Saturday, 28 April 2012


I had a good Easter, thank you very much. I am a Christian of the Anglican variety – squashy, middle of the road, (I know that makes me sound like a hedgehog with a short life expectancy) and with a high tolerance for ambiguity. You don't hear much about me in the media though. You do hear lots about other kinds of Christianity. This Easter was a time of joy for me, as Easter always is. Jesus rose. Everything was renewed. Suffering did not go away, but my sense of purpose and my sense of life were reborn. At the same time, though, this Easter summed up for me a lot of what is wrong with both my religion and my country.

The headlines:

These are fairly typical. They come round over and over again. There are many Christians who are not like me. Unfortunately they are the ones who tend to get in the headlines. The rest of us, myself included I'm afraid to say, tend to keep quiet and hope they will go away. But they never go away because they have axes to grind. And this meme of Britain's poor suffering persecuted Christians gets an outing in the papers whenever they feel like it. I don't know what George Carey was on when he gave that interview, but he should stop taking it. Or if he wasn't on anything, maybe he should start taking something. The subheading “Christians are being “persecuted” by courts and “driven underground” in the same way that homosexuals once were” was particularly ironic, given the amount of gay bashing that Christians still do. I would like to make clear that my world, including my God, does not fall apart if I see a couple of men holding hands or a couple of women snogging. If they want to get married, that's fine by me. And, as far as I know, it's fine with God too.

Carey talks about a religious bar to employment if wearing crosses is banned. (The actual banning of crosses is itself a highly exaggerated story, but that's just the media for you.) Last time I looked the Bible didn't command us to wear crosses. Some people choose to. Fine. They can still wear them under their clothes or they can wear them when they're not at work. My faith does not need a cross on a pin on my uniform to prop it up. Neither should anyone else's. If they choose to wear a cross, that's fine, but they have no right to insist on different treatment to anybody else. Like too many Christians today, Carey is trying to maintain a position of superiority by claiming to want only freedom of expression.

And then there is money. This “whatever it is costs umpteen billion pounds” trots out over and over again. We are told the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Somebody somewhere made less money than usual at Easter. Oh dear. Somebody somewhere else made more money than usual. A lot of people got a break. The weather was fairly nice for once, and millions of people got a day off, got to be with their family and friends for a little bit longer than usual, and got happier. In my opinion, that's worth a couple of billion. We'd be a lot better off if our media celebrated the fact that we got a couple of days off rather than moaning about the cost.

Our churches ought to be saying that, but they don't. Many of my co-religionists are too worried about homosexuality, as already adumbrated, or too worried about women actually having control over their own reproductive organs (heaven forfend!), or too worried about hiding the facts about child abuse, to say something sensible like that. They are also too bothered about money. When Occupy was at St Pauls, I was angered, but sadly not surprised, that my church should have taken the action it did to try to get rid of the protesters rather than welcoming them. At the time they were doing that, they were also accepting a grant of £40 million to get their stonework cleaned. £40 million. Think how many houses could have been built with that money, how many teachers, doctors or nurses paid. I want to say it made my blood boil, but it didn't. I'm used to it. I just thought, “That's typical”. It's the church I'm in. It's not the church I want to be in. But every journey starts with a single step. This week's step is to start the organisation of Christian Aid Week for the village. Without that money people will die who would otherwise be alive to support their partners and raise their children. I'd rather be talking about that than who has their hands in who else's pants. I think Jesus would too.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

I want to hack my ears off with a rusty butcher's knife

I am used to rubbish on TV. I watch quite a lot of it; when the brain needs a rest and doesn't want silence, there is a wealth of soothingly meaningless TV to watch on any number of channels. And if you missed anything particularly soporific, you can watch it on +1 or +2 or iplayer or whatever. But on Sunday I had a moment of horror which has rarely if ever been surpassed in all my TV watching history. (I'm a pensioner now, so my TV watching history is quite long.)

I don't normally do reality TV. Boring. Relentless minute peering into the tawdry mental crevices of people I'm not remotely interested in. But yesterday I walked into the room while one was on and had one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. It was the kind of moment that ordinary life does not prepare you for, frankly, a moment of earth moving proportions that even a man of my decades of experience should not have to suffer. Ever.

It was The Voice. There were three of them. Yes, they had big voices. Yes, they had energy. But all of that was as empty of merit as the life of a mayfly for all the good it did in the face of the awful treatment they gave to an iconic song. That sort of thing should simply not be allowed. It was massacre, a soulless, plastic demolition of one of the songs that defined its era, made worse by the specious energy with which the massacre was carried out. They attempted to perform Springsteen's Born To Run, and they strangled it with a noose turned tighter with every overemphasised vowel and mispronounced consonant.

It should be enshrined in human rights legislation that people should never be condemned to have this type of travesty thrust upon them. It should be a cornerstone of our constitution that such a misbegotten endeavour should never see the light of day, and if we have no written constitution, we must write one just so that we can incorporate this principle.

Born To Run has soul, it has poetry. It is born from the streets that Springsteen and his band trod. It flowers from the lives that he recorded and celebrated so concretely and so poetically. It was not and would never in a million years be so plastic, so fake, so harrowingly overdone as it was on Sunday night. Springsteen spoke for a generation because he was that generation. The first line “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream” (a single voice with spare orchestration behind it). People loved that line because it was his experience and it spoke to theirs. Sunday night's lot haven't sweated anywhere except under stage lights. They have made a plastic, fake, phony, sham, mendacious, distorted forgery of a true poem. To reduce that to the fraudulent, meretricious counterfeit that was served up on Sunday night with such hollow zest is a cultural betrayal, an act of destruction beyond wanton.

Just about everything gets copied nowadays, but there are some things that just don't copy. A true original isn't just the words and the music on a page. It's life, belting at you from the stage, out of bone and sinew, out of the raw experience of being alive in that place at that time, of feeling the hopes and the fears of a generation just finding its feet in a time of turmoil, and beginning to wonder what comes next.

It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we”re young...”

And these three Sunday night simulacra, with their big voices and their complete lack of connection with the fact that art emerges raw and tumultuous from life, and they turned it to trash. The idea behind The Voice and all those other reality contests is that you can somehow turn ash into diamonds. All they did was turn a diamond into ashes. Please don't tell me who they were. I don't want to know. I don't ever want to hear anything like that done again.

I'm going to listen to Bruce.

Monday, 16 April 2012

They snoop to conquer

I left it a while before blogging this, and I thought my moment had passed, but today's news that MI5 had failed to renew their security certificate gave my thoughts a new lease of life. A furore greeted the government's publication a few days ago of its plans for an inoffensively named “Communications Capabilities Development Programme” i.e. giving themselves the ability to spy on who you're talking to and when and by what medium in real time without having to ask anybody's permission. There was a rapid pull back when they realised that they couldn't just push it through without anybody noticing. Reaction in the LibDem half of the government was satisfying. I sense some coalition politics going on here – probably the Conservative half seeing how far it could get before the LibDem half noticed or reacted. Hardly an inch, I'm pleased to say.

If you do nothing else today, you should sign the 38 degrees petition about it. Here's why.

Rather than just looking at why we might be against these proposals, I want to look at things we like, as Liberal Democrats, and assess whether the proposals match those.

There are things that Liberals are in favour of - things that work, respect for people as individuals, respect for the power of the state, and a relationship on which citizens control the state, not the other way round.

Generally speaking, liberal democracy being quite a pragmatic philosophy, we are for things that work. So that translates into a question: how workable is this idea?

Secondly, we respect people, and therefore we respect data about them. How does this idea deal with our data?

Thirdly, we respect greatly the power of the state. It's only a tool, but it's a massively powerful one that needs to be kept in check, otherwise it can too easily wreck people's lives. So do these proposals apply enough checks to the power of the state? (Some people might say they fear the state. I don't, it's just a lot of people trying to do their jobs. I'm just very, very careful with it, like I would be with a loaded gun.)

Fourthly, we like a system in which people are in charge of the state rather than vice versa, one in which the state works on behalf of the people, not on behalf of itself. Do these proposals do that?

So first I look at these proposals in the light of things that work. This falls into three categories - intrinsic worth, opportunity cost and effectiveness.

Intrinsic worth weighs the cost of doing it in both time and money. Given the amounts of data that people produce, the storage costs will be phenomenal. The biggest data drive I am aware of holds 120 petabytes(120 million gigabytes). The people on my twitter stream could fill that in a week. Multiply that by everybody on Twitter, on Facebook, on Flickr.... Massive data banks in massive buildings, all taking space, all needing to fuelled, all needing to be maintained - the costs will be astronomical. Then there will be the cost of finding data. To track a single person means getting the data via their home ISP, their mobile ISP, and any Internet cafés they use. The data will have to be trawled out of all the billions of other messages. It can be done by computers but there is still a cost. Estimates have been made of the costs of a google search. If the security services are incurring that kind of cost for every search they make, that cost will also be significant. Is it worth it? Some would say security is worth any cost, but our budget is limited and we need to choose what to spend it on, which brings me to the next question.

Opportunity cost means what else could we do with that money. The cost will mount into billions over the years. No doubt the government will try to avoid paying some of the cost by hiving it off on to the ISPs. There is a limit to how far they can do that, and some hundreds of millions will fall on the taxpayer. That money could arguably be spent much better on other forms of policing. There is a role for data gathering to play but it works best as an adjunct to intelligence led policing. Knowing where to look for data is much more effective than a series of fishing expedition. If the police aren't getting the intelligence they need, then they should put more effort and more budget into it. No guessing where I think that budget should come from.

Then I question the effectiveness of the plan. The services will have at their disposal a great deal of information about people like me, who do not choose to disguise our whereabouts. Those who want to disguise what they're doing need only go to local Internet cafés and create extra gmail addresses. With only marginally more sophistication, they will start to use the dark web, and be completely beyond the purview of a scheme like this. The services will spend a mass of their time investigating the innocent in the touching belief that they will accidentally light on somebody guilty when anyone with a modicum of nous will be able to subvert their surveillance with ease. It will be a massive waste of their time, and of our security.

The “does it work” test alone should see off this proposal. But there are other issues - the integrity of our data for one. Of course the services will assure us that our data is completely safe with them. (MI5, where is your security certificate?) The Leveson enquiry should have disabused us all of that one. Any system is vulnerable to both corruption and hacking. Tabloid papers have been able to corrupt any police officer or DVLA clerk they fancy. They won't turn a hair at suborning data clerks in ISPs or whatever corrupt private organisation the government chooses to give this responsibility to - A4E perhaps (demonstrated to have big problems with corrupt practices - still getting government contracts).

Anonymous and others are daily showing that they can get round even hardened security systems. Even a low level hacker with an axe to grind can unlock data with frightening ease. It wasn't just a charity. According to the Guardian, “Jeffery also admitted to detectives that he had identified "vulnerabilities" on a string of websites of major international organisations including the FBI, CIA, West Midlands police, the Houses of Parliament, the US navy, Arizona police and Spanish police.”

Mentally challenged people can get into the Pentagon, with very little trouble. The existence of so much data on so many of us will be like a honey pot to anyone who wants to do mischief. And they will succeed. Our data will not be comprehensively protected.

And while we're on the subject of Gary McKinnon, I cannot believe that:

a) the government of the USA is so asininely blockheaded that it still wants to prosecute him, rather than flying over here, shaking him by the hand and thanking him for demonstrating so openly and conclusively that they needed to take their own security more seriously, and

b) that Teresa May is so craven that she STILL hasn't told the Yanks where to stuff it. A British citizen who, if he has committed a crime, has committed it on British soil, should be tried in Britain. A vulnerable British citizen even more so. She exercises no sense, no reason and no compassion.  You can tell her what you think at the Home Office contact page.

The fact that our data will not be protected links to the third question about the power of the state. When the state makes mistakes, the results can be little more than annoying but they can also be downright catastrophic. The Guildford four and the Birmingham six will vouch for that. Jean Charles de Menezes will vouch for that. Today we hear about ex police constable Sultan Alam, who will vouch for that.The opportunities for the state to make mistakes will be multiplied many times if they are allowed to go on fishing expeditions without having to account for and justify their interest in any specific person. Even now without this legislation, the services want too much. Trevor Timm says in “The UK government's war on internet freedom”: “According to their most recent Transparency Report, Google refused to comply with 37 per cent of user data requests they received from UK authorities in the first six months of 2011, because they didn't comport with "the spirit or letter of the law", likely indicating overly broad requests or that the authorities provided no reasonable suspicion of a crime occurred.” They're already fishing in more than a third of their requests.

Fourthly, we stand for a particular relationship between the citizen and the state. The state should be at the service of the citizenry, not the other way round. It should be answerable to its citizens (and not just once every five years). Citizens, not the state, are the most valuable thing a country has. Citizens should have accessible and practical means of control and redress. That gives rise to the question: how would this proposal affect that relationship? It will inevitably cause a distancing, particularly when the state finds giving us information about it so distasteful (viz constant attempts by many government organisations to block FOI requests).

This also influences deeply the effectiveness of the proposals. Received wisdom of policing is that it works by consent. If citizens do not consent, policing does not work, because information and support simply does not come the way of the police. That principle is formed out of the principle of intelligence led policing, which is the most effective kind. It requires the assistance and confidence of the public at large in order for intelligence to flow towards the police. As long as they are poking about in our data at their discretion, they are, at least potentially, damaging the confidence in the which they need in order to work most effectively.

There may be some powers the services need – it may be sensible to ensure that the scope of legislation is wide enough to encompass all forms of internet communication when necessary, but never without good reason and never without judicial oversight.

Thus, on four counts these proposals fail. Sign the 38 degrees petition about them – you need to keep your privacy in order for policing to work its best.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Hope and fear

This post is part film review, part social critique.The two went together so they're getting blogged together. My daughter made me go to see Hunger Games with her, and I'm very glad she did. I knew it would be OK really, as Jennifer Lawrence is watchable in anything. But it has rapidly found its way into my flexible top 100. I was thoroughly absorbed from start to finish – a credible story, credible characters, credible special effects, and gripping music (bought the soundtrack, have it glued to my ears). It's best described as The Truman Show meets Winter's Bone. It's been analysed in great detail by lots of people already. Wikipedia gives a very passable summary so I won't go into detail on that here, but just make a couple of observations. The first is that with all the emphasis these days on special effects, Hunger Games shows that it pays not to overdo them. If you've got a story, a setting and characters that you can run with, you don't need anything else. Hunger Games does have its fair share but doesn't make the effects the star as so many movies seem to nowadays.

The second is to do with how the film reflects or speaks to current reality. This is dealt with quite sharply in the Wikipedia article referred to above. Hunger Games won't count as a great film, but it does deal with great themes and there are parallels to be drawn with current reality, and better still lessons to be learned (if only those who need to learn will be open to doing so). The themes sketched out in Wikipedia are feminism, politics and religion.

The feminist issue was interesting for me. I have to confess, mea culpa, that when I watched the film, I didn't notice. It's a great story and she's a great character. It didn't occur to me that there would be anything more to it than that. It's obvious though that, given the gender unfairness that still permeates the world, Katniss will be a hero for those who still have to fight those battles every day. It becomes even plainer when it is noted, per Tom Long in the Detroit News that “of the top 200 worldwide box-office hits ever ($350 million and up), not one has been built around a female action star”, which means that Hollywood still has a very long way to go. (I've no idea where he gets that figure from.) That the film's feminist undertones are not more pointed is partly due to Suzanne Collins' strategy of putting in plenty of violence but no sex, which had two effects, noted by Kate Heartfield in the Ottawa Citizen. First of all it meant patriarchal parents would not refuse to let their teenage daughters read it, (thus contributing to the success of the trilogy) and secondly the concerns of the book did not directly address the arenas in which gender battles are currently being fought in America – primarily reproductive control.

For the record, in my view, one of the most feminist bits in the film is the first music to go with the credits at the end, Arcade Fire's Abraham's Daughter – worth hanging around just to hear that.

Religion is notable in The Hunger Games for its overt absence. But there is plenty that can be painted in, and Amy Simpson in Christianity Today does a pretty good job at that. For me the resurrection allegory is a bit of a stretch, but the imagery of the bread works pretty well. I think, though, that any religious meaning is one of those make of it what you will themes. Amy Simpson also discusses hope, which she understandably puts in a religious framework. But for me, hope is one of the key ingredients that makes the film politically powerful.

As with feminism and religion, it is possible to read into the film whatever you want politically, and, apparently, left wingers, right wingers, liberals and libertarians all have. The overt themes are obvious – mistrust of government, intolerance of inequality and oppression, and a belief that people can stand up for themselves even under the most tyrannical circumstances. The moment that clicked for me in the film is where the President and the Head Game Maker discuss how to end the game satisfactorily. The President criticises the Game Maker's strategy, saying that he has allowed the players, and by extension, their people in the Districts, hope. And hope, he says, is the one thing that is more powerful  than fear. His job is to keep the majority in check, and he does it with a massive police force and pervasive surveillance, maintaining the supremacy of the Capitol with casual brutality. In one scene a salute from Catniss direct to one of the many cameras tracking her movements sparks a riot in one of the districts, which has to be put down by the police. I saw the film just as the final report of the  Riots, Communities and Victims Panel on the riots of last August was published. In some ways those riots were a blip, an inexplicable and complex occurrence which every commentator was able to interpret in their own way (in much the same way as they have been doing with Hunger Games). I think people generally see them as a blip – the very detailed Final Report has sunk without trace. Perhaps that is because the report itself lays the blame in so many places –  more or less everywhere but with the government. It takes up the theme of hope – “Many young people the Panel met expressed a sense of hopelessness”, and one of its main sections of recommendations is entitled “hopes and dreams”.

The riots came in the middle of a series of protests that were altogether more purposeful: about education, about the NHS, about cuts to welfare, that saw some premeditated, persistent and casual brutality meted out by the police charged with ensuring the safety of the public. Those protests have tailed off as the objects of their anger have ceased to be amenable to change – student fees, the privatisation of the NHS, reductions in welfare are done deals. But I would not be surprised if there were more protests, and more violent reaction to them in the summer months.

Hope and fear are currently submerged for the majority in this country under a blanket of comfort. While there is much inequality and much poverty, the fact remains that Britain is one of the richest societies in the world, and the majority of people are comfortable enough not to be so worried about the condition of the country that they will actually get up and do something about it.those who want to do something are too fragmented, and ultimately too let down by the parties that are supposed to represent them. Good people remain. I was recently very impressed by Stella Creasey, the Labour MP for Walthamstow.  (She also provides more proof that the feminist struggle is not over yet: she was refused entry to a members' lift by a Conservative minister who did not believe that she could possibly be an MP.) But I have to remind myself that she represents the party that enthusiastically continued Thatcher's privatisation of the NHS, that brought us the ruinous (to the taxpayer) PFI deals, that led us into at least one unnecessary war with futile results, which was determined to make us all carry ID cards for no purpose other than to snoop on us, which brought us E4A and ATOS, and began the (to my mind criminal) flirtation with Unum which Iain Duncan Smith and his DWP ministers still carry on today. The disconnection of the Labour elite is the main reason why a charlatan like George Galloway can find himself back in the House of Commons: and that ought to be warning enough to all of the main parties.

But the Conservative Party carries on as before, aided or at least allowed to by the Liberal Democrats, to my dismay. Parts of it are beavering away at the reintroduction of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness, banking on the fact that most people don't seem to care. They're right - people don't. But I suspect, and hope, that people will as they begin to see what they are losing. At the moment the losers are too disparate to be a force, and the government continues with its traditional tactic of wearing people down step by step, a process made easier by the move towards individualism brought about by a generation of the politics of selfishness begun by Margaret Thatcher. Death by a thousand cuts was never more meaningful than now. But the sections of society targeted by the cuts will gradually become both more aware and more hopeless as current comfort leaks away with no prospect of future security to temper it. Then riots on the streets will not be about brand names.

The Riots Panel referred to above said "No young person should be left on the work programme without sufficient support to realistically hope to find work". Not something the DWP takes seriously; they follow the dogma of privatising everything because paying money to private companies to shuffle unemployed people around must be better than actually creating jobs. Young people tend to be energetic. And they tend to be on the streets more. At the moment they are quiescent; that may not last.

That same department leads a determined assault on disabled people, cut by vicious cut. The assault on disabled people disguises a more widespread assault on women. In this country most care is done by the family, which usually means by women, and it is they who will pick up the debris left by the  insistence of Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP on making the poorest pay the price for the mistakes made by the richest. Again, this assault does not matter to many people - in fact it is an excuse for some: disability hate crime has been rising steadily in recent months. People who have no hope very easily turn on others. Sooner or later they will turn on the government.