Devolving politicians

Banksy painting of chimps as MPs sells for record £9.9m at Sotheby’s
The timing of the sale was impeccable, coming exactly four weeks before the revised Brexit deadline and a year after Banksy’s Girl with Balloon (2002) was shredded via remote control in the same saleroom. That work sold for £1.04m with fees after it was legally designated a new work by Banksy’s handling service Pest Control and renamed Love is in the Bin a week after the auction in October 2019.

Banksy painting of MPs as chimpanzees sells for record £9.9m
Chimpanzees first appeared in his work in 2002, with his piece Laugh Now. The painting shows a row of apes wearing aprons carrying the inscription “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge”. In 2009, Banksy said of Devolved Parliament: “You paint 100 chimpanzees and they still call you a guerrilla artist.”

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan review – a Brexit farce with legs
But in truth the parallel is misleading. It is not just that in McEwan’s case the metamorphosis is reversed: Sams is not a human transmuted into an insect but a cockroach who has taken over the body of the prime minister of the UK. (The room in which he awakes is in 10 Downing Street.) It is also that this fable is much more Swiftian than Kafkaesque. In The Metamorphosis, the story is really about the strangeness of everyday life and the human capacity to deny it. The world of The Cockroach is more like one of Swift’s parallel universes where political and intellectual idiocies are not so much reduced to absurdity as magnified into towering follies.

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Law disordered?

I loved the cropping of the photo The Guardian used for John Crace‘s write-up of the home secretary’s speech at the Conservative party conference yesterday.

Tories reveal themselves as party of lawlessness and disorder
“Today, here in Manchester, the Conservative party takes its rightful place as the Party of Law and Order in Britain once again,” she began. Er … run that past us again, Priti. Psycho Geoff on his way home to the Cotswolds in the back of a police car under armed guard. The prime minister has been accused of groping two women at the same time and channelling public funds to a woman with whom he had an affair. The government judged by the supreme court to have acted unlawfully over prorogation. The full-on search to find a way of getting round the Benn Act. Mark Francois committing crimes against his own sanity. Right now, it was harder to find someone in the Tory party without serious form.

These clowns are a joke.

A brief moment of clarity

In all the muddle and obfuscation swirling around the Brexit miasma, the judgment of the supreme court on the legality of Boris Johnson’s prorogation provided welcome evidence of intelligence and crystal-clear language.

From the full judgment:

JUDGMENT R (on the application of Miller) (Appellant) v The Prime Minister  Respondent) Cherry and others (Respondents) v Advocate General for Scotland (Appellant) (Scotland)
55. Let us remind ourselves of the foundations of our constitution. We live in a representative democracy. The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The Government is not directly elected by the people (unlike the position in some other democracies). The Government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that. This means that it is accountable to the House of Commons – and indeed to the House of Lords – for its actions, remembering always that the actual task of governing is for the executive and not for Parliament or the courts. The first question, therefore, is whether the Prime Minister’s action had the effect of frustrating or preventing the constitutional role of Parliament in holding the Government to account.

56. The answer is that of course it did.

Loving that ‘of course’.

61. It is impossible for us to conclude, on the evidence which has been put before us, that there was any reason – let alone a good reason – to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, from 9th or 12th September until 14th October. We cannot speculate, in the absence of further evidence, upon what such reasons might have been. It follows that the decision was unlawful.

And from the summary:

R (on the application of Miller) (Appellant) v The Prime Minister (Respondent) Cherry and others (Respondents) v Advocate General for Scotland (Appellant) (Scotland)
This Court has already concluded that the Prime Minister’s advice to Her Majesty was unlawful, void and of no effect. … The prorogation was also void and of no effect. Parliament has not been prorogued. This is the unanimous judgment of all 11 Justices.

A day without Brexit news? Nope.

I thought I had found some interesting news about the government today.

No 10 request for user data from government website sparks alarm
While officials insist the move to share user data from the Gov.uk website is simply intended to improve the service and that no personal details are collected, campaigners raised concern about the urgency of the task, and the personal involvement of Boris Johnson and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.

But then something else caught my eye.

Brexit: Scottish judges rule Parliament suspension is unlawful
[T]he Court of Session judges were unanimous in finding that Mr Johnson was motivated by the “improper purpose of stymieing Parliament”, and he had effectively misled the Queen in advising her to suspend Parliament.

Scottish judges decide Boris Johnson misled the Queen
In effect, though not in express terms, the Scottish court has held that Mr Johnson lied to the Queen. Not only was the advice false, but it was known by the prime minister to be false. Mr Johnson acted in bad faith.

‘This is a huge thing’: Labour Brexit chief Keir Starmer reacts to parliament suspension being ruled unlawful after being told of news while live on stage
He told delegates: “It was obvious to everybody that not only was shutting down parliament at this crucial time obviously, the wrong thing to do, we should be sitting each and every day to resolve this crisis.

Brexit latest news: Downing Street criticised for calling into question impartiality of Scottish judges

I wonder if this turn of events has been considered in these already mind-boggling charts.

These Brexit flowcharts show just how messy UK politics is
Overall, these Brexit charts range from professional-looking diagrams by media outlets and commentators, to, in some cases, non-linear cosmoses that move in a mystifying range of directions.

But for most of us, I think, this is all starting to get a little tedious.

Brexit: how the people are using ‘news avoidance’ to escape the post-truth world of politics
The term “news avoidance” suggests that these people are avoiding reality. The underlying principle of public journalism is that readers are also citizens whose actions in the real world are based on the reality they have come to know from the news. While acknowledging that this “reality” is put together by journalists, in line with the Frankfurt School’s concept of the “culture industry”, many academics accept that “not to know” is to retire from reality.

Yet this way of thinking about journalism and its role in society fails to address the recent experience of Harris’ interviewees and millions more. For them, journos and politicos have combined to produce the “unreal”, distant world of the “Westminster Village”, a world that many ordinary people feel disconnected from, the “post-truth” world. Seen from this perspective, avoiding the news may be an attempt to escape the unreality concocted exclusively by residents of that gated community.

Please leave. All of you.

The weather’s decidedly autumnal, but the political atmosphere got a little hotter up here yesterday.

Boris Johnson politely told by man to ‘please leave my town’ in viral exchange during PM’s Yorkshire visit
The Prime Minister was setting the scene for a “people versus Parliament” election strategy during a visit to Leeds, where he was confronted on Thursday. In footage captured by the BBC, Mr Johnson was seen shaking hands with the member of the public before the PM was simply told: “please leave my town”. Mr Johnson promptly replied: “I will very soon”.

#PleaseLeaveMyTown: Johnson’s Yorkshire walkabout goes awry
On the same day, he was castigated by another member of the public, who was not appeased by the PM’s assurances that his government is seeking a deal. “You should be in Brussels, negotiating,” the man told him. Johnson replied that the government has “been negotiating” but the man, undeterred, shot back: “You are not. You are in Morley, in Leeds.”

This headline from RT feels made up, but no, he actually said that.

Johnson says he’d rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than ask EU for Brexit delay
It was not immediately clear how Johnson plans to deliver on his bold promise, given the string of defeats he has suffered, which resulted in the loss of the parliament majority and the adoption of a bill that actually obliges him to go and seek a new three-month extension to prolong the Brexit process.

At least there’s something good on the telly these days.

BBC Parliament: the ratings hit that’s Big Brother meets 24 – with added Bercow
True, there’s more than a whiff of disaster capitalism about BBC Parliament’s success – you can bet your bottom dollar that the figures would be much lower if the country hadn’t become a perpetual bin fire – but that isn’t to say that it isn’t extraordinarily entertaining.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s slouch: how it compares to art’s great recliners
From Modigliani’s voluptuous nudes to Henry Moore’s laidback bronzes, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s now notorious slouch joins a long tradition of horizontal posing.

Curating at the cliff edge

It could be said that, in taking this project on, Caroline Lucas is taking a break from politics at exactly the wrong moment. But I think this refocussing of priorities, reminding us of what’s at stake, is vital right now.

Too much politics? UK Green party MP and anti-Brexit campaigner Caroline Lucas turns curator
Other paintings selected, by artists such as Victor Pasmore, point to the changes in landscape over the past century. “How can we take all of this for granted?” Lucas says. “What are these familiar scenes going to look like over the next 50 years, a period that will be critical at a time of accelerating climate emergency?”

She also hopes to include an image of Beachy Head chalk headlands in East Sussex by the Turner prizewinning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. “At this critical moment, being on the edge sums it up. We are at the cliff edge metaphorically, from an environmental point of view and in terms of political change,” Lucas says. A number of contemporary posters from local environmental campaigns reflecting public concern, highlighting the need for action, may also be included.

Nothing will change unless something changes

Such horrible news, again. Here’s The Onion, again.

‘No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens
DAYTON, OH—In the hours following a violent rampage in Ohio in which a lone attacker killed 10 individuals and injured 27 others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Sunday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place.

‘No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens
EL PASO, TX—In the hours following a violent rampage in Texas in which a lone attacker killed 20 individuals and injured 26 others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Sunday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place.

The ‘Recommended Stories’ section on each of those pages really drives the point home.

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It’s difficult for other countries to understand why this is still such an issue.

America’s mass shootings are a political choice
Empirically, the US is an outlier on gun violence because it is an outlier on gun access. Americans have easier access not just to guns, but specifically to military-designed semi-automatic weapons with large magazines that are able to murder with efficiency.

Getting rid of those weapons might not solve all the problems, but it’s a start, surely.

Trying to remember

Another article about China, this time looking at how protesters and censors try to outwit each other.

The forbidden images of the Chinese internet
Some removed images are unsurprising: depictions of state-sanctioned violence, cartoons disparaging government leaders, and aerial shots of protests. But many of them appear innocuous at first glance. All images—even harmless ones—of top Chinese political leaders are banned, except on official websites and approved blogs. For other content, moderators tend to err on the side of caution since private companies, rather than the government, are responsible for complying with state guidelines. After President Xi Jinping eliminated term limits, for example, censors temporarily banned the letter “n,” which was likely a reference to the math symbol and was used to poke fun at the undefined length of his tenure …

While Pooh Bear might be the most well-known of playful creatures removed from China’s web, he’s not the only one. Years earlier, censors blotted out mention of a 72-foot-tall inflatable frog after internet users likened it to former president Jiang Zemin, once nicknamed “toad.” And after a 2013 recreation of “Tank Man” replaced the tanks with inflatable rubber ducks, “the yellow rubber duck, in whatever context, was doomed to the blacklist forever,” Smith said.

Anything that might jog netizens’ memory of controversial events is subject to scrutiny. Images of candles, typically held at memorials, were removed around the time of the Tiananmen Square anniversary. Other, more covert references, such as playing cards that read “8964” for the year 1989 and date June 4th, have been removed. When Liu Xiaobo died in July 2017, censors went so far as to block out images of an empty chair—Liu was honored with an empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony when he was barred from leaving the country, turning a mundane household object into a political symbol.

Falling short

I think I need to make a bigger effort to find more positive stories. Everything I read convinces me more and more that we’re a planet of idiots.

Scarecrow’ statue of Melania Trump unveiled in Slovenia to mixed reviews
“I can understand why people might think that this falls short as a description of her physical appearance,” Downey told AFP, but insisted that he found the end result “absolutely beautiful”.

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If he’s saying this isn’t a good description of her ‘physical’ appearance, does he mean he was trying to represent her — what? Intellect?

Has humanity reached ‘peak intelligence’?
Whatever the cause of the Flynn effect, there is evidence that we may have already reached the end of this era – with the rise in IQs stalling and even reversing. If you look at Finland, Norway and Denmark, for instance, the turning point appears to have occurred in the mid-90s, after which average IQs dropped by around 0.2 points a year. That would amount to a seven-point difference between generations.

Great, now look what you’ve done

Who gave this clown the keys?

Artists fearful about the future under new UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
“When Boris Johnson campaigned to become mayor of London first time, one of his pledges involved cutting budgets for art projects like the Fourth Plinth; that was until he realised that culture for London was actually a good [thing]. Typically, he had strong opinions about subject matters he didn’t have any clue about, and then later he had to change his mind when he was finally confronted with the facts. However, that didn’t really make him interested in the arts,” Elmgreen adds.

It seems HE can be free

It need not always be about the money.

A debate is under way about the cost of higher education
But the most powerful arguments for free university are about values rather than economic efficiency. To politicians like Mr Sanders, a post-secondary education is a part of the basic package of services society owes its members. There are broad social benefits to a well-educated citizenry, because new ideas allow society as a whole to prosper and cultivating an informed population in an increasingly complex world probably takes more than 12 or so years of schooling. Amid constant technological change, a standing offer of free higher education may represent an important component of the social safety-net. Universality reinforces the idea that free education is not an expedient form of redistribution, but part of a system of collective insurance undergirding an egalitarian society. To progressive politicians, means-tested services send the message that government programmes are for those who cannot help themselves, whereas universal programmes are a means by which society co-operates to help everyone.

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Hong Kong paper power

The protests in Hong Kong continue. Quartz has some dramatic photos from a recent clash. It began peacefully but then deteriorated after the police started using pepper spray.

Hong Kong police clash with protesters in shopping mall
Following a standoff that lasted several hours on the street, police attempted to clear crowds off the roads by sending in riot police, eventually pursuing protesters who hadn’t dispersed from the scene into the shopping mall, New Town Plaza. There, protesters hurled objects including umbrellas, helmets, and bottles at the police, who were at one point vastly outnumbered. After reinforcements arrived, officers in riot gear charged up escalators to the various floors of the mall, using batons and pepper spray as they beat their way toward protesters. People were also seen throwing objects at police officers from upper levels of the mall.

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The scale of these protests is quite incredible.

A bird’s-eye view of how protesters have flooded Hong Kong streets
Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, June 16, and marched almost two miles (three kilometers), protesting a proposed extradition bill and calling for the city’s leader to step down.

It was the largest of three major protests against the bill that were held over eight days. More demonstrations are scheduled for Wednesday, ahead of the Group of 20 summit meeting in Osaka, Japan. The composite images below help show the enormous scale of the June 16 demonstrations.

This is just one of those images.

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But it’s just not about the people, it’s about how they’re getting their messages across, and how those messages are being defended.

Post-it notes are the new weapon of choice for Hong Kong’s protesters
All across the city’s districts—from its financial hub to the suburbs neighboring mainland China and outlying islands—walls big and small covered with colorful pieces of paper with the thoughts and wishes of Hong Kong people are sprouting up. Their inscriptions range from inspiring quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. to expletive-laden calls for death to police. It’s the latest in a strategy protesters are calling “flowers blossoming everywhere,” a Chinese saying appropriated to signify that the recent protest movement in Hong Kong has now spread far from its downtown epicenter to neighborhoods everywhere.

They’re called Lennon Walls, named for the original section of a concrete staircase near Hong Kong’s government complex that was covered with Post-its during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. The name itself was adopted from the John Lennon Wall in Prague, a place where Czech youth expressed their political thoughts through graffiti and Beatles lyrics.

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(I just hope it all ends well this time.)

Making Twitter better, but why bother?

Twitter. I’m one of those boring snobs who say it was so much better in the old days, before it went all mainstream and shouty. I yo-yo a little with it; joining in, deleting everything, joining in again with a fresh account, deleting again.

I imagine someone trying to explain to me, back in 2007 when I first joined — happily twittering away to myself into the void — that in 12 years’ time it would become so embedded everywhere, its toxicity so inevitable and intractable, that Twitter would have to create specific rules to deal with hate speech from a sitting President of the United States.

Trump tweets could be restricted after Twitter moves against abusive posts by high-profile politicians
The new policy, announced by the company on Thursday, will affect world leaders and other political figures who use the platform to threaten or abuse others. It comes amid accusations Twitter has unfairly allowed the US president to tweet hateful messages other users would be censured for, and which critics say could lead to violence.

Why Twitter’s new policy on political figures’ tweets is encouraging
There is a strong argument that the rules governing everyone else’s ability to harass or spew hate should apply equally to those in power, whose harassing behavior is most likely to silence critics or cause other harm. But there’s also an argument that private companies such as Twitter have the least business meddling with the public conversation when elected or would-be-elected officials are involved. Doing so could have a dramatic impact on the democratic process, and citizens deserve to know what the people who represent them are doing and saying — perhaps even especially when their comportment is appalling.

I wonder what impact it will have on him, if any, to know that his posts have been formally categorised as hateful.

Politicians this side of the Atlantic can’t leave it alone, either.

Jeremy Hunt tweets solo Q&A after Boris Johnson skips debate
While answering Twitter users’ questions on Brexit, Hunt promised to give full rights to Europeans living in the UK and to “deliver a Brexit that works for the 48% not just the 52% — a positive, open and internationalist Brexit, Great Britain not Little England.”

What can be done? Here are a couple of suggestions.

Chrissy Teigen’s 2 suggestions for Twitter would make it 100 percent better
In a couple of tweets from Wednesday and Thursday, Teigen proposed two functions: One would create a feed for only happy posts that a user could access or view when they’re feeling emotional. The other proposed an “address book of sorts” where a user could, through typing or a link, note the reason why they started following somebody in the first place.

I use lists to help with both of those functions, but I’m not sure if I can be bothered going through the motions with it anymore. Does it bring me joy?

Known unknowns

An introduction to what promises to be a fascinating new blog from Anna Powell-Smith, “about the data that the government should collect and measure in the UK, but doesn’t.”

Missing numbers
Across lots of different policy areas, it was impossible for governments to make good decisions because of a basic lack of data. There was always critical data that the state either didn’t collect at all, or collected so badly that it made change impossible.

Eventually, I decided that the power to not collect data is one of the most important and little-understood sources of power that governments have. This is why I’m writing Missing Numbers: to encourage others to ask “is this lack of data a deliberate ploy to get away with something”?

By refusing to amass knowledge in the first place, decision-makers exert power over over the rest of us. It’s time that this power was revealed, so we can have better conversations about what we need to know to run this country successfully.

Satire or harmful deception?

Fake videos — they’re just a bit of fun that we’re happy to spread around on social media, right? Whilst they play a part in the BBC dystopian future drama, Years and Years, helping to sway a general election, we’re not really fooled by them, are we?

Well, perhaps not yet, but they’ve got US politicians worried enough about their upcoming presidential election in 2020 to officially look into it all.

Congress grapples with how to regulate deepfakes
“Now is the time for social media companies to put in place policies to protect users from this kind of misinformation not in 2021 after viral deepfakes have polluted the 2020 elections,” Schiff said. “By then it will be too late.”

At the outset of the hearing, Schiff came out challenging the “immunity” given to platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, asking panelists if Congress should make changes to the law that doesn’t currently hold social media companies liable for the content on their platforms.

Another example.

Deepfakes: Imagine All the People
Of course this isn’t real. The video was done by a company called Canny AI, which offers services like “replace the dialogue in any footage” and “lip-sync your dubbed content in any language”. That’s cool and all — picture episodes of Game of Thrones or Fleabag where the actors automagically lip-sync along to dubbed French or Chinese — but this technique can also be used to easily create what are referred to as deepfakes, videos made using AI techniques in which people convincingly say and do things they actually did not do or say.

A ‘fake’ arms race, for real

This essay from Cailin O’Connor, co-author of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, frames the issue of online misinformation as an arms race.

The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting
What makes this problem particularly thorny is that internet media changes at dizzying speed. When the radio was first invented, as a new form of media, it was subject to misinformation. But regulators quickly adapted, managing, for the most part, to subdue such attempts. Today, even as Facebook fights Russian meddling, WhatsApp has become host to rampant misinformation in India, leading to the deaths of 31 people in rumour-fuelled mob attacks over two years.

Participating in an informational arms race is exhausting, but sometimes there are no good alternatives. Public misinformation has serious consequences. For this reason, we should be devoting the same level of resources to fighting misinformation that interest groups are devoting to producing it. All social-media sites need dedicated teams of researchers whose full-time jobs are to hunt down and combat new kinds of misinformation attempts.

I know I’m a pretty pessimistic person generally, but this all sounds quite hopeless. Here’s how one group of people is responding to the challenge of misuse of information and fake videos — by producing their own.

This deepfake of Mark Zuckerberg tests Facebook’s fake video policies
The video, created by artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe in partnership with advertising company Canny, shows Mark Zuckerberg sitting at a desk, seemingly giving a sinister speech about Facebook’s power. The video is framed with broadcast chyrons that say “We’re increasing transparency on ads,” to make it look like it’s part of a news segment.

“We will treat this content the same way we treat all misinformation on Instagram,” a spokesperson for Instagram told Motherboard. “If third-party fact-checkers mark it as false, we will filter it from Instagram’s recommendation surfaces like Explore and hashtag pages.”

The crowded race to the top

Nominations officially open today for Theresa May’s replacement. The sprint is expected to reach the finish line towards the end of next month, and the press are frothing all over it.

But consider this look at the US presidential marathon race, with a year and a half still to go.

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More candidates and earlier
We’re 536 days out and 23 Democrats are in. In contrast, there were 8 around this time in 2008.

It’s still 1984, and always will be

It’s 2019, but are we any further on?

Nothing but the truth: the legacy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
Orwell was both too pessimistic and not pessimistic enough. On the one hand, the west did not succumb to totalitarianism. Consumerism, not endless war, became the engine of the global economy. But he did not appreciate the tenacity of racism and religious extremism. Nor did he foresee that the common man and woman would embrace doublethink as enthusiastically as the intellectuals and, without the need for terror or torture, would choose to believe that two plus two was whatever they wanted it to be.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is about many things and its readers’ concerns dictate which one is paramount at any point in history. During the cold war, it was a book about totalitarianism. In the 1980s, it became a warning about technology. Today, it is most of all a defence of truth.

Speaking of liars.

Boris Johnson may be the UK’s next Prime Minister, but he’s up on criminal charges for Brexit “Battle Bus” lies
Ball’s complaint claims that Johnson knew that his NHS promises were lies, and as evidence, cites instances in which Johnson used accurate figures. The complain calls for a criminal sanction as remedy for these lies, because “lying on a national and international platform undermines public confidence in politics.”

There will be preliminary hearings tomorrow, and then one of four things may happen: Johnson may appeal, the Criminal Prosecution Service may allow Ball to continue with his own private proceedings, or the CPS may take over the proceedings, or they may shut them down on the basis that the prosecution is not in the public interest.

George Orwell jumped ahead 36 years. With his new TV series, Years and Years, Russell T. Davies only leaps from five to 15 years ahead, but his vision of the future feels likelier and far scarier as a result. Why do we, the audience, keep doing this to ourselves?

From Years and Years to Bird Box: why we turn to dystopian dramas in a crisis
Right now, it’s hard to think of a more prescient film than the 2006 thriller Children of Men with its depiction of environmental catastrophe and xenophobia; call me naive but not in a million years did I think we’d get so close to Alfonso Cuarón’s vision. Great art is supposed to reflect life, or so we are told. For me, the power of Years and Years lies not in its moments of high drama but in its more subtle drawing of the growing tensions between families, generations and cultures, and the line the series draws between now and the years to come. The future is here on TV, but the question is: have we got the stomach for it?

Years & Years (2019): Official Trailer