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What Steve said...
...being a potpourri of musings, ideas, opinions and conjecture.

On guns, thoughts and prayers, and the value of American lives

October 4th, 2017

America’s Declaration Of Independence has, it would appear, a fair bit of small print that tends to be glossed over. Just as Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” line has an invisible asterisk next to it leading to a footnote saying “except for my slaves,” there is, also, it appears, another asterisk by Jefferson’s assertion that life is foremost among the liberties self-evidently bestowed on all men by their creator, with the accompanying footnote “Second Amendment notwithstanding.” Which is odd, because the Bill Of Rights wasn’t written for another thirteen years.

But it’s increasingly clear that no American can assume that a right to life is fundamental, that instead the right to keep and bear arms will always trump that right. And it’s increasingly clear that Americans are quite fine with this. Another several dozen dead at the hands of a murderous, and absurdly well-armed, wanker are proof that Americans really do seem to think that owning guns is a more fundamental and important right than being able to stay safely alive.

Almost as the echoes of gunfire are still sounding in Las Vegas, the procession of “thoughts and prayers” tweets and messages started, as it always does. Thoughts and prayers are with [insert latest city to be victim of a mass shooting], we read, thoughts and bloody prayers, as though magical thinking will make it all better.

It won’t. But it’s easy to tweet “thoughts and prayers,” that vapid, platitudinous, virtue-signalling empty meaninglessness that makes the tweeter feel so much better without having to address the problem at hand. The problem, for the record, is that so far this year — this year, that’s barely three-quarters over — there have been over 260 (It’s entirely possible that I lost count; the numbers are staggering in their obscenity) deaths in mass shootings in America. That’s deaths; injuries are an order of magnitude greater in number. And this number doesn’t include the sixty or so dead in the worst shooting in years in the United States, the one that took place in Las Vegas recently.

No other developed country has shootings, and shooting deaths, at this rate — no other developed country even comes close. No other developed country can even begin to imagine this rate of gun violence; not other developed country can comprehend why Americans are willing to tolerate it.

And yet tolerate it they do. The problem is talked past — it’s terrorism if a brown man (and yes, it’s always a man) does it; it’s a mental-health problem if the shooter is white, or it’s “pure evil,” as the “president” profoundly and insightfully explained, but whatever it is, it’s a uniquely American problem; it is simply impossible to dismiss as coincidence the facts that you’re 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun in America than in other developed countries, and that there are 88 guns per 100 people in the country (by far the highest rate in the entire world; the second highest is Yemen, with less than 55 per 100).

America is full of guns. America has absurdly laissez-faire gun laws. Americans die from shootings at a rate that beggars belief for an allegedly developed country. And every time another gun atrocity happens, every time another murderer decides that he wants to be a particularly efficient murderer, out come the readily-available guns. And then the platitudes follow, the thoughts and prayers, the utter lack of any meaningful action.

Some politicians talk a good game. Eric Swalwell, a California Republican member of the House of Representatives, wrote a moving “Thoughts and prayers just aren’t enough” opinion piece in the Guardian this week, but for all his calls for action in Congress, he appears never to have proposed legislation that would do anything more than simple thoughts and prayers.

But of course he hasn’t. He’d be out of his 15th District seat in no time, because Americans would, ideally, prefer that there weren’t any gun deaths, but they’re not willing to, you know, prevent them, because that would be hard. Like a morbidly obese man who knows he needs to lose a monstrous amount of weight before his poor little heart just finally explodes from the exertion of keeping him alive, but just has to have another pie before breakfast, America knows that giving up guns would stop gun deaths, but it won’t, because it really, really, really wants its guns.

And so gun deaths are “the price of freedom,” said baboon’s scrotum filled with pus and put in a suit Bill O’Reilly on his website (no, I bloody well won’t link directly to it). 59 people dead is “the big downside of American freedom.” Seriously, that’s his exact, hateful, loathsome words. He insists that “The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection;” as we’ve seen, then, the Second Amendment trumps everything, including rights self-evidently granted by God. I want O’Reilly to show up to every single funeral that results from the Las Vegas shooting. I want this foghorn of hatred and imbecility to say to the families of each of the victims, as the bodies are being lowered into the ground, “Sorry for your loss and all, but, you know, price of freedom and all that.” I want him to explain that those people — the mourners’ children, brothers, sisters, parents, friends — had to die so that Bill, bless him, could keep his gun. I want him to explain to them that his right to keep and bear arms was more important than those 59 people’s right to life.

And I want every American to write to their Congressmen and women, and demand that the law be changed. If you want a quick guide to what could — should — be done, then just click here; I’ll wait. And be ready to give up your guns. Because if you’re not, then you’re admitting that your gun is more important than my life. Af you insist that “if you make criminalise guns, then only criminals will have guns,” then your tautological little argument could hardly be weaker if you insisted that he who smelt it dealt it.

So lower all the flags you want. Send all the thoughts and prayers you want. But, America and Americans, until you start actually doing something meaningful, something sweeping, something uncomfortable, until you actually give up your guns, this will, I guarantee, continue to happen, and the civilised world will have less and less sympathy for a country that clearly, evidently, demonstrably values guns more than it values its own citizens.

On Pope Francis, and disappointment

November 2nd, 2016

I didn’t think I’d find myself saying this, but Francis, by far the most outstanding pope the Catholic Church has elected in, well, quite frankly centuries, if not ever, has managed to disappoint me quite badly.

No women priests, he has announced — never. His logic, such as it is, seems to hinge on two key points. The first, one we can dismiss reasonably readily, appears to be that his predecessor-but-one said so, and if John Paul II said no to priestesses, then the case is closed, Francis appears to be saying. But this is shaky ground — John Paul II, recently canonised by Francis, did indeed say that there was no room in the Church for women priests. He was clear in his opposition to the ordination of women: “In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time;” he even went so far as to “declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” It was women priests that so utterly challenged the Church that he had to create a whole new category of popely pronouncement,  that of judgemetnts that must be “definitively held.” The ordination of women to the priesthood was clearly so harmful to the Church that, for John Paul II, decisive action had  to be taken — clearly, then he saw this doctrinal matter as a massively greater threat and challenge to the integrity of the Church than, say, a nauseatingly widespread network of child-molesting priests and bishops who enabled, and quite possibly joined in withm them, a minor problem that warranted much less dramatic interventions.

So John Paul was not, then, a Pope we should always defer to on how best to protect the Church. Let’s look instead at Francis’  other key point, the simplistic notion that since Jesus only chose men to be priests, only men can be priests, the Church’s long-standing argument keeping women out of the priesthood. It’s hard to fathom how a thinker as fresh, as clear, as kind as Francis can fall into this trap — the idea that the one thing that identified the Twelve, the thing that Jesus had in mind when he chose them, was their sex. Setting aside for a second the fact that there are at least fourteen named apostles in the four canonical Gospels, which does make the idea of “The Twelve” a little questionable in itself, let’s see if they had anything else in common. Well, they were all Jewish, for a start. So does that mean that, since Jesus only chose Jews to be his apostles, only Jews can be priests? It’s hard to argue the Church’s line on priesthood being the preserve of men on the basis that Jesus only chose men, and not then insist that it also be reserved for Jews. He only chose men who lived in Galilee. He only chose a dozen — well, around a dozen. So why does the Church demand that the only characteristic that really matters is maleness? Why insist that only men can be priests, but allow more than a dozen Galilean Jews to be priests? And, given that at least one of Jesus’ choices was less than inspired, maybe we really should cast our nets a little wider when we’re looking for their successors. (Parenthetically, the Church has traditionally claimed that bishops are the successors to the Apostles; claiming that women are excluded from the priesthood on this basis is an over-extension of this already flimsy logic.)

This entrenched misogyny from an otherwise profoundly enlightened and compassionate man is disappointing. There is no good reason for excluding half of the membership of the Church from the hierarchy of the Church, for denying them one of the seven sacraments. Francis is — he should be — so much better than this.

On entitlement, and the consequences of picking the wrong candidate

October 22nd, 2016

One charge that Donald Trump has leveled against Hillary Clinton with some validity is that she is a Washington insider. Much as it galls me to agree with Trump — I feel the need to go and shower, and possibly clean my brain out with bleach — it is true that she has a sense of entitlement to the Oval Office. Hillary Clinton is the product of a political system that promotes from within its own elite. Here in New Zealand, I know people who have been members of Parliament. While I don’t think I necessarily would want to become one myself, I don’t believe it’s beyond the realms of possibility that, were I to set my sights on the Beehive, I could one day find myself in Parliament. It’s at the very least possible, if not terribly likely. But when I lived in America, I had no sense that politics could ever be open to me. Anyone can grow up to be president, American children are told, but this is of course utter bollocks. American politics is elitist, and more worryingly it’s dynastic. From the Adams family to the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, and more recently and disastrously the family Bush, père et deux fils, politics in America has been a family matter, and with the prospect of the first husband-and-wife tag-presidency, it’s looking more and more incestuous. I struggle to respect someone who only started seeking public office once she’d been married to the president, and then rather than working her way up the ranks parachuted herself straight into the US Senate and then got herself made up to Secretary of State. She’s by no means the first person to parlay her fame into an accelerated entry into politics: Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken, Jesse Ventura all stepped straight up to the top slots. Why pay dues when you have name recognition?

But there’s a more significant reason to be troubled by the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Think back to the Democratic primaries — cast your mind back to the energy, the buzz, the vitality surrounding the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Here was a man who had some genuinely interesting ideas, a man who was willing to be labelled a “socialist” (he was, of course, no such thing), a man who had something worthwhile to say. And he wasn’t really meant to be there. Clinton was the anointed candidate, the candidate the Democratic Party’s higher-ups had designated, the candidate favoured by the large majority of super delegates. There were, of course, other prospects — four, to be exact — but how many names can you remember of men (of course they were men) who put their hands up for the Democratic nomination? By the time the dust had settled after the first primary in New Hampshire, they’d all dropped out, leaving only Clinton, the Chosen One of the party, and Sanders, who clearly hadn’t read the memo and didn’t know that he was supposed to do the same.

And so Sanders campaigned against Hillary Clinton. And he energised young voters in a way that has rarely been seen before. My daughter, newly eligible and voting in her first election, was genuinely excited to vote for a candidate who meant something, who actually created passion for his campaign. Yes, Feel The Bern was a little trite, but there was some heat, some fire in his campaign, fire that was lacking in Clinton’s. I don’t recall hearing many voices filled with the same excitement at the thought of voting for Hillary Clinton But she won the nomination regardless, because she’s a political machine, and she’s run a very slick, very professional, very political campaign that’s been ruthlessly effective in building momentum and wiping the floor with the buffoon she’s challenging. But it’s hard, so very, very hard, to find any enthusiasm for her. Yes, Democrats and those Republicans who have evolved their way a little further up the food chain will vote for her, and yes, she’ll win. And yes, it’ll be a very big deal that the United States will have its first female president, but little will change.

Just imagine what things would look like had Sanders won. It’s likely that he lost the nomination to Clinton because a significant number of Democratic voters were tempted by him, but simply didn’t see him as a viable presidential candidate: yes, we’d vote for him, but we just don’t see him winning the general election, many seem to have thought, and so we’ll put Clinton up; better her than a Republican president. She wasn’t the better candidate; she was the more electable. But look at what the Republican Party have tossed up onto the podium. It’s hard to imagine a more crass, blundering, imbecilic, offensive, arrogant tosser of a candidate; Clinton’s probably already started packing for her move back into the White House. But beating Donald Trump won’t be the most resounding endorsement of her candidacy — I suspect even Biscuit, my Dog of Very Little Brain, would be able to beat Donald Trump in both a presidential debate and an election. She’d be eligible, too — she was born in the US, and she lived there long enough, in dog years. There’s absolutely no doubt that Bernie Sanders would have wiped the floor with Trump every bit as effectively as Clinton has been able to do.

So again, imagine what things would look like had Sanders won. Instead of yet another presidential dynasty, with Barack Obama’s two terms the only thing breaking up a six-term streak of Bushes and Clintons in the White House, we’d be looking at the possibility of real, meaningful change, of an actual, serious progressive presidency, instead of a president who, despite alleged left-leaning tendencies, wouldn’t be out of place in the soft-right wing of the British Conservative Party.

American politics has once again embraced the entitled, the political celebrity, the known name, when it had the chance to do something remarkable and historic. If — it could happen; it’s astonishingly unlikely, but it could happen — Trump somehow manages to get himself elected, America could well implode. That would be painful, but at least it might bring about the change that America so desperately needs. But he won’t. Hillary Clinton will be the next president. Being the first female president will be the one interesting thing about her. And a wonderful chance will have been squandered.

On bigotry, and the nastiness of American politics

October 21st, 2016

The vigour with which Hillary Clinton is being reviled and despised by much of the population of the United States is to say the least a little troubling. American elections are, as well they should be, fought energetically, but when has an American election been fought with such spite and venom?

A flick through my Facebook feed, including as it does a decent number of Americans of, roughly, my age reveals a quite astonishing animus towards Clinton. The simple, most obvious, reason, is that she is, as you may have noticed, a woman, but there’s a lot more to the bile and hatred directed her way than simple misogyny.

It’s hard to deny that a large part of the hatred directed toward Clinton is, indeed, good old-fashioned sexism. Bigotry has long been the undercurrent that drives much of American society, and it has long taken many forms, but we’ve only really seen it speak its name in the last decade or two. The normalisation of American bigotry started when the Democrats began the process of anointing Barack Obama, and that simply wouldn’t do — the presidency, let’s face it, is the property, the manifestly destined right, of good, God-fearing Christian white men. And then along comes one of them there negroes, thinking he’s going into the White House? That simply wouldn’t do, but then, neither would the out-and-out racism that bubbles under the surface of much of American discourse but which usually has the courtesy, or at least the common sense, to keep quiet. So rather than have the decency to admit that they couldn’t stand the thought of a black president, many Americans started to question another pillar of their expectations for a president — the “God-fearing Christian” bit — and, setting aside the fact that Obama has been a church-goer much of his life, painted him as a Muslim. Because while racist bigots know to keep their mouths shut, while polite American society knows to condemn racial bigotry, religious bigotry is still tolerable in America — them terrrrrists are all Mohammedans, after all, ain’t they, which means, ipso facto, that them Mohammedans ain’t to be trusted now, are they, ‘cos they’re all terrrrists, ain’t they? Toss in some bullshit about him being ineligible for the presidency because he was born in Kenya (wrong on a whole Internet’s worth of levels, starting with the fact that he wasn’t born in Kenya and then moving through the fact that, even had he been, he’d still have been more eligible for the presidency than John McCain, but that’s a whole and entire other story…), and you’ve got a nice little way of discrediting the black man without ever actually having to point out that the reason you don’t like him is simply that you’re a racist. And now that we’ve got bigotry firmly established as a guiding force in politics (hardly new — how the hell did a Catholic ever get elected?), it’s not a huge surprise that sexist bigotry is making a disappointing number of people detest a major-party candidate simply because of one of her twenty-third chromosomes.

But that’s only part of what’s profoundly broken in the discourse surrounding the current electoral fiasco. Much of the rest of the blame has to be placed squarely on the shoulders of the orange-faced gibbon opposing Clinton. Donald Trump, the bizarre, petulant, ignorant manchild that somehow Republican voters thought should be their nominee for president, has lowered the tone of discourse surrounding this election so far down into the gutter that it’s starting to terrify the clowns that usually live in the sewers. He’s a hateful little man, a frustrated little bundle of anger and hatred with very little about which to be angry. A born winner of life’s lottery in many ways, he has one toy he’s still not been given, and he wants it so terribly badly, so he’s willing to fight a very ugly fight to get it, and woe betide any poor bugger who gets in his way. He’s lived a life as charmed as any until now, getting away with, well, not murder as far as we’re aware but a catalogue of other sins. He’s clearly a despicable businessman, and the details of his personal life that are revealing themselves of late show us that his reprehensibility  extends far beyond the boardroom. What should be, and what has been in previous years, a civil and civilised process in which grown-ups challenge each other’s conflicting views in a grown-up way has been turned by a presence so toxic that even his hair looks like it has to be cemented to his head to stop it from escaping. Trump has so lowered the level of the discourse that “I simply can’t agree with Clinton’s policies and I cannot accept that she is the right person for the presidency” has become “I hate Crooked Hilary.” What’s terrifying about this, of course, is not so much that Trump’s rhetoric is both infantile and offensive, and more that he’s managed to set the tone of the national conversation about his opponent at this level.

I have little love for Hillary Clinton. She’s the latest in a long line of entitled famous people and part of yet another American political dynasty. But the campaign that Donald Trump has run lacks even the most basic, fudamental rudiments of polite intercourse. It’s fine to disagree with Clinton, but the profound ugliness of Trump’s rhetoric is less than she deserves, and the spiteful nastiness of his campaign has denied Americans the opportunity to have an intelligent debate about the future of the country. And, having allowed Trump to drag the national debate down to his infantile level, America has embarrassed itself in front of the rest of the world, and it should be thoroughly ashamed of itself.

On Legend, and truly funny violence

September 2nd, 2015

Legend is not a nice film — no film that tells the story of the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, could ever reasonably hope to be.

Legend

Legend

Instead, what Legend manages to be is both brutally violent and extraordinarily entertaining at the same time. Tom Hardy is outstanding as both Reggie and Ronnie, finding depth in the differences between the brothers. Ronnie, the truly insane twin, a mouth-breathing paranoid schizophrenic who, in Hardy’s portrayal, seems to find joy and release in his violence, is depicted as a man-child, a thoroughly dangerous individual who fails fully to understand the enormity of his acts. Reggie, on the other hand, is played by Hardy as a more straightforward sociopath, a truly nasty man who will hurt whomever he needs to in the cause of advancing his own interests. It’s a truly fantastic performance, one that’s likely to see Tom Hardy wearing a dinner suit in Hollywood in January waiting to hear his name called.

He’s helped, of course, by a quite superb supporting cast. Underused — criminally — is Christopher Eccleston as Nipper Read, the copper who doggedly followed the Krays and eventually put them away. But more remarkable is Emily Blunt as Frances Shae, Reggie’s wife (or, possibly, his beard — Ronnie is quite forthright in his preference for boys), who narrates the story.

The story, of course, is shabby and squalid and nasty and ugly, telling as it does of the rise of two violent, thuggish men who terrorised the East End of London for much of the 196os while maintaining a veneer of respectability through their establishment connections. But it’s a story that’s told with style by Brian Helgeland, offering us a glimpse of what little human side the Krays managed to maintain as they descended into violence and brutality.

There are, indeed, moments of wonderful humour, funny and dark and shocking at once — Ronnie’s disappointment, complete with spittle-flying rage, at the thought of missing out on a shootout “like a western” is so sharply drawn that you’ll still be laughing as he shatters a man’s kneecaps with a pair of hammers. That’s not an easy trick for a director to pull off. But Helgeland, a director whose CV includes films as stylish and entertaining as LA Confidential and the wonderful A Knight’s Tale, manages to find humour — genuinely funny, properly laugh-out-loud-between-winces humour — in scenes of men having electric shocks administered to their nipples while being strung up by their ankles.

Almost as much of a star in Legend is London itself, the backdrop to the story of Ronnie and Reggie. London of the 1960s is, typically, Carnaby Street, all primary colours and pretty young things enjoying the release that the 60s offered. But Legend offers a different perspective — the East End, grey and grim and grindingly suffocating. Set against that background, the attraction of the life that Reggie offers Frances — his Frankie — is easier to comprehend.

Helgeland and Hardy portray the Krays as human beings, deeply flawed men with little to redeem them, but at the same time they manage to find humanity in their subjects. Reggie’s deteriorating relationship with Frankie is played with finesse and nuance, Browning more than equal to the task of working alongside Tom Hardy’s quite remarkable performance.

This is, as has been mentioned, not a pleasant film. It’s a brutally violent story of two very unpleasant men. But it’s also a very, very funny, film, a story of two men whose story needed to be told. And, oh yes, it’s very good.