Monday, 4 July 2022

Roe v Wade and Brexit

 A is for anti abortion. B is for Brexit. C is for chaos.

The anti abortion movement in the States and Brexit here in Britain are the same thing, wedge issues chosen by people with right wing authoritarian tendencies with a long term plan for asserting control over an entire body politic. They are on the surface utterly different issues, but they each performed the same function. In each case it took their proponents forty years starting in the 1970s to get their way. Each was chosen because of the characteristics of the country concerned. In the States anti abortion could be made to appeal to powerful and rich right wing fundamentalist churches. The churches’ views had to be nudged into shape, but that too was part of the long term project. In the UK Brexit / sovereignty was particularly powerful because of the gentle but tenacious grip imperial nostalgia had on large numbers of British people. The fact that Brexit became Russian policy is tangential to the main thrust of native and global right wing forces. Arguably Brexit only became Russian policy after twenty years of tabloid headlines convinced them that it was possible.

A key feature of a wedge issue is that it divides people. Abortion in the States and Brexit in the UK have divided the population so fundamentally that the kind of broad alliances that sweep megalomaniacs from power have become much more difficult.

In each case the headline issue itself was not the main point. Each in a way was a staging post, a symbol of what was wanted. The main issues were what was needed to achieve each and what was the overall purpose. The aim was for right wing policies to be embedded in the governance of the country concerned, and for the temper of that governance to be gradually altered so that policies which tend towards the fascist became acceptable. Some things were done differently and some similarly. In both countries right wing media were very important, and very compliant. Regulators, if not already powerless, needed to be rendered so in order to enable media to peddle lies. Gerrymandering and the capture of elected office were used in the States, in the UK the revolving door between government and business, and the favouring of donors.

Both strategies in the end hinged on the fortuitous* appearance of a maverick – Trump in the States, Johnson in the UK, both people for whom principle and the rule of law were meaningless. But the mavericks are just the icing on the subversive cake, they are by no means the whole story – they could only get to where they got with the support and nurturing of many other people, and they could only achieve their ends with the active involvement of others, eg Trump’s packing of the Supreme Court aided and abetted by the house republicans’ abuse of procedure. And in the UK, the number of people still willing to pay Johnson's bills is astonishing. Principle and the rule of law had already become meaningless for many; they were just not quite so egregious in their rule breaking.

*I'll stick to "fortuitous". Some would argue that the development of political and media culture in our two countries made the elevation of mavericks inevitable. I would say more likely, but not inevitable.

And in both cases, that is not the end. The right wing justices on the Supreme Court have made it clear that they will be moving on further rights, and in Britain the government have moved on to dismantling our very effective human rights apparatus. This was always intended; the aim is to concentrate power in the hands of a few, and to demoralise and disaggregate the rest.

As I see it, the way back may be easier in the UK than in the States. Movement away from fascism requires an alliance of the centre and the left groupings which are usually fragmented. Fortunately, British voters are on the whole more sensible than the parties that represent them. Anti Tory tactical voting is now well established when circumstances require it, and Johnson has become a liability. One election may change the temper of British politics, though there would still be a very long way to go to root out the corruption that has been seeping into the UK’s system for several decades. But I fear the road back for the USA is much longer and much thornier.

The two narcissists: peas in a pod?

 Trump and Johnson are both narcissists, but in very different forms. It is true to say that neither cares for anything other than themselves. But their relationships to other people are very different. Trump cares deeply about other people – not “for” them, “about” them. In his world there have to be winners and losers. He has to be a winner and you can only be a winner if somebody else loses. (There is no such thing as win-win in Trump’s world.) So his activities are based very largely around making other people lose; he gets into intense relationships with people, many of whom he has never met, in order to make them lose so that he can be a winner.

Johnson does not see the world in this way. He doesn’t care about other people at all; he does not deliberately set out to destroy people, but he has no thought for any misery that his decisions might inflict. His calculations are only about what is good for him. If he had calculated that backing Remain would win him the premiership, then we might now be a corrupt and failing state within the EU instead of a corrupt and failing state outside the EU. It would make no difference to Johnson. That was very unlikely though – in order for Johnson to be as free as possible to behave the way he wants, he cannot be fettered by greater powers. He knows he can bend British institutions to his will – the bending has mostly been done for him already by his real boss (PM refers to Telegraph as his 'real boss', Dominic Cummings claims) and others; he knows he could not have bent European institutions the same way.

Money is like water on a carpet

 Money is like water on a carpet. It gets everywhere, as long as people let it. For a long time money, in the form of profit seeking, was kept out of systems that were hard or impossible to run competitively. But since the 1980s, when monetary policy began to win the battle for top people’s hearts and minds, money has sneaked – or been openly invited in – to almost every sphere of public life. They would privatise the air you breathe, if they could (it has been suggested).

For a while I’ve been watching one of the more recent manifestations of this phenomenon, the fact that big money, I mean really huge, vast, global money has embedded itself into the UK children’s care sector (where forced competitive tendering was introduced in the 1980s). Many, many homes for deprived children or difficult children are now run by investment funds and the like. The dogma of privatisation has soaked right through into the responsibilities of local authorities, and money is being allowed to run riot. It shows in the number of children’s home rated poorly by Ofsted, and also in other figures:

June 28th 2022 Serious incidents more common in for-profit children’s homes in England: Privately run homes have more police callouts and staff complaints than council ones, data shows (Private providers say that is because they deal with more difficult children. I have no evidence as to whether that is true, but if they do then they should have better systems to cope with the difficulties.)

April 18th 2022 English councils pay £1m per child for places in private children’s homes: Private providers accused of making ‘obscene’ profits out of some of society’s most vulnerable children

March 10th 2022 UK has ‘sleepwalked’ into dysfunctional children’s social care market, says regulator: CMA finds local authorities are being forced to pay excessive fees for substandard privately run services

October 22nd 2021 Private children’s home providers charging councils too much, report says: Market in England is broken and failing too many children, says chair of independent review

Huge fees are now being paid by local authorities for poor standards of care in essential services. Why and how did we get to this point? Money does not care. That is one of the key issues with using the market to solve any social issue. Funds have invested in children’s homes because they see an opportunity for profit. They get a decent profit because they do nto care about the morality of charging hard pressed public authorities through the nose, and neither do they care about the outcome for the children they make themselves responsible for. This should not be surprising. The only responsibility of fund managers is to make a profit for their funds.

The only way to make funds do a good job of running a children’s home is to have contracts with penalise them heavily for getting things wrong, and a regulator that has and is prepared to use robust tools for enforcement. (There is one, and only one, effective way to regulate funds that run children’s home – by fining them heavily so that they lose the one thing they care about – profit.)

We are in this situation because, for forty years, those in charge of this country have worked on the unsupported assumptions that the market works better than other forms of provision, and that the market only needs to be lightly regulated in order to keep it efficient. Those assumptions have been made in other countries too, but in the UK we have raised it to an art form. There are examples in almost every sphere – sewage in our bathing water, with a regulator that is just beginning to wake up, having previously done hardly anything to ensure the investment that the firms promised they would make, or to prevent profit extraction from customers who have quite literally nowhere else to turn. (see Filth for a local example); crushing costs of energy, with an energy regulator that has done hardly anything to ensure the companies pass profits back to consumers rather than to shareholders and overpaid executives. Childcare is just a more extreme form of this behaviour.

The mantra that regulation is bad still holds sway. That is despite the disaster of 2008 which demonstrated with the utmost clarity what happens when you under regulate. Over regulation is indeed a bad idea; under regulation is just as bad. But that is still what we are told – markets work, entrepreneurs need to be free to make bold decisions, (global Britain ha ha) blah, blah, blah.

It might make sense to have commercial companies running some of our systems, like parts of the NHS under contract, but only under strict regulatory control. (And regulation actually costs money – a lot of it. One of the most fundamental misconceptions about the market mantra is that regulation can be done on the cheap.) But in some fields it makes no sense. Childcare is one of them, but we are still stuck with a system in which all the key decision makers maintain their cruelly compromised faith in the effectiveness of the market, and their fealty to money.

In my view there is a deep connection between the obeisance that has been paid to money since the 1980s and the current political crises working their way out in the UK and the USA. The overwhelming temper of market decisions is that money and the market must rule. No space is left for humanity, for caring about anything. Forty years of reducing caring about anything to second class status in any high level decision making has seen both the USA in 2016 and the UK in 2019 elect leaders who quite literally cared for nothing beside themselves. It didn’t have to be like this but the tendency was always there and the tendency in the end won.

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

The Angela Rayner story: I don't agree with the speaker

 I am glad that the Speaker of the House of Commons  is a staunch believer in press freedom. So am I. But it is not his job to protect press freedom; they are quite good at doing that for themselves. It is his job to enable MPs to go about their business as freely as possible - and that includes freedom from misogyny and scurrilous insults.

Our press should be free to say anything they want, and indeed they are, as the story about Angela Rayner shows. But they should not be free to say anything they want without consequences.

The Mail on Sunday chose to write up the report about Angela Rayner in a scurrilous and misogynistic way. Assuming they're telling the truth about their source - which is by no means certain, but let's do them the courtesy of assuming it is - they could have reported it in any number of ways. The responsible thing would have been to write it up as "Tory MP tries to distract from partygate etc by using misogynistic innuendo against Labour front bencher".

But they didn't. They chose to write it as fact. They chose to aim it at Rayner rather than at the sad excuse for an MP who briefed them. They chose to be misogynist and they chose - quite deliberately - to be scurrilous.

The jouirnalist responsible for the story should have had his pass revoked - for a short but exemplary period of time.

Saturday, 5 March 2022

Rob's International Film Festival, aka Riff70

 March 26th is my 70th birthday. I have decided to celebrate it by holding an international film festival. International not in the sense that the films are international (they are decidedly not, as you will see below), but that I have friends in many places, and I hope some of my friends will join me film watching once or twice in the week leading up to March 26th.

I will be watching a film a day from March 20th to March 26th, and complementing the films with  menus of my choice. I won’t share the menus. Suffice to say that hotdogs and popcorn both feature but so do other dishes.

The films I’ve chosen are films I know and like, and haven’t seen enough of. None of them is particularly demanding. It’s supposed to be good fun. So, for instance, I chose not to include the Russian film Leviathan , which is excellent but gut wrenching. I also chose not to include Casablanca which is The. Best. Film. Ever. Made. But I’ve seen it several times recently.

My choices won’t be everybody’s, but there are themes or associations for all of them, so I invite you to pick your own.

And while you watch I hope you will choose to donate to one of my fundraisers. I have two, one for Blood Cancer UK and one for Action For M.E. 

(Circumstances are different now to when I planned this event. Many people will find their attention, and their donations, taken up with Ukraine. So be it: you can still enjoy the films.*)

Blood cancers are killers. A lot of research is going on and breakthroughs occur regularly. But it is a very expensive business. Blood Cancer UK puts a lot of its budget into funding research. Go here to donate to Blood Cancer UK.

ME is a horrible soul sapping illness which often affects its victims for life. Action for M.E. supports people with ME and funds research into the causes and possible cures – there are none at the moment, but biomedical research, which has been increasing worldwide in the last few years, is beginning to allow for a greater understanding of what is going on and what we might do about it. Go here to donate to Action for M.E..

And so to the films.

Sunday 20th 

I will start RIFF70 with

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Perhaps it is coincidental that the first film of each of the Star Wars trilogies is the best (I’m not counting the middle three). I saw Star Wars when it came out in the cinema, yes, I am that old. I still try to teach toddlers in buggies the ways of the Force, sometimes to the bemusement of their parents. The Force Awakens shades it for me, just jolly good fun all the way through.

If you don’t have it or don’t like it, then I suggest 

- any sci fi film (even Life of Brian – it has a sci fi sequence)

- any film with Carrie Fisher in it

Monday 21st

RIFF70 day 2 will be

Miss Sloane

It has Jessica Chastain in it. What’s not to like? One of a small bunch of films that is even better to watch the second time. When you know what going to happen and why, there’s an extra joy in seeing it unfold behind the scenes. And the penultimate scene - when she begins to repeat the opening monologue, and you get quick, almost millisecond, shots of Daniel reacting because he’s realised what she’s doing - is a tour de force of editing.

If you don’t have it, then get into the spirit with

- any conspiracy film (Manchurian Candidate – the original, not the remake)

- any film that you enjoyed as much second time round

Tuesday 22nd 

RIFF70 day 3 will be

The Ipcress File

I’m talking about the 1965 film here, not the TV series which is apparently being released around the time of RIFF. Not sure how I feel about that; I’ll probably try it, but I won’t finish it if it doesn’t measure up.

This is a film from my childhood. Or somewhere vaguely near my childhood; I don’t remember when I first saw the film, but I got the book in my early teens and there was a period when I re-read it two or three times a week for several months. I would say it’s iconic (over used word, but if everybody else is using it, so will I) in several ways. Those glasses; and the use of physical architecture to frame shots. So reminiscent.

If you don’t have it or don’t like it, then I suggest

- any 60s film with non-vertical shots (you could probably go the 50s for those as well)

- any spy film. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy would do. (There hasn’t been a film of The Honourable Schoolboy, though in some ways it’s the best book of the Smiley trilogy. And the BBC missed it out of its rendition of TTSS and Smiley’s People. Probably mainly for the same reason the film of The Ipcress File deviated from the book. They couldn’t afford a Hong Kong shoot, just as the producers of The Ipcress File probably drew the line at a Pacific atoll.)

Wednesday 23rd

RIFF70 day 4 will be

Baghdad Café

Slice of life, small town Americana. Miniplots, social issues, fish out of water. Lots of clichés there, but a happy vibrant film. And a scene stealing cameo from Jack Palance.

If you don’t have it or don’t like it, then I suggest

- any other small town America film. There are a lot to choose from: Paris, Texas; Three Billboards…

- if not America, then other countries. Bulgaria’s The Lesson

- or any film with a famous actor in a bit part stealing the scene

Thursday 24th

RIFF70 day 5 will be

Seven Samurai

Number 2 in my list of best films ever. Bravery, comradeship, the meaning of life. And death. 

I might follow up with The Magnificent Seven, which would feature highly in a list of Remakes Nearly As Good As The Original. The Yul Brynner version of course. Denzel Washington is always watchable, but his version should have been left in the cutting room.

If you don’t have it or don’t like it, then I suggest

- get hold of it. It’s too good to miss

- any “against the odds” film.

Friday 25th

RIFF70 day 6 will be

The Station Agent

I like this film a lot. Very watchable characters, a fair bit of quirkiness. And Peter Dinklage – pre Game Of Thrones. It has the feel of an adaptation of a book, but it’s an original screenplay. Economical direction and great feel for location.

If you don’t have it or don’t like it, then I suggest

- any random group of people film. For some reason my mind is drawn to Went the Day Well.

- films about trains

- films with librarians in: Party Girl; The Name Of The Rose; Fahrenheit 451; The Shawshank Redemption (yes - he becomes the prison librarian)

Saturday 26th - my birthday

RIFF70 day 7 will be


It’s a food film. No, it’s a love film. No, it’s a western. It has noodles in it; it has gangsters; it has a showdown. The finest mixing of genres you could imagine.

If you don’t have it or don’t like it, then I suggest

- any film that mixes genres: Blazing Saddles - western and food (remember the baked bean scene).

And that will be that.

Join me in ten years’ time for Riff80.

*And finally if you haven't donated to Ukraine and want to, here are two options:

The Red Cross DEC appeal

And to donate direct to the Ukrainian war effort or humanitarian aid, use the links on this page:

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Hunting with hounds

 Hunting with hounds is back in the news. In a short space of time we have seen video footage of Beaufort Hunt staff killing dogs and we have seen Mark Hankinson, a director of the Master of Foxhounds Association, convicted of conspiring to break the law in a deliberate and systematic fashion.

Leaving aside the law breaking for the moment, let us consider the arguments for and against hunting with hounds. The key argument is ethical. A lot of other stuff gets mentioned, but none stands up to scrutiny. One argument is that hunting creates jobs. It does but they are very expensive jobs. Keeping hounds - feeding them, housing them, ensuring their wellbeing costs a lot of money. Horses are even more expensive. If the money used to support hunting were spent in other ways it would create more jobs, not fewer.

Another is that hunting helps with pest control. The contribution of hunts to pest control was never more than 10%, I understand, and should now be less than that. When foxes and deer need to be controlled, it is done more efficiently and more humanely by shooters who know what they're doing. In addition to that, it is far from clear that hunts do actually contribute to pest control as there is uncontrovertible evidence that they protect foxes and their cubs during much of the year in order to make sure that there are plenty for them to chase in the hunting season.

It's traditional. Yes, it is. So was bear baiting before we banned it. So was dog fighting. So was cock fighting. The fact that something is traditional does not mean that we should keep it if it is harmful.

So the key argument is ethical. Is hunting with hounds an ethical thing to do? To answer this question we need to consider three others:

1) are civil liberties involved?

2) is cruelty to animals involved?

3) if the answer to both 1) and 2) is yes, which should outweigh the other?

The answer to the first question is yes. People should be free to do whatever they want provided their freedom does not impinge other people's freedom, or result in cruelty. If it were only a question of civil liberties, then my view of hunting would be the same as my view of Morris dancing: it's not for me, but if you want to dress up in silly clothes and make an exhibition of yourself all over the countryside, then I will not only defend your right to do that, I will celebrate it.

The answer to the second question is also yes. Confusion is sown here by hunters quite deliberately. The foxes enjoy the chase. Yeah, sure. They have a sporting chance of getting away. Yeah, right. Animals don't feel fear. Wrong, just wrong. Hunting with hounds has not been designed to be purposefully cruel, but cruelty is built in as a feature. The point is to have a great afternoon out jumping over hedges and seeing animals get bitten to death. It wouldn't be nearly so much fun if it were over quickly, so hunting packs have been bred for stamina rather than speed and strength. The fox or the deer is chased and chased and chased and chased until exhausted and cornered. That is not compassionate.

So the answer to questions 1 and 2 is yes in both cases. Which should prevail? I accept that views on this will differ; I respect the right of other people to come to a different conclusion to mine. But in my view there is only one ethical conclusion. People have many ways of enjoying themselves. Nobody's life will be constrained or badly affected if they are no longer able to hunt with hounds. If killing vermin matters to them, then they can learn to shoot. If jumping over things on their horses matters to them, they can still do that without having a fox or a deer to chase. If running with dogs matters to them, they can do that without having a frightened fox in front of them. There is no ethical or civil liberties reason that I can think of that justifies killing wild animals in this particularly cruel manner.

So my conclusion is quite simple. Hunting wild animals with packs of hounds should not be allowed. Some will criticise my conclusion on the grounds that it is not liberal. But it is liberal. Liberalism means that everyone should be free to do whatever they like. But it also says there is a limit to that freedom if it impinges on others' liberty. An ultraliberal might say that animals don't count. I believe they do, and, even if they don't, my argument remains that protection of the natural world is a right that I and every other human holds. My right to protect the natural world is infringed if you hunt animals with such cruelty.

Our current position is complicated by the passing of the Hunting Act of 2004. This outlawed the deliberate pursuit of animals with hounds, but allowed for trail hunting, and made exceptions to the pursuit of wild animals if it happened by accident in the pursuit of trail hunting. The Act has been widely and systematically flouted by hunts and they have not been properly pursued by the police even when evidence has been supplied in many, many cases. Should we now seek to have the Hunting Act applied forcefully, or should we seek to amend it?

Law depends on consent to some degree; laws work when those subject to them consent at least to the extent of obeying them, albeit unwillingly. It is clear that hunters have systematically, deliberately and purposefully flouted the law of the Hunting Act ever since it came into force. Not only that, but enforcement by rural police forces has been at most lacklustre in the face of case after case of evidence being given them by hunt monitors all over the country. Hunters' evasion of the law has been persistent for fifteen years, and enforcement has been lax for that length of time. Even the occasional successful prosecution has not dented the hunters' determination. We know, in fact, that they have been law breaking for much longer - laws about blocking up setts, sending dogs into tunnels and such, have been ignored for many, many years. They have also always treated their own hounds as expendable, which is not necessarily illegal, but they have gone to great lengths to hide the truth from the public at large, knowing that the public would view their treatment of their hounds as unacceptable. In other words, law breaking and secrecy are routine for hunters. They do not respect or abide by the law, and I do not foresee that they will any time in the future. Some things really do not change.

That being the case, in my view, hunters have forfeited the right to have their view heard. I take into account that there are many law abiding hunters; but there are far too many who have routinely broken the law for far too long. And the law abiding hunters, many of them, knew of the law breaking and did nothing about it. They are not innocent bystanders.

So in my view the response of the law should be uncompromising. The 2004 Hunting Act should be amended so that no form of hunting with packs of hounds should be lawful. The caveats and permissions of the Hunting Act should be removed so that the law is simpler and clearer. Penalties for breaking it should be severe, and it must be made absolutely clear to rural police forces that they must enforce it.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Evolution and purpose

 I've been dismayed over and over again at the way evolution is routinely misrepresented by people who ought to know better.

So I decided to keep a log of instances where I see it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

10th Sept 2021 from the BBC. This might not be an actual contender. I have not found more details than are available on this page about this year's IG Nobel prizes. But the way it is phrased is just plain wrong. 

"Peace Prize: Ethan Beseris and colleagues, for testing the hypothesis that humans evolved beards to protect themselves from punches to the face." Bushy beards may have spread, pardon the pun, because men who had them survived being punched better than those who didn't. But the beards did not strategically evolve themselves However, humans, of course, are capable of agency, so it might be that some deliberately chose to cultivate their beards as a defence mechanism. Hard to say how humans might have made their beards bushier than they naturally were, though, so it sounds a bit suspect to me. And in any case, why didn't women evolve bushy beards - presumably they got punched in the face just as much.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

First up: the Guardian's science correspondent Natalie Grover. 27th Aug 2021 "Female hummingbirds look like males to avoid attacks, study suggests". No, there is no intention in evolution. Female hummingbirds who look like males turned out to have an evolutionary advantage - more of them survived because they were attacked less.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

No #2: Simon Barnes in Tortoise 26th Aug 2021 "Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow". He states: "the growing bit – the place at which the cells divide and growth can take place, technically the meristem – is not at the tip, as it is in most plants. It’s near the bottom.

"That may not sound all that exciting, but it’s central to the way life on land operates. It means you can eat grass without killing it. You can munch away at it, but it keeps coming back for more. This strategy evolved as a defence against grazing animals: the plants get eaten but they go on growing."

The key bit is "This strategy evolved as a defence against grazing animals". No, grass does not have strategies; it cannot think its way to a defence. Grass whose meristem was closer to the bottom happened to survive better when munched than that with its meristem near the tip, so bottom meristemmed grass spread and top meristemmed grass didn't. Grass does not have intentions.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow

Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow

Much as you love to mow the lawn, let the grass grow