Rants and Revelations: Columns from the Whitstable Times
June 2007: Funny Peculiar
Tom Lehrer, that great American humorist once wrote, "political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize".
Tom Lehrer had no idea. International diplomacy became political satire the minute Tony Blair landing the job as the Middle East Peace Envoy. Is this someone's idea of a joke?
Of course, coming in the wake of the terror-attack in Glasgow and the on-going climate of fear, this may not appear so funny; except that I‘ve been screaming with laughter ever since. It wasn't the attack itself, of course: it was the political commentary afterwards.
"Al Qaeda has imported the tactics of Baghdad and Bali to the streets of the UK," said Lord Stevens, a former London police chief and Gordon Brown's terrorism adviser.
Al Qaeda, remember, were the guys who hijacked four planes and blew out the heart of New York. So now they have changed their tactics it seems. No longer satisfied with ruthless efficiency, they've decided to try stupidity instead.
Let's get this right. Two guys in a jeep charge at full pelt into the entrance doors of Glasgow airport while simultaneously trying to set light to themselves with a cigarette lighter. In what way is this "importing the tactics of Baghdad and Bali to the streets of the UK"?
The people who made the bomb in Bali knew what they were doing. They made a bomb. You don't have to sympathise with the bombers to know the difference. A bomb is something that blows up, not something that just catches alight. Bombers in Baghdad regularly blow up US army convoys using a variety of methods. What they don't do: they don't douse themselves with petrol to act as a slow-burning fuse, setting light to themselves with a cigarette lighter, shouting "Allah! Allah!" while driving a jeep into a stationary building.
These people weren't terrorists, they were idiots.
But there's worse. The front page of the Guardian a few days later said this:
"Mastermind Based Abroad Suspected Of Guiding Plot."
As if Dr No and Ernst Blofeld had got together with Osama bin Laden to launch this fiendish attack. I can see them right now, sat up there in their mountain fortress, surrounded by armed guards, thinking up ways to bring down the West. "We've tried ruthless precision. We've tried diabolical efficiency. We've tried flying planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Now let's try stupidity as a tactic. They won't be expecting that."
The whole thing defies satire, it really does. These people were desperate, that's for sure. Desperate enough to want to kill themselves. But the idea that there can possibly have been a link to Al Qaeda or that there was any training involved is just another one of those bad jokes.
OK, so it's not a very funny joke.
Try this one instead. Have you heard the one about the new Middle East Peace Envoy? It's Tony Blair!
Ha! Now that is funny.
July 2007: Send the Marines
Have you noticed that members of the insurgency in Iraq are now almost universally referred to as "al-Qaeda" on your evening news? Also, almost any act of terrorism anywhere in the world is generally attributed to al-Qaeda, as in the following quote by Gordon Brown.
Mr Brown told Andrew Marr on BBC One's Sunday AM programme, it was "clear that we are dealing, in general terms, with people who are associated with al-Qaeda".
This is ironical for several reasons.
Firstly because al-Qaeda were never in Iraq before the 2003 invasion. Secondly, because the insurgency also contains large numbers of groups who are, and always were, opposed to al-Qaeda. In fact, the US administration can't have it both ways: either the Iraq insurgency is being run by al-Qaeda, or it is being secretly funded by Iran - one or the other - because the regime in Iran and the leadership of al-Qaeda have always been enemies.
Thirdly because al-Qaeda were a virtually moribund organisation before the so-called "war-on-terror" gave them the justification they needed to continue their barbarous campaign of murder.
Fourthly because most of the time it's simply not true. Al-Qaeda as we perceive them are as much a creation of the United States government and the media as they ever were of Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahri. Al-Qaeda needs an enemy, and so does the United States. It's like a marriage of convenience, each giving the other justification for its actions.
We need to get a little perspective. On the day of the botched attack in Glasgow - in which no one died - more than 100 Afghan civilians were killed in a three-hour air raid on a village in Helmund province. Real and effective bombs as opposed to improvised and useless ones.
No one knows how many people died in Iraq on that day.
Or to put it another way: in order to protect us from a conspiracy that doesn't exist, we kill innocent people, thus creating more bloodshed and more mayhem, and more resentment leading, almost certainly, to more attacks.
This is not a war on terrorism: it is a war on decency and human values.
Finally, and most ironical of all, as we heard in the recent National Intelligence Estimate coming from the Bush administration, al-Qaeda are now better positioned to strike the West than it has been since September 11th 2001.
Al-Qaeda is "operationally stronger than a year ago" and has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," we were told. "They are showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States...."
In other words, despite over six years of bombings and tactics designed to dismantle it, despite the war on terror and the attacks on our civil liberties, despite Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, despite extraordinary rendition and the torture that certainly accompanies it, despite more than 655,000 dead (most of them Moslems): despite all of this, al-Qaeda are stronger than ever.
Kind of makes you wonder what the last six years have been for doesn't it?
February 2008: One Of Our Boys
You will have seen the photographs. Prince Harry in a baseball cap. Prince Harry on a motorbike. Prince Harry kicking a football made of rolled up toilet paper. Prince Harry having a laugh with his mates.
Prince Harry fighting the good fight for justice and democracy in Afghanistan.
On a single day there were 56 pages of coverage in eight national newspapers, with booming headlines like "Harry the Brave" and "Harry the Secret Hero." The Sun included a glamorous poster of the prince out on patrol.
Meanwhile it's been Afghanistan week on the ITV news: a number of short films looking at army conditions in Helmand Province in the South of the country, where most of the British troops are stationed.
Well I‘m a cynic about these matters. Even if, as the news reports stated, Prince Harry's presence in Afghanistan was a closely-guarded secret for a while, it was always a set-up for future propaganda purposes. How many readers actually believed those images? Do you really think that the British army would put him in a position where anyone would get a chance of firing live bullets at him?
As for the ITV reports, I watched with increasing irritation as the week went by. How are we supposed to understand such a complex set of issues on the back of a few grainy bits of one-sided footage, the reporter addressing us in a portentous tone while perched on top of a flat-roofed building in the middle of Kabul, a relatively safe city?
The implication was clear. "British troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan to keep terrorism off our streets."
Hang on now. These are Afghan tribesmen, not international terrorists. They are fierce, wily, savage mountain people fighting with home-made guns, essentially nationalistic peasants. They probably have no idea of where Britain is, and still less care. Their passions are inflamed at the sight of foreign troops on their soil. If there weren't British troops in Helmand no one would be firing at them.
I must be one of the few people in the whole of North Kent who has ever been to Afghanistan, so at least I have some idea who these people are. This was back in the 70s, when the famous hippie-trail to India passed through that mountainous, desert land of warring tribes.
This was before the Russian invasion, but during the time of the communist government. Even then it was like the wild west. The Afghans are good at copying things and I was told that there were gun factories dotted about in secret locations. But then you'd see them riding into town on horseback, with a rifle slung across their shoulders, only it was a flint-lock not a machine gun.
It was the Americans who gave them Stinger missiles to fire at the Russian helicopter gun-ships. It was the Americans who trained them in modern warfare and who brought Osama bin Laden in to whip up their Islamic fervour.
Everybody knows by now that the war in Iraq was conducted for the venality and greed of the oil magnates in charge of the White House, so they are repackaging the Afghan war as somehow more "just."
But Osama bin Laden left many years ago - left to escape while the US engaged in its plunder of Iraq.
Don't you think its time we left the Afghan people to their own devices?
April 2008: The Camera Lies
"The camera never lies," they say. Well it does, and it does so with increasing frequency on your TV news these days.
There were a number of occasions when this became particularly clear to me. One was an image of a reporter on the front-line in Afghanistan during the invasion in 2002. He was ducked behind a line of troops in a trench. But there was something wrong with the set-up; the "troops" were Afghan - supposedly members of the Northern Alliance - but their uniforms were brand new.
Since when have you seen Afghan fighters wearing uniforms even, let along brand new ones?
It was so obviously a fake. It was clear from the looks on their faces and the general air of dishevelment and lack of discipline that these weren't troops at all, but just a bunch of guys off the street dressed up to look like troops, straight from the prop department of the Pentagon.
I wish I had that bit of film to show to you. It was hilarious. There was the reporter with his serious face reeling out all this portentous nonsense, with his flak jacket and his helmet, clutching his microphone, making out that the Taliban were just over the other side, while behind him a bunch of scruffy Afghan peasants were lying in a ditch pretending to be troops, picking their noses and having a laugh.
Another was a shot of the "rebel" army in Haiti in 2004. They were overthrowing President Aristide, the democratically elected leader at the time.
But while the news reports were all making out that this was an internal matter - rebels vs government - it was so obvious from the look of them that this was no ordinary rebel army.
They were too well dressed and too well fed. They were toned and muscled, with tight tee-shirts showing off their abs, with back-to-front baseball caps, clutching the latest in US-made high tech weaponry.
They were so obviously Western-trained mercenaries in the pay of the US government, a point made clear when Aristide was later escorted from the country at gunpoint by the CIA.
This at a time when we were supposed to be promoting world-democracy.
The most famous example however is the one where they pulled down Saddam's statue in Baghdad.
It looked like a large crowd of ordinary Iraqis celebrating the end of the dictatorship. If you remember they made a great to-do about explaining the insult of people banging the statue's face with a shoe. But any perspective would have told a different story.
The "crowd" consisted of 150 selected individuals, while the square itself was nearly empty. The shot was a set-up, as later independent photographs made clear.
So you have to beware. Nothing is quite what it seems. Most of the real news is being hidden from us, while, in it's place, we have fakery and deception, smoke and mirrors, sleight of hand.
You have to watch the news very carefully these days; not to find out the truth: to find out the lies.
August 2008: Poor Old Gordon Brown
Poor old Gordon Brown. To have spent the greater part of his life wanting to become the Prime Minister, only to discover when he gets the job that, actually, he isn't very good at it.
As if this isn't bad enough, to know that his arch rival and predecessor is looking on from a sceptical distance, pretty certain to go down in history as one of the most successful holders of the position in recent years. You can almost feel the scorn as the ex Prime Minister watches his one-time partner writhing around helplessly in a succession of increasingly horrible messes.
What's a well-brought up Presbyterian to do? Gordon clearly works hard at the job. Unfortunately hard work isn't enough these days.
When I say that Blair is likely to down in history as one of the most successful Prime Ministers in recent years, that's not my personal assessment you understand. If you want my opinion, the man should be tried alongside Radovan Karadzic in the Hague for crimes against humanity.
No: what I mean is, that Blair has all the qualities a good Prime Minister requires in this day and age.
He's an actor first of all, and knows how to work the media. He is clearly without morals or scruples, ruthless and cold-blooded, but quick on his feet and able to read the signs. He certainly got out in the nick of time. Or maybe he was warned.
Brown, on the other hand, looks like a man who once had principles. There's a kind of dogged persistence about him. He may even have made a good Prime Minister once, a few years back, before the upstart Blair oiled his way into the Labour Party's good graces and stole the job from under him.
But then, he, along with Mr Blair, is responsible for the New Labour project: that is, with removing the heart of the Labour Party in order to make it merely into a successful electoral machine.
So it's a question of what you think electoral success is for. A follower of Keir Hardie would say that the only point of election is to increase public ownership and the redistribution of wealth. A Labour Party that gets elected and doesn't do those things is not really a Labour Party.
It's an empty shell, a brand name, like an ice-cream sundae without any ice-cream in it, or Coca Cola without the cocaine.
Which is what Gordon Brown is left with: an electoral machine without any policies, a Prime Ministerial position without any power.
Do you remember that strange smile he unleashed upon the world a while back? He looked like he'd just been caught performing an unnatural act with a horse in a back room in number 10 Downing Street and was trying to think up some excuse.
It was obvious that he'd never actually smiled before and that he'd been having smiling lessons. Maybe he'd been practising in front of a mirror.
So it's a measure of the lack of power of the British Prime Minister these days, that in the midst of the credit crisis, with energy prices going through the roof, and the private energy companies rolling around in their windfall profits, that smiling - something he finds very difficult - is all that he has left to do.
Poor old Gordon Brown.
- Whitstable News: Closure of the Whitstable Times; Whitstable Views
Money was sucked from the real economy in order to shore up the banks. Many businesses went under and the austerity narrative began to drive the political agenda. The paper was forced to sell off its assets, becoming ever more distant from the town
© 2008 Christopher James Stone