The freedom to be grossly offensive

Anyone finding this blog post is sure to be familiar with the recent spectacle of the Hitler-saluting pug and the conviction of its owner, ‘Count Dankula’ (aka Mark Meechan), for a hate crime.  Meechan now faces a potential prison sentence for effectively posting a crude joke on YouTube.

And understood in context, it evidently was a joke.  Meechan was fed up with his girlfriend doting on their adorable pug, so to piss her off he turned it into, in his own words, “the least cute thing I could think of”, ie, into a Jew-hating genocidal Nazi-dog, thereby despoiling its cuteness.  The joke – obviously – is that the dog is not consciously aware it’s heartily endorsing a hateful ideology; it remains blissfully cute and furry, excitedly hopping around and raising its paw all Nazi-like on hearing the phrase “gas the Jews”.

It was this phrase, and its repeated use by Meechan in the video, which was the principal objection of the court.  Meechan was found guilty under the Communications Act of sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive”.  There are a number of reasons this piece of legislation is spectacularly stupid, the most obvious of which is: who is to say what should be deemed ‘grossly offensive’ as opposed to just, say, mildly offensive?  The cry of ‘offence’ will be familiar to religious zealots and theocrats, who have deployed it exhaustively in their struggle to prevent criticism of their ideas.  And while joking about the holocaust may reasonably be seen as more offensive than questioning someone’s religious beliefs, the two are still comparable in the murky world of offence-taking, as each of the offended parties may subjectively consider themselves equally ‘grossly offended’.  Thus, we had the spectacle in Meechan’s court case of a Jewish ‘community leader’ solemnly giving evidence that yes, the Nazi pug video and accompanying phase were indeed grossly offensive.

But what does it really matter that some bloke in Scotland might go to jail for a joke about Nazis and the holocaust?  We’re certainly not short of commentators and celebrities (even other comedians) telling us that it’s all fine and good and, at the end of the day, the freedom to make offensive jokes doesn’t really matter, does it?  Oh and by the way, the only ones defending free speech are the ‘alt-right’ and ‘Nazis’, so what does that tell you about the importance of free speech?

It’s true that whenever free speech does actually need defending, it normally involves someone with offensive or objectionable views or someone saying something offensive/objectionable.  If this weren’t the case, there would be no need to ever defend it: no one would ever be offended by anything, and we could all float around in blissful bubbles with smiles on our faces safe in the knowledge our feelings would never be hurt and our minds would be comfortably closed.  Well, bullshit. Nobody has the right ‘not to be offended’, and a hate crime for being ‘grossly offensive’, although seemingly innocuous and unimportant, is fundamentally antithetical to the principle of free expression; a principle which is foundational to freedom and progress.

The lowest ranked countries on global listings of free expression or press freedom all reliably turn out to be repressive autocracies whose citizens suffer from a paucity of many other rights we in the UK take for granted (healthcare, welfare, education, fundamental human rights, the list goes on and on).  Free expression is the freedom from which all other freedoms derive.  The trickle-down effect is palpable, enabling the free exchange of ideas, debate, argument, and ultimately progress.  Of course criminalizing a Nazi pug is not going to suddenly lead to the downfall of British free society. But it is a misguided and illiberal step in the wrong direction, setting a worrying authoritarian legal precedent.  Ultimately, it’s an abnegation of the hard-fought and vitally important principle of free expression, which must always include the freedom to offend.


*An amusing irony in the Dankula Nazi pug case is that if he’d taught his dog to Seig Heil in Nazi Germany, he’d most likely have been imprisoned or killed for mocking the Fuhrer.

In keeping with all the above, here’s a holocaust joke from the brilliant Brass Eye.  I look forward to my day in court for sending by means of electronic communication a message or other matter that is grossly offensive – maybe I’ll get to meet Chris Morris!



In defence of Prince Harry

Unless you’ve been living under a big WiFi-blocking rock lately, you’ll have heard the news of Prince Harry’s engagement to American actress Meghan Markle.  You’ll have also been barraged with a disparate assortment of commentary and opinion in reaction to the news, ranging from sickly-sweet sycophancy to mean-spirited vindictiveness.  Ms Markle, in particular, has been the subject of predictably frenzied press attention, set to continue apace in all its depressing spectacle.

Many commentators have taken the news as an opportunity to reignite the flame of Republicanism, and to stick one to Prince Harry and his archaic hereditary privilege, dredging up his past misdemeanours to remind us how silly he is.  Vice news was bemused to learn that, shockingly, Harry might’ve killed enemy combatants while serving in the British Army during an active conflict, while Tanya Gold in the Guardian accused both princes of “unthinking entitlement and mindless greed”.  This piece in Metro stood out for its ultra-woke SJW take, bemoaning the entrenchment of ‘white male privilege’ and reminding us that Harry once wore a Nazi uniform to a fancy-dress party as a teenager (never mind that he’s served in the British Army, the implication here is that he’s still probably a Nazi).

Despite being broadly in favour of Republicanism on principle, I have never understood the ire directed at the Princes by many of those critical of the British monarchy.  To say that they are privileged is true in some respects, but is utterly false in others.  Ok, so Harry and Wills have never had to worry about paying the rent.  But what about being born into global fame (and all its negative implications) out of sheer chance?  It’s not as though they entered into a Faustian pact with the press as many celebrities do, vacuously surrendering their privacy in return for fame.  They just happened to be born into the royal family, and from the moment they left their mother’s womb the paparazzi were deceiving hospital staff to try and sneak a snap of them.  

Imagine growing up as one of the Princes, confused by the banal nature of your fame and hounded throughout your formative years by strange photographers.  Imagine then learning of your own mother’s death in a horrific car crash – plausibly a direct result of harassment by photographers – only for coverage of her death to be relentlessly circulated in the press, photos of the mangled car and all.  Imagine experiencing the mad public hysteria surrounding your mother’s death – the same public hysteria that drove sales of celeb-obsessed tabloids which in turn employed the photographers responsible for her death – and being accused of not mourning hard enough North Korea-style.  Yes, the Princes had a privileged education at Eton.  But imagine trying to forge genuine friendships at school not knowing who you can trust, or if your ‘mate’ will sell a picture of you getting drunk or smoking a joint to the Mirror for 50 quid.

Personally, I think it’s a miracle that neither of them has ended up as a raging alcoholic with serious mental health problems.  Instead, both Princes appear to have grown up to be impressively mature.  Harry may have played strip poker in Vegas with his mates, but so what?  Which of us can honestly say we haven’t got blind drunk and done something stupid with friends before?  He was on leave from Afghanistan, for god’s sake.  If you’re allowed to potentially die for your country, then you’re allowed to have a piss-up on the weekend. 

Harry appears to be dealing with the global spotlight on his engagement with maturity, appealing sincerely to the press to respect his fiancée’s privacy rather than responding petulantly to the harassment.  In my opinion, both the Princes have demonstrated real character in their adulthood.  Whatever you think of the unremitting press coverage of the engagement, or of the fundamentally inequitable nature of the British monarchy itself, the two Princes have grown up to be decent people. 



Five suggestions to help tackle Islamism

A month has now passed since the London Bridge terrorist attack, which quickly replaced the Manchester bombing in the headlines and the public consciousness.  As the news headlines roll inexorably onwards, those two recent Jihadist attacks on British soil appear to have been all but forgotten.  While we await the next inevitable attack in Europe, now is as good a time as any to consider how best to tackle the issue of Islamic fundamentalism.

Here are five broad suggestions from a humanist perspective:

1)       Speak honestly and openly about Islamic ideology and its direct consequences in the world today

This is the obvious one, but is perhaps too much to ask in our current political climate.  Politicians are rightly reticent about any pronouncements which could be seen as divisive or prejudiced against Muslims as people, but however well-intentioned, this approach is frequently taken too far, leading to a flat-out denial that there’s any problem at all with Islam as an ideology.  The amount of people who think that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with Islam or is a perversion of the faith is simply astounding.  There is such a painfully straightforward link between doctrines, belief in those doctrines and resultant actions, but many people either (i) are blind to it for incomprehensible reasons; (ii) know the link exists but deliberately lie about it and claim it does not (more on those types at point 3 below); or (iii) know the link exists but refuse to speak honestly about it for various political reasons (ie, most politicians).  It’s not a random coincidence that many Muslim-majority countries currently have some of the worst records on earth in respect of women’s rights, gay rights, rights of minorities, rights of non-believers, and rights of free expression.  These curtailments of freedom are the direct result of a straightforward and plausible interpretation of Islamic doctrine.  The fact that many of us cannot admit the causal link between beliefs and actions is a major hindrance in the fight against terrorism and radical Islam.

2)        Support ex-Muslims, listen to their stories, and take them seriously

This one really shouldn’t need to be stated, but sadly does.  It was shocking to see a former Muslim (now atheist) being shouted down by thinly veiled Islamists on the BBC’s ‘The Big Questions’, to rounds of applause from the BBC’s ever-ready audience of morons.  But it was also an illuminating exchange, demonstrating the difficulties ex-Muslims face when they apostatise, even in a liberal democracy like the UK.  Needless to say, apostates in less liberal Muslim majority countries have a far harder time of it.  A staggering thirteen Muslim majority countries impose the death penalty upon those who apostatize.  This is a profoundly damning indictment on these countries and their theocratic prescriptions.  Such disgraceful intolerance stems directly and entirely from religious ideology.  Westerners (and particularly western politicians) have all but abandoned those foreign free thinkers living under theocracy who bravely vocalise their atheism at grave personal risk.  When was the last time a virtue-signalling celebrity condemned such barbarism or expressed solidarity with the victims of this brand of religious oppression?  As a society, we fall over ourselves to treat the Muslim faith with great reverence and respect, totally disregarding non-believing ex-Muslims and their struggles.  Humanists must be vocal and uncompromising in their solidarity with ex-Muslims.

3)    Do not allow closet Islamists to get away with their obfuscations and deceptive arguments

There are plenty of these types out there who are passionately involved in Dawah, proselytizing and defending Islam at all costs, and there are plenty of broadcasters happily giving them a platform.  Closet Islamists know full well their ideology is the direct impetus toward intolerance and murder, but deliberately lie, misdirect, and obfuscate to prevent this truth being heard.  They need to be called out in the loudest terms.

This point also goes for those ‘useful idiots’ who are not Islamists but who, in pretending terrorism and religious intolerance have nothing to do with religion, provide cover for the ideology and only stultify the debate.  There are innumerable examples of such people: notables include Reza Aslan (unclear whether unwitting or genuine Islamist), Linda Sarsour (genuine Islamist), Glenn Greenwald (unwitting – would be sentenced to death in Islamic theocracies), the staff of publications such as the Intercept and Salon (mixture of genuine and unwitting), Mehdi Hasan (hard to tell which), most mainstream politicians including Obama, Clinton, Corbyn and May (unwitting – noting some are far worse than others).  Also of note are the countless celebrities whose opinions on such subjects should be of no relevance but who hold influence purely by way of twitter followers and fans (eg – Lily Allen, 6 million twitter followers, tweeting things like “Islamists don’t hate women more or less than anyone else.  Fear of women is inherent everywhere. #normalisation”).

4)    Vocally criticise all religious beliefs

Many humanists are divided on whether this strategy is a help or a hindrance in the battle against religious fundamentalism.  The arguments against it are understandable: it is divisive and will only alienate believers; it is a human tendency to double down on beliefs and opinions when confronted with criticism of the same by strangers; ‘strident’ or ‘arrogant’ rhetoric will impede the efforts of religious reformers and alienate moderate believers.   Personally, I tend to err on the side of vocal and unapologetically strong criticism of religious faith.  This feeling becomes especially potent after hearing the news that religiously inspired idiots have plunged ceramic knives into revellers in London while shouting “this is for Allah”, or that a Jihadist has blown himself up in a crowd of teenage girls at an Ariana Grande gig.  After events such as these, it is difficult to remain restrained and nuanced in the fight against faith-based ideas and their consequences.  It’s also worth noting that many ex-believers have credited their exculpation from religion to discussions they’ve had with – or arguments they’ve heard from – atheists.  When discussing what led to her rejecting Islam, prominent American ex-Muslim Sarah Haider recalls researching her faith in greater detail so as to gather ammunition for her next argument with atheists at college.  In doing so, she inadvertently began a rational examination of her own belief-system, ultimately discarding it.  I’m convinced her experience is common.

5)    Stand up for and defend the principles of the Enlightenment

The freedoms we enjoy in the west are entirely taken for granted.  The product of centuries of struggle, steady progress, moral and intellectual advancement is now assumed to be our birth-right; something we’re just naturally entitled to, like an iPhone or a Big Mac.  We risk forgetting that the freedoms we enjoy courtesy of the Enlightenment are still in their infancy relative to the great span of human history, and that great swathes of the earth’s population are still yet to enjoy such freedoms.  We are rightly critical of dark elements of western history such as imperialism and slavery, but often take this to masochistic extremes, concluding that the west is responsible for all the world’s ills to date.  Consequently, we can be capable of the most infuriating “whataboutery” when it comes to discussing modern Islamic theocracy (for a fist-bitingly irritating example, see Louise Mensch on Bill Maher).  We need to emphasise the importance of Enlightenment values such as free expression, separation of church and state, and freedom of and from religion at every opportunity.  If we as a society continue to complacently take these principles for granted and fail to defend them in the face of their extremely hostile and aggressive enemies, we risk ultimately compromising them.  The Danish cartoon episode and the Charlie Hebdo attack serve as apt demonstrations of the very real threat to free expression and our collective cowardice in failing to protect it.


There is no simple answer to the problem of Islamism or Jihadism, no quick-and-easy legislative change or policy implementation.  The battle against these pernicious theocratic ideas will be waged for many decades to come.  Ultimately, we can only hope that reformers and free thinkers in the Muslim world win out, and the adherents of a literalist, totalitarian version of Islam dramatically wane in number.  Either that or everyone in the world becomes a humanist overnight.  Fingers crossed.

Childhood indoctrination

Whose rights should prevail: those of a parent to bring up their own offspring in a way that is consistent with their deeply held religious worldview, or those of a child to enjoy a balanced and objective education free from indoctrination?  Of course, the right to freedom of religion is an integral pillar of any free society.  People should be able to believe whatever nonsense they like, provided they are not hurting others in practising their beliefs.  But what about the children of people who believe in said nonsense?  What rights do they have in respect of, say, determining what their own beliefs are?  Shouldn’t they be free to enjoy a balanced, secular education?  Should they immediately be labelled as a religious child, years or decades before they can come to their own conclusions about such questions?

Around one third of the 20,000 state schools in the UK are “faith schools”: that is to say, they teach a standardised general curriculum, but are affiliated with and emphasise the importance of a particular faith.  While the issue of childhood indoctrination may not be as worrying in the UK as it is in other parts of the world, there is still something disquieting about the notion of a ‘faith school’.  The idea that children should be segregated at a very early age based on the religious beliefs of their parents is innately divisive, creating an illusory and needless separation between children based solely on religious affiliation.  The curriculum faith schools teach is largely a standardised one, controlled by a government regulator, with the exception of the subject of ‘religious studies’.  Faith schools have their own independent inspectorate for this subject, meaning they can basically get away with teaching religious doctrine as fact.  And this is exactly what happens in some schools, as witnessed by Richard Dawkins in his Channel 4 documentary on the subject.  Dawkins was refused entry to Catholic and Jewish schools for the documentary, but was granted access to a Muslim school in Birmingham, which taught the theory of evolution, but taught that it was false and antithetical to the Qur’an.  Needless to say, when Dawkins questioned the students of a science class on topics such as evolution, they confidently responded that the Qur’an is the only necessary source of scientific knowledge.

In certain other countries, the situation is significantly worse.  In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it is illegal for teachers to discuss the evidence for evolution.  That’s right; there is actual legislation in place in these countries to actively prevent the dissemination of knowledge.  It is profoundly depressing to think of the vast numbers of students who are deliberately deprived of an important and fascinating part of their education because adults in authority have imposed their own religious beliefs on their society’s education system.  Many students in these societies (ie, the female ones) often already face a great struggle just to obtain the right to simply attend a school in the first place; a direct result of the religiously-inspired patriarchy invariably spawned by Islamic theocracies.  If these girls do manage to avoid having acid thrown in their faces for the crime of wanting to learn stuff, they’ll make it to school to end up being taught drivel anyway.

And it really is drivel.  A Saudi ‘science’ textbook offers the following little nuggets of wisdom: (i) Allah ‘created for organisms characteristics and structures that enable them to live in their different environments;’ (ii) Muslims who wrongly accept the theory of evolution are ‘unaware of the blasphemy and error in it’; (iii) Charles Darwin has denied ‘Allah’s creation of humanity’, and (iv) ‘evidence of evolution crumbles at the first test… it has merely resulted from misunderstanding, miscalculation, or deceit or forgery’.  It would be amusing if it wasn’t so tragic.  I can laugh at these extracts now as a British twenty-something having enjoyed a secular education, but they are extracts from a real science book, which is really being taught to many tens of thousands of children by their adult authority figures.  Children are often powerless to resist this sort of debilitating idiocy being inculcated into their minds and thought processes, and it can be extremely difficult to break free from the shackles that such an education creates.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the situation in America was in no way comparable to that of theocratic societies such as Saudi Arabia.  The United States Constitution – an exceptional document heavily influenced by the values of the enlightenment – explicitly separates church and state, protects free expression, and allows for freedom of (and, importantly, from) religion.  It would follow, then, that teaching religious pseudo-scientific dogma in classrooms is unconstitutional.  And, indeed, the United States courts have for the past half a century consistently found that teaching creationism in class while disallowing the teaching of evolution violates the Establishment clause of the constitution.  This has not stopped the parties of God attempting, with varied success, to force-feed children creationist babble in schools.  Many children educated in bible-belt states continue to be subjected to religious indoctrination in schools, while being taught that evolutionary biology is a dangerous falsehood which should be roundly rejected.

In a bitter irony, the reason indoctrination of children works so well is a direct result of evolution, the very ‘theory’ many indoctrinators discount as false.  Children’s brains are malleable; like sponges, absorbing information proffered by parents; information which would be critical to survival and the subsequent propagation of genes through thousands of past generations.  “Don’t touch that spider;” “Stay away from that area;” “don’t eat that poisonous berry”.  If you were an infant while our species was itself in its infancy, and you didn’t heed the advice of your elders, you’d die pretty quickly and you’d be out of the gene pool.  Children have been intelligently designed (ahem) by the process of natural selection to trust their elders and believe what they’re told by them – if the infants of Homo sapiens had not developed this mechanism of learning, we’d be extinct, like 99% of all species that have ever existed.  Quite the design, God!  Oh and cheers for inventing those parasitic worms that eat their way through the eyeballs of kids in sub-Saharan Africa; lovely touch.

If children are encouraged by their teachers to formulate their worldview on blind faith and acceptance of divine authority, they risk being intellectually stunted and can often struggle to emancipate themselves from faith-based dogmas in later life, condemned to perpetuate the cycle with their own children.  If, on the other hand, they are taught how to think critically, how to examine the evidence of claims and approach the world with a sense of rational enquiry and scepticism, then they will be equipped with the skills to think and conclude for themselves.  And they’ll all become rapists and murderers without religious ‘morality’, of course, but that goes without saying.

This short Youtube video provides a stark and poignant juxtaposition between those two different methods of teaching children.  At the beginning of the clip, we see Carl Sagan – one of the foremost scientists of the 20th century – revisiting his childhood classroom to give a lesson on astronomy.  The latter half of the video is taken from the documentary ‘Jesus Camp’.  It speaks for itself.













Mashal Khan

Last month, a Pakistani university student named Mashal Khan was beaten to death by his fellow students.  He was stripped naked, stomped on, hit with wooden planks, and thrown from the second storey window of his accommodation.  His “crime” was blasphemy.

It’s been reported by various news outlets including Reuters that Khan was engaging in a heated discussion about religion with fellow students in his dorm room, which concluded with several members of the discussion accusing him of blasphemy.  Word quickly spread, and soon a baying mob had assembled outside Khan’s room.  This mob eventually broke down Khan’s door and murdered him in a sickeningly barbaric fashion. 

Khan’s Facebook posts indicate he was a thoughtful, intelligent young man with clear leanings toward humanism and an aversion to religiously inspired intolerance; a brave public display which will have undoubtedly influenced his fate.  Just a month ago he posted “to all the women in Pakistan who are working for change, don’t give up on your dreams, your bravery and resilience in the face of such adversities is admirable”, alongside several pictures of recovered victims of acid attacks. 

In the aftermath of such a depressing event as his murder, the answer to the question of why it happened has in recent times been obfuscated to the point of farce.  The majority of mainstream current affairs commentators in the UK and the US (with notable – but notably few – exceptions) reliably fall over themselves in attempts to conjure mind-bendingly obscure reasons or excuses for such behaviour.  The perpetrators are psychopaths; they were just criminals on a drugs binge; aggressive Swedish foreign policy is to blame; the baying crowd amounts to .000001% of the global Muslim population you bigot; you’re statistically more likely to get killed by your lawnmower than to be beaten to death while studying journalism at a university in Pakistan in the month of April on a Wednesday.

There is of course a very straightforward and blindingly obvious answer to why such an act occurred: religious belief.  Ardent, fevered, unwavering conviction in religious dogma.  It’s the same reason Bangladeshi atheist bloggers get hacked to death with machetes in their own homes for uploading similarly toned (but doubtless far better written) blog posts as this one.  Or was that caused by western imperialism; I forget. 

For far too long, moderate believers have been allowed a free pass when it comes to the logical consequences of their belief systems.  Shortly after the Westminster terror attack several months ago, humourlessly pious Christian Peter Hitchens appeared on the BBC essentially arguing that a major cause of all terror attacks is drug abuse.  While there are doubtless many western jihadists whose backgrounds are steeped in petty criminality and recreational drug usage (I haven’t heard of a full-on junkie jihadist yet), the implication that a bit of coke or pot provides the impetus to the slaughter of random citizens on the street to the sound of ‘Allah Akbar’ is patently ludicrous.  The drug abuse theory is convenient for Peter Hitchens given he has spent the last several years and endless column inches decrying recreational cannabis use as being the greatest threat to human civilisation (hyperbole, perhaps, though still a fair summation given the voracity with which he has pursued this particular cause).  

When Hitchens P and other ‘people of faith’ weigh into this debate, there is an inherent conflict of interest: they are incapable of conceding that the predominant motivation for religiously inspired violence is religious faith itself, precisely because they are themselves the faithful.  They cannot bring themselves to admit there is a logical equivalency to their own blind acceptance of dogmas regarding life and the universe, and that of the murderous jihadist.  In reality, the only differences separating them are a) the dogmas to which they adhere, and b) the enthusiasm of said adherence.  But this simple fact is not emphasised enough in public discourse.  Indeed, it is increasingly dismissed as false.  BBC programmes like The Big Questions seem compelled in the interests of ‘balance’ to invite on self-appointed Muslim spokespeople who have a hard time attempting to conceal their theocratic sympathies, confidently propounding that there is absolutely no link between jihadism and religious belief or ideology.  In fact, these types are usually so busy trying to argue that the dogma itself is eminently peaceable that the topic of whether beliefs cause actions is rarely even broached.  The one reliably sane voice on this subject is Douglas Murray, although even he appears to have softened his tone in recent months, endlessly having to preface his points with tired caveats so as to pre-emptively avoid the ‘bigot’ smear.  For me, Murray’s finest hour came in a Sky News interview shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack, in which he appeared to be channelling the spirit of the late Hitchens C, but that is a topic for another post.

It is evident that Mashal Khan had an intellectual curiosity which led to a critical questioning of authority and a suspicion of conformity, engendering a compulsion to think and conclude for oneself.  These are traits which should be nurtured and encouraged in students of universities throughout the world.  Tragically for Khan, vocally expressing such traits while at university in a theocratic society led directly to his brutal murder by fellow students.  Those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the decisively important rights of free expression and the free exchange of ideas must not shy away from speaking honestly and openly about the consistently violent and oppressive consequences of religious fervour.   If we fail to recognise the blatantly obvious cause of such barbarism, strip said cause down and beat it senseless with rigorous intellectual honesty and rational scrutiny, then we are condemning future inquisitive and free-minded individuals to a similar fate as Khan. 





Phil Cook – Old Hwy D

I can remember exactly when I accidentally discovered the music of Phil Cook for the first time.  I was in my bedroom at university, idly scouring YouTube videos of “indie” acoustic-rock during a concerted and highly successful period of procrastination.  I can’t remember which other video I must’ve been on, but YouTube’s algorithms presented on the side-bar an intriguing black and white photograph of what looked like an old oak tree outside a non-descript white house; ‘DeYarmond Edison Leave Me Wishing More’.    The track began with a slow, ethereal, almost melancholic piano piece, before abruptly breaking into a triumphant, Springsteenesque riff replete with resounding electric guitar and impassioned, earthy vocals.  This, I thought, is exactly what I’d been looking for.

I immediately set about exploring each of the other YouTube links adorned with the same album cover.  Then came the incessant googling of the band; its albums; its members.  I learnt that they were a bunch of friends from Wisconsin who’d played together since high school, that they’d since split up, and that their front-man Justin Vernon is now Bon Iver.  I’d previously taken a fairly aggressive (and entirely unjustified) dislike toward Bon Iver for petulant reasons: an ex-girlfriend’s latest boyfriend had posted on her Facebook page a link to a Bon Iver track (I think it was ‘skinny love’) along with the line “this is what I was telling you about.. So good!” or something similar.  Whatever the hell that song/band was, my infantile younger self sure as shit wasn’t going to listen to it.

Ironic, then, that I’d inadvertently become the biggest fan of Bon Iver’s previous musical incarnation.  I approached Bon Iver’s album (only one had been released at the time) with trepidation.  I still think ‘skinny love’ is by far the worst track on the album, but maybe I just never got over that Facebook post.  The rest of the album is plainly a very accomplished piece of work.  However (controversial opinion alert), I still hold Justin Vernon’s pre-Bon Iver solo stuff (Self record, Hazletons) and his DeYarmond Edison albums to be his most musically gratifying output.

Which brings me back to Phil Cook; member, along with his brother Brad and drummer Joe Westerlund, of the now defunct DeYarmond Edison.  I’ve heard Justin refer to Phil as his best friend and musical ‘teacher’.  I wondered what went wrong with the band and their internal relationships for them to have to split up.  Apparently, after graduating college they’d moved to Raleigh, North Carolina in order to experience a change of musical scenery and establish themselves in a different setting, but at some point, relations between Justin and the rest of the band deteriorated, culminating in his retreating back to Wisconsin alone (cue the overly-romanticised-log-cabin-heartbreak story) while the remaining members re-formed as Megafaun.  Although Megafaun went on to solid acclaim in their own right, it was Justin who was propelled to international stardom on the release of “For Emma..”, driven in no small part by a ringing endorsement from Pitchfork magazine.

I often wondered whether there’d be bad blood between Justin and his former band mates, and reflected on the quiet tragedy of their story; the fact that for a long time these guys were best friends enjoying making great music together; that at some point this changed and life took them in different directions.  Would the guys in Megafaun resent their former frontman’s independent success?  Would Justin feel a sense of guilt in abandoning his band and going on to superstardom?  Would they have achieved equivalent success if they’d stayed together as a band?  As excellent as Megafaun’s records are, I can’t help thinking that on some tracks, Justin’s (non-falsetto) vocals would just fit so nicely.  Similarly, a few of Bon Iver’s more eccentric recent electronic tracks from his latest album 22 a million would benefit from some more down-to-earth, Megafaun-style folk-country inflection.

Whatever bad blood there may have been between Justin and Phil is clearly water under the bridge given they’re collaborating again with the brilliantly bluesy Shouting Matches, amongst other projects.  The prodigiousness of Vernon’s creative and collaborative output is pretty astounding, if not always good (what the hell was that awful song with James Blake?).  Phil Cook’s output is in many ways no less prodigious, but for me his stand-out album is a short acoustic instrumental record released in 2016, titled Old Hwy D.

It’s a collection of quietly gentle tracks, pleasantly melodic and rich in soulful acoustic technique.  Judging by ear, I believe the majority of the album simply comprises two or three acoustic guitars recorded over each other, creating harmonies.  This simplicity is a strength, allowing for a total immersion into the feel of the melody and the rhythm.  A few minor technical guitar-playing errors (an unclean hammer-off; a bit of unwanted string vibration) haven’t been airbrushed out, proffering a raw authenticity.  It’s evident that this music – as with all of Phil Cook’s output – has been created for the sheer enjoyment of it.  Its sole purpose appears to be to gratify the creator of the music via simple artistic expression, and if other people happen to like it, then great.  If ever there was a good example of art for art’s sake, this album is it.  Needless to say, the album has zero chance of commercial success.  Thankfully, Phil Cook appears to have carved a large enough niche audience and puts out enough other material (his 2015 album Southland Mission is also excellent) to make a comfortable living, and is thus able to indulge in quirkier projects like Old Hwy D.

And if your pretentious hipster bollocks alarm is sounding, worry not: the trigger would be this writer, waxing pretentious lyrical.  The music itself is the antithesis of pretence.  If anyone ever reads this (doubtful), buy the album.  It’s brilliant.

On the Oscars

It’s the Oscars this Sunday.  Cue a BBC article attempting to foretell which of the multitude of awards contenders will use their acceptance speech to extol their righteous political indignation upon the palatial ballroom filled with gobsmackingly over-privileged, inordinately wealthy celebrities and, by extension as it’s on TV, the rest of us.


The sheer grandiosity and hubristic vanity surrounding events such as the Oscars and the Golden Globes is itself staggering.  No other profession is as self-aggrandising and self-important as that of the movie actor.  Imagine an equivalent awards ceremony for Médecins Sans Frontières workers or volunteers at Help the Homeless, and maybe the splendour of the ceremony itself and the reverence given to it by the global press would at least be justified, if still inappropriate and almost certainly not desired – let alone revelled in – by those it would venerate.    But no, these are Hollywood actors; they pretend to be someone else in front of a camera and look good at the same time.  And yes, some of them are indeed highly accomplished in this endeavour.  But it’s not enough for them to be paid the GDP of a small country for such a skill; no, the most successful of their number must also congregate not once but several times a year during ‘awards season’ for a protracted, inescapably highly publicised ritual of smug self-congratulation. 


As if this wasn’t all galling enough for the average viewer at home, the cosseted Hollywood elite will this year more than ever before be putting the world to rights by disseminating their profoundly important political opinions to us all.  To say that these opinions are worth hearing – carefully nuanced; critically self-examining; the result of a studious observation of global political issues – would be… well, wrong.  Invariably, celebs will offer trite platitudes on diversity, inclusion and equality.  They will pontificate on the importance of standing up to oppression (ie, Trump) wherever it may be found (though never where it actually exists).  The camera will pan to the audience; tears will be shed; warm, empathetic smiles will be proffered toward the speaker; rapturous applause will follow.  And viewers at home will be rolling their eyes and switching over in droves.   


Some of the awards contenders promise to be truly entertaining if they’re to give an acceptance speech.  Michael Shannon believes Trump is “going to destroy civilisation as we know it, and the earth,” as though just destroying one of the two isn’t bad enough.  He’s also previously opined that “if you’re voting for Trump, it’s time for the urn”, which is a charming sentiment.  In other words, if you use the democratic process to vote for a candidate I don’t like, you should die.  Natalie Portman thanked Trump for starting “a revolution” in a speech given at a Womens’ March earlier in January.  Emma Stone gushed that “the positive gift of creativity can transcend borders in divisive times”.  Unfortunately, with the exception of one IMAX cinema in Khobar, there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia for La La Land’s indubitably transcendent magic to take effect.   


Such infantile political protestations are commonplace amongst the Hollywood ‘elite’.  Back in January we were subjected to a grimace-inducing display of self-righteousness and pomposity from Meryl Streep, whose jaw-dropping level of moral grandstanding was almost laughable in its earnestness.  One suspects she was only half-joking when she opened by proclaiming that “all of us in this room belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now: Hollywood, foreigners, and the press”.  This being a room full of some of the most privileged and wealthy individuals in human history.  Streep continued by listing a few of those individuals and their various “foreign” origins (New Jersey, Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Italy, Jerusalem) to highlight Hollywood’s melting pot of inclusivity and to infer that this is gravely at threat under a Trump presidency.  The most exotic ‘foreigner’ Streep could manage was the Ethiopian-born actress Ruth Negga, before having to qualify that she actually grew up in somewhat less exotic Ireland.  Amusingly, Ryan Gosling looked as confused as we were when Streep made reference to his ‘foregin’ Canadian background.  “So,” Streep continued, “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if you kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts!”  This was inevitably met with gushing applause. It is unclear which political figure in America has called for the deportation of Canadians, Italians and Brits, so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Streep seemed to be railing so righteously against, though it’s doubtless Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’. 


Streep fails to comprehend that the only reason a blustering simpleton like Trump has succeeded in winning the White House (and is thus able to enact reckless, ill-considered legislation such as his ‘Muslim ban’) is because his opposition was typified by Streep’s brand of baseless moral grandstanding in the face of peoples’ real political concerns.  Streep’s – and her liberal-minded Hollywood clique’s – patronising, virtue signalling rhetoric on topics such as immigration is one of the key reasons why a figure as absurd as Trump was propelled to popularity among swathes of the electorate in the first place.  These people represent a prototypical pseudo-liberal mindset which submits that, for example, any concern the average voter has in respect of mass migration of peoples from a worryingly illiberal cultural background has no basis whatsoever in fact and is simply knuckle dragging racism.  This mentality also leads to a failure to appreciate that a major part of Trump’s campaign focussed on promising to bring jobs back to the ‘rust belt’; forgotten towns and communities in populous swing-states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania which have been left behind by globalisation.  These are places whose residents’ lives and concerns couldn’t be more far removed from those living in multi-million dollar piles in leafy LA suburbia.  


It will be interesting to see just how political this year’s Oscars will get.  Apparently, award winners will only have 45 seconds to deliver their speech before being drowned out by an orchestra.  Hopefully they’ll get Bob Dylan to conduct the orchestra and urge them to “play it fuckin’ loud” as in 1966.  But 45 seconds might be just enough time to quickly wax sanctimonious lyrical.  Perhaps the winners will just humbly accept the award and thank their parents before slinking back to their seat to reflect on their pretty bloody good lot in life.  Regrettably, humility is a rarity in Hollywood. 




Beeb article – ‘Oscars 2017: Which celebrities will get political?’