The Case Against Starbucks Capitalism

May 28, 2009

A Cup of CoffeeI don’t like Starbucks. But then again, I know what real coffee should taste like.

After I graduated from University with Honours in 1994, I was given a vacation in Kenya as a reward. I remember the morning after I arrived in Nairobi: the hotel’s dining room was painted a bright yet mild yellow, and was bathed in a golden equatorial sunlight that filtered in through a set of French doors. Coffee was brewing in a large copper and brass contraption that sat next to my table. It steamed and puffed like an old fashioned locomotive, churning and percolating its magic brew. When the cup was brought to me, I immediately got a blast of rich coffee scent. Intoxicating. I lifted the cup and took a sip.

There are some coffee snobs who compare the flavour of the beverage to wine in terms of complexity and depth; this was the sole instance in my lifetime in which the metaphor seemed justified. My eyes flew wide open and my mouth was awash with fresh tastes which hinted at chocolate, whiskey and a touch of vanilla. I sucked it down in one gulp and asked for another, and then another. This proved to be a mistake: the coffee fresh from a Kenyan plantation proved to have more caffiene than its stale, supermarket-bought counterpart. Fortunately, as a newly minted graduate, my over-exhuberance could be written off as a natural result of completing my course of study.

Starbucks, in comparison to that seductive Nairobi brew, tastes scorched beyond all recognition. I am reminded of how Bell Irwin Wiley wrote in his seminal work about the typical Confederate soldier, “The Life of Johnny Reb”, how sometimes the greycoats were obliged to burn peanuts to create a coffee substitute. Starbucks coffee tastes engineered to make one demand either a sweet pastry or sugary syrup to counteract its bitterness. On those rare occasions where there is no other alternative, I drink it, but with extreme reluctance.

Beyond providing a bad cup of coffee, however, Starbucks also provides an interesting example which shows much of what afflicts Western capitalism. The term “casino capitalism” has been used to describe the behaviour of the financial services industry. This phrase is accurate and illustrative: banks “bet” large sums of money on high risk investments, rather like a down and out gambler in Vegas taking another chance at the craps table; the difference being, of course, that the banks were using other people’s money rather than their own.

But what of the rest of the economy? What of the Wal Marts, McDonalds, Tescos and yes, Starbucks? Surely they do not fit the same “casino capitalist” mould – after all, many of these firms are still making money and they’re not directly “laying bets”. However, just because they are profitable doesn’t mean they’re not doing damage. Indeed, by looking in more detail at Starbucks rise, and subsequent problems, we can see many of the issues they create.

Starbucks began in 1971; at first, it was not a cafe. Rather, it sold coffee beans from a small outlet located in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. It was a rather bohemian enterprise; it had been founded by two teachers and a writer. In 1982, they changed emphasis and began to sell brewed coffee as well as beans. In 1987, the business was bought by the coffee shop chain Il Giornale, which subsequently changed its name to “Starbucks”. Since that time, it has been on a path of relentless expansion, putting outlets in places as far afield as Hong Kong. It later struck a deal with the book chain Barnes & Noble to provide coffee in its establishments, and has been doing so ever since.

We can see an arc in operation here: first, there was a small, local business, which was there to provide a decent living for its owners and to provide for local needs. Then, it was picked up by a larger company, which utilised its brand and humble origins to market a fantasy: namely, that each branch of a mass chain is somehow replicating the spirit, if not the intent, of the original. It then continues to penetrate the market to saturation point, even going so far as to infiltrate other large chains to spread its influence. But what is lost in the process is the dynamics which drove the success of the original: people liked the original Starbucks because they knew the owners and the owners knew their customers. The relationship meant that quality products were supplied. Because Starbucks is now a giant corporation, by definition it lacks the intimacy to maintain that link to the customer: rather, it is using its vast network to define what a cup of coffee should be. This is an inversion of Adam Smith’s ideas about capitalism; he stated in the Wealth of Nations that the invisible hand of individual needs and aspirations would drive the satisfaction of those demands by a responsive business sector; what he did not fully foresee, nor could fully foresee given his context, was a scenario in which companies had sufficient power to dictate what customers want and what they receive.

Indeed, Starbucks has been very aggressive, particularly in the United States, in obliterating alternative definitions of coffee. On visits to America, I have witnessed the curious phenomenon of seeing Starbucks very closely placed together: in less than one square mile, I saw four. Two were on the same block; albeit, one was inside a Barnes and Noble. The sole alternative within this area of suburban New York was a Dunkin Donuts: yet another chain, although it is not precisely competing in the same sector as Starbucks, which is apparently going for more “aspirational” customers.

In the process of destroying its heritage, Starbucks has attracted criticism along the way. Fair trade coffee only represents a portion of its offering, thus they help perpetuate the production of non-fair trade coffee and the poor working conditions this entails. A Starbucks in Beijing’s “Forbidden City” was closed in July 2007, due to Chinese objections: they felt that the company represented a divergence from the nation’s customs and heritage. Unions have had reason to complain as well; for example, in March 2008, Starbucks was ordered to pay $100 million in back tips to its employees, which the company had originally paid to shift supervisors.

However, all this grasping and expansion has led to an end nearly as bitter as the coffee they sell. In July 2008, Starbucks was forced to announce the closure of 600 of its outlets, due to oversupply. However, perversely, Starbucks has made it very difficult for another firm like its original self to emerge from the wreckage. The two primary losers are those who work at Starbucks as they will find their skills in a state of oversupply as well, and the customer, who will continue to be pushed a (purposefully?) inferior product.

If this phenomenon was merely confined to hot drinks, we probably could rest more easily. However, we see this scenario also when Tescos or other large supermarket chains push out the local butcher or green grocer. We also witness this process in operation when Wal Mart kills the local department store, and McDonalds knocks out the family diner. We lose quality, we lose locality, and we lose sensitivity, all in the name of brand status or price. It’s regrettable now that one can’t wander to Pike Place Market and find three idealistic entrepreneurs offering their roasted coffee. It’s lamentable one can’t drive to Vermont and find two hippies in a shed mixing their ice cream with care and creating batches of sweet creamy goodness of which no two will taste precisely the same. Perhaps the most damaging illusion that corporations sell us is that we can have this and even be environmentally friendly and ethical, despite the fact that their wares are mass produced and marketed.

Government can help, of course. It can change its policy mix to favour small businesses, and enforce tougher social responsibility and environmental legislation. However, it will lie with us, the consumer, to do something which doesn’t come naturally: embracing the inconvenient. We will have to go further to find the small local butcher, or visit the diner, or buy that individual mug of Joe. If we don’t, government measures will fail, as money will continue to invigorate the Starbucks of this world. If consumer behaviour does change, however, it may be possible to see a day bathed in less than equatorial sunshine where a cup of coffee can bring a smile to one’s lips rather than a wince and a poke in one’s conscience.

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The British National Party Replies

May 27, 2009

British National Party Salute72 hours after I posted an item in which I accused the British National Party of treason, I have received 3 items which heartily disagree with my views. I am rather disappointed. I thought that having poked the BNP with a stick, there would be a lot more squealing.

What is particularly interesting about these three items is that they all have a familiar echo; I’ve seen much the same said at other websites, with just a few changes in word order or emphasis. It would not surprise me, given how inarticulate the average British National Party member seems to be, if there was a document which provided a standard set of responses to posts like mine. That said, a public service may be achieved by repeating them here: at least the propaganda gurus down at BNP headquarters might realise they need to come up with something new. Being wrong is one thing, being dull is quite another; the pro-BNP responses I’ve received managed to be both.

The first bit of “diss mail” comes from someone who identifies himself as Colin Davies. He writes:

I think that you are totally miguided by the BNP priorities. It is ok for the likes of you to accept all immigration from Europe Asia and the rest of the would as most of these people would like to kill our Queen and are traitors. I as now have always opposed entry into the EU from the 1970’s and my grandfather fought for the likes of you to be able to live in a free country. But he fought to free us from German occupation in WW1. Now we are being infested by people from abroard who take British jobs and our benefits. Keep Britain British and our defenders like the Ghurkas who will defend who system not try to bomb it. If we were striker on immigration the London bombings etc would not have happened. I can only hope that your family are a not a victim of terrorist attacks before you come to your senses.

This post is a good example of how the BNP substitutes paranoia and phony history for reason and fact. First and foremost, the idea that “most” immigrants want to kill the Queen is patently absurd; it is a “fact” for which there is no proof. Indeed, the vast majority of migrants to this country work, pay taxes and live quietly. Given the security lapses around Her Majesty, if Mr. Davies was correct, surely she would have been killed already. The numbers he suggests make it logically impossible for it to be otherwise.

Now let’s deal with his assertion that his forebears fought for liberty; as I have previously mentioned in my blog, my forebears did their bit too. However, the idea that what they fought for in World War II is preserved by an ideology whose heritage lies with the people they fought against is patently ridiculous. It may be worth recalling how the most visible symbol of the resistance to fascism during World War II, Winston Churchill, felt about Hitler. He stated this clearly in a speech to the Allied delegates in June 1941:

…nothing is more certain that every trace of Hitler’s footsteps, every stain of his infected, corroding fingers will be sponged and purged and, if need be, blasted from the surface of the earth.

The British National Party, perversely, has tried to claim Churchill as one of their own; however, Churchill’s own grandson has labelled this hijacking as “disgusting”. Just so.

In short, Mr. Davies’ missive is a crude appeal to patriotism and shame. It’s trying to substitute emotion for facts; such an exchange is not a particular tradition of these Isles.

The next piece of negative commentary which flowed my way came from a Dennis Whiting:

If the BNP is racist” (that weasel word!) then the whole of our British literature and culture is “racist”. Shakespeare in Henry V saw the Englishman as distinct from the Scotsman the Irish man and the Welshman and certainly from the French foe. Why then today is it impermissible to see the Englishman as distinct from the Pakistani the black African or the Chinaman? G..K. Chesterton hit the nail on the head when he wrote in his poem The Secret People
“But we are the people of England and we have not spoken yet”
It is unfortunate if the BNP in our attempt to play the demeaning party political game come across as a bit vulgar and strident, but we have a lot to be strident about! And incidently that dismal clown Gordon Brown stole the slogan BRITISH JOBS FOR BRITISH WORKERS from us, not the other way round.

This has a number of false assertions to begin with – first and foremost, racism is not the same as identifying a place of origin. What is racist, however, is to discriminate against someone because of where they come from. Furthermore, it is also racist to exclude someone from the national community on the basis of their place of origin, or indeed, where their parents or grandparents came from. Mr. Whiting, it would seem, would like to salve whatever passes for his conscience by bandaging it with Shakespeare’s text.

As for “vulgar and strident”: this is not how the British National Party “comes across”, vulgar ideas on racial superiority were part and parcel of the founding ideology of its predecessor, the British Union of Fascists. Vulgar ideas which prejudge Muslim citizens are inherent in the BNP’s present creed. Furthermore, one can’t come across as more “strident” than by being a paramilitary organisation, as the BUF was; it is also telling that the modern BNP have attacked anti-racist demonstrations, such as in Hull, last December. Such “stridency” is not just immoral and undemocratic, it’s illegal.

The final bit of post was sent by a respondent who calls himself by the curious moniker of “Decent” and hails from Australia. He wrote the following:

You may harp and whine over the BNPs pedigree[which is rather horrid], you may waste away the hours on your imagined steady ground of a cultural “Britishness” that cannot exist when the people who made that culture die out, but in the end you cannot do anything to stop what is coming.

And thanks to people like yourself the BNP probably cant either.

Because for all its faults both real and imagined its the only group in the UK who seems the slightest bit interested in representing the indigenous population.

And before you carp on about the “nation of immigrants” rubbish the last major population transfer to the UK was some 1400 years ago, if this does not qualify as “indigenous” then neither do the Maori of New Zealand, and I dare you to argue that with them.

The Indigenous population of the UK will be replaced, and the culture of openess and tolerance you seem to worship will die out with them, currently the only contender to form the next culture of the British ilses (sic) is Islam, I hope you live long enough to realise just how very wrong the choice you have made was.

While I commend him for realising the history of the BNP is horrible, the author of this missive has a rather curious manner in responding to a post which he says is “harping and whining”; the same accusation could be legitimately levelled at him.

In any event, he (purposefully?) ignored the history that I laid out before him: that Britain was made by waves of immigration, sometimes mass immigration, and its culture now was realised through an eventual working through the event with the new arrivals. For all his concerns that British culture is being somehow “swamped”, which is rather curious considering his distance from it, he has failed to learn its cardinal lesson: Britain is a flexible, adaptable country that evolves over time, and gets ever richer in its heritage as time goes on. The United Kingdom is not alone in this, in fact, no culture is ever set in stone: trying to harp back to some mythical golden age is unfounded, because it never existed. The Saxons weren’t happy about the arrival of the Normans either, and unlike the recent arrivals, the Normans carried all before them by use of the sword. Some immigrants will bring downsides with them; there is no denying this. However, plenty of “native” citizens have downsides too: if he doesn’t believe this, he should see what happens outside some of the pubs in London after 11 PM on a Saturday. To hit on race and ethnicity as the central problem of the age is to ignore and obscure the main problems that face society such as poverty, education and law enforcement; far from helping, embracing the BNP would accelerate the decline, because their priorities would distract from actually doing any good. Furthermore, they would stigmatise a large portion of society, at a time when the emphasis should be on pulling together. Finally, catering to a simplistic prejudice is not how a civilised society operates, nor is compromising its morals; indeed, if we surrender to the BNP approach, we give up one of the principal achievements of Western society, namely, a consciousness of when it does wrong and ought to do better.

I have no doubt other such messages will come my way. However, if they merely repeat the same themes, they will not be worth repeating here.

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Education, Education, Education

May 26, 2009

I’m not a big fan of Georg Friedrich Handel’s operas. For those who aren’t familiar with his favoured genre, baroque opera, the music contained therein usually has two modes: recitativo and aria. Arias are the actual “songs”, while recitativo is dialogue which is sung in a somewhat staccato manner. The latter, particularly if it’s in a language I don’t speak (usually Italian), gets somewhat irritating after a while.

That said, I recently encountered a piece which was an exception to the rule. BBC Radio 3 has been running a season of Handel’s works, and in order to fill the schedule, they have had to dig deep into the archive. The process of excavation led to the discovery of a gem: “Admeto, re di Tessaglia”. I switched on about halfway through; listening to Radio 3 is part of my homeward bound routine and the opera kept me company in the car. In Act 2, Scene 6, there was an aria entitled “Da tanti affanni oppressa”, sung by the soprano Jill Gomez, which is a little over seven minutes of musical ecstasy: the instrumental portions and the Ms. Gomez’s voice combined to create an emotional churn which almost moved me to tears. It also nearly made me drive into the divide in the middle of the dual carriageway.

Jill Gomez: "Da tanti affanni oppressa" from Handel's "Admeto"

Fortunately, I arrived safely at home. However, I have since reflected on why the aria was able to move me so deeply. After all, it was first performed in January 1727, and thus was about as far removed from my cultural milieu as it could possibly be. But the same could be said about much of the music I admire: if asked to name what’s on my iTunes playlist, I would generally indicate classical composers, ranging from Beethoven to Bruckner. This appreciation has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Slavoj Zizek reminded us in his documentary, “A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema” that desire isn’t natural, it’s taught: I only know what I want because I have learned to want it. But from where did this education come? Surely it wasn’t just my parents, although my father has a love of classical music, his focus has generally been the works of Verdi and Puccini. My mother too likes the genre, but her interest is mostly limited to the works of Edvard Grieg.

Upon reflection, I owe much of my passion for music to my piano teacher, an elderly nun who went by the name of Sister Jeanne d’Arc. I was very young when I was introduced to her: however I still recall going to a piano room in a nunnery next to my old school which was painted grey and had the odd scent of baked bread and old pages. Sister Jeanne d’Arc was grey haired and wore gold wire-rimmed spectacles, a white cardigan and a dark blue headscarf. Every week, I sat at the keys of a slightly out of tune piano, with its massive yellowing keys barely responding to the touch of my small fingers. Admittedly, I was a mediocre student and I didn’t enjoy practising. At the same time, she instilled in me a love of Beethoven, Scott Joplin and Brahms which unlocked the door to further musical explorations. Shortly after CDs hit the shelves for the first time, I used my youthful pocket money to buy a box set of “Carmen” which starred a young Jose Carreras and Agnes Baltsa; I still have this set, and now an accompanying collection of albums that fills several rooms.

I have developed other appetites. I likely would not have gained my insatiable love of history if I didn’t study with Mr. Harper, a kind Jamaican gentleman who taught me American history. He encouraged me to read outside the texts I had been given. I would not have had the ambition to be a writer without Mrs. Lee, who taught my first Creative Writing class, and was receptive to my youthful, halting experiments with prose. I would not have gained a new passion for studying Islamic philosophy was it not for the advice and support of my PhD supervisor, Aamer Hussein. The colour, flavour, texture and joy in my life are in part due to the teachers that have crossed my path, who influenced me, and who are with me still.

To be a teacher, then, is to be in receipt of a remarkable gift: we not only have the power to help young minds prepare for the world after school, but we can assist in the process of appreciating life’s pleasures and passions. We can expand horizons. We can help potential emerge from the shell of hesitation. It is a profession which changes the world by simple, everyday steps.

However, as cliched as it may sound, it is a trade that is not fully appreciated. I am involved with my local union and thus get a ringside seat to the conflicts between academics and management; recently, staff were offered a laughable .4% pay rise by university managers. While negotiations are proceeding, it seems unlikely that this deal will change substantially.

Because of my position, I also often hear about teaching standards and how they’re skewed. I recently was at a dinner in celebration of Norwegian Independence Day, as my grandfather would have done were he still alive. I sat next to a grey haired gentleman from Yorkshire and his Norwegian wife; as soon as I mentioned my profession, he informed me of the experience of his teenage daughters. Their education had been far too focused on passing multiple choice exams, in his view, rather than gaining knowledge or understanding. I can’t disagree: it’s another piece of evidence of how the government has consistently failed to understand the difference between must and should. They must adhere to the rules, but they should have a moral understanding, for example. Similarly, they feel they must test, but they don’t realise they should create an environment where students learn to think. The problem with this, however, is that “should” doesn’t fit Labour’s “ticking of boxes” management style: emphasis on “should” is far fuzzier, more artistic, however it is the only means by which thoughtful individuals are produced.

I am concerned that because of the targets, the lack of funding, and the strict application of central government control, that teachers themselves sometimes lose the plot. I got a good dose of this fear recently in discussion with one of my students. At the end of term, I am obliged to make myself available for consultation. While this sounds ponderous, it is often the most fulfilling part of teaching, because I can give feedback on a one to one level. In turn, I learn from my students what precisely is going on with their work.

However, I also learn things which make me despair. For example, a young female student of mine told me that a teacher of hers in secondary school had said that “women authors don’t write epic novels”.

“I beg your pardon?” I asked.

She said it again.

I wasn’t sure whether my head was going to explode or if I was going to yield to the swear words welling up in my throat. I settled for taking a deep breath.

I then informed her that her teacher was wrong; I told her the first example that popped into my head, namely that of Lebanese author Hanan al-Shakyh, who wrote a novel entitled “Beirut Blues”. While this novel reduces the war in Lebanon to a personal level, it is no less “epic” for that; indeed, it is all the more powerful because it brings the horror of war to a level which can be related to on an individual level. My student smiled in a reassuring way, but I wasn’t certain if that was for my benefit or due to her actual belief. But just as Mrs. Lee had encouraged me to open up my writing and Sister Jeanne d’Arc had given me a love of music, here was an example of teaching’s remarkable power being used for ill ends: who was that teacher to say that women can’t write epic novels? Who was he to say that my student couldn’t write one? Surely if such a barrier existed, it was his duty rather to say that it needed to be obliterated, not endured. Surely this is the point of all education: to eliminate barriers of ignorance and let the light of understanding and potential flood in.

Soon, Britain will have a change of government. I am extremely sceptical that the new lot (unless we get a Green government) will make academic pay any better. I don’t believe that they will fund the humanities properly. I certainly don’t believe they will make more places available. But what they can do, at no cost, is perhaps change the emphasis. The United States, bound as it is to standardised exams, needs this as well. The change begins with understanding that the teacher’s role is far more than helping students to become literate and numerate: those are important, but without the capacity to think, appreciate, and yes, enjoy, culture is lost, and the goal of achieving a society of self-actualised, responsible individuals stretches out of reach. I would like to be optimistic that such a shift is fated, and that sunshine is right around the corner; I don’t think so, not yet. Until then, I hope that my colleagues and I will do enough to keep the dream alive.

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The British National Party: Traitors in Our Midst

May 24, 2009

Bloody Nasty PeopleI’ve had the rare privilege of telling one of the leaders of the British National Party precisely what I think of him and his creed on national television. The occasion was several months ago, and it was on a BBC programme entitled “The Big Questions”; I was in the studio audience. I had to get up early on a Sunday morning to attend; it was surreal to drive to Southampton with the orange and purple colours of early dawn painting the blank canvas of the empty motorway. My mind protested the violation of the normal rhythms of the week. Surely, it told me, the best thing to do was to turn around, go back to bed, then wake up late, drink coffee, and read the Sunday papers. I did not expect that my presence would add much except an additional face to the crowd.

For those who are familiar with the programme, it may come as a surprise that the space in which it is held is quite small. In this case, it was in the gymnasium of a large school. However, the normally generous room was stuffed with seats, set decorations and the electronic accoutrements that live television demand. I took my place in a row near the back, and was seated next to a prospective Labour Parliamentary candidate. We chatted for a while; we had been informed of the topics beforehand, and they included a debate about evolution, another about motherhood and lastly, one about whether or not members of the British National Party should be allowed to work in public services such as education and health.

For those who aren’t familiar with the British National Party, I need to digress into a bit of history. In 1932, the British Union of Fascists was founded and led by a former Labour minister and MP, Oswald Mosley, who wanted to create a political front which was modelled after those spawned by Mussolini and Hitler. Mosley’s “Black Shirt” group found most of its strength among the deprived of East London; at its height, its membership reached 50,000, and they were occasionally engaged in pitched battles with their Communist rivals. War with Germany and Italy quickly led the Government to ban the BUF in May 1940; however, it was not entirely snuffed out. Activists like A.K. Chesterton kept the embers burning in spite of fascism’s eventual defeat in World War II: the refusal of the ideology to lay down and die later led to the foundation of the National Front, which then was succeeded by the British National Party. The BNP was established in 1982.

Let us be absolutely clear: beyond its pedigree, the BNP is connected in thought and spirit to some of the most loathsome ideological positions in Europe. One of their “founding fathers”, John Tyndall, wrote a book in 1962 entitled “The Authoritarian State” which directly stated that liberal democracy was some sort of Jewish plot for world domination. The BNP’s present leader, Nick Griffin, wrote in 1996 in a book entitled “The Rune”, that “I am well aware that orthodox opinion is that six million Jews were gassed and cremated or turned into soup and lampshades. I have reached the conclusion that the ‘extermination’ tale is a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and latter witch-hysteria.” He also is on record denying that the gas chambers existed, in spite of the fact that anyone can go visit Auschwitz and see that they did.

Griffin, however, is sufficiently clever to realise that the anti-semitism of the 1930’s doesn’t resonate with modern British voters. He has since changed focus to immigrants and in particular, made clear his dislike of Muslims. In a BBC documentary aired in 2004, Griffin stated that Islam was a “wicked, vicious faith”.

The BNP has made electoral progress, particularly among disaffected Labour voters; for example, they have 9 local councillors in once solidly Labour Stoke on Trent. Furthermore, they have a member of the London Assembly, Richard Barnbrook. Barnbrook was the only prominent official of theirs who was brave enough to appear on “The Big Questions”.

Seated a few metres away, I thought he gave every indication of a man who was thoroughly in love with himself and having difficulty keeping that passion restrained in public. He wore a buttoned up jacket that had been carefully pressed so as to eliminate any trace of wrinkles. Every hair had been sprayed into a particular position. He was sweating and a touch red-faced. He may have been trying too hard to appear respectable, and perhaps because of the extremity of that effort, he came across as a phony from the get-go. I did not recognise him at first, however; based on his waxy, dogmatic visage, I thought he was likely to be one of the militant Christians who wanted to deny evolution. The music then rose, the cameras went on, and the presenter Nicky Campbell began the show with the evolution debate.

It turned out that the evolution denier was an amiable middle aged man in a grey suit who spoke very gently. While I disagreed with him, his faith was rather touching. Following this, the motherhood debate (i.e., whether or not the demands of modern society were diminishing good parenting) revealed the first of the BNP men: he was a grey haired man in the livery of an Anglican vicar. He outed himself when he implied that women were better off “barefoot and pregnant”.

Finally, we came to the BNP debate. It may not have come across on television, but Barnbrook had an almost falsetto edge to his voice when he was defending himself against accusations of racism. The audience, to their credit, wasn’t having it: he attracted fire from nearly all quarters. The debate seemed to go around in circles for a time; unfortunately, it lingered in the territory which the BNP wanted it to remain: namely, the implicit suggestion that freedom of political association and entitlement to work for the government were one and the same.

After holding up my hand for so long that it felt like my elbow had ossified, I was finally called to speak on the matter:

“We are talking about two separate things,” I said, “one is the right to freedom of speech, the other is the right to participate in public service. The public has the right to expect its services to be delivered without prejudice and we don’t have that certainty with the BNP.”

Barnbrook’s voice squeaked again in reply, and he repeated his anti-racist credentials: why, his fiancee had a mixed race baby whom he loved very much and he had served as a teacher to students of all races. His assault on common sense would likely have continued had not the music raised and the programme ended. After, I noted that Barnbrook and his vicar colleague departed the scene as quickly as possible.

It’s alarming how readily groups of maladjusted hysterics like the BNP exploit our present circumstances. It is entirely possible that they will attract enough votes to have a representative in the European Parliament. It is also possible that they will increase their share of the vote in local government. People are bewildered and enraged by the financial crash and the corruption of Parliament: the position of the BNP far outside the normal political process helps them. Gordon Brown also accidentally assisted them by providing their latest motto; in one of his speeches, he stated one of his priorities was “British jobs for British workers”, this slogan is now plastered all over their propaganda. Furthermore, because they are the bottom feeders of democracy, the BNP don’t mind playing on the fears of the electorate in whatever way they see fit. Meanwhile, they have the nerve to claim, like Christ, they have been persecuted, and that Jesus would vote their way too.

All this is rather rich coming from a party which deserves a moniker that is beyond fascist, beyond repugnant, beyond racist: traitor. This is not a reference solely to their BUF pedigree, but also to the fact that their ideology exists in direct opposition to the values for which this country stands. Britain has long been a nation of immigrants: in antiquity, it was a place that the Celts called home, then the Romans, then the Angles and the Saxons, then the Normans. Huguenots came from France to practice their Protestant faith. Oliver Cromwell gave sanctuary to the Jews. While there have been fits of violence and persecution (particularly of Jews and Catholics), the nation’s history is one of new arrivals, the nation and the immigrants coming to an accord, and life carrying on, the country’s cultural wealth having increased in the process. To deny the continuing role of diversity in British society is to turn one’s back on what precisely has made the United Kingdom’s story largely one of the triumph of liberty; furthermore, given how widespread the legacy of immigrants remains ingrained in the nation’s heritage, BNP supporters are likely spitting on the generous spirit which enabled their existence as “British” in the first place. I may be more aware of this than most: while I come from an English-speaking country and I am white, I too am an immigrant, and I have been privileged to integrate the thread of my life into the very broad and multicoloured tapestry of this country.

It’s not clear what the BNP’s destructive efforts are all for; after all, BNP councillors have proven to be as corrupt and untrustworthy as any member of Parliament. In 2007, Barnbrook was forced to discipline them in a letter which was distributed nationwide. It can be said that far from representing a break with the norm, they are just a more venal variant.

Fortunately, the danger the BNP represents is pronounced to the point that the normally apolitical and mild Church of England felt obliged to take a stand. Every other “contender” party in the next election has also made their distaste for the BNP clear. However, we should not be afraid to point out that the BNP’s chosen label, in the final analysis, is a contradiction: far from being British, they are the heirs and practitioners of an alien ideology, far from being national, their appeal is limited to few constituencies, and far from being a party, they are a gaggle of thugs which hopefully the British public will be ready to dismiss on June 4.

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In Office, But Not In Power

May 21, 2009

Gordon in AgonyBeating up on Gordon Brown has all the appeal of shooting roadkill. The corpse may be twitching still, but it is still a corpse: obliterating it further is unnecessary. The Prime Minister must know on some level that his time in office has been a tragic failure, an epic tale of ambition running ahead of ability.

There are those who have less qualms than I do, however: yesterday was a very bad day for Brown. First, he committed the latest in a series of faux pas at Prime Minister’s Question Time: he seemed to suggest that if a General Election was called right now, that the Conservatives would win. This is true, but it is a truth that he cannot admit in front of the Labour Party or the country. David Cameron pounced on the Freudian slip and labelled Brown both a catastrophe and a coward.

Meanwhile, Brown was forced to walk back from remarks he had made about his own Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears. It seems odd that the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the leader of the Labour Party would be afraid of an ideological and ministerial pipsqueak like Blears, but nevertheless, his previously derogatory comments about her expenses were brushed under the carpet, and he commended the job she had been doing.

If the Prime Minister thought he could unwind at the Confederation of British Industry dinner in the evening, he was sorely mistaken. The outgoing president, Martin Broughton, commended the Government on taking the necessary steps to salvage the banking system, but then proceeded to condemn the Government’s “economic vandalism”, in particular, the levying of a new, higher rate of income tax.

Of course, these are just the items in the public domain. One wonders what the hidden fallout has been from pushing out Commons Speaker Michael Martin: after all, he is an old Scottish Labour ally, and Brown deserted him. The resulting by-election is likely to be bloody. The Labour Party is trying to hold together a united front, but movement is perceptible, rather like a gaggle of mongeese inside a canvas sack: while there is some uniformity to the surface, we can make out the savage wriggling, clawing, and biting underneath. Brown tries to launch new initiatives to change the narrative; however, none of these are getting traction: no one is interested. He may have all the trappings of authority: the Downing Street address, the walk up the grand staircase full of portraits of former leaders, the wide desk and the obsequious Civil Servants. However, he is merely in office, not in power.

We have been here before. In 1997, John Major’s government had similarly run out of steam. My memory of the period may be faulty, however I don’t recall the same level of public disgust with Major back then as I see with Brown now. In 1997, the country had come to the judgement, rightly or wrongly, that Major was a decent man, but his party was throughly indecent and punished them accordingly. The country now seems to believe that both Brown and the party he represents are useless wastrels who are pestering the nation far beyond their sell-by date.

There are examples of this phenomenon in other countries; “in office, but not in power” is part of the model in some instances. In the United States, there is a Presidential transition period in excess of three months. Between November 2008 and January 2009, the only authority George W. Bush really had was to sign Christmas cards; as much as it may have pained him to merely prop up the auto companies until President Obama took office, that was the right thing to do. Bush’s authority had run its course, the best he could do was ensure things did not get any worse before the new leadership could take charge and make the required decisions.

Sometimes the “in office, but not in power” scenario can linger for years. The example of Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány springs to mind. In 2006, he told a private meeting of the Hungarian Socialist Party, of which he was leader, “we have obviously been lying for the last one and a half to two years”. Yet, he was not forced out of office until March 2009; the Hungarian Socialists are theoretically still in control. Yet the economic crisis means they are limping towards political destruction at the next election too; their dumping of Gyurcsány was a mere rearrangement of the Titanic’s proverbial deck chairs.

From a psychological point of view, the phenomenon is fascinating in the instances in which simultaneous impotence and grandeur are voluntary. No one is forcing Brown to continue: considering the battering he receives on a day to day basis, his resignation would be understood, if not greeted with some level of sympathy. However, the appearance of power apparently means so much to him that he is willing to cling on even though there are very limited means by which he can improve his plight or that of the nation. The Treasury is empty. The IMF says the road to economic recovery is going to be long and painful. Labour is at level pegging with the bizarre little UK Independence Party in some polls. The rhetorical vultures are circling. However, somehow he is able to convince himself that he is riding the wave rather than being swept underneath it. Why does he indulge in such idle fantasy? There we must venture into the realms of speculation. First, he has prided himself on being a “Son of the Manse”. Perhaps he believes he is living up to some impossible father image, or is continually under psychological assault from the voice of his father, which tells him to persist even beyond the point where continuance is futile. Perhaps after ten years of striving to get into the office, he cannot bring himself to part with it just yet, and believes that every day, every minute, every hour, every second in which he holds the title is as precious and sweet as honeyed wine. None of these explanations, however, are comforting, because they indicate an inward, rather than outward focus: he is there for himself, rather than out of a genuine sense of altruism.

The Labour Party requires him to depart, so it can salvage something of its reputation. The economy needs him to leave, as his stewardship has been thoroughly discredited: no one wants to bank with a loser. Parliament desperately desires his disappearance, as it is impossible to make a clean break with its recent past without a thorough change in the top ranks. The public wants him to go because in order to have hope, it needs to have someone who isn’t associated with the present despair. But this is the one sacrifice, the one hint of love of country that Brown will not yield. He will continue to inflict himself on us.

I will be shocked if I am wrong; I do not expect a General Election before June 2010, the absolute last date that one can be called. Brown’s strategy has been reduced to a Dickensian one, namely that of Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield: he’s hopeful something will turn up, particularly the economy, despite the fact that his reason and every shred of evidence should tell him otherwise. Thus the Labour Party and Government slouches towards its own destruction, with the weariness of a prisoner that has been on Death Row too long and has contemplated the end too fervently. Those of us outside the tragedy will breathe a sigh of relief once it ends, however it ends, so long as it ends.

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Ecopads with Marcus Brigstocke

May 20, 2009

Video provided by Bright Young Things:

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The Madness of the New

May 20, 2009

A German diesel carI probably didn’t buy my car from the most reputable salesman. He wore silver dice cufflinks, had a shirt that was so crisp with starch that the collar tips could be used to gouge someone’s eyes out, and had enough mousse in his hair to keep Vidal Sassoon in profit for a year. But beyond this, there was an aspect to his countenance which I simply could not trust: perhaps it was the insincere sincerity in his tone of voice or the false “hail fellow well met” demeanour. I could not shake the sense that there was something exploitative in every word he said.

Fortunately for him, the used car I bought sold itself: it gets 600 miles on a full tank of diesel, it’s modest, and it’s adequately comfortable. I thought I was getting it at a reasonable, if somewhat inflated price. Then less than 4 months later the brakes gave in; I had a panicked moment when the car juddered rather than glided to a halt. When I took it in for servicing afterward, I found out that the cam belt needed to be replaced. There was also a leak that needed to be remedied, and the tyres barely passed the annual inspection: I had to replace all four. To add insult to injury, this past January, the battery died completely. All told, fixing its issues cost me more than 15% of its purchase value within the first 16 months of ownership. It’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t some idle sucker who wandered into a dodgy dealership off a dirt track; this was purchased from an official outpost of the Volkswagen Group.

My “friend” who sold me the car sent a letter and left a telephone message inviting me for a coffee at the dealership. I ignored these invitations as I didn’t really have anything to say, or rather, nothing pleasant. However I was bemused when I received a phone call from his colleague yesterday.

“Hello, am I speaking to Mr….”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Uh, yeah, this is Phil,” he continued, “I’m calling from Volkswagen Audi Finance.”

“Oh no,” I thought, “the last payment didn’t get through?”

“What can I do for you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “well you’re about halfway through paying for the car.”

“Don’t remind me,” I thought. The interest rate I’d been charged would be enough to make an investment banker blush.

“Yes,” I replied.

“We was wondering if you’d like to come down to the dealership to talk about buying a new one.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“There’s never been a better time to buy a replacement.”

“I’m not interested.”


“I’m not interested. I am very happy with my car as it is, and I just want to pay it off.”


“Is there anything else?”



I allowed myself to fume quietly for a minute or two. The nerve: I didn’t accept that they didn’t know my history with them. All they had to do was look up the car in their database and see the various repair bills I had paid: nearly all the fixes had been done at the dealership in order to preserve its service history and value. They also knew my profession and that I worked in academia, yet they sent a salesman who couldn’t even string two coherent sentences together to try and swindle me again. In short, they expected me to be gullible, stupid and greedy.

However, I realise that I haven’t been singled out. The entire economy is now based on the idea that we, the people, are gullible, stupid and greedy; for example, the British government is trying to get people to buy new cars by offering a £2000 bonus. It was said on BBC News this morning that the Japanese government is also trying cash incentives to get consumers to spend more. Much of the focus of economic policy has been to try and get the interbank lending rate down (known as LIBOR) so that credit will flow freely again, and that people will consume more; according to the Economist, LIBOR is down to pre-crisis levels. Employment depends on it, mortgages depend on it, pensions depend on it: more, more, more.

Fortunately, in some instances, the consumer isn’t playing ball. The item on the BBC suggested that Japanese consumers, once handed extra cash, stashed it away. Some governments don’t play ball either: the Norwegian government took much of its oil revenues during the long boom and saved it for hard times like these, in order to guarantee public services and employment. However these are small obstacles standing against the torrential flow of consumerism, and is indicative of perhaps the most depressing aspect of the present crisis: most policy makers have learned absolutely nothing.

When the population was smaller and the world seemed a much larger place due to the difficulties of travelling distances, it was possible, even rational, to assume that an economy based on limitless consumption was possible. Coal was just lying around in some parts of the United Kingdom. Some soils were fertile enough for food crops to sprout up like weeds. One could poke a shovel into a hole in Texas and find oil. However, now we should know better: limitless consumption is not possible in a world of finite resources. In a scenario in which our population is increasing, we are pushing nature to breaking point. We are getting tell tale signs that this is happening from phenomena like peak oil: for example, British North Sea Oil production peaked in 1999 and has been in decline ever since. Similarly, there is a limit to arable land, and thus food production. There are also constraints on the amount of ore that can be extracted from the earth. Yet few want to believe, let alone accept these basic facts of life. My friends the car salesmen are part of the myth industry that whispers in one’s ear, “Come on, you deserve a little more luxury, you deserve something new. Don’t worry about tomorrow, worry about today. Throw away the old.”

However there is no rational reason for me to throw away the old. My father had a German diesel car that lasted over 1 million miles. Mine is nowhere near that and after all the trauma of sorting its issues, is now running well; it also will work with biodiesel, if necessary. Additionally, I can repair old clothes. I can fix and polish old furniture. I can mend the sink or the shower. Unless something actually breaks beyond all repair, I don’t need self-indulgence, but it is precisely self-indulgence that many governments want to restore. Very few, if any, have had the courage to say that the way we live now is madness and it has to stop for all our sakes. I truly am afraid that because of this reluctance, we may experience a bit of temporary relief in terms of economic recovery, but the long term prognosis has darkened. President Obama has reminded us that the Chinese terms for “crisis” and “opportunity” are interrelated; the lack of willingness to eliminate the madness of the new means the crisis may be being wasted.

The sole sliver of light amidst the gloom may emanate from the fact that there are people like the Japanese, Norwegians and to a lesser extent, the Germans, who simply don’t want to fall into line. So long as there are people successfully saying “No”, then the victory of consumer culture is not entirely assured. Furthermore, the near-collapse of political culture in Britain is opening the door for alternative voices and ideas to be heard, including those who don’t much care for the present orthodoxy. I don’t expect that these changes will prevent the dealership from calling me again, or dumping more junk mail in my letterbox; however, perhaps we’re moving into an era when that will be less acceptable.

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Sorry, So Sorry

May 19, 2009

Michael MartinThere is a difference between anarchy and chaos. Anarchy implies people being in charge of themselves and willfully going in individual directions; in contrast, chaos is apparently defined by no one being in control of anything and everyone running around in circles. Britain got a large dose of chaos yesterday. On Monday afternoon, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, was expected to announce his resignation due to his role in the continuing expenses scandal. At best, he’s been the deaf, dumb and blind referee to how expense claims have been handled, and thus partially responsible for both frivolous and fraudulent bills being paid by the nation.

Mr. Martin, however, did not follow the predicted script. He started off well enough: he said that he was sorry to the people of the United Kingdom for “letting you down”, and that he would work to regain public trust. Then, he deviated: he added that his future was not a matter for discussion at that time. The effect of the statement was probably not what he intended; Members of Parliament from a variety of parties followed up by urging him to quit. In the end, he only managed to quash the motion by referring to procedure. Hanging up the will of the Commons on the hook of petty statues is unlikely to make anything better; that said, I heard on the news later that the tactic may have bought the Speaker ten days in office.

Ten days seems like a rather pathetic reward for obstinance. However, it may very well have been that the Speaker merely miscalculated; he perhaps believed that saying “sorry” in grave and pathetic tones would be sufficient to allay anger both in the Commons and the wider public. His lack of understanding appears to be part of a wider phenomenon, whereby “sorry” is viewed as a substitute for genuine repentance.

If Britain had a pound for every “sorry” that had been said by an MP since the expenses scandal broke, the country perhaps would have already recouped its losses. We have heard sorry from MPs for making the taxpayer pay for repairs to tennis courts and moats, for fraudulent mortgage claims, and from the party leaders we have heard apologies for the misalignment of expense procedures with the demands of public service. In many instances, these professions of remorse have been accompanied by cheques written out in the full amount.

In the world outside the House of Commons, “sorry” is similarly deployed. The Catholic Church says “mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” in light of child abuse scandals. The bankers say “sorry” for putting the world into what the Economist says is a $3 trillion hole. The wayward husband says “sorry” to his wife after a drunken binge or going astray. Yet this isn’t sufficient: “sorry” in all these instances leaves a bitter taste. Perhaps the problem was most eloquently stated by Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind” as he addressed Scarlett in the final scene:

RHETT: My darling, you’re such a child. You believe by saying “sorry” that all the past can be forgotten.

In light of “sorry”, we are supposed to forgive the bankers for their malfeasance, allow the MPs to continue in their posts, attend the Catholic Church on Sundays and deposit, pay and donate without batting an eye. At home, the wife is supposed to forgive the husband, the child that breaks the porcelain vase is supposed to escape being grounded. Everything, indeed, is expected to be magically restored to rights due to the word’s transcendent properties.

There is another view, however, which suggests that “sorry” belongs on the register of abused vocabulary. This opinion also states that it is the Monopoly money of the English language: it only has value for playing games. When it comes to genuine expressions of remorse, the challenge is to be a better person and to do it by deeds not words. However, this requires something that merely saying sorry does not: it requires personal inconvenience and sacrifice.

Let us be clear, the Speaker of the House of Commons is so compromised that any capacity he has to do good in post exists solely within his delusions. In order to show genuine self-reproach, Mr. Martin would have to give up his well appointed offices, his gilded robes, the pomp of ceremony and the prestige of his chair. He would have to stop being the one upon which the Commons’ cameras invariably focus. He would have to plunge into obscurity, perhaps retire more modestly than he originally intended, and indeed, show further humility by not imposing his presence on the public any longer.

There is a model to follow, and perhaps it is the last genuine case of public remorse on record: John Profumo, the Minister of War in the Macmillan Government, had an affair with call-girl Christine Keeler, who in turn also had an ongoing tryst with a KGB agent. In 1963, Profumo lied to the House of Commons and the leadership of the Conservative Party about the relationship; in a more genteel age, that might have been sufficient to get away with it. However, this occurred on the cusp of the modern media era, and the restraints were coming off. Faced with mounting evidence blasted throughout the British press, Profumo confessed, resigned all his posts, and quietly sank into oblivion; he began repenting for what he had done by cleaning toilets for Toynbee Hall, a charity in London’s East End. Good works of this type, done in the quiet and the dark, eventually restored his reputation. By the end of his life, he was awarded the CBE, and was once again welcome at Prime Ministers’ dinners.

What makes Profumo’s repentance so compelling is that his guilt forced him to the very bottom, and yet he worked without any prospect of climbing once more to anywhere near the top. He used what time he had left and what skills he had at his disposal to make amends to the public and did so in the most humble manner possible. When we see the Communities Minister, Hazel Blears, wave a £13,000 cheque in front of the cameras, loudly proclaim she’s paying her expenses back and then jump on a motorcycle and ride off into the sunset, we witness nothing Profumo-esque in her behaviour. Yes, £13,000 is a lot of money to most people, but not to her; after her time in office is done, a few public engagements or some consultancy work will more than claw it back. This is only a blip on her horizons, a storm in a teacup, an annoyance. Thus too is saying sorry for the Speaker, for the wayward husband, and for the bankers: it’s all a ritual purging which allows them to get back to what they were doing before they had to apologise. There is no authentic sacrifice from which society can obtain a moral example. The lesson that is communicated is the credo of Bart Simpson: “I didn’t do it, you didn’t see me do it, you can’t prove anything”. In other words, guilt is only there for those who get caught, and “sorry” exists to get one out of an immediate jam.

Most of humanity’s problems are self-inflicted. We are the authors of our own destruction through our folly and mendacity; morality and ethics are there to act as a brake in order to prevent us from harming ourselves and others. If we continue to accept “sorry” as being enough, then the pressure on the brake may slacken further; already, unethical behaviour has led to vast sums of money being chewed up in economic turmoil, a mounting climate catastrophe, and yes, a society in which our consumption seems to run far ahead of our wisdom. Perhaps we should treat the expenses scandal as a good place to begin to change things: any statement saying “sorry” should be met with a terse challenge to prove it.

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Review: “Waiting for Godot” starring Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart

May 17, 2009

McKellen and StewartMy introduction to the works of Samuel Beckett was botched. It occured in an undergraduate English course, whose purpose was to examine less than common texts, and sadly I had a less than common lecturer. Unfortunately, he was more fixated on talking about Freud’s ideas on children playing with their excreta (and how we’re actually supposed to treat faeces like Lego) than helping young minds to interpret the classic works in his care; among these was Beckett’s most famous play, “Waiting for Godot”.

To be fair, the teacher was temporarily very excited by this work, utilising phrases like “the silence of God”, the “futility of religious belief”, before returning to pseudo-Freudian interpretations of a character’s incontinence. The lecturer’s propensities would have been bad enough on their own; however, I must admit that the text itself left me cold. I thought it was thoroughly strange and incomprehensible. After I finished the course (through a combination of sheer bloodymindedness and making sure I included excrement in my final exam essay), Godot remained on the fringes of my knowledge. Over time, I did manage to absorb some of the trivia surrounding it, for example, that it was originally written in French, and that adding “-ot” to any name renders it a clownish quality in that language. Apart from this, my experiences suggested it was simply an overwrought play that belonged solely to the pretentious.

It’s fortunate that the talents of Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart have come to the rescue; indeed, this production perhaps represents a turning point in the work’s history, when it is wrested from the hands of the elites and delivered to the general public.

Reading the dry text and listening to lecturers like the one I suffered with completely shuts off one of the play’s most critical dimensions: while there are serious messages and undertones, it is often absolutely hilarious. Prior to seeing this production, I had heard Patrick Stewart saying on BBC Radio 4 that Godot was the precursor to absurdist humour like Little Britain. I raised an eyebrow at the time, but once lights dimmed and the curtain raised, it quickly became obvious that Stewart was correct.

The setting is simple: we see a set of ruins and a tree. This desolate scene is populated by two tramps, Vladimir (Stewart) and Estragon (McKellen). The rapport between the two characters is critical to its success: it helps that Stewart and McKellen are apparently old friends. When Stewart sings “Together Again” to McKellen, there is a warmth and sincerity that transcends mere acting. It’s also useful that both of them bring a helpless, befuddled quality to both of their roles, particularly McKellen. The bizarre lines are transformed by their Shakespearean training; rather than strange, the text is very funny. A good example is a sequence in which they talk about hanging themselves; an inflection, a pause, a tone, all change something which sounds mad into a jest, an expression of frustration, and a refuge from boredom. Even a discussion about whether to eat turnips or carrots is similarly elevated to a humourous level.

The two tramps are forced to amuse themselves while they wait for an unseen character, Godot. Their reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a blustering loudmouth, Pozzo, and his servant, Lucky. Pozzo, played expertly by veteran actor Simon Callow (well known as the character who passed away in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”), is also doing a comic turn: his performance is intentionally so over the top, it could hardly be otherwise. Lucky (Ronald Pickup) is a sad, forlorn figure in this piece; he is kept on a long leash in the form of a noose by Pozzo. Lucky has a number of talents, including “thinking”; when encouraged to do so, he recites a series of ridiculous statements that sound like someone trying to impress a dinner party compromised solely of philosophers after a few too many. As strange as this sounds, the actors give it logic and humour. After the encounter with Pozzo and Lucky, Stewart and McKellen deliver what is perhaps the most hilarious set of lines in the entire play:

VLADIMIR: Well, that passed the time.

ESTRAGON: It would have passed anyway.

VLADIMIR: Yes, but not as quickly.

To the casual reader, this may not seem funny at all: but like with many other amusing situations, “you had to be there”. Indeed, if the play has one weakness it is as follows: it has problems being communicated anywhere other than the stage, and it can’t be done with anything other than top class actors. You “have to be there” in order to “get it”.

Furthermore, Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky are all required to do both comic and tragic turns and change the register extremely quickly. There is also a slight amount of improvisation in reciting the lines: Stewart’s humming little tunes throughout springs to mind; anyone other than a highly skilled actor will have difficulties knowing when this is appropriate or not, and knowing how much to use. If any of these elements are overdone or underdone, the structure shatters, and part of its impact is lost. Too serious, and it falls into the same category as a teenage melodrama about how God hates them. Too funny, and it becomes a skit from a late night television programme. This version is just right: twenty four hours after having seen it, I’m still chuckling in remembrance of some of the lines, and yet thinking about the futility of the tramps’ waiting.

This production has been called the most important theatre event of 2009; it’s difficult to disagree with this summation. You had to be there: this will be the “Godot” by which all others will be judged; it’s merely a pity that there are students throughout the English-speaking world who will continue to experience this work in the same mangled manner I did as an undergraduate, rather than being able to enjoy it, understand it, and benefit from it. Its overriding message that we are living in an absurd world, in which we all seem to be waiting for something which never arrives, seems more relevant than ever and too important to be left solely to the pompous.

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The Pity of Torture

May 15, 2009

The Spanish InquisitionThe Parliamentary expenses scandal has soaked up British airtime like a sponge. Admittedly, it’s not entirely the fault of the media: some of the tidbits are simply too juicy to ignore. It has everything: vanity, flamboyance, greed and silliness. It makes a Monty Python farce look tame.

However, this has obscured an even more important debate going on in America at the moment. An unprecedented tug of war is in progress between the present Administration and the former one: the issue at hand is the use of torture. Dick Cheney seems to think that it’s is a good thing; President Obama disagrees. Cheney persists, Obama refuses to desist. This struggle has a familiar echo; it reflects an argument that I’ve had with my countrymen about whether or not torture is appropriate.

Some believe that the “techniques” utilised by the American military are not torture. Let’s take “waterboarding”, for example: this is a procedure whereby the prisoner is made to experience the sensation of drowning. Anyone who ever accidentally got water in their lungs while swimming should have an inkling at how unpleasant this can be: now imagine if it was done intentionally and in greater volumes. Saying this is not torture is a feat of verbal gymnastics that hasn’t been attempted since Bill Clinton tried to redefine the meaning of “is”.

The question then, is not if torture happens, but is it effective, and should it be used in the first place. Here history can guide us, and what it has to say is not particularly comforting for Cheney and his defenders: torture has rarely been used as an instrument of extracting truth, rather it has been more often utilised to get people to confess to things which they have not done.

The Spanish Inquisition springs to mind as a primary example: from approximately 1480 to the age of Napoleon, it had the task of purging Spain of its religious diversity, targeting Jews, Muslims and Protestants, as well as punishing other offenses to the faith such as homosexuality. Torture was part and parcel of the Inquisition’s work: it was used to pressure recalcitrant prisoners into confessing their heresy or converting on the spot, in spite of the fact on a purely criminal basis, they had done nothing wrong; as denunciations were done in secret, it was commonplace for entirely innocent people to be swept up into the madness.

Among the techniques used by the Inquisition to extract confessions was the toca, which was an early form of waterboarding; prisoners had a cloth shoved into their mouths and liquid was spilled in until they choked. In our present age, we cringe in horror at their work: the kangaroo courts of the auto de fe, the use of the rack, and pulleys stringing up innocent people all in the name of fanaticism rightly inspire revulsion. It took Napoleon and his imposition of a new monarch on Spain to rid the country of the Inquisition entirely; by then, Spain was the model of a repressive state. It is telling that one of the more successful bits of humour in “A Man for All Seasons” is the repetition of a line by several English notables, “This is not Spain, this is England”, a statement whose ironic implications hint at the ingrained tyranny prevalent on the Iberian peninsula.

A more recent and perhaps more powerful example comes from the Soviet Union. In 1934, the party boss of Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, was assassinated by a lone gunman; the assassin was likely acting on the orders of state security, as Kirov was perceived as a rival to the then General Secretary, Josef Stalin. This event ignited a series of purges within the USSR, during which innocent citizens were accused of complicity in this particular murder, or subscribing to a wider plot instigated by Stalin’s rival in exile, Leon Trotsky. Millions were caught up by the rolling machine of terror: tortures used by the security forces included a novel method which utilised a rat, a heating plate and a chamber pot. The rat was put into the pot, and the pot was put on the heating plate. The prisoner was then forced to drop their trousers and sit down on the receptacle. The rat, obviously starting to cook to death, would become very frantic in its efforts to get out, thus attacking the prisoner in a most sensitive place. Other tortures used by the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor, included beating prisoners on the base of the spine (in effect, the sciatic nerve) with a rubber truncheon, which causes an explosion of pain in the victim’s head, and applying pressure with the toe of a boot to a prisoner’s scrotum. All this was done in order to make prisoner’s confess to belonging to phony conspiracies of which they would have only had marginal awareness, and as a prelude either to years in a Siberian work camp, or to being executed.

If we look at other regimes, such as the Duvalier regime in Haiti, or Mobutu in Zaire, or the present junta in Burma, we find that torture is an instrument of compelling the innocent, not the guilty. Pain is there to make the unwilling agree to the absurd, not to tell the truth. Yet we are supposed to believe that merely a change in scenario and a difference in government is supposed to make this fundamental feature of torture disappear, as if by magic.

Worse, the use of torture undermines American power. Those who believe in its use may be under the impression that it is only through the ruthless application of physical force that power is secured; wrong, reputation is power too. America, unlike many nations, was not born out of an ancient ethnicity or a mere accident of history: rather, it was founded deliberately on an idea, which is summarised by Thomas Jefferson’s exquisite phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. The Declaration of Independence, from which this segment is extracted, goes on to list the presence of standing armies in America as being objectionable: torture is so out of the question that it doesn’t enter the moral universe of this document. It was these ideals in application that inspired the French Revolution, and cascaded throughout the world as an extension of man’s conscience. It may sound like a cliche to talk about “truth, justice and the American way”, but up until quite recently, this idea had resonance. By adopting torture, America has walked away from these ideals in the name of perceived realpolitik. Indeed, America has turned the ideas upon which it was founded into an elegant hypocrisy…and who takes what a hypocrite has to say seriously?

The proponents of physical coercion may counter, all right then, if we give up torture, then what do we do? The answers are relatively straightforward: bribery, psychology and religious argument. All three do not require the use of physical force, and if done correctly, will get at the truth rather than what the torturers want to hear.

Bribery is perhaps the most simple; not every man has a price, but many do. And bribery need not be in raw cash terms: it can be the education of one’s children, a promise of safe asylum, the establishment of a new life. Incentives can be linked to accuracy of information.

Psychology should not be understood as therapy. Rather, there is nothing wrong with giving a prisoner the false impression that they are talking to someone they can trust, or they are in circumstances whereby they feel they can speak the truth. This requires staging of a situation, creating beliefs which are not necessarily true, and then analysing the results.

Religious argument is perhaps the least understood method. There is an assumption from the media’s images of Islamic fananticism that somehow it is a religion of ignorance rather than knowledge. Nothing could be further from the truth: many of the Islamists are to their faith what televangelists are to Christianity. They deal in short, punchy messages which lack depth, resonance, history or thought. Words mean a great deal in Islam: it was the poetry of the Qu’ran which attracted its first followers; it is no coincidence that much of Islamic art involves calligraphy through which the word of God is repeated. A typical Sufi scholar has the intellectual and theoretical capability to make the average terrorist hothead bleed out the ears; if convinced that they are actually going against God, Muslims have an obligation to correct the error as quickly as possible.

All three methods, however, are less “macho” than just simply whacking the terrorist on the head or making him think he’s drowning. There is a mistaken belief among some that physical violence somehow equals masculinity, and thus supporting torture is the “manly” thing to do. It is, rather, an admission of weakness: i.e., one feels the need to assert force in order to “prove something” as one couldn’t think a way out of a problem. Given that America was founded by thinkers, this situation is likely causing consternation to the likes of Jefferson and Madison in the afterlife. The pity of torture is that whatever the perceived gains are, they are not outweighed by the costs. Fortunately, however, the President appears to understand this concept better than his detractors. While the process of rehabilitation is unlikely to be straightfoward, at least it’s in motion.

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Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a fiancée, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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