Being British

I survived and indeed thrived in a week doing everything in the Welsh language. Dw i’n wedi blino iawn ac mae fy ymynedd wedi toddi [I am really tired and my brain melted]. The most amazing thing was I now know that it is possible to live in another language, which is incredible for someone who was monolingual for so long. More on this nes ymlaen [later on]. Sorry I’m still thinking of saying things in Welsh before the English! It was also lovely to spend a week away from the UK general election and finally get around to visiting some of Edward I’s castles in North Wales.

Disturbingly, the first thing I noted was an opinion poll putting the Tories on 40%. Huh? . This just makes me feel so sad after a week in a really positive community. Have people really forgot what being Welsh and/or British is?

You don’t really know your connection to your country until you live away from it for some time. Long enough to pine for the things you love about your home. Most of the time it is just the native sweets and chocolate that aren’t available worldwide, but it’s also other things like: church bells, proper chips, cask ale and cider, the incredible naffness of the screech of the wheels of a Pacer train going around a corner, Indian restaurants, the National Health Service, the 2p games at the seaside, afternoon tea, BBC Radio,  the bizarre but lovable traditions that have been maintained and the general sense of what somehow holds British communities together.

Yet, all these cool things about Britain are under threat, not by immigration, not by the EU, but by this continued obsession with right wing corporatist government, placing the interests of a wealthy minority above everyone and everything else. I do think that the vote for Brexit was simply an expression of the frustration of losing the things we love and a sense of helplessness about it which found expression with Brexit. But why oh why oh why are people turning to the Tories, the very people who caused the losses and the people who continue to perpetuate them?

Wales is different to the rest of Great Britain, which is made up of so many diverse communities, but we have so much in common. I am Welsh and Wales has it’s own history and peculiarities, yet so does England and Scotland. We should not get bogged down by what is different, but simply celebrate our diversity and enjoy living amongst so many communities in such a rich and varied island. We should never accept a single definition of beimg British.that there is only one way of being, one economy to prioritise or only one language we should use.

It is time for the people of Wales and the rest of Britian to just wake up and look around at what is happening to our society, to be Indy Curious and seriously think about autonomy for Wales, to be open to new possibilities. Why stick with the Tories? You don’t keep taking things out of communities to give to those already wealthy and put nothing back into the communities that generated the wealth: closing schools, closing hospitals and community groups struggling for resources are signs of failure, not signs of success. To use a farming analogy, you don’t keep growing crops out of a field and put nothing back into the soil and then wonder why your yields get worse every year, you nurture the soil, you put fertilisers back into the soil, you put back into the soil what it needs to enable it to produce food. It’s exactly the same thing with communities, you plough back in investment, you improve services for the future, to enable those communities and their economies to thrive. This is what Wales badly needs as do communities all across Wales, Britain and indeed the whole world.

Yet, Theresa May rabbits on how much she says she cares about unity and the United Kingdom, when in reality her policies will continue to cause harm to the things she claims to care about and then has the gall to attack those groups who are fighting for their communities.

To advocate an independent Wales is not about seeking separation or  being somehow anti-English. I seek autonomy for Wales because what Wales needs is simply not being provided by UK government and there is nothing to suggest that this will change anytime soon. I love Wales and I love Britain. I want Wales to be able to look after itself to survive and thrive, just as I want other communities in Britain to thrive. With autonomy Wales would be empowered to work together with communities across Britain, to share ideas and re-build British communities. Seeking Welsh independence is the most pro-British thing that there is. I want every community to succeed and to achieve that means helping your own community first. Supporting the Conservative party is about division, taking away power from communities and giving it to the rich multinationals. There is nothing wrong with large corporations, but they just have an unfair advantage at the moment. A large supermarket chain can force out local butchers and other local businesses, whom are often more efficient than the big corporations.

So, lets wake up Wales and the rest of Britain, let’s take on the spirit of Owain Glyndwr, who rose up against the oppression British communities by the English establishment. It’s time to really take back control and stop voting for this lot of corrupt Tories. It’s time to work together to preserve the traditions of Britain and embrace the future with open hearts.


The Flag of Glyndwr

The Mattress Problem

Having written recently about long commuting, I am looking forward to finding a place to live in the city where I now work. This has propelled me once again into the British housing crisis. I’m resigned to paying over half my pre-tax income to pay someone else’s mortgage to have somewhere basic but reasonable to live in. so once again I have to deal with the mattress problem. The mattress problem is that most rented flats come ‘furnished’ and landlords are often very reluctant to remove their crappy furniture and their disgusting post reasonable use mattresses. The problem is compounded by the housing crisis, where flats are taken within 48 hours of being advertised, so there is no pressure on landlords to make flats reasonably habitable, this has become the tenants responsibility.

In my last rented place, the landlord insisted I stored his mattress in the room,  I then just bought a cheap 12 month life mattress to sleep on and disposed of it in landfill when I left. I even spent the first week or so sleeping on the floor, the mattress was that bad.

This begs the question of how did British housing get into this ridiculous situation? Basically housing has not responded to the changes in the economy. Traditionally we largely lived in the communities we grew up in and secured ‘jobs for life’ locally, so the housing system was built around the idea of homes where people would live long term, if not all their lives. However, the modern economy is built around maximising flexibility in the labour market, where people are expected to move around the world to find roles that suit our inevitable specialisations. Much of the work is by contract, for example I have a 12 month work contract and after that I may move somewhere completely different. We are now expected to move to find work, as globalisation has led to service hubs. Indeed in Powys, where I’m from, the local hospitals have gone and the current debate is over whether our small towns should have high schools. Some studies/ the council suggest that having a hub school is cheaper even with the costs of busing all the children back and forth around the county. Or maybe ultimately the idea isthe transport costs can be passed onto parents rather than the state. My point is that even if you are a doctor, a nurse or a schoolteacher, these days you have to be prepared to move to your specialised hub to work, which compounds the housing pressure at the hubs.

Anyway, I am essentially looking for somewhere temporary to live, which brings me to subject of furniture. Traditionally,  furniture (beds, tables, chairs) were expensive items that stayed with you for life and indeed furniture was often handed down within families; it was well made by craftsmen. Also equipment such as stoves, heating equipment, toilets, baths, fridges and washing facilities for clothes were part of the building or designed into it. So, in rented accommodation these things were often provided and often continue to be so in a very different world. Indeed in student accommodation, which I have a lot of experience of living in, it is convenient not having to lug big bulky furniture in and out of homes and transport across the country every six months.

The thing that has changed is that the cost of producing furniture has plummeted with mass production and furniture is no longer well made, and is no longer expected to last a life time or even a home move. Combined with this is the increase of people in transient temporary homes, leading to a glut of second hand furniture, people buy furniture to suit a home, it won’t fit nicely into the nooks and crannies of a new home so either gets sold cheaply or goes to land-fill dumps. As a society we are a society of consumers, we all have different lifestyles and preferences, so we now expect furniture to suit us, rather than adjust to fit the furniture.  We increasingly live in smaller spaces, so further require furniture that makes use of space efficiently, rather than having little used bulky furniture cluttering up the limited space.

Due to the housing crisis, mattresses represent arguably the thorniest issue in rented accommodation, they are big bulky items that are not easy to transport around the world. A good traditional Western mattress lasts about ten years and provides a comfortable bed to sleep on. However, lugging them around corners, up and down stairs, into vans, in and out of cold storage facilities really reduces their life expectancy. Also reducing their life expectancy is different people sleeping on them. The problem with a good mattress is that they are relatively expensive. A good new mattress is equivalent to a months rent, which for a 12 month let is a significant cost for the landlord and there is no guarantee the tenants will look after it up to a six year expectancy, so landlords provide cheap mattresses that last a year (about a weeks rent), then often they try and persuade tenants to use them beyond their natural life. So landlords do ask people to store unsuitable mattresses, because there is a reasonable chance the next tenant will be more tolerant of a bad mattress, even if the springs have popped out as in my case.

The upshot of this is that lots of cheap mattresses are produced which end up in skips and landfill every year. There is a huge environmental cost to this, as most of the materials are not recyclable and mattresses contain nasty chemicals from their manufacture (particularly the cheap ones). The solution is perhaps to leave tenants provide their own mattresses, yet it is taking a long time for most landlords to accept this solution. However as beds come in all shapes and sizes this often means tenants replacing their mattress every year. The housing ‘market’ hasn’t provided a solution to this problem.

Having browsed the internet for a solution, the answer seems to be futons, the traditional roll-up Japanese mattress, comfortable and easy transportable. I just need to find either an unfurnished flat or a landlord prepared to take away the bed to the tip or store. Why hasn’t this solution been widely accepted? It may be that British people don’t like sleeping on the floor. Traditional British beds are raised above the floor. As children we fear the monsters that live under the bed, and we kind of deal with this by accepting that the monsters won’t come out of their space, the area under the bed is after all only filled with monsters when the lights go out. If there is no space, where do the monsters go? uh oh! Part of the reason for raised beds is to not be troubled by rats at night, as a rat will rarely climb onto a bed with a large mammal sleeping on it. The rats are the monsters, but in most housing these days rat infestations are rare, rather than a part of life.

Of course, these problems also exist for home owners, it costs around £10,000 just to pay all the various costs of moving and then buy new furniture. It is simply not worth the effort of doing this, when transactions take months to complete, that more and more people are looking for 12 month lets in new cities and often letting out their home where they actually want to settle long term, and ahem, finding somewhere to store their furniture, or leave it for the tenants, including the mattresses.

It just seems that the humble mattress, we all need something to sleep on, represents so many of the problems of modern society and Britain has been so slow in developing a work around for the problems of mattresses. My experience of landlords is that they expect tenants to live in conditions they wouldn’t put up with themselves, which is morally wrong; landlords should provide accommodation they would be happy to live in themselves, they are receiving an income from their property after all, even if it is mainly just paying off a mortgage. The problem with this is that we all have different requirements, especially in bedding and furnishings, so such choices should be left to the tenant, who will know their own needs, whenever possible.

Two months on, we are still asking “What is Brexit?”

When the newly appointed UK Prime Minister first appeared she stated that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ which begs the question: What then is Brexit?

The word was conceived to mean an exit of Britain (the UK really, but Ukxit didn’t catch on) from the European Union (EU). However it’s more complicated than that as the government have been busy running around  trying to talk to everyone and seem to be trying to find a way of remaining in the European Single Market outside of the EU proper, to have a trading relationship without a commitment to political integration. Really the governments seems to want to establish a new EEA (European Economic Area) treaty, with some restrictions on free movement and some decrease in European regulations. Essentially this is what the Tories have always wanted, a genuine two speed Europe. However, this may be difficult to achieve, at least before 2020 (when the UK has to have a general election and a new government) because getting the institutions of the EU and the other member states of the EEA will be difficult. The EU has enough problems at the moment and appears happy to let things bumble on, which really the UK seems fairly happy to do as well with no clear answer in sight, suggesting that Brexit may not happen, because the politics is difficult, the economic risks of a bad deal are perhaps a lot greater than the economic costs of doing nothing. Yet the vote happened, so ‘Brexit’ has come to mean the referendum itself, seemingly without wider implications.

A simple spectra of views of the UK in the EU can be imagined, with the hardcore Euro-sceptics, the UKIPers, the Brexitiers, at one end advocating the UK completely withdrawing from the EU and at the other end the Europhiles, the EU integrationists, with the vast majority of people somewhere in between. So with such a simple spectra asking the question ‘EU leave or not?’ was essentially, ‘Do you agree with the Brexitiers?’. The answer, by 52-48 was yes and the Brexitiers won the vote. However it would be wrong to suggest that a majority of the electorate do agree with the Brexitier position.

Wrong, because no simple spectra for views on the EU exists. Like most things really it’s more complicated, imagine the spectra spread around into a circle, or even a sphere, to consist of multiple  spectra, based on such concepts as democracy, economics, immigration and identity. As such, especially in referenda, where often a different question is answered to the actual one put. This is not to suggest that referenda are always a bad thing. The electorate has not been asked for it’s views on the EU (the last vote was 1975), so a question more like ‘Do you thing the UK should have a closer relationship or a looser relationship with the EU?’, would perhaps give a more representative result, I speculate than no-one would be surprised by a 75%+ vote for ‘less EU’ and I would not have been troubled by my choice at all.  Though such a vote would again not produce by itself a clear UK EU strategy, but it would be more indicative of what people actually want.

It’s not a simple spectra as the Brexitier camp is itself very divided. One group are the hardcore market fundamentalists (more capital), wanting lower regulations, lower productivity, lower tax and low wages. opposed to the Social Democrats (more democracy, more labour), wanting higher regulations, higher wages, higher taxes and higher productivity. Either system could work, but a complete withdrawal from the EU, would lead to a fight between these Brexit groups, where no compromise was possible that wouldn’t lead to a much weaker economy than exists now and for these systems to work there would need to be a majority consensus for them to actually work. In any case our FPTP electoral system, favouring two major left-right aligned blocs, would fail to allow such a fundamental shift in the economy either way, because international trade and relations are important in the inter-dependent world the UK exists in, doing things substantially differently to the rest of the world would be challenging. Well, the UK could be truly isolationist, but this would entail lots of things like everyone becoming vegan, giving up personal transport and completely changing our lifestyles, although off-grid lifestyle choices are growing in popularity.

However, the Brexit wasn’t really about the EU at all, I have argued that it was simple a protest vote against the political establishment. The establishment and democracy has failed in the UK. A two party system works, when the parties in control are regularly swapped to maintain a balance and elected representatives are free to ignore party dictats (the whipped vote). A balance should be created that prevents leading towards extreme ideologies, that don’t work very well for the majority.

Essentially we can view economies as interactions between three hostile powers, Labour, Capital and the State. So traditionally, the Conservative party advocate more Capital, while the Labour party advocate more power for Labour, but both parties want the State (themselves when they are in power) to work in different ways.

The problem is that the balance of power broke down in the mid 1980s. In the 1970s, Labour and the Trade Unions were too powerful, choking the UK economy. Democracy triumphed in 1979, when the Conservatives won and set about reducing Labour and increasing Capital. However by around 1985, they had gone to far in supporting capital, but the Tories won the 1987 election? and again in 1992??, Democracy had failed, or at least the Labour party had failed. In a two party system, both parties need to be strong for democracy to work. The UK now really does need a strong Socialist, just to bring some balance back, but the Labour party are currently split over this. Well sadly Labour didn’t have many Socialists left in the parliamentary party to choose from, which is the problem they are making a fuss about at the moment.

Globalisation has compounded this problem, rather than been a panacea of free and fair trade. Market fundamentalist governments appear across the globe, trade agreements lock in the power of Capital at the expense of the State. We are now in a world where correction is harder and harder to achieve. Harder in a world where the advocates of capital control the main stream media, denying the wider electorate the chance to be informed and thus able to vote for balance, political debate is now framed solely by the effect on capital. We live in a world of no real economic growth as the drivers of the economy, the working and middle class, and the state itself are heavily in debt to capital, there is no money to fund growth, to support new innovative enterprise. Capital has no means of giving money to Labour or the State because that is not it’s job, it’s the job of Labour and the State to do that!

Essentially, everyone has the idea that something is very wrong with the world economy, but this opposition to the market fundamentalist establishment (the neo-liberals) is divided. In the US, Trump is a phenomena, riding this tide of discontent, in spite of him being a really offensive individual and a class A idiot, it’s like the people are screaming ‘Any change at all, we can’t carry on like this’, as the UK did with Brexit.

So, how does all relate the the EU? The EU itself is perceived both as a strong armer for Capital, and as a strong armer for  regulation (but at an EU (inter-state) and not state level). It’s perceived as being unable to do anything well for 28 diverse states. So objections to it are valid whether you are a market fundamentalist or not.

So, a hard Brexit won’t work, but neither will an EEA fudge. It seems that the best strategy is simply remain in the EU, but veto pretty much everything, including trade deals such as CETA and TTIP, effectively having an EEA trade treaty, by the back door. However aren’t trade treaties perhaps the problem, as they reduce the power of the State and Labour and give to Capital? What we need is social democracy back, that can tame capital (and tame Labour and the State when needs be), rather than anything that increases the power of capital.

Perhaps the issue is mobility. States don’t move very much, if at all in modern times. People (Labour) can move, but is restricted and usually involved making a commitment to living, working and contributing to life in a new country. Capital is fairly unrestricted in it’s mobility, hence it can exploit States and Labour, by moving away from when times get harder. So, perhaps the next step forward to achieving economic balance is to restrict movement of capital. Capital will then have to make the same commitments to states, to it’s workforce as others in the trinity. Capital will then have to  invest long-term, it’s monetary gains will then largely remain in a state and contribute back to local Labour. The question is whether to do this at an EU level, a UK level or a devolved level. Again I would argue for devolving this power, to restrict inward investment that it not committed to a a community, so it becomes part of that community. The Uk has been poor at ensuring a one-nation where prosperous regions give a helping hand to less prosperous areas to bring them up to speed. As the market demands change and technology develops, capital can switch industry, but remain geographically fixed to a locality. Is this what Brexit is, taking back control of capital to local communities, giving control to democracy, rather than centralised states or corporations.Is this how humanity will tackle growing inequality and the threats of climate change?




Ethical meat and good things to come from Brexit

One of the consequences of the UK EU referendum, is that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned leaving the government without any leadership on post-brexit and no brexit plan. Furthermore  the opposition Labour also choose this time to enter into their own leadership debate. This has left the confused divided UK with no clear idea how brexit is to proceed, so many of us have ended up speculating and talking about possible solutions, as I have done on this blog.

I kind of wanted to return to discussing more random things, but the real world is often hard to ignore. My most popular post on this blog has been about ethically sourced meat. I think the popularity of this post is due to it being a topic people are actually interested in and also that there is not a plethora of articles about this subject. It’s kind of a taboo subject, perhaps because the meat industry doesn’t really want people thinking about it’s practices, as it could hit it’s profits. However I think it is deeper than that as it is a topic that resonates with the issue of what it means to be human and how to morally live our lives.

In the last few weeks, I have heard from a lady whose friend read a book that convinced them to become vegan. She then read the first quarter of this book and chose to abandon it because she felt that if she did get to the end she would also become vegan and she didn’t like the idea of stopping eating meat. I was also in conversation with a gentleman in the pub who said he hated the idea of thinking about eating animals though he ate meat regularly, that he hated being given fish to eat with the head still attached as he didn’t like seeing it’s eyes. He eats meat but prevents himself from thinking about it.

Perhaps generally, people do not like the idea of radically changing their lifestyle. Becoming an ethical meat eater, a vegetarian (veggie) or a vegan is not easy. Taking this plunge means you need to think carefully about what you can and cannot buy and re-arranage the balance of meals. Eating out becomes a chore, unless our are lucky enough to be going to a vegan restaurant. In the UK, we are lucky that every restaurant does cater for veggies, but usually the offerings are tired and bland and not worth the price tag, you could make something tastier at home for a lot less money. Nonetheless sometimes we are go along to social eating events with no appetite for enjoying the food.

Last weekend I was in another discussion about a post-brexit Britian; it is even getting tedious for political anoraks like me. An interesting question was asked to everyone: Name one positive thing that can be achieved post-brexit. My answer was agriculture.

Basically, being in the EU, our agricultural industry is subject the rules and subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The problem with this is that it is an example of a ‘one size fits all’, with the idea of that all farming in the EU is subject to the same rules, so no region can change it’s rules to create a competitive advantage. This is a problem as there is a lot of diversity in agricultural production across Europe and this common policy inevitably  advantages some forms agriculture over others anyway. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of the EU is that it’s regulatory systems and associated compliance (red-tape) tend to favour larger businesses as smaller businesses spend a greater proportion of their time in coping with compliance. So, the benefit of leaving the EU, means we would no longer be subject to the CAP. Then more sustainable, better systems can be implemented, ideally reducing farming subsidies and making agriculture profitable without subsidy.

There is a big issue with this, which is why so many ‘Remainers’ fear brexit. It’s all very well to have the potential to create better systems, but the likelihood with the  defunct political system of the UK, that we would more likely end up with a system that is even worse than the CAP. That instead of Brexit benefiting small and medium enterprises, we may end up with systems that further advantage large businesses.

What is wrong with large businesses? In agriculture, big specialised, industrial farms are favoured and supported by large subsidies, whilst small family farms receive much less subsidy, particularly upland farms of Wales. Welsh hill farms, produce a fantastic product, Lamb, however it is not marketed well; I was told this week that most of the lamb sold in California comes from New Zealand, even when it’s not in season, yuck! Hopefully the Welsh government will take over Welsh agricultural policy and rectify these problems, because I doubt the UK government will do so. In terms of sustainability, large scale agriculture is costly, it isn’t actually more efficient.

Organisations such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) do not like the idea of product differentiation (so you can know how and where food was produced), for example free range milk, most UK agricultural produce is not labelled to tell you where and how it was produced. In UK shops, you just buy ‘British milk’ without any idea how or where the cows were, or even if it’s British at all (as country of origin labels can be applied if only one stage of production occurred in that country). This lack of consumer choice favours the big industrial producers, the consumer does not have a choice between free range and industrially produced milk, there is no true market in milk in the UK.

My answer to the question of how to ethically source meat is simply buy locally from small producers and usually via a traditional Butchers shop (if you are lucky enough to still have one!). There are many advantages to doing this: The food will generally be tastier and of higher quality. It is likely to have been ethically produced and you can ask about this, because even though there is no label, the butcher will know which farm it came from and they  will want to keep your business; it also means purchasing food involves talking to a human being rather than a computer, which is preferable! It will be more sustainable, both in production and in having vastly reduced packaging and have far fewer food miles from an efficient local distribution system.

The other good thing to come from Brexit, is increased political discussion and a realisation of how messy distribution systems are. Industrialisation has done many great things: We can drive cars, have computers and order stuff from all around the world. However it seems we have reached a point where people try and industrialise everything, even when there is no societal advantage of doing so or efficiency advantage.


It shouldn’t be allowed.

You know when you are getting old when the values of your generation are replaced by a different set of values. Over the past few years, student unions at British universities have been banning speakers from speaking. The reasoning for such bans seem to be not to give a platform to non-mainstream views and to protect students from hostile ideas.

I grew up with the highest value given to freedom of speech and protection of the environment. Perhaps the two greatest causes of the times I grew up in. Going back I remember the sheer disbelief that Nelson Mandela was incarcerated in apartheid South Africa, members of Sinn Fein were not allowed to speak on broadcast media, having to be dubbed in interviews. Their were endless debates about the rights of the  BNP (British Nationalist Party) to be heard. In can perhaps be said that my generation failed to succeed in it’s two big causes.

The basic idea is that freedom of speech trumps any other consideration. With this freedom there is then the freedom to respond to ideas that people don’t like. Debate is seen as vital to a healthy society, so without it society is unhealthy.

The other issue for my generation was privacy. What you did in your private life had no bearing in your public or working life. There was a sense that you didn’t have to say anything you didn’t want to. There was also a freedom of not to speak. I grew up in a world with grandparents who had vivid memories of the Second World War, fears of a totalitarian Nazi state and a general fear of a manipulative ‘Big Brother’ state as exemplified in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, which was made into a film in 1984!

Of course generational shifts occur. Each generation deals with what it perceives as the great failings of the previous generation. My generation threw off the shackles of appearing respectable and doing what you feel you should do, to have the freedom to be ourselves, pursue our own dreams. Really this was at a time when the establishment itself was becoming less and less respectable anyway, hence the lack of respect for respectability!

If there is any single cause of the shift from Generation X to The Millennial generation it is the internet. My generation grew up with computers evolving into ever more powerful machines, performing ever more amazingly useful functions, my generation love computers. The difference is that Millennials grew up with the internet already there, for Millennials the internet wasn’t a source for wondering what could we do in ten years time. Really computers haven’t developed all that much recently , all that has happened is that bandwidth has increased, enabling streaming video and functions available on portable devices, such as smartphones. How I remember the days of leaving the computer on overnight to download a series of pre-chosen music tracks for listening to the next day. This seems almost laughable now.

Putting these these things together, you have my generation in thrall to the internet, yet hugely paranoid about privacy. So much so that many people my age, spurned social media because of the fear that anyone could then trace our tastes, opinions, location, contacts, etc and use this information against us. So many people, myself included, just gave up on maintaining privacy to make use of new forums. Yet, my generation have this idea that snooping on peoples activities is bad and thus no ‘respectable’ person should use such information, like how you pretend not to hear and forget things you accidentally overhear. Except some unscrupulous people do, privacy is not respected, online presences are scrutinised by employers and security services. I don’t livwe in soviet russia, but I think I’m would be less surprised if at some point I am taken away at night and never heard from again.

Dealing with this creep in increased access to information, working both ways is something society has not really addressed in any meaningful way. Social media, such as Facebook, started off innocently enough. I was introduced to Facebook as a way of keeping in touch with a group of friends once we became geographically separated. Over time, as with most Facebook users, More and more ‘friends’ were added, now several hundred people from various aspects of my life. To the point where my Facebook is full of people with widely different outlooks on life, though the majority generally share my worldview. In many wasy this is bad, any prejudices I have are enforced, people and views outside my social circle are not encountered.

Prejudice is a terrible thing. Back when i was a very young man, I had prejudices, and held ill thought through beliefs. I’m  sure I still do have prejudices, but I strive not to have any. anyway, because I was comfortable to express my opinions, I was questioned and these things were discussed, I listened, reflected, discussed further with other people and eventually overcame some of my major prejudices. Arguably such prejudice removal processses are being less common for two main reasons:

Firstly, that we end up in social circles of similar people to ourselves, made up of people with similar world views, so any prejudice doesn’t seem like a problem.

Secondly, if we do venture to be open about our opinions, instead of being listened to and the ideas discussed, there seems to be a growing tendency for abuse, to be shouted down, to be ‘unfriended’. The problem with this is that if you are shouted at, seemingly unreasonably, you start ignoring what you hear and build a wall between yourself and your opinions with the wider world, it enforces the prejudice rather than dispels it.

An example of this second reason happened this week on Twitter. A man wrote “I confronted a Muslim woman yesterday in Croydon and asked her to explain Brussels. She said “Nothing to do with me”  a mealy mouthed reply”.

Okay, lets pretend not to know about what happened after this tweet and give the guy the benefit of the doubt: A man  didn’t understand the Brussels terrorist atrocity of last week. He has heard countless reports from the media about this being an attack by “Islamists”. He has put these two things together simply as ‘Muslims are to blame for acts of terrorism” So, he aired this view to a Muslim woman in his community. So what should have happened is that members of his community discussed the situation with him, he would listen and reflect and modify his beliefs to reality and possibly vice versa . It may be that this man didn’t know any Muslims personally to ask. However instead of this being an episode of freedom of speech working for mutual benefit, instead the situation created increased tension, the man was subjected to endless abuse and probably feels compelled to apologise, for expressing an opinion he knows is probably shared by millions around the world. My point is that by not expressing his opinion, by there not being the freedom to air it and for his concerns to be addressed thoughtfully and sympathetically, he is instead ridiculed and ‘banned’.

So, for a generation Xer, like myself, the world seems to be becoming a worse, more scary place, where instead of being honest, open and ready to listen, we seem to be entering a protectionist world, where we start to hide out  personal thoughts and opinions, this is very bad. where instead of working together to resolve problems and misunderstandings, we pigeon hole the rest of society and keep our opinions to carefully selecte similar people to ourselves.

One of my early prejudices was racism. In a pre-globalised world, where people didn’t travel the globe, it seemed perfectly acceptable to laugh about funny stories about the strange people who lived on the other side of the world. Of course, once people do travel and people learn more about other people and cultures, it is no longer acceptable to ‘point and laugh’ at the different people. Because those other people become part of our communities and ourselves part of theirs. Society adapts to changes in circumstances by speaking and listening. the issues are worked through.

A concern is that this happens less. People used to socialise with all of their local community, rather than a sub -set of it. Any community anywhere in the world is made up of different types of people, with different personalities and opinions. In a local community, if someone airs a controversial opinion that offends others, it is often said that the person who said the offending remark was a decent person, meant no offence and the community would then go to work discussing the issue with the offender, working it through with them. With no such local close-knot community this fails to happen, people prejudices are not addressed.

Of course, local, isolated communities have there own issues, their own prejudices, I know I grew up in one! But at least there is some diversity, rather than the narrow social circles we can easily inhabit through work or social media. Perhaps because there isn’t the wider social support to help people overcome prejudice, that people are physically and mentally attacked fro expressing views that there is a desire to protect, to keep people free from controversial ideas, rather than confront them head on. That if you were to confront the racist, sexist, homophobes in the pub, instead of community support, you would be left to be attacked yourself by that sub-set of society that supports that prejudice, or in cruder terms to be beaten up by their mates.

In local communities humanity has developed systems to regulate these local communities. As individuals or families it is possible to regulate what information is kept private and which shared, we decide who we tell certain things to. With the internet, there has not been this evolution of social systems. We use the internet for private communication between friends and family as well as publicly and we also use it to communicate professionally. sometimes it is not clear who we are broadcasting to. The problem with this is a free open discussion within a group is fine for developing understanding of an issue, it is another thing when things are seemed to be discussed more widely. The problem is that we haven;t developed clear ways of differentiating what is more private and what is public.

Another issue is access to information. The internet is a fantastic resource, it is possible to look up information or opinion on any matter within a few clicks. From this it should not be possible to claim ignorance. However, of course it still is, there is more data available than anyone can sift through. Whilst research is seemingly ever easier, the direction of things is actually more difficult. For example a search engine should speedily take a user to the information they seek, but they don’t, they pigeon hole users, and give results based on geographical location and previous browsing history, so seeking objective information becomes harder, we are still subjected to very bias data. We still haven’t really developed ways to use the internet effectively, we rely on  curated material and the bias of our own communities. so much as this occurred, so used are we too bias data that there is a tendency to no longer look for facts, to build up a full picture of an issue. Rational argument is coming to seem less important than who is saying something, someone’s background is more important than what they actually are saying.

There seems to be a worrying trend of protecting access to opposing opinions, with so much information available, as individuals we do yearn for simplicity, to be able to see the wood for the trees. Hence the wish for protection from the wilds of extremist views as we are increasingly exposed more to extremist views and less of the reasoned consensus views of the community, because there no longer is a community in the traditional sense to buffer and question extreme opinions.




TTIP and the Threat to Democracy

Currently discussions are taking place between the EU and the United States to ‘agree’ a trade treaty (TTIP), along side a similar treaty with Canada (CETA).  The issue is that such trade agreements are going too far and making the world a less reasonable and less democratic place. These treaties are not about opening up international trade, they aim to restrict it, though removing control over laws and regulations from the democratic control of people. Laws and regulations are the oil that keeps society running. They are vital to industrial and post-industrial economies.

A pre-industrial economy is largely based on self sufficient communities where almost all goods and services are produced locally by the community for the community. Excess production is then traded with other communities for luxuries. In such a society there is no real need for laws and regulations, the community polices itself, it is essentially an anarchy.

With industrialisation, comes specialisation, a community specialises its production, increasing efficiency and quantity of production, it then trades almost of of its production to fund buying in its other needs. With such a system , laws and regulations are needed as there is no longer a community based based system ensuring standards, rules are required to ensure trade is fair. A community is generally happy with this arrangement as the overall quality of life improves.

Furthermore, it becomes more efficient to standardise, the apply the same regulations and standards across wider economic areas, to include more and more communities. Often the best standards aren’t adopted, but there is nonetheless a net benefit to every participating community. The gain from adopting the standard is greater than the benefit of maintaining a local standard. Such a system works because it is consensual, a community voluntarily gives up some of its local decision making for a net benefit, it accepts and adapts to the new standards. Rules also ensure the environment is protected, that communities have such things as safe water to drink and access to facilities.

The problem with international trade agreements, such as GATT, TTIP and CETA is that communities have no say, no opt out in the standards set by such arrangements. There is no democratic control if  changes in rules or standards start to lead to the net detriment of a community. Essentially there is a trust that standards are acceptable to a community. However if an outside body, or the effect of a trade arrangement, changes the standards in a way unacceptable to a community, the community is left in a difficult position. Accept the changes to standards, but resort to local production to maintain the standards the community wants, effectively decreasing the production capacity of the community. Its a step backwards in the world economy. The standards, the regulations, the laws are no longer the oil that keeps society going, but something every individual has waste time and thus productivity finding ways to  work around the rules, in effect the standards become worse than having standards in the first place.

Then there is ISDS, a system of international courts where corporations can sue governments if it enacts rules that can be established as being detrimental to access to markets for international corporations. for a government to adapt regulations to suit a changing world, it may have to pay a fine to the corporation, so governments will tend not to change regulations. The result being that the regulations become meaningless.

Historically ISDS clauses were placed in international trade agreements to prevent governments exploiting a foreign companies investment by ceasing assets or changes the terms of an agreement. This justification does not apply to the EU, Canada or the US, which already have domestic court systems to prevent such arbitrary decisions. ISDS in TTIP or CETA can only work against democracy, or the will of people in communities.

For example, food regulations, to a large degree regulations exist to ensure that any food you buy is safe to eat, or has a label to tell you that the product is Kosher, Halal, GM-free, free-range, etc informing you that you can eat such a labelled product. So, if this trust in regulations is lost, people will no longer be happy to buy food (or indeed any product) from all over the world, but individually seek to find producers they can trust locally. Its just a massive retrograde step. It’s creating an anarchy on a global scale, without the benefit of policing by the community of the world.

What is especially worrying is that these problems are well known, especially the lack of democratic accountability, but the political establishment has done nothing to address these concerns. Democracy has to work from the bottom (the people who live in communities) upwards, with law making powers given to the centralised establishment rather than the other way around. rather than be imposed from a centralised establishment, a top-down approach is profoundly undemocratic, it’s essentially the feudal system the world had thought it had seen the last of. All the gains that society has made on the last two centuries will be lost unless these arrangements are halted and power returned to the people, democracy.


Fighting Extremism

To my eternal shame, when I was a teenager I was somewhat racist. I thought that people from different races and cultures, had different morals and because of this should not integrate into my own culture. I grew up in a community in rural Wales, which back then was exclusively white Caucasian with a Christian background, a monoculture. Racism does exist in this community, even today, because some local people think that the way things are done around here are somehow better than that which occurs in the rest of the world. The media is partly to blame for describing bad news in such a way as to lay blame on a community that locally is not fully understood.

Fortunately, Wales is a multi-cultural society, the capital city, Cardiff, historically a major world port, attracted people from all around the world. All it takes to debunk any notions of that people from other cultures are less moral, it to talk to them, and understand their culture. From this increased understanding comes the realisation that any cultures moral system is no better than any other, every culture attempts to be moral.

People fundamentally are very different, however certain traits are more common in some races and cultures than others. It is these demographic differences that leap out to outsiders. It is crazy though to then immediately judge that culture for these differences, based on only a very partial understanding of that culture.

This craziness, this leaping to generalisations does happen. For example, if say an Afro-Caribbean man comes to the culture and makes a minor social indiscretion, people often then extrapolate from this one instance to blame an entire race for this minor mistake, because they are the only Afro-Carribbean person they have interacted with, so based on their experience, 100% of that race are seen to have this negative trait. Of course, anyone should know not to form conclusions based on one experience. It is sometimes difficult to assert if people are just criticising an individual or an entire community.

This phenomena of judging without understanding happened to me recently in the wake of the Paris attacks. Certain people I know, who are Atheists expressed the opinion that it was religion that was to blame for extremism. I explored what they were saying with them, I conceded that it does happen that some religious people do become extremists, but not all. In any case extremism occurs in atheist cultures too. The point is that these people had leapt to the generalisation that religion in itself caused extremism and they didn’t really understand what faith is, what prayer is. It is people that cause extremism, not religion. Really, the concept of cultural relativism is so important.

People cause extremism by making judgements before having a good understanding of a culture. Groups of extremists then gather together who share these same naive views. Extremism exists everywhere.

The debate in the UK this week is how to tackle the extremist group ISIS. The question is portrayed as should the UK bomb Syria, where ISIS have political control, in addition to bombing ISIS in Iraq. Syria is already beign bombed by various other cultures. It seems a cosmetic change in policy and arguably a distraction from tacking extremism. However governments can’t defeat extremism, people must defeat extremism. How do people fight extremism?

Firstly, we must not be quick to judge.  Acknowledgement that our own and all other cultures are imperfect. To be wary of the easy answers peddled by politicians and the media. To commit to study the other culture in depth to see if there is any truth in these easy accusations.

Secondly, to not tolerate intolerance. To not allow extremist views to propagate, to challenge the views of people in our communities, to not allow extremist views to become acceptable. Really extremism shoudl be tackled worldwide, in every community, globally. Only then will extremism be deafeated.

The war on terror, isn’t really about bombing people or restricting peoples movements. The war on terror is in hearts and minds of those around us. Extremism has to be beaten locally before any community can genuinely help at a wider level. Already, since the Paris attacks, Muslims in the UK have been physically assaulted and abused. The focus should be on talking to these extremists attacking British Muslims. By doing this the cause of extremism can be tackled, rather than the symptom, terrorist organisations.




Lick that Pop Lolly

For me, growing up Japanese pop music used to occasionally threw up something interesting, such as a high energy rock take on ‘Thundercats are loose’ sung in Cantonese. In seemed that Japanese pop artists seemed to simply try and emulate Western pop and rock music, and sometimes something interesting appeared as a by product.

What happened since was the explosion of J-POP. For a Westerner it is quite hard to get ones head around, to make sense of it, it seems creepy, yet kind of wonderful at the same time. Wonderful, because it has become it’s very own genre.

The definition of ‘pop music’ has always been a shifting, new pop acts often attempt to re-define pop to carve out a niche for themselves. Pop retains the ‘popular music’ idoim as it is perhaps where music meets marketing, things that sell are popular. In pop, marketing has become the increasingly dominant force.

In the west the influence of marketing and sales promotion, has traditionally been viewed as an anti-musical force. Music was what real musicians did, this was rock music,  marketing was ‘selling out’. This left those more comfortable about marketing being regarded as pop acts and not perhaps to be taken seriously. There were always interesting cross overs of rock musicians playing with the pop genre and pop acts taking elements from contemporary rock music.

The late 1980s saw the rise of the manufactured pop band, whose careers were intensely managed, though still interesting as social phenomenons nontheless. These early performers desired a ring of credibility, a creative input, for example the likes of Kylie Minogue started writing their own material. Then came the boy and girl groups, where factors such as image, dance routines became more important than the music.

Basically, my understanding is that, J-POP looked at these manufactured pop acts and ran with it, unconstrained by any notion of musical and political credibility, or the need to appeal to a specific demographic, such as teenaged girls. to this is added what i can only describe as ‘cuteness’, cuteness simply seems an aim in itself, rather than a by-product. Well, J-pop does appeal widely to teenage girls, but it has become bigger than that. Each j-pop act strives to take a new direction, strike a new image. For example, Babymetal, do j-POP to a backdrop of high energy metal chords. Or Orange Caramel, dressing up as raw fish packed as Sushi; it is hard to imagine a European pop act pulling this off!

I stated above that it seems creepy. Creepy because perhaps to a Western European, the existence of young girls on a stage playing with very sexual imagery seems wrong, the first thought who is exploiting these girls. Really, though this is pop, there are many other aspects of the modern world reflecting in these acts and young people have always played with the ideas of world they are growing into as a way to learn to understand them. The imagery is done in a cute way, it’s not blatant, it is more to do with playing with sexual imagery rather than sex itself, sexual imagery is so prevalent in modern society. In Western music, outside of pop, there is a reluctance to play with such imagery as rock music is liberal in focus, looking towards new ways of thinking. However, this liberalism is perhaps shackled by political direction, held back by the desire to get across the message of promoting gender equality. There are other issues such as open discussion of the performers weight, which make me re-coil, but Western media is equally cursed in this regard, at least the J-POP world seems more open about it.

Japanese culture has traditionally been more conservative than the liberal West. however J-POP seems to be embracing the new globalised world culture of the internet, rather than viewing the reduction in importance of native culture as being such an issue.

Pop has always been about more than just music, music often takes a back seat. Rock and other genres take on the mantle on progressing musical ideas. That isn’t to say that J-POP doesn’t take on elements found in other genres.

J-POP, K-POP [Korea] or indeed any genre has it’s merits and issues to which require mental processing for the uninitiated. In many ways it is pure pop music, in the way the music scene in the West has always kind of wanted to fully embrace in all it’s wonderful crassness. Aqua have always been one of my favourite pop acts, yet as always been regarded disdainfully in UK at least. In a multi-cultural world, it is quite possible and indeed a good thing that there is both good music and art forms that have stemmed from music, for which music is merely a part of the package. Long live J-POP!