Friday, September 23, 2016

In My World Of Liberal Journalism

One of the most tiresome trends in opinion journalism goes like this:

I have found some people with wacky opinions, therefore

Everyone must support my utterly deranged policy proposal.

As regular readers will know, one of the serial offenders for this rhetorical style is the Spectator's Nick Cohen, who is very fond of announcing that because Person (x) is bad and wrong, we must immediately do something tremendously stupid and counter-productive.  Previous examples include: 

George Galloway is a bad man who proposes bad ideas, so 
Let's invade and occupy other countries.

Islamism is a horrible, vicious political movement with totalitarian aims, and thus
We must drop lots of high explosives on heavily-populated urban areas.

Lots of people now hold views that many people think are racist, but
I have decided those views aren't racist, so let's espouse these totally-not-racist views and win votes.

Given our mutual interests, I'm fond of using Nick as a weathervane for the trends of UK politics, so the following line from his latest column on the Labour Party poked out rudely, like a turd in a teacup: 

"...The sleaziness of (Jeremy Corbyn's) behaviour has allowed his opponents to avoid a question that the rise of the SNP should have made unavoidable: Can they create a progressive English patriotism?"

Now, the main thrust of Nick's piece is that the Labour leader and his supporters are bad and evil and wrong but again, it's worth noting that Nick is saying:

Corbyn and his fans are bad and evil and wrong, and so 
We must create a progressive English patriotism.

This idea - imitating the SNP's progressive nationalism - is exactly the kind of thing that strongly appeals to English people who are utterly clueless about Scotland, England and nationalism, and quite possibly about politics as well.  

Here's why: 

1)  Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose 

Which is French for, "Every few years some fucking berk wanders in and announces that we need to create, like, 'a progressive English patriotism', as if he's the first person ever to think of it".

Perhaps there is a way to harness this theoretical progressive patriotism - it has certainly been tried, by smarter people than Nick.  On the other hand, it's worth noting that whenever you haul English patriotism to the polling station, it tends to vote for the meanest, ugliest, nastiest right-wing lunatic on the ballot.

Does this mean that English patriotism will forever be a weapon wielded only by angry Tories and country-dwelling, wannabe Mussolinis?  Well, maybe not!  It is, however, a strong indicator of the general flow of patriotic politics in that country.

This is before we address the likely ability of the available candidates to achieve success.  Do Yvette or Hilary have the mettle to forge this new progressive alliance?  Is Chukka going to win over the north with his fiery rhetoric?  

Christ, no. 

2)  The SNP will absolutely love it.

The SNP in its modern form is basically the Labour Party's rhetoric and policies, delivered with barely-restrained anti-Westminster hysteria, to the extent that the only major difference between the two parties' manifestos in 2015 was over Trident, IIRC.

The SNP exists and thrives not because it has a big smiley, happy-happy attitude to patriotism, but because it has something clearly defined to push back against.  All it says, week in and week out, is that we could have awesome hospitals and more jobs and better education, if it weren't for the BASTARD SWINE at Westminster.

It's only a small exaggeration to reduce the entire movement to "English people are all like, Rah-Rah, Faw-Faw-Faw, Let's smash the oiks, but Scottish people are just like, Aye, whatever pal, nae bother".

Consider - is it likely that the solution for this is to create an equal and opposite form of the same thing?  Can anyone see why this might create more problems than it solves?

This makes as much sense as trying to eradicate lions by feeding them steaks and steroids.

3)   Nationalism = Nationalism.

One of the SNP's celebrity supporters asked recently why the First Minister was on TV talking about holding another independence referendum, when a survey had just illustrated the terrible extent of poverty in Scotland.  

This is a bit like asking why The Cookie Monster is on TV talking about how he wants to eat lots of cookies, while ignoring Scottish poverty.  

Scottish nationalism is all about securing independence, by fair means or foul.  Whatever your damnable progressive agenda is, there's little point in trying to bolt it onto the SNP.  Anything that you try to stick to the side of the nationalist program will be immediately consumed by the single priority of independence, either now or further down the line. 

And that's our happy-clappy, God-we-hate-the-English-but-welcome, foreign-friends! version of the phenomenon.  You can probably imagine the types of thing that this theoretical English progressive patriotism would consume.  

4)  It's so nakedly disingenuous. 

Nick has spent much of the last few years chiding us all for failing to heed the Very Real Concerns of the electorate about immigration.  The EU Referendum has just taught us a very real lesson about the very high levels of racism in the Very Real Concerns of the electorate.  The Labour right are still, this week, demanding that we all heed the Very Real Concerns of the electorate and act upon their wishes, despite knowing full-well what that entails, and which instincts they are fluffing.

Exactly how do you intend to square your "progressive English patriotism" with your simultaneous desire to win the votes of people who are willing to immiserate the country, economically and personally, because they don't like all the foreigners? 

The answer, of course, is that this "progressive English patriotism" will not be very "progressive" at all, particularly not in relation to immigrants and immigration.  Unless there's something I'm missing, an anti-immigration left-wing party would be little more than a touchier-and-feelier Ukip.  

And finally, it should go without saying that the idea of a touchy-feely, left-wing Ukip is 

5)  Utter electoral insanity.

It's basically saying: "We have lost much of rural Britain, so what we need to do now is to tell all of our city-dwelling supporters to fuck off as well, and then we will win".

Why, in the name of sanity, would anyone who wants to see a political party succeed demand that it force such an obviously destructive policy down the necks of its few remaining supporters? 

Well, perhaps this is the final answer to that question. 

Bonus silliness:  I like how Nick berates "commentators" who "throw around the 'far left' label without stopping to ask what it means", before Nick throws around the far-left label without informing us of what it means.  

I also like "Utopias are always banal", which is a cracking point to hear from one of the country's most enthusiastic supporters of extreme transformative violence as a means to creating democracy and stability.

And I imagine everyone chuckled at Nick's pronouncements upon what is and isn't good writing.  

And that line, "In my world of liberal journalism".  Polemicist, damn thyself. 

Friday, July 08, 2016

The View From The Outside

If nothing else, we can agree that there aren't many middle class British writers who will ever get bored with cranking out columns attacking other middle class people for being middle class.

Even so, I note that despite the endless wails and complaints about Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, he is still at least as secure in his current position as leader of the Labour Party as he was last September.  Possibly more so.

Now as I always say, I'm not a member and people who are can accept my advice or tell me where to stick it, as they see fit.

From where I'm sitting however, it looks very much like the Labour right are going to have to come to some kind of accommodation with Corbyn, no matter how much it sticks in their craw to do so.  Or, they can put up a challenger and duke it out.

Simply put, there is no other way

Why do I think so?  Well, a quick recap:

In the leadership campaign last year, the members indicated that they were going to reject the candidates offered by Labour's centre-right.  Maybe this was a wise choice and maybe it wasn't but ultimately it doesn't matter, because that's what happened.

The centre-right of the party were outraged about this, and so they ran to the press wailing and screeching and beating their breasts...

...And they got absolutely walloped in the leadership election, because the members wanted politics that were more like the ones that Corbyn was offering, and less like the austerity-lite ones of the centre-right.  Nor did they much appreciate the wailing and the screeching, and so on. 

Corbyn's leadership victory outraged the party's MPs all over again.  Almost as one, they ran to the press, wailing and screeching and beating their breasts.  They denounced Corbyn and decried the members as a bunch of entryists and loonies.

Now, maybe the wailing and screeching was a good idea, and maybe it wasn't.  It probably wasn't a good idea for politicians to attack people whose votes they might later need to win.  Either way, it doesn't matter whether it was a good idea, because it didn't work.

And unsurprisingly, the wailing and screeching only annoyed the members who had voted for Corbyn, and their support further solidified Corbyn's grip on the leadership.

Finally, after the Referendum disaster, the MPs decided that they'd had enough.  And so they ran to the press, wailing and screeching and beating their breasts.

Again, maybe this was the appropriate response, or maybe not.  I think it was a daft idea but to be absolutely clear, it doesn't matter, because it didn't work.

Worse, the renewed wails and screeches caused another huge influx of new party members, most of whom will now probably support Corbyn, rather than the party's centre-right.

Which leaves us where we are today, with the MPs and the hacks still wailing and screeching and beating their breasts and insulting the party members.

And yet, it looks like Corbyn's position is more secure than ever.

At this point, I have to ask the right of the party - How's that Corbyn Out strategy working out for you, folks?

What's your plan now, and how much wailing and screeching does it involve?

Because the wisest thing the Labour right could do now is this - forget all the complaints about Corbyn's unelectability and his faffing, bumbling public persona.  They're irrelevant.

Put all the outraged cries about his supposedly unacceptable comments to one side, and dismiss the endless garment-rending and teeth-gnashing over his terrible, outrageous personal politics.

All of these are mere details I realise that they're vitally important to some but in the long run, they just don't matter.

There's one cast-iron truth that everyone has to face up to here, and it's this - if the Labour Party is to have any chance of winning a national election in the next few years, then there will have to be a decisive fight.  If not, then everyone will have to plaster on a fake grin and swallow half a ton of humble pie.

Corbyn is not going to go away and barring an unforseeable miracle for the MPs, it looks like no amount of wailing, screeching or breast-beating is going to get rid of him.

The only viable choices are:

a)  Come to some kind of horribly awkward, grudging, mutually demeaning accommodation with Corbyn and hope that you can, for example, agree on a suitable successor for the next election;

b)  Put up a challenger who will espouse vaguely Corbyn-esque politics, and beat him at his own game, or

c)  Keep wailing and screeching and beating your breasts until either Corbyn retires, or you lose the will to go on.

And that's it.

Now, choose carefully.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Chilcot Report Open Thread

An open thread, for anyone that wants to discuss today's Chilcot Report.

Indulge me for a minute of rambling first, though.  I imagine I'll return to this but for now, having wasted a decade bickering and complaining about exactly the type of stuff that Chilcot covers, I'll confess that the headline news is immensely gratifying.

Is it childish to take such a horrifying global issue quite personally?  Very well then, I am childish. 

So aside from the usual backstage politics stuff, the most important of Chilcot's conclusions are surely the sections on planning and provision for wars.  The bottom line - don't invade countries simply because the Prime Minister thinks it's a good idea, because there is a severe risk of getting very large numbers of people killed, including your own soldiers.

I'm also very pleased by the declaration that the Iraq disaster was anything but unforeseeable, and that those who prosecuted it intentionally ignored the - very prescient - warnings of exactly the consequences that might ensue.

Already, I've seen yelps and screeches and loud complaints that this will now make it more difficult for the UK to wage wars, and indeed it probably will.  I say, good: our track record in recent wars is appalling, and substantial reflection is now sorely needed.

I'm also pleased that it's dealt bluntly with the "Did the Government lie?" question, by announcing that the Government "exaggerated" its case for war.  This saves us the long, boring argument about the difference between "Public Relations" and "Lies", and allows us to simply note that misleading PR about wars is a considerably more serious matter than misleading PR about a £3 bottle of shampoo.

For me, its very welcome that Chilcot's conclusions come with the official imprimatur of the British state.  For far too long, any public figure arguing that e.g. the government exaggerated its case for war, or that its case for war was mere PR for a decision already taken, was likely to be mocked as a conspiracy theorist and a nutter.  The suggestion that Britain's involvement in the war increased the threat of terrorism was treated as tantamount to siding with Al Qaeda, if not outright incitement to violence.

That these straightforward points were demonstrably and obviously true, did not help at all with Britain's highly belligerent and obnoxious pro-war party.  Those people will still be belligerent and obnoxious tomorrow, but the difference is that the facts are now decisively on our side, because they're part of the official record.

And on Tony himself, well, what's left to be said?  He was a lunatic and a true-believer when he was Prime Minister and as he demonstrated today, he's still as mad as a box of frogs.

The main accusation against him is, I think, that he preferred to risk the lives of millions of people on his own windy, arse-extracted interpretation of events, rather than listening to the advice of people who actually knew what they were talking about.

So what does Tony do?  He gives a rambling, 45-minute press conference in which he confirms beyond all doubt that the accusation is absolutely correct.  

I used to think that there was method in his madness but now, I'm not so sure.  Looking at him today, he reminds me of people who have been accused of the most serious crimes.  Those people very rarely plead guilty and usually maintain their innocence, even in the face of the most overwhelming evidence.

Why do they do this, when a guilty plea might slash their sentence?  They do this because some crimes are so serious that the reputational damage is too horrible to accept, and because prisons are full of stab-happy killers with lots of time to whittle shivs.

They do it because it's better to go to jail wailing about a non-existent miscarriage of justice, than it is to admit to what you did and face the consequences.

Anyway, on that note, have at it - I'm sure that there are plenty of hilarious attempts to muddy the waters out there today, and there'll be thousands by tomorrow.

But the good news is that at long last, it's them who will have to prove their points beyond doubt.  It's scant comfort, but even that has been a long time coming.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

This Film's Crap, Let's Slash The Seats

One last Brexit post then, before the Chilcot Report reveals all the Mistakes that Were Made, and to what extent they were Made In Good Faith.

On Referendum night, I overheard half a conversation between a friend and her Dad.  I got the other half later:

Friend:  How did you vote then, Dad?
Dad:  I voted Out.
Friend:  Dad!  Why did you do that?  The economy will crash!  It'll cause chaos!
Dad:  That won't bother me hen, I'm retired.
Friend: But it'll affect me!  What about me?
Dad: (Long silence).

And the more that I talk to people about the Referendum, the clearer it's becoming that for many, the calculation was a lot less This is a make-or-break moment for the nation than it was the eternal response of the bored teenager:  

This film's crap, let's slash the seats. 

I was thinking about all this when I was reading Rafael Behr's unintentionally hilarious article about the Remain disaster, in which he details the difficulties that the Tories had in fighting against other Tories and assorted right-wing cranks. It leaves me with the bizarre impression that the Brexit disaster isn't really David Cameron's fault at all, and that the real problem is the strange, alien and suspiciously liberal province of "Remania".

The longer version of it is: Cameron and his campaign fought a brave, principled but doomed battle against an incredibly corrupt and extreme opponent.  They fought nobly but were defeated by the might of the tabloid press; by the chicanery of their adverseries, and finally by their own remoteness from the anger of the ordinary voter, because Remain supporters are all a bunch of pointy-headed, ivory-tower, middle-class, la-de-da woofters who don't understand the populace's manly rage.  Shame, shame on us all.

The short and more accurate version:  It never occurred to Dave and his mates that their own shitty tactics might be successfully used against them, and now politicans and journalists don't know whose arse they should be kissing.

Behr produces a cast of cross-party characters from Remain to express disgust and astonishment that Leave not only turned the EU Referendum into a celebrity bunfight between Johnson and Cameron; not only that they openly lied to the electorate with an actually-racist campaign, but also that the press allowed them to get away with it:

"...More infuriating still was the amount of air time given to claims from the Leave campaign that were either grotesque distortions or flagrant lies - the fiction that EU membership cost £350m per week; the pretence that Turkey was close to EU membership and the denial that the UK had a veto on that point..."

"...Papers normally do so much of the work in a campaign, ripping policies apart," noted a No. 10 source.  "There was nothing new about the (idea of introducing an) Australian-based points system, but the papers just gave it a free pass..."  

"...We underestimated their willingness to be mendacious and xenophobic", ("Stronger In" head of strategy Ryan) Coetzee said". 

You get the idea, and it's probably worth allowing the sheer preposterousness this claim to sink in: that the Remain campaign were surprised to discover that it's possible for British politicians to tell whacking great lies, and that they were astounded to discover that the British press enthusiastically repeats those lies.  Even the racist ones! 

Who could possibly have foreseen this misfortune?

Now obviously, nobody in the Remain campaign was really surprised to discover that Johnson is a liar or that Farage is a fervent racist.  Seasoned political campaigners are not often shocked by the scummery of the tabloids, and any that were should be coerced into committing Seppuku with an EU-mandated straight banana.

Ultimately, this is yet another attempt by various Remain figures to dodge responsibility for their own ineptitude.  The loudest cry from any losing campaign is always We Wuz Robbed.  This is no different, just with a long additional whinge about the alleged death of the supposedly sensible centrism that gave us the damn referendum in the first place.

Nonetheless, it does offer us a glimpse into the real story of the Referendum.

For a long time, the Tories kept their socially conservative faction - a crinkled crowd of resentful sexual shut-ins and retired colonels with unphotogenically racist tendencies, like Fawlty Towers crossed with 28 Days Later - in check with regular pantomime displays.  The type of people who wouldn't trust the government to run a power station, but fully expect it to dictate acceptable rules on procreation and parenting to the populace.  You know the type.

Mostly, the Tories kept these people and much of the rest of us in check by draping themselves in the Union Flag, winning wars, jailing louts, baton-charging protestors and loudly disapproving of the deviancy and profligacy of modern youth. 

Meanwhile, the party's money faction - the part that actually takes all the decisions - set about ripping up every British service and utility that they could find, then flogging them all out of the back of a van to their financier mates. 

And this suited everyone who mattered, for decades - the money men got rich and made sure that kickbacks flowed into the right purses, and the blue rinse brigade at least got to feel like they were in charge.  Whenever the scam got too obvious - which was most days - it was necessary to invent whole menageries of enemies to terrify the crinklies into compliance.

So invent they did: great cackling cavalcades of communist hobgoblins;  flocks of privilege-checking metrosexual students; ravenous, swan-munching Poles and legions of foreign politicians with big funny noses, all of whom had malign designs on the public's money, their nifty cars and their lovely little hobbit-holes. 

But nothing lasts forever.

"This was the first time Cameron experienced what it would feel like to fight a campaign with most of Fleet Street lined up on the opposing side - to receive the kind of ferocious treatment usually reserved for Labour leaders..."

"...Anyone who expressed a view on the hazards of leaving the EU was painted as the hostage of a corrupt Brussels-worshipping establishment...  As one Cameron aide puts it: "If anyone on the left had ever said the Bank of England was corrupt and shouldn't have a view, they would be incinerated, but the BBC gave a free ride to the rubbishing of institutions".  

And so on, with the children of the revolution eating the original revolutionaries.  As you reap, so shalt thou sow.  The monster is throttling fuck out of Dr Frankenstein, you get the drift.

The upshot here is that this has precious little to do with the remoteness of the political class - or the 48% of voters who wanted to stay in the EU - from the public, or any of that malarkey.  This is more like the financial crisis of 2008 - the scam got so big and so unweildy that it could no longer be controlled, and it's now blowing up in the faces of its architects and enablers. 

And as with previous crises, one government or another will eventually bring it back under control, and we'll return to something like business as usual, only poorer, angrier, more vicious and more mean than ever before.  Then, the whole cycle will repeat itself, in an uglier and louder fashion.

But for that to happen, it's going to be necessary to create some new bogeymen to share the blame.

Going by the general tenor of this week's opinion pages, including Behr's article, those bogeymen are going to be disproportionately urban, young, and suspiciously fond of foreigners and wanky cuisine.  Metropolitan hipster types, you know, the sort who might want to force 52% of the population to listen to the diktats of hated auslanders like, say, the European Union.

Just as in the financial catastrophe of 2008, it looks like some folk would far prefer it if we all accepted our own share of responsibility for causing this fresh debacle. 

The alternative would be to admit that our sensible, centrist government screwed up badly, and that the nation was swallowed by the scam that they and their friends had created.  That might include taking a hard look at our supposedly centrist politicians, and at the people who report their innermost thoughts. 

And we could hardly have that.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Very Real

And so to one of the more prominent issues of the Brexit debacle: where now, for the Very Real Concerns of the British public?

(A bit of background here for new readers: every time the issue of immigration comes up, some nutless joker is guaranteed to issue baleful warnings that We Must Respect The Very Real Concerns Of The British Public Or Else, usually while finger-wagging every citizen to the left of General Franco.  It's this that has led to the comical weekly spectacle of entire Question Time panels and audiences all agreeing that they mustn't be prevented from talking about immigration, live on national television).

Leavers and Remainers may not agree on much but in the aftermath of this enormous political and financial catastrophe, I'd like to think that every half-reasonable citizen would at least agree that the Concerns have turned out to be not Very Real at all.

The fact that we've even been discussing the Concerns stems from a political calculation.  Every time a politician or other public figure mentions the public's Very Real Concerns, they're describing the universal phenomenon where notable influxes of people to any area are likely to cause resentment among the residents.  As noted in a previous post, this happens regardless of race and religion.  It's not very nice but it is a real and observable issue, and it's one that should be taken into account in planning for our future living arrangements.

Unfortunately for all of the fans of the Concerns, the EU referendum has graphically demonstrated that the Very Real Concerns don't just include resentment of outsiders and change.  They also cover everything from people being annoyed about hearing other folk on their buses speaking foreign languages, to resentment of new shops catering to immigrants, to outright racist abuse in the streets.

This being the case, it's now become quite difficult* to pretend that the Very Real Concerns are not, you know, a bit on the racist side.  If the R-word upsets you - and God knows, it drives lots of people out of their damn minds - then there are plenty of others: "prejudice", "bigotry", "unnecessarily being a cunt about it"...  You can take your pick.

So this leaves our politicians and public figures in a bit of a bind.  As a cursory glance will reveal, they've been pandering to the public's Concerns for well over a decade, and yet somehow the outrage has grown worse, to the point where Brexit is now endangering the finances of people who actually matter.  As the parties have more and more openly sought to co-opt public racism for electoral gain, it's only made us crazier and more unhinged.

The choice then is to pick - do we continue to pander to an increasingly racist public, or do we instead risk telling the public that they're wrong?

This should be an easy choice for Labour who are, after all, supposed to be in favour of the man in the street and against this kind of thing.  Racism is many things, but it's not a magic lamp that you can rub just right, and then command a genie to help the poor**.

There's no racism Laffer Curve, where you can achieve the maximum public good by pitching your politics at just the right level of prejudice.  You can feed racism or you can oppose it, but you can't co-opt it to your will, because it will end up controlling you and ruining everything that you are supposed to be working for.

Because here's the deal - during the referendum campaign, the Leave campaign quite happily  ripped off actual Nazi propaganda and propelled the nation into an unprecedented crisis, wiping out vast amounts of wealth.

And these are the people that the Very Real Concerners want to get into a game of Anti-Immigrant Bingo with?  UKIP, for example, have shown that there are few depths to which they will not sink.  Are you going to get down into the gutter alongside them?  That's not going to win many votes; it will actively repel your own supporters, and it'll inevitably spark a long downward spiral into worse hate and worse disorder.

In the end, this is what the Very Real Concerns always were - a con, just a not-very-clever way for bet-hedging politicians to keep us all pootling quietly into the sewer at a slow and steady rate.  Any attempt to play at racist one-upmanship with Nigel Farage is going to take us there on rocket propulsion.

So here we are.  The entire nation can surely see that there's no such thing as "a bit racist", only racist or not.  Which way are we going to jump?

I'm assuming that we'll go with "Continue just enough to keep the whole sorry show ticking along", but it wouldn't be the first time that I've been wrong, or the last.


*Difficult, but hardly impossible, if you're thick and shameless enough.

**I had a good think about this and pretty much the only instance of racism being successfully deployed in a way that broadly enhanced the greater public good, is the war in the Pacific in WWII.  And I don't think that's a very helpful example, what with all the mass-murder and destruction of entire cities full of civilians, and so on. 

Friday, July 01, 2016

On Retail Grievance

I've lost count of the numbers of times I've been told this week that the British people are angry, with precious little analysis of what it is that we're supposed to be angry about

So: What are we angry about?

Maybe I can help out here.  I've been speaking to exactly the type of people who voted Leave for years - actively seeking them out and probing them for their opinions on all manner of issues.  I don't do this because I'm keen to reach out to people with different beliefs or to change minds, but mainly because I'm a dick and I enjoy bickering with people.  And if there's one thing I can say about the people I know who voted to leave the EU, it's this - they're always up for a rumble.

There's been a lot of nonsense spoken about the Leave-Remain split, with worryingly large numbers of people on both sides determined to turn it into a straight class issue.  Thankfully, the numbers are pretty clear.  As Flip-Chart Rick will tell you, the main indicators for the likelihood of a person voting Leave aren't economic or based upon status, or even party-political.  The most accurate predictor is a person's opinion on the death penalty...

...The probability of voting Brexit rises from around 20 per cent for those most opposed to the death penalty to 70 per cent for those most in favour. Wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain.

There's a reason why this is, and it's retail grievance.  That is, it's anger as a consumer product that can be bought and enjoyed, much like Wagon Wheels or Irn-Bru.

I'd argue that you can't understand anything about British politics until you grasp that a huge chunk of the populace are basically angry about everything and nothing at the same time, all the time, for no other reason than because they like being angry.

The easiest way to assess whether this is true or not, is just to speak to your friends and co-workers and to sift their opinions for actual, real problems.  As soon as some burning issue of the day comes up, just ask them what they think about it.  Almost everyone will be delighted to tell you their opinion in great detail, because most people are like me and they love a good whinge.

There are plenty of people in this country who have very real problems: sick relatives, terrible jobs, horrible neighbours.  Ask people questions about what annoys them however, and you'll find that those aren't the type of issues that are winding up most of us.

The things that really wind a lot of people up are usually bizarre urban fables; daft outrage stories that they've read, and whatever shite they've seen on TV recently.  Examples:

- Homeless people who beg all day, and then drive home in expensive cars.  Such people are apparently everywhere, because I've heard this one coming from several cities across the UK;

- Shiftless bastards with widescreen tellies.  The average British punter usually encounters these people on TV (unless they're unlucky enough to have job in retail or hospitality, in which case - fair enough).

- How you can't even sing Baa-Baa Black Sheep without the police beating you with truncheons, or

- Some mad Muslim with a hook for a hand who spat on a poppy but gets free Fruit Corners, while British veterans are sleeping rough, or whatever.

I could go on - a personal favourite is people complaining that the benefits system is designed explicitly to denigrate and humiliate them... And then claiming that immigrants can get whatever they want for free, as if foreign nationals had access to an entirely separate system, rather than using exactly the same one, with all the same built-in horrors.

Anyway, go out and speak to these folk yourself.  I guarantee you that of every ten complaints you hear, maybe one will be a real issue that's adversely affecting them personally; another will be an actual, real political issue and the other eight will be a daft deluge of half-true horseshit that they've heard down the pub or that somebody has read about on the internet.

Which is another way of saying that this is consumer grievance.   Most of these people are pissed off because they spend a great deal of time consuming products that have been specifically designed to piss them off.  And they like being pissed off, so they come back for more.

Very few of the issues that people have told me about over the years involved situations that they themselves have experienced.  Almost all of it is the kind of thing that you have to deliberately seek out, in exactly the same way that the worst, most precious Guardianista goes looking for things to be offended by.

And if you want something to complain about, you're not going to be disappointed.  Britain may not build much these days but we're still a world-class manufacturer of outrage.  The TV schedules are packed with it; the newsagent's shelves are groaning with it and you can download it in seventy different formats to whatever device you like.  All of it does pretty much what I'm doing here - it tells you exactly what you  want to hear, in precisely these I'm a proper expert and I'm just telling it like it is mate tones.

These shows and newspapers are barely even a political product, mind.  Most are no more political than Pickled Onion Monster Munch or Heinz Tomato Soup are Marxism.  It's simply a question of supply and demand.  There is a large and growing demand for outrage, and thus there are willing suppliers.  The more successful each new scum-baiting TV show is, the more imitators it will spawn, until the market is saturated with bargain-basement knock-offs.  

To pick just one example - the BBC's show Saints and Scroungers might well be a big hunk of red meat to the average elderly conservative, but it's as apolitical as raspberry jam.  The producers of Saints and Scroungers couldn't give a flying fuck who you vote for or what your opinion on the European Union is.  The only thing they're interested in is keeping you angry, because the relationship between producer and viewer is transactional - they provide you with a boiling sense of hopeless rage, and you give them half-an-hour of your time, and then they get paid.

And you can see proof of this in the demographics of those most likely to e.g. vote to leave the EU.  There's a reason why pensioners and other people who don't work were massively more likely to vote for Brexit than people with jobs.  It's because people who have jobs don't have time to sit around all day winding themselves up about true-ish shite that they've read in the paper or seen on TV.  

Seriously, if you want to find out whether I'm bullshitting you here, just speak to people.  They'll be glad to discuss it, possibly at great length.

You're not going to struggle to find people like this, because there doesn't seem to be any particular personal or economic profile for the type.  They're more likely to be male and middle-aged, I suppose, but wealthy people are just as likely to belong to this perpetually outraged group as poor people are, and the highly-educated love it every bit as much as people who left school as soon as they could.

And I have to stress that these are mainly decent, often hard-working, nice people.  They're more likely to be arseholes about it when they get wound up, but they're not usually ogres or morons.

You can gauge this for yourself, tomorrow.  All you have to do is ask.  You'll find out sharpish that our much-vaunted public rage is mainly based upon pish and drivel - made-up urban myths, overheard scare stories, whiny petulance and a general sense that everybody else except for me and my mates is getting away with murder. 

I'll leave it up to you to decide how far the rest of us should go to indulge this chunk of the population's boo-hoo.  I'd advise taking a long, hard look at the financial news before making up your mind, though.

------

A couple of other points, which I may or may not add to:

- One of the interesting things this week has been the complete invisibility of people like me in Brexit coverage, by which I mean working class people who went to university. The rush to claim Brexit for the decent, hard-working blahs of whatever have left me feeling a bit stranded.

So the Remainers are snobbish, over-educated pricks, and the Leavers are heavily-accented working people who don't like being talked down to.

I fit both of those categories, so where do I fit in?

- There are also plenty of Remain types who do retail grievance just as enthusiastically and loudly, if not more so, but with a different set of issues.  Reality shopping isn't a left-right thing, any more than it's a rich-poor issue.

On the whole, I'd say that between ten and twenty percent of the populace are just the type of people who are never happy unless they're miserable.  Hell, I'm one of those people.

The big difference right now, of course, is that it isn't the Remainers who have just plunged the country into a political and economic crisis, so they're considerably less topical right now. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Outsiders

(I grew up in a village very much like the one that I'm about to describe, but it's unlikely that any real village would develop in exactly the way that this one developed.  Which is another way of saying - don't take it too literally, because it's just for fun).

The village was originally a mining town but the seam ran dry in 1928, so the locals had to find a new way of life.  They settled on agriculture and for fifty years, life went on much as it had done, but overground rather than underground.

The farm jobs were poorly paid but the people of the village were a community, and everyone knew everyone, and everyone was happy, or at least they pretended to be in public.

By the mid-eighties though, the villagers were feeling the strain.  Farming didn't pay well and the kids were all moving away to the City, chasing bright lights and excitement.  The village was dying, just a lot of old, angry, crinkly people in a sleepy corner of the country, getting crinklier and angrier.

The people petitioned the Council.  How come our neighbours in the City are so well-off, they asked, and we have bugger-all and are left hoiking tatties for fifty-seven pence an hour?  We can't get jobs in the City, because it takes forever to get there, and our kids can't wait to get away.  The village is dying on its arse. 

So the Council thought it over and luckily, a huge government grant came their way.  And so the Council spent that grant on a massive dual-carriageway road that connected the village to the City.

Now, the villagers could get into the City three times quicker, for half the cost, with full access to all those jobs and opportunities that had been denied to them for so long.

Perfect, the Council thought.  Now everyone will be happy and we won't have so many complaints. 

But sadly for the Council, it didn't work out like that.  Sure, the villagers could now access the City, and they could get jobs and bring money into the village, and they were a lot wealthier than they'd ever been before.  They could go out and see a movie or have some dinner with the extra money that they earned, if they wanted to, and they could buy whatever crap makes people happy. 

But the villagers still weren't happy.

They weren't happy because now the massive dual-carriageway road had brought their village into the commuter belt for the City, and suddenly it was filling up with Outsiders who wanted to raise their kids outside of the City, in a nice little village full of nice, happy people.  Which meant that every house that became vacant was soon occupied by an Outsider and, since houses in the village were now worth lots of money, houses became vacant very often.

Very often.

And while the Outsiders brought in money - lots of money - most of it was spent in the new shops and the new supermarket, which quickly replaced the old shops.  And while there were a lot of jobs going in the new supermarket, most of them paid pretty badly.

So the villagers petitioned the Council and said, We didn't want this.  And, We're not happy.  There are lots of Outsiders taking over our way of life.

And they weren't being overdramatic - it was true.  The Outsiders had lots of ideas about the school sports day and the village gala day, and how the village pub could be tarted up a little, and they weren't shy at all about making their opinions known.  And, being Outsiders, they did it in a really annoying, Outsidery way, as Outsiders do.

Soon, companies started building new housing estates on the edge of the village, but the local kids who actually wanted to buy houses near their parents - not that there were many - were utterly outpriced by Outsiders, and had to move miles and miles away.

Well, this annoyed the villagers more and more.  They started to notice that it was more difficult to get an appointment at the doctor's surgery than it had been before all these new Outsiders moved in.  Suddenly, the Council weren't paying complaints about accommodation the attention that they had done before, and the local schools were bursting at the seams.

And so, the villagers decided to vote for a new Council, a Council who would put a stop to the influx of Outsiders.  There was only one problem, though - the villagers were mostly old and cranky, and the only councillors paying attention to them were properly mean and nasty.

So the villagers all voted for the meanest, nastiest motherfuckers on the ballot, and those politicians instituted huge cuts to local public services, much to the old villagers' delight. 

But the Outsiders noticed, and didn't much appreciate the slashed budgets to local education and healthcare, even if it left the Outsiders better off personally, because they were basically rich.

As you can imagine, any time the villagers and the Outsiders tried to discuss this, it didn't go very well.  It was almost like they had a shared interest, but whenever they tried to discuss it they found that there were insuperable barriers between them, for some unfathomable reason.

And so the very happy village split between the pissed-off villagers and the pissed-off Outsiders, who shared a basic interest in the wellbeing of the village but couldn't agree on how to manage it, and the Council had to make some hard choices.

This is the choice that the Council has to make:

A) Ignore the Outsiders and rip up the road.

B) Ignore the villagers, and leave things as they are.

C) Drastically reform the entirety of modern global capitalism.


Which would you choose?

Points to remember - the villagers have democratically precluded any kind of government investment in services or housing, so that's out.

And this is before anyone with a particular financial or political interest gets in there and starts stoking mischief.

(A note here - My parents moved to a village much like this in 1981, where they raised me.  They're still Outsiders to this day, and so am I).

The Saga Of Jeremy Cantgovern

SCENE: Little Humpingham Town Hall.

The residents of Little Humpingham have gathered to elect a new Mayor.  The audience watch expectantly as the Chairman invites the candidates - VIOLET SENSIBLE, HENRY SAVAGE, TARQUIN TITTERING-BERK and JEREMY CANTGOVERN - to make their closing arguments.  At the back of the room, two local JOURNALISTS look on.

CHAIRMAN:  Ladies and gentlemen, your final statements, please.

VIOLET SENSIBLE:  We should immediately close the nursery, fire the postman and blow up the donkey sanctuary.

HENRY SAVAGE:  Let's invade our neighbours in Dogdickington village and beat them with hockey sticks.  It's for their own good and it's the only language they understand.

TARQUIN TITTERING-BERK:  We need to be realistic.  I think we should all be racist.  Not racist in a bad way, but racist in a very reasonable way.  Reasonably racist.

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  Well, I think that we should be nice.  We should all be nice in a faffing, ineffectual, slapstick kind of manner.  We should also be weird and get bizarrely annoyed about matters that are ultimately fairly unimportant.

(Polite applause) 

FIRST JOURNALIST:  They'll never elect Cantgovern.  He's a dinosaur.  He doesn't even like hitting people with hockey sticks.

SECOND JOURNALIST:  He'd be a disaster.  If they elect him, we'll almost certainly catch Anthrax until we die.

CHAIRMAN:  Thank you.  And now we will take a vote...

(The audience vote). 

CHAIRMAN:  There...  Well, the votes have been counted and I can announce that Jeremy Cantgovern has won by ninety-eight votes to zero for any other candidate.  I hereby declare that Jeremy Cantgovern is the new Mayor of Little Humpingham.

(Polite applause) 

FIRST JOURNALIST:  Fuck me.

SECOND JOURNALIST:  (Scrawls in notepad: EARTH-SHATTERING CATASTROPHE)

CHAIRMAN:  Mr Cantgovern, you have the floor.

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  Thank, you Mr Chairman.  Can I just start by saying that now is the time -

SENSIBLE:  Boo!  You suck, Cantgovern!  Boo!

SAVAGE:  You're shit!  You can't lead!  You're a lightweight!

TITTERING-BERK:  Resign, resign!  Have you no shame, sir?  Have you no shame, even now?

(The CHAIRMAN bangs his gavel and calls the meeting to order) 

CHAIRMAN:  Order, order!  Mr Cantgovern, I would thank you to tone down your remarks.  This is no place for that kind of intemperate rhetoric.

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  Apologies, Mr Chairman.  As I was saying, I think that now is the time to take immediate action to tackle child poverty in the village, perhaps through the medium of interpretive dance.

SENSIBLE:  That's an awful idea!  You're a moron!  You stink like pissy cabbage!

SAVAGE:  The man's a liability.  He must go.

TITTERING-BERK:  What a retard.  I hope he dies.

(An AUDIENCE MEMBER stands up)

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Why don't you let Mr Cantgovern speak?  I want to hear what he has to say.

SENSIBLE: (Aghast)  Mob rule!

SAVAGE:  Unbelievable fascism!

TITTERING-BERK:  This blatant intimidation is unacceptable!  Call off your thugs, Cantgovern!

CHAIRMAN:  Order, order!  Mr Cantgovern, please try to control your supporters.  We can't have hooligans terrorising us with their foul language.

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  Yes, please calm down everyone.  If you must show disapproval, please don't shout.  I suggest that you click your fingers instead.  It's less aggressive, and also quite fun.  (Clicks fingers)

SENSIBLE:  Incredible!  He's egging them on!

SAVAGE:  Shocking, unbelievable conduct.  The man's a psychopath.

TITTERING-BERK:  And he's racist.

(The audience - Sharp intake of breath) 

FIRST JOURNALIST:  That proves it.  Cantgovern is the new Mussolini.

SECOND JOURNALIST:  (Scrawls in notepad: CANTGOVERN = NEW MUSSOLINI)

CHAIRMAN:  I'm sorry Mr Tittering-Berk, I'm not sure that I heard you correctly.  Did you just say that Mr Cantgovern is racist?

TITTERING-BERK:  He's tremendously racist, and not in a good way, either.  In a bad way.

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  This is an outrageous slur.  I abhor racism in all its forms.

SENSIBLE:  Yes, but do you condemn it?  Do you denounce it?

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  I utterly condemn racism.  I denounce it.

SAVAGE:  He's a liar.  Just look at him, you can smell the fucking racism.  And the evil.

TITTERING-BERK:  How much to you despise racism?  Do you despise it times a hundred?

(Gasps) 

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  I despise racism times a thousand.   No, actually, I despise it times infinity.

(Shouts, fainting) 

TITTERING-BERK:  Put your hands on your head and say that.

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  (Puts hands on head)  I despise racism times infinity.

SENSIBLE:  Hop on one leg and say you despise it.

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  (Trying and failing to hop with hands on head)  I despise... Look, I'm sorry, my knees...

(Gasps, screams from the audience)

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Oh my God, he's a Nazi.

SENSIBLE:  THIS MAN IS LITERALLY HITLER.

(A young boy runs into the room and hands the CHAIRMAN a note) 

CHAIRMAN:  (Bashes gavel)  Apologies everyone, I'm afraid I've just received some rather bad news from Mr Cameron, the bank manager.  He says that he's very sorry, but he's burned the bank down...  All of our money... Utterly destroyed...  We are doomed... All going to starve.  Sorry again.

SAVAGE:  This is your fault, Cantgovern.  You're a fucking liability, mate.

SENSIBLE:  Resign, for the love of God, resign before you ruin us all!

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  But this isn't my fault.  It wasn't me that burned down the bank.  I wanted to abolish the bank and replace it with a wholefoods shop.

FIRST JOURNALIST:  Why won't he just shut up and go away?  God, I hate him.

SECOND JOURNALIST:  (Scrawling in notepad:  SHAMELESS JEREMY CLINGS ON, DENIES BURNING DOWN BANK)

(Uproar in the Town Hall.  The CHAIRMAN brings the meeting to order). 

CHAIRMAN:  Order, order!  Well, given Mr Cantgovern's appalling behaviour, it's clear that we need to have a new election for Mayor.  Candidates, would you please give us your opening statements.

SENSIBLE:  We should immediately blow up the postman, close the nursery and fire the donkey sanctuary.

SAVAGE:  Let's invade Dogdickington and beat the residents with crowbars.

TITTERING-BERK:  I think we should all be racist, and not in a reasonable way, but in a bad way.  Badly racist.

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  Well, I think we should be nice to everyone... except the other candidates.

(Sharp intake of breath)

JEREMY CANTGOVERN:  In fact, I think we should be quite rude to the other candidates.  In a comically faffing and ineffectual manner.

(Screams) 

CHAIRMAN:  UNBELIEVABLE FASCISM!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Bring Back The Free Owls

It's the ten-year anniversary for the blog today, and it's ironic that it falls on referendum day.

When I started, my declared aim was: If there must be bullshit, at least let it be entertaining bullshit.  I like to think that I succeeded, if only occasionally.  I was young at the time, and I had a naive fear that the growing reach of social media was making us all angrier, more resentful and less tolerant of each other.

Well, I needn't have worried.  The only blogs that anyone reads these days are the professional ones like Guido Fawkes, and the only people who read those are politicians, political journalists and cunts.

The maximum political content that most people get out of e.g. Facebook in the average day is likely to be their racist uncle sharing one of those dipshit photo memes - Army veterans are homeless, but Abu Hamza lives in a castle made of tits with a champagne moat, and he guzzles taxpayer-funded Micro-Chips.  Britain First!

To be honest, going by the last few weeks, I'd say that the mainstream news orgs are more than capable of providing all the anger, resentment and intolerance that we could ever need.

Still, since it is my anniversary, it's probably worth a few observations on the referendum, for old times' sake.

What does this tell us about ourselves, as a nation? 

This question has mainly been coming from the Hey Guys, Why Don't We Stage an Inclusive Democratic Revolution, Right Here In The Church Hall? wing of Labour Twitter, and it strikes me as a reasonable one.  What have we become, lads?

Well, let's have a look at the respective campaigns and try to draw some conclusions.

Remain has been pretty much what you'd expect from a modern political campaign, insofar as it's been a barrage of focus-grouped, feelgood horseshit with continual outbreaks of hysterical terror.

And to be fair, it's probably true that we'd all be a bit poorer if we voluntarily left one of the world's largest trading blocs - maybe even considerably poorer.  On the other hand, we would probably manage to survive.

Without going into detail, the Remain campaign has mostly been deceitful and fear-crazed, but that's pretty much standard in the modern era.

Still, I have a particular affection for the earnest pundits who have spent the last few months anxiously warning us all that If Britain leaves the EU, then It will make Vladimir Putin happy.  I have no idea why the hacks are so certain that any part of the British electorate gives a shit what a Russian gangster-politician thinks about anything, but lots of them are absolutely convinced of it.

On the Leave side... Well, I don't want to exaggerate, but practically every statement out of the campaign leaders' weasel mouths has been a flagrant misrepresentation, an outrageous lie or an outright incitement.  The Leave campaign is a vast field of poisoned slurry, trailing a hateful stench that will stink out the entire nation for decades.  A lifetime of determined hosing won't shift it. Every single person involved in it should be ashamed of themselves and every notable figure within it should be immediately drummed out of public life.

If we end up voting to leave, we won't even be able to claim that we were suckered by clever, polished PR men.  We'll have enthusiastically bought a fistful of farts and fuck-all, from what may be the most blatantly crooked clique of conmen ever assembled in British politics.

And even now, it looks like Leave have a good chance at winning!

It's not too early to draw conclusions from that, and here's what it tells us - that you can promise us a lovely roast duck on a silver platter, and then serve us up a donkey-dick on a dishcloth, and fifty percent of us will love you for it.

So, that's who we are.  A huge chunk of the populace are the type of people who joyfully vote to slash their own public services and then blame foreigners because they can't get a doctor's appointment.

But again, this is normal.  Many other countries are exactly the same and have been forever.

And while so many pundits are commanding us all to respect the views of Leave voters, it's worth pointing out here that

Class is a major issue this referendum in the same way that meerkats are a major issue in car insurance

My dad's a mechanic, and he's voting remain.  Mrs R's dad was a miner, and he's probably voting leave.

The campaigns themselves, by contrast, are led a shower of galloping Hooray-fucking-Henries, and their various opinion-creatures are Oxbridge down to their last straw boater.

Treat anyone who tells you that the referendum is about class in the same way that you'd treat an urgent email from Prince Billy Akatakatawengo, who has five million pounds going spare and only needs a handy bank account to keep it in.


Oh my, how surprising! 

But my absolute favourite thing about this referendum has been the sheer number of people who are just staggered, astounded, to discover that e.g. racism is popular with racists, or that politicians are happy to peddle racism for votes.

Seriously, the number of hacks that I've seen asking some variation upon - What is Michael Gove doing, associating himself with racists and cranks, in a bid to gain political power?  It's awesome.

What in the world could a politician be trying to achieve, by sucking up to racists for political benefit?  Truly, it is an enigma wrapped in a mystery and stuffed into a cough-medicine bottle. 

I can summarise this one in an image, from Monday's Times...

Yes, that is that awful Mr Farage, forcing that nice Mr Gove and Mr Johnson to be all racist against their will.

The idea that a fool like Farage could force anything on his Tory chums is hilarious, and it tells us a lot about how far certain people will go to either delude themselves, or just to keep themselves in the good graces of the powerful.

And while this may be funny, it represents a far more serious problem.  The reason why this type of campaign was even possible - the reason why it wasn't fragged into electoral space-dust, the very instant that it started plastering up pictures of refugees - is because the political mainstream isn't just accommodating of open racism.  It's courting it and stoking it, and it's been doing so for a very, very long time.

Ten years ago people laughed at Michael Howard's rubbish election posters, but I notice that they're not laughing now.  Now that our outright xenophobia has reached the point where it can bring the nation to the point of financial calamity, it's not quite as funny as it used to be.

And that's the really important point here.  For a while, overt racism was a characteristic of the political fringe.  And yet here it is, front-and-centre on the nightly news, on the front page of the Metro.  This is the product of years-worth of earnest articles about the Very Real Concerns of voters; of hand-wringing and poll-watching, of politicians and pundits haggling amongst themselves to establish what is the permissable level of prejudice in any particular campaign.

The BNP used to get a million votes in this country, but now that Nigel Farage is a figure of fun and a even a celebrity in his own right, they've all miraculously disappeared.  Where did they go?

The answer - they all went right into the heart of the political mainstream, into the sensible centre of establishment politics from where this referendum sprang in the first place.  The mushy middle of politics, where Times columnists announce that Leave should pal up with the French National Front, because their leader doesn't deny the Holocaust like her dad does.

And the really awful thing here is, we won't admit that this is mostly just old-fashioned racist nationalism, any more than we could admit that the Leave campaign were selling old-fashioned racist nationalism. The Guardian has the balls to call its own readers all manner of fannies, but none of the others will ever tell their customers what they are to their faces.

To be blunt about it - if we can't even admit that we might have a racism problem after a Nazi has gunned down an MP in broad daylight, for no better reason than because we're so very addicted to ticking off a bunch of metropolitan hipsters for snobbery, then we have a long, long way down to fall yet.

And to think, it's only been a year or so since our worst national concern was a crippling fear that that communist firebrand, Ed Miliband, might start handing out free owls.

Compared to Cameron's awesome idea of giving the country a nice, cleansing referendum, it's difficult to imagine what Red Ed could've done that could possibly have been worse - mandatory petrol for toddlers maybe, or the reintroduction of anthrax in the wild.  Thank God we listened to all those sensible centrists.

Ah, 2006 doesn't half seem like the distant past.  Lordi, Zinedine Zidane headbutting Materazzi, carbombs in Baghdad.

It wasn't especially great at the time, but it was surely better than this.

Friday, May 20, 2016

I Hear There's a Lot Of Terrorism

I've been swithering for days over whether to write about this, which is usually a sign that I'm about to annoy somebody or to make a damn fool of myself, or both.  Since I have a few minutes free though...

Anyway, I was thinking this week about my student days.  When I was there in the mid-to-late nineties, the university I went to had the highest proportion of Northern Irish undergraduates on mainland Britain, so pretty much everyone's classes and social circles would feature a relatively large number of people with sharp accents from the various counties, usually mercilessly mocking each other.

Which may seem like an odd point to raise, but I think it might be mildly useful in making sense of the circumstances around the Royall inquiry into anti-semitism at the Labour Club at Oxford, for people who like me who haven't been students for a very long time.  The inquiry has now concluded with a rough verdict of - no institutional racism, but several issues that need to be urgently addressed.

So what are the similarities?  Well, on any given night out, I'd say that there was a reasonable chance that any Northern Irish friend would bump into somebody who would drop something pretty crass or daft or just plain offensive about Northern Ireland into the conversation.  Northern Ireland may now be better known for Game of Thrones and the European Championships, but bombings and shootings were still big news back then, especially after one of our fellow students was killed in the Omagh bombing in 1998.

Mostly, this was of the Oh, you're from Bangor?  I hear there's a lot of terrorism in Northern Ireland variety - basically well-meaning chatter from people who have grown up on BBC News broadcasts and crap Hollywood action movies, and are just saying the first thing that comes into their heads.

Other people probably just had some thoughts on the topic that they wanted to bounce off someone who could tell them how right they were, and I get the impression that some folk found Northern Ireland a bit dangerous and exotic.   I think others maybe just really liked U2 and didn't have a very good grasp of geography.

Most of the Northern Irish folk I knew had a story to tell about the daftest things that people had said to them - my mate Gavin, for example, once had a guy relate a story about how his soldier uncle had nearly been blown up in Belfast by "the UCLA", which is news that would've shocked the administrators at the University of California.  The same guy later backed up and announced that actually, the terrorist organisation in question was "the ULA", i.e. the one that Sean Bean belongs to in the movie Patriot Games.  Either way, quite a surprising amount of Scottish people had friends and relatives who had nearly been blown up, at one time or another.

On the other hand, there were quite a lot of people around with some very daft ideas, and more than a few with some outright unpleasant ones.  This was Scotland after all, and even twenty years ago people were less reticent about unexpectedly raising touchy sectarian issues than they are now.  As you can imagine, there were plenty of zoomers knocking about with extremely wacky ideas about Ireland, Britain and the paramilitaries, and I can remember more than one occasion where some guy from Glasgow or Ayrshire decided that a random Wednesday night out was the perfect time to get into a deep discussion about e.g. who blew up which pub in which county in nineteen-diddly-five.  And this could get quite heated, if the drinks had been flowing, or if some idiot started up with the old traditional tunes.

Most of the people I knew used to basically dick this stuff off as an annoyance by silly folk, employing the level of biting sarcasm that you'd expect.  For the most part, this stuff really was daft and even occasionally aggravating, but perfectly survivable.

Apply this to the kind of issues that Lady Royall is talking about however, and I can see why people would be far less inclined to treat this type of behaviour with equanimity.  There are major differences between the situation I'm talking about, and the one that she investigated, not least

- Most Northern Irish people are distinguishable as Northern Irish because of their accents, whereas most Jewish people aren't.  If I was Jewish and people kept striking up conversations with me about the Palestinians out of the blue, I'd probably start to wonder what people were saying about me when I wasn't around.

- Northern Ireland is a country, whereas Judaism is a religion.  I doubt whether any of the people I knew had any direct experience of terrorism beyond being huckled out of the swimming baths after a phoned-in bomb threat, but they were at least from the same geographical location as the issue being discussed.

If folk regularly showed great enthusiasm for talking to me about the same godawful conflict on the other side of the planet, one that had nothing to do with me...  Well, that's the kind of thing that would get my goat in pretty short order and I doubt I'd be inclined to be polite about it either.  

(Note here: It's certainly true that the current Israeli government is one of the world's most egregious conflators of religion and nationality, but that's no excuse at all for not showing discernment yourself).

- And, annoying as all of these enthusiasts could be to the average Northern Irish student, there was at least a variety of political theorist to speak to.  Whenever some joker opened his cakehole to talk about The Troubles, there was at least a little mystery as to the content of his chat. 

On Israel/Palestine, I imagine that the patter is a bit more predictable.  British universities are full of young, weakly leftish people and demographically speaking, it's likely that any of them who have political views about Israel as a country are going to have quite negative ones*.  Additionally, for all that talk about Northern Ireland may have been hotter and nastier in 1996 than it is now, the average student then probably got their information from the Beeb or the newspaper, rather than from the type of poisonous nonsense that proliferates online these days.

Hell, I'd only been bickering about wars on the internet for a short while before I learned to heave a sigh of exasperation whenever somebody decided to arbitrarily crowbar Hamas or the Israeli Defence Force into a conversation, and that's with "faceless people communicating with strangers using text", rather than face-to-face chats at the Student Union about very touchy political and personal issues. 

Anyway, I could go on.  My point here is that I can see precisely why some Jewish students might find British universities less than congenial places, and I'm talking here about apolitical types who are just trying to get through an average day like the rest of us, rather than people who arrive there with an axe or two to grind, or who find themselves sharpening a couple after a few months.

In the end-up, I'm not at all surprised to find that Lady Royall found issues to be addressed, and I'd be even less surprised if they extend further than the Oxford Labour Club**.  A lot of this is just people being people but I suspect that a lot of it is people being insensitive or unpleasant arseholes, and occasionally a good bit worse.

As for what to do about this, well, I have few ideas about how we go about improving this situation.  The Northern Ireland one kind of sorted itself out after a mere few hundred years of war, recrimination and negotiation, and it certainly doesn't look much like any amount of inquiries are likely to help in the short term.

(Generally speaking, I'd close this type of Oh-Why-Can't-We-All-Get-Along post by recommending greater accuracy and mutual understanding.  Given that I've just wilfully smashed together two wildly different conflicts in entirely different contexts in very different eras however, that's probably a bit of a hypocritical request to be making today).

*I don't think there's much need to get into why this is here, but I'd guess that Dan's view on the matter is closer to reality than most other commentary I've seen has got.

**Although this really has been an odd issue, this Oxford story - one that apparently tells us a great deal about the Labour Party but one that, surprisingly, tells us very little about Oxford itself or the type of person that studies there.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Something Stirring

Right everyone, I need to tell you a bit about And The Land Lay Still, a 2010 novel by James Robertson.  I need to tell you about it because it's one of the best books I've read in years, but also because it's jam-packed full of in-depth political thought, and those politics are absolutely mental from start to finish.

Twenty pages into it, I asked if it was just decades of men complaining in pubs before joining the Yes campaign, and it is.  But it's so much more than that.

It's a state-of-the-nation book, covering over fifty years of life, laughter, sadness, love and loss in Scotland, from the end of the war through the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and onwards.  Theoretically it's about the decline of Scottish industry and the intentional immiseration of entire towns, and its depiction of fictional mining communities in Fife chimes almost exactly with my experience of their real-life equivalents [1].  What it's really about is the rise of Scottish nationalism, told with astounding sweep and grandeur: it's emotional, epic, incredibly ambitious.

If you want a literary analysis of the book, there's plenty of it about.  This is an intentionally political book though, so I'm going to talk about the politics, because they are utterly deranged in the most entertaining way imaginable.

The book is split into sections, each introducing new characters.  Twenty pages after meeting each one, we're given their thoughts on home rule, independence and the SNP.  Whether for or against, each one is full of angst and confusion about the constitution.  Is Scotland a proud nation, they cry endlessly, or merely a diddy backwater?  They doubt, they brood and they question us - what are we doing, where are we going, and what do we want to be - at punishing length.  I've lived here for thirty-eight years and can confirm that this type of thing is very much a minority pursuit, but in And The Land Lay Still, it is everywhere and within everyone.

There are three types of proto-nationalist in the book.  The first is the enthusiast, long since sold on the need for home rule.  These characters are forever feeling something stirring within them as time and events awaken long-repressed desire for independence and a better nation.  When they listen to folk music, they find that the songs were already in their hearts [2]; when they learn Gaelic, they discover that the words had been within them all along, just yearning to be set free.  Patriotic longing is always exploding out of them like a chestburster in the movie Alien, or they have sudden gut-feelings impelling them to urgent action, like a two-flush dump.

One character, a traumatised ex-soldier, is so horrified by our rampant consumerism that he leaves home one day and spends the rest of his life wandering the fields and streams of Scotland, connecting with the land and handing out stones to children.  The tone of these chapters is much like a Kate Bush video, but with Kate mooning and swooning and hurling herself around to Runrig, rather than Wuthering Heights.

The second type is the reluctant holdout, decently but wrongly putting his faith in socialism and solidarity [3].  These men ponder Scotland's plight like the rest but misplace their hopes with Labour blowhards and bickering union bosses, and are worked into the grave for their pains.  Think - like Boxer the horse in Animal Farm but with Thatcherism rather than the glue factory.

These characters are the heart of the book: miners and factory workers.  Deep down they know that the SNP are right about everything, but their traditions and allegiences prevent them from acknowledging it.  Their role is to despair of their heroes, while being gently prodded and ticked off by their friends and family members for not getting with the Nationalist programme.  At one point a Pakistani family move into town and within two pages, the father of the family is gently chiding a shame-faced character for not demanding freedom for Scotland [4].  It is mad as fuck.

The third type of protagonist is where the book really comes alive, though - the villains, a Tory MP, an MI5 spy and other assorted bastard Quislings and apparatchiks of the hated British deep state.  Even these characters spend an eternity bemoaning The Scottish Question, but from the opposite direction, striving to prevent home rule and hating themselves for doing so.

Both the spy and the MP loathe themselves for their anti-Scottish treachery, which is the result of early infection with the virus of Britishness.  The spy is recruited by MI5, an organisation that mainly exists to disdain and despise Scotland and the Scots, and is used to undermine the Nationalist cause by making them look like nutters.  The MP suffers from a crippling hidden shoe-fetish, a perversion that - I kid you not - may or may not be the result of a childhood meeting with Thatcher herself.

And we really need to talk about the English here because, with the exception of one fruity nurse, the English in this book are irredeemably horrible braying bureaucrats, rampaging snobs, treacherous snakes, effete bell-ends and Thatcherite Loadsamoneys.  Their sole activities in life are extorting money out of decent, hardworking people; disrespecting Scotland and thinking up ways to fuck Scotland over.

I'll do a bit of violence to Robertson's dialogue here with an impersonation of his style, for effect:

SIR SIMON TWIDDLINGE-MOUSTACHE, MI5 BOSS:  MacTraitor!  Why are you wasting your time with real, important espionage work?  Don't you know we have to fit up a lot of Scottish Nationalists and convict them of terrorism, in order to discredit their drive for devolution?

BOABY MACTRAITOR, QUISLING BASTARD MI5 AGENT:  Sorry, master.  How may I serve the British establishment's insane hatred of my countrymen?

TWIDDLINGE-MOUSTACHE:  Get on a train to Glasgow.  We need to maybe-murder or maybe-not-murder a Scottish MP, for reasons that are hinted at but are left opaque, because openly stating them would make the author look like a maniac!

MACTRAITOR:  But why should we murder or not murder a Scottish MP, master?

TWIDDLINGE MOUSTACHE:  Because we need to crush Scotland's desire for freedom, so that we can steal all of their oil and spend all of their money on hookers and cocaine, MacTraitor!  And because that's exactly the kind of thing that the corrupt, venal swines of the British state would do!

MACTRAITOR:  (Drinks self to death because of his self-loathing)

And so on.  In a twist, it turns out that the Twiddlinge-Moustache character is Scottish himself, but was raised out in the hinterland of the Empire, which explains why he hates and wishes to destroy his own nation.

Britishness and Englishness in particular in this book infect and undermine Scotland and the Scots - they are insidious, sneaky, all-seeing and all-powerful.  London is a venal, corrupt Babylon filled with cackling capitalists, creeping perverts and the dirty prostitutes who serve them.  This is some crazy shit, right here, and it goes on like this for about a hundred and fifty pages.

I've been reading all this with rising astonishment and really, I couldn't wait to share it with you.  In terms of broadening your understanding of how others think, it's been like Rowdy Roddy Piper putting on the sunglasses in They Live and suddenly seeing all the aliens walking amongst us.  It's a cracking book, but utterly deranged - like if War & Peace had the Rostovs stop every few pages to eulogise the glory and dignity of Protestantism and to denounce the baleful influence of Rome.


[1]  The caveats I'd add here are that in Robertson-land, working class people don't much e.g. vote Tory, buy the Sun or rage against immigration and political correctness, and their communities are mainly welcoming of outsiders and difference.  I grew up in a small ex-mining village and now live with the daughter of five generations of miners, and I can tell you that this doesn't reflect my experience.  It's a small objection, however.

[2]   I felt this way about Enter The Wu Tang, but I doubt that this portends an ingrained affinity for New York.

[3]  And when I say "His", I mean it.  Women are mainly secondary or supporting characters here, offering guidance and support but rarely impelling the action.  Maundering about the fate of the nation is man's work apparently, as they do all the political heavy-lifting.  For a book about a movement filled with strong women, this book is a sausage-fest.

[4]  Because a man who has been forced to flee a country that was bloodily born in partition would definitely be attracted to the idea of his adopted country separating from its cousins, innit.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

There's plenty being said about the verdict in the Hillsborough inquest today but for me, most of the questions about it tend to come back to those cages, to the metal fencing that penned in the Liverpool supporters and fans of other clubs, in those days.

How could a crush at a football game have been so deadly?  Because the people there were jammed into cages to watch their team play, and couldn't escape onto the pitch.

How was it possible for any kind of cover-up to take place, when the whole terrible thing had been captured on film?  Why would the Sun print outrageous slanders against the victims of the disaster?  Why were there so many people willing to believe those lies, and why are there still so many even today?

Because the people who died were the type of people that could be put into cages, without any real or material objections from anyone who could've put a stop to it.

The cages tell us a lot about the regard in which football supporters were held by the people responsible for their construction.  And not only in big flashpoint games or high-risk matches between rivals, but every game, week-in, week-out.  Ordinary men, women and children, the old and the young.  People just like you or me, any one of us who has ever been to a football game.

The truth of Hillsborough, not least the absolute contempt for the public at the highest level of society that led directly to it, has been public knowledge since I was a kid.   So why has it taken twenty seven years for some kind of justice to be done?  Why did the victims' relatives have to fight tooth-and-nail for the result that they got today?

And I'd say, just look at the cages.  That picture paints a thousand words.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Imaginary Bacon Rolls Of Terror

Brendan O'Neill isn't happy with the liberals and multiculturalists this week, or any other week, for that matter.

He's concerned about that Charlie Hebdo think-piece, the one about how the Muslims are oppressing everyone by wandering around wearing headscarves and so on.  Specifically, he's worried that  

"...chilling of discussion around Islam encourages a climate of mutual apprehension and tension in European communities, where non-Muslims are implicitly told to keep their concerns to themselves while Muslims increasingly come to live in a kind of protective bubble of non-criticism or just non-discussion".

And I mean, he has a point here.  It's certainly true that you can attract plenty of hysterical abuse, simply for speaking reasonably on various Islam-themed topics.  I'll add that the same is true of sport journalists who get on the wrong side of football fans; critics who e.g. give superhero movies bad reviews and women who have the temerity to say things while being female.

Still, Brendan's describing an existing phenomenon here*, and the Hebdo case is very unusual in that it's one of very few involving the threat of actual violence, rather than just some twatty comments on social media.

It's worth noting though that the Hebdo piece didn't piss people off because it was telling us uncomfortable truths.  It mainly annoyed people because it's yet another example of folk intentionally acting like stroppy, belligerent dicks, while theatrically complaining about how they're not allowed to act like stroppy, belligerent dicks.  Basically much like The Spectator, but French.

And of course, folk have every right to act like stroppy, belligerent dicks if they so please, much as other people have every right to respond by calling them racists, or whatever.

Is it racist, to kick off on a mad ramble about how pissed off you are that the Muslims won't even let you buy a bacon roll in an imaginary bakery?  Is it bigoted, to make illogical claims conflating headscarves and nailbombs?

Well maybe it is and maybe it isn't, and the distinction doesn't really matter much to me.  The iron rule remains the same either way - you don't have to be racist to be an arsehole.

That being the case, the Hebdo piece looks to me like that very modern form of opinion journalism - the deliberately antagonising cry-wank.

All I did was deliberately go out of my way to annoy people, and now they're all annoyed because they are so very thin-skinned and unreasonable.  Oh, woe!

And none of this is happening in a vaccuum.  The French generally are a bit more... robust than we are, on such issues.  Their public figures certainly aren't afraid to say precisely what they think.  French intellectuals routinely announce that Everything Is Fucked because white people are too nice to the ethnics, and it's always seemed to me that there's a strong undercurrent in French thought that foreigners can never be French, mostly because of their wacky religious beliefs.

And let's remember that there is currently a cultural and political movement that is rocking like a hurricane in France, and that it isn't self-censorship or bashfulness in the face of fruity foreign fatwas.  It's the fucking National Front.

While the hacks wail in terror about snotty Tweets, the actual real far-right is booming.  Let's not insult Brendan, or any of the other howlers and chucklers, by assuming that they aren't aware of precisely the type of politics that is driving headscarf bans or pork-only school lunches.

I think that ultimately, what we're looking at here is deep confusion** about the difference between

- Secularism
- Intentionally being as dickish as possible, and
- Media types going out of their way to annoy people and then complaining about tyranny when people get annoyed.

Secularism itself involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

I'll leave it up to you to decide whether e.g. boiling with resentment about the unavailability of imaginary ham sandwiches is an example of secularism, or just of people being as dickish as possible.  

What I will say is that this confusion isn't at all cost-free.  It's precisely this kind of nonsense that's brought us such unedifying occurrences as:

British soldiers kicking down doors in Helmand in order to liberate Afghan women from their husbands, fathers and brothers; 

The French government freeing women from oppression by threatening them with arrest if they wear the wrong outfits, and French authorities giving schoolkids the choice between eating pork or fucking off, and

The British government trying to help oppressed Muslim women by deporting the ones that don't speak English.

If there's some kind of intellectual battle going on here, I suspect that it's between people who are trying not to be dicks about everything, and people who are determined to be as dickish as possible, all the time.

It's not always easy to tell which is which, because there's a hell of a lot of overlap between the two sides and because both deploy similar levels of apocalyptic boo-hoo, but it can be done.


*As it happens, I often agree with Brendan on most free speech issues.  I think it is problematic that many political and media types are afraid to speak their minds openly because they think they'll be branded racists.  As I've argued in the past of characters including Nick Griffin, Nigel Farage and David Starkey, the best thing for everyone is to encourage cranks to be as frank as possible, and to let the public decide whether they're arseholes or not.  I'm very confident about the public's judgement on that, at least. 

**A deep confusion that is being intentionally sown by hacks including Brendan O'Neill, by the way.

An Evil Genius

Let's say that you were an evil genius along the lines of The Joker in The Dark Knight*, bent upon creating the most chaotic, hostile world imaginable, as quickly as possible.

How would you go about engendering the maximum amount of mutual distrust, discord and suspicion amongst your fellow human beings?  Would you e.g. hijack boats full of citizens and prisoners, and force them to choose which of them would be destroyed with high explosives?

Probably not.  A better way would be to maximise everybody's exposure to the sections of society that most hate and fear them, people whom they would never usually encounter.

To do that, you'd need a mechanism that exacerbates existing faults in society - a way of pitting people against their immediate religious, political or cultural foes.  Ideally, you'd want to ensure that this occurs in an intimate and familiar setting where people feel most safe.  Somewhere like, maybe, their own homes, just to really make them feel threatened and uncomfortable.

What you'd want, would be to bring vulnerable or just mildly thin-skinned people into contact with all manner of highly aggressive idiots.  You'd want earnest feminists arguing with the most bitter misogynists; ardent secularists being brought into the orbit of religious zealots; devout Muslims discovering that there are legions of people who utterly despise them and their religion; to find ways of bringing even the most atheistic of Jews into the immediate proximity of rabid Holocaust-deniers.

What you'd want really, is just a way of making sure that insecure and irritable people - by which I mean, normal, everyday people - are roundly and thoroughly abused by others who deliberately seek them out to offend and upset them.

And, most important of all, this has to happen in an environment where nothing, nothing at all, could ever possibly be resolved, and where the arguments can only ever get angrier, nastier and more fraught with bitterness and mutual recrimination, rather than less. 

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Twitter.  If you want to bring the haters together with the hated, accept no substitutes.

Some academic should run an experiment on the prevalence of social media and perceptions of personal and communal persecution, before and after.  I think the results would be stark.  Truly, it is one of the few venues I can think of where the prey willingly and enthusiastically line up to be introduced to the predators.

Whatever your opinions are, on any damn issue, Twitter in particular has some idiot somewhere on Earth, just desperate to call you a Commie or a nigger or a faggot, or whatever derogatory racial/religious/political/sexual etc. slur it is that you'll find most offensive, just for conveying them.  Simply log in, express yourself, and there's a good chance that they'll turn up eventually.

Now, I recognise that most people who use social media don't have to deal with this type of this stuff, most of the time.  I'm guessing that my brother's Twitter account, for instance, is mostly comprised of footballers and comedians, and that he doesn't get much abuse for posting the occasional photo of his dinner or an opinion on a film.

Nonetheless, for lots of people like me - mainly, mouthy twats who want an audience to sound off at about their super-controversial views on lots of micro-political issues of minority interest - it's a much more hostile environment**. 

And yet, still.  You can't open a paper without finding out all about the sudden upsurge of bigotry against... well, whoever anyone hates, anywhere, as evidenced by some sad berks with Twitter accounts.  Of which there are millions of examples worldwide. 

For the most part, this signifies nothing, beyond the fact that vindictive people all over the planet who would otherwise have had to have satisfied themselves with merely being horrible to their neighbours, now have a swish application that allows them to be vindictive to strangers on the other side of the planet.  And it's sure not restricted to Twitter.

But let's remember - the biggest internet squabble of the last few years wasn't about, oh, the rise of ISIS or the genocide of the Armenians.  It was about video game reviews written by girls, and it got really, really nasty.  Nowadays, people get death-threats for saying that they don't like superhero films or particular computer games.

I think people mistake all of this emboldened cuntishness, where what was once unspeakable is now said openly, for an upsurge in prejudice.  It probably isn't - it is, after all, only twenty years since a good chunk of the Scottish populace went bug-fuck mental at the idea that a teacher could tell a pupil that it is, theoretically, okay to be gay.

The major difference is that every dipshit, almost everywhere in the world, can now speak where they can be heard.  It'd probably be a good idea for us to work out how to deal with that, sooner rather than later.


 *But less shit than The Dark Knight.

**I'm fine with this myself - I am, by and large, as much of a complete dick on social media as I am in real life, and so I expect to get a certain amount of dickishness in return.  I appreciate however that others aren't trying to be dicks like I am, and try to moderate my behaviour.  Occasionally, at least.

I'm also not letting Facebook off the hook here.  I've seen shit on there that would turn your hair white, and from family members rather than acquaintances.  Twitter just gets more scrutiny, because there are more politicians, celebrities and journalists who use that platform regularly.