chabonsby

Words and such.

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Police and Anti-Police

After abandoning it to spend a couple of weeks reading Tennyson, I’ve gone back and finished Power: A New Social Analysis by Bertrand Russell. It has certain well-known weaknesses, but not enough to overcome my considerable sympathy for its central premise and the quality of argument. I think it a hugely underrated work as a whole, and one of real importance. Even if one found the central thesis disagreeable, there’s simply so much great insight on display, and on such a wide variety of subjects, that Power is worth anyone’s time. That comprehensiveness is perhaps the source of its weakness; Russell was much closer to fumbling in the dark than I’ve ever seen him, but there’s real pleasure to be had in watching a great intellect offer a brief treatise on a different topic every few pages. I could blog dozens of examples, as my book is now heavily annotated, but one towards the end deserves attention for being so completely remarkable. The problem he considers is an obvious one, the solution he provides…not so much:

The police system of all countries is based upon the assumption that the collection of evidence against a suspected criminal is a matter of public interest but that the collection of evidence in his favour is his private concern. It is often said to be more important that the innocent should be acquitted than that the guilty should be condemned, but everywhere it is the duty of the police to seek evidence of guilt, not of innocence. Suppose you are unjustly accused of murder, and there is a good prima facie case against you. The whole of the resources of the State are sein motion to seek out possible witnesses against you, and the ablest lawyers are employed by the State to create prejudice against you in the minds of the jury. You, meanwhile, must spend your private fortune collecting evidence of your innocence, with no public organisation to help you. If you plead poverty, you will be allotted Counsel, but probably not so able a man as the public prosecutor. If you succeed in securing an acquittal, you can only escape bankruptcy by means of the cinemas and the Sunday Press. But it is only too likely that you will be unjustly convicted.

If law-abiding citizens are to be protected against unjust persecution by the police, there must be two police forces and two Scotland Yards, one designed, as at present, to prove guilt, the other to prove innocence; and in addition to the public prosecutor there must be a public defender, of equal legal eminence. This is obvious as soon as it is admitted that the acquittal of the innocent is no less a public interest than the condemnation of the guilty. The defending police force should, moreover, become the prosecuting police force where one class of crimes is concerned, namely crimes committed by the prosecuting police in the execution of their ‘duty’. By this means, but by no other (so far as I can see), the present oppressive power of the police could be mitigated.

Civitas interruptus

I’ve recently been reading Power: A New Social Analysis, which I instantly adore, even with its obvious and noted flaws. Russell’s ambition is admirable, and his writing, as ever, is masterful. I don’t wish to review a book I’ve barely started, but I wanted to share a particularly compelling passage, which comes near the end of an early chapter on the tendency of most to either lead or follow:

I have spoken hitherto of those who command and those who obey, but there is a third type, namely, those who withdraw. There are men who have the courage to refuse submission without having the imperiousness that causes the wish to command. Such men do not fit readily into the social structure, and in one way or another they seek a refuge where they can enjoy a more or less solitary freedom. At times, men with this temperament have been of great historical importance; the early Christians and the American pioneers represent two species of the genus. Sometimes the refuge is mental, sometimes physical; sometimes it demands the complete solitude of a hermitage, sometimes the social solitude of a monastery. Among mental refugees are those who belong to obscure sects, those whose interests are absorbed by innocent fads, and those who occupy themselves with recondite and unimportant forms of erudition. Among physical refugees are men who seek the frontier of civilisation, and such explorers as Bates, the ‘naturalist on the Amazon’, who lived happily for fifteen years without other society than the Indians. Something of the hermit’s temper is an essential element in many forms of excellence, since it enables men to resist the lure of popularity, to pursue important work in spite of general indifference or hostility, and to arrive at opinions which are opposed to prevalent errors. Of those who withdraw, some are not genuinely indifferent to power, but only unable to obtain it by the usual methods. Such men may become saints or heresiarchs, founders of monastic orders or of new schools in art or literature. They attach to themselves as disciples people who combine a love of submission with an impulse to revolt; the latter prevents orthodoxy, while the former leads to uncritical adoption of the new tenets. Tolstoy and his followers illustrate this pattern. The genuine solitary is quite different. A perfect example of this type is the melancholy Jacques, who shares exile with the good Duke because it is exile; and afterwards remains in the forest with the bad Duke rather than return to Court. Many American pioneers, after suffering long hardship and privation, sold their farms and moved further West as soon as civilisation caught up with them. For men of this temperament, the world affords fewer and fewer opportunities. Some drift into crime, some into a morose and anti-social philosophy. Too much contact with their fellow-men produces misanthropy, which, when solitude is unattainable, turns naturally towards violence

It would, I think, be fair to suggest that I have some familiarity with this feeling, and I’ve never seen it so artfully explained.

Droning on about prudence

It would be fair to say America’s so-called ‘drone warfare’ has been a huge issue in recent weeks, and indeed recent months and years if you’ve been paying attention. Its higher than ever profile has seen debate about the efficacy and ethics of such attacks become fiercer than ever. In as much as I’m not instinctively opposed to either American power or killing one’s enemies, I’m typically conflicted about the use of air power in this way. Indeed, my first thought is always to remember that this is merely another manifestation of the USA’s long-standing obsession with air power. The whole ‘drone’ angle is a pointless distraction, in part because the presence of a pilot makes no difference ethically, and in part because UAVs aren’t ‘drones’. The ethical issues remain rooted in the use of air-power itself, America’s traditional fetish for it, and the cowardice that lies behind it.

It is neither the efficacy nor the ethics which most concern me here, instead it is the decision-making behind the ‘program’ which worries me most. This may seem callous in the face of hundreds of dead civilians and the considerable potential for blowback, but, as some of the Obama administration’s more cogent critics have noted, the implications for the future of the American presidency could be much more damaging in the long-run. The growing power of the President over foreign affairs has been a widely-recognised trend for a very long time, and never moreso than with the dramatic escalation of that power during the Bush administration. Whilst this tendency has been slowed during Obama’s first term, the extent to which he has taken direct control over the so-called drone programs is right up there with the worst of Bush’s moves to centralise power. Whilst Obama will do much less immediate damage with this power than Bush wrought with his, the fact remains that he has, effectively, appointed himself, and therefore the Presidency, and therefore any and all of his successors, the position of judge, jury and executioner. As cliché as that sounds, there really isn’t any better way of expressing it. Obama clearly trusts his own judgement on the matter of which of America’s enemies should be targeted for assassination, but could he place that faith in Michelle Bachman or Rick Perry? In essence, that is what his direct control over the assassination program implies, he has set a precedent which, much as any Presidential assumption of power, could have terrible consequences for the future of the republic.

What is most tragic about Obama assuming the role of assassin-in-chief, as his critics put it, is that it is such a classic error in statesmanship and one which Obama should have known to avoid. It seems clear to me that the main reason Obama has taken such direct control of the assassination program, with all the dangerous implications of that, is because he feels such great moral responsibility for the actions he, as commander-in-chief, must directly order. Many scoffed at the lines in the New York Times piece referencing Obama’s study of just war theory, but everything we know about him suggests that he takes these things very seriously. Indeed, we know this, in no small part, because of his repeatedly stated passion for the works and wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr, however, would recognise the folly in Obama’s actions, and the fundamental tragedy in putting what might be deemed the obviously moral course ahead of the prudent, and therefore truly moral, action. I find myself surprised, disappointed even, to see a supposed pupil of Niebuhr make this mistake, because it is such a perfect example of the tragic irony which Niebuhr warned against. In seeking to sate his own sense of right and wrong, Obama has pushed America a little bit further along a very dangerous path. In other words, he’d be best served not by reading Augustine and Aquinas, but by reacquainting himself with his own nation’s finest theologian.

Promethean ineptitude

As many spoilers as the trailers. Lots, in other words.

There was a portentous name in Prometheus‘ opening credits. Unfortunately my sense was of vague recognition rather than the more appropriate dread. Much later I had an epiphany as to the script’s ironically impalpable progenitor, but I would still have said then that I had found the film to be a tolerable enough experience. Then it ended, and there was discussion, and then there was ranting. The following is, by and large, based on that…elucidation.

My initially accepting response had some merit. Most obviously there was Michael Fassbender’s typically intense and intensely captivating performance as the android David. Every single review that has been or ever will be written will place this performance front and centre, and it’s such a shame that the film itself did not do the same. I was in love from the moment we saw how David had created his look and mannerisms, and it was sad, and sadly typical, that that potentially enthralling aspect went nowhere. Everyone knows that Fassbender is the outstanding actor of his generation, and while David was very prominent in the film, there could have been so much more. Instead much of his arc is incoherent, and often flirts with resembling nothing so much as an undergraduate rewriting of Blade Runner. I would like to say this was symptomatic of Prometheus as a whole, but frankly no other aspect of the film had as much promise.

The other focus of positive reviews has been Prometheus‘ stunning good looks. Indeed these visuals, especially the opening Malickian landscapes, waterfalls and double helices, reminded me of my initial desire to see Prometheus in IMAX. Irritatingly, this wasn’t an option in two dimensions, and I’ve no interest in the third. The film was a visual treat regardless of scene size, both for those landscapes and for the Gigertechture to be found on planet LV223. Sadly, a nod to the original designer of Alien provides a perfect moment to begin listing Prometheus‘ flaws, but first I should say there was one aspect of the design work that worked. Whilst it could be seen as a huge cop-out, an insult even, to have a new design for the much-anticipated Space Jockeys supplant the original classic, I enjoyed their image as a perfected, yet otherworldly, humanity, even if they brought to mind the long-forgotten 1990s BBC mini-series Invasion: Earth.


Not quite as wasted as Fassbender.

More than anything else, this film was a waste. A waste of potential, a waste of ideas, a waste of talent, a waste of money and a waste of time. Worst of all, it is a waste of Alien. Ridley Scott likes to insist his film merely shares ‘strands of Alien‘s DNA’. Prometheus, however, has made it abundantly clear that Ridley Scott knows nothing about DNA, and apparently very little about his most iconic work, to which this is very definitely a prequel. Indeed this is probably the film’s greatest frustration, for any number of reasons. Prometheus felt not unlike its producers, having written a screenplay for an overt prequel to Alien, had realised roughly half an hour before entering production that they couldn’t get the rights. It is an entirely clumsy collection of nods and winks to the themes and symbols of the 1979 classic. None more clumsily handled than perhaps Alien‘s most (in)famous metaphor. Famously deconstructed by Professor Moffat, the chestburster as foetus motif has been run into the ground over the decades. However even the relative subtlety of Alien Resurrection was beyond the writers of Prometheus, and so now we have an alien be literally ejaculated into a woman’s literal uterus, and then removed by a little caesarian section. I don’t have the words to express my contempt for this, even if it provided the film’s best scene, and it inspired me to ask out loud if every generation gets the Alien film it deserves.


Okay, nobody deserved that.

And so we are brought to the most direct use of the Alien heritage. Noomi Rapace’s horrifically traumatising and physically devastating surgery is quickly forgotten, to the extent that it is not even mentioned, beyond hints of quite understandable post-partum trauma, until right at the end. A Jockey which, sharing ethnicity with Michael Myers, had decides to live down to that example, runs into Rapace’s now-fully grown chest burster whilst hunting its mother. Said creature has become an enormous bundle of CGI tentacles, and eventually overpowers and penetrates the Space Jockey, but not before making us all appreciate the decline of creature design in films. All of this is to set up the final, insultingly unsubtle scene: Just so we’re absolutely clear that this is an Alien film, we are provided with a stinger in which a fully grown xenomorph variant bursts from the Space Jockey’s chest. Fully grown, presumably, because the audience wasn’t trusted to remember one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. This take on perhaps the most legendary creature design ever was seemingly developed by forcing a four year old to watch Alien 3 and then handing him a blue crayon. Attempting to rationalise this abominable imitator afterwards, all I could think to do was compare it to cheap Chinese knock-offs of Pokemon.


In other words…

At this moment I feel compelled to suggest a rule for the production of new Alien films. Either exclusively use Giger’s original designs, hire him to work on your film, or don’t make a fucking Alien film.

Enough, however, about how this is a poor Alien film: Prometheus is a poor film on its own merits. Its flaws are mostly congenital, and few films can cope with an utterly inept screenplay. The film was clearly intended as an intelligent meditation on the biggest questions there are, with a nice coating of sci-fi horror. It could hardly have missed these goals more spectacularly. The attempt to combine a maelstrom of themes and classic sci-fi and horror tropes predictably miscarries, and the result is wildly incoherent in tone and quality. This might be deemed a brave if foolhardy attempt, were it not for the patent lack of care involved. The writers simply lack craft, and the attempt to tackle so much at once suggests not bravery but recklessness and a desire to confuse the audience into awe. The screenplay is simply terrible on a technical level, in a way which is glaringly obvious even to an amateur. Prometheus‘ writing is so inept that one could teach a module on how not to write a screenplay with the film as the entire syllabus.

Everybody loves a plot hole, and Prometheus provides an abudance. I’ve read a few online discussions of the film and so far most have eventually descended into extensive and laboured justifications for huge logical gaps. The first, and my first moment of unease, came with the Prometheus’ arrival. Almost literally nothing here coheres, but the fact that the ship accidentally stumbles upon the most important place on the planet is most absurd, and isn’t redeemed by the great observation that ‘God doesn’t build in straight lines’. Indeed God doesn’t (much), but our ‘engineers’ do. They make up for this sequential geography with some rather non-Euclidean thinking.

You see they’ve visited many burgeoning civilisations in our distant past and have left us with a map: clear directions to what we are lead to expect is their homeworld. Except, of course, the map they’d laced the world with pointed, for some reason, to an ancient biological weapons factory (cheers, captain exposition), which had later been used to develop a weapon intended to visit death upon their creations. This is especially disappointing because the most initially compelling aspect of the film was the issue of why the Jockeys had left so tantalising an invitation across human history. Unfortunately this element of the screenplay, as with so many others, was designed to get us from A to B, and once there was put out of mind.

The plot may never have been redeemed by a late twist, but our heroes were, in the form of the sudden and previously unmentioned existence of other ships. This was bad enough in terms of massively complicating the situation on the planet and undermining much of the plot, not to mention lazily providing a sudden and jarringly hopeful ending. The bigger oddity, however, is that Jockey Myers ignores these escape options upon crashing, and instead makes an implausibly hasty bee-line (at the speed of plot) for Shaw’s downed escape pod, conveniently housing a face-hugger designed, presumably, for the giant, poster-adorning head. Indeed, ‘convenient’ is our watch word. Things do not happen for logical reasons, nor do characters act in believable ways, instead everything happens to the convenience of the story, for example:

-The captain abandons monitoring the abandoned crew members, conveniently leaving them completely isolated.
-The captain leaves his ship so that Theron and Fassbender can carry out their side mission unmonitored.
-Charlie’s illness takes hold just in time to prevent a proper investigation of the remains of the two corpses.
-The crew’s biologist finds an alien corpse to be so uninteresting that he prefers to walk off in the other direction.
-The crewmember who was in charge of mapping the complex gets lost.
-The most advanced medical technology in history is gendered, purely so as to provide a ‘cryptic’ clue as to Weyland’s presence on-board.
-Said financier is aboard his own mission in secret.
-Everyone is perfectly willing to remove their helmets in a quite literally alien environment, even after said environment has been shown to be incredibly dangerous.
-The black goo has no distinct properties, instead functioning in whatever way the writers need it to function at any one time.
-And many, many more.

Mostly these are example of characters being excessively stupid to advance the plot, almost the worst kind of lazy writing. Unfortunately, that last example actually is worse, and is a perfect encapsulation of the hackery of Prometheus‘ writers. The black goo is essentially a metaphor for the entire screenplay, it is a literal plot device.


Oh right, Damon Lindelof, of course.

Beyond these mere conveniences and contrivances, however, there are the moments which transcend plot-holes and lazy writing, and suggest nothing so much as a writer with anterograde amnesia. Elements, themes, characters and even whole scenes are routinely forgotten, falling off the Promethean band-wagon, never to be referenced again. My personal favourite saw the two men left behind return to what would best be described as the giant head room (GHR). Having spent all his preceding scenes reeling in utmost terror at the slightest provocation, including indulging in some genre savy flight from an ominous bleep, Milburn’s response to a snake-like alien is, obviously, to talk about how cute it is and attempt to pet it, with inevitably horrible results. The scene almost read as a parody of similar ‘coochie coochie AH!!!’ moments in a million and one horror films. Amusing, no doubt, but utterly jarring.

Indeed the GHR serves as an alternate reality of sorts, with any event occurring there seeming not to exist in the film’s universe. Its primary function is to intrigue and disturb us, with various hints as to the film’s heritage. These include an egg/crystal type object on a dais at the rear of the room, which inspires comically obnoxious ‘scientist’ Charlie to proclaim the GHR a tomb. The egg is never mentioned again, nor is Charlie’s bold claim. So it is with a chilling mural, which forms an utterly unmistakable image.


Boo!

The significance of this mural is illusory, and it is soon invalidated by the development of the Digimon xenomorph. The mural begins to change, perhaps decaying in response to its first exposure to the elements in millenia, and suddenly a deadly storm occurs, which the film appears to imply is a direct result of our heroes’ tampering, but this connection is never mentioned again. Finally, a fun quandry to round out our time in the GHR. The crew are drawn to the room by a hologram depicting several space jockeys retreating to the GHR, and sealing themselves, their deadly egg-vases and their unfortunate colleague’s severed head in a perfectly sterile environment. So where are they two thousand years later?


Prometheus, thankfully, lacks Arctic wildlife mysteries.

The undisputed heavyweight champion of Promethean screenwriting ineptitude (with the possible exception of Theron’s parentage) is a scene which I can only presume was written and shot so the trailer could be made to give the appearance of action horror. One of our earlier isolated chaps, presumably the geologist who got black plot device all over his face, suddenly and inexplicably reappears in front of the Prometheus, in a deformed state. Logically enough he is allowed onto the ship, where he proceeds to murder a large part of the crew, none of whom had been seen before. The scene is completely devoid of any build-up or explanation, and is then, quite literally, never mentioned again during the film, despite its massive implications. This is an attractive film with some great performances, and I have no problem with people enjoying films which are badly written, but let’s be clear: Prometheus has an objectively terrible screenplay.


IN SPACE!

It was only much later, whilst watching the film’s denouement with increasing bemusement that I remembered Damon Lindelof and his rap sheet. There really could be no more accurate and telling description of this film than the statement that it is an Alien prequel by one of the writers from Lost. However we can not, sadly, excuse the midwife that brought Prometheus into this world. Ridley Scott is a powerful director, he is responsible for everything about this movie, and unfortunately it would appear that Scott, for all his technical expertise, was completely on-board with Lindelof’s ridiculous hackery. In defense of this claim I present just the one piece of evidence. A central plot point is that our creators decided to destroy us, and this decision is said to date back 2000 years. That dating instantly puts one in mind of the obvious events of two millenia ago, and, yes, that was intended:

‘If you look at it as an “our children are misbehaving down there” scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, “Lets’ send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it. Guess what? They crucified him.’


The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts your brain.

When David asked his creator’s creator an impenetrable question, we can easily see him, and his eager companions, as audience proxies, asking for an explanation for all the incoherent jumble which made up their lives and our film-going experience. Jockey Myers’ response is to mutely destroy the askers and prove to them that there are no answers, things happen ‘because they can’, life doesn’t make sense. It’s just about possible that was the point of the film, the incoherence was deliberate, and Lindelof is a subversive genius. However it seems rather more likely that, as the disappointed and dying Wayland puts it: ‘There is nothing’.

The Graveyard of Empires

The title famously refers to Afghanistan, and I’ve never liked it. I have it in mind because I’ve been reading a book which might be seen to back up the assertion, but which actually reminded me of why I dislike it so much. David Loyn’s Butcher and Bolt: Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan is exactly as it sounds, and it’s rather good at it. That two hundred years, much like the previous two and a half thousand, can be easily characterised as one of imperial failure, but that’s far too simple a narrative. Britain’s adventures in the 19th century take up a large chunk of Loyn’s book, and it not hard to claim that the empire exercised what was considered a sufficient degree of control over Afghanistan for over a century, even with the intermittent (and admittedly spectacular) setbacks. Plenty of others have had considerable ‘success’. The Mughal Emperors, for example, didn’t have too bad a time of it. Indeed, the history of Afghanistan is almost invariably a history of imperial activity, in all its forms. The truth is that all empires recede in time, invariably with some embarrassing defeats and retreats along the way. Large parts of Afghanistan are pure romance, and so a few high profile imperial failures combined with popular perception of a wild frontier and a supposedly indomitable populace and the legend-cum-cliche prospers.


Afghanistan: really, really, ridiculously good looking.

There’s plenty of writing out there rebutting the ‘graveyard’ thesis, usually citing examples such as those above or even Afghanistan remaining Seleucid for many decades after Alexander’s death. The strongest point, however, is that Afghanistan’s supposed resistance to one empire has tended to be due to the influence of another. The British in the 19th century had Russia to contend with, and the Russians in the 1980s had to face Charlie Wilson and the seemingly bottomless pockets of his Saudi friends. One could hardly call Pakistan an empire, but it is that nation’s imperialism which will eventually kill off NATO’s admittedly half-arsed effort. So part of my dislike of the ‘graveyard’ idea is that it is a perfect example of lazy history, the kind which picks up a simple narrative and ignores or squashes anything which doesn’t fit.


A graveyard of imperials, certainly.

There’s a bigger issue than the poor history behind the concept, however. Afghanistan does after all, have as good a record for frustrating imperial ambition as anywhere. Rather it is the lazy characterisation of the place and its peoples that such history encourages that is the real problem. The outside world has repeatedly used these stereotypes to wash its hands of Afghanistan, no more scandalously so than in the early 90s, when Afghanistan’s darkest moments drew effectively no interest from the so-called international community. There is a tendency to see the living tenants of the ‘graveyard’ as either somehow alien and inscrutable, or simply beyond civilisation. Afghans have long been seen by many as so bizarre, so distant from supposedly civilised people, as to be unknowable. Worse, they are seen as capable of savagery apparently incomprehensible to our lofty ideals. The inevitable response to seeing a country as a graveyard, and its people as alien, is to throw up one’s hands and declare the place best ignored. The two interlinked images of Afghans are perfectly represented by the two Afghan faces most famous in the west. One an ethereal, almost otherworldly face, the other marked by staggering violence:


One could do a PhD on media portrayals of asian women based on these two images alone.

Before one can take issue with the stereotypes themselves there must be derision heaped on their basis in the laughable idea of a singular Afghan people, an idea seemingly based on a presumption that Afghan means Pashtun. Indeed both Sharbut Gula and Bibi Aisha are Pashtun, as are a plurality of Afghans, but hardly a majority. Afghanistan is a huge and typically artificial country, with multiple ethnic groups and two sharply different official languages. While it is understandable that the east and south of the country, and the border/frontier region in particular, grabs most of the headlines, it is myopic in the extreme to ignore the entire rest of the country and the Hazara, Tajiks and so on who inhabit it. Of course, one can’t stereotype an entire people anyway, but it does make the tendency all the more irritating. The bigger problem is, again, not the intellectual sloth itself, but the abundant bigotry that results.


The only other Afghan face you’re likely to see in western media is one possessing beard, turban and kalashnikov.

Reading Butcher and Bolt has been fascinating in light of this desire for a more nuanced understanding of the people of Afghanistan. Most of the research I’ve done on Afghanistan has had a heavy focus on politics, religion and violence, but my favourite read has been The Places Inbetween, Rory Stewart’s account of walking across the country and meeting its people in the immediate aftermath of the NATO invasion. The connection with Loyn’s work is to be found in the multiple accounts of 19th century Afghans written by Britons, Russians and Indians on various imperial endeavours. When reading these accounts all I could think of was the many Afghans that Stewart described in detail, and how smilar the people of two different centuries were. In large part this is because they’re people, after all, and humanity varies relatively little across era or culture. It goes beyond that though, Loyn’s 19th century sources and Rory Stewart’s early 21st century accounts have a remarkable synergy, in some instances they could almost be describing the same people. Of course, Stewart is perhaps the closest thing you’ll find to a 19th century cavalry officer in the modern day, and this somewhat comparable outlook makes the similarities in character all the more striking.


Roderick James Nugent Stewart OBE FRSL MP, just possibly born in the wrong century

At this point the logical choice would be provide direct comparisons, but, annoyingly, I’ve misplaced my copy of The Places in Between. Regardless, the conclusion can be drawn that the people of Afghanistan are not mysterious and alien, it is simply that those Afghans who are the focus of media attention tend to be the poor and tribal, those who live lives largely untouched by the industrialisation that so completely defines the West. And yet even these differences remain blatantly superficial. Every account I’ve encountered has been relentlessly human, with all the tragic glory that defines our species. Even with an astonishingly stagnant, poor, and tribal society, Pashtuns, once you get past honour codes and language and so on, seem to be little more inscrutable than the French. Indeed Afghanistan itself is nothing special, it isn’t the supposed ‘graveyard of empires’, and nor is it some inscrutable wilderness full of bizarre alien peoples. Afghanistan is no more exceptional or inscrutable than Hungary or Indonesia or the United Kingdom, it just labours under certain lazy and dismissive stereotypes in the West. Stereotypes which are not only wrong, but have been, and will continue to be, deeply harmful.

Hit ‘return’ to ruin your life

A teacher friend of mine told me yesterday that upwards of thirty teachers in Lancashire have been disciplined for comments on social media sites, and three have been sacked. That aspect of internet usage has been covered extensively and by now, to be frank, everybody should be aware of the permanent nature of the internet. However, we were all teenagers once, and we all said very stupid things on an at least daily basis, and some of us did so online. And the conversation with my friend reminded me of a very low-level kerfuffle last week involving up and coming leftie Owen Jones, which in turn reminded me of a long-held fear/expectation. A blog uncovered an email written by Jones when he was sixteen, in which he railed against contemporary Stalinists, in a less than polite manner. I shan’t link the blog which did the revealing, because no matter how inevitable such a thing is it is still despicable, but I’ll quote the opening:

You stupid fuck.. You fucking have the nerve to speak like that you retarded moron. There’s some fuckers I don’t take this shit off, and Stalin worshipping brain dead fucks like you are one of them. You’re the type of shit who could have gone either way…fascist or Stalinist…as long as you can make your wank fantasies about pulling people’s guts out come true. You reckon you’re hard core being a Stalinist…why no just become a Marilyn Manson fan you reject shit

It goes on like that for awhile.

Most of what Jones said as an angry sixteen year old is hard to disagree with, and his tone is simply that of the average teenage male, as far as I can remember, but you can imagine there’s much worse out there. For him, for others, and certainly for me. Being a high profile political or cultural commentator is bad enough in terms of making enemies, but imagine the muck-raking the internet-using politicians of this generation are going to face. I’ve thought before that future generations will be completely immune to shame of this sort, because privacy is being voluntarily done away with. We’ll know absolutely everything about politicians long before they get near office, and perhaps that will make for a better understanding of the essential humanity of everyone, even Members of Parliament. Certainly we’re all going to enjoy reading the chatlogs of the 2040s equivalent of Barack Obama. My generation, however, will face the unfortunate combination of (soon to be) old fashioned standards and newfangled technology. The lucky ones who never posted on a web forum or had a Myspace page or even used any kind of webmail in their teens can hope to have a high-profile life in the coming decades without the most basic of online skullduggery causing immense embarrassment. The substantial minority who have offered opinions online from a young age, well, we’re unlikely to be so lucky…

The future’s shite, the future’s blogging

A few days ago whilst trawling the job sites I came across this, a job I’m typically under-qualified for. The most interesting part was this:

You’ll be required to have expertise in the workings of the Labour Party. You’ll have a comprehensive knowledge of the Labour Party and a good awareness of constitutional affairs.

Being not a complete imbecile, I recognised that the BBC Political Research Unit must employ party-specific analysts, which I hadn’t known but makes perfect sense. So you can imagine my bemusement to see this inoffensive job ad reappear as the latest bit of incoherent grist for British politics’ most banal and destructive mill. Or, to be more depressingly accurate, the leading light of British political blogging. Now, Paul Staines and his sidekick Harry Cole, the veritable Beeblebrox behind ‘Guido Fawkes’, are many things, but I strongly doubt they are lobotomised. As such, when one of those bizarre creatures of the Right that lurk the internet looking for evidence of ‘cultural marxism’ and the like excitedly emailed this in, whichever one of the braintrust does the actual blogging these days (presumably Cole) will have known full well that there was nothing to see here. Unsurprisingly this didn’t stop him, because even running a website supposedly read by hundreds of members of parliament doesn’t imbue in these men any sense of responsibility to be truthful.

Whilst tame compared to some of its brethren across the Atlantic, Guido Fawkes is about as bad as it gets in high profile British blogging, but it is simply the highest peak in a mountain of shit. There is an utter lack of integrity in vast swathes political blogging, of which this nonsense is merely a particularly inane example, and it’s doing so much damage already that one can only look to the likely future primacy of the internet with dread. There are thousands of examples of just this one facet of the evils of internet media every single day, wherein a blog invents a story based on little to nothing, and all its fellow travellers leap aboard and ride the bandwagon roughshod over any standards of integrity and critical thinking one might hope political commentators to have.

A particularly memorable example to me, for the permanent impression of political blogging it left me with, was a quiet day in the midst of the god-awful 2008 US presidential race. Barack Obama, in a speech to veterans, mentioned that his uncle had been part of the liberation of Auschwitz, and that it had had a horrible effect on the man. A brief personal relation to the horrors of war, or so you’d think. Subsequently all hell broke loose, with the usual suspects frothing at the mouth about Obama’s supposed deceit. For an entire day I watched as the outrage built to a crescendo, with this being an apt example. Except, of course, there was no deceit, merely a simple semantic mistake, as Obama’s uncle had actually been at Buchenwald. An unfortunate mistake, but with Auschwitz having become virtually synonymous with the holocaust for many, not an especially surprising one. But what proportion of the hundreds of thousands who lapped up that outrage ever learned the truth? It simply isn’t about being accurate, it’s about being first and being loudest. It’s about winning, regardless of means or consequences.

And perhaps the most depressing habit comes when bloggers are called out on their distortions, and, for whatever reason, feel the need to correct their initial and usually deliberate ‘mistake’. On these rare occasions they follow an even worse version of the tabloids’ trusty ‘one inch retraction on page 17’. The done thing is to update the initial post, several days later, and with the details of the inevitably half-hearted retraction below the jump. It’s the equivalent of screaming accusations at someone in a public place, and then muttering under your breath that you made them up. Three days later. At four in the morning.

Despite the great work done across the world by many bloggers, there can be no doubt that, much like their print forerunners, the most successful by far are a feckless nightmare of deceit, partisanship and astroturfing. Worse, it is almost certain that blogs and other online news and opinion sources are going to edge out traditional media in the long-run. And while the good of blogging is often better than print, the bad is so, so much worse, and there is nothing that can be done. Calling for regulation of the press is equal parts unsettling and pointless, so hoping for regulation of political blogging would be Canutesque. Equally unlikely is a slowing of the rising tide of influential bloggers, and so the nightmare scenario is that the likes of Drudge or Fawkes will gain the influence and prestige of a Fox News or a News of the World without even their modicum of standards and accountability. Ideally you could convince bloggers to adopt some kind of code of conduct, but if self-regulation achieved next to nothing with the press, it’ll get nowhere online. There are many out there, on all angles of the political spectrum, who abound with integrity, but we all know that their already limited share of the traffic is only going to be further marginalised as the web’s importance grows. Sadly, such people are, to co-opt Henry Winter’s recent wonderful turn of phrase, broadsheet men and women in the most tabloid world imaginable.

Returning to Fawkes, I ventured into the comments to see how many people were calling the site out on its nonsensical innuendo. Aside from killing another small part of my humanity, it was worthwhile because someone had been good enough to root out a recent job ad for another position in the beeb’s political affairs unit, which included the following requirement:

You will be required to have a good working knowledge of and expertise in the Conservative Party.

‘Shameless’ doesn’t even begin to cover it…

The prescience of Reinhold Niebuhr

One of the more enjoyable aspects of Amazon’s Kindle, despite its very basic software, is the ability to make notes. Heavily graffitied, dog-eared paperbacks could well be a thing of the past, although my copy of Moby Dick with every third page in a right state will always be a little precious to me. As I said, the software is limited, and so all notes and clippings are piled into one document, and yesterday I was searching that document for a particularly compelling paragraph I’d ‘clipped’ from Howard’s End, and stumbled across the digital annotating I’d done whilst reading The Irony of American History. Niebuhr is, without doubt, my favourite philosopher and my intellectual hero, and his wisdom is unforgettable. What I had forgotten, however, just how prescient he could be. Not only can you see a great deal of the path the Cold War was to take hinted at, but Niebuhr also foresaw much of what we face in the America-dominated early 21st century, and so I present some brief passages from a book published sixty years ago.

-The charge is the more absurd since it is quite probable that the American class structure will become more fixed as the nation moves toward the final limits of an expanding economy.

-The second weakness in the American political and economic situation is that the lip service which the whole culture pays to the principles of laissez-faire makes for tardiness in dealing with the instability of a free economy, when the perils of inflation or deflation arise. They are finally dealt with pragmatically; but not before the consequences of inaction have become very apparent. Some believe that the lessons taught in the great depression of 1929 have been so well learned that a recurrence of such a catastrophe is impossible; but it is not altogether certain that this is true.

-A nation with an inordinate degree of political power is doubly tempted to exceed the bounds of historical possibilities, if it is informed by an idealism which does not understand the limits of man’s wisdom and volition in history.

-It is important, therefore, that the fragmentary wisdom of any nation should be prevented from achieving the bogus omniscience, which occurs when the weak are too weak to dare challenge the opinion of the powerful.

-The fact that the European nations, more accustomed to the tragic vicissitudes of history, still have a measure of misgiving about our leadership in the world community is due to their fear that our “technocratic” tendency to equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of history could tempt us to lose patience with the tortuous course of history. We might be driven to hysteria by its inevitable frustrations. We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two. A democracy can not of course, engage in an explicit preventive war. But military leadership can heighten crises to the point where war becomes unavoidable.

-Our foreign policy is thus threatened with a kind of apoplectic rigidity and inflexibility. Constant proof is required that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor. Unfortunately the only persuasive proof seems to be the disavowal of precisely those discriminate judgments which are so necessary for an effective conflict with the evil, which we are supposed to abhor.

There’s much, much more to be found in the book itself, and many more bits of prescient wisdom that I clipped and could have shared. It is not without cause that The Irony of American History is considered by some to be the most important book ever written about American foreign policy. It is, to my mind, a must-read for anyone with a real interest in understanding American power, and indeed the role of power in international relations more generally.

Links IV

It’s almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to be related to someone who is so deeply disturbed that they are highly dangerous, but Greg Bottoms gives some idea of how awful it must be. As he recounts the tale of receiving a message from his brother, incarcerated in a mental health unit after trying to kill his family years previously, you can almost feel the shadow it casts over his life.

Tom Scott is a genius, and in an ideal world his Nick Davies inspired ‘journalism warning labels’ would be compulsory. Of course, in an ideal world, journalists probably wouldn’t regurgitate press releases as news…

Everyone is aware of just how relentlessly hypocritical politicians are about moral issues, especially those on the right, and especially when it comes to sex. Julian Sanchez uses everyone’s favourite latter-day platonist to account for the rampant pietism of the modern republican party. In essence it is less hypocrisy, more unspeakable elitism. Now let us all titter at the notion of Rick Santorum, philosopher king.

I imagine this happens to everyone at times, finding oneself reading an article from quite awhile ago for no apparent reason. Sir Hilary Synnott died six months ago, but this obituary will always be worth reading, detailing, as it does, the sheer insanity of the unplanned and half-arsed occupation of Iraq.

I love the word ‘meh’, it’s such a perfect statement of sheer ennui. Indeed it appears to be massively popular, inspiring Ben Zimmer to consider how much damage it’s doing to Mitt ‘Meh’ Romney. I hadn’t give its origins any thought, but had I done so for more than a few seconds I’m confident I would have accurately guessed its Yiddish roots.

You really don’t see this enough, and it’s certainly a welcome sign: Somebody bemoaning the facile War on Drugs in a major newspaper other than the Guardian. Daniel Knowles of The Telegraph (!) makes the point that should be obvious to anyone: Destroying several developing nations and killing tens of thousands every year purely to try and stop Russell Brand ruining his own life is damn near the dictionary definition of a morally bankrupt exercise.

iPlayer archive

Daniel Knowles is one of the more interesting voices in the Telegraph, admittedly not that great an achievement considering the competition prominently includes the psychotic Nile Gardiner, professional troll James Delingpole and the only Briton that I know to have had a major Hollywood film based on how much of a tool he is*. Regardless, if you can look past his comically public school profile picture he’s rather readable, especially when he comes out with very un-Telegraph ideas, such as social workers being, by and large, worthy of our admiration. Part of Knowles’ case is based on the recent BBC documentary series ‘Protecting our Children‘, which I saw the first two episodes of. You, however, can not see this fascinating insight into a vitally important and neglected part of British society, because it was shown more than a week ago.

The BBC iPlayer is a fine thing, especially since they started opening it up to multiple formats. It’s vastly superior to the competition, even 4OD, in all respects bar one: everything is removed after a week at the very most. This has always seemed ridiculously arbitrary and entirely without merit, especially in comparison to the impressive archive 4OD offers. Not least because Channel 4 is actually a money-making organisation that should, in theory, have far greater concerns about undercutting DVD sales than a corporation with a legally guaranteed income. Clearly the DVD issue is involved, and perhaps the BBC’s need to make a few quid excuses a lack of long term availability for the likes of ‘Doctor Who’ or ‘Call the Midwife’, but ‘Protecting our Children’ is hardly likely to be appearing on Amazon any time soon. So why no archive of any sort, especially when such a thing exists for much of BBC radio.

The reasoning behind this absence isn’t entirely clear. It occurred to me to email the BBC and ask, but they were completely useless and obfuscating beyond some vague comments about ‘legal issues’. I remember reading years ago that a planned archive was shelved due, at least in part, to opposition from other broadcasters. Unsurprisingly Sky was the forefront of this and so when it’s come up in conversation in the past (there is a clamour for it, it’s not just me wanting to be able to watch ‘The Ascent of Man’) I’ve tended to blame Rupert Murdoch. There’s clearly more to it than that however, and recent developments have me annoyed on two fronts. The BBC recently rolled out an international version of the iPlayer, available on subscription, and Australians and the rest do get to see some archival content, for an annual cost of roughly a third of the licence fee. Not so unreasonable, until you learn that the BBC is finally edging towards progress, but intends to charge us for the privilege of watching TV we’ve already paid for. Oh well, at least this long overdue feature is on it’s way. I can look forward to being overcharged to watch old documentaries as soon as 2016…

*If for some reason Toby Young ever saw this post and was disappointed to learn I don’t like him, which seems unlikely on both counts, then he could at least support my argument here. One interesting documentary that I’ve seen on the iPlayer in the past, and which I imagine he feels should be available permanently, was his argument for Free Schools.