Oct 252014
 
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I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions how certain very modern elements of the world we inhabit today are actually anything but.  This piece, for example, compared WikiLeaks to Dutch Calvinism:

In this post you may have noticed that I have linked to a Dutch version of WikiLeaks, which at the time of writing this piece is still operational.  And I choose the Dutch version for one simple reason.  The thesis behind these thoughts – that is to say, what has really encouraged me to post today – is simply that the open chatter and self-revelation that is blogging, Facebook, Twitter and now WikiLeaks (the whole caboodle we call the modern Internet, in fact) can all be traced back to the tradition that is Dutch Calvinism and those practices, attitudes and behaviours that still take place in the Netherlands of modern times (the bold is mine):

Today, the Netherlands is a democratic unitary state whose unity is symbolised by the Queen, a descendant of William of Orange. However, the mentality of the Dutch has remained largely the same. Even though Dutch society has become quite secular, it is still greatly influenced by Calvinist values: a strong protestant work ethic; moderation in all aspects of life; decision-making by consensus; and a curb on individualism. Ostentation and boastfulness are frowned upon, orderliness and cleanliness are highly valued, and showing off one’s wealth is still considered inappropriate. Decisions are not taken without giving all those involved a chance to voice their opinion. In many houses, the curtains are left open after dark, signifying there is nothing to hide. The Dutch regard secretiveness with suspicion.

This doesn’t half remind me of those politicians who famously decry of the surveillance state: “You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.”

In a sense, however, whilst the battlecry of such politicos may appear to be a reconverted Dutch Calvinism – and maybe all the more admirable for it – I’d prefer to argue that it was preceded more accurately by the Medieval Inquisition: an unremitting pursuit of heresy; a pursuit of those who do not automatically agree with received opinion’s – in particular, here, the body politic’s – evermore widely and aggressively shared orthodoxies.

That is to say, an example of how we profess a desire less to create a society of the equally open, more to develop a hierarchy of the watchers and the watched.

Of course, if one could choose between the Medieval Inquisition, Dutch Calvinism and an ultimately sobering and proper return to privacy for all, I think many of us would choose the third.  But it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.  As David Davis MP recently pointed out:

Only a “small, but significant minority” of MPs in the House of Commons care about issues of internet privacy and state surveillance raised by the Edward Snowden disclosures, according to David Davis MP.

And “even the ministers in charge of this don’t have the first bloody idea of what they are doing,” he added, in response to a question from Computing.

So in response to the questions I’m posing in today’s post, what is it to be for our children’s generation?  Perhaps the very most we can hope for is that instinct to Dutch Calvinism I’ve already chosen to highlight and implicitly choose.  A total openness throughout all strata of society, embedded with considered fervour – somewhat religiously even – into future generations of young citizens.

The question is: who does the embedding and how?  How on earth can something like this be engineered?

Not an easy job; practically impossible I guess.  A battle few of us could win.  Recovering trust at a cultural and societal level, to the degree I am petitioning, is pretty much an undone deal.

Yet the alternative is a progressive – I’d say terrifying – ramping up of inquisitorial process, procedure and tools; a ramping up of oppression – as heresy, and its elimination, becomes democracy’s objective.

Not something any of us should be much looking forward to.

I don’t think anybody of an educated bent has ever felt so helpless in all of human history.


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Oct 212014
 
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This is probably going to be one of the most difficult posts I’ve ever written, especially in the times we now find we’re living.

Via Paul Bernal on Twitter, this story came my way an hour or so ago.  It describes how someone has been convicted of possessing cartoons of figures designed to look like children.  The judge clearly considered they represented and perpetuated abuse:

Judge Tony Briggs said the pictures were manufactured, stylised, and “repulsive” to varying degrees.

And:

He added: “This is material that clearly society and the public can well do without. Its danger is that it obviously portrays sexual activity with children, and the more it’s portrayed, the more the ill-disposed may think it’s acceptable.”

To conclude, on giving the person in question a nine-month prison sentence suspended for two years:

He said anything that encouraged child abuse, including word of mouth, drawings or artistic impressions, was to be “actively discouraged”.

I can’t disagree with the broad brush-strokes used here, having written in a similar vein on a similar subject a while ago, and to obviously similar effect:

As I pointed out recently, sexual abuse is primarily the abuse of power – and any society which criminalises the former should also be prepared to criminalise the latter.  Similarly, the generation of pornography – indeed, the generation of any content which involves the exploitation of people who would not otherwise participate, were their financial, or other, circumstances different – is, above all, an analogous abuse of power.

It does make me wonder the following, however: how far as a society are we prepared to go down the route not of policing such obvious images (I assume they are manifestly repulsive from the judge’s opinion and reaction, not because I have seen them myself – perhaps we should be learning to be a little more trusting of those whose responsibility is to act on our behalf in such challenging circumstances) but, rather, of policing even our thoughts?  For example: thoughts like the ones I had towards the end of my post linked to above:

A suggestion then.  Not just a rant.  Maybe it’s time for a new kind of content.  Given that the instinct for sex is about as old as Adam and Eve’s adult teeth, has anyone considered CGI porn as a wider solution to sexual exploitation – and its corresponding abuse of power – which so many people currently find themselves affected by?

How would this work?  Groups of existing sex workers could form officially-sanctioned cooperatives with the right to apply for government-funded training courses.  These courses would serve to train them up in computer-generated film-making.  There would, of course, be strict control over the content – a kind of Hays Code for our time.  Just because the content was computer-generated wouldn’t give the creators the right to reproduce and duplicate in the virtual world the kind of abusive relationships we were aiming to eliminate in real life.

In such a way, the whole balance of power would be altered.  Sex workers could find a gainful living as unexploited, and unexploiting, generators of porn; porn users would be safely educated away from the violent stuff through a plentiful, cheap and consistently benign exposure to non-violent (perhaps even government-subsidised) narrative; and, most importantly, the Internet could then be properly policed as per the canons of the code in question.

Would our judge be unhappy with thoughts such as these?  Do they – might they – constitute a risk to the safety, mores and behaviours of a wider public?  And am I running the risk of being guilty of incitement to future processes which lead to abuse – simply by publishing these ideas?

Maybe so.  If  so, perhaps a retraction would be in order.

But if not, if the matter of freedom to think is at risk here and overrides other points of view – not in the judicial sentence handed down with respect to the images under discussion but, instead, in the trend it could quite easily kickstart one day to the state ending up believing it has the right to police all our imaginings – then perhaps the following tweets’ implications do need to be evaluated:

@zebrared It’s a ‘direct harm’ vs ‘indirect harm’ argument… the law effectively assumes there’s harm from even viewing fakes.

@PaulbernalUK Yes. I see that. & there is considerable value in the approach. But it does require us to accept a policed view of society. >>

@PaulbernalUK << Prob being who decides what is policed (“fake” images which pervert) vs what is not (real-life abuse by the powerful). :-(

Which reminds me, for some reason, of those equally fake “Spitting Image” puppets – never so missed as they are today, right?


http://youtu.be/R1jY5fYjV-U

For in a way, they also constituted abuse of a considerable nature: for many, these puppets brought into irreparable disrepute an institution which at the time was still repairable.  Even as, on the other hand, some might argue the abuse was merited – observing and critiquing the dreadful self-destruction of a once treasured body politic: a self-destruction which would have happened anyway, however sensitively we’d otherwise behaved.

Which begs my final question: can abuse ever be merited?  What do you think, cartoon lovers?

____________________

Update to this post: some further reading has just come my way via Facebook and the Mirror.  The report describes how CGI porn has indeed been created, although not with the “didactic” or “structural” aims I naively suggested.  Instead, law-enforcement agencies decided a while ago (I do hope before my original blogpost) to use such technologies to detect and capture those involved in online child sex.

The story is worth your time, of course: it raises important issues around morality, possible entrapment and the pressures that policing what can be a pretty unpleasant worldwide web may pile up on those who are obliged to decide how to proceed.  I’m not sure it makes any clearer the debate under discussion in my post today, though: I can’t help feeling the creeping medieval shadow of the Roman Catholic Inquisition is returning to our midst.

I’d far rather find some way of educating people out of an obsession with societally harmful sex than using the very same technologies to, perhaps, encourage them in their activities – at least until they’re ultimately caught.  There really is something – at least for me in my naivete – that doesn’t quite fit with what we presumed was once a liberally supportive society.


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Oct 212014
 
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This came my way via Phil on Twitter just now (the bold is mine):

As the Greens have gained more media attention, Bennett has thought seriously about post-election possibilities, and what role her party might play in supporting a Tory- or Labour-led government. “I can’t imagine circumstances in which we would prop up a Tory government,” she says. “Our first inclination would be a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, rather than a coalition, because it means you provide stable government – you don’t get the ministerial cars but you keep your conscience and you don’t have to vote for tuition fees, for example.”

As I tweeted in response:

@philbc3 To be fair, does seem to express lukewarm preference for Labour. But not good keeping conscience is more important than ownership.

@philbc3 Seems the Greens may be made of the same political instincts as other party groupings. Our body politic refusing to regenerate!

Representative democracy is, in fact, a bit of a bugger.  At the moment there are moves to bring about the legal figure of recall to parliamentary constituencies.  I suppose what this means is that if a sufficient number of voters are unhappy with what an MP is doing, he or she can be forced to stand again mid-term.  Its opponents will argue this will lead to a ridiculous knee-jerk body politic where currently there isn’t one; its proponents will argue knee-jerk instincts couldn’t get worse than they already are.

The bugger that such a democracy becomes, with or without recall as a shiny bolt-on, is that we agree with the idea of moderately autonomous MPs when they stop barbaric – even as possibly popular – impulses to reintroduce the death penalty but we refuse to countenance such structures when their autonomy leads to the horrors the Coalition has committed over the past four years in the name of a negotiated politics.

Or, rather, it’s not so much their autonomy of us we refuse to accept as their often blind and unquestioning attachment to their political groupings.

This leads to the stuff we’ve spoken about at length; it also means no one – or very few, at any rate – cares to question underlying fundamentals.

For example, why is the only alternative to a rapacious corporate capitalism supposed to be a heavy-handed, unresponsive, dead weight of a state?  And why is the former so easily sold to and bought by us as representing a fleet-of-foot operating efficiency when any objective assessment would judge its efficiencies to be – at the very most – limited mainly to the needs and desires of executive classes and shareholders various?

I’m not arguing that corporate capitalism doesn’t have its virtues.  At its best, it collates and shares the living and breathing knowledge of maybe hundreds and thousands of employees.  But that’s at its best.  And we do, surely, have to accept that in its battle with the equally corporate state, it has grown up in a shadow many of its companies have clearly emulated.  That the Tories should go onto the attack from 2010 onwards – having identified the prime weakness of their business sponsors as their inability to stand on their own two commercial feet without the succour of Mother State; instead, putting the spotlight on the poor, disabled and equally state-dependent disempowered – is just one indication of where the truth really lies: that is to say, by telling a small truth about one defenceless portion of society, we tell a damning lie about one hugely powerful – yet potentially vulnerable (ie in need of permanent political protection) – top of the pyramid.

Even so, there is another way: there always has to be.  As democratic socialists – or perhaps wistful social democrats – it could be our task to regenerate this narrative completely: in the face of a relatively efficient – although often ineffective – corporate capitalism, we shouldn’t posit the only alternative as being the aforementioned, inevitably less efficient Mother State.*

For the problem now appears to be that business – corporate capitalism I mean – has been so successful at burrowing its way into our societal mindsets that we are utterly unable to conceptualise a different set of working structures, tools, assumptions or wider ways of seeing.  Just as we struggle to conceive of a business which isn’t corporate, so we struggle to conceive of a state which could be anything else.

In fact, in much the same way as we now assume business has to be corporate capitalism, so we assume the state could only be a less efficient version of the same.

Yet the technology, ideas, mentalities and moods are surely out there for another kind of representative democracy, society and commercial environment.  Isn’t it time we stopped assuming there only existed a singular duopoly in our society – time we started believing there must be far more than just one best way?

____________________

* That corporate capitalism’s “kicking when down” of the state – which it nevertheless receives so much benefit from – mirrors the Tories’ “kicking when down” of, for example, the European Union for purely political reasons – of a, nevertheless, commercially incoherent nature – shouldn’t go unnoticed as a tactic which is spreading too far and fast for any progressive’s liking.


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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 082014
 
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Some good quotes today – and, I would argue, patterns that weave a little worryingly.

This first one came via Tom on Facebook, from a nice overview of New Labour times in Left Foot Forward:

And yet the New Labour preference for equality of opportunity over equality of outcome failed to recognise that it isn’t only wealth that concentrates; opportunity does too. [...]

The paragraph goes on to say, quite accurately but sadly to my mind (the bold is mine):

The more unequal a society is the less mobile it will become, thereby undermining the meritocratic principle. Or to quote the American author Christopher Hayes, whose book Twilight of the Elites touches in more detail on this theme, ‘The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility’.

Meanwhile, Chris suggests that:

[...] Given these structural tendencies for capitalism to degenerate into cronyism, could it be that some form of market socialism (big pdf) would do better? [...]

Then, we get Paul saying this of a proposal I am unfamiliar with:

This is the early 21st century spirit of managerialism, par excellence. The Chief Social Worker* is effectively saying that she recognises that in some/many circumstances the organisation of the whole child protection and family support system militates against effective social work, but that she just doesn’t care; social workers are just going to have to get on with, seeking to do the impossible, sinking or swimming.

Little wonder, when managers abrogate responsibility for the ‘organisational context’ in which workers work in favour of a vague aspiration that somehow, magically, superworkers will allow them to meet their supertargets, that the workers either vote with their feet (as in the 43% social worker vacancy rate in Rotherham), or stick to ticking the boxes. [...]

Finally, a mobile upload from Steve, also via Facebook, of worldviews from what he terms market forces (I presume, currently, English/UK government too) versus those held by professionals (in this case, professional educators).  His contextualisation goes thus:

How believers in market forces see education and how teachers see education. We have to change this mindset that leaves exhausted demoralised teachers teaching your children.

And his photo runs as follows:

Market forces vs professional teachers

Isn’t it curious to see how the patterns repeat?  In the first instance, a probably fair attempt by New Labour to resolve inequality in very challenging circumstances led to the very reassertion they were looking to avoid of inefficient concentrations of what we could simply term “wealth” – but what we might better choose to describe as “access to and leverage of wealth”.

In the second case, we get this florid creature, crony capitalism, rearing its similarly wasteful presence – a capitalism which, like every dependent offspring born, aims to succour itself to health via the support of a dedicated body: in this instance, the bodies politic and socioeconomic which the rest of us belong to.

In the third case, we perceive the mechanism and tool for implementing the above two processes, whereby these concentrations of this “wealth” I am inexactly describing take place.  This managerialism many of us have described has only served to give the burdened manager-classes a utility beyond their natural one: like a piece of word-processing software that long ago reached maturity – but nevertheless hangs on in there despite its collapsing ability to add further value, as it continues to sell licence after licence through bright, breezy and effortlessly useless GUI updates of all kinds – our clearly downtrodden managers have replaced truly added value with number-crunching KPIs and procedures various.  What used to be the paper-shifting bureaucracies of yore have become the button-pressing target-definers of a latterday now.

But it’s Steve’s upload to Facebook which, for me, best summarises the whole situation.  If we believe in what we surely prefer to describe and understand as a realistically free market – a market not only of opportunity grasped healthily but also of outcomes continually renewed and innovated – which of the two lists best mimics its necessary preconditions?

The one on the left or the one on the right?  The tools of that florid capitalism we are currently suffering from or the elements of possible progress which a tentatively defined “free market socialism” might lead us to take on board?

I’m no longer too much of an idealist.  My life has lately, to a degree, taken me away from such sincerity.  The things I have seen – the things I have seen others do, both to me and to beloved family – make me less of a dyed-in-the-wool lover of men and women of good deeds than you might think (perhaps to my disgrace, too …).  I am, as a result, less likely to believe or trust anyone.

Yet even though I no longer see things in the black and white, red and blue, or green and yellow of political armbanding, I can still believe that out of a corrupted system such as the dominant form of capitalism currently is, something else far more beautiful can be fashioned by those who still have time.

Time and, maybe, energy.

What do you think?

Aren’t these the real reasons why we must deal with inequality?  Not out of love or affection or otherworldly instincts.  No.  Simply because any other way is – rankly, quite frankly – an appalling waste of money.


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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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Sep 112014
 
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Ben said this yesterday (the bold is mine):

To me, the Scots Independence debate seems to have shown a yearning not so much for separation, but rather for a state and a country that means something – for a better democracy.

I think we can (and definitely should) all share that aspiration, but the idea that Scotland by cutting loose will be free from the denationalising forces of global wealth and power that bear down on us and our governments is fanciful – if anything it will be more vulnerable to them, as will the rest of us. [...]

This I agree with, though with a number of caveats I shall outline in a minute.  He goes on to assert:

[...] There will be positive aspects in coming to terms with the reduced status that separation will bring, but they are nothing that could not be achieved within the union.

First, the caveats I mention.  Yes.  The smaller you are, the more likely you are to find yourself vulnerable to globalising forces you may not be able to resist.  However, having said that, it’s clear that the United Kingdom, as it stands, is in thrall to – has been in thrall to for decades now – those globalising forces which look to play off one nation’s workforces against another nation’s standards of living.  And instead of encouraging the payment of living wages, successive governments have subsidised large companies by an infrastructure of tax credits and other dependency-creating measures – all designed to weakly and ineffectually serve the hopes and working pride of generations of working people.  Just because you’re as big as the UK (as it has been to date) doesn’t mean you can necessarily make a different sociopolitical landscape out of what the globalisers want the world to toil under.

Nor that our politicians are going to be big-hearted or courageous enough – or even have that persistence and cognisance of a broader vision – to want to make that important difference Ben is clearly looking for.

Equally, just because you are smaller doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t take firm stances against the kind of destruction of living standards taking place at the moment.  Iceland is an example of how small can sometimes mean humongous; and although I’m not saying we should necessarily follow their lead in the substance of such matters, I am saying we should be prepared to accept that size doesn’t have to be a question of numbers – it can also be a question of how assertively we exhibit our principles.

The second quote I took from Ben’s piece, where he argues that the positives we surely all desire can exist without but also within the Union, hits the nail, perhaps unconsciously, on the head: if I were in the unenviable position of voting in this election, I would still be wavering I can tell you.  For me, nothing at all that the “No” camp has said has convinced me that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.  Whilst Tories and Lib Dems have laid waste over the past four years to what once was a gloriously eccentric, fudging and generally socially responsible body politic, there is little left in public discourse – as mediated by our politicians, anyhow – which I find myself currently treasuring or wishing to rescue.

If the “Yes” camp wins in just a few days’ time, it will be because too many people have not been convinced by a “more of the same” argument.  An argument, in fact, which could have been couched in quite other terms: “Take this opportunity by the scruff of the constitutional neck to implement a total overhaul of everything we do – and are!”

But no.  The “No” camp simply believes in “more of the same”, precisely because the “No” camp has spent the last four years destroying all the evidence and practice of what truly made the United Kingdom united.

They have lost all contact with “what we used to be”, precisely because they have turned that “what we were” into that “what we used to be”.  With awful intentionality and deliberation, and with a clear ideology designed to disembowel everything which did clearly, naturally and beautifully bind us together in a constructive cultural dissonance.

We once were “better together”, of that I am sure – but not any more, I’m pretty clear.  Not in the light of historic child abuse; not in the light of historic police corruption; not in the light of media-led manipulation of democracy and its institutions; not in the light of a socialism by stealth which actually – in the end –  turned out to be the anteroom of a neoliberalism by shock and awe.

My advice for what it’s worth, then, to those with a right to vote in this referendum?

Vested interests will always use fear to defend their positions.  Voters’ sacred task is to filter their own from vested, & vote accordingly.

And that’s really the society we should be yearning for.

And that’s really the legacy we should be wishing to rescue with this damnably conflicted vote.


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Sep 072014
 
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As promised, I’ve been working hard on my biz – as befits this time of year.  Although, when working in an online environment, academic years and timeframes seem to mean less and less.

Here’s what I’ve been doing.  First, this blogpost where I announce for the price of six hours of personalised classes that you can get a maximum of an additional four hours of classes in group free.  It works something like this:

From October 2014 onwards, you will have the opportunity to buy blocks of six hours of personalised one-to-one training and combine them with up to four hours of group classes per month.

How can you take advantage of this offer? Just ensure you finish your block of six hours in one calendar month, with the same flexible timetables as always, and then choose up to four hours of themed group classes during the following month. There will always be two classes in the morning per week, as well as two classes in the evenings. You will also have the opportunity – by yourself! – to catch up on classes if you miss them.

Meanwhile, over at Facebook – where I now understand how well it is orientated to potential advertisers (despite two ads being knocked back for not complying with guidelines, the process to date seems quite transparent and simple – much easier for sure than my last experience with Google AdWords) – I’ve created this page.  If you like Facebook, and you like the page, why not go ahead and “like” the page too?!

:-)

And perhaps, even, start your English skills learning this autumn with me.


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Sep 012014
 
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The following is something I wrote this weekend in moments of doubt.  I don’t know if it bears sharing with a wider audience, or whether such sharing is, in truth, an unworthy baring instead.

You must be the judge of this; I can only continue to question what the world delivers in its curious and sometimes clearly cackhanded wisdoms.

Anyhow.  Here it is:

I received a beautiful email from a dear dear Spanish friend today.  It has gone a considerable way to restoring my faith in the country and its people.  There is good and bad everywhere – it’s a cliché I know, but we need to be reminded every so often.  In this way at least we don’t end up casually neglecting the idea.

A wondrous idea neglected is like a cottage garden drying in an unaccustomed sun.  Of which, it looks like we’ll all be getting quite a bit more in the near future, as polar ice caps disappear – like kindness and affection from the society we must, more and more, abide by and live amongst.

So the idea I mention is that all of us have some good and bad, and everywhere we go there is a bit of all of us to be found.

Life can give you lovely stuff and it can do horrible things to you too, and it can hurt your own soul and – awfully bitterly, and even more painfully – it can hurt those you most love.  But most importantly it teaches you that the home you were born in is probably the best you can find – or, at least, just as much as those places in the world where it’s said they claim to love you.

Which reminds me of my dear dear Spanish friend.  A good person; a grand person; a wonderful person to be around.

I guess there isn’t much more to say, actually.

The next couple of weeks and months I shall be concentrating on business stuff.  If it’s of interest here, I’ll let you know more.

In the meantime, continue to love each other and treasure your good fortune – whether you made it yourself or it came from elsewhere.  For a life lived without the kindness and affection I mention above is – for sure – hardly worth treasuring at all.  Especially when one finds it impossible to show kindness and affection to oneself.  Another cliché I know, but it’s true enough all the same: no love can infuse a life whose actor and protagonist is unable to love themselves first.

Remember that, and remember that aspiring to and doing it as well – if you can – is much the best thing to focus on.

I hope we all can.  In my case, I’ll certainly be striving to encourage those closest to me to think and act thus.

And though the future may not always be orange, neither is breakfast always continental!

Gotta mean something, don’t you think?

;-)


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Aug 312014
 
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I’ve not had the best of summers; though, even so, it’s been a summer I enjoyed.  A curate’s egg of a summer, perhaps I ought to say.

Good in parts; dreadful in others.

I’ve realised something, mind.  When I fell ill in 2003, I blamed the Americans and Iraq, and unspecified others, for what befell me at the time.

I completely withdraw this accusation today.

I realise the situation was far more complex than that – I was, more than likely, under the spell of other matters much closer to home, matters which I shall now never go into the detail of in public.  (If you do ever want to know the full story, you’ll have to get in touch one day and have a beer – or a coffee or two – in some discreet environment that a much repentant Mil will need to feel comfortable with.)

This summer a close member of my family suffered the consequences of underlying pain.  In observing their reactions, I saw myself in 2003 – and the common thread which ties together the two events becomes clear.

When trust does not exist, actions can always be perceived as double-edged swords.  Whether something is done out of good will or not, it can always be interpreted as having been done out of bad will or good.  The redundancy of information our world and perceptions are plagued – or blessed – with means almost anything can be believed of anyone, on any side of a disagreement or negotiation.

And so through the fingers of uncertainty does also slip one’s own confidence.

One thing I do know, however, is that if you truly love someone, you never want to force them to do something they do not wish to do.  If you truly love someone, you look to allow them to treasure, build and implement their dreams – in any which respectful way they yearn after.

Myself, this summer?  I wasn’t at my best, by a long chalk.  I’ve often thought logic is all you need, to analyse the world and understand its dynamics.  But now I realise, especially in cases of complex process like the one I’ve engaged in ineffectively over the past month or so, that logic is most certainly not enough; logic is just a starting point; logic, in itself, can even work against those who believe fiercely in its validity.

Meanwhile, those who understand process, who use knowledge as well as logic to time, structure, design and channel what happens from day to day, week to week and month to month … well, essentially they will always be able to beat those who believe only in logic.

I was greatly influenced by a smattering of semiotics I imbibed at uni, whilst studying Film & Literature at Warwick.  It turned my head madly, much as a beautiful person to a figure in mid-life crisis can do much the same.  I was fascinated by the idea that any system could be sufficiently analysed and interpreted simply from its component parts, and in order that the machine’s workings might thus become plain.

I believed this for decades.

This summer I understand I’ve been wrong for just as long a time as that.  Both in 2003 and 2014.  Both in the public and the private sphere.

The only thing I would like to add and underline, then, at least at this difficult moment in time for our wellbeing, is that whilst logic is essential, it is worse than useless without the corresponding knowledge I speak of above.  What’s more, incomplete knowledge may be far worse than no knowledge at all.

Of course, bad faith plays its part in undermining trust.

Of that, there has been plenty on view in August – not only in the private but also the very very public sphere.

But most important is to remember that whatever happens, life and love engage and interact in the most unexpected ways.  Around the corner of sheer desperation may lie a moment of reflection and comprehension.  Comprehension in the sense of understanding what’s happened; comprehension in the sense of being understood.

And out of such comprehension, future lives and their tracks can begin to be laid.


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Aug 162014
 
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This tweet led me to this Labour Party YouTube video:


http://youtu.be/2CyHZh10nro

Before I continue, let it be clear from the start that whilst I’m still currently a Labour Party member, its behaviour during the recent #DRIP process has meant I will be deciding in September whether to continue to pay my dues.  I am as a result less predisposed to be friendly to videos such as these than I might have been several months ago.

With that declaration of interests upfront, I’d like to examine what the theme of the video really means.  As the tweet points out (the bold is mine):

You can’t be pro-jobs without being pro-job creators. Find out why Labour means business – http://labour.tw/1ydlXK8

There is plenty in the video which looks to cover all the bases: from global investment (and presumably very big business) to a local focus (and presumably very small business).  Of course, covering such bases may be little more than good intentions; maybe disingenuous good intentions at that.  None of the Labour team is stupid: all of them must realise that to get elected, big business rules the roost; anything you say which may favour small boys and girls over big boys and girls must be couched in such lukewarm terms so as not to disconcert the latter’s sadly rapacious instincts.

The problem is that whilst defining One Nation Labour as an economic construct where everyone benefits from the functioning of such an economy could win elections, were the appeal to be made effectively over the heads of the media interests of big business, in reality this kind of appeal cannot be made without the mediating instincts of these selfsame interests.  And so we face the dilemma Tony Blair faced: the need for a socialism by stealth, a piebald socialism implemented in New Labour times, which unfortunately (later on) opened the door to – and put in place the legislative tools of – the violent but vigorously denied privatisation of Coalition austerity.

In truth, when Labour says “You can’t be pro-jobs without being pro-job creators”, it plays a two-handed game: to the small boys and girls, this sounds like they mean us; to the big boys and girls, this sounds like they mean them.  And right up to election day, right up to that day and beyond, we shall never be sure whether we were diddled or we simply misunderstood.

How so?  Are we so uncouched in the words of political double-speakery?  I don’t think so.  It’s just that hope runs eternal – even in times of austerity and social injustice.

A long time ago, I wrote a piece on the Coalition’s war against the professions, describing how it was dismantling the latter’s power and former right to infuse debate with evidence-based arguments.  I suggested that, at the same time, politicians – members of the only unmanaged profession around, the only one with no clear career path, training process or evidence-based evaluation system – were deliberating ring-fencing their rights not to be properly organised by an increasingly educated society.

In the light of such an assessment, when Labour speaks of being “pro-job creators”, I am minded to wonder if a similar process of saying one thing and doing another isn’t taking place – even, we might like to suggest, for very similar reasons.

Substitute that word “job” with the word “capital”: “You can’t be pro-capital without being pro-capital creators.”  Doesn’t that sit so much more accurately with what we all know is going to happen?  For sooner or later, capital will realise its interests lie in moulding Labour, given that sooner or later it will begin to realise the Party may have chances of gaining some kind of power next year.  And whilst Labour knows this and will eventually have to kowtow to a painful reality (a reality for the leaders less painful already through a currently invisible train of capitulation), it still has to carry its working vote to the polls.  Only then can it deceive and disillusion.

To be honest, hung parliaments clearly benefit those who control – at the very least, form part of – the status quo: business leaders, politicians, everyone who’d like to take “difficult” decisions but doesn’t always like the responsibility and flak these bring, can use coalition dynamics to give the impression it’s not their fault.  Very easy; very nice; very dishonest; evermore common.

So what would make me trust this video-pitch a little more than I do?  Perhaps an approach which put the job of being a job-creator on the curriculums of all schools, all further education colleges, all foundation years in universities.  An approach which would couple commercial wisdoms with social responsibilities.  An approach which didn’t use double-speakery – nor left open the door to the suspicion that it was being used.

To summarise, an approach where politicians were professionalised in much the same way as doctors, nurses, teachers and others; where the currency of communication was evidence-based in all contexts; and where money became a tool to create a sharing economy.

Instead of, as now, as is unhappily the case, perpetuating itself as a financial device to capture and ensnare the cleverly astute from the rest of us – thus removing all social conscience from the planet’s powerful.

However well-intentioned some of them may start out.


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Aug 122014
 
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I just posted this on Facebook.  It explains how I feel today.  No word describes it better than sad.

Feeling rather sad today.  Don’t think the news about Robin Williams helped.  Shouldn’t affect me so much I know; never met him; only knew him thru’ cinema.  One person in peacetime, not hundreds in wartime.  But I can’t help feeling it’s always the deep thinkers who go like this.  The thinkers who make jokes also understand life as it is: there is no way they can avoid seeing it all in both its full glory and its full tragedy.  And sometimes that knowledge is not power but a heavy weight. So, ‪#‎RIP‬ ‪#‎RobinWilliams‬.  Bicentennial Man indeed …

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bicentennial_Man

And this is the conclusion of that tale linked to above – where Andrew, the robot who is to become the Bicentennial Man, effectively forges a strategy to commit a slow but irrevocable suicide, in order that human beings may accept him into their humanity:

Andrew decides that he wants to be a man. He obtains the backing of Feingold and Martin (the law firm of George and Paul) and seeks out Li-Hsing, a legislator and chairman of the Science and Technology committee, hoping that the World Legislature will declare him a human being. Li-Hsing advises him that it will be a long legal battle, but he says he is willing to fight for it. Feingold and Martin begins to slowly bring cases to court that generalize what it means to be human, hoping that despite his prosthetics Andrew can be regarded as essentially human. Most legislators, however, are still hesitant due to his immortality.

The first scene of the story is explained as Andrew seeks out a robotic surgeon to perform an ultimately fatal operation: altering his positronic brain so that it will decay with time. He has the operation arranged so that he will live to be 200. When he goes before the World Legislature, he reveals his sacrifice, moving them to declare him a man. The World President signs the law on Andrew’s two-hundredth birthday, declaring him a bicentennial man. As Andrew lies on his deathbed, he tries to hold onto the thought of his humanity, but as his consciousness fades his last thought is of Little Miss.

It’s sad that our humanity often needs such moments as these to be felt at its keenest and sharpest.

So many people I wish I could meet.

So little time to do so.


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Aug 102014
 
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A story from the Guardian/Observer website today got me thinking.  It’s headlined:

Rising Ukip star on Roma in the UK, vaccines and racist gardeners

and it’s introduced:

Rotherham is a Ukip target in next year’s general election. Jane Collins tells how she hopes to unseat Labour by being ‘different’

Notice the adjectives “rising” and “different”.  A prominent article in a notable newspaper of liberal leanings for a party with no MPs, no policies – and one narrative which, whether we like it or not, would surely lead to a business cataclysm and upheaval of unpredictable proportions.  A similar thing, though on a separate part of the political spectrum, is taking place in Spain with the movement (I respectfully resist calling it a party for the moment) Podemos.  Plenty of free media attention for something creating interest, it is true – but not with the credentials a careful democracy should perhaps require.

However, let’s try and focus on these dynamics from an apolitical stance.  I’m fascinated by the fact – it’s undeniable – that practically all our media, whatever its political opinion, is drawn magnetically to change: in such an environment, it’s hardly surprising that an up-and-down approach to communication should be the rule.  Whilst the peaks and troughs of idiotic statements capture the headlines day after day (no longer simple soundbites – more often unruly video exchanges designed to move us, almost assign us, emotionally from one monolithic bloc to the other), alongside the oft-quoted “he said, she said” journalism defining what they think we should think, it’s no wonder the careful, timely and intelligent chugging away of good practice ends up in the sewers of our perceptions.

Change, its aforementioned magnetic effect and practically all our media … yes!  This is what captures the agendas of daily politicking.  But it’s not only bad for the human race that constancy gets no publicity; it’s bad for those who enter the public sphere with the idea of working via evidence and humane values.  In the end, their initial desire to “make a difference by focussing on the universal” gets consumed by all these up-and-down appeals to “listen to me and what I’ve got brand new to say” – which, in any case, is rarely ever even moderately new in an objective and historical sense.

They say that change is inevitable – so get used to it.  What they don’t like to admit is change is not monolithic – nor, indeed, as inevitable as they suggest.  Our instinct to popularise, promulgate and propagandise around change is extremely common, that is true (as is our habit of arguing that it’s always an opportunity) – but the universal needs of a society of social beings like those of us who form this humanity I describe don’t change half as much as the change merchants would have us believe.  And if this we are to change at all in the near future, we need our media – that is to say, at least a substantial minority – to recognise that the chugging away of good practice I mention above is far more useful for that future than unceasingly spurious calls to perceive as positive, and to go ahead and opportunise, all dynamics of so-called change.

Just because it moves doesn’t necessarily mean it’s progress.  And just because it’s stable (that is to say, doing its stuff silently behind the media veneers) doesn’t necessarily mean we should proceed to ignore its true worth.

And I don’t just mean within the fields of established politics, where plenty of examples tumble out on a daily basis.  I mean also the new guys who claim – this time! – to be making a “real” difference.

Right UKIP, Podemos et al?


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Aug 032014
 
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This was the tweet which I finally put together this evening, after a long time of not knowing how to put my finger on what I felt.  A tweet which finally clarified things for me: on a whole host of conflicted feelings about colonial pasts, victimhood, racism and cultural confusion:

At heart, we’re racist. We expect non-Westerners to bomb the hell out of each other; we don’t expect liberal democracies to do the same. :-(

Now as I’ve already suggested on these pages, the supreme dangers of a very real – that is to say, of a latent but all the same rapidly manifesting and evermore visible – anti-Semitism cannot be underestimated in the current context.  And so I’ve been writing to understand my own responses; almost certainly disappointing, to date, many of those who still read this little blog – especially from the context of the left of the British political spectrum.

Many terrible things have been written and posted over the past couple of weeks.  The pictures and words which impose a continuing sense of violence on those of us who are utterly impotent and yet terrifyingly, permanently, engaged with all the horrors that first troop, then stumble and ultimately totter, break and collapse before us … well, such a sequence of photographic and verbal imagery can be quite unbearable.

Today, I have even read – written in the register of a bitter lifestyle choice – a piece on whether genocide is right for you.

And so it is – after much cogitation – I finally understand my reticence; I finally taste in all its glory the bitter pill I’m having to swallow.  I am part Spanish Jew; a very little part it is true, but a part I wish to recognise and be proud of.  How then – after the terrible times of the Holocaust, of the legacy my European side must never, nor should ever, forget nor obviate – can I continue to feel a sense of severe unhappiness with the part that Israel is playing in this conflict?  How can I be … well … so disloyal – after all the suffering that Jews have undergone?

I suppose, if truth be told, the tweet is right: I, like many of my compatriots, many of my fellow Europeans, am racist: we ignore the vast empty toothless neighbourhoods of destruction where Arabs have committed evil against Arabs, and only concentrate on what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians.  Or, indeed (far more occasionally I guess the Israeli government would say), on what the Palestinians are doing to Israel.

Only I also wonder if this is really, or solely, racism on my part.  For sure we do guard a strong sense of anti-Semitism, and things like the past month do serve to add a frisson of  “There, I told you so!” to our daily interactions.  But I’m not absolutely sure, as I dare to explore this train of thought further, whether the real battle is one of racism or ideologies.

The current Israeli government’s position doesn’t half seem to mimic our own government’s behaviour around the time of Iraq when Tony Blair led Labour.  The “Arab/Muslim/terrorist threat in general” meme – which has served to coalesce so many positions and postures into singular monocultural points of view – is clearly being used, with evidence from the battlefield I agree, to justify all manner of war crimes in Gaza.  But I’m beginning to suspect that, in truth, what certain ideologues are doing – on our side of the walls being built, mind – is to use that meme to hide from the public a more complex reality: that in Arab societies it would be as easy to find people who from our liberal perspectives we could get along with, who we could build bridges towards, who we could engage with at social and cultural levels in order to create shared future, as it would be to find them in countries like Israel.  And similarly (perhaps far more importantly, this), that people as ideologically fanatical – as fundamentalist in their world views, I mean – as Hamas or ISIS clearly are can be encountered in positions of power in our European and North American contexts, as well as in Israel itself.

Bombing people and places to smithereens is nothing like allowing the disabled to slowly die as support systems are suddenly removed – but in the black-and-white nature of the worldviews in question, certain conceptual elements are shared.  The “I am right, you are wrong” mentality; the “No gain without pain” attitudes (as long as we understand the pain will be yours, not mine); the “If I’m at the top and you’re at the bottom, there’s got to be a God-given reason” assumptions … these are shared by so many of those currently running austerity the world over.

And there’s little difference for these distanced stratospheric makers and shakers – makers and shakers who’ve neither suffered a shrapnel wound in their lives nor had to witness a baby’s blood spatter the concrete before them – between the poverty of action that allows them to gaily crunch spun statistics whilst people starve at the doors of hundreds of food banks, and the poverty of thought that allows governments who say their enemies mix military and hospitals packed to the defibrillators with utterly defenceless human beings, to go ahead and destroy the lives of hundreds of terrified persons.

In truth, we do expect Israel, as a Western democracy, to do better.  And in truth, we do expect Arab countries, as non-Western regimes, to do their worst.  And in truth, this is highly racist.  And in truth, we shouldn’t think like this.

But it’s also – kind of – just as racist to believe that Western democracy means just one thing.  And what’s more, one inevitably good thing.  At the end of this lovely review in the Financial Times two days ago, on the subject of the Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ new book about the wider pursuit of the recent phone-hacking stories, Davies is criticised for ranting on about neoliberalism.  I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment if it’s a rant or not.  But I imagine if he does rant, it’s because it’s all too easy for him to fall into the trap of doing so.  So much of what we understand to be a latterday Western democracy seems to have been handed over, lock, stock and pork barrel, to those who have professional time on their hands to take over completely the “representative” in “representative democracy”.

I am sure, in the end, that so many of us have more in common with good people of a liberal inclination in many Arab countries, wherever they may find themselves, than we do with some of the right-wing austerity fanatics in the UK – in particular, that bit of the UK we call Westminster!  This is not to say that fundamentalism in the Middle East isn’t a threat to be taken seriously.  But it does mean that a liberal view of democracy must begin to fight more vigorously to be heard – if for no other reason than to let it be known that good people are to be found everywhere in the world.

And more importantly, as I’ve already indicated, that real poverty of thought may also be found on many of our own doorsteps.

For we are not one in anything – but, rather, multitudes.

As someone far better than me once pointed out …


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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 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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