Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Humour, hate and something that’s just not funny

Tony Blair is, I’m sure; a well intentioned man of principal who wants to get things done that will make the world a better place. In other words he is the most dangerous Prime Ministers Britain has had since Thatcher. Graham Green once described innocence as a leper roaming the world without a bell. Blair goes one step further than this; he’s a leper who wants to shake hands with everyone.


Imagine the dismay when Tony, (he insists his colleagues call him Tony – likeable chap that he is), after helping George W liberate Iraq and remove the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction that could be launched in less time that it takes to call a press conference, it turns out that most of the Arab world see him as part of an invading army of the west, intent on destroying Islam. Good grief, some of them got so upset about it, they even bombed London.


Now Tony has nothing against the Muslim world. He’s a tolerant man, married to a prominent Catholic woman (Tony of course is not allowed to be Catholic and Prime Minister at the same time although I suspect he may “discover” his faith at the end of his present term of office) and he supports religious freedom. To Tony, it is unacceptable that people should be hated simply because of the religion they follow. Hate, he has explained to us, is a Bad Thing. Hate gets people so upset that they blow up buses and trains and kill all the people on them. Any self-respecting Government would therefore feel the need to make promoting religious hatred a crime. Then we call all live together in peace and harmony.


This of course is to misunderstand the legal process to an extent that is almost wilfully na├»ve. You can’t write a law that says “Thou shalt not hate the next chap just because of the God he prays to”, you have to get a bit more specific than that. And those nice law makers that Tony put on the job have been much more specific, and the more specific they have been come, the more ludicrous the legislation they propose becomes.


Anyone who reads my blog will know that I think humour is a great political weapon. It seems that Tony’s lawyers agree with me. Unfortunately to them that means that humour is now one of the Bad Things that need to be banned. Their propose legislation would make it illegal to satirise religion – any religion of any kind. To satirise something is to promote disrespect of that thing which is pretty damn close (at least in the clubs that these lawyers are members of) to promoting hatred.


So if my religion holds that women are biologically subversive and need to be locked out of sight lest men be corrupted by them and lose their immortal souls in a fit of lust, I am not supposed to snigger or say “you can not be serious” in a McEnroe type voice. I’m supposed to stay calm and say “Well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.”


Even if the person I’m speaking to believes that God has been pretty clear that everyone is NOT entitled to their opinion and everyone except the chosen will burn in torment for all eternity, I’m still not supposed to suggest that this is a self-serving view of God and that any omnipotent being who chooses that path should have his beard burnt off rather be worshipped. No, I’m supposed to nod and say, “You might have a point”.


Rowan Atkinson, known around the world as Mr. Bean and known in England as the Black Adder, is so incensed by the stupidity of a law that say that just because it’s religious you can’t make fun of it, that he has taken the time to explain to the lawyer chaps, clause by clause, why their legislation is insane. Sadly, they looked at him and said, “Well you may have a point, Rowan, but Tony’s rather keen on all this so the show must go on.” Rowan has promised to write a comedy sketch in breach of the new laws if they are passed, just to provoke a prosecution and give some of the funniest men in England a chance to explain why Tony needs his ass kicked.


By the way, in writing the Atkinson story up, the Sunday Times quoted a joke that would be frowned upon by the proposed laws, so let me share it with you.


“How do you know that Jesus was a Jew?”


“Because he was still living at home at 30 and his mother thought he was God”.


So now on to the distinctly unfunny story that caught my eye this week. A while ago I read a book called “Market Forces” by Richard Morgan. It’s a hard hitting book set in a near future Britain where consultants for privatised war firms win business by fighting to the death in a kind of choreographed road rage. It was a depressingly plausible read that I found difficult to dismiss from my mind. The characters in the book have a toast, “To Small Wars” as these are the ones that bring the biggest bonus payments. This week, I discovered that truth continues to challenge fiction. The Americans have privatised the policing of Iraq and have brought in a few thousand hired guns at $1,000 a day.


The activities of the 50 plus firms that currently operate in Iraq are coordinated by “Aegis Defence Services” who also employ 75 teams of their own. Aegis is British firm, run by Lt Col Tim Spicer,a former Scots Guards officer, which describes itself as risk-management and private security company or PSC. Aegis is a small outfit by PSC standards and yet the Iraq contract alone was worth $293 million. If you want to get a flavour for the enterprise, visit their website: http://www.aegisdef.com/


Spicer is a controversial figure in Britain. He won the OBE in Northern Ireland, was accused of illegally exporting arms (and then was cleared when he demonstrated that he was under orders from the UK government at the time. He led troops who were convicted of murdering an unarmed Irish teenager. Take a look at this open letter to Comptroller General of the US Government Accountability Office if you are interested in the details: http://www.serve.com/pfc/pmcbride/04olpfc.html or take a look at these two articles http://www.williambowles.info/ini/ini-0266.html and http://www.williambowles.info/ini/ini-0266.html


There are 50 PSCs operating in Iraq. Competition is tough so Special Forces types are in big demand to demonstrate the value of the company they belong to. This has in turn placed recruitment pressures on the public sector – the US Army now offers $150,000 cash bonus to re-enlisting Special Forces troops. So it seems Richard Morgan was not being fanciful after all. I’m sure there are few ex-Sandhurst chaps in the City toasting small wars as you read this. Still, at least they won’t be doing a Bad Thing like poking fun at a religion.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Obscenity, the Department of Justice, the Patriot Act, and Tony Blair as Jack Bauer

The US Department of Justice is using the Patriot Act (Orwell would have loved those names) to start a quest to protect Americans from obscenity.

Here is a link to a speech by Sara Paretsky called “Truth, Lies and Duct-tape” that talks about the implications of this from point of view of being a mainstream writer in America
http://www.saraparetsky.com/silence.html

I’ve also written an article – it should be on http://www.cleansheets.com/ shortly, called “Porn Again Christians” that I’ve included at the end of this entry.

This week the DoJ closed its first, text only, website – Red Rose. The site seems to have had some stuff on it that many people would find obscene and which, if done in reality, would be illegal, stories involving children, animals, and forced sex. It also looks to have been a membership site so it could be that the DoJ are just on a fishing trip to catch some paedophiles – yey for the DoJ.

The more interesting part is that they have de facto extended obscenity to include text, removing the 1st Amendment protections that are usually relied upon. They appear also to have used the Patriot act to enter without notice and remove computer equipment in the absence of the owner.

If there are any Americans reading this who want to write to their congressman or woman and say they think the patriot act is a greater threat to America freedom than any terrorist attack, please feel free, just expect a visit from the FBI shortly after you press send on the email.

Blair has been pushing similar legislation to the Patriot Act in the UK. The UK’s laws on secrecy and obscenity and terrorism are already far more restrictive than in the US so there wasn’t a lot left to do but the UK Parliament is still opposing what some are calling the “Jack Bauer” approach to saving the UK from terrorism. They oppose the idea of locking people up for 3 months without telling anyone that you’ve done it, without explaining – even to the individual – why you’ve done it, and without having produced any evidence. Yet this would be mild by comparison to the Patriot Act.

Of course the Brits are suffering from the embarrassment of having shot an innocent man that they followed, held down, shot six times and then lied about. For the first time in a long time it looks as if UK policemen may actually be charged with murder or unlawful killing. This is not a great confidence builder just before you extend police powers. And it was made even less likely when the head of police in London suggested that armed soldiers should be used instead of armed police because it is cheaper. The problem here is that, while British troops are trained not to use their weapons unless the rules of engagement permit, when they use them they always shoot to kill. This is not yet palatable to the British public, bless their intransigent hearts.

So, in these times when governments are lead by men who use fear as substitute for argument, lies as a substitute for evidence and force as a substitute for agreement, it is not a comfortable thing to be a soft target.

If you are writing anything that those nice people in the FBI or their masters in the DoJ think is obscene, be prepared for the knock on the door.

Actually, once they knock, there’s not much you can do about it. So I recommend that, before they get here, you make sure as many people as possible know what you think and what you want.

I agree with Paretsky that silence is then enemy. As an annoying foreigner type, I think that laughter and derision is part of the answer.

With that in mind, take a look at my article “Porn Again Christians”.


Porn Again, Christians?

If, like me, you grew up reading American books, watching American films and television, eating American fast-food and listening to American music, you might start to believe that the boundary between your culture and theirs is membrane thin – just another colour-way of the same design.

You’d be wrong of course. America has a unique and complex culture that no outsider can ever really understand.

The differences are disguised by language and the globalization of American icons but when one of those differences shrugs off the camouflage and displays itself, all you can do is shake your head in disbelief.

One of those points where several differences come together is in the American way of combining sex, religion and politics.

As an example, let me quote from a recent www.law.com article:

“When FBI supervisors in Miami met with new interim U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta last month, they wondered what the top enforcement priority for Acosta and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would be. Would it be terrorism? Organized crime? Narcotics trafficking? Immigration? Or maybe public corruption? The agents were stunned to learn that a top prosecutorial priority of Acosta and the Department of Justice was none of the above. Instead, Acosta told them, it's obscenity. Not pornography involving children, but pornographic material featuring consenting adults.”

The article explains that Gonzales, despite criticism that prioritising the prosecution of obscenity will take resources away from violent crime, child pornography and anti-terrorism, has created an Obscenity Prosecution Task Force (which gives rise to a job title that would never survive the withering mockery it would evoke in the UK: “Deputy Chief for Obscenity”) that will shut down pornstores and go after “peer-to-peer” distributors of obscenity over the internet.

The article rehearses the arguments of the “liberals” that this is a waste of money and of Christian organisations who say it should be a priority because it is a form of corruption that has an impact on children.

Now, I come from the UK, which is a very secular society. Only 6% of the population in the UK go to Church on a regular basis. In the last census 20% of respondents self-identified as having no religion. Half of all first-born children are born outside marriage (although the parents often marry afterwards). I live in Switzerland where religious allegiance is part of everyday life (a tax payable to your church is deducted directly from your salary) violent crime is low (although there are the same number of guns per head of population as the US) and there is a sex shop in most high streets (my nearby 50,000 population town has two sex shops in the main shopping area) and an erotic hypermarket in many out of town shopping centres. So for me the American attitude to porn is as alien as it gets.

One of the sexshops in my town belongs to a chain called “Beate Uhse”. When the woman who founded and ran that chain died recently, there where obituaries in the all the serious papers. She was a colourful character: at 18 she was a pilot in the Luftwaffe. When the Allies permanently grounded Luftwaffe Pilots after the war, Beate got involved in producing pamphlets on the appropriate use of the rhythm method for contraception. This expanded into marital aids.

Today, her shops sell clothes and toys, contraceptives, gels, oils, books and videos. Occasionally I get fliers in my letterbox (together with coupons from Supermarkets) telling me of the latest offers to improve my sex life. This is not the way it works in America.

Now I don’t want to mislead here. Beate Uhse may be viewed with tolerance now but she was prosecuted hundreds of times in Germany. She made a habit of winning her cases and she set out to win the hearts, minds and various other bits of the general public.

But to come back to the Department of Justice and their campaign on obscenity. It is easy to portray Gonzales as an idiot who doesn’t understand the impact of his choices or a zealot who doesn’t care, but I think the reality is that he’s a politician who believes that his job is to win the maximum possible number of votes.

Now this is still a slightly alien concept for me. UK politics is a little more patrician than that. One wouldn’t want to subject the judiciary to the democratic process, as that would be to substitute the tyranny of the uninformed majority over the judgement of good chaps from the right background who’ve been trained in all that sort of thing and probably know what they’re doing. Swiss politicians take a different approach to controversial decisions; they step to one side and let them be resolved by referendums.

But in America it seems that votes are the currency of the political economy and God (or at least Government) is on the side of those who are vote rich.

I think Gonzales wants to prosecute obscenity because it will win him more votes than prosecuting other things. He knows this because the Christians are organised and they tell him regularly and clearly, what they will vote for.

The rest of the voters, even though they might be the majority, are not organized and so they have no affect on Gonzales’ priorities.

If I was American, I might now write a little plea for the rest of America to get organized. I might point out that those who are not prepared to govern must be prepared to be governed by their inferiors. I might write a manifesto and start an ad campaign. Hell, I might even run for Congress (well I might if I was independently wealthly and came from the right kind of family).

But I am a Brit and we Brits tend to muddle through rather than rally around an ideology. The greatest weapon in British democracy is not organization but ridicule. In Britain, no idea that is ridiculous, no matter how attractive to a block of voters, can long survive.

So let me take you on a little British flight of fantasy in response to Mr. Gonzales and all those others who fight obscenity because Christian voters have told them it would be a jolly good idea.
Wouldn’t it be nice if…

  • It could be demonstrated that cutting off people's access to porn was as unpopular as putting up the price of gas

  • The Federal Government took a large slice of the porn profits (as they do in Germany) and decided that Christians are a voice to be mollified but not really listened to.

  • Jay Leno led a campaign to defend the right of Americans to free access to sexual relief: it’s good for your cardio, reduces the incidence of violence and builds the muscles in the right wrist.

  • Microsoft used the banner "where would you like to get off today"

  • Actors wore cute little ribbons to the Oscars defending the freedom to masturbate to images of your choice

  • Soccer Moms had bumper stickers that read “Porn Free or Die”

  • Statistics where published by ISPs showing the number of American households that access porn sites: frequency, duration, top topics, as a means of driving advertising revenue

  • Talk shows ran phone-ins asking for counseling for Christians who practice a faith founded on the importance of love in human redemption and end up focused on a fear of (other people's) sexuality.

Ah well, back to the real world where more energy is put into regulating porn than to prosecuting rapists and child molesters.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Period Pulp Fiction – background to my new story on www.quill-pen.net


One of the things I love about the internet is the way that it allows passionate people to do interesting things. Andrei V. Lefebvre is one of those passionate people. He has an ongoing love affair with pulp fiction and runs a website called “Unbelievable Stories” www.quill-pen.net that recreates that chandleresque black-and-white movie feel. One look at the October cover shows you what you’re in for.

I’ve always loved genre fiction and I admire those with the dedication to provide it with a venue, so I scratched around for something that Andrei might be interested in. I decided to send him “Till death do us part”, one of my rare excursions into detective story writing. It’s the kind of thing that people made into 30 minute TV movies presented by Alfred Hitchcock. I wanted to see what would happen when I sent something to a site that wasn’t dedicated to erotica.

Andrei liked the story but set me an interesting challenge. He said, “My publication is that of Pulp Fiction genre. I decided to recreate the sensational fiction of the pre-electronic era of the early 20ths century. During this period the moral censorship was such that no four letter expletives were printed. Moreover, words such as “pussy” and “cock” were not to be used other then to describe the rooster and the cat respectively.”

He asked me if I could rewrite the story to meet those guidelines.

I gave it a shot and was surprised to find that I had to change very little and that nothing I changed altered the feel of the piece. It made me realise that I’d perhaps grown too used to graphic language and that being a bit less direct might serve me just as well.

Anyway, I’m hooked now. I’m working on second detective story and I’m reviewing my SF ones to see if there is something “pulp” enough to fit. So if you’re in the mood for something period, put on some swing or jazz, pour yourself a gimlet and settle down for a good read. You’ll find my story at http://www.quill-pen.net/200510KimerToDeathDoUsPart.html