Freedom isn’t free

April 25, 2010

Today is the 25th April. “So what?” you might say, but in Portugal it’s quite significant, because it’s the day of the Carnation Revolution, which happened 36 years ago today in 1974. On that day, a group of military officers called the Movimento das Forças Armadas took over strategic points and overthrew the authoritarian (it’s not quite fair to call them fascist) government. They broadcast a song over the radio called Grândola Vila Morena, which had been banned by the government because its lyrics about brotherhood within a provincial town was associated with socialism. This was a sign to others that the revolution had started in Lisbon and that they should take over the other strategic points around the country. Here’s a slideshow with the song in the background.

As you can see from the pictures, people rushed out into the streets to celebrate and to support the troops, placing carnations into their gun barrels. One remarkable thing is that very few people were killed, I think it was just the 5 killed by the regime’s political police, PIDE.

I woke up at 5am this morning (a long story involving an 18 hour drinking session), and decided to go and watch the city wake up. Normally in the early morning there’s a bustle around the market, but today was Sunday so the entire city was silent except for the few people making their way home from the clubs. I walked around for a while and then sat in the square, waiting for the shop to open so I could buy a newspaper, and the only person there was a drunk homeless guy who was shouting at the top of his voice “Viva libertade! Viva a Republica! Viva democracia!” Two policemen walked past and ignored him.

I found it strange that this man of all was being so vocal about it. What liberty does he have, really? Yes, he’s not locked up, but he’s still trapped in an economic sense. He may have the right to say what he wants but why does that matter when noone’s going to listen? And what does it matter to him if the government is democratically elected or not? Either way, the state has failed to get him off the streets. Even the rest of us don’t have democracy in a very true sense, in that in the UK at least there are really only 2 feasible choices in government (well, 3 now). A socialist living the UK can’t choose to live as they please. Now I’m not saying that these things are all morally wrong, or that some of them aren’t necessary practical considerations, but it’s important to remember that countries aren’t just either ‘free’ or not, they’re not just either ‘democratic’ or not. It’s a spectrum involving a lot of different issues and we are not all the way over on one side of it, as much as politicians like to claim we are.

In fact, spreading this false idea is one way of making people blind to some of the big problems democracy has in many western countries. Our ‘democratically’ elected government helped carry out an illegal, unjustified and unpopular invasion, and it will probably never be held to account over it. It regularly lies to the public, and does things that are in its own interest rather than supporting the ideals of democracy (like supporting the Salazar regime, for example). It’s laughable to consider our system democratic when no government has had a majority of the vote since before the Second World War. Voters are torn between voting for the candidate of their choice and voting for the government of their choice, since there’s no separation between Parliament and the Cabinet, and that’s not even taking tactical voting into account.

So don’t think we live in the west and therefore everything’s ok. A lot of work went into the system we have now, and I think we’ve still got some way to go.

Beppe Grillo and V Day

October 12, 2009

Just to draw attention to a new addition to the blogroll. This is Beppe Grillo’s blog, which I’ve been reading regularly for a couple of weeks now. You can read it in English, Italian or Japanese. Grillo is an Italian comedian who has turned his attention to political reform. He is scathingly critical of the current regime there, to the point that no public Italian TV network wants him on air for fear of attracting the furore of politicians, many of whom have a big hand in the media, not least Berlusconi himself. In spite of this, he is still one of the most famous personalities in Italy, broadcasting over the internet (not easy in Italy, where internet access it quite strictly controlled), and when he did make a rare TV appearance in the 90’s the show got huge viewing numbers.

Here’s an introductory video from the New York Times. I don’t know how to embed it else I would but it’s worth watching, please do come back :P. I think ‘Va Fan Culo’ (or however you spell it) is now one of my favourite expletives. It translates quite well into the fine Scottish term, “get to fuck”.

Each post will typically have a video which obviously is in Italian, I can understand more or less because I live with an Italian and I’m used to hearing it and translating into Spanish, but there’s a nifty little tool which I’ve grown to love. If you go the the bottom right of the video and turn on captions, then subtitles come up. You can then translate these subtitles into English which I believe uses Google translate (don’t knock it, it used to be crap but it’s got much better in the last few years, although it’s still not perfect). So you can enjoy too. Here’s an example so you can see just how brilliant a public speaker Grillo is, it’s a 25 minute video outlining what the movement wants to do. You don’t have to watch it all, the part about information is the best, that starts at about 16:10.

Anyway there are two things making headlines in Italian politics at the minute. First of all is the so-called ‘Lodo Alfano’ which is a law granting immunity from prosecution to the holders of the four highest offices in Italian politics. Basically it was a means of making Berlusconi not have to face prosecution for his crimes. It works quite well in conjunction with another law which shortened the time limit of prosecutions for some offenses, mainly the ones he and his cronies have been accused of. So if he can avoid prosecutions whilst in office, and he’s been in office for more than 10 years, and a law put through by him means that after 10 years he can’t be prosecuted, well then he’s just getting off scot-free. A select Orwellian quote I read somewhere by one of his supporters was that the Prime Minister should not be seen as a ‘first among equals’ but rather ‘first above equals’. Fortunately this Lodo Alfano got struck down this week by the constitutional court, because it conflicts with an article of the Constitution which says all citizens are equal before the law, and a constitutional amendment would need to be passed to pass the law. Lots of my Italian friends are celebrating this, it seems to me that good news is few and far between in Italian politics.

The other thing is the Fiscal Shield. This is a move designed to allow 300 billion euros to move back into Italy from offshore banks and investments with just a 5% tax, which the additional guarantee of anonymity. I can’t stress how corrupt this is. Basically any money from dodgy dealings, money laundering, mafia money, tax-dodgers etc will be able to reenter the country to create a legitimate-appearing front for any other illegal activities. Brilliant. This one’s still going ahead, and the deputies of the opposition parties were noticably absent from the vote in Parliament. 24 outspoken opponents were absent, and 20 would have been enough to overturn the law, which the government had also turned into a vote of confidence, so it was a monumentally important vote.

Anyway although Grillo and his V Day movement is massive in Italy, I don’t think many people know about it outside of there. I myself had never even heard about it until my Italian flatmate mentioned it. So if you’re interested in this kind of thing, spread the word. There are hordes of like-minded people throughout the rest of the world who can do a lot of damage to the Italian government’s already terrible public image, if only they had a bit of information. It’s in the interest of democracy and liberty, something that humanists should definitely be concerned about.

Disillusioned with democracy

February 25, 2009

More specifically student democracy, but there are wider implications too. First of all the Dutch MP was banned. Then when Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church were supposed to be coming over, they got banned. I don’t agree with these people, but what the hell happened to free speech?

Anywho last week was the EUSA AGM. I always make sure I’m at these meetings and stay to the end, but this time I was in London for the AHS Launch, so instead I encouraged everyone I knew to go to kind of make up for it. Attendance is particularly important because in order for any decision to be binding, 300 people are required to vote in favour of it, or a 2/3 majority, whichever is higher ( 300 is always higher because we never get anything like 450 people). Since I’ve been here we’ve struggled to get those 300 people. And this particular AGM was really important because one of the motions was to allow referenda to take place over the internet, which would mean we’d never need the 300 people again. Out of something like 25,000 students, this should not be difficult. I got back from London and didn’t hear anything about it, so assumed that it went off without a hitch.

Then the Student paper came out and the headline was “Apathy mars General Meeting”. 180 people showed up to the meeting! Out of 25,000 students! So nothing whatsoever got passed with the numbers needed, instead it was just “the will of the students”, which effectively means nothing. I was thoroughly depressed. A few pages in was more bad news for democracy. The EUSA elections are coming up and a large number of the positions on the SRC have either not been applied for at all (!) or have only one candidate and will return uncontested. Ridiculous! What’s more, some of the sabbatical positions have only had 2 nominations! These are well paid positions which involve taking a year out of uni and vastly improving your job prospects upon graduation, there should be a queue to nominate.

And then, to cap things all off, the Christian Union tabled an amendment a week or so ago which would mean only people who could sign a declaration of faith would be able to join the society. The declaration reads:

In joining the Union I declare my faith in Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord, and I shall seek both in my life and in thought to be ruled by the teaching of the Bible.

This goes explicitly against EUSA rules which state that membership should be open to all students of the university. So I let them know my objection and in coordination with EUSA, they changed it so that anyone could join, but only people who sign the declaration can vote on governance issues. Obviously this is far from democratic, only certain people are allowed to vote? It’s blatant discrimination on religious grounds, surely? So I replied and complained again, this time also to Naomi Hunter, VPSA, saying that the new amendment may fit the wording of the EUSA constitution, but certainly not the spirit. ‘Sure, you can join the society and pay your membership, but you can’t have a say in what goes on, you’re not a Christian!’ Brilliant. What happened to one member one vote? Redefining what a member is in order to slide around the EUSA constitution is unacceptable, and EUSA say it’s fine. So I’m pissed off.