Film ‘Thor’ shows Monarchy is Bad Idea

June 24, 2011

Within the first 30 minutes of Thor, we learnt our ‘Hero’ is heir to an autocratic regime – there being no sign of democracy in his home realm of Asgard – and following the theft of a precious artefact, has no qualms against attacking another realm – that of the ‘Frost Giants’ – despite no proof of their involvement in the crime.

We watch as Thor kills legions of Frost Giant soldiers who merely attempt to defend their planet. The film glosses over ‘Our Hero’s’ blatant war mongering by depicting his Frost Giant Victims as very ugly. Therefore, we are invited to believe, they deserve a hiding.

Soon Thor gets into trouble, not from a guilty conscience, but from being outnumbered by his foes and is rescued by his father Odin – The Ruler of Asgard. After being banished to Earth as punishment, the mentally prepubescent Thor learns some rudimentary
manners only to finally be re-instated as the Asgardian heir, the position that turned him into a thoughtless angry oaf in the first place.

Moreover, we have no idea whether the Asgardians themselves are content with their society. The film only ever shows Thor, his family or close confidants.

We are shown rapturous Asgardians celebrating a royal ceremony but for all we know his could merely be North Korean style state propaganda.

If we take Thor at Face value, we are really vouching for a mystical Viking equivelant of Kim Jong Un, son of the North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il.

On another interpretation, the film becomes an unintended satirical critique of the hereditary principle.

-We’ve already touched on the first conflict in the film, solely caused by the warmongering of the spoilt prince Thor himself. Like all autocracies, the people of Asgard are at the mercy of the whims and insanities of those in the ruling family.

-When in Thor’s absence, his brother Loki temporarily becomes King following Odin’s death, he performs all sorts of misdeeds, there being no independent judiciary or parliament to act as a check his power.

-During the final fight scene, Thor, Loki and Odin end up destroying the humongous teleportation device that allows travel back and forth from Earth.

You don’t get the impression there will be an independent review to find out why such destruction occurred. Nor that there will be a trial for careless destruction of state property. The Asgardian press, if it exists, won’t be sending reporters to find out what happened. Most likely, as is the way in autocracies, Odin will instruct them what to write the next day.

Ironically, Marvel’s other hero Captain America, set to team with Thor in the Avengers movie, is famed for fighting Nazi totalitarianism. Yet there is apparently no contradiction in him collaborating with Thor.

The box office success has led to calls for a sequel. Perhaps it could be that contact with the Earth via twitter and facebook inspires an ‘Asgardian Spring’ of demands for freedom which compels Thor to create an orderly transition to a democratic system?

Or better still, the US and Britain take part in a neoconservative inspired invasion of Asgard to instil regime change, pitting Thor against Captain America and Iron Man?

It’s just a thought.

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Who do we integrate with?

June 17, 2011

My Mother and I came to London in 1989. I was 3 and a half years old. We had travelled from war torn Iran and had gained asylum.

Fast forward 22 years and a citizenship ceremony later: I like to think I’m as British as a public transport delay. However, there are still elements of Our culture I don’t understand.

If this piece ended now, two paragraphs in, you would have a solid Daily mail headline: ‘Asylum seeker refuses to integrate after 22 years’.

Not that I’m singling out the Mail. Multiculturalism and Integration often make the news whenever the media haven’t got a royal wedding or super duper injunction to keep them entertained. The new mantra is Multiculturalism: Bad; Integration: Good. David Cameron agrees with this mantra, even using 2,000 words to make the same point as the previous sentence in a recent speech.

But integration is a difficult concept because ‘native’ British culture is itself diverse. If you doubt that assertion, try to complete the following: `10 things in common between Stephen Fry and Paul Gascoigne’

So if it’s understandable for Paul and Stephen find elements of each others behaviour alien, so I hope is my bafflement when dinner is called ‘tea’ (Who calls Breakfast ‘Orange Juice’?)

Though of course, the Mail might disagree: ‘Stephen Fry refuses to integrate for 58 years after gaining asylum from Mother’s Womb.’

The language I was raised with at home was English. I developed a stammer when I was 5 and a speech therapist told my mother to focus on only one language. Consequently, I speak Farsi with a limited vocabulary and an English accent that some Iranians find highly amusing (imagine a white guy called Simon Jones speaking broken English in a Middle Eastern accent).

Growing up in North London, I have had friends of many different ethnicities and from all backgrounds. As long as we could play the Super Nintendo Games console for ridiculously long stretches, I would be friends with anyone as a child. A simplistic philosophy for cross cultural interaction I know, but probably much better than what has traditionally been tried in Jerusalem, parts of Africa and Northern Ireland.

After a state education in my beloved north London, I gained a finance degree from Durham University where some might say I reached the zenith of integration into the British cultural mainstream: I was drunk a lot.

I graduated in 2007. After a foray into accountancy and a resulting quarter-life crisis, I’m now trying to ‘find myself’ by venturing into stand up comedy and journalism. Perhaps my decision to leave a stable career to pursue such risky occupations in order to fulfil a vague and self indulgent psychological need is actually the zenith of my integration into an individualistic British Culture. My decision was no doubt influenced by reading spirituality books while backpacking in Thailand, usually while drinking a healthy number of beers.

Today I believe I’m as British as a transport delay because:

– I am in my element in any situation requiring participation in a long and orderly queue;

– when holidaying, I deal with any linguistic differences by still speaking English, only louder than at home;

– when careless people bump into me on the street, I always apologise.

Before you gift me a Bowler hat and a copy of the Times bare in mind the following less stereotypically “British” points about me:

I found the national exuberance over the royal wedding to be irrational and faintly ridiculous. My main thought during the wedding was to wonder in which wars Prince Charles and Phillip were awarded all the military medals they were wearing.

However, does my aversion to monarchy just show I’m a well integrated member of the Republican minority in this country?

Our national Anthem makes me laugh and I prefer the Sex Pistols’ rendition – though that preference has a lot to do with many of my school friends being punk rockers.

My experience of Shakespeare is limited to what I was forced to read in school. Since then, I have shown no interest whatsoever to find out more about Shakespeare. However, my apathy towards Our National Playwright is shared by many white Brits.

The problem with mandating cultural integration is how you can measure conformity to the wide umbrella that is British culture.

Should Abdullah, fresh off the boat, aim to adopt the values of David Attenborough or Dizzee Rascal or both? If it is both, you wouldn’t blame Abdullah for taking the easy option and going back home, probably to face certain torture and death.

This is not to say that migrants shouldn’t be expected to learn English or adhere to British Values; Freedom of Speech, Tolerance, Highly unfashionable male summer wear and so on.

It just means we should be more careful when bandying the term ‘integration’ around, as if ‘being’ British can be reduced to liking fish and chips and preferring Tea to Sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with a good cuppa…

Devaluation of the charge of Racism

April 9, 2011

In a critique of the American ‘Fiscal Conservative’ Right in the Guardian, Amanda Marcotte writes the following:

‘The image of the welfare slut has been carefully constructed by the right in recent months to be as racist as possible, as well. A nationwide billboard campaign linking black women and abortion invokes the Reagan-era stereotype of black women as neglectful mothers and over-sexed harridans, and reinforces the message to the base that the only way to put these women in their place is take away their reproductive healthcare.’

Click on the link (newsone.com) to see the picture. The only ‘racial’ element of the picture is that it has a picture of Barack Obama. However I don’t see how it’s racist because the central message, that abortions eliminate ‘potential leader[s]’, would be exactly the same if there was a picture of George Bush or Bill Clinton there. How the picture in of itself reinforces a stereotype of ‘black women as neglectful mothers and over-sexed harridans’ is a mystery to me.

The only potential racist issue with the picture that I can spot is not on Amanda Marcotte’s article but on the newsone.com page itself which implies the poster is specifically aimed at Black communities in Chicago. Thus implying that the producers of the poster assume Black Americans are somehow rabid abortionists.

However, that is just conjecture on my part. If Amanda Marcotte is going to suggest the poster is racist, she should clearly explain why.

The result of liberally spreading accusations of racism is that when racism is everywhere, it ends up being nowhere. The word starts to lose meaning and power. Then when others try to highlight real instances of racism they are not taken seriously because the Amanda Marcotte’s of this world have cried wolf so many times before.

An Open Question on the EU membership: What is the Point?

April 9, 2011

Various voices on the political right, from the Express Newspaper to Eurosceptic Tory MP’s, have been asking for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

According to Sean O’Grady of the Independent, the net transfer of funds from Britain to the EU rose to £9.2bn in 2010 from £5.3bn in 2009. The almost £4bn increase was ‘Enough to avoid the recent rise in national insurance or the new 50p rate of tax ‘ and worth ‘£230 for every household in the country.’

The Economist* cites a British Chambers of Commerce study that put the cost of 144 new regulations over 1998 – 2010 to the British Economy at £88bn, of which two thirds of which was attributable to European Union Legislation.

Irrespective of whether these regulations are necessary or not, Eurosceptics point out they have not been implemented by our democratically elected parliament.

Arch Eurosceptic Tory MEP Daniel Hannan points out that the countries with the highest GDP per capita in Europe are non EU members Norway and Switzerland.

What is the other side of this debate? What is the benefit for Britain in being part of the European Union?

*Economist March 19th – 25th 2011 Edition. See pg 19 of ‘A special Report on the future of the State.’

It helps to be sceptical on the AV debate

April 9, 2011

The referendum on the alternative vote is an issue of high constitutional importance and passions run high one way or another among political commentators.

On the other hand, the technical differences between voting systems are often lost on members of the public who may not have time to research the subject in depth.

To give an anecdotal example, I asked my Mother, a Technical Director for a multi – national shipping firm, which way she would vote. She said she would support the Alternative Vote system (AV) because it allows for proportional representation (PR). It does not. That’s why before the election, the Liberal Democrats were in favour of a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which is a PR system, instead of AV.

The general public confusion allows commentators to be somewhat economical with the truth. That’s why it helps to be sceptical when reading the claims of both sides.

Blogging in the Telegraph, journalist and Tory MEP Daniel Hannan lists the following as the third reason (of ten) not to support AV:

‘Supporters of fringe parties can end up having their vote counted five or six times – and potentially decide the outcome of the election – while people who backed the mainstream candidates only get one vote.’

This claim is patently untrue as Andrew Rawnsley, Chief Political Commentator for the Observer explains, in any recount the supporters of the mainstream parties get their votes recounted too.

‘Mr Grey, Mrs Purple and Miss White stand for election. In the first round, if one of them attracts the support of more than half of the voters, that person is elected. Each voter has voted once. If none of the contenders can command majority backing first time around, the candidate with the least support drops out and there is a second round. Let us say that Mr Grey – not a popular chap – is the candidate eliminated. The second preferences of his supporters are now redistributed between Mrs Purple and Miss White.’

So ‘yes, you can say that Mr Grey’s supporters have voted again. But, crucially, so too have the original supporters of Mrs Purple and Miss White.’

That quote is from a pro AV piece by Mr Rawnsley, one which contains its own potentially misleading comment.

A key criticism of AV (that Hannan hints at) is that it benefits small extremist parties such as the BNP. Rawnsley retorts ‘Yet if AV really would be such a boost to fascists you’d expect the BNP to be enthusiasts for it. They are actually campaigning on the No side’

Rawnsley fails to mention that the BNP are not supporters of the current system First Past the Post (FPTP). Quite the contrary, they oppose AV because they would much prefer a ‘party List proportional Representation (PLPR)’ system. So it could well be that AV is a boost to the fascists but that they prefer an even bigger boost from greater proportional representation.

*To be fair to Rawnsley, the BNP do describe the AV method as ‘even more unfair [to smaller parties]’ then FPTP in that article but they give no clear reason why apart from saying ‘[our] votes will be redistributed to other parties’ in case of a recount. It is unclear how that is ‘worse’ than such votes being ignored as under FPTP or why anyone would expect a logically coherent article on their website.

So what do we need to cut?

April 4, 2011

There are voices on the Left that apparently refuse to acknowledge the need for any substantial spending cuts to deal with the deficit. This is disingenuous because it does not acknowledge the true extent of the UK’s economic predicament. As a result, any critique of George Osborne’s economic policy from the Left is less likely to be taken seriously.

It is worth recalling the economic situation the UK found itself in last year.

At the beginning of 2010, the European commission predicted that the 2010/2011 UK budget deficit would be the biggest in the European Union when they predicted it to be 11.6% of GDP, exceeding even Greece and Ireland. Source: Guardian

The EU recommends that budget deficits do not exceed 3% of GDP.

The European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said of the then impending new Government:

“The first thing for the new government to do is to agree on a convincing, ambitious programme of fiscal consolidation in order to start to reduce the very high deficit and stabilise the high debt level of the UK.”

There was a broad consensus on the need for substantial cuts among both political parties. The then Chancellor Alastair Darling committed the Labour party to halving the deficit by the end of the parliament; a policy he described as ‘more radical than Thatcher’. This policy has been maintained by the Labour party since the election of ‘Red Ed’ Miliband. The debate to be had is on the pace and depth of cuts with the Tories aiming to eliminate the deficit in one term.

This is not the debate being argued in the liberal comment pieces. While no liberal commentator openly states there should be no cuts, there are few suggestions as to where the cuts should actually fall.

Writing in the Guardian, The author Phillip Pullman decries the proposed closure of 20 public libraries by his local Oxfordshire council. At a time of cost cutting, it is reasonable to assume that libraries would be a more appropriate target for cuts than other front line services. You may assume that Mr Pullman would argue why libraries should be saved over other services. However he absolves himself of making any such hard choices, instead offering blanket objections to his council leader: 

“The leader of the county council says cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead. Would we sacrifice care for the elderly? Or would youth services feel the axe? I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.”

If Mr Pullman doesn’t want to answer difficult questions, maybe he shouldn’t enter the debate.

In a piece entitled ‘David Cameron’s assault on the homeless is Dickensian’ Johann Hari of the Independent criticises the government for slashing funding for the ‘Rough Sleepers Unit’, a scheme that has reduced homeless numbers by ’75 percent’. He also refers to ‘some 90,000 single tenants and 82,000 families [who] are facing eviction from their homes because of Housing Benefit cuts.’ Hari argues that ‘all’ such cuts could be avoided if the £1bn in taxpayers money paid to the RBS bankers had been ring fenced for the homeless.

This may well be the case. However, £1bn is a small portion of the cuts to be made over the 4 years. Not all the savings can simply be made from taxing bankers. There will be cuts that affect the middle and working classes – where are these going to come from? Which of these services should be cut? Johann Hari doesn’t address any of these questions in his article.

‘A week today the cuts start to bite’ is the first sentence of Amelia Gentleman’s Guardian article ‘Public Sector cuts – the Truth’. The article lists various services across the country affected by cuts from careers centres in deprived neighbourhoods to music lessons for children with learning disabilities. The conclusion criticises the ‘government mantra’ that ‘we should … do more for less’ by pointing out ‘The imminent disappearance of the jobs and services profiled here suggests we will simply end up with less’

Perhaps so, but it is worth remembering that Labour’s planned cuts in the first year (£14bn) were close to the coalition’s level (£16bn). Amelia Gentleman should be arguing why these services should be prioritised over say, Health or Education spending. She does suggest that they ‘may be easy to ignore’ not being as ‘dramatic as maternity awards [closures]’ but that is not the same as positively arguing why these services should be saved. Her article does paint a moving picture of the human cost of spending cuts but offers little in terms of policy proposals.

Voices on the Left are reluctant to deal with the hard questions of where substantial cuts should fall. Until they do, the government can simply dismiss their arguments as naïve.