It’s Not Charity When There’s no Choice

I donated money to Oxfam last year…and so did you if you’re a UK taxpayer. That’s how generous we are here in Blighty. We give without even knowing or being asked.

In fact the UK government donated over £200 million of taxpayer’s cash to Oxfam alone in 2016. Tax free of course.

That’s not charity. It’s State policy, sub-contracted through the cuddly sounding “aid sector.”

I’ve no idea how many trillions of dollars the developed world has given away in aid these past decades, but we’ve seen precious little progress to show for it. With seemingly endless conflict, famine and migration crises, our generosity seems to have done almost nothing to alleviate the Developing World’s most acute social and economic problems. A true cynic might begin to wonder if the “aid sector” has any real interest in actually solving any societal and cultural problems. After all, it could be argued that increased prosperity and self-reliance are bad for the aid business as they diminish demand, and overseas aid donations have become big, big business.

In this case the word donations is a euphemism for the State confiscating our property via taxation, before handing it over to an ever growing list of multi-billion dollar enterprises on our behalf. It may surprise many of you to learn that the single biggest recipient of UK Government aid during 2016 was Pakistan, a nation that can somehow afford nuclear weapons yet can’t (or won’t) govern its own territory or educate its population effectively. I wonder how they manage to pay for all that shiny military hardware?

I’ve no doubt Pakistan’s ruling elite is indeed grateful for the £463 million the UK government donated to it last year, as it leaves them free to pursue their global and regional agendas without the cost and bother of building schools, hospitals and other such boring but vital infrastructure. Why fix the road yourself when your neighbour will do it and you get to drive all the same? This bottomless bucket of guilty-conscience cash is a great advantage to an entrenched ruling class, as it weakens any potential grassroots challenge to their authority. A population dependent on aid is easily controlled, because hunger is a powerful political persuader.

There’s some serious coin in compassion these days, with Oxfam’s Chief Executive trousering a hefty £119k per annum as far back as 2013. Indeed, Oxfam’s own statement from August of that year claims the figure was “in the lower quartile of what other large charities paid for their chief executives.” This state-funded largess makes the latest revelations regarding the behaviour of some Oxfam staff all the more reprehensible, especially with former ministers claiming this is just the “tip of the iceberg.”

When it comes to charity and generosity of spirit, we in the developed world have no reason to reproach ourselves, but I’ve got a nagging feeling we’re about to learn that everything we thought we knew is wrong.

Image courtesy of Alex_ ugalek at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My Top 10 Live Bands – 9

New Model Army

Arguably the greatest of the crusty, dog-on-a-string bands, New Model Army have been rocking their own strain of anarchic nihilism for over three decades now. Often imitated but never bettered.

By some strange quirk of fate, my first encounter with this exceptionally loud, talented and good-looking threesome was Reading Festival in 1989, the day before the Mission’s epic and legendary performance.

NMA were riding high on the back of Thunder & Consolation, their best and most successful studio album when I rocked up a little late to the party. Standing there in that sweaty field, I was struck by the realisation that there were probably just as many people eager to hear New Model Army play as there were waiting for the Pogues to throw down, and the boys from Bradford could easily have headlined that year. No problem. They kicked arse.

New Model Army built a shelter for the refugees of generation punk, as well as their growing brood of hand knitted, skip-diving devotees long, long before grungy activism had atrophied into the squalid, bourgeois gap-year jollies we see today. Just like the Matrix’s Neo, we could all sense there was something wrong with the world, and New Model Army managed to wrap all those ill-defined anxieties around themselves. I still think that Drag it Down and A Liberal Education are two of the finest political songs ever written.

I caught up with NMA again at Brixton in 1991, where I was so very fortunate to catch Ed Alleyne-Johnson in the supporting slot, getting ready for the release of his Purple Electric Violin Concerto. I’ve never witnessed an audience literally dumbstruck by artistic beauty before or since, and I consider myself privileged to have been a part of something so very special. A truly magical experience.

Like so much in life, things are right and true only for a short time. The world never stands still, and although I could easily catch New Model Army again at some nearby venue, I know I can’t go back. It’s hard to justify singing the same tunes about the same things when there are so many new battles to fight. Besides, I don’t know how the worlds of NMA and Health & Safety can ever be properly reconciled.

Still, the bruises have long healed and I’ve got some great memories. Thank you, guys!

Print Propaganda 101

So it’s finally happened. With the DOJ, FBI and committee Democrats holding out until the eleventh hour, the controversial FISA memo has at last been revealed in all its Machiavellian splendour. You can click this link to read the original document should you wish.

Predictably, the spin masters in the paid-for corporate media are working overtime to downplay, minimise, ridicule and dismiss this official document as a nothingburger, after giving huge amounts of free airtime to those dedicated to preventing its publication in the first place. It’s been especially instructive to see how the mainstream media is operating right now, with any pretence of objectivity or even reasoned opinion suddenly swamped by a surge of increasingly blatant and desperate propaganda pieces.

There is no better illustration than an opinion piece by Walter Shapiro for the Guardian. It’s a classic by-the-numbers propaganda device designed to frame anyone who pays even the slightest attention to this recently de-classified document as some kind of swivel eyed conspiracy theorist.

Let’s unpack just some of the propaganda contained within.

Before we even get to the article, we’re confronted by the title: The Nunes memo shows Republicans buy their own conspiracy theories. This leaves the reader in no doubt that the Nunes memo should be associated with some kind of serious yet unspecified political paranoia.

Note also how the FISA memo has suddenly become the Nunes memo. By shifting the language away from a secretive and murky judicial procedure and pinning it to the Committee’s Republican chairman, the author reinforces the headline’s strong message of partisan shenanigans. At this point it’s important to remember that calling it the Nunes memo is not actually a falsehood, as it was in fact written and signed by Devin Nunes. This is exactly how persuasive propaganda and spin are supposed to work. By subtly shifting attention away from some ideas and favouring others, the author attempts to convince the reader that his interpretation of the world is the most plausible and trustworthy one.

After reading the headline, the next thing we see is a lengthy strapline that reads: Ever since Watergate, the standard for any scandal is whether there is a smoking gun left next to a corpse. In the case of the Nunes memo, we lack a body and the gun is a child’s toy pistol. This is actually a short paragraph culled from the article itself, but by placing it front and centre, the author makes sure you see his amusing if largely irrelevant analogy twice. Thus, before even starting in on the article proper, the reader has been primed to equate ideas of irrationality, childishness and partisanship with more serious claims of state-sponsored malfeasance arising from the memo’s, you know, actual contents. It’s not clear whether the strapline was Shapiro’s own choice or an editorial decision by the Guardian, but neither would surprise me.

As an interesting aside, you can tell we live in fascinating times when a paper like the Guardian rushes to defend the honour of highly secretive, opaque and immensely powerful US government agencies. But I digress.

Shapiro’s article begins with two paragraphs discussing the widely known hoax known as the Piltdown Man. Clearly the Piltdown Man has nothing to do with a recently de-classified US government memo, but psychologically linking these unrelated ideas is yet another method of suggesting that said memo, and those associated with it, might not be altogether on the level.

To sum up, we have a highly emotive title, a lengthy strapline which is repeated later, and an opening not suggesting, but outright declaring a commonality between the Nunes memo and the Piltdown Man hoax.

The rest of the article is an illuminating and subtly crafted blend of known facts, interwoven with a narrative of conjecture and outright speculation. It’s well worth reading if you really want to see some modern propaganda with your own eyes.

Another way to discern deliberate, targeted propaganda from ordinary opinion is to look for what isn’t there. For example, Shapiro’s piece completely fails to mention that the DOJ and FBI were threatened with contempt proceedings for witholding information legally demanded by Committee subpoena. Devin Nunes’ letter summoning both the Attorney General and the FBI Director to appear before the House Intelligence Committee to explain their intransigence is not referenced once in the article. You’d think Shapiro would want to mention it, because that letter specifically requested the very same information which is basis for the FISA memo.

If that ain’t hardcore damage control, then I don’t know what is.

As for me, my personal biases lead me to wonder just how the publication of a government memo can magically change from “extraordinarily reckless”
before its release, to a “nothingburger” immediately after publication.

Ask yourself the same question.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Donald Trump’s Media Masterclass

Psst, I’ll tell you a secret.

It’s something I’ve suspected for quite a while now, and the more I’ve observed, the more I’ve come to realise the startling, astonishing and almost unbelievable truth.

Donald Trump is a master communicator.

That’s right, you heard me. The man who was dismissed as a vainglorious clown by virtually the entire political and media establishment has consistently outmanoeuvred nearly all of them; which goes a long way to explaining their visceral and, by this point, completely irrational hatred for him.

Don’t believe me? Fine, I don’t blame you, but come along with me and witness a masterclass of 21st century social media manipulation. Blink and you’ll miss it, but it’s there all the same.

Anyone who knows anything about American politics is aware that the imminent release of the controversial FISA memo is consuming the entire continent’s media and political energies. Democrats, Republicans, the media class and the MAGA populists are all jockeying for position during what might turn out to be one of the biggest political scandals of our age.

A detailed knowledge of the issue isn’t needed for what I’m about to show you, but Newsweek have summed it up pretty succinctly.

So here we all are, trapped inside a pressure cooker of high-stakes political drama; and what does big, stoopid, unthinking Donald decide to do on this game-changing day? Why, he fires off an irresponsible tweet of course, straight from the hip, and in the process he lets an important and easily spotted error pass through unchecked.

Anyone with even the slightest understanding of the issue knows full well that the name of the research firm involved is Fusion GPS,
and not GPS Fusion as Trump’s written it. What a dummy! Only a sloppy, irresponsible fool would do such a thing…right?

Wrong! Trump knows exactly what he’s doing.

Donald Trump is well aware that a huge slice of the political establishment, media elite and grassroots Democrats have spent the last year feverishly fashioning themselves into one-dimensional caricatures, defined only by their unending and unconditional hatred for the democratically elected President of the United States.

Trump knows this only too well, and rather than trying to convince his intractable foes that he’s not a monster, he’s chosen to harness their hatred and bend that endless energy supply to serve his will. To that end,Trump’s seemingly endless army of hardcore haters now face a very simple choice. They can either let this “accidental” typo pass unchallenged, or they can mock Trump’s inability to even send a single tweet without somehow screwing it all up. They can laugh, deride and spread his stupid, stupid mistake to the farthest reaches of the globe, faster and far more efficiently than any TV station or national newspaper could ever do.

Of course, in their haste to present themselves as so much smarter than the leader of the free world, they’re doing a fine job of reminding that world exactly what the words Fusion GPS mean, and how they relate to the whole FISA memo issue.

Congratulations guys, all you clever people are now doing your sworn enemy’s bidding. On your own time, and for free!

Who’s the smart one?

Image courtesy of Gabriella Fabbri at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thinktank Report on BBC bias? Never Heard of it!

It’s been a busy news day, what with Donald Trump at Davos and the continuing fallout from the pervy Presidents Club. With all that in mind, it’s understandable that maybe the mainstream media haven’t found time to study the latest Civitas report documenting the BBC’s blatant anti-Brexit bias.

In today’s competitive media sphere, you’d think that maybe Sky News or The Guardian would jump at a ready-made story where someone else has already done the legwork; but no, I guess they just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe tomorrow.

In fairness, we can’t expect every outlet to have exactly the same priorities, but when the likes of the Daily Express and the Telegraph don’t want to weigh in on a highly critical paper penned by seasoned media professionals, then we really need to start asking some questions. At least the Daily Mail and The Times have turned up, and stories are finally starting to trickle out.

Maybe all these highly paid and highly educated journalists are just too preoccupied to read the full eighty page report and condense it down to a single digestible chunk for an increasingly harassed and world-weary public. That’s surely why it’s been mostly left for partisan blogs like Brexit Central to pick up the story and run with it as best they can.

There are only two possible explanations when the blogosphere is frantically busy with something and the mainstream media is noticeably muted. The first possibility is that the internet is chasing a phantom, non-existent, tinfoil hat kind of story; and the second is that said story is all too real, but the corporate press don’t really want to talk about it more than they absolutely have to.

How to tell one from the other? Well, look at the report and decide for yourself how important it is.

Image courtesy of pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My Top 10 Live Bands – 10

The Mission

When viewed from the comfortable vantage point of middle age, I can now say with confidence that the past is indeed another country. Looking back, 1986 was a very different and many would say a better, more hopeful and freer world than the paranoid, obsessively introspective and neurotic landscape we tiptoe through today. There was no internet to spy on us, everyone’s overcoats were way cooler and we were still allowed to smoke indoors. Those simple freedoms we took for granted are viewed with a kind of incredulous horror by the risk assessed youth of today, and I often reflect on just how lucky I was to have come of age before the end of live music’s golden era. At that time there was still plenty big gig game to be hunted by a kid with a sense of adventure and a school leaver’s salary.

I recall a stifling perfume of Spiritual Sky patchouli, poppers, cider fumes and dry ice filling the air when first I saw Wayne and the guys take to the stage at Friars*, Aylesbury. 1986 was probably the year of peak gothic rock in the UK, and I found myself right in the middle of it one dark November night. Wayne looked like an off-duty glam rock star kidnapped from some alternate universe where Marc Bolan had lived on as he stood to deliver The Mission’s good word.

It was real, it was raw, it was most definitely live…and I was hooked. One of my most enduring memories of the night was of that trademark jingle jangle riding a thumping rock baseline with all the polished finesse of a professional surfer.

From that high point where I first found them, The Mission continued to grow until our next meeting in 1989. That year I was fortunate enough to witness their legendary headline performance at Reading Festival. The one with the windmills. Everyone always talks about the windmills.

Nearly three decades later and the band (or brand) is still going strong, although I for one won’t be going to see them anytime soon. Nothing stays the same, and like a beloved but fading friend, I want to remember them as a dying echo of all those lost venues and frozen stations from my Thunderbird-blurred and nicotine-stained yesterdays. Some things can never be re-created, and the centrally heated, LED illuminated, Uber app immediacy of our modern world has stripped the live gig of perhaps its most valuable and enduring aspects. The rituals, camaraderie, and yes dammit, downright recklessness of that smoke-smudged world are fondly remembered with good cause. I don’t envy the kids today.

Alas, there are no really good quality recordings of those near-forgotten glory gigs, but there is a last remnant from that Friars gig still haunting cyberspace, along with a glimpse of those famous windmills, or spider webs, or whatever the hell they really were. Nobody who was there at the time really cared. All they remember is just how awesome the whole damn thing was.

* In fact this was not actually a Friars gig, but big gigs in Aylesbury around that time are still referred to as “Friars” gigs, in the same way that vacuum cleaners are often called Hoovers regardless of their true manufacturer.

Somebody’s fibbing…but who?

“Like a Child.” “They say he’s a moron.” “An idiot.” “This man does not read, does not listen.” “He cannot do this job.”

Those are just a few soundbites from a recent Today interview with man of the moment Michael Wolff, discussing his sensational new book, Fire & Fury: Inside the Whitehouse.

Unsurprisingly, the dirt is flying and virtually the entire commentariat is wondering whether this book will actually bring down the presidency as Wolff has publicly claimed.

The media aristocracy have never forgiven Trump for making them look so foolish during the 2016 general election, and so they’re busier than ever repeating the mantra that the President may be mentally unstable, and therefore unfit to hold office. This is clearly just the latest attempt to dislodge a democratically elected head of state from office, now that the whole Russia collusion narrative has blown up in their faces.

Alas, for them anyway, this latest co-ordinated attempt to unseat Trump will end in much the same way.

Let’s assume for a moment that every last word of Wolff’s salacious new gossipfest is completely true. Then, how is it that a “moron” has managed to outsmart both the Republican and Democrat parties, while simultaneously blindsiding almost the entire mainstream media machine, entrenched business interests and the almost omnipotent US donor class?

Call this wild speculation if you like, but I’m willing to bet that morons and idiots who can’t do their jobs will never out-manoeuvre the entire establishment of the world’s richest and most powerful nation. If Trump’s an idiot, what does that make them? If you got thrashed at chess by Forrest Gump, would you really spend the next year whining about your opponent’s alleged stupidity? Well, maybe, if you were desperately trying to hide your own epoch-making incompetence.

Is Trump eccentric? Probably. Is Trump semi-literate? I sincerely doubt it. Is Wolff’s new book some smoking-gun evidence of Trump’s mental instability? Well, it’s a pile of steaming something all right, but anyone waiting for this orgy of anonymous source sensationalism to trigger the 25th Amendment will be sadly disappointed, no matter how many tame “experts” are wheeled out to pontificate on primetime TV.

Think what you will of Trump, it’s not my job to convince you he’s a great guy, but one thing I can say with confidence is that someone’s about to be exposed as unbelievably short-sighted and slow-witted…I’m just not sure it’s going to be the guy sitting in the Oval Office.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A Jolly ‘Oliday with Auntie

As the sparkling madness of the festive season fades to January grey, many of us are already beginning to think of summer escapes to warmer climes as we gaze across the British new year’s bleak concrete vista.

Just like buying a car or perhaps even renting one, the ritual sun-pilgrimage bristles with fiendish legal and financial traps, forever eager to ensnare the unwary. Luckily the BBC is poised to help all of us paella-munching mortals with a brand-new series of Rip-Off Britain: Holidays. Naturally, this valuable public service necessitates not just one, but three highly paid presenters jetting off to Tenerife so they might capture the welcoming warmth of this desirable destination as a backdrop for each short segment introduction.

I’ve no doubt that the idea of a more modest, studio based consumer show was discussed in depth, but eventually abandoned. After all, creative integrity is the lifeblood of these selfless angels of the small screen, who work tirelessly to ensure we don’t squander our hard-earned during our flight from the factory and the call-centre for two warm and blessed weeks of the year.

It’s a shame that the Rip Off budget didn’t extend to flying, oh I don’t know, an actual, real life consumer expert out to the sun-drenched Canaries; but in the final equation, those short introductory monologues are so much more important than any expert’s sound, dependable, and hard-earned knowledge.

It’s good to know that the BBC has its priorities straight. By ring-fencing the frivolous jollies of overpaid presenters in these increasingly turbulent and uncertain times, the beeb reminds us of what’s really important…to the BBC.

Thanks, Auntie. Just how would we manage without your wise guidance?

Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Brexit Blue is now a Thing

Symbols matter.

We all know they do, despite the fact we often pretend they don’t. This enduring truth was never more sharply defined than during the recent spat over the UK’s intention to revert to blue passports after leaving the European Union.

Hailed as a step forward by some and derided as a regressive irrelevance by others, it’s been instructive to observe not only the varying reactions to this announcement, but also the surprising depth of passion and feeling it’s evoked on both sides of the Brexit divide. It’s interesting to note that the change of colour will in no way affect the passport’s function (except perhaps within the EU itself), but that’s done nothing to cool tempers on either side of this increasingly bad-tempered debate.

That’s the trouble with symbols. They wrap so many deep-rooted ideas together that they become stronger and more enduring than the multitudes whose lives they touch. Just think of an iconic brand like Coca-Cola, which has become much more than just a fizzy drink and is now an essential part of America’s cultural DNA. It’s become a proxy symbol for the very idea of America and American culture worldwide.

Like countless conquerors before them, the EU Commissioners understand this only too well. They know that to destroy an idea, identity or culture, you must first destroy its most readily recognised symbols. Why else would they have invested so much time, money and treasure to chip away at passport design? The passport is the most universal, yet also personalised symbol of both national and individual identity. If (as has so often been claimed) trade and security cooperation were really the benign end goals of the European Project, there would simply be no need to waste time and treasure harmonising national identity documents. Yet still they went at it with a passion and drive bordering on the obsessive, and they’ve never let up. It’s surely no coincidence that the words European Union appear first, and above all other national symbols, signs, crests and stamps. This is no accident, and those two words are there for the sole purpose of signifying the EU’s supreme legal authority over member states. There is no other logical explanation for those words’ primary and prominent positioning on every citizen’s most valued identity document.

It’s worth noting that the burgundy passport was mooted by some as a stepping stone to the eventual removal of national symbols from all EU passports. Such a move proved to be universally unpopular, but still the EU Commissioners thought it important enough to risk the ire of both citizenry and national governments alike by sending up a test balloon.

Whether you believe that nation states are a barrier to human progress or the essential driving force behind it, there is no longer any credible argument that the EU has not been a decades-long attempt to create a pan-European identity at political, legal, cultural and individual levels.

This is the problem that unreformed remainers and referendum deniers will face long into the future. They betray their true intentions, attitudes and beliefs with every casual insult and untruth they knowingly fling at those whom they clearly believe to be their inferiors. After all, if passport design is just a distraction from the real issues of jobs, prosperity and trade…why are they so upset by the change? I know the answer, so do you…and so do they.

As for me, I’m just happy the words “European Union” will vanish from my passport in due course. That’s because I’m not far from fifty years of age, and 2016 was the first and only time I’ve ever been offered a real choice on these important issues of sovereignty and identity. There’s something to be said for returning to the “original” blue design, as that was the colour of UK passports before this nation was ordered to change it…just let that thought sink in for a minute. In time, the design will doubtless change again, but have a care, because a passport is a symbol, not just a little piece of paper.

We’ve all known it all along, and that’s why people care.

Image courtesy of Photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Carry On…and on…and on…

It’s that time of year again, when the nights grow dark, the lights grow bright and our favourite old movies are dragged out of the attic for their ritual parade across the Christmas schedules. We might never actually watch Die Hard,
Scrooged,
Mary Poppins or the Guns of Navarone, but we gain a sense of comfort and continuity from knowing that they’re still around…somewhere. These tried and tested staples are a lot like that quaint old village church we never visit, yet fight tooth and nail to protect from all manner of modern encroachments.

If current reports are even remotely accurate, then 2017 will be remembered as the year that big media and big politics were finally exposed as hotbeds of the very misogyny and predation they’ve often railed against with a screeching self-righteousness that was bound to raise suspicions sooner or later. I’d often thought they protested too much.

In light of this ruthless, career ending hunt for sexual misconduct both real and alleged, it’s kind of strange to see our socially awkward friends from the Carry On team gracing our screens day after day during the holiday season. How can we explain this contradiction? How is it that a bunch of bawdy farces from the sixties and seventies are still airing as family viewing long after most of their contemporaries have been demoted to obscure footnotes in feminist literature?

The answer is that although we may not watch them, we collectively give the Carry Ons a cultural pardon with a kind of affectionate indulgence not granted to other comedians, movies and franchises hailing from that admittedly controversial era. Somehow the good ship Carry On just carries on, despite the ill winds of revisionism doing their best to blow it off course. The reason for the Carry Ons’ seemingly inexplicable appeal has actually been staring us in the face these many years, with all the subtlety of Barbara Windsor’s bosom.

The truth is that while men may sit on the throne, a woman’s word is law in the kingdom of Carry On.

Sexually, institutionally, socially and even financially, the ladies are nearly always on top. From teenage temptresses, through senior nurses, saucily strict governesses and ending with screeching, hen-pecking harridans; the female of the species is most definitely smarter, more deadly and more astute than her underachieving Carry On competitors.

By contrast, the Carry On men are not quite the collection of unapologetic, misogynist barflys they’ve often been made out to be. They’re much more a bunch of hapless, balding, wannabe lotharios or comically uptight, neurotic misfits. They’re constantly outwitted by the younger women they’ve still not learned to leave well alone, while stumbling from one misadventure to the next. They’re forever looking over their shoulders, always fearful of Matron’s institutional power, or even worse, the wife’s marital and emotional muscle.

This is why the Carry On films have admittedly aged but yet still lasted, while a franchise like On the Buses has faded into almost total oblivion. Whilst it’s tempting to lump them both together, there’s a very good reason why one elicits a wry, grudging affection and the other commands only a kind of cringing and embarrassed contempt.

The Carry On men were most often the helpless victims of a world they only imagined they controlled, while the protagonists of On the Buses were a pair of workshy schemers who constantly badmouthed their wives while chasing ever more deluded dreams of extra marital affairs. While one franchise gave us a cast of outrageously camped-up caricatures, the other left us with only a pair of conniving, lying manipulators for company. Who would you want to hang out with?

History has now delivered its verdict.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the Carry On world lives within us all; finding validation with every fumbled chat up line and every free drink accepted from a stranger. We indulge, if not outright embrace these ageing sexual comedies because we know deep down that they reflect some enduring, unchanging and fundamental truths about our own social and sexual worlds. We recognise these often tongue tied, always awkward men within ourselves and also in others, because we know that a caricature begins its life in reality.

Long may they carry on…and on…and on.