Friday, July 28, 2006

Ming at the Power Enquiry

I have been watching today the BBC Parliament coverage of the Power Enquiry. I know I'm rather behind the times again on this one, but nonetheless I found it engaging viewing. I learnt a few things:

1. Saira Khan is a drivelling idiot. She couldn't open her mouth without some horrendous, almost Prescott-like, ill-formed sentence wresting its way out. That wouldn't be so bad necessarily (indeed, I find it quite endearing in Prescott, where he is usually quite self-deprecatingly honest about it). Unfortunately, her tone and facial expression made it clear that she felt she was giving voice to a profoundly beautiful flight of oration that cut through all the crap and spoke directly to the masses. This is, however, not the case. She simply waffled her way through a lot of pretty worthless platitudes.

2. Ming Campbell has some views that I especially like. For the first time since he became leader, I was able to sit watching his speech and his subsequent Q&A session with a real sense that he was genuinely hitting the nail on the head regarding what I believe. In the past few days, that, plus his principled stand on the current Lebanon crisis (in stark contrast to all but a few MPs from Labour and Conservative benches) has reassured me that I am in the right party. What frustrated me, however, is the sense that I was seeing something unusual.

Ming is quite capable of delivering a storming speech (indeed, he gave a pretty good one on the one occasion I have seen him speak in person, at the Cambridge leadership hustings), and he does so from time to time. For whatever reasons, though, he is not getting the traction he needs in the national media. I don't know why, and as today's dissappointing story in the Guardian makes clear, the party is suffering. I can't really find it in myself to blame Sir Ming for this, though. Whenever I see him do anything, it's almost without fail something that I wholeheartedly support his doing. It's just the "seeing him" part that's the problem.

As a Lib Dem member, I see more than most of his leadership, and even I don't see all that much. Very simply, he desperately needs to whore himself out to the press a bit more, force his way into TV studios, etc. Maybe he is, maybe it is all the media's fault in their failure to portray much of it. That is, after all, a popular refrain of Lib Dems since time immemorial. I don't honestly know. What I do know is, it's a problem. It's his only real problem. Ming has a sound political head on his shoulders, and an engaging style when he's on form. It's just a matter of connecting.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Late Doctor Who Thoughts

Crikey. I've just got back from Italy (where I had the privaledge of watching the World Cup final and, more importantly, the celebrations that followed), and hence just caught up on the finale to series 2.

So, since I've been looking at themes of the series, lets deal with that.

I belive we'd got up to the two-part Cyberman story in the middle of the series. Following that came "The Idiot's Lantern". This was an episode that, if anything, wore its message rather excessively on its sleeve. I mean, effectively, it was delivered in a speech by the cipher for Mark Gatiss at the end of the story, as he dresses down his father. It's about modern, permissive society, and pointing out how little we would benefit from going back to the repressive sorts of society that some of the tabloids (and even broadsheets) seem to yearn for. Fine, if a little bit sugary in its presentation. Of course, given that this is Mark Gatiss, we should probably count this as an improvement on last year (incidentally, Loz Miles, who caused such a stir last year in fandom with his review of The Unquiet Dead, has moved his website and posted a few new comments on it, which any of you still reading will likely find interesting. The link's in my sidebar. Meanwhile fandom's squabbling pit, Outpost Gallifrey's forum, has, it would seem, begun to come round to LM's argument).

Next up, we have the two part Impossible Planet/Satan Pit plotline. Probably the best standalone plot of the series, this picks up one of the classic themes of Doctor Who and Quatermass before it: that myths and religions are likely based on something that genuinely does exist, but has a valid scientific explanation. However, although it looks as though this is going to be a straightforward revival of this standpoint, we subsequently find the Doctor's indignant claims that things are "impossible" become dogmatic in their own right. As much as this is a liberal message, this is a message for the scientific and generally intelligent world, that other constituency of Who fans. The end of the story presents us, again, with perhaps excessively spelt out conclusions to draw, but in this case I was less irritated, because it wasn't quite so preachy. Nonetheless, another good message: Skepticism isn't the same as cynicism, and scientists can become every bit as dogmatic as the religious.

Love and Monsters. Well now. Clearly, this is most readable as an allegory of Who fans. RTD is telling us to make ourselves a community in our own right, and not allow our anal fact chasing tendencies to enslave us to a monolithic "fandom" entity, entirely consumed by the persuit of the Doctor. Outside of this, I find it hard to see what message this might be said to have, though I'm sure messages exist.

Fear Her is openly a pretty lightweight episode in general. It shows the London Olympics, obviously, which is an obvious attempt by the BBC to get people turned on the exciting side to the Olympics. But beyond that: I suppose basically it's about love and our need for companionship and emotional support. In that sense, and the sense of a community within the street in which it is set, one might almost call this more socialist, but then nowhere is it suggested that it has much to do with the state. Some have also pointed out that the monster, the abusive father, is in the closet. Whether or not this is reading too much of RTD's "agenda" into the episode, especially in an episode that wasn't directly written by him, is something I will leave to the reader.

From there, we move into the final two-parter. Messages are probably largely lost to the emotional fireworks that play out as the plot develops. Nonetheless, there is the standard Doctor Who warning to science not to blithely stumble into areas it doesn't sufficiently understand - a theme particularly beloved of the Barry Letts era of the show. Torchwood and in particular Tracy Ann Obermann's character represent exactly this arrogance.

So now the series is over, I'll also give a quick review of the whole thing:

To be honest, I've not found this series as compulsive viewing as the last one. I don't think that's David Tennant's fault, or especially anyone's, though, obviously, as the man at the top, RTD has to be ultimately responsible for what goes out. For whatever reasons, several of the episodes this series have felt like they are merely treading water and providing us with a bit of mucking around, especially towards the end. The experimental episode, Love and Monsters, left a nasty taste in the mouth mainly, I felt, because of an ending that degenerated into rather lazy writing as RTD almost visibly flailed around for a way to resolve the plot. Steven Moffat, author of the highlight of last year's series, was this year limited to one episode which, to me, was marred by Moffat's by now tedious insistence on adding in the "dancing" subtext. RTD's episodes were, I think, on average better but massively more variable. Tooth and Claw and the final two-parter were pretty good, whilst New Earth and Love and Monsters.... weren't.

I think the main issue, however, this year was the use of more "outside" writers. In producing the first series, RTD clearly took a decision to use the writers he knew would know what makes Doctor Who work. All the writers on series 1 had written either for the novel range or Big Finish, often both. This series, other writers were brought in. And astonishingly, if you rank the writers in order of how much connection to the series they've had, it's pretty close to how I would rank their actual episodes:

Who Connection:

Mark Gatiss - The Idiot's Lantern
Matt Jones - Impossible Planet/Satan Pit
Steven Moffat - The Girl in the Fireplace
Tom MacRae - Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel
Toby Whithouse - School Reunion
Matthew Graham - Fear Her

Episode Rating:

Matt Jones - Impossible Planet/Satan Pit
Tom MacRae - Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel
Mark Gatiss - The Idiot's Lantern
Steven Moffat - The Girl in the Fireplace
Toby Whithouse - School Reunion
Matthew Graham - Fear Her

Obviously, there's some movement there, and the correlation isn't exact. But this isn't really a conclusion I would have expected to reach quite so clearly, especially given that it didn't especially hold for last year's series (Steven Moffat has actually written the least Who of any of the writers last year, but almost unquestionably he wrote the best story). I guess there's a certain threshold of time spent immersed in the series that gets the writers thinking in a way that leads to them writing things I like. NB. I have just said "things that I like", not "things that are empirically better". Others, obviously, wouldn't have produced the same rankings as I have.

Anyway, I better stop now.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Nick Cohen - what is he on?

You may or may not have seen this in yesterday's Observer (I know, two posts about the Observer in as many days, it's not healthy):

How the Lib Dems devalue politics

To the people who fight elections rather than the people who vote in them, the Lib Dems have a reputation for dirty politics second only to the BNP. Last week, Bob Neill, the stunned Tory candidate in Bromley, condemned their 'cynical personal abuse', but I think he missed the impact of the Liberals on British politics over the past 30 years. The venom they inject matters less than their successful insistence that candidates be 'local'.

When Churchill was an MP, he barely visited his constituency. He would have regarded the idea that he had to live among his constituents as absurd. His job was to discuss the great affairs of state.

The 'pavement politics' revolution the Liberals began in the Sixties now means we have MPs who know nothing about foreign or domestic politics, but their ignorance doesn't matter. What matters is that they're 'local'.

Now, on the face of things, he might have a point about the whole "local" thing not actually producing the best candidate. But is this actually anything to do with the Lib Dems? Obviously I'm not going to deny that occasionally we might campaign on such grounds, but equally there are plenty of examples of other parties doing so. If your candidate is a well known local face and theirs isn't, then regardless of party, you're likely to try to take advantage of it.

Surely this is more a symptom of the way our democracy is set up? I mean, if you're meant to be electing a *constituency* MP, then people are going to get the impression they ought to be from their *constituency*, no? At the end of the day, these are elections. You know, where we the public express a view? If nobody saw things that way, nobody would bother trying the whole "he's not from round here" line. It wouldn't work.

If people just said "I don't care, he/she's an intelligent man/woman who I believe will make the arguments I want to see made in parliament", then the tactic wouldn't have ever achieved much traction. Clearly, then, this is something that is as much the fault of the system and how it makes people vote. In that climate, you can't blame any party, Lib Dem or otherwise, for going for the local ticket if they think it will help.

Now, should candidates be local? I'm genuinely not sure which way I feel about that question. On the one hand, it's often occurred to me that I don't feel as represented by my own MP as I do by any Lib Dem (one day, of course, I hope that problem will disappear). If we introduce a true system of PR, then the idea of a constituency MP of any sort is inevitably going to get watered down. But I don't like the idea that parliament could be made up largely of party insiders who spend even more of their time in the Westminster bubble; in some ways that would be even less representative of the country that elects them. I'll think about it. Meanwhile:

So why does Cohen target the Lib Dems for this abuse? I can't say, but to me it looks like another lazy smear from the traditional book of vague, unfounded "ooh, they play dirty in local campaigns" type statements. I've never seen any evidence to convince me that Lib Dem campaigns are typically any dirtier than those of other parties. Often quite the reverse. People like Cohen just don't seem to be able to cope with the idea that those who they disagree with are actually just regular people who disagree with them too.

He dedicates column inches, week after week, to trying to convince his readers that anyone he dislikes are hypocrites, cheats, liars, immoral, frauds, etc. Frankly, he's one of the least appealing things about the Observer. And there haven't been many things about it that I've found appealing lately.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

"Irritating Review in The Observer" shock!

Yes, I know, this is the internet, and I'm blogging about something that happened, ooh, weeks ago. By most standards, I might as well give up now.

Never mind. What I wanted to do was discuss the review that the Observer printed of Chomsky's new book "Failed States". Also of interest might be the preemptive strike that the reviewer then launches on anyone who disagrees with him, and the response which, sure enough, did then emerge from Media Lens. The response is full of a lot of waffle and I don't agree with all of it.

Nonetheless, as far as I'm concerned, what Peter Beaumont is offering in his review is nothing much more sophisticated than a hatchet job. Of course, I don't claim to have Beaumont's experience of foreign affairs, but then I don't need to. My objection to his review is quite simply that he spends most of it reviewing a book that seems to exist largely in his head.

Clearly, whenever they met, Chomsky didn't exactly make a new friend in Beaumont. This leads Beaumont to describe Chomsky in some fairly subjective and unpleasant terms (for a book review; it's not exactly going to set the world alight): "nagging, bullying, wheedling". Now, this is the sort of thing that he can get away with, since the vast majority of his readers are never going to know any different. But anyone who's seen, say, the film Manufacturing Consent, will know that Chomsky is pretty softly spoken, and certainly couldn't be described as in any way bullying. Most of the debate footage of him I've ever seen, he's been much more bullied than bullying. If Beaumont felt bullied, I'd argue it was likely by the weight of argument he might have been presented with, perhaps?

Now, at the moment I am in fact reading my way through the book myself. Barely 50 pages in, already several aspects of the review stuck out to me as distortions if not outright dishonesty about Chomsky's book. For instance, Beaumont writes:
While Chomsky was righteously indignant over suggestions in a recent Guardian interview that he defended Srebrenica, he does portray a certain sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic. Kosovo, in his reading, began in 1999 with Nato bombers, not in 1998 with Serbian police actions that cleared villages, towns and valleys of their populations. (I know this, Mr Chomsky, because I saw them do it.)
Firstly, this is not what Chomsky believes, as far as I can make out. Secondly, his main discussion of Kosovo is to be found elsewhere, in "Hegemony or Survival" amongst others. It is only really mentioned in passing here. Nonetheless, Chomsky finds the space in this book to mention precisely the clearing of populations that Beaumont tries to make out he denies. It's on page 46 of the hardback, if you're interested.
At other times, he elides rumour with quotes taken out of context, for example where he refers to: 'A Jordanian journalist [who] was informed by officials in charge of the Jordanian-Iraqi border after US and UK forces took over that radioactive materials were detected in one of every eight trucks crossing into Jordan destination unknown. "Stuff happens," in Rumsfeld's words.'

That's all pretty puzzling - as four pages earlier, Chomsky gives the impression that the weapons of mass destruction thing was all a deception.
This is plain distortion (deliberate or otherwise). Chomsky's argument is pretty straightforward, and the Media Lens article I linked to at the top of this post is pretty good on this:

Does Beaumont really believe Chomsky is all but alone on the planet in believing Iraq had nuclear WMD capacity in 2002-2003? A notion dismissed out of hand by UN weapons inspectors who confirm that Iraq's nuclear programme had been 100% eliminated by 1998. Even Bush, Blair, Powell and Straw shied away from making such a preposterous claim.

On the other hand, there were many media reports in 2003 of yellow cake - a radioactive compound derived from uranium ore - being emptied on the ground from containers that were then taken for domestic use, and of radioactive sources being stolen and removed from their shielding. In response, Mohamed El Baradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said:

"I am deeply concerned by the almost daily reports of looting and destruction at nuclear sites, and about the potential radiological safety and security implications of nuclear and radiological materials that may no longer be under control. We have a moral responsibility to establish the facts without delay and take urgent remedial action." (UN News Service, 'IAEA urges return of experts to Iraq to address possible radiological emergency,' May 19, 2003)

No one, least of all Chomsky, has claimed that these "radiological materials" constituted weapons of mass destruction.

Back to the Beaumont review:
It is not only that his desire to wallop the US at any cost has allowed inconsistencies to creep in; there is also plain sloppiness. Between pages 60 and 62, for instance, he cannot decide whether an alleged bribe paid to UN official is $150,000 or $160,000. Maybe it's a typo. Maybe not.
True or not, a pretty cheap shot at any rate, one might think. Once again, Media Lens provide a pretty good response:
A little research might have clarified the issue. Chomsky begins by mentioning "fevered tales" surrounding an alleged £160,000 bribe - the figure cited in the interim report of the Volcker commission and widely reported in US press coverage when the story broke in February 2005. Chomsky then cites press coverage of the $147,000 figure taken from the +final+ report of the Volcker commission in August 2005. This final figure was often rounded up to $150,000 in press reporting.
Beaumont then lets up for a moment:
If all this sounds entirely negative, I do concede that there are areas where Chomsky lands some crunching punches. His analysis of US double standards on issues from the promotion of democracy abroad, to the World Court, Kyoto, US support for Israel, nuclear proliferation and trade is spot-on - but far from novel areas of concern, and Chomsky doesn't like to settle on them.
Really, that's interesting. He doesn't like to dwell on them? On the contrary: to me, they make up the core of most of his arguments about US foreign policy, and certainly those are the areas in which he suggests changes would be most likely to bring about improvements. The fact that they are not "novel areas of concern" seems to me to be largely irrelevant. Perhaps what Beaumont means is that Chomsky has written extensively about them before? And yet in other areas Beaumont shows a startling lack of knowledge of Chomsky's arguments:
But what I find most noxious about Chomsky's argument is his desire to create a moral - or rather immoral - equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history.
A quick reference to an interview with Jeremy Paxman when Chomsky was doing the rounds for his last book:
CHOMSKY: The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeane Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence what so ever.
Or indeed this comment from Beaumont:
The faults of the Bush administration will not be changed by books such as Failed States. They will be swept away by ordinary, decent Americans in the world's greatest - if flawed and selfish - democracy going to the polls.
Here, we have an attempt to set Chomsky up as some egomaniac convinced, Michael-Moore-like, that he alone can bring down the system. I don't have any sites to point to, I'm afraid, but anyone who reads/hears much of what Chomsky has to say will soon come across his many assertions that, far from seeing things this way, he has a great deal of respect for the power of the people to bring about changes. Often, in fact, he argues that changes presented as the actions of one individual (eg. The US civil rights movement) were in fact the result of much more action from a whole network of activists (perhaps in a supporting role) that are never heard of.

In short, then, what we have here is a review that persists in burning a series of straw men, wilfully misreading the text in question, and occasionally piping up that Chomsky is right on the vast substance of what he says. Whether or not I believe in Chomsky's "propaganda model" of the press is a tricky question - at the moment I would say I am skeptical. But it's articles like this that push me much more over to his side of the fence.

I would urge anyone who was put off the book by this review to actually read the book, and then determine for yourself whether much of Beaumont's mud sticks.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

More Doctor Who thoughts

Well, since my last post, we've had a few more episodes. It's somewhat more difficult to read messages into these. Tooth and Claw, I suppose, advocates trying to understand the actions of a being whose actions are reprehensible, rather than simply killing it. School Reunion, meanwhile, pits the Doctor against a manipulative group who are taking over the curriculum of a school for their own agenda, and The Girl in the Fireplace warns of the dangers of excessively simplistic logic (although, to be honest, I'm not sure the plot's up to much). The Rise of the Cybermen, it would seem, is the most packed with messages thus far this season, warning fairly straightforwardly of:

1. Lumic's control of the media environment that so many people are using to get all their information about the world (News Corp. etc. again).
2. The dangers of the government getting into bed with big business too much.
3. Obviously, the violation of people's freedom from coersion into the upgrade programme.

All pretty decent messages, if you ask me. But there is another undercurrent that I'm not so sure about in this series:

In the absence of his own people, and hence the lack of "any higher authority", the Doctor is becoming increasingly something of a vigilante. I know he always was, to some extent, but usually, in the past, you could rely on some sort of face-off with the enemy of the month where the Doctor explained to the maniac in question what was wrong. This has lead, over the years, to some great scenes, not least the "virus scene" with Davros in Genesis of the Daleks, his talk with the Captain in The Pirate Planet ("but what's it FOR? Hm? What could possibly be worth all this?"), his talk with the Cyber-Leader about emotions in Earthshock (nicely lifted by Mr. MacRae this week), or indeed, in the final episode of the old series, his attempt to convince the ever unconvinceable Master that "if we fight like animals, we die like animals".

Now, I'm not suggesting that this has left the series altogether, and indeed, as I pointed out above, there was something very similar in last night's episode. But, unfortunately, as often as not, what you get in the place of such explanations is a simple assertion by the Doctor that this is WRONG! and that IT ENDS TONIGHT! because I'M GOING TO STOP IT! This seems to me to be somewhat lazy. That's all.

And, as Mr Wilcock has quite rightly pointed out in the comments section of a Millennium post that very few of you will actually know what it's about (this one), the earPods concept in this story is pretty much a straight lift from the work of Lawrence Miles. Hopefully, at some point, they will run out of stuff from LM to approporiate and be forced to employ him as some sort of creative consultant (lets face it, I wouldn't trust Loz to write an episode of the new series without much more experience than he currently has (ie. none) of TV writing, but he has more cool ideas in a day than most writers do in a year).

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Chuffing Marvellous

It may have escaped your attention that Doctor Who has returned to our screens. If you have been living under a rock. More likely, you'll be entirely aware of what the Guardian's leader column today heralded as the return of family viewing.

So was tonight's episode any good? Emotionally, yes, rather, with a rather touching ending (which Russell T Davies expands upon on the commentary the BBC have made available from the website) involving Cassandra, the rather flat character from last series (boom-boom!) getting some closure, rather than simply an "I'll be back, mwahahaha" death scene. The idea of her going back and creating her own myth is really rather good.

Plot-wise, though.... well, it's a Russell T Davies script, isn't it? It was all pretty flimsy in terms of the internal logic of the script (why would the cures for all the diseases not just be put in the disinfectant as a matter of course if it can work on contact with the skin?, etc). As Charlie Brooker, a man of impeccable taste in my general experience, puts it:
it's a jumbled let-down.
He then goes on, however, to say:
having a pop at Doctor Who actually pains me. In my head, it's come to represent everything that made Britain great - more so than, say, the foundation of the National Health Service. Or Marmite. Or the Sex Pistols.
Now, over the last few days its become quite clear that a fair few lib dems would probably follow that general sentiment, if not actually go in for Brooker's brand of exaggeration. Sadly, the only Who fan to have passed through Parliament so far has been Tim Collins (a Tory - who hilariously makes the claim on the Earthshock DVD that Thatcher era Cybermen were better than Labour ones). But, this sad lack of representation not withstanding, I would argue that there is a fairly solid argument to be made that the Doctor is a liberal. Indeed, fellow Lib Dem blogger Alex Wilcock (or a remarkably coincidental namesake!) has put together a pretty good argument for this in an article on Outpost Gallifrey.

So it's nice to see the same kind of themes running through the new series. The anti-war message in The Christmas Invasion may have been rather jarring and unsubtle, but otherwise, many good solid messages have been present in the Doctor's reactions to things without preaching. This evening, his anger at the deprivation of an army of lab-subjects of their rights was entirely fitting with the series. Last year we were presented with villains who were: manifestations of the excesses of plastic around today (Autons), a racial purist (Cassandra), a family of private businesspeople who have infiltrated government and intend to harm the Earth for their own financial gain (the Slithe'en), a Nazi (a Dalek!), Rupert Murdoch (The Editor), foolish amounts of faith in science (the Nanobots responsible for the gas mask disease), an alien who threatens the local area and subsequently the Earth with a nuclear power plant (a Slithe'en again), and more Daleks.

Deliberately left out of the above list, as any fans amongst you will realise, are the Gelth, the gaseous race from the Charles Dickens episode fairly early in last year's series. The reason for this is that, in fact, when you think about it, the villains of that piece are... asylum seekers. Doctor Who is not an infallible bastion of liberal values, it would seem. Interestingly, at the time it went out, we were, of course, in the middle of the "it's not racist to impose limits on immigration" election of 2005. And at the time, it provoked a small storm within fandom when Lawrence Miles, in my opinion the greatest author the novel line produced, reviewed the episode in an extroardinarily over the top way, holding writer Mark Gatiss personally responsible for allowing such messages through. Fans fell on him like a ton of bricks, prompting a full retraction of the personal comments he made, and later, reassured that the series as a whole had not gone off message, he apologised for the whole thing.

The fact remains, though, that the episode's subtext jarred for me, and I agree with him fully that it's not a terribly Doctor Who one to let slip under the radar, especially past someone like Russell T Davies. But should we be worried about such a source of indoctrination for kids? Not really; Doctor Who may be liberal, but frankly most other sci-fi isn't. I don't think it's any accident that Doctor Who feels so British.

Look at Star-Trek: An unpleasantly boring socialist utopia if ever I saw one (society all so homogenised, no money, etc) - oh, and don't tell me the Borg are communists...

And as for most other TV sci-fi, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see the American imperialist agenda in most of the Big Boys in Boots that gets heaped out onto our screens.

So: the moral of the story is, it's always nice to see the show on message for its semi-triumphant return.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Now For Something Completely Different

One of my random interests that will probably end up on this blog often is US politics. Anyone with a similar interest is probably aware of Air America Radio. For those who aren't, there follows a brief introduction. If you are, skip the following few paragraphs.

Air America was founded in April 2004, before the November election. It was intended as an effort to bring some balance to the talk radio arena, which since Reagan's removal of the fairness doctrine from US broadcasting legislation has been dominated by Republicans. Headed by Rush Limbaugh, the American right had built up quite a stranglehold over the medium. There were, of course, a few efforts by individual hosts who have carved out careers for themselves, some of whom joined up to Air America upon it's inception.

Randi Rhodes and Mike Malloy (who claims that, in some of his previous radio jobs, his views have forced him to carry a gun for protection at work) spring to mind. But the big news when Air America started up was Al Franken, who had recently written his rather entertaining book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Since then, it has become evident that his forte is not really radio, and his show is only really fun to listen to in the sense that it is kind of warm and gentle (comparitively). At the same time, however, new faces were arriving. Part of the strategy of Air America was to use big names. Franken was one. Another fairly obvious contender was Janeane Garofalo, who had made a name for herself in the relevant circles in the run-up to the Iraq war as a fairly outspoken pundit (against, you'll be glad to know).


On Garofalo's recommendation, they also contacted Marc Maron, a little known standup comic. Interestingly enough for someone with perhaps the least experience of any of their hosts, they stuck him on the breakfast show, Morning Sedition, albeit alongside experienced radio host Mark Riley. The show built from a shaky start into one of the most entertaining things I've ever come across. Then, at a time when the show was accumulating listeners and Howard Stern was about to go off the air, the CEO of Air America decided he didn't like it. He didn't renew Maron's contract, despite a big outcry from the fans of the show (which it had accumulated in a way I have rarely seen a radio programme do).

But the good news is, he's now back on the air, in a programme from Los Angeles in the evenings (or, in the UK, 6-8am!). You can stream it from here. You can also podcast it from here, although it will cost you money. I would recommend it to anyone who would like to hear the comings and goings of US Politics in an entertaining way every weekday.

So why am I writing about Maron? Well, it occurs to me that often, he is in fact one of the few genuinely liberal voices on Air America. We all like to bemoan the misuse of the word to characterise the American left, who are now trying fairly hard to rename themselves "Progressives", since the right have fairly succesfully made liberal a dirty word. Nonetheless, Maron is accurately describable as a liberal, I would say. On the day after the Oscars, many made jokes about Three 6 Mafia winning an award were made by hosts on Air America. Only Maron, to my knowledge, felt uncomfortable with the racially patronising tone of the jokes, and devoted a segment to bringing up his concern.

He frequently makes reference to his enjoyment of people being "freaks in a good way", and is socially liberal in areas where others might not feel it helps their cause to be (for instance, his stances on pornography). In a rant about the church his co-host Jim Earl made a point of not denying anyone's right to free speech where all too often other hosts do. Of course, US economic debate is so warped now that it's hardly fair to look at his economic opinion on the same terms as we would use in the UK. Nonetheless, as a liberal, I would recommend the Marc Maron Show to anyone. Apart from anything else, it's frequently very funny.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A Change of Heart

It would seem Ms. Toynbee has had something of a change of heart in the wake of the results of the election. In the Guardian today, she writes:
But as Lib Dem power and influence grew, so both Campbell and Chris Huhne seemed to head back to the crowded "centre" in search of "credibility" just when, paradoxically, conviction and authenticity may, in the post-Blair era, score better than political professionalism.
The piece as a whole has a noticeably cooler tone towards Huhne, I would say. As well as containing an awful lot of bollocks in the wider sense (naturally).

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Ming Wins


Whilst, of course, this isn't my first choice, it is nice that at least it's my second. Also nice to see that in the end, the party made a pretty clear choice, and Ming has a strong claim to represent us.

Isn't it so much better to have STV?!

Also, I know this may draw criticism, but I'm actually quite relieved that the party didn't listen to the blogosphere on this one.

Well done all, we made a good choice!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cambridge Hustings and My Dilemma

OK, think I'll stick to something nice and uncontroversial for the next few posts, at least. Just (well, a few hours ago) got back from Cambridge's very own hustings. All three candidates spoke well, and the most common response from people that I heard was "well I really don't know that that made the choice any clearer, they're all quite good".

However, I will attempt to draw something meaningful from it. Bear in mind that this is likely to be subjective, and affected by my support for Simon Hughes (though whether it would mean I'm kinder or harsher to him, I'm not sure).

Ming was first up for his "10" minute opening gambit. He stepped up, announced that "I did write a speech, but actually I'm not going to give it. It's on the website if you want to see it." An impressive manouvre, especially followed as it was by his stepping out from behind the podium and hence away from microphone assistance. He put quite a lot of passion (or at least that kind of shoutyness that politicians of all hues like to convince us is passion) in, and spoke at quite a high volume, having just made a few rather lame comments/jokes about his voice being bad (mainly targetted at the "I'm an everyman, I've been watching SPORTS! and shouting at my TV" agenda). He gave a speech mainly about campaigning, about how he'd fought for his seat, etc, and touching on all the typical things at the moment: localism, no to nuclear, etc.

Huhne was up next. It was immediately noticeable (and bear in mind I'm a student studying Natural Sciences, I have to follow two hours of not always that absorbing lectures a day) that he was holding my attention and, I suspect other people's, rather less effectively. He gave exactly the sort of speech I would expect from him, good on the content but (particularly after Ming) not so hot on the passion, or the broad vision. Still, many very intelligent things to say on the issues he covered, none of which would surprise you very much, all taken from more of an economic standpoint than the other two.

Hughes finished the opening statements with an equally unsurprising performance, talking about his usual set of issues, being a little bit more social about things than the other two, peppering it with details but also maintaining the thrust of what he was saying. Of course, being Simon, he did that terrible habit he has of trying to tell us in advance how many points he's about to make, starting of with number 1, and then never really bothering to continue down a list. He always says "finally" about three times in drawing to a close. Having said that, he's not all that much more waffly than the others, he just draws attention to his waffle more. He closed by making a bid for the "I can attract people from outside as well as sing to the choir" ground.

So far, not all that moved. Campbell made a pretty good and slightly surprising speech, though the spontenaiety of his speech was compromised slightly by his continued occasional glances at the notes he wasn't speaking from. The other two did very little surprising.

There followed the questions, one about schooling (they all oppose 11+), one about nuclear power (they all dislike it, Huhne because nobody is willing to pay since 3-mile island, etc), one about NHS funding mainly being for staff (they all think we need to cut down agency staff, and Ming perhaps surprisingly drew attention to his recent treatments). Really for the most part you couldn't find much of a gap between them on policy, other than on Iraq, of course, which Ming didn't pick nearly as much of an argument about as he did on Question Time.

At the end, a couple of quite nice questions to round off with. What is your one core ideal that needs to be communicated? Huhne: Localism, devolution of power, innovation, etc. Ming: PR, and his spiel about voting down a Queen's Speech that didn't include it. Hughes: Both, essentially, phrased as "power to the people". Which is fair enough, really, I guess. He did also say it partly to pick up on a comment earlier from a questioner who remarked that everyone seemed to believe roughly the same things and she felt she was in the right party.

So essentially, with little to pick between them on policy, I'm left with not a lot to go on other than style. At the end of the day, policy wise, they've all got it right, I think.


Ming started with a good speech. But it has to be said that occasionally he makes little slips in sentence construction if he gets carried away ("Britain should be the party of UN authority"?!). To be fair, there seemed to be a lot of little mistakes in speaking from all three, at one point Simon Hughes sounded, for some reason, as if he called Chris Huhne "Christmas Tree".... Nonetheless, the point remains. Ming gave a distinct impression of slight tiredness, he spent much of the second half sniffling into a hanky. Which is fair enough, but I wonder whether a General Election campaign might not start to get to him too. Of course, he might just genuinely have a cold.

Simon did well, though as always he can't resist little jokey comments (better than Ming's, usually) where they might be best not voiced. He seemed to me to have the balance of detail, broad vision and passion about right.

Huhne was great on the detail, but as I mentioned, it is not unfair to say that he is not as engaging a speaker as the other two. He did mention a lot of greenyness, though, which gets him marks from me.

So overall, none of it changed my opinion of Simon Hughes, which is that he's by far the best of the three, but that he may not be the best at appealing to all possible swing voters. But then, I don't know who is. Huhne appeals to the people Hughes doesn't, Ming is quite broad in his appeal but less strongly appealing. None is ideal. At the end of the day, then, I simply want to vote for the one I agree with the most. Which is Simon.

But my question to you (those who've held out to the end!) is, which order to put the other two in? I was hoping to find the answer to this question this evening. As it is, I don't think I'm any the wiser. So come on folks: Why should I vote Ming or Huhne as my second choice? (since presumably, you all think my second vote will end up being important!) I await persuasion...

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Liberalism - Does it have to apply to everything?

Just been reading Femme de Resistance's post, and the reaction it has attracted,
in particular the comment:
It is all about priorities. If you support both economic and personal liberalism, think that free markets are best for the whole society, but also think, that the state shouldn't have a say to what consenting adults may do in the bedroom,then you have to choose which is the most important to you.
To me, this sticks out as somewhat incongruous, as do LibertyCat's assertions that
Liberals are not socialists

Socialists reject economic liberalism. They believe that economic competition inevitably leads to the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. Socialist ideas of equality tend to deal with equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity, and with equality between groups rather than between individuals. Most socialists reject political liberalism, believing that a strong centralised state is needed to counteract the economic power of the capitalist class.
To read this, I would probably get the impression that I was a socialist if I didn't (think I) know better.

I agree that socialists tend to focus on equality of outcome instead of equality of opportunity. I think they're wrong in that. But I don't think that they're wrong about unfettered economic competition bringing with it the likelihood of simply creating self-reinforcing inequalities, of opportunity as much as of outcome.

I also agree that the centralised state is the wrong tool to solve such problems, in the shape of the traditional Labour vision of government. But I do see a role for strong regulation and limits on competition, in order to ensure a level playing field. Ultimately, it comes down to the same point that MPH and Oxfam and all that lot make about free trade: It's not the same thing as fair trade.

When you're formulating an ideology, it's important to know who you want to benefit from your actions. I want people to have the opportunity to live better lives, the lives they want to, with as little interference from outside as possible. Note the word outside there. I didn't say government. The way I see it, with the world going in the direction it's going, we're simply going to replace the 20th century's spectre of limits on freedoms (the state/socialism) with the 21st's (corporate force of will expressed through financial power).

To me as a Lib Dem, the word Democrat is at least as important to my reasons for joining the party as the word Liberal. If we're in this to protect people's freedoms and uphold democratic principles of representation, as locally as possible, then that takes in opposition to corporate power just as much as it does state power. People with more money being able to have more say than people who don't, and the oft-made argument that people are in some way excercising a "democratic right" by not buying the goods of a company they dislike, say, overlook the fact that this is a vision of democracy with the idea that people's sway in a vote goes in direct proportion to their wealth.

To subscribe to unreconstructed economic liberalism is in my view a very unhealthy move, and it perturbs me to see quite so many people seemingly making this argument that Lib Dems are people who believe in liberalism both personally and economically, but see the personal bit as more important. In my case, it is precisely because I believe in personal liberties that I oppose economic liberalism in its uglier forms.

If that makes me more of a New Socialist in some sense, and not a Liberal, then that's fair enough. But what I am also is a Liberal Democrat, and I suspect I'm not the only one who thinks along these lines.

So am I in the wrong party? I certainly don't see myself as a Tory, since I am opposed to both personal illiberalism and economic liberalism (in its purest form - I of course recognise the invisible hand of the free market as a powerful organisational tool). The Tories are pretty much the opposite of all I believe, in their traditional form. Now? Cameron, if he actually believed what he projects, would probably be closer to my views than some of the people I see calling themselves Liberals in our party.

And I'm not really a socialist, since I still don't believe that the way around my reservations with the free market is to take it all into the hands of the state. What is needed is simply a greater willingness of the state to set a few ground rules and enforce them in the private sector, not more public sector (But there is of course still a big role for the state in health, education and social security that simply has to be funded if not run from as high a level as possible (to protect it from the vagaries of the economy as much as possible)). Labour ideas are closer to my own, I suppose, in terms of the outcomes they want, but not in how they think we can achieve them.

Many see the Lib Dems as the expression of some sort of messy compromise of SDP and Liberal ideals. To me, what the Lib Dems represent is a surprisingly consistent manifestation of the views set out above: that ultimately this is all about people and their lives. There is no conflict between Liberalism, as I see it, and opposition to economic liberalism.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Question Time - What did it change?

To be honest, not much. All three candidates did a fairly good job of staying on message.

Chris Huhne coming across as particularly consistent with his performance on the regular programme last week, again repeating the phrase "part of the problem, not the solution" and putting his alternatives to taxation message across.

Hughes did look nervous, but made most of his points fairly well, and came across strongly as a man with a sense of pride in his values. I felt it was slightly unfair of Dimbleby to cut him off just before he got to what Dimbleby must have known would be the "price on his head" story. It was a relevant answer to the question asked, and exactly the reason people like me have no problem seeing him as a trustworthy man of integrity.

Ming Campbell was much the same, although what came across to me for the first time was his very firm distancing of himself from the withdrawal of troops option. It helped him, I think, defining him as the more pragmatic, perhaps, of them all. People who are thinking primarily about credibility, I guess, would have liked this.

So has it changed my views? No, I still like Hughes, I think his heart is most clearly in the right place. Ming Campbell as foreign affairs and Huhne as shadow chancellor or something would be cracking, I think. Huhne and Campbell are both good on their own turf, but stray much from those areas and they fall into simply spouting the party lines. Hughes, as his page in the manifesto booklet points out, has wide experience of all sorts of departments.

For all Huhne's "there are other ways to tax" stuff, Hughes's statement that the income tax is the "fairest tax there is" holds true. Yes, eco-taxes need to be used, but a Liberal Democrat party that tried to tax anything it disapproved of would, to my mind, cease to be a liberal party. Eco-tax is different. Eco-taxes are needed because we must preserve our world from our consumerist and distorted current system of economics. But to use taxes like a press release in the same way Labour does legislation would be a move in the wrong direction.

One of the things that originally attracted me to the Lib Dems in 1997 was their position of honesty on how they could provide the services people want. The straightforwardness of saying to people: "You want these services? 1p in the pound, bang, there you go!" seemed so refreshing against the backdrop of the other two parties trying to pretend it's all about management, that you can have improvements to services on the same spending as the Tories.

Of course, since then, taxes all over the place from Gordon Brown have kept an appearance of this, whilst anyone who looks at the figures can see instantly that Labour have presided over a big increase in public spending. But this system is unfair. In taxing by stealth, you lose the accuracy with which you can target the people who, fairly, should be paying.

And Ming? I think, following his practical approach to Iraq, that some of Hughes's characterisation of him as overly cautious will stick. And he's right. We as a party need to be strident and uncompromising on our principles. That's not mutually exclusive from being a credible government; one of the most ideological and uncompromising governments in living memory was the Thatcher government - one that didn't seem to have much trouble getting elected (albeit with some help from Labour being a bit shabby).

So my real dilemma, with my voting form in front of me, is what order to place Huhne and Campbell in after Hughes on my ballot. Comments are welcome. Frankly, all three are pretty good candidates, and much more the type of politician I can vote for than the Labour/Tory "grand coalition" (as Huhne might have it). I could quite happily campaign for any of them over the other parties, though perhaps not as happily as I could for Hughes!

Saturday, February 04, 2006


OK. Well, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say from the outset that I am a Hughes supporter, and that if you go to his campaign website you will in fact see my name in the list of supporters.

That said, what I want to explore is why I have arrived at this decision. The place to start for a look at this contest is, I would say, a look at the party's position. We have come out of the last election with a strong but simmultaneously disappointing position. The Lib Dems won extra votes for their opposition to the Iraq war, an issue which anyone with much judgement at the time could see would drag on for a while. They won approval for their leader, Charles Kennedy, though some uncharitably criticised him for his slip on tax policy at an early morning press conference. They won probably the same degree of approval they normally have for the rest of their actual policies. Now they have publically exorcised Kennedy, they are left with their basic position mainly the way it always has been, and the likelihood that (through force of American opinion) the Iraq war will have been handed over to the Iraqis to fight among themselves by the next election.

So, on the face of things, it doesn't look good. The next election, they will almost certainly (barring Alien abduction or somesuch unforseen circumstance) be up against Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Cameron has made a spirited play for the Lib Dems' voters. I don't see this getting too far, though. It a fair assumption that most Lib Dems would rather see a Labour than a Tory government, backed up by many polls showing that the party members see themselves as more the left than the right. Unless Cameron is spectacularly credible on issues close to our hearts (the environment is uppermost in my mind here), Lib Dems are not going to be abandoning ship in his direction in a big way. The loss of support for them in the wake of current media hype would seem to support this theory. It has largely contributed to a Labour bounce, not a Tory one.

Remember, Lib Dem voters are generally quite well informed. They will look into Cameron's claims with some scrutiny, and my belief is that by the time the small fight in the Conservative party has resolved itself, it is fairly inevitable that Cameron's agenda will have conceded a little ground to the Tebbit school of thought. Environmentally sensitive taxes are sure not to be top of the agenda, and it would seem that, quietly, the Tories are already sticking the knife into the very idea that directors of companies should be answerable to the public on what they do to the environment. I don't think that, played right at the election, the Lib Dems campaign should suffer much from the Tories.

What is much more of a problem is the classic "Do you want to wake up with a Tory MP?" scare from Labour. With the Tories resurgent the Lib Dems are far more likely to be squeezed that way. Of course, the great argument to that is that a strong third party in a political landscape of fairly evenly matched (Cameron is no Blair, neither is Brown) main parties, the third party, even outside of the oft-touted hung parliament, has a fair amount of weight to it. It only takes a few rebellious MPs on either side (especially if we're still in a Labour majority) to turn the situation into one where the Lib Dems can seriously affect the vote, and thus wield influence over the government on what comes before the house to be voted on.

Nonetheless, I would say that opposing the current government should remain the focus of the Lib Dems, whilst trumpeting loudly their actions where they go beyond the Tories' in the areas that Cameron is trying to move in on. I don't believe it is incompatible with stealing Tory and Labour seats to do this. If handled well, the Lib Dems could even conduct a campaign of painting the Tories as turning themselves into watered down Lib Dems (a nice turning of the tables from the days when we were accused of being cuddly Tories). We need to stop trying to lure Tories on the same reasons that they might vote Tory, and instead convince them that the things we focus on are more important.

In fact, that brings me to one of the central problems in perception the Lib Dems face. For a long time, they have suffered under an image of dithering and ill-definedness in their policies. It is an easy and lazy smear to throw in our direction to call us woolly, to accuse of being all things to all men. Even when we clearly had policies at the last election that weren't to everybody's taste, now that the election is out of people's memories, this is the line used to marginalise us. A consent around this idea has been manufactured by the other two parties, aided and abetted by a media for whom political impartiality is much easier when the public (and therefore they) only think in one political dimension.

As you may notice, my last post was a graph of my own political position. It shows politics in two separate dimensions, related but not fixed to each other. It is quite possible to be economically left or right wing, and for that to have little or no bearing on your sense of authoritarianism/libertarianism. The Lib Dems need to communicate this new way to evaluate politics to the country, at least sufficiently to get it on the radar in some sense. For too long, we have laboured under the old left-right line, when it is no longer the focus of our arguments.

When even the Tories are happy using the word 'redistribution', and when the last election at one point devolved into an argument over whether you can call pledging to increase spending by less than someone else a 'cut', you know we've more or less reached a consensus on that line. That's why the political pundits you get on TV and in the papers will tell you that the parties are all in a big smush in the middle of the spectrum, and yet you still get some quite heated debates between them on occasion. They're looking at the wrong spectrum. Sure we've all snuggled up together in the same band on the left right axis, but we sure as hell haven't on the authoritarian/liberal one.

Look at the arguments going on right now: Freedom of speech in the religious hatred bill in the UK, in America they're about the government's illegal wiretap scandal. The "war on terror"'s pressures on our civil liberties have brought these issues to the fore, but even before that, this is where the real action is. But the two other parties have a vested interest in stopping people thinking on this axis, because as soon as you think about it, it becomes clear that actually what we have in this country is not a centre-left, a right wing and a wooly fudge party, but we have two centre-authoritarian parties and one liberal one. As soon as people see this axis, they will both see the party for what we are, and vote to correct the imbalance.

And look, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to claim that the Lib Dems know exactly who they are. What I'm saying is that the reason we're seen as ill-defined is because we define ourselves on the axis that nobody else defines themselves on. Labour and Conservative define themselves in the left-right direction. So people who wish to identify themselves on that axis join one or the other, regardless of their positioning on the liberal-authoritarian axis. People who wish to define themselves as liberal join the Lib Dems, regardless of their position on the left-right axis. As a result, Labour and Conservatives alike are just as fuzzy on the liberal-authoritarian axis as the Lib Dems are on the left-right line.

So into all this, we see three (now) leadership candidates step into the fray. All of them, obviously, have pretty good liberal credentials, but there are differences on the left-right axis. Hughes is tradtionally the more leftwing, but to be honest I simply see him as the more honest about his thoughts. But what we have to accept, for the moment, is that the thinking is not going to change. People are going to think on the left-right axis, and they are going to see Hughes as leftish, Huhne and Campbell as centre right.

So why pick Hughes? Because, as ever, Labour have a large group of members who are not content with their actual party. A proper signal that the so-called "orange book" tendency is in the minority, like they wish it was in their own party, might have the best chance of attracting the Labour votes the party needs. Anyone who really is ideologically a Tory will never vote for a party who believe in fair taxation and real steps to help the environment that won't benefit business. Some people who simply vote Tory out of tribal opposition to Labour might come join us, but that is frankly a bonus. As we saw in the 2005 election, to base a strategy around bringing down Tory seats is a non-starter.

So the clearest message to the voters we need to attract to the party would be to pick Hughes. Happily enough, I also happen to think that, talented communicator as he is, he's the best person to then try to get the idea across to the electorate that we need to move on from the left-right mypoia that we currently suffer from. On top of that, Campbell is quite well placed where he is, as an elder statesman who speaks very well on foreign policy. Huhne may well be useful to the party as a now better known face, but in all honesty I don't think he's well known enough to be leader, and a vote for him as leader would simply suggest to most people that we are an irrelevance, happy to be led by someone they've not even heard of.

I don't subscribe to the idea that Ming Campbell is too old, but I do wonder whether he is perhaps a little inexperienced in having to think in the slightly juvenile ways a party leader has to, on occasion, to avoid embarrassment. As was so evident from his first PMQs as acting leader, he is quite able to shoot himself in the foot with a question that a more savvy man might have seen was a bad idea. Leave him where he is, as the respected advocate of liberal internationalism that he is, out of the glare of too much presentational scrutiny. He works for a Newsnight audience (and frequently proves it), but for the public, too easily distracted by irrelevancies, he is not the man to carry our torch.

So having talked down Hughes's opponents, why do I think he's up to it? Obviously, I couldn't disccuss this topic without at least mentioning his recent problems. To be honest, I don't think it's as damaging as people would like to think, and as evidenced by the poll taken by ICM it's clear that actually people take to him the best overall. As far as the stain on his record it supposedly represents, I think several things need to be said. Firstly, that this view is generally put across by partisan commentators. Second, I think people understand why one might lie about this kind of thing, because really the sort of non-committal answers he gave the question before were getting him nowhere.

Lastly, I think, as Johann Hari pointed out, that a far greater reflection on Hughes's character is given by his brave actions in relation to the murder of a constituent, which led to a price of £10,000 being put on his head. The man is, in his public life, a passionate and principled advocate for his view of the world. Privately, he may have had any number of reasons to keep his sexuality hidden. I don't think it's an excuse, but I do think consideration should be given to his point that it's harder for MPs still around from the era when gay MPs did have to hide their sexuality to be electable to suddenly switch policy and come out than it is for MPs who've just arrived to simply be open about it.

And lastly, one small point: HE'S BISEXUAL, NOT GAY! The continual refusal of so many people to take on this important distinction is maddening and frankly offensive. It speaks to an attitude of 'once a poof always a poof', and suggests that these people really don't care about the details of his life one bit, but simply want to focus on the supposed 'scandal'. One expects this sort of behaviour from the Sun, but I don't want to see such attitudes reflected by the rest of the, more sane, media.

Well, I'll stop there. You're probably quite bored by now, to be honest. Vote Hughes!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Just for people's interest, here is my reading on the political quiz on OkCupid!

You are a

Social Liberal
(68% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(15% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid

And here is my reading from the political compass:

60% Economic Left, 40% Social Liberal

Sorry, but they don't seem to allow me to show the little diagram, which is a shame. Of the two sites, I would actually recommend Political Compass more than the first one (which is American and has a few America specific questions).

So am I surprised by this? Clearly both would put me in the same kind of area, and socially I would say I am pretty liberal. As for economically, though, I wonder. I don't really think of myself as hugely against the capitalist system per se, but simply very aware of the flaws of the system as it is. These tests tend to ask questions about such issues, because they are aware that such issues are big issues to people on either side of the divide, but they then don't distinguish between my answer being no to 'what's best for a multinational corporation is best for the world' meaning I hate capitalism and everything it's built on, and meaning simply that I don't think this is true, but nonetheless the forces of the market and the private sector can, harnessed properly, still be useful to us.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Adbusters: Important and Timely or Childish and Pretentious?

The anitcorporate movement is one of the last great hopes of the left, in more or less any place on Earth you want to name. And I do sincerely believe that the issues raised by this particular corner of the political world are vitally important. In case you're wondering what I'm on about, go and watch The Corporation, or read No Logo, or some Chomsky. It' s been done before, I'm not going to retread it here.

Since having access to an outlet that actually sells Adbusters (Cambridge WHSmiths) I've been buying it. And sure, its political heart is more or less in the right place. But the trouble is, I get the impression half the people involved in its production are more in love with a romantic vision of an underground, shadow-culture driven movement than they are with the actual beliefs.

Now I have no problems with a magazine liking to present itself. When you can find all sorts of commentary on these lines on the internet, a magazine has to make a pleasant experience for readers. That's not my issue. My problem is its tendency to describe movements in extremely nebulous language, to publish articles like its Yomango article (which two letters this month complain about, thank God) carefully avoiding the word 'stealing', to put in pointless pages every now and then whose only purpose seems to be to make angsty teenagers feel like part of something special.

Go on their website's message boards, and you find little but fairly infantile conversations about the problems we face, from people that the right very effectively paint as communists. Are these the best that this movement can attract? Am I missing something? Some very intelligent people are involved in the movement. They make a lot of very good, subtle and nuanced arguments. But beyond the few central texts to the whole thing, the followers of it seem to be, on the whole, a rag-tag bunch of sociopaths and people who simply don't believe business has a place.

And my problem here is that for a fledgling movement, that would be fine. But this isn't, any more. This is now an urgent problem; corporations are lobbying the US government to destroy the environment, some environmentalists are now saying we're already past the point of no return, this stuff is urgent. Many related movements seem to be able to sort themselves out into meaningful, coherent campaigns: Make Poverty History, green groups, and so on. Why does this one, which actually has put its finger on the issue underlying most of the others we face today, not flourished to the same extent?

I tend to shy away from being too tinfoilist about these sorts of thing, but I am beginning to give some credence to the idea that the corporate media actually condition, in a subtle way, people to believe in the system. What Chomsky calls manufacturing consent. Because the people intelligent enough to see the importance of issues like this seem to like to believe in some mysterious controversy over the issue. As far as I can tell, nobody has made a good case for the idea that corporations should be the primary motivator in our lives, certainly never put it to the vote (at least not told people that's what it was; US elections are now a choice between two 'yesses' to the corporate world, pretty much). But people who are intelligent like to think that the world all kind of works the way it does for some reason - they find the idea reassuring - and so they almost ascribe a counter-argument to it all out of good faith that there must be one.

The movement is stuck in a rut, because the only people it is attracting, by and large, are the ones who really want to be dropouts or rebels anyway, the ones attracted to it precisely because it is radical and in the minority. It needs to get itself into the mainstream. And for that to happen, its house organ, Adbusters, needs to grow up a bit. It needs the people who do actually vote to get the message. More of its activists need to get into traditional politics, if only because that guarantees you some coverage by the media. We need to get the message out there carried by the intelligent spokespeople who understand the realities of the movement, not just the immature studenty types who want to stick it to the man.

And we need to do this soon.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Just Get On With It

At some point you have to stop wondering what the thing to start your blog off with is, and simply write something. It's not as if anyone will read it anyway. So since there's no great way to get this thing off the ground, I thought I'd write about the first thing that came into my head. Probably this is going to become a ranting area, for things I can't get away with boring people with who I actually know. So, for my first rant: The General Public are Idiots.

One of the genres of TV almost guaranteed to annoy me is those shows where they get some politician, especially Tony Blair, in front of an audience of Ordinary People. I say especially Tony Blair not because I dislike him (in this instance, anyway), but because he's so polite to them. The clip of some woman outside a hospital harrassing him about her relative outside a hospital is one of the most infuriating things I've ever seen. Had I been Blair in this situation, the temptation to tell the woman to just fuck off, or ask what exactly she had in mind for him to do other than just 'have more staff', would have been overpowering.

As you may have guessed if you live in the UK, this has been inspired in particular by this evening's edition of Newsnight, where Blair was forced, as part of his day's PR schedule, to sit in front of a crowd of mainly belligerent tossers, who proceeded to berate him for not solving all their problems himself. Kirsty Wark strode around the hall, firing the audience's questions at Blair in a way clearly calculated to provide the story that The Thick Of It labelled "Politician Looks A Tit" first and foremost, and subordinate to that to actually provide a debate. "How many people here think liberalising the drinking laws was a good idea? ..[no hands go up]... Well there you have it". Oh yeah, well done Kirsty, you're clearly in the right about this. The fruits of hours of government consultation and thought on the subject clearly may as well be torn up and thrown out the window, a roomful of reactionaries in Swindon don't see the point.

"Who here thinks Cannabis should be a Class B drug?". Really? That many? That many people feel Cannabis is as bad as Speed? Or do they actually mean that Class C drugs should be treated more seriously? And how on earth did Blair let them get away with the lazy statement that the declassification 'sent a message to kids that Cannabis is OK'? It's still illegal, it's still possible to go to prison for possesion. Why do politicians put themselves out there for this kind of ritual humiliation, and restrain themselves from giving the audience as good as they get? Why does Tony just sit there, mugging and smiling and looking a pillock on TV, when you can see occasional flashes of exactly the right reaction: Snorts of derision for ludicrously ill-informed opinions. The next politician I see who actually has a go at someone for voicing a frankly stultifying opinion will get my vote straight off.

Why do I get the feeling that, had Blair responded with the correct reaction to the question on GPs not taking appointments he received on Question Time during the 2005 election, he wouldn't have gone on to do as well in the polls (that reaction being 'So you actually think I legislated that GPs' surgeries aren't to take appointments until the morning you want them so we can say we've cut waiting times? What are you, a fucking moron? Just because GPs surgery receptionists are being incredibly cynical and not doing their job properly, that's meant to be my fault is it? And yet, at the same time, there are those of you in the audience who already claim we interfere in the NHS too much. Give me a break here, Christ!')? Why does everyone think they're not only entitled to their opinion, but that it's worth as much as the Prime Minister's. That the fact of the years of careful investment that the government has made into services that people want are subsumed by their personal frustrations?

Cynicism for the political process is one of the most insidious problems we face. When the orthodoxy that politicians 'just talk about things, they never do anything' goes unchallenged, we have a serious problem. So how do politicians communicate to people that actually, they spend a lot of time that we don't really see (unless we watch BBC Parliament) doing things, and that things do change?