Wednesday, 30 March 2016

We Can Export You Wholesale - the bitter future of Theresa May

The British Government is busy advertising on TV at the moment, promoting the idea that trade is automatically good - maybe a debate for another time.

But a centrepiece of this is an Indian man standing in a railway station, for some reason specifically seeking British partners to develop the rail metro network in his country. Here he is...

Often for the wrong historical reasons, India and Britain have strong links, not only in modern trade and (frequently violent) imperialist history, but in personal, human terms with 1,400,000 British citizens tracing their family back to South Asia. Their cultural diversity has enriched our country and somehow, in spite of all the prejudice spat out by so many on the right, you sort of hope that we are slowly getting to a point where the value, in so many different ways, of this and many other communities in the UK is being accepted.

And yet, today we find from the now online-only Independent newspaper that Home Secretary Theresa May used the flimsiest of excuses from a BBC Panorama expose of irregularities at one, single language school to deport some 46,000 students illegally - seven in ten of them from India. Apparently the tests used to decide on deportation were so flimsy that the Upper Tribunal for asylum and immigration has thrown out the Government's case. 

This of course follows on from May's other schemes to ban overseas students from working while studying here and force them to leave almost as soon as they complete their degrees - ignoring the economic, commercial and cultural benefits we gain from graduates who remain and work for some months in the UK. Coupled with a relentlessly hostile media, most of us don't realise just how damaged our country's image is abroad now, seen as we are as rather inward-looking, prejudiced and unwelcoming place - in sharp contrast to an increasingly confident, outward-looking India. Even before the myopia and sociopathic behaviour of the Tory Government, one assessment was that, for all its problems and all our past, India wasn't looking to Britain or anywhere else for ideas or help.

Now of course, with rightwing media hysterically and repeatedly claiming that no one at all is ever expelled from the UK, the figure of 46,000 illegal deportations in under two years may cause a degree of overload in Mail readers heads. Given the disinformation they read each day, they might be surprised to learn that in 2014 alone 38,000 people were deported from the UK, before the student case arose - over 7,300 were from India, and over 5,000 from Pakistan.

But it also represents yet again the deep, deep racism and prejudice seemingly at the centre of our Government and in the heart of Theresa May, assuming of course that she actually has one. (Notably, even the rightwing Daily Telegraph was moved last year to describe some of her plans for illegal migrants as "chilling and bitter").

It is ethically wrong, damaging to tens of thousands of people who came simply to study and learn our language - something more generous minds might see as both a compliment to us rather than a threat, and as something highly positive. Instead, Britain yet again is seen to be at odds with people because of their nationality, their colour and their race, and quite possibly religion too. Our Government's pathetically narrow-minded (and factually wrong) view of foreigners as scroungers out to double cross us will, in the end, damage us far more than them. 

It is their appalling mindset that leads to utterly disgusting tragedies such as that of Bhavisha Ben Patel and her husband Pinakin. This young couple arrived in the UK for a 10 day holiday in Scotland early last year, but were immediately whisked to Yarls' Wood detention centre. This was done because Mrs Patel, naively wanting to be sure she had all the right documents for passport control, had brought her education certificates with her. 

Sady, this was a sure sign, in Theresa-land, that she planned to work here illegally, in spite of having return air tickets and children back in India. Two months later, several weeks after they were due home, they remained in detention and Mr Patel died of a heart attack aged just 33 years. Mrs Patel remained incarcerated for several weeks longer, unable to bury her husband or get home to her family, and prompting a hunger strike in support of her from fellow inmates.

That man in the railway station may not wait for us much longer. After all, if we can't abide his daughter or son coming here to learn for a year or two and lock up compatriots who come for a holiday, why on Earth would he want us to go and work in his country? Soon, despairing of us, he may board one of India's brand new trains and, bound for the future, leave us behind in the dead end siding that is Tory bigotry.

And, of course, as with any Government, it is all done in our name.

Friday, 18 March 2016

"My Country Is A Company" - The Forgotten Genius of Jericho

Contemporary television is littered with half-remembered would-be masterpieces, some celebrated by ever-decreasing circles of knowing fan communities as secrets they share with each other in an ignorant world. Perhaps Firefly is the most well-known "lost" opus magnus, but currently showing on Netflix is the later offering from CBS Paramount Network, Jericho, a post-apocalyptic tale set in small town Mid-West America. I don't know if it has a fan community exiled in cyberspace, nor if it is held to be a cult by anyone, though it would be nice if both were true. Because on many levels this was close to perfect television - a combination of strong characters, everyday life, mysterious plots, plenty of action and a battle of ideas and ideals.

Set in the fictitious town of Jericho in northern Kansas after unknown terrorists have detonated nuclear bombs in 23 American cities, effectively destroying the federal government, Jericho takes the time afforded by TV as opposed to cinema films (which it was originally conceived as) to develop some complex, highly credible characters and plots. From  Skeet Ulrich as leading protagonist Jake Green and the mysterious Robert Hawkins, played by British actor Lennie James (currently appearing as Morgan Jones in The Walking Dead), to Easi Morales as a conflicted army Major and Pamela Reed as Jake's family matriarch, there are numerous powerful performances aided by scripts that flow naturally and with some humour alongside the nuclear night. Notably, the growing relationship between farmer Stanley Richmond, his sister Bonnie and girl friend Mimi Clark is one of the most empathetic subplots to have graced TV.

But underlying the series of disasters, threats and triumphs encountered by the people of the little town, the story is a powerful exploration of some major political themes that had already taken hold of the USA when it was originally broadcast a decade ago, and which are now coming to a possibly Faustian climax in the elections of this current year.

For, without giving the plot away, the terrorists who have nuked the USA are not the obvious post-9/11 suspects and the "Axis of Terror" involving Iran and North Korea is debunked early on. But looming large is the corporate takeover of democratic government and the corruption of politics by populist demagogues. In the 22 episode long first season, this is less apparent - it manifests itself mainly in the arrival in town of mercenaries from the Blackwater-style Ravenwood Security Company, which murders and loots in its wake. In the shorter, tighter and significantly more political second season, Ravenwood's parent company, the Jennings & Rall Corporation (see its fake website here!) emerges from the shadows as the moving force behind a breakaway Allied States of America.

Lennie James and Skeet Ulrich as Robert Hawkins and Jake Green
This entity, headed by President Tomaccio, a former J&R executive, has emerged west of the Mississippi and is vying for control of the former USA with the remains of the old Federal Government based in Ohio and a re-established Republic of Texas. J&R's doublespeak, preaching democracy and freedom while violently establishing corporate control over public services, the military and encroaching on, for example, Stanley's farm, is related back to contemporary American foreign policy. Jake's own backstory is as a corporate mercenary in Iraq and Afghanistan and his demons from his time there resurface as Fallujah comes to Kansas. Confronted by a soldier trying to impose the writ of his political masters, Jake retorts that the ASA is an illegitimate entity - "Can't you see my country is a company?"

But equally important is the small stuff - the way the townspeople pool their resources and support each other, and welcome refugees in spite of the shortage of food and power. And, conversely, when the chips are down, how an attempt by a young storekeeper to profit from scarcity is given short-shrift and money no longer matters. To be sure, in uncertain times, we do see a "well-regulated militia" understandably arm itself against the dangers of the unknown, but when the neighbouring town lapses into Tea Party vigilante-ism, the people of Jericho respond by downing their own weapons to stay true to civilised values. It is a survivalist tale, but it takes on the would-be survivalists and shows them to be nothing more than angry, hollow men, scared and empty of any true values.

The series was cancelled in the second season, but was given the chance to reach some endings and this becomes evident in the elevated pace of the final three or four episodes. However, this paradoxically heightens the urgency of the plot and doesn't particularly detract: the slower first season had built up both the story and characters well enough, and in many ways it ends at the right moment, although for true fans there was a brief continuation in the form of some graphic novels.

Jericho takes on both the corrupt realities of the contemporary neoliberal world and the fantasies of the libertarian alternatives - showing how completely each crumple into barbaric nightmares. Instead, the underpinning theme is that, deep down, most people want to do good by each other, and we do that best when we stand together - even, and perhaps most of all, in the worst of times.

Jericho is currently available on Netflix.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Sleepwalking the EU

The European Union referendum debate is sputtering slowly towards half-life. Still largely framed as a debate between two parts of the Tory Party, with echoing accompaniment from their familiars in UKIP and the remnants of the Lib Dems, it has to be so far the most turgid, depressive experience in recent political history. None of the aspiration and joy, or even the passion and anger, of the Scottish referendum or the US elections. Just a bunch of men in suits, accompanied by the odd woman in a suit, trying to outdo each other with predictions of our imminent demise if we leave, or if we stay.

In the Scottish referendum, the so-called Project Fear, where the Westminster parties combined to try to scare Scots into opposing independence, so insulted voters that there was a huge swing against remaining in the UK. In the final six weeks, support for independence grew by about 50% and the final result was infinitely closer than expected.

Bizarrely, the same parties that instigated the negative campaigning in Scotland have now adopted the same tactics for the Eurovote - the big difference being that this time it is being used by both sides. Consider tonight's Guardian debate which pitched Labour's Alan Johnson and Lib Dem Nick Clegg for "Remain" against UKIP's Nigel Farage and the Tory Alison Leadsom for "Leave".

The messaging was as appalling as the last few weeks' worst:

- Brexit will justify the break up of the UK with a new Scottish referendum (Johnson)
- The UK Government won't allow the Scots to have another vote (Leadsom)
- Britain's security is at threat if we don't leave because of a combination of a European Army and poverty-stricken Turkey being allowed to join (Farage)
- Nigel Farage is "deeply, deeply dishonest" (Clegg)
- Nick Clegg has made a living out of telling lies (Farage)

Even the options on the paper - Remain or Leave - are somehow uninspiring. Should I remain or should I leave?  as the song never went.

The polls are bouncing around, and this is not surprising - voters are unclear of the issues because the politicians and the media are so used to simply printing and echoing horror stories about abroad that there is little ability to have any informed debate. The most progressive elements of the Remain camp, especially the trade unions, talk about the EU granting workers rights, and this is correct in the sense that a lot of employment law such as equal pay, anti-discrimination and health and safety rules is derived from EU regulations and directives.

However, implicit in the agreement signed up to by Cameron is an even greater ability than before for Britain to opt-out of many of these (as we have already over swathes of the working time regulations, for example) as well as a commitment to sign up to the appalling TransAtlantic Trade & Investment Partnership treaty (TTIP). Both provisions significantly threaten the rights we have gained.

But on the Leave side there is equal dishonesty - they say we can leave and have a trade agreement with the EU which will somehow inevitably continue to trade with us, ignoring the fact that, as with all trade agreements, we would need to sign up to many of the same rules we apparently detest now but without having any say in them at all. Norway even pays billions a year to the EU for the privilege of trading with it while not a member.

Neither side to date has either given a compelling argument. The remain side largely ignores the positives - such as the record-breaking length of time the Continent that started two world wars has now enjoyed peace; we may haggle over budgets but no one is shooting at each other. Or the fact that freedom of movement has allowed millions of Britons to live in the EU as well as permitted Europeans to come to Britain. Some half million UK pensioners live in Spain and enjoy its free health service as a right. Similarly, the urgent international action required to tackle global warming has a headstart with an international institution like the EU acting as a springboard for action.

Equally, the Leave side could talk about Britain out of the EU developing more localised economies and strengthening rather than diluting workers and consumers rights - except that its leaders are pretty hostile to these things and detest the minimal rules the EU requires now.

So, in the coming weeks, it has to be hoped that the campaigns improve, lift their sights and provide some vision of the future that might get people along to vote - and more than that, think about the future. The Scottish referendum was noted for its massive engagement of people, on both sides, in an unprecedented way. But as things stand, it is not impossible that the biggest group in the EU vote will be the non-voters and, whatever the result of the ballot, the issue will remain unsettled.

Corbyn's Labour Party is silent as it increasingly turns inward. The Greens, by contrast, have produced a fairly optimistic video in support of remaining, though perhaps they could be doing a bit more to talk about the sort of EU they would like to build rather than fairly uncritically lauding the pretty messy and undemocratic structures we have now. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon, meantime, has been a constructive voice for a more informed debate, but even she is talking more about the benefits of the status quo than what needs to change to benefit citizens' rather than big business interests.

Sleepwalking in or out of the European Union may not be the issue - the neoliberals and the banks remain the winners. The issue, as ever, is how we break past them and start to build a new, fairer, sustainable society - nationally and internationally. The different Europe of Varoufakis, not the corporate straight-jacket of Cameron, or Farage.

Monday, 7 March 2016

The Triumvirate of the Damned; Or Jesus Lives, But Satire Is Dead

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to what appeared to be a shocking statement by Republican Senator and would-be Presidential candidate Marco Rubio. In it Rubio held forth on his opposition to abortion in virtually all circumstances, even, when challenged by the interviewer, if Martians invaded and assaulted American women. Zika virus meantime was possibly God's way of punishing babies, so no legitimate ground for a termination.

Eventually by looking at other items on the "news" site, I ascertained that this was, in fact satire - the giveaway article was one where President Obama was reported to be angry about internet porn, but only because it was costing him so much to view.

Yet it was a close call - because the thing is, it isn't so difficult to imagine Rubio saying what was attributed to him. His party, after all, boasts a range of lawmakers who see rape as the woman's fault and have been prepared to legislate to enforce this warped view, inspiring memes such as this one, where each statement is not satire, but hard-fact comments from elected (male) American representatives.

And, of course, somehow, on some distant planet, Rubio is seen as the "moderate" member of the Triumvirate of the Damned composed of himself, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Satire works when it takes the most ludicrously extreme position of a public figure and then stretches it to a logical but far-beyond-feasible horizon. The humour is in the warning - this is where you are headed if you take their dogmatic stupidity to its furthest but nigh-impossible conclusion.

But satire dies if it is no longer a humorous warning and becomes instead an all-too likely forecast. Because, in this era of post-factual and post-reason politics, anything at all really is possible.

Back in 1980, the British satirical TV programme, Not the Nine O'Clock News, included this sketch:

People were amused because, under the early days of the Thatcher Government, the Tories were imposing swingeing cuts on welfare spending. If they kept on this path, the satire held, the next thing they would indeed do would be to tax white sticks and wheelchairs. Except, of course, no one thought for a moment that they actually would, even if we knew a good number of them might like to - because it was simply too far, too outrageous. So, even under Thatcher, even under the greed-inducing, society-denying Iron Lady, they never did - indeed, latterly, they even encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to classify as disabled in order to reduce the official unemployment figures.

Whizz forward thirty years and now we have headlines like these:

Now, Government ministers with six figure expenses claims extol the need to cut disability benefit by £30 a week and utter statements chillingly close to Hitler's arbeit mach frei (work sets you free),  while a Tory councillor recommended euthanasia by the guillotine for disabled children with little rebuke. There is no longer anything to joke about. Anything, it seems, really is possible.

And so to the Republican Presidential race.

Marco Rubio perhaps does slide into some faint degree of distant reason set against his rival Ted Cruz, who happily lets his preacher father go on TV to declare that God has sent his son to make America great again while, in his own appearances, Cruz himself claims God is helping his campaign. In the Republican debates he has declared he will bomb Syria until the sand glows - an aspiration unlikely to have been approved by Jesus though Ted at least claims to be in the know on that score, with his direct-line to Heaven. But in case things aren't absolutely certain, just for sake of clarity, Cruz has welcomed the support of a rightwing Pastor who claimed God sent Hitler to hunt Jews.

And then, of course, there is Trump. And what can you say? From the satirical to the surreal, and back to the only too real. Prayed over and blessed by Christian and Jewish faith leaders, he wants to build a "beautiful" wall and make Mexico pay. Ban Muslims from entering America and make the ones already there wear special badges so people can identify them in the street. Torture for freedom. Wage war for peace.

This is a man who mocks the disability of a reporter and just gets more popular. A man who talks about the size of his genitals at a political rally and is cheered to the rafters. A man who leads a baying mob in roaring applause of the choke-slamming of a photographer he didn't like . A man whose speeches have allegedly inspired white rightwingers to commit acts of violence against minorities. A man who boasts he could kill someone, but his supporters would just keep voting for him...

You can point to the parallels with Hitler and the Jews. To Stalin and the Berlin Wall. To any number of dictators. Or psychopaths. But you can't laugh.

Outstretched arms for the Trump Pledge in Florida

Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was released in 1964 against a backdrop of the Cold War. Yet while it satirized the doctrine of mutual assured destruction that was central to military planning and the politics of the time, the characters so powerfully and humorously portrayed were nevertheless parodies: ludicrous extensions of the appallingly unpleasant but nevertheless limited-by-some-faint-degree-of-reason individuals the story lampooned. Major Kongs existed for sure, but they wouldn't really get to ride the Bomb.

But now, with it almost a dead certainty that one of those three will win the Republican nomination and have at least an evens chance of actually becoming President, while nearly everything becomes ludicrous, anything also becomes possible.

And the joke is over.

In the twisted minds of the Triumvirs, Jesus is alive and working through them.

If he is, he might wish himself dead.

He could be entombed alongside the stone cold corpse of satire.