Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Getting the cliches to work for you

It's funny how quickly your perspective can change. I used to be firmly convinced that the endlessly repeated phrase "hard working families" was mere politician's cant - a cheap rhetorical device to reassure the tax-resenting voter that his hard won cash wasn't being frittered away on the undeserving (by implication singles, gays, pensioners, the unemployed, DINKYs or maybe the merely lazy).

Following the birth of my son on Friday, I realise that in fact families are the very core of British society and are hugely deserving of all the largesse the government cares to shower on them us. Moreover, it is right and proper that wastrels who lack the capability or commitment to form their own hard working family be prepared to make sacrifices so that right-thinking folks can be given the help they need to forge a stronger, better Britain.

I mean, two middle-class professionals with one child to look after? We need all the help we can get.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Hark to the call of the silent majority

I always liked Holmes' insight about the silent dog in the nighttime. The idea that you can deduce as much from a negative as a positive is a powerful one, and often consoling when you find all your best efforts falling apart. But you can take it too far. Tread warily around the man who claims that the very absence of evidence for his thesis is proof of its perceptive accuracy:

"But I noticed something else as well: something that wasn't there. Every other issue I mentioned was picked over and debated. One was not. It concerns the most glaring democratic deficit over which this government has presided, yet almost everyone is too polite to mention it."

You and I might think that if nobody wants to talk about an issue, it's because they don't think it's an issue. Not so but otherwise. That polite silence is the sound of furious agreement. Else, we would have some curious situation where right-thinking people did not agree with George Monbiot - theoretically possible, of course, but too outlandish to seriously consider.

The rest of the article is merely yet another rehash of the West Lothian Question ("Where's West Lothian?"), and is interesting only insofar as it throws up a hitherto unsuspected parochialism in Monbiot's understanding of carbon emissions:

"Had Heathrow's third runway been debated only by English MPs, the proposal would have been resoundingly defeated; it was approved by 19 votes, after 67 MPs from the other nations were induced to support the government. They can support such measures without any electoral risk, as their constituents are not directly affected."
I'd understood that emissions and the resulting damage to the climate were a problem for everyone; now it seems that the Scots, Northern Irish and Welsh are immune. Or at least not "directly affected" while (presumably) voters in Cumbria are right at ground zero.

It's in the nature of democracy that people not "directly affected" still get a vote. MPs for land-locked constituencies have a say in fisheries policy; you don't need a car factory in your back yard to vote for a bailout. And you can bet that Monbiot was none too troubled by the idea of urban MPs voting against fox-hunting. And that's fine. It's probably a good thing, in fact, that we strive for some collective say in the sort of nation we want to live in as opposed to leaving decisions to those directly affected, thus reducing our political process to a knife-fight between people whose interests are by definition directly opposed. If the goal is a just and equitable solution, that approach is somewhat lacking.

You can't fight the zeitgeist

First zombies, now extra-terrestrial ritual hunters. Some people really resented their English lessons, didn't they?

But they've got the mythos wrong. It's been well established (Schwarzenegger vs Man in Rubber Suit) that the Predator will only attack armed opponents (rebel guerrilas, Navy Seals, old black cops just trying to clean up their city etc.). Unarmed humans, particularly women, are permanently out of season. Given that a good 70% of the characters in Pride & Prejudice are a) female and b) not accustomed to packing heat, the most likely outcome is that the Predator will merely rip out Darcy's spinal column and sod off back home. Anything else would turn this proposed entertainment into a cynical and crass corruption of a much-loved classic.

Monday, 16 February 2009

What's in a name?

Blackwater, the world's best known mercenary group, have finally faced up to the fact that their conduct in Iraq has made them a byword for corporate thuggery and... changed their name.

It's a rare surrender for a company that cherished a brand name inspired by the dark-water swamps of northeastern North Carolina, one that survived another rebranding effort about a year ago, following a deadly shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square. The decision to give it up underscores how badly the Moyock-based company's brand was damaged by that incident and other security work in Iraq.

Even before the PR disaster of opening fire on civilians, Blackwater was never the most reassuring name for a global purveyor of violence. The new name, "Xe", by contrast plumps for the definitively meaningless, and as such in no way sounds like a shadowy league of assassins.

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
Took wages: shot civilians dead.

The good news is their contract's ended;
Bad reputations still cost you pay;
But with time some wounds are mended:
Rebranded, they'll be back one day.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

----Zombie Update ----

Two pieces of Zombie news this week:

In the "don't know whether to laugh or cry" category, we have this forthcoming publishing sensation:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead.

I admit that there is potential in this:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that an revenant corpse in possession of good mobility must be in want of braaaaiiiiinss."

"Believe me, my dear Miss Elizabeth, that your modesty, so far from doing you any disservice, rather adds to your other perfections. You would have been less amiable in my eyes had there not been this little unwillingness; but allow me to assure you that I have your respected mother's braaaiiinnnsss. You can hardly doubt the purport of my discourse, however your natural delicacy may lead you to dissemble; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken. Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as braaaiiinss. But before I am run away with by my feelings on this subject, perhaps it will be advisable for me to state my reasons for marrying -- and moreover for coming into Hertfordshire with the design of selecting braaaiiiinnnss, as I certainly did."

However, as the publishers claim that this "insanely" funny novel will introduce Austen's classic work to a new generation of fans, I'm going to come down on the side of weeping.

In other news, Oliver Kamm reveals that, whatever his many other attributes and accomplishment, he will be little more than dead weight when World War Z kicks off

UPDATE: A reader asks reasonably, in the comments below: "Is there any kind of evidence that you would accept as evidence for the supernatural?"
There is. In John's Gospel (11: 43-44) we read: "And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin."
If a man who has been dead for four days, such that "by this time he stinketh", is brought back to life then I will unhesitatingly accept this as evidence of supernatural intervention.

Bad instincts Kamm. When confronted with four-day-old walking corpses, your only unhesitating response should be to destroy the brain or remove the head. What good shall it profit a man if he gaineth his soul, but loseth his brains?

Collective Punishment Works

That might be the lesson taken from this pair of stories:

UN Halts Gaza Aid Over "Thefts";

UN To Resume Aid Supplies To Gaza.

The timeline seems pretty conclusive: Hamas steals UN food supplies; UN withholds all supplies; Hama returns food. A successful piece of hardball negotiation, you might think. But what were the ethics of withholding the food?

At one level, it seems like an action taken against Hamas. The intention, certainly, was to withhold the food from them. But, given that UNRWA is the only or main supplier of food to Gaza, the effect was to make the entire population of Gaza suffer for Hamas' actions. And, in fact, UNRWA almost certainly did intend to use that suffering, and the (further) unpopularity it would cause Hamas' in Gaza, as the incentive for Hamas to change its ways.

Israel's longer and more comprehensive blockade of Gaza was held, by no means unreasonably, to be collective punishment of civilian's for the actions of their government and as such, arguably a crime against human rights. What of UNRWA? In both cases, we have an entity denying basic and vital supplies to the people of Gaza. In both cases, the purpose is to effect a change in Hamas' policy. What are the differences?

One difference is the scope of the issues. Israel's blockade was aimed at weakening and isolating Hamas generally, as an enemy of Israel, as well as forcing a ceasefire. The UNRWA's withholding of aid was directly related to a specific Hamas action - the theft of that aid. So UNRWA could argue that their actions were not punishing Gazans for the fact that Hamas holds power there. UNRWA could also argue the lack of alternatives: either it sent in aid trucks, or it didn't. Lacking it's own enforcement capability, what choices did it have?

However, just because your only option is an unethical one doesn't mean you have to take it. The key question in fact is what was happening to the food Hamas confiscated. If it was being distributed by Hamas as a "public works" PR offensive - that is, if much the same amount of food were going to much the same people as would have recieved it direct from UNRWA - then withholding the food does punish Gazans for the actions of Hamas. If, on the other hand, Hamas distributed the food mainly or exclusively to its own fighters, or used its control of the food supply to maintain or increase its hold on power, or selectively withheld it to punish its internal enemies, then the situation is different. In that case, continuing with food aid would have put UNRWA in the position of supplying and supporting a terrorist group, and effectively of taking sides in an armed conflict. This is, obviously, both in the short and long term, an exceptionally bad idea.

Now, it's not immediately clear what Hamas planned to do with the food supplies. But, and call me prejudiced if you will, I do incline to think the worst of them. So I'd say UNRWA probably did the right thing (which will come as a relief to them, no doubt). But it's interesting how close even humanitarian goals can take us to unethical behaviour.

Monday, 2 February 2009


Under the Conservatives, the people of Britain will both eat their cake and have it, said David Cameron. Speaking at Davos, he outlined the Conservative vision of baking:

"Yes, we're in favour of cake-eating. I've said many times, cake-eating is what drives our economy. But when cake-eating gets in the way of our society, our environment and our values, then we must not sit there and take it, going along with the old orthodoxy that cake-eating is all that matters. We must speak out. It's time to make sure people have cake - even if that means disrupting the global cake-eating agenda. It's time to decentralise baking, so that people can have cake at a local level. We must look after parents and families, and make sure that they have all the cake they need.

Because let me make this clear. Lots of people today are worried that they won't have cake, and angry with the cake-eaters for eating it all. And my party is basically the party of cake-eating. So I'm in a bit of a bind here. That's why I say to the people of Britain, you can have your cake. And to my party I say, of course we'll eat cake. That's what being leader of the Opposition is all about."