Posts Tagged ‘BBC 4’

Cartoonist Kayfabe Look at the Art and Career of ‘American Hero’ Steve Ditko

December 10, 2021

More comics stuff, and a rather longer video than usual at 1hr 9minutes, but the subject deserves it. Steve Ditko is one of the great, legendary figures of American comics. He’s probably best known for creating Spiderman and the occult hero Dr. Strange with Stan ‘the Man’ Lee for Marvel. But as this video shows, Ditko worked for many other American comics companies – DC, Charlton, Dale and EC among them as well as self-publishing his personal works. In the video, the Kayfabers Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg go through the volume Ditko Unleashed: An American Hero, which accompanied an exhibition of the great man’s work. The book’s bilingual in English and Spanish, which suggests that the exhibition may have been in Spain. The volume not only describes Ditko’s career, but gives plentiful illustrations of his art.

Ditko, like Kirby, came from a blue-collar, working class background. He went into art school to study cartooning, as he wanted to be a comics artist. His career was uneven, working for a number of different publishers and in a variety of different genres – monster, science fiction, horror as well as the superheroes for which is he is best known. He also worked with some of the great names in American comics. At times he inked the awesome Jack Kirby, at other times he was inked by Frank Miller, the artist and writer chiefly responsible for turning Daredevil into one of Marvel’s leading heroes. I think he may also have been inked by John Byrne, one of the major artists behind the New X-Men. He was admired by many of these new artists. The epic Jim Starlin, in one edition of his Warlock comic, ‘One Thousand Clowns’, dedicated it to Ditko for showing us a new reality. Starlin’s art was rather more naturalistic, but he also used the same floating paths and mystic portals in his work. He also went through several hard times in his career. At one point he moved away to New York to recover from tuberculosis, then, as in Britain, a major killer. There were also years when he struggled, as many others did, to get work. He also worked on a number of merchandising tie-ins, like Micronauts and Rom: the SpaceKnight, which were intended to promote toy figures. I read the comics, which were excellent without having any interest in buying the toys, which might indicate they were too successful. Like the adverts for Cinzano Bianco wine with Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins. Everyone enjoyed them and they’re still fondly remembered by peeps of a certain vintage, but the people watching the ads couldn’t remember the brand of booze and so didn’t buy it. Ditko, like Kirby, broke off from Marvel for a time, before he returned, working on the above tie-ins along with the robotic superhero Machine Man.

Ditko, Politics and Morality

Unlike Stan Lee, who was a liberal, Ditko was very Conservative, a follower of Objectivism, the philosophy of supercapitalist ideologue Ayn Rand. He also had very black and white views on morality, which were expressed in his personal creations, Mr. A and The Question. He believed that heroes should be heroes, their morals pure and uncompromised. True to his ideals, he turned down work when the characters he was being asked to depict didn’t live up to them. A few years ago Jonathan Ross made a documentary for BBC 4 or one of the other channels searching for Ditko. One of those interviewed was Brit comics titan Alan Moore, who described meeting Ditko at Ditko’s home. He says that Ditko had a very narrow, inflexible view of morality, telling Moore, like one of his characters, that there were only two ways, a right way and a wrong way. Ditko’s politics are very definitely not mine, and I’m very much aware that in the real world, things are very often never a case of black and white but more shades or grey and motives can be less pure than we’d like. But after the comics industry went through a phase in which they tried to make their heroes darker – Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the foremost – and it was difficult telling the heroes from the villains, it’s refreshing to have someone who believes in old fashioned heroics.

The Kayfabers believe that if he were working today, Ditko would be cancelled or at least severely annoy and alienate 50 per cent of his audience. I think the first is certainly true. There has always been a left-wing message in American comics and an awareness of social issues. In the late 1960s into the 1970s both Marvel and DC tackled issues like racism and the rise of the feminist movement. As a response to the latter, Marvel created the Valkyrie, original a woman scientist who revolted against the patriarchy after having the credit for her discoveries stolen by her male colleagues. The Hulk comic also questioned American militarism, while Captain America, in disgust at Watergate and the contemporary corruption of American politics, renounced his patriotic monicker to become Nomad. Of course it wasn’t long before he rediscovered his faith in the rightness of the American way and put his uniform back on. However, Lee has also said in an interview that he was careful not to make the message too shrill so that it alienated readers that didn’t share his politics. Now many Conservative and moderate left comics creators and fans believe that in many strips, the political message has become too overt at the expense of traditional qualities like plotting, characterisation, dialogue and sheer fantasy. This was the motive behind Comicsgate a few years ago, when a number of comics creators, like Ethan van Sciver, broke away from the main comics companies of DC and Marvel to set up on their own.

Heroism and Its Absence in Modern Genre Film and Literature

One of the problems Az of Heels vs. Babyface and The Critical Drinker is that many of today’s pop culture heroes actually don’t act like heroes. For example, in one episode of Batwoman reviewed by Az, he comments critically on the way Batwoman treats the villain, a woman who has murdered several innocents. When Batwoman confronts her, she tells Batwoman that she’s killed so many people out of rage at her persecution as a lesbian. As a result, Batwoman, a lesbian herself, lets her go. This is simply immoral. The persecution of otherwise perfectly decent people because they’re attracted to the opposite sex is wrong, but it doesn’t justify the murder of innocents. Whatever political views real policemen and women have, they still have to act impartially and arrest those, who break the law and especially those who commit terrible crimes like mass murder.

The Critical Drinker put up a whole video about the failure of contemporary SF heroes to live up to the standards of true heroism with the latest Star Trek iterations as a case in point. He contrasted these were the high standards of professionalism demanded of the captain and crew in the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that series, the characters knew the importance of duty and respecting the command hierarchy even if they disagreed with it. At the same time, Picard and the other senior officers demanded and got the best from their crew. Several of the episodes involved leading characters learning the difficulties of command. There is one episode where one of the characters is training for promotion. Part this training involves trying to find ways to prevent a warp core breach that will destroy the Enterprise. The problem is insolvable until nearly every option has been tried except the one the prospective leader has been consciously trying to avoid: they have to send Jordi into the warp core to fix it, a command which will result in his death. But it’s unavoidable, and both characters know their duty is to their ship. The would-be commander has to give the order, which Jordi calmly accepts. And a hard lesson is learned. Instead, the crew of the new Trek franchises are grossly unprofessional. They bicker over there personal relationships in front of a superior officer, react badly to the stressful conditions they should, as crew aboard a quasi-military spacecraft, be trained to deal with and try to undermine their superior officers. Case in point: one sequence where Kirk and Spock attempt to beat the living daylights out of each other. Yeah, I’m aware that it happened in an episode or two of the original Trek, like the classic ‘Amok Time’, but there were extenuating circumstances. I like Star Trek and have got a couple of the recent Trek films on DVD. But I think the Drinker has a point, even if it comes from a jaundiced, booze-soaked mind. I think we need a few more heroes who are genuinely heroic in the old fashioned sense, even if the social views they hold may be those of the left.

Stylistic Strong Points

But Ditko’s own career also had its contradictions. At one point he was working on BDSM/ fetish comics, and there were certainly questions raised about the spectacular and surreal effects in several of his strips. Many of his characters, like Dr Strange, enter strange realms in which roads float apparently in mid-air, and doors and portals appear leading to elsewhere, like the mobile holes in many a cartoon strip. Strange shoots beams of light and conjures up strange geometrical figures in his incantations. These effects resemble the entoptic imagery seen when people start to hallucinate after using mind-altering drugs. Which led to the obvious question: was Ditko also on ’em. Ditko was too straitlaced to use recreational chemicals, and answered ‘No’. It all came from within, from his own unaided imagination. Which says to me that Ditko had an awesome imagination on his own, and that the really great, creative people don’t need drugs.

I can’t say that I was ever a fan of Ditko, as his artistic style with Marvel seemed rather too simple. I really admired those artists who were rather less stylised and more detailed and naturalistic. Nevertheless, this video shows that Ditko was a master of his art. The Kayfabers point out that he’s great at cityscapes and portraying fluid action sequences in which the characters are constantly in motion. In some of the strips, Ditko also used colour washes to enhance his line art, and the result is stunning. There are also a couple of strips where Ditko’s inkers were beginning to use computers to add inks and colour to his pencils, which are also very striking.

The Kayfabers also think that some of the pictures come from the private collections of people who acquired them less than legally. There is a black market in comics art, and Ditko was a victim along with many others. They won’t name names, of course, because they don’t want to get writs from m’learned friends. But they also state they’re just glad that someone, somewhere has preserved these pictures that would otherwise have been lost. Ditko also suffered into inadvertently giving people his autograph, thus cheating himself of money. He didn’t give autographs. However, if someone wrote to him asking for his autograph, they’d get a polite reply for Ditko saying ‘No’. Which he’d sign. People cottoned on to this, and exploited it.

Comics and Other Genre Artists True Artistic Innovators Deserving Academic Respect

The Kayfabers also lament that Ditko and that other American comics legend, Jack Kirby, weren’t more articulate. If they had been able to use the kind of language critics and intellectuals use about art, they could easily have been up there with Warhol and the Factory. But they were working artists, who had to grind out their strips to make a buck, and so didn’t have time to mix with people in art galleries. I completely agree. It’s been my opinion for a very long time that the truly great, innovative art exploring new visions, directions and tools is that of the space, science fiction and fantasy artists, including book illustrators and comics artists. And there are others who feel the same. I can remember watching one video about comics, in which one of the speakers said he felt angry seeing the work of artists hung in art galleries, who had based their work on comic artists. He felt that the original comics artists should have got the money and their work hung instead. Way back in the ’90s I tried to get one of the art magazines to accept an article in which I argued this point, and showed the stylistic similarities between respect fine artists like H.R. Giger and those of the Soviet austere school and such comics greats as Kirby and the British master of aliens, robots and the grotesque, Kevin O’Neil. Unfortunately, it was turned down because it would have been too expensive to run. But the point remains. And it'[s shown in Ditko’s art. There’s a panel in which the exhibition shows a clear influence on one of Ditko’s weird geometrical designs in a portal in Dr. Strange with a painting from the Russian avant-garde artist Vassily Kandinsky. The two debate whether there is a genuine influence there, before concluding that their probably is. I can easily believe it. Many comics artists have their own heroes and influences in fine art as well as other great illustrators of the past. Way back at the comics festival UKCAC ’90 I remember going to a talk by Charles Vess, who talked about the great artists and illustrators he admired. I can well believe that Ditko absorbed and incorporated ideas from fine art as well as cartooning and illustration, and that his own work pushed these ideas forward into new directions.

The book goes up to 2016, nearly the end of Ditko’s life. He died only a few years ago. Wossy in his quest to find the great man managed to track him down to an advertising agency in the Big Apple. Ditko agreed to meet Woss and the other host, but it all had to be off-camera. The programme concluded with Wossy stating that when they met Ditko he was very sweet, gave them lots of copies of his work, but they couldn’t repeat what he said to them. And so walked off into the New York crowd.

Well, RIP Steve Ditko, one of the greats of American founders. The book and the video by the Kayfabers are a great overview of one of the creators of some of the most iconic modern American superheroes.

Beeb Documentary Next Week on American Evangelical Christian Support for Israel

January 14, 2021

Also on TV next Wednesday, 19th January 2021, at 9.00 pm in the evening, is a programme on BBC 4 on the support for Israel amongst American Evangelical Christians and their influence on Donald Trump’s administration, ‘Til Kingdom Come: Trump, Faith and Money. The blurb for this on page 89 of the Radio Times runs

Documentary exploring the relationship between American evangelicals and Israel’s foremost philanthropic institution, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and its influence on both nations’ foreign policies.

There’s an additional few paragraphs about the programme by Jack Searle on page 87, which states

This seems at first to be telling a small, local story: we’re in woodland in Kentucky, where a man loading an assault rifle in preparation for some target practice explains how Donald Trump, he feels, spoke up for ordinary folk like him. But he isn’t just a regular Republican voter. He’s an evangelical pastor whose calling in life is to raise money for Israel.

Maya Zinshtein’s film explores the global significance of US Christians, who believe Israel is the key to the Second Coming, and ow that partly explains Trump’s highly controversial relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem. It forms a spiky fable about what happens when politics and rigid religious dogma interact.

Apocalypticism and the desire to hasten Christ’s return has been a very important strand in Christian Zionism since the 19th century. Historians and activists critical of Israel and its barbarous treatment of the Palestinians, like Ilan Pappe and Tony Greenstein, have pointed out that Zionism first emerged amongst Christians in the 19th century. They wished to see the Jews return to Israel in order to fulfil, as they saw it, the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. Support for Israel in America is now strongest amongst Christian evangelicals. The largest Zionist organisation in America by sheer numbers of members is Ted Hagee’s Christians United for Israel. Jewish support for Israel is waning, especially among the young. American Jews were like their European coreligionists before the rise of the Nazis. They wished to stay in the countries in which they were born, and this attitude continued at least up to 1969. One of the Jewish magazines ran an article that year lamenting the lack of interest in Israel among Jewish Americans. The Neo-Conservative movement, founded by William Krystol, had its origins as an attempt to raise support for Israel amongst Americans. Young Jewish Americans are increasingly losing interest in Israel or actually becoming opposed to it, because of its treatment of its indigenous Arab population. The numbers of school leavers taking up the heritage tours of the country, sponsored by the Israel state as a way of gaining their support, is falling. Many Jewish young people have joined the BDS movement against goods produced in the occupied territories. As a result, Israel is shifting its efforts to muster support to American Christians.

I do wonder how many of those evangelical Christians would still be vocal in their support for Israel, if they knew that Israel pulls down monasteries and churches as well as mosques and that some of the extreme right-wing rabbis in Netanyahu’s coalition have said that they’d like to see every church in Israel pulled down as a place of idolatry. Or that the European founders of Israel really didn’t want Arabic Jews, the Mizrahim, settling in the country, and only accepted them because they needed their labour while also heavily discriminating against them. Possibly some might find this troublesome, but I’ve no doubt others would find some way to justify it and their continued support for the country.

BBC Documentary on Artist’s Fightback Against Fascist Appropriation of Pepe the Frog

October 23, 2020

Next Monday, 26th October 2020, BBC’s Storyville documentary follows artist Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe the Frog, as he tries to wrest his image back from the Alt Right. The programme’s on BBC 4 at 10.00 pm, and is entitled ‘Pepe the Frog: Feels Good Man’ The blurb for the programme on page 75 of this coming week’s Radio Times runs

Pepe, a cartoon frog drawn in a deliberately crude and garish style, has become a symbol of the “alt-right”; its use is shorthand for a social media poster proudly announcing themselves to be a troll at best and a full neo-Nazi at worst.

But the little green guy was originally part of a harmless cartoon strip drawn by illustrator Matt Furie and, rather than conceding that sometimes artists lose control of their creations, he’s fought back. We watch as Furie takes on both anonymous troublemakers and the big beasts of the American right-wing media – the big problem being that, arguably, if you engage with them at all, you’ve already lost.

Another blurb on page 77 says

The story of how a cute cartoon character morphed into an international hate symbol after being hijacked by the “alt-right”. This film in the Storyville strand follows Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe, as he fights tooth and nail to wrest back his amiable amphibian from the dark forces that appropriated him.

The Pepe meme as a symbol of the Alt Right must have been around for at least a decade now, and it’s been scrawled by noxious extreme rightists all over the place, from the internet to real objects. It also seems to be connected to the slogan, ‘Free Kekistan’, which is also mouthed by the Alt Right and their supporters. I think one of the issues raised against Sargon of Gasbag, Paul Joseph Watson and Count Dankula when they tried to join UKIP was that a crowd of people, claiming to be their supporters, got drunk and started waving Pepe the Frog flags and shouting ‘Free Kekistan’.

I realise that Furie’s got an uphill battle on his hands to win back ownership of his creation from the trolls, racists and Nazis. There have been countless other creators, writers and artists, who’ve similarly lost control of theirs over the years. The Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta is a case in point. Unfortunately, after the film the rights don’t belong to the strip’s creator, the legendary Alan Moore. Rather they belong to the film company, which is very much the kind of exploitative global corporation Moore despises. It’s because of this and similar issues over creators’ rights that has left Moore very bitter about aspects of the comics industry. However, the meaning of the Guy Fawkes mask as an image has remained the same, and has been very much used as such by protestors demonstrating against forces and ideologies like global capitalism, racism and official persecution and injustice. It isn’t as though it’s meaning has been co-opted and perverted by those forces.

This could be a very interesting programme indeed. And no matter how difficult it is, I wish Furie all the best in his struggle to get Pepe back from the trolls and Fascists.

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Book on Alessandro de’ Medici, Florence’s Black Renaissance Prince

June 7, 2020

I found this interesting little piece of Black history in the recent Postscript catalogue for June 2020. Postscript are a mail order company specialising in books. And one of those listed was a biography of Alessandro de’ Medici, The Black Prince of Florence – The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici, by Catherine Fletcher (Oxford OUP 2016).

The blurb for this reads

The illegitimate son of Lorenzo II and a maidservant, Alessandro de’ Medici ruled Florence for six turbulent years until he was assassinated in 1537. This first complete account of his life charts the rise through the intrigue-ridden courts of Renaissance Italy of the model for Machiavelli’s Prince, assesses the qualities of a ruler branded a tyrant by his enemies after his death, and considers the possible ehtnic origins of this ‘first European ruler of colour’.

The book was £29.99, but Postscript are offering it at £9.99.

Scholars have known and written about Alessandro de’ Medici for a long time. A few years ago BBC 4 screened a programme on Italian Renaissance art hosted by one of the Black American rappers, if I recall correctly. This went into the Black presence in the Renaissance, including de’ Medici. It’s a long time ago, but apart from European scholars, his life and career was obviously of interest to the great pioneers of the Black liberation movement, including W.E.B. Dubois. It was believed that de’ Medici was assassinated because he was Black, but the programme suggested that this wasn’t the case. At the time, lineage and one’s place in the aristocratic social order was more powerful than colour. He was murdered not because he was Black, but simply through the bitter personal rivalries and intrigues of 16th century European and Italian politics, when dynasties and princes fought and murdered each other in order to gain ascendancy.

BBC Shows Horizon Programme from 2006 Next Week on Threat of Global Pandemic

April 2, 2020

According to next week’s Radio Times, BBC 4 is showing an edition of their science programme, Horizon at 10.00 pm next Wednesday, 8th April 2020. First shown in 2006, the documentary is about the-then Labour government’s plans against a killer pandemic and its catastrophic consequences. The blurb for it in the magazine runs

This feature-length documentary from 2006 focuses on the chilling scenario outlined in the government’s Influenza Contingency Plan, that the next mass outbreak of flu could kill up to 750,000 in Britain. It also predicts that hospitals and emergency services would be overwhelmed by a new, virulent strain of flu, leading to widespread panic and breakdown of law and order.

This bears out an article Mike put up on the 26th of last month, reporting that the British government under Labour knew and were prepared for a lethal pandemic. However, their reports and plans, the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, the UK Pandemic Communications Strategy and the Guide to Dealing with the Fatalities of the Pandemic, weren’t updated. Further more, the organisation within the Department of Health responsible for tackling such a crisis, the Pandemic Influenze Preparedness Team, appears to have been disbanded after 2011 or thereabouts. It’s because the Tories evidently decided that the threat wasn’t serious, and were more interested in imposing savage cuts in government and welfare provision in order to give their rich corporate donors tax cuts. This has meant that we were left unprepared for the Coronavirus outbreak, and have had to model our strategy on what other countries have been doing. Time has been wasted and lives, that may otherwise have been saved, lost.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2020/03/26/the-tories-axed-their-defence-against-coronavirus-years-before-it-arrived-deaths-were-inevitable/

I doubt, and hope very much that the death toll does not reach anywhere near as high as 3/4 of a million. The worst scenario I’ve heard being talked about is 200-250,000, which is still waaaaay too much. It will be an indictment of this government if there are that many casualties.

The following day, Thursday 9th April, the Beeb is showing the first part of a two-part Horizon documentary on the Coronavirus at 9.00 pm on BBC 2. It might be interesting to see how the current pandemic compares to the scenario the Blair government envisaged and prepared for. Hopefully it will be nowhere near as bad as predicted.

But nevertheless, the programme’s existence itself shows that Labour took the threat of a devastating pandemic seriously. Dave Cameron, Tweezer and, initially, Boris did not. And the result is needlessly lost lives and mass poverty.

 

Radio 4 Adaptation on Saturday of Verne’s ‘The Mysterious Island’

March 25, 2020

According to next week’s Radio Times, Radio 4 next Saturday, 28th March 2020, is broadcasting an adaptation of Jules Verne’s ‘The Mysterious Island’ at 3.00 pm. The blurb for it runs

‘Drama: To the Ends of the Earth: the Mysterious Island

Three very different people escape the American Civil War by stealing a balloon – which crashes near a deserted island. But perhaps it is not quite as deserted as they think. Gregory Evan’s dramatisation of Jules Verne’s sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’

What struck me about this is that Captain Nemo is played by an Asian actor, Sagar Arya. There’s a bitter controversy at the moment over ‘forced diversity’, the term used for writers, directors and producers altering the gender and race of established characters in order to make traditional, or long-established stories, plays, films or TV series more multicultural, feminist or otherwise inclusive. It might be thought that this is another example, but it would be wrong.

In an interview with Alan Moore I found on YouTube a few months ago, the comics legend behind Watchmen, V for Vendetta and a series of other strips and graphic novels, explained why he made Nemo an Indian prince in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. The comic, which was made into a film a little while ago starring Sean Connery, imagines a kind of late 19th – early 20th century superhero group formed by Alan Quartermain, the Invisible Man, Dorian Grey, Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego, Mr Hyde, and Captain Nemo. The group travels on their adventures in Nemo’s ship, the Nautilus. The strip was drawn by 2000 AD art robot, Kevin O’Neill, whose art back in the 1980s for an edition of the Green Lantern Corps was judged too horrific for children by the late, unlamented Comics Code. So far, however, I have heard of no-one being left psychologically scarred by his art on The League. Moore stated that he made Nemo Indian, with O’Neill’s art consequently showing the Nautilus’ interior decorated with Indian art and architectural motifs, because that is exactly how Verne described him in The Mysterious Island. He wasn’t at all like James Mason in the Disney movie.

Now I dare say that the Beeb may very well have chosen to adapt The Mysterious Island for radio in order to give this favourite Science Fiction character a new, multicultural twist. But it is faithful to Verne’s original conception of the character. It’ll be interesting to hear what it’s like.

Here’s the video from the AlanMooreVids channel on YouTube, in which Moore talks about the strip. It’s a segment from the BBC 4 series on comics, Comics Britannia. The video shows O’Neill’s art, and the artist himself working. Moore praises his collaborator on the strip, saying that he take the most disturbing of his ideas and make them two or three times more upsetting. But he admires his skill for the grotesque, which in Moore’s view places him up there with the caricaturists Gilray and Hogarth. It’s high praise, but I think Moore’s actually right. If O’Neill had become a caricaturist instead of a comics artist, I think he would be admired as the equal of such greats as Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman.

Documentary Tonight on the Works of SF Author Ursula Le Guin

November 17, 2019

The Beeb are tonight screening a programme ‘The Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin’ at 10.00 pm on BBC 4. The blurb for it in the Radio Times runs

The American feminist writer, who died in January 2018, was best known for her ground-breaking science fiction and fantasy novels such as A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, Produced with Le Guin’s participation over the course of a decade, this documentary explores how she defiantly held her ground on the margin of “respectable” literature until the sheer excellence of her work forced the mainstream to embrace fantastic literature. Tyhe film features contributions from the likes of Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell and Michael Chabon. (p. 65).

The additional piece a few pages earlier by Huw Fullerton on page 63 reads

It’s fair to say that Ursula K Le Guin was a one-off. While plenty of sci-fi and fantasy authors could be described as ahead of their time, there are few to whom this applies as aptly as Le Guin, who was writing piercing, feminist and race-sensitive works as far back as the 1960s and 70s with works such as The Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, elevating her storytelling beyond the literary fringe.

In this new film, luminaries including Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon pay tribute to Le Guin’s life and legacy, interweaving with unusual animation to bring her story to (appropriately) fantastical life. 

I read The Dispossessed back in the 1990s, and I can’t say I liked it. It’s about a scientist, Shevek, from a desolate world colonised by Anarchists to its twin planet of Aieio. Shevek has been working on a Faster Than Light communication device, an ansible, a concept found in other SF writers, like James Blish’s Dirac Telephone. Unable to complete it on his world, he defects to its capitalist twin, now undergoing massive worker unrest and an ecological crisis. He becomes a figurehead for the working class radicals, and helps to inspire a revolution. He gives a speech, which is praised by Earth’s woman ambassador. The planet has been left a desert thanks to capitalism’s destruction of the environment. Conditions are consequently very basic, but humanity has been taken to the stars by the Hainish after they discovered Earth. After the revolution’s success, he travels with a member of an alien race, the Hainish, an ancient race of space travelers who have established interstellar contact between themselves, Earth and Aieio and its twin, back to his home world.

Shevek’s anarchist world is a harsh environment with no animal life on its dry lands, although it certainly exists in its seas. The society is based on the ideas of Odo, a female political thinker of a century or so earlier. There is no private property, no prisons and marriage has been abolished. However, couples may live together as partners. Children are brought up in state nurseries away from their parents, who may visit them. The harsh environment and puritanical ideology means that individuality in dress is frowned on as wasteful and extravagant. Everyone basically wears the same costume, although some do make it more individual in the towns and settlements away from the Centre devoted to dyeing. There is no government, but material goods are administered by the Centre, which contains the computer complex used to administer the society.

I didn’t find Le Guin’s anarchist utopia appealing. It’s far too like the totalitarian Communist societies, and particularly Maoism in its uniforms, hostility to religion, marriage and the family. I am also not sure that feminists would like a world where the differences between men and women are so extremely minimised. While women obviously want to be free to enter masculine professions, like science, engineering, construction and so on, there’s still a desire to retain some forms of traditional femininity. This was demonstrated in a piece on the one show about three Air Cadets, who had been voted its top people, and had won a trip to America to see where the latest high performance jet fighters bought by the RAF, were being made. Two of them were young women, and the third a young Black man. It shows that the RAF are trying to recruit a more diverse membership. What I found particularly interesting was that one of these prospective fighter pilots, a woman, outside of the Cadets blogged about makeup. This seemed to me to be the RAF reassuring prospective female recruits that the could still be girly and feminine while piloting an awesome engine of death. I also remember reading an interview with the psychotherapist Suzie Orbach, the author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue in the Financial Times in the 1990s where she said she didn’t want women becoming exactly like men, or men becoming exactly like women.

Also, I found Shevek himself to be a bit of a prig. He was very sanctimonious, pronouncing on the superiority of his planet and its culture at every opportunity. Le Guin recognises that it would have problems, like hoarding, as well as the administrative elite using their authority to suppress music and literature of which they don’t approve, but looking at the problems the Communist societies experienced, it struck me that these problems would be much greater. It also struck me that there would also be a serious problem with crime and criminality, simply because of human – or in this case – humanoid nature – which could not be solved through social engineering alone.

But there is no doubt that she is one of the great SF authors with a very wide following, and I’m sure that this programme will be an excellent examination of her works.

Ian Hislop Presents Beeb Programme on Fake News

October 6, 2019

According to this week’s Radio Times, Private Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop, is going to present a programme tomorrow at 9.00 pm on BBC 4 on fake news. The programme’s titled ‘Ian Hislop’s Fake News: A True Story’. The blurb for it on page 75 of the Radio Times runs

The concept of “fake news” may seem like a recent, politically motivated invention, but Ian Hislop takes a long view and finds that fake news was found to be profitable long before the uncertain times of internet trolls and echo chambers. He recounts the story of the 1835 New York Sun “scoops”, which told its readers there was evidence of flying man-bats on the Moon. He also learns how fake news caused a real war between America and Spain.

An additional article about the programme, written by the Radio Times’ editor, Alison Graham, on page 73, runs

Ian Hislop looks sceptically at Christopher Blair, an unapologetic purveyor of fake news, or rather, made-up nonsense that’s simply designed,  claims Blair, to provoke the American alt-right into a frothing frenzy. It’s all done,m he says, in the name of satire.

Of course, Hislop knows a thing or two about satire, and he is unconvinced, worrying that sending such pap into the universe means even sensible people doubt the truth of real and actual news stories.

In a jolly, occasionally serious history of fake news, which of course didn’t begin with Donald Trump, Hislop goes back to 1835 and an American newspaper’s pile of piffle about telescopes trained on the Moon spotting herds of bison and “flying man-bats”. It was a sensation as crowds thronged the street outside the paper’s offices, demanding more. Thus an important lesson was learnt: fake news sells.

The Origin of the Press in 17th Century Wars of Religion

The 1835 Moon hoax is notorious. It was based on Britain sending a real astronomer to oversee the construction of a telescope and astronomical observations in South Africa. The editor of the New York Sun used this as the occasion to run a spectacular story about this astronomer having discovered, through his telescope, life on the Moon. But fake news also long predates that incident as well. The ultimate origin of the news media lies in the 17th century and the 30 Years’ War in Germany and British Civil War. The first newspapers were written to inform merchants around Europe about evens in Germany, during a conflict which ended with 1/5 of the population dead of starvation. During the British Civil War supporters of both sides wrote news sheets not just to inform people of events, but also as propaganda. And some of it was very definitely fake news. This was a deeply religious age, and the wars were religious conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Germany, and the monarchy and Anglican church on one side against parliament and the Puritans and other, more radical Protestant groups on the other. Visions, omens and miracles were widely publicised, as it was believed that these showed God’s anger or favour towards the different factions. And some of these look very, very much like fake news. Such as the supposed encounter by a British ship out in the English channel with a merman, bearing a scroll in his hand. This fishy fellow told the astonished sailors that he was heading up the Thames to present the scroll to Crown and parliament in order to get them to desist. Or something like it. Whatever happened, it all seems very dubious to me, and looks very much as though the story ultimately had its origins in a tavern somewhere, written by the kind of hack, who used to write for the Scum and the Sport. Back in 1983 the Scum ran a story in which a medium supposedly contacted the spirits of dead British heroes and heroines to see which politicians they backed. Boadicea, apparently, gave her support to Maggie Thatcher and the warriors of Goose Green. While the Sport told us all how a B52 bomber had supposedly been found on the Moon.

The Sport and the Weekly World News

The Sport always struck me as an attempt to imitate the American Weekly World News and other tabloid newspapers. It was the Weekly World News that gave the world very obviously fake stories about aliens giving their vote to Bill Clinton and interviews with a man, who claimed his mother was the yeti. Quite. This all looked like harmless fun, a bit of sensationalism that despite academic fears, no-one ever really believed. But there are allegations that there was a much more serious, even sinister side to this. According to former tabloid reporter in his book about this side of the press, Grossed-Out Surgeon Vomits Inside Patient, the American intelligence agencies were planting false stories in them as deliberate disinformation.

The British State and Official Fake News

And it isn’t just the tabloid press that published disinformation and black propaganda on behalf of the government. Over here, the IRD – a department of the British secret state – used to plant fake stories in the newspapers as part of a propaganda battle with the Communist bloc. They also concocted fake stories to destabilise the IRA and other Republican groups in Northern Ireland, and to smear the Labour party as having connections with Communism or Irish nationalist terrorism. Indeed the amount of lies put out by the IRA and other terror groups and the British government was so bad, that academics trying to make sense of what was going on in Ulster stated that they had no idea what was going on. And we’ve seen a resurgence of the British government’s black propaganda against Corbyn and the Labour party with the tweets and fake news sent out across social media by the Institute for Statecraft, which has extensive links with British intelligence and the cyberwarfare section of the SAS.

BBC’s and Private Eye’s Lies about Labour Anti-Semitism

It is also richly hypocritical of the Beeb, and Ian Hislop, to produce a programme on fake news too, because of the role they have both played in promoting fake news against the Labour party. The BBC news team are incapable of opening their mouths about the Labour party without lying. This has become so bad and egregious that there is now a group appealing for funding to produce their own film refuting the lies about anti-Semitism in the Labour party put out in a recent, much criticised edition of Panorama. see, for example, Mike’s article at https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2019/10/03/leading-labour-figure-joins-documentary-to-counter-biased-bbc-panorama/

And Private Eye have been exactly the same in this regard. There is much excellent material in it, but it has shown itself as frantic as the rest of the lamestream press in denouncing Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters as anti-Semites, simply because they are critical of Israel, or have pointed out that those who are, are historically correct. As Mike did when he wrote a piece stating that Ken Livingstone was right about Hitler initially supporting Zionism. That was the piece that got Mike attacked as an anti-Semite, and libeled as such in a series of articles in the press. These also claimed that he was a Holocaust denier. They were all flat-out lies, and the newspapers retracted them after Mike complained to IPSO. Nevertheless, Private Eye and the rest of the press are still pushing their lies about Corbyn and the Labour party, just as Mike, and others like him, like Jackie Walker, are still receiving foul abuse from ignorant fanatics.

And the Beeb’s history of right-wing lies doesn’t stop there. There’s also the infamous case where they put the footage of the police attack on the Miners during the Miners’ Strike the wrong was round. It was reversed, so it appeared to show the miners attacking the police. And I’ve no doubt there are many, many other incidents like this.

BBC Trying to Regain Loss Credibility with this Programme?

It’ll be interesting to see if the programme has anything to say about these incidents. But I’m not holding my breath. This looks very much like the Beeb tackling this subject partly as a way of trying to burnish its own squalid image. The BBC and the rest of the lamestream media are rapidly losing credibility in a digital age, when you can go on the Net and find out what’s really been said and done. Along with real fake news, it has to be said. This is frightening them, as the younger generation are turning away from the Beeb’s news output altogether. The Beeb is also frightened by the fact that they are increasingly unable to shape consensus opinion, and express this in statements that claim that as a society we are in danger of becoming more fragmented as people stick to the media niches they like, which may be very different from everyone else’s. Cut through this verbiage about fears about a more ideological fragmented society, and the real fear is that of the Beeb’s management and news hierarchy that they are no longer as credible or as influential as they were, and thus are increasingly irrelevant. As shown by the fact that BoJob has tried to make the internet work for him by circumventing the Beeb and holding some kind of ‘people’s Prime Minister’s Questions’ on the Net.

The Beeb has rightly become notorious for its fake news against the left, and this programme looks like an attempt by the Corporation to try to reclaim some of its loss credibility. By presenting a programme on fake news, it tries to show that it doesn’t do anything of the sort itself. And you can trust it, because the editor of Private Eye, which did prick the establishment, is presenting it. But Private Eye was set up by people, who were very much part of the establishment. John Wells was the headmaster at Eton, for example. And Ian Hislop is very much part of the same, privately educated, Oxbridge set.

It will therefore be very interesting to see if the programme has anything to say about the Corporation’s role in peddling fake news. But I very much doubt it will.

Two-Part Series Beginning Tomorrow on BBC 4 on History of Eugenics

October 2, 2019

According to this week’s Radio Times, BBC 4 begins a two-part series tomorrow, Thursday 3rd October 2019, at 9.00 pm, on the history of eugenics, Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal. The blurb for the programme on page 103 of the magazine reads

The controversial theory of eugenics was a driving force behind the Nazi death camps. Adherents believed it was possible to improve the genetic quality of the human race by discouraging reproduction by people with “undesirable” traits. Journalist Angela Saini and disability rights activist Adam Pearson reveal how these shocking beliefs permeated the British establishment in the first half of the 20th century, gaining influential supporters such as Winston Churchill and Marie Stopes.

The additional snippet about the programme by Patrick Mulkern on page 100 says

A thorny subject, eugenics (or “genetic determinism”), the notion that of breeding what some might consider a “better human”, is covered in two parts by science journalist Angela Saini and disability campaigner Adam Pearson.

Tonight, they look at its roots in this country in the liberal sphere of London’s Bloomsbury in the late 19th century – some decades before it was seized upon and put into horrible practice by the Nazis. There’s a concern, even fear, that eugenics is alive and well and making a comeback in academia, science and social policy. Gene editing may mean medical benefits, but who knows where it will lead? 

The blurb for the second and final part of the programme in next week’s Radio Times on page 105, which is on next Thursday, 10th October, at the same time, 9.00 pm, runs

Science journalist Angela Saini and disability rights activist Adam Pearson continue to uncover the disturbing story of eugenics. The controversial idea that the human race could be improved by selective breeding took hold in certain scientific communities before the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust exposed the terrifying possibilities the theory offered. They also look at how eugenic practices such as the sterilisation of the poor continued long after the Second World War and ask whether current medical breakthroughs such as gene editing could be misused.

There’s another little piece about it by Patrick Mulkern on page 102. This states

“It would have been better by far if they had never been born” – chilling words from the past but part of an ideology that has threaded its way through to today.

Eugenics didn’t die with the Nazis. Programmes of selective breeding to weed out disability and mass sterilisation of the poor have continued in parts of the world. 

Science journalist Angela Saini and Adam Pearson (a disability campaaigner who’s been abused in the street because of his looks) front the concluding part of this incisive doc. it suggests that medical breakthroughs, market forces and prejudice are leading us into a new era of eugenics.

As Jeffrey Davies, one of the long-term commenters on this site reminds people, the Nazis began their campaign of mass extermination which culminated in the Holocaust of the Jews and the genocide – porajmos – of the Gypsies – with the mass murder of the disabled, Aktion T4. Dubbed ‘lebensunwertigen Leben‘ – ‘life unworthy of life’ – the congenitally disabled were taken by special SS ambulance units to clinics and insane asylums, where they were murdered with poison gas.

The Nazis had already enacted a considerable edifice of legislation providing for the sterilisation of the disabled, based on that passed by 24 states in the US. They boasted that they had not done anything novel themselves. After the War, some states still carried on sterilising those they considered genetically undesirable. The mentally handicapped continued to be castrated in American mental hospitals. In Sweden, the authorities were afraid that if the disabled and mentally incompetent were allowed to breed, they would put the country’s nationalised health service in crisis, and so they passed eugenics legislation in that country. Those targeted for sterilisation included the Tartare – a traveller people. The Romany and other ethnic groups were exempt from the legislation, but the Tartare were not as they were regarded as ethnically Swedish. This judgement was overturned a few years ago when the Tartare victims sued for compensation. The legislation also targeted those seen as not conforming to proper social or sexual morality. Promiscuous women were also sterilised, for example. The programme only came to an end in 1975.

It will also be interesting to see what the programme has to say about eugenic’s survival among certain parts of the Tory party. Maggie’s mentor, Sir Keith Joseph, caused outrage in the mid-70s when he declared that unmarried mothers were a threat to our stock. The Tories’ current campaign of throwing the severely disabled off benefits using rigged fitness to work tests looks to Mike and very many other disability rights campaigners like another eugenic campaign of mass killing. And Iain Duncan Smith, one of its chief architects, even had the gall to begin an article praising his government’s welfare to work policy with the statement that the infamous slogan on the entrance to the concentration camps, Arbeit Macht Frei – ‘Work Makes You Free’ – was actually a good policy, wrongly tarnished through association with the Nazis. That odious little paragraph disappeared from the article shortly after, but not before it had been noticed and commented on by the left-wing and disabled people’s press and blogs.

And one of the most notorious of today’s eugenics supporters is the malign Toby Young, who was exposed a little while ago attending a eugenics conference at University College London. Which was, unsurprisingly, full of people who could rightly be described as Nazis. This is a good reason not to read anything by the vile scumbag, or take his views remotely seriously.

Eugenics doesn’t solely affect the disabled. It’s used against working people as a whole and Blacks and other ethnic minorities. The argument is that the poor are poor, and will always be poor, because their genetically inferior. Passing legislation to improve their conditions and opportunities is wasteful and harmful, because it will encourage them to outbreed their genetic superiors in the middle and upper classes. There are a slew of organisations in the American Libertarian right which pursue or have pursued that line, which are connected to the Republican Party. It will be very interesting to see what this programme has to say about them.

The Rights’ Conflation of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Capitalism and the Erasure of Left-Wing Jewish History

March 19, 2019

Just as the Jewish Chronicle may have itself been guilty of anti-Semitism by denying that one of the signatories to the letter of support for Corbyn and the Labour party sent to the Sunday Times, so other members of the right may also be aiding anti-Semitism by their repeated use of the conspiracy theory that the Jews are the real force behind capitalism.

Three days ago, on 16th March 2019, David Rosenberg of the Jewish Socialist Group, an ardent campaigner himself against racism, anti-Semitism and thus Zionism, put up on his blog an article discussing this very point, which had been published that day in the Morning Star. He began by commenting on the statement by Blairite Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh to John Humphrys on Radio 4 that ‘anti-capitalist politics are at the root of anti-Semitism’. Rosenberg states that it’s an appalling slur against everyone fighting against the poverty and inequality of Tory Britain, but it also revealed that the Right, even those, who think they are pro-Jewish, still believe anti-Semitic stereotypes, as McDonagh obviously thinks that Jews are rich capitalists.

He goes on to discuss how this is at the heart of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that sees the Jews as using their wealth to control the banks and governments. A theory that was pushed by Henry Ford, an Episcopalian Christian and founder of the car manufacturer that bears his name, in his paper the Dearborn Independent. Ford believed that the Jews caused World War I, and published the infamous Tsarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And someone else who believed this poisonous nonsense, and was Ford’s biggest fan in Europe, was one A. Hitler.

Rosenberg goes on to discuss how there are Jews, who identify the Jewish community with capitalism, banking and property and so accuse the anti-capitalist left as anti-Semites. He then cites Richard Mather, who claimed in an article in the Jerusalem Post that ‘the Labour party’s call for the seizure of property’ was part of ‘anti-Semitic class warfare’, and pieces written by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, and one of his journos, Alex Brummer, who both claimed that Corbyn was an anti-Semitic threat to Jewish capitalists, with Pollard harking back to Corbyn’s attack on the bankers that caused the financial crash ten years ago. Rosenberg tweeted in response to this nonsense that of Pollard and Corbyn, one of them thought all bankers were Jews. And it wasn’t Corbyn.

Rosenberg goes on to say that

In my 61 years I’ve never met a Jewish banker. I’ve met unemployed Jews, Jewish decorators, post-office workers, van drivers, taxi drivers, shopworkers, social workers, secretaries, teachers, pharmacists, and several comedians.

He reinforces this point by describing how Arnold Brown, a Jewish comedian, who came from a poor background in Glasgow, tore up the floorboards at his home one day after the other schoolkids told him that all Jews were rich. He also makes the point that the racist Right use the stereotype of the rich Jewish capitalist to divert popular anger away from capitalism to particular Jewish figures, who are supposed to be responsible for its ills, such as Rothschild and Goldman Sachs to George Soros today, demonised by Trump and a slew of extreme right-wing regimes because he funds agencies for migrants and refugees and anti-government demonstrations.

But he also makes the point that this stereotype also erases the strong history of Jewish left-wing anti-capitalist activism, writing

When McDonagh, Mather and Pollard repeat stereotypes of Jews as capitalists, they not only feed these conspiracy theories, but also erase an outstanding tradition of Jewish anti-capitalism. People know the famous Jewish revolutionaries, like Marx, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemberg, Emma Goldman, but it was in mass Jewish workers’ movements such as the Bund, and among the Jews so numerous in socialist and communist parties over the last 120 years, that anti-capitalism was ingrained. In 1902, a Russian Jewish bookbinder, Semyon Ansky, wrote a Yiddish song to honour the Bund’s struggles for social justice. The movement adopted it as its anthem. One powerful verse translates as:

“We swear to the heavens a bloody hatred against those who murder and rob the working class. The Tsar, the rulers, the capitalists – we swear that they will all be devastated and destroyed. An oath, an oath, of life and death.”

He goes on to say that he is going that day to march and speak with the Jewish Socialist Group on a national demonstration in London against racism and Fascism, including the anti-Semitism that is rising in central and eastern Europe and Trump’s America with the Pittsburgh shooting.  He concludes

At street level, far right organisations concentrate physical attacks more frequently on Muslims, Roma, migrants and refugees, but when they want to explain to their supporters who they believe holds power in the world they fall back on Jewish conspiracy theories as surely today as they did in the 1930s. The fight against antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-migrant propaganda are absolutely linked and we must combat them together.

See: https://rebellion602.wordpress.com/2019/03/16/the-anti-antisemitism-that-actually-promotes-jew-hating/

Absolutely. Rosenberg’s blog is particularly fascinating for the pieces he publishes about the Bund, the socialist party of the eastern European masses in the Russian Empire. It’s a history that I doubt many non-Jews know about, as the Yiddish-speaking communities the Bund represented were murdered by the Nazis. If people outside the Jewish community know about it at all, it’s probably because of the movement’s connection to the Russian Socialist movement. The Bund were, with the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, part of the Russian Social Democratic Party, the parent organisation of the Russian Communists. It was their withdrawal from the party conference in 1909, when Lenin demanded that there should be no separate organisation for Jewish socialists, that made the Bolsheviks the majority faction and gave them their name, from ‘Bolshe’, the Russian word for bigger.

But the articles by David Rosenberg and other left-wing Jewish bloggers and vloggers reveal a rich, lost history of Jewish anti-capitalist struggle. One of the remarkable consequences of the anti-Semitism smears is that this history is being rediscovered and brought to public attention as Jewish Marxists and socialists refute these smears. Jon Pullman’s film, The Witchhunt, attacking these smears and particularly the libelous hounding of Jackie Walker, includes a brief mention of the Bund, including black and white footage of their demonstrations and banners. If Channel 4 had kept to its original charter as an alternative BBC 2, the Bund and its legacy would be a very suitable subject for a documentary. It could also easily be screened on BBC 4. But I doubt that this will ever happen because the stereotype of the rich Jew is too important a weapon against the anti-capitalist left for it to be refuted by such a thing as actual history.

And if left-wing Jewish history, like that of the Bund, is being forgotten, some contemporary works on the Jewish community may inadvertently reinforce the stereotype of the rich Jew. Back in the 1990s an aunt gave me a book about the Jewish community in Britain, The Club. It was a mainstream book by a very respectable mainstream publisher, but from what I can remember about it, it was about the elite section of British Jewish society, the top 100. I think it was written from an entirely praiseworthy standpoint – to celebrate Jewish achievement, and to how how integrated and indeed integral Jews were to British society and culture. But books like it can give an unbalanced picture of Jewish society in Britain by concentrating on the immensely wealthy and successful, and ignoring the ordinary Jewish folk, who live, work and whose kids go to school and uni with the rest of us, and whose working people marched in solidarity with us.

It’s fascinating and necessary that the history of Jewish socialism is being rediscovered, and that activists in the Bund’s tradition, like Rosenberg, continue to write, demonstrate and blog against racism and anti-Semitism as part of the real struggle by working people.