Posts Tagged ‘tv’

‘Ineffective and inhumane’ – or in denial?

March 3, 2014

***Updated, March 16th (see below)***

badger

Back in media-land the insanity on the badger cull continues (see previous post). I was unfortunate enough last Friday to witness this Channel 4 news report on a ‘scientific assessment’ which called the recent pilot culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset ‘ineffective’ and ‘inhumane’. It struck me as a classic example of media framing – laying down (and subsequently policing) the boundaries of public discussion to extremely narrow parameters in a way that benefits the powerful. So, for example, you hear respectable commentators talk about the 2003 Iraq war and polarise the debate between those who view it as ‘justified’ and those who think it was a ‘miscalculation’. You hardly ever hear the conclusion that the evidence supports – namely that it was a deliberate act of criminal aggression. Likewise, with the negative effects of ‘austerity’ in the UK (dismantling of the NHS,  removal of benefits, pay freezes, public sector job losses), at the liberal extreme these are most often presented as a failure or a mistake on the part of politicians, but practically never as intentional, cynical policies to further reconstruct the economy as a channel of wealth from the poor (and middle-classes) to the super-rich.

So how does this apply to the badger cull, as discussed in this particular Channel 4 bulletin? Well first off presenter Cathy Newman passes on the government’s stated justification for the cull without criticism – we are to believe from the start that the cull was ‘aimed at tackling the spread of TB in cattle’ and everything that follows rests on this premise. Other possible motivations such as irrational hatred of wildlife, scapegoating and displacement of responsibility on the part of the farming lobby and a willingness of the political establishment to ‘offer [them] a carrot’* don’t merit consideration.

Science Editor Tom Clarke then comes on to make his presentation. He fleshes out the Official Explanation for our benefit:

The purpose of these [pilot culls] was to show that you could effectively and humanely kill badgers to control TB and kill enough of them quickly enough to prevent spreading the disease

and presents the ‘very strict rules’ by which success or failure are apparently to be judged – namely a minimum 70% kill rate, a six week culling period and to shoot them in a ‘humane’ way using trained marksmen. The news, then, was that

What we now know is that they managed to fail on several of these counts.

It turns out that they were able to kill less than 50% of the target populations. However, this is not a source of concern or grief to Clarke – a very real failure to stop badgers getting killed for highly dubious reasons – rather:

50% [is] an important number because that’s actually getting down to the point at which this policy could in fact cause more TB to spread around than not.

(To his credit he does refer to the ‘humane’ goal of less than 5% of badgers taking longer than five minutes to die as an ‘arbitrary and not particularly laudable target’)

We then hear from Dominic Dyer of ‘Badger Trust & Care For The Wild’ with a priceless soundbite:

This cull has been an absolute disaster. They’ve only killed a fraction of the badgers they thought they would be able to kill.

What? Does that mean he would be happy if they had killed 70% of the populations?? This pathetic opposition which implicitly accepts – indeed, which appears to cheerlead the government’s insane policies (so long as they are carried out ‘efficiently’ and ‘scientifically’) was repeated by the scientist chosen by the BBC’s newsteam, Prof. Rosie Woodroffe  of the Zoological Society of London [0:45]:

These culls have not killed enough badgers, haven’t done it fast enough. The benefits will not be, therefore, as great, we expect [as in a former trial]

Benefits??? Whose benefits would that refer to, I wonder? Not much benefit in a fucking bullet, is there! At least, not if you’re on the receiving end…

The discussion back in the Channel 4 studio takes a surreal twist after Newman poses this corker: ‘It sounds like an odd question but how hard is it to kill a badger humanely?’ – as if she was thinking about getting involved herself and wondering how to go about it. Clarke responds with a sympathetic portrayal of the marksman’s plight:

[T]he one thing that struck me is how impossible it must be – it’s dark, it’s raining most of the time, it’s thick forest. I’m actually surprised these marksmen managed to kill any badgers at all, let alone cleanly. So I don’t think we should be too surprised that there were some problems. […] This is a complicated, difficult, rather messy business, killing animals. But we’re a society that prides ourselves on our humaneness, especially our farming industry [ha!], so it makes it hard to justify from a humane point of view.

This reminded me of the way the media guides us to empathise with the ‘difficult task’ of the soldiers in the UK’s overseas wars, presenting it as a dry, technical challenge and not speaking of moral culpability when they go about their business of killing defenceless creatures  – of their own species (and again for highly dubious reasons which we’re not supposed to scrutinise too closely). Yes, it’s a complicated, difficult, rather messy business, killing Afghans and Iraqis. But we’re a society that prides ourselves on our deep commitment to democracy and human rights, especially our military, so it makes it hard to justify – a tough decision, a difficult job but someone’s got to do it etc etc ad nauseam.

I think lots of people think the cull has been highly successful, even if it doesn’t get rolled out across the country for the next three years as originally planned. For them the point was never to do something about Bovine TB – if they were serious about that then they would look to the farming practices that create the perfect breeding ground for this disease among cattle in the first place. As with the focus on dredging as a supposed cure to lowland flooding (it isn’t), I think the intention was to be seen to be doing something about the problem, regardless of how effective this might prove to be. There’s also the possibility that the issue has served as a distraction while bigger things were going on behind the scenes, as raised in this Think Left article:

However, there is another rather concerning thought. The public outrage and likely direct action against the cull, may distract the media away from something that the government wants to slip through unnoticed. There is little doubt, that it was just this sort of distraction tactic, that lay behind the proposal to sell off the forest which was announced just as the Health and Social Care bill took its first steps through the Commons.

I suppose if that’s true I’ve fallen for it, hook line & sinker (although at least I’ve taken it in a direction of my own choosing).

But really, I think the major success of this policy has been an emotional one – to lash out in frustration at something that can’t fight back, and to act out destructive urges on something which has no real or immediate value, according to the metrics of the current dominant culture.

***Update, March 16th***

Other opposition figures captured by government/media rhetoric about ‘effectiveness’ include Caroline Lucas:

Now that its own research has demonstrated that badger culling is cruel as well as pointless, it’s time for the Government to heed the evidence and end this failed policy once and for all. (link)

and Chris Packham:

Let me be clear from the outset, if the scientific evidence pointed to culling badgers being an effective, humane, sustainable and economically viable solution to the increasing occurrence of TB in cattle then I’d be agreeing to it. (link)

Now I’m struggling to find a parallel that doesn’t violate Godwin’s Law, but… imagine that you live as a minority group in a racist totalitarian society. There’s an outbreak of epidemic disease which affects a large portion of the population, due mainly to overcrowded living conditions, poor sanitation, malnutrition etc. – basically the incompatibility of the human organism to prolonged city life. Your group is relatively lucky in that marginalisation and prejudice means you live on the outskirts in a somewhat more resilient, rural form of subsistence economy, although you also suffer losses from the city-born epidemic. But when disaster strikes the city founders and leaders (including those who most benefit from its continued operations) quite understandably don’t want to undermine their Great Accomplishments or any future ambitions by drawing attention to the real causes of the epidemic. Instead they divert attention away from themselves by casting an eye for the briefest of moments outside of their sphere of influence until they find someone else they can blame who won’t cause them too many problems. So your group becomes the scapegoat and wild accusations about your inherent uncleanliness or genetic impurity start flying around. You are judged guilty of causing a ‘health risk’ to the broader population either passively (through your supposedly lax standards) or even through active conspiracies (eg: poisoned wells, subversion of the social fabric etc.) So they send the shock troops in to carry out a ‘controlled cull’ of your population. Terror ensues, your way of life is shattered, you can no longer trust anybody any more, you suffer all the symptoms of post traumatic stress as a community. Then one day you hear that some intellectual luminaries in the city opposed this atrocity on the grounds that it was a ‘failed policy’, ‘ineffective’, ‘inhumane’, ‘unsustainable’, ‘economically unviable’. They say that the cull and any future culls ought to be discontinued because it is difficult, if not impossible to ensure that targets of killing 50% or more of the selected populations – your friends and relations – are met. How would you react?

To be fair to Lucas, Packham and others, these are the comments of theirs that have been deemed acceptable for inclusion and propagation by the media system. It’s highly likely they have a whole host of unacceptable opinions on this issue which they pretty much have to keep to themselves. Packham is a case in point. I much prefer his earlier tweeted comments about the pilot culls:

It is both sad and shameful that when night falls and the setts of southern England stir their gentle folk will be needlessly slaughtered. That in spite of science and public will the wrath of ignorance will further bloody and bleed our countryside of its riches of life. That brutalist thugs, liars and frauds will destroy our wildlife and dishonour our nations reputation as conservationists and animal lovers. So I fear that tonight could be the darkest for British wildlife that we have witnessed in our lives. I feel sick, sad, disempowered, betrayed, angry and crushed by the corruption of all that I know as right. I feel rage. (link)

But a Tory MP complained that this breached BBC impartiality (even though it was from a personal twitter account) and as a result Packham, we can assume, got a slap on the wrist from his managers and was forced to promise not to speak about the issue any more, at least not on the BBC’s time:

On his website, Mr Packham said: “My views on the badger cull are well known and have been widely voiced and published.

“They are opinions based on a pragmatic and objective consideration of the current science concerning its efficacy as well as concerns about animal welfare. Because of the prominence of my comments it is obviously impossible for me to be considered impartial as a BBC presenter on this topic.

“Impartiality is a cornerstone of the BBC’s practice as a public service broadcaster and I am determined to protect this important aspect of its integrity. Thus I will not be taking part in any discussions about the cull during the forthcoming series of Autumnwatch and Winterwatch.

“Nor will I be presenting any items in the series about the badger cull because, as natural history programmes, they are not the right place for discussions about matters of national public policy. I will however continue to make my views known when I feel it is appropriate to do so. (link)

Another example of how thought is controlled in nominally democratic societies†.

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* – Professor John Bourne, chair of the Independent Scientific Group on Bovine TB: “I think the most interesting observation was made to me by a senior politician who said, ‘Fine John, we accept your science, but we have to offer the farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers’.” (link)

† – I’m indebted to David Edwards, especially his book Burning All Illusions (aka Free To Be Human) and his work with David Cromwell on the UK website Media Lens for this insight and others.

Coming down from the mountain #1

August 28, 2011

So, nearly two months out of the country, forty days of which spent in the Julian Alps of NE Italy, for once surrounded by the beauty of living beings and not having to blinker my sight or otherwise dull my senses to a large portion of the landscape, and coming back to England has felt so strange.

Well, the weird feeling began down in the valley, waiting for the train. So hot, sweaty, stifling in the late afternoon; such a bleak flatness to the land, largely devoid of trees; dust in the air, the noise and hurtling carelessness of roads, the jarring sight of squatting box supermarkets and the glaring bare tarmac of their welcome-mat carparks. And then the sights from the train window: more flatness, rusty-grey blurs of industry, sweltering cornfields, uneasy whitewashed residential areas marked by a shrieking crescendo of train noise as concrete barriers bounce the sound back towards its source, sparing the residents the worst of it (one assumes). Like the whole land is being weighed down by a sickness; a blanketed malarial fever… A young black woman relentlessly talking down the friend or relative of her elderly Italian companion in French as he sits in glum silence, occasionally offering mild resistance but neither agreeing nor disagreeing (perhaps grateful for the company). A nice moment of recognition, pulling out of a station when the thick-necked thirty-somethings in the aisle opposite notice the pigeon I’ve been watching – sat on a platform sign while his buddy pecks at the parasites on the back of his neck and around his blissfully closed eye – and share with the laughing and pointing.

Then Venice itself: the air humid, muggy as always. Perspiring backpackers swirling in stressed-out eddies; smokers, lovers, snackers lining the steps outside the station facing hotels, a bridge, more crowds, architecture, a huge cigarette billboard across the first canal. I don’t have time to wander, so I sit up against the glass wall of the station and make greasy, satisfying sandwiches of mouldy cheese, smelly salami, sliced tomato and oregano, using the side of my shoe as chopping board and table. Then, averting my eyes and satisfied with the filthy, eccentric reality of the portrait I’m presenting, I pluck melodies from the air and from the movement of greedy pigeons; fingers greasing up the fretboard and strings of my mandolin.

Then the sleeper train with the pleasant French/Canadian family (wife/husband and two young girls) and drummer psychologist. Red sun over the Venice lagoon, drying my face in the warm rush of air coming through the one broken window. Chiming in to R.D. Laing’s suggestion that ‘a toxic environment may render us insensible to its toxicity’ and vowing to resist and not succumb to the ‘anaesthetizing noxious sublethal environment’* by keeping my senses alive, no matter how painful it may be to receive their input. Then – immediately provided with the opportunity to do just this – looking the other way with the other men in the couchette as the mother smacks the younger child for her excited fidgeting which repeatedly crumples up her bedding. I wince almost as much at the statement she reiterates: “Tu es vraiment insupportable”, but do nothing to intervene except to smile at the child in such a way as, hopefully, to show at least one person willing to tolerate, even ‘support’ (if not defend) the expression of her fragile personhood. Weird how difficult I find it to screw my attention to the meaning of the words:

Insupportable – the mother finds her child literally ‘unbearable’, like a load that’s so heavy she has to drop it to the ground; coupled with the violence of the ‘you are’ – unrelated to specific behaviour in a specific circumstance, but rather a state of ‘being’ built into her bones – semper et ubique – which she can do nothing about and never escape.

and then feel my own reaction to them. The despair and disgust; the fear and anger still buried in similar memories of violence on my own person which the dominant part of me would rather forget. As with the Lester Luborsky experiment†, I know exactly when to stop listening.

Then the white, middle-class fear of banlieue-black Otherness, ricocheting to an inauthentic desire to ’empathise’ and ‘understand’ in the middle of the night, naked but for underpants, listening to the same wife/mother confront a French youth who was speaking a loud (drunken?) patois in the corridor, the train having halted at a grim, grey inner-city station. He maintained that he couldn’t understand her – was she speaking Italian? She refused to be spoken to in ‘tutois’‡ and stood her ground when dealt further insults. I didn’t feel at all prepared to wade in in defense of the family if things got uglier. Even the scenes I was rehearsing in my head all ended in disaster and/or humiliation. I thought of my uncle who deliberately raised my cousins in both city and country surroundings so that they could navigate both environments without getting screwed over, victimised or killed. It occurred to me, a lifelong suburbanite, that the gift of my upbringing was to get forever caught in the middle, never feeling a sense of true belonging in either of the contrasting situations (though for sure I felt more at home in one of them!)

Then Paris, evercrowded on the metro, eyeing my scruffy reflection and bent backpack posture in passing windows, spending ten minutes staring at a fruit stall before deciding to buy a Spanish melon, lunching with my Grandmother, talking about relatives I’ve never seen, walking a local walk, her remarking on the changes in her lifetime – they never used to let the mauvaises herbes grow on the pavement like they do now – sampling the fruit trees in the park, seeing what grew on the ‘waste’ ground, again saying how remarkable it was for them to leave it like this. (Then, of course, on the return journey seeing a giant lawnmower vehicle noisily sucking up all the plants we’d been admiring. Exasperated laughter.) Later, on the bus to Paris Nord, rushing around myself to follow the suggestion of the woman to my right that I take my bag off my seat and put it in front on the floor where another lady was standing. She moved, interrupting her conversation, but didn’t sit down as I thought the plan was, instead getting off rather huffily at the next stop. Trapped in my own earnest foolishness; my eagerness to ‘be a good boy’; my fear of engendering the slightest disapproval – a pointless pained expression on my face.

And then England. What to say? The first English voices with no balancing lilt of Spanish, French, Italian, Czech, German, Polish (always a multicultural crowd that comes to stay in the mountains) pretty stark and brutal. The depressing notices about taking violence seriously, warnings about flu and terrorism, the pinched faces and brisk manner of the two male customs officials. And then coming through the tunnel, emerging into a sea of grey… I walked through some of this area of Kent and the South-East just over four years ago – sleeping in the hills as the motorways (M’s 25,26,20 and 2) and Eurostar trains rumbled below – and the new grey constructions of motorway, bridge, rail, industrial estate, retail park etc. have always (especially since) left an unsettled, slightly nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach. Here the land lies bleeding, deeply wounded by these sterile, gleaming operating theatre instruments. But the sickness feels more cancerous; the chemical and deep surgical treatment itself nearly as destructive and life-threatening as the underlying disease; a permanent post-op dullness to the experience.

Then the cold prison atmosphere of St. Pancras station. I start talking back at the tannoy anouncers, collect over £10 in change from the ticket machine because the queue was too long and I only had a £20 note, barrel down the escalator – “S’cuse me: Wide Load coming through!” – and hop on the train, grinning incongruously just before the doors close. The Anaesthetic starts to kick in, localised at first to my eyes which practically glaze over and stop looking outwardly with any kind of curiosity… An odd conversation with a blonde lady in a business suit who wanted to know where I’d been traveling. She expresses her jealousy after my story, then we get on to careers, rent, the importance of doing what you want and of living on your own terms, the dangers of burnout when required to do the thing you’re ‘passionate’ about all the time etc… Her parting shot (which everyone seems to be trying to hammer into me lately): “You need money!” I remain unconvinced, but don’t think to start on explanations of where to find burdock root, how to squat on abandoned property, what to make soap from, how to build shelter from recycled or harvested materials etc &c. Why do I never have the courage of my convictions? I have direct, lived experience of many of these things already! Why do I always defer to the stunted imagination of my peers?

As I get into familiar surroundings I let my legs and feet go into autopilot and eyes descend to the pavement below, the upper bands of vision obscured by the rim of my habitual baseball cap… So yes, this ‘culture shock’, this ‘state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment’: the word that comes to mind is Oppressive. I never quite noticed before how oppressively the social and built environment strikes me in England. I re-read Paul Kingsnorth’s excellent ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’ the other day in the first Dark Mountain book (having read it online here about a year previously) in which he describes a similar experience coming back to the country after a two-month spell in Indonesia:

Now, back home, the world seems changed. A two-month break from my country, my upbringing, my cultural assumptions, a two-month immersion in something far more raw and unmediated, has left me open to seeing this place as it really is. I see the atomisation and the inward focus and the faces of the people in a hurry on the other side of windscreens. I see the streetlights and the asphalt as I had not quite seen them before. What I see most of all are the adverts.

For the first time, I realise the extent and the scope and the impacts of the billboards, the posters, the TV and radio ads. Everywhere an image, a phrase, a demand or a recommendation is screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need. And this is before the internet; before apples and blackberries became indispensable to people who wouldn’t know where to pick the real thing; before the deep, accelerating immersion of people in their technologies, even outdoors, even in the sunshine. Compared to where I have been, this world is so tamed, so mediated and commoditised, that something within it seems to have broken off and been lost beneath the slabs. No one has noticed this, or says so if they have. Something is missing: I can almost see the gap where it used to be. But it is not remarked upon. Nobody says a thing.

The adverts especially got me too, this time round. I felt them as a withering, almost physical assault from which there was no escape except through willed unawareness; through succumbing to the Anaesthetic. Walking down a typical street was like getting slapped in the face a hundred times. I’m finding the sounds from the TV (I’ve mostly managed to avoid the screen since coming back – a state of affairs I’m looking to prolong) exceptionally ugly and distasteful. The news is the worst – I have to shut the door from the next room when it’s on to keep the shrill lies and distortions of fear at bay as much as possible. Maybe things have gotten worse since the riots and the response which the sane people say they’re even more disturbed by. I heard various things about it while away, but felt no compulsion to find out more other than to quietly note what the internet lefties & greenies were saying. There was an Evening Standard by the loo with eyecatching pictures and a provocative headline and I read about a paragraph before putting the paper back, face down, saying: “I don’t want to hear about this from you”. So easy to get sucked into the Unreal. You can get lost for hours before coming back to emerge, blinking into the sunshine.

It was nice to see the changes in my wildly overgrown garden; the apples slowly russeting and weighing down the branches of our baby apple tree. Nice to settle into pruning the big old pear tree – over a hundred years old according to one elderly neighbour; to step out gathering nettle seed, hawthorn berries, yarrow blossom; to look at the hazels, beechnuts, limefruits, acorns swelling and maturing on the trees… You might call it a selective, blinkered vision but witnessing, feeling these things makes me feel good; provides me with the experience of an environment that I want to expand.

Oh, and advice-to-self (thanks H): Remember where you’ve been.

#2 will follow…

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* – full quote:

We only know whether or not the environment influences us by noticing we are influenced. If we do not notice we are being influenced, we cannot know we are.

We may still infer it. Some E [environment of genetic system] may be of the order that its influence is to render us unaware of its influence, in inverse proportion to its influence, e.g. a toxic environment may render us insensible to its toxicity.

Are we re-creating around us an artificial environment which has a tendency to induce in us an unawareness of its noxious characteristics: an anaesthetizing noxious sublethal environment? (The Facts of Life, p.31)

† – see Derrick Jensen’s interview of David Edwards, ‘Nothing To Lose But Our Illusions‘, from which:

A man by the name of Lester Luborsky used a special camera to track the eye movements of people who were asked to look at a set of pictures, three of which involved sexual images. One, for example, showed a woman’s breast, beyond which could be seen a man reading a newspaper. The results were amazing. Many viewers were able to avoid letting their gaze stray even once to the sexually suggestive parts of the pictures, and later, when asked to describe the content of the pictures, they remembered little or nothing suggestive about them. Some people couldn’t even recall having seen those three pictures at all.

What interests me is that, in order to avoid looking at the objectionable parts of the pictures, those people had to know in some part of their minds what the picture contained so that they could know to avoid it. In other words, when the mind detects something offensive or threatening to our worldview, it somehow deflects our awareness. This avoidance system is incredibly efficient. We know exactly where not to look.

‡ – ‘Tutoiement et vouvoiement‘ (fr) – basically ‘tu’ is the familiar form of ‘you’, whereas ‘vous’ is considered more formal, respectful. Friends and equals ‘tutoi’ eachother, but you would ‘vouvoi’ a superior, a stranger, someone older than you. This came from Roman emperors who introduced the ‘royal we’ of nos, impressing upon others to use the plural vos in reply. English uses just the familiar ‘you’, although oddly enough this used to be the deferential term! Apparently we have the Quakers to thank for this – as a mark of egalitarianism they would refer to everyone in the then-familiar ‘thee’/’thou’ form, but for some reason this lost its subversive sting and became quaint & old-fashioned, even swinging over to the more respectful, polite side when used among the respectable, affluent Quakers. More info at the bottom of this page.