by Charles Pearson
(Swans - November 2, 2009) Trying to restore some order to the chaotic condition of my ironically named "study," I came across a sadly neglected print of a rather famous portrait of Dr. Samuel Johnson, a memento of a visit to his birthplace on the occasion of his bicentenary. Nowadays I am wary of the very idea of placing anyone on a pedestal, but I still greatly admire Johnson simply because he so cogently pointed out that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." It shows how little we have progressed in two and a half centuries that this condemnation not only remains true today, but one would be justified in believing "last refuge" should be amplified. Appeals to one's patriotism are never ending and more often than not the jingoism is not used for a refuge, but to attack any protest against militarism.
We are coming once more to Remembrance Day and the hypocrisy that will be displayed by the politicians who attend the ceremonies. I have referred to this previously, but it is still relevant to note that our leaders are already falling over each other not to be seen as the last to display a paper poppy in their button holes when they appear on TV. Gordon Brown, our beleaguered PM, had his in place three weeks before November 11th, not long after he announced he would be sending another 500 troops to Afghanistan. The announcement was wrapped up with provisos, but I don't think that should encourage any soldier who would prefer a less hazardous posting. Of course that is small beer compared to President Obama's efforts to try and win an unwinnable war in "Pipelineistan" and even to win the War on Terror, although I understand he wants to avoid that name. How about "Liquid War" instead? (1)
If the situation wasn't so potentially dangerous, the squabbles between rival jingoists would be sheer farce. Some involve the neo-fascist British National Party (BNP), which has raised the ire of our virtuous leaders by trying to hijack Winston Churchill and the patriotism the British showed in WWII, not to mention creating a hullabaloo by claiming our hospitalised wounded soldiers have to pay to watch TV, whereas criminals in our jails get free TV. This sort of thing crystallized in a big argument over whether the BBC should allow the BNP to appear on "Question Time," the long running TV political panel show. I nearly said panel game, which wouldn't really be a misnomer. I gave up watching it a couple of years ago, sometimes bored, more often infuriated by its perpetual insipidness. Although the subjects often concern US foreign policy, I don't think Chomsky, or any American who shared even half of his criticisms, has ever been on the panel, although plenty of neocons and the like have. About as far as the BBC would go was sometimes to include Tony Benn, the Old Labour stalwart, because he could be safely dismissed as an old eccentric and a source of laughs. This is only one example amongst many illustrations of the mythical nature of the BBC's vaunted "impartiality." (2) Someone, for instance, pointedly asked whether the BBC was impartial when it would not allow a humanitarian appeal for the victims of the Israeli attacks on Gaza to be televised, whereas you could hardly turn on the news at that time without seeing an Israeli government spokesperson maintaining their innocence of war crimes.
The BBC finally decided in favour of the BNP's appearance on the panel. This will be regarded by many British citizens as proof of the BBC's impartiality. It could also be seen as yet another move further to the right. This movement has been noticeable ever since the BBC was ticked off in the controversy about one of its reporters, Andrew Gilligan, exposing one of the dirty tricks played by the PM's office to manufacture consent for attacking Iraq.
One of the politicians who publicly opposed allowing the BNP on "Question Time," strenuously maintaining he was defending our democracy by so doing, was Peter Hain, who as a young man was an activist in campaigning against Apartheid. Full marks for that, but since he became an MP and a member of New Labour's governments, it has been a different story. I remember a letter of his in a newspaper defending the sanctions against Iraq, claiming that there was an effective process to enable humanitarian aid to reach that country. That was distortion of the truth in my opinion. I had just read that someone in the UK had found it impossible to send some much needed medicine to a doctor in Baghdad. There was plenty of evidence then and more since, of routine delays or full obstruction of such aid. Mr Hain may be quite sincere in his opposition to the BNP, but when he himself has appeared on TV it has been mainly as a yes-man, first for war criminal Blair and now, but prudently rather more cautiously, for Brown. Bankers and other members of the elite are probably all in favour of these politicians' ideas about democracy; the rest of us should know better.
Speaking of the elite, the chiefs of our top 100 companies have enjoyed a 7.4% salary increase, several times more than the rate of inflation; as well, average bonuses of £500,000 ($815,000). Amazingly, one of our Royals, Prince Andrew (alias the Duke of York), had the impudence to defend this sort of thing. Bankers' bonuses are minute in the scheme of things, he haughtily proclaimed. (He probably considered the exorbitant expenses claims by our members of parliament too tiny to be worth mentioning, though they have infuriated the public). "Prince," "Duke," my foot! How can anyone take that sort of title seriously in 2009? But apparently many do, even though others chortled at the revelation some time ago that the big Prince, Charles himself, expects a servant to squeeze the toothpaste on to his toothbrush for him.
Those massive "rewards" of the company chiefs are at a time when many of their employees have lost their jobs, some their houses as well, and when our postmen and other public workers are striking to try to protect their jobs and working conditions against galloping privatisation and "modernisation." I read of one postman who was berated by his boss for taking time off after a serious eye operation. When I mentioned this to our local postman, he replied he knew of an employee who had been hauled over the coals for taking sick leave because of cancer. Not much reason for patriotism there, but those company chiefs might well be all for Queen and country, on the surface that is. Dig a bit and the scum will rise to the top, such as tax havens, tax avoidance schemes (well named that -- these are legal, but I bet you would not find a postman who can fiddle things that way), and even dodgier unpatriotic means of protecting their loot. It was a long while ago, but I am reminded of the response PM Edward Heath received in the oil crisis of the early seventies, when he asked for help from the patriotically named British Petroleum company. No dice! We can't afford to be patriotic, he was brusquely told.
To return to the BNP. "Question Time" was broadcast as scheduled, although because of protesters in the streets, the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, had to be smuggled into the studio to take his place on the panel. I did not watch the programme, but reports of it dominated the news next day and it is still a hot topic. (3) The show was watched by over 8 million people, about three times the usual number, so perhaps the main reason why the BBC went ahead with it was to improve its ratings. After all, in a capitalist world, even an ad-free channel (so far), has to compete. Representing the government on the panel was Jack Straw, now the justice minister. Who says satire is dead? In one of his many previous jobs he was foreign minister and well remembered for constantly reassuring the public that the attack on Iraq might not happen. It was clear to many then and amply confirmed since that the decision had already been taken. However, on "Question Time" he had rather an easier task in confronting Griffin, who in addition to attacking Islam, as predicted, rather stupidly defended a former Ku Klux Klan leader and was evasive when questioned about his views on the Holocaust. The studio audience was mainly hostile, but it is doubtful, as always, whether it was representative of the British public. A poll the next day suggested that support for the BNP had actually risen after the broadcast, 22% saying they would seriously consider voting for them.
The most depressing point for me, though, was a statement by Margaret Hodge, another New Labour minister. She said the main hope was that revealing the BNP's obnoxious policies in such broadcasts would repel people so much they would return to the mainstream parties. I wonder if she acknowledges even to herself how little choice that means. Our two and a half mainstream parties are intransigently pro-capitalist and now vying with each other over the size of the cuts they will make in public services after next year's elections to try to balance the country's books after having bailed out the fat-cat bankers.
If a return to the mainstream parties is our main hope, we are in a very bad way indeed. I think we live in not only interesting, but also extremely dangerous times.
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