Thursday, 23 March 2006

Mislabelling liberals

Liberals: the bogeymen of US politics. It's tempting, but condescending, to say that Americans don't fully understand what "liberal" means, but there is a better explanation for their 'misuse' of the word. In the US "liberal" means socially liberal, which conservative America can't handle. Economic and political liberalism, at least, is what that country is founded on, but for various reasons a large part of that nation has chosen to despise those among them who see abortion and religion as matters of choice.

BarryNYC's comment on this discussion of Belarus is an illuminating, though maybe not entirely representative, example. Notice that Barry isn't using liberal as an adjective, but a noun: He doesn't call Timothy Garton Ash "liberal", but "a liberal". This might seem like a petty distinction put in those terms, but what it reveals is a combatative attitude where 'liberals' can be pitted against... well, "conservatives" (it seems to be a positive word over the Atlantic), "patriots", and the like. "Liberal" doesn't appear as an adjective, as a property that could change, or one that might be 'in the eye of the beholder', but instead is seen as an essential category that Garton Ash belongs to, just as we might say he is a man.

This is the kind of language that George W. Bush, "The President of Good and Evil", is both a cause and a sympton of. It's the black and white world of "Us against Them", leaving little room for shades of grey — that is, serious debate. Demonising your opponents and making generalisations like that is dangerously divisive, and injects hostility into politics, as well as leading to ridiculous misunderstandings — according to Barry, liberals were fond of the Soviet Union. No, Barry, that's communists you're thinking of (and it's not even all of them).

But apart from the rhetoric of political battle, the major mistake made in the US in terms of labelling is that 'liberal' is too often equated with 'the left'. That is not what liberalism is. Since I started formally studying politics, I've became acutely aware what a great shame it is that the people of those most liberal countries (Britain and most of the rest of the EU, the US, Canada, etc.) don't even have a clear idea what liberalism is. Maybe I'm biased, but a lack of any political or philosophical education in (at least British) schools is a major and obvious flaw. People don't read or know about the classic arguments for freedom of speech and association, the tenets of liberalism, such as J. S. Mills' On Liberty.

I mentioned previously that Dr Frank Ellis, Leeds Uni's resident racist who's just been suspended, called the BNP "a little too socialist". That makes him seriously right-wing, doesn't it? Well, not necessarily. It puts Ellis to the right of the BNP, but the BNP aren't actually very right-wing. What they are is authoritarian and xenophobic — but I need not make arguments against the BNP here. The point is that this is another over-simplification: there is right and there is left, the two are mutually exclusive, and if you're on one side, the other is your enemy.

Politics is not simple. You can't see every party or politician as simply either left-wing or right-wing. That's not to say those distinctions aren't useful — they are, as long as you recognise at least one other dichotomy: libertarianism and authoritarianism, as shows. Even their grid isn't ideal in some cases, but every model is a simplification, and we use each of them as far as they are useful. We need to remember this, because the labels we derive from those models are always simplifications too, and sometimes they go terribly wrong.

Saturday, 18 March 2006

Dr Frank Ellis: illiberal nonsense

I witnessed Thursday's protest against Dr Ellis. Students and staff were abundant, with Unite Against Fascism and the ever-present Revolution Society in attendance. I didn't count "more than 300" as The Guardian did; any more than the 200 counted by Leeds Student seems optimistic. However many of them there were, I couldn't help but think it was too many chanting "Ellis Ellis Ellis, out out out". They're meeting his illiberal nonsense with their own.*

In an interview a few weeks ago in Leeds Student he talked about his views on the 'Bell Curve theory' and talked about his dislike of multiculturalism and feminism. He's been quoted numerous times in the national press as saying that the British National Party are "a little too socialist" for his liking (they cite that as if it shows how extreme his views are, but that's only evident if you cling to the black-and-white left-and-right view of politics, where shades of grey only occur within a rigid linear spectrum).

I'm unsure how I feel about the whole affair. Ellis's views sound like ridiculous trite, but that on its own is certainly no reason to call for his dismissal. A large number of Leeds students have signed a petition advocating just that, and if they grounds for that dismissal is simply his racism and anti-feminism, then that's part of the illiberal nonsense I mentioned. If it's proven that Ellis discriminates between students on the basis of race or gender, then there would certainly be a case for sacking him — but no such evidence has come forward so far, as far as I'm aware.

What Ellis has done is publicise his views, which many have argued is an obstacle to equal opportunities, since it might, for example, discourage black and female students from taking Ellis's classes. That's the kind of issue the university will have to consider.

On a positive note, the protest shows that students do give a damn and do have political opinions, as LS editor Jessica Salter points out. Hopefully the controversy has brought Ellis's views, particular the dubious Bell Curve stuff, to a critical light: in Friday's LS, Gospel Ipkeme wrote about the Bell Curve and its critics. That's the kind of battle I want to see: winning the arguments, not the fights. Sacking Ellis for being racist would set quite a dangerous precedent.

*It's times like this I realise how important liberal tenets are, and how ingrained they are in our society. But enough about liberalism for now.

Sunday, 12 March 2006

BSD: The Big-Screen Documentary

I've just come across The Take, a 2004 film by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis (a Canadian couple, Klein is the writer of No Logo, Lewis is a journalist). It's about the workers' co-operatives that have sprung up in Argentina and elsewhere in South America, taking control of factories which had been abandoned by their owners during the economic crises in those countries.

The trailer begins with an evocative interviewer proposing that what the workers have done, having taken over "90 million dollars-worth of factory...for [their] own benefit", is called "stealing". Answering in Spanish with his Argentine accent, the worker suggests "there is another word: expropriation."

This idea of workers' control and ownership really interests me: it seems to be a very viable alternative to the current domination of corporate ownership in 'the means of production', to bring in the jargon. Hopefully, thanks to The Corporation, intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, and organisations like the one interviewing him at the page just linked to, CorpWatch, people will begin to realise that corporations are not a necessary part of an economy, though they do seem to be in today's world.

The co-ops seem to be doing a good job too, their products are reasonably priced and apparently their workplaces are democratic. The latter has always seemed a problem to me: while we have a good measure of democracy in the political sphere of our society, the economic sphere has remained an autocracy where the rich and powerful retain control. (Milton Friedman claims that the market is democratic, with people voting with their money, but that assumes that the rich deserve their money, and so their power, which is a very debatable point.)

The film's also an interesting part of another trend: "the Big-Screen Documentary". It follows in the footsteps of Michael Moore and the makers of The Corporation, shooting political documentaries on issues which often fall outside the usual political discourse. These films can never replace the academic rigour and detail that books and other reading sources provide, but they can bring the issues to the fore and frame a debate with often emotive images and language, but also with a balancing of arguments. And they're generally hopeful too: two-thirds of the way through The Corporation nihilism and suicide might seem like preferable options, but by the end of the film, light has emerged at the end of a dark, pessimistic tunnel.

All the above is true of another feature-length documentary which I finally saw recently, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. It's all about Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, and the failed coup attempt against him in 2002. But that's another story, and a controversial one at that: the film's been attacked as a piece of propaganda on the one hand, and hailed with 'Best Documentary' awards on the other.

It's great to see these documentaries bringing information and debate from around the world. I'll write more about Venezuela soon, and hopefully I'll get to see The Take and give you a review. But for now, here's to more BSDs!