Ayehopin’s Feebles #1

Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 19.55.56Strong and stable, strong and stable

Rose the stench from the May Queen’s stable

A horse long gone, a door just bolted

The demented now monetised, the rest simply revolted

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Satan’s Switchboard.

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-09-09-59

‘If you look round the room and you can’t see the sucker it’s you’.

Last week Jaguar Land Rover pulled all of it’s UK digital advertising after an advertisement for the Jaguar F-Pace was found to be running in a DAESH promotional video on YouTube.

Mercedes apparently has encountered similar problems, Citi Group too, and IBM and Microsoft as well as Halifax, Argos and The Marie Curie Cancer Fund.

All of whom at one time or another have found their advertising running in white supremacist ‘content’ and on porn sites.

The latter at least a literal case of the digital emperor really having no clothes.

In a statement Jaguar Land Rover said:

“We take our brands’ reputation very seriously and have decided to stop all UK digital advertising activity until further investigation gives us assurance that we can resume it safely.”

This they have now done but it’s worth noting that the F-Pace ad had racked up an impressive 115,000 views in situ before being taken down.

Exactly how many would be jihadists had by then continued their customer journey to the point of contacting dealerships to book a test drive though is, like so much in the digital world these days apparently, both unquantified and unquantifiable.

The problem, or one of the problems at any rate, is what is known as programatic buying.

Programatic is, if I understand correctly, and if not no doubt one of the legions of digital media strategists that I encounter daily on Linkedin will enlighten me, how computers buy and sell media space among each other.

An adaptation of Forex trading platforms, It appears to work, or not as the case may be, without much in the way of active involvement or supervision from actual human beings.

Now what could possibly go wrong with that? I hear you ask. If, like Jaguar Land Rover, a little belatedly perhaps.

Of the 15% of the 60 billion USD annual digital advertising spend bought programatically it is estimated that as much as 12% of it is probably ‘misplaced’.

And at the risk of sounding a little cynical at this point surely if you don’t know where your advertising budget is being spent then how do you know if  it’s being spent ?

Which, moving on from programatic buying, brings us to simple good old fashioned fraud.

In late December, the ad fraud detection firm White Ops uncovered an operation that in their own words: “elevates ad fraud to a whole new level of sophistication and scale”.

Major publishers including The New York Times, The Economist, Vogue, ESPN and Fox News were then between them, they discovered, being taken for “at least 5 million USD a day” by just one highly sophisticated Russian hacking operation.

Like all the best scams it’s remarkably simple. But please don’t try this at home.

By creating spoof versions of publishers’ URLs, which contain nothing more than what’s needed to host advertisers’ real video content, and by then ‘playing’ the content through a simulated browser while a bot creates fake mouse movements, the fraudsters generate ‘impressions’.

Social login information and randomly generated clicks and interruptions mimic human behaviour and help to fool detection.

The numbers are, as digital numbers often tend to be, staggering. In this case alone the Russians had created more than 250,000 spoof URLs and were generating some 400 million fake views a day for several weeks before being detected.

Though, not, of course, actually caught.

For a long time it simply wasn’t polite to talk about any of this in public. It wasn’t that long ago that to talk about the then emerging tech giants in terms of anything so thoroughly old hat as advertising at all marked you out as someone decidedly not ‘digitally native’.

And for a long time there was no worse sin, believe me.

Only four years ago in fact, while co-editing a book on advertising history I found myself caught between the contradictory demands of its co-publishers to either include the word ‘advertising’ in the title (the view of Taschen being that it was familiar and searchable) or not to mention it at all (the view of Cannes Lions being that it was decidedly passe).

For the record the compromise we eventually agreed on was ‘Game Changers.The Evolution of Advertising’.

https://www.taschen.com/pages/en/catalogue/graphic_design/all/02877/facts.game_changers_the_evolution_of_advertising.htm

And very good it is too, even if I do say so myself.

But that was then and this is now. And the days when Facebook and Google got to mark their own homework now finally look like they may at last be drawing to a close.

And not before time. When at least half of your audience isn’t human and a good chunk of the rest is jihadists and white supremacists then it’s not entirely surprising that those who’ve being picking up the tab for talking to them are finally coming to their senses.

Speaking to the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership Meeting last month Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of P&G, put it refreshingly bluntly:

“P&G doesn’t want to waste time and money on a crappy media supply chain … the days of giving digital a pass are over …  it’s time to grow up.”

If not quite as refreshingly, or as bluntly, as Professor Mark Ritson of The University of Melbourne in a speech which rather rattled the digerati at the time and which if you’ve not already yet seen you most certainly should. And now:

https://youtu.be/IJF7C1jvjXM

As a one time, and still occasional, adman myself I can only concur.

The last ten years have been a long strange trip for those of us who, like Professor Ritson, were raised on a diet of robust research and properly audited data.

Because if content is king then context is democracy and the rule of law.

Without context, content alone is nothing. Like smoking marijuana it gives the illusion of creativity without the effort of actually creating anything.

So let’s maybe take a little time out for now from our ninjas and our gurus. And tempting though it may be to replace it with ‘delusional’ lets maybe just drop the ‘digital’ prefix from our increasingly ludicrous job titles altogether while we’re at it.

As I believe the agency Adam&Eve DDB, who bring you the John Lewis Christmas ads among others, have recently done.

Strategist? Planner? Writer? Art Director? Hmm, I rather like the sound of that.

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The Rebound.

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You know the deal.

If it’s never happened to you, it will. Or else to someone you know.

The English have decided to split from their long term live in partner.

The Americans are getting divorced from reality.

They’re sad, they’re angry, they’re confused, they’re hurting. And all at the same time.

Psychologists differ about the effects of relationships that start when one or other of the parties is on the rebound.

But then again psychologists differ about the effects of pretty much everything from smartphones to recreational drugs. Though now I come to write that, of course, I realise that they are actually not that dissimilar.

One thing psychologists are agreed on is that the qualities of compassion, curiosity and doubt make for good psychologists, and good doctors too, and, interestingly, are also present in most lasting healthy relationships.

Doubt in this context, I should explain, means a willingness to work on and to overcome damaging or self-destructive behaviour rather than doubt about the value of the relationship per se.

And while we’re on the psychobabble it may be worth repeating my own little nugget of hard won self knowledge. Forgive me if you’ve heard it before but, in my experience at least, any sense of entitlement is pretty much incompatible with any real happiness.

So the English are on the rebound and the Americans too and, look away now if you are at all squeamish because this could all get very messy indeed, it looks like they’re dating.

A long time ago I was married. And when my in-laws came to visit, as they did both regularly and frequently, the occasion was felt to demand a certain formality, if not actual ceremony. It was known to my children, in fact, as a ‘state visit’.

So with that in mind, as well as the more recent experience of meeting my girlfriend’s father at the age of sixty, me that is not my girlfriend’s father, he’s older. I can only offer Donald and Theresa (that’s Theresa with an ‘h’ Donald, the other one is a porn star, though I guess I can sort of see where the confusion arises if you’ll pardon the expression ) this advice:

Firstly: do not under any circumstances give any thought at all to those who have gone before you. Nobody is judging you against them or comparing you to them in any way.

Donald, you are not Vladimir Putin, the fist Russian leader, by the way, to make a state visit to Britain since Tsar Nicholas 1st in 1843.

You are not Mr Xi. You are not Emperor Hirohito. The USA has not tortured or starved British soldiers to death within living memory.

You are not Ronald Reagan. Yes, the Queen rides horses but no, she does not play golf. That’s her dodgy son with the ex wife who did the Weight Watchers adverts.

You are not even Dubya. Even if you look like you are maybe thinking about taking a leaf out of his playbook sometime soon in Iran.

Secondly: put any embarrassing stories you may have heard about past state visits completely out of your mind.

You are not Nicolae Ceausescu, the first communist head of state to make one. And the first, and so far as we know the only, guest who the Queen has felt compelled to hide in a rose bush to avoid talking to.

You are not King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Who it is said completely failed to see the funny side of Her Majesty driving him around Balmoral herself in her Land Rover.

Theresa, you are not Winston Churchill. You are not Margret Thatcher. You are not even Tony Blair.

The European Union, your ex, you remember?, is not remotely interested in Theresa’s Britain as a bridge to Donald’s America. As Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian President, pithily put it only last week: “If we want to talk to America we’ll use Twitter”.

And finally, to you both: remember compassion, curiosity and doubt, oh, and don’t forget the entitlement and happiness thing either.

Got that? OK, good. Now while we’re here let’s dispose of a couple of myths about Donald.

One: he is not a clown. He is smart as a fox with the same low cunning. To pretend otherwise is to seek false comfort in intellectual laziness.

Two: he is not unpredictable. Democracy is unpredictable. He, like dictators since time immemorial, is all too predictable. He does pretty much exactly what he says he will do.

On the balance of probabilities I think it is also entirely possible that he will succeed in ‘making America great again’ or at least in making America feel great again. Which will probably do.

It is more than likely that he plans to do so by returning the world to its status quo ante as the shared empire of bi-polar superpowers. And in that he and Vladimir are as one.

Interviewed on The BBC’s Sunday Politics, Sebastian Gorka, formerly National Security Editor of Brietbart, and as of Friday, the White House’s Deputy Assistant on National Security, made it abundantly clear that the Trump administration is agnostic at best on the future of the EU.

“That” he said, “is a matter for the people of the nation states of Europe”. Adding for good measure that Donald Tusk’s recent assessment of America as “a threat to the security of Europe” was “so asinine as to be unworthy of comment.”

America will be great again when the EU is gone. And Europe is divided once more into dozens of bickering nonentities, each one a client state of America or Russia.

Gorka is an interesting man, and someone we will be hearing more of in the months to come no doubt. The London born son of Hungarian refugees, he’s a ‘Marine Academic’. And no, that’s not a marine biologist or an ocean conservationist, that’s a professor with access to helicopter gunships.

His specialism, by the way, is ‘irregular warfare’ though he’s also done a lot of work on the comparative ideological threats of cold war communism and present day jihadism. Which to be fair to him, might actually point the White House in the likely direction of another possible win.

Defeat DAESH, Sebastian, and you’d not just ‘make America great again’  but you might even begin to find that Europe, and some other places besides, could just begin to warm to Donald. But you’re a smart man so I guess you’ve already thought that one through.

And so finally to one small glimmer of hope.

From the land of the man that the Queen hid in a rose bush to avoid conversation with came proof this weekend that sometimes the people can speak truth to power.

And that sometimes power has no option but to listen.

When there’s enough of us we can stop bad things from happening.

And we can change things for the better.

So a heartfelt thank you for that to the 300,000 and more Romanians who came out onto the streets of their towns and cities in twenty below night after night last week.

And to the one of you in particular who wrote my favourite placard.

The one that read: ‘No Country For Old Thieves’.

See you in London in August.

Posted in americama, brexit, brussels, civil liberties, england, eu, europe, freedom of speech, great britain, history, philosophy, politics, trump, state visit, romania, protest, twitter, uk, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Full English.

I am in the restaurant of a golf club in Sussex. It is Sunday morning. And the waiter, as it happens, is from Poznan.

I tell him that the soot on the buildings there always used to remind me of Edinburgh. That I used to visit the city often when I lived in Warsaw.

That I always looked forward to jajecznica for breakfast on the train. And that I always liked to follow it with a coffee and a cigarette.

I butter my toast and I unfold my Telegraph. Tomorrow I go back home. And then I can stop pretending that I belong here. I don’t. And of that I am now certain.

I’ve been at a wedding. And I’ve thought it best this weekend, and around these parts at least, to keep that I live and work in Brussels on a need to know basis.

It was my niece’s wedding, my daughters were her bridesmaids, and the ceremony took place in a beautiful  village church on a perfect autumn afternoon.

I like England. I lived half my life there.

At last night’s wedding breakfast, at what in Scotland we would call tea time, the conversation turned among the party’s bremainers to their many bremoans.

Well, it’s not really a proper wedding without a fight, is it?

And I found my thoughts returning to what I’ve written here before. Albeit in rather happier times.

For what is the marriage that we have witnessed if not the very definition of union? And what is the pub we are celebrating it in if not living breathing proof of community?

Hardly controversial stuff I know. But had I succeeded in finding a brexiteer still out and proud (and oddly that’s not easy now beyond Westminster or Fleet Street) I doubt that even the hardest of the hard of them would deny the merits of sharing in a union, or of supporting, and being supported by, a community.

Or advocate the wholesale rejection of both to stand proudly alone. For pride, as we know, often comes before a fall.

And that I think is the problem. Or one of them at any rate.

Because the English, let’s leave the Welsh for a moment, having never been able to agree about what it was that they joined in the first place, now can’t agree at all about what it is that they want to leave. Or how to go about it.

Having had their wake up call they’ve now no idea what they want for their brexit: the full english or the continental?

Hard boiled, soft boiled or half baked? It certainly won’t be over easy.

And if they really do still want the bacon and egg, as some do, then the ones who get to be the chickens are going to have break the bad news to those that end up the pigs.

Or as Donald Tusk put it: “I invite proponents of the have your cake and eat it theory to conduct an experiment: buy a cake, eat it, and then look at the plate”.

In Britain’s scorched earth political landscape, you see, up is now down and left is now right. A plummeting currency is thoroughly good news.

A right wing government embraces industrial policy while its left wing opposition denounces state aid.

I should say that you really couldn’t make it up. But that, of course, is exactly what they are doing. Increasingly, in fact, it looks like all they’re capable of doing.

Theresa Puetetre presides over a government spinning out of control. United only in their need to do, or at least to be seen to be doing, whatever it is that’s popular. And then to fail in doing it.

Jermy Corbyn, to our sadness and our loss, seems finally now to have given up all pretence of leading a once potent political party.

And has found instead what seems, to him at least, an altogether more natural role at the head of a popular, if ill defined and somewhat sclerotic, social movement.

Well, good luck with that, Jeremy.

Tim Farron. Who? Exactly.

Thank God, I hear you say, for Nicola Queen Of Scots.

And so to the question of ‘taking our country back’. But which country? And whose?

What of The Full Scottish? And The Ulster Fry ?

And how?

Perhaps, maybe, there is a first glimmer of hope in today’s High Court ruling as to who may, if you’ll pardon the pun, and who may not, trigger Article 50.

Let’s hope so.

Because, at the risk of stretching the breakfast thing one last time, I can’t help but feeling that there may well be a difference between what that the english choose to celebrate their divorce with, and what finally ends up on the plate.

Cold shoulder anyone?

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Send In The Clowns.

I once had the honour of working with the British actor and satirist Peter Cook.

I was an advertising copywriter in London then and I was recording a radio spot for Network SouthEast, a part of the then still publicly owned British Rail.

Client and actor were, as it was to turn out, both coming to the end of the line.

And taking a coffee and chain smoking that morning together in Soho our conversation turned from the specifics of script and direction to a more general discussion of the many merits of radio as an advertising medium.

And from the practical to the surreal: “Do you think that it would be possible” he asked “to record a dog food advert in a frequency that only dogs could hear?”

It would be another twenty years, of course, before the expression ‘dog whistle politics’ would enter popular use but then the man who once famously described himself as ‘born to be on holiday’ was certainly nothing if not visionary.

Last night watching Guardian Live, another brave and useful step into online video content from the often derided newspaper group by the way, our conversation came back to me. The brexit campaign has been as Gary Younge put it: “like watching a dog running after a car”.

You know that even in the unlikely event of the dog ever catching the car its victory is pointless. Dogs can’t drive.

We are told, in the popular phrase of the moment, ‘we are where we are’ but in truth i’ve yet to hear anyone describe to me even vaguely where that is in reference to anywhere I know. Let alone to show me a map or an app with a pin on it.

There seems little doubt that we’re at the start of something not at the end of it. And that brexit will stand as the inciting incident of a chain of unpredictable events that will shape the rest of my life. And a significant part of the lives of my children.

We are at the moment that the bullet was fired in Sarajevo in 1914 perhaps. Or the day that the Berlin Wall came down maybe.The end of the gold standard? The Suez crisis? Who knows. All of them and none of them too most likely.

On Friday Britain woke to the cold hard truth that not only did their leaders now have no plan but that they never had one. The Vote Leave press conference that morning had all the celebratory air of a hostage video.

Boris eulogised the man he fought to succeed but never dreamed he could topple.

A Prime Minister who only an hour or so earlier, it is said, had rhetorically demanded of his aides: “Why should I have to do all the hard shit?”

David Cameron, statesman to the last.

If anything Gove looked even more terrified. ‘What’s done cannot be undone’ right enough but Lady MacBeth never mentioned this over the Bran Flakes.

Britain woke also to the dawning realisation that brexit is not the silver bullet that those who voted for it had hoped. And indeed were promised.

By Sunday the extra 350 million sterling that could now be spent every week on the country’s National Heath Service had vanished. It had been ‘a mistake’ apparently.

A mistake now also vanished from the Vote Leave website leaving only a message of thanks in its place. They might as well have posted: ‘So Long Suckers’.

Nor is it likely that immigration will fall in the immediate future. If at all.

Yesterday’s EU summit underlined once more that Britain’s future access to the European single market will be conditional on it accepting continuing freedom of movement for European citizens.

And that any possible trade deal outside of European Economic Area membership will not be negotiated until after the conclusion of the Article 50 separation.

“Hard shit” indeed. But someone will have to do it.Though even as I write news breaks that it will not be Boris. And I find that it gives me mixed feelings.

There’s a part of me that would pay hard earned euros to see the man who was fired from his job as European Correspondent of The Times for fabricating his reports on the European Commission ride into battle with the subjects of his lies.

You really couldn’t make it up.

Unless that is you’re the sort of man, and it is invariably a man, who, and pardon me for repeating this again so soon, has always assumed that his birthright of class trumps everyone else’s efforts, abilities or merits.

In a country whose social and political structures totter shakily on little else.

In the end, of course, Britain will have to learn to live with Europe and vice versa.

It’s said that the French could live with a compromise on freedom of movement, for example, in exchange for the end of ‘passports’ for the City of London’s banks.

Or that the Germans might swallow a similar sort of deal the other way around so Britain can keep the City intact but only if it accepts freedom of movement.

Whatever happens Britain will be a poorer place for it. And not just economically. As its more lumpen yeomen lose the last of their inhibitions to threaten Polish children and intimidate native Muslims. Well they’ve not got the football to enjoy.

And then there’s the Scots. At least Good Queen Nicola moved swiftly to reassure “those EU citizens who have done us the honour of making Scotland their home” that they would “continue to be welcome.” Little wonder Martin Schulz is said to be a fan.

We like migrants you see. We’re migrants ourselves. And, like Germany, we could be doing with some more people. Wherever they come from. Whatever god they worship. And whatever the colour of their skin.

And the Irelands.

And the very real possibility that history might yet record the man I’ve described before as ‘the last Prime Minister of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ as the man who both united the Irish and freed the Scots.

Chapeau David.

But we’ll come back to that another day. I promise. For now if you’re feeling the need to whistle to keep your spirits up there’s really only one tune that’ll do:

Don’t you love farce? My fault, I fear

I thought that you’d want what I want Sorry, my dear

But where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns 

Posted in brexit, british constitution, brussels, David Cameron, elections, england, europe, european commission, great britain, history, politics, scotland, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fear And Loathing (Hearts And Minds #3).

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An advertisement tweeted by leave.eu on Sunday and then mysteriously deleted.

 

On Saturday evening two hundred heavily armed Russian thugs launched a planned and premeditated attack on English football supporters in Marseille.

Nine people were hospitalised. One of them with life threatening brain injuries.

Igor Ledebev, a member of the executive committee of the Russian football union, and also the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament by the way, was quick to offer his congratulations: “well done lads, keep it up” he tweeted.

Vladimir Markin, a Moscow law enforcement official, agreed and added by way of explanation that us effete Europeans “ … are surprised when they see a real man looking like a man should, they are only used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades”.

Twelve hours later in Orlando an American of Afghan descent walked into the LGBT nightclub where he was a regular customer and opened fire into the crowd with an assault rifle killing fifty people and injuring fifty-three more.

It was America’s single worst mass shooting. Last year three hundred and seventy two such incidents were recorded there, sixty-four of them in schools.

In the last fifty years in fact more Americans have been killed by firearms than have died in every conflict that they have fought in since the War of Independence. And they’ve fought in a few.

In the office of Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick it inspired someone to take a leaf out of Vladimir’s book, as it were, and share a consoling verse from Galatians 6:7: “Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”

While the Republican Party’s Presidential Candidate to be, a man who considers it more practical and more popular to ban muslims from his country than assault rifles from its streets, predictably added more fuel to the pyre with his ‘appreciation’ of his countrymen’s ‘congratulations’. Nice timing there, Donald.

On Tuesday morning Britain’s’s most widely read national newspaper finally advised its thirteen and a half million readers to ‘BeLEAVE In Britain’ and to vote in favour of Brexit a week on Thursday.

The Sun’s proprietor is an American citizen of Australian descent and a man who is said to have once lamented: “In Downing St. they do what they’re told, but in Brussels they just ignore me.”

Brexit’s poster boy, and forgive me if this is all getting a bit hard to follow now, but it is important, is a New York born, Brussels educated former Major of London.

A man of Turkish, German and Russian descent who somehow manages to fuse Trump’s political demagoguery with Bill Clinton’s sexual morals while embroidering his vision of Britain’s future with references to the Bayeux Tapestry and Hitler. His trump card, if you’ll pardon the expression, is immigration.

No, really. Seriously. No word of a lie. Britain is full. And it’s Europe wot done it. Brexit is Boris’s Mexican wall and Bremain cannot escape its shadow.

Britons of my generation, you see, grew up on a slowly shrinking island. Memories of empire fading, the economy in decline, militant unions and incompetent bosses fighting in rusting factories, soldiers embroiled in Ireland’s endless sectarian war.

And people voting with their feet. Between 1964 and 1983 a net total of 993,000 people actually left the UK. Some were retirees heading for Spain. Most were young families seeking new lives in Australia, Canada and South Africa. All were Britons and few had any intention of ever coming back.

For the next fifteen years the numbers sea-sawed: net immigration of 58,000 in 1985; net emigration of 21,000 in 1988; 36,000 in in 1990; 1,000 out in 1993.

In 1998 UK immigration tripled to 140,000 and despite occasional year on year declines the trend since has been steadily upward: to 185,000 in 2003; 268,000 in 2004 and 313,000 in 2014.

Forgive me. It’s impolite to talk of such things I know. Impolite and now also a bit late in the day but necessary all the same. Because the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Numbers never do.

Immigration is not the end of the world, Boris. As well you know. In fact in many ways it’s the beginning. The problem that you seek to exploit is not immigration.

It is class. Your perennial fixation with your assumed birthright over the efforts, abilities and merits of others. It is the archaic social and political structures that totter on that shaky foundation alone. It is the deafening echo chamber of a tabloid press mired in proven corruption and criminality.

And while Brexit can talk of nothing but immigration, Bremain cannot bring themselves to even begin to mention it.

So nobody is listening any more. Not to David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn at any rate. Not to John Major or Tony Blair for sure. Not to Caroline Lucas or Nicola Sturgeon, not to the IFS or the IMF.

No, they’re not even listening to Russell Brand these days.

Because as I’ve said before and will say again: what we feel trumps (sorry) what we think and what we think trumps what we know.

And what we feel more than anything else these days in Marseille and in Moscow, in Miami and in Manchester is fear.

And little wonder really. For the same elephant sits in all our rooms.

And he’s spouting numbers too: 637 rate cuts around the world since the failure of Bear Stearns in March 2008; 489 million people living in countries with negative interest rates; $12.3 trillion of assets bought by central banks in eight years.

He’s grumbling about governments who trouser the taxes of immigrant workers with one hand while facilitating its theft by non domiciled corporations with the other. I’m told that structural reform is the polite name for it though I’m sure we can all think of others.

But nobody is listening to him either. Well, he’s an immigrant, isn’t he?

When all’s said and done fear is no more and no less than how we react to change.

When we’re afraid we get angry. We attack foreigners. We shoot lesbians and gays. And we cut off our roman noses to spite our anglo saxon faces.

But sooner or later there comes acceptance.

And finally the wisdom to embrace it and then to begin to bend it better to our common will for our common good.

I hope.

Posted in brexit, brussels, civil liberties, David Cameron, elections, england, eu, euro16, europe, great britain, history, orlando, politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The State We’re In.

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On vacation in New York a couple of years ago I was asked to describe my adopted home country:

“Belgium is a Catholic country with a gay Prime Minister where it is possible to buy hard liquor in the middle of the night but only from a Muslim”. I said.

And though Elio Di Rupo, who spoke better Italian than Flemish it’s said, is no longer our PM the joke still plays well here.

Especially among Belgians. A people aware that their country is viewed as something of an absurdity and generally rather proud of it.

But beyond its humour is a truth worth pondering, and yes worth cherishing this week. In catholicism, homosexuality, alcohol and islam, you see, it unites and equates four things that are either of fundamental importance in your life or else have no relevance to it whatsoever.

It just depends on the thoughts in your head and the feelings in your heart.

In practice, and it must be said that there is a bit of a marked distinction between practice and law here, you are completely free to choose between them or among them as you wish.

You are perfectly free to worship whoever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want (for the record 47% of the Belgian population identify as Catholic, 5% as Muslim and 43% as non believers).

You can hold hands whenever you want. You can kiss wherever you want. And you can marry whoever you want just so long as you are are both eighteen years old.

You can drink wine in a fish shop at eight o’clock in the morning if that’s your thing. And you’re free to build your house in whatever style you like and then to paint it in whatever colour you chose.

About the only thing you’re compelled to do in fact is vote. And to do so both regularly and frequently

Belgium has six governments and Brussels is the capital of three of them. It is the seat of The European Parliament, well one of them anyway, The European Commission and The European Council.

It has nineteen mayors and, at the risk of repetition, six, yes six, police departments serving a population of 1.2 million.

Because you’re also compelled to obey the law. Whoever you are.

So let’s turn off the eye denting idents of our rolling tv news for a moment. Log off our sociopathic social media. And mute the machismo of our geopolitics and its geopoliticians.

And focus instead for now on the altogether simpler subject of criminals and criminality.

We do not know what thoughts were in the heads of Brahim and Khalid el Bakraoui when they detonated their bombs at Zaventem and Malbeek on Tuesday morning. Or what feelings were in their hearts when they stopped going. We never will.

But we do know that both were gangsters. Violent criminals with a string of convictions for armed robbery and firearms offences.

And we know too that it is among such that DAESH finds its most wiling recruits and those most happy to shelter them in communities often wary of the law.

They are not soldiers and this is not a war. To accept that narrative is to be as willing fools as they.

They represent radical Islam no more than the Cosa Nostra represent radical Catholicism or the Yardies radical Rastafarianism.

In the words of a neighbour of their associate Salah Abdeslam ” if you’re a gangster, IS is just the biggest gang in town.” If you’re a hammer, in other words, everything is, pardon the unfortunate expression, a nail.

And nor is Belgium, whilst we’re on the subject, a failed state, nor anything close to one.

It is a secular democracy whose constitution enshrines freedom of religion and the rule of law.

And ‘bonne continuation’ to that and all it demands of us today.

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