Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Bad Seed? 

Hey Folks,

Given that this blog is ostensibly - love that word - to do with the fact that I suffer from depression and related anxiety disorders, it propbably won't surprise y'all to hear that I'm concerned. Rather than my concern relating to the usual, general and unspecified sense of fear and existential dread, I'm much worried about the behaviour of the media. And the government. What, you may be wondering, could the government and the media be doing this week to make Sad Sack actually share his concerns with us rather than them being accepted as part of the Natural Order? Well, since you asked, I'll tell you. Lots of people have commented on the legislation contained in the Queen's Speech, notably that which deals with anti-social behaviour* and the media's handling of so-called 'terror scares.' The common view expressed by these legions of bloggers and opinion pieces is that we UK residents were, although perhaps mildly concerned about the threat posed by terrorists we have mainly refused to be terrified of them and to make significant changes to our lifestyles. Neither were we truly frightened by the thuggish antics of a small minority of young people and children, at least until the government decided that we should be frightened and started to make them an issue. I imagine that I will not be the first to note that by trumpeting bills designed to deal with petty crimes almost in the same sentence as those aiming to protect us from international terrorism, then the implication is that this mindless thuggery is on a level as equally dangerous to us as the prospect of men and women prepared to die at the wheels of lorries loaded with high explosives. Taking this implicit argument to its logical conclusion, it follows then that this anti-social behaviour is an even greater threat to our safety do to the fact that it comes forth from and happens within our communities. The message that the government clearly wishes us to receive - and the media aids and abetts it in this aim - is quite clear: there's a group of teenagers on your street and they're throwing stones and bottles. Or grenades. Watch them closely enough and you might see them preparing or planting a dirty bomb. They'll kill you and everyone you care about. Fear them! Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that to replace the services of Alistair Campbell, that Blair had had Ilya Ehrenburg cloned to run a General Election campaign focused on these twinned issues. You all know that it's just mad enough to be true.

Young people have always been perceived as, at the very least, a major annoyance if not an outright threat; Saint Augustine discourses at length about the various failings of youth - it is nothing new, but it is my belief that it has become such a problem today due to the few real problems that we Westerners face. The fact that the fear of wholesale thermonuclear destruction courtesy of the Warsaw Pact and Nato is no longer uppermost in our minds, means that our idea of what constitutes a real threat to collective safety have become diluted and diffused - Lacking this main threat, our minds have wandered and engaged ever more fantastic and nebulous threats. Our apparently genetic need to fear something - higher primates such as gorillas and baboons fear crossing watercourses, and all animals flee from fire - is at odds with the manifest fact that our technology has allowed us to defeat those threats: as well as conquering the Cold War, we've largely destroyed the threat of disease and few fear the possibility of God's wrath and we conequently lack a Great Enemy to occupy this genetic need to fear. We Brits, however, and are constrained by the fact that we're too damn polite.

Liberals, humanitarians and cosmopolitan people - to use Robin Cook's term - have been doing their level best to ensure the failure of those who actively seek to make all Islam and its adherents responsible for the actions of a tiny minority and wish to respond to the violence of these few with collective reprisals, and I think that we are generally succeding in this to ensure that we maintain a free, open and tolerant society. WE are all aware, however, of the hate spread by several vocal members of a truly racist minority in our country, who argue that while many Muslims do not take part in violence, they still tacitly agree with and support its aims. This may be true, I honestly can't say, but I fear that it is true for us as well. Many people would never describe themselves as being racist, but it is a common enough occurence to hear someone, when confronted with the bile preached by the likes of Nick Griffin, say words to the effect of that's terrible, but he kind of has a point... Even if this does represent the 'silent majority,' then they are still constrained by the fact that they know that such views are rarely tolerated and their sense of British manners precludes them from being openly racist and saying that they truly fear what might be said inside a nearby mosque. Where then can this 'silent majority' place their fear? Fat people? No can do, they know it's the fault of poor genes, or McDonalds. The disabled**? Impossible, their homes would be picketed by placard-waving disabled rights activists. The answer: they fear Britain's children. In the eyes of the government, the media and the wider population, children and young adults are schizophrenicaly portrayed as being simultaneously our 'hope for the future' and 'thuggish criminals.' Our society's obsession with the actions of young people has been given full vent in the trial of Luke Mitchell, who is accused of murdering his girlfriend in June of 2003. In what is an extremely emotive case, I'm sad to say that the media's coverage has broadly been sensationalist in manner with plenty of lurid speculation that I believe to be dangerously close to being prejudicial. It seems that even BBC Scotland's coverage is not above it either, but the actions of the tabloid press in particular make me burn with rage. I've read several lurid accounts of the evidence presented in court on Thursday and, despite the import and gravity of the case, it stretches over pages six and seven after dubious psuedo-news reports on the latest happenings in the I'm a Celebrity...encampment. Reading the two pages would require a strong will to cope with the sheer amount of innuendo and spurious claims being presented as evidence. I firmly believe in the nature of the judicial process, but I worry greatly that the prosecution is surrendering to tabloid-style decisions about what constitues sound evidence. Thursday's evidence seems - if the newspaper accounts are to be believed - to centre on the content of several essays and scribblings on the jotters of the accused. The media have driven themselves into a frezy over quotes lifted from these essays and graffitto, making much of the fact that Mitchell refers to Satan as 'a fallen angel' and to having shaken hands with the devil. Much is also made of the accused having written that God 'is a futile excuse at most for a bunch of fools to go around annoying others.' These quotes are tied in the media's mind, if not the prosecution's, to Mitchell's view of himself as a Goth, and the fact that he admires Kurt Cobain and listens to Nirvana. It is implicit that the editors of these esteemed organs view such statements and opinions as being symptomatic of someone who would kill. Neither is there any discussion or analysis of what Mitchell may actually have been saying the quoted material. The entire sweep of the media has failed to analyse these comments in any meaningful way - the do not, for instance, link his professed atheism to him being a student of a school which bases a significant portion of its ethos on religious teaching. Over and over again we are simply expected to accept all this as evidence of murder.

Permit me to offer my own very brief analysis of some of the possible implications of what was presented as evidence: Firstly, regardless on your views on its truth or authenticity, few would argue that even the Bible refers to Lucifer and his status as a fallen angel and physical contact with Satan is a common theme of religion and popular culture, with much literature discussing the subject. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters springs almost instantly to mind as do the lyrics of U2's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For which actually contains the line 'I have held hands with the Devil.' Few would argue that this would make Bono a Satanist or a murderer. From the way the media has chosen to portray this evidence, is it reasonable to expect that an abscence of belief in God or a steadfast conviction that religion is a load of bollocks, is the thinking of someone who would murder their own girlfriend. I'm a Christian and I find such an inference deeply troubling and offensive. These 'facts' consigned to pages six and seven are bad enough, but the massive frontpage headline simply beggars belief: 'I have tasted the Devil's green blood' splashed across the lower half of the page - under, funily enough, still images from I'm a Celebrity... - and while your eyes may see 'I have tasted the Devil's green blood,' your brain reads 'guilty.' Now you can call me an apologist if you like, but there to be a very good reason for Mitchell to have written this. At the very least there is a possible context for such a statement. We have already been told that Mitchell is a habitual and heavy user of various drugs if not an actual addict. You do not, in my opinion, need to be a team member of the Betty Ford or Priory clinics to be aware of how often addicts describe their addictions in physical, tangible and evil terms - 'demon drink,' 'the hell of substance abuse' - but once again these statements are seen as evidence of criminal intent. This may be the first and last time that you hear me agreeing with Donald Findlay, the boy's QC, who says that they are at best little more than the writings of a rebellious and occasionaly thoughtful young man, and at worst 'stupid.' I personally don't find him to be that rebellious: if I had a pound - even a Euro - for every time I've met an angry teenaged Goth atheist, I'd be taking you all on holiday come summer. Mitchell is a cliche of the modern teen certainly, and I seriously wonder about the current state of collective wisdom if he is being viewed as some sort of dangerous Other. My true hatred of sensationalist coverage stems from the fact that it has the effect of misdirecting us from the real facts of a case. Tucked away in the last two columns of the story, we read about Mitchell's fascination with knives and how he talked openly with friends about how cool it would be to commit murder. Again this does not mean that he actually killed his girlfriend, but it is arguably far more pertinent to the case than what he may have scrawled on the cover of a folder. Luke Mitchell may well be guilty, but it is for the jury sitting in court to decide and not the media. Sadly, regardless of the eventual outcome of the case, I fear that Mitchell's portrayal in the Press will lead to the further stigmatising and alienation of young people, especially those that choose to dress in a certian manner, listen to music that they like and offer opinions on society, politics or religion that more 'responsible' adults may feel uncomfortable with. Ultimately, it makes a mockery of us and our belief that our children are our future.

*Note that if you replace 'behaviour' with the word 'elements' you get a catch-all label most famously beloved of the Third Reich and the USSR. Am I really suggesting that we're on a descent into fascism? Perhaps I am, but I'm hoping to be proven wrong

**I myself have several blind friends, but I've viewed them with a measure of suspicion and distrust ever since David Blunkett became Home Secretary.