Archive for April, 2010

Chaos Rising

April 25, 2010

My review of Patrick Ness‘s phenomenal Chaos Walking finale is now available at 3:AM.

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Let’s Arrest the Pope

April 24, 2010

I’ve written before about the antiwar faction’s talismanic reverence for the concept of legality, and it’s this that trips up Liam MacUaid’s argument against arresting the Pope when he makes his publicly funded visit to the UK. (I found MacUaid’s piece via Andy Newman, who naturally and enthusiastically endorses it.) MacUaid asks:

And if we’re in the mood for dishing out arrest warrants would the pre-election period not be a good time to demand the arrest of all those present and former ministers with direct political responsibility for the ongoing wars and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan?

You could turn this question on its head: why do you want to arrest an elected leader for leading Britain into a war backed by parliament, but not arrest an unelected autocrat for covering up the torture and rape of children? You can mess around with the text of the 1985 letter as if it were a postmodern novel, you can go on about anti-papism and Orange Zionism until the stars burn out, but the Pope has a case to answer. Let him answer it, if he can.

Imagine if the Telegraph exposed a culture of systemic child rape in the Labour Party. It would make the expenses scandal look like a minor flap in media land. An investigation would already be well underway, the government would fall, people would be tearing up their party cards, those with evidence against them would be afraid to walk the streets – if they’d even been bailed. The same goes for any private business or public sector organisation. Because this involves a church, any talk of justice has to be a conspiracy against Catholics in general.

‘The left liberal intelligentsia is making a wrong call on this issue,’ says MacUaid. He talks about migrant Catholic workers at a parish in Bethnal Green:

Feel free to chastise them for their ideological backwardness but the hard fact is that they get more out of their membership of the Catholic Church than any other organisation they could choose to join. It would make for an interesting spectacle if a few of the liberal and left secularists demanding the arrest of Pope Benedict tried to rustle up support for their campaign among some of the most exploited workers in London.

The implication is clear: secularism is a bourgeois intellectual phenomenon that can only alienate the earthy and spiritual proletariat. I cannot match the far left’s communalist skills. They’ve bought into our culture’s condescending assumption that we shouldn’t challenge superstition because its illusions are all that the working classes have to live for. To quote former neocon Michael Lind: ‘Religion becomes what Plato called a noble lie. It is a myth which is told to the majority of the society by the philosophical elite in order to ensure social order’. And there was a time when far leftists would have tried to help exploited workers rather than just canvass them.

In any case, many Catholics are also incensed about the crimes. Read Andrew Sullivan on the Kiesle case. The scandal was broken by the Boston Globe, newspaper of the largest Catholic city in America, by an investigative team of mostly Catholic reporters. Journalist Michael Rezendes agrees that: ‘it was quite courageous of the editors – we could have alienated a lot of readers.’

Instead: ‘The Globe reporters were also quietly told of many dozens of cases over the previous decade or so, in which the church had settled claims against molesting priests privately, often including a clause that barred the victims or their families from ever talking about it.’ A typical case:

The Globe‘s first story also featured a heartbreaking interview with Maryetta Dussourd, whose three sons, and the four sons of her niece Diane, had been abused by Geoghan years earlier, in the 1970s, and with whom the church had settled privately. ‘She’d written this incredibly painful and poignant letter to the cardinal at the time,’ [religious affairs correspondent Michael] Paulson recalls. ‘You could feel all her passion for the church, her deep respect for the cardinal – and her shock and pain that despite her dozens of complaints, he was still continuing to work with children. That was what really got to people, I think.’

Paulson also identifies: ‘a kind of evolution of culture, a moment in history when people were willing to talk critically about religion. Often in the past that just hasn’t been possible.’

Despite Richard Dawkins’s best efforts I don’t sense the same evolution of culture in the UK. During this week’s Election 2010 debate, a questioner from the audience noted that: ‘The Pope has accepted an invitation to make an official state visit to Britain in September at a cost of millions of pounds to tax-payers’ and asked candidates if they would ‘disassociate your party from the Pope’s protection over many years of Catholic priests who were ultimately tried and convicted of child abuse’.

Instead of answering, all three candidates delivered identical pro-faith blather. ‘I think faith-based organisations, whether they are Christian or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, do amazing things in our country,’ said David Cameron, ‘whether it is working in our prisons or providing good schools or actually helping some of the most vulnerable people in our country.’

The truth is that we have no reason to believe that vast numbers of people have to labour under worthless delusions and accept everything their leaders tell them. There’s every reason to believe that people are capable of looking at the facts and making brave decisions for themselves.

A Modest Ambition

April 18, 2010

The glorious moment of spring so far has been Simon Singh’s victory against Mr Justice Eady’s ruling in the chiropractic libel case. You know the story. Singh wrote an article for the Guardian that claimed, rightly, that the British Chiropractic Association promoted bogus treatments. The practice itself was invented by a disgraced nineteenth-century magnet therapist who was convinced that back massage could treat 95% of illnesses. Singh showed that the association promoted spinal manipulation as a cure for a range of childhood ailments including ‘colic, sleeping and feeding problems, ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying’. (Ben Goldacre has analysed the evidence – such as it is.)

The BCA was offered a right to reply but instead it sued for libel. Eady ruled that it wasn’t enough for Singh to back up his assertions with hard fact. He had to prove that the chiropractors were deliberately lying rather than just delusional. As Amie realised, that ruling took the case into ‘deep philosophical waters’ – Singh couldn’t win the case unless he developed an ability to actually read his opponents’ thoughts.

Like the girl in the Millennium trilogy, Singh had kicked the hornet’s nest. His case sparked a popular fury and turned an obscure liberal campaign into a public movement. The victory has been so quick and decisive it’s astonishing. The three main political parties have had to pledge a commitment to libel reform, and although it can’t happen until after the election, at the moment change seems inevitable. Senior judges at the Court of Appeal agreed that litigation had ‘a chilling effect on public debate’ and, realising it couldn’t win, the BCA dropped its case.

Of course the battle is not over – to quote Dr Evan Harris: ‘For every Simon Singh who wins there are hundreds of writers who never dare publish or who give up their legal battle because they cannot risk the cost of losing.’ There’s an NHS cardiologist, Dr Peter Wilmshurst, who’s being sued by an American company under English law after he raised concerns about a heart implant device the company made.

Still, even at this early stage Singh’s win sends a message. His case generated huge media coverage with petitions, public meetings, merchandise, celebrity involvement and the offending article reprinted all over the blogosphere. His online supporters hunted down every chiropractor in the UK offering expertise that they could not back up with evidence and reported them to regulatory authorities. The impact caused the McTimoney Chiropractic Association to send out a panicky email to its members. Quackometer got hold of it.

REMOVE all the blue MCA patient information leaflets, or any patient information leaflets of your own that state you treat whiplash, colic or other childhood problems in your clinic or at any other site where they might be displayed with your contact details on them. DO NOT USE them until further notice… If you use business cards or other stationery using the ‘doctor’ title and it does not clearly state that you are a doctor of chiropractic or that you are not a registered medical practitioner, STOP USING THEM immediately… IF YOU DO NOT FOLLOW THIS ADVICE, YOU MAY BE AT RISK FROM PROSECUTION… Finally, we strongly suggest you do NOT discuss this with others, especially patients[.]

Too late. Currently a quarter of UK chiropractors are under investigation.

Singh’s victory sends out a clear message to bullies and exploiters of all kinds. It is this. If you try to use the law to silence debate, you are going to have a fight on your hands. You will be challenged and scrutinised at every turn, you will become famous in ways you do not want and even if you win, you will come away damaged, perhaps mortally.

Nick Cohen makes a fine point about contemporary free speech activists:

There is an overlap with the more assertive atheism which followed 9/11. Like atheists, skeptics treat as patronising and contemptible the cynical modern belief that you should not examine religion or alternative medicines because the simple-minded and uninformed find comfort in them. But you do not have to be an atheist to be a skeptic, merely commit to the free examination of evidence. This modest ambition is surprisingly potent.

Kicking the Hornet’s Nest

April 17, 2010

My review of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Worse than War: Genocide, Eliminationism and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity is now available at 3:AM.

What Can You Do For Dave?

April 15, 2010

So finally my roving satirical eye turns to the general election. A month ago, I thought the Tories would walk it. Now I’m not sure. David Camerons needs to take 116 seats to get even a technical majority. The polls are in his favour but under first past the post this means nothing if the votes are not well targeted. Camerons has realised that the Daily Mail manifestos of the previous three elections will get him nowhere. He needs big ideas.

The Camerons idea is the Big Society. Launched this week, the Conservative manifesto is titled ‘Invitation to join the Government of Great Britain’; quoting the American founding fathers as well as JFK, Camerons said that: ‘It’s about we, the people. And it’s time to say to those who think it’s all about unchecked individualism: no, it’s not about me, the individual. It’s about we, the people’.

In policy terms, this means ‘enabling parents to open new schools’, ‘letting neighbours take over local amenities like parks and libraries that are under threat’, and ‘giving the public greater control of the planning system’. Boring, creaky old state delivery will be replaced by a new era of social responsibility and community activism. From the manifesto:

Our ambition of every adult citizen being a member of an active neighbourhood group … our alternative to big government is the big society: a society with much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility; a society where people come together and improve life for themselves and their communities.

The problem with Dave’s idea is that what with work, family and social commitments most people don’t have time to set up a boarding school or decide the allocation of new brownfield sites. Moreover, many state services need to be delivered by people with the necessary skills and training. This central flaw has produced a CiF thread that’s actually worth reading.

Following Armando Iannucci’s plan to set up his own police force in Wigan, commentors chime in with ideas including: ‘I have decided to set up a school in my shed’; ‘I have a hosepipe so I can be the fireman for my street’; ‘I’m going to collect tax on everyone who passes my house’; ‘I’m tackling Britain’s immigration policy by installing Total Wipeout – style obstacle courses at all our borders’; ‘I’m setting up a co-operative to float the local library on the FTSE’; ‘The kid next door and I are going to run the local hospital. He’s really good at Operation, and I’ve got a white coat that I took off one of the people chasing me with butterfly nets.’

Of course the Tories know perfectly well what’s wrong with the basic idea. All the Big Society spin would mean in practice is that more and more public sector services will be farmed off to charities and faith groups. The website even says it: ‘Promote the delivery of public services by social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups, encouraging them to get involved in running things like Sure Start’.

It’s a very old Tory idea that’s worked for them since Victorian times. Vote for change and the Salvation Army can look after your kids. That’ll be the only option when Dave’s little platoons are marching over the hill.

(Image from Political Cream, via Paul Waugh)

Human Music

April 11, 2010

There’s an interesting piece on the Guardian books blog about the gap between the dialogue of literature and the dialogue of life. Evan Maloney makes all the right points. People talk for all kinds of reasons but writers create dialogue to move the story along. Many acclaimed writers hardly ever use dialogue. Human speech is so shot through with repetitions, hesitations, stammerings and elipses that it can’t be rendered realistically on the page. Maloney provides a verbatim transcription of some speech from Tim Winton, relating a near-drowning experience:

And because my uncle wasn’t a surfer he just sort of didn’t get it with waves. So he tried to outrun the wave. And, um, yeah, we bought it. It was, uh… It was… The last thing that was said on the boat was, ‘Hanging five,’ by my cousin. And then I was under the boat, trapped. Had fishing line and rope and stuff around my leg and I was kind of drowning. I was sort of in that last moment before, you know… I’m just seeing bubbles, thinking, ‘Oh, this is beautiful. This is nice.’

Another barrier to realism is that the listener, in real life, filters out all the secondary waste and remembers the conversation as a clear exchange of points. That’s if they remember at all. As Terry Pratchett said, listening is rare. Most people use the other side of a conversation as a breathing space to figure out what they are going to say next. And everyone has an agenda. Speech in books drives a story. Speech in life drives our own stories: the narrative we want to impose upon the world.

A factor that Maloney doesn’t mention is that so much conversation is reference. People litter their dialogue with quotes from films, dramas, sitcoms, cartoons, public awareness campaigns, internet virals and advertising jingles. Like memory, voice has been colonised by media. BBC sitcom The Office featured a manager who punctuated his conversation with references to Harry Enfield, Fawlty Towers, Monty Python and Eastenders among countless other cultural signifiers. Ben Walters made the point in his book on the series that David Brent is an aspiring comedian who confuses reference with wit; he can transcribe but not create. He thinks that pointing at a hatstand with a Flat Eric puppet on it constitutes the zenith of humour. 

I mention The Office because visual comedy at its peak has better dialogue than most contemporary fiction. Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop opens with a characteristic verbal assault from Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s head of communications. The film begins with Tucker listening to a radio interview with Simon Foster, Minister for International Development. Tucker is calm and collected until he hears Foster deviate from the line on an upcoming Middle East invasion: ‘No, you do not think that!’

Immediately he’s racing to Foster’s department. A scene in the lift sets up two conflicting dialogues: Tucker arguing on his mobile while new advisor Chris Addison chats with his girlfriend on his own phone. Tucker’s end of his debate gets more and more frenzied until Addison realises that he can’t compete and ends his call. By now Tucker is striding into Foster’s office. He seizes on the word ‘purview,’ used by Foster’s comms director, and from that single word creates a riot of free association: ‘Within your ‘purview’? Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!’ Finally, he roars: ‘Let them eat cock!’ Iannucci calls this sequence the ‘Malcolm Overture’, and in his rage, Tucker transcends the rant and achieves a kind of violent poetry.

Someone told me once that seventy per cent of talk is gossip. Close friends subconsciously weave in-jokes and catchphrases into their conversation. You can be in hysterics around a bar table over a word or phrase that will mean absolutely nothing to people outside the ka-tet. Getting that sense of friendship and closeness is very rare in fiction. Irvine Welsh, who is mentioned in Mahoney’s piece, has always tried to do this in his books: the novel Glue sprung from a bizarre conversation the main characters have in a Munich pub. Alan Warner is another writer who understands the oral tradition. As Sophy Dale explains in her essential commentary, Warner’s Morvern Callar is driven by storytelling and anecdote. It’s this vibrant oral culture that keeps Callar’s impoverished coastal town alive. The narrator is unimpressed by two London publishing professionals because ‘they didn’t tell stories they just discussed.’

So often lazily and snobbishly parodied, the dialogue of Irvine Welsh is one of the closest fictional representations of the song of human speech. And at its best, fuelled by drink and passion, human speech is a kind of song. Walk through the city on a crowded early evening and you will hear it, all around you, like the birds in the trees, the human music that people don’t know they make. 

Maloney’s article is well written but he sets up a false dilemma between creating realistic dialogue and driving the narrative. It’s not either/or but both or neither because stories are driven by the way people interact – by the way people talk. Dialogue was one of the hardest things I learned to do as a writer, almost as hard as cutting. Nowadays, whenever and wherever I’m out, I’m always listening for the song.

Malcolm Tucker: king of dialogue.

A Zero Sum Game

April 11, 2010

It’s a peculiarity of the migration debate that people who claim to understand business and wealth creation start to act as if economics is zero sum. Hence the headlines this week saying that something like 90% of jobs created in the last ten years have gone to foreigners. In fact that’s an understatement of what the Tory press has been saying. The Mail claimed a couple of days ago that nearly every one of 1.67m jobs created since 1997 has gone to a foreigner.

Economist Philippe Legrain is a rare voice of sanity in a national argument compromised by irrationality and poison. His book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, is essential for navigating your way through the bullshit. After blowing the Mail‘s figures out of the water he makes a basic point that people on the right don’t seem to understand even though it is a huge part of their political makeup.

The bigger point is this: there is not a fixed number of jobs to go around in the economy, so simplistic assertions that foreigners (or foreign-born people) have ‘taken’ jobs that would otherwise have gone to British people are incorrect. If there were fewer immigrants in this country, there would also be fewer jobs around, because immigrants also create jobs when they spend their wages, and in complementary lines of work. For instance, a Polish builder creates jobs for British people selling building supplies and British interior designers. Even Andrew Green of MigrationWatch has conceded that immigrants don’t take ‘our’ jobs.

Or as P J O’Rourke said: ‘If I buy a Domino’s pizza, you don’t have to eat the box.’

Manufacturing Dissent

April 10, 2010

Thomas Frank must be one of the most underrated American intellectuals. If you haven’t already, read One Market Under God, Frank’s story of the dotcom boom, and his What’s The Matter with America? where he uses his home state of Kansas to explore working class support for elitist rightwing Republicans.

Over at Harry’s Place, Gene remembers Malcolm McLaren and finds Frank’s 1997 essay particularly apposite.

The structure and thinking of American business have changed enormously in the years since our popular conceptions of its problems and abuses were formulated. In the meantime the mad frothings and jolly apolitical revolt of Beat, despite their vast popularity and insurgent air, have become powerless against a new regime that, one suspects, few of Beat’s present-day admirers and practitioners feel any need to study or understand. Today that beautiful countercultural idea, endorsed now by everyone from the surviving Beats to shampoo manufacturers, is more the official doctrine of corporate America than it is a program of resistance. What we understand as ‘dissent’ does not subvert, does not challenge, does not even question the cultural faiths of Western business. What David Rieff wrote of the revolutionary pretensions of multiculturalism is equally true of the countercultural idea: ‘The more one reads in academic multiculturalist journals and in business publications, and the more one contrasts the speeches of CEOs and the speeches of noted multiculturalist academics, the more one is struck by the similarities in the way they view the world.’ What’s happened is not co-optation or appropriation, but a simple and direct confluence of interest.

The problem with cultural dissent in America isn’t that it’s been co-opted, absorbed, or ripped-off. Of course it’s been all of these things. But it has proven so hopelessly susceptible to such assaults for the same reason it has become so harmless in the first place, so toothless even before Mr. Geffen’s boys discover it angsting away in some bar in Lawrence, Kansas: It is no longer any different from the official culture it’s supposed to be subverting. The basic impulses of the countercultural idea, as descended from the holy Beats, are about as threatening to the new breed of antinomian businessmen as Anthony Robbins, selling success & how to achieve it on a late-night infomercial.

The people who staff the Combine aren’t like Nurse Ratched. They aren’t Frank Burns, they aren’t the Church Lady, they aren’t Dean Wormer from Animal House, they aren’t those repressed old folks in the commercials who want to ban Tropicana Fruit Twisters. They’re hipper than you can ever hope to be because hip is their official ideology, and they’re always going to be there at the poetry reading to encourage your ‘rebellion’ with a hearty ‘right on, man!’ before you even know they’re in the auditorium. You can’t outrun them, or even stay ahead of them for very long: it’s their racetrack, and that’s them waiting at the finish line to congratulate you on how outrageous your new style is, on how you shocked those stuffy prudes out in the heartland.

McLaren’s career trajectory showed the same thing has happened this side of the Atlantic.

The Idiots Are Winning

April 10, 2010

My review of Pascal Bruckner’s The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism is now available at 3:AM.

Unless We All Die Praying

April 3, 2010

Terry Pratchett recently used a Dimbleby lecture to argue that people should be able to choose a quiet, painless death over a messy screaming one. Since then, he has taken some flak, and it appears to be getting to him.

I get email updates from Terry Pratchett. I’m not sure if they are online, but this one is particularly reflective. He discusses the amount of opposition the Dimbleby lecture has generated: the ‘dreary trail of objections from those, who, I swear won’t be happy unless we all die praying.’ (He also writes that he gets letters from former nurses: ‘Seldom is their purpose to tell me about the wonders of care homes.’)

I recognise the opposition. It’s the opposition to legalise votes for women, abortion, the extension of the franchise and once upon a time the opposition to giving painkillers to women in labour, on the basis that they should pay for ‘the sin of Eve’. Queen Victoria, famously fecund, put a stop to that evil stupidity. I recognise their tone of voice; it is the headmaster enraged because the fifth form are being cheeky. There is no shame because they know they are right even if, in some cases, they are on the right. Jeers, sneers and smears and, of course, repeatedly, adhominom arguments are all, therefore, fair enough.

In every case there was a chorus that forecast, more or less the end of the world. Well, here we are and if the world is ending it would appear to be for other reasons. People, you and me, are not trusted. The right doesn’t like us because we don’t do what we’re told by our betters, and the left doesn’t like us because it secretly thinks we would be on the right given half a chance and a lottery win. And both think we should not make our own decisions, because we might make the wrong ones.

We are presented with a version G.K.Chesterton’s game ‘Fool the Prophet’. Governments and religions make rules that the compliant populous puts up with right up until they decide not to. Suicide and assisted dying will continue to happen no matter what opponents may hope and we know that by far the majority of people in this country are in favour of it being available in the terms I have just mentioned. Almost every politician pushes that fact aside. I must say I am rather surprised at Ann Widecombe who, I always thought had her head screwed on, but it turns out that it is against the thread. For one thing, she doesn’t seem to realise that it is legal to argue for the legalisation of something that is currently illegal. If this were not the case, there would be no such thing as politics.

I hope Terry doesn’t let the bastards get him down.