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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The significance of a concrete hippo in Walsall by Mark Steel

In a desire to retain their identities, towns are reaching for new symbols.

Each year, if you travel round the country, you see every town becoming more depressingly impersonal and identical. You could be in Inverness, Plymouth or Norwich and guarantee the shopping precinct consisted of a Body Shop, H&M, Clinton Cards, a shut-down Woolworths, a Wetherspoon, a fake Irish pub, a Nando's, a Pizza Hut with yawning teenager and glass screw-top jar of stuck-together parmesan cheese, River Island, Boots, Vodafone, a student in plastic bib overly keen to sign you up for Amnesty International and a bunch of Peruvians playing "I just Called To Say I Love You" on the poxy pan-pipes.

And the marvellous bit is a few years ago, if you told someone you were a socialist, the most likely response was: "Oh I see – well, if you have YOUR way everything will end up the SAME I suppose."

Now it's not just the shopping precincts. There'll be a road past Tesco and the Big Yellow Storage Company, past the station where you can buy Upper Crust Brie and Sugar Puff baguettes for £8, to the retail park with World of Leather and people pushing trollies holding one huge box, and then a Jury's Inn and a speed camera and a ring road and an Esso garage with one remaining sausage roll and a broken cashpoint.

Soon the town planners will arrange that in every town beggars are confined to one area of concrete known as "Trampland", which will turn out to be a subsidiary of ASDA, and children will be deemed too unpredictable and confined to "World of Infantility", made of polystyrene in a former gasworks.

But the opposition to this process can seem as if it revolves around the types who can afford a lifestyle choice by sitting in the organic cafe purring: "The apples here are EXQUISITE, they're £9 each but they have been individually naturally pecked by crows."

But one tiny incident might suggest there's a more potent desire to retain the identity of each town. As part of a radio show I've been travelling to apparently non-glamourous areas of the country, and this week I went to Walsall, a town that's been buried under countless layers of destructive planning. There seems to be no place you can stand without being in sight of at least two motorways, so I imagine if you're round someone's house and ask where the toilet is, they'd say, "You go down the M5 and take junction 29".

The writer Theodore Dalrymple said recently it's "the ugliest town in the world, like Ceausescu's Romania with fast food outlets". Boy George appears to be from there, but now denies this, which isn't complimentary – he is saying: "Yes, I was a heroin addict, fair enough. And I do accept I invited a stranger back for sex and beat him with a chain. But I did NOT come from Walsall."

But even in the identi-town precinct are symbols of resistance. In the town centre is a statue of Sister Dora, who everyone in the town seems proud of, although few people outside Walsall can have heard of her. It turns out she was a Victorian nurse, who transformed the profession locally by prioritising the poor, the drunks, and prostitutes for healthcare, ignoring the unease of her religious employers. She also discovered the filth of the hospital was causing disease to spread at a ferocious rate. So she began a thorough cleansing regime that saved dozens of lives, changing the practice so that no hospitals have been so moronic as to spread disease through being too dirty ever ever again.

But even more spectacular is the most popular object of the precinct, beloved of almost everyone in the town, a concrete hippo. Everyone speaks of it with bewildering affection, and it has a Facebook page with nearly 2,000 fans. So I walked through the precinct with a tinge of expectation, the way you might head out of Cairo for your first glimpse of the pyramids. But instead of the awesome structure I was imagining, the thing's about 4ft long and from a few yards away could be mistaken for a bin.

It is loved – it's the town's most famous meeting point, and there was an outcry recently simply because it was moved. The reason is because it is now, defiantly, a feature of Walsall and the battle to retain a distinct identity in the face of the local authority's efforts to wipe it out. This seems to have made it a star – until Wal-Mart patent it and every town has "House of Hippo – the concrete hippo wonderland" in an oblong warehouse behind PC World.

First published in The Independent on 18th March 2009

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Quotations from Michael Parenti

Michael Parenti

“Conventional opinions fit so comfortably into the dominant paradigm as to be seen not as opinions but as statements of fact, as 'the nature of things.' The very efficacy of opinion manipulation rests on the fact that we do not know we are being manipulated. The most insidious forms of oppression are those that so insinuate themselves into our communication universe and the recesses of our minds that we do not even realize they are acting upon us. The most powerful ideologies are not those that prevail against all challengers but those that are never challenged because in their ubiquity they appear as nothing more than the unadorned truth.”

“Global warming is already acting upon us with an accelerated feedback and compounded effect that may be irreversible! We do not have eons or centuries or many decades. Most of us alive today may not even have the luxury of saying 'Après moi, le déluge' because we will be around to experience it ourselves. And if you think it will be 'interesting' or 'exciting,' ask the tsunami survivors if that’s how they felt. This time the plutocratic drive to 'accumulate, accumulate, accumulate' may take all of us down, once and forever.”

“Ecology's implications for capitalism are too momentous for the capitalist to contemplate. [The plutocrats] are more wedded to their wealth than to the Earth upon which they live, more concerned with the fate of their fortunes than with the fate of humanity. The present ecological crisis has been created by the few at the expense of the many. In other words, the struggle over environmentalism is part of the class struggle itself, a fact that seems to have escaped many environmentalists but is well understood by the plutocrats---which is why they are unsparing in their derision and denunciations of the 'eco-terrorists' and 'tree huggers.' ”

“The god who presides over the Judeo-Christian belief system bears a disquieting resemblance to those imperfect creations known as human beings. This suggests that either he really did fashion us in his own image or we fashioned him in ours. ”

“The enormous gap between what US leaders do in the world and what Americans think their leaders are doing is one of the great propaganda accomplishments of the dominant political mythology.”

“If the test of patriotism comes only by reflexively falling into lockstep behind the leader whenever the flag is waved, then what we have is a formula for dictatorship, not democracy.”

“The American way is to criticize and debate openly, not to accept unthinkingly the doings of government officials of this or any other country.”

“The worst forms of tyranny, or certainly the most successful ones, are not those we rail against but those that so insinuate themselves into the imagery of our consciousness, and the fabric of our lives, as not to be perceived as tyranny.”

“Far from being reluctantly propelled into hostilities by popular war fever, leaders incite that fever in order to gather support for their war policies. Thereby do they attempt to distract the public from pressing domestic matters, serve the overseas interests of U.S. investors, justify gargantuan military budgets, and present themselves as great leaders.”

“My point is that it's incorrect to say that the Iraq policy isn't working. It is working. It is doing what they want. They have got control of the oil and they are exporting it, and they have stripped a government that was 90% state owned and they are privatizing it. ... They have taken a country that was self defining and self developing and is now an impoverished prostrate devastated country where people will line up to work for slave wages or become members of the police or army because it's the only job they can get and serve as adjuncts to U.S. imperialism.”

“Between 1831 and 1891, US armed forces -- usually the Marines -- invaded Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, Colombia, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Brazil, Haiti, Argentina, and Chile a total of thirty-one times, a fact not many of us are informed about in school. The Marines intermittently occupied Nicaragua form 1909 to 1933, Mexico from 1914 to 1919, and Panama from 1903 to 1914. To 'restore order' the Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, killing over two thousand Haitians who resisted 'pacification.'”

“A nation as such does not give aid to another nation. More precisely, the common citizens of our country, through their taxes, give to the privileged elites of another country. As someone once said: foreign aid is when the poor people of a rich country give money to the rich people of a poor country.”

“If one looks into the genealogies of many 'old families,' one discovers episodes of slave trafficking, bootlegging, gun running, opium trading, falsified land claims, violent acquisition of water and mineral rights, the extermination of indigenous peoples, sales of shoddy and unsafe goods, public funds used for private speculations, crooked deals in government bonds and vouchers, and payoffs for political favors. One finds fortunes built on slave labor, indentured labor, prison labor, immigrant labor, female labor, child labor, and scab labor -- backed by the lethal force of gun thugs and militia. 'Old money' is often little more than dirty money laundered by several generations of possession.”

“In societies that worship money and success, the losers become objects of scorn. Those who work the hardest for the least are called lazy. Those forced to live in substandard housing are thought to be the authors of substandard lives. Those who do not finish high school or cannot afford to go to college are considered deficient or inept.”

“The goal of a good society is to structure social relations and institutions so that cooperative and generous impulses are rewarded, while antisocial ones are discouraged. The problem with capitalism is that it best rewards the worst part of us: ruthless, competitive, conniving, opportunistic, acquisitive drives, giving little reward and often much punishment -- or at least much handicap -- to honesty, compassion, fair play, many forms of hard work, love of justice, and a concern for those in need.”

“In almost every enterprise, government has provided business with opportunities for private gain at public expense. Government nurtures private capital accumulation through a process of subsidies, supports, and deficit spending and an increasingly inequitable tax system. From ranchers to resort owners, from brokers to bankers, from auto makers to missile makers, there prevails a welfare for the rich of such magnitude as to make us marvel at the corporate leaders’ audacity in preaching the virtues of self-reliance whenever lesser forms of public assistance threaten to reach hands other than their own.”

“The guiding principle of ruling elites was--and still is: When change threatens to rule, then the rules are changed.”

“Candidates who win while spending less than their opponents still usually have to spend quite a lot. While not a sure fire guarantor of victory, a large war chest—-even if not the largest--is usually a necessary condition. Money may not guarantee victory, but the lack of it usually guarantees defeat. Without large sums, there is rarely much of a campaign, as poorly funded 'minor' candidates have repeatedly discovered.”

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Pakistan's drift into the hands of extremists by Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali

The intention of the attack on Sri Lanka's cricket team was to send a clear message to Washington: Pakistan is ungovernable.

The appalling terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan had one aim: to demonstrate to Washington that the country is ungovernable. This is the first time that cricketers have been targeted in a land where the sport is akin to religion. It marks the death of international cricket in Pakistan for the indefinite future, but not just that, which is bad enough. The country's future is looking more and more precarious. We do not know which particular group carried out this attack, but its identity is hardly relevant. The fact is that it took place at a time when three interrelated events had angered a large bulk of the country and provided succour to extremist groups and their patrons.

The first is undoubtedly the foolish decision by Washington (backed by Britain) to send more troops to Afghanistan, which has now united all those resisting them in that country and the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan. Instead of searching for a viable exit strategy, Obama has gone for a surge. On several occasions, I have warned that escalating the war in Afghanistan could seriously destabilise Pakistan and its army.

Second, Senator Dianne Feinstein's revelation that the US drones being used to target "militants" and "terrorist havens" inside Pakistan were, in fact, being despatched by the US from military and air-force bases inside Pakistan (obviously, with the approval of the Pakistani military and civilian leaders) created mayhem in the country. The shock and dismay should not be underestimated. Half-hearted government denials further fanned the flames. Since many in the country regard Zardari and his cronies running the country as US drones, the anger was multiplied.

Domestically, the country is a mess. The People's party has learnt and forgotten nothing. Corruption is rife and stories circulate linking the money being paid by bankers directly to the president's house. Add to this Zardari's refusal to honour an election pledge restoring an independent judiciary, and his decision to manipulate tame judges to disqualify his opponents has not gone down well. The controversy was aggravated by Zardari's move to dismiss the elected government in the country's most populous and strategically important province, the Punjab (capital: Lahore), and impose direct rule, after its chief minister apparently refused to accept a bribe in the shape of a lucrative business deal in return for abandoning the fight to restore the chief justice fired by the military leader over a year ago.

The failures of this government and its inability to defend the country's interests or its population from drones or terrorist attacks are paving the way for the return of the army to power as a way of avoiding a serious split within its own ranks. All that is awaited is a green light from the US embassy in Islamabad. Not that this would solve anything, but it might create the illusion of stability for a few months. It's no good Pakistani politicians mumbling that this is "our Mumbai". The fact is that, over the last year, the Zardari government has done a great deal for itself and its clients, but nothing for the people or the country. The more Pakistan drifts, the more opportunities offer themselves to the extremists.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

So Karl Marx was right after all by Mark Steel

Maybe the Mail will be yelling, "Smash the bosses, get the worker's Mail"

The sudden change is disconcerting. For years I might suggest society would be improved if we sacked these vastly overpaid bankers, and the response would be some variety of "Here he goes again".

Now if you say the same thing the response is "SACK them? I'll tell you what we should do, we should cover them in marmalade and lock them in a greenhouse full of wasps, then scour the stings with a Brillo pad. Then prick them with hedgehog spikes, smear them with fish paste and dip them in Sydney Harbour, then glue them to a pig and send them into an al-Qa'ida training camp with a letter announcing they're a work of art, never mind sack them."

Even the Daily Mail exclaimed on its front page, "I'm keeping every penny" in outrage at Fred Goodwin's pension. Maybe the paper is planning a change of direction, and will be sold in shopping precincts by left-wing groups, yelling "SMASH the bosses, get the WORKER'S Mail, for suburban fashion tips, 20 ways to cook a parsnip and an all-out GENERAL strike."

Even Karl Marx himself is in vogue. Most papers have had articles about him in their business sections, commending his analysis of booms and slumps, and he was on the front page of The Times. Soon a Times editorial will begin: "As the global downturn gathers pace, perhaps one economic remedy to be considered by our esteemed guardians is a violent workers' revolution as envisaged by Mister Karl Marx, and championed with consummate aplomb on page 32 by William Rees-Mogg."

A passage from Marx about the insatiable greed of bankers was quoted on Radio 2 one morning by Terry Wogan. For all I know he's doing it every day now, muttering: "Now here's a jolly old lesson from the old boy Karl – about those rascals of the bourgeoisie, it seems they've been robbing us blind all along and no mistake, so let's overthrow the nitwits for a bit of mischief. In the meantime this is 'Surrey with the Fringe on Top'."

Sales of Marx's Capital are at an all-time high, and this can't just be due to the current rage against characters such as Fred Goodwin and his merry bonus. It must also be because Marx fathomed that under capitalism, boom and slump would remain a perpetual cycle, as opposed to those such as Gordon Brown, who said once an hour for five years, "We have abolished boom and bust", a theory which is now in need of a minor tweak.

But Marx might be surprised at the way he usually appears in these articles, as if he was mostly an analyst, a Robert Peston of his day. As a professional analyst, Marx would have been a disaster. For example, one year after Capital was due, his publishers asked him when it would arrive and he wrote back: "You'll be pleased to know I have begun the actual writing."

But he might also dispute the idea attributed to him, that slumps make the collapse of capitalism inevitable. Because while he said SLUMPS were inevitable, he also said the outcome wasn't inevitable at all, but depended on whether the poor allow the rich to make them pay for it.

Which is to say an abridged version of the 1,100 pages of Capital would go: "I'll tell you what we should do, spray them with wildebeest odour and make them run through the Serengeti, with a commentary by Attenborough, then..."

First published in The Independent on 4th March 2009

War comes home to Britain by John Pilger

John Pilger

In his latest column for the New Statesman, John Pilger describes the basic freedoms being lost in Britain as the "national security state", imported from the United States by New Labour, takes effect.

Freedom is being lost in Britain. The land of Magna Carta is now the land of secret gagging orders, secret trials and imprisonment. The government will soon know about every phone call, every email, every text message. Police can wilfully shoot to death an innocent man, lie and expect to get away with it. Whole communities now fear the state. The foreign secretary routinely covers up allegations of torture; the justice secretary routinely prevents the release of critical cabinet minutes taken when Iraq was illegally invaded. The litany is cursory; there is much more.

Indeed, there is so much more that the erosion of liberal freedoms is symptomatic of an evolved criminal state. The haven for Russian oligarchs, together with corruption of the tax and banking systems and of once-admired public services such as the Post Office, is one side of the coin; the other is the invisible carnage of failed colonial wars. Historically, the pattern is familiar. As the colonial crimes in Algeria, Vietnam and Afghanistan blew back to their perpetrators, France, the United States and the Soviet Union, so the cancerous effects of Britain’s cynicism in Iraq and Afghanistan have come home.

The most obvious example is the bombing atrocities in London on 7 July 2005; no one in the British intelligence mandarinate doubts these were a gift of Blair. “Terrorism” describes only the few acts of individuals and groups, not the constant, industrial violence of great powers. Suppressing this truth is left to the credible media. On 27 February, the Guardian’s Washington correspondent, Ewen MacAskill, in reporting President Obama’s statement that America was finally leaving Iraq, as if it were fact, wrote: “For Iraq, the death toll is unknown, in the tens of thousands, victims of the war, a nationalist uprising, sectarian in-fighting and jihadists attracted by the US presence.” Thus, the Anglo-American invaders are merely a “presence” and not directly responsible for the “unknown” number of Iraqi deaths. Such contortion of intellect is impressive.

In January last year, a report by the respected Opinion Research Business (ORB) revised an earlier assessment of deaths in Iraq to 1,033,000. This followed an exhaustive, peer-reviewed study in 2006 by the world-renowned John Hopkins School of Public Health in the US, published in The Lancet, which found that 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the invasion. US and British officials immediately dismissed the report as “flawed” – a deliberate deception. Foreign Office papers obtained under Freedom of Information disclose a memo written by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, in which he praised The Lancet report, describing it as “robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to ‘best practice’ given [the conditions] in Iraq.” An adviser to the prime minister commented: “The survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones”. Speaking a few days later, a Foreign Office minister, Lord Triesman, said, “The way in which data are extrapolated from samples to a general outcome is a matter of deep concern.”

The episode exemplifies the scale and deception of this state crime. Les Roberts, co-author of the Lancet study, has since argued that Britain and America might have caused in Iraq “an episode more deadly than the Rwandan genocide”. This is not news. Neither is it a critical reference in the freedoms campaign organised by the Observer columnist Henry Porter. At a conference in London on 28 February, Lord Goldsmith, Blair’s attorney-general, who notoriously changed his mind and advised the government the invasion was legal, when it wasn’t, was a speaker for freedom. So was Timothy Garton Ash, a “liberal interventionist”. On 9 April, 2003, shortly after the slaughter had begun in Iraq, a euphoric Garton Ash wrote in the Guardian: “America has never been the Great Satan. It has sometimes been the Great Gatsby: 'They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things...'. One of Britain’s jobs “is to keep reminding Tom and Daisy that they now have promises to keep”. Less frivolously, he lauded Blair for his “strong Gladstonian instincts for humanitarian intervention” and repeated the government’s propaganda about Saddam Hussein. In 2006, he wrote: “Now we face the next big test of the west after Iraq: Iran.” (I have italicized we). This also adheres precisely to the propaganda; David Milliband has declared Iran a “threat” in preparation for possibly the next war.

Like so many of New Labour’s Tonier-than-thou squad, Henry Porter celebrated Blair as an almost mystical politician who “presents himself as a harmoniser for all the opposing interests in British life, a conciliator of class differences and tribal antipathies, synthesiser of opposing beliefs”. Porter dismissed as “demonic nonsense” all analysis of the 9/11 attacks that suggested there were specific causes: the consequences of violent actions taken by the powerful in the Middle East. Such thinking, he wrote, “exactly matches the views of Osama bin Laden... with America’s haters, that’s all there is – hatred”. This, of course, was Blair’s view.

Freedoms are being lost in Britain because of the rapid growth of the “national security state”. This form of militarism was imported from the United States by New Labour. Totalitarian in essence, it relies upon fear mongering to entrench the executive with venal legal mechanisms that progressively diminish democracy and justice. “Security” is all, as is propaganda promoting rapacious colonial wars, even as honest mistakes. Take away this propaganda, and the wars are exposed for what they are, and fear evaporates. Take away the obeisance of many in Britain’s liberal elite to American power and you demote a profound colonial and crusader mentality that covers for epic criminals like Blair. Prosecute these criminals and change the system that breeds them and you have freedom.

4 March 2009