Crime and Politics…The Situation is Always Fluid.

Our once great nation is sick. It’s not been healthy for some time, but we’ve been able to kid ourselves that the situation was temporary, just a glitch, things would get better.

But it’s not.

There is a serious problem in Britain today, and it is only getting worse. The chancellor, George Osbourne, on behalf of the ConDem government, has recently revealed a budget that relieves tax burdens on the rich, while increasing tax burdens on the poor, disabled and elderly. The ConDem government has just passed a bill in which the NHS, the greatest health institution ever created, is being broken up and privatised with £5 billion worth of savings targeted for 2015 (paid for by selling bits and laying off staff, thus creating a less efficient system).  Cameron is currently trying to deflect blame for a scandal in which the co-treasurer of his Conservative Party, Peter Cruddas, was caught on camera offering access to the Prime Minister in return for donations to the party of £250,000.

In May 2011, a referendum was held on changes to the electoral system. The current system, known as First Past The Post or the plurality system, is inherently flawed and yet nearly 68% of voters chose not to change to the AV (Alternative Vote). Well, 68% of the 42% of voters that bothered to vote. This suggests that the general public are just as at fault as the politicians. After all, we live in a democracy, right?

Right?

Well, not quite. A democracy, from the Greek demokratia – ‘rule by the people’, implies that the ‘rulers’ should be selected from the population rather than putting themselves forward for election. Douglas Adams, in his Hitch-Hikers Guide series, stated that anyone who wanted to be in charge should automatically be eliminated from the running. This was meant as a wittily derogatory remark about politicians and their motivations, but there is some sense in what he says. A system whereby individuals are chosen from the voting register at random to fulfil government posts for a set time is one possibility, but is obviously deeply problematic. Members of the public are not necessarily capable of fulfilling the duties of political office, nor should they be expected to. The running of government should be in the hands of people who are trained to do it. Unfortunately, politicians aren’t trained to do it. David Cameron was educated at Eton, school of choice for the moneyed classes, and won a scholarship to Oxford University (ditto). Eton almost guarantees a place in a prestigious university as it is, undeniably, a very good school.  And so it should be, as it charges over £30,000 per year (not including additional fees for music lessons and so on). That pays for a lot of good grades.

You can almost smell the smug, self-satisfied bastards sweating money, can't you?

With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the Conservatives see everything in terms of money. The NHS being privatised isn’t about providing a better service, it’s about making money. We know that privatisation doesn’t improve services. The Tories tried it in the 80s and it didn’t work too well then either. The banks and the big businesses (easy targets, I know) are making money hand over bastard fist, and yet they escape having to pay too much tax because they are in bed with the government (hopefully only metaphorically).

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats (the other party in the current coalition government), has betrayed his party and his supporters. The Liberal Democrats are the opposite of the Conservatives. They should be progressive, socially responsible, instead Clegg has turned into Cameron’s lapdog, constantly agreeing with his boss’s ideas, regardless of their impact on the country. He saw the chance for a little bit of reflected glory and a whiff of power and went for it, damning the consequences and binning his principles (assuming he actually had some to begin with). He needs to do the right thing and dissolve the coalition, forcing a general election.

I should pause at this point and admit something. I don’t often talk in detail about politics, because I don’t really know that much about it (as anyone who does will no doubt have noticed). I know enough to bluff my way in pub conversations, but not enough to go on Newsnight, which is only one of many reasons that I’ve never been invited on. I am in no way the ‘voice of the average man on the street’ either, because I am fairly representative of the liberal middle-England (raised in Hampshire, father was an officer in the Royal Engineers, I’ve worked mainly in white-collar industries, I have a degree and I’m a teacher – you don’t get much more middle-class). I am a liberal and proud of it. I believe firmly in all of the good things that progressive governments have done for this country. Our education system used to be second to none, our healthcare was superlative, our benefits system was fair and genuinely helped some of the neediest people in our society. We used to have industries in this country, men and women working hard (albeit not always in the safest or healthiest environments) and making world class products: steel, ships, cars. What do we have now? Call centres. And even those are being outsourced.

Britain has become a nation of consumers, not producers. Creativity is not valued. Passion is not valued. Only money is valued. Success is measured by the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the house you own. We have no say in the running of our own country. Cameron’s government suppressed a report into the risks of the NHS bill, preventing it from being read by the very people who were supposed to be making an informed choice about it. If politicians in the Houses of bloody Parliament don’t have a fair say in the political arena of Britain, what chance do the rest of us have? Even when protesters take to the streets of our nation’s capital, they are almost invariably ignored.

"Go back to sleep, Britain! Your government is in control!"

Well, you could always become a religious spokesperson. That way you’ll be able to have your views listened to by government all the time. It was revealed today that three MPs have decided to try to force the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) to reverse its decision to ban a religious advert that suggests that prayer can heal illnesses. A Christian cult…sorry, Christian GROUP in Bath were banned from using advertising leaflets featuring these words:

NEED HEALING? GOD CAN HEAL TODAY!… We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness.

Apparently, those knee-jerk liberals at the ASA decided that this was misleading, and could potentially stop some people from seeking medical advice. I know, crazy fools! The clever and insightful MPs (Conservative Gary Streeter, Labour’s Gavin Shuker and Liberal Democrat Tim Farron – see? All three major parties represented These guys must represent the majority, right?) ask a very serious question of those facists at the ASA:

On what scientific research or empirical evidence have you based this decision?

Excuse me, I just need some air. You may have noticed the slightest hint of sarcasm about that previous paragraph, but I swear that quote is genuine. These three fucking lunatics have genuinely asked for ‘scientific research’ and ’empirical evidence’ to prove that prayer doesn’t heal people. My initial response would be ‘oh, do fuck off’, but, on reflection, I think we can do better. How about the fact that we need medicine? Or doctors? Or the fact that people still die from illness? Or the fact that prayer DOESN’T FUCKING CURE SICKNESS?! The burden of proof in this case is quite clearly on those who claim that it has an effect, rather than on the people who claim it doesn’t. If you want prayer included in the list of acceptable and effective medical treatments, then you have to prove that it does work in a statistically significant number of cases.

The letter to the ASA also includes some anecdotal evidence. Sorry. Not good enough. You were the ones that mentioned ‘scientific research’ so you can go away and perform clinical trials with control groups and placebos and all the rest, to try and prove that prayer can heal. At the very least, it will shut you up long enough for doctors to actually heal some more people, rather than mumbling in Latin at them before demanding their cash to pay for more shiny hats.

Now THAT'S a shiny fucking hat!

These so-called Christians In Parliament should not be bringing religion into politics. There needs to be a complete divide between the church and the state. We are not a Christian nation. It is difficult to accurately measure the number of religious people in the UK, as was proven by the Humanist Society. When people were asked “What is your religion?” over 53% responded ‘Christian’. Fairly easy to measure, I hear you say. Well, hold on, because when those SAME people were asked “Are you religious?” 65% said no. More interestingly, it was found that less than 10% of the population attend a place of worship regularly. And that 10% includes all religions in the UK, not just Christians.

From this we can deduce that Christian churches represent the views of about 6% of the population of the country, or about half the population of Greater London. From that, we can further deduce that they have ABSOLUTELY NO SAY IN THE RUNNING OF THE COUNTRY! They do not get to dictate morals or laws any more.

But who does? We have already seen that Cameron’s government is morally bankrupt, willing to take under-the-table ‘donations’ in order to gain access to the Prime Minister. Why would someone want to do that? Well, access to the PM allows an individual, or a representative of a ‘group of concerned citizens’, or a pressure group, to make suggestions to the leader of our country. These suggestions will come from someone who is clearly a supporter of what Cameron stands for, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have such privileged access… You see? It is clearly an unacceptable and corrupt way of doing things, which is why Cameron was so quick to damn his treasurer when the news came out, quick to condemn his actions, quick to distance himself from a situation that he, in all probability, was entirely aware of.

We need to take the power back.

We need to refuse to have our voices ignored any longer.

We need to demand transparency and involvement in the politics of our country.

Maybe then we can make Britain great once again.

Unleash the Rage…

I woke up this morning with the intention of writing about things that make me happy. Then I walked down the High Street and came into contact with people. All feelings of goodwill promptly vanished and were replaced with a boiling pit of violent fury, lightly flavoured with a sprinkling of deep contempt for all humanity. This changed my plans somewhat.

Therefore, I am writing a short list of some of the things that really piss me off.

Rage Cause #1: Ignorance

Ignorance is probably my most common trigger for anger. I mean ignorance in the truest sense of the word, before people get their knickers in a twist. Ignorance does not necessarily imply a lack of intelligence, although that may be a part of it. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge or information, but shares a root with ‘ignore’. This suggests that the ignorant person refuses to ‘see’ information when it is presented to them.

For example, fundamentalist religions are often ignorant, in that they refuse to accept the theories and facts put forward by the scientific community. They may refuse to even enter the debate on subjects such as evolution (beyond denying it). This isn’t a(nother) rant about religion though, so I’ll skip over this example…

This refusal to engage in discussion, which is a clear message that they assume that the other person has nothing important to say, is hugely insulting, especially coming from someone who would probably have difficulties dressing themselves in the morning. Despite the fact that I know their opinions don’t matter (if they aren’t willing to engage, who cares, right?), it still really, REALLY gets on my nerves when people simply don’t listen to explanations. Bastards.

Ignorance is also responsible for the behaviour of people in the street. When walking on a crowded pavement, the sensible person is generally aware of the people around them, avoiding collisions by making constant corrections to direction and speed. If they need to cross the flow of people, they will judge their crossing so as to inconvenience the least number of fellow pedestrians, and should they need to stop they will do so at a point that does not cause an obstruction.

A statistically significant proportion of people are arseholes. Fact.

Unfortunately, crowded pavements often seem to be made up of less-than-sensible people. These ignorant morons walk in a completely straight line, either unaware of the other people trying to use the pavement, or uncaring that their progress along the pavement is causing massive problems to the people that get shoved aside or have to contort themselves to avoid such a fate. These people lurch out of shops directly into the stream of traffic, causing multiple person pile-ups, or stop dead in the middle of the pavement to have a conversation with a friend, becoming a clot in the blood flow of society.

This attitude extends to the road as well, where the ignoramus in question is suddenly in control of two tonnes of speeding metal. I humbly suggest that this is not a good thing. The sense of pure arrogance that these people barge through life with gives them an inflated sense of confidence, which in turn leads to them choosing to ignore basic rules, such as ‘Give Way’ signs, or rights of way. Unfortunately, when these people cause accidents, it is often other people that get injured or killed.

As a teacher, the subject of ignorance comes up a lot. ‘Why do we need to read a book? Why can’t we just watch the film?’ is something that is often asked in the classroom. A fair question? Well, no. A book is far more than a written version of a film. For a start, it invariably covers a lot more ground than a film, including examining the internal thought processes of the characters. Secondly, watching a film is a passive experience; you are watching someone else’s interpretation of events, characters and locations, rather than exercising your brain in coming up with them yourself. Thirdly, reading is a learning process. The more we read, the wider our vocabulary grows, the more our grammar improves, the greater our store of knowledge. All of human emotion and experience exists within the written world, and we would be fools to allow that to die out.

And speaking of teachers…

Rage Cause #2: Michael Gove

Michael Gove MP, Tory Secretary of State for Education. This will be a difficult section for me to write, because every time I even think the name ‘Michael Gove’ I have to go and lie down until the urge to kill passes.

Michael Gove, MP: Ventriloquist's Dummy of the Damned

Gove is a former journalist who is now in charge of the education of the next generation. This would be funny if it weren’t so scary. Gove has never been a teacher, never had to deal with the immense workload that teachers face, and yet he is dictating how they should do their jobs. He has moved the goalposts several times in the last few years, most notably in regards to the OFSTED inspections that all schools must endure.

To be clear, I am not saying that schools shouldn’t be inspected – obviously there needs to be accountability in education – but the removal of any kind of acknowledgement of the socio-economic background of the students is a ridiculous decision for a start. In areas of lower social class and lower incomes, education is often not valued at home, so the students see very little worth in education. This has a majorly depressive effect on results, one that is very difficult for teachers to counter. Parents have far more influence over children than teachers do (which is exactly how it should be), and this influence often extends to a lack of importance placed on education. But, under Gove’s plans, this is not accepted, so children growing up in affluent areas of the Home Counties are treated identically to children growing up in economically depressed, inner-city sink estates. This is an obvious idiocy, or should be to anyone with half a brain. Of course, all students should be treated equally in theory, but in practise this doesn’t work. A student brought up in a home which is stable and supportive, where they are encouraged and interacted with, where their academic achievements are praised, will naturally do better in school than a student who is raised in a home where they are not valued, where their education is an excuse to get them out of the way for the day, where their primary care-giver is having to work all hours just to keep a roof over their head. I am not being judgemental, merely pointing out that this is the reality for many children in Britain today. The General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers said that it was important to “accept that the job of teaching is made more difficult depending on the home circumstances of pupils. No increased amount of haranguing of teachers or head teachers will alter this fact”.

The reality of teaching for far too many.

The previous OFSTED grades were simple: Unsatisfactory (for schools that were not meeting the appropriate standards), Satisfactory (for those schools that were), Good (for those schools that exceeded the standards) and Outstanding (for those schools that far exceeded the standards). However, Michael Gove, in his infinite wisdom and supported by Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of OFSTED, has decided to change the English language to suit his political needs. Satisfactory is no longer Satisfactory, apparently. Satisfactory is now Requires Improvement. Satisfactory means ‘not trying hard enough’, ‘coasting’, basically ‘unsatisfactory’. If a school gets a Satisfactory grade they will be revisited within eighteen months and will be expected to have shown some improvement in that time. They will be inspected again within a further eighteen months and, if no improvement is shown, will be placed in Special Measures.

This whole procedure seems designed to add to the stress of teaching. Currently teachers get 10% of their teaching timetable for PPA (Planning, Preparation and Assessment); in other words, 10% of their teaching day is for the planning of all lessons and the marking of all work. Obviously, this is ridiculous. Most schools have around a 6 hour teaching day (although that varies from school to school – let’s go with the averages). This means 30 hours of lessons per week, of which around 27 hours will be classroom time, leaving 3 hours a week for PPA. It can take up to an hour (easily) to plan a lesson and prepare resources to the standard expected by OFSTED (and thus many members of senior leadership). That means it can take 27 hours a week just to plan. Marking takes even longer, with a class set of books needing an investment of 2 to 3 hours a week. An average teacher might have seven or eight class sets to teach, requiring a further 14 to 24 hours a week. That means a teacher can realistically be expected to work up to seventy-eight hours a week, not including break/lunch duties, meetings, assemblies, form tutor duties, detention duties, parents evenings and so on. Yes, teachers do get longer holidays than most other workers, but many of those holidays are spent feverishly trying to catch up on the things that get left behind during term-time, like having time to spend with loved ones and rebuilding the relationships that are crumbling because you are constantly stressed out about the amount of work you need to do.

So when Michael Gove says that ‘Unsatisfactory’ teachers will be forced to leave the profession, one is filled with a sense of awe for his reasoning skills. Because clearly sacking loads of teachers makes far more sense than, for example, TRAINING AND SUPPORTING them, so that they can become BETTER TEACHERS. Because that’s just silly.

Rage Cause #3: Intolerance

I appreciate that I may be on slightly thin ice with this one, as I am basically writing an article about what I am intolerant of, but I’ll try and justify it as best as I can while retaining a modicum of credibility.I don’t mean intolerances like lactose intolerance, obviously. The intolerance I mean is the type that is simply pointless. Call it intolerance, call it prejudice, call it whatever you like, it’s the dislike/distrust of a group of people over something that is usually meaningless: race, sexuality, social class, gender and so on. Quite often, the target of the intolerance has no control (race, gender, arguably sexuality) and so the intolerance is doubly stupid. The intolerance is usually based on a stereotype, most of which are just wrong: Women belong in the kitchen, gays are immoral etc.

What a massive KKKunt

Racial intolerance is a typical example. Why? What is the point? I live in Britain, which is, genetically speaking, pretty much a mongrel race. We are not a ‘pure’ example of anything. White Britons can trace their blood back to the Celts, Normans, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Norsemen, Romans, and any race that had influenced any of them, like the Persians, Greeks, Egyptians. Our language developed from Germanic roots, with healthy influences from the Romance languages, specifically French (our Arch-Enemies – worse even than the Germans!) Britain has traditionally maintained an open-borders policy, welcoming all races, creeds and colours into our country. I’m not suggesting that there has never been racial tension before this generation, but recently I have been dumbfounded by the idiocy of it all. A common argument you will hear is the ‘Britain is full’, and even fairly well-educated people have put this view forward. Well, that’s quite easy to counter. Look at this:

UK Population Density map

The red areas on the map show where lots of people live, the green areas show where virtually no people live. See? Plenty of space left. We don’t need to operate a ‘one out, one in’ system of immigration just yet. Besides, a lot of people coming to this country come here to work, thus stimulating the economy and paying taxes. This is a good thing. And yes, some of them are committing benefit fraud, just like lots of British people are. Mind you, I have been on the dole myself, and I lean towards the opinion that if they manage to actually get any money out of the government, they fucking deserve it! They obviously worked bloody hard for it!

I have, in the past, been referred to as a misogynist. This is not true. I hold no particular loathing for women. I am a misanthropist: I am an equal opportunities hater. Gender politics is a tricky field to skip through, as some angry feminists will assume the worst no matter what you say, and some misogynists will ascribe views to me that I do not hold. I am all in favour of equality and I support the move towards equal gender representation wholeheartedly. However, some radical, extremist feminists do not seem to want equality. It’s an oft-repeated argument, but worth mentioning in this context. It would appear that some of these radical extremists want to invert the gender relationship that has existed for centuries, rather than settle for equality. They are out for revenge for their sisters, women who struggled against male oppression and often died for their beliefs. I am not, in any way, belittling what women have gone through, but many of the inequalities are now gone, and the majority of men alive today were not involved in it, and many are like me, in that they support equality. So don’t tar all men with the same 17th century brush.

On the flipside to that there are the men who truly believe that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, that women don’t have the same rights as men, that they should stay at home, pleasuring their men and popping out babies. Obviously, these people are wrong too. There is a move on the internet at the moment whereby a certain type of deeply insecure male will make constant mention of kitchens, sandwiches and ‘bitches’, and while some of the comments are clearly made as a joke (and often quite funny ones), there are many that are just a thin veneer over hatred and the suggestion of violence. These ‘men’ need to get their heads on straight. All they are doing is reinforcing the stereotype of oppressive and violent masculinity, which has no place in the 21st century.

And somehow that makes them more interesting...

And speaking of something that has no place in the 21st century, I’m back on one of my favourite soapboxes: Homophobia! Seriously, if you are offended by two men kissing, or two women making out, DON’T WATCH! Simple. Just because gay marriage is legal, doesn’t mean you have to have one. It’s legal to have a cock ring too, but that doesn’t mean you have to rush out and stick a 1lb lump of steel through the old chap. It’s all about choice. The arguments against homosexuality are always idiotic. ‘It’s unnatural!’ So are clothes, living in houses and driving cars. ‘It’s immoral’ So is preaching hate, but that hasn’t stopped you. ‘It’s against God’s law’ So are tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), shrimp and crabs (Leviticus 11:10), the handicapped (Leviticus 21:16-23) and shaving (Leviticus 19:27). I like Leviticus. It’s pretty much where the whole ‘God Hates Fags’ idea comes from, so it’s always worth having a few other verses handy for throwing back at homophobic religious nutters.

OK. I think that’s probably enough ranting for now.

What makes you angry? Let me know in the comments below.

Hot Enough For Ya?

Man-made climate change is causing a little bit of controversy. Some idiots say climate change is a myth, or if it is happening, it’s not the result of human activities. Scientists, on the other hand, are pretty much unanimous in their support of the theory of man-made climate change.

I suspect that my even-handed and non-judgemental introduction to my subject for today’s rant will tell you on which side of the debate I stand.

To give you an example, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a scientific body set up and endorsed by the United Nations to assess the risks of climate change) states that there is “new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last fifty years is attributable to human activity”. The IPCC is further supported by independent scientific establishments around the world as being representative of scientific opinion. Even the American Association of Petroleum Geologists refuse to outright deny the existence of man-made climate change, although they have admitted that a number of their members have resigned due to this policy.

So what are the dangers of climate change, either man-made or natural? Well, the obvious one is the increase in global temperatures caused by the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Even the most die-hard climate sceptic cannot deny that we are pumping these gases into the air in huge quantities. We have known for decades the damage that is being done by industry, traffic and so on, but still we do it.

It certainly wasn't the dolphins that caused this

Global increases in temperature can easily lead to changes in the landscape, as plant life is less able to react to drier or wetter conditions. Plants could therefore die out in some areas, or migrate, following the cooler temperatures away from the equator. As habitats change, animal life will have to move as well, following the vegetation that forms their diet, or the animals that feed on the vegetation in the case of predators. Some species will simply die out, forced into extinction by the destruction of their habitats. Rising temperatures will also affect the oceans, killing off coral reefs and the creatures that live on them. Small creatures, such as plankton and krill, could be severely affected, and they form a large part of the diet of some of the most massive creatures in the sea: whales. Unbalancing the food chain from the bottom up could have devastating effects.

Rising temperatures will also lead to rising sea levels, with some predictions putting the rate at thirty-six inches in the next century. A rise of that magnitude would be devastating, as over 100 million people worldwide live within three feet of sea level. It would entirely swamp the East coast of America, much of coastal Europe, the vast majority of Pacific islands. London, New York and Bangkok would drown.

Ironic doesn't always mean funny.

Rising temperatures will inevitably lead to droughts, which (odd though it may seem) lead directly to an increased risk of flooding. Droughts cause more moisture to be evaporated from the ground, drying it out and killing crops, eroding soil and killing livestock. This evaporated water then returns as heavy rainfall, increasing the risk of flooding. We are already seeing a rise in the severity and frequency of drought and flood, especially in Asia and Africa. In addition, dry conditions lead to an increased risk of forest fires, something that America and Australia have experienced in recent years.

The next problem is the increased severity of storms. Warmer oceans change weather patterns, creating much more violent hurricanes and tropical storms. The eroded landscapes will be unable to withstand this increased battering, damaging them further.

"Aunty Em! Aunty Em!"

The damage to property and human life that could be caused by these storms is incalculable. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast of America in 2005, killed nearly 2000 people and caused between $80 and $110 billion in property damage.

Finally, the increased temperatures will have a direct effect of health, as warmer temperatures allow diseases and disease-carriers to spread into new habitats, bringing such delights as malaria, Dengue fever, River Blindness and Ebola. The World Health Organisation has estimated that more than 150,000 people died as a direct result of climate change in 2000 alone. It suggests that the figure will rise dramatically in the future, as tropical diseases and pests move into new areas where the climate was previously too cold to support them.

Now, I should point out that climate change is just a theory (rather like the Theory of Evolution is ‘just’ a theory), but it does have the support of a huge section of the worldwide scientific community. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is happening, and it is our fault, to motivate world leaders into serious action, wouldn’t you think? Even the Met Office in Britain is currently warning of drought conditions due to a lack of rainfall during winter. I’ll repeat that: the Met Office in BRITAIN is currently warning of DROUGHT conditions due to a LACK OF RAINFALL OVER WINTER! If that doesn’t suggest that the climate is well and truly fucked, I don’t know what does!

My childhood holidays were often spent like this

The British comedian David Mitchell, in his Soapbox series of ranting weblogs, discussed the idea of the burden of proof relating to climate change. He suggests that surely the burden of proof is on the people who say it isn’t happening, rather than the ones who say it is (see his rant here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SI5ulKiZAoE). We definitely should be doing something about it, because if the people who say it isn’t happening are right and we act, then we’ll have spent a lot of money on developing renewable energy, improving sea defenses, cleaning up our atmosphere and so on. On the other hand, if the people who say it is happening are right and we don’t act, we all die a horrible, drawn out death, starving and suffocating while bleeding from our eyes and shitting our internal organs out.

Which would you prefer? I’d prefer a world in which my children (if I ever have any), and their children (likewise), can step outside and breathe the air without immediately dying.

There are many ways in which we can try to put pressure on our governments to take action on this, because it is desperately important for us to do something. Write to your MP, join or donate to charities who work on this. If you’re a scientist, please let me know if I am just spewing out knee-jerk, liberal, reactionary bile. If you don’t, I’ll assume the worst and start building my personal bio-dome in which I’ll live like a king while you all choke on the toxic smog.

Who’s with me?

 

#twitterjoketrial – Sense of humour fail or something more sinister?

As I write this, Paul Chambers is appealing a criminal conviction for menacing use of a public communication system. His case is being heard in the High Court to overturn his criminal record and £1000 fine.

So what was his crime?

Chambers met a girl online. They got on well and planned to meet up in Northern Ireland in January 2010. Just over a week before the flight, Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster was closed due to bad weather. Chambers posted on Twitter, saying “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

A week later he was arrested at work by five anti-terror police officers, questioned, charged and later convicted under the Communications Act 2003.

Does he deserve that? Is it right that a throwaway comment, a joke, should have such damaging consequences to a person’s life?

The prosecution’s case rests on the assumption that, joke or not, the tweet constituted a clear threat to the security of Robin Hood Airport. The defense argues that this is clearly bollocks. It is a joke that has been taken out of context.

Robert Smith QC (presumably no relation to the portly frontman of The Cure) is arguing that the conviction should remain, saying that the comment “was not viewed as a joke by those responsible for airport security” and that “it constituted a threat to blow up Doncaster airport”.

Really?

In this age of social networking and instant messaging, do we need to re-evaluate the way in which the written word is viewed? A few short decades ago, anything that was written down would not be seen by anyone else unless you wanted it to, and even then you could go back to it again and again before exposing it to public perusal. That is no longer the case. In the case of Twitter, Facebook and so on, people have a thought, write it down and fire it out into cyberspace, where it can be read, reposted, replied to by (potentially) millions of people. Should we be more careful about the things we post online? Or does society need to lighten up, to stop treating everything written down as a declaration of intent?

If Chambers had been overheard in the pub commenting on how he would blow the airport “sky high”, this case would never have happened. He would have been seen to be joking through his body language, tone of voice and the reactions of his audience. In other words, the social context of the comment would have provided a defense. In real life, people make comments like this every day. How often have you said “you are so dead” in response to an insult, or “I’ll murder him if he hasn’t done the washing up”? These are clichés, verbal tics that we use to signal that we are not serious. On Twitter there is no such signalling. His comment is there, in black and white, singular glory, unable to defend or explain itself to those who choose to be offended.

And it is a choice. When we hear a joke we instantly react, often without conscious thought. This may be a groan, a belly laugh, a short, involuntary bark of laughter followed by a guilty groan. We may not find a joke funny, because it resonates with us in the wrong way. A joke about death, or sexual abuse, or any other taboo subject may make us recoil in horror because we are too close to it. That doesn’t mean that the joke is not funny, it is just not funny to us. Our sense of humour is just that: ours. It is, by its very nature, subjective. What I find funny will not always be the same as you. And that’s ok. I don’t expect you to find all my jokes funny, in the same way that I don’t expect to like all the same music as you. But just because we like different things, it doesn’t mean that one of us is wrong.

And that is the problem in the Chambers case. A joke was made that someone didn’t find funny. Someone saw the comment that he had made and had a sense of humour failure. They obviously didn’t think it was a joke, although how that came to be is difficult to understand, and they reacted by informing the relevant authorities. The wheels of the legal system rumbled into motion and Chambers found himself treated like a terrorist.

This is not the first time that jokes have been misunderstood, deliberately or otherwise. Jeremy Clarkson recently outraged a section of the British media and public by suggesting that striking public sector workers should be shot. This was another case of a comment taken out of context. What he was actually doing was making a joke about the BBCs policy of ‘balance’, in which both sides of an argument must be fairly represented.

American comedian Joe Lipardi made the headlines when, after continuing problems with his iPhone, claimed on Facebook that he “might walk into an Apple store on Fifth Avenue with an Armalite AR-10 gas powered semi-automatic weapon and pump round after round into one of those smug, fruity little concierges”, a clear reference to one of Ed Norton’s lines in Fight Club. He was arrested by armed police and charged under terrorism laws.

Comedian Russell Brand, along with presenter Jonathan Ross, made a series of phone calls to Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs on Brand’s radio show, in which comments were made about the actor’s grand-daughter Georgina Baillie, member of the burlesque group The Satanic Sluts. After a handful of complaints, the right-wing UK newspaper the Daily Mail ran the story on its front page, generating thousands of further complaints. Brand and Ross were sacked, despite apologising for their comments.

These cases highlight the problem with jokes. If what you say (or especially write) has the possibility of being funny, it almost certainly has the possibility to offend. Should we self-censor in order to avoid this? Should the government censor us if it feels we will offend someone? Should Twitter or Facebook be held accountable for the messages posted on them?

The Chambers case is relying on the European Court of Human Rights and the expression of Free Speech. Do we have the right to say what we want, regardless of who may be offended?

I believe we do. It is your right to be offended by whatever you hear, if you so choose. I also believe that if I say something that is calculated to dehumanize a group, or to promote hatred or violence towards them, then I deserve to be charged and fined. But for making a joke, however lame it may be? No.

And if you disagree, I’ll kill you.

Britishness (Oh dear…)

I realise that I may be entering a world of hurt with this, but it is something that I have been thinking about recently.

What is Britishness? How do we define it? Does it need defining? Does it even matter?

With the looming prospect of Scottish devolution, courtesy of Alex Salmond, is Britishness even going to be a necessary concept within the next few years? Or has it already outlived its usefulness? Should we really be asking ‘what is Englishness/Welshness/Scottishness/Irishness etc’?

Is it more important to ask why the political scene has been obsessed with questions like these for the past few years (decades?)?

So, let’s try and define some terms. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Politicians, despite calling for ‘Britishness tests’, or bemoaning the decline of the ‘British way of life’, seem strangely reluctant to qualify exactly what they mean by ‘Britishness’ beyond a geographical location and mutterings about history.

I’m British. There, I said it. And I’m not ashamed. I’m not really proud either though, and that presents a problem. Many people across the world take great pride in being from whatever country they happen to have been born in, but the Britain isn’t really a country, is it?

So, I’m English. Hmmm. Don’t really feel comfortable saying that I’m proud to be English. Images of St George’s crosses, shaved heads and Doc Marten’s boots leap to mind. Enoch Powell and his ‘Rivers of Blood’. Brixton in 1981 and so on. Can a middle class, middle aged, liberal white man safely say that he is proud of his country, when his country has such a history of division, tension and violence? Especially with the recent resurgence in support for the right-wing parties.

I grew up in a predominantly white and middle class area of Southern England. I only knew a handful of non-whites in the first twenty or so years of my life. The majority of my friends today are white. However, as a teacher in Birmingham, many of my students are non-white and from a working class background. The cultural gulf between us is quite large (and the subject of much amusement to the students). But here’s the thing; the difference between me and the non-white kids is far larger than that between the white kids and the non-white kids. The difference between me and all of these kids is pretty large. Essentially, these kids are all from the same background, regardless of the colour of their skin and it is a very different background than mine. Despite the physical or religious or cultural differences between us we are all British.

Kids are kids, whatever their racial background may be, and when racism does rear its ugly head, it is very easy to hear the voice of the adult generation coming through. It is the voice of the right wing tabloid press, condemming immigrants, despite the fact that the kids saying these things are themselves the product of immigration. “But I was born here” is the oft-given response when challenged.

And a dog born in a stable isn’t a horse…

…but that doesn’t mean it has no right to be in the stable. Britain is a nation of mongrels. Wave after wave of immigrants and invaders have shaped this land into what it is today – truly multi-cultural. Surely we can be proud of that? Britain is a country where a Pakistani can sit on a train with a Croatian, an Italian, a Pole, a Scot, a Somalian and an Iranian, and they are all British.

Racism is bullshit. It is not welcome in my country.

There are so many better reasons to dislike people…