The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. That Means You, Beyoncé.

Beyonce Superbowl

Beyonce sticks it to The Man.

It may seem bizarre to some, but in fact as an archetypal British stereotype I actually have a deep affinity for some aspects of American sport.  For instance, my typically-British craving for reliable disappointment led to me defecting from cautious support of the Boston Red Sox when they shamelessly won the baseball World Series in 2004 to the Chicago Cubs, whose implaccable and relentless pursuit of an losing streak has long since combined a grim sense of Calvinist doom familiar to any Scot along with the assumption of an epic narrative of nemesis from Greek tragedy.  Then consider the undeniable resonances between cricket and baseball, particularly the long spells of induced boredom which encourage a mantric, zen-like meditative response from the spectators, and I think it can safely be asserted that there are some little-explored but substantive connections between American sport and the cliched British national character.

This, however, does not apply to American football which, to anyone who has experienced a game of rugby, appears to be a fossilised and disarticulated variant of rugby played by overpaid, overweight steroid-addicts swaddled in excessive protective armour pausing every ten seconds of actual gameplay to permit several minutes of inane commentary and longer periods of comically overblown advertising.

I exaggerate to make the point.  Slightly.  Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to escape the commentary on the Superbowl, even when you don’t actually watch it.  Thus I find myself compelled to respond to reports of Beyoncé’s performance of a Black Power-inspired song and dance routine at this year’s Superbowl.  My credentials to conduct this critique are, of course unimpeachable.  As a self-appointed champion of liberal history, my sense of entitlement is boundless.  As a middle-aged bourgeois white male, my authority to comment upon African-American sectional politics is clearly unchallengeable.

Just in case that isn’t enough, I’m not the only bourgeois white dilettante sounding off over the issue.  And, no, I’m not referring to Coldplay’s Chris Martin whingeing about being upstaged by Beyoncé (although I’d like to think he was).  Here’s Barbara Ellen in The Guardian, for example, pre-empting my critique by observing that ‘… sneering at the mode of protest rather than examining what the protest is about is an old method of silencing and cowing.’

Allow me to demonstrate that, in my case at least, sneering at the ‘protest’ is a valid consequence of a comparative analysis of Black Power protests at sporting events.  Let’s take the archetypal example, Tommie Smith and John Carlos making Black Power salutes on the winner’s podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Tommy Smith and John Carlos (with Peter Norman) synergising their marketing across various media platforms, Mexico City Olympics, 1968

I agree with the essential objectives of the Olympic Project for Human Rights which Smith and Carlos protested for (alongside their fellow medallist, Australian Peter Norman), but more importantly I respect the gesture as a valid gesture of political protest, while Beyonce’s performance was nothing of the sort.

Smith and Carlos were directly affected by the issue they were protesting about.  They suffered personal consequences, in terms of missing opportunities for sponsorship or lucrative employment in football teams which would otherwise have followed Olympic sprinting success.  Finally, they earned the right to make it by the remorseless meritocracy involved in winning the world’s most prestigious athletic competition against the best competition in the word.  Standing on that podium as a medallist meant running two hundred metres, at altitude, in a time between nineteen-point-eight and twenty-point-one seconds.  Smith and Carlos did that, thereby succeeding in one of the few arenas where racial prejudice could be openly and undeniably defeated by individual achievement.  They earned the right to protest on the basis of that, never mind anything else.

By contrast, Beyoncé is a rich, talented entertainer whose platform for her performance comes from her celebrity status and whose reward will secured in terms of increased record sales for the song she performed and promoted at the show (possibly doubling sales, according to previous experience of performers at the half-time show).

All of which means that Beyonce’s attempt at gesture politics remains a straightforward exercise in commercial self-promotion, while Smith and Carlos made a genuine, and warranted, political protest.  And When it comes to ‘sneering’ at commercial self-promotion to mass television audiences at American sporting events on that basis, don’t take it from a whitey on the moon like me.  Here’s Gil Scott-Heron, poet and cultural spokesman for Black Power on the subject in ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’:

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised


Don’t Mention the Spitfire! Thornberry Did It Once, But She Didn’t Get Away With It.

Or – ‘The Corbynites Shoot Themselves In the Foot With Those Ignorant Historical Parallels.  Again’.

Spitfire Mk I’s from the first production order (indicated by the K-prefixed serials), flown by No. 19 Squadron, the first RAF unit to receive them, in September 1938. These aircraft would not have existed if contemporary Labour party policy opposition to rearmament had been taken seriously, with obvious consequences for the outcome of the Battle of Britain. No pressure there, then.

Commendably enough, Emily Thornberry’s reported comments from this week’s meeting with the PLP (an exercise which is swifly becoming a regular exercise in cynical bear-baiting by the Corbynite vanguard of the revolution at the expense of the PLP) warrant two separate and distinct explorations of their comic value.  The first being the deconstruction of her understanding of deterrence theory (see below).  The second being her reported use of the eventual obsolescence of the Spitfire as a comparable analogy for her assertion of the obsolescence of Trident submarines.

The problem for Emily here is the inevitable parallels this invites from the last time the Labour party was led by myopic ideologues sincerely attempting to make the world conform to their virtual pacificism.  And the obvious parallel to draw is the position of the Labour party in the nineteen-thirties towards the rearmament policies of the National Government of the time which actually produced the Spitfire.

The first prototype Spitfire was ordered in January 1936 and the first production contract for 310 aircraft placed in June 1936.  These aircraft were delivered after substantial production delays by September 1939.  Further orders followed in September 1938 and April 1939 to continue production when the first batch had been completed, but that initial production run provided the first Spitfires in service.  They represented the totality of Spitfires available to the RAF when the Second World War began in September 1939, and a remained a substantial fraction of those available when the Spitfire entered intensive combat service covering the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940 and throughout the Battle of Britain which followed.

The Labour party’s contemporary attitude towards the procurement of the Spitfire can be accurately summarised by the statement of their then-leader George Lansbury during the Fulham by-election in June 1933, when he proposed disbanding the army and the Royal Air Force and inviting the world to do it’s worst.  Labour therefore voted against the annual defence estimates which followed, including the 1935 estimates that funded that first Spitfire contract.  Even after Lansbury’s deposition as party leader in October 1935, his sucessor Atlee maintained a hypocritical mantra that proposed collective security through the League of Nations in place of rearmament while denying Britain the military capacity to achieve that end.  I don’t believe Atlee justified his opposition to rearmament on the obsolescence of fighter aircraft like the Spitfire, but it’s worth remembering that there was a substantial constituency which believed that recent technological advances meant that there was no practicable defence against bomber aircraft in the nineteen-thirties.

Presumably their descendants are saying similar things about drones making Trident submarines obsolete today.

Although Labour moved from oppposing the defence estimates to abstaining from 1937 onwards, and eventually moved into a successful wartime coalition government under Churchill, there can be considerable legitimate doubt that the attitudes and official policies of the Labour Party during the rearmament period would have led to there being sufficient Spitfires – or perhaps even any Spitfires – available when they turned out to be desperately needed not just for the defence of Britain but for the defence of liberal democracy against the imminent triumph of genocidal fascism in 1940.

A German bomber pilot writes – ‘Yes, those Spitfires are obsolete. Please get rid of them in the name of disarmament and peace.’ Meanwhile a bemused British soldier inspects the wreckage of Labour Party defence policy.

Emily might be better advised not to walk into such self-defeating traps created by her comical ignorance of the potential historical consequences of Corbynite ideology.  So perhaps it might perhaps be better not to mention Spitfires next time.

A Lesson in Deterrence Theory for Emily Thornberry from Dr. Strangelove

One of the great joys of the current chaotic position of the Labour party, as the retro-eighties hard left under their charismatic leader Wolfie Smith, err, I mean Jeremy Corbyn struggle to impose the direction of a Leninist vanguard on the recalcitrant reactionary bourgeoisie of the PLP, is the endless stream of comic amusement provided by the spectacle of the Corbynites repetitive collisions with reality.  The latest to make me roar with laughter was the interview with Emily Thornberry on the Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme on Tuesday 9 Feburary.

In the wake of yet another fractious meeting with the PLP, this time over the Corbynite policy of non-renewal of the submarine-launched Trident ICMB nuclear weapons system, Thornberry was exposed to further amusement at the hands of BBC interviewer Nick Robinson.  The issue of unilateral nuclear disarmament is, of course, a major bugbear from the glory days of unelectable Labour in the nineteen eighties, and it was a genuine delight to see Corbyn displaying the leadership skills necessary to ensure this issue blew up in his face and divided the party even further.  The context was set by the appointment of Thornberry to replace Maria Eagle, Corbyn’s choice for shadow defence secretary last year, who at the time of her appointment pointed out her multilateralist position on Trident renewal would conflict with Corbyn’s unilateralism.  The public embarassment the exposure of this conflict generated seems to have prompted Corbyn’s appointment of Thornberry to appease his unilateralist constituency.

The parallel appointment of Ken Livingstone, hard left unilateralist eighties survivor, to participate in the relevant defence review to ditch the inconvenient current Labour policy (decided in 2007) to renew Trident demonstrates the dynamic at work once again.  The appointment and then defenestration of Eagle demonstrates Corbyn’s inability to accomodate a ‘broad church’ approach to reconciling the irreconcilables in the PLP.  The appointment of Livingstone and then the de-emphasis of his role in the defence review demonstrates the fact that obviously-predictable resistance to the installation of cherished hard-left chums to achieve cherished hard-left policy reversals has been unanticipated by the leaders of the vanguard of the proletariat.

So much for Corbyn’s tactical capacity.  Granted, reconciling the rump of ex-Blairite Labour (because that is what the PLP is, no matter how much they wish to deny it) to the Corbynite leadership was always going to be hard.  But even after the prologue of Ed Milliband’s warm-up act, the extent of Corbyn’s ineptness on that score remains genuinely surprising.

However, Thornberry’s radio interview indicates that tactical incapacity is not restricted to The Glorious Leader and remains a problem for Corbyinites in general.  Here’s Thornberry on the utility of nuclear deterrence:

‘If nuclear weapons need to be threatened then they have failed.’

No, Emily: it is the latent threat of retaliatory use of nuclear weapons that makes nuclear deterrence work.  The threat of nuclear weapons is what provides the deterrent effect of Mutually-Assured Destruction.  For somebody claiming to be concerned with an ‘evidence-based’ reassessment of ‘all the options’, the evidence (such as it is) suggests that the threat of using nuclear weapons restrained direct conflict between the superpowers during the cold war, and between nuclear powers after the Cold War.  On that basis, it can be cogently argued that the threat of nuclear weapons has succeeded.

The key point of Thornberry’s argument is to question the ability of Trident submarines to avoid detection and thereby avoid elimination in any ‘first strike’ use of nuclear weapons.  This, if true, would undermine their credibility as a deterrent.  Fortunately, the unchallengeable authority for this assumption appears to be an un-named ‘Young Turk’ who asserts that remotely-piloted underwater drones will soon be able to discover Trident submarines hidden anywhere under the oceans.  I look forward to finding out which conspiracy theory-driven corner of the internet or what drone-promoting corporation that particular analyst originates from.  Quite correctly, her interviewer characterises this as a technological smoke-screen to justify her pre-existing rejection of nuclear weapons on ethical grounds.

Thornberry goes on to say:

‘Everybody says that the whole point about nuclear weapons is that you don’t use them’

No, Emily.  The point is that the threat of nuclear retaliation (i.e. using nuclear weapons) by one side logically inhibits their use by another, thus placing a premium on not beginning an escalation that might trigger their use (i.e. by avoiding war).  An openly-declared refusal to use them renders them useless as a threat, thereby making them useless as a mechanism to prevent war. Thornberry, like most Corbynistas, would be more impressive if she could just comprehend the the rationale of policies that she so sincerely objects to, rather than vainly seeking a tactical approach to allow her to achieve an ideological objective which is self-evidently correct to the selected elite like her but painfully contentious and wrong to those in Labour who retain some connection to the real world.

This wouldn’t be a bad approach if it was successful.  Indeed, never mind the intellectual deceit involved, overcoming wider resistance to achieve otherwise unobtainable but necessary policy objectives would be a measure of the tactical political capability of the politicians involved.  But only if they could pull it off.  In the case of the Corbynites they are just too inept to manage it.

The advantage the Corbynites have is their electoral mandate in the leadership election, which gives them a genuine legitimacy.  Their attempts to reverse policy over nuclear deterrence smack of cack-handed Machiavellian plotting by contrast.  While that is the hallmark of the hard left, they would be better advised building a consensus for policy reversal on nuclear deterrence at the party conference.  Granted, this is uncharacteristic of the hard left.  But so is Corbyn’s electoral mandate, and they need to embrace the unfamiliar concept of maintaining democratic electoral support within the party to legitimate their policies.  That does assume that they have any real interest in implementing their policies, which is not a given.

The handling of the issue so far seems to indicate that the Corbynites suspect this suggestion would provoke a confrontation that they can’t win.  In which case, it might be wondered what the purpose was of a leadership which couldn’t gain a mandate from it’s own party, never mind the wider electorate, to implement it’s policies.

Frankly, I don’t think the Labour party has the residual capacity to challenge the Corbynites.  I might be pleasantly surprised if it did, but as a true Machiavellian aficionado I think the surviving social democrats in Labour have sold the pass so many times by now that their only hope is to cling to the wreckage and let the hard-left have their deathride into electoral oblivion before beginning the task of reconstruction.  If they are even capable of doing so once their main opposition has comprehensively been discredited by the external agency of the British electorate.

Now for a concluding statement from Dr Strangelove, wheelchair-bound maniacal ex-Nazi Cold warrior and our specialist expert commentator, on Thornberry’s complete misunderstanding of deterrence theory:

‘Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack’.

Dr Strangelove

Our man in the White House situation room explains to Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and Angela Thornberry why it will be necessary for the Labour leadership cadre to go down a deep mineshaft and remain there for one hundred years.

Electing a unilateralist like Corbyn as party leader and appointing a unilateralist like Thornberry as shadow defence secretary means there is no fear of reprisal, and therefore no ‘fear to attack’.  So let’s not bother with the risible attempts to mask the unilateralism with drones or any other transparent, intelligence-insulting exercise in camoflaging the real intent of the Corbynites. There is no credibility to the strategy of nuclear deterrence under a Labour government with Corbyn and Thornberry in charge, regardless of the outcome of paper exercises like Labour’s current policy review.

That the Corbynist approach to nuclear deterrence can be effortlessly dismissed by a character from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire on the failings of deterrence theory indicates the high comic value of the current Labour leadership and their politics.  It also gives some added resonance to Thornberry’s statement that ‘… national security is an important issue and shouldn’t be played with’.

Even Dr. Strangelove might approve the irony.