Archive for October, 2008

I Almost Literally Wrote This, And Everything

Why John Waters thinks he is writing for ‘uninitiated ostriches’ I cannot say; I can only hope we are to see a police sweep of all internet-based ostrich grooming activities quick smart so that these beautiful, ugly birds can wind up in my burger buns with a minimum of trauma. I do hope, however, that our friend will at some stage be sufficiently humble to consider the possibility that people who read his articles also read other things, even if they do not reach the dizzying salutary heights of his own insights.

Before I go any further, can I just say ‘I don’t like Andrew Sachs’? Thank you. I never liked Manuel in Fawlty Towers, and I never liked his character on Countdown either. Manuel was a malign cultural stereotype, and gave the impression to generations of British people that Spanish people are stupid and subservient. There are few things more bigoted and ignorant than developing figures of mockery based on the fact that they cannot speak your language properly. A corollary to this is the fact that there are few things more laughable than the many English (and Irish, let’s be fair) people who, on learning to string a few pidgin sentences together in a given foreign language, genuinely believe they are dazzling the natives with their fluency. That said, I don’t approve of Ross and Brand’s behaviour: I don’t like it when humour is used to humiliate people who don’t deserve it.

Now, here’s the bit where I think M. Eaux is on the mark:

Russell Brand is an engaging comic talent who has created a persona suggesting a cross between Frank Spencer and Keith Richards, written in the style of Charles Dickens. For all his preening narcissism, there is something beguiling and deeply funny in Brand’s playing of himself as a Willy Wonka of the Pleasure Dome who can’t believe his luck.

Watching Brand and Ross in their occasional TV encounters, it is clear that Ross is utterly in awe, and perhaps a little envious, of the younger man. The transcript of the Sachs broadcast shows that this factor was rampant on that occasion, with Ross trying his hardest to out-Brand Brand. Ross was among the most talented of the 1980s TV generation, a witty and thoughtful facilitator who brought to television a sense of the ironic knowing of the first generation reared in front of the box. But he is now deep into middle age and desperately trying to make the right noises to hang in with the youth audience.

I think this is spot-on. Russell Brand is genuinely funny and Ross was struggling to keep up. But oho! – what’s this?

Brand belongs to a generation for which comedy is almost literally everything, and the laughter factor the only reliable test. The kinds of energies which previous youth generations expressed through music, art or protest have in his generation compressed into a single essence: a dissociated blend of ridicule and humour that lacks roots in any form of empathy.

The sisyphean task of teasing out the full richness of the insight must be resumed: Almost literally everything?  Just when you think you’re getting somewhere, your figurative arms give way under the metaphorical rock, and the impenetrable rolls back over you, flattening your interpretative powers as though they were mere…poo.

Let’s break it down. What does ‘literally everything’ mean? It means, literally, everything. Evirthang! The alpha and the omega, all that surrounds it, and all that doesn’t. The problem of describing something, anything (not necessarily the Todd Rundgren album, but that would be as good an example as any) as everything should become clear. To say this means that the particular is literally the whole. But if the particular is literally the whole then the whole is literally particular, in which case it isn’t really the whole at all. So we get into this sort of goddam freaky mobius strip of interpretation that leaves us drooling and exhausted. And to make the conceptual leap into what might make something ‘almost literally everything’ requires a daring feat of the imagination, almost (literally) doomed to failure, and one which my poor brain cannot even contemplate without buckets of drink.

And all that stuff about energies…compressing…into..essence. This is some sort of sly multilingual pun on the operation of the combustion engine, right?

Let us carry on regardless, for it is the only thing to do. That, and find some bastards to blame for the whole affair.

This comedy obsession arose in large part because this generation had its capacity for idealism usurped and frustrated by the couple of generations which preceded it, which refuse to countenance that anyone could be more “progressive” or engaged than themselves. Because those who emerged from the 1960s have been running everything, and refusing to provide space for challenging alternative perspectives, irony and humour became, for those born after 1970 or so, the sole cultural outlets for their natural transformative energies.

Goddamm hippies. Might I make a plug, at this point, however, for the new album by John Fogerty, he of Creedence Clearwater Revival? Some pretty rockin’ tunes on that. The trademark Creedence guitar metronome, equal parts liberating and enslaving, is cranked up, and Mr Fogerty’s righteous yelp is put to good use in detailing how the whole place has gone to the dogs. Of course, it’s full of idealism-capacity-usurping, but don’t let that put you off.

The tone of detached, vacuous mockery that pervades the internet arises from this cultural stakelessness, now rendered artful by comedians like Russell Brand.

Detached, vacuous mockery, you say? The bastards.

Así que pasen diez años

Today is my granny’s tenth anniversary. After drinking too many cups of coffee yesterday afternoon, I lay awake until late last night trying to capture memories of her. You’d think that the most recent memories are the ones that appear clearest in your mind, but it’s not like that. I can remember the last time I spoke to her though, on the phone, a few days before she died.

Continue reading ‘Así que pasen diez años’

Historical Enquiries Team

I know the past is a foreign country, but how the hell did Alone Again Naturally by Gilbert O’Sullivan ever top the UK and US charts? This has to be the most miserable song ever. First verse he contemplates climbing up a tower and jumping off after being left in the lurch on his wedding day and no-one really giving a damn. Next verse he identifies himself with Jesus, wondering why, if God exists, he had deserted him. Then at the bridge he figures there are millions of people just like him. Then he recalls his father’s death and how his now dead mother had to cope. And that’s it. It’s quite funny, I suppose. But still. People went out to buy this in their millions. What was all that about?

Music and Politics

I watched Obama’s 30 minute slot this morning. Actually, I didn’t watch it, I saw the first shot of the waving wheat sure smelling sweet in the golden sun, and I stuck the headphones on and listened to the rest of it as I continued with my daily labours.

The music. Jesus, the music. I can only presume millions of Americans are absolute suckers for that warm guitar sound that sounds ever so slightly like a harp and which I personally first heard in the theme music to Thirtysomething. God knows what it evokes in their guts, but it must be potent. I’m thinking thick sweaters, big ol’ mugs of coffee and long evenings pacing up and down in the intensive care unit.

At times it into sort of High Llamas territory, with unintrusive strings that occasionally veered into darker shades, normally at the moment when someone was disclosing the general misery of existence in tones that I would use to disclose that the milk had gone off. For long stretches though, it was the sort of stuff you quite happily listen to when you’re getting a facial or a full body massage. If it wasn’t for the voices of people talking about politics and shit I would have called the butler upstairs to give my neck a good rub.


A Danger Here-style spotter’s badge for the person to point out the first Irish newspaper article of the season to praise a new-found maturity among Dubliners who have been wearing poppies, or, at the very least, not throwing petrol bombs at the wearer.

I see a military parade is planned for Belfast in honour of soldiers who have been off in Iraq and Afghanistan participating in a project delivering liberation, democracy and civilisation, mainly in the form of bullets and shells, with some high-altitude bombing thrown in for good measure. If a few dozen civilians get killed here, there and everywhere, sure they’re only Arabs, or whatever. Unionist politicians see no contradiction in supporting such activities -calling for the event to be televised, among other things- while praising the RIR for its role in the fight against terrorism.

In fairness, the Taliban supported Al Qaeda, and it flew planes into the twin towers. So you can’t blame the Brits wanting to help out their friends, like they did when they used royal prerogative the other day to justify the expulsion of the Chagos Islanders to build a US military base. And none can doubt their bona fides in combatting tyranny: the UK has multi-billion pound contracts for arms sales to liberal democracy par excellence Saudi Arabia.

So in conclusion, it’s all in a good cause because the MoD says so and I would encourage all who can attend to do so, and show your thanks to the troops for their bravery in occupying countries and killing civilians on your behalf.

Insane On The Brain

On occasion, David McWilliams says sensible things, but not today. Read this.

However, even though the right-brained people were more likely to have foreseen the crash, it doesn’t follow that the right-brained people are the best ones to get us out of this mess. We still (and possibly urgently) need the lefties with their focus, decisiveness and linear minds, who when given the task will execute. Maybe we just need the more ponderous righties to advise them.

He thinks you might be able to resolve a national crisis by putting people with the right brain type in the right role. While they’re at it, they might as well check their star signs and their inside leg measurements.

But while the proposed solution is ridiculous, the problem identified is real.

If people are incapable of seeing a way out it is because their way of thinking is so heavily influenced by a system now on the verge of collapse. There is, alas, little possibility of an immanent critique of capitalism from business schools, accountancy firms and other capitalist institutions. Such a thing would be like expecting the Catholic Church to elaborate a systematic denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

One can confront this reality, or look for wisdom in how-and-why manuals at the airport bookshop.

Common phenomena in internet discourse, no. 1

First in an irregular series:

As I passed the three grinning picanninnes perched atop the bonnet of my car, I cursed the day the people who run this country, who seem incapable of doing anything other than swanning about in their tops and tails, hatched the plan of plunging us into a fedoral Europe. It matters little whether you are from Derby or Panama: no-one likes to see their country to be overrun by immigrants. It is high time we poured ten gallons of petrol on the whole idea of multiculturalism. There needs to be a cap introduced on the number of foreigners getting into this place, as it’s full to the brimmer.

Continue reading ‘Common phenomena in internet discourse, no. 1’

Idiots, Bastards etc.

Chris Hedges has a fine, if fearful piece on Truthdig on the current crisis for American capitalism. He addresses something I’ve been thinking about recently, which is that the corporate form that permeates government and business is structurally incapable of delivering for the common good.

Our elites—the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools—do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good. They are stunted, timid and uncreative bureaucrats who are trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions which will satisfy the corporate structure. They are about numbers, profits and personal advancement. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are able to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets. The democratic system, they think, is a secondary product of the free market. And they slavishly serve the market.

He then goes on to interview John Ralston Saul:

“The difficulty is you have a collapse, you have a loss of face by the people who are there, and it’s not just George Bush, it’s very, very deep,” Saul said. “What we’re talking about is the need to rethink the departments of economics, of political science. Then you have to rethink the whole analytic method of the World Bank. If I’m the secretary of the treasury, and not a guy like [Henry] Paulson, but I mean a sort of normal secretary of the treasury or minister of finance, and I say, OK, we’ve got a real problem, let’s get the senior civil servants in here. Gentlemen, ladies, OK, clearly we have to go in another direction, give me some ideas. Well, those people don’t have any other ideas because at this point they’re about the fourth generation of what you might call neoconservative globalist managers, unfairly summarized. So they then go to the people who work for them, and you work down; there’s no one in there with an alternate approach. I mean they’ll have little alternatives, but no basic differences in opinion. And so it’s very difficult to turn anything around because they’ve eliminated all opposing ideas inside. I mean it’s the problem of the Soviet Union, right?”

If, as their standard of living becomes increasingly precarious, the bulk of the population decides to sit back and expect the thinking about what is to be done to be conducted on their behalf by intellectually sclerotic elites who act out of commercial interests, the general prospects are not good, as the rest of the piece shows. Hedges’s prescription of ‘a revolt against our bankrupt elite and the dynamiting of the corporatist structure’ strikes me as modest and reasonable under the circumstances.

You can hear more from John Ralston Saul here, talking about his book The Collapse of Globalism. And also an interview here. Excerpt:

London: What do you propose we do about these entrenched elites and the rise of technocratic language and all these other evils. Where does that leave the lonely individual?

Saul: I’m not in the business of suggesting solutions, by the way. I don’t belong to the Platonic tradition, I belong to the Socratic tradition. But a lot of the sorts of things I’m talking about are things which are very, very simple. One of them is simply that if we are a democracy, how is it that we’ve highly structured our lives so that every free minute of our day is accounted for working, holidays, breaks, etc. and that the only time left over is the time to go home and have dinner with our families, go to bed, make love, get up, go to the bathroom, and go back to work — go back to the structured system. We have to sit back and say, “Wait a minute, we live in a democracy.” We have structured everything in there — sick leave, pregnancy leave — but we haven’t structured one minute in for citizen participation. The only way a citizen can participate is voluntarily, which means giving up going to the bathroom, give up making love, give up sleep, give up eating dinner with your family. In other words, we have structured citizen participation out of our society. For me, this is the simplest and most complete proof that we don’t live in a democracy — that we live in a corporatist society.

Hardly coincidental, then, that the people out protesting this week on the streets of Dublin were students and pensioners: they’re the ones with free time on their hands.


I was thinking in the train about street protests. The TV images of students and old people out protesting called to mind when I got involved in organising student protests against fees in the UK some time back. We managed to assemble decent crowds, listened to a few speeches of outrage and defiance, and went home. In the end, it didn’t have much of an effect: UK students and graduates have far bigger debts on average now by comparison with then. In the beginning, it didn’t have much effect either: brief coverage on TV then zip.

When you fail to meet your objectives, you can always talk up the action after the fact, and propose that if you hadn’t done anything, things could have turned out worse. And you can also argue that there’s a certain intrinsic value in organising protests because you get good at it with practice, and from a wider perspective you are at least forcing the general population to think about your predicament. Furthermore, you might also be signalling to the political class that their plans will be met with resistance. Also, at a personal level, you can feel good about it: a united show of opposition offers a certain stiffening of the spine.

So, despite the scenes shown on TV the other day, fairly remarkable by Ireland’s modern standards at least, I feel a bit sceptical about the eventual impact of the protests held. Part of it is probably a residual effect of the failure of those protests I myself was involved in. But those were different times.

For a start, the future looked rosier for students and graduates because the UK economy was headed toward a period of growth. The average citizen, I guess, tends to be easily satisfied when things are on the way up, even if they’re going up a hell of a lot faster for a lot more people. So erosions of what once seemed like basic entitlements can be weighed up and set aside when there are other, more tantalising prospects on the horizon.

On the contrary, your average captain of industry, the one who enjoys a far greater degree of power and influence in a capitalist democracy, is not easily satisfied when things are going up a hell of a lot faster for a lot more people. He or she will fight tooth and nail to triumph over others, and this eternal state of dissatisfaction is a necessary condition for flourishing within this system. This is a fact that both British liberalism and the strongest brand of Irish patriotism have done well to obscure.

The lesson to be learned, one which demands consistent repetition, is that the citizen needs to be more tenacious and more motivated in the preservation and strengthening of basic rights and entitlements than those who are out to demolish them in the service of their own interests. And that’s not all. They need to be as cunning as serpents.

Part of this entails, I think, not falling under any illusions or complacency when protests result in a disruption to business as usual. It also entails being brutally realistic about what your activities are likely to achieve, without lapsing into cynicism or despondency. Where it looks as though you achieved absolutely nothing, there’s no point consoling yourself with the nobility of your deeds or the bond you have formed with your fellow protesters. This point becomes even more important when it looks like you have in fact achieved something of substance.

None of this will come as anything new to people who have experience in organising protests, but it’s worth repeating for onlooking sympathisers who, watching and reading the coverage of an irruption of fantastically disrespectful protests from old people and students in front of the Dáil, might be inclined to think that at some level all is well because, when push comes to shove, a bit of jostling every now and again from angry sections of the population is enough to keep things on an even keel.

That is the vein in which media outlets have been celebrating the protests. The drama of personal embarrassment and weakened party political power is the primary focus, with the main protagonists -the aged protestors- depicted in terms that seem, oddly, deferential and patronising at the same time.

So whilst one might agree tentatively with this element of the Irish Times’s leader judgment:

There is something good about what has emerged in recent days. There is a new engagement with the political system, a sense that politics and what happens in Dáil Éireann does matter and have an effect on people’s real lives.

One must reject outright this part:

There is an onus on grey organisations to effectively channel the current anger to positive effect… The rudeness of protesters towards Government representatives over the last two days did their cause no good.

That’s some cheek, coming from an institution that, as Cedar Lounge rightly noted, ‘hunts with the hounds and runs with the fox‘, though the same is true of other papers. What reasonable comparison is to be drawn between discomfort from a few posters and slogans on one hand, and the terrifying effect of the prospect of a forced choice between a rotten standard of health care or impoverishment in old age on the other?

The attitude of the IT leader is worth considering, I think, because it shows the terms on which it is desirable for the establishment to address this situation, and how it ought to be perceived in general. That is, a bit of fun and ructions every now and again is fine, but please be civil in the future, because if you don’t, you’ll only be hurting yourself.

But that sort of mild support with a minatory undercurrent is for liberal wimps. For a more full-blooded response, see what other papers are saying. One of the most powerful features of capitalist ideology is how it represents the preservation of the prevailing order as radical, even revolutionary. This can go as far as issuing approval for revolution, though usually confined to consumer appetites, such as the purchase of cocktails or mobile telephony.

So we shouldn’t be too surprised in light of more protests in the months ahead, to see newspapers actively cheering on the ‘Silver Revolution’, and pointedly denouncing the government for things like its handling of the medical card issue, whilst simultaneously lamenting that there’s no alternative to a whole range of policies that will see more and more people wind up with dreadful health care, longer working hours, lower wages and a more fragmented existence in general. They may also talk up the activities of opposition politicians who are similarly critical of the management techniques shown by government, but not of the basic policies and core ideology.

So my scepticism arises, I think, from a fear not that the protests are impotent, but simply that they won’t go anywhere near far enough, assuming they continue, because people won’t think they need to do anything more once they see some sort of minor reversal. And any minor achievement (on the scale of things, even a total reversal of the government’s position is very minor considering the disastrous state of the Irish health services), gets represented as a huge victory. What is in fact a very modest, conservative even, demand for a decent society ends up getting presented as hugely radical one. And for those in power, it probably is. Terrifying, even.

The point, then, when you get told about how unreasonable you’re being and for-god’s-sake-would-you-look-at-what-you-have-already-been-given-sure-isn’t-that-enough-this-is-getting-ridiculous, is to persevere, and not to flinch, ever, until you get your pound of flesh. Less ‘We Shall Overcome‘, more ‘Keep Your Eyes On The Prize’.

Honi Soit Qui Objects To Colonization and Expulsion

The government replied by saying that the royal prerogative was “primary law” and could not be challenged by the courts.

The majority opinion in the House of Lords, expressed in the opinion of Lord Hoffman, held that while the royal prerogative could be challenged in court, in this case, the government was right.

“The right of abode is a creature of the law. The law gives it and the law may take it away,” he ruled.

As for the issue of “good governance”, he rejected the argument that this meant the interest of the islanders alone had to be considered.

Lord Hoffman said there were wider interests, and wrote: “Her Majesty in Council is therefore entitled to legislate for a colony in the interests of the United Kingdom.”

He also said the government was entitled to take into account the interest of its ally, the United States.

Rough translation: we can do whatever the hell we like and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I on Twitter

October 2008