Posts Tagged ‘current affairs’

And now, to coin a phrase, for a little bit of politics. One of the more startling NCJG moments of 2012 to date came round about Easter-time when your correspondent found himself embroiled in a rigorous and yet terribly polite discussion with none other than Mr Peter Hitchens, the noted Mail on Sunday columnist, author, and ‘maniac’ (according to the Rt. Hon. David Cameron), as an indirect result of my seeing him in the street in Oxford.

I know what you must be thinking, and I too was startled to learn that Mr H was a reader of this here blog. Much thought on this topic has led me to conclude that one of three possibilities must be true – a), Mr H, when not bewailing the state of the nation, is very keen on reading semi-comic film reviews, accounts of wargaming disasters, and waffle about cult TV programmes; b), Mr H googles himself on a regular basis (don’t think too harshly of him, we’ve all been there); or c), he came across it in some other fashion which is less potentially amusing but also less likely to provoke a writ.

Anyway, since that point I have occasionally seen Mr H out and about around Oxford, always in roughly the same neighbourhood of the city centre, often upon his bicycle but never appearing to particularly enjoy riding it very much. Then again, to my mind Mr H never gives the impression of enjoying anything very much, although he has assured me he enjoys arguing with people (which some might say was just as well, given the nature of the beliefs he shares with the public with such dedication).

I would probably not go so far as to say I actually like Mr H, as we are just a bit too far apart on the political spectrum, but close reading of his works has left me with a definite respect for his intelligence and integrity, and it does occur to me that the reason why he is so execrated in certain circles is not what he says but the manner in which he says it: not so much the message but the medium. In any case, the news that Mr H was scheduled to make a proper public appearance in my adopted home city was cause for much pricking up of ears in the garret.

The reason for this is, of course, that Mr H has a new book out which I suppose I am obliged to plug. Ahem: said tome is The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs. The main thrust of Mr H’s latest opus really doesn’t need much more explication from me, which is just as well as I’ve no intention of actually buying or reading the thing – you can sort of work out the gist from the title.

Now, rather than just letting Mr H stentorianly … you know, I’ve been on holiday, so I’m perhaps a bit rusty, but I can’t for the life of me think of an adequate verb to describe the way our man expresses himself… rather than just letting Mr H do his thing to a crowd (who may well have been frisked on the way in for rotten vegetables, etc), possibly with the odd selected reading from the book in question, what we have to look forward to is in fact a debate on British drugs policy, with Mr H naturally speaking in favour of total abolition.

Possibly rather mischievously, the good people at Waterstone’s (hosting the event) have recruited, to speak in favour of recreational drugs, the author, commentator and convicted drug dealer Howard Marks (aka Mr Nice). It says something about the status of Mr H in the public eye that, in a confrontation with a convicted criminal with past connections to the Mafia, the Yakuza, and the IRA, for many people he will still be the bad guy.

This baffles me a bit, probably because I am generally dubious about the cult of the celebrity criminal: a modern phenomenon I genuinely can’t understand. I actually know very little about Howard Marks, and have never really had any interest in learning more. I will be very surprised if he has the kind of intellectual firepower to seriously contest the issue with Mr H.

The set-to isn’t until Thursday night so I have no idea how things are going to unfold. My prediction is that Mr H will be proceeding from a position of principle, while Howard Marks will be rather more pragmatic.

Personally, my own views on the drug question are as follows. Currently we’re in a situation in most countries where there are a multiplicity of recreational drugs available, some of which are legal and some of which are not. Quite where you drop the legal barrier, in terms of which are which, is what interests me: tradition and precedent, to me, are not sufficient grounds for maintaining such a ban.

Most people, hearing the word drugs in this context, won’t think of nicotine and alcohol simply because they are legal – even though they are both potentially harmful and, certainly in the latter case, the cause of much social ill. And – to paraphrase Bill Hicks, someone who always struck me as a source of much wisdom on this topic (if only Bill was around to debate Hitchens – he would only have been 50, if he were still with us) – if you give one room of people unlimited alcohol, and the one next door unlimited cannabis, everyone knows which will be the most pleasant room to be in two or three hours down the line.

In short, go ahead and ban cannabis and mushrooms, but if you’re going to do that you really need a rock-solid argument as to why you shouldn’t also prohibit the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. And I’ve never heard one yet. Maybe Mr H will be the man to produce one this week; I am curious to see if he does. In any case, I will let you know how it all kicks off and which telling blows, if any, get landed by the literary gladiators. Should be a memorable confrontation no matter how it turns out.

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I had the interesting experience the other day of observing an argument between two people who both, it seemed to me, were in the right. The venue was Manchester (I was observing courtesy of BBC news) and the participants were a man and a woman.

‘If you treat someone like scum,’ said the woman, ‘then they’re going to behave like scum. Stands to reason dunnit?’

‘Yeah, but that doesn’t give them the right to come down here and loot all our shops,’ said the man.

The woman contemplated this point for a moment. ‘Jog on,’ she eventually advised.

Yes, I find myself moved to comment on the late unpleasantness in so many of our city centres, which luckily enough kicked off just after I vacated the nation’s capital (in case you were wondering). I don’t really have any great insights to offer, and indeed some of what I say may seem a little simplistic or actually naive.

Having said that, the general tone of the national debate so far has been slightly depressing (not to mention embarrassing) – ‘Flog [the rioters] in public,’ was one helpful suggestion. ‘It’s all down to New Labour/the human rights act/rap music/Poles,’ is the inside word from the various organs of the Far Right. ‘Have them all shipped to Afghanistan to be cannon fodder for our real heroes,’ piped up someone on Facebook – if you want to establish your credentials as a right-thinking and decent everyday person, reflexive adoration of the armed forces is pretty much de rigeur; coherent thought is strictly optional.

Nevertheless, the question has to be asked – why’s it happening? And why’s it happening now? The second question at least is easy to answer, although it’s fairly obvious that the vast majority of the participants didn’t give a damn about the death of Mark Duggan and probably didn’t even know who he was: the cause of this was not a single political issue. The size of the disturbances and the speed with which they spread makes it very clear that the conditions enabling something like this are widespread and have been in place for some time, and the Duggan incident was merely a convenient spark.

So, why were these people rioting? I suspect there isn’t a single easy cause, because, well, real life is complicated. But it seems to me that we take it for granted that it’s only in poorer areas and sink estates that this kind of thing happens, almost as if rioting is one of those things that poor people tend to do from time to time: another vulgar lower class pursuit.

I’m not defending violence or looting or property damage or any kind of antisocial behaviour, but then again I think it’s rather hopeful of the establishment to expect people living in poverty to just shut up and put up with it in perpetuity without any hope of an improvement to their lives.

I’ve felt for a while now that the story of society for nearly a century now has been one of the conflict between mechanisation and information: society has changed inasmuch as people are treated more like machines than ever before – or maybe not machines but beans to be counted, figures on a graph. Society has lost its human face. Contrasted with this is the massive improvement in information technology and systems – most people are more limited than ever before in terms of what they can make of their lives, while at the same time their access to information about the rest of the world has increased enormously.

And so now we’re at a point where the most deprived members of society are aware of exactly what they’re missing, moreso than ever before. Couple this to a culture which is largely impersonal and which at times seems to make a virtue out of cruelty and the basest kind of materialism and you have the recipe for what we’ve seen in British streets over the last week or so.

Everyone wants to feel their life has some significance – and I would suggest everyone has the right to feel as much. Yet so much of what we see around us is sending the message that the more material wealth you have, the more you matter as a person. Whether this is true or not, when it’s coupled to an economic system which by its very nature is inevitably going to generate haves and have nots, it’s a recipe for alienation and social unrest.

I fear that the current lot’s religious devotion to the primacy of the market-driven system means we are unlikely to see any real change. Poor people, I predict, will be told to shut up and accept that this is their lot in life, and to stop rioting as it upsets the Daily Mail. There will no doubt be talk of respect (which basically boils down to poor people showing respect for the better-off, rather than vice versa) and basic values of decency – the same old weary lexicon, trotted out again.

Everywhere in the media I hear of the angry muttering of middle-class people incensed that their taxes may be used to help the reconstruction or support some of those responsible. The cause of all this trouble, I honestly believe, is the economic inequality which is fundamental to our current way of life. As long as most people persist in their belief that the existence of people living in poverty is a necessary evil (with the addendum that it’s be really nice if the chavs buggered off into their warrens and stopped making the high streets look untidy) then events like the ones we have recently seen will happen again and again and again. The rioters, like the poor, will always be with us, mainly because they’re one and the same.

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