Friday, January 30, 2015 

Future now.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015 

You mean these ridiculously subjective rules apply to us as well?

It's hard not to feel at least a smidgen of sympathy for the good burghers behind the Durham free school and the Grindon Hall Christian school in Sunderland.  After all, what's the point of allowing any Tom, Dick or Toby Young to open up a new place of learning if they can't then attempt to instil whichever belief system they adhere to into their young charges?  If the parents want it, clearly they will come.  Who quite frankly is the government or Ofsted to stick their noses in and say a school in an overwhelmingly "White British" area is failing to "prepare its students for life in modern Britain"?  What is this outrageous political correctness being foisted on Christian and Jewish establishments when everyone knows the problem is with the Muslims?  Why is Durham free school having its funding pulled while the "Trojan Horse" schools remain open, albeit unable to recruit new teachers?

A weaker man would at the same time as feeling a twinge of sympathy also have a jolly good laugh.  From the very moment the panic over the schools in Birmingham erupted you could see this was going to happen.  There can't be one rule for schools in areas mostly populated by parents who, like it or not, might prefer education with an Islamic influence for their children, and another for those whom for whatever reason feel the need to bring God into it at every turn.  The fact the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse affair did not specifically have a Islamic ethos and were rather academies is by the by: start insisting every child must know what British values are, despite the vast majority of adults not having the first clue, and you get the kind of results the Daily Mail has been wailing about.  Kids asked if they know anyone who's gay!  Girl possibly asked if she was a virgin!  Child who says "terrorism" when questioned about Islam branded a bigot!  Schools failed on the grounds of being Christian!

Except, typically, if you bother to read the reports on either school the whole "not preparing students for life in modern Britain" angle, while there, is rather secondary to the schools just not being any good in general.  The Durham free school's governors, damningly, are said to "place too much emphasis on religious credentials when they are recruiting key staff and not enough on seeking candidates with excellent leadership and teaching skills."  I mean, blimey, who could have predicted that might happen with free schools?  Much the same is said of Grindon Hall, where "Many appointments are made without fair and open competition."

This does not make Ofsted's approach, which seems to be to ask young children questions on things they might not have the first idea about for perfectly innocent reasons, a good one.  How can they possibly conclude an answer which indicates lack of preparation for life in modern Britain™ is a reflection of the school's citizenship efforts rather than that of their life outside of school?  Why should the onus be on the school and not on the parents anyway, or would that be a government interference too far?  Worth remembering is that for all the shock and horror over the schools in Birmingham, there was not the slightest evidence presented of active radicalisation or that extremism was being taught.  Cohesion, folks, is a two-way street.  If clinging on to religion in a country that's become secular is seen as marking you out as not wanting to be a part of modern Britain®, might I suggest it could be time to join forces rather than spit out the dummy and say it's not fair?

Most amusing of all is the idea the ultimate architect behind this nonsense, one senor Michael Gove, was trying "to promote a politically correct diversity agenda".  Yes, that's exactly what Mr Drain the Swamp was doing.  Ofsted has been essentially recreated in Gove's image, even though he's now been replaced by Nicky Morgan, who coincidentally voted against gay marriage partly on the basis of, you guessed it, her religious views, so clearly more evidence of bias there.  The wiser heads might have seen the way this was going and spoke out at the time, before the education of more children was disrupted.  Such though is the way of those determined to leave their mark, regardless of the consequences.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 

Trapped in the echo chamber.

At times, I wonder just how it was newspapers filled their pages when they couldn't dedicate multiple anguished pieces to either actors making a poor choice of word, or alleged celebrities Twitter-shaming litterers.  Then you remember there was never a halcyon period for newspapers, regardless of what anyone will tell you: the tabloids were always full of celebrity bilge, including Hugh Cudlipp's patrician Mirror.  As for the broadsheets, they were in the main drier than downtown Jeddah on a Saturday night.  Not for nothing was the ghastly but at least readable Express the world's biggest seller for a time.

Apparently then I must defend Katie Price's right to party to claim disability benefits for her son.  First they came for one of the most loathsome personalities of recent times, and so forth.  Alternatively, I could let her get on with it, as I'm sure dear old Jordan can look after herself, surely?  Much like Benedict Bandersnatch (that is his name, isn't it?) no doubt instantly regretted saying coloured, without it being necessary for writers to assume he couldn't have much contact with black actors if he was going around doing so.  As for Kirstie Allsopp, well, as the personification of just about everything that would quickly send me completely and utterly fucking doolally, if she wants to be so petty as to put a litterer's number plate online, does it really need further comment?

Of course it does.  And of course, it takes two or indeed dozens of sad acts for these mini-ripples to get anywhere in the first place.  Reading Jon Ronson's interview with Adam Curtis, which quickly digresses onto the topic of Ronson's upcoming book on those who've found themselves at the centre of online storms, it's easy to forget these incidents would have felt that much less serious had the mainstream media decided not to join in the stupidity.

Personally, despite everything that's come since, I reckon the apogee was reached in the days after that woman put that cat in that bin.  Why put the CCTV online in the first place?  I love animals as much as the next carnivore, but let's face it, far worse than spending a night in a bin is going to happen to most cats through their own ahem, curiosity.  Why demand answers as to why she put it in the bin?  Did it matter?  Would any answer suffice?  She quite possibly had a terrible day, but rather than stroke the cat as most of us would have and probably felt just that little better, she put it in the bin.  Or perhaps she does just hate cats.  Either way, the why was irrelevant.  She will now and forever more be the cat bin lady.  Which could be preferable to being known as a cat lady when you think about it, who knows.

As you'll probably know by now, my own views on social media are roughly akin to both Ronson and Curtis's.  Yes, it can all too easily become an echo chamber, but then most of us don't like having our thoughts and opinions challenged in the first place.  Hence we buy that paper, we read that website, we turn our noses up at their rivals and so on.  Far more pernicious to me at least is not the vehemence with which a transgression against something might be pursued, so much as the effect it's had on activism.  On the one hand it's turbo-charged many campaigns, had a major role in the Arab spring, etc.  On the other, as Curtis points out, what is there to show for the vast majority of hashtag battles?  Not just the obvious examples for mocking, such as #bringbackourgirls or #kony2012, but what about #occupy?  Apart from giving us the 99%/1% identifiers, what did it really change, and is that perhaps not directly connected to the lack of real leadership there so often is behind such Twitter co-ordinated protests?

Curtis doesn't get everything right.  His remark on how in "ten years, sections of the internet will have become like the American inner cities of the 1980s" is just a little behind the times, considering how there have been subcultures online almost exactly as he describes since the late 90s, and you could probably identify similar groupings on BBSes if you so wished.  It's also something of a stretch to point towards "consumer journalism" being a recent thing - Murdoch's Sun was precisely that, long before accusations of dumbing down were bandied about, while the painting of the world as black and white is old as newspapers themselves.

What's so odd and defies explanation is just how quickly the "shaming" aspect of social media has become accepted.  Why should anyone care what a cricketer thinks about people on minimum wage for instance, and why does someone else known for their opinions on Twitter feel the need to dedicate an entire piece to it?  It tells us precisely nothing wider about ourselves, just as Emma West's rant about immigration didn't.  The answer maybe is that rather than giving everyone a voice, what social media has really done is inflate egos yet further and little else, empowering not individuals, but individualism.  This hasn't just happened to the Stuart Broads, the Allsopps, or anyone else you might care to mention, but also those whose reaction to the Sun trolling everyone last week over page 3 was to stamp their feet rather than reflect they had been too quick to assume victory.  More prosaically, another explanation is the encouragement if not active compulsion there now is to share, regardless of whether it's something that should be heard or deserves to be.  When rubbed against not the right to freedom of speech but, hilariously, the "freedom to be offended" as the headline writing sub on Jessica Valenti's latest we're putting an end to every sort of ism through making everyone check their privilege piece put it, increasingly pointless battles are the inevitable result.

As ever, most of the criticisms directed against others can be pointed directly back at myself.  Why moan about people moaning about inconsequential things?  Hasn't writing this crap for the last nigh-on 10 years been all about boosting your ego too?  Who gives a fig what you think about anything?  To which the only answer is: curses, foiled again.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 

Is it that time already?

Gosh, can it really only be 100 days until the election already?  The last 1,727 days have just flown by, have they not?  It seems only last week Dave n' Nick were consummating the coalition deal in the rose garden, except what if they didn't and it was all just boasting?  Perhaps if we end up with much the same result as last time we'll have Tory leader Boris Johnson renouncing the coalition mid-term on the basis Clegg really did have relations with Dave despite his denials.  Is that a convoluted enough non-gag that doesn't work referencing Wolf Hall and Tudor history for you?  I sure hope so.

We could do with a politician much like Hilary Mantel's depiction of Thomas Cromwell, that's for sure.  Ruthless but compassionate, dedicated to his masters yet ferociously independent, against lunatic foreign adventures and depraved and corrupted religious scroungers, what's not to like?  Well, you could factor in the real Cromwell almost certainly wasn't as enigmatic as Mantel paints him in her wonderful novels (I must thank a certain someone whose sort of recommendation finally persuaded me to stop my procrastinating and read them), more a brutal cove who introduced the first sort of intelligence service, enabling Henry to become a tyrant, but all the same.  He rather puts Dave, Ed, Nick and Nige in a certain perspective, doesn't he?  Son of a blacksmith, did a real job abroad before entering law, a man truly out of time.

Anyway, enough wishful thinking and putting off discussing our rather sadder reality.  In truth, no one except those paid to be have been remotely interested in the campaigning thus far.  This might have something to do with how dismal it's all been.  We've had the Tories release their don't vote Labour and drive advert, or whatever it was, which the Lib Dems have since parodied.  Without inserting a joke sadly, although some might say, ho ho, they are the joke.  Both Labour and the Conservatives are hoping to attract your attention with a set of themes, even though we all know it's going to be NHS, NHS, NHS from Miliband and pals and, economy, economy, economy from Dave and friends.  Ed was duly at the site of the first NHS hospital today, while yesterday dearest Cameron was explaining how thanks to them every man, woman and child can look forward to tax cuts, provided they're hard-working men, women and children, naturally.  If they aren't, and they're naughty workshy layabouts, the benefit cap will drop 3 grand almost immediately after a Tory victory, while unemployed under-21s will also be denied housing benefit.

The Conservatives are forewarning everyone at least.  Any questioning of just what sort of jobs have been created under the coalition is jumped on as being dismissive of "aspiration".  Heaven forfend for instance that a business leader of the future might have been able to launch their enterprise sooner if they hadn't been stuck on zero-hours work, saving the little they could, or indeed needed housing benefit to be able to escape a home life from hell.  The message from here until May the 7th will be we've sort of stabilised the economy, so just put all the unpleasantness of the past few years at the back of your mind and try not to think of the cuts to come.  Cuts which George Osborne in best infuriating fashion succeeded in not outlining in last week's interview with Evan Davis, falling back on the old no one thought we could achieve the cuts we have made argument, so obviously we can hack and slash without anyone suffering in the next 5 years also.

Nor would Labour under Ed Miliband be the party we've come to shake our heads about sadly without an old Blairite figure turning up and dripping poison.  Labour is running a "pale imitation of the 1992 campaign", says Alan Milburn, which is just a bit rich considering it was a certain Alan Milburn behind 2005's phenomenal "forward not back" Labour election campaign.  His warning of the party being seen as not in favour of reform and just putting in more funding would carry more weight if Labour was promising increased spending, except they aren't.  Only the Lib Dems say they'll find the minimum £8 billion NHS head Simon Stevens believes is needed, and they all but needless to say have not given the first indication of where they'll get it from.

Speaking of which, have the Liberal Democrats started campaigning yet?  One might assume if they have they're keeping a low profile due to how utterly ashamed they are over the party's strategy:  neither "reckless" borrowing or reckless cuts, you can rely on the Lib Dems to keep those wild crazies in Labour and the Conservatives on the straight and narrow.  This presumes the public give the party credit for reining in the Tories worst excesses, except they don't, nor has the experience of coalition led many to want the same thing again.  Or at least not with the involvement of the Lib Dems, who surely must be getting extremely worried they could end up with fewer seats than the SNP and back in the wilderness years of the 70s prior to the SDP-Liberal alliance.  That would be quite the legacy for Nick Clegg, to go down not so much marching towards the sound of gunfire as leading his party off Beachy Head.

One thing Cameron must be given credit for is just how successful his kill the debates gambit has been.  As soon as the broadcasters suggested including UKIP, as they simply couldn't resist the prospect of bar room bore Nige shaking things up, they ought to have known every other smaller party would say hang on.  Rather than just invite the Greens as Cameron insisted, and say it's daft including the nationalist parties when they don't fricking stand candidates outside of their respective countries we now have the SNP and Plaid Cymru involved.  Why not the DUP and Sinn Fein?  Why indeed?  While we're at it, why not also Mebyon Kernow, Britain First, the Monster Raving Loonies, the Natural Law party or any other gobshite?  Does anyone honestly believe a 7-leader or more debate or debates is viable?  Of course they don't, just as the "empty chair" threat is precisely that.  Without Cameron there aren't going to be debates, and so his terms with minor concessions, probably a couple of debates, one between him and Miliband, one also with Clegg, one before April and one during, will probably win out.

All in all, it's shaping up to be an extraordinarily tedious, long-winded and highly familiar campaign.  Much like something something you might add.  Except, I wondered, perhaps not.  Looking at today's Sun front page, could it be possible the paper had finally, genuinely opened up itself to the views of its readers as suggested?  Err, no.  Sun readers apparently want the BBC cut down to size, and also think politicians should ignore the Twitter mob, among other priorities that just happen to also be the paper's long-term concerns.  Interesting at least the Sun is so exercised about Twitter demanding attention; in the past of course it was the Sun politicians listened to.  Not everything remains the same.

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Monday, January 26, 2015 

TV review (of sorts): Bitter Lake.

It's perhaps something of an exaggeration to say there's been a critical backlash against Adam Curtis of late, but no longer have his films been almost universally applauded by those vaguely on the left.  Certainly, his five-minute slot in Charlie Brooker's 2014 Wipe was met by just as much befuddlement as it was adulation by those who see Curtis as something of a prophet, just as Chris Morris once was.  Morris of course responded to this unwanted status with Nathan Barley, co-written with Brooker, with it being difficult not to see the character Dan Ashcroft, a writer admired by idiots who declares he's not a "preacher man" as partly formed by Morris's own anxieties.

In truth, much of this backlash has been due to the decline in quality of Curtis's work.  He without doubt peaked with Century of the Self, which as an introduction into how the work of Freud, Jung and Laing among others was appropriated by business and politics is hard to beat.  Power of Nightmares, despite the brickbats thrown at it continues to stand up, but with The Trap, despite remaining a work of the kind you simply don't get on TV, the rot set in.  All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace followed, and while by no means bad, it just didn't hold up against what had come before.

The main criticisms of Curtis's style of documentary, that he covers up a lack of original ideas and content with inspired music choices and use of stock footage unlikely to have been seen before has been somewhat answered by his irregularly updated blog.  While the questions remain over his answers or lack of them, what can't be complained about is the way he draws you in through his prose, without there being any need to watch the clips accompanying the text.  With the apparent full BBC archive at his disposal, with all the oddities and forgotten shows contained therein, one post resurrects a 70s documentary on the Hells Angels while the next might be about vegetables.  Yes, really.

The announcement that Bitter Lake would only be available on the iPlayer then, and would clock in at just over 2 hours 15 minutes, allowing Curtis to create something not "restrained by the rigid formats and schedules of network television" set alarm bells ringing.  Curtis's past work hasn't shown any indication of being restrained by exactly those forces, which is precisely why so many of us boring gits loved them: long-form documentaries, set to ambient/electronic music, dealing with ideas rarely so much as broached on mainstream television, let alone in depth or with the allowed space to make up your own mind.  One word instantly came to mind: indulgence.  Much as we might delight in TV that plays out a story over 6 or 10 weeks, there's also nothing quite like a 90 minute nuts and bolts film that does the job and then gets its coat.  Editors are often there for very good reasons (ahem).

Sadly, those suspicions were very much confirmed by Bitter Lake.  This isn't to say that in spots it's very, very good: it draws heavily on a number of posts Curtis has made on his blog on Afghanistan, and coming the week the Saudi king finally did the decent thing, prompting our freedom loving leaders to go and pay their respects, the emphasis on how the kingdom has spread the Wahhabist doctrine which so underpins jihadism is very welcome.  Curtis makes extensive use of the footage shot by BBC cameramen in Afghanistan that has never previously been seen, the rushes normally consigned to the cutting room floor.  If nothing else, this does a service to the men and women behind the equipment who rarely get any credit, something now rectified when they journey alongside TV hacks into warzones at least.  As you'll no doubt expect from a Curtis film, some of this footage is extremely banal while other clips are little short of breath-taking: we see Afghan soldiers dancing to a lone, virtuoso trumpeter; a British soldier coaxes a tame pigeon, probably an escaped pet, first off his gun onto his hand, stroking its breast, before it jumps onto his helmeted head, to the absolute wonder and delight of the infantryman; American and British troops whoop up airstrikes on the enemy; and the attempted assassination of Hamid Karzai is witnessed by a cameraman just feet away from the former president, his security team all but abandoning him as he lays on the seat of his SUV.

The problem is this footage takes up far more of the running time than would ever be allowed on TV for good reason.  As beguiling as it often is, it doesn't add anything to the narrative, which is extremely sparse for the first 90 minutes.  The question then is whether it adds anything to a documentary you have to make an active choice to watch, and even on that score much of it doesn't.  For every one piece that does push it forward, such as the remarkable archive of a British student teaching a class of Afghans about Duchamp's urinal, something that came about as part of the post-invasion this is wot Western education is about like initiative, to their bewilderment and the student's own realisation she's wasting her time, the assumptions of all being challenged and judged, there's 5 clips that just drag.  It all feels disjointed, and seeing as Curtis's thesis is that Western politicians responded to the crises of the 70s, caused in part by the empowerment of Saudi Arabia, with a simplification of everything down to good and evil, often his narration of how this came to be is guilty of precisely the same thing.

It's especially a shame as within the running time there's a couple of hour-long documentaries that ought to be made.  The first on how the West's relationship with Saudi Arabia has and continues to shape policy; and the second on how the British presence in Afghanistan descended into such ignominy, with the army gamed into attacking anyone they were told were Taliban, such was the incompetence of those in charge.

Bitter Lake does nonetheless succeed in showing the way history has repeated in that benighted country.  The Afghan king first sought out American help to develop his nation, before then playing off the Americans and Russians against each other.  As drop-out Westerners journeyed to the country in the 70s in search of something different, Afghans educated in the West brought left-wing radicalism back with them.  Neither their idea of what freedom was, nor that of the Russians when they intervened or ourselves has taken root.  Western ideals of human rights and equality rubbed up against the fundamentalism of the madrasas funded by the Saudis, regardless of whether the West supported the mujahideen in the 80s, or opposed its spawn in the 2000s.

This doesn't however prove Curtis's point: regardless of the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mere dropping of demanding the immediate removal of President Assad from power in Syria doesn't mean this dilution of everything into absolutes has been abandoned.  Policy on Syria continues to make not the slightest bit of sense when the "good" rebels are set to be trained to fight the "bad" ones.  Indeed, the only possible outcome would appear to be that which befell Kabul in the 90s: the destruction of everything with the eventual victors likely to be the most ruthless of all.  We continue to oppose the enemies of the Saudis whether it's in our interests or not, for which see the way the oil price is being used against Iran as we're trying desperately to reach a deal over their nuclear programme.  Whether this makes either Iran or Russia more belligerent or more inclined to reach a compromise we don't and can't possibly know.

In the meantime we'll go on telling ourselves we're on the side of the good regardless of our actions, we'll make idols out of schoolgirls to make ourselves feel better, and we'll do as little as possible to examine the mistakes we've made.  For all the criticisms of Curtis and the failings of Bitter Lake, his work continues to take viewers places others fear to go, and few pose the questions he does to such a wide audience.  His answers and conclusions may be faulty, but whose aren't?

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Friday, January 23, 2015 

Patchwork.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015 

What the Dickens?

The death of former home secretary Leon Brittan has been met with dismay by campaigners for a full inquiry into historic allegations of child sexual abuse.

"Firstly, I’d like to offer my condolences to Sir Leon’s family for their personal loss," said Simon Danczuk, MP for North Salem and Lower Pendle.  "I do however believe his death is just the latest example of the horrifying lengths to which the establishment is going to cover-up its role in the sickening abuse of children.  It's no coincidence so many of those allegedly involved in the depravity and murders at Elm Guest House are now dead, as they would rather be in their graves than face justice or questions on what they knew and when they knew it.  Brittan's death from "cancer" needs to be confirmed by post-mortem if abuse survivors are to be convinced this isn't just another convenient get-out by someone with a case to answer."

Asked if Brittan might have been able to give evidence prior to his death if the first two appointees to head the overarching inquiry hadn't been forced to step down over their own establishment status and links to the former home secretary, Danczuk was indignant.  "The only person responsible for the hold up is Theresa May.  Her complete incompetence, not to mention arrogance in failing to put forward a truly independent chair, someone such as myself for instance, as well as refusing to give the inquiry statutory powers demonstrates how only survivors' groups can be relied upon to get at the truth."

Any sceptics who find it strange no one saw fit to file a copy of Geoffrey Dickens' dossier on establishment paedophiles, whether it be Dickens himself, his allies or the newspapers that reported on the allegations are clearly in league with those involved in the cover-up, and will probably die of "cancer" like Brittan before they can be held accountable.

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