The Obscurer

Month: October, 2004

The Human Brain

The human brain is an amazing thing, don’t you think? Amazing in its complexity; in the way that different sides of you brain perform different tasks, how each part of each side of your brain specialises in certain complex functions.

As an example, let’s look at my brain and its attitude to The Peel Centre in Stockport. There is a part of my brain which is convinced that it has a free car park, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, starting with the fact the free car parking policy was abandoned around 8 years ago, and supported by the evidence of the 2 parking fines I have received there in the past few years for not buying a pay-and-display ticket.

This is a different part of my brain to that which operated yesterday at The Trafford Centre; then, when I realised that I couldn’t find anything suitable to buy my niece for her birthday in any of its shops, I decided I would have to go to Toys ‘r’ Us at the Peel Centre, and I checked that I had the 40p car parking money in change.

It is also a different part of my brain to that which was working as I entered the car park, and I thought I would try and park as near to the ticket machine as possible, before seeing how full the car park was and deciding that parking anywhere at all would be just have to do.

Clearly then something happened, probably when I was transferring my sleeping son from the car seat into his pushchair whilst trying (successfully) not to wake him. Somewhere along the line the “no, don’t worry, this is a free car park” part of my brain kicked in, and off I went around Toys ‘r’ Us without a care in the world, and 40p in change still happily jangling in my pocket.

Why was it that an hour and a half later, whilst failing to find basics like salt and rice in Asda, that the other “you fucking idiot, you’ve forgotten to get a pay-and-display ticket for The Peel Centre car park. Again” part of my brain reared up and slapped me across the chops? I do not know. The brain is like that. (Incidentally, I decided to shop at Asda for a change; another big mistake. Something that would take me 10 minutes in Morrisons, a shop I know like the back of my hand, took 45 minutes in a store whose layout I was totally unfamiliar with). That is why the great saving of £5, on a “buy 3 for the price of 2” offer at Toys ‘r’ Us, was largely overshadowed by the £40 parking fine I received; or £60 if I don’t post it within a week.

Of course, I should have realised; there is no such thing as a free car park.

Along with the parking fiasco, yesterday included trivial but cumulatively more irritating incidents involving snapping carrier bag handles, mislaid Tippex, CBeebies, an intermittently working oven and our dog who barks everytime a firework goes off, at a rough ratio of 3 barks per firework. I was not in the best of moods, so hats off to Portsmouth F.C. for their 2-0 victory over United, which along with a bottle of Hardys Bankside 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon certainly took the sting out of an annoying and somewhat self-pitying day.

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Don't Look Back

I have considered The Guardian’s kind offer for me to interfere in the US Election, and I have decided to keep my nose and my bad English teeth out of it. For one thing, I know how I would react if I received a letter from an American telling me how to vote; for another I just have no enthusiasm for Kerry, no matter how much I may dislike Bush. Quite frankly, I am glad I don’t have to choose between them. In any event, I have little idea about their individual domestic agendas; I don’t believe British politicians much when they start quoting statistics and criticising their opponents policies, so I am not going to start on Americans. And on foreign policy, if this article on BBC News is to be believed, there may be little difference in practice whoever wins next week.

In case you can’t be bothered reading the link, the gist of it is that there has been some criticism recently within Republican circles, led by former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, that the neo-conservative experiment under the Bush administration has run its course, and that it is time for the United States to operate a more pragmatic foreign policy, more akin to that which Kissinger was so associated with.

To some extent this is a bit harsh on the neo-cons; as William Kristol explained on Newsnight last week, many neo-cons are as annoyed as anyone about the way Bush has enacted their ideas, and the quagmire (well, everyone else is using that word, so why shouldn’t I?) in Iraq reflects unfairly on their theories. Just because Iraq hasn’t worked out (yet) according to plan, doesn’t mean that the neo-con theories themselves are dead.

The problem I believe is that even if I agreed with the idea of unilateralism which is intrinsic to the neo-conservative agenda (I don’t), and even if I thought its motives were entirely honourable (I don’t), the idea that the USA and whichever allies decide to tag along will go around benevolently knocking nasty regimes off their perches is totally unrealistic, as I argued in “The Next War”. The theory that an altruistic America would democratise the world has much appeal, but even America doesn’t have the resources to do it; I don’t believe for one moment that I am the only person to realise this, and to that extent the war in Iraq was in some ways as pragmatic a decision as those made during the Kissinger era. Whatever the claims of the pro-war supporters, I believe that if Iraq had less oil, was in Africa, had a more fearsome armed forces and hadn’t pissed-off the President’s Dad and his old buddies in the new administration, then the war would not have happened, no matter how deep the mass graves in Halabja. Pragmatism still allows us to cosy up to nasty regimes such as the one in Uzbekistan, where the British Ambassador was recently suspended.

But at least there is some sort of moral compass buried deep in the heart of the neo-cons ideas (although always near the surface when they run into difficulties on Iraq) about involving ourselves in other countries when the ugly side of humanity gets busy. In contrast the Kissinger-Scowcroft ideology has no such redeeming feature; it is purely driven by American self interest, and if that means supporting mass-murdering dictatorships in South East Asia and undermining democracies in South American then that is what it will do. Sorry, that is what it did do.

Now it is entirely understandable that the USA, like every other country, is going to be driven largely by self interest, and it would be unrealistic for it to be any other way. And of course pragmatism is often a very good idea for many obvious reasons. But I find it deeply depressing to hear John Kerry in the States, and the likes of Menzies Campbell in this country, getting massive rounds of applause when they say that if they were in Government they would not commit troops under any circumstances unless it was in the national interest. That wasn’t why I opposed the war; I wasn’t thinking just of the national interest.

Whatever the faults of the neo-con agenda, to return to a Kissinger-type policy would be a retrograde step. I know it may sound idealistic, in fact I know it does, but is it not possible to combine the idea of pre-emption against dangerous and despotic regimes with a genuine multilateral approach, perhaps under the UN but under a new organisation if required, which could be housed in a framework of fair International Law? Can we not get an independent body, free of national interests, perhaps guided by the likes of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to decide which are the most abusive regimes currently in existence, and where the most pressing current human rights crises are, and then to methodically bring them to book? Perhaps then we could actually intervene meaningfully and swiftly in the worlds troublespots, with the richest countries leading the UN’s work rather than leaving it to the poorest countries as we often do now.

Naive ideas, I suppose, and naively put, but at least it shows the direction I think we should be going in.

Peace In EU Time

Last week on “Question Time”, Michael Heseltine mentioned that the European Union had maintained the peace across Western Europe since 1945, and Melanie Phillips responded that it was, of course, NATO that has kept the peace since the Second World War. It is becoming a habit; it is only a few weeks since Robert Kilroy-Silk said much the same thing on the very same programme. I wonder if they have they been conferring?

But you do not need to like the direction the EU is going in to understand what Heseltine was saying; it is a matter of History. One of the initial objectives of the European Coal and Steel Community which was formed at the Treaty of Paris in 1951 was to create a form of economic integration where war between the member states, primarily France and Germany, would be a thing of the past. It was the brainchild of Jean Monnet, a French civil servant, and speaking to BBC Online, his former personal assistant Richard Mayne, stated “Coal and steel were essentially weapons of war, and (Monnet) thought that if they were pooled then war would become unthinkable or impossible.” Over time, the ECSC evolved and grew into the EU.

Today the idea of a war between France and Germany seems ridiculous, but it is perhaps a tribute to the EU in its various guises that such a thing is indeed unthinkable. Of course it was not always like this; 1951 was just 6 years after VE Day, and there had been three wars between France and Germany in the previous eighty years. To put this in context, it is now 9 years since the Dayton Accords ended the war between Serbia and Croatia, and it would take a brave man to think that these countries have solved all their problems. The closer economic ties between France and Germany, two nations who had decades of shared enmity, have resulted in a situation where they are now criticised for being thick as thieves and dominating the EU. It is something we take for granted, but it is really remarkable to think such a change in attitude can have taken place in just a few generations.

To ignore all this is really to be blinded by Euro-scepticism. You don’t have to want the Euro to understand the role the EU has played in maintaining peace. You can still yearn for the days of the curved cucumber and yet still accept that not everything about the European project has been bad.

Of course NATO has played a major part in maintaining peace in Europe after the war, but its purpose was to be a counterweight to the Soviet Union, not to prevent wars between Western European nations. It is an obvious but important distinction. Both the EU and NATO have played important but different roles.

And I feel the EU can still play this role of peacemaker. Earlier I mentioned Serbia and Croatia, and how it would be optimistic to think that all the problems between these two countries are behind them, particularly if either country were to elect a nationalist in the Milosevic or Tudjman mould. But as things stand both nations are looking towards EU (and NATO) membership, and as with France and Germany, I can see that if they are both admitted then the idea of a future conflict between them would be just as absurd.

When stupid Europeans come out with a stupid anti-Americanism, stupid Americans often respond in two ways. Some say that if it wasn’t for the USA we would all be speaking Russian by now, and they are wrong. The rest say that if it wasn’t for the USA we would all now be speaking German. This second version is chronologically correct; it was in wars between the Western European nations that the Americans first rescued us, before the Soviets got a look in. I think Melanie Phillips and Robert Kilroy-Silk have missed the point.

Spectating

Boris Johnson and The Spectator Magazine have got in an awful lot of trouble this week over the Leading article commenting on the Ken Bigley affair. The focus of attention has been on the paragraph mentioning Liverpool and the character of Liverpudlians. For some, comments that many Liverpudlians have “an excessive predilection for welfarism” and a “peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche” were welcomed as an example of someone finally speaking the truth as they see it. Others thought it was evidence of lazy stereotyping and prejudice. Include me in the latter; as I stated in a comment in “The Filter^” this description seems to have more to do with characters in the sit-com “Bread” than to be a serious examination of the character of Liverpool, but I think everyone by now has read enough about this aspect of the article and will have formed their own opinion.

By emphasising this aspect of the Leader, most people have overlooked the rest of the article, part of which suggests that since the death of Diana, this country has become “hooked on grief”, is guilty of “mawkish sentimentality” and an “apparently depleted intelligence and sense of rationality”. This is a point worth discussing.

In the weeks and months following Diana’s death, we were constantly being told how Britain had changed for the better; we would be more compassionate and caring, we would have a kinder society, the press will have learned its lesson and will be more responsible from now on. The leader in The Spectator seems to be saying that this change has gone too far, and we are now a miserable load of grief-junkies. This is all good journalistic, state-of-the-nation knockabout stuff, but I would contend that as a country we haven’t changed one jot since Diana’s death. If there was any effect then it was that the media decided to lay off Princes William and Harry – for a bit – but that was about it.

When Diana died I was working a night shift with around 15 other people. As the news drifted in that there had been a car crash, that she was seriously injured, and then that she had died, there was of course interest amongst my colleagues and myself. There was shock at the news, and talk of how we would all remember where we had been when it happened, akin to the “where were you when Kennedy died” question. There was interest and curiosity, perhaps similar to the curiosity of the rubbernecker. But sadness? Not really. Grief? Definitely not. Tears? No, not then nor at anytime during the next week did I see anyone in tears. When I got home, before I went to bed, I switched on the TV and saw that every channel except Channel Five was talking about Diana (I don’t think anyone told Channel Five, bless) and I knew that this would be the way of it for the next few days.

By Sunday afternoon I was already sick of the coverage; by Tuesday I was tearing my hair out. Every one of my mates agreed with me. What I couldn’t get into my head was how the TV and Newspapers were constantly talking about a nation in mourning, and yet the nation was getting along just fine as far as I could see. The media images just didn’t match up to what I was witnessing with my own eyes.

Now I know that some people were genuinely moved by the death. The media did not make up the scenes of crying mourners, and the books of condolence did not write themselves, but I don’t think that this was representative of the majority opinion. I did speak to people who said it was all very sad, and who disagreed with me that the Media had lost its sense of proportion; although these were the same people who looked aghast at me when I had suggested a few weeks earlier that 20 pages of the Sunday Mirror devoted to “The Kiss” between Di and Dodi may have been a wee bit excessive. But genuine grief, with my own eyes, I saw not.

I think that is my point really, to those who think we as a society lack a sense of proportion in these matters, and that that Diana “kick started” it all. Even in the days immediately after Diana’s death the nation as a whole did not lose it’s sense of proportion, but the media certainly did. The papers realised that they only had about a week left to milk their favourite circulation-boosting cash cow, and so they went mad. The nation in mourning was a myth.

And what about today. At chucking out time in our nation’s city centres, are you struck by our compassion and mawkishness? Not the first thought on my mind. Part of the inspiration for the Spectator’s leader was the minute silence for Ken Bigley held before the England-Wales football match at Old Trafford, which was booed throughout. How does that thuggish behaviour fit in with the idea of a nation “convulsed in grief”? Everyone I have spoken about this incident said that it was an embarrassing disgrace that the silence was ignored, and said that they did not think there should have been a one minute silence in the first place. Again, this suggests we are not the mawkish nation we have been painted as.

And turning to the specific reaction to Mr Bigley; outside his family, where actually was this grief regarding his death? Anywhere? A church memorial service and a two minutes silence in Liverpool is all I am aware of. You can argue that a two minute silence is too much, you can argue that we do not hold minute silences for lots of other people so why should we hold one for Ken Bigley, indeed you can argue lots of things, but it is all a far cry from actually grieving.

We may have too many minute silences these days, for all sorts of inappropriate reasons, and I would argue against them. We may get our TV schedules shunted about for all sorts of spurious reasons in order to avoid causing offence, and I have argued against this. As Daisy Sampson said yesterday on the Daily Politics , Prime Ministers Question Time almost always begins with Tony Blair saying he knows the whole house will join him in expressing condolences for some thing or other, and that this never used to happen. But is this misplaced compassion, or is it back-covering, knowing that is you don’t do this or that then you may be criticised in the media, or attacked by your political opponents? Is this really indicative of the beliefs of the nation?

The leading article ends by saying that our attitude to risk has changed due to “generations of peace and welfarism” and this is probably true; when times are hard, people have to be harder. But it is a leap to go from there to say that we “wallow in a sense of … victimhood”, vicarious or otherwise, and I certainly don’t think anything has changed due to the death of Diana. In fact, from where I have been standing, the actual, subdued reaction to Ken Bigleys death largely supports this idea.

PostScript: In the phone-in on BBC Radio Merseyside, I thought Boris Johnson acquitted himself quite well. It can’t have been easy, especially when Paul Bigley launched into him and asked him to leave public life. Now I understand he is someone who is currently mourning his brothers death – and as the rest of the Bigley family eloquently stated, everyone reacts in a different way – but can I suggest that this advice really should apply to Paul Bigley himself.

Fly-A-Kite 9/11

On Monday, Michael Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11” was released on DVD, and I am quite looking forward to seeing it. It is not to see what all the fuss has been about; I saw it at the pictures when it was first released. And it is not because I thought it was so good that I can’t wait to see it again, although I did think it was good. It is because there has been such criticism leveled at the film, that I really want to see for myself if it is as good as I remember, or was my anti-war prejudice blinding me to its many faults.

First of all, I must explain where I am coming from. I have been a fan of Moore’s from his early “TV Nation” days. I have bought 3 of his books and enjoyed them, although I always read them as subjective satirical writing rather than books of incontrovertible fact; any statement he makes I take with a pinch of salt but try to bear it in mind. His Website has been an excellent source of information. That said, I wasn’t a fan of “Bowling for Columbine”; its approach often seemed scattergun and directionless, its conclusions woolly, and the final interview with Charlton Heston was a toe-curlingly embarrassment, a guilt tripping haranguing of a confused old man. Also, his website has recently gone seriously downhill; it is currently little more than publicity for his books and films, and his self styled one man mission to prevent a Bush second term smacks of egotism.

“Fahrenheit 9/11” does have its fault; japes like reading the Patriot Act from an ice-cream van and asking Senators if they would sign their children up for military duty in Iraq are TV Nation style sketches which have passed their sell by date. Trying to build a conspiracy theory from the White House’s blocking of James Bath’s name when publishing Bush’s National Guard record is very weak. (James Bath is named as a money manager for the Bin Laden family, and a link between the Bin Laden’s and the Bush’s). A perfectly reasonable reason for blocking the name out is one of privacy; I have subsequently read that for the White House not to have blocked the name would have been a breach of federal law. But whatever the reason, conspiracy theory it is not.

In many ways there is not much in the film that is new for those who have followed Moore’s work and read the newspapers, but it is still well done. The links between the Bush’s, the Bin Ladens, the Saudi’s and the Carlyle group may not land a solid blow, but I thought they built up an effective picture of potential conflicts of interests in the White House. The Patriot Act is dealt with well (apart from the ice-cream van moment), and the absurdities of Airline security allowing 2 lighters and 4 boxes of matches on a plane while not allowing expressed breast milk in a plastic bottle is a neat juxtaposition. Some have criticised the intrusion into the grief of Lila Lipscomb who’s son was killed in Iraq, but although I normally hate this sort of thing, I thought it was extremely well done; indeed it reduced me to tears. Perhaps it was because I felt the issue warranted it, or perhaps it was because Ms Lipscomb has been a vocal promoter of the film.

What has interested me about most of the criticisms of the film has been how poor and nonsensical they have been; if people have to criticise the film by talking rubbish, then you feel perhaps Moore is doing something right.

Top of the shop is Dave Kopel’s “59 deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11”. When I first learned of this website I rushed to read it, anxious to see if I had swallowed a pack of lies. And I am glad I did, as it was hilarious. Kopel wants you to know, for example that Bush wasn’t reading “My Pet Goat” in a school class when he heard word of the second plane hitting the twin towers. No. the book was “Reading Mastery 2”; “My Pet Goat” was just an exercise within the book. Admittedly that is listed just as a “cheap shot” rather than a full blown “deceit”, but it illustrates well where he is coming from. Another supposed deceit is that at one point Moore says of Bush “perhaps he just should have read the security briefing that was given to him on August 6, 2001 that said that Osama bin Laden was planning to attack America by hijacking airplanes”, then goes on to say that perhaps the vagueness of the title “Bin Laden determined to strike in US” put him off. This qualifies at 2 deceits; there is no evidence given that Bush did not read the memo, and the memo’s title is given as a reason it was not read. Kopel clearly has no sense of humour to take this point seriously; even the slowest child watching the the film would not think Moore is actually alleging that Bush didn’t read the briefing. He is making a satirical and sarcastic point. Later Kopel says “…Flint, Michigan, which Moore calls ‘my hometown.’ In fact, Moore grew up in Davison, Michigan, a suburb of Flint. Davison is much wealthier than Flint”. This qualifies as a deceit apparently, one of the 59. Now you know. So, just in case you bump into Dave Kopel, just be careful on how precise you are about where your hometown is, or you too may be accused of deceit. For me the only deceit it that Mr Kopel thinks he should be taken seriously. He makes about 5 decent points, a poor strike rate out of 59. The rest are either nit picking, nonsensical or due to a sense of humour failure.

Christopher Hitchens in Slate got himself worked up into a such a state he clearly couldn’t think straight. He argues that in the film, Moore makes it clear he thinks that “Osama Bin Laden is as guilty as hell” for 9/11, and that the Iraq War was a distraction from bringing him to justice. This, says Hitchens is at odds with Moore stating in 2002 that Bin Laden “should be considered innocent until proven guilty”. Well obviously they are not at odds, and for someone as intelligent as Hitchens to not get it, and indeed to regularly repeat his contention that these two beliefs are at odds is quite depressing. It is of course totally consistent to think someone is guilty, to want every available resource to be spent on detaining them and bringing them to justice, and yet still think they should be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Later Hitchens states Moore “wants to have it both ways” when he accuses the Bush administration of “overlooking too many warnings” in relation to 9/11 itself, and yet then taunts them for “issuing too many” terror warning to stoke up fear among the public after 9/11. Now whether or not you agree with Moore’s point, there is clearly a difference between “overlooking” and “issuing”. You would hope no warning is overlooked, and that only the relevant warnings are issued, but quite apart from the fact that Moore is comparing two different time periods (ie. before and after 9/11), it is quite possible for bogus warnings to be issued to stoke up fear at the same time as serious threats are being overlooked. Hitchens also objects to Moore’s reference to Iraq as “a sovereign nation”. Hitchens points out that “In fact, Iraq’s ‘sovereignty’ was heavily qualified by international sanctions, however questionable, which reflected its noncompliance with important U.N. resolutions”. True, but by that measure all nations sovereignty is qualified by the UN, the EU, NAFTA, the IMF etc. Iraq was a sovereign state, albeit a brutal and tyrannical one.

Mark Steyn’s criticisms are fewer and a little less daft in the Telegraph. He thinks the main problem with the film is that it just makes George Bush look stupid. He is right, it does, but that is not necessarily Moore’s fault. But he also goes for the idea that Moore contradicts himself when he paraphrases Moore as saying “Because of Bush, the Taliban were in bed with Texas energy executives. Because of Bush, the Taliban got toppled.” “Whoa, hold up a minute,” says Steyn “I thought he was all pals with the Taliban.” Again, this is not a contradiction. Yes, Bush ousted the Taliban after 9/11 because of its links with al-Qaida, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t act very differently towards the terrorist sponsoring, human rights abusing Afghan leaders whilst he was governor of Texas. The contrast between his attitude to the Taliban before and after 9/11 is a valid point.

Kopel, Hitchens and Steyn, along with others such as David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen all complain about a particular scene in “Fahrenheit 9/11”; images of happy Iraqis going about their daily business peacefully just before the Coalition start bombing, most notably a boy flying a kite. Now, this is without doubt the worst moment in the film; it has the feel of propaganda about it, a real Leni Riefenstahl moment, and in my opinion it shouldn’t be there; although why an Oscar winning film-maker should listen to me I really don’t know. Now perhaps I am being unduly generous to Moore, but I don’t think for one minute that he is claiming that Saddam’s Iraq was a “sweet and simple” “peaceable kingdom”, a”Baathist utopia”. He was trying to humanise the people of Iraq under Saddam, to say they were not just people under the yoke of oppression who didn’t mind bombs falling on them for the cause of WMD, democracy or oil. I don’t think this scene is aimed at the writers I have already quoted; it is aimed at the the sort of people I have spoken to who morally pronounced that we “have to do something” about Iraq, but who also said “why should we bother” about Liberia, Haiti, Congo and Sudan. One charge is that Moore could have shown some pictures of people being tortured by Saddam’s regime, to show the reality in Iraq. Well, yes, he could, but in fairness his film wasn’t about the brutality of Saddam, it was about Bush. Are we saying that whenever we see images of mass graves or torture in Iraq we should also see images of happy boys flying kites to show another side of Iraq? No, of course we are not, yet that is the logic of this criticism.

I have picked just a few of the bizarre complaints about the film, and I could be accused of being selective, but believe me, there are many more strange points in the articles I have mentioned. I am not saying that these critics didn’t raise any good issues, and I will try to bear them in mind when I watch the film again. But by making so many out and out silly points, they have clearly shown the sort of lack of objectivity they so dislike in Moore.

Actually, I don’t know if I can be bothered. I may wait until it is shown on telly.