Monday, January 26, 2015 

TV review (of sorts): Bitter Lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, January 23, 2015 


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Thursday, January 22, 2015 

What the Dickens?

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015 

And we're back in the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015 

Spare us the mental health evangelism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, January 19, 2015 

Pickled politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, January 16, 2015 


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