Saturday, July 02, 2016

I don't care to belong to any party that would accept me as a member

I normally avoid politics on social media, but I have been embroiled in some discussions about the implosion of the Labour Party in the wake of the Calamity. Some of my fan-base (Sid and Doris Bonkers) asked that I assemble my comments in a single piece. I hope this makes sense. 

The discussion began when it turned out that my MP, who I had voted for, was one of those who had tabled a vote of no-confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party. I said that I honestly wondered if people like me were welcome in the party. I have been quite open about have been one of the "three pound members" who registered as a supporter in order to support his leadership bid; and who became a full member of the party literally minutes after his election. An old friend, who has been an active member of the Party for many years, asked, not unreasonably: "Did you join a party, or join a person?"

I believe in trade unions, libraries, nationalized utilities, redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. I believe in welfare payments to the unemployed and family allowances to mothers, old age pensions and student grants. I believe that no-one should be denied medical treatment through lack of means. I don’t think criminals should be hanged and I don’t think children should be hit. I believe in maternity and paternity leave and positive discrimination to overcome built-in prejudices. I am against genocide, and am against wasting money on weapons of mass destruction. I am not against all wars, but I am, like President Obama, against dumb wars. I don’t think countries and borders matter all that much, and I don’t think race matters at all. I am in favour of free movement; I live and work in a multi-cultural community. I am in favour of equal marriage, although I admit it took me a while to come round to that. 

I rejoined the Labour Party when it elected a leader who believed what I believe. If the next leader believes what I believe, I will stay in the party. But I fear that if Corbyn is ousted, New Labour wing will denounce anybody who believes in what I believe as a Trot. There will be no place for Socialists in that Labour party, and I will have the same choice that I have had since 1992: the choice between two Tory parties, and not voting at all. 


The Idealist believes in things, gives their support to the political party that believes in those things, and tries to persuade other people that she should believe in those things too. The...what shall we call him? political wonk? party man? activist?...wants his team to win, and thinks that his team should adopt whatever beliefs will deliver that victory.

Sure, there are such things as political tactics and honest compromises: but when Polly Toynbee starts saying (and I paraphrase) "well, it seems the Working Class are quite racist, so Labour needs to be a more racist to win the working class vote" I walk away. 

Very few of us are 100% Idealist or 100% Wonk in real life, of course. 

Tony Blair wore the right rosette and won elections, but he had no point of connection, that I could spot, with any of the things I believe. 

I suspect -- and I am sorry to go all serious here -- that this is actually a religious question. I am a Socialist because Socialism seems to be the best chance we have of applying Jesus's moral principals to the complicated and messy political world. Which is not the same thing as saying that Jesus was a socialist, or that all Christians have to be Labour, or that moral principals are the most important thing about Jesus. Giles Fraser does not have a point. This is why Christians like me can feel drawn to Marxists like Jeremy Corbyn and Billy Bragg: we all start from the position that something is fundamentally broken in the world, that a CEO being paid 100 times more than his cleaner is not so much a sign of a healthy, competitive economy, as a moral outrage. 

"The main requirement for a political party is delivering the things it believes in; not just wanting them"; yes, of course, but if that ever becomes "the main requirement is being elected, which we can only do by not trying to deliver those things" then, against, I walk away. 


I don’t think that “prevent the Tories winning a third term” is Labour’s main objective. I don’t think that “We are not the Tories” is a sufficient selling point to justify Labour's existence. 

I can picture three outcomes for the next election. 

Best outcome: Progressive government; Conservative opposition

Second best outcome: Conservative government; Progressive opposition.

Worst outcome: Conservative government, Conservative opposition.

It makes very little difference whether, in the worst case scenario, the conservative government has the label “Conservative Party” or “New Labour”. Either way, the poor are fucked. But only me and the Queen Mother think like that. and she's dead. 

You don’t get to implement your ideas by jetizoning them. There is no point in becoming the Tories in order to defeat the Tories. Labour is a moral crusade, or it is nothing.


I have a set of political beliefs about how I think a country should be run. Those political beliefs derive from a more deeply held set of moral beliefs (Christian, in my case, but that is incidental to the argument) and lead to me giving my support to a party. I support the party that reflects my political beliefs, and I hold political beliefs because they are a way of implementing my moral beliefs. I sort of assume that people go into politics because they also have political beliefs, based on moral beliefs, and want to persuade other people that their beliefs are the best. I even hope that they have thought there political beliefs through more carefully than I have.  

Why do we want to prevent a third Tory government? 

There are two possible answers: 

a: We don't want a Tory government because we don't want a Tory government because we don't want a Tory government. Those are the rules of the game: if a guy with a Labour badge gets in, our team wins. It’s a bypass. You’ve got to build bypasses. 

b: We don't want a Tory government because we think that the Tory government will do bad things or that a Labour government will do better things. "Good" and "Bad" are here defined by our political beliefs which come from our moral beliefs.

The idea that a political party might shape its agenda (as opposed to its presentation of that agenda, or its propaganda) based on what will win elections implies 

a: that you can pick up and put down political beliefs at will, like picking a new tie 

b: that it's quite all right to SAY that you believe the thing that will win the election, even if you actually believe the other thing

c: that winning elections, rather than doing what is right, is the object of the exercise. 

This seems to be to psychotic, if not actually evil.

Politics is not only about what you think should happen; it's about making detailed plans and policies to ensure that it does happen -- about expertise and competence as well as belief. Candidate A and B might be united in their belief that everyone should get medical care when they need it; but honestly differ about whether socialized medicine or subsidized private insurance is the best way of achieving that. If you think Candidate A is on the wrong side of the argument, it  would be better to say "Candidate A has not done his sums right" rather than "Candidate A obviously wants poor people to die long, agonizing deaths". I think that the point at which someone says "Socialized medicine is better because socialized medicine is better and I don't care about the sums" is the point when you can fairly accuse them of being obsessed with ideological purity.

If I run a dairy farm, I might very well get marketing people in to tell me how to get punters to buy my milk. "You need to sell it in different kinds of cartons; you need to look at selling flavoured milk and skimmed milk; maybe you need to come up with a company mascot the kids can related to" are all good suggestions. "I think you should concrete it over and sell motorcycles", not so much.

If selling milk is your objective. If making money is your objective, then the motorcycles plan might be a very good one.

Is the Labour Party about selling milk or manufacturing motorcycles?

The question about whether the Labour Party is "too far to the left" or "too far to the right" is a moral one. You can show me that my morals are wrong ("you say that killing is always wrong, but have you considered the following circumstances...") or you can show that my political beliefs don't reflect my morals as well as I thought they did ("you think that paying benefit alleviates poverty, but did you consider…”) but you can't ask me chose my morals or my politics based on what will win elections. It's like asking a judge to consider the possibility that murder is a bit less naughty this week than it was last week.

A new Labour Leader who believes in being nasty to criminals, nasty to immigrants, nasty to the unemployed, and wasting money on WMDs that we will never use might (perhaps) be able to win an election. But I come back to my first question: in what way would that be better than a Tory government?





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Bring Them Into the Light!

Friday, July 01, 2016

And at last Ar-Pharazôn came even to Aman, the Blessed Realm, and the coasts of Valinor; and still all was silent, and doom hung by a thread. 

For Ar-Pharazôn wavered at the end, and almost he turned back. 

His heart misgave him when he looked upon the soundless shores and saw Taniquetil shining, whiter than snow, colder than death, silent, immutable, terrible as the shadow of the light of Ilúvatar. 

But pride was now his master, and at last he left his ship and strode upon the shore, claiming the land for his own, if none should do battle for it. 

And a host of the Númenóreans encamped in might about Túna, whence all the Eldar had fled.

Monday, June 13, 2016

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Thursday, June 09, 2016

Coxcomb Watch (edited)

Everyone is going to tell me that I shouldn't do this kind of thing, but here goes:

*


Five times Hugo award loser John C Wright recently placed on his web log a piece of text, written in 1938 by Gene Autry, a country singer and actor now best remembered for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It purports to be the moral code which Cowboys followed; it seems to have been sent out to children who sent him fan mail.

EDIT: Here is a link to the article: http://www.scifiwright.com/2016/04/gene-autrys-cowboy-code/

One might have expected a devout and pious Catholic like Wright to put the Singing Cowboy’s grab-bag of secular morals alongside the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount to demonstrate how inferior the one is to the other. One might have expected him to say that if you are still thinking up rules and codes you probably haven’t understood Christianity very well.

But if you are hammer, everything looks like a snail. If you see a well-meaning set of moral precepts written by a celebrity for the edification of kids nearly a century ago, then obviously the first thing that will occur to you is "Aren’t The Left awful." The Hugo award loser wants to know how many of the Singing Cowboy's moral precepts The Left break, or encourage others to break, on a regular basis.

EDIT: His precise words were: "A question for the reader: how many of these do mainstream Leftwing politicians, pundits and speakers, routinely call for all of us to violate? And I do not mean the Leftwing speakers and leader of ten or twenty years ago. I mean those who this year, this month, this week, or this hour? For the hour is late, and it is darker than you think." Yes, I am afraid he really does write like this.

I intend to tell him. 

I do not speak on behalf of The Left. I do not even regard myself as a Socialist. (As we've seen, a Socialist thinks everyone should have the same amount of money as everyone else; a Communist thinks we should get rid of money altogether. I am merely a Reformist: I think the Rich should be a little bit poorer and the Poor should be a little bit richer.) I am a member of the British Labour Party, and a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. I have been called an SJW, although not by anyone sensible.

So. Here is how The Singing Cowboy's Code struck this particular Leftie. Next month, I promise to start writing about Spider-Man.

*


The Cowboy Code goes thus:

1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.

3. He must always tell the truth.

4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.

5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.

6. He must help people in distress.

7. He must be a good worker.

8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.

9. He must respect women, parents and his nation’s laws.

10. The Cowboy is a patriot

.
If I have counted correctly, these 10 precepts actually contain 23 different commandments; which can be grouped under eight general principles:

I: Be kind

II: Be honest

III: Be tolerant

IV: Be conscientious

V: Be polite

VI: Be chaste

VII: Be law abiding

VIII: Be patriotic

Eight out of Autry's ten rules I endorse unreservedly. One I would like to have a little more information about. One is, as it stands, positively misleading. Let's go through them one by one: 

Rules 1 and 4

I fully endorse both these rules, which are in fact, the same rule stated in different words. Don't start fights; don't fight weaker people; don't take advantage of anyone who is weak. I would call this "Kindness", and it’s a universal human virtue.

Insofar as these rules are specifically intended for the edification of Cowboys, the Singer may be thinking particularly about chivalry and honour: how men behave in fights. When soldiers are not actually fighting, they should go out of their way not to be macho and aggressive; even when they are fighting their mortal enemies, they should fight fair, accept his surrender; never kill or torture prisoners.

I have never come across anyone on The Left or The Right who was opposed to Kindness. The Left are on the whole more strongly in favour of it than The Right. It has tended to be The Left who have made laws against child beating, domestic abuse and the inhumane treatment of pets and animals: it has often been The Right who have called these rules silly and sentimental and said that if a man can’t beat his own wife and children in his own house then whose wife and children is he supposed to beat? When there are complaints about our soldiers not using Honour and Chivalry — there have been terrible allegations about the use of torture and the mistreatment of prisoners in recent wars— those complaints mainly come from The Left. It is The Right who are inclined to regard such concerns as soft, unmanly, treacherous or cowardly.

Rules 2 and 3

Rules 2 and 3 are also different wordings of the same rule. I fully endorse both of them. Keeping promises, keeping secrets and telling the truth are part of the universal human virtue called Honesty.

I have never come across anyone on The Left or The Right who is opposed to Honesty. It is always possible to come up with clever, exceptional cases where lying is the best thing to do, for example, when the Gestapo knock on your door and ask if you have a Jewish family hiding in your attic. But the fact that we can imagine exceptions doesn’t invalidate the general principal. The exception proves the rule, as the fellow probably didn’t say.

Rule 5

This rule is oddly worded. I don't have that much of a problem with someone "possessing intolerant ideas" or indeed "advocating intolerant ideas". I am not quite sure how you can possess and idea without advocating it. What I have a problem with is people who behave in an intolerant way.

But I think we all know what the Singing Cowboy was getting at. He wasn't saying that Unitarians (who think everybody goes to Heaven) made good Cowboys, but Baptists (who hold to the arguably less tolerant theory that only people who have been washed in the blood of the lamb can be saved) made bad ones. If anything, he probably thought that Religion and Party Politics were not the kinds of things which gentlemen ought to talk about  — certainly not when they were risking their lives together in hostile in’jun territory. I think that what he had in mind was saloons with "No Jews or Irish" written on the doors; and individual Cowboys who refused to associate with black people or who used horrible words about them behind their backs. I think he was telling the kids that they should treat everyone the same, even if they don’t look like you or use the same word for God.

I strongly endorse this rule. Tolerance is a universal human virtue. It tends to be emphasized more strongly by The Left than The Right. It is The Left who say that signs saying "No Jews" and certain kinds of bad-language shouldn’t be allowed. It is The Right who say that if a landlord wants to ban Jews from drinking in his pub, that's a matter for him. The Right have, indeed, invented a cuss-word, "Political Correctness" to refer to people who behave tolerantly. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that The Right are personally intolerant. It may simply mean that they have an unwritten eleventh commandment "A Cowboy thinks personal freedom is more important than any of these rules".

Rule 6

Rule 6, "help people in distress" is simply another way of phrasing rules 1 and 4. The former say "Don't hurt people if you can possibly help it"; this one says "Help people if you possibly can." Of course, the Singing Cowboy is thinking mainly of the rugged, manly outdoor life. When he says "people in distress" he is thinking of people who are trapped in quicksand and being menaced by hungry wildebeests. But I am sure he means us to apply it to other kinds of distress as well. If someone is sick or hurt, you should do whatever you can do make them better; if someone is broke, you should share your dosh with them. Many of us think that Jesus Christ was an even better role-model than Gene Autry, and he said that everything turned on this point: "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in, naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me."

I have never heard anyone on The Left or The Right who is against helping people. If there is a difference of opinion, here, it is usually between people on the The Left who say that we need to provide ropes, pulleys and ladders to help people out of holes; and people on The Right who say that if people fall down holes then it’s their own fault and if we keep fishing them out then no-one will ever look where they are going.

Rule 7

I strongly agree that one should be a "good worker". I think that whatever you do; you should do it to the best of your ability; and I think that everyone should do their fair share of whatever needs doing and not leave it to other people.

I have never heard anyone on either The Left or The Right say that laziness and incompetence are virtues. If anything, The Left is more inclined than The Right to say that everyone should lend a hand, and to object to rich freeloaders who sit on their trust funds and watch the money role in. That is what the "according to his ability" part means.

Rule 9

Rule 9 is confused. "Respect" means both "be polite to" and "pay attention to".

To Respect your parents and the opposite sex means to be polite to them; to use good manners and social etiquette in your interactions. I think that good manners are a good thing. I think hurting people with words is as ungentlemanly as hitting a smaller man or a man with glasses or indeed anybody. I would even go so far as to say that the old fashioned rules of etiquette were quite a good idea. If everyone agrees that the younger person should let the older person pass through the door first; and that the man should let the woman do so, then we avoid unnecessary pushing and shoving. Etiquette and manners change over time; but knowing about this is part and parcel of good manners. If Granny has good manners, then she understands that the young folk use words that she would never have used and don’t mean anything by them; if the young folk have good manners they try not to use those words in front of Granny because they hurt her feelings. (Idiots on The Left and The Right sometimes say that it is impossible to hurt people with words, or that hurting people with words doesn't matter, and that there is literally no such thing as giving offence. Cowboys know better.)

"Respect" in the sense of "Respect your nations laws" means something quite different. Calling a lady "Miss Jones" until she invites you to use her first name and refraining from parking on a double yellow even if you are in a big hurry are both good things, but they are not the same good thing. I strongly support rule 9.2. I think that you should obey laws, even silly laws, particularly in a democracy where you have the power to change them.

Sadly, the Singing Cowboy does not tell us if a Cowboys first loyalty is to the Cowboy Code or to the laws and constitution of the United States. Does the Cowboy follow the Code except where it would be against the law, or does he follow the law, except where it conflicts with the Code? If the Government says that citizens are no longer to put Bibles on the wall or flags on the table; or if the Government says that cowboys are no longer allowed to carry six-guns, does a good Cowboy cheerfully and uncomplainingly follow the law, at least until the next election? If not, what was the point of putting "respect the law" in the Code to begin with?

I think that in this case, The Right make more of manners and obedience to the law than The Left do. The Left is more likely to say that old fashioned, ceremonial codes of politeness can be dispensed with. The Left is more likely than the Right to endorse the breaking of immoral laws; or the breaking of any laws in pursuit of a laudable goal. The Left is more likely to say that the Suffragettes, for example, were heroes and martyrs; The Right is more likely to see them as a bunch of vandals. 

Rule 10

I like the country I grew up in; I think that England has good laws and a sensible constitution; I am proud of the BBC, the National Health Service and the Welfare State. With all my faults, I love my House of Peers. I feel that the Lord of the Rings, the Beatles and the Two Ronnies are mine in a way that Moby Dick, Woody Guthrie and the Marx Brothers are not.

I think that I am in some sense a good person because I don’t punch smaller men, am polite to my elders and have (so far as I remember) never shot first in a duel. I don’t think that I am in any sense a good person because I love England; any more than I think that I am a good person because I love jaffa cakes. That is to say: I am a Patriot, but I do not think being a patriot is a moral virtue. Some of my friends on The Left would certainly say that patriotism is a vice or a temptation; that Loving England can too easily turn into Hating France and even Being Nasty To French People. Some of them would say that we should stop thinking of ourselves as English and see everyone as citizens of the world and members of the human race. A very great man once assured me that it isn’t hard to do.

I am not exactly sure how the Patriotism of the Cowboy Code is meant to play out in practice. Does a Cowboy simply go around thinking that the Yosemite valley is the most beautiful place on earth? Or is obliged to love the Constitution as well? Does he have to love it with "a love that asks no questions", or can he patriotically acknowledge its faults? He is entitled to think that the present, democratically elected Commander in Chief is an idiot, or does he have to say "my President, right or wrong." Or are we going to smuggle in some idea that Patriotism involves loving "the real America", and that certain places, people, institutions and points of view don't count?

A brief survey of Gene Autry’s music suggests that he was one of those who conflated Christianity with America and who had an instrumental attitude to religion. The Bible on the table and the flag on the wall are the backbone of our nation. Rely on both God and bullets. Pray to God, not because it's a good thing in itself, but because otherwise Santa might not bring you any presents. 

Rule 8

Rule 8 is about cleanliness, which is, it will be recalled, next to godliness. (*)  I do not think that the Singing Cowboy is telling me that I should take a shower every day and make sure that I have a supply of lavatory paper in my saddle bag. I think that "clean" and "dirty" are euphemisms for "chaste" and "unchaste". I think that when the Singing Cowboy tells children to have "clean thoughts" he is telling them not to think about sex. When he tells boys to have "clean actions" he is telling them not to get too close to girls. When he tells them to have "clean personal habits" he is telling them not to masturbate.

I don’t think it’s a great idea to look at too much pornographic material; and I definitely think that young people ought to be careful how far they go on a first date; and I am a fan of marriage as only a bachelor can be. But I think that looking at sexy pictures and having sexy thoughts and yes indeed playing with yourself in a sexy way is a perfectly normal part of being a human being, and that it is a very bad idea to tell children to associated their sexuality with dirt.

Chastity — total abstinence before marriage, total fidelity within marriage — is a Christian virtue; but I don’t know why this is the only Christian virtue that a Cowboy needs to worry about. Why not include "going to church on Sundays"; "only worshiping one God"; "not worshiping idols" or, for that matter "not coveting your neighbors ox"?

I don't think that there is any particular split between The Left and The Right over this rule. The Right have been known to prohibit things like pornography and sex-clubs on moral and decency grounds. The Left have also been known to campaign against pornography and sex-clubs on the grounds that they are degrading and insulting to women. Both sides have also said that grown-ups should be allowed to look at pictures of other grown-ups with no clothes on if they really want to.

*

In summary: this particular member of The Left is in favour of kindness, honesty, toleration, conscientiousness, politeness, law-abidingness and (depending on what you mean) patriotism. I think that The Left, on the whole, places more emphasis on kindness and toleration, while The Right, on the whole, places more emphasis on politeness and law-abidingness. I reject only one of the Singing Cowboy's precepts outright: it is pernicious to teach children that ordinary sexual feelings are dirty.

I know, of course, what five times Hugo Award losing author J C Wright will say at this point. He will say that The Left (on the whole) support a woman’s right to choose, and therefore approve of cruelty to foetuses; that The Left (on the whole) believe that two males who love each other should be treated exactly the same as a male and a female who love each other, and therefore disapprove of chastity; and that The Left support such things as a legal minimum wage and welfare payments for the unemployed and therefore disapprove of hard work. In fact, I think he would say that The Left approve of legal abortion because they positively disprove of kindness and want to encourage as much cruelty as possible; that The Left approve of civil partnerships and equal marriage because they positively hate chastity and want to encourage as much sexual immorality as possible; and that The Left came up with the idea that everyone should be paid enough to live on because they positively hate work and want to encourage everyone to be layabouts and bums.

There difference between The Left and The Right isn’t anything to do with their adherence to the Singing Cowboy Code. We all believe in kindness, honesty, tolerance and good manners in the same way we all believe in oxygen and gravity. We disagree about the extent to which kindness, honesty, tolerance and good manners are matters of individual responsibility; and the degree to which we all have to get together and make a kind, honest, tolerant and well-mannered world. We all agree that big people shouldn’t hit little people. We disagree about whether there need to be laws preventing grown ups from hitting children; or whether we should stop poking our noses into people's domestic affairs. We all agree that you should help people in distress; we disagree about whether the government needs to set up a big anti-distress fund or leave it to individuals to help each other. We all agree that if you see a lady in a burning building, you should try and get her out. We disagree about whether there need to be building regulations that stop ladies living in houses which are constructed of flamable materials; or whether that kind of thing is health and safety gone mad.

There are nasty, immoral people on both sides. We have recently had pundits on The Right saying that they positively hope refugees will drown; and newspapers of The Right positively comparing immigrants with vermin and infections. That goes against the Golden Rule, and the Sermon on the Mount and point 6 of the Cowboy Code. It is wicked, plain and simple. But we on The Left may be tempted to say that anyone who doesn't agree with our particular approach to immigration and asylum is a monster who thinks that foreigners are no better than rats. And that isn't true: only some of them are.

I support the National Health Service: like most British People, it is practically a religion to me. "The collective principle asserts that... no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means." But I couldn't quote you facts or figures to show why the British tax-payer funded system provides better outcomes to say, the German insurance based model; or demonstrate what the optimum balance between standard of health care and tax burden lies. Those sorts of debates are difficult, boring, and once you start looking up facts there is a terrible risk that it will turn out that there are good points on the other side. So the temptation is to say that The Right positively want poor people to get sick and die. And that isn't true. Only some of them do.

The Far, Far Right go much further than this. They don't just say that The Left is incorrect about the degree of collectivization that is possible or desirable. They affect to think that The Left -- not just Kim Jong Un and Tony Blair but you and me and Jeremy Corbyn are actually evil -- zombies and moorlocks with funny hats and bad breath who actively reject the basic moral values of humanity. When they see a confused list of watered down Christian morals, written decades ago by a well-meaning celeb, their first reaction is to say "Here is someone who dares to come right out and say that he is in favour of kindness, tolerance, honesty, good manners and chastity — UNLIKE THE LEFT WHO ARE IN FAVOUR OF CRUELTY, BIGOTRY, LYING, RUDENESS AND FORNICATION!!!

I don't think that The Right are, on the whole, wicked and amoral. I do think that one or two of them are very, very stupid.

*
"Why are you printing this on your blog, Andrew, rather than contributing to the discussion on Wright's own page."

"Because Wright says that he will only publish contributions if they contain offensive, derogatory and intolerant language."





APPENDIX

Illustrations of the Tao, taken from the works of the Singing Cowboy.

I: BE KIND

Negative

1.1 Never shoot first,
1.2 Never hit a smaller man,
1.3 Never take unfair advantage.
4.1 Be gentle with children
4.2 Be gentle with animals
4.3 Be gentle with old people.

Positive

6. Help people in distress.

II: BE HONEST

2.1 Never go back on your word.
2.2 Never go back on a trust
3: Always tell the truth.

III: BE TOLERANT

5.1 Do not advocate racially intolerant ideas
5.2 Do not advocated religiously intolerant ideas
5.3 Do not possess racially intolerant ideas
5.4 Do not possess religious intolerant ideas

IV: BE CONSCIENTIOUS

7. Work hard

V: BE POLITE

8.2 Keep clean in speech
9.1 Show respect to women
9.2 Show respect to your parents

VI: BE CHASTE

8.1 Have clean thoughts (ie Don’t think about sex)
8.2 Have clean actions (ie Don’t have sex outside of marriage)
8.3 Have clean personal habits (ie Don’t masturbate)

VII: BE LAW ABIDING

9.3 Show respect to the laws of your nation.

VII: BE PATRIOTIC

10: A Cowboy is a patriot


(*) "But only in an Irish dictionary." R.I.P Ronnie Corbett.

Monday, June 06, 2016

From Trowbridge last year, a few seconds caught on my phone of the best musician I imagine I'll ever see live. So pleased that I went to see them three times last year. (On the final occasion, Swarb had to more or less be lifted onto the stage, and couldn't tell his story about "Unst" because of massive dental problems...but it didn't seem to affect his fiddle playing at all.) I heard him do a solo set at the Folk House a couple of years ago, and he described collecting fiddle tunes off an old fiddler and recording them on a primitive reel-to-reel tape recorded. "The same kind we recorded Liege and Lief on..." It suddenly hits you: genuine legend.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Sunday Bible Study



A not very nice man from a not very nice political party has reportedly "invaded" a meat production plant and harangued the staff because he does not think that halal meat ought to be available in this country.

"In ths country" seems to be the crux of his argument: if the newspaper reports are to be believed, he basically shouted "this is the United Kingdom, this is the United Kingdom" over and over again as if that settled matters.

One of my co-workers once told me that they wouldn't buy a sandwich from Subway. In fairness, this is a pretty sound moral principal. Only a barbarian would toast a tuna mayo sandwich, and why do you have to go through the ritual of choosing between six different kinds of bread roll when they all taste identical, although I must admit I like the cookies. When I went to America, Subway seemed exciting and exotic, but then so did Starbucks.

My colleague's objection to Subway is that they serve halal food. Certainly the branch near us does: given that there are quire a lot of Muslim people in the area, this seems to make sound commercial sense. (I do not know if Subway is kosher in majority Jewish areas: perhaps there aren't enough majority Jewish areas for that to be a question.) 

I am pretty sure that a Spicy Italian contains salami; and I am pretty sure that salami is made from pork; and I am pretty sure that pork is not halal. Maybe you can make convincing salami out of fish? Maybe the lamb and beef is halal but they take it for granted that observant Muslims wouldn't order pork to start with? They put cheese into all their sandwiches unless you beg them not to, so presumably Islam doesn't have the meat/dairy restriction that Judaism does?

Halal simply means "permitted", as opposed to haram which means "forbidden". And jihad means "struggle", and hijab means modesty and shariah means "law" and Allah means "God". (Arabic speaking Christians call God "Allah".) But I suppose most people take halal to mean "filthy foreign food" and shariah to mean "chopping peoples heads off" and jihad to mean "terrorism". Up to 10th September 2001 it was common enough to hear boring men in pubs and the leader column of the Daily Telegraph explaining that you can say what you like about Johnny Foreigner but criminals who have had their heads chopped off hardly ever go out and do it again, which is more than you can say for this country. There seems to be a widespread belief that you can catch Islam off a halal foot-long pepperoni with salad but no olives and conversely, that you can cure someone of Islam by throwing bacon butties at them.

This article covers the inconsistencies in the not-very-nice man's approach quite comprehensively. Why was he singling out halal slaughter houses for his animal welfare initiative, when kosher butchers use pretty much the same methods: indeed, the one sometimes supplies the other? If the objection is that Muslim baa-lambs are not stunned before having their throats cut, then actually they usually are. Hard, in any case, to suppose that the religious slaughter of chickens is a bigger welfare concern than your average bootiful factory farm.

But what interests me is the specifically religious question.

The not-very-nice-man is alleged to have asked "Don’t you realise you’re in Great Britain?.....Why are you offering these animal up to Allah, a fake god, Satan. Do any of you have any morals?....You are in Great Britain....This is a Christian country and the Bible says no Christian should eat meat offered to a false god."

Quite a lot of questions are raised here. 

I am not sure if any good Christian has ever believed that other monotheistic faiths are indistinguishable from Satanism. I think that he may be falling into Dawkins Seventh Fallacy, which states:

a: The gods of Christianity, Muslim and Judaism are separate and distinct non-existant entities, in the way that Captain Ahab; David Copperfield and the Tooth Fairy are separate and distinct non-existent entities

b: When a Christian says that he disbelieves in the Jewish and Muslim deities, he means the same thing by "disbelieve" that an atheist does when he says he disbelieves in all deities whatsoever

c: Christians are therefore the same as atheists with respect to two out of the three major monotheistic faiths, and might as well go the whole hog and disbelieve in all of them. 

In the real world, people who believe in God invariably say that other people who believe in God believe in the same God they believe in, although they very frequently say that they've got special inside knowledge that the others haven't got, or that the others have picked up some wrong ideas along the way. 

But even if you do think that Dio is a false God invented by the evil Italians, "this is Great Britain" seems to me to be a bit of a non sequitur. People In Great Britain have been perfectly free to worship Satan since 1735: certainly since 1951. Religious tolerances is one of the things which makes us Great and British. David Cameron says so. 

But the bit which really intrigued me was the bit about the Bible saying that no Christian should eat meat offered to a false God. 

Where does it say that, exactly?

The Christian Bible contains the complete text of the Jewish Bible and therefore contains a lot of passage about which kinds of food are kosher and which kinds are terefah. (I looked it up.) No pork, no shellfish, no lamb cooked in its mother's milk, wash your hands carefully, put the toilet a long way from the kitchen, and so on. But the Christian "New" Testament contains a number of passages in which Jesus permits his followers to apply those rules with leniency, or to set them aside altogether. Sometimes he seems to be saying that his own presence puts the rules on hold temporarily; sometimes he seems to be saying that the rules, as practiced at that time, went way beyond what God had intended or that they were being applied in an unspiritual, rules-lawyering way. But some of his clearest and least equivocal statements say that eating the wrong kind of food doesn't affect your spiritual status one way or the other: 

There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man....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?

Naturally, the gentile converts to Christianity found it much easier to accept this idea than the Jewish ones; and it was a point of contention in the early Church. About the only thing we know about Paul's personal relationship with Peter is that they had a public falling out over whether Christians needed to keep kosher. 

The not very nice man seems to have had one of Paul's letters in mind: 

Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: "For the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness 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.But if any man say unto you, "This is offered in sacrifice unto idols", eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: "for the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof" Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?

Whatever is sold in the market, just eat it, and don't ask questions, because everything in the world belongs to God. It is hard to see how you can read that as saying "the Bible forbids us from eating mean offered to false gods". It actually seems to be saying the very opposite. 

Obviously, Paul isn't talking about halal meat, but he is talking about meat which has been offered to the gods of the Greek pantheon. He is quite clear that it doesn't make any difference if an animal was killed in the temple of Jupiter or in front of a statue of Hercules because Jupiter and Hercules don't actually exist.

But there's a problem. Monotheists have always said "There is no other God but God, so whatever you do, don't worship any of the other Gods" and "Idols are totally meaningless, so whatever you do, don't worship them." Paul seems to be saying that idol-worship is, so to speak, a subjective sin: if you think of a statue of a pagan god as just being a lump of dead marble, then it is; but if at some level you think of it as a rival deity, then you'd be cheating on God by worshiping it. People who converted to Christianity from Greek polytheism might well still think of the statues as potentially being gods of some kind; so if they had a sandwich which they thought might have been used in the worship of one of the Greek deities then they might be committing idol worship in their head. 

C.S Lewis said that the generalization of this principal was "on non-essential matters the person without scruples should always give way to the person with scruples." It leads to all sorts of uncomfortable conclusions. If my weaker brother honestly believes that playing Dungeons & Dragons is a kind of devil worship then I (knowing very well that it is not) should never play Dungeons & Dragons again for fear of leading him into subjective sin. I suppose we all accept that we shouldn't have a drink in front of a former alcoholic; should we refrain from eating meat around vegans because meat is murder to them even though to sensible people it isn't?

The not-very-nice-man asserts that the Christian Bible teaches that Subway sell demonic sandwiches. It does not. Even on the assumption (that I am very far from accepting) that the God of Islam is, from the point of view of a good Christian, a false god on a level with Baal, then the Christian Bible is perfectly fine with me eating halal because false gods are precisely that: false. The Christian Bible says that when I go into a sandwich bar, I shouldn't ask questions about the religious affiliation of the sandwiches. It doesn't matter either way. However, if someone tells you that the food is halal and if that person honestly believes that eating a big hearty Italian is pretty much the same thing as drawing a pentacle on the ground and sacrificing a goat to it, then I shouldn't eat sandwiches in their presence. Or maybe at all. If they think it's wrong, then it's wrong for them.

Nothing remotely suggests that Paul thought that the Greeks shouldn't be allowed to carry on performing their own ceremonies in their own ways. The idea that there is a continuity between "I will not eat halal meat"; "No Christian should eat halal meant" and "Muslims living in the UK should not be permitted to eat halal meat" is clearly nonsense. It might be that the not-very-nice-man thinks that there should be no mosques, temples or synagogues in England and that all the Jews, Muslims and Hindus should be rehoused in the American mid-west. But in modern times, countries with Christian majorities have always permitted other religions to be practiced in their borders. There have been Mosques and Temples in the the UK since Victorian times and Synagogues since the the time of Oliver Cromwell. 

So. It's quite awkward. It's none of the unpleasant man's business whether I go to Subway or not; and it's certainly none of his business whether Muslims do. But what does his conscience tell him? If he feels that he is eating the devil every time he worships a sandwich then I should not encourage him.

So: tell me, Mr England First. 

Do you consider your own faith to be a bit on the weak side? 




Sunday, May 08, 2016

Sunday Politics


I wrote this a couple of months ago. (I really wrote it a couple of months ago. I found it on my Scrivener while looking for something else.) I didn't publish it at the time, because I didn't think it was very interesting:

Our own beloved Ken Livingstone has been accused of a faux pas.

Apparently, he felt that a Labour MP accepting a donation from a hedge fun manager was “like Jimmy Savile funding a children's group”.

The press can be awfully innocent about this kind of thing. The Sun prints the words SEX and BOTTOMS in capital letters, as if they can hardly believe such things exist; anything stronger is blocked out with asterisks. It is okay to print photographs of ladies with no bra on page three of a family newspaper, but god forbid a child should see the word T*TS. They go pale and start to tremble, like your maiden aunt, if anyone uses the F-word. No news reporter has even heard it before.

The formulation like putting X in charge of a Y is so common that it barely reaches the dignity of being a cliche. Like putting Herod in charge of an orphanage barely counts as a simile: it's proverbial. As popular as a pork chop at a Passover; as useful as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest. You might have thought that Blackadder’s as cunning as a fox who had been awarded a degree in Cunning from the University of Cunning (or merely as cunning as a cunning thing) would have killed it off.

Jimmy Savile has a special and strange status which is probably not comprehensible to anyone outside of England or under the age of 45. He isn’t the only entertainer to have been retrospectively exposed as a sex offender; but I think most of our reaction to Rolf Harris’s conviction was “that’s really sad — he seemed so nice”. And Harris was famous for something: it is possible to think that he deserved his jail sentence and that Sun Arise is a terrific song. But so far as anyone can tell, Jimmy Savile never did anything apart from sit around being Jimmy Saville. He played records on the radio, but no-one tells us that he was a master of the craft (like Terry Wogan) or that he championed bands that no-one else cared about (like John Peel). He somehow just existed; being vaguely flamboyant; fronting shows he had nothing to do with; universally present.

I have said elsewhere that in the 1970s the BBC was a genre, almost a place, in a way that can hardly be understood today. More than one of us felt that Basil Brush must be a friend and neighbor of Tom Baker because their shows were on straight after each other. Savile wasn't the guy who fronts that make-a-wish show (“Dear Jimmy, Please could you fix it for me to play the drums with Gary Glitter”); he was more like that weird neighbor you keep bumping into. So the discovery that he was not merely a children’s entertainer who was also a child molester (though God knows that would have been bad enough) but a child molester who appears to have become a children’s entertainer in order to gain access to hundreds and possibly thousands of children genuinely feels like a bomb has gone off through our collective memories. You are thinking about that nice show where the young boy got to star in his own episode of Doctor Who, and then you remember whose show it was. There was that day when Boy George visited my school (true story) after some girls had written to complain that morning assembly was too boring. But who had they written to? Oh yes. Better stop telling that story.

The press love a villain. They compete with each other to see who can condemn the villain in the strongest terms: never mind “disgraced entertainer Jimmy Savile”, not even “evil Jimmy Savile” it needs to be “vile pervert Jimmy Savile”. But what they love even more is a stick to beat the BBC with. (The same journalists who shake when they hear the word “fuck” still regard the idea of showing pictures on the radio as a peculiar fad which will pass before the days of fleet street and hot metal come to an end; their masters hate anything state run because they can’t buy it.) Never mind that Savile was courted by Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles; never mind that Norman Tebbit was one of the few people prepared to defend him when the child rape allegations came out; never mind that he was lauded by anti-sex campaigner Mary Whitehouse. He was a BBC man to the core, and therefore the BBC is infected by his evil.

(The BBC did, in fact, behave reprehensibly, failing to respond to complaints and allegations and evidence because Savile was high profile and rich and could afford the best lawyers in the land. But so did everybody else.)

But what has happened as a result of this is that Savile has been invested with a peculiar kind of anti-sanctity. There is a weird process by which a tiny minority of celebrities become untouchable. You aren’t allowed to say anything against Diana; you aren’t allowed to speak against dead soldiers or appear without a poppy between Halloween and New Years Eve. (When I say “you aren’t allowed to” I mean “if you do, the papers will attack you, not for what you said, but for daring to take the name of our beloved royal family or our brave servicemen in vain”. There's no actual law against it.)

Savile seems to have achieved a level of anti-sanctity in a way that hardly anyone else ever has. When the serial killer Myra Hindley died, she was cremated in private, her ashes scattered in secret and the hospital room she had died in was repainted. That kind of fear of contamination, which features in no actual religion, is the true faith of the Englishman and woman. Someone isn’t a criminal at one time of their lives and not at another; people who murder children without motivation aren’t mentally ill. They have a disease called evil which is communicable — through bed sheets; through white emulsion; through saying their name. Jimmy Savile is like a Weeping Angel; his evil somehow transmissible through his image. We’re allowed to see bad 1970s pop music shows, but his face has to be pixellated, like when someone takes their clothes off on Big Brother and the viewers would be struck blind if they saw a willy. The tabloids got cross because they found there was still an interview with him on a no-longer updated BBC website.

In real life, most of us don’t think that way. Most of us think of the Queen as a somewhat anachronistic feature of the British constitution that we are nevertheless vaguely affectionate towards; that fuck is quite useful as an exclamation mark but shouldn’t be used as a comma; and that Jimmy Savile was a nasty sex criminal who they should have caught earlier. There are other nasty sex criminals; it’s a truism that most kids who are abused are abused by members of their own family. I shall forebear from telling the P.E teacher story again.

It would have been better if Ken Livingstone had said like putting Herod in charge of a children’s home rather than like putting Savile in charge of a children's charity. It would have been better if he'd thought it through a bit and realized that, er, one of the nasty things about Savile was that he actually did support children's charities. Quite likely the tabloids were simply looking for someone from The Left at whom to direct mock outrage but Ken should have thought it through and not offered them an open goal.

But ultimately, he has misused a holy name. The drawing of a line of sanctity around something is never good; it always prevents thinking. The question to ask about a sex offender is how he got that way, how he got away with it for so long, what we should do if this situation arose again, and whether bleating about "elf and safety” necessarily helps. The anti-sanctification of this figure means he is merely a symbol of evil in general and the evil of public service broadcasting in particular.

And it neatly distracts us all from Ken’s point. What is a Labour MP doing taking money from a hedge fun?

Isn’t that like the Resistance being financed by Kylo Renn?

Anyway. That was the essay. Can anyone think of any other profane figures of proverbial evil that Ken should avoid make glib remarks about?

* Ken Livingstone is a politician, former Mayor of London, and sometime Labour MP. In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council specifically in order to stop him being leader of it. The press called him “Red Ken” because he held extreme views such as children should be taught about homosexuality in school sex ed lessons and Sinn Fien would have to be brought into the mainstream political process. If not for his policy of cheap travel on the London Tube, putting 1 Dalling Road and Denmark Street within easy reach of suburban schoolboys, it is most unlikely that I would have become a Dungeons & Dragons player or a comic book collector.



Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunday Extra


When sorrows come they come not single spies
But in battalions. 
Shakespeare

There are some perfectly good things to be said about “grief athletics” and “grief inflation”. One might indeed compare the outpouring of public grief over the very funny Victoria Wood (2016) and compare it with that over comedy legends such as, say Eric Morecambe (1984), Charlie Chaplin (1977) or even Stan Laurel (1965). One could do a similar compare-and-contrast with Prince and Bowie on one hand and John Lennon and Elvis Presley on the other, and wonder how on earth we are going to top it when Paul McCartney finally shuffles of this mortal coil. (Fortunately, Bob Dylan is going to live forever.)

My working hypothesis is: “Until 1997, the death of a singer or sportsmen was show-business news or sporting news; after 1997 it became simply news. Before 1997, a death from natural courses would be reflected by an obituary and possibly an season of old movies on BBC 2. After 1997, the amount of newsprint given over to the death had to reflect the perceived importance of the deceased person. Not giving enough column inches to the departed would be a faux pas on a level of bowing from the neck instead of from the waist at the cenotaph, or being seen out in October without a poppy. AN INSULT TO THE DEAD." Prior to 1997, a tabloid might make Elvis Is Dead it’s front page story; after 1997 the serious broadsheets did so as well. 

My mother used to say that people always died in groups of 3, although the rule didn’t apply to major family bereavements. Great Uncle Bulgaria said something similar, so I suppose it was a proverb. I suppose that if old Mrs Dodsworthy three doors down passed away; and a few days later you heard that old Rev Bandersnatch kicked the bucket in his home for redundant clergyman, then you would be consciously waiting for Number 3, and be positively relieved when the paper recorded that Uncle Tumble, who you used to watch on the radio when you were a kid had gone to join the choir invisible, and could stop counting. 
It’s an old saying that “Dog bites man” is not news, but “Man bites dog” is. But if a local man dies after being bitten by a labradoodle (which is “news” in practically anyone’s book) then, for the next three weeks, the local paper will (quite understandably) think that every dog bite in the hospital’s incident book is worth a mention giving the punter (quite wrongly) the impression that there has been a terrible epidemic of men being bitten by dogs. It only required two deaths — David Bowie and Terry Wogan — for someone to decide that 2016 was a terrible year for celebrity deaths; and from then on every obituary  has been underlined in magic marker. 

No such thing as a Curse of Superman had even been thought of before Christopher Reeve had his riding accident.

One of the most boring and annoying rhetorical devices is the one where you pretend that because you think that something ought to be true, it actually is true. It might, in fact, be that the United Kingdom would be better off electing it’s next titular head of state rather than handing the title to the eldest child of the present incumbent. (1) I am, as everyone knows, agnostic on the issue. I tend towards saying that the process would be so complicated and divisive that it’s not worth the effort. Would we simply elect a new King when the old King dies, or would we stop having Kings and elect a President every five years? What would he be President of? “The United Republic”? “Greater England”? “New Britain”? “The Margaret Thatcher Memorial Islands”? This is a country where people claim that a preference for simple plurality vs instant run-off elections is a matter of ineffable religious conviction, for goodness sake.

But, as a matter of fact, we do have a Queen, and it is not too unkind to think that the time is not remote when we must, in the course of nature, have a new King. So there is a certain amount of interest in the day to day life of the Queen, and the next King, and the next King but one, and even the terribly cute next King but two. As arguments go, “Why are we interested in a photograph of an old lady and her grandchildren” and “Why does this require any coverage beyond a simple ‘Elizabeth Windsor, 90 today’ in the announcements column” makes republicans look like grumpy old twits. Republican twittery is cut from very much the same cloth as atheist twittery. I suppose it has to do with being against something rather than in favour of something. 

It might be that the public ought to care more about the finer points of the E.U referendum than about the death of a funny person who used to come on the telly when they were kids. But thinking that a thing is so does not make it so. (Patrick Stewart is getting worryingly close to his 80th birthday.)

There was a point, just after I left college for the second time, when all the legendary geek writers and artists seemed to be turning up their toes. The Golden Age of science fiction and comic books was the 30s and 40s, so many of the participants were always going to to die in the 90s. (2) The 1970s were the Golden Age of television: everyone had a TV, but there were only two channels (plus a third one which only showed nature documentaries in Welsh) and there wasn’t much else to in the evenings, so a very fine comedy actor like Ronnie Corbett could easily become a household name. A generation before, he’d have been making a very decent living as a much in demand stage actor; remembered by no-one except a few aficionados; a generation after, his well reviewed comedy shows would have had to compete with eighty five channels showing rolling 24 hours footage of cats falling off sofas. The entertainers who were always going to die in the second decade of the second millennium weren't cleverer or funnier than the entertainers who have died at other times. But they were famous in a way no-one had ever been before, or ever will be again. 

It isn’t big or clever to look at a photo of the next-but-one King and the next-but-one Queen outside the Taj Mahal and say “Why is a couple sitting on a bench news, especially?” It isn’t big or clever to pretend that you don’t know who Prince is. I suppose that it is possible to cut yourself off from popular culture to that extent (”and what exactly is a ‘beatle’?”(3)) but that rather prohibits you from talking bout it. I don’t think I could name a single professional football player. (There used to be someone called David Beckham, but he retired to sell perfume and knickers.) 

For some people, it may simply be a logical error. If A is better than B then it follows that B is positively bad. If B is not quite as good as some people say, then it follows that B is awful. So the correct way of expressing the insight that "I am quite surprised, actually, by the importance the media attached to David Bowie" is "David Bowie was a talentless hack who couldn't sing."

But some people are, sadly, positively addicted to saying horrible things. If a lot of people are sad because a singer they liked as died their drug forces them to say "Who the hell was he?" A mad, sad man who writes for the Telegraph managed to describe Prince as “an obscure, sparsely talented performer”. A below the line commentator spoke about his “welcome death”. (4) The humans suffer from a disease called hatred: one day it may be possible to cure it. 

I was a bit surprised, actually, that a left wing paper like the Guardian ran a full page solid black front page to mark the death of a singer. I used to think it was silly to feel sad when a performer you liked died: since I have been going to live gigs, and since several of the performers I most revere are the wrong side of 70, I don’t feel that any more. If Prince merits a front page and a pull out supplement, then nothing short of suspending all other reporting and printing 60 pages of black ink will suffice for Dylan. But as I say: he is immortal. 

I blame Diana. 


(1) Another thing I find boring and irritating is when people say "titular" when the actually mean "eponymous". 

(2) Gene Roddenbury, 1991; Isaac Asimov, 1992; Joe Shuster, 1992; Jack Kirby, 1993; Jerry Siegel, 1996; Bob Kane, 1998

(3)It is very doubtful is any judge ever actually said this. And if even if he did, every word spoken in an English court is recorded verbatim so it is fairly important that slang terms and terms from popular culture are defined for the benefit of future generations. I know this from having watched Crown Court when I was off school with ‘flu. An American Judge would have said “And for the record, Mr Starr, could you tell the court what a Beatle is…” and no-one would have found it especially funny.

(4) Imagine being a Daily Mail journalist and having to sit up all night working out how to get some hatred and bile into reporting the death of an elderly middle-of-the-road comedian who just about everybody like. Imagine reading the Daily Mail and learning of the death of Mr Ronnie Corbett under the headline “WHY WASN’T HE GIVEN A KNIGHTHOOD”. (Due to an establishment conspiracy, apparently.) 



Saturday, April 16, 2016

How to Break a Franchise

Comic

Princess Leia and Sana Starros take take Dr Aphra to the Rebel Prison Planet. A mysterious third party breaks into the prison, and begins executing the prisoners. Then, the power cuts out, the cells open, and Leia is trapped in the dark with  a mob of cold blood imperial murderers.

When Marvel's new Star Wars title launched last year, it felt impressively like a comic book adaptation of a lost 1979 movie, albeit with material from the sequels and prequels folded into it. So deftly and tactfully was this handled that it smoothed over some of the cracks in the Star Wars Saga; almost convincing us that the Episode IV Darth Vader really was still the Episode III Anakin Skywalker underneath. Issue #15, (an excerpt from Obi-Wan's lost journal) was both a shameless exercise in faux nostalgia and also a cunning synthesis of the old and new movies. A young kid called Luke shoots womp-rats near Beggars Canyon watched over by a figure who is older than Ewan McGregor but younger than Alec Guinness. It was the most enjoyable Star Wars Thing in years. 

But there is a growing sense that, now Luke has read Ben’s diary, and now that Darth Vader knows who destroyed the Death Star, writer Jason Aaron has filled in the space between Episode IV and Episode V and been reduced to making stuff up. And the more stuff gets made up, the further away from Star Wars we move, until, in issue 50, 60, 70 we'll realize that, even though the main character is based on reference photos of a very young Mark Hamill, what we are reading a generic space opera comic unconnected with any movie and Uncle Walt declares the whole thing non-canonical. 

I remember reading the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man when it came out and loving it like I hadn't loved any comic in a decade. Everything that was ever fun and good about Spider-Man, re-imagined in a millennial setting. I forget how many issues it took before Peter Parker was being hassled by Nick Fury and dating Kitty Pryde and meeting up with his father’s old colleagues and dying heroically and being replaced by a much younger kid. Nothing against the comic: stuff had happened. Stuff had to happen. But the more stuff happened the more obvious it became that we were no longer re-imagining Spider-Man but, reading about a completely different character with a similar costume.

Sana Starrors and Dr Aphra? Who the hell are they? (*) And what the hell is the Rebel Alliance doing with a Prison Planet?

The new Rebel Prison arc (beginning Star Wars #16) is perfectly logical. The Rebellion, as depicted in the movies, is something way beyond being a guerrilla force or a bunch of terrorists. It has medals and insignia and battleships; I seem to think that the role-playing game described it as having its own currency. It's the remains of the Old Republic; the other side in a pretty substantial civil war. So of course it must take prisoners. And if it takes prisoners it must have a prison, unless it executes them on the spot, which is what rebels would do in a civil war but not what goodies ought to do in an heroic space opera. And if there is a Rebel Prison, then the prisoners must be very scary indeed, and there must be lots of people who would like to free them and lots of people who would like to kill them.

Perfectly logical. But if you are going to apply perfect logic to Star Wars you might as well go home. 

Jason Aaron has a pretty good handle on the character's voices and Princess Leia still sounds a bit like Princess Leia. But she is forced to have conversations that are just not the kinds of conversations that Princess Leia ought to be having. 

— I won’t let you do this, I won’t let you gun them all down.

— I know you won’t because you still believe you’re fighting a noble fight, don’t you. But there’s nothing noble about war, princess. Not if you want to win.

—I’m not going to debate you. I’m just going to stop you. You’re not killing anyone else.

—You’re right. You are. I’ve just released 17 cold blooded murderers from their cells, Princess. Perhaps you can have that debate with them. Though if you’d rather live, I suggest you get busy killing them. 

Princess Leia, the Princess Leia who called Chewie a Walking Carpet and was only a little bit sad when her planet blew up is just not big enough or real enough to be having Socratic dialogues about ethics. She doesn't become more real by debating with Hannibal Lecter, any more than Penelope Pitstop becomes more real by carrying a huge great phallic gone. She just becomes less like Princess Leia. To even ask the question "is war ever noble" is to abolish the franchise called Star Wars. 

Okay then, clever clogs: what would you have done if you were writing Star Wars and were forced to address the question of what the Rebels do with baddies they capture?

I would have imagined something shiny and wonderful. One of the races in the Alliance is a telepathic mind parasite that subsists by sucking the evil out of other life forms. Someone knows an Old Jedi Trick of gently turning people back to the Light. The same medical science that can graft new limbs onto wounded heroes can also teach bad people to be good. There is a beautiful, paradise like planet many millions of light years away where bad people are sent to live more or less contented lives until they can no longer harm society.

But actually, I would say "This is not the sort of question you ought to ask about Star Wars, any more than you should ask if Luke killed the civilian crew of the Death Star or how Biggs joined the Rebellion quite so quickly. It’s just not that sort of story."


Cartoon


Three elderly Clone Troopers are holding out on a cobbled together Old Republic Walker. Two Imperial AT-ATs are bearing down on them. They know that they have no chance, but mean to go down fighting. They attempt to ram one of the AT-ATs legs. Suddenly, with a literal fanfare, a Rebel spaceship zooms in. It loops over the top of one of the Walkers, and three people jump onto the roof of the cockpit. Two of them, a man and a boy, cut a hole with their lightsabers; the third, a bad tempered alien, jumps through it and bangs the heads of the two pilots together. The rebels commandeer the AT-AT and immediately start shooting at the other one. 

In one sense, it’s the total lack of ambition which makes Star Wars: Rebels the one iteration of Star Wars that honestly recaptures the spirit of '77. Clone Wars always felt too big and self-important. It was not only the story of a major galactic war; it was an attempt to justify the existence of the prequels: to convince us that galactic politics and swashbuckling could go together; to redeem Anakin’s character from what Hayden Christensen did to it. Rebels doesn't pretend to be about anything other than five incredibly generic characters running errands for the Rebellion. Episodes sometimes seems to have been created via a Random Mission Generator from the Star Wars role-playing game. “We need you to fly to the Planet Such-and-Such and deliver supplies / pick up supplies / make contact with Rebel agents there." One episode is lifted directly from a West End adventure module. 

So all that matters is that everyone should be having fun; that every plan should be more complicated than it needs to be; that every battle should involve a silly stunt; that no character can ever face certain death without a wise-crack and smart remark. And in almost every episode, Rebels triumphantly delivers on this modest objective.

Why didn't they shoot at the AT-AT with the ship's cannon? Because that would have been no fun. 

Why did Zeb bash the troopers' heads together rather than punch them?  Because it’s more fun that way.

Can lightsabers really slice through armour like butter, even armour that's impervious to heavy gunfire? No, not all the time. Only when it's fun. 

In the final episode of Season I, our heroes end up flying a captured imperial TIE-fighter, which Hera, the resident graffiti artist has resprayed with a psychedelic, floral pattern. How do they get away with it? Player-character immunity and an awful lot of Force Points.

Even now the Extended Universe has been purged, Star Wars is a strange, four dimensional text, and that temporal depth makes Star Wars: Rebels something more than the thrilling adventures of Kid Jedi. The cartoon takes place 14 years after Revenge of the Sith, and five years before A New Hope. So the prequels are something which the older characters can look back on; but the original trilogy is something which hasn't happened yet. Every time Princess Leia or Moff Tarkin or, yes, the big guy with the black cape and the breathing problem come on stage we fans look back to Star Wars but the heroes look forward to adventures yet to come. Kanan, the aging not-quite Jedi, remembers the massacre of the Jedi Knights from Attack of the Clones: 14 years ago, from his point of view; 11 from ours. Princess Leia looks much as she did in Episode IV, which is 40 years ago from our point of view, but still in our hero's future. And most interestingly, in series 2, running the Rebellion is none other than Ahsoka Tano.

Who the hell is Ahsoka Tano? If you missed out on Clone Wars, then you won't know that Anakin had an apprentice: at first, as reckless and irresponsible as he was; but by the end, a wise and noble warrior. She walked out of the Jedi Order in the final series of Clone Wars in 2012, which is to say, 18 years ago. 

Whoah, Andrew. A minute ago you were complaining that the Star Wars comic was focusing on characters who were never in the movies. Now you are excited because an older version of a character from one cartoon series has turned up in a different cartoon series?

Yeah. It's a matter of how you do it, I suppose. I had a hundred a twenty episodes in which to get used to Ahsoka; and it helps that the cartoon series offered a more convincing picture of the Clone Wars than either of the movies that referenced them. And I am more inclined to buy into Ahsoka's presence in Rebels, because a confrontation between "the Sith Lord" and his former apprentice is an intrinsically interesting set up; just the kind of thing that ought to be happening in Star Wars. We've never seen someone who knew and liked Anakin Skywalker confronting him as Darth Vader before. (When Obi-Wan confronted Darth Vader, Anakin Skwalker didn't exist; not in that sense.)
The little boy from Episode I who is addressed as "grandfather" in Episode VII; the young, comic relief character ("Snips") in on cartoon who is also the mature, tragic leader in another; characters who look back on previous movies as parts of of their youth or as parts of a past known only from folklore...

It would be silly and over the top to say that Star Wars is about time and memory; Remembrance of Things Past considered as a weekly cartoon strip. But remind me: what are the first words of the caption that appears at the beginning of ever Star Wars movie? 

Trailer


The Binary Suns motif taps out on a tinkly instrument: a piano or a harpsichord or some such. The same only different. 

We are following someone into the Rebel Base; walking behind her. 

(The Rebel Base on Yavin; the actual Rebel Base on Yavin, with all the technicians and X-Wings and droids Is Biggs there, for example? I bet he is, even if we can't see him.)

The back view of a character is familiar to anyone who has ever played a third person computer game. "Identify with this character" it says "She will have a little bit of individuality, but she's basically just your avatar in the virtual world." 

Note also the lens flare. Computer games love lens flare even though no actual lenses are harmed during the making of computer games. Lens flare says “documentary”. It says "this isn’t a thing we made, this is a thing being shot, by some camera man embedded with the Rebel Alliance".

She is Jyn. She is a woman. She seems to be in handcuffs. The voice over must be an Imperial Officer reading out a charge sheet. She must be some kind of criminal who the Rebels have rescued. 

There is a flashback. Another market. Another heroine. Another hood. She is shooting Stormtroopers. Stormtroopers used to fall over politely when they were shot. Now they are propelled across the landscape. 

There is stuff which everyone can see; everyone who has ever been to the movies; everyone who has ever been inside a toyshop. X-Wings; the Death Star; Stormtroopers; Walkers. They are what tell us that this is Star Wars. You could make a movie about someone going to the shops to buy some potatoes and if there were Stormtroopers, Walkers, Death Stars and X-Wings you would still know it was Star Wars. 

And then there is stuff which only the fans can see. Not so much a dog whistle as a little pat on the head. The person talking to Jyn is Mon Mothma. Mon Mothma is the leader of the Rebellion. She appeared for a few seconds during Return of the Jedi and even fewer seconds during Revenge of the Sith. And now she is talking to a lady called Jyn in the actual secret rebel base on Yavin from Star Wars. Good fan. Have a treat.

We always knew that the Death Star was the sort of thing you could mistake for a small moon; but the beauty shot of the small-tiny Star Destroyers passing in front of it… It sort of sums up the ever escalating scale that Star Wars was about but never quite had the special effects for.

The Death Star. The actual Death Star. The Death Star from Star Wars, only awesome. 

The very first thing we knew about Star Wars was that Rebel Spies had managed to steal plans to Death Star in capital letters, and that they did this while Rebel Spaceships were winning their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire, also in capital letters. That was all we knew about the Galaxy, and all we needed to know. 

Someone stole the plans and gave the to Leia, who gave them to R2D2, who gave them to Luke, who gave them to that guy with the beard at the end of Star Wars. Is there any reason at all why it shouldn't be a lady called Jyn? Revenge of the Sith ended with C3P0 and R2D2 on the Ship from scene one of Star Wars, which is to say, the Rebel Blockade Runner, which is to say the Tantive IV. Is there any reason why Rogue One should not end with Jyn handing the Plans of the Death Star to Princess Leia? 

How much back-story be piled onto one film before it breaks? Robin Hood can always play another trick on another fat monk. Ishmael can never be seen to go on another whaling voyage?

We do not know, at this stage, if Jyn is the hero of the movie; or merely the one that the first trailer has decided to focus on. At least four other characters appear in the montage: 

White Guy With Mustache. 
Asian Guy With Stick. 
Bald Black Guy.
Guy With Beard and Plaits.

Trailers have a structure as fixed and invariable as the Journey of the Hero itself. No longer is there a booming voice saying “It was a TIME of heroes” or “Never before in the history of motion pictures..."
Instead, you get clips of dialogue playing over one or two scenes from the film: enough to tell you a tiny fragment of the story. And then, quickly, and totally without context, a montage of other characters and scenes, and another bit of dialogue which sums up what the story is About. Unfortunately, the story is never About “dinosaurs” or “gangsters” or “huge great space stations the size of a planet”. The story is always About family, or love, or how one man must choose. 

It seems that Bald Black Guy is Jyn’s mentor. He is the one who gets to announce what the film is About. 

"What. Will. You. Do. If they catch you. Whatwillyoudoiftheybreakyou? If you continue to fight. What will you. Become!” 

That’s the important question. What will you. Become? How will delivering the plans to Princess Leia affect you personally.``

Tell us, Jyn, tell us, about the personal journey you’ve been on.

*
It was been widely reported that Star Wars fans were unhappy that the protagonist of Rogue One is a lady. 

This is not true. 

Anyone who noticed the sex and/or gender of the main character was by definition not a Star Wars fan. The only possible reaction a Star Wars fan could possibly have had to the trailer was "bloody hell it's the actual Death Star and it's huge" with a possible side order of "AT-AT walkers! AT-AT walkers. I had one of those on my bedroom floor when I was a kid." The people who were unhappy about the protagonist being a lady are male supremacist nut jobs pretending to be Star Wars fans. They are cross about a lady having a big part in Star Wars because they are always cross about ladies having big parts in anything, on general principles.

The highest female representation in a Star Wars film to date was Episodes II and III in which 33% of the main characters are female. Rogue One seems broadly in line with the Original Trilogy and the Force Awakens, with four male characters to one female. No Star Wars movie has had more than one woman in a major heroic role. If one wanted to have a sensible discussion about gender balance, one would have to say “Boys feel intimidated if there is more than one girl in the team; the film makers can see that this is a problem and are trying to get round it by allowing the one permitted girl to be team captain."  (**)

When I saw Jyn, I did not think “Oh oh oh she is a lady there will never again be another movie with a male hero, I am undone,  its plickle kreckness gone mad.” 

But there was a small part of me which thought: “Oh oh oh she is an orphan loner who lives by her wits in alien markets and gets into trouble and breaks the rules and says ‘Yes Sir’ in a sarcastic voice. Which is quite close to Rey the orphan loner who lives by her wits in alien junk yards and Ezra the orphan loner who lives by his wits in alien markets, but quite a long way from Luke the restless young man who wants to go to the academy.”

That's the story that the trailer seems to be telling us. An unorthodox rebellious soldier, quite unsuited to the military. An old mentor, who has to teach her discipline, not realising that she is actually showing him that imagination and rule breaking isn’t such a bad thing after all. 

In short the plot of every war movie you’ve ever seen; ever Dirty Dozen movie; every Rogue Cop film. J.J Abrams even turned Star Trek into the story of an unorthodox, rebellious Captain entirely unsuited to any kind of military career. 

By all means, show us the rebels striking from their hidden fortress. By all means, show us the Death Star from an new angle and Walkers from the perspective of the troops on the ground. But please, don’t try to show us “the reality of war”. 

This will be a film, say director Gareth Edwards, in which "good guys are bad and bad guys are good". I could hardly come up with a more precise definition of what Star Wars is not. I’d honestly rather see the film about people buying potatoes.


(*) A former associate of Han Solo, and a rogue archaeologist who worked with Darth Vader in a different comic.

(**)

IV: Luke, Han, Chewie, Ben / Leia 20%
V and VI: Luke, Han, Chewie, Lando / Leia 20%
I: Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Anakin / Amidala 25%
II and III: Obi-Wan, Anakin / Amidala 33%
VII: Poe, Finn, Han, Chewie / Rey 20%
Clone Wars: Anakin, Obi-Wan / Ahsoka 33%
Rebels: Kanaan, Ezra, Zeb / Hera, Sabine 40%



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