Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Mickey Mouse Classrooms: Just What is Our Children Learning?

It's been about six years since I left school now, and every year since the same report comes in: on average, GCSE and A-Level pass grades are up. Last year, 97.8% (?!) of pupils achieved a pass grade in their A-Levels and 27% of those were the highest grades. And good for them, too - but excuse me for not buying the notion that the increase in pass grades is entirely down to the fact that students are now harder working than they were, say, 20 years ago.

Monday, 13 August 2012

"Absolutely Nothing Resembling Reason, Thought or Fact": Peter Hitchens v. Russell Brand

In what is a surely instant classic piece of Newsnight footage a few nights ago, the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens and the comedian Russell Brand exchanged verbal punches over drug policy (apparently there was also a Tory MP and a guy call Chip, but I don't remember). The debate was, for news junkies, great television, constituting a meeting of two polar opposites of British society - Brand, the too-charismatic-for-his-own-good, socially conscious, slightly irritating youth and Hitchens - a dying breed of cartoonish patriarchal Toryism that treats complex social and political issues as if they're debates that were decided long ago with the ultra-right having won and acts perpetually frustrated that nobody else seems to have noticed. Hitchens barks his arguments at his opponents like he's spelling out a very simple word to an illiterate teenager - "It's P-R-I-S-O-N, why is that so difficult for you to understand?"

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Who is Paul Ryan?

Former Massachusets Governor Mitt Romney and House Budget Committee Chairmen Representative Paul Ryan in Milwaukee April 3, 2012. AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

So the waitings over, the app turned out to be a spammy waste of time and we're now all basking in the knowledge of Romney's running mate pick. Slightly unexpected, I guess, since everyone thought Tim Pawlenty was a dead cert but it makes sense in hindsight – the criticism of Romney has been that his entire political career demonstrates a lack of willingness to do two things; a) take a gamble and b) show a meaningful ideological commitment. Of course, with the pick of Congressman Ryan, Romney has done neither of those things since he's a) trying to avoid the risk that he's portrayed as risk-averse, which him and his advisers have judged fatal to his campaign and on point b) he's merely shifting position rightward for expediency. If he'd judged the situation to warrant a more centrist VP like Pawlenty, he'd have picked that in a heartbeat and everyone knows it. You don't get to rewrite your ideologically dubious political history through a single political decision, but the way some of the coverage is talking about this you'd think Romney had undergone a metamorphosis into Barry Goldwater.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Messiahs Versus Naughty Boys: Sam Harris and His Detractors

Sam Harris gets annoyed at his critics (extensive critique after the jump):
Anyone familiar with my work knows that I have not shied away from controversy and that many of my views defy easy summary. However, I continue to learn the hard way that if an issue is controversial, and my position cannot be reduced to a simple sentence, my critics will do the work of simplification for me. Topics like torture, recreational drug use, and wealth inequality can provoke outrage and misunderstanding in many audiences. But discussing them online sets your reputation wandering like a child across a battlefield—perpetually. Anything can and will be said at your expense—or falsely attributed to you—today, tomorrow, and years hence. Needless to say, the urge to respond to this malevolence and obfuscation can become irresistible.
The problem, however, is that there is no effective way to respond. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The White Man's Burden: Minority Report

Conor Friedersdorf has a piece over at The Atlantic about media coverage of white terrorists versus their dark-skinned counterparts:
It ought to be self-evident that non-Muslims perpetrate terrorist attacks, and that a vanishingly small percentage of Muslims are terrorists, but those two truths aren't widely appreciated in America. That doesn't mean they won't reassert themselves, for terrorist attacks have always been with us; the tactic has never been exclusive to a single ideology for very long; and the power the state marshals against one sort of terrorist is sure to be first to hand when another sort strikes. 
Mmhm. And it's not like the UK is immune from this sort of over-extrapolation. A relatively recent ESRC-funded report conflates the coverage of Irish terrorism during The Troubles with coverage of Islamic extremism in the War on Terror:

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Violent Hermit Kingdom

One thing which bothers me about a lot of coverage of North Korea is the insistence on covering Kim Jong-Il's eccentricities which, whilst amusing, are really an obfuscation of what's going on inside at the moment.  Whilst I'm not expecting every news story to be a harbinger of the end times, it's worth reflecting on the situation in the DPRK. The Chosunilbo, for instance, last year published this story on Kim Jong-Un's brutal consolidation of power during his succession:

Losing One's Moral Presence

The Boston Review has a harrowing piece on the life of an IDF soldier at a checkpoint in the West Bank:

That the soldier’s power exceeds any rule does not render him powerful but, rather, destroys him. Being “above the law” drains the soldier of his defining principles. At times, he might feel he is passively witnessing the person he has become: his hands, signaling arbitrarily “go ahead,” “wait over there,” “shut up,” “show me this,” “show me that”; his voice uttering words: “I don’t care, your permit has expired,” “have a good day,” “where do you think you’re going?”

Some time will pass before it will occur to him that by failing to distinguish between the hostile and the innocent he might not only be failing his mission to defend his country but also failing values and sentiments that he was raised to uphold and act upon. But how can that be, he asks himself, if all along he had every intention of doing what is right? He was determined to defend his country while remaining humane and observing his moral compass. How could he have failed so miserably in both? 

University in Decline

Simon Critchley has some harsh words for the UK higher education system:

The big thing that’s changed has been the external environment of what it means to teach in university. Universities used to be communities; they used to be places where intellectual life really happened. They were also places where avant-garde stuff was happening. And that’s – in England anyway – completely ground to a halt. Universities are largely sold as factories for production of increasingly uninteresting, depressed people wandering around complaining. There’s been a middle-management take-over of our education, and it’s depressing. So universities, like the university I was at – Essex, which was a radical, experimental, small university, but had a bad reputation but did some great stuff – have become a kind of pedestrian, provincial university run by bureaucrats. That was one of the reasons why I got out when I got out in 2004.

(Thanks for the link, Exp.lore.)

The Hyperreal Candidate: What Mitt Romney's Lies Say About the Credulity of the Media

Has there ever been a candidate for President as brazenly, transparently dishonest as Willard Romney? Here is a guy who treats complex political views as commodities to be traded on the International President of the United States Market, and who seems to have no conviction in life aside from his own success. Sure George W. Bush was a risible fuck who grinned and guffawed as he used racist campaign tactics to beat his political foes and had more contempt for the democratic and judicial process than any President in US post-war history, but at the very least Dubya had the decency to not insult his electorate's intelligence by changing his stance on virtually every issue he'd ever held. George W. Bush thought that Americans would know a stinking rat when they saw one - Romney hopes you'll think the smell is just your fridge malfunctioning. The media, meanwhile, are more than happy to go along with it.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Batman: Right-Wing Ideologue?

I wrote a piece for the Lancaster To Euston blog on the political message (if we agree that there is one) of The Dark Knight Rises. Full article accessible by following the link above. Representative quote:
That said, I still find there to be a conservative message throughout Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but I find it more pragmatist than Burkean or whatever the adjective for Hannityism is. Nolan’s trilogy is more a treatise on absolutism and moral ambiguity than a belief in totalising philosophies. Individuals are portrayed as being as capable of corruption as they are of altruism – as morally praiseworthy as they are blameworthy. The Joker tried to prove the fundamental immorality of crowds and failed, Harvey Dent and Bane were ultimately corrupted by self-interest and narcissism (in Bane’s case, it’s more of an original sin). There’s not one point in the entire trilogy where a character making a grand, unifying moral message is given the dignity of being right – Batman is the hero Gotham deserves but doesn’t need; his utility is malleable to the situation. The message of Nolan’s Batman is therefore more biblically bipartisan: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Of Rags and Riches - So You've Decided to Graduate

What a sorry time it is to be a young person in Britain today! An education which would previously have gotten you within a stone's throw of the Times rich list now has twenty-somethings scrambling for retail assistant jobs in high street stores. And what a life awaits those who net the elusive offer of employment from the benevolent franchise conglomerate. What you convinced yourself was a stopgap eventually becomes a career trajectory, as you backwards rationalise over depressing wine-fuelled dinners with your parents that your aspirations at University to contribute something of value were unrealistic. But fuck – at least you're employed, you're one of the lucky ones.

The unemployed, meanwhile, are experiencing early onset of the kind of life-beaten cynicism on par with Al Swearengen's maxim that until death's solace envelops, 'you got more punishment in store.' Sold the snake-oil lie by corporate-minded and managed universities that anyone without a degree might as well get used to the taste of spam and baked beans on toast for the rest of their lives, they move back in with their parents, thumbing through the classifieds, obsessively tinkering with their LinkedIn profiles in the hopes that they can at least find something that stops them having to queue up with alcoholics and burglars to get the pittance in unemployment benefits. And now the anointed Etonians are charging you £27,000 in tuition for a rag that's not worth the paper it's printed on. What a fucking scheme, Bernie Madoff must be kicking himself.

To give some context which I hope will not sound too self-indulgent - I have a 2.1 law degree and am expecting to graduate from my LLM with distinction in two months' time from one of the UK's top ten universities. I have a wide variety of extra-curricular activities I undertook whilst at University, including two separate editorial positions on the University newspaper - my extra-curricular activities alone make my CV an extra page or so longer. Furthermore, I have an academic publication under my belt, as well as a fairly prestigious award which I received after winning an international essay competition. Ordinarily this would be a promising CV for a graduate - a sure-fire route to employment in a meritocracy, yet I'm struggling to even find unpaid internships. Paid work is so elusive it might as well be a galloping beast with wings on its sides and a golden horn in the middle of its head.

My experience is not unique. Young people in Britain today are, taken as a whole, over-educated for the jobs most of them end up doing. Not that education is a bad thing - everyone should read a book or two at some point in their lives - but never before has this country had so much wasted potential. The drive to get more young Britons into higher education was, we were told, supposed to create a new generation of ultra-skilled workers and thinkers. Britain would be to the 21st century what Baghdad was to the 10th; an intellectual utopia where merit maketh the man and social immobility would be an arcane phrase of a generation passed.

It's time for the young people of Britain to admit that we were gamed from the moment we entered school to the moment we graduated; told that hard work and intellect would be its own reward, that riches would follow rags and then increase exponentially, relative to one's output. If you studied and played by the rules, you'd get an A*. That A* would get you into a top ten University, which if you worked hard enough, you could get the first or the 2.1 you craved. After that, the world was your oyster. It was only after you took off the graduation robes and the mortarboard that you realised you were duped! The ball isn't under any of the cups! The Queen is up the dealer's sleeve! What's more - lots of people are getting incredibly rich off this elaborate confidence trick and under the new coalition government's corporatisation of the university industry they're only set to get richer. Pile in, chaps, Cameron says Britain's open for business, and business is booming!

It's received wisdom that the most insecure time of one's life is the year between one's fifteenth and sixteenth birthday, but in today's economic climate that pales in insignificance with the sense of worthlessness and stilted ambition felt by today's graduates. What I wouldn't give to be worried about my acne and street cred – at least there were trajectory and goals. The only goals us young adults have now are getting thinner and thinner and the only people who seem to be able to score and succeed in life are the ones who were blessed from the outset. Consider for a second that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Mayor of London all went to the same school and were all in the same elitist drinking club at University and you'll get some idea of the potential you have to succeed on your merits.

I wish there was a hopeful message to put at the end of this dreary piece, but my aim was to provide some sense of what I think the zeitgeist of today's graduates is and to end such a piece with a message of positivity would be kind of missing the point. One thing I've found extremely interesting recently is the resurgence of nostalgia for childhood which borders on the pathological amongst people of my age. There's a fetish for the 1990s, a revival of children's cartoons, remakes of films which are barely 20 years old. And why not? What better way to escape the fear and uncertainty of the life of a young adult today than to revert to an Edenistic mental state where insecurity meant not knowing what instant messaging client you favoured? Insecurity is now more profound and to realise its depth would be to court clinical depression and anxiety attacks. I can't escape the feeling that we've transformed into a neo-Victorian society where the aristocracy are at the throne of wealth and power, and they're not interested in letting anyone else sit down. Not because they're genuinely malicious, perhaps, but because, even in an age where information is readily accessible to even the most soot-encrusted pauper, there are still those who are genuinely ignorant of the ways in which some people live and how genuinely impossible it is for those who weren't born with the silver spoon in their mouths to get some decent cutlery.

The longer we dwell on our misfortunes; the greater their power is to harm us - Voltaire