Friday, 16 March 2018

"Taking back control of our borders" Humpty Dumpty style

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
Apparently Humpty Dumpty and Chris Grayling have more in common than their shared resemblance to an egg:
The UK government is reportedly considering making Britain's borders completely open to the European Union after Brexit if it crashes out of negotiations with no deal in place...

...Transport Secretary Chis Grayling last night insisted there will be no additional checks on Britain's border no matter what form Brexit takes.

"We will maintain a free-flowing border at Dover, we will not impose checks at the port, it is utterly unrealistic to do so," the Brexit-voting Conservative minister told audience members.

"We don't check lorries now, we're not going to be checking lorries in the future."
They also both seem to live in Wonderland and appear to have been taking a few too many puffs of whatever it was that caterpillar was smoking:

The clock is ticking

Interim leader Gerard Batten has warned UKIP is facing a financial shortfall that is threatening its future.

He has said that £100,000 is needed in the next few weeks to put UKIP, which has had three leadership contests in two years, on a "surer foundation".
From a BBC report dated 9 March 2018.

So how's the emergency cash transfusion going? A picture's worth a thousand words:

"£610 raised of £100,000 target by 23 supporters", according to the crowdfunding site (screenshot taken a few minutes ago, today, 16 March 2018).

If they can't do better than that, and quickly, the party's over.

When it ends, take just a few minutes to celebrate the good news that the gatecrashing vandals have finally left the building. Then hope that enough people will rally round to clear up the post-party mess they left for everybody else to sort out.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Boris Johnson to blame for the Skripal poisonings?

Oh, hi Boris Johnson's lawyers, how are you doing? No, I most certainly wasn't accusing your client of doing anything untoward - "just asking questions", as they say.

What do you mean Betteridge's Law is no defence in a case of libel?

OK, I would like to state, for the record, that I do not believe your client, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, capable of poisoning the Skripals. Assuming that the Skripals were the intended targets of the unknown poisoner (which I do), I believe that this attack was planned and carried out by professionals. If somebody had tasked a brilliant amateur like Boris Johnson with carrying out the hit, I believe that the targets would have escaped unscathed, although Boris would most likely have ended up accidentally poisoning half of the Salisbury Cathedral choir. He is Boris, after all, and getting into "hilarious" scrapes it what he does.

So what am I saying? I'm just floating the hypothesis that, if I belonged to the intelligence service of a hostile power and I was thinking about doing something shockingly illegal in the United Kingdom, I might look at the person appointed to the post of UK Foreign Secretary and think "These people cannot be serious - I'm totally not frightened of messing with them."

Whatever talents Boris Johnson may have - writing moderately amusing (if factually-challenged and occasionally racist) opinion pieces, quoting Cicero and saying "cripes" a lot when in character as an entertaining upper-class eccentric - it's obvious to even the dimmest observer that diplomacy, discretion and mastering his brief are not among them. His addiction to blurting out memorable sound bites at every possible opportunity, with no thought for the accuracy of what he says, or for who might be offended is as close to an anti-qualification for the post of Foreign Secretary as I can think of.

After all this time, it still beggars belief that Boris is the public face the UK presents to the world. Making him so implies contempt for the people the UK is dealing with. It's the equivalent of turning up late to your best friend's wedding half-cut and unshaven, wearing trackky bottoms and a mucky T-shirt. It implies a total lack of respect both for the occasion and for yourself. OK, a few people might have a laugh at the wacky funster throwing convention to the winds, but most of the people invested in the process will be rightly mortified.

And it makes the UK look weak. It implies a barely-keeping-it-together administration, too absorbed in the psychodrama of its own self-inflicted crisis to care about impressing the outside world. An administration that looks at a man who could, maybe, be allowed to make an ass of himself at, say, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport without doing too much damage and thinks "Let him play at being a world statesman for a bit - he's obviously going to shoot his mouth off at every opportunity and infuriate every nation on the planet, but right now we've got more important things to worry about than what the rest of the world thinks, like not having an actual punch-up round the Cabinet table."

Why wouldn't your hostile foreign power take one look at what we, as a country, are doing and assume that we're a bunch of powerless, clueless diplomatic pygmies who can be ignored and flouted with impunity? What would a careless bluffer like Boris do to protect a couple of foreigners, when he can't even look after the interest of UK nationals (your foot in mouth helped to double Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe's sentence, Boris, but we're still waiting for you to get her out of that Iranian jail)?

Boris is the symptom of a national self-absorption that puts winning petty squabbles within the Westminster/UK press bubble ahead of presenting any semblance of credibility or competence to the outside world. It would be no wonder if some hostile power* thought "Is that the best you've got?" and proceeded to do as it damn well pleased. If so, some of the blame belongs to Theresa May for offering, and to Boris Johnson for accepting, an important job which, deep down, even he must have realised he would be terrible at.

*Probably Russia. Richard North overstates the doubts when he goes off on one about other people being idiots for jumping to that conclusion (to be fair, he usually blogs about Brexit, a target-rich environment for idiot hunters, so he's probably a bit trigger-happy). He makes great game of people for saying "Russia", when the nerve agent was originally developed in the Soviet Union (specifically, Uzbekistan).

Which is all very well, but Russia is the suspect with the obvious motive and probable means to attack the Skripals. OK, the nerve agent was developed in another former Soviet state, but let's do a fun WMD quiz. When the Soviet Union broke up, which of its constituent countries got all the nukes? Clue: it wasn't Uzbekistan. And which bit of the former Soviet Union do you think was most likely to get first dibs on any other nasty stuff that was hanging around? Clue: probably the same place that got all the nukes.

Of course it might be somebody else - the Uzbeks (why?), or surprisingly well-resourced non-state actors, or a false flag operation by MI5, in the hope of drumming up more counter-terrorism resources, or part of a US deep state anti-Trump plot , or Mossad, or Hilary Clinton while she was taking time off from running a paedophile ring out of a pizza joint ... if you want to jump down the rabbit hole into any of the above conspiracy wonderlands, be my guest, but it's still probably Russia.

Update - if you thought I was exaggerating about those conspiracy theories, feast your eyes on this little beauty:
"MOSCOW (Sputnik) - The assassination attempt against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom may be perceived as a plot to derail Brexit negotiations and use Russia’s alleged threat as a pretext to keep the country with the European Union, Richard Wood, a member of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), told Sputnik on Wednesday."
Wood told Sputnik that he thought the Skripal poisonings were "staged." I fought Poe's Law and the law won...

Bonus fact - "Sputnik" is Russian for "one on the same path (with someone)", or more succinctly, "fellow traveller."

Bonus bonus fact - Ukip's Richard Wood was - purely coincidentally - one of the delegates on a Moscow-sponsored jolly to Crimea last March. In a statement to Sputnik, Wood gushed:
"I wanted to see the situation in Crimea and I was absolutely delighted. I saw the people wanting to be a part of the Russian Federation. That is what came over to me strongly. I never heard of anybody saying that they have been put down, they were repressed or had difficulties with the Russian authorities. For a very long time now the West has had a very shortsighted policy towards Russia. When I was in Crimea, I have never seen a policeman on streets, I have never seen a soldier, no civil disorder, nothing of that sort," 
Make of that what you will...

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Frankenstein's corporate monster

In recent years, the legal abomination of free speech rights for those artificial entities known as corporate persons has broken fee of its bounds and gone on a terrible rampage:
According to a recent study, corporations and their trade groups are behind nearly half of all free-speech cases these days. Businesses have used the freedom of speech to overturn laws requiring tobacco companies to put graphic warnings on cigarette packages, publicly held companies to disclosure of the use of conflict minerals, and food companies to notify consumers of genetically modified organisms.
If you don't agree that this is a monstrous perversion of laws intended to stop real humans being silenced by the powerful, I don't think we can ever be friends.

Having said that, it all started with the best of intentions. Just as Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein started off as a well-intentioned idealist, who wanted to free the human race from pain, suffering and death, the road to free speech for corporations was paved with good intentions, as Adam Winkler points out:
Huey Long was Trump before Trump. The fiery populist governor elected on the eve of the Great Depression had an aggressive agenda to make Louisiana great again—and little tolerance for dissent. Long set up a state board to censor newsreels and another to decide which newspapers would be allowed to print profitable government notices. When the student paper at Louisiana State University published an unflattering editorial about him, an outraged Long—referring to himself, as autocrats often do, in the third person—sent in the state police to seize copies, saying he wasn’t “going to stand for any students criticizing Huey Long.”

After Louisiana’s larger daily newspapers came out against him, “the Kingfish” declared war. “The daily newspapers have been against every progressive step in the state,” Long said, “and the only way for the people of Louisiana to get ahead is to stomp them flat.” To do so, in 1934 Long’s allies enacted a 2 percent tax on the advertising revenue of the state’s largest-circulation newspapers. Long said the tax “should be called a tax on lying, two cents per lie.”

Led by the Capital City Press, the publisher of the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, the newspaper companies challenged the advertising tax in court. They claimed the tax was an effort to silence those who questioned Long’s policies...

... In 1936, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspaper corporations and struck down Long’s advertising tax.
So the monster wasn't the dumbed-down Hollywood version, born bad because the mad scientist's lab assistant goofed up and accidentally gave it the brain from an evil dead person.* This is more like Mary Shelley's infinitely more nuanced, humane original, created good, but doomed by unforeseen consequences and the neglect of his creator.

So, if you're talking about the attempted censorship of media corporations, corporate free speech isn't necessarily such an abomination. But not every attack on media corporations' unfettered freedom to print whatever they damn well like, no matter who gets hurt, is as obviously pernicious as Long's attempt to silence critics. There is, for example the "Stop Funding Hate" campaign in the UK, which also seeks to hit media corporations where it hurts - an example, IMO, of where the corporate media are the bullies, not the bullied, and deserve all the pushback they get.

You could say it's a grey area, although that's more than you could reasonably say about, for instance, the free speech "right" of a non-media corporation, like a tobacco company, to apply as much unfiltered public relations spin as it likes, regardless of the costs to the rest of society. That's still monstrous.

*I really don't like the managerialist subtext of the incompetent menial screwing up in the James Whale version. In the book, Victor Frankenstein is completely responsible for both his own good intentions and for his flaws, so his fall is a real tragedy. In the film, Dr Frankenstein is kind of let off the moral hook by a dumb "honestly, you just can't get the staff"-type accident. This always seems like a cop-out to me.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The placebo of the people

In the Nineteenth Century, when Marx decided that religion was the opium of the people, some variety of organised religion was the one stop shop for all of most peoples' religious and spiritual needs. Now that organised religion has lost a lot of its (sometimes coercive) power across the more prosperous areas of the world, we have a new distinction, with increasing numbers of people identifying as "spiritual, not religious."

I've never been very impressed with this formulation, but it's only just occurred to me how useful Marx's famous quote is for clarifying the difference between religion and spirituality.

The thing about opium is that it contains an active ingredient which has a real effect in the physical world. Likewise, religion, as opposed to spirituality, also produces real-world effects, whether you believe in it or not. People actually get off their backsides and congregate together on a specific day and go through a specific ritual. They raise actual money to support good causes, or to propagate their ideas, or to build/renovate churches, mosques or temples, or to educate/indoctrinate children.

Religion has, for good or ill, a presence in society and creates objectively real things, from community cohesion (and sometimes exclusion), to some pretty stunning buildings and music, all of which undeniably exist the real world.

Spirituality, in contrast, is one of those things that might work for you, if you believe in it. So if religion is the opium of the people, then spirituality is the placebo of the people.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

A compulsory dip in the Sea of Faith

Here's a familiar Victorian lament about the decline of religious faith:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar...
Why the decline? As any half-awake student of poetry, or the history of ideas, can tell you, it was Darwin wot done it. "In the third stanza, the sea is turned into the "Sea of Faith", which is a metaphor for a time ... when religion could still be experienced without the doubt that the modern ... age brought about through Darwinism, the Industrial revolution, Imperialism, a crisis in religion, etc."

And I agree with this analysis, as far as it goes. Even many educated people literally believed in the Biblical account of creation before Darwin. After Darwin, there's been such an inexorable decline that non-creationist Christian apologists now routinely claim that most pre-Darwin Christians never believed that the Genesis story was literally true (although contemporary evidence suggests to me that such apologists are just plain wrong).

The Darwin effect was amplified by Nineteenth Century German scholars like David Strauss abandoning the idea of "gospel truth" in favour of an analytical approach which tried to work out which bits of the sacred texts were probably factual history, in the sense we would understand it, and which bits we'd classify as myth, or fiction.

But there's an extra contributing factor which tends to get played down these days. When the Sea of Faith was at the full, you could be fined, or worse, for not going to church:
"Among other complaints made to me by prisoners, J. C. came forward, and stated, that he was placed in the Ecclesiastical Court, 310 and sentenced to pay a fine of 1s., and 14s. costs; that he had been in prison ten weeks, and had no means of paying, and hoped that a representation might be made of his case, or he must remain a prisoner for ever. Upon referring to this man's commitment, I find that he was summarily convicted before two magistrates, that on the of June, being the Lord's-day, called Sunday, in the township of—, did neglect to attend a church, or at some other place of religious worship, on the said day, he not having any reasonable excuse to be absent, and adjudged to forfeit and pay 1s., together with 14s. costs, and, in default, to be kept in prison until the said sums shall he paid. It appeared that the following number of persons had been committed for a similar offence, and been discharged upon payment of the fine and costs:—"
This account comes from evidence presented to the House of Commons in 1842 (a quarter of a century before Arnold's Dover Beach was published), in favour of repealing "certain acts of Elizabeth and James 1st, as inflicted penalties for the non-attendance on divine worship."

A fact worth remembering, whenever anybody makes the standard rhetorical contrast between the warm, simple faith of our forefathers and foremothers and the supposedly cold, calculating rationality of a less religiously-observant age. That simple faith was often encouraged by the simple threat of fines or, if you were too poor to pay a fine, prison.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Ukip 2.0 - still vapourware, one year on

So the mighty populist party that once boasted one whole member of parliament has now lost control of the only local authority it controlled.

But those politicians who cowered in terror at the awesome force that was Ukip should still beware. Remember, in March 2017, Arron Banks announced the birth of a new, improved Ukip 2.0 from the smouldering ashes of the old Ukip:
Arron Banks, the Ukip donor who bankrolled the multimillion-pound Leave.EU Brexit campaign, has said he has quit Ukip and will now set up a new political force...

He also described his new movement on Tuesday as “Ukip 2.0, the Force Awakens”, although it is unlikely to use the Ukip name. He has previously suggested it could be called the “Patriotic Alliance”.
So how's it going? Well, at the time of writing, something called  The Patriotic Alliance exists as a single web page, which claims to belong to "a grassroots movement built on the success of the EU referendum", with the stated aims of "holding the political establishment to account and introducing fresh ideas to the national policy debate."

The page has is no information about what those "fresh ideas" are and provides no concrete information about the party, or even proof that it exists as more than a single web page, but if you're interested enough, you can leave your e-mail address and "pre-register" with The Patriotic Alliance.*

But Banksy's not the only one with big plans for a new, improved, Ukip. Last month, the ex-Ukip candidate best known for his "Gay donkey tried to rape my horse" claim, founded another brand new political party - complete with donkey logo, naturally.
AKA Ukip 3.0, or UCRAP (Unusually Camp Rapey Animal Party).
And now Ukip's latest ex-leader has released Ukip 4.0, a dynamic young party otherwise known as OneNation, a piece of branding which deftly combines reassuring echoes of Queen Victoria's favourite prime minister with the up-to-the-minute aesthetic of InterCaps. No wonder Henry's such a big hit with the youngs.
He’s big, red and has a nice friendly smile which makes him one of the most popular policy vacuums in the UK.

This is the mighty popular wave holding Parliament's feet to the fire over Brexit. No wonder they're too scared to change course.


*Update -  Since writing this post, I've come across a statement from Banksy, published on the 25th of March 2017, "introducing" the The Patriotic Alliance. To be fair, there's a bit more information about the "fresh ideas" TPA are kicking around. Although "fresh" is stretching the truth a bit - from what I can see, TPA is about reheating the familiar leftovers from the Kipper wish-list: an Australian-style immigration points system, ensuring only the "right" migrants are allowed to live here, a cap of 50,000 migrants per year and making prisons more unpleasant.

Other than that, Banksy wants YOU, potential TPA supporter, to spEak You're bRanes in an "experiment ... in direct democracy", presumably designed to reanimate some kind of Frankenstein's policy monster from the collective id of the Daily Mail's comments section.

When will this exciting experiment start? The TPA's web site was "set for launch in May" according to Banksy's introduction, although he didn't specify May of which year.

In an article last April, David Lawrence of Hope Not Hate speculated that the hyped launch of The Patriotic Alliance got delayed, following Theresa May's announcement of a snap general election, because "Farage is lining UKIP up for failure in the hope that they bomb so badly that the need for an alternative – in the shape of Banks’ TPA – is obvious."

If this analysis is correct, maybe Ukip's poor showing in last years' election wasn't quite poor enough for the strategists behind TPA and maybe they're still waiting for Ukip's final implosion (which can't be far off now the party apparently lacks the funds to even stage elections for a new leader), before animating its zombie web site. Either that, or Banks is all mouth and no trousers. Time will tell.