Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Flogging a Dead Horse

A shy young farmer is showing his girlfriend around the farm. He shows her the haystacks and the milking machine, and then they come to a field where a cow and a bull are doing what cows and bulls do when farmers put them in fields together. The farmer and his girlfriend watch for a few minutes and then the farmer ventures: 'Er...do you know, one day, I'd like to do that.'

'Well, it's your cow,' she replies.

We are all much less screwed up about sex than we used to be. Everyone is glad to be gay. We don't tell children that if they play with themselves they'll go blind. Sado-masochism is openly discussed in the pages of Woman's Realm. But it is still relatively rare to come across an 'out' necrophiliac. Dead people don't put up postcards in phone boxes. If I were to walk in on a friend having sex with his ex-girlfriend, I would probably say something slightly stronger than, 'Well, it's your corpse.'

Why is sex with a dead body necessarily more depraved than, say, sex with a manikin? You or I may think that both pastimes are a bit yucky, but 'yuck!' is not really an argument. Norman Tebbit thinks it is yucky for two men to have sex together, even if both of them are still alive, to which the only answer is 'That's all right, no-one asked you to watch.' Norman would probably reply that it's the whole idea of a man having sex with another man which he finds yucky, to which I would reply: 'Well, I think the idea of John Major having sex with Edwina Curry is pretty yucky. Or indeed, the idea of anyone having sex with Edwina Curry. Or, in fact, John Major. Do you want to ban that as well?' Aesthetic judgements are a very bad guide to morality.

We think that desecrating a corpse is an offense against the family of the corpse's original owner: but we no longer think that desecrating corpses in general is an offense against humanity in general. There was a time when we tried to prosecute artists for doing challengingly post-modern things with the dear departed. But now we permit 'Body Worlds', even though it is an exhibition of high-tech human taxidermy, because all of the exhibits signed legal documents agreeing to be filleted and put on display when they die. So what would be the moral difference if someone willed their mortal remains to be used for some much less educational, but possibly more enjoyable, artistic venture?

The only rational objection to necrophilia is the practical one. It's rather difficult to pursue the hobby without a dead body; and it's rather difficult to get hold of a dead body without killing someone or digging someone up. (There are also questions about hygiene and public health, even if you wear a condom and don't share shrouds.) We object to necrophilia because we don't think that you should interfere with human remains. The fact that some people find interfering with human remains a sexual turn-on is is beside the point.

I mention this because necrophilia is one of the categories covered by Tony Blair's proposed law against 'extreme' pornography. The others are sexual violence and bestiality. At present, it is illegal to produce or distribute certain kinds of dirty book. But what the world has been crying out for is a law against even having such material in your house, in a cardboard box under your bed, or, and especially, in a file on your hard-drive marked 'Very boring bank statements, do not read.' I have never been entirely sure what a rubicon is but I am pretty sure that we have just crossed one.

Prime Ministers have always regretted the fact that they can't legislate about what goes on in our minds and in our trousers. But with the advent of the World Wide Wank it is theoretically possible for Tony Blair to spy on all of our wet dreams. In the past, we drifted off to sleep turning dodgy little paraphilias over in our heads, hardly remembering them the next morning. Nowadays, we type 'Doctor, Rose, Dalek, tentacle, slash, threesome' into Google and see our most secretest fantasies dance before our eyes in living colour. Or so I have heard.

Tony can't stop you thinking about naughty things; but it is now fairly easy for him to discover what naughty things you have been thinking about and if he doesn't like them, to send three big uniformed police officers to your house to confiscate your computer, handcuff you, conduct an intimate body search and then take out their big, manly truncheons, and

I don't think that looking at images of necrophilia, sexual violence or bestiality is one of my more fundamental human rights. It's a right I'm perfectly willing to give up, along with my right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theater, my right to drive on the right hand side of the road and my right to put potato peelings in my wheelie bin, so long as it does some good. But I would quite like to know what kind of good the new law is supposed to do.

Are cemeteries being vandalized in order to provide models for a booming necro-porn industry? Is the RSPCA worried about an epidemic of cows with sore bottoms? Then by all means, let's take action. Let's impose a criminal penalty on people who look at pictures of non-consenting bovine sex, in the hope that by cutting off demand, you will put the suppliers out of business, as has worked so successfully in the case of hard drugs.

But no plague of pornography-fueled sheep-buggering corpse-shaggers has so far been detected. Instead, we're told we need a new law because extreme pornography is 'repugnant', 'abhorrent', 'disturbing', 'repellent' and 'unacceptable to the vast majority of people' which is as much as to say, being interpreted, yucky. Those of us who point out that maybe some people find the stuff you look at quite yucky; and that in any case we doubt whether everyone who looks at yucky stuff ought to go to jail, are told that some of this stuff is very yucky indeed. Feminists in particular are inclined to say that they once saw, or heard about, a movie in which a woman was tortured, or appeared to be tortured, and that this was so yucky that if you had seen it, you would have been sick. They think this settles the question. If you persist, and say that, even assuming genuine 'snuff' movies exist, you don't see how sending a few Internet masturbators to prison is going to help, they seem not to understand the question. The representative from the Home Office explained to the BBC that:

By banning the possession of such material the government is sending out a strong message - that it is totally unacceptable and those who access it will be held to account.

It has to be banned because it is unacceptable. We are are going to ban it because it's the kind of thing which should be banned.

Some people are prepared to give actual reasons why yucky things should be banned. The most common argument is that we have to ban the possession of extreme porn because extreme porn harms the people who possess it. There are three versions of this argument. On one view, extreme porn is cleverly put together by pornographers who understand how your sexuality works. If you look at pornographic images of sexual violence, you will start to be turned on by those images. This will make you a bad person. This seems to me to be a circular argument, roughly equivalent to saying: 'It is bad to look at yucky pictures, because they will make you the sort of person who looks at yucky pictures, which is bad.'

The second, and more common form of the argument is that looking at extreme pornography is likely to turn you into a criminal. If you look at yucky pictures, and become the sort of person who likes to look at yucky pictures, then sooner or later, looking at yucky pictures is not going to be sufficient: you are bound to actually go and dig up a corpse. This is every censor's argument: people are too weak and stupid to distinguish fiction from reality. Fredric Wertham said that any comic book which depicted a crime (in any context) was a 'crime comic', and that 'crime comics' by definition turned the youth of America into criminals. Christianist extremists have said that the depiction of 'magic' by J.K Rowling is likely to turn children into disciples of Aleister Crowley. When the BBC put the question to the man from the ministry, he went completely to pieces:

There is no conclusive proof that in every case certain types of images will have a certain impact on every individual but we know that in that particular case....that these images do have an impact, do feed certain fantasies in certain individuals and we believe that it is our responsibility to prevent that from happening.

Does anyone know what it means to 'feed' a fantasy? And has it been proved that if you did feed one, it would get bigger and stronger and eventually burst out of its cage and bite someone's head off? Isn't it just as possible that it's lean, mean, starving fantasies which do the harm, and the best thing that anyone can do with one is to keep it well fed and docile?

If there were concrete evidence that people who looked at pictures of people having sex with kittens went out and had sex with kittens, then it wouldn't necessarily follow that the best way of protecting kittens would be jailing anyone who owned a sexually explicit kitten picture. As it stands, the argument is circular.

'We must ban yucky pictures.'
'Because they harm the people who look at them.'
'What is your evidence for that?'
'It is intuitively obvious.'
'Because they are so yucky.'

The third form of the argument, and the only one which I think has any credibility, is that looking at pictures of people doing weird sexual stuff is inclined to 'normalize' the weird stuff that you might want to do, and make you more inclined to do it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this can be the case. You spend thirty self-loathing years thinking that your are the only person on earth who is sexually excited by teddy bears - and then one day you discover www.arctophilia.com, spend a happy hour downloading teddy-porn, and post a message to the teddy-porn forum saying 'I never knew anyone else was interested in this...I thought I was the only one...' With the encouragement of other arctophiles, you might even come out of the toy-cupboard and admit your fetish in public.

But this pre-supposes that your interest is eccentric but basically harmless. If what you are interested in is obviously criminal, then it's another matter. Your parents, your teachers and your community leaders have taught you that murder, rape and child-abuse are morally wrong. Your conscience tells you that you shouldn't kill people or have sex with them without their consent. Your sense of empathy tells you how horrible it would be to be murdered or sexually molested. And your common sense tells you that if you do these things, you will be shunned by your community, sent to jail, or, in primitive countries, executed. Yet the tendency of certain images to 'normalize' or 'legitimize' deviant behaviour is so powerful that it over-rides your upbringing, your conscience, your morality, your empathy and even your fear of punishment, causing you to go out and do something which you know is wrong. This is an extra-ordinary claim; extra-ordinary claims require extra-ordinary evidence. The burden of proof is on those who believe that these images possess this power. But the only proofs cited are circumstancial evidence that many people convicted of violent sex offences have violent pornography in their posession; vague metaphors about 'feeding fantasies' and 'mental furniture'; and general assertions that some images are so nasty that they probably have some kind of effect. This is insufficient to establish that some images have can turn normal individuals into ammoral psychopaths.

There are a certain number of people whose moral conscience and sense of empathy was flawed or non-existant even before they plugged their computer in. These are certainly dangerous and scary individuals. But it isn't smutty website that have made them so. (*)

I have been assuming that the reasons for introducing the new law are rational ones. But, of course, they aren't. Laws are no longer about spotting crimes and working out realistic ways of preventing them. They are about 'sending signals'; they are about creating newspaper headlines; they are the government's attempt to create a popular 'narrative.'

In 2003 a young woman had unspeakable things done to her by a not-at-all well man who got off on doing unspeakable things to young women. Not surprisingly, he also spent some of his spare time looking at pictures on the internet of young women having unspeakable things done to them. The relatives of the victim believed that these pictures had in some sense caused the murder. They organised a campaign to get 'violent porn' prohibited. The new law is a response to this campaign. 'Victory for mother in war on violent porn' explained the Daily Mail. Even our own dear Guardian found the narrative – 'out of this great evil must come something good' – too appealing to resist, and referred to it in three separate headlines. 'Violent Porn Ban 'a memorial to my daughter'; 'Legacy of Jane Longhurst'; 'Jane's Legacy'. Without even noticing it, we have replaced jurisprudence with soap opera. Last month, the Home Secretary was referring to his pro-lynching initiative as 'Sarah's Law'. Right at the beginning of his reign of terror, Tony Blair said that he had made it illegal for grown-ups with licences to fire guns at paper targets, not because it was a good idea but because 'We owed a debt to the people of Dunblane.' I find this tendency very disturbing. Laws should be made because they will serve a clear and tangible purpose: not because they provide an uplifting ending to grotesque murder stories.

You may wish to say that I am being flippant. You may think that murder, corpse mutilation and cruelty to animals are crimes; and that it is self-evident that there shouldn't be a trade in pictures of people committing crimes. We could have a terribly interesting debate about medieval child brides, the age of consent in Sweden, Shirley Temple movies, and what the hell's going on in those night clubs where people dress up in school uniforms and listen to old Boney M records. But as soon as we start to talk about actual pictures of actual people actually doing things to actual children, then we would all be in agreement: it's illegal, it's always been illegal, and it ought to be illegal. You may think that images of women actually being tortured and graves actually being vandalized should be treated in the same way. I would probably agree with you. But Tony Blair's new law goes much, much further than this.

The governments consultation document states very clearly what kind of pictures they want to lock you up for looking at:

15: In summary, material would need to be:

a: Pornographic

b: Explicit

c: Real or appears to be a real act...

16: It would cover

i: serious violence *

ii: intercourse or oral sex with an animal

iii: sexual interference with a human corpse

* by serious violence we mean appears to be life threatening or likely to result in serious, disabling injury (my italics)

In case you missed this, the paper goes on to define it's terms.

'The second threshold would be an objective test for the jury in respect of actual scenes or depictions which appear to be real acts...By actual scenes or depictions which appear to be real acts we intend to catch material which either is genuinely violent or conveys a realistic impression of fear, violence and harm.' (my italics)

So. New Labour's legacy will be to re-define 'real' as 'fictitious' and 'actual' as 'simulated'. For years, people have argued about whether or not 'snuff' movies really exist. Tony has brilliantly circumvented the question: looking at a clever special effect in which someone appears to be killed will be defined, under English law, as just as bad as watching a film in which someone is actually killed.

Owning a movie in which someone is killed or appears to be killed in a horrible way will not, in itself, be a crime, which is a relief for those of us who bought the DVD of The Passion of the Christ. We can only go to prison if the violent film is also pornographic. In case we don't know, pornography is defined as:

material that has been solely or primarily produced for the purpose of sexual arousal...We believe that this first test should eliminate, for example, photographs of works of art, news and documentary programmes by mainstream broadcasters which are of public interest and works classified by the BBFC

So; everything depends on the intention of the person who created the film. If someone makes a film of someone digging up a corpse, with the intention of making me violently sick, traumatizing me, and giving me nightmares for a month, then I am not committing any crime by owning a copy. But if someone makes a film of someone digging up a corpse with the intention of giving me an erection, then if I have a copy of the film I can go to prison for three years. (If I do get a hard-on while watching it, then we're in the clear provided no-one intended me to; if they intended me to get a stiffy but I actually find it a complete turn off, then I can still move directly to jail.) If what I'm watching is only a very impressive special effect, it makes no difference: a sexy special effect is against the law, a merely disgusting or horrifying one isn't.

Lawyers will be able to have endless fun with this. If I get excited by looking at pictures of – say – a group of teenaged squaddies mud wrestling in the nude, then that's perfectly okay, provided I'm looking at a real film of real recruits being really abused in the sort of perfectly normal, heterosexual horse-play that made the British army what it is today. But if exactly the same scene is staged by a gay porn website for the benefit of the kind of people who like that kind of thing, then a crime is committed by anyone who looks at it. Mary Whitehouse famously tried to argue that since it would be criminally obscene to perform anal sex on the London stage, it must logically also be obscene to convincingly simulate the same act. But in Blair's Britain there are cases when looking at the real thing might be okay, but looking at a simulation is against the law.

A crime will only be committed if the pictures you are looking at are 'explicit', helpfully defined as

activity which can be clearly seen, leaves little to the imagination, and is not hidden or disguised, (e.g by pixilation.)

So; any notion that this law is needed to prevent unspeakable things being done to real animals, real cadavers and real, live women can be put aside. This law is not to protect them: it is to protect you. A picture of someone buggering a cow in which the naughty bits are pixilated out might be less likely to corrupt and deprave the person looking at it; and it might be less yucky for the rest of us. But it presumably doesn't make any difference to the cow.

Jemima Lewis, writing in the Independent provides a clue to what is really going on.

It hardly matters whether footage of a rape victim having her throat slit or limbs sawn off is real or fake: its message is one of savage hatred of women... We always reserve the right to protect ourselves, however imperfectly, from things that are bad for our bodies or souls. Like drug abuse or racism, misogyny is a social cancer which we should be unashamed to fight.

So. What we are legislating against is not the images themselves; not the real people hurt in the production of those images; not even the criminals who some people believe are created by these images. What we are making laws about is their subtext; their ideology; their message.

Joan Bakewell, writing in the Guardian, concurs

But the truth is that many people can watch films of cruelty and degradation without harmful effect. That said, extreme pornography degrades women and brutalises men, which is why I think that removing it from the Internet would be the best way forward.

(Isn't it cute that she thinks that making a law and locking up a few people, is the same thing as 'removing it from the internet'.)

But if what we're worried about is the sub-text, why stop at snuff movies and necrophilia? Half the top shelf of your average sub-urban news-agent could be said to be misogynistic and to degrade women. So, why not jail the consumers of that, as well? Jeremy Coutinho, also in the Guardian agrees. The new law does not go far enough. It does 'not in itself address society's attitudes towards women'. (It is not clear who said that it was supposed to.)

While I welcome this bill, the mainstream objectification of women has to be tackled too if the government is really serious about women's human rights.

He gives a number of examples of certainly yucky but presumably consensual and not life-threatening 'mainstream' images that he would like to 'tackle', such as novelty gentleman's toilets and pictures of men ejaculating in women's faces.

I think that misogyny is a Bad Thing. I also think that racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, islamaphobia and whatever-the-word-is-for-someone-who-hates-Christians are Bad Things. I am very doubtful whether people who own literature which express an racist or anti-semitic message should go to prison. You may not agree with me; you may think that some ideas are so offensive that even to possess a book or tape or disc which contains them should incur a term of imprisonment. In a way, that's not the point. The point is that this looked like a law against a particularly nasty kind of porn. But it is really ideas which are being censored. It always is.

* These two paragraphs have been edited following criticism. The original version read: "This pre-supposes that your interest is eccentric but basically harmless. Whether we are talking about kinky sex or trainspotting the Internet makes it much easier to contact fellow enthusiasts. If you find other people who like the same thing you do, it's much more likely that you'll go and do it together. If what you are interested in is obviously dangerous and criminal, then it's another matter. Everything in your up-bringing and your conscience tells you that murder, rape and child abuse are morally wrong: the only actual objection to teddy-sex is that it is slightly unusual. I simply don't believe that a web-site and a peer-group who say 'Digging up corpses is perfectly okay' is going to over-ride every piece of socialization you have experienced since you were born – unless, of course, you were a psychopath to begin with. In which case, it's not the the website's fault."

Friday, September 01, 2006


"I just finished my commentaries on the Gospel According to Mark a couple of weeks back and from my reading of the circumstantial evidence in the text, I think it’s a safe bet that the Synoptic Jesus didn’t go to the cross. Someone else took his place and the short ending on the story (there are two versions of chapter sixteen extant) would seem to indicate that he and Magdalene went west. Picture yourself travelling as Mrs. Jesus and taking up residence in a new country just as his “messiahship” is starting to be taken for granted. I think it explains the French Revolution, for one thing. "

i'm sorry i just couldn't resist


As long as we speaking in the Vulgar Tongue, I have no problem in saying that Mr. Dave Sim is crazy, cracked, loony, potty, insane, several land cards short of a Magic deck, nuttier than a fruitcake factory which is hosting the annual convention of the Cashew Appreciation Society. I have said so myself on many occasions. My only problem is with people who use 'He's mad' as shorthand for 'I can form a critical judgment about Cerebus the Aardvark without the bother of actually reading it.'

Earlier this year, Steve Bolhafner, stalwart of the Cerebus mailing list described me as:

The conflicted Andrew Rilstone who I think loves and hates Cerebus in equal proportions more strongly than almost anyone (there are those who love it more and hate it less, and vice versa, but he is very strong and articulate about both positions).

I believe that this was intended to be a flattering remark, and I took it as such. But I think that there is something a little off-the-wall about needing to describe me as 'conflicted'. I think that Cerebus is a masterpiece and Dave Sim is an idiot. What is 'conflicted' about that? 'Greatest living comic book creator and total asshole' is a sentence I am still rather proud of.

Having read Cerebus the Aardvark and the associated essays notes and letter columns and commentaries, I tend to experience Sim as a series of gobbets of total lunacy strung out like idiotic pearls on a string of interesting, creative and verbally inventive writing. People who gave up on Cerebus after Melmuth have largely experienced mad-Dave only via his most extreme and therefore most widely quoted remarks. (The Victor Reid material in Cerebus #181; 'Tangents', the bonkers interview in the Onion.) Obviously, my Davewatch thing contributed to this tendency. I don't say he doesn't believe the madstuff; but I do say that that isn't all he ever talks about.

It's a bit like discussing the Ring Cycle, the Silmarillion and the Bible. Long, inaccessible works: people who don't like them tend only to know them from a few isolated passages for the very good reason that the only people who can be bothered to encounter the complete work are those who are fairly sympathetic to it in the first place.

'So Andrew, what you are saying is 'I'm the only one round here who's slogged through Sim's writings, so I am the only one who is allowed to slag him off.' '

'You could put it like that, I suppose.'

When we go beyond this and describe Sim as mentally ill we appear to be talking about his behavior: his asceticism, his celibacy, his reclusiveness, as opposed to his gnosticism, his extreme anti-feminist theories and his alleged personal misogyny. (*) Of course, many respectable religions have a tradition of hermits and anchorites, to say nothing of vows of poverty and clerical celibacy. But I am happy to grant that cutting off your links with your family is not widely regarded as normal behavior. 'Dysfunctional', 'maladaptive' and 'unable to function in society' might be apt descriptions. This may be one of the things which is meant by 'mental illness'.

How is this 'mental illness' related to his strange theories? Without the whole case history before us, we can't know. Perhaps Dave came up with the idea YHWH was a ball of fire at the center of the earth and therefore ostracized his mother. Or perhaps it just so happened that he developed a bizarre theological theory, and quarreled with his mother at the same time. Or maybe the experience of living alone without any human contact caused him to produce these rather elegant and ingenious but entirely self-referential religious models.

The commentary on 'The Last Day' for the Yahoo mailing list was, I think, the single nastiest thing which Dave Sim has ever written. The commentary takes the form of a heavily moderated Q & A session. Someone implies that they think that Dave regards Cerebus' 'gospel' as a genuine addition to scripture. Sim responds:

'Also, nice try from the he/she/it side of the fence: slipping an accusation of blasphemy against me in under the fence. Obviously I don’t think 289-290 is divinely inspired.....Yes, I know you didn’t mean to accuse me of blasphemy, but that’s the nature of atheists. You’re empty vessels wide open for demonic possession 24/7.'

Someone else asks a rather geeky question about the dates of Cerebus' world and how they relate to real history. Sim's answer is that it's a mistake to assume that Cerebus' story is taking place on our earth. But it comes out as:

'My assumption is that everywhere in the universe planets roughly the size of YHWH all enact their various tantrums and plodding resistance to the truth and infantile he/she/itisms in roughly the same way (and for all I know bigger planets are no different in the same way that all he/she/its are the same), so Cerebus’ story could probably have been enacted on any of a trillion times a trillion little blue balls that think they’re God just as there are probably a trillion times a trillion of each of you everywhere in the universe all behaving exactly as you do, each of whom has chosen to turn his/her back on God. Or maybe out of the trillion times a trillions versions of you there might be one or two that are actually God-fearing, but that would surprise me if it was true.'

So: Sim is no longer the only Real Man in Canada or the only man on Earth who is not a feminist: he is now possibly the only God-fearing man in the universe.

A question about the politics of Cerebus' world leads to a rant about terrorism:

'In order to sustain itself as a political movement, he/she/itism in our society needs to convince people that the proper reaction to killing Islamist Muslims who are plotting violence against civilians is grief at their death and/or fear of the people killing them. The proper reaction isn’t grief and/or fear. The proper reaction is relief coupled with determination to kill as many more as it takes until Freedom is the universal condition of man.'

Note the straw doll. Who are these liberals who express grief when Islamist Muslims who are plotting violence against civilians are killed? What Dave has in mind is liberals who express grief when innocent Muslim civilians are caught in the cross fire; or else liberals like myself who are concerned when individuals who may or may not be plotting violence are arrested, imprisoned or killed without having been given a fair chance to defend themselves. If we could win the warren terra simply by shooting a few easily identifiable and clearly labeled Bad Muslims, then life would be much simpler. In Dave's world, you can, and it is.

And in passing:

'Guantanamo Bay doesn’t actually bother Democrats but they do see it as the way back into the White House (mistakenly, in my view).'

We then get on to theology. Apparently, you can still be tempted to sin after you are dead. In order to be on the safe side, when he gets to the Afterlife Dave will do nothing but recite his prayer until the Day of Judgment. He concludes:

'I think unconsciously I was documenting the loss of my soul which was pretty much a given until I started reading the Bible. It’s one of the reasons that concepts like “fun” really don’t resonate with me at all anymore. My only interest at this point is Not Blowing It Big Time and making it to the grave and Judgment Day without any serious slip-ups. Like allowing people to accuse me of blasphemy without refuting the charge. I am on high alert 24/7 for exactly those sorts of things. '

Now I can think of a lot of words to describe this writing. 'Fanatical' and 'Puritanical' come to mind. It's the kind of Bad Religion which sees life as an inconvenient distraction you have to get through in order to reach heaven, with all pleasures and human interaction being temptations which are best shunned. But it doesn't have any of the joy of the Lord or the sense of being part of a positive, self-assured community which can make both puritanism and fundamentalism very positive forces in some people's lives. I might also describe the writing as 'mean spirited' or 'just plain nasty'. But mad? The product of mental illness? I think this lets him off the hook too easily.

I still don't quite know what follows from any of this.

* I say 'alleged' because there is a widely disseminated tradition that he behaves as a perfect gentleman towards his girlfriends, and is quite charming towards any other women he happens to bump into.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

When Pants Ignite

Every time that people talk about "creating the characters," I always say I co-created them. I co-created Spider-Man with Steve Ditko. I co-created The Fantastic Four and the Hulk with Kirby. I co-created Iron Man with Don Heck. Very often, when people would write about us in the newspapers or the trades, they would say, "Stan Lee – Creator of Spider-Man," and that would get Ditko angry – but I had nothing to do with that! I have no control over what journalists write.

Stan Lee, interviewed on IGN, June 2000

Celebrating his 65th years at Marvel, Stan "The Man" Lee comes face-to-face with some of his greatest creations of all time. Five all new 10 page stories by Stan Lee with 10-page backup tales from top talents in the industry, along with reprints of classic Stan Lee stories. Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man. Stan Lee Meets Dr. Strange. Stan Lee Meets The Thing. Stan Lee Meets Dr Doom. Stan Lee Meets The Silver Surfer.

Marvel comics flyer, September 2006.

(Stan Lee's name appears 17 times in this leaflet. A no-prize for anyone who guesses the number of occurrences of the words "Ditko", "Kirby", "Jack", "Steve". The cover for the Spider-Man comic appears to be have been copied from Ditko's art on Amazing Fantasy #15, and the cover for the Thing appears to have been copied from Kirby's art on Fantastic Four #51.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


For those of us who have read A.N Wilson's mendacious biography of C.S Lewis or his goofy book on Jesus this is quite siimply the funniest thing which has ever happened in the entire history of English literature.


"The strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force are irreconcilable, in my view. That’s the whole point of the debate. The weak nuclear force (YHWH, he/she/it, Marxist-feminists, the Feminist-Homosexualist Axis) wants to be the strong nuclear force (God, masculine men) and can’t be and therefore everywhere across time and space is doing what he/she/it has been doing in our own society since 1970. Screwing things up. The science isn’t suspect, I don’t think. The he/she/its don’t like it because if follows the evidence and concludes that he is preferable to he/she/it. Strong instead of weak."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Walking With Jesuses

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

...and then one Thursday, nearly 2,000 years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change...

The Genesis Code; The Gospel Code; The Magdalene Deception – W.H Smiths bookshelves are sagging under the weight of silly conspiracy theories about Jesus. So the time is right for the BBC to do a documentary called The Miracles of Jesus. The series promises that it will 'decipher' the meanings of Jesus' miracles. A cipher, you see, is a sort of code. If we can fit the words 'Jesus' and 'Code' into the same sentence, then maybe the young people will turn on the TV during the godslot. Or, on the other hand, maybe they won't.
The shtick is that the programme is presented by a Muslim, BBC war-reporter Rageh Omar, who pretends that he is looking at the Gospels with an outsider's eye. The last time the BBC did a major series on Jesus, it was presented by Jeremy Bowen, another news reporter. God forbid that religious documentaries should be presented by historians, archaeologists or clergymen. That would be old fashioned and deferential; it would suggest that we lived in a world where experts taught and everyone else learns from them. TV shows of this kind have to be presented by naive seekers-after-truth. Unfortunately, it's clear that Omar is better informed than the format permits him to let on. He keeps saying 'many scholars believe....' which makes us suspect that he has read actual books – but he isn't allowed to tell us which books, or what they said.
The hidden message which he finds in the Gospels is – and stop me if you've heard this before – that Jesus believed himself to be the Son of God. Not only that, but he thought that is was necessary to suffer a violent death in order to overthrow Satan. Oh, and his disciples very probably believed that he had come back from the dead – in what was 'perhaps' the greatest miracle of all.
Reith forbid that a Sunday afternoon TV series about Jesus should contain anything so mundane as any actual passages from the Bible. Oh no; it uses 'special photography and computer generated images to bring the miracles of Jesus to life'. That is to say, actors wander around dusty landscapes and roll their eyes a lot. Jesus looks Wild and Strange. The Disciples look Surprised and Foreign. There are subtitles. There is some fairly tasteful pre-watershed flagellation, so I assume that the language must be Aramaic. We get to see the scenes repeatedly, from different angles, sometimes in black and white. Jesus turns water into wine in Matrix-style bullet time.
Since Walking With Dinosaurs the buffer-zone between documentary and fiction has been hopelessly compromised. A sensible viewer might reasonably watch a computer generated reconstruction and say 'How do we know that the disciples laughed when Jesus refused to exorcise the gentile woman's daughter?' or 'How do we know that a brontosaurus marked out its territory with wee?' The answer, in both cases, is 'We made it up. Out of our heads.' But Omar is inclined to treat the filmed reconstructions as if they were the events themselves. He then sets about decoding their meanings. Since the dramas are based on someone's interpretation of what must have happened, this is a dangerously circular argument. Each scene is introduced with a little caption that says something like 'Sea of Galilee, A.D 28' which insidiously suggests that we are watching documentary, rather than historical fiction.
So, after he has been baptized by John the Baptist, we are told that Jesus had a mystical experience, seeing a dove and hearing the voice of God in his head. We see a computer generated dove super-imposed over the actor's face, to make it quite clear that this is a subjective psychological event experienced by Jesus alone. When mystics have such visionary experiences they often become quite confused and have to spend weeks working out the meaning of their vision. And sure enough, we see Jesus spending the month after his baptism in the wilderness, looking very agitated and confused. Omar draws various conclusions from this: Jesus state of mind suggests that he himself was surprised by his vision, and doubtful about the nature of his mission and his role. The trouble with this is, the fourth Gospel is quite explicit that it was John, not Jesus who saw the the Dove. ('And John bare record, saying 'I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.') The other Gospels could be read either way. And you have to push the text quite hard to put Jesus in a confused state during the next 40 days. The Gospels describes a personal Devil tempting him, and Jesus responding confidently with quotations from scripture.
All of which is a shame, because Omar's central argument is actually rather good. Jesus was not the only exorcist and healer in first century Palestine – so why did he inspire devotion in some people and hatred in others? The answer is that his miracles conveyed a very specific and shocking message, quite different from the other wonder-workers. For example:

  • Exorcists traditionally used spells and rituals to evoke the power of God: Jesus simply told evil spirits to go away, as if he personally had authority over them. But the only person who has authority over Satan is God. It is very significant that the Gadarene swine ran into the sea, because Leviathan is a symbol of the devil, Leviathan lives in the sea, and in the Old Testament, YHWH is sometimes depicted overcoming Leviathan. (Er...nice try.)

  • When a crippled man was brought to him, instead of healing him, Jesus announced that his sins were forgiven – something which only God can do. Omar implies that in saying this, he is pointing out (or possibly deciphering) a previously neglected significance. In fact, the meaning of the story is absolutely explicit in the text of Mark's Gospel.'Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?'

  • On another occasion, Jesus calmed a storm on the sea of Galilee. He seemed to be giving orders to the elements – which everyone knew was God's job. Indeed, one of the Psalms specifically talks about God controlling a storm. (We aren't told which Psalm, because that might make us switch over to Emmerdale instead.) But there was no need to do any deciphering to discover this, because it is quite explicit in the synoptic account. 'Who can this man be? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'

  • Finally, the disciples are shocked (in the film, if not in the Bible) when he changes his mind and heals the gentiles daughter; because Jesus appears to be unilaterally extending the privileges of the chosen people to a goy – which surely is God's prerogative. Omar goes so far as to say that Jesus himself is surprised by this; a pretty weak point, since Jesus has on several occasions argued from the Old Testament that God is concerned with non-Jews.

Most interestingly, we are told (without supporting evidence) that firstcenturyjews regarded Rome, the occupier of the Holy City, as the immanent representation of Satan on earth. The old conundrum – 'If Jesus was a spiritual leader, why did he end up being killed as a traitor by the Romans? But if he was a political revolutionary in what sense was he a spiritual leader?' turns out to be a false dichotomy. Jesus 'would have' regarded curing demon-possessed Cyro-Phoenicians and freeing Jerusalem from the Romans as the same kind of action – kicking Satan out of places he wasn't supposed to be. If this is so, then throwing himself on Roman justice and allowing himself to be killed on the symbol of Roman oppression was a clear and symbolic way of saying 'I am engaged in the ultimate conflict with Satan.'
What the programme needed – and I never thought I would say this about a BBC religious documentary – was a healthy dose of skepticism. It is a good idea to discuss the significance of the miracles as stories, without wasting too much time worrying about whether it is scientifically or philosophically possible for them to have occurred. But once you have decided to treat something as a story, surely you have to ask: Who told this story? Under what circumstances? To whom? What, to coin a phrase, was it's life-setting? But Omar accepts uncritically that the Gospels are reports about incidents in Jesus' life – possibly inaccurate and biased, but essentially historical accounts. The story of Jesus temptation is, for him, a psychologically plausible event in the life of a visionary: the idea that '40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness' could be an allegorical or symbolic reference to the book of Exodus isn't even hinted at. We are told that 'some scholars believe' that the calming of the sea isn't literally true, because it is 'just too spectacular.' But he doesn't mention that the parallels with the book of Jonah – or indeed, the allusion to Psalm 107 – make other scholars think that the story is a literary creation.
Perhaps this doesn't matter. Mark reproduces a story in which Jesus acted as if he was God. And Mark certainly believed that Jesus actually was God, which is why he thought the story worth telling. It may not make much difference whether he was repeating a story told him by an eye-witness (say, Peter); recording one element of a 'Jesus tradition' that had been embellished by many hands; or making it up himself. Either way, the meaning is the same. And this really is as far as you can go. The New Testament writers write about a Jesus who believed he was God, because that is what they believed; and what they believed he believed. Is it what The Historical Jesus believed? We certainly can't find out by reading the Gospels and trying to 'decipher' what is blindingly obvious on every page.
When the BBC transmits this kind of programme, some Christian always stands up and says 'Pah! You wouldn't make a film that was nearly so skeptical about Mohammed!' I would be inclined to draw a different conclusion. You wouldn't make a film about Mohammed that gradually and tentatively came to the conclusion that he may perhaps have believed that the Koran was written by Allah and delivered to him by an Angel – and which expected your audience to be surprised by this information. Most people have got a rough idea what Islam teaches about the Prophet. But despite an Established Church and a degree of compulsory religious indoctrination that would be un-believable to most Americans, the population of the UK seems to be largely ignorant about The Jesus of the Gospels. (Look at the furore over The Passion of the Christ: most commentators seemed genuinely not to know what significance the Crucifixion has in Christianity.) Most of us seem to sincerely believe that Hippy Jesus – the one who preached peace and love and was murdered for it by those pesky Italians – is the one venerated by the Church. So I guess there is some point in the BBC using CGI to remind us that Scary Jesus – the person who said he was God and lived up to it – is the only Jesus you'll find in the Bible.
And yes. They do quote the appropriate bit of C.S Lewis.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Would anyone mind if I punched a charity collector on the nose?

Do you remember when cars treated "stop" lights as an instruction, rather than a suggestion?

Yes, I have heard of Childline. They are the ones who hang around shopping malls, hassling people and trying to sell them credit cards.

Do you remember when the only people you ever saw cycling on the pavement were on tricycles?

Yes, I have heard of the WWF; but personally, I think it's all staged. And even if it isn't, I still don't want a credit card.

Do you remember when cyclists tried to avoid pedestrians, as opposed to swearing loudly at pedestrians who don't avoid them?

Last week it was extinct animals, this week it was abused kiddies, next week it will be save the kangaroo, but I still will not want one of your damn credit cards.

I asked a policeman what side of the pavement cyclists are supposed to cycle on, and whether they had to obey traffic lights or not, and he said "Mind how you go, Sir."

"Free broadband forever." The "free" part means "twenty pounds a month" and the "forever" part means "you will wait forever for us to connect you."

There are some stretches of pavement where you don't have to dodge cyclists. These are the stretches occupied by parked cars.

Has anyone ever actually managed to buy a Megabus ticket from Bristol to London for £1?

Or the stretches of pavement occupied by the 143 new kinds of wheelie bin the council has issued us with.

Ticket reservation is compulsory on this service; but if you try to sit in the seat you have reserved, then the person sitting in it will turn up his I-Pod and threaten to knife you.

It said "Haircut for £6" so I said "A couple of inches off all round, leave it over my collar and ears, and brush it forward." He said "That will be £10 in your case." I said "All right, how much will you cut off for £6"

Would you like to donate to Mencap? Do I look mad?

Yes, thank you, as a matter of fact I do have 20p for a cup of coffee. (But if you tell me where you can get a cup of coffee for 20p, I'll give you a quid. Boom boom.)

Would you like to donate to Amensty? Not if you attached electrodes to my genitals.

A female attendant is on duty in this toilet.

Would you like to donate to the RSPCA? La-la-la-I'm-not-listening.

Run of out petrol? No money in your wallet? Need £5 for a taxi. Yes; that seems to happen to people a lot on this street; although I must admit that the mobile phone call to your wife was a nice touch.

The cashier in Tescos chased me down the aisle and out of the shop because I had forgotten my pot of jam; but no one ever mentions it when someone is unexpectedly helpful.

But seriously; would anyone mind if I punched a charity collector on the nose?


This time last year:


Monday, August 07, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

About half way through Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest the cast arrives at the pirate haven of Tortuga. Last time they walked through this town, a group of pirates were dunking a nobleman in a well. This time the same pirates are dunking the same man in the same well. This is just about the only moment at which the film betrays it's Disneyland origins. If Curse of the Black Pearl was a theme park ride, Dead Man's Chest is a computer game.

The film is made up of four or five relatively self-contained units: at times it feels as if we are watching a collection of shorts. The first major sequence – in which Will Turner rescues Jack Sparrow from an island of cannibals – is pretty much a stand-alone adventure. It has beginning (Will arrives on the island); a middle (Will finds Jack) and a satisfactory climax – everyone gets back to the ship with a mob of furious natives at their heels. Similarly, the brilliant central sequence in which Will becomes a sailor on Davy Jones ship (eclectically named the Flying Dutchman) could have been a free-standing sea-faring yarn. The sense of watching a series of different films is increased by the shifts of tone The cannibal island section is played as farce – Jack putting paprika under his armpits before the natives try to cook him and pole vaulting over a cliff with the cooking spit still tied to his back. But the Davy Jones section is very dark indeed: the first thing that Will's long-lost father does is administer a flogging to his son – as an act of mercy. Where the cannibal sequence is full of mad action, the climax of the Flying Dutchman scene is Will dicing for his soul against Davy Jones. (Making the plot turn on such a complex game as Liar's Dice was a very courageous decision, I felt.)

This unconventional structure means that one has no real sense of where one is in the movie. You feel that you have already spent a long time in the cinema when everyone finally converges on the island where the eponymous Dead Man's Chest is buried. There is a dramatic, three-way sword fight for possession of the Chest, which turns into an audacious series of stunts and chases. I think it's rather a pity that so many directors believe that the best way to make a sword-fight exciting is to use CGI to put the protagonists in an unlikely location – as opposed to choreographing a dramatic fight with swords. (I may have previously mentioned The Princess Bride in this context.) But there is no doubt that having Will Turner and ex-commodore Norrington duelling on top of a giant water wheel made for a spectacular set piece. You could have been forgiven for thinking that this would be the Climax of the whole film – but no, the fight on the island is only the prelude to an even bigger climax in which Davy Jones' Kraken finally catches up with the good ship Black Pearl. At the end of this even more enormous special effects set-piece, the first mate says, and I quote, 'We're not out of this yet...' The audience could have been forgiven if, at this point, the phrases 'Good thing' and 'Too much of a' drifted across their minds.

To add to the sense of disorientation, the film doesn't come to any actual conclusion, but ends on a (brilliant) cliff-hanger. The story doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but you carry on watching in order to find out what the next amazing location, stunt, villain or monster is going to be. Dead Man's Chest is very canny about spacing out its revelations: you are a long way into the film before you properly see the Flying Dutchman; you have to wait to the end to get a good look at the Kraken, and there is a final surprise in literally the last frame.

The characters are propelled between the various levels – I'm sorry, the various sub-plots – by a collection of more or less arbitrary magical objects. Rather than being autonomous entities with actual motivations, they ricochet around the Caribbean performing quests and sub-quests imposed on them by other characters. Where Curse of the Black Pearl was driven by a plot device of breath-taking elegance (everyone wants the cursed medallion that Will inherited from his father); Dead Man's Chest piles up the macguffins until you wonder if they are taking the piss. Jack has a picture which leads to a key which opens the chest which contains Davy Jones heart. Will wants Jack's magic compass in order to trade it with the sinister Lord Beckett for Elizabeth's life; Lord Beckett wants the compass because it will lead him to Davy Jones' chest which will give him mastery over the seas. But Will wants to free his father from the curse of Davy Jones, and to do that he must kill Jones by finding the key which opens the box which contains the heart. Lord Beckett has given Will letters of Marque to trade with Jack for the compass which leads to the box; but Norrington (who has lost his honour, as one does) wants the letters of Marque to clear his name.

This could have become wearisome and artificial: but the film is brilliantly aware of its own ludicrousness. Jack's explanations to his crew abut why they need the key that they haven't got to open the chest that they haven't got are brilliantly convoluted. When Norrington, Will and Jack end up in their three-way duel over the magic chest, we get a quick recap by the two comic pirates as to who wants what and why: they are obviously just as confused as we are.

And all the silliness manages to hang off a relatively sensible premise. The person who sends Will off on his quest and who seems to have the upper hand at the end, is the very realistic – or at any rate, deadpan – Lord Beckett, representative of the prosaic East India Company, whose relatively mundane aim is to rid the seas of pirates who are bad for profits. It's quite an achievement when a realistic-romantic story involving stolen letters of marque, girls dressed up as boys, disgraced commodores and a hero who is blackmailed to save his love from the gallows dove-tales quite so seamlessly into one involving voodoo ladies, a Kraken and a ship crewed entirely by crustaceans, but the film seems to carry it off. When Norrington presents Lord Beckett with the still beating heart of Davy Jones, we very largely believe it.

Curse of the Black Pearl exhausted every pirate clich̩ in the book; so Dead Man's Chest invents new ones. It does manage to dredge up a few archetypes that the first film missed Рdigging up a treasure chest; a duel on a beach. And probably the only reason that the Black Pearl has rigging is so that Will can swing in it. He even gets to slide down a sail using a dagger; a stunt first tried out by Douglas Fairbanks. There are some half-hearted attempts to borrow from Treasure Island : the first mate recites 'Fifteen men on a Dead man's chest' without seeming to know that it's a sea shanty. Davy Jones uses a Black Spot to mark Jack for damnation, but it appears to be some kind of dermatological complaint. But most of the time, the film simply makes up its own material. There's no real mythology associated with Davy Jones Locker: like 'Boot Hill', it's not much more than a figure of speech. But here, Jones is imagined as a terrible captain, half-man half-squid, conflated with the Flying Dutchman and possibly the personification of the Sea. The imagery of Davy Jones ship Рcrewed by dead seaman who are gradually turning into fish Рis sensational, much the best thing in the film. Yes, there are times when you feel that the designers have gone slightly insane Рthe ship has a fully equipped pipe organ on board, which Jones plays with his tentacles. But oddly, the Dutchman feels like a real ship Рgrim, sadistic, with a crew of sailors getting by on small amounts of camaraderie Рwhere the Black Pearl ultimately feels like the home of some Lego pirates.

The most unexpected thing about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is that, after all the duels, the bar room brawl, the sea-monster, the cursed ship, the cannibals, and Jack Sparrow's repeated attempts to become Indiana Jones, the denouement of the movie turns out to be entirely character driven. Yes, Orlando Bloom is still the generic hero, a slightly girly Errol Flynn with no personality or motivation apart from his absolute dedication to Elizabeth. Yes, Elizabeth is still simply Will's love interest – even though she somehow manages to become a brilliant swordsperson once she dresses up as a boy. And yes, Jack Sparrow is Jack Sparrow, a classic comic creation or a steaming pile of camp overacting, depending on your point of view. But the film allows us to spend a lot of time in the company of these characters. We get used to them. So when Elizabeth tells Jack that, one day, he will do something good: and Jack tells her that, on the contrary, one day she will do something bad – we realise that these animatronic dummies have over the last six hours, become actual people.

The resolution is genuinely clever. Davy Jones wants Jack Sparrow's soul – you see, even the villains have macguffins – and has sent the Kraken to collect it. Ship in danger; cursed sailor; sea monster: the logical thing is for Jack to do a Jonah and jump overboard. But Jack being Jack this is the one thing that can't happen. So Elizabeth forces him to stay on the ship and face the monster while everyone else leaves; she distracts him with a kiss and then handcuffs him to the mast. So while everyone else believes that Jack has finally done a good deed, we know that in fact, Elizabeth has done a bad one. And Will, having seen the kiss, believes that his true love has betrayed him. The film ends with everyone except Will toasting the dead (yeah, right) Jack: and we realise that this has turned into something rather more than a silly film about an omni-competent action hero who some Ewoks nearly turned into a kebab. Hopefully, the working through of these various misunderstandings will drive the plot of the third part of the trilogy, rather than another treasure hunt for magic power crystals.

Curse of the Black Pearl was far more fun than anyone expected a movie based on a theme park ride to be. Dead Man's Chest was far, far more smart, involving, and enjoyable than any movie that stole its narrative structure from computer games has any right to be. Avast ye!

Saturday, August 05, 2006


What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.

So, Tony Blair has gone mad. This is no great surprise. Politicians go mad during their third term in office. The United States constitution recognises as much. Blair's recent speech to his bosses at News International provides us with a depressing insight into his current state of mind.

Blair says–stop me if you've heard this before–that the old political dichotomy between Left and Right no longer applies.

Most confusingly for modern politicians, many of the policy prescriptions, cross traditional Left/Right lines. Basic values, attitudes to the positive role of Government, social objectives - these still do divide along familiar Party lines. But on policy the cross-dressing is rampant and is a feature of modern politics that will stay. The era of tribal political leadership is over. But across a range of issues, there is no longer a neat filing of policy to the Left or the Right.

This is not exactly news: it's the theory on which New Labour was founded. Although Blair has stopped using the phrase, the concept of the Third Way is central to his thinking. It's the nearest thing he has to a political philosophy. Whatever he is talking about–foreign policy, education, law and order–he invariably says that in the Olden Days there was a debate between two opposing viewpoints; but that he, Tony Blair, discovered that this polarity was redundant, and everybody now agrees with him. In his recent speech in Bristol, Blair claimed that there used to be a difference of opinion between those who thought that you should deal with the social causes of crime and those who thought that you should simply punish criminals.

In retrospect, the argument looks sterile, silly even. New Labour finally arrived at what has now become the conventional position, summed up in the phrase: 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'.

The Third Way isn't moderation–navigating a mid-point between too-far-to-the-Right and too-far-to-the-Left. New Labour is supposed to be a new thing: neither Left, nor Right but somehow a synthesis of both.

Of course, this is nonsense: there is no such thing as a synthesis between two mutually exclusive actions. Blair's Third Way turns out to be a re-packaging of bog-standard centre-right ideology. The synthesis between punishing criminals and dealing with the social causes of crime turns out to be building more prisons and sending more people to jail; the synthesis between nationalisation and privatisation turns out to be, er, privatisation.

So, take a look at Blair's plans to abolish–I'm sorry, did I say abolish? I meant 'reform'–the welfare state. Blair says that 'old fashioned' welfare systems and public services can't bring about social justice.

Today's world means that social justice can only be achieved through education, not regulation; through enterprise flourishing and creating wealth, not being constrained.

But this has nothing to do with 'today's world'. In yesterday's world, there were people who thought that you should deal with poverty by redistributing wealth–taxing the rich and using the money to pay for social security cheques and public services. And people will doubtless continue to believe this in tomorrow's world, and in any parallel worlds Tony Blair chooses to visit. People who believe in this are called 'The Left'. And there always have been, and always will be, people who think that if governments would only stop taking money away from the rich then the rich would build factories, open shops, hire servants and thus create wealth and give jobs to the poor. People who think this are called 'The Right'. Blair thinks that the Right are right and the Left are wrong. You may very well agree with him. But it's nonsense to pretend that something in the Modern Age has changed the nature of the debate. This is the old, old clash between socialists and capitalists, and Blair knows very well which side he's on.

Oh: and he also says that 'fairness, equality, opportunity for all' are 'good progressive values' but that although 'the values are constant, their application has to be dynamic.' But hang on -- aren't 'values' supposed to be the one area where people are still divided along traditional party lines? So if, as a loyal Labour party supporter, Tony believes in the socialist Values of Fairness, Equality and Opportunity, does that mean that he thinks that they are the kind of values which the Conservative Party rejects?

Proclaiming a consensus where none actually exists is a classic tactic to disenfranchise the opposition. If 'everyone agrees' that the argument between the Left and the Right is over, then it follows that anyone putting forward a Left-wing position can be ignored. They're not exactly wrong; they're merely camped out in the jungle fighting enemies who don't exist any more. Tony Benn, George Galloway, about two-thirds of the Labour Party and myself are thus discovered to be un-persons. When Blair says that politics is no longer divided between the Left and the Right, he means that the Left, in the person of the Honourable Member for Sedgefield, has rolled over and died. Which is presumably why he has travelled all the way to California in order to ritually kiss the bottom of the most Right-wing newspaper magnate the world has ever known.

The argument between the Left and the Right was an argument between two intellectually plausible positions. People became Socialists or Conservatives as a result of an intellectual process. Michael Foot used to meet up with Barbara Castle and other friends in order to study the writings of Karl Marx together–not something which you can really imagine Gordon Brown and John Prescott doing. It was therefore possible for both sides to engage in an intellectual debate; and even for a genuine consensus to emerge. If we both want a socialist utopia, then we can discuss whether this would be better achieved by incrementally increasing workers rights, or by storming the gates of Buckingham Palace. And you can challenge us about whether the workers would be happier under Socialism than under a prosperous Capitalist system. In the meantime, we can work together to provide free health care for poor people.

But according to Blair, this Left versus Right debate has been superseded by–I promise I'm not making this up–a debate between Open and Closed. The three most important debates in European politics are about protectionism, isolationism and 'nativism', which Blair defines as 'relating to immigration and national identity.'

In each case the issue is: 'Open or Closed'. The response to globalisation can be free trade, open markets, investment in the means of competition: education, science, technology. Or it can be protectionism, tariffs, tight labour market regulation, resistance to foreign takeovers.

Countries can choose foreign policies that are engaged and activist, seeking to sort out the world's problems; or try to avoid their problems; refrain from controversy or picking sides, isolating a nation from the pain of the hurly-burly of the world's challenges, but also from the opportunity to shape their outcome.

And not a major country anywhere is not riven by the debate on migration: do we welcome it as infusing new blood and ideas; or do we fear it as undermining our identity?

It isn't immediately obvious what the views which Blair has labelled as Open and those he has labelled as Closed have in common. Surely you could support a non-interventionist ('Closed') foreign policy, but a liberal ('Open') immigration policy? And what would inform your decision about whether to be Open or Closed in a particular instance? Not, says Blair any kind of political theory or ideology:

Where leaders stand on these issues has little to do with being on the Left or the Right but everything to do with modern or traditional attitudes to a changing world.

But in Blairspeak 'modern' means good and 'traditional' means bad, so to say that 'traditional' people support the Closed position is simply to say that the Closed position is wrong. Closed people are against education, science and technology; they don't want to sort out the world's problems; they don't like new ideas. Left vs Right was a debate between two credible positions. Open vs Closed is a row between the obviously right and the obviously wrong. It's an argument between nice and nasty, sensible and silly, modern and old fashioned–which, by a staggering coincidence, turns out to mean 'between those who agree with Tony Blair, and everyone else.'

Blair is absolutely explicit here: the Closed half of the debate has absolutely no merit and nothing to offer:

In this battle - 'Open versus Closed' - those on the 'Open' side of the argument will meet fierce opposition. Yet the 'Closed' side of the argument in truth has nothing to offer a nation except the delusion that the tide of change can be turned back; or alternatively a weaker version of the same delusion, namely that hard choices can just be evaded.

He references his 1999 conference speech, in which he labelled his enemies 'the forces of conservatism'. This was, he says, widely misunderstood: he wasn't attacking the Conservative party, but small-c conservatives who opposed change. Of course, anything a government does involves changing something. If you oppose a particular change, you are, by definition, a conservative. To say that the 'forces of conservatism' are the baddies is perilously close to saying 'change is always good; to oppose change is always bad'. But how is this different from saying 'whatever the government does–whatever I, Tony Blair do–is right'?

If you opposed the war in Iraq, it follows that you support isolationism and that you don't want to sort out the worlds problems. You feel this way because you are Closed; which means that, as the result of a delusion, you hold 'traditional' views of the world. You are part of the forces of conservatism; a baddy. It follows that we don't have to listen to anything you say: indeed, as Leaders, our job is not to engage in a debate with Closed people, but to simply press on, resolutely, with what we know is right.

But how do we leaders know what is right? Not through conventional religion or morality. Both Tony Blair and George Bush have drawn some fire for saying that they think that God influences their decisions. It is slightly too easy to lampoon Bush's folksy religious language: when someone from the evangelical tradition says 'I feel that God told me to do this' they probably only mean 'I feel that I did what was right'. Whatever you may have read in the Guardian, neither Blair nor Bush have ever suggested that a supernatural being appeared unto them and said 'Invade Iraq!' or 'Expand the provision of nursery school places for the under-3s!'

However, if you suggest to Tony that he acted reprehensibly in the run-up to the Iraq war, his response is to assert that he sincerely believes that what he did was right; although he accepts that other people believe, equally sincerely, that he was wrong. 'Beliefs' seem to be something like birthmarks or allergies; you have them, you're stuck with them; but you certainly can't change them through rational discourse. When asked about how the Iraq war related to his religious faith, Blair didn't try to prove that what he did was correct according to the precepts of the Bible or the writings of Christian holy men. He certainly didn't pay much attention to what the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope thought. He simply said that he believed his actions would some day be judged by God.

Some people might think that the way to find out if an action is 'good' or 'bad' is to see if it follows some agreed set of rules: the Bible, the Koran, the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, the Boy Scout Law. But Blair thinks that his actions were good because he was experiencing a subjective emotional state called 'sincerity' at the time. And he trusts that in the future they will be declared to have been good according to a set of ineffable divine criteria. Only Tony Blair knows whether he really was sincere or not; only God knows what will happen on Judgement Day. So if you aren't Tony Blair or God, you had better shut up.

The present speech doesn't mention God, thank God. But it does say that Tony Blair's foreign policy is right because Tony Blair feels that it is right:

My anxiety over foreign policy is not in relation to the debate about terrorism or security. I have many opponents on the subject: but complete inner-confidence in the analysis of the struggle we face.

And what to do when those pesky Closed people suggest that it's possible that, even if you are very, very confident indeed, you might still be wrong?

The world changes fast; the policy changes necessary to cope are hugely challenging; opposition from traditionalists is immense. In these conditions, political leaders have to back their instinct and lead.

'Back your instinct.' Well of course. With ideology abolished, and with 'God' appearing to be synonymous with 'my own conscience' all you can do is follow your instinct; your gut feeling. And gut-feeling, unlike Das Kapital, isn't something that you can argue with. I like Marmite. Look, you know, I just happen to sincerely believe that Marmite is delicious. I have an inner-confidence about that. I accept that you sincerely believe that Marmite is disgusting. But there is no way that I can prove to you that you are wrong. We'll just have to wait until the Day of Judgement and let God sort it out.

In the meantime, if you are a leader, just do whatever comes into your head. In fact, do the first thing which comes into your head, because 'caution is error, to hesitate is to lose'. It doesn't necessarily matter what you do, provided you do something. 'Back you instincts, and lead.' Being a leader is an end in itself–not necessarily a leader of anything; not the spokesman of a party or the representative of an electorate, but just a leader.

For a leader, don't let your ego be carried away by the praise or your spirit diminished by the criticism and look on each with a very searching eye. But for heaven's sake, above all else, lead.

'For heaven's sake, lead.' The real distinction is not between Open and Closed. It's between Us, the Leaders, and you, the Led. Our function is to follow our gut-instinct; you're function is to follow us. The direction doesn't particularly matter.

So. For the next few months, we are going to being ruled by a raving lunatic who thinks that the basis of political decision making is 'whatever Tony feels like at the time.' But this is not the problem. The problem is that after a brief interregnum, David Cameron is going to be exactly the same.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Asexual Pride

"....and I think in the same way there are things that men can read which can send out signals, I think, which are deeply unattractive to women."

"Such as?"

"Well, sci-fi and fantasy. I think if you're the sort of man who's reading one of those lurid books with sort of triple breasted amazonian women on the front cover and inside it's all about swords and sorcery and so on then I think what you're communicating to any woman is that you're still an adolescent"

"Unless the woman is into that kind of thing, of course, I mean, it's possible"

"It is, it is, but I have friends who love that sort of stuff and many of them are still looking for women who are also similarly interested in that particular subculture. "

"Stick your nose in a book and you could find love. How the right book can find you the right partner." Today, BBC Radio 4, August 1st

Monday, July 24, 2006

Superman Returns

In 1977, Ma and Pa Kent were dead but Krypto the superdog was still alive. Jor-El looked like an extra from Buck Rogers and no-one had heard of John Byrne. Since then, the D.C Universe has been wiped out and reconstituted (twice). Superman has been portrayed as a yuppie by Byrne and as a fascist by Frank Miller. On the TV he's been one half of a romantic comedy and the lead in Little House on the Huge Pile of Kryptonite. But Bryan Singer's Superman Returns manages to ignore these developments, as if the Superman mythos was fossilized at the end of Superman II.(We're intended to pretend that Superman III and Superman IV didn't happen, instead of simply wishing that they didn't. The only difference this makes is that Martha Kent's death is reported in Superman III whereas in Superman Returns she is rather gratuitously alive.) From the opening bars of John Williams second most famous theme tune to the final image of Superman cavorting among the clouds, Singer seems obsessively unwilling to bring anything to this film which wasn't implicit in the first two movies. This is neither a sequel nor a remake: it's a collection of very reverent annotations.

Christopher Reeve is both brilliant and dead, so he is treated with the most reverence. The film is, of course, dedicated to his memory. Brandon Routh doesn't so much play Superman as play Christopher Reeve playing Superman. He doesn't look or sound very much like Reeve, but his acting style is eerily similar – especially in the Clerk persona, of which we see too little. Kevin Spacey doesn't attempt to turn in an impersonation of Gene Hackman, but he follows the zany megalomaniac persona to the letter. It's long enough since I saw the old films that I kept having to remind myself that it wasn't the same actor. (The most obvious difference is that Hackman mostly wore a wig, but Spacey is mostly bald.) Only Kate Bosworth is incongruously playing a completely different character from Margot Kidder, who admittedly never had a great deal to do with Comic Book Lois. Kidder was a career woman who had seen it all before; Bosworth seems almost to be an innocent caught up in events slightly too big for her. Jimmy Olsen and Lois seem to have aged in opposite directions.

There is nothing wrong with trying to recreate the cast list of a well-loved classic. But the characters seem fixed in pre-ordained roles; as if the earlier script circumscribes their range of actions. Not only is Lex carrying out a ridiculous real-estate scam that will kill billions of people; not only does he have a comedy moll who has a fit of conscience at the last moment; but he even reprises his "What my father told me about land" speech from Superman I. Perry repeats the "give me every possible angle on the Superman story" pep-talk. When Superman has saved the lives of the passengers on an experimental space shuttle he feels obliged to encore the old joke abut flying being statistically the safest form of transport. Is Superman a sufficiently iconic movie that today's teen audience can be assumed to have this level of familiarity with it? Over and over again, lines are given special significances because people had said them before – Superman not only greets Lois with the words "You really shouldn't smoke", but keeps blowing her cigarette out as a sort of symbolic romantic gesture. Would you automatically have remembered that that was the first thing he said to her in the old movie? And if you haven't seen Superman I in any recent decade you might very well not understand why everyone keeps quoting the speech about the father becoming the son and the son becoming the father.

The films structure also seems straitjacketed to that of the original. We get a ten minute sequence of Superman visiting his mother in the old homestead, which seems to contribute nothing to the narrative, but conforms to some rule that says that the story arc must go from Krypton to Smallville to Metropolis. At the half-way-point Superman shows off his special effects by flying Lois around the city – although, mercifully, she doesn't feel the need to recite any poetry. We get a montage of him zooming round the world doing a sequence of low-level good turns; followed by a build up to Luthor's mad scheme, and then a huge apocalyptic battle against disaster, climaxing with him turning the world backwards in the old film and bench-pressing a continent in this one.

Most curiously, every major plot event is directly extrapolated from Superman I and II – as if Singer thinks it would be blasphemy to bring anything new to the mix. In Superman I Luthor likes to make money out of real-estate; and the crystals in the Fortress of Solitude are shown to be able to grow and reproduce; so here, Luthor steals kryptonian crystals and tries to grow himself a whole new continent. (He gets into the Fortress of Solitude without much trouble. In the comic book, the door is locked with a very large key that only Superman can lift.) Even the Big Reveal -- which genuinely took me by surprise -- is a very natural development of something which happened in Superman II.

Cinematic vocabulary has moved on, and there are some very creative depictions of Superman's powers. The slowed-down-bullets thing, a monumental bore in every film since The Matrix was put to excellent use here: Superman bouncing machine gun bullets off his chest, and finally off his eyeball may have been the best scene in the whole movie. On-screen action is more frenetic compared with the old days: when Superman rescues the crashing jet, we keep cutting to very disorientating scenes inside the plane.

The film was oddly coy about iconography. The first time Clerk pulls his shirt off, we only see it for a split second; and during the first action sequence, we are not allowed many clear views of Superman. It was almost as if Singer was specifically trying to avoid a Big Moment in which Clerk reveals the "S" on his chest and launches himself into action. However, when someone snaps a photograph which looks oddly like the cover of Action Comics #1, Perry White helpfully tells us that the picture is iconic.

But the iconography of Superman isn't just lifting cars and rescuing aircraft: it's also about the Daily Planet; about Superman's double-life and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, and above all the Cyrano-like love triangle between Lois, Clerk and Superman. We see very little of this in Superman Returns. Perhaps if he'd had more screen time, we would have been unable to avoid asking how even Lois could have failed to notice that Clerk had been away for five years, and, er, Superman had also been away for five years.

At the beginning of the film, Superman stops a plane from crashing into a city. That is also now an iconic image. The posters advertising the film showed Superman swooping in front of a stricken jet over a landscape full of skyscrapers. Is the message that, if only Superman had been here, September 11th would have turned out differently: the world really does need a saviour. As with its overblown use of religious symbolism, the film is using highly charged icons to evoke emotions that it hasn't earned.

This is the heart of the problem. Singer thinks that he's allowed to use sacred images because he is approaching the character of Superman, the performance of Christopher Reeve, and the whole of the 1977 movie as something like holy writ. You can reverently illuminate it, but you can't alter it, much less have any fun with it. Superman Returns is at a very deep level, pretentious: a great deal of awe, but very little heart.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Superman: the Second Coming

Superman is not Jesus. The Old Superman is a boy-scout who regarded rescuing sinking ocean liners and saving the earth from asteroid collisions as 'super-chores.' The Very Old Superman was a tough-guy who socked wife-beaters on the jaw and said 'you aren't fighting a woman now, coward.' The Superman of the radio serials and the Fliescher cartoons 'came to Earth as champion of the weak and the oppressed.' Truth, Justice and the American Way came later.

But he isn't Jesus. The names of Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster appear on every comic featuring the Man of Steel – which is greatly to the credit of D.C Comics: Marvel are still reluctant to acknowledge the existence of any creator other than Stan Lee. According to one reckoning, Siegel and Shuster are jointly the 100th most influential Jews in history: Superman being the foundation stone on which the comic-book industry and therefore much of the movie industry was constructed. More people have heard of Superman than have heard of Hamlet. In 1938 it was understandable that a pair of young Jewish artists might have wanted to imagine a champion. A Messiah, even.

So there is no way that Superman can be Jesus. (His adversary is called Luthor, for goodness sake.) Would it be going too far to suggest that there is a racial motive in the incremental appropriation of Jerry and Joey's character as Christian symbol? Christopher Reeve was paralysed in a tragic riding accident; George Reeves, the first TV Superman, committed suicide. And since it is always possible to construct a straight line between two points, some people believe in a Curse of Superman which anyone who dons the red underpants will be touched by. At first, Siegel and Shuster, who sold the rights to Superman for a few a hundred dollars and died in relative penury, were imagined as victims of this jinx. But the latest iteration of the myth has Jerry Siegel, shortly before the release of the 1977 movie, calling down a curse on all those who have made money out of his character. To re-imagine Superman as a Christian saviour, maybe we had to turn his creator into an old, blind, bitter, Shylock, cursing his treasure.

The Very Old Superman leapt tall buildings in a single bound. Christopher Reeve flew. Bryan Singer's re-invention of Superman floats. Not to put to fine a point on it, he Ascends. He looks down on the earth from above, and says that he can hear everything anyone is saying. 'You say that the world doesn't need a Saviour, but I hear people crying out for one.' And sure enough, he ends up carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders: first, lifting the gigantic globe from the top of the Daily Planet building; then carrying Lex Luther's re-created Kryptonian continent into space. (Luther sees himself as Prometheus, and Superman as a selfish god from whom he is going to steal fire.) Having saved the world but exposed himself to Kryptonite, Superman takes on a cruciform pose and falls to earth. At great length. But of course, he's only Mostly Dead, and when the hospital staff go to check on him, they find the place empty where they had laid him.

No one tried to crucify the man of steel in the 1993 'Death of Superman' comic. He was just beaten to death by a big strong alien. He got better.

Mario Puzo's script for the 1978 Superman movie had Marlon Brando drawing fairly explicit parallels between the origin of Superman and the birth of Jesus, even though it is blindingly obvious even in Puzo's own script that the real parallel is with Moses. But the 70s Superman never became Christic other than in the Kryptonian prologue. Considering that he defies his Father's will to turn back time in order to save Lois's life, and subsequently relinquishes his powers in order to fuck her on his fathers shrine, you could argue that there was something Luciferian about him. Bryan Singer references Marlon Brando's speech no less than three times.

'You will carry me inside you all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own, and see my life through your own eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father the son....They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.'

In Puzo's script, this lends some cheesy gravitas to the proceedings. Here, it is merely pretentious.

Spider-Man, Frodo Baggins, Neo, Leo DeCaprio, Indiana Jones – Hollywood turns all its heroes into Christian symbols. (All except Aslan, obviously.) But do the symbols actually symbolize anything? It's hard to see how the story of Superman would help Christian viewers understand the story of Jesus; but neither does it seem to be critiquing or commenting on that story. When Bryan Singer has Magneto use the words 'By any means necessary' at the end of the X-Men, he is asking us to look for connections between his mutant fantasy and the civil rights movement. When Superman thrusts out his arms and falls to earth, he is simply borrowing significance from a bigger story: pretending to be far more important than he has any right to be.

Superman is a friendly alien. He was born on a planet with atomic cities, art-deco architecture, and Flash Gordon fashions. He grew up in Anytown and went to the Big City. Oh, all right, Smallville and Metropolis. Lex Luthor is a mad scientist. Luthor has outrageous schemes; Superman cleverly defeats them. His other enemies include a mad scientist with green skin who steals cities and keeps them in bottles; and a mischievous sprite in a derby hat. He started life in Action Comics and on a radio series presented by the makers of Kellogs Pep, (the super-delicious breakfast cereal). Superman may be able to lift whole continents on his shoulders, but he isn't substantial enough to carry such weighty symbolism.

Superman isn't Jesus. He's a comic-book character.