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Wednesday 7 November 2007
Another military coup, another Commonwealth meeting
Sir: The claim by the Prime Minister of Pakistan that elections will go ahead as scheduled would be comical if its implications for Pakistan and the Commonwealth's principles were not so serious.
The 1991 Commonwealth Harare Declaration commits Pakistan and all member countries to "work with renewed vigour, concentrating especially in the following areas: the protection and promotion of the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth: democracy, democratic processes and institutions which reflect national circumstances, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, just and honest government and fundamental human rights".
However, the latest military coup in Pakistan, the second by General Musharraf in eight years, has peeled off yet another veil from the Commonwealth. The general has declared martial law, suspended the constitution, dismissed the Chief Justice, arrested scores of opposition activists, judges, lawyers and journalists and shut down the independent press. What elections can take place under these circumstances?
All this is happening just three weeks before the Commonwealth leaders, headed by Her Majesty the Queen, gather in Kampala, the Uganda capital, for their bi-annual gathering. It will surprise no one if Musharraf turns up in Kampala for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
The host and chairman of the Commonwealth for the next two years, President Museveni, like General Musharraf, tore up the Harare Declaration years ago. Like General Museveni, General Musharraf came to power through violence and has hit hard on the opposition, the free press and judiciary. Museveni has actually twice sent armed commandos to invade the High Court and the Constitutional Court. And like Museveni, Musharraf is holding on to power, against the wishes of his people, only because the USA and the British government need them to help fight their so-called wars on "terrorism".
It is yet to be seen whether the Commonwealth will suspend General Musharraf from the club, if only to pretend that it still stands by the Harare declaration.
International Envoy to the United Kingdom and the European Union, Uganda Forum for democratic Change (FDC)London W3
Perils of perfection for the human race
Sir: Johann Hari's attack on "bio-conservatives" ("What's to fear in a superhuman species", 5 November) studiously avoids the one word that appropriately names the ideology that animates it: eugenics.
Mr Hari adopts a position which could itself serve as a definition of eugenics – "Our goal should be to make people healthier, smarter and longer-living" – and seems deaf to the warning cry of history in this regard. While "enhancement" of the human race seems, superficially, to be an obvious good, it is nevertheless the case that such a goal tends to erode compassion towards the weakest in our society: the "perfect baby" culture that is prevalent in our society is surely not unconnected with the high rates of abortion in cases of unborn babies with Down's syndrome.
Considered in this light, the difference between treatment and enhancement (which Mr Hari denies) is clear: treatment is aimed at helping real people with problems in the present; enhancement, on the other hand, is concerned with a future in which the weak of today will have no home. Obsession with such a goal is incompatible with genuine concern for the decidedly non-superhuman members of our society.
Ampleforth, north Yorkshire
Sir: Johann Hari wonders what there is to fear in us using advances in technology to modify human beings and ultimately to redefine what we are. He believes that there is no basic core of what defines a human being, and cites Darwin as proof of this. Darwin, although he advanced some well-argued and in many respects very convincing theories as to how species adapt to environments, was very far from proving that "there is no fixed us", as Hari so confidently asserts.
Adaptation is one thing, wholesale re-engineering of a species is quite another. For Hari, "The only question is 'do you want changes to be haphazard and arbitrary [Darwinian evolution is neither], or directed by us to make us what we want to be?" '
But who decides what "we" want to be? Whose definition of "better" is to prevail? Who is this "us" of whom he speaks? Is it the organism itself? Clearly not, as this re-engineering is to take place in many cases prior to conception and without the consent of the creature so re-engineered. Is it perhaps a child's parents? The same problem of lack of consent exists and in addition to this, how are private individuals to protect their right to choose when faced with the might and central planning of big business, of government and the scientists who stand to make their careers on producing a result? Which of these three powerful groups will ultimately determine what individual human beings are permitted to do and even to be? Power corrupts and such absolute power as this proposed application of technology confers is as absolute as any the world has ever seen.
God help our children.
The choice: biscuits or the same biscuits
Sir: Supermarket chains often argue that it is competition which "keeps them honest". That the public can be secure in the knowledge that customer choice keeps prices low, because customers can vote with their feet.
A company called United Biscuits issued a recall notice on one of their products on the first weekend in November. This is one product, but with apparently at least 15 identities: Aldi Belmont Bourbon Creams; Asda smartprice Bourbon Creams; Co-op Bourbon Creams; Costcutter Bourbon Creams; Happy Shopper Bourbon Creams; Heritage Bourbon Creams; Lichfield Minipacks; Morrisons Bourbon Creams; Netto Chesterton Bourbon Creams; Parkside Bourbon Creams; Sainsbury's Bourbon Creams; Somerfield Bourbon Creams; Spar Bourbon Creams; Tesco Bourbon Creams (and Tesco Value, and Tesco Family Biscuit Assortment); Waitrose Bourbon Creams.
The choice? Take it or leave it.
Milton under Wychwood, Oxfordshire
Dignity in short supply for the old
Sir: Why do we have to have yet another smug anti-euthanasia (and doubtless anti-abortion) correspondent (Pauline Gately, letter, 3 Nov) telling us what we should think and do? What she, and regrettably countless others, cannot take in is that many people sincerely wish they could die when they know that they have no possible contribution to make to the living, and don't need encouragement to do so.
I am 85 at the end of this month, and to hell with the empty clap-trap about dignity, respect and so forth.
In the past maybe one might expect to live with one's children and perhaps enjoy a bit of respect (and possibly preserve some dignity), in spite of the irritations (or worse) caused by one's presence. But those days are very largely over: children live their own lives, frequently remote in all respects from their parents. It is now very rarely a matter of simply "taking over the farm" from one's parents.
And would Pauline Gately be good enough to clarify exactly what she means by being looked after "with due respect and dignity"? There is no possible replacement for an active life, working constructively with colleagues around one, friends living nearby, being able to go out (often by car) to pubs, theatres, gigs and what have you. Most of my erstwhile friends and colleagues have died or moved away to places where journeys to meet are too laborious to contemplate.
What we do have to contemplate are endless days in the stifling company of other antiques, being looked after by young and generally ignorant people – almost inevitable with low pay – who can have little in common with those they look after.
My wife and I soldier on; we are much better placed than many in that we are both still mobile, can still drive, and are not so poor that we need help – but for how long?
Sir: Has Pauline Gately asked any old person aware that their mental and physical condition is rapidly declining whether they want to die or live through the next stage?
A people who were expected to die out
Sir: One question which was not raised in your report on the social problems of Fitzroy Crossing ("Alcoholism in Australia", 31 October) is that of the Western Australian government's hand in supporting the theory of Social Darwinism over 100 years ago.
When England relinquished colonial control over Western Australia, it was done on the premise that 1 per cent of the state's annual revenue was to be allocated to its Aboriginal population. This never happened. The way of thinking at the time was that the Aboriginal population was a dying race.
Land was taken, given for work as farms and then taken away again; jobs were denied, education refused, children taken from their families. Then came assimilation to "try and breed them out". The government took away the Aboriginal population's belief system and kept changing the rule book. Does alcoholism and suicide sound like a culpable product of this?
Everything in the story hit at the heart of the problem, yet it does not question the reasons why things are they way they are.
Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia
Who pays the price for a weak dollar?
Sir: Your leader "Bargain hunters may be happy, but a strong pound has its downsides" (03 November) regards the devaluation of the dollar as being without any costs. You state: "Nor is there any . . . downside to a weak dollar for Americans, unless they work and travel in Europe ."
This is eerily reminiscent of Wilson's "this will not affect the pound in your pocket" speech after the 1967 devaluation of sterling.
Devaluation always involves a downside. First, the currency being devalued becomes inflation-prone. Given the rampant asset-price inflation already evident, it will not take long before this finds its way into consumer price inflation.
Second, anyone holding dollars or dollar-denominated assets sees their asset depreciate in value. They may well increase the price of their asset – as Opec usually does – or start to dump dollars for stronger currencies or safe havens such as precious metals. This might start a stampede out of the dollar and a full-blown currency/ exchange-rate crisis.
Third, the price of oil will tend to rise for reasons just alluded to. This will have deflationary consequences on both the domestic and global economy.
Fourth, given America's voracious appetite for imported goods, American consumers will take a hit to their standard of living since their dollars will buy less.
Finally, what would be the ultimate result of the world's principal reserve currency continuing its free-fall into worthlessness?
Yes, devaluation will affect the dollar in your pocket.
Blood donations to save dogs' lives
Sir: I was surprised to read your article (31 October) which calls for a national pet blood bank when such an organisation already exists.
Earlier this year we launched Pet Blood Bank UK (PBBuk), the UK's first blood bank for dogs. We supply canine blood to all parts of the UK. While many of our current blood donations are carried out in the Midlands area, we are in the process of raising funds to develop a mobile blood unit so our donation catchment area can be expanded to all parts of Great Britain.
PBBuk is a charitable organisation which gives veterinary practices access to blood products. Though we are currently providing only canine blood products we have aspirations to develop the service to include cats, and would expect to be well placed to manage this through the experience we are generating from our existing operations.
Executive Director, Pet Blood Bank UK Loughborough, Leicestershire
Honour the heroes
Sir: Would it not be a most appropriate and indeed popular gesture this Remembrance Weekend to confer immediate knighthoods upon the five surviving veterans of the First World War?
Latin in English
Sir: Jon Cotterell's letter about C difficile (3 November) displays some confusion in its talk of stressed vowels and single consonants: in English, of course, the name of the killer bug would, and should rhyme with "Sicily". But where is the BBC Pronunciation Unit when we need it?
Sir: The words "rivers of blood" were never said by Enoch Powell and you were wrong to put them in quotations marks in several places in your 5 November issue. Powell was a classics scholar and he was quoting Virgil's Aeneid: "I seem to see 'the river Tiber foaming with much blood'." There were many phrases in that speech which were far more offensive.
Sir: The Queen's Speech was very strange. Not once did it mention the elephant in the room – England. Why isn't Gordon Brown able to acknowledge the only nation he rules over, or maybe he doesn't understand his own devolution policy? Whatever the reason, it's time he showed a little respect for the nation of England, even if it does choke him to say its name.
Driffield, East Yorkshire
Sir: As HM the Queen prepared to open London's glittering new rail terminus, I enjoyed Extra's feature (6 November) about journey times from London St Pancreas [sic] to various cities. It would have been particularly interesting to see how lung it will now take to travel to the heart of Europe.
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