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January 2008

Cheaper Than Zero

Writing in today’s Comment is Free, Tim Watkin ponders the shift in readership from newsprint to web.

By reading this article online, are you complicit in the slow death of printed newspapers and magazines? …For all of us on CiF, it’s surely a question we should be wrestling with… I’m sure many of you, like me, still buy print. But if you and I are spending more and more time on sites such as this instead of buying other newspapers and magazines where we live, we’ve got our hands on the knife. Haven’t we?

Setting aside Watkin’s urge to feel and inflict guilt - and the fact his article isn’t available in the Guardian’s print edition - I’m reminded of a recent telephone exchange on much the same subject. A few weeks ago I received a call from a very polite woman who was trying, heroically, to sell me a subscription to a certain broadsheet newspaper. It went something like this:

“And, Mr Thompson, we’re now offering a 60% discount.”

[ Expectant pause. ]

“Hm. But I read the papers online, for free. I haven’t bought a printed newspaper in months.”

“Yes, but we’re offering 60% off…”

“Yes, 60% is a big discount, I see that. But I’m currently paying nothing. What’s 60% off nothing?”

“Um… But not all of our content is available online.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No, not at all, there are crosswords… and, er, supplements…”

[ Pause. ]

“I don’t do crosswords and the supplements are, well, just packing material. When I used to buy newspapers, the supplements were always the first things to go in the bin. Why should I start paying for something I don’t even unwrap and immediately throw away?”

[ Long pause. ]

“Oh. Well, er… thank you for your time, Mr Thompson…”


In today’s Guardian, Tanya Gold recounts her experience of alcoholism as a middle-class teenager.

I know why I tried to drink myself to death. I was lonely and angry, and I felt worthless. Nobody knows exactly what causes alcoholism. I believe it is genetic, but triggered by trauma.

The details of Ms Gold’s “trauma” aren’t made clear, but what happens next is interesting, insofar as it follows much the same pattern favoured by, among others, Madeleine Bunting and Oliver James, whereby a particular unhappiness is assumed to be shared by all sentient beings and is then blamed on… capitalism.

Alcohol has never been so cheap. The supermarkets and the happy hours and the clubs can’t stuff it down our throats cheaply enough or fast enough or long enough; some supermarkets sell it at less than cost, to draw the shoppers in. They don’t treat it as a dangerous drug, but as a commodity that is great for business.

The fact that most people use alcohol in moderation passes oddly unremarked. As does the fact that, generally speaking, one ultimately chooses whether or not to get hammered into unconsciousness on an all but daily basis. Even the most decadent of nightclubs don’t yet strap their customers into chairs then funnel booze and pharmaceuticals down their throats. And inexpensive drinks still require time and inclination to be consumed in sufficient quantities. As Gold says,

To develop alcoholism you have to drink heavily. You have to put the hours in at the pub.

Well, quite.

After fingering supermarkets and nightclubs as the cause of human misery, we leap, erratically, to this:

There are wonderful new ways to make young women feel worthless. Sparkling advertisements and whispering editorials encourage them to aspire to an ever-receding fantasy. You can never be beautiful or thin enough for the fashion magazines of 2008. You can never be sexy enough for MTV, or pornography. You can never be famous enough for Heat.

Well, again, there is an element of choice here, and responsibility. My own exposure to Heat magazine is, it’s true, somewhat limited. I occasionally register the cover with bewilderment while waiting at the checkout of my local supermarket. Like many other men and women, I manage to find its influence remarkably easy to resist. It’s simply not of interest, and surely that’s the point. Even if a copy were taped to my face with a subsequent quiz on its contents, I doubt I’d feel inclined to emulate the people photographed within. But maybe that’s just me.

Ms Gold goes on to say,

Denial is the best friend of alcoholism,

Which, given the above, may well be true. And, 

Now we all collude.

Which, I think, is not.

When not preoccupied by alcohol and “society’s constant assault on female self-esteem,” Tanya Gold is also a “recovering dieter” and has issues with her smoking.

Lefties Revisited

A few months ago, I posted a short extract from Vanessa Engle’s Lefties documentary series, which seemed to go down well, possibly due to the heady mix of affectation and farce. I watched the third episode again recently and, as it made me laugh and despair in more or less equal measure, I thought I’d share it in full. A Lot of Balls details the comically inept attempt in 1987 to launch a “radical” left wing tabloid, The News on Sunday. The project was, unsurprisingly, a disaster, but what’s interesting is why. Engle’s documentary teases out how staggering incompetence was a direct result of ideological pretension. This is perhaps best illustrated by the scene in which, with the paper’s first edition about to go to press, most of the staff is out of the office on a deafness awareness day. 


Part 1:

Statement of intent. “Our truth.” Big Flame. Class consciousness.

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Part 2:

Wearing suits. Other people’s money. The proletariat in charge. “Because you’re black.”

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Part 3:

An unholy war. Avoiding London. Qualified staff. Black man versus white lesbian.

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Part 4:

“No, but…” Pilger’s horror. Dummies and factions. Ad hell.

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Part 5:

Indignation. Causes and committees. “Theoretical crap.” Deafness awareness.

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Part 6:

Remote concerns. Public sector money. Kinnock and competence. Falling apart.

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All three episodes -  Property is Theft, Angry Wimmin and A Lot of Balls  - can be viewed in full here.

Related: the rise of Thatcherism. (h/t, The Thin Man.)

Subsidise my mischief. It’s for the greater good.

Root Causes, Again

In today’s Comment is Free, Jason Burke ponders various reactions to his Observer article on suicide bombing and attempts to fathom it.

Being called both a propaganda mouthpiece of “the war on terror” establishment and a hand-wringing liberal sympathiser with suicide bombers and evil Muslims suits me fine.

Why this should suit Burke, or anyone, isn’t made entirely clear, and to dismiss the writer as either of the above would be faintly ridiculous. Burke is often quite good on the political and social dynamics of extremism. What has very often been missing – conspicuously – is adequate reference to the role of theology as a key motive and the way Islam is taught and conceived by a great many people. As I argued at length here, the size of an extremist “fringe” and how it relates to mainstream conceptions of the faith, and its history, is a matter of some importance and has to be considered as it actually is, not as one might wish. And, as Tawfik Hamid, Tanveer Ahmed, Hassan Butt, Tahir Aslam Gora and others have explained, omitting the role of Islamic theology, whether for reasons of ignorance, ideology or embarrassment, leads one to inaccurate or simply perverse evaluations of what we are faced with and how it might be stopped.

Burke registers this omission:

What my piece in the Observer does lack, and it is something I was very aware of, is a section dealing with the role of Islamic theology in the process of radicalisation I was exploring.

But offers a less than satisfying explanation:

A longer version of the article - and here, no doubt, some will see evidence of either the politically correct Guardian-Observer liberal complex or the imperialist-capitalist state’s censorship or similar - did include a substantial section discussing this issue. But space in Sunday newspapers is, sadly, not unlimited, and my editors felt that most readers, in between Ikea and a post-lunch walk, would not be riveted by a long discussion of the concept of Dar ul-Harb Takfir, the argument over whether the Sword verses cancel out other, earlier Qur’anic verses, or concepts of nationalism in modern Islamic political thought. I do not think they were necessarily wrong.

But here’s the thing. If Islamic theology is deemed unlikely to rivet readers of the Guardian and Observer, then those same readers are necessarily ill-equipped to fathom Islamic radicalism, its ambitions and associated atrocities. If the subject is ignored and omitted as dry, somewhat esoteric and ever so slightly bonkers - as indeed it is – then those doing the ignoring and omitting are in a poor position, perhaps no position at all, to hold opinions of any seriousness on the phenomenon’s “root causes”.

Friday Ephemera

The Red Russian Army Choir and the Leningrad Cowboys are happy together. (h/t, Dr Westerhaus.) // Dr Strangelove transcript. (h/t, Coudal.) // Stanley Kubrick: The Invisible Man. (1996) Excellent documentary. Part 2. (h/t, The Thin Man.) // Film directors, directing. // Tarkovsky bloopers. Oh, how we laughed. // The passage of time may not be what it was. // Hinode telescope footage of the Sun’s chromosphere. More. // Volcanic plume on Io. // Bearded men of the 21st century. (1939) “The man of the next century will revolt against shaving.” // Mark Steyn on the wrongs of Canada’s Human Rights Commission. // And on the right kind of imperialism. // Mr Eugenides on Seumas Milne. // Norman Geras on double standards. // Why Martin Luther King was a Republican. Discuss. // The H-Bomb and You. (1954) // BSG season 4 preview. // Everything you need to know about Lost in 8 minutes 15 seconds. // Dante’s Cove. What Torchwood wishes it was. (h/t, The Thin Man.) // Jerry O’Connell does Tom Cruise. Wait for the laugh. // Scientology documents. “Between 38 trillion years ago and present time a lot of off-beat implants can be found.” // Reconstructing shredded Stasi documents. “We all knew they could know everything. But we didn't understand what that meant until that moment. Suddenly it was palpable.” // How to peel potatoes. (h/t, Grow-a-brain.) // A toilet seat for cats. $109.95 // And, via The Thin Man, it’s all about appearance.