Monday, November 24, 2008

It should not be an offence to belong to the BNP

The furore over the leak of the British National Party's membership lists `reveals' some home truths about democracy as well as the far right

The leaked publication of the details of 12,000 members of the British National Party (BNP) appears to have created almost as much fuss and front-page news as the British state's recent losses of data on millions of people. This confirms the misplaced political obsession with the BNP, and the peculiar place that this small far-right party occupies in public life today. Many of those who were outraged by the authorities' loss of disks containing personal data seem almost gleeful about the way that this leak has `exposed' the BNP's membership.

On spiked we have little time for the anti-immigrant politics of the BNP (in fact we have none at all). Amid the overnight furore, however, a few things are worth remembering about living in a democracy.

Anybody should be free to join any political party they wish without legal impediment, or we risk turning the clock back to a time of state repression and secret societies. And they should be free to keep that matter of political conscience private should they so wish - even if they are embarrassed to be members of the Labour or Conservative parties.

Nobody should fear the sack for their political opinions or affiliations alone. Those anti-racists crowing about the discomfit of BNP members today might recall that such measures have more often been used against the left. Back in the Cold War days when I edited a revolutionary newspaper and Living Marxism magazine, some people in sensitive jobs and public positions felt obliged to write for me under pseudonyms. In the past, victimising a left-winger for his or her politics would be called a `McCarthyite witch-hunt'; now doing it to a BNP supporter would apparently be deemed fair play.

Any racist behaviour by a policeman or any other public servant is obviously unacceptable. But being barred, fired or punished for a personal political view is a different matter. Even police officers should not be subjected to the thought police.

And while we are on the subject, Britain's trade unions should drop their attempt to change the law so that they are able to ban BNP members from membership. Private clubs and political parties should be free to decide who they want as members. But trade unions are by nature meant to be organisations representing and open to the entire workforce.

Behind all of that, the publication of these membership lists and the reaction to them might also remind us of some facts about the BNP and the mistaken way in which it is often perceived. The publication confirms that it remains a relatively small and ineffective organisation, riven by the sort of petty disputes and power struggles that have long characterised the far right in Britain - which is presumably why some disaffected individual leaked the information via the internet.

But, as the BNP leadership has pointed out, the list also confirms that the party membership is not entirely typified by `a skinhead oik'. Despite what its opponents claim, it is not the National Front of the 1970s and early 1980s, with whom some of us are old enough to recall exchanging blows rather than views. The BNP members include professionals and other respectable types, such as the ballerina, Simone Clarke, who was previously exposed as a BNP member.

Even more than its members, BNP voters today are quite different from the way they are often depicted. The mainstream parties have sought to demonise the BNP as the fascist symbol of evil in British political life, the one thing against which all decent people must unite. Yet in reality support for the BNP today reflects above all the widespread feeling of alienation from the political class. It has become an all-purpose symbol of disaffection amongst white voters, rather than an endorsement of any of the party's specific (and specifically grim) policies. That is why its votes can go sharply up and down from one election to another, almost regardless of what the BNP does or says.

What our established political leaders fail to grasp is that the more they try to censor, bar or put down the BNP and its members, the more they risk reinforcing its reputation as a protest movement for free speech and against the discredited old politics. The `exposure' of its membership lists may well put some off joining for now. But the wider demonisation of the BNP, of which the reaction to this is part, is the best publicity it can get.

The only thing that really needs to be `exposed' about the BNP today is its politics. That requires a commitment to democratic debate and free speech, not censorship, disciplinary procedures and blacklists.


So, when will it be OK to mock Obama?

The lack of laughs about the new president-elect exposes the slavishly conformist nature of contemporary satire

During the latter stages of the US presidential race, it seemed that everywhere the Republican candidates went, comedians' ridicule swiftly followed. It wasn't hard to see why. John McCain's all-too-literal impersonation of a `dead man walking' was grist to the mockers' mill. His increasingly hangdog defeatism was probably not helped by the car crash that was Sarah Palin. Nobody really needed to take the piss; she seemed to be giving it away on an interview-by-interview basis. Indeed, such was the relentlessness of the comic onslaught - be it Tina Fey's Palin impersonation or Jon Stewart's daily ambush on the Republican camp - that American humorist Joe Queenan was moved to declaim: `For the first time in American history, a presidential candidate had seen all his hopes and dreams undone by the sheer emotive power of naked, unalloyed satire.' (1)

We can forgive Queenan's lurch into hyperbole, because he does touch upon something important: the sheer one-sidedness of the `unalloyed satire' during the presidential campaign. Where was the mockery of the Democratic candidate Barack Obama? Where were the scabrous commentaries on Obama's rather hesitant debating technique? Who was sending up the vacuity of his oratory? Or his glib Messianism?

Some comedians did have a go at making Obama jokes. Last week on the The David Letterman Show, stand-up Don Rickles ventured that when faced with his first international crisis, Obama would tell his advisers that he couldn't be interrupted because he was playing basketball. Unfortunately for Rickles, the allusion to Obama's fondness for the hoop also unwittingly alluded to (un)popular black stereotypes. The joke bombed; Rickles apologised.

The terror of appearing racist, of facing the amassed force of proxy offence, has undoubtedly proved inhibiting for some lily-livered comedians. But there is something else, too. It's as if Obama is, well, just too darned perfect.

This becomes clear in a piece written by the British comic author John O'Farrell, a former script writer for the satirical TV show Spitting Image. He argues that a satirist searches for what `is distinctive and interesting about any new personality and then mercilessly exaggerate[s] it until it becomes a hideous and character-defining flaw' (2). So in Margaret Thatcher's case, Spitting Image took her ballsiness, her ruthless machismo, and made it literal: on that show, when her dummy wasn't berating and terrifying male colleagues, it was standing beside them at the urinals, taking a leak. More recently, ex-PM Tony Blair's maniacal self-certainty - even in the aftermath of palpably wrong-headed decisions such as the Iraq War - seemed to manifest itself in increasingly demonic portrayals of Blair in political satire. The smile, once a mark of his charisma, became the caricaturist's testament to his dementia.

Whether it was George W Bush, Blair, or, indeed, Whig PM Robert Walpole more than 250 years ago, personal traits and physical characteristics have traditionally been transformed into defining features of politicians' public appearance. That is, the caricature captures something of the essence of their style of politics, be it Blair's mock-heroic approach to world affairs or Bush's chimpish inarticulacy. But in Obama's case, nothing, it seems, has lent itself to ridicule. There has been no defining character trait like Thatcher's cojones; no peccadillo like Bill Clinton's infamous internship programme; and certainly no physiological feature like Blair's crazed grin. O'Farrell concludes that Obama seems `to be beyond satire at the moment' (3).

There is a paradox to this conclusion. At a time when personality politics has never been so preponderant - indeed, when an election campaign involved such unprecedented scrutiny of the presidential candidates' backgrounds as the source of their prospective appeal - the ground for caricature, ridicule and satire has never seemed so fecund. Certainly for McCain and Palin, this proved excruciatingly true. But for Obama, no matter the revelations contained within Dreams From My Father or The Audacity of Hope, no matter the endless play upon his multi-racial identity, no matter the overweening sincerity of his oratory. his public persona has seemed Teflon-like in its resistance to satire.

Yet the inability to mock Obama certainly has a wilful element to it. For the cultural elite dominating the media, Obama is their man. Mike Sweeney, producer of Late Night with Conan O'Brien, admitted as much when he remarked: `A lot of people are excited about his candidacy. It's almost like: "Hey, don't go after this guy. He's a fresh face; cut him some slack."' (4) Mike Barry, a longstanding comic writer in the US, echoed O'Brien's caution: `I think some of us were too quick to caricature Al Gore and John Kerry and there's maybe some reluctance to do the same thing to [Obama].' (5)

In Britain, the response has been similar, and if anything, more gushing. While hosting BBC TV's topical TV panel show Have I Got News For You on the Friday before the presidential election, comedian and Pimms connoisseur Alexander Armstrong defended his McCain jibes on the basis that an Obama victory would be a `good thing'. Unusually for a comedy show, when it comes to the current president-elect irony is prohibited.

This comedic gentleness, and sometimes desperate, explicit support, tells us something of the nature of the Obama phenomenon amongst his liberal cheerleaders: they want to believe. If they stare too hard, too critically, if comedians on The Daily Show or Late Night parody or mock Obama, perhaps with a sly dig here or a slicing barb there, then there's the perceived risk that the whole edifice of Obama's near mystical appeal will collapse. It's as if comedy fears to tread lest it break the spell.

The complicity between comedy's omerta and Obama's presidency is seen by many as positive. `Every few years', writes O'Farrell, `there comes a rare interval in politics when the usually sceptical general public are filled with hope and optimism and belief' (6). And insofar as comedy has in recent years merely echoed a widespread cynicism towards politics, such a shift is perhaps to be applauded. Except that's not really what it is.

A key plinth of Obama-support sprung from his distance from politics as it had recently been pursued. To the inbreeding and uninspiring pragmatism of the ancien regime of the Bushes and Clintons, Obama promised something else. He promised `change', `hope'. And in doing, so he articulated popular disenchantment with mainstream politics and politicians. Youthful, and ostensibly untainted by the hypocrisy of the political careerist, Obama's brand of personality politics worked on the basis that it was sincere and authentic. When Hillary Clinton wept, she was suspect. When Obama did it, he was believed. Obama, then, is not so much the rejuvenation of politics than the logical culmination of anti-political cynicism. In its tentativeness towards Obama, comedy simply followed this cynical anti-cynicism all the way to the White House; comedians recognised in Obama their own sense of exhaustion and cynicism with mainstream politics.

The problem here, however, is not so much the explicit collusion of comedy and comedians with any particular party, or indeed any particular politician, but a tacit, near subconscious acceptance of certain ascendant cultural trends. Be it the suspicion that all politicians are hypocritical douche-bags or a belief that there are certain things beyond the pale, like a basketball joke or being an Alaskan Hockey Mom, too many contemporary comedians, especially when being political, merely reinforce contemporary liberal prejudices. In this sense, Obama appears flawless to many prominent comedians and satirists not because he is, but because they lack the ideological distance to see him otherwise. If it doesn't challenge, then comedy, and especially satire, conforms.

The same could not be said for the seeds of what is often seen as a highpoint of innovative, radical satire. In 1916, on the same Zurich street upon which Vladimir Lenin was then living, the Dadaist club Cabaret Voltaire opened. For a few months a variety of acts practised the art of `insulting a despised outside world made up of the bourgeoisie, the warring governments and their armies and (more immediately) the uncomprehending public.' (7) As its founders moved on from Zurich, mainly to Paris and Berlin, such challenges to the cultural norms of the day were continued in the name of Dada long after Cabaret Voltaire closed.

One of its founders, Richard Huelsenbeck, travelled to Berlin. There he started collaborating with the painter and cartoonist Georg Grosz and the photomontage artist, John Heartfield. They set out to lay bare the world around them. Be it Heartfield's depictions of Hitler - mouth open, spewing junk - or Grosz's repellent portraits of the decadence and degeneracy of the Weimar period, both waged implacable war on the dominant culture of the time. As Huelsenbeck put it, `the Dadaist instinctively. sees his mission in smashing the cultural ideology of the Germans' (8). Or as he remarked elsewhere, German culture is `shit'.

In Grosz's own tellingly titled A Small Yes and a Big NO, he continues the fecal analogy, likening their activity to `shit stirring' (9). He writes, `Dada was neither mysticism, nor communism, nor anarchism, all of which had some sort of programme or other. We were complete, pure nihilists, and our symbol was the vacuum, the void.' (10) It was their steadfast opposition to their time, their sheer anti-conformism, which gave their satire and their art its force.

The Weimar period is far from an isolated moment of comedic subversion. In the US, the emergence of a new wave of stand-up comedians during the 1950s and 60s was equally marked by an antagonism to the cultural pieties of the period. But for people such as Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers or Mel Brooks, the target was not actually the right wing in power, from McCarthyism to Nixon; it was the broader cultural ascendancy of a debased liberalism, of new pieties to be inflicted upon the masses. In attacking this, these comedians exposed the intolerance of what Thomas Paine called toleration: the state-sponsored approval of what is acceptable and what is not. As one commentator remarked: `For the older generation of comedians [such as Bruce and Brooks], the question wasn't how to be a good person but how to break free of an order in which goodness was something forced upon you.' (11)

As the attitude to Obama testifies, the problem today is that comedy is simply too affirmative. Its practitioners don't challenge the prejudices of their audience, let alone of their age; they merely reinforce them.


Bureaucratic Britain cares more for animals and old buildings than it does for people

As a (fairly) normal person who has always stood on her own feet, and thought social workers were for that section of society unable or unwilling to help themselves, to find myself and my family caught up in the impenetrable, sticky web that is Social Services makes me feel like a trapped fly, slowly desiccating until I - or at least my ancient mother - turn to dust.

While I've been feeling, over the past couple of weeks, a bit sorry for the social workers who have been named and shamed over the case of Baby P, as someone on the sharp (blunt?) end of their ministerings, I can only wonder that they ever manage to help anyone. In the ten years that my mother has been disabled and bedridden, I have filled in hundreds of forms. Now, I am not illiterate, but neither I (nor my brother, a lawyer, or sister, a nurse) can make head nor tail of them. How old people manage without willing and able relatives to help them apply for a hoist, say, is beyond comprehension.

At the moment, I pay half the cost of a full-time, live-in nurse (who is a saint, by the way), my mum contributes $400 a month to her care, and the local authority pays the rest. I understand that while treatment on the NHS is free, palliative care has always been means-tested, and can vary from local authority to local authority. What drives me crackers, though, is the endless hoops my mother is put through whenever we ask for something new, as if she is ever going to get better or suddenly start earning money.

What makes me despair most is how thin-skinned all these social workers are. If you get even the slightest bit agitated, they burst into tears and start wittering on about how they are `doing their best'. How they cope with families who are really aggressive and unco-operative and not good at forms - well, we know how they cope. They don't. Yes, I blame the red tape foisted on them but I also blame their attitude, nurtured by a society that doesn't believe jobs should be hard.

The problem is our priorities are all upside down. To illustrate this point, let me tell you about my problem with eight long-eared bats. Now, I am an animal lover, but I wonder at a society that puts the welfare of tiny flying creatures above all else. For the past year, I have been trying to get permission to repair the roof of a barn, the slates of which threaten to decapitate passing animals and children. While it has proved difficult to get someone to come to see my mum, the procession of professionals who have come to peer at my bats has created a groove in the ancient floor.

When I phoned a body called Natural England to ask for advice, a woman shouted at me: `You are about to commit an offence.' No, I said. If I were about to commit an offence I wouldn't have phoned you first. She told me I `may' have to get a licence. Did I need a licence or not? `You need an ecologist, which will cost $700 per visit. You will probably need three surveys, including a visit next summer to map flight patterns, and then you can apply for a licence. You need to write a mission statement as well, which costs $1,500.' I asked if I could get on with essential work such as sinking a septic tank, and she barked: `Are you sure you don't have newts?'

This country puts the welfare of bats - which have plenty of other places on my property to sleep and breed, including the loft - above the employment of six local craftsmen in a time of recession. I was even reprimanded for installing lagging without permission. Whatever happened to worrying about polar bears?

This level of vigilance would be welcome were it applied to children and old people - perhaps my mum, despite her incapacity, should hang from the ceiling. But it seems we are getting all nostalgic and proprietorial about wildlife, when it is perfectly acceptable to farm pigs in a manner that would make the strongest stomach queasy, continue to hunt deer (I have passed two deer hunts here on Exmoor in the past week - I thought Labour had made it illegal) or operate a social services system that allows babies to be battered to death.

Why are all these public sector workers not serving us, but instead looking forward to their (safe) pensions, never putting themselves out for someone who is very old and scared, or very young and scared? Yet threaten to lift a finger to something vaguely `heritage', and all hell breaks loose. It's all wrong, isn't it?


The anti-spankers lose in One Australian State

The State Government has backed the right of parents to smack their children, despite growing calls Australia-wide for a ban. In a controversial decision, Premier Anna Bligh said Queensland would not join 26 countries -- New Zealand the most recent -- to introduce anti-smacking laws. Ms Bligh told The Sunday Mail yesterday that adults would be allowed to use "reasonable force" when disciplining their children. But, she warned, parents would be punished if they used excessive violence.

The strong stance will put Ms Bligh and Attorney-General Kerry Shine offside with several Labor backbenchers who had campaigned for law changes. Led by former attorney-general Dean Wells, the group had wanted Section 280 of the Queensland Criminal Code to be amended so it no longer operated as a defence to any kind of assault on a child. In an exclusive Sunday Mail report in March, Mr Wells revealed that 700 parents a year were charged with assaulting their children, about 400 of those for serious assaults. He believed many got off because they could legally claim -- under the "archaic and dangerous" Section 280 -- that they were using reasonable force.

Ms Bligh ordered a Justice Department review in May of all relevant cases with a view to changing the law if the audit showed prosecutions had failed. The Premier said yesterday the review of almost 200 cases showed Section 280 was not being used as a loophole protecting violent parents and there would be no amendment. "What this exhaustive review has shown conclusively is that the current system works," said Ms Bligh, a mother-of-two who had previously admitted smacking her children as toddlers. "There is no excuse for using excessive violence towards a child, and under Queensland law there is nowhere for violent parents to hide."

Queensland's Council of Churches, parenting organisations and a group of prominent psychologists had lobbied the Government for a change to the law. Other countries to outlaw the practice include Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Germany, Norway, Cyprus, Croatia and Latvia.

However, Ms Bligh said the review showed Section 280 was rarely used as a defence. "I am confident that parents who assault their children will face the full force of the law," she said. "At the same time, this review revealed some shocking cases involving parents using weapons or their fists to discipline or slapping their children about the head. "It is not discipline, it is assault and appalling behaviour from any parent and police and the courts have responded accordingly."



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, OBAMA WATCH (2), EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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