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From The Guardian, 17 April 1999
Spot the bomber
Were they Turkish? Were they German, I wondered? I knew they couldn't have been British
There was an eight-hour hiatus on Thursday between Nato admitting responsibility for killing 70 refugees near Meja and then revealing the pilot's nationality. Which Nato country with operational bombers would it turn out to be? Turkey, Germany, Britain or the United States? Unable to stand the wait, I spent Thursday afternoon in a process of elimination by logical deduction.
During the second world war, British school-children were issued with diagrams identifying the tell-tale, differences between a Messerschmitt and a Spitfire. Turkish Bomber Command have issued each Turkish pilot with similar diagrams identifying tell-tale differences between Albanian and Kurdish refugees, so as not to bomb the wrong ones.
Albanian wheelbarrows, for example, have a wider handlebar span than the Kurdish wheelbarrow. Unlike Kurdish tractors, Albanian ones have a short stove-pipe and no driver-cabin.
Tractor outlines appear on the Turkish charts in front-view, side-view and aerial-view - just so there's absolutely no mistake. Thus I was able to rule out any chance of a Turkish pilot having made this tragic error.
The Luftwaffe had put themselves in the clear as far back as Wednesday evening, issuing a statement declaring that at the time of the Meja bombing they were flying two reconnaissance missions elsewhere. This claim was subsequently corroborated by eyewitnesses in Volgograd and by some sharp-eyed schoolboys playing close to the docks in Rotherhithe
And it is not just patriotism that led me immediately to exonerate the RAF.
No. Rather it was the sure and certain knowledge that these sort of tragic blunders only happen when morale is low. And we may assume that the morale of our servicemen and women is high.
Each British combatant rests safe in the assurance that should the worst come to the worst - if, say, they were to develop some kind of wasting disease from contact with uranium-tipped missiles and bacterial injection, then Her Majesty's Government will take care of her own. No sooner shall any soldier be invalided home in this way than an MOD representative will arrange to meet them in whichever court is most convenient.
Not Turkey. Not Germany. Not Britain.
The last couple of US presidents have spoken repeatedly of "fighting the war on drugs". I believe, however, that if their air crews took less acid they might not confuse Baghdad with a cable-car full of Italian skiers, or Albanian refugees with Serbian military hardware. (If however you've lost wars to countries whose most sophisticated hardware was a wheelbarrow, then it's kinda hard, y'know? To make the distinction and all?)
Those of us against Nato bombing Yugoslavia are branded anti-interventionist. I'm not. The problem with Nato's war on Yugoslavia is that the United States does not have a very successful military record.
One of the advantages of going through the UN - apart from legality - is a better and more varied selection of armies. Go through the UN Security Council, as we're supposed to, and we may look forward to Kofi Anan giving the following press conference: "Due to their experience of this type of conflict, I am sending in the Hutu militia."
And when that personnel carrier lands at Belgrade airport to disembark the First Battalion of the Under-12 Crack-Addicted Kalashnikov Orphans, their machetes clanking down the airplane steps behind them - Milosevic is gonna come to the table pretty fast.
I myself would be proud to lead them: "OK kids, pipes at the ready. And remember: 'Consider yourself at home'..."
If the above scenario is fantastic, it is no less likely than seeing some news coverage linking Nato's Yugoslavian bombing campaign to the Pentagon's role as corporate cash-cow and pump-primer of the US economy, and to all that money America owes the UN.
Rob Newman's most recent comedy performances were at the Almeida Theatre,
From The Guardian, 7 August 1999
Keeping us stupid
Robert Newman: The worst aspects of corporate colonisation are filtered out by the media and politicians
Headlines about the Church of England's GM test-site ban (Wasps humming I Am What I Am spark synod gay-gene cross-pollination fear) have furthered illusions that there's some kind of biotechnology debate going on in the media.
There isn't of course, because GM foods reporting is consistently packaged as purely a consumer health risk or consumer choice issue. And even in the week when Christian Aid accused biotech companies of "selling suicide to the third world", the social consequences of GM crops still don't get a mention.
When a globalisation issue enters the mainstream media it is subject to the same criteria as deer seeking entry into Sainsbury's: first you gut it, behead and vacuum-seal it so consumers aren't troubled by an idea of the living thing. The angle on GM, for example, extends as far as the perils of cross-pollination. In Monocultures Of The Mind, Vandana Shiva says: "Herbicide resistance excludes the possibility of rotational or mixed-cropping ... This hits the third world hardest because of higher plant diversity and the prevalence of diverse occupations based on plants and biomass." Still, if thousands of rural women can't weave mats or baskets any more because all the reeds and grasses are dead - well, no matter a Millbank moderniser will tell us: the high-tech information age has made those old-fashioned mats a thing of the past. Nowadays, your welcome mat on the Indian or European doorstep is a digital thing sent electronically from the WTO to Cargill and Monsanto.
At first biotechnology's social fallout looks like a geometric progression of the pre-existing chemical-industrial agriculture. The same disaster, only much worse.
Small producers are squeezed out (GM crops are capital-intensive). Local production for local communities is replaced by cash crops for exports and malnutrition. Landless serfs find themselves in urban sweatshops in Haiti or China or wheresoever Nike shirts or Barbie dolls are made, while somewhere in the Midlands another British textile factory shuts down. And if rural Haitian women are making Barbie dolls, here's another "boomerang" effect we need worry about: Haiti is the home of voodoo. All day these Sevi Lwa, ti bon ange women are handling blonde, white female dolls. I ask you this, my friends: what else save a malevolent, supernatural power could ever have made Ffyon Jenkins look at William Hague and want his babies?
The difference between GM and chemical-industrial agriculture is in the power-structures. Brewster Kneen, author of Invisible Giant: Cargill and its Transnational Strategies, compares Cargill in India with "colonizing troops who dictate that the peasants will now produce agricultural commodities for the colonial power, which will take these commodities to another land, process them and send them back to be purchased by those among the colonized people who can afford them."
Biotechnology takes reporters closer to describing the contours of power than they care to go. For a start, a few facts about biotechnology make the conventional pieties about third world debt a little tricky. The Rural Advancement Fund International, for example, calculates that US biotech companies owe the south about $5bn in royalties for seed, germplasm and pharmaceuticals. Of course they won't pay: they're too busy suing India for bio-piracy of their basmati rice patent.
Now you may say that the reason news media tend to focus on a consumer health-risk angle is simply because this is the main area of public concern about GM foods. Yes, all right - except I would argue whether that is, in fact, the main area of public concern.
Corporate globalisation has created a democratic deficit which people feel keenly. (An emotion not to be dismissed by the contemptuous slanders of phrases like "voter apathy" or "public hysteria".) The main force of public anger about GM foods is about the disregard with which this PM treats the will of the people. Tony Blair. Is about as much concerned with our objections as he is with the peak-season earnings-potential of a Tuscan deck-chair attendant. He has forgotten that there is an indivisible step between governing by an elite and governing for an elite. Or maybe he hasn't.
Blair completes a great tradition of Enlightenment liberals who feel
in their hearts that the "meddlesome herd" are too stupid to
know what's in their own interests, that decisions are best left to "men
of best quality". (See his exasperation when he has to face an old
social justice-type question, see his pen delete (s)28.1.a from the Freedom
of Information Bill - the bit about the development of policy, see Rhoddri
Morgan). The irony is that the people have seen what the politicians and
Newsnight commissars won't see for a decade: their whole post-Fordist,
and economic-global- growth-expansion sketch is over, because the earth
won't have it and there's no place for us.
From The Guardian, 14 August 1999
It was a riotWith help from Mark Thomas, I brought capitalism to its knees. Well, almost
Gotcha! Time-coded and freeze-framed in this week's press: The man in a suit with a mobile phone who called the shots in City riot.
I went to the June 18 Carnival Against Capitalism and it blew my mind. Picture the scene. There you are, right in the heart of the City of London, and suddenly you've got all these drug-fuelled anarchists bent on social destruction looking out their office windows at a carnival. Reclaim The Streets suggested people show up wearing suits so as to cause confusion. Meanwhile, lots of City firms had told their employees to come to work that day in jeans and a T-shirt. This led to surreal visions. I'm outside the Liffe building, a man in a perfect pinstripe suit has just finished spray-painting the words F*** Corporate Scum on the glass-panelled door, when the door opens, a head pops out and shouts: "Jenkins! My office! Now!"
You can't see the Millionaire Mastermind's face in the police-video freeze-frame. Is this done out of respect for the Press Watchdog's sub judice guidelines? Well, no, not really. You see, I know "the mastermind" they've circled in the photo: show his face and you'll see a 20-year-old kid (writes a no-budget eco-prankster fanzine in a small seaside town).
His disguise slips, gasps one broadsheet, when he puts down Financial Times and briefcase to help distribute concrete blocks. Ah, weapons! Again, no. Fact is, as on all previous Reclaim The Streets actions, the concrete blocks are there to seal off the road for the sound systems.
The event I attended is unrecognisable from the press distortion.
Spiderman blowing huge bubbles over the crowd; a sound system on a tricycle; three topless women with "Drop the Debt" written on their breasts; papier-mâchécarnival giants; skateboarders; three topless women with "Drop the Debt" written on their breasts; confetti; dancers soaked where a fire-hydrant springs the lost River Walbrook high into the air; three topless women with "Drop the Debt" written on their breasts. (I feel these notebooks offer a Pepysian historical record.)
The whole day was magical - until that police van ran over a young woman and it all kicked off. (No time-coded still of the hit-and run, of course.)
News reports never mention that the City carnival was part of simultaneous actions world-wide. From Argentina to Nigeria, Germany to Australia, Korea to Los Angeles, organisations as diverse as Karnakata State Farmers' Association, North Sumatra Peasant Union, Canadian Auto Workers and Green Action Israel all timed their carnivals to coincide with the G8 summit. (And all, presumably, organised by a 20-year-old fanzine writer from his secret underground bedsit; the whole thing power-financed by the 90 quid Mark Thomas and me raised to pay off his Letraset-debts at a benefit-gig last year.)
Press silence about this being a global day of action, and their inability
to conceive of ground-up, grassroots organisation, are two sides of the
same coin. The news has to show events as unconnected. Their only "totality"
is a black-out. (This philosophical bias forces otherwise decent reporters
It would only confuse matters to note how, for 20 years, Third World GNP rose year on year until the IMF's "rollback"- an 80s policy aimed at re-subordinating newly-industrialised countries.)
"If the problems [of globalisation] are viewed as separate and unconnected, solving all of them seems impossible," writes Helena Norberg-Hodge, "seen holistically, the potential for solutions expands enormously." Virtually the same social and environmental breakdown is occurring across the world, she argues, "but people tend to blame the problems they face - whether they be unemployment or rising crime or deteriorating environment or the breakdown of community - on individual politicians/ parties or on near-at-hand enemies".
The media's frantic search for a Mr Big reveals a conspiracy theorist/top-down/ Dr Evil and Mini-Me-type view of the world. Well, not quite the world... Conspiracy is what squatters and skateboarders, not powerful elites, do. Odd, then, how the papers have suddenly all started using the word "terrorism" about both GM and road protests. Almost as if they were laying the groundwork for the proposed legislation against terrorism.
In the new legislation, the home office wants "ideologically-motivated...
damage and disruption" to be included in the definition of terrorism.
But this will not, of course, extend to the City.
From The Guardian, 7 August 2000
Performers of the world unite
Novelist and performer
of 'Chomsky-lite stand-up' Robert Newman takes current comedy to task.
You tend not to associate the word "politics" with the phrase "Edinburgh fringe comedy festival", unless you're talking about the Scottish Assembly.
So why am I taking my own brand of Chomsky-lite stand-up to the Edinburgh fringe this month? Political comedy is dead. The ideological battles are over. History has ended. There is no alternative. There is no conflict between the interests of workers and bosses - in fact, there aren't even workers and bosses any more. If there's one thing comedy loves more than rigidities, authoritarian pronouncements, lies, conformity, ideologues and the views of rich people in general, it is this: a world in which everything has been sorted out lovely and we're all working together like a team. (Two fellers pouring cement together, one fat, one thin. A sunny day. Pocketing his fob-watch, the foreman sets off for lunch, happy in the knowledge that when he comes back it'll all be finished.)
Newsnight editor Peter Horrocks embraced this mood of togetherness when
he told his staff in 1997: "Our job should not be to quarrel with
the purpose of policy, but to question its implementation." Everything
has turned out nice - even if there are still some people who don't realise
that the class war is over and believe there is a conflict of interest
between bosses and workers. People like the International Herald Tribune,
say, whose recent jubilant front-page announced: Rise In Joblessness Delights
US Markets. And BusinessWeek with its headline: Thanks, Goodbye - Amid
Record Profits Companies Continue To Lay Off Employees. (Two men whistling,
and the gentle rumble of an approaching steamroller.)
The past 20 years have seen a rollback of a century's social progress and democracy. This presents politically involved musicians, writers, artists, filmmakers and performers with a challenge: how to describe the Hydra of corporate-led globalisation. Or, to put this question strictly in terms of comedy: when the central fact of life is an unprecedented upward transfer of power and wealth from people to unaccountable private tyrannies, where da gags gonna come from?
Well, firstly you can forget about conventional satire.
Satire has no fire in its belly and believes in nothing. Which is why the producer of a famous TV satire show told me that there is no such thing as poverty in Britain, nor are there "systems" or "class interests". (He then went on to moan how everyone thinks he is right-wing, but really he isn't anything.)
Satire always ends up following the news agenda and replicating its institutional biases - for example, the habit of ignoring issues to talk about power-play, intrigues and the whole wretched soap opera of Westminster gossip. (Quite apart from the fact that separate studies show that 40% of all "news" items are laundered PR messages that come from "issues management" firms like Burson Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton. )
I'm not saying that having a pop at individual politicians or CEOs is always pointless. Just that there's satire and satire. A great political comedian like Roberto Benigni never gives Fiat chariman Gianni Agnelli and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi the legitimacy those feudal lords claim for themselves. When Benigni does Agnelli's walk or Berlusconi's slow head-turn, their arch-grandiosity seems like a bubble they can go around in just so long as they never meet the real world. He gets laughs off them precisely because he shows them to be mere, witless, products of a rigged system. In Italy they call this system appartenenza; in Britain it's called the "public-private partnership". In both countries it means the same: a socialist nanny state lavishing corporate welfare on the rich and "tough love" capitalist market discipline on the poor.
Same with Michael Moore. When the people's champ gives us the dope on corporate bosses and sweatshop kings, he never presents their greed as some kind of deplorable personal trait. Moore never suggests they should be replaced by some other CEO who is less greedy. A nice CEO! A gentle robber baron! To a union-man like Moore they are part of a process of exploitation (and part of that same system that BBC "satire" producers don't believe in).
The Zapatistas define humanity as "the struggle against dehumanisation, the struggle to walk upright in a world that keeps pushing us down". This could be a description of Chaplin's Modern Times, right down to that see-saw floor of his rickety shack. Or Laurel and Hardy, or Steptoe, or Richard Pryor. The modern satirical idea, however, is somewhat different. Instead of misfits trying to conform, we have conformists trying to look rebellious.
PJ O'Rourke, Jeremy Clarkson, David Aaronovich, Richard Littlejohn, Rush Limbaugh - all these self-styled "iconoclasts" are, in fact, high-priests of dominant and fashionable orthodoxy. These brave and rugged frontiersmen want to impress us with their subversive views, but when do we ever hear anything else anyway? All we ever get is the corporate-friendly view. Where are the acres of news space about grassroots alternatives to the free market? Where are the black feminists' syndicated columns? Jeremy Clarkson hurls manful defiance at the new green tyranny of endless eco-shows like, er, Top Gear, The Car's the Star, Grand Prix Highlights and The Farnborough Air Show. Listen, bubblecut: BP is in the government!
Apart from TB, one characteristic that this neo-liberalism shares with other golden ages of political comedy, like the late 19th century, is that the gags just write themselves. At last week's demonstration against tube privatisation, Bob Crowe of the RMT described how a gas company is running the fire station, Virgin is supplying gas, Western Water is bidding for the tube, and non- emergency ambulances are in the hands of a minicab firm. Not only has Dickens's Circumlocution Office been privatised but Podsnappery is flourishing too. In Dickens's description of Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend you can almost see Tony Blair or Clare Short when someone confronts them with one of those words that have been taken out of the dictionary, like "class" or "imperialism":
Mr Podsnap settled that whatever he put behind him he put out of existence. There was a dignified conclusiveness - not to say a grand convenience - in this way of getting rid of undesirables Mr Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish to his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him (and consequently sheer away).
All year BBC economics correspondents and New Labourites have been saying that there is "almost zero unemployment in the US". A quick phone call to the Census Bureau or the American Bureau Of Labor Statistics might give them figures between 12m and 15m. Not including the 2m banged up. But that's not the point. In today's elitist cant, if the facts don't fit, they have to be suppressed for the ideology to survive.
And this brings us to one of the major obstacles to doing a political comedy show: such is the state of British "news media", there is a real information problem. If, for example, you happen to have a hilarious yet rousingly defiant routine on the recent Bolivian water riots, you first have to:
a) convince people that they've happened; and
b) tell them what happened.
And in doing this you run the risk of clogging up your act, overloading it with stodgy chunks of background data. But the flipside of this is that there is sometimes an agreeable expectation when audiences can't quite see where the next gag's gonna come from - a tension I have been known to let build up for an hour.
Ironically, one of the reasons the public don't have the facts is what Jeremy Hardy describes as the "tyranny of humour". Every news and current affairs show has its gonky comedy bit. I like to think that my stand-up shows are one of the few places people can escape this incessant humour, the wall-to-wall comedy of our chuckle-culture.
Even as audiences queue up, an expectant grin on their vacant maws, I
like to watch them through a crack in the dressing room
From The Guardian, 11 November 2000
Mind the GATS
When the Death Star of the WTO exploded with the protests in Seattle, GATS was the hatch-pod in which Darth Vader made his escape
A little-known trade agreement looks set to mobilise global protests in coming months. Two days ago, under the banner "Whose rules rule?", the World Development Movement launched the UK campaign against GATS - the General Agreement on Trade in Services. When the Death Star of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) exploded with the protests in Seattle, GATS was the little hatch-pod in which Darth Vader, disguised as a local riot-cop, made his escape. GATS unleashes transnational corporations to roam the planet and buy up any public services they fancy. Everything from hospitals, post offices and libraries to water and education. Any electorates who try and hang on to these services will get slapped with non-negotiable trade sanctions until their economy screams.
Leaked WTO documents show them currently working out a list of what will be acceptable as a "legitimate" government objective for any regulation of services under GATS. That of "safeguarding the public interest" has already been rejected. If GATS goes ahead, warns economist Susan George, "then Europe can kiss goodbye its public health services". But even though that's just the start of the disaster, there has been no parliamentary debate or news coverage about GATS. (It's way too important for that.) The British government's official line is that there's nothing to worry about anyway. The DTI claims GATS won't apply to the NHS or education here because "non-commercial services" are exempt from the fiat . But GATS says that if you've got just one tiny part of a public service that's even an iddy-biddy-bit commercial then THE WHOLE THING IS UP FOR GRABS.
Massive though GATS is, it's important to remember that it's only one more link in a longer chain locking in domestic populations to stuff they won't like and never voted for. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, locks Mexico into neo-liberal reforms in order to protect profits from what NAFTA's planners termed "the danger of a 'democracy opening' in Mexico". IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes, written in Washington, lock developing countries into "liberalisation" policies over and against the wishes of their own people. And we were locked into the Financial Services Agreement (FSA) by the Chubb Corporation! "The FSA," proclaimed the International Insurance Group, "is like taking back the neighbourhood. We can't have governments behaving in thuggish ways."
On taking back the neighbourhood of Chile, Henry Kissinger famously said: "I won't stand by and see a country go communist because of the stupidity of its own people." And there is this kind of "Kissinger-logic" swimming like a virus throughout the whole toxic alphabet soup of GATS, NAFTA, SAPS, FSA, IMF. As the Washington Centre for Strategic and International Research puts it: "In the final analysis, what really matters is how effectively the surrender of governments to the global markets is carried out." (Tony Blair waved his white flag, telling a business audience: "I still bear the scars of the public sector on my back." Note the past tense. He doesn't see himself as working in the public sector any more.)
But to say that GATS is an agreement made by, and for, transnational corporations who just drew up a wish-list and handed it to politicians is not accurate. The actual phrase used by then minister of trade Peter Mandelson and the International Chamber of Commerce was "request-list". His 1998 letter promised them: "our negotiating priorities on the GATS 2000 agenda" will be "business priorities". Nor did the US Council of Service Industries (CSI) simply hand trade representative Charlene Barshevsky a GATS "wish-list", either. She got a 31-page document outlining what US government policy would be. The CSI singled out the European health services, which, they grumbled, "have largely been the responsibility of the public sector [making it] difficult for US private sector health care providers".
The central tenet of neo-liberalism is that there is no conflict between
corporation and citizen. A hairline fracture in this iron logic might
be the 6,000 maintenance workers laid off since rail privatisation. Another
might be the highly revealing quote in this month's Corporate Watch from
a Biwater's manager, who explains why the company pulled out of an African
water privatisation project: "From a social point of view, these
kinds of projects are viable but unfortunately from a private sector view
they are not." Although, that's about to change, too. After water
privatisation in Bolivia, people had to get special permits just to collect
rainwater in roof-tanks, even though water-bills were a third of average
wages. Mass protests in Cochabamba then forced the government to end its
contract with Bechtel. But, under GATS provisions, Bechtel is suing Bolivia
for scrapping water-privatisation. Thanks to private power, these kinds
of projects have just got financially viable again.
From The Guardian: 1 June 2002
Part 2: 'Being a citizen, not a subject'
Is it time we had an elected head of state? And if so, who should we vote for? Nicola Norton and Amy Fleming asked some notable republicans for their views
We should definitely get rid of the monarchy and claim our land back. They are living on stolen land. We also want apologies for all the crimes they committed, like the way the Catholics apologised for what happened with the missionaries in Latin America. The mistake people make in this discussion is arguing that the monarchy is purely decorative. There is a vital role that Charlie Battenberg plays. If you look at him in Burma and Indonesia, he does some of the politicians' dirty work, like mixing with arms dealers. They're not just symbolic. They have key corporate functions. Especially for talking to dictators who have wiped out democratic rulers. It is really handy when dealing with the Saudies, to send Charles, rather than a democratic leader. So they do have a role, quite a vital role to capitalism, which is forgotten. And it is as morally wrong as their existence is. I would like them to leave immediately, and get down their local job centre.
The LIST 13-27 Feb 2003
Opionion on the possibility of a war:
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