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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Joe Strummer is Spinning in His Grave, Why Music Needs to Get Political Again by BILLY BRAGG




How ironic that The Clash should be on the cover of the NME in the week that London was burning, that their faces should be staring out from the shelves as newsagents were ransacked and robbed by looters intent on anarchy in the UK. Touching too, that the picture should be from very early in their career – Joe with curly blond hair – for The Clash were formed in the wake of a London riot: the disturbances that broke out at the end of the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976.

At the time, the press reported it as the mindless violence of black youth intent on causing trouble; now we look back and recognise that it was the stirrings of what became our multicultural society – the moment when the first generation of black Britons declared that these streets belonged to them too.

The Notting Hill Riots of 35 years ago created a genuine ‘What The Fuck?’ moment – the first in Britain since the violent clashes between mods and rockers in the early 60s. While west London burned, the rest of society recoiled in terror at the anger they saw manifested on the streets of England. In the aftermath, severe jail sentences were handed down and police patrols stepped up in areas where there was a large immigrant population. Sound familiar?

But something else happened too – in the months that followed, bands appeared that sought to make sense of what went down on that hot August night. Aswad, Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots were among the reggae bands that stepped forward to speak for the black community.

Punk was galvanised into action by The Clash, whose debut album featured a picture of police charging towards black youth under the Westway on the back cover. Their first single, ‘White Riot’, was an explicit attempt to make a connection between the frustration faced by unemployed white youth and their black counterparts whose employment prospects were blighted by racism.

In the Clash interview from 1976 that was reprinted in the NME ‘riot issue’, Joe Strummer boldly said “We’re hoping to educate any kid who comes to listen us, just to keep them from joining the National Front”. That certainly worked in my case. When Notting Hill went up in smoke, I didn’t get it, yet, a year or so later, the first political activism that I ever took part in was the first Rock Against Racism Carnival in London. I’d been drawn by the fact that the Clash were top of the bill.

That event brought me into contact with some of the aforementioned British reggae bands, acts that had previously struggled to find white audiences. This coming together led directly to Two-Tone and to Artists Against Apartheid. These bands, black and white, didn’t end racism in Britain, but they helped me to understand why it had to be confronted.

Fast-forward 35 years to the present day. Much has changed, yet we find ourselves in the same quandary. The August riots of 2011 are another WTF? moment, when society recoils in horror and says ‘I don’t understand you’.

Everyone who has seen the footage of the ‘Bad Samaritans’ pretending to come to the aid of the injured Asyraf Haziq Rossli, while their mates rummage through his rucksack and rob him, will have made an instant judgement about the kind of people who would do such an unspeakable thing.

Undoubtedly, many people in the 15-24 age group will know people like that and be quick to condemn them. For the rest of us – who know nothing but what we see – we’ll damn you all, because of your clothes, your music, your haircuts, your attitude. You can already hear the generational disdain in mainstream reactions to the sentences handed down to looters.

Now, you don’t have to do anything about this. You can simply shrug your shoulders when politicians speak dismissively about feral youth leading futile lives. But it won’t end there. The authorities are going to lean on your generation and hard. You are being set up as the new enemy within. ‘Feral’ is a word that is virtually interchangeable with ‘vermin’.

The disturbances of the past weeks have stirred up a shit storm of opinion in the mainstream media, much of it from people who have no real experience of the pressures faced by this generation, the first in a century that are likely to grow up worse off than their parents. Though this situation has been building for some years, the disturbances have created an opportunity for young people to provide an alternative commentary.

I know things are different now, not least in the music industry. Back in 1976, we only had one medium – pop music – through which to speak one another and the world. The internet has changed that. Now, if you have an opinion about something, you can blog, tweet, and post your thoughts for everyone to see. It makes you feel like you’re making a contribution, but are you really?

Nobody ever got rich writing snarky remarks in the comment section nor got to tour the world performing to thousands of people on the back of writing a blog. Sure, you may get a lot of ‘likes’ on your comments, but nothing beats the thrill of making an audience of 50 people cheer a line in a song that you’ve just written that hits on something that they feel strongly about.

I know that there are artists out there who already understand this, but I am also aware of the atmosphere of cynical post-modernism that has warped the music scene to such an extent that musicians who write ostensibly political songs spend their interviews desperately back-pedalling to avoid being ‘divisive’. Joe Strummer is spinning in his grave.

I can understand why young artists might be unsure of how to approach politics. Since the ideological battles of the 1980s, the whole distinction between left and right has disappeared under the rubble of the Berlin Wall. Even I have trouble making sense of it all – does anybody know what Tony Blair really stood for?

But making political pop should not be a matter of setting Karl Marx to music. I’ve heard that stuff and it never sounds right. Pop becomes political when it stops being self-pitying and self-aggrandising and starts to speak truth to power.

Punk was born in a time of rising unemployment and stultifying boredom among young people. It contained a strong nihilistic streak that claimed to only want to destroy, an impulse that bands like the Clash constantly had to fight against. I’m not looking for a nostalgic trip down memory lane nor for a punk revival. That was another time. Yet, it at its core, punk contained a revolutionary idea that remains relevant today: ‘Here’s three chords, now a form a band’.

Of course it doesn’t have to be a band – technology has put the means of production into the hands of anyone with a computer and some beats. The riots last week were a spark – what is needed now is an alternative commentary. Some of you who are reading this need to produce songs with spirit that tell us something we don’t know about what the fuck happened last week, how we got to such a place and where you think we should be going from here.

Billy Bragg can be reached through his blog.

August 26, 2011








Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mark Steel: Flogging is too good for them



People who love to scream about stern discipline and National Service are having a fantastic time in post-riot Britain. My favourite was a man on a Radio 5 phone-in, who ended his rant by yelling, "I TELL you how little discipline there is. My son gets homework and he's allowed to do it ON HIS COMPUTER. We need to GET BACK to PENCIL and PAPER!" And you felt that if you suggested 'What about pen and paper?' he'd shriek "NO! NOT PEN, YOU BLOODY LIBERAL. PENCIL! They have to SHARPEN pencils, it teaches them DISCIPLINE!"

I was hoping someone would ring in and say, "That bloke with his pencil is TOO SOFT. We need to get back to PAPYRUS, like they had in ancient Sumeria. Or PAINTING their homework on walls of CAVES. You didn't get STONE AGE MAN breaking into Foot Locker DID YOU?"

This was followed by someone explaining that his generation was brought up in the Seventies and were poor but didn't riot, which suggests he didn't keep all that close an eye on the news. And all week we've heard how, "We'd get a good hiding and it did us good," and, "If we were cheeky, the headmaster would march us to Reggie Kray who'd smear zebra fat over us and make us run through Bethnal Green chased by a pride of lions and it taught us RESPECT."

There's the call to evict families if one of their kids has been arrested, because once they're all homeless they'll be much less likely to steal things, won't they. On one phone-in a caller yelled, "These parents don't pay any attention to their own kids." So the presenter asked what age the caller's son was and he said, "Either seven or eight, I think."

And when they're in full flow about the need to whip and birch and drown, if someone says: "Well if I can just point out", that's as far as they get before being interrupted with, "How can you condone this looting and burning you sick, liberal bleeding-heart do-gooder with your, 'Well if I can just point out', how DARE you?"

Some newspapers have taken to connecting every story to the riots, such as the soldier killed in Afghanistan who was a "hero who shamed the riot yobs". Tomorrow a headline will say, "Riot yob Gaddafi fires on RAF jet", with a story that our pilots bombarded a retail park to stop him breaking into the Tripoli branch of Currys and making off with a plasma TV.

But little of this is actually in response to the disturbances. The callers, the Conservatives, the newspapers calling for crackdowns and good hidings have thought that all along.

What has changed is that the embittered snarling that was once confined to pub corners and fuming blogs now stands a chance of becoming government policy. Irrational screaming has become legitimate, and it's in this context we should see David Starkey.

The riots were caused, apparently, by black culture, and we can get round the fact some rioters were white by saying they'd turned black, and get round the fact most black people don't riot by saying they've turned white. You could use that logic to prove that being Welsh causes boats to capsize, or that everything alive is a penguin. Take away the title historian, and he's one more purveyor of loud incoherent gibberish.

Despite this, the call to bring back National Service might work, if it applied to all thieves and criminals and not just the looters. It would even be worth putting on live television, so we could see a sergeant barking, "You there, you weren't this slow to fiddle your expenses, you right horrible honourable member, now MARCH. And you, YOU'RE used to bonuses, well give me 60 press-ups then you get the bonus of shining my shoes. And YOU, instead of poncing about hacking phones I want five laps then you can write 10,000 words on why you're a useless little toerag. NOT on the computer, with a PENCIL and PAPER."


The Independent Wednesday, 17 August 2011





Thursday, August 18, 2011

John Pilger:Damn it or fear it, the forbidden truth is an insurrection in Britain


On a warm spring day, strolling in south London, I heard demanding voices behind me. A police van disgorged a posse of six or more, who waved me aside. They surrounded a young black man who, like me, was ambling along. They appropriated him; they rifled his pockets, looked in his shoes, inspected his teeth. Their thuggery affirmed, they let him go with the barked warning there would be a next time.

For the young at the bottom of the pyramid of wealth and patronage and poverty that is modern Britain, mostly the black, the marginalised and resentful, the envious and hopeless, there is never surprise. Their relationship with authority is integral to their obsolescence as young adults. Half of all black British youth between the ages of 18 and 24 are unemployed, the result of deliberate policies since Margaret Thatcher oversaw the greatest transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top in British history. Forget plasma TVs, this was panoramic looting.

Such is the truth of David Cameron's "sick society", notably its sickest, most criminal, most feral "pocket": the square mile of the City of London where, with political approval, the banks and super-rich have trashed the British economy and the lives of millions. This is fast becoming unmentionable as we succumb to propaganda once described by the American black leader Malcolm X thus: "If you're not careful the newspapers will have you hating the oppressed and loving the people doing the oppressing."

As they lined up to bay their class bigotry and hypocrisy in parliament, barely a handful of MPs spoke this truth. Heirs to Edmund Burke's 18th century rants against the "mob rule" of a "swinish multitude", not one referred to previous rebellions in Brixton, Tottenham and Liverpool in the 1980s when Lord Scarman reported that "complex political, social and economic factors" had caused a "disposition towards violent protest" and recommended urgent remedial action. Instead, Labour and Liberal bravehearts called for water cannon and everything draconian: among them the Labour MP Hazel Blears. Remember her notorious expenses? None made the obvious connection between the greatest inequality since records were kept, a police force that routinely abuses a section of the population and kills with impunity and a permanent state of colonial warfare with an arms trade to match: the apogee of violence.

It hardly seemed coincidental that on the day before Cameron raged against "phony human rights", NATO aircraft - which include British bombers sent by him - killed a reported 85 civilians in a peaceful Libyan town. These were people in their homes, children in their schools. Watch the BBC's man on the spot trying his best to dispute the evidence of his eyes, just as the political and media class sought to discredit the evidence of a civilian bloodbath in Iraq as epic as the Rwanda genocide. Who are the criminals?

This is not in any way to excuse the violence of the rioters, many of whom were opportunistic, mean, cruel, nihilistic and often vicious in their glee: an authentic reflection of a system of greed and self-interest to which scores of parasitic money-movers, "entrepreneurs", Murdochites, corrupt MPs and bent coppers have devoted themselves.

On 4 August, the BBC's Fiona Armstrong - aka Lady MacGregor of MacGregor - interviewed the writer Darcus Howe, who dared use the forbidden word, "insurrection".

Armstrong: "Mr. Howe, you say you are not shocked [by the riots]? Does this mean you condone what happened?"

Howe: "Of course not ... what I am concerned about is a young man Mark Duggan ... the police blew his head off."

Armstrong: "Mr. Howe, we have to wait for the official enquiry to say things like that. We don't know what happened to Mr. Duggan. We have to wait for the police report."

On 8 August, the Independent Police Complaints Commission acknowledged there was "no evidence" that Duggan had fired a shot at police. Duggan was shot in the face on 4 August by a police officer with a Heckler and Koch MP5 sub-machine gun - the same weapon supplied by Britain to dictatorships that use them against their own people. I saw the result in East Timor where Indonesian troops also blew the heads off people with these state-of-the-art weapons supplied by both Tory and Labour governments.

An eyewitness to Duggan's killing told the Evening Standard, "About three or four police officers had [him] pinned on the ground at gunpoint. They were really big guns and then I heard four loud shots. The police shot him on the floor."

This is how the Metropolitan Police shot dead Jean Charles de Menezes on the floor of a London Underground train. And there was Robert Stanley and Ian Tomlinson, and many more. The police lied about Duggan's killing as they have lied about the others. Since 1998, more than 330 people have died in police custody and not one officer has been convicted. Where is the political and media outrage about this "culture of fear"?

"Funny, too," noted the journalist Melanie MacFadyean, "that the police did nothing while some serious looting went on - surely not because they wanted everyone to see that cutting the police force meant more crime?"

Still, the brooms have arrived. In an age of public relations as news, the clean-up campaign, however well-meant by many people, can also serve the government's and media goal of sweeping inequality and hopelessness under gentrified carpets, with cheery volunteers armed with their brand new brooms and pointedly described as "Londoners" as if the rest are aliens. The otherwise absent Boris Johnson waved his new broom. Another Etonian, the former PR man to an asset stripper and current prime minister up to his neck in Hackgate, would surely approve.

18 August 2011



Naomi Klein:Daylight Robbery, Meet Nighttime Robbery/London Riots


I keep hearing comparisons between the London riots and riots in other European cities—window smashing in Athens or car bonfires in Paris. And there are parallels, to be sure: a spark set by police violence, a generation that feels forgotten.
But those events were marked by mass destruction; the looting was minor. There have, however, been other mass lootings in recent years, and perhaps we should talk about them too. There was Baghdad in the aftermath of the US invasion—a frenzy of arson and looting that emptied libraries and museums. The factories got hit too. In 2004 I visited one that used to make refrigerators. Its workers had stripped it of everything valuable, then torched it so thoroughly that the warehouse was a sculpture of buckled sheet metal.

Back then the people on cable news thought looting was highly political. They said this is what happens when a regime has no legitimacy in the eyes of the people. After watching for so long as Saddam and his sons helped themselves to whatever and whomever they wanted, many regular Iraqis felt they had earned the right to take a few things for themselves. But London isn’t Baghdad, and British Prime Minister David Cameron is hardly Saddam, so surely there is nothing to learn there.

But those events were marked by mass destruction; the looting was minor. There have, however, been other mass lootings in recent years, and perhaps we should talk about them too. There was Baghdad in the aftermath of the US invasion—a frenzy of arson and looting that emptied libraries and museums. The factories got hit too. In 2004 I visited one that used to make refrigerators. Its workers had stripped it of everything valuable, then torched it so thoroughly that the warehouse was a sculpture of buckled sheet metal.

Back then the people on cable news thought looting was highly political. They said this is what happens when a regime has no legitimacy in the eyes of the people. After watching for so long as Saddam and his sons helped themselves to whatever and whomever they wanted, many regular Iraqis felt they had earned the right to take a few things for themselves. But London isn’t Baghdad, and British Prime Minister David Cameron is hardly Saddam, so surely there is nothing to learn there.

How about a democratic example then? Argentina, circa 2001. The economy was in freefall and thousands of people living in rough neighborhoods (which had been thriving manufacturing zones before the neoliberal era) stormed foreign-owned superstores. They came out pushing shopping carts overflowing with the goods they could no longer afford—clothes, electronics, meat. The government called a “state of siege” to restore order; the people didn’t like that and overthrew the government.

Argentina’s mass looting was called El Saqueo—the sacking. That was politically significant because it was the very same word used to describe what that country’s elites had done by selling off the country’s national assets in flagrantly corrupt privatization deals, hiding their money offshore, then passing on the bill to the people with a brutal austerity package. Argentines understood that the saqueo of the shopping centers would not have happened without the bigger saqueo of the country, and that the real gangsters were the ones in charge.

But England is not Latin America, and its riots are not political, or so we keep hearing. They are just about lawless kids taking advantage of a situation to take what isn’t theirs. And British society, Cameron tells us, abhors that kind of behavior.

This is said in all seriousness. As if the massive bank bailouts never happened, followed by the defiant record bonuses. Followed by the emergency G-8 and G-20 meetings, when the leaders decided, collectively, not to do anything to punish the bankers for any of this, nor to do anything serious to prevent a similar crisis from happening again. Instead they would all go home to their respective countries and force sacrifices on the most vulnerable. They would do this by firing public sector workers, scapegoating teachers, closing libraries, upping tuitions, rolling back union contracts, creating rush privatizations of public assets and decreasing pensions—mix the cocktail for where you live. And who is on television lecturing about the need to give up these “entitlements”? The bankers and hedge-fund managers, of course.

This is the global Saqueo, a time of great taking. Fueled by a pathological sense of entitlement, this looting has all been done with the lights left on, as if there was nothing at all to hide. There are some nagging fears, however. In early July, the Wall Street Journal, citing a new poll, reported that 94 percent of millionaires were afraid of "violence in the streets.” This, it turns out, was a reasonable fear.

Of course London’s riots weren’t a political protest. But the people committing nighttime robbery sure as hell know that their elites have been committing daytime robbery. Saqueos are contagious.

The Tories are right when they say the rioting is not about the cuts. But it has a great deal to do with what those cuts represent: being cut off. Locked away in a ballooning underclass with the few escape routes previously offered—a union job, a good affordable education—being rapidly sealed off. The cuts are a message. They are saying to whole sectors of society: you are stuck where you are, much like the migrants and refugees we turn away at our increasingly fortressed borders.

David Cameron’s response to the riots is to make this locking-out literal: evictions from public housing, threats to cut off communication tools and outrageous jail terms (five months to a woman for receiving a stolen pair of shorts). The message is once again being sent: disappear, and do it quietly.

At last year’s G-20 “austerity summit” in Toronto, the protests turned into riots and multiple cop cars burned. It was nothing by London 2011 standards, but it was still shocking to us Canadians. The big controversy then was that the government had spent $675 million on summit “security” (yet they still couldn’t seem to put out those fires). At the time, many of us pointed out that the pricey new arsenal that the police had acquired—water cannons, sound cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets—wasn’t just meant for the protesters in the streets. Its long-term use would be to discipline the poor, who in the new era of austerity would have dangerously little to lose.

This is what David Cameron got wrong: you can't cut police budgets at the same time as you cut everything else. Because when you rob people of what little they have, in order to protect the interests of those who have more than anyone deserves, you should expect resistance—whether organized protests or spontaneous looting.

And that’s not politics. It’s physics.

The Nation

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist, fellow at The Nation Institute and author of the....Also by The Author The Next Phase (Global Warming and Climate Change, US Politics)



Sunday, August 14, 2011

London Riots-Tariq Ali:Why here, why now?




Why is it that the same areas always erupt first, whatever the cause? Pure accident? Might it have something to do with race and class and institutionalised poverty and the sheer grimness of everyday life? The coalition politicians (including new New Labour, who might well sign up to a national government if the recession continues apace) with their petrified ideologies can’t say that because all three parties are equally responsible for the crisis. They made the mess.


They privilege the wealthy. They let it be known that judges and magistrates should set an example by giving punitive sentences to protesters found with peashooters. They never seriously question why no policeman is ever prosecuted for the 1000-plus deaths in custody since 1990. Whatever the party, whatever the skin colour of the MP, they spout the same clichés. Yes, we know violence on the streets in London is bad. Yes, we know that looting shops is wrong. But why is it happening now? Why didn’t it happen last year? Because grievances build up over time, because when the system wills the death of a young black citizen from a deprived community, it simultaneously, if subconsciously, wills the response.

And it might get worse if the politicians and the business elite, with the support of the tame state television and Murdoch networks, fail to deal with the economy, and punish the poor and the less well-off for government policies they have been promoting for more than three decades. Dehumanising the ‘enemy’, at home or abroad, creating fear and imprisonment without trial cannot work for ever.

Were there a serious political opposition party in this country it would be arguing for dismantling the shaky scaffolding of the neo-liberal system before it crumbles and hurts even more people. Throughout Europe, the distinguishing features that once separated centre-left from centre-right, conservatives from social democrats, have disappeared. The sameness of official politics dispossesses the less privileged segments of the electorate, the majority.

The young unemployed or semi-employed blacks in Tottenham and Hackney, Enfield and Brixton know full well that the system is stacked against them. The politicians’ braying has no real impact on most people, let alone those lighting the fires in the streets. The fires will be put out. There will be some pathetic inquiry or other to ascertain why Mark Duggan was shot dead, regrets will be expressed, there will be flowers from the police at the funeral. The arrested protesters will be punished and everyone will heave a sigh of relief and move on till it happens again.

9 August 2011 London Review of Books













































Saturday, August 06, 2011

In Cuba, the revolution continues, softly, as times change by John Pilger


On my first day in Cuba, in 1967, I waited in a bus queue that was really a conga line. Ahead of me were two large, funny females resplendent in frills of blinding yellow; one of them had an especially long bongo under her arm. When the bus arrived, painted in Cuba's colours for its inaugural service, they announced that the gringo had not long arrived from London and was therefore personally responsible for this breach in the American blockade. It was an honour I could not refuse.

The bus was a Leyland, made in Lancashire, one of 400 shipped to Cuba in defiance of Washington, which had declared war on the revolution of Fidel Castro. With the Internationale and Love Me Do played to a bongo beat - the Beatles having been "admitted to the Revolution" - we lurched through Havana's crooked streets. Such a fond memory now accompanies me on my return to Cuba; yet looking back at what I wrote then, I find I used the word "melancholy" more than once. For all the natural warmth of Cubans, the hardship of their imposed isolation left smiles diminished and eyes averted once the music had stopped.

Beyond the nationalised American department stores - the windows empty except for electric fires from China of which Cubans had no need - and the flickering necklace of lights of an almost deserted port, there was the silhouette of an American spy ship, USS Oxford, policing Cuba's punishment. In 1968, the revolution added its own folly by summarily banning all small businesses, including the paladares, Havana's lively bars and restaurants. The Soviet era had begun.

The needs of survival now underwrote a morose presence of Russian advisers. Cuba's main crop, sugar, went almost entirely to the Soviet Union in a lifesaving deal struck in 1961 by Che Guevera who had little time for the Soviet version of communism. The urgency was made clear the following year by US Secretary of State Dean Rusk who wondered if "this is the time to eliminate the Cuba problem by actually eliminating the island". The CIA's relentless terrorism against Cuba included numerous attempts to assassinate Castro and the blowing up of a Cuban airliner with the loss of 73 lives. Three US administrations tightened the vice of the blockade so successfully that the calorific intake of Cubans in the 1990s dropped by a third. Today, Cuba is banned from buying nearly half of all world-class drugs in a market dominated by the United States. A catastrophe has been averted, says the American Association of World Health, only because of the extraordinary priorities given public health by the Cuban government. For me, arriving in a Latin American society without grinding poverty filling the eye is almost a shock.

"Accelerating the hard features of Cuba," a US diplomat once said memorably, "will be the measure of our success, not theirs." He meant the authoritarian line handed down from the top, at times draconian, and the petty restrictions and impediments to serious dissent. When they could, many Cubans left. These days, the hard features are softer, perhaps changed beyond recognition. The educated young have made their disaffection known. Raúl Castro, who formally replaced his elder brother as president in 2008, says the bureaucracy to which he has devoted his life "has been tied for years to obsolete criteria". He wants to reduce the presidency to two five-year terms: a proposal once unthinkable

With the Soviet time preserved in the rusting shells of missiles strewn on the bluff next to Che Guevera's house, Cuba seems determined to reclaim the independence that was its original heroic achievement: the precursor of contemporary revolutions, however imperfect. While proudly manipulating the gears of his 1952 canary-yellow Chevy convertible, Juan Ramon Ramirez pointed out the cardiac institute where his life was saved, free of charge. In most of Latin America he would probably be dead now.

Tourism has long replaced sugar, with the benefit of jobs and hard currency and the odium of a separate currency. When I first came, Havana's great cathedral of a hotel, the Nacionale, was so bereft in its echoing emptiness that I was offered Erroll Flynn's room - 235 - and a laundry service that entailed a man in a dark suit and shades driving my shirts somewhere in a mighty 1940 Cadillac LasSalle, the Untouchables car. Today, the great teak doors and Corinthian columns overlook Europeans with neat rucksacks. A jukebox still plays and there is a list of "famously nostalgic" rooms: Mafia 211, Nat King Cole 218, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra 224, Fred Astaire 228, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) 232. That I, an inveterate swimmer, lapped the very same pool as the great Weissmuller, one of the fastest swimmers of all time, compensates for missing out on Errol Flynn's art deco playpen.

The Cuban writer Leonardo Padura Fuentes describes his country's attraction as a "magnetism, sometimes morbid, sometimes admiring", leaving no one indifferent. Radios that crackle, a new airport terminal with birds nesting, the early morning snores of an official at passport control and the palpable ambivalence of pride and frustration belong to a revolution that sends tens of thousands of doctors across the world for the sole purpose of helping other human beings: an epic internationalism.

It is the idea of Cuba having slipped the leash that still threatens the United States' time-warped sense of its own power and self-given right to define other societies. As Richard Gott points out in his fine book Cuba: A New History, modern Cuba's creator, el maximo lider Fidel, in swapping his slogan from "socialism or death" to "a better world is possible", has ensured that when he dies there will be little change; for regardless of machinations across the Florida Straits, change has already taken place.

4 August 2011

Friday, August 05, 2011

Mark Steel: Alcohol can be a problem, as can doctors

Britain is getting drunker than ever, apparently, with a government "consultation" expected to reveal the shocking statistic that, compared with 20 years ago, there are 80 per cent more documentaries or news items showing a clip of a girl in a short skirt being sick on a bench while a lad with no shirt makes a noise like a werewolf as he's thrown into a police van.

But more worrying is the increase in pompous doctors who come on the radio or programmes like The One Show to give us guidelines, telling us, "Those of us who think we're drinking moderately may still be at risk. For example if you have one glass of wine and then later in life have another, you are technically an alcoholic."

Then they say, "Of course there's no harm in drinking safely. I often enjoy an Italian wine with my evening meal, by opening the bottle and pouring it all into a bush. That way there's only a small risk to my liver, as long as I do it once a month as a treat."

Websites offering advice on safe drinking are full of tips such as, "If you're thinking of having a lager please consult your doctor first." Or, "One way of cutting down consumption while still enjoying a wild girls' night out, is on alternate rounds instead of having a drink have a bowl of soup, or go canoeing."

On the Drinkaware site I looked at, I was told three pints of medium- strength beer, twice a week, can lead to "heart disease, liver disease, impotence and cancer." I didn't check but I expect it went on, "and a fourth pint will cause cat flu, plague, rust, feeling like a woman trapped inside a man's body, fascism and a tendency to suddenly turn inside-out in the morning."

It also told me, "If you consume alcohol to feel good, or avoid feeling bad, your drinking could become problematic." So it's only safe to drink if it's to make yourself feel worse.

Still, alcohol can cause havoc, so we shouldn't be flippant. You only have to look at the demise of poor Amy Winehouse, who presumably had three pints of bitter on a Sunday and then another three the following Friday.

But the campaign against drunkenness doesn't seem to have learned from the "Just say no" anti-drugs campaign, which connects with hardly anyone as it insists drugs lead rapidly to disaster and aren't fun. But if they weren't fun there'd be no need to tell people not to take them, just as there's no need to tell people "Just say no" to sticking your bare arse into a nest of wasps because no one does it anyway because it's not fun.

Similarly any attempt to reduce drunkenness must depend on acknowledging that people do it because it seems fun. The alcohol industry appears to be aware of this, which is why it markets drinks for teenagers as bursting with fun, then denies they're doing so with comments such as, "The product 'Marshmallow-alco', in which a marshmallow is filled with a cocktail of vodka and Southern Comfort, is not in any way aimed primarily at a younger market range."

But the Government's "consultation" is being run in conjunction with the alcohol industry, to such an extent that the British Medical Association have withdrawn from it altogether as a pointless exercise, because if we were to be cynical, the drinks industry may not be the keenest people to find ways of cutting down the sale of alcohol.

So the complex job of getting young people away from drug addiction and alcoholism will still be done by charities, such as Mentor UK. But they have declared the recent cuts in rehab clinics have made that almost impossible, saying these cuts "could have devastating implications".

So we're left with doctors telling us not to drink sherry on two consecutive Christmases, and if Amy was still around she could have updated her song by singing, "They tried to make me go to rehab but they said, 'Piss off, we've shut'."

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Murdoch: Will Anything Really Change? by Tariq Ali

The rottenness of British political culture, in a country where the lives of so many have been subjugated by lies for so long, has now been on public view for the last few weeks. The country’s most powerful media baron is forced by events to close down his profitable Sunday paper—News of the World--- specializing in celebrity sex stories and using its close links with the police to get tip-offs about murder investigations, disappearances, etc. They went too far by hacking the mobile phone of a murder victim and stealing the messages, thus creating an impression that she might still be alive.

It was this that triggered a nationwide revulsion shining the torch on politicians and the senior most policemen in the country. Why had David Cameron hired a senior Murdoch journalist as his press chief? Why had Scotland Yard hired another senior journalist from the same stable? Of course we know why, but the fact that it has now become an outrage makes it unacceptable.

It’s a very British scandal, of the sort that erupts suddenly and immediately becomes a national preoccupation. One almost feels that the psycho-politics underlying this for most people, those who live outside the bubble world of power, money and celebritydom, is partially escapist and a substitute for the anger that people genuinely feel against a corrupt and corrupting political establishment of the country: bankers, media barons, politicians, judges and the police. The economy is in a mess, austerity measures are in place, Scotland is seriously disaffected, but at least Members of Parliament can question Rupert Murdoch and his son and watch them apologizing and cringing in public.

Murdoch came to life twice. First when he applauded the Daily Telegraph for exposing MP’s fiddling their expenses and urged them to follow the transparent model offered by Singapore and secondly when a protester threw some shaving foam at him and got punched by Wendi Murdoch. For the rest the Murdochs put on a good double act. Young James sounding like an Enron executive after the collapse and a moist-eyed Rupert explaining how he had learnt his journalism from his brilliant father who had exposed the disaster at Gallipoli. And after the rehearsed drama? Even if Murdoch doesn’t aquire all of BskyB, will anything really change?

The Murdoch Empire has dominated British politics since the days of Margaret Thatcher. She gave him satellite television. He destroyed the print unions and his newspapers helped to destroy the miners. He was instrumental in creating a culture that glorified privatizations, free-market dogmas, wars, (all of Murdoch’s nearly 300 papers in different parts of the world supported the Iraq war), etc. The right-wing populism unleashed by the Thatcher-Murdoch combination neutered the public ethos created after the Second World War. So strong was this influence that others newspapers and television networks (like Channel Four and the BBC) lost confidence in themselves and became pale imitations in search of circulations and ratings. Classical music, loved by many regardless of class or creed or race, was considered elitist and disallowed on BBC 2.

Thatcher’s Blue Labour heirs, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown continued the worship of money and Murdoch. Blair continuously abased himself before the media baron. Brown did the same. Murdoch press editors became regular guests at official residences; their own private parties regularly attended by Prime Ministers and their entourage. Just yesterday Murdoch said that he and Gordon Brown met regularly. Their families became friends. David Cameron followed suit, making it clear that despite his class background he could be just like Blair and embrace anyone and everything that linked big money and politics.

It was Peter Oborne, a journalist writing for the always-conservative Daily Telegraph who provided a coruscating pen-portrait of Cameron, suggesting that he had consciously descended to the sewer by becoming part of the louche Chipping Norton set:

“He should never have employed Andy Coulson, the News of the World editor, as his director of communications. He should never have cultivated Rupert Murdoch. And – the worst mistake of all – he should never have allowed himself to become a close friend of Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of the media giant News International, whose departure from that company in shame and disgrace can only be a matter of time. We are talking about a pattern of behaviour here. Indeed, it might be better described as a course of action. Mr Cameron allowed himself to be drawn into a social coterie in which no respectable person, let alone a British prime minister, should be seen dead.”

Cameron has shown himself quite as authoritarian and opportunist as Blair in his handling of the party. But if the political lava from this volcanic scandal continues to flow, the British Prime Minister, currently wounded by the revelations might have little option but to fall on his sword. We have not reached that stage.

Meanwhile the trilateral consensus in the British Parliament will not break with neo-liberalism and its dogmas that are creating havoc throughout Europe. That is the problem which, unlike Murdoch’s battered media empire, won’t go away.

Tariq Ali is the author of The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power.

CounterPunch July 20, 2011