The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'politics'
LGBT+ Australians and their allies can breathe a cautious sigh of relief as one prolonged chapter of the national culture-war pantomime comes to a close, with 61.6% of Australians voting to legalise same-sex marriage. Sorry, did I say voting? It wasn't a referendum, or even a plebiscite, but a non-binding postal survey, whose sole purpose was for Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's Prime Minister to pander the alpha-males of the hard right, putting the human rights of part of the population to a survey and declaring a legal gay-bashing season, giving bigots carte blanche to gather their best arguments on why those people are disgusting and shouldn't be allowed, and shove them into every letterbox in the nation. LGBT mental-health help lines have, as expected, been busy.
Anyway, it turns out that most Australians are happy to let gay people marry. Which is to say, LGBT+ Australians can be somewhat reassured by knowing that, out of any five Australians they might see, statistically, more than three are happy for them to exist; which, one supposes, is progress. So now, a marriage equality bill will soon be debated in parliament. We can probably expect to see the LNP hard right, abetted by the Australian media's right-wing commentariat, use the fact that they have just under ²⁄₅ of the population opposed it to rationalise larding the bill with amendments effectively legalising all forms of discrimination and vilification against sexual minorities, as long as it comes from religious belief or deeply-felt visceral disgust. Hopefully, such amendments will get smacked down, as moderate Tories vote them down or abstain, though this is complicated by the fact that the electorates which returned majority results against marriage equality were predominantly Labor electorates with large ethnic-minority populations; and while this might not put them within easy reach of the (right-of-centre, big-business-oriented) Liberal Party, its more reactionary/traditionalist offshoot, the Australian Conservatives, not to mention the handful of religious fringe parties that cluster around the bottom end of Senate results, may be salivating at the prospect.
It is a good thing that the campaign is over, and that (hopefully) this issue will be sorted before the end of the year (after which, Australia may, slowly and painfully, have entered the civilised world where centre-right parties have realised that they have more to gain from affluent, established gay couples who can be persuaded that they should pay less tax than from a handful of burned-over religious zealots and the embittered and fearful). However, that is not the same as saying that this is a good result. For one, the legitimacy of a survey into whether a minority should be given fundamental human rights is, to say the least, deeply questionable. (Imagine, if you will, a survey on whether women should be allowed to own property in their own names, or if non-white people should be considered to be human for legal purposes.) Human rights should not be a matter of public opinion, and, if this has demonstrated anything, making them such serves only to embolden bigots.
Beyond the impact on the question, this episode may have other consequences. For one, the highly unorthodox way it was organised may have set a problematic precedent. Not being an election, a referendum or a plebiscite, the survey was not organised by the Australian Electoral Commission; instead, the Bureau of Statistics, until now a quiet, apolitical bureaucracy concerned with gathering data and tabulating it, was transformed by fiat into a parallel electoral commission, only without the responsibilities of one. From this, it is not hard to see it being used as a political football, and made to trot out an endless succession of surveys designed to bolster populist arguments and beat up on scapegoats. (Perhaps some year, to get One Nation's support at passing something in the Senate, there'll be an official ABS postal survey on whether Muslims should be allowed to enter Australia, and a 30% “no” result will be used to legislate for a ban on the sale of halal snack packs to under-18s, or something similarly idiotic?)
Secondly, and more immediately, in agreeing to this exercise, Turnbull may have inadvertently doomed his own party to losing the next election. While they have been polling badly recently, they have a history of scraping through with narrow victories. However, one thing that a
referendum plebiscite survey on whether gay people should have human rights has achieved is a record surge of younger Australians, who vote predominantly left-of-centre, registering to vote. Many of these young people will be living with their parents, in marginal LNP seats, what with the traditionally left-leaning inner cities becoming unaffordable; when the next election comes around, they will vote. The LNP has reasons to be nervous about this, and the ALP probably shouldn't sleep too easily, given how poorly its rightward triangulation on various policies (particularly Australia's harsh deterrence policies against refugees) plays with younger voters.
Well, that was interesting.
It was an unnecessary election, called by a brittle authoritarian Prime Minister, hoping to take advantage of an unpopular and discombobulated opposition to get a sweeping mandate to remake the country. Aware of the near certainty of victory, they packed their manifesto with far-reaching ambit claims: force the NHS to sell off its land; replace Britain's segment of the internet with an Iranian-style censored, filtered national intranet and ban strong encryption; replace local election voting systems with first-past-the-post, killing off minor parties, abolish the Serious Fraud Office (which had an unfortunate habit of picking on Tory MPs); they even included ending a ban on the ivory trade, because, why not. And it looked like it would win; all the polls showed commanding leads. Britain would vote Conservative, because it believed it deserved to be punished. Or perhaps, however unpalatable the Tories' programme was, the alternative was unthinkable, so bitter medicine it would have to be.
Things tightened during the election. (It didn't help that Theresa May didn't cope all that well when things weren't under her control, and tended to freeze up like a broken Dalek when confronted with questions from members of the public; empty warehouses and squads of pre-vetted party volunteers were soon found to mitigate this.) Things, however, could be expected to tighten. It's all part of the pantomime of the great carnival that is a general election: the old order is temporarily inverted and those who govern are briefly at the mercy of their subjects. Still, the vast majority of polls pointed to an increased Tory majority, if not quite the epic landslide promised, but still a healthy mandate.
It didn't work out that way. As soon as the polls closed, the exit poll (which has a much higher sample size and resolution) indicated a hung parliament. As the night went on, this bore out in results: Tory seats falling to a Labour party buoyed by an unusually high turnout, especially of young people traditionally written off as apathetic. (Somehow enough millennials took a break from Snapchatting selfies or eating avocado toast in pastel-coloured onesies or whatever it is the snake people reportedly spend all their time doing and got out to vote, swinging entire seats. One can probably add neoliberalism to the list of things millennials are ruining.) By the morning, a hung parliament was confirmed.
May didn't waste any time, and secured a minority-government deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, a far-right religious-fundamentalist party from Northern Ireland with shadowy links to Protestant paramilitary groups; together, they have a working majority of one or two seats. Things get interesting when one considers that the DUP are opposed to the restoration of a hard border in Ireland (making leaving the customs union much more complicated), but also opposed to Northern Ireland having any special status within the EU (as that'd be caving in to the papists south of the border). They get even more interesting factoring in the fact that a significant number of the Tories' MPs are in Scotland (where the SNP had a very bad night), and thus prohibited by the English Votes for English Laws convention from voting on purely England-and-Wales matters (such as anything to do with the NHS or education). If this holds (and, in the ad hoc world of Westminster, especially under the reality distortion field of a right-wing press, nothing is certain), it means that the government will not have a majority to pass much of its programme; and even that which isn't covered could fall prey to dissent within the party. A further question is that of Theresa May's career. She may have reasserted her authority over her party for the time being, but she did gamble on an unnecessary election, and the Conservatives' losses are at least partly due to her performance. History's judgment of May will not be favourable; as Charlie Brooker put it, “the history books will say Theresa May poured her legacy into an upturned crash helmet and shat in it.”) Meanwhile, Boris Johnson (the classically eloquent yet buffoonish Bullingdonian partly responsible for the whole Brexit omnishambles thast led us here) is said to be preparing for a challenge. Which could mean that, soon, both sides of the pond will be ruled by the hosts of a species of hirsute parasitic brain slug.
If there is a winner of the night, it is the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Previously written off as unelectable, Corbyn has galvanised the party base and the voting public, and achieved the highest vote count for Labour since Tony Blair swept to power 20 years ago. And it's Blair's legacy—a focus-grouped managerialism, bedded on the certainty of Margaret Thatcher's neoliberal axiom, “there is no alternative”—that Corbyn has put to rest. It will be a long time until we see a bland, well-scrubbed Labour politician announcing that the party has the value of “having strong values” or some similarly content-free pabulum. And given the Tory minority government's tiny working minority, and the certainty of byelections, Corbyn may yet be Prime Minister sooner rather than later.
In summary: strap in. This ride's just beginning.
Seemingly inspired by Turkish strongman Erdoğan's resounding 52-48% victory over the weekend, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap general election for 8 June, calling a vote to overturn the 2011 Fixed Parliaments Act in the process. With Labour in disarray, the election will almost certainly result in a Conservative landslide and an Erdoğan-sized mandate to reshape the United Kingdom as it leaves the European Union to become a sort of Singapore of the Atlantic; undercutting the decadent vino-drinking continentals with lower taxes, wages and regulations, and a workforce that knows its place (because any other places it could have gone for a better deal have forever been closed off) and making common cause with the world's tyrants, no longer shackled by politically-correct notions of “human rights”.
The Labour Party would nominally be the opposition to the Tories, as they were throughout much of the 20th century, though are not providing much of an opposition. Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a pre-Blairite socialist once written off as a relic of a bygone era, they have swung firmly in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, whipping their MPs to support Article 50. This is either in an attempt to win back the xenophobic vote or out of some delusional belief in the myth of “Lexit” (left-wing Brexit): the delusion that, having cut its ties with the neoliberal free-marketeers of the European Union, Britain will be free to become a sort of rainy Cuba, a pre-Thatcherite socialist arcadia where the coal mines never closed, the state-run supermarkets only stock one variety of tea, and we're all somewhat poorer and shabbier but equal and happy, all watched over by a cadre of shop stewards in ill-fitting brown suits. On the issue of leaving the EU, there is no difference between the two parties; only on the mythology and teleology of what doing so will signify.
It wasn't always like this, but it was for longer than many would think. When Corbyn ran for the Labour leadership, he was an outsider candidate, put forward half-jokingly next to a field of focus-grouped Blair-manqués struggling to find a selling point for Labour. (One of them actually said that one of Labour's values is “having strong values”; the mutability of those values, presumably, making it easier to respond to polling and market research.) A candidate who actually believed in something—not to mention something as radical as socialism (but not to worry, democratic socialism)—was quite exciting. Corbyn prevailed by a broad margin and saw off several leadership coups (attributed to either traitorous neoliberal Blairites or ordinary Labour MPs questioning their new leader's ability to actually lead, depending on whom one listens to); he is currently presiding over the “regeneration” (and, inevitably, downsizing) of Labour into a more traditionally leftist direction, albeit without the benefit of shipyards, steelworks and mines full of dues-paying industrial workers to provide a natural constituency for a party of labour. (Labour, of course, started as an offshoot of the union movement, a parliamentary party for those whose stake in the system was their labour, rather than property or pedigree. This raison d'être began to diminish with the shift away from heavy industry, which started in the 70s but accelerated under Thatcher; by the 90s, it was a ghost of its former self. It was mostly Britpop-fuelled euphoria and/or Tony Blair's Bonoesque charisma that kept Labour going, with New Labour's Tory-lite policies attracting a critical mass of centrist careerists who wouldn't have touched socialism with a bargepole, and whom Corbyn is now doing his best to purge. That and Thatcher having tested the hated Poll Tax in Scotland, delivering virtually that entire country to Labour, in time for it to shore up Blair's successive administrations; though the Tories shrewdly wiped this out by convincing Labour to lead the No campaign against Scottish independence, and so deliver their entire base there to the Scottish National Party, effectively holing Labour below the waterline. So, in summary, the revival of Labour in the 90s was about as substantial as the revival of Swinging Sixties cool that the music journalists of the time were going on about the latest Blur/Oasis/Elastica single being the epitome of.)
The problem with this new direction for Labour is that it jettisons many of the tenets of liberalism and openness. Corbyn made only the most half-hearted and token attempts at campaigining to remain in the EU, and once the result was in, enthusiastically jumped to the victorious side. Protectionism trumps openness; nationalism trumps solidarity. The traditional anglosocialist utopia of Labour looks a lot like the traditional Little England of UKIP, with its distrust of all things foreign; the only difference is, in one case, there is a strict hierarchy, with everyone knowing his or her place, whereas in the other, everybody's equal (though some are more equal than others; every socialist utopia needs its cadres and vanguard party, after all). As neoliberalism dies, it's the “liberalism” part that is jettisoned; the hierarchies of oppressive power continue, as they always have. (Similarly, across the centre-right parties and think tanks of the world, the dry, bloodless academic writings of Hayek and Friedman are quietly being bumped from reading lists, replaced with Julius Evola and translations of Aleksandr Dugin; Ayn Rand, however, retains her popularity, her message of the inherent rightness of power and privilege, predating the Mont Pélerin Society, will outlive the myth of the tide that lifts all boats.) That Labour is facing electoral slaughter is not much comfort, given that the result will be the coronation of an authoritarian unelected leader into a position of unassailable power to remake the United Kingdom in her image; our own Lee Kwan Yew, or perhaps a British Erdoğan.
I currently live in the electorate of Islington North. Jeremy Corbyn is my constituency MP, and I voted for him in the last general election, as he was a fine constituency MP. However, he has not shown himself to be a plausible party leader, and after his betrayal on Brexit, I will not be able to vote for him in the upcoming election. I am thinking of voting for the Lib Dems; they are the largest party standing against Brexit and its attendant xenophobic isolationism, and the most likely to unseat Corbyn in liberal, cosmopolitan Islington North. Ordinarily, I would consider the Green Party, or the Pirate Party if they ran here, but in this election, and under the first-past-the-post system, it is important to vote for the lesser evil rather than treating electoral choice as a litmus test of purity of convictions. (See also: Jill Stein, the US Green Party candidate whose electoral messaging seemed almost precisely calculated to undermine Clinton and get Trump into power.) And right now, with the two largest parties offering two different variants on the same Scarfolk-meets-Royston-Vasey dystopia, the role of opposition and/or lesser evil has fallen on the Liberal Democrats.
A few days ago, I travelled from London to Amsterdam by train. I caught the Eurostar from St. Pancras International to Brussels-Midi, and then caught a Thalys high-speed train, along the Belgian/Dutch coast with its grey concrete flatness, to my final destination. The journey went smoothly; check-in was quick, the trains were on time, and everything went to plan.
Two days later, the British Parliament voted, as expected, to unconditionally authorise leaving the EU. There was dissent (Corbyn's fragile authority over the Labour Party eroded further, with many MPs defying the whip to vote nay), but it meant little; an overwhelming majority voted aye, with a good proportion preceding their votes with speeches on why leaving the EU is a catastrophically bad idea and the action they're about to vote in favour of is stupid and/or undemocratic. Three cheers for the Westminster parliamentary system!
I have travelled by Eurostar before, but now it did feel a bit like the last days of an era. I can't help but think that, in five years' time, a journey such as mine will be more like a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, down to the onerous visa paperwork and customs checks required by the granite-hard Brexit we're now inevitably spiralling to, and the sense of exoticism of being among foreigners whose ways are not like ours. Indeed, it's not clear whether the Eurostar will still be running then; a lot of its business is contingent on both political and economic relations with the continent, and if steep tariff barriers go up and Britain reorients towards its former Empire, or perhaps towards a coalition of nations like Turkey and Saudi Arabia it shares a disdain for politically-correct notions like “human rights” with, there'll be far less demand for travel across the Channel. (On the other hand, we just might need another runway or two at Heathrow.)
Progress is not a one-way ratchet; it can slip back. Just as there were serfs in feudal Europe who were descended from the free citizens of Greece and Rome, today's world, with all its mundane annoyances, may be an unfathomable, quasi-mythical golden age to our descendants. For example, in ten years' time in Russia, there will be a generation of young people who have no awareness of LGBT issues; they will, of course, know from playground whispers and insulting graffiti that homosexuality exists, but it will be either associated with child molesters or else be something disgusting and unnatural that happens in seedy places alongside crime and squalor; meanwhile, the very idea of transgenderedness will be the stuff of circus sideshows. (The young Russians who happen to be gay or transgendered will not have a pleasant time.) By the same token, the generation of British young adults some ten years later will, for the most part, have never travelled to Europe or associated with Europeans, in much the way that the typical young Briton today has never spent time in China and knows little about contemporary Chinese culture. To them, and to whom tales of Easyjetting to a weekender at Berghain, spending a semester studying on Erasmus in Lisbon or Leuven, or hanging out or going out with people whose first language isn't English and whose cultural assumptions differ subtly from one's own in a thousand ways will seem as exotic as the world of pre-war travelogues. Few of them will have met an European, and the image of Europeans will converge onto outlandish stereotypes: half berets and baguettes, half tabloid slights about garlic and vino, loose sexual morés and poor personal hygiene, and the odd bit of weirdly displaced Islamophobia or reheated red-baiting (“I heard that Belgium is an ISIS rape camp/all the supermarket shelves in Denmark are empty and people are fighting like rats over canned food because their economy has been ruined by socialism!”).
As the US counts down the days to the inauguration of President Trump, some voices in the technology industry are calling for the industry to start scrubbing user data, before the new government's surveillance apparatus lays claim to it.
Currently, the NSA can tap into a broad range of communications, but have no means to compel communications to be in a form they can monitor. This is likely to change; after all, they will need to be able to hunt down those involved in, or providing support to, terrorist groups like Black Lives Matter and Friends Of The Earth, not to mention the President's extensive list of enemies. As such, it is quite likely that, at some point during Trump's first year, end-to-end encrypted messaging systems will be required to provide real-time plaintext to the security services. (Things have already been moving slowly in this direction, and will only accelerate under a president who has expressed admiration for autocrats and a brutishly Hobbesian view of how power works.)
Similar laws are already in force in more established autocracies such as Russia and Turkey. The difference is that American companies, subject to American law, provide many of the communications systems used worldwide, such as Apple iMessage, WhatsApp and Signal. These are likely to be compelled to provide the US homeland-security authorities with the plaintext of all messages coming through them, in real time, and to make whatever changes are necessary to their architecture to achieve this.
With iMessage, this would be theoretically easy to do. iMessage messages are encrypted from end to end, so Apple have no means of reading them, but each message is encrypted several times with the public keys of each of the recipients' devices (i.e., if you're sending one to someone with an iPhone and an iPad, your iMessage client will encrypt it with the public keys of both of their devices). Once they are legally compelled to do so, Apple could just quietly add an extra key, whose private key is held by the NSA iMessage ingestion gateway. Given that the entire iMessage system is closed-source and completely under Apple's control, Apple could push this to all users, without worrying about rogue clients that feed the NSA junk.
WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger Google Allo and so on are also proprietary systems, and could be made compliant in a similar fashion. Granted, WhatsApp and Messenger use the open-source Signal protocol for end-to-end-encrypted messages, but this algorithm sits entirely embedded within the app; there is no guarantee that the app actually uses it, or that it doesn't send a carbon copy of the message to a machine in Utah, in compliance with the law. The fine print could be amended on the website to not actually promise that your message is secret from everyone, including the authorities.
The Signal app itself appears to be a somewhat tougher nut to crack in practice; it's open-source and publicly documented, to the point where any third party could download the source code, examine it minutely, and then, once satisfied, build their own client and use that to communicate securely. However, the creator, Open Whisper Systems is a US company, subject to US laws. Legally, Giuliani or Arpaio or whoever ends up in charge of Homeland Security could billet a team of NSA engineers at their office, with the authority to dictate changes to code and architecture, all covered by a blanket gag order. The question now is how they could go about this:
- By making changes to the publicly visible source code; this would mean that any downloaded self-built versions would be surveillance-compliant. Of course, doing this in a way that is not detectable by code inspection would be the tricky part; perhaps the NSA have a toolkit of obfuscated tricks, exploiting secrets (presumably) only the NSA know about the inner architecture of commercially-available CPUs. Or perhaps the change could be slipped in within a complete rewrite, ostensibly in the name of “technical debt elimination”, making it harder to compare against the old code.
- By obliging Open Whisper Systems, under penalty of material-support-for-terrorism charges, to keep two sets of books, as it were, or two code repositories: the public one, for view, and the one that goes into the production builds. The server code (run by OWS, and under the jurisdiction of US law) could be modified to detect subtle differences between the two and degrade the connections of the former just enough to make it too flaky to use.
- To shut down Signal altogether (with OWS having the option of replacing it with an incompatible, compliant app).
Were Open Whisper Systems to preemptively move abroad to a more privacy-friendly jurisdiction (and Germany is a good one, for obvious reasons) before Trump's inauguration, it may complicate things more. Forcing an established app with a large user-base out of the App Store would be a lot harder than forcing an underground fork of an app out. This would involve all officers involved in running the company moving out of US jurisdiction, and potentially avoiding flights going to the US, UK or Russia.
Observing political debate, I have noticed a trope that keeps recurring, particularly (these days) on the Right. I'll call it the Gordian Knot Delusion. It says, in essence, “the so-called experts/eggheads/‘intellectuals’ keep going on about how complex things are, but they're liars. When you get down to it, things really are simple.” (There is an implicit “Watch this!” after that, as the speaker purports to bulldoze their way through some issue that namby-pamby liberals and ivory-tower boffins have been wringing their hands ineffectually over, like the two-fisted, lantern-jawed hero of one of those old sci-fi paperbacks the Sad Puppies lament aren't being written any more.) An example of the Gordian Knot Delusion, on that favourite subject of taxes/economics, recently manifested itself in the following tweet from Conservative commentator Daniel Hannan:
It does not need to be pointed out that this is an extremely simplistic argument, more an act of trolling (in its original sense of seeking to provoke a pile-on of responses) than a serious inquiry in good faith, at least, if one assumes that the author is not a simpleton. It achieved its aim, in that others piled on with rebuttals on the same level, along the lines of “if olive oil is made of olives, what is baby oil made of?”. But if one takes the premise beneath it at face value, or at least treats it as something more meaningful than wordplay, the Gordian Knot Delusion comes through. Taxes disincentivise prosperity, it implies, unqualifyingly; cut taxes to the bone and watch prosperity take off like a rocket. And ignore the tweedy, elbow-patched fellow there saying that it's more complicated than that; the man looks like a commie, and is probably after your piece of the pie.
If tobacco taxes disincentivise smoking, and petrol taxes disincentivise driving, what do you suppose income taxes do?— Daniel Hannan (@DanielJHannan) September 4, 2016
The Gordian Knot Delusion, the idea that things are simpler than they are claimed to be, is trotted out by amateur spectators in a lot of fields. Economics is a big one: witness the “common-sense” idea that national economies work like household budgets, with a largely fixed income that is unaffected by the level of spending. By this token, one can believe that deficit spending is inherently irresponsible and austerity is, in itself, good economic housekeeping. (This, of course, falls apart when one considers that economic activity generates wealth, and that savings at rest have no economic impact, but it feels enough like common sense that one can persuade oneself that these objections are sophistry by ivory-tower eggheads, Marxists and moochers.) Ecology and the environment are another area; nobody can see global warming, or when they can, one can believe that the evidence is still out, (or once it isn't, it's too late to do anything so crank your air conditioning up and enjoy the ride); and as for that habitat of endangered newts the hippies are protesting about, let's just drive a motorway through it and see what happens; betcha that everything will be alright. The bees are dying off? Who cares about a buncha dumb bugs! The coral reefs are too? The tabloids say they're not. And if they are, so what?
And then there's modern society in general: gender-neutral job titles and ladies wearing trousers and lactose-free milk in the supermarket, oh my! Your son, who used to be your daughter, is taking medication for ADHD, your other daughter has a girlfriend, your boss wears a nose ring, and the golliwog doll from your childhood is now a potential hate crime. In the good old days, these things didn't exist, or if they did, they were hammered flat like a lump under the rug; people accepted their lot in life, and, as the refrain goes, everything was alright. (One part of this is the myth that these complex conditions, from gluten intolerance to gender dysphoria, don't actually exist, but are made up by an unholy alliance of bureaucrats, drug companies, the liberal media and people who want to feel like special snowflakes; the corollary: were it not for the conspiracy, a sharp clip around the ear would sort them out just as well.)
At its core, the Gordian Knot Delusion is an application of the 80/20 rule to the modern world at large; the belief that complexity is superfluous, and that rather than fretting over it, one should just stride over and cut the knot, deciding that the world is actually simple; witnessing the lack of an immediate catastrophe, one will find one's common sense and derring-do vindicated. (The original Gordian Knot was cut by that gung-ho man of action, Alexander the Great, which is always a flattering comparison.) The other part of the Gordian Knot Delusion is the stab-in-the-back narrative of how the world started to look deceptively complex. As the paranoiac's dictum goes, shit doesn't just happen, but is caused by assholes; in this case, all that talk about how complex things are is the work of a conspiracy; a motley crew of commie traitors, ivory-tower academics, so-called “intellectuals” corrupted by book-learning, miscellaneous perverts, Satanic cultists and out-and-out crooks and thieves out to keep the gravy-train of complexity going, all the better to steal from the simple honest folks. (The trope about climate change being a massive fraud for the purpose of maintaining funding for otherwise worthless research is a classic of the genre.) It is, as conspiracy theories tend to be, a compelling story, especially those who feel themselves bewildered or victimised by the world.
Whilst ostensibly associated with the Right these days, the Gordian Knot Delusion is actually the very antithesis of Edmund Burke's Conservatism, formulated in the wake of that catastrophic leftist severing of this knot, the French Revolution. Burke's argument (framing Conservatism for a world where the divine right of kings was no longer accepted and the University of Chicago School of Economics had yet to come into being and coin its modern analogue, trickle-down economics) was that things are much more complicated than one can comprehend, that bold attempts to destroy ancient injustices are also likely to have countless unintended consequences, and that one should stick to gradual, tentative reforms at best, if not to just give up and learn to live with the world as it is in all its richness and iniquity. Today, one might expect to hear that sort of argument, but only from a hair-shirted greenie warning against tampering with Mother Gaia's blessings. The Robespierres of the Right are all too happy to break things and observe that, on a macro level, everything is alright (whilst circularly classifying those for whom they are not alright as bums and sore losers). These radicals are in alliance with a growing number of people who are anything but radical in temperament, but who have been radicalised by the rapid pace of change, and for whom the idea of turning back the clock to (what in retrospect seems like) a simpler time has appeal. The shift of the Gordian Knot from the Left to the Right could be a result of the increasingly rapid pace of social and technological change.
As of Friday morning, all hell has broken loose in the UK.
As nobody predicted*, the British voting public voted to leave the EU, 52% to 48%. Well, the English and Welsh voting public, mostly; Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain. Immediately, things started going tits-up. The pound cratered, experiencing its largest drop in value since the Major government's withdrawal from the European exchange rate mechanism. Meanwhile, Google reported a surge in searches for “what is the EU” and “what happens if we leave the EU”, and the media began filling with reports of sheepish voters saying that they voted Leave because they expected Remain to win and just wanted to show their anger at the political class. Meanwhile, as soon as the result was safely in, the anti-EU politicians who backed the Leave campaign started to walk back their promises. There would be no £350 million for the NHS, no sudden end to the rights of foreigners to breathe our precious British air, no abolition of the VAT on power bills. Cornwall, which voted strongly to leave, nervously demanded reassurance that the hefty EU funding it gets would be replaced, pound for pound, from all the money not being sent to the garlic-eating crooks in Brussels; the silence with which its inquiries were answered must have done little to reassure it. A petition to have a second referendum (which, it turns out ironically, had been started before the result by a Leave supporter wanting to keep his anti-EU crusade alive in the event of a defeat) has, to date, received three and a half million signatures; this figure is still climbing.
The only people who did well out of this were the far right, who found themselves legitimised and emboldened. No longer was xenophobia something to deny, or tenuously rationalise, but a natural part of the order of Man; loathing and disgust for those unlike ourselves are nothing to be ashamed of, the message said, but perfectly natural and normal; indeed, perhaps it's those who don't feel visceral revulsion of the Other that are abnormal or sick. The far right and various bigots lost no time in taking this lesson to heart and intimidating foreign-looking people; all over Britain, Polish families found threatening letters in their letterboxes, a community centre was vandalised, and dark-skinned people found themselves being told by strangers (who, presumably, lacked the intellectual nous to know that they were probably not EU passport holders) that they're next. Even Laurie Penny, the (white, London-born) cyber-Rosa Luxembourg of this age, was told to go home by a man wearing a St. George's flag as a cape, because she looked like an art student, and thus wasn't, in his opinion, really English. I must say that, to an Australian, all this sounds uncomfortably familiar, right down to the wearing of flags as capes and/or markers of belligerent idiocy. (Incidentally, Penny's analysis of Brexit is well worth reading.)
Having realised that they had set the country on a course for economic, if not political, devastation, politicians in Westminster started to panic. A defeated David Cameron resigned tearfully, undoubtedly freighted with the complicatedly mixed feelings that he'd no longer be remembered primarily for having sexually interfered with a pig's head, but for something far, far worse. In doing so, he stated that it would not be him but his successor on whom the responsibility for pushing down the detonator and starting Britain's irrevocable exit from the EU would fall. All the obvious candidates in the Conservative Party hastily demurred; now now, they said, there's no need to be hasty. Britain had climbed out onto the ledge and announced its intention to jump, but upon seeing the distance to the hard ground below, was having second thoughts. This wasn't good enough for EU officials, who insisted that Britain had chosen to jump, and must now jump quickly, before the uncertainty upsets their markets (and also, so that the big gory splat serves as a warning to their own domestic Euro-refuseniks, now agitating for the chance to leave), and if it doesn't, they'll consult with lawyers to see if they can give it a helpful push.
Meanwhile, in staunchly pro-EU Scotland and Northern Ireland, things started to get interesting. Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wasted no time, announcing that legislation for a second Scottish independence referendum was being drawn up, and that EU consuls would be invited to a summit in Edinburgh within two weeks to discuss ways of keeping Scotland in the EU. There was also the possibility that Scotland and Northern Ireland's legislatures may be able to veto the process of secession; this is disputed by some constitutional experts, though given the labyrinthine complexity of Britain's constitution (which is actually a collection of many documents), it may inject some doubt into the equation, or at least compel Whitehall to let Scotland have its referendum and leave. (After the last Scottish referendum, the issue was declared resolved for all time; theoretically, if Whitehall forbade a second referendum and the Scottish government went ahead with it, those involved could possibly be charged with treason. Much as the rebels of the Irish Easter Rising, a hundred years ago, were; that, of course, didn't end well for the unity of the Kingdom.)
So the pound is tanking, financial companies based in London (who comprise a big part of Britain's economy) are scoping out office space in Frankfurt and Dublin, and our elected leaders are falling on their swords, knifing each other in the back, or playing hot-potato with a live grenade, whilst those who pulled the pin out wonder whether it would be possible to, somehow, find it and put it back in; meanwhile, neo-Nazis are using this as official sanction to attack anyone they regard as not belonging. Welcome to Britain, 2016.
Oh, and in the time it took to write this article, an additional 18,000 or so people have signed the petition.
* YouGov came closest to predicting it, but got the sides the other way around, predicting a 52% win for Remain.
Polls have opened in Britain's membership referendum; despite heavy rain (and in some areas, flooding), attendance is reportedly high, which is probably a factor in the rising fortunes of Remain in polls and on the betting markets (though there are rumours that part of the latter is manipulation by hedge funds). Having said that, the result is still very much up in the air; the closest to a confident statement anybody has made about it is that it will be close, though a recent poll has predicted a 51%-49% victory for Remain; a victory in name, but not really a victory.
In my opinion, there are three ways this could turn out:
Leave could prevail. In the short term, there would be much uncertainty; the pound would take a hit and there'd be a near-term economic downturn. Perhaps Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his Brexit gamble having served its purpose, would fudge some kind of reconciliation with the EU, or perhaps the UK would still be out. All those Leavers who were looking forward to an end of the effects of globalisation and a return to jobs for life and old-fashioned community values would be in for what Milton Friedman might have called a short sharp shock; the new Britain, afloat on the high seas of international finance, would have to compete on some basis, and being a gateway to the European Union (which, for all its problems, is a huge economy) would no longer be that basis, so it'd come down to low wages, lax regulations and/or tax-haven-style opacity. A permanently low pound (and the absence of any automatic rights for British citizens to look for work abroad) would ensure the first point; the other two could come as political necessity, as governments, needing to attract business, cut everything from human rights to environmental regulations. So, post-Brexit Britain would look not so much as a cozy worker's utopia in vintage bunting as a dirty sweatshop and equally dirty tax haven, whoring out both its historic reputation and its captive population. (As one might expect, Russia's oligarchs expect a bonanza after Britain votes to leave the EU; the depressed pound will let them snap up more prime London property, and the receding threat of transparency rules will make London a very comfortable environment for the wealthy and corrupt; for the rest of us, not so much.)
(That is only considering what would happen in the UK itself. In Europe proper, Britain leaving would embolden its own anti-EU fringe elements, the Marine Le Pens and Alternativen für Deutschland and the don't-call-us-Nazis sticking their noses into the tents of government all over the Nordic countries. Once, say, France or Germany left, the EU would effectively be finished as a significant entity. So border posts go up, cooperation gives way to competition and mistrust, and soon armies are being built up, just in case the neighbours try something. Meanwhile, on the Eastern fringe, Russia jockeys for control over the Baltic states. Poland decides, for perfectly understandable reasons, that it needs a nuclear arsenal, then Germany (hemmed in between nuclear France and nuclear Poland) decides it needs one too. Finland starts preparing for another bitter winter war. And around Europe, nationalist parties are on the rise, and skinheads are attacking foreigners, liberals, gays, and anybody outside a narrow view of their country's national identity. The old post-WW2 world of Interrail and EasyJet, of Erasmus scholarships and weekenders at Berghain and complaints about drunken English stag parties, will seem like a long-lost golden age, and the future will look like the millennia-old killing field. In this world, even if you did manage to get an EU passport before the door slammed shut, Europe won't be a welcoming place to go.)
Remain could, narrowly, win. 51-49, 53-47, or similar. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief for a moment, given that the UK is not crashing out of the EU. The Brexit faction, being reasonable people, realise that the people have spoken and accept their vanquishment graciously, dissolving and going away. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage audition as presenters for the next reboot of Top Gear. Britain's bout of anti-European mania is over, as the nation looks to embrace a progressive, inclusive vision beyond its borders.
Who are we kidding? Almost half the population will have voted to leave the EU; the right-wing press are still around and still despise the EU and the progressive impositions it makes. There would be calls of fraud, demands for a recount, perhaps even allegations that MI5/Mossad/the Masons tampered with ballots. (It's likely that Russian election observers would obligingly provide “evidence” of electoral fraud, as they did in Scotland.) Even if the conspiracy theories didn't get beyond the jet-fuel/steel-beams credibility threshold, Little England's low-intensity war against the EU would continue for another generation. UKIP would get MEPs elected, who would take up seats in Brussels and behave like carbon monoxide molecules in its bloodstream, taking up space and blocking its operation. Tory politicians (and perhaps Labour ones) would find that pandering to Europhobia is politically profitable. The conflict would flare up from time to time, and might again drag Britain towards the edge of the abyss.
- Remain could win decisively, with at least 60%. Perhaps Leave's figure would be as low as the Crazification Factor, the 25% or so of the population who either are actual swivel-eyed lunatics or merely willing to unbridle their id and howl at the moon in the privacy of the polling booth and the internet comment forum, though that's not necessary. In any case, Remain would have a clear majority. The opportunists on the Leave side, having exhausted its usefulness, would jump ship and not look back, and however hard the hardcore and their backers in the tabloids bloviated about the evils of Europe, they'd be dismissed as yesterday's cranks. (Today's cranks would, of course, find some other, more topical, issue to latch onto.) This is the only scenario that could be considered an unambiguous victory for Remain.
I'm hoping for the third scenario. It could still happen, though, if polls are to be believed, is unlikely. If the polls are to be believed, the second scenario is the most likely, which means that things will fester on, albeit in a less acute state. Though recent history has shown that polls aren't what they used to be; perhaps we're entering a chaotic period of history, where assumptions no longer hold. In any case, we'll probably know between 2am and 7am.
Britain's tantrum about whether to remain a member of the EU has been burbling on malevolently, like some kind of grotesque pantomime. The Leave side has been advancing spectacularly, given largely a free ride by the right-leaning tabloids, and has emerged from the depths of absurdity to within grasp of victory. Leave has been fronted mainly by a disingenuous Boris Johnson, using all his Oxford debating society skills, Telegraph editorial experience and classically-educated raconteurial eloquence to posit an argument he is on record as not believing in, buttressed by a Gish Gallop of trivially debunkable urban legends and outright untruths about overbearing EU regulations. it is clear that for him, the prize is not the UK, free at last of the tethers of Brussels and sailing the high seas like a mighty Elizabethan galleon, once again regaining its world-spanning empire due to the innate British genius for free trade, but Boris Johnson moving into 10 Downing St., perhaps even before the next general election. To his right is Nigel Farage, the affable (if you're an older white Englishman, at least) reactionary, pint in hand, telling it like it is and pouring scorn on left-wing metropolitan-elite bullshit, from global warming and finite natural resources to ladies in the workplace and smoking being harmful.
The past week started as a victory lap for the Leave campaign, buoyed by polls giving them a commanding 6-10% lead over Remain (also likely to be inflated by the asymmetry of engagement between the two sides; it is hard to imagine someone who loves the EU with the passion with which the hardcore Europhobes despise it). Remain seemed to be flailing desperately, the chancellor even resorting to threatening voters with punitive tax hikes if Leave won. Leave, meanwhile, stopped pretending that their argument is about bloodless economic calculation and got to the real (red) meat of the argument: the Bloody Foreigners. A poster was produced, showing vast queues of brown-skinned, scarily Islamic-looking refugees befouling England's green and pleasant land with their presence, its framing (wittingly or otherwise) lifted from a Nazi propaganda film from the 1940s. Then there was the flotilla: Farage (the champion of the British fisherman, who sat on the EU Fisheries Committee but declined to attend most of the meetings) leading a group of fishing boats up the Thames in protest, with a counterprotest led by Bob Geldof.
And then there was the murder.
Jo Cox, a Labour MP and human rights campaigner, had been on the Remain flotilla. The following day, she was back in her seat in northern England, holding an electoral surgery, when a man stabbed and shot her, shouting “Britain first”. She did not survive, and became the first sitting British politician murdered since Spencer Perceval in 1812. The right-wing pro-Leave press moved swiftly to disavow any suggestion that the murder was in any way political, let alone connected to an interpretation of their side's arguments, trying to spin the killer as a random lunatic, as likely to have been motivated by, say, the ghost of Freddie Mercury talking to him through his toaster as anything else. That interpretation was not helped when he was found to have had connections with neo-Nazi groups (including Britain First, if a photograph of him at one of their events is authentic), nor when, in court, he gave his name as “Death To Traitors Freedom For Britain” (though Louise Mensch, that reliably south-pointing compass of the British Torysphere, did make a heroic attempt to claim his words as semantically meaningless gibberish, or in her words, “wibble wibble I'm a hatstand”).
By now, pretty much everyone has conceded that the murder was politically motivated, which leaves Leave with the bind of trying to dissociate themselves from extremists further up the continuum of xenophobic opinion from them; meanwhile, polls show that some voters have started deserting Leave (though not in droves; the two sides are now polling neck and neck). Perhaps they're asking themselves about some of the people they've discovered themselves sharing a side in the debate with.
It's three days until the referendum itself, and the result is still very much up in the air. Polling suggests that Leave still have the edge, while the betting markets predict a Remain victory. If Britain votes to leave the EU, it will, in my opinion, be a catastrophically bad decision for reasons too numerous to go into here. If Remain ekes out a narrow victory, though, the sense of relief will be tinged by the awareness that, were it not for the brutal murder of a fundamentally decent human being, our ancestral hatred of the Frogs and Krauts and fear of a brown-skinned Other would almost certainly have shifted it to Leave. And it does make one wonder what proportion of the 40%+ of the population expected to vote Leave would agree with Mr. Death To Traitors Freedom For Britain that Jo Cox, MP was, if not a traitor to Britain, part of an enemy elite hostile to the “silent majority”.
The results are in from Thursday's outbreaks of voting across the United Kingdom, and this is how the picture looks:
Labour's results are looking somewhat mixed; in the Scottish parliament, they lost many seats, placing them behind the Conservative Party for the first time since Thatcher's catastrophic Poll Tax (which, actually, was about a generation ago). A lot of this is undoubtedly due to them having been used as a cat's paw by the government-led anti-independence campaign, and thus becoming the Westminster absentee landlords' good cop; they were caned harder than the Tories because it's hard for voters to punish a party who have next to no seats. In England, they lost councils, which is either due to the public being wary of the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn turning Britain into Chavez-era Venezuela, the Labour Party being riddled with cranks who, ominously, really don't like Jews, or to Labour's local representation being at a high water mark since the last elections (when the Lib Dems got a kicking for selling out to the Tories), depending on whom you ask. Having said that, the Tories lost slightly more than Labour did, though given that they're in the middle of a term, presiding over a harsh regime of austerity and soaring inequality, one could argue that anything short of the decimation of Tory councils is, all things considered, a good result for them.
What this bodes for Labour, and its new, stridently left-wing direction under Corbyn, is very much open to interpretation. On one hand, some are hailing not being wiped out south of the border (despite the antisemitism crisis, Lynton Crosby's barrage of dead cats, and everyone but the Guardian urging the public to vote Tory) as a resounding vindication for Corbyn; on the other hand, others are pointing out that the result is comparable to Labour's local-government results in the middle of its Thatcher-era period in the wilderness. Though it appears that the knives are not yet out for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. For one, the Labour centre-right does not have a new Tony Blair or similarly charismatic figure to present as an alternative; and indeed, Corbyn the old weirdy-beardy socialist won partly because the slate of “serious”, “respectable” candidates he ran against was an eminently forgettable one. The choice for a potential Labour putsch, at this stage, would be Anyone But Corbyn, and Labour's fortunes have not sunk so low as to necessitate that.
The outcome is also a mixed one for the Conservatives. Their campaign for London was led by Zac Goldsmith; youngish, fabulously wealthy and with a history of environmental campaigning behind him. Which could have boded for a hearts-and-minds campaign: promote Goldsmith as a liberal, a broad-minded unifier who cares about progressive causes, winning over the metropolitan cosmopolitan types who don't care much for right-wing red meat, and he could have spent the next four years alternately having photo opportunities with minority groups, making motherhood statements about diversity and the environment, and quietly promoting the transformation of everywhere inside the M25 into an enclave for global wealth. However, the Tories appear to have been seduced by the siren song of roving ratfucking consultant Lynton Crosby. Crosby's dirty tricks did win them the last general election, so presumably early in Goldsmith's campaign the order came down from on high to play the man, not the ball: keep pointing at Labour's candidate, Sadiq Khan, and mumbling darkly about Islamic terrorism, in the hope that the mud would stick. It didn't; Khan won handsomely, and now the political career of Goldsmith, the former golden boy of progressive conservatism, lies in ruins. Perhaps he wasn't actually a bigot, but merely too weak-willed to have pushed back against the bigots, though the result is the same; in any case, it's now his role to serve as an example to other political hopefuls who might be tempted to huff the intoxicating jenkem of bigotry.
In other news, the Green Party did well in London; their mayoral candidate, Siân Berry, came third (overtaking the Liberal Democrats), and they kept their two seats on the council. Labour fell short of a majority on this council, which stands the Greens in good stead to hold their feet to the fire on, say, diesel emissions or cycling infrastructure. As for the hapless Lib Dems, they seem to be gradually clawing their way back from their abyss. Ominously, the hard-right UKIP party seems to have picked up some two dozen seats.
When people refer to politicians as “pigfuckers”, they're usually speaking metaphorically. However, if recent revelations in the Daily Mail about David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the UK, are true, this may not necessarily always be the case. The revelations, from a biography of Cameron by Tory grandee Lord Ashcroft, allege that, as part of an initiation into the Piers Gaveston Society, a posh dining club at Oxford, Cameron had performed a sexual act with the head of a pig. (This does not come as a complete surprise: Cameron is known to have been a member of other clubs for young aristocrats behaving badly—the Bullingdon Society, who famously trash restaurants and then, sneering, throw down a bag of cash to cover the damage, and whose initiation allegedly involves burning a £50 note in front of a beggar, are a well-known one—however, until now, all such claims were considerably less sexually weird.) Charlie Brooker, for one, has denied having had any knowledge of this incident when he wrote the Black Mirror episode in which a vaguely Cameronoid Prime Minister is blackmailed into having sex with a pig on television.
On one hand, one has to feel sorry for Cameron. He brought in the bedroom tax, routed the Lib Dems, and accomplished numerous other things in office, but none call him Dave the Bedroom Taxer, Dave, Vanquisher of the Lib Dems, or Dave, Scourge of the Scroungers. And yet if you interfere sexually with one pig in your student days, you'll be living it down forever. Chances are that headline writers will be squeezing in pig-related puns into Cameron-related copy well into his occasional post-retirement appearances, much in the way that US theocrat Rick Santorum's appearances end up saddled with fluid-related puns.
The satirical Marxist tubthumper Sam Kriss (who's sort of the China Miéville of blogging) suggests that rituals such as this one serve a purpose: to forge solidarity among our rulers:
It seems that the higher up you go in society, the more cruel and grotesque the ritual becomes. There's an obvious reason for all this: for the upper classes, good connections really matter. If you're going to have a secret society, first you need to have a secret. Whether it's singing in screechy adolescent Hebrew or corpse-eating and pig fucking, these initiations help bind people together, and a student society in which everyone knows that everyone else has done something unspeakable to a piece of ham is bound to stay close afterwards. If anyone breaks ranks, or acts against the interests of the collective, they can be instantly exposed. Groups like the Bullingdon and the Piers Gaveston societies are not just rugby clubs for the ultra-rich, a vehicle for youthful excess; they're a way of fostering ruling class solidarity.Others have taken a more sympathetic approach, framing the entire system by which the traditional ruling elite of the United Kingdom raise their scions as a form of prolonged child abuse; from the brutal caning practiced in public schools (all the better to beat the empathy and tenderness out of a boy, forging him into the sort of steely-eyed beast of prey who would, unflinching, give the order to raze a village of fuzzy-wuzzies should it stand in the way of Empire) through to the hazing rituals in institutions, from military academies to elite university clubs.
Perhaps, once the tittering over the grotesque sexual slapstick of it all has died down, one thing that will emerge from this incident is the renewed question of what exactly our superiors, the men born to govern us, are like, and what sorts of rulers the system that forms them is geared to produce. Parts are already known; the idea of la vice anglais, the penchant for judges, officers, high-ranking politicians and other prominent Englishmen to have (as a result for having passed through puberty in a public school) a penchant for being spanked by a dominatrix, is a hoary old cliché. like something from a bawdy farce one might find in an antiquarian bookshop. This new incident brings the question beneath this trope into the spotlight, raising the suggestion that there is a secret culture among the men who govern Britain and have done so for centuries, and it is a weird, dark and disturbing one. Are we ruled by the psychologically scarred survivors and perpetrators of various forms of debauched ritualistic abuse, and if so, how else may it have affected the country and its institutions? (Some of the other recent stories—such as the allegations of senior figures protecting paedophile rings—paint a disturbing picture.)
If nothing else, this incident (let's call it “the Prosciutto Affair”) could subtly alter the British public's relationship with traditional authority; perhaps every time somebody sees a High Court Justice or a bishop in the House of Lords, a senior police officer talking about the need for new laws, or some representative of the Royal Family outlining some detail of royal protocol, the first thought that will occur will be “Did he...?” Sexual relations with dead livestock could, in the public imagination, become the new Freemasonry.
And in Australia, there is a new Prime Minister—the fifth in a decade—as Malcolm Turnbull wins a Liberal Party leadership spill, ousting Tony Abbott.
On one hand, it must suck to be Abbott right now, having become the shortest-serving Australian prime minister since Harold Holt (and yes, shorter than That Woman), and, more to the point, missing out by a few days on the generous pension former prime ministers are entitled to. It's particularly wretched timing for him; one wonders whether he chose it to escalate any disloyalty from his underlings into a personal attack on his livelihood, or whether he became so unpopular that those who deposed him decided to teach him a lesson in the process; a condemned despot so unpopular that a firing squad of his peers, without a word said between them, unanimously decided to “accidentally” aim for the wrong side of his chest. (Having said that, there is a limit to how much pity one can feel for him, given that he is bound to land, quite comfortably, on his feet. After all, the coal industry takes care of its own, and if anyone was its own, it would have been Abbott.) In any case, here's the relevant First Dog On The Moon cartoon.
On the other hand, while Malcolm Turnbull seems like a breath of fresh air compared to Abbott (a small-minded reactionary authoritarian evoking, more than anything, the demented bush patriarchs of outback gothic films like The Cars That Ate Paris and Welcome To Woop Woop), he is hardly progressive or forward-looking in the grand scheme of things, and has made clear that there will not be a sudden change of direction. There will be no carbon price, no same-sex marriage, no renewal of environmental or research funding, no reversal of restrictions on wind turbines, and no review of the mass surveillance and “national security” laws rushed in; there's even money that the federal government will keep trying to restrict environmental challenges to coal mines, and push Los Angeles-style freeways onto an unwilling Melbourne as well, because we don't do socialist public transport here in 'straya. And, of course, Australia will keep torturing refugees, but then again, that is bipartisan policy, so that is to be expected. There is the possibility that, in the fullness of time, Coalition policies will gradually drift towards pragmatic moderation, or at least that future policies won't be littered with unhinged “captain's calls”, but that's probably as much as one can hope for.
One thing Turnbull is more likely to do, however, is lead the Coalition to victory in the next election. Over the past few months, the opinion polls were looking disastrous for the government, with each poll getting worse. Had things kept going as they did, then come the next election, the Labor Party could have nonchalantly bumbled to victory through the wreckage, all but unnoticed. Now, it looks like the ALP won't win without actually convincingly arguing its case to govern, which means that, short of the Coalition imploding again, it's unlikely to win.
The current leader of the ALP is Bill Shorten, a man without qualities who's mortally afraid of showing any difference from the government. Shorten, who came out supporting Abbott's massively unpopular paramilitary stop-and-search operation in Melbourne after the government actually called it off in the face of protests. Shorten, who spent four hours drafting a tweet in response to Abbott's ouster. Shorten, whose party rubber-stamped every bad Coalition policy passing through the Senate, as if afraid of what the Murdoch press would say if he didn't. Shorten, who put the “loyal” in “Loyal Opposition”.
Were Shorten to face his own spill over the next few months, it is not clear that things would change; none of the other potential candidates acceptable to the factions seem to show any more promise. Beyond that, it is not entirely clear what the Labor Party actually stands for, other than wanting to win elections. It is not the party of a mass industrial proletariat, because no such thing exists any more. It is not a new progressive party or a radical libertarian free-market party or an old-school socialist party, or, indeed, any other specific kind of party, because the interlocking stand-off of factions preempts any commitment to any direction or other. It is, quite simply, an enterprise which has outlived its original reasons to exist, leaving only one goal: its own self-perpetuation, the ultimate sole purpose of any bureaucracy. A pointless, self-perpetuating bureaucracy riddled with warring factions: the Ballmer-era Microsoft of politics.
Perhaps Labor's electoral loss will, in the long run, be for the best, especially if it is by a large margin. A resounding defeat for Labor could hasten the old party's euthanasia, and, with that, perhaps increase the likelihood of a progressive alternative government more fit for purpose emerging. Of course, the price of that would be more years of uninterrupted Tory rule, though, in the current situation, can that be helped?
In news that wasn't entirely unexpected, Jeremy Corbyn has been elected to lead the Labour Party in Britain. Corbyn, a left-wing veteran backbencher and frequent parliamentary rebel, had originally been entered into the contest shortly after Labour's crushing election defeat for the purpose of “broadening the debate”, and possibly generating some ideas that could help towards the next campaign of whoever won. The tones of the sensible post-ideological managerialists in the party began to darken when Corbyn started leading the polls; why would an ancient weirdy-beardy lefty given to wearing shabby home-made jumpers outpoll all those polished talking heads, with their extensively tested motherhood statements about “social justice” and “aspiration”, about doing something about “inequality” whilst giving no quarter to unworthy scroungers, balanced in the optimum proportion given the most recent polling? Whatever hope remained of “shy Blairite” tendencies prevailing in the actual ballot were annihilated when the results came in: Corbyn got 59.5% of the vote in the first round, almost three times as many as his nearest challenger, Andy Burnham. Meanwhile Liz Kendall, a Blairite candidate representing the notion that, following its electoral defeat, Labour must move to the right, came in last with a dismal 4.5%. (Tony Blair himself, meanwhile, phoned in from whichever despot's yacht he is currently staying on, urging the Labour faithful to vote for anyone but Corbyn; the fact that, from Blair's point of view, all the other candidates were interchangeable, is telling. In any case, it's not unlikely that a significant number of people voted for Corbyn partly to give Blair a kicking.)
Of course, it is easy enough to get elected to be leader of the opposition; as leader of the Opposition, Corbyn's mandate is to lead the party into the next election, and into government; whether that is possible is an open question. One common narrative says that Corbynmania is a purely emotive movement, grasping for the comfort of a fantasy, or the righteousness of the lost cause, much in the way that the hopeless embrace apocalyptic religion or conspiracy theories, and that, in the dozens of Tory marginal seats Labour will have to win back, it's unlikely to find traction. The implication of this narrative is that the opposite, a skilful rightward-triangulating neo-Blairism, cheekily ambushing the Tories on their own ideological turf, whilst offering the slightest essence of a brighter alternative—socialism diluted to homeopathic proportions, so not one particle remains—to somehow push the feeling that a Labour government implementing neoliberal privatisation/austerity policies will be ineffably better. This neo-Blairite model would place the running of the country in the hands of technocratic management, operating under a neoliberal free-market framework (as There Is, after all, No Alternative), communications with the fickle masses in the hands of spin doctors and, essentially, disinformation specialists, and whatever policy is not dictated by the markets and the needs of corporate stakeholders would be subject to focus groups and opinion polls. Standing for something is for losers, after all.
There are several problems with this argument; not least of them the fact that the Labour Party fielded three candidates who were driven by such calculation, who did dismally. Indeed, the one who did the worst was the one who most honestly articulated a Blairite centre-right position of the sort that, we are told, is catnip to the ordinary voter (the ordinary voter; that sharp-elbowed aspirational creature that reads the Evening Standard and is concerned primarily about their property values). The other two kept it artfully vague, avoiding committing to anything that might be held against them, hitting the talking points like pros, and even tacking to the left when it became evident that Corbyn had shifted the party's internal Overton window; it didn't do them much good. Had one of them won, it is hard to imagine their warmed-over, cobbled-together message stirring the electorate; especially whereas none of them had Blair's Mephistophelian charisma. (On the other hand, it can be argued that Tony Blair's uncanny election-winning power has been somewhat overstated; in 1997, the Conservative government was in such disarray, with a series of scandals and misfortunes topping a general sense of malaise and decay, that chances are anybody could have led Labour to victory.)
Anyway, it is now Corbyn's task (along with the newly elected deputy leader, Tom Watson, who's more of a pragmatist, whilst simultaneously passionate about issues of civil liberties) to lead the party into the next election and win. And one thing we can expect is that they will come under withering fire; from the Tories, the right-wing press, and even the more Blairite elements of their own party, should they sense the opportunity for a spill. From now on, the press will be full of hit pieces of varying degrees of hyperbole (look for mentions of “the Chavez of Canonbury”, for example). And perhaps the public will, after enough repetitions, start to believe them; polls will show Labour's support deteriorating; perhaps they will go into the next election and be thoroughly annihilated, swapping places with the Liberal Democrats; or not even get that far, as MPs, facing the loss of their seats, stage a spill and hurriedly put on their best Blairite act. But perhaps this time it won't work; if the Tories miscalculate, if too many of the public know people who have been thrown on the scrapheap by austerity, if the idea that those hit by welfare sanctions or the bedroom tax are the “unworthy poor” who have made their own misfortune through fecklessness suddenly loses its power, if millions of people realise that they're not temporarily embarrassed buy-to-let multi-millionaires but rather the deeply indebted precariat, and that the windfall they anticipate is not about to trickle down to them any time soon, the scare stories will be dismissed, and, being inured to them, the public will dismiss any concerns about Corbyn's views as similarly concocted.
Personally, I agree with some of Corbyn's views, but not all. He is my local MP, and I have, on occasion, written to him about various issues, and generally found my concerns well received. I'm not so keen on some of his other cited positions, such as, for example, withdrawing from NATO or the EU, or spending public health funds on ineffectual mystical quackery such as homeopathy. More significantly, Corbyn's idea of reopening coal mines seems backward in this day, when China and India are slashing their coal imports, coal-fired power plants are being deprecated and not replaced, and even coal-mad Coalition-ruled Australia is having a hard time funding its new coal mines. Corbyn's hope of reopening coal mines seems similarly ideological, only rather than impressing the bogan voters by punching the inner-city latte-sippers, it looks to be about avenging Arthur Scargill and the martyrs of Orgreave and sticking one up at Thatcher. Indeed, Corbyn doesn't seem to have said much about the environment or the threat of climate change, or the need to radically change our infrastructure to reduce its environmental impact.
However, Corbyn is not the autocratic leader of the Labour Party, and it seems that these positions are less likely to prevail than more popular ones (such as building massively more public housing, renationalising the railways, easing off on austerity and such).
In any case, we live in interesting times; as the last election (in which the SNP took almost a clean sweep of Scotland) showed, we can no longer rely on safe assumptions of how things will unfold.
The rumours coming from Australia recently have been of preparations for an early federal election; Tory MPs have been sent offers to get updated photos with Team Australia Captain Tony Abbott, and the tragicomically misnamed Liberal Party have launched attack ads against the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, whilst insisting that an early election is not on the cards. Of course, it could well be that these are merely contingency plans, and the election is still over a year away.
But whenever it happens, it's probably safe to call the outcome: Abbott will secure a second term, quite probably with an increased majority. He will do so comfortably, even if Lynton Crosby declines to lend his election-winning campaigning genius, instead opting to spend more time swimming, Scrooge McDuck-style, in his massive underground pool full of hard-won pounds sterling. Even if Rupert Murdoch suffers (heaven forfend!) a massive coronary beyond the abilities of the best in American private health care, and his editors, bereft of their helmsman's guiding hand, phone their election coverage in. Even if the Silent Majority Of Suburban Battlers stop being scared shitless of Islamic State jihadis arriving on waves of refugee boats to slaughter them in their beds, aided and abetted by lefty traitors in the ABC, with only Captain Abbott to protect them. Abbott will win, because the ALP, in its current form, has abandoned being an actual opposition, and there is no reason to vote for them other than a vague hope that they may, at some point, be a perceptibly lesser evil. Because the one thing more shit than voting for a bully is voting for the nonentity who hides in his shadow and cheers him on.
Somewhere along the way, the ALP seems to have accepted the Murdochian mantra that it is unfit to govern. As such, its present role in parliament is not so much in opposition to the Tories as in apprenticeship; following the leader, rubberstamping his decisions, putting the boot into the Greens and the remaining small-L liberals, and mastering the art of downward-punching, dog-whistling and general neoliberal authoritarianism, seemingly in the hope of proving itself to be worthy of one day graduating and taking the master's place; by then, “ALP” having changed to standing for “Alternative Liberal Party”. Over the past week, the ALP has voted with the government to implement an extrajudicial internet censorship system (ostensibly for blocking pirate web sites, though once the infrastructure's in place, a sufficiently authoritarian government can find its own uses for it), to criminalise the reporting of child sexual abuse which is endemic in the refugee detention camps (guess what, fellow Australians? There are rape camps run in your name to deter brown/Islamic people from even thinking about coming over), gutted the renewable energy target (and allowed the felling and burning of native forests to count as renewable energy, alongside solar and wind power) and joined in calls for an inquiry into the ABC being insufficiently loyal. Earlier, the ALP had rubberstamped the government's internet surveillance regime and draconian national security censorship laws. And if the Trans-Pacific Partnership comes up for a vote, the government can undoubtedly count on the ALP's loyalty, but we all knew that already. These days, the ALP is most reminiscent of one of those pseudo-opposition parties that exist in places like Singapore and Russia to give the illusion of multiparty democracy; a bunch of clowns who know what their job is, and are aware, in no uncertain terms, that should they ever cross the boundaries of what is expected of them and start posing an actual challenge to the government, they will get smacked down, hard. The tragedy is that they do not actually live in a one-party “managed democracy” where going for the throat would result in them being sent to the gulag; it's pure learned helplessness.
And so, the actual Liberal Party will almost certainly form the next government, and resume ruling with an iron fist and a mandate to reshape Australia in its own image. We have seen a preview of this: policies based on dogmatic neoliberal ideology (austerity economics as a moral imperative, attempts to phase out universal health care, and an opposition, in principle, to public transport, seemingly inherited from from US free-market ideologues intent on ruling out the very possibility of a common good, lest it inexorably lead down Hayek's Road To Serfdom) and a fetishisation of fossil fuels, all book-ended with disturbingly authoritarian rhetoric, not least of which is Abbott's reframing of Australia as “Team Australia”, a body moving in a unified direction under the leadership of its captain, and a contrast with actual liberal ideas of a pluralist society; there is, after all, no room for dissent or difference in a team. Beyond that, we have seen the government aggressively politicise formerly impartial sectors, gutting an independent arts fund and diverting the money to a new government-controlled one, and most recently, calling for sackings in the ABC, and, tellingly, referring to it as a “state broadcaster” (which implies a duty to present an official government line) rather than a “public broadcaster” (a more liberal institution). Abbott's vision for the country is an authoritarian one, and it is likely that in his second term, he will ease further into the role of an Erdoğan-style strongman, and the memory of the old liberal Australia will recede further into the past.
Electorally speaking, this victory will be at the expense of the Labor Party, whose support will crumble as voters start asking themselves what the point of it actually is. In electoral terms, at least the Greens (who are emerging as the actual opposition) will do well, though whether an opposition party under an authoritarian system can be said to have “done well” is an open question. In the longer term, perhaps it will make sense for the ALP and the National Party to trade places. The National Party, a largely rural socially conservative party, has been in coalition with the Liberal Party since time immemorial (and the two parties even merged in Queensland), though is starting to shed rural voters to the Greens in some areas, as the Liberals' monomaniacal support for mining and fracking alienates some in its (hitherto captive) traditional base (a problem the rightward-triangulating ALP has had in inner cities); a post-coalition National Party (or offshoot thereof) could be a right-of-centre ally to the Greens on some issues. Meanwhile, given that the current ALP is intent on brown-nosing its way into the Coalition, perhaps that is its natural place after all?
Well, that all turned dark pretty quickly.
The Tories achieved a surprise upset in the general election, not only getting vastly more votes than Labour but confounding expectations of an inevitable hung parliament and winning an outright majority, their first since 1992. The Lib Dems, as expected, suffered heavy losses, not only losing dozens of seats but forfeiting hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of electoral deposits when candidates failed to reach the magic 5% mark, and Labour lost all its seats in Scotland. What's more surprising is Labour falling flat south of the border; this was undoubtedly helped by the entire press (save for the Grauniad) throwing their weight behind the Tories and stoking fears about those awful Scots and their unreasonable demands. The UKIP surge also failed to happen, though that's partly because the Tories moved into their ideological turf (a strategy echoing the Australian Tories' appropriation of the xenophobic One Nation party in the 1990s).
The upshot of this is that, for the next five years, Britain will have a Tory government unrestrained by either more squeamish coalition partners (the all-but-extinct Lib Dems, who were, as Charlie Brooker so memorably put it, “the lube on the broom handle”) nor by any considerations of being seen as “modernisers”, “moderates” or “compassionate conservatives”. The raw, atavistic, Murdochian id of the public has spoken, and revealed that it responds to fear and outrage: that it believes some proportion of the people they
share compete for space with on this damp island are, to put it bluntly, scum, and demands that they be punished, harder, and Cameron has shown that he is listening. The gloves are off, and the night is about to become much darker. The next legislative programme is already known to include ever harsher austerity, more severe cutbacks to what remains of the social-democratic safety net, the forced sell-off of housing association housing to the for-profit private sector, the abolition of the Human Rights Act and warrantless mass surveillance of all electronic communications (all the better for dealing with the “enemy within”). The dismantling of the NHS as we know it will continue apace, with the result being an underfunded veterinary service for peasants who can't afford private health insurance. The Murdoch papers and Daily Mail are likely to get off scot-free, with the Leveson press reforms being scrapped or watered down to the point of ineffectuality. Which will come in handy for swinging a vote for leaving the EU when the promised referendum comes around.
So, in short: if you're a non-dom tax exile, a buy-to-let landlord or merely asset-rich, the next five years will be just fine, thank you very much. For everybody else, struggling on exploitative zero-hours contracts, eating expired baked beans from the food bank, not complaining about breathing in mould spores for fear of (perfectly legal) revenge eviction and hoping that you don't become sick or disabled, ever, life will suck more. But at least you can blame the Romanians. Or the Scots. In short, in a few years' time, people will genuinely miss the Lib Dems.
Labour, meanwhile, seem to be in a bind. With Miliband (branded “Red Ed” by the right-wing tabloids due to making vague noises about social justice and inequality rather than just preaching from the Blairite trickle-down prosperity gospel) gone, the temptation might be to triangulate rightward again, choosing a slick Blairite leader (or perhaps manufacturing their own Farage-style jolly reactionary bigot-whisperer) and hope that the punters buy it; though the problem with this would be (as Channel 4's Paul Mason pointed out) that this could trigger the largest union, Unite, cutting its ties with Labour and using its funds and resources to set up a hard-left party along the lines of Syriza/Podemos, and eclipsing a Labour who, after the loss of Scotland, no longer have any ideological base or coherence. Or Labour could bite the bullet and become the aforementioned hard-left party, alienating all the big-business donors they have so carefully built up connections with, and losing credibility with the mainstream before earning the trust of the angry precariat, though that won't happen.
Scotland, meanwhile, is drifting away from the Westminster settlement. The Westminster parties are all but extinct north of the border, with Labour joining the Tories in oblivion; currently, as far as the Westminster parliament is concerned, Scotland is almost a one-party state governed by the SNP. This, of course, is hardly a sustainable state of affairs, and at some point there will (hopefully) be a vigorous opposition. It's not a safe bet that this will be a reinvigorated Labour Party. If Britain does leave the EU, the SNP is likely to vociferously demand a rerun of the referendum; of course, as far as Westminster is concerned, the matter of Scotland's place in the UK has been settled once and for all, though they said similar things about Irish Home Rule. (Speaking of which, if Scotland does, sooner or later, break away, the knock-on effects on the status of Northern Ireland will also be interesting.)
There are a few minor glimmers of sunshine in the gloom: Nigel Farage failed to win Thanet (but mostly because the Tories ran a UKIP-alike, pandering to the electorate's perceived xenophobia) and promptly fell on his sword; this, incidentally, should free him up to host Top Gear. The Greens' Caroline Lucas has held Brighton Pavilion with a greatly increased majority (despite predictions that the unpopularity of a Green local council would damage her chances), and though the Greens have not claimed any additional seats, they did make back their deposits in a few. And George Galloway has lost the seat of Bradford West after a dirty campaign; Galloway blamed the loss on “racists and Zionists”; the candidate who beat him, Labour's Naz Shah, is a Muslim woman of Asian heritage.
In two days, the United Kingdom will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. It is all but certain that this will result in a hung parliament, the exact nature and composition of the next government will not be known for weeks afterward, and the government will be a fractious and unstable one.
The last general election, in 2010, also produced a hung parliament. The Conservatives won more seats than Labour, though nowhere near enough to govern in their own right; the cards were held by the Liberal Democrats, then seen as a modern centre-left party, free of both the patrician hauteur and residual Thatcherite toxicity of the Tories and the oily Blairite triangulation, Blunkettian authoritarianism and half-buried old-school socialism of the Labour Party; consequently, throughout the campaign, they were vilified pitilessly by the (then dominant) Murdoch press and right-wing tabloids. After the election, the tone changed rapidly, and both parties courted the Lib Dems as a governing partner. The Lib Dems ended up going with the Tories, promising to moderate their nastier extremes, and promptly betrayed their electoral manifesto by voting for a sharp increase in university tuition fees, in return for a Tory promise to back a referendum on electoral reform. The Tories won that one through sheer cunning; by the time the referendum came around, the sting of the Lib Dems' betrayal was still sharp in the minds of the progressive end of the electorate, and the Lib Dems' electoral reforms were voted down two to one, mostly because people really wanted to give them a good kicking. And it looks like they still do; in the upcoming election, they are staring at a massive parliamentary wipe-out; indeed, the only thing protecting their moderately right-leaning leader, Nick Clegg, from losing his own seat (in the student-populated seat of Sheffield Hallam) is Tory voters in his electorate tactically backing him, presumably as he's a known quantity with whom they can do a deal.
The elephant in the room is, of course, what Charles Stross has termed the Scottish Political Singularity; in a nutshell, politics in Scotland has become detached from the rest of the United Kingdom in a way that looks unlikely to be reversed. This process began when Margaret Thatcher, in her characteristic measured wisdom, decided to use Scotland as a testbed for her unpopular and regressive poll tax; as a result, the Conservative Party (which, at its height, had enjoyed wide support north of the border, what with the Protestant work ethic and all that) declined to a desultory rump. In the past several parliaments, the Tories had merely one MP north of the border, which, as is widely reported, is one fewer than the number of giant pandas in Scotland. Of course, Labour made hay from this, packing their Blair-era cabinets with Scottish MPs, elected by the Tory-loathing descendants of Glaswegian shipworkers and Aberdonian oil riggers, safe in the knowledge that they could triangulate rightward as far as tactics demanded without losing support for at least a generation. But then, the independence referendum happened, and while the No side won comfortably, the sight of Labour joining with the Tories in vociferously opposing independence did it for them. If the polls are to be believed, Labour (or, as they're known in Scotland, the Red Tories) are facing all but electoral annihilation north of the border, and the Scottish National Party—once a single-issue pro-independence party, now the seemingly natural party of Scotland's own devolved government, promoting itself as a broad centre-left social-democratic party, with a few sops to religious conservatism—looks set to take an overwhelming majority of Scottish seats in Westminster. The result of this is that, even though the Tories and Lib Dems are set to fall short of a majority (or even the Tories, Lib Dems and the hard-right reactionary party UKIP, if the three could somehow stomach each other for long enough), Labour will also fall short, and the SNP look set to be kingmakers.
This is, of course, a massive problem for both major parties. The SNP have ruled out forming a coalition with the Tories, for obvious reasons, though have extended an offer of mutual support to Labour, suggesting that they could help Labour be bolder (i.e., move away from the Blairite centre-right and sharply to the left). Of course, the tabloids had a field day with the prospect of the Northern barbarians dictating policy, and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, ruled out any sort of deal with the SNP, saying that if Labour cannot govern without them, there will not be a Labour government, full stop. The presumable tactical goal of this is to scare Scottish voters into flocking back into the Labour fold, in the hope that enough Labour MPs will be returned to get a majority. This is the sort of thing that the Americans call a “Hail Mary pass”; a desperate last-ditch attempt to snatch a highly improbable victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat.
What will happen if (as polls predict) there is a hung parliament, but Labour plus the SNP would have a majority, is uncertain. Miliband could stick to his word, fall on his sword, and let Cameron assemble a fractious minority government (attempting to get the handful of surviving Lib Dems and the triumphant UKIPpers singing from the same hymn sheet), having the luxury of toying with it from the opposition benches as a cat does with a dying mouse; the downside of this would be that the Tories would still be the government, and even if the government does fall long before the end of its five-year term, there's no guarantee of which way the next election would go (and the Tories, it must be said, have the advantage in campaign fund raising). Or he could swallow his words and do a deal with the SNP, undoubtedly coming up with some lawyerly rationalisation for why he is not actually doing a deal with the SNP but instead doing something entirely different. (Whether Labour and the SNP could come to an agreement is another matter; the SNP seem less likely to fold on their red-line issues, such as the scrapping of the Trident nuclear missile system, than the Lib Dems were; and, indeed, a noble defeat hastening the breakup of the United Kingdom may be what the SNP want.) Or the result could be the formerly unthinkable: a Conservative-Labour rainbow coalition, a “government of national unity” of a kind unheard of in peacetime, with everybody else (the rebellious Scots nationalists, the cranky English nationalists, the convalescing Lib Dems, and Brighton's Green MP, Caroline Lucas) forming a somewhat chaotic opposition. Such a government would have very little in the way of representation north of the border, and would probably do little to dampen down the still smouldering embers of the secessionist mood. (If the Tories deliver on their promise of a referendum on leaving the EU, all bets are off; Scotland favours EU membership a lot more strongly than England does.)
To add to this, there is another wildcard: Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge, Saviour Of The Union, also known as the newly-born Royal Baby. Announced in the weeks before the Scottish independence referendum, the Royal Baby, whilst still a mere zygote, may have saved the Kingdom (for now, at least); and now, whilst yet functionally little more than a digestive tract, there is the prospect that she may do the same for David Cameron's Prime Ministership. The theory goes that the groundswell of uncritical patriotism, taking the form of an acceptance of the deep, ineffable rightness of deference to an archaic, ceremonial system of nobility, should rub off to some extent on the patrician Cameron (who is, after all, Queen Elizabeth II's fifth cousin once removed); and if not, surely the omnipresent Union Jack bunting and spontaneous Royal Baby tea parties in every street, where everyone—the Morrises and MacLeods, the Khans and Kowalczyks—come together to sing God Save The Queen in unison, should take the edge off dissatisfaction with the government of the day by polling day. Or perhaps not; the Guardian's Zoe Williams thinks that the Royal Baby may have the opposite effect (by virtue of being a baby, rather than being royal).
The upshot of all this is: we live in interesting times, and it'll take a long time for the dust to settle. At this stage, it is not at all clear who will be Prime Minister after the next election.
Gough Whitlam, that lion of the Australian Left who shook up a sleepy, conservative backwater and made it, for at least a few decades, into a modern, forward-looking player on the world stage, died yesterday, aged 98.
Whitlam's brief period in office began in 1972, when the Australian Labor Party which he led won a landslide victory, sweeping aside the arse-end of a decades-long period of conservative rule and cruising into office under the slogan “It's Time”, soundtracked by a groovy rock'n'roll jingle. Whitlam and his party didn't slow down; soon they had abolished conscription and the death penalty, brought in free university education, state-funded health care and arts funding, recognised Aboriginal land rights, passed the world's first no-fault divorce laws, replaced God Save The Queen as the national anthem with Advance Australia Fair (which, though admittedly somewhat turgid-sounding, was at least ours), among other accomplishments. He also had a gift for witty retorts.
This spring was not to last, though, and after winning an early election with a narrower majority in 1974, Whitlam failed to get a budget passed and was dismissed by the Governor-General in 1975, in what some of the more paranoid types still say was a CIA coup. (Interestingly, the Pinochet-figure brought in to replace him, Malcolm Fraser, has, over the past few decades of retirement, drifted considerably to the left of Australian politics, and was last seen endorsing a Greens candidate in the 2013 election; or perhaps he has just stood still, with the political landscape drifting rightward around him.)
Whitlam's accomplishments, however, stuck; by CIA-installed right-wing dictatorship standards, the Fraser government was somewhat of a damp squib, and kept things much as they were, until the ALP's Bob Hawke took over keeping them more or less as they were. It was not until into the first term of John Howard, with his obsession with his idol Robert Menzies, the conservative patriarch of the pre-Whitlam Australia, and the lost father-knows-best arcadia of white picket fences and children who are seen and not heard that he had presided over, that it started to look like what we had thought of as the new, modern Australia was merely a thaw. Howard's successor, Tony Abbott, meanwhile, seems to look even further back; his model of Australia seems to be closer to the authoritarian penal colonies and military outposts of virtuous Empire than to the “relaxed and comfortable” 1950s, dangerously close to outbreaks of rock'n'roll, feminism, male long hair or similar degeneracy.
It's not yet clear which of Whitlam's achievements will be the last to be systematically rolled back by the current government; free education is on the way out, and payments for medical appointments were floated (without any economic planning to make a case for them, but that's not the point; it's the principle that counts, and, to a certain mindset, the very existence of free health care is fundamentally immoral). If Abbott succeeds in unlocking the Strong Wartime Prime Minister achievement, conscription might be on the agenda (though, then again, Australia may take a hint from the US, and eschew outright conscription in favour of, say, making university funding or unemployment benefits contingent on military service). The death penalty may be harder to sell to the public (Australia's regional neighbours threatening our bogans with it should they bring some weed with them tends to do that), but if anyone in Canberra would push for it, the current lot probably would. As for restoring God Save The Queen as the national anthem, for a government that brought back Imperial honours, that would be, if anything, too obvious.
In just over three days, Scotland will vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom and go it alone.
The Scottish independence debate, in its present incarnation, has been going on for over a year, though through most of its course, it has had an air of phony war about it. While there was always a possibility of Scotland voting to secede, it was classified somewhere alongside the theoretical possibility of Scotland winning the World Cup, or perhaps one of the fantastic catastrophes in Hollywood action flicks, as something remote enough to be a mildly entertaining diversion worthy of a few minutes of hypothetical conversation. Were the debate a film, it would have borne a sticker reading “Rated 12A for mild peril”; as with a family movie, there was the assumption that, when the adventure was over, everyone would make it home (having learned a life lesson but being none the worse for it) and everything would be as it was before. So much so that the Treasury admitted to not having actually made any contingency plans for Scotland actually seceding.
The polls had been narrowing for a while, as the “Better Together” campaign against independence lumbered on uncharismatically, slowly being bled by Yes’s guerrilla tactics, though it did look as if No had time on their side; at the present rate of attrition, there was little hope of the Yes campaign making it over the line. But then came last weekend’s YouGov poll, showing the Yes campaign in the lead (albeit well within the margin of error), and subsequent polls showing similarly close results, sending the defenders of the status quo scrambling like headless chickens. The three parties made the undignified spectacle of climbing over themselves to promise Scotland the moon and stars if only it would stay, often getting the details of their actual promises mixed up. A second Royal Baby was hurriedly conceived. Banks and supermarkets were discreetly urged to warn their Scottish customers that prices would go up and jobs would move to London. A trainload of Labour party workers made its way from London to Scotland. People in England were urged to obtain Scottish saltire flags and fly them, in the hope of love-bombing the Scots into taking the sassenach back. There was even discussion over whether the Queen, serene and impartial unlike her son, should break her silence (and centuries of protocol) and urge her subjects to vote No. (Her Royal Highness demurred, instead gnomically imploring her Scottish subjects to think carefully about their future.) And, of course, the volume of the scare stories went up.
It seemed to have an effect, with polls showing No having regained the lead, and Labour grandees scenting victory and trying hard not to gloat prematurely. (Not all polls, though; some have shown the result being evenly split; a Sunday Telegraph poll showed Yes ahead by 8 points.) Of course, things are still close, and there are three days left to run. And while things could go either way, at this stage it looks like the more likely outcome is that No will win (by a narrow margin, unless the polling is off). The question of Scottish independence will be deemed to have been settled in the negative, once and for all, with the United Kingdom remaining one nation, united under the axioms of Hayek-Friedman Thought, administered in perpetuity from the City of London, and quite being dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU by PM Boris Johnson and deputy PM Nigel Farage in a few years’ time.
Of course, there are all those promises that the Scots have been offered in return for voting no: greater powers for setting tax rates, more financial and legislative autonomy, and everything up to a Hong Kong-style “one country, two systems” settlement. Of course, these promises were made in the heat of the campaign (often feverishly blurted out by politicians on the campaign trail), their very existence contingent on Scotland’s ability to make good on its threats to leave. Come 19 September, once that window is closed for the foreseeable future, showering the Scots with gifts will no longer be a priority; and, in fact, the English electorate may not be happy about rewarding what could be seen to be a tantrum. The boot will be on the other foot, and how gracious the victor would be to the vanquished remains to be seen. At one extreme, a Tory-UKIP coalition government would have in its power the ability to dissolve the Scottish parliament (which can be done by a vote in Westminster), and crush the rebellious Scots; perhaps using Scotland for punitively testing new austerity policies (as Thatcher did with the poll tax, which effectively annihilated the once influential Scottish Tories and propelling the idea of secession from the UK, once seen as bordering on lunatical, into the mainstream).
What if, however, Yes wins? Well, that would only be the start of a long process of negotiation, with both sides honing threats and promises into compromises. There’d be points of contention about everything from shared use of the pound to the basing of nuclear weapons and reconciling Scotland’s intention to increase immigration with its intention to maintain a common travel area with the UK. One way or another, these would all get resolved within a decade or so. Perhaps prices would go up, or go down, somewhat; businesses serving a largely UK market may relocate to south of the border (or may not, given how many companies trade with their British clients from Ireland or the Channel Islands). Though it’s unlikely that the Scots would be reduced to abject penury as some of the naysayers have been predicting. For the most part, things would remain the same, though a process of divergence would begin, as Scotland and the rest of the UK make their own ways. (Whether Scotland becomes a Scandinavian-style Jante-law market-socialist state while England remains wedded to neoliberalism (possibly shading into some kind of neoreactionary oligarchy) is by no means certain; it’s quite plausible that Scottish politics will grow its own right wing, one that is not beholden to London.)
The Scottish Herald has a piece by Fintan O’Toole, editor of the Irish Times, looking at the issue through the perspective of the history of Ireland (which got its independence from the UK some 90 years earlier). Of course, that is not the only possible precedent; another one is Norway, which gained independence from Sweden in 1905. Meanwhile, Charles Stross (who is firmly in the Yes camp) brings his usually deep perspective to bear on the issue; in his opinion, Scotland should be independent, because the post-Treaty of Westphalia idea of the sovereign nation-state is no longer fit for purpose (due to technological changes), and smaller states have less catastrophic failure modes than larger ones.
I, of course, don't get a vote, though if I lived in Scotland, I would vote Yes. For all the risks, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Scotland to redefine its destiny and what sort of nation it wishes to be. If Yes succeeds (and perhaps even if it fails), the results will be interesting to watch.
The Washington Post's data-journalism blog has a piece on the relative popularity of cats and dogs, by US state and by country.
In summary, in the United States cat people tend to live around the coasts and in the north, adjacent to the Canadian border, though parts of the Midwest also lean cat; the South, meanwhile, leans dog (with the exception of Florida), with the southwest being most strongly dog. On a worldwide level, though, the US leans cat (albeit weakly) in aggregate, as do Canada, Russia and most of Europe (with the exceptions of Ireland, Poland, the Czech/Slovak republics and the Iberian peninsula, all weakly dog; Switzerland, meanwhile, is strongly cat). The Islamic countries tend to lean strongly cat (presumably for religious reasons, dogs being regarded as unclean). Meanwhile, Australia is weakly dog, as is Brazil; the Spanish-speaking Americas are strongly dog-leaning, as are China, India, Thailand and South Africa. (New Zealand, however, is strongly cat.)
The cat/dog dichotomy is, at least in places, partly political. In the US, the data approximates (albeit imprecisely) the red-state/blue-state divide between conservative- and liberal-leaning states; the most cat-favouring states tending to be the progressive strongholds of the coasts (notoriously liberal Massachusetts has a 2:1 cat:dog ratio, for example); meanwhile, the states most identified with conservative mindsets (open-carrying, convict-executing Texas, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Arizona, Mississippi) lean most strongly towards dogs. (An exception is Florida, which narrowly favours cats.) This correlation between political identity and pet preference is borne out in surveys, which show that US liberals are more likely to be cat people (among other things). There are several possible explanations: one could be the correlation between population density and liberalism (city folks lean more liberal than rural/small-town people), and cats being more suitable for smaller living spaces than dogs. Another explanation ties to the theories recently floated by the likes of George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt; in short, conservatives place more of a premium on loyalty, obedience and knowing one's place in a hierarchy; all of which are exemplary qualities of Canis familiaris. Cats, meanwhile, fail this test, and hence get little love from the right (with the possible exception of libertarians; it has been pointed out that both domestic cats and libertarians are highly dependent on their environments whilst imagining themselves to be wholly sovereign and autonomous). Meanwhile, this piece replicates the correlation between cat appreciation and liberalism (using Facebook likes s a proxy), adding that conservatives seem to be generally less fond of animals, with those liked getting an exception for their utility or symbolism (the animals most liked by self-identified conservatives on Facebook have been deer, eagles and, most of all, turkeys; liberals, meanwhile, like only bats and whales more than cats).
Worldwide, trends become murkier; Russia, styling itself as the core of a new “Conservative International”, is cat country by a 4:3 ratio. Spanish-speaking Latin America has dogs outnumbering cats by more than two to one (with Portuguese-speaking Brazil being slightly more equal); perhaps there's something in Hispanic culture which strongly favours dogs or deems cats inadequate as pets? And while Australia is dog country by an almost 3:2 ratio, New Zealand has twice as many pet cats as pet dogs. It is not clear whether that is a sign of Australia being a more intrinsically conservative country, and it would be interesting to see whether this ratio tracked (or was tracked by) changes of government and culture.
A gothic horror portrait of Tony Blair as a vaguely Nyarlathotepian manifestation of the eldritch and fathomlessly malevolent:
Tony Blair is old, older than time itself. Beyond left and right, beyond right and wrong, beyond age and death. When the first cave-dwellers made the first image of their god, Tony Blair was there with his shiny spiv’s suit to suggest that it might require a blood sacrifice. When the first half-fish heaved itself out from the boiling sea to flap around in the sodden tidal slime, Tony Blair was there with his cold intense stare to offer it words of vague encouragement and then crush its head under his heel. When the first drifting clouds of interstellar dust began to coalesce into what would one day become our little speckled world, the bodiless malice of Tony Blair was there to help them set the stage for our future suffering.
Older and wiser societies than ours knew about Tony Blair, and they knew to be afraid. Throughout history he’s arrived among the homes of men and promised a very slightly better life, before suddenly carrying out inexplicable destruction.The Sumerians knew him as Tešgali, a snake-demon twenty miles long, who would enter a walled city in the guise of a man, and then uncoil his vast scaly bulk and devour everything inside. This knowledge was passed on to the early Christian Gnostics, who called him Tialdabaoth, the blind creator-god with the head of a lion and a serpent’s tail, architect of all madness, who created this world out of spite and envy and who tried to prevent the first humans from eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Country folk of the Middle Ages were terrified of the bálfar, creatures of beguiling appearance but malicious intent, who lived in the marshes and the wildernesses but would sneak into human villages by night.
But soon after that something changed. With the dawn of the Enlightenment people stopped believing in the old horrors that lurk in the dark corners of reality. The universe was no longer a grand stage for the cosmic clash of good and evil, and God became a kind of divine tinkerer, neatly slotting all the cogs of his Newtonian machine together and leaving it to run with a steady tick. We thought we could understand the world, and so when Tony Blair returned we didn’t even see him for what he really is. We should have known better, but we thought he was just a politician.
There's a new dating service for those who find Guardian Soulmates too right-wing: OKComrade aims to pair up Communists, anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, People's Front of Judaea and others on the radical left seeking a partner to share the struggle with:
It's high time for lefties to have a dating site of our own. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and atheists have long had their own matchmaking sites, but those searching for a politically suited partner have had less luck. Mainstream dating sites take ideology into account, but taboos against talking politics mean that major differences can be hidden for months or even years.Given the history of vehement internecine conflict on the radical left (didn't the Stalinists and Trotskyists in the Spanish Civil War expend more energy on killing each other than on fighting the Fascists?), it'll be interesting how stable the relationships OKComrade produces are compared to more bourgeois, liberal-reformist dating sites.
Yesterday, Western Australia held its Senate byelection, after it turned out that the Senate election last year had been botched. Now the results are mostly in.
The major parties did poorly, barely getting more than 50% of the vote together. The Liberal Party suffered a -5.5% swing (which is hardly unusual for a government in a byelection), and their coalition partner the Nationals only got around 3% of the vote (about 1/4 of the Palmer United Party's vote), not coming close to a Senate seat. Meanwhile, Labor also fared poorly, suffering a -4.8% swing. Some of this could be remaining uppity-sheila-hate, but it's more likely to be due to the ALP having kicked an own-goal, deciding that given that the Mining State is uniformly right-wing in tendencies and heading up their ballot paper with an ultraconservative loose cannon and former student-union comrade of Tony Abbott, who, in an address to a Christian group, said that Labor's too full of "weird lefties" and Abbott could make a great Prime Minister. Ironically, as he was at the top of the ballot paper, his seat is assured, whereas whether the ALP's second candidate, Louise Pratt, will get up is a very open question. Back to the focus group, boys...
Meanwhile, among the winners of the night are the Greens; Scott Ludlam, the savvy digital-rights advocate whose seat hung on a handful of votes in the last election, is definitely in with a solid margin. This is undoubtedly partly a result of the Greens' solid campaign and partly the ALP having decided that they don't need progressives and that they should concentrate on becoming a more watered-down Liberal Party. The progressives, it seems, have taken the hint and gotten behind the Greens, and there seems to have been more of them than the ALP's wonks expected.
Another winner, or at least a high-roller in the casino that is politics, is Clive Palmer's Palmer United Party, who bagged a seat for less than A$20m. Palmer's candidates are hard to find, being not so much parliamentarians as conduits of their employer's will, bound by contract to vote as the boss says. Australia seems to be on its way to having proper oligarchs, in the Russian sense of the word.
There is still some question over who will get the last seat; whether the Liberals (who had three seats before the election) will win it again or whether it'll go to the ALP. The word on the street is that postal votes tend to lean right, so the Liberals might end up getting it.
If I were Tony Abbott, my priority right now would be to seduce Joe Bullock into crossing the floor and either joining the Liberals or sitting as a (conservative) Independent. Given that both Abbott and Bullock are men who, in an earlier time, could well have joined the DLP, that may be a viable proposition, or at least easier than negotiating with a panoply of minor parties.
The Australian government announced it is scrapping a section of the Racial Discrimination Act which had been added by the Keating government in 1995; coincidentally, the one under which right-wing demagogue Andrew Bolt was successfully prosecuted for insinuating that fair-skinned Aborigines were liars and benefits cheats. In defending the government's about-face on this issue, the Attorney-General declared that "people have the right to be bigots". And while the government is, of course, firmly opposed to racism, the dog-whistle is that, as a nation, we're perfectly relaxed and comfortable with a spot of casual racism between mates, as long as it doesn't escalate into a public order offence or anything.
As if to top that, a day later, PM Tony Abbott announced that Australia will be bringing back imperial honours, with those honoured being given the title Sir or Dame (based on biological gender, of course; there will be no funny buggers in Abbott's Australia), overturning one of the Whitlam government's key symbolic achievements; back-handedly, the first recipient was the immediately outgoing, and staunchly republican, governor-general, Quentin Bryce, who is hardly in a position to decline. It's not clear who will be next in line for honours, though there probably won't be a Sir Rupert Murdoch, given that he renounced his citizenship. It may well be that the editorial conference of The Australian will look like the court of Camelot by the time of the next election.
So there we have it; an Australia where the sentiment "haters gonna hate" is actually enshrined in law, and the respect Australians were once obliged to show to those from different backgrounds can now go to their social superiors.
On one level, this looks like a planting of the LNP's unapologetically conservative flag, and a slamming of the Overton window hard to the right; on another level, it seems almost calculated to create a lot of smoke. Which makes me wonder: is this a prologue to more substantial conservative legislation (perhaps a ban on abortion, the privatisation of the ABC, tougher censorship laws or something), or a distraction from something that's decidedly not culture-war red-meat and would give the Silent Majority of (Occasionally Casually Racist But In A Mately And Acceptable Way) Suburban Battlers little to celebrate? Like, say, harsh industrial-relations laws to go with the symbolic feudalism in the imperial honours system?
On occasion of a Women In Rock mini-festival on Melbourne radio station 3CR, Mess+Noise got Ninetynine's Laura Macfarlane and the members of the all-female rock trio Dead River to interview each other:
Laura: Overall I think things with gender equality in music have improved slightly but it still needs more work. There could be more female presence in the technical side of music. For instance there aren’t many female masterers still. It also varies a lot between countries. Ninetynine has played in countries and cities where being a female musician is still a novelty. Those shows always stick out in my memory because usually one female person in the audience will come up and tell you that they really appreciate seeing female musicians. Maybe they were thinking of starting their own band, but hadn’t seen a live band with women in it. It is always special to feel like maybe you have helped encourage other women in some small way.
Laura: Although Ninetynine does not exclusively reference Get Smart, we do like a lot of things people relate to the name, including agent 99. She’s great. We also wanted to use a number as a band name because it can work well in countries where people don’t speak a lot of English. I think the The Shaggs would be my favourite ’60s girl group.
Dead River: Despite plenty of evidence that women are capable and creative masters of their instruments and gear (PJ Harvey, Savages, Kim Gordon, to name a few), there are prevailing paternalistic attitudes that continue to undermine women in music. I’m sure many female musicians can relate to the experience of a male mixer walking on stage and adjusting her amp or telling her how to set her levels. Or being asked if you’re the ”merch girl” or “where’s your acoustic guitar?” after you’ve just lugged an entire drum kit or Orange stack through the door.Meanwhile, the members of Ninetynine have recorded a song to raise funds for protests against the East-West road tunnel, under the name “Tunnel Vision Song Contest”. It sounds like Ninetynine at their most Sonic Youth-influenced, though is a bit light on the Casiotone and chromatic percussion.
An article looking at the state of the neo-Nazi extreme-right fringe in Australia today; in short, there are a number of small, fractious groups who identify with Nazism, tend towards violence as a mode of action and are often influenced by groups from abroad. These are distinct from, and not to be confused with, the somewhat less batshit far-right groups, with neither side wishing to be associated with the other:
Thankfully, while accounts of less serious forms of harassment typically go unreported, reports of assaults such as that committed against Minh Duong are rare, neo-Nazi violence having peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. Further, collaboration between openly neo-Nazi groups and white nationalist or neo-fascist political parties like Australia First is generally low-key, with neither camp wanting to be associated too closely with the other. Other far-right groups are split on the subject of whether "The Jew" or "The Muslim" poses the greatest threat to White Australia.While Australia's neo-Nazi skinheads may have little to do with its common-or-garden fascists and "racial nationalists", they have found acceptably zealous comrades abroad:
Australia First has declared itself in political solidarity with the neo-Nazi Greek organization Golden Dawn. In December 2013 in Sydney, it helped to organise a rally outside the Greek consulate in order to protest criminal charges against the organization. In Melbourne, Golden Dawn has recently opened an office, though its precise location remains a secret. While generally low-key and currently enjoying little support among the local Greek population, the group has had a presence at several Greek rallies. Local Greek antifascists understand it has also been engaged in fundraising, with the money raised being used to help finance Golden Dawn’s violent activities in Greece.
Tomorrow, Germany goes to the polls, to elect its federal parliament, the Bundestag. The Bundestag is proportional, with members being elected using a complicated voting system, and the government is always a coalition of several parties. And there are many parties; as well as the ones in the press (the centre-right Christian Democrats, the centre-left Social Democrats, the neoliberal Free Democrats, the Greens (founded by none other than Joseph Beuys), the Left (a coalition of Eastern ex-Communists and Western leftists too radical for the SDP), the Pirate Party (who don't seem to be doing too well) and the just-different-enough-from-the-Nazis-to-be-legal NPD), there is a menagerie of fringe parties, including Berlin bohemians, more Berlin bohemians, actual Communists, feminists pushing for the establishment of a matriarchy, Bavarian separatists (who, once they gain independence, want to repeal smoking and firearms regulations), spiritual mystics (whose policies include developing the use of zero-point energy), and the familiar Lyndon LaRouche conspiracy kooks (whose policies include moving Berlin away from “unproductive fields such as fashion, film, leisure, sport etc.”, and on veganism, have to say that “time will make this fad disappear”).
In the German electoral system (unlike, to choose an example at random, the Australian senate), a party needs at least 5% of the vote to get seats in the Bundestag; as such, it's unlikely that any of these minor parties, which typically get less than 1% in elections, will get up.
The good news: The predicted collapse of the Greens, with the Tories preferencing Labor ahead of them and Rupert Murdoch declaring them a cancer to be cut out of the Australian body politic, did not happen. Adam Bandt was comfortably reëlected in the seat of Melbourne and online liberty champion Scott Ludlam might just have scraped into the last Senate place in WA (though it won't be known for weeks), despite the Wikileaks Party kicking him in the teeth in their preference card, after a clusterfuck of right-wing minor parties coalesced into a seat for the Australian Sports Party.
The bad news: The Coalition won by a landslide. Tony Abbott, a reactionary religious authoritarian who believes that climate change is “crap”, is Prime Minister, on a platform that can be summed up as “we'll have none of that here”.
The good news: The Coalition didn't manage to get control of the Senate, so they'll have to negotiate to have their reactionary platform passed into law.
The bad news: It looks likely that the Coalition plus the Religious Right (Family First and DLP) will, together, have a majority in the Senate. The main upshot of this is that the internet censorship system that was dismissed as a “gaffe” in the election is likely to materialise as a negotiating tactic (“Mr. Abbott, your industrial relations plan is anti-family. However, we could pass it if you give us a national mandatory internet filter blocking porn, homosexuality and blasphemous content.”) The other option, of Abbott striking a deal with the sizeable Green presence in the Senate, is, of course, utterly out of the question; one does not deal with un-Australian extremists.
So, yes, basically, Australia is fucked, at least to the extent that one was expecting it to be a modern, progressive country; at least for the next 3 years, probably the next 7, odds-on to be the next decade, and quite possibly however long it takes for the Greens to transmute into a party of alternative government. From now on, 2013 is pronounced “nineteen-fifty-sixtythree” in Australian English. The past has vanquished the future, and here comes a victory of shit.
Inner Melbourne, which reelected Bandt and almost sent a few other Greens to Canberra to join him, is a light in the darkness; a bit like Austin, Texas, or Barcelona in Franco's Spain. And as such, it can probably expect collective punishment; one part of that will be the razing of homes and parks to build freeways for outer-suburban Liberal voters to drive their 4WDs on. (Incidentally, all federal funding for public transport is to be scrapped, because “we don't do urban rail in Australia”. Which makes perfect sense, given that global warming is a load of black-armband Marxist crap, oil will be cheap forever, and if you start getting traffic jams, you can always build more roads and widen the existing ones.)
As Australia enters the final 48 hours before its election, a ban on electoral advertising has now come into force across the country. And, by coincidence, the Tories (who look almost certain to form the next government) have released their full policies and costings, and it's a doozy. Out goes renewable energy funding.. On the infrastructure front, there's a distinct back-to-the-1950s theme again, with the government scrapping public-transport programmes and replacing them with a road-building spree not seen since Grandpa got his first Holden. (It's a good thing that oil will always be cheap and global warming is nothing more than a lie spread by a conspiratorial elite of jealous inner-city leftists who can't afford 4WDs because they're losers, because otherwise we'd all be screwed.) Science and education funding are being slashed as well, with the Australian Research Council budget being cut by at least $103 million, and Abbott seems to have taken a leaf out of the Canadian government's book, introducing plans to control research funding on political grounds, because of, you know, we can't have politically-correct Marxist climatologists pushing un-Australian black-armband theories such as “global warming”. Oh, and if that wasn't good enough, a proposal for an opt-out internet censorship regime (i.e., “Stop the Bytes”) have somehow made it into the proposals, meaning that Australia's nobbled 20th-century broadband will now be even more useless. (The government-in-waiting soon started claiming that that announcement was a mistake, without elaborating on this.)
This, truly, is the bouquet of shit that just keeps giving.
Rupert Murdoch's star may have fallen slightly in Britain, but in Australia, it seems, he's still the boss. As the Tories coast towards victory on the back of press coverage, provided by Murdoch's near-monopoly in crucial states, that straddles the line between hagiography and fellatio, the First Mate's influence is being felt not just in what's being said but in what's not being heard: Australia's three commercial TV networks have refused to air an ad criticising the Murdoch press's election coverage, put together by progressive activist group GetUP. Whether it took phone calls from News Corp. to get the ads banned from the mainstream media, or merely the hint that the boss would be displeased, and there'd be consequences, it's clear that one does not challenge Murdoch in his fiefdom.
Meanwhile, Murdoch's tabloids seem to be sitting on reviews of a satirical play about the magnate's rise to power; a minor thing, to be sure, but emblematic of the entitled arrogance of one who claims ownership of public discourse.
(via Zoë, David)
Barry Jones (one of the more thoughtful and forward-looking figures from the past three or so decades of politics in Australia) writes about the decline of rationality in Australian political discourse, and its replacement by knee-jerk populism and a wilful, even proud, ignorance and short-sightedness:
Party spin-doctors, on both sides of politics, work on the assumption that by this stage in the election cycle about 80% of voters have already decided how they will vote, and that short of some major event (cabinet ministers charged with felony, perhaps) nothing that is said or done in the campaign will change that. The 20% who are uncommitted, profiling suggests, are neither interested nor involved in the issues, do not much care about the outcome, are largely voting because they are obliged to do it, and will make up their minds on the day – perhaps as they stand in line waiting to receive their ballots.
Geoff Kitney wrote an important article for the Australian Financial Review – Vote for Abbott, and vote against politics – describing Abbott as the anti-politics politician, who puts a heavy emphasis on appealing to those (many?) reluctant voters who say: “I can’t stand politics, and don’t even pretend to understand it”. This does not just discourage debate on complex issues, it kills it. There may be even a bonus for non-involvement, to be told: “don’t feel badly about knowing so little – celebrate it”.
Despite Australia’s high formal levels of literacy, politicians are increasingly dedicated to delivering three word slogans (“stop the boats!”) – now degenerating even more to the use of one word, repeated three times (“Cut! Cut! Cut!” or “Lie! Lie! Lie!”).Of course, the fact that, in many states (most notably, the more right-leaning ones like Queensland), News Corp. has an effective monopoly on the media, which it runs in a nakedly partisan fashion resembling more Cold War-era Pravda than anything in a pluralist democracy, doesn't help.
The Murdoch papers are no longer reporting the news, but shaping it. They no longer claim objectivity but have become players, powerful advocates on policy issues: hostile to the science of climate change, harsh on refugees, indifferent to the environment, protective of the mining industry, trashing the record of the 43rd parliament, and promoting a dichotomy of uncritical praise and contemptuous loathing. Does it affect outcomes? I am sure that it does, and obviously advertisers think so.A recent example of this would be a moment from the current-affairs TV show Four Corners, in which a Liberal candidate said that asylum seekers increase traffic congestion in the suburbs.
Speaking of (ir)rationality in Australian politics, the Rationalist Society has published its scorecard of the political parties. Both major parties fail (the Liberals by a slightly greater margin than the ALP), with only the Greens, Secular Party and Australian Sex Party getting top marks. (The Pirate Party, however, have been omitted from the survey for some reason.)
A piece in The Quietus about the rise of the “trollitician”, a type of gleefully objectionable right-wing populist whose shtick is that the “silent majority”—middle-aged straight white men, Christians, motorists, smokers, whatever—are now being oppressed by an all-powerful alien hegemony (variously defined as “the trendy Left”, “political correctness”, “health and safety” or “Cultural Marxism”) which is denying their God-given rights as straight, affluent white men, from smoking in the pub to spanking their children to slapping the secretary's bottom when she walks past or cracking racist jokes in public:
“Today, we throw off our chains. Today is the day that, finally, we can say 'no', and to mean 'no'. 'No' to speed cameras, 'no' to overgenerous maternity pay, 'no' to wheelchair ramps and to cushy holidays for juvenile delinquents! 'No' to trendy teachers and the Marxist curriculum! 'No' to new mosques and gay marriage and, especially, to gay marriage in new mosques! 'No' to endless apologising for the slave trade, and for the Empire: after all, everyone's been invaded at some point! And it was ages ago! 'No' to striking nurses and firemen, and 'no' to the union leaders who still – still, can you believe it? - have us by the balls! What's wrong with a bit of sodding common sense? Look, some of our best friends are black! If they can take a laugh and a joke, I don't know why that Owen Jones and Laurie Penny bloody can't. And we'll say 'yes', too. 'Yes' to the property ladder. 'Yes' to golf clubs, to kit cars and the neighbourhood watch! 'Yes' to new, better wedding vows: 'Do you take this fine piece of totty to be your lawfully wedded crumpet?' 'Yes' to the Royal Family – I'm not that bothered myself, but, let's face it, they bring the tourists in and older people like them. Think about it. Think about how happy they make your gran, you wouldn't want to take that away from her, would you? We'll celebrate the Best of British – Churchill and Brunel and Nelson. Dogged, determined, wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, cut through the red tape. Where's all that now? Where's tradition? Where's 'Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more'? What do we have instead? Communism! Great idea in theory, but it'd never work in practice; people are naturally competitive – Darwin proved this, but try telling that to the schools. All the kids ever hear these days is about how everything we've done is wrong. But it's stopping now. No more, we say, no more of this nonsense. Because today, Rugby Club Land dares to do more than whisper the word, and instead shouts it out loud, proud and British – 'INDEPENDENCE'.”
The altering of the dimensions of the argument is where the likes of Bloom become significant. Their work is twofold. On one hand, they consume the energies of the left through irritation: while we know what they're saying is essentially dumb and contradictory, we still feel obliged to respond (as I'm doing here). For conservatives – from the rabid right to the parish council – they serve to stoke a sense that it's the dominant sections of society (the white, the male, the heterosexual, the middle class) who are getting it in the neck. If one read nothing but the Daily Mail it would be easy enough to become convinced that Britain really was a country in which it was possible to be oppressed and persecuted for being a straight bloke with a Lexus. The new mythology states that the left are dictating the political sphere and, in doing so, hammering the "ordinary people in the rugby and cricket club."
Continuing on from the previous post about Australian Senate how-to-vote cards and who really is preference-swapping buddies with whom, I have spent some time playing around with the D3 web-based data visualisation library, and have managed to build an interactive visualisation of the Senate voting sheets (and, more specifically, the various parties' affinities for each other).
As such, I present to you: the Australian Senate Preference Navigator:
As the Australian election approaches, the ABC has published the various parties' and groups' Senate how-to-vote cards, i.e., the order in which your preferences are distributed to other parties if you can't be bothered to vote below the line and, instead, tick the convenient box by the party's name at the top and hope for the best. Though whether one can be bothered to fill in the hundred or so boxes or not, knowing how each group distributes its preferences can be very telling about their philosophy and world-view and/or what deals they hammered out in lieu of having a philosophy. So, I decided to examine the numbers more closely.
I wrote a small Python script to go through the parties' tickets, calculate the average preference each party gives to any other party, and then rank them in order from most- to least-preferred. Soon, patterns started showing up: clusters of left- and right-leaning groups soon made themselves evident, and parties with seemingly neutral names showed decided slants.
To further simplify the classification of the parties, I decided to analyse them on where in their preferences they place a handful of marker parties: the three major parties (Labor, the Liberals and Nationals), the Greens and, as a proxy for the far right, the One Nation party (now largely ineffectual, though once seen as the bête noire of the racist fringe). Soon, a handful of fingerprints made themselves visible.
Conventional thinking places these five parties on a linear scale from left to right: the urban progressive Greens on the left, followed by the ALP (managerial centrists with a trade-union socialist heritage, which can also appeal to those of a populist bent), the Liberal Party (pro-business centre-right shading into DLP-influenced social conservatism), the Nationals (a largely agrarian God-and-Country party) and, finally, One Nation. (This isn't the entirety of the Australian political spectrum; the line extends further, with Trotskyists on the far left and white supremacists and conspiracy theorists on the far right, though those parties are on the fringes.)
- Parties which, from the basket of five marker parties, chose a left-to-right progression (Greens, ALP, the two Coalition parties and finally One Nation) were mostly left-wing and progressive issue parties: the (pro-privacy, anti-censorship, anti-surveillance) Pirate Party, Bullet Train for Australia, Socialist Alliance, Future Party, the Secular Party of Australia, and a few groups of independents.
- There were considerably more strongly right-leaning parties going the other way, preferencing One Nation above the major parties, then the Coalition, the ALP and finally the Greens; these included various religious parties (Fred Nile's Christian Democrats, Australian Christians, the Democratic Labour Party, the Pentecostal anti-Muslim Rise Up Australia and internet-censorship wowsers Family First), as well as lifestyle groups such as Smokers Rights, Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party, Outdoor Recreation Party (Stop The Greens), Australian Fishing and Lifestyle Party, the Climate Sceptics and Bob Katter's Australian Party. Also showing an unbroken right-to-left pattern were the Building Australia Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Non-Custodial Parents' Party and something called the Australian Voice Party. The Shooters and Fishers were also among this group, though put the ALP ahead of the Nationals. Meanwhile, the Carers' Alliance put the Nationals and Liberals first, followed by One Nation, the ALP and the Greens.
- A few parties chose a populist bent, preferencing One Nation, the ALP, the Coalition and then the Greens: these were the Australian Protectionist Party, the Bank Reform Party and the Australia First Party.
- Similarly, a few parties went from left to right, albeit promoting One Nation above the Coalition: the Voluntary Euthanasia Party's preferences followed a GRN➡ONP➡ALP➡LIB➡NAT path, while Help End Marijuana Prohibition's went ALP➡GRN➡ONP➡LIB➡NAT, clearly seeing the Coalition as more hostile to the rights of pot smokers than One Nation. The other drug-issue party, Drug Law Reform, seems to differ in their assessment, casting their preferences GRN➡LIB➡ALP➡NAT➡ONP.
- The various personality-led parties that have cropped up stood in various places; Bob Katter's party, as we have seen, took a right-to-left path. Nick Xenophon's group did similarly, albeit putting One Nation last. And eccentric mining magnate Clive Palmer's party threw a curveball, putting the Nationals first, followed by the Greens, the Liberals, One Nation and, finally, the ALP.
- Of other random parties: Senator OnLine (who apparently promise to vote as instructed to by voters on the internet) went ONP➡ALP➡LIB➡GRN➡Nat (so, vaguely populist then?), the Australian Democrats (who were sort of like a primordial, rudderless version of the Greens) went GRN➡LIB➡NAT➡ALP➡ONP (i.e., vacilliating between left and right, as in the old days). Perennial candidates the Citizens' Electoral Council (followers of American conspiracy theorist and convicted tax fraud Lyndon LaRouche) put One Nation first from the basket, followed by the ALP, the Greens and the Coalition parties. Meanwhile, the Animal Justice party (could their name be a Brass Eye reference?) went ONP➡GRN➡LIB➡ALP➡NAT.
- And then there were the anomalies: the (ostensibly ultra-liberal) Australian Sex Party putting One Nation ahead of the others, Wikileaks putting the Nationals first (though they seem to have disintegrated since), and, most perplexingly, the Socialist Equality Party putting the two coalition parties first. Perhaps they're hoping that three years of Abbott will bring about a revolution or something?
Rupert Murdoch, the patriarch of the Right in the English-speaking world over the past few decades, has bought 5% of VICE, the hipster magazine/record label/documentary producer:
Fox, which was spun off from News Corp earlier this year, confirmed the $70m (£45m) deal, which marks the latest stage in the evolution of Vice from an off-beat Canadian magazine into a global brand frequently dubbed the hipsters' bible.One does wonder what Murdoch's motivation is: is this a purely business decision, that of the last of the old broadcast-age newspapermen seeing his original world's time running out and trying to break into the new paradigm, either from scratch (the ill-fated Daily iPad magazine) or by buying his way in (MySpace, and now VICE)? Or is it Murdoch, the quintessential right-wing ideological warrior, responding to a different shift—namely, the political Right's electoral and opinion-forming base being set to shrink as the scared old people eventually die and their ranks aren't replenished by younger people who aren't sufficiently scared of gays, boats, gays on boats, atheism, socialism, uppity sheilas or brown people to pick up on watching FOX News or agreeing wholeheartedly with the Rush Limbaughs and Andrew Bolts of this world that everything's going to hell. (And if they agree that everything's going to hell, they'd be more likely to pin the cause on being neoliberalism and regulatory capture by sociopathic elites than foreigners, feminism or the decline in traditional values, which is not quite the message Murdoch and his ilk would approve of.)
As such, what if the purchase of a stake in VICE is the first stage in creating a means of selling the values of the Murdochian Right to the sorts of nominally socially progressive trend-seeking young urbanites—let's call them “hipsters”—who typically regard the Tories/Republicans with disdain, or if that's a bridge too far, of instilling a cynical contempt for leftist idealism, that places it behind the (obviously uncool) old Right among those in the know.
The positional good of Cool that is the currency of hipsters and the readership of VICE has a number of paradoxical properties, which emerge from it being not an absolute quest for truth or an ideal for living, but a positional good in the marketplace of status. One of these properties is that anything that's too obviously right on, and thus must, to a novice, be obviously cool is not really cool. (Imagine, if you will, a provincial teenager from a small village somewhere obsessively studying the classics of cool, and then, one day, moving to the big city and gravitating to the epicentre of hipness they have read about—say, to Dalston or Williamsburg, Newtown or Neukölln, or the equivalent in your city of choice. He spends some weeks hanging around bars, posing in his meticulously styled clothes and hairstyle, looking dishevelled and insouciant in precisely the right way, before being noticed and getting invited to a warehouse party. At that party, another hipster (about the same age, equally sharply styled, though having been in town for six months longer) asks him what music he's into, and as he reels off a curriculum vitæ of classically cool and credible bands—say, Joy Division, the Velvet Underground, the Smiths, Neutral Milk Hotel—you can almost hear her eyes rolling back, over the sound of the DJ segueing from Hall & Oates into a hard-wonky mashup of an old Michael Bolton track.) So for cool to function as a peacock-tail-style proof of connectedness, it must be disconnected, at least to some extent, from anything objectively inferable from first principles, and consist at least partially of arbitrary conventions, and furthermore, it must not be possible to fake knowledge by merely going by what is commonly known to be cool and reeling off a list of the classics.
One side-effect of this is that cool is not intrinsically connected to earnestness or principles, whether it's the inherent authenticity of post-punk guitar rock or the principles of the New Left; it can ride with such principles while they're outside of the mainstream (and function as a shibboleth in themselves), but no further. Sooner or later, major recording labels will discover grunge rock and “alternative music” and flood the market with authentically rough-sounding bands; soon after that, the hipsters will cede that territory, abandoning the equation of roughness with authenticity and look elsewhere, an then we get electroclash, Yacht Rock and new waves of Italo-disco made by hardcore punks. The same can go with ideals, no matter how lofty. The cool kids were all vegans who boycotted Nike sweatshops once, but once vegetarianism and anti-sweatshop campaigns went mainstream, they're more likely to be artisanal carnivores with meticulously curated vintage Nike collections. Conspicuously boycotting meat and sweatshop-made trainers is like showing up at a loft party in Bushwick and enthusing about this awesome band named The Pixies whom you've just discovered.
Assuming that someone like Rupert Murdoch wants to sell right-wing politics (or at least cynicism of, and disengagement from, the ideals of the progressive Left) to hip urbanites, the help of VICE Magazine could be indispensable. The wilfully contrarian tone VICE has often adopted is not too far from downward-punching conservative humorists like P.J. O'Rourke and Jeremy Clarkson, and with a bit of guidance could be put to use against overly earnest progressives. Granted, actually selling membership to the Conservative Party (or its equivalent) would be a stretch too far, though it's conceivable that, with a few strategically dissembling attack pieces, a Murdoch-guided VICE could, for example, hole the Australian Greens (whom Murdoch has said must be “destroyed at the ballot box”) below the waterline amongst crucial inner-city demographics. (A piece about how the dreams of “leftist utopians” like Stalin, Mao and Guevara have caused vast amounts of suffering, with an insinuation that that's what the Greens would have in store if they ever came to power, may be enough; similar calumnies have worked remarkably well among older demographics in the Australian.) In Britain, meanwhile, while saying nice things about David Cameron may be a dead loss, subtly building up Boris Johnson could be doable, as could attacking the critiques of Bullingdonian privilege often brought to bear against blue-blooded Tory politicians. Indeed, a sort of “hipster Bullingdonianism”, a celebration of privilege à la Vampire Weekend and rejection of the by now mainstream idea that soaring inequality is bad or dangerous, could be not too far from a Murdochian Vice.
Der Spiegel has an interesting interview with Adam Michnik, former Polish Solidarność dissident and now editor of the broadsheet Gazeta Wyborcza, talking about democracy, authoritarianism and civil society in Europe, looking partly at the hardline authoritarian-nationalist turn Hungary has taken, and to a lesser extent the Catholic-nationalist right in Poland:
SPIEGEL: Orbán is trying to direct his country into a "system of national cooperation without compromises." What does he mean by that?
Michnik: British historian Norman Davies called this form of democracy a "government of cannibals." Democratic elections are held, but then the victorious party devours the losers. The gradual coup consists in getting rid of or taking over democratic institutions. These people believe that they are the only ones in possession of the truth. At some point, parties no longer mean anything, and the system is based, once again, on a monologue of power. The democratic institutions in the West are more deeply embedded in the West than in Eastern Europe. Democracy can defend itself there. Everything is still fragile in our countries, even two decades after the end of communism.
Michnik: Back in 1990, I wrote that nationalism is the last stage of communism: a system of thought that gives simple but wrong answers to complex questions. Nationalism is practically the natural ideology of authoritarian regimes.
Charlie Stross speculates about the suggestion that, politically, Britain may be functionally a one-party state:
I'm nursing a pet theory. Which is that there are actually four main political parties in Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Ruling Party.
The Ruling Party is a meta-party; it has members in all of the three major parties, and probably the minority parties as well. It always wins every election, because whichever party wins (or participates in a coalition) is led in Parliament by members of the Ruling Party, who have more in common with each other than with the back bench dinosaurs who form the rump of their notional party. One does not rise to Front Bench rank in any of the major parties unless one is a paid-up Ruling Party member, who meets with the approval of the Ruling Party members one will have to work with. Outsiders are excluded or marginalized, as are followers of the ideology to which the nominal party adheres.The Ruling Party Stross posits has a few characteristics: it's comprised of people from a specific background (typically public-school, politics/economics at Oxbridge or LSE, often followed by a career as a barrister), and, as befits entities which have little to fear from public opinion, is not answerable to the general public (who can take their frustration out on whichever of the publicly visible parties nominally forms the government at the moment). The interests they serve are of multinational corporations (which Stross previously equated to a form of alien life which has taken over the Earth) and free-floating elites (i.e., those who stand to benefit from privatisation, the endless trough of contracts or the good old-fashioned Friedman Shock Doctrine). Of course, the problem is that, if democracy becomes increasingly a sham, sooner or later it will lose a crucial advantage it has over other systems, i.e., it offering a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power:
Moreover, we are now discovering that we live in a panopticon, in houses of glass that are open to inspection and surveillance by the powers of the Deep State. Our only remaining form of privacy is privacy by obscurity, by keeping such a low profile that we are of no individual interest to anyone: and even that is only a tenuous comfort. Any attempt at organizing a transfer of power that does not ring the changes and usher in a new group of Ruling Party faces to replace the old risks being denounced as Terrorism.
My conclusion is that we are now entering a pre-revolutionary state, much as the nations of Europe did in 1849 with the suppression of the wave of revolutions that spurred, among other things, the writing of "The Communist Manifesto". It took more than a half-century for that pre-revolutionary situation to mature to the point of explosion, but explode it did, giving rise to the messy fallout of the 20th century. I don't know how long this pre-revolutionary situation will last — although I would be surprised if it persisted for less than two decades — but the whirlwind we reap will be ugly indeed: if you want to see how ugly, look to the Arab Spring and imagine it fought by finger-sized killer drones that know what you wrote on Facebook eighteen years ago when you were younger, foolish, and uncowed. And which is armed with dossiers the completeness of which the East German Stasi could only fantasize about.
As austerity cuts bite and politicians retreat from the great unwashed rabble they are supposed to represent, comedians are finding themselves on the firing line of public anger at social injustice, the political class or just “outsiders”, writes Irish comic Keith Farnan:
There you are: a boy, standing in front of a whole bunch of other boys and girls, asking them to love you. But when times are tough, people need a target and politicians are much too canny to actually go out in front of a crowd that hasn’t been tightly vetted and controlled so they get the maximum return for their tested and meaningless sound bites. Comedians are in danger of becoming the canaries down the political coalmine. When one of them doesn’t come back up, you know it’s time to cede control of that voting district to some extreme left or right organisation.
As in all times of economic strife, the “outsiders” are being blamed and, while this traditionally and obviously means “immigrants”, there must surely be a cautionary tale in how the comedy clubs of the Weimar Republic were shut down after violent unrest at various 'why did the German cross the road jokes'. (Because zere vas a zebra crossing, ja, it is safe to go now. Ok, I made that bit up; Ireland is now a German-economically-occupied state, what can I say?)
Whether it’s a strategy or a natural consequence, there has been a rise in surreal and abstract comedy as well as mime-comedy. Mime-comedy is the perfect comedy for any time of social upheaval, because you can’t enrage a crowd when you’re literally saying nothing. If you’re going to play the fiddle while Rome burns, then play the fiddle and shut up about it.
Australia's community radio sector, facing the onerous costs of switching to digital radio, got a reprieve today, in the form of a $6M government funding package, passed in the last moments of the Gillard government's last parliament. The funding boost came after an earlier bill which left the stations several million dollars short, and following a campaign which attracted more than 43,000 signatories.
Which is just as well, because community radio cannot expect any sympathy from the incoming Abbott government; the best it could hope for is indifference, and the worst, active hostility. Community radio in Australia leans towards an urbane, university-educated and mostly left-leaning audience, all considered with deep suspicion by Liberal Party strategists and the predominantly right-wing commercial media; in the views of the Australian Right, it would be a nest of “un-Australian” opinions, such as empathy for refugees, support for depraved and immoral art, and anti-business sentiments verging on “Cultural Marxism” being part of the same neo-Whitlamite crypto-Communist conspiracy as the Greens. Indeed, its very existence outside of the purview of the Free Market is anathema; why should a bunch of latte-sipping trendies and subversive degenerates who don't share the values of the Silent Majority Of Suburban Battlers have a slice of the radio spectrum reserved for their esoteric interests, and protected by law from the democracy of market forces? Were community radio left to the Abbott government, any solution would probably look like a radical Thatcherite big-bang of deregulation, abolishing the distinction between community and commercial licences and “freeing up” community stations to sell advertising, enforce playlists mandated by advertisers, lose the uncommercial niche shows and chase the commercial mainstream, or just get bought up for their spectrum by existing radio networks. Such a move would, in the views of the Right, drain the stagnant pond of un-Australian opinion that has been fermenting in the inner cities since the Whitlam era, once and for all. (In fact, I wouldn't be too surprised if there had been an editorial in The Australian advocating that very course of action.)
Silvio Berlusconi's return to government suffered a setback yesterday when the former sultan of Italy was found guilty of paying for sex with an underaged prostitute and using his office to cover it up. The latter charge relates to an incident when the prostitute in question, Karima el-Mahroug or “Ruby the heart-stealer”, was arrested for theft, and Berlusconi called Milan's chief of police to get her off, saying that she was the daughter of the President of Egypt, and charging her with theft would have caused an international diplomatic incident. Berlusconi was sentenced to seven years in prison (which he will not serve, as Italy does not jail those aged over 70) and banned for life from holding public office. Berlusconi maintains his innocence, claiming (a) that he gave el-Mahroug money out of the goodness of his heart to get her off the streets, (b) that he sincerely believed that she was Hosni Mubarak's daughter (presumably reduced to theft and prostitution on the streets of Milan for some reason), and (c) that the charges were the result of an ongoing Communist conspiracy to destroy him and Italy.
The typical thing for il cavaliere, as he is known, to do would have been to get his allies in parliament to table a law retroactively legalising bunga-bunga parties, dropping the age of consent for prostitutes and changing the technical definitions of corruption in a way that would not apply to acting prime ministers; his party, the right-wing-populist People Of Liberty (PdL), is part of the governing coalition, and could in theory threaten to bring down the government if such a bill is not passed. Now, though, that may be harder to pull off, as the other parties are vehemently opposed to Berlusconi and everything that he stands for, and the accompanying assumption of such a tactic—that after a snap election, PdL would be better poised to govern in its own right or choose more pliant coalition partners to share power and its benefits with—might not stand if its leader is a convicted criminal.
The worst may be yet to come for Berlusconi, though; by the end of the year, Italy's supreme court will issue the final ruling in a tax fraud case concerning him.
The Australian Greens have a fine line to walk; maintaining an integrity of values whose lack doomed the third party which preceded them, the now-defunct Australian Democrats, whilst avoiding becoming a single-issue party (as their name suggests), or allowing themselves to be tarred with the brush of extremism. So far, they have succeeded modestly; having some of the most scientifically literate MPs in Parliament and a commitment to evidence-based policy helped, though could only go so far when the Murdoch-owned 70% of the press vilifies them as
witches Stalinists and the remaining Fairfax papers deny them the oxygen of publicity, making it easy for people who don't read New Matilda on the tram in between cycling to their favourite vegan café to joke about them as a bunch of dippy hippie rainforest mystics. Gradually, though, with the internet, and the effort of party workers, they have been making slow inroads towards mainstream acceptability.
That is, until the New South Wales branch (why does it always have to be the NSW branch, in every party?) called for an inquiry into fluoride in the water supply, at the behest of the tinfoil-hat community having lost a court challenge to water being fluoridated. As yet, no plans for inquiries into chemtrails, UFOs or whether or not world leaders are shape-shifting reptilians have been announced. But still, despite all their hard work and generally impeccable rationalist credentials, Tim Ferguson's caricatures of the Greens looks slightly less ridiculously inaccurate.
I can see this possibly costing the Greens seats in the next election. The ALP has been faced with a drain of educated, progressive-minded voters to the Greens in recent elections, which has cost them inner-city seats such as Melbourne (where the Greens' Adam Bandt will be fighting off a challenge from Labor). The threat of a sweeping landslide in favour of a hard-right Abbott government, whose promises not to feudalise industrial relations, ban abortion and generally drag Australia back to the penal-colony era via Howard's white-picket-fence father-knows-best 1950s have not convinced everyone completely, could compel the proportion of the electorate who don't understand how preferential voting works to vote Labor first, bleeding votes from the Greens. If the Greens manage to keep up the momentum, the appearance of leaflets, quoting their NSW MP John Kaye about fluoride and suggesting that a parliament with Greens in it will be tied up with chasing moonbeams at the taxpayer's expense, rather than (as has been the case) holding the two old parties to account on issues such as health care funding, schools and renewable energy, could swing the vote against them. So yes, nice work, Mr. Kaye.
Recently, celebrity right-wing intellectual Niall Ferguson caused a stir when, during an investors' conference, he implied that economist John Maynard Keynes did not care about the future, on the grounds of being childless and gay. The comments seemed to have been an attempt to attribute Keynes' famous quote, “in the long run, we are all dead”, to an amoral nihilism that comes from neglecting one's duty to reproduce in favour of a decadent hedonism and aestheticism, and thus to tar Keynes' model of government borrowing and economic stimulus, popular amongst the left of the political spectrum but anathema to the neoliberal right, with the brush of this effete, degenerate nihilism:
Another reporter, Tom Kostigen of Financial Advisor, gave a longer account. Kostigen wrote that Ferguson had also made mention of the fact that Keynes had married a ballerina, despite his gay affairs. "Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of 'poetry' rather than procreated," Kostigen wrote. He added that the audience at the event went quiet when the remarks were uttered.Ferguson has apologised unreservedly for the remarks once they became public, calling them “stupid and tactless”; chances are that they've served their purpose as a dog whistle, and many of the sorts of people who see “Cultural Marxism” and decadent weakness all around them will agree wholeheartedly.
While Ferguson was rightly excoriated for the anti-gay tone of the remarks, there has been less comment on the other part of his statement, the assertion, still commonly held in many places, that childless people are selfish, amoral nihilists, who refuse to grow up and shoulder their responsibility:
There is, among many otherwise intelligent individuals, an assumption that those of us who make a positive choice to not reproduce are selfish, rootless and have no concern about future generations or the planet. But those who have their own children often forget about the world and just worry about their own ever shrinking one.
I have seen the most passionately committed feminist activists go gaga once they give birth. All the promises such as "I'll still come on that march/go to that conference/burn down that sex shop" disappear when they sprog. All those in my circle with offspring seem to become unhealthily obsessed with their own little world. Principles go out of the window ("I still hate the private education system/healthcare but I am not putting my politics before my children"), and socialising becomes impossible.Big families and the political Right have gone hand-in-hand for a while. Meanwhile, the white-supremacist British National Party, feeling the angry-white-people vote taken away by the less overtly fascistic UKIP, is encouraging its supporters to lie back and think of
"I know, by now you will be giggling over this suggestion. But think about it, nationalists need to buck the trend of 1.8 children per white household. We need to aim between 3 and 4 children each if not more," he writes. "And the bonus is that making babies is fun! So fellow nationalists, less TV and more fun! Let's do our bit for Britain and our race."
Matthew Collins, a former BNP member and now an anti-racism activist, said the post was an attempt by the party to get some attention after its poor election results. "It's tongue in cheek but there is a serious point. Griffin is always going on about being outbred and in the past he has said members need to put away their boots and go and meet women. The problem is that your typical BNP member is a social pariah who is more into pornography than starting a family," he saidA more frightening possibility would be if these people are successfully persuaded to do their duty, especially with the BNP's record on gender relations (they're not in favour of womens' rights; one of their MPs is on record as saying that women should be “struck like a gong”). I wonder in how many suburban culs-de-sac in BNP heartland, aspiring Josef Fritzls are now drawing up plans for soundproofing their basements and making notes on the movements and likely racial purity of fit-looking local shopgirls.
The International Monetary Fund has, once again, warned Britain's government to ease back on its austerity policy, or risk driving Britain into a triple-dip recession. The government has replied with a statement defending its approach.
Meanwhile, researchers have found serious flaws in an economics paper used to justify austerity policies and the prioritisation of cutting debt at all costs. The paper, Growth In A Time Of Debt, which argues that high public debt stifles economic growth, and which has been a favourite of neoliberals and small-state libertarians, was found to have flaws including selective inclusion of data, unusual weighting of years studied, and a coding flaw in an Excel spreadsheet; when corrected, the data produced does not yield the same conclusions:
This error is needed to get the results they published, and it would go a long way to explaining why it has been impossible for others to replicate these results. If this error turns out to be an actual mistake Reinhart-Rogoff made, well, all I can hope is that future historians note that one of the core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity in the early 2010s was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.So, if it does turn out that austerity policies are based on a spreadsheet error, does that mean that we can expect a contrite George Osborne to quickly change course? Of course not; the revelation that austerity is based on junk economics will have no more effect than what we've already known, such that Britain's current public debt is historically quite modest, because austerity never was purely about economic pragmatism, but rather about principle; the principle being “this money does not belong to you”, with the explanation being “because we say so”. Which is why, for example, the government has £10m to give Margaret Thatcher a state funeral in all but name (“we can afford it”), whilst cutting £11.6 from the arts budget, closing public libraries and slashing benefits. The principle is why the government has introduced a “bedroom tax”, cutting the benefits of those deemed to have a spare bedroom, despite the lack of suitably cramped accommodation they could move to (especially in economically depressed areas in the north). There is no economic benefit from this, but it has the moral benefit in the eyes of the Tories and the Daily Mail-reading public of punishing the unworthy poor. And punishing freeloaders is a good in itself, worth doing even if it costs us to do so.
Even if there was no recession, if government coffers were flush with cash, spending money on the public good would be immoral. In Australia, where the economy escaped the recession and is carried aloft on a mining boom, there still is no money for public infrastructure, to the point where recent secondary education reforms had to be funded by massive cuts to the university sector. There is plenty of money, but it belongs not to the little people, but the mining oligarchs, whose sense of property rights does not extend to them rejecting billions of dollars of diesel fuel subsidies paid for by the taxpayer. Needless to say, there is no money for things like modern internet infrastructure or public transport, to say nothing of things like the high-speed railway line between Melbourne and Sydney (the two endpoints of the second busiest passenger air route in the world) for which studies have recently been published. Where there is money left over, it is handed back as tax rebates to middle-class households in outer suburban electorates, where it can do the most good electorally for the government.
The libertarian myth that the economically prudent state is the minimal “nightwatchman state”–enforcing contract law, punishing freeloaders and otherwise keeping its hands off—doesn't bear out in reality, where prior investment and planning are often more prudent than leaving things to the wisdom of the free market. We have seen this in the United States' health care system, where costs are several times higher than in the supposedly inefficient socialised health care systems of socialist Europe (which is not counting externalities, from lower life expectancies and more chronic illnesses to people staying in less than ideal jobs out of fear of losing their health insurance), and in previous attempts to reduce public spending by cutting welfare (at least when the sainted Margaret Thatcher did so in the 1980s). Anyone who has had to commute in a city organised according to laissez-faire let-them-drive-cars principles, at least once it gets beyond a certain level of density, will know that it doesn't work; which is why even neoliberal London and New York spend billions on public transport facilities, which are used with almost Scandinavian egalitarianism by everybody from beggars to bankers. And, in a decade's time, it's not unlikely that the gutting of Britain's social infrastructure will end up costing more, as more people fall through the cracks; some will be picked up by a swelling prison system, as happens across the Atlantic, while others will subsist in dismal conditions, out of sight and out of mind of the people who matter.
In death, it seems, Margaret Thatcher is being as much of a unifier as she was in life. Whilst still alive, she requested to not have a state funeral (“I am not Winston” being her reported words), the Cameron government seem determined to give her one in all but name, celebrating the triumph of their tribe and rhetorically reducing the vast dislike of her and her policies and actions outside of their charmed circle to a few disgruntled sore losers. In other words, the late Thatcher becomes, in death, the People's Prime Minister, with those who object redefined to be outside of “the People”.
The funeral itself will, officially, fall one step short of being a state funeral; it will be almost identical to the ones Winston Churchill and Princess Diana received, with central London shut down for a military parade (for bonus points, themed around the Falklands War; that's right, they have themed funerals for former prime ministers); Thatcher's remains will be borne on a gun carriage to St. Paul's, and the dress code is “Full Day Ceremonial without swords”. (Does one get issued a sword upon ascending to that echelon of British society?) Further blurring the distinction, the Foreign Office ordered its staff to wear mourning clothes on the day; once it was pointed out that this was a breach of protocol (what with it not being a state occasion, and the deceased not having been the head of state), the order was hastily retracted; the foreign office said that it was the result of an “administrative error”, and certainly had nothing to do with any ministers. As expected, those of inadmissible views are likely to protest, and activists are bracing for a wave of preemptive arrests before the event, as happened with the Royal Wedding. The police are reportedly scanning online conversations for references to protest and compiling lists of troublemakers.
These plans and the imperial tone of the funeral have not gone unnoticed in Buckingham Palace, who are concerned that it is encroaching on the tradition that the monarchy handles the ceremonial side of statecraft and the elected politicians just do the practical stuff. Or, as the trade unionists of yore would have called it, a demarcation dispute.
Meanwhile, some have called for a statue of Thatcher to be erected permanently in Trafalgar Square (also the site of the poll tax riots). And there have been calls for Heathrow Airport to be renamed after her. There is a petition to the Prime Minister here; at time of writing, it has 18 signatures. Were it successful, the government actually renaming the airport would be complicated by it having been privatised by Thatcher herself. Boris Johnson has helpfully suggested naming the new airport he wants to build in the Thames Estuary after her instead.
Meanwhile, the guest list for the funeral has been announced; it's partly a Tory tribal gathering (the likes of Lord Lloyd-Webber, pulp novelist/former jailbird Lord Archer and the yet-to-be-ennobled Jeremy Clarkson), with fellow travellers from all over the world (the Reagan family is sending someone in lieu of Nancy, who's too unwell to make the trip). It's not clear whether the Pinochet family will be sending anyone. Argentina's prime minister has been snubbed, in line with the Falkland War theme. Australia, meanwhile, will be represented by conservative former PM and current Warden of the Cinque Ports, John Howard, to whom the invitation was apparently passed by current PM, Julia Gillard. (The Tories missed a trick by not going over her head and inviting next PM Tony Abbott, giving him a chance to look like an accomplished statesman even before his coronation in September.) One notable name that may be absent is Rupert Murdoch, the power behind the throne, who unfortunately has a meeting on that day
Meanwhile, some notable reactions you may have missed: video of a speech given by actress turned Labour MP Glenda Jackson at the Thatcher memorial parliamentary session, condemning her legacy; and a rebuttal by Jackson's son, Dan Hodges, listed as a Blairite (i.e., neo-Thatcherite) Labour MP. And Australia's foreign minister Bob Carr recounts Thatcher having made a racist remark about Asian immigration just out of earshot of his Malaysian-born wife. And here is An Obituary From Below, a comprehensive assessment of the history, origins, contraditctions and legacy of Thatcherism.
Meanwhile in Australia, the right-wing opposition (and, at this point, almost inevitably the next government come September) has launched its alternative to the Labor government's National Broadband Network policy. It's an improvement on their previous policy (“rip it out, fill in the trenches and let the free market provide”), but nonetheless still falls well short. While Labor's network would bring high-speed fibre-optic connections straight to the home, giving 100 megabits per second (increasing to gigabit speeds), the Coalition's cut-rate plan would extend fibre only to boxes on the kerb, relying on a largely deteriorating copper infrastructure for the “last mile”, topping out at a theoretical 25 megabits per second (though that would be in ideal conditions; as with ADSL, distance from the node and cable condition would affect this). It would achieve this at about 2/3 of the cost of the all-fibre NBN. Or, the Pareto Principle: You're Doing It Wrong.
And while 25Mbps is an improvement on what we have now, and good enough for the sorts of things people do today (watching videos, shopping online, playing games), to say it will be good enough betrays a lack of imagination, or a deliberate narrowing of horizons that is all too familiar in Australian politics. Australia has always been the lucky country, borne at first on the sheep's back and now on Chinese demand for iron ore, which has led to a sclerotic apathy in terms of any sort of forward planning, in particular infrastructure and development. Combined with the stultifying conservatism of the Australian Right from Howard onwards, with its quasi-edenic visions of the conformistic white-picket-fenced utopia of the golden age of Menzies, the implicit message is clear: we are not Korea or Finland. We don't have a Nokia or a Samsung. We're a simple country. Our place in the world is to dig stuff up, put it on big ships and send it to China, and then to go home and relax in front of our big-screen TVs with a tinny of VB. That is all. It's a comfortable life, but we shouldn't get ideas beyond our station. All we need from the internet is to be able to shop online, pay the odd bill and download last week's episode of Jersey Shore a bit faster, and two rusty tin cans and a length of barbed wire fence is good enough for that. Well, that coupled with the sort of facile, nihilistically short-sighted anti-government rhetoric (infrastructure investment is “waste”; you can't prove it's not, so there) that the Abbott government-in-waiting has been borrowing from the US Tea Party.
The Coalition's policy has been roundly criticised by experts and mocked online as “fraudband”. However, all that means zip to the average outer-suburban swinging voters who get 100% of their information from the Murdoch press, right-wing shock jocks and/or 30-minute TV news programmes which are mostly sport, celebrity gossip and wacky human-interest stories, and who actually decide elections. So it looks like Australia, a country which coined the term “tyranny of distance” and was an early adopter of everything from telegraphy to mobile phones, will be stuck behind, paying off a 20th-century system and living much as the generation before them did, just because the bogans hate Julia Gillard.
A day after the death of an elderly, long-retired Margaret Thatcher, the reactions in Britain have been varied. The national news media have generally been lavish in their hagiography, at most conceding that Thatcher “polarised opinion” or was “controversial”; the implication being that all sides, from the yuppies whom made out like bandits during the Big Bang to the miners who were kicked in the teeth, had, over time, put their differences aside. (The BBC has been particularly fawning, careful to avoid giving a voice to anyone who may say anything remotely critical, or in any way shatter the illusion that the PM who smashed the miners' unions, immiserated the North and began the dismantling of the post-WW2 social contract may well have been a much loved and thoroughly apolitical member of the Royal Family. Between that and their silence on the privatisation of the NHS, one suspects that they are betting that, maybe if they cooperate enthusiastically, the Tories won't dismember them and sell the bits off to Rupert Murdoch before the next election.) Even the Guardian, whilst publishing a mildly condemnatory editorial, hedged its bets, as not to offend those of its readers who vote Conservative (and presumably there are some). Regional newspapers have been somewhat less equivocal, especially those in places like Sheffield, Newcastle and Wales. Meanwhile, television schedules have been cleared to make room for turgid memorial programming.
Last night, after her death was announced, spontaneous celebrations did erupt in parts of Britain; as of yesterday afternoon, the centre of Liverpool reportedly looked “like bonfire night on Endor”, and other celebrations took place in Glasgow, Bristol, Brixton and Republican areas of Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, the manager of an Oddbins was suspended after announcing a special on champagne “in case anyone wanted to celebrate for any reason”.
Other than that, there have been few signs of public jubilation in London; no red bunting bedecking streets, no spontaneous street parties around portable stereos blaring out Billy Bragg songs, no jubilant signs in windows, not even an uncanny sense of euphoria in the air. And, when one thinks about it, it's hardly surprising, as there's precious little to celebrate. An old, frail woman, whose actions caused considerable suffering for many (and, for a few, great fortune) a quarter-century ago, died at an advanced age, amidst luxury; and, short of being borne to Valhalla on the wings of valkyries, there could scarcely be a more victorious way to exit life. If she was aware of anything in her last days, it would have been of the triumph of her views and the utter vanquishment of all opposition. The welfare state has been dismantled to an extent she dared not imagine, trade unions are all but extinct, and neo-Thatcherism is the backbone of all admissible political parties. Other than there still being homosexuals and trains in Britain, there could have been little to disappoint her. Thatcher may be dead, but Thatcherism is stronger than ever. If anyone has reason to be popping the corks on those bottles of champagne, it would be the Conservative Party faithful and perhaps the Blairite wing of Labour, paying tribute to the end of a triumphant life.
While she may have been victorious, that is not to say that her victory was accepted. Perhaps telling are official shows of respect which were not called for, in case lack of observance says too much. For instance, football matches will not be observing a minute's silence. There will also be no state funeral, which would have required both a parliamentary vote (and the spectacle of Labour backbenchers defying the whip and Sinn Fein members being ejected from the chamber would have been somewhat insalubrious) and a national minute's silence. The funeral itself will be one step short of a state funeral, and the first Prime Minister's funeral attended by the Queen since Churchill's state funeral; it will be held next Wednesday, with central London under lockdown and a heavy police presence; one imagines that Thatcher wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
Finally, at the time of writing, Judy Garland is enjoying an uncanny career resurgence in the British pop charts; Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead is at number 2 on the iTunes chart and number 1 on the Amazon MP3 chart. Yay for slacktivism!
Continuing the Margaret Thatcher Memorial Season on this blog: why the Left gets neoliberalism wrong, by political scientist Corey Robin. It turns out that the thing about rugged individualism is (once one gets beyond the pulp novels of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, not exactly founts of academic rigour) a red herring, and the true atom of the neoliberal world view is traditional, vaguely feudal, hierarchical structures of authority: patriarchial families, and enterprises with owners and chains of fealty:
For all their individualist bluster, libertarians—particularly those market-oriented libertarians who are rightly viewed as the leading theoreticians of neoliberalism—often make the same claim. When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees. And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.
What often gets lost in these debates is what I think is the real, or at least a main, thrust of neoliberalism, according to some of its most interesting and important theoreticians (and its actual practice): not to liberate the individual or to deregulate the marketplace, but to shift power from government (or at least those sectors of government like the legislature that make some claim to or pretense of democratic legitimacy; at a later point I plan to talk about Hayek’s brief on behalf of an unelected, unaccountable judiciary, which bears all the trappings of medieval judges applying the common law, similar to the “belated feudalism” of the 19th century American state, so brilliantly analyzed by Karen Orren here) to the private authority of fathers and owners.By this analysis, while neoliberalism may wield the rhetoric of atomised individualism, it is more like a counter-enlightenment of sorts. If civilisation was the process of climbing up from the Hobbesian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish and short, and establishing structures (such as states, legal systems, and shared infrastructure) that damp some of the wild swings of fortune, neoliberalism would be an attempt to roll back the last few steps of this, the ones that usurped the rightful power of hierarchical structures (be they noble families, private enterprises or churches), spread bits of it to the unworthy serfs, and called that “democracy”.
On a related note, a piece from Lars Trägårdh (a Swedish historian and advisor to Sweden's centre-right—i.e., slightly left of New Labour—government) arguing that an interventionist state is not the opposite of individual freedom but an essential precondition for it:
The linchpin of the Swedish model is an alliance between the state and the individual that contrasts sharply with Anglo-Saxon suspicion of the state and preference for family- and civil society-based solutions to welfare. In Sweden, a high-trust society, the state is viewed more as friend than foe. Indeed, it is welcomed as a liberator from traditional, unequal forms of community, including the family, charities and churches.
At the heart of this social compact lies what I like to call a Swedish theory of love: authentic human relationships are possible only between autonomous and equal individuals. This is, of course, shocking news to many non-Swedes, who believe that interdependency is the very stuff of love.
Be that as it may; in Sweden this ethos informs society as a whole. Despite its traditional image as a collectivist social democracy, comparative data from the World Values Survey suggests that Sweden is the most individualistic society in the world. Individual taxation of spouses has promoted female labour participation; universal daycare makes it possible for all parents – read women – to work; student loans are offered to everyone without means-testing; a strong emphasis on children's rights have given children a more independent status; the elderly do not depend on the goodwill of children.So, by this token, Scandinavian “socialism” would seem to be the most advanced implementation of individual autonomy and human potential yet achieved in the history of civilisation whereas Anglocapitalism, with its ethos of “creative destruction”, is a vaguely Downtonian throwback to feudalism.
Contentious former British Prime Minister
and inventor of the soft-scoop ice cream*, Margaret Thatcher, is fit for work dead. Thatcher is best remembered for her contributions to music, having inspired at once the vitriol of a generation of post-punk musicians and a market for smooth wine-bar soul for a rising generation of moneyed sophisticates, and also having laid the ground work for Britain's rave culture by ensuring an abundance of empty warehouses. That and the smashing of the mining unions, support for the South African apartheid regime and Chilean libertarian dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Section 28 law suppressing the discussion of homosexuality in schools and by councils, the Poll Tax and the resulting extinction of the Conservative Party in Scotland (a society to which Burkean conservatism, as a world-view, was not traditionally alien), mass privatisation, economic precarity for a large (non-Tory-voting) section of the population, soaring inequality (Britain's Gini coefficient rose from 0.28 at the start of her term to 0.35 in 1990, at the end of her term; it is now around 0.4), and cocaine replacing tea as the national drug of Britain some time around 1986.
Thatcher died following
a strike a stroke in a room at the Ritz; she was 87. She is survived by Nelson Mandela, whom she denounced as a terrorist, her son, motor racing enthusiast and Equatorial Guinea coup plotter Sir Mark Thatcher, and, of course, her economic policies, which now form the backbone of all major political parties in the UK, and UKIP as well. Now there is, indeed, no alternative.
A state funeral was proposed by the New Labour government a few years ago when Thatcher's frailty came up; there was also a petition to privatise it last year, as to better honour Thatcher's views. Meanwhile, a mausoleum, a towering pyramid of black onyx, is being constructed in Canary Wharf, where the great lady can spend eternity in the centre of the thrumming hive of finance she so loved in life.
A few years ago, there were also stickers circulating around London, presumably put up by some left-wing group or other, announcing a mass party in Trafalgar Square the Saturday after Thatcher died. I imagine, though, that, in this day of kettling and protest suppression, Trafalgar Square will be as conspicuously free of any political statements as Tienanmen Square is on any 4 June.
A piece in the Guardian looking at what exactly is taught in the Christian Fundamentalist academies enthusiastically enabled by the Tories' education reforms:
In an English test, students face the following multiple-choice question:
(29) Responsible citizens will vote for political candidates who
a. promise to provide good paying jobs for all those who are out of work
b. promise to cut back on both government services and spending and cut taxes
c. promise to raise taxes on "big business" and use the money to help the poor
d. promise to provide child-care services for all mothers who need to work
(The "correct" answer is b.)
A church history assessment contains these questions: (1) The four foes of the faith considered in this Pace are____________.
(Answer: "rationalism, materialism, evolutionism, and communism".)
(2) The foe of the faith that takes in all the other three foes and is organised against the church is _________.
In economics, Keynesian ideas are wrong while Adam Smith's are right. In geography, the prosperity of nations is clearly linked to the amount of Christian influence ("God blessed the United States, and it became the strongest and most prosperous nation on Earth"). In US history, it is taught that Jesus commanded us to make a profit; giving "handouts to citizens" was contrary to the intentions of America's hallowed founding fathers; nontaxpayers should not vote; and it is wrong for governments to provide welfare for citizens. "Liberals" receive particular criticism.Which sounds like the plan is to build up a Religious Right bloc who can be counted on to vote Tory, contribute to election campaigns, go out letterboxing for campaigns rain or shine, and wage holy war against the Left in all its forms; i.e., the crystal meth of right-wing politics. It's a rush when you start, but before you know it, your party is beholden to religious fundamentalists and unable to shake them off even when facing electoral annihilation from those who don't count themselves among their ranks; this happened to the Republicans in the US, and for all the voices calling for modernisation, they're in no hurry to go cold turkey and go even further into the wilderness.
Backseat Mafia, a music blog from Sheffield, has an interview with Clare Wadd about Sarah Records:
I hate the term twee, loathe it. I think there was a lot of sexism in the abuse we got from the music press, we were girlie we were fey, we were twee, they were all bad things, but they’re feminine rather than masculine things. Most indie labels still are and were then run by men, I was co-running as an equal, we were called Sarah, & that was all a reason to put us down. Quiet concerning really. That said, I hate all the childishness side of twee that a few people embraced, I always wanted to be a grown up, felt required to be a grown up, I’m not a fan of escapism.
‘We don’t do encores’ your press statement said on ‘a day for destroying things’. does a little part of you, if only occasionally, think well……maybe if….
Not really, not now. It was weird at first, and someone said to me soon after “… didn’t you used to be…?”, but it’s 17 years since we stopped, I’m 45. One of the things I thought was good (although in some ways I guess it was bad) was that we were kids the same age as the bands, give or take, in that sense we could never be a proper record label.
It’s disappointing that nothing much seems to have changed, particularly with regard to feminism and the preponderance of bands or labels still to think the main role of women is decoration – a cool sixties chick on the sleeve or poster, some nice female backing vocal – and to fail to question what they’re doing and why. We tried to run the label we would have wanted to be consumers of, so we didn’t do limited editions or extra tracks or things designed to get people to buy the same record several times over, there’s a degree of respect for the audience and the fan that was completely lacking through a lot of the eighties and nineties – they were the little people essentially, and that’s a very Tory attitude.Previously:
Nobel laureate Lech Wałesa, who had led the Solidarność movement that overthrew Poland's Soviet-backed puppet government in the 1980s and served as the first President of independent Poland, recently caused an uproar when he said that gay people had no right to serve in parliament:
Wałesa said in a television interview on Friday that he believed gay people had no right to sit on the front benches in parliament and, if there at all, should sit in the back "or even behind a wall". "They have to know that they are a minority and adjust to smaller things, and not rise to the greatest heights," he told the private broadcaster TVN during a discussion of gay rights. "A minority should not impose itself on the majority."As a private citizen, Wałesa's words have no force in law, though given his status, they wield considerable influence, and resonate with a significant ultra-conservative proportion of Poland's population. (In Poland, the common colloquial word for “gay”, pedał, also means “paedophile”.) This proportion are well-represented; theirs is the opposition Law and Justice Party (currently allied with David Cameron's Tories in the EU Parliament, much to the discomfort of the we-are-not-the-Nasty-Party faction) and a conservative media which makes Fox News and The Australian look like the New York Times by comparison. (The fact that the Catholic Church was prominent in resistance to the Communist dictatorship imposed by the USSR, and that anything with a whiff of left-wing ideals, from secularism to equal rights for minorities, still stinks of Russian tanks to a proportion of the public doesn't help things.) Fortunately, they are not the unanimous voice of the Polish voting public: Poland's liberals have condemned the remarks, and the liberal Palikot's Movement party in parliament protested by temporarily promoting its two LGBT* parliamentarians to the front bench:
On Wednesday, Robert Biedron, a gay rights activist, and Anna Grodzka, who had a male-to-female sex-change operation, took seats in the front row of the assembly. Both are members of the progressive Palikot's Movement party, and party leader Janusz Palikot arranged for the two to sit in, relinquishing his own seat to Biedron.
The first row in the semi-circular lower chamber, or Sejm, is reserved for party leaders and prominent lawmakers. Biedron and Grodzka – who have been in parliament since 2011 – usually sit in the third row.Meanwhile, here is a petition asking for an apology from Wałesa for his statement.
Meanwhile, in Britain, there is a debate about what to do with a statue of Margaret Thatcher. The statue of the divisive former PM was proposed for her hometown, Grantham, though there is opposition from both sides. Some Tories oppose it—apparently out of respect for Thatcher's wishes—while much of the political Left and the geographical North regard Thatcher as a monster who should no more be commemorated by a statue than, say, Jack the Ripper. Indeed, an earlier statue was decapitated by a protester with a cricket bat in 2002.
I think there may be some merit in a statue of as influential a figure as Thatcher, who reshaped Britain arguably as dramatically as, say, Henry VIII or Oliver Cromwell. Though if it does go up, the statue should be surrounded by a thick wall of bulletproof glass. The totality—the statue, the glass, and the inevitable patina of spit that accumulates on it—could form a gesamtkunstwerk representing Thatcher's legacy and the range of public views of it.
The House of Commons voted today to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales; the bill passed by 400 votes for to 175 against. About a third of Conservatives voted for it, with slightly more voting against and the rest abstaining; a handful of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs voted against it, though most voted in favour. (Aside: according to accounts of the session, there are surprisingly many openly gay Tory MPs in Britain, a sign that the country has moved on since Tory electoral materials openly carried homophobic dog whistles and Thatcher tried to push through Section 28.)
The bill now needs to pass through the House of Lords; in theory, this should not be too much of a problem for a bill with this degree of support. Assuming it makes it through, it will become law and gay couples will be able to marry and have equal status to opposite-sex married couples.
The public acceptance of homosexuality has been one of the greatest social changes of the past half-century. It is scarcely to be believed that there are still men alive who went to prison for practising it. The real breakthrough may come only when gay people cease to demand the exceptionalism of a "victimised" group, when they can shrug off the intolerance of a few, having won the acceptance of the many.A few residual anomalies will remain, however: it will be impossible for a same-sex couple to claim adultery as grounds for divorce, as adultery remains defined as an opposite-sex act (illicit hanky-panky with one of one's own sex falls under “unreasonable behaviour”, and barring a change in the law, will continue to do so even when one's spouse is of one's own sex), and nor is there any legal definition of non-consummation of a same-sex marriage. Also, while same-sex couples can marry, opposite-sex couples who dislike the idea of marriage still may not obtain civil partnerships, though those remain on the table for same-sex couples. What eventually happens to these anomalies remains to be seen.
Meanwhile in Australia, not only is there still bipartisan opposition to gay marriage in parliament, but the nominally progressive government is moving to allow religious groups broad exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, for example allowing Catholic hospitals to fire employees who are gay or have children outside of a marriage.
For a while, Scotland famously had more pandas than Tory MPs; now, Germany has as many Scottish Tory parliamentarians as Scotland:
Many German politicians try to play down their roots if they have a hint of anything un-German about them. Not so McAllister, whose Scottishness – his father was born in Glasgow – has only served to boost the CDU's re-election chances on Sunday in the state of Lower Saxony, where he has been prime minister since 2010.
McAllister retains ties with relatives in Newton Mearns, and speaks English to his two daughters at home in Hanover. He refuses to be drawn on the issue of Scottish independence though, as a potential future leader of Germany, he may well one day find himself having to take a decision on Scottish membership of the European Union.It's interesting that, in Germany, a politician who has a foreign name, holds dual citizenship and speaks English to his children is not only eligible, in the public eye, for office, but heading for probable electoral victory soundtracked by a bagpipe-backed, heavily Scottish-themed campaign anthem, and believed to be future Chancellor material. I can't imagine a similarly exotic candidate being as successful in Britain.
More good recent political news: Australia's Labor government has finally put a stake through the heart of its internet censorship plan. The plan, to establish a mandatory Chinese/Saudi-style national internet firewall blocking access to sites on a secret list (which would have not been limited to the worst of the worst but have included anything illegal in Australia, potentially blocking anything from nude images of small-breasted women to sites advising on suicide methods or graffiti, or, given its unanswerability, anything the powers that be or loud wowsers wanted swept under the carpet) had been adopted into the ALP's platform to appease the Christian Fundamentalist party Family First, whose votes they needed, though seemed to be supported a little too enthusiastically by then-ALP leader Kevin Rudd (himself a God-botherer cut from the same cloth as Tory Grand Inquisitor and current PM-in-waiting Tony Abbott). When Family First returned to a well-deserved obscurity, the ALP kept the national firewall as part of its official platform, though put it on the backburner, pending reviews and studies. Now, it seems, common sense has prevailed and it is finally dead.
The national firewall will be replaced by legislation requiring ISPs to block sites on an Interpol blacklist of child pornography sites. This list is organised by IP address, and would not slow down access the way the more comprehensive filtering proposed would have, and is apparently more transparently organised:
The Interpol process for identifying websites for the banned list is transparent. A site must be reviewed by authorities from two countries before it can be listed. Australian users trying to access banned sites will be redirected to a ''stop'' page.Of course, the devil is in the details; one should hope that being nominated by two national authorities is not a sufficient condition for a site to be banned. If, say, Saudi Arabia and Iran, or Malta and Vatican City, nominate a site on, say, homosexuality or abortion for inclusion in the index prohibitorum, hopefully that doesn't mean that ISPs in Australia (and the UK, and elsewhere) will block it. Or, indeed, that this doesn't expand into a general-purpose mechanism for shutting down things that threaten vested interests. Though at least that's progress.
Of course, not everyone's happy with the end of the Great Firewall of Australia: the fundies still want tough laws imposing their views and values on the rest of society, for the common spiritual good of all, of course, and have reiterated their call for a national firewall. For now, though, the public mood is not on their side.
America's progressives are celebrating, and the rest of the world breathing a collective sigh of relief, as Barack Obama retains the presidency. Obama beat off a challenge from a radicalised Republican Party, so drunk on rage, xenophobia and the heady vapours of Fox News' propaganda that at one point they made whether one is for or against rape into a political litmus test issue. The Republicans, taken over largely by angry old white men fearful of their country being taken over by people unlike them, fielded an entire circus of freakishly hardline candidates (whom they referred to, in what could only be euphemism, as “conservatives”) before settling on Mitt Romney, a billionaire corporate raider of exceptional moral flexibility, whose talents enabled him to repudiate his formerly moderate views and set his guns on Obama's health care law, despite having created the state law which inspired it. In the end, Romney failed to inspire, and so the lesser evil won. To be fair, Obama the lesser evil by a sizeable margin, though in a two-party state as big as the US, there is no way he could be anything but the lesser evil by definition.
And a few more interesting odds and ends about the election and its aftermath:
- Time Magazine has a piece on the Obama campaign's impressive data-mining operation; it seems that everything, from fundraising to campaign advertising, was instrumented, measured and tested and had the hell analysed out of it, almost as if it were a Google product.
- How the Republicans blinded themselves to what was actually happening by virtue of smoking the heady opiates of conspiracy theory and self-delusion:
Before rank-and-file conservatives ask, "What went wrong?", they should ask themselves a question every bit as important: "Why were we the last to realize that things were going wrong for us?"
In conservative fantasy-land, Richard Nixon was a champion of ideological conservatism, tax cuts are the only way to raise revenue, adding neoconservatives to a foreign-policy team reassures American voters, Benghazi was a winning campaign issue, Clint Eastwood's convention speech was a brilliant triumph, and Obama's America is a place where black kids can beat up white kids with impunity. Most conservative pundits know better than this nonsense -- not that they speak up against it. They see criticizing their own side as a sign of disloyalty. I see a coalition that has lost all perspective, partly because there's no cost to broadcasting or publishing inane bullshit. In fact, it's often very profitable. A lot of cynical people have gotten rich broadcasting and publishing red meat for movement conservative consumption.I wonder whether the Republicans will engage with mainstream reality more, or whether they'll reach for the comforting crystal meth of Fox News to help pick themselves up.
- And the fallout from the US Right continues: Donald Trump calls for a revolution and others call for a third party to arise, obviously not having thought that hard about the brutally unforgiving mathematics of a first-past-the-post electoral system.
- Obama's victory has also been a victory for progressive politics in the US: Four states voted to legalise gay marriage, and Wisconsin elected the US's first openly lesbian senator. Meanwhile, Colorado voted to legalise recreational marijuana consumption. Not medical marijuana with its inherent rationalisations, but smoking pot to get high. Of course, the federal government is likely to smack this down, and it'll probably go through the courts for some time, but it could be a big crack in the War On Drugs. On the flipside, the two Republican senatorial candidates who spoke out in favour of rape were soundly defeated, hopefully burying that particular unpleasant lunacy once and for all.
- Speaking of the courts, one of the side-effects of Obama's win is that the task of appointing at least one Supreme Court justice, and possibly as many as three, is likely to fall to him, meaning that the Supreme Court may well shift in a more progressive direction.
- Had America's Muslims voted as they did in 2000, Romney would have won; I wonder what happened...
- And then there's that teenage girl in Georgia who, if Obama won, threatened to move to Australia, which has a Christian president (sort of like the Mormon Mitt Romney and unlike the Christian Barack Obama then?). To be fair, one can forgive a teenager in Georgia for not knowing that Tony Abbott's title is “PM-in-waiting”.
With only days to go until the US Presidential election approaches, a poll states that 68% of registered Republican voters believe in the reality of demonic possession, compared to only 48% believing in the reality of climate change.
Meanwhile, The Baffler has a piece on the nexus between direct-mail con artists and Movement Conservatism in the US. The thesis of this essay is that the US Right today has a culture built on paranoia, a distrust of critical thought and a tolerance of lying, and that this culture is partly due to from a system of highly successful multi-level marketing cons, get-rich-quick scams and crooked fundraising operations wrapped in inflammatory calls to urgent action attached parasitically to the conservative movement for half a century. This state of affairs had modest beginnings in the 1960s, as the wake of the political autoimmune disorder that was McCarthyism was bleeding into the rise of the civil-rights movement and everything from modern art to teenage rock'n'roll were assaulting the relaxed and comfortable status quo of the extended 1950s. (The full cultural horror of the Sixeventies had yet to make an appearance, but it would, in turn, prove highly profitable.) It all started when a canny businessman acquired a list of Republican Party donors and and started using it to make money from the fearful and credulous, establishing a system of fundraising for right-wing causes which, conveniently, absorbed most of its takings in administrative expenses, leaving little for fighting imaginary Communist abortionists. This, in turn, was followed by an ecosystem of parasites, selling everything from miracle cures to investment strategies the pinko liberals don't want you to know about to the movement-conservative demographic, and reinforcing a culture of paranoia, demonisation of a nefarious Other and a convenient detachment from objectively measurable reality, culminating in the political climate today:
In 2007, I signed on to the email lists of several influential magazines on the right, among them Townhall, which operates under the auspices of evangelical Stuart Epperson’s Salem Communications; Newsmax, the organ more responsible than any other for drumming up the hysteria that culminated in the impeachment of Bill Clinton; and Human Events, one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite publications. The exercise turned out to be far more revealing than I expected. Via the battery of promotional appeals that overran my email inbox, I mainlined a right-wing id that was invisible to readers who encounter conservative opinion at face value.Dear Friend: Do you believe that children should have the right to sue their parents for being “forced” to attend church? Should children be eligible for minimum wage if they are being asked to do household chores? Do you believe that children should have the right to choose their own family? As incredible as they might sound, these are just a few of the new “children’s rights laws” that could become a reality under a new United Nations program if fully implemented by the Carter administration. If radical anti-family forces have their way, this UN sponsored program is likely to become an all-out assault on our traditional family structure.In this respect, it’s not really useful, or possible, to specify a break point where the money game ends and the ideological one begins. They are two facets of the same coin—where the con selling 23-cent miracle cures for heart disease inches inexorably into the one selling miniscule marginal tax rates as the miracle cure for the nation itself. The proof is in the pitches—the come-ons in which the ideological and the transactional share the exact same vocabulary, moral claims, and cast of heroes and villains.
It’s time, in other words, to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound, in pretty much the same way that curlicuing all around the note makes you sound like a contestant on American Idol is supposed to sound.
Punters in a Seattle dive bar were recently treated to a surprise show when legendary kosmische band Faust showed up and played an improvised soundtrack to a video feed of the Presidential debate:
“HAVE YOU EVER PARTICIPATED IN A GENOCIDE?” a wide-eyed Jean Hervé-Péron asked a roomful of enraptured onlookers. “YES,” he answered himself, with a near-maniacal grin. “AND SO HAVE YOU.” As the improvised cacophony swelled around him, abstracted, acid-damaged images of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama arose and melted away like candied phantoms emerging from a zig-zagged field of processed video feedback.
The happening happened at the Comet Tavern, a Seattle dive bar that barely accommodates 150 patrons (a far cry from the music halls that Faust has commanded in Europe for decades). It came together at the last moment as the result of a half-joking fantasy about how to best spend the day off that Faust had to kill between scheduled Seattle and Vancouver shows.
As the details of the Scottish independence referendum, to be held in 2014 and consist of only one yes/no question, have been agreed, the Independent looks at how an independent Scotland might look; it's, as one might imagine, somewhat of a mixed bag, where defiantly un-Anglocapitalist social democracy meets restrictions on abortion as favoured by the hardline Presbyterian sects of the highlands, and the promise of Norwegian-style oil wealth comes up against the SNP's promises of a green economy run on wind power:
In February David Cameron said that independence would have “consequences for the NHS”, but the SNP were quick to point out that Scotland already has an independent NHS. An independent Scotland would have new powers over abortion law. Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil has indicated he would like to see the 24-week limit reduced.
Independent Scotland would keep the Queen as head of state and remain part of the Commonwealth. However, some SNP members have said they would like another referendum on keeping the monarchy in its present form, in the event of a Yes vote in 2014
Home Secretary Theresa May has said that border checks may be necessary between the UK and an independent Scotland. However, the SNP is intent for an independent Scotland to join the EU, so the Schengen Agreement would guarantee free cross-border movement. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said there will be Scottish passports.Surely, though, if an independent Scotland accedes to the Schengen agreement (which Britain is outside of, and will remain so as long as the Daily Mail is printed on these isles), it'd mean passport-free travel from continental Europe, whilst having to show one's passport when crossing over from England or flying in from Ireland.
Alex Salmond has declared his intention to replace the BBC with a new public service broadcaster for Scotland, which may be partly funded by advertising. Salmond assures voters that shows produced in England but popular north of the border, such as Eastenders and Top Gear, would still be available.A weaker, advertising-funded BBC substitute? Perhaps that's one of the reasons Murdoch is sympathetic to Scottish independence.
Of course, another possible consequence of independence is said to be a permanent shift to the right in what remains of the UK once the sizeable contingent of Labour MPs is gone, with more shifts towards a US-style devil-take-the-hindmost neoliberalism.
Britain's Tory-led coalition government has undergone a reshuffle. Among the changes: Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary who tried to rubberstamp Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of the rest of Sky TV, is now minister of health; which is somewhat troubling given his outspoken beliefs in homeopathy, and statements defending the NHS's funding of homeopathic “medicine” (which had, in the past, been roundly denounced in Parliament). Meanwhile, Conservative Chairman Lady Warsi, a fierce opponent of secularism, has been demoted to a newly created “Ministry of Faith”. Whether this is a sinecure intended to keep her out of trouble or a shift towards a more muscularly religious politics in Britain remains to be seen. And so, it looks like the Conservatism the Tories are bringing to government is one hearkening back to a time before the Enlightenment, when faith trumped evidence and reason.
In other news, transport minister Justine Greening, an opponent of the proposed third runway at Heathrow and passionate advocate of high-speed rail, has been replaced by Patrick McLoughlin, who was aviation minister in the ideologically anti-rail Thatcher government, but on the other hand. Given that there is pressure from segments of business for rapid expansion of Heathrow and opposition in the Conservative heartlands of the Cotswolds to having a high-speed railway run through their arcadian idyll, it'll be interesting to see whether the government's (until now commendable) transport agenda does a U-turn.
And finally, meet the new Minister for Equality, Maria Miller:
Though, to be fair, the Racial and Religious Vilification Bill would have acted as an all-faiths blasphemy law, criminalising speech offensive to religious sensibilities and acting as a chilling effect on criticism of, say, misogyny or homophobia in religious garb, so one can't really criticise her for having a part in its well-deserved death.
An argument that the Australian ideal of the “larrikin”—the unruly, mischievous underdog thumbing his nose at authority and propriety—has devolved into a US-style anti-intellectual right-wing populism, and a fig-leaf for mining oligarchs to claim to be “ordinary Australians” (i.e., of the people) and say that it's not they but rather the inner-city latte-hipsters and stuck-up university-educated book-readers who have inherited the mantle of "the elites" from the despised British penal-colony administrators:
It is on that basis that certain pundits claim anyone with a whiff of intellectualism about them is an ''elite'' and therefore opposed to the interests of ordinary Australians. It is also on the basis of the myth of larrikinism that a number of super-rich Australians are able to present themselves as egalitarian.
Forget about the fact that Singo is more notable for his support of Gina Rinehart than for society's underdogs. Because the larrikin ideal works the way it does, it allows powerful Australians like him to gloss over the fact of their own elite status and to pretend that the real elites are elsewhere.Ironically, the original larrikins weren't reactionary heroes of the ordinary battlers but violent, socially disadvantaged young men who drew the short straw during a period of precarity.
The first larrikins emerged at a time when the underdog was stigmatised in Australian society. No one would have dreamt of calling themselves a larrikin in the late colonial years if they wanted to be held in regard by the broader society. Now something that even billionaire mining magnates can make their own, our ideal of larrikinism has changed substantially since the era in which the term was coined.
The fact that its history was characterised by social inequity and violence, however, should make us pause before making too much of our ''larrikin streak''.Australia does not have a bill of rights; in its place is an informal piece of customary law known as the “larrikin-wowser nexus” that constitutes Australia's cultural system of checks and balances. This is the assumption of harsh laws and an equal but opposite contempt for authority, dating back to convict codes of honour in the penal-colony days, evolved to a system where, once the copper's One Of Us, there's a tacit understanding that the laws will be selectively enforced only against those who are not One Of Us—witness, to wit, Australia's tough film censorship laws letting through populist Hollywood entertainment untrammelled whilst cracking down mostly on poofterism with subtitles that only Green-voting hipster elites would want to watch anyway, or PM-in-waiting Tony Abbott's emphatic support for freedom of speech, but only when it is used against those who are not One Of Us—Aborigines, Muslims, the “un-Australian” and such. Maybe, just maybe, the larrikin-wowser nexus isn't a viable substitute for a more formal system of checks and balances in a mature democracy.
The Cold War isn't over everywhere: An article in Foreign Policy accuses the authors of travel guides of fashionable leftist sympathies, falling over themselves to praise anti-US dictators like Castro, Chavez and Ahmadinejad and enthusing about how gloriously free (of Coca-Cola and McDonalds, that is) Pyongyang is whilst trotting out the same old obesity/religion/guns/geographical ignorance stereotypes whenever America is mentioned.
There's a formula to them: a pro forma acknowledgment of a lack of democracy and freedom followed by exercises in moral equivalence, various contorted attempts to contextualize authoritarianism or atrocities, and scorching attacks on the U.S. foreign policy that precipitated these defensive and desperate actions. Throughout, there is the consistent refrain that economic backwardness should be viewed as cultural authenticity, not to mention an admirable rejection of globalization and American hegemony. The hotel recommendations might be useful, but the guidebooks are clotted with historical revisionism, factual errors, and a toxic combination of Orientalism and pathological self-loathing.
THERE IS AN almost Orientalist presumption that the citizens of places like Cuba or Afghanistan have made a choice in rejecting globalization and consumerism. From the perspective of the disaffected Westerner, poverty is seen as enviable, a pure existence unsullied by capitalism. Sainsbury refers to Cuban food as "organic" and praises the Castro brothers' "intellectual foresight [that] has prompted such eco-friendly practices as nutrient recycling, soil and water management and land-use planning." Meager food rations and the 1950s cars that plod through Havana's streets, however, don't represent authenticity or some tropical version of the Western mania for "artisanal" products, but, rather, failed economic policy. It's as much of a lifestyle choice as female circumcision is in Sudan.It may well be that the authors of the guidebooks are a cabal of Cultural Marxists, and that the Communists who (according to Margaret Thatcher) run the BBC, and thus Lonely Planet, are pushing the doctrinaire anti-US line. (I don't doubt that, among travel writers, there are some who subscribe to a romanticised, orientalist leftism, to the point of making apologies for the other side; I once read a somewhat myopic travelogue set in the two halves of Berlin in the 1980s, by an English author who delighted in contrasting the refreshing joy of the East (and dismissing as embittered hacks the dissidents who lost their jobs for criticising it) with the abject, junky-squat nihilism of the West.) On the other hand, a more economical explanation is in the nature of guidebooks and their function.
Guidebooks, by definition, are intended to be taken to the countries they describe as guides. If those countries lean towards totalitarianism, books which criticise their regimes, or reflect too strongly the point of view of the hostile state in which they were published, might not make it in through the border, or may cause trouble for the hapless tourist who buys them. As such, it makes sense that guidebooks to authoritarian states have, by definition, to be somewhat fawning, at the very least refraining from any criticism more than strictly necessary to be credible to a Western tourist and to leaven that with some praise of the President-for-life, explanations for why his secret police are not at all menacing and aspersions on the sorts who would criticise his beneficent rule. (I would venture that this wouldn't apply merely to fashionably anti-American states with iconically stylish martyred leaders: I'm guessing a tourist guidebook to Pinochet's Chile (which was, after all, a US-backed libertarian/authoritarian dictatorship) wouldn't have gone on about the death squads, human rights abuses and the optimism of the Allende years. Similarly, were the US to somehow roll back the First Amendment and criminalise hostile speech, I suspect that even the hippies in the Lonely Planet boardroom and the Communists in the BBC who control the purse strings would, from within their haze of funny-smelling cigarette smoke, decide to drop all superfluous references to guns, televangelists and junk food and stick to praising the beauty of the Grand Canyon and the prodigious variety of taco trucks.
In Hungary, the nation's medical research council has asked public prosecutors to investigate a genetic-diagnostic company that certified that a member of parliament did not have Roma or Jewish heritage. The parliamentarian in question is a member of the far-right racial-nationalist Jobbik party.
Nagy Gén scanned 18 positions in the MP’s genome for variants that it says are characteristic of Roma and Jewish ethnic groups; its report concludes that Roma and Jewish ancestry can be ruled out. The certificate adds: “For an interpretation of the test result and for genetic consultation relating to the family-tree research, please contact us as soon as convenient.”
The certificate first appeared on a right-wing website, which described the intention behind the gene test as “noble”, although it questioned the science. After the news blog Petőfi utca republished the certificate on 14 May, the Hungarian Society of Human Genetics issued a statement condemning the test. István Raskó, director of the Institute of Genetics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged, and the society’s vice-president, says that it is impossible to deduce origins from genetic variations at a few places in the genome. “This test is complete nonsense and the affair is very harmful to the profession of clinical genetics,” he says.
The Quietus' Alex Niven writes in defence of the Stone Roses and their legacy, challenging the twin views that (a) the Stone Roses were little more than patient zero of an epidemic of thick, gormless lad-rock that subsumed British “indie” music from Britpop onwards, and (b) their reunion and forthcoming gigs are a triumph of the cynicism of late capitalism and a disproof of any idealistic construction of the cultural values of indie music, past or present:
The Roses' resurrection might actually amount to something worthwhile because it offers the prospect of a return to – or at least a reminder of – a tradition of popular radicalism in British music that was to a large extent derailed and suppressed in the nineties and noughties. This happened because, amongst other reasons, the Stone Roses pissed away their potential so regally and left a void behind for Blur and Kula Shaker to step into. This was a tragedy from which leftfield British pop has never quite recovered; revisiting it might provide some much-needed catharsis, as well as a chance to consider why we seem to have been stuck in a loop of ever increasing apathy and retrogressive inertia ever since the Roses seemed to metamorphose nightmarishly into Oasis one day in early 1994.Niven's contention was that the Stone Roses, beneath their laddish swagger, articulated a form of eloquent popular radicalism that, had things turned out differently, may have taken Britpop in a more interesting (and more culturally and politically significant) direction than the stylistically conservative, politically Blairite, Beatles-citing nostalgia industry it turned into.
Throughout their apprenticeship on the margins of the mid-eighties indie scene, the band occupied a classic romantic-radical position from which they made repeated assertions that another dimension was lying dormant, ready to burst into life with the right amount of collective belief and imagination. Magical train rides through rainy cityscapes, hallucinations of bursting into heaven, graffiti scrawled on statues, daydreams about young love, lyrics about searching for the perfect day wrapped around chiming Opal Fruit guitar lines: this was the druggy landscape of dole culture in the second Thatcher term, a place where fantasy and utopianism offered a trapdoor-escape from post-industrial depression, especially in places like the North where the social defeat had been very real. Countless bands from the Smiths to the Cocteau Twins adopted a similar tone of hermetic idealism during this period. What was remarkable about the Stone Roses though – and the reason surely why they are regarded with such quasi-spiritual reverence to this day – is that their romantic assertions about another world being possible suddenly and miraculously started to seem realistic and realisable as the end of the eighties loomed.
But the failure of the Roses in the early-nineties – which was basically an arbitrary collision of bad luck and personal fall-outs – was the kind of unfortunate collapse that has profoundly negative repercussions throughout an entire stratum of the culture. Instead of being a wild anomaly that stood at the summit of a creative apotheosis only ever partially recaptured after the mid-nineties comeback, 'Fools Gold' might have been the foundation text of an alternative Britpop: a politically engaged mainstream movement that would never have gotten into bed with Blair, a revival rather than an attenuation of the post-war New Left, guitar pop more in thrall to Bootsy Collins than the Beatles, a progressive filter for – rather than a reaction against – the most thrilling leftfield developments of the nineties from Tricky through Timbaland. As it was, the independent scene crossed over to the darkside and instantaneously lost its whole raison d’être, while the underground progressively retreated into microcosmic obscurity in an age of internet atomisation (cf. chillwave).So if the Stone Roses' reunion is not merely a spoonful of heritage-rock nostalgia for the record-fair fatsos or an affirmation of the bankruptcy of indie music as an ideology of resistance, confirming instead that everything is a commodity in the great marketplace, what is it? Niven suggests that it may be another chance, however slim, to peer through a window into the Another World that Is Possible, a sort of very British visionary socialist arcadia:
What the Camerons and the Cleggs and the Cowells and the monarchists and the Mail-readers and the Mumford & Sons minions are really deeply fucking scared of in the pits of their blackened souls is a normative radicalism, the sort of aberrant culture that does all the traditional things like making us dance and giving us songs to sing at weddings and wakes and school discos and sports occasions, at the same time as it introduces subtle formal innovations and delivers uncompromising messages of insurrection. The Stone Roses Mk. II will have a tough job managing to do anything very effective at all, once Zane Lowe and the Shockwaves NME start winding up the hyperbole machine. But if we press the mute button on our cynicism this Imperial-time-warp summer, we might just be able to hear their profoundly optimistic message resounding through a landscape ravaged by a newly virulent strain of Thatcherism: a kind of spiritualized socialism framed as a funky, communitarian song; an angry, affirmative voice promising that he won’t rest until Elizabeth II has lost her throne. Take a look around, there’s something happening. It’s the Britpop that never was. And right in the nick of time.(Though wasn't Britpop at the time that the Major government crumbled sort of like that? And can such a world survive for more than nanoseconds before market forces act on it and it becomes commodified, and if the original participants don't sell out, someone who wasn't involved cashes in instead?)
In honour of this being the Diamond Jubilee long weekend, here is an evaluation of a piece of critique from an earlier Jubilee, namely the Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen:
God save the queenWe're not off to a good start. Even if one relaxes the definition of “fascist” (as some on the left of political debate are sometimes wont to), calling Elizabeth II's figurehead reign, floating above the governments of the day, mouthing their words and cutting ribbons, a “fascist regime” would stretch it beyond recognition. One could argue that the song referred to the government of the day, except that it was written in the days of a flounderingly ineffectual Labour government, long before Maggie sent her riot police to smash the unions and said nice things about Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The fascist regime
She ain't no human beingIf one's talking about the office of Queen, that could be considered to be true. Whoever sits on the throne occupies a peculiar role; wearing the title of an ancient absolute monarch, but serving as a mascot of sorts, and being on duty at all times, until she dies or abdicates (and the latter is not possible without scandal). Whereas an ancient monarch's freedom of opinion was limited only by their own power, the Queen has effectively given up the right to express opinions on anything consequential, lest they interfere with her official “opinions”, which change with the composition of Parliament and the will of Rupert Murdoch. (Her son, alas, has not received this memo, and is happy to give his loyal subjects the benefit of his expertise on fields as diverse as homeopathy and architecture.) So, half a point here; the office of the Queen is not human, though the occupant of it, biologically, is, unless you're David Icke.
There is no futureWhen there lines were written in 1977, Britain was in a political, economic and cultural malaise—there was the three-day week, uncollected rubbish was piling up; the Empire was gone, but its memory was still fresh enough that some people believed it wasn't. Ironically enough, one other person who would have agreed with Lydon that there was no future in England's dreaming would have been the aforementioned more-plausibly-fascist-than-the-Queen Tory MP, Margaret Thatcher.
In England's dreaming
God Save The Queen,This sudden lapse into a Californian surfer-dude voice is puzzling. Does Lydon believe that, as a rock'n'roll practitioner, he must adopt an American voice? How does he reconcile the showbiz fakery of rock'n'roll with the professed authenticity of punk as a voice of the people/youth? Or is he suggesting that a US-style Presidency would be preferable to a constitutional monarchy? (Which, a few years after Watergate, sounds implausible.)
I mean it, man
God save the queenFull points for this one; when motherhood statements about “timeless national symbols” and “bringing the country together” aren't enough, monarchists often follow up with “besides, they bring the tourists in”. Though, by some accounts, royal palaces aren't among the most popular of Britain's tourist destinations. Whether this was the case in 1977 is another question.
'Cause tourists are money
And our figureheadAnother one for the conspiracy theorists, it would seem; does the Queen sit at the apex of international organised crime (as US third-party political candidate Lyndon LaRouche claims), or are she and the entire house of
Is not what she seems
A study of user questionnaires on the site yourmorals.org (whose stated goal is “to understand the way our "moral minds" work”) suggests a truth about the nature of the left-right political divide: that levels of empathy are positively correlated with political engagement among liberals, and negatively among conservatives. (This is a study in the US, hence the terminology.)
Cracked's David Wong has a list of five telltale indicators of a bullshit political story; in this case, a “bullshit political story” is one which ignores the actual issues and treats politics as a sporting event, appealing to the audience's identification with one team or other:
The answer is that many (if not most) people don't follow politics in order to find out who to vote for as part of their duty as citizens living in a democracy. They follow it purely as a form of entertainment. They're like sports fans, rooting for their "team" to win. And as you're going to find out, virtually all political news coverage is written to appeal to those people. They're the most rabid "consumers" of news, and their traffic is the most reliable, so the news is tailored to appeal to them. In the business, they derisively call it "horse race journalism," where the stories focus purely on the "sport" of politics rather than the consequences.The telltale signs are stories with the word “gaffe” in the headline (generally some content-free event giving one half of the stadium cause to hoot and jeer at what dumbasses the other side are), anything about a politician “blasting” the other side (which appeals to the audience's inner wrestling fan), weasel-worded headlines asking a question (the answer to which is generally “probably not”), headlines attempting to escalate random low-ranking members of one political side, generally with non-mainstream opinions, to the status of “lawmakers” or “advisors” and demanding that the leadership take responsibility for them, and real-world political issues being framed as a “blow to” one political side or other:
That's where the gaffe stories come in. See, in this game, your "team" scores a point each time the other team says something stupid. It lets all of the supporters of your team mock and humiliate the supporters of the opposing team, on Internet message boards and around water coolers and in coffee shops nationwide. "Haha! The supposed 'genius' Obama thinks there are 57 states in the U.S.!" "Oh, yeah? Well, your last president said he was going to help terrorists plan their next attack!"
Hey, did you know that Barack Obama is an out-of-touch elitist because he puts fancy Dijon mustard on his hamburgers? Did you know that Mitt Romney is an insane sociopath because he once made his pet dog ride on top of his car 26 years ago? Did you know John Kerry can't relate to the average person because he puts Swiss cheese on his Philly cheese steaks? Did you know that George W. Bush hates foreigners so much that he wiped his hand after shaking hands with a Haitian? Did you know that all of this is petty schoolyard bullshit that wastes valuable time and energy that you'll never get back?
And, as smarter commentators have pointed out, there's an even bigger problem with this: It actually implies that the issue itself is completely unimportant. For instance, if the courts overturn some regulation about mercury in the water or Congress blocks car mileage standards, it always gets reported as "A Blow to Environmentalists." Oh, no, it's not a blow to the people who have to drink the water or breathe the air, or the taxpayers who have to fund the regulations, or the businesses that lose jobs over it. It's either a "blow to environmentalists" or it's not. They specifically make it sound like the effects extend purely to some fringe special interest group and absolutely no one else.
I'm telling you from experience, watching political races this way is addictive as shit. You have thousands of years of violent tribal instincts pumping through your veins, itching for a fight. That makes you an easy tool for manipulation, and every good politician and pundit knows how to push those buttons to make people march neatly in formation. Don't succumb. Or else you'll start supporting the most bullshit legislation just because your guy is for it. Or you'll start knee-jerk rejecting anything the other "team" proposes. Not because it's bad for the country, but because you want to deny them a "win."
In a few hours, Londoners will go to the polls to elect their next Mayor and councillors. The Mayor is that of Greater London, who administers matters above the separate boroughs but below the level of Westminster. The post was held by a younger and more radical Ken Livingstone in the 1980s, before Thatcher abolished it; when the Blair government restored it, Livingstone won it back and held it for a few terms, before being toppled, at the last election, by the floppy-haired, mildly eccentric Tory Boris Johnson.
A number of candidates are running this year; the Greens, the Lib Dems (running ex-police commissioner Brian Paddick), the far right, and an independent who, unlike most of the others, wants a third runway at Heathrow. The main race, however, is shaping up to be a rematch between Boris and Ken. Two likeable and/or loathsome outsized personalities, holding the banners of their respective tribes and ideologies. (A few days ago, Johnson had a lead in polling, though it's said to have narrowed somewhat since then.)
In the red corner, Ken Livingstone needs no introduction. While less radical than during the wars of the Thatcher Era, he still wears his socialist convictions on his sleeve. Which can be good, when it comes to commitment to public transport, forward planning of infrastructure (something the free market isn't all that good at) and attempting to mitigate some of the rising inequality in high-Gini London, though is somewhat more sketchy when it comes to grand sweeping statements on the public dime. Livingstone has, in the past, used his theoretically strictly local seat as a base for foreign policy, drawing the Greater London Authority into a (symbolic) alliance with Venezuela's autocratic Chavez regime, on the pretext of providing free transport to the poor. More recently, he seems to have taken a leaf out of George Galloway's playbook in trying to court the Islamist vote, expounding on Palestine whenever visiting constituencies with large Muslim populations, bashing Jews and making suspiciously dog-whistle-like statements about gays. Oh, and he held down a job presenting on the Iranian propaganda channel Press TV; perhaps we can expect those good honorary socialists, the Islamic Republic of Iran, to sponsor bus passes for the poor if he wins?
In the blue(-blooded) corner is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a character even more fanciful than his name would suggest, and not without his controversies. Upon election, he did scrap a lot of Livingstone-era public transport plans (such as the cross-river tram), though has avoided the sorts of red-meat pro-motorist culture-war policies some other right-wing mayors (such as the one in Toronto) have pursued. Not only did London's bike lanes remain, but Johnson, himself a cyclist, expanded support for cycling in the city (albeit with the sponsorship of Barclays, though that presumably ticks the piss-off-the-Left box). The Observer's architecture correspondent Rowan Moore has assessed Johnson's record on public works, and found it to be fairly moderate and generally sensible, if leaning a bit towards glitz and spectacle in places. Of course, one criticism has been that a lot of the projects were started by Ken Livingstone, with Johnson coasting by when they were finished for a photo opportunity. That is certainly a valid criticism of some things, such as the Overground and the launch of Crossrail; the case against Johnson's claim to the London cycle hire scheme, commonly known as the “Boris bikes” (though some earnestly right-on types call them “Ken's conveyance”) is less clear, though. While Livingstone did talk about setting up a Paris-style bike hire scheme, there is little evidence of anything having actually happened towards one until Johnson's term. And then there is the new Routemaster bus remake and the proposal for the “Boris Island” airport in the Thames Estuary to replace Heathrow (which is either a brilliant idea or utterly daft, depending on whom one asks).
More controversial are the symbolic statements. While Livingstone has allied his office with the actual and honorary socialist freedom fighters of the world, Johnson's statements have gone the other way. At times, he has taken up the cause of opposition to “political correctness” (commonly a way of ostensibly defending freedom of speech and the ability to take a robust joke whilst also dog-whistling to bigots that one stands with them) perhaps a little too enthusiastically at times, at one point, scrapping a multicultural festival because of its anti-racism message. Johnson has also denounced the Occupy protesters, calling them “hemp-smoking, fornicating hippies in crusty little tents”, a choice of words which, regardless of its accuracy, seems to show a haughty disdain for those who think that rising inequality is a bad thing. (Johnson's professed contempt for the Occupy movement, incidentally, is not shared by other members of the centre-right, including Germany's pro-austerity chancellor Angela Merkel.)
During the last election, this blog came out against Boris Johnson. This time, however, we will not be endorsing, or disendorsing, either candidate; there are good reasons for not voting for either. While Johnson is a Tory, and thus, as the common calculus goes, morally equivalent to Hitler, he is a far more moderate Tory than he looked before the last election. And while Livingstone's policy credentials are a bit bolder (with the exception of fancy buses and island airports, of course), some of his symbolic positions are somewhat concerning. For what it's worth, my first preference won't be going to either of them (the Greens are in with a chance, though).
Art Threat has an article about VOINA, the Russian radical performance-art collective responsible for happenings protesting against the corruption of the Russian state, its abuses of human rights, and the complicity of the mainstream art world. Their projects have included provocations such as sliding live sheep down a pro-Putin election banner at a book fair opening, staging mock hangings of gays and foreigners in Moscow to protest the Mayor's hostile stance to both, spray-painting a giant phallus on a drawbridge opposite the headquarters of the security services in St. Petersburg; though a lot of their ire is also directed at a bourgeois contemporary art world they see as more oriented to catering to the corrupt elites than questioning the state of affairs:
At the Moscow Art Fair in 2007, they staged It’s Time to Whip Russian Art, inviting members of the public to participate in a public flogging of a man dressed in white lying on a white sheet with an S&M whip dipped in red paint, a protest against elitism and conformism in Russian contemporary art.
“All our actions have political underlying messages, but we use art language only. We speak in images, symbols, which are mostly visual. We don’t use the language of political journalism. Politics is just a main theme of our works. In the current socio-political situation in Russia, an honest artist can’t be mute and make glamorous “masterpieces” for oligarchs, who decorate their “brilliant” dachas.”VOINA's actions have, perhaps unsurprisingly, brought the full brunt of the Russian security state down upon them, with all the brutality and arbitrariness that this entails.
“Being captured, the artists with handcuffs on their hands and plastic bags on their heads were thrown into a minibus and were carried from Moscow to St. Petersburg on the iron floor for ten hours. During this trip, cops kicked Oleg, the ideologist of the art group, in the kidneys and head. Two weeks later the human right defenders and the medics, who visited the arrested artists in prison, found hematomas on Oleg’s body in the kidney area and handcuff marks. Leonid had serious bruises.”British street artist turned crypto-celebrity Banksy has offered to pay the bail for Oleg and Leonid (cited as US$133,000), though his offer was rejected. There is a web site which claims to be a defence fund here.
While punk rock may be just another retro lifestyle brand in the West, in some parts of the world, it still means something; perhaps nowhere more so than Burma, a police state ruled with an iron fist by a military dictatorship. Punk arrived in Burma on cassettes smuggled in by sailors, and soon struck a chord with a young generation who had seen their future smashed under the fist of the state; as the junta cracked down on the “Saffron Revolution” which had been led by Buddhist monks, Burmese youth found a voice in its fiery rage, and soon adopted the semiotics of punk, born in remote 1970s London and New York, as banners of their anger at the state.
In Burma, punk is far more than just a superficial copy of its Western counterpart. Here, what is probably the most rebellious of all subcultures in the Southeast Asian country is going up against one of the world's most authoritarian regimes. Punk gives young Burmese a chance to symbolically spit in the face of the hated government, which took power in 2010 in the wake of what was widely considered a fraudulent election.
"The government keeps the people in poverty," says a 30-year-old who goes by the name of Scum, spitting on the ground. "It's a daily struggle just to get by." Protests are rarely possible, he says. Scum is one of the leaders of Rangoon's punk scene. He is sitting on a tattered sofa, the only piece of furniture in his narrow one-room apartment. Dirty dishes are piled up on the floor. In the corner, there's a box with English-language books. Scum studied literature, but now he makes a paltry income selling tickets for an illegal lottery. He refuses to have a legal job because he says it "would only be supporting the government."
Ko Nyan organizes most of these punk concerts. The 38-year-old makes a living selling punk T-shirts and CDs at a market stand in Rangoon. He is also one of Burma's original punks. In the mid 1990s, he read an article about the Sex Pistols, the legendary British punk band, in a music magazine he fished out of the British Embassy's garbage. Ko and his friends try to imitate the look of the musicians they saw, which comes as a shock to their countrymen. "When we walk through the market, everyone just stops and stares at us," he says. "They have no idea what punk is and just think we are crazy."What's interesting to me is how Burma's angry youth have taken a foreign cultural phenomenon (and one now confined to the cozy past in its country of origin; there's even a punk rock compilation from the National Trust for visiting Anglophiles to take home alongside their diecast model Routemaster bus and Kate and Wills teacups) and repurposed it into something new without changing its outward appearance. Looking at the attire of the punk scene members in the photo gallery accompanying the article, there are few if any references to Burma, its culture or politics; instead, one sees English-language slogans and band names of the sort one could find at a stall in Camden Market, as well as meticulously assembled collections of studded leather jackets and tartan bondage trousers. (One of the interviewees recounts working for a year in a textile factory to buy his leather jacket; upon reading this it is tempting to contemplate the exquisitely ironic possibility that similar factories were making Sex Pistols T-shirts for export to teen boutiques in the West.) Yet another young punk wears a vest printed simply with the Union Jack, a provocative symbol lobbed with weaponised irony in the malaise of 1970s Britain, though in Burma (a former British colony), I imagine its connotations would be quite different. And yet, the gravitas of Burma's situation takes these acts of almost cargo-cultish copyism and imbues them with a fresh radical meaning.
The USA, the usual cliché goes, is the country without a political Left. The leftmost party in its duopoly, the Democrats, are somewhere vaguely to the right of the Tories/Christian Democrats in European terms; a universal welfare state is dismissed as immoral lunacy, state-funded universal health care is unthinkable and even public transport is treated in much of the country as a stigmatised welfare system for the unworthy poor. There are various theories about why this is so; from the US having been founded by that anomalous subset of people bold and/or crazy enough to leave their countries and travel to an unknown land and tough and/or lucky enough to have survived through to speculations about cultural transmission. John Steinbeck, author of the Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, once stated that socialism never took hold in America because there the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and given how many of the American working poor are vehemently against measures that would materially benefit them (though might cramp the style of their future wealthy selves), there could be some truth in that.
Now, however, it seems that the US progressive movement, unconstrained as it is by having any sort of established record to stand on, may be leapfrogging the more established European Left, taking advantage of the decentralised, network-oriented mindset of the internet age.
In December, a poll by the Pew Research Center found support for socialism now outweighs support for capitalism among a younger generation of Americans. In 2012 so far, in a spectacular series of victories, American progressives have taken on big oil, Hollywood and (some people's version of) God, winning every time.(Mind you, the renewed popularity of “socialism” might not so much suggest Americans embracing Marx and thinking that a five-year plan might not be so bad after all as the Republican Party, Fox News and right-wing talk radio having defined any reasonably humane idea, from universal health care to questioning whether hedge-fund managers really are our betters, as “socialism”.)
Today's American left is where the old world of community organising and the new world of social media meet. The dismal official European left, by contrast, has neither invested in their past, nor in their future, discarding their history, ignoring new technology. Our only hope, if Obama, as looks likely, is re-elected, is that he might perhaps consider a new Marshall plan, to rebuild a left in Europe that's everywhere in ruins.
The president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agricultural scientist Nina Fedoroff, has spoken out about a rising anti-scientific mood, largely triggered by corporate-funded populist attacks against science:
As Fedoroff pointed out, university and government researchers are hounded for arguing that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are changing the climate. Their emails are hacked while Facebook campaigns call for their dismissal from their posts, calls that are often backed by rightwing politicians. At the last Republican party debate in Florida, Rick Santorum insisted he should be the presidential nominee simply because he had cottoned on earlier than his rivals Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney to the "hoax" of global warming.
"Those of us who grew up in the sixties, when we put men on the Moon, now have to watch as every Republican candidate for this year's presidential election denies the science behind climate change and evolution. That is a staggering state of affairs and it is very worrying," said Professor Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, San Diego.This phenomenon is not confined to the United States; Canada's stridently right-wing government has prohibited its scientists from speaking to the public without explicit government vetting. Similar things happened in Australia under the Howard government, and chances are that political censorship of research will return with a vengeance when newly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott moves to repay his debts to the mining industry.
Meanwhile, back in the US, the Tea Party and similar right-wing populists are organising against environmental programmes, which they see as parts of a United Nations and/or Communist plot against the American way of life. You see, building bike lanes and high-speed railways is just a plot to coerce the free American people into giving up their SUVs, McMansions and God-given freedom and submitting to collectivisation like the wretched inhabitants of hellholes like Sweden and Switzerland. And as for smart electric meters, they're part of a plot to bring in a Communist dictatorship, just like water fluoridation, the invisible bar codes on road signs which will guide the Chinese UN troops massing south of the Mexican borders as they herd Christian patriots to the reeducation camps, and the Computer God Frankenstein Controls:
In Maine, the Tea Party-backed Republican governor canceled a project to ease congestion along the Route 1 corridor after protesters complained it was part of the United Nations plot. Similar opposition helped doom a high-speed train line in Florida. And more than a dozen cities, towns and counties, under new pressure, have cut off financing for a program that offers expertise on how to measure and cut carbon emissions. “It sounds a little on the weird side, but we’ve found we ignore it at our own peril,” said George Homewood, a vice president of the American Planning Association’s chapter in Virginia.
In June, after President Obama signed an executive order creating a White House Rural Council to “enhance federal engagement with rural communities,” Fox programs linked the order to Agenda 21. A Fox commentator, Eric Bolling, said the council sounded “eerily similar to a U.N. plan called Agenda 21, where a centralized planning agency would be responsible for oversight into all areas of our lives. A one world order.”
The BBC interviews Gerald Casale of US new-wave band DEVO on the Scottish independence referendum, and in particular, of the suggested middle option of maximum devolution within the UK, popularly known as "Devo Max". Casale appears to have been following the debate, and even suggests a rewrite of one of DEVO's songs for the campaign.
The Quietus, an online journal of music and culture, looks at contemporary "folk" culture (you know; the intersection of the improvised and rough-hewn, the spontaneous and "authentic"; ukuleles, beards, peasant skirts, artisanal food, that sort of thing) and argues that contemporary indie-folk culture is essentially a bourgeois, conservative phenomenon; you see, only those comfortably well-off (and sufficiently well connected to the establishment to feel confident) can allow themselves to indulge in a spot of faux-rustic reverie or fantasise about that old canard of "a simpler life". If those who are not unmistakably comfortably middle-class or better do it, they might get mistaken for the actual underclass and treated with the contempt Anglocapitalist society reserves for its lower orders. (Hence the well-documented phenomenon of class anxiety in England, where every class tries hard to draw a sharp line between itself and the class below, with the exception of the very top and the very bottom, who have the luxury of not caring.)
Shortly after the riots, a photograph was taken that let slip pop's complicity in this subterfuge. Alex James, a man who has spent the last few years protesting too much about how organic food production is infinitely more gratifying than the life of a touring rock star, gave consent for his Oxfordshire farm to be used to stage Harvest, a boutique food and music festival. Playing the garrulous country squire, he was snapped deep in conversation with both Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson, the avatars, respectively, of compassionate Conservatism and PC-baiting, speed camera-hating Little Englanderism. Harvest, it appeared, was an ideological interzone for disparate trends within modern Toryism.
During the mid-2000s, forward-thinking tendencies in rock were suddenly overwhelmed by a glorification of spontaneity: it didn't matter what the music sounded like, so long as it could be knocked out at short notice to a crowd of thirty-six slumming private school kids in a Bethnal Green bedsit.
Presumably the "private school kids" part comes from the fact that, in today's Austerity Britain, those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths these days are too busy holding down two low-wage McJobs to pay their tuition fees to get in much in the way of spontaneous ukulele-strumming, the places in urban bohemia they reluctantly dropped out of to survive having been taken by the slumming scions of the gentry, taking a break from playing tennis and skiing to play at doing whatever (they imagine) common people do. Much in the way that a significant proportion of Brooklyn hipsters these days are one-percenters from the Hamptons (see also: Vampire Weekend, Lana Del Rey).
In this similarity, one can perceive a fundamental truth about the cultural logic of Big Society. When it did locate compliance in popular music, Thatcherism gave rise to an aspirational, future-oriented strand of New Romanticism: Cameron's Conservatism, by contrast, finds a less direct mode of expression in sham enactments of 'folk' autonomy. The organic, 'real' provenance of movements which affirm the ideological status quo is offered as proof that challenges to that dominant order are regarded by the majority of the nation's population as undesirable and inauthentic.Meanwhile, the comedian Stewart Lee is the latest to be faced with the agony of having one's favourite art defiled by the approval of the political centre-right; specifically, he is throwing away his Gillian Welch CDs, after the alt-country singer failed to display the integrity to prohibit David Cameron from liking her music, as Johnny Marr did with The Smiths.
Why was Cameron there anyway? Welch's music is not the music of library closures and the stoppage of disabled babies' free nappies. Great art ought to be incomprehensible to the dead-hearted politician. But then Ken Clarke comes along, with his brilliant Radio 4 Jazz Greats. Were his real parents bereted beatniks, who abandoned him as a baby in a golf club toilet to be raised by Tories?
It is inappropriate of Ken Clarke to love jazz, and cruel of David Cameron to attend a Gillian Welch show, or indeed any live event except sport, which is of no value. It must be obvious to him that the majority of fans of anything good would despise him and that knowing he was in the room would foul their experience.
In between the recent rounds of Republican primaries, America's motley tribes of self-identified conservatives have recently gathered at the Conservative Public Action Conference, which, from what I imagine, is sort of like a sci-fi convention only with more flags, eagles, Bibles and rifles, where the various factions of America's right, from theocratic fundamentalists to Randian anarchocapitalists, from don't-tread-on-me isolationists to neocon warhawks, gather to celebrate not being liberals. But it's not all politics; every so often, the modern conservative's thoughts turn to love. Which is why they had a seminar on "conservative dating". Which, rather than being about showing up how to ask her father for permission to take her to the movies and the interpersonal distances allowed at the various stages of courtship, was a pick-up seminar put on by one Wayne Elise, a self-identified Libertarian calling himself "The Juggler":
On Thursday, the threads Elise wears seem inspired by Tom Cruise's character in "Magnolia": black pants, a black shirt (several buttons undone), black shoes and a large white belt. His hair is cut short and stubble remains strategically on his face. It's conservative fare by Los Angeles standards -- where he's from -- but at CPAC he might as well be naked.
At 43 years old, Elise is offering more than advice. He's offering life lessons. Sitting several rows in front of him in the McKinley Room inside the Marriott Wardman hotel in Woodley Park is his wife of one year. He "seduced" her, he proclaims, "using a pity game." Exactly what that is, is left unclear. His wife seems a touch embarrassed.Among words of advice doled out by Elise: walking around taking Polaroid pictures of each other makes a great date activity (though note the all-American Polaroid brand; Lomo cameras are presumably for socialists), and if you're thinking of going to a gun club, save it for the second date, becaus, you never know, the person might be crazy.
And for those who swing the other way, a conservative conference brings with it the possibility of discrete hookups via Craigslist, as seen here.
Australia has a new media oligarch: super-rich mining magnate Gina Rinehart has just bought A$192m of shares in Fairfax, the newspaper company which controls most of the non-Murdoch papers in Australia and has, until now, mostly straddled the political centre to centre-left. It is likely that the purchase, which gives her a seat on the board of the media group, was to allow her to gain more influence over public discourse in Australia, which given her reported views, could be alarming news indeed:
Rinehart inherited more than father Lang Hancock's mining company; she took on his politics, too. Hancock was described by one journalist as "a swashbuckling right-winger who believed people and governments should bow to his will". On workers' rights, WA secession and special deals for mining, Gina is her father's daughter. John Singleton, who has been close to both, said ''a conversation with Gina was a conversation with Lang. They both had the same fanaticism.''
Last year she helped fund the Australian tour of Lord Christopher Monckton, who argues that climate science is a communist conspiracy to establish centralised world government in Europe. Monckton is a fantasist whose repeated claim to be a member of the House of Lords prompted the sitting Lords to write a public letter demanding that he "cease and desist". He also claims to have won the Nobel prize. He is better known in this country for putting a swastika next to a photo of Ross Garnaut. None of this dents Monckton's credibility in Rinehart's eyes. So she invited him to give the Lang Hancock Memorial Lecture in Perth last year.This isn't Rinehart's first foray into media ownership; last year, she bought a slice of the Channel Ten TV network; shortly afterward, Ten gave hard-right demagogue Andrew Bolt (think Australia's answer to Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly) a talk show.
Meanwhile, GetUp has a video of the aforementioned British climate-denialist Christopher Monckton advising mining industry insiders that Australia needs a Fox News-style right-wing propaganda channel:
"That is the way to do it," Monckton continued. "You have to capture the high ground on what are still the major media and I think will remain so for some time and until we crack that one both in the UK and Australia, we are going to suffer from a disadvantage over and against the more libertarian-minded right-thinking people in the US who have got Fox News and therefore have got things like the Tea Party movement and therefore have at last put some lead into the pencil of the Republican party.It'll be interesting to see whether Fairfax editorial policy changes, and how. Will there be a purge of left-leaning commentators? A raft of nakedly propagandistic articles? Will the propaganda be limited to things that affect the mining industry's bottom line (i.e., denouncing and destroying the Greens, cutting taxes and environmental regulations, rolling back workers' rights, removing those pesky aborigines) or will they attempt a broader programme to transform Australian society in a reactionary, conformistic, Bjelke-Petersonian direction? In any case, Australians may soon wake up to find the Murdoch papers at the leftmost extent of their public discourse.
While this is happening, the Australian Government is in the early stages of an inquiry into media diversity. If you're an Australian citizen, you can write a letter to the communications minister, urging him to prevent further media concentration.
As Britain sloughs into a new age of austerity, with the government cutting services, closing community facilities and admonishing the public to get by with less, the Queen prepares for her diamond jubilee, the 60th anniversary of her wedding (which, incidentally, also took place in a period of austerity). The diamond jubilee is a significant event in any sufficiently long-lived monarch's life, and so celebrations (including an extra bank holiday, not something bottom-line-driven Tories take lightly) have been on the cards since before the financial crisis. Some might have expected that a government trying to portray itself as almost painfully reasonable would insist on low-key celebrations, or at least not ply the world's richest woman with gifts paid for by the straitened taxpayer. However, this turned out not to be the case, as it emerged that education minister Michael Gove (i.e., the chap responsible for cutting school budgets and scrapping the Education Maintenance Allowance), apparently a passionate monarchist of the old school, pushed for the Queen to be given a new royal yacht, costing £60m, as a token of the public's gratitude.
The education secretary writes: "In spite, and perhaps because of the austere times, the celebration should go beyond those of previous jubilees and mark the greater achievement that the diamond anniversary represents."
He suggested "a gift from the nation to her majesty" such as "David Willetts's excellent suggestion of a royal yacht".In Gove's view, the beneficence of Her Royal Highness, and the must reach epic proportions, worthy of a North Korean God-Emperor, given that the little people were expected to graciously accept the money that isn't keeping their libraries open or providing services to the vulnerable being spent on a royal yacht. Unsurprisingly, that other astute observer of the public mood, Prince Charles, is emphatically in favour of the idea (presumably with the proviso that the yacht be of a traditional design, and not some ghastly modern monstrosity).
Unfortunately for the government, the public's deference to its aristocratic superiors isn't what it used to be and the proposal was met with incredulity, forcing the Prime Minister to make a show of rejecting it, before quietly backing a variant of the proposal. The yacht will now officially be a training facility, with only part of it serving as a stately pleasure boat for the Royal Family; there will also be the option of hiring it out as conference facilities, and some undefined part of the funds will come from private donors. (Already Canada, which has its own hardline Tory government, has pledged £10m.)
Meanwhile, here are a few suggestions for things other than a royal yacht that £60m could buy.
A few random odds and ends which, for one reason or another, didn't make it into blog posts in 2011:
- Artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy died this year; though before he did, he wrote up a piece on the sustainability of progress. The gist of it is that he contended that progress is both sustainable and desirable, for at least the next billion years, with resource limitations being largely illusory.
- As China's economy grows, dishonest entrepreneurs are coming up with increasingly novel and bizarre ways of adulterating food:
In May, a Shanghai woman who had left uncooked pork on her kitchen table woke up in the middle of the night and noticed that the meat was emitting a blue light, like something out of a science fiction movie. Experts pointed to phosphorescent bacteria, blamed for another case of glow-in-the-dark pork last year. Farmers in eastern Jiangsu province complained to state media last month that their watermelons had exploded "like landmines" after they mistakenly applied too much growth hormone in hopes of increasing their size.
Until recently, directions were circulating on the Internet about how to make fake eggs out of a gelatinous compound comprised mostly of sodium alginate, which is then poured into a shell made out of calcium carbonate. Companies marketing the kits promised that you could make a fake egg for one-quarter the price of a real one.
- The street finds its own uses for things, and places develop local specialisations and industries: the Romanian town of Râmnicu Vâlcea has become a global centre of expertise in online scams, with industries arising to bilk the world's endless supply of marks, and to keep the successful scammers in luxury goods:
The streets are lined with gleaming storefronts—leather accessories, Italian fashions—serving a demand fueled by illegal income. Near the mall is a nightclub, now closed by police because its backers were shady. New construction grinds ahead on nearly every block. But what really stands out in Râmnicu Vâlcea are the money transfer offices. At least two dozen Western Union locations lie within a four-block area downtown, the company’s black-and-yellow signs proliferating like the Starbucks mermaid circa 2003.
It’s not so different from the forces that turn a neighborhood into, say, New York’s fashion district or the aerospace hub in southern California. “To the extent that some expertise is required, friends and family members of the original entrepreneurs are more likely to have access to those resources than would-be criminals in an isolated location,” says Michael Macy, a Cornell University sociologist who studies social networks. “There may also be local political resources that provide a degree of protection.”
- Monty Python's Terry Jones says that The Life Of Brian could not be made now, as it would be too risky in today's climate of an increasingly strident religiosity exercising its right to take offense:
The 69-year-old said: "I took the view it wasn't blasphemous. It was heretical because it criticised the structure of the church and the way it interpreted the Gospels. At the time religion seemed to be on the back burner and it felt like kicking a dead donkey. It has come back with a vengeance and we'd think twice about making it now."
- The Torygraph's Charles Moore: I'm starting to think that the Left might actually be right:
And when the banks that look after our money take it away, lose it and then, because of government guarantee, are not punished themselves, something much worse happens. It turns out – as the Left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few. The global banking system is an adventure playground for the participants, complete with spongy, health-and-safety approved flooring so that they bounce when they fall off. The role of the rest of us is simply to pay.
- The sketchbooks of Susan Kare, the artist who designed the icons, bitmaps and fonts for the original Macintosh, and went on to an illustrious career as a pixel artist (Microsoft hired her to do the Windows 3.x icons, and some years ago, Facebook hired her to design the virtual "gifts" you could buy for friends.) The sketchbooks show her original Macintosh icons, which were drawn by hand on graph paper (because, of course, they didn't have GUI tools for making icons back then).
- How To Steal Like An Artist: advice for those who wish to do creative work.
- The street finds its own uses for things (2): with the rise of the Arduino board (a low-cost, hackable microcontroller usable for basically anything electronic you might want to program), anyone can now make their own self-piloting drone aircraft out of a radio-controlled plane. And it isn't actually illegal in itself (at least in the US; YMMV).
- An answer to the question of why U2 are so popular.
In praise of Joanne Rowling's Hermione Grainger series, which lauds the popular novelist for standing up to commercial pressure to adhere to traditional gender stereotypes and pepper her story with hackneyed clichés because they're, you know, "more marketable":
And what a show it is. In Hermione, Joanne Rowling undermines all of the cliches that we have come to expect in our mythic heroes. It’s easy to imagine Hermione’s origin story as some warmed-over Star Wars claptrap, with tragically missing parents and unsatisfying parental substitutes and a realization that she belongs to a hidden order, with wondrous (and unsettlingly genetic) gifts. But, no: Hermione’s normal parents are her normal parents. She just so happens to be gifted. Being special, Rowling tells us, isn’t about where you come from; it’s about what you can do, if you put your mind to it. And what Hermione can do, when she puts her mind to it, is magic.
The character of Harry Potter is an obnoxious error in the Hermione Granger universe, made more obnoxious by his constant presence. It’s tempting to just write Harry off as a love interest who didn’t quite work out; the popular-yet-brooding jock is hardly an unfamiliar type. And, given that Hermione is constantly having to rescue Harry, he does come across as a sort of male damsel-in-distress.But, if we look closely, we can see that Harry is a parody of every cliche Rowling avoided with Hermione. Harry is not particularly bright or studious; he’s provided with an endless supply of gifts and favors; he’s the heir to no less than two huge fortunes; he’s privileged above his fellow students, due to his fame for something he didn’t actually do himself; he even seems to take credit for “Dumbledore’s Army,” which Hermione started. Of course this character is obnoxious. It’s only by treating ourselves to the irritation caused by Harry that we can fully appreciate Hermione herself.Which makes for an astute critique of the reactionary elements of popular fiction, of which Harry Potter is an exemplar. Whether it's convincing as a counterfactual history, though, is another matter; were Rowling to write her books in the way the article described, what's to say they wouldn't have sunk into obscurity like a lot of worthily didactic left-wing fiction, championed only by those so cultishly right-on that they condemn the Grauniad as a right-wing hate sheet?
Margaret Thatcher is still alive, but sooner or later, she will go the way of all historical figures, and when she does, it's likely that she will have the first state funeral of any British Prime Minister since Churchill. As part of their repudiation of socialism in all its forms, New Labour pledged a state funeral for the Iron Lady, who arguably vanquished socialism as Churchill did Nazism, and it's unlikely that the Tory-led coalition will argue (though some Lib Dems may sputter and fume theatrically about it, especially if a punishing election is approaching).
Now a petition has been set up for Thatcher's state funeral to be privatised, in what the petitioner says is an appropriate tribute to her legacy and philosophical principles:
In keeping with the great lady's legacy, Margaret Thatcher's state funeral should be funded and managed by the private sector to offer the best value and choice for end users and other stakeholders. The undersigned believe that the legacy of the former PM deserves nothing less and that offering this unique opportunity is an ideal way to cut government expense and further prove the merits of liberalised economics Baroness Thatcher spearheaded.And here is some commentary from the Grauniad's Sunny Hundal, suggesting that the stakeholders in the funeral could sell memorabilia, such as photographs of Thatcher with her close friend and ideological compatriot Augusto Pinochet, that the proceeds from the television rights could be used to build a private memorial library, and that, when Tony Blair's time comes, the exercise should be repeated.
Welcome to the new age of austerity: Britain's Tory-led government is planning to abolish unfair dismissal laws and make it easier to sack workers, in the hope that Britain rides a Texas-style wave of increased productivity as employees compete against each other to keep their jobs. Also, young jobseekers will have to work without pay for private employers, for up to 30 hours a week, or lose their unemployment benefits. In other words, the government is subsidising below-minimum-wage jobs, keeping unemployment high (after all, why hire someone for minimum wage, when the government will send someone who has to work for nothing?) and transferring funds from the public coffers to private industry (undoubtedly to be returned in electoral contributions to the Conservative Party when the next election comes around).
Meanwhile, as Europe hits the doldrums, the Tory Right are pushing to use this as an opportunity to unilaterally renegotiate Britain's EU treaty obligations, in particular those which introduce socialistic inefficiencies like workers' rights and move British industrial relations westwards over the Atlantic. Britain is aggressively opposing plans to institute a financial transaction tax in Europe, and is set to win a permanent exemption from the working time directive, which limits working hours to 48 hours a week (in a rolling average over several weeks), unless workers individually opt out. I wonder how long until other inefficiencies like Britain's statutory annual leave provisions (which are fairly generous, especially compared to our cousins across the pond) are tossed onto the scrapheap. (The NHS looks set to be Americanised out of existence, and the rest of the welfare state is likely to go, first being changed from a universal system to one solely for the poorest and then progressively impoverished, on the grounds that most voters won't ever get anything from it and, hey, beggars can't be choosers.) David Cameron's Britain is set to look less like continental Europe and more like Rick Perry's Texas.
A short guide to lazy EU journalism, in the vein of Britain's tabloids:
1. Not sure how the EU works or what institutions are involved? –> Just write “Brussels”.
2. Germany is generally seen as important in EU politics and journalists know how to frame it: If Germany is active in a certain policy domain just write something about “German dominance” and if you work for British newspaper add some subtle references to the war. If Germany is passive in a given policy area just write that Germany abandons the EU and it clearly adopted a unilateral strategy, if you work for a British newspaper you could add something about the war.
9. Use “EU bureaucrats” or “Brussels bureaucrats” as often as possible. A more experienced lazy journalist would simply refer to ‘Eurocrats‘. (Thanks Gawain) Useful adjectives in this context include “unelected”, “unaccountable”, “corrupt”, “highly-paid”, “highly-pensioned”, “lazy”. This list is not exhaustive and be adapted to your journalistic needs.
A piece in the Observer looks at the privatisation of public space in Britain, or how many of the "public spaces" created by private developers in neo-Thatcherite Britain are not actually public space, but rather private spaces, where the developers allow the public to use them, with conditions, much like shopping malls. The public who use these spaces do so on the sufferance of the owners, who are legally in their right to prohibit anything from photography to public displays of affection to any sort of democratic unpleasantry:
City Hall – the riverside HQ of London's elected government – stands in a privately owned and managed development called More London. Should anyone wish to protest here against the actions of the mayor, they would not be allowed to do so.
With the Liverpool One development a large part of the city effectively became a shopping mall without a roof. Formerly public streets are now privately managed, and a popular indoor market was closed. Liverpool One is not gated but its architectural style and treatment create what has been called an "invisible wall" around it.
The redevelopment of Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's Cathedral, has in its middle a piazza repeatedly described as a "public space". When its owners feared that Occupy London protesters would move into it, however, a sign went up saying that it is "private land".Whilst a product of St. Margaret's vanquishment of post-WW2 quasi-socialism, the privatisation of public space found its place after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the zeitgeist of Francis Fukuyama's "End of History". After all, if history is over and we're all happy consumers forever, things like public squares are as anachronistic as castles; there are no more issues of ideology to be thrashed out that could necessitate the unsightly spectacle of public protest, and democracy is best left to professional managers and corporate stakeholders, all watched over by the beneficent invisible hand of the free market.
However, now, two decades later, as it emerges that the seemingly endless boom of consumer capitalism was a product of a middle class with disposable income, which is now being eroded, and increasing numbers of people find themselves facing poorer standards of living than their parents and grandparents did, may be the time that privatisation of public space comes into its own. For protests to go over the tipping point, there has to be collective awareness of a reality: it's not enough for everyone to know that the emperor has no clothes; everyone also has to know that everyone else knows before one can act on this without fear, which is why public spaces (such as, say, Tahrir Square or Tienanmen Square) can breed protest, and consequently trouble for the stakeholders of the status quo. Abolishing such public spaces, and effectively interdicting anybody who looks like starting any sort of protest, may be a necessary move as the squeeze takes hold.
Police in London have arrested 179 members of anti-immigrant group the English Defence League, after members of this group were planning a violent attack on Occupy LSX protesters outside St. Paul's, in the name of defending God and Country and bringing to bear the old ultra-violence against some "Cultural Marxists". I imagine that outspoken EDL fellow traveller Anders Breivik would have approved:
The English Defence League had issued statements and made threats on Facebook to burn down protesters tents if they were still outside St Paul's on Remembrance Sunday, according to Phillips.
A statement by the EDL on Thursday was read to the Occupy LSX general assembly on Friday morning to make people aware that there was a threat being made. "They called us all sorts of names in the statement and said we should leave "their" church and stop violating their religion," said Phillips.(Fascists claiming religion as exclusively theirs to defend and wield as a banner is nothing new: "Strength Through Purity, Purity Through Faith", as Alan Moore put it.)
Meanwhile, in eastern Germany, the story of three neo-Nazi fugitives who had been on the run since 1997 came to an end after two had shot each other in a trailer, and a third had been arrested after setting fire to the house they shared. Police searching the ruins of the house found a number of weapons, including the service pistol of a police officer killed by them during a bank robbery and a gun used in the execution-style murders of kebab shop owners across Germany. The three, calling themselves "Thüringer Heimschutz" (which Spiegel translates as "Thuringian Homeland Defence", though "Thuringian Homeland Security" is tantalisingly close) seemingly made little effort to hide, living openly among neo-Nazis in the town of Jena, which raises some questions of how they managed to avoid the attention of law-enforcement agencies:
Martina Renner, a ranking Left Party member in the state parliament, doubts these findings. "I think it's quite unlikely that those three lived for 10 years in Germany without having their cover blown." Even in 1998, she alleged -- when the manhunt began -- there were hints that the state's constitutional protection office had helped them disappear.
Renner says their alleged crimes even before 1998 were not just "petty crimes," but could have involved "explosions" of a "life-threatening magnitude." She says it's important to clarify just how deeply the state domestic intelligence office may have been involved. If a regional intelligence agency like that is prepared to "work with" such dangerous criminals, she says, the question arises whether the agency functions as an instrument to protect a democracy.
For a purely decorative monarch-in-waiting, Prince Charles is somewhat of an interventionist. Perhaps its his strong opinions (be it about the efficacy of homoeopathy, the terminal decline of architecture after about the 18th century, or about hidebound traditionalism in all areas generally being a Good Thing), but he has never been content with the role of figurehead, passively waving at well-wishers and mouthing the words of the government of the day. Now, it has emerged that he has exercised a secret veto over various pieces of legislation in Britain, doing so under a 14th-century law that allows the Duke of Cornwall a say over any legislation that affects the Duchy's property, in a broad sense of the word.
The details of the laws have been kept secret, as has whether any changes were made to the laws to help them pass muster with the Prince of Wales; however, the subjects of the laws over which his advice was sought apparently include everything from gambling to road safety. This isn't the first time Charles has seen fit to give British society the benefit of his enlightened guidance, whether it wants it or not: a few years ago, he famously had a modernist architect sacked from a London project, and replaced by a neo-traditionalist of Charles' own stripe, using his friendship with the Qatari royals funding the project to go over the heads of those actually in Britain involved in the project.
Charles' interventions have been controversial on both sides of the fence; the Grauniad doesn't like the reactionary populist emphasis on leaden-handed traditionalism in Charles' views, comparing it to the Daily Mail, while the Torygraph is not entirely comfortable with his dippy-hippy tendencies:
The Prince does not seem to have actually exercised his right of veto, although The Guardian's attempts to access papers have largely failed. But the discovery that he can block legislation is alarming given his established willingness to interfere in political matters. It is all too easy to imagine him vetoing a bill loosening the planning laws, or widening the use of GM crops.
That's not to say he's wrong on every issue, although I'm happy to say he's wrong on a few. The point is that he is making the Royal family seem less like a stately and dignified ceremonial presence, and more like a cross between a fogey-hippy crossover activist group and a vast whole-foods retail company. Without the goodwill that the Queen generates, a Charles-headed monarchy will be subject to both mistrust and ridicule.The Conservative-led government has ruled out changing this law, in the Burkean Conservative spirit of not fixing things which can be passed off as not entirely broken, and/or the spirit of The Old Ways Are The Best. And so, another asterisk and paragraph of small print gets added to the assertion that Britain is a modern democracy.
Which is not to say that Britain's monarchy is remaining firmly in the undemocratic past; last week, the Commonwealth approved constitutional changes to end gender discrimination on the rules of royal succession, a change which could affect literally dozens of women. You go, girls!
More on the Pirate Party's recent electoral success in Berlin: Der Spiegel asks who the Pirate Party are (spoiler: they're the new Greens):
Voter analysis from Sunday would seem to back up that assessment. The survey group Infratest established that 17,000 former Green Party supporters switched their votes to the Pirate Party on Sunday, more than came from any other party. The SPD lost 14,000 voters to the Pirates and the far-left Left Party 13,000.
The party's largest coup, however, came from its ability to attract fully 23,000 people to the polls who had never voted before. More votes came from former East Berlin, where the party secured 10.1 percent of the vote, than from former West Berlin. Most of the party's supporters are young, well-educated men -- as are 14 of the 15 Pirates who will now take their seats in the Berlin city-state parliament.And a Spiegel survey of editorials from various German newspapers (conveniently annotated with their political slants) links the Pirate vote to the rise of the laptop-and-latte generation in Berlin, a city now said to be Europe's IT start-up hub. Which raises the question of whether the Pirates are a progressive party for an age of gentrification.
Meanwhile, the Grauniad asks whether something like that could happen in Britain. (Spoiler: not in a first-past-the-post system, and Britain's politicians also seem less technologically clueful, and more beholden to the old-media powerbrokers, than Germany's:)
The German government was one of the first to decide that national-security systems should not be based on proprietary software. In such a climate it's predictable that a campaigning political party with a radical online agenda would find a ready audience. The bovine way in which the last House of Commons passed Lord Mandelson's digital economy bill, with its clueless 'anti-piracy' provisions, does not exactly engender confidence in the British political class's understanding of these matters.
As the world celebrated Talk Like A Pirate Day (with the true hardcore eschewing the "yarrr"s and brushing up on their Somali), the good burghers of Berlin have done one better; there, the Pirate Party has won some 14 or 15 seats in the city-state's 149-seat parliament; about half as many as the Greens and slightly fewer than the neo-Communist Left Party.
Indeed, the support for the party -- founded in 2006 on a civil liberties platform that focused on Internet freedoms -- was sensational. Not only will the Pirate Party enter a regional government for the first time, but its results far surpassed the five percent hurdle needed for parliamentary representation. The success was so unexpected that the party had only put 15 candidates on its list of nominations. Had their support been just a little higher, some of their seats would have remained empty because post-election nominations of candidates isn't allowed.Many of the seats came at the expense of the neoliberal Free Democrats, who were wiped out in Berlin. The Pirate Party (which started campaigning on a copyright-reform and online privacy platform, and expanded this to include the decriminalisation of drugs, the abolition of Germany's church tax system and a basic living wage for all), in fact, seems to be taking over the mantle of forward-looking progressive party from the Greens, who were once considered dangerous radicals (in the Reagan-era action film Red Dawn, the Greens winning West German elections was the catalyst that led to a Soviet invasion of the USA) but now have become all but part of the establishment.
The Pirates also have something other parties have long since lost -- credibility, authenticity and freshness. The erstwhile alternative Greens, whose share of the vote in the Berlin election fell well behind their expectations, were also once the young party with funny mottos and unconventional campaign methods. When they entered the Berlin parliament in 1981, other parties were skeptical. At the time, the now imploding Free Democrats described the Greens as "domestic policy anarchists and foreign policy gamblers", while lead CDU candidate Richard von Weizsäcker, who would later be appointed German President, said they were "impossible to describe."It used to be that the concept of "Green" (i.e., ecological consciousness and sustainability) was the hook to hang progressive ideals from; now, it seems, that the idea of the Pirate (as defined in opposition to the propaganda of Big Copyright, the steady privatisation of the public sphere and an encroaching authoritarian surveillance state) may be replacing the idea of Greenness as the banner that draws in progressives.
Dispatches from the global battle against socialism and Cultural Marxism: As a Tea Party-style convoy travels across Australia to put an end to the wicked queen's socialistic, carbon-taxing reign and restore the One True King to the Lodge, Exiled Online profiles the "true blue Aussie battlers" who constitute this movement. Not surprisingly, it's a lot less of a spontaneous grass-roots movement than the Murdoch press (which seems to be backing it in the way that Fox News backed, if not created, its US inspiration) would have you believe, apparently being run largely by a hard core of a few dozen people who met on a climate-change-denial message board long before Gillard was PM.
That’s because a typical Teabagger spectacle consists of a small nucleus of professional Astroturfers and a large nebula of weirdoes and mutants who’ve just rocked up. Some of the mutants are there to proselytize; they hope they can convince other mutants that Lady Gaga is an Illuminati puppet or that Lyndon LaRouche predicted the GFC. Other mutants appear because joining a mob helps their self-esteem. But miracle of miracles, the muties are never the ones who get interviewed, especially not by News Corp reporters. In fact, they’re really little more than film extras – their job is to stand in the background while the Astroturfers take questions and make the corporate libertarian viewpoint seem more widespread.The article looks at the opinions of the views of the organisers—the "ordinary battlers doing it hard" the Murdoch press would have you believe they are—and their fellow travellers, and finds some ugly things, from the mundane (pig farmers pissed off with the temerity of the little people complaining about the smell) to the more sinister (praise for Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile and claims that the same struggle as in Chile is taking place in Australia, conspiracy tracts published by think tanks run by mining firms), and the bizarre (peddlers of legalistic sophistries claiming that the Commonwealth Government doesn't really exist, presumably making anoyances such as tax law and pollution regulations invalid), and then takes a ride with the motley crew of teabaggers:
Didn’t take long before the ginger-haired guy started ranting about boat people, “gooks,” and immigration quotas, which he claimed was all part of a wider conspiracy to dismantle Australia’s constitutional monarchy. The reason so many Asians were being allowed into the country was so they’d vote to turn Australia into a republic, which, to Ginger, meant that “all our rights, rights we never even fucking knew about, would go down the drain.” Australian republicanism was a scheme by some shadowy organization to establish a World Government – Ginger went on about the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Rothschild dynasty… I asked if he really thought someone was trying to form a World Government. “What do you think the carbon tax is for?”Meanwhile in New South Wales' state parliament, a Liberal Party MP has struck a blow against the Communist menace of traffic lights:
"Traffic lights are a Bolshevist menace... Traffic lights are things which are set up to try and control traffic to try and control individuals on the roads," Dr Phelps told Parliament.
"Roundabouts. Roundabouts represent freedom. Roundabouts represent democracy at its finest," he said.
How Rupert Murdoch has changed the world. Mostly US-centric, though a lot of the points apply similarly across the Anglosphere:
He has ridiculed and raised doubts about global catastrophes, and about science itself, while elevating absurd theories and hyping minor matters. For example, his outlets have played a leading role in dismissing and deriding scientific consensus on climate change, while creating hysteria about false issues like President Obama’s place of birth.
He has undermined liberty: His outlets led the drumbeat for restriction or elimination of certain fundamental rights, including those under the US Fourth Amendment, while at the same time supporting unrestrained wiretapping, the harsh treatment of suspects who may have done nothing wrong, and fueling panic justifying the build-up of the national surveillance state.
He has propagandized for many of society’s worst instincts. Whether it involves advancing subtle racism or stoking greed, Murdoch and his minions have been out front. Fox News and the New York Post are best known for this in the US, but examples of various magnitudes may be found in almost all of his properties.
The latest dispatches from what may be the Fall of the House of Murdoch: the weekend edition of the Guardian has a piece from Marina Hyde, a former Murdoch employee, about the toxic culture of corruption and patronage that permeated the leaden decades of the Murdocracy:
What a country we do live in. My apologies for repeating sentiments voiced in this column many times – as a recovering Murdoch employee, my sponsor insists I share thrice-weekly – but this is a land where a change in prime ministers constitutes the mere shuffling of Rupert's junior personnel. Anyone in doubt as to exactly how dirty a little secret Murdoch has always been is reminded that despite Margaret Thatcher being so close that they repeatedly Christmassed together at Chequers, she does not once even mention him in her memoirs. Not once! Like Voldemort, he must not be named.
[H]istorians assessing this period will find even cabinet papers infinitely less revealing than guest lists. Within the placements of cosy parties in the Cotswolds lie many unpalatable answers. Perhaps they will ask themselves why tragedy-stricken Gordon Brown felt he had to invite a clutch of tabloid editors to the funeral of his baby daughter. If they find that conundrum too ghastly to contemplate, they might question quite why Brown asked the then Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn to his wedding. Fear, presumably. It certainly isn't Richard's charm.The Guardian also has a piece on fault lines within the Murdoch family. Meanwhile, Channel 4 has an illuminating diagram of the network of social ties around Rebekah Brooks, the former News Of The World chief on whose watch the phone hacking is alleged to have happened. Or, as Meg Pickard put it: Rumours have it that email and USB ports have been disabled in the News Of The World offices, presumably to ensure that any of the staff who are being cut loose don't take any incriminating evidence with them.) Not that News will be without a Sunday tabloid; the company registered the domain sunonsunday.co.uk on the day that the scandal broke, and had been meaning to consolidate their titles for a while; the scandal may have just forced their hand.
However, all that may not be enough; Murdoch's bid for BSkyB seems to be in serious trouble, and James Murdoch may face criminal charges on both sides of the Atlantic (the US authorities come down hard on US-listed corporations bribing police officers, as is alleged to have happened, and tend to prosecute the executives).
News International, the British arm of Murdoch’s media empire, “has always worked on the principle of omertà: ‘Do not say anything to anybody outside the family, and we will look after you,’ ” notes a former Murdoch editor who knows the system well. “Now they are hanging people out to dry. The moment you do that, the omertà is gone, and people are going to talk. It looks like a circular firing squad.”And more from Keith Olbermann.
So it looks like the dam has broken and News Corp.'s troubles are just beginning. Though it may be premature to write Murdoch off just yet. He undoubtedly has numerous favours to call in and arms to twist, and there are many nights before any inquiry can take place.
Yesterday's revelations of the ghoulish new lows that Murdoch's tabloid hacks have sunk to, and the promise that deleting messages from a murdered schoolgirl's phone may not have been the worst, seem to have ignited a crisis in Britain's political establishment. This morning, it emerged that News Of The World have been intercepting the voicemail messages of the families of victims of the 7/7 terrorist bombing, like some sorts of grief vampires. Meanwhile, advertisers including Ford, Orange/T-Mobile and npower have started boycotting the News Of The World.
The forces of the Wapping Pact, the alliance forged by Thatcher and Murdoch in the 1980s, and renewed by every prime minister since, have dug their heels in. Murdoch has spoken out in defence of Rebekah Brooks, his CEO, on whose watch the "phone hacking" occurred, and David Cameron, Emperor Murdoch's viceroy at Number 10, has ruled out reversing the government's decision to allow News Corp. to buy the 61% of BSkyB it doesn't own. Other parliamentarians, however, have managed to get an extraordinary parliamentary session called over the incidents, with all parties laying into the Wapping Pact:
Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative, said the Murdoch empire had become too powerful: "We have seen, I would say, systemic abuse of almost unprecedented power. There is nothing noble in what these newspapers have been doing. Rupert Murdoch is clearly a very, very talented businessman, he's possibly even a genius, but his organisation has grown too powerful and has abused that power. It has systematically corrupted the police and in my view has gelded this Parliament to our shame."Cameron is also under pressure to call a public inquiry into the incident. Which he might end up doing, though there will be a lot of pressure to keep the terms as narrow as possible and to ensure that it does not cause too much embarrassment for his masters. Meanwhile, the public outrage builds up; 38 Degrees' petition has over 70,000 signatures, and Avaaz' one (albeit a global one) has, at time of posting, 374,170. Both petitions are due in on Friday.
Meanwhile, the Independent's Matthew Norman writes that this may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to finally break Murdoch's corrupting grip on the British political system:
When Margaret Thatcher made her Faustian pact with Mr Murdoch in the 1980s, granting him his every heart's desire in return for his unwavering slavish support, she hastened the creation of the monster we see revealed in all its gruesome hideosity today. In general terms, she gifted him the preposterous media market share he expertly parlayed into a stranglehold over the political elite. In a country without a written constitution, bereft of checks and balances and devoid of oversight, the levers of power are there to be seized by the most ruthless buccaneer in town. This he did with wonted dark genius, coaxing and cajoling, bullying and bribing, to inculcate the near universally received wisdom that without his approval, no party can be elected or prosper in power for long. Once Thatcher had established the precedent of obeisance, it was rigidly and cringingly adhered to thereafter by Mr Tony Blair, the successor but one she begat, and now by his self-styled heir David Cameron.
Specifically, meanwhile, she politicised the police by using them as a political truncheon at Wapping as with the simultaneous miners' strike. In so doing, she placed them in Mr Murdoch's pocket, where they have snugly remained ever since.
It would take cross-party unity on a scale seldom witnessed outside time of war, with all three leaders agreeing that this, finally, is the moment to take up Vince Cable's rallying cry and go to war with Murdoch to break his dominion. A full independent inquiry into News Corp's internal workings should be as automatic as one into the Met's scandalous collusion by lethargy. So, needless to add, should an instant reversal of the green light on the BSkyB deal. It beggars all belief that the take-over might still be permitted. It will be a staggering, transcendent disgrace, after this, if it is.Could the year of the Arab Spring have brought a belated British Spring, during which a more subtle regime falls from power?
Meanwhile, echoes of the scandal are being felt as far as Australia, where it may threaten a Murdoch-led consortium's bid for a contract to operate a national TV broadcasting network.
The spirit of the "Arab Spring" seems to have spread to Singapore, the world's most perfectly managed democracy, so well run that opposition parties have, in the past, not been a problem:
Singapore is known worldwide for censorship and corporal punishment. But in the runup to Saturday's parliamentary elections more people have started to speak out against the clan that has ruled Singapore for almost 50 years. Parallels with the Arab spring are striking, even if revolution is not just around the corner.
Rally attendance does not always translate to the polling booth. In 2006, despite large crowds at opposition speeches, the PAP won 67% of the vote. Many Singaporeans fear their ballots will be traced and their mortgages or jobs taken away if they vote for the opposition.As expected, the governing People's Action Party won the election by a handsome margin, though the opposition Singapore won an unprecedented 36.8% of the valid votes, and from now on, the government may have a harder time keeping a lid on things.
And here is a piece by Chee Soon Juan, a former opposition politician bankrupted (and thus disqualified) in a government lawsuit.
On Thursday, Britain had a referendum on changing the electoral system from first-past-the-post (i.e., every voter sees a list of candidates, picks one, and the one with the most votes win, which means that you either choose one of
Democrats Labour or the Republicans Conservatives or, for all practical purposes, you might as well have stayed home) to the alternative vote (i.e., each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference, so if their first preference doesn't get in, their vote gets transferred to their second, and so on). And the results came in, with the status quo winning with about 69% of the vote. The British people have looked at reform, found it too confusing, and said no. The results by district show an interesting, though not unexpected, pattern, with inner London, inner Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge showing up as islands of strong yes votes, most of England being a sea of conservatism, with Scotland and Wales being slightly less conservative. The place with the highest yes vote in Britain was the London Borough of Hackney.
(One must grudgingly admire the way the Tories handled this, from a purely tactical point of view: offering the Liberal Democrats (until then, seen as a progressive, centre-left party, and voted by many left-leaning voters sick of Blairite New Labour which had been captured by the right) their precious little referendum in return for supporting their agenda of radical cuts, and manoeuvring the Lib Dems into being their human shields, so that by the time the referendum came around, the bitter taste of betrayal was too strong for many natural reform supporters to vote for anything with Nick Clegg's name on it. And so, cunning and betrayal win the day again. Well played, you loathsome bastards.)
The big winners in this are the Tories, and, to a lesser extent, Labour (who supported reform in this election, though it must be remembered that electoral reform was one of Tony Blair's pledges in 1997, though Labour kept first-past-the-post throughout their government for pragmatic reasons). Big business and the media proprietors are also big winners: with MPs not having to compete as hard for votes, they have more time to listen to the real stakeholders, rather trying to placate the little people.
Too much democracy, after all, is bad for business. Let the little people have too much of a say, and you get fractious parliaments full of Greens and religious parties and such. In that sense, first-past-the-post is slightly superior to the alternative vote (and greatly superior to proportional systems) in that it distorts the aggregated views of the people into an uncontroversial median, and helps keep the levers of power well away from the rabble. The ideal system for the stakeholders' interests is a low-fidelity form of democracy: just enough to keep anyone too unpopular from outstaying their welcome and prevent the "bad emperor" problem (where corrupt or inept leaders can arise beyond the power of anyone to remove them), and give the little people the illusion of being stakeholders in the system. If anything, the US system, with its electoral-college system which almost completely eliminates third parties, is superior to UK-style FPTP for this. Once there are only two parties, they will, by necessity, become so large that they become unanswerable to the little people, and become instruments of a homogeneous policy, as seen in everything from copyright-law expansion to the accelerating increase in income inequality.
Anyway, Britain's democracy is essentially a somewhat expensive low-pass filter on Rupert Murdoch's decisions, and this vote will ensure that it remains so for the foreseeable future. Some are saying that electoral reform has been set back by a generation, though I think that's overly optimistic. With the no case having won by 69%, despite the yes case having more campaign funds, I can't see the question arising in 25 years' time. It's probably safe to say that another electoral reform referendum in Britain will not happen in the lifetime of anybody who voted on Thursday. And so, in the next election, one will be faced with voting for the lesser evil (which, in the past, has turned out into voting for Tony "PNAC" Blair because he wasn't a Tory), or just giving up and letting Murdoch's zombie hordes decide. In fact, why not just give up on democracy altogether and install Murdoch as Emperor? It'll have more or less the same effect, but save considerable money.
In other election news: the Greens have emerged as the largest party on Brighton and Hove's council, and in Scotland, the Scottish National Party has won a majority, paving the way to a referendum on independence. I wonder whether the Tories' cunning will be enough to scotch this one.
Shortly before the Royal Wedding, Facebook shut down the groups of 50 UK-based protest groups, most of them not specifically anti-royalist. These groups included anti-corporate-tax-avoidance group UK Uncut, anti-cuts and pro-NHS protesters, and the Green Party, as well as socialist and anarchist groups. Facebook says that the groups were using fake personal accounts, rather than pages, in violation of the terms of service. However, to nuke them, immediately prior to a "national security event" and suspension of civil liberties, without any warning being given, does look somewhat suspicious.
I wonder what really happened there. Does Her Majesty's Government have in its arsenal a D-notice-style order to secretly oblige internet services operating in the UK to deny services to suspicious persons, and also deny the existence of the order? Has Prince Charles escalated his personal interventions in affairs of state from sacking modernist architects to calling up internet companies and getting protest groups silenced? Or is this a strategic decision by Facebook, a company which reportedly has its eye on the vast Chinese market, demonstrating to the Chinese Communist Party that it is extremely comfortable about enforcing "harmony" on its platform?
Meanwhile, Cory Doctorow argues that activists should avoid Facebook, because the system (a) gives one no democratic rights that cannot be arbitrarily taken away if it suits the powers that be to do so, and (b) is a surveillance system which gives the authorities lists of suspicious persons who have communicated with other troublemakers. It strikes me that if the world's activists take this advice, then these actions will have done to their causes the same sort of damage Wikileaks sought to do to the authoritarian conspiracy Julian Assange wrote about seeking to stop: by increasing the risks of organising in public, forcing them to fragment into small, secretive cells, with a greatly reduced organisational capacity.
For those following the electoral reform referendum in the UK, a clear and succinct explanation of the Alternative Vote system, which the status-quo lobby have dismissed as impossibly complicated to understand:
50 years after the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban government is preparing to concede defeat in the struggle for socialism, and unveil radical reforms:
Evidence, as Castro himself said in a recent interview, that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us any more". Which is why on Saturday the Communist party will inaugurate its first congress in 14 years to cement radical changes to the economy and, intentional or not, to Cuban society.
"The narrative is really Thatcherite," said one senior western diplomat in Havana. "It's all about cutting rights and welfare and putting greater emphasis on personal responsibility and hard work."It'd be ironic if, as Cuba prepares to liberalise its economy and open itself up to investors, the investors came to the Cuban government and advised them to actually keep the infrastructure of totalitarianism in place, because of its usefulness in increasing productivity, controlling unrest and ensuring the integrity of intellectual-property licensing.
In today's great political surprise, Rupert Murdoch is set to further tighten his grip on Britain's media landscape and political system, as Tory minister Jeremy Hunt (who has, in the past, spoken approvingly of News Corp.) approved his bid to take over the remainder of BSkyB, Britain's dominant TV broadcaster. There is the usual editorial-independence proviso for Sky News, but nothing Murdoch hasn't dealt with before (see also: The Times, the Wall Street Journal). Furthermore, unlike the US, news channels are governed by rules of strict impartiality, making a Sun-flavoured FOXNews UK ("now with more paedo gypsy asylum seekers!") impossible; well, at least until some future government decides to relax the regulatory regime, for reasons, of course, entirely unconnected to owing favours to sympathetic media proprietors.
All may not be lost, though; Murdoch's bid has attracted a lot of opposition, and even now, while it is not yet finalised, this is continuing. If you're a UK resident and concerned with this, you can write to your MP, and urge them to ask some hard questions in Parliament.
And now to the US, where You Might Be A Teabagger If...:
1) You’re offended at any suggestion that the Tea Party is racist, even though nobody objects when people show up at your rallies with blatantly racist signs and slogans.
9) You believe the Citizens United decision was all about corporate “free speech,” yet you’re against the Fairness Doctrine being reenacted, because you think it’s contrary to “free speech.”(The Citizens' United decision apparently was a Supreme Court ruling that opened the doors to unlimited corporate political donations, on the basis that corporations are legally persons who have free speech rights.)
22) One of your stated concerns with Barack Obama’s candidacy, was that he was too inexperienced for the job, yet you want Sarah Palin to challenge him next year.Another sign: voting and/or agitating for lower taxes for the rich, no socialised healthcare and making it easier to dismiss workers, and justifying your views on the grounds that, even though you may be two paychecks away from homelessness, you either (a) consider yourself to be among the rich, (b) expect that you will be rich in the future, or (c) expect that your children will be rich, and don't want to poor working bums cutting into your/their anticipated wealth.
Whether or not there are any atheists in foxholes, there don't seem to be any in positions of political power who are willing to stand by their principles. Firstly Australia's outspokenly atheistic Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, proclaimed her wholehearted conviction in supporting an unaccountably authoritarian internet censorship system demanded by a Christian Fundamentalist fringe party, and now, Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, rules out eliminating the bishops from the House of Lords, instead planning to add unelected ministers of other religions for equality's sake. This token sliver of theocracy, these bishops, rabbis and imams will get to vote on legislation which affects all Britons, from waiving anti-discrimination legislation when the discrimination is guided by religious beliefs to blocking equal marriage rights for non-heterosexuals to keeping it a crime for the terminally ill to end their lives with dignity, going against the majority opinion of what is a largely secular society:
Here's a Trivial Pursuit question with an answer that isn't at all trivial. Which two nations still reserve places in their parliaments for unelected religious clerics, who then get an automatic say in writing the laws the country's citizens must obey? The answer is Iran... and Britain.
And here's the strangest kicker in this strange story: it looks like the plans being drawn up by Nick Clegg to "modernise" the House of Lords will not listen to the overwhelming majority of us and end these religious privileges. No – they are poised to do the opposite. Sources close to the reform team say they are going to add even more unelected religious figures to parliament. These plans are being drawn up as you read this and will be published soon. The time to fight is today, while we can still sway the agenda.
The atheists and secularists who are campaigning for democracy are consistently branded "arrogant" by the bishops and their noisy cheerleaders. But who is arrogant here? Is it atheists who say that since we have no evidence about how the universe came into being, we should be humble, admit we don't know, and keep investigating? Or is it the bishops, who claim that they not only "know" how everything was created, but they know exactly what that Creator thinks, how he wants us to have sex, and which pills we can take when we are dying? What could be more arrogant than claiming you have a right to an unelected seat in parliament to impose beliefs for which there is no evidence on an unbelieving population?Fortunately, there are organisations in Britain fighting against such unaccountable religious privilege: the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association are both active in campaigns on issues such as this, and when the plans are published, they're certain to be at the front of the campaign against them. Whether the government will pay any heed to them depends on how many people are in the campaign.
The latest flashpoint of the culture war: whether or not a street or square in Berlin should be renamed after Ronald Reagan. Germany's conservative ruling party wants one, though the idea is not popular with Berlin's more left-leaning residents, or the city's Social Democratic local government:
That's why many in Berlin see Reagan, who would have turned 100 last Sunday, as a trailblazer for German reunification. Indeed, some would like to see the city do more to publicly honor the man. In December, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg tabled the idea on behalf of his party, the conservative Christian Social Union, of placing an official commemorative plaque honoring Reagan on Pariser Platz, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Guttenberg's CSU is the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. The Berlin branch of the CDU, for its part, is calling for the renaming of a public square or a street in Reagan's honor. But so far nothing has happened.
And is there not a slight whiff of truth to claims that the city's leftist government has trouble with Ronald Reagan as a person? The Republican, who since his death from Alzheimer's in 2004 has become the most popular US president ever, was considered by the German left during his two terms in office from 1980 to 1988 to be the personification of the Cold War. Reagan's appearance in West Berlin in 1987 was not without risks. In adddition to the Cold War aspects, his message of Reagonomics was deeply unpopular with the city's anti-capitalism movement.They could always wait a few years, until the left-wing Berliners have been gentrified out, and replaced by affluent schmicki-mickis who are a bit more fond of winner-takes-all capitalism, by virtue of being the winners. Perhaps then, with the vanquishment of Communism as an ideology, and the second ongoing vanquishment of "poor but sexy" anti-capitalist Berlin by the forces of gentrification, they could rename various streets named by the DDR after famous Communists after NATO hawks and prophets of the free market. Karl-Marx-Allee could become Milton-Friedman-Allee, Karl-Liebknecht-Straße Reaganstraße and Rosa-Luxembourg-Platz Thatcherplatz.
Britain's Tory-led government is looking at the possibility of moving one of Britain's May bank holidays to October, making it a national day for the United Kingdom (as opposed to the non-holiday national days of its constituent nations). Which makes sense to an extent, given that May is loaded with two (count 'em!) bank holidays, falling shortly after Easter, and days off dry out after the end of August, with none until Christmas. Of course, being the Tory-led government, the holiday they're talking about eliminating is the May Day bank holiday, the ancient pagan spring feast which became synonymous with workers' solidarity and socialism in the 19th century. And, of course, keeping both bank holidays (of which Britain has few compared to continental Europe) is out of the question:
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, called on the government to abandon the plan. "There is strong support for an extra public holiday as the UK has the stingiest allocation in Europe. But the last thing we need is for the government to mess around with established bank holidays that workers and businesses have built their schedules around," he said.
Andrew Rosindell, Conservative MP for Romford, said it "was a very good idea to celebrate all things British", adding that the government should move the holiday to June to coincide with the Queen's birthday. "I don't think we need a workers' day any more than we need a day for pensioners or any other group, it is silly. We need a day everybody can celebrate. If it can be for everybody it is much more inclusive."It's not just the unions and the left who are up in arms; the proposal also risks attracting the wrath of the nation's morris dancers.
It has emerged that the British government transferred nearly £2 million from Britain's foreign aid budget to pay for the Papal visit last year, on top of £3.7m from the environmental budget. This is presumably in line with the Conservative Party's platform (also shared by New Labour) that religion is a good in itself, from which it would follow that promoting religious organisations such as the Catholic Church increases the total amount of good in the world, and is thus a legitimate use of funds which would otherwise be spent feeding the hungry or eradicating diseases. Not surprisingly, this view is not shared unanimously:
[British Humanist Association] Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips commented, ‘Millions and millions from the public purse has been used to foot the cost of the Pope’s visit to the UK, with much of that diverted from crucial funds, including from foreign aid designated to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It is irrational and wrong for government to say that the money was paid to recognise the work that the Catholic Church does overseas as an NGO – questionable in itself – when the money was used to fund the state visit. Most people, including Christians, did not think that the British taxpayer should pay for the Pope’s visit in the first place, and many will be astonished to see the detrimental impact that this illegitimate use of public funds has already made.’(Disclaimer: I am a member of the British Humanist Association, and recommend this organisation to anyone concerned about religious privilege in the UK (of which there is a considerable amount, from Bishops in the House of Lords to faith schools teaching Creationism in science classes with the blessing of the political establishment).) Or, in the words of another atheist:
Der Spiegel has an interesting article about how a new generation of Israelis are flocking to Berlin, tempted by the city's vibrant culture and sense of freedom, and negotiating the fraught history and politics of doing so:
"I do not know if 'forgive' is the appropriate term," says Gil Raveh. Raveh, a conductor, came to Berlin four years ago on the recommendation of award-winning Israeli conductor Noam Sheriff, who himself had studied in the city. "Forgive whom? Merkel? The waitress who serves my coffee?" he asks.
With a European passport thanks to his mother, who was born in Eastern Europe, Netter made the move to Berlin. His first year in the city, he says, was spent having fun and living off of his savings. Then he started Meschugge as a one-time event, and it became a regular attraction: "The Unkosher Jewish Night," as he calls it. A quarter of the audience is Israeli, the rest German. Netter says he suspects some of the Germans might come as a way to alleviate their own feelings of guilt. "We Israelis cannot understand how it feels not to be proud of yourself, as a nation," he says. "The Germans are full of serious identity crises."The Israelis have a different ways of addressing the elephant in the room:
But Israeli immigrants in Berlin have their own identity issues. For example, almost all of them prefer to be treated as "Israelis in Berlin," not as "Jews in Germany." "Even the Germans themselves say Berlin is not Germany," says Russ. "The Jewish component of my identity has to do with a shared cultural past, not with a religious belief. I do not go to synagogue or eat kosher food."
"An Israeli friend in Berlin once showed me his apartment," says Russ. "When we got to the kitchen, he opened the gas stove and said: 'And this is the shower.' But the first time I told a Holocaust joke here, a friend warned me that it's illegal."One of the motivating forces seems to be a contrast between the liberal, creative culture of Berlin and the situation in Israel today, where an increasingly authoritarian political environment is threatening civil liberties, with a right-wing government waging war against civil rights groups.
In one of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks Putin and Medvedev are compared to Batman and Robin. It’s a useful analogy: isn’t Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s organiser, a real-life counterpart to the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight? In the film, the district attorney, Harvey Dent, an obsessive vigilante who is corrupted and himself commits murders, is killed by Batman. Batman and his friend police commissioner Gordon realise that the city’s morale would suffer if Dent’s murders were made public, so plot to preserve his image by holding Batman responsible for the killings. The film’s take-home message is that lying is necessary to sustain public morale: only a lie can redeem us.
Consider too the renewed popularity of Leo Strauss: the aspect of his political thought that is so relevant today is his elitist notion of democracy, the idea of the ‘necessary lie’. Elites should rule, aware of the actual state of things (the materialist logic of power), and feed the people fables to keep them happy in their blessed ignorance. For Strauss, Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. Questioning the gods and the ethos of the city undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of human endeavours. The solution proposed was that philosophers keep their teachings secret, as in fact they did, passing them on by writing ‘between the lines’. The true, hidden message contained in the ‘great tradition’ of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke is that there are no gods, that morality is merely prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature.
A study from University College London, involving brain scans correlated with political surveys, has found that self-proclaimed liberals and conservatives have differently shaped brains:
"The anterior cingulate is a part of the brain that is on the middle surface of the brain at the front and we found that the thickness of the grey matter, where the nerve cells of neurons are, was thicker the more people described themselves as liberal or left wing and thinner the more they described themselves as conservative or right wing," he told the programme.
"The amygdala is a part of the brain which is very old and very ancient and thought to be very primitive and to do with the detection of emotions. The right amygdala was larger in those people who described themselves as conservative.
After the embarrassment of the Labour government having to sack a drug policy advisor for making a scientific case against drug prohibition, the new Con-Dem government has moved to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen again, by removing scientists from its drug control committee, and allowing the government to unilaterally decide which drugs to ban without interference from scientists who know nothing about public morality or political expediency. This, incidentally, completely discards the Liberal Democrats' platform, which promised an evidence-based drug policy centred around harm minimisation, though it has already been established that Liberal Democrat pledges made before the election are, to use a term from Australian politics, "non-core promises", so no great surprise there.
(To be fair, it could be a lot worse if the Tories had power in their own right; for one, the BBC is still standing, and the Tories' debt to News Corporation still unsettled in that regard, and there is the possibility of the electoral system being reformed. Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats have either drank the Kool-Aid and turned into doctrinaire neo-Thatcherites or are being held hostage. Not surprisingly, they seem to be finished as a moderate, progressive third party; perhaps we can expect the old Social Democratic wing to fall off, joining that more moderate neo-Thatcherite party, Labour, with a few idealists going to the Greens, and the rump becoming the wet wing of the Tories.)
Under the new policy, scientific assessment of the danger of drugs will be replaced by a classification of drugs into two categories: "evil" and "non-evil", which relate to the spiritual and moral harm caused to the fabric of society as perceived by the readership of the Daily Mail. "Evil" drugs are those like cannabis, heroin, LSD and MDMA, whereas "non-evil" drugs include alcohol and tobacco. This is a scientific fact; there is no evidence for it, but it is a scientific fact.
Julian Assange is free on bail, while he awaits Sweden's extradition case against him. According to his lawyer, he was kept in the same cell in Wandsworth Prison that had previously housed Oscar Wilde. (Perhaps it's the celebrity suite?)
Of course, it is widely argued that the Swedish allegations (note: not charges), nebulous as they are, are merely the phony war before the main event, an attempt to extradite Assange to the US and make an example of him so that nobody tries aything like WikiLeaks again, and harmony is restored across the New World Order. The British government appealing against the bail decision, and claiming that the Swedish prosecutor had done so (which the Swedes denied) also adds to the suspicion. Earlier, Assange's lawyer claimed that, according to Swedish sources, a grand jury has already been impanelled in secret in Alexandria, Virginia. The latest rumours say that the US won't seek to try Assange for espionage (which was assumed to be shaky), but to try him for conspiracy, making a case that he conspired with accused leaker Bradley Manning. Given that Manning is likely to face capital treason charges and is being held in conditions said to amount to torture, he'd have a strong incentive to remember evidence implicating Assange. The problem with this is that it is only slightly less problematic, as according to some commentators, it would also criminalise investigative journalism in general.
If the US Government just wants to put the frighteners on other potential troublemakers, they could attempt to try Assange in a closed military tribunal, arguing that evidence for the prosecution (i.e., ECHELON intercepts or similar) cannot be revealed to civilians. Everybody will suspect it's a kangaroo court, but will also know that you don't fuck with Uncle Sam.
That is, of course, assuming that the British government agrees to extradite Assange to the US. It could always stand up and tell the Yanks where to stick their conspiracy charge. By the same token, England could always win the World Cup in 2014. In all likelihood, assuming that the US gives its assurances that the prosecution will not be seeking the death penalty (the main sticking point with EU countries), extradition should be straightforward. In the unlikely occurrence that extraditing him is politically unpalatable, Britain could just cancel his visa and deport him to Australia (the only country he is believed to hold citizenship), where, if PM Julia Gillard is any authority on the matter, he would be handed over to the FBI as soon as his plane landed. (They don't mess around with finicky issues of civil liberties in former penal colonies.)
Meanwhile, Assange is not the only one to fall foul of the European Arrest Warrant system, which establishes the legal fiction that all European justice systems are equivalent and requires European countries to honour other countries' arrest warrants automatically, and has led to some absurd situations:
This month I watched proceedings in Westminster magistrates' court as Jacek Jaskolski, a disabled 58-year-old science teacher, fought an EAW issued against him by his native Poland. Jaskolski – also the primary carer for his disabled wife – has been in the UK since 2004. His crime? Ten years ago, when he still lived in Poland, Jaskolski went over his bank overdraft limit.
In 2008 a Polish man was extradited for theft of a dessert from a restaurant, using a European arrest warrant containing a list of the ingredients. People are being flown to Poland in specially chartered planes to answer charges that would not be thought worthy of an arrest in the UK, while we pick up the tab for police, court, experts' and lawyers' time to process a thousand cases a year. This whole costly system is based on the assumption that the criminal justice systems of countries such as Poland are reasonable enough that it is worth complying with all their requests.Meanwhile, the net is closing around those involved in online activist/terrorist group Anonymous: a Greek designer has been arrested after leaving his details in a press release, and Scotland Yard say that they have been monitoring the group since their attacks on copyright enforcement groups. It is not clear whether post-9/11 antiterrorism powers are being used.
The Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democracy Index, a ranking of countries from most to least democratic, is out. The actual report requires registration, but the Wikipedia page contains a list, and various news sites across the world accompany this with explanatory commentary. A press release is here.
The report divides the world into four blocks, in order from best to worst: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. The largest group, by population, is flawed democracies, followed by authoritarian regimes and, some distance behind, full democracies.
The four most democratic countries are—quelle surprise!—Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden. They're followed immediately by New Zealand (which is looking increasingly like a chunk of Scandinavia in the Antipodes) and Australia. That's right, Australia is more democratic than Finland, Switzerland and Canada (#7. #8 and #9). The United States is at #17 (with a score of 8.18/10) and the UK is at #19. (The US loses points due to the War On Terror, whereas the UK's problem seems to be political apathy. Though is that the cause or, as Charlie Stross argued, a symptom?)
Meanwhile, France under Sarkozy has fallen out of the league of full democracies, and been relegated to the flawed democracies; there it is kept company by Berlusconi's Italy, Greece, and most of the Eastern European countries (with the notable exception of the Czech Republic, who are one step above the US), along with South Africa, Israel, India, East Timor, Brazil, Thailand, Ukraine and a panoply of African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Below the flawed democracies lie the hybrid regimes; these include Hong Kong (a notional democracy with Communist China keeping it on a leash), Singapore (a model of "managed democracy"), Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, Palestine and Russia. And at the bottom are authoritarian regimes, including the usual suspects: Cuba, China, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Saudi Arabia and such. It will surprise few to learn that the bottom spot is held by North Korea, with a score of 1.08 out of 10, followed by Chad, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Burma.
The press release states that the democracy ratings are worse than in previous years, with democracy declining across the world. Several factors are cited for this decline, including the economic crisis, the War On Terror, and declining confidence in political institutions. The press release also says that the crisis may have increased the attractiveness of the Chinese authoritarian model.
The scale of the rankings is, of course, not scientific. A rating of 9.8/10, as Norway has, would suggest that 98% of policy is decided at the ballot box, rather than in negotiations with other states, interest groups, bondholders and the like. And if 81.6% of Britain's decisions were democratically made, grossly unpopular decisions like trebling university tuition fees or invading Iraq would not have happened. One could imagine a more accurate scale, which estimates what percentage of a country's public affairs are decided through democratic discourse. A better measure would also have to take into account media pluralism, the education levels of the public, and access to unfiltered information; if a country's media is controlled by a few media tycoons, the will of the people will act as a low-pass filter on their opinions.
Charlie Stross posits a hypothesis about the sudden rise in apathy among voters, and the perception that all the options are virtually identical:
The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people. Fast forward past the collapse of the ancien regime, and into modern second-wave colonialism: once the USA grabbed the mantle of global hegemon from the bankrupt British empire in 1945, they naturally exported their corporate model worldwide, as US diplomatic (and military) muscle was used to promote access to markets on behalf of US corporations.
We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.
In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.Also, on a similar note: an essay which asks are the American people obsolete? I.e., the American ruling class no longer need them as workers or soldiers, and their usefulness as consumers is threatened by the coming age of austerity (the deeply indebted and the working poor who are struggling to avoid foreclosure don't make very good consumers, and the Indians and Chinese are looking more promising these days).
Thanks to deindustrialization, which is caused both by productivity growth and by corporate offshoring, the overwhelming majority of Americans now work in the non-traded domestic service sector. The jobs that have the greatest growth in numbers are concentrated in sectors like medical care and childcare.
Even here, the rich have options other than hiring American citizens. Wealthy liberals and wealthy conservatives agree on one thing: the need for more unskilled immigration to the U.S. This is hardly surprising, as the rich are far more dependent on immigrant servants than middle-class and working-class Americans are.
If much of America's investor class no longer needs Americans either as workers or consumers, elite Americans might still depend on ordinary Americans to protect them, by serving in the military or police forces. Increasingly, however, America's professional army is being supplemented by contractors -- that is, mercenaries. And the elite press periodically publishes proposals to sell citizenship to foreigners who serve as soldiers in an American Foreign Legion. It is probably only a matter of time before some earnest pundit proposes to replace American police officers with foreign guest-worker mercenaries as well.So what is to be done? Well, one option is to bribe the poor to leave and bribe other countries, such as India and China, to accept them as a new underclass of guest workers without rights:
If most Americans are no longer needed by the American rich, then perhaps the United States should consider a policy adopted by the aristocracies and oligarchies of many countries with surplus populations in the past: the promotion of emigration. The rich might consent to a one-time tax to bribe middle-class and working-class Americans into departing the U.S. for other lands, and bribing foreign countries to accept them, in order to be alleviated from a high tax burden in the long run.
Once emptied of superfluous citizens, the U.S. could become a kind of giant Aspen for the small population of the super-rich and their non-voting immigrant retainers. Many environmentalists might approve of the depopulation of North America, because sprawling suburbs would soon be reclaimed by the wilderness. And deficit hawks would be pleased as well. The middle-class masses dependent on Social Security and Medicare would have departed the country, leaving only the self-sufficient rich and foreign guest workers without any benefits, other than the charity of their employers.
More WikiLeaks fallout:
- The presence of leaked memos has created opportunities for propaganda; several Pakistani newspapers have run stories quoting alleged memoes describing India as genocidal maniacs, praising the Pakistani military. A search of the Wikileaks database by the Graun's staff has not yielded any matching memoes.
- Australian online activist group GetUp are collecting signatures and donations for ads in the New York Times and Washington Post in defence of Julian Assange.
- Assange could face extradition to the US, most probably under the 1917 Espionage Act. Whether he'd be likely to be convicted under this act, is a matter for some debate, but according to this article, recent precedents suggest that he would be found guilty, as would the editors of the New York Times, anyone mirroring copies of WikiLeaks, and perhaps anyone running a web proxy which inadvertently cached the data. (This is in an open court, mind you; in a closed military tribunal, all bets are off.)
- Meanwhile, the Russian government has called for Assange to be given the Nobel Peace Prize; somewhat of a change from its usual policy regarding troublesome journalists, it must be said. Still, if I were him, I'd probably run a Geiger counter over the medal first, just to be safe.
- In today's leaks: it looks like oil company Shell owns the Nigerian government, lock, stock and barrel.
A few items, in no order:
- "You're either with us or with WikiLeaks": A right-wing pundit who previously denounced WikiLeaks as a terrorist organisation to be taken down by all means necessary has now called for a Stuxnet-style virus to destroy all copies of the leaked data, as well as anything else on any computer used to connect to WikiLeaks.
- Australian PM Julia Gillard has condemned WikiLeaks, and made noises about revoking Julian Assange's passport and throwing him to the wolves, David Hicks fashion. Now, a leaked US embassy memo reveals that a glowing assessment of Gillard's leadership potential eight months before she became PM. The memo, among other things, praises her right-wing voting record, despite her coming from the left faction.
- US to Host World Pres Freedom Day in 2011.
Australia's federal government has backed a proposal to add an 18+ rating for video games, legalising games not suitable for 15-year-olds. Currently, such games are illegal to sell in or import into Australia. This has led to some anomalies: games are banned because the classification board considers that they might encourage illegal activity, however tenuously (one shooter was banned because medical kits one could pick up to boost one's life force looked like syringes which could encourage intravenous drug use), while elsewhere, the censorship board gives games which would get 18+ ratings elsewhere MA15 ratings (after all, you don't want to ban everything this side of Little Big Planet, do you?)
Of course, it's not a done deal yet; any change would need unanimous support from state attorneys-general, and until recently, South Australia's AG, a right-wing Christian authoritarian (and Labor Party member), has been vetoing it.
The government's hand was possibly forced by its tenuous coalition with the Greens, who are far more progressive on these issues than the major parties; the Labor Party who lead the coalition still officially support a national internet censorship firewall, after all. The conservative opposition coalition have not made any statements on an 18+ rating for video games.
After five days of Wikileaks revelations, the tide has turned; the organisation has been kicked off Amazon's servers (inspiring a boycott by Guardian readers, which Amazon presumably calculated would be less damaging than one by Fox News viewers), and a new arrest warrant has been issued for the organisation's editor-in-chief, Julian Assange. (A SWAT team is apparently on standby, awaiting the order to go in, and Special Branch snipers are positioned in adjacent buildings to provide cover.) But extradition to Sweden (or the US and a civilian trial there—the death penalty being off the menu as required by extradition treaties and EU human rights laws) won't be enough for some media commentators:
At this point, we are beyond indictments and courts. The damage has been done; people have died - and will die because of the actions of this puerile, self-absorbed narcissist. News reports say the WikiLeaks founder is hiding out in England. If that's true, we should treat Mr. Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets: Kill him.
Mr Assange is ... an active, willful enabler of Islamic terrorism. He is as much a threat as Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahri. In short, Mr Assange is not a journalist or publisher; rather, he is an enemy combatant - and should be treated as such.Of course, to anyone who doesn't get all their information from Fox News, this is easily picked apart. For one, no credible evidence of any casualties due to information released by WikiLeaks has been produced. And, unlike the "Collateral Murder" video, this week's batch of revelations has done little damage to the United States' image (though the same can't be said for those of Russia, Italy or even the United Kingdom, which looks more and more like a Warsaw Pact-style satellite state of the US; perhaps they should rename it Airstrip One and be done with it). Furthermore, to say that Wikileaks is a terrorist organisation (as one IRA-supporting US congressman has called for) would require the word "terrorist" to be redefined far more broadly, to mean roughly "one who acts against our interests". So the calls for the execution of Assange and other principals of Wikileaks seem to be primarily a call to avenge America's honour.
The American south, as has been pointed out by numerous commentators (Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting With Jesus is highly recommended) is what anthropologists call a culture of honour, at least vestigially. The Southern values of honour, which must be avenged when insulted, come from the cattle-farming culture of the lawless Scottish borders and Northern Ireland, from which many of the original settlers came. While it originated in the economic circumstances of these regions, the culture of honour propagated in the South by cultural transmission, and its values still remain in those states. (One consequence is Southern states having significantly higher murder rates than the rest of the US; after all, when honour is on the line, backing down and talking it over is not cool.) The Southern culture of honour has recently also become one of the defining attributes of the conservative side of the American culture war, defining the modern Republican party and the Tea Party movement. Needless to say, American liberals are none too happy with this.
As such, we can look forward to a lot more posturing, chest-beating and alpha-male territorial displays from the pundits of the American Right. And, should the Republicans come to power in 2012, we may well see President Palin send a CIA hit squad out to bring back Julian Assange's head on a silver platter. (Or perhaps to bring him back alive, to be publicly executed in a televised spectacle involving monster trucks and flamethrowers; who knows.) That is, assuming that the Russians don't get him first:
The latest idea to emerge from the US's Tea Party movement: the president of a group calling itself the Tea Party Nation has called for voting rights to be restricted to property owners:
PHILLIPS: The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn’t you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.Of course, a lot of home owners don't actually own their homes as such; the banks own the majority share of them. Taken literally, this would either restrict voting to the minority who own property outright or give the banks a legitimate block vote, along with property-holding corporations. (Given that, in the US, corporations are legally considered to be individuals, to the point where restricting corporate political donations was considered an infringement of their Constitutionally-guaranteed right of free speech, corporations dominating a property-based voting system is not implausible.) Those who don't own property would, in effect, become second-class citizens, a sort of peasantry, and America, one of the first nations to never have had aristocratic titles, would be well on the path towards reinventing feudalism with American characteristics.
(See also: Libertarian Monarchism, or why absolute monarchy looks like a better way to maintain property rights and thus freedom, if you squint, tilt your head at a certain angle and smoke a lot of crack.)
(via Boing Boing)
David Cameron, Britain's Tory Prime Minister, has on occasion professed his love of 1980s indie band The Smiths, known for their staunchly left-wing politics and anti-Thatcherite proclamations. And now, Johnny Marr has replied, forbidding David Cameron from liking The Smiths:
David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don't. I forbid you to like it.And here is a piece from the Daily Torygraph, er, Telegraph's music critic, in defense of Cameron's uncharacteristically left-wing musical tastes, writing before the election, pointing out Morrissey's recently small-c-conservative views and claiming that at least Cameron was more genuinely into the music he professes a liking for than the New Labour politicians whose tastes are blandly focus-grouped:
less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone
Personally, I am tremendously heartened when a political leader actually demonstrates genuine and quite sophisticated cultural tastes, instead of getting spin doctors to compile their iPod playlists for them (with every song a political message). Or, like Gordon Brown, dropping clunking references to contemporary popular favourites such as the Arctic Monkeys and Harry Potter when we all know he is really ensconced in his study reading economic history and perhaps listening to a ‘Best Of’ classical compilation that his wife bought him for Christmas.
When I ran into David Cameron at the BBC once, I asked him what was the last CD he bought. Without a moment’s hesitation, he named a new album from an obscure American band called Modest Mouse, who had been working with Morrissey’s old Smiths’ collaborator Johnny Marr (who played every date on Red Wedge’s original tour). I am not sure what credibility it gives him to tackle global economic meltdown, but he is certainly the hippest party leader.(Modest Mouse are obscure?)
Twitter has denied rumours that it suppressed traffic promoting student demonstrations in the UK at the request of the police. The allegations claim that the #demo2010 hashtag had been suppressed from trending topics, and that the Twitter account "UCLOccupation", used by protest coordinators, had been disabled during the protests; Twitter claims that there was no censorship of trending hashtags and no disabling of accounts.
It's not clear why the organisers were unable to use the UCLOccupation account during the protest; perhaps it coincided with part of Twitter's network being down. The other alternative is that the internet surveillance powers Britain's authorities have allow them to use deep-packet inspection to selectively suppress the traffic of troublemakers as to maintain order, and that the surveillance boxes installed on all internet trunks have facilities to take out Twitter posts in this fashion. That wouldn't explain the non-appearance of the #demo2010 hashtag, though, unless the government's black boxes were designed to suppress posts for everyone but the original poster.
Some time ago, Wikileaks posted online video footage apparently showing US troops massacring children in Iraq. This caused a flurry of condemnation, and further tarnished the already shabby image of the Iraq war. This was followed by a large cache of documents pertaining to the conduct of the war. The US government fumed, but, it seemed, Wikileaks was unstoppable.
More recently, Wikileaks announced that it had possession of a cache of US diplomatic communications, which are by convention considered sacrosanct, and was going to release them. Cue more fuming, and a somewhat predictable denial-of-service attack (one of which seemed to be the work of a patriotic good-ol'-boy, and not the NSA), but then it came out. And we find out that... well, that diplomats say impolitic things in private about their hosts, Gaddafi's vain and flamboyant, Berlusconi's in the pockets of the Russians, and the Chinese government was behind hacking attacks on Google. Oh, and Iran has missiles that can hit Berlin, and poses an imminent threat to a lot of people; so much so that the Obama government actively had to resist the Saudis' demands that they bomb Iran.
Which all seems a bit too convenient. Nothing particularly embarrassing to the US (they do like to spy on other world figures, but that's neither a huge surprise nor a shocking atrocity), though a few things which make the Obama administration look weak, and strengthen the hands of hawks calling for the bombing of Iran. Meanwhile, the world's hegemonic superpower can only fume impotently and possibly put behind-the-scenes pressure on the Swedes to kick Wikileaks chief Julian Assange out. (Assange is reportedly currently in the United Kingdom, not a country known for its reluctance to extradite anyone to the United States.) You'd think that if the US government really wanted to get Assange, they would have had him bundled into a van and flown over to Diego Garcia for a spot of light waterboarding within a week maximum of him popping up on their radar, but it seems not. Which makes me wonder whether, at some time between the original video and now, they managed to reach him and turn him into a propaganda asset.
"Now, Mr. Assange: this flash drive contains some files. You release these to the world through your channels, and make a good show of it, and nothing will happen to your family. Pleasure doing business with you."
This Saturday is the Victorian state election. For those wondering what's going on there is a summary here:
State politics is a strange, sad, almost cute realm, where those ambitious, energetic people gather who are, on the one hand, far too inept and devoid of personal magnetism to succeed in federal politics, and on the other hand, far too inept and devoid of personal magnetism to succeed at anything else either. Oh the dilemma of the state politician: caught so exquisitely between the pincers of their dual incompetencies. But then, that is the life they chose when they decided to make no useful contribution to the world for their entire lives.
The combatants provide a fascinating study in contrasts. For example. John Brumby graduated from the elite Melbourne Grammar in 1970, whereas Ballieu graduated in 1970 from Melbourne Grammar, which is quite elite. So the sharp ideological differences began early on... And then of course there is the difference in their choice of parties. Whereas Brumby chose Labor because of its strong commitment to social justice, Baillieu chose the Liberals, because he believes in a just society.
What is important to focus on is the potential consequences of voting Green, which have been spelled out for us by trained investigative journalists from the major newspapers, who "went the extra mile" to unearth and expose secret Greens policies by cunningly visiting their website and then sniffing a bunch of glue. Basically, the Greens’ policy platform consists of three major planks:And here is a profile of the inner-city seat of Richmond (where your humble correspondent last lived in Melbourne), which the Greens are hoping to take (though, with the Tories putting them last, that may not happen). It's interesting to see that all the candidates are fairly socially liberal; the religious parties have given up on this seat, and even the Tories are running a gay bar proprietor as their candidate, and jumping through a lot of hoops to balance appealing to affluent small-L liberals in the city whilst not alienating their conservative core:
So we’re not saying don’t vote Green, we’re just saying, think long and hard about just how stupid you are.
- Forcing everyone to be gay
- Murdering old people
- Criminalising electricity
McFeely is not your average Liberal candidate, being an openly gay man from a working class family in Scotland. He also runs one of the best-known gay venues in Melbourne, the Peel Hotel in Collingwood, though the Liberal party website just refers to it as a 'busy Collingwood hotel' and also skips over issues of his sexuality. McFeely previously came to prominence in 2007 when he won a Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal ruling granting his hotel an anti-discrimination exemption so that he could exclude heterosexuals. This infuriated radio talkback callers, most of whom wouldn't have actually wanted to visit the hotel in a pink fit. He is opposed to gay marriage (because of its religious connection) but supports civil partnerships, and in 2006 tied the knot with his partner of 18 years at the British Consulate in Melbourne. McFeely briefly withdrew as candidate after a dispute with Liberal headquarters over his campaign, including a dislike of the photo that the Liberal Party suggested he use. The Liberal Party finally relented, McFeely the only Liberal candidate with a non-standard photo.
The latest nightspot in the old Sloane heartland of Chelsea is Maggie's Nightclub, a club inspired by Margaret Thatcher's decade in office. Maggie's includes photos of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (I wonder whether there are any of her close friend General Augusto Pinochet), and speakers in the bathroom play a loop of the audiobook of the Iron Lady's diaries. The club has a £15 entry price and £250 fee for a table, and may or may not be ironic:
So, I ask the club's co-owner, Charlie Gilkes, is this the nocturnal equivalent of a neo-liberal manifesto? No, no, no, argues the Old Etonian, who opened Maggie's with his business partner Duncan Stirling earlier this year. "It's not a Tory club," he says carefully, but rather a tribute to the 80s – a bit of "childhood nostalgia for the decade of our birth". The reference to Britain's most divisive politician, he says, is tongue-in-cheek. "I know she's divisive, but I do admire her. She's a leader."
In this 80s, Thatcher-era themed club, bottles of champagne signed by the Iron Lady go for £5,000, but I make do with a Ferris Bueller Fizz, priced £10.50. A Super Mario mural adorns another facade and every table in sight has been made to look like a giant Rubik's cube, while a Neil Kinnock figurine takes pride of place next to Gilkes's own childhood collection of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.Regular attendees apparently include Adam Ant and Tony Hadley, frontman of Spandau Ballet, who soundtracked part of the Iron Lady's reign. It's not clear what the playlist is: I'm guessing it'd be heavy on the 1980s yuppie wine-bar sophistisoul, include a bit of Bryan Ferry, perhaps some Stock/Aitken/Waterman chart pop to get people dancing, and the odd piece by Lord Lloyd-Webber in the chill-out room, with perhaps a Billy Bragg tune thrown in for irony. (Momus' Don't Stop The Night would also be a good ironic fit, though might be a bit obscure.)
Perhaps in ten years' time, someone will open a place in Islington named Tony's, which will play only Britpop, D:Ream and the Spice Girls, and have an ironic map of Iraq on one wall.
Norway may now be paying the price for granting the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident (or enemy of the people, if you prefer) Liu Xiaobo; first an invitation for Norway's Eurovision-winning singer Alexander Rybak was withdrawn, and then, Norway's entrant in the Miss World beauty contest, held on Hainan Island, failed to place among the top five finalists, despite having been tipped as the odds-on favourite to win.
The Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet reported the opera's composer Thomas Stanghelle said the Chinese claimed it "wasn't possible" for them to co-operate with Norway or Norwegian artists at present. He said the reason given for the cancellation was that China wants to punish Norway over the awarding of the Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo."
Researchers in the US have found a possible genetic cause for liberal political orientations. The DRD4 dopamine receptor gene has already found to be connected to neophilic tendencies (i.e., novelty seeking), and now it seems that those who have it are more likely to develop liberal political beliefs—though only if they have many friends during adolescence:
Lead researcher James H. Fowler of UC San Diego and his colleagues hypothesized that people with the novelty-seeking gene variant would be more interested in learning about their friends' points of view. As a consequence, people with this genetic predisposition who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average. They reported that "it is the crucial interaction of two factors – the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence – that is associated with being more liberal." The research team also showed that this held true independent of ethnicity, culture, sex or age.
Fowler concludes that the social and institutional environment cannot entirely explain a person's political attitudes and beliefs and that the role of genes must be taken into account. "These findings suggest that political affiliation is not based solely on the kind of social environment people experience," said Fowler, professor of political science and medical genetics at UC San Diego.Of course, whether the gene would manifest in, say, social-democratic liberalism or guns'n'dope libertarianism would probably be influenced by cultural context. I recall reading about twin studies which showed pairs of twins raised apart holding similar political beliefs, though. (Or similarly structured; perhaps one could imagine, say, an authoritarian rightwinger growing up to be an authoritarian Stalinist, or a radical Marxist to be a radical Thatcherite neoliberal, in a different context.)