Human rights researchers were featured on Radio 4 yesterday, since they’ve issued a report on the Gaza slaughter of hundreds of civilians. Their central concern was the use of weapons that were guaranteed to kill innocent women and children, and men. White phosphorous that causes flesh and guts to burn unstoppably, tank shells fired through the windows of houses, bombs that release ‘flechettes’ or barbed arrow-heads by the thousand, high explosive bombs and shells fired into streets, markets and public buildings, all caused carnage. Israel more or less shrugs its shoulders, says the Hamas fighters shouldn’t have hidden themselves in urban areas, and says the use of phosphorous was unauthorised by their government. No apology though.
Could it be that the Israeli state sees God as its role model, I wonder, since the Bible tells us that God was very much given to smiting bad guys? He apparently smote places like Egypt with plagues of locusts, unhealable boils and the death of first-born children. When He got really pissed off with the human race He apparently just drowned the lot of them, with the exception of good old Noah and his missus.
Maybe the Israeli government sees itself as enacting God’s will in smiting the people of Gaza? They’ve certainly gone further than extracting an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. They presumably see themselves as the Chosen Ones, carrying out the will of God.
So did God tell the Nazis to murder 6 million innocents? Was that God’s will? Or the Devil’s? And if the Devil can be responsible for the killing of innocents, could he then be responsible for the killing of more than a thousand innocents in Gaza? In which case, was the Israeli state acting on behalf of the Devil?
And in any case, how does all this square with God’s commandment that thou shalt not kill? It’s all too much for my poor little Zen brain.
On a much lighter note, the BBC are re-running the Johnny Vegas comedy vehicle - Ideal. Last night they showed the episode where the Vegas character and his girlfriend are discussing their simultaneous affairs, which are supposedly at an end.
The girlfriend berates him for the way he carried on his affair so indiscreetly, so blatantly, whereas as she blah, blah . . . To which Johnny replies, “What’s this? An infidelity masterclass?”
Their relationship, however, is messed up by Johnny’s acquisition of a massive television set. She makes it clear that the TV has to go, and that he has to choose - her or the TV. The TV stays.
She later returns to the flat to try a reconciliation, and the new girlfriend has to quickly hide - behind the TV. From her hiding place she overhears a conversation about how Vegas had talked about the new girlfriend as a complete idiot. She bursts out of her hiding place and wails, “I know I’m stupid! I’ve tried learning, but it just doesn’t happen for me!”
Finally they’re happily curled up on the sofa, with the TV towering over them, and Vegas murmurs contentedly, “You and me and the big telly were just meant to be.”
And what are they watching? “Clangers - as relevant today as it was then.”
Well, he is a dope dealer, after all.
This bit’s going to be boring, but it has to be said. Gordon Brown is an idiot. He tried learning, but it just didn’t happen for him.
He clearly thinks we’re idiots. The article he wrote, or was written in his name, for the Observer on Sunday was headed “We will put people first, not bankers.” Future tense, we notice.
And this is the crux of the matter, and why people now despise him and want to punish him, to smite him, as well as the bankers - precisely because we’re not idiots.
[Guardian front-page story yesterday - Britain Faces Summer of Rage - Police. ‘Middle-class anger at economic crisis could erupt into violence on streets.’]
For 10 years and more Brown presided over unregulated casino capitalism and ignored the calls from a multitude of critics, notably Will Hutton as far back as 1995, who were demanding that he do the things that he’s now saying he’s going to do.
In the article he blathers on about our values as a nation and the need to protect people from the ‘downturn’ and prepare ourselves for ‘every future challenge’. Quite right, Gord, but we wouldn’t now have a ruinous banking crisis and a recession if you’d taken action back in ’97 to re-regulate the bankers, prevented a property bubble developing, insisted on due caution when handing out mortgages, put limits on people and companies building up ‘portfolios’ of residential houses and flats for private renting, etc. “No more boom and bust”, indeed.
Gord goes on about “a reformed and more responsible banking system”, which is exactly what Will Hutton wrote about in “The State We’re In” before NuLabour came to power - so why didn’t our great leader do something about it before the shit hit the fan, before the horse bolted? Only now he wants to shut the stable door and clean out 10 years’ worth of droppings.
Gord says he “understands and shares people’s anger towards the behaviour of some of the banks”, but he doesn’t see the anger that’s towards HIM? I’m sure he does, but a complete lack of integrity and honesty prevent him from acknowledging it.
If he had any integrity he’d resign and allow someone who’s consistently advocated proper banking regulation to become the party leader and PM - if such a person could be found within the Labour party. (It’s surely axiomatic that there’s no such person within NuLabour.)
But lo! There’s more. “We must make changes both in the banks themselves and their regulation.” (Why didn’t he do it 10 years ago?)
“Banks must act in the long-term interests of their shareholders and therefore of the economy as a whole.” (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)
“This starts with a rejection of the old short-term bonus culture.” (Why didn’t he do it 10 years ago?)
We must have “long-term incentives and claw-backs if future performance is poor”. (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)
We must have “better governance of banks. Their boards must have the expertise and power to challenge management and they must be able to understand the risks the company is taking.” (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)
Board members must have “the necessary expertise and the right incentives to monitor executives.” (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)
“We need both better national and global regulation.” (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)
“Institutions with global reach should be regulated in a global way, not by a patchwork of national regulators.” (Why didn’t he do something 10 years ago?)
“We have to be clear as a nation about what we expect from our banks, and clear too about how people . . . expect these vital institutions to be run.” Fuck off, Gord! You weren’t clear about that, 10 years ago? 20 years? I certainly was. A great many of us were clear about it. Socialists certainly were. It was just NuLabour that wasn’t. Even the Tories and the neo-cons were clear about what they wanted, which is exactly what you gave them.
“Britain needs to lead the world in reforming and restructuring our banking system.” Too late, you arrogant twat. Leaving aside your crappy syntax - since the world can’t restructure OUR banking system - many other countries never had governments that made their central banks independent of their government, never deregulated to the ridiculous extent that we did, and never had so-called watchdogs that were as useless and pathetic as ours was.
What’s happened is thanks to YOUR laissez-faire lack of attention. Thanks to YOU appointing the actual mad bankers to run the so-called watchdogs.
AND it was YOU who appointed mad bankers to be your top economic and financial advisers. Instead of competent professional economists with an independent and disinterested, non-partisan, non-neo-con viewpoint. People like Will Hutton, for instance.
New Labour did none of the above, did none of the things Gord now says he intends to do, in spite of a crying need to do so, because it was bent on slavishly following the neo-cons and the Chicago Boys, not leading us towards a more enlightened system that was “the servant of our economy, and society, never its master”, which is now what Gord says he wants.
Fair enough - he’s now (finally, belatedly) seen the light. But where’s the credibility? It’s not like he can say he was busy doing something else with fisheries or the health service or education whilst the economic time-bomb was being constructed. He was right there, in the Treasury, surrounded by advisers (the wrong ones - Ed Balls!) and able to take decisive action any time he chose. Except that he wasn’t able.
Oh dear! Tony wouldn’t let him! George wouldn’t let Tony! No doubt these will be the excuses he’ll trot out in his memoires. Better to be in there, tinkering around as best he could within the neo-con straitjacket, than not there at all. No doubt.
Except that he could have resigned. He could have made a stand. He could have drawn our attention to what needed to be done. The reason he didn’t do that either was simply because he was an idiot and he believed people like the ex-head of RBS when they told him that all was for the best in the best of all possible capitalist worlds. Wasn’t London now the epicentre and the hub of the world’s financial markets? How great was that? Brilliant!
Gord has now learnt from hard experience that this wasn’t the case. That’s ‘hard’, by the way, in the sense that other people’s lives are now being devastated. Gord himself continues to occupy Number 10 and still spends his weekends in the splendour and comfort of Chequers. Why?
Polly Toynbee wrote an interesting article last week about the Labour leadership. She makes the point that a change in the leadership won’t necessarily improve NuLabour’s electoral chances. What’s needed now, she points out, whoever leads the party, are the right policies that will lead to economic stabilisation and recovery, with the least amount of pain and misery for the innocents who will take the brunt of the implosion of the current free-market, globalised system.
It's life and death for Labour in the here and now, never mind who leads the battered remnants if Labour loses as badly as looks likely.
Fiscal rectitude can wait: for now, 100,000 more unemployed every month matter most. Promise a job or apprenticeship for every school-leaver, create green jobs, build homes and railways. Make mortgage rescue work. Talk openly about the divide between the majority in work, doing rather well with low mortgages and falling prices: they will need to share more with jobless families and pensioners in real hardship. Explain the need to spread pain and gain more fairly. Describe what's happening honestly and why there must be no cuts in public services. Make bold savings on Trident, aircraft carriers and ID cards among other things and, for the sake of foreign investor confidence, admit that later taxes will need to rise for those who came through this well.
Clarity and honesty are the only hope: April's budget is Labour's last chance. It's an all or nothing gamble. But since the Tories will go for the jugular on debt anyway, Labour needs to take a bolder Keynesian line that really will save millions from suffering. Brown's talk of the "spirit of the Blitz" might start to resonate if he makes a braver fight against this ever darkening depression.
Last night I watched a superb film about the life and times of Jackson Pollock, the notorious Jack the Dripper, and his ever darkening depression. It was fascinating to see such a good drama depicting his development as an artist, his poverty, his rise to fame, his madness and his alcoholism - the affliction that eventually ruined his work and ended his life through a car crash whilst out driving when he was completely pissed. Tragically he also killed the young woman who had taken the place in his life of his long-term partner and wife, Lee Krasner.
I can still remember the first time I saw paintings by Pollock in an exhibition. What was stunning, apart from their size and apparent simplicity, was the fact that they clearly weren’t painted, in the accepted use of that word. There were no brush strokes - just incredible surfaces looking as though they were actually moving, swirling, shifting. They had this sort of rhythm and sway, and were truly mesmerising, which I hadn’t been expecting. Completely abstract, with no figurative elements, they spoke directly to the soul and the senses.
A body of work like Pollock’s reminds me that it’s not the length of our lives that matters - it’s what we do with them. He died at 44. Van Gogh at 37. Hendrix died in his twenties. All of them ruined by drugs and/or personal demons. All of them produced bodies of work that were stunningly original, incredibly vibrant and uplifting, and will never be successfully copied or replicated.
A Final Word on Gaza and Iraq
I’ve been meaning to blog about this article for a couple of weeks. It’s by Pankaj Mishra, author of Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tibet.
When last week in Ha'aretz the Israeli historian Tom Segev judged Israeli "apathy" towards the massacre in Gaza as "chilling and shameful", he brought on deja vu among Indians. In 2002 the Hindu nationalist government of Gujarat supervised the killing of more than two thousand Muslims.
As the Israeli right looks likely to be the latest electoral beneficiary of state terror, it is time to ask: can the institutions of electoral democracy, liberal capitalism and the nation-state be relied upon to do our moral thinking for us? "Trust in the majority," they seem to say, but more often than not the majority proves itself incapable of even common sense.
Hannah Arendt's phrase "banality of evil" refers precisely to how a generalised moral numbness among educated, even cultured, people makes them commit or passively condone acts of extreme violence.
Shallowness and ignorance have been our lot in the mass consumer societies we inhabit, where we were too distracted to act politically, apart from periodically deputing political elites to take life-and-death decisions on our behalf. We were shielded from many of the deleterious consequences, which worked themselves out on obscure people in remote lands. The free world's economic implosion is bringing home the intolerable cost of this collective deference to apparently efficient elites and anonymous, overcomplex institutions.
It is too easy to blame Bush, who told Americans to go spend and consume while he ratcheted up pain levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the grotesquely overrated technocrats running banks and businesses. As the New York Times columnist Frank Rich reminded Americans last week: "We spent a decade feasting on easy money, don't-pay-as-you-go consumerism and a metastasizing celebrity culture. We did so while a supposedly cost-free, off-the-books war, usually out of sight and out of mind, helped break the bank along with our nation's spirit and reputation."
The prosperity many democracies enjoyed lulled citizens into political torpor. The prospect of economic collapse has persuaded a majority of Americans to exercise more individual judgment than they showed while re-electing Bush in 2004. But collective failures of the kind Barack Obama spoke of in his stern inaugural speech will continue to occur among citizens of other democracies - and they will have no Obama to exhort them to personal responsibility.
In any case, economic disasters or foolish wars are hardly guaranteed to bring about large-scale individual self-examination or renew the appeal of truly participatory democracy. They are more likely to make authoritarianism attractive, as European democracies in the 1930s and Russia in recent times demonstrated. Many Indians and Israelis seem set to elect, with untroubled consciences, those who speak the language of torturers and terrorists. More disturbingly, these corrupted democracies may increasingly prove the norm rather than the exception.