Thursday 29 April 2010

Brown's blunder

I was going to add write something long and portentous about Bigotgate this morning, but as very occasionally happens, commentators in the mainstream media have got in first and said most of what I wanted to say. Andrew Rawnsley is good on what the gaffe tells us about Gordon, John Harris analyses the incident as a reflection of the current state of Labour, and Steve Richards provides some insight into how on earth Brown and his aides could let it happen.

I'll just add a few thoughts of my own.

Above all, the affair leaves me with a profound feeling of sadness. Sadness mostly for Gillian Duffy, whose life has been turned upside down by a ravenous media machine, and whose look of deep hurt and bewilderment when reporters conveyed what Brown had said about her is my abiding image from yesterday. Sadness, too, for the thousands of Labour party workers whose desperate efforts to claw back some ground in this peculiar election have been betrayed by their leader.

And I suppose some sadness for Brown, whose brief time in the top office has been overshadowed by disappointment and decline. A BBC reporter yesterday described him as a Nixonian figure, and you can see what he meant: hungry for power, resentful of those who denied it to him for so long, then when he finally achieved his ambition, brought down by his own tragic flaws. And Gordon with his waxen smile facing telegenic, smooth-talking Nick and Dave in debate is a bit like Tricky Dicky sweating under the lights in the debates with Kennedy in 1960.

The key difference, of course, is that neither Cameron nor Clegg is JFK. The former was a Thatcherite apparatchik, forced to tack to the centre by the success of Tony Blair, who now has the gall to describe New Labour's period in office as 'thirteen years of failure'. The latter is a political lightweight who (as yesterday's halting, bumbling interview on Radio 4's PM confirmed) is not ready for high office. And, pace Andrew Sullivan (of whose blog I am an avid and usually admiring reader, but whose off-key comments on this election have shown how perilous it is to analyse political events 3,000 miles away - it will certainly make me warier of commenting on events in the USA), Clegg is no Obama (I liked this from Richard Adams). In a time of recession and war, are we seriously thinking of trusting the nation's future to an unexamined unknown just because he performs well on TV?

There's a temptation to dismiss the frenzy surrounding Gordon's gaffe as so much media froth. But, like it or not, in a media-driven election, when the issues seem so complex and the differences between the parties so slight, these stories often help to crystallise opinion more than policy debates. As with Barack Obama's careless campaign remark about people 'clinging to guns and religion', which made him look like a liberal elitist, they tend to confirm existing suspicions rather than dramatically changing opinions. Brown's treatment of Gillian Duffy seemed to bear out rumours about a quick-tempered and defensive leader with a tendency to blame others for his own blunders. At the same time, the incident appeared to provide a dramatic enactment of one of the underlying themes of this election: that Labour has lost touch with its working-class base and become tone-deaf to its concerns.

Obama had months to recover from his gaffe, and he was already ahead in the polls. The latest opinion surveys show Labour trailing behind the Tories and the Lib Dems, and the election is only a week from today. Brown's apology apparently came too late to win Mrs.Duffy back to Labour, and whatever remedial work the party undertakes in the next few days may not be enough to win back the majority of the population.

Friday 16 April 2010

Britain: brilliant, not broken

As we were waiting for our luggage at Heathrow on Wednesday morning, I thought I glimpsed a familiar, goateed figure slipping through Customs, head down and collar turned up, trying hard not to be recognised, his trolley being pushed by an Air Canada employee.

I was fairly sure it was Eddie Izzard, but others in my party weren’t convinced – or impressed: my son spotted La Roux in the same place last year, a much more memorable sighting in his opinion. Now I’m persuaded I was right, since Izzard has tweeted about a recent appearance on CBC’s The Hour, promoting his forthcoming Canadian tour.

If it was Eddie, then his flight - like ours - must have been one of the last to land before UK airspace went into lockdown. I'm glad he made it, otherwise we might have been deprived of his new election broadcast for Labour. After Gordon's turgid performance last night, Izzard's video has cheered me up no end. With its reminder of the fundamental moral divide between the parties, I hope it attracts a wide audience, especially among those tempted to think Cameron is some kind of born-again social democrat - rather than, as Eddie reminds us, one of Thatcher's children, in a new suit.

Debate reax

Quick reaction to last night's first-ever prime ministerial election debate:

Brown was solid and sound, but also stodgy and unexciting. He didn't exploit his incumbent status nearly enough (but then presenter Alastair Stewart had disrespectfully chosen not to use the words 'prime minister' in introducing him). His attempts at humour, sound-bites and references to popular culture were squirm-making as usual and in future should be avoided at all costs. Brown looked pale and ghostly: he should ask David Cameron for the number of his tanning salon.

In purely stylistic terms, David Cameron was more impressive: nimble, quick-witted, and with the most succinct and memorable summing-up of the three. His main line of attack against Brown - you've been in power for 13 years, so why haven't you implemented all these proposals (on voting reform, etc) before? - was a powerful one and will be very difficult for Labour to counter in the coming weeks.

Nick Clegg may have 'won' the debate, but without taking away anything from his strong performance (he grasped the format better than the other two, responding to questioners by name, engaging directly with the TV audience), it's easy for a party with no record in office to score against present and recent incumbents. I'm not sure the Lib Dems' poll bump following this debate will last long.

My overall reaction to the debate was a fairly negative one. The big downside of this move to US-style debating is that it risks turning the election into a beauty contest between three men. But in Britain we elect a party not a person, a Parliament rather than a personality. If it had been Alan Johnson (say) debating William Hague and Chris Huhne, the outcome might have been very different. In a televisual showdown between Brown, Cameron and Clegg, the latter two - younger, more photogenic, both 'new faces' - will always come out on top.

For the upcoming debates, Labour needs to work harder to present the advantages of experience over novelty value, competence over showmanship: but saddled as it is with the tired-looking, over-familiar and under-performing Brown, this is going to be an uphill struggle.


If, like me, you admired The Wire, but sometimes wished that its creator, David Simon, would turn his considerable talents to less unrelentingly depressing subjects, then wish no more. While we were in the States, we watched the first episode of Simon’s latest production, Treme (pronounced Treh-may) which premiered on HBO on Sunday night.

Set in New Orleans three months after Katrina, Treme has some similarities with the ground-breaking Baltimore cop series: a focus on the lives of African-Americans, a sprawling cast of characters, and plot and dialogue that are initially difficult to tune into. Some of The Wire’s actors even feature: the excellent Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters (Bunk and Lester in the earlier show) have central roles.

But the main difference, at least judging by the pilot episode, is that whereas the main focus of The Wire was crime, in Treme it is music, specifically the jazz and street bands of New Orleans. And where The Wire could be accused of painting a one-sidedly grim picture of life in an American city, the underlying tone of Treme is – despite its tragic context – celebratory and even humorous.

The one false note in the first episode - at least for this viewer - was the scene depicting a local activist, boistrously played by John Goodman, being interviewed by a British TV reporter – who came off as an absurdly upper-class and insensitive caricature. To those of us who remember Jon Snow navigating his rowing boat between submerged houses, and helping to rescue stranded inhabitants, this was a travesty and an unnecessary cheap shot.

But that's a minor quibble. I don’t know if or when there are plans for Treme to air in the UK, but on the basis of what we saw on Sunday, it's going to be worth the wait.

You can read more about the programme here and here.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Techy interlude

Forgive the tweet-like brevity of the last post. I was standing in the crowded Apple store in South Beach, holding one of the dozen or so iPads they have for customers to play around with, while a queue of would-be early adopters waited eagerly at my shoulder. Now we’re home (looks like we re-entered British airspace just in time), I can elaborate…

Thanks to Apple’s splendidly open policy of allowing customers free access to their networked machines, and as a result of our teenage offspring’s visceral need for daily access to Twitter, I had several sessions getting acquainted with Mr. Jobs’ latest toy. The verdict? Well, it’s every bit as attractive and easy to handle as I thought it would be. If you’ve used an iPhone, then it’s just like moving up to a larger version, with the same intuitive touch technology and ease of movement between applications.

My main interest was in the one application that you can’t get on your phone: iBooks. It’s stunning. You touch a virtual book to take it from the shelf, then flick through the pages just like a real book. You can change the font, look up words, and see illustrations in glorious colour. Damn: just when I’d got myself a Kindle, along comes the iPad and makes it look like MS-DOS compared to Windows. All the more annoying, then, that iBooks probably won’t be available on the UK version of the iPad, which won’t be in the shops until late May.

Incidentally, we resorted to the Apple store for our daily dose of the internet because the wifi charges in our hotel were so exorbitant. And just before we went away, there was a spate of stories about people using their smartphones abroad and being hit with shocking bills, so I’d turned off data roaming on my iPhone. I wonder, though, why service providers in the UK (like O2 and Orange) can’t come to some kind of reciprocal arrangement with overseas providers (like AT&T), as they do for calls and texts? The assumption seems to be that emailing and looking stuff up on the Web is a peripheral luxury which you should be prepared to forego when you’re abroad. Surely this is no longer the case, and most people would be prepared to pay a small additional fee, as they do for international calls, in order to check their messages and read local restaurant reviews, etc, while they’re on holiday?

(Note to regular readers: this techy stuff is just a temporary aberration and the usual coverage of politics, culture and so on will resume as soon as I get over my jet-lag...)

Monday 12 April 2010

iPad therefore...

Posting on an iPad in the Apple Store, Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. Just because I can....Normal service will resume when we get home later this week.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Soon you'll be OK

Posting will be even more sparse than usual over the next week or so, as we're off to warmer climes, hoping to lay the ghosts of a difficult year.

I'll leave you with this from The Polyphonic Spree, which seems kind of appropriate as we head off for some solar therapy.

Happy Easter / Passover / Spring to you all.

(Incidentally, the person who posted the original clip describes it as 'the happiest video on Youtube', but that's not quite true. That would be this.)

Everywhere and nowhere

Yet another post about religion: but that seems fitting this weekend. Writing in the Guardian, Cole Morton surveys the British religious landscape at Easter:
The Roman Catholic hierarchy remains engulfed in the scandal of abusive priests. The Church of England [...] is struggling to cope with the loss of its status, wealth and most of its people.

Neither organisation can muster a million followers on a Sunday, and attendance has fallen for the fifth year in a row. The pews may fill a little more this weekend, but on the whole people don't want to belong anything, let alone a needy, demanding church.
But, argues Morton, this doesn't mean that people have stopped believing. Instead, he celebrates 'the rise of a new national faith', which he calls 'the Church of Everywhere':
The Church of Everywhere consists of all those people who believe in a god of some kind but don't belong to a religious organisation. [...] They don't have a collective voice because they are each doing their own thing. But they are certainly in the majority.
And where does Moreton find evidence of this new spiritual sensibility?
You can see it at Stonehenge for solstice, or at festivals, as people seek the divine in the open air. Even new forms of morris dancing, most eccentric of 'traditional' pursuits, have become a way for people to express their spirituality outdoors.

They are part of the new faith, which doesn't mind what your god is called. Improvised, individualistic and hard to pin down, it does still have some identifiable collective values, including fair play, individual freedom and the notion of the Earth as a sacred space.
I think there's a grain of truth in Moreton's description, but I take issue both with aspects of his analysis and with his celebratory tone. While it's true that, over a long period, traditional religion has been losing both its appeal and its influence, it would be a mistake to overlook the continuing strength (and modern revival) of more conservative versions, such as evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Islam.

Moreton correctly identifies the ecological and individualistic strains in contemporary popular thinking, but he's in danger of confusing disparate phenomena and claiming too much for his new multi-faith religiosity. The trouble with 'spirituality' is that it can be made to include pretty much anything: morris dancing as an expression of faith is taking it a bit far, I think. And surely there's a contradiction in arguing that the new spirituality is all about doing your own thing, and at the same time claiming that these 'improvised, individualistic' pursuits are part of some larger collective movement.

Moreton wants us to believe that the current popular interests in 'paganism, Buddhism and the green movement' are not only connected with each other, but somehow part of the same phenomenon as the mourning for Princess Diana and Jade Goody's funeral. He argues that the latter event 'put the new faith of the people on display, live on television with white doves, party balloons and lots of tears', adding:
The crowds watching on screens outside gasped at the home videos and blinked back tears at slushy songs. I was there, and this was powerful stuff that worked for people.
Again, Moreton has captured some kind of shift in the collective psyche. The lapsed Catholic in me is tempted to describe it as the return of the Catholic repressed, a half-conscious popular yearning for a sense of ritual meaning that was lost in the transition to modernity. But whether it can be described as a new form of faith, rather than yet another symptom of a consumerist celebrity culture, I'm not sure.

But even if Moreton has identified something real stirring in the collective imagination, both the lapsed Christian and the secular humanist in me question his excitement at this new all-embracing, content-free spiritual 'movement'. Traditional Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) would argue that true faith leads to selfless action in the interest of others. But Moreton's Church of Everywhere appears to encourage a narcissistic absorption in one's own feelings which has more in common with pop psychology and the self-improvement industry.

And then there's the suspicion that this new faith-lite is little more than a popular version of the 'faith in faith' peddled by the likes of Stanley Fish, Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong. The crowds blinking back tears at Goody's funeral and the rhetorical manoeuvres of the multi-faithists are both caught up in a cloying sentimentalism: a sense that it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something. Don't worry whether it's true, just feel the faith.

This Easter, humanists and traditional believers can unite in their rejection of this worrying irrationalism.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Hellfire and homophobia

Well done Peter Tatchell, for sticking up for the Christian street preacher fined for 'homophobic remarks’ that were ‘aggravated by religious prejudice’. The perhaps unfortunately named Shawn Holes, an American Baptist evangelist touring Britain, was arrested for telling passers-by in Glasgow city centre that homosexuals deserved the 'wrath of God' and would go to hell.

As Peter says, however distasteful Mr. Holes' beliefs: 'The price of freedom of speech is that we sometimes have to put up with opinions that are objectionable and offensive.' He adds:

Just as people should have the right to criticise religion, people of faith should have the right to criticise homosexuality. Only incitements to violence should be illegal.

Quite. If we're going to start prosecuting people for expressing views that some find offensive, where will it end? The same law that's used to prevent fundamentalists articulating their hostility to homosexuality, abortion, etc, could just as easily be used by religious groups to stop secularists publicly criticising religion. We have to maintain the distinction (as I argued here) between legitimate criticism of ideas and stirring up hatred. Mr. Holes wasn't inciting the crowd to attack gays: he was happy to leave that to the judgement of what atheists would call his Imaginary Friend.

I suppose my only caveat, and where I might depart from the Tatchell line, is that I do have qualms about allowing unrestricted hellfire preaching in public places. I wouldn't prosecute preachers for expressing their personal prejudices, but I might restrict their activities on the grounds of disturbing public order. As I argued here, there's a sense in which the fundamentalist screaming damnation in the shopping centre is restricting my right to go about my business in peace. If we tolerate the Strict Brethren reminding us of our sins as we sip our lattes outside Starbucks, why not allow Islamist hate-preachers to vent their wrath in the public square?

Incidentally, one does wonder what's got into the police these days. First they take action against a legitimate TV documentary, then they harrass an innocent blogger and pay a visit to a Tory MP, now they arrest a Baptist preacher, all in the name of preventing 'religious prejudice'. Is Plod compensating for its own former reputation for racism and homophobia with this kind of over-reaction? Or is it the case that, when it comes to the difficult and sensitive issue of hate crimes, many officers just don't have the flexibility, judgement - dare I say intelligence? - to interpret the law in anything other than this hamfisted way?

Friday 2 April 2010

Well said, Archbishop

...and that's not a headline you'll often see on this blog. But the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has actually said something quite sensible. In his Easter ecumenical letter, he draws attention to the very real persecution of Christians in some parts of the world, describing the 'butchery, intimidation...and harrassment' suffered by believers in places such as Egypt, Mosul, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. This continuing reality, said Williams, should remind Christians who live in 'more comfortable environments' of the need 'to keep our own fears in perspective': 'It is all too easy, even in comfortable and relatively peaceful societies, for us to become consumed with anxiety about the future of Church and society'.

Coming only days after senior Church of England figures, including Williams' predecessor George Carey, sent a letter to the Sunday Telegraph complaining that Christians in Britain were being discriminated against, the Archbishop's statement is seen by some as a rebuke to religious leaders who encourage this kind of persecution complex and victim mentality. Instead, citing the example of murdered Salvadorean archbishop Oscar Romero, Williams suggested high-profile Christians would do better to use their influence to defend the rights of the poor and campaign for political change.

So two cheers for the Archbishop of Canterbury. There'll be a third cheer when he follows the logic of his own thinking, joining the dots to realise that almost all the examples of real persecution that he cites happened in countries dominated by one faith and where there is no separation between religious and secular law. Whereas what he describes as more 'comfortable' environments for believers tend to be those in which liberal secularism holds sway. Perhaps he'll remember that next time he's tempted to call for the introduction of Sharia in Britain.

Thursday 1 April 2010

An afterlife for Democratiya?

Newly added to the blogroll: 'Arguing the world', a new blog from the folks at Dissent, with some help from writers from the disbanded Democratiya. Looks like it might go some way to assuaging the grief of those of us who bemoaned the absorption of the latter into the former. I know unity is strength, and so forth, but Democratiya was the best thing to happen in British political journalism for ages, and being part of a US magazine, however noteworthy, is not the same as having a distinctively British progressive anti-totalitarian voice.

There are good things on the new blog already from familiar names such as Alan Johnson and Martin Bright. Good, but tantalisingly brief. Perhaps they're intended as tasty morsels to tempt our palates and more substantial pieces will appear in time. I hope so, otherwise I shall continue to miss my regular fix of Democratiya.