Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Producer of Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Programme Promises Guest Editor Will Be AI

September 30, 2017

Sarah Sands, the new producer of Radio 4’s Today current affairs programme got into the news this week because of the controversy over her intention to expand the range of topics the programme covers. Sands has plenty of experience in the arts, but little as a political journalist. She’s already expanded the programme so that its coverage includes the arts, science, culture and fashion. The programme’s got 7 million listeners, and there are fears that she’s dumbing the show down. The I quoted John Humphries as complaining that she was filling it with ‘girls’ stuff’, as well as a fashion designer or journalist, who described how, when he interviewed her, it was clear he had no understanding or interest in the subject.

Sands has also said that she intends to line up a series of guest editors for the show, one of which will be an A.I. This was followed by a quote from her where she said that it was certain that Artificial Intelligence would outstrip human intelligence as sure as night follows day, but should humans bow to the superhumans?

Despite repeated assertions by computer scientists that next year, or perhaps the year after, no, wait, by the mid 2020s, or sometime soon at any rate, computers will be more intelligent than humans, I remain unconvinced. They’ve been saying that ever since I was at school in the 1970s and 80s. And even before then. The philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus wrote a book, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, detailing the repeated failures of the attempt to recreate human-level intelligence in machines. One edition of his book was published 20 years ago in the 1990s, but I’ve still got no doubt that nothing much has changed in the intervening years. And looking round Waterstone’s a little while ago I saw a similar book on the shelves, with the title Humans Are Seriously Underrated.

So I really don’t see computers overtaking human journalists any time soon.

And then there’s the question of who this automated editor will be. Somehow I don’t it will be the great, computer-generated vid jockey, who appeared on Channel 4 in the 1980s: M-M-M-Max … Headroom!

Yes, the AI presenter with the big hair, big suits with massive shoulderpads, and an ego to go with it, as well as a fixation with golf and S-S-Severiano Ball-ll-ll-osteros. And also a massive electronic stutter.

Max was one of the biggest things on TV at one point, talking to Terry Wogan, David Letterman, and had his own chat show, whose guests included Boy George and Rutger Hauer.

Here’s a reminder from YouTube what the big guy was like.

This should be the only AI to guest edit, and front, the Today programme.

And yes, I realise it was actually Matt Frewer in rubber mask, suit, and wig, and the only thing that was really computer generated were the patterns behind him. But even so, he had style. And if you can bring back Elvis by hologram, you should be able to do the job for real and generate Max properly on computer this time.

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The Empire Files on the Foundation of Israel and Ethnic Cleansing of the Palestinians

November 21, 2016

This is part of a longer piece from The Empire Files, no. 37, presented by Abby Martin, formerly of RT and now, I think, a presenter with Telesur English. This tells the story of the shrinking of Palestine from the foundation of the early Zionist settlements to the carnage of the foundation of Israel in 1948. It’s a grim, ugly picture of organised, imperialist brutality, meted out by people Albert Einstein and other western Jewish critics compared to the Nazis and the Fascists, a view also held by one of the Israelis’ own army officers.

It’s entitled The Untold History of Palestine and Israel, and Martin states that this is the history that is not taught in schools. She and her team had been there filming the Israeli occupation of the West Bank for two weeks. It’s a brutal occupation that is funded by the US taxpayer to the tune of $30 billion in aid. But Israel is presented to Americans through the images of ‘Birthright Tours’, which show Israel as a fun-loving, peaceful land threatened by militant Muslims.

Palestine was originally a province of the Ottoman Empire. During Ottoman rule, it had a population of 500,000 people. 75 per cent of these were Muslims, 20 per cent Christian, and 5 per cent Jewish. Nearly all of them were Arabs. Its cities were centres of intellectual culture and art, drawing visitors and scholars from across the Middle East. Even before it had borders, Palestine constituted a distinct, recognisable nation through its peoples shared customs and culture.

Martin explains that the Zionist movement began in the late 19th century as a reaction to the anti-Semitic violence and pogroms, which broke out in eastern Europe. She correctly states that Zionism was the belief in an exclusively Jewish state. I make this point here, because Nazis used the term incorrectly to mean their stupid and imaginary Jewish conspiracies to enslave gentiles. The Zionists were at this point only a small minority within the Jewish people. Most Jews wanted to stop to anti-Semitism in their own countries. This is illustrated with an article from the New York Times about Jewish Ukrainians organising to stop anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Many Jews resisted leaving Europe on the grounds that this would be giving in to the anti-Semites.

Zionism became a fervent movement under its Theodor Herzl, who claimed to be its father. Herzl was an Austrian atheist. He first considered homelands in Argentina and Uganda, before finally deciding on creating a Greater Israel in the Middle East. As shown on a map, this would include not just Palestine, but also the whole of Jordan and Lebanon, and parts of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and a tiny section of Turkey. Herzl spent his time travelling around the West trying to gather support and sponsorship for his scheme. He wrote to the Duke of Baden, for his aid, saying

If it is God’s will that we return to our historic fatherland, we should like to do so as representatives of western civilisation and bring cleanliness, order and well-established customs, … to this plague-ridden, blighted corner of the Orient.

The Zionists promised to make Palestine a vanguard against barbarism, which meant that it would be an extension of western military power, and ‘build highways of the civilised peoples’, which meant trade for western millionaires. Their slogan was ‘A land without a people for a people without a land’. But the Zionists were all too aware that the land already had a people, and were determined to cleanse them. Another Zionist leader, Israel Zangwill, said

Palestine is not so much occupied by Arabs as overrun by them.

From the first the Zionists planned on the expulsion of the indigenous peoples. Much of the country was semi-feudal, with tenant farmers labouring for absentee landlords away in the cities of Jordan or Syria. From 1892 onwards the Zionists began purchasing this land. In many cases the new, Jewish owners evicted the original inhabitants. Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived in peace and harmony in the region for thousands of years, but these purchases and expulsions resulted in immediate conflict.

New opportunities for the further expansion of the Jewish settlements arose during World War I. The Zionists were aware that the Russians, British and French were planning to carve up the region. The infamous Syke-Picot agreement divided the Middle East between the French and British. Britain was given control of Palestine by the League of Nations. The British government, composed of lords, then issued the Balfour Declaration, which pronounced the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The British Mandate resulted in riots in Jerusalem by the indigenous Palestinians, who naturally resented having their homeland given away without their consultation.

Again, the Zionist settlers were planning the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. In 1924 the US envoy stated

The Zionists look forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine.

At this point, settlers comprised 10 per cent of the population. But this was already producing a refugee crisis. This section of the film shows a picture of rally of Palestinian refugees in Syria from 1929. Already there were 50,000 of such people, thrown out of their homes. As more land was purchased, and people evicted, David Ben Gurion, the future prime minister and mascot of Ben Gurion airport, declared

We were not just working. We were conquering, conquering, conquering land. We were conquistadors.

From 1920 to 1939 the settler population rose from ten to thirty per cent. Ben Gurion himself laid out the settlers’ plans for ethnic cleansing:

We must expel the Arabs and take their places.

This policy naturally produced a rise in clashes between the Palestinians and the Zionist settlers. In 1936 the Palestinians launched a general strike against British rule. This was initially peaceful, until the British declared martial law, and recruited Zionist settlers to attack dissidents and Arab villages. This provoked the strike to become an armed uprising. The British in response embarked on a policy of blowing up Arab homes. 200 were destroyed in the Arab village of Yaffa. The rebellion was eventually crushed three years later in 1939. The death toll was 5,000 Palestinians against 300 settlers and 250 British soldiers. The Zionists formed their own armed forces, which were later used in the war of independence. These comprised the Hagana, the official force recognised by the British authorities, and various unofficial militias, the largest of which was the Irgun. These militias began by attacking the Palestinians, before moving on to British soldiers. It was the Irgun which bombed the Kind David Hotel, killing 91 people, including 17 Jews. This was so popular that one of the militias’ leaders, Menachem Begin, later became president of Israel.

Abroad, many Jews were far less impressed. Albert Einstein and a group of other Jews wrote a letter to the New York Times condemning Begin’s movement. They wrote that it was

A political party closely akin in its organisation, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.

But the Zionists continued with their plans for the country’s ethnic cleansing. Joseph Weitz, the head of the Jewish National Fund, wrote in 1940

There is no room for both people in this country … and there is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries, to transfer them all.

… We must not leave a single village, a single tribe.

The terror created by the Holocaust with its six million Jewish dead, along with the mass murder of other peoples, political prisoners and gays, propelled Zionism from the political fringe to a mass movement. In 1947 the British turned Mandated Palestine over to the UN. This finally gave in to 70 years of Zionist campaigning, creating the state of Israel. The new state was given 70 per cent of the area’s land. Palestine was divided into three zones. However, the new Israel still had a population that was forty per cent Arab. This was a situation that the Israeli founders and leaders were determined to remove. Ben Gurion announced that

There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of 60 per cent.

In 1948 the tensions culminated in a full-blown war, during which the Israelis launched Plan Dalet for the mass terrorisation, murder and expulsion of the Palestinian people. This was the Nakba, the Palestinian term for the destruction of their homeland, a word which means, ‘disaster’ or ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic.

This section of the film describes some of the massacres that were committed, and the atrocities perpetrated against innocent civilians. One of the villages targeted for extermination was Deir Yassin, where there had been no terrorist attacks committed against the settlers. Israeli soldiers murdered nearly the entire population, raping the women before butchering them. One survivor described seeing his entire family lined up to be shot, including his mother, who was breastfeeding a baby. 200 people were murdered. A Red Cross official stated

Here the cleaning up had been done with machine guns, then hand grenades. It had been finished with knives.

!2 days after this, the Zionists attacked and massacred the people of Haifa. At the same time the Israelis broadcast radio messages intended to terrorise the Arabs. These included recordings of women wailing, and the message ‘Flee for your lives. The Jews are using poison gas and nuclear weapons.’ In Abu Shusha, the Palestinians who remained in their homes were raped, then hacked to death with axes. Those who tried to flee were shot on sight. 110 people were killed. At al-Dawayima 450 were killed, with a further 250 missing. In another village, the mosque was bombed, killing the 80 people, who had sought refuge within it. The remaining villagers were rounded up in the town square and shot, leaving a further 70 dead. In Lydda the Zionists massacred around 250-500 people, 250 of which were killed in about half an hour. This was supposedly in response to gun shots being fired from the local mosque. John Bagehot-Howe, a British army officer, commented

It would be an exaggeration to claim that great numbers were massacred. But just enough were killed, or roughly handled, to make sure all the civilian population took flight.

A senior Zionist officer, Joseph Imani, saw Palestinians shot after they came out of their homes waving white flags and carrying food. He said

Where did they come by such a measure of cruelty, like Nazis. Is there no more humane way of expelling the inhabitants than such methods?

During this period 800,000 Palestinians fled their homes, comprising 80 per cent of the Palestinian population of Israel. 500 villages were razed to the ground.

This is the history that you will mostly definitely not find taught in schools, as Abby Martin says. Nor will you see it covered on the mainstream news, whether in the US or over here, by the BBC. Lobster has remarked on the way the Beeb ‘ties itself in knots’ trying to tell itself that it is not biased towards Israel, while being biased towards Israel. And that monster and apologist for mass murder, Mark Regev, the Israeli ambassador, would scream blue murder if anyone in the mainstream media dared to do so, or called those responsible for these atrocities what they are – butchers and mass murderers. As Einstein and the other Jewish critics said, the Zionists responsible for such atrocities and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians are very much like the Nazis and Fascists. But Regev will scream that you’re an anti-Semite or ‘self-hating’, if you’re Jewish, if you dare to mention this.

But we do need to be aware of these atrocities, if we are to understand the paranoid mindset of the Muslim radicals in Britain today. Kalim Saddiqui, a vile bigot, who was one of those responsible for the hate campaign against Salman Rushdie in the 1980s and 1990s, was filmed at his mosque by the Beeb telling his congregation that

British society is a monstrous killing machine, and killing Muslims comes very easily to them.

When the documentary team challenged him on this, he tried to bluff his way out of it by blustering about how Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses had been published as part of a propaganda campaign to prepare for a ‘holocaust of Muslims’. It’s a risible, stupid slander. But to some Muslims, it has a terrible verisimilitude. Many mosques do cover the atrocities committed against Muslims in Palestine and elsewhere around the world in their equivalent of Christian parish magazines. They’re acutely aware of campaigns of terror against their co-religionists. Hence such hysterical claims over here. But these atrocities are deliberately kept hidden from us, so that Islamic terrorism can appear as completely irrational, and Muslims presented as violent terrorists and butchers, killing for the sake of it. That is, admittedly, true to a certain extent of Daesh and al-Qaeda, though even with these cases there is more to it than simply that. If there is ever to be a just peace in the Middle East, we need to know about the real history of the region, how it has been conquered and its people brutalised by western imperialism and the rapacity of multinational corporations. Not only do we need to defeat the Islamists, we also need to defeat the thugs, genocides and corporate despoilers in our own societies.

Cameron Joins the Borg for the Sun

April 6, 2015

Star Trek’s Borg: The Future of the Conservative Party

On Saturday, I reblogged an edition of Russell Brand’s The Trews, where he takes apart a promotional video for David Cameron made by the Sun. Apart from the general horrendous bias of the video and its flagrant omissions of what Cameron has actually inflicted on the poor, sick and unemployed of Britain, it was also notable for the weird extremes its sycophantic tone took. It wasn’t enough to show Cameron’s working day, lobbing him soft questions, and trying to present the butcher of the poor and homeless as somehow warm, cuddly and caring.

David Cameron as Nature Documentary

No! They had to take viewer identification to a completely new level. They fixed Cameron up with the type of camera they usually fix on animals in nature documentaries, so you could experience what it was like to be him as he walked down 10 Downing Street’s hallowed corridors.

This presented the highly amusing spectacle of the prime minister being wired up in the same way the Beeb has put cameras on wild birds, seals and walruses, and, most recently, cats and dogs. There’s even a form of camera that can be purchased by ordinary members of the public, who want to put it on their pet to see what their pooch is doing. It was one of a number of doggy gadgets that Warwick Davis tried out on the One Show. This ended up with the nation’s favourite Ewok yelling down the computer screen as his canine best friend decided that it would take a dip in the house’s fish pond.

With Cameron similarly wired up to the TV, all that was needed was a voice-over by David Attenborough giving details of his territorial behaviour, nesting, and mating rituals.

There is a more serious side to this. The camera placed on Cameron to present his pov takes the whole exercise into the issue of cultural hegemony, the Fascist cult of the leader, and the potential loss of individuality and personal freedom through the internet.

Cameron’s Camera and Marxist Theory of Hegemony

Marx claimed that the ideologies informing and governing societies, such as religion, were constructed in order to disguise and legitimate the power of the economically superior ruling groups. This was developed by the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci into his theory of hegemony, in which the ruling classes grip on culture and its manipulation is part of the process through which they rule.

Part of this involves the lower orders and subordinate groups taking over and viewing everything through the eyes of their social superiors. One of the problems in history is that frequently the only materials that survive from past ages, is that produced by the ruling class of aristocratic White males. Thus the view of the past can be skewed very much towards the viewpoint of the governing aristocracy. If you look at culture generally, it frequently, but not always, was made by members of the ruling classes, and so reflects and promotes their class interests.

This isn’t always the case, and there are severe flaws which have effectively discredited Marxist aesthetics, which puts everything down to class. Nevertheless, it is broadly true in many cases.

This exercise with Cameron’s personal camera took this to its ultimate extreme. Not only were you being asked to identify with Cameron’s worldview, but you were also being manipulated into identifying with him personally, as a real, embodied being walking the corridors of power. This is as close a personal identification you can get with modern technology, failing having galvanic stimulators strapped onto your body, so you can carry out every movement he does.

The Fascist Leader Cult

Absolute glorification and identification with the leader is also one of the central tenets of Fascism. The cult of a charismatic leader was supposed to bring the ordinary citizen into a more personal, dynamic relationship with their government than was possible in democracy, with its grey, stultifying, boring bureaucracy. In practice, the reverse was true, and the cult of the leader proved far more boring and bureaucratic than the democracy the Fascist leaders had overthrown. And particularly as the Fascist apparatchiks were generally mediocrities and non-entities, carefully selected for their lack of talent and charisma so that they would never challenge the authority of the Fuehrer or Duce.

This was partly the purpose of the Fascist spectacles – the speeches from balcony and rallies in Nuremberg Stadium: to reach out to the masses and propagandise them through the leader’s personal charisma and oratory. And Hitler in particular stressed his personal connection with ordinary Germans and the submerged masses. In one of his speeches, he declared ‘everything I am, I am through you. Everything you are, you are through me.’ People and Fuehrer thus in Nazi rhetoric and ideology were almost indissolubly linked, the one a personification of the other.

Cameron’s donning of the camera to present his personal view took that concept, and attempted to make it technological reality.

We are Borg. Your technological and biological distinctiveness are at an end. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

Remember the Borg in Star Trek? This was their answer to Dr Who‘s Cybermen. The Borg were a race of humanoids, who had taken cybernetics almost as far as it would go. They had become cyborgs, combining the organic and machine. This technology had made them so interconnected, that they had lost all individuality. Only the Borg queen had an individual identity. The rest were merely drones, serving the collective, which was itself a gestalt intelligence or hive mind, like a giant anthill.

Star Trek’s producers state that when they created the Borg, they did so deliberately to play on American fears of collectivist societies, like those of the Japanese. And, we might add, like Communism. But the part of the Western political scene now that has the most totalitarian ideology is that of the Conservative right. Through sanctions, workfare, work coaches, fitness to work assessments and so on, the Tories and their Lib Dem enablers have created an extensive bureaucracy of surveillance and control, which is intended to monitor almost every aspect of the benefit claimant’s life. It harks back to the utilitarians’ ideology of control in Jeremy Bentham’s prison design. These were to have panopticons, a watch room from where every corridor and the movements of all the criminals in the prison could be observed and monitored. This, it was believed, would allow the authorities complete control over the prisoners and facilitate their reform.

The same ideology now permeates the Tories’ views of the poor and benefit claimants. At the moment the personal cameras are just being used to get people to identify with their leaders. How long before someone wants to use them to monitor us in the next extension of totalitarian power from a party determined to ‘discipline and punish’?

Frans de Waal Goes in Search of Atheist Chimps

May 18, 2013

Looking through Waterstone’s last week, I found in the popular science section Frans de Waal’s latest work, The Atheist Amongst the Bonobos, with a subtitle about Humanism in our nearest relatives. De Waal is a primatologist with an interest in using ape behaviour to try to explain human nature and society. One of his previous books had the title Ape Politics. I don’t think it’s entirely accidental that his latest book is about Bonobos, rather than the chimpanzees that usually comprise the subjects of primate research. Unlike chimps, Bonobos are matriarchal, with the females holding considerable social power. They are also very promiscuous with sex used to counteract social tensions and prevent the formation of alliances amongst the male bonobos, which lead to violence in chimpanzees. It seems to reflect the hopes and expectations of ’60s radicalism that if women had more freedom and power, in politics and business and the Judeo-Christian taboos against sex were abolished, society would become much less violent and wars would cease.

Now it may be that if women had more power, there would be less violence and war. There have been numerous feminist movements throughout history that have attempted to end conflict. One of the latest was a group of mother’s in Northern Ireland from both sides of the sectarian divide. They had lost their children to the paramilitary violence, and so were campaigning for its end. On the other hand, the BBC’s veteran reporter, Kate Adie, in her book on women and war, noted that women could be just as belligerent and pro-war as men. She cited the women, who stood on street corners handing out feathers to men, who had not joined up during the First World War. As for the issue of sex and violence, the rise of the permissive society in Europe has effectively removed much of Judeo-Christian morality concerning sex. Sex before marriage appears to have become the norm, and there is more explicit depiction of sex and sexual relations than was usually permitted when society was governed by Judeo-Christian notions of sexual restraint. It’s arguable, however, whether society is less violent. Critics of the view that freer sex would mean less war and violence have pointed out that many of the most violent societies in the ancient world had far more permissive attitudes to sex than in later, Judeo-Christian societies. Babylonian religion, for example, featured fertility cults and sacred prostitution, which were strongly condemned by the Hebrew prophets.

De Waal’s book also seems to partake of a romantic view of primitive life that goes back to ancient Rome, and even found occasional expression in medieval culture. The Romans believed that the people of the Golden Age lived without tools, agriculture and civilisation in a state of paradaisical innocence, free of disease and war. Thte archaeologist, Stephanie Moser, in her book Ancestral Images shows a depiction of a family of hairy wild men from a medieval book illustration. The image of the Wild Man first appears in the 13th century or so. They are shown naked, with a club, and usually represent primitive violence set against European civilisation and chivalry. This particular picture, however, shows a Wild Man, with his wife, a Wild Woman, nursing their baby. An accompanying poem records how they live according to nature, eating wild plants, drinking water – but only when they’re thirsty – and sleeping out on the grass. Each stanza ends with the refrain, ‘And so I have, thank God, enough’. The Wild People of the picture are therefore held up as pursuing a natural, frugal, godly life, free of the luxuries and vices of human civilisation. A similar attitude appears to be behind de Waal’s books.

The use of chimpanzees and other primates as ideal models of basic human cognitive and social traits and behaviour has also been criticised, notable by the neurologist Raymond Tallis and and the BBC science journalist, Jeremy Taylor. Tallis in his book, Aping Mankind, and Taylor in Not a Chimp both argue that human culture makes us profoundly different from chimpanzees. Taylor in particular points out that we are not as close to chimpanzees as has been frequently suggested. Instead of the genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees being a mere 1 or two per cent, it’s more likely to be four per cent. And this is merely genetic difference. In these different genes lie the whole world of human culture and civilisation. Taylor notes that the last common ancestor between human and chimpanzees was six million years ago. And just as humans have been evolving in those six million years, so have chimpanzees. The total evolutionary difference between people and chimps is therefore 12 million years. Tallis points out that even the most basic, biological activities, like eating and going to the toilet, in humans takes place within a network of thought and symbolic culture that simply is not present in apes. Taylor aos points out that in humans, politics takes place within a network of rights, obligations and responsibilities of which chimpanzees simply aren’t aware. Both Taylor and Tallis find intensely distasteful and factually wrong the attempts to reduce humanity to another type of ape. Taylor is also extremely critical of the accompanying anthropomorphism of chimpanzees into another type of humans. He draws a parallel with the adverts for PG Tips tea which ran for years on British television. These featured a group of costumed chimps in humorous situations, trying to perform human tasks, like moving pianos, before settling down to a nice cup of tea. They were degrading spectacles, which are now mercifully discredited and taken off the air. Yet the attempt to gain specifically human rights for chimps and other apes is also degrading in its anthropomorphism. Rather than attempt to assimilate them legally to us, we should, in Taylor’s view, recognise their difference. Only through properly appreciating and providing for that, can we see that they and other wild animals receive the proper ecological protection they need and deserve.

As for atheism, nearly ten years or so now primatologists noticed chimps gazing into the distance. They suggested that this indicated that chimps also had a vague sense of the transcendance that forms the heart of religious experience. Now this is a long way from claiming that chimps or other primates are religious, but it does indicate that there is a beginning of the ‘sensus divinitatis’ – the sense of the divine in these related primates.

Taken together, bonobos, chimps and the other apes cannot be taken as models for human nature and society. Doing so mistakenly idealises and anthropormises them. Primatology can contribute much to our understanding of these creatures as well as humans, but the differences between apes and humans must also be respected. Between us and our nearest relatives there is a whole world of culture.