Jun 282020
 
The first Online Sahityasabha

Yesterday, I was helping Kaberi and friends stage their first Online Sahithyasabha . We postponed the start by half an hour (compared to what I had announced in my blog post last weekend) as it would otherwise have been very early for Debangana, Irabati and Suparno to perform from Texas. The other performers were in London, Kolkata and Santiniketan.

The performers were, in order of appearance:
Saranya Sen Gupta, Irabati Banerjee, Manini Mukhopadhyay, Kaberi Chatterjee, Tirthankar Roy, Debangana Banerjee, Pritha & Soumitra Bandhopadhyay, Sangita Tripathi Mitra, Sayan Bandhopadhyay, Nilanjana Sen Majumder & Debanshu Majumder, Sudakhsina Roy & Nibedita Sen Gupta.

Guest of honour: Professor Somendranath Bandhopadhyay

Oddly enough, the live nature of the performance meant that the back stage emotions were very similar to those back stage at a stage performance. Everyone had to finish their costume and make-up by the time the performance was due to start. We also had separate ‘entrances’ for artists and audience: the artists had a Zoom connection while the audience had the link to the live YouTube event (which I had posted in my post last week).

During the performance, all the performers were supporting each other. The tradition of those listening saying ‘Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu’ after each performance also provided an immediate feedback to the performers.

Afterwards, most of the performers were able to catch up about the experience before the US friends had to leave for breakfast, we went for lunch and the friends in India went for dinner.

We had just over 60 concurrent viewers following the live stream on YouTube and several were commenting in the live chat – including posting ‘Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu’ in Bengali after each performance. The feedback both during and since the performance was very positive. So maybe there will be an Online Sahityasabha 2 in a month or so … .

Some lessons learned:

  • have a clear running order which the performers and technical support can follow
  • have a backup plan in case there is a problem with the internet connection of a performer just before or during their performance
  • make sure that all the performers are aware that, since Zoom no longer allows Zoom hosts to unmute people for privacy reasons, the performers each need to make sure they know how to unmute themselves before they start their performance
  • test the internet speed of the performers’ connections in advance
  • record the performance in Zoom as well to allow more options for a post-performance edit
  • the YouTube live chat disappears after the live event and can only be replayed if the original video remains public or unlisted and untrimmed
  • it is possible to trim the video after the live event using YouTube Studio, as well as skipping any long pauses. However, this is saved as a new video which is published separately.
InvitationSaranya Sen Gupta
ResponseIrabati Banerjee
Tagore songManini Mukhopadhyayকত অজানারে জানাইলে তুমি (First part missing due to technical problem)
About Sahityasabha*Kaberi Chatterjeeসাহিত্যসভার মুখবন্ধ
Tagore song (esraj)Tirthankar Royশ্রাবণের ধারার মত পড়ুক ঝরে
Short storyDebangana Banerjeeস্বরচিত রচনা পাঠ
Tagore songPritha & Soumitra Bandhopadhyayকোন পুরাতন প্রানের টানে
Tagore danceDancer: Kaberi Chatterjee
Recitation: Nilanjana Sen Majumder
Esraj: Animesh Chandra
নববর্ষা (হৃদয় আমার নাচেরে আজিকে)
Tagore recitationSangita Tripathi Mitraরথযাত্রা (লিপিকা)
Tagore songIrabati Banerjeeপ্রাণ ভরিয়ে তৃষা হরিয়ে
Tagore songSayan Bandhopadhyayনিবিড় মেঘের ছায়ায় মন দিয়েছি মেলে
Tagore recitationNilanjana Sen Majumder & Debanshu Majumderপাঠ: বর্ষামঙ্গল
Tagore songSinger: Sudakhsina Roy, Esraj: Tirthankar Royএস্রাজ সহযোগে গহন রাতে শ্রাবণধারা পড়িছে ঝরে
Tagore songSuparno Banerjeeহৃদয়ে মন্দ্রিল ডমরু গুরু গুরু
Tagore danceDancer: Nibedita Sen Gupta
Singer: Saranya Sen Gupta
মোর ভাবনারে কী হাওয়ায় মাতালো
Tagore songManini Mukhopadhyayগানের ভিতর দিয়ে যখন
AppreciationProfessor Somendranath Bandhopadhyay
Programme of yesterday’s Online Sahityasabha

* based on শেষ পারানির কড়ি by Hirendranath Dutta and কবির পাঠশালা by Swati Ghosh and Ashok Sarkar

The dark side of copyright

I also realised that copyright collection bodies like IPRS have convinced YouTube to flag any Tagore songs for automated copyright claims. The live broadcast received no less than 5 copyright claims:

Copyright claims against yesterday’s Online Sahityasabha

Now, this means that, even if Kaberi’s channel cannot generate revenue from this video, YouTube could add advertisments and these copyright bodies would receive a share of the advertising revenue. One could imagine that YouTube does this systematically from the tens of thousands of Bengalis around the world (including professional singers) who upload videos of themselves singing Tagore songs. It could be quite lucrative for these copyright collection bodies.

Tagore’s works have been in the public domain since 1 January 2002 (over 18 years ago!). YouTube requires anyone disputing copyright claims to accept that their channel may be closed down if they dispute copyright claims repeatedly. Needless to say, I have advised Kaberi to dispute these spurious copyright claims but others may be intimidated by the declarations YouTube requires them to make before doing so.

Both claiming unlicensed revenue for other people’s work and discouraging these people from disputing spurious copyright claims by threatening them with closing down their YouTube channels would seem to be anti-competitive practices.

Anyhow, here is a list of the bodies/companies behind the copyright claims listed above, according to the details provided by YouTube:

SongCopyright claim by
Kato Ajanale JanaileSaregama Publishing, The Royalty Network (Publishing)
Gahana Raate Shravana DharaIPRS_CS
Ganer Bhetor DeyeG Series Publishing
Shaboner Dharar MotoIPRS_CS
Gahan Rater ShrabandharaIPRS_CS
Copyright collection bodies claiming rights on Tagore songs (Source: YouTube)
Jun 212020
 
Watch the first Online Sahityasabha on YouTube here [Link updated after the live event]

Every Tuesday evening in Santiniketan, the home town of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, he established the tradition known as Sahityasabha (“literary gathering”) for children studying at Patha Bhavan. It is a performance at which schoolchildren are invited to perform their own creations, including works by Tagore, based on recommendations from their teachers. This is how they learn to become stage-free.

Kaberi and I are preparing an hour-long, live programme next Saturday (27 June). It will bring together mainly former Patha Bhavan students, including Kaberi, who will be performing from their homes in different countries. For those in India, it will start at 18:30 while, for those in the UK, it will start at 14:00 – see the image for the start time in different time zones.

You should be able to watch the performance live from anywhere in the world via YouTube Live, which is embedded at the top of this post. You should also be able to catch up with the recording later here. Note that the performances will be in Bengali, with some explanations being provided in English.

May 172020
 
Virtual celebration of Tagore’s birth anniversary for Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Together with Kaberi and the friends from Prantik with whom we have been celebrating Tagore’s birth anniversary at Shakespeare’s Birthplace each year, we were due to be there again last Sunday (10 May). Unfortunately, like many other things, the lockdown since mid-March to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic obliged the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to close the Birthplace until the end of May.

However, all of us in the team were very disappointed not to be able to get together as in previous years, both for rehearsals in the preceding weeks and for our annual excursion to Stratford for the birth anniversary. So, exchanging with them the previous weekend, and also having just organised a virtual birthday party in which relatives in India had performed dances and songs from their homes, I realised we could prepare a virtual celebration of Tagore’s birth anniversary. Given the context, the theme of Tagore’s concern for Man’s impact on Nature and the environment seemed to us to be the most appropriate.

I checked with the Birthplace if they could coordinate with us on this and Paul Taylor, their Acting Director of Cultural Engagement, kindly recorded and sent me a video of his introduction. We decided to dedicate the performance to the key workers and healthcare workers keeping us safe and well, and to those who have lost their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fortunately, most of the team had the bank holiday on 8 May to record videos of themselves singing or reciting solo. Paul Taylor provided some images of Shakespeare’s Birthplace and Supratik Basu filmed some video of the flowers in the garden of their home nearby. We also had photos from our previous anniversary celebrations.

The traditional birthday chorus “He nuthon”, which we usually sing by the bust of Tagore in the Birthplace garden was going to be more complicated, though. With any online video conferencing tool like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc, there is always a slight time lag (latency) between one person saying something and the others on the call hearing it. This is barely noticeable if you are having a conversation but, as we had already experienced from trying to rehearse remotely in the past, it is not possible to synchronise with each other like this.

So Kaberi and I recorded a base, audio track of the song with a tanpura. We used a metronome to ensure that there were no speed variations during the song. We then sent it to the rest of the team, asking them to listen to it through earphones on one device and film themselves with their phones vertically.

With all the recordings, I assembled the videos in the final video you see above and added English subtitles. I also wrote and recorded the narration, explaining how the performances illustrated Tagore’s concern for Man’s impact on Nature and the Environment.

I used Final Cut Pro X for the main edit but for He nuthon, I experimented with Da Vinci Resolve, which includes more sophisticated audio mixing possibilities, including spatial stereo. Fortunately, I had just invested in a Blackmagic Design eGPU Pro to speed up the processing time needed for my video editing!

Performers from Prantik: Anindita Sengupta Saha, Anupam Ganguli, Chhaya Biswas, Farzeen Huq, Kaberi Chatterjee (dance), Mousumi Basu (recitation), Nikhilesh Das Gupta, Obhi Chatterjee, Sudakshina Roy, Supratik Basu and Tirthankar Roy (esraj).

Morubijoyer ketona (danced by Kaberi Chatterjee) was sung by Manini Mukhopadhyay and Ritwik Bagchi, accompanied by Alok Banerjee (esraj), Asit Ghosh (tabla) and Dipak Das (sitar).

English subtitles translated from the original Bengali by Obhi Chatterjee, Kaberi Chatterjee & Prasenjit Saha.

More about virtual performances

I devised the technique to record He Nuthon after seeing other virtual performances during the lockdown around the world. Of course, the virtual choir videos composed by Eric Whitacre since 2010 were the pioneers in this field. Here was the third in his series: Water Night.

One of the first lockdown virtual performances I saw was this version of the song All I ask of you from The Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber had originally tweeted a recording of him playing the song on the piano. Members of the Phantom of the Opera orchestra had then recorded their tracks.

Another was the virtual performance of Ravi Shankar’s ‘Sandhya Raga’ by Anoushka Shankar and other Indian musicians who were originally due to perform at concerts around the world to celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of Ravi Shankar.

From among the lockdown virtual performances, a colleague drew my attention to those from the Orchestre national de France. Here is their performance of Ravel’s Boléro.

Perhaps the most visually complex virtual performance of this lockdown period has been La valse n°2 de Chostakovitch, again performed by l’Orchestre National de France:

Apr 092020
 
Shyama and her companions

Our film versions of Rabindranath Tagore’s three dance-dramas (Chitrangada, Chandalika, & Shyama) are now available to rent or buy ‘on demand’ through Vimeo. The films are in the original Bengali with English subtitles – we hope to make the other language versions available soon.

Many of us around the world are in ‘lockdown’ at the moment due to the coronavirus pandemic. So Kaberi and I thought we should share some of Tagore’s humanity and help people celebrate the Bengali New Year (on April 14) at home by making these films available for free this weekend.

Click on the following links (or use the promotional code ‘BNY20’) before midnight on Tuesday, April 14, to watch each film for free:

  • Chitrangada (89 minutes) – Princess Chitrangada, who has been brought up as a man to inherit the throne of Manipur, falls in love with Arjun, the warrior prince. Tagore create this dance-drama in 1936 as part of his campaign for women’s emancipation.
  • Chandalika (73 minutes) – Prokrithi, an untouchable girl who is shunned by other villagers because of her caste, discovers a new life when Anondo, a Buddhist monk, asks her for water and tells her that she is no less a human than he is. Originally written in 1933 as a play, Tagore developed Chandalika into a dance-drama in 1938 as part of his campaign to raise awareness of the plight of the ‘untouchables’ and the unfairness of the caste system.
  • Shyama (90 minutes) – A court dancer, Shyama, falls in love with Bojroshen, a foreign merchant, who is falsely imprisoned and faces execution … unless Shyama accepts the offer of an admirer, Uttiyo, to take Bojroshen’s place. Tagore created this dance-drama in 1939 as an artistic critique of repressive regimes, in reaction to the growing tensions of pre-Independence India and the rise of nationalism in Europe.

After you click on the link, you will have 48 hours to watch the film.

We hope you enjoy the films. Please feel free to spread the word.

May 072019
 

This year, my birthday was just after the Easter weekend. Many friends were travelling and we too had only just returned from the Austrian Tirol. In any case, a significant proportion of my friends and relatives are widely dispersed around the world.

It occurred to me that I should try to organise a virtual birthday party. However, looking online, no-one seemed to have tried to have a virtual party with more than a few people.

In the event, around 30 friends and relatives joined the virtual birthday party online, with 3 friends joining in person. The furthest east was a friend in Bangkok, Thailand and the furthest west was a friend in Winnipeg, Canada. It was fun, at least for me, not only to see and hear everyone from so far afield but also to be able to bring together people who have been important to my life but who might otherwise never have the opportunity to talk to each other because of the geographical distance between them.

Of course, some things did not quite work out as planned. In particular, several friends and relatives tried to connect but were not able to do so, mainly because they could not find the connection link, which I had put at the very end of my invitation.

So, in case anyone else would like to organise a virtual party, here are the steps I would recommend:

Preparation

  1. Make sure you have a stable internet connection wherever you will be at the time of your party.
  2. Get a Zoom Pro licence (the minimum is for 1 month), which allows up to 100 participants. There are other video-conferencing options, such as Google Hangouts, but ideally you need the possibility to create ‘breakout rooms’. This requires a more specialised platform.
  3. Check that you have suitable equipment to allow people online to hear you and see you properly, even if you have others attending the party with you in person. This could be just a smartphone or a tablet but you may need to run the sound through an amplifier/speaker for everyone with you to hear those online.
  4. Create the Zoom session for the party.

Invitation

  1. I had thought of using an invitation platform such as evite or Eventbrite to make the invitation look attractive on any platform. I am connected with different friends and relatives in different ways (e-mail, social media, text messages, etc).

    Although I used Eventbrite this time, I don’t think I would do so again. Several friends thought the Eventbrite link would get them into the virtual party. In future, I would keep the invitation short and provide the Zoom connection details near the start of the text.
  2. Identify a period in your time zone which you can manage to be there yourself for the whole time and which allows everyone you wish to invite an opportunity to connect at a reasonable time in their time zones. For my virtual birthday party, I had invited people to join between 18:00 and midnight Central European Time. Those in the Far East could join in the first part of that period. Those in the Americas could join the last part of that.
  3. Send invitations 2-3 weeks in advance, including the Zoom meeting ID (and password).
  4. Send a reminder 2-3 days in advance to those who have confirmed that they will participate and to those who have not replied.
  5. Explain that those joining online should join the party with their preferred food/drink to hand.
  6. You could also mention the advantage of not having to worry about how to get home after the party ;-).
  7. I wrote individual messages to the friends I was inviting but this does take time. As I only had the idea a few days before my birthday, I did not manage to invite everyone I had intended to.

The party

  1. Test your technical setup (audio, video and internet connection) at least 1 hour before the first people are due to join.
  2. Prepare breakout rooms called ‘Living room’, ‘Dining room’, ‘Kitchen’ into which you could ‘Assign’ your guests during the party, if there are more than 4 or 5 guests online at the same time. [In a forthcoming update to Zoom, guests will be able to select for themselves which room they want to go into. Perhaps one day they will be able to do so based on who is in each room.]
  3. Make sure that you abandon neither those online nor those physically with you. This can be difficult. Ideally someone who is physically with you could switch with you from time to time between being the online host and the host in the physical venue.
  4. In principle, you should not tantalise your online guests with the food and drinks you are having at your physical venue. In practice, it is difficult to resist this temptation. The follow-up to the cake-cutting photo above was one of my friends showing those online in close-up  how delicious the cake was … .

Although it is difficult to make a virtual party as immersive as a real party, it does offer a way to bring together people who are geographically far apart and revive informal conversations with them. If you try this yourself (or if you attended my virtual birthday party – or indeed did not manage to do so [sorry!]), please add any suggestions for improvement in the comments below.

Jan 202019
 

On Tuesday, 15 January, the Government suffered the heaviest Parliamentary defeat in history for recommending the ratification of the deal Theresa May has negotiated with the EU27. Nonetheless, the following day, it won a vote of no confidence in the Government.

Various ways forward have been proposed, such as a People’s Vote on the deal or leaving the EU and joining the EEA. However, there does not seem to be a majority in Parliament for any of these options. And, although Theresa May has said she is open to talks with other parties, she does not appear open to changing her red lines, which resulted in the deal she has negotiated.

There is one thing a large majority of MPs do agree on: they do not want a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn has refused to talk to Theresa May unless she takes ‘no deal’ Brexit “off the table”. In her letter to him to remove this pre-condition to talks, she wrote:

I note that you have said that ‘ruling out’ no deal is a precondition before we can meet, but that is an impossible condition because it is not within the Government’s power to rule out no deal.

Actually, it is within Parliament’s power to rule out no deal. On 10 December 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled as follows:

Article 50 TEU must be interpreted as meaning that, where a Member State has notified the European Council, in accordance with that article, of its intention to withdraw from the European Union, that article allows that Member State — for as long as a withdrawal agreement concluded between that Member State and the European Union has not entered into force or, if no such agreement has been concluded, for as long as the two-year period laid down in Article 50(3) TEU, possibly extended in accordance with that paragraph, has not expired — to revoke that notification unilaterally, in an unequivocal and unconditional manner, by a notice addressed to the European Council in writing, after the Member State concerned has taken the revocation decision in accordance with its constitutional requirements. The purpose of that revocation is to confirm the EU membership of the Member State concerned under terms that are unchanged as regards its status as a Member State, and that revocation brings the withdrawal procedure to an end.

In the Supreme Court judgment in the Gina Miller case 2 years ago, the constitutional requirements to invoke Article 50 were established as follows:

… if, as we consider, what would otherwise be a prerogative act would result in a change in domestic law, the act can only lawfully be carried out with the sanction of primary legislation enacted by the Queen in Parliament.

As a result, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 was enacted on 16 March 2017 to authorise the Prime Minister to make the Article 50 notification of the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU. This implies that primary legislation would also be required to revoke such a notification.

The simplest way to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit happening by default may be to amend the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 by adding a clause 1(3): “The Prime Minister must revoke such a notification [at least 30 days] before the two-year period laid down in Article 50(3)of the Treaty on European Union, possibly extended in accordance with that paragraph, expires unless a withdrawal agreement concluded between the United Kingdom and the European Union has entered into force by that date[, after ratification by Parliament].”

This still leaves Parliament the possibility to continue all the other options, possibly with a request to extend the Article 50 deadline (subject to the unanimous agreement of the other 27 EU Member States). As a result, it should be capable of receiving the support of all MPs (including Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn) who wish to avoid a ‘no deal Brexit’ by default.

Professor Phil Syrpis, of Bristol University, agrees that “switching the default to revoke from no deal is a possible path forward“. He also drew my attention to this post by ‘SpinningHugo’ to “Change the default“.

There are so many “tribes” in Parliament, especially among Conservative MPs, that there does not seem to be any single solution which will attract the support of a majority of MPs. As EU Council President Donald Tusk said after the defeat of Theresa May’s deal in Parliament:

If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?

Dec 302018
 
Brexit/Britain is in the bin (via Erica Neustadt)

While Theresa May and Jeremby Corbyn play games with Parliamentary procedure, time is passing. In less than three months, on 29 March 2019, 2 years after Theresa May triggered the Article 50 procedure, the EU Treaties will cease to apply to the UK … unless Parliament does something first. The only problem is that the there is a political impasse in Parliament.

To get an idea of how people feel about this, we have created an online “event” which you can take part in anonymously. By answering this first question, you will help to feed the word cloud below. You can add several words if you wish, before clicking on the ‘Send’ button.

Fresh from its Christmas break, the Home Office started to ask non-British EU nationals living in the UK to apply for ‘settled status’. Actually, the tweet called on all EU citizens living in the UK (ie including British citizens) to apply.

Apart from the legal error, this suggests that the Home Office has failed to learn the lessons of the Windrush scandal and is about to launch another “ethnic cleansing” programme on a much larger scale – there are some 3.6 million non-British EU nationals living in the UK. As Professor Tanja Bueltmann has pointed out, ‘settled status’ will create a new Windrush generation of EU citizens. The unsettling effects of this policy on people who have lived and worked in the UK for decades are illustrated by the people in the video response below.

Meanwhile, back in Parliament, Theresa May has negotiated a deal with the EU27 which few MPs (other than those in Government) are prepared to back. It is either a worse deal than staying in the EU or does not allow the UK sufficient independence from the EU – depending on the perspective of the MP concerned.

MPs were supposed to have voted on the deal on 11 December but the vote was postponed by Theresa May until 14 January as she realised that a significant majority of MPs would vote against the deal. Her strategy appears to be to scare MPs with the perspective of a ‘no deal Brexit’ if they vote against her deal. The delay also seems to have been designed to reduce the time for a People’s Vote on the deal before 29 March 2019.

In theory, the UK could ask the EU27 to extend the Article 50 deadline. However this would require all 27 Member States to agree to this and, given that Theresa May has already exhausted their patience, there would seem to be a high chance that at least one Member State would block such an extension.

Another option, confirmed by the 10 December ruling of the European Court of Justice, is that the UK is free to revoke its Article 50 notification unilaterally. That possibility exists until either the withdrawal agreement comes into force or the 2-year period expires on 29 March 2019.

So there seem to be four options for MPs, as shown in the question below. Which of them would you prefer? You will see the relative support for each option after you have made your choice and pressed the ‘Send’ button.

So far in Parliament, most MPs are against a ‘no deal’ Brexit. However, there is currently no majority in Parliament for any option which might avoid this outcome.

Although Theresa May had claimed only three months ago that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal‘, the costs of a ‘no deal’ Brexit are becoming more apparent now. A few days before Christmas, the Government set aside £2 billion for ministries to prepare for a ‘no deal’ Brexit and putting 3,500 troops on standby. At the same time, more than 25% of UK business leaders are very pessimistic about the prospects of the UK economy.

Tagore had observed over a century ago that nationalism has a subtle but quite destructive effect on society.

“… the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anæsthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion,—in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out. …

“The Nation has thriven long upon mutilated humanity. Men, the fairest creations of God, came out of the National manufactory in huge numbers as war-making and money-making puppets, ludicrously vain of their pitiful perfection of mechanism. Human society grew more and more into a marionette show of politicians, soldiers, manufacturers and bureaucrats, pulled by wire arrangements of wonderful efficiency.

But the apotheosis of selfishness can never make its interminable breed of hatred and greed, fear and hypocrisy, suspicion and tyranny, an end in themselves. These monsters grow into huge shapes but never into harmony.”

Excerpt From: Rabindranath Tagore. “Nationalism.”

Tagore also drew attention to the tendency of nationalists to hold foreigners responsible for causing problems because they are different.

“The social habit of mind which impels us to make the life of our fellow-beings a burden to them where they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food, is sure to persist in our political organization and result in creating engines of coercion to crush every rational difference which is the sign of life.”

Excerpt From: Rabindranath Tagore. “Nationalism.”

Of course, this is not limited to the UK and Brexit. The late Paddy Ashdown, whose last book Nein! Standing up to Hitler 1935-1944 explores a similar period in German history, noted that President Trump has been using the same techniques as were used in that period.

In an interview in 2016, Paddy Ashdown had said “Leave aside the fact – which is good – that we don’t have mad militarists who want to go to war, everything else about our age reminds me of the 1930s. The fracture, the disrespect for the business of government, the hatred of the establishment. You see a retreat into isolationism, you see the rise of ugly forces, you see those who lie and make a pattern of lying … As Goebbels said, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big one and tell it often.”

Fortunately, in the same interview, he also said “I am certain that decency and the forces of good will triumph. When, I don’t know. But that it will happen, I am absolutely clear.”

Dec 012018
 

Yesterday, British broadcaster, actor, producer and director Stephen Fry launched this 12-minute animated documentary. It shows how certain UK politicians have built their careers by stirring up fear of immigrants and fear of a ‘mythical EU dragon’ over the past couple of years.

The video opens with an illustration of an illusion known as ‘forced perspective’, which Stephen Fry suggests is how the politicians have convinced people that these fears are real. As he points out, and as I mentioned in my previous post, they and the mainstream media promoting their views have used propaganda techniques similar to those used by the Nazis in the 1930s.

In the US, Donald Trump brands all news stories and facts which contradict his narrative as ‘Fake News’. Similarly, these UK politicians have branded inconvenient facts and forecasts as ‘Project Fear’.

Thanks to this approach, facts are unlikely to convince supporters of these politicians to change their minds. Stephen Fry explored this phenomenon in a previous video about the Dunning-Kruger effect … and explained how to tackle it.

In his excellent new book How to be right … in a world gone wrong, Radio talk show host James O’Brien describes how the media have fuelled the rise of this type of politician.

As with climate change, media organisations like the BBC have attempted to preserve ‘balance’ by interviewing people who have opposite views for the same amount of time. However, even if 95% of scientists are convinced that climate change has happened, this attempt at ‘balance’ gives disproportionate exposure to the 5% that do not.

James O’Brien suggests that his approach of asking people ‘why?’ (rather than the ‘what?’ asked traditionally by interviewers) obliges those he is interviewing to explain why they believe what they do, often revealing their misconceptions. However, he lays the blame for this at the door of the politicians who have misled his callers, not his callers themselves. Here is his recent RSA discussion about his book, which inspired me to buy the book.

Another impressive, recent initiative is the podcast series Dial M for Mueller, with award-winning investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr (who revealed the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal) and Peter Jukes. The latest episode explores why Nigel Farage is a ‘person of interest’ for the FBI investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

As I have mentioned before, Rabindranath Tagore attempted to warn the world about the dangers of nationalism over 100 years ago. His 1939 dance-drama Shyama , written in the context of growing tensions of pre-Independence India and the rise of nationalism in Europe, opens with a foreign merchant who is falsely accused of theft by a repressive regime.

I was happy to see that French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated this in his speech on Armistice Day. Fortunately, there are still a few politicians around who are brave enough to stand up to the real Project Fear.

Oct 292018
 
Notice on the door of the Poundworld shop in our local High Street

This week’s UK Budget is expected to reduce business rates, to reduce costs faced by shops and businesses on UK High Streets, but not by their online competitors. Media reports about recent closures of shop chains have mentioned reduced sales in High Street shops due to people buying online. Few dare to mention any loss of interest in shopping (in general) due to uncertainty faced by many households, particularly low income households, as a result of the UK Government’s seemingly incompetent handling of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Yesterday, I took a walk along our local High Street, in Sutton, which is in the suburbs of London. I took these photos of all the abandoned shops and businesses, many of which have closed in the past couple of years. Of course, there are other recent arrivals (mainly cafés, restaurants, vaping shops and nail parlours) which allow the High Street to retain some life. Nonetheless, I was left feeling quite sad about the state of what was a vibrant High Street not so long ago.

If this is happening in the relatively affluent South-East of England, I suspect that the situation is even worse in other parts of the country, particularly further North – often forgotten by Westminster parties and political leaders. In any case, the impression of decay in our own High Street is far more intense than in other parts of Europe we have visited over the past couple of years. The UK is apparently more heavily into online shopping than other countries but, even so, that cannot be the only explanation.

The owner of our favourite kebab shop confirmed to me on Saturday night that the costs of his raw materials (particularly vegetables) had already gone up significantly as a result of the 18% fall in the value of the pound since the Referendum was announced. So far, he has been absorbing this increase without raising his prices – he knows he would lose business if he increased his prices.

A significant proportion of his customers are from low income families and they have been telling him that they are uncertain about the future and are trying to spend as little as they can now. Yes, they are fed up of hearing about Brexit but that is because it is not at all the simple process they were led to believe it would be by certain politicians – instead, we now hear the Government warning that people may need to stockpile medicines and that lorries may need to be parked on the M26 (several miles from the coast) while waiting to cross the English Channel. This could explain the popularity of online shopping and the state of the High Street, which is far less busy than it used to be (and those that are there seem to be window shopping rather than buying).

Last Christmas, my holiday reading was the disturbing book Alternative War by James Patrick, a former police officer turned investigative journalist. The book tackles Russian interference in the UK’s EU Referendum and the US election of President Donald Trump, suggesting that these are elements of a ‘hybrid war’ Russia has launched using fake news and sophisticated disinformation campaigns. The book documents how ‘detached and deniable assets’ and ‘useful idiots’, such as Wikileaks, the far-right (including UKIP and Republican officials), were engaged by Russia to subvert two of the world’s superpowers and install managed democracies as part of a strategy to enhance Russia’s position and destabilise its perceived enemies.

One of the key claims of the Leave campaign was that £350m contributed per week could be spent on the NHS. However, it is now emerging that, in the event of ‘no deal’, there may be cancelled NHS operations and staff shortages.

Via Cory Doctorow, I came across this 15-minute short film American Psychosis featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges. In it, he draws parallels with totalitarian regimes he has reported on and a culture dominated by ‘pervasive illusion’ which he now finds in the US. Perhaps this is also the situation in the UK?

Lord Adonis has been travelling around the country arguing in favour of a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal (or no deal) which Theresa May is negotiating. In this article for The New European, he explains why we are now in a similar situation to the 1930s. He recommends the new book by Paddy Ashdown Nein, Standing up to Hitler 1935-1944 about the German resistance, and how it was undermined by the appeasement of the British and French Governments.

Today’s appeasers of the far right similarly recreate the weak and demoralised liberals and conservatives of the 1930s, from Germany’s Catholic ‘centre’ party which voted with Hitler in 1933 to Neville Chamberlain treating so disastrously with the German dictator thereafter. Theresa May is eerily Chamberlainite in her stubbornness, her deep ignorance of the extreme political currents swirling around her, and her appeasement of an English far right – Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the puppet Boris Johnson …

Andrew Adonis, Yes we are back in the 1930s – The New European, 25 October 2018

Meanwhile, the number of people sleeping rough in the UK has increased by 169% since 2010, with increases every year for the past 7 years. The conditions would appear to be ripe (again) for populist politicians to offer the fantasy of an easy solution: nationalism. But, as Tagore pointed out over a century ago, this approach comes with risks for the society we live in.

Throughout history, demagogues rarely need to direct the violence. They set the tone – they focus the blame, ridicule, rage and hate — and leave the violent acts to others. That way, they can always say “it wasn’t me. I don’t have blood on my hands. The culprits are out there.”
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) October 28, 2018

Robert Reich, Berkeley professor and former US Secretary of Labour

A few weeks ago, I was dismayed but not surprised to see James Patrick suggesting that the real objective of the UK Government is a ‘no deal’ Brexit, with all the harmful consequences its own documents now predict. I did find it shocking though that the reason would be to justify Ministers using their powers under the Withdrawal Act to by-pass Parliament.

In effect, this ’emergency rule’ would take the UK out of a democracy and into dictatorship. I would invite you to follow the link below and read the rest of his thread on Twitter. I hope this is not the real objective of the UK Government (whose official line is still that it is working towards an agreement with the EU27). However, as time goes by, and as the UK missed the opportunity of the recent Summit in Brussels to sign any agreement, perhaps his analysis seems increasingly likely?

With this in mind, here are some of the speeches from last Saturday’s People’s Vote march. Note particularly the comment from Tom Brake that the UK Government and Parliament have spent the past two years being so focused on Brexit that they have not tackled the real problems affecting millions of people, such as the housing crisis, reform of the education system and the state of the NHS. Maybe, in time, the people who spoke at the march will be seen as the ‘resistance’.

 Posted by at 2:54 am
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