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Sunday, January 18, 2015

TRIGGER WARNING

Since the slaughter of nine cartoonists and journalists at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo a huge amount of pious nonsense has been said and written about defending free speech and the right to offend. Indeed, many of the West’s leaders, including the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, marched arm-in-arm with France’s François Hollande and over three million French people to pledge and show their commitment to free speech and the right to ‘offend’. 

Yet out in the real world ‘offending’ against Western societies new politically correct totems of racial inclusivity, sexual tolerance, religious cohesion and all the other ‘isms’ so beloved of our multicultural nirvana is increasingly difficult, or indeed, an ‘offence’ in itself. Western society, and the UK in particular, may pay lip-service to the concept of free speech but has over the last two decades become so inured to protecting minorities from possible ‘offence’  that any dissent in the form of criticism is regarded as either extremist or criminal. 

Now our post Charlie Hebdo world is already extending its talk of ‘extremism’ beyond the kalashnikov wielding jihadists and their head-hacking disciples to include the far-right and anyone else who criticises Islam too much. Many establishment people are, having perhaps looked at Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons for the first time, characterising their arabic caricatures as both racist and as ’going too far’ and thus are slowly becoming apologists for their creators murderers. 

Free speech should mean just that, the right to say and offend anyone regardless of their religion, race, sexual orientation, disability, and physical appearance. People’s feelings should be open to attack but the introduction of the concept of  ‘hate’ speech’, ‘incitement’, ‘extremism’ and of course the catch-all, ‘causing offence’ mean that virtually any dissent, whether verbal or written, can be censured or prosecuted, or both, and our ‘Free Speech’ championing governments are to blame.

The relentless pursuit of inclusivity and tolerance have instead created a society that is both intolerant of dissent and which fears and avoids virtually anything that may cause ‘offence’. Schools and universities are increasingly encouraged to preface literary and artworks with ’Trigger Warnings’ in case the content upsets or emotionally disturbs a reader unprepared for such ghastliness. Lectures are can be stopped or elicit protests on the grounds that the words or subject that are intended to be discussed, abortion or non abortion for instance, may be too offensive for some to hear, or even consider as a concept.

Yet ironically it is at one of our centres of learning and of free speech, The Oxford Union, that our post Charlie Hebdo love of ‘Free Speech’ is about to be truly tested. The Oxford Union has a history and reputation for inviting people from all walks of life and opinion to speak and that list includes many controversial figures from all sides of the political spectrum including politicians like Tony Blair, Tony Benn, US Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, the Reverend Ian Paisley, the current Home Secretary Theresa May, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, Yasser Arafat as well as quirkier figures like Pamela Anderson, Russell Brand, Salman Rushdie and Tracy Emon. All have spoken and demonstrated the value of ‘free speech’ at its most basic, the freedom to speak ones view and for the listener to hear them. So it is ironic that less that ten days after the Charlie Hebdo slaughter that there are calls for the Oxford Union’s latest guest speaker, Marie Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National, to be banned from speaking on the grounds that her words would promote division and Islamophobia. 

There is also a good chance that Marie Le Pen may become the President of France in two years time so hearing her speak and debating with her may have some validity… The move to ban her is 
also systemic of the UK’s growing victim culture. Marie Le Pen’s words may offend so rather than let her speak she should be banned. Silenced. Any words, spoken or written, that challenge our new totems of inclusivity and tolerance, are now silenced by cries of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia sexism, and fattism (the victim du jour,). 

If it offends, or hurts or hates then whole armies of bureaucrats and the ‘offended’ are now on hand to prosecute and to hound the ‘offender’ and silence them. A great victimhood waiting to be outraged or offended, their fingers forever poised over their Twitter App, ready to wail and demand retribution. For them free speech is only about the power to say NO and never about the right to say YES. 

Of course uncensored bigotry is offensive and upsetting. Words, despite the schoolyard rhyme, can and do hurt. Hatred causes fear and alarm, and so can cartoons. Yet in the US, the Ku Klux Klan can say what they want protected by the First Amendment as can pornographers, racists and fascists alongside communists, anarchists and Islamists for that is the essence of free speech. Hate speech is as valid as nice speech, it is the darkside of the same coin and by prosecuting and silencing all that offends we risk creating a world of bland soundbites and inane platitudes and that would be the greatest offence of all. 


© Nigel Wingrove 2015

Saturday, January 10, 2015

JE SUIS..... NOTHING

Last year (2014) following the brutal abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, Borno by militant Islamist movement Boko Haram, (’Western education is forbidden’), President Obama’s wife Michelle posted a photograph of herself on twitter holding up a sign which read #BringBackOurGirls. Within hours hundreds of thousands of celebrities and ’concerned’ people worldwide reposted the same hashtag and achieved absolutely nothing, accept perhaps a sanctimonious glow of having done the right thing. Indeed following this decisive action by America’s First Lady, the European Union followed the Twitter assault on Boko Haram with one of their own, passing a resolution “calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the abducted schoolgirls”. Boko Haram, of course, ignored both, and in the meantime have gone from strength to strength, recently murdering some 2000 people around the town of Baga. The schoolglrls are, surprisingly, nowhere to be seen…

While Boko Haram were busy raping schoolgirls and massacring villagers and anybody else who doesn’t adhere to their brand of Wahhabi and Salafi inspired jihadism another group of happy-go-lucky head-hacking rapists were getting ready to party. The new gang had the catchy name of  Islamic State of Iraq and Levant or ISIL for short and this time the party was in Syria and Iraq where there were thousands of defenceless Yazidis Christians and other minority groups that these new Islamists on-the-chopping-block could amuse themselves with. 

The rise of Islamic State on a tide of blood, rape, heads, genocide and atrocity videos has had the West in turmoil about how to fight it, not least because ISIL’s brand of slice ’n’ dice Wahhabism, which encourages the taking of sex slaves and souvenir heads, has acted like Islamic catnip to the legions of young wannabe jihadists that mope about Western cities despising Western culture and spend their evenings watching radical Imans and decapitation porn on Youtube. In fact, ever since the Islamic State spread out from Syria into Iraq and started decapitating Western hostages, and at the same time turning their chief hacker, Jihadi John, into an internet sensation, ISIL have put the West on the back foot and high-lighted yet again the West’s seeming inability to confront Islamic fundamentalism. 

With ISIL, while there was universal condemnation of its brutality this was, and is, always mixed with the absurd spectacle of Western leaders, like the British Prime Minister David Cameron, and numerous media outlets, who repeatedly state and trumpet that ISIL is an affront to Islam, and that it is not representative of Islam or Muslims generally as they are peaceful and represent a religion of peace. This is both patronising and nonsense coming as it does from non Muslims.

Yet this softly, softly approach to radical Islam’s excesses is as nothing compared to the West’s abject abasement and verbal contortions every time a ‘lone wolf’ ‘mentally deranged’ or ‘Asian’ drives a car into passers by, or stabs, or shoots, or decapitates or blows himself up in the name of Islam. Then, like the followers of Islamic State or Al Queda, these ‘Muslims’ are suddenly not real ‘Muslims’, but aberrations, or unMuslims, their actions and statements a bastardisation of Islam and Islamic teachings. So, in recent months as these unMuslims murdered, rammed and hacked to death people in Canada, Australia, France, the UK and the US we could relax because, although all the perpetrators were Muslim and all the victims weren’t, these attacks were, despite the evidence, carried out by unMuslims. Then France happened. 

Charlie Hebdo. A magazine born and put together by the generation of 1968. Its pages flavoured by the CS gas that wharfed in from the barricades that had lined the boulevards of Paris all those years ago and its ink the same as that which had written all the antiestablishment slogans that had inspired the students in their ‘revolution’, and now, 47 years later, that same ink had killed them. 

This magazine and its cartoonists, in a nation that loves cartoons and graphic art, had lampooned all religion and the Establishment, yet, like its close ally in print, the newspaper Libération, it had also embraced and championed multiculturalism, attacked racism, hated the Front National and generally pursued a left-leaning secular socialism. Therefore the murder of its editor and key cartoonists by French Muslims was both truly shocking to the French nation, and to the wider left-leaning establishment in the Western world generally. This was a bullet to the heart of Europe’s multicultural nirvana and it hurt. 

These murders couldn’t just be dismissed as the actions of the mentally disturbed or an unMuslim and at first it seemed that the media and the West’s political intelligentsia might just have been shocked out of their multicultural stupor and would see the Charlie Hebdo slaughter for what it really was: a  further demonstration, if one were needed, that the West is at war with a religious faith that has one aim, the establishment of a worldwide Caliphate that the rest the of the world must submit to or die. 

Yet within minutes of the attack the BBC and other news agencies, as well as politicians, were going through incredibly complex mental contortions in which to represent the wider French Muslim community as the real victims and, in an amazing piece of verbal dexterity by the BBC, they also managed to reappoint the wider blame for the shootings back to Chalrie Hebdo and the West by suggesting that the Islamic faith is more sensitive to attacks on it than other faiths and therefore it shouldn’t be ridiculed or criticised to the extent that Charlie Hebdo lampooned Islam as that would in a sense ask for Islam’s followers to attack it. The BBC also suggested that French society was to blame for not allowing Muslims to be truly both Muslim and French in France and that France’s very secularism was, in fact, a hinderance to Muslim integration and that France should therefore change its constitution to accommodate Islam rather than the other way round.

Then, as if to ram home the West’s utter inertia and ineffectiveness in the wake of a murderous assault on its values, France, having had its 9/11 moment, also had it’s First Lady moment and created a completely useless hashtag; ‘#JeSuisCharlie’. Now millions of people worldwide can hold up a pen, and a piece of paper, and for a brief, fleeting moment, feel that they are standing up to terrorism and radical Islam, or at least standing up to those ghastly unIslamic, unrepresentative, mentally-challenged Muslims that give all the nice Muslims a bad name. Then, in a few weeks, like the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, it will all be forgotten until the next time some unMuslims decide to demonstrate the failure of the West’s ongoing Appeasement policy. Perhaps our next hashtag campaign should be #IamNevilleChamberlin 

© Nigel Wingrove 2015


Thursday, November 7, 2013

BLAND AS GRAND:



Vacuous celebrity driven consumerism and criminality repackaged as a cool lifestyle choice

In the Bling Ring, Sophia Coppela's captivating take on a gang of real life teenage celebrity wannabes who steal from the young rich and famous in order to be like the young rich and famous, the overwhelming sense is of functioning dysfunctionality. Of a people so immured by their sense of ennui and inertia that without their daily fix of celebrity gossip and consumerism, they would ossify and die. 

Here young girls covet the trappings of Yamaoto and Manolo Blahnik, Westwood and Prada et al as if they were the nectar of the Gods, as in many ways they are. Taking Paris Hilton's shoes and Rachel Bilson's dresses were only part of the attraction, by wearing the clothes and jewellery these thieving cognoscenti were taking on both the trappings of their victims and becoming them at the same time. They were also, bit, by stolen bit, becoming what they coveted most, celebrities themselves, and that notoriety and that excitement , reported in breathy terms night after night on the local Beverly Hills TV channels, only made them want more.

The same sense of desperation for excitement and dissipated consumption was at the centre of Harmony Korine's film Spring Breakers in which four bikini-clad teenage girls rob cafés in order to get enough money to party like there's no tomorrow at the forthcoming Spring Break week. Here hedonism ceases to have any decadent higher plain or search for self, it is instead a decent into oblivion. Days and days of drug and alcohol fuelled partying, where pleasure is transformed into an end in itself, almost as if one arrives, and having arrived, must be seen to party, so that partying is the beginning and the end. There is no middle, no pause, no faking or resting, just relentless, continuous, ceaseless pleasure, until the pleasure, like those pursuing it, nolonger has meaning or purpose, it just is.

Ours is a world of fast connectivity and instant likes and dislikes, where gratification is almost a right and where vast wealth and glamour are paraded and flaunted, and are in turn coveted as proof not just of ones status but of ones existence. Into this mix has now been added celebrity, not fame for being famous, but celebrity of self, of the I, and the me. We are now living in a world of the vainglorious and shallow, where coveting the expensive trappings of celebrity gives succour to our fragile egos, and adorning ourselves in a veneer of celebrity-lite chic only masks our desperation to be someone more than us, or other than us. 

Social media is ME media, where Instagram selfies and Facebook fantasies of our exciting lives aspire to the celebritisation of the Self and the elevation of the nonentity into an entity. Here our online ME is the new ME, the exciting ME, the it's all about ME, me. Here we can be anything and everything. Yet most of all we want to be them, the celebrity on the front of The Sun or Closer, falling out taxis, being cheated on, or six months gone, with pictures that make us gawp. This is what we want and what the teenagers who stole from Lindsay Lohan  and Orlando Bloom want, we want what they have because no amount of fantasising on Instagram and Facebook or posing in a selfie can hide the fact that they have and we haven't. 

The alternative to the want is oblivion, to turn I want into I wasted. The heroines of Spring Breakers, drink and tease and in a drunken haze one nearly naked girl (Rachel Korine) writhes on a floor covered in the detritus of the party, singing and giggling over and over again, "you're never gonna get this pussy" while a gang of lusting, leering boys look on. You can look but you can't have.

Soon the girls hook up with a clichéd gangsta, all dreadlocks, tattoos, guns and slurred catchphrases and the girls are donning Pussy Riot style masks and making their gangsta boyfriend suck their guns before they start shooting rival niggas like real badass motherfuckers. Cute, drugged-up and celebrated the girls drive off towards the distant neon lights of the big city. Celebrity, money, and happiness awaits.

So the aspiring celebrity, self obsessed, consumer driven wannabe has three choices, the I, myself, me route of delusional Instagram selfies, Twittering and Facebook postings; stealing the trappings of celebrity; or total oblivion. 
The alternative is to walk away...

© Nigel WIngrove 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

THIS IS INTOLERABLE!! - 200 MOTELS TOO FAR


A few years ago when I first met the object of my 'its complicated' status on Facebook I had, as it happened, also just started seeing a rather lovely, though seriously bonkers pornstar. My ego being what it is, thought, very foolishly as it turned out, that I could carryon with both these extraordinary women at the same time, with their agreement of course, and that all would be rosy in the garden...

As part of the romantic process I had also hit upon the idea of taking my incredibly posh, though foul-mouthed, 'complicated' partner to see (and I have no idea why) Drowning Pool at the Astoria and the pornstar, who really looked like a pornstar should look, to the Opera. I can't remember what the Opera was called, but it was very contemporary and set in the last days of the Weimar Republic, so I was hoping that it would have a touch of Cabaret about it.

It did, but it was also an incredibly long and very experimental piece of work, and while the first half had gone quite quickly, the second half seemed to be going on and on and my pornstar companion was getting increasingly agitated and wanted to leave. It was also a very intense opera and you could literally have heard a pin drop so I quietly reassured the pornstar that it would be finishing in a few minutes. Indeed that seemed to be the case, but then, just as we were about to rush for the exits, it would start up again.

This game of cat and mouse went on for ages and was having a very detrimental effect on the pornstars emotions, and after a particularly momentous moment which really seemed to herald the end, the pornstar had stood up only to have to sit down again and exclaimed, very, very loudly to the audience and the surrounding populace, "this is intolerable!!", and flounced out.

Last night, particularly during the first forty minutes or so of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels I felt what my pornstar friend had felt all those years ago and longed to shout out that this is intolerable or words to that effect! Indeed Zappa's experimental, often discordant and unharmonious musical work is both clever and maddening, at moments infuriating and at other times really beautiful, as if Zappa'a unconventionality was, if not so much contrived, as staged rebellion except here using chords and notes rather than words and theatrics.

For those unfamiliar with 200 Motels, it is a film based on his Zappa's life on the road and this is the accompanying musical score. Back in 1971 the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had been booked to play a concert of the films musical score at the Royal Festival Hall, but due to the number of expletives and sexual references within the scores accompanying lyrics the sellout performance had been cancelled and as a result has never been performed in the UK.

Forty two years later and 200 Motels is finally to be performed at the prestigious Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank to a select audience of Zappa fans, many of whom looked as if they had had tickets for the original show. That in a way was what this performance and the subsequent adulation for Zappa was all about. It was as if time, culturally at least, had stood still.

Written in 1971, 200 Motels, is very much of its time. Full of schoolboyish naughtiness and trite offence, for example, "Far Out!", becomes 'Fucking Far Out", which is of course terribly shocking, and then there are songs like "Penis Dimension" in which the word 'penis' is used a lot and the choir wave luminous vibrators at the audience. 1971 was also the year that OZ magazines publishers and editors were on trial for obscenity for publishing cartoons of Rupert bear having sex with his grandmother, while other Underground publications demanded the right to "fuck in the streets". Offending, was easy and usually got results from a society that was equally easily provoked into moral outraged.

Frank Zappa the provoker in this instance was incredibly prolific, producing some 62 albums in his relatively short life (he died aged 52) and had, and continues to have, a major influence. He was also politically active and remained opposed to censorship all his life. Yet watching and listening to 200 Motels with its reliance on trite swearing and vibrators to 'shock' I could not help but think is that all the sixties achieved? Is its legacy that a choir can wave luminous vibrators at the audience, while we can laugh and titter at our joyous freedom? 

I hope not, but turn on virtually any TV programme or pick up the traces of conversation in the street and the use of the f word is everywhere. Nolonger is it raining, it has to Ffffing raining, or Fffffing cold or whatever. Now vibrators and sex toys are sold in Boots alongside aspirin and plasters, now nothing in 200 Motels shocks, it just seems like the antics of a generation that wanted to be naughty and to be noticed. A generation, in fact, that wanted everything and sulked until they got it, even 200 Motels performed at the Royal Festival Hall. Far Out!

© Nigel Wingrove 2013


Monday, September 2, 2013

WEAKNESS AND LIES: Putting the Nice before the Nasty


On the BBC recently, a reporter interviewed two young Syrian women outside a café in Syria's capital Damascus, both wore modern, trendy clothes, make-up and had their hair uncovered. One women supported President Assad and said that the presence of government soldiers made her feel safe, the other women supported the rebels and believed that government forces had used the chemical weapons that killed some 1400 people on the 21st August. Neither women had any worries about openly speaking to a BBC journalist and voicing their opinions, despite one of them being highly critical of Assad's Baathist regime.

This brief interview reminded me of similar ones I saw conducted with young students and women in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003, just before the 'Coalition of the Willing' blew much of the city to pieces as part of the West's attack on Saddam Hussein in the cause of regime change and, as it transpired, a pointless search for weapons of mass destruction. Young, educated and intelligent Western style men and women were also interviewed in Tunisia prior to their Arab Spring moment, and in Gaddafi's Libya and Mubarak's Egypt, with some of the women in particular being noticeably free of the usual veils and other trappings of Islamic culture that one often expects to see worn. This is perhaps because a by-product of arab dictatorships and Baathist states, was that any dissent or movements like radical Islam or  other forms of religious zealotry which might challenge the existing status quo were ruthlessly crushed. This was bad for democracy, civil rights, and kurdish tribesmen but ironically good for women, order and preserving the nation state.

Now those women and young men are mainly silent, the women in particular are donning headscarfs and veils again, and the young men are joining armed militias, or have become radicalised as they see their once stable country descend into a mix of social chaos, car bombings, social breakdown and anarchy. Their only other option being to get out of the country and start a new life somewhere else. For many the hope and euphoria offered by an 'Arab Spring' has given way to despair and disappointment, with ideas and dreams of democracy now replaced by ideologues and mob rule.

For nearly twenty years the West has chastised and lambasted the dictatorships of Mubarak and Gaddafi and the quasi fascist Baathist regimes of Hussein and Assad, while ignoring the ills of undemocratic fiefdoms like Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the basis that they supply the West with oil, have copious amounts of money and often act as Middle Eastern power brokers when we need some quiet, behind the scenes diplomacy to smooth things over arab style. 

These, undemocratic regimes, whilst not ideal, suited the arab peoples, and would perhaps, with time, have evolved in their own way to be more 'democratic' and 'western', or equally, given the current climes, have become less democratic and more 'Islamic', again depending on the which direction the winds of change were blowing, The Shah of Iran, was famously pro Western, but also like Assad, and Mubarak, a bit of a dictator with a reputation for being harsh with dissenters and critics. So for the Shah, change came wearing black robes, a long beard and a good line in religious zealotry. 

When the Shah and his family fled Iran he also found that the West's friendship is pretty much worthless with many countries simply slamming the door shut in his face when he came to seek shelter. Equally Iran's highly educated female students, doctors and academics suddenly found that their Persian beauty and luscious locks really upset the Ayatollah's fanatical fans and were forced to stop what they doing, act dumb, cover up, and literally burqa-off! 

Indeed ever since the Shah's hasty exit from Iran the West has seemed to stumble from one ill-advised debacle to another, from Reagan's sending of US troops to Lebanon in 1982, an act of folly that resulted in the deaths of 241 US marines in a single day,  to Operation Desert Storm in 1991 - a war that disastrously failed to finish what it had started and consequently paved the way  for the chaotic state of Western involvement in the Middle East ever since.

Two decades of well-intentioned military and diplomatic manoeuvring has followed, some good, but most disruptive and ineffectual at best, and at worst, alienating and sowing the seeds of further conflict. This period heralded in a new kind of Western military approach where political correctness and a desire to do the right things has resulted in a kind of war-engagement lite with Western forces desperate not to be seen as imperialist or anti-Islamic. 
Military commanders are now often as wary of human rights lawyers and sexual equality violations in the ranks as they are about roadside bombs and snipers. 

Indeed, no sooner had the world seen the US and their Allies go into Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003, then everyone involved wanted out as fast as possible. The fact that ten years later the Allies have made little real progress in bringing the war to a proper conclusion based on a definable victory and are instead desperately trying to extract themselves fully from Iraq and Afghanistan is made even worse with the knowledge that as soon as the last Western soldier leaves that both countries tenuous grip on order will go and chaos will ensue. 

The other legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq is that both wars have not only made the Allies timid and scared when it comes to further involvement in the Middle East generally but have created an almost phobic reaction when it comes to 'boots on the ground', a mindset that led directly to the Allied enforced no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 as that way the West could be seen to be doing something but without any real risk to Western lifes. It was also a perfect example of the West's increasing obsession with being seen to be doing the right thing, not just by ourselves, but by our enemies as well. 

Nolonger can we fight a war to defeat an enemy and win the peace, now Allied forces must win hearts and minds as well. Enemy culture and religions must be respected and the horrors of war hidden by 'surgical strikes', 'precision bombing' and drones, and amongst all this targeted killing, wars that used to take days or weeks to resolve now drag on for years, with, bar a few selected deaths and the occasional 'collateral damage', deaths, particularly Allied deaths, kept to 'acceptable' levels.  It is as if the Middle East were some grotesque video game in which players 'take out' opponents but lose points if they whack a civilian and at each level of the game the difficulties increase and the rules change slightly. The players also don't know how many levels there are or what they have to do to win? So as games go this one could go on and on.

It is telling that after George Bush's much maligned 'War on Terror' and numerous verbal faux pas's, that President Obama has been acutely careful not only to do the absolute right thing, always, but to take no risks either, in case the risk also proves to be wrong. President Obama's choice of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State has been equally safe, as in effect by spending her time flying around the world she has been championing Obama's world view that the American President, and by extension the American people, represent 'like' rather than 'might'. As Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton has effectively shaken lots of hands and clocked up lots of air miles, but in terms of foreign policy, she, and by extension, President Obama, have done nothing other than pursue the 'like me' agenda.

This emphasis on being liked also explains the US's embracing of the Arab Spring from the outset, firstly in Tunisia, then as it was fanned by Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, in Egypt and Libya. Both Obama and Clinton could see that the bad guys in this populist scenario were Mubarak and Gaddafi, and despite Mubarak's previous pro Western stance, he was, like the Shah before him, unceremoniously dumped by the US and UK.  This was X-factor politics writ large, the people wanted Mubarak and Gaddafi out and the West, seeing a chance to be both popular and populist at the same time, obliged. What the West hadn't thought through, as they hadn't with Iraq and Afghanistan either, was
happens next?  

The US and the West's championing of the Arab Spring had allowed the Arab peoples to became intoxicated by the idea that change was not only possible but desirable and that if the old regimes resisted and fought back then the US and the West, as they did in Libya, would step in to make change happen. Indeed the West's intelligentsia and politicians really should have known better, but they were so caught up with creating a new arab style "I Have a Dream" moment that reality was put on hold for the duration. Or at least until Gaddafi was dragged out of a storm drain and shot in the head and Christopher Stephens, the US ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, was murdered by a militia led mob. By the time Egypt and Libya began to collapse into violence and anarchy and Syria's arab spring moment had gone from street protest to all-out civil war the West knew that they had messed up. In computer game terms, they were back at the beginning with the highest difficult level possible imposed. Not a good place to be.

Syria, in fact, had ruined everything in the 'nice' stakes. Up until recently the West was somehow managing to avoid the elephant in the room that is Egypt, and the US's illustrious Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, had conveniently stepped down to prepare for a run at the Presidency in 2016 thereby avoiding anything too unpleasant in the way of questions as to why Ambassador Stephens had been left unprotected in Libya… Then civilians started being gassed in Syria and the West finally had to face up to the mess they had inadvertently done so much to create.

Syria's crisis is too extreme to be ignored for there is no disputing the ghastliness of a gas attack or, horrifically, a napalm bomb in a school playground. Yet with no concrete evidence that it was Assad's troops that were responsible for the gas attack and the legacy of two decades of misadventure in the Middle East the West is naturally reluctant to get involved and to take action against Syria. Yet having said that it would and should get involved and bomb 'selected' Assad targets, the West's consensus driven political leaders are now showing democracy and leadership at its worst, and back-tracking as fast as they can. Now damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

In the UK having rushed to get a vote for an, in my opinion, ill-advised attack on Syrian military targets as a way of punishing Assad and his regime for allegedly using chemical weapons, UK MPs have now effectively lost their nerve and rejected any possibility of war. In the US, President Obama, ever mindful of doing the right thing and conversely of not doing the wrong thing, has skilfully absolved himself of responsibility and put it to congress who can now vote for or against military action against Syria. 

A great hurrah has greeted this Presidential act of smoke and mirrors, while in the UK MPs are saving face by congratulating themselves that they have reinvigorated the constitution and stood up for democracy and peace. Yet this is not democracy, it is a kind of dumbmockracy, in which fear of making and taking an unpopular decision has made weak and fallacious men present themselves to the world as strong and resolute when in fact they are neither. Democracy is about doing and standing up for what you believe to be right even if they are unpopular, or in this instance possibly wrong. Better to have said they would do nothing. 

For the last twenty years the West's foreign policy has struggled to balance its new values of political correctness and anti imperialism with both its past and the growing threat of radical Islam within a volatile Middle East. In this the West has been helped considerably by the weakness of a Russia struggling to adapt to its post communist self, and a China where communist orthodoxy was being sublimated by a rush to embrace wealth and capitalism. 

Both countries transformational difficulties ensured that the West has had almost twenty years of being top dog and to establish its new power base and adapt its evolved democratic doctrine to the needs of a 21st Century world. Instead it has frittered away its years of strength by worrying about enforcing and championing issues of sexual politics, political correctness and climatic change and being liked rather than concentrating and consolidating itself as the doctrine of power regardless of whether that made them 'liked'. 

In the background, while the West has been agonising and theorising about governing and exercising its power in a consensual way, other countries have been adapting and growing in strength. Now a reinvigorated Russia and China, along with an empowered Iran, sit behind President Assad's Syria and watch as the West's key countries and  the world's current superpower try to avoid doing what they think is right in order to avoid, effectively, making an unpopular decision. This is niceness at any price and by pursuing this option the West is creating not a safer and fairer world, but are showing off their weaknesses. By doing so they are potentially heralding in a darker and more fractious world. A world in which new old powers will soon re-assert themselves and the established ones will rue the day that they chose to be Mr Nice over Mr Nasty.

© Nigel Wingrove, 2013

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Good Censor, Bad Censor

In a week that has seen both the condemnation of the US National Security Agency for surveying emails and other personal data worldwide, and major calls in the UK for the complete blocking of online pornography, the pressure to control and rein in the internet is growing stronger and stronger.


There is no such thing as good or bad censorship, as there are only good or bad people and content, visual, verbal or written, is what it is. It is how we, as adults, react, or respond to it that gives content its power, be it private, moral, political, sexual, criminal or offensive. Yet the internet with its labyrinthine pathways and myriad ideas, images, and views, reflects all mankind. It is our psyche, a huge digital Id into which we pour our thoughts and impulses.  Each day we upload the minutia of our lives, be they bland, brutal or base, good or bad, moral or immoral, legal or illegal, whatever mankind is capable of, the internet absorbs and stores it. Then, when we plug in, we have a choice, of what amongst man's cerebral detritus, to look at, read or ignore. 

Now our governments want to control, monitor and in some cases, expurgate sections of the internet in much the same way that doctors use electro-convulsive therapy to wipe out and erase parts of the brain. The result, even on a digital brain, is likely to be just as brutal and damaging.

Google is the current internet bugbear, chastised for the amount of tax it does or doesn't pay, and ordered by governments to stop this, or block that. Google is attacked relentlessly, but because of its size and financial clout, has been able to pretty much ignore these assaults on its propriety. However, the current furore around the activities of the US's National Security Agency (NSA) has caused Google's chairman, Eric Schmidt, to worry that the internet is about to suffer from a process of "Balkanisation", in which, like the countries of the Balkans, the internet begins the process of fragmenting as national governments seek to exert greater influence over it, essentially breaking it up.  Thereby creating a series of tightly controlled national networks and ending forever our current open communication platforms and the free flow of information that has been at the centre of the internet since its inception some twenty plus years ago.

This drive to control the internet and breakup the power of independent US companies like Google and Amazon with their huge stores of data, is coming not just from Authoritarian regimes like China and Iran, but from the law makers of the European Union. EU lawmakers in the wake of the National Security Agency scandal, are using the fear of data snooping to promote the idea of creating their own internet platforms separate from the likes of Google et al. Indeed for many European lawmakers the move now is to push for the ringfencing of their national networks which in turn will force internet companies like Google to comply with local rules for protecting local data and so on.

The result, according to an EU spokesman is that "You are likely to get a federation of different data centres, each fiefdom with its own different rules", which aside from its immediate aim of protecting its citizens data from the prying eyes of US intelligent agencies, becomes more sinister if used to repress political or other perceived subversions.

Indeed the fact that the National Security Agency (NSA) is spying on foreign nationals and probably eavesdropping on phone calls and reading the occasional email should not surprise or excessively worry us as this is what intelligence agencies do, and given that Facebook can already interpret everything from our taste in music to our political allegiances from analysing our 'Likes', the activities of the NSA will not make much difference to someone after your personal data. What should worry us are the calls for national security surveillance to be stopped or monitored, presumably by human rights lawyers and EU functionaries, as that will begin rendering any kind of clandestine snooping potentially unworkable, with possibly disastrous implications for our ongoing national security.

We should expect the United States, the most powerful country on earth to protect its people from attack, as likewise we expect our UK government agencies to do the same and as our main ally to share information and data when necessary. In effect, we expect our intelligence agencies to get the terrorists and our enemies before they get us and to do that successfully agencies need to snoop, spy and lie. Indeed, surveillance and data gathering are crucial, and by the very nature of their work the agencies involved need to be able to operate in secret, and monitoring the mass of internet traffic worldwide is a big part of that. Where this falls down is when those actions are perceived either as a threat to the citizens in whose name the surveillance is being carried out, or as a threat to other friendly nations, as the NSA's actions are now being made out to be.

Ironically in the name of democracy, and in a perceived benign move to protect its citizens from US data collecting, the EU's lawmakers could now begin the breakup of the Internet as we know it. Even more alarming is that the EU's desire to ringfence the internet along national borders is playing well with China, who's gleeful words on the NSA story see them sticking the knife in:  "Washington has been accusing China of cyber espionage, but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the US is the unbridled power of the government". 

This means that countries like Iceland who have said that they wanted to ban access to all pornography, or in the UK where Prime Minister David Cameron or Labour MP Diane Abbott have called for a block on access to pornography in an effort to protect the young, and who have previously been mocked for their naiveté in thinking that an internet block along national boundaries was unworkable, can now look forward to a future where bans could not only be workable, but be made to work. Indeed, the calls of UK politicians for the blocking of pornography are now being championed by the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times. Therefore the chance for the UK Government to create its own server will now be perceived by many on both sides of the political spectrum as a real vote winner. State control of the internet along national borders is coming, and coming fast, and ironically it will be championed not by China or Iran, but by the unelected and unaccountable law makers of the EU and I believe, by our own government.

The former CNN journalist and writer Rebecca Mackinnon said in her book, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (2012), that: "We cannot assume that the Internet will evolve automatically in a direction that is going to be compatible with democracy" and prophetically that "Ten years from now, we will look back on the free and open internet with nostalgia". Yet this will all be done in the name of Democracy, of protecting personal data, and of fighting the currents totems of evil like racism, pornography, Islamophobia, homophobia, fascism, incitement to hatred and so on. As once the government and their state authorised censors are unleashed on an internet with borders, they will be unstoppable. For like the doctor who sees a once wild and dangerous patient rendered quiet and placid by the effects his electro-convulsive therapy, the glorious digital and untrammelled Id that represents our collective self, warts and all, will be blasted into submission and left, safe and inert, cured and cared for, in our new world, where nice is the new nasty and all bad thoughts have been erased. 

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© Nigel Wingrove 2013

Monday, June 10, 2013

Liberal Authoritarianism and the relentless march of the Little Man.

With every crime and outrage comes, in the guise of doing good or righting a wrong, more calls for state control, be it political, moral or social.

In the last few days, prompted in part by the death of the liberal philosopher in law, Ronald Dworkin, the indescribably ghastly, Keynesian and egotistical political economist, Will Hutton, has been lamenting what he sees as the slow death of true liberalism and liberal views. Indeed it is his belief that the tide of opinion is turning against big government and its role, or duty as Hutton sees it, in providing 'dignity'  and succour for those that fail as well as creating a free environment for others to succeed.

In a true Statist whine Hutton's article, "I despair as I watch the erosion of the liberal views I hold dear" lashes out at everything; from the fact that we apparently live in 'rightwing times', (if only), to the opinion that his philosopher hero, Dworkin's treasured totems of human dignity, that is 'Law and Justice', and more importantly the overpaid barristers who enforce them, are currently having their legal aid trough reduced a bit by the current government, or rather the current government is attempting to reduce it. To judge by the crying and wailing emanating from Lincoln Inn Fields and Middle Temple and the other legal fortresses of sumptuousness scattered around Holborn and Westminster the assumption would be that legal aid was being abolished completely. This is a legal aid budget that has soared over the last two decades and has helped umpteen barristers and QCs break into the million pound a year earnings bracket. Including several like Cherie Blair, who are as likely to commiserate with Hutton around the dining table as they are to attack the legal aid cuts in public, which she and 90 other QC’s have just done in an open letter to the Daily Telegraph.

What though is irking Hutton more than anything else in these times of austerity and cutbacks is that the great State largesse from which he and many of the chattering classes rely on for their wealth and status is at last beginning to be cutback or, in a few cases, stopped altogether. To Hutton and his ilk this is an anathema, a heinous attack on societies moral core and one which threatens not just his and his cronies bank balances but in his words could lead to a 'reversal of the century-long fight for genuine equality between the sexes', or could lead to reforms "of criminal justice and legal aid, the health service, climate change, employment law, social security' represents the 'wholesale inversion of a liberal society' which will beget 'economic stagnation, social atomisation and a destructive nationalism' peopled by 'tax-avoiding, climate-change-denying anti-feminists'. Phew!

This hysteria permeates much of the liberal left at the moment as their world, created as it was out of the embers of World War 2 and a desire to create a Europe devoid or war and free of racial, religious and sexual strife, in which all its citizens would be housed, fed, clothed and entitled to education and health care, is beginning to implode under the weight of its own sense of entitlement. A sense of entitlement championed and offered to every citizen regardless of their contribution or worth, and driven in part by many of the liberal lawyers and human rights specialists so beloved of Will Hutton and company.

Yet it is Hutton's response to the potential realignment of his idealised current values, or more importantly the potential that the State might loose control of those values, that is at the core of the liberal or soft left's nightmare scenario. For the modern liberal is a state control liberal, he is the man in the bureaucratic equivalent of the high visibility jacket, giving orders and, backed-up by an army of state-funded lawyers, few people say no to him. And like most people with power, even those that are in effect a powerful cog, they like it and they want to keep it.

Liberalism incarnated and administered by the Hutton's of this world is personified by the interfering and spiteful invective of the little man or woman. A beastly fusion of the Stasi, Shami Chakrabarti, and Gordon Brown, with access to unlimited funds and an army of High Visibility Jacket wearing bureaucrats waiting in the wings if the going gets tough.

These are the liberals that see in every tragedy a silver lining of opportunity: the murder of April Jones, a tragedy, new legislation to crack down on 'extreme porn' and rape pornography on the internet generally, a silver lining of new laws, more bureaucrats and a more invasive society. The murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and Clémént Méric in France a tragedy, the silver lining, an opportunity to ban and crack down on far right groups and other rightwing politicians that threaten the current status quo. Plus add new clauses to the incitement to religious and racial hatred legislation. Next week or next month there will no doubt be another tragedy and another barrage of new 'liberal' legislation will be unleashed to protect us and further empower the state.

The list is potentially endless as everything bad has a potential 'good' solution which in itself grows the State, enables lawyers to draft new laws and a legion of employees to enforce them. Liberalism, at least as interpreted by the Hutton's of the this world, is not dead and the world is unfortunately not full of rightwing monetarists, it is, in fact, being reborn even as aspects of it are being killed off. For every cutback and saving, for every liberal lawyer with a reduced legal aid budget who has to cut back on his trainees there are, like a Keynesian Hydra, hundreds more to take their place.

Will Hutton's great fear and motivation was that without the great behemoth liberal state enforcing Law and Justice that civility would end. That we would end up not caring. That, in fact, we would become a society where anything goes and that, as Dworkin espoused, it was the law's duty to 'uphold individual and collective morality'. Which is so typical of the benign liberal chattering classes, who, having undermined the church and all the other totems by which societies moral codes were derived for centuries, have the arrogance to think that they, and they alone, can legislate it, and enforce it, in their own liberal image. From Gay marriage to abortion, to how people discuss sex and religion, all will be defined by the 'liberal' State. 

Indeed Hutton sees our mounting crisis as an opportunity for some sort of liberal, Keynesian fightback, which is interesting seeing as how he and his cronies are still very much in control. If there is any fighting to be done it needs to come from the right and be directed against the hordes of little men and the rich, liberal lawyers and wealthy Establishment players that control them. In which case it might be worth remembering a line from Shakespeare's Henry VI: The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers

© Nigel Wingrove 2013