The fundamentalist the media loves to quote

Johann Hari’s column this month in Attitude magazine expresses horror at the continuing media presence of Stephen Green, head of the campaign group Christian Voice. Green, you might remember, led the campaign against Jerry Springer: The Opera, which led to much of the show’s UK tour being cancelled a few years ago.

Hari argues that it’s shocking Green remains frequently quoted and interviewed on TV and radio, considering his support for the murder of gay people.

Do you deserve to be killed for being gay? Should you be hanged, or shot, or electrocuted? In Britain today, a man who believes you should be – and who actively supports the on-going campaign to hunt down and kill gay people in Africa – is being given prime-time TV slots by the BBC and Channel Four. When Elton John had a baby, he was given the main response on the flagship Six O’Clock News. He is in the rolodex of all the “moral discussion” programs, wheeled on whenever we inch closer to equality for gay people. He is Taken Seriously, and treated as a neutral commentator by shows like Question Time and newspapers like the Daily Mail. His name is Stephen Green, and if he had his way, you’d be reading this from death row.

Now, I like Johann Hari. But he does get a bit carried away sometimes, and I wondered what evidence he’d cite for Green’s pro-murder views. It comes, it turns out, from a newsletter Christian Voice sent out last year. In it, Green appears to write approvingly about Uganda’s proposed law introducing the death penalty for gay sex in some circumstances: “The Bible prescribes precisely the penalty [Ugandan MP David] Bahati is proposing for sodomy in any situation, whether or not ‘aggravated.’”

Crikey. But I was still sceptical. Noting the Bible’s support for something isn’t the same as endorsing it yourself; some deeply religious people have separated themselves from the nuttier aspects of the chosen faith’s holy texts. So I fished out the newsletter, fully expecting to find a qualification that let Green off the hook.

Spoiler alert: nope.

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Ed Miliband and Me

Fun fact: I once had dinner with Ed Miliband. And, on another occasion, played with his BlackBerry when we were both at a picnic on Regent’s Park.

I point this out not to show off – or at least, not purely for that reason. Rather, to illustrate just how rapidly he has risen – and share some thoughts on his suitability for the position he’s ascended to.

I first became aware of Ed Miliband in the autumn of 2003. As you may now, Ed (I sense that people are going to refer to him generally as ‘Ed’ rather than ‘Miliband’) spent 2003-4 teaching at Harvard University. This is widely-known because it meant that he was out of the UK and away from Government around the time of the Iraq war, which has helped him no end since.

I was studying at Harvard in 2003-4. Not long after I arrived, the campus was covered overnight with posters advertising a course called “What’s Left?” and subtitled something like ‘the future of social democracy in Europe.’ And by covered, I mean plastered. The bloody things were everywhere. Advertising for courses, especially new courses, is common at the start of the year at Harvard like elsewhere. But there were three or four of these for any one of anyone else’s.

The course, needless to say, was being run and taught by one E. Miliband. He’s David Miliband’s brother, someone explained. I was only dimly aware of David Miliband, so the existence of his brother didn’t particularly excite me, and I didn’t take the course. But I was told the first lecture was literally overflowing ,with over 500 prospective students turning up. “Crikey,” Ed apparently said when he walked in. “I guess advertising does work.”

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One social network to rule them all? A modest proposal

I realise this might sound like politician calling for a new taskforce, or a businessman calling for a new tax break, but: we need a new social network.

By this, I don’t mean that we need a new standalone service for sharing a kind of media, be it short messages, photos, videos, sound, shopping lists or anything else. Rather, what’s needed is a framework to pull all the existing Web 2.0 services together in a way that’s fluid, attractive and easy to use.

Social networking versus social publishing

In the beginning of the internet, much time and energy was spent discussing its potential to enable people to reach outside the boundaries of their everyday lives and connect in communities of shared interest. The internet enabled us to explore areas of interest our ‘real’ lives didn’t allow us to investigate: people who lived in small towns with no galleries could learn about art; fans of obscure bands or niche cuisines or unusual hobbies could connect all around the world.

Equally importantly, the web allowed us to adopt a second identity. People could embrace interests that might not be socially acceptable – from kinky sex to stamp-collecting to simple silliness – without risking their real-world reputations.

With the advent of ‘Web 2.0’ and the development of ever more methods for people to create and share content online – from Flickr for photos to YouTube and Vimeo for vidoes to Blogger, WordPress and Twitter for written thoughts – this potential of the web was enhanced. Secret identities are no longer the preserve of superheroes: now each of us can have a second persona under which we publish all manner of content and connect with strangers all over the world.

But just as these services were developing, a funny thing happened: real life started to intrude. Facebook, launched in 2004, grew like topsy to become the website many people spend most time on, and the most vital to people’s lives outside email. In the process, it became the default method of sharing photos, videos and writing for millions of people.

Facebook’s success stems largely from one thing: its grounding in real life. You join under your real name, with a real photo, and connect with your real-life friends. From its origins as a tool to grease the wheels of the stratified social scene at Harvard University, it’s become the online complement to people’s real lives, used to share holiday snaps and plan birthday parties with existing friends far more than it is to meet new people. It’s a true ‘social network’ – the only true social networking site – because it exists almost exclusively as an extension of, and facilitator of, people’s real-life social lives.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Facebook demonstrates that many people – probably the majority – are happy interacting online under their real names, and have no great desire to adopt a second persona or make contact with strangers who share their interests.

But at the same time, the continued success of self-publishing services like Flickr and Twitter shows that there remains a substantial demand for services which let you broadcast to the whole world, rather than just your own social contacts, and which let you adopt a second identity to enable you to say things you daren’t with your first. The success of Twitter, in particular, shows the power of this freedom – many people I know joined Twitter with a username based on their real name, before adopting a name that’s less identifying to free them to be silly or profane.

Millions of people have a non-identifying username which unites their online publishing activity on a host of services: Tumblr, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, as well as endless comment forums. Each of these sites has its own flourishing communities.

But here’s the thing. Facebook is so popular because it enables you to see what your friends are up to, across all different media, in one place. That’s why Facebook, while technically inferior to Flickr as a photo-sharing site, is now the biggest photo-sharing site in the world – it’s convenient to share photos with the network you’ve already built.

But in the wider world of Web 2.0 services, there’s no united network. My Flickr contacts can see my photos, but not my tweets; my blog subscribers can’t see my YouTube uploads. Each service provides tools for finding your connections on other services, but it’s laborious – and you still have to visit each separate site to see what your contacts are up to. I check Facebook every morning, and frequently again later in the day. It takes a few minutes.

If I checked Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Flickr and Vimeo every morning to see what all those I follow were up to, it’d take an hour or more.

What’s needed is a portal which lets us conveniently and easily see what all those we follow are up to across the different web publishing services: to add social networking to social publishing. And it’s needed for more than just convenience. As Facebook’s power grows, there’s an increasing danger that the convenience if offers will lead people to abandon other services and simply share through Facebook. Already I find myself clicking the ‘Like’ button where before I would have ‘Dugg’ a web page, or shared it on Twitter, because it’s so damn easy. If young people joining the internet get in the habit of doing everything through Facebook, the whole idea of distributed Web 2.0 services – and of the freedom to adopt a second persona online – could wither on the vine.

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Two faces of gay theatre

On Thursday I went to see two plays. One was written in the late 1980s, is about AIDS, and is called Elegies, Punks and Raging Queens. The other was written in 2010, is called Queer in the USA, and is about a gay teenager obsessed with Bruce Springsteen.

Which would you guess offered a broader, more sophisticated portrayal of the varieties of modern gay life? You’d be surprised.

I went to see Elegies in part out of a sense of obligation. Much as people watch hard-hitting documentaries about disappearing rainforests or the abuse of women in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, I, like many gay men, feel AIDS is something we ought to face, understand, and be saddened by.

But as the show began and the first song was sung, the reminiscences of a former club singer about the wild sights of the Lower East Side in the 1970s, I must admit my heart began to sink. We were in, I feared, for two hours of the same old worn-out story: gay men came to New York and to San Francisco, and it was dirty and dangerous and sexy and fabulous, and then the hurricane came and everyone died.

This story is the creation myth of the modern gay community in the West. And I’m tired of it. Not because it’s not true, because it is; not because we’ve heard it all before, though we have. I’m tired of it because it leaves so much out: the many gay men who didn’t move to the coastal cities, but shuffled tentatively out of the closet in their small home towns; the many straight victims of AIDS, from drug addicts and prostitutes to those who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion or a medical accident or from an unknowing partner.

I needn’t have worried.

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Belated election thoughts, part 3: the Great Flirtation

When I watched the now-famous rose garden press conference on 12 May, I, like everyone else, was struck by the easy-going chemistry between our new Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. We seemed to be watching the beginnings of a potentially blossoming friendship. Despite the widespread teeth-gnashing over the workability and legitimacy of the coalition, the tone of the affair seemed a breath of fresh air.

I wasn’t alone in this. The next day, the media had a field day. In a charmingly gushing piece, the Times‘ Matthew Parris described the conference as “something approaching a philosophical spasm.”

After any election there’s usually a sweet, unrehearsed moment of optimism the media seizes on – think of poor Cherie picking up the milk on 2nd May, 1997. But this was something else: the media was captivated by the idea of Cameron & Clegg as an item.

The Independent dubbed the pair “Britain’s new power couple” and “the Bromance of the Century.” The Mail talked about the “No. 10 love-in”. The Express simply declared, “It’s Love.”

The Times‘ Ann Treneman milked a whole column out of the rose garden conference as a wedding. “The only thing missing was a small orchestra and a tremulous song by Andrew Lloyd Webber,” she snarked.

Others preferred to up the homosexual implications by calling it not a marriage but a civil partnership. “The marriage – or was it a civil partnership – between Tories and Lib Dems has taken place. Now they must make it work,” said The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh.

“It was not so much a love-in as the exchanging of vows at a political civil partnership ceremony,” said Nick Robinson. Fraser Nelson, even while pointing out the coalition’s many faultlines, also called it a “civil partnership.”

Even the FT, for heaven’s sake, got in on the act.

Downing Street’s rose garden was tastefully arranged as if in readiness for a wedding; though in this case it was more of a civil partnership. The grass was verdant; the sun shone; the blossom was in full bloom.

The two young men were nicely turned out and full of sweet things to say about each other. Oh yes, this is going to be a very civil partnership.

This was just the kind of thing Lord Tebbit has been warning about. We’d seen them earlier on the steps of Number 10 and – well, frankly, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

“The very kind of thing Lord Tebbit has been warning about” is a double entendre worthy of Carry On Conservatives.

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Always Crashing in the Same Car: The Gagosian’s sprawling tribute to J.G. Ballard

Published on Towards a Magazine, March 2010

Slip through a grey door on Britannia Street, a nondescript road in King’s Cross, and you’re confronted with what appears to be the leg of a giant robot ostrich.

Dominating the small room in which it lies, the giant metal leg – complete with four-wheeled foot – is disorienting by virtue of its sheer size. You quickly breeze past and find yourself at an open doorway. Above it is inscribed, with several letters pointing backwards: “we are all going to die”.

The ostrich leg is, in fact, Scottish artist Adam McEwen’s Honda Teen Facial: the landing gear of a Boeing 747, sheared from its moorings and strewn, apparently at random, across the room. The words above the doorway come courtesy of another Scottish artist, Douglas Gordon. You are in the Gagosian Gallery, one of two in London and of nine in the international network of art houses owned by millionaire collector Larry Gagosian. The exhibition, Crash, is a collection of works inspired by the writer JG Ballard, who died last year aged 78.

Best known for the novel that gave the exhibition its name, Ballard was the author of 19 novels, countless short stories, and the autobiography Miracles of Life. His main mode was dystopian science fiction. Perhaps no other postwar writer has sought so obsessively to explore the place of humanity in modern post-industrial society. In Crash, a gang of bored thrill-seekers plan car crashes for sexual pleasure. In The Drowned World, scientists explore a London left underwater by the melting of the ice caps. In his short story collection Vermillion Sands, the wealthy residents of a resort enjoy high-tech soporifics such as singing plants, sound jewellery, and mood-responsive houses.

The Gagosian’s exhibition makes a respectable job of showcasing works which address similar themes to Ballard. But only a handful of the works share Ballard’s unique instinct for understanding human psychology and sexuality, and their condition under the pressures of modern society.

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Obama and the other Kennedy

Ever since Barack Obama emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination commentators have been falling over themselves to evoke the memory of John F. Kennedy. Obama’s youth, short time in the senate, and relentless message of change all stir memories of the handsome young upstart who squeaked the presidency in 1960. With the endorsement of Obama’s candidacy by several senior Kennedys in late January, the comparisons became more frequent. “A president like my father”, Caroline Kennedy called Obama. The New York Times evoked Kennedy’s most successful book when it referred to Obama’s race speech as a “Profile in Courage”.

With JFK still generally revered by most Americans, particularly the white working-class voters Obama desperately needs to win over, it’s a comparison Obama’s people are happy to see made (despite the odd snipe by commentators). The truth is, though, that John F. Kennedy and Obama came from very different places politically – and had very different concepts of “change”.

Obama’s campaign has been built on a solid platform of opposition to the Iraq war. Indeed, if Obama hadn’t been able to contrast his own opposition to Hillary’s mixed record, it’s highly unlikely his campaign would have gathered the momentum – and the money – it needed to seriously compete. With his willingness to negotiate with so-called “rogue states”, and to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against Iran, Obama has nailed his colours pretty clearly to the dove mast.

The contrast with the Kennedy campaign of 1960 couldn’t be clearer. Kennedy’s brand of change, and its attendant criticism of the preceding eight years of Republican rule, was unequivocally hawkish.

In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said the question was whether this nation could exist half-slave or half-free. In the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world will exist half-slave or half-free, whether it will move in the direction of freedom, in the direction of the road that we are taking, or whether it will move in the direction of slavery… We discuss tonight domestic issues, but I would not want that to be any implication to be given that this does not involve directly our struggle with Mr. Khrushchev for survival.

So Kennedy began the opening speech of his famous debate with opponent Richard Nixon. Granted, Kennedy discussed poverty at length in his campaign, and also lent his support to the nascent civil rights movement. But his most progressive ideas were always couched in the rhetoric of the Cold War. “The kind of country we have here, the kind of society we have, the kind of strength we build in the United States will be the defense of freedom,” he went on in his opening speech. If we do well here, if we meet our obligations, if we’re moving ahead, then I think freedom will be secure around the world. If we fail, then freedom fails.”1

Indeed, as George Packer points out, Kennedy’s message of hope was coded to speak to insecurities bubbling under the surface of a nation allegedly at east with itself. In an atmosphere of steady-as-she-goes conservatism – the 1950s, with their fetishising of conformity, had just ended – Kennedy brought to the surface fears about the economy and America’s place in the world that had previously been unspoken. Obama, by contrast, faces a nation in turmoil, where divisions over the best response to myriad challenges have almost made civilised discussion impossible. This means his message of hope, his focus on the positive, can be much more effective.

So is the strange, and ultimately sad, Kennedy story of no real relevance to the Obama campaign? Not so fast. Because there is a Kennedy campaign that Obama has much more in common with – the 1968 campaign of John’s little brother, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

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