Saturday, 8 April 2006

How white is white?

The front page of this weekend's Guardian sports a picture of the "non-white" British National Party candidate for a ward in Bradford, one of the northern towns which suffered race riots in 2001.

That's him, Sharif Gawad, to the right. His name sounds foreign, certainly, but he looks pretty "white" to me. But, no — as the Guardian put it, he's the Greek-Armenian "grandson of an asylum seeker". He's "ethnic".

The BNP leadership puts it somewhat differently. He's the grandson of a "genuine refugee" (the use of that term by the BNP might be a first) who came to Britain fleeing "Muslim persecution". He is "of Christian origin" and "the sort of chap" who'll attend BNP demos "whatever the weather".

It's interesting to see the reversal: the Guardian — revelling, I think, in a bit of BNP-baiting — pointing out his grandfather was an "asylum seeker", and the BNP — on the defensive — referring to that same person as a "refugee". Part of the distinction seems to be that Gawad's grandfather was a Christian fleeing Muslims: I wonder if the same arguments could apply to, say, Christians of Darfur fleeing Arab persecutors?

Whatever justifications their leadership can come up with, the Guardian reckon the BNP rank-and-file is upset by Gawad's candidature. The party admits that "his name alone" could "give rise to confusion". They suggest that "in hindsight" it might've been best not to put him up as a candidate. Apparently the lesson is that someone with a Muslim-sounding name shouldn't be a BNP candidate. It's okay, though, he's "known for his strong anti-Islamic stance".

This is the point: the BNP is at the moment focusing on Islam as the malign force invading our great nation. Their strategy is to capitalise on and/or create anti-Muslim feeling based on Islamic terrorism (New York, Madrid, London), making it a fight between the good, Christian west and evil Muslims from the east. Widespread lack of knowledge about Islam and a skewed conception of Muslims due to these recent events contribute wonderfully. (George Galloway is playing the same game from the other side: he is capitalising on Muslim reaction to anti-Muslim feeling.)

But the BNP is still an organisation committing to "shut[ting] the door" on immigration (including refugees, assuming they can find safe refuge in places other than Britain). It is a party that wants to want to "strengthen the traditional family" — that is, the patriarchal one. They are in favour of corporal and capital punishment (for "petty criminals and vandals" and "paedophiles, terrorists and murderers", respectively). Not to mention its economic policies which would, to put it frankly, cripple our economy.

The BNP claim to be defending British "traditions and values" — but I can think of at least one they are assaulting, a tradition of ours of which I am proud. The British tradition of providing a safe haven and openness to immigration is, despite tabloid hysteria, a long-running, beneficial feature of our society. A quote from the memoirs of a Russian who fled the Tsars in 1876 will suffice to illustrate this:
As I went to the steamer I asked myself with anxiety, "Under which flag does she sail, — Norwegian, German, English?" Then I saw floating above the stern the union jack, — the flag under which so many refugees, Russian, Italian, French, Hungarian, and of all nations, have found an asylum. I greeted that flag from the depth of my heart.

Thursday, 6 April 2006

Remember, remember

"Excuse me. There seems to be some sort of mistake. I bought a drink and some popcorn and now I have no money."
— Black Books, series 1, ep. 5
Tonight, I went to the cinema. But, heeding the warnings implicit in Bernard's bewilderment above, I took my own popcorn, freshly made. It's so much cheaper. Alas, it seemed a petty act of rebellion next to the explosives on screen.

We saw V For Vendetta, the latest comicbook-made-film from Hollywood. I've read the comic, but I won't pretend to be a superior geek — I read it when I heard they were making a film about a British Orwellian dystopia with an anarchist hero of sorts. My cup of tea, I thought. And it was: Alan Moore's comic is a brilliant work, and I know its not only those of us with a soft spot for anarchism and a crush on George Orwell who appreciated it — my girlfriend loved it too.

After Sin City, I had high hopes of how a comicbook film could look, and with the Wachowskis scriptwriting, expectations were higher still. Those hopes have not been dashed: The comic is, to oversimplify, "a blend of 1984 and Batman", and the film takes that and builds on it, sticking to the comic's imagery, making the story "relevant" and, well, just making that story.

As with any adaptation, it's not a question of whether it's been changed or how much, but simply how. I expected not to have quite as much Shakespearean monologue or deeper philosophical explanation from V; I was even braced for a bit of sexualisation of the characters, perhaps a broadening of the relationship between V and Evey. Thankfully, the imagery and the relationships between characters didn't stray far from those of the graphic novel, making for an impressive identification of the two: in my mind, the train scene near the end plays out in the frames just as it does in the panels.

As well as the Shakespeare quotes, which were integral to V's original character, I loved the references to Emma Goldman and the Sex Pistols — but particularly I enjoyed the way the Wachowski's have updated the story in its detail, but not in its form. As the comic did, the narrative mentions "the way the meaning of words changed" — but the Wachowski's have used the more recent euphemisms "collateral" and "rendition" for their examples.

The TV-footage-style flashbacks and clips that illustrate Britain's slide towards fascism blend the ranting-on-a-podium imagery which is so ubiquitous in dystopian film with eerily familiar-sounding news reports. Images of "America's war", for instance, or the reference to people being "interned at Belmarsh", gave the film an urgency it would have lacked if the setting had been less contemporary. The effect was enhanced by the fact that, as a Brit, seeing any film based in this country is a relief amidst the domination of American cinema. Just seeing motorways instead of freeways lightens my heart.

V For Vendetta stirs all sorts of political and philosophical debates: about V's nihilism; where power lies; the ethics of political violence and revenge. I hope this film gets more people to look at today's situation — broadly, the "war on terror" — from a different perspective. There is an ever-present threat of tyranny in any democracy, and the swift transitions to tyranny that we can see in history are quite alarming. Today we have two camps: the complacent majority that hardly notices the government's creeping authoritarianism, and the 'lefties' who cry 'fascism!' far too frequently.

I'll leave you with the one line that stuck with me from the comic, and which I think and hope will stick with others walking out of the cinema: "people should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people."

Monday, 3 April 2006

The wikiworld will come

By now I suspect most web users have heard of wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that recently celebrated its millionth article. I used to edit it quite a lot, but that's no great distinction: it had hundreds, thousands, of editors then and it has more now.

There's no doubt in my mind that wikipedia is a wonderful project. Whether it is a platform for cranks or a reliable reference source, it is the most interesting development the web has brought us yet. True, many of its other inventions are more popular to participate in — music and film downloads, social networks starting with livejournal and culminating in myspace, and, linked to the latter, blogs.

These other trends weren't all that easy to predict, but they make sense. Who'dve thought we'd be downloading music instead of buying it in a physical form? Once the technology was there — particularly broadband 'net access — it was inevitable really. Music providers were slow to respond to the opportunity, so web users set out to do it themselves, uncertain about the legalities.

But who would've predicted blogs and, especially, journals? Blogs, once again, soared in popularity after the technology was up to scratch, once it was easy to upload articles and have them read. XML and related languages have really made that possible. But before that was all sorted out, people were already keeping public diaries. There may well be a theory that anyone writing a diary secretly wants it to be read, but to actually publish the daily events for all the world to see? Again, it wasn't easy to predict, but looking back it seems quite a natural development out of Usenet groups, discussion lists and the like.

Filesharing and discussion came together to form social networks — Friends Reunited was one of the important precursors to that, and now friendster and myspace are classic examples. I don't know whether livejournal's friends list function was a first, but it was definitely a forerunner to the lists people now create on other social network sites, with all the same worries about who to add and who not to add, just as party-throwers might agonise over who to invite and who not to invite.

But back to the wiki — who could have predicted that? Yeah, it would become obvious people would start using the internet to collaborate in various ways and to share information, and those are the main points about wikipedia. But to create a collaborative project open to everyone without exception? It defies expectation, certainly.

Someone quoted recently (on a livejournal community for wikipedians which I set up) that the problem with wikipedia is that it only works in practice — in theory, it can never work. People really did say it'll never work. They said it would fall to vandals, that the articles would be crap. There have been problems with those particular worries. Indeed, a number of contributors have left the project because of incessant vandalism, and I'm sure many potential contributors have been discouraged by the poor quality or particular articles.

But wikipedia has not fallen. It persists and improves, much to the surprise and bemusement of everyone, its founders included. Why should we care? Well, it is an incredibly useful site, providing systematic and easy-to-access information on a massive range of topics. It may need to be taken with a pinch of salt, and it can never be perfect, always being a work-in-progress.

What is important to realise is that wikipedia has a vision and a plan attached to it: the ultimate aim is to give "every single person... free access to the sum of all human knowledge". When the day comes that the wikimedia foundation distributes wikipedia affordably in all the world's major languages — then people will realise the very real impact this project is going to have.