Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why is Jeremy Corbyn Unelectable?

As our media and political establishment continue to impress upon us, the Labour Party has no hope of entering office with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm. Whatever the truth of this claim, it needs unpacking.

It could mean that his politics are so intrinsically unattractive that even if they were presented dispassionately to the voting public he would remain unelectable. We might call this the democratic reason to call him unelectable. On the other hand it could be taken to mean that certain people, more powerful than the average voter, simply will not tolerate him being elected. They will strive to misrepresent him and his agenda, so that the public will be dissuaded from voting for him – not least by ceaselessly impressing upon us his un-electability – who wants to back a loser? We can fairly and dispassionately call this the undemocratic reason he is judged unelectable – a transparent case of power usurping democracy.

A clue can be inferred from his opponents’ focus on the personal and irrelevant. If his policies are so unattractive why the need to concentrate on his beard, or shoes, or reluctance to sing patriotic songs, or pledge commitment to acts of genocide against as yet unformulated enemies? If his social and economic policy is intrinsically abhorrent, and such a sure turn-off to the public, why not concentrate on that? He’d be very happy to discuss it, and presumably dig his own grave that way.

Indeed the sheer ferocity of the attacks against him don’t suggest complacency on the part of his critics, not as one would expect if there really was no chance of him winning. He can’t be hopelessly unelectable and the most dangerous man in Britain. So let’s assume he could win. Let’s imagine that, given a fair hearing, the public really might vote him into office. Why then the campaign to write him off?

First there are his obvious enemies. As a man of the left, we can assume that he is opposed by anyone significantly to his right (as equally we can assume that almost everyone to his left supports him – beggars can’t be choosers.) Obviously this includes default enemies of Labour – the current government and any other rival political parties. In addition, given his economic plans, much of the world of big-business and finance; companies benefitting from tax avoidance and zero hour contracts; companies benefitting from a cowed and demoralised workforce. He will certainly find few friends in the boardrooms of those industries he has earmarked for renationalisation, or amidst our large and happy band of arms manufacturers. Membership of CND, Stop the War and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign conjures a wide range of highly vocal adversaries. Likewise, humble flag-wavers from Alf Garnet to Lord Helpus will see him as a threat to all they hold dear. Last but not least, there is the corporate world’s mouthpiece - the corporate mass media.

Trickier to untangle are the motives of the enemy within, within the Labour party that is. We can again usefully divide these nay-sayers into two distinct groups. First there are those who oppose him ideologically, for many of the same reasons as above: Those who remain wedded to the Thatcher/Blair economic project; Atlantic patriots, those pro-NATO pro-Trident diehards who can’t abide the idea of the UK losing its long-lost world player status; and of course there are those who directly assisted Blair in his war crimes. The last thing they can stomach is being led by someone who had the good judgement to oppose the disaster from the start.

Finally, we move onto potentially the most interesting group – those within his party who secretly agree with his policies but oppose him for reasons of political expediency. While many of them first joined the party in the hope of enacting policies well to the left of anything Corbyn would dare to suggest in 2015 they now see him as a threat to their seats and a threat to the party gaining office. After years of campaigning against project-Thatcher presumably they now see its consequences as irreversible. Too much has already been privatised, the unions have been crushed, and the mainstream media are uniformly satisfied with the consequences. Maggie won - there is no alternative.

The choice as they see it then is electoral disaster with Corbyn, or another stab at Thatcherism-lite under the leadership of one of the translucent figures to his right. It’s certainly a schizophrenic strategy. They find themselves shouting down their own political convictions, coming as they do from the mouth of someone braver than themselves. All this in the hope that they can get themselves and their party re-elected on an agenda contrary to their true desires.

The great shame is that the one thing that certainly will render Corbyn unelectable will be lack of support from within his party. Labour’s opponents can be relied upon to continue the blitzkrieg of slander and smears – politics as usual. But if those within his party won’t struggle to deflect and correct the misrepresentations, and argue the benefits, it really will be game over. A sad irony for those who secretly support his policies.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Honest Politics

What’s the quickest way to get a politician off your doorstep? Easy - tell them that you intend to vote for them. This curious reflex tells us something about the nature of electioneering. Politicians only canvass those voters who don’t share their beliefs. Unlike most political discourse, which consists of preaching details to the converted, election campaigns must ignore the saved and focus on the heathens.

It follows then that electioneering is always an attempt to convince people that you know their interests better than they do; you know what’s good for them, better than they do:

Knock knock “Can we count on your vote? We can? Wonderful, do have a nice evening.”
Knock knock, “Can we count on your vote? We can’t?” (ugh!) “I see. But are you aware that by not voting for us it is very likely that X will occur?”

…with ‘X’ being whatever issue that party is fielding as vital to the constituent’s interests. By declaring their intention to vote for somebody else the voter has demonstrated a lack of awareness about the dangers or benefits of ‘X’. Fortunately the canvasser is there to lift the scales from their eyes.

Of course the canvasser needn't truly believe in the stated ‘X’. A false or irrelevant ‘X’ can be cited to frighten or attract constituents into voting for agendas quite contrary to their interests. Benefit-claimants voting UKIP do look rather like Turkeys voting for Christmas. UKIP is a party born of disgruntled right-wing Tories, quite open in their desire to destroy the welfare state. Openly stating such intentions on claimants’ doorsteps is unlikely to win their votes, so UKIP canvassers keep a more palatable ‘X’ up their sleeves - immigration.

Not all false ‘X’s are cynical, at least not in intent. There is also room for the benevolent false ‘X’. A canvasser might view this one false ‘X’ as a small price to pay for all the greater goods that would be bestowed upon the voter if their party wins office. Again we can frame this using UKIP canvassers. While some might despise claimants, it’s possible that others see themselves as the claimants’ saviour. If they were free to speak their minds on the doorstep it would probably run something like: Your benefits need to be cut because that will force you into work. Not only will this will give you back your dignity, it will allow us to cut taxes so the economy can expand. Everyone will win.

Regardless of intent, hardly a vote winner. So for the greater good the well-meaning UKIP rep must reach for a benevolent false X, such as: If you don’t vote for us hordes of Romanians will arrive and infect your family with AIDS. Or some such.

Fortunately not all parties stoop so low. By nature less cynical, Greens are less inclined to employ false X’s. Less fortunately, openness is even less likely to win them the claimants’ vote. A reasonable desire of the poor is to not be so poor. In capitalist countries this has traditionally been achieved by expanding the economy and thereby creating more jobs. By contrast, a core tenet of Green politics is to apply the brakes, shrink output, and encourage us all to make do with less.

Presumably their doorstep arguments focus on the long-term: If we lower output and invest in less damaging industries we will all win in the end – assuming the survival of our species is taken to constitute a victory. But long-term goals are not well suited to election campaigns. If, as suggested above, electioneering is a matter of convincing people that you know their interests better than they do, the Greens have a job on their hands. The oft-heard claim “I would actually welcome an economic slow-down, even if it does eat into my income” is surely a luxury of the comfortably-off. It’s a very difficult dream to sell to the impoverished.

Finally, alas, there is more to electioneering than policy. Against sounder judgement, we also tend to vote on the basis of personality. Vacuous from the outset, this aspect of electioneering is highly prone to falsehood. It’s little more than an arms race between competing ad agencies, with no relevance to political acumen – surely the only aspect of personality that should concern us.

Pretending to like bacon sandwiches or Cornish pasties or Aston Ham (or was it West Villa?) are false X’s of this kind. The aim is to conjure an illusion of fraternity between the Eton educated politician and those voters who genuinely revel in such masculine activities. All colours of politicians can content themselves with the thought that these too are benevolent false X’s, white lies for the greater good.

On the face of it, it might sound like honest politics is impossible, or dead, or was never alive in the first place. I hope to close with something less hackneyed. I would argue that honest politics can and does exist, but it is forced to exist at some remove from the ‘politics’ that that is presented to the electorate. It is simply not possible for someone hoping to gain office to consistently air their true beliefs. While some of this disjunction can be put down to cynicism of a Machiavellian kind, much of it is an unavoidable consequence of our political system. Perhaps it is true of all political systems, but in a mass democracy informed by a corporate-owned mass media it is necessarily the case.

First then, to clarify what is meant by honest politics. These are simply those views politicians genuinely hold – the opinions that actually reside in their heads; the subject matter discussed in confidence, with friends, family and other party members, behind closed or slightly-ajar doors.

It is important to note then that honest politics in this sense has nothing to do with virtuous politics. It has no necessary connection with fairness or kindness or even accuracy. The only intrinsic virtue of honest politics is that they are honestly believed. Even Hitler and Stalin had honest political beliefs in this sense. That those beliefs were false and despicable has no bearing on their honesty as beliefs.

Here then are two reasons why such honest political beliefs cannot always be aired in public. Both stem from the need to pretend that one-size can fit all. Firstly our political system requires parties to be unified over policy. That is to say, it requires entities composed of a multitude of human minds to pretend they are of one mind. This is particularly true at election time, when these aggregations of notoriously opinionated humans are obliged to rally round a single document – the manifesto – and act as though they agree with every word of it.

If you want to gain power you don’t have much choice. The alternatives are to either publicly disagree with the manifesto and become a dissident within your party, or publicly disagree with the manifesto and remain within the party fold, in which case the media will say that the party is split on policy, and therefore unelectable.

Secondly, to secure a large enough vote, parties are obliged to present their policies as if they will be of benefit to a larger section of the electorate than possibly can benefit. Manifestos can admit no losers; aside from paedophiles and illegal immigrants, every section of society must be assured that it will win.

In the real world of course this is just not possible. The most important political changes often are zero-sum. One person’s tax break is another’s tax hike, or loss of state benefits. One company’s freedom to invest abroad is another’s bankruptcy.

We can now understand, if not forgive, many of the false X’s that are presented on the doorstep. Canvassers really are in a bind. Frequently, they themselves have no faith in the policies they have been assigned to promote. Even when they do, they know damn well that those policies may work to the detriment of the voter they are addressing.

If lying is too strong a word, a great deal of tiptoeing is inevitable (never a wise practice on a doorstep). There will be a strong incentive for omission, steering the discussion away from policies that jar with the canvasser’s heart or the voter’s best interests; masking and shaving and gilding of policy; stealthy downplaying and up-playing of relevant consequences. And when the uncomfortable stuff is thrust upon the canvasser, and discussion becomes unavoidable, presumably some honest lying does take place – for the greater good, of course.

Like one-size-fits-all shoes, one-size-fits-all politics are not a practical possibility. The hearty endorsements and claims of total comfort have a hollow ring. The smile of the bearer, like that of the wearer, is more of a twisted grimace. So what is to be done? Perhaps not much. It may just be my lack of imagination, but I can’t envisage any democratic system where what politicians say matches exactly with what they think. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to minimise the gap between honest politics and declared politics. But how to go about that is another matter.

A different approach would be to learn to live with the gap, but critically. If we resign ourselves to inevitable falsehoods perhaps we can better distinguish between the cynical and the forgivable lies. Instead of joining-in with the media’s feigned shock and disillusionment each time an untruth is revealed we would do well to pause, and assess the motives. Was this a Machiavellian lie to facilitate unwanted political change? Or was it the regrettable consequence of a political system that demands an impossible level of political unity.

Of course such judgements are themselves politically charged. I judge the falsehoods that led to the invasion of Iraq as firmly Machiavellian. Conversely, while I’m no fan of Bill Clinton, I see his lies about his sex life as inconsequential. He lied about something politically irrelevant so as to stay afloat in a political culture that places a premium on the irrelevant. So what? People of a different political persuasion see it differently, I’m sure.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Net Effect of Writing for the Mainstream Media

Is it possible to use mainstream media to mitigate environmental disaster? It’s an important question, and bone of contention. Here's the quandary: You don't have to be Noam Chomsky to realise that a corporate-owned, or corporate-wedded, mass media is an odd place to rally against corporate practices. Clearly there are limits to the degree one can criticise, say, the car industry, within a publication whose existence depends upon revenue from car adverts. You also have to question the motives of the organisation publishing your work. If they want to make money by selling advertising space to car manufacturers why would they also want to have you there, raining on the motorcade?

On the other hand, as the mainstream media by definition encompasses all the wide-reaching media outlets, how else is the environmentally concerned writer ever going to get their message across to enough people make a difference? The writer is left with a grim choice. An unholy alliance with the very forces they are criticising, or the relative, perhaps absolute, obscurity of writing outside the MSM. At some level of consciousness the morally motivated writer needs to make a calculation: What will be the net effect of my writing for the MSM? Will it serve to mitigate or exacerbate environmental damage? We can only assume that The Guardian's George Monbiot is confident that his writing achieves the former – otherwise he would depart and write elsewhere. Equally we can assume that the editors at Medialens suspect the latter – he would be more use to the world if he jumped ship.

These different conclusions stem in part from different interpretations of how news media works on us, the public. At first glance it seems obvious that Monbiot is performing a useful role. Even if The Guardian is chock-a-block with features on jet travel, and adverts for 4x4s, at least his features serve to challenge and shame these excesses. It’s like an ideological tug of war:  One pull dulls our critical faculties, the other re-sharpens it; sometimes Monbiot discredits the adverts and infomercials, sometimes they undermine or dilute the power of his arguments. Viewed this way, it would be disastrous for him to leave.

However, opponents would argue that this isn’t a zero-sum game. To see this, we have to consider why corporations advertise in liberal/left periodicals in the first place. Obviously to increase their profits, one way or another. One particularly insidious way is through ‘greenwash’ – something Monbiot is well aware of. This is the practice of using marketing to create the impression that a company’s products and antics are greener than they seem. Obviously this tactic would be misplaced in some markets. It would be a waste of revenue to run a campaign like Beyond Petroleum at The Daily Mail or The Spectator. Indeed fans of Melanie Phillips and Dominic Lawson might well boycott BP if they thought it was back-tracking on the West’s inalienable right to slash and burn.

Rather, the appropriate target for greenwash is people who worry about the environment. Rather than lying to the converted, greenwash needs to source environmentally concerned people – like many readers of The Guardian and The Independent – so it can corrupt them.  From this perspective the MSM environment columnist looks less eco-saviour and more Judas Goat, leading the target audience into the pen for indoctrination. They tempt-in the worthy and concerned, only for them to then have their critical faculties Shanghaied by the corporations.

While it seems reasonable to assume that both of these pressures are at play to some extent, calculating net effect is another matter. But here’s two content-based factors that must surely swing the scales. Firstly the content of the writing itself. Secondly its framing in the paper as a whole – its prominence, and ratio of column inches against those of articles and advertisements that deliver an opposing message.

The content and angle of an article is obviously vital. There is a huge difference between an article on shrinking ice sheets which sits meekly and obliviously amongst Ryan Air adverts, and an article on the same subject that denounces those adverts – dares to blame them for stoking this crisis. The former article might generate a helpless sigh (oh! the state of the world) before the page is turned. The latter article might really have some effect - awaken the reader to the hypocrisy of the situation. But of course that would be the Judas Goat biting the hand that fed it. It would soon find itself banished from the Eden of Guardian.

The subject of weighting and prominence is nicely illustrated by an old Viz cartoon, parodying the cigarette adverts of the day. On the side of a bus in a huge font, it read – “Smoke Tabs!” then in tiny writing underneath “HM Government warning: Don’t smoke tabs.” Advertisers are well aware that the relative ratios of such contradictory messages determine which one is likely to hit home. It’s no coincidence that now that the heath lobby have got the upper hand on the tobacco lobby the message ratios have swapped. A visiting smoker from the 1980's could be forgiven for thinking they’d been sold a packet of diced road-kill rather than twenty Rothmans.

If the ratio of worthy print/destructive print is a measure of net effect then George’s arguments barely register. Like the rest of the 'quality' press, The Guardian is heaving with saliva-inducing incitements to luxury and overindulgence. Monbiot's articles appear more as a confusing footnote. Forty pages of “Buy! Buy! Buy! - Fly! Fly! Fly!” punctuated with the occasional “PS. This is killing us.” And if you think an occasional ‘PS’ is better than nothing, well perhaps it isn’t. Presumably some environmentally concerned people get a nice warm glow from knowing they buy the paper with the ‘sound’ environment column, regardless of its overall effect on their spending choices. Perhaps without that environment column they wouldn't buy the paper in the first place, and wouldn't be exposed to its mass of environment-unfriendly content.

Lastly we mustn’t forget that there may be more influences at play than morality when a writer calculates the net good of their writing. Rather than keep making examples of George Monbiot I’ll make one of myself. What if The Guardian offered me a payment for this piece? – we are close to April 1st after all. Would I assent? Hopefully, I would first try to weigh-up the net effect. On the pro-side I could tell myself that content-wise that this is exactly one of those ‘owners-hand-biting pieces’ - so it might end up as a net good. Or perhaps I might frame it in my mind as just one little evil, but one that might then seed interest in all the other supposedly worthy things I might write in the future.

The danger of course is that this could all just be my ego, formulating excuses. It could be that like most people writing outside the MSM I’m just gagging for exposure, and would be flattered by the invitation from such an venerable publication (the paper my parents 'took' for all those years, wouldn’t they be proud?....etc.) And the money wouldn’t hurt either. So when it came to assessing the net moral worth of accepting this hypothetical offer, perhaps I wouldn’t be in the best position to judge.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The French Politician’s Prerogative

If democracy is a level playing field, then the belief that you deserve more than one partner is undemocratic, a throwback to less democratic times and places. I’m not referring here to promiscuousness amongst the single, or indeed consensual promiscuousness between the paired. These alternatives to monogamy come with their own problems of course - as does monogamy - but you can’t call them undemocratic. Unwise perhaps, but not unfair.

Similarly I’m not talking about falling out of love with one partner and into love with another. At a stretch, I’m not even talking about those who strive to be loyal to one partner but just can’t keep their trousers on when alternatives arise. For all the hurt, at least these transgressions allow for regret: “I’m so sorry it didn’t work out” in the former, and the snivelling “please take me back and I promise it will never happen again” in the latter.

No, what I’m talking about is when one partner thinks that they have the right to more than one partner, without extending reciprocal rights to their partner. Such arrogance is not exclusively French, nor the preserve of politicians, but if we refer to it as the French Politician’s Prerogative I think we capture the spirit of this mind-set, and cultural fossil.

Although this is not an exclusively male form of selfishness, tolerance of such behaviour is strictly for the boys. While some women, particularly powerful women, might exercise the same dubious ‘right’, social acceptance is reserved for men. There is no male equivalent to the ‘mistress’ to refer to the kept man, presumably because the role is too rare and too perverse to merit a name. The ‘inevitable appetite’ of men would be ‘sluttishness’ in women. In polite society male infidelity is only to be expected, female infidelity is whorish effrontery.

The belief that you deserve more than one faithful partner necessarily implies a sense of superiority. Even those who try to excuse their behaviour as ‘natural’, a product of evolution, must be doing-so from the perspective of being a winner in this great game of life. Given a 50/50 sex ratio it is not arithmetically possible for all men to have multiple faithful partners. Presumably some lesser men must make do with one, and others with none at all. The grounds for such feelings of superiority and entitlement are varied but obvious. It might be sexual prowess, good looks, charisma, fame, social status, class status, artistic ability, academic ability, political power, or just money. Whichever, the bearer is led to the belief that he has so much to offer it would be unfair not to spread it around a bit. The naked ape morphs himself into ‘the big man’, the emperor, the alpha-male lion slouching across the savannah, calmly selecting targets amongst the females; the sheikh reclining in his Bedouin tent, too grand to be contained or satisfied by just one woman.

Obviously these self-perceptions may have little to do with the actual reason an ‘additional’ woman shows interest. Neither François Hollande or Silvio Berlusconi have much of the top predator about them. Alan Clark’s appearance was more sultana than Sultan. As in any human relationship, the things people are fancied-for can differ widely from the things they might fancy about themselves. He might tell himself it’s his intellect when in fact it’s just his hairy chest - or vice versa. Such mismatches of perception can be innocent, even endearing. After all, body and mind are both intrinsic features of a person - who is to decide which is the more worthy basis of attraction? Things become more dubious however when what attracts is something removed from the mind or body of the person. Rather than his square jaw and political acumen, the real attraction may be access to certain social circles, or job opportunities, or immigration papers, or simply money.

Money is obviously a big player and the one that detractors will be keen to seize upon, but it would be untrue and unfair to suggest that it is always the case. It’s understandable and forgivable when the betrayed wife describes the other woman as a prostitute, but it can be quite the other way round. A truly besotted mistress is surely less of a prostitute than a wife who secretly despises her husband but stays with him for his wealth. At core, prostitution is selling your body, enduring sex for material benefits. The legal status of wife/mistress can be of no consequence. Sex between two people who burn with physical desire for each other is not prostitution at all, whatever the financial backdrop. Equally clearly, sex paid for cash-in-hand and performed with gritted teeth definitely is prostitution. Between these two extremes there are a wide range of alternative reasons people join each other in bed. Some are completely untarnished by economics. Others are tainted to some degree - spectrum whoretism, we might call it.

It seems uncontroversial to assume that many high-society ‘affairs’ reside somewhere on this spectrum. The very concept of the ‘kept woman’ implies an economic imbalance. It requires a certain level of income to ‘install’ a mistress in a little apartment off Rue Cliché in the 6th arrondissement. The telling counterfactual would be whether the sex would still be taking place without the material benefits. It may be pure co-incidence of course, but the incidence of wizened men seducing teenage beauties does appear to rise and fall in tandem with the gentleman’s income.

We should note however that desirability is not the only economic factor at work in perpetuating mistress culture. Just as prostitution commodifies a woman’s body, women can also be viewed as negative assets - liabilities. This view will be familiar to readers of Jane Austen. Women are born into these fictions as millstones. However smart, beautiful or compassionate they might be, at core they remain a problem, an issue that needs to be resolved. Fathers pace hallways, mothers sit and wring their hands - what to do with this creature when it blossoms? Crippling dowries are raised in the hope of bribing potential suitors into relieving them of this burden.

If prostitution transforms a woman’s body into saleable furniture, a dowry is more like a fee for house clearance. Honestly, you can’t give this stuff away. And of course the daughters play along with it all, frittering their youth away wittering about husbands, dresses, grand balls, eligible soldiers and the horrors of spinsterhood. It’s quite a bind. Daughters are infantilised to the extent that they can never become economically independent, and then resented as an economic liability. This remains a fair description of the status and treatment of women in some parts of the world today. But even in supposedly liberal and enlightened societies something similar is still lurking in the background. A rich man can still picture himself as the saviour of a poor woman, shouldering the economic burden of womanhood. These are the ‘saved’ women of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Pretty Woman. As a mark of their philanthropic largesse, some of these big-hearted fellows save several women at the same time.

Some will shrug and dismiss all this as ‘natural’ - the male inclination to pay for sex is as old as human history. But note that male inclination is only half of the deal. How many 'kept' women would be prepared to accept that role if their income already matched that of their lord and master? The supply of street prostitutes, porn workers, and fragrant mistresses to atrophying politicians and business tycoons is only as large as the gap in income between men and women. While some men might well be inclined to pay for sex, a more democratic society would be one where the economic position of women was such that fewer women would feel inclined or compelled to meet market demand.

Asset or liability, the commodification of women necessarily positions men as the owners of women. Daughters are the property of fathers, wives the property of husbands. Consequently, much as he deserves a big house and scores of servants, a ‘big man’ deserves more female properties. He should be free to collect women as he might collect cars - a practical model for daily use and some hot ones to take for a spin at the weekend. This object-owner relationship underlines the other sense of superiority at play in mistress culture. As well as one man’s superiority over another, it also suggests gender superiority. Men own women because men are superior to women. Men have dominion over their wives and mistresses for much the same reason as the dairyman has dominion over his cattle. Men are the movers and shakers in this world. Women at best are support staff, nurses to the doctors - essential but auxiliary.

Unpleasant as it is, this is the base assumption that supports all the rest of the mistress nonsense. The glib claim that it is quite normal for French men to have mistresses has an unavoidable flipside: It is quite normal for French women to accept their role as subordinates. I’m sure this can’t be true across the board, but it is amply alluded-to in literature old and new, celebrated in fact. It's the worldview parodied by Nancy Mitford in her novels (at least I hope it is parody.) The ‘good wife’ accepts her husband’s infidelities, forgives his transgressions, whatever pain and discord they might cause. It would be improper, meddlesome, to question him over such trifles. Access to this high quality being comes at a price - the price is that you have to tolerate sharing him. He is the big man, the weight of the world on his shoulders, and his family must respect his needs. It would be cruel, against nature, to cage the lion, etc etc.

As is often the case with oppressive relationships the oppressed play their part in maintaining the injustice. Mitford again:

"'well then, perhaps you can tell us' said Madame Rocher 'how, in a country where there are no brothels, do the young men ever learn?'"

Whatever lessons young men might learn, we can see that the brothel worker's development is of no consequence. Women are a means rather than an end; a stone to be stepped-on, or over, by life's protagonist, on his ascent to adulthood.

For all the short-term thrills, it’s hard to see any real winners in this game. The covert philanderer lives in constant fear of being caught; his partner lives in ignorance and impending heartbreak. The brazen philanderer has all the home comfort of a partner stricken with perpetual mistrust, anxiety and worthlessness, or she simply hates him. And of course it’s not just adults that suffer. Indeed whenever ‘nature’ is invoked to justify such behaviour it is worth considering the reflex responses of small children on this subject: ‘Would you prefer it that your parents only love each other, and only sleep with each other? Or would you rather they also sleep with other people, and perhaps raise other children in other homes?’ Is their response not as natural, as instinctive, as any adult urge?

I add the qualifier ‘small’ children because their answers may change as they move into adulthood, in no small part dependent on the example set by their parents. And so the seeds are sown. Boys grow into men who see fidelity as wimpish, a sign of unmanliness. Girls grow into women who assume that men are not to be trusted, and so either develop the capacity to stand by them in a state of anxiety, or just loath them and avoid them completely. And so the whole mess rumbles on.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Hard Men of Letters

Mary Beard’s insightful (and suitably uncomfortable) lecture on the suppression of the public voice of women is a good starting point for a more general discussion of oppressive language in the digital age. This is no small matter of etiquette. Abuse is not everyone’s cup of tea. While some revel in it, many others are put off from bothering to contribute. This is not just an infringement of their rights but a loss for us all. It allows the oppressive a greater say than other, perhaps more rewarding, commentators.

First then, why might someone tend to lace their postings with aggression and personal abuse? Here’s five possible reasons:

1. The writer is incapable of having his views questioned without becoming enraged.
2. The writer is prone to acts of violence, and given access would physically assault those who dare to disagree with him.
3. The writer is physically a wimp who vents his wimpish frustrations by talking tough from the safe end of an internet connection.
4. The writer has decided that a bullying tone is the standard vernacular for digital discourse.
5. The writer’s arguments don’t stand-up to intellectual scrutiny so he uses a threatening tone to scare-off those who might expose this shameful secret.

For once you'll notice we can dispense with gender neutrality. For all the media’s fascination with savage females, Raoul Moats still outnumber Joanna Dennehys by hundreds, perhaps thousands to one. We can be confident that similar ratios apply when it comes to vicious and threatening writing.

Secondly you’ll notice that as character portraits go, they're none too pretty: 1 needs counselling, 2 is a thug, 3 is a coward, 4 is a conformist poseur and 5 is Alf Garnett. As to motives, we can identify two key areas - the emotional and the strategic - with a certain amount of cross-over. Of the emotional, some suggest a simple lack of self-control, a lashing out, a tantrum. Others crave emotional victory, to make the writer feel better and the victim feel worse. Another emotional drive is the desire to paint a certain image of oneself to other readers, in this case one of toughness and ruthlessness. It's a narcissistic projection of a 'tough guy' image into the world, much like the John Wayne swagger or shaved head and Doc Martin's of yore.

Then we have the political and strategic motives - notably number 5. The hope here is that by roaring like a lion you will frighten-off those who find holes in your arguments or beliefs. We might call this usage ‘rhetoric for meat-heads.’ It functions like rhetoric, in as much as the objective is to change the subject. Of course true rhetoric takes skill - you need to maintain the pretence that you haven't changed the subject - but it's a toss-up which is more despicable. Personally I'd rather be called an ‘effing something-or-other’ than get caught-up in the lawyer-like twisting of an Oliver Kamm. At least when someone bad-mouths you, you can immediately call 'game over'. With rhetoric, irrelevant but plausible sounding distractions are dangled like worms into the pond, and it can be very difficult not to bite.

Of course you don't have to roar on your own. On like-minded websites and message-boards the regulars may be roused into collectively rounding-on a detractor. This works even when the detractor has made a valid point, and the consensus view is at fault. As in the playground, combined snarling can produce an illusion of winning the day, seeing the victim off, belly down. Truth is less relevant when you're backed by a mob.

Still that’s all the obvious stuff. Obscene names and threats to disembowel are easy to condemn, and most professional journalists and commentators distance themselves outright. But there are more subtle ways to harness the power of abuse. While such writers might be more dexterous in avoiding the accusations, the aims are as unclean - probably some mix of those suggested above. They abound in an article about Mary Beard, which she mentioned in her lecture. It was written by Rod Liddle for The Spectator. I was going to call it a particularly mean-spirited article, but looking at his other entries it seems a mean spirit is at the heart of this column.

So, how to abuse with impunity? One way is to distance yourself from the abuse you wish to convey. Rather than throw the mud you can highlight the mud others have thrown. Liddle’s article begins with two quotes, the second of which is an example of the online abuse Beard received after a TV appearance.  It seems fair to assume that Liddle cherry-picked this quote because he likes it - he finds it funny. It has the same ring of ‘crass intellectual’ he projects in his own writing (for evidence of the ‘intellectual’ bit look at the first quote.) But by pointing rather than slinging he can have his cake and eat it. He can even play it that he was only quoting it so as to disapprove (tut-tut.) The damage is done either way.

Alternatively, you can put your own abuse into the mouths of others.  Liddle suggests that Beard is frequently invited onto TV because “They think she looks like a loony. And the TV companies, the producers, love that.” While we should never doubt the cynicism of TV producers neither should we doubt that this is Liddle’s own sly way to call names. It is his word choice, no one else’s. ‘Her eccentric appearance’ would have conveyed his meaning just as well, if it hadn't been his intention to abuse.

Alternatively, you can make sensible, critical, points but verse them in an unnecessarily harsh manner. Rather than suggest that someone is naïve you can ask ‘Is she really that thick?’ (Liddle, again.) And if all that fails there’s always the ‘satire’ fall-back. You can paint your abuse as a joke: This is a light-hearted column. Have these people no sense of humour?

This all points to an interesting aspect of abuse, one that is easy to forget. In terms of information, abuse is a void.  As the IT theorists put it, the content of abuse is redundancy rather than information - at least regarding the subject being discussed. Abuse doesn’t take a discussion any further forward, it’s a means of sidestepping it - rhetoric again. 

For example, I might wish to propose that George Osborne's social background impedes his ability to empathise with other social classes. To express this I could refer to him an 'Eton-educated aristocrat who is clueless about the suffering of the poor.' Or I could call him a 'toffee-nosed Bullingdon-boy whose only experience of the working classes was the servants he beat at Eton.' Now, while the latter description might be more colourful and perhaps raise a smirk (though barely, as it's so hackneyed) it takes us nowhere regarding the original proposition. It might serve to garner dislike of Osborne and his class (perhaps one of my ulterior motives) but it adds nothing to the question of whether his social background blurs his view of other social classes.

This is further complicated by the fact that some words qualify as abuse in some contexts, and information in others. Calling Mussolini a fascist isn't abuse. Calling a Southern Water customer-service operator a fascist certainly is - however steep your bill. Calling a UKIP candidate a fascist is probably just abuse. If you harbour the suspicion that UKIP could be the seed of a growing fascist movement, then we could grant it some informational content. But in all likelihood it is just abuse. 'Myopic Little-Englander’ is certainly an abusive description, but in this context it is far more information-rich. Given the welcome absence of Jack-Boots, at least this description gives you and the candidate something meaningful to chew-over on the doorstep.

More confusion arises with the mixing of abuse and information, even in the same sentence. Just for a bit of balance here's a concocted but typical sentence one might read on a left-wing message-board, or comment thread:

“It wasn’t even Marx that said that, it was Hegel - you twat!”

While the part to the left of the dash might well constitute information, that to the right is pure abuse. Rather than substantiate the argument it functions more like a slap round the head, for emphasis. And the parallel is telling. Aggressive talk is often the prelude to aggressive acts. It all depends whether we are dealing with a number 2 (thug) or a number 3 (mouthy wimp.) And we can certainly smell some number 4 here - the conformist poseur. You have to ask, what is someone who knows the difference between Marx and Hegel doing using such a term, at least in public setting? Who or what are they pretending to be?

Comedy can’t steer us round this distinction, either. As with any other form of abuse, the abusive content of satire is void of information relevant to subject - no matter how funny or satisfying it might seem. Politically, satire is a sop. It’s the momentary satisfaction of flicking the V behind the headmaster’s back. It changes nothing in the structure of the school. Steve Bell can continue to draw Tony Blair with grotesquely dissimilar-sized eyes, and Peter Hitchens can continue to refer to him as ‘The Blair Creature’ for another twenty years. It won’t move him an inch closer to The Hague. Only the facts of Blair’s time in office can do that, and we are stuck with a media determined not to inspect them. So enjoy that satire, but don’t kid yourself that it changes anything.

The internet has certainly put a lot more ugly words on public display. Outside journalism, thuggish writing used to be confined to the toilet wall. Nowadays any semi-literate with a cell-phone has a global noticeboard for all their unpleasant recommendations. But let’s not understate the role of the old media in all this. Liddle has the gall to bemoan our fall from grace - ‘the internet has shown us as we really are, which is not terribly nice’ - he whines. This is certainly evidenced by the comments section beneath his column, but can he really be surprised considering the content of his posts? Has it not occurred to him that a mean-spirited column will tend to whip-up a mean-spirited crowd? Is he really that naïve?

So while the increase in abusive writing facilitated by new media is regrettable, let’s not pretend we’re powerless. Abuse builds like a head of steam. We can choose not to add to the pressure. While we cannot coercively control the utterances of others, we can keep our own houses in order:

Thou shalt not resort to mean or threatening language, regardless of how rude or incendiary one might find another person’s writing.

…or some such. This really can have a positive knock-on. Abusers look so much odder and more isolated when no one else will join in. They really are left barking in the dark. It’s not always easy of course. This article took a lot of editing to remain consistent with its own message. When the temptation arises we need to think carefully about our motives. We shouldn’t fool ourselves that this particular insult is necessary to establish a finer point. Abuse can never clarify an argument. It’s always about something else.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Whatever happened to Channel 4?

How did Jeremy Isaacs’ daring, visionary child of 1982 grow into the shameless, ratings-chasing harlot of 2014? The answer is obvious enough. Since television went multichannel, and advertising revenue was spread thinner than Marmite, innovative commercial television has all but died.

Forgive my harking back to a golden age, but there is good reason to see the franchise arrangements of mid-80’s as just that. Just four channels - two licence-funded, two commercial; two safe and populist, two risky and rule breaking. If anything, the commercial minority channel was the more daring - 4 regularly outshone 2. With only one competitor selling advertising time Channel 4 could charge fabulous rates, and so commission pretty much any program it dared. The lack of alternative channels guaranteed a large enough rump audience to still make it worth the advertisers’ while. And for the viewer, less ‘choice’ meant a greater chance of bumping into something unexpected, radical, even life changing. Or perhaps, better still, switching-off and sampling lived reality for a bit?

Such were the days. Nowadays poor old Channel 4 News can’t give its breaks away. You can often sail through the whole hour without suffering a real advert - most ‘adverts’ these days are just trailers for C4’s higher-rating programmes. It’s a small mercy considering that during the rest of the evening we can now expect four lengthy interruptions per hour, rather than the old standard of three. 

And as for programme content, the sheer desperation is enough to make Raymond Briggs’ Snowman melt in embarrassment. The worst culprits fall under the umbrella ‘broadcasting for the enrichment of Davina McCall’. First, the game-shows, where members of the public who, oddly enough, also look, dress and talk like Davina McCall demonstrate their profound ignorance of anything of consequence. The noble objective, naturally, is to win a huge sum of money, perhaps enough to afford to bump-into Davina in Ibiza next summer.

In stark contrast there are the celebrity game-shows, presented by Davina McCall. It’s a simple but winning formula: unusual task + celebrity = television programme, and all the more affordable as in this context ‘celebrity’ refers to anyone who has ever walked past a TV showroom. It turns out that Derek and Clive’s ‘Celebrity Saviours’ and ‘Blow Your Tits Up’ were not satire, but premonition. This month we have ski jumping + Anthea Turner; next month toenail cutting + Bez.

Another growth area is ‘Voyeurs and Exhibitionists’. This got properly underway back in 2000 with Big Brother, hosted by Davina McCall. It's diversified hugely since then of course, one notable incarnation being the pseudo-documentary. This genre is particularly attractive to Channel 4 as it allows it to trade on its former reputation for daring themes and controversial social comment. But the veil is thin. More often than not they’re just "Fuck me, Doris!" stories, as one Murdoch drone famously put it, in reference to the reaction she hoped to provoke in her readers. We might call them ‘the shock of the “eeyew!”’. Earlier centuries employed a more honest term - freak shows.

So roll up, roll up, for exhibitionist gypsies, trans-genders, welfare recipients, victims of severe birth defects or bodily disfigurement, obsessive compulsives and the morbidly obese - all lined up before the inspecting eye of the ghoul-squad, tuning-in to express their compassion, feigned or otherwise, or as often, open disgust and contempt. If this seems unfairly caustic then one only has to ask, why now and why so much? Previous generations of viewers managed to get by without wall-to-wall footage of the bizarre and unfortunate. Even allowing for the possibility that some people do watch these programs in good faith, you can be sure that for the broadcasters the distinction is irrelevant. All that matters is that people are watching, and advertising space can be sold. 

When advertisers can pick and choose where they advertise they will inevitably call the shots to the broadcasters. In fact there is only one shot they call - ratings, ratings, ratings. Humans being humans, the traditional themes of sex, violence and material wealth will always be the most eye-catching. So television ends up as a competition to screen the most hyper-sexualised, hyper-violent, hyper-gross television, placing the cheapest, rudest, meanest, strangest, brashest and vainest people centre-stage. As in a war of combat, in the war for ratings truth is a rapid casualty. Audience figures are sure to be low for facts that people don't want to hear. So if you want a documentary on global warming, for example, feel free to commission one based on falsified data. You can then frame the consequent furore as 'healthy debate' (the same tactic, we note, currently being employed to publicise 'Benefits Street')

Multi-channel TV is a disaster, presumably irreversible. This should come as no surprise. It was what every old-school television executive predicted. We only had to glance across the Atlantic to see the coming horror. Channel 4 is by no means the UK’s worst example - it is frequently out-barrel-scraped by license-fee-funded BBC3, using depressingly similar programme formats. But whereas BBC3 was always meant to be dreadful, to match the dreadful standards of its day, Channel 4 is a lost gem. It’s the clearest example of the degeneration that necessarily occurs when commercial television becomes the servant of the sponsor, rather than the other way round. We can safely assume that it wouldn't have been granted a license in the first place if its current output could have been foreseen back in 1982.

Monday, December 09, 2013

What if the IRA had never fired a shot?

What if the Provisional IRA and all other Republican paramilitaries had never fired a single shot, or planted a single bomb? Would the situation for the Catholic community in Ulster be better or worse today? I’m not posing this rhetorically, but as a point of discussion. Many will jump to respond that events such as Bloody Sunday render this game meaningless, worthless. Ulster Catholics would not, could not, and perhaps should not, have simply turned the other cheek. But whatever your take I only ask you to suspend it for a moment. We can be sure at least that this was not a logical impossibility, and not without historical precedent. For better or worse, it is not unknown of for humans to respond to intense violence and oppression with a stoical determination not to respond in kind.

Jumping straight to outcomes then, the important ones would seem to be twofold: death and politics. Assuming an absolute and unconditional commitment to non-violent protest by the entire Catholic community of Ulster, what might have been the outcome in these two areas?

First, deaths. Would there have been fewer casualties in the protestant community, less deaths of British soldiers and mainland British civilians? - undoubtedly. This is the unambiguous good news. No Claudy, La Mon House, or Enniskillen; no Newry or Warrenpoint; no Guildford or Birmingham, or Brighton Grand. All those people alive and intact today, assuming they hadn’t died since in a more peaceful manner. All those tears never shed, and hatreds not fomented.

What about fewer deaths in the Catholic community? This is more contentious. If you hold the ‘cycle of violence’ view then again yes, undoubtedly. Like the Tango, it takes two to create a cycle of violence. Every Catholic killed in a reprisal for an IRA shooting or bombing would presumably still be alive today, or represented by the children or grandchildren they never had. But as we've only asked Republicans to lay down their arms it's harder to gauge. Violence against the civil rights movement cannot be framed as ‘reprisal.’ That was prime-mover violence, original sin, and we have little reason to suppose it would have diminished if the Republican side had remained passive. Indeed the IRA liked to paint itself as the armed protector of the Catholic community. To whatever degree that was true, then perhaps some Catholics lives were in fact saved by the IRAs presence.

What about those killed by British soldiers? Would the British army have been in Ulster in the first place? Legend has it that they were first sent-in to protect the Catholic community. If this is true then it is possible to frame all violence by the British army as a response to Republican violence - the cycle again. It depends how much you believe the British army and British government were there as neutral peacemakers, maintainers of empire, or in cahoots with the loyalists.

Next, politics. For Ulster Catholics, would the political world of 2013 be better/worse/comparable if the IRA had never fired a shot? Would a body comparable to the current Northern Ireland Assembly have arisen without 30 years of bloodshed? Assuming it would have, would the Catholic hand be stronger or weaker on such an assembly? Would the treatment of Catholics as a class in Ulster - housing, education, job opportunity - be better or worse? How would the mutual opinions of a catholic and a protestant stranger differ today, sitting opposite on a Belfast bus? Would there be more or less fear, respect, suspicion?

While we can be sure things would not be the same as they are today, we can be equally sure that they would not be the same as 1969, either. Northern Ireland was not set in aspic, and the Troubles were not conducted in a vacuum. Britain and Ireland sit adjacent to a vibrant continent which itself underwent huge changes over this period - notably the collapse of dictatorships in Spain and Portugal, and the fall of Communism in the East. Much of this was achieved through political pressure, internal and external, rather than bullets and bombs.

And of course there is the EU itself. It’s not beyond possibility that it might have exerted greater pressure on Britain if Britain and the Loyalists had been the only belligerents. With the addition of IRA bombs however, perhaps it was easier for the British government to paint the whole thing as a war on terror - Britain under attack, rather than the rights of Irish nationalists. Could continental Europeans even discern the plight of the Catholic community through the fog of IRA incendiaries? God knows, most mainland Britons couldn't.

I stress again, I am not posing any of this rhetorically. I really haven’t a clue. But it's something that deserves thought. Hopefully Ulster has been through its worst pain and is safely on the other side. But the world is still full of comparable disputes. Anyone considering lending support to one party or another, materially or vocally, might do well to consider Ireland's case before pledging.

At this point one might ask, why the hell should the oppressed be the ones to lay down their arms, rather than the oppressors. I can only suggest, for reasons of pragmatism. The asymmetry of the forces involved in disputes like the Troubles make military victory all but impossible for the weaker side. War proper (though still deeply indecent) is a mutilation contest.  The aim is to out-mutilate the opponent - and victory to the last man standing. This necessarily requires a degree of material equality between combatants. Otherwise it's all over before you get a chance to call it war (you have to settle for calling it liberation.)

In situations like the Troubles, on the other hand, the imbalance of power makes this form of victory near-impossible. The IRA was never going to 'take' Belfast like Monty took Alamein. So they chose guerrilla warfare. This is tactically very different. Rather than out-mutilate the opposition to capture the castle, the guerrilla army uses arbitrary small-scale acts of violence in the hope that this will frighten the opposition into vacating the castle voluntarily.

I won't comment on the morality of such tactics, but permit me one observation about their strategic value. Consider that the IRA's explicit war aim was the dissolution of the province and reunification of Ireland. I don't want to rub salt, but this goal is no closer today than it was in 1969. Indeed Sinn Féin now participates in the governance of the very province it was fighting to dissolve. How does that stand-up as a victory for guerrilla warfare? Is there nothing others can learn from this?

Returning to the original question, for Ireland at least, both answers are awful. If we believe that comparable civil-rights could have been secured by the Catholic community without them taking-up arms, then thousands died for nothing. Alternatively, if we believe that these gains could not have been secured without Republican terror then we would have to conclude that intense violence is sometimes the only way for one group of humans to secure basic rights from another - in which case our whole species should hang its head in shame. My personal hope, without much confidence or evidence to support it, is that the first conclusion is true, grim as it is.