Archive for March, 2010

All Shall Have Prizes

March 30, 2010

I think it was Oliver Kamm who said that whenever someone asks ‘What would Orwell say?’ their unspoken answer is: ‘He would have agreed with me.’

So the recently announced longlist for the Orwell Prize 2010 was bound to provoke this kind of talk. Some of Stephen Mitchelmore‘s grousing about the list is understandable. Does Iain Dale really turn political writing into an art? Does Peter Hitchens? I think not.

But this is Mitchelmore’s main complaint: that ‘[the prize] has shortlisted books by Nick Cohen (twice!), Andrew Marr and (Tony Blair’s press secretary) Alastair Campbell, each to varying degrees responsible for selling to the British public the solidity of Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Distruction and respect to the murderous invasion of Iraq.’

In fact Cohen never pressed WMD as a case for the 2003 war but let’s gloss over that. Who are Mitchelmore’s alternative Orwell heirs? ‘Richard Seymour’s Lenin’s Tomb superbly written and often revelatory blog posts have yet to be recognised. His book was ignored too.’ Well, Seymour is capable of writing good stuff. Yet Orwell said that prose should have the clarity of a windowpane, and I don’t think Lenny’s greatest admirer could claim that he provides that.

‘It’s a staggering truth also that John Pilger has not been nominated for the journalism prize.’ In fact it is a fairly reasonable truth to accept, given that Pilger now appears to rely on holocaust deniers for source material. And there’s this: ‘As for the book prize, the work from 2009 most overtly inspired by Orwell is surely Newspeak in the 21st Century by Davids Edward and Cromwell’. In fact, were Orwell writing today I suspect he would be on the receiving end of boring and repetitive email traffic from his self-appointed successors.

For all Orwell identified as rotten in political writing – for resistance to truths that do not fit its preconceptions, for language that seems designed to narrow the range of human thought, for the desire ‘to distort or suppress the facts, simply because any honest statement will contain revelations that can be made use of by unscrupulous opponents’ – you cannot beat the Medialens crew.

Mitchelmore ignores Orwell’s rejection of absolute pacifism. His willingness to argue points that might not go down well socially. He ignores the Orwell who wrote, in The Road to Wigan Pier, that ‘If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaler, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!’

That first line is from ‘Through a Glass, Rosily’ in which Orwell also says this:

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding or abetting B… Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise, or at least criticise ‘constructively,’ which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.

Anyway. I think there is some good stuff on the longlist. Laurie Penny and Dave Osler are two of the best leftwing writers working today. And Jack of Kent has done some fantastic stuff on the UK libel laws. Perhaps Stephen just needs to broaden his horizons a little. Or even set up his own award for political writing.

Call it ‘The Mitchelmore Prize for Obfuscation’.

Errand into the Wilderness

March 28, 2010

My review of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City is now available at 3:AM.

The Chewbacca Defence

March 25, 2010

Readers outside Manchester may not have heard of Nick Freeman. He’s a defence lawyer known as ‘Mr Loophole’ for his ability to get people acquitted of motoring offences on obscure legal technicalities. He’s something of a celebrity up here and has defended footballers and supermodels. Wikipedia includes highlights of his career:

  • A motorcyclist was acquitted of a 132 mph speeding charge when Freeman quoted case law from 1922.
  • Freeman ‘defended a businessman who had crashed his car and was taken to hospital seriously injured’, and who was over the drunk-drive limit, and was acquitted as ‘the relevant legislation says that the blood must be taken by someone who is not associated with the driver’s care. In this case, it was taken by a surgeon directly involved, and so the man was acquitted.’
  • Caprice Bourret – Freeman claimed the model had a urinary tract infection, and that she was affected by the drugs she was taking. Banned for 12 months.
  • Jimmy Carr – cleared of using a mobile phone while driving at Harrow Magistrates Court after Freeman argued that Carr had used the dictation setting of his iPhone to record a joke as he drove and that using the phone for such a purpose was not illegal under current law.
  • Steve McFadden – who ‘had a remarkable capacity for drink’ and was examined by a police surgeon, who had drunk the equivalent of nine double vodkas, and was found ‘for all intents and purposes to be quite sober.’ McFadden was banned for 18 months, which is a fairly lenient sentence for the amount of alcohol in his blood.

He appears to have stepped out of a Carl Hiaasen novel. In fact one of Hiaasen’s books features a corrupt lawyer who is trying to rationalise his decision to blackmail a congressman. ‘One of Mordecai’s former classmates had become famous touting himself as ‘Doctor D.U.I.’… what was worse: shaking down a sleazy politician, or putting drunk drivers back on the road?’

Now Nick ‘Loophole’ Freeman – he has actually trademarked the nickname – has migrated from the MEN‘s news coverage to its op-ed page. In line with the paper’s dog-whistle ethos, Freeman’s inaugural column takes on incapacity fraudsters. Everyone knows that some people fake IB claims and recently there’s been a policy announced in which all Manchester’s sickness claimants will be tested by GPs to prove they are not fit for work.

It sounds like an idea with potential – plenty of people on IB want to do some kind of work. It’s being marketed more as a threat than the opportunity it could be, but that’s another argument. Freeman has a different objection. To him, the proposals are no more than ‘a pitifully small sticking plaster to cover a much bigger wound.’ This is his alternative:

What we need is a panel of appointed experts whose principal role is to assess the health of a would-be claimant with a battery of exhaustive tests. It may cost more in the short term, but will separate the truly needy from those who are trying it on simply because they can. Those who are found to be making a false claim should face the full weight of the law, and pay their debt back to society with unpaid community work.

Freeman adds: ‘I’d even go so far as to insist they wear uniform that identifies their role.’ I wonder if he has a design in mind.

The lawyer also argues that child killer Ian Huntley should be compensated by the authorities for the recent attacks on him in prison. This prompts a question in the comments as to whether Nick will be handling his claim.

I wonder what the Manchester Evening News thinks it’s doing with this? Still, Freeman fits in well in a roster of op-ed columnists with silliness problems. This is Angela Epstein on the Manchester ID pilot:

I’m so proud I could almost burst. I haven’t felt this good about cradling something small and pink since my daughter Sophie was born.

All right, so I’m exaggerating a bit. But honestly, when you’re the first member of the public to be issued with a brand spanking new national identity card, it’s a seminal moment.

‘This does not make sense!’

Reflections on a Silo Nation

March 24, 2010

According to Denis MacShane, there are three great lies about immigration:

1) Politicians are not talking about it. I can think of no other issue that flares up so often on the doorstep. It is raised regularly at local Labour party meetings. The government has changed the law again and again. Phil Woolas and other ministers get into trouble as they talk of little else.

2) It is out of control. In fact, last year there were 24,000 claims for asylum but 65,000 asylum seekers were sent or went home. The great wave of east European workers sucked in by the booming low-wage labour-intensive economy of the early century has subsided. Over decades Britain has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Irish. Now it is a different type of Catholic European – Poles and Slovaks.

3) There is something easy to be done.

The Rotherham MP is always worth reading and this is an interesting and sensible contribution to the current ‘debate’.

Opposition to migration can stem from racism, sure, but it also has roots in a silo mentality. We think of ourselves as an absolute zero sum economy where (to paraphrase P J O’Rourke) if I order a pizza, you have to eat the box. We don’t like migrants because we might have to pay for them. We don’t like foreign wars, not because we care about the loss of life, but because wars cost money and distract us from our national interest. And not just wars. Any aid, any trade, any intervention is suspicious these days. During the Haiti earthquake crisis acquaintances would ask me things like: ‘Why are we giving public money to Haiti, when there are problems enough at home?’ The attitude is that you look after your own and build up the walls. Society must be non-porous and vacuum-sealed. A philosophy of total separation.

The fact that even recession-hit and ‘broken’ Britain is a safer and more comfortable place than impoverished Haiti didn’t seem to occur to my interlocutors. Nor did the idea that it might be a good reflection on British citizens that, even in dark times, so many pledged support for disaster victims who they had never met and never would.

Wave, Wave Goodbye

March 24, 2010

A lot of people think of the media as a kind of exclusive, limited club, to which outsiders have little or no chance of entry. I have some differences with that view.

However, this week my roving satirical eye alighted on former NME journalist Nick Kent, who recently published an autobiography. From John Crace’s digest it sounds like the usual roster of 1970s big names and disputed anecdotes, capped off with the obligatory rehab spell and religious conversion. Julie Burchill was at the magazine at the same time as Kent and has duly torn him apart.

It really does puzzle me that people are still interested in these guys. Only a media conspiracy can explain it. Step forward, Tony Parsons, writer of pisspoor elegies to punk rock (an empty bourgois pursuit for posturing morons) turned author of equally pisspoor middle-youth novels and semi-literate nastiness for the Murdoch press. Julie Burchill can still write well if she wants to, but she too is sliding into irrelevance. And this all came from music journalism. This is Parsons on the NME:

Parsons describes his time there as ‘wild’ and says it was a job that many young men would have loved. ‘It was like doing your National Service,’ says Parsons. ‘You were there for a few years, they took the boy and turned you into a man—and then kicked you back into the real world where no one was interested in you and no one had ever heard of you.’

Only in England could music journalism be elevated to cultural mythology. You would think the guy was talking about Rolling Stone. Only Rolling Stone had and still has great writers, who weren’t afraid to take on the world beyond rock legend.

The cliche is true, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I can think of one music journalist who could write – Simon Price – and I’m sure he worked for Melody Maker. The NME itself was always an overblown student paper, it’s being fucked by the shift to online content and download culture, and no one will miss it when it’s gone. The Parsonses and Burchills of future generations will have nowhere to make their names. Good.

Hurrah for Socialised Medicine!

March 23, 2010

So, it has happened. Obama has got his healthcare bill through against heavy odds.

This isn’t as good as our NHS. It is flawed. But it is a start.

The subsidies and mandates take effect in 2014, but insurance regulations and some other provisions kick in right away. Immediately, insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage to people on the basis of pre-existing conditions. They’ll no longer be able to drop sick people from their policies. They’ll no longer be able to set lifetime caps on payouts. Young adults will be allowed to remain on their parents’ plans until they’re 26. Small businesses will receive tax incentives to provide healthcare to their employees.

It is projected to bring healthcare to 31 million people, covering a total of 95% of Americans, while reducing the deficit by over $100bn over a decade. At its core, the 2,400-page package comprises tough insurance regulations to protect consumers, subsidies to extend coverage to low-income individuals, and mandates to broaden the risk pool and contain the rise of costs.

This legislation was enacted despite the presence of a noisy Palinite rabble on Capitol Hill, waving their placards and shouting bigoted epithets at congressmen as they walked into the building.

Preceding the president’s speech to a gathering of House Democrats, thousands of protesters descended around the Capitol to protest the passage of health care reform. The gathering quickly turned into abusive heckling, as members of Congress passing through Longworth House office building were subjected to epithets and even mild physical abuse.

A staffer for Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told reporters that Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) had been spat on by a protestor. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, was called a ‘ni–er.’ And Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was called a ‘faggot,’ as protestors shouted at him with deliberately lisp-y screams. Frank, approached in the halls after the president’s speech, shrugged off the incident.

But Clyburn was downright incredulous, saying he had not witnessed such treatment since he was leading civil rights protests in South Carolina in the 1960s.

‘It was absolutely shocking to me,’ Clyburn said, in response to a question from the Huffington Post. ‘Last Monday, this past Monday, I stayed home to meet on the campus of Claflin University where fifty years ago as of last Monday… I led the first demonstrations in South Carolina, the sit ins… And quite frankly I heard some things today I have not heard since that day. I heard people saying things that I have not heard since March 15, 1960 when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus.’

‘It doesn’t make me nervous as all,’ the congressman said, when asked how the mob-like atmosphere made him feel. ‘In fact, as I said to one heckler, I am the hardest person in the world to intimidate, so they better go somewhere else.’

It’s not that hard to work out whose side you’re on, is it?

Some racist losers yesterday

Fear and Loathing in the Gulf

March 19, 2010

My review of Glenn Fitzpatrick’s Arts and Mines: From Hell and Beyond, A Personal Odyssey is now available at 3:AM.

Morality (still) predates religion

March 19, 2010

An old truth, but I’m not sure anyone expresses it as well as Michael Ruse did this week.

God is dead, so why should I be good? The answer is that there are no grounds whatsoever for being good. There is no celestial headmaster who is going to give you six (or six billion, billion, billion) of the best if you are bad. Morality is flimflam.

Does this mean that you can just go out and rape and pillage, behave like an ancient Roman grabbing Sabine women? Not at all. I said that there are no grounds for being good. It doesn’t follow that you should be bad. Indeed, there are those – and I am one – who argue that only by recognising the death of God can we possibly do that which we should, and behave properly to our fellow humans and perhaps save the planet that we all share. We can give up all of that nonsense about women and gay people being inferior, about fertilised ova being human beings, and about the earth being ours to exploit and destroy.

Start with the fact that humans are naturally moral beings. We want to get along with our fellows. We care about our families. And we feel that we should put our hands in our pockets for the widows and orphans. This is not a matter of chance or even of culture primarily. Humans as animals have gone the route of sociality. We succeed, each of us individually, because we are part of a greater whole and that whole is a lot better at surviving and reproducing that most other animals.

It is true that we are aggressive at times, and it is even more true that thanks to our technology we can and sometimes do wreak the most terrible consequences on our fellow humans. But even so, compared to many other species, we are softies. The murder rate among lions, for instance, makes downtown Detroit look like a haven.

Morality predates religion.

Capitalism’s Leni Riefenstahl

March 16, 2010

My review of Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right is now available at 3:AM.

The End of Migration

March 15, 2010

Liberal Conspiracy carries an interesting piece by Jennifer O’Mahony on a continental campaign that encourages immigrants into one-day strikes. The idea is to make people realise the dependence of successful economies on migrant labour.

From the article:

Peggy Derder, Nadir Dendoune and Nadia Lamarkbi, three French professionals in their thirties, hit upon the idea of la journée sans immigrés, or the day without immigrants, after years of endless police checks and discrimination. The trio were encouraging anyone who is an immigrant, of immigrant origin, or who feels solidarity with immigrants and wanted to contest their treatment to take these three simple measures for just one day. In a political system where there are no black or Arab representatives, despite the fact that these minorities make up 10% of the population, people of immigrant origin wanted to make their invisibility and silence symbolically evident in workplaces around France.

Their aim was to make their compatriots see how different their country would look and sound if France’s minorities did not exist. The demonstration also sought to highlight the economic contribution that minorities make, and the range of industries they operate within France. Demonstrators were hoping to empty offices, stop public transport and close stores. The idea quickly spread and similar demonstrations were seen in Spain, Italy, and Greece.

The journée sans immigrés allowed French people to see how integral immigrants have become to their nation, and what would be lost if they, and their French born descendants, were not a part of France’s ethnic landscape.

Mme Kecheroud expressed her hope to build on the success of the first demonstration in the run up to a repeat next year:

‘We are now taking stock after the success of our first ‘Day Without Immigrants.’ We are now intending to go further with our new perspective, in particular through the forthcoming creation of a vigilance committee. But we will be sure to do our best again to continue this great event next year. Immigration is badly considered and not seen as it really is: an asset. A large proportion of France, and of Europe relies on it.’

What would a UK migrant strike look like? Possibly we can get an idea from a recent reality TV show that did a similar experiment for the BBC. Lucy Mangan watched the results:

The Day the Immigrants Left, presented by Evan Davies (BBC1), went to Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, a town with thousands of eastern European workers and 2,000 local people on the dole. The producers arranged for 12 of the latter to replace 12 of the former for two days to see if they were as ready, willing and able to work at anything as a) they claimed and b) their immigrant counterparts were.

Half turned up late or not at all. ‘I won’t do a job I don’t find very interesting,’ said 26-year-old Lewis, who has been unemployed for five years and was supposed to go to a potato factory. ‘I do feel a little bit pressurised to get a job, but it’s not to the point that I can just take any job that comes.’ Those that did eventually arrive were a woeful sight. Paul and Terry insisted that the potato-sorting machines had been set deliberately fast (they had actually been slowed down to accommodate the two trainees), one of many examples from the British workers of a persistent and fatally crippling sense of grievance and entitlement.

Carpenter Dean reacted with fury to his Lithuanian supervisor’s instructions to use screws rather than a nail gun, which would take longer but make his plasterboard work stand firm. Ashley quit his restaurant job halfway through his first lunchtime on his first day and then sat down happily to eat the meal offered by his saintly employer Ali.

You looked in vain for a glimmer of shame or embarrassment in any of them, but came up emptyhanded. You could try to tell yourself that their attitudes masked the insecurities that come with unemployment, and at times Davies bent over backwards to put a better gloss on their behaviour: at one point, he tried to suggest to the farm owner that availability of foreign labour had made employers lazy when it came to ‘coaxing and motivating’ local workers. But it was hard not to suspect, as you watched the infuriating dozen, stunned by the prospect of physical labour, resentful of any advice, childish and utterly unmotivated by the presence of a television crew or the knowledge that even their greatest perceived sufferings would be over within 48 hours, that the natives might just be revolting.

(Image via Guardian)