Sunday, 28 February 2016

Education, education, whatever...

In my last post I argued that BorisTM, is Britain's Trump, not the more obvious candidate, Farage, on the grounds that the eccentrically-hairstyled duo don't appear to be particularly interested in policies, except as semi-disposable vehicles for promoting their own personal brands, whereas Farage is utterly fixated on the policy goals of getting the UK out of Europe and keeping foreigners out of the UK, positions which you can't imagine him ditching under any circumstances.

Perhaps the reason that people don't make the Trump-BorisTM connection is education.  The Old Etonian, BorisTM, is only too happy to flaunt his classical education, but to hear Trump talk you wouldn't think anyone had ever bothered trying to teach him anything. For a man so apparently immune to shame, it's almost as though Trump is ashamed of his briefly-interrupted* progress from fee-paying prep school to expensive private universities.

It's a big contrast, but I think it owes more to Anglo-American cultural differences than to any fundamental difference between the two individuals concerned. Both are relentless self-publicists, but one is operating in a nation ostensibly founded on the proposition that "all men are created equal", where Joe and Joanne Public can theoretically work their way from a log cabin to the White House by sheer grit and hard work (plus the odd "small loan of a million dollars" from the Bank of Daddy).

In a market that's predisposed to be suspicious of anything that smacks of over-educated fancy-pants elitism, Trump markets himself as the über-regular guy, so he's not going spoil that illusion with damaging revelations about having been to a big-ticket Ivy League college or, God forbid, having learnt anything whilst he was there. You don't have to be a sociologist to work that one out - just look at any big Hollywood movie where, if they want a villain, they get themselves a British character actor to creep the audience out with a thoroughly un-Amercan blend of eloquence, book-learning and cynical camp.**

Basic market segmentation theory dictates that the BorisTM  product must have a different look and feel to appeal to a different demographic. In Britain, we have a culture of deference - royalty, lords and ladies, an unelected House of Lords and a highly-developed class system.  When a large portion of your audience have internalised the idea that a certain class of person is born to rule, you don't have to pretend to be a pleb in order to impress the plebs. Just spin the results of that expensive education your parents shelled out for as proof that you're one of those clever cornflakes who will inevitably get shaken to the top of life's cereal packet.***

Not only does the successful con-artist have to change what he pretends to be to appeal to a region-specific audience, but he also has to strike a different attitude. In America, that means dressing down as regular and unpretentious, but with a high-energy attitude of relentless self-belief and unabashed bragging. In Britain, you can come across as an impeccably well-bred member of the ruling class, so long as you replace American-style boastfulness with a disarming display of self-deprecating charm ... I mean, crikey ... well ... gosh!

Differences in presentation aside, I suspect that Trump gave the game away when he announced that "I love the poorly educated", which he surely does, both because he pretends to be one of them and because the last thing a con artist needs is a well-informed mark.  I think that BorisTM is probably feeling the love, too, because what would his privileged education be worth, if it didn't set the clever cornflakes apart from poorly educated people? It is, after all, not enough to succeed. Others must fail.

And there's nothing like dropping the names of ancient dead dudes who the lower orders were never taught about at school for polishing up a chap's clever cornflake credentials.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are people like Mary Beard around to bring his high-flown classical allusions down to earth:
Something similar is true with the Cincinnatus parallel that Boris himself drew a few years ago, and has been repeated this last week: "If, like the Roman leader Cincinnatus, I were to be called from my plough to serve in that office [ie Prime Minister], I wouldn't, of course, say no."

Cincinnatus was a 'hero' of early Rome, and best known for being called from his farm (and his plough) to take charge of the city when they were in dire straits fighting against their neighbours, the Aequi. And he was so honourable that once he had won the war, rather than continuing in power, he just returned to the plough...

...That's the nice bit. What's less often remembered is that Cincinnatus was one of the most virulent haters of the lower orders (the "plebeians" of A Mitchell fame), one of the most enthusiastic defenders of the privileges of the patricians -- and the keenest to keep the plebs out.

* "Due to behavior problems, Trump left the school at age 13 and was enrolled in the New York Military Academy (NYMA). In 1983, Fred told an interviewer that Donald "was a pretty rough fellow when he was small". Trump finished eighth grade and high school at NYMA."  You can't help wondering what "behaviour problems" and "a pretty rough fellow" mean in plain English. Probably that he was a playground bully, in which case, the adult Trump is living disproof of the claim that you can fix kids' behavioural problems by  introducing a "military ethos" into education.

** The thought about British movie villains popped into my head this week when I heard Cameron sneer "Put on a proper suit. Do up your tie! And sing the national anthem.’’ across the dispatch box and immediately thought of that other connoisseur of sartorial elegance, Dr Hannibal Lecter:
You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you've tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you... all those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars... while you could only dream of getting out... getting anywhere... getting all the way to the FBI.
*** And, if you're going to self-identify as an admirer and, by implication, member of the high-IQ genetic elite, it would be smart to avoid any uppity smart-alec journalist with the impertinence to test whether you're really a representative of the MENSA übermenschen, or just an averagely bright individual who went to a posh school and left with a massive sense of entitlement)..

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The anti-political compass

Yesterday I made the unoriginal, but probably true, point that Trump probably isn't a true Fascist because he lacks an ethos - when he says something horrible or stupid, it's probably just done to generate publicity for his personal brand, rather than because he has some carefully thought-out set of horrible principles.

Our own Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is much the same. The look and feel of the product is fluffier, cuddlier and features more syllables,* but the output produced by BorisTM also exists purely to promote the BorisTM brand, rather than to promote any coherent political programme.

Maybe, I thought, that is all there is to all the "anti-politics" politicians surfing the wave of public disillusionment with established politics. But lumping them all together would be as much of an over-simplification as the lazy "all politicians are as bad as each other" generalisation that spawned these characters in the first place. I think we can do better than that.

For starters, whatever the Right may say, I don't think that Sanders and Corbyn belong in the "anti-politics" box at all. If they also represented some kind of triumph of style over substance, they'd both have to be a damn sight more stylish and you could hardly accuse either of them of lacking a political programme, or political principles (whether you agree or disagree with said programmes and principles is another matter, but you pretty much know what those guys stand for).

But what about those shameless self-promoters, Trump, BorisTM and Farage? Are they just "all the same?" You can measure conventional political positions in a number of ways, including the well-known "political compass."
The political compass is a multi-axis political model, used by the website of the same name, to label or organise political thought on two rate political ideology on two axes: Economic (Left–Right) and Social (Authoritarian–Libertarian).

I wondered idly whether you could think about anti-politics in the same way. But how would you differentiate the positions of candidates who defy conventional categories?

It's a tough one, because they are pretty much all the same when it comes to relentless self-promotion (although if you had the time and inclination, I suppose you could quantify the amount of self-promotion and how successful it is in terms of bandwidth hogged on social/conventional media).

It's hard to put a fag paper between them when it comes to the last refuge of scoundrels because they're all knee-jerk nationalists (even if they can be ranked in terms how loudly they proclaim their allegiance, with Trump the clear winner in terms of the volume of hot air expended and BorisTM coming a poor third). 

It's also hard to differentiate them in terms of how anti-establishment they are, because most of them are pretty much establishment-friendly. Sure, Trump disrupts the Kochbros' attempts to control the succession to the GOP crown, but that's a mere squabble within the elite, not a meaningful challenge to its authority. If we ever (probably non-existent-supreme being forbid) saw a Trump presidency, it's hard to imagine the elite being too panicked to find that government of the 0.1%, by the 0.1%, for the 0.1%, has not perished from the earth.

Likewise, there are plenty of elite figures and institutions keen to stay in the European Union, but their squabble with Farage and BorisTM is more one of means rather than ends. The Ins and Outs on the Right all want the same thing - a continuation of the low-tax, low-regulation, finance-led, privatised, outsourced, Thatcherite revolution, built on the backs of a workforce as flexible as a boneless limbo dancer. They just disagree about the methods. The Right Trotskyites think they can export the revolution across Europe, using "renegotiation", whilst the Right Stalinist alliance of Ukip and Conservative Eurosceptics believe in securing the revolution at home, through a policy of  Thatcherism in One Country.

But hang on - two different plans for achieving the same ends does start to sound very much like two ideologies (a Libertarian and a Socialist might both want everybody to be happy and prosperous but have very different ideas about how to bring this about). In which case the "protest vote" candidate Farage does have an ideology, unlike BorisTM,who seemingly decided to come out as an Out purely in order to position the BorisTM brand as cheekily anti-establishment and a bit rebellious. Farage is an obsessive political anorak by comparison. So we can probably expel Farage from our triumvirate of anti-politicians on the grounds of having some fixed principles.

Still, if we keep him in for illustrative purposes, he does help to define one possible ("ideologue" to "nihilist") axis, if we imagine that a thing like anti-political ideology isn't a complete contradiction in terms.

As all three of our group of anti-politicians are chiefly defined by style, as opposed to substance, our other axis could reflect their differences in style. In Version 1.0 of the anti-political compass, I've defined the two extremes of the style spectrum as "looks scary" and "looks cuddly". Populate the diagram with our Three Stooges and it looks like this:

But appearances can be deceptive and the relative positions change if we amend the scary-cuddly axis to reflect, not the presentation, but the reality of "ordinary-bloke-down-the-pub" Farage dog-whistling the sort of spite that Trump just booms out loud and the ruthless self-centred operator behind BorisTM's benignly bumbling Bertie Wooster persona (the "nasty piece of work" briefly unmasked by BBC interviewer Eddie Mair). Expressed in terms of the actual scary-cuddly axis, the picture looks more like this:
With Trump what you see is pretty much what you get, in terms of nastiness, but the reality check shifts both Farage and Boris up a few notches on the unpleasantness scale. But they stay pretty much where they were on the ideologue-nihilist axis.

The take out from all this is that although Farage looks more like Trump's Mini-Me, he is, in fact, the outlier in this group, in terms of actually believing the rubbish he comes out with, whilst Trump and BorisTM are far closer in their commitment to pure self-promotion unencumbered by anything so inconvenient as principles. Or, as Walter Sobchak almost said:
 Nihilists! ... F**k me. I mean, say what you want about Ukip, Dude, at least they've got an ethos.

*In this sense, BorisTM reminds me of an unkind remark somebody once made about Stephen Fry - "He's a stupid person's idea of a clever person" (again, not an original observation).

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Boris just wants your eyeballs

"Campaign to leave the EU accuses Boris Johnson of not being fully committed to Brexit"

"5 Ways Donald Trump Perfectly Mirrors Hitler's Rise"

Headlines like this leave me feeling that some people haven't quite got their heads round the modern anti-politics politician. The category error here is assuming that there's some kind of coherent ideology, or programme, behind the sound-bites, instead of recognising that the sticky sound-bite is all there is. Whether your style is coming over like  Bertie Wooster or Hitler doesn't really matter to the anti-politician, so long as the performance grabs an audience.

People might be disillusioned with old-style politicians who actually believed some of the stuff that came out of their mouths, but at least some of them had something resembling a plan (even if they weren't always able to deliver).

Vote for an anti-politician and what you see is what you get - clickbait in human form.

As the character Walter Sobchak said in The Big Lebowski
Nihilists! ..F**k me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos. 

Monday, 22 February 2016

Convinced Saudi atheists

I read this a long while back and I'm still not sure whether I'm more encouraged by the figures for how well secularism is doing, against all odds, in the Middle East, or exasperated that country that enshrines freedom of speech and religion in its constitution and is  - in some ways - becoming measurably more tolerant and inclusive had only the same percentage of convinced non-believers as an authoritarian hellhole that employs religious police to enforce piety:
The Arab Spring may have stalled, if not receded, but when it comes to religious beliefs and attitudes, a generational dynamic is at play. Large numbers of individuals are tilting away from the rote religiosity Westerners reflexively associate with the Arab world. In 2012, a wide-ranging WIN/Gallup International poll found that 5 percent of Saudi citizens—more than a million people—self-identify as “convinced atheists,” the same percentage as in the United States. Nineteen percent of Saudis—almost six million people—think of themselves as “not a religious person.” (In Italy, the figure is 15 percent.) … the percentage of people who express some measure of religious doubt is higher in the Arab world (22 percent) than in South Asia (17 percent) and Latin America (16 percent). … These numbers are even more striking considering that many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Yemen, uphold the sharia rule punishing apostasy with death. 
 Russ Wellen, quoting Ahmed Benchemsi in the New Republic.

On balance, I'm more encouraged than exasperated - it's better to know that oppression is breeding resistance in the Middle East and that one fewer excuse for unfairness exists in the USA than it would be to know that a few more Americans found the truth claims of religion as unconvincing as I do.
"There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God."

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The off season

Llandudno Pier, February 2016.
"The very pointlessness of a sea walk is its attractiveness to me." John Cooper Clarke
"A seaside resort in the rain is forlorn. Sodden alfresco eateries; puddles on the sun loungers; a great bowl of grey ocean, uninviting." Sara Moss
"I went for fish & chips at a faded seaside resort today.

There's something rather melancholic about out-of-season resorts which kind of appeals to me. I saw the lonely character in the shelter sharing his fish & chips with the birds and I thought it might make an interesting photograph, despite the gloomy weather.

It made me think of a song from my youth, when it was illegal to trade on a Sunday and how boring and tedious Sundays seemed. Well, that's all changed now, but I'm not sure how we are better off."
Amro Gebreel
"Excuses are monuments of nothingness,
They build bridges to nowhere,
Those who use these tools of incompetence,
seldom become anything but nothing at all."
Anon (frequently quoted by motivational speakers and other self-appointed gurus).

"The Little Orme (Welsh: Rhiwledyn, also known as Trwyn y Fuwch, Trwyn y Gogarth and Y Gogarth Fach) is 141 metres (463 ft) in height, and is a HuMP. It is one of two headlands situated at either end of Llandudno Bay, in Conwy County Borough, Wales. The other, larger, headland is the Great Orme."
"Another good bird quickly followed when we picked up an adult Kittiwake out in the bay between the pier and the Little Orme, not on our predicted list! As we scanned, still trying to find a Razorbill, we saw at least six Kittiwakes, weird."
The Biggest Twitch, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller

Saturday, 20 February 2016

100% organic cancer

You could probably have worked this out for yourself:
Stamping an organic label on tobacco products is ultimately a distinction without a difference—organic or not, cigarettes are bad for your health,” Brown said. “Today’s settlement with Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company ensures that all future advertisements make it clear that organic tobacco is no safer or healthier.”
Today’s agreement follows Brown’s contention that Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company may have misled consumers in advertising its “organic” or “100% organic” Natural American Spirit cigarettes and roll-your-own tobacco and pouches, leading consumers to believe these products were less harmful than other tobacco products. There is currently no competent or reliable scientific evidence to support this conclusion.

In other news, there's no reliable evidence that dousing yourself with unleaded petrol and striking a match is significantly safer than doing the same with leaded petrol.  Anyway, what are the chances that an industry that knowingly kills off half of its users would have even a twinge of remorse about being caught red-handed, or attain a state of corporate social responsibility through self-regulation any time before Hell freezes over?

About as tiny as you probably guessed. If you can't imply that organic tobacco is healthier, just start implying that it could help you to quit smoking:
So the nicotine in ordinary tobacco is addictive, but the stuff in organic tobacco helps you quit your addiction? Yeah, right...
No surprises there, then. Although seeing such dangerous nonsense being retweeted by a health and lifestyle outfit is a timely warning that some people in the "wellness" industry can be almost as cynical and irresponsible as Big Tobacco.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

How clickbait works...

...or doesn't.
Accurate version:
Why is it that neither I, nor anybody I know, cares about the eyebrows of somebody none of us have ever heard of?
Put like that, the questions more or less answers itself. No clicks needed.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Some migrants are more equal than others

Storm Dave

You can't turn on the radio these days without over-excited, windy politicians and pundits huffing and puffing and threatening to blow your ears off with a hurricane of Brexit-related blether (I call this political weather event Storm Dave), so I was grateful to hear an unusually level-headed thought on the subject in the concise form of a tweet:
Paul E Johnson tweeted  "So we can't survive without being attached to Brussels. Oh dear."
Michael White replied "Nobody says that. Only that it would a) be tough b) not solve much c) rest on escapist fantasy funded by tax dodgers."

If only all radio interviews on the subject were that brief and to the point.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Horror in Middle England

I saw this and it reminded me of something:
Specifically, it reminded  me of The Archers. If the connection between this diabolical image and Middle England's cherished "everyday story of country folk" escapes you, you clearly haven't tuned into the radio soap for a while. Because the green welly brigade's favourite Aga saga has taken a darkly compelling turn lately, with the horrific emotional car crash that is Helen Archer's Titchener's suffocating marriage to the superficially charming psychopath, Rob Titchener.

It's a grippingly disturbing portrait of emotional abuse, as Rob methodically undermines his pregnant wife, takes away her independence, bit by agonising bit and slowly turns her friends and young son against her, against an even darker background of implied physical and sexual abuse. A tornado of psychological horror has carried us away from the familiar landscape of crop rotation and village produce shows. Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Borsetshire anymore.

And last night, after effectively pushing Helen out of her job in her own whole food shop, thus severing just about her last link with the outside world, Rob turned to her and told her that if she ever needed to talk about anything that was worrying her, she could always turn to him (and, by implication, only him). And a million genteel middle-class people shouted "you bastard!" at the radio.

It shouldn't come as any surprise to see these things in the relations between a prosperous, landed farming family and their eligible, privately-educated son-in-law, but somehow this intrusion of cold, focused cruelty into the wholesome, cosy, complacent world of Ambridge's long-established dynasty throws it into sharper relief.

Likewise, it shouldn't come as any surprise when unpleasant reality starts to happen right under the noses of real comfortably privileged folk but, of course, it does:
David Cameron's aunt has told ITV News that the prime minister's own local council is making a "great, great error" by closing children's centres, as she pleaded with her nephew to provide the funds to keep the services open.
Clare Currie and her sister, the prime minister's mother, Mary Cameron, have signed a petition calling on the Conservative-led Oxfordshire County Council to abandon plans to close 44 centres in the county. 
It's easy to ignore the consequences of cruelty when they're happening to somebody else, safely out of sight. But it starts to gets really scary when the abuse comes home and it turns out that the abuser is family.

I'm pretty sure that in Soap-Opera Land, Rob Titchener will eventually be found out by his nearest and dearest and have to face the consequences of his actions, although you can be sure that he'll try to shift the blame onto somebody else. In deepest Oxfordshire, the scriptwriter of reality seems to have already reached that point in the drama.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Your Philip Larkin antidote

Sometimes, by Sheenagh Pugh

Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don't fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
And sometimes Sheenagh Pugh sounds exactly like the curmudgeonly cycle-clip-wearing librarian himself, only with a splash of optimism to dilute the brimming cup of futility and despair. Well, I was't expecting life to be a motivational poster, so a splash of optimism will do for me. Cheers!

Hat tip to Radio 4's Poetry Please.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Dogs in spaaaace!

Because our family visit to the National Space Centre coincided with the Centre hosting that Doctor Who convention thingy, the place was stuffed with the obligatory mountain of Doctor Who collectibles (or tat, depending on your point of view). Not that I always mind a bit of memorabilia - I'd have been thrilled if the Space Centre's curators had spent a bit of time on eBay and found stuff like this to put on display:

Your gran's display cabinet goes space-age - rocket-shaped vodka jugs commemorating the space flight of Belka and Strelka, who, in August 1960, became the first creatures to orbit the earth and (unlike Laika) return alive (photo credit El Pantera).

More Belka and Strelka-themed collectible porcelain (photo via ebay).

Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that it was the Kennedy clan who bagged the ultimate piece of Soviet canine spaceflight memorabilia. After her return to earth, Strelka went on to have a litter of puppies, one of which, Pushinka ("Fluffy"), Khrushchev presented to JFK's daughter Caroline in 1961.

I imagine that daddy accepted the gift with a rather forced smile - the year before, according to Deborah Cadbury's excellent book Space Race, JFK had taken the dogs' flight as an affront to American pride, taking pointed umbrage at the fact that "the first canine passengers in space who safely returned were called Strelka and Belka ... not Rover and Fido." Be that as it may, the Cold War apparently thawed sufficiently for Pushinka to get together with one of the Kennedy dogs and beget a doggy dynasty that exists to this day.

Via here and here.