All posts by John B

Two very different sorts of offence

The BBC has been in the news yet again for perceived offensiveness, with the Mexican ambassador slating Top Gear for calling his countrymen backward and lazy, and the Japanese ambassador slating QI for, erm, let’s get back to that one. But although lazy commentators on both sides (especially the ‘PC HAS GORN MAD’ side) have been keen to link the two examples, they’re very different.

Here’s the transcript of the Offensive Top Gear Mexico Routine.

Richard Hammond: Cars reflect national characteristics, don’t they, so German cars are very well built and ruthlessly efficient, Italian cars are a bit flamboyant and quick, a Mexican car’s just going to be lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight… leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus, with a blanket with a hole in the middle as a coat.
James May: It is interesting, isn’t it, because they can’t do food, the Mexicans, can they? Because it’s all like sick with cheese on it, I mean…
Hammond: Refried sick!
May: Yeah, refried sick.
Hammond: I’m sorry, but just imagine waking up and remembering you’re Mexican: ‘awww, no’.
Clarkson: No, it’d be brilliant… because you could just go straight back to sleep again. That’s why we won’t get any complaints about this, because at the Mexican embassy the ambassador’s going to be sitting there with a remote control like this *mimes being asleep*

Hammond’s initial comment is a reference to a fairly stupid but well-known stereotype. The comic phrasing and timing is decent – and the concept of a car leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus and wearing a poncho is entertainingly surreal. If followed up by “but this Mexican car is actually rather good”, it wouldn’t be particularly offensive – it’d be clear that the speaker was citing an old stereotype and then pointing out that it didn’t apply.

May’s follow-up is entirely witless, pointless and offensive. Hammond sycophantically tries to come up with something slightly funny based on May’s routine, which May then repeats to claim The Witty Thing for himself. Then Hammond goes somewhere very bad indeed (switch “Mexican” for “black” in the “Imagine waking up…” line). This is the appalling bit, and it seems to come out of Hammond’s attempts to amuse May.

Clarkson’s involvement is more interesting: rather than running with the invective Hammond and May have started, he shuts it down with a meta-joke about the whole routine. Unlike Hammond’s comments, and very unlike May’s comments, he’s got a good line followed up by a great line – and it moves the main attack from ordinary people to lazy, pompous bureaucrats. Which is another stereotype, of course, but hardly one that’s worth puncturing.

Anyway. Steve Coogan’s article on the debacle is worth a read – but to me, the dynamics of that routine highlight the truth of Stewart Lee’s Top Gear routine from five years ago. Clarkson is witty but lazy, Hammond is a desperate sycophantic tosser, and May is a thug.

Overall, it was absolutely right for the BBC to apologise for Hammond’s comments about Mexico, and it’s a pity that Jeremy Clarkson isn’t surrounded by smarter and more interesting people.

Meanwhile, from the entertaining-if-smug QI (I’ll note in passing that when Clarkson appears on QI he’s much better than he is on Top Gear, probably because he’s surrounded by smarter and more interesting people. But he wasn’t on this one. I can digress if I like; it’s my blog):

Stephen Fry: Now what is so lucky about the unluckiest man in the world?
Rich Hall: He got killed by a horseshoe?
Fry: Well, this man is either the unluckiest or the luckiest depending on which way you look at it.
Alan Davies: Something like he’s had more accidents and operations than any other man in the world and he’s still alive?
Fry: Bear in mind we’re after places beginning with H, and if I tell you his name this may help – his name was Tsutomu Yamaguchi, and he died in January 2010 aged 93. He lived a long time, so he wasn’t *that* unlucky…

Davies: Hiroshima?
Fry: Hiroshima.
Davies: Bomb landed on him and bounced off?
Fry: He was in business in Hiroshima when the bomb went off. He was badly burned, spent a night there.
Davies: …and he went to hospital in Nagasaki?
Fry: The next day, he got on a train, bizarrely, which shows you that even though the atom bomb fell, the trains were working. So he got on a train to Nagasaki and a bomb fell again. He became a sort-of hero, but only got the recognition in his 90s.

Fry: He’s either the luckiest because he survived an atom bomb twice, or the unluckiest because…
Bill Bailey: Well, he lived to 93, so his life was not curtailed.
Rob Brydon: Is the glass half empty, is it half full? Either way it’s radioactive. So don’t drink it.
Davies: He never got the train again, I tell you.
Fry: The astonishing thing to me is, you drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima and the train service is working the next day. In our country…
Davies: “Keep Calm And Carry On”
Bailey: …a couple of leaves and that’s it.
Fry: Yes, for the rest of the winter.
Bailey: “The wrong kind of bomb”. *station announcer voice* “Sorry, the wrong kind of bomb”.
Fry: Well, it was clearly the right kind of bomb. “It’s fine everyone, don’t worry, this was the right kind of bomb”.
Bailey: *station announcer voice* “The right kind of bomb has landed on the 4:30 from Potters Bar. Please proceed to the nuclear area. The sandwiches have not been affected”*.

So, there’s absolutely no trashing of national stereotypes, nothing at all racist, and nothing that even personally attacks Mr Yamaguchi. The only national characteristic or trait mentioned is the fact that Japan’s trains are better than the UK’s. The whole thing is good-natured whimsy, based simply on the fact that for some poor bastard to get caught up in both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings – and to survive for 65 years afterwards – is a funny coincidence.

And yet the Japanese embassy still complained.

The text of the embassy’s letter isn’t available. But the BBC’s apology is available – and it’s completely and utterly inappropriate.

The difference between the QI piece and the Top Gear piece is obvious to anyone with more than half a brain: one is saying insulting things about individuals based on their ethnicity; the latter is pointing out the humour in a tragic situation, while also engaging in light self-mockery over the UK’s ineptitude at public services. The former, although it can be justified on occasion, often ends up as bullying and perpetuating racism. The latter doesn’t. It’s just what comedy is.

The BBC shouldn’t be making shows that insult brown people for being brown (sure, it can make shows that include racist lines or stereotypes, but only if there’s actually a point behind them – which wasn’t the case in Top Gear). But if the BBC isn’t allowed to gently and non-scornfully mock tragic events that occurred more than 60 years ago, then it might as well close its comedy department for good, and focus solely on pleasing mad arseholes who wouldn’t understand a joke if it bit them on their, erm, mad arsehole.

Poms, Paddies, Wogs & Asians All Let Us Rejoyce

Note: this post was written at 1AM on Australia Day, following an evening in which many traditional Australian beverages were consumed. While I stand by its emotional truth in the cold light of day, I’m not making any claims of accuracy for any of the ‘facts’ cited below…

So, today it’s Australia Day.

We’re celebrating the arrival of 11 boats full of criminals and sailors to a place that a grumpy Yorkshireman had encountered seven years beforehand, and brought a map back to London. 224 years and five days ago, the boats in question all landed in a pretty harbour, discovered that it was inhospitably awful (subsequently, they built an airport there, which is fair enough – this would have been my reaction had I discovered Hounslow), and tried to sail somewhere else.

224 years and 0 days ago, they found somewhere else. They did a bloody good job.

Sydney Harbour, or Jackson’s Bay if you prefer, is one of the most astonishingly beautiful, and yet liveable, natural harbours in the world. Fresh water was abundant; it was unreal. As someone who came here on a series of jet planes whilst having a delightful holiday before making real life here, there was still something magical about seeing Sydney Harbour, beyond the bridge and opera house obviousness. I can only imagine – by which I mean I can’t, even slightly imagine – what you’d think on seeing Sydney Harbour for the first time if your starting point had been a year on a prison hulk.

So that was a win, overall. The locals were more or less friendly, although their “not immune to European diseases” and “not having a European conception of land rights” cultural differences turned out to be a bit of a problem in the longer term [*].

This is something which makes Australia very, very different from America. America’s bicentennial, featuring enormous amounts of pomp, circumstance and dedicated Isaac Asimov novels, was celebrated 200 years after the day they told the Poms to fuck off. Australia’s, featuring great gusto, many fireworks, and a lot of Aboriginal tokenism, was celebrated 200 years after the day the Poms turned up. Every year, Australian hats and shorts and bandanas are donned to celebrate Australian-ness. Every quarter of an Australian hat features a Union flag.

And yet, Australia Day is in no sense at all British. The spirit in which I’m going to go and get blind drunk on Australian pale ale tomorrow is the spirit of Australia, and in the hope – which, normally, is reciprocated – that I’ll be understood as someone who loves Australia and wants to be accepted as an Australian. Nick Bryant’s article from Monday has some background, but basically Australia is one of the few – possibly one of the only – places that has managed to transcend its colonial past without really holding any rancour towards anyone.

And yet they probably should be pissed off with us.

Aside from obvious convict-dumping, tariff-milking shenanigans, the British used Australians as cannon-fodder in all wars up to WWI (no more so than we used Brits, but still), and attempted to do so in WWII. This led to what, if Australians were less relaxed, would have been classed as a revolution: they refused to send troops to Europe to protect Britain, because the Japanese were planning to invade Australia and that seemed a bit more important. Then, when the Americans joined WWII, a new saviour was found (if that sounds patronising, one of my proudest possessions is the US Medal of Honor awarded to John Band who died fighting for the Americans as an Australian navy officer, so it wasn’t meant to). The concept that the UK was the mother country that would always protect you was irreversibly dead.

Which, as a Pom, is a bit depressing. One of the few things that I don’t like about Australia is its Yankophilia, but hell – it’s understandable, given who saved whose arses.


Australia’s originally of Pom and Paddy descent (the courts didn’t discriminate), saved by the Yanks, and since the war copious quantities of southern Europeans (known, in a way that horrifies squeamish Brits and Americans, as wogs), south-east Asians, and more recently Chinese people and Indians, have come here to make awesome lives for themselves. It works. It’s the least grumpy and most friendly place I’ve been to out of the 53 countries I’ve been to (Facebook quiz, sorry), and the place I’d most like to live in out of all of the places I’ve lived.

It ain’t perfect, but as far as I can make out, it’s closer than anyone who has the privilege to live here could possible have the chutzpah to expect. Happy fucking Australia Day.

[*] This is obviously the massivest understatement ever, and the bit where all of the minor keys on the piano are pressed at once. Don’t blame me, blame the people who organised the holiday. Yes, obviously Australia’s success is at the complete and utter expense of the Aboriginal population. Next July 4, ask an American the same question (especially as one of the main reasons for that particular rebellion was to avoid the British government’s restrictions on stealing Native American land). Hell, why not go and ask me about why people in England who aren’t of Welsh descent are taller and blonder than me?

Alcohol-related stupidity

Alcohol is famous for its ability to cause stupidity. As with most other drugs, this property doesn’t solely apply to chronic abusers – it also applies to policymakers and opinion writers, even the sober ones. Drugs and alcohol are second only to immigration as a leading cause of utterly stupid articles.

Now, I’ve written plenty on this blog in the past about how nannyist fools lie about the levels of drink-related violence and disease, and adopt completely the wrong policies for cutting alcohol consumption even if it were a good idea to do so.

So, in the interests of balance, today I’m looking at a piece from Harry’s Place that opposes a minimum price for alcohol. Now, there’s nothing wrong with opposing a minimum price for alcohol, mostly because it’s an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. But the piece in question manages to seize upon all the stupidest grounds for doing so that it possibly could.

Its starting point is that alcohol is price-inelastic:

Certain products – the classic example being alcohol – do not respond in the typical way to price changes in the market. A price increase does not lead to a significant drop in demand. People simply grin and bear the price increase.

There’s only one small problem: this is bollocks. According to actual evidence (Table 7), the price elasticity for alcohol is around -1; in other words, a 1% rise in price leads to a 1% fall in consumption. While the various studies vary in terms of total magnitude, all show that price elasticity is significant. A rise in the price of alcohol does, empirically, lead to a cut in alcohol consumption.

Impressively, the article goes on to get worse:

Far from reducing alchol-related social ills, arguably, it may even have the opposite effect. It will make social drinking at pubs even more expensive relative to wholesale drinking. People will end up drinking more at home, quaffing back the artificially inflated (but still cheaper) supermarket booze in the environment most likely to encourage them to destroy their livers, beat up their spouses and neglect their children, and to cause accidents at work even more than before.

The problem here is that alcohol minimum pricing proposals that have been made for the UK by even vaguely serious organisations have been talking about a minimum price to the consumer.

Let’s assume the minimum price at retail is set at 50p a unit. If I’m a manufacturer of gin, I don’t have to worry whether Tesco are paying me 50p a unit when they buy a truckload of gin from me to sell in their shops, and I don’t have to worry whether Mitchells & Butlers are paying me 50p a unit when they buy a truckload of gin from me to sell in their pubs. Rather, it’s Tesco’s responsibility not to sell you a bottle of gin for less than GBP14, and it’s M&B’s responsibility not to sell you a shot of gin for less than 50p.

Now, at the moment you can buy a bottle of gin for way under GBP14 in any supermarket, but you certainly can’t get a shot of gin for under 50p in any pub. The same would apply to beer as well: a 50p/unit minimum price would ban pubs from charging less than GBP1.25 for a pint of Kronenbourg, which none of them currently do, while banning supermarkets from charging less than GBP1 for a tin of Kronenbourg, which all of them currently do.

In other words, there’d be a significant impact on supermarket prices, but no impact on pub prices. So there’d be a significant decline in home consumption, but no decline in pub consumption. Which, if you believe that there’s a binge drinking problem with evil effects that are made worse by drinking at home (not, of course, that any evidence is produced for this one either), would be a good outcome.

Rather depressingly, Tim cites the HP piece as an example of lefties understanding economics. Which I suppose is true, in that it’s using the cargo-cult sense of economics that glibertoonians often base their arguments on – relying solely on half-remembered theory from the sixth form, missing obvious theoretical points out (whether because they’re inconvenient or because you’re slapdash, who can say?), not testing your theory against empirical data because you can’t be bothered, not doing sums because they’re hard, and coming up with clownish bullshit that even a GCSE economics teacher would grade as “F minus, see me”. In that sense, it’s absolutely spot on.

Not dead

Good news #1: I’m not dead; good news #2: the blog’s not dead. Rather, I’ve taken a month or so off thanks to a combination of bad things, good things and neutral things.

Bad things: major unpleasantness from commenters I respect around some of the things I’d written about Julian Assange; the realisation that some of the things I’d written about Assange – not necessarily the same ones – were not things I was wholly proud of having written; and (non-Assange-relatedly) a fairly horrible break-up in real life, which was entirely my fault and not something that’s sympathy-warranting, but which made me cut down on my online presence generally.

Good things: an awesome and amazing month being an utter tourist all over Australia [*] after some of my favourite people took time off to trek 15,000km across the world and visit; the emergence of a proper summer; the presence of paid work that needed doing.

Neutral things: the death of my router and a mild eBay failure which mean it took a fortnight to sort out a replacement.

Anyway. I’m now back for the duration, not least because my Masters degree in Digital Communication & Culture starts next month. I’m looking forward to such activities as explaining in detailed academicese why this article is an absolute load of arse, for example. Oh, and obvious digital communication joke.

Other Things To Look Forward To: why the fatuous idiocy of the NSW Liberal Party doesn’t matter as much as you might think; something about beer; something about Tim Worstall’s book. Be excited.

[*] May contain elements of lie. “All over NSW and Tas”. “All over Australia” would be more like a 5-year break…

There’s still no (update: a case, but a weird one) against Julian Assange

I woke up this morning ready to issue an apology, on reading the headline that a UK court had remanded Julian Assange in custody on rape charges.

I assumed that the Swedish prosecutors had actually produced some evidence (to be clear, victim testimony would absolutely count as evidence) that he’d either had sex with someone without her consent, or that he’d continued to have sex with someone after her consent was withdrawn. Because, y’know, when you’re dealing with responsible adults, that’s what rape is.

What the Swedish prosecutors have actually dug up is:

1) “using his body weight to hold Miss A down in a sexual manner” (note: outside of the imaginary world the Swedish prosecutor lives in, this doesn’t actually mean anything).

UPDATE: Crikey’s Guy Rundle, the only journalist who’s actually managed to report coherently on this case (and who was in court yesterday), says:

The first [count] is one of rape — that Assange used his body weight to lie on her, pushed her legs open and forced sex.

In light of this clarification, I’ve rewritten the conclusion to this post to avoid being misleading or unfair.

2) “sexually molesting” Miss A by having sex with her without a condom when it was her “express wish” one should be used (note: there is no suggestion here that Miss A told him to stop).

3) “deliberately molesting” Miss A on 18 August “in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity”. UPDATE: Rundle clarifies that this relates to pressing his erection into her back when they were sharing a bed. If you think that should be illegal, then I’ve got a one-way ticket to Afghanistan and a Taliban membership card, just for you.

4) having sex with a second woman, Miss W, without a condom while she was asleep (note: the context is that they’d had sex earlier that night and he’d stayed over in her bed. Again, there is no suggestion that Miss W told him to stop – rather, she woke up, understandably, and consented to sex)

UPDATE: To clarify on 4, it is completely unclear from anyone’s statements whether Miss W was awake or not at the time of penetration, but it is clear from both sides’ statements that once she was awake, the sex was consensual. If Assange penetrated Miss W before she woke up, and Miss W had then not consented on waking up, Assange could possibly be considered guilty of rape even if he had stopped immediately on being told to stop. But that isn’t the claim being made: rather, the claim is that Miss W did consent on waking up, whether that was before or after penetration – and then objected afterwards on the grounds that Assange hadn’t been wearing a condom.

[everything below has been updated]

Now, the events that were disclosed in the media (both by the prosecution and by Assange’s lawyers) prior to the trial solely concerned charges 2-4. When I published my original piece, it was substantially correct on the facts as disclosed (which was the ground being argued on). As far as those charges, which have been discussed and documented elsewhere go, he is a cad, but not a rapist, and wouldn’t be prosecuted for them anywhere other than Sweden

The first charge, introduced yesterday having never previously been mentioned, is different. Unless the prosecution is simply making it up, which is possible given the farcical nature of the rest of their case to date but not probable, we need to assume that Miss A has testified that Assange raped her (under the definition of rape held in English law). This also means that – unless Assange’s lawyers can somehow demonstrate pre-trial that Miss A’s testimony is so compromised that there is no realistic prospect of conviction – Assange should face a trial to determine whether or not these claims are true.

None of this farce does anything to dispel the massive stench of politics-over-justice and rampant incompetence that surrounds the Wikileaks case. But now that Rundle has clarified the first charge, it seems that the English judge was correct not to drop the charges against Assange (I’m not convinced the remand in custody is justified).

The American race narrative is unique and irrelevant

In Anglophone countries, we tend to view race through a US prism.

The recent Teacupgate saga that black (meaning black, not BME) students are underrepresented at Oxbridge is a good example.

In the UK, and every other majority-white country except the US, black people are just another immigrant group – they’re people who’ve mostly come to the relevant country in the last 50 years, alongside people of all other ethnic groups who’ve done the same as international migration has taken place. They represent about 2% of the UK’s 10% ethnic minority population.

In the US, 13% of the population are African-American, and the vast majority are the descendants of people brought over forcibly, 150 years ago or more, to work as slaves.

So what? Well, “choosing to come over recently to avoid poverty or torture” is a choice. An excellent choice that people should be allowed, but a choice. And a choice that took place within living family memory.

“Being the descendants of people you don’t know and whose history you don’t know who were brought over in chains” is rather different. It’s much closer morally – and, as the data says, in terms of levels of deprivation and lack of civic engagement – to being part of an indigenous community.

So however the US government treats black people isn’t relevant to how European governments should relate to black people, in the slightest. Black people in Europe are equivalent to South Asian and East Asian people in the US – a minority with specific cultural needs, but not a group to whom a special obligation are owed.

In Australia, New Zealand and Canada, there are directly analogous groups: the Aborigines in Australia, the First Nations in Canada, and the Maori in New Zealand. Of those, the Maori are the most relevant, as they account for a similar percentage of the population of New Zealand as African-Americans account for the population of the US.

In the UK, the closest parallel are people of Pakistani origin working in northern ex-textile towns – although they weren’t sent over by force, whole villages were offered migration in a “everyone else is going, so you’d better” deal in the 1950s and 1960s to serve the textiles industry as cheap labour. And, oddly enough, the obstacles those groups face are similar to those faced by African-Americans.

But that’s got sod-all to do with being black – indeed, if you called the average Bolton Pakistani black, they’d be distinctly cross. It’s to do with being a minority group that’s been transplanted en masse, rather than through voluntary “I’m going to leave everything and head elsewhere” choice, to another place.

So can we please drop the pseudo-American discourse under which ‘black’ is a unique and specific cultural difference worth making something of?

The reason black Caribbean British people have a shitty time of it is because they’re in the same boat as white working class British people. Which is a shitty boat, but the stats suggest that the white working class and black Caribbean immigrants live in the same places, do the same things, and have an equally rubbish time of things.

Meanwhile, other immigrants – excepting the descendants of Pakistani and Bangladeshi mill-workers, but including black African immigrants – view themselves as middle-class and get treated that way.