Thursday, March 26, 2015

The End


After six years, 89 posts and twelve thousand page views (read: me clicking refresh 11,000 times) I've moved on.

I'm now at:

www.michaeljshanks.com


Its the same drivel, just a better home and if it was a real place there would be free beer..

Best
Mike

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Princip Principle


In his book Harry’s Game author Gerald Seymour first coined the often quoted phrase; One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

It’s a lovely little sentence which skilfully and easily explains contradictions and allows us to reconcile what could otherwise be seen as difficult or hypocritical actions or circumstances.

Case in point; the recently released movie American Sniper.

In my opinion it’s a really good movie. Well made, well-acted. Exciting and thought provoking. Very deserving of all the attention its receiving. It’s the tale of one man’s actions during a particularly difficult period in his life. It’s the tale of an individual’s patriotism and the issues he faces as he tries to reconcile his job with his role as a husband, father and all round decent, albeit bearded, human being.

I have read plenty of articles since the movie’s release which are criticising Chris Kyle and explaining why he is not the hero the movie portrays him to be.

On this point I have to disagree, only because they are all linking his actions with the war in Iraq, and the illegality of the war. I don’t it is fair to hold one man accountable for a nations actions. One man can only deal with what is put in front of him and I would suggest that the American Sniper comes out very much the patriotic hero the film portrays him to be.

But, and it’s a big but and more to the point of the criticism the movie has received. With the luxury of the 20/20 historical vision we all have it is now very clear that the American (and friends) occupation of Iraq was built and authorised on a litany of falsehoods. This is now fact.

So, if this is a fact then it’s also a fact that the occupation of Iraq was illegal.

Now humour me for a minute and imagine if you could Russia invading Scotland (or Norway or Italy; pick your country, don’t matter). The invasion, like Iraq, is based on a false premise. Soviet troops descend on the country of your choosing under the cover of darkness and a barrage of long range missiles.

Within days every major city is under the control of a foreign army, curfews are in force and checkpoints litter the countryside.

Of course the rest of the world would be outraged, but would probably do nothing about it because it’s Russia. The population of Scotland would be very much opposed to the illegal invasion. I would imagine there would also be quite a bit of resistance, violent resistance at that.

I would imagine there would be a well organised and well equipped insurgency movement against the nasty invading Ruskies.

The Bravehearted Scottish ‘freedom fighters’ would harass and terrorise the dirty invading troops. Laying roadside bombs, taking pot-shots at every opportunity. Living in the hills and coming down to blow up trains, airports. Haranguing and conducting an annoying and effective guerrilla war.

There might even be the odd individual who is patriotic enough or so annoyed with the situation to wire himself up and walk towards a Russian checkpoint with a sweaty finger resting on the button.

Now fast forward a few years.

Films would be made about the occupation, of course they would. It would be too good an opportunity to pass up. But I can guarantee these films would not take the Russian point of view.

It’s this simple reversal of perspective which Mr Seymour has managed to capture so elegantly. Even if they did invade Scotland Russian sniper isn’t a movie which will ever be made, let alone be in the running for an award. Or thirty.

Everything, it seems, depends on your perspective.

In Sarajevo 101 years ago a young man called Gavrilo Princip carried out a terrorist attack and assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife. In doing so he kicked off a chain of events which changed the world forever and resulted in close to one hundred million people dead within thirty years of him pulling the trigger.

Last year in Sarajevo, a statue was unveiled, honouring Gavrilo as a national hero.

In the UK, we celebrate a young king called Harry. We fill our chests with pride as we listen to his St Crispin’s day speech. The glorious defeat of the French is re-enacted on stage quite frequently. No word as to what happens afterwards. It basically ends after Agincourt and a few gin and tonics.

In France, the tale of Joan of Arc is part of the national curriculum. Agincourt is a small part of a much larger story which ultimately ends with the defeat of the English by little miss I’ve-got-god-on-my-side and with her being burned alive for her efforts.

In Ulaan Baatar, the national airport has been renamed after the country’s most revered son. But in China the name Genghis Khan is mentioned in the same way you and I might mention the names Adolf Hitler or Stalin.

It really is all about perspective.

Currently there is a war going on in the Ukraine, it started a wee while ago when a segment of the Ukraine decided it would be a good idea to join Nato. Everyone agreed. What a splendid idea that would be, we all thought....

Everyone apart from Russia that is, and now we have found ourselves in the midst of a horrible civil war with everyone calling Putin a bully and steadily escalating the sanctions which are dragging us inexorably towards a second cold war.

But what would happen if Mexico suddenly decided to become a protectorate of Russia?

What do you think would happen if a well-equipped and capable antagonistic nation decided to set up camp in a country which borders and butts up against the USA?

Because this is exactly what would happen if Ukraine did join Nato.

And I could go on. The world, it appears, is full of such contradictions. What’s good for the goose isn’t, apparently, good for the gander.

Last year the official report on the torture and rendition of terror suspects by the CIA was released. It said what we all already knew; these practices were known and were sanctioned, officially, at the highest level.

In effect the ends justified the means. The attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 were fresh in minds of everyone. Trains were being blown up in Spain and daily reports of suicide bombings were all over the headlines. Why not apply some Jack Bauer techniques to get the information required to avert yet another atrocity?

Once the material was released the discussions seemed to be centred not on what had occurred but more on the efficacy of such techniques.

In a nutshell, did it work?

Well no. Apparently it didn’t. Not one attack has been thwarted by information gathered through the program of government sanctioned rendition and torture.

But this frankly isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the point. Even if another 9/11 had been averted this shouldn’t make the report any less damaging.

I could understand if a rogue individual started pulling fingernails from suspects as the clock on the nuclear bomb counted down. But this shit was state sanctioned.

Flipping this over for a second. How is this any different to the techniques employed by the Gestapo against the French resistance who were killing and blowing up the brave, occupying, German soldiers during WWII?

It isn’t different. At all.

Surely if we want to distance and elevate ourselves above what, from our perspective, we consider the actions of less moral people then we have to do this regardless of the circumstance. Or perspective.

Let’s take the example of a nuclear bomb which is about to go off under Manhattan or London and one man knew the disarm code but he’s not speaking. One hour to go.

Should we torture him or his family to get the code? What if it was your child handcuffed to the bomb?

I would. You would. Anyone would. You would do whatever it took to stop that bomb going off. 

But if we do and this isn’t the action of a loose cannon individual, its state approved then how can we say we are any better than any other group of people who employ similar techniques for their own ends?

I think the values and principles which I (and I think we all) believe in are much much more important than this. The downside to holding ourselves up to such lofty ideals is that every so often horrible things will happen to us.

Ultimately though I believe it’s a price worth paying, however hard that might be.

Let me put it another way, what’s the alternative?

For the most part the vast majority of the problems we face in the world today, if you trace the cause and effect line back far enough, are of our own doing. The issues in the Middle East are in a large part due to a forced construct created by the west after the first and second world wars. IS are a reaction to the illegal war in Iraq and so on.

I am not saying these reactions to historical actions are justified. What I am saying we cannot just keep standing back and shouting ‘Look there’s a monster! Kill It!!’

Because if we do we are continuing to take the simple, easy approach and ultimately perpetuating the issue.

Once IS are wiped off the face of the earth, as they should be, another version will appear and the whole nasty affair will repeat itself, in one guise or another.

We also cannot say our perspective is the right one. It’s just a perspective after all. And based on recent history I think we would struggle to say we are better.

It’s too easy to label individuals or groups as monsters or lunatics because they don’t think the way you or I do.

Ask Joan of Arc, Hitler, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Vladimir Putin or even Henry V for their opinion on that.

You might not agree with any of them. And you probably shouldn’t.

But you should listen to them.

And when you do I guarantee your perspective will be challenged.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Goat Fiddling


Do I have free will?

Or, am I manipulated, steered and peer-pressurised to conform to a clich├ęd view of what I should be?

Is the beard I am cultivating on my chin a result of my own desire to see how it looks, what it feels like or, is it a result of the current trend in Hollywood and elsewhere for men to look more facially hairy? 

I like to think it’s the former, I chose to do it, but its most likely a result of  subliminal messaging driven by current fashions.

My unconscious brain probably saw Bradley Cooper or some other Hollywood A-list male with a beard and said to itself; he looks good. I want to look like him. Now, my conscious brain knows full well this is an unrealistic ambition so I would imagine there was a bit of back and forth discussions inside my head. And after a few weeks of subliminal unconscious negotiations they struck a deal.

And thus I started sprouting salt and pepper hairs on my face.

I still believe its because I made the choice to stop shaving and see how it looks and feels because I am a man. And I can. But really its because voices in my head told me to do it and those voices were instructed by Hollywood. Today or tomorrow I will see a Gillette advert, pay it no attention at all and in a month or so the beard will be gone, probably.

Is this free will? Is any decision I take driven by my own desire? Or am I just a pawn in a great big global chess game? Being moved around by some cloaked men from a Dan Brown novel chanting and doing vile things to goats as they determine fashions, oil prices or who’s going to host the next world cup.

The current state of my life is the summation of all the decisions I have made since my parents stopped making them on my behalf. So this would be about 29 years of ‘free will’ decisions I have made.  Some good, some bad and I accept the consequences of these decisions. No one is to blame other than myself.

If I do A and the outcome is B and I don’t like B I recognise no one told me to do A in the first place - in fact some might have tried to persuade me otherwise. I might kick myself and wallow in self-induced pity afterwards but fundamentally its my own fault B happened. Well unless A was the decision my mum took to dress me in brown corduroy flares finished off with a cream coloured train print shirt. In this instance I am a victim. The resulting grainy photograph (B) was nothing I chose to do – I blame my mum 100%.

So I guess I am exercising free will within the parameters set by society and the hooded goat fiddlers.
I do what I want to do within the boundaries of the law, the prevailing fashions and the current acceptable norms of society; I work, I pay tax, I shop, I recycle, I vote, I blog, I drive fast between speed cameras, I clear down my internet cache daily and I try to be a good citizen of the world.

The recent announcement by the Swiss National Bank to stop propping up the value of the Swiss Franc is a good example of a before and after of an interventionist policy. In simple terms a couple of years ago there was a real danger of the Swiss franc being seriously overvalued, people were buying francs by the wheelbarrow load as the other currencies around the world started to collapse. Like gold it was seen as a safe haven. All this activity, following normal supply and demand rules, had the effect of increasing the value of the franc in relation to other currencies. The SNB stepped in and said they would artificially keep the exchange rate of 1.2 to the Euro. An overvalued franc would seriously impact the competitiveness of Swiss exports. They would buy Euros to force the exchange rate to the artificial level.

Last week they stopped doing this and the result was, to quote one reporter, carnage.

The value of the franc soared, the cost of a holiday in this small alpine idyll rose by 30% and bespectacled watchmakers wept, quietly. There were losers and of course there were winners. If I got paid in CHF and spent all my money in Germany I would, overnight, have received a 30% pay rise. But I don’t, and I didn’t.

Should governments, banks and other more shadowy folks intervene to keep things like this happening though? Was the decision by the SNB a few years ago the right thing or should we just let free market forces drive everything in the world?

Like Thatcher I am a big supporter of letting the market to decide. Human beings are motivated animals, we want things. We want more. We want money and the profit motive is probably the single biggest motivator in the world. Yes we want to protect the vulnerable in society, yes we want to make sure the Polar bears still have a habitat in the future but I would argue not at the expense of the profit motive.

Take for example, if someone was to ask everyone in the world if they would prefer to receive $1,000 or alternatively we could guarantee global warming would stop in 50 years from now what would the world decide? Call me pessimistic but I'm pretty certain we would still be discussing emission restrictions in 2065. 

So in this instance I would say letting the market decide would probably not be the right approach. I like polar bears.

But where should we draw the line? Should we have bailed out the banks eight years ago or should we have let them collapse and live with the inevitable run which would have occurred as everyone desperately tried to withdraw their savings? Should we just let the world and the markets get on with things and wait and see where it all ends up?

I don’t think so. I like the fact we invest in things like space exploration, air safety, global warming and other things which are either really cool or will have long term positive consequences for the world, or society. I doubt very much the markets would decide it would be a good thing to land a spaceship on a comet but I am very glad we did, just cos.

I do think however when it comes to economics we should just let the markets get on with it. If the world determined the Swiss franc was the place to be then the world should be allowed to buy them without any state intervention. Of course this will have implications but eventually the balance will return - it always does. My free will and my determination to pursue the profit motive will make it so. 

The decision last week and the resulting sharp foreign exchange movement was simply a catch up to the reality outside. The Swiss franc took the red pill and it was just a mathematical certainty where it would go given the other global currencies were not being propped up, or down as it was in this case.

The market deciding most things would simply be a combination of everyone exercising their individual free will and I think this would be a fair representation of what the majority of the world really wants.

Lets protect the important things and let the rest be decided unfettered by intervention. Of course, what’s important would be fiercely contested but I like this in principle, a sort of economic-Darwinism.

Yes there would be winners and losers but isn’t this just a reflection of the realities of the world? Not sure what the implications would be for the cohort of society who choose not to contribute, hippies and other variants of smelly dreadlocked types. Perhaps they might actually have to get a job....

Anyway, I am exercising my free will writing this blog. No one told me to do it, no one asked me to do it but I am doing it anyway. 

No one sneakily crept up behind me and subliminally whispered in my ear to write this.

At least I don’t think they did, but then what the hell do I know?

After all I’m the one who's still trying to look like Bradley Cooper…