Demonising Tories…or anyone…is so last century…

Now that the smoke of battle (and confusion) of General Election 2010 has cleared and we have a Coalition Government that hasn’t yet been proven to be the spawn of Beelzebub, can I make a suggestion that demonising anyone in politics – even Tories – is not a good move?

Twenty five years ago, during the Thatcher years, a few of us on the Left made the observation that it was potentially unhelpful to refer to the politics espoused by her Government as ‘Thatcherism’, even as a shorthand.  Our argument went that if you attach a name to a branch of politics in that very overt way, then as soon as the individual dies, quits or gets voted out of office then, almost by definition, that form of politics disappears from the scene.  There is a historical precedent; whilst 99% of everyone called the political beliefs of Hitler and his followers Nazism or Fascism, a few people in the 30s – often doctrinaire Communists – referred to it as ‘Hitlerism’.  Whereas we’ve been able to spot Nazism over the decades, spotting the politics underlying ”Thatcherism’ seems to have been harder – the monetarist and ‘Shock Doctrine’ policies of the Chicago School have come back repeatedly to haunt us in many ways, culminating in the years of Bush Junior Government in the US.

This last election has been truly bizarre, with people repeatedly warning me about ‘re-electing Thatcher’ in the form of David Cameron.  The irony is that some of the folks who’ve been most vociferously demonising Thatcher and the Tories were in the twenties and early 30s – in other words, when Thatcher was in power these folks were either foetuses or snot-nosed kids. 

Demonising any individual politician is fraught with danger for those doing it; unless your target is very obviously evil incarnate (in which case the vast majority of people will see it anyway and you’re ‘preaching to the choir’) then folks will just regard it as sour grapes and ‘ad hominem’ arguments.  One thing that has started happening in recent times in the UK is that people have become disillusioned with the political process, politicians and the whole schoolyard ethos that seems to have permeated British politics for the last 20 years.  The demonisation of one individual or party by others involved in the same ‘game’, so to say, has all the elements of ‘pot calling kettle black’ and people have responded to it accordingly.

It IS last century – just look at the nonsense at ACAS last night when BA Chief Willie Walsh was surrounded by a good old fashioned British ‘leftie rent-a-mob’ that seemed to belong more in the 1970s at Grunwick than in 2010.  The union chief was furious, ACAS was embarrassed and angry, Walsh commented on the disgust he felt in the situation he was in.  The demonstrators focused their chants on Walsh, and have probably significantly damaged chances of settling the dispute.  Seeing the placards from groups like ‘Socialist Worker’, for those of us who were in the Labour movement in the 80s and 90s it was like a return to old times with the ‘Usual Suspects’ – the professional hecklers and agitators who have no great desire to settle these disputes but simply seek to benefit from them.

Boys and girls, that approach is over.  It was always pointless and now people see it for what it is – egotistical tantrum throwing by typically over-privileged, under-occupied political performance artists.  If you want to achieve change in our society – get involved with genuine community groups and put your  backs in to getting some work done.  Demonising the opposition is childish and pointless.

You may have missed this…the day China pulled the plug.

You might have missed this.  I certainly did – but then again for the last week or two I’ve been running around like the proverbial ‘blue arsed fly’ trying to juggle a variety of personal, professional and voluntary responsibilities whilst avoiding cat-induced sleep deprivation.  Anyway…where were you when China appeared to ‘turn off’ access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all over the world?

Because yes, it actually happened – from sometime on Wednesday traffic destined for the servers of these three social media giants was noticed to be going to servers based in the People’s Republic of China.   Technicians overseeing the world’s DNS systems (the ‘phone books’ of the Internet that tell servers and routers around the Internet where to send traffic to) noticed this, and eventually traced it back to a node on the DNS system in Sweden, that may have either been accidentally reconfigured or deliberately reconfigured by hackers.  Whatever the reason, it’s been an eye opener in principle, it means that any reasonably equipped government or terrorist organisation can subvert the whole routing system of the Internet – at least until the holes that allowed this to happen are secured.

The nature of the Internet is such that it has always been possible to do this sort of subversion; it’s just that the Net has never been important enough to be worth worrying about until recently.    The recent kerfuffle between Google, the Government of the PRC and the US Government has put the Internet firmly on the political stage – much more prominently than took place during the Iranian disturbances last summer.  (I’ll be commenting again on Google / PRC in the next few days, but here are my previous comments on that particular story)

It’s almost certain that this was an act either ordered or condoned by the government of the People’s Republic.  Their much vaunted ‘Green Dam’ is clearly capable of acting way beyond the borders of the PRC, especially if the remote control ‘exploits’ are used to take control of PCs running the program.  This would effectively give the PRC a massive cyberwarfare potential, with every PC legally installed in the PRC being capable of taking part in a botnet.

This action very much appears to be a shot across the international community’s bows; the PRC demonstrated their ability to break the Internet.  There are ways around this intrusion, of course, and steps will be taken to deal with it, but it does show that the gloves are off in what is increasingly a battle of wills between governments wishing to restrict what their citizens can read online and those that aren’t interested.  And I’m afraid that I have to include some democratic governments – like Australia – in that list.

The Internet is a political weapon; last Dceember I commented on how the rules of online civil unrest might be changing, as people on the receiving end of protest decided to do something about it – in that item it was Iran and Twitter.  It may well be that that was simply the beginning of ongoing efforts from repressive regimes to control the streets of cyberspace as well as the streets of their own cities.  What is important to realise is that the nature of the Internet – it’s flexibility, expandability, it’s ability to be used for things that the original creators had never even thought of – is at the root of the relative ease with which people can break it.

Unfortunately I expect the ‘powers that be’ to react to this sort of threat by using it as an excuse to tighten up various aspects of security and surveillance on the Net.  Expect legislation such as ACTA and The Digital Economy Bill to be tightened up in a ‘9/11’ style response to this act of online retaliation.

The last freedom moped from nowhere city….

2009_07_08_iran_01Back in the 1980s there was a sit com on British TV called ‘The Young Ones’, which was based in a student house and followed the surreal adventures of the students who lived there.  One of the characters was a rather pompous, arrogant, wannabe anarchist called ‘Rick’, who was constantly going on about revolution, and whose ratherfatuous comments about politics gave rise to the title of this piece…

As my life unfolded and I became involved in left-wing politics in teh 1980s, I encountered a fair number of ‘Ricks’ – folks who were full of talk about how we should pass a resolution condemning some organisation or country or other for their actions but who were surprisingly absent when it came to the grunt work of winning elections to put ourselves in a position where we could at least effect change.

And Ricks are still with us today, in the electronic world.  I came across this piece from the Telegraph – ‘The fatal folly of the online revolutionaries’ and was reminded of the posturing of Rick and the other Ricks I have known.  The bottom line is that the Iranian Security Services now carry out ‘deep packet inspection’ of a lot of Internet traffic, which allows them to see where traffic originates from and where it’s going, as well as content.  Which means that if someone in the West sends a supportive email message, a one to one Tweet, converses by MSN – it increases the chances of the Iranian authorities identifying the recipient and taking action.  Much of this sort of intelligence work relies on a lot of traffic between ‘targets’ that can be identified and analysed.

So, being a slightly thoughtless, well-meaning, armchair revolutionary encouraging someone in  Iran to take action against the Government via personal message can get someone at the sharp end killed or imprisoned.  Real life, as they say, is a bitch.  A recent retaliation against Twitter probably got more news footage than many of the deaths that take place in these riots, which tells us something about the priorities of our own news services.  A further piece about ‘Twitterised Revolution’ is here.

Now, this doesn’t mean that support cannot be offered – it means that we just have to redress the balance of risk.  And activity should not be mistaken for effective action.  My initial thoughts:

  • There are folks in Iran (and other more authoritarian and totalitarian regimes than our own) who are risking life and limb to get video footage and stories out of of their countries, and succeeding.  If you’re wanting to help the cause, when you come across this stuff promote it via your own Social Media sites, blogs, etc.  Take a look here.
  • Campaigns like the recent one to turn your avatar green for Iran are great for awareness raising.  And they don’t impact individuals ‘over there’ but offer visible support to users of the services.
  • Work within the laws of our own country, and via the political processes here (wherever here might be for you!) to raise awareness, find out what your own Government is doing and vote accordingly next time around if you don’t like it.  Engage with your elected representatives to put pressure on at a Governmental level.

By engaging directly with people ‘on the ground’ in these regimes, encouraging illegal activity, you might get someone killed.  You will almost certainly do less good than if you work within your own country.  The folks out there can do with our moral support and the indirect support of our Government and media – they can probably do without armchair revolutionaries throwing virtual bombs and pissing off the local authorities who then retaliate with real bullets.

Sitting back and engaging in the above suggested activities may not be sexy or cool, it may even be regarded by some as cowardly – but if you want to play at being Rick, just think about the consequences for those on the other end of the connection.  Don’t forget that the aim of the game is to effect change for those people, not provide Westerners with vicarious thrills. 

(Image from From

Twitter hacked – not the end of the world, no surprise, and a badge of honour.

There’s a scene in the movie ‘Blazing Saddles’ where the Waco Kid, being asked why he’s ended up in prison for drunkenness, bewails the fact that when he was the well known gun-slinger everyone wanted to try and get him, so they could be the new number one.  He tells how he eventually hung up his guns when he heard a voice yelling ‘Draw’, turned around to fight, and nearly shot a 5 year old child.

He turns his back on the little brat, who then shoots the Waco Kid in the ass…..

Life in the online world gets like that, too.

Apparently Twitter was hacked last night by an outfit called the Iranian Cyber Army.  The story broke on the Mashable web site – I have to say that were I not receiving Tweets from Mashable I wouldn’t have known, as I’ve been getting (I think) Tweeted over the period of the hack and I can quite happily see their home page.  The fact that this is now being reported as a DNS based attack means that it wasn’t so much Twitter that was walloped as that traffic to Twitter was diverted elsewhere for a while …

Anyway, let’s face it – this is a slap in the face to Twitter (indirectly) but isn’t the end of the world.  At least some of us – if not most of us who’re not using the DNS system that was compromised – are still Tweeting  and the world will not slide to DEFCON1 because the global inanity stream was temporarily interrupted for the Digerati.

But, assuming these chaps ARE who they claim to be –  a group with Iranian sympathies – we shouldn’t be surprised.  A campaign was organised through Twitter earlier this year to protest about the clamp down on civil rights in Iran.  This attack may be regarded by the originators as ‘payback’ and goes to show that in Cyberspace, as in the real world, ‘people power’ is not a one way street.  The big boys do sometimes have their day of successful protest as well.  Governments can quite easily learn the fine arts of online civil disobedience, and do it with greater ease than the folks running the protest.

When people use a site as a base or launching ground for civil disobedience, campaigning or protest then it will become a target for those who object to the issues being promoted.  That kickback may come in the form of debate, negative campaigning against the site, abuse of people on the site, legal efforts to remove or silence the site, or, as here, technical efforts to remove the site.  Which means that more and more sites used by people to organise campaigns will either have to become ‘hardened’ to protect against attack or stop carrying legitimate material that someone, somewhere, is pissed enough about to want it removed.

We may be heading in to a period of ‘big boy’s rules’ in cyberspace where sites that permit the exposition of people power are simply taken down by this sort of online activity.  But if that happens to your favourite site, and the cause is just, don’t be sad; regard it as a badge of honour that your activities have upset someone enough to want to take you down.

Remember the words of Winston Churchill ‘ ‘You have enemies; that’s good – it means that you have stood up for something sometime in your life’.

The Bus Book – w/c 17th March – On Civil Disobedience

As the copy I have of ‘On Walden pond’ also includes this essay, it seemed churlish to not feature it here.

Thoreau spent a night in prison during his time at Walden, because he neglected to pay a local tax.  Whether he would have spent longer in prison than a single night had the tax not been paid isn’t clear, but as a local resident paid the tax, he was released.

The essay is an interesting diversion in to the rights and wrongs of civil disobedience, and is as relevant today as it was when it gave inspiration to anyone dealing with an unjust law over the intervening century and a half.  Thanks to people like Gandhi, the idea of civil disobedience as a valid and legitimate form of protest is something we take very much for granted today, but for Thoreau’s compatriots it must have been quite something.  Gandhi himself developed his techniques of passive resistance after reading this essay, and the comment “The Government that governs best, governs least’ is on the lips and in the heart of anyone who, like me, considers themselves to be a libertarian.

See here for an article on the essay, and here for an annotated text.

Thoreau’s issue with taxation was that he felt it was supporting the enslavement of his fellow man, through supporting a State legislature in favour of slavery.  He regarded not paying the relevant tax as a means by which anyone might raise a hand against the state; indeed, we need only look back to the ‘Poll Tax’ riots in the UK and the increasing numbers of people not paying that particular local charge non principle to see the impact.

It also set off a few thoughts for me; when I was younger I was much more willing to go to the wire on issues; now I’m older I’m less willing.  Thoreau was a single man, with little to lose, except his physical liberty.  Indeed, I get the impression from reading his essay that he would have happily handled a longer time in prison.  When you’re older, have a family and dependents, have a house, job, etc. it takes little imagination to see how a few months in jail could easily lead to loss of virtually everything you hold dear.  Perhaps one of the great accomplishments of the Consumerist State is that it gets people to behave more effectively than almost any other means thought of short of execution.

The times in my life when I have been willing to kick hard against the pricks, so to say, have been the time when the most has been taken from me and I was increasingly feeling cornered with little left to lose.  The balancing act between our consciences and what we’re willing to pay to be true to ourselves is what keeps us obedient slaves within our so called free society.

Reading this essay has made me think deeply about what is important and how far I am willing to go in my personal life to do what is right.  And it pains me to say that at the moment my courage, like that of many of us in contemporary society, is somewhat lacking.