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Polar bears, populism & patronage

February 6, 2008

I am on my way to Lake Tahoe in California to talk about complexity and narrative at the OSWC-XIV. It’s an in-and-out job as I have to be back in Cardiff for Wales v Scotland this Saturday. Pity really I’d like to stay for the whole event but at least I am there and back in first class thanks to Air Miles which means sleep-back and work-out. So I am sitting in comfort on AA51 en route to Dallas (four hour stop over before getting the plane to Reno) looking out on the Greenland Ice Sheet which I am pleased to report is still intact (and spectacular in the sun) although it may not be for too many more years. I can’t see any polar bears from 36K feet but the destruction of their habitat looks likely to be one of the great ecological sins of our age. Warning: rant warning on US & UK politics follows.

Last night in my Yotel cabin I left the BBC 24 hour news on all night, waking up from time to time to catch the latest on the primaries and then falling back to sleep. An awful lot of rhetoric and little serious politics. The only mention of global warming was a pious statement of intent with no substance, linked to similar statements about the economy which are incompatible with finding solutions to Global Warming. As I listen to Obama and Clinton I am increasingly reminded of Blair and Brown (in the same sequence). A modern politician “new labour” good on rhetoric, able to tell people what they want to hear but as yet unproven on any delivery, and a less charismatic, “old labour” representative of the democratic establishment. Blair of course failed to live up to the rhetoric (disappointing all those who thought he represented a new generation), and Brown lacks his ability to communicate. All in all a disturbing night, especially when you think that one or other of them will, in all probability be up against someone older than Reagan in the real election.

One of the things that struck me (and not for the first time) is the financial scale of an American Election. I think in the last month the two Democratic Candidates have raised more money than is spent by all Political Parties in a complete General Election in Britain. Money talks, money votes but is it really democracy? How can anyone claim that they have a democratic model that other countries should imitate when success is linked with having a personal fortune, or raising money from those who will sooner or latter call in the favour (yes I know a lot of money comes from ordinary people, but the big stuff is from corporates). A true democracy surely would not require this type of funding? I am becoming increasingly convinced that you should vote for people you have some chance of knowing, who should in turn vote for the next tier of government on the same principle and so on up to the top. European Parliament elections in the UK are meaningless, while there is still a personal element in a constituency election of a member of parliament. The minute you get beyond the level of a degree of personal knowledge, then you are at the mercy of those who own the medium of communication. At least in the UK the BBC are required to be even handed in their treatment of the candidates, but Rupert Murdoch has an impact disproportionate to his worth (meaning A) and entirely proportionate to his worth (meaning B). A delegate electoral process might produce politicians with the guts to do something about major issues

So I am not so sure that the USA is a model for democracy elsewhere in the world, but the UK is not much better. Having a look at the Wikipedia entry for England the other day I discovered a jingoistic entry to the effect that England had brought the world democracy, football, a common language and many other things beside (all good). The last empire is as bad as the current one in its self-belief. No mention of the role of England in creating the slave trade, the savagery of conquest which gave rise to that empire and the suppression of local languages by force or social pressure. I may start some editorial work to restore balance ….

Another absurdity (and the rant trigger) was watching Elizabeth: The Golden Age on the flight. Aside from its very loose connection to any form of historical accuracy it is a disgraceful film. The Spanish are the bad guys (really bad), they all wear black and have arabic features, indulging in acts of terrorism against Good Queen Bess. Cabalistic rituals are made out of catholic ceremony and church latin. Elizabeth in one nauseating speech emotes that every Spanish Galleon in its hold contains the Inquisition. The film completely ignores her own extensive use of torture and summary execution (her father was just as bad) in the pursuit of her own ideological agenda; her licensing of privateers (a 16th Century form of state terrorism). I did roar with laughter at the battlefield reporting. Elizabethan courtiers rushing in to say “another ship down” as if they had CNN in the next room. The telegraph system from the channel ports would not come in for a century or so, and news was limited to the speed of the fastest horse. Of course the myth of Elizabeth has to be maintained for both the English and the American myths (Virginia), but a little respect for history would be appreciated. As I write this I remember how the first series of Star Trek, the two main baddies looked like the Russians and the Chinese respectively so I suppose some of this is just part of the rich world of popular entertainment.

Come to think of it, popular entertainment, and political structures that reward populism and patronage have a lot in common

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