Wednesday, 13 August 2014

"Bring Me Peter Pan."


Depression, Fashion, Reaction in the Commentariat.


I remember Robin Williams' diametrically opposed characters in Aladdin and Good Will Hunting with the same fondness, wackiness on one end, sensitivity at the other. Robin Williams' character manifesting in two distinct forms – one didn't contradict the other. Depression amongst well paid funny men and women is no unique phenomenon (considering the pervasiveness of mental illness – 1 in 4 – it would be amazing if this group was somehow excluded), and the cries of why! he was rich! everyone loved him! he was so chipper! show what a mountain we have to climb before we get some understanding about depression and mental health in general. 

While some of these comments are just ignorant, there is something poignant and disarming when a comedian kills him/herself. With tragic romantics like Kurt Cobain and Sylvia Plath such introspection seems to logically lead towards total shutdown – but the apparent extroversion, the smiley exterior, of a comedian appears as a shield against depression. 

Now's not the time go start psychoanalysing Robin Williams, suffice to say that people are complex – "A guy who made people laugh wasn't a happy guy!? And clouds aren't made from cotton wool??" Every suicide is a failure of society to make allowances for the complexity of people, and support to those who need support. Cries of selfishness or cowardliness straight after the event are the first sign that the message isn't getting through. 

There's also the charge that mental illness is somehow fashionable. I have a particular interest in this notion because I think it cuts to the heart of many anxieties of the current age, from the obsession with celebrity to trends in social media to identity politics to moralising about the poor. It is said that creative people are prone to mental illness, and successful people too. Perhaps an illness which 'apparently' lacks physical damage, which appears from the outside to be almost optional, might seem like a useful way to market oneself as a creative genius is this age of self-promotion. A contrarian writer at the Telegraph bemoaned this supposed trend, backed with a report that expressed concern about the medicalisation of society. A psychiatrist he cites wrote, in a short article for the BBC, 

A new diagnosis of bipolar disorder might also reflect a person's aspiration for higher social status and a feeling that by having the condition they too are creative. 

She referred to an increase in people thinking they might have bipolar disorder following Stephen Fry's announcement that he has it. She related the story of a depressed patient 'self-diagnosing' herself with bipolar disorder. Due to the lean of the article you'd expect to go on to read that this woman was making it all up, just following the fashion, but no. 

We later diagnosed her with bipolar disorder.

In fact the article had no evidence, or even a single example, that this was a trend. The editor had however picked out the buzzwords 'celebrity effect' and 'desirable diagnosis' to use as markers throughout the article, showing that this was the message that was to be conveyed. It's pretty poor for the 'unbiased' BBC and a doctor to be feeding the right-wing commentariat like this, sans evidence.

So why the increase in self-diagnosis? Could it be perhaps that Stephen Fry's announcement raised awareness? That it was somehow educational, or helpful, or diffused embarrassment? Since the internet has made self-diagnosis easier, there's been a rise in hypochondria (what they call cyberchondria – very cool name). Does that mean that testicular cancer has become a more 'desirable diagnosis'? Since the Jimmy Saville scandal, reports of sexual violence has increased. Are we to assume they're making it up? Or that they now feel able to discuss it? It's a warped person who immediately assumes it's being made up.

Nowadays, people blog and tweet about their worries, and sometimes think that a Facebook status "– feeling down", or a sad emoticon is an appropriate reflection of their mood. It comes alongside (what reactionary writers see as) a general trend of an increasingly self-involved, lazy and superficial society who've lost their moral integrity, their wartime spirit. The right wing hold on dearly to the notions of individual freedom, choice and responsibility, and anything that challenges these values is suspect. Hence, as that Telegraph article concludes, "It can feel comforting to be diagnosed with a mental illness; it can appear, unrealistically, in my view, as a doctor-approved catch-all explanation for one’s personal troubles, travails and failings."  

And voilĂ ! You have yourself a catch-all explanation of why mental illness is common amongst the wretched and feckless poor!

Unneeded medicalisation is a valid concern (big pharmaceutical companies do have this agenda, make no mistake), and there's no doubting that depression has developed a sense of cultural allure that comes with anything mysterious which concerns the human condition. There's a clothing brand called 'depression', exploiting as best as they can the dark aesthetic that goes with low mood. They even have a 'philosophy'.

But the appeal of melancholia goes back to the Romantic poets, so it's nothing new. Is it different now, with the democratisation of the everyday voice, and the capitalist drive to make everything a consumable item? Is it somehow dangerous, leading to increased teenage suicides following in the wake of their favourite doomed rock idol? Or is it a bit of a myth, just another aspect of human expression? Are people who don't understand assuming that depressed people are suspiciously quick to 'admit' to it, rather than hiding off in a darkened room where they belong?


Depression is not a period of down-in-the-dumpsness. There's a difference between a bit of sadness and depression, and one of the problems is objectively locating a point on this misery spectrum at which one becomes 'depressed'. There is an element of self-diagnosis in depression, it has a variety of causes – largely experiential and cultural, sometimes totally mysterious – and people experience it in different ways. But just as the distinction between sadness and depression is real and significant, marking a categorical difference in the condition, so too is there a categorical difference between aesthetic melancholia of the type satirised with the goth kids on South Park, and depression proper. One is not going to simply 'become depressed' by liking Marilyn Manson and wearing dark clothes.


To 'admit' to having anxiety problems has become far more common amongst writers, actors and comedians. As I wrote before, I find the 'strange celebration' of mental illness (as an awareness-raising project) a little irksome, an aspect of personal branding. That's because I'm a cynic myself – I have the same feeling about charity wristbands. Yet overall I think it's a positive discursive shift. A response yesterday to Laurie Penny on Twitter expressed an opinion that I understand, if not agree with. 


Of course such a sweeping diagnosis about what 'true' depression is is ridiculous, but that's opinion for you. Both of those tweeters who disagreed with Penny went on to explain, with varying degrees of ferocity, that they had been affected by depression and suicide, personally or in the family. Penny's followers berated them both for their 'ignorance'. 


It's not pleasant to see such a reaction made to a difference of opinion which comes from other people's experiences of depression. But then again, Twitter is made for cruel venting. Most give as good as they get.


(And some people just hate Laurie Penny – what's that about?!)

I think people who experience depression tend to find themselves quite isolated, emotionally adrift and misunderstood. The sense of hopelessness is going to feed this impression and deepen it. Arguments will go on about whether depression is a disease, or whether it's cultural, biological or chemical, and so on, but the misunderstandings continue, the ignorance prevails, and often depressed individual exists very much on the periphery of all this chatter. 

There seems to be two general responses. One is defiant outrage as seen on Twitter and the SomeOfUs campaign which seeks to hold Fox News to account for their insensitive analysis of Robin Williams. This response uses creative analogies and talk-to-the-hand sarcasm in an attempt to explain depression, and states 'if you've never experienced it, you don't know.' The arguments are sound, but it's a cliquey, belligerent approach and provokes a reaction. It's common on Twitter on many subjects, the (slightly passive aggressive) 'advice' from well-meaning types sent out into the ether. Whilst I agree with the content, I can't help feeling that they're really getting off on expressing it.

The other is the silent response of those who do not engage. Depression can be a very individual experience, and it's somehow at odds with the idea of a collective community which seeks to change attitudes, in the way that, say, feminism takes up a cause. I think this leads to cynicism from depressed people about other depressed people. Depression is also deeply political, which is in part why there is an interest in dismissing it. If the Left want to 'use' mental illness to fight the establishment, it can't be at the cost of the sufferers – being told that your plight is due to post-Fordist labour conditions, creeping surveillance or the pervasive ontology of competitive capitalism offers little practical help to a depressive on a bad day. (Might be suitable on a good day though).

If there is an element of romanticism about depression then this is a shift in a long-term conversation about a little understood thing, and insofar as the conversation widens, and the dismissive attitude of some is intelligently challenged, then it's not a bad thing. One might seek to understand it in terms of the Hegelian dialectic, a part of historical progress. One might caricature the respective social attitudes as such: 1. mental illness is dangerous (thesis). 2. mental illness is cool (antithesis). Number 3 (synthesis) would be a negation of the antithesis, a kind of resolution.

It makes little sense to me that the epidemic of anti-depressants is caused by a load of oversensitive romantics looking for a bit of sympathy and self-promotion. If someone who isn't really depressed says that they are depressed, it's not really a big deal. The important thing is that people who do have problems feel that the environment is right for them to be able to express it any way that's most comfortable to them. This is undoubtedly very difficult. For that, any celebrity, or any friend, or any stranger, deserves the benefit of the doubt at the very least.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Whack or Wipe?


Blogs your brain can whack-off to.

Another Angry Voice
Words on the Street
Snowblog

The blog is a an awkward place – part journalism, part rant, part poetry, part diary. Anyone can start one and spend time and words on useless outpours, unregulated, slanderous, inaccurate nonsense which no one reads or cares about – my own blog is testament to that. But occasionally you come across a blog which is worth more than its weight in bits. Here are a few that I've come across lately.

Another Angry Voice, a blog by Thomas G. Clark, is a triumph of blogging potential, a go-to resource whenever some silver-tongued suited politician starts patronising you with oh-so-much conviction. Informed and measured, yet perfectly outraged by political manipulation, hypocrisy and ignorance, Clark's approach is to dissect issues and expose the rarely mentioned trickery that goes on behind politics are presented by the likes of Nick Robinson and his journalism-lite colleagues. AAV treats his readers with intelligence, going into details that most media outlets assume are beyond us, using facts and a generally egalitarian social position to present some views. Most of it makes you sick of the political establishment – the difference between AAV and the general media is that it gives reasons and examples which explain why you should be disgusted, rather than a lazy and sweeping 'they're all the same' cynicism which instead serves to blunt critiques, and continue the norm by infusing a sense of powerlessness in everyone. See Zizek on cynicism for more on this.

CLark describes his political leanings as 'angry'. Observers would naturally put him on the left, and they'd be correct. Thomas would say 'libertarian-left'. By my mind, considering that contemporary political consensus has moved to the right over the last few decades, an intelligent critique has to come from what would be considered the 'left'. More idiotic critiques of contemporary politics make issues with things like social equality, the demise of empire, climate change, and superficial political scandals (see the Daily Mail, Niall Ferguson, James Delingpole and the Daily Mail again for examples). These people are evidently disappointed that Thatcherism, globalisation and post-colonial geopolitics hasn't yet stopped the poor from being able to breed, and want to convince you to endorse their crazy march towards dystopian elitism.

While AAV investigates party politics, party funding, fascism in the UK, the media, etc. Thomas's general target is the pervasive and little-understood ideology of neoliberalism which informs much of the socio-political landscape, so if I could endorse just one article from this blog it would be What is Neoliberalism, from September 2012. Get educated!

A Facebook friend offered up a link of Words on the Street, stating that it was the best blog in town. Ian Beetlestone is a London cabbie. No, not like the ones you get in Stewart Lee's anecdotes, which are all true, of course. In fact, Ian defends the image of the cabbie, pointing out that he's gay, socially liberal, and left-wing.

But with such a rarely heard voice, it's no surprise that many people have unfair preconceptions of cab drivers – they're used as a synonym for 'the man on the street', and a Sun-reading one at that – a vehicle (if you'll pardon the pun) for unreasonable bigotry and monosyllabic conversations. Ian Beetlestone is here to put that right.

Driving a taxi isn’t just about taking passengers from one place to another – in fact, that’s secondary. No, driving a taxi is about drawing lines on a map. It’s art, and it can be beautiful at times.
In the post where this is taken from, from March 2014, our cabbie talks about driving from Kings Cross to Wimbledon Park at midnight, some quite passenger in the back. Some of the landmarks I know, some I don't, but that doesn't really matter. You wind through dark and dusty London streets at a comfortable pace, just absorbing stuff, as he fondly describes the journey. It's refreshing to see someone so at ease with what he does, so at home in the city where he lives.

And especially for this week, Jon Snow's Snowblog. Few news anchors do their job with such a well measured combination of sensitivity and tenacity. Eddie Mair scores high for sensitivity; Paxman for tenacity. Snow's got both. Thankfully, Channel 4 allows him to use it to great affect on many occasions, and during the current Gaza conflict has been no exception. He has been bullish towards the Israeli politicians who he's interviewed, and sometimes gets over excited. But Jon is only human and, as this blog post shows, it is Jon's deep sense of humanity which makes him such a righteous dude.

This is humankind’s most grievous cancer, for its cells infect conflicts in every corner of the world. We fail as humankind if we do not devise a coming-together. Our leaders, as a vast priority, have to try and try again to use every mechanism in our rare animal capacity - our considerable intellects – to bring these peoples to resolution whatever the cost.
He was writing about being in Gaza over the last few days, somewhere few of us would wish to be, but somewhere we all feel like we know intimately as we've watched the death toll resolutely climb. While many, including Jon himself, issue polemics, tirades and accusations in the cyclone of self-righteous commentary which surrounds the Israel-Palestine conflict, this small article, despite the token words of what must be done, had interwoven throughout it one man's sense of hopelessness.

I feel guilty in leaving, and for the first time in my reporting life, scarred, deeply scarred by what I have seen, some of it too terrible to put on the screen.
And a blog you can wipe your arse with.

FrontPageMag

While writing this post a few days ago I came across FrontPage Mag, which boasts the utterly inspired subheading "Inside Every Liberal Is A Totalitarian Screaming To Get Out". Time to prepare for some sweeping paranoia...

The rant that caricatured every Israeli critic as a racist Islamophile Marxist caricature was by Daniel Greenfield, but he is only one of many paranoid columnists for FrontPage. The mag itself is published by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. "Freedom" is a word that always has to be qualified, used as it is by those who appear to endorse their own freedom over that of others. Freedom for the Palestinians, for example, wouldn't quite fit the Horowitz definition. The thrust of FrontPage arguments seem to be about avoiding the subject matter at hand, and taking aim at the left's assumed hypocrisy on the subject. This tactic leads to articles such as The Left isn't pro-Gay – It's Pro-Power and #BringBackOurGirls and the Left's Empty Moral Outrage.

Horowitz, like other disappointed young hippies, like Melanie Phillips and Jon Voight, made the charged leap away from socialist principles to self-interest and fear as they aged. Disastrous legacies of badly executed communism is enough to tar the entire left with the same brush; legacies of capitalism go unexamined, perhaps because these individuals have privately benefited...

In a choice article from April 2007, Michael Reagan, son of neoliberal maestro Ronald, laments that the real culprit of thirty-two recent deaths at a school are the laws that prohibited "the students and faculty from exercising their Constitutional right to protect themselves and others by bearing arms on campus." I had to read that twice! Yes – more guns! In schools! To solve the problem of on-campus shooting! 

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Well you, sir, are a racist!


Argument: Protesters whine about Israel, but ignore other examples of large-scale bloodshed. Implication: anti-Israeli demos are anti-Semitic.

Oh yeah, well I dropped my toast butter-side down this morning – where was your protest then! #hypocrite.

Since the recent strife in Gaza kicked off, those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have been taking to the streets. Not everyone agrees with these protester's demands. Let's explore some of the responses to Israeli criticism by way of two of the most treasured darlings of the right, Douglas Murray and Melanie Phillips, and a few others.



Douglas Murray's article in the Spectator most neatly summed up the right-wing grievance with pro-Palestine protesters. He first states that they were a 'non-diverse crowd', with women in burkas and headscarves. This off-topic jolly into passive-aggressive Islamophobia neatly reminds the reader what they are supposed to think about Muslims. The pics on this pro-Israel blog, which also labelled the protest anti-Semitic, show a pretty diverse crowd, much like London itself. Anyway, Murray returns to the meat of the problem – hypocrisy and anti-Semitism. It's a two-pronged accusation that is levelled energetically by those that support Israel, used gleefully by journalists and netizens alike. Here it is in action... 

1. #hypocrites!



In his article, Doug spake thus: 'These are the people who stayed at home throughout the Syrian civil war, stayed at home when ISIS rampaged across Iraq, stayed at home when Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab carried out their atrocities across central Africa and showed no concern whatsoever when the Muslim Brotherhood was running Egypt into the ground. Yet they pretend to care about Muslims.' That guy from ConservativeHome agrees...

Even Stan Collymore got put in his place!
The joke being that there is no protest against Assad!

This is my personal favourite.

2. #Anti-Semites! 

Doug: 'I suppose some of the people in London today might still try to pretend that they don’t hate Jews.'

And introducing... Melanie Phillips! Compared to Murray's sweeping accusations, Phillips is a little more measured, giving the illusion that she's thought about it. The caveat she provides is that the protesters are 'accessories' to anti-Semitism.


Mel in this article says: 'When London demonstrators and British intellectuals declare that Israelis are the new Nazis, colonizing land to which they have no historic connection and which they have stolen from the Palestinians, they make themselves accessories to an infernal creed which is inciting violence and murder against Jews.'



Bonus Bigot basher! 

Daniel Greenfield's article, 'It's Another "Death to the Jews" Weekend', is one big impassioned declaration that pro-Palestinian protesters are anti-Semites. It's a full-steam-ahead veritable parade of left-wing and Islamic stereotypes. Here are some randomly selected fragments... 

'At the Israeli embassy, the hipsters imagine that they’re guerrilla fighters. They scream themselves hoarse about oppression, duck into a Starbucks, come out with a few cinnamon lattes and then begin screaming again.'

'Bored Yemeni teenagers peel off to throw stones at a synagogue. The Marxists get into an argument over the Fourth International. Someone begins loudly reading their own self-published poetry through an unauthorized megaphone. ISIS sympathizers fly the black flag of the Jihad over the crowd where it tangles with a Hezbollah flag.'


'Max Blumenthal shows up to lead a Students for Justice in Palestine protest while shouting about colonialism. Then he tags himself on Instagram.'

'Khaybar Khaybar Ya Yahood,' cry the Muslims. 'Down with Zionist Supremacism,' scream the Marxists. 'Death to the Jews," shouts everyone else.'

Beyond this relentless hyperbole, this imaginary 'Day in the Life of critics of Israel', the article says nothing.

Who are you people?

Murray is a devout neoconservative. Neoconservatives believe that Western liberal democracy, such as it is, is by definition superior to all other forms of governance. It takes this position as morally absolute, and evokes notions of freedom, liberty and justice of which the west is supposed to be exemplary. It seeks to radically encourage parts of the world which do not share this view to adopt it. It does this with neoliberal economics and war. For a neoconservative, the fact that the Iraq war was based on lies is irrelevant, for it is the West's role to spread democracy; the fact that this magical democracy didn't arrive, and Iraq has plunged into deeper problems is also irrelevant because the West has its duty and that is that.

Neoconservatives in America are the people who preach libertarian values and despise socialist values. Then they endorse protectionism for their own agriculture, state funding for the military, and you can bet they were the first to propose bailing out the banks. It is hence a double-standards nationalistic ideology with its interests favouring capitalist leaders over the ordinary Western folk in who's interest they claim to be acting. 'Foreigners' are little more than dangerous and simple-minded scum until they can be made to work for the benefit of Western corporations.

Murray is the Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, the people who came up with the oxymoronic Inclusive Capitalism love-in a couple of months ago.

In this article, Murray bewilderingly puts Occupy London to rights by pointing out that the Church of England is much older than Occupy. Take that, anti-capitalists! He also paints them as having a sense of 'entitlement', seemingly because they take an issue with economic hegemony, and selfishly point out social problems such as '"youth unemployment," "women's unemployment," "police racism," "racism" in general, an alleged rise in "Islamophobia," the failure of the market economy, insufficient freedom for sex workers and terror suspects..."'

Occupy London, for Murray, wasn't a heterogeneous group of disaffected citizens with different concerns and different ideas attempting to engage in the national debate from which they are so often excluded. Oh no, they were apparently part of a culture 'of all sorts of narcissisms, special-interests groups and organizations actively devoted to the destruction of our society.'

Destruction, no less! Of our society. Who is this 'we'? one wonders. What mostly comes through from Eton and Oxford-educated Murray's articles is his derision for the uneducated, i.e. ordinary, citizen, whom he assumes is ill-positioned to have an opinion on anything beyond primetime TV and cinnamon lattes. He speaks for the elite, and his unquestioning conviction of the superiority of the West is matched only by his unquestioning conviction of the superiority of himself.


Melanie Phillips writes for the Times, but still has the Daily Mail flowing through her veins. People from all political stripes will know her because she appears to make ridiculous statements simply to irritate the left – '[The traditional family] has been relentlessly attacked by an alliance of feminists, gay rights activists, divorce lawyers, and "cultural Marxists" who grasped that this was the surest way to destroy Western society' – and exploit the prejudices of the right – 'the potential for tipping into outright calamity what is an already socially disruptive situation — with illegal Romanian shanty encampments even in the middle of London’s Mayfair, for heaven’s sake — is very high.'

Her Jewish faith is something she refers to frequently in her articles, and whilst being Jewish doesn't make anyone a Zionist, Phillips is an avid one. King David having built the Old City in Jerusalem in the 11th century BC (in Biblical history) is reason enough for all Jews to have claim to Jerusalem. Elsewhere, I'm sure she supports Mexican's claiming Texas or New Mexico, or Native American wishes to expel the newcomers from the Old World, and if I went to Scandinavia and chucked some family out of a house where I'm sure my Viking relatives lived, I assume she'd support that too. Hey, why don't we all go back to where our ancestors lived!

Phillips wrote a book called Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within, a hysterical rant which is happy to allow its readers to assume that Islamic extremism is Islam's default condition. We hope she's proud of her fascist spawn, Britain First, who have been threatening mosques and facing down curry restaurants in Brick Lane.

Melanie Phillips cares little for those who take to the streets, like those pesky teachers and their damned union representatives. How dare they demand pensions and stuff, while 'the harm the striking teachers will cause children by disrupting their education is, of course, not acknowledged'? For a day off school is second only to a thorough beating on the child abuse scale. 

She also deplores 'greedy' doctors who went on strike, stating that the 'public' will never trust them again. Or perhaps she was telling the public not to trust them again... Needless-to-say, all other professions who strike, or go on anti-cut demos, Occupy London – they're all idiots who you should hate. Phillips's poisonous diatribes routinely seek to condemn ordinary people by way of cajoling other ordinary people into despising them. How can she sleep at night? you might ask – well all that hatred must be exhausting!

And, as with all of Phillips' outpours, it comes back to the shocking demise of the country – in terms of moral clarity and absolute power – at the hands of conspiratorial leftie ideologues who've infected the political class with their sick relativism. Nothing, apparently, can't be solved with a good old time machine.

So...

The offending accusation is that the pro-Palestinian protests are singling out one aggressor (Israel) while ignoring others (Boko Haram, ISIS, Assad, etc.) As Mehdi Hassan points out in an article addressing this very argument, it's strange that supporters of Israel would categorise themselves amongst the likes of explicitly murderous groups, just to take a pop at anti-war protesters.

If Mehdi's aricle is a little too polemic, this article by Brian Whitaker also seeks to explain the reasons for the appearance of a 'singling out' of Israel by western critics. In it, Brian opines that the central reason is that the standards that Israel is supposed to uphold, as a Liberal Democracy vehemently supported by the West, are higher than those of Putin, Boko Haram, ISIS, Assad, etc. I would add, and this is the thrust of Hassan's argument, that a large scale protest in the UK is intended to draw the attention of our own elected leaders, to hold them to account, and to make demands for change. One suspects that Douglas Murray and his reactionary bandits of neoconservative privilege have never quite understood why anyone might need to protest, and I guess that's where the confusion lies.

If hypocrisy wasn't enough, the critic of Israel is also charged as an anti-Semite. Some brainless individuals just hate Jews, sometimes for religious or cultural reasons, sometimes because they're simply Nazis. Laura Penny, who is half-Jewish, no friend of the right and no Zionist, made the worrying observation...  



But for some every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, as Penny argues in this article today. It's not just simple-minded everyday citizens on Twitter who level this accusation, but also right-wing journalists who, alas, command influence. This sweeping argument is not unlike when criticism of a black person is said to be simply racist, or when criticism of a woman is assumed to be simply sexist. Sometimes they are racist, sexist or anti-Semitic, but not by definition. This is the 'finger in your ears shout "prejudice!"' argument, both sides do it to shut down debate, and it's lazy and stupid.

When critics of Israel evoke the upsetting memories of the Holocaust, Hitler or swastikas they do so to (crassly) point out a grim irony, an irony that should make a Jewish state pause for thought – Israel, founded as it recovered from such horrors, was founded on the principles of racial prejudice and religious intolerance. The fact that these principles underline the Israeli raison d'etre means that Netanyahu's claims of pragmatism and proportionality in attacking Gaza are treated with a hefty dose of suspicion. Indeed, if the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, the stranglehold on Gaza, and the regular deaths of Palestinians is anything to go by, a Zionist drive to expand trumps any logic of self-defence. 

Opposition to Zionism is also assumed to be support of Hamas, which is to see things in a very binary fashion. Hamas is a complicated organisation born of a complicated situation, but most pro-Palestinians would see its position as a voice for Palestinians as unfortunate at best. When they rightly point out that Hamas are Islamic fundamentalists, Zionists show themselves to have a massive blind spot. Such attitudes expose the truth of the overriding aim for fundamentalists on both sides, the unquestionable superiority of their own faith, land, people and blood.



Saturday, 12 July 2014

Zero Hour Queen



Recently the Queen did a speech, the aptly named "Queen's Speech". The article for this particular noun is "The" – The Queen's Speech. "The" is the "definite" article, denoting a known noun or a one-off. We don't say "A" Queen's Speech just as we don't say A Moon when we refer to The Moon. Why? Because there's only one moon, and there's only one Queen's Speech – one per year. Which begs the question... what are we paying her for the rest of the time?

I haven't heard much from the Queen since she did that speech, a speech so riveting that a page boy fainted. She did pop up to smash a bottle of whisky on a big warship, but other than that she must have been working on other, more quiet, things or taking some time off.

But "work" has never been more important than now, with the vastly wealthy United Kingdom having realised that it's also incredibly poor. With public accounts in a mess, welfare spending has been squished; scrutiny has been levelled on people who are deemed to have too much undeserved stuff or space in their homes. Private employers have realised that they can't hire people unless contracts become more flexible. So how should UK plc deal with its most favoured employee, the Queen?


The Day Job. 
On Royal.gov.uk a day in the life of the Queen is set out. There aren't set hours but we are assured she works hard "reading letters from the public, official papers and briefing notes: audiences with political ministers or ambassadors; and meetings with her Private Secretaries..."

In the morning she scans the daily newspapers before being thrust 200-300 letters from the public, which have to be answered by staff. Then she receives a collection of policy documents, before perhaps having an official meetings with an ambassador or two. After lunch she might go on some kind of 'engagement'. She has about 430 such engagements a year, mostly to visit lord-lieutenants (the Queen's representatives throughout the land), but they could also include visits to schools, art galleries, homeless hostels, factories, and so on. 

A weekly evening meeting with the PM on Wednesdays at 6:30pm goes unrecorded, but, as we all know, David Cameron has nothing to say that is worth remembering seeing that most of it is lies. Some evenings she might go to a film premiere or charity concert, or some other event in which she has some kind of stake. On other evenings Buckingham Palace might hold a reception for a special event.

Makes it sound like a full day of work.

Wages. 
The Royal Household costs anything between £35m and £200m, depending on what you include as costs. The figure which is closer to the official Royal report (referring to the Sovereign Grant, i.e. money from Government) was an estimated £36.1 Million for 2013-14. That spreads out at £98,904 and 11p for every day in a 365 day year. Let's say she does a 48 hour week like many other hardworking citizens – 8 hours a day including Saturday, Sunday off. That comes to an hourly wage of £14,423.52. Not bad at all – and that's at the lower end of estimates.

One should bear in mind that this is the money given to the family, rather than thrust directly into the Queen's purse. But one should also consider that this figure doesn't include things like security, thought to be about £100 Million, and other expenses. With generous payouts going to the family, subsidising the work she does, you'd have to conclude that this setup is akin to an ordinary welfare claim. Indeed, most benefits claimants are in work, and Queen is no different.

Private Wealth. 
The Queen's private wealth is unknown. I find this is a little strange, seeing that whenever I have had to claim benefits, I'm sure I had to calculate and declare my private wealth (fortunately this is quickly done because I have nothing). Estimates of the Queen's net wealth go as high as £349,000,000 (2008).

Money raised for the UK. 
Money from the Crown Estate is seen as money brought in from the Monarchy, and the profits (£200 Million plus) go in to the UK Treasury (except for 15% which the Queen keeps). But it's not money that is earned by the Royal Family as such. If your local pub was in the Crown Estate, its profits would go to the Treasury, and the monarchy would get the credit for that. The money that comes in from the Crown Estate outweighs the amount officially given to the royals, but groups like Republic point out that this money is being raised regardless of ownership.

A counter argument to Republic could be questioning whether selling off, say, Regent Street – which is in the Crown Estate – would bring in more cash in the long term. Not with the way privatisation currently tends to work, one suspects. Crown Estate cash seems pretty dependable. Still, as a principle, it's still the case that beyond owning it, the monarchy do bugger all to bring in money from the Crown Estate.

Property. 
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have eight houses (4 official and 4 private): two palaces, three castles, one 'house' (which looks like a palace to me) and two 'lodges' in the grounds of one of the castles. Buckingham Palace has 19 state rooms, 52 Royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms. Other Royal residences are the homes of other family members, bringing the total to 10. There are 23 more which are unoccupied by Royalty – the Palace of Westminster, Somerset House, Edinburgh Castle, etc.

Conclusion. 
We're all in it together, said one wise man a few years ago. Times are tough, said another. The country is broke, said a third. If these things are all true – and why should we believe otherwise? – then surely no one could argue with a rethink of the Queen's contract, something more in line with the general trends of the new and appealingly buoyant labour market.

Statistics show that some 1.5 million new jobs have been created since 2008, putting about 30.5 million people in work (April 2014). The Spectator blog which explains why these figures are so "miraculous" has to admit that wages are still falling in real terms. There are 22.2m full time workers, 8.2 part-time workers, and 1.4m zero hours contracts and non-guaranteed hours contracts (ONS, April 2014). (Note that one person can have more than one zero hours contract.) "Self-employed" workers make up about 44% of the rise, according to the TUC.

This table from Gov.uk shows how worker's rights are changed by zero hours contracts (Employee shareholder, worker, and self-employed are all statuses of zero hours workers.



The great benefit of zero hours contracts is that, for the company, it's a zero responsibility contract. All those workers' rights that have been slowly accrued over painstakingly long and arduous union battles with capitalists are swept aside in one simple contract, especially if a company gives you a job but you remain nominally "self-employed". A quick search on Indeed shows jobs going for self-employed sales advisors, tele-sales people, event staff, drivers, etc. – these aren't people "working for themselves" any more than Ford's factory labourers were.

But that's not a problem, you see, because it's all about choice. Choosing a flexible contract to suit your lifestyle is like a Pakistani child having the "choice" to work for a dollar a day for Nike, or starve. Choice is important – no one's making you do anything.

On occasion the worker does legitimately want a no-strings-attached job, to coincide with an increasingly NSA culture. Students are an oft-cited example, but the Queen may well find that zero hours favours her "lifestyle" too. The average hourly wage on a zero hours contract is £9, which is a bit below the Queen's current £14,423.52 an hour, but for the flexibility of such a contract she can spend a little more time greeting friends, playing with dogs, and reading the papers (things the rest of us do for free). Or she could pull up her socks and start reeling out dozens of Speeches every week, smashing bottles into boats all over the place, doubling the "engagements" and pocket a half-decent wage as a result.

Which brings up another question. How would a zero hour Queen be able to afford all the servants, that blingin' carriage, and the upkeep of her sizeable abodes? £9 an hour just isn't going to cut it, even if she works a 60 hour week like a primary school teacher – she might still end up needing some taxpayer help! Oh, I think Iain Duncan Smith might have the answer...

In a Telegraph article Smith, orchestrator of the "bedroom tax"/"spare room subsidy", makes the case for cuts for people with too many rooms. "We have a problem that needs addressing," he writes. "There are over quarter of a million households living in overcrowded social housing in England alone and another 1.8 million households stuck on the social housing waiting list. It is not right to make families wait and wait for a house that is big enough, while other households on benefits are allowed to live in homes that are too big for their needs, at no extra cost."

Couldn't have put it better myself!

Under the new rules, people who receive money from the state are penalised if they have spare rooms to the tune of 14% for 1 extra bedroom; 25% if you have 2 or more extra bedrooms. That's a 25% deduction for the Queen, bringing her £36.1 Million payout down to £27,075,000, saving the taxpayer £9,025,000.

There's always opposition to the controversial bedroom tax, and we should expect nothing less from the Royals who are sure to say that these so-called "extra" rooms are all important. I'd direct those complainants to consider the disabled people who are penalised because they have an extra room containing equipment for their disability.

One has to remember that the bedroom tax is a 'nudge' policy to encourage families to find houses more suited to their size, to take responsibility for their lifestyle and play fair. Housing is scarce, it's true, so people should leave their homes and find tiny new ones for their lonely souls: the fact that these one bed homes hardly exist is not the issue. As for the Royals, a nice four-bed home in west London suburbia should be enough for the Queen and her husband, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward and wife, and their daughter. It's a lot more than many of us get, and just think how many rooms there are spread over their newly vacated palaces and castles! That's a lot of new homes.

Meanwhile, if they all get on their bikes and get down the JobCentre, then the whole family could be off benefits, which, in George Osborne's words, would be more fair to people "who get up, go out to work, pay [their] taxes and pay for those benefits."

We know this means a lot to Osborne, because he said, "we won’t stop until we make sure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the peace of mind that comes from having a job."

That's everyone.


The Tories also enjoy a good moral argument, opining that, for example, idle sponges on benefits are undeserved of social security even if prohibiting them makes little economic sense due to other costs incurred down the line. "Working Hard and Getting On" is the mantra for deserved poverty – i.e. badly paid job with long hours; those that don't work hard don't even deserve poverty – they deserve nothing. The fact that they have televisions is enough to condemn them as recklessly and unfairly benefitting from the foolish generosity of the State. With that logic, the economic considerations above can be disregarded, for the moral argument alone would be enough to state with some certainty that the Queen's wealth and continuing welfare payments are undeserved, and hence should be stopped.

We're often told that things like social security, wage rises, pensions, job security, and employment rights have to be considered against the backdrop of economic reality. But when you're dealing with figures such as £1,268.7 billion for the net public sector debt (in March 2014) and much more for private debt, it's seems that reality left us long ago.

But what could be a bigger disavowal of reality than having a Queen? There by bloodline and "divine right", immune to meritocracy and democracy, trotting out a job which is purely symbolic. Of course once you start looking into it, all of the Queen's work seems a little tenuous, and disbanding the whole show seems like a better idea than changing the contract to a zero hours one. But I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Let her stay on as a zero hour employee, working for her crust. We don't want her back on benefits after all!


Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Gettin' Righteous with the Feedback

I'm not one to poke my head out and get all riled up but the BBC's been getting my goat of late. I like the BBC as a principle, and often in practise too. Sure, BBC3 and it's down with the kids schtik is a bit grating, and the strange gloss that is liberally pasted over a BBC 1 show makes it undeniably cringeworthy, but that stuff's for other people who aren't me. And that's what the BBC's about – making programmes for people that aren't necessarily me. This is why important programs that don't bring in the viewers are kept on the air. They have a duty to give information, to teach, to be impartial.

Sometimes this quest for impartiality makes for some strange viewing. Let's say you have a front page story – a man's been caught having sex with his goats. Well you can bet that the next day BBC will have some spokesperson from the Foundation for Animal's Rights to Marriage (FARM) putting forward the case for bestiality in the name of a balanced debate. It can mean that some strange and infrequently held views are given inappropriate airtime. A good example is climate change – despite a tiny minority of scientists disputing anthropogenic climate change, the BBC are compelled to invite on some smug, populist sceptic to wave his arms and say it's all a conspiracy. Here James Delingpole laments the BBC's ignorance for siding with "scientists". Pesky scientists, with their "evidence". Another strange situation is that "balance" requires not taking sides in the Israel-Palestine troubles, despite the fact that the crimes have been overwhelmingly perpetrated by Israel. The BBC is generally criticised as being unreasonably pro-Palestine, as this 2006 article by Michael Gove shows.

Ukip are a right wing party, it might not surprise you to hear, and recent darlings of the BBC (and many other media outlets). There's even a website, (IsNigelFarageOnQuestionTime.com) dedicated to informing the curious viewer whether Nigel Farage is on Question Time on any given week. Since 2010, the pint-swilling populist has been Question Time's joint-most-frequently-invited guest along with Labour's Caroline Flint. 

Still, the BBC get a lot of verbal excrement thrown at them by the right for being a Stalinist propaganda arm of the state. Read any number of right wing newspapers for this attitude. Peter Hitchens is a great example. He complained about the Radio 4 program What the Papers Say giving him a silly voice. They do that to all the journalists they imitate, the only difference with Peter is that his voice is silly in real life. Was Peter a little offended, perhaps? Maybe a little political correctness in the BBC is in order, hmm, to stop them satirising poor lowly irritant toffs such as himself, maybe. He also complained about the BBC misrepresenting an article he wrote about Ukip, and then he made out that the fact that they apologised made the BBC even worse

One wonders if Peter and his ilk might have some interests at hand. Like perhaps organisations that criticise the BBC might have something against, say, the principle of public ownership in general. Well the Daily Mail's not exactly one to champion public ownership, owned as it is by the shifty Lord Rothermere who doesn't believe in paying taxes on this profits, and hence doesn't. And what about Murdoch's papers? No surprise that News Corporation is no fan of its big British rival – it can't even stage a take-over. The Centre for Policy Studies enjoys a good BBC bash. Founded by Margaret Thatcher and a few other neoliberal greedy-types, it promotes free markets. The BBC is public and – deep breath – regulated

The uniting criticism is that the BBC is run by a 'liberal elite', and these critics want to swap it with a conservative elite. But the accusation of left-wing bias doesn't really ring true. The Greens, despite having an MP, are vastly outweighed in coverage by Ukip, and Trade Unions, despite being the largest democratic organisation in the UK, are outweighed by representatives from business – union member's bosses. BBC News's bigtime interviewers – Andrew Marr, Andrew Neil, Jeremy Paxman (now gone), Nick Robinson – are all Tories to some degree. We hear a lot about growth in the economy, but no critique of what growth amounts to, and  we get a lot of cheap shots at Ed Miliband (granted, Ed makes himself a target by being pretty useless).

This article from a Cardiff University lecturer shows the stats. It reports that research shows "the BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda."

It then signs off with... 

"The funding for some of the research discussed in this article was provided directly by the BBC Trust."
Oops!
But of late I'd say that the analysis is pretty accurate. The BBC failed to report a huge anti-austerity march last week, except for (eventually) this piddly little post-it note of a report. Then I saw Andrew Marr on Sunday having a great old jolly with his breakfast time pal, Foreign Secretary William Hague, signing off by thanking him for the little chat. "It's been a treat," he said before blowing him a subtle kiss. 
Then today I listened to Radio 4's Analysis. It's one of those slow, thoughtful radio shows that you don't get many places. It tends to go a little beyond the trite pie-slinging political soap opera that's curated by Nick Robinson and friends on BBC News. It was called Tories: Nasty or Nice? Now, no surprises for guessing where I stand, but I'm always up for hearing the other side of the argument. The problem with this episode, however, was that there was no other to the other side. It was presented by Tory supporter Robin Aitken, and he didn't try and hide his political persuasions.
So, I wrote to Feedback – 
---------------------------------
I listened to this week's Analysis, a show which is often pretty good. I understand that this episode was exploring the question of whether the Conservative Party are nasty or nice and it was delivered by a Tory supporter. I don't have a problem with the presenter's political leanings, but I would have thought he would have to adhere to some form of political balance for the sake of the show. This wasn't the case. While he was exploring how the 'nasty' label had come to be, and putting the case forward for 'nice' – with the aid of the Right-wing philosopher, Scruton – there was a complete lack of challenge to his thesis. By my recollection, there was one guest who thought the Tories were 'nasty', yet she still found time to congratulate them on their foreign aid budget. There was no response from a representative of the Left to the accusation that in fact it is they who are 'nasty', never mind any detailed exploration into the damage that Tory policy has caused, or the financial interests that effect many Tory's judgements. Need I remind Aitken that it's not just Tory words that are so offensive, but their actions too.

Aitken's conclusion was that mending the electoral prospects of the Tories is a PR excersise, and after hearing this episode (and with the absense of coverage of the recent anti-government protests fresh in the mind) one wonders how involved the BBC is getting in providing that PR.

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I also sent a link of the programme to http://biasedbbc.org/. They're obviously a paranoid anti-left bunch, but bias is bias, right? I'm sure their hatred of Labour, Europe, climate science, Obama, etc., won't get in the way of a their duty to seek out bias and put it right in whatever form it be! Right? 

What I said to them was...

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Hi, I noticed some recent bias that I think you'd be interested in.
This week's episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme, Analysis, had a complete lack of balance.
For your interest, here it is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b047ws86

Keep up the good work!

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At least I'm nice hey. In conclusion, I don't think the BBC is as-a-rule conspiratorially left-wing or right-wing. Thankfully, the BBC's set-up involves so many editorial pigeonholes that they'd make a really incoherent propaganda organisation. Unfortunately that leads to some aggressive accusations when they slip up. The difference between where the accusations come from, as I see it, is that where the Left generally support the BBC and are concerned when it seems to be parping the government line, the Right are happy to criticise anything because destroying the BBC is the ultimate aim. 

Some say that the BBC generally align themselves with the government of the time, being nice in order to save the license fee. That wasn't the case in the 80s when the BBC was happy to give Thatcher a hard time, and we hope it's not the case now. The fact that both Left and Right seem to have an endless amount of ammunition is probably a sign that the BBC isn't drifting too far either way, overall. (I'm referring to party-political leanings here rather than social politics, for which the BBC is a little to the left – in line with dominant social attitudes – or economics, for which the BBC is to the right – in line with dominant economic discourse.) But to dispell the accusations of pro-gov bias, they better start holding the government to account for some of its work, reporting the mass anti-government movements, and stop snuggling up all cosy-like with despicable politicians on Sunday morning sofas.