Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Will You Start The Fans, Please!

Humour me in a flight of fancy here, while I explain why the most eerily accurate metaphor for modern British politics is The Crystal Maze, the now-defunct Channel Four game show.

Think about it - a bunch of over-enthusiastic, deeply unfashionable specky types are made to perform a series of inane and infuriating tasks, while their colleagues shout instructions at them in hectoring tones.

Jammed into a claustrophobic room with a map of the British Isles and told to construct a feasible economic policy, the bewildered contestant plays with a calculator, pushes some pencils around, scratches his head in exasperation and shouts, "I can't see what I've got to do!". 

"You need to put those invalids in the workplace!" shouts the pudgy bank clerk, while the beanpole social worker reckons they probably need to ring-fence those nurses.

Richard O'Brien is the press, of course, rolling his eyes and mugging up to the camera to show what a great drag the whole affair is, before sternly warning the contestant that he has thirty seconds to crack down on single mothers, or he'll be locked in.

The ultimate aim of the game is to accumulate enough points to be allowed into the Crystal Dome, wherein the contestants must jump about like fannies on TV for the entertainment of the viewer, frantically trying to grab enough bits of paper to claim a win.

Meanwhile, Channel Four rake in the advertising revenue until an increasingly bored audience tire of the ridiculous spectacle and the show is cancelled in favour of a series called Wife Swap, in which the nation can laugh at a council estate mum struggling to work out how to turn on an aga in fucking Kent.

I don't know, I could have that wrong.  Maybe it's more like The Apprentice, in which a bunch of insufferable twunts stand on each other's faces in the hope of winning a crumb of praise from a Croesus-rich tycoon, while the nation turns to Facebook to argue over which contestant they hate the most.

Hell, maybe I meant Footballer's Wives.

This Is Not An Exit

Well, yes. I think we've reached the stage where we can all agree that, rather than launching a War on Terror, it would've been cheaper and more conducive to enhanced national security if we'd just put those squaddies to work in Aldershot burning two billion quid a week with flamethrowers.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

In The Words Of The Immortal Edwin Starr

"...It should be entirely clear that there has been little or no thought or planning here. What are the objectives? Do they include achievable aims, or are they just vague and windy 'let’s get the bad guys' bollocks? What happens if there are major setbacks – do we have any contingency plans at all?" - Your not-very-humble host, on the proposed bombing of Libya, 10th March
I've been putting off revisiting the points I made before we started bombing Libya, for two reasons - first, the situation there is so murky and indecipherable that it's difficult to assess, and second... Well, I don't feel very good about saying some of this stuff while people are fighting and dying for their families and homes.

Nonetheless, I think it's worth looking at this again.  I intentionally made some definite predictions, largely because the pro-intervention camp were making none at all, beyond the assertion that those counselling against bombing Tripoli were disgusting, heartless Communists.  Recall the atmosphere at the time, which was thick with the implication that opposition to a fresh bombing campaign was a ridiculous, childish concept, far outside the boundaries of political acceptability, and quite possibly tantamount to de facto [1] support for Gaddafi's goons.

I did raise some fairly silly questions - the possibilty that Gaddafi might knock out Misrata and Benghazi despite our efforts being the silliest.  In fairness to myself, I considered this a possibility because the proposal at the time was for a No-Fly Zone only.  What we actually got was a Free-Fire Zone, in which any and all loyalist forces were targets. 

Had I known that, I wouldn't have raised this possibility.  I'm aware that a fight between a column of tanks and a well-tooled air force is barely a fight at all.  It wasn't.

Similarly, I worried about the possibility of a Black Hawk Down scenario, featuring Nato pilots being captured and/or murdered live on television, with the ensuing public pressure for maximum smackdown on Tripoli.  Realistically, this wasn't a major risk for as long as Nato was only committing warplanes.  Now that we've sent in the attack helicopters, the risks increase.

Finally, I was also concerned about Nato causing large numbers of civilian casualties, thus hardening the government forces' resolve and support.  This was a reasonable assumption, given our habit of rubbing out vast numbers of civvies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, but thankfully it hasn't come to pass in Libya.  I assume that this is because Nato is using stricter rules of engagement.  These rules may frustrate the rebels, but are a damn good thing for Libyans in the affected areas.

Amazingly, I managed to call quite a few things correctly.  The core reason for calling bullshit on this operation was and is this - there was very clearly no plan at all for victory or unexpected contingencies, and there still isn't. 

I can't stress this enough, really.  If you believe that a military operation is going to be poorly planned and executed, and that it may worsen rather than solve the problems in the area to be bombed, you have to oppose it.  To do otherwise would be wildly irresponsible.

And so.  Nato spent the first few weeks squabbling over who was in charge.  As in our other wars, the mission statement has quickly morphed out of all recognition.  Recall that we are bombing Libya to "protect civilians".  Unsurprisingly, this has been quietly changed to "Get rid of Gaddafi and install the rebels of eastern Libya as the new government". 

It's become very apparent that the rebels aren't capable of overthrowing Gaddafi themselves; Nato appear to have bet the farm on a quick victory, but we're now into the third month of stalemate.  We're now committed to overthrowing Gaddafi and can't accept any outcome that falls short of that goal, which also means that Gaddafi and his goons have no motivation to accept defeat and slink away with their tails between their legs.

Fighting and bombardment in some areas have been vicious, and the Libyan rebels are estimating 15,000 people have been killed thus far.  Both sides have intentionally targeted civilians, and we're now babysitting a war that could drag on for months, at least.  This isn't surprising, nor was it unforseeable.

Other worries from before intervention - that the rebels might include significant extremist elements (unproven, probably overstated anyway); that we might wind up watching impotently while the rebels commit atrocities (correct) and that intervention might damage international organisations and law (correct - just watch the US Secretary of Defence pissing over his European counterparts, and keep an eye on the concept of a "Responsibility to Protect" in law from now on). 

Back when the proposal was a No-Fly Zone, I was asking if we were committing to a war that would drag on indefinitely; whether we'd be willing to jump in with both feet on the rebels' side by aggressively targeting government forces or attempting to assassinate Gaddafi, and whether intervention was more about making us feel better about the awful things we were seeing on TV than it was a serious plan for a positive outcome.

The answer to those questions, it appears, is "Yes".  I'd rather it wasn't - I'd far rather be typing up an extended Mea Culpa over my hilariously wrong opinions.  Making a couple of accurate guesses feels pretty hollow when it's a war we're talking about.

So, here we are.  The war looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, with all of the attendant horrors that implies.  A civil war isn't just a disaster in terms of destroyed lives and buildings.  It's a catastrophe with far-reaching consequences, in which every citizen experiences a massive drop-off in every area of their lives - health, education, economy, infrastructure.  An extended conflict massively increases the likelihood of post-war atrocities and extremism, and occasionally terror for export.  

Well.  Fingers crossed for a happy ending - Gaddafi dead or routed, a victorious rebel movement establishing a flourishing liberal democracy.  The really frightening thing is just how dependent on crossed fingers we are here.  It may just turn out that Maybe we'll get lucky this time has been the entire war plan from day one.

(Posts what I wrote containing many of these predictions and questions here, here, here, here and here).

1. Having seen it used in this manner many times, I can confirm that pretty much everyone who uses the words "de facto" in a policy dispute is attempting to smuggle some seriously dumbass horseshit past you, in the hope that you won't notice.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

So Long And Thanks For All The Bombs

The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.  Nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets. - US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates

Ever thus, to American military types.

Readers are invited to consider the following words, which may not mean what Secretary Gates believes they mean - "increasingly precious funds"; "on behalf of"; "serious"; "defense" and "security burden", amongst others.

Let's note that, rather than suffering a severe spending squeeze, the American military is the one area of government expenditure that can never be lavish enough.  The US armed forces cost roughly as much as the rest of the planet's military budget combined.  The possibility exists that it's the Americans, rather than the Germans, who are misallocating their resources here.

Further, while it's touching that Gates has such great concern for our well-being, I suspect that American interest in European security issues may not be entirely altruistic.  No doubt they wish us well and worry about our safety, but I imagine they'd like us to build massive military capabilities so that we can help them bomb the hell out of various non-European countries, for purposes that range from "dubious" to "insane".

And that word, "Defense".  They spell it differently and it means more or less the opposite of what is implied.  If readers can explain in what way invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan or bombing Pakistan and Yemen constitutes "Defence", I'm all ears.

Of course, Gates is basically pissed because Norway is about to withdraw from bombing Libya, because its tiny air force needs maintenance.  Readers are also invited to suggest ways in which bombing Libya represents some vital contribution to the defence of Europe, because I'm struggling to think of a single one.

The only reason that was proffered before we started was that failing to bomb Libya would lead to a flood of refugees across the Med.  As it turns out, bombing Libya has achieved much the same result.

Update!:  This New York Times editorial, which explicitly accuses Europe of freeloading off the back of America's amazing military might, is a graphic example of a political/media class that has long since departed the realm of reality and is on an outward trajectory for the planet Bugfuck Nuts.

"What if they had to fight a more intimidating enemy than Colonel Gaddafi?", they ask.  A more intimidating enemy?  Like who?

Updated Update!: It occurs to me that, since the Americans clearly believe that each and every one of their military catastrophes is a critical priority for NATO, and actively pushes its allies to adopt their priorities, then only an insane person would wish to be part of NATO.  Ergo, the UK should withdraw from NATO, sooner rather than later.

Further, let's be clear on what the Americans are asking for, and what they aren't.  Since they've historically opposed efforts by Europeans to set their own common defence policy, we can conclude that the US is  interested in European security initiatives only insofar as they serve American purposes.

Thus, the Americans want us to beef up our militaries to assist in American military operations, so that their wars are less expensive in cash and casualties.  Essentially, burn our own cash so they don't have to burn theirs and send European soldiers to be killed, so that fewer American soldiers are being killed, in exchange for... Uh, something. 

This doesn't seem like a very good deal to me - Thanks but no thanks, guys.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Crime And Punishment

Some discussion here on the differing meanings of the words "Working class", "Chav" and "Criminal underclass".

As might be expected, it's not enlightening stuff - one part debate to twenty parts class-baiting.  Suffice to say, it's an epic human and political catastrophe that it's necessary to point out that working class people aren't chavs and those we do call "Chavs" aren't a criminal underclass.  There are easily-identifiable reasons why these elisions exist, and almost all of them hail from the "toxic horseshit" school of prejudices stemming largely from media headlines and political arguments.

That's a discussion for another day, one when I'm in a worse mood than I am now.  The point I want to pick up is the part about this "Criminal underclass" - what it is, who it is, what it does.

I'll ruin the surprise right now by telling you that there is indeed a criminal underclass in Britain, by which I mean "People who either make a living through criminality or are merely serially incarcerated".  It makes up a tiny percentage of the populace - if I was to make a maximal guess then, in a city the size of Edinburgh, I'd say that we're talking around one to two thousand people from a population of around 500,000 - but it makes a big noise nonetheless.

It should be obvious that these people are drawn from the rock-bottom end of the economic scale, and that they tend to be the offspring of habitual criminals themselves 1.  Even so, I encounter a stunning level of ignorance about who, exactly, fills out our prisons.  It's a major mistake to identify a single class of criminals with an equal propensity to violence and mayhem, since their behaviours and characteristics are many and varied.

It should go without saying that most career criminals tend to come from very deprived backgrounds; are poorly educated and often inarticulate.  I forget the exact figure, but a depressingly large number of criminals also suffer from mental disorders, ranging in severity from mild to very serious indeed.  What follows is a runthrough of the major personality types you'll find in prisons the length and breadth of the land - do bear in mind while reading that this is all anecdata from my own personal experience, so don't go expecting rigorous sourcing and citation.

First up, by far the largest group of habitual criminals are Sad Sacks - generally shoplifters and petty thieves, incompetent burglars, drug offenders and so on.  Stereotypically, the Sad Sack is the guy caught wedged fast in the window of his local shop with his pockets full of fags, surrounded by broken bottles of vodka, when the owner arrives for work.

Sad Sacks almost always have serious problems with drugs or alcohol and their criminal activities are almost always motivated by the need to fuel those habits, habits which make them utterly unemployable.  They are, by and large, a nuisance to the public rather than a serious threat, although as always there are exceptions.  Sad Sacks are usually only a serious problem up until their mid-thirties, when they tend to calm down and either clean up a little or settle into NHS drug and alcohol treatment programmes.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Sad Sacks make up at least 50% of the population men's prisons and up to 80% of women's jails.  Women's jails in particular are stuffed with those whose dependency problems are the main reason for their offending.

It should also be remembered that Sad Sacks also represent a massive chunk of the victims of crime, given that they tend to socialise with nastier criminals than themselves.  Sad Sacks can be very intimidating indeed to law-abiding members of the public, but they're small fish in a big pond.  When push comes to shove with the assorted radges and nutters in their social circle, it's usually the Sad Sack's arse that ends up in the mud.

The second-largest group is Wee Pricks - rowdy teenagers prone to impulsive acts of violence, sometimes of the blood-curdling variety.  Although their victims tend to be other Wee Pricks or Sad Sacks, the WPs are the ones most commonly cited by the public in crime surveys, because they're loud, intimidating, highly visible and occasionally armed.  Wee Pricks don't last long on the streets and are usually either incarcerated or incapacitated before they reach 20 years old.  WPs usually end up in young offenders institutions, where they traditionally graduate to the level of Bams or Radges (see below) or slowly turn into Sad Sacks.

Both Sad Sacks and Wee Pricks are impulsive criminals, stealing or fighting as the opportunity arises with little thought for the consequences, not because they're brazen rebels, but because they are either too desperate for drugs/alcohol, or are just too damn stupid, to care.

A far smaller but much scarier group are Bams and RadgesBams and Radges share the same characteristics in that they're both violently-inclined and highly irrational, and both are constantly on the lookout for victims to exploit and injure.  Both are likely to drink very heavily, but the chief difference between the two is that Bams are usually more of a threat to their friends, family members and other criminals, whereas Radges will smash fuck out of more or less any innocent punter unfortunate enough to incur their wrath.

Radges are also less likely to stop smashing fuck out of people once they've started, so as might be expected, there's a significant overlap with the next class of criminal, the Evil Bastard.

Evil Bastards are the ones that attract serious media attention and, although their numbers are comfortingly small, they are - paradoxically - still alarmingly numerous.  Such people are, as the name implies, irredeemable shits, constantly scheming for ways to rob, injure or take advantage of anyone and everyone they encounter.  Unlike other criminals, Evil Bastards do what they do for personal gain and because they greatly enjoy harming their fellow citizens.  They make up a large proportion of the nation's career criminals, since they have the basic savvy to commit burglaries and assaults without getting caught.

Evil Bastards are the ones who will try to steal your last fiver and get violent and indignant if you catch them at it.  Most of the really bloodcurdling crimes - men who batter their mothers for a tenner, that kind of thing - are committed by people in this group and unlike most other criminals, there's little prospect of reforming them even in their later years. 

Unsurprisingly, Evil Bastards also make up a substantial proportion of the country's Rapists and Perverts.  While most Perverts tend to be sad, lonely little men or sad, nasty family men, plenty of them are extremely sinister, calculating, vicious and spiteful little men for whom lifelong incarceration is probably the safest answer.

The final major group are the Criminally Insane, and you'll be familiar with them from your TVs.  Whether they are literally insane is a moot point, and probably irrelevant, but we're talking William Beggs, Fred and Rose West, Peter Tobin and Peter Sutcliffe here.  Despite their high profile, these criminals are incredibly rare.

So there - your criminal underclass, neatly categorised.  I've done some violence to the statistics here - there are lots of white collar criminals and unlucky chumps who commit serious offences in hot blood too - but this'll do as a starting point for any discussion that ensues.

1.  Rather than append "Although not always" to every sentence, just assume that I'm also saying "Although not always" at the end of every definite claim in this post.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

He's Using Hypnosis!

So, what are they calling shows like Made In Chelsea and The Only Way Is Essex in Medialand?  There must be a collective word for the genre - Babblevision or Souphead Bingo, or some such. 

For the uninitiated 1, these shows are basically scripted reality television: like Big Brother, except every scenario onscreen is storyboarded and every emotion or wisecrack is acted out by the fame-hungry amateurs.  The characters pretend to go about their daily lives, mugging up for the camera in tones of increasing twattishness, and pretending their way through a series of pre-prepared emotional crises and drunken hijinks in suspiciously well-lit and soundchecked backgrounds.

As entertainment, the genre is somewhere below teeny, melodramatic bonkfest Hollyoaks and a thin sliver above Ow, My Balls!   Five minutes of footage would damn an entire generation of media vermin to the Lake of Fire, where they could spend eternity literally shovelling shite for Satan as opposed to the metaphorical shovelling that is their earthly lives.  Saint Peter would have to hire a heavenly bulldozer to clear the Pearly Gates of its backlog of ITV producers and Charon the Boatman would have to build himself an armada of cruiseliners to transport them all to the Underworld.

Anyway, there's a long spiel in Private Eye this week railing against the farcically obvious fakeness of MiC and TOWiE, which is a bit like denouncing all the talent shows for being rigged.  Speak to anyone who watches these programmes and they admit that yes, they know that every second is fake, before they turn back to their pals to gossip at length about how the stupid one put his foot in it that time when he revealed that blah about arse, and so on.

See, I think the horrified reviewers are missing the point here.  The audience know full well that they're watching a fraud, and they don't care - they're willing to suspend disbelief, for entertainment.  That's why the shows don't merely clog up their own time slots, but are now selling magazines and chat shows into the bargain.

This doesn't resemble the Big Brother model of shit TV at all.  In BB, you knew the contestants were constantly playing up to the cameras, but viewers knew that they weren't being fed all of their lines or faking their emotions too muchMiC and TOWiE are Eastenders or Coronation Street with the added thrill that it's, like, real, even though we all know it's not real.  

The proper analogy here is WWF American wrestling.  The Ultimate Ballcrusher is pissed at Billy Ray Biceps and the DilDozer, because they teamed up on him in SuperWrestleMania MMMMCMLXXVII.  So he's going to get Even, y'all, in the Exploding Cagematch at Super Slamicide Hardcore in Kentucky, but wait!  Who's that having a conspiratorial chat with Billy Ray backstage?  Why, it's Elvira Irontitties, the Ultimate Ballcrusher's old lady!  What could they be cookin' up, d'ya think? 2

And then they hit each other on the head with tables for four hours, in front of a baying audience of slackjawed cretins and sugar-crazed seven-year-olds, and nobody gives a damn whether it's real or not because they've all chewed their giant foam fingers off with the sheer excitement of it all.

Swap that for a Ronsealed woman rattling her veneers at her bullet-headed, brain-donor boyfriend because, like, he was talking to that Shawnessa for like five minutes, and WTF was up with that, and you've got the breakthrough popular entertainment hit of the year.

Now, you may wonder why I think you'd be interested in this stuff.  To be honest, I doubt you are, but look at that phrase again - the breakthrough popular entertainment hit of the year.   That's no exaggeration, by the way.  Where I live, The Only Way Is Essex is the fifth suggested search if you type "The" into Google.

The worrying thing isn't that, ten years from now, practically every show on TV will be ripping off this fuck-awful horror.  The real nightmare is that compared to programming ten years from now, these shows are going to look like bloody I, Claudius.

1. Single men, for instance. 
2. I'm not exaggerating about wrestling either.  Check out the first sixty seconds here.  This can't be legal in international rules!