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Saturday, November 02, 2002

Mmmm.....goulash.

Zsuzsanna Clark reminisces in the Guardian about growing up in communist Hungary. Apparently we have been too snitty and cynical about the one-party state and things weren't all bad under Janos Kadar's 'goulash communism'. She bemoans the lack of community spirit in Britain today:

What I remember most was the overriding sense of community and solidarity, a spirit I find totally lacking in my adopted Britain and indeed whenever I go back to Hungary today. With minimal differences in income and material goods, people really were judged on what they were like as individuals and not on what they owned.

Which, wasn't much, then. She makes her disdain for the bothersome, materialistic freedom of the West apparent. If I must live this way, fine, but O! what could have been....

She fondly remembers her time in the Young Pioneers, where she "learned valuable life skills in social interraction and building friendships". All very well, but there are dozens of voluntary organisations in Britain which help young people build social skills and learn teamwork. None of them need to advance the state's agenda.

She writes that censorship wasn't too hard to live with either:

I can tell you that among the most popular published foreign writers were PG Wodehouse, Aldous Huxley and W Somerset Maugham, hardly Marxian propagandists.

What about Solzhenitsyn? Orwell? Sakharov? Rand? I doubt it. It's pretty shocking to dismiss the existence of censorship in Hungary just because it was lax compared to that of the Soviet Union. Loose chains are still chains.

There's more criticism of how Hollywood multiplexes and dumbed-down television have usurped state-subsidised (and presumably state-approved) opera and theatre. How vulgar. How American. And as the tone of the article becomes increasingly bitter, there's her confirmation that all the old propaganda about the "imperialist" west and its wicked plans for global domination was true after all. But the best quote is this:

Gorbachev said that education, in his view the greatest achievement of 70 years of communism, also paradoxically helped bring about its downfall. Put simply, the communist regimes educated their people to such an extent that they developed the critical faculty to challenge, and eventually overthrew the system.

And what a pity that was, eh? What's implied, I think, is this: "They were so noble, so idealistic in their plan for a better world...we weren't good enough for them!"

I haven't read an apology for totalitarianism quite like this but I'm sure there are plenty more examples of Cold War reverie out there. And I'm sure many don't even have the benefit of Clark's personal experience.


Mmmm.....bacon.

Russian authorities are wrapping the bodies of the Chechen terrorists in pigskin in a bid to prevent them entering paradise. Presumably the pork shroud strategy is meant to discourage future terrorist acts. Jonah Goldberg approves but it does strike me as pretty vindictive. Although it might deter some prospective terrorists it might inflame the passions of others just as easily. There's really no way of measuring its effectiveness.

Reading that paragraph, it struck me that until a few days ago I'd have never thought of using the phrase "pork shroud" in any context. Just when you think the news is predictable...


Friday, November 01, 2002

Brown's Jobmobiles

Chancellor Gordon Brown has made proposals for job advisors to tour housing estates hunting for the hard-core unemployed. That's right, it's another bright idea. Advisors will go from street to street and knock on people's doors to make sure they're not workshy. Or something like that. It's unclear whether this "intensive approach" will target specific addresses or everyone within a specific area. Brown says:

"We will identify the barriers to their unemployability, offer them training advice, and sometimes cash help, and link them to jobs in the vicinity."

In other words, everything that's provided in a job centre already. Well, everything except the indignity of being inspected by some flunky in your home. As for identifying the barriers to people getting a job, Gordon Brown might care to look a bit closer to home. It's the decades-old ingrained ethos of subsidising unemployment that's at the real root of the problem.

But even whispering of radical reform is unthinkable. Why do that when you can send out vans to pester the feckless? Why explore options when you can shift the burden of responsibility from the provider to the recipient? One day it will have to dawn on the Government that it can't foster people's desire to work. If we have to have this system for the moment, okay, but the assertion of moral authority in this proposal is quite dishonest. This is a scheme that lets the Government feel good about maintaining the status quo while indulging in a spot of well-publicised gimmickry - at the expense of people whose only sin has been to take what's been given to them on a plate.

And if they're going to try this scheme in some of the housing estates up here I hope they're well insured. Or well armoured. The police aren't going to be able to provide round-the-clock escorts...


Thursday, October 31, 2002

Paris, Anywhere

Theodore Dalrymple delivers a devastating account of life in Paris today. It's less a portrait of a cultured city than a journey into an urban Heart of Darkness. His descriptions of nihlistic, violent youth gangs running roughshod over an ineffectual criminal justice system are eye-opening.

He is scathing in his criticism of the grim, concrete housing estates that ring Paris like a garrison. They form a 'Zone' isolated from the cultural centre of the city - although the Zone's inhabitants can reach the centre easily enough using France's excellent public transport system. The distance between the two environments transcends mere geography:

An apartment in this publicly owned housing is also known as a logement, a lodging, which aptly conveys the social status and degree of political influence of those expected to rent them. The cités are thus social marginalization made concrete: bureaucratically planned from their windows to their roofs, with no history of their own or organic connection to anything that previously existed on their sites, they convey the impression that, in the event of serious trouble, they could be cut off from the rest of the world by switching off the trains and by blockading with a tank or two the highways that pass through them, (usually with a concrete wall on either side), from the rest of France to the better parts of Paris.

Dalrymple is especially critical of the architects of this nightmare, including Le Corbusier. Their desire to create a publicly-funded community of perfect geometrical order has created a monolith that alienates its inhabitants from French society - and from themselves. Their disdain for traditional buildings in favour of "rational" utilitarianism has spawned the cold rationale of brutality; the utility of thievery.

And he gives the mishmash of statist principles that underpin French society a bashing for good measure. Political intransigence has maintained high levels of permanent unemployment, particularly amongst the immigrant communities in the Zone. State subsidies, far from improving the lot of people there, have further aggravated their despair and mistrust:

They are certainly not poor, at least by the standards of all previously existing societies: they are not hungry; they have cell phones, cars, and many other appurtenances of modernity; they are dressed fashionably—according to their own fashion—with a uniform disdain of bourgeois propriety and with gold chains round their necks... But this is not a cause of gratitude—on the contrary: they feel it as an insult or a wound, even as they take it for granted as their due. But like all human beings, they want the respect and approval of others, even—or rather especially—of the people who carelessly toss them the crumbs of Western prosperity. Emasculating dependence is never a happy state, and no dependence is more absolute, more total, than that of most of the inhabitants of the cités. They therefore come to believe in the malevolence of those who maintain them in their limbo: and they want to keep alive the belief in this perfect malevolence, for it gives meaning—the only possible meaning—to their stunted lives. It is better to be opposed by an enemy than to be adrift in meaninglessness, for the simulacrum of an enemy lends purpose to actions whose nihilism would otherwise be self-evident.

Reading this, I felt a ring of familiarity because Glasgow shares some of Paris's problems. Glasgow too is ringed by housing estates infamous for their deprivation. The great swathes of public housing that crisscross the city run the gamut from dull but respectable to truly dismal. Immigrant communities are generally not segregated there but these areas have the same problems as Paris: a heroin and larceny based economy and disaffected, destructive youth. And it's the disaffection that comes across so clearly. Great efforts have been made to regenerate the worst areas but the fundamental ills of the city endure. I suspect the article will resonate with city-dwellers throughout the UK. Everyone has their own stories to tell.

Read the whole thing - and for a snapshot of life inside the Zone do watch La Haine. On its initial release the French Prime Minister summoned his Cabinet and made them sit and watch it. Based on Dalrymple's article, it doesn't look like this made any difference. Via Junius.


Requiem Apache

Eleven of the Army's new Apache attack helicopters are being put in the freezer for a couple of years because there aren't enough pilots trained to fly them. Boeing delivered the helicopters on time but the contract to provide the training was farmed out via private finance initiative to a different company. They have not delivered their flight simulator.

It's another PFI botch job and an incredibly costly one. Moving the Apaches to hangars alone will cost millions. The National Audit Office describes the move as "wasteful". And then some. We need a whole new order of words to describe this scale of incompetence.

Is this the best the MOD can do? I mean, is it outwith the realms of reason to, like, borrow some pilots from somewhere? If there is an emergency and we absolutely need these helicopters next week I hope they come up with something more inspired.


The Towering Inanity

You have got to be joking. There's a site out there in the nether regions of wackastan protesting that Peter Jackson's forthcoming film The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers should be renamed. Apparently they believe Jackson and New Line Cinema need to show greater "sensitivity" towards the events of September 11. Just your usual patronising idiocy. But in the FAQs they go as far as to say Jackson is guilty of "hate speech" since he obviously doesn't share their opinion.

There's an online petition to similar effect. It's not working now but nearly all the entries not already "voided" pour righteous scorn on the wretched proposition.

There's few things I can stand less than these cretins who purport to know how "sensitive" we all must be. What is their major malfunction? Did their brothers steal food out their mouths when they were children? How did we end up with a culture that nurtures stunted intellectual specimens like the dictatorial wallflower?

Really, there's not much you can say about people who write "the name of this movie will undoubtedly cause a return of the emotions felt on Sept 11th" right underneath a photo of the World Trade Centre going up in flames!!! Sensitive souls might find that particular image a tad more upsetting than fictional depictions of orc-slaying, don't you think? Via Steven Chapman.


Tuesday, October 29, 2002

No, Tony, stop. It feels...stupid

The best comment I read today was Zoe William's takedown of proposed rape legislation. Targeting 'date rape' or 'aquaintance rape' these new proposals, formulated somewhere out in the rings of Saturn, require a man to prove that he obtained the "voluntary and genuine agreement" of his partner before he can claim honest belief. Zoe isn't convinced:

All women would have to accept that, in the eyes of the law, they had been infantilised. We cannot be held responsible for what we say and do while intoxicated - men, clearly, can still be held responsible for what they say and do while intoxicated, and the only conclusion to be drawn from that is that they are accountable, mature and retain a basic integrity whatever they ingest. We aren't and we don't. Presumably, the law will still have a problem with us if we commit a murder under the influence of alcohol, which gives this a more Victorian slant - while we are, generally speaking, rational beings, in the realm of sex we are as tiny kittens, beset by pit bulls. We know not what we do, nor are our mewlings meaningful.

Exactly. It will be impossible for a man to claim the defence of consent if his partner was legless. Strictly speaking, he will have committed a crime even if the woman consented eagerly. Drunk men will be held more responsible for their actions than drunk women. Doesn't this concept put paid to the notion of equality between the sexes? Responsibilities being the flipside of rights, after all?

The scenario of a woman feeling guilty about her seduction and deciding to retrospectively withdraw her consent isn't exactly far-fetched. The potential for vindictive prosecution is considerable, tipping the scales of justice even further against the accused. These proposals will cause trepidation in Student Unions up and down the land. Not to mention everywhere else.

The inebriated fumblings that take place in pubs and clubs are the stuff of everyday life, not some abberant behaviour. What scenarios could develop? Men recording every coupling on cassette as evidence of consent at every stage? "No, dear, it's not because I'm weird. Wait, I've got to turn the tape over - ah, there we are. Where were we?"

Or maybe the government's apparent desire to tweak human behaviour will be ignored. In any case, I've not lost so much faith in Parliament that I think these proposals won't get shoved into a deep dark place. And I could suggest a few deep dark places to start. Let's hope.


Reports are emerging that the gas used by the Russian forces to end the Moscow siege was an opiate of some kind. The hostage death toll is now 117, and no-one in their right mind is trying to paint the operation as a success.

There has been a torrent of criticism - justified - of the Russians' obstinate refusal to reveal the name of the gas. Their stubbornness is reminiscent of their reluctance to accept help in rescuing the Kursk last year.

And yet this criticism obscures any real evaluation of their methods. What exactly were they supposed to have done? Nobody has come up with a better answer. There was a very real possibility that everyone in that building could have been obliterated. Maybe time will yield a different perspective on last week's horror.


Have I Got Bad News For You

The BBC is to ask Angus Deayton to step down as host of Have I Got News For You. They believe his alleged indiscretions have harmed the reputation of the show.

Utter claptrap. For my money - literally - this wickedly funny show is one of the few justifications the BBC has for the license fee. It's the interplay between Deayton, Hislop and Merton that has made HIGNFY unmissable for the last 11 years. I'm convinced if they mess with this formula the show will lose its appeal in no time. And I suspect that an excuse for cancellation is just what some of the BBC head honchos would like.

It's implied that disclosure of a grown man's private affairs is enough to compromise the show; that Deayton's barbs lose their sharpness if he is less than unimpeachable himself. But it's idiotic to demand the same probity of a television presenter as a politician in the public arena. Politicians have decision-making powers over our everyday lives. Angus, bless him, is just a celebrity.

And when Hislop and Merton lampooned him for his misdemeanors he took it on the chin. It was one of the funniest things I've seen on television this year. Isn't satire the whole point of the show?

There's a good argument for, say, removing a children's television presenter who snorts cocaine. A children's television presenter is expected to be a positive role model for youngsters. But HIGNFY is a post-watershed show for adults, and I really don't feel the need to watch a presenter with an unblemished reputation. I don't believe ratings have suffered as a result of Angus's trysts, and it's increasingly difficult to believe that the BBC holds many loftier ideals.

It's yet another disappointment from the Beeb. I'm getting more and more tempted to follow Jonathan Miller's example...


Eli Lehrer examines the psychological profiling techniques that proved so unhelpful in apprehending John Mohammed. Utah profiler Bob King says: "A profile is just a best, educated guess, and that's all it is"

This looks like two parts intuition to one part evidence. Clearly, any technique that relies so heavily on guesswork can be influenced by individual or group prejudices. Via Iain Murray.


Sunday, October 27, 2002

Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion

What a week it's been. With lunatic snipers and lunatic Chechens all over the news it's been hard to keep away. Hard not to be as dismayed as ever. But I managed to escape for a while and catch Donnie Darko, released over here at long last. It's startlingly good. Reviews from the States intrigued me and I expected a somewhat angsty David Lynch-style drama. Instead, Richard Kelly's debut feature serves up a sly satire on suburban strangeness reminiscent of John Hughes's 80s teen flicks but with genuine thoughtfulness. The comparisons with David Lynch's surrealism are justified but Kelly keeps a tighter grip on the story, and it never lapses into the sort of mocking parody Lynch is known for.

It's always refreshing to watch a movie that has a distinct sense of itself, and Donnie Darko has this in spades. The plot isn't easily summarised, but it follows Donnie (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a precociously bright high-school student who suffers hallucinations of a sinister giant rabbit predicting the end of the world. Pretty straightforward, eh? The film covers ideas as diverse as time-travel, love, fate, and psychosis. It's notable for its skewering of both small-town conservatism and 'touchy-feely' self-help therapy. One of the funniest scenes finds Donnie (whose test scores are 'intimidating') faced with a patently daft execise where he has to assess a short scenario and mark it on a sliding scale between 'fear' and 'love'. His teacher's simplistic dogma suggests Donnie might not be the only person in town with a shaky grasp of reality.

The avoidance of cliche is refreshing too. Though steeped in 80's pop culture, it's not a period piece. If the ending is baffling (and I thought it was), it's baffling in a way that makes you want to argue about what it all meant, not dismiss it as pretention. This film is deliriously alive in a year of pretty unadventurous cinema. Although Road To Perdition was sublimely beautiful it didn't grip me in nearly as many ways. It's criminal that we've had to wait so long to see this. It's also criminal that it is showing on so few screens around Britain. Take the time to see it if you can - it's one in a million.


Andrew Sullivan and Mark Steyn ask whether skewed assumptions may have slowed the capture of the Washington sniper. Most Americans abhor the idea of racial profiling but there's a convincing argument that it was in fact used. The consensus is that Police and the FBI were likely looking for a white 'militia type' male with ties to extreme right-wing organisations. Most damning of all is evidence that several chances to apprehend John Mohammed were missed.

It's understandable that the overwhelming relief felt right now supercedes serious questions about this - but I do hope these questions get asked. Not just questions about the profiling techniques involved but how the supposedly objective science involved can be tilted off balance by political or cultural considerations.


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