For whatever reason, my writing’s been bloody awful for exactly three days now. I’m really not short of things to write about; just the ability to put them across in a way that someone might be able to understand. So until I find where my talent disappeared to, you can click on these:
Let’s start with some news which isn’t really news: Britain’s private prisons are performing worse than state-run jails. Who’da thought?
Second, this is just wonderful.
Hendrik Hertzberg on the Obama administration & gay rights.
Fred Kaplan wonders whether all hell will break loose when U.S. combat troops withdraw from Iraq.
Marc Lynch posts on the same topic.
In The Root, Suad Abdul Khabeer looks at the deepening ties between Islam & hip hop.
Al Giordano reports on the situation in Honduras.
A Taliban bigwig admits they screwed-up in Afghanistan.
And apparently the Chinese are really getting into polo.
In his writing persona, Steven Wells was many things: scenester, poet, self-important prick, cynic, idealist, embittered old Trot, the best music scribe of his time and the last punk alive. He’d write about the things he loved (multiculturalism, heavy metal, high fructose pop, socialism) in the same style and with the same searing intensity as those things he hated (fascists, Belle & Sebastian, trendies, Travis), and when he was at his best, there was no one who could write such a riot of words.
Not that you should mistake him as just an obnoxious agitator. As the internet proved long ago, anyone can create their own blog, come home drunk and dribble an artless stream of expletives into cyberspace (indeed, some write the country’s biggest blogs). No, Swells’ rage was directed, focused, positive.
In a crowded & often confounding cultural landscape, Wells objected to the country’s dwindling music press being saturated by the safe-sounding snooze-music of middle class sophists who took themselves and their student union ennui way too seriously. He hadn’t the time for equivocation, ambivalence or nuance; he wanted belief, sweat, and arm-flailing abandon. For him, ‘nice’ was an adjective of despair; ‘riot’ was a state of ecstasy.
In search of these elusive qualities, he’d slaughter his own magazine’s sacred cows, hammer some hot new artist & hype the kinds of bands that nobody but him believed were deserving of rapturous write-ups. He could be gloriously right, he could be hideously wrong, but he was always deliciously entertaining. He just gave a fuck.
All of which is probably the kind of gushing professional eulogy that the man himself would’ve hated; dismissed as pompous, middle-class, say-nothing simpering. So rather than work myself into even more of a lather, I’ll end this with the last recorded words from the man himself, and his final dispatch for the Philadelphia Weekly:
And of course all this bollocks is written by an idiot who has polished his image as an existentialist, atheist hard-man and anti-mope, forever sneering at the tribes who wallow in self-pity — the gothers, the emo kids, the Smiths fans — the whole 900-block-wide marching band composed entirely of the white male urban middle classes who are convinced that (as the most affluent and pampered human beings who have ever walked the planet) theirs is a story worth hearing. Blissfully unaware that they are but a few generations away from regular visits to the doctor who would wind parasitic worms from their beer bloated assholes using sticks. (Check out the AMA logos, those smiling beasts are not snakes.)
You could blame this fallacy on poor education, cultural deterioration, or simple moral decline.
Me? I blame it on sunshine. I blame it on the moonlight. I blame it on the boogie.
Johann Hari reports on the idigenous Amazonians who’re fighting for their – and our – futures.
Anna Bawden describes the problems facing the probation service.
Agnes Poirier thinks France’s debate about the Burkha couldn’t happen in Britain.
Daniel Larison worries about Obama’s increasingly ‘tough’ stance on Iran.
As does Steve Clemons.
Reihan Salam wonders whether he’s becoming a neo-con
It’s a couple of days old, but this Paul Krugman piece on the real climate change ‘fantasists’ is a smart take on the economics of environmentalism.
Brandon Keim points to research which suggests that respecting the cultural (not genetic) diversity of whales is key to saving them.
And Jezebel critiques the British media’s handling of a ‘brazen bigamist’
I doubt this’ll work for everyone, but before deciding whether or not to support some new legislation, I like to set a few simple tests. First, the proponents would need to convince me that the problem they wish to address is important enough to require legislation, that only legislation could solve this problem and that the proposed legislation will actually work.
Next, you’d have to be pretty circumspect in ensuring that the ‘solving’ of this problem wouldn’t then create a chain of unintentional negative consequences in the months & years to come, and that it doesn’t further restrict the liberty of people whose behaviours aren’t bothering or harming anyone.
By those standards, I’m not yet convinced by the recent call from the NASUWT to ban members of the BNP from the teaching profession.
Obviously, there are very good reasons why you wouldn’t want your child taught by a British nationalist: you’d have doubts about the quality of the teaching and their ability to evaluate a child’s work; you’d worry that they’d foster divisiveness in their classrooms and shove hateful half-truths into your kid’s head.
Even the party’s stock expression of outrage unwittingly reveals why a ban might be preferable. Their spokesman told the BBC: “People have different opinions, but they can leave their politics outside of the classroom.” Whilst true, that’s utterly beside the point. Teachers regularly come into contact with pupils weren’t born in this country, or whose parents weren’t born in this country, and who might only speak English as a second language. These kids are obviously going to need more help to get through school: they might require differentiated work, need a little more time to understand what’s being asked of them, or benefit from a specially-trained foreign language teacher sitting with them in lessons.
As a member of the British National Party, you’re more likely to be predisposed to hostility towards the immigrants who ‘leech’ off our public services, and this threatens to compromise your commitment to serve the public as a whole, rather than some imagined white, anglo-saxon subset. All of this could make you a spectacularly bad teacher.
Trouble is, by banning members from the teaching profession, you’re automatically assuming that their private political affiliations are inevitably affecting their classrooms. Unless it were born out with proper evidence, this seems like an assumption too far, and one which doesn’t really tally with other examples of where one’s personal beliefs come into conflict with professional duty.
An A&E nurse is surely going to resent stitching-up some self-inflicted, drink-soaked casualty when (s)he knows there’s some old age pensioner still waiting on a trolley somewhere. But that nurse isn’t then going to refuse to heal them, is (s)he? Likewise, prison wardens might be repulsed by some of the criminals under their protection, but they’re still duty-bound to stop them from coming to any harm.
Is a dislike for immigration really going to be so visceral that they’re unable to do their jobs properly? Maybe in some cases (in which case you remove them, and refuse to allow ‘but my party told me not to!’ as an excuse), but I’m sceptical that the incidence of teachers whose BNP membership makes them crap at their jobs is high enough to instigate a ban.
Ultimately, you want as few poor-quality teachers in the profession as possible, and membership of the BNP is inevitably going to raise questions about your professional integrity & judgement. But if you’re going to remove nationalist teachers, it should be for proven examples of professional misconduct, not for membership of a party which there’s no law against joining. If we’re going to beat the BNP, it’s not going to be by aping their tactics.
Yes, another one. I’m off to Cambridge for a friend’s wedding, so this is the most you’ll see for the next couple of days.
Hope you all have a nice weekend.
I first became aware of “NightJack” around four months ago. I’d taken the unusually bold step of putting myself forward for the Orwell Prize and somehow found myself nestled alongside him and 10 other fine writers on the longlist. We had a few online interactions since and he always struck me as forthright, gracious & fair. When he was awarded the prize for best blog, it was telling that people who’ll otherwise agree on very little could still nod in affirmation that he was a worthy winner.
But what should have been a crowning moment in his amateur writing career has swiftly turned sour. For reasons never articulated beyond a weak cry of ‘public interest!’, The Times has sought to reveal the true identity of the pseudonymous police officer, resulting in a reprimand from his superiors and – most disappointly – the deletion of all those brilliant words. The outcry over his outing has been as widespread as the accolades he received in victory.
As I’m not a lawyer, I really can’t comment on the rights & wrongs of the decision to allow the publication of his name: it might have been a fair decision to reach, it might have been the only possible decision to reach. Instead, I just want to offer a few words about what this decision puts at risk.
Everyone who visited NightJack regularly could’ve gained valuable insight from it. You could’ve read about police officers’ attitudes towards their political paymasters, the process of investigating crime, thoughts on the criminal mind, the criminal justice system, or just general observations about human behaviour. Even if you rarely agreed with his conclusions, there was always something which made you challenge your own perceptions. Crucially, this was the kind of writing which could never have been hosted by the mainstream media, and could never have been produced without his pseudonymity.
Now there will be no more of that, and by splaying his name and his face across the mainstream press, it sends an ominous message to anyone else who wants to share stories, whistleblow or offer thoughts on their profession: don’t get too good, don’t become too popular, because your life as you knew it could change completely. All of this makes Frances Gibb’s self-congratulatory defence that the ruling “struck a blow in favour of openness” seem rather shallow. Sure, if your main concern is regulating what bloggers call themselves, then I suppose this is a victory for openness. If, on the other hand, you’re more interested by what that blogger has to say, then you can’t help but feel cheated.
On top of that, far from producing a ‘cloak of anonymity’ which protects only the sneaky, irresponsible & unaccountable elements of the blogosphere, pseudonymity can also protect some of its best voices. As Jonathan Adler wrote in relation to an ‘outing’ controversy in the U.S.:
While it enables some to hurl reckless charges and gross epithets, it also facilitates the engagement of more individuals in on-line discussion and debate. There are many understandable reasons why intelligent and knowledgeable people in various fields are reluctant to blog under their own name. Adopting a pseudonym is not necessarily a cowardly or sinister act.
In this country, the pool of blogging talent is far smaller than somewhere like the United States, and for that reason we need all the smart, perceptive & critical voices we can muster. There are never too many words, never too many pairs of eyes, and never too many fair & insightful writers contributing to democratic debate. Because the protection offered by pseudonymity can encourage more of those voices to come out & blog, it’s actually incredibly beneficial to our politics.
I suspect that people who value what blogging – whether pseudonymous or not – can contribute to the public sphere will feel aggrieved by The Times’ decision and its countless unknown consequences. Today, we’ve just lost one great blog, but we’ll never know how many people will now be discouraged from committing their thoughts to cyberspace.
The Boston Globe has a round-up of the best pictures from the Iranian uprising.
- For the best news & analysis, you need only visit The Daily Dish. Andrew Sullivan’s been doing an incredible job using his site as a portal for everything from the minutae to the bigger picture. Just watch out for the occasional splattering of hyperbole.
- Back in Blighty, the elderly might have to pay £12,000 for the care they receive.
- Ben & Justin point out that the ‘independent inquiry’ into Iraq is just all kinds of wrong.
- Over at Ornicus, Sara Robinson issues an impassioned plea to the US right wing: put up or shut up.
- Great news for fans of potatoes: it seems the humble spud has played a vital role in the Iranian uprising.
- Pro-democracy activists have a new weapon in their arsenal: co-ordinated hacking of Iran’s government websites.
- Joshua Foust reminds us that Iran isn’t the only place which is rioting, and discusses the situation in Georgia.
- And Slate takes a look at how much money states might get if they legalised marijuana
Staying in L.A. for a moment, and it seems that the hitherto inoffensive Cameron Diaz has become an unwitting target for Brendan O’Neill’s latest instalment of “hahaha, look at this idiot!”
Ms Diaz recently dipped her toes into the debate about global demographics and attributed her childlessness to a concern that there may already be too many
Hollywood Brats people populating the planet.
In his typically charming “I know far more than you, imbecile!” style, O’Neill decries Cameron for signing-up to the fashionable re-emergence of Malthusianism – which, simply put, suggests that population growth will send us all to our starving, skinny deaths.
As it happens, I share O’Neill’s scepticism about these modern-day doomsayers; whilst there are very real sustainability issues facing the planet, I’m not convinced that it’s going to be impossible to feed them all, at least on paper. Sure, there are parts of the world which suffer the most horrendous famines, but that’s more as a result of shortages in individual countries coupled with an inadequate international delivery system to prevent malnutrition. In other words, we could feed everyone; we’re just not doing a very good job of it.
But that’s not to say we can simply dismiss the concerns of these new Malthusians or deny that the dead reverend’s ideas have re-emerged because of very serious questions about the way we live now & in the future.
For example, the planet is currently suffering from a food crisis, and unless co-ordinated international action is taken it could be significantly more acute than what we’ve seen over the past two years. Naturally, the people who will be most vulnerable are those who already have the least. This can’t be waved away as misanthropic over-reaction.
What’s more, we shouldn’t necessarily shudder when people talk about controlling the birth rate, providing you approach it from the perspective of improving a people’s material conditions. Whilst there many religious/cultural reasons for high birth rates, two of the main culprits are poverty & a lack of access to contraception. For as long as birth control remains a privilege for some and a large family is economically necessary, you’ll continue to have a high birth rate, rapid population growth and a greater burden on the Earth’s resources. If people were more free and less poor, I reckon you’d see birth rates stabilising.
So all we need to do is secure women’s right to reproductive freedom and all peoples’ freedom from want. Whilst that’s obviously far easier said than done, it’s ultimately something that me, Ms Diaz and even the cantankerous Brendan O’Neill could all agree on.
There’s much I don’t understand about the porn industry: the poor writing, the implausible plotlines, the baffling belief that a man reaching orgasm near a woman’s face is somehow erotic. But of all these many mysteries, nothing causes quite as much amazement as discovering that the industry is averse to contraception.
It turns out that California is suffering from something of a porn panic after an actress recently tested positive for HIV. People who have worked with the woman are being told to lay off the heavy thrusting for a while and the state’s health & safety folks are busy trying to discover the source & stop it spreading. This might not be the easiest thing to do, however, for it turns out that safe sex isn’t sexy:
After an HIV outbreak in 2004 spread panic through the industry and briefly shut down production at several studios, many producers began making condoms a requirement. But they said both actors and audiences quickly rebelled.
Forgive the pun, but this is just nuts. In catering, if you spend your days handling a lot of meat, you need to maintain hygeine by wearing a clean pair of gloves. Likewise, if you’re handing meat for very different purposes, you’d think it might be smart to make sure your implements are safe.
I can just about understand why the porn-loving public aren’t keen on condoms; ‘dudes’ generally don’t like those little rubber failsafes at the best of times, and I’m sure it’s a real drag watching that implausibly well-groomed grunt-merchant take a minute out of his wild orgy to apply some protection. Pornography is 90% hedonistic fantasy, so I can see why the condom – as a reminder that sex isn’t free from consequences – wouldn’t go down well with the people who watch it.
What I find much harder to understand is why porn actors – whose hygiene is pretty essential to get paid – would prefer not to wear them. Is it because the sans condom market is much more lucrative? Would insisting on safe sex ruin your reputation as an entertainer? Or is their objection similar to the punters – that ‘safety first’ is just a turn-off? I suspect my readership probably doesn’t extend to porn actors, so I might never find out, but it certainly seems that the potential risks of not wearing a condom are far worse for both the individuals and the industry than any limp costs incurred from a disappointed public.
Beyond that, for better or worse (and I’ll leave the angsty rants for another day), a lot of teenage boys receive their sex education from pornography, and when it comes to having that first experience, their main frame of reference is going to be some skin flick they swooned over in their bedrooms. I’m not going to start insisting that all future editions of ‘barely legal’ or whatever start to include instruction manuals, but it’d surely be a public service if these kids saw contraceptives portrayed as a normal part of a healthy sex life. In the end, it wouldn’t just be the sexual health of the actors that you’re improving, but the health of a great many people whose perceptions of intercourse are heavily influenced by what a bunch of oddy-named entertainers get up to without clothing.
So as you might’ve discovered from the post below, the break hasn’t deterred me from writing in 1,000 words what could’ve easily been written in 500. Exercises the old fingers, I guess, but you might have more fun clicking on some stuff I’ve read:
Andy Smith transcribes an absolutely hilarious interview between BBC Radio Sheffield’s Toby Foster & the new English Democrat Mayor of Doncaster.
Sarah Ditum republishes an old piece about the atheism of Christopher Hitchens.
Julia Smith bemoans the corporatisation of punk.
Afua Hirsch calls for a cut in prison numbers.
Turns out there’s a North-South divide on alcohol abuse.
New Philanthropy Capital has an interesting report on the prospects of charity mergers to survive times of economic doom.
Brad Plumer asks whether energy is slipping down President Obama’s to-do list.
Marc Lynch ponders the consequences of the Iranian election.
Daniel Larison dissects a new opinion poll and muses over the foreign policy connotations.
Camera Obscura do Minnesota public radio.
And I just felt like posting a video of Fleet Foxes playing in some picturesque location. There are worse ways to spend 7 minutes.
When I was last in the Lakes, I stumbled-upon a shop which specialised in antique books. It was a place where you could spend hours devouring the breadth of history on display; thumbing through thin, musty-smelling pages & admiring the old-fashioned covers on the shelves.
One book which caught my eye was a volume of ‘stories from the empire’ – a collection of articles describing different writers’ journeys across land seized by the British. It’s not a book you’d get away with writing today: the attitudes displayed were (mostly) from a bygone era and the amazed, disapproving depictions of the local people stank of one of the worst aspects of colonialism. Indeed, rather than enlightening the reader about what life was like in the commonwealth’s farthest corners, the portrayals only served to reinforce a reader’s preconceptions.
The same discomfiting cringe I felt reading that book has re-emerged in recent days as people have scrambled to explain why voters across the Pennines elected two BNP candidates to the European Parliament. As the new boomtown for British nationalism – the party doubled its share of the vote since 2004 – journalists have started flocking to Barnsley to ask why this former Labour stronghold has become increasingly fertile ground for extremists.
After reading these articles, I sighed over how depressing & unwelcoming the town must seem to outsiders: how ill-informed the interviewees were, how casually they deployed xenophobia as a defence mechanism. I worried that the media coverage only told one side of the town’s story, and told it in a way which – like that book I left on the shelf – would only reinforce the presumptions about the people who live here.
First things first: yes, the BNP found over 3,000 new voters since 2004, but it’s also lost a lot of votes in just 12 months. In last year’s council elections only a third of Barnsley’s seats were up for grabs, but the BNP still gathered 1,800 more votes than it did for an election held across the town. No, this isn’t comparing like with like, but it does suggest that if you really wanted to investigate us during an upsurge of support for nationalism, you should’ve done it 12 months ago. There are different ways to gauge the strength of support a party has, but I think it’s useful to use the old measure of party membership. On that score, the infamous leaked BNP list might’ve boasted over a hundred Barnsley addresses, but for a population of around 220,000, I think I’m entitled to regard that number as feeble.
The racism suggested by the national media is also a lot more abstract than any of the articles have acknowledged. Even with a modest increase in the number of immigrants over the past decade, Barnsley remains one of the whitest towns in the north, and because there’s no semblance of a minority community, there’s no direct conflict with the white working class on grounds of religion, race or culture. Many of us are still healed by foreign doctors, taught by foreign teachers, served by foreign barmaids or learn alongside foreign children, and they can, by and large, live and learn and work free from harassment or intimidation.
I don’t believe I’m being naive in saying this; I’ve lived in Barnsley for long enough to know that there are some genuinely hateful racists in the town, and even if I hadn’t lived there, it wouldn’t have taken long for Google to prove it. What I do contend, however, is that racism isn’t necessarily the prime motivating factor behind a vote for the BNP.
The basis for this overhyped ‘conflict’ between the white working class and the rest is a fight over limited resources; a battle for a better standard of living which many feel is being lost – or stolen. The BNP has been very successful in explaining this as a legacy of lax immigration and ‘PC gone mad’, but the more unpalatable truth is that the town is still failing to give up the ghosts of its industrial past.
I’ve written before about how a culture of low expectations persists here, and it’s prevented the town from adequately retooling after the collapse of coal mining. These days, many of the children & grandchildren of ex-miners will simply train in some other unskilled manual occupation, but in the 21st century, they’re at the mercy of unforgiving markets like never before.
The kids who leave school with only the barest of GCSEs might think those qualifications don’t matter much, but by the time they’ve finished some apprenticeship in house building, plastering or plumbing, they’ll discover that on top of the low pay, they’re competing with foreign labour in a horrid economic climate where nothing is being built. It’s easy to blame some faceless Polish plasterer who you imagine is stealing your living; it’s far harder to get a grasp on how so many other factors have led them to that point: family background, low education, personal choice, a labour market that doesn’t have enough openings for skilled manual work, nor enough qualified applicants to fill them.
If I was to give a passing journalist one final piece of advice about examining the relationship between Barnsley and the BNP, it would be to look again at the lessons from the 2008 council elections. There, the BNP came third with over 10,000 votes, but still failed to win a single seat on the council. There are several reasons for this, but foremost among them was the strength of a coalition called the Barnsley Independent Group. This BIG is a collection of staunchly local politicians who’ve fought for small, important things like local amenities, public transport and paving over potholes. In about 5 years, they’ve not only managed to break Labour’s dominance of the council, but also managed to stop the nationalists from dumping their flabby hides in our town hall.
The lesson we should learn from the group’s rapid rise is this: nationalism is not the natural recourse for disaffected Labour voters, and when given a choice between localism and nationalism (a vote for something or a vote against something) more people will prefer fixing fences to flinging out foreigners.
I just wish that some of this had been a feature of the media’s post-election frenzy. Instead, they not only risked giving these snarling, small town Napoleons far more credit than they’re due, but they portrayed the town in such a way that folk ‘round these parts will struggle to recognise it.
So I’m going to start dating my link dumps, since I only just realised that it must be really confusing just seeing the same post title over & over again, but with different content.
Sorry if it gets a bit quiet ’round here this week; there’s quite a few little jobs that I can’t afford to put off any longer, and then I’m spending the weekend in Bristol for a friend’s pre-wedding festivities. Yes, I mean ‘stag weekend’, but I don’t think the name stag really applies to me – if I were to star in a remake of Bambi, I’d probably be cast as Thumper. Anyway…
Mark Easton reports on the BBC’s poll of public attitudes towards politicians.
On MPs expenses, David Aaranovitch believes he’s ‘got it’, and will now explain how you, lowly peasant, can ‘get it’, too.
The BNP stay classy, intimidate Church-goers.
Gareth Young writes to Lib Dems about constitutional reform.
Feministing highlights a new report about mothering in American women’s prisons.
- Dean Baker pours cold water on those ‘economic recovery’ stories.
- M.J. Rosenburg reports that Congress’ Likud Democrats are already telling Obama to back off Israel
- Scott Morgan on the US’ politically-charged attempt to extradite a Canadian marijuana activist.
- And The Onion discovers that those gays are a devious bunch.
Michelle Goldberg wonders whether this is just an opening salvo from the eliminationist factions of the right.
DailyKos diarist Lorree notes that Tiller wasn’t just an abortionist.
And in Salon, Gabriel Winant reminds people about Bill O’Reilly’s habit of targeting Tiller for personal attacks.
Elsewhere, since loads of people are out of work, there’s a huge increase in volunteering.
Paul Krugman reassesses the Reagan era in the context of our current economic woes.
Marc Lynch has another must-read about the Obama administration’s approach to Israel-Palestine.
In The Times, Caroline Scott revisits Gloucester, Massachusetts, where a spate of teen pregnancies gave the small town national media attention.
And this Ariane Sherine piece is just brilliantly funny.