Monthly Archives: March 2009

The Davies Agenda (sic)

David Davies MP has called for “abusive protests against serving military personnel” to be outlawed.

Davies has modelled himself as a staunch opponent of political correctness, but the truth is that he – like most people obsessed with the horrors of PC – is all for it really. He just has different political priorities.

It must be uncomfortable for David Davis MP to be constantly confused with a reactionary such as Davies. Given Davis’ own reactionary tendencies (before he managed to reinvent himself as a civil libertarian and self-appointed torchbearer for the modestly named “Davis Agenda“), that’s saying something. Sadly, I suspect that Davies is rather more representative of his party than Davis, as the fairly lamentable Tory showing at the Convention on Modern Liberty a fortnight ago made plain. Any party which has a Shadow Home Secretary who can utter the phrase “fewer rights and more wrongs” without cracking up can be fairly described as being “confused” (if one were feeling so generous).

This raises a serious question about how the Tories are treated by civil libertarians. One approach is to “hug them close” – i.e. applaud Conservative politicians whenever they make the right noises and emphasise how such behaviour is a clear sign of the party finally modernising and moving out of the Victorian era. The danger of that approach is that its own exponents end up being wary of criticising Tories when they say the wrong things and end up fooling themselves that a few speeches here and there will amounts to a shift in direction. If the use of the carrot approach is limited though, the stick approach is not without its problems either. Specifically, treating the Tories as The Enemy is unlikely to achieve anything much in the short term. At best, it will embolden the civil libertarians within Labour (they do still exist, even if they can be deplorably craven at times) and help to ensure Labour makes the right noises when it returns to the opposition benches.

Ultimately, stroking politicians in Westminster will only have a limited effect. If you want a lasting reversal of Labour’s authoritarian agenda, you have to change minds across the country.

UPDATE: Heh. Great minds think alike.

My Watchmen Review (SPOILERS)

For me, there was one scene in the new Watchmen film that summed up its inherent wrongness (spoiler alert): if you’ve read the comic you will know that Rorschach is thrown in jail and escapes (with a bit of help from Dan “Nite Owl II” Dreiberg and Laurie “Silk Spectre II” Juspeczyk) during a riot. As he is about to escape, Rorschach spots Big Figure, the equally imprisoned diminuitive crimelord who had earlier tried to kill him, dart into a toilet. In the comic, you see Rorschach follow Big Figure into the loo, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre exchange a bit of dialogue, and then Rorschach leaves. What exactly happens to Big Figure is left to our imagination, although we are to understand that “bumping” is involved and it is implied in a bit of gallows humour that he “dived head first” into something. It is a tiny, witty scene of the type that the comic is full.

What happens in the film? Well, Big Figure goes into the toilet, Rorschach follows him citing a need to visit the “men’s room” and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre wait outside. But very little is left to the imagination as we see Rorschach descending on Big Figure. The scene ends with blood pouring out of room. Some of the humour is retained, but for the most part it is replaced with horror and gore.

In a nutshell, that sums up Zack Snyder’s approach to the source material. The wit and humanity is pared down to the bone and replaced by a heightened level of gore. In the previous scene where Big Figure’s henchmen are attempting to kill Rorschach, an out of shot throat slit is replaced by a man having his arms chopped off with an electric saw. Earlier still, a scene in which Rorschach sets fire (out of shot) to a child molester is replaced by him hitting the man repeatedly through the head with a meat cleaver. Only Doctor Manhatten is supposed to have superpowers (even if Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt is understood to have achieved near-physical perfection) and most of the characters are meant to be out of shape and retired, yet when they fight they can break bones and walls with their punches, land on their feet from three storey falls and take the most incredible amounts of physical punishment – all in lingering bullet-time (so 1999 – the Matrix was literally a decade ago for Chrissakes).

In short, this is more of a caricature in the public’s imagination of “comic book” violence than the actual comic book. At one point this is made explicit. In the original comic, Ozymandias says at one point: “Dan, I’m not a republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?” In the film, “republic serial” is replaced with “comic book” – in other words, two fingers to the source-medium. Comics don’t tend to have villains explaining their plans, at least not to the heroes – that is cinema (c.f. a typical James Bond film). It is one of those odd libels that persists, and disappointing that an apparent fanboy such as Zack Snyder chooses to join in with the conspiracy. Still, you’ve got to show loyalty to the tribe I suppose (slight tangent, but I remember reading a review of Road to Perdition in which they slagged off Jude Law’s rather obtuse character as “betraying its comic book origins” – that character didn’t appear in the original comic and was created specially for cinema audiences).

My ultimate beef with the him however isn’t that it strayed from the original, but that generally it has blindly gone along with it. The annoying stuff is what they have kept. Why, for example, is there so much in the introductory sequence about the forties costumed vigilante Solitaire being a lesbian? It doesn’t add anything to the plot, that particular revelation isn’t even in the comic (it is relegated to a footnote in the text backup feature), yet we get a scene of her snogging her girlfriend and another scene of the two of them having been brutally murdered. If you are desperate to cut stuff out, why keep that? The only apparent reason seems to be some fanboy frisson about lesbians – which creeps rather uncomfortably towards misogyny. Why, in fact, is there so much about the forties vigilantes at all, given that – for example – the death of Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl) is not shown and the relationship of The Comedian with the Sally “Silk Spectre I” Jupiter is simplified to the point that we are to understand she was raped but loved him anyway. This is yet more misogyny; in the comic he certainly attempts to rape her, but it is made clear that she is ultimately made pregnant by him by consensual sex.

The different ending is, I have to admit, a slight improvement on the original. It never did quite make sense that you could achieve world peace simply by teleporting a big lump of meat in the middle of Times Square, giving everyone in the vicinity a lethal headache in the process. But changing it creates its own problems. For one thing, if artist Max Shea didn’t help design the “squid monster,” then how is this all tied in with his creation Tales of the Black Freighter (on sale in all good DVD shops soon)? Similarly, if Ozymandias isn’t working on a masterplan that requires genetic engineering to work, then why does he walk around in the last 20 minutes of the film with a hoofing great GM lynx. It is a total non-sequitor, a kewl-looking thing you can pay a CG-artist to animate, but something that otherwise has no relevance to the plot.

Even more problematic is the murder of Edward “The Comedian” Blake at the start of the film. He’s killed because the discovered Ozymandias’ plans, but he only discovers these because he is a spy working for the CIA who is sent to investigate what he believes is a Sandinista Base on a desert island. If there is no desert island, there is no rationale for him to have made the discovery. No discovery, no murder. No murder, no plot.

The main thing that is stripped out of the adaptation is humanity. The reason you care at the end of the comic when New York is wiped out is that for eleven issues you have got to know a small cast of characters who gravitate around a completely unremarkable newstand. It is upsetting when they all die at the end. In the film version, they are just cyphers. We don’t get to know the cops, or the staff at the New Frontiersman. We get to see Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have some really bad movie sex (in far more lingering detail than the comic), but we don’t get to see them cathartically make love at the end. At the end, we see Dan and Laurie grinning ear to ear as if they have somehow won something – they haven’t even had to change their identities as in the comic – but not the poignant moment at the end when we see Sally Jupiter, alone, kissing Blake’s photograph.

The final thing the film gets wrong is the pacing. Time is a constant motif – the atomic clock, the “Minutemen”, the “Watchmen”, Doctor Manhatten’s father’s career as a watchmaker, etc. Its famed nine panel grid works to mark time, with pretty much every frame indicating a similar time period. When larger and smaller frames are used, they are used very deliberately. It is a textbook masterpiece in graphic storytelling.

The film, by contrast, has very little in terms of pacing at all. It retains the episodic nature of the original but because so much is chopped out some of those episodes are very long indeed while others are shortened down to a single scene. As such it all feels disjointed and random where it should feel measured with the scenes following each other in a logical progression. Could this have been fixed? A TV mini-series might have worked better. But ultimately it rather shows film up as a flexible medium. You can tell a different story in a comic simply by changing the shape of the pictures and varying them throughout the story (see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for much more on this). With cinema, you have widescreen, very widescreen and very little flexibility within each film (interestingly, this is something that Ang Lee at least experimented with in The Hulk, but that film is not generally regarded as a great success).

Ultimately, Watchmen is a comic about comics. Originally based on the Charlton superhero universe, the decision to not use these characters themselves ultimately freed Moore and Gibbons up to tell a more universal story. So it is that Rorschach is not just a reinterpretation of The Question, but a satire on the oddness of his creator (and Spider-Man’s), Steve Dikto. Making Captain Atom Doctor Manhatten enabled them to explore wider themes about how superpowers would change the world if they really existed – not necessarily in good ways. The Tales of the Black Freighter interludes, aside from containing yet more nods to Steve Ditko and his contemporaries, explores the essential randomness of how superheroes came to dominate the medium. Stripped of all that, you can still tell a story but you lack much of the essence of the tale that Moore tells.

The Watchmen film isn’t a total disaster. As a tribute to the original it is very flattering. Much of the set design is fantastic. There are little snatches of brilliance here and there where you just wish they’d gone down more in that particular direction. Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach is inspired. I’d rather a film maker treated the source material with reverance than with contempt (as is the case of From Hell and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). But V for Vendetta, by no means a great film, was better and more memorable than this because it was ultimately prepared to take more risks with the source material.

Is respectful-but-not-slavish to the original too much to ask? The trail of good comic book adaptations is growing quite long now so the answer is surely “no”, yet the quest for a good Alan Moore adaptation remains elusive. My personal tip for a good Moore adaptation? Skizz directed by Danny Boyle. I’d really like to see that.

UPDATE: Andrew Hickey points me to an article by screenwriter David Hayter which sums up what a misogynist little turd he is, and at least partially explains the thoroughly negative attitude to women in the film.

How dominant is the “blokeosphere”?

Rowenna Davis writes about her experience as guest editor on Labour List on Comment is Free. What interests me about this experience is that while I think the so-called “blokeosphere” is out there, it isn’t universal across political blogs and, as a “bloke” bores me to tears as well. A few observations:

It is hard to see how you can infer a wider principle from LabourList. With Derek Draper at its head, LabourList is one of the most testosterone-fuelled blogs out there. It has reached its existing readership primarily by picking fights with people. I have to admit that even then I was surprised to learn that it has an all-male editorial board (and presumably will continue to have an all-male editorial board after today), but it does figure.

If you want change, you need to more than have a guest female editor for a couple of days. This was an oddly patronising way to mark International Women’s Day – bring the women out for the special occasion and then put them back in their box. LabourList has been significantly more interesting with her as editor (weirdly, I understand she isn’t a Labour Party member) than with Draper and there is every sign that we will be back to business-as-usual in the next couple of days. Indeed, with LabourWomen now established, the boys will be left to it. Only in the Labour Party is such a phenomenon seen a progress.

You can make a systemic shift – and the Lib Dem blogosphere proves it. I don’t wish to over-emphasise this as I am hardly in a position to claim to have expunged macho blogging, but eighteen months ago the Lib Dem blogosphere was as male-dominated as the Labour blogosphere. For whatever reason, it became apparent that there was a distinct increase in female bloggers, seemingly as a result of the relatively high profile blogger awards at the Autumn Conference and the excitement surrounding the leadership election. And that increase has proven itself to be relatively sustainable: the party’s top blogger is a woman, Lib Dem Voice has a good mix of men and women on its editorial team and most blog meetups that I’ve attended have been equally well balanced.

Why is this? I suspect it is a combination of the fact that a certain critical mass was reached and the fact that we talked about it. Much derided at the time, the Campaign for Gender Balance’s decision to launch its own awards in Spring 2008 helped create that dialogue. A great many women seemed to feel patronised by the awards and several men howled with outrage; as a result I (as one of the instigators) didn’t particularly push for a 2009 event. But I do think that the awards – or more precisely the debate that surrounded the awards – helped create a shift in attitudes.

There are plenty of female political bloggers out there – they just aren’t labelled as political. This is a point that Jenny Rigg makes repeatedly, and she’s absolutely right. Partly this is because of how women perceive themselves, but a lot of it is down to the different way they seem to get labelled, as opposed to men. My blog, for example, has always been a mix of politics, film, comics, television and general toss; yet I’ve always been regarded as a political blogger. As Jenny discovered, by contrast she tends to be regarded as an “other” by default and even feminism is assumed to not be political (as opposed to something to do with women’s bits).

Some of what Rowenna says is arrant nonsense. Sorry, but the idea that only Harriet Harman and other female politicians gets personally abused on the internet is simply not the case. Google “Nick Clegg” or “Menzies Campbell” if you don’t believe me. And “Cif is a good exception to the rule” of political blogs being male dominated? I don’t even follow the comments threads on my own articles on Cif because they are so full of bile and the first three comments in response to her article have been censored presumably because of their sexist content – if that is what Rowenna considers to be a feminist utopia she needs a wakeup call. It is hard to shake the impression that Rowenna is little more than a tourist when it comes to this subject and hasn’t really explored the blogosphere outside of LabourList at all.

More on faith schools

Following my piece on Sunday, I’ve written another article on faith schools over on Comment is Free:

It is a shame that the supporters of faith schools lack the faith that their ethos could survive a few children of atheists running around the playground. Ultimately, society as a whole is the weaker for indulging their insecurity.

Comment is Free: Has Nick Clegg finally cracked it?

If you haven’t seen it yet, my latest article on Comment is Free is now up:

There is still more work to be done. I still think we need to do more about social justice and child poverty; improving education and tax cuts on people with low incomes is certainly necessary but not sufficient. But if Nick Clegg can maintain this new sense of purpose, then the party has every reason to be optimistic about the future.

In defence of the Aberdeenshire Four… three… two

There has been a lot of murmuring at this Lib Dem conference over the debacle which has been raging in the Aberdeenshire Lib Dem Council Group over the past sixteen months as a result of Donald Trump. Bernard Salmon provides the background and I endorse what Neil Fawcett and Stephen Glenn have to say.

The one thing I would add is that the party is generally terrible at conflict resolution and generally running its own affairs with by the standard it would judge other organisations to abide by. The Scottish Lib Dems have past form of course – I may disagree strongly with a lot of what Neil Craig has to say but I haven’t yet seen anything on his blog to indicate his unsuitability to be a member of the Lib Dems. But you can’t single out the Scots. Last year there was that mess over Gavin Webb. My first article on Lib Dem Voice was over the poor handling of a complaint I submitted to the Federal Appeals Panel. Going back to my days in LDYS, I can recount two incidents: one where I was the subject of a complaint as a staff member which took the best part of a year to be investigated (I was eventually exonerated but had to have it hanging over my head while I was looking for a new job – a fact which almost certainly lead to me lowering my standards); and one in which I was the complainant which simply fizzled out into nothing. I could cite other examples, but I fear I would end up straying into the dark and murky world of defamation.

We have got to get a grip on all this. The party likes to wrap itself up in its image of being nice, and thus tends to kid itself that such structures are not necessary. As a result, the system is often use to trample on people in a quite appalling way, while letting others get away with the most appalling behaviour. If the FE is looking for something to do, then establishing a joint states commission to thoroughly review all aspects of how complaints and conflicts are resolved within the party and establish clear best practice protocols would be both timely and crucial.

In the meantime, I really hope people kick up a major fuss at the Scottish Lib Dem conference next weekend.

Why do faith school supporters want them to be so awful?

I have to admit to coming out of the Lib Dem debate on 5-19 education feeling somewhat perplexed. After a complicated series of four amendments wrangling over the same bunch of lines, what the party has come up with seemed to be little more than a state commissioned figleaf scheme. Let me explain.

The motion as originally worded (negotiated on the Federal Policy Committee by, among others, Evan Harris MP) allowed faith schools but banned selection on the basis of faith. The amendment which was passed replaced this with the following commitment:

Requiring all existing state-funded faith schools to come forward within five years with plans to demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes, with local authorities empowered to oversee and approve the delivery of these plans, and to withdraw state-funded status where inclusiveness cannot be demonstrated.

As I snarked on the way out of the auditorium, what this amounts to is faith schools being free to discriminate, but will have their funding withdrawn if they discriminate.

In fact, however, it’s actually worse. Never mind the abstract debate, for me the acid test is the couple I know whose humanist wedding I attended who currently attend their local church every Sunday (along with their Orthodox Jewish neighbours) in order to ensure that their children are let into the local primary school. What would this motion, as amended, do about this closely observed hypocrisy? Absolutely nothing. My friends could stop going to church, not be able to send their children to the local school, be able to demonstrate the school is non-inclusive and have the school’s funding scrapped (in so doing, harming the education of lots of other children). Or they can keep quiet, go to church and act as a figleaf for the school’s “inclusive” policy when the inspection comes. Stick your head above the parapet, and you might be able to claim revenge eventually. But it is in your child’s interest to keep your head down and be a part of the lie.

What is most crazy about all this is that many of the best faith schools out there don’t have exclusive selection policies; ending discrimination on the basis of faith only affects a hardcore. Yet speaker after speaker in the debate claimed that the motion unamended was an attempt to scrap faith schools by the backdoor. It was a grotesque libel perpetuated by, among others, Vince Cable and Tim Farron. What did they hope to achieve by making such ridiculous claims?

I strongly agree that schools need an ethos, and a religious one is better than none at all. A total ban on faith schools while broadening the range of organisations which can help run schools would mean that the National Secular Society and even Microsoft could sponsor a school while the Quakers could not. There are much worse organisations than religions that could end up running English schools under this policy.

But here’s the thing: I’m constantly hearing religious people out there banging on about the Golden Rule these days, that “heart” common to all religions which we are to believe makes them vital and moral things. Yet when you go along with all that, and merely ask for the ethic of reciprocity to extend to, well, everyone, all that nice, woolly tolerance suddenly vanishes. Suddenly asking them to not discriminate is an unacceptable position. Suddenly, far from the Golden Rule, the core of religion they want to preserve is the right to shut people out. And they dress this neat little package of discrimination up in talk about the need for “inclusiveness.”

It is no wonder that the supporters of the second amendment, which called for all faith schools to be phased out, are not prepared to take them at their word. The movers of this amendment repeatedly raised the issue of homophobia in schools and how difficult it is to grow up as a homosexual in a faith school, yet this issue wasn’t addressed. Rather than deal with this fearsomely important point, in an act of supreme irony the movers of the amendment were branded extemists.

As I’ve said before, I would rather ally with a liberal person of faith than an illiberal atheist. But liberals don’t condone intolerance. The message I got from the supporters of faith schools on Saturday was that intolerance is an integral part of religion without which faith schools would not be worthy of the name. Keep saying nutty things like that and I’ll join the barricades alongside Laurence Boyce.

Girlguides fail their policymaking badge

I hope Jane Merrick doesn’t feel that by quoting two of her articles in half an hour I am actually stalking her. But the Independent reports a new paper published by Girlguiding UK, the Fawcett Society and the BYC today about how our political system is failing young women:

More than a quarter of girls are put off by a lack of information about how they should take part, while 17 per cent believe it cannot make a difference.

Nearly half of young women say they would like to be more involved in volunteering, but when this comes to local or national politics, the figure drops to 28 per cent. Domestic violence, gangs and knife crime, bullying and equality at work emerged as the most important issues for young women.

The report calls for a new Youth Green Paper, including a demand for one person under 25 to be on every parliamentary shortlist, and the ability to vote by text message or through social networking sites such as Facebook.

I hope the Guides won’t be sewing their policymaking badges on their sleeves just yet (incredibly, the badge shown above is the real deal, and the global umbrella for guides is called the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts or WAGGGS). Are they really serious about youth quotas for candidate selections? Is this based on any experience of candidate selection processes whatsoever?

Gender quotas for candidate selections have done little to increase women candidates, as I believe the Fawcett Society themselves argue from time to time. Imposing a quota does not magically increase either the quantity or quality of the women wanting to stand as parliamentary candidates; all it tends to do is eat up time and energy spent on bureaucracy.

What we need is not a quota, but supply. Again, since the Lib Dems recognised that in the case of gender we have started making (slow, due to the fact that the relevant schemes remain under-funded) progress. If you want to increase the supply of young people in political parties, you will have to focus on developing their youth wings – all of which are various degrees of basketcase at the moment. The Guides could help actually, for example by working with the youth wings in a cross party way to promote active citizenship and encourage young women to explore their political interests. But that would mean not treating the youth wings of political parties as the pariahs of youth politics, as they currently are. A bold move; do the Guides have the guts to support it?

As for voting by text message or Facebook; words fail. This might make good faddy copy, but the implications for stolen elections are unbelievable, as even a cursory glance of the relevant literature shows. Elections held online are essentially unauditable and open to being hacked. Once again, if they are going to make bold pronouncements about how elections should be run, why didn’t they seek a partnership with a relevant youth organisation with an interest in such things, such as X-Change? If they had, they might actually have raised a far more important policy issue: that under our current electoral system all these gimmicks will fail to achieve much while it is clear that the system is rigged from the start.

Today at the Lib Dem Conference, Howard Dean made a startling claim: more under 35s voted in the US elections last November than over 65s. In fact it sounds so startling that I want to go away and factcheck it, but either way the level of youth participation has shot up in the US and it has been achieved not by having token youth candidates or letting them vote by mobile phone, but by offering them real politics and a chance to make a difference. The Girlguides should be paying more attention to that than trotting out the same old tired tropes.

Liberal Democrats: Winslet (not) here!

According to the Independent:

The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, faced embarrassment yesterday after it emerged that his party used a photo of the Oscar-winning actress for an advert in its conference brochure – without obtaining her permission.

A picture of her on the red carpet at the 2007 Golden Globes was doctored to make it look as though she was at the Lib Dem Council Awards at the party’s conference in Harrogate on Friday evening.

The picture left the impression that Ms Winslet, who has never revealed her political affiliations, was a Lib Dem supporter.

There’s a lot more nonsense but I won’t quote it extensively. A few facts before the Independent gets too excited:
1. The advert is for the Lib Dem LGA Group, not the Lib Dems.
2. The advert is on an internal party document – it isn’t aimed at the public.
3. Who was left under the impression that Winslet was a Lib Dem supporter? The article doesn’t say. It was just a stupid joke, softly taking the piss out of Winslet for her emotional award acceptance speeches. That was the impression I got from it. Is there any evidence at all that a reasonable person (as opposed to a hack trying to make a story out of nothing) would draw any other conclusion?
4. The picture was indeed doctored – in a really obvious way that makes it obvious it is meant as a joke. Again, what kind of a moron would draw any other conclusion?

Clearly the Independent assumes its readers are morons. That may not be an entirely unreasonable assumption actually, given how poor the newspaper has become in recent years. Why else do they stick with it?