Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The internet is now complete

A massive and hearty 'welcome back' to Days of Enlightenment, which was always one of the best-written, most personal and downright oddest blogs I'd read. You'll laugh, you'll cry, your toes will certainly curl and you'll be glad you're not him. Go there. Now.

Snot a joke

I have a stinking cold. It feels like this:

Meanwhile, as it's football transfer day and Ewarwoowar hasn't heard of Half Man Half Biscuit, here's an appropriate song, 'The Referee's Alphabet', followed by 'All I Want For Christmas Is a Dukla Prague Away Kit' and 'I Was A Teenage Armchair Honved Fan'.

Monday, 30 January 2012

The last word on public intellectuals

As you may have read, I wrote a piece on that vanishing creature, the Public Intellectual, positing that existing media structures make it less and less possible to be a public intellectual, let alone have something we could call a public culture. It got republished by a couple of interesting websites, including the LSE Public Impact blog, and then I wrote a short follow-up on the corrosive effect of media politics on intellectual standards.

Just for information rather than comment really, here's what Tony Judt, a wonderful political thinker, had to say on the subject in his posthumous book about intellectuals, Thinking the Twentieth Century (as quoted in Saturday's Guardian Review, which seems not to be online). He doesn't pull his punches, and names David Brooks of the NYT (currently flogging a weak psycho-political book) as a key example:
Here we had the public intellectual who now occupies not only prominent television space, but also op-ed pages of the most influential newspapers in the English-speaking world: and he knows nothing… Men like Brooks know, literally, nothing… it's all done with smoke and mirrors - there is no expertise. The apparent capacity consists of the capacity to talk glibly each week about any public event in a way that readers have gotten used to thinking of as sort of enlightened commentary. 
How very different from my teaching routine. Ahem.

Judt also fingers Thomas Friedman as a peddler of:
…the notion that your expertise is a function of your contacts… It doesn't really matter, actually, who it is. It's the notion of access to something special. In Friedman's case, access to information is very carefully recalibrated as the acceptable middle ground on any given policy issue'. 
And of the genuine intellectuals out there:
…Michael Ignatieff, or David Remnick, or Leon Wieseltier, or Michael Walzer. Instead of asking questions, they all behaved as though the only function of the intellectual was to provide justification for the actions of non-intellectuals. 

All ageing white men, I see - perhaps a function of the cultural context of the NYT and its readership, or of Judt's élite Anglophone culture. But he has a point. Lots of these people have lost confidence in a) intellect and b) the public: they therefore cannot imagine a position which clashes with that of the hegemony. Of course, the hegemony is what rewards them, which is why Judt's right to finger 'access' as the problem. Convivial lunches with very important and powerful people makes the thinker/journalist/academic feel important, a member of the inner circle. Selling that access as your USP becomes your purpose. Politicians know this: they feed journalists with tit-bits, and shut off access if you cross them. Add to this an editor wanting the 'inside story' and you have a hostage situation. The author becomes a rock-star ('as the Prime Minister said to me last week…'), but access is both granted and withheld: some newspapers, some correspondents get it, recalcitrant ones don't. When was the last time you saw a Prime Minister appear on a hard news show? No chance, not while there's a comfortable breakfast TV sofa waiting, and questions about your favourite biscuit and what you read your kids.

Eventually you reach the stage Judt associates with Friedman and Brooks. They become a function of their location on the political-cultural nexus. They are fronts for - or justifiers of - those with real power. They don't question (and the NYT is currently in the midst of a debate about whether impartiality means that politicians' claims be fact-checked): they explain the motives of the powerful to the weak. The media is no longer a way to hold power to account - it's a conduit for unchallenged power.

'…the relics of a world that progress threw away' (on Libraries and Sex)

OK, I'm not very good at erotica, but if libraries and porn go together in your filthy minds, this article in the Paris Review should be checked out (arf). I've no need to associate libraries with sex - they're sites of extreme pleasure without it. Though there's something masochistic about entering somewhere in which the books can only be handled, borrowed, but never owned. The teases!

I like the way he's holding on to the book. It's probably on short-loan.

Each year, new titles are added to the librarian-porn bookshelf. This past season’s crop included additions like Hot for Librarian by Anastasia Carrera; Lucy the LibrarianDewey and His Decimal 
Sadly, the author's conclusion is that modern library porn removes the action from the library itself: the stereotypical female librarian is the object of the fantasy (never the subject), rather than the location. She is assumed, with her spectacle and bun, to be repressed and needing sexual liberation: recognition is rarely given (I should confess I haven't read many of these) to the liberatory possibilities of the knowledge contained in the library, unlike the 18th-19th century library porn: for the Enlightenment, sexual and intellectual liberation were of a piece and so libraries were natural sites for discovery in both senses.

On the other hand, our author suggests that modern library porn enunciates the alienation found in sexual cyberspace: devotees and characters search for a more personal and more intellectual climax than the atomised and individual life of the sex-surfer:
Lucy’s very real encounter in the stacks is the modern library’s attempted rejoinder to the loneliness of life online. The physicality of the library space is presented here as a concrete alternative to the interminable virtualness of contemporary erotic imagination. It’s the last argument for the library’s continued relevance as a space and of the subversive potential of books—both of which are, ironically, called into question by the very existence of Lucy. This book, like all recent library-porn books, cannot not be found on any actual shelf in the real world. It lives exclusively in virtual space.  
The threat of extinction has become a mainstay of recent library porn: again and again, the neglected love life of the librarian is a stand-in for the doomed state of the library generally.
The library sex fantasy has, in other words, entered an apocalyptic period. “Throw me on my back in the dark room with the microfiche,” says the narrator of “Checking Out,” the final story of 2011’s Nympho Librarian. “Fuck me amidst the relics of a world that progress threw away.”  
This is certainly something that speaks to me. In this country, libraries are being closed every day, thanks to the philistine government's preference for bombs over books. Here's a taster from the age of Austerity Erotica.
Soaked to the skin through her clinging, low-cut silk blouse and short skirt, lissom Lisa scurried up the steps of the library, knowing that within its close and labyrinthine walls, fulfilment - in so many ways - awaited her. Grasping the smooth, hard knob, she paused a moment before taking the plunge into a world of self-discovery. But as she slowly turned the handle, she spotted a sign pasted on the window.
'This library is now closed to improve customer experience. Clients may now take advantage of the Mobile Learning Centre (Fridays 6 a.m.-6.33 a.m every other month) or follow us on Twitter'.
Her hand fell from the door and, shivering now in the freezing rain, she trudged home to a low-fat Horlicks and a copy of More. The dream was over. 
Of course, libraries are no longer up to it architecturally. Too much plate glass, too many 'talk zones' and 'group…study areas'. Coffee bars and computers have taken over from dark corners and wide sturdy tables. They're explicitly social sites now, rather than places in which individuals skulk, seeking enlightenment or furtive romance.

Are you Irish? Take the quiz

Rick O’Shea, an Irish radio DJ on RTE’s 2fm , recently asked his listeners what questions they think should be asked on an Irish citizenship test....

• You are told that someone is "going spare," should you (a) Find him
a job (b) Find him a girlfriend (c) Avoid him

• Do your parents ever start conversations with "Do you know who's dead?"

• Ming the Merciless is (a) A comic book character (b) A TD and Mayor
from Co. Roscommon

• What is a holy show? (a) Religious programming (b) Something garish
worn without the wearer knowing the impact

• Do you live in mortal fear of leaving the immersion on?

• Someone says "I like your top." Your response is (a) Thanks (b) Penneys

• If a feature on the RTE news reports that an incident took place at
tea time what time did the incident occur?

• "Story horse!" translates as (a) A child's toy (b) A greeting between friends

• "Bleedin rappih" means (a) It's very fast (b) It's very good

• If someone was a 'gas man', would they (a) work for the gas company
(b) be really funny

• You'll get "some land" means (a) you're about to become the owner of
some property (b) you're about to be surprised

• Do you have an ineradicable belief in the restorative powers of flat 7up?

• When you're telling someone a great yarn and they implore you to
"Stop," do you (a) stop (b) keep going with gusto

• If someone offers to "put you in the pot", should you (a) flee from
the cannibals (b) accept their kind offer of dinner

Poetry corner

Spotted in this weekend's Guardian Review:

They fuck you up the government
You may not know it but they see
That you're a mug and so you'll spend
Nine grand on what they got for free.

(Jay Bernard, '11.16').

Amongst those who got free education were David Cameron (inherited multimillionaire) and George Osborne (inherited £3m from a tax-avoiding family trust fund while he was at university) - these are the people who think you've had it too easy for too long.

Bernard's poem is a parody of Larkin's famous 'This Be The Verse', one of my very favourite poems, especially the final stanza. He was a university librarian with a somewhat dyspeptic approach to students. I suspect he'd have loved fees. But he knew about families. His father had to be asked to remove the Nazi decorations from his office in Coventry Town Hall, several months into WW2.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

We know where you live

Here's an interesting piece for you students and academics:
With the best of intentions and the worst of outcomes, anonymous marking discredits lecturers and serves students badly. 
We used to do anonymous marking here. The idea was that it would lead to personality-blind results: no favouritism, no revenge on those who never turn up or ruin classes, no racism, sexism etc. I can see the point: it treats every student equally, wherever they're from and whatever they're like. The work gets a grade, not the student.

On the other hand - shouldn't the student get a grade? What happens when I have two essays written in poor English and fail them both, not realising that one is by a dyslexic student? Should the direct entrant from another country get some extra credit for catching up so quickly, and in a second language? Should I not mark according to my knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals? Why should a student who disrupts classes or doesn't bother to prepare get the same consideration as one who works hard but struggles? The balance is between the academic standards of the institution and the good of the student - and it's difficult. Anonymous marking assumes that individuality is a negative - I'm not so sure.

Then the administrators changed the form - without consulting any academics - so that students' names are fully visible on the essay coversheet and marking sheeting. Voila: goodbye anonymous marking, whether we like it or not.

Anonymous marking is also - as the article suggests - a tacit assumption that academics are bigoted and biased. I should be trusted not to mark down women, or black students, or a student with whom I have political differences. If I can't be trusted to do this, I shouldn't be in the job. The point of marking isn't to play 'gotcha': it's like being a doctor diagnosing a patient. We're here to help rather than judge. It's a long time since people wrote things like 'This is a disgrace: you should leave the university immediately' (true story). If we're open to students about what we're looking for, we shouldn't need anonymous marking (though given the sizes of our classes these days, an awful lot of marking is essentially anonymous because we don't know most of the students' names, which is awful).

Maybe there is a problem which needs the heavy hand of anonymity though - I haven't the resources to analyse all my marking over the years to see whether I've been biased in some way. What's your experience?

And how do you feel about this marking system?
On the last course I taught there were no complaints about my marking, even though none of it was anonymous. I returned essays with an evaluation of how students had performed against each assessment criterion, but without telling them the mark (it is well known that if you give a mark, most students will read the mark but will pay less attention to the comments). I then asked them to come and see me for a brief one-to-one tutorial, and tell me what mark they thought they had got and why. I was impressed by the accuracy of their guesses, and on the rare occasions when there was a serious discrepancy, we had a useful discussion about how the essay did or did not conform to the criteria - occasionally resulting in my revising the mark upwards.
My solution would be to follow the lead of Alverno College in the US and abandon grades altogether. This would release assessors from the absurdity of trying to distil complex qualitative judgements about a student's performance over a range of incommensurable assessment criteria into a single numerical grade. It would also wean students off their current obsession with grades, encouraging them to focus instead on developing the diverse range of skills a university education fosters. 

The media cycle… ugh

This weekend, the news was dominated by Stephen Hester and the £1m bonus he was due to get (on top of his £1m salary) for managing the disposal of RBS, the bank we all spent £45bn rescuing.

The Tories didn't want to stop him getting his bonus, nor did they want to talk about it. After all, the Chancellor was given £3m on his 21st birthday, so he doesn't really have a problem with acquiring large sums of unearned currency. Nor did the Tories want to talk about the other £35m Stephen Hester will 'earn' by the end of his 5 year contract.

So what do they do? They follow the time-honoured tradition of throwing out some moral outrage for the Mail readers. This time, it's a plan to deny injury compensation for anyone with a criminal record - a statistically tiny amount. Aided by the claim made by Soham child-murderer Ian Huntley after a fellow prisoner slit his throat, they're trying to foment a lynch-mob on the issue.

Personally, I think Huntley and any other victim of crime should get their compensation. The point of laws is that they apply equally to everybody, whatever they've done. If you start making moral exceptions, you end up with tyranny. Good laws are made on points of principle. Bad ones are made using extreme examples to whip up horror.

However, the wider point is that this is another importation of American politics. Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? asks how poor Americans have been brought to the point of voting against their own economic interests. This is how: they're encouraged to focus on personal and moral politics (gay marriage, guns, 'family values') while the professional politicians continue to create a Land Fit For Financiers. This is exactly what the Tories are doing: while we argue about criminals, they enrich themselves and their donors.

None of this is helped by Labour's David Lammy MP making a grab for rightwing territory himself, by claiming that the ban on beating children led to the summer riots. A couple of points for you David:
1. How do you know these people weren't beaten as children?
2. Most were in their late teens and twenties - the ban only came in during the late 1990s.
3. Grow up.

Floundering politicians always reach for the smack.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Meanwhile, Vole discovers a new toy

I've been told (thanks to an academic contact on Twitter) about Google's Ngrams: they use their database of pretty much every book written to extract raw data. For instance, I'm wondering about writing a piece on the use of 'banditti' in literature and the media, if - as I suspect - it's used in English with an anti-Catholic subtext. With Ngrams, I get a really good chart showing me how much and when it was used (click to enlarge):

So the term wasn't very common at all, but usage started fairly suddenly around 1730, there were four peaks - probably connected to Gothic literature like Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest (1791) and slowly declined. Google links to the texts which use the term (not newspapers, sadly) and allows you to crunch the raw data yourself.

Endless fun. What a great tool. Who knew, for instance, that the word 'git' reached its peak in 1940? Annoyingly, it doesn't distinguish between 'git on up' etc and 'git' as in idiot. I'm certainly looking forward to reading The Magic Git-Flip. (Neal's favourite word, 'gitwizard', appears not to have been taken up in literary circles as yet). 'Plashing' peaked in 1860, used in a very poor poem, in Dickens' All The Year Round magazine. Interesting, my names bump along as a choice in fiction until about 1980, since when usage has increased massively. Which makes me cool. Doesn't it?

Font swoon

Like punk rock? Hell yes. Like typefaces? Ohhhh yeah… Like classic 1960s/70s Penguin book design? Do I ever!

So it's obvious that I'll love the work of Swissted: cool Swiss modernist posters for gigs that actually happened. I'd love some good gig posters - American college towns seem to have beautiful ones whereas the UK doesn't - but the only place I know which sells them is extortionately expensive, of the one-kidney-isn't-enough kind.

But these… stunning.

Yet another uninformed comment on Lana Del Rey

I'd become reluctantly familiar with the Great Lana Del Rey Authenticity Debate weeks before I ever heard of her music. She might be a pop construction, she might be a musician in her own right. She might be from 'the streets', she might have a multimillionaire daddy. People are getting seriously worked up about this stuff.

Some points: looking for authenticity in pop music is a fool's errand. That's the point: pop is a line of coke, not a spiritual experience. It's about fantasy. Nobody refuses to read science fiction on the grounds that the authors have 'never been there'. Don't be ridiculous. Pop is about dressing up and play-acting. The only real question is whether it's any good, depending on what you mean by the term. My two-cents on this: not really. Bad lyrics, sub-Coldplay attempts at profundity. But not awful. If you like her voice, try Hydroplane or Paradise Motel instead.

What's much more interesting - to me at least - is the iconography employed in Lana Del Rey's videos. I watched three, 'Video Games', 'Blue Jeans' and 'Born To Die'. They're all very interesting - drawing on French and other European styles and imagery, yet very determined to present a postmodern version of America. 'Born To Die' makes the American flag central to the performance, as the extended backdrop to a supposedly 'alternative' man and woman. The other videos too include the Stars and Stripes amongst a welter of interesting references: 'Video Games' stages or references a series of 'iconic' political and cultural scenes, while 'Blue Jeans' seems very interested in the way European tropes (in this case, Monaco and Monte Carlo's casinos) are recast in the US - in the form of Las Vegas and petty crime.

The flag thing is fascinating. Is it part of a nationalistic turn in American popular culture, an extension of nationalism dominance, or an exploration of the contingent and contextual nature of what it means to be American? Certainly the lyrics don't help (along the lines of 'I'll love you 'til the end of time'), but there's something going on here. Americans relate to their flag in a way that's probably quite alien to liberal Europeans, but nothing in these videos is incidental. Your thoughts?

Twitter revolutions become a thing of the past

One of the most tedious features of the last 20 years has been politicians spouting off about the revolutionary (in both senses) potential of new media. Most of them are strangers to electronic communication: Alastair Campbell's memoirs record receiving his first amazed text message from Tony Blair, after he resigned as Prime Minister.

Politicians' advisers tell them that new media will break down global barriers. They make speeches about information wanting to be free. They also make speeches about rooting out piracy, libel, subversion and immoral content via laws and technical fixes. Freedom, it seems, is something you wish on your enemies, not your donor corporations. In fact you encourage your tech sector to export censorship software to the dictatorships you claim to oppose.

With the Arab Spring, elevated claims were made about Twitter, including the story that the White House prevailed on Twitter to postpone a maintenance shutdown because the platform was being used to spread resistance (that it was also being used to spread disinformation and threats is rarely mentioned, nor are solid actual figures: a massive rise in traffic doesn't tell you how many people are involved).

That's all over now. Twitter has announced that it intends to censor Tweets on a country-by-country basis. The US claims it has a freedom of speech guaranteed by Constitutional Amendment, but this is obviously - and to some extent understandably - limited. However, the political rhetoric has been that Twitter and other media sweep away national boundaries. The truth is that we're not in a post-national situation, and corporations don't want one. They prefer to own countries rather than supersede them: governing is boring, expensive and complicated. Twitter is, let's not forget, a capitalist enterprise. It doesn't care about your repression, or your freedom of speech. It wants to make money. If you're a woman, atheist or homosexual in Saudi Arabia, don't rely on Twitter to facilitate your self-expression or activism. The same goes for union leaders in China, democrats in Ukraine and jihadists in the UK.

We need to take a more sceptical and evaluative approach to new media. The empty speeches by boosters and politicians are shaped by electoral calculation and profit-seeking respectively. Our usage of new media/social media isn't revolutionary: it's shaped by the economic, social and cultural contexts in which we find ourselves. Blindly announcing that Twitter is (or should be) a force for freedom and apple pie is as ridiculous as claiming that space travel will get us out of our environmental fix, or that the motor car = liberation. Blindly rushing to be first in the neophiliac queue leaves commentators looking very silly later, as Hillary Clinton found when she praised net freedom to the skies, before realising that Wikileaks took her literally: in her words, 'an attack on the US'.  she and others haven't yet worked out that social media radically disperses interpretive authority (I'm trying to avoid claiming that information is power, because at bottom, millions of outraged Tweets are still outweighed by lots of guns and/or the means of production).

What have we learned?
1. Politicians: try to resist making sweeping generalisations which will inevitably be exposed the moment the demands of realpolitik change. Your citizens aren't as stupid as you assume when you make empty references to 'freedom' etc. I hope.

2. Citizens: don't put all your eggs in one basket. A pretty interface and free access doesn't mean that new media corporations are any less evil (whatever their mottos) than the big nasty companies they left behind. They're not activists or idealists: they want to make money and they will lobby governments, fund political parties, sell you, block you and silence you if that's what it takes.

3. Everybody: no issue is as simple as you think it is. This is a good thing.

Further reading: Mozorov's The Net Delusion.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Your favourite blog and you!

Over at Slacktory (which clearly isn't a British or Canadian site, given the negative connotations of 'Tory' amongst the non-evil sections of their populations, and the name reminds me that I invented the term 'slackademic' last year), there's a handy guide to what your favourite blogs say about your personality. It's based on popular hipster sites rather than blogs written by individuals, so yours truly isn't listed (bah! and no PZ Myers either), but some caught my eye.

Of the sites listed, I'm an ex-reader of Huffington Post, before I decided its politics were smug, narcissistic privileged woo:
Most of your pleasures are guilty pleasures.
a reader of BoingBoing:

You’ve voted for a satirical political candidate. You are someone's favorite uncle who taught them how to build their own toys. You are someone's "cool" aunt who sends the amazing Birthday gifts from far-off lands. You know swear words in fifteen languages. You have built seven completely different and contest-winning party costumes around a single vintage fez.]

a condition to which I aspire, though they missed the use of Arduino chips to create a working replica of the Enterprise, I'm a fan of Think Progress:
You can communicate multiple levels of disgust with your snorts.
and I intend to be a reader of The Awl:
You aren’t snotty about keeping books in good condition, you acknowledge that dogears and scribbled notes are healthy, but you have a few special editions you’d only lend out to a very close friend.
So what does your presence here on The Plashing Vole tell us? Many of you are current or ex-students, so you've been conditioned/brainwashed by my mordantly boring lectures. You clearly like sarcasm, Stoke City, and the sight of an innocent local Member of Parliament being bullied like an unwanted puppy, you heartless bastards. You tolerate my lengthy political and educational rants and take comfort from not being me. Reading Vole is, I suspect, the online equivalent of rubbernecking at a car crash: all very well when you're cruising past, not so great if you're being pulled from the wreckage and shovelled into a series of evidence bags.

Clearly you're all at the top of the scale for intelligence, wit, culture and attractiveness. Except for you, Zoot Horn.


More culture on me than a live yogurt

OK, so fresh from the political fray with David Miliband, I headed off to Keele University for a performance by the Vanbrugh Quartet, Ireland's foremost classical band - led by my cousin Gregory (though it was so long since we'd last met that I thought the cellist was my relative - good job I didn't give him an enthusiastic hug and kiss).

It wasn't the first performance of the night: I had the dubious pleasure of hearing some fine 1980s thrash metal at full volume on the bus, leaking through the headphones of an antisocial little gimp who should be thrashed to within an inch of his life. I like 1980s thrash metal, but find the reproduction qualities of cheap headphones add very little to the upper frequency ranges.

However, music soothes the furrowed and all that. The programme was Haydn's String Quartet Op. 76 No. 2, Shostakovich's Quartet No. 9, Arvo Pärt's Summa and Beethoven's Quartet in C minor, Op. 18 No. 4. The Haydn and Beethoven were lovely, but a little pretty for my tastes - what kept me hooked was the quality of the performance.

There's something astonishing about the interplay between four people who have to know absolutely everything about their colleagues' creative abilities, emotional approach and intellectual perspective to produce something that's more than four people playing what's in front of them. It was fascinating to see them wander off to different lodgings afterwards without really saying goodbye to each other, as though the bonds between them are far deeper than quotidian relationships. I wonder if rock bands have the same kinds of links and tensions. Do classical groups snort coke when they go off for the encore? Certainly the groupies differ somewhat - by about 45 years if last night's audience is representative.

The Arvo Pärt piece was short, reflective and pretty typical of the composer's mystical-minimalism - Gregory told me that when they played it for Pärt recently, he was pleased that they played it so much faster than everybody else. For me though, the highlight was the Shostakovich quartet: passages of beauty mixed with snarling, paranoid darkness, demanding total dedication from the musicians. It was disturbing and fascinating at the same time.

The encore piece was a short arrangement of a polka from Shostakovich's The Golden Age: unexpected light and funny.

Some clips (not by the Vanbrugh, sadly):

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Live-blogging David Miliband

OK, here we go. Apologies for the massive block of text.

I've posted the photos here, or you can click on these samples to enlarge for your erotic pleasure. If you want to compare the brothers, here are the pictures I took of Ed when he came to The Dark Place.

He's here on stage, wearing a Silk Cut shade tie, white shirt, no jacket - the standard sartorial grammar of the Third Way. Intro from the Dean (which mentions his candidacy for the Labour leadership but not the result!), then 'in conversation' with Keith Gildart, Reader in Labour History (as in work, not the Party) and all-round good egg. After that, the floor opens. To reveal the Hellmouth.

Ed likes to use his hands. Like A Muppet On A String.

Turnout very impressive - c. 290 in a 300-seat lecture hall.

Foreign policy questions:
Straight in with 'intervention/nonintervention': was the balance right, with reference to Iraq and Afghanistan.

WTF mate?

A. 'Central feature of the modern world is interdependence: economically, ecologically, public health and security. We have to intervene, there's no question. We just have to understand our rights and responsibilities with regard to abuses of rights and responsibilities elsewhere'. Mentions Anne Frank and calls the 1930s a tragedy of non-intervention, (OK, when are we going to invade Saudi Arabia, say I: one of the worst human rights abusing countries on earth)?

'What if you're attacked by a non-state actor - Al-Qaida, hosted by a state? I argue you have a responsibility to do something about it. Winning the war in Afghanistan was easy: winning the peace was more difficult. Military action no use without political understanding'.

OMG! Whateva!

Q. Given the outcome of Iraq, will the balance between intervention and non-intervention change?
A. The break-up of Yugoslavia without intervention was wrong. We had migration issues even if you're not concerned with moral arguments. Later Yugoslav intervention over Kosova was right. There's been a swing away from intervention after Iraq.

Q. What are your thoughts on the future of Europe?
A. I feel strongly that this is an interdependent world, a global village. Your immediate neighbours are where foreign policy starts. We have a strong interest in strengthening the EU and solving the Euro crisis. Small powers can't survive without a stable neighbourhood. IN respect of the Euro crisis started as a €50bn Greek crisis - a small problem which blossomed because it wasn't solved: now a global slump is looming because the markets think that if the EU can't solve Greece's problems, it can't solve Italy's, Spain's or France's problems. Answer: the ECB must fund to prevent market speculation. Debt-holding countries must take some responsibilities, and so must debtor countries. Greece only has olive oil and tourism: the other countries have more resources. We're a European country, and the EU and Britain are stronger when they're both strong. Cameron didn't veto anything: he walked out without stopping the other nations continuing. We look weak and we've said we can insulate ourselves from EU economics and politics - a tactical and political blunder which he thinks is a master-stroke in political terms. He feels the EU will be less important when India and China come through, whereas being in the EU will help us when that happens.

Q. What about the 'special relationship' with the United States? How will US foreign policy develop with an election coming up?
A. Obama is likely to win, but it's not certain and it will be close. The money involved is corrosive but both sides have enough to be competitive. Obama understands that the US has to make alliances and engage these days: a multipolar war. I'm very concerned about Iran and military intervention would be disastrous - as would Iran breaking the Non-proliferation Treaty. The EU needs to contribute its fair share too. The Americans will think less of the UK if it loses credibility in Brussels.

The Americans use the term 'special relationship', but only to keep the British media happy.

Look guys, y'know, c'mon… Very Blair pose.

Q. How should Labour respond to the Austerity argument?
A. We should say that this austerity programme has crossed the line and is actually a masochism programme. Govt. spending is down, exports are under pressure, business investment is low and consumers are too scared to spend. Put those together and it's not a surprise that the economy has shrunk. We need to tackle the deficit, but if we kill off growth, the deficit will grow, we'll have to reduce public spending even more… we have a fundamental quarrel with the way the government has gone about it.

We also have to be honest about our role. The crisis was born on Wall Street, not Downing Street. But claiming to end Boom and Bust was wrong because that can't be done. We shouldn't project spending based on expected earnings.

Q. Do you see ideological battles coming up, like after the 1979 defeats? Does Labour have a coherent ideology?
A. We'll get one without a civil war. Labour is a specialist in long-term opposition. Under Ed, we aren't having a civil war. New Labour was culturally open. It didn't confuse idealism with doctrine and dogma?

Q. Social mobility: didn't Labour lose touch with its electoral base?
A. No. We got our best result ever in 1997. We didn't foresee the global forces impacting social conditions. Equality, yes - but of what?
Q. Education?
A. No. Educational inequality actually diminished under Labour. We didn't defend our record well enough. If we don't, the Daily Mail or the Guardian will do it for us [I think he means they'll criticise Labour].
Q. Where do you disagree with the coalition?
A. They'll make social mobility much worse. Youth unemployment and long-term unemployment is very high. You students need to work hard. But those 250,000 long-term unemployed may never work again. The trebling of tuition fees and abolition of social sciences/humanities subsidy hasn't been done anywhere in the world. In South Shields, there's no university campus or culture. The danger is that too many young people will see university as not for them. The gains may be thrown into reverse.

Questions from the floor compered by Andy Cooper, Associate Dean.
Q. Will you run for Labour leadership again?
A. [Groans] I don't know. No vacancy for along time anyway.
Q. You were favourite to win the leadership. How did you come back from that psychologically?
A. I've never gone! You should never try for anything if you don't really want it, but you shouldn't run if you think it's the end of the world if you don't get it. I've got a chance to reflect, which is important after 15 years at the top of politics. I've got room for new things: the Movement for Change Community Leadership Academy, which you might think is odd for me to run! I'm doing grassroots politics, for the people and by the people. I still feel strongly about the stupidities and injustices I see about me, but I'm trying new ways to do things about them.
Q. Would you describe yourself as a socialist?
A. Yes, though other people might not describe me as one. There are 2 traditions: one as an economic system of public ownership- not my tradition. The other is about values: social justice, equality, common endeavour - ethical socialism. I'm a social democrat in a better description: shared goals with socialists. Socialist values are good values, but economic socialism can be very oppressive.
Q. What definition do you give for international students? What role do you think international students play in British society?
A. Where are you from? (Cameroon). The internationalisation and expansion of universities have been inspirational. Universities have transformed our cities. Internationalisation was key to this. 85,000 Chinese students. Very pleased you've come to the UK rather than to a French university (Cameroon is francophone). International students educate home ones. The Tory reduction of student fees is 'idiotic' and 'stupid', economically and culturally. It hands advantages to other countries. I'm really very clear that internationalised education has been a  really good thing.
Q. In the last election, the Greens won seats in Parliament. Is Labour's under threat from minority parties?
A. They're a warning that people feel you're not taking their concerns into account. Our electoral system keeps 4th/5th parties out, unlike Europe, which practices PR. Postwar Holland used to be a beacon of multicultural life, but it's now riven by ultra-rightwing politics. On Green politics, this is the defining issue of our generation. We're serious about it - unlike the US. Obama's do-nothing Congress holds him back and the Chinese have overtaken the world in technical and regulatory solutions! The Greens are a healthy warning - but don't vote for them.
Q. It's a year since the Egypt protests. How does the Arab Spring affect foreign policy?
A. Where are you from? (Pakistan). Heritage? (Pakistan). The Arab Spring comes from the Arab innate demand for dignity. Brought about by corruption and kleptocracy on behalf of the Mubaral regime, and from the global village, which introduced ideas of democracy and freedom via technology. [This is v. unconvincing]. Tech enabled organisation too. I call it the 'civilian surge', happening in Russia, parts of China. What do we make of the rise of political Islam? These are people in democratic politics inspired by the Qu'ran. Some in the Muslim Brotherhood would say they're the same as Christian Democrats, like Merkel. Others would take a different more sectarian view. My view is that this will play out in a way the West can't decide. We should engage strongly with the Muslim Brotherhood, not demonise it or push it underground. We should be clear about our own values of non-racist respect, and in foreign policy, we've got to see that Arab democratisation is a force for long-term stability whereas dictatorships are short-term stability not long-term. In Pakistan, Islam has either been used to beat up democracy as under Zia, or as an alternative to democracy, neither of which is good. Pakistan was founded as an Islamic democratic state. It needs the debate of ideas within this space. Its failure was to fail to reconcile Islam and politics.
Q. Possession of nukes by some countries will always be a threat to someone: don't we need to be more serious about disarmament at home?
A. You're right. 2 years ago it would have been harder to answer that question. Disarmament looks more likely. The US and Russia are disarming very fast. We should be very serious about multilateral disarmament. The NPT has 3 parts: non-proliferation, rights to civil nuclear, responsibility of nuclear states to disarm. Israel, Pakistan and a couple of others haven't signed. We should disarm. We're down to a minimum deterrent now.
Q. Foreign policy: Your party went to Iraq to disarm a dictator. There are other countries still under dictators. People think Libya was an economic intervention. If you are a party leader, is it possible to dispel this suspicion that England goes to war for self-interest?
A. Our wars weren't for economic gain. No country puts its own country at risk for economic gain since the 19th century. Wars are too expensive in treasure and blood. People voted for war for other reasons. Honestly, I promise you. I was there. You don't have to believe me.
Q. As an MP, what's the hardest ethical conflict you faced?
A. Er… easy to answer: how to protect the country, who you co-operate with, what tactics you use. We are committed to public safety and national values. How you resolve that… The hardest thing is when not to commit to actions when security is compromised.
Q. During your time as Foreign Secretary did you have anything to do with North Korea and what do you think of the new leader?
A. Basically no. Outside UK sphere of interest. USA and China led on that. I don't know about the new guy. He's a mystery. He's got a very tough job and it's unclear what tools he has: mental and other resources.
Q. What do you think about CSA charging lone parents?
A. It's really important. The saddest cases I have as an MP, the most frustrating, are family break-ups, when women and men tell me heart-rending stories about money not coming, property grabbed, visiting rights infringed. There are problems with the CSA. It was going to be wound up - the residual CSA leaves parents faced with the courts or a charge on the parent chasing their money. Because the CSA had such a bad reputation, there was no alternative to closing it - it became a bureaucratic nightmare dealing with incredibly complicated families, liars etc. I haven't a better alternative but I don't like it. Have you? (Questioner: charge the fathers - negotiation is impossible when a man walks out). A. Charging the father was the idea - but it hasn't worked. Where the route to the father is blocked, state support and welfare is essential.
Q. With unemployment so high and £9000k fees, what are the remedies for youth and fees alternatives?
A. The easy answer is fees = terrible. But it's not an honest answer. It's right that graduates pay for some of the cost. I supported the introduction of tuition fees. But there isn't a fee - what we have is a system of loans paid back if you get a decent-paying job. Maintenance is a separate issue. Where the current government went wrong is tripling fees with no concept of the consequences for students and universities. The original fee wasn't popular, but non-university training isn't subsidised. Taxpayers AND graduates should contribute. But it's not a fee: you pay back when you earn £21,000. No party promised to triple fees - this brings politics into disrepute. But I can't say we should scrap graduate contributions. The taxpayer should be a partner with the graduate. I fear we'll throw away the UK HE system.
Q. Aren't people being taxed twice? Tax often at higher rate + fees.
A. In a way, a graduate tax is problematic: courses have different lengths and costs. You aren't paying twice. Just a bit more.

[Running out of power - don't be surprised if I conk out].

Q. Is it time the British public had a referendum on EU membership bearing in mind other countries have had them since 1975.
A. I don't think that's right. Ireland's had 2, but that's because their constitution says any treaty requires one. We should have them when fundamental changes are proposed, e.g. joining the Euro. I don't see referenda are the answer in parliamentary systems unless major constitutional changes are proposed, which they aren't. Don't confuse the EU and the ECHR/Council of Europe. We should be in there shaping the EU to our advantage. You're proposing to revisit our original terms? I can see the argument but I'm not persuaded.
Q. Is there enough self-doubt in your political life, Labour and the political sphere? (My question)
A. Self-criticism or self-doubt? (Me: both). Self-criticism is public, self-doubt is private. I've reflected a lot on my own politics. Labour needs to understand why people voted against it and respects it. We need to understand why we're perceived as out of touch and statist. Self-doubt is a different area: you've always got to have the humility to know you might be wrong and be open to see how other people might see you, without getting buffeted by how the media see you - don't follow fashion, you might not be wrong.
Q. Scottish independence?
A. I'm not for Scottish or English independence. More devolution gives the best of both worlds. It's up to the Scots. Independence would be bad for Scotland and bad for Britain. The bailout of RBS cost 4 times the GDP of Scotland: a potent argument for pooled sovereignty.
Q. Movement for Change: will it expand internationally?
A. We're linked to an Egyptian group. Go to the website and see what's there. I'd love there to be community leaders across The Dark Place. We map power, explain how to organise power and make it felt. Labour Students in this university are campaigning on a living wage on campus.
Q. What would you say to Michael Gove about education?
A. Stop worrying about 100 or so schools - look after the thousands of schools.
Q. You fraudulently claimed hundreds on expenses including a £450 bed. Are you going to give the money back and can't you pay for your own bed?
A. I didn't like the expenses system, but you can't accuse me of fraud: that's a criminal offence.
Q. Something about Islamophobia - Miliband answers that even the day after the London tube bombings, the British people and press behaved well. The questioner then claims that 7/7 was an inside job and Miliband points out that one of Britain's strong points is that he has a right to claim such things. This receives a round of applause.

I totally pwned your ass. 

Overall: I'm nowhere near his politics, and never will be (the Labour Party is a broad church), but beneath the slick professionalism of a career politician, Miliband comes across as human, likeable, thoughtful and decent. He converses well and doesn't pander to his audience - and deals with the mad quite effectively.

For my less political readers

I'm not all about the political LULZ. As a favour to those of you more interested in the cultural sphere, I have a special treat for you.

I was reading today about the history of newspaper corrections and readers' editors (this constitutes excitement in my life), and found myself reading about one of the most famous corrections in the New York Times, a great newspaper, but also one of the most boring, visually unattractive and pompous publications since Pharaohs dictated their own obituary hieroglyphs.

The correction in question was on the subject of My Little Pony, not a cultural scene to which the NYT has hitherto paid much attention:
An article on Monday about Jack Robison and Kirsten Lindsmith, two college students with Asperger syndrome who are navigating the perils of an intimate relationship, misidentified the character from the animated children’s TV show “My Little Pony” that Ms. Lindsmith said she visualized to cheer herself up. It is Twilight Sparkle, the nerdy intellectual, not Fluttershy, the kind animal lover.
This lead to the author's discussion of Ponygate (as I'm calling it), which contained the revelation that there's a massive underground My Little Pony scene, presumably amongst the kind of hipster who when I'm in charge, will be reassigned to night soil collection duties. There's even a music scene based on My Little Pony remixes, known as Dubtrot. Here's a sample, though if you're wise, you won't play it.

Is this just hipster foolishness? Only if you habitually use the word 'just' in reference to cultural phenomena. Deserving of painful deaths though they are, hipsters are a feature of late modern capitalism and as such deserve cultural deconstruction. I think they're part of the Western capitalist extension of childhood, alongside adults and BMXs and skateboards, computer gaming and a range of other leisure activities which require adults to maintain their consumption and collection habits from their childhoods. Assigning emotional value to lowest-common-denominator artefacts like My Little Pony is a natural extension of the market. You no longer need to 'grow out' of forms of play: the economy demands that toys become 'collectibles', that you find supposedly subversive, ironic or countercultural meanings in items and activities which once you would have discarded. Once, growing up meant getting a job and earning money to spend on adult leisure activities. But in the US, getting a job is a) hard, b) badly-paid (American working and middle class salaries are no higher than they were in the mid-1970s and c) leaves little leisure time: Yanks work long hours and have on average 2 weeks' holiday per year.

This means of course that leisure must be intellectually unchallenging - these people are tired - cheap, and provide an instant emotional hit at a low cost. Hence the appeal of remixing ripped cartoons and watching The A-Team film. Adult life isn't profitable for the corporations, but childhood is because parents indulge their children. If you extend childhood beyond the traditional limits (the way parents interfere with their children's progress at university implies that we're now well into the 20s), you open up new opportunities for profit.

In this sense, My Little Pony is no different from Hollywood's obsession with remakes: the people running the studios are the fat kids who spent their lives in front of the TV, and have no concept of quality. Instead, they have a keen marketer's understanding of the value of nostalgia.

Don't buy it. Send My Little Pony to the knacker's yard.

What a cultured life

Today's agenda: Shakespeare, then attending David Miliband's appearance, then seeing the Vanbrugh Quartet perform Beethoven, Pärt and more. If only I had the same dedication to writing as I do for pleasure.

I'll be live-blogging the Miliband experience, so feel free to leave a message via the comments or Twitter (@plashingvole) if you've a question or comment you'd like me to pass on. I'm filtering a range of questions: given that I think he's a genuine war criminal with no ideological integrity, I don't think he'll directly answer anything other than the softest of questions. But hopefully I'm wrong.

My major problem with David and Ed Miliband is that I genuinely don't know what they're for. Nor am I convinced that they know. They're Labour aristocracy (their father Ralph was a leading intellectual socialist who would be appalled by them), but - sadly unlike their evil Tory rivals, who have a very clear ideological position summarised as 'f•ck you' - they have no coherent ideology. Calling for 'fairness' is like voting for nice sunsets, while 'moral capitalism' makes me think of the mice deciding to bell the cat. They - and the Labour Party, of which I'm a member - have fallen for the belief that the Daily Mail and the Sun represent the Great British Public. Perhaps (the horror, the horror), they do: but I see absolutely no faith in Labour's upper reaches that the people are intelligent and unbigoted, hence New Labour's relentless pandering to the nastiest racist, hanging-and-flogging instincts they perceive Out There.

If the public is as awful as these papers and our political leaders believe, Labour's duty is to change that. It won't be easy, especially given the overwhelming bias of the media. Old Labour politicians know this: they used the language of the mass meeting and of the pulpit to espouse a moral crusade. New Labour is a follower, not a leader. From this, all its neoconservative and neoliberal policies flow. Extradite suspects to countries that torture? Yes: can't look weak. Privatise the universities and hospitals? Definitely: can't look charitable. Lynch the unemployed? Certainly: the Mail says they're all scroungers. Deregulate the banks? Of course - otherwise we look bitter and jealous.

The politics of fear leads to Labour ceding the public sphere to the Tories. Labour seems to assume that the population's default setting is Conservative, so they spend their time looking for managerialist and presentational differences - often manufactured - rather than making a clear and positive case for voting Labour. This is cowardice.

I actually think a lot of people like our public services, don't want people to be homeless and hungry, have quite an appetite for radical financial reform, and hanker for the days of Attlee. But we'll never know, because the imagined public is much more important to our politicians than the real one.

Books in…

I feel like I'm running a branch library. Though unlike my university library, I'm still acquiring books, and unlike municipal ones, I'm still open. Or I will be again, once whoever borrowed my copy of Gender Trouble returns it. You utter git.

Bumper crop yesterday, thanks to the Oxford University Press Sale - serious academic texts with massive reductions - and other sources.

Sixty Stories, Donald Barthelme.
How to be an MP, Paul Flynn.
Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006, Paul Bew. Bew's a former left-winger (aren't they all? Shades of the neoconservatives who started off as non-communist left-wingers grouped around Partisan Review and eventually became militant anti-Soviet Cold Warriors) who took a Barony and advised David Trimble, so not exactly my cup of political tea, but he's an interesting writer.
Shakespeare, Sex and Love, Stanley Wells.
Dark Eden, Chris Beckett.
Modern English War Poetry, Tim Kendall (I'm trying to persuade a student to do her dissertation on war poetry from Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than WW1 like everybody else).
Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch.
Myths and Memories, Gilbert Adair (a British version of Barthes' Mythologies).
Exodus, Julie Bertagna (another in the flood (ho ho) of YA eco-collapse novels).
Nation and Novel: the English Novel from its Origins to the Present Day, Patrick Parrinder.
Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature, Marah Gubar.
William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man, Duncan Wu (he's a window cleaner now).
Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2000 years by Louise Foxcroft (preliminary reading for my MA module on Victorian fads, though the book looks more lightweight than I was expecting).

I shall be absorbing these books via osmosis.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Leave those kids alone

I once thought that Christopher Woodhead was the Demon Headmaster: a Chief Inspector of Schools who seemed to openly despise state education and all who sailed in her, a reactionary blowhard whose positive view of sexual relationships between school pupils and staff may not have been entirely unconnected to suspicions that his own relationship with an ex-pupil might have started earlier than he let on… This is the man whose next job after several years of unfounded, bitter attacks on state schools was CEO of a chain of fee-paying schools - and called for the leaving age to be reduced to 14 (obviously all the most successful countries believe in less education).

Pretty bad - but it's time for Chris to move over: there's a new massive wanker in charge of OFSTED now. I'm used to governments putting their most unintelligent, populist, sinister and dangerous MPs into the Home Office (Straw, Blunkett, Howard, Waddington…): the same treatment seems to have been instituted in education policy. Privately-educated Michael Gove is hellbent on abolishing state education, while his Universities Minister, David Willetts, seems to see himself as the Man Who Abolished Universities.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, OFSTED's new head, seems to be instituting the equivalent of corporal punishment for teachers. To him, teachers are layabout scum, whose namby-pamby niceness to pupils will lead to ANARCHY and HAPPINESS:
 We tell the youngsters and we tell the parents we don't care really what background you're from; it's where you're going that's the most important issue. If you take into account ethnicity, free school meals and a whole range of other indicators, it can give the impression that you're making excuses.
Superficially positive, isn't it? I've a colleague who told us all that we should treat our students as blank slates, with no identity at all. Their backgrounds were irrelevant: she claimed this was a form of radical, progressive liberation, which is typical of privately educated people who've never had to struggle. It's dangerous and reactionary. Many of our students are from genuinely poor backgrounds. A lot are from minority ethnic groups which have been badly served in school and in the wider community. These are hurdles we need to appreciate and adapt to: not by making excuses, but by tailoring our educational approach to their needs. Wilshaw rejects this, and therefore firstly denies his students any cultural identity - a classic example of hegemonic racism and classism by someone who has never had to struggle - and secondly ensures that any failure is automatically the student's fault: never mind if she's a primary carer, or he's got no study space or access to books, who cares if the kids in front of you are hungry?

But that's not all: how's this for charming?
A good head would never be loved by his or her staff, he added: "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right."
I can think of several leadership models he's learned from. Stalin. Hitler. Pol Pot. More importantly, the idea comes directly from Sun Tzu's The Art of War and from Machiavelli's The Prince. Both these texts are taught on MBA programmes and the kind of 'leadership' courses beloved of the terminally shallow. I am profoundly worried by the idea that the country's most important educationalist envisions schooling as a state of permanent internecine warfare in which those at the top must ceaselessly crush factions jockeying to overthrow him. The idea that any management system must be based on fear is frighteningly unintelligent - or the product of a deeply damaged psyche - I wonder what his schooldays were like.

I don't know if you watched Educating Essex last year: the fly-on-the-wall documentary filmed in an Essex comprehensive school. Staff and students faced appalling problems: behaviour, mental illness, resources problems, the lot. Each episode was a lesson (sorry) in emotional maturity. The headmaster was warm, witty, passionate, caring and loving, both of his students and his staff, and they reciprocated. If you treat your colleagues as the enemy, you'll end up alone and paranoid - the point of Educating Essex was that every member of staff adored each other, the boss and the kids - a healthier, more successful way to success.

The other point about Wilshaw is that he's utterly contradictory: while proclaiming a credo of uniformity, respect and obedience to the kids (literally: uniforms, mass standing up, silence etc), he's practising a life of radical individuality in which it's him against The World (his colleagues, whom he despises). Clearly not a reflective thinker.

In contrast, a school managed through fear will poison the children, who will learn (as if The Apprentice and similar shows aren't enough) that only individualist victory over everybody else (the enemy) is the criterion for success. It's a vicious, backwards mentality which will only aid social decay. Children aren't evil spirits to be contained and bent to your desires: Educating Essex was the perfect antidote, because that school did its very best to persuade a bunch of spiky, complicated, messy kids that education is a personal and social good. Wilshaw wants to produce obeisant robots - students and staff - through terror: Passmore's school added to its students individuality by widening their horizons, whereas Wilshaw wants to remove any trace of personality.

The Demon Headmaster has a catchphrase - one which Wilshaw could easily adopt.
I hope you are not going to be a person who won't co-operate with me . . . "
Start 5 minutes in for a taste of Wilshaw's reign of terror.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Advice for Uppals

As you know, my normal mode of communication with Paul Uppal MP is shouting from the moral heights down at him in the moral depths, but for a change, I'm going to pass on some advice (though he probably won't be able to tune in - as he sometimes does from a House of Commons computer - because Parliament's IT services have blocked all blogspot sites - including those of several MPs).

OK, to the advice. It's 'buy Paul Flynn MP's new book, How To Be An MP'. I know it's a bit late, given that you've been one for a couple of years now, and you won't be one for much longer (you only got in this time because loads of Labour voters abstained: the Tory vote hardly shifted) with your majority of 691.

Flynn's seen people like you before. The cover of the book features the 'types' of MP, including 'virtuoso bore', 'single issue eccentric' (though your dishonesty on the matter of tax breaks for yourself makes you more than an irritant) and 'irritant'. However, having started off by misleading parliament and joining a rather dubious list of all-party parliamentary groups, I think he might, given enough time and opportunity, aspire to becoming a 'Sleaze Monger':
Little talent or qualification is required, only guile and a thick skin. The job is to ask questions, fix meetings with ministers and make speeches prepared by Avarice Unlimited plc, Despot-stan, or Pharma-larceny… exceptional mental flexibility is required to pile up private riches while posing as the servant of the masses… Self deception is a potent force when lubricated with money. 
I think I've found his niche…

Other useful sections include 'How To Tweet':
Constituents can enjoy a constant communion of ideas and inspiration with their Honourable Member. Strive to find the best words to create a striking aphorism or a haiku… The best MPs use Twitter to argue and debate with people they might never have met but whose ideas are interesting and important (and sometimes idiotic and obnoxious, but that's democracy). 
If you're familiar with Mr. Uppal's Twitter stream, you'll understand why he needs to read this section twice. Or have someone explain it to him. He rarely replies to anyone, and they're always Tories when he does - he sees Twitter as a propaganda tool rather than a conversation (unlike Flynn). The 'How to Blog' section probably isn't worth reading: he faked one before the election, deleted some comments he didn't like and gave up. He's one of those of whom Flynn (an excellent blogger) sees as 'terrified of saying anything interesting. They hold that thinking is optional and originality dangerous for MPs'. Whereas blogging, says Flynn, 'is a welcome discipline to jump-start the synapses into daily callisthenics'. Works for me… or does it?

I won't quote the 'How To Please Constituents' section, because he's shown no interest in that at all: he turns up at Tory-friendly events, says something shifty to retain their votes, then slinks back to his tax-planning. Suffice it to say, a good MP does more than wheel out his or her own financial interests and loony beliefs, prefixing each sentences with 'my constituents tell me' as though we can't see through that. Paul can also skip the 'How to be Re-elected' section (he's beyond help), though 'How To Resign' might come in useful.

I'll close with this quotation, sent to me by an expert in Jacobite drama, which she felt might suit the errant MP:

…to hold a place
In Counsell, which was once esteem'd an honour,
And a reward for vertue, hath quite lost
Lustre, and Reputation, and is made
A mercenary purchase.
From whence it proceeds,
That the treasure of the City is ingros'd
By a few private men

Philip Massinger, The Bondsman.

Aural sex

That got your attention, didn't it?

Anyway, my more distant relatives have separate fingers, rather than webbed paws with which we mash the keyboard inarticulately. One of my cousins is in fact so much higher up the evolutionary ladder that he's put his opposable thumbs to musical use, as a member of the Vanbrugh Quartet, wonderful interpreters of classic and contemporary music.

If you don't believe me, see for yourself: 7.30 in the Chancellor's Building, Keele University, this Wednesday.

Here's an excerpt from their rendition of a Dvorak quartet, and a bit from a documentary about them. They've even been on an Irish stamp! Beat that, Kronos!

People who just don't get it, part 94

This is Chris Dodd, the former Senator and now head of Hollywood lobbyists the Motion Picture Association of America (see how corruption works?)
"You've got an opponent who has the capacity to reach millions of people with a click of a mouse and there's no fact-checker."
There's a man who really doesn't get it. Yes, there are some loudmouths doing slapdash things on the internet. I can see one reflected in the shiny screen of my MacBook Pro right now. But the strength of web culture is that there are millions of fact-checkers - and the vast majority of them aren't being paid to be the mouthpiece of philistine billionaire self-interested corporations (who have the resources, I would think, to do their own fact-checking. I write this stuff for free. Not only because nobody wants to pay me, but because free relates to my opinions too.

Here's my Guide to Social Media for Chris Dodds:

Lobbyists and PR: taking money to unreflectively have somebody else's opinions.
Gits with blogs: not taking money, propagating their own opinions.

That is all.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The music stops

The day has suddenly become unutterably gloomy. I've just heard that Cob Records/Recordiau Cob in Bangor is closing down. This one place is where I became an adult, where I developed my tastes, where I felt accepted and welcome (and frequently laughed at).

In the heady days of Britpop, I arrived at university in 1993 with two cassette tapes (a Best of Vaughan Williams and R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People) played on a crappy white double-tape player from Argos - soon replaced by a rubbish 1970s record player from my parents' attic. Determined to become a hip young gunslinger, I put on the black leather biker's jacket a friend had abandoned in my room at school, bought some Doc Martens and headed down to Cob Records. I must have cut a pathetic figure.

Record shops those days weren't comfortable. Customer service was anathema. You crossed the threshold knowing that handing your choices over the counter was volunteering to be judged. It was terrifying and exciting. Cob was staffed by looming, burly men who thought nothing of teaming male pattern baldness with tie-dye t-shirts or Datblygu merchandise. They revelled in being the local arbiters of taste. They would take my purchases and make judgmental remarks about them to their colleagues - in Welsh for added alienation. I struck lucky with my very first choices: a Tindersticks 10" EP and a 10" Gorky's Zygotic Mynci album, Patio. The Tindersticks scored for being sophisticated, while the Gorky's album was local, in Welsh and unhinged - exactly what Cob's staff loved. The weird format also helped my credibility too. I still have them, lovingly looked after.

My first purchase: Tindersticks' cover of Townes Van Zandt's 'Sweet Kathleen' b/w E-Type Joe

The whole process was terrifying. Cob stocked CDs at the front for the yuppies, and a massive selection of vinyl records: wading through the dust floating in the limited daylight which pierced the murk to get to the vinyl earned you a few credibility points. Handwritten placards divided the soul from the indie from the Welsh-language from the metal from the rave. Learning which sections to avoid was a rite of passage, as was acquiring the manual handling skills which enabled you to nonchalantly flick through a rack of albums while avoiding cuts from the plastic sleeves. As I gradually became inducted into the cult, I'd learn to spot side-projects from bands I liked, or labels whose output I'd buy whether or not I'd heard of the individual band (Ankst, Too Pure, Bella Union, Fierce Panda, Sain, Secretly Canadian, Les Disques du Crepuscule, Sarah/Shinkansen, PIAS, Elefant, Chemikal Underground, Ché, Creeping Bent, Domino, Damaged Goods, Wiija and so many more). The secret references in band names and album titles became a hermeneutic code to which I'd been granted access. Slowly, mind you: I was a slave to the opinions of the NME, much to the scorn of Cob's staff.

But eventually, I became an object of kindly contempt rather than a sucker. They started to talk to me rather than wave my purchases around for the amusement of the cool kids. As my addiction grew, they'd show me the pre-release list every Thursday so I could order next week's new sounds. On Monday, I'd call in hopefully. On Tuesday, I'd get my hands on the loot, stuffed into Cob's distinctive yellow plastic bags, of which I still have a few lying around. Each 7", 10", picture disc or LP bore a little sticker with my name and the price - I reckon I spent £20,000 or more there over 7 years, but never a discount did I get, despite effectively putting their kids through college! Before long, the number of bags increased, and Alan, Owen and the others got bold: they decided that I needed educating, and started adding records they thought I should have - mostly comprising stuff they couldn't sell, or records by their own bands: Ectogram, Y Seirff / The Serpents and a whole range of krautrock/psych/hippy/drone experimentalist Welsh-language material. Through them, I discovered the limitations of Britpop and my tastes expanded to cover the past and the hidden corners of music: minor labels, the Celtic fringe, the underground. I started going to see their bands - one memorable gig at a horrible pub called The Barrels featured David Wrench (still a favourite) backed by various members of Gorky's, Super Furry Animals, Melys and Ectogram. The paying audience was: me. They still played - superbly - and David bought me a pint. For a 19 year-old geek, that was my equivalent of doing coke with Led Zeppelin in 1973, or sharing a burger with Elvis.

Cob Records is a scruffy place. The decor was old posters and peeling paint. There were no easy chairs, no coffee outlets, no pseudo-friendly recommendations. Going in there was a test, and I often failed. Just because you gave them money didn't buy you obsequiousness: they'd sell you this stuff but they made damn sure you understood what a load of shit it was - until you earned their respect, and then a whole new world opened up to you.

I moved to Wolverhampton to do a PhD. There was a big record shop - Mike Lloyd's - for at least the first six weeks. Then it became (and remains) the biggest KFC in the Midlands, as far as I know. Birmingham has Swordfish and Tempus, and used to have the wonderful Plastic Factory, but I only feel like a customer there - at Cob, I was a neophyte member of a small, spiky, odd cult, and I miss it. Whenever I go back to Bangor, I call in at Cob, and regress to that speechless rake-thin (I wish) teenage nerd. The guys behind the counter (it was a very geek-male place) grin and produce some unsold tat and I buy it without question. It feels like home. Friends joked that I kept that place going: they might have been right.

Without Cob and places like it, music becomes nothing more than a commodity, lacking range, depth and emotion, something to be consumed like fast food. From Cob I gained friends, an identity, taste, enthusiasm for the unknown and the alternative. They showed me new worlds in a way Amazon never can. More specifically, record shops generate and sustain local cultures, from which new bands and movements spring. Without Cob, the Welsh language scene which produced so many great bands would have struggled: Amazon doesn't care what's happening in North Wales, or King's Lynn or Macclesfield.

I'll miss their scorn, the dust, the smell, the time never wasted while searching for that new/old sound, the fading flyers for long-vanished bands, the mix of enthusiasm and weariness, the sense that selling music was about sharing a way of life rather than shifting units, the idea that music promised a set of emotions and experiences rather than a means to riches. Cob Records wasn't a shop. It was a culture.

Bye Cob. I'm sorry I left you.

So THAT's what happened to the public intellectuals

A few weeks ago, I posted a long and quite diffuse piece on the declining prominence of public intellectuals: leading thinkers who used the mass media to introduce a degree of thoughtfulness and complexity into public debates. It got republished by the LSE Impact site, and by an American site too, so clearly it's not just me.

I was thinking about it again last night, having decided for some reason to watch the BBC's Question Time programme, in which political and public figures are invited to respond to current affairs questions from the general public. It's the TV version of BBC Radio 4's Any Questions?, which also has an unlistenably reactionary phone-in element, Any Answers?, the nearest this country gets to Alabama.

The shows have a long and arguably proud history, but they're also at the heart of the problem.  The format of several politicians plus a couple of 'colourful' or eccentric celebrities lends itself to propaganda and demagoguery: the pressure to be entertaining leads to the selection of controversialists who have media careers to push, while the politicians have become less and less thoughtful. 24 news, media monitoring and a hysterical press means that any politician on the show is forced to remain robotically 'on-message', parroting the briefing of the party's communications team. Individuality, ambiguity and indifference are in short supply. Last night's episode featured Baroness Warsi, a Tory who couldn't get an MPs seat because a) she's quite stupid and b) the Tory party is still very racist, and Stephen Twigg, a former New Labour MP. Neither of them had a single intelligent thing to say, because they were obsessed with repeating their party's 'talking points': Twigg was dull, while Warsi wheeled out inappropriate and unoriginal attack lines because she was incapable of responding to questions in an individual and flexible fashion. The other two guests were Charles Moore, a conservative but quite interesting journalist, and Germaine Greer, exactly the kind of media star picked for her predictably 'outrageous' opinions. Only Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, was intelligent, responsive and measured - which led to Baroness Warsi denouncing her for not being an imperialist. To see the daughter of Pakistani immigrants proclaiming her love for the British Empire was shocking - a triumph of ambition and ideological inflexibility over intelligence.

Rather than take the Douglas Adams approach occasionally ('I refuse to answer the question on the grounds that I don't know the answer', he once said), panellists feel they have to have a definitive response to everything.

Shows like this act as gatekeepers of public opinion. Germaine Greer should understand that she's there not for her media-friendly intellect, but to give the audience a little frisson - ooh, isn't she outrageous with her slightly wacky ideas? The show exists to maintain the dominance of a narrow version of political and intellectual life: the BBC's apology for not editing the 9/11 edition, in which the public expressed harsher opinions than politicians was incredibly high-handed, while the Nick Griffin episode was used not as an opportunity to expose his views as laughable, but for all sorts of celebrities to hold their noses and grab hold of the high ground. I also think that shows like this are dangerous because they imply some sort of accessibility and accountability. Politicians show up, run the risk of being booed sometimes, and feel they've 'faced' the public. It's fraudulent: they're exhaustively briefed on the party line, and their job is to make this preheated pap sound like their own opinions. If they get away with it, they report back to HQ that 'the line' has been propagated: there's no chance that they get back into the limo and ponder another panellist's ideas, or - heaven forbid - something an audience member said. The show looks like 'citizens' two cents' but it's actually a thinly-disguised propaganda outlet.

Question Time is the victim of political and celebrity culture. It's fallen into the trap of believing that everything is a party-political issue requiring representation - this leads only to the robotic utterances of Twigg, Warsi and their colleagues - while restricting discourse to a narrow field by adding a couple of guests by whom we're meant to be outraged or thrilled at their zaniness - Caroline Lucas manages to escape this trap by being hugely intelligent, whereas Greer and people like Alex James don't. Guests who don't take the same discursive approach, who don't accept the playing field set by the party politicians and received opinion are there to be laughed at or reviled - maintaining cultural and political hegemony by excluding whole swathes of opinion rather than examining them. Cannier guests - and I'd very much place Germaine Greer in this category - work out exactly what's wanted of them. She's tailored her 'product', or become a 'brand'. Having started out as a glorious radical feminist who made a huge difference to public culture, she is now a professional celebrity, reliably wheeling out slightly wacky opinions and good personalised putdowns: she adds the appearance of edgy radicalism while making no serious contribution to moving the goalposts away from the mainstream game. She's 'colour' rather than a threat to consensus. She knows this - it's how she makes her living.

Here's one of the most awful episodes: unelected Lord Adonis and Baroness Williams, Tory know-nothing loan-shark advertiser Carol Vorderman, comedy politician Boris Johnson and (thank Christ) Will Self, a man who eats morons for breakfast, though even he isn't immune from the 'opinions for money' syndrome.

Excerpts from the 9/11 episode:

What would I like? More boring guests. Experts. People who don't see an appearance as the route to occasional gigs on News 24 and a column in GQ or the Guardian if they manage to crack out a couple of zingers. People who don't feel the need to frame every question within the paradigm of party politics or triangulation. People whose careers don't depend on repeating a party line in the hope of preferment. People who introduce subordinate clauses to their answers and don't depend on audience applause for validation. People who aren't afraid to say that a question is complicated, difficult or even not worth discussing.

It's not likely to happen. The combination of rolling news (which creates vast swathes of space and time looking for something to fill it) and the gotcha politics of parties with no real ideological differences means that politicians in particular are terrified of saying anything which might give the opposition the chance to attack them for five minutes on Sky News. The cardinal sins in our public discourse are doubt and delay. A politician - or anyone else in the public eye - who says 'I'll need to think about that' is automatically painted as incompetent or untrustworthy. Egg donation? Libya? CDOs? Bankers' bonuses? Steve Jobs? Scottish independence? You've got to churn out the opinions without ever being given the time to research and ponder. (And yes, I know that's a little cheeky given that I'm a blogger).

Lest you think I'm feeling sorry for the politicians, I'm not. It's their fault. The determination to sound decisive and certain on every single event and issue communicates a contempt for the citizens. They've decided that we're all morons, and that we want and believe in the possibility of absolute conviction. We've been trained to belief that uncertainty = weakness, that any politician who doesn't have a snappy answer is out of his or her depth. I don't think that's true: in our own lives we're capable of holding multiple, contradictory or temporary opinions. In my profession, ambiguity and complexity are the highest virtues of contemporary literary studies. So why should we expect our politicians to hold the key to the Ultimate Questions? It's because we've been trained to assume that speed and simplicity of response equates to intelligence.

New Labour was the classic example. An élite group of highly-educated people from private schools, Oxbridge and political careers (very few of them were working class or had ever held jobs outside politics), they were fed the idea that the voters were angry, dumb and often racist. Rather than work out whether this was true, try to change opinions if so, or even meet some of these people, New Labour decided to pander to these perceived questions. It's hard to imagine now, but political communication relied on incredibly simplistic messages (pledge cards, sentences without verbs promising happy families or reduced immigration), while the serious politics (deregulation, interest rates, complicated diplomacy) was hidden away - too boring and complicated for the voters. Now, we're all experts in credit default swaps, bond markets and the intricacies of Syrian opposition groups (aren't we?), but our politicians haven't caught up: they're still treating us like hyperactive children to be pacified until our attention span means something shinier catches our collective eyes.

OK, I've strayed somewhat from my main point. Question Time isn't the cause of political cynicism, celebrity vacuity and the restriction of political discourse to an elite version of 'mainstream' - but it's symptomatic of a degraded and exhausted public sphere.