Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Only Gay in the Justice League?

Liberal Revolution points us to this story about Stan Lee creating the “world’s first gay superhero.”

Here we go again. A few years ago the characters Apollo and Midnighter from The Authority were declared as the world’s first superheroes (how about this for a lamentable headline: “Holy cow! Men in tights turn out to be gay“). However, the media only noticed two years after the series had been running – and then only because of a censorship row. Back in 1986, Watchmen – the film version of which (court case notwithstanding) is likely to be out on general release a long time before Stan Lee’s effort gets filmed – featured a lesbian superhero (Solitaire) and a gay superhero (Hooded Justice). Going even further back, the creators behind X-Men and its spin-off titles were writing gay characters, although they weren’t allowed to “out” them until a minor character called Northstar got his chance in 1992 (this being the enlightened eighties, one storyline featured him getting AIDS with the intention of killing him off, but plans changed and he “got better”).

One way or another, we’ve had gay superheroes for well over 20 years. They remain under-represented and tend to be portrayed as tragic doomed figures (The Authority being a notable exception to this), but they are out there. Creating another token character – a “gay superhero” as opposed to a “superhero who happens to be gay” (especially one where it is clear from the DigitalSpy article above that the cliches about having a “secret identity” and being “in the closet” are going to get mined to destruction – this is Stan Lee and Stan The Man doesn’t do subtle) is hardly progress.

What a pointless thing to rant about at 2am! But there you go.

Nine wishes for 2009 #8: for me to get a chance to pursue some personal projects

Its 1am on 15 January 2009 and I still haven’t finished my “nine wishes” for the year. How crap am I?

That very crapness is what I want to address, at least in passing, in number eight. By the end of 2008, I was frankly a bit of a misery guts. There are lots of reasons for that – the relentless media refrain of “we’re all dooooomed!!!” doubtless hasn’t helped much – but one of the reasons was that 2008 was just so busy for me.

Workwise, we have been on an upward spiral – but it has been tough. Barely finding a window to take my annual leave, I ended up taking the bulk of it at the end of the year. I barely found the chance to think for myself and it took a toll both on my cheeriness and on this blog.

I want 2009 to be different. Starting with my request for ideas for things I could do to cheer me up, I’ve ended up taking on a number of commitments – arguably too many.

Most of them I can’t talk about right now (but you’ll find out soon enough). Suffice to say that among these are plans to overhaul Liberal Drinks and develop some ideas which might increase take up, and to revive my plans for Reflecting Britain.

Unlike most of my other wishes, this one is entirely in my hands. Watch this space.

Patrick McGoohan & Ricardo Montalban RIP

Losing Patrick McGoohan today was bad enough, but then it was announced that Ricardo Montalban has died as well. This is indeed a sad day.

For politicos, McGoohan is probably the greater loss because of his highly political (and radical – not just of its time but of all time) subversion of the secret agent genre The Prisoner. It emerges that this is now being remade into a film (courtesy of the makers of the new film, you can watch the original series online gratis) – something which rivals the Watchmen film in terms of making me feel ambivalent. McGoohan’s aim of The Prisoner was to be entirely subversive – essentially an act of trashing his own brand (which after Danger Man was very valuable indeed). How subversive can a remake be? The Wicker Man anyone?

Compared to The Prisoner, Fantasy Island (which is also currently being remade by – ack! – Eddie Murphy!) seems very tame indeed. I’ve never seen it, nor do I particularly intend to catch up for lost time.

For me, Montalban is to be lauded for one role only: the eponymous chracter is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – arguably the greatest Trek film. Montalban’s performance was brilliant – as hammy as Shatner, to be sure – but both sinister and sympathetic at the same time. The film is remembered for two main scenes: Spock dies at the end (you didn’t know? Sorry!) and Khan and Kirk’s chat-off in the middle. Known in particular for Shatner’s completely over the top screaming, Montalban’s performance is a pitch perfect counterpoint and utterly chilling.

Growing up in the early 1980s, both McGoohan and Montalban were thus major punctuation points in my growing up. ITV reshowed The Prisoner in the early eighties to great fanfare while Star Trek was omnipresent. I doff my cap to you both, gentlemen.

F***in’ Ada!

(with apologies for the title – in my defence I was chanelling the spirit of Ian Dury at the time)

I enthusiastically signed up to Suw Charman-Anderson‘s Ada Lovelace Day pledge and now I have a dilemma: who do I blog about?

I’m wracking my brains to think of someone and am struggling. This in turn presents me with a second dilemma: do I suffer in silence or admit to my failure and ask for help?

I’ve opted to go for the latter. Can anyone help me?

Nine wishes for 2009 #7: The Watchmen Movie to not suck (spoilers/guesses)

God, all my wishes are getting pretty forlorn, aren’t they? I’ve written about the upcoming Watchmen film fairly recently. What I will add is that I spent the early hours of Sunday morning watching the various promos and video diaries that the production team have been pumping out on the internet about it. The portents are not great, I’m afraid to report.

Two of them give me particular pause for concern, the first possibly unreasonably. This film is about how kewl the Owlship is going to be. If I were a fourteen year old, and this was a Batman film, I would be excited. As it stands, the Owlship is a very minor part of the Watchmen aesthetic: it gives the second Nite-Owl a gimmick (a gimmick almost wholly ripped off from Blue Beetle, unsurprisingly) and gets the characters from A to B. It’s an egg-shaped thing with windows – what’s to get excited about (okay, I’ll admit it – I got ridiculously excited about the Batmobile in the 1989 film. There. Happy now?)?

But to be fair, this film is probably little more than the production team bigging up their contribution. Good for them. Up the workers I say. No, what really worries me is this film about the Silk Spectre. Leave aside the sexed up costume for a minute – I can live with that (although I’ve never understood this longstanding comic book movie tradition of turning superhero costumes into fetish wear). What really worries me is hearing Zack Snyder and the actress Malin Akerman describe the character as some kind of feminist icon. She “kicks ass” – she’s “awesome.” She even represents, ahem, “woman power“.

In the comic, Laurie is actually quite a passive character. She goes along with what her mother wants, then goes along with what Doctor Manhattan wants. Admittedly, she does convince Manhattan to save the world but she doesn’t do it through the power of her womanly fists but through, er, talking. Almost none of the fighting you see in the film clips actually happen in the comic.

Now, I have nothing wrong with strong female characters (although this interpretation does seem to be more of a strong male character in a woman’s body) and I understand that they have to up the action ante for the film. But the overall tone I keep hearing on these promo clips is that the interpretation that Zack Snyder is going for is rather reminiscent of all those dreadful post-Watchmen comics of the late eighties and early nineties.

You remember? When everything went grim, gritty and “realistic”? When Rob Liefield was the hottest artist on the planet (shivers)? The Dark Knight Returns shares responsibility for that particularly shallow period of comic book creativity, but a selective reading of Watchmen is also to blame. The watershed moment was Rorschach winning the Eagle Award for “Character Most Worthy of Own Title.” Yes, what the comics reading public wanted was a strip about a completely insane, psychopathic character which was parodying Steve Ditko‘s Ayn Rand obsessions. Just as a lot of comic readers think that Judge Dredd is an advertisement for zero tolerance summary justice, a lot of the freaks considered Rorschach, The Comedian et al to be heroes.

The Watchmen is about a bunch of misfits who ultimately fail to make a difference. They don’t save the world – in fact they make it a more dangerous place. At lot of people looked at all the pretty pictures and failed to notice that in the late eighties. My current fear is that Zack Snyder was one of them.

On the plus side, the Japanese trailer for the film does look a lot more interesting (I like the JFK appearance – including the revelation of the true assassin), even if the scenes in the “situation room” do look a bit like a camped up version of Dr Strangelove. There may be hope yet.

Why does any of this matter? Well, to be quite honest it doesn’t really. It’s just that while I think I would have preferred it if they hadn’t tried making this particular classic into a film, I’m going to spend my money watching it anyway so it might as well not be a soul-destroying three hours of my life.

Ultimately all I really wish for is that it ends up being no worse than the film version of V for Vendetta, which I have a sneaking affection for. The fact that they took such liberties with V is, in my view, a selling point. I think they got close to the heart of the story (even if they did cop out at the end) in the way that I fear Watchmen won’t.

Madeline Bunting has a point SHOCKER!

Madeline Bunting is atheist baiting again. In her Guardian column this week she makes one spectacularly silly point, one mildly silly point and one good point which is a genuine issue for secularists. But it is a problem for the religious as well.

Firstly, the really silly point – worth quoting in full:

At first I thought it just plain daft; why waste £150,000 putting a slogan on hundreds of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It managed to combine so many dotty assumptions – belief in God as a source of worry or as a denial of enjoyment – that I couldn’t see who it was supposed to convince. Besides, how can “probably” change someone’s mind?

Then I thought about how it might look through the eyes of some of the people who travel on the buses I use from Hackney. The ones who look exhausted returning from a night shift of cleaning. Often they have a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey. And along comes a bus emblazoned with that advert. A slogan redolent of the kind of triumphal atheism only possible when you have had the educational opportunities, privileges and material security of the British middle class. The faith of this person is what sustains their sense of hope and, even more importantly, their sense of dignity when they are confronted every day by the adverts of affluence that mock them as “losers”, as failed consumers. Ouch, I winced that we can be so blindly self-indulgent to this elitist patronising.

Even reading it again makes me laugh out loud. Apparently it is “patronising” to urge working people on the Number 73 to “stop worrying and enjoy your life” but not for a middle class woman from a privileged background to presume to speak for them, oh no. Worse, we are to believe that this is an affront on their very sense of hope and dignity. So much for faith then, if it can be that easily challenged. And does she really mean to say that only the educated can be atheists? Isn’t that rather close to saying that religion rooted in ignorance?

She then goes on to pontificate how Barack Obama is religious and that his social conscience stems from his faith. On one level, I don’t quibble with that at all. As I’ve said before, I’ve always considered myself more of an ally of religious people of good conscience than secular people of bad conscience. Nor am I blind to the fact that many of the ethical teachings that Obama bases his principles on are the same ethical teachings I value. The Bible is indeed a good book (my only real difference of opinion is that it is no more than a book).

But Bunting over-eggs the pudding. If we are to credit Obama’s religion with his conscience, and not Obama the intellectual, then we should also blame Obama’s religion for his current seeming vaccilation over Guantanamo and Palestine. If Bunting’s logic is to be followed through, she can’t then go on to conveniently (to use her own phrase) “pick and mix.”

I would never dream of making a simplistic argument along the lines that Obama’s moral weakness over Palestine is rooted in his faith; Obama is responsible for Obama’s actions and choices – nothing else. It would appear, in this respect at least, that I pay religion rather more respect than Bunting.

Cheap cracks aside, this article isn’t entirely worthless. The core of Bunting’s argument is indeed a problem for atheists and secularists, and deserves consideration:

…Obama has not wavered in his passionate faith in the progressive potential of religious belief since he first encountered it in south Chicago in community organising. He was in his 20s, and for three years he was trained in a politics based on a set of principles developed by a Jewish criminologist and an ex-Jesuit with borrowings from German Protestant theologians.

Obama described these three years of community organising as the “best education I ever had”. Michelle says of her husband that “he is not first and foremost a politician. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.”

You don’t need to go to Chicago to find out what this is about. Try much closer to home, Whitechapel. Here London Citizens uses exactly the same training and principles as Obama did when he worked as a community organiser. The ideas originated in 30s depression Chicago, when Saul Alinsky hit on a way to organise the most impoverished and marginalised communities to win power to improve their lives. He spent the next 40 years building up his Industrial Areas Foundation and championing his methods in books such as Rules for Radicals – he was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s college thesis. His thinking influenced the civil rights movement and almost every subsequent progressive movement from feminism to gay rights.

His concept of organising can be boiled down quite simply: its aim is to move the world from how it is to how it should be. Its methods are entirely pragmatic: look for where people gather (churches, unions?), identify where those institutions have mutual self-interest and build on it for local achievable campaigns. Develop relationships – nothing can substitute for the face-to-face encounter. Listen. The paid community organiser (like Obama) is a talent scout for natural leaders and teaches the political tools.

Now, there are caveats I should add to all this. First of all, while I have deep respect for London Citizens, it is fair to say that despite having been around for a while, it has not exported particularly successfully outside of London. The only place where this model has been exported is Birmingham. I met up with a small group of Birmingham Citizens years ago when I worked in the West Midlands and by all accounts they appear to have a much smaller organisation than any of the London groups (not even having their own website for example). Why is this, when London is no more religious than any other part of the UK (again, I suspect this boils down to individuals being rather more significant than religions)?

Neither is the concept of civic activism uniquely rooted in religion. As a Lib Dem I would want to big up our own record in community politics, but the truth is that all political parties organise within communities in a secular way. Bunting and co might be tempted to argue that political parties only empower the middle classes. All I can say to that is that the places where I have personally seen community politics work best is in some of the most deprived parts of London, Manchester and Leeds. Reading up as I have recently on the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, I was particularly struck by how that party’s emphasis (leaving aside the splitters) was on civic-minded republicanism and empowering the working classes at the expense of electoral success. Ultimately more Marxist than Leninist, their view was that the revolution was going to happen anyway and their job was to prepare for it.

But Bunting has a point: it is no good for atheists to harp on about the dreadfulness of religion if they aren’t contributing something positive themselves. We’ve had our little victory with the Atheist Bus, we’ve had our Christmas knees’ up. But it isn’t enough to be better than the worst of religion; isn’t it time to aim higher?

Nor is this about charity, as Bunting makes clear. We’re not talking about some pissing contest about who donates the most (we’ve got Richard Curtis – nyer, nyer, nyer-nyer, nyer). The challenge for the new new atheists is whether it can be a positive force for good in society – not just by campaigning for healthy minds, but full bellies and social justice too. Bunting’s allusion to the religious cleaner on the Hackney bus is patronising in the extreme, but do we really currently have anything to say to a poor working person in that position? Would making an atheist out of her really be a worthwhile victory?

Before we concede too much to Bunting here though, it should be pointed out that the links between civic activism and religion are problematic for religion as well. I’ve come across a lot of avowedly religious people in my time and I have to admit that a lot of them don’t appear, well, that religious. Rather, the religion – more precisely the religious community – is the conduit they use to do good in the world. It’s great that they have found such a conduit, but how many people does religion make into liars by effectively insisting that the good deeds cannot be done without the religious observance? And how many good people end up disempowered because they feel that getting involved in their local church group would make them into hypocrites?

Unless you genuinely believe that having a good conscience is impossible without religion – and I wouldn’t accuse even Madeline Bunting of that – then that is a real problem. Less so in the inner city; much more so in the village where it boils down to a choice between the church hall and sweet f*** all.

The solution for both the secular and the religious – surely – are civic minded institutions that don’t depend on faith as a precursor (either explicitly or implicitly) for involvement. One of those institutions, currently in decline, is party politics but that alone is not likely to be enough. Creating exclusively atheist institutions is likely to be pretty self-defeating as well. What we need are inclusively secular ones.

The good news is that we have plenty of those. Amnesty is one such organisation. Action Aid and Age Concern is another (and that’s just the As). Wouldn’t Madeline Bunting concede that this is ultimately a better way to organise? And shouldn’t atheists, secularists and humanists concede that playing a positive role in society is something that should be encouraged?

Do you “deserve” your rights?

Anyone who thinks our civil liberties will be any better protected by a Conservative Government should think again. Speaking in Bangor (the Northern Ireland flavour) on Friday, the News Letter reports Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve saying:

… there is “a rights culture” which is “out of control”, not just in Ulster, but throughout the UK.

It did not help that “the undeserving in society” can often use rights legislation for personal gain, he added.

The Conservatives, he suggested, intend to create a UK Bill of Rights which would have in-built safeguards to prevent those “whose own behaviour is lacking” from abusing the powers.

I’m used to people from across the political spectrum differentiating between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor when it comes to welfare but not when it comes to fundamental rights. This rhetoric even goes beyond the talk about “rights and duties.”

In fairness to Labour, even the Jack Straws of this world have fallen short of using language as stark as this. Michael Wills was arguing last month that by “responsibilities” all they are talking about is the vague rhetoric about responsibilities that you can find in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I have heard Straw on more than one occasion insist that by “duties” he means nothing more than the riders which can be found in the European Convention. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from using loaded rhetoric whenever they want to court favour with the Daily Mail.

I suspect that tailoring your rhetoric to suit your (in this case the dinosaurs in the DUP and UUP) audience is something that Grieve himself is guilty of here but even at their best, the Tories don’t offer the same reassurances that Labour do. It is rank cowardice on their part not to call for its outright rejection, rooted in a knowledge that it would make us the pariahs of Europe (we would have to leave the Council of Europe and subsequently the EU). More to the point, he is talking tosh: when challenged, the anti-HRA brigade consistently fail to come up with concrete examples of how eeeeevil people are using it for “personal gain.”

I don’t actually think the Tories mean all this nonsense. I do fear however that if they regain control the constant undermining of the HRA that Labour are guilty of will be turned up several notches.

And let’s not forget that Grieve is a supposed “wet” – just imagine how much further his own backbenchers will want to push him? And before you carp “never mind this human rights nonsense, at least the Tories will be better on civil liberties” – nu-uh.

Nine wishes for 2009 #6: the EU to get real

You never know, it’s just possible this might happen.

2008 presented a real quandary for me: on the one hand, I was (not uncritically) supportive of the European Constitutional Treaty. Its mutation into the Lisbon Treaty made it weaker still, removing one of the main advantages of the Constitutional Treaty in the first place (specifically, that it was a clean slate and relatively easy to read compared to trying to follow a succession of amending treaties), but on balance it contained just enough good things in it for me to have voted “yes” in any referendum.

On the other hand, such a referendum was not forthcoming. I may be pro-European, but I’m also a democrat. I don’t believe the only way of ratifying a treaty like Lisbon is to hold a referendum, but we needed some kind of procedure to ratify it which recognised it was more than just another act of Parliament. There are many ways this could have been done – a super majority in both House of Parliament or two votes on either side of a general election – but fundamentally, the vote would have been lost whichever way you did it. And just to add an extra layer of cynicism, the Lib Dems came up with this idea of having a referendum on membership as a whole, knowing that neither of the other parties would back it, just so they could have a figleaf to put on their Focus leaflets.

And all that I could live with if the pro-European parties were prepared to stick their necks out and actually argue the case for European Union. Except they don’t, fearing it will make them unpopular.

Either way, by June it looked like this whole sorry exercise was over. Then, Ireland threw a spanner in the works by – uncharacteristically – voting “no” in their own referendum. Since then we have been in limbo, with no-one seeming to have a clue what to do next.

Unlike some, I don’t think Ireland’s decision to now have a second referendum is undemocratic. If the political class in Ireland feel confident that the public will change their mind and vote accordingly second time around, that is fine with me. I’m amazed they’re doing it though; if I were Irish I’d be very tempted to vote “no” just to spite them. The money is on a second “no” vote surely; isn’t it just delaying the inevitable.

The whole debacle is part of a wider failure of the EU’s political class to provide leadership on, well, pretty much anything over the past decade (Timothy Garton Ash showed the extent of the EU’s failure in his Guardian column last week). Enlargement and the Euro have been successes but all the heavy lifting for both of those we done in the nineties. All we’ve had since then is a lot of petty squabbling and a tunnel vision obsession about fiddling with the institutions.

This needs to change, finally, in 2009. Following the second Irish referendum the Lisbon Treaty will be either alive or as dead as dead can be; the zombie-shuffle of the past six months will finally be at an end. The first thing we have to take steps to ensure is that some of the more dim EU leaders don’t start drawing up plans for a Son-of-Lisbon Treaty. Instead, we have got to make do with what we have.

Secondly, we have major challenges to tackle. Immediately, there is the Middle East Crisis of course. By the end of 2009 we have the replacement of the Kyoto Protocol to worry about. And then of course there is how we deal with Russia, Turkey, the Balkans, the global economic downturn… all of these amount to a clear need for the EU to get serious and stop dicking around.

The Lib Dems can do their bit by campaigning in the European Parliamentary elections as an actual pro-European party rather than trying to dazzle people with irrelevancies. The decision to run the elections at the same time as the County Council elections won’t make this easy, and if we have a general election as well, debate about Europe will more or less dry up completely. But after spending 2008 in such a mess, it would be good to see us finally articulating an unambiguously positive vision for Europe. No-one else is going to.

Why I just can’t get enough of bannng lightbulbs

I wrote my article earlier this week on the Daily Mail’s bonkers line about a sinister EU plot to ban traditional lightbulbs primarily to point out quite how many non-facts were in the story. I should have remembered the golden rule – nonsense begets nonsense. Because the next thing I knew I was getting ticked off, not for making any factual errors, but for advancing the cause for banning things (yes Jennie, I am talking about you).

There is a certain degree of irony in this, having pontificated about the perils of banning things myself from time to time. When it comes to bans, Rob Knight gets to the heart of things:

what about when trying to control the bigger picture is just as harmf ul as ignoring it?

Well exactly. Indeed, I would go further than that. You need more justification for a ban than simply some narrow cost-benefit analyis. You can justify pretty much anything that way. Where bans are bad is when they become about bullying and forcing conformity (the tricky thing being that sometimes not banning can have the same effect).

So it is that, eighteen months down the line – and despite being a non-smoker and enjoying the benefits – I’m still not comfortable about the smoking ban. Patio-heaters, and thus a cost to the environment, have not become quite as ubiquitous as we were promised they were – although that has clearly been a problem. The fact that every single bit of shelter on the London streets now reeks of tobacco as smokers have taken up semi-permanent residence, is an unfortunate by-product but still nicer than the alternative. Why I’m uncomfortable about the smoking ban is that I simply don’t believe that the dangers of passive smoking actually outweigh the denial of the smoker’s liberty – particularly given that as a non-smoker I always did have at least a degree of choice to avoid smoky pubs, etc. I appreciate it was a balancing act but I continue to think the wrong call was made. Furthermore, the more I consider the class angle and the fact that anti-smoking policies seem to be generating a small, inevitably poor, hardcore who are more addicted than ever, the more uneasy I get. These policies are helping those who need help the least while harming the most vulnerable.

That it was a balancing act at all however, is a fact that is not recognised by the libertarian right, who only consider the restriction on the smoker as material. And this gets to the heart of why I don’t frankly have much time for libertarianism. It is a fetishised, parodic version of liberalism in which personal liberty trumps everything (except money). Libertarians have it easy; they never need to consider anything other than the fact that all bans are automatically Wrong.

Going back to lightbulbs, the calculation seems extremely one sided if you accept the need for urgent action on climate change. Incandescent lightbulbs are not a lifestyle choice but a different way of producing light less efficiently. If you don’t define their dominance as a market failure (General Electric even originally decided to shelve the design of Compact Fluorescent Lights as soon as they were invented – they were only produced at all because the designs were “leaked” and copies made), I seriously question how you define market failure. We could try taxing incandescent bulbs and try gradually phasing them out like that I suppose, but that would be even less popular.

And the arguments in favour of keeping them? That CFLs are “too dim” (they aren’t)? The interests of the snake-owning, lava-lamp demographic (even that is contested)? 33 year old studies on fluorescent bulbs based on miniscule sample sizes? Come on!

There may well be a killer argument out there for not phasing out incandescent bulbs, but I haven’t heard one yet. You’re entitled to disagree with me of course, but until you can come up with a stronger argument, implying that supporting phasing them out is illiberal is simply lazy.