Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Flush Out Parliament

In terms of democracy the British have often had a patronising attitude to states where the political system seems to be corrupt.  Of course, with only half of our parliament elected, we have little ground to stand on when commenting on democracy anyway.  However, as the suspension of three former ministers yesterday Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon because of their 'lobbying' activities shows that we have no basis on which to criticise foreign political systems when ours is so clearly corrupt.  Parliament is very good at keeping its dirty secrets secret, but occasionally evidence comes out.  Back in 1994-6 we had the 'cash for questions' scandal that MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, in connection with Ian Greer's lobbying company,  had received payments in order to ask specific questions in the House of Commons.  Other MPs were subsequently criticised by the Nolan Committee for behaving in the same way. 

Starting last year we had a whole string of allegations against MPs who had been doing various dubious things with their expenses, in particular around their second homes, supposedly to allow them to attend parliament more easily.  This followed rumbling complaints against certain MPs from both the Labour and Conservative parties, in 2007-8.  It included ministers like Ed Balls and Jacqui Smith.  In 2009 a whole raft of 'fiddles' by numerous politicians came to light.  The scandal compelled Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin and Jacqui Smith, Geoff Hoon, Hazel Blears, Tony McNulty and Kitty Ussher all resigning their ministerial positions.  A number of Conservatives involved, Andrew McKay, Douglas Hogg, Anthony Steen, Sir Peter Viggers, Sir Nicholas Winterton and Lady Ann Winterton (how come a married couple can both be MPs anyway, is that not wrong in itself?), Christopher Frasier and Ian Taylor all said they would stand down from parliament either immediately or at the next election.  Last night the BBC News Channel gave details of 20 MPs, many of them Labour ones, who have regularly received free holidays in places like Gibraltar, Cyprus, the Maldives and Sri Lanka and then have tabled motions and asked questions in parliament for the benefit of those territories/countries.

The saying is that 'power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely'.  This is why during John Major's terms of office it was the Conservatives who were most prominent in having corrupt MPs and now it is Labour who is at the forefront in such illegal behaviour.  It seems that numerous MPs and ministers, tens of them, have been involved in taking gifts and payments in order to exert influence on the behalf of vested interests.  Stephen Byers was seen likening himself to a taxi, available to exert influence in exchange for payments.  Has Byers never realised what the concept of prostitution is? Stephen Byers is a prostitute.  He does not give sexual favours, but he gives himself entirely in exchange for money.  How have we got to this position?  I suppose part of it comes from the incomplete job that the Nolan Committee did in stemming corruption in the 1990s and that even this year's reaction to the scandal has been muted.  We need to be arresting and imprisoning corrupt MPs otherwise we will not root out this behaviour from the centre of our civil society.  In such a context are we surprised when we find large companies such as BAe are paying bribes to win contracts?  Parliament and its members set an example to the whole of society and at present are showing us that we need to be prostitutes to get on.

I supported the Labour Party until the mid-1990s when it became the Blairite Party.  I think that era when we moved from traditional political parties to the personality focused ones, that keep reminding me of the Peronist politics of Argentina and Gaullism in France.  Tony Blair himself, while not being charged with corruption, has gone on to an extremely prosperous career being paid large sums to speak and share his 'wisdom'.  Having a party which focused on personalities rather than policies and clearly elicited people seeking influence, the whole Bernie Ecclestone, Hindujas, Cool Britannia scams, characterised politics in the 1990s and into the 2000s.  Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London (2001-8) and a Labour MP 1987-2000 (he remained an MP until 2001 but without the Labour whip), sees the era of Tony Blair's governments with their focus on money rather than policies as being crucial in moving us into an era of very widespread 'sleaze' going beyond just a few corrupt MPs to tens of them behaving in this way.

The fact that Lord Mandelson was compelled to resign twice due to dubious dealings and yet was still able to return to official positions and then receive a peerage because he was favoured by Tony Blair sent out a signal that a blind eye would be turned to such dubious behaviour.  After his first resignation in 2000 over an improper payment for his home, Mandelson should never have been allowed to come anywhere near government ever again.  The fact that he was appointed a minister again and had to resign in 2001 over his connection with the Hindujas again on the basis of improper influence being wielded showed so many MPs that might have been thinking about behaving corruptly, that they would not suffer a great deal even if caught behaving that way.  Even while Commissioner for Trade in the European Commission questions were asked about Mandelson connections with leading business people under investigation by the EU.  Mandelson was made a baron in 2008 and entered the government for the third time.  Is it surprisingly that so many have followed this role model's behaviour?

How do we resolve this situation?  The first step is to press criminal charges.  If taking money for asking questions or exerting political pressure is not yet strictly criminal behaviour it must become so immediately and people must be arrested and imprisoned when found guilty of breaking that law.  The second thing is that we need to entirely flush out parliament of all of those who have been there in this corrupt phase.  I would say that any MP currently in the House of Commons must stand down at the next election and we have an entirely new house that would come in on the basis of the new laws.  I acknowledge that that would leave us with an inexperienced parliament and government, so the compromise would be to limit all MPs to only two terms of office.  Thus, we could retain anyone who was elected in the 2005 election or by-elections since.  Anyone who has been in parliament any longer must now leave.  Anyone elected in 2005 would have to leave in 2015 at the latest and anyone who is elected this year would have to go in 2020 at the latest.  Five years is more than enough time to build up experience.  Of course, some MPs will again become corrupt, but hopefully the new laws would punish them and importantly a culture like Britain of the old days, would be established that eschewed what has become an acceptance of corrupt behaviour.  It always has to be challenged.  Ernest Bevin, Labour Foreign Secretary 1945-51 used to dine with business leaders and they probably exerted influence through him.  However, it seems that corruption was far less rife than it has become today.

While I would not advise that we move to the Chartists' demand of a parliament every year, I certainly would reduce the life of parliaments say to 3 or 4 years to stop people becoming established in the post and so prone to exerting influence in the interests of others.  Perhaps we could make it so that an MP could sit only for 3 x 3-year parliaments or if you insist 4 x 3-year parliaments.  People argue that short governments lead them to make crowd pleasing policies, but that happens even now with 4 or 5-year parliaments.  The UK has constantly neglected long-term planning anyway.  I would have more confidence if policies were not being introduced by MPs doing it because they were being paid to behave that way and who were not corrupt in themselves.  We need to flush out the corruption from parliament.  It is already a gift to the extremists such as the UKIP and BNP who argue that they are untouched by such corruption, because if they gained influence then a lot of us would be finding policies and behaviour that we would find unpalatable in terms of equality, democracy and personal freedom.  We are at a turning point.  Voting in a Conservative government will bring no change as their MPs are as mired in this corruption as those of Labour.  We need thorough reform and new ways of parliament being run to finally clear away the corruption we are seeing and to ensure as best we can that it does not return to our political life in the future.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The 'They're So Privileged' Brand of Racism

People often say that the British, in contrast to our European neighbours, are reluctant to talk about politics.  However, in my experience there is one type of politics they seem to have no embarrassment in sounding off about and that is racist politics.  Anyone who travels in a taxi knows that within a matter of moments of the car starting you will be subjected to a string of racist comments that sound they come straight from the BNP manifesto.  Ninety percent of taxi drivers, men and women, seem compelled to outline their racist views.  Even the black comedian Lenny Henry has commented on this, noting the exception that they make for him 'well, of course, Lenny, I'm not talking about people like you' as if that permits them to continue with their diatribe.

I encountered this phenomenon last night not in a taxi but when I was waiting to pay for a meal.  The man, probably in his fifities, who was in front of me was contesting his bill.  He was correct that it had been added up wrongly, it turned out he had worked as a croupier so was skilled at mental arithmetic, more skilled than the restaurant staff were at punching numbers into a calculator.  Perhaps it was his victory which seemed to save him £5 that meant he was bullish at outlining his racist views to anyone in earshot, with me, being behind him in the queue, being the prime target.  Of course, he made no attempt to assess if I was open to his lecture, because like so many bigots he assumed that what he was saying was 'common sense' and so could not be challenged and must be accepted by any sane person.  His statements reminded me of a brand of racism that I have often encountered down the years but had simply lumped together with the other forms.

You will often come across people who have the conviction that certain sectors of society are getting privileges that the rest of us cannot access.  The target is usually lone parents, asylum seekers and/or immigrants.  They believe that these people are getting easy access to social welfare payments which exceed the norm and that they can jump the queue in terms of housing and other provision.  To force home this point they emphasise how undeserving the people are, usually they are portrayed as a combination of 'not wanting' to work, being feckless, creating children simply to gain financial benefits, unable to speak English, quite often criminal and these days, probably associated with extremist or terrorist activities.  The speaker feels that in line with the sense of deserving/undeserving poor, that such people are on the undeserving side.  They have no knowledge of how low benefit payments are to anyone, how difficult it is for new arrivers in the UK to claim anything and the poor quality of a lot of accommodation councils are compelled to house people in.

The sting in this type of racism is that it not only attacks the individuals themselves, who are often, though not always, from a different ethnic group from the speaker, but also some faceless bureaucracy that for some reason delights in awarding these bounteous gifts to the people the speaker despises.  There is no sense that somehow the civil service or councils have been penetrated by the agents of foreign powers, just a simple assumption that people in such roles have a desire to privilege lone parents and people born abroad or even just British people of non-Caucasian ethnicity.  I have worked in different branches of the civil service, and while most civil servants are not racist (though some I have known clearly are), neither do they have a desire to privilege any social or ethnic group.  Even if they did, there are very strict rules about what can be given to anyone and the application process for housing or benefits is very lengthy, complex and thorough.  No benefits are simply dished out, despite the assumption that racist speakers make.  In fact if English is not your first language, it is incredibly hard to navigate your way through all the forms you have to complete to get any benefits.

This assumption, often fostered by tabloid newspapers, that the despised groups in society are in fact the privileged ones not only gives a point on which to bash these groups but also to attack the ordinary people who administer the UK's civil service and council services, who, as it is, often come in for verbal and even physicl attack while trying to do such work.  No wonder it is so difficult to recruit social workers when they are accused either of not intervening soon enough when a child or woman dies or, in fact, more commonly, 'sticking their noses in' when people, particularly men, want to run their families in a harsh, often abusive, way.  They do a tough job but simply come constantly under fire for whatever they do.  Of course, the people making such allegations never would even consider taking a job like that.  Their assumptions are that, there will always be people willing to step forward to do such hard work, though, of course, they will be doing it wrongly and privileging the 'wrong' people.  It is all too easy to leave it to the state to pick up the pieces from the distorted society and economy caused by thirty years of Thatcherite policies while still whining on constantly about how poorly or incorrectly they are doing it.

The man in front of me had worked in the Bahamas and this allowed him to add an extra layer to the complaints he was making to anyone who would listen.  He whined that in the UK that black people, as a minority, are privileged, even though 48% of black males aged 16-24, 31% of Asian males of this age group and 20% of white males at that age are unemployed; a fifth of black men of all ages are unemployed, so who is being privileged?  Institutional racism still makes an impact on getting a job.  In the Bahamas, 85% of the population is black, 12% white and 3% Hispanic (which I tend to include in white anyway, but is separated out in the USA), whereas in the UK the population is 92% white, only 2% is black, the remaining 6% being Asian, mixed race or other ethnicities.  So, on the basis of this man's assumptions, white people should be as privileged in the Bahamas as he believes black people are in the UK.  Of course, he did not find that to be the case, and so was angry.  It did not lead him to re-assess his 'common sense' assumption that actually in all countries ethnic minorities tend to be disadvantaged it simply led him to assume that there is a conspiracy straddling different countries to put white people at a disadvantage.  He did not delight in the fact that he could move back and forth between countries and had always been in work and was clearly wealthy enough to take twenty people to dinner, even if just in a chain restaurant.  He had found a basis to whine about how unfairly treated he had been.

As the man's racism began to move into an area which in my experience is uncommon even in public diatribes of such people, I simply walked away.  He had got into full stride arguing that as the Bahamas were once a British colony (self-governing since 1964; independent from 1973) and still has the British Queen as its monarch, then the whites should be in control.  His views that they would do a better, fairer job belong in the 19th century, though even then they were wrong.  It is interesting to find someone who subscribes to the 'white man's burden' view of the current world.  I imagine if I had stayed around long enough I would hear how the white man is so much more superior to other races, though this falls down even on the man's own assumptions, because in his world view, black people are extremely clever and assertive in getting benefits that he feels they are not entitled to and do not 'deserve'.  It is alarming that such views are not only held in 21st century Britain but that you run the risk of being bombarded with them when you are simply out for a quiet meal, my first in a restaurant for five months.  I increasingly despair, but see a real need to challenge these toxic assumptions and stop people thinking that such bigotry and hatred is 'common sense' that no-one could rationally question.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Encountering Michael Foot

I met the veteran British Labour politician, Michael Foot, who died last week at the age of 96, twice, with a spread of twenty years between the two occasions.  The first time I met him was in the Autumn of 1979 a few months after the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher had come to power that May.  He was 66 at the time and had broken his ankle.  I remember hobbling up to the urinal next to the one I was using.  I engaged him as best I could while we washed our hands.  He was speaking at a talk on 'Forty Years On' from the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, something he had witnessed as an MP and in 1940 had written 'Guilty Men' attacking the appeasers of Hitler. Interestingly he wrote it under the Classical pseudonym Cato and later wrote another book under the name Cassius.  In some ways I feel an affinity with him in terms of the need to protect your private life and especially those you love, when making political points.

The thing about Foot which I was to witness that day was though at times his speeches wandered, they were always engaging and full of life.  He was able to quote extensively and was very adept at using people's own words against them.  On the day of his death I listened to the speech he made in 1979 (in those days there was only radio coverage not television coverage) at the time of the vote of no-confidence in the Labour government of James Callaghan; it was played on the Parliament channel.  It was both funny and poignant in the ideas and challenges it laid out.  I cannot remember when I last enjoyed a political speech so much.

I met Michael Foot again when he was launching 'Dr. Strangelove, I Presume' (1999).  He was standing in Bloomsbury waiting to be collected.  I had seen him at a bus stop in the Charing Cross Road a couple of years earlier.  Despite his age (86 in 1999), he seemed full of energy.  I had once met his doctor who outlined how he walked vigorously across Hampstead Heath.  He had been rejected from volunteering for the army for the Second World War on the grounds of his asthma and he seemed to wear thick glasses all his life.  One might have thought in his late 80s he was going to slow down, but as it turned out he had another entire decade of life ahead of him. 

Anyway, again I had encountered Foot on his way to an event that I was actually attending myself.  I took the opportunity to approach him and recounted how we had met twenty years earlier, though of course he would not have remembered.  The world seemed incredibly different to 1979 to me and I got a bit of a sense of how the full expanse of his life appeared.  The event was a small scale thing and had a kind of collegiate atmosphere.  Some of the audience seemed to presume that his age was making him forgetful and this seemed to be the case when he did not respond to one question.  The same question was asked again and very honestly, he said that he had not responded to it earlier, though he had taken in on board fully, because he had no answer for it.  It was clear that his mind was as sharp as ever.

Michael Foot was an easy focus for ridicule, something that really haunted him when he was leader of the Labour Party, 1980-83.  He was ridiculed for appearing at the Cenotaph in a duffel coat as if it was offensive.  However, in my eyes, it was practical for a man of his age (Thatcher was 54 when she came to office) standing around in November and to some degree the extent of the ridicule suggests that he was still seen as a challenge by the Conservatives.  In her first term of office Thatcher was not as secure as people now assume.  There was uncertainty even within her own party about the direction she was going in, certainly away from the policies of Edward Heath towards an anti-European Community (ironically something she shared in common with Foot), far more pro-America and certainly pro-nuclear policy, backed by New Right monetarist economic policies which were wrecking so much of British industry.  If it had not been for the Falklands Conflict of 1982 and the populist chauvinism that that threw up she would have found it far harder at the 1983 election than she did.  Politics had turned very nasty as seen by the comedian Kenny Everett's (1944-95) call to a baying Conservative crowd to 'kick away Michael Foot's stick!'.  Foot had used a stick to walk since a car accident in 1963.

Neil Kinnock made a very important point last week about Foot's role in keeping the Labour Party alive during the dark days of the Thatcher regime.  The tendency among many Labour supporters in 1979 and beyond was to become more radical and move over to revolutionary politics.  This threatened to remove the Labour Party from the mainstream of British politics, and as we know from the extreme left and extreme right parties, let alone people like the Green Party, such a location means not having representation in the UK parliament.  Thatcher stated that she wanted to move towards a political system like that of the USA with two parties that were pretty close together around a rather right-wing 'centre' and in a television interview said she wanted to see the end of Socialist and semi-Socialist parties (a way she had characterised the Liberal Party on another occasion).  A more radical Labour Party would possibly have allowed her to do that.  However, given the fact that we have the kind of political pattern that Thatcher wished for, circulating around the Thatcherite Consensus with Labour and the Conservatives so close, perhaps the purging of the extremists under Kinnock after he became leader in 1983 might suggest that it meant moving to what Thatcher desired.

Foot's integrity and willingness to embrace challenging, if not utterly radical policies, meant he could not be beaten down by extremists like Militant Tendency, within his own party.  While Labour now might be shorn of true radicalism it is intact and in fact that might be Foot's greatest legacy.  The creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) including disgruntled right-wing Labour MPs in 1981, showed the risks of fragmentation for the Labour Party.  Even if Labour managed to lose the argument for reforming policies the party did not shatter in the way it had after 1931 condemning it to impotence for a decade or the way the Liberal Party did after 1922 leaving it feeble for the rest of the 20th century.  Becoming a number of small differently shaded left-wing parties would have meant no hope for anyone opposed to Thatcher.  Kinnock had a party to take over even if it had to lose a lot of what he and Foot had stood for before it could come back to power, or, perhaps not, given the irregularities of the 1992 election.

Foot was particularly condemned in the 1980s for supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament.  He did this because he had long believed in the immorality of nuclear weapons, but of course there would have been a real economic benefit for the UK if it had given up on nuclear weapons in the 1980s.  The Trident nuclear weapons cost £1 billion per year to keep and the estimated total is £97 billion by the time they will have been scrapped.  To replace them will costs £130 billion.  These are sums which make bailing out the banks look pretty minor.  The Polaris system, that preceded Trident, which the UK bought for £300 million in 1962 (worth around £6 billion at today's values) .  If this money had gone into hospitals or transport or education or power generation, Britain would be in a very different situation to where it is today.  We know that the fear of a Soviet invasion was constantly falsified and certainly from the 1970s onwards the USSR would have found it impossible to invade West Germany even if they had wanted to.  The Soviets had minimal concern about the UK and yet we had to cripple our economy for the sake of a fantasy, making lots of US arms manufacturers very rich in the meantime.  Even President General Dwight Eisenhower (president 1953-61) spoke of the 'military-industrial complex' that was so influential in the USA and clearly in the UK too.  British jobs were not created by the regular purchase of US nuclear weapons.  The current Labour government does not support the abolition of the UK's nuclear weapons, only the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) backs such a policy even though the Cold War has been over for twenty years.
In many ways, however, Foot represented an older generation of politician.  He was probably out of date even in the 1960s when Labour prime minister Harold Wilson had adopted his pipe and raincoat as his trade marks for the television era.  Foot appeared as he was, an ordinary old man of the kind you might see in the post office.  However, the public want someone with a certain style than marks them out from the ordinary; John Major only really succeeded by being painfully ordinary.  For Foot it would always be ideas and good policies that would mark out a politician but the public no longer felt that, for them style was now more important than substance.

Foot was more of the style of the Gladstone era in which long speeches which showed the erudite knowledge of the speaker were the norm and were a kind of entertainment and education as well as stirring.  In the sound bite age, his wandering speeches could not be easily 'chunked' for the short attention span viewers.  His legacy fed into Neil Kinnock, his successor as leader of the Labour Party, who though far younger (41 when he became Labour leader in 1983) did not shake off the lengthy expositions that Foot had favoured.  These men were right, politics is not simple and simplifying it makes policies have a tendency to error.  However, after the 1970s British society was 'tired of politics' and no-one can be bothered to listen to policy outlined, they would rather have emotionally swaying chunks of information that they can be certain are 'true' without analysing them at all.

Foot held fast to the deeply held views he had.  He was not a pragmatist as that would have been to betray his views.  He was a republican (seeking abolition of the monarchy) and was ardently opposed to nuclear weapons at a time when they had been made to seem 'vital' for Britain despite their huge expense and the hazard they presented.  Similarly he believed in a mixed economy, i.e. with state-run and privately-run businesses, which ironically in the era of the enduring Thatcherite consensus fostered by Tony Blair, we have ended back with.  Yet, the 1980s were seemingly all about 'free enterprise', well in fact not really free, just enterprise for the privileged and the already wealthy.  Whilst millions were losing their jobs this fantasy of a society where ordinary people could be rich was sold very successfully to too many voters.  Foot could not have lied to the public that way.  Providing opportunity for all is costly but is morally right.  In that respect, Foot can be seen as contributing to a humanist morality (he was an atheist) something which seems very at odds in the current UK where we have a choice between selfish, (in effect immoral), behaviour fostered by the right and the left seemingly to adhere to a sense that only faiths can supply morality, especially fostered by the Blairite New Labour, though more muted under Gordon Brown.

Michael Foot was a living reminder of a different, moral-based, intellectually-engaging form of politics which we seem so far away from these days even though the extremities of Thatcherism have been curtailed (for now).  One has to admire someone of such ability and conviction and I feel proud that I was able to meet and talk with him on two occasions.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

'All Rise': Misogynistic Lyrics that Harm

This is one of these postings in which I begin going on about some pop song that you have not heard for ages but which irritates the life out of me whenever I hear it. Perhaps I should gather this one together with 'Red Corvette', 'One of Us' and 'Africa' on my own playlist of irritation. Anyway, in this case the song, 'All Rise' by the boy band 'Blue', released in May 2001, it seems so much more recent, still gets air play; I have heard it three times in the last fortnight and with a new comeback tour scheduled for 2010, I suppose it is time to get all my irritation about the song off my chest.

I take no particular offence to the group who are pretty similar to a lot of boy bands of the early 21st century. They had a reasonable amount of success as a group and on solo projects. What irritates me about their first and seemingly enduring hit (reached No. 4 in the UK charts) is the misogynistic nature of the lyrics. At a time when the media is acknowledging that feminism is under severe attack, it seems that this song is simply another element in that trend. The pushing of girls and women into ultra-feminine, often highly sexualised and always submissive roles and boys and men into muscular, violent, dominant roles is based on consumer goals of companies. By avoiding unisex clothing, toys, devices, etc. you can sell more. The price society pays is to push back the gains made by women since the 1960s and promote violence among young men and physical abuse and sexual exploitation of women.

So, what gets me so het up about 'All Rise'? The song uses a legal metaphor for the singers in the role of a young man to accuse his girlfriend of being unfaithful to him. Phrases from court like 'all rise', 'I rest my case' In addition he is bitter about the 'free rides' and the 'faking' she has been doing, presumably lying about the affair she has been having, though it could be read as him claiming she had faked orgasms. The concept might be fine and clearly the song is catchy and appeals to many listeners which is why it still seems to be on playlists nine years after its release. However, the tone is pretty aggressive: 'With your back against the wall/ Nowhere to run/ There's nobody you can call'. The worst is during the rap break: 'Step in my house you find that your stuff has gone/ But in reality to whom does the stuff belong?/ I bring you into court to preach my order/ And you know that you overstep the border'. So finding his girlfriend unfaithful he has taken back everything he has given her (and the suggestion is that it is natural that he has bought everything she owns because of course he is the economically-dominant male and she is the economically-dependent female) and has simply thrown it all out, despite the fact that 'the decision of the jury has not been spoken'. So, despite all this legal rhetoric to dress up the situation, the man goes ahead and makes his own decision and the punishment is for the woman to lose everything she possesses. If the fictional woman had been having an affair, then given the nature of her partner I would not blame her.

Now, you might say, 'well, why does all this matter? It is only a song.' However, at a time when there is a television campaign aiming to alert teenagers, particularly girls, to abuse in their relationships is it then fine to have a song which says to young men: 'suspect your girlfriend, you have the right to punish her if you think she is unfaithful' and includes backing her alone against a wall? The attitude sums up the worst in macho culture and its behaviour to women. This was why the concept of chivalry was invented to stop knights in brutal medieval times abusing women and others in society. These days such concepts have been thrown out and 'might is right' seems to apply in all cases.

We have all met those thuggish men who are incredibly jealous, often with no just cause, and keep the women around them in fear of retribution if they even look at another man. People in the UK complain that Middle Eastern husbands constrain their wives without seeing that many men in this country, particularly white men, behave in just the way that is condemned elsewhere, but it is acceptable as it is 'their own business' not anyone else's. We need far more positive messages in songs about what is really acceptable behaviour to young women, songs like this do harm. I was gladdened when I heard a new version of this song playing on a number of the 'Heart' radio stations across southern England in recent weeks that has, in particular, cut out the rap break and so toned down the misogynistic message of this song.

Friday, 5 March 2010

The Lack of Good Stories in Hollywood Movies

This posting began as a posting on the discussion board of the Smoking Lounge steampunk group.  However, it seemed to be worthwhile bringing here too.  The discussion on the board was around the recent movie 'The Wolfman', which with its Gothic stylings and theme was liable to appeal at least to some steampunks.  People felt the atmosphere was good but that the story was weak.  This is a criticism which has been levelled at a number of recent movies and I began thinking about why it was the case that with all the effort that goes into the special effects, why the story, which forms the foundation of any movie, is often so poor, especially when I know that every year just in the UK thousands of novels are being written, and at least some of these should be good enough to provide decent stories for movies, let alone if we start thinking about all the fiction that must be written each year in the USA.  Anyway, below are my thoughts on this issue.

In thinking about why good plot is missing from so many Hollywood movies these days I came across a number of reasons that I feel offer some kind of explanation. Of course, sometimes even if there is a decent novel, the adaptation is poor. I have neither seen 'Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief' (2010) nor read the source novel, but all I hear in reviews is that the screenplay is far weaker than the book. Perhaps one reason why the Harry Potters have less a mismatch is because the author has exerted pretty strong control and the British element has been forcefully retained.

It is ironic if you think back to the Hollywood movies, say of the 1940s, when even B-movies often had a better, more engaging plot than many of the blockbusters put out today. I think especially of film noir movies which often have intricate (sometimes too much so, e.g. 'The Big Sleep' (1946)) plot. They had the funds in their day, but if you think that say, 'Casablanca' (1942) is shot on a Californian backlot masquerading as Morocco and it is a romance, there is far more engaging in the characters and the story than many far more visually rich movies of today.

I believe that there are two reasons why Hollywood has a real difficulty these days in getting good stories to the screen. One is an unwillingness to take risks. I remember comments of 'Fatherland' (1994) which ended up going straight to DVD when it was found too few of the audience knew the real outcome of the Second World War to recognise a counter-factual. The ending of the movie is in fact far better than the novel.

One reason why so many comic book characters now feature in movies is because there is no risk with them. They are known to be successful, people know what to expect when they go and see a Spiderman movie, and even with all the reinvention, a Batman one. When steps are taken away from such comfortable norms, even when toned down as with 'Watchmen' (2009) then the movie is not commercially successful.

Another factor is how movies are 'pitched' to get funding. Generally this has to be done in a sentence and so it is far easier to get money for movies which can be explained simply, e.g., "remake of 'The Italian Job'"; "'The Hulk' as a movie"; "Harry Potter as an American kid who's a  half Greek god" and, what in my mind must have been the funniest: 'Casablanca' but with Rick Blaine as a motorbike-riding prostitute with guns [i.e. 'Barb Wire' (1996)], and so on. The system in place predicates against movies which need involved explanation or that come from outside the admittedly extensive US popular cultural references.

Another aspect is the expectations of what happens in a story designed initially for a US audience. I always point to the US movie 'The Vanishing' (1993) compared to the Dutch original, 'Spoorloos' (1988). Hollywood now regularly looks abroad for successes it can bring across especially from France and Japan and in fact has been doing this for decades, e.g. 'Shichinin no samurai' ['The Seven Samurai'] (1954) and 'The Magnificent Seven' (1960). However, bringing it into the US context requires adjustment to make it palatable for the core audience, so with 'The Vanishing' the hero is saved at the last moment rather than slowly asphixiating when buried alive as in the original.

The assumptions of the restoration of status quo ante, the good guys winning over the bad and so on keeps on channeling stories down restricted paths. Why is 'The Empire Strikes Back' (1980) seen as the best 'Star Wars' movie? Because it violates many of these principles. Why is 'The Phantom Menace' (1999) so poor? Because rather than subtly challenging corporate manipulation of government and international relations, it simply presents us with goodie vs. baddie with no doubt about the outcome.

Why did Sherlock Holmes stand out among the numerous contemporary detective stories and is still so popular almost a century later when most have forgotten the rivals (which to my knowledge filled at least five anthologies in the 1970s and 1980s). The reason is the outcome is uncertain. Sometimes Holmes lets the criminal go, sometimes he hands them over to the police, sometimes the criminal escapes either to safety or to face someone else's retribution, sometimes (okay, once) Holmes is killed while killing his opponent. That uncertainty means you enter a Holmes story with so much more up for grabs than with the current batch of movie stories.

There is another factor here, the bulk of the Holmes stories were short stories. As the Harry Potter movies show there is a real difficulty in adapting a full-length novel, let alone the door stops of today's world, into a successful movie. Yet, short story writing has almost died as a published format.

There is a huge pile of good writing out there. Any national novel writing competition in the UK now attracts 40-45,000 entries. Now, not all of these are any good, but in the Amazon competition they short list first to 5000 novels, and I am sure amongst these are decent stories that could form the basis for a good movie. However, none of these stories will ever make it to the big screen because of the structures and demands in place. Hence, to summarise a long argument, despite all that it could draw upon, 'The Wolfman' (2010) was always going to have a poor storyline, in the current context it could have nothing else.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Are Children of Lone Parents Stronger?

I read a headline on a newspaper in a shop recently which blared that 1 in 4 parents in the UK is now a lone parent and the bulk of these are single mothers.  There is an easy assumption that this signals a decline in British morality that started sometime when the contraceptive pill came into common usage and as a result of 'free love' of the 1960s.  Of course, lone parent families are no new invention, just look at the records of 1919 and 1946 to see how many there were.  In the Victorian period when mortality was higher, the average working man dying at 45, there were often widows bringing up children alone.  People say, well, of course, it was different back them, people could draw on the wider family, forgetting that these days many grandparents, about 300,000 in the UK in 2009 are the prime child carers and that if you ever go to poor areas and I can draw on personal experiences from East London and Milton Keynes (which does have a poor ghetto area) then daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts and grandmothers often step in for childcare roles.  I remember standing behind a woman in a post office in Milton Keynes who said 'I was looking after my daughter's step-daughter's daughter...' as showing something of the nature of modern UK families; with longer life expectancy people across four generations can be involved.

You can argue that part of the problem is that people take on children as a pastime that they tire of.  It is certain that in our increasingly horribly sexualised society in which as Natasha Walton noted recently that the media in all forms encourages vigorously boys and men are to be macho and violent and girls and women submissive in a way that horrifies anyone who lived through the era of feminism.  It also means that men do not take responsibility for anything which is seen as 'feminine' and that includes looking after children.  Creating children, spreading your seed is macho, but dealing with the consequences is never seen as needing thought.  It is much the same with attacking men for looking at you in a pub or driving too fast, we have become a society which neglects thought of the consequence of any action, it is saving face that is the only thing that matters.  Thus, I am not arguing that access to contraception is causing lone parent families, in fact it is helping prevent it spreading so far.  The problem is that in the desire to move back to 'Victorian values' we have rapidly moved back to a society in which men of all social standing got women pregnant and left them to the workhouse or begging.  These days the workhouse is social welfare and so many people try to make single mothers feel guilty and grateful for the meagre income they receive.  No credit is given for trying to find work in a society in which child care is prohibitively expensive and no credit is given to those grandparents and female relatives who spare the state of its childcare responsibilities.

Thus, I would argue that we should move from this simple assumption that sees lone parent families as somehow a symptom of immorality, except on the basis of (men) not living up to the consequences of your actions, and again that seems to be something that is lauded in our media rather than condemned.  I also think that the condemnation of lone parent families on the basis that the children of them will be socially dysfunctional is also wrong.  It is far better for a child to be with a loving mother than having an abusive or neglectful father in tow.  I have noticed this many times before when speaking to children from lone parent families.  It is apparent that they are far better equipped for dealing with the world than children who grow up with two parents.  One of the most robust, innovative and well-travelled woman I ever met had had a father and uncle who had committed suicide when she was a girl.  I doubt she would have experienced all that she did unless that had happened in her life, she was a better person for it.

There is something about a child with a single parent that makes them more resilient and though I have long known this, it is has become more observable as my own household has changed.  As I have noted before, I have become de facto father on the eight year old son of the woman who lives in my house.  Now, however, whilst paying the mortgage on the house as an investment, I have moved away to find work and now live in a hotel.  Hence, the boy who has had this pseudo-father for five years, is now back, more consciously to being the child of a single parent.  Have I seen a change in his behaviour?  Immediately.  He has grown up incredibly in the three months since I left.  His literacy skills have leapt on but far more importantly he has shaken off silly, juvenile behaviour and now really contributes to the house, tidying his room, sorting out his laundry and washing up twice per week, all things he would never do when I was in the house.  He has a curiosity about vocabulary and certainly about finance that was also missing until I went.  Very rapidly he is gaining very useful skills that will stop him being one of these feckless teenagers you see trying and failing to live away from home at university and going back to live with their parents well into their 30s.

Why is there this difference?  I suppose because the child learns quickly that with one person if it cannot be done it will not be done.  There is no father to cover when the mother is sick.  There is no-one to mind the child when the shopping or the cleaning or the cooking is done, the child witnesses everything of everyday life which twin parents not really consciously generally shield their children from.  They also learn that if they do not do what they are asked, something is going to go wrong, there is no father to fetch the dishes or pick up the rubbish in their place.  If the child does not do it then it is simply another job for the mother.  In a single parent family there is none of the sleight of hand that occurs automatically in a dual parent family.  This tackles one of the key problems of contemporary UK society, that it is someone else's responsibility to do anything you dislike.  Shirking such responsibility is impossible in the single parent family.

The one drawback of the single parent family is money.  Since the late 1960s in the UK, certainly in southern England, but increasingly elsewehre, it has been impossible for one parent to earn enough to support a partner and two children in a middle class lifestyle, i.e. a car of less than 10 years old, a 3-bedroomed house, a foreign holiday once per year, a television that works, insuring household items and being able to replace things that break, eating out in a restaurant once per month, not a luxurious life but a 'comfortable' one.  Lone parents unless among the very rich cannot have a comfortable life.  Even with me paying into this single parent family neither they nor I can achieve such prosperity.  Some lone parents do get enough money from a partner who has gone but they are not the majority.  Given that the cost of so much, notably entering higher education, effectively precludes it to so many people, this is one drawback for the lone parent family, not helped by women earning 17% less than a man in the same role; women being in the large majority of lone parents.  However, given the efforts in the media to constantly discredit so many of the universities and degrees a large portion of the students whose families are new to higher education have been through, perhaps a more innovative, robust attitude to life that a child of a lone parent develops is going to help them when the Establishment has ensured that so many people's qualifications have been devalued.

Look around at the single parent families you know and you will find their children are more mature and are certainly aware of the consequences of their actions, even if the context they are living in limits their options for the future.  I am not advocating that men go round fathering children and abandoning them, on this blog I have always insisted people should handle the consequences of their actions.  What I am saying is that the media should not see single parent families as an easy target to say something about declining morality and rather see them as actually admirably equipping children for the challenges they are going to face.