13 January 2008

Censorship disguised as social protection

In late November 2007, Australia ousted its centre-right Liberal government led by John Howard in favour of a centre-left Labour government led by Kevin Rudd. All seemed well; the latent racism, bigotry, and stifling social conservatism of the Howard years looked like it would come to an end. Then in one fell swoop, that impression has fallen to pieces. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Labour's Telecommunications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has announced a plan for mandatory filtering of online content at the Internet Service Providor level in Australia (Source: the ABC and the BBC).

Firstly, let's see what exactly this entails. From the ABC: "Senator Conroy says it will be mandatory for all internet service providers to provide clean feeds, or ISP filtering, to houses and schools that are free of pornography and inappropriate material" (emphasis mine). The BBC adds that "Australians wanting unfettered access to the web will have to contact their supplier to opt out of the new regime" (emphasis mine). The reasons why this constitutes complete lunacy and stupidity are multitudinous. Allow me to put forth just a few of them.

1. Who, praytell, decides what constitutes "inappropriate material"? Some government censor maintaining a blacklist who knows better than me? Funny, I thought this was a liberal democracy. And just what constitutes inappropriate? Go back a few decades and the mere discussion of homosexuality was inappropriate. Go back a little further and discrimination against women was defended as protecting society from "inappropriate" behaviour. I don't want somebody else's values being forced upon me.
2. Why is it opt-out as opposed to opt-in? If I for whatever reason felt the filter were necessary (e.g. if I maintain a primary school's Internet network), then I could opt-in to a government-provided filter. The rest of us can continue to surf the Internet uninterrupted.
3. How transparent will the opt-out process be? How do I know that if I opt-out, I won't end up on some government list of people whose online activity may be suspicious? All my activity is above board, but I value my privacy and my freedom.
4. Why is this even necessary? Conroy's statements reek of "won't someone PLEASE think of the children!", and I frankly have the voice of Helen Lovejoy from the Simpsons in my head whenever I read any quotes from him. Look, if you're such a poor parent that your children are readily accessing content inappropriate for their age, then that's your problem, and it should not affect anyone else - and especially not legal adults like me who are not parents! No children use my computer, thus the entire argument that this is to protect children is a complete irrelevancy.
5. Will it even protect the children? Last year, the Howard government introduced a software filter that parents could put on their computer, only for the Sydney Morning Herald to report that a 16 year old schoolboy managed to get past it within 30 minutes, all while leaving the appearance that the filter was still on to deceive his parents. This filter will similarly be exploitable; if bloggers in China and Iran can get around much more severe and restrictive state filtering, teens with IT knowledge far superior to that of their parents will be easily able to get around the filter. While Mum and Dad are content in the knowledge the government's Internet filter is there and drop their guard, little Johnny's in the other room, bypassing the filter and downloading some steamy porn film.
6. Which brings me to my next point. There's the "won't someone PLEASE think of the children!" argument in the sense of protecting children from porn (oh no, the human body!), violence (depending upon what we mean, perhaps justifiable), and some vague and ill-defined concept of "inappropriate content". Then there's the "won't someone PLEASE think of the children!" argument in the sense of blocking access to child pornography. That sort of disgusting and exploitative filth should be combatted at every turn, but this filter does not help. Child pornography is already the subject of major international police activity, and it is safe to say that if you are accessing child pornography at the moment, this filter won't make a single jot of difference to you. This filter will not do a thing to stop sick people who get their jollies from the exploitation of children.
7. At the end of the day, you search for content on the Internet. Porn doesn't just spew onto your computer uncontrollably. Parents, if your child is looking at porn, it's because they looked for it and it's your responsibility to do something about it if you think they shouldn't be allowed to see it. Government, if people are looking up illegal content, it is your job to 1. prosecute those making and hosting the illegal content and 2. prosecute those who are actively searching for this content. This should not involve law-abiding Internet users, i.e. the vast majority, having to opt-out of a filter.

This filter will almost certainly not impact my day-to-day Internet activity. However, it strikes me as a gross breach of individual freedom, not to mention a staggering waste of taxpayer money and IT specialist time. Australia's Internet is quite backwards enough, thank you very much. I would urge every Australian citizen reading this to write to Senator Conroy as well as your local member and state senators to protest this moronic decision.

24 June 2007

When pro-life is not, in fact, pro-life

Disclaimer: At this juncture, I do not wish to reveal my stance on the abortion debate. I would like to offer this critique in a way that does not predispose individuals to be biased for or against my argument simply due to whether or not I hold the same position as they do. By the way, if anyone does care to respond, please ensure you have read the final paragraph.

The anti-abortion movement has often caused me a great deal of bother. I feel they have irreversibly stained and stigmatised the term "pro-life" and caused many who believe in the protection and maintenance of life at a "livable" standard, e.g. pacifists, to shy away from the one term that, at face value, would most adequately sum up their stance. I have had occasions to discuss the hypocrisy of many "pro-lifers" at length, and I have been flabbergasted by the responses I have received.

One that sticks in my memory came from a seemingly bright undergraduate university student on a Christian forum. When asked how she could possibly reconcile her "pro-life" stance on abortion with an over-enthusiastic support for the Iraq War and capital punishment that bordered on bloodlust, her response was simply to stifle the debate. She contended that "pro-life" should be considered solely a term related to the abortion debate, and that not only is there no inconsistency with defending the lives of innocent foetuses while apathetically greeting the deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians, Christians are in fact morally obliged to hold this view. The gist of her response was essentially that life inside the womb was worthy of protection, but as soon as an individual is born, they're a dirty sinner and they're on their own. Once born, an individual is a target of evangelism rather than an equal, dignified person worthy of respect and protection.

The rhetoric of some "pro-lifers" is best described as morally reprehensible. These individuals who wave placards and chant slogans about the "sanctity of life" are often the very same individuals who espouse opinions about those actually alive that reveal a considerable degree of indifference both towards the preservation of life and its maintenance at an acceptable standard. Innocent civilian casualties of the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan are dehumanised as inevitable "collateral damage" that we need to just accept and move on. To concern ourselves with trifling matters such as the civilian death rate and to scrutinise the moves of the US president and military may be enough to warrant allegations of being unpatriotic. And with regards to capital punishment, anyone actually concerned with the rehabilitation of criminals and understanding (and rectifying) the context within which crime develops rather than employing death as a punishment is seen as "soft" on crime, while the execution of criminals - people with families, people with the capacity to be rehabilitated - is celebrated as "just". These "pro-life" individuals who employ the Bible as a means of justifying their opinions would do well to actually read it and note the famous passage stating that "let he who is without sin cast the first stone".

What most bothers me most about the "pro-life" movement is not its pro-war, pro-capital punishment stance that does nothing to preserve life, but the "pro-life" movement's complete failure to turn their indignation about abortion into a means of tangibly bettering life. They may bleat about the "sanctity of life", but actions speak louder than words, and I've seen very little connection between their rhetoric and their actions. If life is indeed so sacred, why is the "pro-life" movement so silent about anything that does not suit its narrow pseudo-religious political agenda? Why does it not actually behave in a manner that displays its supposed high regard not only for human life in and of itself, but for the maintenance of an acceptable quality of life?

Here's an example. In the US, over 1.2 million people die annually as a result of heart disease and cancer [1]. Yet "pro-lifers" are markedly silent on this issue. They may attack the medical profession when it disagrees with their stance on abortion, but they are rather silent when it comes to supporting genuinely pro-life medical research and treatment. When was the last time the "pro-life" movement became righteously indignant about the lack of funding for cancer or diabetes research? When was the last time the "pro-life" movement was moved to passionate mass protests in support of those needlessly suffering? Why is the "pro-life" movement so obsessed with abortion while unconcerned with the health the person will have once they are born? The only time the movement ever even approached something resembling concern for the living was the controversy over Terri Schiavo, a woman whose brain activity had demonstrably ceased irreversibly. The reality was that Schiavo's case simply suited a narrow American political agenda related to "values" and it failed to extend to a more genuine concern for the health of the living.

Here's another example. Accidental deaths, as seen in my previous source, are the fifth highest cause of death in the US. Of these accidental deaths, over 42,000 annually are the result of deaths on the road [2]. In other words, eight times the population of my hometown back in New Zealand is killed every year on American roads. Lives are lost - many times in preventable accidents. Better roads, cars, healthcare, and laws could save many road fatalities, if it were not for a lack of funding. Tens of thousands of lives would enjoy a continued existence, and the quality of life they and multitudes of others (e.g. their families, those injured but not killed in road accidents) enjoy would be raised if the reduction of the road toll were treated as an imperative requiring greater attention and funding. "Pro-lifers", however, reveal their true colours in their failure to address an issue that affects those who are actually living. Almost all of us venture onto the road daily, while most of us will never even see the inside of an abortion clinic. It's interesting to see how skewed the "pro-life" movement's priorities are.

Naturally, this entry has generalised the "pro-life" movement. There are, of course, some people who are genuinely pro-life. There are opponents of abortion who are deeply involved in the medical profession or seriously concerned with the road toll or sternly opposed to war and capital punishment. It is not by any means this entry's goal to condemn them. This entry - as I hope was clear - was about the general movement itself and its public face. It is a movement that, through its actions, has failed to demonstrate a genuine concern for life outside the womb and has revealed itself to be hypocritical.

03 May 2007

Why I write

Before I get off the ground, I would like to explain my motivation for establishing this blog and why I write. I primarily founded this blog to deal with serious matters, especially those related to contemporary politics and society, theology, and my academic pursuits. In other words, this is for the topics that I know will receive little more than a disinterested glance from most readers of my personal blog. I would like to try to tackle controversial and difficult issues, especially those of religion, and for some of these topics, I would like to do so without openly revealing my position. This is more an exercise for me than anything else; an attempt to articulate my thoughts in a more considered and objective sense instead of a persuasive and biased manner. I'm unsure whether this is a very realistic goal though. I suspect it is not.

I would like to make it clear that even if I am completely unable to disguise my stance, my goal with writing in this blog is by no means to persuade. It is firstly for self-expression and to help order and articulate my mental processes on issues that are often complex. It is to discuss issues, to connect both with like-minded individuals and to encounter and learn from opposing viewpoints. I cherish every opportunity I receive to listen to someone calmly and rationally present a viewpoint with which I do not agree, as I feel it is important to not only know where you are coming from, but to know where others are coming from as well. Recognising that individuals all start from completely different contexts is a valuable step to mutual understanding, at least in my opinion. Accordingly, I do not want to try to persuade anyone of my opinion. I realise people rarely change their opinions due to online discussions; my cynical side would like to argue that people change their opinions most readily when a strong appeal is made not to reason but to their self-interest, and I have no motivation to even try to guess the self-interest of any reader, let alone a desire to appeal to it. So I would just like to discuss, to raise topics, to articulate and justify my thoughts, and to hear what others think and why.

So if anybody out there does in fact read this, please feel more than welcome to leave comments. I love to read comments and to engage with other people. A monologue can never be as interesting as a dialogue.

Have a good one.

29 April 2007

An introductory post

As I have just established this blog, I feel it would be fitting to introduce myself. I have thoroughly no idea if anything will come of what I write here as I know nobody who uses this site, but I felt my previous online journal had worked itself into a corner where some posts just didn't fit. In other words, this is an experiment at finding a new outlet for me. I seriously considered adopting an assumed identity to divorce myself from what has gone before, but figuring that it makes little difference, I'm not going to put the effort into doing that.

My name is André, better known to many as Axver. I am currently an undergraduate university student in Melbourne, Australia. I study history and political science, with particular interest in the following fields:

  • The political landscape of Europe from the Reformation to the Enlightenment and the means in which theology and philosophy were employed to shape this landscape.
  • International Relations theory, the viability of pacifism, and current foreign policy; the role of socio-cultural history in the development and application of theory and policy.
  • Social democracy and Keynesianism.
  • New Zealand history, specifically the role of the railways in the settlement of the country in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and the continuing relevance and importance of railways in this era of global warming.

I find it too simplistic to place broad labels such as "liberal" on myself, especially as I am aware that in the country of my birth, my stance on economics would have been considered conservative when I was born but would be considered extremely to the left in the present-day USA. So, to place myself on the political spectrum, I feel it is necessary to do more than just take a label. I am a firm believer in social justice; poverty is the defining crisis of our time and I am disgusted by the apathy with which this issue is typically greeted. I believe in big government run for the people, by the people; services such as telecommunications and the railway should be run by the government for the benefit of the people, though with all openings for private competitors to capitalise on the market should the government fail to provide sufficiently good service. Socially, I tend to lean towards the "no harm" principle of J. S. Mill expressed in On Liberty, though this is not always true and the nuances of my perspective will become apparent if I post frequently on social matters.

On a lighter note, I am very passionate about a number of interests. I have a voracious appetite for literature and music. I used to find great pleasure in works of fiction, but today, I find greater enjoyment in non-fiction on historical and political topics. Music plays a major role in my daily life, and my tastes emphasise the ability of the musician - whether it is in the skill with which they play their instrument or the end result of their compositions. Accordingly, I have a strong appreciation for atmospheric, art, and progressive rock, and at the heavier end of the spectrum, I enjoy various types of metal - primarily death, doom, some black, and whatever you'd call Agalloch's post-black-folk-atmospheric metal amalgam. I am an avid follower of sport, especially rugby union and cricket, and am disappointed but hardly surprised in the inability of the New Zealand Black Caps to fail to advance beyond the semi-finals of the Cricket World Cup yet again. And finally, I am a very avid fan of railways and tramways, with an especially strong interest in New Zealand's railway network, followed at a distance by Australia.

Have a good one, folks.