mil

I'm a Labour Party member, love the Internet, have worked as a volunteer on OpenOffice.org, am a trained editor, speak Spanish fluently and wish I could speak Croatian. I also find myself thinking, reading, writing, publishing and teaching for a living - and this blog serves to tie together these activities as I try and make sense of the world. I do hope you like some of what you read here - and may even consider leaving a comment or two!

Aug 012014
 
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We live in horrible online public spaces – even as our private lives may contain in equal and respectful parts the beauty, sadness, love and fear, natural and appropriate to the curiosity that is this planetary existence of ours.

So whilst I’m having a wonderful time at home with family and friends, with good food and drink, with affection and humanity and everything that relates to being a good human, every time I sign on to my Twitter and Facebook accounts, speckling (inevitably it would seem) the thoughtful and even inspiring in a way that reminds one all too soon of a flock of malevolent birds – or maybe even a Petri dish of bacterial growth – I see the awful things that are happening out there, and – then – wonder, at a loss for better or more useful words, simply “Bloody bloody hell!”.

Meanwhile, Israel proceeds to bomb Gaza furiously, and Hamas proceeds to fire rockets just as hatefully … and I read reports of Israeli snipers repeating the terror of the Balkans in the 1990s … and children die and women bleed and men are corralled in that part of humanity that only deserves partial dismay when their deaths are duly reported because, as men, they are (perhaps) somehow more to blame for this tragedy (even as they are entirely innocent too – even those who belong to duly constituted armies) … and so we realise to what extent our natural shorthand in the face of complex situations has disintegrated into a moral idiocy of revolting proportions: an idiocy which assigns no virtue to any position held by anyone still able to effect anything, never mind those of us who look on from afar.

Yes.  We move very quickly from cautiously prejudging the world around us – in order to be able to understand it better and in time – to forming layers of prejudice around those other occasional, and ultimately immensely damaging, prejudgements which emerge from a dark and painfully reactive emotion.  Like cancerous oysters surrounded by and embedded in a blandly clever rhetoric, we erect upon foundations of cack-handed and half-baked thinking entire strategies of self-justification – a self-justification which allows us to acquire any number of permanent badges of courage, and continue to wear them whatever the implications or circumstances.

Prejudging the world is a necessary summary of what happens around us.  We do it all the time.  We look at a person’s face and then draw conclusions and, if the conclusions are fortunate, we continue the conversation, adapt our initial impression and come to a fairer, more accurate, understanding of what we are engaging with.

But in extreme conditions – conditions such as the Balkans, now Gaza, a fairly unreported Syria, a confusingly reported Ukraine, a whole host of depressing moments and conflicts – there is no time to do anything more than rapidly, and often cruelly, form a prejudice out of a prejudgement.  That person’s face is behind a rifle crosshair; that uniform signals “enemy”; and so the dynamics of civil conflict kick in like the destruction of a RORO vessel: the seeping of water into one side of a craft suddenly becomes a gush of slippery liquid knocking sideways and upside down all opportunity for stability – or, even, in the case of all-out war, all embarrassed chance of a gingerly outstretched seeking of dialogue.

Dialogue.

Dialogue.

Dialogue.

Without dialogue, we are not human.  This is why our political class now is inhumane.  The most it ever achieves these days is a pasty-faced process of heavily circumscribed “listening”: no obligation to take any notice; no requirement to register the results publicly; no inclination to do more than spin the opinions of the many into the poverty of thought of the very powerful few.  But true dialogue, a true exchange of positions, a true equality of hierarchy, a peer-to-peer set of relationships if you like … of this we have none; of this no government – nor, indeed, authority of any note – cares to believe in and sustain.

And now I read in the Guardian that (the bold is mine):

Antisemitic hate crime rose by more than a third in the first six months of the year and spiked to a five-year high in July, figures show.

The Community Security Trust, which records attacks on the Jewish community in the UK, found there had been a 36% rise in antisemitic incidents, including violent crime and vandalism, to 304 between January and June. This was followed by 130 incidents in July alone, which coincided with the Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

The story goes on to describe the fear the community, also innocent, is experiencing as the ghosts of European anti-Semitism begin to rise from the graves of the millions who died at its hands.  Florid language, yes … OK.  Maybe it is.  But the situation is both fearful and ever-present.  For anti-Semitism is an oyster of permanence, buried but not crushed, hidden but not bowed.

As I said in my previous post:

But if I were the [Israelis], and prone to giving unbidden advice (I don’t generally, so forgive me this one time), long-term I’d fear far more a resurgence of European anti-Semitism than a cack-handed post-war anti-solution of a relationship with the Palestinians.

And if you think this is beyond all bounds of realistic possibility, just contemplate the following scenario: an underground of neo-Nazis, for decades unable to convince a wider population that its prejudices relating to the Jews in Europe were anything but prejudices, suddenly, and in a highly social-networked way, grabs hold of a complex and miserably visceral situation which most Europeans can only protest about.  Imagine what could be done with such an emotionally explosive situation – a situation which lends itself so easily to the prejudgement I was talking about above.

(A gentle by-the-by on the way too, if you will: compare and contrast, if you do remember anything, what happened in the Balkans – much closer to our European homes.  Compare the urgency with which people took to the streets to defend and protect the innocent.  Compare what was done to Sarajevo’s plural community.  Compare how level killing-fields were not to be permitted.  Compare how everything was kept isolated for so very long, whilst Europe failed to decide how to deal – once more – with a home-made genocide; a genocide on its doorstep.)

I used to argue the following: “It doesn’t matter where the opinion comes from – judge instead the intrinsic value of the words in question.”  I’m not so sanguine now.  Words have a history; phrases form out of the prejudgements in question; and prejudice comes from borrowed points of view, often violently bolted together.  We cannot isolate from the mouths of those who speak, or the fingers of those who write or type, the words that issue forth.

Words can be bullets – fired by snipers of clever and accurate intent – just as easily as any piece of deadly lead.

And whilst the Israelis are committing serious offences against humanity, there is a trail of complicity and criminality on many sides which makes the acts of war being carried out in the world today little more or less than a cultural DNA we all share.

The damaged genes we all carry – and sometimes exhibit in our families and personal environments, as well as on world stages – have also made the body politic and social what it is in these terrible moments.

So as we try to unravel where it went wrong, the only easy prejudgement that doesn’t fall into the prejudice we should always try and resist is to say the innocent bear no single nationality at all – as do neither the culpable.

For what I fear most, of course, is if this democratically-elected Israeli government – in the confusion of easy latterday socially-networked prejudice – succeeded in convincing a significant number of Europeans that an excuse to “hate the Israelis” (the codification process going on would be clear, I think) was actually a reason.

The pain, for me, with Spanish Jewish blood in my family, would be overwhelming.  That a determined 21st century government, through its actions one unhappy summer (whether imposed from without or initiated forcefully from within), managed to unravel everything good Europeans – both Jewish and otherwise – had worked for decades to remove from our sociopolitical and cultural agendas … and what’s more, this government was Israeli … and what’s more, its direct supporter was US … well, the irony with respect to those who truly saved the 20th century from oppressive European dictatorship would never be stronger.

I no longer know what to think.

And even so, this doesn’t stop me from thinking.  As yet, does it you?

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Jul 292014
 
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I love Us vs Th3m.  Consistently focussed on what’s web-interesting; occasionally rude in the nicest possible way; of late, perfectly innovative as anything on the Internet needs to be to have the right to demand our attention.

This piece, for example, on sinister-font usage is fabulous.  (And if you want a better gander at Portmeirion itself, I’ve got a few photos I took one glorious day we spent there.)  But whilst stories about evil typescripts may feed our playful paranoias, the fronts of the battles for other hearts and minds are being fought vigorously – maybe violently too – on the very same web.  And the battles being carried out are anything but playful – or benign.

Bob has a piece which – at least in my perception – carefully follows up an idea I saw tweeted the other day.  I think it went something along the lines of: “Criticism of Israel might not be a result of anti-Semitism, but it could quite easily lead to more anti-Semitism.”  Who bears the responsibility is complex, for me that is, but the reality is clear: in the scurry to condemn and criticise, the even-handedness of traditional mainstream journalism, of any journalism in the event, gets lost in the horror that reaches our screens.  The genocides of other decades have quietly been swept under the carpets of non-attention – meanwhile, that which is visible has us reaching for ancient prejudice.  The terrible outbreak of Ebola in Africa at the moment is one such example: whilst those who were dying were Africans themselves, the story has lain suppurating with little attention for months.  Now important aid workers of other nationalities are dying, suddenly the media empires decide it is time to let on, and so stories are getting published asking whether the disease could reach our shores.

Nothing like self-interest to provoke a wider interest.  (Now keep a pin in that idea – we’ll come back to it.)

I’ve also seen posted on various mainstream media the details of a public-relations document of US origin which the Israeli government spokespeople are apparently following “slickly” to the letter.  One of the issues raised is the “apartheid” the Israelis are pursuing: the assumption that Jews and Palestinians can never live together, nor must be allowed to.  As the term “apartheid” is anathema to the US body politic (quite rightly so, too – especially with the history of their own Civil Rights’ Movement to the fore), it would appear Israeli spokespeople are trained to sidestep the issue with methods of clever distraction.

As if no other government practised such reprehensible procedures.

In truth, the real apartheid going on here is that which separates history from the present.  And as history is such an interpreted medium of communication, the possibility – even when given the space it deserves – of confusion, disagreement and violent riposte was never higher than a latterday world of educated voters, operating equally sharply – and rhetorically (myself included) – in a socially-networked set of environments where the smart turn of phrase beats the sorry reality just about hands down every time.  As Bob’s piece shows us, “even” the mainstream media is manifestly not a Jewish conspiracy – but don’t let that get in the way of a rapidly retweeted gobbet of prejudice.

*

There is one more story, though, I’d like to focus on – before I finish this post: the new King of Spain has decided that members of the Spanish royal family must no longer have anything to do with the private sector.  In a sense, this is a curious move: after all, over the past few decades, the overriding political meme has been “public sector bad, private sector good”.  Why, then, all of a sudden, do the Spanish decide to swim (sunfully!) in the opposite direction?  They have, of course, had their own fair share of political, financial and social scandals, as the El País piece clearly shows us.  And in a sense, this is just another example of a kind of apartheid – a separating of two allegedly incompatible ways of being.

Is it good?  Should we criticise it?  Is it time for a sorry pendulum to swing back?  What exactly is going on here?  What part precisely has this suddenly resistible – yet once all-conquering – private sector got to be ashamed of?

*

One final concept to toss into the marmite, as a continuation of  the previous.  Maybe we could argue that at the root of all our conflicts right now, there is excessive blame being placed on people and cultures and a weak appreciation of the political, economic and social inefficiencies that the private-sector profit motive is delivering over a whole raft of human endeavours.  From the fronts of war to the apparently necessary financial apartheid of certain royal houses to the forgetfulness that so many of us exhibit with respect to history, it seems jolly obvious that compassion is being forgotten in the race to the lowest common bottom line.

And in all the conflicts I mention, compassion – alongside its kindly companions, forgiveness and redemption – shines through via its utter political and commercial absence.

So, where I would suggest that the Israelis may be going terribly wrong – these Israelis who manifestly fear a renewal of anti-Semitic dynamics, evidenced specifically in their asserting of an absolute control over their post-World War II homeland – is in assuming (I assume they assume, from their actions) that they have little to fear from the historical prejudices of Europe.  As I said the other day, anti-Semitism in Europe is in our cultural DNA.  And if they’re not careful with history – or with people and places from what we continue to hope were other times – then the fronts which begin to open up will become far more osmotic, widespread and difficult to understand (or, indeed, “tame”) than is currently the case.

Perhaps this is what the Israelis are looking to achieve.  It would certainly explain a lot.  Living in a permanent state of violent conflict is not good for the mindsets of anyone.  To bring this forcefully home to the rest of us would clearly be a plan: a good plan … well, I really don’t know – but a plan all the same, it could be.

But if I were them, and prone to giving unbidden advice (I don’t generally, so forgive me this one time), long-term I’d fear far more a resurgence of European anti-Semitism than a cack-handed post-war anti-solution of a relationship with the Palestinians.

In the light of 20th century history, anyway.

Wouldn’t you?

:-(

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Jul 282014
 
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Bit of a serious title today – but I think the topic is serious too.

Gordon Brown finished off an interesting article the other day with this phrase:

Girls should be able to study in a classroom, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.

The article was about the dreadful mass-kidnapping of girls in Nigeria by extremists.  It describes a situation which in no way is comparable to the UK.  However, even so, I am minded to remember these stories on the Big Society and compare and contrast in the following way.

For starters, when in 2012 David Cameron said the arrival of food banks proved the Big Society was putting its best foot forward – “First of all let me echo what he said about volunteers and people who work hard in communities, part of what I call the ‘Big Society’, to help those in need” (further observations six months later from the Guardian here) – I don’t suppose those he imagined to be in such desperate need were going to be his political and business sponsors and cronies.  But exactly this, so it turns out, would now seem to have been the case all along:

An investigation has begun into the use of taxpayer-funded grants by the charity set up to lead David Cameron’s “big society” initiative.

The Charity Commission was examining whether funding for a childhood obesity project was used to pay the debts of a linked company, the Independent reported on Saturday. The commission was also seeking more information on payments allegedly made for consultancy services to two directors of the Big Society Network (BSN) and its chair, Martyn Rose, a Conservative Party donor.

News of the investigation comes days after a public spending watchdog issued a critical report about how National Lottery and government funds were handed over to and used by the BSN.

I have to say I was suspicious of the Big Society idea and its concrete implementation from quite early on.  As long ago as 2010, I suggested that:

Meanwhile, as a secondary question to the thrust of this post’s thesis but of obvious relevance nevertheless, if it does rather more eagerly include the retired and semi-retired – curiously enough, those generally most conservative in outlook and interests – the question then will be why?

Thirdly, because any institution, community or nexus of people will lose its ability to stay free of corruption and its resulting inefficiencies, the more similar and alike its component parts become – something all of us should surely wish to avoid.  Yet, the profile – or ratio – of inclusion versus exclusion as described above would seem to suggest that the Conservatives do not anticipate giving everyone an equal handle on the levers of power.  And this is why I suggest the big society idea may lead to what I also called the Mediterraneanisation of our communities – where families and personal contacts are far more important and far more highly prized in the governance of our society than those transparent, and supposedly more objective, processes and procedures that belong to a more technocratic way of doing things.

So to come back to my initial question and add a second: is there evidence that the big society idea aims to exclude?  I would suggest that it is beginning to appear – would seem to be evermore patent, in fact, as the big society idea’s definition and coalescing inevitably allows us to better understand the ambush of ideas it has involved.

As a by-the-by, then, and in bloody irritating hindsight, it would seem that the aforementioned “ambush of ideas” – designed not only to forestall fears of the abandonment of compassion by the state and all its works (and that many of us suspected would be the case from 2010 onwards) but also to proactively fill the deep pockets of Cameron & Co’s ideological partners with the public dosh thus leveraged – was indeed sprung on us, for a precious four years during which the Tory right have operated with a calculated impunity.

Yet what is most galling about the whole process is that precisely this clicktivist activation of our democracy – from the efficient and hugely competent organisation of food banks to online petitions to virtual communities of mums, the disabled and the poorest in society, quite unwilling to take all this rubbish lying down – has been advertised by Cameron & Co as a demonstration of everything they’ve been looking to unleash in the British character.

Yes.  Despite the #gagginglaw, the #bedroomtax, the destruction of so many disabled support mechanisms, #DRIP’s appalling process and colluded agreement, the scapegoating of immigration, benefit recipients and the poorer in society in general, the destroying of the NHS, Legal Aid and other parts of the welfare state, the fiddling of unemployment figures and economic data and so much more … despite all of this, what’s been and what’s to come, we’re all supposedly so much freer than we were before because – precisely by the art of Coalition magic – we’ve all become incredibly engaged with the very essence of what it is to be a democratic citizen.  That is to say, the very fact that we’re demonstrating day after day is proof of the Coalition’s pudding of ideological wisdom and strategic ingenuity. 

And this proof I describe?  Where does it lie?

In the levels of activity that manifestly exist, of course.

No?

Well.

This brings me back to Gordon Brown’s conclusion that I quoted at the top of today’s post.  And here I paraphrase and amend slightly:

Democratic citizens should be able to participate in a society, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.

For that, dear reader, is where we stand right now.  There are levels of activity and levels of activity.  What Cameron & Co have done to our democracy is not to democratise, free up or unleash a natural instinct to participation.  If only that had happened, we wouldn’t be in the mess we currently find ourselves in.

No.  What Cameron & Co have done is transfer to a wider society, impose upon a broader citizenry and implement aggressively the destructive dynamics that all Westminster’s politicians eventually become accustomed to.  And whilst I’m sure Ed Miliband’s heart is in the right place when he suggests that people are bussed to Parliament to take regular part in a carefully controlled PMQs, created (I suppose) for the acceptable face of the voting populace and plebs out there, he really does need to go much farther than that: it’s not the people who should be allowed gingerly into Parliament but Parliament which needs rapidly to understand the noxious effect its traditions are having on a nation of once already sincerely participative and constructive subjects – people brought up to believe in collaboration, and who’ve been retrained in a sadly Pavlovian way to use “social-media screech” as a placebo for true political involvement and consensus.

Our democracy is not healthy at the moment, simply because so many of us are screaming our pain.  It will, however, of this I am sure, one day revert to a rude and welcome wellbeing when, finally, we get the political class we deserve – that class, I mean, which comes ultimately from the people themselves, and understands – from personal experience – that noise and communication are not things we should ever carelessly confuse.

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Jul 272014
 
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There’s a lovely and humane overview of robots and the subject of care-giving over at the Medium blogsite at the moment.  The dilemma it raises can be summed up in this beautifully succinct phrase early on:

Humans have only so many “irreplaceable” skills, and the idea that we’ll just keep outrunning the machines, skill-wise, is a folly.

The article goes on to explain how inhuman – where not inhumane – care-giving robotisation might be, suggesting that:

In my view, warehousing elderly and children—especially children with disabilities—in rooms with machines that keep them busy, when large numbers of humans beings around the world are desperate for jobs that pay a living wage is worse than the Dickensian nightmares of mechanical industrialization, it’s worse than the cold, alienated workplaces depicted by Kafka.

It’s an abdication of a desire to remain human, to be connected to each other through care, and to take care of each other.

Coincidentally, yesterday I finished reading a short story from an excellent collection of Isaac Asimov’s robot tales called “Robot Visions”.  I’ve been lending it from Amazon’s lending library for a while; my time to read mainly taken up by work on my PC.  Now I’m on holiday, I can return to my Kindle.

The story in question is called “The Evitable Conflict”, and – in a very socialistic sort of way (more along similar lines from yours truly here) – describes how hugely ingenious data-crunching Machines have been developed to perfectly organise and balance the different regions of the world’s economy.  Things begin to go moderately wrong in certain places: key people make the wrong sorts of decisions, projects then go off kilter – and as a result those responsible are suspected of petty subterfuge; even, as the story progresses, of possibly institutionalised sabotage.

In the end it seems clear that the Machines are more than data-crunchers, deliberately leading the key people in question to make the undeniable mistakes which will lead to gentle but nevertheless irrevocable sideways demotions.  As the Machines are hard-wired with the Three Laws of Robotics, they are unable to do anything which might harm a human being excessively, of course – but the interests of a wider humanity have clearly begun – in some way – to take a certain pride of place.

And so we humans, as individual figures, become tools to a greater goal: the maximisation of an economic system.

I don’t suppose that rings any bells.

For whilst the writer of the Medium piece, Zeynep Tufekci, is I think looking to avoid such a future submission of humanity to the machines that were throughout history thought to be – more or less – extensions of ourselves, I feel it is also clear – both from her piece and Asimov’s story – that even before such machines may manage to become cleverer than this humanity we currently are, other more powerful human beings than ourselves have systemically created economic constructs which force us to be extensions of an already pre-existing economic machine – instead of, radically (though hardly unreasonably, inhumanly nor inhumanely) the other way round.

If the robotisation of care-giving does continue to remove a human presence from the process – even where the robots themselves were to be indistinguishable from humans! – perhaps it will only be so easy to contemplate and accept because our economies and body politic, before any encroaching mass-robotisation is allowed to make it inevitable, have chosen to sustain the everyday submission of flesh-and-blood beings to the mandatory numbers of the technocrats; have, in truth, little by little pummelled us into accepting the future they want to await us.

And if one day we notice so little difference between a living nurse and a positronic one, it won’t only be because the positronic technology is so brilliantly engineered to fill their place – but also because, well before the positronics come along, the human nurses will already have been definitively dehumanised, along with maybe ourselves as patients too.  The robot engineers will be ingenious souls, no doubt about it – but their technocratic counterparts in politics and business, the opinion formers who make and shake our imaginations, wants, needs, products and services, will already have remade and redefined our worlds to the bespoke requirements of the technologists.

The maximum management of emotional expectations, in fact.

The evitable conflict – and how to fully transition from a historical humanity to a world at the service of the Machines.

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Jul 252014
 
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Here’s a batshit insane story, to quote from one of my Twitter acquaintances, Adrian Short:

Batshit insane Tory MP David Tredinnick wants more astrology in healthcare: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-28464009 …

And here’s the story he links to:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine.

David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work.

The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse.

The MP in question goes on to describe astrology as something with a “proven track record”.  Proven, I suppose, as much as Tory economics has shown itself able to serve the nation equitably.

But Short makes a follow-up comment which really does interest me:

Which makes me wonder how we regulate negligence and misconduct in medical astrology.

Considering that so much of what the public-sector NHS is now carrying out is under the immediate control and management of private-sector companies, and considering that clinical negligence has been taken out of scope of Legal Aid provision, you might very well ask the same question of traditional non-batshit-insane medicine: without emanation of the state, without Legal Aid, effectively you have a system built not only to enable wide-ranging freedoms for medical corporations to do as they wish but also for MPs like David Tredinnick – and the similarly curious – to bring to our GP surgeries such prejudice-based treatments.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d suggest that it was all part of a whole.  Instead, I’ll simply remind us that battles must be fought by those most affected.  And we are now clearly those most affected by all this prejudice.

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Jul 242014
 
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I’m finding it increasingly difficult to comment on a whole host of matters.  Even where I do manage to type out eight hundred words of thoughts, half of what I write is so carefully pre-edited as to make me feel the only thing I’m learning to do of late is self-censor my output more ingeniously.

#DRIP was so very shocking as an abuse of everything the British body politic has meant for me, ever since I’ve been conscious of it, that I clearly couldn’t do anything but express my considerable disagreement.  But other matters, many other matters, have me declining in some way or another to comment.

At the moment, I’m finding it particularly difficult to say anything cogent on the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Even my choice of overarching terminology – to use the word “conflict” for example – is bathed in a lack of personal liberty: what I should say, what I can say, what might be held against me by people I value – on the one side and the other; both those who are in favour and those who are against.

To be honest, in a way I’ve been here before.  When Iraq hit our screens (always our screens, always our disempowering predigesting mediated screens), I found myself – as now – in Spain.  I saw the world stage from the Spanish majority view; from the British people taking astonishingly to the streets; from the peaceful people who saw only the interests of oil.  At the time, many of us asked why this dictator and not a whole host of others.  If invasion was needed to topple Saddam Hussein, why not the evil inheritors of barbaric colonial rule in other parts of the world too?  Why not aim, at one fell swoop, to dedicate painful resources in order to make a coherent entirety of international relations once and for all?  Where was the logic in prioritising Saddam over so many other genocidal maniacs?

We can ask the same questions now, of course – perhaps, ironically, in reverse.  So many of us find ourselves knee-jerking our hatred for the actions of the Israelis in – again – this thing I gingerly call a “conflict”.  And so many supporters of Israel remind us of the millions of affected in other tragic areas of “conflict” such as Syria, Ukraine – or the forty-two Commonwealth countries where it’s currently a crime simply to be gay.  With all this horrible stuff going down in so many places, why do so many of us find it easy to concentrate on Israel?

Well.  Of course, Europe has a history of anti-Semitism.  It’s in our DNA.  I have Jewish blood – yet my grandfather, who had more Jewish blood than I, expressed – on limited occasions – certain vigorously anti-Semitic sentiments in my youthful presence.  He’d talk about bankers and capitalism from his point of view as a committed lifelong socialist, for example – in the same breath as worldwide conspiracy.  Even at that age, I remember the incoherence and wondered why it was happening.

So those who support Israel do have history on their side, when they ask why Israel is dominating the news and not (for example) Syria.  And this is where I come to the title and subject of my post.  Comment is no longer free – for the following reasons:

  1. Modern history is too complex to be commented on properly – except by those who have lived it, or those who belong to communities whose elders have lived it.
  2. Modern history is too unhappy to be understood properly – except by those who stand aside and look on from afar, and find themselves de-legitimised precisely because of their distance.
  3. Modern technology makes it very easy to pass judgement – it becomes incredibly simple to be incredibly facile.  I’m trying not to tonight in this post – and I know I’m going to fail.
  4. Modern technology lends itself to manipulation on all sides – I am sure I will say a lot less today about Israel, Palestine, Syria or Russia than I would like to, and exactly because I’m aware of forces beyond my ken which might decide to interfere with my voice.  Yes.  I’m a coward.
  5. That we believe comment is free, that everyone can pass judgement on almost anything, means that we join a myriad of causes – sometimes out of a common and understandable desire to prove to others what we would like to be interpreted as our shared integrity.  In some cases, certainly in mine, we collect causes like badges – in the end, forgetting completely that a cause can only really be truly fought by those who find themselves at their absolute wits’ end: in desperate need of salvation, it is true – but a salvation which can only properly come through their own hands and tools.

For I remember Iraq – blogging furiously against its confusion.  I remember more recently the #bedroomtax; the cruelty the British disabled were exposed to; the scapegoating of the poor for the grave errors of powerful elites.  And from both these moments I remember the conclusion I had to come to: the solution is not for me to take on your cause but rather, far more fundamentally and humanely, and where not humanely at least cogently, to ensure that you have an even chance to fight your own battles where you must.

“Level killing-fields is that?” I hear you ask.  “Maybe so,” I answer wearily.  Maybe we’ve progressed no further than the Balkans.  Maybe we are condemned to repeat ourselves.

But in the end, it is the act of tragic elites everywhere to believe we can intervene with a right and freedom to comment from on high.

Give people the tools to defend themselves – or take away the tools their opponents use to attack them.  But stop, right now, using broken bits of babies to further your socially-networked causes, any of your causes – any bloody where in this repetitively nasty world.

____________________

Update to this post, 25/07/2014: I’ve just read this article from Open Democracy on the background to Israel’s point of view.  It makes for interesting reading – where not contextualising reading.  The crimes being committed are serious, of course – but there is always another position.

And history too.

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Jul 242014
 
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Yesterday, I read this phrase quoted from Tim O’Reilly (the bold is mine):

We couldn’t agree more: “Technology should be about values with people at the centre” @timoreilly #OSCON2014 #OSCON

This afternoon, meanwhile, I read three amazing articles – all of which, in some way, may lead to a final fixing of our broken political process.

The first article is from Wired UK, and describes how the tech industry is leading to increasing inequality.  A lack of morality – manifested by the industry everywhere, as well as large corporations in all sectors since the beginning of capitalism – leads to “ordinary people” being forced out of their suburbs.  The wealth generated by workers, who with their interconnected technologies can set up business anywhere, soon distorts and deforms the social patterns and financial dynamics of every community they set their eyes on:

[...] The tech community has the ear of government, a lot cash and the skills to truly change the lives of people across the world. And while some do, like those building open software, along with proponents of the clean web and those trying to address human rights abuses in device manufacturing, the majority do not. US psychologist Paul Piff calls the growing detachment of the super-rich, simply, the “asshole effect”.

The second article comes from the Guardian back in June (again, worth reading in its entirety), linked to from the Wired UK report above.  And it asserts things like this – things I have failed to hear for a long time but which were music to my ears a naive decade ago:

So how does open source everything have the potential to ‘re-engineer the Earth’? For me, this is the most important question, and Steele’s answer is inspiring. “Open Source Everything overturns top-down ‘because I say so at the point of a gun’ power. Open Source Everything makes truth rather than violence the currency of power. Open Source Everything demands that true cost economics and the indigenous concept of ‘seventh generation thinking’ – how will this affect society 200 years ahead – become central. Most of our problems today can be traced to the ascendance of unilateral militarism, virtual colonialism, and predatory capitalism, all based on force and lies and encroachment on the commons. The national security state works for the City of London and Wall Street – both are about to be toppled by a combination of Eastern alternative banking and alternative international development capabilities, and individuals who recognise that they have the power to pull their money out of the banks and not buy the consumer goods that subsidise corruption and the concentration of wealth. The opportunity to take back the commons for the benefit of humanity as a whole is open – here and now.”

A perfect riposte to Google & Co’s Melian dialogues, I think.

The final article which – at least in my opinion – serves to build on the first two is this one from today, also published in the Guardian.  In it, Cory Doctorow suggests that the very tech which has corrupted further our politics can be turned round and used for and by the people to recover integrity.  As he concludes most powerfully (again, the bold is mine):

This threshold-style action system is at the heart of Kickstarter (pledge whatever you like, but no one has to spend anything unless enough money is raised to see the project to completion) and it’s utterly adaptable to elections.

In democracies all over the world, voting is in decline. A permanent political class has emerged, and what it has to offer benefits a small elite at the public’s wider expense.

We hear a lot from tech circles about “disruption” of complacent, arrogant and entrenched industries. Politics is the foremost example of such an industry and it’s overdue for disruption.

Incidentally, this afternoon a short Slideshare came my way.  I’ll embed it below so you can see that others are having similar thoughts:

And as an adjunct to all the above, back in 2012 I suggested this alternative to our first-past-the-post electoral system, where I said things like this:

This would clearly be a brand new electoral system – a system which depended heavily for its functionality on virtual-community technologies and multifarious software tools.  But it would also be a brand new electoral system entirely fit for a consensual and collaborative – that is to say, a coalition – age.  No longer would politicians have to triangulate their positions.  No longer would the electorate have to compromise when they voted.  In everything we began to do in such a body politic, honesty, sincerity and directness would become the definers of a completely new era in representative democracy.

*

To my final observation today.  We all know how “Citizen Kane” turned out, of course.  But maybe a “Citizen Kane 2.0″ could be worth pursuing.  Imagine that a campaigning paper of the history of an organisation like the British Guardian, say, decided that – with all its present online and virtual experience and activity – it might be able to do much more than freely comment the world’s events.  Initiate, proactively participate, manage, channel and forge a new politics as per some of the ideas contained in this post today … in particular with respect to what Doctorow proposes.  Now wouldn’t that be a fine and life-changing experience for not only the journalists and readers already involved – but also for the wider population of despairing citizens?

Reshape parliamentary process through the very technology that has so fiercely pwned – in the nakedly Melian terms I mentioned earlier – every step of 21st century governance as we have experienced it to date; reform the process of exchange and blur the lines of hierarchy intelligently between leaders and led, between the thinkers and the thought; and remake, finally, the balance of power amongst those who promise so much and those who are lied to so frequently.

A temptation too far?  Come on, you clever bods of the written word.  Remind yourselves truly: the pen is mightier than the sword.

(But in order to be so, it needs occasionally to be unsheathed …)

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Jul 232014
 
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Two bloody awful pieces of rubbish which came my way today.

Rubbish not because they themselves are rubbish.  Rubbish because they just had to be made.

The first is this brilliant website from Open Rights Group.  The video they crowdfunded is below.


http://youtu.be/60eKauWFFPk

It explains quite clearly the idiocy of British government Internet filter policy.

Meanwhile, from the current Kafkaesque world of UK control-freakery we find ourselves off to the US world of Original Sin 2.0.  In such a paranoid environment as the Intercept article portrays, you’re not only dangerous at the age of two but also way after death overtakes you.  And as it becomes for such terrified security professionals so easy to contemplate real-life terrorists assuming the identities of those now dead – those now dead but previously suspected of thought crime when still alive – anyone who ends up shuffling off their mortal coil in these paradigms will remain a potentially violent citizen forever.

And on his tombstone, may RIPP mean “Revolve In Pain and Perpetuity”.

The grand virtue (or disgrace, depending on your point of view) of the Intercept article is to publish the guidelines which determine whether you’re going to be on the list or not.  But since they’re so opaque, self-serving, anti-legible and – ultimately – downright inexplicable, I don’t suppose many of us will be much the wiser.  Except inasmuch as it does become jolly clear from the tenor of the reporting that few people will find it inconceivable they won’t be on the list one fine day.

Actually, I’m not sure if that last sentence means what I meant to say – it comes of reading too much 21st century bollocks.  No matter.  What I would now like to ask of the Intercept and its really cool team is whether it mightn’t petition the US government to start drawing up a list of people who aren’t potential terrorists.  That would be much easier to structure, implement and work with – and presumably wouldn’t require so much funding.  And, for sure, would allow the rest of us to forget the need to oversee the legality of what they’re doing with us.

After all, when the aforementioned concept of inescapable and automatic guilt becomes the state’s modus operandi, who needs anyone to administer the idea that we’re innocent until anything is proven?

Let’s, then, make that two things, the Intercept: first, encourage the American security sector to operate not with a list where to be a human being is, by default, to be dangerous (they’re already doing that) but, rather, to have just a simple couple of pages of those you can trust – citizens you can concentrate your time and energies upholding the Constitution for; and second, over the next couple of weeks (or months, if you prefer), publish some interesting stories about “regular” people – those ordinary souls who are deemed dangerous at two and forever risky after death; souls whose lives have been interfered with, intervened in and generally wrecked as a result of the unacceptably unreasonable inclusion on such wide-ranging lists as we have read today exist.

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Jul 232014
 
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I started thinking about the subject of journalism this morning, via a tweet from the always excellent Rob Manuel.  As often happens with what he sends round the ether, you smile, learn and continue to think once his thought passes you by.  This was the tweet in question:

Jon Snow has started doing gonzo journalism. http://blogs.channel4.com/snowblog/people-gaza-gracious-hospitable-condemned/24236 …

And this was the Jon Snow post he linked to.

And this is what he meant (I assume) by “gonzo journalism”:

Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word “gonzo” is believed to be first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. It is an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and it draws its power from a combination of both social critique and self-satire.[1] It has since been applied to other subjective artistic endeavors.

Gonzo journalism involves an approach to accuracy through the reporting of personal experiences and emotions, as compared to traditional journalism, which favors a detached style and relies on facts or quotations that can be verified by third parties. Gonzo journalism disregards the strictly edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for a more personal approach; the personality of a piece is equally as important as the event the piece is on. Use of sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and profanity is common.

I was reminded at the time, and thought this post was going to be mainly about that experience, of something that happened to me when I applied to go on the El País journalism course over a decade ago.  I passed the first stage, but failed on writing about how I saw journalism developing, feeling as I did that opinion needed to come in from the cold.  Later, on these pages, instead of demanding more hollowed-out opinion, I called it a need for more voices.

And so, as a result of Rob’s gonzo comment, I thought I might write something discursive and uncontroversial.

However, this afternoon – in the hervidor that is the self-same Twitter – a battle over journalistic probity between Owen Jones and James Bloodworth produced along the way this tweet from Max Shanly:

@J_Bloodworth @OwenJones84 Because all too often James you focus on the negative and ignore the positive.

Now whilst I’m pretty sure that at the moment of its sending, James’ tweeted reply suggested that journalism’s job consisted in focussing on the negative, as anything which focussed on the positive was the activity of the propagandist (ie Owen Jones), I’m darned if I can now find the phrase I’m sure he tweeted (and which I’m equally sure I also favourited).  And, to be honest, I can’t see any reason for him to be ashamed of the idea – certainly not enough to delete it from the web (if, indeed, that is what he did – in a world of subtle censorship and filtering, one can now never be sure exactly what one did see).  In part, I didn’t get onto the El País journalism course precisely because I wasn’t as rigorous as James clearly prefers to be.  Rigour of such a kind, even if unpopular, is hardly something to make one feel professionally disgraced.

Yet the position and its counterpoint are both worth pursuing.  Where we find ourselves in conditions as extreme as Gaza, perhaps gonzo journalism – the journalism of emotion, I mean – is the only reasonable, that is to say, the only moderately democratic, reaction and way forward.  The carefully weighed-up, predigested and moderated journalism of traditional media contains within itself a lot of information which is not communicated.  As a result, a journalistic elite, a hierarchy of power and centralised command and control, is inevitably erected over the readerships and viewers various – precisely because only the negative is worthy of being told.  The shit is encouraged to hit the fan – and so the journalists themselves become the fans of the shit.

It may be, then, that to focus on the positive could be the job of some propagandists, but to wallow in the negative as James (I think) seemed to want to – apart from anything else, in order to avoid any accusations of propagandism – is equally extreme; equally self-interested; equally falsifying of the reality we all experience.

The alternative could be the multiple voices of direct emotion that traditional journalism forcefully resists like a schizophrenic’s medication similarly aims to.  Voices which may multiply uncontrollably – but which may also serve to understand a mad world better.

For as I said a couple of years ago in my piece linked to above:

By allowing those most knowledgeable about such corrupting influences to speak from the heart instead of the pocket, from their own most private voices instead of their borrowed and acquired public positions, the darkness that has fallen over one of the pillars of our democracy may ultimately be cast aside.

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Jul 232014
 
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The Guardian reported around a day ago that:

Two leading Westminster civil liberties campaigners, David Davis and Tom Watson, are to mount a high court legal challenge to the government’s new “emergency” surveillance law, which was rushed through parliament last week.

The application for a judicial review of the new legislation, which was passed with support from the three main parties, is to be mounted by the human rights organisation Liberty on behalf of the two backbench MPs.

However, David Allen Green notes on Twitter that:

I understand the @libertyhq challenge to #DRIP is actually only to section 1 – and *not* the entire Act: https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/news/press-releases/liberty-represents-mps-david-davis-and-tom-watson-legal-challenge-government%E2%80%99s- …

Going on to explain that:

In other words, despite the news coverage, the Tom Watson/David Davis legal challenge is not to entire #DRIP Act but to one section of it,

It appears not one of the news reports on Davis/Watson legal challenge have noted that the challenge is not actually to entire #DRIP Act.

Meanwhile, yesterday I suggested that:

It’s a mistake to start by protesting about the content of #DRIP – far more important, and firstly, the really shocking part was process.

I’d love to have the money to take political leaders to court for undermining democracy, process and procedure. #DRIP

Truth is, whilst Gaza, Ukraine and other awful parts of the news have occupied the front pages over the past two weeks or so, and whilst Labour cheerleaders are happy to leave their human rights credentials to the dustbin of history, passing quickly onto other far more important issues such as internal Party unity, a serious matter is clearly not being fully aired here.  As I said in a previous post (the bold is mine today):

#DRIP, as a process, for me, is just one drop too far.  Politics, if it is anything meaningful in liberal society, is process.  But if the process is no longer liberal, the society is just bald dictatorship.  And that is precisely what we are getting here.  Government diktat in the absence of proper scrutiny:

And when even committed libertarians (libertarians in their own ways, that is true – but libertarians all the same) such as Watson and Davis limit themselves to challenging only a part of the result of dictatorship – obviating a rigorous analysis of the process they participated in (even if unwillingly, I am sure) – then the bald dictatorship I talk of is not just beginning to kick in: clearly, in an ultimate analysis, it is simply proceeding to re-establish itself.

Make no mistake about it, dear readers: this is a full-throated attack on the integrity of democratic communication, dialogue and consensus.  We need to see it as such; we need to deal with it as such; we need to understand that from the so-called #gaggingbill onwards, the final intentions of the political elite – not just the Coalition I insist; not just the Tories or the Lib Dems – is to revert all political activity into the ever-developing injustice that is parliamentary procedure.

From the immorality of Thatcher’s times to the hand-holding hand-in-glove behaviours of our latterday political elite, it’s time we started shouting from the rooftops of all our democracies: “STOP NAYSAYING OUR HUMAN RIGHTS!”

For that, exactly that, is what they are doing.  And that, exactly that, is what they now need to step back from.

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Jul 222014
 
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A couple of articles I’ve read this morning.  The first, from Labour List, documents how Labour has achieved magnificent unity at the weekend – coinciding, coincidentally, with my decision to leave the Party after ten years’ membership as a result of the cack-handed and antidemocratic #DRIP process (more here).  (At least I can draw the conclusion that I’ve finally done something right in my political trajectory – the Party must be well-pleased with my disappearance!)  The Labour List post says things like this:

It is completely without precedent in the history of the party. You can write a history of Labour that is all about its internal squabbles. Morrison vs Bevin. Bevan vs Gaitskell. Castle vs Callaghan. Benn vs Healey. Kinnock vs Militant. Blair vs Brown. There is no Ed Miliband vs anyone narrative. The only people he is vs are the Tories.

Credit also needs to go to the people who could have started a fight. Whether trade unions angry about party reform, Blairites hankering for the lost leader over the water, or party lefties nostalgic for a rerun of the 1980s, they all deserve praise for resisting the urge to have a scrap.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Labour in 2010 was in a very weakened, fragile condition. A bout of infighting and recrimination such as we saw every previous time we lost office, in 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979 might have killed us off as a potential government for a generation, or for ever.

To conclude as follows:

Ed Miliband has shown incredible political skill in leading a united party into an election year at the same time as assembling a battery of appealing and radical policies. If he shows this degree of skill in uniting the country he will make a very great Prime Minister.

(The sort of stuff, incidentally, I was saying myself quite a while ago.)

Then we get quite another sort of post which defines Tony Blair’s achievements in the context of moon-landing deniers:

That’s not, of course, to say that Blair did not wrong and that is every decision was faultless. Certainly there were problems, at home as well as abroad, although different people from different political traditions will disagree as to what those were. But it seems to me that to focus on Mr Blair’s mistakes is to be like those cranks from Nowhere, Alabama, desperately pointing at Neil Armstrong and looking for signs of studio lights.

And, of course.  Yes.  Blair did indeed pick up Thatcher’s spilt milk – putting roofs back on schools etc – and of that, there is no doubt; but by so doing also stored up disasters for our present.  And I don’t just mean via his mistakes.  I also mean via his outright successes: for in order to counter the cruel neoliberalism of Thatcher – read more of the above for an excellently measured summary of the latter – Blair committed the foolish expediency of PFI and other short cuts to future prosperity.  The short cuts were necessary, desperate measures; the country, after Thatcher, was falling apart physically (and now, it seems, morally too).  But whilst Thatcher’s achievements were, in retrospect, clearly minimal – and Blair’s achievements were clearly, in retrospect, a counterweight the whole country needed – the aforementioned good also contained the seeds of the bad.

It wasn’t just the decisions on Iraq that brought conflict to our country.  It was also the decisions on matters such as tuition fees – seen by some as rank social engineering and by others as a necessary financial tool to lever access to higher education – which now, even on their own neoliberal terms, have clearly begun to fall apart at the seams.

And so I would suspect that here history is repeating itself, as it so often must.  Unity forged of the tribal – characteristic of Blair whilst he held the reins charismatically over the Party – and manifested quite differently with the Ed Miliband of the Labour List commentary; manifested differently but manifested all the same.

It may lead to a competent election result (though without wishing to be an aguafiestas, I’m not sure – even now – that this will happen as much as one might hope) but what is clear, at least to me, is that the very tribalism that political parties – of any political denomination – need to generate in order to have half a chance of getting into power is precisely that moment, time and place where the seeds of their our downfall are created.

If only our body politic were able to function on the basis of healthy disagreement, debate and well-fleshed consensus.  It’s not even as if it operates on agreement either.  Instead, when it happens, it’s a question of people like myself leaving the party in question – at the same time as people like those depicted in the two articles I’ve linked to today end up demonstrating a greater faith, fewer compunctions or negligible principles with respect to our no-longer-terribly-prized democratic process.

People who ultimately find themselves learning how to shut up for the short-term benefit of the tribe.

That the political left can only be acting as cheerleaders for internal Labour Party unity, less than a week after Parliament behaved disgracefully with the agreement, collusion and collaboration (in the World War II sense of the word, that is) of the man they are now saying will become an excellent Prime Minister … well, it bodes little positive, when his time comes, for his command of and fidelity to parliamentary process.

The elite is in charge, unity is the calling-card – and it’s time for the faithful, who often happily criticise the otherwise religious, to blindly believe in their broad church once again.

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Jul 192014
 
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This evening I tweeted two connected posts.  I’ve been finding it impossible to comment on three significant news items recently: Gaza, Ukraine and Syria.  So I tweeted these two connected posts as some – perhaps insubstantial – attempt on my part to say, at a distance, some of what I was feeling.

The first post described an exhibition on the subject of a small percentage of children rescued from Nazi concentration camps and whisked off to the Lake District to recover.  It concluded with the following observation:

The healing quality of the surroundings the children found themselves in on arriving in the Lake District itself was heavily, and quite rightly, underlined.

The second described the importance of managing environment, using the example of bumblebees as an analogy for our own frailties – especially at the hands of this dreadful Coalition government:

Bumblebees need holes in walls to find a habitat.  I learnt that whilst in the Lake District yesterday at the Peter Rabbit garden outside the Beatrix Potter Attraction, Windermere.  It seems, for me right now, to describe perfectly what the Coalition’s economics is doing to us.

The people who do the things they are doing to us work in the urban landscape that is the metropolis of London.  When they escape to their country retreats, it is out of privilege they escape: for them, the countryside is just as much a good to be bought and sold as a future on the futures market.  When they plan to detonate, dismantle and destroy the complex ecosystem that is English society, they do not care to worry about those of us who are like bumblebees: those of us who need, in amongst the impervious concrete constructs, habitat-generating holes in Lakeland stone-style walls.

The shock and awe of Osborneconomics is an urban construct: the constructors and developers who remake the faces of our cities every twenty years do not care about complexities, preservation or the conservation of the existing.

Yesterday, visiting Windermere and Bowness showed me – reminded me – that change needs to be managed not imposed; but managed in the sense of appreciating and dealing with its impact on real environments and not in the sense of that managerialist approach which involves brainwashing workforces, voters and affected populations into meek and materialist submission.

Meanwhile, a BBC feature on how extreme isolation warps the mind usefully came my way this evening.  If you’re in the UK I’m not sure that the link I’m going to give you will be accessible – if they know what they’re doing, a redirect will kick in; if not, do try and search it – it’s worth your time.  Anyhow.  Here’s the link I’ve got and a flavour of what it says:

We all want to be alone from time to time, to escape the demands of our colleagues or the hassle of crowds. But not alone alone. For most people, prolonged social isolation is all bad, particularly mentally. We know this not only from reports by people like Shourd who have experienced it first-hand, but also from psychological experiments on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation, some of which had to be called off due to the extreme and bizarre reactions of those involved. Why does the mind unravel so spectacularly when we’re truly on our own, and is there any way to stop it?

What, then, am I saying with these three pieces I quote from above?  Or what am I trying to say?  Conflict, especially violent conflict, especially violent conflict in the absence of the dynamics of consensus, is not primarily because of the money merchants who distribute the machines of death; is not primarily because of the flags and religions which shear people away from each other; is not even because of land which should belong to one or another.  Conflict, especially violent conflict, is a matter – ultimately – of language.  And in this sense, it is due to a traumatic failure of language.

Language doesn’t really work very well at the best of times.  Our vocabulary is highly individual, carrying a baggage of memories and experiences no one else shares.  It’s a miracle that any overlap of meaning exists at all – at least to the extent that we may communicate enough not to be permanently at each other’s throats.  So it’s hardly surprising that in the more extreme environments we see this month – Gaza, Ukraine and Syria – it should be possible to read phrases tossed out on social networks along the lines of “Today I saw a man putting pieces of his son into a shopping-bag”; hardly surprising, I would argue, even as it is clearly distressingly disturbing.

No.  I’m not looking to relativise very different situations.  I’m not looking to avoid taking ownership for my opinions either.  Although it is true that I feel I don’t have the knowledge to decide which side is right – even that I don’t think I have the right to make that judgement.  And, in fact, I think that maybe this is the wider nub of the problem: geopolitical behaviours of a cruelly managerialist bent have taken over long ago from local knowledge and understanding.  Brains and ideas bods swoop in at the drop of an emergency hat (or not as the case may be – Syria perhaps a terrible case in point).  We’re forever assuming greater forces will pull out their bloodied rabbits and solve, by some multi-polar magic, the creaking faults of latterday international relations.  And when I say we, I mean all of us who have ever – all of us who will ever – find ourselves in the midst of some violent conflict or another.  Not just the onlookers who balefully observe via the web, social networks, mainstream TV and so forth.

In truth, few people in such environments are entirely in charge of their destinies, of what they do or say, of how they react to events – or, indeed, how they can manage history’s march.  If we still find it so difficult to work out who messed us up in a sequence of banking crises in 2008 for goodness sake, how can we decide right now who to usefully blame when a democratic state and a half-baked national solution start firing rockets at each other; when a government and “rebel” opposition of geopolitically sustained violence lead to the destruction of a passenger plane, the spiriting away of bloating human remains and the vanishing into thin air of surface-to-air missile batteries and black boxes various; or when a war-torn society destroys streets, town centres, cities and communities where people once used to live their lives in peace if not in our prized liberal freedoms?

“Usefully blame?” you ask.  “And what do you mean by that?”  Well, again, there’s the nub of the issue.  “Stop the War!” perhaps.  Or maybe not.  Maybe, far better, “Stop War!”

There’s a difference.

At least for me.

I wonder if it exists for you too.

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Jul 182014
 
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Imagine the script, if you will.

“Diktat 2015″

Part II – 2014

Scene I – February – #caredata

The British government claims to have had a very bright idea: release all NHS patient medical records in England for use by the life-science industry to improve patient outcomes and research opportunities.  The system will involve an automatic opt-in – only if a patient wishes to opt out will any paperwork need filling in.

Unfortunately, it then transpires that data has already been wildly made available – and what’s more, tons of other interested parties have had/are having/will have access to such juicy datasets.

The reaction, ultimately, from the confused population is so strong that the plans are put on hold for a few months – which isn’t to say, of course, that institutions and companies various won’t continue to dig around your medical records.

Scene II – July – #DRIP

It takes the British body politic only three days to pass wide-ranging legislation which allows the state to keep a record (no one knows if rolling or not) of up to twelve months of voters’ private communications, web interactions and other assorted digital records.

That people may be unhappy to have this legislation passed without even a vote in the House of Lords really doesn’t seem to worry the legislators an iota.  The state (and the aforementioned wider body politic, of course) has clearly learnt from the #caredata imbroglio – when in doubt about your ability to persuade the voters and bring them round to accepting a ridiculous undermining of their human rights, just ignore them.

Part III – 2015

Scene I – May – #GE2015

Unable to see the difference between any of the main political parties, insignificant and unimportant voters like myself began some months before to shear off from their traditional allegiances.

This only benefits the Tories, who proceed to win the 2015 general election outright.  Recriminations are multiple on the left of the political spectrum – in truth, the fact is that in what used to be the humane, open-minded and liberal part of our previously shared civilisation we now have general agreement amongst the political parties that process is secondary to expediency.

What’s more, there is also broad acceptance in the political classes that an elitist perception of what people need hits the issues far more accurately on the head than consultation, dialogue and representation ever can.  As we begin to realise that this is what our representatives think, we the voters realise and conclude that there really is no bloody point any more.

Scene II – October – #NewEnglandOldTories

Events not entirely under Cameron’s control lead England to end up giving in to the Scottish Declaration of Independence.  This looks like a defeat, but defeats are unpredictable beasts.  In truth, the Tories now have total freedom to remake England in their image.  The #caredata project is resurrected – perhaps resuscitated would be more accurate – and so it is that no NHS England patient will be given the right to opt out of the scheme unless, that is, they choose to opt out of public sector medicine altogether.  The plan to fully monetise patient data is extended to allow access by any company or organisation which can demonstrate it is a duly registered data controller and user with a financial interest in any of our (ie the voters’) behaviours which might be affected by any medical conditions we have.  These parties include insurance companies, potential employers and local councils.

The #DRIP project will also be revised: the data collected will not now be limited to the last twelve months, but, far more importantly, will be similarly monetised to improve the voter experience.  The details around who will be able to purchase the information are unclear in the month the legislation will become law, but in the totally unexpected and entirely unrelated announcement of a merger between Google and Facebook (dependent, of course, on the relevant tax breaks and other bespoke emollients) there is a footnote to the documentation which indicates they have been in talks with Number 10 for quite some months now.  (It’s even been suggested that the two companies are preparing to install massive server farms on prime greenbelt land around Chipping Norton, fuelled via the fracking of land under a number of local homesteads – land which, incidentally, is currently used to hide potentially embarrassing copies of hundreds of thousands of ministerial SMS texts and unofficial emails of many fascinatingly compromising kinds.)

Scene III – November – #EOP #sofaengland

As government now operates without due consultation or scrutiny, five years of Parliament are finished off in a month.  The #EOP (or, more laboriously, #EndOfParliament) hashtag does the rounds, as it must – but this safety valve was only to be expected.

So it is that the Prime Minister, MPs, support staff and Her Majesty’s Official Opposition suddenly run out of things to even apparently do.  In order to justify their salaries for the next four years and seven months – and out of a residual sense of twisted responsibility, I suppose – they collectively decide to retire to the countryside and spend their days hunting foxes, shooting pigeons, evicting the disabled, cleaning moats, building duck islands, flipping mortgages, gassing badgers and closing down any food banks which have the temerity to set up stall in their constituencies.

In the meantime, the state runs itself very nicely, thank you.  Some weird people protest; get blackmailed into silence, probably via carelessly administered #caredata and #DRIP intel; ultimately accept their lot; and, quite understandably, find themselves dying in front of their goggle boxes Google boxes when their time ineludibly comes.

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Jul 182014
 
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I’m a member of Open Rights Group, the Fabians and Labour.  I also remain an associate member of the small trades union Accord.  The latter is more out of sentiment than practicality.  I no longer work in the sector where it operates, but the people who run it treated me well.  The add-on legal and travel services are also good value-for-money factors in my membership.

When I return to Britain after my working holiday here in Spain, I have decided – today – to curtail my membership of both Labour and the Fabians.  I shall continue to pay my dues to ORG.  This open letter to the current UK Home Secretary is the reason why:

Dear Theresa, see you in court

Parliament has a done a terrible thing. They’ve ignored a court judgment and shoved complex law through a legislative mincer in just three days.

But in doing so they won’t have had the final word. You’re already shown them the growing public opposition to mass surveillance. There was incredible action from supporters: 4458 of you wrote to your MPs with even more phoning up on the day of the vote.  Together we helped 49 MPs rebel against the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill. It may have passed, but thanks to you they know that we do not agree.

Help us challenge DRIP: Join now

Meanwhile, my own political party was rolled in ways I never expected possible.  And the process that was #DRIP, as described above in ORG’s letter, showed that:

When they’re of a mind, the political class is just that: a class, quite separate from the voters who vote for it. Able to decide anything.

#DRIP, as a process, for me, is just one drop too far.  Politics, if it is anything meaningful in liberal society, is process.  But if the process is no longer liberal, the society is just bald dictatorship.  And that is precisely what we are getting here.  Government diktat in the absence of proper scrutiny:

Tom Watson MP described the process as “democratic banditry, resonant of a rogue state. The people who put this shady deal together should be ashamed.”

The fact is that they are neither ashamed of what they are doing nor dislike the idea of giving other rogue states a lead.  And I know exactly what I am talking about.

Eleven years ago, almost to the day, I was hospitalised for believing the state was tracking me for my political beliefs.  I was hospitalised for a month, informed in their clinical judgement that I would be unable to work for more than two hours unpaid work a week on being released – only to then start, after a month’s poking and prodding, a full twenty-hour shift in a fast-food restaurant in Chester.

What did I believe was happening to me?

  1. My Windows computer was being intervened.
  2. My mobile phone was being hacked.
  3. My landline was being interfered with.
  4. My email was being intercepted.

I was – as a result – terrified, of course; my illness was manifest and real.  But the causes were not so clear, especially in retrospect.

The killer question I was asked at the time (in particular by the psychiatrist who insisted on interviewing me at 5 am in the morning, in the presence of an abusive family member and their doctor friend, but never in consultation with my wife – either before or after) ran as follows:

If all these things are happening to you, what have you done for them to happen?  Why are you important enough for anyone to want to do any of the above?

I now fast-forward to today, to #DRIP’s passing and what it really means.  #DRIP sanctions and makes real for us all what happened to me eleven years ago.  For it’s not just, as Paul Bernal has suggested, the normalising of surveillance worldwide that is so terrible (clearly the case here, it is true; clearly a reality which would have made that killer question, which destroyed my moral resistance at the time, entirely unreasonable).  It’s also the normalising of their absence of shame.  The fact that they don’t care we see them all as so undemocratic; the fact that they don’t care other truly rogue states now fully enjoy the cloak of precedence that #DRIP’s process provides; the fact that the trampling of democracy doesn’t make them bewildered in any way … all of this and so much more is the real and quite terrifying normalisation which is taking place.

Yes.  The example will be repeated.  But I can promise you, for many unimportant people like myself, at a personal level only satisfaction emerges from the shenanigans that is the current British body politic.  What happened to me, what I suffered for and had to make my family suffer too, was happening to you as well I am sure.  It’s just that you didn’t perceive or understand it.

And so now I enjoin you to become an associate member of the paranoid.  Don’t worry.  It won’t mean you’re ill.  It’ll just mean you understand what’s happening.  Whatever we are, do or think in our lives will now be important enough to be tracked, exchanged and intercepted by the state.

For as paranoia, it is manifestly no longer the case.  That is exactly how personal it gets.

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Jul 162014
 
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I just tweeted in rather ironic tone the following:

Plaything of cybercriminal, paedophile, govt – even social-network users for goodness sake! – the web’s breaking up like a rusting old car.

I’d just read this, where under current legislation (significantly, no need for #DRIP here), but with new process and procedure, forty-five police forces have managed to coordinate their efforts and capture 660 suspected paedophiles.  I presume mainly online paedophiles (ie paedophiles who use online tools to commit crimes), and do wonder if in the future this won’t lead to another digital divide opening up: that where law enforcement concentrates on arresting a far larger proportion of those who operate online than it will do with respect to those who operate more carefully behind closed doors – and in that far more difficult-to-profile real (or, indeed, historical) world.

I am also minded to wonder how many hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of damaged adults are now hiding within their very private selves the consequences of historical child abuse.  Some would argue that the web augments the activity: I would suggest (with no professional background or figures to boast of, mind) that child abuse is probably a pretty steady statement of intent in most societies, and if less than a year’s concerted effort yields 660 arrestees in the UK, how many more criminals in how many other years have, at all levels in society, avoided the same fate?

I don’t, of course, suggest they’ve historically avoided detection.  I do suggest they’ve historically avoided prosecution.

Meanwhile, this story popped up a little late in my timeline this afternoon:

 Former Labour shadow minster Diane Abbott said her party’s leadership had been hoodwinked into supporting the legislation.

“I believe – I hate to say this because they are all nice people – that those on the opposition front bench have been rolled,” she said.

“All ministers had to do was to raise in front of them the spectre of being an irresponsible opposition, and that children will die if they do not vote for the bill on this timetable, and they succumbed.”

And yet, I would remind you, we have the news already mentioned that, under current legislation, 660 suspected paedophiles can be tracked down and captured.  So why the urgency for making the extra-legal behaviours of the past decades entirely legal law right now?

The problem for me with the surveillance state we’re getting is that it mimics very closely long-running debates of a very technical nature between closed source and open source software licence regimes.  In the former, we trust that one company knows what it needs to know, and will be able to protect us in a timely fashion from any and every cyberattack.  In the latter, when it works at its best, we make the knowledge available to everyone, so that any clever corruption of good intentions can be anticipated, resolved and removed from the system as quickly as possible.

The million eyes which – when they work as they should – work to a common cause.

The dynamics are very similar in the case of child abuse and the passing of #DRIP: allow the relatively few eyes of the security services total access to information, trust they will do with it what they should (we never get paedophile police officers, after all!) and assume that the only criminals acting out there belong to the levels of society who won’t get the right to see the intelligence about each other – or perhaps, more worryingly, won’t get to doublecheck the intelligence about their “betters”.

What we’re getting, then, is the undue exertion of power.  What we need is something different.  If the worldwide web and the Internet it runs on was a real-world chain of, say, toddlers’ playgroups or young children’s schools, and we suddenly and analogously proposed changing the ground rules as savagely as has been demanded (for example, installing CCTV in all children’s environments; recording every word spoken; registering for years the acts of every carer and parent), all of us would find outrage within our reach.  We would see it as abuse (even as it claimed to look to prevent its taking place); we would perceive it, at the very least, as a supremely uncoordinated act of change management; and we would realise how anti-democratic it was all shaping up to be.

Instead, to paraphrase Diane Abbott, we’re all on the point of allowing ourselves to be rolled.

The web and the wider Internet are, indeed, oxidising into uselessness.  There’s still time to rescue them, I’m sure.  But it’ll require a mighty change of mentality and mindsets from us all: from the voters; from the parents; from our MPs who still claim to represent us; from our leaders and from the led together – from anyone, in fact, who cares about democracy.

For that’s what the #DRIP process really stands for.  Unintentionally, perhaps.  In reality, all the same.

democracy | rest in peace

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Jul 162014
 
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Sunny has an excellent summary of all the issues surrounding #DRIP, especially in relation to the mess on civil liberties which my own political party, Labour, now finds itself irremediably in.  You can find this summary here (whilst I have previously posted here and here).  One of the most important points he makes is this one (the bold is mine):

Civil liberties are a social justice issue too – a point some Labour MPs and activists don’t seem to have quite yet grasped. When the police or security services abuse their ever-growing powers, the victims are invariably ethnic minorities and/or the most marginalised in society. From stop-and-search to 90 days detention and even the Malicious Communications Act – it has always people from minority backgrounds or those with unpopular opinions who get harassed, spied on or arrested.

And so on the back of this thoughtful article, I had the following thought: Parliament is often no more than a reflection of many tendencies in a wider society.  The one I would focus on this morning is that which is inscribed by corporate capitalism: as the free market is now controlled and progressively marshalled by interventionist wealth, a wealth which in the ultimate analysis is anything but a creature of libertarian mindsets, so what we might describe as a once “free” democracy – understood as that liberal beast where the opportunity to express oneself without too much fear, alongside the economic liberty to create business without too much heavy-handed interference from above, was far more important than almost any other marker in the sand – in the end has quite similarly been taken over by the monopolistic tendencies of commercial representation.

The #DRIP process is nothing more than the logical result of representative democracy in general.  It started out as a fairly scattered and individualistic kind of thing – but over the years it has become imperceptibly more concentrated: not more unrepresentative, you understand – it continues to represent like hell, and represent both directly and indirectly the interests of billions of people.  It’s just that the individual voters who used to be called to the urns to rubber stamp rising political stars and movements no longer have a place in the hierarchy of representation which such a democracy now manifests.

Where capitalism and the free market are owned by the giants of business (go no further than the international trade treaties being negotiated behind our backs), so representative democracy no longer belongs to individual people.

This is why #DRIP really should come as no surprise at all.  It’s not a question of the security services doing a big evil to our freedoms and democratic processes.  They were overly ripe for picking – bordering on the rotting – as they stood, as they hung, anyway.

For if truth be told, at least the truth I see, the next step will be to widen the #DRIP process to other areas of policymaking.  Especially in the interests of a spurious “democratic efficiency”.  Especially in the interests of future “ease of management”.

The logical result of free-market economics?  Corporate capitalism – and all the inefficiencies it implies.

The logical result of representative democracy?  Government by diktat – and a return to the violence of previous political agendas.

A violence we thought well vanquished.

How wrong we were.

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