December 26, 2004

Maggie's Pants Alternative Winter Festival and New Year Message

It is not an exaggeration to say that we are at a crossroads in the long arc of history. In years to come how will we view this current decade; will it be seen an era of conflict precipitated by radicalisation of religion and government or perhaps, as our leaders tell us, an era where the 'beacon of democracy and peace' will spread throughout the Middle East and the World?

There is no doubt that some momentous events have taken place in the last few years alone; 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the building of the Israeli 'Security Wall', the global political shift to the right, the deaths of Yasser Arafat and Pim Fortuyn, big government replaced by bigger corruption, the perception of rising crime, our crumbling health, transport education systems, the calcification of the housing and industrial markets and rising oil prices to name but a few. Many of these events and the reaction that they have provoked in both political leaders and their people have contributed to a growing sense of fear and foreboding. Sometimes it is fear of the unknown; crime and economic failure; but more often is it fear of what we think we know: radical Islam.

At this time of war, instability and fear what we need from our 'leaders' - those politicians in Whitehall, The Hill, Paris, Berlin and around the world - is a sense of perspective and collective responsibility. At no time since the second world war have the people of 'Western' democracies apparently been under greater threat. Fundamentalists, we're told, are building dirty radiological bombs as we speak and are prepared to unleash them on the God fearing Judao-Christian populations of the world to devastating effect. At the same time we hear every day how yobs and criminals run our streets; murdering, stealing and abusing our asylum and benefits systems.

Yet that threat has been met with overwhelming force - military conflict, the suspension of human and civil rights, and the demonisation of those seeking refuge and asylum. 50 years ago a similar process was taking place. The people to be feared were grey, mysterious mandarins in a far off land but were similarly zealous in their wish to take over the world, end freedom and change our way of life. It wasn't true about a failing Soviet Union then and it isn't true about today's demon either - Islam.

America's reaction to 9/11 was as wayward as it was swift and brutal; history tells us that nothing less was to be expected. Yet something fundamental also took place at that time. A right-wing zealous religious fundamentalist US government was followed by many whom were once thought liberal: Britain, Australia, Spain and much of Eastern Europe. It's no shift in global thinking, less than a dozen nations have sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq but it does represent a trend towards 'western democracies' buying in, on an institutional level, to this climate of fear. And in this climate it falls on the shoulders of opposition parties to call upon government to show restraint and act with a sense of responsibility. Yet in America the Democrats have rarely been weaker, in the UK the Conservatives rarely more acquiescent and in Australia Labor rarely farther from government. Even France has a conservative President, and with the German elections due, Social Democrat Schroeder ought not to count any chickens just yet.

Indeed these are worrying times for the left or anyone who believes in peace and democracy. But they are more worrying for the world. Unless tamed the inevitable course that the current US and UK administrations are taking will see the end of normal freedoms in those countries. Worse still, the 'beacon of democracy', also known as a 7000lb bunker busting bomb, looks set to shine its light on Palestine, Syria, Iran, Jordan and any other country who isn't willing to acquiesce. It's a time for restraint and a time for reflection on the mistakes of the past year. It's also a time when that call seems so very far off.