Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Thou Shalt Not

Let's return to the Rhodes statue debacle, which has now ended with a decisive victory for the forces of major financial donorship.

To recap quickly: A small group of students at an Oxford college felt that the on-campus presence of a statue dedicated to Cecil Rhodes, one of the British Empire's more rapacious exploiters and infamous thieves, is anachronistic at best and actively offensive at worst.  They demanded that the college remove the offending sculpture, mainly for symbolic reasons.

A terrific rammy then ensued, in which the national press hurled a series of astonishing insults and accusations at these students.  The row finally ended when the college's big money donors threatened to withdraw their funding if the statue was removed.  And so now, the statue will stay. 

I've left it a few days before responding to these events, to allow for reaction to this hilarious decision to play out.  Having done so, I think we can draw a few lessons here:

Threats are fine, provided they're financial 

It's amusing to note the contrast in the treatment that the people involved in this row have received.  

 In the pages of the UK's quality press, the students were repeatedly accused of dictatorial attempts to throttle free enquiry and open debate, and were denounced over and over for trying to delete or sanitise history.  The hacks joined with noted academics and former statesmen in issuing fiery accusations at a few students for iconoclasm and intellectual thuggery, even going so far as to angrily compare the students' actions to ISIS's destruction of antiquities.

And yet, when the issue was resolved by a couple of very wealthy geezers issuing actual blackmail, the very same people were either silent, or openly celebratory.

The lesson here is this - When a plurality of punditry and former politicians agree that some trifling squabble represents an unacceptable threat to our most treasured abstract concepts, they're usually pulling a fast one.

It's difficult to tell from the muted reaction, but I think we can now conclude that many of the students' detractors may have been arguing in bad faith.

After all, it is possible to argue that a request to remove a statue constitutes an outrageous attempt to throttle debate, while also believing in the rectitude of actually throttling the debate with financial threats.

It's just not possible to do both, without also being an outrageous bullshit-merchant of the first water.

Let's note here that it was the students that were repeatedly accused of being "hysterical"; of "throwing tantrums" and so on, and yet it was their opponents who e.g. deployed the ISIS comparisons.  It was the students who were accused of "throttling debate", but it was the donors who issued the threats that won the day.

For me but not for thee 

In the United States, they've been pulling down Confederate banners and statues for months, as they damn well should do and should've done decades ago.

In Ukraine, the removal and defacement of Soviet iconography is routine.  Statues and flags have been torn down all across the Middle East for years, and all of these terrible acts of iconoclasm have happened to the sound of loud celebration in the UK press.

And yet somehow, when the action is moved closer to home, far milder forms of the same behaviour are treated as an unacceptable national outrage.  The mere suggestion that Cecil Rhodes might meet the same fate as, say, Confederate officer Nathan Bedford-Forrest - a roughly comparable historical figure, IMHO - is met with screeches and wails of terror. 

No doubt you can imagine how the UK press would've responded to similar controversies involving likenesses of Che Guevara in South America, or Kemal Ataturk in Ankara.  I suspect that a press-room whip-round for pick-axes might not be out of the question.

But one may not sully the Great British imperialists of yore.  It's worth noting that, had the Americans reacted to anti-Confederacy objections as our own academics and scribbling classes have done with the empire, most of those Stars-'n'-Bars would still be flying today.

You mess with Oxford at your peril

A fairly obvious one, this - I think we can all agree that a row along similar lines wouldn't have attracted a fraction of the vituperation, if it had instead broken out at e.g. the University of Dundee.

One of the many comical and undeclared undercurrents of all the recent campus controversies is that of old boys getting riled by the suspicion that they might not be entirely welcome at their former stomping grounds.  And indeed they might not be, and I'm sure that you're all just as concerned about that prospect as I am.

Thou shalt not fuck with the Empire 

And here, I think, we reach the fundamental issue.  This was a debate about the Empire - about the industrial-scale theft and wanton cruelty that is part of any imperial project, be it British, Roman or Soviet.  The students, not unfairly, regarded the likeness of one of the imperial era's more prominent plunderers as an affront, not simply because of his racism, but because of his conduct.

The response from our pundits, academics and former politicians was very telling, I think.  Almost all  chose to interpret this instead as a debate about racism and political correctness, and issued exculpatory statements about Rhodes' philanthropy, and how Rhodes was no more racist than his contemporaries.  The Times - incredibly - allowed one of its columnists* to claim that Rhodes wasn't that racist, since he believed that Africans could be trained to become civilised.

And this has always been the standard British response to any complaints about the undisputed savagery of our former Empire - to emphasise the good manners and good breeding of our empire-building forebears, as a partial excuse to ignore their profound lack of good character or even good behaviour.

The hysterics and amateur dramatics that this row has inspired suggest to me that it's touched a raw nerve.  I get the feeling that Rhodes is the wobbly brick at the bottom of the wall.  If we question him, then that surely calls into question all of the participants and beneficiaries of empire.

And let's be clear: if we do that, then we'd have to question most of the people and institutions that make up our great national self-image - family members of famous and wealthy people, historical figures, great schools and universities, businesses, maybe even kings and queens.

That's why almost every opinion piece on the Rhodes row has contained some variation upon the following question - If we're going to disown Rhodes, then wouldn't we have to look again at e.g. Queen Victoria, or even Winston Churchill, with a critical eye?

The ludicrous nature of this entire incident - with its near-deranged tone, its almost entirely one-sided insults and its hilarious, slapstick outcome - strongly suggests that, well, maybe we should.

*Nigel Biggar, Message to students: Rhodes was no racist, The Times, 22 December 2015

Saturday, January 23, 2016

An Intolerable Enormity

Yet another week of screeching headlines that have actual useful lessons tip-toeing around behind them, I think.

Let's start with David Cameron's absurd plan to protect Muslim women by deporting the ones that don't learn to speak English.  Most of what needs to be said about it has been said already, so I'll just add the following -

- To anyone who has ever asked the rhetorical question "Why won't feminists say (my fucknut opinion about the Muslims)?", Cameron's ludicrous PR stunt provides the answer - Because they will then be used to justify whatever shit-thick policy proposal the Prime Minister decides will make him look good.

I imagine that the various campaigners for women's rights and secularism, and against honour killings, female genital mutilation and all manner of other religion-and-culture-related horrors, did not imagine that their principled efforts were ripe to be picked up by the PM and used to justify his latest Gosh I dislike the fucking immigrants just as much as the voters do nonsense.  And yet, that's exactly what has happened.

Much as it happened when feminists and other right-on types picked up on and publicised the kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram, people who commit great investments in time and effort to thankless tasks now find circles of (mostly) dudes demanding that they endorse the idiotic ideas of one very rich and powerful dude who is using their campaigns to boost his approval ratings.  Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose.

- Also, the Westminster inquiry into how Britain helped to hopelessly fuck up Libya to a state spectacularly worse than its previous fuckage has been going on this week, and has been unsurprisingly under-publicised.

I'll spare you the details, and note that the inquiry has revealed that the government authorised the Libya campaign without having the slightest idea what it was doing, what its allies intended to do, who it was helping or what the effect of their actions would be.  They understood almost nothing about the country or the various factions that they were supporting and displayed not a jot of interest in finding out anything more.

This being Parliament, there are excuses - mostly, these are of the "We made mistakes because we were so darned enthusiastic about peace" variety.  The message that comes across loud and clear is rather that they immediately decided on a gung-ho course of action and simply shouted down anyone who tried to advise them against it, mainly because they are extremely vain and confident in their own barely-existing common sense.

You'll note that all of this chimes almost precisely with the statements of those who strongly advised against the Libya War before it got underway.  Having watched exactly the same debacle unfold repeatedly, I don't now expect to see any apologies for either the wild war-fever or for the denunciations and condemnations which were so freely bandied about in 2011.

Which is just as well, because there are none and there never will be any, mostly because the people who were dishing out the abuse then are just as pompous and self-regarding now.

And while we're on the topic of people with big, crazy ideas for improving the lives of foreigners via military hi-jinks, let's note that that ball is still rolling ever-onward.

- Times columnist David Aaronovitch is this week demanding 300,000 troops to Syria, on the grounds that anything else is unrealistic.

Now, you and I know that nobody is going to send 300,000 troops to Syria.  Dave knows it too.  In fact, everyone who sees this understands that it's much like saying "We must deploy the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers to Syria, or else".  And yet, there it is.

Elsewhere, Nick has a grand idea for helping out the Kurds in their fight with Islamic State - why don't we just arm them to the teeth, to show our support for their cause?  And not only should we arm them to the teeth, but doing otherwise is a disgraceful failure that brings shame upon our ancestors.

As commenters point out, the obvious answer to this question is Because we would instantly make Turkey our deadly enemy, and would massively infuriate the Americans. 

This is so obvious that it shouldn't need saying and it'd be quite reasonable to acknowledge this, and to then debate the pros and cons of arming the Kurds anyway.  Since doing so would require Nick to actually think about the issue however, he decides instead to ignore it entirely.  Thus he achieves the remarkable feat of writing a column about the Kurds that actually leaves the reader more ignorant after reading it, rather than less.

- Which brings us to the miserable state of Syria, about which there has been much mounting of high-horses this week.

In amongst all the calumnies and excoriations, one simple fact has been true since the very start of the Syrian War, and it's this - everyone agrees that the war is terrible and unacceptable, and few of the people shouting loudest about it want the war to actually end.  Almost everyone commenting on the war instead wants their chosen faction to win.

Consider - shriekers and chest-pounders like James Bloodworth are perfectly well aware that victory for the Syrian rebels, whether we mean the actual Jihadist groups or the largely fictional armies of secularists, would involve precisely the same amount of artillery bombardments, seige-warfare and bloodshed.

And yet, few if any of them ever express a desire for the war to end.  This tells us that it's not so much the extreme violence and death that upsets our commentators, as it is the fact that it's mainly happening in the wrong postcode.  They're not so much upset that people are dying, as that it's the wrong people who are dying.

If it were in their power, few of our pundits and politicians would stop the guns firing, and would instead turn them upon the populations that they believe are more deserving.  And make no mistake, they'd find reasons to approve of the destruction, exactly as they've done in Libya and Iraq and god knows where else.

All of which is worth bearing in mind, the next time that some joker announces that the situation in some benighted country is an intolerable enormity, and that something must be done about it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

So Wrong, It's Right

Finished watching season one of The Americans last night, the FX drama about deep-cover KGB sleeper agents in eighties Washington.  Needless to say, there will be mild Spoilers here.

So The Americans is both very entertaining and utterly absurd.  It's an espionage soap-opera filled with cheesy dialogue and outbursts of the type of badass close-quarters combat that's been compulsory in spy and hitman dramas since at least Grosse Point Blank.  The bodycount is ludicrous, more like a two-day bender in Beirut than any Le Carre novel. Sensationalism-wise, one episode alone features more gratuitous fucking than entire seasons of HBO dramas have done.

Despite the show's eighties setting, it's only the klutzes and doofi who dress in a recognisably eighties fashion.  The main cast spend most of their time looking like they've just completed a trolley-dash in The Gap.  Mind you, most of the Soviets look like the human embodiment of a miserable hangover in 1974, which is at least historically accurate.

Still, there's lots of fun to be had here, as spies and counter-intelligence agents engage in the kind of ruthless, kill-crazy murder sprees on the streets of DC that the real spooks tended to reserve for Latin America and southern Africa.  At one point, the head of the FBI's counter-spy unit - played by John Boy Walton, believe it or not - summarises events:

"This isn't a Cold War.  There's nothing cold about the covert violent exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union.  They've killed not only our agents but our citizens and for that, they'll pay".  

Ooh, those covert violent exchanges!  For a show that's supposedly about a titanic global political struggle between two great, implacable superpowers, there's precious little politics here.  KGB agent Elizabeth - Keri Russell, kicking ass like the Terminator - is plainly intended to be the fanatical party loyalist.  You can tell that she is, because the scriptwriters occasionally have her stop whatever she's doing to remind the audience that boy, she really isn't very keen on this capitalism malarkey.  The FBI are mainly just gung-ho coppers.

You get the feeling that the quandary at the heart of the show is - how are you supposed to kill motherfuckers for Marxist-Leninism, when the kids need picking up from school?  There's probably more ironic political commentary in the average Marvel comic these days but oddly, this isn't such a bad thing in the end.

The central MacGuffin for season one is the Reagan administration's Strategic Defence Initiative.  Moscow is terrified that the Star Wars program will hand the US an insuperable advantage, so they pack our anti-heroes off on increasingly dangerous and pointless missions to uncover details about it.

We end up with a thoroughly depoliticised gang fight between two rival groups of mobsters, both determined to fight each other to the death over pretty much fuck-all.  As you'd expect, the SDI initiative turns out to be one of the most hilarious frauds ever perpetrated on taxpayers anywhere - it doesn't work, and never could have.  It's nothing but a giant boondoggle designed to shovel vast sums of cash into the pockets of defence contractors.  The Soviet Union is on its last legs, mere years from its inevitable collapse under the weight of its own lunatic bullshit.

The characters kung-fu chop each other in the neck and shoot each other in the face, and nobody seems to have much idea why they're doing it, beyond than the fact that it's what they're paid to do.  Which is pretty much what the Cold War was, by 1981 - two towering bureaucracies going through the motions, still threatening the entire planet with total annihilation, while their leaders quietly stuffed their pockets with everything that could be stolen.

I mean, I liked it!  It's all good, knockabout larks, although I'm unsure whether it suffers from ropey, confused scriptwriting, or is in fact a grand satirical anti-war masterpiece on a par with Catch-22.

If it's the latter, I have to salute everyone involved, because it's doing a wonderful job of portraying the ridiculous insanity of the era. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Name And Shame

We're only two weeks into the year, and already we have a candidate for The Most Shameful And Irresponsible Opinion Column of 2016 - take a bow, everyone at the Telegraph involved in producing this one on the anonymity of victims of sexual offences:

Name and shame the bogus victims - Why should innocent men... be put through hell to salve the conscience of two-timing "booze hounds"? 

We have a two-for-one deal here - a failure to understand the difference between "Not guilty" and "Innocent of a particular crime", with the added assumption that a failed prosecution must logically be the result of a false accusation, maliciously made.

Well, let me put it this way.  If I punch you in the head, and am later acquitted of punching you in the head, I still punched you in the head.  That still happened, regardless of a jury's view on the matter.

The fact that I was found not guilty of the charge means only that the Crown couldn't prove to a jury's satisfaction that I was guilty.

It might sound like an obvious distinction but it's vital to bear it in mind when considering contentions such as:

"When rape accusations prove false and the defendant is acquitted, that cloak of anonymity should immediately be rescinded" 


"The law fails to take into account... the manifest injustice to men in the approximately 40 per cent of rape cases where they are acquitted".  

The difficulty of proving guilt in sexual offences cases is commonly understood, so I think I'm on safe ground to declare that we can say with absolute certainty that there's no way in hell that justice is done 100% of the time, or even close to it.  That being the case, demands for the removal of anonymity post-trial are the same as demanding that we  name actual rape victims, if they can't provide enough evidence to secure a conviction.

And that might not be so problematic, if it weren't for the way that the woman in this particular case is depicted by the Telegraph and other papers:

"...a (self-described) 'booze-hound', acknowledging her love of a drink... a boozy young woman, remorseful at playing away from a jealous boyfriend, (who) salves her conscience by going after the innocent young man with whom she had consensual sex..."

And who knows?  This may even correct in this case, although you'll struggle to establish the truth of the matter from this article or from others about the same trial.  The full evidence presented for the complainer's malfeasance is that

a) The jury didn't believe her,

b) She likes a drink, and

c) The defence lawyer claimed that she was "manipulative", "dangerous" and an "attention-seeking liar". 

Well, a) juries disbelieve people who tell the truth every day of the week in courts throughout the land; b) pretty much everyone likes a drink, and c) if we took the statements of defence lawyers as gospel, the only places emptier than newspaper offices would be prisons.

And this is all before we get to the real howlers, too:

"The inequity (of victims' anonymity) is mind-blowing.  The system as it stands makes a mockery of the central tenet of criminal law - the presumption of innocence.  The honourable notion that it is for the prosecution to prove guilt rather than the defendant to prove innocence..." 

...Which would be a remarkable claim in itself, even if it wasn't bang in the middle of a lengthy complaint about a high-profile case in which the defendant plainly did benefit from the presumption of innocence, and in which the prosecution actually did fail to prove guilt.

"As such it means that women who make false accusations will never be held to account - regardless of the cost".  

Another remarkable assertion, given that people who do make false accusations of sexual assault are regularly prosecuted for offences, and while perjury itself remains very illegal.  To return to an earlier point though, the author is - whether wilfully or through ignorance - asserting that unsuccessful prosecutions are the result of false allegations, when this is patently not so.

Anyway, here's why I find all of this particularly alarming.  In my (limited) experience, the most difficult obstacle to overcome in prosecutions for rape often  isn't legal or technical.

The biggest problem is usually the damn jury, because the people on it bring all manner of unpredictable preconceptions about people and sex offences into court with them.  The same problems come up repeatedly:

- Jurors appreciate the severity of branding a person as a sex offender, and are thus extremely reluctant to do so unless they're absolutely convinced of guilt;

- Some jurors tend to assume that anyone telling a garbled story, or a story that features contradictions, is lying; they also tend to dislike victims who are angry or inarticulate, or both.  You can imagine why this would be problematic in rape trials, when the defence are doing their damnedest to tear victims' testimony to shreds; and

- Jurors can be surprisingly prissy, frowning on behaviours that they themselves would never indulge in, such as e.g. getting drunk, being on drugs or acting in an overtly sexual manner.

All this is bad enough, so the very last thing that will assist in the deliberations of jurors who may already be looking for an excuse to acquit are assertions that people - and women in particular - make malicious rape allegations as a matter of routine.

It's staggering to me that this type of stuff can make it into a broadsheet newspaper in 2016.  I'm presuming here that this piece had to go past both editorial and legal oversight before publication.  The fact that it did so in this form, is a bit like a bloodstained serial-killer with a shotgun being waved through airport security - it should just never, ever happen, if anyone involved takes any pride in or responsibility for their work.

Still, congratulations to the Telegraph.  I hadn't realised that the paper was actively trying to make Britain a worse place for its citizens to live but, since it clearly is, we should all recognise that it's doing a bang-up job so far.

*For context here: Consider what you would have to do, in order to pursue a false accusation of rape.  You'd have to give the police a convincing story, and then stick to it with almost no deviation through repeated interviews over a period of months; you may have to endure highly invasive medical examinations; you might have to fake injury, and you'd have to tell a credible story in a packed courtroom under threat of prosecution.  

Christ, giving evidence in court is nerve-wracking even if you're just a witness, and even when you're telling the truth.  It would be very difficult indeed to pull off a scam of this magnitude without being prosecuted or facing explicit censure from a judge, unless you are a narcissistic psychopath on the level of Amy from Gone Girl.

That being so, you can probably imagine how credible the idea that anything like 40% of accusations may be false is.  

**There is an "inequity" in this particular case which has gone unaddressed, and it's this - if you or I were accused of this type of crime, we'd have to fund our defence out of our own pockets.  Which would mean that we'd be far more likely to be defended by Lionel Hutz than the Queen's Counsel who actually appeared - they cost thousands, tens of thousands, to hire.  Which is fine, but the accused's access to shit-hot legal representation lessens the supposedly terrible nature of this trial even further.

Additionally, if you or I were accused of such a crime and were found not guilty, the nation's right-wing press definitely would not flock to hear our tale of woe and to repeat it to the nation as an outrageous scandal, as has happened in this case. 

Reading between the lines, the reason why the hacks are all over this case is that the accused is posh; because he has access to lots of money, and is quite well-connected.  I may be wrong about that, but I suspect that I'm right.

Monday, January 11, 2016

If Nobody Has Any Objections

Regular readers will know that my usual tone here is one of affected cynicism leavened with cursewords and the occasional bout of scatalogical rambling.  I have other talents too - I can do world-weary resignation or caustic sarcasm as the need arises, and I also do a decent line in lachrymose sentimentality, even if I do say so myself.

I can apply any of this to just about anything and, had you asked me yesterday about, say, grand shows of emotion following a celebrity snuffing it, you'd probably have got one of those types of responses.

So you can probably imagine how surprised I was to find out this morning that I was really, genuinely upset to hear that David Bowie had died.

I don't mean upset as in bummed out, or anything.  I mean proper quivery-lip, no-I've-got-something-in-my-eye, hoping nobody raises it at work upset.  It feels a bit like an old friend has died, one that I haven't spoken to for many years, but still liked to know he was around and doing his thing.

To say that this is unusual would be putting it mildly.

I've been having a think about why this is.  I was a big fan of the late Jack Bruce, for instance, but I wasn't anything like as wobbly when he died in 2014.  So what was different with Bowie?

At first, I thought it might be Dave's seeming permanence.  Compared to other aged rock stars, Bowie retained the looks and the credibility.  Jimmy Page looks like somebody carved an effigy of Worzel Gummidge out of a boiled ham.  Madonna looks like last night's Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Dylan looks like somebody taught a goblin to play the harmonica. 

Bowie was different, kind of invulnerable.  The older he got, the cooler he looked - craggier, crazier, more and more Bowie, basically.  And while that's true, it doesn't have much of an emotional resonance, so it couldn't be that.

Then I thought about the years when I was really into Bowie's records, my eighteen-year-old self slotting a Bowie's Greatest Hits tape into an old ghettoblaster in my bedroom and battering a scuffed acoustic guitar into submission, trying and failing to overcome my own spectacular lack of talent.  But that's hardly a warm, fuzzy memory.

The more I thought about it, the more that I realised that my clear memories of Bowie were from childhood - of scratchy old LPs playing Life On Mars in the living room on bath-nights; of blaring car radios on family trips to zoos and playparks in summer; even of Dave prancing around the set of Labyrinth, chewing on the scenery, while my brother and I watched from the rug in front of the coal fire.  My folks love Bowie.

Well, the old heartstrings twanged away at that, alright.

Bowie might have been the alien and the androgene to everybody else but it looks like to me, although I'd never quite appreciated it, he was also as much part of my childhood home as the pictures on the wall and the wee stone dog on the hearth.  That's what the trembly-lip stuff is about really, about family and home and happiness.

And well, maybe that is a bit sentimental and sappy.  Maybe it's quite self-involved and not really about the man himself, but it's not such a bad thing for him to have brought to the world.

Quite a nice way to be remembered, I think.

Anyway, a wee conceit here, to finish up.  Dave has a cameo in the movie Zoolander, where he pops up unexpectedly to volunteer as a judge in a daft fashion contest.

"If nobody has any objections", he says, looking weird and fucking cool as usual, "I believe I might be of service".

The image freezes; a snatch of the riff from Let's Dance plays and the words "David Bowie" zap into the frame.

Ever since, I've always enjoyed kidding myself that this wasn't even a special effect.  It's just what happened, any time that David Bowie showed up unexpectedly somewhere. 

Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Way It Is

It's an old cliche that you shouldn't wrestle a pig, because you'll both get dirty and the pig will enjoy it.

It's an old cliche because it's correct.

It applies in spades to Labour's pissy squabble with the BBC.  There was never, ever any possibility that this could end without Jeremy Corbyn's arse in the mud and a chorus of piggy oinks and grunts ringing in his ears.

The second that complaint went in, the outcome was inevitable - the entirety of British political punditry pointing and laughing and the MP in question shoving his big, jowly ballsack face into cameras to squeal that he was sacked because by God, he just opposes terrorism so very fucking much.  Which is a mildly humorous stance to take, if you're intentionally suicide-bombing your own party headquarters.  

Still, there are a few lessons to be drawn here, and it's absolutely true that The press generally just don't like the current Labour leadership and are, for now, instinctively sympathetic to MPs on the party's right is one of them.

By far the most important lesson, however, is this - Choose your battles more wisely.  Whatever your take on mud-wrestling with the BBC is, I think we can all agree that this one hasn't ended well.

Because it's worth asking here what would've changed, if the Beeb had issued a statement apologising to Labour, rather than jabbing a two-fingered salute at Jez and telling him stick his objections.  The only answer that rings true to me is "nothing at all would be different".

Almost all political journalism in every first world country amounts to breathless repetition of press releases and briefings, conveyed as if they were events of tremendous import.  While it's true that some media organisations have overt political agendas, they all share in common a gargantuan appetite for endless content with precious little discernment over quality.

The major pressure on the hacks is the need to fill space with something that will attract attention.  If the only available material is a series of anonymous briefings from some jumped-up little tit pulling the old Scrappy-Doo routine, then they'll report that, no matter how vacuous or trivial it is.

This might seem odd to the public, but it doesn't strike the hacks as strange in the slightest.  Their job is to report what's happening in the world of politics.  If the easiest stories to report are pish and drivel, then they will report pish and drivel and sleep soundly in their beds at night.  If their stories result in controversy, they'll take that as a sign that they're doing their jobs well. 

In this sense, politics is no different to celebrity tittle-tattle.  Until the public stops taking an interest in photos of a party leader showing off his cellulite at the beach or which MP said that this minister had a chubby arse, it will continue in this vein.

This is a terrible situation and the most horrible irony of it is that any attempt to complain about it will immediately rebound on the plaintiff.  Complaining only gives the hacks an excuse to keep the story going for another day, because he-said-she-said is their meat and potatoes. 

Conmen and shysters thrive and proliferate in such an atmosphere, and it's absolutely true that the demand for 24-hour news is making political journalism - a medium that has always been crass, stupid and deeply unfair, like most other forms of journalism - even worse and more offensive.

Nonetheless!  This is the situation and it is not going to change any time soon. 

That being the case, here is the full list of options available to anyone in politics who ends up on the wrong side of the political press:

1) Fight on the most important points and otherwise, just rise above it.

And that's it.  Bleating about how unfair it all is keeps the story going indefinitely, and keeping the story going indefinitely is exactly what your foes want to happen.

That will strike you as unfair and it is, it is unfair, but it is the way it is.  The other option is to get down into the mud with the swine, and the Labour/BBC rammy has demonstrated neatly how well that works.

Rising above it may be unsatisfactory, but you will at least retain a shred of dignity.  You may even bank a little bit of credibility to expend on future battles that you can fight on terrain that's more favourable to your strengths.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Our Free Society Must Eradicate These Stupid Opinions

Alexander Flaming-Bellend

The Ruminator magazine
7 January 2016

One year on from the terrible massacres in Paris, all of us should take a moment to look back and reflect upon the shock and anger that we all felt when we first heard that somebody, somewhere, had said something stupid about them.

Even now, I can still remember my dismay and fury, when news began to filter through that some guy had written the words "These cartoons look a bit racist to me" in the comments section of an article on the Telegraph website.

Perhaps that gentleman is reading this column, and remembers his disgusting statement.  Perhaps he recalls attempting to sugar-coat his poisonous message by also adding: "Nobody should get killed over it though ;)", as if that weak sentiment could undo his original offence. 

Make no mistake - these murders were such a foul assault upon free speech that it is not enough, to simply revile the killers and all those who share their totalitarian mindset.  It is not enough to express our sympathy with the victims and their families.  It is not enough to declare that no human being should fear personal harm for merely stating an opinion, writing a book or drawing a cartoon.

Above all, we should remember that our free society must utterly eradicate these stupid opinions.  Everyone must agree that my precise views on these atrocities are the only ones that may legitimately be held, and join with me in issuing endless sulphurous denunciations of absolutely everyone who doesn't.

I remember wondering at the time whether that Telegraph commenter might have been misguided.  Perhaps he had misunderstood jokes that were, after all, written in a foreign language.  Maybe he had been hoaxed by a different cartoon, one that had never featured in the magazine - there were quite a few floating about, at the time.  Possibly, he was just a bit thick.

I reject these excuses out of hand.  It is quite inconceivable to me that any person could misinterpret a foreign satirical publication, or that a person could be misguided or stupid.

This person's motivation can only have been malice.

In the days that followed, some newspapers published opinion columns in which some extremely stupid opinions were expressed.  I remember being shocked to my very core to discover that opinion columnists write stupid articles expressing stupid opinions about terrible events.

What did it say about the value that our society places upon free speech, that stupid viewpoints could be aired?

I would tell you exactly what these stupid opinions were but I frankly cannot remember, on account of my boiling rage.  That sweet, volcanic rage, seething and roiling behind my eyes, making each of my teeth sing clean and true in its own individual socket.

The men who committed these murders wished to place limits upon what we may say and do and think.  They did not understand that the freedom to say whatever we choose, however idiotic it may be, is non-negotiable.

That is unless somebody says something stupid about the murders themselves, in which case we must all exist indefinitely in a state of spitting purple fury until that person agrees to adopt exactly my view of the matter.  And even then, it will be held against him in perpetuity.

We cannot accept that in a free and open society, some people will inevitably say stupid things, for none of us is truly free while people continue to say things that I find fatuous, ignorant or daft.

Now is the time to decide.  Either people stop saying stupid things, or free speech itself will become nothing more than a meaningless platitude.