Tag Archives: Hunter S. Thompson

Tyrants destroy their own freedom

Seeking to rebalance the world and make the major changes needed to bring about financial justice are laudable aims, but rarely achieved easily.  Those ‘doing quite nicely, thank you’ out of the current system can hardly be expected to hand over the reins of power and, more crucially, the cash, without putting up a fight.  Meanwhile those involved in the Occupy protests are discovering that the police forces of the world have amassed some astounding toys to use against people armed with nothing more threatening than placards and a belief in a brighter future.

This has led to some shocking, but perhaps not surprising, incidents at the sites of protests.  In the States, University of California students were on the end of some particularly vicious police actions.   As Conor Friedersdorf writes:

The U.C. police officers are dressed in riot gear. They’re given guns, batons, body armor, face shields, and spray canisters of pepper spray. And they’re sent out in force. If they were in a video game they’d be ready to face off against some bad-ass foe with machine guns and assault rifles. We’re used to seeing officers like that in pitched battles on the street, or about to rush into a house filled with drug dealers. These guys are facing teenagers blocking a sidewalk.

The riot gear itself demands a significant response, whether the situation warrants one or not.  And if the pictures being sent from phones to generate a howl of outrage also convince a few would-be protesters that demonstrating isn’t worth getting a plastic bullet in the head for, then the actions have succeeded, according to Glenn Greenwald:

If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed… many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power.

Perhaps with a similar motivation, UK protesters have been caught up in protracted legal battles following arrests.  The case against the ‘Fortnum and Mason 145’ took a year to rule that members of UK Uncut protesting against tax-dodging were guilty of intimidation – for outrages including a game of volleyball – and to fine them £1,000 each towards the cost of a prosecution which can only have run at a loss.

Similarly, UK Uncut protesters in Brighton waited months to learn that they were to be acquitted of criminal damage for gluing themselves to the windows of tax avoiders Top Shop, although five of the group were convicted of recklessly causing criminal damage for knocking over some mannequins.  For such temerity they were fined £200 each, after a two-week trial the costs of which will have run into thousands.  In such trying financial circumstances as the UK finds itself, spending such sums can only be justified for the message it sends to others thinking about involving themselves in dissent.

The title of this post is taken from ‘Killing an Elephant’ by George Orwell, quoted in the Atlantic article above, in which he notes that all this weaponry and repression creates a prison as much for those wielding the power as those being crushed by it:

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

We all have to live in the same society, after all, and even if you have oodles of money in your own bank account, it can only do so much to insulate you from the suffering of your neighbour.  When even the mega-rich can see that things are broken, how long can change be delayed?  As Matt Taibbi observes:

…the powers that be in this country are lost. They’ve been going down this road for years now, and they no longer stand for anything.

All that tricked-up military gear, with that corny, faux-menacing, over-the-top Spaceballs stormtrooper look that police everywhere seem to favor more and more – all of this is symbolic of the increasingly total lack of ideas behind all that force.

In that case, every baton charge, pepper-spraying and trumped-up arrest brings us closer to the moment when we realise that to live as if money is more important than people, putting our faith in the markets and failing to provide for the many so that the few can live gilded lives behind gated community walls, is beyond stupid.  Those taking such treatment from the police and standing firm are to be applauded and supported in whatever way possible, as for now, they are all that stands between us and what Hunter S. Thompson knew:

In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together:

Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely…

If these protests have ‘them’ so riled, they must be doing something right.  How to turn the anger on both sides into a brighter future for the many will be the next, greater challenge.

Artwork by Barney Meeks

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Johann Hari and the health of journalism

I am sure that you could argue that the world doesn’t really need another writer boring on about the downfall of Johann Hari, a tale which has largely remained unremarked upon outside of the ever-decreasing circles of those who still pay attention to print journalism and political writing.  That being the case, apologies are due to all saner heads for what follows.

The story began earlier this summer, when doubts were raised about details contained in stories written by the Independent newspaper’s star columnist, Johann Hari.  An early investigation of a Hari interview with Italian communist Toni Negri by the ultra-leftist writers at Deterritorial Support Group concluded:

It’s rather ironic that an article whose main premise is that Negri negates a ‘truthful memory’, essentially attempting to fabricate history to fit his own political agenda, seems to be based upon an encounter in the ICA which is almost entirely fabricated.

This inspired further examination of interviews conducted by Hari, uncovering other worrying deviance from usual standards, such as examples of quotes given to other journalists being presented as if they had been spoken directly to him.  Brian Whelan noted after a review of an interview with Gideon Levy:

While Hari has questions to answer over the quotes he claims were given directly to him he also seems to be freely creating mash-up quotes out of disparate statements levy has made over the years.

Then Guy Walters asked the damning question ‘does Johann Hari actually meet his interviewees?’ after finding that nearly every quote from an interview with the Afghan political activist Malalai Joya had been lifted from her book ‘Raising My Voice’:

Hari has appropriated words written by Joya… and given the entirely false impression that the words were said to him. […]

Mr Hari has severely misled his readers. He has given them the impression that he is a star interviewer who is able to obtain amazing responses from those he meets.

Seasoned watchers of journalistic misbehaviour might have felt that the matter was displaying more than a few similarities with the case of reporter Jayson Blair and the embellishments and lies contained in his stories for The New York Times.  Johann Hari and his friends and supporters did not remain silent in the face of such allegations.  In a perhaps less than wise move, Hari decided to fight his corner.  An article on his website claimed that there was nothing wrong or misleading in his attempts to ‘tidy up’ the muddled thoughts of those who were more coherent in their writing than when speaking:

So occasionally, at the point in the interview where the subject has expressed an idea, I’ve quoted the idea as they expressed it in writing, rather than how they expressed it in speech. It’s a way of making sure the reader understands the point that (say) Gideon Levy wants to make as clearly as possible, while retaining the directness of the interview. Since my interviews are intellectual portraits that I hope explain how a person thinks, it seemed the most thorough way of doing it.

He went further in the Independent, offering the following justification for his actions:

Over the years I have interviewed some people who have messages we desperately need to hear – from Gideon Levy about Israel, to Malalai Joya about Afghanistan, to Gerry Adams about how to end a sectarian war. Just this week, I interviewed one of the bravest people I have ever met – Shirin Ebadi. I would hate people to not hear these vital messages because they incorrectly think the subjects have been falsely quoted. Every word I have quoted has been said by my interviewee, and accurately represents their view. I hope people continue to hear their words.

This idea of Johann Hari being on the side of all that was good and true and therefore being granted a special immunity spread very quickly.  Via Twitter, Polly Toynbee suggested that what had been uncovered was somehow less bad than other misdeeds that were emerging into daylight at the same time:

Radically different from my own view, also in 140 characters:

Defending Hari because he’s on “your side” when you would be tearing Mel Philips a new one if she’d done the same makes you look stupid

Luckily, a great deal of what I have been mulling over about the affair has been written much less argumentatively on the Splintered Sunrise website, in a post which is well-worth a read.  Its title has labelled it as ‘a bit of a rant’, but I believe it to be a clear dissection of the issues raised by these events, while remaining free of partisan mud-slinging.  A major problem is that, as Splintered Sunrise notes:

Hari himself once said that he viewed his job as being a paid advocate for the causes he believed in…

When there are ideological battles to be fought and won, and when the consequences of losing are potentially so catastrophic, any pretence to objective truth is rapidly jettisoned.  You have to make your readers care about your subjects and that, according to the conventional wisdom, cannot be done by a dispassionate reporting of facts.  Instead, as also mentioned by Splintered Sunrise, it does appear that everyone is trying to engage in gonzo journalism, by following the path of Hunter S. Thompson in putting themselves at the centre of the story.  Of course journalists are free to hold convictions and to back them up with action, but when Laurie Penny gets bashed over the head by police truncheons at the UK Uncut protests, suddenly the story becomes more about her than other ‘ordinary’ protestors, or even the cuts themselves.

This is a further, painful consequence of the decline of the British newspapers.  Cost constraints are making formal journalism training a relic of the past and star columnists who will keep the punters entertained and the web clicks coming are preferred to more experienced, perhaps more reasoned, yet lower-profile reporters.  Perhaps it has also strayed into the news sections from the features pages, where a Caitlin Moran interview with Lady Gaga or Keith Richards will feature almost as much of the writer as the star.  I love Caitlin Moran and her writing, but she’s not what I am looking to discover in a profile of these musicians.

What next for Johann Hari is certainly a difficult path, as an investigation by Andreas Whittam Smith will almost certainly have to judge him harshly or face accusations of a cover up.  Hari’s return to passionate advocacy on behalf of his preferred causes in print seems set to be a long and painful one.  What next for newspapers is even less sure.  It is, perhaps, too easy to quote George Orwell, especially in light of the likely outcome of Hari’s 2008 Orwell Prize award.  Yet if we require a reminder of the importance of reading those we agree with politically with the same skeptical eye we view those holding opposing views, here it is, as crisp and as clear as ever:

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political
parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable; and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

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WikiLeaks: the sound of a stable door slamming

Dorothy Parker, LCD Soundsystem, Paul Auster, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, Jimmy Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Muhammed Ali, MC5, Hunter S. Thompson, Blondie, Joel & Ethan Coen, Bruce Springsteen, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp…

At times such as these, when America behaves more like a belligerent teenager than the Land of the Free/Home of the Brave, my friend and co-writer Mark Woff advises to take a minute out of your day to compile your own variation on the above list.  The aim is to hopefully cheer you up a little and remind yourself that a nation responsible for nurturing such a list of talents can’t be completely beyond hope and redemption.

I feel it is important to keep this in mind when considering what looks to be about to become the case of USA v WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.  The extent to which America is focusing on punishing the source of the information rather than addressing the more pressing concerns contained within it almost defies belief. Sure, diplomats, you got caught with your pants down.  But worrying about the secrecy of a database that can be accessed by millions of people does appear to involve a certain amount of stable door slamming post-exit by horse.

Of greater importance to this writer are the fascinating insights into the cozy pillow talk between governments and corporations as they conspire to brutally stitch up their countries’ populations and of how just how relaxed they can be when lying about details some would find electorally embarrassing:

The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the American, British and other Nato governments privately admit that too.

The problem is that they cannot face their electorates – who also happen to be the taxpayers funding this folly – and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam

Also of lasting importance is the wider war being fought by WikiLeaks, alongside this particular battle, as it has far-ranging implications for the freedom of information on the internet.  As Richard Wilson writes in his excellent article:

The very existence of Wikileaks also seemed to point towards a larger question – how durable is the scale of freedom that has developed on the internet in recent years? Will the net really lead to a permanent “redistribution of data” – the mass availability of information previously so jealously guarded by the media and political elites? Or will the current era come to be seen as a short-lived blip – an involuntarily loosening of controls that lasted only as long as it took for the elites to figure out the dynamics of the new technology, devise new systems for bringing it under control, and develop the political means to apply those systems worldwide?

However, none of these arguments should be taken to imply that Assange is himself beyond suspicion, at the very least as Justin McKeating argues, he is guilty of being a ‘great honking idiot’.  While Modernity reminds us that governments are not above using indirect means such as court actions to target those they perceive as enemies, if there is a case to be answered on the charges, he should answer it.  Perhaps I am displaying a naive believe in the rule of law, but if the case is dismissed, it is rendered redundant as a tool to smear Assange and the WikiLeaks project.  Greater damage is done by declaring him to be innocent or above the law because of his actions in leaking the documents, even if, as noted by Katrin Axelsson of Women Against Rape, it does appear strange that he has been hunted across the globe for a crime with staggeringly low conviction rates in both Sweden and the UK.

To anyone with an acquaintance, either from memory or through the writing of Hunter S.Thompson and others, of those dark days at the end of the Sixties that saw a political class create the My Lai massacre, the Kent State shootings and the Watergate burglary, it must appear that this is all familiar territory, that America is indeed doomed to repeat its history having failed to learn the lessons the first time around.  In such circumstances, we do well to remember that it is better to be a Daniel Ellsberg than a Richard Nixon.

The final word goes, as ever, to this man:

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act

– George Orwell

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Everywhere you look

Everywhere you look, on all fronts, the cunts appear to be winning.  We, the right thinking people of this land, are being out manoeuvred and out gunned at every turn.

It used to be the case that you could rely on a core of people in the world to instinctively know the right side of an argument, who you could use as a litmus test to demonstrate that all was well.  I think here of Hunter S. Thompson and George Orwell, there are other examples, about whom it could easily be said: ‘if he/she agrees/disagrees with it, it must be correct’ as you went about your daily business.  Now all you can rely on is that everybody with a voice today uses it to come out with statements that no one in their right mind could hold to be correct.  The well publicised ‘death of ideology’ at the end of the Cold War seems to have mutated into a less well publicised murder of dissent.  To the extent that you have to ask…

“Where are the punks?”

Punk is the same age as me, but only one of us survived to celebrate our 30th.  The aesthetic got co opted; the ethos lost in a cloud of hepatitis-infected spit, safety pins and Sex Pistols reunions.  The hip young gunslingers now move closer to their first hip replacements, jostling the Zimmers for position in the establishment they once deluded themselves could be eviscerated with nothing more than razor sharp wit and a razor trimmed haircut.  The past is eating itself, as drama school rejects compete to replace the easy listening singers that the Beatles kicked out of the charts; The Kinks inspired Blur are replaced by the Blur inspired Kaiser Chiefs, in an ever decreasing circle of hell populated by careerist knock off merchants and rampant self-publicists.  Mika, Lily Allen and Kate Nash are not only allowed to live but to describe themselves as ‘musicians’ and be hailed as some kind of dynamic new voice in rock because their publicists set up MySpace pages.

Where is the anger?  Where is the outrage?
Why should you care?

Get another round of tequilas in.  Fight for your right to party, duuuuuuude.  The old battles have been fought and lost, you’re free to get on with your true vocation: drinking, shopping and fucking, all to a soundtrack of bland ooooohs and aaaaahs, hits of Soma provided by our sponsor for when the screaming in your brain becomes too loud….

Because it is not cool to care.  The last youth movement with a touch of the small ‘p’ politics about it was the loose gathering of nut jars that came together to try to fight the Criminal Justice Bill.  Once that motley crew of Loadsamoney style entrepreneurs, Do-It-Yourself-ers and Spiral Tribesmen had been overcome by surveillance, brutality and trumped up charges, it was understandable that few others would try to stick their heads above the parapet.  So we left the fields that should have been ours to party and protest in whenever we fancied and headed back to legality.  The baggy trousered philanthropists allowed themselves to be meekly herded into club nights with door policies more exclusive than Garden Parties at Buck House, where the big name, millionaire DJs turned the booths into altars for their own ego worship.  Music events became ‘brand dissemination opportunities’, sponsored by beer makers, a fantastic entrée to the youth market for the breweries who were starting to worry that their wares were going to appear like yesterday’s news next to the bright shiny ecstasy pills that the kids seemed so keen on.

They need not have worried.  For this is now a generation drunk on hedonism itself, not caring if the poison that it imbibes to get to that location has been bought in a wrap or over a bar.  Just get trashed, wasted, battered, fucked up.  This is the only goal worth pursuing.  The age old need to prove how much liquor you could hold has been surpassed by the urge to globally publicise pictures of you laying in the gutter in a pool of vomit.  Your politics is something you show with a coloured wristband, not something you FEEL.  Feelings themselves are messy things that can be treated with a kind of emotional Domestos, that kills all original thought dead.

God, how 70s, didn’t we leave all that embarrassing posturing behind with the three day week and footballer’s perms?  Just keep dancing, snorting, screwing – poking and preening at each other like a heaving mass of baby mice in a testing laboratory’s cage.  No need for any of that scary commitment stuff – why commit to an opinion when another one will come along in a minute?  How shameful to take a position when opinions are reduced to the status of a trend, something that can quickly become out of date.  Could you really be seen dead in last season’s trousers…?

Orwell believed with The Lion and the Unicorn that if he could speak over the heads of the self appointed intelligentsia, the ordinary men and women of Britain would hear his call to arms and right would prevail.  Joe Strummer tried the same thing: ‘London Calling… to the far away towns… war is declared and battle come down…’  And I would do the same, attempt to reach some mythical, silent majority if I had any faith in their existence.  But how can I have when I know, deep down, that they have been killed off by a real majority who voted for Hitler, loved Thatcher and who encourage their daughters to read Jordan’s ‘auto’ biographies because fucking a footballer is the best career path open to them?  The only thing that truly moves England’s dreamers is the relative upward or downward movement of the value of the pile of bricks that they rot their lives away in, drowning the regret in a vat of cheap wine, abdicating responsibility for righting the ills they created by delegating all control to a focus group version of benign fascism that rules us.

First published March 2008 in issue one of whaaat?

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