Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Great Orange Pastiche, Donnish Spats, Interspecies Descent, Terror Law and Asset-Stripped Justice

Saturday morning with a new edition of the LRB, a pot of coffee and no dog-walking duties: pure comfort.

My work for the week is complete, my folders organised for a couple of hours’ work on Monday, so that I am ready for teaching on Tuesday. I can forget work for two days. Amanda is meeting a friend to walk Tia, so I have settled in my office chair, logged in to the Naxos muxic library with my Isle of Wight Library card, and have enjoyed an hour and a half of reading.

Click the cover to go to the edition”s web page

As often happens, although nothing leapt out at me from the cover of the current edition of the review, every article I’ve read so far has been engaging. The opener is a review of Bob Woodward’s recent book on the chaos of Trump’s presidency, Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse. It is difficult to know what there is to be said about Trump’s reign of confusion and hatred that has not already become cliché. Even Woodward’s book has been so widely reviewed, trumpeted and quoted in the month since its publication that I feel I have already read it. David Runciman, in reviewing it, picks on the idea of office politics; the bickering of the mundanely selfish, and observes the extent to which the current American administration has demeaned the role of government in the United States.

Sure…all workplaces contain their share of plots and vendettas, backstabbers and arse-lickers, people on the way up and all the ones they’ve trampled on to get there. But actual politics is about more than that: the power it brings extends well beyond the immediate working environment…

Except, he concludes, in the reign of the great orange pastiche, it doesn’t. Trump does not understand the forces he is supposed to participate in and does not care. His only tools of government are extemporised pronouncement, self-acclamation and hiring-and-firing. He has reduced government to something less, but we are all, Runciman included, struggling to find the correct image to explain the mess.

I had a strong sense that Trump reminded me of someone I had seen regularly on TV, but it wasn’t TV’s Donald Trump. Then I got it. The working environment this White House brings to mind is a reality show that displays a deeper level of truth by being entirely unreal. Woodward’s book reads more than anything like a mockumentary, and the person Trump most resembles is David Brent from The Office. He has the grating inadequacy, the knee-jerk nastiness, the comical self-delusion. But he also has something of the pathos.


The letters pages of the LRB are a slow-burn enthusiasm. I used to skip them, feeling that any pleasure they offered was of the voyeuristic, petty sort experienced by venturing below the line on online news websites. However, they are curated by the editors and are, as a result, always relevant to a regular reader of the publication.

That is not to say that a taste for pettiness goes long unrewarded. This issue, there is a further development –  a reply to a reply – in the delightful feud between Rhodri Lewis, author of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, and Michael Dobson, who wrote an eviscerating review of that book in the LRB of September 13th. The editors of the paper are wise; they let these academic spats blossom for just long enough for both sides to get a few digs in and then draw a veil over them, so I suspect Dobson’s current letter will be the final say. He has used it well. Taste the vinegar:

Lewis closes by observing that ‘on two or perhaps three occasions I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre,’ and he is generous enough to speculate that my apparent obliviousness of his presence may have been feigned out of politeness. I am sorry to have to report that my obliviousness was merely genuine. However, now that I have read Lewis’s letter and his book and seen his image on a dust jacket, it will be possible for me to ignore him in future every bit as politely as he could wish.

Or, to put it another way: “That’s you, that is.”

Pleasurable as this is, there are several serious letters in this issue that extend the topics of recent articles without descending into vitriol, erudite as that vitriol is. In particular, I was interested in the letter from Steve Balogh about the article Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans, by Steven Mithen from 13th September, which reviewed Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past, by David Reich. The original review had made an impact on me because of the force with which it made the case that racial distinctions between humans are scientifically meaningless, and the stress that modern genetic researchers are laying on this argument. Biology has a dark history of -sometimes deliberate; sometimes incidental- racist interpretation. Now, even well-intentioned work such as Reich’s is laid open to examination in moral and social, as well as scientific lights:

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed published an open letter signed by 67 scientists and scholars in the social sciences, law and humanities about Reich’s treatment of race…The signatories recognise ‘the existence of geographically based genetic variations in our species’, but argue that ‘such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race.’ Their position is not that human populations ‘have no biological attributes in common’, but that ‘the meaning and significance of the groups is produced through social interventions.’

The article left me with a view of a much more varied and sunny history of human and proto-human interraction, in which the boundaries of species definition are less sharp than we might imagine: an analogue to the answers we all wish racial absolutists would learn about racial definitions. However, this, according to Balogh, might be a misinterpretation. I quote his letter in full:

Steven Mithen steps carefully around the issue of the fecundity of the offspring produced by couplings between ancestral hominin species (LRB, 13 September). The initial sequencing of Neanderthal DNA was of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed only from mother to daughter. It proved to be entirely distinct from that of Homo sapiens: there is today no one on earth whose mitochondria comes from a female Neanderthal ancestor. This means that interbreeding produced fertile offspring only through mating between Neanderthal males and Sapiens females. Subsequent analysis of autosomal DNA showed that the Neanderthal Y chromosome went extinct as well. This means that of the hybrids, only the females were fertile.

The implications are clear: relations between the two populations must have been difficult.

Nevertheless, the developments in DNA archeology are rapid and fascinating. It is an area of study with which I want to keep up. We are a long way from truly understanding what it is to be human, and this new technology has a lot to teach us and a potential for misuse of which we need to beware.


It’s all about race, and its underlying impulse, hierarchicalism. All the mess of Trump’s misrule, and the broader darkness of capitalist inequality, come back to the separation of humanity into groups enjoying legitimacy and dominance and others excluded from that illusory social fortress. Two very different articles highlight this. The first is an account by Thomas Laqueur of a tour of Montgomery, Alabama, focussed upon the new Legacy Museum, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative. The second is a short, coldly angry article by Francis FitzGibbon about the destructive effect of austerity-led misrule over the U.K. justice system, of which, more later.

The Legacy Museum catalogues the scale of the horror of slavery, both when it was the basis of the U.S. economy in a legal framework, and in its reinvention as an extralegal economic structure, skirting the boundaries of slavery’s abolition. I recommend clicking on the link in the previous paragraph. On its home page, there is this:

The Story: Slavery Evolved.  To justify the brutal, dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, its advocates created a myth of racial difference. Stereotypes and false characterizations of black people were created to defend their permanent enslavement as “most necessary to the well-being of the negro” – an act of kindness that reinforced white supremacy. The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it, and so slavery did not end: it evolved.

Lynchings served as the enforcement arm of a parallel state in the U.S., and, in a way, they still do, although that parallel state now has one of its most enthusiastic denizens in charge of the greater nation. The sheer scale of the terror is dizzying: 150 deaths in a particular incident (more people than died on Kristellnacht), three a week through the 1890s and one a week or more for decade after decade, and well into the civil rights era. But it is the deliberateness of this sustained failure to concede the wrongness of one racial identity’s power over another that repeatedly shocked me throughout Laqeur’s article:

Lynching – charivari at its most violent, a murderous popular enforcement of majority community values – has nowhere else in the world been employed for as long or as often as in the United States. There are incidences of it in some Central American countries with weak governments; it is now on the rise in India. But it is indigenous here. Before the Civil War whites were the primary victims, especially but not exclusively in the relatively lawless west. After it, close to 75 per cent of lynchings were in the deep South; more than 90 per cent of the victims were black…But the story of African Americans constitutes a special case. No other post-slave society turned to terror lynching to maintain white racial dominance.

And they were horrible murders, as well: the atavistic desire to make the outsider suffer and to revel in his, or her, suffering.

In a 1909 article called ‘Lynching, Our National Crime’, Ida B. Wells identified another, unassimilable strangeness: ‘No other nation, civilised or savage, burns its criminals,’ she writes. ‘Only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible.’ Europe had not seen public burnings since the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of heretics after the Reformation. Racial terror was more than instrumental: the hundreds of carnivalesque burnings and hangings were ritually constitutive of the white South, a holocaust in its Old Testament sense. Lynchings were sometimes responses to primitive fears of the sort we usually connect to the early modern European witchcraft trials and medieval pogroms: Charlotte Harris was lynched in Rockingham County, Virginia ‘after a white man’s barn burned down’; three people were lynched because the white family for whom they were working claimed to have been poisoned; seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama for drinking from a white person’s well.

There was always a pretext for the random murder of black people, then as now; often spurious sexual accusations, but, among the many other lies, rejection of a business offer or trying to vote seem to pierce the crazed patina of pseudo-moral outrage of the murderers, just as traffic stops by modern, poorly-trained and heavily armed police forces make us see through the lying generalisations about black American criminality. We should not believe, however, that these pretences were (or are) anything other than rationales for power, because the murderers didn’t (and don’t). They knew (and know) what they were (and are) doing.

The so-called Wilmington Insurrection was, in fact, a coup; whites, furious at the victory of a mixed-race coalition in a local election, started a rampage. At least thirty blacks – the EJI puts the number at sixty – were murdered. ‘North Carolina is a white man’s state and white men will rule it,’ the local paper announced. ‘No other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.’

The rape pretext, like all the others, can be linked to slavery: a metonym for the white fear of blacks in revolt. In her 1911 memoirs, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a leading Southern advocate of women’s rights but an inveterate racist, made the link blindingly obvious: ‘Southern fathers and husbands’, she wrote, remembered the fear of slave insurrections during the Civil War, and were ‘desperate as to remedies’. ‘It is the secret of lynching instead of a legal remedy. It was “born in the blood and bred in the bone”, and a resultant of domestic slavery in the Southern states.’

The other aspect of this terror-dominance is the misuse of formal legal structures to embed inequality. While the U.S. has seen a steady decline in overall crime over several generations, the imprisonment of black men has become its own holocaust. Neither is this a new phenomenon.

The museum shows how the Black Codes passed by Southern states after the end of the Civil War to restrict the occupations, movements and wages of former slaves led to the rise of incarceration of blacks for petty crimes, partly as a result of their inability to pay fines for small infractions. It also documents the advent of black convict leasing, when prisoners were hired out to provide labour to private companies. It is not hard to see the present in that past, and some of the continuities are almost parodic. The notorious 19th-century Louisiana State Penitentiary is known as Angola after the sugar plantation on the same site which was worked by slaves before the Civil War; after the war it remained a sugar plantation but was worked instead by black convict labour. Those not needed on the plantation were hired out elsewhere. But unlike expensive privately owned slaves whose lives mattered, leased convicts were disposable. In bad years the death rate among leased prisoners was roughly equivalent to that in the labour camp part of Auschwitz.


The final article I read this morning, and the one that made me put down the LRB and decide to spend another morning blogging, was a Short Cuts piece by Francis FitzGibbon on the deliberate, catastrophic dismantling of public justice funding in the U.K. When I stopped working (as a teacher) in the criminal justice system, in 2013, the prison system was at something of a high point. Much was wrong with it still, of course, and the creeping privatisation bode ill for the future. However, the generation of prison officers whose attitudes had been formed in the anarchy and violence of the 1980s (known within the service as ‘the dinosaurs’) had, by and large, been removed, or been sidelined, to be replaced by educated, professionalised officers of commitment and understanding. Suicide, self-harm, violence towards officers and other prisoners, and even reoffending across all types of crime were as low as they had ever been. While Disney had made an expression of interest in the next round of privatisations, and G4s and Serco were defying their incompetence to hoover up more and more of the funds available to prisons, the New Labour government, for all its varied and manifest failings, had managed to keep a lid on the U.S. style marketisation of prisons in this country, albeit a shaky one.

Today, five years later, we are in a state that is probably as bad as the worst period of the eighties, although, with the collapse of principled journalism, you would hardly know it. Prison unrest and assaults against staff; suicide rates that indicate it is becoming a tolerated norm for prisons to suffer regular self-slayings; staffing levels that make the delivery of even basic safety, let alone meaningful activity serving towards rehabilitation a wistful memory: the horror mounts up, virtually ignored by society at large.

Unusually, though, in this political and social disaster, there is a clear culprit. I have been amazed by the continuing power of a particular Tory Minister: Chris Grayling. He is a base, incompetent ideologue, with his eyes firmly set upon the dismantlement of a working U.K. FitzGibbon, focussing upon the effects his criminal uselessness have had upon the courts system, more than on prisons, has this to say about his tenure as ‘Justice Minister’.

Criminal justice has long been a sandpit for policy-makers, with the political imperative being always to appear ‘tough on crime’. It would be unfair to blame one man for the present state of affairs, but for casual ineptitude no cabinet minister comes close to Chris Grayling, lord chancellor and justice secretary between 2012 and 2015…Prison budgets have been cut by about 30 per cent. Grayling stopped prisoners receiving books. He cut the numbers of prison officers. He hived a large part of the probation service off to private companies, several of which have performed poorly and have had to be saved from going bust by the taxpayer. His legacy is the violence and anarchy that reigns in many prisons today.

I have long loathed Grayling. I find it hard to believe that he was not taking bribes or, at least, working in partnership with organisations in whose interests it is to asset-strip the justice system, on the promise of later favours. Otherwise, why, for fuck’s sake? Why?


Trump, interspecies rape amongst early proto-humans, lynchings, political corruption: all these horrors make it sound as though I have had an uncomfortable and angry morning. Nothing could be further from the truth. In a time when the BBC bases most of its news on the press releases of American corporate lobbying companies and The Guardian is lost in a trap of protecting its writers’ London property interests against all political good sense, reading the London Review of Books gives me a slight reassurance that, on many issues, I am on track, at least in general terms. I am outside the LRB’s social and economic class: the subscription is barely within my means now that my hours at work have been cut, but the recognition that I am not alone in my preoccupations is an important pleasure for me.

 

 

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

A Polemic About Social Media And Political Campaigning

Preamble

A month or so back, a friend of mine who suffers from long-term, severe mental illness was attacked by a group of boys on her estate. They took photographs of that attack and posted them on social media.

They are pretty much immune from prosecution, thanks to the ‘viral’ response to their post. Granted, they are now pariahs in their close-knit community, and their ugly, stupid act will follow them into their adulthood, cropping up whenever they attempt to make any public progress in their lives. If you believe in mob-justice, then justice might be said to have been done. The state, however, because of the illegal publication of their identities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is powerless to take action against them. It can only attempt to protect them from the self-aggrandizing vigilantiism to which they have opened themselves by their use of social media and their grotesque immaturity. The legitimate, accountable, democratically-authorised legal system has been short-circuited by a foreign-owned capitalist monopoly that uses the everyday indignities of humanity as grist to its algorithms and regards legal and democratic structures as barriers to wealth creation and the self-actualisation of the cleverest, luckiest and most ammoral elite in history.

I saw my friend last weekend. She is terrified. She is not engaging with the community which piously leapt to her defense after years of treating her as a local embarrassment, and she thinks the police are trying to victimise her: their inability to give her a clear course of legal remedy for her ordeal has confused the issue beyond her ability to engage with it. She is also mesmerised by her Facebook feed, which seems to be confirming her long-standing belief that the world is purposed towards her destruction. Horribly, I think that her fear that the hatred towards the boys will swing back to her may be justified. That is the nature of restless, self-righteous, technologically-enabled groupthink.

The rule of law is a mainstay of democracy. Facebook undermines that rule. It is inherently anti-democratic.

A Short History of Social Media and Political Campaigning

The 2015 Labour Leadership Poll was a triumph for people who sought to manipulate social media in the service of meaningful political change: what Jeremy Corbyn called, “…a thirst for something more communal, more participative.”[1]

By the 2017 general election, however, the political promise of the medium had begun to be diminished by forces other than the well-directed groundswell of public feeling that had empowered the Elect Corbyn for Leader movement. I am not an unquestioning fan of Momentum, but I think that the campaign to elect Corbyn as leader was a model of how to use social media to a positive purpose. What they achieved in ‘15 was to break the ‘echo chamber’ or bubbling effect of Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms, by pulling in unsympathetic friends of sympathisers, and engaging them in debate and exposing them to sincere voices of political hope.[2] By the time of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and by 2017, the social media companies had realised that this was a loophole in their control of users’ media consumption and had adjusted.

Before Facebook became a publicly quoted company, focussed on advertising spend, it had been chasing engagement over content control, powering for growth, and there was a certain freedom of expression allowed to its users. By 2016, it was chasing the control of what its users were seeing to a far greater extent, refining their offering to advertisers and data-purchasers and trying to present a soothing, ‘mimetic’ (ie, reflective, flattering) experience to users which would make viewing Facebook a comfortable and reinforcing experience to which people would return without worry.[3] That is why they bubble you. It’s not a service. It’s a mechanism of control.

Furthermore, the sophistication of the JeremyForLeader campaign, alongside the Occupy movment and the lessons learned from The Arab Spring movements, had caught the attention of other forces, both within the U.K. and outside it. Academic studies translated to media management policies[4] which were adopted by right-wing forces[5] and foreign intelligence services[6] to undermine the impact of organised popular campaigns. Populism swings in many directions.

In short, the glory days are over for democrats who use social media. An open technology -the internet- that was designed to release knowledge, communication and democratic access from the establishment gatekeepers who had directed public debate since at least the 1850s[7], has been co-opted by a new capitalist, plutocratic, neo-liberal elite, to bind its customers into a tower of Babel, in which coherent exchange of ideas is anathema, labelled as TL:DNR.

The Limits of ‘Privacy’ Settings

Know this: a private Facebook group is not private. It is exclusive, in that the labour put into it is restricted to those who choose to sign up to it. This means that it serves as a mechanism of exclusion of those people who, for whatever reason, choose to not participate in social media. However, that ad hominen rant against a comrade to which you succumbed during the Owen Smith leadership challenge is available to the right level of advertiser, if they’re searching for dirt on the Labour Party during an election campaign.

And that situation assumes that you’re wise enough to restrict your rants to a ‘private’ group, and to not share your breathless prose in a moment of vainglory to your main feed. Or that all the members of the group have the best wishes of the party at heart. Or that the administrators have kept up with the constant changes to Facebooks privacy rules, and that the group is still actually set to ‘private’, rather than just ‘closed’. Or that no one is taking screenshots for malicious purposes.

But you know that, really. How else do the rumours of ‘green infiltrators’ get started?

Unless you delete your account -not just a single comment, but your whole account- and forego logging back into it for two weeks after you have deleted it, everything you have ever uploaded, written, sniped or ‘shared’, is sitting in a folder on Facebook’s servers, available to the highest bidder, and linked to you. Have you ever enjoyed watching someone try to backtrack on an opinion they expressed five years ago in a drunken moment? It could be you. Only the safety of the crowd protects you.

The Great Con

There is a rather mischievous argument doing the rounds in internet freedom circles that claims China actually has more politically effective internet access than the free West. I consider that nonsense: Chinese citizens have definitely scored real successes in changing government policy through internet activism, but they’ve been pretty well educated in staying away from economic, central government and foreign affairs topics. However, the state is not the only enemy of freedom, and in the West, it is not even the most powerful.

As John Lanchester puts it:

Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens…Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.[8]

The sight of large chunks of a socialist party beavering away, providing free labour to create content for a few American monopolist corporations fills me with despair. It is as if the Chartists had had their discussions about citizens’ rights in the tearoom of the House of Lords. In the light of what we know about how Facebook played (or, as they claim, were played, during) the last American presidential election, we should understand that they have worked out how to neutralise justice movements’ energy and commitment. They want to keep you happy, yes; that is why there are cat videos, but angry people click as well, and division is incredibly easy to sow, if you know where to lay the seeds, and you own the field.

Know this also: social media, particularly Facebook, is as much a product of manipulative psychological theory as it is a product of technology. Zuckerberg actually pursued a dual degree at Harvard: Computing and Psychology. The mechanisms written into Facebook behavioural algorithms are rooted in the theories of conditioned response which underpin the most nakedly dishonest branches of marketing, propoganda and behavioural control. The desire for a ‘like’ or a notification of any kind on a social media app or browser window, is the same conditioned twitch seeking content-free reward as is used by the designers of gambling machines. It is the behaviour of the rat that has been trained to associate a button with pleasure and will starve to death seeking the signifier of that pleasure, even when the actual reward has been removed from the process.

Von Clausewitz said that armies lose when they try to re-fight the last war. The limited, almost-victory of the 2017 election was successful, as far as it went, not because of social media, but because Labour concentrated on what mattered: having control of its content and being clear about what it stood for. The brief flowering of commercial social media as a medium of democratic liberation is over. We need to create our own fields.

We need a CLP Facebook feed, but it should be treated as a shop window, only being populated with content approved by the CLP, in a professional manner: another method among many to spread our Labour ideals to the public. It should be curated, nurtured and controlled.

We do not need a public kvetching arena, which is what our ‘private’ Facebook group is.

Get off Facebook. Start creating our own discussion groups on secure media that we own: Diaspora is a good first step, but a Rocket chat server would be more instinctive for most users and would be easy to set up, and cheap to run, and we would own it in a way we would not own a Facebook page. It would also be free of the pressure to keep up, to keep chasing the approval of an algorithm. It would remove the competitive fury inherent in social media slavery, and it would allow us to discuss again, instead of constantly arguing.

Bibliography

Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power (1st ed), OR Books, New York & London, 2016,

Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017.  https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-product

Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839.

Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6

Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006

 

Endnotes

  1. Cited in Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, (1st ed) OR Books, New York & London, 2016, p143
  2. Nunns, p251
  3. Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017.
  4. Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839.
  5. Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6
  6. Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006.
  7. Alcott & Geentzkow
  8. Lanchester,

 

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Rule By Thieves

I’ve subscribed to The Washington Post for the last couple of months and, on the day of Paul Manafort’s conviction and Michael Cohen’s confessions, it has paid off. Do not believe that Trump is unassailable: his poll numbers are at least 10 points below what a president with current employment figures and a bull market should expect.

Previous presidents who were in office during times of robust economic expansion, with low unemployment and a roaring bull market, generally had average approval ratings well over 50 percent. Trump’s egregious misbehavior consistently costs him at least 10 points in the polls.

Trump’s economic policies are, almost inevitably, going to lead to another huge economic crash, probably in the next twelve months. At that point, he is finished, apart from the prospect of a drawn-out, agonising criminal trial. While his incomprehensible moment of political power will, hopefully, lead ultimately to a redrawing of the structures of economic and political injustice in the U.S., I shudder to think what the immediate consequences of another 2008 will be for ordinary Americans, and, worse, poor people around the world.

Sickening and frightening as the apparent collapse of democracy and the rule of law in the United States is, the miasma of chaos that the ultra-rich have spun around politics is a global disease. In the video above, Christian Caryl, the democracy editor of The Post, gives a nice overview of the essence of inequality in politics: corruption.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Another discussion worth saving

Ash Sarkar’s description of communism has got me searching for information on Frantz Fanon and making me feel like a woolly liberal.
I have a feeling my political thought might be developing in the next few months.
This discussion is the polar opposite of the Good Morning Britain view of ‘debate’.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Darkenings

I’m working tonight, and couldn’t decide on what music to have on as I did my marking. After half an hour of listening to France Musique, I took a break and hit on going to Bandcamp, which I haven’t browsed for some time, and I found this.

It’s a contemporary piece, but it feels very mid-twentieth century to me, like the music we used to sing in the communion service when I was a choirboy: John Rutter-ish. It’s worth a hearing, I think, and, as it’s available as a ‘name your price’ purchase, it seems only fair to paypal the composer $10 and download it. I’ll update this with a proper review when I’ve listened to it a few more times. At the moment, I’m left with an impression of darkness, which goes with the title, I suppose. Tonally, it fits what I’m reading at the moment: Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky Brothers. I didn’t want to like it, but the book has got under my skin. Again, a review will follow, if I find the time.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Desperate Tories Have Sunk To A New Low

For about a week now, the Tories have been trying to smear Jeremy Corbyn, not with some sort of misjudgment from his past, but with an absolute lie. Their sponsors in the right-wing press made up a story saying that he had been a communist spy, based on the fact that someone he had once met had included him on a list of people he claimed, falsely, to have recruited as spies.

There is absolutely no truth to this, and every informed source has stated so, including the foremost specialist in the Czech Security Service archives.

Nevertheless, the Tories are not going to let it go. They are stuck in the belief that if they can spread doubts and repeat a lie often enough, there are enough idiots who will believe it.

The Tory vice-chair, a loud-mouthed braggart with the sneer of a street racist, has had to pay legal costs and a “substantial” sum to charity after repeating the lie on his Twitter feed. Still the Tory scum are pushing the lie. [1 WARNING! Links to The Sun] [2 WARNING! Links to The Telegraph]

However, it is heartening to see that the British press is not without honourable representatives. I have had harsh thoughts about Andrew Neil in the past. There is little doubt that he is no friend of the Labour Party, but he has shown his journalistic credentials on this issue and gained my respect. Watch with pleasure as a snide Tory creep is skewered by Neil, as the journalist insists upon the truth over grotesque falsehood.

As ever, Jeremy Corbyn has responded to a ridiculous situation with calm, dignity and a rigid adherence to fact and good judgement. Murdoch and Rothermere fear rational, fact-based government in this country: they’ve had their own way for decades and they want to keep us desperate, divided and panic-stricken, chasing our tails over their lies. Corbyn threatens that.

For a broad discussion of the issue of political smears by tax-exile billionaires, the following embed, from the James O’Brien LBC radio show, is worth a listen.

 

 

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Happy New Year

It’s the last day of the year and, though I am not a great maker of resolutions, I thought I’d post this helpful programme for anyone who has been considering giving up animal-based foods for the New Year.

This will be our third year without cow pus in our diets and I have no desire to go back. As this film shows, it is an easy enough lifestyle to adopt. My number one tip: don’t be fooled into buying lots of expensive ‘alternatives’. We use supermarket own brand soya milk for our tea and, occasionally, I treat us to a carton of cashew milk for a luxury weekend. The soya milk costs around 80p a litre. Most of the big name stuff is at least £1.10.

Actually, this year I do have a couple of resolutions. Firstly, I plan to start attending church regularly. I went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and felt at home, as if I had reached back to something that is a natural part of me. I believe in the teachings of Jesus and I believe in the value of ritual, but that has always warred with my lack of willingness to make commitments. It’s time to start living the belief in a more active way.

Secondly, I’m having a dry January. I’ve drunk a lot over the past month and it is time to give my liver a rest. I will post about that at a later date. I  think a reflection on my relationship with alcohol might do me some good, but I’ll leave it to a separate post.

We’ll be with friends this evening, although we won’t stay too late, as we have a couple of pyromaniacal neighbours who never miss an opportunity to let off fireworks, so we’ll need to be back to comfort the pets through that torture. I doubt I’ll have time to post tonight, though, so, for now, I wish you a very happy new year.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

At Last, Jedi

Spoilers, spoilers everywhere. I am assuming you’ve seen it and am writing this as a discussion, rather than a recommendation (although I do recommend it, highly).

Even though I love Star Wars (even the crap ones), I left it until yesterday, a good couple of weeks after the film’s release, to see The Last Jedi. Blame J J Abrams, not because of The Force Awakens, which I loved, but for Blade Runner 2049, which cost £25 for two tickets and was a real disappointment. Cineworld, the multi-screen chain cinema on the Island, is the standard modern McCinema, and I have had enough of it, not simply because they charge insane prices, but because the experience of watching films there is not always good: when we saw The Force Awakens, within a week of its release, we were shuffled into a secondary ‘screen’ which was barely larger than some people’s home televisions. Worse, the sound overwhelmed the system within the room, which had at least one blown speaker that hissed throughout. They also keep the interior lights on far too brightly throughout the films: a real annoyance.

However, in Ryde, there is an old cinema and bingo hall, The Commodore, which has struggled bravely on, showing films a few weeks after their release, keeping the old, seventies-era carpets dry with buckets to cope with the leaky roof, and charging under a fiver for a newish release, except on Wednesdays, when you can see any film on show for £2.00. It is staffed by people who seem to care about what they are doing and it has the air of a business that knows it relies upon its customers: there is a plaintive but endearing notice requesting that you do not bring in your own snacks, as they need the revenue to support the ticket price. Our friends, Iain, Jo and Frank, live in Ryde now, and we went to see Paddington 2 last month with them. The screen was large, the sound very good and the film enjoyable.

Had The Last Jedi been a dud, I would not have felt too aggrieved. £4.00 each, plus about £5 for a cup of lemonade for me and a cup of pick ‘n mix sweets for Amanda seems a reasonable price to pay, even if the seats are, at best, hard work (if you choose poorly, you may get one that has collapsed through overuse and suffer horribly, as one gentleman along from us did).

However, it was not a dud. In fact, I think it’s better than The Force Awakens and was as satisfying, and as thought provoking, as Rogue One. I could have done without quite so much of the Luke Skywalker story. Beautiful as the Island temple is, it is not Dagobah, and Yoda’s appearance came too late to stop me getting fed up with that strand, despite the comforting pleasure of watching Mark Hamill play my favourite ever film character with passion and dignity opposite the powerful and apparently effortlessly perfect acting of Daisy Ridley. These sequences were enriched by Rey’s encounters with the absent Kylo Ren, which could easily have been confusing nonsense but were carried by the simplicity of the visual device used to show them and clarity of Ridley’s performance and, to a lesser extent, that of Adam Driver as Ren. Although it all got a bit tedious at the time, after the viewing I can appreciate the importance of Rey’s spiritual journey, and the way in which Luke’s reluctance to teach her, and the eventual destruction of the Jedi temple, signals a Jedi new covenant: an acknowledgement that we are moving into a new jedi era, shaped by a wider understanding of the line between the Force and the Dark Side. “We are,” Yoda tells Luke, “what they grow beyond.”

Meanwhile, however, the wider universe pelts forward, in traditional Star Wars style. The opening battle is a doozy: a pastiche of world war two aerial bomber movies in which a wonderful hero, Paige Tico, played by Veronica Ngo, is introduced and thrown away in a matter of minutes, dying to save the day. The lead character through this adventure, however, is Poe, the X-wing pilot from The Force Awakens, whom I have struggled to like. His ‘anti-establishment’, standard Hollywood hero role grates on me. He’s supposed to be the light relief, but the film seems to stop for his set-pieces: whereas Han Solo’s humour always felt embedded, Poe’s seems somewhat tacked-in. Where we always knew that Solo’s heart was in the right place, Poe could be simply a demagogue and a show-off.

His arrogance, however, becomes a theme. The leadership of the withered rump of the resistance in this film is almost entirely female. After the death of Admiral Ackbar, and Princess Leia’s injury in the same attack, Vice Admiral Holdo, played by Laura Dern, takes over. She’s an odd character, and for a while, I thought she might be a traitor, as the Empire’s ability to track the Resistance fleet through hyperspace hadn’t been explained. Ultimately, however, she is justified and her authority is shown to be that of a fierce, intelligent woman, fighting fascism and tolerating the boyish heroism of Poe’s histrionics.

This chimes with my thesis that Star Wars is political, and on the right side of politics. Indeed, such an idea is now explicit in the U.S. where images of Leia as a part of the resistance to Trump have been prominent on women’s marches. Mark Hamill has supported this in his prolific tweeting: here is a typical post:

Rose and Finn: a beautiful pairing.

How can it not be so? How can The Empire, and The First Order, not be a representation of the fascist tendency in western capitalism? In this film, it is even more explicit than before: The First Order is shown to be a cash cow for arms dealers who pass their time away on a vulgar casino planet, enjoying the torture of animals for sport and supported by child slaves. A libertarian opportunist (DJ, played by Benicio Del Toro) betrays Finn and his new partner, Paige Tico’s grieving sister, Rose (my new Star Wars crush, played by Kelly Marie Tran with the same joyous brio and frightened determination as John Boyega gives Finn) and the intriguing soul-torment of Ren never escapes his alt-right monomania, contrived self-pity and clueless vanity.

While Rey is most certainly the heart of the new trilogy, and is filling the role beautifully, Finn remains my emotional access point: the side of Luke Skywalker that first grabbed me. He is the reluctant hero, who fails and gets back up, and he is, above all things, loyal: his first question, upon waking from a coma, is “Where’s Rey?” His clay feet are developed in this film, as he is rescued from his own cowardice by Rose, who then rescues him from his heroism at the end. When he asks her why she stopped him, she speaks the line that made me feel this movie has a real-world heart beating within the children’s film spectacle:

“We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”

I suspect that that line will become a mantra over the coming year, for everyone of courage and good will.

The Last Jedi was worth waiting for.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Brexiteers’ Ludicrous Highpoint

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/picture/2017/dec/22/martin-rowson-festive-cheer-conservative-hq-cartoon
Martin Rowson in The Guardian

These are trying times and it is easy to give way to unreason, but I really hope that this is the highpoint of the bigots’ ambitions.

I have tried very hard to be fair about Brexit voters. Someone I love voted that way, so I really don’t want to come to the conclusion that they were deranged idiots, voting for myths rooted in bigotry at the expense of everything that is good about this country, but it has become inescapable.

Yesterday, they got what they really want: a symbolic gesture. They should be happy now but, judging by the troll comments all over news media today, they’re panicking a bit, realising what a bunch of wankers they are looking. The fact that the price of that gesture is 35% of this country’s economy really doesn’t matter to them. As for the fact that what scraps of value are left within the UK will be torn apart by the yanks; they’re okay with that. For them, the US isn’t a predatory imperial power that we’ve only held off by joining together with our neighbours, but Doris Day and Rock Hudson being not gay and reassuring. It’s Elvis and cars with twelve cylinder engines and it’s a country where it’s okay to be a racist and to back up racism with armed murder. The real Brexit identity isn’t a desire for ‘sovereignty’: it’s servility to the Yanks and a desperate search for someone to shit upon.

I fantasised a little this morning about a mass euthanasia of everyone over fifty. I’d be caught up in that, but it would be worth it, if it took away Nigella Silage and his treasonous, wrinkled, dipsomaniac legions. Just clear the detritus and hope that the younger people of this country, who see the world as it is, rather than as Rank News depicted it in the fifties, can rescue something from the disasters of the past few years.

Please note: I don’t really support the mass slaughter of people who vote against my interests. It was just a fantasy. I was allowing myself to be temporarily effected by the tenor of the times. I have regained my reason now, and will continue to campaign for an informed, temperate and decent government to replace the corrupt demagoguery that has us in its grip at the moment.