The Next Ozymandias; – any takers?

Sagan pointed out that "all of human history has happened on that tiny pixel," shown here inside a blue circle, "which is our only home" (speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994).
Sagan pointed out that “all of human history has happened on that tiny pixel,” shown here inside a blue circle, “which is our only home” (speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994).

The entire earth is but a point, and the place of our own habitation but a minute corner of it.

Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor;  Meditations, Book 4 (CA. 170)

In 1990, as it sped out of our solar system, its tour of the outer planets complete, Voyager 1 turned its camera back towards us and took a few final shots, capturing five of the eight planets in a “family photo”.  The Earth is one of the planets in the pictures.  Taken from beyond the outermost planet, 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles) away, one of them – the famous “pale blue dot” picture – features a tiny earth caught in a sunbeam in the vastness of space; a dot barely a pixel in size which contains all of us.

The astronomer and author Carl Sagan summarised the image so eloquently in a speech at Cornell University in 1994.  In his book of that year, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space he expresses his thoughts on a deeper meaning of the image.  Sagan knew that the picture was the first (and probably the last for a very long time – the foreseeable future) glimpse of Earth as a visitor might see it, approaching our solar system after a long interstellar flight.  His words are particularly poignant set against the present situation here on Earth of relentless war, hunger, greed, poverty, punitive austerity and climate change created by our politicians:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest.  But for us, it’s different.  Consider again that dot.  That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner.  How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.  In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbour life.  There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.  Visit, yes.  Settle, not yet.  Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”.

I always find recalling this quote helpful when I hear the utterings of Cameron, Farage, Clegg, Blair and all the other would be Ozymandias figures.  It illustrates better than any other I can think of, the complete absence of anything resembling genuine vision, empathy or moral conviction in any politician, national or international.  Enter, Jeremy Corbyn.


The Thatcher Museum

This week it was again mooted that a museum be established to honour former PM.

The measure of any society, it is said, lies in how it looks after its poorest and most vulnerable members.  John Locke opined that when we decided that we wished to organise and call ourselves civilised, we had to abandon the rights we had against each other in our state of nature in order to live together without fear or destitution.  In effect, we subscribed to a form of  social contract, a usually implicit agreement among the members of an organised society or between the governed and the government, defining and limiting the rights, duties and responsibilities of each.  This is how we secure mutual protection and welfare, ensuring that those who fall ill or become unemployed can be helped, keeping some semblance of their dignity intact.  Quite simply, we all pay into the system when we are able through our taxes, and make ‘withdrawals’ in the form of services and pensions or welfare when we need them.  These ‘withdrawals’ are ours by right, but are these days referred to, bizarrely in my opinion, as ‘benefits’.  Of course, with the rights come the duties and responsibilities, such as respect for each other and the law, the education of our children, the well being of our elderly and so on.

Over the years, certain people have been chipping away at our perception of this ‘social contract’.  Most of it has been very gradual and very subtle.  The Tories have always been set against the principle of the state providing for the less fortunate and, more recently the Labour party, in a bid to be seen as ‘electable’ in the eyes of the rich owners of the press, has been shedding several of its core principles.  This gradual shift became an outright onslaught with the election of Margaret Thatcher, remained unaddressed under New Labour (to its eternal shame), and is now being viciously completed by the present rotten, corrupt coalition government.

The scale of Mrs Thatcher’s assault should not be underestimated.  In her determination not just to emasculate the trade union movement, but to completely stamp it out, she also attacked the heartland where they were at their strongest: the manufacturing industry.  The result, as we can see, was the complete laying to waste of this sector, along with a rapid decline in the living standards of the millions of decent, working people employed therein.  Where we once built ships and manufactured steel, machines and electrical appliances with tradesmen and women on proper wages paying proper taxes, we now sell each other mobile phones (manufactured elsewhere) or make coffee and burgers on minimum wages paying little, if any tax.  Mrs Thatcher and her friends in the elite-owned press convinced people by drip-feeding that the unions, which had achieved the decent pay and conditions that were now being stolen from them, were actually the villains, and that we should look after ourselves individually and not each other.

The Thatcher administration then proceeded to sell swathes of state controlled industries.  The eminently viable names (which could have been still delivering billions in income and duty to the exchequer) to be hawked off for private companies to trouser the profits included:

    • British Aerospace
    • Cable & Wireless
    • Britoil
    • Jaguar
    • British Telecom
    • British Gas
    • British Steel
    • British Petroleum
    • Rolls Royce
    • British Airways
    • British Coal
    • British Rail
    • Associated British Ports
    • Enterprise Oil
    • British Shipbuilders
    • BAA
    • The Water Board
    • Electricity

These all belonged to the nation, but are now in the hands of (largely foreign) private companies.  People are suggesting that we have a museum as a monument – to this?

The NHS is being prepared for total privatisation, care for the elderly is decimated, the ambulance service is collapsing, our children are being charged £27,000 to educate themselves – a birth right in my day, fire stations are closing, coastguard stations are closing, libraries are closing, police numbers are being slashed, the terminally ill are being told to find a job, people will be forced to work ’til they’re 70 and young people will be forced to work for nothing as interns.  Nixon bugged one office and was impeached; our government is spying on all of us and laughs in our faces.  To the people considering the Margaret Thatcher Museum I have a simple message:  Take a look around you. . . . .YOU’RE LIVING IN IT ! ! !

It’s All In The Mind(set)?

The manner of Robin Williams’ death, as well as being tragic, highlights the issue of mental illness. Suffering from depression, he must have been in a lonely place when he committed suicide, despite being financially secure and having a loving circle of family and friends. Depression recognises no class or financial boundaries and induces behaviour that some find difficult to comprehend. In Britain, the illness still carries a stigma that is hard to penetrate; some people here still say suicide is “selfish”. Mental health accounts for 28% of the workload in the NHS, but receives just 13% of the budget. Now, the government’s ‘austerity’ program has decided that even this will be cut by 20%. Yes, those rich, white millionaires we call our ‘representatives’ have decided that people with mental issues are swinging the lead and should just grin and bear it.

The Francis report, which followed the Mid Staffordshire care debacle, recommended that all NHS services should improve care and safety for patients. NHS England provided the funding for this to happen, but withheld it from mental health services, which gives some idea of the government’s stance on the issue. As if existing in a world of horrors, doubt and fear isn’t enough, the help we provide for these people has been cut. This, apparently, is how we, in our civilised country, treat the less fortunate among us. We, the cultured, intellectual, lecturer of other countries in how to treat their people, force our own sufferers of dementia who’ve paid tax and national insurance all their lives to sell their homes to pay for their care, while we pour billions into conventional and nuclear arms. NHS funding in general, is pitiful enough, but to make cuts in an area so vital is nothing short of scandalous.  It shows how YOUR government sees your worth.

Please Sir, I Want some more.

Mary Ann's Lane, MoretonThis year, as part of the commemorations (they wanted to say celebrations, but couldn’t pluck up the brass neck), we are to be asked by our government to hark back 100 years to remember the start of the first world war.  In order to get us in the mood and generate the right atmosphere, they’ve spent many months creating the realistic conditions.  They’ve reduced real wages almost back to the value they held in 1914; they’ve reduced the amount of “red tape” that was stopping those poor, unfortunate employers from indiscriminately sacking people and flouting health & safety; they’ve given the rich a whopping tax break and they’ve stopped  those scrounging, poor, disadvantaged and disabled so-and-so’s from claiming benefits, leaving them in the hands of food banks.  I also have to admire the realistic finishing touches: the window tax – sorry, bedroom tax – sorry, spare room subsidy and the loan sharks – I mean pay-day loan companies.  And, genius, three men were charged with, wait for it, “stealing” food from a supermarket waste bin.  The supermarket, who had not called the police, quite rightly refused to press charges.  However, the interesting fact here is that the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to charge the men with, say, burglary or theft, but the Vagrancy Act of 1824 (they stopped short of cutting off their hands or transporting them to Australia).

No effort has been spared then, to engender the realism required for our four-year celebration – whoops I said it once but I think I got away with it, sorry, commemoration.  In fact, it’s tempting to think that this  nostalgia roller-coaster of nationalistic jingoism is an elaborate attempt to divert our gaze from just how vicious and intense this effort has been, but the government wouldn’t be so cunningly sly, would they?  And while we’re wallowing in our sepia-tinged 1914 memories, it’s worth considering some Edwardian facts of life.

  • At the time, Britain was imposing itself around the world, keeping lots of plates spinning and generally occupying and interfering in the running of numerous countries.  There was a lot of sabre-rattling happening and Britain was making sure that hers was one of the loudest.  Indeed a school of thought exists, that this posturing and chest-puffing between empires, coupled with the unprecedented worldwide stockpile of armaments was the true cause of a war which was just looking for an excuse to start.  It could have been anything; it just happened to be Gavrillo Princip’s starting pistol in Saraejvo.
  • At home, there was no job stability for the working class.  People were exploited by ruthless employers; they were working long hours for low pay and in conditions that were appalling and downright dangerous.
  • Working people had little or no access to the legal system and could not claim legal aid
  • The best education was available providing you could pay.
  • The best health care was available providing you could pay.
  • The poor and disabled were an underclass.  As late as 1930 Julian Huxley, chairman of the Eugenics society wrote, “What are we going to do?  Every defective man, woman and child is a burden.  Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return.”

Britain was pursuing an expansive foreign policy then, whilst at home, it’s own human beings were valued only in terms of profit.  Ring any bells?  Every point in the list from 1914, 100 years ago, is valid today, yet the government will have you believe this is a civilized country.  Expect the next 18 months to be a nostalgia-fest of how great ‘our country’ is to sweep us along to the election.  You’ll be told at every opportunity in between the war hysteria that, ‘the country’ has turned the corner; ‘the country’ is in growth; ‘the country’ this, ‘the country that’; anything to divert your gaze from what they are doing to people – what they’re doing to you.

The NHS is being prepared for total privatisation, care for the elderly is decimated, our children are being charged £27,000 to educate themselves – a birthright in my day, fire stations are closing, coastguard stations are closing, libraries are closing, the terminally ill are being told to find a job, people will be forced to work ’til they’re 70, young people will be forced to work for nothing.  Nixon bugged one office and was impeached; our government is spying on all of us and laughs in our faces, whilst they order water cannon in case any of us take exception to our treatment.  At least we can still find the money to keep three wars on the go at once and cut taxes for the rich.

If this was going on in another country, this government would call it a banana republic and keep a straight face.  In 2015 they are going to ask us to vote for them again, in their words, “to finish the job.”  The scary part is, with our record at the polls it might well happen.

If We Shot Ourselves in the Foot, We’d Miss.

unions make us strongThere’s an old joke about a Martian landing on Earth and seeing someone walking with their dog before scooping up the ‘poops’.  The joke ends with the Martian leaving under the impression that dogs rule the Earth, with humans as their lackeys.  First impressions count for nothing, eh?  Or do they?  That same Martian landing today would get a much more surreal view of things than that.

Picture the scene: millions of people struggling to survive, wondering where their next meal is coming from.  Queueing up in their thousands to clamour after five low-paid jobs.  Some relying on handouts, food banks and the generosity of people who can’t afford to be generous, whilst the few hundred very rich people they elected to represent them strip away everything that could support them in their hour of need, including their human dignity.  The disabled and terminally ill are pronounced fit, their entitlements stopped and they’re told to stop whining and get to work.  Taxes are spent instead on warships, rockets, bombs and other weapons, which are used to force ‘democracy’ down the throats of people around the world who’ve seen it in action and don’t want it thank-you-very-much.  Then, instead of staging a concerted movement to take back their lives, the people elect, in a slightly different arrangement, these same, rich few hundred to represent them again for another five years.  The Martian would go away scratching one of his heads and think that the world is inhabited by a population of barm-pots, who had no idea what was in their best interest.  And this time, he’d be right.

It would seem that the populace has fallen victim to the nationalist card on several issues.  This wily, though simple ruse merely requires enough people to be convinced that the misfortune about to be visited upon them, however unpalatable, is for “the good of the country” and that people who protest or argue against it are feckless, “red”, socialist wasters trying to bring the country to it’s knees.  If this can be achieved, then said populace will be persuaded to vote against it’s own interests for policies which actually damage their lives.  How is this achieved?  Well, having the ear of the editors of two of the largest circulation “newspapers” in the country is a good start.  People read the same message day after day, drip, drip, drip, and hey presto!  They’re ringing radio phone-ins quoting the sound bites from these papers and informing us that every immigrant arriving at our border is given a four bedroom house and the keys to a Bentley; that everyone on benefits is a serial fraudster bleeding the country dry; and that because we couldn’t deport some manic extremist to a country which may torture either him, or the witnesses to be used against him, the human rights act in its entirety needs throwing out!

This claim “for the good of the country” needs a bit of qualification, in particular the phrase “the country”, for in this context it can actually mean different things depending where in the food chain you sit.  In most cases, when a politician says “the country”, or “our country”, you can usually safely substitute the words “unscrupulous employers” and the actual meaning becomes clear.  The finest example of this, and perhaps the best incidence of people being tricked into backing policies which are clearly damaging them is the current attitude to unions.

It is no coincidence that in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, when the unions had record memberships, were able to organise properly and use industrial action when employers tried to take advantage of people, that wages were at their best and health & safety was revolutionised.  Employers had to pay the proper rate for a job and the unions also saw to it that every workplace had to comply with the highest standards of safety. It is also no coincidence that at this time, Britain was booming.  Because of the decent wages, people had money in their pockets and, unlike banks, when people have money they spend it – business was thriving.  Employers were making good profits, but, capitalism being what it is, they were aghast at what they were paying in wages and safety.  This outgoing represented extra profit that they were losing, and they couldn’t get their hands on it until the unions were either out of the way or emasculated.

And so the drip, drip, drip began; unions were “holding the country to ransom” (if we make our substitution, this becomes holding unscrupulous employers to account).  Eventually it was felt enough people had been convinced that, despite the relative prosperity they were enjoying, the unions were actually bad for them and should be curtailed.  This was the go-ahead to take the unions on head-to-head and, with a Tory government in place from 1979, their donors felt free to wage war.  Disputes were deliberately engineered and, as we’ve discovered with the release last week under the 30 year rule of contemporary documents, the government lied to the public so that the miners could be defeated.  The unions were targeted in their strongholds: the mines, shipbuilding, printing and manufacturing.  Industries which are now all but non-existent.  We used to make and build things: now we merely sell each other mobile phones and coffee (which incidentally, are made elsewhere for even lower wages).

Even today, after the brutal anti-union legislation of the 1980s (followed by Labour’s shameful failure to modify it) and the decline in union membership which resulted, one of the right-wing papers or politicians will casually refer to the bad old days “when the unions were holding the country to ransom”, just to keep the drip-feed going.  Amazingly, people are still ready to accept this comment, despite the appalling attacks on pay and conditions that legislation has allowed employers to perpetrate with impunity in the absence of any organised union resistance.  We also accept lots of other things the big, bad unions would have protected us from: zero-hours contracts, pay freeze after pay freeze, frequent changes to terms & conditions and the privatisation and exploitation of essential utilities.  We accept all this and more, whilst we watch the people who control our lives and keep us in a permanent state of insecurity and worry award themselves multi-million pound bonuses.  They don’t even bother trying to keep a straight face any more.

With all this in mind, what will happen in 2015?  Revolution?  Rebellion?  Redistribution?  No, the same few hundred rich people who maintain this state of affairs will be re-elected to govern us once more.  Our Martian friend will be left scratching both heads.