Raymond Soltysek's Blog

Apparently, artists are the new tyrants.

Posted in Politics, Scottish independence by raymondsoltysek on March 3, 2015

I was thoroughly entertained by an article in The Commentator, an unashamedly neoconservative website that makes some astonishing claims as if they were the ingredients on a cereal packet. How much wrong there is with this, a crowing hagiography from their raison d’etre of a Friedmanesque West that bears no relation whatsoever to the reality of mass populations:

‘… Our economics are in the tank. Budgets are bloated, taxes are too high, existential threats to our interests at home and abroad have rarely ever been more concerning. We seek to shed light on these core ‘civilisational’ issues. 

We argue that now is not the time for big government; it’s not the time to bow before tyrants, dictators or terrorists; and it’s not the time to abandon our only true ally in the Middle East: Israel. 

Let’s face it — it never should have become and never should be the time for any of those things. But lately, the West has become more than a little self-loathing in its worldview, and we exist to offer a viable alternative.

Never in the history of human civilisation had so much prosperity been created, so many lifted out of poverty, so much evil tackled, curtailed and eradicated than when the West was at its proudest.’

Let’s list some of the questions:

In an era of crippling austerity, whose budgets are bloated? The cancer research budget of the NHS or the executive hospitality budget of Goldman Sachs?

Taxes are too high for whom? Since when? Are we perhaps talking about the richest in the US and the UK, who ‘have paid a lower marginal tax rate over the last three decades’?

Which tyrants, dictators or terrorists are we bowing down to (ISIS, Vladimir Putin) and which are we hand in glove with (Saudi Arabia, the Neo-Nazis of Ukraine)? And in what way is a mineral-poor, minor exporting nation that relies on gobbling up billions in military aid like Israel a ‘true ally’? If we are saying that Israel is ideologically a friend of the West, then that can, of course, only be partially true, since holding different ideologies is a sign of democracy; given their treatment of Palestinians, a Zionist Israel is as abhorrent to me as a fundamental Islamic state. Does that mean I am not a ‘Westerner’? Or that Israel is merely an ally of some in the West?

In what sort of a world that gloats about a cure for Ebola being unsustainable in a free market are people ‘lifted out of poverty’? And are the means by which they are lifted out of poverty – health care, education – funded by ‘big governments’ run by the likes of Aneurin Bevan, or are they provided by the tax dodgers who bank with HSBC?

So into this parcel of rogues comes Tom Gallagher, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University (that means he’s a retired academic). In his ‘Seeds of tyranny being sown in Scotland?’ (note the question mark, just so that he can defend his position as hypothetical in the face of the bare-chested nationalist onslaught he clearly expects, though I’m sure the lads pictured to illustrate the article aren’t artists), he repeats the accusation made by Chris Deerin (chief Scottish columnist of the Daily Mail’s and, in Gallagher’s words, a ‘culturally clued up Scottish journalist’, and in the words of everyone else… well… a Daily Mail columnist) that artists in Scotland jumped on the bandwagon of independence in droves for the sole purpose of self-promotion.

I was amongst the first to contribute a piece for National Collective – or, as Gallagher calls them, in a clearly illiterate use of the quotation mark, ‘National Collective’ – but never contributed as much to the movement as I wanted, largely through illness. However, I kept in touch, and watched dozens of bright young people commit themselves to a cause that they knew was an almost impossible task. I had friends, many of them in full time jobs not in the arts or in full time study, who ran themselves into the ground organising and promoting events, devising publicity campaigns or canvassing communities. Just what self-promotion do Deerins and Gallagher think is possible knocking doors up closes in Govanhill or Provanmill to encourage disillusioned people who haven’t been near a ballot box for decades to even register to vote; ‘Eh, can we rely on you to vote in the referendum, madam, and while you’re at it, here’s a flyer for my one-man show’? If the artists and writers I know went into it all for self-promotion, take it from me; they got a really bad return on the time, effort and sheer hard cash they contributed.

Gallagher goes on to suggest that ‘Scottish culture has been set back a generation by the readiness of so many luminaries to act as performing seals for a political cause.’ Breathtakingly, he describes the art produced by the referendum as ‘shrill protests against the ‘Sassenachs’ (English foreigners) usually ‘toffee-nosed’, thereby combining an ethnic and a class prejudice.’ First, I would defy him to find anything on the National Collective website that could in any way be categorised as ‘ethnic or class prejudice’; in all my referendum meanderings, I have found nothing, seen nothing, heard nothing, read nothing that could be attributed to a member of the respected artistic community that could be remotely described as ‘ethnic and class prejudice.’ Secondly, the fact that Gallagher has to parenthesise an explanation of the word ‘Sassenach’ clearly indicates his intended, non-Scottish audience. Obviously he is writing for those neoliberal Western crusaders who fund The Commentator; so who’s the fucking performing seal now, Prof Gallagher?

He buys in to the whole myth that Yessers intimidated No campaigners to such an extent that the debate was fatally skewed. If it were true that there was a huge reservoir of silent No voters scared to put their heads above the parapet (despite the fact that, as Gallagher himself says, artists are ‘individualistic, edgy and hard to dragoon behind an established position’) why then have, post-referendum, the circulation of pro-Yes newspapers risen, as he admits, or the membership of all pro-Yes parties boomed? Why have Yes groups, from National Collective to Radical Independence to Common Weal, continued to pack out events and attract attention on social media? For heaven’s sake, the Nos WON; you’d think they’d be individualistic, edgy and hard enough to stand up for themselves NOW.

Except of course the No campaigners did; on Friday the 19th of September, when George Square saw what can only be described as a neo-fascist display of British nationalist thuggery.

Of course, a Yes vote was NEVER the ‘established’ position; all those wonderful young people I saw working their socks off knew they were fighting an uphill battle against the position of the establishment, which, in the final week of the campaign, pulled out every lie and empty promise they could to swing a vote they saw the possibility of losing. For me, voting Yes was always an act of rebellion, an act that I desperately wanted to upset the established applecart, to have a broader and wider effect across the globe. For me, it was the equivalent of voting for Syriza, not for the SNP.

Gallagher pours scorn on those from the Yes campaign he sees as indicative of a nationalist bullying mentality. Interestingly, he’s quite prepared to punt his own academic credentials, but describes Alan Riach as a ‘poet’, failing to recognise that Riach too is a Professor; not only that, he’s STILL a professor, serving at Glasgow University, and not a pensioner clinging on to hierarchical titles for his own self-aggrandisement. Nice display of academic respect there, Prof Gallagher (retired). He recounts Riach’s ‘delight’ at showing ‘no trace of deference’ to the Queen at a 2013 reception. So there we have it; a No vote is for the polite, the respectful, the deferent. Yes voters, it seems, are vile, unpatriotic, rude thugs. Perhaps Prof Gallagher should be reminded, though, that Riach is, by law, a taxpayer; the Queen is immune from being sullied by something as crass as tax, and only volunteers to pay a modicum of what might in a democracy be called her fair share out of embarrassment at the size of the silver spoon in her gob. Yes, taxes are far too high, aren’t they?

One of the heroes of Gallagher’s article is James MacMillan, ‘a prolific and widely performed composer’ who, he argues, is ‘in the tradition of energetic and talented Scots who over the last 300-400 years helped to shape the boundaries and content of British culture and disseminate its influence far and wide,’ a giant of the music scene counterpoised with ‘ex-rock star’ Pat Kane. Quite apart from the fact that Kane does not speak for the artistic community as a whole – and would not claim to – the interaction Gallagher describes can hardly be called anything like ‘tyranny’, and the subsequent tweet from MacMillan he quotes (‘‘the wonderful renowned separatist artists must never, EVER be criticised!’) sounds merely churlish rather than heroic. And I’d like to ask the Prof: is this the same James MacMillan who, unprovoked, called a young female activist in a conversation three nights ago between pro-independence supporters which he chose to join, ‘degraded’, ‘debased’, ‘hateful’ and ‘divisive’? Gallagher quotes ‘pro-British Scottish blogger’ Effie Deans, ‘who currently perhaps has the most profound things to say’. She claims that Putin’s Russia is more free than the state of the independence debate; I’d like to see what would happen to Effie were she to throw a few of those epithets in Vlad’s face.

macmillan tweet

This is, of course, the selective nature of this debate. For every insult hurled at a No voter, there will be a similar zinger directed at the Yes side, and each will hype up what suits them and ignore what doesn’t (I would direct Gallagher’s attention to the ‘Alex Salmond is a wanker’ Facebook page; I can’t find an equivalent for Vladimir Putin, or James MacMillan). But to claim that the arts community has silenced rather than empowered those who wish to take part in the debate is absurd.

As too is the rather wandered conclusion he comes to, in which he seems to confuse ‘the ruling party’ and ‘government’ in the upcoming general election with the SNP; as far as I am aware, the election in May will decide the fate of the current Tory / Lib Dem coalition in Westminster. His last sentence is quite apocalyptic:

‘Russia was once briefly as free as Scotland still is now, but it was a failure to resist creeping tyranny that has allowed the nightmare seen there today to unfold.’

The warning is clear; allow these horrible nasty Nat artists and writers to have their way, and tyranny will ensue. Let me make this clear to Professor Gallagher, who, given that he has worked at Bradford University for however long, probably hasn’t really got a clue about the reality of Scotland as it is now; if tyranny comes marching down our streets, it will be those fabulous young people I saw working their hearts out during the independence campaign who will have the nerve, the resolve, the skills and the courage to man the barricades. And when that happens, I’ll lay money on him still writing for a neo-conservative, culturally imperialistic website that advances the interest of global corporations that would happily strip every freedom we could ever possibly have to make a quick buck.

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An Open Letter to Scottish Review

Posted in Politics by raymondsoltysek on September 20, 2014

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Dear all

It is with great sadness that I wish to unsubscribe from the Scottish Review. I did not renew my friendship of SR at the beginning of this year because I was anxious about the trend in your choice of contributors to cover the Independence debate, and that anxiety has been vindicated.

I have been privileged to work with many dedicated and passionate young people – several through the magnificent National Collective and Radical Independence movements – who, quite frankly, have much more enjoyable things to do than spend constant months of their lives trying to convince an apathetic, fearful, self-interested and short sighted Scottish public that they have the wherewithal to create a better, fairer nation.

None of them ‘was their own worst enemy’; they were all our best friends. None of them ever called the opposition ‘bastards’; all of them engaged politely and knowledgeably with anyone who wished to discuss the referendum with them. None of them threw eggs; instead, they had a penchant for wish trees, balloons and some of the most inspiring writing, music and art I have encountered for years.

And some of them were hounded and assaulted by fascist thugs in George Square on Friday night.

Of course, Kenneth Roy was not directly responsible for the violence we saw in the streets of Glasgow. But if he is a journalist, and not a petty blogger fueled by personal animus because someone of importance didn’t take to heart his own inflated views expressed in a ‘columnar exchange’, then he has a duty to report it with the fairness and lack of bias that has been so lacking in this campaign.

Of course, I believe that the world is a better place for the Scottish Review and I wish you well, but I cannot continue to actively support you, write for you or recommend you.

With respect

Raymond Soltysek

 

 

 

Yashika Bageerathi: a vicious injustice

Posted in Immigration, Justice, Politics by raymondsoltysek on April 3, 2014

I’ve been staying off politics because I’ve been getting angrier and angrier over the last few months about so many things.  However sometimes apoplexy wins out.

The treatment of Yashika Bageerathi – the forcible end of her education,  the ripping apart of her family, her deportation in the company of five guards in a half-empty plane paid for by the British taxpayer – is surely one of the most shameful acts of a government that is steeped in a racist anti-immigration policy in order to appeal to the very basest voters, despite the protests of almost 200,000 people.  When we vote Yes in September, I truly hope the new Scottish government will invite her and her family here to contribute to a vibrant new country.

In the meantime, an idea for peaceful protest I stuck up on Twitter is gathering a  bit of steam.  Please consider making this simple gesture as a measure of support for a young woman who has been treated truly appallingly.

 

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Protest the treatment Yashika Bageerathi

 

 

‘Bad News for Refugees’, CCA, 11/10/13

Posted in Immigration, Politics, Publications, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on October 13, 2013

Bad News for Refugees

Bad News for Refugees

Went to a launch event for ‘Bad News for Refugees’, a book co-authored by my Glasgow Writing Group pal Emma Briant.  A wee bundle of genius, Emma is a media researcher by trade, and her work with the venerable Glasgow Media Group has produced a fascinating examination of the demonization of refugees by the media.  The evidence for the prosecution of the media as a bunch of heartless bastards is overwhelming: for example, there is a callous disregard for any sort of accuracy in reporting, with the terms ‘asylum seekers’ routinely replacing the term ‘refugees’, and that then being conflated with ‘immigrants’, ‘illegal immigrants’ and, eventually, the reduction to the contemptuous ‘illegals’.  The effects of this kind of thinly veiled attack on human dignity is vividly described by  co-author Pauline Donald, who gives a voice to those who have come here simply in order to escape extra-judicial imprisonment, social and economic discrimination, torture and worse.  Portrayed as penniless scroungers, most come here for no other reason than they fear for their lives; 75% of the refugees in the Glasgow area have degrees, so why would they desert their middle-class lifestyles to come here to be abused by the Daily Fucking Mail?

The manipulation of refugee stories is glaringly obvious, with concentration on the few barking mad apples like Abu Qatada to deflect attention from the voices of the thousands of ordinary, law abiding refugees hounded by law enforcement agencies and press alike; when was the last time you heard the first-hand story of an Eritrean like those poor souls who died off the coast of Lampedusa last week (or the week before or the week before or… yesterday)?  GMG leader Greg Philo talks eloquently of the culture of the newsroom, ending his talk with the words of one reporter ringing in our ears, talking of being sent out to ‘monster an asylum seeker’.

This of course came on the day after Theresa May proudly trumpeted the latest in a long line of racist policies this government has enacted to whip up hatred and fear of our immigrant population.  The Today programme did all it could to conspire with the bastards of Westminster by devoting three separate sections in a report on the proposed legislation.  First, they interviewed a waiting room of Kent NHS patients, asking them what they thought of immigrants coming here taking our medicines. The response was vile, with narking, harping voice after narking, harping voice viciously bemoaning what they think they lose to immigrants.  Of course, figures clearly show that immigrants (‘legal’ or ‘illegal’) are less likely to access NHS services than ‘indigenous’ people, but that’s not the point, is it?  Neither is it the point that they are much, much more likely to be treated by an immigrant in the NHS than be gazumped by one in the waiting lists.  But Today gave a voice to the ill-informed and, of course, failed to ask an immigrant what they thought about being targeted as ‘NHS tourists’.  It was little more than a UKIP party political broadcast.

The second section consisted of an interview with a London GP who rightly took issue with the whole ‘problem’, simply and effectively stating that… there wasn’t one.  No-one’s appointment is delayed by immigrants in her practice.  But was it a coincidence that her name was Paquita de Zulueta?  A doctor here for 30 years, you can nevertheless just hear the cogs of listeners grinding, putting two and two together to make a conspiracy: Paquita de Zulueta?  Defending immigrants?  Well, of course she would. It’s a tactic often used against me when I attack racists on HuffPost:  ‘Soltysek?  Well, of course you’d stick up for immigrants, woudn’t you?  Let’s face it, you are one…’

And finally came La May herself.  Her words quite clearly show the purpose of her party’s vicious legislation: ‘many people feel this is unfair’, ‘hard working people see people who haven’t paid coming in…’, ‘most people…’.  This is a blatant appeal to the UKIP and EDL minded voter, nothing more.  And when challenged on the fact that so called ‘health tourism’ accounts for 0.01% of NHS costs, she blustered and deflected and dodged and, laughably, resorted to an appeal to ‘principle’.  Out of her mouth, the word is sullied.  But the difficult time she was rightly given by interviewer Mishail Husain (there’s those cogs again…) came at the end of what sounded like a carefully stage managed stitch up job.

It’s depressing, regardless of how inherently fair and good people might be.  And I sit listening to the three authors and wonder where this came from.  My father was Silesian Deutsche Volk, conscripted into the Wehrmacht.  After fighting on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded and decorated, he was captured by the Allies in the Western Front.  Here as a POW, at the end of the war he found himself a refugee seeking asylum, unable to return to Poland because of the Soviet occupation.  He would have been a prime target for the Daily Mail – can you imagine the headlines? – and yet, there was a general acceptance of him.  It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t anything like what refugees have to face now.  Here was someone who’d actively fought against this country and yet who had no problems finding work or accessing social services.   It’s ironic that he was accepted here as a refugee from Communism, but those Eastern Europeans who overthrew Communism now find themselves vilified when they come here.  The hypocrisy is astounding.

So where did it go wrong?  I was politicised in the 1970s and early 80s (when I actually took a couple of Greg Philo’s media  modules) and so for me the answer lies in the neoliberal revolution that Thatcher began, combined with the emasculation of the mass labour movement.  But of course, that’s too simplistic; mass labour movements have often been at the forefront of anti-immigration protests, especially in the early 1960s.  So I don’t know, and neither do I know how we can counter that insidious and vicious propaganda campaign against the poor generally and immigrants in particular. 

What’s clear, though, is that projects like this are essential in the fight.  There are bad books, good books and great books.  Then there are important books.  My pal Emma has helped produce one of those.

National Collective: Independence Is The Triumph of Hope Over Fear

Posted in Independence, Politics, Scottish independence by raymondsoltysek on July 16, 2013
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National Collective

I was privileged to be asked by Jenny Lindsay of National Collective – the organisation of artists and writers making huge waves in the independence debate – to do a filmed reading and brief interview for them: when that’s available, I’ll post it here.  However, Jenny also asked me to write an article for the website, and kindly gave me permission to reproduce it on my blog in its entirety.  You can find it on the National Collective website here.

It’s my first public words on the referendum: consider my colours now firmly nailed to the mast.  The article  seems to have been well received: it’s perhaps the nearest I’ll ever be to ‘trending’ on Twitter…

Independence Is The Triumph of Hope Over Fear

A few months ago, I was talking to my godson, Andrew, about the forthcoming referendum. He’s a lovely lad; in his thirties, he works in the care of adults with severe learning disabilities. He and his partner, a nurse, have the most beautiful two year old daughter, a smiley, happy, sweet child who charms everyone she meets. They both work punishing shifts for not much more than a combined living wage: Andrew frequently has to walk four miles to catch a bus that’ll take him to work.

He was going to vote No. Astonished, I asked him why. “Well,” he said, “look at me. I haven’t had a pay rise for over five years, and prices just keep going up and up. I’ll never be able to afford to buy my own home. I don’t even see how I’ll be able to buy a car. I rely on my mum for childcare because it’s so expensive, and holidays are a non-starter. If we go independent, how do I know it won’t get much, much worse?”

We live in a society that is crippled by fear. Ordinary working people live on the cliff edge of robbing Peter to pay Paul every month to meet the debt commitments they are blamed for having in our recession economy; deunionised, they are forced to accept derisory wage rises that are in effect cuts in living standards when the price rises in commodity-traded food and fuel that puts billions into the already groaning coffers of multi-national corporations are taken into account; they are labelled scroungers when they turn to the state for help, while their bosses in both the public and the private sectors pay each other handsomely over the odds because they have defined themselves as somehow ‘indispensable’ to the machine; they are conned into believing that they, the people at the bottom, are somehow to blame for all of this, and that despite the overwhelming evidence that the problems lie at the top on the desks of money-laundering, rate-fixing, tax-avoiding, mis-selling big banks and hedge funds, the status quo is the only way to go.

I remember growing up in the 60s and 70s, when optimism for the future was all the rage. Yes, we worried about nuclear weapons and knew that there was a huge problem with hunger and war in the Developing World; but, for ourselves, we felt that life was on the up, and never did any of us consider in 1973 that, in 40 years time, families would be worse off in real terms. But then the neoliberal Thatcher agenda came along and put paid to all of that, and the dismantling of the great public goods of the post-War period – gas, electricity, the railways, steel, mining and, especially, social housing – saw the beginning of what Naomi Klein calls the “great sacking”, the siphoning off of what we once all owned into the hands of a rapacious few who buy it with promises of consultancies and seats on the board to the appropriate career politicians.

And we have been made afraid. Our governments have become adept at getting their own way using it; I remember my parents were truly convinced that Sadaam Hussein could drop a nuclear weapon on us within 45 minutes. The discourse has become one of fear, one which reached its nadir last week with the unedifying sight of a UK Cabinet minister of Scottish origin, Jo Swinson, scaremongering against a Yes vote because it could entail higher mobile phone roaming charges and mean the end of Saturday letter deliveries.

I don’t know about you, but I reckon senior politicians have a duty of care to the electorate. They are meant to lead, to provide visions for the future, to reassure, to sound the voice of reason, to refute sensationalism, to think big. But just consider this: we are being asked to accept that we are not competent to run our national affairs because a mobile phone company might charge a few quid more if we do. The insult represents a preposterous infantilisation of the Scottish people, especially when Swinson neglected to add that the EU is likely to outlaw roaming charges anyway.

And Ms Swinson tells us that Royal Mail services will be cut if we make decisions for ourselves while at the same time a Cabinet she is a member of is pushing through the neoliberal sale of Royal Mail to already bloated hedge funds, organisations intent not on the social good of a postal service that delivers to isolated people come rain or shine but on the bottom line. We know what happens during privatisation: “efficiency” is bought on the backs of the customers and, especially, the ordinary workers, who find their conditions of employment ripped up to fund the additional burdens of a profit margin and the retirement packages of chief executives. Does Ms Swinson really believe that a vote by Scottish people is a greater threat to mail deliveries in Scotland than Goldman Sachs?

All over the world, we see sporadic instances of unrest at this gross perversion of human economic activity: The Occupy movement; riots in Greece, Brazil, London, Sweden and, ten years ago, Argentina; the Arab Spring movement. But all these offer only a fleeting glimpse of a brave alternative and, against the structures that have taken root in our politics, are pretty much doomed to failure. “If you want to change something,” protestors are told, “work from within.”

And that’s why I’m voting Yes. We have a legal, peaceful, constitutional means to say “Enough is enough; these are not our values.” We can reject an economic system that allows the South East of England to suck the rest of the UK dry to fund its stratospheric salaries and its eye-watering house prices and its super car lifestyle. We can reject a social system that has been engaged in brutal social engineering for forty years and is now accelerating, with the whole of London becoming the largest gated community in the world, the poor made unwelcome by property prices and the bedroom tax, shipped out to be shipped back in on a daily basis to clean the offices and keep the wine bars staffed on a High Speed Rail line that Scotland will pay £4.5 billion pounds towards but will stop at Manchester. We can reject a political system that moves the centre of power out of reach of the ordinary man and deposits it amongst the voices of the rich, influential and corrupt where it cannot help but be seduced. And we can do all this at the mere stroke of a pen. No violence. No upheaval. Just one little cross in a box and the world changes.

I agree with Patrick Harvie when he says it’s not going to be hugely different the day after we vote Yes. We may find ourselves a little poorer (I doubt it) or a little richer (probably more likely), but the sun will not shine brighter, the air will not taste sweeter and birds will not fly in our windows to make our breakfasts. But what I do believe is that a Yes vote will send a message out to the rest of the world, and it’s a message of hope that we don’t have to accept the political, economic and social structures that have been used for so long to make us afraid.

I laid it on the line for Andrew. I told him it seemed that he had been conditioned to believe that his life was miserable, and that it would only ever get more miserable if he tried to take charge of it for himself. At a time of his life when he should be feeling the most hopeful ever – a loving partner, a beautiful baby – he has been disempowered, emasculated, hobbled by fear that any change he initiates in his life will make matters worse. When he should be growing in confidence and capacity, he has been told to stand still, to stay put, to accept what his betters have decided and, most of all, to shut up.

That’s not good enough for him. It’s not good enough for his daughter. And it certainly isn’t good enough for Scotland.

The “Today” programme: smug, ill-informed… racist?

Posted in Kazakhstan, Media review, Politics by raymondsoltysek on November 7, 2012

Nursultan Nazarbayev

The “Today” programme took a swipe at Kazakhstan today – or, to be more accurate, President Nazarbayev – in a segment that revealed that an almost racist Borat attitude towards the country is alive and well at the smug old BBC.

Giggling like a posh toff at a boy on a bursary, Justin Webb reported that Nazarbayev is “looking for an elixir for immortality”, and the Nazarbayev University has come up with a yoghurt drink. How funny. You can just imagine the old git – he’s 72 – swatting flies away with his solid gold zuzu while proclaiming he’s the King of Scotland, can’t you?

Of course, that’s nowhere near the truth. Apparently, Nazarbayev was publicly praised at a national assembly meeting – he is immensely popular in the country, and the culture is one of respect for authority, without it tipping into subservience – and he jokingly suggested the scientists find an elixir that would allow him to rule forever.

This is no senile madman, no power-crazed despot. Kazakhstan is by no means a fully fledged democracy, but neither is it a dictatorship. Elections which return the president to power with almost unanimous support have been given as clean a bill of health by observers as the US and UK elections. Nazarbayev is a consummate politician who managed the Soviet state, managed the transition to independence, managed a period of hyper inflation when the country had literally no administrative infrastructure, managed unilateral nuclear disarmanent  and managed the development of a powerhouse economy that is growing a hundred times faster than the UK – all in 20 years. Whatever you think of his politics, he deserves respect for ensuring that Kazakhstan has not turned into a carbon copy of those other dysfunctional Stans in the area.

They interviewed a Kazakh and a UK scientist, both of whom said the Kazakhs were on to something, since the management of a human’s microbial balance in the digestive tract is crucial to health and well-being. But no: “The Kazakhs are on to something?” Webb repeated incredulously, with James Naughtie joining him in a gusty sarcastic guffaw.

I’m going to be very sensitive to this kind of thing from now on: I’ve made a commitment to Kazakhstan on the basis of what I’ve read about the place, and there are are a lot of things to admire about it, not least its 99% literacy rate. Stupidity is not a national characteristic, and the “Today” programme has no right to treat it like the country yokel.

Besides, I wonder how many people in the Webb and Naughtie households had a very fashionable Yakult yoghurt drink this morning?

Norway shows us how to deal with terrorism.

Posted in Justice, Politics, Terrorism by raymondsoltysek on August 26, 2012

“He is doomed… no one… can say otherwise… I do not need to worry about him anymore.” Emma Martinovic, Utoya survivor ((AP Photo/Heiko Junge/pool))

Just over a year ago, I saw at first hand the bravery and dignity of the Norwegian nation.  Susanne Sundfør, a young Norwegian singer, was performing in Wroclaw a matter of hours after her country had been rocked to its core by Anders Breivik’s cowardly attack on the children of its political classes. Despite having to sing songs that seemed so prescient of the horror that unfolded in Oslo and Utoya, she was restrained, elegant and proud, while at the same time in obvious pain. It was a humbling experience.

I think we’ve seen a scaled up version of that dignity in Norway’s treatment of the whole Breivik case, and it has shown the world how to respond to acts of terrorism that are designed to attack what we are and what we believe in. Breivik wanted to change the country, to make it turn away from openness and tolerance, to make it cower in fear and lash out against the forces of darkness he thought threatened it. The country’s reaction has been magnificent; they have responded by being even more open and tolerant, by refusing to cower or lash out or be afraid – of him.

Breivik is one of those delusional oddballs who believes in white supremacy because it allows him to bask in the myth of his own exceptionalism. Norway’s answer to him has been masterful in that it has refused to treat him any differently than any other criminal, no matter how petty. Thus, he has had exactly the same opportunity as anyone else to address the court, will have exactly the same restrictions and privileges as anyone else in a Norwegian prison, has received exactly the same maximum sentence that any other Norwegian criminal would receive. In effect, they have marginalised him, debased him, emasculated him by giving him the message that no matter how hard he strikes against their way of life, life will go on the same as if he were a pickpocket or a paedophile.

And what has been remarkable is the support this approach has had from the people. Even the families – those who I have seen or read interviews with – have been dignified and respectful and even grateful to the judicial system. There is no barking for revenge; just read the mature, sensible, rational but absolutely touching words of 19-year old Emma Martinovic, a survivor of that day:

“This means so much. Everyone has talked about how he would be judged insane, and I thought so too. But this confirms that he is sane and healthy, something we’ve known since day one. Finally someone who listens to us and understands us. It is absolutely amazing and feels very fair. This allows me to move on. He is doomed, and there is no one who can say otherwise. Now he is in the cell and I trust the police security. Now I do not need to worry about him anymore.”

That is the most eloquent one-finger salute that could ever be delivered to Breivik and his kind; you are done and dusted, and I will never think of you again, you little, little man.

Of course, posters on Huffington Post UK – which, unlike it’s generally liberal US counterpart, seems to have become a haven for Daily Mail readers and similar right-wing nutjob halfwits – went bananas with faux outrage. “21 years? That’s three and a half months per victim”, they chanted, as if justice can be reduced to a question of Primary school arithmetic. He’ll be out in ten years because of some go-gooder social worker. He’ll fool the psychiatrists. He’s be in his fifties at the end of his sentence. Insane. Norway should be ashamed of itself.

I wish fuckers like these didn’t annoy me as much as they do, but they do. Oh my word they do. Quite apart from the fact that Breivik received the maximum sentence allowed by law of 21 years, with the possibility of that being extended indefinitely by 5 years at a time if he is still considered a danger to the public – which ensures that he will undoubtedley spend the rest of his life behind bars –  the depressingly predictable calls for the rope, firing squad or being roasted on a spit totally ignored the fact that Breivik himself would probably embrace martyrdom like a long-lost idiot brother, thereby ensuring his immortality in the racist, survivalist community worldwide.

This outrage, based as it is in fear, is tremendously useful to the corporate governments of the west, since it validates a whole host of intrusive measures designed to “protect” us. Masquerading as “antiterrorism”, the governments of the UK and US have brought in a whole range of strategies that are more useful to them not because they control subversives, but because they control us. Phone-tapping, e-mail gathering, rendition, extra-judicial imprisonment, even worldwide torture chambers in countries that belong in the pits of hell are all part of a system that can seamlessly be tweaked to suppress the general population. And so hackers like Gary McKinnon and Ryan Cleary, whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and even Julian Assange himself all find themselves up against a finely-tuned bureaucratic structure whose tentacles can now grasp anyone, anywhere, and whose outposts are as shadowy as anything in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

And, as such, we have been complicit in the victory of the terrorists to force us to change our ways, change our lives, abandon any pretence we ever had to democratic principles. In terrorism, the military, the secret services, the governments and the global corporate structures have found their best ever ally in their battle to control and to manipulate we, the people. And every time we cry, “String him up” or “What’s wrong with water boarding?” we cast our vote in support.

So, bless Norway for being the only Western country this century to truly stand up against terrorism, by mainaining its sanity and refusing to abandon its principles.  They have ensured their democracy which was so cruelly attacked has survived not just intact, but immeasurably strengthened.

 

No escape for Assange, but we let a torturer go.

Posted in Justice, Politics, Society by raymondsoltysek on August 19, 2012
link to Wikipedia Pinochet extradition

Pinochet

I can’t help comparing the hoo-ha over Julian Assange with that stain on the reputation of the Blair government, their failure to extradite General Augusto Pinochet in 2000 to Spain to face charges of torture.

I am as dubious as anyone about the case against Assange.  The charges against him rest largely on him not using a condom during consensual sex with two women, one  of whom threw a party for him after the event.  Both women are linked to the US security services, apparently.  But of course, charges of rape – even if that country’s definition of rape seems to be totally at odds with anything we would understand the term to mean – are hugely serious, and must be investigated.  Assange must answer the charges, and has offered to do so if Swedish officers will come to the UK or if they will guarantee him safety from extradition to the US.  They have refused.

But it’s nonsense to say it’s just about that: it is absolutely clear that the US has some stake in this, and will apply for Assange’s extradition when he is in Sweden.  We’ve already seen that, while refusing to acknowledge international law in a whole raft of ways, such as the criminal court in the Hague, the US believes its law can be exported to other judicial systems; hence their demand for the extradition of hackers from the UK.  In effect, international law for the US consists of US law being applied to preserve US interests wherever it wishes.

William Hague’s horrible “there will be no escape” pronouncements, then, are all part of keeping the US happy.  It has nothing to do with international law or extradition treaties; it’s all about what the US wants.  It was exactly the same in 2000, when, despite the highest court in the land ruling that Pinochet should be extradited to Spain to face torture charges and despite a swathe of international courts and governments supporting that, Jack Straw delayed and delayed and delayed the extradition until doctors could concoct a case for him being too ill to go to Spain.  Funny – he was too ill to go to Spain, but well enough to travel to Chile, which is a bit like me saying the journey to Edinburgh is a bit wearing, so I’ll go to Berlin instead.

But of course, Pinochet was a pal of George W. Bush, seen as a still  influential US ally amongst the red threat in South America.  There was a message to be sent out, since no dictator would ever cooperate with the US again if they were going to be held responsible for crimes condoned and actively supported by the US in the future.  Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher saw him as the man who was willing to turn his country into one of the first testbeds of the Friedman economics that has dominated the world since the 1970s.  There was no way the politicians were going to accede to the demands of the law in that case; Pinochet had to be protected.

So: if it is permissible to let a torturer slip through the legal net, why is the government so vexed about the story of an albeit rather arrogant guy who might have slipped up with a burst prophylactic?  Of course, it’s to do with the establishment.  Pinochet was part of it, part of the global power elite who are prepared to repress and torture and kill to maintain the status quo;  Assange threatens it by providing a mechanism by which their grubby secrets – great and small – can be washed in public.

And by playing up the charges against Assange, it obviously draws attention away from and discredits Wikileaks.

The messenger is being shot.  Just what Pinochet would have wanted.

Aid, Spin and the votes of Little England.

Posted in Aid, Politics, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on July 15, 2012

It’s all his fault, you know…

Brilliant, Machiavellian press-management by the coalition government over the last few days, all of which has whipped up the Little England attitudes of the morons they hope will vote the Tories into power next time round.

On Tuesday, news websites carried the opinion of Alan Milburn, ex-Labour minister and now an adviser to ministers on “social mobility and improving youngsters’ life chances” (here’s some advice – give them real jobs and not unpaid ‘intern-ships’).  He warned the Commons Education Select Committee that there wasn’t a “snowball’s chance in hell” of the government meeting plans to eradicate child poverty by 2020. The price of success? £19 billion over the next eight years.

Now, nobody wants to be seen to be failing on child poverty in the UK, so what should a media-savvy government do in such circumstances?

Find a scapegoat. Works every time.

Twenty-four hours later, the government announced that it would be committing £1 billion of additional funding to family planning in the developing world, doubling the present amount. The time-scale? Spookily – over the next eight years.

Of course, the connection is obvious and has the neurons of those who have the attention spans of goldfish going into overdrive. One billion between now and 2020, while children are in poverty in the UK? Outrageous.

Two days later, Peter Bone, a Tory backbencher, became the new darling of Little England when he filibustered debate on a government commitment to raising the UK’s  international aid from 0.5% to 0.7% of GDP, thereby killing the bill. That, of course, had the social media in a frenzy. “Good for him!” came the cry.

It’s been fun taking part in the evisceration of that kind of attitude on websites like Huffington Post (though I have to say, I’ve probably got a bit carried away with it over the weekend). The attitudes are astonishing in their ignorance; a selection is enough to give you a sense of the nonsense.

Apparently, if we commit 0.7% of our GDP to foreign aid, various apocalyptic things will happen. Children will freeze in school classrooms; cancer patients will be denied life-saving drugs; our defence budget will be so stretched, we will open ourselves to foreign attack; old age pensioners will receive no heating allowance, and their bus passes will be taken from them; the health service and welfare system will crumble. Chicken Little meets Little England.

In addition, the cries are that we can’t afford it. ‘0.7%? That minimises it.’  How about saying 7 pence in every £10? ‘That minimises it too: call it £14 billion, that’s what it is. £14 billion, plus the £1 billion for family planning – hell, that’ll almost solve child poverty here!’

Okay, let’s call it £14 billion – out of £1,714 billion. Whatever way you say it (and here’s where literacy and numeracy dovetail nicely) it still doesn’t sound a lot to me to try to save starving children. And economic powerhouse Norway does twice as much as we do.

‘Ah, but does it save starving children?  All of it goes into the pockets of corrupt officials and not one child actually benefits.’   Not one? Not a single penny gets to where it’s needed? There are no schemes which actually benefit people on the ground?

Now, I am aware as anyone of the fact that corruption is endemic in many countries. The government’s commitment was to raising the proportion of money we give; how we give it can be looked at later. But is the fact that some of that 7 pence in every pound given goes to nefarious individuals a good enough reason to give nothing?

Take this analogy. You are one one side of a busy road in a country in which you are a total stranger. The cars and trucks scream past, drivers shouting at you, clearly hostile to your presence. You don’t know the customs, the language, the culture.

You see a child on the other side of the road, obviously in distress, hungry and ill. You want to help, and you have £10 in your pocket, but you can’t get across the road and you don’t know how to reach that child.

Along comes a suspicious looking character carrying a Kalashnikov. You don’t trust him. However, he says to you, “I know how to stop the traffic, I can reach the child. Give me seven pence, that will help buy food. I will take it to him, but I want three pence for myself.”

What would you do?

It seems Little England would walk away. Me – I’d give the seven pence, take the chance. It’s seven pence. And even if four pence is all that reaches the child, then it’s worth it, for now at least, until we can find better ways of governance for aid.

I always love the “Charity begins at home” line too. In my experience, anyone who says that is usually amongst the most uncharitable people on the planet. It is the Misers’ Mission Statement.

What they fail to realise is that it allows a reductionist approach that might well come back and bite them. You have a family? Well, why should unmarried, childless people subsidise health systems that delivered your sprog, or pay more than their fair share for an education system your brats clearly don’t appreciate? It was your lack of control of your sexual impulses that got you in that position, so pay for it yourself: charity begins at home, and your kids don’t live in my home.

Of course, society functions because we’re all good citizens, and realise the inter-dependence we all have. That is why some of us actually think of “home” as the planet.  Little Englanders, on the other hand, see home as “Great Britain”, and believe that is enough to bind us all together – provided we are, of course, working, straight, married,  indigenous, flag waving and white.

I don’t for one moment believe that the announcement of imminent failure of our child poverty targets and the hoo-ha over foreign aid happening within days of each other is at all coincidental. It would have been catastrophic had the government announced, for example, tax cuts for the wealthy or bail outs for banks immediately after the child poverty news; better to give the howling idiots a much more convenient target to rail against.

Children in this country, is the implication, are not poor because of gross inequalities in wealth, or because of rampant unemployment, or because of banks’ failure to lend to small businesses, or because of private firms cocking up our services time after time; no, children in this country are poor because we give half a penny out of every £10 we have to children who suffer from drought and war and disease.

Poor children here are the responsibility, it seems, of the 16,000 children a day who die of malnutrition-related causes throughout the world. It’s obvious, innit?

Scottish Review: “The subtext of the jubilee is a celebration of serfdom.”

Posted in Politics, Social justice, Society by raymondsoltysek on June 8, 2012

I have a piece in today’s “The Scottish Review” prompted by the jubilee but which brings together a few threads I’ve been thinking about over the last few months concerning the increasingly vociferous “let them eat cake” attitude emanating from the power elite.  All comments gratefully received, you can find the article here:

“The subtext of the jubilee is a celebration of serfdom.”

Here are the opening paragraphs to whet your appetite.

Okay, I can’t help it. I have to comment on the jubilee, not because I object to it as such – although, being a Republican, I do – but because of the story that is hitting some of the headlines that clearly indicates the ‘let them eat cake’ attitude that is dominating discourse in Britain today.
     The Guardian reported that 30 jobseekers – along with 50 others on apprentice wages – were bussed in to steward the Jubilee celebrations. Working in ridiculous conditions under London Bridge with no access to changing rooms and toilets, these people were apparently offered payment when they got on the bus. That promise was later withdrawn and became merely the possibility of employment by the firm Close Protection UK during the Olympics, coupled with the very real threat of losing benefits; the managing director, an ‘entrepreneur’ called Molly Prince, said ‘the stewards who performed unpaid work did so voluntarily because they wanted to continue to claim benefits’. Does that sound like volunteering to you?
     Of course, these ‘work experience’, ‘intern-ship’ programmes have been a running sore for the government, especially since the fall of Cameron’s buddy Emma Harrison. Apparently, her firm A4e is merely the tip of the welfare-to-work market scandal floating off the government’s bows.
     But the whole rotten core is much, much greater than that. We have seen over the last few months an increasingly virulent condescension of the poor by the entrepreneurial classes that demonstrates just how much distance lies between us and them, a gulf almost as wide as that between French peasants and Marie Antoinette herself.”

Finally, please consider becoming a sponsor and “friend” of the Review: it’s a very significant space for Scottish thought.

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