Thursday, December 28, 2006

Guest post: James Hamilton - 'Why it's better to be an apologist'

In July 2005, shortly after the London bombings, I linked to an excellent post on another blog. Not long after that, James Hamilton (for it was he) discontinued his whole site – probably so that he could concentrate on his new one about psychology and football.

As you know, the combination of psychology and football is fabulously important, so his new site enriches us all. More about that in due course. But I was sorry that the original post was no longer available. So I e-mailed him and said so.

By return of mail, he sent me the original, along with permission to bask it the reflected glory (he didn't put it like that though - I'm being conceited on his behalf here). Here it is now.

AUTHOR: James Hamilton
TITLE: Suicide Bombing Redux - Why it's better to be an apologist

Late last week I wrote a brief analysis of some of the things that go into making a suicide bomber and that go into perpetuating the use of suicide bombing as a tactic. My principal point was that suicide bombing is about domestic politics, not foreign policy. Men plan to send out suicide attackers to maintain their own prevailing influence within their communities.

But this wasn't the point that caught people's attention - instead, everyone fastened onto my throwaway line at the end, about intellectual colonisation, the insistence that suicide bombing is all about us. That's inevitable. Here's why.

It strikes me that the debate about suicide bombing is only incidentally concerned with suicide bombing. It's only tangentially about terrorism.

What we're really having is a debate about whether the West is any good or not - whether it's evil or not. The situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and now Buckinghamshire are no more than case studies in that debate. Even if you have a personal stake in the Iraq situation, you will find it almost impossible to prevent any debate you have from being pulled into the wider one about the evil of the West.

This debate about the West - which is currently chewing on suicide bombers and will shortly spit them out, as it spat the Iraq War out - is also a kind of jostling for position, a way for us in the West to communicate to our friends and colleagues about the sort of people we are.

If we are at all interested in politics, the chances are that we are also interested in seeing ourselves as intelligent, nuanced, concerned, involved. Of course we are - who really, at the bottom of their hearts, wants everyone to see them as an ignorant thug? (There will be those who'll affect not to care..) And we'd like other people to see us as smart and caring too, if at all possible. But you can't just go up to someone and say "I'm nuanced, I'm intelligent": they'll immediately assume the opposite, and that's not all they'll assume. No, these things have to be got across by osmosis. How? By declaring support for sets of views which we think are adopted by people who have those desirable attributes of intelligence, nuance etc.

There's actually a number of these sets of views - pro-War, South Park Conservative, anti-Poverty, etc. - and there are points where they merge or serve the same constituency. But by far the most effective and universal set of views at the moment is the anti-Bush, anti-Capitalist, Kyoto, anti-Globalisation, anti-War one. Given the advantages adopting this set of views gives you, it is no surprise that they have taken off in quite the way they have.

Although I don't hold any of those views myself (I think I may be the only British psychotherapist who doesn't) I don't blame anyone who does.

In fact, in a real way I envy them. Holding these views does so much for a person, gives them so much extra, provides so much value, that it's only sensible to take them on if you can.

There are so many advantages that I don't even know where to start. I'll attempt a list:

  • People assume that you're a nice person
  • People assume that you are intelligent
  • People assume that you keep yourself informed
  • People think that you have cleverly not been fooled by liars
  • People think that you are willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others
  • You can do all the adopting of these views from home. No equipment or additional purchase needed
  • You line up with Geldof, Tutu, Mandela, Castro, Galloway, Moore, Benn - charisma is on your side, and it rubs off on you
  • You have a context for passion, anger, commitment - which other people accept
  • You are no longer to blame for global warming - you're on the side of the angels
  • You are no longer responsible for poverty - you're on the side of the angels
  • You have access to the youth-giving properties of these views
  • You are assumed to be tolerant, anti-racist, in favour of human rights
  • You are assumed to be easy-going and to have a sense of humour
  • You are assumed to be capable of a fulfilling sex life
  • You are assumed to be free of neuroses, tics, hang-ups
  • You are assumed to be in the right on the issues of the day without your having to demonstrate this
  • You are seen as being essentially classless - neither a toff, nor a chav
  • You get to feel you're in the majority and in the vanguard at the same time

I could go on, and on, and on. There's no punchline, by the way - I'm not writing satire here. The fact of the matter is, you can get all those advantages in your life and many more, just by saying something like "He's killed thousands" when Bush appears on the television.

Everything else is done for you. You don't have to march - but it's there for you if you want. You don't have to spend a lot of money - stick the Guardian or the Independent in your bag, and you're away. You don't have to change your job (if you're in the military, you actually get bonus points). You don't have to move house. In fact, you can pretty much carry on as before.

The advantages I've listed are not silly little things that don't matter. They represent an enormous psychological benefit. They represent an enormous positive impact upon your experience of life. Again, there's no punchline. I mean what I'm saying. You don't even have to be right! Were the whole thing turned upside down tomorrow in some kind of
mega-1956 experience, it will still be assumed that you acted in good faith - oh, and there's another advantage: people will always assume you act in good faith.

You'll even get the songs! Who remembers The Who at Live8 blasting into "Won't get fooled again"? That's one of yours; so is Pink Floyd's "Money". You've got the novelists, you've got the artists, you have a cultural side without your actually having to be cultured. Every protest song ever written - all of Woody Guthrie - is there for you if and when you want it. You can enjoy the association even if you don't enjoy the music.

What else in life gives you so much for so little? Does anything?

Certainly not religion. Religion asks hard things of you, even that most Western of religions, Buddhism, is demanding. But here, you don't even have to change your lifestyle, so long as you adopt the right attitude to it from time to time (you aren't even required to "keep it up" all of the time. Adopting one significant view gives you the same advantages as adopting all of them. So, if you hate Bush, you don't actually have to recycle your rubbish, although the local authority will probably do it on your behalf anyway).

On September 10th 2001, I was a trade unionist, an active member of the Labour Party, a member of Amnesty International (I'm still on their emergency list and still send out letters and faxes on behalf of prisoners), a Guardian reader and I worked for a local authority in a deprived ward in Central London. On September 12th, I was left wondering why I was suddenly all on my own.

Frankly, I was lucky. Because I have a posh accent, most people thought I was some kind of "capitalist warmongering bastard" anyway. And I'd spent some years as a practicing Christian, which is an experience of not being in a respected place if you want one. I suspect I had rather fewer of the real, powerful psychological benefits to give up. And many of those benefits didn't exist before 9/11 anyway - things that were latent then have come fully into play, such as Bush hatred.

All this has had a decisive impact on the contemporary debate. I've already said that any debate about Iraq is inevitably dragged into the wider one about the nature of the West. But questioning the West is one of the principal tenets of this superbly rewarding set of views, so even that wider debate is essentially over before you arrive. The fact of the matter is that the rights and wrongs are almost irrelevant when it comes to influence. You can "win" your Iraq argument in the pub, but there is no psychological payoff for your opponents if they join you - and the psychological penalty of changing sides is enormous and pressing (as a Usenet search for "Norm Geras" or "Oliver Kamm" will reveal). We have all at some stage "won" an argument without winning people over - and it's because you will have been right only in the psychologically unrewarding places. You'll still have lost the battle for your opponent's will and imagination. It's strange that you can "win" a moral argument, only to find that your defeated opponent knows instinctively that he still has the high moral ground.

None of this is set in stone. There can be shifts of opinion even within the prevailing view. When Bush goes, one of the widest entrances to this host of psychological benefits will disappear. These shifts are unconscious - everyone always claims to have been consistent - and, just let me say for the record, that I have always maintained my views. I'm not one to swim with the tide, and of course, neither are you. The shifts are hard to predict - but I'll make one prediction: suicide bombing will cease to be subject to excuses and justifications. And all those who have made excuses and justifications will deny having done so, and their denial will be psychologically true for them, and the denial will be accepted. Because, like me, and like you, they'll have been right all along.

ends.

QED

The other day, David Aaronovitch saw this article by Martin Kettle and said this.

Kettle's article is particularly interesting because the comments thread under his article makes the point far more effectively than any article ever could.

(ta Will & Ivan)

A nugget of information

From the report on Chelsea's 2-0 victory over Forest in the FA Youth Cup on the Nottingham Evening Post website (masked url - can't link directly to it - sorry)

"Forest were undone by two goals from a player who, at 15-years-old, cost more than any member of Colin Calderwood's first team - let alone the City Ground academy."
(If you want to see the whole article, go to www.myforest.co.uk and look for the 'Match Report: Chelsea v Forest FA Youth Cup' dated 21st December).

Friday, December 22, 2006

Did satire die when....

  • Henry Kissenger was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize
  • Liverpool was chosen as 'European City of Culture'
  • Spiked launched a 'Miserablist of the Year' award

?

They are looking for 'cantankerous curmudgeons' apparently.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Windy manifesto - a reply (part one)

I promised a response in parts to D-Squared’s posting “I shit on the progressives of this planet”. I also accept Phil’s rebuke (in the comments on that post) for ‘flamebaiting’, so I’ll try and stick to the point here.I’m going to address the first part today – I’d prefer to do the whole lot but I’m a bit flat out at the moment.

So, the three headings that this response covers are:

  • First of all, do no harm
  • We are a First World country
  • The government can’t make you happy
D-squared tells me (in the comments on his own thread) that he doesn’t want to hear arguments from John Lloyd’s book (“because it’s crap”). It seems that I’m also not allowed any ‘waffle’ about where power really resides. I thought John Lloyd’s book was quite good (and I recall that it good sympathetic reviews from writers who had a vested interest in slating it). I think that Mr Bourdieu’s book is more succinct though. And a large part of my argument is that the publicly discussed version of how power is held is misleading.

I’m not going to restate the view that the popular discourse about politics does not reflect the reality because I’ve never seen it seriously refuted. But avoiding the common themes of public administration and a widely respected perspective on how the media effects politics is like asking me to play without wingers or strikers. So I’m not going to avoid them.

In addition, there is going to be a problem responding to this whole post for now, because the definition of ‘progressive’ given here is as precise as my definition of ‘hippy’. It seems to be anything that D-squared objects to. He thinks PTAs are ‘progressive’ (!) so you can imagine the problem I have here.

Apparently, it isn’t ‘statist’ either so I could just keep guessing, I suppose. Anyway, here goes:

Summary: If you want to reduce the state’s capacity to do harm, you could ask if that capacity is growing or changing? You could say why it has that capacity and how it can be reduced.

Whatever the definition of ‘progressive’, the call for inaction (which I’m inclined to agree with in some cases) doesn’t acknowledge that many of those government schemes spring from a popular view that ‘something must be done’. You won’t win elections by refusing to respond to popular (tabloid?) demands. There are plenty of electoral reforms that anyone could suggest that would result in an executive that is less responsive to such tabloid demands, but electoral reform falls squarely within the remit of ‘doing something’.

You could say “just ignore them” but the fact that everyone who has succeeded in politics did so by ignoring that advice.

I think that the way ID cards are discussed provides a good overview of how the dynamic between public discourse and those framing policies has stopped working.

He says:
“The trade-off between liberty and other social goods is very different for us than for the vast majority of humanity now and throughout history. Even if such tradeoffs exist (which I doubt), they should not be taken. The possible material gains are just too small for what is being sacrificed.”

Those trade-offs are happening all the time – whether we want them or not. It isn’t just governments that remove our liberties.

Or take the topical debate on liberalisation of the laws on prostitution or drugs: Whatever your view on this, there is a case to be made for both of these. But even a serious politician who privately supports liberalisation knows that – if they are responsible for achieving it - the following will happen:
  1. The advocates of liberalisation will demand more – ‘hasn’t gone far enough’ etc– so there’s no reward for doing less
  2. The press will treat it as ‘the end of a thousand years of history’ (the same papers whose columnists have demanded liberalisation)
  3. The first drug-related fatality / offspring-turned-hooker will result in an orchestrated ‘family’ campaign in which the politician concerned will be called upon to take sole responsibility
  4. The initial advocates of liberalisation will not offer any support, or intervene
So, we seem to be offered two choices here: Simply resign ourselves to atrophy, or understand what the barriers to effective collective action are. Mancur Olson took the view that strong politicians and weaker pressure groups were to answer, and I agree with him.

I’d like a lot of fairly strong politicians instead of the current situation - a very small number of over-powerful and highly compromised ones. That politicians, by themselves, do harm is a moot point anyway. What happens is that politicians make a request to the institutions that, in theory, are supposed to respond to them, and the request is then combined with the pre-existing strategic intent of those organisations.

The net result is, therefore, very different from the one intended by the politicians – but the politicians have little choice but to take the blame for those outcomes. To ignore the strategic intent of bureaucracies is to present less than half an argument, and that is not – I would argue – reasonable.

There is no question that politicians should be more careful than they are about what they wish for, because their officials often delight in serving it up to them. A bit like those wishes Dr Faustus made.

But, currently, the meagre rewards for initiativitis are preferable to the penalties for inactivity. So if you prefer less active government, prepare yourself or further decades of frustration – until this problem is cracked. This is probably my main argument: That the way that politics and policy is discussed is counterproductive.

Alternatively, if you wish to reduce the capacity of individual politicians, departments of state, or other players to do harm, the obvious thing to do would be to argue for smaller departments of state – and stronger, more dispersed equivalents.

I’ve always argued that politicians should have less capacity – as individuals, or within their offices – of doing as much as they appear to be able to do. This is why this blog is quite repetitive in it’s advocacy of…
  • Stronger local democracy – and regional constituent assemblies
  • Political decentralisation – that cabinets choose the Prime Minister, rather than the other way around
  • ‘In-and-outers’ – political parties that are able to redirect the state when they win an election
  • Weaker political parties in other ways – parties that have less hold over elected representatives and less patronage than they do at the moment.
This last objective can be achieved by giving elected representatives at all levels the resources that they need (ones that can’t be snaffled by the parties as they are at the moment) to develop a degree of independence. This could be achieved by a new approach to state funding for parties, and a quasi-constitutional approach that would give more scope (and less bureaucratic censorship) to elected representatives to develop their own positions.

If you search this blog on the term ‘constipators’, you’ll see what I mean.One of the measurable outcomes of this last strategy, I would suggest, would be shorter manifestoes that state principles rather than specific prescriptions.

I’ve also argued that the power and influence of the mass media should be diluted as they are, I believe, the biggest engine room that has driven the increased political centralisation that has taken place over the last century.

I’m happy to admit that I’m a bit stuck on how to achieve this as I’m not keen on censorship per se. One of the reasons that I blog is because I’m hoping someone will pop up in my comments box with an idea on how this can be done.

Is this all post-hoc rationalisation on my part, I hear you ask? Well, use that little search box at the top of this blog to find posts about “representative democracy”, “decentralisation” or “demagogic simplification” for starters.

On the other hand, I would suggest that D-Squared call for inactivity translates into a call for atrophy. I don’t think that this is a position that he would sustain for very long, and that’s why I’m suggesting that it is a post-hoc rationalisation that has been hastily drafted to counter the charge of ‘negativism’ that led to his response.

I’d certainly find it impossible to believe that this version of liberalism is the rationalisation behind most negativism from other bloggers - which is why I'd suggest that narcissism or cowardice are a better explanation.

(I’ve started indexing these posts using the new blogger indexing system, but it’s far from finished at the moment, for which apologies.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Passive aggressive nerdwar continued

I've just seen Mr D-squared's rather long reply to my charge of negativism on his own site.
Update: You can't see the comments on D-squared's post on the individual link for some reason - only visible from the main page - or by clicking here:
It is so rare for a negativist to actually come out and explain themselves, that I think he deserves the courtesy of a point-by-point reply. And I'm a bit flat out at the moment, so I'll do it in a series of posts starting soon. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you have your own observations, please make them. There's nothing there that is very hard to refute, and remember, if you keep saying 'post-hoc rationalisation' to almost every point, readers will begin to understand where he is coming from.
I’ll just cover his introduction for now. His first point is that I protest too much and that I appear to be a hippy after all. From his comments on Chickyog:

"At the end of the day, as far as I can see, Paulie’s point of view is that all this arguing about specific politicians and laws is not the real point and that what we really need to do is change people’s consciousness so that we can all work together in a respectful way to make the world a better place. I’m sorry, who exactly is the hippy here? maaaan?"

What dear, me dear? Hippy dear? No dear! How VERY dare he? etc.

It is, of course, a cheap snipe, and one that serves to recast my views in an insulting light (which I don't mind) while avoiding addressing them (which I do). For the record, I don't have much interest in changing people's consciousness in the way I suspect Mr Dsq suggests here.

I am interested in changing their understanding of how power is held and exercised. This is, I would have thought, a legitimate aim, and the basic starting point for any commentator? My suggestion is that, when we discuss society's ills, politicians are not the disease. They are simply one of the many symptoms.

And, for the hard of thinking, if you still believe that politicians have anything by the way of untrammelled power or that screaming at them achieves anything other than providing some sort of personal catharsis, I would respectfully suggest that you read almost any book on the subject of 'where power resides'. Try one that falls outside of the 'popular simplification' genre.

So maybe it's worth avoiding the 3 for 2 table in Waterstones.

If anyone can point me to a well-argued and referenced text that makes the case that politics - as it is popularly discussed - is genuinely relevant to the way power is actually exercised, I'd love to read it. It'd make life easier, and much more fun. There are so many exciting circle-jerks that I'd be able to take part in.

Mr Dsquared seems to have quietly conceded this one anyway. In his lengthy post, there is no further attempt to defend his previously stated view that...


"...my way of “making our political culture better” would be to harass and bully the likes of Campbell, Clarke and Prescott out of it..."

Messrs C, C & P have had to go into a protection programme following this statement, so it's probably a good job that it hasn't been repeated. But you'd think that such a central plank to his argument - the opening statement - would have been defended? And, despite Mr D-Squared's little sneer at it, I doubt if anyone has contributed to this argument much as much wit or insight as Pootergeek did at the expense of Devil's Kitchen - here.

Finally, from the introduction, I'm accused of 'communitarianism' - a label so transient, imprecise and simplified that it is impossible to respond to one way or the other. I'm guessing that I'm guilty of the bad bits of communitarianism? Just to be clear.

Anyway, I'll back to address the substantial points soon-ish.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ok. I give in. Pass me today's paper will you?

My informal boycott of the newspapers is not turning out as well as expected. It's easy to forget that half-decent reportage is embedded in the welter of opportunism and disingenuousness that passes for comment. So I used to know all of the news that was being deliberately misinterpreted. Now I can only quietly eavesdrop on conversations without really taking part.

An ignorance of the basic facts doesn't make for robust arguments. Hacks may be exasperating, but they do try to cover most of the bases. To make most of the phonecalls to the relevant parties.

For example, I've been looking at the reaction of various blogs to the decision to discontinue the enquiry into bribery that surrounds the Saudi arms deal.

I'd not dissent from most of the comment that I've seen about this. Chris offers an original version of the liberal principle on the rule of law (the 'M-word' is in there, surprisingly!), and Paul points out that things may not be as cut-and-dried as HMG had hoped. Good.

But not reading the papers, I don't know if the debate has been dominated by....
  • All sides calling for an increased separation of powers
  • What a good thing it is that there are international frameworks - no matter how feeble - that may challenge the unseparatedness of powers here in the UK
I also don't know whether the Unions have...

a) condemned HMG for it's unscrupulousness
b) congratulated HMG on it's defence of British jobs
c) kept quiet about the whole thing

Unless they have chosen option a (above), it makes Dave's call for the left to unite around the principles of decency a pretty forlorn one.

Would the usual cartload of newspapers have annoyed me this weekend, I wonder?

And I'd love to know what is on TV tonight - and what horses are running tomorrow. Life's to short to sit and browse it all online...

Saturday, December 16, 2006

No need for counterproposals

Apologies for the light posting lately. While I was busy, I was put firmly in my place in the comments here last week:
"Whenever I hear the word “progressive”, I reach for my revolver. I thought that we had tried “making the world a better place” in the 20th century and a hundred million dead bodies later we were beginning to realise that “letting people get on with their lives” was actually not as bad as it had previously seemed. My way of “making our political culture better” would be to harass and bully the likes of Campbell, Clarke and Prescott out of it, in which capacity I would say blogs are doing their bit."
When I mentioned that this struck me as 'gibberish'...
"Libertarianism isn’t “nihilism”, and the fact that you progressives want to pretend that it is, is *precisely* why I’ll be hanging on to that revolver."
So, Mr Dsquared is a libertarian then? And should we 'progressives' (the opposite of libertarians?) be worried about Mr Dsq's revolver? *insert your own 'firing blanks' joke in here*

Funny. I looked around for a bit here and couldn't find even a squeak of libertarianism anywhere. Plenty of negativism, of course.

I admit, I didn't read every post, but you'd think that a random sample may, somewhere, contain a hint at how a smaller state of one kind or another might work? Or, lowering the bar a tad, you'd think that you'd find something suggesting how things could be done a little better than they are? Still, I expect it's all written down elsewhere.

Have a look - let me know if you find anything. And remember, if you find him just outlining what he's against, that's not going to be good enough.

The thing is, I can see why some particular types of libertarian would like to promote this kind of political climate. Take Guido, for example. One of the reasons that Guido's blog is better than most is that he is quite clear about what he is in favour of. He has ample form as a conservative anarchist - someone who thinks that no situation is so bad that it isn't made worse by some do-gooder getting in the way of the benevolent hands of the market. Guido has a vested interest in poisoning the well of public debate because it's something that he regards as counterproductive in itself.

Leftish libertarians distinguish themselves from their right-wing counterparts by outlining how the minimal state can work. Whenever Chris Dillow, for example, dismisses a politician as some kind of pond-life, at least he has the decency to outline how things could work. Modesty forbids me from linking to examples of other libertarian bloggers who offer suggestions on how power can be decentralised or how the means of production can be controlled by co-ops.

But what about the purely negativist leftish 'libertarians'? The ones who think that it is simply sufficient to "...harass and bully the likes of Campbell, Clarke and Prescott out of [our political culture]"

They certainly aren't adding anything here. We are already at saturation point with smartarses who think that this is what they are paid to do. Bloggers that join them can't really be expected to stand out very well, can they? Especially in the company of about 99% of political cartoonists, our self-styled 'satirists', a large percentage of the paid commentariat along with the more tedious stand-up comics.

So, why bother then? As far as I can see, there are two possible reasons:

  1. One possibility is that it's a form of cowardice. If you spend half your life charging around hoisting others on their own petards, it is a bit risky leaving a few of your own lying around, isn't it? In which case, claiming to be a 'libertarian' is just a way of distancing yourself from everything that has been, or could be tried in the foreseeable.
  2. The other possibility is that it's a half-witted form of narcissism. The vain lure of protest. It's the reason why Che T-shirts used to sell so well (before they became just another image in the gallery of po-mo 'iconography'). The writers seem more interested in mentally photoshopping themselves onto the cover of a Clash LP than in adding to any constructive dialogue.
I wish someone would apply for a grant to do a study on this. What percentage of political writing is designed primarily to cast the author in a fetching light? This isn't just a feature of the pseudo-left either - neo-Nazis are practically addicted to this kind of preening - here's an example I found a while ago.

The thing is, this self-righteous abdication of responsibility is nothing new. I had a comment from someone called Larry Teabag on my own post here:
"In fact I think the suggestion that [a counterproposal to a proposition that one is criticising] is needed is at best idiotic, and at worst a disingenuous debating-tactic to allay awkward criticism."
A point that is so obvious, I think you will agree, that it doesn't need an case being made to support it. Which is why this point is only ever really asserted (instead of being argued).

I've heard this from journalists as well - in particular, when Pilger is being defended: Again, it's always a case that doesn't ever get elaborated upon. The argument that paid journalists (not just unpaid bloggers) are not under any obligation to provide counter-proposals whenever they criticise a policy or the actions of any entity that seeks to address a problem.

And it's an argument that I'd agree with - halfway. If the journalist concerned is simply a reporter, then maybe they are under no obligation to do so. Their role is to report, and perhaps to interpret - perhaps in the way that a (non-expert) witness is invited to in a courtroom. But the moment that a journalist starts to editorialise, they should either....
  • Honour an obligation to outline a more suitable and workable solution, or
  • Brand themselves forever as a negativist fuckwit of the highest order
So, reader. Which side are you on? Tough one, innit?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Orwell re-invoked

Recent skirmishes - here and elsewhere - reminded me of an article by Orwell on 'neo-pessimism' I read (and blogged) a while ago.

I've since found a full version online. Read the whole thing there.

But still buy a copy of Paul's book. The perfect christmas present for the decentist in your life?

Blogger problems / victory parade - update

Blogger has been playing up on me recently. Since I moved over to the 'beta' version, it's been a pain. At the end of last week, it only allowed me to publish the title of a post - no body text.

And I'm flat out anyway, so you're not missing much.

I've not crowed yet about winning the 'Best Community Activism' category of the Bloggers4Labour poll. Thanks to everyone who voted for me, and I promise that - when I get time - I'll follow up with the customary display of arrogance and gracelessness towards all of my opponents that you should be expecting.

Commisserations to Andrew Brown who - I think - deserves to at least share the award. We got the same number of people voting for us (as everyone had up to ten votes, my voters gave me a slightly higher percentage).

Andrew is, by most reasonable definitions a real 'community activist' as opposed to someone who thinks that a particular form of community activism should be encouraged (my position), so maybe I even won on a false prospect (and I didn't nominate myself for it - honest!).

I'll be back once things have calmed down a bit.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Code of Conduct II : When Geeks Attack

I've been a bit busy, so I've only just seen the fuss over in Pootergeek's comments following his manly support of yrs trly.

*My hero!*

By getting himself in a line-by-line spat, he's walked his interlocutors into something of a trap here. The Geek + a bit of time on said Geek's hands + unequal adversaries = a bit of a bloodbath.

I may print his response to Devil's Kitchen and frame it.

One feature of the argument he is in, though, is the question of satire. It now seems to be taken as read that satire = ridiculing or telling totemic political figures to fuck off. You know the old saying: "...when someone else succeeds, a little part of me dies"? Well, if Swift weren't already be dead, modern 'satirists' wouldn't be speeding his demise.

I'm not going to repeat my argument that this herd of independent minds are guilty of fundamental attribution error by focussing all of their energies on politicians, - or even on political mendacity - because - thanks to the magic of hypertext, I can link to it instead. And I'd suggest that - if Mr Eugenides were to pop down to the library for a copy of Mr Bourdieu's 'On Television and Journalism' , he may recognise the irrelevance of his 'you started it' line towards Alistair Campbell on the question: 'who created the climate of distrust between the chattering classes and politicians?'

Either way, I'm beginning to think that this 'Code of Conduct' idea is worth thinking about. Not a common one, obviously - everyone can draft their own (or not bother if they don't want to). It would just help you work out which ones are worth reading. It would also add another pressure on us all to raise our game a bit. For instance, if someone is blogging on politics and public policy, if they didn't acknowledge a need to use their site to improve the quality and productivity of public debate, I'd be able to save myself the effort of reading them in the first place. I'd be happy to pledge that I'd avoid negativism.

Here's a first pass: Whaddaya think?

****** DRAFT ******

I will try to keep an open mind. There are some subjects on which I can comment with some authority. There are others on which I can only ask questions or offer speculative solutions. Wherever possible, I'll be explicit about this.

I will rarely delete comments. I have no rules on profanity. If you want to swear in my comments box, you can. I will probably not be very good at avoiding swearing in my posts. However, if you are simply abusive to me or anyone else, I'll delete it. Trolls will be deleted straight away. Off-topic comments may also have to go unless they're interesting.

I will try not to criticise any substantial position that someone else has taken without trying to indicate what I think is a workable alternative approach. Wherever possible, I will try to demonstrate an understanding of the totality of power relations around any particular issue when I comment. Otherwise, I will ask for help.

If I disagree with a position that someone else has taken, I accept that it would be a mistake not to address the problem that they are aiming to solve and offer my own solution (unless I think that the 'problem' concerned is exaggerated or non-existent, in which case I should say why I think this). I will try and acknowledge counterfactuals fairly.

Personal gossip bores me and I'll avoid it unless it's just too juicy or amusing to ignore. I'll usually avoid promoting my own business interests, though I have a few qualifications to this rule. Firstly, as a co-owner of the business I work in, I have helped to shape the work it does. My enthusiasms have shaped some of our services, and promoting my enthusiasms may have the by-product of promoting our business objectives. Wherever possible, I'll declare interests.

Also, my work gives me some insights that I wouldn't have otherwise. I may use these insights on the blog, but - again - I'll try to acknowledge any interests I have.

I acknowledge that it is easier to attract readers and supporters by advancing populist or simplistic arguments. I'd rather have ten readers reading what I really think that ten thousand reading what I pretend that I think.

I will also try to provide my own suggestions on policy and amplify (or constructively criticise) the suggestions of others. I will try to raise the quality of debate by contributing perspectives that are not commonly discussed.

I will not always be serious. I will sometimes advance an argument in order to provoke an interesting argument. I'll post on all sorts of subjects, as I please. This code won't be rigourously applied to posts in which I'm trying to be funny, talk about football, horse racing, music or any of my pet hates.

By blog carries no quality guarantee. My jokes are often weak, and my logic is often flawed. I won't correct anyone else's spelling (unless there's a joke in it) and I will be rude to anyone who makes cheap points about mine. I don't have the time that paid writers have for redrafting and tidying up. This blog is a sandpit in this respect. I partly use it to find out what I think, so be nice.

****** That's it, for now ******

So, go on, wdyt?

Update 8.12.06: I originally wrote "I will struggle to avoid swearing in my posts. " I've rephrased this as "I will probably not be very good at avoiding swearing in my posts" just in case the original wasn't clear.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

More interactive TV

Mozzer: Enigma? Maybe. Icon? Nope.

A bunch of anti-Public Service Broadcasting entrists at the BBC have decided to annoy the silent majority again. This time, they are doing a poll to find our top 'Living Icon'.

I'd like to be a fly on the wall when their 'creatives' dreamed that one up. (Can flies make flamethrowers work? Let me know).

The three finalists are David Attenborough, Paul McCartney and the lovely S.P. Morrissey.

David Attenborough!!?! You can't give someone an award like this unless there is a popular tabloid nickname based on an abbreviation of their surname.

I know I've made a few enemies in the last few weeks, but can I unite the visitors to this blog behind at least one principle?

"Anyone using the word 'Icon' (except in discussing old religious pictures) should be publically eviscerated"

Agreed?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

An evening pastime for Etonians

The rules: Aim for the cracker. Last one to finish has to eat it.

'The art of parliamentary sketch-writing' explained here.

Or, as the congnocenti call it, 'wank.'

Code of conduct

Justin from ChickYog is asking for further translation on this. Happy to oblige.

I would say that it is pretty uncontestible that it is not always a good thing when bloggers spread unsubstantiated and damaging rumours about public figures? Agreed so far? Someone who doesn't really understand how the blogosphere works has raised this. Justin has responded in the tone of a sulky consumer of politics (that is how I believe Justin positions himself here).

Having been looking at ChickYog for some time now, I'd say that it aims to be a fairly progressive blog. My argument is that, no matter how progressive someone thinks they are, if they adopt a world-weary and cynical apporach to public life, they will always prove to be the objective allies of reactionaries. A certain Old Man would agree, I'm glad to say (see the comments here).

Being world-weary about public affairs is, for some reason, perversely attractive in some quarters. Using a blog to be rude to public figures is, of course, deeply satisfying. And there are no shortage of blogs that do both of these things.

However, there is also no shortage of similar voices in the MSM either. This herd of independent minds are, I would argue, turning up the volume on the dialogue of the deaf between active citizenry and the political establishment. And this is not a good thing.

I would also argue that - cynics aside, the blogosphere is unwittingly offering an antidote to this negativism. A quick reading of this article on The Long Tail would be appropriate here - the argument that big media (and even uber-bloggers) will not continue to dominate, and that they are already being replaced by a more diverse dialogue. This should tell any politician that the blogosphere is a bit different - and in many ways potentially better - than the MSM.

Guido, The Monkey and Iain may get plenty of traffic from political obsessives, but more people spend more time than ever before reading the more relevant, nuanced and diverse range of opinions that make up most online page-impressions. This negativity and pessimism can / is only leading us towards nihilism and disengagement. No wonder most people think that politics is boring and irrelevant. It is because it is boring and irrelevant.

But, thankfully, the negativists are not representative of the whole - or even, possibly, the majority - of the blogosphere. Blogs are actually helping the public route around the tedious newspapers and professional cynics in some ways.

What elected representatives need to do is to understand that this is an opportunity - not a threat. The more self-promoting bloggers are the ones you hear about. Cynicism and negativism get noticed. But every politician knows that elections aren't decided by local loudmouths. The public are more sophisticated than the audience on Question Time. The same is probably true of the blogosphere.


******

Returning to the question of the 'code of conduct'. anyone who has worked in politics will tell you that rumour and innuendo can prove hugely damaging - indeed, a willingness to lie about political rivals is an important part of the armoury of every successful politician. Deniable lying in private, of course. Lying 'off the record'.

But, at least in the public domain, this isn't as simple as it seems. Most of the comment has worked on the assumption that the blogger is the little man, and The Man is... well .... The Man.

This hippy simplification won't stand much scrutiny though. Devil's Kitchen, for example, offers a convoluted argument saying that there is already a code of conduct called libel law - and that it is one that already provides the powerful with all of the advantage they need over bloggers anyway. I'm not sure whether he thinks that the libel law is flawed-but-adequate, or that people don't need any protection from malicious gossip.

Either way, the libel laws are largely irrelevant here anyway. Newspapers may have massive resources to defend actions, but the powerful would be less likely to sue a blogger than a newspaper because bloggers are mostly 'shoeless'. Libel action would accelerate the distribution of the libel anyway.

And libel action usually comes too late in the day anyway. A rumour can be published and rapidly withdrawn by a blogger. It gets more of an audience this way than the perennial nasty gossip that is always circulating in Westminster.

So rumour-mongering bloggers have the remarkable achievement under their belts. They have actually managed to make court politics even more poisonous than it was. Yay! Go team!

There are other constraints on politicians. They have various codes of conduct that they have to sign. There is the poxy Commissioner for Standards in Public Life.

Councillors, in particular, are gagged in about nine ways. And they have the odious Standards Board to contend with as well.

David Milliband may have dug into the public purse to pay for his blog, but the constipators are out in force there, stopping him from saying anything very interesting. Indeed, the constipators are everywhere these days, it seems.

So instead of this narcissistic spitting, perhaps we bloggers could ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Does our ability to spread malicious gossip make the world a poorer place? Probably.
  • Do we need a code of conduct? Probably not. There are other ways to skin this particular cat.
  • Would it work anyway? Definitely not.
  • Could we be contributing to the quality of public life more than we are? Yes. Certainly.
  • How? Ah! Now there's a question. Why didn't you ask that one instead of all of this bollocks about a code of conduct?
And if your answer to the penultimate question (above) is that you couldn't care less about the quality of public life, and that it is not the job of bloggers to fix a political culture that is fraying at the edges, then please.... please.... just fuck off. I've heard it all before and I'll delete your tedious comments if you decide to leave any.

That's my code of conduct.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The high standard of public debate

The prize for the most telling response to the Tim Toulmin /Alistair Campbell dialogue and call for a 'blogger code of conduct' surely goes to Chicken Yoghurt. His response is that the blogosphere....

"...hasn’t yet orchestrated a propaganda offensive (in both senses of the word) that contributed to the deaths of 655,000 people. What’s more offensive, a sweary blogger or a Deputy Prime Minister who can’t keep his hands to himself?"

Let me translate that for you.

"Why should I tidy my room when the world is in SUCH a MESS!"

Never...

Luke has tagged me with this. Sorry it took so long. It's not really me. I'm not much of a 'never' type. But I've had a go.

I will never...

  1. Trust a hippy
  2. Knowingly eat a mushroom. Or an aubergine.
  3. Be interested in cars in general or motor racing in particular. Or tennis.
  4. Be able to tolerate music that I don't like. Some people seem to be able to ignore it. I can't.
  5. Own a dog. Or have any time for one of the stupid smelly little bastards.
  6. Enjoy drinking champagne.
  7. Actually get to the bookies and back the triumphant outsider that I genuinely believed would be placed.
  8. Spend even a fraction of the time listening to or playing music that I would like to.
  9. Offer anything more than strained civility to posh people.
  10. Start smoking again. Packing up was hard enough.

And what will I not never do? Well, I'll try to never succumb to pessimism, misanthropy, negativism, nihilism or cynicism.

But then again, what's the point? Why bother? All of these attitudes appear to be endemic these days anyway. And it's getting worse. If you want to wallow in this mire, suit your poxy selves.

All of you.

I'm supposed to tag ten other bloggers with this, so here they are. This one has been going around a while, so I suspect that they've already declined other similar tags.
Sandwell Bob, Brockley Bob, Poor Mouth, Andrew K B, Skuds, Panderson, Scribbles, Ivan, Col and McG.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Open minded on all fronts

I'm sure if it's not bad form to urge visitors to go over and vote for yourself at the Bloggers4Labour Blog Awards.

So I won't do it.

Nor will I make the argument that all decent Labour-supporting bloggers could use this opportunity to cock a snook at Iain Dale.

Having omitted NTaH from his 'Top 100 Labour Bloggers' book, on the 16th September, he told Antonia's commenters that he had never heard of this blog.

Clear evidence of him never having heard of the blog can be seen in the comments on this post the previous July. It would be wrong of me to urge you to select this as the best blog (or indeed the best 'Community Activism' blog) simply on the basis that it will somehow annoy Iain Dale.

I'm sure that it wouldn't annoy him at all to have the 'Best Labour Blog' missing from his poxy book just because it was rude about him.

;-)

I am considering my votes at the moment, but I'm minded as follows:

Best Blog: Modesty is the best policy. Couldn't possibly confirm rumours.... voting is a private matter, etc
Best Newcomer: Freemania
Best Blogging Personality: Andrew Brown or possibly Luke Akehurst - for his cussedness if nothing else.
Best elected representative: Brother Bob - though Antonia deserves an hon. mench as well.

It would be ungracious not to select Bloggers4Labour for best use of technology. It does everything that a hub such as this should do.

Under normal circumstances, Andrew Brown's 'Someday I Will Treat You Good' would also be the perfect choice for 'Best Community Activism'. I am, for some reason, tempted not to vote for him this time. In fact, I think that his blog has got frankly shoddy on the 'community activism' front lately. No offence intended Andrew. ;-)

Best non-Labour blog?; Well, Dave's new site is very good indeed, but Chris Dillow's Stumbling & Mumbling probably deserves a 'best blog in the UK' award all to itself.

And remember, if you want to annoy Iain Dale, there are better ways of doing it than voting for him in the 'Wooden Spoon Award'. He'll only take it as a compliment.

On the other awards, I'm still looking at them. I've not voted yet. Anything could happen.

So, off you go. Do your duty.

Well fuck-a-duck!

Burch: Effortlessly talking less bollocks than Spiked does


"This week, 'Spiked!' blows the lid off the Alexander Litvenenko conspiracy. No, we don’t know who killed him either. But we do know that the hysteria radiating around the ex-spy’s death is symptomatic of a culture poisoned by fear, conspiracy-mongering and a loss of nerve."


Who would have thought that Spiked! would take that line?

Do they have actual people writing these standfirsts? Or have they just written some kind of script that imports a story from elsewhere, adds one part negativism, two parts cynicism along with an allegation that we are browbeaten by a scaremongering elite?

A bit like the Burch generator? At least you can agree with something the Burch generator says sometimes.

Herd of independent minds

One sentence. Lifted from here:
"Well-informed cynicism is only another mode of conformity."

If you could put a tune to that, you could sing it.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Best in the world

What do you think the best stuff in the world is? According to this, candidates include "Slayer!" and "Peeing when you really really need to go"

I don't know if the decency police got involved, but "sex" isn't there. "Doggy-style" is though - if you look hard enough. Er, someone else found it and pointed it out to me, obviously.

And, unsurprisingly, for a Web 2.0 thingy, "masturbation" is also there. "Ecstacy" (a tedious hippy drug that promotes bad music) is there, whereas Speed / Coke (the opposite) are absent.

How did that happen?

There are other, slightly more worthy, versions of this. *yawn*

Here, Matt links to the Economist Intelligence Unit Index of Democracy - a document that I have a number of beefs with. Is the US really "more democratic" than the UK? I'd suggest that this report isn't geared up to look at how democratic practices do / don't promote optimal policy outcomes. And the bidding war for campaign finance in the US, surely, means that no-where in the EU should be lower than they are. Apart from Italy, obviously.

And the other day, I linked to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. Other candidates I've found since I started blogging are when Pam Bone argued that secular societies are the best in the world. And, if this quote from Mancur Olsen is to be believed, countries that have powerful elected politicians (as opposed to the wimps we have in the UK) are good places.

Polly argued (and for once, I'd agree) that societies that have a high 'safety net' are the best in the world. Nick Cohen made the point, convincingly, that societies without posh people are alright as well. Countries where the Education systems don't have league tables are not to be sniffed at, and we should all want to live somewhere that more people are happy.

The thing is, Scandinavia may be as wonderful as all of these indicators suggest. But surely a bit of sun would be nice as well?

Maybe climate change can fix that as well.

Friday Vibes

This is Rabih Abou-Khalil, a Lebanese Oud player with some others. You should listen to this.

The future of Trotskyism

"...the trouble with Trotskyists is that 99% of them give the rest of us a bad name."

Dave's confessional is worth a look.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Devolution v independence

Shuggy on Simon Jenkins:


"As for his cant about the 'will of the people', I can't bring myself to discuss it except to insist that this writer who is so fond of quoting De Tocqueville and Burke should cease to do so forthwith because clearly he has understood neither. That he has found a home in the Guardian is entirely fitting."
Read the rest.

If Jenkins wasn't such a Tory populist, he'd benefit from a glance at this post on The New Economist about politics and fiscal decentralisation.

So, Simon, devolution is the answer. Not independence. Oh, and that's what a Labour government has done - up to a point, anyway.

All of this reminds me of another draft post that I've not published because the world isn't ready for it yet. It's entitled "Why the Republic of Ireland should be invited to rejoin The Union on new terms."

There is a case to be made for this.

Restatement and throat clearing

"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed - but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." - The Third Man

For a while now, I've had a post in my 'drafts' folder that I'm unusually nervous about. Not because it's got much in it that I wouldn't be prepared to defend, but because it is an argument whose time is yet to come.

I promised a 'defence of boss politics' a while ago.

But my experience on the wireless the other day reinforced something that has bothered me for a long time. If you say - in public - that "this country isn't particularly corrupt", you will be greeted by a gale of incredulous laughter.

Or at least you will from the chattering classes. From the watching Newsnight classes. From the audience for 'Have I Got News For You' or the people who still buy newspapers for anything other than the TV listings and the racing page.

Yet, if you look at the Transparency International Corruption Index, you will see that the only places that are perceived to be more corrupt than the UK are places where there are actual recorded clinical cases of people dying of boredom.

And, as the survey is based on perception, if you were to cross-reference this with any index that someone could draft showing how negative, dishonest and cynical journalists are in particular countries, I expect that it would be reasonable to conclude that this table actually exagerates the UK's corruption.

Yet, if you were prone to conspiracy theories, you could, particularly in a moment of feeble-mindedness, be convinced that a steady programme of brainwashing has happened in this country. By a drip-drip process, the public have been convinced that we are politically corrupt.

But why would anyone do this? Why would any bastard child of P2, Opus Dei and ZOG go to the trouble of deluding an entire (chattering) population in this way?

Well, a conspiracy-buff could surely suggest that the brainwashing has been done by a vile alliance of civil servants and management consultants? Because, as long as we are all watching little Nick Robinson with his silly glasses and childish narratives, we are ignoring the log in the lavatory.

This is, by the way, not just a beef with the mainstream meeja. It's also a challenge to comrades on the blogosphere - to Recess Monkey, Guido, Tim, Iain, and sites like British Spin to name but a tiny percentage of blogs that are ignoring the wood because of their focus on the trees.

They are missing the unavoidable fact that, at every level, we are subjects of a deeply incompetent bureaucracy that is getting worse by the day. That any of us that do still beleive in progressive taxation and a welfare safety net have had our fox well and truly shot, buggered and wee-weed on by the way that huge increases in public spending since 1997 have done little to diminish poverty or improve public services.

And if you don't beleive me, have a look at what Bryan Appleyard has found ...*drumroll*... that when you pay someone to tell you the time, they get to keep your watch.

The £70 billion figure quoted here itself sounds like a bit of demagogic simplification to me. But, even if the real figure is a fraction of that, it blows all of the arsewipery about 'cash for peerages' / Cowboy Suits out of the water. For ever. If there is a real scandal in this country, it is that the incompetent fuckwits in Whitehall are handing over public goldmines to incompetent fuckwits in management consultancies, under a largely silent blanket.

Note, by the way, that Appleyard's article (primarily about the way that the arse-covering from senior civil servants' conspires with territorial ambitions of useless consultants) is entitled 'Blair's Barmy Army.' He can probably blame the sub-editors for this.

Sub-editors are, of course, a weather-vane on matters such as this. And this begs the question: Is this obsession now so endemic in the media that they are no longer capable of observing any phenomenon without making it primarily a Westminster issue?

Either way, the perception that we are corrupt is feathering a lot of pretty worthless nests. And because I beleive in cock-ups and not conspiracies, I'll not be suggesting it to Dan Brown as a plot-line.

But surely there must be a case to made that the obsession with graft in public life is cruelly undermining any pertinent discussions about how the country should be run? Is the world ready for a 'Defence of Boss Politics'?

I wonder.

(Hat tip for Appleyard's article and sundry encouragement to S&M)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Packing up

Allen Carr is dead. From lung cancer of all things.

His book is the only decent self-help book I've ever read. It's virtue is the way it's written - badly. You have to go through the frustrating process of reading him say something he's already said rather clumsily a few times to get to the end of the book.

This is an experience that visitors to this blog will probably have experienced a few times. By the time you've finished, his message has dripped into your soul.

It worked for me, anyway.

When I smoked, I detested sanctimonious ex-smokers, and his book makes the case that it is counterproductive to moan at smokers anyway. And that there's no point in trying to convince someone to stop smoking in the first place. And that patches and chewing gum are all a waste of time and money.

I stopped because I wanted to. I always seemed to have a cold, and the constant urge to light-up was just getting too inconvenient. When smokers ask me about packing up, I always say that you should only pack up if you really want to.

If you don't want to, you can't anyway. So why bother?

Artpod

Artpod
Via Ivan

To whom it may concern

You've heard of green-ink letters? Here is the hypertext equivalent.

And here is the autobiography. And here is a remarkable account of Mrs Thatcher's time in office.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The right to bear arms

The Uzi 'Decentraliser'. With any luck, Gordon Brown will agree to issue these to regional assemblies shortly.

Dizzy is not happy about the cost of Regional Assemblies that aren't directly elected. It's not far short of £20m per year apparently.

I reckon that they are cheap at half the price. They could do with a bit more power and a higher profile, of course. They should be told that they can keep 50% of the money that they save by abolishing quangos and 50% of any money they can save by making local authorities procure things jointly.

And 50% of any money they save by poaching activities from central government. I say this because, as a rule of thumb, surely, local democratically elected assemblies (even constituent assemblies) are better than quangos or central government?

Oh yes, and they should be armed as well. With knives. And guns - like this nice little Uzi.

As the man said, guns for show, knives for a pro.

An Beal Bocht

Today's new blog of the day is The Poor Mouth. Good blog. Good name. Here's why.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Argue. Like crazy. With everyone. And never stop. Ever.

Peter Withe (pic from Uglyfootballers.com). Bob Piper thinks he is the best striker that Forest have ever had. This picture gives you a clue as to why.

Move your bookmarks. Bob Piper has re-done his blog and moved it to his own domain - www.bobpiper.co.uk -

If anyone has the 'inner blogger' it's Bob. I agree with about 50% of what he says most of the time, but I'd sooner have someone like him as my Councillor - or MP for that matter - than some smarmy buttoned up poker-face who tries to create the impression that they agree with everyone about everything.

There's an old rule-of-thumb that I apply. It is an inversion of the commonplace that - whenever you hear someone slagging someone else off behind their back – the same person will probably slag you off as soon as your back is turned.

In my case, whenever I meet someone who seems to agree with me about everything, they will probably create the same impression with everyone else. Which means that they'll never really be prepared to stand up for anything they do believe in.

So. Earn the trust and respect of the next person you speak to. Tell them that they are talking a load of bollocks. Like Bob is about Peter Withe.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Who appoints?

As I've said before, the New Generation Network's rejection of communalist politics is a good thing. And their distain for 'community leaders' is particularly welcome.

But how does one attain the status of 'community leader' in the first place? What is the process whereby someone qualifies for the status of a 'representative' because they take the most uncompromising and incendiary positions in public debate?

The communities concerned are probably not to blame. And politicians are fairly venal types - they tend to deal with people that they perceive as having power, of one kind or another. So who provides these people with the power?

Answers on a postcard please to the Society of Editors.

Follow the links


Not having looked at a blog I used to check regularly, I missed this - until now.

A Bang and A Wimpy from 'Pillows and Prayers' at the Ingrate. Have a look and follow the links.

Also from there, 'Buy Nothing Day'. Are there any exceptions for Forest v Millwall tickets?

Grist for the mill

Eric has found some demagogic simplification on Radio 4. On the Moral Maze! Who'd have thunk it?

Friday, November 24, 2006

God, books and juggling balls

Just when I finally give up checking Tom's blog for new content, he's back with a bang. Have a look at this post on Richard Dawkins, the alleged uselessness of religious studies, and how substituting the word 'literature' for 'theology' foregrounds stuff.

The only thing I have to say on the subject is that Dawkins proved he was a philistine when he said how much he admired 'The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.'

Possession of this book is a bit like owning a copy of a Scissor Sisters CD. On the day of the revolution, it will get you shot. And you will deserve it.

Apropos of nothing, (apart from the link being in Tom's comments) Wongablog is right. Watching someone juggling balls in an inverted glass cone is strangely soothing.


Collective nouns and 'regendering'

The Thimble has a 'collective noun campaign' going on.

Here's mine:

"A whinge of teachers"

(Via Freemania)

Meanwhile, I saw this on Stroppybloke ... er, sorry, Stroppybird's site. Some people really have got too much time on their hands.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Your descent

Is The Skids' 'The Saints are Coming' the finest post-punk moment of them all?

It's hard to say. But it's possible.

And is it annoying that U2 and Green Day have done a supergroup charidee cover of it?

The answer to that question is a bit easier. Here's the original on TOTP.





That's Stuart Adamson in the background with one of those Yamaha SG1000s. Oh yes.

Against ID cards?

For me, the acid-test that most 'anti' lobbies fail is their ability to answer the question "what are you in favour of then?"

I'm not suggesting that every proposal should be met with a coherent and workable counterproposal on day one. But some evidence of a debate would be nice.

Take ID cards: This debate seems to generate a lot more heat than light. The starting point for many people appears that we have a fairly satisfactory settlement around privacy at the moment. When pressed, those same people will acknowledge that this is not really the case.

Any fule kno that The Man, with a bit of time and energy - would probably be able to piece together your movements, phone calls, personal finances and transactions, and use it in evidence against you. CCTV and imaging software combined with other commercial data can complete a detailed (in my case, tedious) picture. Put together with similar data about alleged associates of mine, then this could provide the kind of info that the Stasi would have envied. And if legal failsafes continue to be eroded and a more pernicious government were to succeed this one, this could form the thin end of a wedge.

Personally, I'm just as worried by the way that non-state actors can access this information. The Man isn't always The Man From The Ministry.

So, with ID cards, while all of my instincts tell me that, as a scheme, it should be opposed, I can't think of any other way to assert privacy rights over my identity. Unless it is defined in a robust and secure way, then we have something that is actually worse than the state having a monopoly of power. We have a situation in which anyone with a budget and a few lawyers can know anything they need to about me.

Sure, privacy campaigners will say that they can keep fighting on all fronts without any consolidated personal ID to protect. But that hasn't been the case so far. Generally, most of us don't seem to be able to identify and stop the initiatives that continue to cause our privacy to leak further. Or when we do, the utility - say, of having a cashpoint card, a mobile phone, e-mail or an Oyster card - over-rides our objections. The slowness of legislative processes mean that the law can provide little protection either.

As it happens, I'm inclined to think that ID cards may, eventually, have a similar appeal to the general public as mobiles / cashpoints / Oyster Cards have. Having one would probably save us all a lot of time and grief.

The man from the ministry who is in charge of this project says:



"Maybe we should start arguing the case that ID Cards will reduce the threat of the Surveillance Society and help safeguard civil liberties."
Maybe he has a point. I just doubt that this has entered the government's thinking yet. The first part of that sentence provides the clue:

"Maybe we should start arguing the case that..."

My mama always told me, "Son. Beware of post-hoc rationalisations."***

But if we are opposed to ID cards, what should we be in favour of instead?

(Via Europhobia)

*** This is a lie. She just told me to get to Mass on Sundays.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ken and the Olympics

More and more, Ken Livingstone gets on this blogger's tits in so many ways. But, apropos of my post about Arsenal v the FA yesterday, I think that he showed a lot more commonsense than most bureaucrats seem capable of in his plans for the Olympics, as outlined in an interview on the wireless today. He was particularly good on the way that government risk-aversion provides an open charter for public and private-sector incompetence.

I don't know how long this link will work, but I downloaded it as well, so if you need to hear what he said and can't access it, let me know.

Ken seems to know how to handle 'compliance' so that it doesn't turn into a blank cheque for the private sector or a job creation scheme for civil servants.

That said, I've just completed a piece of documentation that his office require me to do before I can apply for the privilege of working with the GLA, and it contains more irrelevant and onerous questions than you could shake a stick at.

New Generation Network

A good idea. A bloody awful title though. For some reason, it evokes images of '80s 'power-baladeers' such as Bonnie Tyler.

But, despite that minor criticism, it will be interesting to see how it develops. The stuff on representation is absolutely excellent, of course.

1) An end to communal politics
As Britons we want to be treated not as homogenous blocks but as free-thinking citizens with diverse views. So-called community leaders and race-relations experts should be seen as lobbyists not representatives. They do not have a democratic mandate to represent anyone.

I'm not sure that I agree with everything in the preamble. One person's 'dog-whistle politics' is someone else's fair comment. I'd like to see an acknowledgement that communal politics excites reactions that are hardly surprising from mainstream politicians. Having said that, I doubt if I'll ever spend long defending John Reid from any charges anyone wants to throw at him.

And I'd be interested to see how points four and five .....

4) We believe in freedom of speech
Enshrined in free speech and free expression are the same civil liberties which have allowed minorities to sustain and develop their cultures, wear what they want, go on public demonstrations and challenge laws.

We call on the government to support freedom of speech in situations where extremists threaten artists and writers with violence. Its failure to do so is state multiculturalism at its most unpleasant and should be viewed as collusion with extremists. To tackle extremism we must allow diverse voices to speak out.

5) We are for respecting people's multiple identities
The right to combine mixed identities, which include culture, faith, ethnicity, religion and more is the essence of an open society. These rights must be underpinned by a common citizenship which protects our rights.

We call on government to fund programmes giving new immigrants the language skills they need to participate in civic society and be more self-empowered. This is the primary way to ensure gaps can be bridged between different communities.

Proud of our strong identities, we aim to be free in voicing concerns about repressive cultural practices, corruption within religious institutions and forced marriages.


... will be interpreted the next time a classroom assistant is asked to remove a veil, or a newspaper decides to print a cartoon featuring The Prophet.

Perhaps these questions are left open for now by point six?

6) A new national conversation about race
Media organisations need to do considerably more to inform themselves about and to tune into the debates going on within multi-ethnic Britain today. Too often, extreme and highly unrepresentative voices are presented as authoritative or representative in part due to the shock value they provide.

All broadcasters have a particular responsibility to create the space for the much richer national conversation that we need.


The conversation is an important one. Probably the worst time to discuss the Mo-Toons or the veil is when events turn the heat up under the subject.

Watch and learn.

'Free Jimmy' - the trailer.

Ta Charlie.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

And another thing...

Well, going on Resonance FM was good knockabout fun. As ever, I managed to make every point that I intended to perfectly.

To myself, on the bus home.

On this blog, I routinely use the term 'clown' to refer to those who are obsessed with Westminster gossip. I should explain this properly, in case anyone mistakes it for an insult. In rodeos (or is it bullfights?), whenever some rampant animal looks like it is going to knock anything over, a bunch of clowns are paid to run out and distract it.

And this is the role that the lobby correspondents (and my two colleagues on the show) fulfill.

The one point that I probably did get across - in a roundabout way - is that anyone who believes that this is a particularly corrupt country is probably - clinically - bewildered. We should be offering them our pity, not our scorn. But if we have one major problem in this country, it is not corruption - it is official incompetence. Incompetence on a massive, profligate scale. It's the old cock-up v conspiracy theme - and the smart money is always on the cock-up.

Exposing bureaucratic incompetence is a lonely task. As Gilbert & Sullivan put it, 'a policeman's lot is not a happy one.' It is hit-and miss, and few newspapers will ever fund the necessary investigation when they can sell papers with cheap gossip. If anyone were ever to put the work in, they would be sure to find Guido, the Monkey, or one of the usual suspects jumping up and down, screaming "OO-oo! Over here! Look! An irrelevant Lib-Dem is being pooed on by a rent-boy! John Prescott is playing Croquet! In the afternoon! And he's been given a cowboy suit!!!" Whenever a massive cock-up could come to light, there's an army of little beasties crawling around looking for a conspiracy.

That's what the clowns are for. The unwitting pawns of civil misdirection. And they don't even get paid for it!

Heh heh.

**********

Another one of the regular themes on this blog is the way that, when people are given a bit of space on the media, they simplify and overstate their arguments in order to attract attention to themselves.

Annoying, isn't it?

The Voice of NTaH

This evening, I will be arguing with Guido and Recess Monkey about this on the wireless – Resonance FM 104.4 at 6.30pm today.

There will be a podcast available afterwards as well - here.

Tune in, one way or the other whydoncha?

Does 'public accountability' rule out win-win negotiations?

How come Arsenal can build a lovely stadium for £357m, have it ready on-time and on-budget (as far as I know) within a fairly short period of time, but the FA can't even guarantee that the 2007 FA Cup Final will be played at the new Wembley Stadium - nearly seven years after the (now) £757m project was commenced?

Is this because....

  1. No-one really beleives the FA when they say that they can't bail a project out - after all, they will never go bust. So suppliers will always take the wee-wee out of clients that have some kind of public status
  2. Businesses are a just lot better at managing projects such as this than public / quasi public bodies. Full. Stop.
  3. Public bodies are subject to a standard of accountability that stops them from negotiating win-win contracts.

Are there any other common explanations that I've missed here? And is no 3 (above) a common explanation?

I ask this, because it strikes me as a very credible one that is rarely discussed. Tim Worstall is usually very entertaining on the subject of public-sector incompetence, but I've not seen him discuss the win-win issue before. Maybe I missed it?

Monday, November 20, 2006

FOI fisking

A quick question.

Should judges use Freedom of Information legislation to fisk ministers?

I'm not sure what I think about this yet.

Taylor - not that little

A cyberpunk yesterday. All of us 'net-heads' look like this y'know.

Apologies in advance for the following screed. There are a lot of internal links to previous posts. It's just that a senior public figure has decided to touch on a subject that I've wanted to see aired for a while.

Chris is wrong. Matthew Taylor is not an arrogant little twerp. He's actually quite tall.

And Iain Dale says, in response to Taylor, that he is shrill and proud of it. This is because he is as wrong as Taylor is about how the internet is impacting upon politics.

Dale and Taylor are both hostages to the farcical perspective that the mainstream media take on public life. Dale is simply engaged in a race to the bottom with the the Westminster lobby, promoting the blogosphere as some kind of online version of US Talk Radio. And I don't believe that Taylor's view is based upon any immersion in the blogosphere either. I suspect that the nearest he gets is the odious 'Comment is Free' project.

My experience of the blogosphere is one of finding perspectives that are entirely unrepresented in the MSM - and ones that Taylor would be very glad to see discussed in the irrelevant newspapers that he reads.

Perspectives such as that found in the Euston Manifesto - surely* the first effective political movement to grow out of the blogosphere (apart from those that have an obvious tech perspective such as the anti-RIP bill / ID cards lobby).

If Taylor wanted to look at the place in the UK where politics can quite literally be a matter of life and death, he could look at the way that Slugger O'Toole has created a space that none of the newspapers would be capable of occupying.

Or on a mass-organisation front, he could look at the pro-immigration marches in the US earlier this year.

And if he wants an example of shrill public discourse, he can look at Talk Radio, the BBC Question Time, lots of Newsnight's 'specials' or any of the idiotic phone-ins on daytime radio. When he complains about 'incommensurate' demands from an infantilised public, he can reflect on who is doing the infantilising here. It isn't the blogosphere - it's the unholy pact between centralising politicians and the demagogic simplification of the national press. It is what passes for satire these days. All of these are well-established forces.

It seems that he doesn't realise that his time at No.10 may have been wasted. He could have been arguing for the destruction of this pact. Again, there is a programme that could be followed which I should be too modest to link to. Anyway, I've said this plenty of times before.

But one interesting feature of Taylor's perspective is his caricature of libertarianism. It seems to be one that is more based in fiction than in any real observation. He conflates the term with a Stirnerite version of 'individualism' and then draws upon stereotypes that appear to owe more to cyberpunk novels than any real observation.

Individualism and libertarianism are not the same thing. The internet is not necessarily a cause of increased individualism either. When I get a moment, I'll try to compose a post about individualism in dystopian literature. It can encompass cyberpunk and the work of James Ellroy - both of them feature stock characters that are brutal, physically robust, amoral and very clever indeed.

Ellroy's lot are situated in the 1950s and 1960s. The small amount of Cyberpunk that I've read tends towards a period about 50 years hence. And it's all bollocks. At least Ellroy writes compelling bollocks. But this vision of the future is one that is no more realistic than the novels themselves.

*Pootergeek said this first, though not online I think?

Update: One other thing: George Osborne MP has the text of a speech up on this subject. It's the standard fare for a political speech - fairly directionless and idealistic. But it's got some very useful data in it if you're ever looking for some shorthand ways of explaining this subject.