Ah, *That* Jordan

The cab driver has just put some music on, ‘you like Jordan music?’ he asks with a smile. It’s raucous, traditional music which is, if I’m totally honest a bit too loud and tonally challenging to my Western ears.

I do a little dance mime in my seat to express that yes I like the music, in which he joins in, more elegantly than me, pointing his fingers gracefully in the air. Just us two men dancing in a cab. Totally normal stuff.

He is an old man with eye wrinkles from several years of laughter. I am in an awkward position because I don’t want to keep on doing this pretend dance all the way to the airport, but I want to continue to show how much I like the music. Awkwardly I get my laptop out and write this.

I tend to spend a lot of time in taxis and cars when I’m in Jordan. My Nan has asked me about the Dead Sea, Petra and the like but all I can tell her is about meeting rooms, taxis and not very good expat bars where UN types like to wind down.

Amman’s population rose from 33, 000 in 1947 to nearly three million now, and continues to grow rapidly. There’s no mass transit system and most national roads run through Amman rather than round it, although a metro is planned. For landmarks they have  big roundabouts which they call circles.

The airport is fine as a destination, but often you find yourself having to shop around with cabs if you don’t speak Arabic. Sometimes you get very maddeningly close to the place you need to be and the language gap kicks in.

A man in Amman
A man in Amman

So you say ‘take me to the Ministry of the Environment, 6th circle’, and you get to the 6th circle but you find that, oddly enough, your driver doesn’t know the English word for ministry and it’s very hard to mime ‘environment’ [this literally happened].

At some point either passenger or driver decides that, look, it’s not working out, it’s not you it’s me but I think things are over between us, and it’s time for a conscious uncoupling. As cabs are incredibly cheap, it’s no big deal.

Each journey seems to cost one Dinar, or just under a quid. One cab driver saw my newly ATM’d big denominations and let me off the fare completely, smiling as he did so. ‘You are welcome my friend,’ he explained. ‘Enjoy Jordan.’

Amman, frankly, is not widely viewed as the most exciting city in the world. Given what’s happening in the region this seems a churlish complaint. It has taken in more than a million Syrian refugees lately. This is roughly the equivalent to the UK taking in 10 million refugees.* In the space of three years. Imagine the Daily Mail headlines.

It’s remarkable, and whilst there are several well-documented challenges and resource issues associated with this influx of people, it’s often overlooked that this little country has welcomed so many people.

The majority aren’t in camps either; a typical refugee family in Jordan spends their life savings on renting a shared house with several other families: many aren’t accessing services at all, and they aren’t officially allowed to work.

Meanwhile the Syria Crisis continues whilst dropping off the news agenda; which means the relief effort needs more cash than ever. Fortunately you may be able to help out on that front, even if you can’t currently afford ‘to buy’ in the town where you live.

http://donate.unhcr.org/syria-uk?gclid=COWFpbqxtb0CFZQZtAod3BwAng&gclsrc=aw.ds UNHCR Syria appeal

http://www.dec.org.uk/appeals/syria-crisis-appeal – DEC Syria appeal

https://secure.savethechildren.org.uk/donate/single?&sourcecode=A12022004 – Save The Children Syria appeal

 

* Britain has taken in around 4,000 Syrian refugees; it has refused to support the full UNHCR programme which would increase that number, but Britain punches above its weight on humanitarian aid, having committed to more than £600m

Sex, lies, politicians

If you aren’t a gay traveller yourself, it’s easy to forget about such legislation as the “Kill the Gays bill”; in a decade or so of intermittent work and travel in Africa, homosexuality has only been mentioned (by Africans) a handful of times in my presence. You don’t see homophobia, because you don’t see people who are openly gay.

An Ethiopian evangelist once told me told that it was a Western genetic disease. A Ugandan journalist who explained it was un-African. But really, there wasn’t much reference to the issue. I’m from a small town and used to that. I have worked with one or two African with ‘camp’ mannerisms and dress, people who would, in a metropolitan setting, be described as flamboyantly ‘out’ gay men. I  worried for their safety. Homosexuality is against the law in most of Africa.

But nobody else suspected a thing, or referred to it if they did. You might meet very traditional religious elders who will shake your hand and it turns into a handhold that last minutes; men publicly hanging off each other is a common African sight, from the North of Africa to its southern tip, cuddling basically, in those very countries where homosexuality is illegal. But I hadn’t thought much at all about homosexuality in Africa, until the issue became big in Uganda, around the time of the “Kill the Gays bill” was first proposed, in 2009.

I’d found Uganda an incredibly friendly and laid-back place, turbulent history notwithstanding. Ugandans seemed so nice, my colleagues so welcoming. Did they really want to kill gays?

In Uganda same-sex relationships were already punishable by jail sentences of up to 14 years, in a law drafted by British colonialists. The bill which was signed on 24 February no longer includes the death penalty, but increases the maximum sentence for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ to a life sentence. It is a watered-down version of the “Kill the gays” bill which was passed on 20 December 2013 by the Ugandan parliament in what was described as a ‘Christmas gift’ to its supporters.

It forces anyone who is aware of an offence or an offender, including individuals, companies, media organisations, or NGOs who support LGBT rights, to report the ‘crime.’ On Valentine’s Day 2014 Ugandan President Museveni said he would sign the bill; the date of the announcement, and the fact that he held off from signing it despite being urged to do so by Ugandan social media campaigns and editorials, until there was ‘scientific evidence’ are notable.

The weekly [Ugandan] Observer, describes “intense campaigns in schools, luring people with money and all sorts of falsehoods … Gays target other people’s children because they don’t have their own to enlist.” There are no openly gay columnists to counter these gay-bashing op ed pieces, which tended to link homosexuality with molestation of children, because being gay is illegal.

The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power” – President Museveni

[in power 27 years and counting. Abolished maximum presidential terms in  2006]

This is a populist, orchestrated move by the government, timed to maximise coverage and, it could be argued, distract people from the real problems of the country which are within the government’s remit such as sorting out the infrastructure or running basic services more effectively.

On social media there is a lot of hate and ideological muddle over the issue; one Facebook user tells me that there are no gays in Uganda, and a sentence later that they should send the gays to the UK. Also on Facebook ‘Kant Kanyarusoke’ describes his “…pan Africanist unease that the so called developed world wants to disorganise our evolving societies (by keeping us quarrelling amongst ourselves about their value systems – and also in this case, developing a crude population limiting and family destabilising habit).”

He is one of the most eloquent. The most frequently used appeal is that homosexuality is un-African and not Ugandan. It’s an interesting thought, that people speaking English, using Facebook, in a country whose laws and system of government are basically British should be talking about how they would like to put people in prison for life for something which they see as being ‘too Western’.

Particularly given that the last independent Buganda ruler ( King Mwanga II, who died in 1901) was himself widely reported as homosexual. That the original law punishing homosexuality was drafted by British colonialists comes as no surprise given the potentially confusing nature of the language: it describes “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature”, for instance, with no explanation of what that act might be. It’s a prim, antiquated and very English idea.

To a Westerner it might seem remarkable that a homophobic law could be so populist, and jumbled up with a pro African, anti Western message. The church’s popularity is an important factor, but when you dig a little deeper, there’s more recent cultural colonialism at work. David Bahati, is the Ugandan MP who proposed the legislation and in doing so became briefly (kind of) famous. He is Chief of the Scout Board of Uganda, is a member of the ruling party and has a remote constituency at the far south of the country.

Although often described as a ‘rising star’, he seems to be otherwise unremarkable. In the past he has attended the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast along with Martin Ssempa, an influential pastor and darling of the Bush era White House.

The U.S. National Prayer Breakfast is actually a series of meetings (and dinners) hosted by The Fellowship Foundation, a conservative Christian organisation usually referred to in America as “The Family”.  The Family is an odd mix of ‘sworn to secrecy’ and ‘wealthy lobbying group with international PR aims’. It has strong links with Uganda’s evangelical churches, including Martin Ssempa’s. In doing so the Family angered some NGOs for diverting US cash away from promoting safe sex education towards abstinence programmes: Ssemba himself has publicly burnt condoms, although he is possibly more famous for a weird YouTube rant in which he holds up a laptop and describes gay porn to a bemused congregation.

He would be a comical figure if he weren’t so influential, and that the legislation on the books didn’t put people in prison, whilst silencing its critics. Bahati has accused foreigners of “promoting homosexuality by distributing cell phones and iPods and things like this” and described how  wanted “to kill every last gay person.” He said that $15 million had been invested in Uganda to “recruit” children “into being gay”.

He also said that “homosexuals from Europe and America are luring our children” on [US] National Public Radio, a widely reported figure for which there is not one shred of evidence. The link between homosexuality and child abuse is frequently made.

On the Facebook messageboard pages of Ugandan newspapers, a place where I’m not very popular it must be said, these claims are repeated. It’s remarkable, because you can really see how rumours spread, nobody can remember quite how they started but it seems a generally accepted fact amongst some people that gays are after your children; in the same way nobody could remember exactly which Jew ate which particular baby, or which Tutsi men raped exactly which Hutu woman, the ‘facts’ become established.

That there is no evidence doesn’t matter by the time the time the angry mob has formed. And the mob is angry; it’s vicious. ‘God Hates Fags’ explains one Facebook user, simply. Ariho Christopherous explains that it’s ‘their’ fault – “If they hadn’t sodomised children maybe would’ve been considerate, I’m just tired of these Americans and Europeans please leave us in peace, we know your only aim is to destroy Africa in all ways possible, stop poking your noses in African issues….I just wish God could give Africa another planet.” She’s even the member of a charming Facebook group called KICK HOMOSEXUALS & LESBIANS OUT OF AFRICA (their caps), which admittedly only has two members.

Which isn’t to say the bill is unpopular; every time the story is mentioned, it is greeted with hundreds of ‘likes’: as the President looks to re election in 2016, his stock is rising.  ‘Well done Mr President’ says one user, whilst another ‘Sanity finally prevails’ says another, this time on the Red Pepper messageboard.

Another user bizarrely claims that ‘some white guy’ married a dog, as if underlining the perverse nature of Westerners and their ways. One or two users are brave enough to criticise the bill; others are concerned about Western aid money, but ‘Derrick Junior’ explains that: “We don’t need their finances or anything, we can always survive,” perhaps not realising that a lot of the anti gay sentiment is both imported and funded by American churches.

One American name that keeps cropping up is Scott Lively, whose ‘Defeating “Gay” Arguments With Simple Logic and Seven Steps To Recruit-Proof Your Child’ book has been widely distributed in Uganda since 2009. He brought several copies over and allowed its free distribution. He also co authored a book called the Pink Swastika (first published in 1995 and still available on Amazon), which bizarrely argues that homosexuals were behind the rise of the Nazi Party.

Richard Cohen is another name; he is described as a psychotherapist, author, and ‘sexual orientation therapist’ on Wikipedia and describes himself as an ‘ex-gay’. In 2002 Cohen was permanently expelled from the American Counselling Association but his International Healing Foundation sent a representative to Uganda and gave out free copies of his book Coming Out Straight. He calls homosexuality  ‘same-sex attachment disorder’, and his ideas are influential within Uganda although he has distanced himself from the ‘Kill The Gays’ bill. In a brilliantly uncomfortable MSNBC interview, US journalist Rachel Maddow forces him to  admits the statistics in his book were made up by a rogue and multiply discredited ‘expert’ and will be removed from future editions of his book.

Given that one of these states that ‘40% of child molestation is carried out by homosexuals’, it’s pretty important stuff.

It’s important to remember that some of the homophobic and spiteful comments on Ugandan messageboards come from genuinely concerned parents, who are relying on their priests for guidance; those priests, many of whom have a very limited education themselves, are relying on bad data made up by discredited rogue academics.

Having said that, it would seem equally remarkable that ideas stemming from the fringe of American evangelism should be described as ‘African’ and used in such a way as to stir up anti Western feeling. President Musaveni’s has stated that the delay in signing the bill, and the reason why it made the news recently, is because he wanted to find a ‘scientific’ reason for what has gone on record as describing as ‘disgusting behaviour.’

His ‘team of scientists’, produced a short statement which denied that homosexuality was genetic or a disease, “…but merely an abnormal behaviour which may be learned through experiences in life…The practice needs regulation like any other human behaviour especially to protect the vulnerable.” I put ‘team of scientists’ in quote marks because none of them would appear to have published any research as part of this process, nor ever; rather they have given their name to a statement backing the government’s position.

The team are government officials, doctors, or lecturers employed by the government-owned university. I have failed to find a single piece of peer-reviewed scientific research published by any of them. In the West the influence of the ‘Pray Away The Gay’ movement is dwindling; Alan Chambers, was the former president of Exodus International, one of the oldest ‘Pray Away The Gay’ organisations which lasted from 1976 to 2013.

As it closed down he  apologised for “years of undue suffering and judgment at the hands of the organisation and the Church as a whole…For quite some time we’ve been imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honouring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical. In his statement he admitted that he “conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions.” His organisation’s director and several top executives visited Uganda in 2009, at the time that the ‘Kill The Gays’ bill was being drafted, and whilst it subsequently it distanced itself from the actual legislation, it clearly had an impact.

Google it a bit: you find them making speeches and praying together. Having disseminated factually incorrect and homophobic material in the region it would seem that these organisations should be doing more to prevent further human rights abuses stemming from their actions.

Perhaps they should reflect on David Kato, the Ugandan LGBT activist, who was murdered in 2011 after a magazine called for him to be executed  and published his personal details, and ask whether this really what Jesus would have wanted.

PS I would love at this stage to point people to the best organisations involved in campaigning around this issue;  I’m not sure which they are and would welcome comments.

Don’t mention the ****

Being the youngest of three brothers, quite a few of the family legends involve me doing something comically stupid. In this tradition, when I was three or four I apparently jumped into a hedge when a plane flew past, because I was worried it was a ‘German bomber’.

We were still immersed in the Second World War during the 1970s. It wasn’t just the stories told by people who were involved. It was all over. Sundays meant a war film and World At War documentary if you were lucky, you’d read Victor or Warlord comic (which never seemed to include stories of friendly fire, the effects of bombing cities or running away).

If you were lucky you’d get a little foam aeroplane too, always secretly hoping it was a Spitfire or a Hurricane rather than a Messerschmitt 109. There were even sitcoms about the war.

It was partly the inevitable nostalgia for an event that was as recent to people in the 1970s as, say, the birth of house music or glasnost is to us now.

But for British people it was more. It defined our moral universe and gave us ideas of good and bad, us versus them. Language too: I think I can possibly say ‘for you Fritz the War is over’ in German which thankfully I haven’t so far.

I’m writing this in a Berlin* apartment; yesterday we hired bicycles at the holocaust memorial. People were clambering on the sculptures, posing unselfconsciously for snaps, draping themselves over them in fact, despite clear and one would think unnecessary instructions not to.

The story of how political unrest led to blame and on to discrimination and harassment, ending up with death camps and the final solution is a obviously big part of European history, as it should be. If you deny the holocaust in Austria, Germany, Hungary, or Romania, it’s an offence.

People should know about it; because there are plenty of holocaust deniers about.

The holocaust deniers I’ve met were not like I expected. They weren’t full of hate at all. I’ve never met the people on the far right who start the rumours that the concentration camps didn’t exist or that the millions of unaccounted for Jews are made up by a kabal of powerful Zionists or the people who know them not to be true but have their own agenda. The people who tried to play down the Holocaust were the kind of people who have heard this from someone else; uneducated people, who are simply ignorant of the facts. The story they have been told benefits the people who control them.

It was simple ignorance, people with a poor education accessing information from the wrong bits of the Internet.

The same branch of getting the facts wrong which leads some people to still believe that maybe Nelson Mandela actually did bomb some children [as was being circulated recently on Facebook]. It’s not true, it’s a story put out by racists who haven’t moved on from the stories they were told about black people. It’s a plausible story (why else was he in prison?) and the people who believe it are often not racist themselves. Just not so good at filtering facts in an age when there’s a lot of data to filter.

In this sense they could be seen as victims of circumstance, like the East Germans who believed in the Glorious Socialist State. Not the cynical, card-carrying leaders who had the best flats and the official cars, but the simple footsoldiers, the regular Joes who were told that the West was the enemy and believed it.

It’s hard to escape the myths and stories of your own and realize you are being fed propaganda, because obviously it doesn’t feel like it at the time. The people who tell you stories are usually not bad themselves either, it’s older people, family members and teachers, people you trust from whom you get your values.

And stories usually benefit people somehow; like plucky Britain, how we stood up to the Germans (with a little bit of help from triggerhappy but ultimately benign Yanks and heart-in-the-right place but rough around the edges Russians, according to my comics) presumably made us feel good about ourselves as we lost our Empire and stopped manufacturing things.

Presumably if you deny the holocaust it makes it much easier to hate Jews or Americans. There is a purpose to stories and why we choose to believe in them.

The thing is we do have a duty to learn the truth of a situation, or both sides of the stories, myths and legends we are familiar with, however unsettling to our belief system it may be. Because people rarely go to war or commit acts of atrocity based on the way things are, rather the way they appear, the way things have been explained to them. And unlike those poor buggers who were unlucky enough to live under a totalitarian communist state, information is freely available – so the challenge is filtering out that which is sketchy.

When I came to realize the second world [sic] war was actually over, I also realized the extent to which propaganda wasn’t just something that happened to other countries with less effective systems or whose citizens were gullible or oppressed. It was happening here, too.

Take Winston Churchill; I had bit of an obsession with Winston as a teenager. [I was never cool]. He was clearly a great wartime leader for Britain, but complex too. He got depressed. Interesting. Then as I read more I realized he was a racist himself.

I don’t mean ‘he used the odd word that political correctness has deemed inappropriate like a benign old aunt whose language hasn’t moved with the times’.

No. He boasted about ‘shooting savages’ in Sudan; he believed ‘the Aryan stock is bound to triumph’,  and he famously once said that ‘he was strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.’

For him the war was about preserving an Empire, which didn’t really exist in my lifetime, nor would I want it to. For lots of people across the world, the British were never the plucky underdogs, we were the invaders.

This was deeply unsettling at first; I wanted to put my fingers in my ears. Churchill was part of my life story. The wartime orator who stood up to fascism and Hitler and saved Europe – If he isn’t the good guy, who is?

Yes he was a product of his times bla bla bla, but he wasn’t the dude he was made out to be. ‘Churchill’ is effectively a construct as much of any of the soviet-approved historical figures whose statues still dot some parts of East Berlin.

We should naturally remember the brave acts on all sides; the levels of sacrifice experienced by many in wartime Europe is pretty hard for subsequent generations to fully understand.

It would seem our obvious moral duty to keep the memory of the holocaust  alive – as well as its geopolitical aftermath.

But one of the stories we should be telling each other about ‘the war’, and every violent conflict, is that as soon as people start killing each other it’s not so simple any more. People take revenge and collaborate. People divert resources in order to make things to kill people with. People on your side do bad things.

Women and children suffer, as does the truth. It’s never over by Christmas. Wave your flags all you want but nobody comes back the same and some don’t come back at all. You probably know most of that anyway, but tell Michael Gove maybe?

Anyway come to Berlin. I can confirm that the situation on the ground is currently peaceful, and involves coffee with lots of cream and whisky in it, or at least it did for me.

Photo by Rupert

Photo by Rupert

* am back now

My infographic brown triangle fail

One of the more interesting first world challenges is data. So much data, so little time, all of it competing for attention. How are we to make sense of the world?

When there is so much information around it all gets a bit competitive. I’ve banged on about the idiocy of listicles and how the immediacy of social media makes people protesting in a park sound like a full blown revolution and how eye-grabbing stuff like twerk fail videos aren’t actually true.

Too much information is generally better than too little, by the way. In the olden days you didn’t get enough data and nobody knew why anything happened. I mean the really basic stuff. Yes the food was locally-sourced and organic but it was also rotten and famine-y, and you experienced puberty and a mid-life crisis simultaneously. Seriously, Google ‘the olden days’. It’s better now.

But the downside of our data-rich universe is that sensible boring data can get squeezed out, because our attention span is about a millisecond.

So anything that makes understanding our wonderful world a little bit easier to understand is a good thing, right? Which explains the rise of the infographic.

Kind of. If I had more of an attention span I’d do an amusing infographic about the fallibility of infographics.

It would have a big wall with things like ‘part true’, ‘reinforces my belief system but not actually true’ and ‘this was discredited years ago but is still believed in by angry mobs’ written on them. A big wrecking ball with ‘truth’ on it, driven by a flaming, maniacially twerking Miley Cyrus who would smash through these. Or something.

Have a look at this:

http://twistedsifter.com/2013/08/maps-that-will-help-you-make-sense-of-the-world/

It’s pretty amazing, and on things like the ‘reversed’ world, it can truly make you think about the world in a refreshing, new way*. It’s a thing that makes you go hmmm.

The problem is that not all of the information in there is true.

For example image number 24, titled ‘The Number of Researchers per Million Inhabitants Around the World’. Really interesting. I was amazed that anybody could have such accurate research data about the number of researchers across the world when my own research into research, which I’m doing for my day job, was proving so difficult.

It seemed too good to be true, and when I checked how they gathered this data, this turned out to be the case. In the clickable small print it said:

“This map shows the distribution of researchers per million inhabitants, latest available year. Researchers are professionals engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems and also in the management of the projects concerned.”

Now think about that. Would that describe your professional life? Yes? No? Don’t know? I would answer all three depending on which projects I was working on that week. Whether I’d had breakfast. It’s such a vague definition, it’s almost impossible to poll people on. Needless to say you’d need to ensure everybody was thinking of exactly the same definition when they were polled for this data to be accurate: you can imagine the possibility for linguistic and cultural interference introduced by an interviewer.

It doesn’t matter, because would seem that there wasn’t a universal poll at all. They didn’t go to Eritrea and New Zealand and Kazakhstan at all and ask people. The data came from a ‘range of sources’, all of whom collect data in slightly different ways. Sometimes they were counting state data from places where you don’t trust the state, for example.

Plus some of the data is old and some is new. The Algerian information appears to come from 2005, other bits from from 2012. Has anybody here changed their job in the last 7 years? If this is also true of Algeria, this would make the data wrong.

For other countries the original source quotes ‘partial data’ which implies that there is even more guesswork going on.

In other words, we have no idea about how many researchers there are across the world, but we do have a really nice memorable graph.

I don’t blame the graphic designer, btw, s/he’s done their job well, but like with all data-crunching, it’s rubbish in, rubbish out.

The original source is for this is from the UN Office of Statistics, which sounds respectable enough. The kind of thing journalists and politicians like to quote to prove their point, or make multi million pound spending decisions with. Click a few times to get to their working methods. It’s confusing and the site crashes a lot.

Is it important? Perhaps only to a pedantic dullard like me. I haven’t checked the others, but if they are wrong and people are coming up with a worldview based on this stuff, possibly because like Russell Brand they distrust mainstream media sources, it’s possibly a bad thing. It’s making wrong stuff easier to understand.

I once invented a ‘brown triangle’ system for movies, which admittedly never caught on. The idea was that if the history was being totally made up but seemed possibly like it was true, you’d know because of the brown triangle.
brown triangle

Perhaps infographics based on facts that aren’t actually true could use the same system? That’s a graphic I did actually make, by the way, I hope you like it.

* as usual George Orwell got there first – this is an excellent essay on whether the earth is round and what to believe in general.

http://alexpeak.com/twr/hdykteir/

Bla bla Somalia bla bla

I do tend to drone on about Somalia a lot, pardon the pun, and here’s evidence, by semi popular demand: this is a letter to the Private Eye where I point out that corrupt warlords didn’t create the disintegration in Somalia, rather they are the products of it.

private-eye-delete2

(it’s unfair on the guy who wrote the original piece obviously because I don’t include his article which wasn’t all bad)

I know you are supposed to be a retired colonel before you start writing to esteemed organs in order to correct them, but in this case I thought it worth pointing out; if someone said, for example, Britain invaded Poland to start world war two it might be seen as somewhat misleading.

Whilst the world is becoming increasingly peaceful, there’s still a lot of conflict to keep up with and it’s hard to remember who started what when. Who are the bad guys? And it does seem logical that warlords would have started the war. With a name like that. If they had, the solution would be easy. Get rid of the warlords, innit.

The only problem is that warlords didn’t start the war, they inherited it: or at least the conditions in which it was possible. They came into existence in the power vacuum created by the absence of an evil dictator. Someone who the international community knew was bad, but propped up for years, to whom it supplied tons and tons of weaponry along the way, much of which was used against said dictators’ own people, creating decades of mess in the fall out. Does this in any way sound familiar?

The wider problem for people who aren’t slightly obsessed with Somalia is that we are used to getting news about the world in incremental updates even if we don’t understand the main story – a bit like getting software updates for software you don’t own. I didn’t learn about Somalia at school, did you? So why would you know this stuff? How could you possibly know that the conditions for the situation in Somalia, and by extension Kenya, preceded the rise of al Shabab?

It’s complicated of course; there are many reasons why things went wrong in Somalia, including its colonial past – which takes in Italian, British and Omani rulers – as well as a clan-based societal structure that doesn’t mix well with modern military hardware, and many more. Needless to say the average Somali is a victim in the piece, which makes it all the more frustrating when *some people* more or less assume that if you are Somali you are either a warlord, terrorist or pirate rather than someone whose country has been messed up by these factors.

It’s pretty important stuff – particularly if you are British. Britain is in the top few arms exporters in the world – exact figures are murky because so many weapons are given away in dodgy deals.

Britain has spent decades supplying weapons to countries with dodgy leaders which then get used. They also get used in the terrible, chaotic aftermath of those dodgy leaders and it’s my opinion that the only way that we can prevent future, similar situations is by unilaterally reducing arms exports.

PS The thing you can do about it is support the campaign against the arms trade: http://www.caat.org.uk
Or if you disagree, you can always plump for a career in the defence industry, where ‘a change in market conditions is presenting new opportunities,’ apparently:
http://www.theengineer.co.uk/channels/skills-and-careers/in-depth/engineering-job-opportunities-in-the-defence-sector/1015722.article

‘We can twerk it out’

… is the world’s first twerksploitation movie, in which our heroine exchanges her small but dull town for Capital City in order to compete in the inaugural National Twerking Championships, and wins, but along the way forgets what’s important. Whilst rehearsing for the World Finals, in Twerksopp, she suffers an horrific accident and can never twerk again, but finds true love with the dull, second choice ex-.

There will be an amusing scene with an adorable dog, Coldplay are pencilled in for the love theme. Jennifer Lopez’ people are interested. Jennifer Anniston’s too probably, who cares. Inspired by this clip:

Okay that’s not actually true.

I was going to write about whether twerking was a harmless bit of fun, an authentic cultural expression of a Afro Caribbean sexual identity challenging Western expectations around body image and behaviour or a symptom of the extent to which the sexualisation of our culture through factors like online pornography and the exploitative visual language of advertising and the music industry (RIP) has skewed our norms and values to the extent that  young women are pressurised to be complicit in what feminist cinema critic Laura Mulvey called  ‘the male gaze’, a centuries-old enjoyment, objectification and punishment of female sexuality through visual representation in which we are all ultimately trapped. The movie thing was a hook.

I have actually been banned from twerking in my house following the incident with the waterproof trousers, which I was testing in the kitchen. The image of an early middle aged man from Middlesbrough performing bottom-led rhythmic dance in functional fabric clothing is probably too erotic for many, but it’s in your head now.

Incidentally, the trousers have ‘Altura Night Vision’ written on the side of them and – whilst I don’t want to turn down a sponsorship opportunity because amazingly this blog has not made any money yet – I wore them the other night and everything looked the same, which is disappointing.

See you on the streets.

PS the twerk fail video is a fake. everything is fake.

War on words

Dear the advertising industry,

Not for the first time – I’m out.

This time it’s nothing to do with your relentlessly sexist imagery which normalizes a minority body shape to the extent that normal body shapes seem weird, and makes girls feel bad about the way they look before they even start school.

Nor the extent to which you have appropriated every cultural, scientific and sporting achievement of the last century for your own dark purposes.

This time it’s the actual words. The specific objects of my one-man cultural boycott are below.

Thanks,

Nick (former copywriter)

1) Anything written in the first person narrative 

‘Please wash me at 30 degrees’ is says on my t shirt label, yet I know that objects only speak after loads and loads of drugs so this must be a lie. Why would my t-shirt lie to me?

2) Made up job titles

I know that your ‘chocolatier’ is not a kind-faced elderly gent in a fluffed up chef’s hat painstakingly dripping chocolate into an individual mould, rather a bored machine operative wearing a hairnet in a factory on an industrial estate, dreaming of a better life as, picking out the occasional mis-shape and possibly regretting life chances and life choices all the way until the end of a long uneventful week, when it’s time to take drugs until objects start to speak.

Microsoft I know your call centre staff aren’t ‘ninjas’ and stealing the name of a Japanese medieval feudal sect because they are unlikely to sue is an act of cultural theft. See also gurus, warriors, jedis.

3)  Misplaced adjectives relating to an emotion
You can have the purely descriptive (big, small) but the rest are subjective. ‘Fun size?’ I’ll be the judge of that. ‘Gourmet’ is also subjective, as is ‘luxury’, and even ‘improved’, and – as a rule of thumb – wherever you see a self-administered ‘boutique’ it’s a signal the thing being described is not going to be in any way boutique.

4)  Fluffy names for dull stuff
Calling your operating system ‘Cupcake’ doesn’t affect the fact it’s a huge string of code produced by people who don’t like the outdoors but love Game Of Thrones (stereotyping coders is the last stereotyping that’s still allowed. One day they’ll rise up and make everything crash but physically they will be easily overpowered)

5)  The actual wrong word for stuff
Aqua? What’s aqua daddy? It’s like water but more expensive. Your shampoo is not being straight with you, it’s a useful lesson son.

IMG_3999
….this poster says ’90s Grunge, BANK THE LOOK’, I took it in Bristol where ironically* they have been banking the grunge since the early 90s.

6) Any produce featuring copy relating to an imagined workplace with a philosophy/mission statement, etc
My lyin’ shampoo done tell me, word for word, on its label, that: ‘we have always been driven by a simple truth; every women deserves to look fabulous without spending a fortune.’

Let’s unpack that. Always? This has always been the thing that drives you? I don’t have the time or resources to disprove this clearly false statement, but perhaps if you work for Tresemme you can tell me whether this has been your eternal motivation. If true, we can plan an intervention for you.

Despite anecdotal evidence that the average workplace is a hotbed of insecurity, stroppy fridge Post Its, idiot managers, pointless meetings, petty grudges, etc product copywriters make out that ‘we’ – which is wrong for a start, because copywriters are mostly freelancers who would not be seen dead in a hairnet or on a production line – that ‘we’ are in this together, that we are all an informal crazy bunch you don’t have to be crazy to work here but it kinda helps.

Innocent drinks? The most guilty.

They basically suggest that their company started in a puff of lovely pink organic smoke, and that fluffy bunnies, tooth fairies and unicorns routinely gambol up and down their tree-lined office, giving out sage advice and Thai massages to delighted worker elfs. The truth is different.

Three public-school educated chaps who met at Cambridge and worked in advertising created a brand of smoothies adored by people who love writing on the side of their drinks packaging – coincidentally the same consumers who are incapable of chewing fruit – which they then sold to Coca Cola. They tried to call their product ‘liquefied fruit salads’ in order to dodge the taxman. Turns out you may need the tooth fairy after an innocent smoothie, because according the Daily Mail, in a bizarre exposure of sugary gack, an innocent smoothie has more sugar than a Coke, or three and a half Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. Weird to type this, but thanks, Daily Mail you done good.
7) Childish or fun fonts to convey ‘brand values’
Choose art. Choose line, depth, composition. Choose beauty. Choose the way in which the spirit can be lifted by good design. Choose a graphic design degree. Choose the Bauhaus movement. Choose fonts. Choose *noise the of stylus scratching to a stop* Kidprint?
See 6).  Amusingly Innocent the drinks brand are involved in a legal wrangle over their design team and look set to literally lose their halo, proof indeed that there is possibly a god, albeit a complacent god with a sophisticated sense of humour who punishes graphic designers.

8) Idiot celebrities tweeting endorsements
So you give it to someone else I don’t like for free so that I have to pay a bit more for it? This is your actual strategy? LOL.

9) There is no 9

10) Or 10 either
Look if you haven’t worked out that bad news doesn’t come in threes, or that a list with 10 items contains at least two fluffers or skips a couple of important things then we are possibly doomed as a species. Even the word listicle is hateful.

So that’s it?
Getting a bit chummy pal but possibly a rhetorical device so I’ll let you off, oh my God that faux matey copywriting is catching and I hate myself, anyway the point is that if you have to sift through so much informational crap in order just to buy something you start to believe that water really is aqua when it’s in hair product it becomes much easier to believe anything anybody wants to tell you.

For example, that your side of a conflict is made up of loyal troops (as opposed to ‘fanatical, brainwashed militia’), and that they carry out daring pre-emptive first strikes, (and your enemy ‘sneak raids’); or that economic growth (grow, happy word) is the thing that will improve our quality of life, as opposed to fairer distribution of existing wealth or swimming in a river in the sunshine or a total ban on unnecessary or dishonest copywriting on packaging starting tomorrow.

That’s my – I mean – ‘our’ philosophy.

PS If you are worried about the copywriters and what they will do, see my other listicle ‘9 things you can do with your word skills that don’t involve making the richest, luckiest people in the world feel unsatisfied with the things they’ve got to the point they ignore the extent of world inequality, say, or the genuine beauty and wonder of the universe.’