Saturday, March 26, 2011

Did Churchill call democracy a bad form of government?

Much talk of democracy these days plus the occasional mention of Churchill saying it's the worst form of government.  It takes me back to 1967 when I watched a TV serial called Slattery's People. I can be sure of the date because I was 18 and in Trinidad for a year, boarding with a local family, and teaching in a secondary school on VSO.  (Latin and Algebra, since you ask.)  Slattery's People was a weekly American political drama series.  It says here, that the hero was the minority leader in a state legislature, who made it his duty to defend his constituents against the injustices they suffered from government officials, and fought to advance regulations that would end political corruption.

I can’t claim to remember all of that; but what I do remember is the opening voiceover for each episode ...  

"Democracy is a very bad form of government, but I ask you to never to forget it, all the others are far worse".

It seems the original was a Churchill speech in the House of Commons November 11, 1947:-

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

That’s not as pithy as “Democracy is a very bad form of government …” which, I've seen it suggested, may have been a Hollywood scriptwriter’s improvement on Churchill’s original. Few people can make such a claim, and hats off if it’s true.

The context was a debate on the Parliament Bill brought forward by the Attlee Labour government.  Churchill was defending the right of the perpetually Tory-controlled House of Lords to enforce a 2-year delay on legislation. The Attlee Bill reduced the period to one year, the purpose being to pre-empt a Lords' delay to nationalising the steel industry. This context takes the shine off the quotation, does it not?   

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Costing the Earth

Tomorrow (Wednesday 23 March) BBC Radio 4 at 9.00 pm: Tom Heap will present Costing the Earth, on the topic 'Britain's  nuclear future'.  He will ask if the events in Japan have dealt a fatal blow to the future of the industry.  I predict the answer will be: not really.

New Scientist has a Short Sharp Science blog on the Japan crisis, with updates on the situation from the past week, and a special report investigating what we know about the causes of the disaster.  It won't be as bad as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, says New Scientist.

Barack Obama to unveil Frederick Douglass statue in Cork in May?

Frederick Douglass,  1818 – 1895

There's talk of President Obama coming to Cork in May to unveil a statue of  Frederick Douglass.  No I hadn't heard of him either, but by one of life's little coincidences an article about Frederick Douglass by a cousin of mine appeared in the New York Times last month. More of this later. 

A memorial lecture at UCC has also been mentioned as part of Obama’s visit, see Irish Examiner 19th March. The reference is vague and so far I haven’t tracked down any hard information. The likely date for Obama's arrival in Ireland seems to be 21st May. If so it will be Cork on 22nd or 23rd I suppose.  

Frederick Douglass was born a slave but escaped to become an anti-slavery activist. He was a considerable orator and journalist. He influenced Abraham Lincoln to make abolishing slavery a war-aim of the Civil War. He is one of Barack Obama’s heroes. During a two-year lecture tour of the British Isles he met Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish nationalist, known as The Liberator. The reason for his voyage to Europe was partly to elude slave catchers who were incensed at his success at enthralling audiences and raising funds for the emancipation campaign.

In 1845 he said : "Those who profess to favour freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

Here's Tom Chaffin’s New York Times article.  I went too far just now when I called Tom my cousin, he's actually married to my Swedish cousin Meta.

And here's a video entitled "President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcome Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the White House as they host a St. Patrick’s Day reception". It’s of interest for two reasons.  At 24:55 Obama mentions Frederick Douglass and clearly bases his remarks closely on Tom’s article.  The other thing is that Enda Kenny isn't listening.

I've got something else to say that arises out of the Frederick Douglass story but I'll leave that to another day.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I hope this is the right thing

A French news website. The Libyan rebels began by warning the West off intervention but if I read the situation right they are now desperate for help. So I hope this is the right thing. I was wrong to fear the Japan earthquake had eclipsed Libya.

See also Guardian

How grave is the Japan nuclear crisis?

Have been following a discussion on a mailing list for leftwing scientists (Scientists for Global Responsibility, of which I'm a member).

According to the Infowars website, "the situation at Fukushima represents the greatest environmental disaster in the history of humanity, far more dangerous that Chernobyl”.

Fukushima nuclear power plant
Pic: International Business Times
The BBC and the Japanese authorities are accused by some of downplaying the unfolding catastrophe - and the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) is blamed for allowing the Japanese reactor building and accumulations of spent fuel.

El Pais newspaper this week (16th March), stated that in 2007 an earthquake of magnitude 6.8 damaged nuclear reactors at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, run by Tepco, the same company that runs Fukushima, and Tepco acknowledged that the nuclear plant was not designed to withstand earthquakes that strong.

A scientist on the SGR mailing list comments “Given that quakes of over 6 are relatively common in Japan, I wonder what thresholds the other plants in Japan were designed to.”

The Japan Broadcasting Corporation under the headline “High radiation level detected 30km from nuke plant” (updated 19th March) says “Japan's science ministry says radiation levels of up to 0.17 millisieverts per hour have been detected about 30 kilometers northwest of the quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Experts say exposure to those levels for 6 hours would result in absorption of the maximum level considered safe for 1 year.”

Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, offers this contribution to the debate on the unfolding events in Japan. He takes a broader look at the issues raised by both the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear emergency.

Latest on Guardian website : "Japan prays for success of Fukushima 50 in fight to save nuclear plant. A fearless band of scientists and workers trying to stop a meltdown have inspired the entire country."

"The end of the Nuclear Era"

A debate has already begun, and will continue for years, as to whether the Japan earthquake and tsunami are a unique event, or does it, in the words of the German magazine Der Spiegel, “mark the end of the Nuclear Era”.

For example, expect to hear more about this: The Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 reactor that exploded on March 12 was a General Electric Mark I reactor, a design criticized by nuclear experts and even by the US’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff for decades, as being susceptible to explosion and containment failure. 

It’s claimed that a top official of the US Atomic Energy Commission first proposed banning this design, which is in common use, nearly 40 years ago. 

See this factsheet from the Nuclear Information & Resource Service.