Tuesday, December 19, 2006

No turn unstoned

I'm sorry but I just couldn't let this pass without comment. Loyalist murderer Michael Stone who last month attempted to storm the Stormont Assembly has defended his actions as a piece of 'performance art'. The self-described "freelance dissident loyalist" wrote to Peter Hain and the Northen Ireland Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, alleging that his "unfinished work", entitled 'Never Say Never', was aimed at exposing the "futility of the politically-motivated violence created in a political vacuum". Perhaps 'Never Say No Surrender' might have made for a better title for the piece if that's his position. He signed off: "Political conflict is a crossroads for art, the art transcends politics." I always knew that no good would come of letting them Open University folks into the Kesh.

I can imagine the jokes that are already being made in the pubs and clubs of Belfast as I write so I'm not even going to try compete. Even scousers know when they're beaten in the dark humour stakes. But I think mad Mickey might be on to something.

Somebody once described performance art as dance for people who don't know how to dance but for the more open minded a visit to the Sniggle performance art page might prove worthwhile (Sniggle). The possibilities for a whole new genre of Northern Irish locality based pieces is endless.

Instead of painting kerbs stones in sectarian hues or knocking out one more muriel of King Billy crossing the Boyne, the creatively inclined members of the two communities could turn their hands to a whole range of politics-transcending performance pieces.

Actors disguised as Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley meeting for a pint in The Crown and refusing to talk about religion, politics or football. Rousing choruses of The Fields of Athrenry sung to the the tune of the Sash from behind the goal at Windsor Park, or a brick donated in the name of Bobby Sands on the Linfield FC homepage (if there isn't one already). I'm sure you get the drift.

The organisers of Féile an Phobail should be beating a path to Stone's jail cell to book him for next year's festival. I'm sure the NIO would oblige with a brief release under licence in the name of progressive performance art.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blogged Out

Regular readers (God love you one and all, or possibly just the one of you) may have noticed a gap in my contributions over the past wee while. I’m afraid to report that the amount of blogworthy material emerging from this small island in the past seven days became just too great for one blogger to keep up with.

To provide a pithy and witty summary of the amount of governmental mismanagement, corruption in high places, social injustice and the folie á quatre million that is contemporary Ireland would have turned me into a goggle-eyed RSI sufferer chained to his PC 24-7 for the past week. And that would have just been dealing with Brian Cowan’s budget. As a consequence I suffered the human equivalent of cascade overflow and found myself rendered both speechless and blogless until I could take it all in and put it into some kind of context

So here are the headlines

Cowan puts the trickle into ‘trickle down’

In a budget characterised by its author as ‘well received in most quarters’or most quarters where they drink a lot of Bollinger, that is, our Brian eased the tax burden for his high earning mates and still managed to throw a few scraps to the rest of us.

Brian Cowan reveals a penchant for floral adornment

Well I for one am breaking out the champagne, or perhaps the Tesco economy fizzy plonk, to mark his benificence. But just one question. How come a smoker like me on a meagre scrivener’s pittance is only €6 a month better off when a junior barrister at one of the many corruption tribunals is likely to be €100+ to the good? Thank God the big bollix didn’t put a penny on the porter or I’d be on the next boat out (and not a moment too soon I hear some of you mutter).

Dykes get dunned in marriage decision

Now I know in writing our constitution Dev might had Archbishop McQuaid looking over his shoulder and even sent a copy for Vatican approval. The big fellow in Rome thought it 'too tolerant of other religions', by the way. However, I think even the Long Fellow might have paused at the Mosaic status given to his words by Justice Betty Dunne in the High Court last week. Her Honour ruled that the valid Canadian marriage of Katherine Zappone and Anne Louise Gilligan could not be recognised for tax purposes here on the ould sod.

Dev brings the constitution down
from the mountain

Part of her 138 page justification suggested that the Constitution should not be read as a living instrument, whatever that is, and instead should be interpreted in accordance with its historical context. I've read the relevant sections and I can't see anything there, except by implication, that a marriage has to consist of a man and a woman, but I guess in 1937 when the constitution was written that didn't have to be specified, since to suggest some alternative would involve condemnation from the pulpit and a quick trip to the North Wall.

What I do see is the following:
Article 40
1. All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law.

Following our Betty's reasoning and applying this in accordance with its context we might find that some folks (e.g. white, male, heterosexuals) are more equal than others, at least in the mind of 1937 Ireland and that's what matters. Try running that argument past the Court of Human Rights, your judgeship.

Now as an old fashioned Marxisante I would be fundamentally opposed to the institution of marriage per se, but while we're stuck with it I don't see why it shouldn't be open to anyone, even if their only motivation for jumping over the stick is the tax breaks. And if the preference of our judges is for a fundamentalist, 1937 reading, then I might draw their attention to Article 41.2.2 which states

The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

I didn't see much in Big Brian's budget protecting the right of mothers to stop home all day washing nappies and watching Oprah instead of having to go out and work to pay the 110% mortgage needed to keep a roof over their heads in the inflated housing market of modern Ireland. But I guess Dev didn't envisage that happening, either.

Which brings me to.....

Auctioneers and developers engage in dubious practices shock/yawn

The lads and lasses at Prime Time have been at it again exposing the shoddy, gombeen underside of life on the Emerald Isle. In a story that every dog on the street not only knew but if you conducted a survey of them 95% would respond 'What else would you expect from dem lads, now pass them bones would yeh like a good fellow?'

It seems that property developers and auctioneers have been engaging in unethical, illegal and conspiratorial practices at the expense of ordinary buyers, sellers and occupiers of homes. Call me an old cynic ("Liam, you're an old cynic!") but in present market conditions where everyone and his wife or same sex partner is trying to struggle onto the housing ladder like lemmings climbing up the cliff before throwing themselves off, my question is why wouldn't they? Expecting anything else from these guys would be like expecting a great white shark to turn up his snout at a sniff of fresh blood in the water.

Mature development in convenient location, all mod cons (plus a few you might be unaware of)

It seems the little rascals have been manipulating bids, gazumping, passing confidential financial information between agents and mortgage providers, etc, etc. The only thing that sets the needle slightly quivering on my personal surprisometer is that they didn't uncover a few dodgy solicitors getting in on the act, as well. Or maybe they did, he says with conspiratorial nudge and a wink.

And on a lighter note.....

High court declares open season on uppity knackers

Mayo farmer Pádraig Nally walked free this week 5 years after shooting traveller John ‘Frog’ Ward, beating him several times with a stout ashplant and then shooting him once more for good measure before pitching his body over a wall. At his first trial Nally said "It was like hitting a stone or a badger. You could hit him but you could not kill him" Well somebody did, Paddy me old mucker.

I’ll remember that verdict the next time someone calling me boss knocks at my front door and makes me a cash offer on my ’92 Toyota or offers to tarmac my drive. “But yer honour I shot him because I thought he might come back and thieve it. You know what these knackers are like.” And the sad thing is, on the basis of the Nally decision, I would get away with it, not a bother.

John 'Frog' Ward conducts a social policy seminar

The victim of Nally’s psychopathic nervousness was interviewed by Paul Deering of the Sligo Champion in 2001 when accommodation problems had forced him and his 6 sons to sleep in the Hiace cause there was no room in the caravan. He said at the time

What I find hard to understand is the fact that so many other homeless people can get help straight away. I have nothing against refugees and asylum seekers but as soon as one of them sets foot in this country they get put up in hostels and bed and breakfasts for free.... None of them are asked to sleep in the back of a van. If they were there would be uproar. All I want is fair play and I feel Irish people should be looked after first. I don't know what the problem is with helping the Travelling community.

The late Mr Ward's naivety is almost touching, God rest his soul. What he failed to understand is the following:

1. Irish people like black babies cause the Church told 'em to. Looking after them is part of the image respectable Irish Catholics like to have of themselves. They don't like them personally, you understand, at least not enough to have those hostels next door. They just the idea of being kind to them at a distance.

2. Irish people don't like Travellers, because Travellers just aren't respectable. They let the side down badly in this respect. They don't, as a rule, own shops or houses or have steady jobs and they tend not to pay taxes (But that's only recently been identified as a crime in these parts). What's possibly worse, they've never been in too much of a rush to get on the property ladder, either. If anything, the sight of a campsite at the end of the boreen turns the self-same ladder into a big, slithery downward pointing python and taxes the creative ingenuity of even the most devious of auctioneers.

3. Unlike like the aformentioned black babies, of late Travellers have developed a nasty habit of being ungrateful, demanding their rights, and pointing to the abysmal way they've been treated by sedentary Ireland since the founding of the state. Begob, the buggers have even started demanding ethnic minority status, so they have.

4. As I've said before, Irish society isn't very handy with the concept of rights. They just don't sit easily with our MOPE (most oppressed people ever) cultural self-concept. In the social pyramid of the Irish Republic you get what you're given and be thankful for it if you're at the bottom and you take what you can as long as you can get away with it if you're at the top. Any changes in this perspective usually involve the state being dragged by the ear to the European Court like a schoolboy caught smoking behind the bike sheds.

5.One right that is cherished, however, is the one that says that if you don't like this arrangement then you're free to push off to somewhere your rights are worth something, like anywhere else in the developed world, and don't be giving me any of that old Provo shite about cherishing the children of the nation equally.

And so to the summary
As Gil Scott-Heron once sang
Civil rights, women's rights, gay rights…it's all wrong. Call in the cavalry to disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild. God damn it…first one wants freedom, then the whole damn world wants freedom.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Better RED(TM)than dead?

Ok I'm listening to U2 on my ipod nano (TM) while strolling down the street in my Converse Hi-Tops(TM) and Gap(TM) t-shirt, texting my mates on my Motorola(TM) phone. I've just paid for dinner by Amex and my Armani watch would tell me it's midnight in Johannesburg if I could see it from beneath my Bono-alike Armani shades. I should be feeling good, but I don't. I don't feel red at all, in fact I feel distinctly blue.

My Google search engine tells me today is World Aids Day and that my conspicuous consumption of these commodities is making a difference to the lives of HIV/Aids sufferers in Africa. So does Bono and his mate Bobby Shriver who founded the Product Red campaign.

But in all the warm fuzziness surrounding the message of corporate compassion that Bono and Bobby are promoting I feel definitely uneasy, not to say queasy. If you actually look at the partners in this scheme it's clear that Bono and Bobby aren't too fussy about the company they keep.

Let's just go through them alphabetically:

American Express
Annual revenue about $24 billion. On the board of Amex we find such notables as Daniel Akerson MD of the Carlyle group one the largest private equity firms in Washington. Carlyle has had strong links with the Bush family and previous investors included the Bin Ladens. They were also involved in significant defense contracts.

Could this be the reason it's not available stateside?

Sitting along side Don we find Richard McGinn former CEO of Lucent Technologies. Lucent was in its day a darling of Wall Street until it was discovered that it had used dubious accounting and sales practices to generate some of its sales figures. In 2002 the company instituted cuts to the health care and retirement benefits its 125,000 retirees.

Next to Dicky sits Frank Popoff. Frank is the chairman of Chemical Financial Corporation, a bank holding company, but before that he was Chairman and CEO of the Dow Chemical Company. Dow manufactured napalm and Agent Orange for use in Vietnam. More recently it has stonewalled attempts to force it to pay for the environmental clean-up at the site of the Bhopal chemical disaster which it took over from Union Carbide when the later fled India following the disaster(www.studentsforbhopal.org).

In September this year Dow launched a major campaign designed, in the words of GolinHarris their PR company, "to leverage and deflect the influence of activists on issues ranging from the environment to animal welfare." Nice folks, but a bit sneaky, what?

Incidentally, on its release, the Red Amex card wasn't made available in the USA. I wonder if the colour has something to do with that?

Apple Computers
Annual revenue about $2.1 billion. Everybody loves Apple, except Greenpeace it would seem. Since 2004 they have been running a campaign to persuade Apple to be a bit more eco-conscious in its manufacturing and recycling procedures. In its campaign Greenpeace identifies cadmium, beryllium, lead, brominated flame retardants, hexavalent chromium, and mercury amongst the toxic substances in your Apple product.

According to their website (www.greenpeace.org/apple/about.html)
Right now, poison Apples full of chemicals (like toxic flame retardants, and polyvinyl chloride) are being sold worldwide. When they're tossed, they usually end up at the fingertips of children in China, India and other developing-world countries. They dismantle them for parts, and are exposed to a dangerous toxic cocktail that threatens their health and the environment.

With an annual revenue of $1692 million last year, the designer to dictators, coke barons and Hollywood movie moguls, our Georgio is also a convicted tax fraudster. In a 1996 plea bargain arrangement he was fined $64,000 and received a suspended sentence for attempting to bribe tax inspectors.


Now owned by Nike (need I say more) after its 2001 bankruptcy Converse shifted its manufacturing outside the United States to China, Indonesia and Vietnam (No sweatshop labour there, I would think). In addition to the famous Hi-Tops, the company also manufactures a range of 'tactical' footwear and it you can bet it ain't basket-ball players and fey singer-songwriters who form the market for those booties.

Annual Revenue around $16 billion. Having had a long history of, shall we say, unfortunate sourcing of its products, GAP has recently begun greening its image and taking a lead in the growing area of corporate social responsibility. So its involvement with a cause like Product Red is not surprising. Nonetheless, it is still the subject of campaigns resultng from the use of union bashing subcontractors like Paxar in Turkey and Western Factory in Jordan. According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), the Gap's clothing products are manufactured with genetically engineered and pesticide laden cotton. Additionally, the company is not thoroughly implementing a code of conduct for its suppliers to ensure that no sweatshop labor is employed.

In 2002 BusinessWeek named Gap as having one of the worst corporate boards. The company was cited for inside deals including contracts with the chairman's brother to build and remodel stores and a consulting arrangement with the chairman's wife. The magazine also pointed out the interlocking directorship with the Gap's CEO sitting on Apple's board, while Apple's CEO sits on Gap's. (Responsible Shopper).

And last, but not least, Motorola

Annual revenue about $41.2 billion. Outside of the world of corporate capital, Motorola's CEO Edward J Zander is probably best known for his prescient comment of 2005 "Screw the nano. What the hell does the nano do? Who listens to 1,000 songs?"

The company, which describes itself as a global corporate citizen (what be that?) presumably took its equal opportunities, affirmative action stance seriously while slashing its workforce from 160,000 to about 55,000 since 2001.

It has also become a significant player in the US Defence market of late. In 2003 it received a contract for the purchase, delivery and distribution of 3,000 portable and vehicular-mounted mobile radios, base stations, repeaters and towers, spare parts and installation to support the Baghdad Police Force.

To be fair to Motorola, of the bunch Bono and Bobby have gathered around them they appear to have the most proactive and longstanding commitment to corporate responsibility. Moreover, it does not appear to have emerged as a result of scandals surrounding sweatshops and child labour, so fair play to Moto.

The point about all this is that, as any Marxist knows, you can't separate consumption from production. Encouraging people to engage in conspicuous consumption won't change the social relationships that are the root cause of the under-development that leads to diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB shortening lives across the world. Holidaying in other people's misery is one thing but encouraging us to buy products which indirectly contribute to that misery is nothing more than an act of bad faith and self-mystification.

Helping a handful of corporations to present themselves as caring and compassionate instead of the rapacious barbarians they collectively are and giving affluent kids in the west the sense that shopping can make the world a better place, doesn't just miss the point, it just confuses the issue further. It won't stop the exploitation and it won't fundamentally change the nature of capitalism. It just becomes another tool in their armoury and they know it. As the PR company GolinHarris noted recently:

But it isn’t big brother that is watching. It’s the people. Every activist group, no matter how small, has the weapons in hand to attack a major corporation and sometimes bring it to its knees. Insight and experience dealing with NGOs will be a valuable asset in the protection of corporate reputation.

Thanks for giving them a helping hand, Paul.