Category Archives: Politics

Not dead, nor yet a zombie

[insert typical “sorry I don’t blog here more often” paragraph]

The fact of the matter is that I am still writing, rather a lot, over at Making Light, a blog owned by my friends Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden1.

This is kind of unfair to everyone who keeps looking here for news of me. I know this. I’m going to start doing pointers to Making Light when I’ve posted something there that people here might be interested in, and hanging out here for people who want to talk about those things with me rather than a large crowd of strangers2.

My most recent post is about the quilt that I made this spring: Works and Days of Hands. It’s also about the process of making something like that, and how process and design mirrored each other for me.

Fibonacci spiral quilt: front Fibonacci spiral quilt: back

Another post I really enjoyed writing was Op anger tale, which is an exploration of the relationship between a particular Dutch dialect and Wikipedia.

One thing I’ve been talking about over there, rather a lot, has been the US health care situation. The conversation can get quite heated from time to time, of course, but that heat has certainly caused me to clarify and reaffirm my own beliefs in this matter.

  1. That phrasing makes it sound like we were friends, and then I pitched up on their blog. Really, it was the other way round.
  2. Though many of my friends here are also friends on Making Light, it’s a smaller group.

What to Name the War?

I wrote this in November, on a thread about what to call the war. It’s actually the second — the first was silly, and I am not minded to post silliness today.

Before I’d name the war, I’d ask to know
What I was calling “in” and calling “out”,
And how this situation’s like to grow.
It’s clarity we’ve been too long without.
New York, Afghanistan, Madrid, Iraq,
Guantanamo and London, Bali too;
Iran and North Korea, from the talk,
And then Peoria? and me? and you?
We move in darkness, as it seems to me
Not of fear only, but the shades of lie
That hide the places we become less free
And trumpet out the ways that we could die.
Until we get so used to constant strife
That we don’t call it war, but normal life.

This sonnet quotes quite extensively from one of my favourite poems, Mending Wall, by Robert Frost. It was one of my attempts to recast another poem into sonnet meter and rhyme. Both the octave and the sestet start off with Frost quotes, like a touchstone:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.


He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

I have always used Frost’s poem as a metaphor for the intellectual distinctions we make to parse the world, and the need to make those distinctions intelligently and thoughtfully. It is only now, writing this entry, that I realise that he wrote it in 1915, when the First World War was already underway. Though that conflict is far from his verse, I find this interesting.

September 11, a sonnet

This was written on Bonfire Night, 2006. I watched the fireworks with the children, then came inside to warm up and read some of the history of Guy Fawkes and his plot.

History can be as comforting as it is unsettling.

In time, September the eleventh night,
The kids will watch the rockets fill the air.
They’ll OOH and AAH in multicoloured light
With bioluminescents in their hair.
Our tragedies will be reduced to rhyme:
Some half-remembered, mistranslated song
And jumping dance, its meaning lost to time,
Details missing, names and places wrong.
Though self-renewing terror haunts our lives,
Our children, staring upward at the sky,
Remind us that their innocence survives
While we, and they, and generations die.
Resist with decency when terror stalks
It’s stronger than Bin Laden, Marx or Fawkes.

In technical terms, this is an okay sonnet. There is very little “turn” in this one, between the octave and the sestet. The only real transition is from the scene at the start to the message in the conclusion. The couplet does sum things up nicely. But the language is never clever, or particularly powerful.

In terms of content, this is a sonnet I believe in very deeply indeed. I think we exist in a historical context, and that it is important for us to remember that in the choices we make. I think (looking backward) civilisation has faced worse challenges than we face now, and (looking forward) that we owe it to the future not to overreact, or sell out our principles.

The Bill of Rights, in Quatrains

We start with God (or Gods, or none)
Then speech and press, assembling:
The ways and means that anyone
Can ask for change to anything.

But might makes right, or helps it thrive
Against the worst ill wishers.
So guns can keep the State alive
In well-regulated Militias.

The homely castle where you live
Affords no soldier boarder.
The third amendment lets you give
New meaning to “No quarter!”

Your property and self are your own
And none may search or take them
Unless probable cause can be shown
And warrants evidence make them.

Due process of law is next in our reach
As part of the health of the nation.
Trials are needed, and only one each
Without any self incrimination.

In criminal trials, a jury must sit
And witnesses be openly heard.
Counsel assists, and the state will commit
To compel defence witnesses’ word.

Where common law suits are tried
And sums are more than a score
A jury request cannot be denied
Nor appeals their findings ignore.

Excessive bail shall not be imposed
Lest poverty tyranny fuel.
And punishments, however composed,
Should not be unusual or cruel.

Naming rights here does not deny
That for the people others exist.
And inclusion herein does not imply
Disparagement to the ones missed.

Our Federal nation is made of States
To whom other powers are reserved.
The People as well, in any debates,
Must have their control preserved.

Originally posted on Making Light

Citizen Sutherland

I have lived in the United Kingdom for 12 1/2 years now, nearly all of my adult life. I have, however, always held myself a little apart from the people around me, partly because I am an American and they are British. And I am distinctly American – my accent betrays me every time I speak, and I have a very American political philosophy. (This is in reference to the idea that sovereignity derives from the consent of the governed, for instance, and the idea that liberties rest with the citizens unless those citizens consent to surrender them for the greater good. It does not mean I think that politics should be spiteful, mean and rude.)

I have lost a little of that separation today. I have become a British citizen.


The whole process started with an immigration official in Stansted Airport when we were coming back from France last summer. After querying me about the terms of my residency here, he suggested I look into naturalisation and handed me a leaflet with the Home Office URL. I was a bit staggered – wasn’t his job to keep people out?

An EU passport would be handy, though, because we are talking about a move to the Netherlands in 2007. Right of abode throughout Europe is not to be lightly set aside.

Why Not?

My major concern was with my American citizenship, because I am not keen to lose that. But a little research, including the US consular site, revealed that the American government does not deem the taking up of a non-exclusive foreign citizenship as the renunciation of one’s American citizenship. (It’s different if one’s new citizenship requires one to renounce all previous allegiances, like the Japanese – and the Americans themselves – do. But the Brits do not require that.) They don’t like it, but they allow it.

A minor, but still persistent, point was the requirement to swear allegiance to the Queen. The full text of the things I had to say today is:

I (name) swear by Almighty God that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law.

I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.

The second paragraph is fine. Absolutely. The first took some thought, both because of a profound discomfort with the notion of personal loyalty to the sovereign, and because I am not naturally a monarchist.

But the way I parse the oath (there is an alternative “affirmation” version for those who do not wish to swear, or do not wish to mention Almighty God, but it parses the same) is that the last clause (“according to law”) modifies the entire sentence. That’s why there’s a comma before it. So my true and faithful allegiance is limited by, and defined by, the law. The Queen is an office-holder, even if she is born into it rather than elected into it.

But what of the office itself? Americans are as wholeheartedly monarchist as, say, ancient Romans. But remember what happened to them – they ended up with Augustus “restoring the republic” by turning it into an Imperium. And, watching the current Executive Branch grab at primacy in the US system, I’m not sure we Americans don’t yearn for some sort of monarch to tell us what to do as well.

As monarchies go, the British one is remarkably powerless. In theory, the sovereign can dismiss a prime minister or dissolve Parliament. In practice, she can do that once, and the next day the UK will be a republic. But while Queen Elizabeth is on the throne, no one else can be. She is an effective blocker of any claim to absolute (political) power, while simultaneously excercising none herself. (Thanks to my university friend James for pointing this one out.)

Practical Considerations and Tests Evaded

So, having assuaged my moral qualms, I sent in my application for citizenship in October. My timing was close – had I sent it in in November, I would have had to sit a test on British life. I was one of many, too – 57,000 others wanted to avoid the test as well. Despite reports of slow processing, with some responses expected to take till June, I got my reply back within the 4-month pre-rush average.

Then I booked my “citizenship ceremony” by ringing up the City Council offices. As an American, I was bemused by the reaction, or lack thereof, of the staff. Had I called an American local government office to book the US equivalent ceremony, someone, somewhere along the line, would have said “congratulations.” Here, it’s like booking your car in for a service.

Martin, in deference to my American-style emotional engagement in this whole process, took the day off and took me out to lunch before the ceremony. We showed up in good time and sat in the city chambers till about 10 minutes after the hour, when Edinburgh’s Lord Provost (a woman, as it happens, but the title does not change) came in. She gave a wee speech, the chief registrar gave a wee speech, and then we all stood up and mumbled through the oath and pledge. We were each then called up to shake hands with the Lord Provost, get our certificates, and get our pictures taken. Then we all had tea and biscuits.

But What Does it All Mean?

The British government introduced these ceremonies to try to give a stronger sense of identity to the new citizens. I think it does that, a little, but I am not convinced that the Brits are really interested in an American-style citizenship model. I encounter a lot of bemusement among my British friends about the test of British life, for instance – no one is sure what would go on such a test, or whether they themselves would agree with the “right” answers. And this lack of enthusiasm, which I first really noted in booking the ceremony, pervaded the whole event. The oath and affirmation were murmured rather than proclaimed, and the Lord Provost had to prompt people to applaud each new citizen as she presented the certificates.

Basically, the Brits aren’t entirely sure what citizenship means to them. For instance, the Lord Provost’s speech made no reference whatsoever to anything expressed in that oath I agonised about it. She spoke almost exclusively to the Pledge about upholding the UK’s traditions of rights and freedoms. The Registrar was a little more forthcoming, managing to mention the “sovereign” twice, and there was a picture of the Queen looking benevolent in the room. But the monarchy was clearly not the heart of the ceremony. The ideas of respect and inclusiveness, both much mentioned in the speeches, didn’t ring true either (they are neologisms in the political discourse), though the very ethnically and religiously mixed crowd needed to hear them.

In the end, I don’t know what being British means to me, or to anyone there. I thought it would sum up something of these last 12 years for me, give me a label for that half of me that is not American, but it doesn’t. There is no summary, no single easy definition, apart from that gentle, mild unease with the pretense of certainty that an easy definition would give.

Picture here. I would also like to express my gratitude to Jules and Fiona, who told the Home Office I was a good person despite the evidence to the contrary.

Civil Partnerships

So today the new Civil Parterships Act comes into effect in the UK. The Beeb calls them Gay Weddings, but even their FAQ on the matter admits they’re not.

Before we get too het up on the marriage/not marriage distinction, though, the reasons civil partnerships are not marriage are:

  • They can be conducted in private. Civil marriages are public matters, with both partners signing the register simultaneously and saying certain words. A civil partnership is formed when the second partner signs the papers, even if that happens at a different time or place than the first signature.
  • There is no religious connotation to a civil partnership. In this land of the established church, a Church of Scotland minister can officiate at a wedding and have it be binding. S/he cannot do the same for a civil partnership. (This does not ban religious ceremonies for civil partnerships. Ministers of non-established churches – and mosques, and temples – have religious ceremonies for weddings, but the legal marriage is not formed without intervention of a registrar.)
  • No one wanted to be the politician who legalised gay marriage.

Nonetheless, I’ve skipped through most of the Act, and it’s all there. Formation, dissolution, degrees of relationship, adoption, intestacy, insurance benefits, next of kin, pension rights, immigration… Most of the text of the law is actually a series of insertions, reading over and over again, “For ‘husband or wife’ read ‘husband or wife or civil partner’.”

On the surface, looking out over the nation today, all is quiet. No one much was talking about civil partnerships, though all the papers had stories on the subject. The chat at the office was about the lack of large cups at the coffee cart, who was getting kicked off of the reality TV show, and of course the weather.

But the first ripples of change are coming. Asda will apparently be stocking “Mr and Mr” and “Mrs and Mrs” cards. The Times has added a Civil Partnerships column to its “Births, Deaths and Marriages” page. My employer posted a vocabulary chart for the new terminology (“divorce” is now “divorce or dissolution”) so that our personnel forms can be updated consistently.

And the world spectacularly failed to end. I didn’t really expect it would, just because more of my fellow travellers on the biggest adventure of my life are now share my rights.

But I admit I had hoped for some dancing in the streets.

Degrees of feminism

I was recently reading a conversation online between some very committed Democrats and some very committed Republicans. Like many of the readers, I was floored when one of the Republican women called one of the Democrat women an “overemotional, angry, thick-skulled feminist”.

Huh? This educated, enfranchised and employed woman was using feminist as an insult. How does this creature think she got where she is today, if not through the efforts of overemotional, angry, thick-skulled feminists1 like Abigail Adams, Emily Parkhurst, Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt?

I got to feel smugly superior about my comparative enlightenment for exactly one day. Then I found this basket in the ladies’ room of the Capita conference centre, and it made me squirm.


It took me a while to realise why it got at me. It’s not the fact that sanitary products are set out for women to use – though the dynamic of being given them as opposed to buying them one’s self (even from a vending machine) is already a move from the intense privacy with which we deal with these matters.

It’s the fact that they are offered with corporate compliments. If they just left them out for customers to filch, I think I’d be a little easier about it. The implicit attention to menstruation that the sign conveys is, well, embarrassing. (And this blog entry is an attempt to get over that embarassment.)

I hope Fiona is that bit more relaxed about these things when she grows up.

  1. Note that “feminist” in this context means one who believes that women should have equal rights to men. The use of “feminist” to mean “man hating freak” is a semantic hijacking.

Doomed to Repeat It

Lessons from history: the Titanic

  1. Engineering can’t prevent disasters. All it can do is make them less likely and make their impacts less severe. Water, in particular, always finds a way in. Plan accordingly.
  2. Everybody gets a seat on the lifeboat. Anything else – like an evacuation plan that only saves people with access to a car – is criminal.

At least when the Titanic sank, rescue was prompt.

That is all I can bear to post about Hurricane Katrina. I know no one from New Orleans, yet the whole affair breaks my heart. I regret that I never saw it in its former glory, but I would trade a lifetime of longing to see it for the lives that were lost.

We hold fast…

…to what is important. The more they hit us, the more they try to frighten us, the tighter we hold on to it.

What do we hold so tight?

bombs don’t care who you are, but your neighbours do
even if revenge would feel better
though it expose us to future danger
Britain has been here before
even in the face of hate

Peace, dear people.

I Grow Old, I Grow Old…

…I’ve joined the Establishment.

Yesterday (July 4th) was the day we were all worried about in Edinburgh, the day the anarchists planned (?) to rally in advance of the G8. Being anarchists, of course, they didn’t exactly file for a parade permit.

The Carnival for Full Enjoyment was intended to protest against the capitalist system, wage slavery, and pretty much everything the G8 has ever done. The attendees (can’t use the word organisers; they’re anarchists) suggested some fun things – clowns, acrobatics, and drumming. The gist of the protest – as described – was to demonstrate that there is another way to run the world than the current capitalist doctrine. I’m in full agreement there.

Unfortunately, their proposals for “not this world” didn’t include a lot of group self-control (yeah, yeah, anarchists, said that already), and not all of them were that keen on just enjoying the drumming. Some of them wanted to do the whole smashing and fighting thing. It didn’t come across as a good advertisement for the alternatives to the current system.

The current system was represented, in this little drama, by the police.

Now, the policing strategy in Edinburgh for the G8 has focused on letting people have their say, where they want to say it, if they can do so safely and without collateral damage. They let almost a quarter of a million people dressed in white encircle the city centre1 on Saturday for the Make Poverty History march. Saturday went off peacefully2.

On Monday, the police were using the same approach. I saw the carnival as I went home that afternoon. The police were letting people have their fun, if they could do it safely. Sadly, things turned violent3. The protestors blamed the police for provocation4; the police blamed the protestors for throwing paving stones, benches and staves.

And I believe the police side of the story.

I saw the operation as I passed by, saw the cops using horses and walls of riot shields to control and slow crowd movements, to keep the groups from massing too greatly. I also saw them letting uninvolved civilians get across the public spaces and through the guarded gates, so our lives weren’t too disrupted. I saw them letting the party go on but keeping the mob small. I saw that only a third to a half of the police had riot gear on; the remainder were wearing stab vests and flourescent yellow over their ordinary uniforms. And, of course, they were not carrying guns. I didn’t see the fight begin, but that was what it was like before the trouble started.

And in the aftermath, even pro-protestor sites like Indymedia are struggling to find a lot of photos of police violence, or accounts of serious injury. That’s because there wasn’t much, for all the breathless press reportage about “baton charges” and “pitched battles”. About 40 people were treated at hospital, with broken bones as the worst injuries. This in a confrontation where people were throwing park benches5.

So given the choice between anarchy, with drumming and clowning and no one asking the violent types to cool it down, and the current system, with police who let the peaceful speak and dance, but control the violent, I’m afraid I pick the current system. And that makes me Establishment.

I even stopped to thank a couple of police officers I saw on the street today. They did well.

  1. This is an interesting contrast to the American government’s idea of a “free speech zone” surrounded by barbed wire, miles from anything. Remind me who has a First Amendment?
  2. Peaceful means two arrests, not from the main body of marchers. No injuries beyond blisters and overheating. No violence. That’s an insanely good Saturday in the city, even in ordinary time.
  3. Punches were thrown. Truncheons were swung. Things were thrown at the police. In the shooting people, water cannon, tear gas, and pepper spray league, this was a Sunday school picnic. No one died, was maimed, or was permanently injured. I’ve seen more violent Old Firm games on the telly, and been in more violent riots in Berkeley.
  4. The use of the word provocation is interesting. Most of the protestors would not say that a woman can “provoke” a man to rape her by wearing a short skirt, but they allowed themselves to be “provoked” into violence by a line of men standing around looking like giant bugs.
  5. As one of my colleagues pointed out, the benches in question are donated by private individuals to the city, for the enjoyment of all. They’re often given in memory of loved ones, or in thanksgiving for years of happiness in Edinburgh, or to mark centenaries of civic organisations. Using them as missiles was not the way to win Edinburgh hearts and minds.