Review: “The Dark Knight” starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger

July 28, 2008

The JokerAt the time of writing, it is highly likely that the new Batman film, entitled “The Dark Knight” is on its way to being the largest money-grossing film of all time. It certainly is exploiting the merchandising possibilities as well: it’s difficult to escape mentions of “The Dark Knight” these days, there is even a “dark hamburger” which is a unusual attempt at “marketing to the gut instincts”.

Thus, it’s with some trepidation that any impartial reviewer looks at this film. A movie that is as “commercial” as this rarely qualifies as high art; more often than not, it doesn’t qualify as entertaining. Generally, any cinema drenched in hype usually turns into two pointless hours in the dark with semi-stale popcorn and a ludicrously priced bottle of diet soda.

“The Dark Knight” fortunately, is not like this. It may be advertised like a commercial blockbuster, but it is so saturated with darkness and insanity that it cannot be considered to be part of mainstream genre.

The film begins where the last, “Batman Begins”, left off. Gotham looks better; the ramshackle nature of the city is less seen. Criminals are more afraid; a dishevelled looking Scarecrow is captured relatively easily. The underworld is in retreat, with the exception of a new villain, the Joker, expertly played by the late Heath Ledger. Apparently Ledger went out of his way to bring a new interpretation to the role, going so far as to isolate himself in order to create an atmosphere of total immersion into the character. These efforts succeeded. This Joker is semi-suicidal, not interested in power or domination, but rather is a force of nature, hell bent on destruction, murder and chaos (as such, I strongly discourage allowing small children to view this film). Ledger adds to the effect by making the traditional Joker cackling rare: this version is more subdued than any we’ve seen previously. He speaks in softer tones, is more unkempt than outrageous: even the purple and green clothing he wears stands out less than one might anticipate. He is cold blooded and toys with people psychologically, for example, he rigs two ferry boats to explode, and places the detonators with the passengers. The passengers are then forced to choose to either blow up each other’s boats, or to be blown up by the Joker. It is difficult to imagine Nicholson’s Joker, for example, being that drawn out or twisted.

Indeed, the entire plot can be said to be an extended chess game in which the Joker is the grand master. Batman, the new District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon are all unwitting pawns moving as the Joker predicts. For example, the Joker senses that Batman is fond of Bruce Wayne’s childhood sweetheart (and Harvey Dent’s girlfriend), Rachel Dawes, and sets a trap whereby Batman cannot save both Harvey and Rachel. Additionally, the Joker uses his knowledge of Gordon’s precinct to engineer a plan to be captured and then escape. The only method by which Joker can be prevented from achieving his ultimate aim of breaking the city’s spirit – mainly by causing the downfall into madness of Harvey Dent, the city’s hero – is for Batman to take the blame for acts of vigilante violence for which Harvey is responsible. Batman’s “victory” in other words, is not much of a win.

Batman himself is far less interesting than the Joker. Christian Bale has tamed the angst-ridden Bruce Wayne; the billionaire’s main drama lies in wishing for an end to his role as the Caped Crusader so that he can take up with Rachel. This, however, is a half-hearted wish: for instance, the Joker wants Batman to take off his mask, but even with the threat of killing innocent people, Bale’s Batman refuses to do it. Whenever Bruce Wayne thinks of walking away, circumstances in which Batman would be useful emerge, and he doesn’t hesitate to don the mask once more. We are presented with a Batman who is locked into his role, not only from which he cannot escape, but one he doesn’t wish to escape. He is therefore more or less a “settled” character. This makes him rather tedious; furthermore, the playboy Bruce Wayne persona is just as dull. A billionaire with three models on his arm is such a cliche that were this film more realistic, those around him would likely question it.

Perhaps the real heroes of this film are the supporting actors: Gary Oldman is outstanding as Commissioner Gordon. I suggest that his performance is as every bit as good as Ledger’s: had not Ledger died, it might very well be Oldman who is being discussed as a potential winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Michael Caine does also well as Alfred, the butler; it is difficult to think of any film in which Caine has not excelled, and this is no exception. Furthermore, Morgan Freeman is a calm, capable and upright Lucius Fox. If they do make another Batman film, I believe it simply would not work without these three.

Other supporting actors fare less well. Maggie Gyllenhaal was presumably picked to play the role of Rachel Dawes because she could carry on where Katie Holmes left off: the two were nearly indistinguishable in being less than sympathetic. Aaron Eckhart, who was an admirable choice for the role of Harvey Dent, simply did not have enough time or lines to develop the character; it would have required a much longer film to show the roots of his madness and make his fall more believable. Eric Roberts is too obvious to play a realistic mob boss; I kept on expecting him to advertise spaghetti or Italian tomato sauce as an offer one couldn’t refuse.

The two and a half hours of this film fly right by; there is a sense that there should be more. It is very likely that this could have been made into two films rather than one. An alternative would have been a sequel that continued with the Joker; it is a pity that the fight between him and Batman will not proceed into the next film. Already rumours are flying that the next confrontation will be between Batman and the Riddler; I don’t envy the actor who gets the role of the cryptically inclined super villain. He has a giant pair of clown shoes to fill.

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The End

July 25, 2008

Gordon BrownWhenever I see an exhibition or documentary about the Roman Empire, a question springs to mind: when it was over, did the people of Rome know it? After all, “the end” in their case didn’t mean the sun didn’t stop rising and setting, nor did it imply the spring would not arrive after winter, indeed, the city of Rome carried on. Yes, the Senate and the Emperor were gone, but perhaps to many Romans this seemed like a temporary inconvenience, a rest stop on an otherwise long, paved highway of history. One wonders when it finally sank in that it was all over; was it when a Barbarian King was crowned? Or was it when the last soldier of Justinian slouched off? When did the Romans realise that the glory days were gone for good, and what did they do?

Perhaps they never accepted that the days of the empire were over; after all, one of Mussolini’s party pieces was to say he was going to revive the “glory of Rome”. If the desire is not completely dead, we can take comfort from the fact that this instinct has obviously evolved into the harmless outlet of a desire to dominate world soccer.

The psychology of endings remains fascinating, however. What do people do when they realise their time has passed, their situation is untenable, and that the world is moving on, more or less happily without them?

The latest case study comes from Glasgow East; this is a place that is largely consumed with endings. It is post-industrial, so it has more than passing acquaintance with economic demise. It is also plagued with unemployment, drugs and low standards of living. The survivors of all sorts of conclusions have landed in that particular place, clinging on to a shoal of existence while the riptides of globalisation, neglect and incompetence continue in their attempts to wash them away.

It is perhaps ironic that the Labour Party may have met its end in such a place; theoretically, it is a political movement devoted to those least well off, intended to protect precisely the constituency that Glasgow East represents. The voters, however, reached out above the rushing waters that subsume them, and pulled the Labour Party down into the deep. The Scottish National Party has a newly minted MP, and today’s photos of Gordon Brown indicate he’s looking particularly grey and grim.

I should mention that I don’t have a particular personal interest in this by-election; the Scottish Green candidate only got 232 votes and lost her deposit. I am not surprised. This is a constituency where Labour votes aren’t counted, they’re weighed, and thus the focus was always going to be on Labour and the SNP, their closest opponent. Furthermore, let’s be honest, Green parties in general tend to have a disproportionate number of Phds and MDs in their membership; as if to prove the point, the Green candidate in Glasgow East was Dr. Eileen Duke. The obvious gap in education may have created an automatic divide between the candidate and this constituency’s electorate.

So it is with some distance that I speak of “the end”. The end of Gordon Brown’s career? Yes, certainly. If he has any normal psychological impulses, he must be looking in the rear view mirror of his career rather than looking forward. Had he called an election shortly after his selection as Labour leader, it is likely he would have won, and his position would be far more secure. He may recollect how long he coveted the role of Prime Minister, how long he argued for it, how long he waited. Upon achieving his desire, however, he was left in the unenviable position of a child on Christmas morning who discovers anticipation of a gift was far more satisfying than receiving it.

Perhaps this is also the end of the Labour Party. Few are saying this; at best, we hear whispers of an electoral wipeout on the scale of the Tories’ demolition in 1997, a disaster which David Cameron has proven is redeemable. However, there is a whiff of decay, a hint of rot at the core of the Labour movement, which proceeds from the question, “Whom does Labour represent?”

The original Labour party was created to serve the interests of working people, in particular those who toiled in coal mines and factories for low wages. Their goal was to create a more equitable society in which these individuals received a greater share of the wealth that was generated by their efforts. In an era that not only is becoming post-industrial, but must become even more post-industrial for the sake of the environment, this seems like an anachronism.

To be sure, Labour has tried to adapt. Tony Blair watered down enough of their message to make Labour palatable to the “aspiring classes”, and not to spook those who had “made it”. However, the need to maintain this centrist position meant that Labour stood for nothing much, except a bit more spending, and a different management style. As our present difficulties suggest, this strategy has failed. Ideas do matter; the post-ideological approach of the Labour Party has left it politically bankrupt and bereft.

it is also bankrupt in a literal sense: as the BBC explained last night, in 2004, £4 out of every £10 that Labour received in donations was from the unions. This proportion has more than doubled. The unions may have sufficient leverage to bend Labour to their will; this is not always a good thing, particularly when it comes to forseeable tensions between the desire for economic expansion and the needs of the environment. Furthermore, a thoroughly union controlled Labour Party is an easy target for the revitalised Conservatives, who can frighten the wider public into thinking that the 1970’s have returned with a vengeance.

There is no public indication that Labour understands their present plight. BBC News this morning has brought forth a shabby procession of minor ministers stating that it was the fault of the faltering global economy, and high oil prices: i.e., it’s to do with factors for which they cannot be blamed. No doubt, Gordon Brown will trot out the tired line that he is continuing to make the “right long term decisions for the good of the country”. The optimists, like Roy Hattersley, probably will continue to state that the situation is retrievable. The Romans likely felt the same way when Romulus Augustulus was ushered out of the imperial palace by the Barbarian chieftain Odoacer for the last time. After all, the sun still rises and sets, the trees grow leaves in the spring, the world still turns, and the circular nature of life means that surely their time will come again. Perhaps?

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Out of Tune

July 24, 2008

A British furniture store recently bought the rights to Nickelback’s “Rockstar” in order to provide the theme music for their commercials. Television viewers have been “treated” to the sight of customers of varying types dancing in front of their new sofas and miming the lyrics as the tune blasts on.

However, unless I’ve completely misunderstood the song, it was meant as an attack on excessive materialism, not intended to support it. Here’s the video:

Nickelback: "Rockstar"- Official Video

Note the following segment from the lyrics:

‘Cause we all just wanna be big rockstars
And live in hilltop houses, drivin’ fifteen cars
The girls come easy and the drugs come cheap
We’ll all stay skinny ’cause we just won’t eat

This hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement; in fact the lifestyle that is mentioned sounds particularly empty: for example, “I want a brand new house on an episode of Cribs / And a bathroom I can play baseball in”. Mentions of drug taking also feature.

If the furniture store has misjudged it, they wouldn’t be the first. Remember, Windows 95’s anthem was the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up”:

If you start me up
If you start me up Ill never stop
If you start me up
If you start me up Ill never stop
Ive been running hot
You got me ticking gonna blow my top
If you start me up
If you start me up Ill never stop
You make a grown man cry

This perhaps is some truth in advertising, particularly the bit about making “a grown man cry”.

Hillary Clinton too, was guilty of picking a bad theme tune for her first Senate campaign. Her team thought Billy Joel was appropriate. As he is from Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, this was a reasonable assumption. However, they chose the song “Captain Jack”:

Saturday night, and you’re still hangin’ around.
Tired of living in your one-horse town.
You’d like to find a little hole in the ground,
For awhile.
So you go to the Village in your tie-dyed jeans.
And you stare at the junkies and the closet queens.
It’s like some pornographic magazine,
And you smile.

This is followed by:

Your sister’s gone out,she on a date.
You just sit at home and masturbate.
Your phone is gonna ring soon, but you just can’t wait
For that call.
So you stand on the corner in your new English clothes.
And you look so polished, from your hair down to your toes.
Ah but still, your finger’s gonna pick your nose
After all.

Just a recommendation to furniture stores, software manufacturers and indeed Hillary Clinton: try listening to the music before you actually select it!

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The Lingering Ghost of Titus Oates

July 24, 2008

Titus OatesAccording to Pew Research, 12% of the American electorate believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. This is in spite of the fact that every last piece of evidence suggests otherwise: Barack’s father was an athiest, as was his mother. The fact that he went to school in Indonesia with a bunch of Muslims does not constitute proof. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world; as he presumably was not living inside a bubble during his time there, he was bound to be educated alongside Muslims, just like any other expatriate child.

Yet the accusation simply will not go away; Barack has continued to protest that he is a Christian. No sane political strategist would suggest that this not a smart move. But why? Why he is compelled to be so vigorous in denying any connection to the Islamic faith? Why would being Muslim disqualify him? Why does the very name “Muslim” carry such negative connotations?

Sadly, there is a historical precedent. The name “Titus Oates” seldom is spoken in history classes these days. There are reasons for this: he is one of history’s greatest liars, agitators, perjurers and flim flam artists. Thanks to him, men were hung, drawn and quartered. Their crime? They were of the wrong religious persuasion, in this case, Catholic.

Oates came to prominence during the reign of King Charles II. While Charles brought a certain amount of stability after the febrile period of the English Civil War and the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, there was a lingering suspicion of Catholics, a paranoia which made the age far more nervous and violent than it otherwise might have been.

There were some solid reasons for the sentiment; after all, the messianic Catholic King Philip II of Spain sent the Spanish Armada to topple the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in 1588, partially because she was supposedly an “illegitimate Protestant whore”. Catholic plotters, including the infamous Guido Fawkes, tried to blow up Parliament and dispose of King James I in 1605. Catholic and Protestant nations were at each other’s throats during the Thirty Years War, which kicked off in 1618. The continous meddling of the Pope in international affairs indicated that Catholicism was just as much a political doctrine as well as a religious one.

This led to an atmosphere in which uneducated people were tempted to believe that Catholics were behind every ill that befell them, including the Great Fire of London in 1666. Enter Oates, a failed Anglican vicar, who was booted from one of his posts for perjury: he had falsely accused a schoolmaster of committing sodomy. Ironically, Oates lost another job, a chaplaincy on a Royal Navy vessel, for having reportedly engaged in “buggery”.

Oates was not a good, intelligent, or moral man, but he certainly knew how to lie and how to inflame public passions. He recklessly began to accuse Catholics in King Charles’ court of planning to get rid of the Protestant Charles by poisoning, so that his Catholic brother James could assume the throne. Oates made 43 accusations in all, implicating over 500 suspects. Among them was the entirely innocent secretary to the Duchess of York, Edward Colman; thanks to Oates, he was tortured and executed.

It took three years for Oates’ intricate web of lies to unravel: by then, the damage had been done. Bigotry had been enshrined in England’s laws: Catholics were not allowed to take up Parliamentary seats until 1829. The English Bill of Rights, enacted after the Catholic King James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, prevents any Catholic from becoming the reigning monarch: it remains in force.

To a civilised observer in 2008, this series of events seems absurd. At the start, Oates should have been quickly dismissed as a crank and a hysteric. While there was a radical element, the vast majority of Catholics in 17th century England wished to leave peacefully; the Catholics in Charles II’s government, by and large, served the monarch and the nation faithfully.

However, the label “Catholic”, and its popular association with intrigue and murder, meant that many innocent people were regarded as a dangerous element, a fifth column, an enemy within. Catholics were the subject of wild rumour and fantastic tales of torture and debauchery. The Catholics had to be purged, the logic ran, before they stamped the Protestant world out of existence.

If one substitutes the word “Muslim” for “Catholic” in that last paragraph, and the word “Judeo-Christian” for “Protestant”, and then takes a look at the content of today’s newspapers and blogs, we gain an tragic insight. How little the world has changed; fortunately, our punishments are not quite as gruesome as those in the past. However, can it be denied that one of the reasons why the Western public is not as restive as it might be about the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is because those held there are Muslim?

Peter Oborne, the noted journalist, recently proved how casual the public is about anti-Muslim bigotry. He did an experiment in which he took tabloid headlines which reported supposed Muslim “incidents” and substituted words like “blacks” or “Jews” for “Muslims”. He the showed modified texts to members of the public. The public said the altered stories were “racist”, “offensive” and should not be allowed. Yet there have been few, stirrings of protest outside the Muslim community about the originals. When it comes to Islam, we are living in Oates’ world, where suspicion equals fact, and intolerance is a public virtue.

Senator Obama is not in a position to address this issue at the moment; he has an election to win, and the evils of this situation cannot be remedied with a single portion of rhetorical brilliance. The Labour government in Britain says that it is concerned about this issue, but its rhetoric is just as empty as its cache of ideas. We have to content ourselves for the moment with the following thought: unlike in the 17th century, being a bigot now is a source of shame, rather than a form of identification. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that Catholics and Protestants have learned to get along, even in places such as Northern Ireland where they clashed for centuries. The election of a Catholic American President would not now cause a single eyelid to flicker; it is highly unlikely that repeal of the prohibition against a Catholic monarch would stir protest in England. The Pope is now more a celebrity than a bogeyman; he fills stadiums like a rock star. These developments bode well for the future of relations between members of all faiths. The question is how long a road are we going to have to walk to get there. How open are we to viewing each other as individual human beings, as opposed to having our interchange defined by labels? The more we do the latter, the longer the lingering spectre of Oates can continue its nefarious work. The more we do the former, the quicker we will finally consign it to hell.

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Drunk or High?

July 23, 2008

President Bush just offered an explanation as to what has happened to America’s financial system:

Wall Street Got Drunk

In his parlance, Wall Street “got drunk”. He also advised them to get rid of those “fancy financial instruments”.

I suppose this is an improvement to him repeating the same mantra about the economy’s underlying strength; the housing market is in tremendous pain, the banking system is reeling still. “Getting drunk” is rather a mild way of describing what happened. What the banks were doing, really, was smoking the crack cocaine of easy money, big returns, and like a crack cocaine user, they didn’t care about the whys and wherefores of getting another hit. They didn’t want understand that lending money to people who couldn’t pay it back was likely to end in tears, all they saw was the big potential returns, if and when these people won the lottery or had a rich uncle who died.

Or perhaps this isn’t like crack cocaine; the word “dope” seems more applicable somehow.

Bush also suggests that he is looking forward to relinquishing the power of decision making; yes, the rest of us are relieved too.

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Apocalypse Maybe

July 22, 2008

Every trip to the small grocery store near my home is an adventure. I don’t know who is in charge of their supply chain, but it is patchy and odd: some weeks there is a glut of strawberries, other weeks you can’t get a berry for love or money. The same inconsistency applies to most of their stock: the swings between availability and absence exist for commodities as varying as sparkling water and red lentils. Planning dinner is a spontaneous activity: I have no idea what I’m going to have until I actually get there.

As I was walking down the aisle this past Saturday, wondering what size eggs they would have this week, it struck me that this might be a view of the future. We are so used to having everything we want, whenever we want it: but it may be that this is going to be the first thing to change, once the final cheque for our civilisation’s excesses comes due. At first glance, it’s not so bad, I’ll buy green lentils instead of red ones, and use sunflower oil instead of olive. That said, it may be the transportation links of of globalisation will continue to weaken as the cost of oil goes up; diet and habits will change as economic localisation starts to fill in the gaps with substitutes. We will probably have to become more dependent on our own gardens: I already grow my own tomatoes, herbs and chilli peppers, using modified window boxes lined up against a brick wall that faces the afternoon sun.

I can imagine planning permission being relaxed due to energy shortages; at long last, I’ll be able to put up solar panels and a small wind turbine without going through the usual bureaucratic rigmarole. Perhaps capacitors will improve to the point that I will be able to store a consistent amount of energy to power my home’s needs; nevertheless, the trend on energy consumption could and should go one way, downward.

I already rarely use my car: as a result, I have only filled it up twice in the past seven months. I can imagine this being the normal state of affairs for most people: cars may become less valuable and perhaps there will be a switch to vegetable oil for efficient diesels like mine. Even so, the car may become solely a failsafe if cycling and public transport are inadequate; driving just on a whim could be eliminated.

This is by no means a comprehensive vision of the future. However, it is possible.

This scenario particularly appeals to me because it dovetails with an overriding theme from humanity’s history: we will do the right thing when we are forced to do it by the inevitable. When so opposed, humanity has a tendency to muddle through. A reduced, less consumptive future which is less convenient and pleasant than the present strikes me as realistic.

It will involve a great deal of economic pain; I can imagine a lot of stores being shut down and not replaced, dark and empty reminders of the gluttony of yesteryear. If I look down my town’s main high street, I can already identify the potential victims: Woolworths’, dependent on so many cheap, plastic (i.e. petroleum based) products imported from China, is a sitting duck. Starbucks will be gone as well; £4 will be regarded as an excessive amount of money to spend on coffee. Many of the clothing stores will be shut, dependent as they were on cheap sweatshop imports. However, the store specialising in local linen and bolts of cloth will likely still be there: making one’s own clothing could come back into fashion. The bookstore should also still be in operation, however they could expand using recycled paper in publishing. The farmers’ markets, in the Corn Exchange as well as on the high street, may become a five day a week affair, and supply most household needs.

Some of the trappings of high technology could remain; it’s difficult to see how the internet could be abolished, though the servers which provide its backbone may be converted to use Open Source solutions exclusively, in order to extend their life and reduce power consumption. Perhaps the National Grid will be revamped – in a hurry – to deal with microgeneration. Wind, tidal and solar energy could be the mainstays, as well, probably, will be some nuclear plants.

Yes, this scenario is not utopia; there will still be carbon emissions to control and still be effects of climate change with which to contend. It’s just a guess, but I believe in the hypothesis that the melting polar ice caps will have a negative effect on the Gulf Stream, and thus Britain will actually become a colder, rainier place to live. Some areas will be flooded, others will be subject to dangerous erosion, including the Norfolk coast. Places nearer to the equator will probably have to deal with nature’s full onslaught, creating a refugee problem in Europe. The positive side effect will probably be the opening of new Nigerian or Kenyan cafes in even the smallest provincial town.

The other plus side to this scenario is obvious: we’re alive. While we’re missing luxuries, and there will be “tragic” days such as the one on which the final battery in last iPod dies, at least the model will adjust to something more sustainable. However, given the choice between this world and the end of it, one wonders what most would prefer.

My reading of human nature is that we are prepared for triumph and disaster, but we don’t quite know what to do with just carrying on. This future is not “The Day After Tomorrow”; it’s merely difficult, not devastating nor a portent of the apocalypse. Humanity has experienced events like the Black Plague and the Cuban Missile Crisis to prepare for death; we haven’t been prepared to live frugally and simply forever more.

As such, perhaps this should be the main subject for political discourse: how are we going to modify our lives to fit into the new reality? The truth is stark: if everyone was to achieve the same living standard as Europe, we’d need several planets worth of resources. Oil and gas are running out. Climate change is happening. We are going to have to adjust our lives, whether we like or not. No, this is not the end of the world; only the overly dramatic and spoiled will think it so. But the sooner we make the adjustment, the better off we will be, and the foundations of a future can be established whereby a balance is struck between our comfort and that of the Earth.

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Drowning, Amidst the Sound of Laughter

July 19, 2008

Parliament is due to break up next week for summer recess. As Matthew Parris tells us, this imminent holiday has caused the government to go into overdrive with a slew of “initiatives” intended to make us forget that they have wrecked the public finances, turned environmental policy into a swindle, and destroyed civil liberties.

However, this government has long been laughable; hopefully our humourists will now go in for the kill. I can think of none better for the job than the impressionist Rory Bremner; he was certainly partially responsible for laughing the anti-liberties Home Secretary (and later Work and Pensions Secretary) David Blunkett out of public life, as this clip demonstrates:

David Blunkett: Unlikeliest Sex Star Ever

I know that a lot of people are afraid about what a new Tory government means; it probably means more of the same. But at the very least, the ability to remove one bunch of criminals from power does mean democracy is still functioning, and complacency is still punished. So, while the Labour government drowns, it should be to the sound of laughter.

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Waiting for Santos

July 19, 2008

Santos McGarryI have had a half and half life: my formative years were in the United States, my later years have been spent in Britain. Because of this mixture, I sometimes am struck by the comparisons and contrasts that can be drawn between the two countries. Contrary to what some French thinkers may believe, there is no unifying “Anglo-Saxon” culture; the variances can be quite stark.

I encountered one of the differences on Thursday night; I was watching Season Seven of The West Wing, the plot concerned a fictional 2006 Presidential election. Halfway through, it dawned on me that this was an example of how differently Americans and Britons view their government: Americans tend to make dramas about politics, the British tend to make comedies. The West Wing is one of my favourite dramas. “Yes, Prime Minister” and “The New Statesman” are two of the funniest programmes I’ve ever seen.

This is not to say that this is exclusive: America has plenty of satire programmes (The Daily Show springs to mind). Dramas about British government have also been made, including the House of Cards series; with a certain generosity of spirit, the John LeCarre “George Smiley” dramas can also be included in this list.

Comedy and reality have collided in Britain: the well-timed remark by the Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable about Gordon Brown’s transformation from “Stalin to Mr. Bean” is a leading example. Similarly, drama and reality are fusing in America: there have been a number of commentators on both sides of the Atlantic which have noted the striking similarity between The West Wing’s seventh season and the 2008 election. The Republican candidate in the programme, Arnold Vinick, was obviously based upon John McCain: he is shown as a man who is out of step with his own party, and primarily famous for “straight talking”. He also is from the West, albeit in his case he is from California rather than Arizona.

The Democrat candidate, Matt Santos, is also rather like Barack Obama in a number of ways: he is a candidate with a minority background, articulate, compassionate and youthful, with a limited tenure in national government. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the writers of the West Wing were in touch with one of Obama’s campaign managers, David Axelrod, who suggested they use many of Obama’s attributes in formulating Santos’ character.

It is a fault of our age that many apparently believe the line between fiction and reality is blurred. Many young people grow up with the aspiration to be on television; the thousands of people who volunteer to be imprisoned on the Big Brother programme for several months is ample evidence of how this desire permeates society. This can lead to a perception that television is real life; perhaps some are subconsciously waiting for Santos in their support of Obama.

It’s a nice idea: Santos is an attractive character. His “biography” states he was Mayor of Houston, and is a reservist with the United States Marines. He is also a proven liberal Democrat with a passion for education reform. He wears the mantle of responsibility with aplomb, and even after he wins the election, he does not appear to take himself too seriously. He is genuinely bipartisan, and he gives the vanquished Vinick an important role as Secretary of State.

When Senator Obama began to run for President, it is perhaps understandable that there were some who wanted real life to be made analogous to the West Wing script. A sketch on the British comedy programme Dead Ringers made clear the difference: in it, a scene from the West Wing was re-created, starting with a President Bartlet impersonator writing a letter in Latin to a foreign dignitary. He sadly informs those around him that he is not the actual President; when the other characters ask him who the real one is, the lights went up on a comedian dressed as President Bush, who let fly with a burst of staccato, idiotic laughter.

West Wing viewers never see Santos do anything underhanded or dirty. We never see his morals falter; certainly, he has doubts, but these have more to do with making the right decision rather than personal ethics. The closest he comes to having any moral quandry is when he has to decide whether to purge a large number of his campaign staff, and having decided to execute on it, he leaves the job to his subordinates.

However, the West Wing’s politics are not realistic. No doubt Senator Obama is having to do more than “grip and grin” and avoid catching colds from all the babies he’s having to kiss. Santos picks up the badge of “liberal” in a national debate, and does so proudly, yet in the end manages to win the states of Texas, South Carolina and Nevada. Senator Obama doesn’t have that luxury. Worse, he and his team are not facing a man as moral as Vinick, who eschewed ads from independent “527” groups. Rather, Obama has a response room whose sole purpose is to anticipate the realisation of ever darkening dreams.

Obama has more personal vices than Santos; he admits that he smokes from time to time to relieve stress. He has been known to get tense when his wife is in the media’s crosshairs; Santos is surprisingly cool under strain.

In fact, Santos is preferable to Senator Obama in most respects: however, Santos does not exist.

I don’t want to blame the writers of the West Wing for the continuing cry of disappointment of progressives with Senator Obama. After all, the creators are purveyors of fiction, who were at the height of their craft when they created the nail biting Season Seven. There is a human instinct to wish for both convenience and completeness; progressives wanted Senator Obama to somehow give them everything, yet to somehow have moderates to come along with him. This was about as likely as America electing Santos’ fictional predecessor: remember, President Bartlet is from New Hampshire, has a Phd in Economics from the London School of Economics, and is highly ethical. In short, in reality, he would have been attacked as a Northeastern liberal who had been trained by European socialists and had delusions of moral superiority; 527 ads would have beaten such a candidacy to death.

Under these circumstances, we should perhaps be glad that Senator Obama is as good as he is, and getting away with as much change as he proposes and yet remains viable. Waiting for Santos, or Bartlet for that matter is relying on dreams. Dreams without practicality have a bad habit of being as strong as a soap bubble, subject to being punctured the moment it is first caught by an ill favoured breeze.

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Calling a Chav a Chav

July 17, 2008

Yesterday, I emerged from my house into a sleepy, sultry and somewhat grey July morning, and discovered that my town centre had been turned into a rubbish tip.

I live a stone’s throw away from a pub, so I’m not unused to tomfoolery emerging late at night; the previous evening, I had heard the usual cacophony of swearing at top volume and standard issue arguments between boyfriend and girlfriend. Sometimes the chatter is amusing: once, a group of teenagers dared each other to pose naked in front of the police CCTV cameras.

However, the spectacle of my town’s streets choked with trash indicated that something more sinister than a torrent of f-bombs had crashed into the neighbourhood. It seems that the vandals had torn open the rubbish bags put out by the local shops and liberally spread out the contents. As I made my way to the train station, I had to step over garbage as wide ranging as torn up shoe boxes to rotten food. Other remnants of the previous night’s mischief included a sign that had been stolen from a pub and placed in front of a shoe repair shop.

Fortunately, the clean up crews were already out in force, sweeping and tidying. I sympathised with them: they were much more perturbed by the insane mess than I was. Furthermore, there was a weariness in their look as they tended to their work, which indicated they had been at it for some time before I had happened along.

I found out from a colleague that a similar incident had occured last week in another nearby town: we theorised it was probably the same youths, given the same mindless destruction, and the same extensive tidy up operation required.

George Orwell sprung to mind. He once said that we had the right to do as we please. In the next breath, however, he said that peaceful people needed to be protected. He was right on both counts.

In another development, it appears that the Fabian Society would rather linger in rarefied heights than think about civil peace. Tom Hampson, one of their spokesmen, said that progressive people should not use the word “chav”, deeming it “way above the level of acceptability”. His justification of this policy was that the “chavs” have no means to defend themselves.

I wish Mr. Hampson could live next to a pub for a while. My local, which generates so much mischief, is a part of the Wetherspoons chain, a group famous for being able to provide cheap beer because it is close to its expiry date. It is where many “chavs” go to imbibe, and plunge into the pleasure of oblivion. Alcohol kills inhibitions; most of the time, we find what was inhibited was the need to swear and yell. As this week’s example shows, it can also liberate a desire to destroy.

There are other features to this segment of society besides beer and mayhem; these are the people that read the tabloids, prefer celebrity to intellect, and have little or no consciousness of environmental or health issues. In short, it is most uncultured and suicidal part of Britain.

To be sure, education, or lack thereof, plays a huge role in all this. Somehow our schools did not open the door of knowledge. This may be more a cultural rather than public spending issue; it used to be, in particular during the Twenties and Thirties, that even the poorest Yorkshire miner had access to a lending library that was filled with great literature. These institutions were funded by unions; at the time, the ethos stated that self-improvement as well as political change was necessary to achieve lasting gains for the working class.

They were correct. However, it appears the “chavs” lack the impulse to apply self-criticism, and thus genuine improvement may have stalled. Certainly, economic policy plays a role in the increasing stratification of Britain, but there is an element to narrowing the gap that involves educational attainment and the desire to learn. Allowing this state of affairs to continue is an act of neglect; trying to suggest that progressivism exists to hide the absence of a self-improving instinct is to distort its meaning. On the contrary, progressivism should seek to encourage people to achieve better, and comment on the status quo as something undesirable.

Furthermore, we should not excuse behaviour when it doesn’t allow “peaceful people to live peacefully”; when progressives do try to excuse this behaviour, it switches off the wider public, who see their rights trampled upon in being told what they have to excuse and to tolerate. Progressivism in this scenario becomes a message of a narrow, removed elite, rather than something that can be applied to the every day. Fortunately, Mr. Hampson is apparently out of the mainstream on this: Barack Obama, a reliable barometer of the future, has already spoken about cultural issues and personal responsibility.

So we should call a chav a chav: the label does, as Mr. Hampson says, carry negative connotations. Who knows, perhaps being called a “chav” will be a mark of shame at some point in the future, rather like being a “disco enthusiast” is now, thirty years after Saturday Night Fever deluged the land with the Bee Gees and bell bottoms. At the very least, using the term “chav” should trigger some debate, and perhaps through debate, some idea of an answer.

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Why I Still Like Barack

July 16, 2008

My company’s summer party is imminent, and I’m facing a choice of appropriate attire for the event. Last year, I’m told, the party involved a great deal of drinking under the stars, and saying things to senior managers and salespeople that inhibitions would otherwise forbid. In short, it’s a good time to be disruptive, perhaps the only truly appropriate juncture to wear a statement, though I’ve done so under less propitious circumstances. I could go for a t-shirt which attacks Wal Mart, saying they represent “Always Corporate Greed…Always”. Alternatively, I’ve got my eye on a shirt which shows a clenched fist and says “I’d Rather Be Fighting the Man”. My final selection is perhaps the most subtle option: I have a shirt that reads “Obama 2008”.

Why do this? I think most radical people have an anarchist streak running through their soul: to disrupt, to shake, to rattle, to knock over – these actions cause an intake of breath, the heart to beat faster, a smile to involuntarily appear. Things as they are, are not adequate, therefore the avatars of the present order deserve a hard kick right in the complacency. A t-shirt with a political statement is an admittedly minor form of disruption, but as I am a manager myself, the statement is marginally more magnified. A frisson of disapproval is likely to be all I that I will get, but to me it’s worth doing, a small portion of a larger symphony of resistance.

To be fair, my superiors are not any better or any worse than most of their counterparts in the rest of the business world. In my experience, senior managers have rarely understood the profound effect of what they do. They see fixed and variable costs, and see the people who work below them as “variable”, a number in a spreadsheet which can be reduced without too much hint of conscience intruding. Ironically, however, it is those who are at the base of the heirarchical pyramid who have the greatest stake in the company’s survival: without it, they (and me, for that matter) can’t pay the mortgage, can’t pay for education, can’t pay for energy bills. The company, as Henry Mintzenberg rightly pointed out, is a social organisation, not a pure generator of shareholder value. Few in leadership want to understand this, or care to see, because thinking this way would require more humanity in decision making.

The depersonalisation at the apex of businesses’ decision making is replicated in politics and government both in Britain and the United States. Worse, America may be an egalitarian country; its politics are not (Britain is almost the opposite). We came very close to a scenario in which we would have had the Presidency held by only two elite families for nearly 30 years. Given this, one of the more laughable spectacles of this election was watching Hillary, a millionairess and doyenne of the establishment, morph into the champion of the working class. By any objective measure, the plight of anyone having trouble make ends meet is something of which she only has a marginal awareness. Why I like Barack Obama, and still like him, is how he has disrupted and continues to disrupt this ridiculous state of affairs.

We must keep in mind that the 2008 election was not supposed to be this way. The script was written well in advance: Hillary was supposed to win the nomination easily. The other part of the script was that the Republican nominee would be a white Protestant: at least that went according to plan. However, there was no room in this scenario for a seismic shift of any kind: politics was to continue to be practiced by a narrow clique of professionals. Certainly, there would be differences in emphasis and on some policies, but it was to be a debate in a country club, not in the town halls or internet forums.

Barack Obama has destroyed this. Few people talk about his nomination in these terms: yes, much is said about his humble origins, and how he is the first African American nominee, and potentially the first African American President. But that’s missing the point: more important than his ethnicity is his outsider status. He did not come from a family belonging to a political establishment; his politics come from community activism on the South Side of Chicago, a pedigree which makes Republican attempts to paint him as some sort of arugula chomping elitist as extremely peculiar. By his efforts, talent and charisma, he has torn up the script, and because of this disruption, politics have become more free flowing. The doors have opened to greater egalitarianism in high office.

It is fashionable among progressives to argue that Barack has abandoned and betrayed them by shifting to the political centre; this is perceived as “selling out” by some. However if the Obama Revolution was to continue to advance all the way into government, he was going to have to bring moderates along with him; he could not win solely with the quarter of the electorate that identifies itself as being “liberal” and “very liberal”. In spite of this, he remains a disruptive influence, that kick in the complacency, that refusal to bow to the hegemony of a few. He may not do everything one would hope for: no politician is a messiah. However, if only for the chaos he has wrought amongst the elite, he is still worth liking, and giving one’s wholehearted support.

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

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