Category Archives: current events commentary

Four things

There are probably four major policy areas that I care about most in British politics, the prospect of Conservative/Liberal Democrat alliance is probably either good news or a wash.  Being a wonk, it’s all a bit technocratic, but these are the things I care about.

1. Eradicating the poverty trap that hits people at the margins of benefit eligibility.  Many of Ian Duncan Smith’s welfare reform recommendations weren’t taken on board fully enough in the Conservative manifesto.  I think the LibDem proposals of taking people out of taxation on their first £10,000 of earnings is a good one.  Together a Lib-Con alliance could really start to bite at this issue – making work pay and ending the cycle of generational worklessness.

2. Civil liberties. There’s been a chipping away at important freedoms and liberties in the UK – curtailing free speech, increased powers of detention, a surveillance state.  Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both say they’re against this and since this is a clear area of agreement, hopefully returning the basic rights and freedoms to the British people will be given increased priority.

3. Localism. I’m a big fan of local democracy and local management of local public services.   All parties say they support this.  But none of them do much about it.  Not sure a Lib-Con alliance in particular will make much difference, but perhaps any power-sharing agreement will make them more willing to give power back to local areas where it belongs.  It’s also consistent with Big Society aims.

4. Open government. Everyone says they support more open government.  Labour has actually done something about it with initiatives like data.gov.uk, but I think it’s hard after 13 years in government to really change your ways.  I believed that a majority Conservative government would do something postive about it, if (and perhaps only if) they did something about it in the earliest days of their government. Will it be even harder in a power-sharing situation? Will it be less of a priority.  Opening up government is a big risk and a step most easily made at the beginning before you get really comfy with the power.  Or perhaps because of a lack of trust between parties, it may make open government a bit less uncomfortable and risky.

Whatever you do, don't write it down

The scandalous memo from the Foreign Office about the Papal visit reminds me of that old communist era ‘joke’.

Don’t think it.  If you must think it, don’t say it.  If you must say it, whatever you do, DON’T write it down.

And for goodness, sake – if you do write it down for a bit of shared giggles amongst your colleagues, don’t circulate it in a memo to senior members of staff.

Some junior schmuck at the Foreign Office wrote a memo suggesting a variety of activities for the Pope during his forthcoming visit to the UK.  Blessing a gay marriage.  Opening an abortion clinic.  Launching a papally endorsed brand of condoms.

Smirk worthy, crass and vaguely amusing in a school boy sort of way respectively.  But clearly should not have ever, ever risen above the level of 30 seconds of quick banter before actually settling down to work.   I understand how a little inappropriate humor can be a trigger for creativity at the start of a brainstorming session.  But if you must engage in that kind of silliness, leave it at that before moving on to suggest visits to Canterbury or singing children at a flagship Catholic primary school.   Someone is not nearly as funny as they think they are.

Although also on the list of the infamous memo was issuing a public apology to the people of England for the Spanish Armada*.

Which I thought was absolutely inspired.

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Update: not only was the Spanish invasion of England granted papal blessing, it apparently received financial backing, too.

Trapped on a small island

All flights are cancelled.  The ferries are full.  Eurostar is standing room only. The ancient fire gods of Iceland have spewed their wrath as well as a great deal of ash and steam.  The eruption of the absolutely unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull volcano has stranded passengers across Northern Europe, but perhaps nowhere more so than on this small island.  Except maybe France, where they’re having a train strike. Quelle surprise.

It’s a strange feeling, being trapped.  I didn’t have any particular place to go.  Wasn’t planning on flying anywhere.  Not expecting anyone to visit in the near future.  I’d have thought I’d felt a bit claustrophobic.  A bit panicky.  Instead, I feel cosy.  No one coming in, no one going out.  That’s fine. We’ve pulled up the drawbridges and everything is settled and secure.  Really I’m just disappointed we haven’t yet had amazing sunsets, perhaps that will come when the ash begins to fall to a certain level in the atmosphere.

Of course, if there’s some kind of major family trauma in the next few days, I’m sure I’d feel differently.  It was hard watching Jen racing against the clock to catch the last flight out of Britain to the US for a death in the family.  I remember my own journey on a similar occasion and can’t imagine how much more difficult it would have been wondering if what (turned out to be) the last fight for days would make the take off window.

But I am currently feeling somewhat isolated.  Isolated by lack of decent broadband.  For a week now, we’ve had slow or no connectivity.  Our browsers are constantly timing out.  We have windows of access and then – blap – nothing.  I’ve been on the phone to BT Broadband twice for considerable periods of time.  It’s lovely speaking to Dinesh or Dimple in the Bangalore call centre or wherever they are, but they haven’t sorted out my problem or even identified what it is. Changing out DSL filters and hubs and rebooting and checking that our computers haven’t been hijacked and sucking up all available bandwidth to make a denial of service attack on some Baltic nation.

I work from home a lot. I manage several online communities.  So I need a good connection. But it’s also my connection to the rest of the world..  I had to scour through and old newspaper to find the name of the volcano.  I would have looked up the names of the old Norse fire gods online in a few clicks. But instead I had to rely on a children’s book I dredged up from the dark recesses of our overburdened bookcases and which referred to them rather un-poetically as the ‘combustible fire giants’.  As opposed to the un-combustible kind, of course.

I can’t share photos I’ve taken recently – of beautiful cherry blossoms and a perfect blue sky or Bill on the slide.  It’s hard to search for pictures of the volcano or see others’ pictures.  When the ashy fog of poor connection occasionally clears, I get updates through Facebook and Twitter feeds.  I’m writing this blog post with only the vaguest hope that I’ll find an oasis of access in a desert of connectivity. (It’s taken me almost two days….the broadband problem has deteriorated.)

Raped and blamed

This week in the UK there’s been a story that keeps lingering.  A survey of 1000 men and women in London found that attitudes persist that women who are raped are to blame (to some extent) for the crime committed upon them.

Sad to say, but this doesn’t surprise me.  Not at all.

But as the media focused on this story over the week and talk shows brought on vapid commentators, the story reached new levels of disgust for me – and in particular a horrible piece on ITV’s This Morning.

Here was the panel.  Hosts, Holly Willoughby (whom I love from Xtra Factor) and silver-haired Phillip Schofield.   Ruth Hall from Women Against Rape and the vile Carole Malone.

Ruth Hall emphasised the points that you might expect as an anti-rape and victim’s rights campaigner and then Carole Malone successfully talked over her with the position that if a gal puts on a short skirt and and gets a snootful then really…what did she expect?  Not that any one deserves to be raped, but…well – what did she expect?

Actually, I think she should – in general – expect not to be raped.  But given that there is indeed evil in this world, she should expect that if she is raped that her case will be dealt with sensitively and swiftly and that the police and crown prosecutor’s office will work together to pursue justice.  And I think she should expect that people like Carole Malone will be treated with ridicule and not given soft-pedal support from vapid presenters like Phil Schofield.   I think she should also expect presenters like Holly Willoughby not to sit there with a shocked and horrified expression on her face – but to challenge cavemen like Phil.  Poor Holly, though – she clearly felt she couldn’t challenge him openly.  Maybe her contract on This Morning is only short term.

I think she should also expect for the old double-standard to be challenged:

1. She was drunk, she’s to blame for her own rape.

2. He’s not a rapist, he was drunk.  His judgement was impaired (plus, the hussy was wearing a short skirt). Diddums.

If that’s the logic, then the drunk driver who hits the drunk pedestrian should be given some counselling while the victim pays for the repair to his windscreen.  Even if our tipsy rambler stayed on the sidewalk.

-0-

In one sense, I do think victims sometimes have to take some responsibility for what happens to them.  My car got broken into when I once left a leather handbag on display. I kept it in the car in case I needed a handbag – it was empty – normally I kept it shoved up under the seat.  I failed to notice that it was partially visible.  The junkie who smashed my window to take the bag and a £4 flashlight from our glove box was apparently more observant that day.

I recognise that I had some preventative responsibility.  But at the same time, my lapse doesn’t in any way diminish the responsibility of the thief who broke into my car.  He (she? probably a he) was the only one who made the decision to smash my windows and steal from me.  I wasn’t the one who committed the crime.  And the punishment of the person who did it shouldn’t be reduced because I was silly.   My lesson has been learned. And I sure don’t need any scorn heaped upon me. I already paid the price for what I failed to do.

It’s the same with rape.  Sometimes there are things you can do to prevent looking like a likely target.  Even if you didn’t, it’s still not your fault if you were raped.  And it for sure doesn’t diminish the responsibility of the rapist in any legal or moral sense.

And sometimes you can take all precautions and still be raped.

Giving to Haiti – donating to the Salvation Army

One of the sermons that has made the biggest impression on me was delivered by a member of the Salvation Army’s Caribbean territory to the non-denominational congregation we attended when we lived in Puerto Rico. They did some amazing, innovative and often counter-intuitive work there. For instance, they ran a jail. A jail for illegal immigrants. That sounds pretty rough. But rougher still were the prisons that these illegal immigrants would have been placed in – alongside real criminals. It was truly a mission of mercy to house these non-violent breakers of civil law, economic refugees from places like the Dominican Republic or Haiti.

The Salvation Army has a history of working with people that others won’t. They already have a long term presence in Haiti, running an orphanage – among other things. They are running medical clinics, they are bringing aid to Haiti. And they have a reputation for doing a lot of the second stage disaster relief – helping people clean up and get their lives back together.

I donated money to the Salvation Army to help their relief and long term efforts in Haiti. I hope you will, too. Although there are many other places that could make good use of your money.

Read more about the work of the Salvation Army in Haiti and donate online.

Chocolate blind spots

The British are awfully fond of their own chocolate.  And why shouldn’t they be?  It’s made to their own tastes and preferences.   But they’re wickedly derisive of American chocolate…or as it’s often phrased “your so-called chocolate”.

Bill likes British chocolate

As Cadbury’s the British chocolatier for the masses faces a hostile takeover by Kraft or a possible friendly-ish merger from Hersheys the American chocolatier for the masses, chocolate is a hot topic in the news.  Yesterday’s PM news on BBC’s Radio 4 featured a blind taste test with an expert chocolatolgist to decide which was better, Cadbury or Hershey.     The chocolate dude admitted that a blind taste test was pointless, given that he knew which was which.   And then he went on to slate the Hershey bar for texture, taste and a dubious set of ingredients.  And oddly he criticised it as well for the rampant sweetness of the Hersheys (which is the same criticism I have of Cadbury’s chocolate – at least with Hersheys I can taste some cocoa).

I grew up on Hershey Bars.  I like them.   I prefer them.  Given a plain Hersheys or a plain Cadbury’s Dairy Milk – I’ll take the Hershey’s every time.  A Hershey’s kiss – chocolate perfection*.  The pleasure of unwrapping, the cute little paper flag, the perfect not-too-melty-but-not-too-solid plop of choc on the tongue.

I don’t want to diss British chocolate – it’s alright.  But I just want to make a defense for American chocolate.  It’s yummy.  It doesn’t deserve the criticism it receives this side of the pond.  And it may just be the thing that saves the integrity of British chocolate.

________

* Well, it was until my palate was educated with really good chocolate, boutique confections from the Continent – and occasionally from the UK.

Tlaxcala and other traitors

Fabled myth of the return of Quetzalcoatl or not, Cortes and his band of followers had some major cojones in taking on one of the most vicious and violently expansionist empires of the New World with a scant few men and no chance of backup.  In  Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler – a special exhibition at the British Museum, there’s an attempt to portray and humanise Montezuma, the last real ruler of Aztecs.    (Why Moctezuma?  Well, scholars can’t agree on the original Mexica/Aztex spelling and pronunciation so they’ve decided to veer from the one we all know to create maximum confusion and sense of ignorance in the regular museum going public)

My dad and I went to see this yesterday.  Pretty good.  Excellent curation of Mexican and Spanish (and British) holdings from the period of Montezuma’s brief reign.  But I didn’t really feel I got to know much more about Montezuma the man.  Why did he capitulate so easily?  Was he some kind of fragile freak (according to Wikipedia some of the rules surrounding his sacred person – no one could see him eat, no touching, etc) were at the inception of Montezuma himself and not a feature of royal Aztec personhood.   Did he really believe that Cortes was ordained to bring an end to the rule of the Aztecs (modern historians say no?)

Whatever, you have to hand it to Cortes – even if he did get help from the State of Tlaxcala – an independent island in a sea of Aztec client states.  The Tlaxcaltecans get a bad rap sometimes for helping the Spanish, but since they were being preyed upon by the Aztecs for sacrificial victims and could see the end of their state down the line, you can’t blame them too much for taking a punt on the Spanish.  Not sure it helped them out much in the end, though.

The Royal Academy did a more generalized exhibit on the Aztecs a few years ago which I remember as larger and more comprehensive but certainly not focused on an individual. (It was so good I bought the exhibit catalogue)   Interestingly, the a series of nearly contemporaneous Spanish oil on wood paintings inlaid with shell and mother of pearl depicting the end of the empire were perhaps the most striking thing for me.   It was in a style that I’d never seen before.

I was asked for a report on this exhbit.   If you went to the Royal Academy exhibit a few years ago…don’t bother. (Tickets are fairly scarce anyway)  But if you haven’t seen a big blockbuster Aztecs exhibit, I’d say this was well worth visiting.

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Of recent years, one of the things I’ve enjoyed at the British museum is going upstairs to see the etchings.   They have a space for temporary exhibits of prints and drawings, often associated with (though not always) the major exhibition.   This time it was Revolution on Paper – Mexican print works from the radical set.  This includes some of the famous Mexican muralists and a lot of other great works.   I really like this period of Mexican art and so I really enjoyed this one….except for one thing.

Many of these artists were communists.  Fine.  The content of their print work was avowedly Marxist, sometimes revolutionary.  OK.

The laughter of the people - away with your nonsense, José Chávez Morado, 1939, lithograph © DACS 2009

But I wasn’t quite as happy with some of the commentary.  There was a fabulous poster print of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – condemning the US prosecution and execution of the pair for treason and claiming they were victimised because they “loved and believed in peace.”  Well, actually – it’s because they passed secrets to the Ruskies.  The exhibition notes implied that they were caught up in a McCarthy witchhunt.   But no mention of their guilt (corroborated from Soviet sources) or that they were in fact genuine communists.    Though fair enough questions still remain about the depth of Ethel’s guilt or why this pair were executed for their crimes when others who’d passed more harmful secrets received far lighter sentences.

And in another poster a greedy company owner was eating coinage which the commentary said was foreign money – American dollars – because of foreign investors skimming away profits from Mexico.  Although, if you actually looked at the money – it was clearly Mexican pesos.

Shame British museum for introducing your own (flawed) political commentary instead of letting the art speak for itself.

***

OK, no traitor link on this one…as far as we know.  But the British museum is currently exhibiting about a dozen pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard – and amazing collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and metal working  This was discovered only in July of this year and after going on a brief display at the Birmingham Art Museum (which I wasn’t able to catch, but really wanted to) it’s been removed from display and I guess is being studied now and offered up to various museums after its valuation.

The few pieces that I saw were indeed pretty cool – fine gold work (a bit smushed by time and the weight of the soil) and garnet inlay.   But I was disappointed to see that they were dirty.  Still covered from the soil they were buried in for so many centuries.

I couldn’t help remarking to my dad that it was still dirty.

“What do you expect, they only found it in July!” exclaimed a British patron. “You are just incredibly lucky to see it.  What do you expect?”

1. Not to be personally accosted at museums

2. 10 seconds under the tap wouldn’t have gone amiss.