Consensus

There’s a parallel world in which Barack Obama, the worst President in US history (a serial liar, Communist, Islamist, and not even born in the US) is replaced by salt-of-the-earth saviour of the people Donald Trump (repealer of the Obama death panels, vanquisher of Hillary Clinton and her child sex ring), a truly great President who can and will do no wrong.  I know this because it’s the narrative pumped out daily by Fox News and right-wing propagandists.

What worries me is that the only thing that stops it being received as fact is that a critical mass of people don’t believe it. Yet. But a quite alarming number of people wholeheartedly do believe it. At some point will we cross the line between political doubletalk and actual revisionist history? I feel like it’s a line we’re meandering along like a giddily unrepentant drunk driver. In our daily lives we can sometimes see history being consciously, mendaciously rewritten even as it happens, and more and more we don’t seem to care — as long as this new history makes us feel better about ourselves, justifies our prejudices, and relieves us of responsibility.

I suppose politics has always been about selling the best narrative, but it feels different this time, at least to me. It feels like we increasingly lack checks and balances, that we’ve lost the patience for such dry and worthy stuff as investigative journalism, public standards in office, and fact-checking. We’ve devalued the idea that there are lines of public integrity you can’t cross without consequences.

Its already the case in America that there are revisionist tussles over history and science. It’s clear that there are people who would, if only they could, literally rewrite the book on evolution, vaccination and climate change. Maybe even the history of civil rights. Political narratives are that much more susceptible, because their factual basis is that much more subjective. It’s quite easy for the public to lose track of why that recession or that war happened, and who was in charge, and who was really to blame. Is it only in my fevered imagination that I put all this together with the likes of Fox News to raise the spectre of a near-future dystopian version of the US, in which things now widely accepted as historical fact have been quietly spun until they are no longer the mainstream consensus view; like that scene in Interstellar where the teacher explains that everyone knows the moon landings were faked (but don’t worry because they’ve been recast as an example of a different kind  of American ideal.)

In the UK, any suggestion that the recession wasn’t caused by profligate Labour spending is now met with jeers of derision, even though it demonstrably wasn’t, because that’s not the narrative that won. Here, in a fairly small way, we can see that history has already been rewritten just a few years later. Maybe not rewritten in text books,  but absolutely in public discourse. And there are plenty of politically skewed history books out there too, I imagine. (Aren’t they all?) Some politicians already question whether the British Empire was really a bad thing, whether Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was all that unreasonable. And maybe these voices will always be fringe, like Holocaust denial. But we now have Daily Mail headlines where people who are actually fascist in their outlook are treated as valiant revolutionaries, and “alt-right” is treated a reasonable political position, and suddenly it seems like the trolls have taken over the conversation. It’s really not that big a step to a mainstream politician arguing that Hitler was misunderstood.

Damn: Godwin’s Law. I think that means I should stop. Is it me, or did Not Invoking Hitler used to be quite a lot easier?

Hot take on hot takes

Okay, look, liberal smugness and outrage… That’s a thing. Mea culpa.  It didn’t get Trump elected on its own, any more than any other single factor in isolation. And at least as many of those factors are the people who voted for him, and gave him oxygen, and didn’t disavow him. Some genuine racists and misogynists. The truly left behind, the ones who are genuinely disillusioned with politics as usual, even if the proffered solutions to those things are often illusory and come with a big helping of right-wing politics tacked on as a rider (“The band requests only the Aryan M&Ms”). It’s a complicated mess. Simple explanations and itchy hair-shirts rarely work. 

Blaming the people who oppose Trump’s rhetoric for driving people into his arms is a bit perverse. Just because some people think ‘political correctness’ has gone too far, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to push the wide-ranging principles that get pejoratively lumped under that label. It may mean they need to be explained better, less judgementally, and with more understanding of the person listening. That’s fair. But it doesn’t lay all the blame for the Rise of the Right at the door of liberals.

It’s unfortunately true that the political left in the UK is in disarray, and there’s a real danger in an opposition that isn’t organised, is too ideologically dogmatic, and doesn’t offer a clear and inclusive narrative. (I’m unsure if it’s the same in America – at least in the US a left-leaning candidate can win the popular vote – but in both countries liberalism seems to be constantly at war with itself.) Facing up to the issues of the left, and not demonising the people on the other side, would go a long way towards gaining acceptance for liberal ideas.

Does that require supporting the Government line, meeting in the middle on fascism, turning a blind eye to opportunistic racism and misogyny? Hell no. That sounds suspiciously like how To Normalise Fascism 101. In fact, politicians tactically giving ground on immigration is a big part of how we got where we are right now. About half of voters in both the UK and US don’t appear to support bigotry and isolationism; they may fall on a spectrum rather than being dyed-in-the-wool liberals, but they’ll be left voiceless if we allow a marginal majority to pretend that the public speaks with one voice. Someone needs to put the counter-argument.

Is there a way to speak out against those illiberal ideas and policies, while at the same time engaging more genuinely with the people we’d like to persuade? I know it’s a very fine line to walk, and I’m not very good at it myself. But what’s the alternative? Not speaking out just embeds selfishness as the prevailing narrative. Not reaching out means a victory for bon mots on twitter, a self-congratatory bubble of worthiness, and a defeat for progressive values where they might actually affect people’s daily lives.

P.S. Like most of my blog posts this doesn’t so much reach a conclusion as stop when I can no longer parse what I think about the topic.  Feel free to help me out in replies.

You wish for ice cream?

I have to say, I still don’t support overturning the outcome of the Referendum.

But I do very much support the proposal that there should be some Parliamentary process to determine whether, when we leave the EU, we also leave the Single Market.

That’s not ignoring the will of the people, who didn’t demand a ‘hard’ version of Brexit (or even express a view on the single market), nor is it traitorous, or the tyrannical agenda of a shadowy liberal elite operating from their secret base under St.Paul’s.

It’s just the kind of thing that lots of people in the country, including some who voted Leave, might reasonably expect to happen instead of having their answer to a binary question wildly and dogmatically over-interpreted.

It’s like one of those fairy tale wishes that were worded with insufficient care. “You wish for ice cream? Very well, you shall only eat liquorice ice cream! FOREVER! Mwahhahahahahah!”

The inexorable victory of the pod-people

In fiction, stories about fascist regimes almost always focus on the resistance, the few who carry the candle and represent the hope (however dim) that the regime will ultimately perish.

But it seems to me, as I contemplate two dismal candidates for Prime Minister and the backlash from Brexit, that the real story is often not one of idealists fighting back to glorious vindication, it’s about the idealists being gradually smothered as an ever-greater proportion of the country simply accepts the way things are. One by one we disappear, gasping, under a tidal wave of banal self-interest, until we can’t imagine things being any different, or even want it. The inexorable victory of the pod-people.

I’m being a bit melodramatic. I don’t say that we live in a fascist regime right now. I do think that the Overton Window has moved further and further right,and insularity is becoming the prevailing narrative. It’s that gradual shift of the ‘centre’ ground, until large swathes of the country look in genuine dismay and bafflement at those complaining about xenophobia, demonisation of the poor, intrusive surveillance. It’s about experts being decried, education being elitist, lying in public office being accepted with a shrug: “What is truth, anyway?” Even the ideological rewriting of history becomes routine, until our very ideas about who we are and where we came from are distorted by the lens of those who control the mass-media.

I know there are others who feel this way, but I don’t see it ending any time soon. I don’t see that groundswell of anger, that organised public desire to push back in the other direction. Perhaps just as importantly I don’t see any great likelihood that things will improve under the current Government, nor any realistic prospect that the Conservatives will lose the next General Election.

I suppose I’m emotionally influenced by all the ways that Brexit has left me feeling alienated, and by the upsurge in “immigrants go home” sentiment. It’s easy to be too short-termist — I’m no better at forecasting the future than anyone else. Maybe things will get better. Whenever a Blair or an Obama sweeps to power there’s always a false dawn; that rush of “maybe we’ve passed a turning point”. Reality always sets in. Maybe this is the reverse: a false dusk that will ultimately prove to be just another short blip on our journey to increasing liberalism, equality and openness. In some ways those social arguments have felt like a steady win for liberalism over recent decades. But now we have Andrea Leadsom wanting a fight back against “political correctness”, a rolling back of gay marriage, as if we were still stuck in the ‘toddler tantrum’ stage of accepting equality and diversity. I fear that, little by little, from Coalition, to Cameron Government, to May/Leadsom Government, the public mood is changing and no-one is really protesting all that loudly. And the drip-drip-drip of selfishness seeps into our bones.

Aftermath

So many stories of openly racist behaviour emerging.

Some of this, no doubt, is confirmation bias. Racist outbursts have always occurred on the fringes of society and once you start actively looking for an uptick it won’t be hard to find examples. The press does this all the time: one big earthquake means every minor tremor becomes news. But not only does the current run of incidents feel a bit more weighty than that, the character of the incidents is striking. The language is suddenly about repatriation, of ‘why don’t you go home’, ‘back where you came from’. That feels new. Or, rather, old. People openly expressing attitudes that have been culturally submerged for decades.

It’s still anecdotal for now whether Brexit has emboldened these individuals – even if some are actively referring to it – but it’s difficult not to see the influence of this sorry mess of a referendum, this free leg-up for UKIP and the far right.

The Petition for a Second Referendum

I nearly signed the 2nd Referendum ballot today. Nearly. Just to add a stone to the heap, so the scale of dissatisfaction can be seen from a distance.  But I just can’t bring myself to do it.

The time to push for this kind of contingency, for different thresholds for success, was before the Referendum. This just smacks of not liking the outcome and moving the goalposts. The turnout was as high as you could reasonably hope for. The result is valid.

Emotionally I can’t bear this outcome, but I don’t think another Referendum is the answer. If the result had gone the other way and Farage was pushing for this (which of course he did pre-emptively) I’d be angry. Looked at from the outside what does this petition prove? That millions who voted Remain are desperately unhappy. Nothing more.

I understand the argument that Leave sold lies that are now being hurriedly walked back. That was dishonest. But, horribly, that’s politics. What makes this a special case? Even General Elections are increasingly won through lies, misleading statements and ultimately broken promises. I’d love politicians to be held to a higher standard, but they’re not, and so the public has to pick the side whose arguments, policies, ideology and/or smarmy vitriolic intolerance appeals to them the most. In the EU Referendum I genuinely think an impartial view is that Leave not only lied more, but that they were more likely to double-down on those lies and continue to repeat them.  But it’s not like the opposing arguments weren’t aired. Both sides had their say. At length. Over and over again. It was perfectly possible to make an informed decision. If some people choose emotion over fact well, frankly, that’s their right. If they are smart or stupid, racist or progressive, they get to vote the way they want.  Sometimes I wish that weren’t the case, but what alternative is there?

The worst thing is that I think there’s a reasonable chance the Referendum would go the other way if we restaged it now. The reality has sunk in a bit. Would it go 60/40 the other way? Nah. And so we’d need a third referendum surely? And a fourth.

And the very act of not honouring the first outcome would (rightly) incense those who voted Leave. There’d be social unrest. If we do, as some predict, have a General Election within the year then ignoring the first Referendum would mean Leave (and, yes, possibly UKIP) would clean up. Do we really want that? Everything has consequences.

Far better in my view to accept this outcome but implement it in the least bad way possible. Stay in the EEA. Try to hang on to the single market. Try to hang on to free movement. Find a reason to spare the Halkans and make it stick. (Sorry, nerd reference.) That’s the best way forward.

This petition is not going to bring about another Referendum. It’s the same liberal echo-chamber that predicted a Remain victory, and it just won’t happen. I love that echo-chamber. It keeps me sane. But it doesn’t reflect the whole country, and another referendum would offend more people than it buoyed. IMO.

[The above partly adapted from a Facebook conversation with Mark Bowyer]

Sovereignty

*At any time*, for no reason, the UK can give two year’s notice to leave the EU. They literally can’t stop us.

If we stay and the EU ever threatens our sovereignty (even though we are exempt from closer union and can’t transfer powers without a UK referendum) we have enough sovereignty to leave.

So why jump now? Don’t we trust ourselves to exercise our own sovereignty wisely in future? Or is our Government a bit too sovereign for our own liking?

Further poorly argued thoughts on the EU

I don’t think I’ve got the hang of this clickbait headline thing.

This is another stream-of-consciousness political blog. I’ll post about science fiction next time and we can all relax.

Previously on LiveJournal. NOW READ ON.

I vacillate between a resigned belief that even if we vote to leave Europe it won’t be that bad, and a nagging fear that it’ll be bad enough. Things do tend to settle down, and the new status quo is almost certainly probably highly unlikely to cripple the UK in the long run. We have no Control for this experiment, and we’ll never know what the untaken path may have looked like.

I do worry about the short term impacts – the potential increase in the already punitive levels of austerity if the economy suffers a bit from a vote to leave. And yes, the impact on the Higher Education sector where I work1 – where millions of EU students are at risk at a time many institutions can ill afford it. Government changes to international immigration have already made the UK an unwelcoming and risky destination where students from beyond the EU can be turned away at the drop of a hat, or made to leave and return at their own expense, or suffer humiliating checks on their ‘genuineness’ as students. International student applications to the UK have declined as a result of this climate. Extend that same approach, those same hurdles, to EU students, and they’ll stay away in droves. We need those EU students, just as we need the overseas ones. (The Government’s stance on student immigration is largely inexplicable to me when these students bring millions into the economy and are not, on the whole, likely to settle permanently in the UK.)

I also worry that if we do vote OUT it’ll be largely a gut vote, based on sincere nationalistic pride, perhaps, but fed by fallacies and misinformation and woefully lacking in clarity about what lurks on the other side of an exit. There’s so much falsehood around. If we stay with the topic of immigration, there’s this facile idea that leaving the EU represents regaining control of our borders, as if we can’t control them now. I think there’s a myth that anyone from the EU can just stroll in without let or hindrance. But we’re not part of the Schengen Area. We already can and do check the passports of migrants from the EU. We already can and do turn them away when we regard them as a threat. (And, by the way, most of the examples that Teresa May and her ilk cite as EU tampering with deportations are actually decisions made by British courts, but that’s another discussion). If we make migration from the EU even more like migration from the rest of the world it won’t suddenly make us safer. Half of all our immigration, give or take, comes from the rest of the world. It won’t suddenly stick a big cork in Dover and make everyone turn away.

And as for sovereignty, I’m never sure what we imagine this means. I certainly haven’t spent my adult life thinking “If only the British government had the power to make decisions”. It seems to make them all the time. Really big, stupid fucking decisions, but decisions nonetheless. If by sovereignty we mean that there are constraints on what we can do based on certain narrow things we’ve agreed with other countries, which country can’t say that? In or out, we’ll be making deals, signing agreements, joining international bodies, and cheerfully limiting the hell out of our own sovereignty – if that’s what you want to call it. That’s our sovereign right, I guess. We willingly sign up to the treaties and trade regulations that we currently have – not in one fateful decision to join the EU around the time Jon Pertwee turned into Tom Baker, but in all those numerous discrete decisions ever since. We don’t have to leave the EU to make different decisions about what we sign-up to, if that’s what we really want. And if we do leave the EU we won’t suddenly lose all those trade regulations – far from it. We’ll probably need more. Every one of them will represent some kind of compromise in which the UK agrees to something that, yes, constrains it. I’m sure those UK trade deals will be painted as a triumph for the very sense of sovereignty that the EU trade deals seemingly undermine. But they’ll be no different.

Besides which, when it comes to employment law and human rights, I rather like the idea that we sign up to principles greater than the petty self-interest of whichever national governments are in power, here and elsewhere. I like the idea that we all agree on basic standards of decency, and hold each other to account.

So maybe it’ll be okay either way. But I really hope we vote to stay.

1 All opinions are my own personal views not those of my employer.

10 things I think about Europe

Politics again. Sorry.

The debate on Europe is driving me mad, characterised as it is by myths and subjectivity and opportunism masquerading as facts and imperatives. I’m sitting on my hands watching each side characterise the other as hateful scare-mongerers while appearing blind to the excesses of their own camp.

So to get it out of my system, here are some things I believe about Europe. Like everyone else, some of these are evidence-based, and some just are:

1) The principle of being in Europe is more important than the problems with Europe. Joining with others in principles and endeavours that transcend individual nations is positive, and acts as a check on individual nations.

2) Europe is not something which is ‘done to us’, it’s a collaboration we participate in, and help shape. We won’t always get our own way – neither will anyone else – but we have a strong voice. We shape the laws. We win exemptions.

3) It is nonsense to say that World War Three looms imminently if we leave the EU (aka “Stay Off My Side, David Cameron”). It is not nonsense to say that the history of Europe prior to the creation of the EU was one of near-constant conflict and war, and that participating in the EU has been one of a number of key reasons why we have seen an era of much greater peace and stability. Unchecked separatism and nationalism can easily and rapidly sow the seeds of conflict. Even now the EU is straining against an upsurge in extreme right wing political parties and anti-immigrant sentiment.

4) Our locally elected MPs go to the central parliament where they have a local voice but where local interests are balanced against wider ones, and the elected democratic parliament is supported by a vast bureaucracy of unelected officials. But enough about the UK. Ahem.

5) Europe is almost certainly rife with compromise and inefficiency, but it is not actually Evil (like, say, FIFA) and is capable of being reformed. If we do rightly focus on European inefficiency we shouldn’t cherry pick examples while ignoring the inefficiency inherent in our own political machinery.

6) EU membership is a net cost to the UK in terms of monies directly paid and directly received. On that level it’s a drain on our resources. But membership of the EU only has to make the most marginal percentage improvement in the UK economic growth for the gain, year by year, to vastly outweigh the cost. Does it do that? It seems highly likely, but I can’t say for certain. At the very least it’s a low risk investment with the potential for an extremely high return.

7) Putting aside the fact that European migrants provably contribute more to our economy than they take out, leaving the EU might (unless we retain free movement) reduce a chunk of net migration. On that level, leaving the EU would help us “regain control” of our borders. But it would by no means be a magic bullet that would bring net migration down to zero.

8) There are clear and to some extent understandable worries about how immigration is changing our culture, a fear of cultural miscegenation in which national distinctiveness is perceived to be lost, or changed unrecognisably. But we easily forget that our perception of ‘Britishness’ has changed over time. Second and third generation immigrants aren’t generally perceived as immigrants at all. They’re just British. If they’re white (like that extremely suspicious foreign influence Rick Stein) mainstream opinion doesn’t give them a second glance. Our sense of Britishness has always accommodated and been enriched by infusions from other places.

9) The ‘Out’ campaign is not intrinsically racist, and many who are in favour of leaving the EU are not driven by immigration. But I think one consequence of a ‘Brexit’ will be to increase the UK’s isolationism and feed racist views. I’d love to say that slightly curbing immigration would rob racism of oxygen, but in my view the tougher we talk and act on immigration the more strident and polarised our anti-immigration rhetoric becomes. Support for UKIP is often highest in the areas of lowest immigration, and right-wing debate on immigration is not notable for its relationship to facts. If we board up the windows, we’ll only become obsessed with what’s under the floorboards.

10) Whether we stay or leave, we’ll never know for sure whether that decision had a causal effect on our future prosperity, or lack of it. But politicians will cheerfully blame everything on that decision. And it will be So. Damn. Aggravating.

(Follow-up blog)

Oh god he’s talking about politics

I’m not really a Nick Robinson fan, but this slightly smug, waffly article summarises the obvious difficulty in talking knowledgeably about our future in or out of Europe. There are probably many reasons to leave the EU. There are many reasons to stay. Probably neither will be a disaster (though what do I know?) but amid the patent fear-mongering on all sides there’s genuine inability to know what will happen until it happens. The many leaflets that have thumped onto my doormat are equally aggravating whether they are for or against EU membership; although on the plus side they’re all pleasingly shiny and ideal for lining the cat litter tray.

I also don’t like Mr Cameron or his tax affairs, but as with his support for gay marriage I do occasionally find that he deigns to agree with me. It’s nice of him, I only wish he’d do it more often. I do worry that the meta-narrative about political machinations within the Conservative party – Boris and IDS making tactical moves, Cameron’s future, whether tax payers should pay for Government leaflets – is a sly and effective distraction from the real issues. Journalists don’t do it on purpose, but they just can’t resist shop talk. A story about a story is so much more gossipy than a story about an actual thing. It’s fine when there’s nothing much at stake but right now there are bigger fish to fry. (There would be smaller fish to fry, but they’re subject to a strict EU fishing quota). If this becomes a story about politics then people will treat it as a political issue. They’ll vote ‘Out’ to punish Cameron, rather than because they have a view on the EU.

Personally I’m for staying in. You’re amazed, I can tell. It’s not because I feel ‘European’, really. Intellectually I know I’m European, but it’s not my primary national identity. ‘Europe’ still intuitively means “that big bit of continent over there” and not “this little collection of islands that the BBC weather map persists in tipping at an alarming angle so that Scotland looks tiny”.

But neither do I feel any animosity towards Europe. I like the idea of being part of something greater. I guess I don’t know any different. I’ve pretty much always *been* part of it, and Europe hasn’t blighted my life with its evil foreign ways. Mais non. I think it’s quite telling that you can watch an episode of ‘Yes, Minister’ from 1981 and hear the exact same stereotypical worries about the EU and its alleged wacky laws. But here we are 35 years later and the sky hasn’t fallen and Britain hasn’t lost its Britishness. Far from it. If we really must define Britishness as a test of cultural purity then we’re more pugnaciously xenophobia than we have been in years. Well done, British people.

But really, what do we mean by Britishness? Boris is no less Boris for 40 years spent in the EU. It hasn’t made Iain Duncan Smith any less strident. I reject the seductive notion that Europe erodes our “sovereignty” – whatever that really means – as if any country can govern in perfect isolation from its neighbours and treaties and trade alliances and human migration and equality and rights for workers and basic human rights. Of course not. We have sovereignty over our own laws in every way that counts; we don’t seem to have any difficulty in passing laws that tax the homeless for their spare pavement. We simply subscribe to international common principles – both within the EU and in parallel with it – because it makes sense.

It’s very easy to talk about isolationism in terms that make it sound noble and patriotic. You can picture Jim Hacker drifting into his Churchill impression. But Churchill was an architect of a United Europe, and I think it’s a very grown-up, civilised thing to be part of a wider society of nations. We can be ourselves and still accept that there are limits on the way you can behave and still get to participate in the world. There’s no reason I can see to feel that being part of Europe diminishes us. It might even make us greater.

“Calm down, dear”

There was a great documentary by Kirsty Wark on the BBC last week called “Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes”. (Still on iPlayer if you want to watch it.) The title is from the hugely popular online video last year, with teh naked ladies dancing. (I point this out because I’m so clued up I hadn’t even heard (of) it when it came up in last year’s Christmas Quiz. Finger on the pulse, me.)

The focus of the programme was the culture of abuse, insults, sexual threats and misogynistic remarks commonly faced by women online, including high profile recipients like Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez. [EDIT : Perez has just posted examples of the abusive tweets.] Coincidentally my wife was just telling me the other day about the constant unwelcome ‘approaches’ she faces when online gaming as a female character (“Are you really a girl?” “How old are you?” etc.) and there are examples of precisely that behaviour in the documentary too. Equally there are some in the programme who deny that this is a female-specific problem, and say that rape jokes and abuse faced by women are just one facet of the jokes and abuse targeting men, and that the only difference is women’s (hyper)sensitivity. I don’t buy that. Sure, abuse is faced by everyone. Men get online death threats, and that’s reprehensible too. But to say that women should simply “man up”, as one commentator puts it, is to ignore the wider society in which we live, and the sheer amount and extremely misogynistic overtones of the abuse against women versus the generic nature of the trolling against men. The playing field is not level.

I look at society and it seems staggeringly obvious that women are the subject of systematic objectification, exclusion and lack of respect. I know it’s not all women, and not all the time. I know it’s better in our society than in some parts of the world. I know it’s talked about more openly than it used to be. But it’s in the way TV shows and films are written and cast. In the age, looks and number of female vs male presenters. In comics. In music. In who gets book deals and recording contracts. In who wins awards. In the fact that the Best Actor Oscar gets announced after the Best Actress one (because, why exactly?) In advertising. In magazines. In who gets to participate in debates. In business. In politics. In the lack of respect for older women, or any women who don’t pander to male ideals of beauty. In dismissive attitudes to rape and domestic violence. In David Cameron ‘joking’ “Calm down dear” to diminish a female MP’s opinion. Even in which members of the crowd the TV camera lingers on. In a thousand thoughtless moments of chauvinism by men who should know better. Including me, quite probably. You get the idea. I’m not going to brainstorm the world’s first comprehensive list of all sexism ever.

This may all sound a bit born-again feminist. I know it’s a bit rich, me saying women are oppressed like it’s a revelation. I’m not trying to come off as more-feminist-than-thou. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that, commonly and insidiously, many women face much more of an uphill struggle than many men. In ways so ingrained that often people don’t see them at all, or choose not to. Sometimes it takes real effort for men in particular to step back from the blithe assumptions they’ve benefitted from all their lives.

It’s why it drives me mad when blowhard sideshow-acts like Jeremy Clarkson or Godfrey Bloom poo poo the very idea that sexism still exists. Or, God forbid, claim that men are the disadvantaged ones. These are the high profile crackpots. Almost reassuringly barmy. Obligingly self-satirising. The high profile UKIP donor who says he doesn’t think women should wear trousers. But for every crackpot there’s an army of men who’ve never been near the ‘Have I Got News For You’ studio but who’ll nod along. Why should women even *want* to wear trousers when men prefer to see women in skirts? (Yeah, women. Explain THAT.)

In employment law, the classic feature of unfair discrimination is that you only see the stereotype, not the individual. Someone will decide that women can’t work in construction because they’re physically weak. Never mind that some women could beat me in a fair fight. (Okay, most women). Or they’re too emotionally fragile, or it’s improper, or it’s too dangerous. Leave that nasty stuff to The Mens. Recognising and challenging those preconceptions, treating people as individuals, recognising all the ways in which society is constructed to favour and pander to the desires of (straight, white) men, should not be controversial things.

At the risk of making this all about me, I sometimes feel paralysed in talking about feminism online because, although it’s a subject that I feel a passionate affinity with, it seems presumptuous of me to imagine that I can really understand. I worry that I’ll simplify, offend or patronise. I fear that even though I may imagine I’m a feminist, I’m wearing my own unchallenged sexist assumptions on my sleeve. (Memo to self: donate sexist arm-band to charity shop). I read powerful, illuminating articles on sexism like this or this and I feel that I have nothing to add. So I tend not to say anything at all.

But it’s worth saying something, no? I try to be aware of my stupid assumptions, sexist and otherwise. I try to be conscious that the playing field is not level. At least it’s a start.

(“Join us tomorrow, when our topic will be: Religion, which is the one true faith” – Kent Brockman)

“That makes you the racist.”

I just posted on Twitter the perhaps depressing truth that “At this stage I assume that any party with the word “English” or “UK” in the title is racist until proven otherwise.” And received from a random human being the, I hope you’ll agree, amazing reply: “So you are not pro England or Britain, but favour the rest of the world? That makes you the racist.” Even more amazingly, their twitter profile unironically includes the words “I’m not racist but…” Marvellous.

I know such sentiments are not new. But it feels as if the prevailing political narrative has now shifted pretty far to the right when it comes to immigration. It’s the normalisation of such transparently xenophobic, if not outright racist, sentiments that leaves me feeling frustrated, exasperated, powerless. The major political parties are queuing up, not to argue the value of diversity, not to remind us that we have nothing to fear from change, but to compete for how tough they can look on ‘controlling our borders’.

The UK is not alone in this by any means, with parts of Europe and Australia cheerfully demonising anyone who has the gall to think their country is lovely. It starts of course with ‘dastardly foreigners’ but then, even more perplexingly, travels back along the family tree to second or third generation immigrants like a racist genealogy show: “Who Do You Think You Are and Why Don’t You Go Back Where You Came From?”

It would be instructional to trawl back through the political debates of the last decade(s) to see how we got here. How worries about immigration came to be blandly accepted rather than challenged. I feel like I can glimpse a vicious circle where someone lands a punch with some statistically rare horror story about a sponging terrorist asylum seeker, that gets picked up by the right-wing media, that connects with the public, that the other parties have to respond to. (I say ‘have to’ on the unspoken assumption that they’re spineless and desperate enough for power to compromise their principles, just to lay my biases out there on the table.) And that begets further scare stories of the made-up or cherry-picked variety. And then mainstream news outlets like the BBC decide that the ‘public’ are worried about immigration. Immigration is an issue. It’s going to decide elections. So they start reporting the cherry-picked the stories too, which leaves those picking the cherries in the driving seat (…of their cherry-picking vehicle. Bear with me here.) And then a party like UKIP, that trades in … racist cherries… has a small victory, and that seems important because now the public are worried enough about immigration to vote for complete twats. So it must be bad. And naturally you need to report the complete twats, because in some sense they’ve come to represent the whole issue. And that party winds up looking like a serious contender, one of the Big Four, and somehow you’ve made the extremists look electable. And cherries look bigoted.

All of which still leaves me sitting here in my cosy little liberal democracy looking in blank incomprehension at the popular rise of the far right.

Can haz vote

Haz voted.

We’re in an ultra-safe seat and I voted against the majority party. D’oh. My wife went on this website that calculates that votes in this constituency are worth the equivalent of 0.059 votes (based on the probability of the seat changing hands and its size.) But I still feel it’s worth voting – important, even to vote. If nothing else I’ll have kept down the depressingly non-zero proportion of the vote here that goes to the BNP.

We took Anna along so that she could watch us vote. At 9 months I don’t think it made a big impression, but by the next general election she’ll be nearly 6. How scary is that.

My gut says that despite all the polls showing the conservatives with a narrow lead, they’ll actually end up with a straightforward majority, just because a) I’m feeling pessimistic, b) I suspect human nature means that when it comes to the crunch most protest votes against Labour are going to go to the traditional opposition party not a perceived wildcard like the Lib Dems.

Most polls don’t seem to take into account things like marginal seats but bafflingly assume we live in a proportional representation utopia. I’d be extremely interested to see what a hung parliament looked like, though. It’s tough to see how it could be worse than the status quo, which amounts to the usual suspects being decisively, dynamically, excitingly… self-serving and short-sighted.

Wake me up when it’s time to vote

And so it begins. The Election that feels like it’s been upon us for months is finally upon us. Almost finally.

Now the parties can stop pretending to campaign and start really campaigning. Yes, apparently it can get worse. Since no-one was campaigning previously, all those increasingly intolerant poster campaigns that have blighted my trip to work for the last few weeks must only have existed in my imagination. (Which, given that two of them involved David Cameron’s head photoshopped onto Gene Hunt’s body, I can easily believe.)

Like everything in politics these days, even the Election announcement was leaked and reported in advance. Yesterday BBC News told me that the election would be announced today. And today it was, amazingly, announced. At this rate the next four weeks could last a lifetime.

The BBC seem to be at pains to talk up this election (which to be fair is probably a much needed shot in the arm for the electorate). To accomplish this they’ve been going out of their way to emphasise the allegedly massive differences between Labour and Conservative policies. Or rather, the differences in their rhetoric: ‘cuts now’ or ‘cuts later’, ‘this is no time for change’ or ‘this is time for change’. The trouble is, when you get right down to it the slogans belie the essential similarity of the underlying policies.

In fact I’ll go further — I don’t really believe that the parties mean what they say. I’m sure this comes down to my alarmingly detached view of the news, but my strong feeling is that the only reason Labour are talking about ‘cuts later’ is not because they necessarily think it makes sound fiscal sense but because it sounds slightly different from the Tory position. And vice versa. When everyone wants cuts, it’s all about product differentiation. It’s possible to argue that it does make sound fiscal sense, just as it’s possible to argue that announcing an NI increase months ahead of time isn’t like trying to have your cake and eat it, but when I listen to politicians at election time I find myself beset by an inability to believe a single word that comes out of their mouths.

I don’t mean to sound like one of these disenfranchised apathetic stay-at-home voters the news is always telling me about. I’m not that. I do vote, and I feel strongly that it’s our responsibility to vote (if only to stop the BNP increasing their market share). What I’m realising, other than that my cynicism may be at the stage where it has a clinical name, is that I don’t really vote based on individual policies. Because I don’t believe that the parties are sincere about their policies. More often than not they appear to be an arbitrary means to an end, an idea dreamed up in a campaign HQ as a way to sound good to the electorate.

Instead, I think my vote is driven by ideology. I vote for a party because I believe that what they stand for, in totality, is in line with my moral or social values. I don’t even think I judge this mainly by aggregating all their policies together, I think it’s about big statements: freedom, equality, social justice. That kind of thing. The broad political sweep of left, middle and right.

Where individual policies probably do influence me is that I may vote against the ones that offend me. In a world where the two main parties are hardly different in many of their policies, only one intends to overturn the ban on fox-hunting, and that party will definitely not get my vote. Both of the main parties are almost equally repressive, emotive and hypocritical on the subject of immigration so neither will probably get my vote. (This is because I’m a bleeding heart liberal).

All of which means that the less the parties have to say over the next four weeks, the greater chance they stand of getting my vote.

I have a dream.

Round up

Not had time to post much recently what with working late, going to hospital appointments, shopping, attempting to decorate, going to leaving dos and trying to at least pretend to have a social life.

So far this week I’ve been impressed by President Obama, specifically his inauguration speech and immediate action to overturn any number of idiotic, bigoted or downright fascist Bush policies. Kudos to that man. I do remain suitably sceptical that this huge rush of political euphoria can last; no doubt there’s a New Labour style post-election crash due soon (although I’m by no means as cynical as Tom McRae on the subject). There are a few nay-sayers in our office who think he’s all cliches and speeches and, to quote Luke Skywalker, it’s all such a long way from here. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that this is an important moment in world politics. Obama is the right man at the right time telling the right story – and it is a story even if not in a pejorative sense – about regrouping, rebuilding and reaffirming fundamental values.

TV-wise, CSI: original flavour is back on C5 and as good as ever. I’ve been mildly spoiled for future cast changes, but otherwise it’s nice to watch a consistently high quality series do its stuff and not have a clue what’s coming next. We’re still catching up on various US imports including House (still great), Sarah Connor (mostly great) and Galactica (I just need closure). We also have the Dexter S1 box set to watch, and we found the entire Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes going cheap in HMV so we’ve started that too. Incredibly I don’t think I’d ever seen the first episode before (A Scandal in Bohemia).

We’re also trying to get back in the swing of going to the cinema. Today we saw Frost/Nixon which is both a predictable underdog story and an extremely solid, occasionally outstanding character study of two men. Both lead performances are exemplary, and the film settles out as a surprisingly melancholy portrait of Nixon in a way that reminded me very much of George Reeves in Hollywoodland.

This just in

Barack Obama will meet Spider-man in an issue of the regular comic. Spidey will apparently save Obama’s inauguration from a supervillain. Apparently Obama admitted to having been a Spidey fan as a kid, Marvel got wind of this, and one thing lead to another, yadda yadda yadda. Look, I’m not making this up, okay? Although looking at some of the panels they’re previewing, I kind of wish I were. Edit: also their Obama likeness is *terrible*.

These caricatured Doctor Who figures are *so* cute. Many more here. Not that I understand the point of collectibles. I still get occasional catalogues through the door from Forbidden Planet, and the entire catalogue from start to finish is pretty much composed of TV and movie characters done as figures, figurines, busts, miniatures, plates, T-shirts, scarves… Does anyone actually need 17 different figurines of Buffy in every outfit she ever wore? Or a tastefully sculpted tableau reproducing a scene from Ghostbusters? I mean, where do you put this stuff?

Meanwhile Outpost Gallifrey reports on the quite excessive lengths the BBC went to in order to prevent word of the new Doctor Who leaking out ahead of their announcement. (Can’t seem to link to the article directly, but it’s dated Jan 6th on that page).

And finally, it looks like Watchmen will get released as planned, probably after Warner Bros agrees to pay Fox huge sums of money. I would normally have no strong feelings about which company profits from a given franchise, but it’s hard to read this open letter from the Watchmen Producers without concluding that Fox are a creatively bankrupt bunch of money-grubbers.

Free associating

There’s a very thoughtful opinion piece on the BBC website entitled “Is Barack Obama black?”. It’s a response to comments about Obama that frankly I hadn’t even been aware of. I think the article makes some very wise points about artificially absolute definitions of race, and also the societal nature of the labels we apply to people. And indeed even if Obama is regarded as mixed-race that makes his accomplishment no less great, albeit less symbolic.

Rumours continue to circle around Paterson Joseph as a contender for the next Doctor Who, and he certainly seems interested. I know I was cheerleading for him earlier on the basis of his role in Neverwhere, but I’ve been reminded that he can be a little broad in his performances so I’d be interested to see a recent performance to make up my mind. He’s in the BBC’s new remake of Survivors, along with the increasingly ubiquitous Freema Agyeman and Julie “Bonekickers” Graham. It looks potentially okay, potentially terrible. I may summon up the energy to find out. Or not.

On a related note I’d seen others refer to the recently released BBC Archive material relating to the genesis of Doctor Who. What I hadn’t realised is that the first two documents released, and particularly the first, are essentially internal BBC briefing papers trying to work out ‘what is this thing called Science Fiction?’ with a view to determining whether it could be adapted for TV. They propose to use Arthur C Clarke and John Wyndham as consultants, and even met with Brian Aldiss. As such these documents represent brief but fascinating “as others see us” thoughts about written SF in the early 1960s; at once insightful, pragmatic and patronising.

The remaining documents are more about Doctor Who itself: ‘concept notes for new SF drama’ and ‘background notes for Doctor Who’ are fascinating glimpses into the origins of the TV show, with the latter representing a recognisable yet strangely different vision of the series. It goes some way to explaining just how unlikeable Hartnell’s Doctor would occasionally be in the early episodes.

Non sequitur

What? Seriously, what?

A number of local councils in Britain have banned their staff from using Latin words, because they say they might confuse people. Several local authorities have ruled that phrases like “vice versa”, “pro rata”, and even “via” should not be used, in speech or in writing…Other local councils have banned “QED” and “ad hoc”…

Assuming this is real and not a Daily Mail scare story dressed up as journalism (which it manifestly sounds like, except that it’s on the BBC website) this is crazy. Surely no-one seriously believes that “vice versa” is an obscure latin phrase. It’s an English phrase; who cares about its etymology? Next someone will suggest banning “cul de sac” because it’ll confuse non-French speakers. Or “margarine”. Half our language is appropriated from elsewhere, and it seems meaningless to tag a few key phrases and mutter darkly “those are foreign”.

Even leaving aside their derivation, are these phrases really obscure and elitist? I don’t speak a word of latin, but I know perfectly well what all these examples mean, yet according to the Plain English Campaign “the ban might stop people confusing the Latin abbreviation e.g. with the word ‘egg’.” Because, you know, that one always confuses people. Why not just go the whole hog and ban words of more than two syllables?

I find this all very surreal because this kind of “PC gone mad” story is normally anathema to me. Usually the journalist has ridiculously mischaracterised a fairly sensible decision, and it’s the press facing my ire not the bewildered subject of the story. In this case the councils are not imposing an outright ban, merely “discouragement”, but on the face of it I still can’t understand what they could be thinking.

Okay, I’m taking a few deep breaths and disengaging rant mode. On a tangentially related note, the godlike Stephen Fry talks lengthily, wisely and poetically about the beauty of language and the insanity of trying to freeze it in place on his new improved blog. An oasis of common sense.

Politicking

Interesting juxtaposition in the US Presidential Election of Sarah Palin’s derogatory statements about science vs. Obama getting the endorsement of high profile scientists.

Palin, in that ‘loveable’ folksy way of hers (see also: George W Bush), decided to ridicule ‘wasteful’ scientific research on things like fruit flies: “You’ve heard about some of these pet projects – they really don’t make a whole lot of sense – and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit-fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” Since my own wife’s degree project focused on drosophila melanogaster, I’m well-versed in how incredibly useful these little insects are to science, but here’s a fairly scathing rebuttal to Palin.

Meanwhile 76 Nobel prize winners have written a letter endorsing Obama as “a visionary leader” and condemning Bush’s policies.

Also, as if Obama could become any more like Jed Bartlet, here’s a really fascinating speech of his about the role of religion in modern America. I hadn’t previously been aware of this speech but it looks like it was made back in 2006. I can’t help but be reminded of President Bartlet’s rant from The West Wing episode The Midterms (itself gacked from the interwebs) about selective adherence to the Bible to support bigotry. Obama’s speech (in selectively edited form) been seized on to argue that Obama ‘hates’ God, but it’s actually a very even-handed and astonishingly brave thing for a US politician to do. Brave even though he’s not claiming to be an atheist, merely arguing very cogently for separation of Church and State; a fairy uncontroversial view, you’d think1.

Speaking of YouTube, this video of Palin set to piano improv is deeply unfair, but very funny.

1 Bartlet is of course portrayed as a devout Catholic and his rant is not seen as coming into conflict with his beliefs, and there’s no reason Obama could not be a Christian and still make this speech.

The News and Weather

We’ve been intermittently pummelled by hailstones this afternoon. What the weather forecasters euphemistically refer to as “wintry showers”, but in practice are more like the immediate aftermath of making a prank phone call to Odin. I’ve been known to enjoy some proper snow and ice in my time, but driving sheets of hailstones that quickly melt into icy puddles can’t be on anyone’s list of favourite weather. I was thinking this even before our cat Charcoal entered through the cat flap at Mach 3, drenched from head to toe, freezing cold and squeaking indignantly. She’s much happier (and warmer) now.

Meanwhile the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross1 story climbs to new depths with “emergency crisis talks” at the BBC, and journalists charging after BBC executives in the street shouting “Do we know who’s to blame yet?” (Those were the exact words). News 24 have belatedly starting asking whether this mob-mentality is all a bit much, but as far as I can tell this has only recently occurred to them and they’re mainly using it as a bonus talking point in interviews. In any case I’m going to have to join the mob now, because otherwise I’ll find myself calling Noel Gallagher rightheaded, and then the world will end.

I also caught a bit of Obama speechifying on the campaign trail on News 24. That man may or may not be from Krypton, but he certainly knows how to make speeches. Sometimes I do wonder whether (assuming he wins the election) the weight of expectations on his shoulders is so impossibly huge that we’re in for a New Labour-style backlash when he doesn’t fix EVERYthing. I also hope there’s some real substance behind the fervour. Mainly I hope we get to find out.

Lastly, and on behalf of my wife, I would just like to say ZOMGSharpe!!!111.


1 In the “you can’t make it up” category, Jonathan Ross currently has a book out entitled Why Do I Say These Things?.

EDIT: Now the controller of Radio 2 has resigned.

Be excellent to each other…

I don’t normally embed videos, but I was emailed this today by Avaaz.org, and I’m sure this will be doing the rounds.

It’s a quite nice, positive video underlining America’s place in the world (rather than apart from it). The email claims “The ad doesn’t tell people who to vote for” (I assume they had difficulty saying this with a straight face since it’s explicitly anti-Bush) “but its overriding message of tolerance, diplomacy, human rights and equality is unmistakable”. And that part is tough to disagree with. It’s pro- things that, to me at least, sound like common sense. So I guess that makes it a pro-Obama advert. 🙂

Of course I don’t live in the US and can’t vote in the US election for quite sensible reasons relating to electoral fraud, but as the BBC like to remind us the election will affect the rest of the world. That’s clearly the point of this campaign.

The official blurb:

In just over a week, America will head to the polls. So much depends on this election — the fight against climate change, the war in Iraq, global efforts on human rights and many other issues.

But right now, US conservatives are employing the most divisive and deceptive tactics in the US election, portraying those who call for change as “anti-American” and even terrorist sympathizers. Check out this new response ad from the global online organisation Avaaz.org, calling for hope, unity, and change as Americans head to the polls.

If enough people watch the ad and sign its message to the American people and presidential candidates, it will be picked up by the US talk shows — who are looking for what is hot online. You can watch the ad and sign on here.

Hey, you never know…

EDIT: While I’m at it, here’s Joss Whedon praising a number of things including The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Hard Day’s Night, but Obama makes it into the list.

But seriously

I’m not about to defend whatever bad taste prank Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross inflicted on Andrew Sachs, but really this whole thing is snowballing quite ridiculously. Apparently Ross has apologised and Sachs is happy with that, but the number of complaints by people outraged on his behalf is still going up — about a radio show that aired nearly a fortnight ago, and which most people complaining have not even heard. Suddenly, eleven days later, there are calls for the two ‘stars’ to resign. Or even for the DG of the BBC to resign. And now we have Gordon Brown and David Cameron weighing in; no doubt in a desperate attempt from both to appear relevant and in touch with the common folk.

My mob-mentality sense is tingling. We’re in one of those horrendous, self-righteous tabloid feedback loops where public opinion and media coverage escalate in lock-step. That’s not to say I like Russell Brand or approve of making offensive phone calls, but seriously folks.

Bleargh

The moment I started my holidays last Saturday I started coming down with the lurgy. Funny how often that happens. So even though I’m on holiday this week I’m also bunged up and feeling like the back of my throat has been sandpapered (or, occasionally, chiselled). Since I’m not up to much therefore, here are a few things that, in my delirium, I mentally logged as worth telling someone. You be the judge.

The saga of Tom McRae’s website continues. It’s now in Australia. No really.

This story about the MMR vaccine scare on Bad Science is actually an excerpt from Ben Goldacre’s new book. It’s also a fantastically rational account of how irrational the media can be in their quest to sensationalise a story.

Frost/Nixon is a movie that wasn’t on my radar. What were the chances that anyone, let alone Ron Howard, would make a Hollywood movie out of David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon? It’s hard to know what to make of it. The trailer paints the film as a mixture of political drama and David vs Goliath feel-good story, in the general neighbourhood of Charlie Wilson’s War. Michael Sheen looks great as Frost, and Frank Langella seems okayish as Nixon. Other eclectic cast members include Oliver Platt (White House Counsel Oliver Babish on The West Wing) and Matthew “Tom from Spooks” McFadyen. (Plus it has Kevin Bacon in it, so given how ubiquitous Michael Sheen is this should blow the Kevin Bacon game wide open.)

No Heroics is a new sitcom centred around off-duty UK Superheroes. The trailer looks surprisingly okay, albeit sex-obsessed, particularly given that this is airing on that great sitcom purgatory, ITV.

Lastly, what is up with those camera zooms that punctuate Evan Davis’s every sentence at the start of Dragon’s Den? It’s like the camera operator just ate an entire keg of Smarties and can’t calm down.

Here is the News

1,800-year-old Roman stone sarcophagi found in Newcastle. That’s not far from us! I learn from this story that they’re apparently building a Great North Museum in Newcastle including antiquities, a planetarium, an interactive model of Hadrian’s Wall, a life-size T-Rex dinosaur skeleton, and special exhibitions from London. This could be very nice for us as it’s not always convenient for us to get down to the British Museum. I’m only amazed that my wife’s normally excellent Archaeology Radar hasn’t tipped us off to this sooner. The website banner appears to feature Egyptians on chariots hunting Dinosaurs, but I’ll assume there’s some artistic licence involved…

Of course if that recent bonkers think tank report was listened to there’d be no point in doing any of this because everyone in the North should just give up on their cities, which are beyond all hope of revival, and move south. This is so patently absurd that it probably isn’t worth getting upset about, but Exhibit A would surely be the fact that any number of Northern cities have already succeeded in transforming themselves and their fortunes into thriving centres of business and culture. Like Newcastle & Gateshead, for example. Sunderland is one of those named by the think tank as “beyond revival” yet — although it’s hardly the largest or most cosmopolitan of cities — in the relatively short time I’ve known it Sunderland has transformed itself from a shipbuilding town to one with a beautiful riverside and coastal area and a strong service industry base (including the University), not to mention the famous Nissan plant. The fact that anyone could seriously suggest otherwise reflects blinkered attitudes to the ‘North’ of England (i.e. anywhere north of the M25) that are quite surreal. It’s the equivalent of saying that the London Dockland area was beyond revival prior to Canary Wharf being built.

And finally…

A sensible, evidence-based story about the British Summer. Will wonders never cease.

NOW NEWSPAPERS TELL YOU LIES

This is a fantastic dissection of a particularly odious anti-Muslim story in the generally extremely odious Daily Express.

What perhaps shouldn’t surprise me quite as much as it does is that the story has only the slightest resemblance to the truth. The headline (“Sniffer dogs offend Muslims so now bomb search police face restrictions”) is in fact not just a distortion but literally untrue and is disproven by the fine print later in the story.

This stuff really annoys me. Most days I wander past the news stand and see the headlines on the Daily Mail and the Daily Express and feel vaguely amused at how biased they seem to be. All tabloids pander mercilessly to their perceived demographic, after all, whether left wing or right wing.

Sometimes though I do get disheartened by how relentlessly the more right wing publications are brazenly trying to stir up xenophobia and make their reader (some hypothetical middle class, middle aged white person) feel that their way of life is under attack from all sides. For example, during the recent petrol strike (that only minimally disrupted the country) the Express chose big headlines stating “Government says not to panic but FUEL COULD RUN OUT!” To be fair, most of the media became obsessed with seeking out areas where there had been at least some disruption. Most didn’t actively set out to cause panic, however. The Express is particularly fond of headlines that sound like they’ve been screamed by someone experiencing a nervous breakdown. Starting the headline with the word “NOW…” is their preferred means of indicating that this latest indignity is the final straw.

The website linked to above notes some of the more extreme comments to this story, which appear to be made by people who only read the headline. Okay, even the BBC website tends to have comments threads filled with slighty deranged people ranting from their chosen soapbox, but I still find this a little depressing.

I know the Daily Express is an easy target. I know they pander to a readership who already believes these things. I just find them particularly shameless and manipulative, and the one thing that really does aggravate me in journalism is Making Stuff Up.

(Link courtesy of the ever entertaining badscience).

Dispossessed

Interesting and scary story about dispossessed Polish immigrants forced to live homeless in London or being returned home. Bet this one doesn’t make the front cover of The Daily Mail.

Janet drew my attention to this because she found the picture painted of London disturbingly reminiscent of the Victorian age, full of gin palaces with no safety net other than the workhouse for those who fell on hard time — except of course that there’s no workhouse so the alcoholics live on the street.

A rant about human rights

Brigadier: “Well naturally enough the only country that could be trusted with such a role was Great Britain.”
The Doctor: “Well, naturally. I mean, the rest were all foreigners.”
Doctor Who – “Robot”

Depressingly but unsurprisingly, “Britons believe too many people, especially immigrants and asylum seekers, take advantage of the Human Rights Act (HRA), a poll has suggested”.

Ranty

Ghosts and goblins

It’s begun. We’ve had six trick-or-treaters already. Four of the uninspiring ’12-year-old boys in tracksuits with Scream masks’ variety, and two of the ‘painfully cute little girls in witches’ costume’ variety. One was a man selling double-glazing, but we won’t talk about him.

As always our porch is bedecked with Halloween decorations in a way which would make any self-respecting house-holder cry with shame, and us glow with pride. Janet took the pumpkin carving one step further this year with a fantastic spider-web design she found online. I’m so impressed. I played it safe.

I realise that huge numbers of people lock the doors, hide behind the sofa, go out, or otherwise take out restraining orders on anyone under 20. Others say it’s tantamount to begging, or extortion. Some grumble it’s American culture subsuming our own. Even the police are talking tough. Frankly we have no complaints. We get all treats, no tricks. The worst I can say is that some of the kids don’t put much effort in, but many do, and many are accompanied by responsible parents. A significant portion are so sweet and so sincere you could die from cuteness on the spot. Especially when they squee with excitement as they leave with the bag of treats. Above all, and despite the recent commercialisation, it’s about kids being kids and having fun, not about anything antisocial. It’s cool.

EDIT: Sample grumpy news story.

EDIT2: All went very well, although we got through less bags of sweets than usual. I think some of the kids have grown out of it (we had a large group of older teenagers dressed as office zombies last year who said it was their final trick-or-treat). Plus we always get fewer when Halloween is mid week.

To cap it off I’ve managed to crack my head off the door post while taking down the decorations. Hard. Right on the outside edge of my eye socket. Ouch. There’s a tiny gash and some swelling, but despite Janet trying to cajole me into a trip to Casualty there are no signs of concussion. Just soreness!

Subtle as an iBrick

It’s a blizzard outside! Sadly none of it is settling on the ground. As far as I’m concerned this defeats the whole purpose of snow, which is to make the world look pretty and fresh and strange. Not just soggy.

While I’m here: Steve Jobs meets US Foreign Policy in this surprisingly amusing skit about Iraq. I say “surprisingly” because it’s about as subtle as a brick, but that’s part of the charm.

Lastly, I don’t know why this is cool but it is: an image of Jupiter taken from the Cassini probe in orbit around Saturn (1.1 billion miles away). Now that’s a zoom lens.

EDIT: Some actual snow on the ground this morning! Plenty of signs of it melting rapidly as it lands, but for the moment it’s actually quite white in places.

The Great Global Warming Muddle

Courtesy of www.badscience.net: I knew C4’s recent “polemic” The Great Global Warming Swindle had been roundly criticised for scientific inaccuracies, but I’m still flabbergasted by the extent to which the film-maker distorted the evidence – take a look at these graphs.

Of course, some scientists are now warning that some claims about the impact of Global Warming exceed what can be purely justified by the evidence. This is perfectly reasonable and indeed the basis on which the scientific community ought to operate, and the online story is fine. However it’s a bit of a shame that BBC News 24’s soundbite approach to the story left the impression that they were casting doubt on global warming itself, not merely the extent of it. (In fact one of the scientists explicitly says in the online version: “I’ve no doubt that global warming is occurring”.) So a story in which scientists warn against confusing the public ends up being itself a cause of confusion. Typical.

Science Horizons

Janet has pointed me towards Science Horizons, the website for “a national series of conversations about new technologies, the future and society… …set up by the UK government”.

It looks like a series of national discussions about the public’s views on science and technology and where they’re heading in the future. As well as the pre-organised discussions, you can even set up your own small group discussion about the future:

“The pack contains some information and images about what life might be like in 2025 based on the views of experts. But these are not predictions of what will happen – just some possibilities to get people talking. We have included some information about the science behind these possibilities, and some links to where you can find more information if you want it, but you don’t have to have a special interest in the subject to take part.”

You then enter the group’s views online before 25th June 2007. Nifty.

As Janet said this morning, wouldn’t it be great if people with an active interest in science, who are actually intelligent and rightheaded1, were to do a few of these. You know: SF fans. Make a nice change from the luddites who make up the bulk of the UK population. Put power back in the hands of the elitist SF snobs, that’s what I say!

1 Sort of.

Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein has been hanged.

I don’t really feel intellectually qualified to enter into a debate on all the arguments for and against capital punishment in a modern society, but I do know that I oppose it. Part of me actually feels naive for holding this viewpoint, but there it is. It seems to me morally reprehensible and hypocritical to murder one man as a punishment for the murder of others. It’s the revenge of the mob, not justice; it’s about satisfying people’s instinctive uncivilised need for a merciless and final act of retribution, not about holding onto moral certainties. I realise that this practice is legal in some US states, and I also realise that Iraq is a different culture with its own values and laws, but that doesn’t stop me from finding it abhorrent.

What really brought this home to me was watching footage of Saddam Hussein on the news yesterday evening and realising that this man who was at that second alive and well would soon be murdered in a planned, state sanctioned killing. Worse still, he would not be killed in a humane fashion but be hanged by the neck until dead. For the actions this dictator took and those he sanctioned he deserved punishment1 – to never see daylight again – but I don’t believe that he deserved to die, or that anyone had the right to kill him, or that his killing should be celebrated.

Rant over. I didn’t intend to post about this at all, but I found it more shocking than I expected and I want to record that fact.

1 He was, as Eddie Izzard would say, a mass-murdering fuckhead

The world, hell and handbaskets

The world seems a particularly depressing place at the moment.

My opinion of George Bush could hardly get any lower, but I found this BBC News story fascinating and troubling: George W Bush refusing to enforce laws that he disagrees with. It’s a very high level summary but Bush’s note that he “would not necessarily enforce a ban on torture – the McCain amendment – or a ban on the censoring of government scientists’ findings” boggles the mind if accurate.

Likewise this is hardly encouraging for the cause of freedom: US court backs gay marriage ban. History will hardly look kindly on this aspect of US society, one which President Bush, naturally, supports.

Nor is this very heartening: UN body criticises US on rights, which includes the somewhat stunning statement that “earlier this month, the Bush administration announced that all detainees held by the US military, including those at Guantanamo, were to be treated in line with the minimum standards of the Geneva Conventions.” As if there should have been any question.

And if I can do so without coming across in any way as anti-Israeli (which I’m not) I’d like to state the obvious – that the current military action is resulting in many, many civilian deaths on both sides and it’s therefore only common moral decency – not a political statement – to condemn the conflict and call for a cease fire. There must be other, more proportionate, more targeted and ultimately more successful means of securing your long terms aims than bombing civilians, or bombing people whom you know are surrounded by civilians. That goes for both sides, and I can say without hesitation that I’d condemn anyone, including the UK, engaging in this kind of activity. In the past I’ve defended Tony Blair’s motives (if not his methods) over Iraq, but I’m hard pressed in this situation to see his stance as anything other than cynical and morally reprehensible, despite whatever gentle pressure towards the UN he may be exerting on Bush. Naive rant over.

Content vs Style

I think I’m starting to watch the news on a worryingly meta level, because while I think the government is wholly in the wrong in failing to consider deportation for convicted murderers and rapists from overseas, I still get bothered by the sensationalist and misleading way in which the story is reported. For example this BBC story entirely fails to mention that the prisoners had served their sentences in full, thereby giving the impression that convicted murderers and rapists had somehow been let out onto the streets without punishment. I assume this is because it sounds cooler and more exciting. I do worry that this kind of reporting, with the buzz-words “foreign criminals” all over the place, can only fuel the general anti-immigrant sentiments that seem to be on the rise. This close to a local election it’s potentially incendiary, and can only further the BNP’s ’cause’.

The BBC do redeem themselves with this Q&A, which is a great deal clearer. For example, while all 1023 prisoners should have been considered for deportation, ‘only’ 160 were specifically ordered to be deported. Still a large number, but far from clear on the TV news.

As for the meat of the story, it clearly merits headline reporting, and is clearly a monumental cock-up on the part of the government – or at least an administrative and managerial cock-up on the part of the various departments. As to how serious it is beyond the political ramifications, it depends where you stand on criminals who have served their sentence. If a murderer has served their time, is it jeopardising the public safety to let them out onto the streets? In some cases yes, in some no, and it doesn’t really matter if they are a UK national or not. Someone who is not a citizen of the UK and abuses the country’s laws should probably be sent home on the principle of abuse of trust and hospitality, but they’re still no more or less of a threat than any other ex-offender.

I feel more strongly about cases where reoffending is more likely such as rape or paedophilia. Thankfully this is one of the factors considered as part of deportations. While I don’t feel that deportation is an automatic answer (otherwise: Hey! Let’s deport all criminals!), it’s common sense that any measures should be at least as stringent as those which would apply to a UK national. Releasing a sex offender without any attempt to monitor them is therefore rather stupid by any standards. (Although I’m unclear whether this is, in fact, what happened. Which is another problem with the reporting.)

There are of course other factors. Some of the criminals had not committed serious crimes (41 were burglars). Some may have family here. Some may face a threat to life and limb if returned to their home country. All this must be weighed against their having committed a crime in the UK, and deportation is not automatic for very sensible reasons.

Ultimately this is a serious issue which deserves serious, informed reporting – reporting which studiously avoids the implication that these dirty forriners just want to murder us in our beds. And they could be living among you right now.

Godless heathens

Hey, I’m part of a distrusted minority. Finally! It may even give other minority groups something to be pleased about, relatively speaking, since: ‘From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.”‘

Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that strongly religious people distrust atheists. At some fundamental level you’d almost expect it, though it needn’t necessarily be the case. To be honest I’m perfectly happy with the notion that people with equally strong – if opposing – religious beliefs have more in common with each other than with atheists. It’s all about the way you view the world and your place within it, and religions do indeed have a great deal in common on that level.

I do wonder, though, whether this result isn’t influenced by other factors. Atheism is also one of those forgotten minority groups (and how sad that it’s a minority!) in that there’s no sense that denigrating atheists is discriminatory in any way; no sense of guilt at having transgressed a cultural boundary. People will tend to be honest about their feelings towards atheists where perhaps they would not towards Muslims.

But still – to distrust atheists on principle – as if they were a homogenous group defined solely by their scepticism about the Almighty – indicates some fundamental assumptions which go hand in hand with distrust of science. It’s that feeling that scepticism is the same as believing in nothing or having no moral values. The feeling that to demand scientific evidence for belief is to be contrary and closed-minded. That’s more worrying to me.

I’m also struck by those minority groups mentioned in the quote; particularly their incredible diversity. They are all regarded as “other” by some kind of majority definition, but they share almost nothing else in common. That implictly says a lot about the very limited definition of social normality used by the people participating in the poll (or possibly by those conducting it, depending on how the quotations were phrased.) It’s sad that there’s any question of whether minority groups share a vision of society in common with other people: after all, any group is composed of individuals with their own beliefs, people who are not solely or even mainly defined by some arbitrary notion of “minority”. And if there is any sense that those groups don’t agree with the mainstream vision of society, it’s almost certainly because that society treats them with suspicion and intolerance and seeks to disenfranchise them. So standing up for your rights leads you to be seen as a threatening outsider: talk about a vicious circle.

All of which is just the tip of the iceberg of a very complex issue, but there’s nothing like a ridiculous poll to get your brain working.

Take me out to the Black, and shoot me

Oh my god. I’m older than Nathan Fillion. I’m not sure why this upsets me, but it does.

In other news, I’m not Tony Blair’s biggest fan but surely this is a complete non-story. It’s been all over News 24 today. It seems to me like a classic example of the press arbitrarily deciding that something trivial is ‘news’ simply because it’s pure pundit fodder.