Dissecting Conspiracy Theories

I’ve been reading about conspiracy theories lately – well, it made a change from the end of the world – and one of the books I’ve picked up does a pretty good job of dissecting most of the popular/well known/most widespread ones by resorting to Occam’s razor. If you’re not familiar with Occam’s razor – and unless you’re a philosophy student, why should you be? – this essentially boils down to “the simplest solution is almost certainly the right one”. I have to say that a lot of the time, this method is really very effective but does take a lot of the fun out of things.

To select three examples which David Aaronovitch – for it is his book I’m reading – uses, let’s use the deaths of Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy and, using Stef’s Hatchet rather than Occam’s razor, let’s see where we end up.

It’s all rather prosaic, actually. Princess Diana died in an avoidable accident (somebody really should have put their foot down and said that the driver was too drunk to be behind the wheel) and Monroe was an accidental overdose given that she had taken sleeping pills for a very long time and was reportedly rather depressed when she died. JFK is the one that I had most fun with. I’m still not sure that the angles work out for a lone gunman, but I’m going to stick my neck out here and come up with a really neat solution that entertained me for all of ten minutes.

Lee Harvey Oswald had already attempted to kill a public figure in April 1963, but was unsuccessful. He had the means, motives and resources to kill Kennedy. Opportunity favoured Oswald when the route of the motorcade was changed to go past the Book Depository, where Oswald worked – so he managed to get in, secrete himself on the sixth floor and wait. However, down in the crowd, somewhere near a grassy knoll, is terminally ill Jack Ruby, who decided that he was going to go out in style and take a president with him. Three shots are fired and it’s unclear who fires the fatal shot. It’s not until Oswald is arrested that Ruby realises he may have failed; he’s the one who shot the President, not this upstart. So he goes and kills Oswald in revenge for stealing his bit of limelight.

How neat was that? It’s plausible too, if only there were evidence to support it. Oh well, never mind – lone gunman it is then.

The thing is, people create conspiracy theories for two main reasons; (1) they don’t trust what they are being told by the government or the media, and (2) they want to believe in something. Any theory, therefore, is better than no theory. I think this tells us an awful lot about the relationship between government, media and populace and I’m surprised it hasn’t been explored more.

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Burke and Hare and the Importance of the Resurrection Men

I was watching an old film over the weekend – Burke and Hare starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Whilst mostly true, it wasn’t 100% factually accurate, but it had a great cast, a wonderful script and was a highly entertaining couple of hours. In telling the story of these two quite notorious criminals, it also explored a crucial early part of medical and surgical education.

Until the Anatomy Act 1832, medical students could only practice dissection – or observe anatomy lectures – using the corpses of convicted murderers, usually whisked straight from the gallows to the mortuary or lecture theatre. This meant that demand far exceeded supply, as lectures were often twice weekly and there was still the practice that the students needed to obtain their degrees. This led to the rise of the Resurrection Man, who would often hover around graveyards and dig up freshly buried corpses to provide to medical schools that didn’t ask too many questions – and a startling number didn’t.

Burke and Hare were quite successful in the resurrectionist business, and had a decent line in providing Sir Robert Knox with bodies for dissection before his students. However, after nearly getting caught by the Edinburgh Militia, they decided that a safer way was to actually murder some of the derelicts and drunks they found wandering the back alleys of the city, on the grounds that they were unlikely to be missed, and hand these bodies over instead. Unfortunately for the pair, someone was missed and they were arrested and tried.

The Resurrection Men were put out of business by the Anatomy Act 1832, which allowed any unclaimed body to be taken for dissection – this included any hanged criminal, occupants of workhouses and basically any corpse left in the street. The medical schools were all licensed and there was no need to rely on murky dealings at the back door.

The 1832 Act has subsequently been repealed and replaced with the Human Tissues Act 2012, which now sets out the full procedures for any kind of post-mortem medical dissection. That said, the twilight world of the resurrection men will remain one of the more interesting aspects of medical history for many years to come.

The Great Avocado Crime Wave

I shouldn’t laugh – this really is quite serious – but there is something really funny about avocados being at the centre of global organised crime. It feels a little like a detective story written by Salvador Dali.

The root cause of it, unsurprisingly, is climate change. Extreme weather in South America has had a significant effect on the harvest and the fruit has been priced out of the reach of many local consumers. A secondary cause, especially in Australia and New Zealand, is that demand is far outstripping supply, to the point where any avocados are being harvested from orchards in the hope of making a quick buck. Apparently, Down Under they even trade through social media.

Despite how bonkers it sounds – and I still think it’s the silliest thing I’ve heard in ages – it’s incredibly serious and I think ought to force us all to look at how we view food. I ate my first avocado at the age of 30; it’s not something that I grew up with. Vegetables were the basics; peas, potatoes, carrots, sprouts, cabbage, parsnips or swede (or beetroot with a salad). Fruit was even more basic – pears, apples, plums, oranges, bananas for a treat. Food fads were extremely rare and superfoods were unknown. What we did have was food grown locally, bought locally and tasting delicious.

If we promoted local produce, grown according to our local climate, I do think we would all be better off for it, both in terms of health and in not allowing crime to pay – which is what it’s all about really, isn’t it?

This Comedy Movie Makes A Serious Point

I watched The Nice Guys over the weekend, mainly because we’d bought a new DVR and wanted to make sure it worked. I’d not seen it before, because I’m not much of a Ryan Gosling fan, but it was actually hilarious. Set in the late 70s, when there were protests in Los Angeles about the suffocating smog pollution and US car manufacturers were actively resisting the move to unleaded petrol, it comes across as a slightly humorous private eye/missing person movie with a good cast and decent script. There is so much more to it than that, though.

Yes, it’s a murder mystery linked with a missing persons/private eye investigation, in which a hapless Ryan Gosling finds himself slightly unwillingly working alongside thuggish Russell Crowe to find out why someone is trying to kill Amelia, the girl they’re looking for – having already killed most of the people she knows. Given that Amelia’s mother is the Justice Secretary, suddenly the wheels of the conspiracy engine start to turn. Amelia has made a protest film about the role of Detroit motor manufacturers actively opposing the adoption of catalytic converter technology, which she plans to show at the LA Motor Show. Unfortunately, her mother relies on those same automobile manufacturers to stay in office and the suggestion is that a secret state sanctioned organisation are killing people involved in the movie to protect the motor industry.

If it reminded me of anything, it was Silkwood, the true story of anti-nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood who died in unexplained circumstances in 1974. There has been suggestion that she was murdered by the nuclear power plant she worked for (although they lost a civil case for the working practices that she highlighted, there has never been any evidence that they acted criminally in any way) or even that the state energy sector had her silenced. Of course, it also could have been a dreadful accident. We will probably never know.

Once the state or big business get involved, it is very easy to construct a conspiracy theory to fit any awkward facts that don’t appear to be conveniently explained – or even awkward facts that are explained a little too conveniently. It was great to watch a film where such an important point was made in a light-hearted and humorous way. I really enjoyed the film (which had an excellent soundtrack, by the way) and I thought its mix of environmental politics, noir sensibility and retro styling really worked well.

Are Civil Wars Ever Justified?

I know, it’s a leading question if ever there was one. For every cause, there is an equal and opposite cause feeling just as strongly that they are in the right. I only mention it because I’m reading a book about the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War at the moment, and it occurred to me that only this and the English Civil War of the mid-1600s have really engaged my brain. I have always believed that the Roundheads were right in the supremacy of Parliament over the divine right of kings, and I’ve always believed that a military uprising against a democratically elected government has to be resisted at all costs.

This is just my personal feeling – I have never needed to make an active decision whether or not I could or should fight in a civil war, and that is something I am grateful for as people in some parts of the world do not have that luxury. And certainly there is no political cause at the moment I feel passionate enough about to risk my life in a foreign country purely on principle. Yet that is exactly what thousands of men and women from Britain, Ireland and France did in 1936, fighting in support of the Communist Government in Spain which was being usurped by the military, under the command of General Franco.

Some of the Brigade members were well known figures – George Orwell and Stephen Spender being just two – but the majority were ordinary working class men and women who had grown sick of living in abject poverty, with no real opportunity of work and, in some cases, of being beaten up by Oswald Mosley’s black shirted supporters. Some came home – many did not. Even so, even after having been told numerous times that they were going to war and it would be horrific, they stayed and they fought because they believed that fascism could not win the day.

Unfortunately, as history has shown, they were wrong. Fascism lasted in Spain until Franco’s death in the mid-1970s. It is now a democracy, although not a wealthy one. Interestingly, the Civil War is seen very much as a dark period, not often discussed, as people reflect that perhaps they may have supported the wrong side (whether or not that side won).

I find it interesting, though, that the Spanish Civil War provided enough justification for people to walk away from homes, families and (in some cases) livelihoods to go and fight in a foreign country for a cause that they believed in. It’s not something I can really understand – perhaps our closest example these days is Greenpeace activists on the Rainbow Warrior (whichever number it is now – 4 or 5?) chasing Japanese whalers or polluting oil tankers.

Nightcrawlers – A Lack of Journalistic Ethics

After the phone hacking scandal, the Leveson Enquiry and the demise of the News of the World, one could be forgiven for thinking that news journalists had absolutely no ethical structure whatsoever. I would like to say that this movie put pay to that suggestion, but I would be fibbing; if it is to be believed, nothing must stand in the way of a good story.

The cast is unbelievable; Rene Russo plays the News Producer for whom ratings are everything and Riz Ahmed plays the hapless assistant to the Nightcrawler who actually does have some kind of scruples at the things he’s asked to do. The revelation for me was Jake Gyllenhall, haggard and shrunken faced and wonderfully creepy as the sociopathic Lewis Bloom who will stop at nothing to get the shots and stories he wants, even if it means moving the evidence and staging the accidents. What’s a little tinkering with someone’s brakes if you know it’s going to give you the lead story on the morning news the following day?

Lewis Bloom is thoroughly amoral. He thinks nothing of stealing metal fencing (and a security guard’s watch) to sell to an illicit scrap metal dealer – and then ask the dealer for a job. He uses a thoroughly disconcerting form of management speak to justify everything he does – while he’s clearly intelligent, he has no social skills whatsoever. He preys on those who need him a lot more than he needs them – Russo, who will have no job if she can’t keep the ratings going, and Ahmed, who has no home nor job and depends on his $30 a night navigating Bloom from job to job.

It’s an incredibly dark film – both in lighting and in subject matter – but there is little violence and what there is has usually been filmed by Bloom. It did make me wonder, however, just how much of the news we read or see has been rigged to boost sales or ratings, or is actually an objective report – and it confirmed that whatever lessons may have been learned from the phone hacking scandal, nobody’s really interested if they can’t get a story.

My Least Favourite Word – Decided at Last

It’s taken me a while (and I’m the first to admit that) but I think I have now come to the conclusion that my least favourite word is profit. Admittedly, it took a novel the size of a house brick to confirm this, but there is not a lot about this word that I’m happy with.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, the definition of profit is:

1. (Accounting & Book-keeping) (often plural) excess of revenues over outlays and expenses in a business enterprise over a given period of time, usually a year; 2. (Commerce) the monetary gain derived from a transaction; 3. (Banking & Finance) a. income derived from property or an investment, as contrasted with capital gains b. the ratio of this income to the investment or principal 4. (Economics) a. the income or reward accruing to a successful entrepreneur and held to be the motivating factor of all economic activity in a capitalist economy b. (as modifier): the profit motive. 5. a gain, benefit, or advantage 6(verb) to gain or cause to gain profit

Yes, there’s a lot there; but breaking it down we can see what’s behind it all. Putting a value against an activity is the primary motivation. Everything that happens must have a value against it or else profit cannot be generated. Which is fine, if you work in the financial industry, but there are some things where the idea of profit sits considerably less comfortably. The health sector, for example. Surely, the value is in the health benefits generated rather than the wealth benefits generated – or am I simply being naïve here?**

In the book I’m reading at the moment, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, there are two examples of where I think profit plays an unnatural role. Some of the characters are scientists and, as a general rule of thumb, scientists believe in the free exchange of knowledge. Where that knowledge involves discoveries which could potentially be profitable – i.e. biotechnology, engineering, pharmaceuticals – the sharing of the knowledge is restricted in order to maximise the profit to be gained from it. That seems to me to go against the basic principles of science, but not being a scientist, I can’t really say. I appreciate there’s an argument that laboratories need money, and that money has to come from somewhere, but it seems inequitable that a business model is used to govern education and knowledge.

The second example is where a senator’s climate change advisor is having a meeting with a right wing president and his science advisor, who is described as a member of the Flat Earth Society – draw your own conclusions there. At one point, both the president and the science advisor resort to economic principles to dispute a scientific argument – it’s not profitable to make these changes to carbon emissions, it will cost too much money – yeah, we’ve heard it all before. If it doesn’t pay its way, it’s not worth the investment.

I firmly believe that some things are not about the money. The fact that we only have one planet to live on should be one of them. Bugger this planet up and we’re doomed – that’s not scaremongering, that’s a basic fact. We maintain this planet on trust for future generations, and if any trustee mismanages a trust they should expect to be fired. We are mismanaging this trust to an extent that wouldn’t be tolerated if the trust fund were money rather than a planet. And this is me applying economic principles to a scientific argument!

Somebody’s health should not be a question of money. Somebody’s education should not be a question of money. These things should be basic, fundamental and a given, regardless of the costs. Other things are not so fundamental. The amount of money spent on benefits would be reduced, if people didn’t have to worry about their basic human needs – benefits bridge the gap between the two, allegedly. Equally, the amount of money spent on MP’s pay rises could be drastically reduced, but then again I say that every year. It all just really frustrates me!

I hadn’t thought that reading a science fiction novel about the end of the world – my favourite kind, let’s be honest – would make me think about present day politics. It’s fascinating and irritating in equal measure, but this is what good science fiction ought to make you do. And it has to be said, this is very good science fiction.

** Yeah, I know I’m probably being naïve. There is a point to this, though. I’m hoping that my analysis helps explain to myself (and others, if they’re interested) quite why these things seem so uncomfortable.

Brand Politics

Notepad with Personal Branding on office wooden table.

Naomi Klein’s new book suggests that Donald Trump’s presidency is a logical conclusion to his vision of being a global brand – after all, as she points out, what bigger brand is there than the US President? This means that he is a product of Western culture, having manipulated it to his benefit – and which means that the future, even with a different president, looks horribly bleak. The system appears to be rotten to the core and this is the fact I find more disturbing than anything that the president does, says or tweets.

Donald Trump is actually not stupid (and believe me, it galls me to say that); he’s really very clever. What he’s done is create a hollow brand, a brand which manufactures nothing but markets everything – especially itself. Klein investigated such hollow brands in her first book, No Logo, and cited Nike in particular as a company that contracted out its manufacturing and so couldn’t really be held responsible for how the goods were produced. As long as they had the logo, they could then be sold for a premium to consumers who wouldn’t question the provenance of the goods, as long as they had the latest versions. Trump is doing something similar with his brand – Trump. He makes deals with real estate developers where they build the hotels and casino complexes, and he licences them to use his name, which is then proudly emblazoned on all the marketing literature. He hasn’t actually built anything, and isn’t responsible for anything that happens on site; he’s just contracted out his name.

But it’s more than that; it’s how he’s taken the cultural paradigm and pushed it as far as it will go so that people are desensitised to what he’s doing. Klein’s analysis of his production of The Apprentice (which I’ve never watched – or the UK version, come to think of it) horrified me – indeed, she likens it to The Hunger Games, which isn’t a bad analogy as it goes. A group of people literally fighting to survive for the viewing public’s pleasure, with Trump endorsing the view that as long as you come out on top, whatever you do is permissible. Winning is everything. He’s clearly never heard of a Pyrrhic victory. This then begs the question – what is the point of winning if the prize is not worth having?

I’ve been keeping an eye on the news reports lately, mainly in the context of the environment and ecological matters, and it looks to me as though Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement will have utterly devastating consequences for everybody. I wonder if the prize of the presidency is really worth having, given that one day, he may not have a country to govern.

Come Dine With Me, Andronicus Style

This is the feast that I have bid her to/And this the banquet she shall surfeit on. (Titus Andronicus, Act 5, Scene 2)

I want to try and avoid too many references to Game of Thrones in this post, and it’s just as well I’m looking at the climax of the play because it allows me to explore another controversial series which is unbelievably popular with its fanbase – Hannibal. I think you’ll see why when we get to the end.

I’ve said previously that this play has two scenes for which it is justifiably notorious – Lavinia’s rape and mutilation at the hands of Tamora’s sons in Act 2, and the final dinner party in Act 5. Like Hannibal (arguably a modern-day counterpart) Titus considers himself quite a chef and insists on preparing the banquet himself. It’s easy to see why when all is revealed in the course of dinner. He has invited everyone (all the main characters are present, except Aaron, who is kept offstage as Lucius’ prisoner) and serves the Imperial party himself, before dropping the first of his bloody bombshells.

In the middle of the main course, Titus murders his daughter – who has spent the majority of the play in dumbshow – in front of all the guests. If that wasn’t enough, he then points out to the Empress that the pie she has just eaten contained the corpses of her two sons, whom he had murdered while she was off getting changed. In the chaos that ensues, everyone except Marcus, Lucius and young Lucius are dead. Even the stage directions suggest the level of mayhem:

He kills Saturninus. Uproar. (Stage Direction, Act 5, Scene 3)

It does beg the question of whether everyone has to die; but I think they do and it’s an entirely necessary scene. There wasn’t really anywhere else for the story or characters to go; this final, brutal dinner party offers the audience a sense of catharsis from the relentless cruelty inflicted throughout the rest of the play. In amongst all the bloodletting and cannibalism, a sense of justice has emerged. Unlike Hannibal, this isn’t killing for pleasure or for the sake of it, but to redress the universal balance – the cruel are punished and the just are allowed to live. Titus has done wrong, partly in killing Tamora’s son but also in killing one of his own sons – and he also dies. Lavinia’s death is itself couched in controversial terms which would have rung true for a 16th century audience but perhaps do less so today. Tragic as the play is, there is a glimmer of hope at the end that civilisation has prevailed.

I do find Titus Andronicus to be a wholly underrated play. Many people can’t see beyond the blood, gore and brutality to the actual story underneath – which is sad, and tragic, but not without hope and it’s certainly not boring. It’s also quite a short play, which helps if you have a slightly limited attention span. I hope that in this age of Game of Thrones and Hannibal it gains a new, appreciative, audience – or at least one that has a stronger stomach.

A Charitable Murderer

‘Tis present death I beg, and one thing more/That womanhood denies my tongue to tell/O keep me from that worse than killing lust/Amd tumble me into some loathsome pit/Where never man’s eye may behold my body/Do this and be a charitable murderer. (Titus Andronicus, Act 2, Scene 3).

Lady Macbeth is rightly considered to be one of Shakespeare’s finest female characters, but I think Tamora, Queen of the Goths from Titus Andronicus is often forgotten. Both women are in positions of power and given to murder and manipulation to sustain their status – and lose it, alongside their grip on reality. Unfortunately, because Titus Andronicus is such a highly controversial play, Tamora is often overlooked, and I think that’s a bit unfair. For a female actor, it’s a terrific part to get one’s teeth into – and much more fun to play than Lavinia.

Tamora is always set up as the arch villainess, as she uses her sons – and at her lover’s instigation, her husband – to wage something of a vendetta against the Andronici, as the family of Titus are clllectively known. The reasoning behind this is set out in Act 1, when Lucius demands of Titus (and gets) Tamora’s eldest son as a blood sacrifice at the interment of two of his brothers after wars against the Goths. Her subsequent elevation to Empress of Rome – mainly by making sure she catches the eye of the histrionic emperor, Saturninus – puts her in a position where her vengeful fantasies can become reality.

She starts by framing two of Titus’s three surviving sons for the murder of the emperor’s brother, Bassianus, and having the last one – Lucius – banished from Rome for life. She then permits, if not actively encourages, her sons to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia in ne of the play’s most infamous scenes. At no point does Tamora make secret her aims, going so far as to tell her new husband in an early aside:

I’ll find a day to massacre them all/And raze their facton and their family,/The cruel father and his traitorous sons/To whom I sued for my dear son’s life. (Titus Andronicus, Act 1, Scene 1).

Unfortunately for Tamora, power quickly goes to her head and – anticipating Lady Macbeth’s own descent into madness – she starts to fudge reality with her own murderous fantasies. In part, the birth of her son (fathered by her Moorish lover, Aaron) reinforces the tenuous nature of her position but in attempting to rid herself of the Andronici completely she loses everything. I’ll discuss this point in a later post, so I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say that I can’t see any emperor of Rome tolerating being quite so openly cuckolded.

Titus Andronicus is quite an early play and the nuances of character are not so well developed as they are in his later masterpieces such as Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and Hamlet. Even so, Tamora is a meaty role that allows an actress to play a wholly unrepentant villainess confident in her sexuality and quite at home with her cruelty. If she reminds me of anyone, it’s Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones – and there are a few people who would say that wasn’t a bad thing at all.