July 2015

Journalist Simon Ricketts wrote an excellent piece about Labour in which he argues that because there’s no real way that Labour can win the next election, they need to get a hold of the narrative and own it. They need to actually move the debate to the left, to be seen to stand up for what’s right, rather than trying to find out what would make them ‘electable’. They need to find some spine and create an opposition party that’s actually in opposition to the Tories.

They should fight, they should stand up, they should campaign and they should vote against. For the people who need them.

For the people who didn’t vote for austerity – and it’s worth remembering that is the majority of the country – they need to grab their bloody rifles, wrap their paws around the triggers and FIRE.

The only way you move the Overton window is to get outside of it and PULL. You need people who aren’t concerned about how their haircut “plays” in the eyes of the electorate, or whether they should put the words “reach out” or “going forward” in their latest dribble-filled speech.

You need brave people. Unselfish people. Ready to stand outside, prepared to be mocked. Passionate, committed and determined. I don’t see that in many of our politicians.

Last night, I heard a lettuce-fuelled Labour leadership hopeful tell a TV reporter that he is re-evaluating the ‘core values’ in the eyes of the electorate, as if by merely saying those words with his mouth, then the answer will turn up in a taxi.

Let me tell you the core values, sunshine. They are to stand up to inequality, punch hard for those who cannot, and REFUSE to be bowed in the face of battle. Save yourself the money you were going to spend on shiny leaflets. You won’t need them. Just stand up, charge forward and bloody fight.

It’s well worth reading the whole post.

When I first read it, I wasn’t really sure that Labour was actually dead. Wounded certainly, but actually dead? The next election’s five years away, surely they weren’t so mortally wounded that they couldn’t recover?

And then I read about the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, a bill that Labour should have been in vocal opposition to. But instead, they put up a pathetic amendment, and then put their MPs under a whip to abstain instead of vote against. If they had voted against, the amendment would have failed, and about 48 Labour MPs voted with their conscience and did in fact vote against.

The Welfare Reform and Work Bill, in case you haven’t read about it, “slashes tax credits, cuts the benefit cap by £6,000 and takes up to £30 a week from sick and disabled jobseekers”. It is a regressive bit of legislation, punishing the poor and the disabled even more than they currently are under Tory policy.

Why on earth would Labour want to abstain? Why does Harriet Harman support this sort of legislation? It’s just baffling. Utterly baffling. How is this supposed to appeal to people on the left, who believe in the welfare state, in the NHS, in social mobility, in equality?

(UPDATE: Some folks on Twitter have pointed out that it’s all a bit more complicated than that, and fair enough it probably is, but the thing is that people believe Labour should have voted against, not abstained, and so the harm is done regardless. If there was a good reason to abstain, Labour didn’t communicate it well enough.)

But is one bad vote, by itself, enough to ensure that Labour are dead? Probably not. But things get worse for Labour.

Before the election, I think a lot of people on the left assumed that UKIP would split the Tory vote in England, giving an advantage to Labour. But that’s not what happened. Instead, UKIP stole Labour voters in England, way more than Labour anticipated:

Analysis of the results by The Independent shows that Ukip won more votes than the size of the Conservative majority in nine seats the Tories gained from Labour. They included Morley and Outwood, where the former shadow Chancellor Ed Balls suffered a shock defeat by 442 votes after the third-placed Ukip candidate won 7,951 votes. Although not all of these Ukip voters would have switched from Labour, defections from Labour could have tipped the balance in the Tories’ favour.

The pattern was repeated as the Tories gained Labour-held Bolton West, Corby, Derby North, Gower, Plymouth Moor View, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Vale of Clwyd. In 48 seats retained by the Tories, their majority over Labour was lower than the number of votes won by Ukip.

That’s bad. Who would have thought that UKIP’s ridiculous, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic platform would have appealed to Labour voters? You can answer that question yourself.

But that’s not even the worst of it. A study out this week shows that the reason that the polls were so different to the final result was not the fabled ‘shy Tory’, too ashamed of their Conservative ethos to tell a pollster. Oh no. The Tories voted the way the Tories said they would vote. The huge difference was down to Labour supporters who said they would vote Labour, but didn’t bother to vote at all.

The pre-election polls for the 2015 UK General Election missed the final result by a considerable margin: underestimating the Conservative Party and overestimating Labour. We analyse evidence for five theories of why the polls missed using data from the British Election Study. We find no evidence for Shy Tories, late swing or systematically different preferences among “don’t knows”. We find strong evidence that respondents overstated their likelihood of voting and their actual turnout after the election and that these respondents systematically lean towards Labour. This differential turnout can be predicted above and beyond respondents’ self-reported likelihood of voting using demographic variables and past behaviour. We also find evidence that samples are likely to underrepresent some groups in the population and that current weighting schemes may not be adequately correcting for this. In particular, we find that the oldest respondents in our sample are greatly underrepresented.

The media, rather cruelly, called them “lazy”, but I suspect what we’re talking about is a swath of disillusioned voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Tory Lite, and I can quite understand their position. Calling them lazy is a cheap get-out-of-jail-free card for Labour, though, because it means Labour can tell themselves that they don’t have to bother with these terrible, indolent lefties, and thus will never ask why those people felt unwilling to vote for them. Tip: It’s not laziness.

So what have we got here? Well, the three shots to Labour’s foot that have resulted in fatal blood loss:

  1. The Labour party elite have lost the plot and are no longer representing the progressive electorate (and haven’t for some considerable time now)
  2. Labour voters defecting to UKIP
  3. Labour voters feeling unable to actually vote Labour

I don’t see how Labour can come back from this at all, so what’s the point in considering “electability” when choosing the new Labour leader? Why toss Corbyn out because you think he doesn’t play well on TV? Which of the other leaders sound even remotely committed to a progressive agenda?

Simon Ricketts has Labour bang to rights. They are dead already, and they’re dead three times. So don’t bother wringing your hands over the next election. Instead, we need to remake the left in the UK, to get back to proper progressive politics and, sadly, that means Labour needs to just fuck off and die, and let the real left take over.

Note: I joined the Labour party after the defeat, and now I’m wondering why I bothered.

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There has been, and will continue to be, a lot written about the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman by HarperCollins over the months since the announcement of its discovery. There are many questions remaining over how and when it was discovered, and over the decision to publish it, but right now the focus is on the book itself.

I’ve read a few reviews and the comments under them, and if there’s a theme that jumps out at me, it’s confusion around how Lee could have turned Atticus Finch from being a fair, just, upstanding man to an old racist in this book set 20 years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird. The Finch we know is defined by his commitment to racial equality and justice, and yet here he is in Watchman, an almost completely different character.

I have seen people trying to rationalise this away, talking about how people change over 20 years, or how Scout was a child in Mockingbird but an adult in Watchman and thus seeing things without the rose-tinted glasses of childhood innocence. But these attempts to impose coherence are missing a vital piece of context:

Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird.

Go Set A Watchman is not even Harper Lee’s “second book”.

Go Set a Watchman is the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, a draft she extensively revised and changed. We cannot look at Watchman as any kind of continuation of Mockingbird, we cannot expect the two books to share a coherent world view or think of the characters as the same people who’ve ‘changed’ between books, because Watchman is not a deliberately planned out sequel to Mockingbird at all. It is not set in the same universe, but an earlier, related one.

Watchman is like an ancestor of Mockingbird, sharing much of its genetic material with the bestseller – you can see examples of passages that Lee decided were good enough to make it into the new draft in this Quartz analysis. But Watchman is no more a sequel than my father is my son.

HarperCollins very carefully does not use the word “sequel” in it’s publicity. As Neil Gaiman said on Twitter:

But the HarperCollins press release muddies the waters hugely about what this book is, calling it “a newly discovered novel”, and implying – but not saying – that it’s an entirely new book and a sequel:

“My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout” –  quote from Harper Lee.

“Go Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later.”

“I, along with millions of others around the world, always wished that Harper Lee had written another book.” – quote from Michael Morrison, President and Publisher of HarperCollins US General Books Group and Canada.

“Reading in many ways like a sequel to Harper Lee’s classic novel…” – quote from onathan Burnham, Senior Vice President and Publisher, Harper.

One would be forgiven for believing that this was a different novel, a sequel, something that Harper Lee had worked on as a separate enterprise to Mockingbird. But it isn’t. To repeat: Watchman is the first draft of Mockingbird.

This first draft was written through 1956-57, after Lee was given the financial support to allow her to take a year off to write. The first 49 pages were given to agent Annie Laurie Williams on 14 January 1957, and she had the complete draft by 27 February 1957.

Williams and her husband and business partner Maurice Crain thought that Lee’s draft was interesting but needed work. Crain worked with Lee to revise the draft, and it was sent to publishers J.B. Lippincott. They liked it, but again felt it needed further revisions. From the Washington Post, we hear from Tay Hohoff, “eventual editor of the book”:

“First of all, the element in the original manuscript which was unmistakable: it was alive, the characters stood on their own two feet, they were three-dimensional,” Hohoff wrote. “And the spark of the true writer flashed in every line. Though Miss Lee had then never published even an essay or a short story, this was clearly not the work of an amateur.”

That said, noted Hohoff, who died in 1974, the effort was very, very flawed.

“The manuscript we saw was more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel. The editorial call to duty was plain. She needed, at last, professional help in organizing her material and developing a sound plot structure.”

The upshot?

Lippincott did not offer to buy the manuscript. The editors sent Lee home to make revisions. They hoped she might come back.

It took two years of hard work revising the book closely with Hohoff for Lee to produce Mockingbird. Lippincott accepted the manuscript on 10 November 1959.

Harper Lee wrote no further novels. In fact, over the decades since Mockingbird was published, Lee chose not to rework into a sequel the bits of the first draft that didn’t make it into the final version, despite the fact that there would have been a huge appetite for it. It might be tempting to say that this was because the first draft was lost, but it certainly wasn’t lost in 1959 and had she wanted to write a sequel, she easily could have in subsequent years. Lee cannot have been ignorant of the commercial opportunity afforded by her success, but she decided that she preferred her privacy to the lunacy that would undoubtedly result from publishing a second book.

Furthermore, as far as I am aware, Lee has not revised Watchman. There have been some questions as to her cognitive capabilities, and the NY Times wrote:

Ms. Lee — known to many as Nelle, her legal first name — had a stroke in 2007 and has severe hearing and vision problems. But friends who visit her regularly say she can communicate well and hold lengthy conversations if visitors yell in her ear or write questions down for her to read under a special machine.

It does not seem likely, therefore, that she was able to read the manuscript and give it the kind of hard edit that every single first draft in the world needs in order to turn it into a viable novel, let alone a sequel to Mockingbird. If she had, at some point, decided to revise what was left of Watchman into a true sequel, we could reasonably have expected it to be as different from that first draft as Mockingbird is, not least because she would have taken into account all those changes she made back in the late 1950s.

Watchman has some value as a literary artefact, as a window into Lee’s early thinking behind what eventually became Mockingbird, and as a testament to her tenacious reworking of her first draft. But it is unfair to Lee to publish it as if it were a finished novel, or to in any way represent it as her second novel or as a sequel.

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The stealth feminism of San Andreas

by Suw on July 11, 2015

Kevin and I went to see San Andreas last Sunday, a film that I nearly missed because I was in the UK whilst it was running at our local cinema, but which I was so eager to see that I made Kevin drive for an hour so we could catch the closest showing we could find.

As a lapsed geologist, I love anything even remotely geological, and particularly if it involves geophysical hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, or tsunamis. San Andreas thankfully only has two of those and, although I knew its pudding was over-egged, I was still really looking forward to seeing just how scientifically silly it was. I’d read the geological reviews, and was expecting it to be incredibly silly indeed.

I was not disappointed. The majority of the plot, from a scientific standpoint, is ridiculous, although there are a few points which are either plausible or spot on.


I’m not going to get in to a long description of what’s realistic and what’s not, as otherwise we’ll be here all day and others have done it better than I could. Suffice it to say that a Nevada quake could trigger a rupture on the San Andreas fault, but not at that magnitude. The constant aftershocks are a good representation of reality, but the collapsing skyscrapers are not. The advice to ‘drop, cover, and hold on’ is indeed what you should do in an earthquake: Get to the floor, get under something solid, maybe a desk or table, and hold on to it. And whilst drawback is a good way to spot that you’re in deep tsunami schtum, the San Andreas fault cannot produce a tsunami because the two sides are sliding past each other horizontally, not vertically as in a subduction zone. Oh, and in real life, if you’re dead for five minutes after drowning without receiving expert medical care, you’re probably just dead full stop.

The scientific accuracy of the movie was about what I was expecting. What really surprised me was the stealth feminism and the strong parallels with Mad Max: Fury Road.

Yes, you read that right. Feminism. In a movie featuring The Rock. I’m not kidding.

Now the first thing that I want to say is that I entirely disagree with the premise that only women can make feminist art, or that the only feminist art worth making is perfectly feminist art. A movie does not have to be perfect to be good, it does not have to score 100 percent on some feminist purism scale to be worthy of note. So before anyone argues that there’s something unfeminist in the movie which entirely negates my argument, let’s just lay it out: I’m not arguing that this is a perfect feminist movie, I’m saying that it has some laudable feminist aspects which I would like to see a lot more of in other movies (and books and TV and and and).

Right, I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way.

The first item of note in San Andreas is that it is in many ways a predictable action hero movie. It involves Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson staring as Ray, a big manly man with big manly muscles and a big manly career rescuing poor young ladies who’ve ended up stuck in their car after a landslide (and their own lack of attention — tsk, lady drivers) runs them off the road. The main plot of the movie concerns how Ray, a Los Angeles Fire Department Air Rescue pilot, flies his chopper through the disintegrating skyscrapers of LA to rescue his soon-to-be ex-wife, Emma, (who has left him for a one percenter architect, Daniel), and then continues on to San Francisco to rescue their daughter, Blake.

Ray is rather uncomplicated, one-dimensional character, played perfectly by Johnson whom the uncharitable might say specialises in uncomplicated, one-dimensional characters. Ray is a stereotype, and he cleaves to all the action hero tropes: He is big and brave. He has trouble expressing his emotions and loses his wife because of his inability to open up. He rescues people. He redeems the failure in his past, in this case the inability to save his daughter Mallory from drowning by, surprise surprise, saving his daughter Blake from drowning.

And, of course, he heals the rift between himself and his wife, winning back her love through the expediency of having a handy catastrophe of monumental proportions to help him work through his feelings. Never mind the several million people who die, the key thing is that Ray and Emma rekindle their love. So far so tropey.

But what about Emma? Well, we don’t get to see much of Emma. We know that she’s got a pretty shoddy taste in men as you suspect that Daniel, the rich architect dude, is a wanker from the off, and it doesn’t take long for him to confirm that not only is he a wanker, he’s a murderous wanker when his own life is at stake. Where Ray is one dimensional, Daniel is merely a MacGuffin, and the way is clear for him to get knocked off so that Emma can go back to Ray without any emotional complications.

How much more interesting and emotional would it have been for Daniel to have turned out to actually be a lovely, honourable chap, for Emma to have to choose not between dead wanker and live hero, but live hero and live hero? That’s probably a bridge too far for an action movie, but still.

We see that Emma’s good at following instructions, and she certainly manages to go up when everyone else is going down, but apart from that she doesn’t really do very much. However, she doesn’t scream unnecessarily, isn’t ditzy or stupid, appears to hold her own in terms of bravery, so she gets ten out of ten for defying usual action movie wife tropes, but she’s given very little to actually do. She just gets rescued, travels with Ray to San Francisco, and pilots a boat a bit at the end, but other than that, nada really.

So rather like Mad Max: Fury Road is just a very long car chase with a brief lull in the middle, San Andreas is a very long road trip, except it’s mostly by air. And rather like Max, Ray’s story is so simple it almost doesn’t exist. Max helps Furiosa save the Wives, but he is almost always the adjunct, having a grand total of one novel idea —‘Let’s turn round and go back again’ — throughout the entire movie. Ray manages to be a bit more useful, he saves five people throughout the entire movie, but he spends most of his time getting from A to B and dealing with all these sudden feelings he’s having. But his actions do not drive the story forward. He is a reactive character, who spends most of his time dealing with things that are happening to him, making few decisions and none that are surprising.

On the other hand Ray and Emma’s daughter, Blake, gets an awful lot to do. More than any other single character in the movie, it’s Blake who has to think on her feet, come up with ingenious solutions, defy (absent) authority, and put her extensive knowledge of emergency preparedness to the test. And she does this whilst assisting and protecting two male characters, newbie architect Ben and his little brother Ollie.

Blake is incredibly interesting. At the beginning of the movie, it rather seems as if she’s the usual sort of young women that we see in action flicks: She’s sitting by a pool, chatting to her dad on the phone, getting him to do something for her. She’s uncomfortable with her mum’s choice of new boyfriend, but feels some degree of loyalty to her mum and acquiesces to Daniel’s offer to take her up to San Francisco on his private jet.

When the earthquake hits, she and Daniel are in their chauffeur-driven car in the underground garage of his offices when a chunk of masonry kills said chauffeur and trips her legs, so she cannot get out of the car. At this point, I thought we were going to go full stereotype and we’d have screaming woman and slimy Daniel would save her and then we’d watch their flight through the disaster, but no, he’s more interested in saving himself, leaving her there to be Female Helpless Victim.

And sure enough Ben turns up to save her, with his younger brother Ollie in tow. Unable to shift the concrete by hand, Ben uses the car’s jack to lift it up a bit, then lets down the car’s tyres to give Blake just enough room to extricate herself. Nice bit of lateral thinking there, but so far, again, so tropey.

But Blake, it turns out, is not just a capable young women, she is intelligent, resourceful, determined, brave, and well-informed. She’s paid attention to Ray over the years, and knows what to do in an emergency and how to do it. It is Blake, not Ben, who leads the trio ultimately to safety (via her own death, but I’ll come to that later). It is Blake who makes the decisions, and Ben and Ollie who either provide information or support to her. Indeed, when Ben is vacillating over whether to follow her instructions, it is Ollie who says, (paraphrasing), “But Blake’s the one who knows what she’s doing, and she’s saved our arses already, so without her we’re toast.”

Indeed, Blake, Ben and Ollie work well together as a team, with Blake as the clear leader. Blake is the one who knows they need to find a landline to call her parents. Ollie’s the one with the map who directs them to the nearest electronics shop, but Blake’s the one who cobbles together a handset and makes it work.

Although Blake takes Ray’s instructions on where to meet, when Coit Tower turns out to be inaccessible, she’s the one who decides where to go next: to higher ground and Ollie, again, is the one with the map but Blake is the one who knows, when they see an abandoned fire truck that there might be useful supplies. She knows which channel to tune the radio set to.

When Ben is struck by flying glass, Blake shows no squeamishness at all in removing the glass from his leg. There’s no squealing, crying, shouting, screaming or fainting. She does what needs to be done. And when they hear the tsunami warning, she is the one who knows to get up as high as possible, and when they think they’re high enough, she’s the one who gives commands to find water and supplies. She is calm, collected, rational, knowledgeable and very much in command.

Yet there’s no arguments from Ben and Ollie about Blake’s leadership position, other than Ben’s one moment of doubt which is quickly and effectively countered by his younger brother. There’s no stroppiness about being told what to do by a woman, no snark, no sarcasm, no disobedience, no backstabbing, no self-interest. They just get on with it, each doing their best to help each other survive, working together as a team in which each brings their strengths and each can rely on the other.

That depiction of teamwork alone is unusual in a disaster movie. So often we’re given teams in conflict, where one person is working against the others because they are selfish, stupid, greedy or venal. But in San Andreas, everyone except Daniel is likeable, and Daniel is the cartoon sacrificial jerk who has to die. Everyone else gets on with doing what they think they need to do not just to survive, but to save each other.

Mad Max: Fury Road was really Furiosa’s story. She’s the interesting one; she drives the movie forwards; and she takes control of the situation, except when she realises that someone else might do it better.

San Andreas is really Blake’s story. She’s the interesting one; she drives the movie forwards; and she takes control of the situation, except when she’s either physically pinioned inside a car or dead. She makes the decisions; she shows the initiative; and she is the knowledgeable one, the leader.

And, interestingly, Blake takes on this role without surrendering her femininity or character. Furiosa, and similar characters like Aliens’ Ripley, are portrayed as having had to become harder, harsher, colder less empathic, in order to survive. They sacrificed their femininity on the altar of survival and that sacrifice was made off screen, before we even meet them.

Blake, on the other hand, starts the movie as a typical young woman and whilst by the end of the movie she’s been through a lot, what she hasn’t done is shed her femininity as if it were a skin to be sloughed to reveal the ‘real’, more masculine Blake underneath. She’s clearly still herself, clearly still has all the emotional capacities that she had when she started. She hasn’t had to harden, to close off her emotions or reject her humanity, even though she’s seen death and disaster up close.

One area where the script does fail us is in the insistence that Blake has to die in order for Ray to redeem himself. Simply saving her from certain death is not enough, she has to actually die in order for Ray to forgive himself for the death of Mallory, whom we’re told no one could have saved. This is not on. Using the suffering and death of woman as a mechanism to redeem a man reduces that woman to a convenient object. In doing that, San Andreas fails its audience, Blake and Ray himself, who is shown as incapable of dealing with his feelings and making peace with his past without the actual death of his daughter. That’s ugly, no matter which way you cut it.

Blake is, for my money, the most important character in San Andreas from both cultural and feminist points of view. Blake shows us that women can be smart, knowledgable leaders without being ball-breaking bitches. Indeed, they can be strong leaders and be kind, compassionate and caring at the same time. Blake shows us that women can give orders to men without those men breaking down in to faux-masculine outrage, and that women can work hand-in-hand with men to ensure everyone’s success and survival.

Ben, of course, has a part to play in this construction too. He is clearly also smart, resourceful and brave. He has to be, in order to be worthy of Blake’s love. But his reactions to to Blake’s leadership are intelligent and respectful, and they allow Blake to do what she does best.

Interestingly, Ben is British. I wonder if Hollywood thought that a woman telling an American man what to do was too outré for their audience to tolerate, but that British men are far too wimpy for anyone to complain? Well, I’m actually rather proud of the idea that British men are more capable of working closely and successfully with women leaders. I don’t know if that idea reflects reality, mind you, but I think it’s something good to aspire to.

But Blake is important not just because of what she represents, but because of who is most likely to go and see San Andreas. There’s no doubt that action hero movies are written to appeal to men, and sure enough, there were a lot of men in the cinema when we went to see it. And whilst it is incredibly important that girls women see on screen female characters that they can relate to and admire, it is also important that boys and men see smart, resourceful female leaders being treated with respect. And it’s even better if that role model is slipped under their nose almost without them noticing, without engendering a Fury Road-like backlash, so that it’s just normal, unremarkable, like Furiosa’s disability was.

San Andreas is only one film, and it’s far from being a perfect film, but it’s a good, solid step towards normalising the idea that women can be strong, compassionate and successful leaders. More please.

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