Saturday, February 28, 2004

To the National Front disco, away! 

Having spent a few minutes on MSN messenger just now, ranting at a friend about the lazy and insidious tendencies of people in immigration debates to talk about 'our culture' and 'our shared values', when I don't share any values with the BNP supporting, Daily Mail reading scum of this world and, increasingly it seems, not that many with our Prime Minister, I was pointed in the direction of Support or Deporter?

Can you make out the difference between the football supporters and the BNP? Even with some counter-intuitive guessing ("he looks normal, so he *must* be evil!") I only got 6/10.

UPDATE: Following on from this, Chris Lightfoot mentions the 'Computer programmer or serial killer' quiz, which can be found here.

Friday, February 27, 2004

The purity of the mix tape... 

Michael reports on another Michael's assessment of the impact of iPods over at Mischievous Constructions. As the happy owner of a battered Walkman which never leaves my bag and rarely leaves my ears, I think they've got it wrong. I've never even seen an iPod, but all that they report about the 'changes' it's producing leaves me cold. 10,000 songs - now that's something. But apparently iPod listeners listen to the same half dozen songs every day for weeks on end. Michael himself confirms this, talking about the happy 90 minutes a day he spends with his iPod. I can't be the only one who things "90 minutes? That's a mix tape!" That's time for the full span, the arc, the beauty of a mix tape!

I can see how an iPod would be efficient. I imagine, the way technology's going, that it's something onto which music can be recorded and a selection of tracks set down in a matter of minutes. But where's the fun in that? Where's the nights spent up late, knowing there's work the next day, but not caring because you're engulfed in making something that's truly yours. So people like 'control of their journey', matching the music to its sections? There could be no more pure sense of control than marking the exact gaps between the tracks on your tape, running the cymbal beat of one straight into the bass guitar of another; or leaving some seconds for a pause, a change of tempo or just an awareness of keeping the time of the last track, so the next one comes in on the perfect upbeat...

It takes me three hours to make a mix tape, double the length of the tape itself. Three hours, every time. I've made hundreds of them and they've served every mood imaginable. They've often been full tapes of a single band or group, constructing the perfect album that never was. But more fun is the real DJ's touch; it's mixing the completely unlikely in such a way as to floor even the most doubting. Get them onto a track they love, have the intake of breath as we wait for the next, and then 'Wham!' - perhaps literally. This doesn't mean that I play my tapes to other people; but in my head there's always an audience other than myself, the audience which recognises the loving care I put into a tape. I play the audience too, of course, but it's not at all rare for me to be so distanced from the person who made the tape the night before, not knowing whether the arc in her head would come out right, that when I hear one song move into the next and then another, I'll just be shaking my head in disbelief, sometimes unable to contain a manic grin - to the great confusion of those around me.

But my music is as private as anyone's. I want to share it all the time, I want to make other people love the things I love and the mix tape is my evangelism, but when I've put it out on the line I want to grab it straight back, deny people what's there because, while I'm happy for them to hear the bands, the singers and the rhythm, the arc of the mix tape is still mine and everything in me goes into it. The journey is timed to perfection - I spent six months leaving the house to the same song - but more than that. It's timed so that every moment of every song is right. Some of the most wonderful experiences in my mundane life (as opposed to my other, exciting, life of espionage, obviously) have been when the music on my headphones matches exactly the world outside - Morrissey singing up and down at the end of Vicar In A Tutu, while the bus I'm on hits some bumps in time; the slow intro of U2's With or Without You on a coach riding into the German sunset on the worst night of my life; or Springsteen's State Trooper howling away on a dark country road. How can music become 'more personal' than that?

If I had 10,000 songs at my disposal, then I'd feel guilty if all I still listened to was the equivalent of a mix tape. There'd be a sense that I should be trying other things, like when I've left a CD in its wrapper since buying it months before, knowing that I should play it rather than the other music that's always there, but 'never finding the time'. The mix tape is perfect, because it's personal, it'd finite and the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. Plus, there's the thrill of turning it over at the end of the 90 minutes, knowing it's all about to start again...

Give me an old cassette over an iPod any day - when can you find an old iPod lying around and transport yourself back in time just by turning it on?


Continuing in the line of mindless posts from me, here's the George W. Bush Conspiracy Generator (Thanks to SJH).

Not quite up to the Daily-Mail-O-Matic standards, but I did learn that "George W. Bush has not captured Osama bin Laden so that white men could kill Michael Moore".

UPDATE: Sarah (H) informs me that the link she actually meant to send me was for the less intellectually-stimulating, but much funnier, Dancing Bush.

You Are The Quarry 

Just a note for any Morrissey/Smiths fans - tickets are available online now, not tomorrow as advertised, for Morrissey's gig on 22nd May. Go through links on MorrisseyMusic.com to order standing tickets.

For those who aren't Morrissey/Smiths fans - you fools!

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Mama get the hammer (there's a fly on Papa's head) 

Spurred into Googling by Chris' post at the Virtual Stoa, I discovered that Drop kick me, Jesus is a real song, but also managed to find many further examples of classic country and western song titles - the blunt You're The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly, the punning If My Nose Were full Of Nickles, I'd Blow It All On You and the almost political I've Got The Hungries For Your Love And I'm Waiting In Your Welfare Line being among the most interesting. More here.

If those prove inspirational, then another great find was the "Do-It-Yourself C&W song generator". My effort:

I met her in a gay bar stoned on oatmeal;
I can still recall the hearing aid she wore;
She was drinkin' Dr. Pepper with Led-Zeppelin,
and I knew that she would be a crashing bore;
The blood test showed I'd warp her mind forever;
She said to me that Nixon didn't lie;
But who'd have thought she'd yodel while in labor;
She freaked out on the lawn and screamed goodbye.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

"The system's failed us." "The system sucks - we're gonna have to go outside the system" 

I've always been fairly convinced that Windows is evil, but apparently it just takes the right frame of mind to love it. And broken down, giggling mania appears to be the one. I've just discovered that I don't have to put up with its default sound effects, and concurrently I've found Daily Wav, so now I can happily avoid Brian Eno's masterpiece, and instead log on to the sound of Daria - 'welcome to hell', and log off to the Animaniacs - 'and we did all that without computers!'

Apparently Windows has led me to regress to the age of 9. But I'm okay with that.

Friday, February 20, 2004

12 reasons gay marriage should not be allowed 

(with thanks to the Gator Gay-Straight Alliance, who wrote them)

1. Homosexuality is not natural, much like eyeglasses, polyester, and birth control.

2. Heterosexual marriages are valid becasue they produce children. Infertile couples and old people can't legally get married because the world needs more children.

3. Obviously, gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.

4. Straight marriage will be less meaningful if Gay marriage is allowed, since Britney Spears' 55-hour just-for-fun marriage was meaningful.

5. Heterosexual marriage has been around a long time and hasn't changed at all; women are property, blacks can't marry whites, and divorce is illegal.

6. Gay marriage should be decided by people, not the courts, because the majority-elected legislatures, not courts, have historically protected the rights of the minorities.

7. Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire counrty. That's why we have only one religion in America.

8. Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.

9. Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.

10. Children can never suceed without a male and a female role model at home. That's why single parents are forbidden to raise children.

11. Gay marriage will change the foundation of society. Heterosexual marriage has been around for a long time, and we could never adapt to new social norms because we haven't adapted to things like cars or longer lifespans.

12. Civil unions, providing most of the same benefits as marriage with a different name are better, because a "seperate but equal" institution is always constitutional. Seperate schools for African-Americans worked just as well as seperate marriages for gays and lesbians will.

While on topic, there is now a short educational film for all concerned adults: The Attack Of The Gay Agenda!

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Lay siege on the evangelical outpost! 

Consider the following fun theory:

Gay men are gay only because they are promiscuous - they can't get enough sex and 'have nothing better to do', so go gay to find more. Heterosexual promiscuity isn't 'That Common' and you can't get multiple women to sleep with you on a given day (implying therefore, that you can get multiple men...). This need for sex 'forces' men into homosexuality. Some emotional attachments may result from this, but this doesn't change the fact that they 'want sex all of the time everywhere'. Those who seek marriage rights do so 'because they want their behavior to be normative, not because they want to curb their behavior to fit within marriage'.

Anyone who feels like commenting on this most insightful piece (already in the comments section, though the main post is just as good) can go here. I've started the ball rolling, using a suitably gendered name (see below).

Constructing gender... 

How to be male (in a very classically liberal way): Now, if something is ever as good as 'the good', there is definitely something good in this well.

How to be female (Valley girl style): Everything since has felt a little too 'out there', but because of him I am actually, like, so much more, like, myself.

The Gender Genie seems to be pretty accurate, which is a shame, because I don't believe in natural differences between men and women. I could put it all down to cultural conditioning, of course, but my view doesn't count for much, since I'm obviously the next Radclyffe Hall in denial anyway. It explains why most of my friends are male and much older than me, though, but the fact that I'm bolshy, political and a muso/film buff might do that too (and, of course, spending two years of my working life surrounded by gay men wouldn't hurt either)...

With thanks to Michael for directing me to this, and beating me to the analysis.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Orca Slap 

Here's the latest version of Smack The Penguin (much harder than the original)...

Monday, February 16, 2004

Sitting in judgement... 

Over at Mischievous Constructions, Michael Brooke suggests that we all screen Dekalog to our schoolchildren in a reformed religious education which is much more broadly moral (this in response to Jason's suggestions at The Uninformer, which I also agree are excellent, and which correspond roughly to my own 'religious education').

While Dekalog is genuinely wonderful, and would make better viewing than what we were in fact shown as part of our R.E. lessons (Can Ellen Be Saved?, an unintentionally hilarious film about a girl who joins a cult) I have to disagree with Michael quite strongly. I speak from the perfect viewpoint (perhaps), because I first saw Dekalog when I was either 14 or 15, which is exactly the age at which we would be likely to show such things in school. I wasn't exactly normal in my film-viewing tastes - I was a big fan of Jean-Luc Godard at the time, and was just being introduced (via a local video sohp) to Svankmajer, Riefenstahl, Herzog etc. But even I was bored to tears by Dekalog at the time, only made my way through the first of two videos and guiltily returned them the next day without further thought (I always felt guilty in this shop, because the owner would 'tut-tut' to himself whenever I got out anything that wasn't arthouse, foreign, old or documentary - as I found out when I decided to ditch the depressive chic and go for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes one evening).

The major problems - it was made for TV, it's very 1980s in terms of picture quality and... it's in Polish. Much as I would love to think that we could all broaden our minds by spending a term watching and discussing difficult foreign language films, most adults would be put off just by the concept behind these films. I do think showing films is an excellent means of stimulating discussion and giving students something to look forward to in what have otherwise always been very pointless parts of education.

I think a curriculum based around this sort of discussion would certainly attract more teachers and would be likely to scare off those would-be nuns and mentally long-lost hippies who currently inhabit the profession, but the films need to be either more mainstream, or simply more directly emotive. The films in Dekalog are very slow-moving in many ways, where I can think of other foreign films which students might find more approachable.

I'm too tired to try and think of a list which would correspond to the ten commandments in the same way, though I think it might be quite fun to try, but in terms of broadly moral education, centred on current issues, two films by Lukas Moodysson come straight to mind (because I've been thinking about the first recently anyway, and this reminded me of the second): Lilja 4-Ever and Fucking Amal/Show Me Love.

Lilja 4-Ever has been on my mind because it deals, extremely effectively, with the issue of human trafficking and the global sex slave trade (the subject of an Amnesty lecture given by Harold Hongju Koh last week). This is all very topical, since the Morecambe Bay tragedy has brought slave labour in our own country into sharp focus in the last week (as evidenced by another story which appeared last week regarding Greek migrant workers in Cornwall - at least the disaster has had this small publicity effect). In the film, Lilja is abandoned by her mother, who goes to America with a recent boyfriend in order to search for a better life.

Lilja is desperately lonely, as her mother first ceases to make contact with her, and then ceases to pay for her accommodation, so that she ends up living on her own in a tiny flat with awful neighbours. A friend, in order to hide her own doings, allows her to be accused of prostitution, and all the local boys (but one) begin to taunt her and eventually molest her. Only one sticks by her, himself in many ways abandoned, and she ignores him in turn. Finally driven to the prostitution of which she was accused, she finds what she thinks will be a way out, in the form of a boyfriend who offers to take her with him to Sweden. He then betrays her, putting her into the hands of some human traffickers, until she ends up, all documents stolen, locked in a hotel room in Sweden, without any external contact, where she is used every night for sex and badly beaten, until finally she commits suicide.

All this doesn't begin to describe the relentless pain of the film, which is unceasingly dismal but never over the top, party because even in its detail it cannot capture the extent of the problem which we (fail to) see all around us. I know the film would provoke an outcry if shown to teenagers, but I think it should be made mandatory viewing for everyone anyway, as it gives a great deal of food for thought, and could be the subject of an entire term's discussions in and of itself.

The much lighter-hearted Fucking Amal is a romance of sorts, set in a school and detailing the mundane life of a young lesbian, Agnes, who is picked on for her sexuality and whose parents don't understand anything that goes on in her life. One of those who rejects her at first, Elin, is popular but thought to be a bit of a slut. The film also shows the pressures she faces as she goes on to become friends with Agnes. The film documents the way in which teenagers in a dead-end town can feel equally trapped, whatever their social status. It has a sweet ending though, as the two girls get together despite everything. This would be good for discussion of bullying, homosexuality, teenage culture and depression. Also a bit more suitable for young people than Lilja 4-Ever.

Just some suggestions to set the ball rolling (others are welcome). I could probably devote an entire week to discussing more, but I'm quite aware that my posts, when I post, are already too long...

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Quote of the day 

'This lecture, which I give at your request, will necessarily disappoint you in a number of ways.' Dry humour from Max Weber, who from this point forth in his Politics As A Vocation drops the humour part entirely... But small mercies and all that...

Friday, February 13, 2004

"Birmingham - it's bostin' mate!" 

This blog proudly supports the "Birmingham: it's not shit" campaign, which, thanks to the boys at b3ta.co.uk, now has a theme song:

It's a city of love,
It's a city of sunshine
All of your dreams
They can come true
In Birmingham
It's really great.
Birmingham - it's bostin' mate!

What it is emphatically not is a city of culture... This is the city which allowed its best jazz club (Ronnie Scott's) to be closed down (okay, some would say this was market forces) and turned into a lap dancing club, "making the people of Birmingham per capita the most amply provided in the country with strippers" (The Guardian). Its only independent cinema, The Electric, also closed its doors this Christmas, leaving precious little to do for the non-ballet going classes other than shop.

What with the new Bullring development (setting world records for mindless gawpers in its first three days, kids!) and a chronic lack of decent pubs, the only thing to recommend the place is that I've moved out of it and have no intention of returning...

Yet to re-kant... 

It'll take a lot more than the knowledge he liked a few drinks to make me find Kant interesting - anyone who likes Monty Python would have known that already - but this poem over at Normblog might go some way... (Chris Brooke's favourite footnotes, however, don't).

In the absence of a pamphlet condoning bestiality and condemning masturbation, I stand unpersuaded of his merits.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

It's the Wheel of Retribution! 

Still only posting things which take very little mental effort. But, for those who enjoyed the Daily Mail-o-matic and the Blunkett policy maker, but haven't looked on the website of their designer since, the latest (and very good) is Alistair Campbell's Wheel of Retribution...

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

What the hell does a vegan eat anyway? 

This response, in the form of a daily menu blog, would be a good answer if I were a healthier person. The real answer, among those I know in Oxford anyway, is some combination of rice, pasta and potatoes. Every day. Fresh vegetables are entirely unheard of, lentils a rare luxury. The craving for a decent curry is almost enough to make me want to go back to Birmingham (my once-loved, and now much-loathed, first home). Almost.

In response to Norm - I'm sure it's a more general blogging phenomenon, too, but I think in my case wild mood swings are something specific to the clash between being a natural manic depressive and seemingly daily work deadlines. Of course, the reliance on caffeine to keep me vertical may not help either...

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Normal service will resume shortly... 

Going to take a little time off from this, because the wild mood swings aren't likely to produce much that's intelligent. I'll wait for those to settle down.

Back in a few days, I think.

UPDATE: Many apologies for disgusting picture that turned up here. Apparently it's punishment for linking to an external website...

Sarah Kozar Playboy Pics! 

Yes, you can get them here. Or so Popdex apparently thinks - I'm the 4th most popular citation for those searching for this. Which means my blog has already been relegated to the ranks of cheap porn... Good good. As one website says - "I have no idea who this Sarah Kozar is, but she sure is popular".

For those interested in other forms of nudity, there's an interesting post about film censorship over at Mischievous Constructions.

Monday, February 09, 2004

New Oxford Society... 

OXFORD WOMEN IN POLITICS: 3 of every 4 members of Oxford's Department of Politics and IR are male. 1 of the 26 individuals speaking at the Oxford Union this term is female (the one is Miss World). Women comprised 18% of the House of Commons in 2001, 13% of the US Senate and 14% of the US House of Representatives. Only 19% of all UK senior civil service (SCS) positions are held by women as are a mere 9% of SCS positions in the FCO. Concerned? Then please consider becoming involved in Oxford Women in Politics, open to ALL university members, undergrads and graduates, women and men. Interested in joining? Please email carolyn.haggis@bnc.ox.ac.uk in order to be included on the society's email list.

The aims of the group, sent out in a general e-mail are as follows:

1. OxWiP will provide a forum for the discussion of issues related to gender and politics. OxWiP will feature round-table discussions with Oxford female faculty members and will invite prominent women in the public service/non-profit sector to speak about their experiences.

2. OxWiP will host skill-building workshops, such as debating/public-speaking workshops, conference-preparation workshop(members will present papers and receive feedback from other members), and networking seminars. With the hopes that more Oxford women will attend conferences, the OxWiP Research Committee will research conference opportunities and make members aware of pending application deadlines.

3. OxWiP will organize advocacy efforts (directed at the University/colleges/departments) in order to raise the awareness of gender imbalances in hiring/promotions practices, in lecturers/speakers invited to Oxford, etc. Through visits to local secondary schools, OxWiP will also seek to encourage younger women to consider a career in politics.

I think this is a good idea, though I'm not sure how long it is likely to last. Their first mailing tells us over 100 people have already signed up, though, which is very encouraging. Less welcome news is that a committee has already been formed, which is not a good sign, since most of us have only heard about it since the first meeting at which the committee was chosen. This suggests that the committee is likely to be composed of people who already know each other. I know from long experience with the Student Union that even the faintest whiff of a clique forming will only put off the quieter people. The committee has also been appointed rather than elected, too, and this will be the case until next term. How can a group dedicated to increasing representation in politics be so undemocratic?

First big meeting is 8pm, Thursday 12th February, Lecture Room XI, Brasenose College. Do come.

Idealistic lefties of the world unite! 

Reciprocal link added for The Uninformer. Also completed the political survey which Jason links there, which seems to be the latest version of the political compass, replacing the authoritarian/libertarian cleavage with idealism/pragmatism. I'm more left than Tony Benn, but share idealism with both him and Hitler. I'd have thought I was more idealistic than that, what with being willing to blind people for the sake of equality, but never mind. I'm quite happy with that as a result.

I invite others to put their results in the comments box below...

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Suicide group in the news... 

alt.suicide.holiday, or A.S.H., the newsgroup for those who are willing to think of suicide as an option, is in the news again. Most wouldn't realise it ever had been, because the hysteria which surrounds it seems to leave people unwilling to speak its name for fear of influencing others. But even tabloid reporting gives away enough details to those in the know. The Sunday Mercury, one of Birmingham's typically rabid tabloids, has published an article about the death of 20 year-old Phillip Cranmer, who entered into a suicide pact with another man after 'being brainwashed by deadly pro-suicide chatrooms'. The talk of chatrooms is tabloid error - perhaps the editors thought the word 'chatroom' would make us all think of paedophiles, a thought fuelled by the use of words like 'sinister' and 'cult'.

But what it does say makes it clear that it's A.S.H. Cranmer's parents are reported as saying: "The way he and the people he was e-mailing talked about death was frightening, it was almost trivialised. They referred to it as 'catching the bus.' 'Catching the bus' is the instant tip-off that it's A.S.H. No one but an asher uses this phrase. But it's not trivialising the nature of suicide. Far from it. Like a great many other movements which face constant attack criticism from the outside world, A.S.H. has developed its own slang.

The major reason behind this is for the safety of those who take suicide so seriously that they wish to discuss it at length, often philosophically, talking about their lives and their reasons, and they wish to find the methods by which they could succeed at it. An asher knows that there is nothing more painful for those close to her than repeated failed suicide attempts. For each attempt leaves all the painful questions of a successful attempt, but there is also someone to whom those questions can be asked, someone who as likely as not will be unwilling to talk about these things to people who can never understand. A successful suicide is taking the bandage off in one go; it prevents the inevitable wounds from festering more than they might do otherwise.

So the special lingo helps to disguise the nature of the discussion, preventing those taking part from being discovered in their research by those who don't always respect privacy. 'Catching the bus' is about as innocuous a phrase as could be found, but it has a deeper meaning in itself, because for a large number of people in that group, life is really nothing more than an endless waiting for death. Like waiting for a bus, it is tedious, frustrating and leaves you surrounded by strangers, isolated. 'Catching the bus' is the relief at the end.

The phrase also acquired an extra meaning for me when I read C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, in which those who are in hell often never reach the end of the queue for the bus to heaven, preferring the world in which they admit even to themselves that they are miserable, to the uncertain promise of what lies at the end of the trip. I'm not saying it takes courage to commit suicide, but it takes a certain amount of determination in the face of great uncertainty. No one knows what lies beyond this world, but those who kill themselves are willing to take the risk that it could be better than what they experience now. No one could do that trivially, and certainly no one who'd spent any time at all on A.S.H. would be unaware of the problems involved. Many of them simply feel that it is

Better to die and sleep,
The never-ending sleep, than to live on,
And dare to live when life's soul is gone.

And if it's not an endless sleep that lies beyond, but something much worse, then all that has been sacrificed is a few more years in a world which has lost its appeal. Sometimes people can just be sure of that. You can't miss what you've never experienced.

A.S.H., then, is characterised by its willingness to question the presumption in favour of life. It is not 'pro-suicide', just as pro-choice groups aren't 'pro-abortion'. But many who are willing to consider the case for abortion still baulk at the idea that suicide might be rational and acceptable. This is likely to remain the case for many years to come. I believe in a right to suicide, but when there remains so much controversy over abortion, the killing of a life that is arguably not even human yet, it's hard to see when the debate could ever be opened on this issue.

Indeed, things are likely to get much worse before they get better. Cranmer's parents have written to the Home Office, calling for an enquiry into suicide websites and chat rooms (A.S.H. saved by a mis-characterisation perhaps?). I doubt much could come from it. The parents and the tabloid both seem to be fundamentally ignorant as to the nature of usenet newsgroups, which, unless they are moderated (A.S.H. is not - leaving it open to endless trolling by shiny-happies (yes, more slang)) do not have owners or people in charge. Everyone there is on an equal footing, hierarchies only arising by dint of some people having been there longer than others.

Part of the nature of a group like A.S.H. is that people don't stay for very long - they either kill themselves or, if less mature, they find that when their interest in suicide is taken seriously, and not immediately treated as shocking and unacceptable, it loses its appeal. There are a lot of teenagers in the group, and there are many others who are older but who have not necessarily given the thought to the subject which is really necessary. There's no one person 'responsible' and it's certainly not a cult. Its dynamics change with every passing week, and any attempt to shut it down will simply find something similar re-materialise in a different place. That part of A.S.H. which can be shut down has been shut down, many times. The website no longer exists on any of its old servers, and in the place where it has been preserved it is no longer updated. It has always had to place itself alongside porn and gore sites; that is, in the traditional realm of the unacceptable. But it will never be destroyed, not while there is a need for it. And there is very much a need for it.

There's a need for it because suicide is taboo. The most effective way to save lives is to change this fact. I've already said that many people on A.S.H. are young and haven;t given the necessary thought to suicide. That doesn't mean they won't do it. Many people don't even find a place like A.S.H. to vent their feelings and air their thoughts; they're all the more likely to kill themselves for this reason alone, because it seems all the more that no one else in the world could understand how you feel.

Cranmer's parents, like the families of most people who kill themselves, were shocked. And, like most people again, they thought that their son had been completely happy and had seen no signs at all that he might feel suicidal. But why would they? As long as suicide is taboo, those who think about it will be retiscent about discussing it in public, particularly with those they know it will affect. In many places in the world doing so will see you committed to a mental hospital, but even where reactions are not so extreme, it is a rare loved one indeed who will talk calmly about the prospect of you leaving them for ever. So people will continue to keep it quiet and suicide will continue to be a shock.

This is particularly so when people have been suicidal for a long time, because after a while misery simply becomes mundane, and a hundred failed attempts at bringing it up in conversation leave a person quietly resigned to privacy. A typical discussion of all these sorts of secrecy considerations - prompted by the Cranmer article - can be found here.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

"Yes, it's fucking political - everything's political!" 

I can think of too many awful political songs to begin voting for the worst (almost anything by the Manic Street Preachers would probably count), but someone who's far too often neglected as an excellent political songwriter is Phil Ochs - the 'better Bob Dylan' - whose Rehearsals for Retirement is among my favourite bits of vinyl (mainly because for once I paid more than 50p to buy it). A nice sing-along number is "I Kill Therefore I Am":

Meet the king of cowboys, he rides a pale pony
He fights the bad boys brings them to their knees
He patrols the highways from the air
He keeps the country safe from long hair

I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am.

I don't like the black man, for he doesn't know his place
Take the back of my hand or I'll spray you with my mace
I'm as brave as any man can be
I find my courage through chemistry
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am.

I don't like the students now, they don't have no respect
They don't like to work now, I think I'll wring their necks
They call me pig, although I'm underpaid
I'll show those faggots that I'm not afraid
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am.

Farewell to the gangsters we don't need them anymore
We've got the police force, they're the ones who break the law
He's got a gun and he's a hater
He shoots first, he shoots later
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am.

I also quite like a lot of things by Steve Earle (alt-country) though I'm not a committed fan. "Christmas in Washington" is pretty simple, so some might think it an example of a bad political song, but I quite like the quiet bitterness in it:

It's Christmastime in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Gettin' into gear for four more years
Things not gettin' worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, 'He cannot seek another term
They'll be no more FDRs'
I sat home in Tennessee
Staring at the screen
With an uneasy feeling in my chest
And I'm wonderin' what it means

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now

I followed in your footsteps once
Back in my travelin' days
Somewhere I failed to find your trail
Now I'm stumblin' through the haze
But there's killers on the highway now
And a man can't get around
So I sold my soul for wheels that roll
Now I'm stuck here in this town


There's foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You'd think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It's going straight to hell

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barracades are goin' up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We're marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring

Having said that the Manics can write some really awful stuff, there is something very satisfying about a song which starts off shouting "Repeat after me, fuck queen and country!"

Friday, February 06, 2004

Echoes from the past 

Just found a 1979 issue of Encounter magazine, which includes an article on 'the BBC... in a self-critical mood'. The memo printed here displays a strange pre-occupation with socialism, saying that one of the virtues of the BBC is its independence from the prevailing economic system. Indeed, 'you could levy a licence fee under a socialist economic system as well as you do now under a mixed economy' - a recommendation perhaps?

There are some pointed comments on how Britain is united over democracy, but not over its economic order, and a quote from Susan Sontag - 'a capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetise the injustices of class, race and sex.' "One would need to be a rigid Marxist to believe this to be true of BBC Television'. Indeed.

And perhaps there's a battle cry into the future against Mr. Bush et al? 'It is characteristic... of profoundly undemocratic movements to make up for their electoral failure by sensational acts to ensure publicity for their views which they could not otherwise achieve.' So if Florida cut a bit too close to the bone, a bit of pioneering anti-terrorist action should do the trick here... But the BBC has his number, and it knows it must set limits 'to allow it to stay alive against totalitarian forces of various persuasions'.

The memo goes further, though, and later casts itself as an alternative monarch - 'guardian of standards, and defender of the 'independence faith''. A secular faith! Sounds like the Beeb's revolutionary plans are quite advanced, but the writer soon realises he may have said too much and backs down a little, admitting 'broadcasters are poor political theorists'...

Anyway, enough of my own poor theorising. The reason I was reading the article, of course, was to look for things relevant to the current situation. And there are certainly some bitterly ironic echoes. One BBC characteristic praised by the memo was 'security of employment for its staff... short of being found with a hand in the till, an established BBC staff member can look forward to an entire professional career within the BBC'. It also asserts that the BBC must display courage 'vis-a-vis the public when some of its members object to... uncomfortable discoveries of information, critical stances on cherished beliefs, or uncommon and upsetting creative insights'. Not just the public it needs to be careful of there, though, is it?

Regarding editorial decisions, the memo warns (with amazing prescience) that there will be 'times when the broadcasting of certain programmes, which for all sorts of reasons may lack the final authority that makes them safe from damaging counter-attack, will reduce the rights and freedom of other producers to move in the same area because of the resulting opposition of an entire profession or community'. Oh, what wonders can be worked with the benefit of foresight!

But, there's enough to relish for those who are against the BBC too - 'we need to recognise that the BBC institutional interest and the public interest may not always be the same... the institutional interest may in the future have to be made secondary to the public interest... public accountability needs to be made manifest at lower than controller level [not more resignations!]'. You can't accuse the BBC of a whitewash, anyway...

A parting punch of pride - 'all these assertions and arguments are in turn based on the belief that the BBC remains the greatest British cultural invention of the 20th century and that its disappearance would be a colossal disaster. We must see to it that this disaster never occurs'.

Alchemist of the Surreal (Part 1) 

I've been watching the first of two videos of Jan Svankmajer shorts today, and I'd forgotten just how amazing they are. Apart from Otesànek in 2000 (which I absolutely love, and which I was fortunate enough to see at the Edinburgh Film Festival) I've never found his feature length films quite as good as these - though I would still recommend them to anyone - mostly because they drag a little by comparison (though I'll admit that I'm by no means a film critic, and have a typical caffeine addict's attention span).

Themes are often repeated across the pieces, so that Down To The Cellar echoes The Flat to some extent, with the latter obviously referencing Kafka, as the protagonists find themselves in situations where they are trapped, or attempting to carry out some task, while malevolent forces work against them - solid things become liquid, walls attack and baskets fall empty away. It was particularly great to see Down To The Cellar again, as the opening idea here - a girl goes down the stairs and captures the attention of the old pervert who's coming up - is used later as a recurring scene in Otesànek, though to much greater effect, thanks to the extra characterisation which the longer film allows, but more importantly to the wonderful young actress playing the part.

Virile Games, where two football teams attempt to assault each other ever more violently, seems to echo in turn The Last Trick, where rival magicians try ever harder to impress one another and their audience, again in quite a violent manner. All his films are completely surreal, mixing clay, puppets and bits of random junk with live actors, and sometimes dispensing with live actors altogether across pieces which are for the most part silent. The best of this selection (for me) is Dimensions of Dialogue, which is split into three parts, in each of which two heads, or two figures, are facing one another and close to one another, but are in some manner failing to communicate. Part 1, "Exhaustive Discussion" is the most obvious example of his use of 'bits of junk', as two heads form and re-form, one eating the other each time and causing the other to decompose, until both the heads are composed of nothing but clay. Part 2, "Passionate Discourse" sees the breakdown of communication in a relationship, as two clay lovers become one (in a way which is surprisingly erotic, given they are just clay), and then gradually part until they are sat at a distance, silent, with a piece of clay which has come from one or the other - or both - of them between them on the table. Each of them bats it to the other, disowning it, until both lose their temper and, quite literally, tear one another apart. The final part, "Factual Conversation", sees two heads which at first help one another out - one offers bread, the other butter, or one offers a boot and the other laces - but then gradually offer one another the wrong items at the wrong time, not gauging each other's actions quite right, until it builds to the stage where each is destroying the other, pencil sharpeners whittling away at toothpaste tubes and pencils splintering into one another. This all kind of reminds me of Lost in Translation, and the reaction to it (here and here, for example) where the terms of discussion are the same but no one seems to understand anyone else's use of them. Of course, there are obviously much more political parallels too, but I don't need to point those out...

As a little side note - despite not being up to date, this site (which its owner seems to have disowned on his own links) is one of the most complete Svankmajer sites I've found, and very much worth taking a look at.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Displacement and forced migration... 

I've just returned from another of the Amnesty lectures, this one delivered by novelist/playwright Caryl Phillips. This was the first of the lectures which I would think of as being strictly 'on-topic' (the series is called "Displacement, Asylum, Migration"), though the others have perhaps been more intellectually interesting. I found the lecture very moving, though and quite appreciated the light relief (I haven't slept properly in weeks, and am rapidly losing the will to go on).

He began with an anecdote, about someone who'd been his personal taxi-driver for several days while he was in Western Africa, and who wanted to go to work in America. He talked of the barriers in the way of doing so, with the introduction of online forms requiring 'a new form of literacy' and the man not entirely possessing the old and having missed the due date for the application form. The rest of the lecture was both very personal and historically and politically significant for all of us. He talked of the migrations in his own life, starting from a move from St. Kitts to Britain as a baby, and the deep prejudice, hostility and even hatred that his parents had (not naively) been willing to face in order to provide 'an opportunity for growth' for him, and later for their other children. He talked of later moves, to America where after a long time he had begun to feel at home without ever intending to do so, and of the displacement he and others felt who'd moved, not out of necessity, but in pursuing this personal growth. They'd all been willing, his parents, his associates and himself, to face the suffering involved in displacement, and would always have been willing to do it despite this cost.

This he contrasted with the much deeper pain involved in forced migration. While it may take as little as a few generations to feel the warmth of belonging when one has moved voluntarily, the psychological and spiritual trauma of forced migration was something that would perhaps never die, or would take longer than any of us could imagine. He referred, principally, to the Atlantic slave trade and to the lasting memory of that for all Africans of the Diaspora and those born out of the forced migration, saying that that was one migration which he would always regret, the effects of which all of us, whatever our origins, are still living out, with that sense of difference sown into our culture at the very roots. He said it was pernicious to argue that the 'cultural renaissance', which had come from the diaspora, was a 'benefit' of the slave trade. He said that Duke Ellington and all the rest could have their achievements, but that his sympathy, every time, would be with the people who had suffered in the forts on the Western coast of Africa, and those cultural achievements could not, even taken all together, make up for the suffering of even one person there. Because no African wanted to leave Africa, and many who are their descendants still feel 'a long way from home'.

Whatever the reason for forced migration, he argues, the psychological and spiritual price is almost always too high. This appleis as much to internal border crossing as crossing national borders, as evidenced by the experiences of refugees in the Sudan and Sierra Leone. The trauma which results from these experiences is far more enduring than any physical trauma, and cannot be treated with humanitarian aid. Forced migration can never be worth it. Yet at the same time humans do have a huge capacity to absorb feelings of displacement, when they choose to do so voluntarily, searching for growth. The taxi driver was an example of this. No matter what difficulties would face him, he was willing to go through them to make something of himself in America. Ultimately, the crossing of borders to grow is one of the most natural human instincts, which we should all, always encourage.

I guess that's a bit of a rambling summary, particularly given all these lectures will be published eventually, but I just wanted to write something of what he said, because I was quite affected by it at the time, though looking back it's really all very simple stuff....


...should be up and running now. Thanks for the help, Chris and Lorna.

Happy Birthday Time 

The Greenwich Time Signal (a.k.a. the six beeps you hear before the news on the hour on BBC radio) is 80 years old today. BBCi provides us with six bits of trivia to celebrate.

Political cows 

In the process of avoiding work I've rediscovered one of my first introductions to politics - classifying political regimes and positions according to the fortunes of two cows...

I hadn't realised how many versions there were of this, though my favourite and one of the most complete is linked above, since it actually seems fairly accurate in most instances. That one may well be English in origin, but this is obviously American:

"DEMOCRAT: You have two cows. Your neighbor has none. You feel guilty for being successful. You vote people into office who put a tax on your cows, forcing you to sell one to raise money to pay the tax. The people you voted for then take the tax money, buy a cow and give it to your neighbor. You feel righteous. Barbara Streisand sings for you.

REPUBLICAN: You have two cows. You neighbor has none. So?"

On the US politics score: Like Harry, I'm not finding the US primaries very exciting at the moment, but he expresses it better than I could...

scam spam 

My main e-mail account is thankfully almost entirely spam-free, but this only makes waking up to a block capitals e-mails entitled 'MY WISH TO GLORIFY GOD' all the more frightening. What was worse was realising that I was relieved to find that it was only the latest version of the Nigerian scam, and not the normal Oxford evangelism. My commitment to the cause is certainly waning at the moment, but I hadn't realised it had gone so far as to find me actually scared by Christians. I have a terrible feeling that the Christian Union is going to hunt me down and exorcise me one of these days (or whatever highly anti-Catholic version of that they have)...

Always a source of comfort, though, is Kristin Thomas' spam poetry.

slipping threads... 

I'll take an early chance to recommend the relatively new, and damn fine, singer Carina Round, who has a single out on Monday, called 'Lacuna', which I recommend highly to all. I'm highly biassed in the matter, of course, since I'll admit that I began her first ever fan site (now largely defunct, due to an attempt at a more professional design which, once abandoned, succeeded only in removing most of the content that had been on there previously) and, as a result she has bought me drinks and given me free gig tickets, the sort of thing which easily wins my affection (her looks don't hurt either).

Her reputation is spreading extremely quickly now, thanks in large part to her live shows, which are quite honestly some of the best I've ever seen. Her voice is powerful beyond words, and unlike most singer-songwriters she's very much into using the full potential of her band, also highly talented. She's supported the likes of Ryan Adams, Miles Hunt, James Brown (bizarrely), Ben & Jason etc., which has so far placed her directly in the obscure indie fan category of music. But she's much more interesting than that and will hopefully soon gain a much wider audience. Her musical influences - which include Patti Smith, Tom Waits, Led Zeppelin, The Pixies and Nina Simone - often come through in her music, which ranges from the rawest rock to laid-back bluesy numbers, these days with some wonderful slide guitar effects added on many songs, thanks to guitarist Tom Livemore. Lyrically, she's completely out of the league of the navel-gazers and getting more mature as her records go on (though no less angry).

She's had two albums: 'The First Blood Mystery' came out in 2001 and is now extremely hard to find but well worth it, and her follow-up, 'The Disconnection', came out last year and can be found in HMV and Virgin. Otherwise, buy the single this Monday, and boast to your friends in a couple of years' time that you found her first...

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

"I just went *gay* all of a sudden!"
(and an equality rant) 

Classic line from Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby". I always wanted to use it as one of my coming out lines, but the chance just never came. Apparently, however, I am only 66% gay, so perhaps I was never destined to have a truly fabulous coming out scene anyway....

I'm a bit behind on this, but here's a debate as to whether gay marriage would benefit heterosexuals - pro and con. My answer would be 'Who cares?' Not all of us are entirely self-interested, rational choice theorists (though perhaps on this I could be accused of being so). I don't demand that an end to racism benefit me; I don't care whether my quality of life will be improved by telling the Oxford University Russian Society that their members' anti-semitism is not an acceptable excuse for absence at a Holocaust Memorial day event (yes, I know, getting caught up in petty student politics is a bad idea, but this really riled me). This is convoluted, but the point is that the demand for the right to gay marriage is simple a demand for equality. If we are not concerned with equality, then perhaps rational choice theory comes in, but I am concerned and I think everyone should be concerned, so I'll pretend that the articles were too, just for now. If we are concerned for equality, then we must listen to the demands of those that seek it. Leaving aside, for the moment, the pros and cons of marriage as such, what we are demanding is the right to be considered as equally human, with equal human dignity. Dignity (contra Parekh, which I'll get to in a minute) includes the right to have one's deepest loving commitments considered on the same level as the commitments of everyone else in society.

Whatever we think of as being the 'point' of equality - the article I want to cite (Elizabeth Anderson's 'What is the point of equality?') isn't available online, so here's a symposium in reaction to it instead - we have surely missed that point if we who are not members of the group whose equality is at stake demand to know what benefit *we* will gain from measures to improve their equality, or arguably even to have any say in the matter (though I know this more contentious, I include it because I've had abortion debates (again, I can't find the article I want to cite - Mackinnon this time) in my mind all afternoon, and I'm quite tempted to say that I don't think men should have any say on this at all). Unless the benefit discussed is identified with the warm fuzzy feeling inside which we feel when people are treated truly as equals, then it is completely irrelevant.

On separate point no. 1 (whether marriage as such is something for which we should be aiming) - see Hak Mao. I agree to a certain extent. I don't want marriage, because I don't have a high opinion of the institution of marriage. But if marriage is what society esteems, then I want at least an equal right to obtain it. As with the age of consent, I'm as much for its complete elimination as anything else, but if either of them exist, and they probably will for the rest of my life at least, then I want them to exist equally for everyone.

On the other, and main point, made there - I agree again. Homophobic human rights violations are appalling and among some of the most horrific in the world. And this is in no way to justify the way in which such real fights have been sidelined, but the fact is that none of us do all we should for those who suffer more than us. Humans are fundamentally immoral, if we consider morality to consist in acting as we think we should. We all think that we would act to save lives and end suffering if the price to our own lives was not too high, but the fact is that we wouldn't and we don't. We don't all spend our time working for aid agencies, and not every homosexual can be expected to fight against the governments in Egypt, Zimbabwe etc. We all should, and we are morally culpable, I would say, for not doing so, but homosexuals are no more to blame for their narrow focus on equality at home than people in Western society at large are for their failure to intervene in human rights violations all over the world. Personally, I think that if we are to accept that we are all immoral in this way, then to be immoral while actively fighting for equality in some other sphere seems much better than to be immoral and simply wish that one wasn't. I could go to Zimbabwe tomorrow (I think), and spend the rest of my life trying to put Mugabe under citizen's arrest, but I would feel no better for choosing that crusade over any other. I believe passionately in genuinely revolutionary action, but in the meantime, let's demand all the change we can in the areas where it's necessary and easy to obtain.

On separate point no. 2 (Parekh) - I went to see Bikhu Parekh give a marvellous lecture in the Oxford Amnesty Lectures series last week, in which I think he argued (though my memory is certainly not perfect, and I probably didn't grab all the nuances anyway) that the language of human rights has been applied too extensively, so that it has begun to lose its impact among those who generally support the doctrine and has/could become the object of ridicule for those who don't, or do so only in speech. He argues for a stringent limitation of the term 'human rights', so that it applies only to those which are most basic (and from what I could tell really only included 'human dignity', beyond the basic right to life and liberty). The other things which we think follow on from that are things which any good society should guarantee absolutely, but which do not have the same fundamental status. Gay marriage was discussed here, in response to a question I think, and it was made clear that on all the substantive issues what the egalitarian movements are demanding is justified, but not a matter of human rights thus defined. To put it briefly, what Parekh was saying was in no way reactionary and seemed more to be an attempt to protect the advances we have made from those who would attack them. To this end he argued for the separation of the debate on equality from the debate on human rights. The basic human rights, insofar as they concern equality, are ensuring only that we are all treated as equally human in being granted our basic right to human dignity.

But I'm sure I must have missed the point (I think my only reader at the moment - from what my stats are telling me - may be someone who can tell me that I have), because by placing the limitations that he does on the application of the language of human rights, Parekh seems to reduce it so far that it remains only as language. 'Human rights' have lost all substantive content when we cannot argue that the key demands of egalitarian movements are demands for things which are just as fundamental as anything else, because they are inherent in the concept of basic human dignity and as such are human rights. I would simply not allow that these should be guaranteed but are not of the same status. They may be secondary, in the sense that their importance is in their contribution to the right to human dignity, but not in any other sense, and that which is primary is primary in no sense if these secondary principles are not contained within it.

Parekh is right - many people do deride the language of human rights as we try to extend it to the real-life demands of minority movements, but this is all the more reason to say that it should be extended in this way. We gain nothing in the fight for human rights or in the fight for equality if we do not demand that both be accepted by those who currently pay lipservice to one and no notice to the other. Human rights are not advanced by the limitations which Parekh proposes. Rather, they are reduced to an empty shell, which all might be persuaded to accept, but at the cost of rejecting what it is that they really stand for.

Huttonise history 

The spoofs have begun, but the Guardian would rather we provide our own...

Meanwhile, the serious debate goes on, and has become newly entrenched. Having been thrown by the Hutton verdict, all the papers have now set out their new but somewhat familiar battle lines. Some have called for an enquiry into the enquiry. But, given that such an investigation will almost certainly back up the government once again, who would enquire into that enquiry?

Private Eye cover is great this week.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?