June 06, 2008

Graphic Political Satire

As a basic knowledge of recent Islamo-Scandinavian relations reveals, the art of cartooning is not always a laughing matter. Indeed, far from setting off to work with a beam after glancing at the morning papers, Guardian readers should take care not to choke on their pumpkin seeds and freeze-dried cranberries as they wake up to blood and gore unrelentingly depicted in front of their eyes in graphic form. If the satirist is to unnerve and perturb over and above raising a snigger, then Martin Rowson’s highly acclaimed work certainly qualifies, ensuring that the "violent, vicious and visceral" is not merely confined to articles on coups d’état in the international section; his art is grotesque first, humorous second.

In his irreverent sermon to a packed chaplaincy at the University of Warwick, Dr Rowson (he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in journalism by the University of Westminster in 2006) made the case for cherishing the tradition of political cartoons more dearly, if not necessarily taking the subject more seriously. "The constant traffic of abuse towards politicians," the professed atheist evangelised, "is, I think, immensely healthy for democratic politics." It is true that jokers are the natural enemies of tyrants, able to puncture pomposity while rousing a popular following which soon sees them lose favour with those in power. Back in the chaplaincy our preacher, clearly rousing himself as well as the audience, even goes so far as to argue that the reason fascism never took off in Britain lies in the reality that if the soldiers were seen goose-stepping through the streets of London, passers-by would simply laugh.

There is, of course, another less trivial side to the business of caricaturing politicians, satisfyingly defined by Rowson as "the bastard offspring of print journalism and illustration". On the one hand, there is a sense that you have not arrived as an aspiring politician until your face is being disfigured and mocked in the papers, a pleasure of which the Tory shadow chancellor, George Osborne, is sorely deprived, and is clearly yet to make it onto Rowson’s radar. Meanwhile, the mere mention of Lembit Opik’s name provokes the observation that "some people are beyond satire!"

I put it to Rowson that after a lifetime of emasculating and deriding others, he and his colleagues must play some considerable part in making or breaking the careers of those in the public eye. Can it ever be the case that the knife is thrust in too deeply or too frequently? Moreover, our elected officials are able to point to their source of legitimacy. How is the cartoonist held to account? This is, perhaps, an over zealous concern of a first year Politics student, yet it wouldn’t occur to me if it weren’t for the inestimable power of media and image management in modern politics. The point seems to resonate. Rowson relates an epiphany he had after drawing Alistair Campbell, Blair’s tenacious and truculent press secretary who he has been depicted by a certain doodler in the Guardian as an overflowing toilet. "I finally worked out what Iwas doing, which was actually stealing people’s souls and engaging in really basic, primitive magic." With characteristic wit and insight, and in a tone fluctuating between the frivolous and the quasi-philosophical, he continues, "it is, if you like a form of voodoo: doing damage to somebody at a distance with a sharp object, in this case a pen."

Regardless of their politics, Michael Howard and Sir Menzies Campbell stand out as two individuals who been ridiculed beyond, as it were, their fair share in recent years. It may have been fellow Conservative Ann Widdecombe who first said of her former boss that he had "something of the night" about him, but the cartoonists ran and ran and ran with the vampire connotations until the personas of Mr Howard and Count Dracula became virtually inseparable in the public imagination by the time of the 2005 general election. Today all coverage of the 66-year-old leader of Liberal Democrats centres on one factor above all else and, despite Rowson’s professed code of conduct that forbids poking fun at race, gender or sexual orientation – "not who they are, but what they are" – the factor in this case is thinly veiled ageism. Again, for fear of sounding puritanical (in terms of popularity, after all, defending politicians comes a close second to suggesting that Michael Jackson is just misunderstood), let me assure you that my sense of humour, though nothing else, was deeply aroused by the cartoon pastiche of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus starring none other than the aforementioned buxom Ms Widdecombe.

But are there no sacred cows whatsoever? Would he, for example, depict the prophet Muhammad in his work? The man with an answer for everything states, somewhat sardonically, "At the moment I wouldn’t, because it might involve me getting killed." It’s hard to keep a straight face in the company of Martin Rowson. He is a curious combination of an intense and questioning academic mind, a consummate cartoonist, juxtaposed with a schoolboy-like obsession with swearing and talking about excrement. Don’t be deceived by this flippant outlook, however; his opinion on the state of the nation is as developed as any other member of the paper.

In an age of empty rhetoric from journalists as well as politicians, gimmick-based legislation and supposedly consensual horseshoe-shaped parliamentary chambers, it is not often that "an adversarial democracy where people carry on hating each other and shouting at each other and insulting each other" is espoused as Britian’s great gift to the world. So despite Rowson’s penchant for all things gruesome and ghoulish or, rather, because of the unsettling inclusion of the death and destruction still wrought in many parts of the world, the workshop was shot through with an undeniable strain of pacifism. "The important thing is," it was made clear to the congregation, "you can paint the blood, you just can’t spill it." Here endeth the satirist’s lesson.

June 05, 2008

Surveillance and the City

They might not get your best angle, but chances are it’ll be a natural pose. From snatching a glance at your reflection to scratching an inconvenient itch, a real-time record of your every move is being taken, tracked and logged in any urbanized area of the modern-day UK. As a nation, we are turning into the unsuspecting Stars of CCTV. With an estimated four million cameras in this country alone – that’s one for every fourteen inhabitants – this is about more than the right to have a bad hair day.

In fact, CCTV (television of the closed-circuit variety rather than the equally pervasive Christian Community channel) is only one extremely visible sign that we are, in the ominously Orwellian words of the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, sleepwalking into a "surveillance society". Take the ostensibly open-handed offer of club card points from your supermarket of choice. While this small sign of altruism may be a welcome act of kindness on the part of big business, it also enables a precise record of your shopping history and habits to be collected. Not just by that pimple-faced boy behind the deli counter. Every time you type a request into a search engine, the data is similarly stored and often sold to third parties.

If you’ve got nothing to hide, so runs the well-worn adage, then you’ve got nothing to fear. If you ask me, this is a hop, skip and jump from justice. There is a distinct difference between privacy, a basic human right, and the sort of secrecy adopted to hide activity that is actually illegal. Whereas the term privacy describes the altogether innocent quality of being protected from the voyeuristic view or prying presence of others, secrecy entails unjustly concealing or hiding something at the expense of others. To take a topical example, Madeline McCann's parents should be permitted privacy from the press but not allowed to keep secrets from the Portuguese police.

If you allow me to get constitutional for a moment, our freedom is supposed to be safeguarded by the ancient writ of habeas corpus and the less cryptic sounding assumption of innocence until actually proved guilty. Ay, there’s the rub! This amalgam of mass surveillance and research into DNA may have proved priceless on the counter-terrorism and crime-catching fronts, adding a degree of scientific certainty to courtroom evidence.

The point is that such measures are undiscerning; they don’t only catch the criminals on film; in the age of the eye in the sky, we are all default deviants.

Then there’s the government’s National Identity Scheme soon to be introduced in the land of hope and glory, which will amass a database of fingerprints, eye and facial scans by 2010. Conspiracy theories are perhaps best left to the sort of blog-devouring hermit who sits in his dressing gown glued to his computer screen all day, but there are an increasing number of people who are concerned about the law of unintended consequences. The card itself is not the issue. After all, most students are required to carry a university card at all times and any fresh-faced revellers out there will be only too familiar with the practice of proving their age.

The aspect of the scheme that has caused Guardian readers to spit out their muesli over the morning papers centres on the unprecedented volume of information stored in one place. Never mind the hackers, computer crashes will suddenly take on a new degree of severity. As far as the maverik mayoral candidate Boris Johnson is concerned, the most practical use for the card would be to use it to clean your car windscreen on a frosty morning or to cut the cake if you’re having a picnic and forget to pack a penknife. More to the point, is the scheme fit for purpose? For that matter, what is its purported purpose? Answers to fit on the back of a small postcard please.

With our wallets resembling the plastic equivalent of a deck of playing cards, the ID card is in increasing danger of looking like the joker in the pack.

On becoming leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown solemnly avowed, "The party I lead must have more than a set of policies – we must have a soul." It was as if the late, great African American entertainer James Brown were speaking from beyond the grave through the famously severe Scotsman. Shouting vocals and hectoring speeches aside, the men appear to have more in common than you might at first imagine. Those familiar with the techno tune We Want Your Soul will, however, be forgiven for feeling there more cause for cynicism than toe tapping at such a pledge from a political leader.

"Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in western popular culture," writes Alex Steffen in his self-styled manual for modernity Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century, "but in reality, our cynicism advances the desires of the powerful: cynicism is obedience."

To my mind, this is a powerful criticism of the sort of armchair activist whose bark is laudable but bite is laughable. Tempting as it may be for the cynic to cast the men in suits as some sort of serial surveyors, the culpability must surely be placed on a population either too apathetic to notice or too busy posting and publishing their innermost thoughts, feelings and expressions of intimate individuality on sites such as MySpace and Facebook (what about Warwick Blogs?). In the end, do we actually dislike the idea of our lives being tracked, logged and recorded or are we, on some subconscious level at least, a little bit flattered?

The problem is, as with that elusive best angle or natural pose, once lost, civil liberties are tricky to recapture. The coming months will show whether Gordon Brown is a viable candidate to become the next "Godfather of Soul" or whether he will cut an altogether more authoritarian figure as the Big Brother that may be muted but cannot be turned off. Either way we, the people are not as helpless as we might think.

The choice is simple and the choice is ours: be afraid or do something about it.

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  • Great piece AB – very fluid style with punchy content. You're not thinking of becoming an MP are you… by Casper ter Kuile on this entry

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