Rolf Harris: the day it turned out nice men can be predators

Unlike Grace Dent, I’m not old enough for Rolf to have entertained me as a child. (June 1991. I know.) At eight or nine, I only knew of him from ads for Animal Hospital, which I didn’t watch. I did, however, grow to like him in his Rolf on Art programmes during my teens, and I’ve followed Operation Yewtree enough to know his case is different from the other men’s involved.

Those whose guilt has been ascertained – Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, Gary Glitter – or were arrested over allegations (Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck) have a certain seediness in common. After meeting any of them one would want to wash one’s hands: if unsavoury reports had come to light ten years ago, I doubt most of us would have been that shocked, and with one or two it seemed only a matter of time. Rolf – even now, calling him by anything but his first name feels wrong – was by contrast the last person you’d fear in a dark alley. With a quiet, distinctly Australian warmth and a unexpectedly thoughtful painting style for someone who made his name through novelty children’s records, he remains the only Yewtree suspect ever to have come across as a nice bloke, and this makes his guilt uniquely disturbing.

I can’t be alone in feeling this. Harris (alright) was obviously seen to be harmless enough that BBC bosses placed him in kids’ TV, and unlike in Savile’s case (whose child sex abuse it appears was extraordinarily prolific), one doesn’t sense their heads were in the sand. So formidable was the man’s natural charm that it seems it constituted his entire defence strategy in court. ‘In his evidence,’ news stories state, ‘Harris reminded the jury of his career, how he had invented the wobble board instrument by accident and popularised the didgeridoo, and talked about his hit records, briefly singing a line from one of them, “Jake the Peg”’ – as if proving himself likeable would be enough to get him off. While assaulting girls between the ages of seven and fifteen, his barrister reportedly argued, he had simply ‘los[t] perspective and rational thought in the face of flattering attention’. High on well earned public adoration, in other words, who could blame him?

What unnerves is that Harris was evidently quite justified in thinking this would work. For many years it clearly did. With the conviction of men like Savile and suspicion of ones like Davidson, a note of smugness is tempting and to deny it would be humbug. Something about them was always a touch pervy, and it’s hard to resist told-you-so-ism. Harris had us fooled, and that’s harrowing – because mock it as we might when relied on in court, the assumption that a nice bloke couldn’t sexually assault children is exactly what enabled him to get away with it repeatedly.

It’s easier to talk about abuse – assault, harassment, rape – in ways that don’t implicate us, to make out predators are just violent strangers, sexual violence is a problem elsewhere in the world and only leering creeps molest young girls. As I write, the press is busy monstering Harris with words of sickness and perversion, tipp-exing out of history a lifetime of popular affection and approval because inevitable evil is less threatening than a perp who doesn’t fit that image. Admitting Rolf was a nice guy means admitting, too, that apparent nice guys do what he did. That’s a difficult red pill to swallow, but on the other hand, how many victims does denying it prevent from being believed?

Make no mistake, you and I are part of this.

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What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque

At Patheos, JT Eberhard writes of a young British couple jailed for a year for harmlessly pranking mosque members with ‘easily removable’ bacon, whose small child will suffer in foster care while the parents ‘rot in jail’ ‘because this building and the people who own it are special’ – a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for what was only strictly speaking vandalism.

There’s another story about three hooded white supremacists who trespassed on private religious property to intimidate Muslims, harassed the only man inside as he tried to pray, threw objects around and desecrated the area to cause occupants distress, humiliate them and make them feel unsafe. I find this one more plausible.

According to reports from yesterday and earlier today, three people were just convicted of a ‘racially motivated attack’ at Edinburgh Central Mosque on January 31 2013.

  • Chelsea Lambie (18) received a twelve month prison sentence sentence in a young offenders’ institute after denying involvement despite CCTV footage.
  • Douglas Cruikshank (39) received nine months in prison, having pled guilty and received nine months.
  • Wayne Stilwel (25) also pled guilty and received ten months’ imprisonment.

Quite a few secularists I know have described this story in terms similar to Eberhard’s, calling these ridiculous punishments for hanging bacon on doorknobs and causing ‘religious offence’.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the sentencing specifically – partly because that would become an abstract discussion of the prisons system, ‘hate crimes’ and the use of authoritarian penalties against them, and partly because there’s lots of information I don’t have. I haven’t read Sheriff Alistair Noble’s judgement, so don’t know if details influenced him that haven’t made the news; I don’t know what previous convictions Lambie, Cruikshank and Stilwel had, if any; I don’t know how their prison terms compare to those for similar harassment in non-religious contexts, assuming that comparison is useful here. Edit: Lambie is reported in the Daily Record as having been fined shortly prior to this incident for verbally abusing and harassing a Pakistani shopkeeper; Stilwel was breaching conditions of bail for a previous misdemeanour.] (Helen Dale, a lawyer operating in Scotland, also tells me ‘all custodial sentences in Scotland are automatically reduced by half as long as you don’t do something like try to set a prison guard on fire’.) 

But the view that nine to twelve month sentences were obviously, categorically ridiculous, and that the right response to what they did (as Eberhard put it) would be to ‘fine them £20 and make them polish the door handle’, relies on seeing it how he does as a trivial and harmless prank by innocent-enough young vandals. Reports suggest to me that this is extremely inaccurate.

From what I’ve seen, there’s no evidence Lambie and Cruikshank were a ‘UK couple’. Reports refer to them as a ‘pair’, which doesn’t imply a relationship, and the BBC, the Edinburgh Evening News and the Scotsman all describe the former being arrested at ‘her boyfriend’s’ home: if this was Cruickshank, presumably he’d have been referred to by name and the two would both have been arrested there. While Lambie is noted to have a ‘very young child’, Eberhard’s emphasis on this and her perceived relationship with Cruikshank suggests the sympathetic tableau of a nuclear family broken up by injustice.

This doesn’t sync up with reality. Lambie was by all accounts part of the far-right Scottish Defence League, as according to the Edinburgh Reporter and the Scotsman were both Cruikshank and Stilwel. The SDL is a regional offshoot of the English Defence League, whose own ex-leader describes it as having been dominated by violent neo-Nazis and which has been linked to numerous arson attacks on mosques. (‘Religion is so persecuted’, Eberhard writes mockingly. While that may not be true in general, UK Muslims are targeted systematically as a religious group by the racist far-right.) Ties have also been found between the SDL and white supremacist British National Party, whose current leader started out in the National Front.

When Lambie’s mobile phone was examined by authorities, sent messages reveal her having bragged of ‘Going to invade a mosque, because we can go where we want.’ She and her accomplices hoped to intimidate worshippers by telling them they’d entered it unbidden – orders of magnitude more disturbing, fairly obviously, than an immature couple’s misjudged practical joke. According to the Scotsman, ‘a man who was inside the mosque praying [described by EEN as the only person in the building] . . . heard something hitting the prayer room window’, and judging by EEN’s reference to a ‘glass partition’, this was an interior window. Whoever threw uncooked bacon at it, which had been bought a few hours beforehand, did indeed invade the premises.

The Edinburgh Reporter adds that the man had already ‘noticed the trio at the door appearing to wave at him and (assuming they were coming in to pray) returned to his worship’. Rather than ‘hanging bacon on door knobs and tossing a few strings inside’, Lambie, Cruikshank and Stilwel – all of whom were hiding their faces under hoods – threw an object at the window of the room where they knew he was. I can’t speak for JT, but if three hooded strangers walked into my private building, found me alone and started hurling things in my direction, I’d feel attacked.

He states momentously that the slices of meat, which stuck to the window and door handles, would have been simple to remove. If someone were to break into his house and smear doorknobs and walls with faeces, cleaning it up would be equally simple; it would also be humiliating and distressing. As a vegetarian, having to handle raw meat would cause me the same kind of disgust. As an atheist, of course I don’t think Islamic pork taboos are sensible or philosophically sound, but mosques have every right to abide by them. Invading someone’s private building to strew the area in it and force them to handle it against their will, knowing it will cause them humiliation and distress, is still an act of harassment.

I’ve written plenty in opposition to public censorship on grounds of ‘religious offence’. A religious ban on bacon from shared secular space would have me up in arms. But one doesn’t have to accept religious doctrine to see desecrating private houses of worship as an intimidation tactic; look at how the Nazis went about it. (I remind you, before I’m accused of Godwinning, that the perpetrators belonged to a group with clear neo-Nazi ties.) This, on top of invading the building to make those there feel unsafe, throwing objects around and harassing someone alone there.

Whatever we say about the sentencing, this wasn’t anything like as trivial as Eberhard and others have suggested.

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Gia Milinovich is still ignoring her transphobia’s critics

In February I wrote a lengthy post on why Gia Milinovich – of Soho Skeptics fame, and who admires Julie Bindel – was wrong to veil her view trans women are ‘male’ as scientific. (Everyone knows biological sex is a straightforward fact – except, as it turns out, scientists.)

That post, which has been tweeted over a hundred times including at Milinovich, refers explicitly to a long list of similar discussions it seems likely were also sent to her.

Thoughts herein were influenced by other writing – Anne Fausto-Sterling’s, Judith Butler’s and others’ at the best-known end, but more importantly by other blogs. Particularly since I’m cis(h), it seemed important to give credit:

Thanks, too, to Zinnia Jones for feedback and suggestions.

Amid heightened attention to trans issues, more articles like this have followed since, most prominently Mey Valdivia Rude’s at Autostraddle, ‘It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of “Biological Sex” to Defend Their Transmisogyny’. (Less closely related but still relevant, Zinnia has also pulled apart transphobic atheist pseudoscience about biological sex.) Edit: Roz Kaveney tells me additionally that she sent this piece to Milinovich.

I can’t accept all this has simply passed Milinovich by: she must at this point have read or at least been pointed to critique of what she says, but nothing she’s said suggests this. A week ago on her secondary blog, she posted this, reigniting arguments:

Because over the past several months I have talked about gender and biological sex, I have got all kinds of crap from trans activists and their allies. Because I have publicly talked about getting abuse from trans activists and their allies, I have got abuse from trans activists and their allies. And because I dare to publicly state that there is an actual definition of ‘male’ and ‘female’ in biology which pertains to all mammals, I am now one of the many women who gets called ‘bigot’, ‘racist’, ‘cunt’ and told to ‘die in a fire’ . . . one can be called a TERF simply for stating ‘a penis is a male body part’ or saying that the patriarchy is sex-based oppression. I know. Shocking stuff.

Deliberately ignoring all criticism (except the rage provoked by her comments) and continuing to trot out tired, long-debunked fallacies is a tactic Bindel has employed for years. Milinovich appears to’ve learnt from her. It’s one thing rejecting a critique; pretending you haven’t heard any when rebuttals have been everywhere is arguing in bad faith.

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Ann Widdecombe: in the good old days, you could still be a Nazi

Occasionally I wonder if Ann Widdecombe is a Monty Python character jailbroken from the realm of fiction. As a homophobic sexist racist anti-abortion anti-science climate change denier nonetheless considered a national treasure, her existence is almost as hard to accept as the god’s she credits for her politics. Like another fascist, she admittedly shows admirable concern for animals, but as with him it makes her look worse overall: lacking any sense of compassion seems more forgivable than having such a twisted one.

Savaging Widdecombe’s fun and I doubt she minds – reactionaries’ sense of being picked on by leftists, atheists and deviants is what sells columns like hers in the Express. There and in her occasional films, she’s fond of arguing Christians (puritans and hardcore evangelicals especially) are marginalised and persecuted, including to date by laws against banning gay couples from B&Bs and comedy sketches involving chutney.

In a recent radio interview, reports of which I’ve only just discovered, she managed to one-up even her own outrageousness. Audio is no longer online – if anyone has it, please contact me – but the Independent says the following.

Ann Widdecombe has claimed it was easier to be a Nazi or a Communist in post-war Britain than being a Christian today because ‘quite militant secularism’ discourages people from expressing their faith. The ex-MP for Maidstone said it was very difficult to be an active Christian in modern Britain because of some aspects of equality legislation that made people hesitant about being open with their faith in everyday life. [She] said concerns over ‘political correctness” meant people were reluctant to express their faith to others because “they think strong belief offends them’.

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say “God bless you”, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves. So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.’

Christians also faced a ‘sort of atheism’ that ‘wouldn’t once have been said’. There used to be a view that ‘we’ve all got freedom of conscience, we’ve all got freedom of expression’, she said.

In the 1950s when plenty of people had lost lives and limbs and loved ones to the Nazis, it was still possible to be a Nazi in this country. When we were engaged in the height of the Cold War, when there were all those weapons lined up on the borders of the Warsaw Pact countries pointing straight at us, you could still, in this country, proclaim yourself as a Communist, you could still stand for Parliament for that matter as a Communist. You wouldn’t get in but you could stand. You could sell the Morning Star on street corners.

We have always respected, no matter how strongly we felt as a nation at the time, we’ve always respected the right of people to their own views and I do feel nowadays as a combination of political correctness and equality law and all the rest of it, we’ve started suppressing the expression of conscience.’

Ah, the olden days – when it was easy being a Nazi. You’d know, Ann.

As I’ve written before, there are only so many times believers can say in national media, from positions of power that their faith is being swept aside. To say nothing of Britain’s established church, its stranglehold on our state schools and its leaders’ ludicrously inflated media presence – beside all Christianity’s other strange privileges in public life – Widdecombe is an ex-minister with an enviable platform, probably the country’s best known Roman Catholic and once tipped as a potential Vatican ambassador. Her complaints are reminiscent of statements by David Cameron, Eric Pickles and Sayeeda Warsi, praising religion and promising it further undue prominence while simultaneously claiming the establishment to oppose it.

The parliament where all these people have gained seats isn’t just one to which Christians are frequently elected, including ones with strongly religious politics, where I’d guess nonbelievers – half the general populace – are underrepresented. It’s one where the standard oath taken by members invokes ‘almighty God’. If Nazism got this kind of treatment in postwar Britain, I’m concerned. (As it happens, Londoners did elect two Communist MPs in 1945 after their party fought for the opening of tube stations during the Blitz.)

I’ve also written before about the number of believers who feel oppressed by the very existence of atheists. Widdecombe is one of them, and seems genuinely to experience straightforward statements of religious skepticism as a personal attack. The only other kinds of ‘suppression’ she can cite are fictitious: cases of discrimination against cross-wearers in Britain are mythical, and I’ve yet to hear of blessings or prayer offerings being banned, though that doesn’t mean they’re not presumptuous or disrespectful when unwanted.

Ann Widdecombe lives in a fantasy world. That’s fine of course, but I wish she’d stay there.

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Grandmother, you’re a bully – and I’m disowning you.

 Explicit racial slurs and similar nastiness follow.

This will be the last thing I ever say to you.

Recently grandmother, you tried to find out where I live. That I don’t want you to contact me should already be clear: in four years at university a bus ride from your home, despite repeated invitations, I never visited; when we’ve been together with relatives, I’ve avoided you; when you’ve tried to converse, I haven’t reciprocated. You’ve given me cash and I’ve donated it, sent me cheques and I’ve recycled them. It seems that you now want to send me more in spite of being told not to, and all the evidence I don’t want a relationship with you.

If you’re getting this message, it’s been relayed to you. Online, where what I write is published, thousands of people are reading it. None know who you are or anything about you, so nothing will come of this; I’ve hesitated to write it even so, but it’s obvious you’ll keep harassing me unless I go on public record telling you to stop.

You strike me as a bully, grandmother – snobby, controlling and contemptuous of everything apart from what you assume to hold status. You show particular contempt for foreigners and anyone ‘coloured’ or ‘nigger brown’ enough for you to deem them foreign, complaining ‘masses of Japanese’ (discernible, you insist, by their eyes) can be found in your nearest city, refusing continental food because of non-existent allergies; for ethnic Jews, warning me once that someone’s name was Goldstein, and for ‘gippos’ even though your mother was a Romany.

You show contempt for any woman not thin, youthful, white and femme enough – including, as it happens, most women I’m into – and for the children in your family born out of wedlock. As for the men I’m into, you call queer people ‘peculiar’. You show contempt for my whole generation and most born since the 1960s, describing us as ill-mannered, our clothing as scruffy and our English, since you’re not familiar with it, as meaningless. (As a graduate in literature, your mourning ‘the language of Shakespeare’ tells me you know little about him or it.) You show contempt for people claiming benefits, as your daughter and I did when she raised me, accusing them of ‘putting their hands out’ while you live off yours in old age.

Worst, you’re contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with you, laughing at, patronising or ignoring them. When you heard I wrote for a living, you commented I never seemed to say much; I don’t talk to you because I don’t waste words. You epitomise the figure of the senior bigot, obsessed with manners but oblivious to your own spite, and unlike some I’m not amused by it. Nor will I insult people your age, many of whom have inspired me, by putting your toxic outlook down to being 93.

Being the only one who won’t oblige you has made me a villain. Family members caught in what they see as the crossfire of two warring relatives have called me heartless for trying to indicate passively that I want you to leave me alone. This message might be heartless, but if so you’ve left me no other option, aggressively dismissing every signal I sent that I didn’t want to know you. The only reason others have been caught amid anything is that like a possessive ex, you’ve refused to let go.

This isn’t a warning or an ultimatum. I’ve quit Britain for central Europe and don’t expect to return while you’re alive. If I do you won’t get my address, and I’m now self-reliant enough to avoid staying with relatives at the same time as you. We won’t meet again, and I’m not interested in hearing from you.

If this is upsetting, you should have considered that people you insult, attack and treat with broad derision don’t have to accept it. If it’s only registering now that keeping a relationship with an adult might involve respecting them, too bad. You’ve had too many chances as it is.

Goodbye, grandmother. Enjoy your remaining years.

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Recommended reading: Lena Dunham, (black) atheists, transphobia and Scotland

Time for some recent favourites from around the web.

  • ‘Why Lena Dunham’s Curves Make Me Feel Like Shit About My Own’, by Chelsea Leibow (Feminspire)
    The extremism against her form, the repulsion I’ve witnessed from not just random commenters hiding behind a handle, but real friends willing to screech about their need for a sick bag when they see her on screen, break my goddamn heart. Because god forbid I be so lucky as to have a career like this woman’s.
  • ‘Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris Are Old News: A Totally Different Atheism Is on the Rise’, by Chris Hall (AlterNet)
    When old-school atheists attempt to dismiss social justice issues as ‘mission drift,’ it seems like a betrayal of the very principle that was most attractive about standing up and identifying as an atheist in the first place.
  • ‘It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of “Biological Sex” to Defend Their Transmisogyny’, by Mey (Autostraddle)
    Those who claim that sex is determined by chromosomes must not realize that sex is assigned at birth not by chromosomes, not even by gonads, but by genitals. In fact, the vast majority of us never learn what our sex chromosomes are. Sex isn’t something we’re actually born with, it’s something that doctors or our parents assign us at birth.
  • ‘Scotland should go it alone’, by Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach (The Oxford Student)
    Voting yes to independence is not anglophobic – it is a statement that the people who happen to live in Scotland deserve better than Westminster. Voting yes means voting no to nuclear weapons, no to the bedroom tax, no to the all-out assault on the welfare state which has become almost axiomatic within the London parties.
  • ‘Atheism has a big race problem that no one’s talking about’, by Sikivu Hutchinson (The Washington Post)
    When [black nonbelievers] look to atheist and humanist organizations for solidarity on these issues, there is a staggering lack of interest. And though some mainstream atheist organizations have jumped on the ‘diversity’ bandwagon, they haven’t seriously grappled with the issue. Simply trotting out atheists of color to speak about ‘diversity’ at overwhelmingly white conferences doesn’t cut it.

Chapter 9: Attention

Chapter 8: Biology.

Long-term, it’s true you don’t just come out once – but in the weeks after I first nodded when asked if I was gay, I didn’t need to mention it again. Charlotte, Islay and Rachel grilled me on it eating lunch outside, Matthew Stockwell enthusiastically informed my French class and eleven-year-olds I didn’t know, but who knew me by name, approached at morning break. I was as talked-about as only something unmentionable can be, and in hindsight it amazes me sexual assault could be so totally hushed up at the same school.

If I still doubted mine was part of a culture of harassment, straight boys’ reactions to discovering a gay classmate would convince me. The perfunctory ‘backs against the wall’ routine was of course trotted out, but many seemed truly to feel threatened by me, from the football fan who begged me not to ‘do anything’ while we were alone (his friends had shut us in a room together) to others’ complaints about sharing a changing room with me.

On one particular coach ride, Michael Cosgrove refused point blank to be sat next to me, crying to the trainee teacher in charge that I was gay, even admitted to it, and as such would feel his leg during the journey. Although he’d covered me previously in bruises and bottled water, I don’t think he was just bullying me: making a scene in front of the whole year which must have lasted ten to fifteen minutes, and despite being much more imposing than I was physically, he seemed genuinely scared and upset.

These boys assumed I must be into them, and took it for granted that if you found someone attractive, you assaulted them. They never used that word for what they worried I might do, since presumably it would have applied just as much to what they did to girls. Certainly I ogled, creeped and ignored boundaries, but no more than they ever did: to most of us, this was what fancying someone meant. Whereas being groped had influenced my thinking, they never linked my behaviour (feared or real) to theirs.

The boys I liked found out I liked them through the grapevine, and because at that age, liking someone was a thing to be announced. (It didn’t occur to me it would be different if you liked your own gender.) Some of them responded by shoving me or crushing me into the suffocating space beneath stairwells. Then there were those who came for me because they felt like it; I’ve since forgotten most of their names, but Robbie Grout’s, who once stuck a pair of compasses into my arm and stained my shirt sleeve red, survives.

If this sounds galling, what got to me far more at the time were the dismissals. I don’t recall ever being told I was going through a phase, because at twelve, the people who might otherwise have said that didn’t buy in the first place that I could like boys and be aware of it. Plenty asked how I could know or told me outright that I couldn’t, which stung both since the answer was unspeakable and since they were themselves certain of being not-gay. Others decided – and it stuck – that I was an attention seeker.

What always hurt about this was that undeniably, it held a grain of truth. I’d femmed up after all in infant school to irritate straight boys, enjoyed being different for the sake of it and was satisfied on some level with being the gay kid, even as it made life difficult. But with my wild hair, nasal voice, southern accent and foreign name – not to mention nerdiness – I was always going to stick out. Doing so wasn’t hard: over time, I was called an attention seeker for wearing coloured socks, sitting cross-legged and eating ice cream in autumn term.

If it had been true I was making being gay up so my peers cared about me, they cared entirely the wrong way. I never had to falsify anything to be stared at: the things I liked to do just got me noticed. If more basic children paid attention to me, it wasn’t that I sought it – it was that I commanded it.

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The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Having seen it a second time last night, Marvel’s Captain America sequel has grown on me. Comic book franchises have given us lots of strong follow-ups – Superman IIBatman Returns, X2, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight are all deemed better than their predecessors – and the Avengers series, including Cap’s sub-strand, has resisted sequelitis impressively.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. (It helps that Robert Redford of Three Days of the Condor appears.) But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.

Spoilers follow.

It might be appropriate Dan Fincke of the ethics-focused, Nietzsche-reading blog Camels with Hammers loves this film, because it sold itself intently as ‘a morally ambiguous modern espionate thriller’, darker, edgier and politically greyer than the Captain’s first outing. Redford’s casting as a character of murky loyalties is part of this, and the first half captures Cold War paranoia expertly. The problem is, the picture doesn’t make good on this premise.

From the start, it’s clear to any sensitised cinemagoer Alexander Pierce (Redford) is a villain. His talk of tearing old worlds down, of diplomacy being futile and of the need for world-policing is meant to land as a compelling challenge to Cap’s land-of-the-free philosophy, but the character has only just been introduced, played by a seasoned actor and pitched as an alternate version of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, presumably to explore darker themes than the latter’s role allows.

Their similarity makes us trust Pierce less rather than more, and it doesn’t help when he replaces a presumed-dead Fury as top brass. Despite Redford’s best efforts, the reveal he’s a straight-up antagonist just isn’t surprising: I never took him for a knight in dirty armour in the first place. The truly complex and audacious twist would have been to give him a right-all-along arc, making him a flawed hero and Fury himself the villain.

There were storytelling strands in place already that could have led to the latter, particularly Fury’s actions in The Avengers and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. It’s as if the writers limbered up for a stunning bait-and-switch then chickened out. In fact, Fury’s ominous scheming in the opening scenes and Pierce’s praise for compromise are both characters’ most convincing moments, because the actors are playing the arcs they want to play. Yet the second half returns us to factory-setting heroes and villains.

It doesn’t help at all when Hydra, the first film’s ‘Nazi deep science division’, is revealed to have survived and be the power behind Redford’s character. At least in the language of cinema, there’s no better shorthand for unqualified evil than a Nazi uniform – what made them work in the previous instalment is that raygun wielding super-Nazis are, in a word, camp – so Hydra’s presence in The Winter Soldier jars completely with its hopes of moral greyness.

To put it bluntly, I don’t care how nuanced or ambiguous your world is: once your bad guys are whispering ‘Hail Hydra’, bad guys is plain and simple what they are. When Redford has to recite this line, he actually looks embarassed; its silliness, glorious in the original Captain America, was even lampshaded on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. How could anyone see Pierce’s people as nobly misguided authoritarians when they still use retro Nazi branding, octopus-skull and all?

It’s not that Soldier isn’t in the end a perfectly solid film. But I do think that as well as hobbling its tries at realism and grit, these narrative choices make it less good than it could be. For all its atmospheric uncertainty, I never for a moment doubt Cap is the white hat and will remain so. He has no true arc, and ends up the same person he was two hours before, because its lines of good and evil are in truth just as sharp as his origin story’s. I wanted to see him re-examine his beliefs, but he doesn’t once begin to.

Captain America’s old fashioned values are, granted, what define him. (Both his introductory film and The Avengers play to this.) But that’s just what would make challenging them, as Soldier promised to do, compelling. Much as Iron Man 3, behind its explosions and CGI, was really about Tony Stark’s identity crisis – breaking and rebuilding his trademark confidence – Marvel still owes us a story where Cap questions who he is.

In its battle between War on Terror surveillance and pie-eyed hymns to liberty, the film only pits one American dream against another: his patriotic values aren’t deconstructed as we’re led to believe at all. With its titular nemesis wearing Soviet colours and a Russian female lead in Agent Romanov, the script could have done this several ways, unpicking the U.S. mythos of wartime heroism Cap is rooted in. Instead, and despite its dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D., I’ll remember The Winter Soldier for its timidity.

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Supporting this blog: an update on my living costs

In late April, I installed a donation button on this blog and asked you to support it, promising to thank all those who did. As well as everyone who’s asked not to be named, huge thanks are therefore due to the first twenty:

  • John-Henry Beck
  • James Billingham
  • M C Brian
  • Jonathan Cantwell
  • Richard Carrier
  • Jennifer Chavez
  • L. Catherine Crompton
  • Eleanor Dent
  • Sue Drain
  • A R Hosking
  • A P Lee
  • David Lindes
  • Gordon MacGinitie
  • Louisa Manning
  • Bruce Martin
  • Ken Rokos
  • Emma Rose
  • Lee Roseberry
  • Jeremy Stein and
  • Rose Strickland-Constable.

It matters to me that everyone who donates knows how they’re helping me. For that reason, I included in my call for support the following description of my living costs:

  • €313.70 £258.27 $434.10 is my monthly rent. (Yes, that exact figure.)
  • €150 £123.49 $207.57 is what I need to pay May’s, due this Thursday, on time.
  • €62.25 / £51.25 $86.14 covers a month’s phone and Internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 £16.47-24.70 $27.68-41.51 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10 / £8.23 / $13.84 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 £4.12 / $6.92 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

As of July, most of these figures will be defunct. I’m updating the information here so prospective donors can still decide based on the evidence. (I’ve heard they prefer to do that.)

Next month, I’m set to move to a new part of Berlin. Different living arrangements, as well as up-to-date exchange rates, will mean…

  • €270 / £215.48$365.57 is my monthly rent.
  • €33.83 / £27$45.81 covers a month’s phone and internet access (vital to my work).
  • €20-30 / £15.96-23.94 / $27.08-40.62 covers food, transport and other basic living costs for a week.
  • €10£7.98$13.54 pays for food for two or three days.
  • €5 / £3.99$6.77 pays for a return trip across town on public transport. (I make one about once a week.)

Overall, my finances are stronger than they were in April. Due to reader support, more paid writing away from this blog and additional work in other fields, my income’s set to rise while my expenditure falls. In other words, this move’s a good long-term development.

The short-term downside is, I’ll need to pay both my final month’s rent in my current flat and two thirds of the new amount within the first half of July, totalling €493.70£394.01$668.46. I’m not too worried by this: provided current cheques come in on time I should be able to cover it, and am working on a higher-than-usual number of projects at once to do so.

Beside wanting to let readers support this blog who choose to, though, I’m accepting all help offered and leaving the options open to donate using the blue button below or give a monthly sum by subscribing:



I’ve also added a new button for those who simply want to follow this blog on Facebook. (I use the same page to collate writing I do for other sites and to recommend occasional work by people I like.)

Thanks for reading and for any support you choose to lend. We’ll now return to scheduled programming.

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Chapter 8: Biology

Chapter 7: Stranger Danger.

I have mixed feelings about biology, and today Mr Frew’s lesson has dragged on.

It’s fifth period, so I’m zipping books away for the walk home when Stephen Hodgson approaches, asking if some girl interests me.

Nope, I sigh.

Why, he asks – because of who she’s going out with?

Nope.

Because of who I’m going out with?

Nope.

‘Because you’re gay?’ asks Stephen, turning to wild theories as the classroom empties.

‘Yes’, I shrug.

‘Really?’

‘Mm.’

I head out.

Chapter 9: Attention.

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