Archive for January, 2011

Time to Change your Tuna (2)

Back in October, Tellallthecats brought you a feature on the dire realities of modern-day tuna fishing (read more here).  Three months on, Greenpeace has released their 2011 league table, rating tuna manufacturers on their eco-credentials.  The tins are stacked high and the results may not be what you’d expect…

Firm favourites Sainsbury’s and M & S come out on top.  Their commitment to a more sustainable future for tuna has scored high points with the Greenpeace posse.  Of particular note: sourcing their entire range of canned tuna from the pole-and-line method; clearly identifying tins with species and catch method; giving strong support to the establishment of marine reserves; and boycotting yellowfin tuna, using only skipjack and albacore species.

At the bottom of the food chain, however, lurks Princes (owned by corporate giant, Mitsubishi).  Responsible for producing a third of the UK’s tinned tuna, this canning company has an abysmal track record and a rotten eco-policy, fishier than a bucket full of bass. Not only does the company still deal in bigeye tuna (listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN red list), it fails to label tins by species, origin and catch method.  What’s more, they are unrelenting in their false and misleading claims, specifically that “Princes is fully committed to fishing methods which protect the marine environment and marine life.”  Coming from a company that uses the worst fishing methods around (including purse seining and FADs), this is clearly untrue.

Three things you can do:

1) Join the Fish Fight campaign and write to Princes.  Positive change will come but it needs YOUR voice!

2) Boycott Princes and John West’s products and buy tuna only from certified pole-and-line sources (Sainsbury’s and M & S are the best, Sainsbury’s Basics Pole-and-Line Tuna the most affordable)

3) Diversify your fish-eating habits. There’s a whole ocean out there.  For some inspired suggestions, visit: Jamie’s Fish Suppers

Addendum: A lot of anger gets levelled at the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, and rightly so.  Its absurd and outmoded system of quotas results in (according to the Fish Fight campaign) half the fish caught in the North Sea being thrown back – dead.  Such an outrageous state of affairs epitomises the failure of EU politicians to implement not just sustainable, but sensible, environmental policies.   However, this is undoubtedly a complex issue, outlined well in Bagehot’s Notebook – a thought-provoking read, well worth your time.

The Tucson Acid Test

Sheriff Dupnik talks a lot of sense.  In the wake of the Tucson shootings, Arizona’s bulldog-faced, Number One law-enforcer has been a regular in the mainstream media, describing his home State as a ‘Mecca for prejudice and bigotry’.  It’s true that Arizona is a land of extremes.  With its scorched plains bordering the badlands of the Mexican frontier, the State’s politics, beliefs and civil attitudes occupy an equally extreme terrain.  Extreme events – as so devastatingly played out this week – also happen there.  While the Wild West of Arizona seems a world away from Capitol Hill, the political climate as a whole is becoming increasingly febrile.  As blame and accusations fly between Republicans and Democrats, between pundits on the right and on the left, Tucson has become the acid test for the state of America today.  We only have to look to the Copper State to see the direction in which the rest of the US is heading.

What does the shooting tell us?  That American politics has become too vitriolic, too militant?  That gun laws are too lax?  That support for mentally-ill patients is severely lacking?  The fundamental question, one that the media worldwide have been addressing: was the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords the lone act of a disturbed man or, more alarmingly, was it induced by the toxic political atmosphere?

Perhaps the recent assassination of Pakistani politician, Salmaan Taseer, can tell us something.  His murder took place in a culture where political divides are so extreme that factions will celebrate the use of violence against their enemies.  While America is not at this point yet, rhetoric is certainly signaling a shift in that direction.

Any casual viewing of Fox News confirms this.  Increasingly, writers and broadcasters alike are riling and whipping up the electorate (the names of Messrs Beck, Limbaugh and O’Reilly spring to mind).  Such cheap, opportunistic shots seem only for the benefit of their career rather than to inform the public and stimulate intelligent, tempered debate.

Republicans, as much as they try, don’t have the monopoly on such combative vitriol.  Just look at what’s been said in recent weeks, on both sides of the political fence.  MSNBC’s Chris Matthews came out with a stormer: ‘At some point, somebody is going to jam a CO2 pellet into [Rush Limbaugh’s] head and he’s going to explode like a giant blimp.’  Mike Malloy at Liberal Talk Radio drew on a similar theme when he uttered the immortal words: ‘Maybe [Glenn] Beck will do the honorable thing and blow his brains out.’  Even Joe Biden, the notoriously gaffe-prone Vice-President, stoked the fire with some words of warning: ‘If I hear one more Republican tell me about balancing the budget, I am going to strangle them’ (swiftly adding to the press conference, ‘That is a figure of speech.’).

We’ve all heard about Palin’s ‘Don’t retreat, reload’ slogan and her infamous crosshairs-map (‘When people do that,’ Giffords so poignantly foretold, ‘they’ve got to realize there are consequences’).  But what about the provocative post-shooting commentary from Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips: ‘The Left is coming and will hit us hard on this. We need to push back harder with the simple truth. The shooter was a liberal lunatic.’  Or Glenn Beck’s threat to the government for taking children into custody if they weren’t given flu vaccines: ‘You want to take my kids because of that? Meet Mr Smith and Mr Wesson’.  How about conservative radio-host Joyce Kaufman’s incendiary statement at an Independence Day Tea Party rally: “If ballots don’t work, bullets will.”

Does anyone really believe that such malicious language and thinly-veiled incitements to violence do not have consequences?  While NYT writer Charles M. Blow would disagree, describing ‘a giddy, almost punch-drunk excitement on the left’ after the shooting, there are, undoubtedly, unstable people on the fringes – politically and psychologically speaking – taking their cues from firebrands, both in the media and Congress. In a nation of 218 million eligible voters, the margins for extremity are significant: you’re bound to get the odd nut.  And it doesn’t take a lot of these nuts to cause some serious commotion.

However, to place sole blame on the politicians, as fierce and dangerous as their rhetoric has become, is to deny the basic fact that gunman Jared Lee Loughner was severely mentally ill.  As an article by Dr. Daniel Carlat makes clear, Loughner exhibited the symptoms of a paranoid and psychotic schizophrenic.  He was an unruly, disturbed student, banned from serving in the military (though this is more likely due to drug abuse than psychological reasons), who became obsessed with Rep. Giffords, brandishing her ‘a fake’.  Even if Loughner was a devoted follower of some right-winger like Sarah Palin or another trouble-making neo-con, it may prove impossible to identify a causal relationship between the rhetoric of one specific politician and the tragically unpredictable shooting by a disturbed and anarchic gunman on that fateful Saturday, 8 January, 2011.

The events in Tucson now give the US an opportunity to reassess its political climate as a whole – acting as a litmus test, if you will, for the quality and purity of the values and aspirations of 21st-Century America.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that rough-and-ready Arizona is not mild-and-temperate New England. It is a modern-day Wild West, another country.  Arizona’s lenient gun culture was surely an integral part of this shooting.  Where else could a mentally ill man – one excluded from the educational system – walk into a gun shop and buy, without a permit, a lethal firearm. (This is in a State where gun shop owners are now reporting a rise in sales of the Glock 9mm, the model used by Loughner.  The weapon has already acquired a certain celebrity status and Arizonans now want a slice of the action.)  Giffords herself publicly announced, after her office was vandalized in March 2010: ‘I have a Glock 9mm and I’m a pretty good shot’.  It would be callous to suggest that the Congresswoman was a victim of her own provocative statements, but she certainly hasn’t been shy in making them.

As tempting as it is to label Palin and her mob of hawkish neo-cons as responsible for this killing, to do so would be as much a misguided, knee-jerk reaction as it is to assert that video games are responsible for shootings in schools.  Such freak occurrences call for measured self-reflection, not the rash, inflammatory and censorious accusations we have seen.  Whether this tragedy was directly linked to the wider political arena is yet to be proved, and almost beside the point. It is an opportunity not for political mud-slinging but for America to assess itself – for its public, politicians and pundits alike to look inward and to locate, honestly and rigorously, their place in this tragedy.

Dream on.  If the shooting was not initially related to the political atmosphere, it has now become so, as both parties seek to spin it as best they can.  Today, far from toning it down, Palin has gone on to fan the flames further with her nauseatingly patriotic broadcast, employing the unfortunate term, ‘Blood libel’.  Alaska’s First Lady may not be aware that this phrase came out of the Middle Ages, when it was claimed that Jews were sacrificing Christian children, baking their blood into their Passover bread – widely cited as a rationale for Jewish persecution across Europe for centuries.  Nevertheless, its anti-Semitic undertones have angered Jewish groups, compounded by the fact that Giffords herself is Jewish.

The American Far-Right seem incapable of acknowledging shades of grey.  Black and white is their motto: You’re either with us or against us! You’re either good or evil! Are you an American or aren’t you?  Instead of leaping to the defensive via her Facebook page, it would have been far wiser for Palin to concede that politics has become too dirty, while still claiming her innocence over the shooting (this is how it’s done, Sarah).  In the early months of 2010, the number of threats against congressmen rose by a staggering 300 per cent.  Is this due to the militant rhetoric of the politicians and mainstream media?  It’s hard to say, although once public figures start calling for ‘bullets’ over ‘ballots’, rule of law inevitably shifts from the democratic many to the anarchic few.  Rabble-rousing proclamations are not just dangerous, they are dehumanising, depicting political opponents as enemies rather than fellow citizens.

A day after the shooting took place, Democrat Congressman Emanuel Cleaver said his country was in a ‘dark place right now’.  This brings to mind a line from the great American poet, Theodore Roethke, who wrote that ‘In a dark time, the eye begins to see’.  It is now time for America – its politicians and public alike – to see the true state of their nation, with honesty and clarity.  Even if this terrible shooting had nothing to do with the wider political climate, the need for change has never been greater.

9/11 – Good PR for Allah

They say all publicity is good publicity. Even when almost 3,000 people are killed in your name? Apparently so.

A new report claims that tens of thousands of Britons have converted to Islam since fundamentalists launched their 9/11 attacks on America. These figures may, at first, seem a little hard to stomach. Phrases like ‘backlash against Islam’, ‘Islamaphobia’ and ‘anti-Muslim sentiment’ get batted around the media circus ring on an almost daily basis – surely we Brits are more sceptical, more closed-minded, more fearful than ever when it comes to anybody with a beard or hijab, especially when worn on the same person.

Well, the numbers speak for themselves: there are now an estimated 100,000 Islamic converts living in Britain today (up from 60,000 in 2001).  The good folk at Swansea University, who carried out the study, offer an interesting, albeit controversial, hypothesis on the ‘major contributing factor’ of this massive surge in converts: 9/11 was good PR.

In other words, since that fateful day when four planes were hijacked by al-Qaeda militants, articles and documentaries on Islam have swamped the media.   Some of these have been negative, of course, but some have also been positive, attempting to show the ‘real face’ of Islam.  As such, this ‘publicity’ has resulted in the Faith gaining a much higher profile in the post-9/11 West.

Don’t assume, either, that these conversions have been taking place among British Asians on the streets of Bradford and Aldgate East. Far from it. According to the study (commissioned by interfaith think-tank, Faith Matters), over half the converts have been white British. Two thirds, perhaps unsurprisingly, were women – a group, it could be argued, who are more flexible, more tolerant, more introspective and less influenced by their peers than their male counterparts.  (Massive, outrageous generalisations, of course… Discuss.)

Is Islam really the panacea for the ills of modern society? That’s what a substantial amount of the study’s 40,000+ converts would say. Many of these new Muslims admitted that it was the ‘normalisation of immoral behaviour’ in secular British society that had made them turn to Islam, choosing Friday prayers instead of Friday drinks.  And why not? After all, Christianity is so last millennium. Its two main festivals (Easter and Christmas) have become a mere shadow of their former selves, having now become sorry excuses for choco-gluttony and excessive materialistic consumption.  The bland, easily-digestible snack that is evangelical Christianity continues to resurge yet offers all the majesty, depth and divine mystery of a brightly-lit, choreographed pop concert.

At least traditional Islam still retains some dignity.  Give me its dogma and solemn ritual over ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ any day of the week – except Fridays, that’s when I go scouting for rich Jewish girls with my drinking and gambling buddies from the local pork farm (we try to put the ‘ha ha’ back into ‘haraam’). Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of religion nor, as it happens, the ‘religion’ of atheism, which can be just as hard-line and sanctimonious as any Bible-bashing preacher. However, in the face of an increasingly diluted, worldly and egocentric marketplace of would-be converts, at least the Islamic religion has maintained its sense of tradition and firmly stuck to its guns (no pun intended).

No doubt these converts are the real deal – who are we to judge anyone’s religion or personal belief system? But let’s face it, we’re not talking about being blinded by God on the road to Damascus, or receiving Allah’s favour on Jabal al-Nur, or becoming enlightened under the Bodhi Tree.  Unless you’re born into it, religion nowadays is a lifestyle choice.  It’s a brand.  Sick of scantily-clad girls loutishly boozing on the High Street (and always felt an inexpressible desire to visit the Middle East)? Take up Islam.  Wanting to inject a bit of purpose into your typically lazy, hungover Sunday mornings? Take up Christianity.  Struggling to find peace of mind in between planning your health-food company’s next PR campaign and purchasing a family house in the best catchment area? Take up Buddhism, and meditate your way out of these worldly, middle-class cares.

The conclusions of the researchers at Swansea University should be taken with a pinch of salt.  It’s a provocative and (crucially) headline-grabbing idea that the horrific tragedy that was 9/11 gave rise to an increase in Islamic conversions, especially among white Britons. Clearly, it was the flood of publicity (i.e. the sections of the media that said, ‘Hey! C’mon, now.  Islam’s not that bad, look at all its beautiful architecture and open-minded messages of peace and love’) that came after the event, rather than the event itself, that got Brits weighing up the pros and cons of a religion that, until now, had been as remote, esoteric and irrelevant as post-industrial, Anglo-Saxon Christianity.  Yet, for many, it will be a stomach-churning thought that these conversions are a product of 9/11 – that such callous intentions, such blind hatred, such terror could have resulted in positive branding for a religion in whose name the 9/11 attacks were so stridently, though falsely, performed.

A final thought to end on: does this work the other way round?  For the average Arab in the Middle East, will the ‘occupying infidel forces’ of the Christian West exert a similar influence over his or her religious leanings?  Have parts of the Middle Eastern press become as saturated as ours, albeit with articles not about the ‘real face’ of Islam, but about Christianity? Can we expect to see a sharp rise in Christian converts in Iraq and Afghanistan over the coming decade?  Probably not, but I’m game for celebrating Christmas in Kabul you are.

…And, now, to a woman whose very public conversion to Islam last September raised a few eyebrows, both in the media and in Number 10:

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