Thursday, 26 January 2012

We all say, 'Naughty!'

If the leaders of Britain's two and a half main political parties are looking for a new speechwriter, children's writer Michael Rosen (best known for We're Going on a Bear Hunt) seems to have the knack of puttiing the all-party political and economic Plan A (there is no Plan B) into words everybody can understand:

We're in trouble at the moment. Every single one of us. But why? It's simple. Poor people are too rich. Many of them work in places like hospitals and schools. This has brought the world economy to its knees.

Rich people have told us they need more money so what we're doing is rolling up our sleeves and taking money from the poor people and giving it to the rich people. Then the rich people will roll up their sleeves and save the world economy.

Of course there is a tiny minority of rich people who do bad things. And we take this very seriously indeed. We say to them, 'Naughty!'  And I'm pleased to say that even the Labour Party - who brought the world economy to its knees - are saying much the same thing. We all say, 'Naughty!' So no one accuse us of not taking this matter very seriously indeed.

There's your problem in a nutshell; poor people are too rich. Quick, give that man a job, while there's still time for him to e-mail a keynote speech over to Davos!


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

In-depth analysis

Speaking of benefit reform, you will, as always, find some of the best analysis in two of my favourite news sources:

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith insists that the current system means that there is little incentive for people to seek employment, but critics have claimed that actual jobs being available are also vital when it comes to finding work.

“In principle, encouraging people to find work is something that few people will argue with,” said Professor of Unpopular Opinions, Dr Evan Jessop.

“However, a major factor in someone’s ability to become employed is the existence of a job to become employed in.”

“A more sensible approach would be to encourage people into jobs that are actually there rather than ones that aren’t,” he argued


Julian Cook, chief economist at Donnelly-McPartlin, said: "Welfare reform is always complex and controversial but I think we can safely say that this time it is going to be perfect."

Long-term claimant Nikki Hollis said: "Don't get me wrong, while raising two kids in a bedsit on eighty quid a week has been a hoot, I finally have to accept that play time is over.

"I just can't decide whether to work for a major clearing bank or a traditional, high street retailer. Talk about your dizzying rainbow of life-changing opportunities." 

The Daily Mash

Carey in the community

God, apparently, takes a keen interest in welfare reform. Spokespeople for the Lord of hosts have already put forward a successful House of Lords amendment, intended to water down government proposals to impose a £26,000 household benefit cap. The Bishop of York warned that the cap would have ‘a deleterious and chilling effect on children’, making it 'harder for parents to carry out their God-given responsibility'.

The Almighty has now clarified His position on the issue, via another of His representatives, former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, who has told the Daily Mail that the £26,000 benefit cap is a Good and Virtuous measure, reforming a welfare system that robs 'hard-working, hard-pressed churchgoers'  and 'rewards fecklessness and irresponsibility'.

So there you have it. There is, we are being told, a God who tales a special interest in humankind and offers clear moral guidance on specific issues via His representatives on earth. We can find out a lot about the nature of God by listening carefully to what His spokespeople are telling us.

His pronouncements on welfare reform tell us that God is a liberal, Guardian-reading type who always believes the best of the despised, the rejected, the poor and the needy, an interventionist, who believes in social justice and a strong welfare state. He is also a judgemental authoritarian, who believes in personal responsibility. He is an admirer of the hard-working squeezed middle classes and isn't afraid to castigate the the feckless and undeserving poor.

God's guidance on the subject of welfare reform, as reported by the people who claim to know him best, sounds inconsistent, even schizophrenic. Perhaps it's because mere mortals are incapable of appreciating the subtlety of His messages (He does, allegedly, move in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform), or maybe our minds must be too highly trained, or something like that.

I prefer the obvious, simple explanation that Man* created God in his own image and that the "will of God" is no more than the beliefs, cultural assumptions, priorities and prejudices of the individual citing it, given spurious authority by being attributed to an invisible, but all-seeing and all-wise entity. In political debate, coming out and saying 'I believe in x', is fine. 'I believe in x because [insert reasoned argument to support x]' is better. But 'I believe in x and so does my invisible friend, God' doesn't bring anything to the party.

You can debate the moral and practical pros and cons of any issue perfectly sensibly without any reference to God. Bringing God into an issue is just adding an unnecessary complicating factor. Without God, you can at least argue about the facts of the case and the merits or otherwise of what you intend to do about it. If you add 'and God thinks so, too', you are inviting at least three types of completely unhelpful response that take the debate away from the issue at hand, namely:

  • 'Gosh, I'd never thought of that. I believe in God, too, so what you're saying must be right'.
  • 'I disagree with what you're saying and I happen to know that God disagrees, too, because He told me so Himself'.
  • 'I don't believe there is a God, so your argument is invalid' [either agree to differ or waste potentially endless time arguing about an unprovable / undisprovable assertion about a supernatural being, rather than the issue that God has been cited as being for or against]

I always thought that Alastair Campbell, Director of Communications and Strategy in the Blair government and cynical corrupter of youth in Jamie's Dream School. was a vile bully, and I haven't seen anything to make me revise my opinion, but he does deserve a tiny bit of kudos for one glorious sound bite. If only a few more people in public life (including his former boss) would just stick to the issues and say 'we don't do God'. Keep God out of politics, I say, (at least until He can come up with a consistent message and stick to it).

*The sexist language is deliberate - the Abrahamic religions show every sign of having originated with a set of rules imposed by high-status males to establish stability (and cement their own authority) within a tribal society.

Sunday, 22 January 2012


According to the Sunday Times,*  Iain Duncan Smith thinks bishops should think more about people who work and pay taxes while some unemployed people live in large houses at public expense:

I would like to see their concerns about ordinary people, who are working hard, paying their tax and commuting long hours, who don't have as much money as they would otherwise because they're paying tax for all of this. Where is the bishops' concern for them?
 Off with his head!

*Link to the BBC report, rather than the News International toll booth.

Friday, 20 January 2012

News management

Apparently, around 371,000 people who weren’t actually born in this country claimed work-related benefits last year. It’s estimated that 98% of these people had worked and paid taxes for long enough to be entitled to make a claim for jobseeker's allowance, income support, carer's allowance, disability living allowance, or whatever.

The Department for Work and Pensions is said to be investigating the "small number" of cases where claimants had “no lawful immigration status”. Employment Minister Chris Grayling admitted that the vast majority of the claimants were perfectly entitled to the benefits they’d claimed.

I understand all that. What I don’t understand is why this unremarkable non-story morphed into the top story on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, with Sir Andrew Green from MigrationWatch UK trying to scare Middle England witless with apocryphal stories of Bulgarian Big Issue sellers claiming to be self-employed (citation?) and Chris Grayling trying to reassure the same demographic that our ever-vigilant Government was ready crack down at the first hint of Bulgarian charity magazine-related misconduct, or similar.

It’s almost as if somebody in government is trying to divert attention from the government's own ill-thought out, failing, misleading, or just plain bonkers policies and big, bad news stories by encouraging journalists to focus on some trivial side issue that really is so tiny that the politicians can credibly claim to have it under control.

With no sign of Her Majesty's Opposition coming up with any alternative ideas the Coalition need to respond to, the Coalition will probably get away with this sort of news management.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The new mood in Britain

Ultimately, all this was about big money. Just like Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, Damien Hirst knew how exactly to tap the big, corporate market. He is probably the richest artist there has ever been, and in September 2008, just as world markets collapsed, he sold works worth
£111 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

The Telegraph's Peter Oborne comes to bury Damien Hirst and to praise David Hockney. Oborne doesn't know whether Hockney is a big C Conservative, but asserts that he's certainly a conservative painter, whilst the "progressive" Damien Hirst was the closest thing New Labour had to an officially approved ambassador for Cool Britannia.

It's  not often that I find myself thinking like Peter Oborne, but I actually found myself nodding in agreement in quite a few places. I respect the fact that Hockney has painstakingly acquired the skills of his craft, whereas Hirst seems to be all managerialist vision, subcontracting out the skills and hard work needed to actually realise that vision to anonymous artisans, then hoovering up the cash and celebrity for himself. I remember seeing some of Hirsts pencil sketches once and thinking that that this guy either couldn't draw, or just wasn't trying very hard.

And I do like the fact that Hockney respects his audience, that he takes an interest in making sure his paintings are hung high, so everybody gets a good look.

So unlike the home life of our own dear Damien, who was too busy trying to flog  pieces like Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything, that his assistants had made earlier, to gilded members of the overclass like Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton* to worry about whether the little people were getting a good view. Exclusive art for very exclusive people.

Even the concepts are exclusive. Be honest, you don't even know what Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything is about, do you? That's because Hirst's a clever multi-millionaire and you're just a peasant.

I must admit that I have the occasional twinge of regard for Hirst (there are more ways to express yourself than putting pigment on canvas and anyone who doesn't think it's jaw-droppingly awesome for an artist to actually get one of his paintings sent to Mars must be dead inside) but, on the whole, I agree with Oborne that he's an over-hyped BS merchant, the product of a society that values self-belief, self-promotion and money over the less showy attributes of skill, diligence, questioning, observation and patience, And I don't for one second buy the argument that pieces like his diamond-encrusted skull make Hirst an outsider, making an ironic critique of our shallow, materialistic society. 'I was doing it in an ironic way' is just 'the dog ate my homework', sent to art college. Hirst's definitely inside that particular tent, pissing out.

 As far as the narrow point about Hockney Vs. Hirst goes, I can't find much to disagree with. The wider lessons that Oborne draws from the comparison don't really stand up, though. The idea that all conservative, traditional art is an intrinsically Good Thing and difficult, "progressive" art is A Bad Thing doesn't stand the briefest scrutiny. For a start, half of the "great art" in our galleries was initially derided for being "difficult" modern rubbish. Even such firmly middle-of-the-road-National-Trust-notebook-cover-fodder as Monet and the Pre-Raphaelites was once thought daringly avant garde and "progressive". Not to mention the fact that the world's most notorious tyrants seem to have liked their art understandable, representational and artistically conservative - think the Stalinist school of Socialist Realism, not to mention (Godwin's Law alert) a certain frustrated artist from Austria who had major issues with progressive (or as he called it "degenerate") art.

 Oborne's political pop at New Labour has some truth in it but it's also deeply disingenuous. Yes, people like Mandelson were 'intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich', when they should have been intensely worried about the economy-busting pyramid schemes that were enriching the few. But in a not-too-difficult-to-imagine counter-factual world where the Conservatives were in power at the height of the boom, does anybody seriously think that the post-Thatcherite party of the free market would have behaved any differently? If it'd been the Tories in power, nobody would have even bothered to come up with the 'intensely relaxed' sound bite - everybody would have assumed that the Tories were in favour of that sort of thing anyway.

Hirst's over-priced, over-hyped art is certainly emblematic of a gilded age of excess that's crashing down around our ears, but anyone who thinks that the madness was purely the fault of the New Labour and that we're now entering a blessed era of Conservative stability and sanity is living in cloud cuckoo-land. Despite failure on a superhuman scale, the all-party neo-liberal consensus that presided over the disaster is still in place.

If ever a financial order deserved a 30s-style repudiation, this one did. Its gods were false. Its taste was bad. Its heroes were oafs and brutes and thieves and bullies. And all of them failed, even on their own stunted terms.

 Still the skull-faced God of greed glitters and grins down at us.

 *I'm not actually sure whether M. Arnault eventually acquired the Hirst he was haggling for, but with a job title like that, you can be sure he was one of the select few who could afforded the exorbitant asking price

Monday, 16 January 2012

Cool for copycats

The recognition of a new faith group caused a bit of incredulous hilarity earlier in the month:

A "church" whose central tenet is the right to file-share has been formally recognised by the Swedish government.

The Church of Kopimism claims that "kopyacting" - sharing information through copying - is akin to a religious service.


But, as Melvyn Bragg discovered in a recent edition of The Written Word, it's not an entirly novel idea. The relevant Wikipedia entry summarises a long-standing religious precedent:

In Buddhism, great merit is thought to accrue from copying and preserving texts , the fourth-century master listing the copying of scripture as the first of ten essential religious practices. The importance of perpetuating texts is set out with special force in the larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra which not only urges the devout to hear, learn, remember and study the text but to obtain a good copy and to preserve it. This ‘cult of the book’ led to techniques for reproducing texts in great numbers, especially the short prayers or charms known as dhāraṇī-s. Stamps were carved for printing these prayers on clay tablets from at least the seventh century, the date of the oldest surviving examples.
I'm cool with that. The ideaof Kopimists accumulating good karma through the act of digitally sharing the works of the Lady GaGa* seems no more wrong-headed or ridiculous than many long-established religious beliefs (like the doctrine of original sin).

If you're a copyright holder whose work is being ripped off, you may be a bit less relaxed with the idea. I can sympathise with that viewpoint, too. Maybe somebody should point out to the Kopimists that claiming exemption from the norms of reasonable behaviour and from criticism on the grounds that your actions are religiously motivated is a bit arrogant and rather unfair on everybody else. But not before they've pointed the same thing out to the spokespeople for Christianity, Islam and all the other major organised religions, who've been getting away with this sort of thing for centuries.

Issuing a stream of petulant demands may be counter-productive for political parties, but it doesn't seem to have done organised religion much harm - yet.

* Who's not averse to a spot of copying herself - at least according to some people.

Friday, 13 January 2012

If only

Underperforming education secretaries can be removed within a term under powers being introduced in September. 

Only kidding.

As usual, the smack of firm discipline only applies to the junior ranks. As you were.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Viva Las Vegas!

A leader writer in The Economist speaks up for the City of London, usiing a truly bizarre analogy. I love the concise put-down in the comments:

'Strangely, California doesn’t talk down Silicon Valley.'

That is because Silicon Valley produces tangible, useful things (in addition to less useful things such as Facebook). Financiers produce nothing and enrich themselves by skimming from other people’s transactions.
 The article could have been improved by using a more precise analogy:

Strangely, Nevada doesn’t talk down Las Vegas.


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

BS, created for you by Dave

Politically, there's not been much good news in the past year, but I'm moderately cheered to find out that nobody seems that interested in Dave's DIY Flatpack Self-Assembly Society idea:

A good thing, too. In hard times, there are few things less cheerful than listening to the enormously well-off lecturing those struggling to get by about how there's more to life than money.

But the BS is something worse just than a return to the Victorian Values of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. It's nothing less than a government sponsored job-destruction programme. It's about throwing people who do useful work to support themselves and their families onto the scrapheap, in the hope that some mug will step in to do their job for free. The BS merchants have implicitly admitted that the jobs being destroyed to make way for their fantasy volunteer army are useful ones. If those being 'let go' were the holders of useless non-jobs who never would be missed, why the urgent need for volunteers to step in and take up the slack?

What really confuses me is that all this volunteering stuff doesn't even make sense from a conservative / libertarian / free market prospective. After all, every True Believer in The Almighty Market knows that where there's a need, the Invisible Hand will surely provide. A society stuffed with do-gooding volunteers can only interfere with the smooth operation of the market and the entrepreneurial incentive to cater for every need at the right price.

Mind you, from the point of view of the practical exploitation of labour, as opposed to right-wing ideological purity, BS volunteering is right up there with unpaid internships as a way of keeping opportunity out of the proles' grubby hands and normalising the idea that people should be grateful that they're doing something rather than nothing, without aspiring to any high-flown notions of actually being paid for doing a useful job.

It might be dressed up in vague, fluffy, communitarian-sounding language, but on closer examination, Dave's BS is one of the nastiest, most divisive and most cynical initiatives the Nasty Party has ever come up with and I'll be delighted to see it fester away to nothing on the muck heap of history.

Monday, 2 January 2012

From the fury of the chicken ships deliver us, O Lord

Watching our hens fussing and bobbing about in the back garden, I've been thinking that they reminded me of something, but I couldn't, for the life of me, think what. It's just come to me, though. They've got the same proportions as old sailing ships. From the generously rounded curves of the lower hull to the upward sweep towards the jutting forecastle and the sprightly, upturned stern, the craft that kicked off the European Age of Exploration looked like nothing so much as giant sea-going chickens.

It would be really neat to say that galleons were the ships most like Gallus gallus domesticus but, sadly for alliteration fans, galleons lacked the high, ungainly forecastle of the earlier carrack, the most hen-like ship of all. Look at the top picture of Portuguese carracks off a rocky coast. Not only do these ships have the bodies of wooden chickens, but the flapping mainsail of the foreground vessel will ring a bell with anyone who's ever seen a running hen steadying itself with an outstretched wing.

Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Vespucci and Jacques Cartier all sailed these quaint, gawky-looking carracks to to the blank spaces on the maps to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no European had gone before.

It was an exciting time, but also a brutal one. A time of trade, of discovery and of armed men being disgorged from the wooden bellies of the floating Trojan chickens, bringing conquest, disease, slavery and genocide.

There's something almost deceptive about the unthreatening, domesticated shape of these vessels. So unlike the low, spare, purposeful menace of a raiding viking dragonship: 

Galleys of the Lochlanns ran here to beach, in quest of prey, their bloodbeaked prows riding low on a molten pewter surf. Danevikings, torcs of tomahawks aglitter on their breasts when Malachi wore the collar of gold.

Death's a sly customer, who doesn't always appear in the shape we expect. Death can easily bob into your life in a disguise as absurd as a big, floating chicken. Aeschylus, they say, was unexpectedly killed by a falling tortoise. If the tortoises don't get you, the flying bears might. But whatever form your ship takes, it will come in one day:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break. 

He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to a mouth's kiss. 

So here's a late New Year's resolution - treasure every finite moment, of life, however confusing, infuriating and absurd it may seem:

Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
TO-DAY of past Regrets and future Fears:
To-morrow—Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n thousand Years.
May your years be long.