And Into The Fray Goes Clegg

As the cool spring air slices its way through the British capital, the backroom negotiations between the major political parties have begun to heat up following Gordon Brown’s decision to quit the Labor leadership. All eyes are focused on Nick Clegg as the Liberal Democrat leader negotiates the political stage in search of a deal to secure Britain with its next Prime Minister.

In reality, the election for Clegg must have been bittersweet. The Liberal Democrats have the balance of power and the ability to form a coalition government (in majority with the Tories or as part of a rainbow coalition with Labor), yet much of the enthusiasm Clegg managed to instil into the electorate during the leader’s debates failed to materialise come election day. In fact, the Lib Dems ended up losing more seats than they initially started with. Election 2010 would not be the third-party revolution in British politics many Lib Dems hoped it would.

While Clegg may appear to be holding the chips, the circumstances of this election have wedged the disarming and charismatic leader into an uneasy position; one fraught with potential danger for his party. Clegg premised his campaign on the notion of the Lib Dems as a “third force” in British politics, above the fray of the two party system. His argument was that his party presented an alternative from the failed iterations of successive Labor and Tory governments.

Now, in a twist of irony befitting a British election, Clegg finds himself jostling back and forth between the two major parties in search of a deal that suits his and his party’s interests. To do this without appearing as though he’s engaging in typical run-of-the-mill politics which he so much derided during the campaign will be a balancing act requiring extreme political dexterity.

Regardless of who Clegg ultimately decides to throw his support behind, the likely outcome will be another General Election in the not too distant future. This could be potentially toxic for the Lib Dems especially if the electorate, tired of uncertainty, begins to clamour for strong leadership, putting aside its idealistic notions of pluralism and cooperation and dutifully falling in behind the two main parties.

A fragmented and disjointed parliamentary session leading up to the next election could also be poison to the Lib Dem’s dream of implementing proportional representation. If a referendum is agreed to, it is certain that the Tories (and Labor) will seek to paint proportional representation as a system that will place Britain at the mercy of protracted periods of weak coalitions and perpetual uncertainty in the political system. If voters see credence in this argument, the Lib Dem’s dreams of PR will evaporate before their very eyes. If this were to happen, for all that Cleggmania promised, little, if any real change, will result.

Clegg needs to play this cool. Any whiff of politicking will crash the soft support that the Lib Dem’s managed to corral during the election. As a famous Churchill quote goes: “a pessimist sees a problem in every opportunity; an optimist sees an opportunity in every problem.” Clegg needs to go into these negotiations with two goals, and two goals only: (1) secure a firm commitment from whoever he forms government with that a referendum for PR be held on an expedited timeline. And (2) achieve the first goal without becoming ensconced in the muck of typical Tory/Labor politicking. The Lib Dems cannot accede to a weak agreement on PR, only to find it flung onto the backburner amidst discursive legislative gridlock that any new government will likely encounter. But they also must do this without appearing too opportunistic. If they the electorate sense blatant opportunism, the Lib Dems will be unable to authentically sell their unique “third force” position in an ensuing election.

There is a lasting opportunity here for the Lib Dems. They must think with foresight. In the long-term, cabinet positions and specific policy nuances should take a backseat to the overriding goal of proportional representation in the British system. It is uncertain if in the future the Lib Dems will hold this power again. Clegg needs to take this uneasy position of to-ing and fro-ing and capitalise on the opportunity to secure a more hospitable long-term future for his party.

With the resignation of Gordon Brown, a new possibility enters the political scene – a Labour/Liberal coalition under the leadership of a young, charismatic frontrunner David Milibrand. A Milibrand/Clegg coalition would infuse vibrancy into the political landscape, but in order to work, they would need to enlist a rainbow coalition of other minor parties. Any offer from the Labour Party to form a rainbow coalition would be meretricious for the Lib Dems. Labor has less to lose and is more likely to offer Clegg promises they simply can’t keep. Also for a Lib/Lab pact to work, the British people will have to tolerate a few more months of Brown as leader, a disastrously unpopular proposition. Even with a Milibrand/Clegg rainbow coalition in government, it will almost certainly fall victim to fragmentation and disunity. Under these circumstances, the Lib Dems will probably lose both their chance to govern in coalition and their chance to secure a referendum on proportional representation.

At best Brown’s departure provides leverage for Clegg in his dealing with the Tories. Clegg needs to use this interesting turn of events to push the Tories hard on PR. Cameron appears to be listening but has to contend with an entourage of Tory MPs behind him none too thrilled about the prospect of PR. In this respect, the Conservative leader may find himself hamstrung. It is impossible to predict just what the  outcome of these negotiations will be, but whatever happens, Clegg must capitalise on the opportunity afforded to his party by bringing about lasting political reform. If he manages to do this you could say it would be positively Churchillian.

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Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin

I’ve been doing it wrong my entire adult life. You would think that such a quotidian function would lend itself to mastery before too long, but it appears as though my skills are as bad now as they were when I was an innocent, pimply faced teenager. It’s all about hand technique, they say. Don’t do it too fast or you risk injury. Also there’s an optimal angle at which you should hold the shaft. And don’t forget about the tension with which you hold the skin, because that’s important too. I mean aren’t fathers contractually obligated to teach their sons how to do it properly? You know, along with how to tie a tie, change a tyre and make obscene comments about women, ethnics and lawyers? I didn’t even know I was doing it wrong until I was at the doctor the other day (on completely unrelated matters) when after a very brief examination he turned to me and in a calm, matter-of-fact doctorese indicated that the technique I had been using was actually quite detrimental to my health. I was astounded. I never knew that shaving could be so perilous.

Alright. I know what you’re thinking: how could this silly man not know how to shave properly? Surely it’s just a case of smearing on some shaving cream, getting one of those razors with a name indistinguishable from a list of military hardware the Pentagon might purchase, and then delicately negotiating the contours of your face. The Gillette ad makes it look so easy. A well toned, muscular man strides up to the mirror, applies an even layer of cream and then with great dexterity and élan glides the razor down the side of his ruggedly chiselled face to reveal a surface smoother than Gandhi’s head. Straightforward right?

The reality of my world is a little different. It typically involves a figure (me), looking not unlike Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, sauntering up to the mirror, haphazardly applying way too much shaving cream and then, in what can only described as a vicious melee between my checks and the razor, hack away at the reddish stubble that has accumulated overnight. After 30 seconds of ferocious battle, the ordeal hits its horrifying crescendo as the bathroom basin turns to something like the river at Stalingrad in 1943 and my face, a gigantic tomato. But I thought a bit of blood during the shaving process was normal, right?

Wrong! Forget everything you ever thought you knew about shaving. Throw out all your Gillette razors, not to mention the Shicks and Bics. Get rid of any shaving cream that comes out of a can. If it needs aerosol to ejaculate, it shouldn’t be going on your face. I know because I researched. I must admit I was innerved by my doctor’s visit. I went home and with the assiduousness of an honours student, I researched everything I could find, hacking through the marketing spin with the same ardour that I used to hack at the stubble on my face. Turns out I have been doing it wrong all this time. I was approaching shaving with the same lack of care and disregard as a jaded high school groundsman might approach the overgrown reeds on a school oval. But I’m satisfied to report I have now settled on a new routine. A routine that would make the executives at Gillette recoil in horror. It seems that the secret to an amazing, bloodless shave is nothing more than a single bladed razor, a fine badger haired brush, and a smooth, milky shaving lather. And certainly does not require anything sounding like military hardware.

The reason why I make this point is that the whole ordeal demonstrates the dangers inherent when corporate executives usurp the function that used to dwell under the purview of fathers. While I don’t blame fathers, because of course they have their own societal pressures to live up to (which usually involves working ridiculous hours to provide as much material wealth for their family as possible), I think that as a society we have lost out on something important. While this might just be an isolated case of me growing up in shaving ignorance, I wonder how many boys are actually taught how to shave properly by fathers or older brothers? Or are most boys, like me, taught through the flashy advertisements that punctuate episodes of Top Gear and Blokesworld? Do we really need a vibrating razor with 6 to 7 thousand blades (that of course need replacing every month at a cost of $12 dollars) to shave? Or can the same function be achieved by a single bladed razor, the right brush and a good lather? Of course, the single bladed razor idea would be a killer for Gillette. Razor blades cost perhaps $3 a pack and they generally last months. The razor shaft doesn’t need replacing ever. This would certainly not help the company reach shareholder growth targets every month. In order to make more money they need you to buy more things. In order for you to buy more things, the things you buy must degrade. In order to sustain the circular consumption process, companies are required to obscure the most basic facts about shaving – that the great majority of items out there are simply superfluous. In shaving, as in much of life, less is uncompromisingly more. The way it has been overcomplexifed is an endemic feature of the modern world in which time-saving is valued over time-savouring activities. It is a world where companies and advertising have assumed the main didactic role that was once a cherished function of intra-family relationships.

Yet while it is easy to blame others, the truth of the matter is I have nobody to blame but myself. It merely took time to stop, think, look and see. Had I been more proactive, I could have easily found the information I was after. If I had bothered to research, I would have realised my error sooner. So the real lesson is not what society has become, it is not about the break-down of the family unit, because these issues have been spoken about to death. The real issue is the indolence of self, the submission of self to a form of auto-pilot, in which everything done is easy, quick and gratifying. My journey from shaving ignorance to shaving enlightenment has been well worth the travel. I have grown to see shaving not as an unneccessary chore, standing in the way of more important things, but as a function which in itself is to be enjoyed, to be savoured. Gone are the days of my vicious early morning hack jobs, and in its place is a more temperate, more considered, more balanced approach to something I should have been doing a long time ago.

An Essay in Defence of Same-Sex Marriage

In the wake of electoral losses in California and Maine, the global Gay Rights movement have become mired by a growing sense of disunity that could threaten to derail future progress in its agenda.  This seeds of disillusionment  have been sown by confluence of recent factors that includes a disintegration of vision, poorly articulated goals, an organisation that seems disinterested and lacking the resources necessary to carry its forward its agenda and an electorate that seems largely unresponsive to its message. But perhaps the greatest impediment of all stems from a systemic fragmentation within the community itself over the critical question of just what rights are being fought for in the first place?

The issue of gay marriage has long been the lynchpin that has held the movement together; however, this seems to be dissolving as sections of the community begin to bicker about just what the new end-game should be. Is the pragmatic goal of securing equitable rights in matters of social security, adoption, immigration, IVF and health more important than the symbolic goal of full and equitable marriage? Electorates across the United States, Europe, Latin America and Australia have become slowly more tolerant of the idea of “civil partnerships” or secular marriages yet the “Holy Grail” of the movement – full and complete marriage rights – still seems a distant El Dorado, unlikely to be attained uniformly within this generation.

It is my argument, however, that full and complete marriage rights should remain the focal goal of the gay rights movement for now and into the future as a rallying cry that will re-energize and unite the community under a common vision. In recent years, the debate over gay marriage has reached a cool modus vivendi wherein the gay community seems willing to accept, in many jurisdictions, the legally similar, but symbolically divergent, civil partnership over full and complete marriage rights. Left-leaning politicians like this arrangement because it keeps in abeyance the question of gay marriage while allowing them to straddle their socially liberal gay constituents without provoking the wrath of their socially conservative working base (think Labour party in the UK). However, I maintain that this is still unsatisfactory and that the gay rights movement should continue to agitate for full same-sex marriage rights. But why should societies permit gay marriage? Is there a rational and justifiable reason why it seems permissible to deny marriage rights to homosexual couples? In considering the issue, I cannot think of a rational reason why it would be appropriate to deny full and equitable marriage rights to homosexual couples.

Consider the arguments against homosexual marriage. Perhaps the strongest is that marriage has always been the union of one man to one woman to the exclusion of all others and should continue to be so. This is the common law definition of marriage that has now been codified by many jurisdictions across the world – including the United States’ provocatively titled Defense of Marriage Act (which the title of this post plays of). Historically, it is true, that marriage has always been about the union of one man to one woman. But I would counter that historical interpretations as to the meaning of marriage are changeable and constantly in flux. Marriages were institutions that bonded a man and a woman together, sometimes for pecuniary reasons, sometimes for reasons of power (consider the marriages of royalty across Europe), sometimes for security. In fact, many marriages in the Middle Ages used to be arranged by betrothal with love rarely considered as an important or essential quality.

It seems merely historical coincidence that marriages became intertwined with “the church.” In fact, early Christian marriages (30CE – 300 CE) had little to do with the church in any codified sense. It wasn’t until much later that marriage and the church became connected with marriage being recognized as an official sacrament. This probably has more to do with the historical significance of the church and the feudal structure of society at the time than any sort of religious imperative.  In the 1960s, anti-miscegenation laws were common. This prevented the marriage of two people from different races, which is an idea that would seem utterly preposterous to most rational people today. Just who can get married and why they would get married has held no historical consistency over the past 2000 years. In fact, it is has more to do with the power of social institutions of the times than sort of enduring “essence” or “quality” of what marriage is. In modern society, I would argue that the social structure is sturdy enough to support the inclusion of homosexual marriage without a concomitant destruction of the societal structure itself.

Now of course a particularly intelligent person who sees it fit to quibble with me over my last statement would probably point out that while it is correct that the particular reasons and circumstances pertaining to why two people might get married are prone to flux, there is one essential quality to marriage that has endured over the past 2000 years and that is it has always been between a man and a woman. This is true (although there are cases in which a marriage between two men has been postulated by anthropologists – consider adelphopoesis). However, I would retort that this means we need to consider the essential nature or essence of marriage. If we are to believe that the definition of marriage can be changed subject to the flux associated with changing social structures, except for that one essential and enduring quality of man and woman then we must take this to its logical conclusion and that is we should be willing to condone the arrangement of marriages in society based entirely on random allocation (providing that the two people who are randomly allocated to get married are a man and a woman). Of course, almost everyone would consider this to be utterly preposterous. Why? Because to us, the essential nature of marriage is not merely (and certainly not only) that it is between a man and a woman. There is any number of other factors that constitute the essence of marriage in modern society. Volition perhaps? The two people must agree to marriage, right? But as I pointed out, marriages in the Middle Ages were often organised by betrothal, often without the express consent of at least one partner to the marriage.

It seems to be that you cannot argue that there is only one enduring quality of a marriage and that is that it is between a man and a woman, because if you take that to its logical conclusion it results in an absurdity. Marriage is flourished with many other qualities which we deem essential to us, but yet which we must admit that this has radically changed from what marriage was 1000 years ago. It seems that an argument for the historical endurance of man and woman is flat. In modern society, the essence of marriage has more to do with notions of volition, love and commitment, than the hollow idea of man and woman. If you believe the only essential nature of marriage is between a man and woman, then you would surely have to support random allocation, if you concede that it is more than just a man and a woman than you must be willing to accept that marriage is subject to changing notions of its essential quality.

But perhaps you might argue that yes, I can accept that the essential quality of marriage changes, but that we shouldn’t change the essential quality of man and woman. One might conjure any number of reasons for this. The first one is that the institution of marriage supports reproduction. Homosexuals cannot reproduce therefore they should not be allowed to marry. But any sensible person must reject the initial premise of the argument. If the institution of marriage is solely as an institution to support reproduction then surely we must prevent those heterosexual couples who cannot reproduce together from getting married. In fact, if we were to take the notion of reproduction to its logical conclusion than surely you would be in favour of a society which allocates marriages not randomly but rather on the basis of the quality of the genes of the two people getting married. Perhaps we could establish a Ministry of Marriages and Births which genetically profiles everybody so that a male and a female with the most complementary genes are placed together in a marriage for the purposes of procreating the most genetically superior offspring.  This again, would hardly be accepted by any rational person (perhaps a few Social Darwinists out there, but thankfully you are in the minority).

I would also make a more pragmatic argument in relation to this point. Homosexual couples are going to cohabitate regardless of whether they are able to get marriage or not. It is not as though legalising same-sex marriage will cause a deficiency in child rearing because all these potential mothers and fathers have opted for homosexual marriage. The argument that legalising same-sex marriage would threaten the proliferation of the human race because homosexual couples cannot procreate is once again hollow. Marriages between heterosexuals will happen, even if homosexual couples can marry. And when heterosexual couples marry I am sure that they will copulate with as much vim and vigour as they did when homosexual couples couldn’t get married. Marriage will still function as an institution which enables a child to be raised in a loving and nurturing environment, but it will also function as an institution that allows society to grow in a loving and nurturing civic environment.

Another argument trotted out by those opposed to same-sex marriage is there “where does it end” argument. If we allow same-sex marriages why not allow polygamy, or why not allow pederasty or why not allow people to marry the Ikea catalogue? This however, is a desultory argument. We are not having a civic debate about polygamy. If we were then we could rationally consider all the arguments for and against legalising polygamy. I love Pepsi Max. If I wanted to marry a 1.25L bottle of Pepsi Max and I was asking for society’s consent to allow me to do that then we can have a debate on the merits of this. Of course, allowing me to marry a 1.25L bottle of Pepsi Max would involve a whole gamut of different arguments that are completely separate from the debate about same-sex marriage, not in the least whether a plastic bottle can actually possess the faculty of mind to consent to a marriage with me. But then again, who the fuck wouldn’t want to marry me? Seriously, one cannot let a discussion about same-sex marriage be sidetracked by a specious association that on appearances seems to have a connection, but in reality necessitates a whole range of different issues and a different debate.

Perhaps the strongest impediment to acceptance of same sex marriage is not rational, but aesthetic. Most people just do not like the “look” of same-sex marriage. They feel it cheapens the institution (because you know Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 7 marriages didn’t do that already). Unfortunately, with aesthetic judgements there is no truth value to quibble with; it’s just a matter of personal tastes. The same disgust would have been felt 60 years ago if a black man and a white woman were getting married. Personal tastes change. I feel to make a determination as to whether you support gay marriage or not based on personal tastes is unfair and unreasonable. Rather you should consider just what kind of society it is that you want to live in. Would a virtuous society, one which venerates tolerance and respect, diversity and freedom, kindness and inclusiveness support same-sex marriage? It is my belief that if these are the qualities to which we as a society aspire than a virtuous society would surely endorse same-sex marriage. Ask yourself do you oppose same-sex marriage based on reason or is it something more aesthetic? And if it is aesthetic ask yourself is this fair. Likewise, there are many people out there who support same-sex marriage, but they do so based on a reticence. Rather than entering the public debate they are more comfortable saying that “it doesn’t affect me, no skin off my nose.” However, I feel extricating yourself from the argument is pointless. If we are to accept that we live in a society you cannot straddle this argument, for even if you don’t care about same-sex marriage by allowing it to occur or preventing it to occur you are either implicitly endorsing or disendorsing a position. So might I suggest rather than civic reticence, you consider supporting same-sex marriage not because it doesn’t affect you and it’s not your business but because you support an inclusive, tolerant, respectful, open society and are proud to support and include any members of the community who do so too.                         

As for the gay rights movement, it is important to not get distracted by the many divergent paths that could be taken in response to continued failure on the goal of gay marriage. All great civil rights movements have focussed on a largely symbolic end-game, not on the minutiae of pragmatic concerns. The best way forward is to not necessarily to get angry, protest or sign petitions. It is to start talking with those around, to confront the real fears that people have about same-sex marriage in an open and rational dialogue. The silent majority of good, kind and virtuous people out there who maintain reservations simply need to have their fears addressed sensibly. There is no use in chiding people for what they believe. The road to salvation is slow and it will take time, but it is important to not lose sight of what is being fought for, and it is important not to accept the lesser compromise of civil unions. This is a fight for recognition, not just “all the privileges associated with marriage, but not marriage itself.” Recognition can only come through equality, not a semantic screw-around.