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Why does Jeremy Clarkson get me so angry?

March 25, 2015

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A friend has, quite reasonably, observed “people seem to hate Clarkson out of all proportion to him being a presenter of a show about cars”. It’s a fair point. While I don’t “hate” Clarkson, he does make me very angry. Why is it that this man, whom I can quite simply ignore by switching channels, squats on my emotional world in such a colourful way?

For me, Clarkson is the intersection of several political ley-lines. This makes him more prominent as a symbol than it should.

He enables and emboldens xenophobia to a significant degree and, each time the BBC stood behind him, it felt like they were cool with that. He seemed to be the entertainment equivalent of Nigel Farage. I know many of you don’t see the fuss about calling Mexicans “lazy, feckless and flatulent”, or going to Argentina and making fun of a conflict in which over 900 young soldiers lost their lives, or calling his black dog Drogba, or using the word ‘n****r’, or calling a Thai man a ‘slope’, or travelling through India on a train the side of which reads “Eat English Muff”, or calling Romania ‘gypsy country’. But cumulatively this stuff has an effect. As does making fun of murdered prostitutes, attacking a politician because of his disability, making Nazi salutes at a German car and joking about killing Albanians.

I don’t think, unless you have been at the receiving end of someone screaming “paki go home” from a car window in the street, of some sort of mindless discrimination or bullying like that, there is any way to actually describe the fight-or-flight feeling people like Clarkson create in someone who feels “other” in any way. Clarkson, in this way, becomes emblematic of every bully. At work, at school, in the street. That there are people defending him, even after the details of what he has done have emerged, is a source of profound concern. Somehow “the right to offend” has assumed larger significance in some people’s minds than “the right to go to work and not get punched”. I can only put it down to a worrying lack of empathy – a million people able to only identify with the aggressor, rather than the victim.

But it is more than that. It feels like he is at the vanguard of a reaction by those who are privileged in every way – race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, background, wealth, platform, position – against losing what is, objectively, a tiny bit of their privilege. He felt like the epitome of the Farages, Littlejohns and Moores of this world using their soapbox (usually in the form of a weekly column in a national paper) to somehow claim they are the real victims, the voiceless majority, the disadvantaged; to say: “now ENOUGH you darkies/women/perverts; we gave you a little equality, but don’t push it”.

And still, none of those things caused him to lose his job. His final misstep at the BBC seems representative of the bullying, imperialist, old-world attitude he represented. Sending a junior colleague to hospital, after racially abusing them, over a steak dinner. An old drama teacher of mine used to say: “Ego is absolutely necessary for survival in the entertainment industry. But it must never outgrow talent. When the ego starts to be bigger than the talent, you’re in trouble.”

In the end, it wasn’t “righteous Guardianistas” and “humourless Feminazis” that got Clarkson sacked. He was entirely the architect of his own downfall. This, it seems, is the thing his fans are most bitter about. They thought, I’m sure, that he would be the victim of the “do-gooder, lefty brigade”; that he would become their cause’s martyr. And he fucked it up. There is only one reason he was sacked: his own consuming anger. His inability to control his temper. His sense of entitlement. And that is a lesson over which the many people who despised what he stood for, will reasonably crow.

I am largely, however, trying to intellectualise a primarily emotional reaction. I hope it is helpful in explaining my reaction, at least. What gets me even more agitated is that those who defend him, do so on the basis of “freedom to cause offence” – that’s an interesting phrase for people who deny that words have power, isn’t it? They think they’re somehow being “edgy” and rebellious by supporting the dullest, most humdrum, tiresome, archetypal establishment figure. You know what is “edgy”? Kindness. Because it is extremely rare and often has a personal cost. Any arsehole can offend. And does.

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I leave you with this thought: the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik was a big fan of Top Gear. He described it as “one of the very few programs at the Burka Broadcasting Corporation still worth seeing.” He then goes on to quote extensively from a Sunday Times piece by Clarkson entitled “We’ve been robbed of our Englishness” in his manifesto.

Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting a writer bears responsibility for ways in which any wicked person might misunderstand his words. But I think it is also foolish to deny that people are propelled into action by a thousand spectral hands. If I discovered I had become the busty centrefold inside the door of the hate-locker of a murderer, it would give me pause for thought. I would search my soul very deeply.

Words matter. Words hurt. And the higher your profile, the bigger the responsibility not to pour venom into people’s ears. I think Clarkson consistently did that: He poured venom. Dangerously, he poured venom disguised as humour. Worryingly, he did so within a format popular with young people. How exactly do you laugh with someone making fun of people with disabilities, then explain to your child that they mustn’t do that at school?

I am very glad my license fee is not paying for him any more. I know he will go on to other, very lucrative pastures new. But it won’t be on my buck. I wish him luck and success. I hope he learns from this. I hope he gets help. I hope he grows less angry. We are all capable of change and worthy of kindness.

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The Oslo Synagogue Ring of Peace and Its Detractors

February 23, 2015

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I want to make a couple of observations on Breitbart choosing to report that events outside the Oslo Synagogue are a “media hoax”. I want to comment on it, because it is being shared by a lot of people I respect – which surprises me, as hitherto I had considered Breitbart to be something like The Onion, but without the wit. But, I guess, there’s no bias like confirmation bias.

So, Breitbart reports that Reuters, AP, AFP and all other traditional outlets got it wrong when they reported that 1,000 Muslims formed a ring around the synagogue. Breitbart says it was more like 20, “according to an eyewitness” a number to which they keep returning to. “Photos pulled off of social media”, says Breitbart, “appear to corroborate the narrative that only twenty or so people formed the “peace ring.”” So, I tried to find what was Breitbart’s source for the original eyewitness account. It wasn’t easy, but after several clicks I found the original source. It is one anonymous commenter on a reddit message board.

What is more, the eyewitness account doesn’t even say what Breitbart report it as saying. He says: “It actually was 1300 people in total, of which most looked like ethnic Norwegians. They [the police] had set up barriers in front and allowed 10-20 muslims inside the barriers to hold hands.” He continues: “I don’t know how many muslims were present, but I’d estimate about 100 Arabs/Africans.”

Therefore, when AP reports that “More than 1,000 people have formed a “ring of peace” outside Oslo’s main synagogue at the initiative of a group of young Muslims”, they are, in fact absolutely correct and totally consistent with the eyewitness account. I guess you could quibble about the geometrical shape, if the crowd did not go all the way around the Synagogue. Maybe it should have been reported as a “barrier of peace” or a “semi-circle of peace”.

Ultimately, Breitbart’s aim seems to me to be not to discredit the reports, but to somehow fling mud on a very noble initiative. Because, ultimately, as a symbolic gesture of solidarity, why would it matter if this was 20 or 100 or 1,000 Muslims? It wouldn’t. Unless one is promoting a narrative of all Muslims as bloodthirsty jihadists, in which case you would want to suggest this is an exception to the rule and make the exception as small as possible.

As this story appeared more and more on twitter and Facebook timelines around me, I began to wonder whether that was a narrative people are increasingly comfortable to sign up to. “More power to them [Breitbart]”, read one comment; “it does show how poor mainstream journalism has become, no independent verification, no fact checking, the news is now basically Chinese whispers!” When I explained that the primary materials for the Breitbart piece were, at best, sketchy and, at worst, misrepresented, the response came: “We all know how the press distort the truth, anyone remember the Hillsborough disaster?”

I guess, post-Hillsborough we can all choose whatever stories to believe without the application of any critical function. I thought the Hillsborough lesson had been entirely the opposite – check sources, put brain into gear.

Apparently, demonstrators chanted: “No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia”. The only way Breitbart can make sense of this is by mocking them for “conflating criticism of Islam and hatred of Jews”. Because nobody could actually be critical of more than one type of prejudice.

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Some Less Healthy Suggestions for Singles on Valentine’s

February 14, 2015

I am what you might call “actively single”. I generally feel pretty perky about my status, even with 14 February upon us. I consider the lack of a partner a necessary cut in these times of austerity. I mostly blame the mess we inherited from Labour.

A number of newspapers and magazines, however, have taken to publishing lists of healthy ways for singles to spend the day. They include delightful, therapist-approved suggestions such as, I kid you not, “take yourself out on a date”. Take myself out on a date… That’s their suggestion? That on the very day restaurants are filled to the brim with fawning couples, I should be in the midst of them having dinner alone. Which will, presumably, be followed by seducing yourself, spooning yourself, cooking yourself a romantic breakfast then promising to call yourself but bitterly disappointing yourself.

I have a counter-proposal for anyone who considers this to be the best route to mental health: Why don’t you skip the date altogether and just go &#!% yourself? I have compiled my own list of alternative suggestions:

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1. Imagine that you are in a relationship with someone truly vile (like Mel Philips or Jeremy Clarkson) and you are, in fact, successfully hiding in order to avoid them.

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2. Dress yourself in an adult diaper and run around the West End, chasing terrified couples with a real bow and real arrows.

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3. Sit on the floor next to a coffee table, listening to Madame Butterfly, switching a table lamp on and off, rocking gently back and forth and muttering to yourself “I won’t be ignored, Dan”.

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4. Walk into an expensive restaurant and identify a particularly annoying couple. Approach one of the two victims and say “I thought you were at a conference”. Meet their protestations with a thoroughly unconvincing “My apologies, I must be mistaken”. As you walk out, turn and mouth the words “CALL ME”.
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5. Drink so much whiskey on the 13th that you do not wake up until the 15th. You may wish to refer to this as “Ballantine’s Day”.
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6. Make a detailed spreadsheet of all the money you would have spent if you weren’t single (new outfit, dinner, gift, flowers, card). Use the money that you have saved on something constructive. Like a donation to Amnesty International. Or cake. I think mainly cake.

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7. Go to Samoa, which is 12 hours behind, then hop on a plane to Fiji, which is 12 hours ahead. With carefully planned flights, you can avoid 14 February altogether and get a tan.

WARNING: If you’re thick enough to execute these suggestions, there is a good chance you may end up in prison, where dates will be – I am sure – plentiful. A win-win, really. Happy Valentine’s!

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This piece first appear in the Huffington Post.

Troika – The EU’s Frustrating Gatekeeper

January 29, 2015

This, I think, is the most important development in Greece and it is being lost in the white noise. Trying to shoehorn a lot of narrative into preconceived forms makes for easily digestible, but largely opaque reporting.

Greece is effectively refusing to negotiate with the troika (the triumvirate of European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) or separately with Germany – as first and sole ports of call. This is a distinct break from the past – it is what every incoming Greek government has done in the last few years (and to an extent, Spanish, Irish, Portuguese, Italian governments), under threat of penury.

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This attitude does not mean Greece is eschewing its obligations or destabilising the union, despite what some hysterical reporting would have you believe. It simply means Greece will discuss its obligations and the best way to discharge them through democratic EU structures (Council of Ministers, European Parliament), rather than bureaucratic EU structures. Which is entirely proper. That it will treat Germany as an equal partner, with say proportional to their influence. Which is entirely proper. That it will discuss the mandate, democratically handed to a new government by the Greek people, with other democratic representatives. Greece is simply reclaiming its seat at the adults’ table.

If there is a feeling that Greece (and Spain, Italy, Ireland or Protugal) does not deserve this seat – and I understand why there might be that feeling from certain quarters – then let the rest of the partners relegate it. Openly, democratically, officially. Not by administrative guile.

We should all take note of how this is presented as strange and radical. We should take note of how uncommon it has become. The troika is the unquestioned EU gatekeeper in such matters. It is in place, evidently, only to assess progress. More often than not, however, it acts as the jobs-worth who says “computer says no” to any request for flexibility – however circumstances may have changed – and even refuses entry to those with the authority to discuss it. We should take note at how rarely this position of absolute power of three entirely undemocratic structures is questioned.

I said a few days ago, that Greece had much more support than analysts estimated. That a lot of entities were quite pissed off at Germany’s and the troika’s autocracy. Many derided me. Within the last few days, a former IMF director, the Bank of England and the US President, are all shaking the pom-poms of Keynesian economics, like lovestruck cheerleaders, at Tsipras. Yes, austerity may not have been the way to go, they all concede. They do now, anyway. Had the Greek people not voted for change, would they?

All these shows of international support and softening of hard positions are partly theatre, of course. If Tsipras fails with the whole world against him, the result will be more anger, more riots, more instability. If Tsipras fails with the whole world rooting for him, then the Greek people only have themselves to blame (again) and progressives everywhere should take careful note. They want him to be a cautionary tale; not a martyr.

The truth remains that dealing directly with each other as partner nations is what all EU member states should be doing, on all top level matters, all the time. Voting things through the European Parliament, ditto. Running directly to Merkel, Juncker, Draghi and Lagarde, as soon as one is elected, to kiss papal rings and plead for mercy and then trust that them to impose whatever was agreed behind closed doors by force on all the other partners, is precisely what is at the heart of rising anti-EU sentiment across this continent.

Everyone needs to understand this. Especially those four.

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Three Little Twitter Night Contemplations on Caring for A Parent with Dementia

January 27, 2015

*

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What a headache, I said

You brought a glass of olive oil
A pack of gum
And kissed my forehead

The soul urges action
The head forgets method

**

imageSome nights
the quiet is too loud
the wine not quick enough
the smile skin-deep

I feign participation
Tomorrow will be better

I tell myself

***

imageAs the soul winds down
And Morpheus seduces
You’ll visit me again
(why do you come so often?)
Whole like you used to be
Efficient, thrifty, comforting
Mother, once more

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Greece, debt default and ‘moral hazard’

January 27, 2015

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A few very quick words on this, as I have had this conversation many times and it seems sensible to pin it down. Do not expect subtlety – this isn’t an essay.

Hysteria over a Greek default, restructuring, haircut – whatever you want to call it – is in part manufactured and in part stoked by ignorant and sensationalist media. We’ve been told several times over the last few years that the world is about to stop turning. It hasn’t and won’t. Such alarmism is deeply unhelpful and entirely counterproductive. We really shouldn’t feed that particular beast.

Debt default, restructuring or partial write-off (a haircut) is, of course, not a good thing. But neither is it the end of the world. It is completely part and parcel of lending. It is explicitly expressed in the rate of interest. The reason entity A can borrow at 5% while entity B can only borrow at 20% is because B is seen as much more likely to default than A. That is how it works. So, let us not act like it is some unprecedented act of economic vandalism. It isn’t.

Then there is the issue of ‘moral hazard’ – the idea that if entities can take risks with no consequences this would act as incentive for more reckless risk-taking. This is a massive red herring in the Greek context. The idea that anybody might look at what has happened in Greece in the last six years and think “yeah, I’ll have me a bit of that, let’s borrow lots of money” is manifestly ludicrous. The consequences have been dramatic. Greece is, if anything, a cautionary tale on unbalanced budgets, however the remaining debt payments are now handled.

So, let’s keep a cool head and not propagate tabloid-style analysis full of chewing-gum terms, simply because it sounds good and gives a boring moment in our lives a little frisson.

Love. Peace.

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Some very preliminary observations on the Greek election

January 25, 2015

Here are some scattered and very preliminary observations on what looks, from exit polls, will be a very convincing victory by Syriza (which may or may not fall just short of an absolute majority).

Obviously, not all of this (or any of it) is universally applicable.

1. The centre-left vote turned out to be very susceptible to collapse when challenged from the left. Pasok has gone from largest party a few years ago to barely making it into parliament. From 44% in 2009 to 4.4% today. Syriza from non-existent to government. (UK Labour, beware. The Greens are coming to get you.)

2. Negative campaigning only works when it is reciprocated. If one side is left to predict doom and the other concentrates on its own message, the negative campaigner ends up sounding hysterical and the campaign feels like blackmail. (Again, lessons for UK.)

3. We need to stop fooling ourselves as to the number of bigots who exist in our societies. We made so many excuses for Golden Dawn voters: “They don’t fully understand. They’re just frightened. They’re voting out of protest. The dog ate their homework.” Many of Golden Dawn’s MPs are now in jail, charged with violent crimes. Raids on their homes uncovered swastika flags and nazi memorabilia. You’d have to have lived at the bottom of the sea to not know this. People voted for them in similar numbers as last election.

4. There are limits to the Shock Doctrine. YA GOTTA LEAVE THE PLEBS WITH A LITTLE SOMETHING TO LOSE. Otherwise you lose.

5. The EU is not The Troika. The EU is not Angela Merkel. If either Troika or Merkel act as if they speak for all member states, others will start to worry. While it is fair for membership of the Eurozone to come with rules, they have to be rules as to result, not method. You can demand a balanced budget. You cannot demand low taxation and private health. That bit is up to each country, not Angela.

6. There is only one prospect more terrifying to the global hegemony than Syriza failing. And that is Syriza succeeding. It is time for the European left to unite and lend its support to Greece. With elections coming in several EU states in the next year, this can have a very dramatic effect on how Greece is treated now. “First they came for the Greeks and I said nothing…” sort of thing.

7. It is possible to be pro-EU and still want to punch its current monetarist policies in the face. The EU as a project is very worthwhile. It has been captured by the very same interests that have captured national governments. The level at which the IMF dictates policy is irrelevant as to the democratic deficit. One might even claim that fragmented state governments are even easier to bully. We need to fight for the Europe we want. The idea that what stands between each of us and a life of prosperity is a hypothetical Romanian cleaner is the most ludicrous one we have ever bought so wholesale. Reject it.

More tomorrow. Or later. Or both.

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