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.