Monday, June 27, 2016

A very long list

The country of my birth, the country I grew up in and which educated me, the country which still contains most of my family, is going to pieces. The economy is shrinking faster than a deflating balloon, the government is in complete disarray, the opposition has completely collapsed, and a sense of near anarchy reigns with people walking around shouting racist abuse at random foreign-looking types.

It’s natural to want to pin the blame for all this on somebody or some thing, whether it’s “the Tories” or “xenophobia”, but I think pretty much the entire nation is probably responsible in some form. I can probably nearly excuse myself from most of it, having been living in Germany for over 20 years and been ineligible to vote: in the past few weeks I have been cast in the role of helpless bystander. Probably not entirely, though, since I do have a voice (thanks to YouTube, and social media generally), so I have to ask myself whether I could have used by voice more effectively.

But still, I am extremely angry at the moment with a large number of people, and so I have decided to write a very long list of some of my grievences. It will probably be therapeutic for me, but it’s likely to include you somewhere in it, so be warned. Of course, there’s a chance just writing this will make me even more angry, but I’m honestly past caring.

All right, so let me begin with some of the usual suspects and work my way through the UK’s population.

David Cameron

The way it looks from here, Dave, is that you had these loony eurosceptics on your back and wanted to shut them up. So you devised this wonderful plan: promise them a referendum. If you then lost the election, no problem. If you won the election, you could have the referendum, which you would win easily, and the eurosceptics would stop bugging you for the next five or ten years at least. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, now we know what could possibly go wrong, because it went wrong, didn’t it? And you didn’t plan for this. At no point, it seems, did you stop to think, “But what happens if I don’t win the referendum?” You just steamed right ahead, thinking you could tell people that in the event you lost you would immediately trigger Article 50, safe in the mistaken knowledge that you would never have to do it. And so here we are, and you had to renege on that promise because you were completely unprepared for it.

You used the future of an entire nation to quell the voices of a few irritating loons. You don’t do that unless you are prepared to lose. You don’t ever bet more than you can afford.

Boris Johnson

Looking at you, Boris, when you delivered your victory speech, you really didn’t want to win at all. Which raises the very important question: Why the hell did you campaign for Leave? What in heaven’s name possessed you? Was this really all about setting yourself up as the next Prime Minister? And how could you do this to your old chum Dave? Did you think this was a game of Monopoly?

And to do this, you ran a campaign full of deliberate lies. That whole £350 million a week for the NHS thing was a total fabrication, which you knew at the time. Well, the public bought that and other lies, and now they expect you deliver on promises you never intended to have to keep.

Michael Gove

Most of what I said about Boris applies to you, although at least you are known to have been an actual eurosceptic — so at least you had a smidgeon of integrity, although it’s damned difficult to find.

But that comment about everybody being fed up with experts will go down in history as the most imbecilic statement ever. Right there, in that one sentence, is the encapsulation of everything that’s wrong: this pandering to the idea that people with no knowledge are somehow more knowledgeable than those with expertise. And the result of that is that your wife went on Facebook to ask for people to come forward with helpful suggestions on what to do next: if you don’t see why that should be a problem, you have no business in any job that requires you to make decisions.

Nigel Farage

Well, I suppose at least you truly believe in what you’re doing, but sincerity will only take you so far. Hospitals are full of people who sincerely believed they could cross the road. Your tactic of appealing to the basest forms of xenophobia, as exemplified by your “Breaking Point” poster, is not just odious, it is reckless.

Jeremy Corbyn

What the actual hell? This is the “kinder, gentler politics” you wanted to usher in? You were being kind and gentle to whom, exactly? You showed such a total lack of leadership that your own Labour voters didn’t know which way you wanted them to vote. And so when one of your most respected front-bench colleagues confronted you, you fired him, triggering a series of resignations — so many, in fact, that you’re now having problems assembling a shadow cabinet. And you obstinately won’t resign, claiming, against all the evidence, that you somehow command the overwhelming support of the grass roots. Britain now has no functioning official opposition. If a snap election is called, how on earth do you think you’re going to win it?


Yes, you: those who still think that Jeremy Corbyn is the Greatest Thing Ever and Can Do No Wrong. I’ll bet most of you wanted Remain to win. Maybe you should know that Jeremy Corbyn is a eurosceptic: his view on the EU is that it is a corrupt capitalist organisation that puts the needs of big business ahead of the needs of ordinary workers. You may dismiss as “mainstream media bias” stories that he didn’t do all he could to campaign for Remain, but he really didn’t. Unable to decide between supporting the fat-cat capitalists in the City and the swivel-eyed racists and Islamophobes everywhere else, he dithered and left the working-class Labour heartlands to vote according to gut instinct. You want proof? He refuses to confirm that he voted Remain. “His own private business,” you may say, but you’re making excuses for him: somebody supposedly part of the Remain campaign shouldn’t feel he’s giving anything away by saying which way he voted, unless he voted Leave.

Barack Obama

Yes, Mr President, you. It was very nice of you to come over and help Dave’s campaign, and full points for using the word “queue”. Unfortunately, just about everything else you said seemed deliberately scripted to irritate the British. At one time you said that Brexit would leave Britain unable to enjoy the full benefits of TTIP. I suppose you believe in it yourself, but the threat of TTIP is the one thing that would make even the most committed europhile stop and think. Here in Europe, we tend to believe that businesses should obey the law, not the other way around.

The tabloid press

For decades now some of you have been feeding your readers exaggerations, misinformation and outright lies about the EU. You make up stories that aren’t true, whip up racial hatred when it suits you, and don’t even seem quite clear yourself just how the EU works or what it does. And by the way, just to clear this one up once and for all: The European Court of Human Rights has nothing whatever to do with the EU.

And so you told your readers that by voting Leave, they would usher in an instant and golden future in which Britain can in some unspecified way get back its sovereignty and freedom which will be really good for some reason. Now you’re having to explain to your readers why the economy is going down the pan, why the country is still in the EU, and why the immigrants haven’t gone home.

The “You Can’t Say That” brigade

Look, racism (and other -isms) are obnoxious and have no place in our society. But if your response to it is to constantly tell people who express it that they are bigots and intellectually-challenged thugs, if your response is to ridicule and publicly humliate them, to pillory them and hound them, you are not solving the problem. You may think you are, but that’s only because people become cautious about saying things.

And so the venom remains, seething below the surface, where resentfulness and suspicion lurk — until something happens to release the pressure, and then all hell, as we have just seen, is let loose.

People aren’t racist just because they have this sort of evil racist gene. They become racist because they are worried about their jobs, their security, their livelihoods. It’s not that hard to understand: when in difficult circumstances, they look for ways to explain their predicament, and immigrants are a natural target. Tell these people to shut up because you think they’re stupid, and they will simply feel marginalised, magnifying their hatred and making it worse.

Instead of pouring your energy into well-meaning but ultimately counter-productive vigilantism, work on trying to understand why people feel the way they do, and then doing something constructive about it.


You thought this referendum was about giving the Establishment a kicking? (In which case, why did you then take Boris Johnson’s side?) You thought your vote wouldn’t count? You didn’t think to find out what exactly you were voting for?

Well, at least you now realise what you did. Let’s hope you’ve learned your lesson.

Young people

So the older generations have ruined your future. Yes, that’s horrendous — but you’re partly to blame for that.

Well, not those of you who bothered to vote; but the problem is, that’s not many. Of all those of you in the 18-24 demographic, a whopping 64% didn’t vote. Where the hell were you?

It’s no good moaning that the government should have given 16-year-olds the vote. It probably wouldn’t have made that much difference: at 18, you’re likely to be thinking of studying, possibly abroad; at 16 — and I know this, because, although I don’t often admit it, I was once a 16-year-old — those considerations are much less pressing.

No, the fact is: You should have voted.

But oh, the whining, which started as soon as the referendum date was set: you complained that it clashed with Glastonbury, and so the PM had to explain the concept of a postal vote without sounding patronising. Vast numbers of you didn’t even register to vote, and some of you even complained that three months’ notice wasn’t enough.

It’s no good now stamping your feet and saying it’s not fair: you had your chance, and you blew it, and in doing so you left the country to take that “leap in the dark” the Remain camp warned us about and we all thought it was scaremongering but it turns out it wasn’t.

Maybe at the next elections we’ll see a better turnout among you lot. Maybe you’ll stop listening to Russell Brand.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Now the party’s over

When the British electorate went to the polls to vote on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union or leave it, a lot of people looked at the arguments that had been presented (such as they were), decided to vote Leave. And that’s absolutely fine: I would have voted Remain if I’d been eligible, but I recognize that this is a complex issue nobody really understands, and it may yet prove that leaving the EU is the right thing to do. I doubt it, but I understand that’s how a lot of people see it. So I have no issue with these people, who exercised their democratic right in a responsible way.

My issue is with those people who said they voted Leave and now regret doing so; with those people who googled “What is the EU?” after the results had been announced; and with those people who are busy phoning election officials asking if they can change their vote.

What did they think this was? Britain’s Got Talent?

The whole thing was a terrible advert for democracy. First, the capaigning on both sides was short on facts, long on hysteria. Then, it seems that significant proportions of the electorate saw this referendum as a way to give “the political elite” a good kicking, without actually realising that this was going to have consequences. As a result, there’s a very real chance that two years from now, if Brexit negotiations go ahead and end in stalemate, my passport will be about as useful to me in Germany as a piece of cardboard torn from a cornflakes packet.

What am I supposed to do with this?

I think it’s true that the EU has serious problems it refuses to address: in particular, although it’s a lot more democratic than most people realize, the system of government is so complicated that nobody has a snowball’s chance in hell of working out how it operates and what the point of EU elections is. Yes, it can be overly bureaucratic, and is only now realizing that it should perhaps make a little more effort when it comes to listening to and dealing with the concerns of its citizens. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to get drunk on mindless jingoism, punch Brussels in the face and then wake up the following morning with a splitting headache to find Brussels standing over you, divorce papers in hand and asking for a signature.

The level of “What have I done?” is staggering. More value was wiped off the British economy in just a few minutes than Britain would ever have saved in not paying EU contributions. Cornwall, which voted overwhelmingly to leave, now wants the UK to ask the EU to continue paying subsidies after Brexit, which is literally not going to happen. Yorkshire, which also voted to leave, thinks the British government can now just take over paying these subsidies. Scotland is considering another independence referendum, but if it thinks it can then just get EU membership on its own terms, that is something else that simply will not happen — you don’t get things just because you wish very hard for them. There’s even now a movement calling for London to declare independence from England (London voted Remain), which is totally boneheaded: the logical extreme of this attitude (if the rest of the country disagrees with you, declare independence) is that every constituency will eventually declare independence. My mother would have to get a visa just to visit my sister. Meanwhile, in the event of Brexit, Northern Ireland (which did vote Remain) is going to have to choose between staying in the UK and needing a visa to visit the Irish Republic, and reuniting with the Irish Republic and needing a visa to visit the UK.

In British politics, the traditional way to punish whichever party is in power is in local council elections — voting for people in charge of things like garbage collection and public toilets. If putting a cross in a box helps you feel you’ve given the Prime Minister a bloody nose, be my guest; but not in any election or referendum that is going to have a major effect on the political and economic future of the entire country.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A matter of scale

It never ceases to amaze me just what we consider important enough to spend our lives arguing about. Never mind about how to solve the Middle East, end poverty or cure cancer: what really exercises our minds is whether Fahrenheit is better than Celsius.

It’s been eight months since I uploaded a video explaining the two scales, and since then a thread has been steadily growing over which scale is “more accurate”, a thread which shows no signs of abating (so far I have twice posted to politely suggest that it may be time to move on, and been roundly ignored both times). Improbably, given the total lack of import, that thread has at times got so personal, I seriously considered disabling comments for a couple of months. At this point, I’m with the one who declared “°RĂ©aumur for life!”

I’m reminded of this because Dana of Wanted Adventure recently uploaded a video explaining why she felt she had to unlist an earlier video on why she prefers Fahrenheit. The comments, apparently, were fine. But it was only the second time that one of her videos got more dislikes than likes.

Okay, we’re not (as I understand it) talking about death threats or trolling or any of that really nasty stuff that makes you think that evolution may have been a big mistake. We’re talking about the bizarrely inconsequential things we discuss as if they were about life-or-death.

There are videos you expect to generate a passionate response. I expected the worst when I uploaded a video about the refugee crisis, although it was actually not really awful. It was a bit awful, just not really awful. At least that one’s rational: every time I mention the trains I get a slew of rants about how unspeakably terrible German trains are, usually from people who almost never use the trains or who have rarely travelled abroad. But that’s predictable and expected, if baffling.

But temperature scales? I never saw that one coming. I get months of acrimonious argument. Dana gets several thousand people who think that the downvote button is a disagree button. What’s going on?

I wonder what else would make viewers explode with apoplectic rage. Kilos? Litres? Euros? Will people start spending six weeks arguing over whether metres are better than yards because they’re longer? If I branch out into astrophysics, will my videos get downvoted if I measure distances in light years instead of parsecs? If not, why not?

We live in odd times. I don't at all mind the fact that people pay close attention to the small stuff. But to pour so much energy into something that is actually quite trivial is something I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand.