Why I Joined Labour

June 27, 2013

Cut Up Membership CardSo, I quit the Liberal Democrats and joined Labour.

I’ve been disgruntled for some time. Every time I saw a Liberal Democrat minister or MP appear on television meekly defending the policies of the Coalition government, I cringed. A tinge of nausea followed whenever I recalled I was donating money to this farce. I tried to console myself with the thought that I wasn’t giving them much else: not my efforts, nor my time, nor my support. When I joined, I was already a square peg in a round hole: as time went on, this ill-fitting slot diminished then disappeared entirely. It felt as if the party was keen on my Direct Debit mandate; it didn’t seem they were all that interested in much else.

Nevertheless, I held back on quitting: there are many Liberal ideas which I hold dear. For example, I’m pro-Europe: it’s good that there is a party which wholeheartedly shares this increasingly unpopular view. Furthermore, civil liberties matter greatly to me: I am totally opposed to the “snoopers’ charter” and Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about the extent of surveillance going on in both the United States and United Kingdom are troubling. It’s important that some political force says “No more”.

Additionally, there are many good people in the Liberal Democrats. At the top of the party, there is Vince Cable, who seems to find coalition with the Tories as pleasant as a prolonged colonoscopy. There are many councillors and grassroots activists who find the Coalition as repellent as I do: however, they seem to be increasingly isolated and beleaguered.

I care about Liberal history: I think the ideas of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge are worth preserving in their original wrappings. The Liberal voice which speaks to this tradition still has much to say: too bad it’s been smothered by Coalition. Worse, the combined legacies of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge have been deliberately undermined by their heirs.

After a long period of reflection, what made me finally pull the trigger was the Chancellor’s Spending Review, which was absurd, cruel and anti-intellectual. It’s clear that Osborne is as unfamiliar with the idea of a good society as he is with the “The Paradox of Thrift”.

The Chancellor also doesn’t seem willing or able to address the enigma of companies which do billions of pounds worth of business in the United Kingdom, yet pay no income tax. Rather, he only attacks targets which have a limited ability to fight back: he intends to balance the nation’s books on the backs of the poor, the disabled, and the marginalised. I knew that once Osborne had finished his rancid précis that he would send out Danny Alexander to defend it. Alexander would swallow hard and take a beating in the name of policies which he probably finds dubious if not outright reprehensible. He has the government’s ledgers in his possession, he surely knows that Tory policies aren’t working. He must know also that austerity only works if somewhere else is prospering and willing to buy your country’s goods: this was how Canada was able to mount its sustained cuts programme. Because people wanted Canadian timber, oil and minerals, they could slash the budget: demand came from somewhere and the economy didn’t collapse. We are not Canada: when spending was slashed, confidence nosedived and growth flatlined. The budget cuts didn’t cut the deficit; rather, the automatic stabilisers of welfare payments kicked in, and thus caused the benefit bill to rise. Of course, if cutting the deficit is the main priority, the other option is to cut those payments, thus adversely affecting the poorest. This is the option that has apparently been taken.

I don’t have the trappings of state to keep me at a remove from these facts, nor am I lulled by talk of “governing in the national interest” nor is my conscience stilled by the occasional Pupil Premium. I live in Bradford; our council and public services were already under pressure due to cuts to local government. Our food banks are overextended: demand is such that it’s likely a new one will be set up in Otley. Grant Shapps’ breezy assumption that somehow one can take 10% more without too much bother is purest nonsense. Furthermore, I see Tory ministers who have been promoted far beyond their competence imposing their Manichean world view on British society: in their eyes, there are only “shirkers” and “strivers”. The Tories are doing their best to create conflict between these two segments in order to stay in power and prevent tough questions being asked of the wealthiest.  Specifically, there is an elite in this country which is untouched by the cares that afflict the majority, and even seem relatively unbothered when they transgress the law. Why are there are no policies in train which will bring this aristocracy down to earth?  And why, on the contrary, does their perch seem ever more lofty?  Is it the consequence of bad policy or by design?

Rather than cry halt, the Liberal Democrats continue to prop up this intolerable state of affairs, albeit sometimes with palpable reluctance. Yes, it would probably be electoral suicide for them to walk away now, but an honourable defeat is preferable to sustaining a dishonourable compromise. Once the catharsis of getting an electoral savaging had passed, then perhaps the party could have rediscovered its purpose. I was not alone in feeling this way: I did not have enough compatriots who could make it happen. For my part, there was nothing to stop me from saying, “Sorry, no more. You’ve gone too far already; I can’t bear it any longer.” I wrote a letter saying farewell. Later, I took out my membership card, got a pair of trusty scissors, and cut it in two.

Nye BevanHaving resolved to leave, it didn’t necessarily follow I’d join Labour. Yes, I’ve previously been involved in a trade union; I was even a chapter president for a time.  Yes, much of my economic analysis dovetails nicely with what has been said by the Shadow Cabinet. I’d much rather see a Labour government than what we have currently. Watching Ken Loach’s “The Spirit of 45” recently made me wish I could vote for that pleasant Mr. Attlee. Nevertheless, another spirit, that of Tony Blair, still wanders the corridors of the Labour Party’s soul. My perception is that his shade is fading; once it dissipates for good, then perhaps the genuine idealism that Loach exposited so beautifully will make itself fully evident once more. For example, I can’t imagine Aneurin Bevan tolerating the failings of the Care Quality Commission; he would have been disgusted by the thought of people in the National Health Service simply not caring about patients as they should and being debauched by the ideology of the market. To him, public service was just that: a high and noble calling to work for the benefit of the people. He demanded the best of those who worked in those services; he also believed public services required proper funding, even if that meant that the wealthiest had to pay. The Labour Party, imperfect as it is, is the primary vessel of these ideas. It is also the most likely means by which this ethos will achieve realisation.

Nevertheless, when I filled out the form and set up the Direct Debit mandate, I was uncertain. I had been a member of the Liberal Democrats but not really “in” the party; I was sure that I would likely have disagreements regardless of whatever political party I joined. I am admittedly a cantankerous soul. Additionally, unlike before, would there be a chance to actually help? Would it be possible to make a difference in my community?  I didn’t have to wait long for my answer: I’ve received a warm welcome. I’ve been more politically active and engaged in the past 24 hours than I have been in the past one and a half years.

In the centre of Bradford, there is a mural which celebrates the centenary of the founding of the Independent Labour Party in January 1893. It states, “there is no weal save commonweal”. This work of art celebrates the city’s crucial role in Labour’s formation: similarly, Labour is embedded in Bradford’s DNA. I’d like to think that before any political allegiance I hold, that I am a Bradfordian first. Given this, perhaps joining Labour was only natural.

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City ’til I Die

June 5, 2013

Green PaperI looked at the form. It was printed on green paper; the black sans-serif letters ensured the questions were clear: did I want to be a councillor, was there anything in my past that could embarass the party, and why did I want to do this? As I scanned the paper, I exhaled.

I’ve lived in Bradford for nearly two years; I have become very attached to the city. Last Saturday, this affection was particularly evident to me; I went into the centre of town for lunch, taking advantage of the fact that it was a beautiful day. It was so warm that my usual morning trip to the rubbish bin didn’t require putting on slippers: rather, the pavement radiated a pleasant heat. My cat Amelia followed me out of the open front door. She sniffed the air, and then bounded into the midst of a patch of buttercups growing on a small expanse of green in front of my home. She was ready to frolic.

Despite the lovely weather, I felt some level of trepidation: the English Defence League were supposedly in town. They were there, presumably, to protest against Bradford’s diversity, which in my opinion should be a source of civic pride. However, a quick check on Twitter suggested only 3 people had turned up to their “rally”.

Bradford Pride 2013So, accompanied by friends and my significant other, I went in. After parking the car, our party set off by foot. In the distance, I could hear pop music booming out of outdoor speakers. The sound echoed throughout the city centre, ricocheting off of buildings both illuminated by sunlight and cast in shadow. Upon arriving at Centenary Square, I saw that Bradford Pride was in full swing right in front of the majestic town hall: the city’s LGBT community apparently hadn’t been at all cowed by the threat of the EDL. In fact, I didn’t see any EDL presence whatsoever. In contrast, Bradford Pride was as diverse as it possibly be: a young man was singing on stage, in the audience were two women dressed in niqabs. Couples of all varieties were on show, visiting the beer tent, wading in Centenary Square’s vast water feature, eating at outdoor restaurant tables in the golden light and warmth.

I smiled. I don’t think I’d been happier to live here; elsewhere, the voices of hatred and intolerance were supposedly at full volume. Not here: I later found out via social media that the EDL’s motley band had retreated from Bradford. They apparently went to Leeds and spent a less than productive afternoon harassing shoppers. In London, there were clashes between supporters of the fascist British National Party and United Against Fascism: both groups were dwarfed in numbers by those opposed to culling badgers. There was turmoil, but not in Bradford. Families frolicked in the spring sunlight. The scents of peri peri chicken and fresh beer out of the tap lingered in the air. On stage, a singer tried to reprise Erasure’s greatest hits; what he lacked in raw ability, he made up for in sincerity. A young lady with curly red hair and sporting a rainbow bow tie accompanied by another young lady who was presumably her partner even offered free hugs. All was at peace.

Bradford City FCCould Bradford be improved? Certainly: compare it to London and it’s obvious that there is a vast difference in wealth. Nevertheless, Bradford possesses fertile soil from which the green shoots of a renaissance could emerge: there is fibre optic broadband available in much of the city, it is a particularly young town, and even its industrial heritage makes it appealing to those who like “steampunk” couture. It is held back by a number of factors: central government, for example, seems determined to reduce the city to penury, cutting its budget with all the aggression of a crazed butcher with a chainsaw. Most recently, the National Media Museum, which has a wonderful IMAX theatre, was put under threat. Bradford has also suffered from a notable lack of self-belief, though the recent promotion of Bradford City FC to League One seems to have provided a much needed boost to the city’s psyche. Bradford’s politics are an additional barrier: an electorate that can enthusiastically vote for George Galloway is showing obvious signs of stress. For eight years, as control of Bradford city council passed between Labour and Coalition parties, the development of a shopping mall in the city centre has languished: was this due to political timidity? Was it due to stupidity? Both? It’s only been recently that the end of “the Hole’s” tenure in Bradford has come within sight.

Many thoughts raced through my mind as I examined the green form. It would be easy to look at Bradford’s problems and think that no one person could possibly make a bit of difference. Certainly, my membership of the Liberal Democrats hitherto had left me with the distinct impression that my contribution was neither wanted nor desirable. Hitherto, I’ve been invited to two “chats” on topics including equality and taxation. I played the role of “Mr. Awkward” with some relish at these gatherings, asking questions which perhaps didn’t chime pleasantly: for example, when the discussion turned to the environment, I’d asked why the party had allowed schemes to encourage the use of solar panels to be dismantled. When the attendees were expected to be grateful that the income threshold had been raised so as to remove many poor people from taxation altogether, I pointed out that this wasn’t sufficient to counter rises in the cost of living, including the increase in VAT which the Coalition had enacted. Yet, they sent me the green form; I wondered if filling it out would be an act of futility. I’m probably flattering myself in thinking my name would be recognised, but perhaps it might, and the green form which I was filling out with a black ink pen would immediately be put on the reject pile. Indeed, not only might it be futile to send the form in, it might be a complete waste of time to even think of serving the city. I’m a refusenik, a rebel, a renegade. All that I’d seen so far suggested that the party had two tiers. One was for the hoi polloi who could pass all the resolutions against Coalition policy they liked; the second (and upper) level was for those who actually made the decisions. Loyalty to the leadership was what ensured selection and progression; but, I thought, I’d rather be loyal to the truth and to Bradford. This apparently had a cost; hitherto, I hadn’t even been asked to stuff leaflets in envelopes despite having offered to do so.

Nevertheless, with a swoop of the pen, I signed the form off, folded it, and sealed it within a small white envelope. I then dropped it in the mailbox. As I bade it a silent farewell, I resigned myself to the possibility that it’s likely there will be no reply. No matter: this is a good home, and a home worth giving time, effort and energy to help make it even better; as the fans of Bradford City chant, I’m “City ’til I die!” If one avenue is blocked, no doubt there will be another way.

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On “Muslim Appearance”

May 26, 2013

Michael AdebolajoAs it turned out, those who murdered drummer Lee Rigby were about as nondescript as you could get. The horrifying video of Michael Abedolajo holding blood soaked blades indicated he was wearing nothing more extraordinary than blue jeans, a hoodie and running shoes. A photograph of his counterpart showed he was similarly difficult to spot in a crowd: he wore a khaki jacket which looked like it had been acquired from a discount store.

The focus of most media coverage is rightly on Lee Rigby, his undoubted character, his achievements and his family’s terrible grief; that said, the immediate reaction of the authorities said much about how they behave under stress. This response was counterproductive and hints at an official view of Muslim citizens as separate from the general population.

Let’s review: shortly after the attack, Nick Robinson, correspondent for the BBC, quoted a Whitehall source which said that the perpetrators were of “Muslim appearance”. Robinson was quickly upbraided on social media for using this term, which in the end proved not to be his own. The phrase itself, issued at a point when the news was hot and passions were burning brightly due to the shock and revulsion that the public rightly felt, was cack-handed at best, malicious at worst. The moment it was uttered, it added to a lingering and pernicious narrative of the Islamic world as the source of terrorism, although as ETA in the Basque lands and the various factions in Northern Ireland prove, terrorism has neither an ethnicity nor a religion. Such a statement could only help stir up mindless racists such as the English Defence League, who immediately descended upon Woolwich: they clashed with police at Woolwich Arsenal station. Also, a man was arrested after coming into a mosque in Braintree armed with knives and an incendiary device.

No doubt it would have emerged that the killers of Lee Rigby believed themselves to be followers of Islam and were motivated by “jihadist” causes. Regardless, it was incumbent upon the authorities to be cautious in the language they used, not utilise a phrase like “Muslim appearance”, particularly since the photographs taken in the aftermath indicated that this simply wasn’t true. What perhaps made this cold blooded murder all the more horrifying was how commonplace the alleged perpetrators looked: they could not be picked out walking along Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. There was nothing extraordinary about their dress or looks, certainly nothing that obviously said they were extremists.

So why did the Whitehall source say to Nick Robinson that they were of “Muslim appearance”? Could it have been a mere poor choice of words: were they trying to suggest that they believed the crime had “jihadist” motivations and expressed this badly? Or is it a symptom arising from the subconscious of the bureaucracy and political class that is willing to assign a Muslim character to a crime such as this?

The superego of the state kicked in, obviously, and all political leaders have been quick to say, rightly, that this crime is contrary to both the letter and spirit of Islam. However two contrary impulses can exist simultaneously: a political leader may know that Muslim citizens are deserving the same protections as any other, and we should be equal before the law. However, the same political leader may have gut instincts which exist in diametric opposition to what he knows. Sometimes, if not often, emotion lashes out more quickly than reason has the ability to get hold of it and we are left with the aftermath of phrases like “Muslim appearance”.

I live in Bradford; though I am not a Muslim, many Muslims also call this city home. There are plenty of Christians, Sikhs and Hindus who reside here as well. Although there are particular “neighbourhoods”, in suburbs like mine, we live side by side in our homes, working, paying taxes, tidying lawns and washing our cars on the weekend. By and large, this works, because we operate in an atmosphere of quiet tolerance and respect. “Tolerance and respect” in extremis means that if a Pakistani man is killed in Birmingham by a white person, that my Muslim and Sikh neighbours don’t assign this malicious deed a “Christian appearance”; it means that the dreadful murder of Lee Rigby is not assigned a Muslim character by the authorities or myself. Rather, it means that both my neighbour and I look at both murders with mutual outrage and shock: we are thus united, rather than divided, by revulsion and a demand for justice. The authorities’ response indicates an intellectual understanding of the principle, but not an intuitive nor instinctual predilection to act in accordance to it. This gap creates a space for the pernicious weeds of bigotry to grow.

The EDL protests AslanThis void also offers opportunities for those who profit off of division: UKIP proclaims it is “non-racist” or “anti-racist”, but its attacks on immigration chime in a particular way to those who wish to remove influences seen as “foreign”. The English Defence League is an outlet for the anti-intellectual and disenfranchised who despise the world as it is and seize upon the simplistic expedient of blaming the “other”; they too find oxygen in such a space, as their world view is lent some credibility by those who govern us. On the other hand, the preachers of hate and intolerance can also point at the authorities and say that Muslims will never be full citizens in a land that perceives them as alien, and indeed, such a state is anathema and will never dispense true justice until it espouses their faith.

Most people, regardless of individual religious belief, regard the avatars of extremism as cranks and loonies; nevertheless, as the killing of Lee Rigby shows, it only takes a few to wreak terrible damage. It is incumbent on all citizens to squeeze the space in which hatred flourishes into as cramped quarters as possible: it means that the public will need to turn its face away from the subtle and not-so-subtle innuendos dished out in the media, assorted demagogues and by certain political parties. It means using reason to combat passion and emotion, which often cannot contend with complexity. It also means the authorities as well as citizens will need to feel (as well as think) that all who live here are of equal worth and that murder has no religious character whatsoever, rather, it is the mark of madness.

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A Reticent Wagnerian

May 22, 2013

Richard WagnerI work in an open plan office; there are positives and negatives. On the plus side, at least I’m not confined to a cubicle and I can converse with many of my colleagues without leaving my chair. Less happily, when it’s a particularly busy day and the phones are going off every few minutes and the keyboards are clattering on, it can be noisy the point that it’s impossible to hear oneself think. To help remedy this, I bring in my iPod and a set of sturdy headphones; when I have intricate work to do, I tend to put on the music of Richard Wagner. As today is the bicentenary of his birth, I have more cause to consider him than usual.

I am a reticent Wagnerian. There is no escaping the fact that Richard Wagner was a disgusting anti-Semite; furthermore, he wasn’t an admirable character in general. He was a spendthrift and a scoundrel: he depended upon his friends far too much for financial support and had numerous scandalous liaisons. He even ran off with the wife of Hans von Bülow, the man who conducted the première of Wagner’s magnificent work, “Tristan und Isolde”. The lady in question gave birth to a child of Wagner’s while still married to Bülow.

Worse, Wagner’s descendants were early and ardent supporters of Adolf Hitler. Their succour meant a great deal to the budding dictator; he was a fervent admirer of Wagner and his works. Hitler’s favourite piece was “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Wagner’s only mature comedy: apparently, Hitler knew most of its tunes by heart. When the Third Reich was declared on March 21, 1933, this was the piece of music used to celebrate its malignant birth. Indeed, Hitler was so enamoured with “Die Meistersinger” that it’s possible this influenced the choice of setting for the infamous Nazi “Nürnberg” rallies. Also, it’s not inconceivable that Nazi parades often carried ornate, square banners because of the opera’s staging instructions (Act 3, Scene 5 of “Die Meistersinger” features various trade guilds in procession with similar flags).

On a less esoteric level, Wagner may have helped form Hitler’s peculiar, perverse vision of Germany. Through what he called “music dramas”, Wagner tried to create an art form as potent as Greek theatre, which spoke to and about German history and culture. In essence, he was a mythologist and propagandist as well as a composer. Hitler bought into these legends, but obviously missed much: in “Das Rheingold”, the dwarf Alberich gains the power to rule the world but has to forsake love in return. The god Wotan takes the Ring which grants this authority, but it is cursed. In “Tannhäuser”, a wayward singer in thrall to Venus and sensual pleasure finds forgiveness from God through love and penitence. Altogether, though Hitler may have heard the music, he never fully listened to what it had to say. The result was dire: as Stephen Fry stated in his thoughtful documentary “Wagner and Me”, Hitler and his minions left a sizeable, indelible stain on the magnificent tapestry of Wagner’s artistic legacy.


The popular association of Wagner with blood and violence was reinforced by Stanley Kubrick: perhaps the most famous scene in “Apocalypse Now”, in which a squadron of armed helicopters attack a Vietnamese village, was made all the more terrifying by the rousing cries of the Valkyries embarking on their famous ride.

And yet when I put on one of his “music dramas” and hear the overture rise, all this seems to dissipate. It’s the musical equivalent of biting into an exquisite chocolate truffle: deep, rich, complex, with sweet and bitter intermingled. The dissonance of the famous “Tristan chord” speaks of endless longing in a single moment: it takes words alone much longer to get there. The “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser calls to mind the longing for home and for the solace of God.

Richard Wagner - Tannhauser "Pilgrim's Chorus" - Bayreuth Festival

Also, Wagner was philosophically more complicated than his anti-Semitic rants might suggest: he was simultaneously a political liberal, indeed, for a time, he was considered a dangerous radical. In 1849, he had to leave Dresden and his lofty position as Royal Saxon Court Conductor for the safety of Switzerland because of his association with revolutionary causes. This may seem surprising given that in our era, that prejudices like Wagner’s are seen as retrograde, the sole province of the reactionary and benighted. Yet in Wagner’s day, it was possible to believe in democracy, progress, and liberty, yet also think that certain races were superior to others; the modern mind struggles to see how this logic can possibly work, but in the nineteenth century, there was a prevalent belief that Providence had made some nations and peoples more fortunate than others. As religion’s grip weakened towards the century’s end, Darwin was interpreted in such a way as to suggest that some races were more “fit” to survive. Indeed, Darwin’s devoted cousin Francis Galton was a pioneer of the pseudo-science of eugenics. George Bernard Shaw, a noted socialist and eugenicist of Galton’s ilk (and a fan of Wagner’s) suggested in 1910 that people who were unfit to live should be killed humanely with poison gas (to be fair, however, there is some evidence that he was being facetious). Later, Shaw was a vigorous defender of Stalin’s Russia, lending it particular support just as the regime was starving and brutalising the people it ruled. Yet Shaw’s reputation, as well as that of Darwin is relatively unblemished compared to that of Wagner; no one goes to see “Pygmalion” and wonders what Shaw would intend to happen to Eliza Doolittle had she remained an uncultured flower girl. Charles Darwin remains on the list of the most revered figures in the history of science.

Nevertheless, Wagner’s genius, linked as it is so intimately to his faults, challenges his modern aficionados; perhaps it’s important to remember that few human beings are entirely bathed in light or shrouded in darkness. The human heart contains both angels and demons fighting for every scrap of territory. It would be incorrect to say that Wagner was a moral man, but he certainly was brilliant. He was an anti-Semite, yet perhaps oddly, he entrusted the première of his last opera, Parsifal, to the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi. It would be wrong to suggest that Wagner created the Nazis, but he certainly influenced them. His music envelops the listener, but it should not snuff out awareness of how even good ideas can be perverted, particularly when complexity and outright contradiction are brushed aside.

I will spend most of the bicentenary in my open plan office. No doubt, as my colleagues file into the office and I need a refuge for my thoughts, I will don my headphones once more. I’ll press a button and the theme to Tannhäuser will rise. The Pilgrims’ Chorus will make me pause for a moment; I will shut my eyes and enjoy it washing through my senses. It will not be without guilt nor hesitation: not then, nor ever. However, some things are simply too precious to give up merely because they have strings attached.

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Review: “Skyfall” starring Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem

February 20, 2013


I thought that James Bond had turned a page. Both of Daniel Craig’s initial outings in the role were markedly different from the blend of high-tech silliness and misogyny which characterised the previous episodes: his was a James Bond that could genuinely fall in love, get hurt (indeed nearly die), and was kept in check by a formidable matriarch (Judi Dench). I hoped that “Skyfall” would continue this progress; I looked forward to James Bond becoming a more three dimensional character. I relished the prospect of something which had hitherto been ridiculous becoming something interesting, as occurred when “Batman” was revamped. When a “Skyfall” DVD landed on my doorstep, I hastened to watch it.

My first impressions were positive: we see Craig arriving too late to prevent a fellow agent being fatally wounded. A touch of humanity is applied when Bond ignores his superior’s urging to chase after the perpetrator in order to administer some rudimentary first aid. After finding that his efforts are in vain, he’s off again in hot pursuit and is shot during the chase. Following this, Bond disappears.

After this, we are provided with another interesting plot element: we are shown Bond’s retirement plan, namely to feign death and retreat to an anonymous island in the tropics. This is not some winsome paradise, however: he appears bored and listless, and he spends his evenings playing drinking games with a scorpion on his wrist poised to sting him.

Yet another positive becomes apparent after his return to duty: entropy is a major theme. Bond is no longer as physically fit, nor as good a marksman, nor as psychologically prepared for duty as he once was. We see him undergo a series of tests, after which he collapses, exhausted. He stands before a mirror and picks out bits of shrapnel from an old wound. The unflappable, almost superhuman agent is shown to be frail and possessing altogether human weaknesses which are accumulating over time. I wondered if this plot point was directly inspired by the last Batman film, in which the hero was simply too old and broken in body and spirit to carry on as he had previously. MI6’s mission is called into question as well: politicians ask if it’s an anachronism, particularly since a ghastly security breach has led to several prominent agents being killed.

Late in the narrative, we learn more about Bond’s past: it’s revealed he was an orphan, which may explain the contradiction between his general emotional detachment and his unusual devotion to Judi Dench’s M. She perhaps represents the parental influence that Bond lacked; otherwise, humanity offers limited opportunity for him to feel sentiment. We also discover that M prefers to select orphans as agents; this hints at pathological characteristics of her own. Allusions are made to agents operating in the shadows: this suggests that such operatives are shadow people, cut off from having much in the way of roots. I am not well versed in the world of espionage, nevertheless, this idea has resonance.

The film is short on wacky devices. Ben Whishaw has expertly taken up the mantle as Q; he quietly but cleverly derides the idea of exploding pens and other such bric-a-brac. He supplies Bond with nothing more outrageous than a gun that is coded to his hand print and an emergency radio. Q also suggests to Bond that he could do more damage with his laptop, wearing his pyjamas and with a cup of Earl Grey tea in hand than Bond could ever do out in the field with his gun; anyone involved with technology will probably be unable to suppress a smile at that remark.

Finally, it was good to see Britain as the central location for a Bond film: this was an atypical approach and should be applauded, as it has hitherto seemed that Bond simply couldn’t wait to get away from the UK the moment the opening credits finished. Furthermore, while the film is London-centric, it does not take place exclusively in London: we are also taken to the Highlands, albeit it its majesty is shown to be rather bleak.

Javier Bardem in SkyfallAll these positives, however, cannot fully mask the film’s problems. Firstly, the antagonism at the heart of the story is more than somewhat ludicrous: MI6 is threatened by a lone criminal (and his hired cronies) who is hell bent destroying the agency and M in particular. Javier Bardem, playing the villain, looks more than mildly preposterous with blonde hair; he is also shown to be a typical Bond grotesque, complete with a prosthetic device that reminded me of Moonraker’s “Jaws”. His motives are rather facile from a plot perspective: he was once a British agent, later handed over by M to the Chinese as part of a deal. He intends to avenge this betrayal.

Bardem is in control of events in a manner which seems unbearably unlikely: for example, accompanied by only two other gunmen, albeit all dressed in police uniforms, he somehow manages to defeat the entire security apparatus around the Houses of Parliament. He can hack into the most complex systems with ease; furthermore, somehow he has amassed a fortune which has enabled him to afford an army of mercenaries willing to fight and die for the sake of his personal vendetta. He even launches into a typical Bond villain monologue at one juncture, detailing how rats can be made to eat each other. I am certain Bardem enjoyed playing such an over the top character; it was the most “carpet chewing” performance I’d seen this side of Al Pacino’s Satan in “The Devil’s Advocate”. However, the film’s essential grip on some semblance of reality ended the moment he appeared.

Furthermore, though I was initially cheered by the sight of James Bond’s old Aston Martin DB5 (which he utilises as an escape vehicle) this was purely due to my liking of that particular car’s design. I realised later that Craig revving up its engine was a turning point: after this, it seemed as if the old format for Bond films reasserted itself with a flourish. The Aston Martin still retained its old ejector seat, a hangover from “Goldfinger”; Bond shows it off to M. A preposterous gun battle happens in an unlikely location. Bond coughs a bit rather than dies of smoke inhalation after a sizeable explosion. By the end of the film, “M” has returned to the wood panelled office of old, eschewing more modern digs; just outside it, Miss Moneypenny has made a return as M’s assistant, reprising her classic role as a metaphorical used handkerchief full of the sputum of sexist innuendo. As it was with Lois Maxwell and Sean Connery, it is unlikely the relationship will ever be fully consummated or explored. “Bond will be back”, the end credits promised. The old Bond, I sadly concluded, had indeed returned.

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An Ex-Catholic’s Guide to the Papal Succession

February 19, 2013

Catholic Art Praying HandsI was once a Catholic; I went to a Catholic school. I recall receiving my first Holy Communion on a bright Spring morning; all the children taking part were obliged to have a banner made by their families proclaiming their love and support. My Swedish grandmother, though she was Lutheran, made my banner. It read:

“God made us a family. We love one another. We forgive one another.”

This faded tapestry still hangs in my bedroom in my parents’ home, a reminder of love that lingers despite the passing of years and of people.

I recall the kind people who worked at my school; there was an aged nun named Sister Jeanne d’Arc who taught me how to play the piano. She was firm but not strict; I believe much of my love of music came from my awkward fingers plonking out hesitant melodies on old ivory keys in her musty practice room.

I remember the Catholic Church I attended when I lived in London. It was a rare place: it was a venue where all socio-economic groups mingled. The middle class, the unemployed, the native born and new arrivals all gathered together there to pray. Father Godfrey, Father Michael, Father Tony, Father Norbert – all were gentle and generous men who cared deeply about their flock. The church itself was a Victorian neo-Gothic structure but not outrageously ornate; after a time, the parish received some money for a much needed refurbishment. An aesthetically pleasing lick of paint was daubed on its 19th century beauty. My parents renewed their wedding vows there not long after the work was completed: I remember the flickering candles, the freshly clean Victorian tile beneath their feet, the statues of saints all the brighter for their exquisite restoration.

My attachment was not just sentimental. Catholic teachings contain a number of positive social doctrines. For example, Pope Leo XIII wrote in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum about the need for the equitable treatment of labour and said that the State had an obligation to look after the poor. The free market, Rerum Novarum states, is not everything: this sounds refreshing to modern ears, which are weary of the pablum from bankers and politicians which drones otherwise. Rerum Novarum is a moral document that every government, regardless of political complexion, should study and consider.

Given my history, it was with considerable reluctance that I left Roman Catholicism behind. Despite the warmth, the familiarity and the memories that I had built up within the Mother Church’s confines, I could not ignore its treatment of women, homosexuals and the way that it covered up its scandals, particularly the abuse of children in its care. I sought refuge and found some solace in the Church of England and its solid grip on moderation: although it has its problems, and its struggles for fair treatment are not nearly over, at least there is some passable resolution to these questions that can be seen in the middle distance. Some parts of the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church in the United States, have made great progress.

In contrast, the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger to succeed Pope John Paul II plunged Catholicism into night. There was always an element of murk and mystery which surrounded the Vatican, things hidden behind clouds of incense; “The Godfather 3” was a subpar film but nevertheless its portrayal of intrigue, scandal and even murder within the Church rang true. During the Renaissance, scions of the Borgia family became popes, so did the Medici: both houses were less than ethically salubrious. The Vatican, then as now, is a surpassing expression of the idea that only God is perfect. Yet Ratzinger, as Benedict XVI, did not throw open the doors, nor did he let sunshine penetrate its darkened corridors. If anything, his detached, somewhat professorial manner only made the gloom deepen. Pope John Paul II was credited with witty sayings such as “Stupidity is also a gift from God, but it mustn’t be misused”, whereas his successor was notable for boneheadedly driving a wedge between the Catholic and Muslim communities by quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus in a less than judicious way.

Tu Es Petrus - VaticanPerhaps thanks in part to Benedict’s reactionary temperament, the Vatican is still one of the few places in which the past not only lives, it’s nearly as tangible as the present. The unearthing of deceased Popes began the moment that Benedict XVI announced his retirement: it was pointed out he was the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415, which was done to heal a schism in the church. Some have qualified this statement by saying Benedict is the first Pope to quit voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294. There is an additional argument which could be made: there was a period in which there were several Popes all vying for recognition. One of them, Felix V, gave up his claim in 1449 and was later made a cardinal; this act brought the period of multiple popes to an end. One would think that with this track record that there would be little dispute that the Pope can quit: as is apparent, for a time they were abdicating left, right and centre. As with anything else associated with the Catholic Church, this is not the case. I have visited St. Peter’s Basilica, and inscribed on the inside of its main dome are Christ’s words to Peter: “Tu es Petrus”. This translates as “Thou art Peter”: as any Catholic schoolboy can tell you, Peter means “rock”. This is followed by Jesus’ addendum, “et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum”, which means “And upon this rock I shall build My Church and I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” These words represent authority: the Popes are referred to as Peter’s direct heirs. The supposed “keys to Kingdom of Heaven” are part of the Papal seal. Some Catholics no doubt argue or at least feel that such an obligation cannot be simply cast aside. But the Pope is also supposedly infallible on matters of doctrine “concerning faith or morals”, or has been since the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). But in the end, the arguments are for nought: Benedict will leave at the end of the month. There will be a conclave of the College of Cardinals, a cloistered event which in the era of “Big Brother” should likely be televised and narrated by someone from Newcastle until they’re ready to proclaim “Habemus Papam”. That’s that.

Or is it? After all, Benedict will be living in a refurbished apartment in the Vatican; he will be a neighbour to the next Pope. It is entirely possible that while he lives, he will be seen as the “true pope” by people who oppose his successor’s policies, particularly if those are out of kilter with a traditionalist point of view. To be fair to Benedict, he has said he’d like to spend the remainder of his life in prayer; prayers, however, can be heard by others than to whom they are directed. Is this interlude a break with Papal history or merely a latter day repeat of the period in which there were several Popes at once? Given this potential handicap, could there be a charismatic liberal Pope and a period of reform in which openness and transparency become, if one will pardon the pun, cardinal virtues?

Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless it does matter: while the Pope is no longer the arbiter of Christendom, and he can’t stand at the gates of Rome like Leo the First and command Attila the Hun to leave the city be, he still can influence the priorities for over a billion worshippers. He can speak about moral and social issues in a way which few can; there could and should be another Rerum Novarum for the Twitter age. He has the chance to sustain and nurture the institutions which provide a beneficent upbringing like mine. He has the opportunity to extend Jesus’ dictum of “Love one another as I have loved you” to whole segments of humanity that have been hitherto shunned or misunderstood by the Church, and by so doing thus remove the necessity for those who love justice as well as God to leave its embrace. He can be a true disciple; he can also lead. Time will tell.

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Four More Years

January 22, 2013

A Tea Party Protestors SignNot every member of my family supports the President. Some are aghast at the idea of ever watching MSNBC. My mother believes that previous attempts I’ve made to obtain employment in the United States were de-railed by the economic policies of the man she calls “The Bamster”. My father opposes what he refers to as the President’s “European Social Democratic” ideas. However, his denunciations are relatively mild, and sometimes his criticisms are valid: for example, he doesn’t understand why the President set aside the recommendations of the Simpson Bowles Commission to reduce the deficit. In contrast, most of the invective I’ve heard is generally much more extreme and nonsensical. Mother Jones recently published a chart detailing all the prevailing conspiracy theories surrounding President Obama: the accusations range from him being Muslim, to secretly homosexual, to openly Communist. Never mind that many of these allegations are contradictory, the theories solely exist to prove the President’s unrelenting malevolence.

While the aspersions cast on the President are often irrational, there is a rationale behind them: the concept of a “paradigm shift” has been worn out by political science scholars, but it is fair to say that President Obama represents a rupture. The certainties of an older America, more reflective of Norman Rockwell prints than the nation’s actual state of mind in ages past, are disappearing: America is becoming more ethnically diverse, its position as a world leader has become increasingly challenged, and it is becoming obvious that supposedly “socialist” Europeans or Canadians don’t necessarily live more poorly than Americans do. Certainly, if you’ve made it in America, then you get more jouissance out of that achievement than you might elsewhere. But is the average American that far ahead of the average Australian, Canadian or German? Or do the latter have advantages that would be welcomed by most Americans? President Obama apparently thinks so. But this isn’t the American way, or at least, what has hitherto been perceived to be the American way. Some ask: who is this liberal elitist who casts his eyes across the ocean and wants to incorporate the ideas arising from other lands; in the process of assimilating the experiences of elsewhere, will he undo that which makes America unique? What they don’t ask is if some of what makes America exceptional, such as its lack of gun control laws or a comprehensive health system, are not things of which one should be proud.

My other half has American relatives. Her uncle suggested we watch a documentary about President Obama which had been put together by Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative writer. We saw, or rather, endured it. Its primary thesis is as follows: the consistent thread in Obama’s thinking is “anti-colonialism”. After all, Obama’s father, a Kenyan whose life chances were constrained by the confines of British rule, held strong anti-colonial views; according to D’Souza, Obama had apparently set himself the task of fulfilling his father’s vision. What Obama inherited from his dad was supposedly re-enforced by an education that included mentoring by the late Frank Marshall Davis, a poet and journalist. It’s alleged that Davis was a member of the Communist Party at one point in his life: he certainly was a man of the left. He worked with trade unions and thought “race”, per se, was more a social than a biological construct and thus racism was an immoral fiction which should be eliminated. Davis apparently once said of his activism between 1935 and 1948: “I worked with all kinds of groups. I made no distinction between those labeled Communist, Socialist or merely liberal. My sole criterion was this: Are you with me in my determination to wipe out white supremacy?”

Stalin Time Man of the Year 1942The Thirties and early Forties were also a period in which many people thought that the Soviet Union had somehow avoided the ravages of the Great Depression without resorting to Fascism and its brutal necessities of militarism and racism. The Soviets’ reputation was further enhanced by the bravery and sacrifices made by the Russian people during World War II; Churchill once noted in a meeting with Stalin that the British public had become “pinker”. Stalin replied that this was a “sign of good health”. The United States was not immune: Stalin was made Time Magazine’s man of the year for 1942, despite the fact that he was a brutal tyrant who terrorised and murdered his people in numbers that far exceeded those which resulted from Hitler’s atrocities. The point is, Marshall Davis was swimming along in a broader current. By being on the conspicuous Left in the Thirties and Forties, in particular by working with trade unions, he opened himself up to the allegation of being a “Communist” henceforth and forevermore. Never mind that a change of heart seems to be a feature of many figures on the right, such as Ronald Reagan, who was once a New Deal Democrat, and David Horowitz, who described himself as a “Red Diaper Baby”: if you once associated with Communists and you didn’t fully exit the Left, in the D’Souzan world view, you’re still a Communist regardless of any sign that you have mellowed. And furthermore, your Communism also touches the lives of everyone around you, and influences young people to become Marxists as well.

Of course, most reasonable people would concede the process of mentoring and maturing is not like a viral transmission, but we are not contending with rational perspectives. D’Souza also embroidered his “anti-colonial” thesis by referring to Obama’s supposed decision to send a bust of Winston Churchill back to Britain; it had hitherto sat in the Oval Office. As it turns out, there were two busts of Winston Churchill in the White House, one of which was returned to the British Embassy in Washington as a matter of course after President Bush’s term expired. But even if it had been a deliberate choice on Obama’s part not to keep both, it’s too glib to suggest that this move was merely due to “anti-colonialism”; it’s just as plausible to say that a key part of Obama’s appeal in 2008 was his desire to break with the President Bush’s warlike policies. While Winston Churchill represented the bulldog spirit of Britain during World War II, he was less talented as a peacetime leader; furthermore, Churchill’s visage could suggest the psychology of a nation under siege. Did Obama want to send messages to leaders meeting him at the White House that he still saw America as being combative? Or rather, did he want to ensure that conciliation was his theme? It is reasonable to say that this was an unfortunate oversight and a public relations mistake: it would have been much more adroit if the President had asked for a bust of William Wilberforce, the man who fought against the slave trade, in Churchill’s place. Nevertheless, the motivations behind this incident may have had nothing to do with feelings about colonialism: we just don’t know. It’s arrogant to presume that we do, and turning it into an accusation smacks of paranoia.

D’Souza’s final innuendo is that Obama is deliberately bankrupting the United States. Beggaring America will bring it to the level of Third World countries; this, D’Souza states, is necessary in order to achieve equality and smash colonialism. There is indeed a debt problem, and the deficits have been mounting. However, to suggest that President Obama has a deliberate plan to crash America into the buffers ignores the separation of powers and checks and balances: he could not do it unless Congress went along with him. This idea also suggests that there aren’t enough patriotic Americans within the Democratic Party to prevent such a figure leading them, nor are there sufficient numbers to constrain him. In other words, this is a patently absurd suggestion; it also ignores the fact that the last time the budget was in surplus was under Bill Clinton, a Democratic president. This thesis also conveniently forgets that the Republican House of Representatives simply will not allow taxes to rise to match outgoings. Furthermore, when the Republicans last controlled Congress and the White House, deficits were not brought under control, they exploded. After the financial crisis hit, President Obama was obliged (in some cases by his predecessor) to support banks and major companies: fortunately, the government is now in a position to divest itself of General Motors shares and AIG recently repaid their loan. Obama also had to grapple with another problem: in order for the economy to grow, demand had to come from somewhere. This led to messy, often unfocused spending on programmes of limited utility, rather than emulation of purposeful schemes like the Tennessee Valley Authority as under the New Deal or National Broadband in modern Australia. The same churning, sludgy machinery which hampers American government also produced health care legislation which does more good than harm, but nevertheless, contains kickbacks and other elements that a body truly focused on the common good would not approve. Never mind, D’Souza says, what seems to be gross dysfunction and beyond the ability of one man to fully manipulate or manage, is actually the brilliant execution of a deliberate plan.

The film is somewhat out of date: D’Souza concluded by stating that should Obama be re-elected America in 2016 would be very different from the one we know today. Certainly: but one of America’s strengths is that it is based on a dynamic rather than fixed idea. As the President has reminded us, the Constitution opens by stating, “We the People of the United States, in order to create a more perfect Union”. The key words are “more perfect”: pristine government wasn’t achieved when the document was enacted, rather the Constitution spliced into the nation’s DNA a desire and a process to reach towards ever better. Paralysis for such a society represents its death: as it lives, naturally, it will evolve.

All in all, D’Souza presented a mixture of fantasies and falsehoods which deserves little but derision. But the problem is that D’Souza’s ideas represent a credo for many of President Obama’s antagonists: rather like teenage romantic love, this is a perspective which withstands the assault of reason. When President Obama took two Bibles (one belonging to Lincoln, the other to Martin Luther King) in his hand, swore the oath, spoke the words of his stirring Inaugural Address and then stepped off the podium, he must have had a thought stirring in the recesses of his mind that would have to wrestle with this for four more years. I don’t envy him: whatever he achieves will be done against fierce, visceral opposition. If he triumphs to the good of America and world, he will have earned his place in the pantheon of great Presidents.

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Arrogant Whites, Arrogant Rebels

January 15, 2013

Last year, I saw a film entitled “White Material” which featured Isabelle Huppert and Christophe Lambert. The plot focused on the life and fate of a family of white French settlers in an unnamed African country: the country in question is being overrun by rebels. The insurgent army bears a chilling resemblance to the “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda: most of the soldiers are brutalised children. One of the first scenes shows a French army helicopter hovering over Huppert; a solider shouts through a megaphone and pleads with her to get her family out. She dismisses this, her inner monologue refers to the French soldiers as “arrogant whites” despite the fact that Huppert’s character also visibly lacks melanin. She apparently loves her life in Africa, as evidenced by a reckless motorcycle ride amidst the bush.


Her passion is also an obsession. Huppert’s character is absolutely determined to stick it out: she has a ramshackle coffee plantation to maintain, and nothing, not insurgents, not her teenage son being assaulted and robbed by rebel soldiers, not threats of brutality nor the imposition of violence, indeed, not her plantation being burned to the ground, will make her move on. In the end, she is left with nothing; by this point, the viewer is left without much sympathy as it was her stubbornness and wilful ignorance that made it impossible for her family or any portion of her property to be spared destruction. Africa’s red earth and the legacy of terror implanted by the European empires have swallowed her entire: one can damn the character’s apparent stupidity, but perhaps the viewer is meant to linger over Huppert’s initial monologue. “Arrogant whites” somehow thought they could tread upon someone else’s soil, master it, bend it to their will; in the end, the effort is nothing but a blood-soaked waste.

Jean-Bédel BokassaI couldn’t help but think of this film when I heard about France’s intervention in Mali. France is the only European power that presently maintains bases in Africa: they simply did not get the message, as eloquently expressed in Harold MacMillan’s “Wind of Change” speech in 1960, that the presence of European powers in Africa was no longer wanted nor desirable. Not only does the French military remain, France also provides its former colonies with a currency, the CFA Franc, and regularly involves itself in African politics. Sometimes this is positive: in 1979, the French deposed Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the dictator who ruled the Central African Republic. He was so wildly over the top in his pretensions that in 1976 he turned his Republic into a grotesque Empire and had himself crowned Emperor. Among the crimes against humanity that he is supposed to have committed, he turned cannibal. This form of self-indulgence was perversely apropos given how he had otherwise swallowed the country’s wherewithal; a minister who objected to Bokassa’s extravagance and tried to instigate a rebellion, Alexandre Banza, was apparently slashed by the dictator with a razor in front of the other members of the cabinet. Bokassa’s guards then beat Banza until his back was broken and shot him on the streets of the capital, Bangui. Le Monde said this murder was “so revolting that it still makes one’s flesh creep”. Such behaviour ensured no one objected when Bokassa was deposed.

Mali’s situation is quite different. However, it is relatively easy to see why the French would want to involve themselves: the extreme Islamist ideology which inspires the rebels is out of kilter with Mali’s prevailing culture. The current government, while no beacon of liberty, at least co-operates somewhat with international institutions. Furthermore, it wouldn’t do for France to allow an “African Afghanistan” to develop in a region it considers part of its sphere of influence. So in go the French troops, along with the air force and additional soldiers from Burkina Faso, Niger and elsewhere, in an attempt to secure the capital and beat back the rebels. One wonders if the insurgents look at the sky, see the Rafale fighter jets coming to rain down destruction on their positions and say, “arrogant whites”.

François HollandeThere are good reasons to believe that this intervention will fail. The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has said that “Operation Serval” will continue as long as necessary: apparently President Hollande is determined to “eradicate the terrorists”. As America’s decade in Afghanistan has illustrated, such “eradication” is difficult to achieve. One can think that progress is being made only to find that the insurgents are suddenly re-vivified. Mali resembles Afghanistan in another respect: its government lacks popular support. The Malian state is rightly perceived as being run by criminals; it’s only there due to a coup d’etat. A quick look at the Heritage Foundation’s “Index of Economic Freedom” illustrates the country’s main problems: Mali ranks in 111th place, and as the Foundation states, its “judicial system is considered notoriously inefficient and corrupted by bribery and influence-peddling.” According to the United Nations, Mali is ranked 175th on the Human Development Index: this puts it below notorious laggards like Haiti, Mauritania and Sudan.

The Malians are justified in wondering how such a miserable situation came about. Furthermore, they are right to ask from whom did they acquire their institutions. Whose laws did they (at least initially) copy? Whose style of administration did they emulate? Who still dominates their economy, including the provision of their currency? Which nation continues to make their presence felt in their affairs? This same country has now returned to prop up a government which has comprehensively failed its people. The Islamists are not in step with most of Malian opinion and represent an ethnic as well as religious divide in Malian society: however at least they arose from its soil. They may be malignant; but at least they are not as alien.

The French will make mistakes in the course of their operations: it’s impossible for even the most precise bomb to discern between civilian and foe. France 24 may not choose to run the images of Malians mourning their dead. Nevertheless, one can imagine the pictures of makeshift coffins carried to cemeteries, the tears of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters streaming down care worn faces and lamentations bemoaning the cruelty of fate and begging for God’s mercy: this will be remembered, provoking sorrow in some, anger in others. If and when the body count mounts, so will the sadness and rage accumulate, potentially leading to a final scene much like that in “White Material” in which a French Army helicopter gathers the few French citizens that remain before beating a hasty retreat.

The collapse of the European empires provided a valuable lesson: popular consent provides the only means for any government, whether alien or not, to endure. Consent is fleeting if it takes the form of mere acquiescence to force; unless a state is just and seen to be just, it will eventually fall, taking all the grand monuments to its egotism and power down with it. Despite Bokassa’s use of terror, which kept both citizens and ministers cowed for a time, his eagle fell from its Central African perch and shattered. It probably would have done so eventually without intervention; the French may have succeeded in 1979 because they merely accelerated the process.

The French and their allies may get the Malians to bow down to their current corrupt regime under threat of violence or even out of fear of the rebels; alternatively, the rebels may overwhelm the country and frighten their fellow citizens into obedience with a spectacle of brutal street justice carried out in the name of Sharia. Neither scenario offers the Malian people stability or prosperity: arrogant whites and arrogant rebels will only make a nation, whose suffering should be a stain on the conscience of the world, bleed even more.

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At the Opera

December 31, 2012

Metropolitan Opera - InteriorAt the end, there will be a beginning. New Year’s Eve heralds the premiere of a new production of Donizetti’s largely forgotten work, “Maria Stuarda” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The lead role of Mary, Queen of Scots will be performed by the well known mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato. I can imagine what it will be like: the vast auditorium in Lincoln Centre will darken, the crystal chandeliers will rise as their light diminishes. The transfixed audience will be a varied bunch: their attire will range from jeans to black tie. Perhaps on a night as auspicious as New Years Eve and a premiere, those in formal dress will be in greater numbers than usual.

Once the light fades, the orange text on 3,000 miniature LED screens embedded in the seat backs will read “Act I”. The conductor will enter the orchestra pit and take a brief bow as the audience applauds. He will turn to his colleagues and then raise his baton. The music will begin. After the overture, Ms. DiDonato’s voice will augment the instruments. Her recent album, entitled “Drama Queens”, showed how impressive she can be. In particular, her performance of Giacomelli’s aria “Sposa, son disprezzata” from the opera “Merope” was stunning. No doubt she will rise to this occasion with something just as splendid.

Joyce DiDonato, Giacomelli, Merope, "Sposa, son disprezzata"

But the opera is so much more than just the music; I was privileged to get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes a few days before Christmas.

My parents go quite often, and their continued patronage does confer certain privileges. They had mentioned the possibility that I could go backstage prior to the holidays; as I’m an aficionado of classical music, I was excited by the prospect. My parents made the arrangements.

My other half and I followed a familiar route to get there from my parents’ suburban home; we took the train into Manhattan. The station was blasted by winter gusts, there was a hint of icy damp in the air which suggested snow might be on the way. I smiled; I recalled similar scenes from my youth when my father and I would wait prior to embarking on an adventure. One time, we went into Manhattan to have dinner and see an ice hockey match between the New York Islanders (my team) and their arch rivals the New York Rangers. I ate more steak than I thought possible; the Islanders won, my father had to calm me down lest we were roughed up by enraged Ranger fans. We made a hasty escape via Penn Station. Most importantly, my father and I implanted memories which we discuss more than thirty years after the fact.

My sense of nostalgia was heightened when the train finally arrived. It was an aged commuter model from the 1970’s; I remembered how it seemed out of date even when it was new. The seats, upholstered with an incongruous mix of red and blue vinyl, were shiny, perhaps polished involuntarily by so many commuters in wool trousers sitting on them. The wood veneer on the panels was as fake and tacky as ever; never mind, for one brief moment I was ten again and my father towered above me carrying a newspaper and smelling like Polo Ralph Lauren aftershave. My other half squeezed my hand; the gesture drew my thoughts back into the present.

Things have moved on: as a female conductor proceeded down the carriage, checking tickets, I recalled how conductors used to all be male and mostly paunchy. Their belts merely acted as a demarcation point of the middle of their bodies; their bellies frequently encroached over the border. The female conductor pleasantly requested the travellers’ tickets; I remembered how her predecessors had a tendency to wheeze out similar, less well mannered demands.

After she moved on, I looked out the window at Queens. It didn’t appear to be much affected by the recent ravages of Hurricane Sandy. Cynics would no doubt state that it would be difficult to tell if it had. Nevertheless, compared to my last visit, there seemed to be more going on; the people on the train seemed more cheerful. This perception may have been due to the bonhomie of the holidays or a reflection of my own good mood. It may also have been attributable to the year’s labours, including the election, being largely over: catharsis perhaps was the ultimate result.

Lincoln CentreThe train eventually slid into a tunnel; after a few minutes, we arrived at Penn Station. A subway ride eventually led us to Lincoln Centre; upon seeing its white modern buildings, I smiled again. I recalled an occasion in 1988 when my father was away on a business trip and left behind a ticket for a performance of “La Bohème” which starred Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni; I went with my mother. I remember how Pavarotti’s voice reverberated throughout the auditorium as he sang “Che gelida manina” and how tenderly Freni responded with “Sì, Mi chiamano Mimì”.

I took a deep breath; my girlfriend and I went inside and met our tour guide, a well dressed elderly woman who I believe was doing this as a hobby. We were also accompanied by a grey haired gentleman in glasses and his grandson; the grandson told the tour guide that he was studying towards a degree in set design.

Our guide took us through the staff entrance. She informed us that the opera house was finished in 1966, the acoustics were devised by the same man who restored “lost” sounds to the White House tapes which had been so damaging to President Nixon. There had been a predecessor building, however it simply didn’t have the box seats that New York’s leading families required. Furthermore, the new building was intended to have all the facilities to construct and stage any opera they cared to put on.

The result is the most complex edifice I’ve ever visited. It’s also the strangest because it’s simultaneously the messiest yet the most efficient. We were led down winding corridor after winding corridor to various workshops: one area was devoted to carpenters putting together massive sets for forthcoming operas. Another was set aside for metal work, yet another for painting. Costumes had their own department; the clothes for “Maria Stuarda” hung on racks in the hallways. We were advised not to touch them as the oils from human hands might affect their sheen; this was a particular issue, we were told, because of the advent of high definition broadcasts. I had assumed that period costumes were something that could be rented, albeit at great expense; I was wrong. Each costume was designed and sewed by in-house specialists.

The Metropolitan Opera also has its own rehearsal facilities. Our little group passed by a room in which the understudies were practicing; there was a moment of high drama, the mezzo-soprano acting the part of the unhappy Queen of Scots looking suitably distressed. We were assured by our guide that the effort was not in vain: each understudy would get at least one performance.

None of this, however, prepares one for the stage: it is not just vast, it is comprised of a series of spaces, it is also a rotating tableau, and has giant elevating platforms. It’s all designed so large scenes can slide in and out relatively quickly. It also means that preparations for a grand opera like Aïda are quite complex. Our group encountered a gentleman named, appropriately enough, Verdi, who was responsible for the pyrotechnics: he was planning some suitable explosions for that evening’s performance of “Don Giovanni”.

The final stop on the tour was the auditorium. As we settled into the seats, our guide told us some facts about the interior. It features a reddish wood panelling which all comes from one African redwood tree. This particular wood was chosen for its acoustic properties. The tree was 100 feet tall and apparently 30 feet in diameter.

Our guide also informed us that the Metropolitan Opera is a union shop: it has no less than 15 working there at present. The building was constructed with union labour: the guide said this proved to be handy as the design of the interior called for sculpted plaster which demanded curves. The problem was in the 1960’s that no one was utilising curves, so the union managed to persuade retirees to come back into service.

The tour ended. My father had tickets for “Aïda” in a couple of days time; knowing more about what went into such a production made it all the more exciting. At the same time, I knew that having seen all this and considered the expense involved, some might ask “Why? What is it for?” Surely, some would argue, opera is an art form that is the sole province of a removed elite, not there nor intended for mass consumption. The Prussian king Frederick the Great didn’t think so: when he built an opera house for his people in Potsdam, it was there to act as a symbol of enlightenment. Perhaps Frederick’s wisdom is what should endure: the reason opera survives despite all the slings and arrows that the mass media and its marketing minions can throw at it is because it still is a beacon. It represents a supreme achievement in the arts, music, writing, set building, costume making and lighting; it is an even elegant riposte to the idea that unions are out of date. Its place in our culture’s continuity is perhaps symbolised by the fact that a significant premiere is happening at the very point in time at which we swap the old year for a new one.

I have made the journey home from the opera many times; usually the hour is quite late by the time I arrive. I am conscious that by the time the bow tie is off and the shoes are removed and the jacket is hung away that I am in a strange minority, I belong to the select group whose eyes are still open. This acute lateness is much like New Year’s Eve: after midnight, many weary souls will make their way home, remove their finery or dross, reflect on what has been, then go to bed, sleep, and perhaps dream of times to come.

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Notes from a Precipice

December 30, 2012

Arguing ChildrenThe holiday season, as the cliché goes, is a time of family, and this often entails seeing relatives that one doesn’t encounter regularly. Several days ago, my father invited his brothers and sisters to the family home for a meal; it was an altogether Italian affair, with rice balls, eggplant rollatini and strong red wine on the table.

Some of the arguments which inevitably boiled up were political, with my father and his younger brother representing the viewpoint of the world weary businessman; my aunt, a medical doctor, is much more progressive. The waves of discourse crashed up against each other, boiling and foaming, then the surface calmed, largely due to the presence of my six month old niece. Her obvious wonder at it all made accomplished, distinguished adults blow raspberries in order to coax a smile out of her. She’s a happy child; she often complied.

Apart from making attempts to entertain my niece, I was mostly silent; in contrast, on the other side of the table, two of my younger cousins, brother and sister, argued, or rather, bickered. The lad would do something: I presume he was kicking his sister under the table, she prodded him back and told him loudly to stop it. At one point she yelled “Stop pissing me off!” at him; I recall when using this phrase was a serious breach of dinner table etiquette. On it went for much of the meal: my little niece’s attempts to make noises of her own only temporarily stilled this duel. Indeed, it did not come to a complete end until after we had all left the table.

Less than 24 hours later, I arrived in Florida and witnessed a similar altercation. The children in this instance were younger: the bickering took place in the back seat of a minivan. I didn’t get the full context, partially because I was allowing my thoughts to drift elsewhere, but the main issue was that one child was poking the other with a finger made wet with saliva.

I am getting older and thus my memory of childhood is fading, but I don’t recall ever having such fights with my sister; perhaps it’s because there is a substantial age gap between us. She arrived when I was nine years old; by then, I was well past thinking of my spit covered finger as a potential weapon. Given my lack of knowledge about sibling rivalries, I wouldn’t like to pronounce on the state of American childhood; there is, however, a debate which is raging just as fiercely and with a similar level of maturity as any going on in the back of the nation’s minivans, namely in regards to the so-called “fiscal cliff”. President Obama appeared on television several days ago, looking as harassed and tired as a parent of rambunctious toddlers and stated the obvious: most people work to rigid deadlines and they deliver. If those outside government can do this so regularly to the point of it being mundane, then why can’t Congress do so as well? In his best “Don’t make me pull over” voice, the President then told them to get to work.

The issues are grave: the American economy is still unsteady. In Florida, matters are particularly precarious: on the drive away from the airport, I spotted housing developments which had begun but were unlikely to be completed. In the slight rain that was falling, stagnant pools were accumulating on these muddy construction sites. Yes, there are bright silver Mercedes still being driven along the highways, their drivers speaking into their cellphones presumably to make more business deals. Yet, there are also SUVs with dents and rust, old vehicles from defunct brands like Oldsmobile, Mercury and Saturn whose paint has faded in the Florida sun. Along the same road, I spotted a possible symptom of how deeply some got into hock: an SUV pulled along a speedboat whose name, spelled out in bold green letters, was “A Loan Again”.

Unemployed in FloridaGo into a suburban neighbourhood: yes, some houses are pristine and elegant, others seem less well kept, more patched together, the lawns less tidy. Night in Florida as a result is more visually attractive than the day: darkness softens the rough edges, moonlight reflects off the ponds, lakes and the ocean, giving the tableaus a gentle glow. As one drives around, the artificial lights make the discount stores in scattered shopping plazas look more grand than they are. Young people congregate outside a Chinese “all you can eat” restaurant; the dim light helps to hide the fact that their attire is direct from Wal Mart. Drive along further, and in a ditch near a hotel, two young men wearing backwards facing baseball caps walk gingerly, heading towards the highway. Night, and the egregious use of electricity make this scene seem more tranquil than it probably is: after hitting a peak of 11.3% in March 2010, Florida’s unemployment rate is now hovering at 8.1%. This rate still puts it above the national average; worse, thanks to the policies of its Republican governor, Rick Scott, Florida has the nation’s lowest “recipiency rate” at 16%. At most, according to the Miami Herald, only one in three of those entitled to unemployment assistance have actually received any money. Peel back the discrete charms of a Floridian night and look in the windows of those discount stores, or stare in wonder at $3 case of light beer being sold in a pharmacy: the wares on offer speak of genuine poverty.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the politicians are still poking each other with wet fingers and kicking each other under tables. Yes, they know that something must be done: but the pleasures of partisanship appeal far more to their political libidos. It seems as if it almost doesn’t matter if America does fall off this particular precipice, so long as their side can evade the blame. Congressmen will be able to make campaign ads out of the failure of the President or the Republicans to compromise. They can appear on “Meet the Press” on Sunday and look grave and make stern pronouncements on their opposites’ stupidity and avarice. Nothing need actually get done; indeed doing things is less attractive because that invites blame when and if matters go awry. No doubt some genuine idealists remain, I suggest the President is among them, however this propensity for inaction and blame evasion appears to be a bias built into the current system. It is a wonder that total paralysis has not ensued.

This situation is not only morally repugnant, it also shows that the political class is completely disconnected from the man in the rusty Saturn struggling to hold onto his temporary job. Belatedly, the politicians have discovered that they can’t really escape opprobrium for this calamity, or rather, doing nothing apart from making statements to get a particular base riled up is not a no risk proposition. There is the prospect that if recession returns that a “throw the bums out” mood will spread throughout the land and many former Congressmen will be stuck driving old Saturns, or at least, last year’s silver Mercedes. Still, it’s telling that it appears the Senate will likely be where any deal is struck: Senators are elected for 6 year terms, and as such, they can hope that any mistakes made will be forgotten or forgiven by the time they next face the electorate. Furthermore, Washington has a tendency to do that which is easy, namely cut taxes and increase spending, but eschew that which is is difficult, such as increase taxes and cut spending. So, if an agreement is reached, it is likely to contain more fudge than what lay in Willy Wonka’s mythical factory.

As for the American electorate, they along with the President are rather like the parent in this particular national minivan, having to keep their eyes on the road, yet trying to settle the dispute going on beyond their reach; except, in this instance, it’s the children who are doing the driving as they kick and fight and spit on their fingers. America may avoid taking a dive over the fiscal cliff; even so, it’s hardly out of danger.

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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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