Random Musings: Lessons in Mind Control #StanlysGhost

I recently reviewed Stanly’s Ghost, the final installment in Stefan Mohamed’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. This is a fantasy adventure series aimed at young adults and you may read my review here. For many it will be a fun, action packed tale of intrepid if somewhat geeky heroes fighting monsters and evil overlords. They save the world, and more specifically their friends, from the power grabbing intentions of a ruling elite led by a smarmy yet dastardly megalomaniac named Freeman. Whilst thoroughly enjoying the story, what I took from it were parallels with our current reality.

One of the powers being abused by the bad guy is mind control. He and his acolytes use this not only to subdue and get their way but as an instrument of torture, a way of destroying those who attempt to thwart their plans. In the basement of their headquarters are prison cells within which superpowers may be neutralised. Freeman prefers to harness these superpowers for his own ends, but any who refuse to comply with his demands are taken down.

The hero, eighteen year old Stanly Bird, is in many ways charmingly naive. He wants above all else to do what is right. The problem is that to thwart Freeman’s plans he has to engage in similar activities. Stanly also harnesses mind control to get others to do his bidding. This is often to the good – he banishes a wife beater – but to get rid of Freeman it is suggested he will have to kill, or at least send his enemy to another realm, preferably one where he will suffer for his misdeeds. Freeman had sent Stanly to another realm in a previous book in the series, supposedly for the greater good. What is the difference?

All this set me thinking about the UK where political thinking has recently become more polarised. The last General Election (in 2015) was challenging as no parties seemed to represent ordinary people, that is, those who could not directly benefit the politicians. It was hard to choose who to vote for when all candidates talked in misleading soundbites and demonstrated blatant self-interest. A change was needed, and with the subsequent battle for the Labour Party leadership and then the vote for Brexit this was achieved. Now the country seems even more divided and discontent. The uncertainty that change brings is not being well received.

Before the General Election many complained about the Prime Minister, Cameron. They are not happy with his successor, May. The Labour Party leader, Milliband, was widely mocked for his willingness to compromise, yet his successor, Corbyn, is disliked for his steadfastness – he is regarded by many as ineffectual. Before Brexit many complained about the waste and perceived cronyism within the EU. Now leaving it is being decried as a national disaster. Change is demanded, but only if it follows the agenda of particular groups.

“I love Europe. I love its peoples, its culture, its food, its architecture, its common heritage, its cultural diversity, its trains, its art, music and drama, its literature and poetry, its history and the richness of its land. It’s just the EU that I loathe.”

In Stanly’s Ghost, Freeman has taken the power that Stanly’s previous actions granted him and used it to achieve a number of good things. The country is stable, infrastructure projects provide work, sustainable power sources are harnessed. There is still discontent, particularly amongst those who struggle to accept the empowered living openly and displaying their differences. Certain unempowered people would prefer to go back to when they could regard themselves as superior.

To take Freeman down would be to throw the country, and possibly the world, into the unknown. New leaders would emerge, and they may be no better. What right have Stanly and his friends to forcefully decide what is good for the wider population?

“A revolution is not successful or complete until a new set of oppressors consolidate their power.”

One plot line in the story involves a drug that could be added to the water to quietly remove all superpowers. In one sense this would make everyone equal. Stanly argues that individuals should not have the drug foisted on them, that they should be offered a choice. Who would choose to give up their privilege? It may be commendable to wish for a better life for the downtrodden and oppressed, but few are willing to sacrifice the comforts they enjoy in order to achieve equality and the downgrade in their own lifestyle that this may bring, even when they can see that they bear a degree of culpability for other’s suffering. Think of the current attitude towards immigrants and refugees.

The superpowered in Stanly’s Ghost use mind control. In our world this is achieved through the skewed and biased dissemination of information. It is too easy to regard those who hold views that are anathema as fools. Both sides do this. The reality is a great deal more complex than many seem able to accept.

“Beware the new imperial elite: athiest, rational, convinced of their rights, prepared to trample the responsibility of individuals, families, communities and local institutions for themselves and substitute central control and governance ‘for the greater good'”

Stanly struggles with his conscience as he tries to decide what he should do. In a fast moving environment, where knowledge that may damage the standing of the powerful is witheld, it can be difficult to discern what the right decision may be. With hindsight there could be regret, but who can say with any certainty how any alternative result would have played out?

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

“Good science is not about crusading with preconceived ideas. It’s about asking why, and seeking the truth, however inconvenient it might be”

Stanly’s Ghost is published by Salt and is available to buy now.

The quotes I have used in this post are not taken from the book. They have been inserted to illustrate points of view, not necessarily my own.

European elections

Tomorrow I will be voting in the European elections, having my say as to which party should represent me as an MEP. It is an election that traditionally encourages protest votes as most policy changes enacted by the European parliament are decided by unelected officials. MEPs are well paid members of a talking shop with little real power.

I would like to discuss with my friends why I will be voting for the party of my choice, to enter into an intelligent and nuanced debate on the pros and cons of each candidate and their policies. I find that I cannot. The campaign has been littered with the negative, with finding reasons to despise this or that candidate and their party. There has been little discussion of the positive change that any plan to offer.

I have seen sweeping statements appear on the feeds of my friends’ social media: ‘If anyone I know even thinks of voting for x I will unfriend them’ ; ‘How can you consider x when y from their party has done z?’ It would appear that some think I should not consider all options, even if only for long enough to find a valid reason to reject. I wonder if I am unwise even writing about this in case someone feels offended enough to cut me off because they think I may not be acting in a way that they can approve.

The big three political parties in Britain are now held in general contempt due to their recent history of governance at a domestic level. The changes that they have enacted are littered with broken promises, hypocritical treatment of the rich compared to the poor in society, and endemic milking of the system for personal gain. During this recent campaign a certain smaller party has been subjected to an orchestrated smear campaign to ensure that the unsavoury prejudices of their candidates overshadow any chance to debate policy. The message has largely been ‘Don’t vote for them’ rather than ‘Vote for me’.

All of this leaves a bad taste in the mouth, an inclination to feel such despair as to make it seem hopeless even to exercise my right to vote, because none of the parties appear worthy of support.

But I will be voting, even if it is with a heavy heart. I will be placing my cross on the ballot paper having thought long and hard about my options. I will not be discussing my decision with friends though, because emotions are running too high amongst those who care.

Politics is such a tricky topic to debate. Each of the parties standing have some policies that I agree with, and many that I do not. Those who have exercised power in the past have a track record that is enough to preclude them from even being considered, yet consider them I will because there are no other options. I see voting as a duty. Many women fought relentlessly to win my right to vote and I will exercise it, even if I cannot fully support any of the candidates who stand.

When I try to discuss this with friends though, all of our most deep seated prejudices seem to come to the fore. They will cite individuals behaviour, the calamitous results of policies from the past. They will point out the suffering inflicted as a result of a party’s actions, even when their own party of choice did nothing either then or subsequently to right the cited wrong. We each dredge up evils to illustrate why a particular party should not be considered, whilst selectively downplaying the evils of those we support.

There are obvious policies that we can all agree with: a desire for equality, justice, support for those in need. The debate rages around how these tenets should be defined. There are policies that we can all agree are desirable, yet few examples of any party enacting these in a way that we can fully applaud. Each party has members who say or do things that are almost breathtakingly appalling, yet we cite only those who back up the points we wish to make.

It is messy and personal, full of judgement at perceived foolishness. It is not worth losing a friend over.

I do not regard tomorrow’s vote as hugely important, except in how the outcome may affect future policy decisions made by our home government. In a years time we will have the chance to vote in a general election, and that one matters a great deal more. Given the contempt in which MPs are now regarded, they are likely to fight a dirty battle for the votes that will ensure they continue to live in the manner to which they have grown accustomed. Deciding which of these ne’er-do-wells gets my vote will be a very tough call.

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We reap what we sow

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Small boy is no longer smaller than me, wears the same size of trousers as his dad, and objects to being called small boy. He rightly points out that I am now the most vertically challenged member of our household. It feels strange to notice the practical changes in these not quite adult children of mine. They look cramped when sat in a row on the back seat of my car; we no longer shop in the children’s sections of stores; laundry loads fill up due to  the size of garments as much as the number of items to be washed.

Some of the changes make life easier. My daughter is currently on a week of work experience and can catch a train to and from her destination, coping with the required transfer in the city with ease. She plans on going camping at the weekend and will make her own way home, hopefully by begging a lift off a friend but, if not, then by public transport. Next week she has her first driving lesson, another milestone on her road to independence.

My middle son appears desperate to shake off the perceived maternal interference in his life. He is happy to debate and discuss, but has no patience with any attempts to coerce his behaviour. I am having to learn to treat my children as I would any other adult, even if they are still some years away from earning that nomenclature.

I remember so clearly being my children’s ages and feeling the frustration that financial dependence creates. I try hard to balance offering security and guidance with enough freedom to allow them to become what they are capable of achieving. I know that I have it so much easier than many at my stage in life. My kids are not rebels, merely growing up and away from the apron strings that have tied them to me for so long.

I have a great deal of respect for today’s young people. They face a level of uncertainty and financial difficulty that the elders in their lives avoided yet were complicit in creating, even if only by default. The National Health Service is being dismantled, the welfare state capped, and pursuing further education now leads to massive debt unless the bank of mum and dad can pick up the bill; an option available only to the truly wealthy. If the economy does not change radically and soon then it is hard to see how my children will ever become home owners, something that I expected to achieve as soon as I entered the permanent workforce. With more and more companies looking to employ freelancers or zero hour contract workers, there is little guarantee of permanence in the decreasing number of decent jobs available in this country.

When others around my age or older complain about today’s young people I question if they have taken the time to get to know any. It often seems to me that it is the young people who are asking the pertinent questions and looking below the surface of issues, rather than merely believing the propaganda churned out by our so called leaders. Many of my peers appear blinkered by prejudice, convinced of their own rightness, no longer capable of unbiased critical thinking. They see things only from their personal vantage point, showing little interest in subsequent effects.

When I look at the people around me I find that I support dropping the voting age to sixteen. Young people are being shafted in favour of pandering to a growing elderly population with a strong sense of self entitlement. The spanner in the works is, of course, that so many young people see no point in voting. The political parties have become one, homogeneous mass of apparently untrustworthy self promoters, out to further their own interests above all else. As the elderly often appear to vote from habit the politicians can get away with a great deal so long as certain headline benefits are retained. It is no wonder that voter apathy is increasing.

Young people may not yet have the life experience to know how to present their case in an appealing manner, but perhaps we as a country need to be shaken up with a bit of straight talking. The elderly are not supported with the money that they have paid into the system over the years but by the money that is currently being generated or borrowed. With the wealthy elite doing all that they can to squirrel away their resources beyond the reach of government and country, difficult decisions must be made. I do not expect to have a financial cushion when I am old.

The world is changing. So many rail loudly against the effect rather than looking at the cause. My media feed is full of calls to sign petitions for change, yet still we are offered no real choice in elections. It is all short term thinking: my health needs, my pension, my comfort and security. Perhaps if we invested in our young people rather than ourselves then they could find a way to turn the country’s finances around and thereby look after us all.

I wish that I could offer my children a better adult world. Perhaps we need to sink more deeply into the mire that we have created, to affect the lifestyles of a broader spectrum of the population, before change will happen. Looking at the way young people are being made to bear the brunt of the current mess I will not feel justified in asking them to support me when I am old. Of course, I hope that my own children will be able and willing to look out for me, but the message they are being given by so many is that they must take care of themselves without the state support that their elders have enjoyed. If that is the message that we are giving them then we should be willing to bear the consequences when state support is withdrawn from all.

How contagious are opinions?

I like to think that, as I go through life, I learn from the experience. I observe and listen to the people I meet, I consider the various texts that I read on all mediums, I evaluate my responses and question if I should be adjusting my point of view. I wonder though how much of this is within my reasoned control. I wonder if all opinions are contagious.

Let me try to explain what I mean. I consider myself fortunate in being surrounded by intelligent individuals both at home and amongst my wider sphere of friends. These people come from differing backgrounds and often have strong views which they can back up with carefully presented examples and facts. They are capable of arguing their cases calmly and cogently even if they come to differing conclusions amongst themselves. They consider those who do not agree with them to be at best deluded, but more often foolish. They each appear convinced of their own rightness.

I am rarely convinced of my absolute rightness. Apart from my views on religion, which are based on a belief born of many personal experiences, most of my views have been built up over many years and are not fixed. It is not that I am swinging wildly from one side to the other, but rather that I am not so fixated on any particular argument that I am unwilling to consider that I may need to take some outcome into account that I had not previously considered.

I wonder how much I am influenced by impressive oratory skills and how much by the opinions presented. How blinkered are the views of those I listen to?

In an attempt to learn more about why people think as they do I follow quite a few political activists on line. I read a great number of comment pieces and consider historical outcomes based on principles argued for that, too often, didn’t quite work out as anticipated. The more I learn the less clear I am about any side’s rightness. I do not understand how my friends can be so unquestioning in what they argue for.

Yet I do believe that their opinions are contagious. Once they have put their thoughts into my head I cannot forget them. The thoughts sit there, waiting to offer a rebuttal to the next opposing point of view. By trying to be receptive and fair in my own opinions I am considering conflicting conclusions drawn from the same finite well of facts. How am I to know what to think?

Let me put down some questions to consider. Do we encourage the government to spend huge amounts of money on developing so called renewable energy when the resulting environmental benefits are questionable? Do we ensure that nobody goes hungry by increasing the availability of welfare for the needy when this acts as a sticking plaster rather than addressing the cause which is often not enough access to decent jobs? Do we invest in encouraging enterprise to create jobs when this also benefits the wealthy? Do we increase taxes on the wealthy when this will encourage them to move to a country that is less punitive, thereby removing their investment from the economy? Do we nationalise to keep profits within the economy when this has, historically, led to gross waste, lack of investment and inefficiency?

The previous paragraph is obviously simplistic and the causes/effects questionable. However, I have listened to many arguments that both back up and refute each of these examples. The result of these assaults on my reason is that I have no clear answers, I do not know what to think.

Yet in each of these cases I do think something, I cannot help but have an opinion. Often this is based on what I would once have considered to be common sense, yet that is invariably biased and based on views I have been exposed to rather than facts I can be sure of. Of course I do not wish to see any citizen of what is still a wealthy country go hungry, but if the hungry choose not to buy food because of an addiction should we subsidise that? I wish the ill to receive quality healthcare, but if their illness is not life threatening then should they receive whatever treatment they desire? Always there is an opposing argument, an extreme case to be cited, statistics that show how many or how few cases exist. There are statistics to back up every argument and a slippery slope for the opposition to take advantage of. How far do we go with the finite resources available?

I am not attempting to offer answers for any of this but rather to put forward for consideration this idea that our thoughts, views and beliefs are influenced so strongly by the arguments that we are exposed to. I would argue that, with difficult and complex situations to consider, nobody can be absolutely right.

One of the things that I find quite depressing is that some of those I know are so willing to mock opposing points of view in an attempt to sway opinion. They come across as patronising rather than convincing. In the public sphere this is also the case, an example being in the climate change debate. Eminent scientists on both sides offer biased and incomplete arguments, dismissing the opposition with accusations of being under dubious paymasters and therefore not trustworthy. There is little open and reasoned debate. It is hard, as an observer, to be sympathetic to either side when it is clear that this issue has become such a money spinner. Big oil may finance the sceptics but agreeing with ‘the consensus’ appears to be necessary to retain a job in the field. Science suffers as trust is lost amongst the spin and hyperbole. Information is hidden, opposing opinions derided, the public patronised.

I will continue to attempt to learn but have become much more cynical as I have observed how my own response to difficult questions can be altered by a well researched article or debate. Where is the balance between being too easily swayed and stubbornly digging in when a position becomes dubious as previously unknown facts come to light? Difficult questions rarely have easy answers.

I find it depressing that papers such as The Daily Mail are still influential, the mainstream media reports only news that it knows will sell, headlines mislead and memories are short. Too few seem interested in paying attention, preferring to believe the popular sound bites and shock tactics employed to sway public opinion.

Even when I do not agree, I can respect other’s right to hold opinions based on critical thinking. Perhaps some may consider themselves better than others, a conceit that is unlikely to be conducive to open and rational thought, but if they can back up their opinions when pressed, whatever their prejudices, then I can learn from them. Who knows, perhaps over time some of my opinions may even be caught by those I know. I suspect that some may be horrified at such a thought.

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Attack the message, not the messenger

It is political party conference season here in England.

First up we had the Liberal Democrats, who did nothing to improve their crumbling credentials by headlining with their economic policy game changer (not): a plastic bag tax (Lib Dems back 5p charge for plastic bags). The party were mocked in the media and then dismissed. At a time when so many people are suffering economic hardship; with the cost of living steadily rising while wages stagnate; to open their annual conference with the announcement of a plastic bag tax suggests that they have no worthwhile policies to offer. If they later managed to announce any, then the headlines generated by this initial, punitive and ineffective measure drowned them out.

Second to the rostrum were UKIP. Their unfortunate buffoon (the one who hit the headlines over the summer for referring to ‘bongo bongo land’) made the headlines by calling the women in his audience sluts (UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom under fire over ‘demeaning’ joke). With that, UKIP shot themselves in the foot. It was unfortunate, and their leader was furious, but the media lapped it up. What disturbs me more though is that this has not merely been mocked and set aside. UKIP policies are gaining a lot of support; there is a real possibility that they may gain a huge increase in votes at next years European elections. The media is responding to this by trying to personally smear their leader, Nigel Farage. A couple of photographs have been released on social media recently showing him with a darkened upper lip, like a little moustache. I have no problem with reasoned criticism of policy or calling out buffoonery, but attempted character assassination with a cleverly taken or photo shopped picture suggests biased desperation.

Next to perform were the Labour Party, who managed their conference with fewer gaffes. It is unfortunate that their leader is now embroiled in a row with the odious Daily Mail newspaper over an article published about his father (Ed Miliband in row with Daily Mail over ‘smear’ on father). I refuse to read this paper with it’s hate and fear promoting propoganda. However, the timing of this row detracts from what was seen to be a reasonably successful conference for Ed Miliband. I may not be a Labour supporter but, once again, I object to going for the man (and his family) rather than what he stands for.

The Conservative Party conference is ongoing, but one little nugget that I have picked up on was their attempt to ban one activist from taking part in a panel discussion on the Rise of Food Banks (Off to Conservative Party conference, despite them trying to ban me from going). All of the political parties aim to use their conferences as a PR exercise; to outline policies that they believe will appeal to their core supporters and potential swing voters. It is the growing tendency to get personal when the political parties do not offer the media something significant enough to mock that makes me mention Jack Monroe. She has only recently started to come to the public’s attention, and, with that rise in profile, has come the hate. She tweeted yesterday that:

‘The abuse from strangers is endless: I’m ugly, fat, vile, ‘rank looking’ – it’s draining, exhausting. Don’t they have better things to do?’ (Lifted from the Twitter account of A Girl Called Jack (@MsJackMonroe)).

Of course, she is not the first person in the public eye to suffer cyber abuse. The classicist Mary Beard, amongst others, has been grossly insulted and threatened via Twitter (Television classicist Mary Beard sent bomb threat by ‘trolls’ just hours after apology by Twitter boss). It is a symptom of a wider malaise.

Politics has always been a dirty game to play with rumours, scandals and media outrage forcing those involved to back down or resign with depressing regularity. The public seem to expect their representatives to behave in a way that they themselves may not be capable of managing. It is when the slurs are invented, or contain opinion aimed at being personally hurtful, that I feel uncomfortable. However the saying goes, words can do damage. We may not be physically stoning those we disagree with, but by hounding them with hate filled dialogue we show how unwilling we are to listen to an alternative point of view; to even allow it to be voiced in case others support it.

UKIP is a case in point. There are many who vehemently oppose their ideologies, but at least they offer an alternative. If a voter disagrees with what they offer, they will not vote for that party. I would hope that it would be the policies and rhetoric that they are rejecting, not the leader with the photoshopped moustache.

The three main political parties in this country are depressingly similar in policy and outlook; I have posted my views on this before (Tolerance in adversity). Jack Monroe is not a politician and is new to the public arena. She is refreshing to listen to as she will still say what she thinks. UKIP representatives will also sometimes say what they think, and can be judged accordingly. Perhaps it is this honesty that I miss in political dialogue; it is very hard to know who to support when pronouncements willfully obfuscate.

Sometimes those in public life need to be called out over their views, but attacking their appearance is unnecessary. I may have little time for those who court publicity for themselves rather than a cause, but I still believe that all should be treated fairly and with a degree of courteous humanity.

English: Shows the 649 seats after the electio...

There and back again – ghosts

The original inspiration for our recent trip to Berlin was an expensive school trip that my son was eligible for as part of his GCSE history curriculum. Normally I will stump up for these trips if the children wish to take part as they provide experiences that I am unlikely to be able to provide, such as skiing or exchanges with foreign students. However, with the outstanding offer of accommodation at my friend’s Berlin flat, I was able to take the three of us to the city for less than the cost charged by the school for one student.

It turns out that we visited the same tourist sites as the school and a lot more besides. Whereas they had some down time activities such as bowling, we spent just about every waking moment making the most of the unique aspects of Berlin. It is, of course, much easier to do this in a small group. Nevertheless, I am glad that we opted to eschew the school’s offering and do it for ourselves, not least because I personally got so much out of the trip. Despite not being with friends, my teenage children enjoyed our time away too.

Berlin has so much interesting and educative history to offer. This includes but is not limited to the politics and conflicts of the twentieth century, which my son is studying in school. We visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Jewish Museum and Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I was particularly keen that my children should experience this last place for themselves for several reasons.

When I was a student in my early twenties I spent a month travelling around Europe by train, including a visit to Munich and the Dachau concentration camp. Although I had studied twentieth century history for O Level I was not prepared for the impact this place would have on me. The profound sense of despair that I experienced; the understanding of humanity’s ability to inflict such horror on fellow human beings; these have stayed with me through the intervening years. I wanted my children to comprehend what can happen if governments are allowed to impose their will whilst good men look the other way or deny, perhaps even to themselves, that these things are happening.

I cannot say if I believe in ghosts, but these places retain a shadow of the horrors that were perpetrated within their walls all those years ago. I have no wish to indulge in some sort of macabre sight seeing; that these things happened is appalling, but it is the potential for it to happen again that I find truly disturbing.

In 1933 the Nazi party enacted a law which allowed for the forced sterilisation of the mentally deficient. In Britain today, the secretive Court of Protection has the power, under law, to force the mentally impaired to undergo sterilisation or have terminations if it is believed to be in their best interests. The court may also impose “experimental” treatments on mentally impaired patients without their consent. I guess there may be some who benefit from this court’s workings, but there are many who do not (see Court of Protection — Anna Raccoon for more on this). Personally I would never be able to fully trust a secretive, government agency to act in anyone’s best interests.

The Nazi party used propaganda to incite hatred against minority groups. The British media regularly runs stories suggesting that the current economic problems that our country is facing can be partially blamed on minority, immigrant groups. When times are hard there are too many looking for scapegoats to take the blame for their pain. The Nazi party rose to power because it enacted policies that initially improved the lives of many at the expense of a few. That it all went so horribly wrong should be remembered.

As well as the Jews, Sachsenhausen housed homosexuals (recent Russian laws are starting to criminalise this group’s activities) and the work shy. The British media does love to run negative, hate inducing stories about the long term unemployed. These articles generally ignore the fact that most long term benefit claimants are actually in work but are so badly paid that they require subsidies in order to survive.

Economic policy is complex and convoluted with no easy answers to the mess that has been allowed to develop by political parties of all persuasions over many years. I believe that visiting somewhere like Sachsenhausen is of value in gaining an understanding as to why we should never just go along with the soundbites and propaganda of governments who seek to control the way we think and then turn us off from thinking too deeply by distracting us with entertaining pap.

I am fortunate in having intelligent children. I think it is important that they should be exposed to political tactics and the lessons that can be learned from history. The four hundred inmates of the barracks hut that we visited at Sachsenhausen, built to house one hundred and fifty and the scene of unimaginable torture and violence, were classified as undesirables by their government but were as human as you or I. We need to consider people as individuals, not numbers; we need to look at their stories, not judge them on biased statistics.

The next British general election is scheduled for May 2015 by which time my daughter will be eligible to vote. Choosing a candidate in our skewed system is always tricky, but if she considers the aims and track record of those standing at least she will be thinking for herself. It is important to stay engaged with how the country is being run, however much it seems that we cannot influence decisions made. We owe at least that much to those who died because others chose to look the other way.

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“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

There and back again – differences of opinion

My Berlin friend has strong views on many topics. We disagree on rather a lot of these, which I find interesting if a little challenging at times. He has a similar background to me and is highly intelligent academically. I find it curious that, what I would call our baseline beliefs, differ so markedly.

We were both raised in Belfast by working class families at the height of The Troubles. We attended local Grammar schools and went up to university at a time when this was still unusual amongst our contemporaries. From here our paths diverged. Ian stayed within the folds of academia for many years, developing his interest and participation in theatre until he emerged with a job as an arts critic on a national newspaper. He pursued a career that matched his interests; I pursued a career that could earn me money.

This difference in early ambition perhaps characterised what developed into our differing value systems. As an example, we have markedly different views on what we would define as fair regarding wealth distribution. Although we would both support tolerance and acceptance of differing lifestyle choices, our political ideologies are poles apart.

One of the reasons that I wished to spend time with Ian was that I am aware that I mix with people who generally agree with my own baseline beliefs. I hoped for discussions that would shine a light on why he thinks as he does. I was also keen that my children should gain an understanding of this alternative point of view. Although I will always try to offer them both sides of an argument, it can be hard to explain reasoning behind certain political beliefs when I do not fully understand myself why people think as they do.

It turns out that this is a hard goal to achieve. Our evening discussions in Berlin touched on the impact of Margaret Thatcher, the Unions and membership of the European Union, but did not get to the bottom of why Ian’s views differed so emphatically from my own. Before my children could gain an understanding, the discussion had become dangerously heated and had to be diffused for the sake of our friendship. I concluded that these topics were just too close to Ian’s heart and were not open for debate.

Politics and history are convoluted; reasons behind events are hard to define simply. Although Ian and I had lived through many of the pivotal moments discussed, our memories did not always tally. Our reactions to events also differed, perhaps due to personal experiences at the time. I was living and working amongst people whose goal was to establish a well paid career in business, get married and raise a family in comfort. Ian was living in major cities amongst actors, writers and others whose lives were linked to creativity and the arts.

Although the time we spent together in Berlin has granted me a clearer understanding of just how ingrained political beliefs can be, I am no closer to working out why Ian thinks as he does. We appear to have similar views on ideal outcomes of political policy, yet would support radically opposing means of getting there. I guess if there were clear and easy solutions to these societal problems then politicians would adopt them. It is the uncertainty of success and the complexity of application that presents the difficulties in achieving desired solutions.

The evening discussions in Berlin that centred around music were much more satisfying than our attempts to delve deeper into British politics. Ian has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the background and development of the genres in which he is interested and succeeded in giving me an understanding as to why some people choose to listen to bands whose music I find grating.

Back in the day, when I first got to know Ian, he and some other mutual friends were creating cassette tapes of music under the Cemental Health Records label. I could recognise their early passion for experimenting with sound in the Krautrock bands he introduced me to in Berlin. Knowing his regard for the late DJ John Peel, I began to understand the attraction. I doubt that I will now choose to listen to the music, but I can at least appreciate a little better why others do.

It is this understanding that I was trying to achieve with our discussions around political beliefs. I did not expect to change my opinion, nor to influence how Ian thinks; what I was looking for was improved comprehension. Perhaps I should have realised that such views are rightly described as beliefs. Some things cannot be fully explained, being an ingrained and sometimes inexplicable part of a person. To question their validity is to question credibility.

The world would be a much more tedious place if we all thought the same way. Ian and I can continue to hold our differing beliefs and remain friends. We are both exasperated with the current political situation and wish to see similar outcomes in so many areas. I now suspect that there is little to be gained from trying to discuss the best way to achieve these though. Whatever the reason for our beliefs may be, we seem highly unlikely to reach agreement as to the most effective way forward.

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Secret lives

I can’t seem to get myself worked up about the fact that a government agency may be monitoring my phone calls, reading my emails, and keeping itself up to date on my social network posts and internet searches. Or is that only happening in America? Not that I really believe that all individuals are being investigated in this way. Sure, it is as likely as not that data is being gathered, but I very much doubt that it is being looked at in detail. I think just cause and a court order are still needed for that.

If, for whatever reason, some intelligence gathering agent did happen to stumble across something apparently worrying in my life and decided to look further then what would he find? He could uncover the kit list that I was sent last week for my son’s upcoming Scout camp, read the title of the next book to be discussed at my Book Group, or spot that a shoe shop I once foolishly gave my email address to is having a sale. I suspect he would very soon stop being interested and move on. I would not feel that my privacy had been invaded.

A quick look at my recent internet searches would expose my lack of confidence in my ability to spell certain words correctly, I am interested in books by favoured authors, in the names of actors in local stage shows, and in train timetables at the weekend. Even if I believed that this information was being made available I would not feel violated. If the snippets that I post on my social network sites were closely guarded secrets then I would not post them.

What does bother me though is CCTV. I mean, who monitors the images that are captured in public places? I have this distasteful image of a small, windowless room with a large number of screens showing street scenes. Watching these is a badly paid man who sits alone and bored, amusing himself by following good looking young girls like my daughter and her friends as they go about their business, unaware that they are being observed. That I find creepy and invasive.

I also dislike the lengthy forms that government agencies demand that we fill with data that should be no concern of theirs; the last census form was a case in point. Page after page of data was demanded that I just know will be misused to justify some future pet project funded by tax payers money that will make the mates of whichever government is in power millionaires. Invasive form filling and box ticking mines data that I have no wish to disclose but am forced to do so by law. For the good of myself and others? I don’t think so.

Intelligence agencies have long had the power to monitor activity, tap phones and request information from phone companies and banks. The internet allows more data to be captured but most of it will never be accessed. It is not that I trust these powerful organisations but more that I cannot imagine ever appearing on their radar. Even if I did, I cannot see how any information that I generate would be of interest to them.

I worry far more about the powers held by the small, local agencies with performance targets to meet and prejudices to feed. When my daughter broke her arm at home by overbalancing and falling over a plant pot trying to remove her riding boot, the nurse who treated her at A&E asked at least half a dozen times what had happened, how and if anyone else was involved. The looks I was being given made it quite clear that I was a potential child abuser. I find that attitude worrying. Social Services have the power to destroy families and are as unaccountable as any organisation.

I do not trust governments, have little faith in the justice system and resent the way my lifestyle is picked over by the education and health services. In these areas I feel that my life and privacy are invaded and I deeply resent the intrusion. I do not, however, fear the secret intelligence gathering of mega organisations at an international level. They have limited manpower and I am just not that interesting. I guess I am a little surprised that some people are shocked by the recent expose being covered so widely by the media. I would have been more surprised to discover that readily available data was not being gathered.

Governments do abuse power and use information inappropriately for their own ends. Legislation is slipped through under the radar when the public is distracted by some unrelated event. Our civil liberties have been eroded over many years; our right to a private life increasingly denied, always under the guise of being for our own good and the good of society. It has always been this way.

I would like to live my life in peace and privacy. I do not consider the gathering of the information that travels to and from my computer as a major threat to this aspiration. The personal questions asked locally by health and education professionals, and the potential fallout should I not conform as they demand, could have a much more worrying impact on my peace of mind and quality of life.

Broken Liberty: Li-ber-ty, Istanbul Archaeolog...

The mainstream media and blogs

Those of you who know me or who have followed me for a while may well be aware that I am a fierce critic of the mainstream media. I do not blame the professional journalists for this, but rather the way news reporting has moved so far from being thoroughly checked, investigative and ground breaking to page filling propaganda. When significant events occur, the race to be first to publish allows only cursory checks for truth or accuracy. Readers and listeners can no longer rely on what they are being told by the official sources.

It has always been true that each news outlet reports with a bias to please their perceived audience. The extremism of the British ‘Daily Mail’ is one of the more obvious examples of this, but the same is true of the supposedly quality broadsheets. The on line news sites require clicks to satisfy their advertisers, and the dead tree press is fighting desperately against it’s approaching demise in it’s current form. Even the statute demanding impartiality of the BBC is regularly flouted as their flagship news programmes display a blind or blinkered bias on certain pet subjects that is particularly depressing given that so many people still believe what they are being told by this source.

Much of the news reported by the mainstream media is made up of barely modified, official press releases that provide free advertising or an outlet for interested parties propaganda. The hows and whys of our descent into this situation is better covered in Nick Davies book Flat Earth News. This should be required reading for anyone who still believes that the news they are being fed is in any way new or containing impartial truths.

Given that we are in a situation where we cannot rely on these sources, I am not surprised that many in the mainstream media regularly and fiercely criticise blogs. As these publications broaden and increase their following and readership, they provide serious and financially damaging competition. It is notable that the national papers response appears to be a move towards publishing more and more comment pieces themselves. Each of the major newspapers commission a number of words from their favoured writers each day on topical issues, as well as printing guest posts in the likes of the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ or the Independent’s ‘Voices’ columns. These provide just the sort of writing that can easily be found on numerous, well written and thoroughly researched blogs that are now being followed by more and more people.

There is no doubt that topical blog posts are biased according to their authors views, but no more so than the equivalent pieces published and reported by the more established media sites. The challenge is to ensure that those of us who wish to look behind the propaganda at what is actually happening in the world can lift ourselves out of our personal comfort zones to read different sides of the argument, not just those that stroke our own, personal prejudices. A cogent and well argued rebuttal of a long held view can make uncomfortable reading, but is necessary if for no other reason than to force us to work through our own thinking in reply.

There are many, of course, who do not wish to consider political thinking too deeply. The number of words published on celebrity gossip, diet and beauty tips, parenting or relationships advice and sport suggests that there is more interest in these topics than in potentially world changing news. Basic economics demands that the paid for media will provide what it’s audience wants.

Governments have long realised that they can manipulate a population by influencing or controlling the information that is disseminated. Thus we have a situation where we cannot believe most of the health reports because they are written in support of government policy (e.g. smoking and alcohol guidelines) or are provided by an interested party looking at increasing it’s funding (e.g. medical research bodies). By constantly bombarding the public with propaganda and dodgy statistics dressed up as fact these powerful protagonists will attempt to steer a population’s thinking to demonise the behaviour or people they wish to quash. Look behind the headlines and you may wonder why you are supporting a point of view that has been so obviously perverted.

Blogs may not provide the impartial and honest reporting of facts that I would like to see, but they can help us to get behind the official, approved press releases. While the mainstream media persists in churnalism, party line promotion and the propagation of pet beliefs without recourse to facts or debate, there will be a place for those outside the payroll to question and publish an alternative point of view.

I see this as one of the strengths of the internet; that such activity remains accessible to all who wish to participate in the dissemination of news, even if only as an interested audience. When governments seek to control or close down and punish those who seek the truth, we will know that they are afraid and have been uncovered as the charlatans that they are.

Cover of "Flat Earth News: An Award-Winni...

Local council elections

Yesterday evening, after a day of recovery from the previous night’s delightful celebration, I walked across our warm and sunny village to cast my vote in the local council elections. Our polling station seemed to be pleasingly busy and I will watch with interest as the results start to come in later today. I am rather hoping for a bit of an upset when the votes are counted; the political system in this country could do with a major shake up.

I rarely go out in our village in the evenings and was surprised by how quiet it seemed. There were a few children playing in the field and a small number of dog walkers taking their evening exercise, but the most notable change from my regular, daytime excursions was the number of cars on the road. Most of them appeared to contain local residents heading towards the centrally located polling station. It still perplexes me that so many drive from one end of our small village to the other, especially as it was such a lovely evening. All will happily fill their recycling containers, and the visual blight of solar panels on roofs has not escaped our picturesque location, but still they feel comfortable using their car for such a short journey. Many of them even choose to drive to the local gym which I find bizarre.

It seems to me that elections have become more frequent events in recent years, or maybe this is just time appearing to pass more quickly as I get older. When I was a child I used to enjoy the seemingly rare election days as the primary school that I attended was used as a polling station, meaning that I got the day off school. This also used to be the case in our village but, since the new village hall was completed at the turn of the century, the primary school opens as usual and it is the pre school and other local groups who must close for the day to allow the hall to be used by voters. Unlike the joy of a day off school, my youngest son was most put out when his badminton club was forced to cancel their planned session yesterday evening. Despite the lovely weather, he used the unexpected free time to play on his Wii. I was still feeling too weary to remonstrate with him over this choice.

Local council elections do not, understandably, induce the same level of excitement as national elections. As London was not involved in this round of voting there has not been the coverage that can be expected when the media capital is included. There has been much comment about the possibility of a fourth party gaining enough seats to oust the comfortable incumbents of our established, three party system. If this happens, it could make next years European elections and the following year’s general election much more interesting. I think that this is what I am hoping for. Too many people seem to have given up on the possibility of changing the way the country is being run. A little more interest and participation may be the only way to sort out this situation and orchestrate improvement in the lives of the many rather than the privileged few.

Despite my interest, I am not a political activist. I am not convinced enough of the merits of any particular candidate or party to be willing to fight for their corner. I am generally suspicious of anyone who chooses to put themselves forward for an elected role that provides an element of power over others, particularly those who wish to run for national government. I guess that there must be some honest politicians but they seem to be few and far between. The current crop seem more interested in pursuing their own pet projects for the benefit of friends and relations than in improving the lives of the constituents they are handsomely paid to represent.

Local elections are, of course, a very different power game. There still seems to be that element of corruption though. In my area there are particular land owners who seem to be able to get anything they want through the system while ordinary people are charged exorbitantly for every change they wish to make and are thwarted at every opportunity. The cosy relationships and fawning attitudes do not suggest a representative fighting for improvements in individuals lives but rather an attempt to improve numbers and statistics while being photographed beside those who will show due gratitude for favours.

I do not expect a sea change this time around but hope for enough of a disturbance in the comfortable, status quo to make more people believe in the possibility of change. The denizens of power will not wish to be ousted and will switch their allegiances if they think that this will allow them to keep their positions. Those who are entitled to vote may do so in greater numbers if they can see that doing so may actually make a difference.

For today though, I have slept well and woken to another lovely, sunny day. I plan to walk to the local gym for a light work out and a swim before spending some time this afternoon in the garden with my chickens. We have a bank holiday weekend to look forward to which I hope to spend relaxing with my little family. Sometimes it feels good to shut out the rest of the world and just be.

Nouormand: Êlections au mais d'Octobre 2008, Jèrri