The right to die

If you’ve seen the screen adaptation of P.D. James’ Children of Men, the dystopian film where the birth rate has fallen to virtually nothing, you can’t fail to notice the euthanasia kit advertisements all over the city. The self-esteem of its human inhabitants had ebbed to worthlessness.

But our (and by ‘our’ I mean ‘the global’) birth rate is high. Like John Humphrys and Arthur Koestler, when I die I want a good death by my own hand and at a time of my choosing. I consider it my right to stop existing at any time and for any reason. But if I stop existing because I feel like an unwanted, useless or – worse, burdensome – piece of trash, and if I am typical of those who take their lives, then it’s fair to surmise that my society will have participated in killing me.

Arthur Koestler was  a longtime member of the Hemlock Society and former vice president of the voluntary euthanasia charity EXIT (which changed its name to the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, and then to Dignity in Dying). He was terminally ill when he killed himself. He took a cocktail of drugs, died efficiently and tidily in his chair, and was found on March 3rd 1983.

But he took somebody with him – his healthy wife, Cynthia. His biographer David Cesarani is carefully speculative, but Arthur Koestler had bullied, harangued and demeaned her all their married life. Her self-esteem was low. There are many reasons to suppose that she felt pressured into a suicide pact. Arthur Koestler was a shit and at the same time he brimmed with humanity. We will never know why Cynthia died.

Arthur Koestler was very sensitive about the people a suicide bereaves. In his work for Exit, he created guidelines on what to leave behind to smooth the aftermath of such a death, of what to tell loved ones and of how to fix affairs.

Here’s an overview of the law from Dignity in Dying:

  • Assisting a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment in England and Wales
  • Section 2 (1) of the 1961 Suicide Act states:  A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years
  • Section 2 (4) of the 1961 Suicide Act states: No proceedings shall be instituted for an offence under this section except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions
  • To date no one who has accompanied a loved one to Dignitas has been prosecuted. However, people have been questioned by the Police and threatened with prosecution.

In The Observer John Humphrys writes that over the past few years more than a hundred people have made the journey to Dignitas, the assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland, to end their lives. On their return, none of the loved ones who helped them has been prosecuted. And yet Parliament has still to decriminalise assisted suicide. He writes:

“Those who defend the status quo are afraid that once we allow any form of euthanasia or assisted suicide we are launched on a slippery slope. Before you know it, doctors will be knocking off every elderly patient who worries about becoming a burden on their family and destroying the sacred bond between doctor and patient into the bargain. The evidence suggests otherwise. In the Netherlands, which has the most liberal legislation in Europe, the number of people asking their doctors to help them die has been falling steadily, from 3,800 in 2001 to 2,120 in 2007. If the law is changed in this country, it will be along the lines of the legislation in Oregon and Washington State where the safeguards are stronger. In the first 10 years since the Oregon law was passed, 341 people were helped to die – fewer than 2% of all deaths.”

So I was as satisfied as alarmed to read in The Observer today that an Australian doctor Philip Nitschke has made barbituate-testing kits available which allow people to ascertain that the drugs they have obtained can be relied on to kill them peacefully. It relieved the feeling of entrapment I have always felt about my own life*.

I just wish the kit hadn’t been launched in the middle of the worst economic situation the world has ever seen. And naturally, when he comes to the UK in May, it will again be Eastbourne where he promotes his organisation (Exit International) and its DIY suicide video. As well as being the most likely demographic to experience terminal illness or life-destroying debilitation, older people, for which Eastbourne is renowned, are the most likely demographic to experience social isolation and great loneliness. In order to support the right to die, we absolutely must address the latter. Dutiful ministrations can’t be as good as it gets – I for one will hose the do-gooders out of my house if they come calling when I’m old. We all value affinity and variety. Maybe there’s a way for people like me (those who chafe against their social duties in this respect of providing company – as if good company were something you could deliver or muster on demand) to help address the social isolation of older people – and (incidentally) make our own beds while we’re at it.

This is what it boils down to, for me. The right to die requires an ongoing campaign to irradicate the circumstances under which individual self-esteem can ebb to nothing.

*No, I don’t have suicidal thoughts. No, I’m not planning on dying until I’m terminally or chronically ill (or incarcerated for life, or knocked down in traffic as happened the other week – a motorbike slammed on its brakes and bumped me lightly enough for me to say sorry and hurry away – or at the hands of a young knife-wielding bandit, or in a fight with a player of music without headphones). It’s just that I tend to think far ahead and when my time comes I want the right to die in peace.

Inauspicious foul weather for Put People First

I should be at Put People First but I’m working on a bid today.

Twitter hashtag #G20rally is trending right now – it’s the next best thing to being there. Only Zebedee is Qik’ing.

A Soviet Union flag???

Yes, @Rhamdu, it’s raining here too. Well done for turning out, pal.

Mark Thomas sounds good.

Oh, bless them! Go on, tweet them some encouragement.

Now, I’d better go or I may as well have gone.

Herman Hesse: find new light

The march of impermanence continues apace. On a video a recent TED talk on Web 2.0 and activism (which I can’t remember the link to) the speaker said we should expect to work hard on something for a couple of years, “flame out and move on”. During the recent bunch of documentaries on Darwin, I was fascinated by the concept of “evolving to evolve” – adapt or die. I thought about J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – the adaptability of James Graham and the moral flexibility of Basie. I thought about Arthur Koestler’s account of the different survival strategies of the inmates of Vernet (read Orwell on Koestler’s Scum of the Earth – the para beginning “Of course, Koestler does not say this quite explicitly”), and about Ed Miliband who spoke locally last night on strategies to cope with climate change but – while insisting that governments don’t make changes, people do – didn’t satisfactorily answer Matt’s question about individual measures.

Here is Herman Hesse on embracing change.

As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Since life may summon us at every age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.

The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slave of permamence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.

I wonder what he would make of the notion of sustainability.

“Copyright extension is the enemy of” creativity and learning. No to the EU extension on sound copyright.

Updates – scroll to the bottom.

This post contains arguments and resources on sound copyright to persuade you to write to your MEPs now (more at the bottom).

The EU votes on copyright extension on 23rd March. The big stakeholders in the music industry – namely the BPI (i.e. back catalogue owners) superstars and creators who think an extension will earn them more than it’s actually predicted to – have lobbied for an extension of sound copyright term (for disambiguation see this UK Copyright Service overview of current law for different media – and note that the licence they use is Creative Commons licensing) from 50 years to 95 years – that’s nearly double. The UK government is currently supporting 70 years. The evidence is against them. From Sound Copyright’s briefing:

“The Commission estimates the performers’ share of new sales revenues from the proposed extension at 10%. However, this conveniently ignores their own statement that redistribution will be highly skewed in favour of the top earning 20% of performers. From that 10% share “between 77% and 89.5% of all income … goes to the top 20% of earning performers”. For the vast majority of performers the projected extra sales income resulting from term extension is likely to be meagre: from as little as 50¢ each year in the first ten years, to as “much” as €26.79 each year.”

and moreover:

“Each major label would be expected to gain €8.2million—€163million over the 45 year term. That, in turn, works out at €205,000—€4.075m per label per year. This is a windfall for record labels.”

Or those who own the rights to the back catalogues. More evidence via the links towards the bottom.

I am not at all into IP, but don’t ask me for an alternative to safeguard creators against competition on an open market against behemoth corporations who take their stuff and undercut them. That’s one trouble with markets – they tend to bring out the realist in people. IP law introduces the principle of public interest into the two extremes – monopoly for the creator forever and a free-for-all in which the creator fails to earn a living at all. Basically, the public interest – access to cultural and scientific heritage – is expressed in the time-limitation of copyright. For more  about this see the Billy Bragg link at the bottom.

Last years Times letter – copyright extension is the enemy of innovation – fought convincingly on the ‘benefits to creators’ front*. Another more recent letter coordinated at the Centre for Intellectual Property and Policy at the University of Bournemouth, to Culture Minister David Lammy – this emphasises needless criminalisation of and growing unrest among the end users.

You can get the 2006 Gowers Review of Intellectual Property free of charge from Her Maj’s Treasury. It made a number of recommendations about intellectual property (IP) in a digital age, notably number 3 – for the European Commission to retain copyright at 50 years. The University of Amsterdam Institute for Information Law (in a study for the European Commission) also found the case for extension to be flimsy (p6-7 of that summary – not entirely comprehensible explanation but the sentiment is clear, see too this letter). However, there is every chance that the EU will be argued into ignoring these recommendations. The US offers much longer (there is mounting pressure against the bonkers copyright law in the form of an inspiring and gathering campaign for the scientific and cultural commons).

Still not convinced?

  • Watch The Open Rights Group short vid – How Copyright Extension Actually Works.
  • Watch Becky Hogge of the Open Rights Group at the Sound Copyright conference.
  • The most recent and most entertaining thing I’ve seen in the past week – watch and/or listen to James Boyle talking about his book (free download – on my iLiad – if youre getting an (e)reader, make sure you can do this with it) Public Domain – Enclosing the Commons of the Mind at the RSA.
  • The RSA is also behind the 2006 Adelphi Charter – a short and readable  position which seeks to balance innovation, creativity and IP in a digital age. It flags public interest and rights to education, health, employment and cultural life.
  • From the US, listen to Larry Lessig, founder of a place I wish I followed more closely, Stanford University’s Center for the Internet and Society and chair of the licence scheme for individual creators, Creative Commons.
  • Alternative revenue? The Nine Inch Nails business model is talked about.
  • Relevant (because he is in favour of copyright extension, and because while most people love the artists they love, they have little love for the record industry and will nick music if they think that paying for it mostly serves that industry) read and listen to Billy Bragg (in strangely-presented Register pieces) on the difference of interests between artists/performers and the industries who use them for revenue. He argues “don’t keep clobbering the end user” and he argues against “life of copyright” deals which deny artists revenue from recorded work and hike up the price. He has co-founded the Featured Artists Coalition to, among other things, make the case for royalties from work which is used by, say, Google, YouTube and Nokia. He wants a reconfiguration of the music industry around the artists rather than the companies. If he had his way already, the current debate about extending copyright would be very different because the predicted gains of the record companies would be vastly less as a proportion, and the debate would be straightforwardly about balancing artists’ interests with public interests without the public having to tactfully point out that the principle beneficiaries of copyright extension are the record companies and the superstars. But he doesn’t, and they won’t.

Contact your MEPs to turn up to the session* on 23rd March and vote against copyright extension and in favour access to our shared cultural heritage. I based my message round:

*One thing I’m not sure about is “the session”. I’d like to have given details, but they weren’t to hand.

Update 28 Mar 09

After a cooling on the extension, this from Music Week:

“The industry has been dealt a savage blow in Brussels today with the European Council throwing out a revised term proposal.”

On the midnight news last night they said that UK government, which favours the extension, swung round because there was no guarantee that the royalties would reach the artists (when did it ever not look like it was going to be a record company scoop?) I don’t fully understand the jargon “session fund” and “clean slate proposal” and no time to find out. But this is at least good news for now.

In other good news, the EU failed to pass a draconian 3 strikes and you’re banned from the Internet law against illegal downloaders.

George Monbiot – alternative medicine and environmentalism

Read George Monbiot, which ends on Prince Charles:

“Progressives who support his right to speak out without abdicating should consider how they would feel if he shared the opinions of his maternal grandmother who – as Francis Wheen explained in the Guardian – was an enthusiast for appeasement, an anti-Semitic xenophobe and a sympathiser with apartheid.

Anyway, the point is that he’s not alone.

Perhaps because using alternative medicine means, for the most part, boycotting the business of the biggest and most brutal pharmaceutical companies, perhaps because the alternative medicines industry has done much to promote itself as “natural” I know plenty of greens who can explain in some detail how radiative forcing works, yet who use homeopathy or won’t expose their children to MMR injections.

That’s up to them. But the association in the public mind does us nothing but harm. Those of us who do not believe there is a link between a movement based on science and a business based largely on nonsense should say so loudly and clearly.”

Me! I will.

And here’s one response from a sparkling writer, reviewer and commentator I have recently stumbled upon, Sarah Ditum:

“George Monbiot says that environmentalism needs to follow the evidence and separate itself from the spurious quackery of alternative medicine – which is the sort of talk that might actually convince me to up my involvement in green issues from current levels of lax vegetarianism and energy-saving bulbs. If it means the anti-vaccination crowd would definitely keep their germ-harbouring children away from protests, I might even bring my kids campaigning.”

Bonus Sarah – Why I Am Not An Academic. This writer spins a good yarn. She has a thing about Nick Cohen, whom she dislikes. I came across her in the comments of Aaronovitch Watch (while, sad to say, I was doing Aaronovitch Watch Watch) – she commented “What a weird, parochial little column”, but the bastard followed her back and will utilise her stringent criticism of Nick Cohen’s haste and (painful to say) sporadic casual sexism against him. Luckily she is right – AW is indeed a weird parochial little column. Nick Cohen on the other hand is a stalwart for people in my slightly tricky position – Jew-ish and left, not to mention people who are left and not Jewish. For me he has made a positive, and on a couple of occasions personal, difference and I like him far more than I resent him – in fact I am eternally grateful to him for providing an alternative to the new Stalinists. But I thank Sarah Ditum for reminding me to observe that the bit in his recent book Waiting For The Etonians about memory mirrors existing so that women can see what their behinds look like from the back should never have been written – but I think it was although I can’t check again because ‘memory mirrors’ isn’t in the index.

Anyway on the one hand Sarah could take the advice of her commenter and become an independent academic. On the other, it’s never too late.

UCU election results

Ringing the changes at UCU. Cautious optimism that the SWP deathgrip is weakening and with it the Israel fixation. See Engage. I asked some friends to change a habit and vote. Thanks a lot those who did. Those who didn’t, thanks a lot in a different tone. Under 10% turnout benefited for example Tom Hickey and Malcolm Povey of the SWP, who survived. Engage:

“From looking at the figures, it is clear what that something else has happened. The Socialist Workers’ Party have concentrated their vote on their own members, and withdrawn some of their vote from Sue and others standing on the UCULeft slate, such as Marion Hersh and Jeff Fowler. The SWP may try to spin this as a miscalculation, but people will see through such claims. The SWP itself is continuing to distance itself from calls for an academic boycott and is sticking the knife into non-SWP members of UCULeft.”

Next to nobody on the web is talking about this except Engage and their readers. Strange tumbleweed union. So! Join UCU, turn up to your meetings and shape it. Don’t think of activists as a bunch of robots who negotiate your pay and conditions – they are not that. They are elected representatives, and without an agenda from the membership, they will pursue or make up their own.

On International Women’s Day – One Law For All

Last Friday night I told some friends I was going to One Law For All. One looked wary – told me that religious minorities were so eager for separate laws that she thought it was better to back off and let them get on with it. I think if she read Harry’s Place more, she’d understand why it wasn’t.

So I went on Saturday evening, with Matt and with the following concerns.

There were secularists involved – would this event be anti-religion like Dawkins? There were self-professed ‘ex-Muslims’ – would it be anti-Islam or even Islamophobic (would I recognise it if it were)? Would they attract the anti-immigration far right? And if not, would they be a front group for revolutionary socialists – a fig leaf through which to import a conflict against the Iranian regime? And if these worries were assuaged, then I wanted to watch – avidly – and learn how to a campaign against shariah, against political Islam, without any of these pitfalls. And most of all, I wanted to take in sight and sound of a large panel where women outnumbered men.

In the event, these worries were assuaged. They stood up for Muslims and they stood up for women. Maryam Namazie called for an anti-racist and human rights approach to the campaign. There was healthy amount of dissent among the panellists. We came out understanding the difference between Sharia Councils and the more formalised and legally binding Sharia Tribunals, and why we should object to them differently. I was impressed and inspired – but I was hoping to be impressed. More significant is that Matt the anti-racist, skeptic and critic with two gimlet eyes, whom I dragged along and who didn’t want to be there, was also impressed.

Now Bob has the news that the videos are up I’d really recommend watching them.

My unanswered (and unasked) questions at the end were:

  • What kinds of challenges do they anticipate from Islamists?
  • How do they expect to broaden out to include ordinary Muslims? What would help and what hinder this?
  • I made the following searches on Google with no results: Quilliam site: and “One Law for All” site: I don’t know this political terrain – how come these two organisations which share significant views, don’t refer to each other?

Sad, poignant and agonising songs

In times of excessive optimism it is important to maintain equilibrium.

      On the BBC, programmes on activism and industrial action not to be missed

      Perhaps in response to the predicted summer of rage, we are in the midst of great stuff on the BBC some of which are available for download for the next week or so:

      The Miners’ Strike on BBC4 – a seriously high quality documentary about the 1984 miners’ strike mixing original footage, reconstructions and on-location interviews with police, government officials, striking miners and the still-pariah minority of working miners, and their wives. Solid gold (or should I say solid coal), although flinchingly violent and extremely emotional. You can’t watch this one again – try UKNova.

      Tonight is another episode of the BBC4 series on the miners’ strike, Coal House At War, followed by All Our Working Lives: Cutting Coal and – perhaps the one I’m most interested in – My Strike, whose synopsis reads:

      “Documentary looking at how going on strike became almost a rite of passage in earlier times, as the likes of Lord Tebbit, Greg Dyke, Peter Snow, Eddie Shah and Anne Scargill recall just what their strike meant to them.”

      Call Yourself a Feminist – BBC Radio 4, first of a series beginning with a look back at the ’50s and ’60s with Sally Alexander, Sonia Fuentes, Elaine Showalter and others. Including the famous ‘bra burning’ reference which convinced the world looking back that there had been some kind of conflagration – there hadn’t. Betty Friedan:

      The BBC is brilliant isn’t it. I’m going to make sure that when the bastards come for it, I’m ready.