« Mini Me | Main | Fade-outs, from Monday's comic »

Hari Echo Chamber returns

I haven't blogged much about politics in the past two weeks. If I have time, I'll explain this later today using a little Zen parable from my misspent days trekking through the Hillemayas wearing saffron robes and a shiny skin wig. However, in the absense of original political thinking cheap shots and deep thoughts along the lines of "injustice is bad", here are three new articles from Johann Hari about some of the issues of the day.

In The Golden Age of American Documentaries, Hari mentions two other documentary movies I should very much like to see:

...[T]he corporation has existed in its current form for only 150 years. In a revolutionary US court ruling in the late 19th century, corporations were granted all the legal rights of a person. This ruling gives Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott the structure for [The Corporation]. Treating the corporation as a human being - as US law demands - they ask: what kind of person is this? In discussion with leading psychiatrists, they diagnose that the corporation can be deemed only a psychopath.

"What does it mean," they ask, "if the leading institution of our time is psychotic?" The results are shown with unhysterical clarity: environmental destruction and callous disregard for basic human rights.

Yet despite the clarity of this argument, the film also unwittingly exposes the tensions among those of us who believe that corporate power must be restrained. What coherent philosophy should we offer as an alternative? The film-makers don't seem to have made up their minds. The two most dominant voices in the film are Noam Chomsky - an anarchist who does not believe corporations generate any wealth at all, and advocates the abolition of all markets - and Michael Moore, who is vaguely anti-capitalist.

Yet more sophisticated voices are presented - an argument that businesses are necessary for wealth creation but must be kept in their place. "The corporation is a paradox. It creates great wealth but causes other great and hidden harms," the film says at one point.

In Super Size Me, the New York-based film-maker Morgan Spurlock decided last year to test McDonald's claim that their food is healthy. He pledged to live for 30 days on nothing but McDonald's. I watched the results especially closely, since I have been conducting a similar experiment myself for the past decade. My idea of a balanced diet is KFC for breakfast, Burger King for lunch and McDonald's for dinner.
Yet a project that starts out as a fun jaunt quickly mutates into a Polanski-esque horror flick. Within a week he is impotent and experiencing strange pains in his penis. Within a fortnight he is waking up unable to breathe, stricken with chest pains. Within three weeks, his dietician gawps at Morgan's liver test and says, "Basically, it is turning into paté. You should stop this experiment now before you permanently damage your body." By the end of his experiment, he has gained 10 per cent of his own body weight and can barely make it up his own stairs.

My own flabby, clogged heart was so chilled by the movie I didn't eat a Big Mac for six whole hours. Nobody should underestimate the power of these documentaries to change the world.

That last paragraph worries me a bit. I'd like to see Hari continue writing for many more years, and that rather requires him to be alive and well. Personally, I haven't eaten at a McDonalds since 1996, and am not about to start again. Not that I'm boycotting them or anything; it doesn't count as a boycott if it doesn't hurt the boycotter. For me, eating at McDonalds has always resulted in McGas, McDiarrhea and McHives, so I prefer going hungry over eating at a McDonalds if that is my only option.

In Free Speech isn't just for Nice People, Hari comments on what is a hot issue in the UK: the visit by Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and makes a principled and a pragmatic argument for not doing what David Blunkett intends to do. Yes, I know that that is shooting fish in a barrel, but Hari does make the point very well.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi thinks I should be either thrown from a high cliff or stoned to death for being gay. He thinks my Jewish relatives should be slaughtered as "vile crusaders and infidels". I strongly believe he should be free to come to Britain and make his case. Freedom of speech must include the freedom to say obscene, hateful things, or it is a fiction, a freedom behind prison walls. If you don't defend the liberty of people you despise, then you don't really believe in liberty at all.

There are two reasons why the media mob calling for the suspension of free speech should be resisted. Western societies are technologically and intellectually sophisticated because they are built upon 18th-century Enlightenment principles. The most basic of all these principles is that ideas should be openly discussed. Good ideas - ones that make things work or describe reality more accurately - will catch on, and bad ideas will be defeated in argument. No, it doesn't work in every instance; but the broad truth of these ideas has been the basis of all the progress we have enjoyed for centuries - and it's why totalitarian societies that suppress free speech so often remain trapped in poverty.


The fact that this argument has to be made anew every time a controversial visitor - from Louis Farrakhan to Jean-Marie le Pen - wants to visit shows how poorly the concept of free speech has been integrated into the mindset of British people across the political spectrum. In the United States, the leftish American Civil Liberties Union routinely defends the constitutional right of neo-Nazis and other fascist groups to speak and demonstrate; they understand that civil liberties cannot be sliced up and still survive.


The best way to discredit foolish ideas is to let people hear them. Does anybody seriously think that al-Qaradawi's ideas - which include a hatred of Pokemon on the grounds that it promotes the "unholy notion of evolution" - will survive rational discussion? Do you imagine that most British Muslims who have grown up in advanced technological societies will do anything other than snigger?

You also have to be fairly ignorant of the history of radical Islam to believe it can be smothered at birth through censorship and suppression. Islamic fundamentalism has not been the product of excessively free societies that have allowed fundamentalists to run wild; it is the very opposite.

Finally, in A real Islamophobe: Mark Steyn And NOT Polly Toynbee, Hari defends Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee from charges of Islamophobia. What interested me about this one was not the main point, the expose of Mark Steyn, but a related point he needed to make, about the tarring-with-the-same-brush that characterises a lot of today's political debate:

At Harry's Place, we supported the recent war in Iraq for humanitarian reasons. But we very uncomfortably ended up on the same side as some deranged Islamophobes like Ann Coulter (who advocates invading Islamic countries and "converting them to Christianity") and Michael Savage, one of the USA's leading talk radio hosts, who recently asked a braying crowd, "Does anyone here give a shit about the Iraqis?" "No!" they howled. He went on to call Lynnie England "a hero".

Well, that's how it goes - there were nutcases on both sides, and sane people had to pick their side based on principle and regardless of what maniacs like Coulter or Galloway think.

Sorry for the uncritical quote-fest. Ironically, just compiling it took at least as much time as writing some original stuff did. Sometimes writing a blog looks a lot like working. Like many people, I sometimes put stuff in my blog just so that I can find it again in a year or so, and I strongly suspect that this is one such case.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 11, 2004 11:45 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Mini Me.

The next post in this blog is Fade-outs, from Monday's comic.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered by
Movable Type 3.34