The death of Great Train Robber (which, rather like the Holy Roman Empire, is a descriptive phrase that falls down on all possible counts) Ronnie Biggs has led to some predictable, polarised reactions: the geezer-ish “he was a fackin’ legend!”, and the handwringing “but he was a violent cwiminal!”.
Both are fairly stupid.
Ronnie Biggs certainly wasn’t a great robber. By 1963, he had a record for a couple of inept property crimes, but had been clean for a few years. He asked his (more seriously and more competently criminal) friend Jack Reynolds for a loan; as a favour, Reynolds cut him into the mail train robbery he was planning.
Biggs had a friend who claimed to know how to drive trains; Biggs’s role was to escort his friend to the scene of the crime so that he could drive the train. It turned out that Biggs’s friend had no idea how to drive the train at all. The two of them were instead sent off in disgrace to count the money.
At the same time, going against the plan that Reynolds had devised and the conspirators had agreed to, a thug probably going by the alias of Alf Thomas  bashed train driver Jack Mills repeatedly in the head with an iron bar. Mills suffered a black eye, bruising, concussion, and what we’d now call PTSD. After trying to go back to work and not being able to concentrate, Mills took early retirement, and not long afterwards developed fatal leukaemia .
Biggs was a man who signed up for an awesome, audacious and non-violent (while obviously, extremely criminal) plan which he had no role in formulating. He screwed up his only actual job in the plan, quite possibly contributing to the failure of the wider exercise. He was an incompetent petty thief out of his depth, not a legend.
Biggs was not a man who was morally culpable for the beating of Jack Mills by someone he’d never previously met, against the plan that he’d signed up for, whilst he was somewhere else. He was an incompetent petty thief out of his depth, not a violent thug.
 I’m informed by Archie V on Twitter that the conspirator named James Hussey confessed on his deathbed to assaulting Mills, although the accuracy of his confession is questioned .
 Which, despite the claims sometimes made by the handwringers, is not caused by a blow to the head.
 It’s considered likely that the conspirator known as Alf Thomas was later allowed to escape by the police, in exchange for returning a proportion of his share of the money. Hussey was jailed for the robbery, but had not been accused of the assault before he made his confession.
The fact that marriage isn’t yet equal in Australia is saddening, depressing and annoying. But, given John Howard’s 2004 anti-equal-marriage amendment to federal marriage law and the fact that the Constitution explicitly reserves marriage to the federal government, the High Court made the right decision.
For the Australian Capital Territory’s Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act to have been legal, the court would have had to have agreed with the wording of that act that same-sex marriage didn’t count as “marriage” for the purposes of the Constitution, and therefore didn’t fall within the Constitution’s designation of marriage as a matter reserved for the federal government.
That would have meant that marriage was recognised inherently as something that could only be between a man and a woman, rather than solely because of the wording of the 2004 law. From a symbolic point of view, this would have been terrible. And given that same-sex couples already have de facto status, which in Australia confers the same rights and obligations as marriage for most practical purposes(*), the purpose of the ACT legislation was solely symbolic.
But the High Court ruling is not just symbolism.
The legal position following today’s ruling, is that
- all marriages in Australia are real marriages, irrespective of the participants’ recorded gender;
- it’s only the 2004 federal law that prevents marriage equality; and
- its repeal will put same-sex (and trans*) marriages in exactly the same position as opposite-sex marriage.
Had the court ruled the other way, it would have found that same-sex marriages didn’t count as real marriages at the level of the constitution, which would have been far harder to fix.
When will the 2004 law get repealed? Well, it was a Conservative government that introduced equal marriage in the UK. Even fusty Tory bigots can’t fight the tide of history forever…
(*) there are some differences between marriage and de facto status, mostly related to property division and alimony. However, an ACT ‘Same-Sex Marriage’, being explicitly not considered as marriage under federal law, would not have changed these, certainly outside the jurisdiction of ACT courts and quite possibly even within it.
How should we judge someone’s words? By intent, by effect, or what? How much does unintended offence matter? Also, LILY ALLEN and TWERKING and EATING IRISH BABIES.
I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
The quote above, of course, is from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, viscerally parodying the callousness of the British regime in 18th century Ireland in letting children starve, and the harrumphing letters to the newspaper that privileged scumbags would write about feckless over-reproducing “professed beggars”.
It’s an incisive pisstake of a very shitty trope, which is vile to the poorest in society, is reproduced by the middle- and upper-classes – and a trope which is being exposed and mocked here by one of the most privileged men in the country. As a result, it’s a textbook example of Satire Done Right but also Satire Done By Someone Privileged.
Scumbag Londoner Wants Our Babies Eaten
Now imagine a version of 18th century Ireland where, as they starved, Catholic peasants were somehow able to read those words as written [*]. As you prefer, this could be based on the knowledge that Swift was writing a parody targeting the British upper- and middle-classes, or it could be completely devoid of context as if this were a book by a wicked Englishman.
In either case, it’d be hard for someone to read those words, on how your children were to be singled out and taken and raised for food, without feeling at best uncomfortable. If you knew it was written as a satire, then perhaps it’d be forgiveable and you’d understand the points being made, but at the same time it’d be hard to disentangle from the sickening way in which people were talking about eating your children. If you didn’t know it was written as a satire, you’d be understandably tempted to find the person who wants your kids raised as an alternative to turkey at Christmas and kick the bastard to death.
Internetglobalisationtwitterbollocks means that we now live in a world where, assuming the piece that you write reaches more than a niche audience of you and your mates/regular readers, it will be viewed devoid of context. There’s a good chance it’ll reach someone who is in the group whose side you’re on, but whose side you’re pretending to eviscerate for the sake of the piece – so the example of the Irish peasant given a copy of Swift is no longer outlandish.
(By The Way, He Directed Major Lazer And Nobody Cared)
Given that the whole point of satire is to upset and confront the powerful, how does that affect the appropriate way to behave in the current environment? I’m really not sure on this. The controversy raging over Lily Allen’s latest video (the best bit is the rejoinder to the horrible Robin Thicke, in which new mum Allen gloriously spells out “Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy” in balloons) is a good example.
It’s aimed at savaging the music industry, as highlighted by the white male exec who tells everyone what to do, and most of the content. Allen is pressured into being toned-teenage-model-bodied despite just having had two kids, in front of a mob of dancing rent-a-girls in what have become standard R&B video clichéd moves and poses. If you’re a middle-class white female British artist and a middle-class white male British director, and you both have a fair amount of experience of how terrible MTV is, this is something that might seem like a reasonable, not-especially-clever, not-especially-controversial satire on the world in which you operate.
On the other hand, the video features twerking dancers who are mostly black (four out of six, because he hired the best twerking troupe and there were four of them of whom six are black, says the director), and a couple of lines where Allen disparages rap culture materialist aspirations. Add to that the fact that the USA still dominates online discourse, and is still a society featuring a terrifying racial divide and preponderance of full-on black-hating neo-slaving lunatics even on the allegedly left-leaning side, and you have a recipe for trouble.
Which duly occurs. Both of these are excellent well-written pieces, both worth reading. Both, crucially, come from priors that are very different than any priors that white-Brit-liberal types involved in either making or watching the video would be likely to have. From an African-American perspective, the video co-opts African-American culture, ridicules it, and positions Allen as better than it. Which is quite different from just being someone who escapes the creepy white male exec and his creepy demands.
Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa; WHAT NEXT?
Anyway. Today on Twitter, I defended the video (which was a stretch, because I was pretty disappointed by the song), and I went way too far and ignored far too much of the above in doing so.
It’s easy, if the intention seems so obvious when you share the priors of the makers, to dismiss other people as ridiculous for not understanding – like the hypothetical Irish folk who read Swift’s book and believe that he’s even more evil than the average Englishman. In some cases, it’s warranted (various Stupid Onion Comments blogs testify); in others, the cultural context is far less clear, so it isn’t. There are many right-wing places, again particularly in the USA, that publish utterly despicable content; there are some sub-Onion satire blogs that publish pieces which appear more aimed at trolling for its own sake than humour; and Poe’s Law is a thing.
But it’s even easier, when someone else does understand but is still offended by the fact that they are being used instrumentally in that way, to assume they fall into the first category. Which I know I’ve done tonight, and which I regret.
This is the point that I’ve come to realise, and I’m not sure I’d thought about it properly before. When considering the second Swift In A Time Machine (hot tub not included) case, with a well-fed, Irish-born member of the English gentry trying to explain to the starving masses “no, look, the baby-eating thing was a joke to annoy the English. No, really, I’m on your side, that was the point” – I’m not sure that would cut it, even if they believed him. And I’m not sure they’d be all that unreasonable to take it in such a way.
So is there something inherently wrong with Swiftean satire and we were wrong to like it all along? Can that kind of ambiguity only be deployed by people in oppressed groups rather than by privileged people who dislike oppression? Is there something contingently wrong, which means it can only be deployed in a world that’s less connected than the world where we actually live? Or is it just that Lily Allen and Chris Sweeney are insufficiently good at it to be viewed as competent satirists, and actually our man Jonathan Swift would have done just fine?
I’m not sure. If it’s the final one, then I suspect that means everyone who isn’t Chris Morris or Jon Stewart probably needs to be a lot more careful about what they say satirically. And maybe that’s not a bad take-out.
[*] To be clear, I know Swift was a popular author among English-speaking literate Irishpeople, being one himself. Since Johnny questioned it, I should make clear that we’re using a hypothetical device that makes English-language works accessible to people who can neither read at all nor speak English.
Anne Treasure has written an excellent piece on the impact of digitisation and globalisation on the publishing industry. The piece is global in scope, and works well in the context of UK and US publishers and writers.
The picture is more complicated in Australia, where the global shift creates an additional problem. Traditionally books by UK and US authors have been distributed in Australia by their domestic publisher’s local subsidiary, and sold at up to three times the price they sell at in the UK or US. This both cross-subsidised the publisher’s local list and kept prices consistent between foreign and local titles.
Now that people can get the new Donna Tartt from Amazon for $9.99 and have it delivered in a few days (or instantly on a Kindle), paying $35 to get it in a local bookstore becomes dramatically less appealing. So the previous subsidy to Australian writers – both in the sense of direct cross-subsidy from shoring profits, and in the sense of making domestic books price-competitive with foreign books despite having a far higher breakeven price because Australia is a smaller market – disappears.
In the new environment, Australian writers writing on topics of global interest can go to where the readers are and sell what they’re doing worldwide, and maybe do better than before. Australian writers writing on topics of primarily local interest have a problem.
THINGS MIGRANTS SAY IN POLITE CONVERSATION (WHICH ARE TRUE):
“Hello, new friend-of-friend. [if person notes ethnicity in conversation] Yes, I do like it here, thank you. Yes, I’m intending to stay here. Yup, the weather is great and the people are friendly. No, haha, fair, I’m probably still gonna support my home country team against yours in the one massively hyped sporting contest that everyone talks about, but I do already support yours when they’re playing anyone else.”
[followed by: normal conversation, which may include philosophy, Cold Chisel, NRL, house prices, or the million life-in-general things that conversation features. Recommended.]
THINGS MIGRANTS DON’T SAY IN POLITE CONVERSATION WITH NON-MIGRANTS (EVEN THOUGH THEY’RE ALSO TRUE):
“Hello, person who was born here and waves a flag on special occasions. I like-love this place so much that actually, my quest to be allowed to stay here is the single most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ve bothered to do it. A quarter of a year in working days of my time, if not more, has been spent on staying-here bureaucracy and I’m hoping and praying (despite being entirely secular, can’t do any harm, right?) that the form-filling ceremony in a year or so will go hitchless and I’ll no longer have to worry about the risk of being driven out of my home and the place I already view as my homeland with a couple of weeks’ notice. And I’m still listening, and learning, and trying to understand, and always listen to make sure I’m trying to do this place right - and sometimes fuck it up, and am aware of it.
I’m lucky, I’m white and skilled and rich-country-born and English-speaking. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t have been let in in the first place (since I arrived on a visa only available to citizens of wealthy countries), and all of the steps that I’ve taken to become established as a member of this society would have been far harder. And I had money – while I don’t count my MA as part of the visa side of things, even excluding that, I’ve spent over ten thousand dollars on things that have solely been to ensure my visa, and have another outlay of a few thousand to come.
If I were poor (even if a citizen of a wealthy country) or a citizen or a poor country (even if wealthy), there’s absolutely sod-all chance I could have done what I’ve done here. When politicians talk about how people like me, or about how people who aren’t that different from me, who have a different foreign passport or a few fewer dollars, shouldn’t be here, I’m hurt by this discussion. The difference between the person being hated and me is solely down how how the speaker appraises their imaginary victim’s cultural and economic value, and a different speaker could view mine as equally worthless.”
[followed by: general communal downer, self-identification as lairy outsider. Not recommended]
REASONS WHY PEOPLE WHO AREN’T BIGOTS AND HAVE MIGRANT FRIENDS ARE ABLE TO MAINTAIN UNHELPFUL BELIEFS:
“I’m friends with John and Prashant and Pierre, and they’re good people and they’re all here and they’ve never complained about how hard it is to get in or to be accepted, we just have a bit of banter about cricket and then talk about philosophy, NRL or house prices. Not like those whingers who come over here easy as pie and claim the dole and get free houses.”
In the lead-up to the 2010 UK general election, many civil libertarians of my acquaintance (not solely Screaming Loony Privatise The Army Libertarians, but people of all economic stripes who believe that broadly, trials are a good thing and torture is a bad thing) were suggesting that for all a putative Tory government’s likely failings, at least it would be better than Labour at upholding civil liberties.
Backbench hanger-and-flogger David Davis’s ridiculous stunt over ID cards was the declaration of intent that this particular mob saw, although one might have thought that the ongoing chorus of ‘Abolish The Human Rights Act’ from the Tory backbenches was a more accurate signal of things to come.
Which brings us to today. In one day, the Tories have pledged to impose de facto ID cards by requiring certified ID for almost all aspects of daily life, and impose draconian restrictions on people who’ve never been convicted of a crime on the say-so of the police.
Even civil libertarians surely can’t have expected the Tories to be better on abortion than Labour (which, curiously, didn’t seem to matter quite so much to this largely male grouping when making decisions before the election. Mysterious). Even so, the sight of government ministers denouncing the Director of Public Prosecutions for upholding the existing law on abortion and allowing a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy, whilst floating a change in the law that would restrict this right, is even worse than might reasonably have been expected.
In terms of policy, much of this reflects the fact that the party in government is always the party permanently having its ears bent by authoritarian bureaucrats and cops. But it also reflects the fact that the Tories aren’t and never were the free-trade, classical-liberal party that Labour-hating libertarians imagine them to be (that was the Whigs; Tories were always authoritarian reactionaries). Basically, civil liberties fans who cheered the Tories, you were stupid last time; don’t be so stupid next time.
The really impressive thing, though, is the framing, which goes even beyond Mr Blair’s skills. For a government that frequently seems to teeter on the edge of losing control, the way in which all three of these horrific policies have been phrased is sheer PR gold. Compulsory ID For All has been expressed as “OMG stop illegal migrants from taking your jobs!!!”; Minority Report has been expressed as “OMG stop Jimmy Savile and save the childrens!!!”; and Bollocks To Abortion Rights has been expressed as “OMG something something China!!!”. Superbly designed to pull at the heartstrings of the average total fucking idiot. Hopefully, still not quite enough to avoid losing the next election…
The simple fact of the matter is that capitalist democracy, for all its crippling limitations, has been immeasurably less oppressive and a lot more democratic than any communist regime, whatever the latter’s achievements in economic, social and other fields.
Hat tip to @durrant_james on the Twitters.
So Dan Nolan was wondering how much beer it would take to kill you.
It turns out the answer (LD50) is 42.5 cans in an hour, or 61 cans in a 24-hour day for a normal drinker, or 96.5 cans in a 24-hour day for a heavy drinker who hasn’t yet developed serious liver damage.
But don’t take my word for it, the model is here for your edification: Too Much Beer Will Kill You Just As Sure As None At All.xlsx
I an a civilised gentleman with a fine reputation; my father has a reputation as a smart bastard who stirs up shit. He also introduced me to the delightful and amazing Kirstie MacColl and by proxy, Johnny Marr.
I feel the need to stick up my dad’s Trayvon commentary, because it needs a home.
This train wreck of a trial is a bit like a Korean airliner crash. It takes a series of errors to get there, but given the people involved, they surely will. A bad law puts the jury in the position of deciding what was going on in Zimmerman’s wretched brain. The jury selection process results in a jury of ladies who might find an encounter with a black hoodie frightening. And then they are told that if they have reasonable doubt about what was going on in Zimmerman’s mind, they can acquit him. The verdict is not a surprise, but it underlines the shabby nature of American law- making and enforcement for the 216 years since a revolution based on a twin commitment to slave ownership and tax dodging, masquerading as a freedom struggle.
Eurovision is massive in Australia, probably more so than it is in much of Europe – despite the fact that there aren’t any Australian participants, we don’t get to vote, and it’s shown on time-delay. Which is odd.
Of course, its importance is symbolic. Eurovision was first shown in Australia in 1983, which was exactly the point when the first generation of Australian-born people of non-British and non-indigenous descent (*) was in the ascendant (since from 1946-1973, migration policy had moved from ‘The Empire’ to ‘any country you like as long as you’re white-ish’).
Australia was shedding old stereotypes about national background, stiff-upper-lips and machismo, and forging its own identity with a nod to all the cultures from which the population was now derived. Combining row-of-tents campness with a near-total match to white Australians’ homelands, Eurovision couldn’t have worked better as a totem of the New Australia.
The White-ish Australia policy has now been dead for almost exactly as long as the British Australia policy had been in 1983, and again, the country has changed substantially and for the better for it. Sure, there are still plenty of bigots, but Asian cultures are now a massive part of the Australian mainstream.
It occurs to me that what we really need now, to cement and mark this, is some kind of massively campy event that somehow nods to both Australia’s multiple European heritages and the Asian heritage of New New Australians… Any ideas?
* yes, I know there have been Chinese and German Australians for almost as long as there’ve been white Australians and for much longer than there’s been a country of Australia. But mass migration was overwhelmingly from the British Isles until after World War II.