Archive for April, 2009

On Star Trek

April 21, 2009

 Tom Harris MP has written a post about Star Trek. He admits that he isn’t actually much of a Trekkie. He prefers the (mostly godawful) films to the TV series, which in my book is always indicative of slightly odd taste. It perhaps also explains why he has failed to pick up on the fact that one of the most appealing aspects of Star Trek is its promotion of progressive values. It’s not just sci-fi nerds who should appreciate the cultural signifiance of t’Trek!

The basic premise of the programme was radical. Creator Gene Roddenberry wrote those original storylines against the backdrop of explosive racial tensions in the U.S and the spectre of Cold War divisions threatening to breakout into a nuclear conflict. And what did he come up with? A TV series based on the adventures of a space ship in the future populated by various races living together in harmony and representing the United Federation of Planets. 

Remember aliens were mostly represented in popular culture as dangerous ‘foreigners’ who had come to invade America ( just like the Commies wanted to). By contrast the mission of the Star Trek crew is essentially to bring about greater peace and understanding in the universe – how lovely is that? When speaking of socialism Oscar Wilde once said “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth looking at”. The sheer utopianism of the show is endearing.

Ok, so the format was fairly traditional, in that the structure was meant to be similar to the Wild West shows that were popular at the time and every episode was basically some sort of morality parable. But luckily the Star Trek moral code was one which envisaged humanity growing up and leaving behind petty squabbles of race and nationalism. Roddenberry later revealed that through creating “a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek – we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network”.

Lieutenant Uhura was played by Nichelle Nichols (a black woman) and Lieutenant Sulu by George Takei (Japanese-American). Unlike most contemporary television at the time Star Trek did not portray ethnic minorities as stereotypes and did not have them cast in lowly, servile positions.

The famous interracial kiss between William Shatner and Nichols was one of the first ever seen on screen and was hugely controversial (although the fact that the characters were being momentarily manipulated by alien mind control somewhat spoils the poignancy of the moment!). Apparently when Nichols was considering quitting her role to move on to something else Dr Martin Luther King Jr. advised her not to.

We should also remember that Shakespearean thesp and loyal Labour man Patrick Stewart starred as Captain Picard in the excellent Star Trek: The Next Generation. Stewart once recalled a journalist telling Roddenberry: “Look, it doesn’t make sense. You got a bald actor playing this part. Surely, by the 24th century, they have found the cure for baldness.” Roddenberry replied: “By the 24th century, no one will care.” 

I will admit my argument that Star Trek was a TV show of high principles and great cultural significance is undermined by the production studio’s ruthless financial exploitation of the franchise, by some of the abysmal film plots, and by the ever weaker TV spin-offs (Deep Space Nine was very good, but Voyager was poor and Enterprise I find unwatchable). 

I will go to see the new film but I am pessimistic. I think Star Trek was at its best when it reflected upon matters of contemporary relevance in an imaginative and sometimes daring manner. This is obviously best done on television rather than in a blockbuster movie designed to make maximum profit. Yet for its historic challenging of social norms and for its portrayal of such an optimistic future for humanity, Star Trek still deserves to be taken seriously.

Captain Jako

p.s I have a girlfriend and have never been to a Star Trek convention

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A place for paedophiles?

April 20, 2009

Last night, the BBC’s excellent Louis Theroux tackled a topic generally avoided by analytical journalism. Louis’ film crew spent a considerable time in Coalinga Mental Hospital in California, documenting the programme the hospital has in place for the most serious sex offenders in California. There was a caution at the start that viewers may find aspects upsetting. This was an understatement of epic proportions. The programme throughout was disturbing but what it filmed shows how important it is consider these issues thoroughly. Our instinctive squeamishness gives the tabloid press space to disseminate misinformation.

Louis Theroux - San Quentin

Following the programme, I believe there are at least 5 major problems with the Coalinga scheme.

1. Double punishment – A noticeable feature of all the patients/inmates was their age. It was apparent that all had served long jail terms and their stay in Coalinga was being used as an alternative to release. I do not believe such a scheme would be possible in an ECHR jurisdiction. It seems the men were only told at the end of their jail term that instead of release they were obliged to stay at Coalinga.

2. Confusion of purpose – The California system works on 2 incompatible principles. When the offenders are sentenced to prison they are deemed to be personally culpable for their actions. Yet when it comes to their release they are being diagnosed with a mental condition which makes it unacceptably likely that will reoffend. If the second finding is correct, it presupposes that the offender was not sufficiently capable of resisting the urge to commit the initial offence(s). This is a perfect example of the system having a bob each way to ensure the greatest possible punishment.

3. Preoffenders – If, as the scheme suggests there are identifiable sexual disorders of the mind, why are they not seeking to discover members of the general population with these disorders? It seems the scheme has already determined that people with these disorders are unsafe to live at large. Why is the system restricted to those who have already committed an offence.

4. Effectiveness –  the findings of the scheme suggested that very few people are ever ‘cured’ of these sexual disorders. I am extremely sceptical that this offending pattern is caused by any clinical disorder. The failure of the scheme to ‘cure’ any but a handful of offenders seems to support this view.

5. Why sex offences? – The perhaps suprising aspect of criminal justice figures is that rates of recidivism for sexual offences is lower than almost any other category of offence. Surely these ‘rehabilitation’ schemes are targetting the wrong offences?

Tragically, despite the many obvious flaws, the Coalinga scheme has an undoubted appeal to it. The programme was shocking and the offences ‘treated’ at Coalinga destroy our most basic sense of justice. Many who watched the programme will clamour for Coalinga-style institutions to be rolled out across the UK. For my part I am confident this would never happen but it may raise awareness of how we monitor our most serious offenders on their release from custody.

Tories, debt and the Unholy Alliance

April 19, 2009

A well-respected and highly intelligent friend of mine was recently extoling the virtues of this article by Seumas Milne. Reading it reminded me of why I have stopped reading the Guardian. Included within this article are some very interesting points. It also commendably seeks to bash the Tories and the CBI for their views on the recent economic Armageddon. Regrettably, the article also includes a truly bizarre attack on the Bank of England and tends to use misinformation rather than analysis to make its arguments.

I have been angered by the Tories attempting to blend consumer debt and budget deficit into this one great evil, “debt”.  Worse still the pair are put up as the cause of the banking crisis. This idea is too stupid to deserve comment. Correcting all the mistakes in this article would be beyond the scope of this post. Some observations are in order.

Suggesting that the Bank of England is a natural enemy of Labour budget deficits is nonsense. The Central Bank is responsible for financial and monetary stability. Large budget deficits present a danger to both. Mervyn King’s comments to the Commons Select Committee were balanced, reasonable and justified. He did not blame the Government for the deficit and did not even call for it to be reduced. He merely stated the blindly obvious fact that a series of fiscal stimuli could increase the budget deficit and might pose a risk to financial stability.

bank-of-england

The article foolishly then tries to discredit Mr King by accusing him of ‘presiding over the financial disaster’. The author is only a decade out of date with that comment. The ‘financial disaster’ was within the regulatory competence of the FSA and has nothing to do with the Bank of England.

Suggesting David Cameron plans to cut the pay of nurses, firefighters etc is ridiculous. I have no doubt that a Tory Government would propose a range of damaging cuts in the public sector. Suggesting they would cut the pay of key workers totally discredits his argument.

I cannot remember the last time I was so angered by a pro-Government article. It is vitally important that we are prepared to stand up for Labour’s handling of the crisis. We must not drift into the kind of misinformation which punctuated this article. It is too easily open for challenge and undermines our efforts by giving the appearance of desperation.

Two MPs of the future – and deservedly so

April 18, 2009

labour-1957-posterI have two points to make in this post, both relating to near-contemporaries at Oxford who have both gone on to do much better things than I could ever hope for.

Firstly, congratulations to Bridget Phillipson who has been selected as Labour’s candidate for Houghton and Sunderland South. A former Chair of Oxford University Labour Club, Bridget is fantastic and will make a first-rate MP.

Bridget’s selection is great news for the promotion of good, young people in the Party. It shows we do have plenty of young talent who will be leading our Party in the years to come. And that brings me on to my second point:

The blogosphere (and mainstream media) has given much coverage to the Parliamentary selection in Erith and Thamesmead. There has been outrage at one of the candidates, Georgia Gould, having the temerity to do sensible, legitimate things to try and win.

A few weeks ago, I was thinking of writing a post equivocating on the issue of whether a 22-year-old can ever be a suitable Parliamentary candidate. Despite my respect for Georgia, I was unsure as to whether anyone that age could possess the maturity, insight, empathy and tenacity that are needed to be a good MP.

However, after the McBride email debacle, I am so sick and angry at the smears that have been directed at Georgia, through the pages of Tribune and in the mainstream media, that I am going to come off the fence (I’m sure you’ve all been waiting with great anticipation.) Georgia is an exceptionally talented and hard-working young woman who would be 10 times better as an MP than plenty of the ones we already have. She’s a regular Party activist who’s friendly, intelligent, organised and utterly committed to the Party.

Would she be a better MP with an extra 10 years life experience? Of course. Would she be in this position without her well-connected parentage? Maybe (probably?) not. However, they are not the issues at hand in this selection. Both Don Paskini and Conor Ryan have  posted about the lengths that the McBrideists (for want of a better term) will go to peddle falsehoods about those they are up against. These are the people who will put the denigration of those in what they consider to be opposing factions above the good of the Labour Party. The positive news for Georgia and the rest of us is that they are also as daft as brushes (the latest comedy caper being to break into the postal vote ballot box).

I would urge any Erith and Thamesmead Party member reading this to vote for Georgia Gould whenever the selection is held and then do their damned best to make sure she gets elected to Parliament.

A date for your diary

April 18, 2009

This time next week will be the big day for the Tolpuddle King’s Cross festival! Labour movement history, Billy Bragg, political choirs – what more could you ask for? If the weather is like today’s then it will be perfect. I think I’m right in saying that a few of us Paintbrushers will go along. Hope to see you there too.

Ian Tomlinson: Fresh Evidence

April 17, 2009

I have never been one to retreat from my views without good reason, however, it is clear that my previous post on the death of Ian Tomlinson requires updating. I had previously stated that I did not believe a shove and/or a baton strike were likely to have caused a heart attack. In the light of this I stated that I did not believe it right to prosecute the individual officer. Following the news today that Mr Tomlinson did not die of a heart attack but from abdominal bleeding my positon has changed.

There will now, rightly, be an investigation into whether the officer is guilty of manslaughter. The fresh evidence considerably increases the likelihood that the police assault was responsible for Mr Tomlinson’s tragic death. The investigation will be complex and determining causation will be tough. It is a matter for the experts who need to consider the facts dispassionately. I do not feel it is appropriate to pass further comment on the matter whilst the police investigation is ongoing. My previous views were based on clearly mistaken evidence and I hope they do not now seem disrespectful to the family of Mr Tomlinson. This news must add to the unimaginable grief and anger his family must be feeling at this time. If the officer is prosecuted, the G20 protests will represent a very dark day indeed in the history of the police.

‘The Sound and the Fury’

April 16, 2009

If you find yourself on the Euston Road and with some time to kill then I recommend – nay, insist – that you pop into the British Library to visit ‘The Sound and the Fury’. This exhibition demonstrates the power of public speaking by giving visitors the chance to listen to a vast selection of famous voices and celebrated speeches from the library’s humongous audio archive. It’s brilliant, and free, and so extra-brilliant!

From the days when Prime Ministers were not afraid to sport impressive facial hair

From the days when Prime Ministers were not afraid to sport impressive facial hair

Upon entering the exhibition room you will sit down infront of a computer and be presented with a choice of public speaking categories.  There’s something for everyone: historic addresses, classic theatrical performances, comedy clips (including young William Hague telling Conservative Conference how much he loved Maggie!).

Being so inclined, I went straight to politics and listened to a very fuzzy William Gladstone speaking in 1888. 1888 I tell you! Granted, it was not an especially exciting speech. Infact he was simply recording a message of congratulation to the inventor of the phonograph. Not exactly a piece of thrill-a-minute oratory. But it’s not everyday you get to listen to a nineteenth century Prime Minister!

Other nineteenth century recordings included famous nurse Florence Nightingale. I suspect the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ found all the newfangled phonograph-recording-thingies a load of mumbo jumbo and she talked very…..very……slllooowwwllly about something or another.

Loved his party and his nukes.

Loved his party and his nukes.

Labourites with an enthusiasm for party history will be as excited as I was to hear the full recording of Hugh Gaitskell’s speech to the 1960 Labour Party conference where he declared: “There are some of us who will fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love”. Reading the speech on paper can’t express the full emotion of Gaitskell’s words, nor convey the tension in the conference hall as delegates variously hissed and booed or wildly cheered their leader whilst he implored them not to endorse unilateral nuclear disarmament. At times it sounds like it’s going to descend into violence. Nothing like a good old fashioned conference policy bust-up!

‘The Sound and the Fury’ is on at the British Library until the end of September. Go there. Go there now!

Brought to you courtesy of the British press and broadcast media

April 16, 2009

Apologies for the lack of posts from me – I’ve been taking an Easter trip out of the Big Smoke to the provinces, and leaving the blogging to other paintbrush comrades.

It seems like a lot’s been going on in my absence, but the juxtaposition of these major news memes caught my eye today:

Story 1: “We’re so glad that no action has been taken against a civil servant, who broke their code of conduct for political gain“.

Story 2: “A civil servant breaks their code of conduct for political gain? Off with his head!

The Benefits of Booze

April 15, 2009

In what must be seen as a valiant attempt to get Sleasegate off the news, we had the release of a welfare reform proposal today. As is essential for a welfare reform proposal, it seems targetted at an undoubted injustice and appears well-meaning. However, as with all welfare reform proposals, on closer inspection it turns out to be counter-productive and largely nonsense.

james-purnell

The Government has promised to remove the benefits of any alcohol-dependant who fails to seek treatment. The injustice the policy seeks to address is clear. Even the most public-spirited person on the left would find it hard to defend state money being used to fund an alcohol addiction. It is also well-meaning. Perhaps some of these benefit claimants will be ‘cured’ of their addiction by the schemes they are forced to attend.

The nonsense of the policy is that I cannot fathom how the DWP determines which of their many thousands of claimants are alcohol-dependant. An eagle-eyed Jobcentre employee might identify the odd claimant who habitually visits carrying an open can of Tennants Super. Perhaps others will slur when they phone the DWP. The truth must surely be, however, that people self-declare their alcoholism when they attend schemes to address their alcoholism. The nonsense is that if people never attend a scheme, the Government has no idea who they are to threaten with this policy. In the worst case scenario, long-term benefit claimants will avoid schemes to address their alcoholism, lest they notify the DWP of their condition.

I remain a complete sceptic on welfare reform. By their very nature, benefits are an inconvenience to society. Nobody wants to pay them and the vast majority of people never want to receive them. If somebody receives benefits it is because society is morally obliged to pay them. Any scheme which threatens a benefit-recipient with the loss of benefits is logically a nonsense. If we withdraw benefits from these people, the State must support them in some other way. My plea to James Purnell as we battle this recession, please stop this pointless stick waving. It may produce good headlines and photo opportunities but it is not why I joined the party and it’s not why I campaigned for a 3rd term.

Interesting suggestion

April 14, 2009

Let’s not beat about the bush or be nice here. Derek Draper must be fired by Labour and must be fired by Unite, his bankrollers. And I don’t just mean “fired” as in “fired from his job”, but “fired” as in, “fired from a cannon into the heart of the Sun.”

From an article at LabourList by Kit Leary, who I hope will remain in the Labour fold.