What does Dale Farm teach us about ourselves?

Today has been a strange day. It’s been the day of the planned eviction of families from the part of Dale Farm for which planning permission has not been granted.  After the MPs expenses, the bank bail outs and the riots, we once again get a national event which lets us learn what kind of a society we live in.  I worked til late and then came in and caught up on the news (mainstream), then went to twitter and a few blogs to see what people’s reaction to the events was. Judging the reaction on social media we live in a society which is much more horrid and hate filled than many of us would want to admit.

Twitter is probably not the best tool for a nuanced debate about the rights and wrongs of the Dale Farm case. Twitter forces a distillation of thought and opinion, it is epigrammatic and so it intensifies emotions, whether good or bad.  So if you hate travellers, or gypsies, or gypos, or pikies, then that hatred will be concentrated in what you tweet. I turned to the #dalefarm hashtag just now and there were some messages of support at the top of the stream. The 4th one down from @stephen_gash was ‘Waste of Ammunition. Fix Bayonets?’, this was in response to a tweet which read ‘Why not just shoot the fuckers’. So somebody has advocated shooting women and children, and another person has replied, no doubt revelling in his sense of humour, that it would be easier  and cheaper to stab them to death. And this on a public forum.

I did not have to dig deep to find this kind of hatred, it is there seething and boiling away on twitter.  If you get a chance have a look at www.jewify.org. This site takes stories in the media mentioning ‘gypsy’ and ‘traveller’ and replaces that term with ‘Jew’. The effects are startling and you begin to get a glimpse of how travellers are truly the last group in our society who can be routinely abused, vilified and demonised without any fear of reprisal. Many of the tweets I read today were sick and offensive in the extreme. People agonised over the role of twitter in the riots and how it had supposedly contributed to that mass outbreak of criminality. But many of the tweets I saw today were not being used to cite illegality, they were actually illegal in and of themselves.  Inciting racial hatred online is a crime and people have been convicted of this. No doubt many would argue these tweets about shooting people or stabbing them to death are not really serious, they are just banter and only liberal loony left wingers could mistake this carefree knockabout gypsy baiting for being a genuine crime.  But even though the people tweeting this nauseating content will never face censure, their actions create a mood, set a tone, and create the conditions where others may decide to attack travellers as a result of being emboldened by this.

Other people on twitter have been using the Dale Farm story to show just how witty they are.  I have lost count of the ‘they are travellers FFS, why don’t they just go travelling’ tweet and all of its variations. This is truly hilarious, genuine wit on display, Oscar Wilde, had be been alive would have killed someone (maybe with a fixed bayonet) for a line as witty as that.

Many called for the gypsies to be evicted from the ‘green belt’ land and upholding the council’s right to take its land back, citing the argument that if they had bought a field and plonked a house in the middle of it, they would expect it to be bulldozed. Yes, nice argument once again, apart from the rather irritating influx of the facts of the case. Firstly the land is now privately owned by people on the site.  The issue is that no planning permission has been given for people to erect dwellings and live there. Secondly the council itself had the land concreted before the travellers arrived and used it to store derelict vehicles.  The idea that the travellers descended on a lovely patch of somebody else’s land, ripped the turf up and proceeded to illegal occupy it is simply not borne out by the facts. The part of the Dale Farm site which the council are looking to evict from is a scrag end of shitty land which nobody but the travellers would give a fig about. It was dirty and derelict when they took it over, and they have done some work and made it their home. They have stayed within the boundaries of the land they own and they have erected nothing but single storey dwellings. The travellers’ cultures, customs and way of life may not fit those of Middle England, but people (yes!! people!!!) are living on this site, children are growing up there, old people are waiting to die there,  and to set these people back on the road again after 10 years, with no alternative places for them to go, is the act of a society where gratuitous persecution has taken over from a considered and balanced attempt to find ways of addressing cultural differences.

Other  tweeters have grasped onto the impression that travellers pay no taxes and have used this to justify the evictions at Dale Farm. Once again a quick check of facts complicates this easily held prejudice.  Even Basildon Council has admitted that the residents are paying council tax, but the facts don’t have to get in the way of a good tweet. My view on this is simple. If any of the travellers are avoiding paying tax or indulging in any other illegal activity, surely having them housed on a stable site where they have an address and can be contacted will make it easier to investigate crimes than if they disperse with no fixed abode. And thousands of middle Englanders commit tax fraud every year but you don’t see bulldozers rumbling towards semi-detached houses in the leafy suburbs.   Philip Green the billionaire owner of Top Man has also been accused of not paying his taxes, to the tune of £300m , but somehow a wealthy businessman with an unpaid tax bill of stellar proportions is not such an affront to people as a few hundred quid here and there which someone dealing in scrap metal would have to pay to HMRC. It appears that travellers and rioters are both worthy of the same treatment here, namely ‘collective punishment’; taking the crime of individuals who belong to a group or community and making all members of that group or community pay for these crimes.  Just how the children and elderly people on the site could be guilty of not paying taxes is not clear, but the necessity of punishing them, for many, is a moral imperative.

As I said, Dale Farm teaches us some unpleasant truths about our society. The fact that many of us prefer to hate and condemn rather than try and understand. The fact that many reach for stereotypes and stock hate figures rather than trying to appreciate the nuances of a complex case. The fact we call ourselves an open and tolerant society but are prepared to turn the blindest of blind eyes when an ethnic group we can’t sympathise with crosses our sight lines.

Image is creative commons from the ‘Save Dale Farm’ Flickr account, Available from http://www.flickr.com/photos/dalefarm/6095686925/

Room 424

Sleep deprivation is a very effective form of torture. Deprive someone of sleep and the brain turns upon itself in a mute rage, robbing you of the ability to think properly. Keep this up for 3 or 4 days and a torturer can inflict serious damage on their victim, without ever having to touch them or use any kind of medieval appliances.  It’s not a spectacular form of torture, Quentin Tarantino never got all excited over a planned sleep deprivation scene in one of his movies, but it is effective, something all of us know as we have all been prevented from sleeping at some point in our lives.

I am writing this blog posting from room 424 in the Premier Inn in Brighton City Centre. I should be sleeping rather than writing this post, but events have conspired to make sleep nigh on impossible and blog writing has intervened to fill the gap. The reason for the lack of sleep is the noise made by the vent from the bathroom. This vent takes air out of the bathroom, and then recirculates it into the main bedroom. All well and good, except the unit maintains a constant whooshing noise which I estimate to be the same decibel level as an electric kettle 45 seconds away from reaching boiling point.  I did that experiment a little while back. Just now I downloaded a decibel measurement app and measured the average level of noise as 41dB on the pillow where my head should be. 41dB is the same level as a room with ‘quiet conversation or a room of computers and photocopiers.  Quiet Conversation sounds benign enough, but seriously when was the last time you fell asleep when people were talking, and did you ever fall asleep photocopying anything?. To add to the pain, at random intervals the stupid fan makes knocking and scraping noises. And as I never know when these noises can start, their ability to prevent sleep is very effective. Hence this nocturnal blog posting

Other noises in hotels I can cope with. I don’t mind people coming in from the pub late at night and talking on the corridors and slamming a few doors. Good luck to them I say, carpe diem. I don’t really mind people having ‘fun’ together inside their rooms with the concomitant noise this entails. All of these noises are first of all transient, they do not last all night, and secondly they are just part of staying in a hotel. You have to compromise when you set foot outside your own door. What has got me mad about room 424 is the way that crap engineering has infiltrated the hotel room experience and make a mockery of it. All the hotels I stay in have air conditioning, vents and so on, and at least half don’t work properly. Often the air conditioning cannot be turned off.  You can mash your finger repeatedly against the off button in the vain hope that the mechanical wheezing will stop, but the engineer has the final laugh, the off button is about as much use as Eric Pickles’ Cross-Training machine. It has a physical reality, but it has no purpose, it is pointless.  When did the people who spec hotel rooms suddenly decide that the best experience they could give to the people who stay in their rooms was to fill them full of shoddy and tinny fans and metallic electrical shite creating endless soundscapes of white noise?  Why did these people not start from the basic idea that a hotel room is for sleeping in, so make anything in the room which has the possibility of creating extra noise as quiet as possible, and make the engineering of the units as high quality as possible. Make the moving parts out of carbon fibre and polished titanium engineered to tolerances of 10,000th of a MM. Instead what we have to put up with are units which have the mechanical finesse of a Trabant built by workers after a week long binge drinking session.

Of course there is the good night guarantee. I could tell reception, I could even *complain*.  But that’s not really the British way is it?  Far better is a futile blog posting written in the middle of the night, full of sound and fury, and read by a total of 17 people.

Feral Rats; Feral Finance..Both need sorting out

A bewildered shop owner in Ealing whose shop had been trashed in the London Riots, described the young people who over-ran the area as ‘feral rats’.  This was an emotive term to use, but tempers and emotions have been running high, and whilst I don’t condone this language, I can understand the extreme situations which create terms like this.

The riots seem to have polarised political and popular opinion in terms of seeking explanations for the truly appalling behaviour of the rioters over the last few days. Most of us have stared on aghast as the seemingly iron shutters which we believe hold society in check melted into the thinnest of veneers and disappeared completely amidst scenes of violence, looting and thuggery. We have all been looking for explanations, and largely people seem to divide into those who wish to blame the actions of the rioters totally on the rioters themselves and those who seek some wider social and economic factors. In sociological terms we are locked into a claustrophobic debate about structure and agency.  The theory of ‘structure’ emphasises the material conditions in which people live as an explanation for their actions, the ‘agency’ part the individual movitations and choices which an individual makes.

We are set for an almost endless cycle of analysis, judgements, soul searching and navel gazing over  the coming months but one thing which struck me was the use of ‘Feral’ from an article I read last week.  This article by Richard Murphy discusses the feral finance strategy of companies and financial organisations which are able to move large amounts of money around without reference to national borders, governments or tax regimes.  We have seen feral finance tactics in the UK, an example being Vodafone wheedling out of a £6 billion tax bill. Now if Cameron is serious about fixing broken Britain, he has to get a hold of these corporations who make a mockery of our tax regimes, and instead of colluding with these (as the Labour government before had done), or turning a blind eye; make them pay their tax.  Of course politicians are scared of taking on multinationals, they see them as the goose laying the golden egg; standing up to them, they argue, will lead to investment going to other countries. But the single biggest factor to ensure that investment in the UK falls off is scenes of violence and anarchy like those of the last few days so politicians have some very tough choices to make in the coming months.  The coalition government has been extremely gung-ho with their insistence on cuts to public spending, seeming at times to relish being tough as they cut spending, and professing the lack of any alternatives to bring the UK deficit down and avoid the wrath of the ratings agencies. The ratings agencies themselves are the epitome of undemocratic, unaccountable organisations able at will to downgrade any sovereign debt rating, without ever having to face the very real social consequences which can result from this.

Politicians have been queuing up to condemn the looters and promise justice for those who engaged in looting. But the double standard which vows to hunt down every looter and punish them, but turns a blind eye to corporate tax avoidance will ultimately fuel the widespread impression that politicians have no empathy with the underclass and are doing nothing to help their plight.  By all means we should hunt down every looter and make them pay for every single item they have taken, but let’s be equally tough on multinationals such as Vodafone and clamp down on their wrongdoing too.

I won’t insult your intelligence with a full description of what £6bn of tax could buy, but it would pay for the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) at its pre-cuts rate for 12 years.  Or £40 million for each and every Local Authority in England to spend on youth and community provision.

The DeGoveinator

I’ve been working on an app. After all, nowadays everyone is working on apps, they are a clear way to fame and fortune.

I decided my app would draw on my previous expertise in English Language, Semantics and that kind of thing. The app simply takes speeches by Michael Gove as text input, and then, using a complicated algorithm I found in one of Douglas Hofstadter’s books, turns that speech back into the original politics which motivated it.

It is, if you like, a tool for taking the spin off speeches.

It is of course not perfect and still needs some tweaking, but here is what version 1.02 made of Gove’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 2010.  You can read the original here.

There is a special beauty in a life well-lived. No life can be better spent than teaching.

Unless of course you want to earn some serious money or wield some serious power, in which case, just about any profession would be a better bet. In fact quite a few people teaching now are seriously gullible because they saw those schmaltzy TDA ads the last loony Labour lot made about ‘making a difference’ and brought the message hook line and sinker. Not realising that once in the classroom they’d be snowed under with paperwork so any of those cutesy Science experiments were well off  the agenda.

Teachers transform lives as very few others can.

They also pose a particular problem for us politicians, as they a recaciltrant bunch and to be honest, not even Thatcher, who had bigger balls than all of us in the current cabinet put together, could really sort them out.  The miners were easy, they wore black hairy jackets and tended to group together on cold mornings in horrible Northern towns. Bunging the police force a load of overtime to sort them out was pretty much a no brainer. But teachers, god they were a harder nut to crack, so we’ve been plotting hard about how to do it. And here is the master plan, dressed up as some kind of nonsense about tackling inequality in the system 🙂

Teachers are there at the moments in all our childhoods when new horizons beckon.

The moment mere shapes on a page become a set of budget figures with a gripping story to tell. ‘Cut cut cut quickly before the country is bankrupt and gets sold to Venezuala for 200 quid’ as my friend George Osborne would say.

The moment that Newton’s first law of thermodynamics is grasped by a child, who then realises that a gas fire in the room of an elderly person will stay at exactly room temperature until they get enough winter fuel allowance to have the confidence to turn it on. In other words, it will always stay at room temperature

The moment a child who has never seen the point of books, suddenly realises that Miss Havisham is not some distant and irrelevant verbal concoction of a long dead writer, but is indeed a living breathing entity, enriching their lives. A kind of Lady Gaga but in a wedding dress . . .  . . . but not one made of meat. Obviously that would be impractical given her need to stay an awful long time in that room in order to provide a dramatic denouement to Dickens’ tale.

The moment that child, newly enthused by the love of reading, goes down to the local library to join up, only to find it’s been sold off and converted to a nail bar.

OK, not that moment, but you get my drift, all of those kind of misty eyed moments when it’s a bit like the best scenes from the History Boys, but without the homoerotic bass notes.

These are the moments which teachers give and I believe no gifts are more precious.

Well except for that Tag watch DC gave me last Christmas, it’s worth at least 2K, loads more than some half-arsed quasi-epiphanic moment in some sweaty classroom with some badly dressed teacher poncing around at the front.

THE TRAGIC INEQUALITY WE INHERITED

One of the tragedies of the last 10 years is we have fallen behind every other country in the world.  

From 4th to 908th for science,

from 7th to ‘well bottom of the class’ for literacy

and from 8th to dx/dy for Mathematics.

In this country there are about 480,000 teachers.

Out of those 480,000 how many do you think voted for the Conservative Party?

Just 45 . . .

More voters from a single cocktail party in Westminster voted for our party than the entire population of teachers in the country. 

This waste of talent, this squandering of perfectly good votes, this grotesque failure by our fellow citizens to do the right thing and make sure we get an enormous majority is a reproach to our conscience.

It can’t be allowed to continue.

And under this government the injustice will end.

People sometimes ask me why I’m in such a hurry to change our education system.

Slow down they say, opt for a gentler pace. At least try and engage some part of your brain before you talk to the media and pick up some random thought flitting in your head and announce it as a serious policy. And try and influence Willetts to do the same, as he seriously makes up shit as he goes along and we then spend at least a whole day running around the department while pretty young interns gorge themselves on Latte’s and try and work out how to clear the whole mess up.

But us politicians only have one chance. Five years in office is our entire political career, and I don’t want to see another generation of Tory Politicians travel through parliament only to leave without having given the teachers a real and proper kicking they won’t forget.

That is why we have to act.

That is why we have already passed legislation, using special powers which were only meant to be used in cases of terrorism,  –  the academies act which allows under-performing schools to be taken over and turned round without delay.

Unfortunately at this point the app crashed, so it’s back to the software testing bench to see if I can get it working again . .