Archive for July, 2005

Beeb Afraid. Beeb Very Afraid…

This guy appears on BBC news and explains economics to chumps like you and me (well, not like me. I did ‘A’ Level Economics don’t you know. Just like you.) in an animated style reminiscent of Johnny Ball. At least I think it’s reminiscent of Johnny Ball: it’s over twenty years since I saw any of his programmes and I could be simply inventing this because there is a bit of a physical resemblence there.

Anyway, he has a piece on the BBC website titled Why we need to feel safe from terror, and it left me scratching my head a bit.

Before examining the article itself, it is worth pointing out that we do not need to feel safe from terror at all. Terror means not feeling safe. You can’t feel safe from not feeling safe. It is preposterous.

Other people seem to think that the BBC’s apparent withdrawal of the word ‘terrorist’ from its reporting of the London suicide bombings is a matter of grave concern. I don’t, and I more or less agree with the guidelines it gives for reporting.

However, I think that it is a serious mistake to allow the word ‘terror’ to imply something whose impact is primarily physical. If I put a bomb under your car with the objective of blowing you up, I am not doing it to instil terror in you – I am doing it because I want to kill you. I may also intend to terrorise other people by blowing you up, but it would be surely wrong to say that the principal effect of the bomb is terror. It isn’t. The principal effect is death.

‘Why we need to feel safe from terrorist attacks’ might be a more appropriate title, but this would still have the effect of conveying a message to the reader that ‘we’ do not presently feel safe, and that terror, or terrorist attacks is something ‘we’ really need to feel safe from.

The article is more complicated than that, though, and sets out to establish a rational perspective on the threat posed by terror attacks, as opposed to an anxious one.

In his introduction, he says:

‘One of the lingering effects of the London bombings is the understandable anxiety that many of us feel, whether or not we’ve been injured or bereaved. (Emphasis mine)

I find it ridiculous to imagine that the anxiety felt by people who observed events on the TV or internet can be reasonably compared to the anxiety felt by someone who has lost a limb, or the turmoil of someone who has lost a friend or relative. ‘Our’ anxiety has nothing to do with that of the real victims.

He then goes on to describe the commuter emergency kits being currently advertised, and observes, rather curiously:

It’s tempting to dismiss parachutes and emergency kits as exploiting people’s fears – that was my initial reaction – until I realised I would like to have one.

One way of reading this is that while other people fear things, he is supremely rational. (As an aside: can one apply rational choice theory irrationally?) But there may be some self-deprecating humour there. He uses this example, along with that of lifejackets on aeroplanes to make the point that:

making people feel safe is a valuable service, even if rationally they’re not in danger.

Of course making people feel safe can be a valuable service, but is this always the case? Are protection rackets a valuable service?

As for the observation that ‘rationally they’re not in danger’, while there are times you can reasonably deduce that you are in danger, for example when you look to the sky and see a piano about to fall on your head, there are also times when you can not do this, as would be the case if you failed to look upwards. In real life, bombs usually catch people unawares.

I think that the writer is blurring the distinction between something that can be assigned a cash value, and something that is ‘valuable’ in the sense of being ‘good for you’, like a good night’s sleep or fresh running water.

He concludes that:

if the suppliers of commuter emergency kits found a way of making anyone feel safer we shouldn’t knock them.

Why not?

If people ought not be feeling endangered in the first place, shouldn’t we at least point out that one of the effects, if not intentions (I’m being generous here) of advertising the product is to exploit and amplify fear? If ‘rationally people aren’t in danger’, is there anything wrong with advertising to convey the impression that they really are?

Furthermore (I never thought I’d become one of those irate individuals banging on about the BBC), how does this article provide a valuable service for the British licence-payer?

The Happy Slap of History

Oh look: the IRA has released a new statement. The first thing I noticed was how, despite the residual revolutionary sentiment, much of the language closely resembles the type of bureaucratic and antiseptic dribble that modern corporations employ:

There is now an unprecedented opportunity to utilise the considerable energy and goodwill which there is for the peace process. This comprehensive series of unparalleled initiatives is our contribution to this and to the continued endeavours to bring about independence and unity for the people of Ireland.

which would translate seamlessly into your average management e-mail:

There is now an unprecedented opportunity to utilize the considerable energy and goodwill of our people in making this organisation a market leader. This comprehensive series of unparalleled initiatives is our contribution to this and to the continued endeavours to enable our company become a great place to work.

Anyway, what else can I say? Well, if I try to be a disinterested onlooker for a second, I don’t think it’s a matter of judging the statement itself, but how well the whole choreography is executed. To persist with the dancing analogy for a second, it’s all very well for the IRA to perform a series of nifty pirouettes, but if it or some other party falls on its arse, toppling the giant pink ice sculpture in the middle of the stage, the whole thing gets ruined.

I don’t think the statement itself merits too much attention. I’m sure there will be a generous amount of worthies stepping forward to parse every sentence, on the eternal quest for the definitive admission that it’s over. In reality, it’s been over for more than a decade.

Personally, I have nothing to be thankful to the Provisional IRA for, and I have never been able to see how armed struggle in Northern Ireland achieved anything but division and despair. Yet when the first proper ceasefire was called in 1994, it was as if a huge weight had been lifted from the shoulders of the people living in the North. I had lived with ‘the troubles’ for the best part of 18 years, and had become resigned to the fact that fear and trepidation were part of ordinary life. In the months leading up to the ceasefire, I would walk home from the pub on a Friday and Saturday night with pricked senses, ready to dive into the hedge and run like the clappers if the approaching car were to stop. King Rat and his accomplices had been killing innocent Catholics in the area, and only the most inebriated were able to block this out.

Whatever tensions and atrocities there have been since the first ceasefire, there has been nothing approaching the overpowering hopelessness that often prevailed pre-1994. There were times when it seemed like there was no way out. It must be hard for people under the age of 22-23 to grasp fully how much life has changed for so many since then.

These days Northern politics can bore me shitless: too much provincial narcissism, ludicrous posturing and entrenched tribalism. Perhaps this statement can loosen things and provide a bit more room for manoeuvre.

Towards Uncivilised Positivity

According to two of my readers, this blog is ‘too negative’ and too civilised’. I think that both observations are true.

A lot of the writing I do on this blog is corrupted by a sort of PowerPoint thinking, that is, that what gets written here should serve some didactic purpose, and should be presented in clear and uncertain terms. While one might observe that what actually gets written does neither, what I am referring to is the process by which my words (or the words of others) finally end up on the screen.

I work in an environment full of antiseptic and genteel crappiness with a certain emphasis on predictability and uniform production, and it is hard to shake this off when I sit down to post items. The same anxieties that compel me to produce for my employer get transferred to posting here. Drifting from news site to blog site to news site aimlessly in the search for posting inspiration, foremost in my mind is the need to find material required to produce another post, which inevitably results commenting on items de nos jours in a manner that is both predictable and genteel.

As I am conscious and perhaps resentful when writing of the constraints imposed by the working day, this can find its way into the posts, resulting in the negativity discerned by one of my readers. Now, there is nothing particularly wrong with being negative, particularly when the world these days is so awful; but what is unforgivable is to be a whinger. Reading back over some of the longer posts, there certainly does seem to be a fair amount that could be described as random grousing.

As for the ‘civilised’ nature of the site: this comment was made by a person who knows me, and probably notices the contrast between the relatively polite tone of my posts here and my foul-mouthed utterances in carne trémula. This is also the result of workplace conditioning.

There’s anything wrong with being either negative or civilised per se, but when the net effect is dullness, well, that’s just dull. To add this, I’ve decided to be looser in my approach to posting. I shall chew through the oatmeal shackles of goal-oriented reasoning and spend more time wallowing in the jelly of free association. Aye. That’s it all right.

That’s when good neighbours…

Spotted on a wall in Belfast, Monday:


A unique twist to the concept of Neigbourhood Watch, I’m sure you’ll agree.

A Little More Conversation?

Jonathan Glover in yesterday’s Guardian highlights the importance of dialogue:

‘”Dialogue” may sound vacuous, but that is misleading. In our own country we need not just any old talk, but some quite deep and sustained discussion of particular issues. It could be one of the great projects of mutual education of our time. Two topics would be central. One would be the different systems of belief on each side. The other would be our different narratives of recent history. ‘

What would dialogue about beliefs be like? It would be a very un-technical form of philosophy. Different systems of belief, especially over religion, are often thought impossible to discuss. But the history of philosophy has been a sustained investigation into the difference between good and bad reasons for holding beliefs. Teaching philosophy involves questioning people together. “You think this while she thinks that. Do either of you have reasons that should convince me that your view is the right one?” Notoriously, philosophers disagree, so there is no set of “right” answers to learn from the teacher. Students end up with different beliefs. But if things go well they hold their final beliefs more tentatively, aware of how precarious the foundations of any beliefs are. In religious and ideological conflicts, this sense of precariousness is the antidote to fanaticism.’

In Open Democracy, Amyn B. Sajoo highlights the current difficulties in establishing meaningful dialogue and conversation:

The internet offers the promise of open global exchange, but the traffic tends to be asymmetrical – and the digital divide ever wider. Which points up the difference between the popular east-west term “dialogue,” in all its formal confines, as against “conversation,” which presumes a certain parity. Cultural and political hegemony set severe limits on both, but especially on the scope of bona fide conversation. By and large, the Muslim voices heard in the western public sphere are high decibel – militant or pandering. Entire conferences are organised in which non-Muslim western “experts” are the sole speakers on Islamic faith, never mind culture and politics, decades after the late Edward Said called attention to this tendency. After the events in London, Britain’s most prominent Muslim leader, Zaki Badawi, a frequent guest of Blair and Prince Charles, was denied entry to the US to speak to groups that included government officials.

Tools of Freedom

Much was made about Nick Cohen’s piece last week on the castration of language. Now I happen to think he was talking bollocks (cough), but it appears that the US government are now coming round to thinking that the description of their mission requires less cojones and more airy fairy stuff.

In recent days, senior administration figures have been speaking publicly of “a global struggle against the enemies of freedom”, and of the need to use all “tools of statecraft” to defeat them.

The references to ‘tools’ may indicate that complete emasculation is not yet envisaged.

Leisurely Pursuits

Last weekend we spent quite a lot of time listening to music I hadn’t heard for a while. Here are some of the highlights:

Los Super Seven – Heard It On The X.
Laura Nyro – Time and Love: The Essential Masters
A Detroit Spinners compilation
The Antonio Carlos Jobim Songbook
Stevie Wonder – Talking Book and Music Of My Mind
A Gordon Lightfoot compilation
The Best Of Caetano Veloso

And here is some of my 3 for 2 in Waterstones recent reading:

The Corporation by Joel Bakan

The book of a documentary I haven’t seen. The sticker on the front says Farenheit 9/11 for people who think, which probably means that the book isn’t really for people who think at all. Anyway, the book is pretty much common sense if you know what an externality is. Basically corporations are tyrannical entities out to control us all and need to be brought to heel through proper legislation.

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland

Perhaps his best book yet.

In The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

I’m only halfway through this one at the minute. The most exquisitely written new novel I have read in a while.

Author, Author by David Lodge

As I said on a previous post, I have never read anything by Henry James, nor am I likely to. However, I’m a fan of David Lodge, so this seemed like the next best thing. Haven’t started it yet.

The Master by Colm Toibin

Seeing as I’d bought the other two books that dealt with Henry James, I thought I’d go the whole hog.

How To Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson

This one is my bedside table at the minute. Entertaining ramble about how working is for eejits and how we should do as little as possible. I have to agree.


We can be seduced by the idea that we can adequately understand people from other cultures and other places by looking them up on the internet, or reading books that represent them.

If that were the case, the new capitán Alatriste film would turn out a bit of a stinker. It may well turn out to be a stinker anyway, but at least its leading actor has put in a bit of spadework.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte, author of the capitán Alatriste novels, describes Viggo Mortensen’s remarkable process of transformation for his role in the new Alatriste film:

(in Spanish, translation mine)

‘We didn’t see each other much during the intense preparation for the film, and only on three occasions during the long months of filming. He called me sometimes to talk about aspects of the character and the story, such as the birthplace of Alatriste. I had never mentioned it in the five novels published until now, but Viggo was interested in the information. Old Castile, I answered. Could it be León?, he asked, after thinking long and hard about it. Could be, I said. So off he went to León and walked it up and down, stopping in each village, in each bar, speaking with whoever crossed his path. So, he finally concluded, Alatriste is leonés. And he said it so convinced that these days not even I beg to differ. In that way, travelling, reading, watching, Viggo filled himself with Spain, with our history, with the light and the shadow that made us the way we are. And so, in a startling process of assimilation, he ended up becoming Spanish to the marrow: he studied everything, he worked until he lost his Argentinian accent, and he even hung around with bullfighters to learn certain mannerisms, a certain sense of respect for the enemy, a certain attitude of resigned stoicism before life and before death.’

I wonder if he did the same for Middle Earth.

To be sure, to be sure

Karen Armstrong on opinions:

‘I have plenty of opinions now. But I have become increasingly wary of the
assurance with which people express their views. We live in a highly opinionated
society. The media bombards us with information, much of it superficial, and the
internet makes available a plethora of facts, which are difficult to assess
adequately. But we are encouraged to air our views, and are probably exposed to
more opinions than at any time in history. Some sound plausible – unless you
know a little about the subject.’

and one’s sense of self:

‘People sometimes identify with their views so deeply that these become part of their sense of self and therefore sacred. My experience of studying and talking about religion has made me cautious of all orthodoxies. Liberal-minded atheists can be just as strident as fundamentalists if their idea of faith is challenged in any way, even if they know next to nothing about religious history or theology. Their opinions seem to have a psychological importance that renders accurate information irrelevant and obscurely threatening.’

Uninformed Comment

There have been some exceedingly rash comments, based on rather limited information, made about the killing of Jean Charles De Menezes, not least on weblogs. I myself gave in to the temptation to speculate. In this regard, Peter Preston’s column in the Guardian yesterday struck a chastening note:

‘Media pundits of any persuasion are supposed to come up with steaming theses before breakfast. But, just one dead Brazilian electrician later, there’s a codicil to add.

Uncertainty – simple, inevitable fallibility – isn’t a crime. It’s the human condition. What do suicide bombers do when the police have them cornered? In Madrid, one blew himself and the arresting officer up. Naturally, that makes police officers edgy. Maybe revised guidelines don’t help. Stuff happens, and we’re crazy to rush on to soapboxes when it does. Always pause for reflection (on more than Europe’s constitution).

‘The real answer, time and again, start to finish, in this dismal affair, is “Don’t know”.’

Even ‘don’t know’ doesn’t quell speculation and supposition, however; no matter how sketchy the information we have available is, we feel compelled to construct a narrative to help fill in the gaps: He didn’t speak good enough English; When a policeman tells you to stop, you should stop; He shouldn’t have run from men with guns; He was worried about his expired visa; How come the police let him run as far as the subway?

Bruce Anderson, in the Independent via The Guardian’s paper round up has his own characteristically obnoxious contribution to make:

It is sad that Mr De Menezes was shot, but anyone who behaves in that way cannot have been keeping abreast of current affairs. His conduct invited the police to draw the conclusions which they did and to act as they did.

Put another way, had this man been reading the Independent, or had he not been so ignorant, he might not have been shot.

This is pretty gruesome stuff: smearing a dead man in order to justify the policy that led to his death. The victim is to blame for the minor inconvenience to one’s opinion-forming caused by his demise. Anderson wasn’t the only one at it, however; weblogs were full of the stuff.

A young man I knew was shot by paramilitaries as he absconded from school for the morning. It would be bizarrely callous to argue that he had contributed to his own death by failing to take sufficient interest in his studies. Yet this is the type of argument that many are making in the case of Jean Charles De Menezes, while his family is still coming to terms with his horrific death.

I on Twitter

July 2005