Oct 192014
 
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In truth, the Tories were right: we are all in this together.  And we are all better together.

The problem is they don’t really believe what they say, but – at the same time – what they say is what we ought to say.

A dependence society is bad for everyone concerned: individuals, whether we are “healthy” or not; companies and businesses, whether we are big- or small-scale.  To scrounge a living on the backs of others is about as un-human as anyone can get: the glory of “being” surely lies in proactivity, not the kind of inactivity that relying unnecessarily on others can lead to.

It doesn’t make any difference whether you defraud pennies or billions of pounds: it’s primarily the mindset which is wrong here.  One thing, then, that is broadly shared, I can tell you, is this mindset of something for nothing I describe.  That’s how we’ve been taught to think over the past thirty years.  That’s what “greed is good” does to you.

Yes.  The Tories were right.  In what they said.

The Tories were, however, wrong.  In what they did.

If Labour is looking to see what its next manifesto should really contain, it could do far worse than to take Tory platitudes; give them to our most dedicated (ie humane) socialists; and turn them into properly burnished policies – policies which impact on everyone, in what we would like to call society.

Always assuming that more radical change to our structures is no longer possible short-term, the kind of government we need runs as follows:

  1. A leader like any half-decent philosopher out there – let’s call them HDPh for ease of use – who is able to identify the essence of what makes us happy human beings, and then enable and facilitate the changes and direction we’re all looking for.
  2. A communications tsar like Cameron himself (though please never like IDS, Gove or Boris), able to form and trot out the platitudes we all want to believe in, but which – for a number of years – we’ve failed (for good reason) to believe he believes in.
  3. A second-in-command policy-adviser type like Ed Miliband himself (though please never like those beloved of the so-called Blue Labour clique), able to identify and stand up to the big issues of the day before anyone else has the guts or nous to do so, and then define a proactive response that lives up to the needs of our peoples.  (Needless to say, communication of the latter would be the responsibility of the communications tsar.)

As you can see, no further justifications are required: we are in it – and better – together.

The only problem I can see is that no political party, nor leading light, cares to do just what they’re best suited to; all of them want to be uniquely responsible for making a mess of our lives.

HDPh-type, where are you?


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Oct 192014
 
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No.  I’m not very good at titles.  You may have realised that already.

This post is not really about obesity at all.  It’s written out of ignorance – as well as a reluctance to make myself seem more learned than I am by spending five minutes Googling statistics held online.

A couple of days ago, Jonathan Freedland connected – as symptomatic of two very current Western conditions – the Islamic State and Ebola crises.  He identified two states of mind as representing our shared responses.  Firstly, fear:

They are dark, unseen enemies, come from far away – and they are scaring us witless. Isis is not a disease, and Ebola is not a terror organisation. But fear is their common currency: intentional for one, inevitable for the other. [...]

Secondly, impotence:

But the greater similarity is the feeling of impotence that both crises prompt. The US, the most armed nation in the history of humankind, the world’s hyperpower, which spends more on weapons than the 10 next highest-spending nations combined, that country – along with five European allies and partners from the Gulf states – is pounding Isis from the air and yet making only marginal progress. No one is talking of victory over Isis; most speak of merely containing it. Meanwhile, the same US, with all its state-of-the-art technology and germproof suits, couldn’t prevent one of its nurses catching Ebola. You can hardly blame those inside and outside America who look at both situations and feel overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, as I read Freedland’s perceptive train of thought – especially as he avoids with his perspicacity what the neocons will prefer to describe as that almost psychotic connecting of ideas (what, indeed, I myself have recently called the corrosive relativism of the Guardian‘s “Comment is Free”) – I may actually be falling into the trap of doing what he so successfully avoided.  “What trap?” I hear you ask.

Well.  I look at the two plagues currently assailing our Western civilisation – obesity and mental ill-health – and wonder why no one (as per Freedland’s methodology) cares to make the connection too often.

As the Guardian reports in the obesity story just linked to, on the initiative by the state to encourage health workers to sort out their own weight problems in order to give the country a good example:

The move by Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, comes amid mounting frustration within the medical profession and NHS over the failure of successive governments to invest sufficiently in public health campaigns.

One in five young people and one in four adults in the UK now suffer from obesity, which each year causes 34,000 deaths and costs the NHS more than £1bn. Last year almost 11,000 people – 8,000 of them women – were admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of obesity.

However, I am minded to point out that in both the contexts discussed, the economic drivers soon push aside any primary considerations of a more humane nature, by coming to the fore of most policymakers’ mindsets.  Whilst the first report only mentions the cost to the NHS (others will I am sure go on to upfront the cost to businesses), the second – on mental health, and even as it starts out by talking about the impact on people – communicates the following (the bold is mine):

Dame Sally said the costs were “astounding” and NHS bosses needed to treat mental health “more like physical health”.

“Anyone with mental illness deserves good quality support at the right time,” she said.

“Underinvestment in mental health services, particularly for young people, simply does not make sense economically.

And this, if anything, if we are to use Jonathan Freedland’s carefully couched methodology, is why in the cases of IS and Ebola we are both fearful and impotent – and why in the cases of obesity and mental health we are getting far more ill than we should be.

A focus on economic drivers is driving our whole Western civilisation – once so liberal, caring, socialising and forward-looking (that little-by-little but positively remorseless progress of social democracy) – into the hands of these four hoarse men fed up of shouting out truths into the night.

The fear and impotence we are manifesting when faced with terrorism and horrific disease, as well as steady-state physical and mental infirmities such as obesity and mental ill-health, are all consequences of our leaders’ inabilities to make connections at the simplest level.  These inabilities to understand what makes us obese, mentally ill, unnaturally fearful of disease and terrified of terrorism … well, it all leads our makers and shakers to assume even more of their same is needed, when – in reality – it’s been more of their same which has failed us.

We are frightened, but not because we the people have done something very wrong in our lifestyles; rather, it’s because, deep down, we have already realised technocracy is not up to the job.

We are impotent, but not because the communication from our lords and masters has been inadequate to the task in the hand; rather, it’s because, deep down, we have already realised that those in charge, the technocrats and their economic sponsors, are now too powerful for us to be able to shift them in their error-making ways.  They refuse to make the connections we’ve struggled to make ourselves and, instead, look to multiply inability a thousandfold.

And when we try and communicate a different idea or approach, they see us as threatening their already fearfully threatened positions.  So instead of verily being part of the solution, we quickly become part of the threat.

We are living the rapid decline of pyramid capitalism.

They don’t know it, but we do – and that’s what’s making us fat.


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Oct 132014
 
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We’ve been told a lot over the past couple of years or so about how we’ve already been living a surveillance society.

The implications are considerable: from inhabiting an environment and nation – the United Kingdom, I mean – where volunteering information, time and resources has always been prized highly to a democracy where almost everything is essentially surveilled by those who argue such surveillance is necessary to prevent liberty’s loss (and yet who by so doing contribute to such freedoms becoming rusty and virtually ignored), we are now hitting the blocks of scarifying implications as far as civilisation’s dynamics are concerned.

Yes.  Of course it is challenging to believe the way forward involves being permanently watched: that our children should become accustomed to zero privacy in their formative years is a horrible thought, and if it were a reality committed and engineered by parents themselves, the state would soon intervene to prevent it from happening.

But because it is done in the name of very real security worries, the only security we acquire as a result is that privacy must disappear from the radar of human expectations.

And yet, even as this happens, it provides us with an unhappy cold comfort.

Two thoughts here I’d like to underline:

  1. In times of specific types of crises – such as, for example, that which Ebola is clearly becoming – public health can only be protected if the minimum standards the poorest can access equal the minimum standards necessary to contain an outbreak of such a disease.  This raises the bar considerably from the freemium NHS which the Tories and Lib Dems have been trying to implement over the past four years, and surely should make us stop and think quite carefully as to whether such an approach is feasible – not from an economic point of view any more; simply from a generalised rationale of wider levels of public safety.
  2. More specifically, in relation to the surveillance society issue I’ve already raised: living in a society like this changes the way we behave and collaborate with figures of authority.  We are less likely to do all that we used to do – as already pointed out: volunteering information, time and resources – and more likely to wait passively for Big Brother/Big Sister to do his/her very worst or best.  Being surveilled so constantly in the way we all now know to be the case either makes us proactive in expressing our dissatisfaction against such a state of affairs or leads us to a resigned inactivity which hardly bodes well for the kind of collaborative dynamics public health crises like Ebola demand, require and obviously need.

In a sense, we now have a perfect storm which involves the following elements:

  1. an NHS whose morale has been deliberately battered by government leaders for four years, in order to ensure an economic modulation and outcome which benefits their financial sponsors in a very short-term, but at the same time leaves its people – at least in England – in a desperately unhappy state;
  2. those revelations about the surveillance society, its long reach and how (now) supposedly nothing we do is unpredictable, so removing all sense of a prior free will from the dynamics of active civil and societal participation – reconverting, as it were and as it continues to do, ordinary men and women into receptors of predigested content;
  3. a political class which has been concentrated so dramatically on the job of occupying its policy-making bubbles that the real world – not what people do in the real world but what nature (uncontrollable nature, perhaps, at that) does to people! – simply fails entirely to butter its more daily bread.

The tool to keep our health safe has been messed around with for economic reasons – to the extent that it becomes less effective in moments when public health become far more important.

The tool to keep us secure from violent terror has been messed around with for political reasons – to the extent that it makes us less collaborative.

The people who supposedly should know best how to manage, channel and organise all the above have lost all credibility in their effort to sustain an economics which, whilst cruel and intellectually retrograde, is – even on its own terms – also rankly inefficient.

The biggest danger of the surveillance society is, therefore, not what they are able to watch us do – but how, actually, it changes what is there for them to watch: how it changes what we end up doing; how it changes the ways we act and interact in a societal context.

The challenging future which awaits us all doesn’t need reactive absorbers of social media-formed opinion but proactive leaders at all levels, capable of thinking for themselves.

So do we have that?  I fear not.  Not anywhere, in fact.

And therein the perfect storm I mention.


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Oct 122014
 
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Here’s a real, awfully truthful story* – something which happened to our family this weekend.

I first made reference to it in my previous blogpost.

Probably made 75-100 phonecalls yesterday – a bit traumatic indeed.

Offspring’s motorbike had front brake line cut on Friday by vandals, whilst parked outside a university in a large northern city.

Insurance offered to pay transport of bike back home, but refused to transport rider.

Breakdown recovery companies refused to bring the bike back because it was vandalism, not breakdown.  They even refused to bring the bike back when we offered to pay a one-off payment!

Then, we discover the spare parts – for this brand new bike! – aren’t available anywhere in Europe.  If the criminals in question had wished to commit the most inconveniencing of vandalisms possible, then this was it: the key part in question – the brake line – rarely if ever perishes, so is rarely if ever needed.  Or so we were told.

(We were also told the part/bike/whatever was “under study”, which apparently means the manufacturer is about to take a decision with possibly far-reaching implications for their product – implications no one cared to spell out.  And remember, we are talking about a bike bought only two weeks ago …)

Finally, I phoned the bike’s manufacturers who:

1) Initially offered to escalate the issue within three working days (my offspring had to work today here in Chester!!!).
2) Only then, when I phoned a road assistance number of theirs, did someone finally decide to take ownership and offer to bring bike and rider back home.

Never had such a stressful day, really.  Nope.  I don’t wish 100 phonecalls in one four-hour period on anyone.

In the meantime, two questions for you to think about whilst you contemplate our circumstances:

Firstly, is it normal in the places where you live for people to go around cutting brakes on motorcycles?  This isn’t just vandalism – it’s malicious, evil behaviour.

Secondly, is it normal when you phone your insurance company, in order to report an act of vandalism, for the customer care representative to:
a) agree to phone you back on Saturday, and then not phone you back; and
b) recommend you ride a bike back home yourself which doesn’t have operative front brakes?

Happy (or not so happy) Sunday!

:-(

____________________

* Crossposted and slightly adapted from my Facebook language-learning page today.


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Oct 052014
 
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As usual, I’m late to the party.  Perhaps that’s the point.  Perhaps the purpose of our body politic is not to embrace us out of a kindly desire to inform but bear-hug us into confusion – and, ultimately, inaction too.

I naively thought all rights have their corresponding responsibilities.  In theory, however, it gets much better than this.  Some of our dearest rights are inalienable.  It’s like copyright laws in France and Spain – as an author, you cannot give them up.

So it is that Wikipedia currently indicates:

Natural and legal rights are two types of rights. Legal rights are those bestowed onto a person by a given legal system. Natural rights are those not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable (i.e., cannot be sold, transferred, or removed).

Meanwhile, today Nick Cohen says a helluva lot of depressing things, but I’d draw your particular attention to his final two paragraphs.  First, of David Cameron, our supposedly British Prime Minister:

In truth, he is not proposing a British bill of rights but an English bill of rights, and a Tory English bill at that. No one else would be obliged to accept it. Labour might come back into power and produce a leftwing bill of rights that included rights to union representation, shelter, health and education Maxwell Fyfe and Churchill rejected. Greens could propose environmental rights. Everyone could propose their own rights; they could change with every new parliament, all because a decent statement of minimum standards was too much for British Conservatives to bear.

This is terrifying.  This is the legal equivalent of substituting commuter trains and trams run as a public service with (usually) privatised buses run with the aim of making a profit: once achieved and consecrated the changeover, it gets so easy to modify, withdraw and destroy such services – without, in fact, taking ownership for anything at all.

And then, yes, Cohen’s summing-up is thundering:

The case of the Human Rights Act belies the stories Conservatives tell themselves. They call themselves individualists but want more power for the state. They call themselves unionists but threaten the union. They call themselves democrats but land more blows on the enfeebled liberal world. They boast of their common sense and call themselves pragmatists but destroy with reckless insouciance. They are a danger to themselves and everyone who votes for them.

Reading this is when I came to the following realisation (and the reason, too, for writing this unassuming train of thought): the grand battle that has been waged over our heads – as subjects, citizens and voters (as well as those of us with no right to vote but, even so, every responsibility to comply with the decisions of ruling elites) – is one which has attempted by every and any means to remove from the gorgeous Christmas-time sack of inalienable rights as many of them as has been possible, as quickly as possible.

We have been pummelled into believing that what should be a humane and just assigning of minimum standards of existence for everyone must, indeed, be painfully won and battled for – generally through a subsistence living at the mercy of those whose winning and battling for what they are has, actually, been anything but painful.

For the future, then, let us forget this idiotic mantra of rights which only exist in the presence of responsibilities.  These exist unequivocally in law; it is relatively easy to determine their proper observation or not; and we have cohorts of experts and professionals well enough trained to decide when intervention is necessary or not.

No.  Our battleground as liberals surely now has to lie in the fields of what everyone, all of us, whatever our political colours of late, has encouraged society and democracy to wilfully abandon: those evermore alien inalienable rights which define whether we really want to understand life or not.

To return from the evermore alienating sack of simple legal rights what properly – and rightly, wouldn’t you say! – belongs to the glory of inalienability.


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Oct 022014
 
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I was going to title this post, a tad ironically: “Customer service isn’t” – but I didn’t.  For if truth be told, customer service unhappily is – it’s just that the customer in question is not ourselves.

When we get to the point that the big news of the day is that the Prime Minister of the nation fluffs his speech on being on the side of the oppressed, downtrodden and poverty-stricken (or, darkly perhaps, maybe not fluffing after all) by saying he “resents” them all instead of saying he “represents” them all, it’s clear what customer service really means: we do sincerely continue to believe in the strategy, we just don’t tell anyone who the bourgeois object of our desires actually ends up being.

Democracy is broken to such an extent that those who run hierarchies without a jot of fairness no longer care to pretend they’re not doing so.  As I think I’ve said before on these pages (but then I’ve burbled and murmured and idiotically complained so many times – and for many a year – ultimately to little effect it would seem), where I would take issue with all of this injustice is not with respect to the emotional take one might have on the matter – those places in our souls and hearts where you’d expect people like myself  to battle with our demons – but simply, flatly, on the economic side of things: it’s damnably, almost criminally, inefficient to waste so much perishable human resource.

As – for example – Ebola begins to escape our grasp, this afternoon I read a tweet flit past me which said something along the lines of “In order to deal with this situation, we’ll have to do something very very new” – and that, in a very very few words, is exactly what I mean about inefficiency; about criminality; about waste.

So it is that because we are naturally used to death being an inevitable part of life, we are unnaturally getting used to accepting its happening sooner and sooner.  Curiously, the death of a large company or other organisation is something we strive so hard to avoid.  Yet the deaths of thousands of children at the hands of millions of faces – which turn the other way when faced with imploring TV ads – becomes a commonplace act of surrender to that inevitability I mention: an astonishing capitulation to our evermore shared sense of impotence.

Of course money makes the world go round.  But money can either be a tool to a productive and creative end or money can be constructed and re-engineered as a cap on all future imagination.

It’s our choice – and yet it isn’t.

We no longer know – or at least we no longer feel – that the best of this world always did lie in our capacity to overcome the greatest of challenges.  In one thing the Tories are right: humanity has become weak, dependent and stumbling.  But precisely the bit of humanity which has driven us to this edge is that bit which could have liberated so much perishable resource, so much human thought, so much living occurrence; that bit which with its money and naturally borne wealth could have chosen the fields and paths of original invention and – instead – chose the grim and, finally, soul-destroying road that leads us to wind down a planet, species and ecosystem of the brave.

Because a customer service which ends up servicing itself is no customer service at all.

Unhappily.


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Aug 272014
 
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It’s been a weird summer.  Horrible things happening in the world out there; the grist of mainstream and – now – social media too.  Just because you love cat gifs doesn’t mean you don’t see execution gifs …

Beautiful things happening within our family, as vacation time works its magic and makes us speak to each other so wondrously.

But then outwith our nuclear family, other things happening.  Childhood has a long reach; what hurt us as kids … well … it continues to work its invisible sadnesses.

Weave them almost, in painfully mysterious ways.

I’m glad it’s all over, mind; glad my wife and children will shortly have a better base to operate from.

That’s all most of us need; even yearn for.  Somewhere, anywhere, in which to be proud of oneself; to be proud of oneself and one’s forebears.


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Aug 112014
 
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A few months ago I was happy to sit with a short clever summary of the essence of privacy by Cory Doctorow (this is not to say he was happy to sit with it too – just to say I found it shiny enough not to need to pursue the matter further):

This needed to be said, and I’ve never seen it said better:

You should care about privacy because privacy isn’t secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want to close the door when you go in the stall.

Today, however, this tweet came my way:

How do we define #privacy? Is privacy the ability to control with whom information gets shared? -@JulieBrillFTC #FOCAS14

This also seems a good approach, certainly at first sight anyhow.

But yesterday, Evgeny Morozov had already worried us thus:

The privacy debate, incapacitated by misplaced pragmatism, defines privacy as individual control over information flows. This treats users as if they exist in a world free of data-hungry insurance companies, banks, advertisers or government nudgers. Can we continue feigning such innocence?

He goes on to suggest:

A robust privacy debate should ask who needs our data and why, while proposing institutional arrangements for resisting the path offered by Silicon Valley. [...]

And:

[...] The intellectual ping pong over privacy between corporate counsels and legal academics moonlighting as radicals always avoids the most basic question: why build the “private spaces” celebrated by Mr Zuckerberg if our freedom to behave there as we wish – and not as companies or states nudge us to – is so limited?

This, of course, widens the issue immensely: it can even lead us to question the fundamentals of the corporate manifestation of capitalism which dominates 21st century life.  This morning I asked the following question:

The question we should be asking ourselves of 21st century revolution (oh,all right – “disruption”, if you prefer) runs as follows: >>

<< Is there enough spare resource in the world for people to create parallel spaces – or must the dispossessed dispossess the rich? >>

<< Answering this question will determine whether the revolution (oh, all right – “disruption”) is going to be humanely manageable or not.

Whilst the Zuckerbergs of the world (oh, all right – Facebook itself …) recommend (that is to say, like!!!) us to squabble over the crumbs and dregs that fall from their privacy tables, Morozov seems to be asserting that we should be much more ambitious.

Which brings me to the point of this post, after four hundred introductory words!

When we think about privacy, why not think as we do when we think about bullying?  Why not have a multi-polar definition in much the same way?  An example.  I wrote this paragraph quite a bit ago now on the subject under discussion, and related matters:

The problem with being accused of racism is surely one of point of view.  Let us take what I would argue is an analogous act of aggression.  As far as I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong), bullying is defined in labour legislation as depending on the perception of the victim not the oppressor.  If someone simply feels they have been bullied, this is enough justification in itself for an investigation of some kind to need to be carried out – whether the alleged oppressor intended to bully or not, this does not affect the significance of the event.

I then go on to apply the concept and approach to racism – an application you can read more about by reading the post in question, if you wish.  But for the purposes of today’s post, I would apply it further to the subject of privacy.  And it leads me to propose: let not there be one definition of something which invades a privacy or someone who feels invaded.  Let, instead, that definition be a matter of point of view of those who feel the invasion.

To go back to Doctorow’s shiny conceptualisation: some of us don’t care if the door of the toilet is open; others greatly treasure their intimacy; and to others, the carelessness about such privacy is quite objectionable.  As I point out towards the end of the post on bullying:

So it is that the racist, as well as the bully I’m sure we have all experienced, manages with an incredible precision to occupy simultaneously two miserable and quite contradictory positions in society: that of victim and oppressor both.

Yet we should not allow the horrible things such people succeed in doing to provoke a similar hatred or reaction in ourselves – for just as surely as the cruelty they exhibit to others is a sign of a brutalising upbringing, so our response to their resulting brutality can only serve to define how uncivilising was ours.

There are two ways of dealing with racism and bullying: a) outright rejection and a terrible shunning or b) a generous engagement and a never-ending instinct to education.

I know which process I would prefer to be a part of.  Have you considered which one most closely resembles your own?

If the envelope of what we should be allowed to consider privacy must include the right to define how far in our own particular cases – and, what’s more, at any particular and variable time – it must be able to place and extend its boundaries, the state will have to be far more fleet-of-foot if it is not to fall into the trap of behaving like the racists and bullies who throughout our shared histories have dominated accepted opinion with bald prejudice.

For in a sense, not asking someone where they see the limits of their own privacy reaching (or only asking them once but not repeatedly) (or not asking them with the education, politeness and cautious kindness a desire to both civilise and be civilised has to encompass) is to do what racists and bullies do constantly: take a personal point of view – that of the bully or racist – and impose it unquestioningly on the emotions and intellect of another.  No permission requested; all assumptions of every right to do so placed upfront; the complete and assumed disregarding of the need for dialogue and communication with the other party.

If it’s not racist for me, it’s not racist for you either; if it’s not bullying for me, it’s not bullying for you either; and if reading your emails and your text messages, listening to your phonecalls and Skype conversations and forming an opinion of your attitudes and being from your metadata (not to mention watching and sharing your sexual activity laughingly alongside others I work with) isn’t something I’d consider an invasion of privacy for me, it’s not something you should consider an invasion of privacy for you either.

But that’s because just like racists and bullies before me, I’m now doing exactly the same with privacy.  Perhaps we need to coin a new term: how does “privacist” suit the moment?

*

I tell you what: if the same people who in Britain have just sanctioned the long-term retention of citizens’ Internet data used the same process, behaviours and attitudes to define bullying and racism, to defining the envelopes of what governments with such a freer hand could now do to the governed, there’d be a hue and cry like no other heard in history.

Except that


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Aug 092014
 
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Just received this email from Amazon on the subject of e-books.  In itself, it’s a novel and a half, but makes for fascinating reading:

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: Michael.Pietsch@hbgusa.com

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com

So my question is as per the title of this blogpost: “Are e-books the revolution paperbacks once were?”

I’m not a real expert in the matter, but one thought does come to mind: whilst I love the Kindle infrastructure and the upsides it’s added to the cross-device reading experience, alongside things such as its lending-library facility (a really cool idea and implementation), paperbacks, once purchased, could be re-bought and resold second-hand, handed on, passed on and shared for as long as one wanted.  I’m not sure that Kindle’s e-books have all these options – nor would work as a business model if they were ever added in the future.

Anyhow.  Despite the above caveats, I am sympathetic to what seems to be the general thrust of Amazon’s argument – at least, at the time of writing this post.  So what do you think?  Any other immediate reactions?  Any responses?  Do you care either way?

:-)


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Aug 082014
 
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Dan Hodges suggests the following:

There’s only one thing worse then the US being the world’s policeman. And that’s the US not being the world’s policeman.

I’d take issue with the use of the monolithic singular (no state, however useful, is ever that monolithic – nor should be in a modern liberal democracy) and the exclusive gender – policeman (though my linguistic side understands why he’s felt obliged to use the idiomatic phrase this way).  But more importantly, I’d take issue with stuff he’s written previously on quite separate subjects.  This, for example:

Unfortunately, that’s just about all they came up with. Ed Miliband will say: “Clearly the next Labour government will face massive fiscal challenges, including having to cut spending.” But that’s just one of those tick-box phrases he likes to sneak into his tick-box speeches. He has this little throwaway line about cuts, but if anyone actually asks him what cuts he’s contemplating he refuses to answer. That’s because he doesn’t really mean it, and he secretly wants everyone to know he doesn’t really mean it.

Now, I don’t necessarily take issue with the ideas Hodges sardonically communicates – apart from anything else, he does sardonic very well.  But when coupled with today’s tweet, I do object to the underlying assumption that 40,000 Iraqis on the point of being butchered can be policed and rescued – should be policed and rescued – by Big Government and the Big State when the very same Big State and Government must not – is unable to – continue its historically ameliorating business at home in the UK and US.

Especially when the plans of some of Hodges’ fellow travellers seem to include brutal cuts to the aforementioned public sector which will lead to a drop in headcount of forty percent:

The biggest cull of public sector jobs for at least 50 years will see vulnerable parts of the state endure reductions in headcount of up to 40%, Britain’s leading tax and spending thinktank said today.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the reductions planned as part of the coalition’s deficit reduction programme would hit the poorest parts of Britain hardest, and warned they would prove “challenging” for those parts of government bearing the brunt of austerity.

Piling misery upon misery for the most unprotected in our societies.

So let’s try and be a little bit more coherent, shall we?  If Big Government and the Big State are still cool enough ideas to save the developing world from encroaching dictatorship and the cruelty of the backward (though I suspect the motives behind such strategies have more to do with a Western self-interest of wanting to keep political contamination well at bay in distant dirty countries, quite a la Ebola, than a truly pure perception of right and wrong), let us also accept that we in the West – ordinary people who live in Europe, North America, the Antipodes etc – have the very same right to be treated, by our own Big States and Governments, in the humanitarian way those currently suffering in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Israel also merit and clearly deserve.


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Aug 062014
 
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There have been stories this morning on how over a billion unique user name/password combinations for over 400,000 websites have been stolen by cybercriminals.  Everyone’s being rather cagey – to date – about the issue as far as I can see: no lists of the websites (a lot of info to process, admittedly), though perhaps these would in any case be counterproductive if published.  What we can surely conclude is that the user name/password system more generally is just about broken.

Which brings me to another couple of thoughts: thoughts I shall proceed to leave you with.

Why does Facebook use https?  It’s a colander of data – there’s just about no one of importance it won’t reveal content to: from security services to advertisers to social scientists … well, it doesn’t half make you wonder if the https strategy is little more than a marketing ploy.  Make us feel we’re in safe techie-hands, even as our data is splurged and spread around to increase shareholder satisfaction.

And as Google becomes the de facto scourer of emailed child porn (no problem with the idea itself, but tremendous issues with the privacy and constitutional implications of this implementation in particular), I do wonder whether we shouldn’t forget about security altogether.  What’s next to be rolled out?  A pop-up notification which warns you when you express adulterous thoughts – or perhaps a knock at the front door if you suggest in desperation, not literally of course, you’d like to kill someone for everything they’ve done to you?

In truth, all of this can only lead to two places: firstly, the death of irony, sarcasm and – more widely – the homely habit of telling jokes, as fear of being misunderstood replaces the freedom to speak one’s mind; secondly, a progressive rewriting of the Ten Commandments of ancient times, where the crimes pursued are those which most justify a dragnet surveillance approach, and the God who oversees their application are the Google & Co (but, hey, let’s be honest here: it’s Google we mean) already mentioned.

After all, it’s faintly conceivable for those in the know that – all along – Google has been a contraction of “God + ogle” …


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Aug 022014
 
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I’ve been struggling (as I imagine all of us not trained in the history in question have been struggling) to understand the dynamics of the current conflict in Gaza.  It’s not just from my failure to comprehend how people can be party to so much cruelty, but also from the point of view of how particularly the British and US governments can simultaneously condemn in public and – apparently – support in private such violence.

And so I stumble across a piece of data which, if true, explains at least half of that equation: the US currently tolerates an annual mortality rate by gunshot wounds – suicide and murder both – of 30,000 of its citizens.

That’s almost a hundred a day.

In fact, at least according to this .pdf, the figure can be occasionally even more alarming:

“That is the thing I just can’t understand.  On September 11, 2001, three thousand people died.  And ten times that amount of people die every year in the United States from firearms.  That question comes into my head a lot. Believe me. ”

Hardly surprising, then (perhaps, more accurately, I should say “sadly unsurprising”), that statistics such as these (from the previous Gaza War) and opinions such as these (from only yesterday) can emerge from such an icy cauldron of experience and perceptions:

An Israeli newspaper appeared to attempt to avert a backlash on Friday evening, when it removed a post entitled ‘When Genocide is Permissible’ from its website less than a minute after it was uploaded.

The article in question apparently having been written by a blogger based in the US.

To its credit, the Times of Israel later reacted in the following way:

A spokeswoman from The Times of Israel  has since condemned the blog as “damnable and ignorant”.

She told The Independent: “The blog post, which was both damnable and ignorant, was uploaded by a blogger. It was removed by the Times of Israel for breaching our editorial guidelines. The blog has been discontinued.”

Never mind the Gaza Strip.  This is clearly (even if differently in certain fundamental detail) a case of the #NewWorldStrip: a zone of violence where poverty of thought outstrips the humanity we are all capable of.

The cost, in fact, of violent freedoms.  And the cancer continues to spread.


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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 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 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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