Friday, September 19, 2014

Freedom?

A last post about the Scottish Independence referendum. I have to admit I was surprised that the 'No' vote won it by 55% to 45% - I thought that it would be much, much closer. And now there are the celebrations and the hangovers, the reviews and the soul-searching, the triumphalism and the reflection, and of course the yards and yards of newsprint devoted to analysis and talking heads populating the screen.
So, did 'no' win? Did timidity win over temerity? Is it a case of Business as Usual?
I really, really hope not.
This campaign has demonstrated irrefutably that people can become engaged with politics, can engage with difficult issues, and do make a difference. This much the politicos have acknowledged, and so far have made a lot of noise about making changes, including what is in effect a Devo Max deal for Scotland. Yet what politicians such as David Cameron and Ed Miliband are good at is playing a long game - that is, they will carry on being involved in the politics once the media fuss has died down and the circus has moved on to the next spectacle. And, being the politicians they are, they will carry on doing what they do and quietly hoping that it will be very much Business As Usual.
If that happens, we will only have ourselves to blame, should it be the case that what we really want is a change to the way power and money are shared across the country, but we do nothing to effect that change.
Democracy is of the people, by the people and for the people, and is far too precious to be left to a chamber of technocrats and people who've known each other since they were at school or university together. It has taken this referendum to reawaken the debates that should have dominated the political process since at least 2008. Look at what happens if we slumber: We have MPs' scandals expenses that rumble on but don't really change; We elect a police commissioner who won't resign despite his clear failure to act during the Rotherham child abuse scandal; We have bankers' bonuses rising once more to obscene levels, and the wealth gap between the very richest and the rest of us rising to levels that have not been seen for more than a hundred years; And we have a government that seems to flail in every contrary wind.
For this awakening, we should be grateful to the people of Scotland. And if we lose our freedom, having been shown it, then shame on us.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kids with guns

I'm writing this not long after the murder (not execution:that implies some form of judicial process, not arrant barbarity) of British aid worker David Haines at the hands of IS, and after an announcement of a coalition of nations to fight it. I can't help but feel that the members involved range from eager to barely lukewarm at best.

How do you stop such barbarity? Do you fight fire with fire? Do you, as Bishop Almaric allegedly said at the sack of Beziers, say 'Kill them all. God will know his own', as you destroy everything and all in your path, and leave nothing but cinders in your wake?
IS is a formidably well-armed, but also well-organised, system. Its brutality is not random and it has precedents in the past to which it supposedly looks with such warped reverence. Throughout history, people have been terrified of marauding armies and the atrocities they carry out, whether in truth or fiction. This current group just happen to be a lot more tech-savvy and know how to use social media to disseminate their message, and, to a  certain demographic, make it look like some kind of Boys Own-type adventure.

I think that the 'Boys' bit of that sentence is one of the more crucial parts to understanding how IS behave - that is, their front line grunts are largely teenagers and young men. Pretty much, in fact, like any army anywhere in the world. All armed services work in a similar way when it comes to training up raw recruits - essentially, kids are broken down and built back up in the interests of the system that needs them: They are made to feel that they are part of something bigger, stronger and better: They are given a community, a fraternal system of support - very often a surrogate family. It's no wonder that military life often attracts recruits from the poorer fringes of society, as it provides stability, sustenance and strength, along with adventure and excitement, something always attractive to young men.

That, however, is where all semblance ends. These particular kids with guns, it seems to me, have one thing that is generally erased from a rank and file soldier because it's ultimately detrimental - namely, a grievance. And that grievance is fed and nurtured by a cult-like act of programming that goes far beyond what most militaries do.What is apparent from the videos released by IS, in particular the one by British IS members, is that these are people who feel that they have never been listened to, that they have been marginalised, ignored, despised. They seem like people who felt their lives were going nowhere until the opportunity of glory in war appeared. Someone gives them a gun and it feels as if they have been empowered and liberated - and woe betide anyone who speaks in opposition. They dream of something incorruptible and perfect, yet seek to build it on the tottering fetid corpseflesh of war.

In fact, we have seen this same image again and again over the past decade or so - young men on grainy videos, berating distant people and governments, waving an admonishing finger in the air and exulting in the fact that the are being heard, being feared, being, in a perverse way, respected.
Yes, respect: Isn't that what a lot of gang culture is? Respect, face, maintaining a kind of strength. And having weapons makes it all the easier, because for such people, creating fear through the use of force is mistaken for being strong, for being respected.

So, how do we stop the kids with guns? I don't have any answers really. Kill them? Get ready to kill the next generation to come along afterwards, then. Ban them from coming back into the country after their foreign sojourns? Maybe, but I'm not sure what this would actually achieve. Imprison them? How and where do you hold them? How do you deprogramme them from their beliefs?

The problem, however, is not about to go away.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Credo! Credo! Get your Credo while it's hot!

Belief is a weird thing.

It doesn't matter if the truth is in front of you, stark, bare and ugly, if someone wishes to believe that what is in front of them is not true, then lo and behold, it is not true.

If I want to believe that a brown teapot revolves around the sun, and that on some planet far, far away and far, far ago live a race of unicorns that fart pink glitter, then who are you to disprove me, you bloody heretic?

Belief shouldn't really work, yet it does. Faith really does move mountains. Sometimes, these mountains might be heaped piles of heads, yet faith moves them.

Regular readers of this blog may recall my aversion to peas, my young encounter with an advert for said legume and the disastrous outcome of believing the hype. Ever since then, I have had a difficulty with belief and faith of any kind, but in particular with the following:

Anyone who says they have a 'passion' for something or other while wearing a suit.
Advertising and advertisers.
Politicians.
A certain kind of 'religious' person.

What do they all have in common? Well, they're all out to flog something or other to people, and in return relieve others of their money, or their vote, or their humanity, or their soul. I should know: I used to sell car number plates, a long, long time ago, and believe me on this, there are few jobs more soul-destroying than telesales, selling bloody car number plates. It was a relentless treadmill of drudgery, where a little electronic beep in my earpiece would induce a Pavlovian reaction as I put on my best smiley voice and soothingly sold a little dream in the form of a number plate to adorn the cars of Great Britain.

Strangely, for many callers (Yes! They actually called ME), this dream consisted of having a number plate that said something like A 5 HIT, or A 5 LAG, or K 11 NTS. Seriously. Even celebrities from TV were avid for the damn things - Jim Bowen was a regular punter, for example. I never understood the allure, but here's the thing: I was damn good at selling the bloody things. I could fill the most drab and tedious of numbers with a hidden allure, just by using my best telephone manner. I could make people believe in what they were buying. I sounded as if I believed, as if I had a passion for selling what was in reality something rather worthless, that I could imbue a few numbers and letters with a mystic power significant only to the person I was in communion with, and make them believe.

And, three minutes later, anything up to £500 poorer.

I know what belief sounds like, because I can make the noises myself, and so I am never very easily convinced by those who would have me believe that they have my best interests at heart, that their product will make my life tangibly better just by being in my possession, that their policies will be all the better for my vote, that my soul will shine all the brighter if I just follow them.

You might think, from all I've just said, that I'm an out-and-out atheist, but actually I'm agnostic - I cannot demonstrate that God, as a being beyond the known universe, doesn't exist - although I don't think the God that seems to have a surprisingly narrow moral and ethical agenda that looks suspiciously like the anthropocentric concerns of humanity is for real.
Blimey, that was a long sentence.
Anyway, I am generally agnostic on most issues, as you will have seen from my entries on the Scottish referendum. I largely remain to be convinced on a lot of things - I immediately want to know where the evidence is, or what research backs a statement up, or how such and such can be justified.
This is all very good for academic work, but it does tend to send my nearest and dearest up the wall when we talk, to put it mildly, as I can come over as wilfully contrarian.
Which I'm not.
Well, sometimes.
Having said all that, however, it has become inescapably evident to me over the years that we do need faith, we do need belief, we need hope and dreams, not just for ourselves, but in order to live, to cooperate, and to thrive in this world. It might be the invisible belief that things will just work when we need them to, or the faith that the bits of metal and paper we carry round in our pocket actually have a kind of value that can be used to buy things. It might be the beliefs we develop over a lifetime, that one political party is better and more likely to be on our side than the other, or that wearing ties makes you stupid (I'll explain this one in a later entry). Or indeed, the faith that beyond this waking world is another land of eternal bliss - or eternal punishment.
We need to believe in order to live, and the problem with this is that it's eminently exploitable, whether it is by the boss of a company saying he or she has a passion for, let's say, manufacturing wingnuts, or an advertisement for a fast car, or a politician saying he'll deliver on his promises for, let's say, national independence, or for the preacher who says he can shepherd your soul into the Maker's fold.
A lot of the time, faith and belief is a good thing: It's a cohesive device that binds families, communities, societies and nations, yet it is also so, so easily abused.
As we have seen through the entire Middle East, the cradle of the Three Faiths that dominate the Earth, belief can be a raven, from Tony Blair and George W Bush selling the world the myth of the 'weapons of Mass Destruction' in 2003, to the iron belief of Israeli prime ministers taht they can attack civilian populations with impunity, to the murderous, vile, apostate faith of IS in Iraq and Syria at present.

You don't catch many agnostics bombing the hell out of a nation, or beheading someone for their lack of agnosticism.

And yet, for all the ill that belief and faith can do, still we must have some kind of belief, have some kind of faith - not one that says 'I am right and they are wrong', but one that says that things can get better and that people can be, in essence, good.

Anyway, that is the faith I will hold: Given a choice of direction, people will generally opt for the good, and that it's everyone's job to help where they can.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

How to sell a burglar alarm.

...or, to paraphrase Von Clausewitz, "War is a continuation of trade by other means".


The news has been pretty much uniformally dreadful over the last few months, and the situation in Iraq and Syria, with IS, in Gaza, between Hamas and Israel, and in Ukraine, with the Russians, has had the press in an almost continual apocalyptic fervour. I even heard someone on Radio Four this morning gravely considering the chances of a nuclear exchange between Russia and NATO.

So, are we on the verge of World War Three, yet again? Erm, no, we aren't.

Probably.

Of course, you have every right to chuckle and say 'told you so!' if you happen to be reading this in the future from the smoking, radiation-blighted, mutant zombie-infested wreckage of the Earth. Except you would, of course, be dead, or a zombie.
Several of this blog's critics gather to laugh at me.

For starters, I think, rather than being distinct wars, we're really still caught in one continual Great War, one that has flared and burst out sporadically globally for at least the last hundred years. Just because it hasn't been going on in Europe or America doesn't mean it hasn't been going on elsewhere, and I suspect that is how future historians (possibly radioactive mutant zombie ones) will see this current epoch.

One thing a future historian might note, however, is the way in which almost-big conflicts broke out, or rather didn't break out. Ukraine is one of these. This isn't to belittle all the people who have been killed, injured and terrorised on both sides: Rather, I'd point out that if Russia really wanted to subjugate Ukraine, they would have done it by now. As I write, a tentative permanent ceasefire has been announced by the Ukrainian President, which is, of course good news should it hold.

The fact is that Russia has no real interest in a land grab. It does, however, have a very real interest in stirring up the news, a bit like a newspaper stirring up a 'controversy' during the dog days of August - it is very, very good for business. And it's not just good for Russia: Both Britain and the United States stand to make good money out of any security scare. Just witness the £3.5 bn armoured vehicle deal signed at the NATO meeting, for example. And the US will be making a pretty penny out of upgrading the UK's Trident systems.

It is a truism that some people always make money out of a war, but currently it seems that everyone is trying to make a buck out of conflict, except for the people right in the firing line. Now, sometimes wars have to be fought - IS, for example, should be extirpated - but it's these 'almost-wars', or conflicts that seriously weaken, but don't kill, the enemy, that are perhaps more perniciously immoral, because behind the face of battle you find the same people, again and again, trading with each other.

It would not surprise me entirely to discover that while Vladimir Putin is shouting out one thing in public, he's having pally conversations in private to ensure that trade isn't too restricted, that the price of gas doesn't go quite so high, that embargoes don't bite quite so hard.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong, and the world is about to go Ka-Boom.
Apocalypse, 80's style.

In which case, you might need to trade whatever you can get hold of in the post-apocalyptic world.

For example, a burglar alarm that warns you of attack by radioactive mutant zombies.

To sell one of these, the technique is simple: Throw a brick through the window of a house, then knock on the door and say, 'Those damn zombies are trying to break in - this'll keep you safe!'

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Wee Free Freedom! (Last part)

Things have been hotting up north of the border. 

It appears that speakers from both sides of the independence debate are getting shouted down at public meetings and in some cases having things thrown at them. With only days to go before the referendum, this is unnecessary and really does not help either side, succeeding only in entrenching and dividing people.
It's also a shame, because the debate on the subject has become much more interesting and nuanced over the past few months, and it's that debate that I want to hear, as it raises issues about democracy and representation for the whole of the UK, not just Scotland.
It boils down to one simple question, really: Who do we want to represent us politically? This, in turn, leads us to ask Tony Benn's 5 Questions regarding power.

What has arisen, I think, is that the 'Yes' camp is far more varied in what it wants from independence than is sometimes represented in the media. Certainly, it would appear that people living in the Shetlands, the Orkneys and the Hebrides either regard Holyrood as being no better than Westminster, or would like to have power devolved more directly to them. By contrast, the 'Better Together' (a.k.a. 'No') Camp seem to be far more homogeneous, to their detriment. Why their detriment? Because they have painted themselves into a corner in some ways: they cannot talk about the issues regarding representation without actually providing reasons to vote for independence.
So, who should be our representatives? Should we be tied in perpetuity to what is in effect a  two-party system? Must we get stuck with politicians who are more obsessed with a party stance and getting elected than actually doing the job to which they have been elected - governing on our behalf? Who controls the economy? Why should a relatively small group of people have so much power and to what extent are they accountable (or not) to the people?
The very best of the debate (and that is most certainly not the televised grandstanding between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling) has asked these questions, and they are pertinent to life within the whole of the UK. With the economy 'recovering' (for whom?), house prices are rising at absurd levels; prices are rising, while wages remain relatively stagnant; The NHS is being privatised by stealth, while it has become abundantly clear that the privatisation of our resources and industries has not turned us into a nation of shareholder, but instead allowed those shares to be owned by overseas investors; The very people who were culpable to a large extent for the financial disasters of 2008-9 are still in position and in fact have done very well from downturn; And the current government seems to be in thrall to the money.
And yet nowhere in England or in Wales is anyone really questioning the status quo. Only in Scotland are these questions being raised, debated and considered.
Quite honestly, given the few issues I've put above, who wouldn't want independence?
Well, I've stated before that I'm agnostic on the issue. And besides, I don't get to vote on the thing.
I think there are two questions that anyone pondering whether to vote 'yes' can ask. They are 'How?' and 'When?', and these work when put to any of the proposals laid out by either side. For example, the one about currency - 'How will we use the pound post-independence?' (a question that to my mind has not been satisfactorily answered by either side), and 'when will this happen?'
If all of the 'How' and 'when' questions can be answered satisfactorily and clearly, then I think that a 'yes' vote is actually a no-brainer. People want assurance, but assurance on such an issue is not enough -a concrete road map of what is most likely to happen will be the thing to win the issue, even if some of what may be will  involve difficulty and even hardship for a time.
Finally, just one thought: There are times, when you don't know what to do and you can't decide, that you've got to take a punt.
Good luck to all of us.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tribes.

Ahem.
Apologies for the long hiatus in writing. I suppose I should apologise for interrupting the silence with writing.
I have found myself, over the last few months, at a loss as to what to say about anything: it seemed every time I put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, stale, lumpen phrases would emerge, ruining the pristine whiteness of the page or screen with a kind of grey detritus. Of course, what we write and say are as reflections of our mental state, supposedly, so I can only assume that my dominant mode of thought has been stale, lumpen and grey. A bit like a dead whale or something. The thing with dead whales is, given the right conditions, they eventually explode.
Now, I'm not saying that my mind is on the verge of blowing up and covering all and sundry with putrid viscera, although you may disagree by the time you reach the end of this article. Rather, I'm writing in reaction to a local something that has left me feeling somewhat beslimed.
I could write about Syria, and Iraq, and Gaza, and Israel, and the whole damn mess of the Middle East, and in fact, I will later; I could write about the Scottish Independence Vote further, and I still have a little more to say about it, in fact; I could write about Ukraine and Russia, or Cops and Residents in Ferguson, MO.
I could write about all these, and mine would be just another little voice, another little article, in the great sea of voices, the clamouring great winedark ocean of opinion.
Instead, I'm going to write about tribes. Or rather, not: I'm going to respond to some spectacularly ill-judged and misinformed statements about 'tribes' that I and several hundred others had the misfortune to be in the presence of some little while ago. First off, would you consider yourself to belong to a tribe? What is a tribe, anyway? Is it the same as a family or a clan? Is it a group of like-minded families gathered together in the name of communal protection? Is it a religious affiliation? Is it a gang? Is it a bunch of people who share the same workspace, or do the same job?
I happen to think the word 'tribe' has tremendous connotations attached to it, and I don't mean 'tremendous' in a good way. It smacks of colonialism to my mind: It has the whiff of a mildewed solar topee attached to it, of an elderly man with extravagant moustaches and a fly swatter made from an elephant's tail regaling someone with tales of the Raj from his retirement villa in Eastbourne. It implies, even confers, a kind of inferiority to anyone so apparently unfortunate as to be assigned to a tribe. The word conjures up images of savages who need to be quelled, educated and conformed. Hence my tendency to squirm whenever I hear it being used.
So you can imagine my discomfort and slight shock when I heard someone say the following: 'In Africa, people belong to different tribes and if they meet, they fight'.
Yes. Right.
So.
I mean, erk.
This statement seems to have come freshly packaged, hot and steaming, straight out of the 1930s. It ignores the fact that Africa consists of more than one country, for starters. It ignores the demarcations of religion, language, borders, culture and politics and jumps for the lumpen blitheness of 'tribes'.
Thankfully, nothing was mentioned about 'waving spears' or 'heathen savages', so thank God for small mercies.
There was, however, more in this vein.
How about this?
'The Sunnis are a tribe. The Shia are a tribe. ISIS is a tribe.'
Yes. Right.
So.
I mean, erk.
Where do you start with this kind of misguided statement? ISIS are not a tribe. Try 'Murderous bunch of apostate millennialist loonbars', and you'd be closer to the mark. But tribe they are not. In fact, they're very much an Equal Opportunities murderous bunch of loonbars, as they will allow anyone to behead somebody as long as they're of a Sunni disposition.
So are the Sunnis and Shias tribes? Er, no, they're sects of Islam, much in the same way that Protestants and Catholics are sects. Along with Alevis, Alawites, Wahabbis, Ba'hai........
In short, the ongoing wars of the Middle East are more on sectarian lines, yet even then that is too simplistic an interpretation. It certainly isn't however, about tribes ganging up on each other.
The speaker hadn't finished there, however.
Here's another little (vintage) nugget:
'In Yugoslavia, the tribes started killing each other there, and look how many died.'
Yes. Right.
So.
I mean, erk.
I'm pretty sure the Bosnians, Serbs, Croatians, Slovenians and Montenegrins would not see themselves as 'tribes'. When it fractured after the end of the cold war, it split along spurious ethnic and religious lines - in particular between the Orthodox Serbs and the Muslim Bosnians. I say 'spurious' ethnicity because there's precious little evidence to suggest that any of the five nationalities is ethnically different - and indeed, they speak pretty much the same language!
So, a tribe isn't about ethnicity, or family, or language, or culture, or religion (which is admittedly as aspect of culture). Yet tribes, apparently, are a cause of tension, unrest, fear, destruction and death, at least according to the speaker I had the misfortune to be in the vicinity of.
The overall message that the person speaking was I think trying to get across, and failing rather spectacularly, was this: Tribes Kill Other Tribes.
No, they don't. People Kill People. Just because the person being murdered happens to belong to a different 'tribe' doesn't mean it's a 'tribal' thing. And instead of the negatively-freighted word 'tribe', why not use 'group' or 'gang' or, bigger still, 'community' or 'nation'? The speaker could have. After all, if 'tribe' just means 'a collection of people with more or less common affiliation of one kind or other', then that covers a multitude of sins, as it were.
And talking of tribes is so belittling - call them what they are. People.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Istanbul! seven things I noticed...

A post a little bit after the event, but later is better than never...
My girlfriend, Sue, and I spent five days in the Big Stan during the Easter holidays, and had a great time. It's been four and a bit years since I was last there, but the changes have been really noticeable. Just thought I'd share what was most memorable:
..and a collage of the five hundred or so pics I took.
1) The Metro System
This was only really properly getting under way back in 2009, and I remember when I first boarded the original line from Atakoy to Aksaray back in the 90's. I have to say that, as far as the main centres are concerned, this is a really well-conceived and joined-up, something I never thought I would say about the state of Istanbul's traffic twenty years ago. I even risked the dodgy plumbing of the Mamaray, the line going under the sea between Sirkeci and Kadikoy, and was genuinely astonished by the speed of the service. The Istanbul travel card (similar to an Oyster Card in London) was also a definite plus. 
Having said that, from the journeys I did, it seems that it is an effective service only for certain, wealthier parts of the city.
2) Kadikoy
It's been absolutely yonks since I last went there, and I was pleasantly surprised by it - the Carsi is an excellent area of small lanes full of different types of food shops, and the restaurant and bar scene is much livelier than it once was.
3) Kumkapi
Disappointing, with the exception of the live street music - I found the menus a bit uninspiring, and the food wasn't much cop, with the exception of some genuinely exquisite fresh mackerel fillets. The place hasn't aged well.
4) Wine prices
What the HELL is going on with the price of wine?? It's ridiculous: over 40 quid for a mediocre bottle! Just a few years ago, Turkey had a fledgling wine industry that was developing into something bold and interesting - now, the government seems determined to strangle it. Gone, it seems, are the days of buying a bottle of Dog Killer for about 50p.
5) The underground bins, and the relative cleanliness
Seems a bit dumb, but the underground bins in Sultanahmet are a huge improvement on the stinking cat-ridden skips that blocked every corner of a few years ago. The tourist areas are also definitely way cleaner than before.
6) The range of tourists
Again, this may seem odd, but back in the mid nineties, virtually all the tourists were Europeans, Americans, and Japanese: Now, just wandering around the main tourist drags is extraordinarily eclectic, with a significant number of visitors from all round the Middle East, possibly because of the Magnificent Century factor.
7) A different kind of edge
This is a bit hard to quantify, but it was something that I felt - Istanbul seemed to have a different atmosphere in the people on the street. It was as if its febrile air of hustle and trade had been subtly changed to have something else, a tension that was waiting to be released, a sensation of almost imperceptible fear. The only way I can express it is that it was as if the whole city was keeping one eye over its shoulder to check who could be listening.