example, it's likely that Blair had no choice but to do whatever Washington ordered as far as Iraq went (as Britain has surrendered most foreign-policy sovereignty to the US since World War 2, though maintains the illusion of being an autonomous world power, even having a nuclear arsenal of its own (operated by US technicians)), and to spin it increasingly tortuously into the context of an independent decision, with increasingly bizarre results.
Anyway, the article claims that the main parties have become obsessed with a "strong leader myth", and that the solution is to recast democracy to the neighbourhood level. It is reported that Downing Street has been listening, and is "experimenting with new more direct forms of consultation with the electorate", "experimenting with" presumably translating as "looking at ways to rig".
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have their own crisis with claims that Charles Kennedy has adopted his own version of the Blair Doctrine and put the party too much under the influence of campaign strategists.
Tonight, I went along to the Open Knowledge Forum, which Cory Doctorow posted about on bOING bOING. It was fairly interesting.
They had several speakers, most of them originators of various projects to make civic data accessible to and easily navigable by the people who have a stake in politics (read: you and me); there was one of the authors of the genuinely awesome They Work For You and the connected Public Whip project, as well as someone from MySociety, the troublemakers behind FaxYourMP, WriteToThem.com, and the BBC's iCan project. And, toward the end, Cory spoke from behind his sticker-covered PowerBook and recounted his work with the EFF, recent happenings at the World Intellectual Property Organization (which he's in Europe to keep an eye on), new database copyright laws which allow organisations to own facts, and more.
Some interesting points came up: that non-profit projects in the public interest should not ask for permission before using government data (both for tactical reasons, namely, had they done so, they would have been kept waiting for much longer than it took to code the project and subjected to onerous restrictions, and moral reasons, i.e., a permission-based democracy not being a democracy), that such projects are not about "political reengagement" or restoring some lost state, but about reinventing democracy, and that a few Crown Copyrighted data sets, such as the (heavily monetised) Ordnance Survey geographic data and the Royal Mail's copyright on postcodes, are still impeding the ability to make civic information available freely (and free means free-as-in-speech, including the freedoms to syndicate, modify and incorporate information into other things).
WASHINGTON, Sept. 3 (1967) -- United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.
The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the nation election based on the incomplete returns reaching here.
Foreign Policy (that's the Carnegie Endownment magazine, not the
Illuminati Council on Foreign Relations one) has a set of articles on eight of the World's Most Dangerous Ideas, such as War on Evil, Transhumanism (by Francis "End of History" Fukuyama), Spreading Democracy (by Marxist academic Eric Hobsbawm), Religious Intolerance, and Anti-Americanism. (via FmH)
An airliner headed from London to Washington was recently diverted to Bangor, Maine, so that former folk singer Yusuf Islam could be removed and deported. Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens and currently an outspoken moderate Muslim, is apparently on the US Department of Homeland Security's blacklist of potential terrorists. Laziness and bigotry, or do the DHS know something we don't about Yusuf Islam?
While on the subject of blacklists, millions of Americans (predominantly blacks and those from lower socioeconomic strata) are still being barred or discouraged from voting. This ranges from laws in ex-Confederate states preventing those with criminal convictions from ever voting to official letters intimidating those likely to have outstanding bills with the threat of arrest.
Someone has plotted a chart of terror alerts against Bush's approval rating. The conclusions are, to the cynically-inclined, completely unsurprising: (via bOING bOING)
There are few things that are quite evident from the chart:
- Whenever his ratings dip, there's a new terror alert.
- Every terror alert is followed by a slight uptick of Bush approval ratings.
- As we approach the 2004 elections, the number and frequency of terror alerts keeps growing, to the point that they collapse in the graphic. At the same time, Bush ratings are lower than ever.
Meanwhile, it appears that some mysterious conspirators are removing Americans from the electoral rolls by sending false change-of-address cards in their names. The local electoral commission, apparently, doesn't do anything to authenticate these. (via Charlie's Diary)
They Work For You, the website which makes British Parliamentary politics searchable and browsable, and, with any luck, politicians more answerable to the public affected by their decisions, has now released its complete source code. Any volunteers for putting one of these in Canberra?
Another use of technology to make democracy more of a reality (as opposed to just voting for who'll take orders from the people that matter for the next 3 to 4 years): TheyWorkForYou.com, from the team that created FaxYourMP.com, takes the text of Hansard, the transcript of debates in Britain's House of Commons, and converts it into a threaded, linkable discussion form, not unlike, say, LiveJournal or something. Not only that, but it keeps tabs on MPs, including biographies, lists of their interests (shares, board memberships and such, as well as details of overseas trips and gifts received), how often they speak, performance in replying to faxes, and how often they rebel against their own party line. Here's Tony Blair, for example, and the ultra-groovy member for West Bromwich East.
This sort of system promises to reinvigorate democracy and hold politicians to be more accountable to their constituents. (Do you know what your MP has been doing?) I hope that the TheyWorkForYou team plan on releasing the code, because this sort of thing should be exported to other parliamentary democracies. I'd like to see one in Canberra, keeping tabs on Federal Parliament, for one, and ones for state Parliaments; not to mention US Congress, the EU Parliament, and so on. (via bOING bOING)
Remember all those claims about how the internet was to render tyranny and authoritarianism unviable and usher in a global blossoming of democracy, pluralism and liberty? Well, according to this article, that's not happening, and if anything, the web is helping to reinforce authoritarian regimes and dissipate dissent:
Singaporean dissident Gomez says the Web empowers individual members of a political movement, rather than the movement as a whole. Opposition members can offer dissenting opinions at will, thus undermining the leadership and potentially splintering the organization. In combating an authoritarian regime, in other words, there's such a thing as too much democracy. Two of the most successful opposition movements of the last few decades--the South African opposition led by Nelson Mandela and the Burmese resistance led by Aung San Suu Kyi--relied upon charismatic, almost authoritarian leaders to set a message followed by the rest of the movement. The anti-globalization movement, by contrast, has been a prime example of the anarchy that can develop when groups utilize the Web to organize. Allowing nearly anyone to make a statement or call a meeting via the Web, the anti-globalizers have wound up with large but unorganized rallies in which everyone from serious critics of free trade to advocates of witches and self-anointed saviors of famed death-row convict Mumia Abu Jumal have their say. To take just one example, at the anti-globalization World Social Forum held in Mumbai in January, nuanced critics of globalization like former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz shared space with, as The New York Times reported, "a long list of regional causes," including anti-Microsoft and anti-Coca Cola activists.
In China, the Web has similarly empowered the authorities. In the past two decades, Beijing's system of monitoring the population by installing informers into businesses, neighborhoods, and other social institutions has broken down--in part because the Chinese population has become more transient and in part because the regime's embrace of capitalism has meant fewer devoted Communists willing to spy for the government. But Beijing has replaced these legions of informers with a smaller group of dedicated security agents who monitor the Internet traffic of millions of Chinese.
Though the article suggests more that the effects of the internet will be slower to take effect, and more long-term. While China has clamped down on anti-government dissent more or less effectively, Chinese environmental activists are organising in ways they would have been unable to before; meanwhile, a new generation of urban Chinese are used to more freedom of choice and cultural expression, and the Communist Party has been forced to enshrine private property and human rights in law (not that that necessarily changes much, but it will). Maybe if we check back in 20 years' time, the verdict on the liberating potential of the internet will be different.
Then again, with the intellectual-property interests which increasingly make up most of the West's economies pushing for "trusted computing" systems, which could just as easily be used to stop samizdat as MP3 sharing, and the increasing will (on the part of both the public and legislators) to accept mechanisms of surveillance and control unthinkable three years ago to defend against an asymmetric terrorist threat, perhaps the liberating potential of computers has peaked, and it can only go downhill from here?
Accelerated Democracy is a sie looking at four technological possible future scenarios in which technology is used to enhance the democratic process. These include personal voting agents, vote value being based on participation, location-based referenda and post-vote tracking of election promises; all are illustrated with mock-ups of products, screen shots and newspapers, and point-counterpoint arguments.
It is an interesting exercise, if a bit light on consideration of risks and unintended consequences in places. For example, the site doesn't raise the possibility that if a voter's vote is made proportional to their amount of participation, the very fact that the "one person, one vote" formula has been broken opens the possibilities of the vote value formula being tweaked in a partisan fashion to advantage one side or another. (Theoretically the agency handling this would be independent, though in practice, the question is how much money must be spent and/or how many levels of political appointments must be negotiated to corrupt it.) Post-vote tracking does sound feasible though, and a simple advisory form of it could be implemented today by groups of enthusiasts with websites. (via bOING bOING)
A fascinating article from Clay Shirky on why A Group Is Its Own Enemy, exploring some of the patterns of human behaviour in groups (in the context of "social software").
The article makes some interesting points: there are 3 patterns which pop up in groups: sex talk/flirting, vilification of external enemies (e.g., Penguinheads railing against Microsoft, or indeed left-wing and right-wing bloggers accusing each other of eating babies) and quasi-religious veneration of figures beyond criticism (i.e., try criticising part of an author's work on a group full of his fans and you'll get flamed for your diligence). Also, anarchy doesn't scale, and neither does naïve direct democracy; any group beyond the limits of a small social group (which Shirky doesn't mention, but which Malcolm Gladwell places at 150 people in The Tipping Point) needs a constitution, some form of hierarchy with different strata of participation and decidedly undemocratic and perhaps authoritarian powers for the core group (the "Listmoms" of a certain mailing list I'm on would be one example), in the interest of defending the group and its culture. Examples of the failure of egalitarian direct democracy include a 1970s bulletin board having been shut down after becoming infested with high-schoolers, and a campaign by Chinese Internet users to vote down the creation of soc.culture.tibet:
Imagine today if, in the United States, Internet users had to be polled before any anti-war group could be created. Or French users had to be polled before any pro-war group could be created. The people who want to have those discussions are the people who matter. And absolute citizenship, with the idea that if you can log in, you are a citizen, is a harmful pattern, because it is the tyranny of the majority.
Shirky also makes the point that users should have identities (or "handles") they can invest reputation in, that there be some sort of member-in-good-standing mechanism, and that there be barriers to participation. And he knows; having been on Usenet since the early nineties, he watched it implode under the influx of The September That Never Ended.
All in all, an article well worth reading, whether you're a social-software/smart-mobs digerato, an anarchist/libertarian social theorist, a scifi writer looking to build a plausible fictional utopia, or just a student of human psychology. (via Graham)
The street finds its own uses for things; those camera-equipped mobile phones, for example, are ideal for vote-rigging, as the Italian Mafia have discovered:
Here's the idea: you promise a voter 50 euros (31 pounds) to cast their ballot for your candidate, send them into the booth with a 3G phone, they send a picture via the phone proving that they have voted as instructed and then they get the cash.
(via bOING bOING)
A thought-provoking essay on the decline of the idea of democracy in the US and McWorld:
There are plenty of signs of our democratic dysfunction, beginning with the fact that we're sending a bunch of generals and corporate executives - professionally groomed to honor anti-democratic procedures - to do the job. Then there is the most elitist media in American history demonstrating its love for democratic debate by blacklisting voices of dissent before and during the Iraq invasion, turning its airwaves over to spooks and military brass, and embedding itself without a hint of skepticism in the administration's agitprop.
'Customer' and 'consumer' were not the only words being used to change the nature of citizenship. David Kemmis, the mayor of Missoula, MT, pointed out that the word 'taxpayer' now "regularly holds the place which in a true democracy would be occupied by 'citizen.' Taxpayers bear a dual relationship to government, neither half of which has anything at all to do with democracy. Taxpayers pay tribute to the government and they receive services from it. So does every subject of a totalitarian regime. What taxpayers do not do, and what people who call themselves taxpayers have long since stopped even imagining themselves doing, is governing."
October 18 is Media Democracy Day, a day of awareness of and protest against homogeneisation and corporate control of the media, and the media's undermining of democracy by shaping the public awareness. Sounds like a worthy cause; whether it'll achieve anything is another matter.
The World's Greatest Democracy: According to this article, the company which makes all the voting machines used in US elections is owned by Republican-affiliated companies. The software in the machines is, thanks to hard lobbying, proprietary and thus not open to external scrutiny. Which is not to say that the machines are designed to rig elections; just that things look somewhat fishy, and if the manufacturers decided to give the voters a hand in making their choice, they'd have an easier time of it. (via Stumblings)
A good interview with Hacktivismo founder Oxblood Ruffin, where he talks about pro-democracy technologies, and Western technology companies' complicity in totalitarian control regimes and also claims that the Klez virus is likely to have been the work of the Chinese Public Security Bureau. (via bOING bOING)
Putting paid to the clichés of alien god-emperors or insectile hive minds, a Professor of Psychology in California reckons that alien civilisations would have democracy. Prof. Albert Harrison of the University of California Davis claims that any civilisation having developed the technology to send signals into space is likely to have evolved to democracy, or something like it. Though I suspect that that involves too many assumptions of the aliens being humanlike, and not all that far from saying that they're likely to have reality TV, fast-food franchises and sports-utility vehicles, because we do.
I'd also doubt the assumption that democratic alien civilisations would be likely to be friendly and peaceful towards Earth if we ever make contact. Democracies aren't automatically peaceful; in fact, in the appropriate conditions, a democracy can become an irrational mob baying for the blood of real or imagined enemies. If enough of the alien populace was persuaded (by a pliant media or an influential orator, or some equivalents thereof) that Earth posed a threat, I suspect they'd be likely to vote to asteroid-bomb us out of existence before we do the same to them.
Of course, how alien psychology and decision-making (including perception of risks, aggression, altruism and such) would work would depend on the evolutionary conditions that shaped their neurology, much as human psychology depends on the hunter-gatherer condition.
Democracy is not a spectator sport: A good Slashdot feature about the coming crackdown on freedoms and civil liberties in the US (and elsewhere too, most probably), and more importantly: how you can fight for your rights:
Rep. Rivers says phone calls "...have a sense of personal contact to them," and this makes them the most effective grassroots lobbying tool. "Stick to one issue," she advises. "Don't come up with a laundry list."
"The House [of Representatives] is ruled by brute force." ... the "unanimous" vote that got DMCA through the House was not really unanimous at all; that the bill got through a committee dominated by a powerful chairman (which is how bills generally get to the floor for a vote) and that the Speaker called for a voice vote. "Most yelled 'Aye,'" Rivers said, and some yelled 'Nay.'" The voices yelling "Aye" were the loudest, so DMCA passed by acclamation.
If you live in the US and are concerned about the erosion of your remaining rights (both in terms of privacy/crypto and in terms of things like the SSSCA), read it and, for the love of "Bob", act on it. If you don't live in the US, read it anyway as it's bound to be relevant soon if not now. (And if you aren't concerned, wake up and look around you.)