Monday, June 27, 2016

A very long list

The country of my birth, the country I grew up in and which educated me, the country which still contains most of my family, is going to pieces. The economy is shrinking faster than a deflating balloon, the government is in complete disarray, the opposition has completely collapsed, and a sense of near anarchy reigns with people walking around shouting racist abuse at random foreign-looking types.

It’s natural to want to pin the blame for all this on somebody or some thing, whether it’s “the Tories” or “xenophobia”, but I think pretty much the entire nation is probably responsible in some form. I can probably nearly excuse myself from most of it, having been living in Germany for over 20 years and been ineligible to vote: in the past few weeks I have been cast in the role of helpless bystander. Probably not entirely, though, since I do have a voice (thanks to YouTube, and social media generally), so I have to ask myself whether I could have used by voice more effectively.

But still, I am extremely angry at the moment with a large number of people, and so I have decided to write a very long list of some of my grievences. It will probably be therapeutic for me, but it’s likely to include you somewhere in it, so be warned. Of course, there’s a chance just writing this will make me even more angry, but I’m honestly past caring.

All right, so let me begin with some of the usual suspects and work my way through the UK’s population.

David Cameron

The way it looks from here, Dave, is that you had these loony eurosceptics on your back and wanted to shut them up. So you devised this wonderful plan: promise them a referendum. If you then lost the election, no problem. If you won the election, you could have the referendum, which you would win easily, and the eurosceptics would stop bugging you for the next five or ten years at least. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, now we know what could possibly go wrong, because it went wrong, didn’t it? And you didn’t plan for this. At no point, it seems, did you stop to think, “But what happens if I don’t win the referendum?” You just steamed right ahead, thinking you could tell people that in the event you lost you would immediately trigger Article 50, safe in the mistaken knowledge that you would never have to do it. And so here we are, and you had to renege on that promise because you were completely unprepared for it.

You used the future of an entire nation to quell the voices of a few irritating loons. You don’t do that unless you are prepared to lose. You don’t ever bet more than you can afford.

Boris Johnson

Looking at you, Boris, when you delivered your victory speech, you really didn’t want to win at all. Which raises the very important question: Why the hell did you campaign for Leave? What in heaven’s name possessed you? Was this really all about setting yourself up as the next Prime Minister? And how could you do this to your old chum Dave? Did you think this was a game of Monopoly?

And to do this, you ran a campaign full of deliberate lies. That whole £350 million a week for the NHS thing was a total fabrication, which you knew at the time. Well, the public bought that and other lies, and now they expect you deliver on promises you never intended to have to keep.

Michael Gove

Most of what I said about Boris applies to you, although at least you are known to have been an actual eurosceptic — so at least you had a smidgeon of integrity, although it’s damned difficult to find.

But that comment about everybody being fed up with experts will go down in history as the most imbecilic statement ever. Right there, in that one sentence, is the encapsulation of everything that’s wrong: this pandering to the idea that people with no knowledge are somehow more knowledgeable than those with expertise. And the result of that is that your wife went on Facebook to ask for people to come forward with helpful suggestions on what to do next: if you don’t see why that should be a problem, you have no business in any job that requires you to make decisions.

Nigel Farage

Well, I suppose at least you truly believe in what you’re doing, but sincerity will only take you so far. Hospitals are full of people who sincerely believed they could cross the road. Your tactic of appealing to the basest forms of xenophobia, as exemplified by your “Breaking Point” poster, is not just odious, it is reckless.

Jeremy Corbyn

What the actual hell? This is the “kinder, gentler politics” you wanted to usher in? You were being kind and gentle to whom, exactly? You showed such a total lack of leadership that your own Labour voters didn’t know which way you wanted them to vote. And so when one of your most respected front-bench colleagues confronted you, you fired him, triggering a series of resignations — so many, in fact, that you’re now having problems assembling a shadow cabinet. And you obstinately won’t resign, claiming, against all the evidence, that you somehow command the overwhelming support of the grass roots. Britain now has no functioning official opposition. If a snap election is called, how on earth do you think you’re going to win it?

Corbynistas

Yes, you: those who still think that Jeremy Corbyn is the Greatest Thing Ever and Can Do No Wrong. I’ll bet most of you wanted Remain to win. Maybe you should know that Jeremy Corbyn is a eurosceptic: his view on the EU is that it is a corrupt capitalist organisation that puts the needs of big business ahead of the needs of ordinary workers. You may dismiss as “mainstream media bias” stories that he didn’t do all he could to campaign for Remain, but he really didn’t. Unable to decide between supporting the fat-cat capitalists in the City and the swivel-eyed racists and Islamophobes everywhere else, he dithered and left the working-class Labour heartlands to vote according to gut instinct. You want proof? He refuses to confirm that he voted Remain. “His own private business,” you may say, but you’re making excuses for him: somebody supposedly part of the Remain campaign shouldn’t feel he’s giving anything away by saying which way he voted, unless he voted Leave.

Barack Obama

Yes, Mr President, you. It was very nice of you to come over and help Dave’s campaign, and full points for using the word “queue”. Unfortunately, just about everything else you said seemed deliberately scripted to irritate the British. At one time you said that Brexit would leave Britain unable to enjoy the full benefits of TTIP. I suppose you believe in it yourself, but the threat of TTIP is the one thing that would make even the most committed europhile stop and think. Here in Europe, we tend to believe that businesses should obey the law, not the other way around.

The tabloid press

For decades now some of you have been feeding your readers exaggerations, misinformation and outright lies about the EU. You make up stories that aren’t true, whip up racial hatred when it suits you, and don’t even seem quite clear yourself just how the EU works or what it does. And by the way, just to clear this one up once and for all: The European Court of Human Rights has nothing whatever to do with the EU.

And so you told your readers that by voting Leave, they would usher in an instant and golden future in which Britain can in some unspecified way get back its sovereignty and freedom which will be really good for some reason. Now you’re having to explain to your readers why the economy is going down the pan, why the country is still in the EU, and why the immigrants haven’t gone home.

The “You Can’t Say That” brigade

Look, racism (and other -isms) are obnoxious and have no place in our society. But if your response to it is to constantly tell people who express it that they are bigots and intellectually-challenged thugs, if your response is to ridicule and publicly humliate them, to pillory them and hound them, you are not solving the problem. You may think you are, but that’s only because people become cautious about saying things.

And so the venom remains, seething below the surface, where resentfulness and suspicion lurk — until something happens to release the pressure, and then all hell, as we have just seen, is let loose.

People aren’t racist just because they have this sort of evil racist gene. They become racist because they are worried about their jobs, their security, their livelihoods. It’s not that hard to understand: when in difficult circumstances, they look for ways to explain their predicament, and immigrants are a natural target. Tell these people to shut up because you think they’re stupid, and they will simply feel marginalised, magnifying their hatred and making it worse.

Instead of pouring your energy into well-meaning but ultimately counter-productive vigilantism, work on trying to understand why people feel the way they do, and then doing something constructive about it.

#Bregret

You thought this referendum was about giving the Establishment a kicking? (In which case, why did you then take Boris Johnson’s side?) You thought your vote wouldn’t count? You didn’t think to find out what exactly you were voting for?

Well, at least you now realise what you did. Let’s hope you’ve learned your lesson.

Young people

So the older generations have ruined your future. Yes, that’s horrendous — but you’re partly to blame for that.

Well, not those of you who bothered to vote; but the problem is, that’s not many. Of all those of you in the 18-24 demographic, a whopping 64% didn’t vote. Where the hell were you?

It’s no good moaning that the government should have given 16-year-olds the vote. It probably wouldn’t have made that much difference: at 18, you’re likely to be thinking of studying, possibly abroad; at 16 — and I know this, because, although I don’t often admit it, I was once a 16-year-old — those considerations are much less pressing.

No, the fact is: You should have voted.

But oh, the whining, which started as soon as the referendum date was set: you complained that it clashed with Glastonbury, and so the PM had to explain the concept of a postal vote without sounding patronising. Vast numbers of you didn’t even register to vote, and some of you even complained that three months’ notice wasn’t enough.

It’s no good now stamping your feet and saying it’s not fair: you had your chance, and you blew it, and in doing so you left the country to take that “leap in the dark” the Remain camp warned us about and we all thought it was scaremongering but it turns out it wasn’t.

Maybe at the next elections we’ll see a better turnout among you lot. Maybe you’ll stop listening to Russell Brand.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Now the party’s over

When the British electorate went to the polls to vote on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union or leave it, a lot of people looked at the arguments that had been presented (such as they were), decided to vote Leave. And that’s absolutely fine: I would have voted Remain if I’d been eligible, but I recognize that this is a complex issue nobody really understands, and it may yet prove that leaving the EU is the right thing to do. I doubt it, but I understand that’s how a lot of people see it. So I have no issue with these people, who exercised their democratic right in a responsible way.

My issue is with those people who said they voted Leave and now regret doing so; with those people who googled “What is the EU?” after the results had been announced; and with those people who are busy phoning election officials asking if they can change their vote.

What did they think this was? Britain’s Got Talent?

The whole thing was a terrible advert for democracy. First, the capaigning on both sides was short on facts, long on hysteria. Then, it seems that significant proportions of the electorate saw this referendum as a way to give “the political elite” a good kicking, without actually realising that this was going to have consequences. As a result, there’s a very real chance that two years from now, if Brexit negotiations go ahead and end in stalemate, my passport will be about as useful to me in Germany as a piece of cardboard torn from a cornflakes packet.

What am I supposed to do with this?

I think it’s true that the EU has serious problems it refuses to address: in particular, although it’s a lot more democratic than most people realize, the system of government is so complicated that nobody has a snowball’s chance in hell of working out how it operates and what the point of EU elections is. Yes, it can be overly bureaucratic, and is only now realizing that it should perhaps make a little more effort when it comes to listening to and dealing with the concerns of its citizens. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to get drunk on mindless jingoism, punch Brussels in the face and then wake up the following morning with a splitting headache to find Brussels standing over you, divorce papers in hand and asking for a signature.

The level of “What have I done?” is staggering. More value was wiped off the British economy in just a few minutes than Britain would ever have saved in not paying EU contributions. Cornwall, which voted overwhelmingly to leave, now wants the UK to ask the EU to continue paying subsidies after Brexit, which is literally not going to happen. Yorkshire, which also voted to leave, thinks the British government can now just take over paying these subsidies. Scotland is considering another independence referendum, but if it thinks it can then just get EU membership on its own terms, that is something else that simply will not happen — you don’t get things just because you wish very hard for them. There’s even now a movement calling for London to declare independence from England (London voted Remain), which is totally boneheaded: the logical extreme of this attitude (if the rest of the country disagrees with you, declare independence) is that every constituency will eventually declare independence. My mother would have to get a visa just to visit my sister. Meanwhile, in the event of Brexit, Northern Ireland (which did vote Remain) is going to have to choose between staying in the UK and needing a visa to visit the Irish Republic, and reuniting with the Irish Republic and needing a visa to visit the UK.

In British politics, the traditional way to punish whichever party is in power is in local council elections — voting for people in charge of things like garbage collection and public toilets. If putting a cross in a box helps you feel you’ve given the Prime Minister a bloody nose, be my guest; but not in any election or referendum that is going to have a major effect on the political and economic future of the entire country.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A matter of scale

It never ceases to amaze me just what we consider important enough to spend our lives arguing about. Never mind about how to solve the Middle East, end poverty or cure cancer: what really exercises our minds is whether Fahrenheit is better than Celsius.

It’s been eight months since I uploaded a video explaining the two scales, and since then a thread has been steadily growing over which scale is “more accurate”, a thread which shows no signs of abating (so far I have twice posted to politely suggest that it may be time to move on, and been roundly ignored both times). Improbably, given the total lack of import, that thread has at times got so personal, I seriously considered disabling comments for a couple of months. At this point, I’m with the one who declared “°Réaumur for life!”

I’m reminded of this because Dana of Wanted Adventure recently uploaded a video explaining why she felt she had to unlist an earlier video on why she prefers Fahrenheit. The comments, apparently, were fine. But it was only the second time that one of her videos got more dislikes than likes.

Okay, we’re not (as I understand it) talking about death threats or trolling or any of that really nasty stuff that makes you think that evolution may have been a big mistake. We’re talking about the bizarrely inconsequential things we discuss as if they were about life-or-death.

There are videos you expect to generate a passionate response. I expected the worst when I uploaded a video about the refugee crisis, although it was actually not really awful. It was a bit awful, just not really awful. At least that one’s rational: every time I mention the trains I get a slew of rants about how unspeakably terrible German trains are, usually from people who almost never use the trains or who have rarely travelled abroad. But that’s predictable and expected, if baffling.

But temperature scales? I never saw that one coming. I get months of acrimonious argument. Dana gets several thousand people who think that the downvote button is a disagree button. What’s going on?

I wonder what else would make viewers explode with apoplectic rage. Kilos? Litres? Euros? Will people start spending six weeks arguing over whether metres are better than yards because they’re longer? If I branch out into astrophysics, will my videos get downvoted if I measure distances in light years instead of parsecs? If not, why not?

We live in odd times. I don't at all mind the fact that people pay close attention to the small stuff. But to pour so much energy into something that is actually quite trivial is something I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Shooting into the sun (not all that bad)

Some of you may already have seen my video about the city of Darmstadt. Just to make something clear before I start: I simply did not have time to see the Woog (if you live in Darmstadt, you’ll know what that is); the Rosenhöhe would have been, I would guess, not at its best at this time of year; and to the guy who said he could have fixed me up with a visit to the European Space Operations Center if only he’d known in advance I was to be in Darmstadt — many thanks, and the sentiment is more than appreciated (because that would have been seriously cool), but this is why I really want to find a way to be able to do this as my real job instead of squeezing it into my free time.

Still, since some of you seem to interested in the nuts and bolts of videomaking — a skill I’m still more or less learning by doing — I thought it would be good to start talking some behind-the-scenes stuff. Today: what happens when you have to shoot into the sun.

Here’s a still straight from the camera: it’s a shot of the main building of the Technical University.


It doesn’t look too good, does it? Here’s why: it was a gloriously sunny day, and this shot was taken almost directly into the sun. The entire façade is in fact in shadow; to try to compensate, I set the camera’s white balance to “cloudy”, which at least made the colours less blue. That didn’t help much beyond that: everything looks flat and washed out. You can also see that there is some dust on the camera lens, which I should have cleaned first, but there was nothing I could do about that post-production.

It took me the whole day to cover as much of Darmstadt as I could; returning later when the sun was in a different position wasn’t an option. So I had to tweak it in the video editor as best I could.

First of all, with the colours all washed out, I slightly increased the saturation. This makes the colours more vibrant, less grey, but if you overdo it, the result can look artificial and ugly. My video editor allows me to set the saturation anywhere between -100 (no colour at all) to +100 (LSD trip), and I took it to +36:


The difference is barely noticeable, but it is there. There’s slightly more colour now, but it still looks washed out: there aren’t enough dark tones. So I next increased the contrast, to 73 on a scale of 0 to 100:


This gives me much more contrast between shadows and highlights, but now the bright parts of the image are too bright. If I simply reduce the brightness, the image would go all murky; so instead, I reach for a useful tool called selective brightness. I can choose whether I want to adjust the highlights, the midtones or the shadows. My problem here is that the bright areas are too bright, so I select highlights and set them to -41 brightness. This darkens the bright areas of the image but leaves the rest untouched:


And there you have it. The sky still looks white instead of the bright blue it actually was — I can’t fix that — but I think the whole image looks much better now. At least it looks like it did to me when I was standing in front of it.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Was Hitler a Zionist?

Of all the questions you expect to have to deal with in the course of a lifetime, the question about whether Hitler was a Zionist is not one. Hitler and his cronies, as we all know, were responsible for the deaths of six million Jews, while countless others were forcibly deported or forced to flee. Surely Hitler is the very opposite of a Zionist, committed as he was to the complete destruction of “the Jews”. Why, then, am I wasting time even addressing the question?

Because of British politics, that’s why. Honestly, the more I hear about what’s going on there, the more convinced I am that I left just in time.

Those of you who have been keeping an eye on British politics, or are living in Britain at the moment, will know the story I’m talking about. For the benefit of everyone else, here’s a brief recap.

For some time now, accusations have been growing that many members of the left-of-centre Labour Party, currently in opposition, have been making antisemitic statements, and that the party leadership has failed to do anything about it. Most of the alleged antisemitic statements have been coming from the left wing of the party, and this has caused a rift with the party’s own right wing.

The Labour left has responded to these allegations by pointing out that criticism of the state of Israel is not the same as antisemitism, and that playing the antisemitism card is just a way of silencing debate.

So this argument rages on for a bit, which is an unedifying spectacle and very unhelpful to the Labour Party as a whole, as it is distracting it from the very important job of opposing the Conservative government. A government which seems to be in the process of dismantling the UK and handing it over to Russian oligarchs, so now is really not the time to be squabbling about contentious political opinions about the Middle East.

During this row, it emerged that a few years ago, Labour Member of Parliament Naseem “Naz” Shah had shared on Facebook a post suggesting that the solution to the conflict in the Middle East was to deport Israeli Jews and relocate them to the US, something which to my mind goes beyond criticizing the policies of the government of Israel. After her rather unconvincing argument that she didn’t endorse the views in the post (which raises the question of why she shared it), she was suspended by a Labour Party increasingly under pressure to show they won’t tolerate antisemitism in their ranks.

There’s a valid debate to be had over what actually constitutes antisemitism; and it’s not easy, because there are very few nations in the world that so neatly correspond to adherence to a particular religion. It’s not always easy to tell the difference, but — and I offer this as a piece of advice to anyone intent on stepping into this particular minefield — if your statement includes the phrase “the Jews”, there’s a high chance it’s antisemitic.

All of this was bad enough, before veteran Labour politician and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone waded into the debate with all the sensitivity of Godzilla and stated in a radio interview that:

...when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism — this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.

At the end of a madcap day that saw him hounded by the press, an irate colleague and a dog, Livingstone was also suspended from the party. But he continues to insist that everything he said was historically true citing Lenni Brenner’s book Zionism in the Age of Dictators in his defence.

So, what’s this all about? Hitler a Zionist?

On the 25th August 1933, Germany, now under Nazi rule, signed the Ha’avara Agreement with Zionist Jews, to facilitate the resettlement of Jews to Palestine. So, Brenner and Livingstone were right?

Not without an ulterior motive.

Not so fast. We’re talking about Germany under Hitler. Hitler also put his signature to a document promising Britain that he wasn’t going to start a war, later commenting that he simply thought he’d give the British Prime Minister his autograph. Anyone who thinks Hitler wanted at that point in history to be nice to “the Jews” clearly hasn’t heard of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiography and propaganda tract written well before he came to power, in which he said:


...the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.

and:

The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people. The Jew uses every possible means to undermine the racial foundations of a subjugated people.

and, most famously:

Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: “by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

That was written years before 1933. Let there be no mistake: Hitler had no sympathy with the Zionist cause, or with the Jewish people. His regime had already started with its program of oppressing German Jews, who wanted out not because they had ideas about booting Muslims out of Palestine, but because the atmosphere in Germany was becoming more hostile.

This is the problem, incidentally, with ascribing certain views to Hitler. Put simply, Hitler is not a man whose word you can trust. This same “Zionist” Hitler is quoted as saying, “The peoples of Islam will always be closer to us than, for example, France,” although that quote is rather doubtful. But whatever he says or even does, you have to bear in mind the possibility that there is an ulterior motive at work.

So what could Hitler possibily have gained from the Ha’avara Agreement?

Well, first of all, and most importantly, he wanted Jews to leave Germany. That was basically it: he didn’t particularly care where they went or what happened to them, just so long as they weren’t in Germany any more. Hitler “supported” Zionism not because he agreed with its aims, but rather in the hope that it would solve one of his problems. The great advantage would be that by concentrating all the Jews in one small part of Palestine, it would be easier to control them and prevent them from becoming a threat.

The other problem he had was the Anti-Nazi boycott, in which several countries boycotted German goods in response to the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor, and Germans in response boycotted Jewish businesses. And the Ha’avara Agreement provided a way around that.

It worked like this: Jews who wanted to emigrate to Palestine would temporarily give up all their possessions, and pay £1000 (a lot of money in those days) to the Ha’avara Company. This money would then be used to buy German goods, which the emigrants would take with them to the Yishuv community in Palestine and then, basically, sell.

There’s a much more detailed discussion of the agreement, its aims and its effects, in this PDF document; but essentially, Hitler “supported Zionism” only insofar as it was a handy way to further his obsession with ridding Germany of “the Jewish problem” once and for all.

On a related subject, Livingstone also claimed that in 1935, the Nazi government passed a law banning the flying of any flag except the swastika and the Zionist flag. In fact, if you read German, the text of the Imperial Flag Act of 1935 is online and says nothing about the Zionist flag. It also says nothing about banning anything: it simply states that the “imperial colours” are black, white and red, and that the swastika was to be the official imperial, national and trade flag.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The least surprising revelation of all

The thing that most amuses me about the Panama scandal is that so many people act as if they’re surprised by it. For as long as I can remember, politicians and celebrities and businessmen have been avoiding/dodging/evading tax. It’s sort of the wallpaper of public life: hideous, and it really needs to go, but it’s quite simply there.

So some anonymous whistleblower sends a vast pile of data to a newspaper, and the collective response is: “My goodness me, all those politicians who’ve been enriching themselves at our expense — they’ve been enriching themselves at our expense!” This, of course, is swiftly followed by, “Throw them out!”


At least in some countries. Yesterday, one of my students wanted to know why the British were making such a huge fuss about it. Germans aren’t too bothered, she said. Probably; but then the German economy is doing reasonably well, while in Britain, a group of rich people in government have been telling the populace for years now that they need to tighten their belts.

So, yes: “David Cameron must go!” chant the protestors, because he has personally benefitted from his father’s tax-avoiding activities, although he may not actually have broken the law. But then, this is a moral, rather than a legal, issue. But then again, I don’t think these are people who originally supported David Cameron, and have now had an unwelcome epiphany: they’re people who were violently opposed to the Conservative government anyhow, and these latest not-particularly-surprising revelations are a good reason to voice their opinions.

Also, I wonder if they have thought through their demands. According to some of the placards they were waving, they seem to think that Cameron resigning is the same as the Conservative Party being forced out of Parliament. If so, they’re in for a shock: it would just mean a new, and probably considerably less popular, Conservative Prime Minister. If we’re very unlucky, it could be George Osborne, a man who has managed to hold on to his job of Chancellor of the Exchequer — Britain’s finance minister, basically — despite the fact that just about everything he does or says is deeply unpopular not only with the general population, but with the whole of his own party.

Another interesting thing is that people seem to think this is just a Conservative Party Thing. Well, so far, apart from David Cameron (indirectly), a grand total of three former British MPs are caught up in this particular scandal, and they are all Conservatives. But of course, as massive as this leak is, it only involves one company operating in one tax haven, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the tip of the iceberg. And just for the record, it’s not as if people who describe themselves as socialists are immune from this kind of behaviour.

I am, though, quite convinced that the current leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has the moral high ground on this one. Jeremy Corbyn, for those who don’t know, is a politician way out on the left wing of the Labour Party who, after 30 years on the backbenches quietly rebelling, was unexpectedly and dramatically voted leader of the party, and therefore also Leader of the Opposition.

Unfortunately, Corbyn hasn’t been doing his job very well. His job, incidentally, is to hold the government to account and pick holes in government policy. He’s quite useless at that: for all that his supporters keep telling me that he “destroys the government” every week at Prime Minister’s Questions, a look through the Hansard, the official record of parliamentary business, reveals that he just politely asks question after question, and never really challenges the answers he gets.

Of course, this scandal has actually succeeded in making Cameron’s approval rating drop below that of Corbyn, so it turns out that the opposition didn’t really need to do much opposing. And really, absolutely nobody believes Jeremy Corbyn has fifty million hidden away in a trust fund in the Cayman Islands. I mean, just look at the man. Say what you like, his probity is not in question.

So, amid all the fashionable bash-the-rich grassroots politics that are going on at the moment, do I think Corbyn would make a better Prime Minister than Cameron?

I think that question’s moot. I don’t think either of them are good Prime Minister material. Corbyn, because as a former rebel he won’t be able to unite the party behind him, and also because his policies seem to have just woken up from a forty-year coma. And Cameron, not for the reasons it’s currently fashionable to bash him for — he’s rich, he once almost certainly didn’t put part of his anatomy anywhere near a dead pig’s snout but it’s too good a story to risk fact-checking, and his late father did some questionable financial jiggery-pokery to make the family richer than it had a right to be — but because he has so far been an appalling Prime Minister, and has far too much faith in his even more appalling Chancellor.

Fifteen years after I left the UK I lost my right to vote there, which is a great relief because it means that whatever happens from now on, it’s not my fault. It also means I don’t have to choose between the Disaster Party, the Dithering Party, the Non-Existent Party, the Screaming Xenophobe Party, and Russell bloody Brand.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Turkish President tries to censor accusations of censorship

It seems to be Idiots’ Month right now. There’s the man who thought the best way to be reunited with his ex-wife would be to hijack a plane while wearing a fake suicide vest. There’s the politician attempting to get “down with the kids” by communicating with them “on the Twitters”. There’s the woman who climbed to the summit of Britain’s highest mountain wearing shorts. And there’s Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

For a long time, Erdoğan has been accused of an increasingly autocratic style of rule. A glance at his Wikipedia page is quite sobering, especially the sub-headings in the “Controversies” section: Accusations of antisemitism; Politicisation of the judiciary; Media intimidation and censorship; Electoral fraud; Political polarisation; Mehmet Aksoy lawsuit (in which the President ordered the destruction of a sculpture that called for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia); Crackdown on Academics for Peace.

Quick! Ban this photo!


Now, one of the things that has annoyed and frustrated Turkey for some time now has been that the country doesn’t seem to be eligible to join the EU. Something about Cyprus and “human rights”, apparently. Erdoğan is the latest in a long line of Turkish leaders trying to convince the EU to let his country in.

Earlier this month, some headway seemed to have been made, insofar as Germany had started saying that maybe, if Turkey gets its act together, there may be a case for allowing Turkey in. You’d think, therefore, that Erdoğan might be doing his homework on what European values are.

A few days later, a satirical German TV show called Extra 3 criticized some of the excesses of Erdoğan’s government in the form of a song with accompanying video (activate the “CC” icon for English subtitles). Sung to the tune of an old Nena hit called Irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann, it made reference to allegations of oppression of the Kurds, the use of violence to counter peaceful demonstrations and the highly controversial new presidential palace illegally built in a nature reserve. But it also prominently mentioned government interference in press freedoms, with lines like these:
Bei Pressefreiheit kriegt er ’nen Hals,
drum braucht er viele Schals.
Ein Journalist, der was verfasst,
das Erdoğan nicht passt,
ist morgen schon im Knast.
Press freedom makes his neck bulge,
which is why he needs lots of scarves.
A journalist who writes something
that Erdoğan doesn’t like
will be in jail by next morning.
(“Getting a neck” or “getting something in the throat” is a German idiom that means being roused to anger.)

Now, Erdoğan naturally wishes to repudiate those claims. He’s not a totalitarian dictator, of course not — whatever gave us that idea? When he was Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, he managed to solve a lot of the city’s problems with traffic congestion, pollution and crumbling infrastructure. Sure, he was then forced to relinquish his post after his party was shut down on the grounds that it was pushing a fundamentalist Islamic agenda which was at odds with the Turkish constitution, but hey — since when was that ever an issue?

So Erdoğan, anxious to preserve his image as totally not an enemy of press freedom, summoned the German Ambassador and basically demanded that the German authorities ban the video and prevent its distribution.

You have to think about this one to let the full irony sink in here. Turkey wants to join the EU. Turkey has almost won over Germany to the point that Germany’s response to the Turkish authorities storming the offices of a newspaper were fairly muted and cautious.

That might have worked (for Turkey) as long as it remained an internal Turkish affair. When, though, Turkey insists that Germany must suspend a key section of its own constitution just because the President feels insulted, things are unlikely to go quite as smoothly. Members of all the parties in the Bundestag — including many who have themselves been at the receiving end of Extra 3’s skewering wit — have spoken out against the not-dictator’s attitude. The official government response has simply been to state that the Ambassador lectured Turkey on the importance of a free press; but I suspect this whole incident has cost Turkey — and especially Erdoğan — quite a few valuable sympathy points.

Extra 3, meanwhile, as well as naming him “Employee of the Month”, has posted a cartoon showing Erdoğan pointing a fire extinguisher at a laptop and saying, “Either you remove that video, or I delete the internet!”