Monday, 2 January 2012

January's political viewing

Hello - happy new year and all that. Politically and economically, you shouldn't have much hope for 2012 - things can only get worse. So ease yourself into what will be an abysmal year with some entertainment.

Sarah Palin - You Betcha
At very least, we all think that Sarah Palin is a little odd, and many of us would put it less mildly. This film appeared to have set out with the intention of speaking to both pro and anti-Palin figures in her hometown of Wasilla in Alasaka and surrounding areas. But it becomes clear that her supporters are largely unwilling to speak to Nick Broomfield, leaving us with a critique from all sides. Palin's radical, unappealing political ideas are touched upon in this film - including her attempts to ban books about homosexuality from the local library and stirring up prejudice, but perhaps more revealing are string of former employees who claim they were used, abused, and discarded by Palin. From their experiences the character of a childish, petulant, and inept Mayor of Wasilla and then Governor of Alaska is revealed.

Due to Broomfield's record and clear political leanings, I suspect that the documentary must be taken with a pinch of salt. I think he travelled to Alaska hoping to find as much dirt as possible on her. Whilst this should be borne in mind when watching, it's also clear that the degree of contempt in which she is held in by numerous former colleagues - and the policy record which is explored - reveal a wholly unwholesome character. If you are not thankful that her political career now appears to be over, you should be after watching Broomfield's revealing documentary. At the very least, we are reminded of the dangers of picking politicians purely on the basis of image and style, and the utter absurdity of McCain's decision to select her as his 2008 election running mate.

Watch at:

Taking Liberties
On the whole, I'm a fan of Tony Blair - I even agree with the majority of his controversial foreign policy. However, his government oversaw a dangerous policy of putting security before liberty. In the wake of the September 11 attacks in the USA, and then the July bombings in London in 2005, it is understandable that the government sought to take quick, reactive measures to secure Britain. However, now a few years have passed, it is undoubtedly time re-assess the delicate balance between security and liberty. Whilst in theory it's easy for us to support authoritarian anti-terror measures, it is always necessary to be wary of government taking too much power in any area. We may trust the current government to use powers like detention without trial and to use anti-protest laws sensibly, but will we trust all future governments? Once a government has been allowed to trample on a number of our liberties with only minimal opposition, it's difficult to regain them and and stop further encroachments. Whilst detention without trial may today be limited to those believed to pose a threat to national security, a government with that power is always at risk of using it for illegitimate and dangerous purposes like imprisoning political opponents, or ethnic minorities, or anyone else. The argument that you only have something to fear if you're in the wrong only applies if you completely trust the government and all the employees contractors involved in implementing anti-terror measures, and the legal guidelines put in place, and if you have faith that all future governments will use it correctly. Whilst we might support ID cards to help catch criminals and reduce the risk of terrorism, there's the potential for a slippery slope into them being used for less savoury purposes. The government can effectively imprison you for a month without charging you with anything; it can put you under house arrest with no evidence of wrongdoing; or it can deport you to the USA with no evidence. We're in a dangerous situation.

The film goes through the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and put into British legislation in the Human Rights Act, pointing out how legislation and government action have circumvented or trampled wholesale on them. Most compelling and shocking are the examples given throughout the film, particularly the coaches of Iraq war protesters at the beginning of the film. I have long been sceptical of the codified human rights legislation, because it's clear that they've been misused by courts to protect criminals at the expense of victims. However, the film does highlight the necessity of having these protections. Unfortunately it's also clear that the protections don't go far enough - if a government is able to circumvent them without repercussions, then they're clearly not being properly enforced.

Its is unfortunate that the actions of Blair's government in the area of liberties allowed the Conservatives to take the moral high ground. Protection of rights and liberties need not be a right-wing argument; it should be something that the left unites to defend. We can extoll the benefits of 'big' government without resigning ourselves to fundamental freedoms being trampled on. Whilst we cannot simply ignore and forget the importance of national security, it's very clear that much of the anti-terror legislation put in place was over-zealous and dangerous.

Watch at:

The Shock Doctrine
This film is based on a book by the same name written by Naomi Klein. I started reading said book a while ago and probably got distracted by shiny things, so settled on watching the film version instead.

I don't think I like this film. It's a highly simplistic, polemic portrayal of capitalism and the West. One of the things which irritated me most was the portrayal of post-Soviet Russia as being some kind of super-capitalist paradise where all problems created could be blamed on capitalism. Any shift away from a system where everyone depends upon the state for their job and the whole economy is controlled by the state is going to have repercussions, especially when that system lasted for nearly 70 years. Furthermore, it's highly debatable whether capitalism existed or exists in Russia at all. The Heritage Foundation - a pro-free market thinktank - and the the Wall Street Journal rank Russia as being a mere 143rd for economic freedom, placing it very near to the bottom. The ranking cites such factors as very heavy regulation, high tariffs and import restrictions, and a lack of private property rights. The film makes the deliberate and gross oversimplification of pretending that decades of bureaucracy and state control magically disappeared the day the Soviet Union changed its name to Russia. Klein seems to neglect to place blame upon the corrupt government selling off contracts to a tiny number of people and businesses - apparently everything is capitalism's fault.

This simplistic approach is also applied in regards to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I gather from the film that the only reason the US and her allies went to war was because of some poorly-defined military-industrial complex. I don't doubt that there were additional less noble reasons for the invasion of Iraq other than protecting the USA's security, but to suggest that oil was the key motivator is simplistic. Evidence is picked and spun to support the argument being made. For example, the government of post-invasion Iraq being reduced in size is acknowledged by the film as being an aspect of removing Hussein's Ba'ath Party cronies from positions of power, but then it is also used as evidence of being Freidman's free market ideology at work, without any evidence or explanation being produced. In spite of this, valid points about the Iraq war are raised that do provide food for thought. The extent of private business involvement after the war does strongly suggest that there was something untoward going on. But to suggest business interests were the reason for the invasion is a stretch too far. More widely the film does raise some valid points, including highlighting America's involvement in Chile by helping to remove Allende from power and its support for brutal dictator Pincochet.

Despite its obvious biases an simplifications, the film does raise valid points and is worth a watch. Despite how some people may see it, the film doesn't provide an argument against capitalism - if it does, it's a weak one. It provides an argument against the collusion of government and business. From Pinochet, to Sri Lanka, to the banking bailout in Western nations, it is governments which allow or cause the problems to occur. This raises much further-reaching questions about how to ensure we get decent politicians, how to ensure there are limitations on relationships between government and business, and the role of government as a whole.

And please do bear in mind I'm a social democrat - I'm not making the case for unrestrained capitalism; I'm just realistic and not an ideologue. I criticise this documentary because I'm disappointed that it wasn't better, not because I'm glad it was bad.

Watch at:

A Short Stay in Switzerland
I am an emotional wreck - I even get teary-eyed at the West Wing sometimes, but even the most stone-hearted of people may have trouble not being moved by this drama. The topic of assisted suicide is becoming more important once again, with Charles Falconer's Commission on Assisted Dying set to publish its recommendations as a report this Thursday. I am a strong supporter of allowing a legal, safe means for people to end their lives and ensuring that their family are not punished for helping them to do so. There are issues with this which need to be tackled - such as trying to minimise anyone feeling they have an obligation to kill themselves in order to avoid being a burden - but anyone who blindly opposes all euthanasia because it goes against their moral or religious beliefs is simply wrong.

This moving, well-acted drama is based on the true story of Dr. Anne Turner, charting her experience with dementia. Turner, after much considering and having struggled with her debilitating disease, chooses to end her life. Because of the laws in the UK, she is forced to travel to Switzerland to do this, accompanied by her children.

The drama raises many issues, though clearly leads us to conclude that the current criminalisation of the family of those who choose to die is wrong. The absurdity of having to travel abroad and pay a great deal of money to die is also highlighted. Whatever your view of euthanasia, you must agree that it being accessible to the wealthy and not everyone else is wrong.

Watch at: (the link goes to part one - the other parts can also be found on Youtube)

Let's begin 2012 on a high note before reality takes over:

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