Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Red, gold and green

David Cameron: active hypocrite or passive hypocrite? Or both?

Jim has an excellent post up discussing Tory Boy's not-quite-admission to a dope-smoking past. Clearly Cameron's a hypocrite, in the sense that he's conformed to other people's standards while covering up his past transgressions. But, Jim argues, that only accounts for passive hypocrisy; what's really objectionable about Cameron is that he's an active hypocrite, who advocates standards for other people which he couldn't meet himself.

This is a useful distinction: passive and active hypocrites are very different creatures. A passive hypocrite is simply someone who fails, sometimes, to live up to the standards he or she publicly advocates. If we share those standards we may find fault, but we're more likely to sympathise, particularly given that we're human ourselves. If we don't share those standards, the worst we're likely to feel is indifferent. Indeed, passive hypocrisy can be a positively good thing if it helps to erode bad and destructive standards. You can even think of it as a tactical move, temporary reticence: I never thought I'd vote for a dope-smoker, but seeing as it's that nice Mr Cameron...

Active hypocrisy, on the other hand, can only be bad news. I don't want someone who's failing to live up to standards I share to police those standards - they're not likely to do the job very well, for one thing. Again, perhaps the reason they're not living up to those standards is that the standards need revising - they may be standards which humans can't live up to. Passive hypocrisy might not make it any easier to make that discovery, but active hypocrisy - denouncing other people's shortfalls while concealing your own - actually makes it harder. In the case of standards I don't share, active hypocrisy is even worse - if you can't even live up to them yourself, why impose them on other people?

I'd got this far in my thinking about Cameron - which was broadly in alignment with Jim's - when a colleague asked an unexpected question: What if he'd been a shoplifter? What if the criminal escapades Cameron had concealed, in passive-hypocrite mode, had involved theft rather than dope smoking? There are two questions here: would we still regard him as an active hypocrite for denouncing teenage shoplifters? And, relatedly, would anybody much care?

I think the answer to both questions lies in an unexamined assumption about drug use, which is shared by many people on both sides of the debate. It was summed up by one of the more crazed letters printed in Metro, on one of the two or three days when the story was news. I forget the details, but the message was that Cameron could never be trusted on anything ever again - and not because he'd covered his past up, but because he'd been a "druggie".

Drugs are different. Thieving is something you do; a druggie is something you are. Or rather, it's something you become when you start using drugs - and never cease to be thereafter. Once your mind's been warped by drugs you can never go back; you'll always be confused, unreliable, self-indulgent, half-crazed and essentially a bad person.

This is presumably why it was headline news. What's interesting is just how few people would actually put their name to this kind of attitude: John Reid certainly wouldn't, and all the vox pops I saw were equally relaxed about the whole thing. The news media seemed more upset about the whole thing than anyone else in the country (and speaking of hypocrisy...). Presumably the calculation was that the story still had the potential to be scandalous, even though most people didn't give a damn, because those people who do care about it care a great deal. It's a clear case of valuing beliefs, not because of their content, because they're strongly held - and it shows what a bad idea that is.

(Incidentally, I think the outrage expressed by some advocates of illegal pharmaceuticals springs from a very similar outlook to that of our 'druggie' friend, albeit with a more positive version. You can steal and then not be a thief, you can start fights on a Friday night and then not be a brawler, but you can't use drugs and then not be a user: you can never go back. For drug criminalisers and advocates alike, Cameron isn't denouncing an activity he once indulged in and now wishes he hadn't: he's denouncing a permanent fact about himself.)

So, passive hypocrisy's not such a bad thing - it's pretty much part of being human. The active hypocrisy charge is tougher, but Cameron could dodge it by making it clear that he doesn't regard drug use as something that changes the user forever. It was illegal, he tried it, bad idea, it should stay illegal, end of story. (Yes, it would probably be better all round if he came out for legalisation - it would certainly be more interesting - but I don't think even Cameron is going to push the Tories that far.) This would be a particularly good strategy in view of the allegations of cocaine use which have stuck to Cameron since his PR days. Admitting to teenage cannabis use would make it all the easier to brazenly deny adult cocaine use. This might get Cameron into the realms of flat-out lying rather than mere hypocrisy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - as the relative popularity of Blair and Brown makes clear, the public prefers a liar to a hypocrite. (This comparison courtesy of David Runciman.)

So why hasn't he done this? Why does he persist in dodging the question and waiting for the issue to blow over? (Oh, it has. I've been a long time writing this post...) The answer, I think, lies in another odd feature of the drug laws, or the mentality underlying them. Since the days when constables of the Watch kept a look out for breaches of the King's peace, there has always been something chancy about public, social crimes: to be prosecuted depends on a three-way conjunction of offender, victim and guardian of the law. If you get nabbed while you've got your hand in the till, fair enough, but if not... well, the police can't be everywhere. (This is one of the reasons why the level of crime reported in victim surveys is so much higher than the level recorded in police figures.) And I think our way of thinking about crimes like this incorporates this assumption. We might want the police to be more effective in preventing burglary, but nobody thinks they're ever going to prevent it entirely. (The police themselves certainly don't - they're the first to recommend target-hardening and victim-centred crime prevention.) There's an acceptable level of burglary, theft, taking and driving away - or at least a level which we accept is never going to go away.

Drugs are different. To say that a substance is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act is to say that the government wants it not to be used at all: the underlying mentality is one of prohibition. Some theft will always go on, and some will always go unpunished; even for the hardest law-and-order zealot there's a margin of resigned tolerance there. In the minds of drugs prohibitionists, there is no margin of tolerance for drug use: ideally the law would ensure that no drug use went on, and failing that it would ensure that no drug use went unpunished.

This is the real problem for Cameron. It's not that he's a druggie at heart and can't be trusted - or that he once turned on and shouldn't now denounce his brothers in the herb. (As I've said, I think these attitudes are essentially mirror images of each other, and I don't really like either of them.) The problem is that every drugs law is a zero-tolerance drugs law. For a politician, to admit to teenage shoplifting is to say I did it and I shouldn't have, but to admit to teenage dope-smoking is to say I got away with it and I shouldn't have. Which would leave Cameron with only two options. One would be public penitence - and I'm sure the Home Office could find a course for him, something to address drug-related offending behaviour. The other would be to come out and say that, yes, he got away with it and, damn it, people like him actually should get away with it. I suspect that if Cameron said that he'd be neither lying nor hypocritical.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Eat y'self fitter

Inconsequentially: it occurred to me the other day that I'm firmly convinced that some kinds of food and drink are good for you. In most cases this belief doesn't appear to have any rational basis - although in some cases it's probably based on experience, which is almost as good. Anyone else have a similar list at the back of their mind, or is it just me?

Healthy Food

Anything with ginger is good for you. Fact. A friend once advocated ginger tea to me as a cold remedy so persuasively that I was genuinely disappointed still to have the cold when I finished the pot. (It did do me good, obviously, just not quite that much good.) Chopped ginger in cooking is good, or sliced ginger. Crystallised ginger, even (lots of sugar is generally bad for you, but the ginger makes up for it). I'll reluctantly concede that chocolate ginger probably isn't very good for you. (Better than chocolate without ginger, mind.) Gingerbread. Ginger cake. Lebkuchen (although not the ones with jam in). It's all good.

Anything with lemon is good for you, apart from sweet things. Apart apart from hot lemon with honey. Bizarrely, hot lemon with honey and whiskey is even healthier.

Chinese soups
Those clear broth ones. They're good for you. It's true. Not so much the ones with all the egg in or those crabstick ones. Hot and sour I'm not sure about, either. But the clear ones, they're great. Same goes for any of those Chinese main courses which are basically a slightly drier version of one of those soups, with noodles or boiled rice (not fried, sadly).

Goat's cheese
Not just goat, though. Blue Stilton, that's got to be good for you. And white's even better, if you can get it without the fruit salad stuck in it. Goes off in no time, mind you. So that's white Stilton before it goes off. Careful now.

Fruit and stuff
Yeah, I suppose.

Healthy Drink

Anything fizzy
Well, OK, not anything. But mineral water, certainly, and basically anything non-alcoholic. And a nice gin and tonic, that's got to be good for you.

Beer with yeast in the bottom
Bound to be healthy, isn't it? (As long as you drink the yeast. Whether you do this by swirling it up and drinking it out of the bottle or swirling it up and pouring it into the glass depends entirely on the type of beer. But you knew that.)

Not all beer, obviously. Not stout, and only some porters. And not keg beer, obviously. A nice well-kept bitter, that's what you want. Mild's even better.

So there you have it. Of course, you wouldn't want to let your life be governed by a list like this. Variety is important; custard, Guinness and curry are fine in moderation. But if you really want to pig out, go for Stilton, Hefe Weizen and a nice Chinese.

And ginger. Anything with ginger is good for you.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Music of the future

About twenty years ago there was a Radio 4 sketch show called Son of Cliché, scripted by the not-yet-celebrated Rob Grant and Dave Naylor. Nick Wilton was one of the regulars (what's he doing these days, I wondered when I remembered this; the answer's "panto, mainly"). The music was by Peter Brewis, including one of the funniest moments in musical comedy I've ever heard: the credits sung in the style of Bob Dylan, to the tune of "Knockin' on Heaven's door", with each verse ending

"And the music was by - Peter Brewis,

Peter Brewis, Peter Brewis,

Peter Brewis, Peter Brewis..."

Well, I liked it.

There's an interview with Peter Brewis in today's Indie. It's not the same one - this one's a member of Field Music - but I do wonder if he's any relation. Now, Field Music, although they're quite young lads - this Peter Brewis would have been in nappies when the other one was doing his Dylan impression - make angular, jerkily melodic, thoughtful music, heavy on the keyboards and woodwinds. They're so 1970s they ought to be on Caroline, in other words. They're not alone, either. The Feeling are Pilot on a good day (or Supertramp on a bad one), and the Klaxons...

The Klaxons are a bit more complicated (not better, but more complicated). The Klaxons (or is it just Klaxons? I neither know nor care, actually) are 'new rave', apparently. Judging from the track "Atlantis to Interzone" (on the B-side of their single "Golden Skans"), 'new rave' essentially means 'retro'; the track starts with whooping sirens and (I kid you not) a woman singing the words "Mu mu". Then the bass kicks in. A couple of minutes later it kicks out again and the sound gets stroppy and punky, with a kind of 1979 art-school cockney vibe; my son pricked up his ears at this point and asked if it was Adam and the Ants. (He's a fan of Adam and the Ants.) "Make it new" clearly isn't an injunction that's troubled the Klaxons greatly. "Golden Skans" itself takes me back to a period I'd completely forgotten: post-glam, pre-punk pop-rock. Think Graham Bonnet-era Rainbow, but without the metal cliches or the long hair, and with aspirations to make both three-minute singles and deeply meaningful albums. Think Argent earlier in the 1970s, or City Boy later on, or John Miles at a pinch. Punk cut a swathe through prog rock, but the pop-rock scene it destroyed. But it's back in the hands of [the] Klaxons. I think they can keep it.

The Earlies, now - there's a fine band. I'm listening to their new album The Enemy Chorus at the moment, and even though it's only the first listen I can thoroughly recommend it. Most of the tracks have that "I'm going to like this later" itch to them, and a couple are instant synapse-flooding beauties. (Like a good strong cafe con leche, when it's cold outside. With two sugars. Like that.)

But even their music has its 1970s and late-60s echoes. It's stacked with them, to be honest - I've been reminded of Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Faust, Neu! and the Beatles, and several times of Family (someone in that band knows Music in a Doll's House and Family Entertainment).

I'm not complaining about the Enemy Chorus - it's a wonderful album. But still... it'd be nice to hear something that would pin my ears back the way punk did - and, for me personally, the way the Desperate Bicycles and Scritti Politti did. The Fugees did it; cLOUDDEAD did it (cLOUDDEAD were very punk). Since then, not so much.

I wonder what they'll find to play at Noughties Nights.

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