The Politics of Observation

To notice, to pay attention is a political act: the decision whether or not to ignore.

The corporates or states can try to distract us and we can distract ourselves. They amount to the same thing; the act of turning our face away from something we do not want to address. Why we don’t want to pay attention depends on the object: a tax return, a failing relationship, a hand outstretched by a pleading person. We can turn away or allow someone else to distract us.

To look at something we’d rather not is a political act. It may cost us time, money, fear, engaging with part of ourselves that we would prefer to suppress out of shame or because it conflicts with the carefully constructed image of ourselves.

Documentary films are engaging, even addictive, for exactly this reason. We allow the film maker to crank our heads around, turning our face to that which we have ignored because it was new and required time and learning or because it was painful and challenged our preferred view of the world.

The film maker’s crank can work in another way: he can turn his camera away from things we should see. It is not just a matter of reality and fantasy. Over the past 200 years storytelling in the form of books and novels has focused on what we call real, reality, realism, the details of daily life. But there is a gulf between the Mass Observation movement of the 1930s or George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier and the marital infidelities of a John Updike novel or the Big Brother television show. They are all forms of realism yet they can tell us lots or little about the world.

Where are the ideas that drive us to stand up and resist or to tune our mind to eternal channels? These are more real, central to our sanity, to our ability to grapple with reality. Where, today, is the film, novel or television of ideas?

In every habitat, jungle, routine or regime we tune out a little. If we didn’t we could hardly remain individuals. But the tuning out, like the daydream, must be compatible with our functional role. A  train driver should only dream so far in his work. But outside, he is probably freer than most.  A corporate manager can read the corporate press, from the sports page and movie reviews to its presentation of world events. But if he starts to read Antony Sutton, Joseph Campbell or Carroll Quigley he will quickly reach a level of internal conflict that prevents his continued work for government or big food or the oil business.

So you abandon ideas in return for earning a crust. The first thing the billionaire does when he has guaranteed his crust is to return to ideas! George Soros promotes his view of society through regime change, Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar buy news organs, Bill Gates tackles third world diseases. Ideas are what we put aside to our personal cost.

We can start by observation. Not shoplifting opinions ready made from Facebook but by using our own eyes and rediscovering our own morality.


Middle Class Murders and the Media

Amy Bishop was convicted on the same day that Brian Claunch was shot.
Still no coverage in The Guardian about the conviction of US professor Amy Bishop who shot 6 members of faculty, killing 3, after she was refused tenure.
Is it because neighbours criticised her as a left-wing extremist whose passion for Obama was hard to stomach?
Is the problem that she's a middle class academic, one of our liberal own - is it too hard to think that such killers can come from our own ranks?
Or that the story shows how the middle class pull strings: Her mother, a town councillor, intervened to remove Amy from police custody after Amy had shot and killed her brother and fled the scene, requisitioning a car at gunpoint.
Or that time and again, police did not intervene against this "goofy" middle class lady - despite mail bombs, threats and assaults?
Does not the story perfectly illustrate the class basis of much police action - and the media's double standards? It fits with the moral of the the Brian Claunch incident - one rule for the disadvantaged, another for bourgeois academics.
So why ignore it?
The Guardian's Richard Adams pointed at this in his blog of Feb 2010, contrasting the media's coverage of a supposedly "right wing" businessman who flew his plane into the tax office in Austin Texas. Adam's wrote:
"Several sites drew comparisons with coverage of the accused Alabama shooter Amy Bishop, who Ace of Spades characterised as "inarguably left-wing and goofy", as proof of the media's double standards."
The Guardian last mentioned the story more than two years ago.
Sure, her love of Obama is irrelevant. The Daily Telegraph carries the story with no mention of politics.
The shooting of a man in a wheelchair is a bad thing.
But do we only report and consider crime stories that fit into a liberal morality tale?
Her's is a compelling murder story by any standards - Harvard-educated professor fails to get tenure - kills three members of faculty. Turns out she shout her brother to death in a case that was never investigated. Had mailed pipe bombs to colleagues. Had punched a mother in restaurant over the use of a booster seat. And on and on.


Newspapers And The Breakdown Of Political Reporting

People knows that politics, like sport or entertainment is often a carefully scripted drama tailored for public consumption. Like boxing fans at the Olympics, the audience knows in advance the result is probably fixed but it pretends otherwise.

It wants to pretend. The public is eager for legends and is eager to assist in creating mythology, whether it surrounds a football player or a politician. Fans will ignore facts that don't fit the myth and will create legends that support it.

In moments of doubt, they chant. Chant to banish thought, chant to stimulate adrenaline, which banishes thought.

You can't blame the media. The power of the Press is breaking down. The voters are willingly deluding themselves.

For a long time politicians could use the newspapers and broadcasters to limit the discourse - limit the issues that are raised, control who can speak or be heard. They could disguise the hand that pulls the string and pretend that their plans and schemes were simply a response to "events, dear boy, events".

It is not the Internet that has weakened the power of the press. It is the breakdown of homogeneity in a society that shared a common outlook, that considered many issues settled and agreed.

The voters still willingly play along, limiting the issues that they will consider in casting their vote. Think of the man reading The Times on the train. His world, all he needed to know, was in those pages. It's not that the newspaper circumscribed the news. It presented only the news that he needed:  People who did not matter to him, his social circle and his job, were not mentioned.

That's breaking down. Not because people stopped reading but because the readership and society is less homogeneous and it no longer needs The Times to reflect who's in and who's out. The broadsheet  newspapers no longer represent the class which take decisions and which runs society. Nor do politicians come from a homogeneous, ruling class. Modern party politics requires lobby fodder that votes as required, with very few exceptions.

Political writers must pretend the people they interview actually make the decisions. They are trapped in a medium of declining relevance but that's not because people just stopped reading newspapers. It's because there is no conversation between politicians and the society from which they come. There is no constituency.

Newspapers and broadcasters could break out of this trap if they talked about the decisions behind the decisions, of the action off the pitch as well as on it. But that would require newspapers to identify and align themselves with a constituency rather than the government and journalists are too closely connected to those they write about.

Journalists have a rule of thumb. Any story must include the information: who, what, when, where and how. A minority of journalists also ask why, which is the only question that has a chance of revealing motives. All the rest is scenery. Even why is not enough. Journalists must dramatically broaden their terms of reference. That means becoming experts, sometimes greater experts than those whom they interview.

The Greek playwrights worked this out a millennium ago. Our newspaper columnists and television pundits put a question to a politician knowing they will get a false answer, and then turn to the audience and deliver a commentary based on false premises.

That is why the Greek playwrights, when satirising the politicians of the day, took it a step further, using the Greek Chorus. It did the job of reflecting, holding a mirror up to the politician as he was represented on the stage.

The politician claimed credit for winning a war; the chorus recalled the men who profited from blood and terror . Or the other way: the chorus sang the praises of man's humanity to man, creating a crushing irony as some self-seeking politician concluded his conspiracy.

It was a kind of two-step verification that did not let the rulers set the boundaries of debate, impose their version of history, their brand of political amnesia.

The comment sections on newspaper web sites provide something similar but it thrives, sadly, because of the poor quality of much reporting.

Newspapers cannot survive by default, leaving truth and verification to their readers.


Gaddafi dying

Obama shook the hand of Gaddafi real slow. And looked him in the eye.

That, my friend, is politics.

But I can also see many politicians (they like to be called leaders) watching with horror the video of Gaddafi pleading for his life.

Somehow I thought I was watching a Greek or Roman tragedy with a moral... the people own you. Not the other way around.

The man was a tyrant. And there was a Shakespearean truth in his dying.


Fed feints, prepares to print

The US Federal Reserve has played a feint with the market, delaying the third round of money printing while pretending that it's more concerned with keeping long-term interest rates low.

It's precisely bonds of longer maturities that stand to suffer from the inflation that will follow the printing and debasement of currency.

So before it embarks on a third round of "quantitative easing," probably early in 2012, the Fed has launched Twist, the policy of rebalancing the Treasury market to favour longer term bonds.

Nobody knows the Treasury market better than the primary dealer network which has an exclusive right to make the market in government securities. In practice, this network comprises the banks which both control the Treasury market - and which are the chief beneficiaries of quantitative easing through which the Fed prints money and gives it to the banks in return for assets at a price they mutually agree, and the value of which the Fed will not disclose.

Getting ready to print

The public relations guys at the Federal Reserve have learned a trick. Financial journalists, dealing with numbers and lots of grey matter, often struggle to brighten their copy. Throw them a snappy name for a new product and they’ll run with it.

Operation Twist is the Fed’s latest economic stimulus programme, churning money from short-dated bonds into longer ones. With near-term interest rates at zero, there is not much else the Fed can do but try to depress longer-term yields - while getting ready to print again.

Sure enough, the tired strategy won corny headlines (Twist and doubt, was my favourite). Reasons for doubt that it will boost the economy: two per cent is the historical floor for 10-year yields; the housing market has its own problems that lower rates are unlikely to solve; large companies are cash rich and self financing and the banks won’t lend to the rest.

State welfare

Lovers of musicals or Dickens know that Twist is also the surname of Oliver, the Victorian boy condemned by poverty to that early form of welfare, the workhouse.

He’s best know for holding out his empty gruel bowl and asking, "Please, sir, I want some more." To which the answer was an outraged, “What?”

Traders hoping for a dollop of liquidity were disappointed. Stock markets fell. Welfare, or state support for asset prices, was not on the Fed’s agenda this time. Although the Bank of England seems to be preparing a new round of money printing, the Federal Reserve is holding fire, at least until next year.

The Fed has printed in excess of $2 trillion, buying bank assets, increasing their reserves, but also creating a bubble in commodity prices.

One policy, three years

High oil prices are hurting consumers and driving inflation. It is not the right time to print more money, though it seems to be the only idea, the only tool in the box of western central bankers: to print money and give to the banks.

This money is not lent into the economy. The banks deposit it with the same central banks that printed it, with the sole aim of offsetting the declining value of their asset base (which the banks decline to reveal). The one policy has continued for three years.

In contrast to the Asian and Russian crises of late nineties, the leadership of the emerging markets looks more sober, today, in financial terms.

Brazil, Russia, India and China are unwilling to pump more money into the euro zone. Hopes that the BRICs would buy more bonds from euro members were fading as finance ministers met on Thursday in Washington.

They hold combined reserves of $4.3 trillion, but the BRIC countries are unlikely to put their own stability at risk by wagering their assets on an early end to Europe’s crisis.