Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Forty years ago, on 28 January 1972, President Richard Nixon signed his “war on drugs” into law. Drugs were “public enemy number one,” said Nixon, and action was necessary because addiction to narcotics had “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency”.
Four decades on, and the global clampdown on drugs continues unabated. From London to Bogota to Kabul, the same disastrous policies are being repeated with the same destructive consequences. As a Global Commission on Drug Policy report released in June 2010 argued, the global war on drugs has resulted in “devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”.
In the years since President Nixon’s declaration, the US government has spent trillions of dollars attempting to destroy the illegal drugs trade – both at home and abroad. The U.S. federal government spent over $15 billion dollars in 2010 on the war on drugs, at a rate of around $500 per second. The human consequences are even more troubling. Around 90 per cent of all cocaine consumed in the US comes via Mexico – a place where, since 2006, over 47,000 people have been killed in President Philip Calderon’s violent battle with the drug cartels.
Tuesday, 21 February 2012
I don’t know about you, but before I tuned into the Channel Four show I had no idea what a big fat gypsy wedding was. I assumed it must be something to do with gypsies and weddings, obviously, but I failed to grasp why such a program would ever make it on to television. Lots of people get married, I reasoned, so why should a gypsy wedding be more deserving of airtime than anything else.
So I did it. I tuned in. And now everything has become a little clearer. Despite the assurances of Channel Four that the program is about combating the negative tabloid portrayal of gypsies, the whole thing stuck to the script more comprehensively than a Daily Mail editorial. Smashing stereotypes? Hardly. More like hammering them home with a sledgehammer and a stick of dynamite.
While I am arguably too young to delve deep into the archives of television history (I am 29), I struggle to recall a time when so much of the weekly schedule was filled with programmes designed to allow us, the public, to look down with disdain on other, more marginal groups; and usually under a pseudo-progressive guise of empathising with those on the receiving end of our spiteful laughter.
I do not wish to single out Channel Four here. They are, after all, only commissioning programs they believe (and correctly, in the case of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings) will be popular. Look elsewhere if you prefer. Turn on the Jeremy Kyle show; watch one of Ricky Gervais’s recent offerings; listen to a Frankie Boyle joke; dig out the Little Britain DVDs. Wherever you look this type of “entertainment” has gradually taken over our television screens, pumping up the self-esteem of the middle classes by giving a sly kick to those clinging on to the lower rungs of the social ladder.
Oh it’s just a joke, I can hear you say. Lighten up. You’re taking things too seriously.
So why the pretence of empathy then? Why not simply make television that unapologetically mocks the poor, the deformed, the degenerate and the non-conformist?
For one thing that would require an admission that under all the politically correct plumage, we are perhaps not the welcoming and tolerant a society we smugly and repeatedly profess to be. There are political implications, too. Is popular support for David Cameron’s welfare reforms really about fair play and “common sense”, or have we become so used to viewing those less fortunate than ourselves as the equivalent of another species that we no longer even care what happens to them? The London riots? “Sheer criminality”; the teenagers on Jeremy Kyle? “Chavs”. Travellers? “Gypos”. Simple, comforting, and most importantly perhaps, a way to feel better about ourselves in an era where fatalism has replaced the idea that a better world is possible.
The thing which seems to provoke the heartiest laughter and the greatest mirth of all, I am gradually discovering, is any attempt by the disenfranchised to emulate those more fortunate than themselves. The mock-celebrity names the council estate Mothers give to their children; the scantily clad gypsy girls copying the provocative dance moves of their favourite pop stars; the transsexuals expressing outwardly what they feel inside; the overweight people trying desperately to look how they’ve been told they are supposed to look. How dare they? we collectively seem to ask. Don’t they know their station?
Laughing in the face of the vulnerable seems to have caught on at about the time we finally lost all control over what happens at the other end of society. The global rich no longer listen to us, so instead we spend our time looking downwards and sneering at easier targets. Perhaps we recognise something of ourselves in the powerless, and giving them a good kicking is a sort of masochistic exercise, not unlike electing politicians such Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Whatever the reason, it seems the television equivalent of the freak show is here to stay.
The riots of August 2011 should have put paid to the idea that we could go on laughing at the underclass forever. It didn’t though; and if you want a picture of the future, you could do worse than imagine a Vicky Pollard-type figure being hurt and humiliated publicly – forever.
Thursday, 16 February 2012
Nobody needs to ask where conservatives stand on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. They don’t exactly hide behind the fact that they want the territory to remain staunchly British. Not necessarily because most Falkland islanders want to be British, which they do of course, but for reasons similar to that which led many of them to oppose the end of colonialism last century. In other words, the more territory that belongs to the crown, the better.
As for the Left, I hardly think I am putting my neck on the line if I say that majority opinion would be very much opposed to any military action to defend British control of the islands. Sean Penn probably echoed the sentiment of most left-liberal types when he said this week that Britain was “colonialist” for refusing to hand over what he called “the Malvinas Islands of Argentina”.
The attitude of Penn is not new of course; and the instinct – that of a deep suspicion of the motivations of the British state – is a sound one. British colonialism’s record of ceding power to the demands of popular movements seeking self-determination is not exactly a beacon of enlightened thinking, by any stretch of the imagination.
That being said, an over-heightened suspicion of “imperialism” has also been known to lead a person down a political dead end from time to time. In 1982, despite the fact that the Labour leadership supported Margaret Thatcher’s intervention in the Falklands and the Argentinian invasion was signed-off by the thuggish military junta of General Galtieri, the majority of the Left enthusiastically denounced military action on the basis that Britain was an “imperialist” country. Little was said about Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands, itself based on a few years of formal possession a century and a half ago, and less was said about the attitude of the islanders themselves – one might think the most important consideration in the whole affair.
Today in progressive circles, there is a strong emotional attachment to the idea that Argentina, rather than Britain, has the only claim over the islands deserving of support. This belief is not based on any evidence of historical injustice towards Argentina – that country’s claim is even more flimsy than Britain’s – but rather on an emotional exchange in the mind of the progressive of one chauvinism for another. The superior virtue of the oppressed, it was once called; or in this case, the superior virtue of any nation that isn’t their own.
This sort of thing highlights another problem the contemporary Left has – outside of opposition to intervention, what does it actually stand for overseas? Democratic self-determination of small peoples, or theorising about which country is the most “imperialist” based on a particular reading of a 100-year-old dog-eared text?
It hardly needs reiterating that British interest in the Falkland Islands is almost certainly not based on altruism – there is increasing talk of an oil windfall from the seas surrounding the islands – but what on earth gives a person the impression that Argentina’s motivations are any less grubby?
The sensible option, it would seem, would be to ignore politicians on both sides of the squabble and ask the islanders what they want. If they reply with the same answer they have been giving for many years - that they would like to remain British – people such as Sean Penn are more than entitled not to like that answer, but they must, at the very least, come up with a good reason as to why the islands belong to Argentina instead. And I’m afraid romanticism just won’t do.
Saturday, 11 February 2012
Aside from the drinking, experimentation with drugs and casual sex, university life has traditionally been a place where young people have cut their teeth amidst a wealth of new and exciting ideas. Not every university student is lucky in this respect, of course – at the former poly I attended the closest I ever got to political activism was throwing rotten vegetables over the garden wall at our affluent neighbours – but as a rule, university students tend to leave with a better understanding of a number of political trains of thought than they had before they went.
The latest idea to be popularised at university, however, is not really a political idea at all, but rather a sensibility. It is not taught in lectures, nor as far as I am aware does it have any social societies to its name. It is backed, however, by a great number of the political activists universities up and down the country are famous for.
I am talking, of course, about the idea that students require protection against being “offended”.
Lots of things, such as racism, homophobia and sexism, really are offensive. No one should be in any doubt about that. Nor am I in any sense trying to downplay the feelings of offense people feel from time to time about a wide range of things. Who, apart from an ice-cold sociopath, could never feel offended?
What I am referring to, rather, is the increasingly popular notion that a person has some sort of right not to be offended; to have their ears stuffed with cotton wool whenever anyone says anything that might bring their worldview crashing to the floor like a house of playing cards.
There have always been those who have sought to use force to silence those they perceive as blasphemers and critics, of course. Fortunately, our relatively free society has for the most part pushed such people to the margins, and it is no longer possible to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night over a poorly timed joke about a beardy chap (secular or religious).
It seems to have been learnt in some quarters, however, that if your feelings are hurt you again no longer have to actually bother challenging the argument of a rival at all, but can instead cling to the irrefutable and subjective notion of “deeply held belief” to silence your critics.
An example of this made the news recently when the President of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society at the prestigious University College London (UCL) had to step down after a furore erupted over the publication of a cartoon featuring Jesus and Mohammed having a beer.
The strangest thing about the whole affair was not the behaviour of the devout, which was depressingly predictable, but rather the reaction of much of the student political left – historically the very people supposed to be the defenders of free expression. The only Left group that put out anything defending free expression was the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, of which I am a member.
In response to the “incident” (or the publication of a couple of scribbled pictures, whichever you think most appropriate), the LSESU Socialist Workers Society put up posters around campus that included the following pitiful statement:
“The Atheist Society’s efforts to publish inflammatory “satirical” cartoons in a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims serve to highlight a festering undercurrent of racism.”
You may notice that they could not bring themselves to say outright that the cartoons were racist (because they were not), but instead sought deliberately to confuse the matter by saying the pictures "highlighted a festering undercurrent of racism".
What was it Orwell once said about the use of this sort of language? "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."
When did the student Left become so conservative?
Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Football has come in for a lot of stick of late. Successive racism scandals, followed by a harrowing documentary reminding us that only one professional footballer has ever come out as gay have, to cut a long story short, dragged the game’s reputation through the mud somewhat.
Not that football set any kind of gold moral standard to begin with or anything. Were you to ask the sort of person who avoids the pub like the plague on match day to sum up their attitude towards the game, they would probably characterise it as 22 overpaid and preening primadonnas who believe underhandedness to be the ultimate virtue – so long of course, as the end result is in favour of one’s own side.
This perception is compounded by the attitude of the fans, who regularly defend the sporting equivalent of two plus two equals five. More often than not, not only will they firmly insist that two plus two equals five, but they will genuinely believe it with every fibre of their being.
Getting the unconverted to comprehend this catalogue of devotion, hatred and ill-will, then, is always going to be something of an uphill struggle. I will endear to give it my best shot, all the same.
In order to understand football it is, first of all I think, necessary to recognise the tedium and uniformity of modern life for a large proportion of people. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to listen to someone from a well-to-do background lambast those who, in their view, live through the exhilarating exploits of others – be that on the football pitch or in the glossy pages of Heat magazine. It may be a surprise for those people to hear this, but many if not most people spend the vast majority of their time doing routine jobs they would chuck-in in an instant were their lottery numbers to come in on a Saturday night. Should you ever feel tempted to speak disparagingly of a fan’s “irrational concerns,” it is worth taking this into consideration.
Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that a system which pays bankers more than nurses, teachers and fire-fighters is fairly irrational to begin with. Is it really such a great surprise to find lots of people engaging in a bit of escapism at the weekend? No, it really isn’t.
The apparent “irrationality” of football is a particular bugbear amongst haters of the game. “It’s just a piece of leather they’re kicking around,” they will smugly tell you as if they’ve just discovered the molecular structure of DNA. These are the people who can never understand the games’ reluctance to add technology to the proceedings. I must admit, introducing a degree of certainty to a game littered with the glaring mistakes of officialdom does seem, at first, like a no-brainer. Isn’t Match of the Day, the weekly highlight of the television schedule for those of us who cannot afford Sky Sports, characterised by bitter complaints about allegedly incompetent refereeing?
Again, I will be the first to admit that this is all quite true. No argument to be had here. What I would say, though, is that it misses the point entirely. The sheer sense of being robbed when a result doesn’t go a particular way is, counterintuitive as it may seem, an intrinsic part of football’s unique appeal. It is the back and forth of emotions that fans crave, not one emotion in particular. Is that irrational? Of course. But so are lots of things like, I don’t know, falling in love, or complaining about other people’s enjoyment of sports you are not yourself forced to watch.
Why, though, I am often asked, does there exist such passionate hatred of the other team? And in particular, the followers of the other team?
To put it succinctly, in an age of individuality and autonomy football gives its followers a sense of belonging and identity. All of us, whether we like it or not, have an identity we adhere to – a picture in our heads of who we are and where we belong (even those apparently too “civilised” for competitive sport often cling to an identity which sets them apart from fans; usually that of the cultured “highbrow”). There is no doubt of course that identity can, at times, be problematic, and can be harnessed to contrast one’s own imagined virtues with the negative qualities of the “other”. But it is also something people find it rather difficult to do without, as time spent in the company of teenagers, music fans and even those with a slight interest in politics will attest.
Football has a special appeal for so many because it is war-like. It involves strategy and the exertion of herculean energy to accomplish a common goal: the figurative grinding into dust of an opponent, bound up in the notion of the local club. One’s team does whatever it can to win; and to achieve its goal it must break the rules when necessary. Victory is rarely final, either, and there is always the possibility of redemption at some date in the not-too-distant future.
George Orwell, who once dismissed football as “a continuation of war by other means” – which, as I said, it is - hit the nail on the head when he said, speaking in a quite different context, that “on the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good and not quite all the time.”
I am as unhappy as the next lefty about racism and homophobia in the game. I am also aware that football does not matter one jot in the grand scheme of things. I will still be at the bar on the weekend, though, getting genuinely angry at a television screen for no other reason than I took a liking to a particular club when I was about five years old. Irrational and pointless? You bet. I am human though. And in the end, that is what football is.
Sunday, 5 February 2012
When: Wednesday, 22 February 2012
Time: 19:30 until 21:30
Where: The Lucas Arms, (near King's Cross) 245a Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8JR
Much of the organised left, in Britain and worldwide, regards Cuba's government and society, created by the revolution of 1959, as socialist - not without flaws, but qualitatively different from the bureaucratic regimes which existed in the Soviet Union and still exist in states like China and North Korea.
Workers' Liberty disagrees. Cuba is not a flawed workers' regime in a difficult situation, but a consolidated system of class exploitation.
James Bloodworth (author of the Obliged to Offend blog) and Paul Hampton will lead a discussion on the character of the Cuban revolution and the state it created, and explain why from a Marxist point of view the regime led by Raul Castro can only be considered the exploiter and oppressor of the Cuban working class and people.
All welcome. Plenty of time for debate and discussion.