Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

There's plenty being said about the verdict in the Hillsborough inquest today but for me, most of the questions about it tend to come back to those cages, to the metal fencing that penned in the Liverpool supporters and fans of other clubs, in those days.

How could a crush at a football game have been so deadly?  Because the people there were jammed into cages to watch their team play, and couldn't escape onto the pitch.

How was it possible for any kind of cover-up to take place, when the whole terrible thing had been captured on film?  Why would the Sun print outrageous slanders against the victims of the disaster?  Why were there so many people willing to believe those lies, and why are there still so many even today?

Because the people who died were the type of people that could be put into cages, without any real or material objections from anyone who could've put a stop to it.

The cages tell us a lot about the regard in which football supporters were held by the people responsible for their construction.  And not only in big flashpoint games or high-risk matches between rivals, but every game, week-in, week-out.  Ordinary men, women and children, the old and the young.  People just like you or me, any one of us who has ever been to a football game.

The truth of Hillsborough, not least the absolute contempt for the public at the highest level of society that led directly to it, has been public knowledge since I was a kid.   So why has it taken twenty seven years for some kind of justice to be done?  Why did the victims' relatives have to fight tooth-and-nail for the result that they got today?

And I'd say, just look at the cages.  That picture paints a thousand words.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Imaginary Bacon Rolls Of Terror

Brendan O'Neill isn't happy with the liberals and multiculturalists this week, or any other week, for that matter.

He's concerned about that Charlie Hebdo think-piece, the one about how the Muslims are oppressing everyone by wandering around wearing headscarves and so on.  Specifically, he's worried that  

"...chilling of discussion around Islam encourages a climate of mutual apprehension and tension in European communities, where non-Muslims are implicitly told to keep their concerns to themselves while Muslims increasingly come to live in a kind of protective bubble of non-criticism or just non-discussion".

And I mean, he has a point here.  It's certainly true that you can attract plenty of hysterical abuse, simply for speaking reasonably on various Islam-themed topics.  I'll add that the same is true of sport journalists who get on the wrong side of football fans; critics who e.g. give superhero movies bad reviews and women who have the temerity to say things while being female.

Still, Brendan's describing an existing phenomenon here*, and the Hebdo case is very unusual in that it's one of very few involving the threat of actual violence, rather than just some twatty comments on social media.

It's worth noting though that the Hebdo piece didn't piss people off because it was telling us uncomfortable truths.  It mainly annoyed people because it's yet another example of folk intentionally acting like stroppy, belligerent dicks, while theatrically complaining about how they're not allowed to act like stroppy, belligerent dicks.  Basically much like The Spectator, but French.

And of course, folk have every right to act like stroppy, belligerent dicks if they so please, much as other people have every right to respond by calling them racists, or whatever.

Is it racist, to kick off on a mad ramble about how pissed off you are that the Muslims won't even let you buy a bacon roll in an imaginary bakery?  Is it bigoted, to make illogical claims conflating headscarves and nailbombs?

Well maybe it is and maybe it isn't, and the distinction doesn't really matter much to me.  The iron rule remains the same either way - you don't have to be racist to be an arsehole.

That being the case, the Hebdo piece looks to me like that very modern form of opinion journalism - the deliberately antagonising cry-wank.

All I did was deliberately go out of my way to annoy people, and now they're all annoyed because they are so very thin-skinned and unreasonable.  Oh, woe!

And none of this is happening in a vaccuum.  The French generally are a bit more... robust than we are, on such issues.  Their public figures certainly aren't afraid to say precisely what they think.  French intellectuals routinely announce that Everything Is Fucked because white people are too nice to the ethnics, and it's always seemed to me that there's a strong undercurrent in French thought that foreigners can never be French, mostly because of their wacky religious beliefs.

And let's remember that there is currently a cultural and political movement that is rocking like a hurricane in France, and that it isn't self-censorship or bashfulness in the face of fruity foreign fatwas.  It's the fucking National Front.

While the hacks wail in terror about snotty Tweets, the actual real far-right is booming.  Let's not insult Brendan, or any of the other howlers and chucklers, by assuming that they aren't aware of precisely the type of politics that is driving headscarf bans or pork-only school lunches.

I think that ultimately, what we're looking at here is deep confusion** about the difference between

- Secularism
- Intentionally being as dickish as possible, and
- Media types going out of their way to annoy people and then complaining about tyranny when people get annoyed.

Secularism itself involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

I'll leave it up to you to decide whether e.g. boiling with resentment about the unavailability of imaginary ham sandwiches is an example of secularism, or just of people being as dickish as possible.  

What I will say is that this confusion isn't at all cost-free.  It's precisely this kind of nonsense that's brought us such unedifying occurrences as:

British soldiers kicking down doors in Helmand in order to liberate Afghan women from their husbands, fathers and brothers; 

The French government freeing women from oppression by threatening them with arrest if they wear the wrong outfits, and French authorities giving schoolkids the choice between eating pork or fucking off, and

The British government trying to help oppressed Muslim women by deporting the ones that don't speak English.

If there's some kind of intellectual battle going on here, I suspect that it's between people who are trying not to be dicks about everything, and people who are determined to be as dickish as possible, all the time.

It's not always easy to tell which is which, because there's a hell of a lot of overlap between the two sides and because both deploy similar levels of apocalyptic boo-hoo, but it can be done.

*As it happens, I often agree with Brendan on most free speech issues.  I think it is problematic that many political and media types are afraid to speak their minds openly because they think they'll be branded racists.  As I've argued in the past of characters including Nick Griffin, Nigel Farage and David Starkey, the best thing for everyone is to encourage cranks to be as frank as possible, and to let the public decide whether they're arseholes or not.  I'm very confident about the public's judgement on that, at least. 

**A deep confusion that is being intentionally sown by hacks including Brendan O'Neill, by the way.

An Evil Genius

Let's say that you were an evil genius along the lines of The Joker in The Dark Knight*, bent upon creating the most chaotic, hostile world imaginable, as quickly as possible.

How would you go about engendering the maximum amount of mutual distrust, discord and suspicion amongst your fellow human beings?  Would you e.g. hijack boats full of citizens and prisoners, and force them to choose which of them would be destroyed with high explosives?

Probably not.  A better way would be to maximise everybody's exposure to the sections of society that most hate and fear them, people whom they would never usually encounter.

To do that, you'd need a mechanism that exacerbates existing faults in society - a way of pitting people against their immediate religious, political or cultural foes.  Ideally, you'd want to ensure that this occurs in an intimate and familiar setting where people feel most safe.  Somewhere like, maybe, their own homes, just to really make them feel threatened and uncomfortable.

What you'd want, would be to bring vulnerable or just mildly thin-skinned people into contact with all manner of highly aggressive idiots.  You'd want earnest feminists arguing with the most bitter misogynists; ardent secularists being brought into the orbit of religious zealots; devout Muslims discovering that there are legions of people who utterly despise them and their religion; to find ways of bringing even the most atheistic of Jews into the immediate proximity of rabid Holocaust-deniers.

What you'd want really, is just a way of making sure that insecure and irritable people - by which I mean, normal, everyday people - are roundly and thoroughly abused by others who deliberately seek them out to offend and upset them.

And, most important of all, this has to happen in an environment where nothing, nothing at all, could ever possibly be resolved, and where the arguments can only ever get angrier, nastier and more fraught with bitterness and mutual recrimination, rather than less. 

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Twitter.  If you want to bring the haters together with the hated, accept no substitutes.

Some academic should run an experiment on the prevalence of social media and perceptions of personal and communal persecution, before and after.  I think the results would be stark.  Truly, it is one of the few venues I can think of where the prey willingly and enthusiastically line up to be introduced to the predators.

Whatever your opinions are, on any damn issue, Twitter in particular has some idiot somewhere on Earth, just desperate to call you a Commie or a nigger or a faggot, or whatever derogatory racial/religious/political/sexual etc. slur it is that you'll find most offensive, just for conveying them.  Simply log in, express yourself, and there's a good chance that they'll turn up eventually.

Now, I recognise that most people who use social media don't have to deal with this type of this stuff, most of the time.  I'm guessing that my brother's Twitter account, for instance, is mostly comprised of footballers and comedians, and that he doesn't get much abuse for posting the occasional photo of his dinner or an opinion on a film.

Nonetheless, for lots of people like me - mainly, mouthy twats who want an audience to sound off at about their super-controversial views on lots of micro-political issues of minority interest - it's a much more hostile environment**. 

And yet, still.  You can't open a paper without finding out all about the sudden upsurge of bigotry against... well, whoever anyone hates, anywhere, as evidenced by some sad berks with Twitter accounts.  Of which there are millions of examples worldwide. 

For the most part, this signifies nothing, beyond the fact that vindictive people all over the planet who would otherwise have had to have satisfied themselves with merely being horrible to their neighbours, now have a swish application that allows them to be vindictive to strangers on the other side of the planet.  And it's sure not restricted to Twitter.

But let's remember - the biggest internet squabble of the last few years wasn't about, oh, the rise of ISIS or the genocide of the Armenians.  It was about video game reviews written by girls, and it got really, really nasty.  Nowadays, people get death-threats for saying that they don't like superhero films or particular computer games.

I think people mistake all of this emboldened cuntishness, where what was once unspeakable is now said openly, for an upsurge in prejudice.  It probably isn't - it is, after all, only twenty years since a good chunk of the Scottish populace went bug-fuck mental at the idea that a teacher could tell a pupil that it is, theoretically, okay to be gay.

The major difference is that every dipshit, almost everywhere in the world, can now speak where they can be heard.  It'd probably be a good idea for us to work out how to deal with that, sooner rather than later.

 *But less shit than The Dark Knight.

**I'm fine with this myself - I am, by and large, as much of a complete dick on social media as I am in real life, and so I expect to get a certain amount of dickishness in return.  I appreciate however that others aren't trying to be dicks like I am, and try to moderate my behaviour.  Occasionally, at least.

I'm also not letting Facebook off the hook here.  I've seen shit on there that would turn your hair white, and from family members rather than acquaintances.  Twitter just gets more scrutiny, because there are more politicians, celebrities and journalists who use that platform regularly.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Euston Ten-Year Anniversary Open Thread

From what I can gather, Nick's eulogy for Euston is a proper knee-slapper, full of the usual wails and screams but at a particularly piercing pitch and tone.

Tragically however, it's paywalled for me, and I'd rather have my wisdom teeth replaced and then pulled all over again than pay the Spectator for the privilege of perusing it.  So I'll just have to wait until it appears somewhere else.

Going by past experience, I'm betting that it's mainly some mixture of  

The wars that we demanded have left half the planet in flames and have - incredibly - elevated our bitter political foes to power, and this is definitely somebody else's fault, and  

Our political project was an abject failure, but that had nothing at all to do with the godawful behaviour of the people who promoted it. 

Still, I know some of you have read it and that you, like me, have many fond memories of the era.  For those of you who want to pick over the rubble or to discuss any notable departures from universal values, consider this an open thread. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

We're No' Like Thame

Some thoughts on Scottish patriotism and nationalism here, starting with a seemingly irrelevant digression into football.

Back in the seventies, Scottish football supporters were viewed in much the same light as football fans everywhere else in the UK were - basically, as scum thugs in need of merciless baton-charges.  That's why Scottish football stadiums got fences and cages, just the same as the ones south of the border did.

But a funny thing happened to supporters of the national team as the eighties progressed.  Gradually, Scotland fans came to view themselves as a bunch of cheerfully drunken reprobates, almost as ambassadors for the nation, spreading merry tartan larks wherever they went.  They began to police themselves for bad behaviour, shouting down any supporters who might be inclined to fight other fans or throw things.

To put it mildly, this was an unexpected turn of events.  I'd put it down to a single cause - the appalling behaviour of some English football fans, whose violent rioting was so consistently extreme that it got the entire nation, rather than just a few clubs, banned from European competitions.

In reaction, Scottish fans seem to have decided en masse that We're no' like thame.  Thus, for the last thirty years, the Tartan Army has mostly spent its time responding to our constant failures with good humour and fraternal bevvy-sessions with rival fans, priding itself on its good-natured banter.

And, you now, it's all good.  The aggressive friendliness and mugging up to the cameras can be a bit toe-curling at times, but it creates a far more pleasant atmosphere at and around games.  If you have to be known for something, far better that it's for thirstiness and ingratiating patter, than hurling bottles and fighting with coppers.

Nonetheless, a glance at our domestic league will tell you that our garrulous bonhomie is largely an act, an assumed role.  Despite the cheery chumminess of the national team's fans, we can be just as riotous and violent as supporters south of the border.

Further, the statistics on violent crime* in Scotland make for depressing reading, showing that we're the most savage and stab-happy nation in the First World.  Adults quickly forget this, but when you're a guy aged between about fourteen and twenty one, just walking down a high street in an unfamiliar town can be a seriously risky enterprise.  People in Scotland would view e.g. the Americans as heavily armed, violently-inclined and trigger-happy, but the kind of constant, needless post-pub group batterings that are commonplace in Scotland astound tourists from across the Atlantic.

And still, when we invoke our national self-image, it's far closer to the Tartan Army's view of ourselves as endlessly friendly banter-merchants, than it is to the reality of an average Friday night in Kirkcaldy.  And this remains true, even though many of us see that reality up-close and personal on a regular basis.

Now, I'd say that all of this is fairly unremarkable, and that people in nations all over the world see themselves in a similar light.  No doubt, there's a geezer in Moscow right now chibbing a stranger through the lung, then getting teary-eyed over the wit and candour of an imagined Russian national character.  And yet, Scotland games are testament to the fact that ideas really can make us better people, at least for ninety minutes.  If that seems trite, I suspect that a visit to one of Russia's World Cup qualifiers might bear the proposition out.

And you should bear all this in mind, when observing the current upsurge in Scottish nationalist sentiment.  My guess is that a large part of it is the result of looking south of the Border at the comical bastardry of the Tories and UKIP, and declaring - We're no' like thame.

But of course, we are like them.  Popular opinion may be a bit less vicious towards migrants and benefits claimants and the European Union, and it may currently be ridiculous to imagine any serious Scottish equivalent of the English Defence League sprouting up here.  Still, this is a matter of degrees rather than a singular, special difference in our national character.

And yet, the current political landscape in Scotland is largely sculpted from this one idea - that there's a unique and precisely Scottish cameraderie that, presumably, stops exactly north of Berwick Upon Tweed.

Let's just say that I find this belief difficult to credit.  We may be less prone to boo-hoo about foreigners than our English cousins, but that's mainly because much of our boo-hoo is directed at our English cousins.  We are more open to socialist views than people in other parts of the UK but even so, there's a damn a good reason why our current government makes lots of noise about its left-wing credentials, while noticeably never doing anything that so much as smells like redistribution.

This notional Scotland, these stories that we tell ourselves about our collective amiability as a stark dividing line between ourselves and others, have now moved from a fun fantasy for football supporters to something approaching a national myth, and who knows?  Perhaps if we all believe it hard enough, it'll make us a better people and a better country, much as the Tartan Army's conviction in its own essential good-spirits have made watching Scotland games more pleasant - or at least less dangerous - for everyone.

A passing acquaintance with reality, however, suggests that we'll remain the same flawed and impulsive people that we've always been, much like everybody else is, and that no amount of self-congratulation or back-slapping is likely to effect any material change in that situation.

*Note that those two reports about Scotland as the developed world's most violent country are ten years apart, which suggests a level of consistency, if nothing else.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Thou Shalt Not

Let's return to the Rhodes statue debacle, which has now ended with a decisive victory for the forces of major financial donorship.

To recap quickly: A small group of students at an Oxford college felt that the on-campus presence of a statue dedicated to Cecil Rhodes, one of the British Empire's more rapacious exploiters and infamous thieves, is anachronistic at best and actively offensive at worst.  They demanded that the college remove the offending sculpture, mainly for symbolic reasons.

A terrific rammy then ensued, in which the national press hurled a series of astonishing insults and accusations at these students.  The row finally ended when the college's big money donors threatened to withdraw their funding if the statue was removed.  And so now, the statue will stay. 

I've left it a few days before responding to these events, to allow for reaction to this hilarious decision to play out.  Having done so, I think we can draw a few lessons here:

Threats are fine, provided they're financial 

It's amusing to note the contrast in the treatment that the people involved in this row have received.  

 In the pages of the UK's quality press, the students were repeatedly accused of dictatorial attempts to throttle free enquiry and open debate, and were denounced over and over for trying to delete or sanitise history.  The hacks joined with noted academics and former statesmen in issuing fiery accusations at a few students for iconoclasm and intellectual thuggery, even going so far as to angrily compare the students' actions to ISIS's destruction of antiquities.

And yet, when the issue was resolved by a couple of very wealthy geezers issuing actual blackmail, the very same people were either silent, or openly celebratory.

The lesson here is this - When a plurality of punditry and former politicians agree that some trifling squabble represents an unacceptable threat to our most treasured abstract concepts, they're usually pulling a fast one.

It's difficult to tell from the muted reaction, but I think we can now conclude that many of the students' detractors may have been arguing in bad faith.

After all, it is possible to argue that a request to remove a statue constitutes an outrageous attempt to throttle debate, while also believing in the rectitude of actually throttling the debate with financial threats.

It's just not possible to do both, without also being an outrageous bullshit-merchant of the first water.

Let's note here that it was the students that were repeatedly accused of being "hysterical"; of "throwing tantrums" and so on, and yet it was their opponents who e.g. deployed the ISIS comparisons.  It was the students who were accused of "throttling debate", but it was the donors who issued the threats that won the day.

For me but not for thee 

In the United States, they've been pulling down Confederate banners and statues for months, as they damn well should do and should've done decades ago.

In Ukraine, the removal and defacement of Soviet iconography is routine.  Statues and flags have been torn down all across the Middle East for years, and all of these terrible acts of iconoclasm have happened to the sound of loud celebration in the UK press.

And yet somehow, when the action is moved closer to home, far milder forms of the same behaviour are treated as an unacceptable national outrage.  The mere suggestion that Cecil Rhodes might meet the same fate as, say, Confederate officer Nathan Bedford-Forrest - a roughly comparable historical figure, IMHO - is met with screeches and wails of terror. 

No doubt you can imagine how the UK press would've responded to similar controversies involving likenesses of Che Guevara in South America, or Kemal Ataturk in Ankara.  I suspect that a press-room whip-round for pick-axes might not be out of the question.

But one may not sully the Great British imperialists of yore.  It's worth noting that, had the Americans reacted to anti-Confederacy objections as our own academics and scribbling classes have done with the empire, most of those Stars-'n'-Bars would still be flying today.

You mess with Oxford at your peril

A fairly obvious one, this - I think we can all agree that a row along similar lines wouldn't have attracted a fraction of the vituperation, if it had instead broken out at e.g. the University of Dundee.

One of the many comical and undeclared undercurrents of all the recent campus controversies is that of old boys getting riled by the suspicion that they might not be entirely welcome at their former stomping grounds.  And indeed they might not be, and I'm sure that you're all just as concerned about that prospect as I am.

Thou shalt not fuck with the Empire 

And here, I think, we reach the fundamental issue.  This was a debate about the Empire - about the industrial-scale theft and wanton cruelty that is part of any imperial project, be it British, Roman or Soviet.  The students, not unfairly, regarded the likeness of one of the imperial era's more prominent plunderers as an affront, not simply because of his racism, but because of his conduct.

The response from our pundits, academics and former politicians was very telling, I think.  Almost all  chose to interpret this instead as a debate about racism and political correctness, and issued exculpatory statements about Rhodes' philanthropy, and how Rhodes was no more racist than his contemporaries.  The Times - incredibly - allowed one of its columnists* to claim that Rhodes wasn't that racist, since he believed that Africans could be trained to become civilised.

And this has always been the standard British response to any complaints about the undisputed savagery of our former Empire - to emphasise the good manners and good breeding of our empire-building forebears, as a partial excuse to ignore their profound lack of good character or even good behaviour.

The hysterics and amateur dramatics that this row has inspired suggest to me that it's touched a raw nerve.  I get the feeling that Rhodes is the wobbly brick at the bottom of the wall.  If we question him, then that surely calls into question all of the participants and beneficiaries of empire.

And let's be clear: if we do that, then we'd have to question most of the people and institutions that make up our great national self-image - family members of famous and wealthy people, historical figures, great schools and universities, businesses, maybe even kings and queens.

That's why almost every opinion piece on the Rhodes row has contained some variation upon the following question - If we're going to disown Rhodes, then wouldn't we have to look again at e.g. Queen Victoria, or even Winston Churchill, with a critical eye?

The ludicrous nature of this entire incident - with its near-deranged tone, its almost entirely one-sided insults and its hilarious, slapstick outcome - strongly suggests that, well, maybe we should.

*Nigel Biggar, Message to students: Rhodes was no racist, The Times, 22 December 2015

Saturday, January 23, 2016

An Intolerable Enormity

Yet another week of screeching headlines that have actual useful lessons tip-toeing around behind them, I think.

Let's start with David Cameron's absurd plan to protect Muslim women by deporting the ones that don't learn to speak English.  Most of what needs to be said about it has been said already, so I'll just add the following -

- To anyone who has ever asked the rhetorical question "Why won't feminists say (my fucknut opinion about the Muslims)?", Cameron's ludicrous PR stunt provides the answer - Because they will then be used to justify whatever shit-thick policy proposal the Prime Minister decides will make him look good.

I imagine that the various campaigners for women's rights and secularism, and against honour killings, female genital mutilation and all manner of other religion-and-culture-related horrors, did not imagine that their principled efforts were ripe to be picked up by the PM and used to justify his latest Gosh I dislike the fucking immigrants just as much as the voters do nonsense.  And yet, that's exactly what has happened.

Much as it happened when feminists and other right-on types picked up on and publicised the kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram, people who commit great investments in time and effort to thankless tasks now find circles of (mostly) dudes demanding that they endorse the idiotic ideas of one very rich and powerful dude who is using their campaigns to boost his approval ratings.  Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose.

- Also, the Westminster inquiry into how Britain helped to hopelessly fuck up Libya to a state spectacularly worse than its previous fuckage has been going on this week, and has been unsurprisingly under-publicised.

I'll spare you the details, and note that the inquiry has revealed that the government authorised the Libya campaign without having the slightest idea what it was doing, what its allies intended to do, who it was helping or what the effect of their actions would be.  They understood almost nothing about the country or the various factions that they were supporting and displayed not a jot of interest in finding out anything more.

This being Parliament, there are excuses - mostly, these are of the "We made mistakes because we were so darned enthusiastic about peace" variety.  The message that comes across loud and clear is rather that they immediately decided on a gung-ho course of action and simply shouted down anyone who tried to advise them against it, mainly because they are extremely vain and confident in their own barely-existing common sense.

You'll note that all of this chimes almost precisely with the statements of those who strongly advised against the Libya War before it got underway.  Having watched exactly the same debacle unfold repeatedly, I don't now expect to see any apologies for either the wild war-fever or for the denunciations and condemnations which were so freely bandied about in 2011.

Which is just as well, because there are none and there never will be any, mostly because the people who were dishing out the abuse then are just as pompous and self-regarding now.

And while we're on the topic of people with big, crazy ideas for improving the lives of foreigners via military hi-jinks, let's note that that ball is still rolling ever-onward.

- Times columnist David Aaronovitch is this week demanding 300,000 troops to Syria, on the grounds that anything else is unrealistic.

Now, you and I know that nobody is going to send 300,000 troops to Syria.  Dave knows it too.  In fact, everyone who sees this understands that it's much like saying "We must deploy the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers to Syria, or else".  And yet, there it is.

Elsewhere, Nick has a grand idea for helping out the Kurds in their fight with Islamic State - why don't we just arm them to the teeth, to show our support for their cause?  And not only should we arm them to the teeth, but doing otherwise is a disgraceful failure that brings shame upon our ancestors.

As commenters point out, the obvious answer to this question is Because we would instantly make Turkey our deadly enemy, and would massively infuriate the Americans. 

This is so obvious that it shouldn't need saying and it'd be quite reasonable to acknowledge this, and to then debate the pros and cons of arming the Kurds anyway.  Since doing so would require Nick to actually think about the issue however, he decides instead to ignore it entirely.  Thus he achieves the remarkable feat of writing a column about the Kurds that actually leaves the reader more ignorant after reading it, rather than less.

- Which brings us to the miserable state of Syria, about which there has been much mounting of high-horses this week.

In amongst all the calumnies and excoriations, one simple fact has been true since the very start of the Syrian War, and it's this - everyone agrees that the war is terrible and unacceptable, and few of the people shouting loudest about it want the war to actually end.  Almost everyone commenting on the war instead wants their chosen faction to win.

Consider - shriekers and chest-pounders like James Bloodworth are perfectly well aware that victory for the Syrian rebels, whether we mean the actual Jihadist groups or the largely fictional armies of secularists, would involve precisely the same amount of artillery bombardments, seige-warfare and bloodshed.

And yet, few if any of them ever express a desire for the war to end.  This tells us that it's not so much the extreme violence and death that upsets our commentators, as it is the fact that it's mainly happening in the wrong postcode.  They're not so much upset that people are dying, as that it's the wrong people who are dying.

If it were in their power, few of our pundits and politicians would stop the guns firing, and would instead turn them upon the populations that they believe are more deserving.  And make no mistake, they'd find reasons to approve of the destruction, exactly as they've done in Libya and Iraq and god knows where else.

All of which is worth bearing in mind, the next time that some joker announces that the situation in some benighted country is an intolerable enormity, and that something must be done about it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

So Wrong, It's Right

Finished watching season one of The Americans last night, the FX drama about deep-cover KGB sleeper agents in eighties Washington.  Needless to say, there will be mild Spoilers here.

So The Americans is both very entertaining and utterly absurd.  It's an espionage soap-opera filled with cheesy dialogue and outbursts of the type of badass close-quarters combat that's been compulsory in spy and hitman dramas since at least Grosse Point Blank.  The bodycount is ludicrous, more like a two-day bender in Beirut than any Le Carre novel. Sensationalism-wise, one episode alone features more gratuitous fucking than entire seasons of HBO dramas have done.

Despite the show's eighties setting, it's only the klutzes and doofi who dress in a recognisably eighties fashion.  The main cast spend most of their time looking like they've just completed a trolley-dash in The Gap.  Mind you, most of the Soviets look like the human embodiment of a miserable hangover in 1974, which is at least historically accurate.

Still, there's lots of fun to be had here, as spies and counter-intelligence agents engage in the kind of ruthless, kill-crazy murder sprees on the streets of DC that the real spooks tended to reserve for Latin America and southern Africa.  At one point, the head of the FBI's counter-spy unit - played by John Boy Walton, believe it or not - summarises events:

"This isn't a Cold War.  There's nothing cold about the covert violent exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union.  They've killed not only our agents but our citizens and for that, they'll pay".  

Ooh, those covert violent exchanges!  For a show that's supposedly about a titanic global political struggle between two great, implacable superpowers, there's precious little politics here.  KGB agent Elizabeth - Keri Russell, kicking ass like the Terminator - is plainly intended to be the fanatical party loyalist.  You can tell that she is, because the scriptwriters occasionally have her stop whatever she's doing to remind the audience that boy, she really isn't very keen on this capitalism malarkey.  The FBI are mainly just gung-ho coppers.

You get the feeling that the quandary at the heart of the show is - how are you supposed to kill motherfuckers for Marxist-Leninism, when the kids need picking up from school?  There's probably more ironic political commentary in the average Marvel comic these days but oddly, this isn't such a bad thing in the end.

The central MacGuffin for season one is the Reagan administration's Strategic Defence Initiative.  Moscow is terrified that the Star Wars program will hand the US an insuperable advantage, so they pack our anti-heroes off on increasingly dangerous and pointless missions to uncover details about it.

We end up with a thoroughly depoliticised gang fight between two rival groups of mobsters, both determined to fight each other to the death over pretty much fuck-all.  As you'd expect, the SDI initiative turns out to be one of the most hilarious frauds ever perpetrated on taxpayers anywhere - it doesn't work, and never could have.  It's nothing but a giant boondoggle designed to shovel vast sums of cash into the pockets of defence contractors.  The Soviet Union is on its last legs, mere years from its inevitable collapse under the weight of its own lunatic bullshit.

The characters kung-fu chop each other in the neck and shoot each other in the face, and nobody seems to have much idea why they're doing it, beyond than the fact that it's what they're paid to do.  Which is pretty much what the Cold War was, by 1981 - two towering bureaucracies going through the motions, still threatening the entire planet with total annihilation, while their leaders quietly stuffed their pockets with everything that could be stolen.

I mean, I liked it!  It's all good, knockabout larks, although I'm unsure whether it suffers from ropey, confused scriptwriting, or is in fact a grand satirical anti-war masterpiece on a par with Catch-22.

If it's the latter, I have to salute everyone involved, because it's doing a wonderful job of portraying the ridiculous insanity of the era.