Archive for March, 2010

‘Intolerable’ use of identity papers.

March 24, 2010

This Steve Bell cartoon accompanied The Guardian story that the Foreign secretary confirmed Britain has demanded withdrawal of Israeli diplomat following what he called ‘intolerable’ use of identity papers.

Photographer: Copyright ©Steve Bell 2010


Healthcare – victory for America’s soul?

March 24, 2010

In a New York Times News Service essay, published by The Guardian yesterday, Paul Krugman was fulsome in welcoming Sunday’s healthcare vote:

 It seems the Democrats have done it. The Senate version of health reform will become law, with an improved version coming through reconciliation. This is, of course, a political victory for Obama, and a triumph for Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. But it is also a victory for America’s soul. In the end, a vicious, unprincipled fear offensive failed to block reform. This time, fear struck out.

In the main part of his essay, he argues that Obama’s appeal before the vote was the right one.  It may not have been the clincher, but it neatly set our reasons for voting.

“Every once in a while a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country, where you have a chance to make good on those promises that you made … And this is the time to make true on that promise. We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine.”

The opposition – mostly GOPers – could never put together anything like a convincing argument a against the proposals.

….here’s what Newt Gingrich – the Republican former speaker of the House and a man celebrated by many in his party as an intellectual leader – had to say: if Democrats pass health reform, “they will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic party for 40 years” by passing civil rights legislation.

I want you to consider the contrast: on one side, [Obhama’s] closing argument was an appeal to our better angels, urging politicians to do what is right, even if it hurts their careers; on the other side, callous cynicism. Think about what it means to condemn health reform by comparing it to the Civil Rights Act. Who in modern America would say that Lyndon B Johnson did the wrong thing by pushing for racial equality? (Actually, we know who: the people at the Tea Party protest who hurled racial epithets at Democratic members of Congress on the eve of the vote.)

It is a pity that Krugman’s argument was subsequently damaged by the revelation that the Washington Post  had written that Gingrich’s was talking about Johnson’s civil rights programme  rather than to Johnson’s Great Society policies. Still, it remains true that many of the arguments against the healthcare plan were in many ways no better than the one Krugman wrongly attributed to Gingrich.

A stern warning to union bashers.

March 18, 2010

Seumas Milne forcibly reminded readers of todays edition of  The Guardian that the country (and democracy) needs the unions as much , if not more than, it ever did.

Today David Cameron ditched compassionate conservatism for vintage Thatcherism, demanding that Gordon Brown call on BA workers to cross picket lines and back those “brave workers” who wanted to go to work. His sidekick, Michael Gove, insisted Labour had reverted to “1970s socialism”. Even the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has been hailing Margaret Thatcher’s socially devastating assault on “a vested interest, the trade unions”.

There’s not much sign of the politics of the 1970s, but the Conservatives certainly seem keen to return to the industrial conflict of the 1980s. The idea that the government is in thrall to the unions doesn’t bear even the most cursory consideration. Not only have ministers, as in every other major national dispute of the past decade, backed the employer and condemned the strike – even if Brown yesterday reverted to a more even-handed call for a negotiated agreement. But during 13 years in office the government has steadfastly refused to repeal any significant part of the Thatcher anti-union legislation that has hamstrung employees from defending themselves and certainly prolonged the current BA dispute.

As anyone who has been paying the slightest attention to public life under New Labour is well aware, it is bankers and businessmen, not trade unionists, who have been calling the shots – with calamitous consequences for us all…………………

Milne’s conclusion is that:

……unions remain not just the only real mechanism for employee protection and a collective voice at work. They are also an essential vehicle to break the elite circle and open up representation in political life. The assault on them is an attack on democracy itself.

Ireland, 1641 and all that.

March 10, 2010

As the result of what is thought to be a historical decision by academics at Trinity College,  Dublin, historians, linguists, and specialists of all sorts –  as well as  members of the general public – are being invited to examine  newly transcribed witness statements taken after the Irish rebellion and massacres of 1641.

It was this rebellion that was used by Oliver Cromwell to justify his slaughter of the defeated garrisons at Drogheda and Wexford, and it is therefore important, even at this late date,  that any documents dealing with the rebellion be made available for full scrutiny.

For much of the first half of the 20th century,  the Irish government was actively discouraging publication of any historical research into the rebellion because it well knew that  some of the evidence emerging suggested that there was some basis for Cromwell’s allegations,  and that the widespreadmyth that Cromwell and supporters had always exaggerated the ferocity of the 1641 rebels was just that, a myth. .

This is how The Guardian reported reported the Trinity decision:

In what has been dubbed as the ultimate in cold case reviews, historians, linguists, software specialists and the public are being invited to trawl through newly transcribed versions of the original documents held in Trinity College, Dublin.

The 350-year-old writing is barely legible, the spelling across 19,000 pages of text erratic. The events they chronicle, however, poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for centuries, focusing attention on atrocities inflicted predominantly by dispossessed Irish Catholic rebels on Anglo-Scottish, Protestant settlers. The barbarities are still emblazoned on Orange Order banners and loyalist murals in Northern Ireland.

As late as the 1930s the Irish government intervened to prevent publication of historical research about the accounts of arson, communal murders, mass drownings, lynchings and robberies because it was deemed to contain such incendiary allegations.

Academics from Trinity College, Aberdeen and Cambridge Universities are now co-operating on a series of research projects that could not only help bring resolution to ancient quarrels but will open up a treasure house of genealogical, linguistic and census information.

Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, one of the principal investigators at Trinity, believes that new language analysis methods will allow the documents to be explored “in a way we couldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago during the Troubles”.

The rebellion, which broke out in October 1641, was a significant moment in the formation of identity in Ireland, she told the Guardian. Estimates of the numbers killed vary from 4,000 to up to 200,000. It began in Ulster but spread across the country.

The depositions were ordered by government commissioners, many of the Church of Ireland clergymen, who recorded the victims’ testimonies.

“They did it in the hope of obtaining evidence against the rebels and also as a crude form of insurance claim against lost property,” Ohlmeyer said. Cromwell’s commissioners were still taking evidence in the 1650s and the records form an extraordinarily detailed portrait of contemporary life, occupations and possessions in every Irish county.

The volumes were eventually donated to Trinity College in 1741, where they languished, rarely seen.

“In the 1930s a group of Irish scholars tried to publish them,” Ohlmeyer said. “But the Irish government blocked them because it was too contentious.

“There are about 4,000 claims altogether. Nine times out of 10 they are not far off the mark because we have other sources we can check from the period. Now we can systematically analyse how accurate they were.

“There were clearly some atrocities such as the drowning of Protestants at Portadown where around 100 people lost their lives. That year was on record as one of the coldest winters and people died of starvation and cold.

“I was most moved by the account of one man who escaped to Dublin where he heard that his wife and children had been killed. He was reported to have died of grief. There’s a lot of evidence from women, especially widows.

“The bloodletting was on both sides but Oliver Cromwell used this as justification for his [massacres at] Drogheda and Wexford. There were also a series of war crimes tribunals held by Cromwell in the 1650s.”

The multi-disciplinary project has been funded by both Irish and British research councils. Students of the Holocaust and more recent genocides – such as Rwanda and the Balkans – as well as groups supporting peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland have been among early users of the resources. It is hoped to have all the documents available online by the end of this year.

Another lead researcher, Barbara Fennell, a senior lecturer in language and linguistics at the University of Aberdeen, said: “These depositions tell us a lot about what English was like at the time.

“We hope to be able to synthesise some of the voices and make recordings of what they would have sounded like. They will be real echoes of the past.

“We know that different commissioners had different manners of speaking and writing. The language analysis software should be able to match up styles of speaking and writing … so it may give us insights into any bias of evidence being introduced by a third party’s influence. The historians say that Cromwell exaggerated the accounts to justify his actions. Is there any evidence of that as it was being written down?

“These collections are unique in early modern times. It is like doing a cold case review in the sense that we are using modern technological advances to provide insights into old evidence.”

An illustration showing images from the 1641 rising by Catholic rebels of an alleged massacre of Protestants during the Irish rebellion known as the Depositions. Photograph: Board of Trinity College/PA

Genetic patenting – Donna Dickenson

March 10, 2010

In an article first published  by Project Syndicate ( ) and reprinted in the 27th of Feb edition of Gulf Times, Donna Dickenson,  looks at a case in which American critics of genetic patenting are arguing in court that under  First Amendment, which protects freedoms such as speech and religion, “patents restrict patients’ freedom of access to information that might enable us to take action to protect our health”.

That is a clever argument, but is it really the source of people’s profound disquiet about genetic patenting? In talking about similar issues raised in my recent book Body Shopping, I have heard many shocked reactions to the growing commodification of human tissue, but none more generally shared than this one: how can you take out a patent on life?


But what about a gene that has not left my body? Don’t I somehow still “own” it? Don’t I have rights of control over my own body? How can a commercial firm not only deny me the right to know my own genetic profile unless I pay their fee for the diagnostic test, which might be fair enough, but also to prevent any other firm from offering me a similar test unless those firms pay it a license fee?

Proprietary rights for commercial firms over the most basic element of an individual’s genetic identity should not be enforceable. We do not have to believe in genetic determinism to find that argument compelling.

It is a pity that all of this is tucked away in obscure journals.