Archive for December, 2010

A Snapshot of New Year’s Eve

December 31, 2010

You only get around eighty of them. Here are the ones I can remember:

–  Watching the sun come up on what feels like a treehouse platform in the small town where they all support the team

–  Working at a club in Sheffield, slinging drinks and collecting glasses at time and a half. Policy is that you swig from a bottle of Asahi and do the occasional shot to keep going. The alcohol doesn’t hurt performance. You just sweat it out. The manager does a pep talk before service: ‘You have never seen a night like this’. Champagne from the houseman at the bells. Later, continues at the Boardwalk.

–  About twenty of my friends in Leeds Elsix, all but one of whom I have lost touch with, hired a cottage in the middle of North Yorkshire, Horton-in-Ribblesdale or some such place, and had a party there. Remember the next day the water failed and we had to gather snow to wash up.

–  In Amsterdam with my father and his friends, spent the night at a houseparty on one of the canals and then went out just before the bells to the main street where there’s maybe a big parade and everyone is setting off fireworks (never saw anyone in Amsterdam light a firework except on NYE) the canals seemed to blaze, I remember a five-year-old letting off firecrackers by the side of the road.

–  A few drinks in Fallowfield, then to an empty houseshare in Levenshulme where I saw in the bells with a book and a few glasses of Shiraz.

Thanks for coming this far. There are many more adventures ahead of us in 2011. Happy New Year and all the best!

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Let’s Do The 2003 Timewarp Again

December 29, 2010

New Labour is a mixed legacy. A massive liberalisation in terms of devolution, freedom of information and equalities legislation (Johann Hari once said at a Queer Up North debate that Tony Blair has done everything for gay people ‘except take it up the arse himself’) coupled with an assault on civil liberties: terror laws, laws against free assembly, ID cards (amazingly Blair still defends ID in the book that I got round to reading over Christmas). There was stealthy and well targeted redistribution of wealth. There was huge investment in public services although too much cash was skimmed off by consultants, professional managers and general public sector corporate greed.

New Labour was basically lashed together out of the bourgoisie and the working class. Where this worked it worked well. There was an Old Labour tendency to celebrate the poor for being poor, whereas Blair understood that most working class people would rather be middle class. Would you rather work twelve hours in a hazardous warehouse environment and go home to a council house on a sink estate, or do eight hours in an office and go home to a mortgaged property in a good area? The answer is obvious, and so is the solution.

Another New Labour success was crime. The right thought that crime was the fault of the individual and prescribed punishment, the left said crime was caused by environment and prescribed redistribution. As Blair says, the answer is a combination of both and in the meantime there is nothing leftwing about letting entire areas be tyrannised by a few name families. What was left wing about allowing the strong to dominate the weak? Note, too, that Ken Clarke is now arguing for violent recidivists to be let out of jail ostensibly on rehabilitation grounds, but really to save on costs. The Tories are good at law and order grandstanding, but they can afford private security coverage and are happy for the working class to kill each other as long as it’s kept out of the city centre.

There’s of course a flipside to this kind of thinking. Blair, throughout the memoir, is spellbound by the capitalist elite and in thrall to the ideology of meritocracy: it never seems to occur to him that it’s the shit, as well as the cream, that rises, that the game is rigged in a million ways, and that (to quote Calvin Coolidge) nothing is more common than unsuccessful men and women with talent. He was also too keen to govern on middle class and working class prejudices rather than their needs, aspirations and cares. Don’t like the lone parent at number nine? Fine, we’ll cut her benefits. Don’t like the smell of tobacco smoke on your clothes? Don’t worry, we’ll ban smoking. Don’t like Mr Khan at number eleven? Great, we’ll deport him. Government by anecdote began with New Labour.

Blair united his constituency against him when he invaded Iraq. At the time I was a twenty-one year old undergraduate. I was against the war, so were all my friends, we went down to London in February ’03 and saw other people from other cities we’d known. If I’d thought about it – at twenty-one I didn’t think much about anything – I would have realised that a lot of my arguments were about as credible as the Blair forty-five minutes claim.

Saddam has no weapons – but there were inspection reports saying he was actively working on a weapons programme. The war is illegal – but the UN resolutions Saddam had broken guaranteed military force in the event of noncompliance. There is no Saddam/al-Qaeda link – but Saddam paid money to the families of suicide bombers and bin Laden’s number two, al-Zarqawi, had established a presence in Iraq by October 2002. Iraqis do not want the war – but Iraqi migrants and exiles were lobbying MPs to vote for the war, entirely because they wanted to get rid of Saddam. A lot of things said as part of the case against weren’t so much arguments but articles of faith that have coalesced into the silo nation rhetoric that now passes for radical principles: people in the Middle East want to be governed by priests and dictators, there is a moral equivalence between elected Western governments and theocratic regimes, the West should not ‘impose’ ‘our’ idea of ‘democracy’…

Okay, some of us conceded (many people weren’t prepared to concede even that) Saddam is a monster who has reduced a great country to a kingdom of pain. Still, but, the facts are… From A Journey: ‘I recall a few weeks ago talking to an Iraqi exile and saying to her that I understood how grim it must be under the lash of Saddam. ‘But you don’t,’ she replied. ‘You cannot. You do not know what it is like to live in perpetual fear.”

Still the antiwar case has a visceral appeal. The number of dead has been estimated as a million. It’s been argued, rightly in my view, that the more convincing figure is the Iraq Body Count tally of 100,000, the majority killed by vicious sectarians, Islamists and ex-Ba’athists taking advantage of the power vacuum. But such bickering over bodycounts is ghoulish and just serves to emphasise our distance from these realities of life and death. It can’t beat the instinctive loathing of the politician who sends the young and poor out to die. Iraq could become a peaceful, thriving democracy, or a Somalia-style bloodbath – it’s all in the balance, history is still being lived and made – and these men and women will be no less dead.

To Blair’s credit, he knows this:

I am now beyond the mere expression of compassion. I feel words of condolence and sympathy to be entirely inadequate. They have died and I, the decision-maker in the circumstances that led to their deaths, still live.

And:

I still keep in my desk a letter from an Iraqi woman who came to see me before the war began. She told me of the appalling torture and death her family had experienced having fallen foul of Saddam’s son. She begged me to act. After the fall of Saddam she returned to Iraq. She was murdered by sectarians a few months later. What would she say to me now?

Against Wilful Stupidity

December 21, 2010

How amazing is Marko Attila Hoare. He’s even right about nine-grand tuition fees. His post is not just a takedown of the policy but an attack on anti-intellectualism in general: on a culture that equates stupidity with integrity, and intelligence and creativity with naivety and pretension. Read the whole thing.

As a child studying at Holland Park Comprehensive School in London in the 1980s, I naively believed that hard work and talent should be rewarded, and that a university education would be my reward for studying hard. I was one of those who actually worked at school and did my homework. And it wasn’t always easy, with classes constantly being disrupted by loudmouthed morons who despised education, viewed school as oppression and teachers as the enemy. They dossed around for five years and left school with minimal or no qualifications, after having made the learning experience as difficult as possible for the rest of us. So difficult was it to work in such an environment, that I found I could study more in one hour of poorly attended optional after-school maths class – where there was no noise and disruption – than in three hours of regular classes.

Welcome to England: the European nation that most despises schools, universities, teachers and students, and that most celebrates stupidity and vulgarity. As encapsulated in the moron’s refrain to the student  – ‘I’d rather have a degree from the university of life’. The subtext being that education corrupts and divorces students from the real world, and that there is a greater nobility in ignorance, prejudice and underachievement. The binge-drinking yobs and football hooligans are the ones with the real integrity, not the poncey students with their poncey books.

How, you may ask, did a nation that thinks like this produce some of the world’s greatest institutions of learning, including the world famous Cambridge and Oxford, but also excellent universities and colleges like Imperial College, York, the London School of Economics, Warwick and others ? In fact, it’s a question of two sides of the same coin. There was a traditional belief that university education should be the preserve of the privileged few, while the masses should have no access to it. Unjust as it was, this system did at least have the merit of producing treasures like Cambridge and Oxford. A more enlightened ruling class would have sought to preserve this treasure and maximise the chances of students from all social backgrounds of benefiting from it.

Instead, for the last twenty years or so, our politicians – both Labour and Conservative – seem to have been following an inverted form of Flaubert’s dictum, and to believe that the point of democracy is to lower the ruling class to the level of stupidity attained by the masses.

There are two strong points here.

1) Most people don’t mind funding public services that they may never or rarely need – for example, people are happy to fund the NHS through tax even though they may never get sick, to fund the police even though they may never be the victim of a crime, even to fund welfare though they may never be out of work. The same should apply for higher education.

2) If you consider yourself leftwing, the indulgence of philistinism is a bad move – even if it’s wrapped in prolier-than-thou rhetoric.

Also check out Marko’s report on a recent demo, and watch in disgust as he lifts the Daily Mail rock.

The Armstrong Twelve-Step

December 20, 2010

Karen Armstrong is an ex-Catholic nun turned monomanical apologist for all faiths. She has written approximately 900 books, all of which rehearse the same argument; it is summarised here. Armstrong gets an easy ride critically for all kinds of reasons – Richard Holloway, reviewing her latest work, begins: ‘It feels irreverent, if not actually blasphemous, to question a work by Karen Armstrong.’ And he adds a para of praise:

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is both a manifesto and a self-help manual. As a manifesto, it promotes her campaign to place compassion at the heart of religion; as a manual modelled on the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, it offers exercises aimed at increasing our own compassion. It would make a brilliant guide for leaders of retreats and workshops on the compassionate life, and as a repository of digested wisdom from the world’s religions I cannot recommend it too highly.

Of course it would be amazing to have a world built on love and kindness. But Holloway can’t help but challenge Armstrong’s assertion that ‘the essence of the main religions boils down to compassion’:

At a meeting of primates of the Anglican communion, I was accused by one archbishop of filling Hell with homosexuals, because I was giving them permission to commit acts that would guarantee them an eternity of punishment, for no sodomite can enter Heaven. My worldly compassion for gay people, my campaign to furnish them with the same sexual rights as straight people, was actually a kind of cruelty. The price of their fleeting pleasures in this world would be an eternity of punishment in the next.

I can think of other examples from other moral spheres where an attempt to act compassionately towards certain categories of sufferers runs counter to Christianity’s doctrinal certainties.

What could explain such lack of compassion we so often see in Christianity and Islam? Holloway: ‘They exist to secure life in the world to come for their followers and any guidance they offer on living in this world is always with a view to its impact on the next.’ Exactly. If you see life as nothing more than a preparation for death you are hardly going to have much concern for suffering in the mortal world. It is also worth reminding that if you meet someone who argues with conviction that Jews or gays or unmarried women are bound for the bad fire then it is normally because this is what he actually believes.

And the converse applies. The knowledge that we are all hurtling into the big sleep drives people to take the hand of a friend or lover as we fall. Despite Armstrong’s fumbling disclaimer – ‘we hope that atheists and agnostics, instead of berating religion (a policy that, as history shows, tends to make religious movements more extreme), will also sign up to the charter, working alongside the religious for a more compassionate world’ – I can’t help but suspect that the Charter for Compassion is yet another attempt to declare a religious monopoly on virtue.

All the compassion and kindness in religion – and more! – can be found in the artists and poets and philosophers of the material world. It also comes from the clear and demonstrable fact that we are all common animals with needs and cares and desires, and from the instinctive feeling that there is only one planet and one life.

Twelve steps? Auden only needed one: ‘We must love one another or die.’

Update: The New Humanist carries an excellent review of Armstrong’s book by Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels.

Classic Books: Trainspotting

December 18, 2010

Forget the drugs and the dialect. Trainspotting begins a trilogy about working-class Edinburgh life. In a society that so often romanticises its poor, Welsh exposes the ugly side of working-class culture: racism, domestic violence, misogyny, prejudice against gays, mindless sectarianism, child abuse, pointless violence. In the later book Glue, Welsh concentrates on the positive side and stresses the importance of trade unionism, family and community.

Trainspotting is a novel about friendship. His characters have grown up together and, in their mid twenties, are at the stage where their friendships are becoming peer relationships in which men compete for power, status, money and women. A big theme in Welsh is that friendship is never just about friendship just as sex is never just about sex.

The politics of friendship are illustrated in the character of Frank Begbie. Begbie has become an archetypal street thug but Renton’s narrative makes clear that he was not always a violent recidivist. Renton and the others bigged him up at school as a hardman for reasons of status and protection, with the result that Begbie inevitably believed the hype and, by adulthood, has become a relentless psychopath: terrifying and impressive but still, as Sick Boy points out, a loser and victim in his own way.

Renton and Sick Boy argue all the time but there are still moments of genuine love and affection between them. However, Renton grows increasingly disgusted with Sick Boy’s exploitation of women while the other man feels that his old friend is holding him back. By the time we get to Porno, set a decade or so later, the friendship is dead – not least because Renton has ripped off Sick Boy and the rest of the group to fund his escape. That book revisited the whole gang but only Renton has truly changed – the others are still stagnating in lowlife fiscal and social competition. The underlying point is that true change must involve a kind of betrayal. Welsh began Porno with a quote from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals: without cruelty there is no festival.

Let’s look at a couple of chapters involving peripheral characters. The first takes place at the funeral reception of one of Renton’s distant uncles. It centres on his seventeen-year-old cousin Nina. Nina is your classic sullen and confused teen goth. A virgin who is not interested in losing her virginity: ‘Almost everyone she knew said it was crap. Boys were too stupid, too morose and dull, or too excitable.’ Like most teens, she hates her family (‘her relatives were so boring. They held onto the mundane for grim life’) but can’t handle being alone. The infamous adolescent awkwardness comes from having to go through the roaring physical, mental and emotional changes, and having to do it under the unblinking scrutiny of family and peers: growing up in public. Nina is at the stage where she is losing her faith in adult omnipotence and sense. Like the kid in The Information, she realises for the first time ‘that adults, too, were small, and pushed and tugged by many forces.’

No adult at the party has any idea how to handle the situation. Death, after all, is something not even grownups understand. Nina’s mother harrasses her to make tea as if it ‘could be expected to compensate for the loss of a twenty-four year relationship.’ The doctor arrives, the only adult with any relevant expertise, and in one brilliant line Welsh nails a secular faith: ‘A horde of breathless aunties fussed over him like groupies around a rock star.’ An uncle makes a joke at Nina’s expense (‘In ma day, lassies wore nice bright colours, instead ay tryin tae look like vampires’) and everyone laughs, but it’s ‘the nervous laughter of frightened children trying to keep on the right side of the school hardcase, rather than that of adults conveying that they had heard something funny.’ Another revelation: laughter is never just about laughter. It too has a place in the world of cruelty and competition. Nina comes to see her elders and betters as old and malignant children still playing schoolyard games long after the hometime bell. Her Uncle Kenny ‘looked at her as if he was a dog, his eyes bloody and his tongue darting slyly over his lips. She had a strange feeling that Uncle Kenny, despite his years, would be a bit like the inept boys that Shona and the rest had been with.’

Then the body of her uncle – in a typical Welsh surreal twist – appears to reanimate. It’s a false alarm of course, but it lets something go in Nina. Finally she loses her selfconscious and stops her adolescent self-monitoring and breaks down: cries in her aunt’s arms for ‘Andy and Alice, and the happiness and love that once lived here’. It’s a careful and sensitive portrait of a girl becoming a woman, and on the beginning of a great journey.

From beginnings to terminus. A support group for HIV sufferers is supposed to be a haven of compassion but even this is contaminated by intrigue. The heroin addicts hate the gay people in the group and the heteros, like Davie Mitchell, hate everyone. The narrator of ‘Bad Blood’, Davie has contracted HIV through a lover who discovered too late that she was infected by someone who raped her at knifepoint. His shock and anger is compounded when Davie begins group therapy only to be brought face to face with his lover’s rapist and the man who gave him the disease.

Alan Venters is the villain of this piece and a bad one even by Welsh’s standards. Venters sees women as nothing more than dehumanised vaginas (‘[e]ven some disparaging remarks about their tits or arses would have represented a considerable broadening of vision’) and other men as competitors: ‘a rip-off merchant’ or ‘a fuckin sap’ depending ‘on whom had abused, exploited or manipulated whom, on the particular occasion in question.’ Venters is only happy when making others unhappy: he only comes to group so that he can destroy the morale of already shattered men and women groping for the pieces of their lives. ‘The disease which racked his body was a sweetheart,’ Davie concludes, ‘compared to the more obscure one that possessed his sick mind.’ Venters doesn’t manage his condition well and is clearly going to die – but that’s not enough. ‘The disease could have his body… I wanted his spirit.’ But how?

Davie befriends Venters and pumps him for a point of sensitivity. He starts a relationship with Venters’s ex purely to get access to his son. The kid is the key because Venters does appear to be fond of his child; also because Venters believes that ‘he would live on, in some sense or other, through his son.’ The ex goes out on a girl’s club night and leaves Davie as babysitter. The next day, Davie visits Venters in the hospice, explains his true agenda and shows the dying man a snapshot of his son, raped, tortured and murdered. The photo does the trick: Venters’s soul is annihilated before Davie’s eyes. He then suffocates Venters with a pillow.

It would have been easy for Welsh to end the story there. ‘Bad Blood’ could have been framed around Auden’s overused line that ‘Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return’. But there’s a twist: Davie, an anaesthetist, has simply drugged the kid and mocked him up with hospital blood and Hallowe’en make-up. The child is fine with no memories of the incident. Davie is fine, and reunited with his old lover: ‘Life is beautiful. I’m going to enjoy it, and I’m going to have a long life.’ He gets a bloodless revenge with no collatoral damage: festival without cruelty. ‘Bad Blood’ is a classic revenger’s tale that should be set in university creative writing courses as a model of good storytelling.

Davie gives Venters one chance – he makes a fake confession to the support group, saying that he had sex with women knowing that he was HIV positive. This is Venters’s own chance to convince his sins. Had Venters done so, Davie would have called it quits: ‘At one stage I thought I wanted repetance from Venters more than revenge for myself. If I got it, I would have died with a belief in the fundamental goodness of the human spirit.’ Naturally, Venters sits there grinning and silent. At that moment the monster seals his fate. But another man comes forward and makes a similar confession. ‘Then he looked up at us and produced, through his tears, the most beautiful smile I have ever seen on anyone in my life. – but it wis awright. She took the test. Three times ower six months. Nuthin. She wisnae infected…’

It’s these flashes of humanity in the worst of urban environments that lift Welsh above a mere chronicler of predator and prey. Is there a writer who knows more about how people communicate and how people affect each other, and can express this knowledge with such warmth and style?

Escape From The Slushpile

December 16, 2010

I’ve been to a couple of talks by Curtis Brown agents. They seemed like passionate, committed people who know and love books. They represent a lot of talented writers, and (via Miss Daisy Frost) I find that the agency’s creative writing course has a fine teaching name in Jake Arnott – contrast this to the universities where it seems anyone with a chapbook produced in a shed somewhere can pick up a creative writing lectureship, regardless of their success or quality or whether anyone can really learn anything from them. It’s clear, from the Bookseller piece and Jonny Geller‘s response to the criticism it generated, that the agency is trying to break out of the slushpile model and has started this venture with the best of creative intentions.

So why am I sceptical? Get past the gloss and there is something that’s not quite right about someone paying money for the Curtis Brown course and then getting representation from Curtis Brown. (Carole Blake suggests that new clients could get a refund with their contract, but still.) Is it ‘vanity agenting’ as one Bookseller commenter has it? Could this be an Authonomy-style attempt to make the slushpile pay its way for once? Whatever it is, it leaves the wrong taste. Compounding this is the suspicion that in practical terms the pool of students will be restricted to people of a certain area and income bracket. I suppose the time-rich, trust-funded exhibitionists from the better part of North London have gone too long without artistic platform.

The reaction from Bookseller regulars is not great:

I find the price is an outrage! Especially as it’s only weekly sessions with one off ‘talks’! Who can afford that and not live in London?! In a recession too! With no guarantee of representation, I think this is more about them getting money quickly with no ties to taking the ‘lucky’ fifteen on! A writing school?! Whatever!

As a literary agent I am dismayed at this development. Agents should not be taking money from prospective clients up front. It goes against every principle of agenting and will just give agents a bad name. What were you thinking Jonny? Writers pay for the course and then have to give you 6 weeks exclusive option on their work? WOW! Make your money the old fashioned way – earn it!

This is nothing like an MA in creative writing. This is an agency taking money off unpublished writers while they suss them out, then taking 15% of their future earnings. I’d advise anyone to do a credited and credible MA in creative writing but this is outrageous, cynical commercialism and exploitation. Shame on you, Curtis Brown.

Instead of vanity publishing, we now have vanity agenting! Pay a part-time member of staff’s wages for three months and they’ll give you an insider’s view to publishing. Writers would be better off doing an unpaid internship at a publishing house or literary agent’s. Or finding respectable outreach programmes and writer development scemes, such as Inscribe by Peepal Tree Press, Signposts in South Yorkshire, The Writing Squad, etc. Sorry folks, but if you think £1,600 is a shortcut to getting published, and is even worth it, then you’re sadly deluded. If agents can’t make their money selling authors and their books any more, then I’d seriously doubt the qualifications of said agents to teach anything.

Undoubtedly there are a lot of bitter, talentless twats adding their voices to the controversy and condemnation. Still, I can’t help thinking that this sort of thing is best left to the universities.

Update: For a cheaper option than Curtis Brown’s offering you can do Jenn Ashworth’s online creative writing MA, or apply for a place on my own writing masterclass.

Whippin’ Fallowfield

December 12, 2010

Every now and again people try to explain the level of political apathy in the general public, without considering that politics is so fucked up and compromised that anyone with any amount of decency and intelligence can’t follow the news without developing a harsh and corrosive anger that is not good for you, long term. For weeks now I have been getting stories on my Twitter timeline along the lines of ‘Then the horses charged and I thought: that’s it, I’m going to die’. (Laurie Penny: ‘There is blood on my face, but not all of it is mine’.) Much has been said about the papers that splashed on a minor royal scare while men were being dragged out of wheelchairs and beaten senseless. I have nothing to add to that.

Clearly the nine grand raise was just the end of a generational endurance. If you were born in 1980 onwards you may as well not exist as far as the political class is concerned. Live with your parents, get ripped off by the cowboy private rental market, work in call centres to keep Cheshire pensioners on the golf course. Then the assault on the campus. The last redoubt of independence and play. Under these circumstances, what did the National Government expect? Nick Cohen: ‘But a tripling of the upper-limit to £9,000 and a slashing of the tuition grant to universities by 80% was not even an exceptional measure to cope with an exceptional financial crisis. It was an act of political extremism; a raw display of the power of the old over the young.’

The practical arguments against the policy (we are now the only OECD country beside Romania that is not increasing its investment in higher education) have been lost in a wave of hate for the Lib Dems. Cleggmania has become Clegg rage. I remember women telling me in May that they’d fallen in love with the Lib Dem leader after his TV debates performances. Now they burn his effigy in the streets. It’s understandable of course. Nick Clegg ran a passionate and persuasive campaign that appealed to the disillusionment people felt with the two main parties. Seven months later the new politics ends in the spectacle of schoolchildren charged by mounted police in Parliament Square.

As Alastair Campbell points out, Clegg has a strategic place in Cameron’s plan. He draws the fire. Cameron wants a Tory majority at the next election – and it could be just months away as far as the bookies are concerned. He wants to govern alone. Let Clegg take the shit. ‘You may remember the other day I asked when was the last time David Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove or David Willetts were out there really having to defend their policies? Even today, it is still the Lib Dems who are feeling the greatest heat, and the media seem to find divisions within the minority coalition partner more interesting than the actions of the big boys… we should never lose sight of the fact that this is a Tory government driving a Tory agenda in the hope of recreating a Tory Britain.’

You have to raise a smile at the incoherencies of the Lib Dems as they try to spin their way out of the trap. Yesterday party president Tim Farron told the Guardian that ‘we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.’ Sorry, Tim? You ran on a platform of no fees, then raise fees in government, and now you’re going to run on no fees? A party with this much confusion over policy isn’t fit to run a parish council.

My MP in Fallowfield is a Lib Dem called John Leech. He was elected in a working class constituency with a large student population mainly because he was against the Iraq war and tuition fees. His majority is not great and the fees issue could destroy him. Leech voted against the raise and has claimed credit for salvaging transport projects from Gideon’s axe. He’s a canny operator compared to most Lib Dems, but I imagine there have been tense words and delicate positioning with his colleagues in Westminster. At some point you have to take a stand, especially in dark and chaotic and interesting times. Even the best operators can only spin for so long.

Take Me With You

December 11, 2010

In another ‘Friends of Dunbar’ moment, this story has just been published on my amazing friend Sian S Rathore‘s sitezine The Brummell Review.

Juxtaposed With You

December 9, 2010

From the BBC, via Postculturalist

Time for Wikileaks to sack Julian Assange

December 7, 2010

There’s an interesting fault line opening up on the left between Julian Assange the Wikileaks hero and Julian Assange the potential rapist. Cath Elliott makes some good points in response to John Band’s nasty, dismissive piece about the Assange rape allegations. Of course we know that leftwing males will indulge misogyny when it suits them – we know that from their response to female dissidents from the Islamic world. The point here is that LibCon writers could just say ‘I applaud Wikileaks commitment to freedom of information, but I don’t trust Assange the man.’ Unfortunately there’s still a tendency to hero worship that gets in the way of rational judgements.

Assange over recent months has become a celebrity in his own right. He’s like a Benny Hill version of the Scarlett Pimpernel. Possibly it has gone to his head. Serious reports suggest that all is not well at Wikileaks Towers. The Independent‘s sources paint a picture of a transparency organisation hijacked by one man’s ideological crusade. An Icelandic freedom of information campaigner and ex-Wikileaks volunteer told the paper that ‘Key people have become very concerned about the direction of Wikileaks with regard to its strong focus on US military files at the expense of ignoring everything else’ – particularly ‘the dramatic increase in submissions from whistleblowers within closed countries, dictatorships and corporations.’

Assange also doesn’t seem to understand the potential consequences of simply releasing everything you find into the public domain. We need to know about NATO crimes in Afghanistan. We don’t need Assange to write the Taliban’s hit list for them. The decision to publish the names of Afghans working with NATO was apparently Assange’s alone – and condemned by Amnesty, Reporters without Borders and many Wikileaks staffers. Icelandic parliamentarian and Wikileaks colleague Birgitta Jonsdottir said ‘We were very, very upset with that, and with the way he spoke about it afterwards… If he could just focus on the important things he does, it would be better.’ The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr asked Assange in person: ‘What about these named sources? Might [you] have endangered their lives?’

‘If there are innocent Afghans being revealed, which was our concern, which was why we kept back 15,000 files, then of course we take that seriously.’

But what if it’s too late?

‘Well, we will review our procedures.’

Too late for the individuals, I say. Dead.

You can see Assange’s cavalier regard for human life when he boasts about an expose of a corrupt Kenyan politician that apparently influenced the extremely violent 2007 election. ”1,300 people were eventually killed, and 350,000 were displaced. That was a result of our leak,’ says Assange.’

Of course Wikileaks is here to stay and over time it will become one source of valuable information among many. But reading through his petulant and tyrannical response to criticism from within Wikileaks and without (not to mention his Vogon poetry) it’s clear that Assange the man is an embarrassment who is rapidly bringing the organisation into disrepute. As I write, Assange is on remand in Wandsworth. God knows what his fate is. But whatever happens, I think Wikileaks would prosper if it had a figurehead with a little more steadiness and self-awareness.

Also: read Christopher Hitchens and David Allen Green. And don’t miss this Zionist conspiracy theory, via Martin Bright, from a guy called Tariq Shahid of the Palestine Think Tank who notices one glaring omission in the cables:

Browse through all the news sources available on the latest Wikileaks revelation, and try to find even only one revelation that actually damages Israel, even though so many of the revealed documents are directly or indirectly connected to Middle East politics, and to a large extent to Israeli affairs. Did you find any document among them that either creates difficulties for the government of the Zionist entity, or even slightly embarrasses it? Think about it well, you will find that the answer is a very simple ‘No’.

The plot thickens!

Update: Loads of recommended reading here. Alastair Campbell on Wikispin. US feminist Amy Siskind responds to a weak, stupid satire by Naomi Wolf. Anyone who still doubts the misogyny of many Assange groupies should read Esther Addley’s essential piece.

Amanda Marcotte gets to the heart of it for me.

It’s possible both that Wikileaks is a necessary curative for government overreach and that its leader is out to serve his own ego needs above all. Anyone who thinks that’s impossible needs to think harder about what’s going on when politicians get sentimental on the campaign trail.

Why can’t the left piss and whistle at the same time?

More: Jim Denham highlights a letter in the Guardian that denounces the ‘dubious charges’ against Assange, and is signed by the usual establishment-left, pro-totalitarian scum.

Alan A points out that the Daily Shriek and Socialist Unity’s Andy Newman have basically the same view of the allegations:

An attractive blonde, Sarah was already a well-known ‘radical feminist’. In her 30s, she had travelled the world following various fashionable causes.

While a research assistant at a local university she had not only been the protegee of a militant feminist ­academic, but held the post of ‘campus sexual equity officer’. Fighting male discrimination in all forms, including sexual harassment, was her forte.

well at least two of the women who have commented here are radical feminists, who have highly negative views of all men; and one of them has a vendetta against tommy Sheridan.