Hacks


SparkI have no desire to comment on the specific processes by which Adebolajo and Adebowale came to be inspired to commit murder on the streets of Woolwich. There is much that is being speculated or that has yet to be said, and one’s conclusions would be necessarily presumptuous. This, of course, has never held back 99% of opinion commentators, and it sometimes does not restrain me, but for now I will observe and attempt to learn.

Still, the commentary is interesting. Jonathan Freedland argues that we should not consider the motives of terrorists as this “cede[s] [them], and violence itself, too much power”. Discussing the motives of particular terrorists may lend them a perverted glamour, yes, but I am all for the study of trends of violence. My general rule is that if people who would otherwise have been expected to be peaceful are blowing themselves or others up, something must have occurred that has provoked such a collective fever, and if it has the potential to cause so much desensitisation it may well have been a regrettable occurrence. Breivik, then, who Freedland mentions, seems to have been a vicious narcissist who found an outlet for his vicious narcissism. The fact that tens of thousands of Iraqis suddenly felt that causing violence was a sensible life plan, however, suggests that something had happened to their nation that should not have taken place.

Terry Eagleton is right, then, to say that we should not confuse explaining the motivations of criminals with excusing them. Still, one’s interpretations of their motives can lend them too much nobility. If, as some people have argued or implied, the crimes of terrorists were the results of their being blinded by humanitarian outrage over Western foreign policies one might retain more sympathy for them than if they had, say, been inspired by the wish to defend and further the supremacy of Islam. While I have no doubt that Western invasions  incline people towards jihadist beliefs, the fact that terrorism is prevalent in Pakistan, Nigeria, Thailand and the Philippines, none of which are known for their imperial atrocities, lead me to think that Islamic supremacism is a hefty factor.

Speaking of Islamic supremacism: Omar Ali, the President of FOSIS, claims that what he calls “the mainstream British Muslim community”, including the Islamic societies that he represents, are “the barrier to extremism”. (His bolding.) He cites “the great work they do”, from donating gifts to children’s hospitals to raising funds for charities. That is great work. Had he mentioned some other acts of Islamic societies, though, a more complicated picture would have emerged. I speak of…

  • Circulating quotes and videos of notorious jihadist ideologues.
  • Holding sermons in which students were told of the virtues of murdering people for changing their religious beliefs and committing violence in order to spread one’s religion.
  • Joining the intimidation of young Muslims held to have been overly licentious.

Mr. Ali is not functioning as a barrier to extremism but as a wall between us and extremism; thus to obscure it.

BenSix’s one-sentence summary of terrorism, then? Don’t be so aggressive as to lead people towards terrorism in their own countries or so tolerant as to allow them to become terrorists in yours.

Da Vinci CodeModern Conservatives seem to define themselves by their ability to annoy liberals. Nothing exemplifies this trend more than Telegraph blogs, on which fluffy-haired and fashionably-bearded young men compete to be the most assertive in defying mainstream liberal opinion, whether or not these views are of consequence or correct. Thomas Pascoe is the latest, with a baffling defence of Dan “Da Vinci Code” Brown. He sneers at his “smart-aleck” critics, who are, he assures us, largely “metropolitan journalists”. Mr. Pascoe writes for the Telegraph about markets and used to work in corporate finance. His adjective inspires thoughts of pots and kettles.

Pascoe’s argument is that Dan Brown is reviled by liberals, “for whom a novel lacks merit unless it involves a forensic account of two pre-op transexuals in sexual congress”, because he is a “white, middle-aged American of comfortable means…whose stories have a moral foundation in a Protestant world view”. One wonders which critics this applies to, as Mr. Pascoe references nobody. One wonders if it applies to Alexander Rose of The National Review, Rod Dreher of The American Conservative and Amy Welborn of The American Spectator – all of whom are white, middle-aged and middle-class American Conservatives who thought Brown’s novels stank worse than the bathrooms of a seafood restaurant. One wonders where Pascoe gets off  miring a literary argument in the turbid battlefields of the culture war. It is not only liberals who needlessly politicise.

Pascoe then attempts to defend Brown’s novels on their own merits. They are “gripping”, he suggests, which is perhaps true, in the same sense that a pub bore who seizes one’s arm as he gasps banalities into one’s ear is gripping. They are, Pascoe continues, “thought-provoking”. Why? Well, he “gather[s] his new work discusses overpopulation”. The subject matter of a book is not a measure of its insight. Ben Elton’s novels “discuss” the environment and religion but they remain far less thought-provoking than Jane Austen’s books about rich girls marrying off.

Finally,” Pascoe writes, “There is the question of Mr Brown’s prose”. It is not a question. It is a short, blunt answer in the negative. Regardless, Pascoe sniffs that he “do[es] not see that it is particularly offensive”, and adds it is “easy to understand and admits no ambiguity”. Is this another way of saying that it is prolix, laboured and inelegant? If Mr. Pascoe had the courage of his convictions he would defend the use of the words “renowned”, “seventy-six-year-old” and “man” in the first three sentences of The Da Vinci Code. That would be contrarian.

Pascoe ends with a middle-finger to Brown’s critics, saying that if they “possessed his ability and application, they would be in his position”. “They don’t,” he sneers, “And their envy is unbecoming”. Envy? I thought they hated the bloke because of his race. Decide upon which groundless smear you are committing yourself to, Mr. Pascoe! As for the idea that a critic has no right to judge practitioners: it is akin to saying, to rework a phrase of Tynan’s, that if one cannot drive one has no right to comment on directions.

I am not especially passionate in my dislike for Brown. His novels are dreadful but I doubt that most of their admirers would have turned to superior books if he had turned to plumbing rather than prose. Rather, it was Pascoe’s article that yanked my chain. He is trying to differ from conventional opinions but not with incisive criticism or fresh insight but aggressive grandstanding. He intends to provoke, but it is not reflection or enlightenment that he tries to inspire but defensive outrage. He stirs up conflict between ideologies but not in defence of an institution or a value but of a trashy novel. He is the inevitable offspring of belligerent dilettantes from O’Neill to Young, and the aggressive insincerity that he embodies will be applied to far more significant debates in the future. In the modern press, it seems to me, click-baiting and cat-fighting are the highest virtues.

BasicsSo, I read Brian Milligan’s account of his attempt to live healthily on a pound a day on the BBC website. My reaction was, I’m sure, the same as that of most readers – luxury. Hell, it didn’t even include the utility bills! That bugger lived a life of Riley on water, mushrooms and eggs from battery farmed chickens. I set out to prove that one can halve that and still maintain one’s grip on existence.

Day 1

Did you know that you can buy cans of rice pudding for fifteen pence? When I lived in London, a few years ago, they cost eighteen pence. How the heck they’ve managed to knock three pence off is beyond me. Perhaps they’ve found a cheaper form of sodium carbonate.

Anyway, I purchase a couple of these and eat them cold. If you don’t have a tin opener, bang them against the part of a wall where a brick juts out before the others and suck the milk and rice out of the perforations.

That is my carbs and protein sorted, but I need some fruit and veg. I pay a small child twenty pence to watch the road as I sneak into the allotments and pull up people’s carrots and onions. I eat them unwashed. The dirt contains a lot of B12.

Day 2

Tesco’s Every Day Value Lager costs a pound per almost two litres of booze. Sure, that’s two day’s savings but I don’t care becosh I luff you an I luff everyone and wheres the toilet i thought it was here but now i think it was krrrrsnotkl…

Day 4

Today I want to save twelve pence so I can buy a tin of Sainsbury’s Basics peanut butter. It occurs to me that products in the line of Sainsbury’s Basics have the most complex lists of ingredients around. How basic are sodium citrate and modified maize starch?

After a tin of baked beans, my stomach was still rumbling, so I sneaked around the back of supermarket to where they throw out past-it products for the binmen. It is incredible: like a mass grave for bread.

By now I am growing a little thirsty. And smelly. Thankfully, my clothes were torn and dirtied as I pulled up vegetables, and I can pose as a manual labourer. I walk into a middle-class neighbourhood, knock on doors and tell the occupants that I intend to check the gas meter or water pressure or something. A few of them ask for ID, so I just waggle a young person’s railcard before their faces. No one looks at the things. Once inside, I can down a glass of water and smear some more over my face and groin.

Day 5

Oh dear. Perhaps that doesn’t work all of the time. On the plus side, I am saving fifty pence a day and the food in jail is not as bad as one might think.

Day 6

Behind bars, I have had time to reflect on this experience. It seems that, as one blogger has elegantly detailed, Mr. Ferguson was neither living healthily nor living off a pound a day. Moreover, it strikes me that this media obsession with living frugally is an obnoxious sort of poverty porn.

I would not only accept but applaud the investigation of means of saving food that is hurled upon the colossal rubbish dump that we produce; of means of avoiding the corporate encouragement to spend more money we one have to; of means of saving electricity, petrol and water. I dislike, however, voyeuristic flirtations with hardship that serve to do little more than inspire comfortable readers to imagine that the poor have little to complain about and penny-pinchers to assume that the products of the systematic torture of animals are acceptable to buy as long as you are saving money. Let us try to reduce waste: from our plates, from our pockets and from our minds.

Bag MenAs I write, the teenager claimed to have perpetrated the Boston bombings is either being killed or being arrested by policemen. I can’t tell, because the journalists conducting the “live” news don’t seem to have a sodding clue. I might as well be listening to them in Spanish.

Posters on Reddit are facing justified criticism for fingering innocent men as suspects in the bombings. What might be overlooked, though, is the fact that it was not excitable netizens that splashed a 17-year-old track athlete across their front page but professional journalists of The New York Post. It was Gawker, Fox and CNN that published images of Ryan Lanza, who was innocently busing home as his brother stood accused of massacring children at Sandy Hook. It was ABC that linked Jim Holmes, a Colorado native who happened to be a member of the Tea Party Patriots, to the Aurora shoots that the police would attribute to a very different James Holmes.

This is not to absolve presumptuous investigooglers but to observe that the mainstream media has long been leading this pack of news-hungry hounds. This wreaks terrible effects on the emotions of the innocent yet accused, of course, and I expect it to have more destructive effects in time. What if a Bay Stater with a lot of testosterone and little intelligence had looked up from their paper or iPhone to see young Salah Barhoum jogging down the street, or if a headstrong Connecticuter had been eyeing the news while on the bus with Ryan Lanza? Someone is liable to be identified as the perpetrator of this or that atrocity and then face a beating or outright execution from vigilantes as they go about their business.

The frenzies of news updates that follow these events are bad for all of us. I kept tabs on Twitter as shots rang through Sandy Hook, and studied it as carnage was erupting in Aurora. What took place in those events? I’m damned if I know, and I suspect I’m not the only one. The media, both old and new, whips up a storm of facts, rumours and downright lies and then blows us to the site of its next tempest as the debris begins to settle. We are left unsure of what took place, still less of why, and remain dazed, giddy, and excitable – in no mood for reflection.

Rolling news has not merely affected the manner in which we observe events, but the types of events we observe. Why have we been so consumed by news of shootings in Connecticut, Colorado and Pretoria? They were almost wholly irrelevant to us. This is not to claim that they are uninteresting, or that one should not take an interest in them, but that we are being conditioned into following events according to their ability to generate rapid and sensational developments: the 20/20 cricket games to the slower, more complex and yet often more significant progression of events elsewhere. This could make us more impatient, more ignorant and, considering the grim nature of these spectacles, more insecure.

As I have been writing, the police have arrested the teenager. I hope it can be determined whether he is guilty, and, if so, why and how he managed to commit the act. To this end, I hope that people will be calm and patient enough to reflect on such inquiries, and their implications, with appropriate care. We need silence. We need space.

ReevaIt will not come as a surprise to hear that the front page of The Sun bears a gigantic image of a half-naked woman. She pouts towards the viewer, with one hand playing with her streams of blonde hair and the other toying with the string of fabric that sits between her ample breasts. Something distinguishes this particular bombshell. She is dead.

In an unsurprising yet nonetheless gruesome move the U.K’s bestselling newspaper has decided to illustrate its coverage of the slaying of Reeva Steenkamp at the hands of her boyfriend, Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, with a huge photo of the woman in a bikini. I was already growing tired of articles that simply referred to her as “his model girlfriend”. True, the status of the killer is the reason for the death to be newsworthy but you’d think the victim deserved to be named. These dubious moral standards, though, seem almost saintly in comparison with The Sun’s leering, near-necrophiliac exploitation of her body.

This depraved opportunism sits within a long tradition of Sun front pages. The most notorious are, of course, the sneer of “GOTCHA” with which it announced the sinking of the Belgrano and the deaths of hundreds of young Argentines, and the headline of “THE TRUTH” beneath which it announced a pack of lies about Hillsborough. Last year’s entry into its abhorrent annals was a gigantic photo of the mutilated corpse of Gaddafi, above which a headline roared “THAT’S FOR LOCKERBIE”. Grotesque as it is to be so celebratory over anyone’s mutilated carcass, the fact that we still have no good idea of who was behind the 1998 bombing made this especially toxic.

One can fret too much about the tabloids. The fact is that while papers like The Times and The Guardian sell fewer copies they are read by people who are far more influential. Broadsheet readerships tend to be smaller but more select and, thus, the mistruths and illusions they promote are more dangerous. It is nonetheless disturbing to observe the gallons of sewage with which the tabloids flood the middle and lower classes.

One almost forgets that their supposed reason for existence is to provide news. Their raison d’etre is blind fear and futile resentment: exploiting rather than informing popular concerns and giving readers the impression of abject powerlessness. The Sun, then, promoted frightening yet fictitious stories of terrorist plots such as “Al-Qaeda…fitting women suicide bombers with fake breasts that explode” and screamed “TRAITORS” when MPs failed to back the domineering measures held to be essential in coping with the exaggerated threat. Such is their disdain for the truth and their readership that even the buxom lasses on the third page are organs of propaganda. In 2004, Zoe, 22, from London, expressed the opinion that “the world is better off without Saddam”. Thanks.

The soullessness extends beyond political reportage. The Daily Mail, for example, and its online empire, is noted for its exploitation of celebrities. The replacement of coverage of influential people with that of famous individuals is depressing for its vacuity but its obtrusiveness and prurience is also grim due to the callous attitude that The Sun’s front page reflects. So invasive is its portrayal of the stars that it has published 975 articles, all of them crammed with photos, devoted to the six-year-old child of Tom Cruise. This is nothing, though, compared to their plans for the unborn spawn of actress Evan Rachel Wood. This week, to her disgust, they published shots of her ultrasound scan.

I have observed the grim irony that the media institutions which pretend to represent social conservatism are themselves lewd, disrespectful and uncaring. They not only embody these features, though, but are among their foremost promoters in our society. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who had cause to detest Rupert Murdoch after he intimidated his employees into publishing the Hitler Diaries, speculated that the brash Australian loathed England and was on a mission to “moronise and americanise the population”. Even if this was not his intention it is, in large part, his achievement.

It is not enough to regret that our newspapers are a Ballardian mishmash of prurience and paranoia. The rot goes deeper. Our television schedules are filled with the vapid exploitativeness of reality programmes the tabloids have tirelessly promoted. Our performers expose and embarrass themselves for the publicity they offer. Our politicians speak in crude soundbites tailored for their headlines. They have bred culture that exists not to enlighten but to degrade: coarsening tongues, dulling minds and hardening hearts. It may be their more sophisticated and pretentious cousins that have helped to formulate the grand ideas that have thrown our society off a reasonable path but it is they that work to ensure that citizens are leering, sneering and often stupefied observers.

Jonah LehrerJonah Lehrer, the popular science writer who fabricated quotes to use in a book on, of all things, creativity, has apologised in a speech at a conference. He was, the New York Times informs us, paid $20,000. Man, I wish my sins offered such potential for reward.

Lehrer admitted at length that he had been dishonest, arrogant and thoughtless but insisted that he is trying to change his ways. The temptation to do wrong, he granted, would never leave him, so he asked his friends and critics to hold him to account. “What I clearly need is a new set of rules,” he said, before assuring us that if he continues in journalism, “Whatever I write will be fully fact-checked and footnoted. Every conversation will be fully taped and transcribed”.

When I’m blogging I can be so stirred by preconceptions and preferences that I misinterpret or overlook evidence. I have never, though, been tempted to consciously fabricate it and would guess that this is true of almost all of us who type away at these ‘umble websites. It is amazing that Lehrer, having granted that he is inclined towards self-serving lies over inconvenient truths, still thinks that he is fit to be a journalist. I have nothing personal him as a man. Most of us have temptations we are ashamed of and if I met him in a bar I would get a round in. A journalist, though? No. Would you trust a vet who had not only killed a hamster but admitted to bearing temptations to kill again? No, you would commend his honesty, scoop up little Marmaduke and head out of his office.

This is reminiscent of the case of Johann Hari, who, after being found to have inserted quotes from other peoples’ interviews into his own and attacked his peers under false names, apologised and said that he was going to undertake a course of journalism training. Again, I have nothing against Mr. Hari but journalism schools are heaving with people who have been trained. Honestly, it’s tragic how many of the poor fools there are. We must have almost as many journalism graduates as Kitchener had volunteers. Most of them, moreover, have never shown themselves to be inclined towards such deeds as Hari. Why should he remain in work?

One of the recurrent themes of public apologies is the insistence that they will lead to personal growth. There is nothing wrong with this; it is a fine aspiration. Yet when these penitent souls have transgressed in positions of privilege one has to ask why they deserve to maintain their status, and when they have sinned in positions of power it raises of the question of why we should bear the risk of further misdemeanours. I would love to see a public figure who has misbehaved throw up their hands and say, “You know what? I was wrong. It seems I am not cut out for a position of influence. Ah, well, I will rejoin the 99.5% of the population who have normal jobs and quiet lives. Later, dudes!”

OrwellWith the exceptions of arms dealing and music criticism, is there a profession that is less reputable than that of opinion columnists? They have been growing awfully defensive of late. The retraction of Julie Burchill’s attack on transexuals provoked a lot of chatter about the freedom of speech, while the abuse that thuggish geeks dish out on Twitter has inspired great consternation about “trolls”. I don’t disagree with any of this. While Burchill should never have been published, the erasure of her column is silly, and the calls for heads to roll over it are hysterical enough that one can imagine their being repeated to shout down more worthwhile arguments. As for people who compose pro wrestling promos over Twitter, well – they are indeed a pain.

Yet I am not going to defend the freedom of opinion columnists without observing how miserably some of them are wasting it; nor defend them from abuse without observing how some of them have encouraged the boorish narcissism they now decry. Burchill is a good example. I am sure that we are all growing tired of hearing about her so I will strive to dissect her body of work in a grisly enough fashion that no one can chirp bright-eyed platitudes about the “fearless opinions” that made her rich and “contrarian thinking” that placed her on the side of Margaret Thatcher, abortion and the Iraq War. Such courage.

It is not her opinions that make her so obnoxious but the means by which she arrives at and expresses them. She takes whichever views will satisfy her prejudices and then frames them in tones of unhinged hostility. This often leads her to be both flatly wrong and hateful. The Irish, for example, she defined as “Hitler-licking, altarboy-molesting [and] abortion-banning”. I suppose it made a change for someone to libel the people of Ireland without mentioning cider or potatoes but, still, that is shameful. “If one is a Catholic,” she wrote a couple of years ago, “Surely double-speak and duplicity are second nature”. Surely? No. My Granddad, for one, is a member of the Catholic Church and I am not sure he has ever been dishonest. I would not let someone get away with saying that in my living room; how she got paid to write it for the mainstream media is beyond me.

Burchill is not a thinker. She can think, I am sure, but she has been so fêted for mindlessness that she has never had to. The target that she defines herself as opposing, then, is hypocrisy: the dullest of vices to criticise because one is, in essence, issuing ad hominems. Admired though she is for her character assassinations, even these have struck me as inept; reliant upon the force with which they are expressed rather than the incisiveness of their content. George Monbiot, for example, she described as being “spoon-fed…and…having no idea what real life is about. One might argue that a person who got into journalism in their teens and has subsisted off cocaine and bubbly since has as much right to brandish their working class roots as Snoop Dogg does to speak of life in the ghetto but one should also note that Monbiot has been attacked by gunmen in Maranhão; mutilated with a fencing spike at Solsbury Hill and afflicted with cerebral malaria in Lodwar. I am no great admirer of his journalism but “silver spoon”? That sounds far closer to “fearless”.

It would be unfair to treat her as an aberration. One could bring up the thuggishness of Rod Liddle, for example, who spent one blogpost describing Owen Jones as a “halfwit”, “pig-ignorant idiot” and, through the medium of a friend, “fucking…tosser” and followed it with another in which he expressed his wish that someone would collar George Monbiot “smash his spectacles and spit on his shoes”. One could speak of the indifference to the truth that Nick Cohen has displayed on multitudinous occasions. One could force oneself to think of Harry Cole, who unapologetically smears a fellow citizen as a terrorist.

I suppose columnists have to ask themselves what they exist to do. If it is merely to entertain none of the above should concern them. If it is to inform, edify and produce literature to rank alongside of that Orwell, Mencken and others, however, they should be ashamed of the tawdry and often unreadable obscurantism that characterises much of their professional class. This encourages censors and empowers thugs, and if we are going to aid them in facing either we should insist that they take a long, hard look at themselves.

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