Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Tragedy, avoidance and the 'why'

An out-of-control bin lorry crashes through a crowded Glasgow street, snuffing out unsuspecting lives. Christmas shoppers, everyday folk, lost in a cruel instant. We shudder at the thought, witnesses, helpful and helpless, now trying to allay the shocking images from their minds. And, as the background stories and personal testaments emerge, people gather in silent displays of sadness and respect.

It's always touching to see the very natural process of communal grief and kindly remembrance, an assuring reminder of the essential compassions we hold deeply as human beings.

We simply identify, showing intuitive empathy for the victims, imagining their families' ordeal.

Some have suggested a particular 'Glaswegian pulling together'. Perhaps. But the essential inclination of people to help and care in such situations is surely universal. 

And yet the 'where', 'when' and 'why' questions still perplex.

How, we ask, could such a thing happen here, of all places? A seemingly safe environment. That's always a relative notion, of course: more people, more vehicles, more activity, more likelihood of tragic incidents.  Even after the helicopter which crashed through the roof of a Glasgow pub last year, there's still little cause to think that such seemingly bizarre things will occur in our apparently 'ordered' locale. Yet, how complacent might we be, at large, to such realities? 

Though a terrible event, the bin truck tragedy was treated as a 'standard road accident' by the emergency services. Many others occur daily, often with similar multiple fatalities. That kind of news seems almost dismally routine by comparison, our  responses, in turn, seemingly more 'accepting'. We appear almost inured to such reports, regarding even major motorway pile-ups as an 'inevitable' consequence of modern living, rather than a global epidemic.

The 'where' of fatality and tragedy thus suggests wider issues of emotional closeness and distance. It's perhaps natural that we grieve more painfully for a close relative or loved one than a stranger in a distant place, affected as we are by immediate familial feelings and proximate relationships.

Thus could those far from the devastating Boxing Day tsunami ten years ago still comprehend the horror, feel deep empathy, still show generous support, while always comfortably knowing that it didn't happen 'here'. As the search continues for victims of the appalling AirAsia plane crash off the Indonesian coast, we might presently be feeling that same basic human, if still distanced, empathy.

Yet what of our responses to conflict in 'other' places? Although capable of similar human concern, we often seem relatively less shocked and affected over killing in war-torn locations, most often where 'our' leaders unleash so much large-scale suffering. Again, it seems like 'just more dreary news' of death and destruction. But is our consciousness of the 'where' in this case shaped more by routine presentation of 'benign intervention' and 'necessary militarism'?  

The latest mass slaughter of innocents in Gaza this year saw an outpouring of global empathy for suffering civilians. But it still seemed like a qualified emotion, ever-conditioned by loaded media narratives of another 'faraway' and 'intractable' conflict involving 'two warring sides', rather than an occupying state ruthlessly pulverising a besieged people.

There's also the sad timing of tragedy, the 'when' question, and how the sense of loss, as in the Glasgow accident, is seemingly greater around an occasion like Christmas.

Again, it's that very instinctive human empathy in thinking how we would feel losing loved ones at a special festival time when we're supposed to share an extra closeness.

Yet, while invoking the spirit and celebrations of Bethlehem, what acknowledgement of the daily misery going on behind its afflicted, apartheid wall?    

Or what reaction, say, to the 5-year-old child in East Jerusalem shot in the face by an Israeli soldier on Christmas eve? Very little, given that, like so much other anonymous Palestinian suffering, it was never actually deemed newsworthy 'here and now'.

How naturally and sincerely we can feel for others, wherever and whenever they suffer. But, again, so much of that empathy is measured and mediated by how much of the where and when we're actually told. 

And then there's the 'why' question, that more metaphysical point of reflection. The 'why' is often just a form of rhetorical exasperation, a comfort, a useful palliative, requiring no particular answer. But it's still, in our religious-conditioned society, adopted as plaintive enquiry: why, in the 'great scheme' of things, would any God or Grand Designer allow such cruel pain and suffering?

Flowers and candles, prayers and other mitigating spiritual words, provide solace for some. Yet, others ask, isn't it just enough to accept that such events are random? What actual need of the 'why' when the 'laws' of cause and effect suggest a better rationalising exercise? Or is that in itself just another comforting rationale?

There's always scope for more preventative action over public safety, as in recognising the silent crisis of death on the roads, and the corporate influences fuelling it. We may also think and act more carefully as individuals at festive and holiday times when one's guard may be easily down. Yet, for all that, isn't much of life still a game of chance? How fragile and contingent is our very existence?

While things might be done, say, to improve the safer operating of bin lorries in public places, the possibility of general error or other human calamity in life remains. But many other decisions, policies and directives leading to tragic loss could be more readily prevented.

So, beyond the ponderous and the abstract, what more useful employment of the 'why'? How might we better utilise that perennial question, even with spiritual intent?

Here's one thought process: why are situations of suffering that are actually more avoidable the ones that usually result in most tragedy and mayhem?

Consider, in this regard, how serious disincentives to car use - with all its attendant problems of global pollution - could enhance public safety. Thus a more practical rumination: why do commercial interests and the road lobby enjoy such powerful influence over pedestrian interests, better public transport and general social health?

We might usefully posit many other such 'whys'. Just think, for example, how the removal of guns from American streets would sharply improve the potential for safer, more prolonged and happier life. The logical, persistent question to power: why are guns actually allowed on those streets?

Imagine, likewise, if police in that conflicted country stopped 'detaining' black people with such brutal force. Key question: why such state propensity to unwarranted and provocative violence?

Or consider, more broadly, the potential for longer life and greater happiness if elites re-focused their voracious capacity for armed violence towards meaningful forms of peace-seeking diplomacy. Thus: why do we rarely ask why war is wielded so eagerly by 'our' states and their corporate clients?

And, invoking the greatest issue of avoidance and concern: why are corporations being allowed to drive life on our planet to the point of extinction?

This may all seem far removed from the simple act of respect and grieving. Loss through accidents surely differs in context from loss through war and conflict. Yet, in all such cases, the usual 'why' often negates more substantive use of that question in better serving to respect, safeguard and enhance life.

All loss of life, all pain, is to be acknowledged, and, to the fullest possible extent, avoided. Yet it's also helpful to realise the ubiquitous presence and likelihood of human suffering.

I personally incline towards some loose Buddhist perspective on suffering and tragedy as an inevitable part of existence, coupled with a responsive mindfulness which seeks to act, as well as meditate, on practical ways of relieving and minimising it. That's meant more as humble reflection than grand advocacy. But it helps, I think, to move beyond the more futile, if, for some, still comforting use of the 'why'.

At this year's end, we can but show our deepest compassion to all those devastated families, from Gaza to Glasgow and elsewhere, helping us remember both the preciousness of life and the imperative task of trying to best protect it for all.

And in that universal, humanist endeavour, with assuredly more avoidably tragic events to come, may we continue to ask many more of those vital 'why' questions.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Firing of Nafeez Ahmed incriminates Jonathan Freedland and further exposes the Guardian

A dark storm is gathering around allegations of censorship and Zionist-favoured gatekeeping at the Guardian.

Nafeez Ahmed was fired by the Guardian's environment editor after he published a Guardian blog piece entitled: IDF's Gaza assault is to control Palestinian gas, avert Israeli energy crisis.

The article laid out an insightful assembly of facts and analysis on the environmental and geopolitical issues surrounding Gaza's offshore gas reserves. It discussed the complex questions of energy politics in the region, set around the collaborative efforts of Israel and the West to appropriate and manipulate this crucial wealth base.

Evidently touching raw nerves, Nafeez was duly sacked, his editor claiming in feeble mitigation that Nafeez had 'strayed' from his agreed 'remit' of producing environmental stories.

In response, Nafeez wrote 'Palestine is not an environment story', a detailed account of the sacking, and damning indictment of the deep process of censorship at the Guardian. He also provided corroborating accounts of how Jonathan Freedland, in particular, carries out a vital gatekeeping role in determining stories and reportage pertaining to Israel-Palestine.

Prompted to explain his position, Freedland issued a TwitLonger statement to Nafeez and others stating that he had no part in his firing, nor any knowledge of his writings:
@NafeezAhmed Your piece for Medium implies I was involved in the end of your arrangement with the Guardian. I don't wish to be rude, but I had literally not heard of you or your work till seeing that Medium piece, via Twitter, a few hours ago. (The Guardian environment website, where you wrote, is edited separately from the Guardian's Comment is Free site, which I now oversee.) I had no idea you wrote for the Guardian, no idea that arrangement had been terminated and not the slightest knowledge of your piece on Gaza's gas until a few hours ago. What's more, I was abroad - on vacation - on the days in July you describe. To put it starkly, my involvement in your case was precisely zero. I hope that as a matter of your own journalistic integrity, you'll want to alter the Medium piece to reflect these facts. Perhaps you'll also share this on Twitter as widely as you shared the Medium piece yesterday.
This was rejected in a TwitLonger response from Nafeez:
Your reading of my Medium piece is incorrect. I am not implying that you were involved in the end of my Guardian tenure. I have no clue about that, and to be sure, I did not make any such claim. My Medium piece has been amended to ensure that your response is mentioned in full, and to clarify that I am not implying your specific involvement in the termination of my contract - a matter about which I have no knowledge thanks to the abrupt, unethical and unlawful way in which I was dropped.

What I did do is speak to several journalists about my experience who told me that it was not unprecedented, and mentioned you by name. According to these journalists, including a former Guardian ed who has spoken on the record, my experience of egregious Guardian censorship over the Gaza gas story  - which I'm sad to see doesn't seem to bother you very much given your concerns about 'journalistic integrity' - has a long and little-known context, suggesting that rather than my experience being a mere bizarre and accidental aberration, it is part of an entrenched, wider culture across the paper. These journalists who spoke to me on condition of anonymity claim that you have played a key role in fostering this culture, and that you have quashed legitimate stories critical of Israel without meaningful journalistic justification. I have merely relayed their allegations.
It was also, as can be plainly seen, a brazen evasion of the main charges laid out by Nafeez about censorship and Freedland's central control over output.

All of which draws closer attention to the power and influence of Freedland.

Alongside, and complementary to, his position as "Executive Editor of the Guardian", Freedland carries out an important tempering role at the Jewish Chronicle, using his regular postings and status as a 'moderating' voice and warning platform for anything that seriously threatens to undermine the character and legitimacy of Israel.

In a recent piece, Israel's crumbling pillars, he warns, for example, of how the proposed Knesset legislation to formally declare Israel a Jewish state could seriously undermine its principal status as a 'democracy'.

Of course, nothing Freedland says here remotely touches upon Israel's institutional suppression of democracy as an ethnocratic, occupying and apartheid state.

Peruse other pieces here, like War is not always the answer, on Israel's 'difficult standing' after bombing Gaza, and you'll see more of this 'identity counselling', as Freedland tries to guide and protect Israel:
Blame Hamas if you like for firing from populated areas, but when Israel pulls the trigger it shares in the moral responsibility.
Not principal responsibility for decades of murderous occupation and oppression, just that Israel should "share" in that "moral responsibility". As with much framing at the Guardian, so runs the vital power-supporting narrative of 'two sides' and 'misguided Israel'.

One might think it remarkable that Freedland, carrying such influence at the Guardian, also occupies such a presitgious platform at the JC.

This is the all-important context within which to understand the key allegations raised by Nafeez Ahmed about Freedland as principal Guardian gatekeeper on sensitive issues relating to Israel.

Jonathan Cook, another ex-Guardian writer, has offered similar valuable insights and backing of Nafeez Ahmed's claims.

What critical response might we now see from key Guardian columnists George Monbiot, Seumas Milne and Owen Jones?

Will they help illuminate the culture of censorship and control laid out by Nafeez Ahmed and Jonathan Cook - a culture of rooted conservatism also recently exposed by ex-Guardian staffer Guilio Sica?

Will they help specify the particular influence exerted by Freedland in these affairs, and pursue their own extensive investigations of such interventions at the Guardian?

Might they even come to support Nafeez Ahmed's new project for a truly independent citizen journalism completely free from corporate control and establishment interests?

From Rusbridger to Freedland, the Guardian plays a crucial function in filtering stories, pitching moderate narratives and ensuring the 'right type' of writers.  A few 'alternative' voices are permitted, providing just enough 'dissenting' thought to maintain that niche position of 'sensibe-left reformer'.   

Just imagine if those same people were writing much the same content from outside those contrived confines. Just think what else they'd be able to say about the kind of stultifying, posturing organisation which employs them.   

Instead, their presence lends the whole enterprise a crucial legitimacy in rationalising power, stemming dissent, castigating radical 'upstarts' and patrolling the permissible limits of debate.

How rightly, yet easily, we castigate the Sun, Mail, Daily Record and other populist 'rags', without ever casting a truly critical eye over what pretentiously and disingenuously styles itself as an upmarket, labelled 'garment'.

From supporting Western aggressions to shielding Israel, from hosting war criminals like Blair and Brown to hypocritical greenwashing, isn't it high time that so many of those who comprise an effective left and liberal establishment really thought about their supportive roles, and about calling-out this authority-upholding pretender for what it is?

Update: Guardian reply. 
Statement in response to a blog post by Nafeez Ahmed
A Guardian News & Media spokesperson said: “Nafeez Ahmed is a freelance journalist who self-published blog posts on our environment blogging network for just over a year as a regular contributor. He has never been on the staff of the Guardian. His Guardian blog - Earth Insight - was about the link between the environment and geopolitics, but we took the decision to end the blog when a number of his posts on a range of subjects strayed too far from this brief. For the record, Jonathan Freedland played absolutely no part in this decision, as he has already confirmed.
“Any suggestion of censorship is unfounded: all of Nafeez Ahmed’s blog posts remain on our website to this day. He is welcome to continue to pitch story ideas to us in the normal way.”

Nafeez Ahmed's tweeted response:
This is .@guardian's seriously hilarious official response that just confirms wot I already said #priceless

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Prince Harry feels no shame, but still keeps hush on the Royal Scam

So, the big 'confession' is finally out.

As part of his AIDS-awareness campaign, Prince Harry has just divulged his very own #FeelNoShame truth: he gets "incredibly anxious" before speaking in public.

A fairly human admission, if hardly devastating revelation.

Maybe we were expecting some kind of esoteric secret about the royal lineage, outpouring on the establishment's treatment of his mother, or Harry's own penchant for fascist attire.

Some might even have anticipated a certain shameful remorse for his particular part in the murderous calamity of Afghanistan. Or an expression of rebellious shame over his family's mass wealth while so many others sacrifice their dignity in succumbing to food banks.

Still, doesn't this kind of selfless act just confirm the deep-down-decency of our good-cause-patronising royals?

Shouldn't we undeserving subjects just grovel in gratitude at the humble transparency of our modernist princes?

And what all-encompassing fun as those royal-friendly celebs join in the great 'bare-a-secret'.

In lieu of any more enticing beans being spilled about Liz, Phil, Charlie, Andy, Harry and their extensive circle of privilege, here's a #FeelNoShame truth that will never see the media light of day or get mentioned in BBC royal correspondent Nick Robinson's gushing gaze: that the Windsor outfit is really a conniving consortium, continuously and covertly engaged in, to borrow that fine Steely Dan song title, a quite brilliant Royal Scam.

I recall reading, some years ago, a bunch of underworld gangsters talking candidly about how much they admired the Royals for managing to pull off this enormous confidence trick. Fine palaces, rolling estates, civil lists (elite payrolls), royal yachts, tax exemptions, junkets to hang out with Middle East dictators, the adulating masses swaying in dutiful appreciation over their weddings, anniversaries and newly-arrived offspring.

It's also sobering to think how the media get the populace to vent their hatred upon 'benefit scroungers' while our feudal few live shamelessly in the lap of luxury for doing nothing socially useful.

What a fix. Just how do they manage to carry it all off? Relentless BBC fawning certainly helps.

And Harry's latest charity-promoting 'admission' seems to add even more perfect populist cover to the sting.

Sometimes you really have to applaud the sheer scale of the con, wonder whether they'll one day get rumbled, hold their hands up to the racket or ever come to #FeelSomeRealShame. As likely, I'd say, as Prince Charles ever admitting to his eco-hypocrisy.

To invoke the Dan's great lyrics:

See the glory,
See the glory
Of the Royal Scam

Monday, 17 November 2014

Defending old formulas - the establishment-left keeping real radicalism in its box

Where would the Establishment be without the 'establishment-left'? The question might seem strange, even oxymoronic. But when it comes to questioning elite structures and dominant narratives there's a whole left-liberal 'buffer class' holding back real radicalism with 'sensible' injunctions to stay within prescribed political and media boundaries.  

From Labour-upholding affiliates to Guardian columnists, the establishment-left play a vital role in maintaining safety-first politics.

Their idea of 'real change' amounts to little more than re-packaged party policies and finding puppet-head replacements, as in the unedifying spectacle of panicked Labour plotters trying to dump Ed Miliband for someone more electorally 'palatable'.

The same rearguard reaction is evident in Owen Jones's and the Labour left's endorsement of Neil Findlay for Scottish party leader. There's recognition of the crisis within Scottish Labour, but no radical effort to deal with its causes or opportunities.

They cling, instead, to notions of a 'rejuvenated' party, the belief that 'new leadership' will have a transforming effect. But do such appointments and alterations remotely touch upon the key structural problems of a sclerotic 'democracy', an archaic Union, a neoliberal-enforced system, a war-addicted imperialist state?   

As with an establishment Labour left, just how useful are most trade unions when faced with real, radical engagement? Closely intertwined with the unions and 'traditional' Labour, a similar tragedy of strategic thinking can be seen with the UK Communist Party, still, whatever its other merits, locked in an old doctrinal cage, unable to contemplate the opportunity of serious left advancement. 

How come, when the overwhelming forces of the left and a mass movement of poor and working class people organised for a progressive Yes in Scotland, the CP alongside Labour and leaders of big unions like Unite were stuck in the same rigid groove campaigning for No?

Now contemplating the mass of Yes street feeling, they, like Jones and others on the establishment-left, now look to Findlay as some sort of 'left saviour'.  

Yet, for Irvine Welsh, the same contradictions remain:
Leftist pundits embody this dilemma, forensically dismantling the party for its shortcomings, yet seeming to assume it can magically resurrect, and then remold the UK state, as it did in 1945-70. In the meantime, they support the de facto preservation of this exploitative and elitist state. To argue to maintain a divisive and reactionary UK state on that basis, pretending it’s about ‘worker’s solidarity’, is both self-deluding and an insult to the intelligence of everybody else. Slavering on like a Hovis advert about the traditions of British working class resistance can’t disguise the fact that you’re bending over backwards to preserve a state that has been doing everything in its power to negate and crush this resistance for the last 35 years, and practically since it’s inception, right up to World War Two. The tragedy of the British left is that it’s got so used to playing this perennial losers game against the UK state. This obsession with protecting it, and continually rolling the same dice, which is so obviously weighted against you, has surely now expired as viable strategy.
For Welsh, even if 'autonomy' was ever granted to Labour in Scotland, the ongoing independence issue only intensifies the problem for Labour leftists:
The problem is if this happens, the party almost inevitably becomes part of the pro-independence movement, a place where many of its natural supporters, before they gave up on it, felt it should be. If you’re left wing, believe in the decentralisation of power and are anti-nuclear weapons, as most real Labour people are, Scottish Indy becomes not so much a catastrophe, as a natural position.
When it comes to being part of something truly radical, doing rather than saying, being engaged in a new paradigm - the establishment-left revert to default mode, picking around the edges, mediating the issue, seeking palliatives, trying, above all, to find ways of rescuing the old formulas.

Establishment-left celebrities perform the same kind of holding role. A little tweet exchange recently with Rory Bremner helps illustrate such conformity to 'tried-and-trusted' positions.
Rory Bremner @rorybremner
At times like this I try to remind myself that the Union is for life, not just for Halloween.

John Hilley @johnwhilley
.@rorybremner Talking of guising, Rory, remember that you helped argue for its lifeline. #YesAlliance

RB: I know. The irony's not lost on me. Tweets occasionally nuanced.

JH: Fair enough, but nuanced tweets on Union life little comfort to radical Yes seeking to break foodbank society and end Trident.

RB: I know, but I'm not sure Indy would either. My argument was fight injustices together, not separately.

JH: A Yes vote would have given real impetus to radical change for all, rather than liberal, token notions of 'fighting together'.
Again, wasn't it typical that Bremner, the 'sage cynic' and 'comedy radical', just couldn't step outside that establishment-left bubble when a real moment of change presented itself?        

In assertive contrast, Russell Brand, who, despite his worthy calls to reject a decaying party political system, was savvy enough to advocate for Yes as a form of imaginative direct action.

And, of course, the role of the establishment-left is vitally evident in the current backlash against Brand himself.

Marina Hyde at the Guardian is the latest to pour such scorn on Brand. Note here Hyde's deep annoyance at being absent from her 'vanguard' column while the main avalanche of criticism came crashing down on Brand, and how she's now making up for it by getting her own belated piece of formulaic dismissal across.

Such reaction illustrates the insecurities of establishment-liberal-left journalists who fear being tainted with Brand's radical ideals and having their 'we are the public guardian' roles usurped.

None of this is conspiratorial. It's an automatic herd reaction in formulaic defence of their 'status' and grasping for editorial approval, all in line with the safe corporate-political order. Crushing 'upstarts' like Brand thus becomes a territorial imperative.

As Media Lens show, that hostile closure has intensified as Brand progresses from 'jokey Newsnight exhibit' to active dissident. Hence the increased use of ridicule and smear in an attempt to keep us all in the fold. 

But isn't Brand himself favourably courted by an establishment-left, from Owen Jones, Johann Hari and Mehdi Hasan, to the New Statesman and Huffington Post? Yes, but to what effect? Much of that 'approval' comes as both sympathetic flirtation with Brand the figure and as an exercise in 'sensible-left correction'; a kind of indulgent policing and tempering of his ideas.    

Stay within the accepted frames of thought, we're still coerced and urged. Don't follow Brand's 'pointless anarchism'. Think what you're giving up. Even if the system's imperfect, those like Jones implore us, remain within it and use your vote for the 'best change possible'.

Power elites have the greatest interest in maintaining those frameworks of permissible thought. But it's most often establishment-left-liberals who do the vital shepherding.

Brand is routinely castigated for having no other formula: what's your alternative, what do you propose instead, they demand? But the question can be more usefully turned around: actually, what do you propose? Look at the myriad crises and untold misery capitalism has caused: are you saying that this system is remotely acceptable? What's your alternative?

The problem is not just that they have no answer, they're not, unlike Brand, even asking the question.  Indeed asking why they're not posing that question, while demanding an answer from Brand, is a vitally radical question in itself.

On which challenging note, please watch this brilliant edition of Brand's The Trews on the relentless, formulaic posturing of 'passionate' politicians, our similarly rote-framing media, and, in the face of this enduring, box-ticking failure, the urgent need, commends Brand, for real forms of direct, participatory democracy.

They may continue mocking him, but the establishment and its vital liberal-left buffer will be watching Brand's anti-party political broadcasts with growing discomfort. 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

On Remembrance Day

On Remembrance Day
Vincent Burke
On Remembrance Day
When the army prays
And the flags go up
To remind us that they do it for us

On Remembrance Day
By the flower display
Where the church explains
How the heroes keep the villians away

There I’ll tell it to the careless wind
I’ll tell you when the good guys win

On Remembrance Day
I should stay away
From the BBC
Where they tell you how a real man should be

And the children watch
As the vicar walks around with a cross
'Cause to love is fine
If you do it at a sensible time

Yeah, I’ll tell it to the careless wind
I’ll tell you when the good guys win
Yeah, I’ll save it for the next of kin
On Remembrance Day
On Remembrance Day
On Remembrance Day

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Poppy Appeal and Royal British Legion's appropriation of Eric Bogle's anti-war anthem

Following the release of the Royal British Legion's 2014 Poppy Appeal single, a version of Eric Bogle's classic anti-war anthem No Man's Land (The Green Fields of France), I wrote to Eric asking for his views on the matter:
Hi Eric
I've just watched the British Legion's disgraceful 'adaptation' of your wonderful song No Man's Land.

All the key lines intimating mass human waste, useless suffering and the terrible futility of war are conveniently missing.

I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how this hauntingly beautiful anti-war anthem has been used as a syrupy, jingoistic 'mark of remembrance'.

Kind regards
John Hilley
Here's Eric's reply (sent as a general statement, and published with his permission): 
Apparently Joss Stone’s version of my song “No Man’s Land” has polarised opinions. I usually don’t comment publicly on other people’s versions of my songs, but many of you have e-mailed me about this matter and seem genuinely upset about it, so I am sending you the following in reply to some of the questions I have been asked………please note that I will be entering into no further correspondence regarding this matter, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life e-mailing on my computer, so you will have to accept (or reject ) what I have said below and leave it there……. 
The copyright for “No Man’s Land/The Green Fields of France” is held by my UK Publisher, Domino Publishing, who are ultimately responsible for approving applications to record this song. When an artist wishes to record “No Man’s Land” they must apply for a mechanical license to do so from the relevant UK agency, and pay a licensing fee. Permission to record is more or less automatic, especially if, as is the case with this song, it has been recorded before. At no stage in this process am I, the composer, involved. Generally speaking, the first I know of any new recording is when I see any subsequent royalties from the recording appearing on my royalty statements.

When the artist(s) in question records the cover version of the song, they can, and often do, rework the song as to be almost unrecognisable from the original version. This is especially true in Jazz music, and is generally regarded as an acceptable creative exercise by the artist(s). Although the publisher and/or composer could take legal action if they feel that the original essence of the song has been irrevocably altered and very much to the song’s detriment, this very rarely happens. The bottom line is that so long as royalties are paid, any wounded artistic feelings are usually put aside. 
So then, to the most asked questions about this affair:
Was my permission sought when they decided to record this song? - No
Did I know what they proposed to do with the song when they decided to record it? - No
Do I approve of what they have done to the song ? (missing verses, rock’n’roll arrangement, etc) No, believe it or not I wrote the song intending for the four verses of the original song to gradually build up to what I hoped would be a climactic and strong anti-war statement. Missing out two and a half verses from the original four verses very much negates that intention. As to the musical arrangement, it’s really about whatever floats your musical boat. I would have thought a strong mostly acoustic version would have done a better job of getting the message across, but that’s just my personal preference, and I’m a bit of an old fart folkie. But then to do an acoustic version and include all four verses and choruses would have made the song nearly 7 minutes long, making it of doubtful commercial appeal in today’s modern music market, given that the average attention span of that market’s consumers is rarely more than three minutes or so. There’s not much doubt that the shortened, up-tempo, bluesy version that Joss does will probably appeal to a much broader cross-section of the listening public, certainly to those who did not know the song existed until they heard Joss’s version.
Is the strong anti-war message in the original song diminished in this recording? Yes, missing some crucial verses does not help. But then this diminishment is only in the eyes (or ears) of people who have heard the original version of the song. Those who have not heard the original cannot make the same comparisons or judgements. They must take Joss’s version on it’s own merits and make their own interpretation.
Does it follow then that this version glorifies war instead of condemning it? - No, in my opinion it certainly doesn’t glorify it, but doesn’t condemn it either, it just sort of starts off promisingly enough and then turns into a sing- along chorus type of song. Sentimentalising perhaps, but not glorifying. Will me or my publisher be suing Joss Stone, Jeff Beck or the British Legion? — No, you have to be joking. I would have wished for a version of my song that could have been more true to my original intention in writing the song, but if Joss’s version touches heart [sic] or two here and there and makes some people reflect, perhaps for the first time, on the true price of war, then her version is as valid as anyone else’s.
So, from Eric Bogle, a morally-stated view that the "strong anti-war message of the original song" has been "diminished" and "sentimentalis[ed]" in the RBL version.

Eric has also offered valued comments here on the RBL's commercial imperatives, other stylistic  approaches to the song, the hoped-for humanitarian value it may still have to those first hearing it, and kind perspective on Joss Stone's own artistic efforts. 

But there seems little doubt about the overall effect of the RBL's version: 
...I wrote the song intending for the four verses of the original song to gradually build up to what I hoped would be a climactic and strong anti-war statement. Missing out two and a half verses from the original four verses very much negates that intention.
Here's all the original verses. Read the lines, listen to Eric's own performance of the song, and decide whether, along with the Tower-poppied backdrop, the RBL's production is an honest mark of remembrance or a crass sanitising of Bogle's anti-war message.

Well, how do you do, young Willie McBride?
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside?
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun,
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916,
I hope you died well and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined?
Although, you died back in 1916,
In that faithful heart are you forever 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Enclosed in forever behind the glass frame,
In an old photograph, torn, battered and stained,
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

The sun now it shines on the green fields of France;
There’s a warm summer breeze that makes the red poppies dance.
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds
There’s no gas, no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man.
To a whole generation that were butchered and damned.

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Ah young Willie McBride, I can’t help wonder why,
Do those that lie here know why did they die?
And did they believe when they answered the cause,
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying, were all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

petition has been raised calling for the RBL to apologise for cutting out the song's key verses and principal anti-war sentiment.

Note also that the RBL video asks us to honour only the British and Empire forces killed in World War One, no one else in this dreadful, imperialist-fought slaughter. As the establishment-framed commemorations and poppy-promoted militarism go on, how reflective and universal is that as a message of compassionate remembrance? 


7 November

The Royal British Legion have issued a statement defending their use of Eric Bogle's song.   

Just as the song's main anti-war words have been omitted, so does the RBL @PoppyLegion statement conveniently fail to cite or specify Bogle's more critical comments on their use of the song.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Russell Brand, a deepening threat to 'entitled' liberal voices

Newsnight presenter Evan Davis's interview with Russell Brand has elicited much denunciation from an indignant liberal commentariat.

Announcing her latest Sunday Times column, Camilla Long tweeted: "PLEASE can someone tell me what we did to deserve "prancing perm on a stick" Russell Brand as a "voice"?"  Why, laments Hadley Freeman at the Guardian, does this purveyor of "ecstatic hypomania", and chauffeur-driven celeb, have the right to pontificate about poverty, injustice and revolution? Over at the Observer, Nick Cohen sneers that Brand is nothing more than a "barmy Beverly Hills Buddhist" with a dearth of alternatives, and should be shunned by the 'gullible' left. 

As with past demonisations of Julian Assange, so much of this is written in smug-liberal 'house style', the sharply-honed barbs grasping for editorial approval.

But beneath all these caustic words, an even more venomous question lurks: why, they really crave to know, is Brand getting all this attention?

Might such animosity be less about his 'infantile' ideas than the discomfiture of Brand threatening to usurp their 'appointed' roles as 'entitled critics', 'public guardians' and 'political reformers'?     

Though we weren't supposed to notice, the Newsnight interview said as much about why people like Davis, rather than Brand, get to where they are; how their words, ideas and worldviews are so widely registered and safely internalised.

Throughout the interview, Davis spoke the lines of homo-economicus, immersed in the business mindset, at one stage flashing-up a cold graph of real post-war wages. His point? That, despite the 'current dip', capitalism has delivered, overall.

But where was the human context? There was no mention of the profound power capitalism has wielded over every aspect of daily life, no suggestion of the staggering inequalities, mental anguish, alienation, despair, greed, misery and murder of the market system. And certainly no admission of the considerable role a capitalist media has played in all of that.  

In a sense, Davis and Brand weren't even in the same studio. Davis, fixated with statistical 'realities', seemed to be 'hearing' Brand's concerns about corporate capitalism and its monolithic sovereignty - economic, political, social, ecological, cultural - as though it were some kind of unintelligible language.

While Davis may see many problems with capitalism, notably as technocratic issues of production, supply, demand, growth, and even the 'costs' of inequality, he still speaks as though it's the definitive order, the norm. Anyone trying to question that orthodoxy, particularly 'non-expert' voices like Brand, are treated as little more than comedian acts, albeit fascinating ones, to be chided and ridiculed. 

Besides boosting ratings and playing 'street populism', the Newsnight piece was an editorial ambush, picking-out and distorting a tiny line about 9/11 from Brand's book. No sooner was the interview aired than editor Ian Katz was tweeting implied slurs about Brand's 'receptiveness' to conspiracy theories. 

Davis also asked Brand why he doesn't stand for political office, an illustration, like the narrow view of capitalism, of the template liberal politics we're encouraged to accept, and why figures like Davis are trusted to be on Newsnight helping to keep it so.   

Any hostile chain reaction to Brand says as much about our routine exposure to Davis's 'sensible' establishment language as it does to Brand's seemingly 'madcap' declarations. In effect, Brand's views only 'stand out' as 'insane' because we're so relentlessly conditioned to see the standard line as sane.

From the smear-laden Independent to a spluttering Daily Mail, sniping dismissals of Brand's 'revolutionary utopianism' allow easy reduction of his arguments to that of showman fraudster. Yet, are we really to believe that Brand sat down with a devious glint and invented some radically-costumed identity in order to sell a tour, a book or other financially-rewarding prop?

Even if Brand is, or gets treated as, some kind of a passing fad, what he's saying about corporate power, consumer culture, media propaganda, environmental calamity and the wider deprivation of humanity deserves all the airing it can get right now.

If it's a choice between gloating, career journalists using large establishment-corporate media to take-down Brand, or small independent media like Brand's Trews helping to expose power-friendly celebs like Boris Johnson and the influence of that corporate media, I know which version I'm approving.

And if Brand one day does takes the full establishment shilling, or revokes all he's said, so what? If we don't have him already up there on the personal pedestal, never mind the 'Jesus altar', we're at least spared the task of those tortured liberal iconoclasts in having to bring him down.

There's no need to idealise and 'follow' Brand, or even expect that he lay out some kind of detailed manifesto. It's enough that he's helping to subvert authority, indict corporate life, expose his insecure media critics, and promote the need for a real humanitarian and, yes, revolutionary consciousness.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Owen Jones, his No advocacy and the Establishment

Following previous discussion, a further comment on Owen Jones and the referendum.

Jones has tweeted in an exchange that:
I never advocated a vote. Here’s some pieces
Not true. Firstly, the Guardian pieces he cites (the latter already referenced in my previous blog piece) are criticisms of political bullying and establishment blackmail. Fair enough. It's denouncing what should have been obvious. He's also saying it's up to the Scottish people, another obvious truism. But he's certainly not advocating for Yes. 
Listen here to Jones in this Huffington Post interview (also previously referenced) and decide whether he's advocating a No vote.
He's asked, via a tweet: 
"How can you be be anti-establishment, Owen, and not campaign strongly for Scottish independence?"
Jones responds that, if he had a vote, he would vote No. 

After making various appeals to historical class unity, and targeting the SNP - a diversionary line consistently adopted by the No establishment - he tries to mitigate his declaration by saying he will "cheer on" Scotland if it votes Yes. This is the classic prevarication of the Guardian liberal. He wants it both ways, to cover his 'radical' back. How can you "cheer on" a result you didn't actually advocate?
Billy Bragg showed his radical advocacy in decisively supporting Yes. So did Tariq Ali. So did Ken Loach. So, for that matter, did Guardian columnist George Monbiot. None had a vote. But they all argued openly and hopefully for radical independence. Owen Jones is supposed to be the defining 'people's radical'. He took a No position. Why? Essentially, because, unlike most of those real radicals mentioned, he's deeply wedded to Labour. None of which precludes him from criticising that party. He regularly attacks New Labour, and denounced its conduct in the referendum. But that's quite different from abandoning the party or, as was shown, taking a Yes line. In particular, given Jones's major standing amongst Labour supporters, his decision not to advocate for Yes is likely to have helped floating Labour voters sway to No.

Jones is closely tied to traditional Labour and its trade union hinterland. He speaks regularly at Labour, union and May Day events. There's even talk he may stand as a Labour MP. Even if critical of neoliberal Labourism, he's not likely to venture very much from that core affiliation. Even then, his distance from Miliband isn't that far or disapproving. As noted, Jones is also on a particular mission to rescue Labour - as in talking up Alan Johnson's possible return to the ranks as next May's election approaches. This is not someone who was ever likely to pitch in with any anti-Labour Yes movement.

Obviously, in case it needs saying, none of this is to question Jones's right to sit where he likes. But, as the whole might of the establishment was rolled out to secure a No, we're surely just as rightfully entitled to ask how 'radical' Jones was in failing to take an authentic anti-establishment position.    

Of course, claims that Jones is 'just part of the establishment' need to be qualified. He's quite obviously not part of any elite business establishment. However, he is part of a Labour establishment which, as the referendum showed, serves all the required functions of political hegemony. He's also, in effect, part of a Guardian-circled liberal establishment, which plays a similar political-cultural role in limiting the boundaries of radical left thought and change. This isn't just to do with Jones's Oxbridge education - even if it may have helped secure his approved place at the Guardian. The issue is what he says and does in relation to that journalistic position. And here Jones is found similarly wanting. If he's so dedicated to attacking the establishment, where's the exposure of the Guardian and its key liberal establishment function? 

Tony Benn, who Jones considers a hero and role model, wrote this of the Guardian:
'As I came away , on the bus, I thought: The Guardian represents a whole batch of journalists, from moderate right to moderate left – i.e. centre journalists – who, broadly speaking , like the status quo. They like the two-party system, with no real change. They’re quite happy to live under the aegis of the Americans and NATO; they are very keen on the European Union because the Commissioners control everything. They are very critical of the left, but would also be critical of a wild right-wing movement. They just are the Establishment. It is a society that suits them well. I should think that probably most of them send their kids to private schools. I should think a lot of them don’t use the National Health Service, but they tolerate it as the price you have to pay in order to keep the populace content. They’re not interested in me any more because they don’t think I have any power, and I can’t say I’m very interested in them, except as exhibits in a zoo'.
Benn, Tony (2013). A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries (Thanks to Peter, as cited at the Media Lens message board.)
Benn was unequivocal about the Guardian: "They just are the Establishment". Why can't Jones be so critically candid?

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Owen Jones, poverty, the referendum and his mission to save Labour

Owen Jones was in Glasgow last weekend making impassioned arguments for 'sticking together', ending low pay and tackling poverty. The STUC-organised march and rally was billed A Just Scotland. And who wouldn't wish for some of that?

But what's the use in wishing rather than doing? 

On September 18, the substantive part of 1.6 million people actually did something about challenging poverty, foodbank society and much more injustice besides. Something decisive. Something with real potential to change things, even if it was ultimately denied by a conniving political-corporate-media establishment. They voted Yes. 

Where did Owen Jones stand on that crucial action? Alas, in political effect, if not intent, with the same establishment forces urging No. Regrettably, still too many trade unionists did likewise.

Complementing his visit North, Jones produced a piece for the Sunday Mail/Daily Record - 'Scotland's Newspaper', we're told, and lead oracle for the Con-Dem-Lab Vow - lamenting (or maybe Lamonting) Scottish Labour's now possible demise, unless it 'finds its radical roots'.

"Scotland is crying out for radical politics", declared Jones, warning that parties who turn on their core voters will face the ultimate price in deserting support, as is now happening to Labour.

Jones also says of Labour's collapse:
Perhaps if the party rested on stronger foundations, they would have better survived the referendum debacle. But rather than setting out a progressive vision based on hope, of a new socially just Scotland within the framework of a federal Britain, they instead formed a catastrophic alliance with the Conservatives. 
Yet, while surely knowing that Labour were never going down that federal road, Jones stuck with the No option. Notable figures like Lesley Riddoch and Iain Macwhirter had once courted Devo-Max-type federalism, but, realising it wasn't ever on the cards, never mind the ballot, worked passionately for a Yes. Why didn't the 'more radical' Jones do likewise?

Even as Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and Brown were rushing out their shameless 'more powers promise', all backed by a mass exercise in corporate blackmail, Jones still resisted pitching in with with radical Yes. As the possibility of a Yes win loomed, Jones blamed the establishment and Labour negligence. In the aftermath, more faux indignation and condemnation of Miliband. 

Indeed, Owen, castigate Labour and the elite, but why claim you didn't have a better, more progressive choice than the status quo?     

Who would doubt Jones's socialistic motives and concern for the poor? But, compassion and solidarity aside, his referendum position has been underwritten by a more pressing political mission: to save Labour. And not just in Scotland. For Jones, this is an emergency assignment of UK importance.  

In one of his recent Guardian columns Jones wrote a hagiographic-styled tribute to ex-Labour minister Alan Johnson appealing for his return. Jones sees in Johnson a well-liked, self-effacing working-class bloke who could be an urgent antidote to Farage's UKIP. No matter that Johnson was an ardent Blairite, and remains an unrepentant supporter of the Iraq invasion. Amazingly, Jones also invokes ultra-Blairite/war interventionist John McTernan's own praise for Johnson here. Jones said he 'was just asked to write a profile of [Johnson] as the man'. Asked by whom, one wonders? Political portraiture or another timely favour in helping to rescue Labour before next May's election?

Jones is 'this season's' political 'pin-up', the media's go-to 'radical'. You can see the attraction for both the Oxbridge Guardian clique and lost Labour tribe. But that earnestness masks a public figure now deeply incorporated into the very system he critiques in his latest book, The Establishment

It's not just Jones's tailored pieces, as above, for the Guardian. Now a feted part of the journalistic liberal establishment, he's reluctant to shine a critical light on that side of the corporate media. 

Try asking Jones about those kind of contradictions, as Media Lens, in their customary searching and courteous manner, did recently, and you'll see the more reactive side:
as ever they [Media Lens] have absolutely no interest in reaching a mass audience and deeply resent anyone who does?
A disappointing and petty closure of discussion from Jones himself. He claims his principal task is getting 'the message' out to the 'widest audience'. Yet, what about the essence of that message? How more effective and reaching might it be if he felt truly free to criticise his host, the corporate-driven Guardian, and other system-serving media? 

With almost the entire Scottish and UK press, including the Guardian, lining up for No, where was Jones's substantive criticism in his Guardian column or his Record piece about the anti-democratic weight of that corporate media? And didn't his own basic No position give even more bulk to that media establishment onslaught?

Many leftists seem uneasy in criticising Jones. His fresh, populist persona acts like a protective shield. And, of course, there's much of his challenging thought to appreciate. One veteran street leftist I spoke to put it thus: the left's approval of Jones is 'like being thirsty in the desert'. With seemingly precious few radical orators around, progressives and social democrats naturally crave him. 

But all the Question Time appearances and ubiquity of 'the people's pundit' shouldn't blind us to Jones's own questionable politics. For those seeking deeper insight, consider Tariq Ali's truly authentic take on the Yes movement's rise, Labour's self-inflicted troubles, and, for good measure, Jones's and the Guardian's political/media postures on the independence issue. 

Like Ali, Jones sees the major political realignment in Scotland now underway, notably in the leftist shift from Labour to SNP, the Greens and smaller socialist parties. All good for Ali and Yes leftism, much more problematic for Jones's Labourite Unionism.  
In purest panic mode, parts of a once-safe Scottish Labour are now pushing for semi-autonomous status and a 'more radical' profile. As intimated in his Record piece, Jones is arguing for much the same necessary 'renewal'. But it's motivated primarily by a Guardian-type concern for Labour's electoral survival. All of which gives him about the same 'radical' cachet as Polly Toynbee.

Meanwhile, massively buoyed by the referendum campaign, Radical Independence are putting together a promising new Scottish Left Project, "based on the principles of radical social change: participatory democracy, democratic public ownership, the redistribution of wealth and power from the rich to the poor and full independence from the British state and its monarch."

Again, such ideals should, presumably, be right up Jones's street. So, why didn't he get behind that dynamic Yes movement in the first place? Because, like George Galloway's No campaign, cloaked in facile calls for 'class solidarity' and fearmongering about the SNP, Jones was motivated by the need to keep open the possibility of a UK Labour deliverance.

And it's not as though Jones wasn't well-warned about the myth of any Labour transformation: 
He and others remain convinced that the avowedly/explicitly right Labour Party is going to miraculously metamorphise into something of their grandfathers dreams. It won’t.
Yet, like the Guardian's squalid No editorial - 'Britain deserves another chance' - Jones wants us to keep faith with the illusion of some great Labour entitlement.

A month beyond Dark Friday, the broad left in Scotland is on a distinctly different, upbeat trajectory from Scottish and UK Labour, mobilising nicely for the coming electoral battles. Yet, it's galling to think that this same Yes left advancement could have been a reality post-independence - including the makings of a truly reformed Labour party. We could be preparing right now to push all that collective radicalism inside a parliament with fully secured powers.

Instead, we're still stuck in an archaic, war-addicted, Trident-holding state, facing some dreaded version of Con-Dem-Lab-UKIP neoliberal rule. We're also now lumped with Vow politics - or as Ian Bell has just summarised that vacuous bribe: 
By promising more while failing to say what more might mean, they promised nothing. Or rather, they promised a timetable for discussions to see if something could come from nothing.  
All of which makes it harder to swallow Owen Jones - from the No-supporting Guardian - talking about A Just Scotland and tackling poverty, while putting out life-saving alerts for Labour via its Unionist house paper, the Daily Record.

There's an historic level of animosity right now towards Labour in Scotland. Many are simply seething. Many will never forgive them for siding with the ConDems and taking a leading part in the establishment's Project Fear. Jones acknowledges much of this, but fails to concede his own negative part in that outcome.  

However, all that resentment needs to be channelled positively.  For a resilient and calmly-rising Yes movement, it shouldn't mean enduring hostility to No voters, particularly that more self-serving middle class. The longer route to radical independence will be enhanced by more decisive arguments for social justice and winning over greater numbers.

Nor should it involve particular antipathy towards people like Jones. It's not personal. It's not about hounding. Yet, such figures helped rationalise many of those No voters' consciences through moderated appeals to continued Labour Unionism. So it's certainly appropriate to highlight how such Labourite affinities and calls for abbreviated powers have helped keep Scotland and its poorest in political lockdown.

Applaud Jones's anti-poverty speeches, if you please. But be aware of the establishment-serving effects of his political positions, media output and the dedicated Labour bailout he's deeply engaged in.