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Archive for April, 2013

Today, the usual simmering resentment and anger the internet feels for Justin Bieber came to a roaring boil and bubbled over. And all it took was a few well meant words.

Let’s go back in time seventy-odd years for a brief recap. Anne Frank was a young German girl, who lived mostly in Amsterdam, who was hunted down by the Nazis during World War II because they were Jewish. Eventually she and her family were caught and taken to a concentration camp, where she died at the age of 15. She’s become famous for the diary that she kept, for much of the last few years of her short life.

The building in Amsterdam where Anne Frank and her family hid from invading Nazi forces is now the Anne Frank House, a museum dedicated to her memory. Recently, Justin Bieber went there to visit the place, as the museum reported on their Facebook page. The message he left in the guestbook read:

Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.

A brief look at the bottom half of the internet will give you a flavour of the outraged response that followed.

One commonly recurring theme seems to be about “respect”, and the idea that Bieber should have shown more of it. This is Anne Frank, after all, a tragic victim of a brutally murderous regime; she deserves better than to have her memory trivialised by some pop star with an over-inflated ego.

And, well. There’s certainly a case to be made that Anne Frank, her memory, and the museum that bears her name, represent a profoundly human and humane response to forces of persecution and hate, on a scale of monumental historic significance – and that it demeans her to try associating her with fans of a 21st-century singer.

But I don’t think Justin Bieber had any intention of being so demeaning, and I think some people expect too much of him to be able to appropriately memorialise her legacy in a brief note written in a book at the end of an hour-long tour.

Not least because, for many people these days, the atrocities of the Nazi regime are dim and distant history to which it’s not easy to relate. They’re lucky like that, the young’uns of today. Anne Frank died in 1945; Justin Bieber was born in 1994. I find it near impossible to fathom the enormity of the 1940s global conflict, or to begin doing justice to the memory of a young Jewish girl who died in a concentration camp, and I’m a well read guy nearing 30. A 19-year-old kid who’s had little opportunity to do anything with his time but be a pop sensation for the last five years doesn’t have a chance.

So when he comes to the end of this lengthy exploration of some of the darkest times in humanity’s history, and the way in which the human spirit can struggle through even such terrors without being wholly extinguished, maybe some of it’s sunk in a little. Maybe he’s learned something. He still can’t say anything appropriate for the occasion, because who the hell could, but he has a go. He tries to relate. And he offers that perhaps “she would have been a belieber”.

Many of Justin Bieber’s most devoted fans identify themselves as “beliebers” – a merging of “believer” with his own name, to signify their loyalty to him and to each other in the face of considerable hostility, forming a cohesive unit of support and admiration. It might often be driven more by teenage hormones than sophisticated musical appreciation, and you might not find the guy himself all that admirable – but being a belieber doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us outsiders.

I can only speculate as to the role they play in Bieber’s own life, but given the numbers in which they tweet their affection for him to the world, cheer him on at every turn, and band together to share and encourage each other’s Bieberholic fanaticism, I imagine they form a massively significant part of his world, and seem like a strong, formidable, positive thing to be a part of. It wasn’t just self-centred for him to link Anne Frank’s memory with his own career; I suspect that it’s literally the most generous and open-hearted thing he can think to wish for somebody else, that they could be part of the swarm that surrounds him, and find friends and mutual support among an accepting, like-minded crowd.

Clumsy and inarticulate though it may be, this is how he shows respect.

And hey, maybe he’s right.

There’s a thing I never would have thought I’d suggest. Maybe, under different circumstances, Anne Frank would have been a belieber. She was a 13-year-old girl when she got the diary, 15 when she last wrote in it. Did she enjoy music? Did she ever start to have any young, adolescent, romantic feelings for a pretty boy with a nice smile? Or were these things denied her, aspects of her life which might have flourished if she’d had the chance to fully grow into herself and experience the world before all her opportunities were cut cruelly short?

I’ve no idea. I’ve not read her diary, as I suspect many of Bieber’s harshest critics haven’t, so I don’t know whether she wrote about such things at all. But the suggestion that she might have had certain things in common with many other teenage girls is a long way from being the most offensive thing ever said about Anne Frank.

Although, having said all of which…

Dear beliebers, and anyone else, who have been responding to criticism of Justin Bieber for his comments on Anne Frank, and standing up for his right to free expression, by making any comparison whatsoever between abusive online messages directed toward a millionaire global superstar, and the persecution and genocide of Jews in twentieth century Europe:

No.

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(Just clearing up any hashtag confusion there.)

Let’s not get het up about that “speaking ill of the dead” stuff. She was a hugely significant political figure; it’s never not a good time to discuss her influence and legacy, especially while we’re still living in its wake. Her fans and devotees are, of course, mourning and extolling her at abundant length, as is their every right. But the demands some of them are making for the right to monopolise the conversation are unreasonable.

The opinions she espoused and the actions she took were massively controversial, and unloved by many. There’s no reason the details of this shouldn’t be discussed in a manner rigorous yet sensitive to the memory of a human being with a family.

Honestly, if the distinction between personal attack and political criticism isn’t obvious, then we’re not intellectually equipped for any kind of political discussion, whether or not one of the central figures to it is recently deceased.

So who was Margaret Thatcher?

Was she fanatically devoted to a doomed ideology of privatisation?

Did she lay the groundwork for the recent financial crisis, which only began in earnest 18 years after her departure from office?

Did she poison the country to an extent from which we’re yet to recover?

Is her mythology riddled with myths? Was she less right-wing and more honest about it than any of today’s crowd? Was her record more mixed than many will acknowledge?

Who can say?

Not me. I’m concentrating much more at the moment on my novel about a zombie and a vampire who run a detective agency together than I am on this blog.

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If you asked me to sum up one of the most important and influential developments in my outlook on life and way of thinking in recent years, the thing which has most changed my view on the world and on myself, and which I’d most love to see more broadly spread among everyone and its importance appreciated, in a single word…

…I’d probably ask who you are and why I should bother paying attention to your long, wordy, and arbitrarily restrained questions, before making some more tea and procrastinating some more of my novel.

But if you caught me in a sharing and succinct mood, my answer would be:

Metacognition.

Which refers, in very brief terms as I best understand it, to “thinking about thinking”; being aware of what goes on inside your own head, of the physical and emotional processes that lead you to certain beliefs and states of mind.

The ability to see one’s thoughts as the product of a cluster of organic matter, moulded into shape by billions of years of competitive evolution, working through its own programming in an often chaotic and messy way – and not as simply the way things are because that’s how you see and feel them and so that’s the way the world is – is massively underrated.

Eventually I’ll explain more what I mean, why I think this, and what it’s meant to me (though in the meantime, as is often the case, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s got it pretty well covered if you want to read some more). But one thing in particular set me on this train of thought recently.

Journalist and nice man Jon Ronson tweeted recently about a new edition of his radio show that’s going to air soon. In his words:

The first episode is about how whenever I look at my clock the time is 11.11.

Obviously it’s an exaggeration, but the ensuing surge of retweets and other Twitter discussion showed that it’s not just some personal oddity, noticing a certain time of day coming up disproportionately often in the course of your clock-watching; many other people reported a similar phenomenon, often with exactly the same time. (I’d actually heard of this before, but with 9:11.)

Why does it happen? Well, various things spring to mind. Once you start noticing when it happens to be 11:11, for instance, it’s probably hard to stop, particularly once it’s in your mind as a cultural event which dozens of people have been tweeting about. I’ve completely lost track of how many times I’ve glanced at some sort of clock today, because none of them has been memorable for more than a few moments; if one particular time had special reason to stick in my mind, then I might start to remember it as if those were the “only” times I looked at a clock.

The lines of 11:11 have an obviously pleasing flat, straight, simple symmetry to them, which make them more interesting to notice than, say, all those occasions when I’ve checked the time and it was 14:53. (That could quite plausibly have happened to me hundreds of times in my life, for all I know, and I don’t remember a single one of them.) And maybe, on a subconscious level, it’s not always accidental; if you notice the time when it’s 11:07, perhaps you’ll be flicking back there every so often over the next few minutes, to see if you can catch 11:11 in the act.

And people regularly exaggerate, misremember, and misinterpret, of course, especially when they’re trying to make sure they have a story to tell that’s at least as good as everyone else’s.

I’d gone some way down this line of reasoning, after reading Jon’s first tweet, when I thought: Wait, why am I starting to get defensive about this? I’m doing some motivated thinking here, as if I needed to defend the idea that coincidences happen without there being some sort of supernatural, paranormal force behind it all.

…When did anyone bring supernatural paranormal forces into this?

Because literally nobody had. The only thing that had happened was someone mentioning a pattern they seemed to have observed. There wasn’t even a hint of an implication that pixies or goblins must be responsible for it (and Jon has a track record for being more grounded than that). But I started reacting as if there were, in the conversation my brain started carrying on with itself.

It’s not hard to understand why I’d do that; those sorts of stories, where an ostensibly improbable occurrence is used to justify belief in something wacky, do go on all the time, and do regularly annoy me. This wasn’t one of those times, but the cached thoughts welled up in my mind anyway, and if I hadn’t been attentive to it, I could’ve started arguing vehemently and digging my heels in to defend a position that wasn’t remotely under attack.

I suppose it’s worth briefly exploring what the trivially obvious arguments against such supernatural bollocks would be – primarily, that any spiritual or divine agent devoting its efforts to influencing when Jon Ronson happens to check the time, but which is continuing to let tens of thousands of children across the world die from starvation, AIDS, and malaria, is irrelevant at best and downright malevolent at worst.

But that’s not my main point here. More interesting right now, is how quickly I began building up mental defences in response to a completely imagined attack on a belief system which I shouldn’t even really be that defensive over anyway.

This has gone on long enough for now. I’ll try to hone in on some interesting parts to this in more detail soon.

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Here are two facts about Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Irritable Duncan Syndrome Iain Duncan Smith.

1. He recently claimed that he’d be capable of living on £53 a week, as some benefits claimants do.

2. He currently earns over forty times that amount, but when he recently spent £39 on breakfast he charged it to the taxpayer.

Taken completely in isolation, these two facts should tell you quite a bit about Iain Duncan Smith. In the most kind and charitable interpretation you could settle on, he’s somewhat out of touch with how other people live, and hasn’t as nuanced and detailed an understanding as he seems to think he does, when it comes to the way many people think about money.

There are less kind and less charitable interpretations as well, of course – and strong arguments that these are the ones he more greatly deserves. But just how much of a vicious bastard Iain Duncan Smith is isn’t directly relevant to how much he’s missing the point.

I don’t doubt that he could sit and work out a scenario whereby he forewent a few luxuries for a while, bought some generic non-brand foodstuffs, and provided himself with a sufficient supply of life’s staples that he didn’t literally die, while on a standard Jobseeker’s Allowance budget. He could probably make that work for a week – if, as he says, he had to – and he seems to see himself as the sort of person with the kind of moral fortitude required to just knuckle down and grit your teeth through such an ordeal, to see it through till the end.

But of course, in his case that end would be a week away. For most people, it’s nowhere in sight.

He only has to think in terms of spending thriftily and shopping smartly for a few days in order to make a point (and is sitting comfortably in his £2million mansion which hasn’t cost him a penny all the while). But frighteningly many thousands of people (whom his own Workfare schemes are doing not a damn thing to help, incidentally) are having to go through life like this.

They don’t get to just budget a simple week free of extravagances to show the world what they can do. They have to keep it up, every week, and deal with every unexpected expense which comes their way too.

Need to take a bus journey somewhere? Have to travel back to the Jobcentre at short notice because they cocked something up and you’re in danger of getting sanctioned? Need a haircut ahead of a job interview? Emergency dental work? Christmas presents? When each of these comes up, you’ve no idea if you can afford them. If several arise too close together, there goes your heating bill for next month. Hope you own plenty of blankets.

If Iain Duncan Smith thinks he could maintain anything remotely comparable to his current lifestyle – if he thinks he could cope with that constant uncertainty and insecurity always knotting his stomach, the regular demands for unplanned expenses any one of which might be enough to tip him over the edge and into unrecoverable debt or simply be impossible for him to pay – if he thinks he could live anything he’d recognise as a life, and not need more than £53 a week…

…then charitable interpretations be damned; the guy’s a fucking idiot.

Speaking of which, here’s something else he said which it’s hard to find a charitable interpretation for:

…the amount of money that taxpayers pay sees some value at the end of it in terms of people being supported.

It’s all about the poors making themselves useful, you see. Never mind caring for others in society for its own sake; raising the standard of living for the less fortunate; providing some dignity and security; helping lift the constant fog of judgment that sits over anyone not able to find a job or prevented from “giving back” as much as the rest of us deem they should because of physical or mental health issues. To hell with all that lefty bollocks. If we’re going to give you dozens of pounds every single week so that you can just scrape by in a dismally meagre existence devoid of luxuries, we’d damn well better get something out of it ourselves.

Of course, the taxpayer also pays Iain Duncan Smith £134,565 a year, or over £2,500 gross every week. The precise “value” we’ve seen as a result of supporting him in this way is left as an exercise to the reader.

A petition has sprung up, and become massively popular at great speed, demanding that IDS prove himself by doing exactly what he’s claimed he could do, for a whole year. This might be a useful exercise in highlighting the issue of poverty and his inability to appreciate it, and I hope it generates some press – but it’s worth remembering that we don’t really want him to have to live on £53 a week, because we don’t want anyone to live like that. As 21st century citizens of the developed world in the internet age, when we’re more than capable of amply looking after everyone’s needs if we got ourselves better organised, we all deserve better. Even Iain Duncan Smith.

Of more direct value is the petition against the War on Welfare. Whatever you think of the capacity for these online petitions to do any good, adding support and another voice to this side of the conversation should be a no-brainer, especially when the opposition seems to consist of all the people in charge. Some of the stories coming out of that campaign, about how the disabled and least able to defend themselves are treated, should make you feel sick and angry.

And while we’re at it, Universal Basic Income, bitches. I’m still not intellectually convinced it’s as likely a solution as I powerfully hope it could be, but the more such ideas are discussed and such attitudes are fomented, the better.

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