Friday, April 22, 2005

Sick of politics? Then read this...

Politicophobia is the fear or abnormal dislike of politicians. Common symptoms include, according to US-based phobia experts CTRN, panic attacks, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea and overall feelings of dread. Now I know what you are thinking: is your dislike of politicians abnormal or about average? At this moment, mine feels severe. Elections are everywhere. South Africa has just come through municipal by-elections, Mugabe just pulled off another fast one, there has been the Papal election, and the UK is in the grips of election fever. I suspect I am not the only one feeling queasy at the sight of too many grinning politicians kissing babies and pressing the flesh with the masses. Do I suffer from politicophobia? I suspect not. Phobias are serious business but, certainly, I am feeling the first pangs of distress here in Northern Ireland that accompany the arrival of election posters on lampposts. I imagine I am not alone.

Elections seem to create as much apathy as interest these days. About half of the young people in the UK under 25 voted in the 2001 election. In contrast, ten-million people, mostly under 25, voted in the Big Brother reality TV show. The problem is not as acute in South Africa, but apathy is growing. The turnout of registered voters in 1999 was 89% and in 2004 it had dropped to 77%.

So what is the problem? There are many factors, but political campaigning as it currently stands is certainly one of the biggest turnoffs. I read most elections like this: they are 25% about real issues, 25% about worthless promises, 25% about taking media pot shots at the opposition and 25% about self-promotion. On top of this, elections imply choice, but political conservatism is slowly robbing the electorate of this. If you are lucky enough to live in a democracy, your 'choices' generally range between the centre-right and the right wing, and perhaps the odd lunatic on the fringe. In 1966, UK Conservative politician Quintin Hogg noted that the moment politics becomes dull, democracy is in danger. I seldom agree with a Conservative politician, but how true! In many countries, elections must be re-energised. But how does one do that?

Certainly, it does not involve Bill Clinton playing a saxophone or TV ads showing politicians in open-neck shirts and baseball caps trying to look average. Here are my ideas: politicians should be fined 10 000 votes every time they use the word 'promise' or slate the opposition; all politicians should be compelled to live with a poor family for a month prior to the election (while being filmed); no political party should be allowed to use a public relations company; there should be an option on the ballot where you can make your mark if you do not endorse any candidates; and, finally, politicians should not be allowed anywhere near babies or hospitals while campaigning (unless sick or suffering from politicophobia themselves).

Now, do not get me wrong – I am not apathetic. Voting is important and we should all do it. Look at the US as an example of where every vote counts. But politicians must realise they are part of the problem and part of the solution to voter apathy. They have a responsibility to transform the plastic distrustful world of politics.

As for the rest of us, if we are feeling a little bit overdosed with politicians right now CTRN offers a 24-hour fear-of-politicians programme with 100% money-back guarantee. And, remember, it could be worse – you could live in Zimbabwe.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 22 April 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Friday, April 8, 2005

Simple lesson from 9/11 and reprisals

A few months after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, I visited the site where the World Trade Centre once stood. I was drawn to it out of a desire to turn the almost celluloid television event that was Hollywood-like in its magnitude into reality. On one level my visit did this. The enormity of the calamity was immediately apparent. The gaping space where the 110-storey Towers once stood was a poignant marker of the size of the disaster. The heart-rending messages on the fence surrounding the site and posters of the missing a reminder of the human loss.

At the same time, however, my visit was decidedly unreal. Tourists clamoured for the best view of the site. Some disturbingly posed for photographs smiling in front of the rubble. An array of tasteless souvenirs were up for grabs. You could procure a roll of Osama Bin Laden toilet paper with the message 'Osama Kiss My Butt' for a few dollars. The pyre was still smouldering and people were making money. Nothing felt sacred about the place. It was a sad mess.

9/11 Memorial Under Construction
Rebecca Wilson / CC 
Recently, on a trip to New York, I found myself drawn to the space again. I was hoping for something different a few years on. I arrived at the site via the newly-renovated World Trade Centre station, a large clean area with stainless-steel finishes. The whole site was cleared, contained and ready for development. The hawkers had been shunted elsewhere. Signs urged visitors to keep the site special and not to buy any items. Makeshift memorials and posters had been removed. Memorial plaques had been erected, listing the names of those killed. Of course, there were tourists, even those posing in front of the site. But tourist buses shuffled people on and off the site without much commotion. Everything seemed more subdued and ordered.

But something remained amiss and reality still felt distorted. This might be inevitable, considering the site is in the midst of an energetic city with little time for reflection. The scale of the devastation remains overwhelming. The attacks are also still recent. How can we memorialise history while it is in the making?

But the most startling realisation I had on my second visit was that, although Ground Zero now seems more ordered, this too was an illusion. The mess has not gone away but has been transferred elsewhere, namely to Iraq and Afghanistan. What makes this worse is that the US reprisal attacks, especially on Iraq, regardless of the commercial advantage to various US concerns, really boils down to misguided revenge. In fact, the whole sorry situation, from the attacks on the Towers to the US invasions, reek of vengeance justified by a whole range of perverted moral claims.

These claims seem tragic in the true meaning of the word. In literature a tragedy is a story in which a character is reduced to ruin because of moral flaws in their character. There are those who feel that the US has reaped what it sowed; its penchant for interfering in the business of other countries, commercialism and exploitation has meant that it finally got what it deserved. Equally, the "you are either with us or against us" mentality advocated by George W Bush is used to justify any action against those labelled as morally-bankrupt 'terrorist', no matter the consequence.

But, really, it is the mentality behind both of these views that is deeply tragic. They teach us nothing about how to deal with fundamental difference constructively and they do not enhance our ability to address complex social problems one bit.

As I walked away from Ground Zero for the second time, the message I took away was simple: two wrongs just don't make a right.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 8 April 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Gerry Adams address to the IRA

Many of you have been emailing me regarding the recent developments in Northern Ireland concering the death of Robert McCartney and the campaign for justice by his family. This is, of course, a very complicated situation. I did, however, find Gerry Adams recent statement, entitled "An address to the IRA" particularly interesting, thought some of you would appreciate a link to it. Click here to read it. Comments welcome as always.

Friday, April 1, 2005

A Shared Future Policy Document

In Northern Ireland the policy document "A Shared Future Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland" has now been launched. According to the introduction of the the document "This policy document sets out that we need to establish over time a shared society defined by a culture of tolerance: a normal, civic society, in which all individuals are considered as equals, where violence is an illegitimate means to resolve differences, but where differences are resolved through dialogue in the public sphere and where all people are treated impartially". It remains to be seen how this will be embraced and developed. Download the document.