Pride Week – A Time For Tolerance

It’s currently World Pride Week (with the main march happening this year in Toronto), and a time in which many local gay pride marches also take place around the world. Such parades are well-known, at least in the west, for their fun atmosphere, with dancing, drinking, colorful clothing, and people getting sprayed with water pistols. But Pride Week also offers us an opportunity for a deeper reflection on issues of morality and human rights.

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It’s not particularly controversial to say that many people around the world are not big fans of alternative lifestyles that include homosexuality, bisexuality, transgendered people, or any of the many other identities that fall under the Pride banner. In Russia, gay pride marches are often attacked by extreme right-wingers, with collusion from the police. But even in supposedly tolerant countries like the US, a large number of people in a significant proportion of the country are at best uncomfortable with LGBT people, and often actively hostile to them. Sometimes this is for religious reasons, sometimes because of arguments about morality, and sometimes simply because of a visceral personal feeling with no real reason to back it up.

Most people reading this blog live in free countries, where they allowed to think whatever they like about anyone they choose, and so holding these opinions is fine, even if it is unjustified. But we must always remember that our opinions are simply that – opinions, which should have no bearing on whether or not LGBT people receive basic human rights.

In places like Uganda (and, again, even the US and Russia) many gay people are in fear for their lives and can be sent to prison or even killed for their sexuality. Whatever your beliefs about LGBT people, this is undoubtedly wrong – nobody deserves to die simply because of who they have sex with. Lesser examples of discrimination also abound – gay couples being turned away by motels or inns, for example; or, of course, the struggle over allowing gay men and women to marry. Again, whether we officially call it marriage or not, it would be wrong to stop LGBT people from expressing their love for one another and receiving the many benefits that the state gives to married couples.

These are basic human rights to equal treatment and dignity that we are talking about, and we must support these rights for all people if we are to support them for anyone. If we start to say that some people are not worthy of such rights because of their sexuality, then we can have no complaints when others start saying we do not deserve the same rights – perhaps because of our race, our gender, or our religion.

Homosexuality is not a choice, nor is it a disease, and it is certainly not something we should fear or try to eradicate or hide from view. It has been a part of society since history began (read anything about the Ancient Greeks if you don’t believe me!), and we need to start treating it in the sensible, mature manner which it deserves. We can start by saluting the tolerant countries and communities that have taken in gay Ugandan refugees who fear for their lives, who have worked with vulnerable young people to stamp out homophobic bullying, and who are happy to welcome and take part in the pride parades of their towns and cities. And we can wish everyone, gay, straight, or anything else, a happy World Pride Week and a tolerant, understanding future.

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The end of the road for Yasuni National Park

In the last week the news has finally come out that Ecuador has signed official agreements with regards to drilling for oil in the Yasuni National Park. We all knew this was coming after recent leaks telling us that the government was in negotiations, but this is still an extremely sad day for those of us who value the environment and look to promote cleaner energy sources. This drilling agreement reflects badly on all of us, not just the Ecuadorian government – it essentially represents a failure of imagination on the part of the international community.

Yasuni, on the eastern border of Ecuador with Peru, is considered one of the most biologically diverse regions on the entire planet – in fact, by many standards it is literally the most diverse place in the world. Even in terms of human beings, the area contains at least two completely uncontacted tribes, uncorrupted by modern human civilization. Unfortunately, as well as containing all sorts of plants, animals, birds, and humans, it also contains a lot of oil – something that we as a society seem unable to resist. Drilling could now take place as soon as 2016, destroying the pristine environment of this beautiful place.

The Ecuadorian government had initially tried to avoid drilling through a very modern method – essentially crowdsourcing the money required to make it worthwhile not to drill. They claimed that if they were paid a total of $3.6bn over a number of years by the other countries of the world, then Ecuador could enjoy the developmental benefits that the oil would bring without having to actually extract it – allowing the rest of the world to benefit from the continued biodiversity of the region and the huge levels of carbon emissions that would not be released if the oil was kept in the ground. This was a potentially revolutionary idea, taking in concepts of climate justice and sustainability, and encouraging the world to work together to protect our natural environment.

Of course, it didn’t work. Despite a large amount of press when President Rafael Correa first announced the initiative, very few countries showed any serious interest in it – with Norway being the main honourable exception. Unfortunately, Norway alone cannot carry the burden for the whole world, and in the recent announcement Correa claimed that only $13m had been procured. Ultimately, the lack of cooperation of certain countries was too great a barrier. The oil industries of the US and Europe stood to gain too much from the chance to drill in Yasuni, and would have attacked any politicians that agreed to provide funding. The growing Chinese demand for fuel and their difficulties with managing their rapid growth in the coming decades meant that they too wanted access to Yasuni. And none of the developed nations wanted to set a precedent for accepting their responsibility for climate change or helping poorer countries deal with the changes that need to be made to avoid it.

Ecuador is not completely without blame, of course. They could still have taken a different approach to development, deciding not to drill anyway, and focusing on the many alternative sources of energy they have access to – abundant sunshine, geothermal energy, huge potential for hydroelectricity, and so on. It is a shame that Correa’s imaginative ideas did not extend to providing this kind of example to the world. But ultimately, we must all take responsibility for what will happen in Yasuni – we had the chance to show a commitment to the environment, to sustainability, to alternative energy, to a different way of doing things in general. And we shamefully failed to take it.

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The UKIP Mask Begins to Slip

Another week in the European Parliament election campaign, another story of racism and xenophobia coming from UK candidates. These stories are happening so often now it’s almost becoming difficult to keep track – the EU elections really do seem to bring out a special type of crazy that doesn’t normally get as much attention during national elections.

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The main story during the whole campaign has been that of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, who are currently polling in second place, behind the Labour Party, but ahead of the ruling Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. This popularity, however, comes despite an increasing number of scandals and controversies. One candidate recently suggested shooting gay people in an effort to get them to admit that they ‘aren’t really gay’; another quite openly claimed that people who vote for the other three parties should be executed for treason.

Of course, these people tend to be rather minor figures, often standing only in local council elections rather than as national figures or potential MEPs. However, the leader of the party, Nigel Farage, is himself no stranger to controversy. In an interview with a London radio station this week he reiterated his position that he would not want to live next door to Romanians; when asked by the presenter what the difference was between Romanians and Germans (Farage’s own wife is German), he simply replied ‘you know what the difference is’ – a reply that seemed so openly racist about ‘certain groups of people’ that even the notoriously anti-immigrant The Sun newspaper called Farage out over it.

Farage’s response comes from a long line of ‘unspoken racism’ that seems to characterize current British discourse on immigration in many ways. Certain people are seen as ‘good’, and we have no problem with them immigrating to the UK. Americans, Canadians, Australians, and increasingly even Germans (who are seen as industrious and hard working) and, in Farage’s case, Indians (who are presumably seen as less threatening due to usually being Hindu rather than Muslim). Others are seen as ‘bad’, and must be kept out – Romanians, Albanians, Pakistanis, Somalians, branded as uniformly criminals, thieves, and beggars. But none of this is ever said out loud – it is assumed that anyone with ‘common sense’ will automatically know it, and will understand what Farage means when he says ‘you know what the difference is’.

Perhaps the closest this ideology has come to being said out loud comes in another of Farage’s statements – he claims he doesn’t have a problem with the quantity of people coming into the country, but rather the quality of those immigrants. This is where the mask covering UKIP’s racism really starts to slip – the argument, it seems, has nothing to do with the economic impact of immigration on the British working class, or on the cohesiveness of British culture (the usual arguments made for restricting newcomers). Rather, the problem is that some groups of people are simply seen as having less ‘quality’ than others.

The saddest thing about Farage’s comments is that the ideology they reveal is one that is shared by a significant segment of the British population. Many people have complained about the comments, but many more will have heard them and nodded, and said that this is what everyone is really thinking – that some groups of people are more worthy than others, are somehow inherently ‘better’. This is a slippery road to start walking down, and can very quickly lead from genuine worries about economics and social issues into full-blown racism and the demonization of people simply because of their homeland or ancestry. But it seems that for now such a path is popular enough to hand UKIP a spot near the top table in the upcoming European Parliament.

[ European Parliament election campaign, United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, Nigel Farage, The Sun newspaperбBritish working class ]


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Time to Bring Down the Corporate Giants?

Over the past week, the new CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, has been in Congress. Unlike most occasions on which a CEO goes to Congress, she is not there to lobby for lighter regulations or to ask for a bail out because of the financial crisis. Instead, she is having to explain to Representatives and Senators why the company did not recall a large number of cars that have since been show to have potentially fatal safety faults. Barra (and it should be noted that she was not in charge when these events occurred) has not really had an answer beyond trying to deflect the blame away from any individual person. Essentially, her argument is that the right information never made its way up to the C-suite, and therefore the executives at GM could not be expected to act.

As the American website Gawker has argued, this seems to be a direct blow against the ‘myth of the CEO’ – the idea that corporate executives are supernaturally talented people whose work fully merits the multi-million dollar salaries they receive. CEOs are supposedly paid all of this money because of their leadership and their ability to make tough and correct decision. As the Barra testimony shows, they’re mostly leading in the dark and making decisions without the correct information.

This isn’t necessarily to say that CEOs are bad at leadership – it’s something they have been trained in, and have probably shown some talent for at lower levels. But today’s corporations are a totally different proposition from most management roles. They are behemoths, enormous entities with turnovers the size of many nation states’ GDPs. They are incredibly complicated logistical operations, with branches across the globe, hundreds if not thousands of lower managerial roles, an equally large number of chains of command through which information must travel, and hundreds of millions of variables, any one of which could go wrong at any time and create a situation like the one Barra now faces. Basically, the modern corporation is too big to assume that any small group of directors can effectively lead it – even if they are being paid millions.

Although there is a general trend towards ‘bigness’ in the corporate world, we would actually very much benefit from having smaller companies rather than larger ones. A smaller company that was more focused on its core business would have noticed the flaws in their cars sooner, and would have been able to communicate the problem more quickly. But smaller businesses are often better for us in other ways too – they are likely to be more concerned with ensuring jobs stay in the local community, to be more environmentally friendly, to be fairer to their workers and to provide better pay and benefits. Generally speaking, they are less likely to see profit as the only benchmark of success, as the companies of corporate America do. A company with this ‘small is beautiful’ mindset would be less likely to see worker deaths and injuries, less likely to send out faulty cars, and less likely to encourage the inequality of wealth that America currently suffers from.

To this end, it might be time to start arguing for new corporation laws and regulations to limit the overall size of businesses and to encourage the rise of medium- and small-scale businesses that can better bring some humanity back to the world of work and make things fairer for employees. Legislation that encourages worker-owned cooperatives would be even better – as such businesses inevitably have the interests of the poorer workers at their heart – although it may be some time until we see such a thing in the US. Either way, as the case of GM shows, it’s time for the corporate giants that have dominated America for so long to be brought down in favor of a new model of business.

corporate giants, General motors, Marry Barra, financial crisis, C-suite, GDP, management roles, logistical operations, environmentally friendly

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Robin Hood in reverse

Things seem to be getting bigger and bigger every day in the modern world – in fact, it’s increasingly assumed that unless you’re a big country you have no chance in the global economy. Consequently, when looking at a map of the world, people often wonder how small countries like Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Jersey, and various islands in the Caribbean can keep on existing in this cut-throat world, with such small populations and no natural resources. The answer in many cases is through tax – not the tax of their own citizens, but that from other countries. Many of the smaller nations of the world have become what is known as ‘tax havens’.

Tax havens are like a reverse version of the famous character Robin Hood. While Robin stole from the rich and gave to the poor, the tax havens essentially take money away from the poor and give it to the rich. They operate in this way: rich people in larger countries like the US, UK, France, or Germany would normally have to pay a reasonable amount of their money in tax. This tax would be used to pay for hospitals, schools, and other services for the poorer people of the country, helping everyone to survive. But the rich instead move their money to a tax haven, where they often pay a tax of only 1-2%. The amount of money this raises is more than enough for the citizens of, say, Lichtenstein. But it means the rich people get to keep more of their money, rather than helping their fellow citizens.

Many tax havens are also known for their secrecy – after all, the rich do not want their home countries to find out about how much money they have, in case they insist that they pay their fair share of taxes. The secrecy of the banks in tax haven countries (most famously in Switzerland) is often exploited by corrupt leaders in developing nations, who take aid money and developmental loans and deposit the money in their own account rather than using it to help their people as intended. This has been a major factor in the debt crisis that places like Africa are in – the money still needs to be paid back by the citizens, even though their leaders have stolen it and placed it in tax havens.

In the UK, whenever it is suggested that taxes should be raised on the richest people to help pay for public services, the media will argue that such policies will end with the rich leaving the country and taking their money with them. In truth, their money is mostly already gone, it’s in Switzerland and Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands, where they can avoid paying any tax at all.

What is needed is concerted action from all of the countries of the world to shut down these tax havens by ostracizing them from the world economy until they agree to play by the same rules as the rest of us. This has already started to work with Switzerland, which was always the most vulnerable to pressure because it does not only depend on the income from its tax haven status. Legislation is now being put in place for Swiss banks to disclose information to US authorities to ensure the correct tax is being paid. Now we need to place the same pressure on smaller tax havens, while also offering help with diversifying their economies towards more useful and productive work. The rich will oppose it, because the current arrangement works in their favor – but we must ignore their self-interested claims and realize that by shutting down the havens we can ensure that tax  money is used to pay for services rather than for yachts.

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The rich elites of Venezuela attempt another coup

With all the recent focus on events in Ukraine, other conflicts around the world have been somewhat overshadowed. This includes the recent protests in Venezuela, where across the country there have been street demonstrations, attacks on government buildings, and attacks on protestors by the police.

Where the western media has covered this story at all, it has usually attempted to portray it as a heroic uprising against a corrupt and repressive regime, fitting it neatly into the same narrative as the Ukraine Euromaidan protests. This is unsurprising, of course, as this has been the western media’s approach to Venezuela ever since the late Hugo Chavez came to power, and the current government is led by his successor Nicolas Maduro.

In truth, and as always tends to be the case in Venezuela these days, the protests are actually being coordinated by the various right-wing opposition parties that appeal to the rich elites that used to rule the country before Chavez. They have not managed to win an election since Chavez came to power – and despite their inevitable claims of vote-rigging, no less of a capitalist figurehead than former US President Jimmy Carter has stated that those elections were free and fair. Quite simply, while Chavez was alive, the poor majority in Venezuela were happy to vote for him and support his attempts at wealth redistribution, meaning the opposition never had a chance of winning.

To make up for this lack of electoral popularity, the opposition did not try to come up with new policies that would actually appeal to the poor supporters of Chavez – instead, they decided to try and overthrow Chavez by force. With assistance from the USA, they succeeded for a few days in the early 2000s, but the people of Caracas hit the streets in a genuine popular demonstration and reinstalled their president. They also attempted to bring down the Venezuelan economy by encouraging strikes in the nationalized oil company, but this failed too. At that point, the opposition was out of ideas, besides complaining about how unfair it was that they were no longer in charge of the country, as they had been for hundreds of years.

With Chavez gone, and the less charismatic Maduro replacing him, the opposition parties finally had a chance to make some progress, and came much closer to winning the most recent election. However, rather than continuing to build on their gains and wait until their next chance to democratically win the presidency, they have once again decided that street protests and attempted coups are more their style. Hence, the protests have been focused in rich areas of the country – the poorer side of Caracas, where the people support the government, has barely seen a peep of action; while the richer half of the city, particularly around expensive private schools and universities, has seen large demos.

Ultimately, despite some setbacks, the Chavista project has helped the poor of Venezuela to gain back some of the wealth and power that the elites have gathered for themselves over the centuries. It has redistributed wealth, and, with the help of doctors from Cuba, given medical access to the population. The fact that Chavez and those that follow in his footsteps are having some success can be shown by the response of those elites – rather than engage in electoral battle, they consistently choose to try to sabotage and overthrow the government instead. Without the drive and ambition of Chavez, the Maduro government faces a difficult battle ahead, but it is a battle to create a new and more equal Venezuela for the future, and they should not be thrown off course by these elitist protests.

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The Need for International Women’s Day

There was International Women’s Day recently, the 8th March. You probably heard about this, as the day has become increasingly prominent in the media over the past few years. Of course, with increasing recognition inevitably comes increasing criticism, and International Women’s Day is now invariably accompanied by the shrill cries of certain male commentators who argue that there is no need for a day to specifically recognize and address issues that face women, and to ask why there isn’t an international men’s day.

The second of those criticism is easily addressed by pointing out that there is an official, UN-sanctioned International Men’s Day. It’s on November 19th, so don’t forget it and feel free to celebrate as much as you want. The other issue requires a little bit more looking at – is there still a need in the modern world for a day that focuses on women-specific problems? I think there is, because, contrary to what some people convince themselves of, there are still many problems and inequalities facing women around the world.

Physical violence and abuse, particularly from close relatives and partners, for example. During the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, around 6,600 US soldiers have been killed. During the same time period, 11,700 women in the US have been killed as a result of domestic violence – not too far from double the number of soldiers. Female genital mutilation is still a fairly common practice around the world, and is not only an issue in underdeveloped countries – there is currently a debate going on in the UK about protecting young female students who are taken to their ancestral communities to be circumcised during high school breaks.

UN statistics suggest that at least 250,000 rapes (primarily of women) are reported annually. That data only covers 65 countries, and has no way of taking into account the number of unreported rapes or the prevalence of rape in war zones or other lawless areas – so we can safely assume that the real number is much, much larger. Meanwhile, the conviction rate for reported rapes remains shockingly low – despite some rather flagrant twisting of numbers by the Crown Prosecution Service, the number of reported rapes in the UK that end in convictions is below 10%. In the US, where conviction rates are slightly higher, recent years have seen numerous high profile cases in which victims have been disbelieved, ostracized, or blamed for their own predicament – such as the case of the rapists in Steubenville, Ohio, star football players on the high school team, who were essentially treated by the local community as if they were the victims of the rape they committed.

Discrimination remains an issue as well, even if statistics are improving here. Women are still statistically likely to be paid less than men in equivalent jobs, and are less likely to be promoted to positions of power. The few prominent women in positions of power – such as Marissa Mayer at Yahoo or Hilary Clinton – are often pointed to as a way to suggest that the ‘glass ceiling’ has been shattered. But they remain the exception to the rule, rather than heralding a new era of equality.

So International Women’s Day remains important, because it provides an opportunity to bring attention to problems like these and to highlight the fact that many women around the world remain poor, exploited, and oppressed – and the fact that not all women are in that situation doesn’t detract from this. However, rather than focusing on this for only one day a year, it would be much better if we could remove the need for International Women’s Day altogether by making every day one in which we focus on ending violence, discrimination, and inequality against all people.

[ International Women’s Day, 8th March, physical violence, Crown Prosecution Service, Steubenville, discrimination, Marissa Mayer, Hilary Clinton, glass ceiling ]

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