Friday, January 2, 2015

No laughing matter (1988)

Editorial from the February 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many a media career has taken root in the traditional enrichment of the national life through the satirising of its eminent persons. We are now experiencing a revival of this tradition which began some thirty years ago, as the wartime reverence for political leaders wore thin under the abrasive reality that the post-war world was as gritty as ever with coercion, fear and poverty. So the fringe theatre sprang up; and Private Eye; and just in time to make sport of Macmillan's blundering into the Profumo affair, That Was The Week That Was.  

Before Profumo the worst the satirists could do to Macmillan was to caricature him as Supermac - a combination of actor, father-figure and magician, who could conjure up an unprecedented well-being for the people. After Profumo (although that was not the only reason) he felt unable to continue as Prime Minister. It was a long time, before memories became blanketed to the extent that Macmillan could re-emerge, not as Supermac but as the frail but anguished champion of compassion for the sick, the unemployed, the striking miners.

Of course those old satires were pretty tame stuff compared to the downright Spitting Image, where a pin-striped Thatcher berates Cabinet meetings which are a cross between the Zoo and Bedlam; where Kinnock is a bumbling purveyor of resoundingly empty cliches; where Reagan is not the powerful man in the free world but a brainless narcoleptic. Now that Denis Thatcher has been so pitilessly lampooned as the boozy author of those "Dear Bill" letters, does anyone remember that he he really a rich, manipulative capitalist?

Well this is all very well. As the untiring pedlars of the deception that this murderous social system is the best human beings should hope for, those leaders deserve our contempt. But when we have had a good, contemptuous laugh at them, what then? It was recently officially admitted (as if we didn't suspect it in the first place) that when he was Prime Minister Macmillan decided to suppress the facts about the Windscale Fire in 1957. As an incident, that fire was as serious as Chernobyl; its nuclear pollution was as lethal as Three Mile island. We shall never know how many people have died, and how many more will yet die from its effects but, there is no doubt that some of them would have been saved had the facts been made known at the time. Thirty years afterwards is rather too late for them. The truth was covered up — and the people died — because Macmillan's priority was to protect the interests of the British ruling class in relation to those of their American counterparts.

More recently, it becomes daily more evident that Thatcher was bent on victory in the Falklands war at whatever cost. For one thing, the war tapped a well (which many devotees of the satirists might have assumed to have dried up by 1918) of blind jingoism among the British working class, which helped the Tories to their triumph at the polls in 1983. It was of little account, that hundreds of workers had to die, and hundreds more to suffer horribly, to achieve those victories.

What we are arguing here is that politicians may be laughed at but they must also be taken seriously, for what they are. Their role is to persuade us to keep in being a social system which is not supportable in any human terms. Capitalism deprives the majority of people of a full and happy life; what it leaves of their lives it distorts, commonly into a monster of fear and destruction. In simple terms, it kills and tortures millions of people. It can be justified only through deceit — and that is the source of satirists' raw material.

Yet all this sorry mess rests on the acquiescence, if not the enthusiastic support, of that majority — the people who suffer under capitalism. We don't have to endure this system; there are more effective ways of defending ourselves against its ravages than laughing at its spokespeople. Satire claims to add to the gaiety of our lives when in fact it is a depressingly sterile response to a desperate problem which cries out for an urgent solution. And that is in our hands. If we continue to treat capitalism as a laughing matter the joke will be on us.

'The Naked and the Dead' (1950)

Book Review from the July 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was not for several years after the cessation of actual hostilities that the various "classics: of the first world war, such as "Journey's End," "A Farewell to Arms" and "All Quiet on the Western Front" came before the public eye. By the time they did, the so called glory had faded from victory and the sting from defeat, and writers could view the situation far more accurately. World War Two is now bearing fruit of a similar flavour.

So far most of this work has come from Italy and America, the Italians dealing with the home conditions of defeat, and the Americans with the problems of a victorious army. It is announced that Hemingway is attempting to emulate his own post-1918 success. He has been beaten at the post by John Horne Burns with the "Gallery" (which in many ways reminds one of the Italian film "Paisa") and Norman Mailer with "The Naked and the Dead."

If some of the provincial ladies who gather at the vicar's sewing circle to make comforts for the troops and talk glibly of the glories of war, dared read this book they would be most highly offended. Yet the author purports it to be no more than a portrait of an average American brigade in action in the Pacific during the years between 1941 and 1945.

There is neither grandeur nor glory, pomp nor fulfillment. Instead there is ugliness and cruelty, pettiness and frustration.

The peculiar circumstances in which these men find themselves, in a strange climate, living for months on end in an all male society, waiting to kill or be killed, brings out in them everything that is vicious. Between the men and those dressed in the brief authority of "stripes: petty grievances are magnified into major issues; and the same antagonism exists between the N.C.O.'s and officers, to such a degree that a sergeant wittingly sends an interfering officer to his death. And even among themselves, the officers, N.C.O.'s and men are constantly seeking an excuse to release their high strung tempers. The two Jews and other minorities are the first to suffer.

Behind the lines their conversation is centred almost entirely upon sex in its crudest terms. It is reminiscent of the two soldiers who, at the opening of 'All Quiet on the Western Front," muse upon the use of silk underwear in the officers' brothels. The unnatural monastic order of their existence magnifies this function so much out of proportion that it looses all semblance of normality. Each man tries to outdo the other in the lurid tales with which they pass their time.

It is only a minor battle and they win. The Japanese are driven from the atoll and one prisoner is brutally baited and shot. Searching for souvenirs, the Americans find wallets containing photographs of wives and families in Japan, similar to those which they carry themselves.

Where is the victory? In a piece of jungle land? The dead Japanese may well have been dead Americans. As it is they must fight on, land on another island, fight another battle and continue to degenerate till the conflict ends.

That is the story. Well could it have been the story of a battle at the time of Napoleon, of the Spanish Armada, of Alexander the Great. Throughout the history of property-society wars have been accompanied by horrors beyond description. In the name of freedom, right or justice men have been fed to the Spanish Inquisition, Boers and Indians cast into British concentration camps, Jews and recalcitrants into gas chambers. Women have been raped and children slaughtered. It is impossible to train men to murder, cast them into pools of blood and expect them to retain a sense of proportion. Such conditions as these must breed the inhumanity we witness.

Neither this book nor the others mentioned point to a solution. That is not the task of the novelist. Nevertheless they are useful as pictures of what war is really like—pictures which may inspire the reader to ask himself, "Why should these things be?"
Ronald.

FROM OUR BRANCHES. (1904)

From the September 1904 issue of the Socialist Standard

EAST LONDON.
Our branch is yet in its infancy and has an enormous amount of preliminary work to do with only a small number of member to do it. The area of our propagandist field is very great and so is the spade work necessary to cultivate that field. But as our members are Socialists not merely in name but in reality, whatever we want in membership, we gain in enthusiasm. We are therefore pleased with the work and satisfied with the results. One of our main difficulties is the obtaining of branch premises: a difficulty we hope soon to dispose of. Much interest is shown by the men in East London on all our lectures, many hoping, and this hope is in no wise singular, to shortly throw their time and energy into the East London branch. — I. Blaustein.

EDMONTON.
I hasten to give few words on the position here in hopes that though few, their publication in "The Socialist Standard" may interest comrades in other parts, even if conferring an honour upon sleepy Edmonton.

In future issues of our paper I may be given an opportunity of tracing from their earlier stages the growth of the reform parties, etc., already existing here, and of showing from an analysis of their political manifestations the chief reason of the apathy of the many and the despair of others when forced to contemplate the Social Problem, but meantime it will be sufficient to say that those causes and their results combined simply rendered more imperative than ever the formation of a Socialist organisation in this district—that, therefore, in obedience to the law of necessity, as as the advertiser would put it, "to fill a longfelt want," The Edmonton Branch of the Socialist Party of Great Britain was constituted. Since that moment success has been ours. Our propaganda meetings—of which we hold two every Sunday—have proved very encouraging indeed, fully justifying our appearance. The absolutely unsolicited testimonials given us in the shape of planned attacks upon our meetings by a few persons calling themselves Social-Democrats, have done much to clear the political atmosphere and to show the workers of Edmonton exactly who's who. Needless to say those attacks (some of them dirtier even than the weather we have lately experienced) were by a courtesy and tolerance on the part of our speakers somewhat disconcerting to those men who yet seem ignorant of the power of truth, and who through failing to understand that Socialists can be gentlemen, affect at times the disposition of the hooligan or the bully.

However, be that as it may, those attacks will soon cease. Even a bully knows when he is thoroughly beaten, and as we are not children to be frightened away, but men and women strong in the rectitude of our principles and organised in a party that understands them, being ready at all times, as during the past two months, to give a good account of ourselves—to repel effectually all attempts tp check our progress, no matter under what guise the pseudo-reform-quack politicians choose to appear—we look with assurance to the future. After two months' work we are numerically and financially stronger, richer in enthusiasm, and as firm in our determination to win as we are confident of victory.

For assistance in the past and anticipating a continuance of it in the future, we desire to place on record our appreciation of and indebtedness to, our speakers and the party generally, while to help in organising for the grand, the final fight the workers of Edmonton will gladly welcome our new ally, "The Socialist Standard."

All hail "The Socialist Standard"!

Speed the Social Revolution.—A. Anderson.

FULHAM.
This branch was formed in mid-July and is already carrying on a vigorous and well-conducted propaganda. Our open-air meetings are held at 11.30 a.m. on Sundays at the corner of Waterford Road and King's Road. In Fulham there is a large number of workers who are beginning to understand that nothing short of the Social Revolution will benefit them. Thus there is a good prospect for the success of our branch of the Socialist Party, and it is with the most optimistic of views that the comrades here rally round the flag of The Socialist Party with the determination of helping to build up a sound organisation to free the workers from the enslavement of capitalism.
 E. J. B. Allen. Sec.

ISLINGTON.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain having been inaugurated on the 12th of June, 1904, its Islington branch was formed two days later, on the 14th. Its members commenced their outdoor propaganda with a mass meeting in Finsbury Park on the 19th June, which turned out a success, the audience at one time reaching 2,000. We are carrying on meetings on Sunday mornings and evenings in Finsbury Park. We have also started week night meetings on Wednesday at Highbury Corner, where we meet with an appreciative hearing from an intelligent audience. Our membership is steadily growing, having now reached 20, and this number will be soon augmented as we intend getting in touch with several unattached Socialists who are in agreement with our principles.
—W. L. Auger, Branch Correspondent.

PADDINGTON.
The Paddington Branch was formed the week following the first meeting of the Party. From that time we have made splendid progress. We are increasing our membership, and it is rare for a week to lass without having made new recruits for the cause of Revolutionary Socialism. Our members are giving their best effort and energy, for the purpose of making this district a stronghold of our party. Each member of our branch recognises his responsibility, and takes his place in the fighting line. Since the time we were enrolled as members of The Socialist Party of Great Britain, our propaganda meetings have been attended by increased audiences who take a keen interest in our lectures. We feel convinced now that a straight Socialist Party is formed in this locality, the members of our class will rally to our support.

The sale of good educational literature has increased, showing that insistence upon the existence of the class-struggle and the principles of Socialism clearly explained, create a desire on the part of the working-class to learn more of our movement, and the object for which we are striving. The branch has been successful in opening and extending our propaganda to Regent's Park. The meetings held have been very encouraging, members of the audience expressing their congratulations on our efforts to build up a branch of our party in that district, and we are confident that in a short space of time a new branch will be the result. The increased propaganda has the effect of calling into action all our resources, the result of which has the good effect of developing more members capable of taking the chair at our propaganda meetings, which is a good training for future speakers of the party. Our experience is that punctuality at outdoor meetings is essential to ensure a successful meeting. We find that an audience interested in our propaganda will congregate near the spot, just about the time for the meeting to commence, so that to start late causes a bad impression. The success of our outdoor meetings depends largely on the internal organisation and administration of the branch business. Therefore we strive to improve our organisation by a careful system and method, so that our members know what work they have to perform. The prospect for us looks very bright. We are the only party that can gain the attention of the working-class in this district. With an increasing membership, and a demand for literature, there is a certainty of our paper having a large circulation. It is our intention to leave no stone unturned in extending the sale of "The Socialist Standard" and to keep on forging ahead for the purpose of building up a strong, class-conscious movement in the West of London, which shall be a source of strength and vigour to The Socialist Party of Great Britain.
—T. W. Allen, Secretary.

PECKHAM.
Things are going very well with us in Peckham. Our branch meetings are well attended, our membership is increasing, our members are good workers, we have very good discussions on Friday evenings, which is a good way of training likely speakers. We are putting in good outdoor work, holding well-attended meetings in Rye Lane on Thursday evenings, as well as Sunday meetings on the Rye. So you see, we are going strong.
—W. Russell.

TOOTING.
Considering that the Tooting Branch has been in existence only five weeks, most of which time has been occupied in organising branch, we can hardly claim to have yet enlightened the workers of this district to a true understanding of their position, or to our just claim to be considered The Socialist Party of Great Britain. Nevertheless so encouraging has been our opening, so well attended have been our meetings, that the speaker at a meeting of the S.D.F. announced from the platform that so great had been the spread of Socialism in the district that the formation of another Socialist Party had been rendered necessary. Our explanation of our principles and policy are so much appreciated that every branch meeting has seen an increase to our membership. Our greatest hope is in the intelligent and appreciative audiences we have at our meetings and in the many unattached Socialist in Tooting.
—C. Goss, Sec.

WATFORD.
Since the formation of the Watford branch we have held seven out-door propaganda meetings, and in addition to these on July 31st we had a regular field day, two mass meetings being held, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, the latter with a very large and attentive audience. Our speakers are listened to with attention and interest and questions are usually asked, so much so that comrade Fitzgerald was answering questions for hour and a half on one occasion. Up to the present we have sold about 9s. worth of literature, and hope to materially increase our sales on the advent of the "Socialist Standard." We are running an economic class with comrade Fitzgerald as instructor, which is open for any due to join. Our members are all enthusiastic workers and are determined to do anything in their power to forward the cause of uncompromising Socialism, in spite of a whole host of reform and bogus labour parties.
—C. T. King, Organiser.

WEST HAM.
This branch has started with a fair membership and is pursuing an active propaganda at Dames Road, Forest Gate, one of the best places in West Ham for the purpose. Now we have shaken ourselves down and got into working order, we intend spreading ourselves out a bit and so have arranged to render assistance to other districts. Commencing with the first week in September, we will hold meetings in Devon's Road, Poplar, on Sunday mornings, to assist our East End comrades, who are having an uphill fight in that district. We will hold our own meetings as usual at 7 p.m., and on Monday evenings we shall start propagating our principles at Roden Road, Ilford, where there is every prospect of the early formation of a strong branch. We want some more good, sound literature, and trust that the E.C. of the party will see their way to furnish it at an early date.
—G. H.
(This matter of literature is receiving our most serious consideration.—Ed. Com.)

WOOD GREEN.
This branch is at present holding its branch meetings in the secretary's house. Efforts are being made to secure more suitable premises which can be made the real centre of propaganda in the district. Our members are all real live Socialists, each talking some share in the propaganda of uncompromising Socialism, with the result that our membership has considerably increased. Our meetings at Jolly Butchers' Hill prove that there is a growing interest in our principles, there being questions and discussion at most of those meetings. The branch keeps a keen eye upon local affairs, with the doings and misdoings of the Administrative councils. In Wood Green the future is full of promise for The Socialist Party of Great Britain.
—John Crump, Secretary.



Do Have Nightmares (2015)

The Proper Gander Column from the January 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

Crimewatch has been a depressingly regular fixture on BBC1 for over 30 years. Its format has hardly changed over the decades: reconstructions of violent offences, ‘most wanted’ mugshots, and grainy CCTV recordings of robberies and assaults, shown in the hope that viewers who know about them will phone in. Watching this can leave us with the uneasy feeling that masked attackers are stalking every street. Research in 2003 found that the programme increased the fear of crime in over half of its viewers, while a third said it left them feeling afraid. Even if it doesn’t turn us paranoid, Crimewatch reminds us that society can make people alienated and desperate enough to commit the most brutal acts.

The reconstructions are shot with tense music, moody lighting and blurry scenes in slow-motion. These directorial gimmicks are familiar from every single crime drama littering our screens, but feel tasteless when they’re used to depict real, horrific situations. Presumably, the producers of Crimewatch think that this approach is most likely to encourage people to call in. Conversely, the way the programme presents CCTV footage looks more like You’ve Been Framed. There is cheesy music and cheesier wordplay, such as the ‘hamburglars’ stealing from a fast food joint getting ‘£15,000 to go’.

The show also features old investigations reopened because of ‘failings’ or ‘significant mistakes in the police response’ at the time. Today’s police force is presented as much more efficient and precise, especially thanks to advances in DNA identification. The show is an advertisement for the police’s strength as much as it is an appeal for information. Crimewatch, like the police, only focuses on catching criminals. The state can do little else, as it can’t remove the causes of violence built in to the society it defends.
Mike Foster