Monday, 29 August 2011


Natural disasters are awe-inspiring things. Far beyond human influence or control, it is hardly a surprise that they have always been credited to (or blamed on) the supernatural.

I've noticed, though, that the way we react to them is changing.

For a start, we find out about more of them, more quickly. March's Tōhoku earthquake hit the news so quickly that cameras were in the air in time to watch the tsunami hit. In years gone by, it would have been hours, days, weeks before we found out about it. During the Christchurch earthquake, shortly before that, tremors were being tweeted before they finished, and people were blogging in between tremors.

The reactions to disasters change as well. From a spectacle distant to us in both time and miles, live updates mean we are aware of more disasters on a day-by-day basis, so sometimes it looks as though they are increasing in frequency, which delights that certain breed of extremist ready to welcome the death of thousands as a sign of The End, or a reason to persecute those who don't follow their own rules (remember how New Orleans was apparently hit by the hurricane as a punishment for harbouring homosexuals?).

On the upside, we can get help to the victims more quickly, although sometimes the nature of that help needs to be more carefully thought out. Although I'm sure the Haitians were delighted with the delivery of 600 solar-powered bibles, I am thoroughly bemused by the assumption of so many churches that the first need of starving, thirsty, homeless people is for a really nice copy of the bible - Massachusetts congregations ordered 5000 French bibles for all those poor victims.

Anyhoo, that's a different rant.

What I'm thinking about right now is the strange connections the internet gives to disasters these days...
  • One of the first friends I made on the internet had to evacuate during forest fires in California.
  • A friend's sister was caught up in forest fires in Australia.
  • An ex-colleague and several iblers were caught in the Christchurch earthquake.
  • My wife has family who moved from Hawaii because of the storms. They now live near New York.
  • My mother was in Egypt during the last lot of trouble there.
  • And, of course, there are all the iblers caught in the path of Irene...
What's weird is not that I am concerned for the safety of my friends, of course I am, but that these connection make me, in some small way, a victim of all these disasters as well.

Not that I feel like a victim, but I feel their effects more acutely than I did in the years BI (Before Internet), and, you know what?

Rather than making me feel as though the world is out to get me, rather than making The End look ever closer, it makes me feel somehow more human.

No, I don't fully grok that yet, but I think it's a good thing.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Riots and rights.

I've been wondering how to approach the riots the started in London and spread to other UK cites.

I've worked it out: I'm sorry.

Although hundreds of people were involved, and probably millions of of pounds worth of damage has been done (not to mention the number of innocent families made homeless when mobs looted and torched the shops over which they lived), these people are not typical of Britain.

They show us in a bad light.

OK, so we've had riots in the past, frequently on a much larger scale, but they were riots with a reason. They were mass action against racism or government policy.

These riots stopped being a legitimate protest within a couple of hours.

Since then, they have been purely criminal. Mobs using a false sense of "entitlement" as an excuse to go shopping with a brick.

Nobody can pretend there is a political motivation to a woman caught on CCTV, sitting in a smashed shoe-shop window, trying on the displays.

No sane human can find the actions of the infamous "Bad Samaritans" as anything but abhorrent.

People have been trying to explain the riots, pin blame on something so that a quick fix can be pasted over the cracks and look like something useful.

"It's the internet, blame the social networks" is the most common cry, yet also the weakest excuse. Of course, folk used SMS, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger to get organised, but that's just the modern equivalent of yelling in the streets with a megaphone. Technology wasn't the reason or cause of the riots, just a tool of the criminals.

To me, the problem is deeper than that, and has been worming its way into the social psyche for years.

A sense of "entitlement" has taken over from a sense of social responsibility. People feel they are entitled, not just to being kept fed and sheltered, but to being entertained and pandered to. The acquisition of material goods becomes prioritised over mental and emotional well-being.

As a teacher, I have often heard children and parents declaring that they "know their rights", whilst simultaneously trampling or ignoring the rights of others. These are the same children who misbehave until somebody shuts them up by buying them a new game for the PlayStation, the same parents who think that it is more important to buy an iPhone for their 12 year old than it is to clothe them properly, or to encourage them to read or work hard at school.

Who needs to work for stuff when The Social will provide it anyway? Why should politicians spend their own money, when they can claim for luxuries on expenses?

This all sounds like I am blaming the welfare state, but I'm not. The welfare state, run properly, is a wonderful thing. When I was unemployed, it kept a roof over my head and food in my belly. It provided advice to help me get back on my feet and become independent again.

But, somewhere along the line, that last part has gone missing. People are too eager to take the material stuff, and leave the independent bit to waste away.

There is no quick fix to the causes of these riots, but there is a fix.

It is time to remind people, at every level of society, that for every entitlement, for every right, there is a responsibility.

A responsibility to ensure that everybody has equal access to their rights.

One of the great documents of human history is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The kind of folk who were at the heart of the riots are very keen on appealing to the idea of Human Rights to get their way, but I doubt they have ever actually read them. Shall we do that now?

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Is that what the rioters were doing when they set fire to people's homes? When they robbed Asyraf Haziq?

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Tell that to the woman who had to leap from a fourth-floor window to escape a fire.
Tell that to the three men mown down and killed by a car, just because they did not want rioters to loot their local shops.

Article 17 (2): No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

And what would looting be?

Article 20 (1): Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

See that important word? "Peaceful". As soon as the original protest stopped being peaceful, the rioters threw away their own rights.

Article 29 (1): Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

Hang on...

See that? I'd bet a year's pay that none of those people hiding behind the banner of "it's my right" have absolutely no idea that one of their "rights" is actually a responsibility to contribute positively to their community.

Part two also implies a responsibility to ensure that public order is maintained to allow society to function.

So, what we, the sane members of society need to do is to ensure that the deeply materialist, "entitlement" driven members of society are educated about the true nature of "rights".

Obviously, schools must do a large part of the work, but the greater part must be done by parents. They must instil in their children a spirit of independence from free help wherever possible, and a respect for the rights of others, including the wider community.

Stop using bribes to buy reasonable behaviour, start rewarding good behaviour instead.