Saturday, August 08, 2009 

Weekend links.

The silly season is at its height, and there's just about bugger all happening. Tabloid Watch rips the Express's "Labour's 186bn benefits madness" to shreds, Paul Sagar asks what the Tory policy is on tax havens, Lenin writes on Somalia, Paul Linford wonders whether the real winner of the "battle" between Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson might be Alan Johnson, Paulie says don't underestimate Murdoch and the Daily Quail has some Littlejohn banners.

In the papers, or on their sites at any rate, John Harris interviews "Red Tory" Philip Blond, Panjak Mishra says Afghanistan is a bigger mess than Iraq, Matthew Parris defends the insult, Howard Jacobson thinks it isn't always good to talk and Andrew Buncombe wonders where the killing of Mehsud leaves Pakistan.

As for the worst tabloid article, we have two rather than the usual one from Amanda Platell, who visits "Fat Central" to snort at the obese and also hilariously declares that we shouldn't show compassion to someone who never showed it anyone else like Ronnie Biggs (how on earth would Platell know what compassion is either?), but the winner must be Peter Hitchens, who's decided the police are now the "useless uniformed" wing of New Labour. Of course they are, Peter.

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Friday, August 07, 2009 

Greek tragedy.

Pakistani and American authorities were celebrating today after they had succeeded in cutting off the head of the hydra, also known as Baitullah Mehsud. The weapon used to decapitate the hydra, the pilotless drone, armed with the missile of Hades, aimed a successful strike against the beast's head, cutting it clean off.

Others were however sceptical at whether the cutting off of the Hydra's head would end its reign of terror. One expert said: "This is by no means the end. The cutting off of the Hydra's head will simply result in it growing back two where once there was just one. The only way to bring this battle to an end is not just to cut off the head, but also to scorch the ends where they would otherwise grow back. That is far more difficult."

Osama bin Hercules could not be reached for comment.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009 

Jack Straw, also synonymous with heartless bastard.

It seems that we have Ronnie Biggs to thank for two things: firstly, for demonstrating just what condition you have to be released from prison on "compassionate" grounds, and secondly for highlighting what a charmless, inhumane bastard Jack Straw is.

On the 1st day of last month Straw ruled that Biggs couldn't be released because he was "wholly unrepentant". This was despite the fact that Biggs can't talk, walk, eat or drink. A few days before Straw's ruling he had fell and broken his hip; the parole board without apparently being sardonic, said the risk he posed "was manageable under the proposed risk management plan". The risk from a man who has to be fed through a tube and who can barely walk must rank up there with the risk posed by eating Pop Rocks and then drinking Coke, or the risk of being mauled to death by a band of marauding gerbils. Straw didn't bother to explain how keeping such a man in prison at a cost doubtless far in excess of that if he was in a nursing home was justifiable except in terms of pure vindictiveness. If the aim was to please the authoritarian populists in the tabloids, he failed: even they blanched at a man close to death being kept inside for no real reason except the establishment getting its own back for being played a fool for years.

37 days later and Biggs' condition has now deteriorated so significantly that Straw has granted parole on "compassionate" grounds. This in effect means that Biggs is about to die, with his son hoping that he survives long enough to see out his birthday on Saturday. If Straw had granted Biggs parole back on the 1st of July, he might just have been able to enjoy a few days of something approaching freedom; now he's likely to just slip away, having gone down with pneumonia. Politicians such as Straw justify the likes of Iraq war on the basis that even if hundreds of thousands of people died, the ends justified the means; in any event, rarely do they see the consequences of their actions close up, and even then they can take the abstract view, that they weren't personally responsible even if in the chain of command. Yet Straw can hardly deny in this instance that he may well have directly contributed to Biggs' suffering further than he needed to. Straw's shamelessness though seems unlikely to even slightly twinge his conscience, even when others would have been deeply troubled by just that thought.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009 

Silly season moaning.

Every year it's the same. The newspapers moan about politicians while they're at Westminster, then they moan when they're not at Westminster. Gavel Basher in Private Eye today points out that those most fingered as being useless can't win: Bob Ainsworth, the defence secretary, pilloried for being out of his depth and described in the Sun's umpteenth leader on Our Brave Boys having to fight the government as much as they're fighting the Taliban as a "bungling Defence wallah", went for a few days break, just as the row about compensation broke out. He came back, as you would, and the same newspapers complain that he shouldn't have bothered.

The situation is almost exactly the same with whoever it is who deputises for the prime minister while he's away for a couple of weeks. John Prescott got it in the neck repeatedly simply because he wasn't Tony Blair and also from the usual suspects for being a working class idiot above his pay grade. This year it's Harriet Harman's turn, and it being the silly season and there being no real politics to write about, she's transformed by the Mail especially into a feminist harridan determined in just a week to strike a blow against the oppressive patriarchy. The evidence? She jokingly repeated her remarks that women would make better bankers than men (they couldn't be much worse), is daring to introduce lessons about relationships at the age of five which in the Mail becomes five-year-olds being indoctrinated in the ways of feminazism, and might have suggested that the proposals on reforms to the rape laws aren't tough enough. It's utter nonsense, but it fills the space and makes for a good front page splash.

The last person to deputise for the prime minister who was given anything even approaching respect was John Reid, who was praised for his handling of the "liquid bomb plot" raids while Blair was off sunning himself. Reid of course was the hard, unflappable and determined politician which the authoritarian tabloids especially love, at least until they decide that what was up must be brought back down to earth. As for Bob Ainsworth, attacked as much for his choice in facial hair as for his current performance as defence secretary, he's just the latest poor bastard to be cleaning up the mess which Reid himself left at defence, he being the one who told the world that he hoped the troops in Afghanistan would be able to return home from their mission without firing a single shot. We might get the politicians we deserve, but we get the media we deserve as well.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009 

Torture? Look at this fucking great fish!

You perhaps would have thought, what with it being the silly season and all, that a hard news story such as the most authoritative so far inquiry into British state complicity with torture post 9/11 might have made a few waves. Fat chance. The only thing making waves, or rather no longer making them, is a dead fish. Front page of the Graun, pretty much a given, considering the paper's own contribution to the inquiry by the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (PDF), was the best it could manage.

Admittedly, it might be because it doesn't tell those of us who have been following the long and winding road from complicity in rendition with the Americans to complicity in torture in Pakistan much that we don't already know. It also doesn't specifically say that we have been complicit: such investigation was outside its remit, and besides, both David Miliband and the home secretary declined to give evidence to the committee, as did Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5. Andrew Dismore, trying to shame the MI5 director into meeting his committee even pointed out to Evans that back in January he gave an interview to a select band of hacks. If he can give an insight into the current workings of the security service to the hoi polloi in Fleet Street, surely he can spare a few minutes to say something to parliamentarians? Alas, no. Evans it seems is only answerable to the toothless Intelligence and Security Committee, where his evidence can be conveniently censored and redacted, and considering their report into rendition, which was a complete whitewash, it's no surprise why the service favours them.

Thankfully, the committee's conclusions pull few punches. Complicity in torture would be a direct breach of our international human rights obligations; despite the need for co-operation between foreign intelligence agencies, there must be mechanisms for ensuring accountability; ministers are determined to avoid parliamentary scrutiny, and the fact they can do so confirms the system for ministerial accountability for security and intelligence matters is woefully deficient; the membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee must be debated to ensure it is subject to frequent scrutiny and that it should be established as a proper parliamentary committee, with an independent secretariat; the government should immediately publish all versions of the guidance given to intelligence officers in relation to the detention and interviewing of detainees overseas; the government should follow the Obama administration and publish all relevant legal opinions provided to ministers; and lastly, the only way to restore confidence in the intelligence services is an independent inquiry into the numerous allegations of complicity in torture, which should make recommendations about improving the accountability of the security services as well as removing any scope for impunity.

Some coverage of these conclusions might well have helped towards that inquiry, one which this government at least is certain not to hold; it's doubtful also that Cameron, especially with the neo-conservatives among his front bench, is likely to piss off the security services as soon as he ascends to power. What it comes down to is that no one really cares: some of those making the allegations are after all convicted terrorists; oh, and probably the fact that all of them have brown or darker skin helps too. We will though remain in judgement of Guantanamo Bay and the explicit involvement of the CIA in torture, even when we ourselves are just as up to our necks in it.

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Monday, August 03, 2009 

The coming of the fauxocracy.

I want to agree with Neal Lawson and his views on consumerism, but he makes it so bloody hard with his sweeping generalisations:

As you read this, take a look around and at yourself. You are decked in and surrounded by symbols of consumer society. It's not just your clothes that give it away, but your watch, jewellery, mobile, MP3 player, bag; the furniture and the fittings; all are brands designed to speak for you. Wasn't it ever thus?

Let's see: I have on a pair of Rough Justice jeans, a plain black top and a band t-shirt on underneath; I don't wear a watch; I don't wear any jewellery; I have the cheapest Nokia you can buy, if you can still buy it, and only take it with me when I really need it; I do have a Sony NWZ 8GB mp3 player, with which I wear Sennheiser headphones; I never carry a bag and have completely non-descript furniture and fittings. Admittedly, this still makes me a very much the Western archetypal young male, even if not an ultra-conformist one, but the point still stands.

It's a shame because he does have something resembling a point. The paradox of individualism is that it's created a society just as collectivised as any totalitarian one. There are of course numerous different sub-cultures within any "individualised" society, but capitalism infects, subverts and controls all of them; they cannot exist without it. At the same time originality and freedom of thought are being systematically undermined: both are on their last legs, if not already dead. The best way to be an individual now is to never leave your room, to avoid using the internet (or at least none of the "social media") and slowly rot away. I almost wish I was joking.

The irony of Lawson's position is that he is of course selling a lifestyle just as much as those he so disparages. It didn't really hit me how much the "ethical" way of life is just as big business as anything else until I saw it had an entire section in Waterstone's, just like the misery memoirs have their own huge sections, usually under a euphemism like "difficult lives". Anything and everything, even misery, can be made profitable, the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch writ large. Ben Goldacre pointed out at the weekend that the Soil Association has £2bn backing behind it. Again, the main way to break free is not to downsize or buy less; it's to buy nothing. The impossibility of that position in the long term is also not helped by how then buying nothing itself also becomes an alternative.

Finally, Lawson presents a false dichotomy:

A life of turbo consumption cannot be the pinnacle of human development. Do we want a consumer society or a democracy? We cannot have both.

Except that the consumer society and democracy go hand in hand. The downfall of communism can almost certainly be linked to the development of the consumer society. Admittedly, communism ultimately collapsed upon itself, but the alternative was undoubtedly attractive to millions. This isn't to say that the consumer society and democracy can ultimately live together indefinitely; as Lawson suggests, none of the main political parties oppose or believe in any real alternative. Slavoj Žižek covered this excellently in the London Review of Books:

If there is one person to whom monuments will be built a hundred years from now, Peter Sloterdijk once remarked, it is Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who thought up and put into practice a ‘capitalism with Asian values’. The virus of authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe. Deng Xiaoping praised Singapore as the model that all of China should follow. Until now, capitalism has always seemed to be inextricably linked with democracy; it’s true there were, from time to time, episodes of direct dictatorship, but, after a decade or two, democracy again imposed itself (in South Korea, for example, or Chile). Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken.

What we might well be facing then is a fauxocracy, a plutocracy, or ultimately, a kleptocracy. Something to look forward to then.

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