Archive for December, 2011

It Gets Better: Against the Sentimental Conspiracy of Misery

December 31, 2011

Steven Pinker is asking for trouble. In a century so far distinguished by war, terror, social unrest, and unpleasant forms of extrajudicial punishment, what kind of person says hey, take a step back, everything’s basically getting better? Whiggery, complacency, nineteenth-century liberal Panglossianism – the counterattack writes itself.

The Guardian’s Andrew Brown was upfront:

I haven’t read all of Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, but quite enough of it to see that the mixture is the same as in his previous bestsellers: great piece of theatre in which half-truths do battle with straw men while the reader watches in safety, defended by barricades of apparent fact against any danger of actual thought…. I just opened it at random a few times and looked for references to subjects I know something about. It wasn’t hard. His range is wide. But the factual errors, although they destroy his thesis as a serious piece of history, point up its attractive weakness as a comfort blanket for the smug.

Pinker’s writing is friendly and accessible, and the text is broken up with graphs and illustrations: still, it’s a big dense hard book and I can appreciate that poor Andrew wouldn’t have been able to get through the whole thing in time to sync his piece with Pinker’s launch and Brown’s own columnar deadline. You can almost see his great moon-face frowning in puzzlement. (And as Richard Dawkins said: ‘one cannot, after all be expected to read every single word of a book whose author one wishes to insult’.)

The title says it all: Pinker argues that throughout the human story violence and cruelty have declined to lows unimaginable to previous ages. His tone is gratified rather than triumphalist, but this is still a big claim. So let’s do what Andrew Brown could not do and have a look at Pinker’s arguments in detail.

Brown’s colleague John Naughton, in an interview with Pinker, reflected on ‘the attractiveness of the idea of decline in western culture. It’s strange that the more ‘civilised’ people become, the more convinced they are the world is going to the dogs.’ You only have to turn on the TV or look at a newspaper to realise the truth of this. Post-riots, David Cameron frets over England’s ‘slow-motion moral collapse’; the phrase Broken Britain is repeated over and over by politicians and media personalities; entire newspapers are sustained by laments for a lost kingdom of the 1950s or the nineteenth century.

The romantic myth – actually not truly romantic, only sentimental – of the Decline has consumed most contemporary conservative thought and much of the left is going the same way. Pinker: ‘a hostility to modernity is shared by ideologies that have nothing else in common – a nostalgia for moral clarity, small-town intimacy, family values, primitive communism, ecological sustainability, communitarian solidarity, or harmonies with the rhythms of nature.’

The leftwing decline fable is slightly more sophisticated. The Enlightenment freed people from religious superstition only to discover that reason itself has a dark side: gas chambers built by IG Farben, atheist gulag hells and a hundred thousand Iraqi corpses as testament to liberal-rationalist imperialism. In the secularised West today faith exists mainly in prisons, closed psyche wards and AA meeting halls. It is viewed by today’s intellectuals as a loosely linked system of benign thought, whose influence on the planet has been a succession of kindly acts. Brown:

Whether or not you suppose Christian myth to be true, it is simply impossible to consider the development of ethical thought and practice in the west without understanding that almost all of it has been Christian, and that what comes after Christianity is itself incomprehensible without it.

More than anything in Pinker’s book that statement illustrates how far we’ve come.

In contemporary usage the expressions ‘pilloried’, ‘crucified’, ‘witch-hunt’ tend to mean ‘widespread criticism of myself or a public figure that I support’. Real physical torture is known to us in what Pinker calls ‘sporadic, clandestine and universally decried eruptions’. Its use as part of the war on terror is often cited by the public intellectual John Gray, who has made a career out of pious and sentimental pessimism. Yet for a glimpse of the prelapsarian you have to visit the Museo della Tortura e di Criminologia Medievale, located in in San Gimigano, Italy. There are similar museums in San Marino, Amsterdam, Munich, Prague, Milan and London: sentinels of a lost world and warnings from the Age of Pain.

Writers are cautioned against the pornography of violence. But Pinker is in a bind here because to chart a decline of violence over the ages is to risk forgetting the human tragedy behind each dot on the graph. The Better Angels of Our Nature therefore contains pages and pages of horrors that make the waterboard look like a wet dream.

‘As the levers bent forward, the main force of my knees against the two planks burst asunder the sinews of my hams, and the lids of my knees were crushed. My eyes began to startle, my mouth to foam and froth, and my teeth to chatter like the doubling of a drummer’s sticks.’ ‘The Pear is a split, spike-tipped wooden knob that was inserted into a mouth, anus or vagina and spread apart by a screw mechanism to tear the victim apart from the inside; it was used to punish sodomy, adultery, incest, heresy, blasphemy and ‘sexual union with Satan’.’ ‘Executions were orgies of sadism, climaxing with ordeals of prolonged killing such as burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, pulling apart by horses, impalement through the rectum, disembowlment by winding a man’s intestines around a spool, and even hanging, which was a slow racking and strangulation rather than a quick breaking of the neck.’

Torture, Pinker stresses, was not even confined to routine and trivial punishment: it was entertainment, diversion, the very texture of human life for hundreds of years on end. Sixteenth-century Parisians would gather round and watch animals lowered into an open fire, ‘singed, roasted and finally carbonised’. In October 1660, the great diarist Pepys wrote the following account of mundane pleasures:

To my Lord’s in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy… From thence to my Lord’s, and took Captain Cuttance and Mr. Sheply to the Sun Tavern, and did give them some oysters.

‘Hanged, drawn, and quartered’, by the way, means that the unfortunate Major was ‘partly strangled, disembowled, castrated, and shown his organs being burned before being decapitated.’ A contemporary man, seeing something like this, would be offered post-trauma counselling, and feel no embarrassment about taking this up. Pepys went for beer and oysters.

The Better Angels of Our Nature begins with an honest look at the Bible: a charnel house of a book, a chronicle of rape, enslavement, torture and murder where the pain doesn’t end even with death. Although torture has existed in most cultures and civilisations, it is clear that the unleashing of Christianity onto the planet resulted in avoidable suffering of unimaginable proportions.

There is still one acceptable remnant of the torture age – the image of Christ crucified, displayed in churches and classrooms and hung around believers’ necks. I can’t help thinking of the counterfactual posited by biologist P Z Myers: ‘If we want a signifier for the human condition, imagine the culture we would live in now if, instead of a dead corpse on an instrument of torture, our signifier was a child staring in wonder at the stars.’

Pinker isn’t always hard on religion. He praises the temperance movement that reduced homicide rates in the Old West (apparently Deadwood wasn’t the half of it) as well as the Quakers who fought slavery and the inner-city US reverends who led black men away from a gangster life that could lead only to life sentences and early, bullet-holed death. The late Christopher Hitchens overplayed his hand when he said that religion poisons everything.

‘If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today,’ Pinker says, ‘then you are missing the point… Sensibilities towards violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalise their attitude to the Bible.’ Social norms changed and ultimately norms carry more weight than spirituality or dogma. There’s reason to rejoice in that, alone.

In any case, the decline of violence doesn’t just mean cruel and unusual punishment. Pinker’s study has a broad and eclectic range from homicide rates to domestic abuse to schoolyard bullying to blood sports. All the lines go down. The Second World War was horrific but in terms of proportional bodycount it could not compare to the An Lushan revolt or the Mongol Conquest or the annihilation of American Indians between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hitler’s pseudo-medical terminology and his use of poisonous chemicals to render millions into human smoke gave us a chilling implication that better technology means more killing. But as late as 1994 the Hutu extremists showed us that you could kill almost a million with machetes and clubs with nails.

Tribal warfare tends to be seen as harmless in the Blackadder style (‘ten thousand Watutsi warriors armed to the teeth with kiwi fruit and dry guava halves’). In fact stateless conflict was incredibly brutal, involving the killing of women and children, the destruction of entire communities and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Today Americans use sophisticated drone technology to take out senior Islamist combatants without killing civilians or damaging people’s homes. Twenty-first century soldiers are governed by strict rules of engagement. Afghanistan and Iraq are three-block wars where NATO troops spend more time on peacekeeping and infrastructural work than actually fighting. The idea that you can just walk into someone’s country and start spraying bullets around is a delusion popularised by antiwar writers and intellectuals who have never in their lives actually spoken to a soldier or even known anyone who has.

Or take racism. God knows how many mountains of corpses stand as testament to our weird obsession with accidents of pigmentation. The black African slave trade, and the supposed inferiority of black people, was accepted by most people including the great minds and relative liberals of the day. (Lincoln vowed that he had ‘no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races’ because their ‘physical difference’ would ‘forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.’) Even antislavery organisations were motivated more by condescension than humanitarianism. Today racist acts and statements are a career killer for any public figure or professional.

Same goes for the old morbid prejudices regarding who people fall in love with and have sex with. Alan Turing helped to crack the Nazi codes and bring an end to World War Two. The British government of the day rewarded this service by chemically castrating him, and driving him to suicide. In 2009 the then prime minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the state for this shocking treatment of one of its finest heroes. This year David Cameron provided the one inspirational moment of his Tory conference speech when he affirmed that ‘I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.’

The civilising process necessitated the erection of new taboos to protect the rights of minorities and to protect the weak from harm. We call these taboos ‘political correctness’. Manifestation and mainstreaming of these taboos often proved silly in a well-meaning way, and Britain has a substantial cultural industry fuelled by the backlash against political correctness. Millionaire pundits moan about council diversity quotas and the banning of Christmas; ‘controversial’ comedians, trying to maintain public visibility, are reduced to laughing at cripples.

In recent years though, the backlash has begun to flag. Attacks on political correctness, however acute, are too bitter and obsessive to hold much appeal. The writer Tom Chivers, responding to yet another article along the lines of ‘Is Britain the world’s first politically correct totalitarian state?’ remarked that:

It’s only 45 years since a Tory party candidate campaigned on the slogan ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’. Political correctness might be clumsy, it might go too far, it might occasionally lead to silly situations, but it is infinitely preferable to what went before.

In a choice between well-intentioned silliness and brutality, there’s no contest. Even the Daily Mail has dropped its Winterval story.

Despite the scope of Pinker’s book I believe I’ve found yet another supportive trend that the professor missed. The standard revisionist view of sexual freedom, from 1950s workout ads by way of Houellebecq, holds that women go for brute and thoughtless hunk-men at the expense of the nice guy. Our old friend Andrew Brown commented that: ‘the free sexual marketplace turns out not to be the recipe for happiness. It’s another arena where the strong make the rules and the weak suffer.’ Perhaps once it was, but no more. Anyone with any real experience knows that women respond to sensitivity and emotional literacy and empathy. As the novelist Ben Myers put it: ‘Girls go for the boys that look like girls.’

The August riots were translated quickly into a general fear and loathing of the young, and perhaps an envy of the young as well. We’re all on our guard, I guess, for the government’s ‘feral youth’. But are they really feral? Or do they just look that way?

Pinker writes of an experience aboard a ‘crowded Boston subway car’ where he was unnerved by ‘a fearsome-looking young man clad in black leather, shod in jackboots, painted with tattoos, and pierced by rings and studs. The other passengers were giving him a wide berth when he bellowed, ‘Isn’t anyone going to give up his seat for this old woman! She could be your grandmother!’ I had an similar experience on a bus. There was a guy in a baseball cap and sportswear who I instinctively dismissed as Cheshire chav scum. Almost at my destination, another passenger had a seizure, and the chav guy did everything right and quick, called the ambulance, found a breath bag, held the woman’s hand and said all the right things in compassionate and soothing tones. I got off and walked the rest of the way, ashamed of my prejudices and feeling like I’d learned something today.

Reason isn’t just rationalism. Reason leads to perspective, a sense of humility, the realisation that the universe doesn’t revolve around us. Pinker credits the decline of violence in part to the development of empathy, extended from our known and loved circles to encompass formerly hated minorities, people on the other edge of the world, animals, and finally humanity and life in general. Empathy is not perfect, Pinker concedes. You feel more for the standard traumas and unhappinesses of the lives of your loved ones than for a million starving Congolese. But empathy is a start.

How did we reach the Age of Empathy? Part of it was urbanisation. For all the talk of the violence and alienation of modern cities, the occidental metropolis makes us healthier and happier. As Pinker puts it:

Is it your conviction that small-town life, centred on church, tradition and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialised, and secular, it got safer and safer.

So we should challenge the politicians and policy wonks who idealise small, closed communities. The decline of violence is in large part due to the rise of the individual over the community.

There’s an interesting thread in the book on the rise of popular fiction. To say that art changes nothing is a staggering misjudgement. Dickens’s novels exposed the treatment of London’s poor. Solzhenitsyn blew the lid off the gulag. Pinker credits Orwell, Melville, Koestler, Vonnegut, Azar Nafisi and Harriet Beecher Stowe as writers who ‘raised public awareness of the suffering of people who might otherwise have been ignored.’ (Lincoln is supposed to have said to Stowe in 1862 that ‘you’re the little woman who started this great war.’) Empathy is a vital attribute in a fiction writer. You need to be able to get into people’s heads and hearts. Post-Arab Spring, it’s to be hoped that there will be a popularisation of censored and marginalised writers and poets in the theocratic world.

Pinker describes the horror ideologies of the twentieth century as romantic blood-and-soil reactions to the civilising process. The idea that fascism and communism are products of the Enlightenment is of course absurd. Nazism was heavily influenced by a crackpot ariosophic mysticism, popular among Teuton aristocrats of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that proclaimed the innate superiority of the Aryan race, which apparently emerged from the lost continent of Atlantis. (Again, there was a decline myth: the Aryan priest caste had been undermined by generations of interbreeding.) Leading Nazis including Hess and Hans Frank attended meetings of the Thule Society which promoted such völkisch occultism and also sponsored the DAP organisation that became Hitler’s NSDAP.

Soviet communism was on the face of it a more rationalist ideology. But Pinker counters that Marxism ‘helped itself to the worst idea in the Christian Bible, a millennial cataclysm that will bring about a utopia and restore prelapsarian innocence.’ Plus: ‘it violently rejected the humanism and liberalism of the Enlightenment, which placed the autonomy and flourishing of individuals as the ultimate goal of political systems.’ Stalin modelled himself on the murderous medieval king Ivan the Terrible (‘Who remembers the boyars?’)

Pinker rather unfairly, to me, lumps in all this crap with the great romantic artists as part of a general ‘family of romantic movements that gained strength during the nineteenth century. Some of them influenced the arts and gave us sublime music and poetry. Others became political ideologies and led to horrendous reversals in the trend of declining violence.’ But Keats was medically trained and subscribed to the scientific method (‘axioms… are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses’) and Shelley was sent down from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism.

It’s my belief that there’s more romance in materialism than in spirituality, and that romance is too an Enlightenment virtue. But that’s an argument for another time.

Triangulation Is So 1996: A Defence of Ed Miliband

December 29, 2011

I don’t often contribute to the intra-party debates. Political activism is full of very unpleasant and boring men, it is all very time consuming and I try to stay out of it. But I have come to feel that the case against Ed Miliband as Labour leader has little or no validity.

The case against Ed is this:

1) That he stabbed his brother in the back

I felt that there were few policy differences between the two brothers, and voted for David because he seemed more internationalist. True, David was the expected successor, but you’d think we’d learn the lesson of coronation after Gordon Brown. Should you give up your dream just because your brother wants it as well?

After Ed won, Blairites complained that the Labour Party electoral system was undemocratic. They have a point, but they didn’t complain when this same system delivered Tony Blair.

Which brings us to:

2) Ed is controlled by the unions

This is a common attack from Conservatives who wish, or even actually believe, that it is still the 1980s. But if Ed is a union placeman then he has a strange way of showing it. He flat-out refused to back the one-day pension strikes last year and is not going to support more ridiculous inflated final salary schemes for civil servants. He understands that too much of the union movement speaks now for the public sector management class rather than workers.

3) He cannot do PMQs

I have to say, I love David Cameron as a politician. He is a great speaker and debater, a real pleasure to watch.

But if this government were led by anyone other than Cameron it would collapse. It has no plan, no ideas and a front bench full of relics and zombies. It’s Cameron’s political genius that holds the coalition together.

John Rentoul summarises PMQs: ‘Ed Miliband asks earnest questions in the Commons that Cameron can’t answer and finds himself crushed by a swashbuckling manner and cynical misrepresentation.’

PMQs is a knockabout cartoon watched mainly by news junkies and political fiends, who complain that PMQs isn’t serious enough while at the same time cheering Cameron’s rehearsed jokes. Cameron has the additional advantage of a House of Commons packed with more plants than an episode of Gardener’s World, and a Westminster lobby pack full of sycophants and courtiers. The Prime Minister, as I’ve said, has wit and charm. He knows the difference between Flashman the man and Flashman the boy.

But when he did that ‘at least we’re not brothers’ crack, people acted as if he was Oscar Wilde or Clarence Darrow. There is something unattractive about this clubbable complacency that will eventually turn voters against him. Yes, we may be approaching three million unemployed, but ra-ra, yip-yip, everything’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It won’t do.

4) Ed has taken us into a left-wing wilderness

As political junkies tend to confuse the chamber with the country, so they also confuse Westminster lobby perception with voter perception. After Ed’s conference speech this year, Polly Toynbee reported:

‘Lurching to the left’ and ‘Red Ed’ were the inevitable responses of the mostly rightwing press convening in an instant huddle after the speech. If you want to see the herd mentality in action, stand right there and watch them gather to agree this is a plunge back to Labour’s dark days [.]

Of course, Ed also has his critics in the Labour press (or what’s left of it). None was more harsh than Dan Hodges, a pompous union blowhard and Blairite Ed critic. Hodges used to write acute and trenchant critiques of Ed for the New Statesman – until its editors, naturally, forced him out for deviationism. Now he’s at the Telegraph Blogs site, where he tells the right what it wants to hear. You read his pieces and you get the idea that Ed is going in the wrong direction. But where would Dan Hodges have us go?

He wrote recently that: ‘On a range of major issues, including Europe, the economy, immigration, welfare reform and law and order, Labour’s instincts are increasingly taking the party away from, not towards, the political centre.’ Asked on Twitter ‘if you were in charge, what would Labour be running on, exactly?’ Hodges expanded: ‘Match deficit timetable, tough crime, welfare, borders. Basically everything you hate.’

Owen Jones has pointed out the problem with this. The Tories do hang-flog-deport so much better than we do. We cannot satisfy the silo nation percentage of the public on this – and in the long term the Tories can’t either, because we are dealing here with a collection of inchoate hatreds and curdled resentments, not rational policy demands. And the idea that the Labour Party should simply follow Dave and Gideon off the economic cliff is clearly lunacy.

5) Ed cannot win the next election

This one I can’t answer. I’m not a Labour strategist and you never know what’s going to happen. But a new leadership election or palace coup would make us look ridiculous, divided and irrelevant. As Angela Eagle said, we need to stop mourning for our lost leader. We lost the support of most newspapers before the last election. Do not imagine that David in Ed’s chair would be taking any less of the shit than Ed is now.

I want to be able to vote for a leader who’s not afraid to take risks and say something new, and a programme that will give the monied and property-owning classes a good kick up the arse. For me, Ed is that leader. I like his policies, particularly the living wage, he took a risk over the phone hack issue and he seems to genuinely get what people are going through in a way that Cameron does not.

Sack Ed Balls, and we’re there.

Update: An alternative view from Shuggy.

Ed Miliband: a hero for our times?

Here’s A Little Moment…

December 27, 2011

Red, I hope you don’t mind me sharing this. It’s a brave and beautiful blog post about trying to get help and not finding it. Red was prompted by this piece by a London paramedic about one of her frequent fliers.

He only ever called from his home. He was never rude, always polite and therefore never had anything to do with the police. The police have more powers than us and can be very useful with mental health and enforcing assessments but this was an avenue which was never open to us. He always agreed to go voluntarily and as such, was never in a position to be held against his will… I suppose it was only a matter of time before he did it. He’d been let down but the system that is there to help him, and he was let down because he was submissive. He didn’t complain about lack of treatment. He never raised his voice.

Contra convention, Christmas isn’t a big spike for breakdown. More suicides happen over the summer. And it’s not true what they say about us militant atheists. I always love this time of year.

But both these articles chime with my own experience of trying to self refer a few months ago. I spent weeks on this and got nowhere. Eventually, I gave up, sick of trying to negotiate a system that seemed completely inaccessible to anyone with a full time job, and so obviously geared around the needs of nine to five practitioners rather than service users. At this point, a guy rang up, asking if I wanted yet again to reschedule an appointment, and I told him exactly what I thought of his shitty, half-arsed excuse for a service. It still makes me angry when I think about it.

I resented giving so much of my time trying to get past the gate. I am getting older, my time is important to me and I like to spend it reading and writing and socialising. I resented too the position I’d been put in – a supplicant bounced from pillar to post. Up until this year I’ve been lucky with key workers and therapists. Now my luck has run out and I can’t be bothered. I will probably not seek treatment again, even if I deteriorate radically. Fuck this shit. I’ll walk away and say nothing.

The conclusion I’ve come to is there is no effective help out there. I don’t like to write this. I don’t want the brave and compassionate practitioners out there to read this and feel insulted. I certainly don’t want any vulnerable readers to take my words as a counsel of despair, and to do stupid and irrational things to themselves. Most of all I don’t want to just moan about public services. I stress this is a rough impression based on personals and anecdotals. It’s a strong impression though, and we should not be afraid of criticising the system when it fails. All in this together? You are on your own.

The doctor, writer and comic Phil Hammond writes that (£):

It’s ludicrous that your chance of survival depends on having your illness ‘in hours’ or ‘out of hours’. ‘In hours’ you see senior staff and get urgent investigations. ‘Out of hours’ it’s a novice turkey-shoot.

He’s talking about physical care but I think it applies to mental health as well. It seems to me that so much of what the nine-to-fivers in mental health trusts should be doing is taken up by paramedics and police officers – kind and courageous people, who have probably worked most of these last few days and nights, and deserve a little more credit. A cop blogger who focuses on mental health issues reckons that ‘15% of policework involves some dimension of mental illness.’

So that, again, is my take on mental health services today. Christ knows what they will be like once Lansley’s finished with them. Self-slaughter rates are rising. I have lost count of local stories about people talked off the bridge at the last moment. Job Centre staff are now given pro forma guidelines to deal with suicidal claimants. Of course, every suicide represents a subtraction from the welfare bill, and from the unemployment stats. I can’t claim this has factored into government thinking. But, frankly, I could believe anything of this government.

What to do? I stress again that this is my personal opinion and many people will have and do have better experiences than mine. I would never dissuade people from trying to access professional help. I think too that informal networks are better than they have ever been. Crisis call a friend. Talk on social networks. Read and comment on the mental health blogs. Fuck off the grey evil people who drag you down. Surround yourself with good things, positivity and love.

Writing this post, I thought of ‘Desiderata’, the 1927 American devotional. It’s somewhat trite to quote this, I appreciate. And God knows we don’t need religion at this time of year.

And yet: ‘whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.’

Image via the amazing NotAloneAtXmas Twitter account

Why Writing Matters

December 17, 2011

It’s one of those times, when you feel like getting drunk and running out onto the street, shouting: ‘He’s dead! He’s dead! O Discordia! The world grows dark!’ And what’s that line from Auden? Stop all the clocks… I mean, there’s nothing more I can say, beyond my own personal sadness at this: those who knew and loved him are the best at articulation of this loss. In particular, I found Peter Hitchens’s tribute incredibly moving and heartfelt. As reactionary as his brother was radical, the avatar of silo England and the Daily Shriek, Peter reflects on two lives that took drastically different directions from ‘the small, quiet, shabby world of chilly, sombre rented houses and austere boarding schools, of battered and declining naval seaports.’ He adds: ‘I see in my mind’s eye a narrow, half-lit entrance hall with a slowly-ticking clock in it, and a half-open door beyond which somebody is waiting for news of a child who long ago left home.’

After this news broke, Hitchens’s book God is Not Great began trending. The Huffington Post reports that Twitter yanked the hashtag after death threats against its creators and ‘a storm of protests by the religious’. Can you hear laughter from the grave? As he said: they don’t care if they’re boring. They don’t care that they’re cliched. Same for the Radio 4 reporter who described Hitchens as an alcoholic on the 7am bulletin yesterday. Francis Wheen: ‘Only one life and one mind; but they contained multitudes. England itself may have been too small to accommodate them, as the puritanical small-mindedness of that BBC report yesterday confirmed; but he was, for all that, a great Englishman.’ Even in death he stands tall and apart from the parochial, bien-peasant, trilling, beard-stroking mediocrities – face-timers and time-servers of the writing life, men and women who have never written a good line of prose or provided a single insight into our universe or touched a human heart. Fuck them.

I wrote about Hitchens’s memoirs, and his penultimate collection of journalism (there will be a posthumous collection, of his articles on cancer and mortality, published next year). I have been reading him for around five years, probably longer. Stephen King said that writing is telepathy. He was underrating his own craft. Writing is not just telepathy. Writing is time travel and faster than light travel. It is also an intimate conversation. We feel closer to our favourite writers than we do to family or friends. To read someone is to get a sense of themselves. I remember the first time I began reading Unacknowledged Legislation, between shifts on the scorching and febrile summer of 2006, on the balcony of the bar where I then worked – and feeling myself overwhelmed with wit and laughter and generosity and warmth, and the texture of other worlds and lives. To read him was to be transported. As well as writing well, he lived well and to the full. You feel like you have become a better person for having read him – he taught us a way to write, and he also taught us a way to live. And so it’s no insult to his intimates to say that I who never met him too grieve.

They say that he was a controversialist. As if it’s controversial to write against nasty totalitarian dictators and nasty totalitarian belief systems. But it’s the timeless fire of the prose that will call younger generations to Hitchens’s writing as Hitchens himself was called to Orwell. His Slate colleague Jacob Weisberg writes about ‘his generosity to young people. He sought them out and befriended them. He responded when they called with requests to speak at their college, contribute to a symposium, or stand with any oppressed minority… Here’s what I learned from Christopher Hitchens in the 25 years I knew him. Don’t let anyone else do your thinking for you. Follow your principles to the end.’ To which I think you can add: never sacrifice adventure for security, don’t let anyone lower your expectations, and do your best to live life to the full, for this life is the only one we can be sure of.

1949. 2011. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

A Lie Agreed Upon

December 13, 2011

Nevertheless, just as Nazism provided an institutionalised outlet for the sadist, Stalinist totalitarianism on the whole automatically encouraged the mean and malicious. The carriers of personal and office feuds, the poison-pen letter writers, who are a minor nuisance in any society, flourished and increased.

– Robert Conquest, The Great Terror

The British Social Attitudes survey came out last week and it is hard reading for the left. Based on an annual sample of around three thousand people, the survey found that half this sample believe unemployment benefits are too high, in fact so high that they disincentivise people from working; support for redistribution and investment has gone through the floor. Penny Young, head of the National Centre for Social Research (which conducted the survey) commented: ‘In a time of economic austerity and social unrest, the big question coming out of this year’s report is whether we really are in it together, or just in it for ourselves?’

I think by now Young’s question answers itself. There’s nothing wrong with selfishness. As Dickens said, you cannot fret over Africa while your child falls into the fire. You look after number one and those you love, that’s it, it’s natural, that’s what you do.

But you can’t have a worldview based on selfishness and nothing more. And there is something creepy about this visceral obsession with expenditure that doesn’t directly benefit you and yours – asylum support, foreign aid, foreign interventions. In particular, we are reaching the point where anyone on benefits is assumed to be a fraud. The proposal for cancer patients to undergo DWP assessments, mid-chemo, shocked many but is the logical consequence of the ideology of welfare reform with its first presumption of criminality.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Ian Birrell is not your typical CiF hand-wringer. He is a former speechwriter to David Cameron. But he is worried about the relentless policy and media focus on benefit fraud and the impact this is having on people who are on benefits because they physically cannot work. Police forces across the country reported increases in disability hate crime.

It is not just the vicious attacks capturing headlines that dislocate lives. Take David Gillon, a software engineer who helped build Eurofighter jets before losing his job three years ago. He walks with crutches and has been physically attacked and regularly shouted at in the street since he slipped and injured his back two decades ago.

Earlier this year, someone reported him to the government’s benefit fraud hotline. Officials dismissed the allegation as soon as they walked in his front door, but his condition, which is stress-related, worsened for several months. Now he feels so threatened he barely leaves his house. ‘If I go out, I know I could suffer more abuse,’ he said. One cruel act – and another person left a virtual prisoner in their own home.

People with disabilities are facing attacks and abuse because they are assumed to be DLA frauds. Or perhaps the a priori assumption of fraud gives the bullies the excuse they need to break this particular taboo against hurting those who can’t hit back.

Many of these attacks – and this is something the left hasn’t yet had the nerve to face – will come from working class people and people who are on benefits themselves. Writer and activist Owen Jones acknowledges that social contempt appeals to ‘benefit recipients who – belonging to a demonised group – are keen to distance themselves from ‘scroungers’.’ Certainly that’s part of it. But not all.

A character in a James Hawes novel, suffering a bad setback, reflects: ‘This is nothing so grand as despair’. There’s little grandeur in the lives of the poor, England 2011: what there is is overcrowded housing, work barely worthy of the name and endless, day-to-day, grinding immisiration. It makes you feel sorry for yourself – and self pity is among the most dehumanising of human emotions. Self pity leaves little room for imagination, empathy, perspective and other things that you need for a rounded and humane view on the world. No one has it worse than me. That guy is on ESA for a brain haemmorhage. So he says. But he might be lying. And that money could be going to me. Hit him anyway.

Crimestoppers has just launched a DWP partnership campaign against benefit fraud, and urges members of the public to report through an 0800 number. Its press release is heavy on emotion and viewpoint: ‘The public feels very strongly’… ‘third most worried about…’ ‘in response to public concern…’ It tells us that the average estimate of money lost to benefit fraud is four times the actual number. It quotes a survey finding:

When asked how much they think fraud costs the public sector each year, in things like benefit fraud and tax avoidance a little over a third (35%) of respondents said that fraud costs the public sector £9 billion per year.

Some might say we would be better off adding up the actual (not the estimated) amount lost by corporate tax evasion, as compared to the actual – again, not the guessed amount, but the real amount – lost by petty benefit fraud, and acting accordingly. But then, this is government by perception, not government by reality.

On one level this is a great idea. A crime is a crime, and a theft is a theft. Yet how effective are these sorts of campaigns? There already is a benefit fraud hotline. The DWP pays £1.6m for this service, from public money. HoC figures show that, of the tens of thousands of calls, only a small percentage result in an investigation that leads to a sanction. It’s hard to avoid the impression blogger Declan Gaffney gets: that ‘96% of calls to the National Benefit Fraud Hotline are malicious or timewasting.’

This is England, in the twenty-first century: a nation of censorious tattletales.

Inform on friends and relatives; win valuable prizes

Complicated Shadows

December 11, 2011

Now and again, I’m pursued by a jangling anxiety, crazy delusions of persecution and incapacity, and a deep, abiding and totalising sadness. There are visions I’m seeing. Around springtime, I had a drink early evening in a Chorlton bar on the main road and got the sensation that I was entering a world of darkness, and was entering a life of darkness. What strikes me about this memory was that there was no fear or dismay or even resignation about this, it felt completely natural, a sense almost of coming home. I’m also seeing: a tower block in a university town, a place of absolute anonymity and safety, storeys and storeys of it against the night, with a block shine to every window, a place of time and silence like that line of Vonnegut, scree and rocks slippering and sliding, clambering out of the valley at last towards the vantage point, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurt. I’m seeing a knowledge no one else seems to have worked out, why burden your life with limitations and responsibility when there is great sadness in the world as it is? I am seeing a worst case scenario or backup plan in a place that never really left my heart, something from the outside, wander Hyde Park in the middle of the night, city noise coming from somewhere, the Social in the distance and crying and stumbling, with again no sense of wrongness or exclusion, and then open my wrists and explore what other worlds may be. Being loved, to be able to love, and another vision that feels like a memory, walking across a main road to a service station in the middle of a village within the city of South Manchester, lights burning, reflect off the forecourt but no other soul around, and it feels, again, like a homecoming, it feels like coming home.

A State of Grace Above the M60

December 9, 2011

Read this

… then read this.

I’m not shocked by the kindness because amongst the tabloid stories of Grannies being mugged, children raped and mothers murdered, I know that the majority of people who walk this planet, are good, kind, loving people.  I also know that life is hard and we suffer tragedy and loss and pain on a daily basis but this pain is eased by love.  The love of our wives/partners our kids our families our friends and without that love, it could have been me or you on that bridge.

Generation of the Damned

December 8, 2011

It’s a truism of the twenty-first century that the young are expected to work for free. We had unpaid internships. We had internship auctions. Now, campaigner Michael Ezra reports on firms that charge people by the day to work for them – sometimes as much as £65 per shift. Michael quotes Ben Lyons from the Intern Aware pressure group: ‘We campaign hard against unpaid internships because they exclude the vast majority of young people who cannot afford to work for free. There is something even more perverse about expecting young people to have to pay to work.’

There is no capitalist argument for internships. If you can’t pay your staff you can’t afford to run a business. Simple as. But companies employ indentured labour and the government does not a thing to stop them. I recall a policy paper that tried to reconcile the internship market with national minimum wage law. The conclusion the paper drew was something like ‘It just is.’

Maybe it’s no surprise that the government will not investigate a situation that is, at best, of dubious legality. Its own workfare programmes shunt young people onto placements at Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, Poundland and other retail giants. A geology graduate told the Guardian that ‘It seems we’re being used as some free labour, especially in the runup to Christmas.’ Claimants said they had to work thirty hours a week and be available for eleven hours a day with the threat of JSA cutoff for noncompliance. The reality doesn’t match DWP rhetoric of sustainable employment and unlocking individual potential.

And by the way, it’s not as if young people are too high minded to stack shelves. A big store opened up near me. They advertised a few hundred entry level positions and got thousands of applications. Retail is low-skill, high-pressure and dead end. Advancement is minimal, and the entire sector is under threat from online shopping. But thanks to the government, Primark will be able to prop itself up with a widening flow of unrenumerated labour from the growing unemployment lines. Researching this for a report tasked in my own job, I even found cases where claimants were barred from pursuing actual professional job opportunities because workfare providers wanted them to stick with their placements and fill the provider’s quota. It is a forced internship scheme that compels people who don’t want to work in retail to take positions that could have gone to people who actually do want to work in retail. Maybe that’s what Gideon meant when he talked about a private sector led recovery.

The jilted generation is a political catchphrase now, and there’s a danger in campaigners’ focus on internships. Concerns about youth unemployment are beginning to be seen as the whining of upper middle class graduates looking for an easy route into the creative world. ‘Being unemployed with four kids and a mortgage is worse than being nineteen and sitting on your bum at mum’s,’ I was told, after raising this on Twitter.

But to dismiss these issues as the hipster liberalism of Shiv Malik and Laurie Penny ignores the rise in youth homelessness. Crackdown on welfare hits the working class hardest. Already frozen out of a galloping rental market, and denied disposable income, autonomy and independence, people in their twenties are being thrown out of family homes simply because their families can’t afford to keep them. This is apparently happening at the rate of 400 new homeless cases a day. People are turned away from shelters overwhelmed with demand.

A few months ago someone in public life suggested that wealthy elderly people should ‘downsize’ – move to smaller homes to free up room for people who can’t afford big houses. The idea was shouted down in pious outrage. It is a measure of how bad the housing crisis has got that such a thing was suggested at all. Kick people out of their homes?

Yet with poor people under thirty-five, that’s exactly what we’re doing. The decisive policy change is the expansion in the shared accommodation rate, which will hit one-bedroomed flats for single people under 35. Housing benefit is one of those for-want-of-a-nail payments that is not well thought of but does a great deal to keep society sane. Currently it covers small, supported flats for young, vulnerable adults, some with mental health issues, others just out of prison. The government wants to slash this so that these people have to rent rooms in shared houses. Except 70% of local authorities don’t have the HMO scene of cities like Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. Come January we will release around 80,000 people on a market that has no idea what to do with them.

There has been yet more fuss about public sector pensions. The November 30 strike was worth supporting purely because of the rise in contributions, which will place yet another expense on Britain’s low paid. In a cruel touch, the contributions go straight to the Treasury, coins flung into the ocean of a deficit most public sector workers played no part in creating.

But there was far too much tubthumping about the indefensible final salary schemes. Headteachers and radiographers marched, in effect, to demand that young people should work overtime in call centres so that the headteachers and radiographers could perfect their drives. If you are under forty, and work in a private sector entry level role, the unions have nothing to say to you.

Unlike Vernon Kay, I can’t claim to be the voice of youth. Having turned thirty a couple of weeks ago, I wonder now how it feels for people born in 1990 who will now be coming up to twenty-one. If they managed to get to university, then the best option may be to emigrate to a country that actually values talent and hard work. We could see an Eire-style exodus, with those too poor, stupid or fucked up to get out having to work themselves into the ground to prop up what sociologist Danny Dorling called a ‘dictatorship of the old’ (which would then collapse because of the reduced income tax stream required to cover pensions and green fees).

Of course it’s unwise to divide people along generational lines. And the coalition slogan has some truth in it, we are all in this together and there will have to be sacrifices. I just think that for once the sacrifices could be made by the old and rich rather than the young and poor.

Update: There are more and more unemployment experience blogs out there as the recession deepens. This one, by my friend Red Newsom, is well worth your time.

Further update: The Poundland geology graduate quoted above is now seeking a judicial review.

Classic Drama: Oz

December 3, 2011

I’ve just watched this entire HBO series in a month. It’s set inside a maximum-security American prison where liberal reformer Tim McManus has built ‘Emerald City’ – a jail within a jail designed for rehabilitation results. Em City is relatively relaxed. The cells are made of glass, prisoners can wear their own clothes, watch TV, work out in the gym and undergo confidential counselling sessions with nun turned psychiatrist Sister Pete – a necessary plot device in a world where people are conditioned very quickly to conceal their true thoughts and emotions. McManus, Sister Pete and chaplain Father Mukada are breathtaking in their persistence, plugging away for compassion and change within some of the most violent recidivist criminals in the US. The environment is so defined by lost hope and casual cruelty that the successes, when they come, are all the more well-realised and realistic. Gangster inmate Miguel Alvarez, having blinded a Latino guard, trains a guide dog for the blind man and, in a nice touch, coaches it to respond to bilingual commands. It shouldn’t work – but somehow it does.

It’s a charged and violent environment with an endless stream of graphic murders: stabbings, immolations, hangings, electrocutions, even crucifixions. An ambitious new drug dealer inmate lasts all of two scenes before getting his face burned off by the Sicilians. Not a day passes without a major incident; fear and tension coalesces in the air, the alarm klaxons ring out like office phones. Style reflects content. The show is heavy on atmosphere with a score like the creak and tolls of sunken ships. You can taste the paint and the sleepless hours. It’s the most intense viewing experience I’ve had with TV – there are scenes where I actually felt my heart rate increase, and it wouldn’t come down until some moments after the episode ended. (There is a little comic relief from the eccentric inmate Agamemnon ‘The Mole’ Busmalis, a bank robber who is always trying to tunnel his way out of the prison complex. Knocked back for privileges by the warden, Busmalis protests: ‘I’m very well behaved.’ ‘You dug a tunnel and escaped. Causing me considerable embarrassment.’)

Underneath the violence is the grinding hopelessness of men growing old in captivity while relatives die, wives file for divorce and connections to the out are severed, one by one. The show is narrated by Augustus Hill, a drug dealer and cop killer who’s lost more than most in his conviction: during the commission of his arrest, he is thrown off a roof by police, and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He speaks directly to us, and provides the thematic basis for each episode. He introduces the characters as they arrive, with a roll-call style rap of prisoner number, name, conviction and sentence against a bright and hazy backdrop of the crime – lit like a true memory, exposed and striated. During the first season he structures episodes around the concepts of health, sex, death and faith (there’s a lot of religion in Oz). Once the explanatory stuff has been set out and big ideas established, Hill’s narrations become esoteric, drawing on Norse mythology, the life of Napoleon, and the story of Orpheus. Hill’s not always coherent, but he’s always interesting. The show’s writers seem to have researched every aspect of prison life and place the Oz story in the historical context of doing time. (Did you know, for instance, that in medieval England criminals were locked in cages suspended in the air… hence our expression ‘jail bird’). Hill also weaves sociological points into the stories. The show takes place almost entirely in Oz but through it we get a reflection of the wider world – America refracted in cracks and shards.

We are introduced to Oz through a new inmate, Tobias Beecher. Most of the prison population are hardcore criminals with extensive tribal backup. Beecher is an educated litigator and family man from a privileged background. He is also an alcoholic and drunk driver, who is sent to Oz as an example when he runs over and kills a child. Without criminal connections or street skills, Beecher flounders in Emerald City, and is quickly enslaved (‘pragged’) by Vern Schillinger, head of the Aryan Brotherhood. Beecher performs the same role that McNulty did in The Wire. He’s a recognisable figure who leads the viewer into a scary and unfamiliar role. McManus: ‘His is a cautionary tale.’ If you think that prison is just for poor people or black people… think on.

The first series is a succession of painful humiliations for Beecher: he’s forced to lick Schillinger’s boots, to tear up photographs of his family, to eat legal documents for another prisoner’s appeal he’s working on, and to have a swastika tattooed on his backside. Schillinger also rapes him repeatedly, and gets him to perform at the prison variety show in drag. The scene is pure black comedy as Beecher takes the stage in full dress and makeup and almost floating with heroin. When he actually starts singing, in a lost and grieving voice, the laughter dies down, and the inmates watch his performance in a thoughtful and absorbed silence.

After this incident, the antidrug Schillinger kicks him out of their cell, and in a final indignity, forces him to leave into the general association area in a Confederate t-shirt. That is it for Beecher, who snorts a line of PCP, smashes the acetone wall with a chair, causing a shard of glass to puncture Schillinger’s left eye. Even angrier after a spell in the hole, Beecher corners Schillinger in the gym, beats him senseless, ties him up and takes a shit on his head. In one scene we see Beecher in solitary confinement, crushing his glasses. Whenever glasses are crushed, it is always symbolic. Hill narrates this scene:

If you listen to the poets, they’ll tell you that a big, bad event in someone’s life changes them. If you lose the woman you love or your legs, you suddenly find a kind of beauty inside yourself. That’s what they say, the poets. Truth is, you don’t. After a big, bad event, you only become more of the person you already were. It’s after a big, bad event that you find out the real person you always were inside.

Beecher is a civilised man reduced to violence… or a violent man liberated at last from the constraints of civilisation. ‘We always stick up for the underdog,’ Hill warns us. Beecher has started a war of attrition and counterrevenge, and combines a readiness for violence with legal and psychological trickery. He kills an Aryan-sympathiser guard using only his fingernails. Beecher’s worst point comes when he arranges the death of Andrew Schillinger, Vern’s son, sent to Oz for a racist murder very much like the killing of James Byrd in Texas, 1998. Andrew is a confused drug addict with a childhood bombarded with Nazi propaganda, and Beecher ends his life for the sins of the father.

And despite his evil ideology and countless horrific acts, there are sympathetic things about Schillinger. J K Simmons puts in a seamless performance as the Brotherhood boss. There is a underlying melancholy to everything Schillinger says and does. Much of the character’s menace comes from his drawn, pouchy face and pale, sunless eyes. When he is reunited with his surviving son, Schillinger’s face broadens in a grin that makes him look handsome. It’s an expression of uncompromised warmth and happiness, it crosses his face for maybe a second – and we never see it again. Agreeing to enter a reconciliation programme with Beecher, Schillinger says that ‘I just want a little joy in my life.’ He’s a sad man ageing behind bars.

But of all the characters (and Oz is very much an ensemble, I have barely covered it here) Beecher undergoes the most dramatic change. He’s a rational man entering what is in many ways a pre-rational society where the population has backslid to tribe, God and honour-based violence. If you wanted to be really pretentious about it, you could cast the Beecher/Schillinger feud as the conflict between Enlightenment reason and romantic blood and soil reaction. It’s a shame Augustus didn’t explore that in one of his soliloquys.

But the writers do not undo civilisation and just leave it there. Beecher wants to get his humanity back. He screams himself awake from nightmares of his original crime in which he doesn’t see the body of a child smash onto his windscreen but his living Oz self, bearded and feral. In the end, Beecher’s downfall is triggered not by his running battle with Schillinger but his love affair with Chris Keller, a charming and complex sociopath (a mesmerising show-stealer from Christopher Meloni). But there is a prospect of an honourable life for Beecher even if the rest of it is spent in prison.

I came late to this remarkable show and, like I say, have barely begun to do it justice. It’s not just the evocation of human degradation and the rise and flicker of humanity in humanity’s darkest places. Tom Fontana has tapped into something in contemporary man that is fascinated with prison. The jailhouse is a dark and heady pulse in our culture. The Shawshank Redemption became a surprise blockbuster and enduring classic while no stand-up routine is complete without a joke about prison rape. Samuel Johnson said that every man thinks worse of himself for having not been a soldier. In the same way, I think every man asks himself: ‘Could I survive this?’ Confinement fascinates us because to a greater or lesser extent we’re all unfree, struggling for a perspective beyond the barbed wire, waiting on quarter and parole where life will finally begin.