The Blog of Mary Jones

Review of ‘Counterknowledge: How we surrender to conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history’ by Damian Thompson.

Everybody who uses the internet has encountered ‘conspiraloons’ in response to whom is usally pointed abuse and mockery, or most likely non-engagement as saner users refuse to debate with the wilder fringes of the internet.

One discussion board, Urban75, not unused to the presence of those convinced 9/11 was a plot hatched in the Whitehouse, has even produced a guide for new members: 10 characteristics of conspiracy theorists.

But what many consider to be part of the eccentricities of the world wide web can take on a far more sinister face if parroted by the impressionable: A friend of mine is a youth worker in London, and has to constantly deal with illusions by Asian youth that the events on September 11 really was an attack orchestrated by the US and Israeli governments.

Damin Thompson calls this false information counterknowledge and in his book of the same name aims to challenge this left-bank field of wrong thought, as he states:

‘Credulous thinking is spreading through society as fast and silently as a virus, and no one has a clue how long the epidemic will last. Counterknowledge is not like smallpox, which has been completely eradicated through vaccination. A better analogy would be HIV/AIDS, which has a frightening ability to mutate. No sooner do we think that a strain of counterknowledge is under control that we are confronted by an unexpected variant. Scientific Creationism morphs into Intelligent Design; neo-Nazi Holocaust denial becomes Muslim Holocaust denial.’

The book is essentially splits into three parts, each dealing with Creationism and Intelligent Design, alternative medicine and pseudohistory, the latter of which shall be reviewed here.

Thompson really strips away the fig leaf of respectability of  1421: The Year China Discovered the World (Entitled in ‘1421: The Year China Discovered America’ in the States).

The story behind this boo is that a badly written document by the amateur historian Gavin Menzies arrived on the publishers desk, after numerous rewrites, it was presented to a PR company who spun the narrative into a world wide phenomenon. The reason the media lapped up a history book such as 1421 was duo to contemporary Chinese economic expansion: apparently then, as now, China was a great power.

Damian Thompson clearly states that the incredulous tale weaved in 1421 is as untrustworthy as a supposed academic document as you would ever find, or ‘devious bogus scholarship’ as he labels it.

But what irritates the author so much, is not that Menzies book was ever printed, but that it was done so under the banner of history, and promoted as a serious item of work by mainstream publishers and bookstores.

Next in line of Thompson’s rage is the Da Vinci Code. A work of fiction, it has popularised a whole host of books such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Genesis of the Grail Kings, Chariots of the Gods?, The Magdalene Legacy, The Jesus Papers and Talisman: Sacred Cities, Secret Faith.

These are works of pseudohistory that not only deal with the supposed blood line of a Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, but also a ‘secret religion’ started in ancient Egypt that eventually lead to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 by Zionists and Masons; as well as numerous hyperdiffusionist theories concerning the finding of America by ancient European civilisations and other deeply flawed archaeological positions.

Also up for ridicule is Afrocentrism, a substrand of 1960s Black cultural nationalism, which, lead by American academic Molefi Kete Asante (real name Arthur Lee Smith) from Temple University, Philadelphia, creates, at the very least, an over-emphasis on aspects of ancient Egyptian culture, or, at its worst, spins a tale of Black achievement in Africa whose wrongness is protected by accusations of racism against doubters.

Thompson’s book is more rhetorical than a scholarly work, and I’m not really convinced by Damian Thompson’s apocalyptic cry that we are being besieged by false history, crackpot religious theories and wrong medicine.

Yes, publishers and television production companies should be more responsible in how they package works of academic disrepute, but pseudohistory has a long lineage that stretches back centuries – it is not a new phenomenon.

9/11 conspiracy theories do have some currency in the world, but at it’s heart lie, in the West at least, mistrust towards politicians themselves.

The fact is that most people do not trust either politicians or scientists.

Just recently the Center for Public Integrity listed 935 instances of false statements made by the administration in Washington in the two years leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

And sciences cloak of universal betterment for all went up in smoke with the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events from which it is never really recovered from, as well as the numerous instances of the corruption of scientific inquiry by big business money in the decades since.

The author obviously feels that he is the standard bearer of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, but it should be noted that he is the editor-in-chief of the UK Catholic Herald.

So does he really believe in the transubstantiation, that during Holy Communion the wine and bread changes into the body and blood of Christ?

Holding such an important position in Catholicism, I found it hard to accept that he doesn’t, and transubstantiation is itself one of the most ridiculous ideas in the modern world.

As for historical fact, he should look closer to home: there is no evidence that Jesus Christ ever existed as a real person.

On that he is strangely quiet.



Remembering Our Friends in the North

Critically regarded as one of the finest dramas ever to be produced by British TV, the nine episodes of Our Friends in the North span three decades, starting in 1964 and ending in 1995.

It depicts the fortunes of four teenage friends from Newcastle in the north east of England – Nicky, Geordie, May and Tosker.

More so it charters their frustrations and disappoints in life as they chase they respective fortunes, ideals and happiness.

Taking nine pivotal years in each episode (1964, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1984, 1987, 1995).

Without doubt this series doffs its cap to the British New Wave, with the focus being on and around the four working class characters.

All are subject to the external buffeting of economic, political and criminal influences, and the viewer does build up a genuine affection for them all as they struggle through life.

When this series was first shown in 1996, I was particularly impressed with the accuracy of the historical events that they are both a part of and which happen around them. Although all the four characters are fictitious, a number of other figures are based upon real people. For further information on this I would direct you to Our Friends in the North wikipedia entry here.

Copyright and Copyleft

Did you know that silence is copyrighted? That’s right, silence, as in, the absence of all sound.

I presume you didn’t and neither did songwriter Mike Batt until the publishers of the composer John Cage threatened him with legal action for breach of copyright. The offending track was Batt’s A Minutes Silence, in which they said he had plagiarised Cage’s 4’3”. Both featured absolutely no sound at all.

Mike Batt said in his own defence:

“I’ve been accused of breaching the copyright of his silence of four minutes and 33 seconds in presenting a silence of my own of one minute and I claim that my silence is an original silence and it’s not a quotation from his silence.”

As amusing as it is surreal, the copywriting of silence is indicative of a wider stranglehold that business has on intellectual property laws.

It is a stranglehold that many are now subverting and, indeed, fundamentally challenging.

Just as much as the introduction of the printing press caused a major shift in the means and ability to share information in the sixteenth century, so too is the internet in the twenty-first.

The opportunities presented by the digital age, and in particular the world wide web, have highlighted the inadequacies of the current legal situation.

A strand of artistic opinion has long considered copyright to be no more than a form of neurotic obsessiveness, and certainly, although not a modern creation, it has been built-up during the twentieth century into a bastion of unassailable ethics.

There are many artists and projects that seek to create culture, but without the cultural structure.

The Luther Blissett Project and their current alto-ego Wu Ming allow their European-wide blockbuster novel Q and other works to be downloaded free from their website.

Likewise their compatriots in have a habit of stealing website art installations, republishing the work, and then allowing free access instead of an entrance fee.

Music has been at the centre of acrimonious debates on plagiarism and artistic integrity since the birth of rock’n’roll in the fifties.

Sampling, the name for taking parts of other songs in order to be used again, usually in the form of drum rhythms, exploded in the eighties with house music and hip-hop. Although most sampling today is done so with paid creditation, some producers and musicians still refuse to conform, and, what’s more, directly taunt those they take from.

Publicity stunts to embarrass the powers-that-be are fine, and nobody can decry the Luther Blissett Project for setting an example for others to follow, but far bigger movements involving multiple contributors from all over the world are currently happening.

This movement operates under the loose umbrella term copyleft, as opposed to copyright, and seeks to challenge entrenched intellectual property laws with new technology and viable legal alternatives.

The most notable contribution comes from the widespread open source software tendency where programmers contribute, mostly without payment, to new software on a far more flexible basis than that offered by corporate avariciousness. The source code, under licence, is available for others to use, amend and contribute to.

Two well-known examples of open source software are the Firebird browser and Linux – the latter, incidentally, provides a cheap and viable alternative to Windows for Cuba’s health care system.

In this vein, Ian Clarke established the Free Net Project in 2001. Quite simply, it is an internet within the internet, but websites are broken up and anonymously distributed over the hardware of other Freenet users, and in the process making it completely impossible for any website to be shut down.

If Freenet succeeds the implications for copyright are massive – it would, on the net at least, be completely impossible to enforce.

Another established and growing copyleft popular front is the non-profit Creative Commons. Founded a few years ago by the maverick Stanford law professor, Lawrence Lessig, it provides any author – musician, writer, photographer or programmer – an alternative means of protecting their work.

The legal contract, easy for the user to make, can allow, at the discretion of the creator, various restrictions – or no restrictions – on how other people use their work. It means some rights reserved, rather than all rights reserved.

So far, 6 million webpages are under the Creative Commons License.

Although based in the US, the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at Oxford University are currently working on a UK license which should be released before the year is out.

Nobody in the copyleft tendency is advocating an anarchistic idea or taking and stealing anything. People deserve a living wage and financial compensation for their work, and certainly an acknowledgement of their labour if requested.

One alternative, among many, is that proposed by the Free Net Project. Based upon voluntary contributions, similar to a system of patronage, supportive donations are given direct to the artist. There are many cases of this happening on the net, with sums being raised by blogger journalists, webmasters and musicians.

Of course, there is always a role for government funding, which should start with artists and musicians being properly recognised in order to receive state benefits if needed. Visit Hackney web design for all your online needs.

Business, terrified of competition, and especially if that competition is more effective than they are, is understandably nervous at the challenge represented by copyleft.

In January, Bill Gates of the mighty Microsoft corporation gave his opinion:

‘I’d say that of the world’s economies, there’s more that believe in intellectual property today than ever. There are fewer communists in the world today than there were. There are some new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and moviemakers and software makers under various guises. They don’t think that those incentives should exist.’

His comments sent a ripple of laughter across the world wide web, spawning mock artwork and even t-shirts and baseball caps bearing such slogans as Copyleft = Commie and Creative Communists, a pun on Creative Commons.

It even led to a new version of The Internationale for the net age:

‘Arise, you independent artists!
Arise, fair users great and small!
Those evil cartels and their jurists
Have, through their exploits, chained you all!’

The copyleft movement is expanding. It is based upon an ideal that the flow of information and ideas should be fluid and not constrained in the name of greed.

This makes it an appealing counter-movement to the prevailing corporate hegomony, and like the sixties counter-cuture it is mutifaceted and constantly evolving.

If you need digital services in East London then please pay a visit to Bethnal Green web design and development.

What they hold in common is the desire for co-operative action across the web in the spirit of artist endevour, software creation and freedom of information.

It is inspiring to know in age of seeming individualism, where oneupmanship is promoted as behaviour to emulate, that some of the finest minds of the younger generation have been galvonised in the name of not-for-profit.

Paul Weller: At The Royal Albert Hall

Growing up in the Essex/East London border lowlands it seemed that every young lad during the eighties and nineties adored Paul Weller.  His music over the decades has reached across the world, but it found its greatest resonance around the M25 suburbs – the so-called Weller Belt; and his following here was mostly young, working class lads.

His appeal was obvious – songs that were sometimes urgent and angry, at other times reflective and brooding, but at all times delivered with style.

There was always something in Weller’s songwriting that was both accessible and elitist – a rare combination that ensured a fanatical ‘cult of the personality’ following from a legion of young devotees.

Paul Weller himself was always a difficult character to fathom. Amongst the record industry he was viewed as a bolshy nightmare; music journalists would often be disappointed at finding a quiet and inarticulate interviewee and confused his shyness for arrogance, while fans were would have their allegiances tested when he split The Jam and formed The Style Council. Which, in the case of the latter, often set out to deliberately offend and upset, rather than appease and entertain, the Mod revival he spawned.

Part of the difficulty in assessing Weller has been his own constantly shifting horizons and a seemingly inbuilt unease with both himself and the world around him. While other working class artists in a similar position, say, for instance, Rod Stewart, took the money and ran, the Woking rebel refused to conform to anybody’s expectations, and, indeed, often deliberately sought to upset those who would profess to eulogise him.

Commercially, his career seemed to have been permanently derailed after the Style Council finally split in 1989. But he released a self-titled, self-funded and greatly underrated solo album in 1992 which laid the foundations for 1994’s well-received Wild Wood album.

Riding into the Britpop explosion he was hailed as a conquering hero.

During the Wild Wood tour he was tense and moody, and not particularly enjoying playing live – an experience he admits he has always found intimidating.

During this nineties period he refused to cover any Jam or Style Council songs believing, correctly, that he needed to find success on his current skills rather than being a mere karaoke experience.

So it was a pleasure to find Paul Weller in 2011 a far more relaxed and happy figure than has ever been seen before.

An obvious difference now being a stable line-up for his backing band which adds a vital part to the show.

In main stay of the set he played Wildwood classics – Has My Fire Really Gone Out?, Can You Heal Us (Holy Man), and Foot Of The Mountain. As well as songs associated with those sessions such as You Do Something To Me and All The Pictures On The Wall. He even threw in a version of Wishing On A Star – a foretaste of a covers album to be released in the autumn.

But, importantly, he played a couple of Style Council singles and Jam tracks Liza Radley and In The Crowd.

He now seems happy to celebrate such obvious masterpieces. Clearly, judging by the audience response, this relaxed approach to his past catalogue is gratifying to his fans.
So meet the new style – same as the old, but more comfortable in itself.

It is a relief to know that in an ever-changing world Paul Weller is still the epitome of cool – and a light that refuses to go out.

Havering Home Closures Meeting – Report Back

Tuesday June 17 saw another instalment in Havering’s long-running care home saga. John Cryer, Labour MP for Hornchurch, called a meeting for concerned relatives at Langtons hall. Also in attendance was the leader of the Conservative council Eric Munday, the controversial Conservative MP for Romford, Andrew Rosindell, and Elaine Hossack, the country’s only public law solicitor who specialises in the care homes issue.

In 1999 the London Borough of Havering earned the distinction of becoming the first local authority in the Britain to announce the closure of all their publicly run care homes without any announced replacement places in the private sector. The following three years saw a high profile campaign fought by Havering Action Against Elderly Home Closures (HAAHC). This came to a head in the May local elections when the Tories spectacular gains reduced the Havering Labour group to a rump. Part of their campaign was fought on the save the care homes ticket. Recent announcements though by the ruling regime have remised on this position with the remaining four council care homes to be closed down and replaced by two purpose built establishments under private care.

Chairing the meeting was David Aitkins, national spokesman of Residents’ Against Home Closures (RAGE) – an umbrella organisation that is comprised of 20 regional campaign groups. Citing statistics that 37 percent of residents pass away one year after having been moved, he said, ‘I’ve been all around the country from Hastings to Dartmouth to Bristol and one thing I’m told all the time is public, public, public.’

Needless to say, the Leader of the Council, Eric Munday, was adamant that the new proposals were intended for the welfare of the elderly residents and euphemistically described the new scheme as ‘careful budgeting’ and ‘value for money’. In response John Cryer – a staunch long-term supporter of the care homes campaign – fittingly read out some of Cllr Munday’s published remarks when in opposition, and then contrasted them with his actions in power. He declared, ‘In 1970 the ratio of public to private care homes was two to one in favour of public care homes. It is now four to one in favour of private. We are seeing the complete obliteration of publicly funded care homes. I get fed up with listening to Ministers stand up in Parliament saying that they have no ideological opposition to privatisation. Well I do have ideological opposition to privatisation because with privatisation someone, somewhere gets screwed.’

Ray Harris, now Labour Opposition leader, stood up and made some forgettable opposing remarks to the current council position despite until May 2002 being at the forefront of the care home attacks. While solicitor Elaine Cossack spoke of the current situation in regards to private care homes: ‘Tony (Blair) has a plan that only people with dementia will be in residential homes, but this is nonsense as obviously there are places needed for the general elderly population who may well be in need of 24 hour care without having a brain disease. Cllr Munday tells you that the private sector can provide cheaper care. This is nonsense. Don’t forget all your Stratford web design needs. They are going out of business in their droves. But the private sector is fighting back. In Birmingham recently they served their own contract on the council demanding greater fees. This demand fell apart because some of the care companies fell away, but this is what will happen in Havering if there is no public provision at all.’

A daughter of one of the residents at Hampden Lodge said, ‘Mum has lived under the threat of losing her home for the last four years. If we were constantly threatened with eviction from our homes, how would we feel? She may not live in a semi or detached house but to mum Hampden is just as precious. It’s her home.’