Friday, November 24, 2006

In the comment section attached to 'Christmas Doesn't Come Early...' we were talking about fictional characters, and whether any one in comic books has changed as much as Doctor Who.

Andrew Stevens asked
Producers have fiddled around with the edges of the character (and this has been done to the Doctor, I believe, more than literally any other character in the history of fiction), but the Doctor has always stood for justice.

Although I agree with his point, I am slightly tempted to reply: 'Er...Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, Alfred Lord Tennyson, T.H White, Marion Bradley.'

Phil Masters wrote.
But what perhaps makes (Batman) such a strong, almost archetypical figure is that the core myth has never changed much. The same goes for Superman, but not so much for other (less durable) DC superheroes. 'Saw his parents killed in front of him as a child; swore revenge on all criminals; perfected himself to achieve this'. 'Last son of a doomed, super-advanced planet; sent to Earth by his parents; raised by good, rural folks, then travelled to the big city'. If either character ever lost those cores, they'd be doomed.

'Last son of a doomed, super-advanced planet.'

Unless you count Kara, Mon-El, Zod, Jax Ur, the Super-Menace, several thousand inhabitants of the bottled city of Kandar and various animals.

'Sent to Earth by his parents; raised by good, rural folks'

Unless you go by the radio version in which he arrived on Earth as a full grown man and immediately got a job with Perry White. (Hence 'Strange visitor from another planet' rather than 'Rocketed to earth as a baby'.) Was Smallville mentioned in the George Reeve version?

I'm not being a fan pedant. Well, obviously I am being a fan pedant, but the fact remains that what we see as the 'irreducible core' of these characters came about by a process of evolution. It changes. People who like folk songs say that each singer changes the song a little before he passes it on, so an authentic folk song is the work of many hundreds of musicians: no single composer can reproduce that style. I think that this is also true of characters like 'Superman' and 'Doctor Who'. Good as the early episodes were, you can't say that 'Doctor Who' was created by Sydney Newman: he's the product of every writer who has ever worked on the series. This is also true of Superman and Batman. Less so of Spider-Man and Mr. Fantastic: Marvel comics is more inclined to treat old issues as Holy Writ: new writers do not so much contribute to the evolution of The Fantastic Four as provide a midrash on the work of Rabbi Jack.

A lot of fans said that John Byrne had radically changed the irreducible core of Superman when he decided that Ma and Pa Kent were still alive. (In a sense, they are right: it was a powerful part of the original myth that both Jor-El and Jonathan Kent existed only in Superman's memory – where they acted as, for want of a better word, a super-ego.) Yet everyone now accepts that Superman has a wise old earth mother to bake him apple pie and give him advice when he's in trouble. It was taken for granted in Superman Returns: but for 40 years of continuity, it wasn't true.

It was also said that when Byrne made the antepenultimate son of Krypton kill the three Phantom Zone criminals he violated the irreducible core of the character -- that Superman had a Code Against Killing. I've just been reading the reprints of the Silver Age Superman, and I have to admit that they are terrific fun. If I had grown up with them I might very well have thought that John Byrne's super-yuppie was simply not Superman. But now he is.

Superman's costume and insignia remains fairly constant, and so, on the whole, do his powers. (He can fly, he's strong, he can see through walls.) But the personality of the guy in the costume changes beyond recognition. I just listened to one of the old radio stories in which some small time gangsters are extorting protection money from Jimmy Olsen's mother. One episode begins: 'Having given the hoodlum a thrashing, Superman...'. You couldn't imagine the nice-as-pie Silver Age character doing that. Neither is he the 'Stranger in A Strange Land' that Kirby tried to make him, or the demi-god who Alan Moore put in Swamp Thing. ('I mean, how many atoms are there in the atmosphere?' 'Would you like me to count them for you?')

It would seem to me that the Irreducible Core of Superman is actually Clark Kent, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. (Jimmy started out on the radio: but he migrated to the comic pretty rapidly: I'm sure Nick will tell me the issue number.) Fortresses of Solitude may come and go; Smallville, Jor-El and Superdog may vary in importance, but every version of Superman has been built around those four characters. Their personalities are malleable -- Lois is no longer an uberbitch; movie-Clarke is a complete klutz where radio-Clark is super-competent But their relationship never changes: Jimmy admires Clark and Superman; Lois loves Superman but looks down on Clark; Clark loves Lois.

The question of whether you have one character called Superman or several different ones is rather interesting. It is perfectly true that the 1940s Superman, the one who fought gangsters and Nazis, is now said to be the Superman of Earth-2, while the one from the 60s, the one who used to be Superboy and had a dog called Krypto, was the Superman of Earth-1. But this was an after-the-fact explanation of the changes that had crept into the character: no-one woke up one morning and said 'Let's re-invent Superman from the ground up' – there was simply a process of gradual change.

In the 1960s, Jack Kirby (along with some dialogue writer whose name I forget) created The Fantastic Four. He included a character called The Human Torch. Now, there had certainly been a previous character called the Human Torch, a war-time android who could burst into flame. The new version was a 1950s teenager who could burst into flame. There was connection between the two characters apart from the name and the superpowers; and Marvel made no real attempt to present the old 1960s character as sharing a 'brand identity' with the 1940s one. This wasn't 'a new version of an old character', it was more 'Jack leafed through some old comics and spotted a venerable character which gave him the idea for a new one.'

A bit later, Jack (with the same assistant) introduced a character called 'Captain America' into the Avengers. This Captain America was said to have been a superhero in World War II, and to have been frozen in ice for the intervening 20 years. Now, there had indeed been a 1940s character called Captain America. He did indeed fight the Nazis, and his real name, like that of the 1960s version, was 'Steve Rogers'. Does this mean that the 1960s Cap is the same person as the 1940s Cap in the same way the the Sherlock Holmes of 'A Study in Scarlet' is the same person as the Sherlock Holmes of 'His Last Bow'. Or should we say 'Captain America was a new character. He had a back story which involved fighting Nazis in the World War II, just as Mr Fantastic has a back story which involved fighting with the French Resistance. But the new character is not the same character that appeared in those 20 year old long out of print comics. What would that even mean? The new character happened to share a few plot elements with the old one.' But there is no question that Kirby's assistant used the fact that Captain America was a 'revival' of a famous old character as a Unique Selling Point for the new comic.

Come to that, the Buscema-Lee version of 'The Silver Surfer' has no real connection with the superior Jack Kirby version: Lee took the look and feel of Kirby's design and created a new character around it. I certainly don't feel any obligation, when reading the Fantastic Four 48-50 to think 'The Surfer is lying, of course. He knows perfectly well what 'love' and 'eating are'. And he is only fooling about fancying Alicia. His True Love is waiting for him on his home planet, and he's only been travelling with Galactus for a few months.' (Yes, there are fanwank rationalisations of this, which usually involve Galactus taking Norrin Radd to Anchorhead and having his memory wiped. I don't believe them any more than you do.) But the Lee version is the famous one, the one everybody knows: the nonsense about Zenn-La is part of the irreducible core of the Silver Surfer whether I like it or not, and people on submarines sometimes have fist fights about it.

From '63 to cancellation, Doctor Who was a continuous 'tradition'. No-one ever said 'let's wipe the slate and start again'. Doctor Sly had virtually nothing in common with Dcctor Bill; 'Survival' 4 was not recognisably the same programme as 'Unearthly Child'. But the change had happened incrementally. The grumpy but lovable old man in the 'Gunfighters' is not the scary misanthrope of 'Tribe of Gum' (or whatever we have to call it now) but you would be hard pushed to say when he changed. 'Power of the Daleks' could have been a Hartnell story; 'Spearhead From Space' could have been a Troughton story; 'Robot' very nearly was a Pertwee story. Each producer passed the torch onto the next producer; each producer inherited scripts and script editors from the last one. RTD has been the first producer to have had to actually re-light the torch and try to get it moving again. He isn't inheriting an on-going series, but looking back on an old one. What he is doing is much more like creating a 'new' Captain America than adding one more issue to the infinitely long sequence of gradually evolving Superman stories. The fact that there was an 'old series' is very important to the new one; just as the fact that your Dad might have read a comic called 'Captain America' was an important part of the overall poetic effect of Avengers #4. Otherwise, why have Sarah Jane or K-9. Why have Daleks? Why mention Time-Lords? But the old series is something which we are looking back at and commenting on; not something which we are adding a new chapter to.

That said, I am unhappy with SK's claim that Doctor Who is a null concept, that anything with 'Doctor Who' on the label is part of Doctor Who, and that we can't really discuss Doctor Who any more than we can discuss the square route of Tuesday or the philosophical convictions of Tony Blair. When a new TV series labels itself with the title of an old one, then surely one of the things which it is doing is inviting comparisons, claiming to have picked up the torch or to be continuing the tradition. Supposing I say 'The new Jackanory completely misses the point of Jackanory,' (and I think it is the sort of thing that I am quite likely to say). I am not making a null-comment. I am saying 'I remember a TV programme called Jackanory in which well known actors spent fifteen minutes reading to children from a book. I think this was a very good format, because it encouraged children to read and because the human voice is an intrinsically powerful tool for story-telling. I don't think that the new programme, which appears to involve adapting books into cartoons is nearly such an interesting format. And I think that today's kids would still go for the old format, particularly if your started by reading from some modern popular kid's; books, possibly ones involving wizards and boarding schools.' The BBC is not doing anything morally wrong by applying the brand-name Jackanory to its new cartoon show: if they want to, they can create a post watershed adults only comedy show and call it Crackerjack. But I'm at liberty to point out that they are trying to imply that the new programme is something like the old one, whereas in fact, it isn't.

If you create a new version of Sherlock Holmes, then you are positively inviting readers to say 'This is very faithful to Conan Doyle's original text' or 'This is very interestingly different to Conan Doyle's original text' or 'This is a very funny hatchet job on Conan Doyle'. I agree that 'This book is written by someone who doesn't know Holmes; he seems only to have seen the Basil Rathbone movies; and he doesn't seem to know that there weren't any thatched cottages in Victorian London' doesn't exhaust the things that you could say about the hypothetical book. You might well say 'It's nothing to do with Holmes, but it's quite a clever whodunnit.' God knows, there are things to say about Jackson's Ring cycle apart from 'It isn't very faithful to Tolkien' (such as 'For God sake, you should have grown out of belch jokes when you were at primary school.) But comparing it with the book is one thing that a reasonable person might reasonably do to a film which says Lord of the Rings on the tin.

Neither Doctor Who nor Superman has an unchanging, irreducible core. But this is a long way from saying that there are no themes, styles and genre conventions which enable us to describe a particular cluster of narratives tropes as Doctor Who stories; and therefore to meaningfully discuss (and respectfully disagree) about which are 'good Doctor Who stories' and which are 'bad Doctor Who stories'.

It is true that in such a very long established tradition, you can find an exception to almost any statement. If I say 'The name of the character is The Doctor', you can say 'In Part 2 of War Machines' he was called 'Doctor Who', as he was in the the dutero-canonical Docotr Who In And Exciting Adventure With the Daleks; the apocrphyphal TV Comic and the downright heretical Doctor Who and the Daleks movie. ' But if I write a Doctor Who story and ignore the 'War Machines', I am not simply turning my back on evidence which doesn't support my cause: I'm following a whole string of predecessors in the Great Tradition. There is a narrative consensus to repress 'War Machines' from our textual consciouness. (Don't tell anyone, but this is how the faithful treat all other sacred texts as well.)

If I had been asked 'What is the unifying feature that makes Doctor Who Doctor Who' I probably wouldn't have said 'justice'. I would have been more likely to say 'Wherever he is, he's an outsider, an alien; he always brings a fresh, unexpected perspective to the world.'

Maybe 'strange visitor from another planet' would have done the trick. Here's to the next 43 years.
Torchwood sucks, incidentally.


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Thursday, November 23, 2006


Throughout history, you Thals have always been known as one of the most peace-loving peoples in the galaxy. When you get back to Skaro, you'll all be national heroes. Everybody will want to hear about your adventures. So be careful how you tell that story, will you? Don't glamorise it. Don't make war sound like an exciting and thrilling game. Tell them about the members of your mission that will not be returning - like Maro and Vaber and Marat. Tell them about the fear. Otherwise your people might relish the idea of war.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Humbug (2)

But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.

St Paul

Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: for the Earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof. If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.

St Paul

And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, 'Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.' But Peter said, 'Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.' And the voice spake unto him again the second time, 'What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.' This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.

The Acts of the Apostles

Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?


O.K. This one is completely off the wall.

A school decided to have a special Christmas dinner for its pupils. They decided it would be nice for the Muslim pupils to join in, so they decided they had better serve food that they were allowed to eat. First, they thought that they might serve a Muslim-friendly main course to everyone; but then, they decided to have a halal option, a non-halal option, and a veggie option. So far as I can tell, that's the whole story.

The Express – in fairness some of the grown-up papers covered it as well – reported the story in its usual measured tones:


PARENTS expressed outrage last night over a school’s plans to serve pupils a Muslim Christmas dinner.

The headteacher announced that she intended to replace the children’s traditional turkey meal with halal chicken.

She explained that eating poultry which had been slaughtered in the Muslim way would create an 'integrated Christmas'.

But furious parents accused the school of undermining the Christian faith.

They were backed by Labour MP Denis Mac Shane....

This is another example of the Baron M√ľnchhausen school of sub-editing. No halal Christmas dinner has or will be served. The Mail ran the story as School in U-Turn over 'halal only' Christmas meal; the Telegraph, which should know better, had School in retreat on 'halal-only' Christmas. But the Express allowed people who only look at page 1 to think that a halal dinner had actually been served. What we are dealing with here is thought-crime. Someone thought 'Let's have halal chicken' and then thought 'No, on second thoughts, let's not.' Nothing has happened. At all.

But parents are 'furious'. Well, the Express, the Mail, and the Torygraph between them can come up with one furious parent, a Mrs. Rachel Johnson.

It has really rocked my boat because I feel my culture is being stolen away from me. I have no objection to halal meat being on the menu so long as there is a choice of traditional Christmas fare. A lot of parents have been in touch supporting my views. Our culture and religion are being trampled on and it is not right.

So, the story depends on the opinions of one count them one person. (The rest of the Express piece consists of quotes from the usual reactionary pressure groups – Campaign Against Political Correctness; Campaign for Real Education, and -a new one on me- Christian People's Alliance.) But it isn't at all clear what precisey it was that rocked Mrs. Johnson's boat. From what she says, I think that she must regard Christmas Turkey as an important Christian principle -- like H.P Sauce. We've always done it, and if someone suggests that we should stop doing it, we feel that our culture is being taken away. (1) It's leaving turkey off the menu she objects to; she doesn't particularly mind that the chicken which replaced it may have worn a veil or been a terrorist while it was still walking around.

Confusingly, the Telegraph thinks that she also said:

Why can't the non-Muslim kids enjoy traditional Christmas fare. Why can't we have a choice of chicken which suits everyone, both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Surely this is just what the school was proposing: serving a meal that could be eaten by Muslim kids (who only eat halal) and also by Christian kids (who don't care what they eat, provided it has been attacked on prime time TV by Jamie Oliver )

Unless, unless....does she think that halal is a special sort of Muslim food that is somehow unsuitable for Christians? Did she think that, if halal food was the only thing on the menu, Christians would have to go without?

The Express also quotes Mrs. Johnson's daughter, who doesn't want to be named. (I would have thought that her anonymity is probably quite compromised by the interview with her mother.) Ms. Johnson Jnr. says:

I have no objections to including Muslims in celebrating Christmas but it is quite wrong to offer us only halal meat. A lot of my friends feel the same and say there should be a choice and they were thinking of boycotting the Christmas meal. I also think a lot of people will be horrified to know that halal meat is often served at school without a choice. I will not be staying for any more school dinners

So her problem is that she might be be forced to eat halal food, not just that she might not get turkey. She's prepared to take extreme measures and a packed lunch to avoid this possibility. It occurs to me to wonder whether Mrs. Johnson Snr. has totally missed the point, and that her daughter is in fact one of those animal welfare johnnies who for reasons of kindness to chickens wants to avoid nasty cruel ritually slaughtered meat in favour of the produce of good honest Christian battery farms.

Small theological aside: Mrs. Johnson Snr. thinks that eating halal chicken at Christmas is 'almost as stupid as serving up pork on Eid.' The nut-jobs in the Daily Mail on-line comment section wonder if we will soon have halal hot-cross buns and halal easter eggs as well. (I would be very surprised if it hasn't be possible to buy kosher Christmas puddings for decades.) Note how a particular local Christian tradition has been given almost the status of a koranic injunction. Rowan, you really need to work a bit harder at instructing your flock.

Now, Dennis McShane M.P agrees with the parents, sorry, parent, who thinks that the school is undermining the Christian faith. Well, up to a point. Mr. MacShane is quoted as saying:

No child should be obliged to eat food that is contrary to their personal convictions or religion. Schools should offer a choice and not allow the joyous celebrations of a Christmas dinner to become a divisive issue. I hope all the children can join in this fun and if I am invited I would be delighted to sit down with all the children for a Christmas dinner, halal, non halal or the healthy option, vegetarian.

Now, that sounds awfully as if he was asked the question 'How do you feel about schools serving halal chicken?' or 'How do you feel about a school offering a choice between halal chicken and haram turkey?' -- to which his answer, like any sane person is 'It sounds like a jolly good idea.' The only way I can make his answer come out as supporting the Johnson family is if the question was: 'Ms. Does-Not-Want-To-Be-Named refuses to eat halal meat because she thinks it is cruel. Do you think that the school should offer a choice of halal meat and humanely slaughtered meat?' Which is a long way from supporting the parents who said that the Christian faith was being undermined, which, in any case, none of them did.

Why does the Express believe this to be an important story? Is it now possible to catch Islam by eating a piece of halal chicken, in the same way that, in the 80s, it was possible to catch HIV by talking to a pooftah on the telephone? Or is the point that we should not make any accommodation whatsoever to people with dark coloured skins? We should serve them pork chops and tell them that they should either eat them, or else go hungry, as they would to us if we were in their country?

There certainly are those who object to state insitutions respecting religious taboos. A while back, the Sun got its hands on a non-story about how, during the routine refurbishment of a washroom at Brixton jail, some of the stalls were repositioned because some Muslims think it is haram to face Mecca while using the toilet. The Sun objected to this ('Loo kidding!') because if someone is in prison in the first place, he must have broken some rule in the koran, so he can't be a very serious Muslim. According to which logic, we would give pork sausages to Jewish prisoners, beefburgers to naughty Hindus and not have any services in the prison chapel on a Sunday.

But I think that the real problem that the Express had was this. The school, very reasonably, decided that if it was going to have a Christmas dinner, it should have a Christmas dinner that everyone could join in, and therefore came up with a menu that was acceptable to everyone. That's what you do if you are organising a dinner party. If there's only one meat dish, you make sure it is a lamb or chicken, which everyone can eat, and not pork or beef, which some people can't. If you can only offer a single choice, then it has to be veggie, because non vegetarians eat vegetables, but vegetarians don't eat meat. (Would Mrs. Johnson still have objected if the school had done the sensible thing and offered halal turkey?) The school's idea was to have an 'integrated' Christmas, where everyone was eating the same thing. But the Express doesn't like this. The point of Christmas is that it is Christian, and the point of Christianity is that it seperates people with light coloured skin from people with dark coloured skin. They want a world where all the children sitting down to dinner can see that the dark skinned children are Not Like Us. They want the dark skinned people to eat different food, or not to eat any food, or, (according to one Daily Mail headbanger) to stay away from Christmas parties altogether. 'Integration', like political correctness and multi-culturalism, is now a dirty word.

NOTE: Do you think that the free chocolate advent calandars they are giving away have pictures of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary on them, or nasty Islamic snowmen?

(1) We may, of course want to ask whether or not turkey is an authentic Christmas tradition. The most traditional Christmas rhyme I know says Christmas is coming/The geese are getting fat. In It was Christmas day in the workhouse the paupers are eating puddings, but it isn't clear whether this is the main course or the dessert. Scrooge certainly sends the butcher's boy to buy the prize turkey for Bob Cratchett's dinner, but the fact that he has to distinguish between the big one and the small one suggests that the butcher only had two in the shop. And since you could hardly cook a very large turkey in a couple of hours, they were presumably not going to have it for lunch. I am going to stick my neck out and say that, since a normal sized family aren't going to eat a turkey in a single meal, they can't have become ordinary people's dinner of choice before fridges became ubiquitous in the 1950s.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sacha Cohen has been promoting his new movie by giving in-character interviews in his Borat persona. Some of these have been very funny. (Empire magazine: "Which is your favorite James Bond Movie?" Borat: "It hard to say. I am like all five.")

It would have been very easy to mistake the Daily Mail's "Borat's Guide to Britain" as a contribution to this genre. In fact it is a parody. "Here, David Thomas imagine what guidelines he might have for immigrants visiting Britain" (I particularly like the combination of 'immigrants' and 'visiting')

A parody of Borat is a rather pointless exercise: I recall that impressionist Mike Yarwood declined to "do" Frank Spencer or Edna Everage, because they were fictitious characters who were already being "done" by Michael Crawford and Barry Humphries. But you might expect the parodist to get the joke. Borat has a set of prejudices which no sensible person could possibly share; and he doesn't understand America at all. The character in the Daily Mail piece has a set of prejudices shared by the editorial staff of the Daily Mail; and understands the U.K very well indeed.

The piece could be taken as a lexicon of Daily Mail prejudices. Borat thinks that in England, you will be arrested if you try to court a woman; but that homosexuality is almost compulsory, certainly a necessary path to promotion in certain careers.

But if British man is having sexytimes with person who is not a girlie, he not arrested. On contrary, he given contract Channel 4 TV, seat in Parliaments and invitation go swimming with Michaels Barrymore.

He has noticed that English Christians are a persecuted minority:

Chrissiemas. Is banned because not inclusive other religions. Nowadays, British only allowed have religious ceremonies, prayers, days off, etc if not Christians.

Foreigners are given advantages over English people in employment:

If you Polish, just be plumber. Don't worry if can't tell hot tap from colds — British peoples think all Polish great plumbers. Otherwise, can pick fruit and vegetables, cleaning streets, become "ethnic" candidates on Conservatives' A-List.

(The nastiness of that final quip takes one's breath away.)

Borat has spotted the Most Important Issue Facing Britain Today:

In Britain, some women wear veils, mostly if radical teachers, lawyers etc hoping to get into papers, cause fuss, maybe pick up compensation monies.

And of course, he understand the British immigration system.

What to do when First Arrivings. Do not say: "I like very much Britain, long tradition freedom and democracy. Now I hoping work hard, raise family, and celebrate Christmas with all my friends, even the Jews." If say that, immigration officer reply: "Get lost, mateys, we don't want your kind here!" Do say: "I HIV-positive hijacker, sex criminal and terrorist fear persecution in own country. Now I hopings buy fake National Insurance number, claim benefits and plotting attacks on infidels, especially Jews."If you say that, immigration officer reply: "Certainly sir. Just jot your details down here. The Home Office should be able to lose them in a week or two.

Which is, being interpreted: "Me think England darn nice place. Much too nice for white man race."

Anyone who thinks that this is a parody of Daily Mail attitudes, intended to show how absurd they are, should run their eyes down the readers comments section. "Not too far from the truth...what a brilliant articles, its completely true...very funny but more importantly very true....this is the sort of country you get when you let the liberal elite be in charge and take orders from undemocratic institutions like the EC commission....profoundly and unfortunately true....frighteningly accurate description of Britain in terminal decline..."

You have to be quite careful with characters like Borat. Johnny Speight and Warren Mitchell had impeccable left wing credentials, but there were always a certain number of people who liked Alf Garnett because he said what they thought. Ali G is meant to be a complete pratt, but one got the impression that some people missed the joke and thought that he was quite cool. I have even heard stupid people repeating the phrase "Are you having a laugh?" over and over as if they thought that it was funny, where the entire point is that it isn't.

However, at their best, Ali G and Borat are powerful instruments of satire. A fictitious person expresses a ridiculous prejudice, and a real person reveals how stupid and bigoted they are by agreeing with them. In general, Ali G had to conduct long interviews with people in order to trap them: Sacha Cohen must be pretty chuffed that he is made the Daily Mail look stupid and bigoted without even going near their offices.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Christmas Doesn't Come Early This Year

This year's first 'political correctness brigade bans Christmas' story is pretty feeble even by the standards of the World's Greatest Newspaper. It seems that the Royal Mail has published its annual collection of Christmas stamps. This year's stamps depict Father Christmas, a Reindeer, a Snowman, and, sensationally, a Christmas tree. You might think that these images are a little unimaginative, but to the trained eye they betray the the machinations of the Political Correctness Brigade.

CHRIST IS DUMPED FROM CHRISTMAS STAMPS Royal Mail under fire for using 'faith free' designs.

Bungling mail chiefs were yesterday accused of taking the Christ out of Christmas.

They unveiled this year's festive stamps – which ignore the season's holy background.

Furious Christian politicians joined the Church of England to condemn the Royal Mail over its faith-free designs....

Last night critics accused the Royal Mail of snubbing Britain's Christians heritage in a politically-correct bid to avoid offending other religions....

This is in all respects a typical piece of Daily Express reporting. Note the quotation marks around the phrase 'faith free' in the headline. In fact, none of the furious politicians or members of the Church of England who are quoted in the story actually use this phrase. None of them mentions 'political correctness', either.1 The Royal Mail has, as a matter of fact, put non-religious pictures on its stamps for 16 of the last 40 Christmases. Its current policy is to use religious and secular pictures in alternate years. Nothing has been 'axed', 'dumped' or 'banned.' No-one is offended by Reindeer. No-one is furious about anything. There is no story here.

As we've seen, the Daily Express has recently developed a comic obsession with the fact that some Muslim women dress like Muslim women. There have been at least ten separate Ban the Veil headlines over the last month – two new ones in the last seven days. They draw a link between this story and a quite separate case about companies that have dress-codes which prohibit jewelry declining to make exceptions for Christians who want to wear crosses. On October 31st and November 2nd they ran two identical stories about the Duchess of Cornwall not having a poppy on her lapel. Both versions of the story were given a religious twist: first Islamic Camilla dumps poppy and then Camilla Hides Poppy: She is wearing one, but you can't see it under Islamic scarf. (So far as I know, Poppies are worn to mark the end of the First World War. 'In Flanders fields', and all that. Armistice day is next Saturday, November 11th. Remembrance Sunday is on the 12th. People were expressing outrage about Mrs. Windsor's choice of accessory on October 30th. Did someone declare the whole of October and November 'Poppy Months' without telling me?) On October 26th, they regurgitated an old, old story about how Prince Charles wants to unilaterally re-write the British Constitution and take the title 'Defender of Faiths' rather than 'Defender of the Faith' should he ever happen to be King. This also got en-meshed in the Cross vs Crescent narrative:

A royal courtier said the Prince had become even more determined to get his way following the controversies over Muslim veils and Christian crosses in recent weeks.... Stephen Green national director of Christian Voice, said: 'Prince Charles cannot start rewriting the constitution on a whim to include other faiths because the job description is that he is a Christian, so he cannot then say that he is also the Defender Of Islam, for example, which is diametrically opposed to Christianity.'

If the church of England was really furious about snowmen it would be quite a good story because no-one has ever seen furious Anglicans before. In fact the two C of E quotes that the Express comes up with are not so much furious as mildly peeved. The first is from one of those un-named 'spokesman' that the Express is always talking to. He quite liked last years stamps and 'regrets' the post office's choice for this year. The second is from someone called Dr. Christina Baxter who sits on the General Synod. She also 'regrets' what has happened, presumably because, once Christ has been banned, all her friends will have to call her Tina. The rest of the piece is bulked out with quotes from David Burrows MP who is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and Stephen Crabb MP, who by contrast is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Mr. Burrows wonders why 'a country with a Christian heritage doesn't celebrate Christmas in a straightforward way?' Note the tactic: we've managed to go from 'not putting babyjesus on the postage stamps' to 'not celebrating Christmas' which then mutates into a sub-headline 'Why can't this country celebrate its Christianity?' printed in quotation marks, even though no-one said any such thing.

But the Christian who is most furious of all is Stephen Green, who claims to be 'deeply offended' by Christmas Trees and Reindeer. He's the same chap who was worried about Charles becoming defender of faith-in-the-plural. His organization, Christian Voice, is a group of anti-gay, pro-death penalty, theocratic fruitcakes, best known for completely missing the point of Jerry Springer: the Opera. Their views on Islam are a rather more extreme version of Vlad the Impaler's:

A mosque is regarded as an abomination in the sight of Almighty God....When Muslims go into a mosque and bow down before their false god, 'Allah' ('the god' in Arabic) they are engaging in idol worship without realizing it. It is only necessary to look at the symbol of Islam, the crescent moon, to realize the identity of the real spirit behind Islam.2

So what the Daily Express describes as 'the church of England and politicians' turns out to be a small sub-set of the Conservative Party and a rabidly anti-Muslim Christian supremacist sect that no other paper would give half a column-inch to.

So: why has the world's greatest newspaper suddenly turned religious on us? Has the publisher of Spunk Loving Sluts given his life to Jesus? Of course not. There is nothing remotely Christian about the rest of the paper. It publishes a daily poem; but not a daily prayer or a daily scripture. It gives away free children's books, but not Bibles or tracts. It writes about homeopathy but not faith-healing. It urges us to wear our poppies with pride, but it doesn't print articles telling us that we ought to go to church. When it talks about 'Christianity', it is talking about badges: a cross round your neck; babyjesus on your stamps; the Queen as head of the Church; nativity cribs outside the town hall and hot cross buns on the menu.

What does it mean to wear this badge? Curiously enough, on the same day that no-body at all was getting angry about snowmen a Tory councilor and prospective parliamentary candidate decided to nobly sacrifice her career by circulating a piece of light verse on the subject of immigration. A lot of commentators seem to think that she wrote the thing herself, but it's actually been in circulation for years. You know the one:

Kids need dentist? Wife need pills? We get free! We got no bills! Britain crazy! They pay all year, To keep welfare running here. We think UK darn good place. Too darn good for white man race! If they no like us, they can scram. Got lots room in Pakistan!

The poem seems to be American in origin – it says 'darn' rather than 'damn' and 'welfare' rather than 'social' or 'benefit'. The last line was originally 'If no like us, they can go/lots of room in Mexico'. Never mind that the comic pidgin bears no relation to any speech pattern ever associated with an Indian. Never mind that, far from being lazy, the usual British stereotype of a Pakistani is someone who is obsessively industrious – who runs a 24 hour corner shop and wants his children to grow up to be lawyers and doctors. Someone took a poem about lazy, feckless, welfare-dependent Mexicans and changed it to lazy, feckless, welfare-dependent Pakistanis, without thinking for five minutes about whether the slur matched the new target. British xenophobia – the same xenophobia which used to say that dark skinned people 'came over here and took our jobs' now says that all dark skinned people are social-security scroungers; and when it thinks of 'dark skinned people', it automatically thinks of Muslims - Pakistanis.

Ms Blande couldn't understand why anyone thought that the poem was racist. Writers to the Daily Mail website felt that Cameron's decision to kick her out of the party was 'PC gone mad' and evidence that 'the Tories have gone PC mad.' And certainly, views scarcely less extreme than those in the poem are expressed in the Mail and the Sun every week.

So: is the Daily Express using 'Christian' as a euphemism for 'White Man Race' and 'Muslim' as code for the dark men who are going to out-reproduce us and take away our lebensraum? ('We have hobby/It called breeding/Welfare pay for baby feeding.') I actually think that they are being rather cleverer than this.

There is no doubt that 'religion' is one of the things which makes a community hang together. It is highly probable that the reason that there is an identifiable Asian Community in the UK is because many Asians are Muslims. We're used to the fact that there are groups of people and areas of London which are Very, Very, English, but also identifiably Jewish. People in New York or Liverpool seem to be able to maintain a sense that they are also Irish over many generations – presumably because their Catholicism binds them together and signifies their difference from the host community. (Do protestant emigrants maintain such a nostalgia for the Old Country?) In this sense, England hasn't had a religion for more than 50 years. Individual English people have been religious, of course, but only in the sense that 'religion' has been one of their beliefs and hobbies. They haven't seen themselves as 'Members of the Methodist Community' any more than as 'Members of the Line Dancing Community.' Increasingly, although he writes 'Christian' on the census forms, the English chap has no religion at all. This may be part of the reason that we don't have a clear national identity. On the other hand it may be the reason we are quite good at embracing multi-culturalism. Not having a religion or culture of our own, don't you know, we can afford to be patronizingly tolerant of the quaint exotic foreigner who does.

White thugs may paint the Cross of Saint George on their bottoms during important football matches, but they don't think of it as a religious symbol. They don't pay lip-service to the Bible or think that attendance at Matins is necessary proof that you are a true Brit. But it is often said that many young Asians who are not especially pious think that going to Friday prayers and fasting during Ramadan are important signifiers of Who They Are.

So. I think that the Express is engaged in a pretty transparent attempt to radicalize the White community. It is systematically running news stories which conflate Christianity with Englishness;and that equate Islam with foreign-ness. If the English can be persuaded to use Bibles, Stamps, Prince Charles, Silver Crosses and very occasional church-going as signifiers of national identity, then they will start to perceive themselves as part of White Community. If they perceive themselves as part of a Community, then they will also perceive themselves as different from members of the Veil-Wearing Community. If 'England' is defined as 'a Christian Country' and dark skinned people are defined as 'Muslims', then dark-skinned people are outsiders, full stop. Remember that multi-culturalism is now a dirty word. Once, we would have said: 'You eat your Muslim curries and we'll eat our Christian HP sauce; we'll have our Christian Baby Jesus and you have your Islamic snowmen and I'm sure we'll get on fine.' But now, we want to wear our Christian crosses, but we don't want you to wear your Muslim hats. If you come into our country, you should adopt our customs. Add to this the fantasy that sinister forces in the government want to ban Christianity but encourage Islam, and you are only one coffee morning away from Church of England suicide bombers. The message is not "Live and Let Live" but "Live our way or get lost."

This is why the Express matters. It isn't a lunatic ranting at a bus-stop: it's read every day by more people than read the Guardian and the Independent put together. And the slogans on the front page are seen by practically every adult in the UK.

Feminists often say that the open display of pornographic images on magazine covers and newspaper front pages degrades the whole of society. People should be allowed to buy porn if they want it, but only in brown-paper wrappers. I think that we have reached a similar point here. I despise what the British National Party says, but would defend to the point of writing a stiff letter to the Guardian their right to say it. But I draw the line at having Cross v Crescent propaganda openly displayed every day in every shop in the country.

1The article is also noteworthy for including a new mutation of the phrase 'political correctness'. It appears that one unspecified person has asked another unspecified person in an unspecified place not to put up any Christmas lights because they might fall off the ladder. But this has morphed into; 'Other traditions to be axed in Britain under political correctness include Christmas lights – banned by some health and safety official worried about people injuring themselves while putting them up'. So it appears that now 'health and safety' and 'political correctness' can be used interchangeably: the Mail has even taken to talking about the 'health and safety' brigade. The significance of the use of the of the future tense is left as an exercise for the reader.

2Is it logically possible to worship an idol without realizing it? I would have thought that it was the kind of sin which is all in the intention. I assume that everybody apart from Mr. Green already knows that Arabic-speaking Christians refer to God as 'Allah' because, er, that's what the word means.

Thought for Today

"If any question why we died
tell them because our fathers lied."

Thursday, November 09, 2006


What do you think are the virtues of science?

"For the future of the economy, it is almost as important as economic stability. If we do not take the opportunities that are there for us in science then we are not going to have a successful modern economy. We will be outcompeted on labour costs. It is our human capital that is the most important and it is at the cutting edge of science that our human capital can be best exploited for the country's future. We've got to give the country a great deal more confidence about science and its place in the future. Britain has been very good at invention and discovery and not so good at its commercial exploitation. For me, those two things go together."

Margaret Thatcher

no sorry I'm lying it was actually Tony Blair

How the public thinks

One Steve Rose writes to Metro regarding Tony Blair's comments about capital punishment. (Roughly speaking, he's against it, but would rather not say so just now because his friend George is so looking forward to the lynching party, or 'Blair Forced To Admit: I Wouldn't Hang Saddam' as our friends in cloud-cuckoo land rendered it.)

'What right has Blair got to say that Britain is against capital punishment when we have not had a referendum on the matter. Those are his personal thoughts, not the countries.'

This is strikingly similar to a remark sent to the Daily Mail's website on the subject of flogging people.

'Why should it be that a handful of mindless MP's have the vote and not the general public on whether or not we introduce severe punishment of this sort? That is not democracy.'

This is an interesting way of thinking .If 'democracy' equates to 'referenda'; then since Britain doesn't have referenda and never has done, Britain isn't and never has been a democracy. The writers imagine a thing called 'Britain' or 'The General Public' which is separate from and opposed to a thing called 'the government' or 'a handful of mindless MPs' (bad). (There are currently 649 MPs so 'John from Surrey' must have unusually large hands.)

This is a very unhealthy way of thinking. It says that democracy is the only legitimate form of government; but it defines 'democracy' as doing 'the exact thing which the General Public in all areas and under all circumstances.' But any elected government on earth sometimes has to enact unpopular legislation. (Even if you decided that your guiding light was 'What the Majority wants' rather than 'What is right', you couldn't follow it, because The Majority frequently wants contradictory things.) So the only only legitimate form of government turns out to be a form of government which, in principle, can't ever exist. Which means, in short, that no government is ever legitimate, that you are free to say 'Who the hell does Tony Blair think he is, running my country just because he happens to be Prime Minister', or 'Why do we say that something is a law just because parliament happens to say that it is.' Start thinking like that, and you will end up saying 'Since 98% of Britain want Jews to be banned from wearing skull-caps; and since an arbitrary special interest group called the Government still permit them to do so, if I go up to a Rabbi, violently take his hat off, and stuff a prawn sandwich in his face for good measure, then I am acting Democratically, which is, by definition, right.'

It is not in itself very significant that two different green-inkers -- or more likely, two different sub-editors in a hurry -- came up with the same idea. It is interesting that both of them chose to use it as an argument for increasing the amount of brutality in the penal system. As we've seen, Tony Blair justifies repressive theories about crime and punishment on the grounds that he is expressing the opinions of The Public. He really should be careful of listening too carefully to the voice of the people: at lot of the time, it is calling for mob-rule and lynch-law.

Monday, November 06, 2006

News Priorities

The Independent:
"This Court has decided to sentence Saddam Hussein al-Majid to be hanged unti he is dead for crimes against humanity."

The Guardian:
Endgame for a dictator: Saddam sentence to hang

The Daily Telegraph:
Saddam death sentence sparks dancing on the strees of Baghadad

The Times:
"A final snarl, then he swaggered out."

Financial Times:
Saddam Hussien sentenced to hang

Daily Mail:
Defiance of the Tyrant

The Daily Mirror:
Saddamned To Hell!

The Sun:
Hang to rights!

The Daily Express:
Spies Cover Up Diana 'Murder'

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Public Enemy

And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do.


If we can believe Peter Mandelson–I know, but just suppose–the New Labour Project was set up in direct response to the murder of James Bulger. According to Mandelson's 1994 book The Blair Revolution, Tony felt that the murder of a small child by two slightly bigger children was 'the ugly manifestation of a society no longer worthy of the name'. He set up New Labour in order to sort things out. (See this article, and also this one.)

If Blair had been correct in thinking that this 'Orrible Murder was the symptom of a social sickness, then he would have been quite correct to start looking for a social cure. If kids are really killing kids because Society is falling apart, then it would probably be a good idea to start putting it back together again. This would have been a better approach than that of Judge Justice Morland (who thought that the murder was caused by violent videos); the Tory Party (who thought that it was caused by something they called 'wickedness') or the tabloids (who thought that the best idea would be to hang a couple of ten-year-olds: something that even that nice George Bush would blanch at). But it was never clear what social ill was being manifested or what Blair proposed to do about it.

In a speech entitled 'Our Nations Future' given earlier this year in Bristol, Tony confirmed that it was the problem of Law and Order which gave birth to New Labour. In opposition, he specifically asked John Smith to make him Shadow Home Secretary because he 'wanted to change radically the Labour party's stance on (crime)'. He thought that a sinister organization called the 'political and legal establishment' was out of touch with The Public on this issue and that it was his job to change things so that The Public got what it wanted. Never mind education, education and education: Tony's top three priorities were crime, crime, crime and punishment, punishment, punishment.

To be fair to the Prime Minister, which is not a phrase I often use, the lecture starts out by attempting a sophisticated analysis of the problem. There are, he says, more criminals than there were in the olden days and the police are less good at catching them than they used to be. Blair says that the reasons for this are very complex which is what you always say if you are going to propose ridiculously simplistic answers. It seems that, once upon a time, we all lived in things called 'Communities'. These Communities were very good at passing on moral values and very good at informally controlling people's behavior. As a result of social change these Communities no longer exist, so it follows that there is more crime.

The Communities of the Britain before the Second World War are relics to us now. The men worked in settled industrial occupations. Women were usually at home. Social classes were fixed and defining of identity. People grew up, went to school and moved into work in their immediate environs.

Geographical and social mobility has loosened the ties of home. The family structure has changed. The divorce rate increased rapidly. Single person households are now common. The demography changed: the high-crime category of young men between 15 and 24 expanded. The disciplines of informal control - imposed in the family and in schools - are less tight than they were....

This is a disconcertingly Old Labour–even Marxist–way of looking at things. The old economy caused people to assume relatively stable and inflexible social roles. Men spent their whole lives down a coal mine while their wives stayed at home and raised the next generation of miners and miners' wives. This tended to produce prosperous coal-mines which was good for both the miners and the mine-owners. These families grouped themselves together and formed Communities and these Communities were very good at regulating themselves–ergo, hardly any crime. But then, one Thursday, the economy changed. It decided that it no longer needed a labour-force of big, strong miners; but a relatively small number of highly skilled people and a large number of relatively unskilled workers. So Daddies started to move around the country to find jobs that matched their skills, Mummies got on their bikes and looked for work (often low paid unskilled work) and Children left home in order to go to college and learn new skills. As a result, the old Communities went away, and were replaced by new kinds of social networks. These new networks are less good at controlling naughty people than the old ones were. In summary: there is more crime, but society is to blame.

If you accepted this analysis, then one of two things would follow. You might decide to have a go at rebuilding Communities, since they worked so well in the past. You'd encourage people to get married and to have large families. Encourage married people to stay together; get rid of silly ideas like gay marriage and no-fault divorce. Provide mothers (or fathers, but in practice mothers) with financial and social incentives to be full time home-makers. Give employers and employees incentives to stay in the same job for a long time. Manipulate the housing market so that people can afford to live near their workplace; and so that one-income households can afford a mortgage. Have more small, local, community schools; and fewer large specialist schools. Only let the very clever go to university. And bingo–stable Communities, well behaved, well-fed, thin children, no crime and spinsters cycling to Holy Communion across cricket pitches.

On the other hand, you might think that if the economy has produced a high-crime society, then it's the economy which is broken. Maybe it is more profitable for companies to be able to hire and fire at will; but it's better for society if citizens have a job for life. So don't blame 'society' for crime; blame capitalism. If you took this view, then you would probably storm the winter palace and assassinate the Tsar, which I don't necessarily recommend.

Of course, Tony rejects both these propositions. Tony is looking for a other alternative. Tony admits that the old Communities were stifling. Tony is a social liberal. Tony thinks that letting mothers have jobs (for example, in law firms) is a Good Thing. Tony believes in prosperity. Tony wants the sort of safety and decency that Communities provided. But he doesn't want the sort of economy which produced Communities.

Tony's solution is simple: the role of the Community must be taken over by the state.

That is why our anti-social behaviour legislation, for example, has proved so popular - because it is manifestly on the side of the decencies of the majority. It deliberately echoes some of the moral categories - shame, for example - that were once enforced informally.

Blair envisages a world where formal punishments, enforced by the State, replace informal sanctions, enforced by the Community. In the Olden Days, if I walked around my garden naked or played my gramophone too loudly then the Community twitched its curtains disapprovingly. In Modern Times, some individual neighbor will complain to the State, and the State will impose an Anti-Social-Behaviour order on me. Blair says that ASBOs are a formal reflection of what the Community used to do informally. Maybe: but if you breach your ASBO, then it's the state that comes along and very formally sends you to jail.

So: our options appear to be a sort of Stalinism-lite, where the State dishes out criminal sanctions for things which are not in themselves crimes; or else a return to a Camberwick Green world of house-wives, churches, social disapproval and clips-round-the-ear. If these are really the options, then I chose the Good Old Days. We know (because Tony says so) that Communities did a good job of preventing crime. We don't know that the state will do an equally good job. Its record on the Millennium Dome and the NHS doesn't exactly fill one with confidence.

Of course, I don't really think that these are the only choices available, because I'm not persuaded by Blair's theory of Community. I see at least three reasons to reject his analysis.

1: Has crime really been increasing consistently since 1945?

Blair wants us to believe that crime is a little local difficulty which has arisen as the result of specific circumstances at the end of the 20th century. This requires us to accept a set of magic numbers:

As the 20th Century opened the number of crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales per head of population were at its lowest since the first statistics were published in 1857.

By 1997 the number of crimes recorded by the police was 57 times greater than in 1900. Even allowing for population growth it was 29 times higher. Theft had risen from 2 offenses per 1,000 people in 1901 to 55.7 in 1992.

Over the past 50 years, the detection rate almost halved. 47% of all crimes were detected in 1951 but only 26% in 2004/5. Conviction rates fell too, to 74% in 2004/5 from 96% in 1951.

Does he seriously believe that figures from 1951, or 1900, or even 1857 can be uncritically compared with those of today? Does he believe that there are things called 'crime figures' which unproblematically tell us how much crime is happening? Hasn't he done 'O' level sociology? If everyone is worried about dangerous dogs; then the police go looking for dangerous dogs; and therefore they find more dangerous dogs; so the 'rate' of dog related crime goes 'up'. This doesn't tell us how many rottweilers there are on the streets. If you redefine wife-beating as criminal assault (rather than a private matter) then the number of criminal assaults goes 'up'. If the police are good at dealing with domestic abuse, then women are more inclined to report violent spouses, and the figures get even higher. It may be that there are 57 times as many varieties of crime as there were when Queen Victoria was on the throne; but these figures by themselves aren't enough to establish this.

2: Is the supposed increase in crime really due to the decline in Communities?

Blair doesn't provide any actual evidence that this is the case. He asserts that Communities are uniquely good at passing on moral values and informally controlling bad behavior. He asserts that crime has increased; he asserts that this has happened at the same time as the decline in Community; and asks us to accept on trust that the one caused the other.

3: Blair's concept of The Public radically contradicts the central premise of his argument.

Why do we need to rethink our approach to law and order? For the benefit of The Public.

Why do we need to adopt a specific set of Blairite policies? Because The Public want us to.

Who are The Public? Blair doesn't understand the phrase to mean 'Society' or 'All of Us': Rather:

By the public....I mean ordinary, decent law-abiding folk...

The public are anxious for a perfectly good reason: they think they play fair and play by the rules and they see too many people who don't, getting away with it.

The Public are, in fact, our old friends Hardwor-Kingfamilies. In Blairspeak, 'Public', 'Majority' and 'Law-abiding' have become more or less synonymous:

...the decent, law-abiding majority who play by the rules and think others should too.

....the rights of the law-abiding majority

....make protection of the law-abiding public the priority

....reclaim the street for the law-abiding majority

But surely this blows the whole theory of the social origins of crime out of the water. If Blair's analysis were correct, we would expect practically everyone to be criminals and hardly anyone to be decent–because the mechanism which restrained crime and perpetuated decency no longer exists. If in 1992 we had reached the point where society was no longer worthy of the name, then we would have expected the bodies of murdered toddlers to be piled up in the street. Despite what you may have read in the Daily Mail, this never happened. The majority of the population is Decent. The majority of the population obeys, or at any rate abides, the Law. It follows that the role of Communities was, at best, marginal. Raise people in Communities, and everybody is decent and law-abiding. Take Communities away, and nearly everybody is decent and law-abiding. But if not from Communities, then where is the public getting all this decency? Surely Tony should be dedicating his resources to finding out?


So: the world can be split up neatly into two groups–the law-abiding majority and the law-breaking minority. Blair thinks that the rights of these groups are always and necessarily in conflict; that liberals since the Victorian era have been taking rights away from Lawkeepers and giving them to Lawbreakers; that the system is now hopelessly biased towards bad people, and it's the job of New Labour to redress the balance. This concept of 'rebalancing' is absolutely central to Blair's thinking. For example, with regard to the rights of ordinary decent criminals:

Here is the point. Each time someone is the victim of anti-social behavior, of drug related crime; each time an illegal immigrant enters the country or a perpetrator of organized fraud or crime walks free, someone else's liberties are contravened, often directly, sometimes as part of wider society. It's no use saying that in theory there should be no conflict between the traditional protections for the suspect and the rights of the law-abiding majority because, as a result of the changing nature of crime and society, there is, in practice, such a conflict; and every day we don't resolve it, by rebalancing the system, the consequence is not abstract, it is out there, very real on our streets (My italics).

And with regards to the rights of people with dark coloured skin and veils:

At present, we can't deport people from Britain even if we suspect them of plotting terrorism unless we are sure that, if deported, they won't suffer abuse on their return home...I agree the human rights of these individuals, if considered absolute, would militate< sic -- I think he really means "mitigate"> against their deportation. But surely if they aren't deported and conduct acts of terrorism, their victims' rights have been violated by the failure to deport.

Or, in summary:

This is not an argument about whether we respect civil liberties or not; but whose take priority. It is not about choosing hard line policies over an individual's human rights. It's about which human rights prevail.

At the Labour Party Rally in Manchester, Tony's unhinged Home Secretary said that this theory of re-balancing was self-evident and not open to discussion .

It cannot be right that the rights of an individual suspected terrorist be placed above the rights, life and limb of the British people. It's wrong. Full stop. No ifs. No buts. It's just plain wrong.<my italics>

People only ever say this about propositions which they know to be nonsense.

What Tony is attempting to do is fool us with the oldest political conjuring trick in the book. Anyone can learn it. It goes like this.

A: Pick a concept. Any concept you like. Shuffle it.

B: Pick a second concept, completely unrelated to the first one.

C: State in a clear, confident voice that Concept A and Concept B are examples of the same kind of thing. Try to imply that only a fool would doubt this. (Advanced students may like to try actually believing it themselves: it's much easier to convince an audience that black is white if you have first convinced yourself of it. Blair is a past master of doublethink: that's why he is such a successful politician.)

D: Taking care not to let anyone see that you have a syllogism up your sleeve, pull a rabbit out of your political hat and say 'Since you are Vegetarian, how can you possibly support Proportional Representation?' or 'How can a country which has abolished the Death Penalty possibly retain a Television License?'

E: Run away before anyone notices that you are talking bollocks.

For practice, try pretending that 'global warming' and 'religious faith' are the same thing. Say that it follows that people who don't approve of religious indoctrination can't logically teach their children about environmental issues; or conversely that people who think that children ought to be encouraged to recycle must logically approve of compulsory prayer in schools. I actually heard a mentally handicapped American lady called Anne-something-or-other arguing precisely this on Newsnight a while back: Paxman was rather soft on her.

Or again: during the 1980s coal miner's strike, Neil Kinnock was asked to comment on an ugly outbreak of picket-line violence. He replied that he condemned all violence unreservedly, but that the most serious violence was that being inflicted on mining communities by the coal board management. Try to translate this into English: it comes out as nonsense ('If you are made redundant it is okay to punch a policeman.' 'A company which closes a business which is losing money should be charged with common assault') but he gambled that a pun around the word 'violence' would catch the audience off-guard.

Tony Blair's sleight of hand involves palming the word 'rights'. 'Rights' has a fairly clear legal meaning, A person with a permit has the 'right' to fish in this lake; a person without a permit doesn't have the 'right' to do so; if you are caught fishing without a license, then the person who owns the lake has the right to prosecute you. The state says that I have the right to a defense lawyer and the right to vote in elections. These rights mean something, because they are the kinds of rights which it is within the state's power to grant. I know how to assert them; if someone tries to take them away, I know what kind of redress I can seek.

But if I say 'I have the right not to be mugged'; 'I have the right not to me burgled' or 'I have the right not to be blown up by a loony with a rucksack full of Semtex' then the word 'right' is at best a figure of speech and at worst a pun. I don't have any right not to be murdered, because there is no-one on earth who can give me that right, and so far as I know, there isn't a murder-free nation in the world. What I have is a wish not be murdered; a hope that I will not be murdered; an aspiration not to be murdered; a desire to live in a society where my chance of being murdered is fairly low.

If you fall for the original misdirection then Blair's position is unanswerable. If there is indeed a pot which contains a finite number of rights, and if there are not enough rights to go around, then it is better to give most of the rights to good people and leave bad people to go hungry. But if you translate it back into English you find that what he has said is 'My aspiration to live in a safe society is more important than your right to a fair trial'; 'Public safety is more important than civil rights', 'Security is more important than freedom' 'The detention, internment, shooting, execution and torture of a small number of citizens–whether or not they have actually done anything–is a price well worth paying for the safety of the remainder'.

If the rights of bad people are always and necessarily at the expense of good people, then it follows that bad people have no rights whatsoever and there should be no limits on what a police officer can do in the name of the common good. If I am accused of a crime, the policeman should be quite free to beat me up until I confess: and if I say 'You are infringing my rights' he can legitimately reply 'What about the rights of the person whose grandmother's wedding ring you stole?' We would end up saying that we should be prepared to live in a society with no human or civil rights at all if that society offered 100% security. Accept Blair's theory of re-balancing, and you've accepted the principle that a police state with a crime rate of zero would be a desirable outcome.

Am I exaggerating? Blair helpfully provides a checklist of the kinds of rights which bad people currently enjoy but which they might not be able to enjoy for much longer.

Because we care, rightly, about people's civil liberties, we have, traditionally, set our face against summary powers; against changing the burden of proof in fighting crime; against curbing any of the procedures and rights used by defense lawyers; against sending people back to potentially dangerous countries; against any abrogation of the normal, full legal process. But....

1: In England, if you are accused of a crime, you can't be punished without being put on trial and having a chance to defend yourself. But in the Tonysphere if a policeman thinks you are doing something wrong, he may be able to punish you on the spot (presumably with a clip-round-the-ear). This is what 'summary powers' means.

2: In England, if you are put on trial, you are assumed to be innocent until you are proven guilty. In the Tonysphere, the state may decide to punish you because you can't prove that you are innocent. That is what 'changing the burden of proof' means.

3: In English trials you have the right to a legal expert to speak on your behalf, to cross-examine witnesses and to ensure that the law is fairly interpreted. (The state even pays his fee if you can't afford to.) But in the Tonysphere, obstacles are going to be put in the way of these legal experts, making it much harder for them to challenge and critique the evidence the state brings against you. That is what 'curbing the procedures and rights used by defense lawyers' means. (It follows that, under the new 'guilty until proven innocent' system (see point 1), it will be much harder to prove your innocence, and there will be many more innocent people in jail.)

4: In England we say that, even if the court decides that you are guilty beyond reasonable doubt, there is a limit to what the state can do to you. We can take away your property or your liberty, but we can't take away anything else. Under no circumstances will we kill you or torture you. But in the Tonysphere, there are no such guarantees. We aren't going to set up a Ministry of Torture. Not just yet, anyway. But if we put you on a plane to Bongo-Bongo-Land and they stick a hosepipe up your bottom, we'll, that's not our problem, is it? That's what 'sending people back to potentially dangerous countries' means. (Some of the people that we send to countries where they torture you will, in fact, be innocent: see point 3.)

5: In case all this wasn't clear enough, in the Tonysphere the whole idea of giving criminals trials before we punish them may be abolished, or at any rate, 'abrogated'.

Tony doesn't say that baddies are definitely going to lose any of these rights: he only says that they are not definitely going to keep them. He talks about 'civil liberties' as if they are rather esoteric–what was the word, 'airy-fairy'?–the kind of thing that only pedants and lawyers would worry about. But what he is in fact calling into question is the whole concept of proof. In England, we only punish you for crimes that we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that you did. 'Not Guilty' doesn't mean 'Definitely Innocent' but 'We failed to prove that your were definitely guilty'. 'Probably guilty' means the same as 'Innocent.' But in the Tonysphere, the mere fact that you have been accused of a crime may grounds for punishing you for it. This approach was very successfully piloted at Stockwell tube station last year.

Is this fanciful? At the beginning of the lecture, Tony talked about the way in which the Victorians started to improve the rights of criminals but gradually went too far, and that we need to take some rights away from these criminals and give them back to The Public. But as the argument develops the people from whom he wants to take away rights stop being criminals and become....'suspects'.


Why do we have to go to these extremes? It seems that it is a matter of historical inevitability.

It's no use saying that in theory there should be no conflict between the traditional protections for the suspect and the rights of the law-abiding majority because, as a result of the changing nature of crime and society, there is, in practice, such a conflict. <My emphasis>

So: the rights of those accused of crimes and the rights of Hardwor-Kingfamilies have not always been at odds: the conflict came into being when society changed. But in what possible way do the social changes that Blair has outlined imply the legal changes that he thinks we might need? Again, if you try to translate what he has written back into English, you end up with sheer nonsense:
'When there were Communities, we could afford to assume that people were innocent until proven guilty, but now that there are no Communities, we can't.'
'Summary powers are necessary because people do different jobs from their dads.'
'We may need to abrogate the normal trial process because there are lots of bachelor households.'
'We can't guarantee to protect people from torture, because many women go out to work.'
Ah, says Tony, but other things have changed apart from Communities:

Fixed Communities go. The nuclear family changes.(1) Mass migration is on the march Prosperity means most people have something worth stealing. Drugs means more people are prepared to steal. Organized crime which traffics in drugs and people make money. Violence, often of a qualitatively as well as quantitatively different sort than anything before, accompanies it. Then there is the advent of this new phenomenon of global terrorism based on a perversion of Islam.

But how do any of these circumstances lead to the changes in the law he proposes? How do you get from 'the nuclear family changes' to 'the police should be able to punish you without bothering with a trial'? Or from 'It is profitable to sell drugs' to 'Maybe we'll change the burden of proof'?

Some of what he says is literally nonsensical. Translated into English, does 'violence of a quantitatively different sort' mean 'There is more violence'? Then why not say that? And does 'violence of a qualitatively different sort' mean anything at all? Is he saying that someone has invented a new kind of violence? How? We have a problem with young men threatening each other with knives; but twenty five years ago, they threatened each other with broken bottles. We have a serious problem with terrorists who say they are Muslims blowing up people on buses, but twenty five years ago, we had terrorists who said they were Catholics blowing up people in shopping centers. What's qualitatively different?

We started out listening to a grown-up argument about how a change in society may require a new approach to law and order. But we've slipped back into familiar Tony territory. Strings of words with no semantic content. Phrases which sound like arguments, but which are actually slogans. Short sentences. No verbs. I am the egg-man. They are the egg-men. Goo-goo-goo-joob. Goo-goo-goo-joob.


Is it the job of a politician to give the public what they say they want, or what they really do want? (2). It's Tony Blair's inability to answer this question that has made his government such a waste of space.

Perhaps the Public say that they want more bobbies-on-the-beat: but what they actually want is to walk home without being mugged. They just happen to think–erroneously, for the sake of argument–that if there were lots of constables on the streets, they would be safe from muggers. So, do you spend your money on things that would (for the sake of argument) prevent muggings–CCTV cameras, karate lessons for old ladies, free PlayStations for unemployed youngsters? Or do you say that if the Public wants P.C McGarry Number 452, then that's what you should provide?

The Public certainly says that its want 'Justice', which equates to 'Punishment', criminals getting what they deserve. Blair goes so far as to say that the criminal justice system is a public service, dispensing a commodity called 'justice'. I submit that what the Public actually wants is for there to be not very much crime: they just happen to think that the best way of getting rid of it is to be tough on it.

Blair's conclusion, that rights should be taken away from bad people, or anyone we think might be a bad person, and redistributed to good people, does not in any way follow from his premise, that crime is the result of community breakdown. This is because he had decided on the answe before he had asked the the question.(3) He appears to believe that crime is a social problem with a social solution; but he believes that, as an Out Of Touch Member of the Political And Legal Establishment, it is his duty to give The Public what they want. Or else he thinks that it is expedient to throw the mob a bone in order to get their votes. It is even possible that he sincerely believes that The Public is always right. At any rate he pretends that he thinks that the solution to crime lies in sending more criminals to prison (along with a few innocents who accidentally get caught in the net.) This is why he has to talk nonsense. He knows that his conclusions don't follow from his premises, but he has to pretend that they do.

If crime is a social illness, then the solution is to cure it. If crime is a caused by bad people, then the solution is to arrest them. In this case, there really isn't any third way.

The majority is never right. Never, I tell you!...Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population—the intelligent ones or the fools? I think we can agree it’s the fools, no matter where you go in this world, it’s the fools that form the overwhelming majority.–Henrik Ibsen, 'A Public Enemy'

(1) He doesn't really mean 'The nuclear family changes'. The 'nuclear family' means 'a household consisting of two parents and several children', as opposed to 'the extended family', which means 'a household consisting of parents, children, and one or more sets of in-laws'. What Blair means that set-ups other than the nuclear family are becoming more common. He presumably thinks that children raised in non-nuclear families (two sets of divorced parents, a single parent, a gay couples, a hired nanny) are less likely to be 'decent' than those raised in the traditional 20th century way. It could be that 'the nuclear family changes' is a slip of the tongue for 'society changes and fewer and fewer people live in nuclear families'. But I suspect that 'nuclear' is a null-word that has attached itself to 'family' (like gratuitous swearing; bogus asylum seeker; vast majority; hard-working family and New Labour) and that Blair means and understands nothing by it.

(2) This is a different question from the one about whether you should give people what they ought to want–e.g thin children–or what they actually want–e.g beefburgers and chips.

(3): Of course, he has used this approach very succesfully in his foriegn policy. He decided that the answer was "War with Iraq", and then tried to work out what the question was.