The Murder Of Daniel Morgan

In 1987 Daniel Morgan, a London-based private investigator, stumbled across corruption involving the police. Not long after, he was hacked to death with an axe. In this audio interview, Daniel’s brother Alastair talks about his 25-year struggle against the British state to see justice done.

 

US Elections For Dummies

That tricky choice: more drone strikes and torture or more drone strikes and torture?

As we approach another US Presidential election, increasing numbers of non-Americans are watching proceedings with great interest; however, the US electoral system is a strange thing, and many foreigners fail to understand its subtleties. As a non-Yank who takes a great interest in US politics, I felt I should explain US elections to those foreigners who would like to follow events in the run-up to November 6. So here is the MoronWatch quick guide to American elections.

Only Two Parties?

That’s right, the American system is carefully engineered to ensure only Democrats and Republicans have any chance of winning. To outside observers, used to multi-party democracy, this seems a little strange. America, in its usual efficient way, has optimised democracy to the bare minimum. Cuba, of course, has a one-party state. America has TWICE the number of parties that Cuba does, and is therefore twice as democratic. And what better measure of democracy could there possibly be?

To ensure no other parties have a chance, the Ds and the Rs have things sown up. For example, in the current run of presidential debates, the parties signed a legal contract promising not to debate with any other candidate, thus creating an unbreakable duopoly and excluding any possible third-party candidate from gaining any publicity. The media plays along with the game, ensuring that alternative candidates are seen as little more than cranks. And when force is needed, it’s freely used; indeed, when Green Party candidate Jill Stein tried to attend this year’s debate, she was arrested and held by New York police. Smell the democracy!

No Spending Limits?

Outsiders have a quaint idea that elections should reflect the will of the people. America is smarter than this (as are other advanced democracies such as Cuba, Zimbabwe, etc). The People, as everyone knows, are idiots and shouldn’t be allowed to make any serious decisions. Presidents should instead be chosen by the nation’s cleverest people: CEOs. Unlike many democracies, America imposes no spending restrictions, and even allows third-parties (such as corporate front groups) to run political advertising. The election result is thus a simple matter of money.

So corporations fund the campaigns and the campaign that spends the most money wins. Simple! Which party do the corporations prefer? Both of them! Since both parties represent corporate interests, it doesn’t really matter to corporations which one is elected. They fund both parties to make sure that they, rather than any accountable body, control the system. If one of the parties suddenly questioned the rights of corporations to own and run US society, that party would lose its funding and the other one would win. The system is balanced and fair (unless you’re some kind of commie who believes in “one person, one vote” type stuff).

No Progressive Party?

Real democracies represent all parts of the political spectrum, but that can be messy, and result in the people actually choosing their government; so the enlightened system in America (like that in Cuba) ensures this doesn’t happen. Most societies split into two parts – conservatives (those who think the past was great) and progressives (those who aren’t so sure about that). So the main political parties tend to represent various flavours of these strands. America has evolved beyond this crude system; since progressives tend to be uneasy about corporate power threatening democracy, they had to be excluded from the electoral process.

Instead, Americans are offered a simpler choice: pro-corporate sane people vs pro-corporate insane people. This means that a knowledge of politics isn’t necessary for voting in America, since the parties disagree on very little anyway. Just decide whether you think raped pregnant women should be forced to carry their babies to term or not, and your choice is simple.

Make Up The Rules As You Go Along

Here’s the best thing about US elections: if the vote doesn’t go your way, it doesn’t even matter! You simply ensure the voting machines will give the right answer, people have trouble voting, and the supreme court is packed with your friends.

Why bother with elections at all? Why not just allow CEOs to nominate the next President at a secret meeting? Americans are proud of their semi-democratic past, and voting reminds them of the days when they actually used to have some control over national policy. Besides, the corporations who make rigged voting machines would be very upset to lose all that business. As with many African nations, which have so carefully copied America’s version of democracy, the US enjoys going through the motions of voting, secure in the knowledge that the rich people who own everything will still be in power after election day.

So Does Voting Make Any Difference?

Yes. Despite the fact that both parties are largely funded by the same interests, small changes of direction can make a big difference. The Republican party has been taken over by people who will happily start a nuclear war, since they believe God’s on their side and they’re guaranteed a spot in heaven whatever happens. And the difference between “nuclear war” and “no nuclear war” is pretty significant. Romney has signalled a more aggressive attitude towards Russia, China and Iran if he’s elected, which is bad news for global stability and the economy, but good news for the oil and weapons companies that back him.

So here we go again: through some joke of history, the entire future of global humanity rests on the whims of a handful of badly-informed morons in a handful of swing states. If there is a god, he has a wicked sense of humour.

The Left’s Huge Failure Over Julian Assange

Julian AssangeA couple of months back, I wrote a blog post lamenting the sad decline of the left: once the home of free thought and scientific reasoning, now the home of political correctness (aka “nice censorship”) and authoritarianism. A few weeks later, I was vividly vindicated by the furore around the British threat to raid the Ecuadorian Embassy, where Julian Assange was claiming political asylum (now granted by Ecuador).

For those of you have been off-planet for the past few years: Assange ran Wikileaks, a courageous organisation, dedicated to free speech, that has been publishing government and military secrets from around the world on its website since 2006. Government after government was revealed to be embroiled in corruption and illegality; but when in April 2010, Wikileaks released the infamous Collateral Murder video, providing strong evidence of the US military murdering civilians and journalists in Iraq, two things were instantly clear: first, that Assange was a hero of free speech; and second, that he was a marked man. The US has committed war crimes for decades, but now it was clear that it could no longer keep them under wraps. The only logical act for the US war machine (other than apologising and cleaning up its act) would be to make an example of those behind the leaks, and instil terror in anyone who thought they might emulate Wikileaks’ behaviour.

Bradley Manning, a US soldier suspected to have leaked the video, was arrested, and remains in detention without charge; his treatment appears to fall within the definition of torture. That, of course, left Assange. The Obama Administration, far from embracing the new openness, has declared war on whistle-blowers, especially anyone associated with Wikileaks. Those denying that the US is after Julian Assange, or that it would deprive him of his liberty permanently if captured, have clearly not been paying attention.

The accusations of rape that surfaced in Sweden in August 2010 were greeted by Wikileaks-watchers with instant suspicion, and with good reason. By early-2011 it had become crystal-clear that this was not being treated by the Swedes like a normal rape case, as shown by testimony from former senior Swedish prosecutor Sven-Erik Alhem, and an article by global rape law expert Naomi Wolf. Assange was in London fighting extradition to Sweden. He suspected (again with good reason) that the Swedes were working with the Americans to transfer him into US custody; in June this year, he offered to submit to extradition on the condition that the Swedes promised not to hand him to the Americans. This was refused, and Assange decided (and yet again it seems, with good reason) to claim asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

None of this, of course, casts doubt on the rights of the Swedish women to see justice done; but the behaviour of the Swedish and British authorities is blatant; they obviously have little interest in rape allegations, and every interest in grabbing Assange.

Then in mid-August, something truly astonishing happened. The British government threatened to raid the Ecuadorian embassy to arrest Assange. This was truly unprecedented and dangerous, and provoked outrage around the world; wars have been started for lesser reasons than this. Not only did the threat cause huge damage to Britain’s international standing, but the sheer scale of the threat provided proof that the Swedish charges were a cover for something bigger. Mass murderers have walked free from British custody, yet Assange’s arrest mattered enough that Britain was prepared to wreak huge damage to international relations, and breach a vital core principle of modern diplomacy: the right to claim asylum.

Twitter burst into life, followed by the blogosphere; demonstrators materialised outside the embassy. As I tracked events online, I began to wonder where the mainstream left were – they seemed entirely absent. OK, the threat against Ecuador did come in the middle of holiday season – but surely the opposition couldn’t be silent at such a moment?

In reality of course, poor Ed Miliband’s hands were tied. Senior Labour figures, including Ed’s own big bro are implicated in crimes against humanity; they played along with the worst excesses of America’s “war on terror”, including illegal kidnap, detention, torture, and mass-murder. Labour is as much a part of the repressive, illegal machinery as the Conservatives and the intelligence services, and it seems unable to separate itself from the Blairite clique that disgraced the party so badly. By the end of the day, the moronic, mainstream left had chosen its line: ignore Britain’s disgraceful actions, and instead play the rape card by restarting the old arguments over the Swedish allegations from two years previously. Followers on Twitter followed suit. Soon, anybody who supported Assange had been slurred with the moron buzzword-of-the-week “rape apologist”, as I blogged at the time.

The first word I saw from a Labourite came in the next day’s Independent from Owen Jones, a young and apparently left-wing activist/journalist who is a popular up-and-coming Labour figure. Jones’ article was entitled: There Should Be No Immunity For Julian Assange From These Allegations.

I have three basic problems with the article:

  1. It is bland and populist. It contains all the ingredients needed to appeal to the centre-left, without saying very much of substance. It is a rallying cry to the Labour heartland, and it seems designed to rally Labourites against Assange. It contains the kind of meaningless-yet-popular phrases that would go down brilliantly at a Labour conference – for example, “Let’s be clear: rape is rape”. Whatever next – “Education, Education, Education”?
  2. It is inaccurate. It amplifies some of the old arguments that had been used against Assange, but ignores some other key points. An excellent blog post, Don’t Call Me A Rape Apologist by @EthicalGirl, covers Jones’ apparent bias regarding his coverage of the “facts” of the rape allegations. In addition, Jones repeats an old slur against Tory Minister Ken Clarke, which I blogged about at the time. I’m all for Tory-bashing, but prefer when it’s done with honesty and good reason. Again, this was great for the Labour heartland, not so great for accuracy and integrity.
  3. But the biggest problem is, of course, that Jones almost entirely ignores the big, Huge, ENORMOUS story of the day. His only, tangential reference to it is as follows: “Though its UK Embassy must be protected from any British Government attempt to attack its sovereignty, it is wrong to offer Assange political asylum”. Yes, that’s it. No comment on the government’s quite-probably-illegal behaviour, at all.

I have no idea whether Jones’ omissions are made through genuine ignorance or not. If he was (hypothetically) building up his profile ready for a safe Labour seat at the next election, his Independent article would have been perfectly pitched to capture grassroots support, while giving a wink to Labour top-brass that he could be relied upon to behave himself when it came to the Big Issues.

I generally agree with much of what Jones writes – but I selected this article as the earliest and most high-profile example of how the mainstream left managed to ignore (or deflect from) a very important story. I’m pretty sure that if Assange had been accused of something else – violence against a man, for example – many more of his supporters would have largely raised eyebrows and stood by him. But the “rape apologist” slur is one that terrifies the “liberal” male, and many good people buckled and became silent under the onslaught. I’ve no idea who first used it to label Assange supporters, but it was very well-chosen to have a chilling effect on the debate. Apparently a rape allegation is sacred; no man may ever cast doubt on it, however bizarre the behaviour of the prosecutors, because he will be accused, stupidly, of somehow supporting rape.

It is only thanks to brave and unimpeachable female anti-rape campaigners, like Naomi Wolf (above) and the veteran British group Women Against Rape, who wrote a marvellous article defending Assange, that debate wasn’t crushed altogether. But what a sad state the left is revealed to be in, if it is afraid to defend a hero of free speech for fear of being branded with the R-word.

Should Cigarette Brands Be Hidden?

Australian cigarette packaging
Australian cigarette packaging

This week, the UK government ended a consultation on whether cigarette companies should continue to be allowed to use branding and packaging to make their products more attractive. I’ve read and listened to some of the coverage, trying to decide as to whether this strategy will be effective in cutting smoking, but so far few facts have emerged from the noise of debate. Anti-smoking campaigners argue passionately for the ban, while “libertarian” free market advocates claim it will have no effect, and stifle freedom.

My heart is with the ban; the tobacco industry has proven itself to be the worst kind of scum, successfully denying any link with cancer for decades after 1950s research revealed the risks (indeed, denial of the tobacco-cancer link until the 1990s was a favourite moron argument, paralleling today’s denial of climate change). Only when huge class action suits threatened the industry’s very existence did it turn away from lying about its product’s health risks. Tobacco is by far the most dangerous of all recreational drugs, linked with an estimated 18% of all deaths in British over-35s, and 5% of all hospital admissions. My libertarian sympathies, also, aren’t aroused by the prospect of forcing the removal of branding from packaging. Liberty is for people, not corporations, and nobody is (yet) suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to buy or smoke tobacco (I’d strongly opposes any outright ban on tobacco sale or consumption). The idea that anyone is losing liberty by having to buy Marlboro in an olive rather than red-and-white pack is ludicrous (yet this kind of argument is a common piece of “libertarian” nonsense).

Would a branding ban reduce smoking? That seems less clear. Its advocates seem to have more passion than facts at their disposal. A comparison with the illegal part of the recreational drugs business suggests that branding isn’t a pre-requisite for product popularity. Highly popular drugs, such as MDMA (pure Ecstasy crystals) and cocaine are typically delivered in small plastic bags, or neatly folded up in a old lottery ticket. Cannabis is sold in a plastic bag or clingfilm. There are some approximations to branding: batches of Ecstasy tablets can usually be identified by size, colour, shape and stamp. Mitsubishi pills were popular a decade or so ago, and popular brands like Apple and Nike have taken over more recently. Rumours of a particularly good batch of pills would make a particular brand popular; but in a black market with no trademark protections, if “Apples” are all the rage, manufacturers will quickly begin producing fake Apples. Cannabis is “branded” based on its strain; a grower who creates a hybrid to be proud of will give it a memorable name – classics include White Widow and Orange Bud. But once the seeds are in the public domain, all brand control is lost.

Due to their illegality, cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy can’t be effectively branded; but their popularity seems undented nonetheless. For decades (millennia in the case of cannabis), these drugs have only increased in popularity. It seems that branding, rather than increasing overall market size, simply increases the ability of corporations to control the market. To me, that seems like a bad thing – corporations create brand loyalty in order to ultimately reduce consumer choice and dominate the market.

It seems that brands contribute to the monopolisation of markets, reducing competitiveness and choice. The huge variety of recreational drugs for sale, and the endless scientific innovation in the field contrasts favourably with the increasing lack of innovation in legal markets, where corporations, having established dominance, get better returns from crushing competition than from investing in research and development. This is the classic contradiction of Capitalism; by succeeding, it dies.

On this basis, branding is the ultimate enemy of the free market. Can anyone claim that McDonalds or Budweiser have led to improved choice or quality? Brand psychology is hugely sophisticated, and we’re all susceptible, however aware we are. It’s why Brad Pitt sells more movie tickets than a brilliant, but unknown actor. It’s why in a strange city, I gravitate to Starbucks – it’s not the best coffee, but it’s familiar and I know what to expect.

Perhaps libertarians, rather than defending the right of British American Tobacco to lure us with fancy packaging, should be welcoming the tobacco experiment, and calling for its extension. In a sane world, perhaps adults would be presented with a choice of unbadged tobacco, alongside unbadged cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy, all of which have far fewer health issues than cigarettes. Of course, we don’t live in a sane world – but it’s worth at least thinking about.

How Europeans Can Help Defend US Democracy

Marshall Plan
Europe broke it, America fixed it.

Europe has always been the world’s most divided and war-torn continent (the past 60 years of relative peace have helped us forget this inconvenient truth). In the 20th century, we decided to finally finish the job by tearing ourselves (and much of the outside world) to pieces in the two biggest wars ever seen. Although the Americans tend to overestimate US involvement in the European part of World War II, it’s undeniable that we owe America a huge debt of gratitude; firstly for joining the war in 1942, but perhaps even more significantly for the huge bail-out Europe received afterwards – better known as the Marshall Plan. Yes it’s true, the USA itself reaped huge rewards by holding Western Europe away from the Soviet Union; the bail-out kept America in the game as a global superpower – and after 1990, THE global superpower. But to deny US generosity would be wrong: to put it in American terms: they saved our asses.

The bail-out had far more than financial consequences. It allowed Europe to escape a spiral of poverty and bankruptcy, and implement a continent-wide social democracy, providing freedom, prosperity and a generous safety net to all Western Europeans. With universal healthcare, our life expectancies rocketed, and Europe’s workers became healthier and more productive, yielding economic gains. Generous welfare safety nets enabled people to take more risks, and thus encouraged entrepreneurialism. Social mobility rocketed.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, America was heading in the opposite direction. The military-corporate war machine didn’t want to be closed down, and found an excuse to turn the short-term war into a permanent one: the “Red Threat”. So long as Americans could be kept ignorant and afraid (a condition which requires endless warfare), the corporations and military could endlessly undermine freedom and democracy, and grab power away from the people. To their own surprise, the US corporatocracy won the Cold War; this wasn’t the plan. Without war, the American people would demand a smaller military and greater freedom. New “threats” needed to be found (and, as we know, they were).  As George Orwell wrote in his classic Nineteen Eighty-Four:

The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous (full quote)

In WWII, American troops arrived in Europe to discover that they were better fed and taller than Europeans: now that has reversed. Europeans are now more likely to progress through the social hierarchies than Americans. The American Dream is still alive and well… but in Europe, not America.

Sooner or later, as Eisenhower warned in 1961, the power of the military-industrial complex would come to outweigh elected government, at which point democracy will be under mortal threat. That time may have now arrived. The 2000 Presidential election was clearly rigged by corporations working hand-in-hand with the Republican Party in Florida. The 2003 Iraq War was fought with the money and lives of ordinary Americans, for clear corporate objectives. In the 2010 Citizens United case, the US Supreme Court decided that free speech entailed allowing corporations to spend as much as they liked to influence election outcomes – effectively abandoning the principle of “one man one vote”. Money has always played a huge role in US elections; now it is the only thing that matters. The corporate aristocracy warned of by Thomas Jefferson in 1816 now truly holds the power in America.

Chief among those corporate aristocrats are the Koch Brothers. They are chiefly responsible for turning the Tea Party movement into a force which in turn drove out right-of-centre conservatism from the Republican Party, and transformed the party into a nakedly pro-corporate force. The brothers lobby heavily for their oil, gas and chemical interests, and spend big to ensure that right-wing Republicans who support their aims will win elections. From a British perspective, the activities of the Kochs are simply staggering: our democracy may have flaws, but buying elections in this brazen way would be, quite simple, illegal.

The US could easily improve its democracy by borrowing from Europe’s older and and more democratic systems: restrict lobbying and bar politicians from accepting donations from vested interests; restrict political advertising to political parties only; impose spending caps as well as donation caps; adopt voting systems that allow new parties to enter the arena; take easily-rigged electronic voting systems out of corporate hands; make registering to vote as easy as possible; extend democracy into the corporate boardroom. But while corporations can own US politicians, and buy elections, none of these things will happen.

In the shorter term, individuals can target the Kochs by boycotting their products. Shoq Value (@Shoq on Twitter) breaks down the Koch products and brands that Americans should avoid.

Koch products also reach us in Europe via their company Georgia Pacific EMEA, which provides a handy brand list on their website. European believers in freedom and democracy can ensure that they and their friends and families avoid the Koch brands listed below. OK; it ain’t the Marshall Plan, but it’s a start. America once saved our asses from fascist rule – let’s return the favour.

Boycott Koch:

  • Colhogar
  • Delica
  • DEMAK UP
  • Inversoft
  • Kittensoft
  • Lotus and Lotus Professional
  • Moltonel
  • nouvelle soft
  • Okay
  • Thirst Pockets

Trayvon: A View From The UK

Trayvon Martin Demonstrators Wearing Hoodies
A Killed Boy Or A Broken Country?

A tweeter questioned today whether I (being British and watching from afar) perhaps don’t understand the anger driving people over the Trayvon Martin shooting. I’d suggested that all sides needed to “chill-the-fuck-out”, following a bounty put on Zimmerman (the shooter) by the New Black Panthers, and the retweet of Zimmerman’s address by film-maker Spike Lee (which turned out to actually be the address of an old couple).

It’s true that, from afar, it’s hard to really take the pulse and understand people’s feelings in a foreign land – although Twitter does help convey the emotion of the event far better than the “old media”, where events are cleansed through the minds of journalists. It’s been possible to watch the reaction emerge hour-by-hour: incredulity that Sanford police didn’t arrest a killer; the obvious racial stereotyping that was going on; the shouts of racism; the counter-accusations from morons determined to find fault in a 17-year-old unarmed boy who had been killed; the bizarre, peculiarly American polarisation, splitting the country in half over a case where the basic facts seem so simple.

It’s true, I’m undoubtedly missing local, cultural nuances, watching  from London, but I have some advantages; it’s easier to see bigger pictures from afar; and I have the advantage of comparison. How would this same story unroll in the UK, mainland Europe or elsewhere?

There was a time, before mine, when America was viewed here with little but admiration. The US presents itself so effectively; Hollywood had packaged and presented a place that was exciting and free (if somewhat violent). But coming of age in the early-80s, that time had already passed. The civil rights era and Vietnam had tarnished America’s claim to being the land-of-the-free. By the time I could follow politics, America, under Reagan, was the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, and a threat to the independence of small states. I had Chilean friends who had fled Pinochet’s regime of terror, backed to the hilt by Reagan. South African apartheid was holding together, largely because of quiet backing from the US, and nearby states such as Angola were being torn apart by US-backed insurgencies. The small Caribbean island of Grenada was directly invaded to prevent a left-wing government taking over. US-backed terrorists were killing thousands in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and more. The Afghan Mujahideen, precursor of Al Qaida and the Taliban, was skinning Russian soldiers alive, backed with US funds and arms.

We also learned that life in the US was different from the Hollywood view. British reggae band UB40, a favourite of mine at the time, wrote a song in 1981 called Tyler, about Gary Tyler, a young black man from Louisiana who had been obviously framed on a murder charge; yet not one person, police, judge or jury, stopped him from going to jail. Similar stories were to be heard frequently. The freedom mask was slipping.

I first went to the US in 1989, and have been perhaps 15-20 times since. I fell in love with San Francisco and other cities, and began to see a 3D picture behind the 2D portrayals. As I visited more, I went more off the beaten track. The segregation was the first thing to surprise me. It seemed the civil rights movement hadn’t settled racial issues as I’d thought, but merely ended in a ceasefire. White flight left black populations inside cities, while the suburbs were white. And notably, the sight of a mixed-race couple, which was becoming commonplace in London, was extremely rare, even in “liberal” bastions like New York or San Francisco. I began to see that police brutality was so common, it could happen right in front of even me, a tourist. The police acted with such arrogance and authority, I began to wonder how such a police state could exist in a country that believed itself to be, not just a democracy, but THE democracy.

I saw homelessness on a scale I’d never seen in Europe or elsewhere. I visited black ghettos in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Las Vegas, and saw a desperate, poor, lawless country, unlike anything I’d seen before. I saw that thuggish police drove around the ghetto outskirts, the message clear: you do whatever you want inside, but don’t you dare step outside. US ghettos aren’t just poor neighbourhoods; they are drug-infested, crime-infested prison camps.

I saw the reality of a country without universal healthcare. People everywhere living in fear of the simplest thing: falling ill. I’d been born two decades after the establishment of Britain’s NHS, and the idea that people in the richest country could have to cope without medical care was shocking. Today, universal healthcare is even appearing in Africa: Ghana was the first to implement it there, a few years ago. And yet America is currently tearing itself in half over Obama’s simple proposals to ensure that people are covered by insurance.

I began to be sure of one thing in America’s future. There’s a revolution coming. Or perhaps more accurately, there’s a permanently rolling, rumbling revolution ready to burst to the surface when it can. Why else would military-style policing be needed on a daily basis? How else do you explain an incarceration rate higher than China or the Soviet Union at their worst? I began to wait for the trigger.

In 2000, the election was blatantly, publicly rigged to bring George W Bush to power. Voter lists had been casually cleansed of black-sounding names. Florida police had been physically stopping black people from voting. In the 21st century, the old South was still there, plain as day. The US journalist Greg Palast quickly exposed the scam in a short film. But not one media network in the US would show it. The US media was censored to the hilt. The film was instead shown on BBC TV’s Newsnight – I’m not sure if it’s ever reached American TV, and YouTube didn’t exist back then. Then Katrina hit, and the world saw a third-world population living in the middle of the world’s wealthiest country.

In late-2001, four black friends of mine came to visit London from Houston. At the time, London tourism had been badly hit as Americans had cancelled flights, post-9/11, so I asked my friends whether they’d been afraid to travel. One of the girls looked at me and said “We’re black. We live in Texas. Pretty much anywhere is safer than home.”

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street, a remarkable grassroots movement, exploded into life from apparently nothing. Putting aside arguments over its approach or lack of policies, what has been most obvious is its violent suppression. The scenes coming from New York or Oakland aren’t scenes from a free country. The first amendment seems to no longer apply on America’s streets.

Violence, daily police harassment, police killings with impunity are the day-to-day experience of many Americans. Meanwhile, in TV-land, perfectly coiffured blondes report on a version of reality that doesn’t seem to exist if you walk the streets of an American city. The shooting of Trayvon Martin inevitably crystallised the rage.  The screaming over racism-or-not, justified-or-not doesn’t capture what I see: a place that’s so afraid of itself that it’s possible to debate whether killing of an unarmed man may have been justified. Whether Zimmerman was racist or not, he was conditioned enough to see a threat in a lone, unarmed black teenage male. He was scared. From here, all of America seems scared. Of what? Of “black crime”. And Muslims. And Latinos. And immigration. And drugs. And people-muscling-in-on-my-hard-earned cash. And getting sick. And terrorism. And Iran getting nukes. And Iraq getting WMDs. And Communism. And Somali pirates. And Hugo Chavez. And Fidel Castro. And people peacefully protesting against injustice in the streets. What sane wealthy country would need to build gated communities?

The people who are least afraid are the ones who most deserve to be. America’s minorities seem to be weary, fed up, and angry. The rage around one boy’s shooting is a small taster of what is to come. America: You can’t lock up everybody, although you seem to be trying to. Egypt and other countries showed that the most brutal policing won’t keep people in their place forever.

The US is a country that feels it should “police” the globe. In practise, US wars bundle up the racism, fear and hatred prevalent in US society, and inflict them, unwanted, on the rest of the planet. If the US ever did have a moral right to intervene in other countries, it long since surrendered that right. All this can be fixed: get corporate money out of politics, put the police in their place as servants, not masters, reduce prison populations, introduce modern healthcare, stop letting the ultra-rich set the media agenda. Alternatively, perhaps you should revisit your national anthem: land of the free and home of the brave? That’s not how it looks from here.

The Moron Awards 2011

Moron 2011
2011: A Moronic Year

It’s time once again to look back at the highlights and lowlights of the past year. The widespread economic and social problems have meant that, for millions, 2011 has been a difficult, challenging time. But not for MoronWatch! 2011 has one of the most moronic years in modern history. And it’s time to give thanks to all the morons who helped make it happen.

So here’s my attempt to remember just a few of this year’s moronic events, and the morons behind them. I couldn’t possibly cover every piece of moronitude, and I’ve undoubtedly missed some key events and people – feel free to add your favourites below.

Biggest Flop

Those who entertained us by promising to deliver, before completely failing to do so.

Winner: Harold Camping, who predicted the second coming would take place on 21st May, followed by the end of the world on October 21st. He worked it out using numbers. Sadly (at least for morons awaiting Judgement Day), his calculations turned out to be wrong. Jesus failed to show in May, but Harry stuck to his guns and said the world would still end in October (it didn’t, FYI). Honourable mention: the people who believed him.

Runners-up:

Rupert Murdoch and his son James, for breaking British law on a huge scale, with the help of police officers who they’d bribed, and then getting caught, allowing British democracy to strike back against the Murdoch strangehold over our elected leaders.

Guido Fawkes (aka Paul Staines), a right-wing British blogger who tried (with help from the moron press) to show, via an online petition, that the UK public were clamouring for a return of the death penalty. They weren’t.

Donald Trump, who reignited the birther controversy, demanding Barack Obama produce his long-form birth certificate. With beautiful timing, Obama duly did so, destroying Trump’s presidential campaign (though to be fair, Trump had already destroyed it himself by being Donald Trump).

Christopher Monckton, a man who has profited hugely from selling climate change denial to morons, despite having been repeatedly discredited, opened a Twitter account. After skirmishes with myself and other “fans”, he quickly closed it down again.

The far-right English Defence League (EDL) have continued to keep us entertained with their moronic (and badly-spelled) antics, both online and offline. This year, they discovered that posting online threats to attack the Occupy protesters in London would lead to them being arrested when they arrived in town for Remembrance Day.

Rick Perry, presidential hopeful, had a moronic plan to close entire government departments, but when asked during a TV debate, he couldn’t remember which ones. Oops!

The ever-inventive Tommy Robinson, leader of the EDL, who appears to have invented a beating at the hands of “Pakistanis”.

Michele Bachmann, after showing early promise to be the flag-bearer for American moronism in next year’s presidential election, vanished without a trace (as did several of her moronic competitors).

Global Menace

Who has been doing their best to destabilise world society, and (whether deliberately or accidentally) drive us towards war?

Winner: The Tea Party caucus in Congress for refusing to raise the US debt ceiling until the 13th hour, resulting in a downgrade for the USA’s credit rating. While some “moderate” Republican morons used the debt ceiling increase as a negotiating tool to try to force cuts in spending, the Tea Party, led by MoronWatch favourite Michele Bachmann, were genuinely prepared to force a US debt default, taking the global economy to the brink of panic.

Runners up:

European leaders for repeatedly failing throughout the year to take the actions necessary to stabilise the EU economy. Special mention to Silvio Berlusconi, for clinging to power despite having mismanaged the Italian economy for years, so he wouldn’t face prosecution for – well, pretty much everything. Very special mention to Dave Camoron and his nationalistic, Eurosceptic Tory right, who tried (perhaps successfully) to single-handedly derail a deal that would stop the European economy from collapsing.

Ongoing: The US for its moronic “war on terror” which grinds on, killing civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, pushing those countries steadily towards social collapse and so putting power in the hands of the Taliban and other extremists, who are (in theory) supposed to be the enemy.

Binyamin Netanyahu, who has stopped even pretending to care about peace in the region, and endlessly accelerates Israeli aggression and land theft. Special mention: the moronic pro-Israel lobby in the US who continue to support Israel, regardless of what it does.

Ongoing: most world governments for their endless execution of the utterly failed War on Drugs, which swallows endless billions of dollars and millions of lives, and results in more people taking more dangerous drugs.

Terrorism

Terrorism is becoming ever-more fashionable, especially among those who claim to be fighting terrorism. Here is my selection of the year’s top terrorists.

Winner: President Assad of Syria, for the mass-slaughter of his own people in the streets of Syrian cities. Of course, like all good state terrorists, Assad says that his victims aren’t civilians at all, but are themselves terrorists working in behalf of Syria’s enemies. No doubt, Syria has its own population of morons who believe him.

Runners up:

Barack Obama, for drone strikes on Pakistan that kill civilians on a regular basis. Obama fans may point out that it’s actually the Pentagon or the CIA carrying out these attacks, but if we blamed Bush’s wars on Bush, let’s be consistent and lay the blame for post-2008 terrorism on Obama. It’s only fair. And by the way, it’s probably about time Obama returned his prematurely-awarded Nobel Peace Prize.

West Bank extremist settlers for their barely-reported campaign of “price tag” terrorism against Palestinian civilians. Their strategy is to endlessly provoke the Palestinian population by ripping up crops, sabotaging irrigation systems or damaging mosques, then shooting people who protest. If the protests get too big, they go running to Mummy (aka the Israeli Defence Force) who shoot or arrest and torture Palestinian civilians.

Mystery winner: somebody, probably Israel or the US, carried out a terrorist attack on an Iranian military base, and quite possibly other attacks we haven’t heard about. If Iranians protest or retaliate in any way, it just shows how unreasonable they are. Honourable mention: Western media and politicians who ignore these attacks and continue to beat the drums of war against Iran.

London’s Metropolitan Police, who executed Mark Duggan, a young black man, in North London, based merely on the suspicion that he might be carrying a gun. Immediately after the shooting, the police lied to journalists, saying an exchange of fire had taken place – it hadn’t. The shooting triggered an uprising in Tottenham which led to the UK summer riots. Notably, this is the second time a riot has begun in Tottenham after the police killed an unarmed person. Special mention to the poorly-named Independent Police Complaints Commission, who are never independent and always ignore complaints. As ever, they came down on the side of the police.

The Inhumanity!

While it’s useful to understand motivations, some people are just plain evil.

Winner: “Pepper Spray Cop” – the policeman in Berkeley, California who was videoed casually spraying peaceful, seated protesters in the face with pepper spray. He was just one of many US police officers who took part in violent attacks on peaceful Occupy protesters this year, showing that free speech isn’t as much an American value as we might have hoped.

Runners up:

The US state of Georgia, who executed Troy Davis, despite strong evidence that his trial had been rigged.

Ugandan MPs, who have repeatedly tried to introduce laws making homosexuality a crime punishable by death. Special mention also to Ghana, Malawi and most other African countries, which have continued to make life as hard as possible for homosexuals.

The US, for using their UN veto to block the legal right of Palestine to be recognised as a state, a result that will simply encourage Israel to do whatever it likes, however brutal or illegal. As usual.

Supporters of presidential candidate and libertarian, Ron Paul at a debate. Paul was asked about his “libertarian” approach to healthcare: what should happen to people with no health cover if they were to fall ill? He confirmed that they should be given the “freedom” to die. At which, the audience applauded heartily, yelling “Let him die!”.

Hypocrisy

Everyone loves a little hypocrisy. Well, MoronWatch does, anyway. Here are some of the highlights.

Winner: Joint prize to The UK, France and the US for attacking Libya, to “protect civilians”. Strangely, their newly-found morality hasn’t been applied in recent years where civilians in their thousands (or tens of thousands) have been persecuted, slaughtered, raped or driven from their homes in various countries including Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Bahrain. Did I mention Libya is a major oil producer?

Runners up:

The British Royal Family, who invited Bahraini royals to the royal wedding while protesters were being shot dead in the streets back home.

The Republican Party, who desperately fight for tax cuts for the rich, while proving decidedly reluctant to extend a tax cut for working Americans. Not only is this morally suspect, it’s also economically moronic: tax cuts for people on low and average incomes feed back into economic growth far more effectively than extra money for the wealthy.

Western conservatives, who enjoy using the words freedom and democracy incessantly but who, when faced with Arabs demanding democracy, proved decidedly lukewarm about the idea.

Just Plain Moronic

Awarded for general acts or statements of stupidity.

Winner: The British Public, for rejecting a modest improvement (the Alternative Vote, or AV) to our democratic system that would help weaken the current Labour-Conservative duopoly on power, open the door for the creation of fresh new political parties, and revitalise our democracy (as had already happened when AV was adopted in Australia). The newspapers (which mostly support the Tories or Labour) had largely come out against AV, and since most of the public pay no attention to politics, they voted as the press barons told them to. Thus proving that referendums, though seemingly democratic, are not in practise.

Runners up:

UK Prime Minister Dave Camoron for publicly giving the advice that people should pay off their debts. Although this advice is sensible, unfortunately our current economic system isn’t. A widespread shift from spending to saving, at a time when the economy is already struggling, would make the situation worse. By the end of the day, Dave was forced to reverse his advice. People are supposed to keep spending, and paying down their debts, even as the majority of them become poorer. How will that work? It won’t.

All-round weird moron Donald Trump, for suggesting that the US should take Libya’s oil as “payment” for “liberating” Libya. It’s almost like the good old days of Empire. In fact, I think it is the good old days of Empire.

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, for his wonderfully simple (in every sense of the word) 9-9-9 economic plan, under which corporation tax, income tax and sales tax would all be pegged at nine percent. The tax would result in the poor paying more, the top 10% doing pretty well, and the top 1% doing fantastically well. Cain proved incapable of explaining how it could possibly work, just as he proved incapable of explaining anything at all, from foreign policy to why a series of women would accuse him of sexual harassment.

The delightfully named, but not at all delightful, Eric Pickles, Tory government minister, for the most pointless spending exercise of the year. Councils across the UK have been encouraging recycling by providing households with recycling bins and reducing general waste collections from weekly to fortnightly. Although this is sensible and desirable, the British press and public did what they do best: moan about it. So Pickles threw £250m at restarting weekly bin collections, thus managing to waste huge amounts of cash and reverse years of progress towards recycling, all to win a few moron votes. Not only was the idea moronic, but most councils have rejected the cash anyway.

Fox “News” presenter Megyn Kelly, following the “Pepper Spray Cop” attack on Californian protests, said it was no big deal, as pepper spray is basically a food. However, she ignored social network calls for her to eat some pepper spray live on air.

The US state of Oklahoma, for banning Shariah law, despite only 0.4% of its population being Muslim (and none of them having asked for Shariah anyway). Special mention also to France, which passed a law banning women from covering their faces, in a spiteful act of bullying against a few hundred women.

The British government and media, for creating a new moral panic about Sexualisation, an imaginary problem designed to scare parents that society had become too sexual, and was threatening their children – and hence laying the foundations for future legislative attacks on sexual freedom.

And finally, just so I haven’t missed anyone:

People all around the world, who got suckered by an Apple PR campaign that transformed Steve Jobs, a highly capable CEO, into a hero and saint who had improved the world for everyone (rather than what he actually did, which was to launch some rather nice electronic equipment).

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How To Tell If You Live In A Police State

Nazi Searches
Look Familiar?

Remember Freedom? It was that thing we were going to deliver to Afghanistan and Iraq. OK, so it was a little embarrassing when Iraqis joined the Arab Spring to demand the end of the US Occupation, but good intentions and all that…

So anyway, it turns out that the whole “War on Terror” thing may have backfired on us. As the Bush administration was warned, if you’re going to undermine rights on your own territory in order to “fight terrorism”, then, well – the terrorists can claim to have won. And so it now seems. Asian and African leaders can laugh out loud when the US State Department slaps their wrists for doing all the same things that the US has been guilty of over the past decade.

The slide from democracy into a police state is subtle. Some of the very people trumpeting the danger are the same ones supporting attacks on civil liberties. Here is a list of ten ways to spot the trend:

  1. The prison population increases. This isn’t due to increasing crime, but increasing fear of crime resulting in more laws and harsher punishments. Large prison populations are incompatible with freedom – that seems obvious, but morons don’t seem to have noticed. The US has the world’s biggest prison population (24% of total), followed by China (17%) and Russia (9%). Smell the freedom!
  2. You hear a lot about a “terrorist threat”. This is an excuse that has been used by dictators from Hitler to Gaddafi. The tiny number of successful attacks on Western targets in recent years is an indication that the “threat” is hugely exaggerated. But don’t expect morons to understand that.
  3. You hear a lot about “crime increasing” even if it isn’t. Crime is at a historic low in much of the Western World. Crime surveys agree with the official figures: people feel safer in their own neighbourhoods. However, the conservative media’s job is to convince people that life is becoming more dangerous, and the drip-feed of scare stories about crime takes its toll on morons. Fear of crime means that the police are allowed to get away with more abuses, most of which aren’t noticed by the frightened middle classes (though working class people in the inner cities certainly feel the pain of all that extra police attention).
  4. You hear about “knife crime epidemics” that don’t actually exist. This is a favourite in London. A growth in knife crime was “discovered” by the British media just before the mayoral election in 2008, just in time for the right-winger Boris Johnson to be elected. This led to more stop and searches by police (largely on young, non-white males). The UK murder rate has remained extremely low throughout. But morons are frightened, and fear allows the police state more leeway to act as it likes.
  5. You hear scary new phrases like “sexualisation of children”. “Sexualisation” was a clever PR invention by a UK-based Christian lobby group. This was drip-fed through the media so that the average moron has come to believe this is a sudden new problem, indicating some kind of moral breakdown in society. The truth is, all children become sexualised; it happens when they hit puberty, just as it has always done. However, it’s now being used by the UK government (and others) to justify new censorship measures, from Internet filtering to attacks on “explicit” music videos. The S-word has also recently been spotted in the US and Australia.
  6. Minorities become a “threat”. This, of course, is standard far-right methodology. Find a scapegoat that is too powerless to fight back, and imbue it with threatening attributes. It worked against the Jews and this time Muslims are taking the brunt. Moronic attacks on Muslims are gathering pace, especially in mainland Europe. Many morons believe in this “threat”, as a glance at my Twitter family will reveal.
  7. The police are allowed to stop and search someone without good reason. One of the foundations of a free society is that you don’t get harassed by the police unless they have good reason to believe you have committed a crime. This has clearly slipped a long way already, especially in the inner cities. And when young people finally get sick of it, the police are given even more powers to harass them.
  8. The police start finding new reasons to stop people. Terrorist laws are always (yes, always) used to attack free speech. In the UK, terrorism law has been used to harass press photographers who might expose police behaviour. In the US, the Patriot act has been abused to attack Occupy protesters. But the most pernicious of all are the drug laws; while these aren’t new, they are enforced, or not, at the whim of the police. Millions of people use illegal drugs, and always will, but that’s not the police’s concern; the drug laws are simply a proxy for being able to stop anyone, anywhere, any time.
  9. The police get ever-better weaponry, despite crime falling. The police recently deployed rubber bullets for the first time on the UK mainland. Because of increased violence? No, to create increased violence. This adds to the increasing armory of the police, already carrying tasers, batons and pepper spray. Thirty years ago, with much higher crime rates, the police managed without most of these weapons.
  10. Fellow citizens take an increasing interest in your private life. Before we go blaming the state for everything: remember, a police state depends largely on a moronic, frightened citizenship that believes the scare stories served out to them on a daily basis. Effective police states like that in Communist East Germany require citizen spies. Today, citizens are stoked up into constant fear about crime and terrorism and asked to report on “any suspicious activity”.

We’ve got ourselves into a mess. Many things need doing, including:

  • Repeal the Patriot Act and similar “anti-terrorist” laws elsewhere.
  • Make concerted efforts to cut prison populations – however much the morons may squeal.
  • Decriminalise drug possession, removing the police’s single biggest excuse to stop people.
  • Tighten stop and search powers to prevent their random use.
  • Confiscate the police’s arsenal of anti-citizen weaponry.
  • Strengthen laws against police violence – almost no officer is ever prosecuted, even when someone is killed.
  • Educate the morons: their fear drives a vicious circle of ever more aggressive state behaviour.

Is Capitalism Amoral Or Immoral?

It was fashionable (and desirable) until the mid-80s to question how well capitalism worked as a basis for running society. Then the social “greed is good” changes brought about by the Reagan/Thatcher revolution began to take hold of the Western (or at least the Anglo-Saxon) psyche, and it became a form of sacrilege to question the magic power of the free market to fix any problem, anywhere. That superstition gradually became established fact – until, of course, the system began to show its deep flaws in 2008.

Saturday’s Guardian carries a comment article from Tim Montgomerie (editor at the ConservativeHome web site) titled Capitalism is amoral – we’re our own worst enemy. The piece tries to make the case that the ills of recent years have been caused by “extraordinary government activism”, not by out-of-control markets. However, the examples supplied are weak – the author seems to accept, for example, that the main problem with Obama’s $787bn stimulus is that it was too small, given the scale of the crash. Another example given is the Iraq War, seeming to forget the huge profit motive of the oil, arms and reconstruction industries to make that senseless war happen.

But let’s challenge the core assertion, one that is so often repeated without challenge: Montgomerie repeats the popular idea that “Capitalism is not immoral but amoral. It does what its users demand of it”. Is that true? Does the profit motive always work for consumers? Montgomerie gives food and transport as examples, so let’s examine these industries: amoral or immoral?

Food Industry

It’s true that competition has given us more food choices that ever before. That applies to the wealthier parts of society, at least. In young markets, competition creates an explosion of choice, which is certainly a good thing. But once corporations became established in the food industry, strategies changed. Choice is just one way to attract a customer base, but there’s an easier way: make your customer dependent on your product. This is where the needs of the market and the needs of the consumer diverge. Humans are designed to seek out rare ingredients that we need. Meat fat was such a rarity in pre-history (before hunting tools were developed) that we find it highly attractive and addictive. Refined sugar is an addictive drug, only discovered in recent centuries. Salt is a generally rare and necessary substance that, again, we have a natural addiction to. So in the amoral world of the market, it makes sense to add increasing amounts of these ingredients to food, not because users are demanding them, but because profitability naturally rises as a result.

So far, as suggested by Tim Montgomerie, this is amoral behaviour, not immoral. No harm is intended. The next stage is this: scientific researchers (state-funded usually) begin to notice that people are getting fatter; that tooth decay is increasing; that diabetes and other diseases are rocketing. This information starts to spread to the consumer. It’s at this stage that markets lose their claim for amorality. The food industry now has three options:

Moral: listen to researchers and make food healthier, even if that hurts profits.

Amoral: continue to address the evolving desires of the market as consumer demand dictates. Of course, this does happen, but as the history of the food industry suggests, it’s far cheaper (and thus more profitable) to use healthy-sounding language than it is to take addictive substances out of your products.

Immoral: begin propaganda operations to counteract scientific research that might hurt profits. Most markets end up here. Once you have a consumer base hooked on your product, the logic of profit is remorseless: attack anyone or anything that threatens your bottom line.

In a young market, amorality (following consumer needs) is the way to go; but in mature market, the immoral choice is often the most profitable. Rather than simply track consumer demands, it’s more profitable to control them. Many examples can be found of immoral behaviour by the food industry in pursuit of profits: in the US, private corporations have often won contracts to supply schools with food and drink. The result is a fall in the quality of food eaten by children. Now they can get consumers addicted to junk ever younger, and resist the pressure to educate children about food and health, thus crushing future consumer demands for better food. In a perfect example of market immorality, in 1998 Oprah Winfrey ran a show exposing the appalling way the American beef industry was rearing cattle. The amoral response would have been to track any change in consumer attitudes, and change production techniques; but that would be hugely expensive. Far cheaper to shoot the messenger, as Oprah found to her cost. She immediately lost advertising and faced action, both legal and propaganda to discredit her. She backtracked quickly, providing a non-critical “interview” with a beef industry rep. to “set the record straight” (i.e. lie without interference). Examples like this are legion: the food industry will viciously attack anyone that questions the health of its products (remember McLibel?)

Transport Industry

We can apply the same approach to transport. Mass transit (when not starved of investment), offers the fastest, cheapest and most fuel-efficient way to carry large numbers of people and goods. From the 1940s, the car provided an alternative that was more glamorous but slow, expensive and fuel-hungry. Sure, people desired cars, but they wouldn’t trash superior transport systems for an inferior one. Given that cities only had the space for a fraction of their population to use cars, would people destroy their environments just to own cars?

Enter the car mafia, comprising several industries: car manufacturers, tyre manufacturers, road builders, and of course, oil producers. Car transport requires far more resources than rail, trams and buses: huge, multi-lane highways which require vast amounts of space. More space still needed for parking (most private cars spend most of their lives wastefully parked). And most important of all, cars burn far more fuel than mass transit to move the same numbers of people. Would consumers abandon cheap, fast transport for slow, expensive transport? Of course not; but they were never given the choice.

The car mafia set about destroying mass transit, which they could never have competed against in a free market. Across the US, between 1936 and 1950, mass transit systems vanished as the car mafia went into action, destroying electric transport infrastructure. History tells us how happy post-war consumers jumped at the chance to own cars, and that’s undoubtedly true; less is said about the abolition of transport choice. Free market fundamentalists claim markets create choice, but the opposite is often true.

In the UK, the world’s greatest rail system was cut to pieces; between 1950 and 1975, the railways were slashed from 21,000 miles to 12,000. The most significant steps were taken in the 1960s by Dr Richard Beeching, Chairman of British Railways. Beaching was encouraged to cut the railways by Ernest Marples, the Conservative Transport Minister. Marples also happened to be a major shareholder in a construction company that made huge amounts of money from motorway construction. This story is an important part of modern British history, and the name Ernest Marples should be remembered as one of Britain’s best known crooks. But the car mafia, and their tame media, have ensured the British people have forgotten what happened to our transport system

The transport market has failed; we make ever slower journeys for ever higher cost, and most people use the car not by choice, but because choice was taken away to increase profits.

And The Rest

Given the choice of being amoral and following consumer needs, or immoral and crushing competition, the car mafia did what any market does: follow profit at any cost to society. The consumer doesn’t lead; he takes what corporations offer, which is often the most inefficient and expensive (and hence profitable) option. Markets do work, when they’re young and genuinely competitive, but that is a temporary phase. Endless examples can be found of market immorality: the Iraq War was fought so that the US taxpayer could be fleeced of $trillions by US corporations; the millions spent on climate change denial have shored up billions in oil industry profits; the tobacco industry likewise denied the cancer link for decades after the evidence was available.

Markets are good at creating and incubating fresh ideas and new technology. They liberate individuals and societies from bureaucracy and make societies more creative. But this is always a temporary effect. Established markets will support literally anything – murder, slavery, war – to hold on to their privileged positions. So Tim Montgomerie and other “markets are amoral” fundamentalists are disingenuous, only telling half the story. Markets are immoral; only a strong, well-funded democratic state can hope to keep them in check.

Celebrate Heroes, Not CEOs

Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai photo by Martin Rowe

I had a moment of genuine shock when I woke up on Thursday, picked up my iPhone and read the headlines, to discover that Steve Jobs had died. Of course I already knew he was ill and that he was standing down, but the severity of his illness had been kept quiet, meaning that news of his death came to most of us as a surprise. After my Wow moment, I carried on with day as normal. Shock number two came when I logged into Twitter and Facebook to find tributes to Jobs liberally posted. Jobs’ death seemed to have become what we call in the UK a “Diana Moment” – an outbreak of apparently inexplicable mass grief for a personality only known to most through the mass media. People I know who never follow business or technology events were swept up in the tide of tributes. The sayings of Jobs were being shared with the same reverence as quotes from Jesus or Gandhi.

When I went to bed on Wednesday, Jobs had been a hugely successful business innovator who’d turned Apple from a near-failure to a dominant brand in technology, and then in media and entertainment. By Thursday, he’d apparently devoted his life to furthering the development of mankind. Waves of mass hysteria are rarely spontaneous; nor could Jobs’ death have been a surprise to Apple, who must have prepared themselves with great care. Thursday’s wave of grief and love for a CEO was a brilliantly orchestrated PR campaign, and many smart people I know were drawn into it unquestioningly.

I’m a technologist, and fully aware of the immense achievement of Steve Jobs in turning Apple into the powerhouse it is today. I’m also (as you many have noticed in the first line of this article) a fan of some Apple products. Jobs has done for Apple what Bill Gates did for Microsoft, and what was previously done by IBM: achieve a position of power and dominance over the technology market. But more than that, the rise of Apple coincided with the rise of digital media; so Apple didn’t just get to rule the technology roost, but has also taken a dominant position in the retail of music, film, TV, software and books.

Apple hasn’t been shy in exploiting its stranglehold over these markets; any media owner wanting to reach iPod, iPad and iPhone users now must pay Apple handsomely for the privilege. App developers may create a unique piece of intellectual property and even find a market for it, but the only way their audience can access their product is by paying Apple for it. Apple arrived in an open, standards-based technology world and stifled the openness for profit.

Sure (you may say), but Apple is a business. It exists for profit, not to improve people’s lives. And you’d be right – Jobs and Apple created well-designed, timely products, coupled with a smart and ruthless strategy to bring themselves control and power over people’s products, work and media consumption. That’s what businesses do (or at least, try to). But does it make Jobs into a hero? Certainly not – any more than Bill Gates was a hero for forcing the dominance of Windows, and holding back technological development for perhaps a decade before the openness of the Internet swept him away. Apple’s dominance is crushing competition, which will hold back technology, not enhance it.

But Apple’s story is darker than just control of supply chains. Apple’s enemy in its dominance of digital media is the open Internet, with its free speech and lack of censorship. Apple is a ruthless censor of online content. Create an app containing nude imagery? Sorry, the censors at Apple don’t approve of that. Political satire? Sorry, the Apple thought police say No. You thought you were buying a phone? Actually, you were buying a good, clean, Christian way of life.

Apple’s use of cheap labour working in ugly conditions has been well documented. This is hardly limited to Apple, nor can the company be severely criticised for taking advantage of globalisation – if you don’t use Chinese labour to make your product, you’ll go out of business. The solution to that problem is growth in the Chinese economy coupled with transparency in the West. But can Jobs in any way deserve his new status as some kind of a saviour of mankind? I don’t think so – chalk up a huge win to Apple’s PR company. Do I blame Apple for turning Jobs into a hero so that some of the shine would rub off on its products? Not at all – they’re a business and that’s what businesses do.

I blame the ordinary person-on-Facebook for being so unselective in his or her choice of heroes. Only a couple of weeks ago, a Kenyan woman called Wangari Maathai died, also of cancer. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her political and environmental work. She had been persecuted, abused, beaten, for standing up against political and corporate power. She made this sacrifice, not for financial gain or power, but because she felt it was right. The suffering of other people mattered to her more than her own safety and well-being. Do you remember two weeks ago how Facebook was filled with tributes to this great woman when we heard news of her death? Of course not. Maathai had no huge PR operation. The corporate-owned media don’t celebrate the lives of their enemies. She didn’t create that greatest God of Capitalism: Profit; indeed, her actions undoubtedly threatened profits.

Heroes still exist – they always have done. It’s just that the mass media would rather we didn’t know about them. Instead, they give us corporate heroes, CEOs, men who change the world – but not necessarily for the better. We need to be more selective about who we hero-worship. The power to write real heroes back into history is in our hands.