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The inexorable victory of the pod-people

In fiction, stories about fascist regimes almost always focus on the resistance, the few who carry the candle and represent the hope (however dim) that the regime will ultimately perish.

But it seems to me, as I contemplate two dismal candidates for Prime Minister and the backlash from Brexit, that the real story is often not one of idealists fighting back to glorious vindication, it’s about the idealists being gradually smothered as an ever-greater proportion of the country simply accepts the way things are. One by one we disappear, gasping, under a tidal wave of banal self-interest, until we can’t imagine things being any different, or even want it. The inexorable victory of the pod-people.

I'm being a bit melodramatic. I don’t say that we live in a fascist regime right now. I do think that the Overton Window has moved further and further right,and insularity is becoming the prevailing narrative. It's that gradual shift of the 'centre' ground, until large swathes of the country look in genuine dismay and bafflement at those complaining about xenophobia, demonisation of the poor, intrusive surveillance. It’s about experts being decried, education being elitist, lying in public office being accepted with a shrug. "What is truth, anyway?" Even the ideological rewriting of history becomes routine, until our very ideas about who we are and where we came from are distorted by the lens of those who control the mass-media.

I know there are others who feel this way, but I don’t see it ending any time soon. I don’t see that groundswell of anger, that organised public desire to push back in the other direction. Perhaps just as importantly I don’t see any great likelihood that things will improve under the current Government, nor any realistic prospect that the Conservatives will lose the next General Election.

I suppose I’m emotionally influenced by all the ways that Brexit has left me feeling alienated, and by the upsurge in “immigrants go home” sentiment. It’s easy to be too short-termist -- I’m no better at forecasting the future than anyone else. Maybe things will get better. Whenever a Blair or an Obama sweeps to power there’s always a false dawn; that rush of "maybe we’ve passed a turning point". Reality always sets in. Maybe this is the reverse: a false dusk that will ultimately prove to be just another short blip on our journey to increasing liberalism, equality and openness. In some ways those social arguments have felt like a steady win for liberalism over recent decades. But now we have Andrea Leadsom wanting a fight back against “political correctness”, a rolling back of gay marriage, as if we were still stuck in the ‘toddler tantrum’ stage of accepting equality and diversity. I fear that, little by little, from Coalition, to Cameron Government, to May/Leadsom Government, the public mood is changing and no-one is really protesting all that loudly. And the drip-drip-drip of selfishness seeps into our bones.


Aftermath

So many stories of openly racist behaviour emerging.

Some of this, no doubt, is confirmation bias. Racist outbursts have always occurred on the fringes of society and once you start actively looking for an uptick it won't be hard to find examples. The press does this all the time: one big earthquake means every minor tremor becomes news. But not only does the current run of incidents feel a bit more weighty than that, the character of the incidents is striking. The language is suddenly about repatriation, of 'why don't you go home', 'back where you came from'. That feels new. Or, rather, old. People openly expressing attitudes that have been culturally submerged for decades.

It's still anecdotal for now whether Brexit has emboldened these individuals - even if some are actively referring to it - but it's difficult not to see the influence of this sorry mess of a referendum, this free leg-up for UKIP and the far right.


The Petition for a Second Referendum

I nearly signed the 2nd Referendum ballot today. Nearly. Just to add a stone to the heap, so the scale of dissatisfaction can be seen from a distance.  But I just can't bring myself to do it.

The time to push for this kind of contingency, for different thresholds for success, was before the Referendum. This just smacks of not liking the outcome and moving the goalposts. The turnout was as high as you could reasonably hope for. The result is valid.

Emotionally I can't bear this outcome, but I don't think another Referendum is the answer. If the result had gone the other way and Farage was pushing for this (which of course he did pre-emptively) I'd be angry. Looked at from the outside what does this petition prove? That millions who voted Remain are desperately unhappy. Nothing more.

I understand the argument that Leave sold lies that are now being hurriedly walked back. That was dishonest. But, horribly, that's politics. What makes this a special case? Even General Elections are increasingly won through lies, misleading statements and ultimately broken promises. I'd love politicians to be held to a higher standard, but they're not, and so the public has to pick the side whose arguments, policies, ideology and/or smarmy vitriolic intolerance appeals to them the most. In the EU Referendum I genuinely think an impartial view is that Leave not only lied more, but that they were more likely to double-down on those lies and continue to repeat them.  But it's not like the opposing arguments weren't aired. Both sides had their say. At length. Over and over again. It was perfectly possible to make an informed decision. If some people choose emotion over fact well, frankly, that's their right. If they are smart or stupid, racist or progressive, they get to vote the way they want.  Sometimes I wish that weren't the case, but what alternative is there?

The worst thing is that I think there's a reasonable chance the Referendum would go the other way if we restaged it now. The reality has sunk in a bit. Would it go 60/40 the other way? Nah. And so we'd need a third referendum surely? And a fourth.

And the very act of not honouring the first outcome would (rightly) incense those who voted Leave. There'd be social unrest. If we do, as some predict, have a General Election within the year then ignoring the first Referendum would mean Leave (and, yes, possibly UKIP) would clean up. Do we really want that? Everything has consequences.

Far better in my view to accept this outcome but implement it in the least bad way possible. Stay in the EEA. Try to hang on to the single market. Try to hang on to free movement. Find a reason to spare the Halkans and make it stick. (Sorry, nerd reference.) That's the best way forward.

This petition is not going to bring about another Referendum. It's the same liberal echo-chamber that predicted a Remain victory, and it just won't happen. I love that echo-chamber. It keeps me sane. But it doesn't reflect the whole country, and another referendum would offend more people than it buoyed. IMO.

[The above partly adapted from a Facebook conversation with Mark Bowyer]


Sovereignty

*At any time*, for no reason, the UK can give two year's notice to leave the EU. They literally can't stop us.

If we stay and the EU ever threatens our sovereignty (even though we are exempt from closer union and can't transfer powers without a UK referendum) we have enough sovereignty to leave.

So why jump now? Don't we trust ourselves to exercise our own sovereignty wisely in future? Or is our Government a bit too sovereign for our own liking?


Doubling down on the fandom

And just as a follow-on to my appreciation of the movie USS Enterprise, here's an old bit of fan art of Star Trek Movies II to IV that I did way back in 1989 at the tender age of 19. How time flies. Not that my viewing habits have significantly changed...

Star Trek Movie montage (1989) (c)iainjclark (small).jpg

It's a weird shape because it follows a roughly cinematic film ratio across the middle, then blossoms out at the sides. I think it still looks okay, but I'd hope to do a much better job of it these days. The eagle-eyed reader may notice that Lt. Saavik is drawn in a very different style from everyone else, which is because I did the bulk of the drawing many months earlier, and even by the time I went back to it I was in a different mood artistically.


The USS Enterprise and me

If I said that the sight of the Starship Enterprise calms me down you'd think I was bonkers, right?

tmphd1122.jpgNot any USS Enterprise, you understand. Certainly not the version from the recent JJ Abrams movies with its squashed toothpaste-tube proportions1. Not the eccentric Next Generation version, though I am fond of it. Not even the original 1960s design classic. The one that I love is the refit design from the first six Star Trek movies, from The Motion Picture through to The Undiscovered Country. The very sight of it is food for my soul: its grace, its curves, its balance. Its rightness.

tmphd0729.jpgThere are very few designs that can do this to me, and they all share deep roots in my childhood and adolescence. Another is Doctor Who's Tardis (about which I'll eulogise another time). Maybe the Dalek too. Iconography embedded in my psyche at a tender age from endless VHS videotape viewings, cinema magazines, spin-off novels. I look at these things and sometimes I can't even tell any more if they have an intrinsic merit or if it's just my childhood speaking to me across the decades.

Since I'm Really Old, I first encountered this spaceship (AKA nicely-lit fibreglass model) at the cinema in 1979 when I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture on its original release. If ever a film fetishised a piece of hardware it's that one, all lingering pans over structural curves, somewhere between asexual porn and a 2 hour car commercial. But this was also the dawn of movie merchandising as we now (shudder to) experience it, and so I probably didn't first encounter the design at the cinema at all. Instead I probably inhaled it through magazines like Starlog, and trading cards, and promotions on the back of weetabix packets, and white chocolate bars with weird multi-coloured bits in them. Given that my main memory of the film is coming home afterwards and drawing Klingon spaceships going 'pew pew' I think that the content of the film (such as it was) was always secondary to the spaceships in my ten year old brain. And in that supporting merchandise the spaceship has a mythic beauty that even the film's Male Gaze For Spaceships doesn't quite capture.

Take this old, scanned promotional photo for example, which not only emphasises the ship's graceful proportions but a pearlescent, self-illuminated, polychromatic quality that the film only glimpses (and later movies largely dispensed with):

Scan0106.jpg

Blinded as I am by the hardwiring of my brain, I do think that as a spacecraft design it has few equals. The original sixties version is all rectangles and cylinders. In fact it's easy to forget just how odd that design is, like a Forbidden Planet flying saucer mated with something much more functional and Naval in character. Even so it has a certain sense of balance and proportion, particularly when shot from a nice angle. The movie version keeps only the basic morphology of saucer, secondary hull and engine nacelles joined by struts, but it pushes and pulls each of those elements into something rounded, tapered and elegant. From the swell of the secondary hull to the angles and fins and neon stripes of the engines, it creates the sense of a unified whole rather than parts bolted inelegantly together. In many ways it looks completely different from the original, and yet you could never mistake it for anything else.



normal_tuchd0366.jpg
Ageing Spaceship baffles engineers with this one weird trick

In the subsequent movies the design remains the same (it is after all the same model even when technically a different ship) but the iridescent paint job that would catch the light in interesting ways is replaced with a matt chalky white finish, and it's lit more brightly with less reliance on the ship's own running lights. The quality of the effects and cinematography varies hugely too. But it's hard to completely screw up a design this beautiful. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan2, a film I've probably seen even more often than the original Star Wars, it's treated like a classic tall ship in a Hornblower movie: trading ponderous broadsides with its sister ship in a Naval game of cat and mouse. Its a big, majestic vessel not nippy a little X-wing fighter or a barrel-rolling Millennium Falcon, and that's reflected in its shape and size. Slow to turn, crewed to the nines, wind in its sails.

When I catch one of the original Trek films on repeat, or actually moreso when I stumble across images of it on the web, it's like looking at a great landscape painting or a classic Lake District view, perfect in every proportion. It fills me with inner peace.

Bonkers, I know.
--
1 If you didn't even know there was a difference this is maybe not the post for you...
2 Out on Blu-ray in its Director's Edition soon. And its Director (and script doctor) Nicholas Meyer is working on the new Star Trek TV Show. What goes around comes around.

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Further poorly argued thoughts on the EU

I don't think I've got the hang of this clickbait headline thing.

This is another stream-of-consciousness political blog. I'll post about science fiction next time and we can all relax.

Previously on LiveJournal. NOW READ ON.

I vacillate between a resigned belief that even if we vote to leave Europe it won't be that bad, and a nagging fear that it'll be bad enough. Things do tend to settle down, and the new status quo is almost certainly probably highly unlikely to cripple the UK in the long run. We have no Control for this experiment, and we'll never know what the untaken path may have looked like.

I do worry about the short term impacts - the potential increase in the already punitive levels of austerity if the economy suffers a bit from a vote to leave. And yes, the impact on the Higher Education sector where I work1 - where millions of EU students are at risk at a time many institutions can ill afford it. Government changes to international immigration have already made the UK an unwelcoming and risky destination where students from beyond the EU can be turned away at the drop of a hat, or made to leave and return at their own expense, or suffer humiliating checks on their 'genuineness' as students. International student applications to the UK have declined as a result of this climate. Extend that same approach, those same hurdles, to EU students, and they'll stay away in droves. We need those EU students, just as we need the overseas ones. (The Government's stance on student immigration is largely inexplicable to me when these students bring millions into the economy and are not, on the whole, likely to settle permanently in the UK.)

I also worry that if we do vote OUT it'll be largely a gut vote, based on sincere nationalistic pride, perhaps, but fed by fallacies and misinformation and woefully lacking in clarity about what lurks on the other side of an exit. There's so much falsehood around. If we stay with the topic of immigration, there's this facile idea that leaving the EU represents regaining control of our borders, as if we can't control them now. I think there's a myth that anyone from the EU can just stroll in without let or hindrance. But we're not part of the Schengen Area. We already can and do check the passports of migrants from the EU. We already can and do turn them away when we regard them as a threat. (And, by the way, most of the examples that Teresa May and her ilk cite as EU tampering with deportations are actually decisions made by British courts, but that's another discussion). If we make migration from the EU even more like migration from the rest of the world it won't suddenly make us safer. Half of all our immigration, give or take, comes from the rest of the world. It won't suddenly stick a big cork in Dover and make everyone turn away.

And as for sovereignty, I'm never sure what we imagine this means. I certainly haven't spent my adult life thinking "If only the British government had the power to make decisions". It seems to make them all the time. Really big, stupid fucking decisions, but decisions nonetheless. If by sovereignty we mean that there are constraints on what we can do based on certain narrow things we've agreed with other countries, which country can't say that? In or out, we'll be making deals, signing agreements, joining international bodies, and cheerfully limiting the hell out of our own sovereignty - if that's what you want to call it. That's our sovereign right, I guess. We willingly sign up to the treaties and trade regulations that we currently have - not in one fateful decision to join the EU around the time Jon Pertwee turned into Tom Baker, but in all those numerous discrete decisions ever since. We don't have to leave the EU to make different decisions about what we sign-up to, if that's what we really want. And if we do leave the EU we won't suddenly lose all those trade regulations - far from it. We'll probably need more. Every one of them will represent some kind of compromise in which the UK agrees to something that, yes, constrains it. I'm sure those UK trade deals will be painted as a triumph for the very sense of sovereignty that the EU trade deals seemingly undermine. But they'll be no different.

Besides which, when it comes to employment law and human rights, I rather like the idea that we sign up to principles greater than the petty self-interest of whichever national governments are in power, here and elsewhere. I like the idea that we all agree on basic standards of decency, and hold each other to account.

So maybe it'll be okay either way. But I really hope we vote to stay.
--
1 All opinions are my own personal views not those of my employer.


10 things I think about Europe

Politics again. Sorry.

The debate on Europe is driving me mad, characterised as it is by myths and subjectivity and opportunism masquerading as facts and imperatives. I'm sitting on my hands watching each side characterise the other as hateful scare-mongerers while appearing blind to the excesses of their own camp.

So to get it out of my system, here are some things I believe about Europe. Like everyone else, some of these are evidence-based, and some just are:

1) The principle of being in Europe is more important than the problems with Europe. Joining with others in principles and endeavours that transcend individual nations is positive, and acts as a check on individual nations.

2) Europe is not something which is 'done to us', it's a collaboration we participate in, and help shape. We won't always get our own way - neither will anyone else - but we have a strong voice. We shape the laws. We win exemptions.

3) It is nonsense to say that World War Three looms imminently if we leave the EU (aka "Stay Off My Side, David Cameron"). It is not nonsense to say that the history of Europe prior to the creation of the EU was one of near-constant conflict and war, and that participating in the EU has been one of a number of key reasons why we have seen an era of much greater peace and stability. Unchecked separatism and nationalism can easily and rapidly sow the seeds of conflict. Even now the EU is straining against an upsurge in extreme right wing political parties and anti-immigrant sentiment.

4) Our locally elected MPs go to the central parliament where they have a local voice but where local interests are balanced against wider ones, and the elected democratic parliament is supported by a vast bureaucracy of unelected officials. But enough about the UK. Ahem.

5) Europe is almost certainly rife with compromise and inefficiency, but it is not actually Evil (like, say, FIFA) and is capable of being reformed. If we do rightly focus on European inefficiency we shouldn't cherry pick examples while ignoring the inefficiency inherent in our own political machinery.

6) EU membership is a net cost to the UK in terms of monies directly paid and directly received. On that level it's a drain on our resources. But membership of the EU only has to make the most marginal percentage improvement in the UK economic growth for the gain, year by year, to vastly outweigh the cost. Does it do that? It seems highly likely, but I can't say for certain. At the very least it's a low risk investment with the potential for an extremely high return.

7) Putting aside the fact that European migrants provably contribute more to our economy than they take out, leaving the EU might (unless we retain free movement) reduce a chunk of net migration. On that level, leaving the EU would help us "regain control" of our borders. But it would by no means be a magic bullet that would bring net migration down to zero.

8) There are clear and to some extent understandable worries about how immigration is changing our culture, a fear of cultural miscegenation in which national distinctiveness is perceived to be lost, or changed unrecognisably. But we easily forget that our perception of 'Britishness' has changed over time. Second and third generation immigrants aren't generally perceived as immigrants at all. They're just British. If they're white (like that extremely suspicious foreign influence Rick Stein) mainstream opinion doesn't give them a second glance. Our sense of Britishness has always accommodated and been enriched by infusions from other places.

9) The 'Out' campaign is not intrinsically racist, and many who are in favour of leaving the EU are not driven by immigration. But I think one consequence of a 'Brexit' will be to increase the UK's isolationism and feed racist views. I'd love to say that slightly curbing immigration would rob racism of oxygen, but in my view the tougher we talk and act on immigration the more strident and polarised our anti-immigration rhetoric becomes. Support for UKIP is often highest in the areas of lowest immigration, and right-wing debate on immigration is not notable for its relationship to facts. If we board up the windows, we'll only become obsessed with what's under the floorboards.

10) Whether we stay or leave, we'll never know for sure whether that decision had a causal effect on our future prosperity, or lack of it. But politicians will cheerfully blame everything on that decision. And it will be So. Damn. Aggravating.

(Follow-up blog)


Oh god he's talking about politics

I'm not really a Nick Robinson fan, but this slightly smug, waffly article summarises the obvious difficulty in talking knowledgeably about our future in or out of Europe. There are probably many reasons to leave the EU. There are many reasons to stay. Probably neither will be a disaster (though what do I know?) but amid the patent fear-mongering on all sides there's genuine inability to know what will happen until it happens. The many leaflets that have thumped onto my doormat are equally aggravating whether they are for or against EU membership; although on the plus side they're all pleasingly shiny and ideal for lining the cat litter tray.

I also don't like Mr Cameron or his tax affairs, but as with his support for gay marriage I do occasionally find that he deigns to agree with me. It's nice of him, I only wish he'd do it more often. I do worry that the meta-narrative about political machinations within the Conservative party - Boris and IDS making tactical moves, Cameron's future, whether tax payers should pay for Government leaflets - is a sly and effective distraction from the real issues. Journalists don't do it on purpose, but they just can't resist shop talk. A story about a story is so much more gossipy than a story about an actual thing. It's fine when there's nothing much at stake but right now there are bigger fish to fry. (There would be smaller fish to fry, but they're subject to a strict EU fishing quota). If this becomes a story about politics then people will treat it as a political issue. They'll vote 'Out' to punish Cameron, rather than because they have a view on the EU.

Personally I'm for staying in. You're amazed, I can tell. It's not because I feel 'European', really. Intellectually I know I'm European, but it's not my primary national identity. 'Europe' still intuitively means "that big bit of continent over there" and not "this little collection of islands that the BBC weather map persists in tipping at an alarming angle so that Scotland looks tiny".

But neither do I feel any animosity towards Europe. I like the idea of being part of something greater. I guess I don't know any different. I've pretty much always *been* part of it, and Europe hasn't blighted my life with its evil foreign ways. Mais non. I think it's quite telling that you can watch an episode of 'Yes, Minister' from 1981 and hear the exact same stereotypical worries about the EU and its alleged wacky laws. But here we are 35 years later and the sky hasn't fallen and Britain hasn't lost its Britishness. Far from it. If we really must define Britishness as a test of cultural purity then we're more pugnaciously xenophobia than we have been in years. Well done, British people.

But really, what do we mean by Britishness? Boris is no less Boris for 40 years spent in the EU. It hasn't made Iain Duncan Smith any less strident. I reject the seductive notion that Europe erodes our "sovereignty" - whatever that really means - as if any country can govern in perfect isolation from its neighbours and treaties and trade alliances and human migration and equality and rights for workers and basic human rights. Of course not. We have sovereignty over our own laws in every way that counts; we don't seem to have any difficulty in passing laws that tax the homeless for their spare pavement. We simply subscribe to international common principles - both within the EU and in parallel with it - because it makes sense.

It's very easy to talk about isolationism in terms that make it sound noble and patriotic. You can picture Jim Hacker drifting into his Churchill impression. But Churchill was an architect of a United Europe, and I think it's a very grown-up, civilised thing to be part of a wider society of nations. We can be ourselves and still accept that there are limits on the way you can behave and still get to participate in the world. There's no reason I can see to feel that being part of Europe diminishes us. It might even make us greater.


Random musings on gender

Last week I entered the communal kitchen at work to find two female colleagues discussing how useless men are at keeping the house tidy. One said that despite being at home all day her partner never lifted a finger to clean the place and argued that he didn't know how to use the vacuum cleaner. She in riposte had written him a guide to using the vacuum cleaner, with instructions coded in the colours of his favourite footbal teams.

Last month I went to the local sports centre to sign our 6 year old daughter Anna up for swimming lessons. The lady behind the counter was genuinely surprised that, as a man, I knew my own daughter's birth date and felt the need to congratulate me on this amazing feat.

I don't know if I'm just a very unusual man who doesn't conform to gender stereotypes. Maybe so. I don't think my wife would mind me saying that I do the majority of the tidying, cleaning and cooking in our household. She does plenty of other things, we strike a balance, and everything gets done. We just don't divide our labours down the traditional gender lines. (Also I don't like football, but that's a separate matter.)

I wonder if this 'lad' culture still exists, where masculinity is somehow defined by a lack of interest in your own children or household (or, indeed, anything but football). Are other blokes really like this? Do they just play up to this stereotype because it's a free pass to be lazy? Is it that domestic chores are still seen as women's work, so men distance themselves from it for fear of looking less masculine? This is surely what's behind the child's birth date example: that the need to know your child's birthday is primarily domestic, with the mother expected to arrange and the father expected to... show up. (Unless it clashes with football.)

Do some women even play up to this stereotype because as toxic as gender roles can be they're also reassuring, a source of shared identity and camaraderie? Because otherwise I can't see why any woman would put up with a partner who acted in such a fundamentally selfish way. Are these men secretly contributing to household chores in other, un-grumbled-about ways that I don't hear about?

I'm probably overthinking something that's partly just harmless banter. Maybe we fall into these shorthand ways of griping about the opposite sex without really buying into them. We know it's not the whole story, but we say it anyway, slotting our relationship grievances into neatly gendered boxes. If so it's fascinating the extent to which people play their expected roles in polite conversation, adopting banal positions, marking time with small talk.

I just don't recognise this cultural portrait of a husband and father. It perplexes me that I'm so far out of step from, what? The norm? The perceived norm? Does everyone else feel the same way? I know many women chafe at traditional gender roles and with far more cause than my vague sense of peevish alienation. As adults we're all affected by the social norms we absorb through our upbringing and the degree to which we identify, conform or rebel. There's also the degree to which we're even aware of gender roles as culturally imposed rather than genetically hardwired, and there I'm sure education plays a part.

I suspect I'm traditionally blokey in other ways (like being useless at remembering things my wife has asked me to do - sorry wife!) I guess all I'm getting at is that, no matter how much I think I'm learning about gender, sometimes I still get forcibly reminded that our society is profoundly gendered. The roles we expect men to play are inextricably bound up with (or in opposition to) the roles we expect women to play. And, day to day, we all collaborate in keeping it that way. I didn't even argue with the woman at the sports centre. I sort of grunted non-committally. I chipped in on the example of the partner not cleaning, but what can I really say? Hey, I do the cleaning in our house. I can't tell that woman her experience is false. I'm just interested in how true it is more generally.

(Disclaimer: Obviously the above implicitly assumes heterosexual relationships, since that's the context in which the issues came up. This may all differ with sexual orientation. Or class. Or country. Or degree of geekiness, for all I know.)

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