Posts Tagged ‘Monty Python’

The Young Turks, the Democrat Primaries, and the War Crimes of Henry Kissinger

February 13, 2016

Oh Henry Kissinger,
Oh How we’re missing yer!

Monty Python’s Henry Kissinger song.

The hideous political ghost of Henry Kissinger reared its head the other day in the Democrat debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on PBS. Hillary was proud that Kissinger complimented her on the way she had run her department, and basked in the old politico’s compliment. Bernie Sanders, however, made it very clear what he thought of this pillar of the Nixon administration, and said he was proud that Kissinger was not his friend.

In this clip from The Young Turks, John Iadarola presents the argument that Kissinger is a war criminal, exactly as his detractors allege. Actually, on this issue, there isn’t much to ponder: the old bastard’s actions and statements speak for themselves, and indict Kissinger as one of the great monsters of the late 20th century. Iadarola sums it up by saying that he is a man no-one should want to have as a friend, and especially not someone who wants to be a presidential candidate.

Among the facts against Kissinger are the following:

* When he was in the State Department, Kissigner worked to prolong the Vietnam War as long as possible.

* He encouraged Nixon to bug and intimidate his political enemies.

* He supported the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos, which killed untold thousands of people and destabilised the country, leading to the rise of a murderous regime that butchered millions.

* He also engineered the 1973 Chilean coup, and similar military interventions in Rhodesia, East Timor and Argentina.

Iadarola also gives some damning quotations from Kissinger’s own mouth. These range from the simply cynical – such as his belief that intelligence isn’t necessary for the use of power, and is sometimes an impediment, to the truly monstrous. He stated that military men were dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy, which possibly explained why he was so massively unconcerned about their deaths in the Vietnam War. In 2000 he said approvingly that he could think of no better way to unite America than behind an terrorist attack an American overseas target, and that George Dubya was the man to do this. He also asked during the Vietnam War why Americans should ‘flagellate’ themselves for what the Cambodians were doing to each other. He was also quite prepared to work with the Khmer Rouge regime, despite the fact that he knew they were massacring ten of thousands of their own people. Indeed, he himself called them ‘murderous thugs’.

During the 1991 race riots on the West Coast, he stated that although Americans weren’t prepared to accept UN troops there today, they would tomorrow if they promised to restore order. He said people feared the unknown, and to protect themselves from it the peoples of the world would willing plead for their leaders to take power, so that individual rights would wither before the world government. He also stated that the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union was not an American concern. And if the Soviets stuffed them into gas chambers, that wasn’t an American concern either. He did, however, concede that ‘perhaps [it was] a humanitarian concern.’ This is particularly cynical, considering that Kissinger was himself Jewish. The 1970’s were the decade that saw an increasing interest in the Holocaust, including a TV series of the same name. This is particularly shocking because of the profound horror the Holocaust justifiably still evokes for Europeans and Americans.

I began this article with a quote from Monty Python’s Henry Kissinger song. And the correct answer to those lines should be ‘No. We are not ‘missing yer”. It was Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace prize after the bombing of Hanoi that made Tom Lehrer, the great satirical song writer, to give up. After all, what’s left to lampoon if reality does something that grotesque.

Financial Times Review of Biography of Douglas Adams

October 27, 2015

Adams Hitchhiker Photo

Adams on the set of the BBC’s TV series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Going through a pile of old newspaper clippings, I came across a review by David Honigmann of M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, published by Hodder & Stoughton, from the Saturday edition of the Financial Times for 22nd/23rd March 2003. Here it is.

The psychologist Meredith Belbin distinguished between a range of roles that individuals could play on a team. There are the co-ordinators who keep things moving, the resource investigators who grub around for materials and cut deals, the shaper/finishers who make sure projects get completed and the plants who throw out ideas. Douglas, it is fair to say, was a plant. In a casual conversation, he could throw out enough ideas for a lifetime’s writing. It was just the actual writing that came hard to him. He was ambitious enough to live in poverty on odd jobs while waiting for his big break, with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but not ambitious enough to keep working at the same rate once fame arrived.

M.J. Simpson’s biography of Adams is surprisingly tart, coming from a fan whose obsession with his subject seems to fall just this side of stalkerhood. The charges against Adams are four-fold: he procrastinated, he was starstruck, he exaggerated, his knowledge of science fiction was shallow. That Adams procrastinated is not in doubt. He learned the habit at the feet of a master, working with Graham Chapman during Chapman’s alcoholic post-Python years. After the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, all his books were delivered late – in many cases they were only begun after the deadline had passed. But he was, in general, so reliable as a cash-cow that editors and publishers were prepared to wait for milking-time. Nonetheless, at the time of his death, Adams had not completed a book for eight years, and his last project, Starship Titanic, had received only a lukewarm reception.

Starstruck, Adams certainly seems to have been. He went to Cambridge to ingratiate himself with the Footlights crowd: he wanted to be John Cleese and worked his way into at least an outer ring of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. His parties were studded with musicians from Procol Harum, Pink Floyd and Wings, and Islington media glitterati.

“The audience were more famous than the band,” recalls one of the latter ruefully. For his 42nd birthday, he was given a certificate entitling him to appear on stage with Pink Floyd. His school chaplain suspects that his atheism was caused by his hero-worship of Richard Dawkins. At best, this tendency in Adams meant that he exposed himself to a wide range of ideas, many of which he developed in his own work; at its worst, this star-spotting was mostly harmless. That Adams played up his anecdotes seems likely. Simpson patiently debunks some of the myths: the first book did not go straight to number one in the Sunday Times bestseller list; Adams did not have to fight his way through crowds to get to his first book signing; the original idea for Hitchhiker did not (probably) come to him as he lay drunk in a field outside Innsbruck. The myths became part of Adams’ brand. He told the stories well, as can be heard on Douglas Adams’s Guide to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an audiocassette from BBC Worldwide. In essence, they fulfilled his desire to be a performer, not just a writer.

They may have served a function as self-defence in the face of a world with almost limitless tempting distractions. And they seem to have fulfilled his need for external validation: as someone who cherished throughout his life the time when a hard-to-please English teacher gave him 10 out of 10 for a story, he succumbed to the temptation to make his career a little more successful, a little more lucky.

The final suggestion is that Adams’s knowledge of science fiction was shallow. This is probably correct: one of the characteristics of science fiction fandom is that someone, somewhere, always knows more than you do. But as a science fiction writer, Adams had the mastertouch of being able to put names on concepts that no one previously knew they needed. The number of Hitchhiker concepts now embedded in the internet (such as the Babel Fish as a universal translator) is a tribute to this. There is one strikingly sad moment in Douglas Adams’s Guide, when Adams notes, “when you pass 40 – and I’m well past 40 – you suddenly become aware that all the things on your agenda … you’re not going to do them all.”

Had he lived longer, it is doubtful whether he would have produced much more, unless driven to it by economic necessity. Simpson considers this a waste of his talent. More charitably, one might conclude that most of his ambitions had been fulfilled and a few decades of intellectual puttering about and indulging his hobbies was a fair reward.

Despite Simpson’s general diligence, there is one striking lacuna. For the last decade or so of his life, Adams had been working on a novel to be called The Salmon of Doubt. What was to be in it changed periodically but the title remained – surprising, given Adams’s general indifference to titles. Simpson dismisses it as “a meaningless phrase”, but it is nothing of the sort. The Salmon of Doubt is a riff on the Irish legend of the Salmon of Certainty, which grants whoever eats it all the knowledge in the world. The seer Fionn labours for seven years to catch it, but when he does he leaves someone else to cook it while he gathers firewood. The other man – who turns out to be Fionn, son Uail, son of Baiscne – consumes three drops of oil from the fish, and he gets the knowledge, not Fionn the seer.

In other words, what turned out to be Adams’s last project was named for the story of someone who procrastinates for seven years over a project to gain the secrets of life, the universe and everything, only to have the prize snatched away from him at the last minute. He would have appreciated the irony.

And here’s the opening titles from the BBC TV version:

Last Fortnight’s Private Eye on Dave Cameron’s ‘Right to Buy’ Policy

April 14, 2015

Cameron formally announced today his ‘right to buy’ scheme, which would see the remainder of Britain’s stock of social housing sold off. Tom Pride and Mike over at Vox Political have already posted pieces on this today. I’ve reblogged Mr Pride’s, in which he tells it like it is. It’s just a return of Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ scheme from the 1980s.

He goes further, and describes Cameron as ‘a pound-shop Maggie Thatcher’. Which is pretty much exactly what he is. Though it does leave you feeling that we’ve been short-changed. Surely with his blue-blood and Eton education he could be something a bit more up-market. A Fortnum & Mason’s Maggie Thatcher, perhaps, or may be a Harrod’s Maggie Thatcher? Or perhaps something a little more popular, but still offering quality: a Sainsbury food hall Maggie Thatcher?

Mr Pride also points out that the beneficiaries of the original right-to-buy fiasco weren’t the ordinary tenants, but the private landlords who purchased them and then hoiked the rents up accordingly. People like Charles Gow, the son of the minister, who privatised them. Young master Gow is a multi-millionaire with forty of them.

Johnny Void also wrote a piece I’ve reblogged earlier last year, when IDS announced it as his big idea, pointing out, along with Mike, that it would lead to a complete absence of council houses, and that the affordable housing that’s supposed to replace it isn’t anything of the sort. It won’t solve the housing crisis. It will only make it worse.

Which was Private Eye’s view in their last issue a fortnight ago. In ‘Housing News’ they wrote

The wheels are falling off Tory housing policy as the desperate search for votes intensifies.

Chancellor George Osborne’s final budget saw yet another ineffective give-away to first-time buyers in the form of “Help to Buy ISAs” – up to £3,000 in taxpayer cash to top up savings for a deposit. Like umpteen other schemes designed to help those who can’t afford a mortgage, this one may just inflate prices further while failing to address shortage of supply.

Not to be outdone, the Iain Duncan Smith faction promptly leaked the latest version of its own pet idea: to extend the Right to Buy to Britain’s 2.5m housing association tenants. This sounds like music to Tory ears until one realises that, unlike the social homes owned by the councils, housing association assets are private property.

For decades, governments trying to keep the national debt down have restrained council borrowing by tying up council housing assets in ring-fenced housing revenue accounts (HRA) and making it almost impossible for councils to build. Housing associations, on the other hand, are independent charities so their £65 bn in borrowing is safely “off balance sheet”.

As the chancellor must be only too aware, compelling housing associations to sell to tenants and use the RTB discounts enjoyed by council tenants (up to £102, 700 in London and £77,000 elsewhere) would cost serious amounts of taxpayer money and bankrupt a few housing associations. Then again, as this is the eighth election in row where the Conservative party has said it will extend RTB to housing association tenants, will the vote-catcher fare any better than usual?

That isn’t the end of the TRB saga. Under localism, some councils have found a way round Treasury borrowing caps via public-private partnerships, using the new “general power of competence” to create their own “local housing companies” and build homes – for sale and for social rent – and keep them outside the HRA. Not only does this evade the borrowing caps, but it also means the new homes are not, er, subject to the Right to Buy. Housing minister Brandon Lewis is not happy, and has threatened councils with serious reprisals. So much for localism.

Now public-private partnerships, like the Private Finance Initiative, are by and large a colossal waste of money and a massive drain on the state, all in order to provide contracts to the Tories’ donors in private industry. But if local councils are using such schemes to build more social housing, then perhaps we could do with more of them in this specific instance.

As for Osbo and his Help-to-Buy ISAs, one of the commenters over at Tom Pride’s or Johnny Void’s blogs stated that the last thing the Tories wanted was for the price of housing to go down, as this would have a knock-on effect on the rest of the economy through the way mortgages are used to stimulate finances elsewhere. Hence in the short-term, I really don’t think Osbo would be at all worried about housing prices going up, so long as the bubble burst when someone other than the Tories were in power.

As for the ‘Right-to-Buy’ policy having now been wheeled out by the Tories in eight elections in a row, that shows that they have absolutely no intention of honouring it. Not if it’s been touted in the past, but obviously not been put it into practice, if they’re still claiming they’re going to do it this time.

This means that Mr Pride was probably being overgenerous in his description of Cameron as a ‘pound-shop Maggie Thatcher’. The stuff in pound shops is cheap, but it’s still good quality. This, however, is a decidedly shop-worn policy, that is definitely past it’s sell by date. This is the Arthur Daley, Trotters Independent Traders version of Maggie Thatcher. If the policy was an animal, it’d be the dead parrot in the Monty Python sketch, gone to join the ‘choir invisibule’.