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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Wednesday, January 21, 2015 

And we're back in the room.

A scary thought: we're closing in on the 12th anniversary of the start of the 2nd Iraq war.  A mundane reality: we're currently involved in the 3rd Iraq war, albeit against the self-proclaimed Islamic State rather than the Iraqi one.

Those wars are of course inextricably linked, just as they are to the first Gulf war, the one which arguably set the tone for the conflicts we've seen post-Cold War.  Good ol' Saddam miscalculated in the belief that no one would mind if he gobbled up Kuwait; after all, didn't he fight the good fight against the Iranians for us?  Sadly for him, the last thing the Saudis were going to stand for was a rival to their regional hegemony, and so in came the Americans, with ourselves alongside naturally.  Plenty of cringing Iraqi conscripts were incinerated in the name of freedom, Saddam was redesignated as worse than Hitler, and Iraq became the country of choice for lobbing cruise missiles at whenever there was a need for a distraction from domestic politics.

Until 9/11, when it was decided evil dictators could no longer be contained lest they provide sanctuary for evil terrorists.  Unfortunately, about the worst terrorist in residence in Iraq other than, err, Saddam himself was Abu Nidal, and even someone as bloodthirsty as he palled compared to al-Qaida.  Instead the debate focused around weapons of mass destruction, for what even at the time was described as "policy reasons".  Fact was, Saddam had to go.  Less thought was put into the post-war planning, something we're still living with the consequences of today.

Oh, and there's also been an inquiry looking into all this.  Frankly, I'd forgotten.  Not because the Chilcot report won't be important, because it will.  It just won't tell us anything we don't know already, or at least shouldn't know.  A true acknowledgement of the unmitigated disaster of the Iraq war simply isn't possible, as it would mean almost every single politician and almost every single establishment figure and institution admitting they either got it wrong then or have learned precisely nothing since.  Besides, the Chilcot inquiry was not established to do any such thing: it was meant, as state approved inquiries into complete and utter fuck-ups are, to look at everything that happened and then make a few recommendations that can be safely ignored or overruled on the grounds of government every so often needing to let off steam by chucking high explosives into foreign shitholes.

The reaction to the news the report will not be published until after the election is highly similar to that of the Sun dropping page 3 girls.  You'd think in an era when you can within a couple of clicks see a woman in exchange for meagre payment perform some of the most degrading sexual acts imaginable that a newspaper deciding not to show naked breasts wouldn't exactly be classed as a feminist triumph (the more reflective might also wonder if the diminishing market for softcore modelling might in the long run lead to more women having to go down the hardcore route), but then nothing really surprises any more.  It's a conspiracy!  It must be published now, regardless of how that would be against the very law governing such inquiries!  It's going to be a whitewash!  It's all Tony Blair's fault!  It's all Labour's fault!

And so depressingly on.  The focus on Blair just proves what this has been about from the beginning.  It's not about seeing Iraq for what it was, a culmination of mistakes by every arm of government, not to forget the role of the media or the public for that matter, let alone an examination of how there came to be a consensus on foreign policy which is bomb first, bomb often and only then wonder if there might be consequences down the line, it's about trying to nail custard to the wall.  Even if the report says Blair took Britain to a war on a lie, which it won't, his excellency will say he did what he thought was right.  He doesn't just still believe in the war, he's partial to more on the same model.  Nothing is going to change the mind of a true believer.

The reason for the delay is staring everyone in the face too.  It wasn't Blair or the others involved in the "Maxwellisation" process holding it up, it was the Cabinet Office, the securocrats and the Americans.  The public can't possibly know what a former president and a former prime minister said to each other 12 years on, no way, however fundamental it may or may not be to how the decision to go to war came to be made.  The metadata of everyone's online activity must be accessible by the state in order to protect us, but when it comes to transparency over the act that has done more than anything to increase that danger, you can whistle for it.

Whatever the conclusions the inquiry reaches, minds were made up long ago, mine included.  This isn't going to be a Bloody Sunday or a Hillsborough, where the sheer force of evidence alters perceptions, despite it already having been there had you looked for it.  While I seriously doubt the report would change anyone's vote, there is still a minority that regard Iraq as Labour's ultimate betrayal, holding it against the party despite nearly all those involved either having left parliament or exiting this year.  You only have to see the Lib Dems, SNP and UKIP jockeying for the slightest advantage to realise just the one party has something to lose.  We've waited this long to be disappointed, let down, have our prejudices confirmed; being deprived a few more weeks, months, years isn't going to make the slightest difference now.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015 

Spare us the mental health evangelism.

Of all things you'd wager there aren't a lot of votes in, mental health would surely rank near the top.  It's a fairly nebulous subject at the best of times: for all the attempts to try and break its taboo status, some of which have been extremely misguided, it's never going to focus concerns in the same way as cancer does for precisely that reason.  When the biggest "innovations" of late have been the new age bullshit of mindfulness, and the ludicrous claim forms of mental illness might in fact be an allergic reaction, some might add that's a good thing.

Nonetheless, both Nicholas Clegg and Edward Miliband (it just occurred to me that all of our leading politicians prefer to known by the shortenings of their first name, something else we have Our Tone to thank for) yesterday set out how they would attempt to improve how the NHS treats patients with mental health problems.  Clegg's were particularly eye catching for proposing a "zero" target for suicides, because if there's one the NHS needs more of, other than, you know, funding, it's targets.  Apparently Detroit, that by-word for decline and urban decay managed to get its shockingly high rate down to that point, although whether such comparisons are to be trusted is dubious.  If you so much as bother to look at the link provided in the Graun's article for instance, you'll find it refers only to those treated by the Henry Ford health care organisation rather it being an across the board statistic.  Oh, and it's in an press release from the err, Henry Ford health care organisation.

There's another obvious problem with just such a target, beyond its very impossibility.   Why should every suicide be deemed a failure, as Clegg apparently thinks?  If limited to those receiving in and outpatient treatment, then perhaps yes, there is something to be said for trying to get the rate down to zero.  The lack of psychiatric beds available ought to be a scandal on its own, although considering the pressure across the NHS with so-called "bed blockers" it's not a new or surprising one, and Labour is right to suggest it's child mental health care that most needs an increase in spending.

Without a doubt, all those involved in the various campaigns on mental health awareness have the very best of intentions.  It just strikes me they're going about it arse backwards, and often in a hectoring, spectacularly unhelpful way.  The great barriers to getting help are first, classically, admitting you have a problem, and second finding the strength to share that fact with someone.  I would suggest that contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of people, whether family, friends or work colleagues will listen and not judge someone who approaches them in such a way.  The real issue then is getting the sufferer to do that in the first place, which is much harder.  Coverage that continues to imply most are still prejudiced or uncaring, all but suggesting it's their problem rather than the individual's, not only puts backs up, it's liable to further inhibit someone who already feels like they'll be burdening others with their problems.

I've been incredibly fortunate in that once I recognised I was depressed, I've always been able to somewhat articulate how I feel.  In my experience, it's also been those you'd normally be most anxious not to share your problems with whom have been the most receptive, forgiving and patient.  Apart from the embarrassment, and the belief someone might think less of you, the other big problem is that very being able to explain what you're going through.  I've often thought of those less blessed (or less cursed, alternatively) in putting pen to paper, and how devastating, desolating it must be to not only feel alone, as you do, but also not even be able to begin to pinpoint or tell someone why that is.  Presumably this is the idea behind training those who come into contact with the public to look for warning signs in everyday conversation, except this both has the potential to mistake sadness or moderate depression for something more serious, not to mention how it seems to again be doing everything other than trying to empower the depressed person to act themselves.

What aggravates me the most is the almost evangelical tone some take.  Understandable as it is to want to prevent suicide entirely, it seems to ignore something even more unspeakable: that life can be so bad, or become so desperate that wanting to die is entirely rational.  You could argue that's not to do with being depressed, instead a world view, and those with depression can never make the decision as to end their lives, but that doesn't make it any less true.  Again, I'm sure Calm, or the Campaign Against Living Miserably has its heart in the right place, it's just that for some not living miserably is an impossibility because their lives are miserable.  Talking to someone about it won't change that.  Moreover, I'd go so far as to say that without feeling the way I do I wouldn't be the same person.  I'm not a victim, I'm not a survivor or any of these other self-aggrandising labels some apply to themselves; I'm me.  The only way I can see my life ending is by my own hand, whenever that happens to be.  Perhaps something might come along that changes my mind about that; perhaps it won't.

We come then finally to the most ridiculous of Clegg's statements.  Apparently while aiming for a zero suicide rate, no one should be blamed for the existing rate, or it would follow the failure to achieve such a rate.  Not only does this obviously let the coalition off the hook for the way mental health has been one of the first areas to suffer due to the spending constraints put on the NHS, it also means it can't get some of the blame for the deaths of those connected to being declared fit for work or denied benefits under the sanctioning regime.  It also suggests we can't say the very nature of life in Britain, with everything it can entail, can be the overarching reason behind someone's decision to end it all.  This is just as absurd as declaring suicide the coward's way out, or not feeling any sympathy for someone who takes the "selfish" decision to kill themselves.  Blaming something is not the same as holding it responsible, it must be stressed: suicide is almost never down to one sole factor.  It does at least bring into focus the Lib Dem plan as a whole: it just isn't serious.  The same can't be said for the campaigns, regardless of what you think of them.

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Monday, January 19, 2015 

Pickled politics.

There's a simple reason as to why the Pickles letter to mosques has received the reaction it has: it's not so much due to the content, questionable as it is, as to how it's astonishingly badly written (PDF).  It appears to have been composed by someone who has the basics of English down, only without knowing what the words they're using mean.  Supposedly meant as reassurance, it comes across instead as sterile in its sentiments while demanding in what it asks.  We must show our young people this, this and this; you have an important responsibility in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be a part of British identity; we have an opportunity to demonstrate the true nature of British Islam today, and what being a British Muslim means today.  British values are Muslim values.

In so many ways, it's an example of how government thinking doesn't change.  It clearly wasn't meant to suggest imams aren't doing enough to emphasise how you can be a Muslim and thoroughly British; it just comes across that way because there's nothing Eric Pickles likes more than talking at people rather than talking with them.  It also shows how engrained communalism is, government reaching out solely to religious leaders still considered the equivalent of communicating with an entire minority.  Those already radicalised or most vulnerable to extremism are far more likely to listen to their parents than leaders at the mosque they may well have already clashed with, but of course they are the ones who must do this and must do that.  To be patronising, tone deaf and worse than useless at the same time takes particular skill though, for which much credit must go to the communities department.

After all, where do you even begin with the melange of Britishisms Pickles throws at the wall in the hope of some of them sticking?  What is British identity?  What is a British Islam, a British Muslim?  What are British values, and how can they be Muslim values at the same time?  I don't have the first idea, because almost every single person will respond in a different way, which if you were being charitable you could say would be very British.  The government itself doesn't know either, as we saw when they demanded schools teach British values in the aftermath of the Trojan Horse panic; err, it's the rule of law, democracy, free speech, that sort of thing.  Except we're more than happy to waive all three of those core values if necessary, especially if it means continuing to ally with the country more responsible than any other for the spread of extremist Islam, say.  Of those three values, only democracy is truly embedded in British society and generally respected, with the other two often deemed surplus to requirements, the rule of law especially if it gets in the way.  And free speech only goes so far, as we've gone over enough recently.

If you wanted to be additionally glib, you could say asking how faith in Islam can be a part of British identity is very much unBritish in itself.  We just get on with it, and considering the potential there has been for unrest over identity and integration, for the most part we've done pretty well so far.  Not for us the neuroses of the French, with the rise of the far-right and warnings about the simmering radicalism of the banlieues, although for all the mocking of the idea of Birmingham being an outpost of the caliphate it would be absurd to ignore completely how in some areas a very conservative interpretation of Islam is the norm, with all that entails both for women and rebellious youth.

It was all so very different at yesterday's Countering Anti-Semitism event in London.  No opaque statements about demonstrating how faith in Judaism can be a part of British identity, despite the  government acknowledging acts of extremism are not representative of Judaism, probably because it was Theresa May on duty rather than Pickles.  May instead courted votes, saying how she never thought she would see the day when members of the Jewish community would express fears about staying here.  Rather than perhaps allay those fears by pointing out how there is no specific threat at the moment to anyone, May went on to quote the French prime minister who spoke of how if 100,000 Jews left France the French republic would be judged a failure, pointed remarks that alluded directly back to the Vichy regime.  Repeating that same message except with France replaced with Britain doesn't then really work, and May then blunted it further by saying without all the other religious minorities Britain also wouldn't be Britain.  Nor would it without foreign students then, right?  As for whether Britain will still be Britain without page 3 girls, who knows?

The idea that perhaps this fearmongering over the perceived threat to Jews might be precisely what the extremists want doesn't seem to occur.  It also further highlights how specific targets can have a more dramatic impact than indiscriminate attacks, giving ideas to so-called "lone wolves".  The additional patrols being introduced, while in some cases a sensible precaution if used temporarily, can also lead to the exact opposite of the intended effect, or indeed, perhaps that response is exactly what is intended.

Certainly when last night's 10 O'Clock news dedicated almost 15 minutes to varying reports either directly on or connected to Islamic extremism, including a mother complaining about how she had received no help from the government on "deradicalising" her son after he returned from Syria, it's not difficult to see why some believe an attack is inevitable.  The challenges of radicalisation cannot be dealt with from Whitehall alone, wrote Pickles, in stating the bleeding obvious mode.  Perhaps Whitehall could at least try and deal with the root causes of the current anxiety though, which sadly involves reiterating once again just how counter-productive our policy on first Iraq and now Syria has been.  The blame however rests only with "these men of hate [who] have no place in our mosques or any place of worship" (Pickles again).  Good to know that you don't need to so much as be a Muslim to declare takfir, and I look forward to our Eric deciding in the future just who can and who can't be admitted to a Sikh temple also.  Clearly, as David Cameron declared, it's me rather than Pickles with the problem.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015 

Tout est pardonné.

One wonders if prior to the last week quite so many people have previously tried to make their minds up over political cartoons where the punchlines are delivered in a language they don't speak and the topics are often directly related to events in that foreign country.  I don't speak French, my only real knowledge about Charlie Hebdo prior to last Wednesday was it's a satirical weekly that had published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, and so I laid off reaching a definite conclusion on that basis.

Thankfully, some helpful people have translated the most widely circulated examples of Charlie Hebdo's content, and put them in their proper context.  Accordingly, the cartoon of Boko Haram's pregnant sex slaves demanding welfare, much pointed towards as an example of just how shockingly racist the paper was, is in fact mocking the standard right-wing obsession with immigrants/refugees claiming benefits.  We see alleged comedian Dieudonné, arrested this week over his comments about being "Charlie Coulibably", to understandable consternation over his right to offend not being protected, told where he can stick his quenelle gesture.  And for anyone repeating the claim the paper targeted Islam and Muslims above and beyond other faiths, a front page from 2011 is shown, which advocates flushing the Bible, Qu'ran and Talmud down the toilet, itself a response to a print of the Piss Christ artwork being vandalised in Avignon.

Instead of accept he might have got it wrong this time, lenin/Ricfahard Seymour has instead doubled down.  It doesn't matter that you can detest the way the French state has appropriated the murders, be disgusted at how foreign leaders who care nothing for freedom of speech and have much blood on their hands were at the front of Sunday's march, and be concerned about whether the attacks will see a further ratcheting up of tension and discrimination against Muslims, and still also defend freedom of expression and pledge solidarity with those targeted.  But no, apparently Charlie Hebdo's scrawls were not satire but childish scribblings, and if you find them funny, witty or apposite you too are a child, or a moron.  How could anyone find a cartoon which draws on the "Muhammad was a paedo" school of Muslim-baiting satisfying?

Unless of course that self-same cartoon is again ripping the piss out of those idiots, which is the only conclusion that can be reached by seeing just the translation, let alone any further context.  Yes, you could say "pot kettle black" on that front and criticise the cartoonist for daring to think his work is above that of the "anti-jihadists" who really do just hate Muslims, but aren't we getting just a little bit haughty ourselves here?  Is "high-brow" satire the only satire it's OK to like, which itself is often based around imagery just as much as showing politicians and celebrities up as thoughtless idiots who believed what they wanted to?  Does it really need the Pope to step in and say please don't be beastly about religion as it hurts people's feelers for it become apparent that if freedom of speech means anything it's to say and depict things others don't want to hear or see, regardless of their position in society?

Tout est pardonné regardless.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015 

Mass debating the debates.

Is there anything more thrilling, more guaranteed to get the pulses racing than a debate about having debates?  Does parliament get any more electrifying than when the back and forth is effectively the equivalent of two eight-year-olds saying I know you are but what am I?  Could the public, supposedly completely engaged and at one with the leaders demanding the debates take place, in fact be any less interested by this cavalcade of nonsense, from both the political parties and the broadcasters?  Is that enough rhetorical questions for an opening paragraph?  (Yes. Ed.)

Christ alive.  If anything, what I find most perplexing about this entire farrago is the insistence, best expressed by Roger Mosey, that "In a short time, television debates have become a vital part of our democracy".  To which I say: bollocks.  What they most certainly have become is very lucrative indeed for the broadcasters, especially when budgets have been slashed for news gathering in general.  Why bother to follow the party leaders around the country on the campaign trail when you can let a skeleton crew do that and instead concentrate on those heavyweight clashes between the big three, or indeed four, or even five?  David Cameron is of course prevaricating over the inclusion of the Greens when he just doesn't want to take part as there is no possible way he could gain from the debates unless Farage shoots Clegg and Miliband dead while a bodyguard takes the bullet intended for him, but all he's really doing is reverting back to practice before 2010.

What's more, there's a decent case to be made for having no debates at all, or just the one between Cameron and Miliband.  Everything about our political system makes the presidentialising (or infantilising, if you prefer) of party leaders problematic.  Just look at the outcome in 2010: "Cleggmania" led to the Lib Dems increasing their share of the vote, only for the way those ballots were spread across the country to mean the party in fact lost seats.  However you try to dress it up, come May we'll be casting votes not for a party leader, but a party's local candidate.  Only those lucky enough to live in Witney, Doncaster North or Sheffield Hallam will have the chance to personally support one of the big three. 

For all the uncertainties over the election outcome, there's also no doubt the prime minister will either be from the Conservatives or Labour.  Unlike in presidential systems, our party leaders also do regularly go up against one another, although the quality of their tete a tete's are not always as high as they could be.  True, they rarely face questions direct from the public, but it's also not as if they won't have answered the ones set to be posed dozens of times before.  There's something to be said for taking a leader out of their comfort zone and seeing if they get agitated or crumble under studio lights, and they clearly serve a purpose for all those smart enough not to follow politics or the news in any great depth, but otherwise they are supremely overrated and over analysed events.

Whether they suck the life out of the campaign as a whole though, as Cameron is felt to believe the debates did in 2010 is more open to question.  Also different this year is the campaigns have already effectively started; most people won't be taking any notice till around the start of April, it's true, but can anyone really say they're looking forward to Cameron then repeating for the umpteenth time it's a choice between competence or chaos?

Besides, this isn't for once a mess of the big three's making.  The broadcasters must have known the second they started making plans for Nigel every other smaller party would demand they get a hearing too.  Invite him and you surely have to invite the Greens; invite the Greens and you may as well get the SNP and Plaid Cymru in too, as otherwise they'll start whinging despite not standing candidates outside of Scotland or Wales.  As to whether this makes the entire thing even more ridiculous, or impossible to contain to 90 minutes, let's worry about that nearer the date.  Oh, except this provided Cameron with his excuse to back out.

Only now comes the call for the broadcasters to go ahead without Cameron should he continue to refuse to attend.  Really?  This isn't HIGNFY where Roy Hattersley can be replaced by a tub of lard with hilarious consequences, it would render the entire spectacle completely pointless, a bit like those wonderful debates between Clegg and Farage last year that no one watched.  If the incumbent doesn't go along with it, it snookers the entire process,  and would surely also be unfair to Clegg, who'll be left having to defend the coalition at the same time as he'd like to be distancing himself from it.  For all the half serious half snide remarks about how without Natalie Bennett the debate would be one between four men on the centre-right, it would also result in Clegg and Miliband ganging up on Farage, which if they sat back and thought it through is unlikely to help them much either.

Surely the best solution is as the Graun suggests, for ITV to call Cameron's bluff and invite Bennett regardless of what Ofcom's final decision is.  If they won't, and the wider media really is sincere about this being what the public expect now and the very essence of democracy and so on, they should step into the breach themselves.  Otherwise, is it really unimaginable for there to be a campaign which doesn't revolve around the leaders and instead is about, horror of horrors, policy?  Would it be possible for the manifestos to be somewhat gone over and compared with each other, for instance, or even a series of films on what the issues are in different constituencies across the four nations?  Are we back asking rhetorical questions again?  (Yes. Ed.)

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015 

Comedy, satire and subjectivity. Oh, and Charlie Hebdo.

Watching Emily Maitlis interview Dapper Laughs, aka Daniel O'Reilly last year in the immediate aftermath of his ITV2 show being cancelled after everyone realised his act was fairly repugnant, I was left incredulous at how O'Reilly refused to defend himself.   Perhaps we should have been tipped off by his wearing of the black turtleneck of regretfulness, but nonetheless.  Maitlis, reasonably enough, clearly felt nothing but utter contempt for Mr Laughs' brand of humour, and so went in for the kill.  His response to Maitlis using his own gags against him was to visibly shrink, mutter the odd apology and then explain he was killing off Herr Laughs with immediate effect.

The obvious retort to Maitlis and everyone else was, you might not like my act, but who are you to say what is and isn't comedy, as you seem to be?  One of the very qualities that make us human is our ability to make a joke out of anything and everything, whether it be murder, rape, the Holocaust, or indeed toasters.  Criticising stand-ups is very different to saying an entire subject cannot be joked about; just as it ought to have been apparent Senor Laughs' shtick wasn't worthy of a TV series on quality grounds, that's quite separate to demanding his tour be pulled also.

Most of us will have experienced being the only person in a group not laughing at some grand cultural soiree we've attended.  It happened to me when I by chance saw Kunt and the Gang in a local pub, whose act revolves around much use of naughty words in songs about sex.  His best known is "I have a little wank and I have a little cry", Mr Kunt's lyrics accompanied by little more than Bontempi keyboard.  I'm as easily amused by a stream of filth as the next man, but I was left entirely stony-faced by it all, baffled as to the uproarious response he was getting.  It might be that I like my crude humour to be delivered along with something approaching pathos, the exact thing Viz has been doing now for nigh-on 30 years.  Not so much from the titular (boom boom) Fat Slags, but definitely from 8 Ace or the Drunken Bakers.  Without that subtext, a song about giving in to demands for anal sex remains just that.

I was reminded of this on reading the Graun's panel verdict on Charlie Hebdo's front cover.  To Myriam Francois-Cerrah the very depiction of a brown man in a turban is racist, without so much as going in to how the caricature is meant to be Muhammad.  Her kind of satire is "the type that punches up".  Leaving aside how the vast majority of us are relying on differing accounts of Charlie Hebdo, with a former writer claiming it to have become racist, while others disagree, the best satirists aim their barbs at everything that is deserving of being laughed at.  If that's politicians, then great.  If it's religion, regardless of how that might also involve "mocking the faith of the descendants of immigrants largely locked out of power and experiencing acute levels of prejudice", then so be it.

As for Nabila Ramdani, to her the cover is "dated, tired ... and vaguely insults one of the most revered figures in Islam".  She doesn't explain how it vaguely insults Muhammad, probably because for the life of me I cannot see how it can be taken as such unless the very depiction of Muhammad is deemed insulting.  Or is it that Muhammad holding the "Je suis Charlie" banner is insulting when he would never have ascribed to the paper's values?  If it's the former, complaining about the style of the caricature is a bit like saying Private Eye's jokes are the same every fortnight; well, duh, that's rather the point.  It's also "a hugely provocative reminder of how muddled the debate ... has become".  It rather depends on just how outraged you want to be: there's nothing there to say it's Muhammad except that was the artist's intention.  The very fact it's drawn in the same way as the previous caricatures of Muhammad, which all had a satirical message targeting extremists, along with the text all is forgiven ought to make clear the intention is to be both defiant while not blaming anyone other than the killers themselves, and even their actions are not to be held against them.

There is naturally an argument to be had over whether the wider media would reproduce caricatures scatologically mocking other religions say, especially in the United States.  It seems odd however that even here the likes of the Graun feel the need to carry a warning that some may find a mere thumbnail of Charlie Hebdo's cover offensive.  If they do, isn't that rather their problem?  Is there not something completely irrational about taking offence at what is just a drawing of a man in a turban, nothing more, nothing less?  To Joseph Harker this is "trumpeting your rights by trampling over others' sensitivities".  That view might hold more weight if this was being done for the sake of it but the artist, Renald Luzier's, explanation of how it came about surely demonstrates that wasn't the case at all.  Charlie Hebdo's cartoons have always been about something, rather than meant to just provoke, as say the Jesus and Mo strips are.  Hebdo's cause was never taken up by the same dullards and self-promoters as Jesus and Mo was, further bringing home this is something different.

The more anally retentive have spent the last few days pointing out how there is no such thing as a complete right to freedom of speech, nor should there be.  There are laws against incitement and hatred for good reason.  Is it too much to suggest we have perhaps moved too far against a presumption in favour of free speech though, such has been the wish not to offend, to respect sensitivities, without those good intentions being the same thing as political correctness?  The vast majority of people in this country seem to have no problem with the prosecution of Matthew Woods say, who didn't get the celebrity backing afforded to Paul Chambers, while others got very agitated over idiots burning poppies.  Should it come as a surprise others reject notions of freedom of expression when our approach itself comes across so frequently as contradictory or hypocritical?

In the same way as comedy is always subjective, so too is satire.  If you don't like it, you don't have to watch, read or look at it.  How utterly absurd it seems that obvious sentiment has to be repeated even now.  At times, it really does seem like we haven't made a lot of progress in the last 40 odds years, only now it's the left rather than the right which seems more comfortable with censorship.

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Monday, January 12, 2015 

Charlie sets the example.

It's always reassuring to see just how quickly unity and resistance can be appropriated by the very people who want nothing of the sort.  Call me a negative Nancy, but it's one thing for people to spontaneously come together in silent protest and remembrance, as they did on Wednesday night, and something remarkably different when the state itself then urges everyone to do so.  Martin Rowson's cartoon in the Graun points out how the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists would have seen the irony in politicians who refuse to endorse freedom of speech being invited to march alongside their fellow leaders, and when it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas joining the parade, who can't talk to each other but will take part in any opportunity for self-promotion, the bad taste left in the mouth has lingered ever since.

Admittedly, Netanyahu hardly couldn't go considering the racist targeting by Amédy Coulibaly of a kosher supermarket, yet it still didn't feel quite right how the Israel/Palestine conflict, regardless of your personal views on it, without doubt exacerbates tensions in a way little else does.  And let's not pretend Israeli politicians of any stripe have recently attempted to calm such feelings: we only have to recall Netanahyu's response to the murders of three Israeli teenagers, when he called for "God to avenge their blood", to realise it's not just non-state actors that invoke religion when they want to.  There have been criticisms of some of the language used by politicians in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, with questioning even of describing the attacks as "barbaric" considering the word's origins, but European leaders have been moderate in the extreme compared to the rhetoric casually thrown back and forth elsewhere.  The cynical response of the Israeli government to those murders led directly to last summer's Gaza conflict, which in turn sparked the horrified news reports about the rise of anti-semitism in Europe.  Nothing of course justifies racism in any form, but when the Israeli government ostensibly collapsed on the very issue of legislation that would have defined Israel as a Jewish state, those same politicians know the game they are playing.

This said, it would be difficult not to be moved by the size of the crowds on the streets of France yesterday.  One wonders however if this was precisely because all real semblance of meaning had already been stripped from "Je suis Charlie", the marches being little more than a indication that life would carry on as before, as though it wouldn't have done anyway.  You could also if you wanted characterise it as a very French reaction to an attack on France rather than one on "freedom of speech" or "universal values"; demonstrating, marching is in the French national character, going all the way back to 1789, passing 1968 right up to the present day.  It just doesn't seem like something that would ever be repeated here, perhaps you can snidely comment because there isn't any such thing as a British national character, and even if there were it certainly wouldn't involve taking to the streets.

Moreover, for all the angry responses to the Charlie Hebdo attack, including from myself, justified as they were, it should once again bring home just how weak those who have set themselves against the West are.  We can agonise over the alienation, and the sense of dispossession some in marginalised communities feel against the countries they were often born in or which gave them sanctuary, and yet it ought to bring home just how small in the number those who feel this way really are.  Compared to those previously attracted to fascism or communism, neither of which are really comparable to jihadism beyond the utopian, or in practice dystopian ideals at their ideological core, it's indicative of just how easy it is to overhype the threat.  To those in Nigeria, let alone in Syria or Iraq, the last few days seen from the outside must have seemed the epitome of Western solipsism.

As I wrote following the release of the ISC report into the murder of Lee Rigby, we've apparently moved past the point where the threat is spectacular mass casualty bomb attacks to one where it's one or two armed men against the full weight of the state.  One armed man carrying out a spree killing in a heavily populated area is almost impossible to prevent.  In France on Friday we're told 80,000 police officers were mobilised, and Coulibaly still managed to launch his deadly assault on somewhere which made for an obvious target.  All three men were also known to the authorities, as were Rigby's killers.  Rather than this being a failure, as much as it is, it also shows how total security is an impossibility.  If someone is motivated enough, they will act, and they can't always be stopped.

This doesn't though stop the authorities from saying if only they had this power, if they only could do this, we'd all be that much safer.  Andrew Parker's speech on Thursday was coincidental rather than taking advantage, but it was no doubt further weaponised after Wednesday's events.  The cynics amongst us might note how it was the head of GCHQ who first denounced internet companies as effectively being hand in glove with terrorists, with his theme fully approved by the ISC in their Rigby report afterwards, no doubt completely unconnected events.  Now in the aftermath of Parker's sermonising, the same old faces and newer ones with their eyes on a greater prize solemnly agree on how essential it is the intelligence agencies get the ability to do whatever the hell they like, which is without hyperbole what they're demanding.

It doesn't seem to occur that it's the very openness of our society that makes us stronger, not as some would have it, more susceptible.  The sight of military personnel outside Jewish schools, while understandable and probably justified as those connected with the killers are sought, is exactly the sort of change those behind the attack seek.  Something meant to reassure nearly always has the exact opposite effect.  It's a small thing also, but it felt distinctly odd on Friday hearing journalists talk about the killing of the three behind the separate attacks being the "best possible outcome"; surely the best outcome would have been to deny them the martyrdom they sought and to bring them before a court, although that was probably impossible in the case of the Kouachi brothers coming out shooting.  Charlie Hebdo itself provides the example we ought to follow: that of continuing as before while remembering.

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Monday, January 05, 2015 

2015: like 2014 never ended.

Ah, the new year.  A time for renewal, for doing things differently, for approaching your problems from a different angle, for every single fucking thing remaining exactly the fucking same.  Because dates, while obviously not insignificant, are incredibly arbitrary and events are not constrained by the mere fact it's now January rather than December.  Yeah, at heart I really am a true romantic.

We may as well then once again go over well trodden ground, not that this will mean anything to precisely anyone.  If I wasn't such a social disaster area, I'd probably have said at least something along the lines of err, hello first.  Or, alternatively, done the other intelligent thing and just acknowledged them and kept walking.  If I was too blunt, or it came across as rude, or exasperated, as it probably did, it wasn't my intention, although when you say "Is there any point in my trying to talk to you?" as your conversation opener it does rather invite the response I got.  It was my anxiety at work more anything.  Most likely it's all I would have got whatever I'd said.  It's only later, as always, that you think of what you should have said, how you should have responded, but taking no for an answer when it was always likely to be the answer is something, isn't it?  No, I'm not convinced by myself either.

Onto that there politics then, right?  How can anyone not rejoice knowing we have just the nigh on 5 exact months until we get the choice of either chaos or competence?  Stop sniggering at the back, Methuselah.  And please Cassandra, don't slash your wrists in front of the rest of the class.  Didn't you miss the whole one party's spiel being slightly less bullshitty than t'others over the winterval break?  No?  Shame it's all we're going to get for the best part of the year then.  On second thoughts, can you pass your knife to the front of the class please, Cass?

Nor is there any relief from the dominating story of 2014, the seemingly constant flow of sexual assault claims made against those in the public eye, both living and dead, bookended by the Met declaring the allegations made by a man that he witnessed the murder of boys at the hands of VIPs and politicians "credible and true".  Accepting a person's account is not of course the same thing as what they described having occurred, nor is it clear whether anyone is still alive that could be held accountable or brought to trial, which always makes declaring such things a little bit easier.  We can but wait for Theresa May to get round to finally sorting out exactly what kind of overarching inquiry we need, but little things like appearing next to her fellow Tory leadership rivals are clearly more pressing on her.

If there's one thing to say about the allegations made against Prince Andrew, and frankly it wouldn't have surprised me if someone had come along and said he'd caught Andrew frotting his dog, it's whether or not the media will treat them with more scepticism than previously due to the whole, err, royal angle.  Thankfully for them, it also involves a Maxwell, and just like with Savile, the media's lamentable failure to catch a crook while they're alive inevitably results in trying to make up for it afterwards.  That Ghislaine Maxwell has also decamped to America and become a socialite just makes it even better, and so there's no doubt: the bouncing Czech's daughter clearly procured underage girls for the rich and famous.  Palace crisis!  Sex slavery!  Photograph of all three grinning while Andrew has his arm round Jane Doe #3's waist!  It's disgusting, prurient, no one has any idea whether the allegations are true or not, and it sells newspapers like billy-o.

And so, finally, we must sadly move on to Chedwyn Evans.  Not a single thing has altered since Sheffield United decided they couldn't in the face of a furore employ him as though nothing had happened.  I disagreed with that decision, but more than respected those who argued with force it sent a terrible message about how the victims of rape and sexual assault can be treated while the perpetrator can walk back into a high profile role apparently waiting for them.  With the returning to his old club angle gone, it seems to now be more about making an example of this particular person and this particular case rather the merits or demerits of those in the public eye convicted of serious crimes being able to resume their lives once they've served their sentence.

Not that Evans has fully served that sentence, and usually the rule is those convicted of serious offences who continue to maintain their innocence aren't eligible for early release.  David Conn in the Guardian also brings attention to some of the more objectionable parts of the Evans is innocent campaign's website, including CCTV footage of the woman, her face blurred, entering the hotel where she was raped, asking viewers to decide for themselves if she's too drunk to consent or not based wholly on that.  It also in the "Key and Undisputed Facts" section says Evans's fellow accused and acquitted friend Clayton McDonald texted Evans once he was with the victim saying "I am with a girl" or words to that effect.  The appeal court's ruling says this text in fact read "got a bird", which is a fairly major difference.  It also quotes out of any context tweets made by the victim where she talks about "winning big", where it is not in the slightest clear she is referring to, as the site implies, compensation.  The victim, repeatedly identified on social media by supporters of Evans, has moved house and changed her name 5 times in the intervening period.

There is little more to be said about the arguments both for and against Evans.  It seems strange to me the simple act of playing football, not even at Premier League level, hardly to be considered a position of real authority, is enough to make someone a role model and therefore to be celebrated more highly and by the same token judged more harshly and punished more severely if they offend against society.  Such however is the idol we have made of a game, a secular opiate of the people if there ever was one.

Evans' being a footballer doesn't enter into the case itself in any shape or form: he was just a footballer who committed a rape.  If there's any one reason to object to Evans returning to play, it's perhaps down to how there will be no respite for his victim until he retires: the simple act of looking at a paper, news site or watching TV will carry the potential for her to be reminded of the crime.  Should Oldham Athletic choose to sign Evans, the very least he could do, as he can't express remorse while maintaining his innocence, is to get those highly objectionable parts of the campaign website taken down and to issue an appeal to those who have supported him to stop hounding the woman he denies raping.  Considering his rabbit in the headlights past appearance in front of a camera, as little as that is likely to be too much to ask.

2015's shaping up just swell, isn't it?

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Thursday, January 01, 2015 

That David Cameron new year message in full.

It's a new year, and there's a lot that's new in our country today.

Not for me though, as once again I'm standing in a nondescript factory somewhere to underline how, despite not having worked with my hands for a single day in my entire life, there's nothing I'm more in favour of than a hard day's toil.

The world is looking at Britain in a new way too.  They're wondering exactly what kind of hocus pocus we're using to make it look as though the economy's booming.

It's quite simple.  We have a long term economic plan with common sense values at its heart.  If you put it in, you get it out, like you'll have the chance to with our EU referendum.  If you want to work, and let's face it, you have to, as we've made it impossible for those who genuinely can't find a job to not get sanctioned, there are a whole myriad of zero-hours contracts or self-employed part-time placements for you to choose from.  And if you're willing to save, with the mountain of cash you'll have left over at the end of the month thanks to our raising of the income tax threshold, you can buy a rabbit hutch of your very own.  Finally, when you feel it's time to consider dying, you'll have the dignity and security a NHS coming apart at the seams offers us all.

Our long term plan is working.  George, remind me, what is our long term plan?  Blame Labour for everything and leave all the difficult stuff until after the election, that's the one.

Britain this year has a choice.  Between the competence that has gotten us this far, or the chaos of giving it up, going backwards and taking huge risks.  The competence that led us to stall the economic recovery for two years before we realised it was time to loosen the austerity we imposed.  The competence of a top-down reorganisation of the NHS we expressly said wasn't necessary, and we already recognise as our biggest mistake.  The competence of chasing after UKIP, becoming ever more hardline on immigration and seeing UKIP's support keep increasing as a result.  Or the setting of an immigration target in the first place, that was also outstandingly competent.  And if it's chaos you're after, you can't do much better than the countrywide riots we saw and we desperately hope everyone's forgotten about, what with the police facing some of the most eye-watering spending cuts of all.

This should be our resolution.  There is such a thing as society, but if you vote for us in May we intend to ensure there's no such thing as the state.

Finally, look at my bulbous face and be reassured that Thomas the Tank Engine is your prime minister.  Oh, and happy new year to you and yours.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014 

The ghosts of Tory Christmas future.

There is one, and one comfort only to be taken if worst comes to worst and the Conservatives win a majority next May: David Cameron will continue to lead the party.

This isn't out of grudging respect for David Cameron's achievements as prime minister.  Having never understood the appeal of a man who seems to emanate insincerity, who is easily discombobulated and angered (see PMQs most weeks), and who can also express faux anger if the need takes him, about the only positive to be taken from his time as head of the coalition is he will have guided it through the past five years without it collapsing.  This of course has much less to do with Cameron himself and more with the Liberal Democrats staring into the electoral abyss, the Tories also unconvinced they could win a majority in the event of it breaking apart, but slight achievement it is nevertheless.

Cameron is however a titan, a veritable Alexander the Great as compared to those whom aspire to be Tory leader should he fall under a bus or that majority continue to be unobtainable.  Fighting like a sackful of rats and tomcats are George Osborne and Theresa May, with the latest skirmish resulting in Theresa May's special advisers being denied the safe parliamentary seats they believed they were entitled to, supposedly for refusing to do their bit in the Rochester by-election.  Their demotion was, according to the Mail, approved by Cameron, who for reasons known only to himself appears to favour his chancellor moving next door when the time comes.

As mysterious as the charms of Cameron are, those of Theresa May remain as hidden or indeed as illusory as the lost city of Atlantis, and just as cold.  May's rise seems to stem purely from how she's managed to last the full term as home secretary, which as with Cameron speaks much of just how many powers the Home Office has farmed out as it does about her competence.  If nothing else she's managed to stare down problems which destroyed past holders of the office: like the little difficulty with Bodie Clark, or more recently the various immigration reports she delayed publishing, not to mention how while it's unfortunate to lose one head of a child abuse inquiry, to have two resign isn't so much carelessness as sustained buffoonery.  Not having the right-wing press tearing lumps out of you merely for being a Labour home secretary also helps matters.

Dear old Georgie by contrast remains in the race if only due to his superpower of placing sycophants in various government departments.  Not content with having once smashed his party's ratings with the omnishambles budget, his autumn statement with its promise of "colossal" cuts seems to have seen resulted in blowback once again.  Admittedly, only some polls are showing a lengthening of Labour's slight lead, but considering how in the immediate aftermath the spin was about how Osborne had once again made a silk purse out of Ed Balls's scrotum, it's enough to suggest his great shrinking the state gambit isn't working out.

And then we have Boris Johnson.  Anyone who's read Just Boris will be all too aware of quite how unprincipled, hungry for power and determined to get it at any cost the London mayor is.  Hidden beneath the artistry veneer of being upper class twit of the year is a venal liar without scruples, and a libido that would embarrass Russell Brand.  All things considered, he's probably the least worst potential candidate.

Whether Cameron can hang on in the event of his party again emerging with the most seats but without a majority depends on whether the backbenches could be convinced to back a two-time loser for a third time.  Would Cameron really be capable of getting the fabled majority in a snap election following the collapse of a minority administration?  Would the alternatives be any better?  Can you imagine George Osborne helming the campaign for Britain to stay in the EU?  Theresa May being softened by the usual advisers in an attempt to make her likable?  Boris Johnson doing anything other than his Macavity act, one that would put Gordon Brown's in the utmost perspective?  Trust me, the horror could be only just beginning.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014 

Two nations, the same words, the same outcome.

I can't breathe.  The words spoken by Eric Garner after a NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold, before he was then slammed to the ground.  Within minutes he was dead.  The decision by a grand jury not to indict the officer who placed him in the chokehold, coming just a week after a grand jury similarly declined to indict the officer who shot dead Michael Brown, sparking riots in Brown's hometown of Ferguson, has led to protests by sportsmen and celebrities.

I can't breathe.  The words spoken by Jimmy Mubenga, after three G4S guards meant to be supervising his deportation forced him forward in his seat, despite his already being handcuffed from behind.  Except, it's now difficult to know if that's what happened as the jury at the manslaughter trial brought following the unlawful killing verdict at Mubenga's inquest found all three not guilty, and within hours of their being sent out to consider their verdict.

This isn't the first time the verdict of an inquest and the subsequent manslaughter trial have differed.  Most notably, an inquest jury found Ian Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed, dying not long after he was pushed to the ground by PC Simon Harwood.  The jury at his trial similarly was not convinced beyond reasonable doubt he was responsible for Tomlinson's death, a decision which could be rationalised by how there was a difference of opinion between the pathologists who carried out consecutive autopsies.  The first post-mortem was performed by Freddy Patel, an incompetent who was suspended at the time of the trial and has since been struck off, details the jury were not told as they were deemed prejudicial.  Patel also poured away the liquid he found in Tomlinson's abdomen, which could have determined beyond doubt the cause of death.

The jury at the Mubenga trial were not told of the inquest's unlawful killing verdict, rather more understandably, nor that two of the guards had "racist" jokes on their phones.  We can't of course know which parts of the evidence the jury accepted and those they didn't: the guards denied hearing Mubenga crying out that he couldn't breathe, something that passengers seated much further away on the plane did and testified they had.  They also denied putting Mubenga into a position known to have the potential to cause breathing difficulties, which again witnesses testified they had.  The prosecution case also included reconstructing the alleged restraint placed on Mubenga, with a section of a Boeing 777 constructed in the court, members of the jury placed in the same position as Mubenga was.

We can then only surmise at how they reached their verdict.  We know juries are reluctant to convict police officers or others in positions of authority, whether they be British or American.  Just last week a jury cleared two officers of attacking a man with autism in Luton, despite hearing a recording of one of the pair referring to him as a "fucking Paki" moments prior to the altercation.  The jury seemingly accepted the injuries Faruk Ali sustained were due to his falling into bins when grabbed by one of the officers, not the punches claimed by Ali's family.  This giving of the benefit of the doubt is perhaps explained somewhat by polls showing a healthy majority retain trust in the police, one survey finding 65% would generally trust officers to be truthful.  Only teachers, doctors and judges are trusted more.  Journalists and politicians rank along the bottom.

Jimmy Mubenga wasn't only black; he was also being deported following a conviction for actual bodily harm.  All three of the guards found not guilty are white, the youngest 39.  The jury accepted their argument they were simply "trying to do a very difficult job in difficult circumstances, to the best of their ability".  You have to suspect that Mubenga, unlike Garner, will not have footballers or say, Idris Elba, donning t-shirts featuring some of his last words in protest.

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