Friday, 19 December 2014

Non-existence fails to dent Santa rally

Despite a Norfolk vicar's shocking attempt to murder the Confidence Fairy by revealing to the assembled boys and girls at a school carol concert that Father Christmas isn't real, Santa has continued to rally in Asian markets.

In other news, market analyst Margaret McPhee has traumatised an audience of young traders by revealing the continuing non-existence of profitability at seasonal gift-deliver, Amazon. She was quick to apologise for her 'off-the-cuff remarks,' after being heavily criticised for 'destroying the innocence, fun and magic of disruptive innovation.'

Thursday, 18 December 2014

USA 1, UK 0

In the US, an elected politician comes right out and blasts the crooks on Wall Street for cronyism, buying influence and trying to block measures intended to stop them syphoning off yet more trillions of public money when their next reckless gamble goes wrong, telling them they should have been broken into pieces.

In the UK, some whiny banker, attached to a failed and bailed bank, posts a windy, rambling screed* about how a comedian, (whose radical schtick amounts to telling people not to bother voting because the revolution will arrive through some unspecified process involving fairy dust and magical thinking),** spoiled his lunch by trying to gatecrash a City boardroom and becomes a viral media sensation to our fawning press.

I'd exchange Russell Brand for Elizabeth Warren any day, although I suppose if we have to keep Brand, in lieu of our elected representatives telling it like it is, he might eventually make enough bankers miss their lunches to starve the buggers out.

As for rising populist stars who somebody actually voted for, they've got Elizabeth Warren speaking truth to power and we've got Nigel Farage, that City alumnus and gurning pillock in clown trousers, tripping over himself in his desperate rush to scapegoat anyone but the real culprits for the mess we're in.

Score one for the Land of the Free.

*Another Angry Voice, does a pretty good job of fisking this rambling, self-pitying rant although, IMHO, he lets the banker off way too lightly when it comes to the most outrageous piece of bullshit, the claim that 'Of all the profligate pissing away of public money that goes on in this country, the only instance where the public are actually going to get their money back [i.e. by selling off the failed and bailed Royal Bank of Scotland] seems an odd target for your ire.'

If the best use of public money you can think of is wasting billions bailing out failed financial institutions, thus tanking the rest of  the economy and screwing up millions of peoples' lives for years to come, with the vague promise of making some of the money back at some point in the future, if market conditions are favourable, you're an idiot, although not as big an idiot as the uncritical churnalists who reprinted this rubbish as a 'hilarious' vindication of Britain's crappiest bank.

** Although Chris would no doubt point out that I'm falling into the trap of managerialist ideology in holding out for a hero...

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

France's gathering gloom

 According to a recent YouGov poll, France is the northern European country that cares least about Christmas. This might reflect the state of the French economy, or cultural attitudes, (perhaps a more generalised negativity, sang froid or hauteur), or maybe the pollsters' sample just happened to include a more-than-averagely grumpy subset of the population - I really don't know. But Christmas itself isn't all joy to the world:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now...

Christmas marks a cardinal point in the worship of a sacrificial death-and-rebirth deity, whose cult thrived when transplanted to latitudes where all of nature seems to die in Winter and is re-born in Spring and where millennia of pre-Christian worship already reflected the decline and renewal of the life-giving sun. Although Christmas day and the winter solstice don't exactly coincide any more, 'December 25th was the date of the winter solstice in the calendar Julius Caesar devised for Rome in 46BC.'

You don't just sing about gathering gloom at this time of year, you can still feel it all around, as the daylight shrinks and the darkness reaches its greatest extent. Even a modern, industrial society with electric lighting, central heating and supermarkets full of imported satsumas from sunnier places can't quite keep the literal gloom at bay.

Given the connection between Christmas and the winter solstice, I'm not that interested in which northern European countries are more or less likely to enter into the spirit of Christmas. I'd be more interested to see whether or not there's any correlation between Christmas enthusiasm and the prevalence, or lack of, darkness and cold at this time of year.

Do northern Europeans (and people in the higher latitudes of North America) get more excited about Christmas than people who live in the southern hemisphere, or at latitudes where the great division isn't between cold, dark winter and light, warm summer, but between the dry and rainy seasons? Is a Christmas barbie on Bondi Beach or Copacabana less of a big deal than the massive knees-up Europeans invented to brighten up their bleak midwinters? Or is Christmas now so well-established, culturally and commercially, that it thrives when transplanted to any latitude? Maybe the only hint of darkness it now needs comes on Black Friday.

I dunno or, as the French would put it, *shrug*.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Gift idea from Satan's grotto

One of the most stressful aspects of the festive season is finding that special present for that special someone. Fortunately, the perfect present is just a click away on Apple's App Store, at least if that special someone in your life is an aspiring Ukip parliamentary candidate.

Yes, Papers, Please, the border guard simulator, is now available for iPad. Imagine that special person's joy at being able to make all those shifty foreigners stand in line to be frisked, interrogated, scanned, processed and, most thrillingly of all, denied entry. Imagine the heart-warming scene on Christmas morning, watching his tiny little heart melt, his sallow cheeks flush with anticipation and his piggy, hate-filled eyes swim with tears of gratitude.

Unfortunately, I'm fresh out of good present ideas for for normal people. Sorry.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Harry Potter and the prisoner of Jersey

The most interesting historical parallel of my week came from the barrister Harry Potter,* who presents the BBC documentary series, The Strange Case of the Law. He was talking about the fallout from Oliver Cromwell's unsuccessful attempt to try the Leveller, John Lilburne, for sedition in 1649.

Lilburne had mounted his own defence with great skill and had managed to get himself acquitted, much to Cromwell's annoyance. To spare itself the embarrassment of further legal defeats, Cromwell's government had Lilburne seized and whisked away to the extra-territorial stronghold of Mount Orgueil Castle in Jersey, where legal niceties like habeas corpus didn't apply, leading Potter to call Jersey 'Oliver Cromwell's Guantánamo Bay.'

It's an interesting parallel, given the current disclosures about the CIA's use of extraordinary rendition  to circumvent legal protections (along with the absence of disclosure about alleged British complicity).

Then and now, the rule of law matters and sneakily moving the goalposts to get the result you want is an abuse of that important principle, whether the state is offshoring torture or re-defining criminal suspects, or prisoners of war as "unlawful combatants" in order to do things like holding them  incommunicado, indefinitely and denying them access to counsel.

I'm left wondering whether this sort of authoritarianism by stealth is the sort of gambit which particularly appeals to would-be tyrants working in relatively open societies with rhetorical, or theoretical committments to liberty, who are made uncomfortable by the scrutiny that such openness brings. The Land of the Free has its First Amendment and the English Commonwealth styled itself a champion of liberty and was born in the wake of a national upheaval which had seen the collapse of censorship and an explosion of cheap pamphlets voicing all sorts of heterodox opinions.

Maybe some form of out-of-sight-out-of-mind external rendition is the way to go for authoritarians governing relatively open societies, who can't just clamp down directly, unlike autocrats with no pretentions to liberty, who could be sure that people who knew what was good for them wouldn't make too much fuss about other people being locked up the Lubyanka, the Špilberk or Carabanchel and had no need of a Guantánamo, or Devil's Island, with internal exile to Siberia just a few days away by unheated cattle truck.

Extra-territorial rendition from from a society  that claims to be free and open is a form of hypocrisy, which you might see as a sort of back-handed compliment to the freedoms that The War Against Terror is ostensibly being fought to uphold (although I'm guessing that this thought didn't come as much of a comfort to Liburne in his damp prison cell on Jersey, or to the recipients of enhanced interrogation techniques in their far-off legal black holes). As one cheese-eating surrender monkey steadfast ally in The War Against Terror once more or less wrote, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

*I almost feel as if I should apologise for the title of this blog post - I couldn't resist, but the poor guy must be sick to the back teeth with all the lame wizardry gags he must have had to put up with to ever since J K Rowling linked his perfectly ordinary name with young adult fiction's biggest ever mega-brand.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christ on a bike

The last thing I’ll say for the people that don’t believe in cycling – the cynics and the skeptics. I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big. And I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event, and you should believe
From Lance Armstrong's more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sermon to those poor benighted haters who disbelieved in the cycling miracles he wrought by faith alone (110% positively, definitely, absolutely without any form of pharmacological assistance whatsoever). Lifted from a great post at Salty Current, which perfectly nails the corrosive effect of militant faitheism on public discourse:
The most aggravating aspect of Armstrong’s project was his promotion of faith in faith and celebration of the faithful identity. He and the cycling big wigs consistently worked to create a community of the faithful that would exclude and shun doubters. He flattered his more credulous fans with the notion that they were better people for promoting Hope and Belief. While the believers were in reality the overwhelming majority, they were sold an image of themselves as members of a small elite whose gift of spirit set them apart from the cynical, faithless masses...
...More generally, skeptics were castigated in the traditional way: contrasted with the virtuous faithful, they were portrayed as mean, callous, lesser people who lacked the life-affirming spark of faith. 
The take-out from Demagoguery for Dummies seems to be that you gotta have faith (or, rather, your followers gotta have it). Get that bit right and dealing with impertinent critics is a breeze - here are some bullet points for aspiring Machiavellians:
  • Make your evidence-lite assertions loudly, confidently and often
  • If anybody questions those assertions or, heaven forbid, tries to engage with the evidence, point out that the critic must be some sort of small-minded, out-of-touch nitpicker. 
  • Always remember to keep on repeating how flawed your faithless critics are, in order to avoid getting bogged down in the (lack of) evidence behind your own assertions (attack is the best form of defence).
Follow these rules and, with any luck, you'll never need to do anything as embarrassing or uncomfortable as having a fact-based discussion.

That's not to say that most people of (usually confused) faith aren't perfectly honest, harmless, guileless and even benign. It's when it gets out into the public sphere and people with power, or people with something to hide, use it to shut down evidence-based argument that faith goes really toxic.

Faith might be the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions and the opium of the people, but it's also the weapon of choice for cheats, con-artists, demagogues and the peddlers of quack remedies. Militant faitheist obfuscation makes the strong stronger and the crooked more comfortable.

Evidence is the democratic weapon you can fight back with, if only you can get your hands on it.

Monday, 8 December 2014

British establishment destroys satire

When members of the Chinese establishment get upset at being mocked, they task the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television with delivering some stupidly impossible target like stopping everybody in China from making puns.

Here in Britain, it looks as if our own Very Important People have a subtler, more cunning, plan for disarming critics by adopting what I've just decided to call the Tom Lehrer Gambit, named for the great man's famous observation that 'Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.'

How else to explain this weekend's headlines? 'House of Lords refused budget cut as it would mean cheaper Champagne' or 'Nigel Farage blames late arrival at his own Ukip event on immigrants?' These headlines belong in The Daily Mash, not "straight" media outlets.

This can only be part of a deliberate media strategy - instead of ordering somebody else to ban puns, members of the British establishment* are clearly trying to break satire itself by putting themselves beyond parody.

At this rate, I give the satirists of The Daily Mash, Have I Got News for You and The News Quiz six months before competition from the real home lives of the rich and famous puts them out of business.

* Of which Farage is a comfortably-off member, no matter how often he tries to deny it