A Christmas Tale
Just over two thousand years ago, on this very day, Santa Claus started work. No one really knows, but judging from his fondness for fur-trimmed clothing and his taste in pets, many people think that Santa must have grown up some distance from where his future employer, Jesus, was born. In the early days, Santa preferred to dress in green and had a dark beard, but gradually, because of Inflation, he needed more money for presents, which were expensive, and eventually he was forced to accept a sponsorship deal from Coca Cola, who made him dress in their corporate colours (and dyed his beard white to match). Beyond that, it's difficult to be sure about Santa's early life, because in those days, there wasn't much proper news. News originally came in two forms, neither of them as good as our modern news. There was gossip, which lawyers today call hearsay and won't let you say in court, and there was also history, which is a sort of news where everything is badly out of date. And that was the situation for some time. Then - many, many years later - the printing press was invented and this brought about the possibility of up-to-date news. But still, for a while, there were no newspapers, only inflammatory pamphlets, which were rather biased. Eventually Queen Victoria came along and everybody got the hang of machinery and stopped putting their clogs in it and people began to read 'the news'. Mainly this was about various big boats sinking and about how the British Army was beating all other countries in rather a heroic fashion. As more people read the news, newspapers got bigger, eventually including news that hadn't happened yet, like 'op eds', and news that was never likely to happen, like horoscopes. All this cost a lot of money, and someone worked out that there was another sort of news they could include: news about lovely new products and services. They could print these stories in exchange for some money from the purveyors of those very same lovely products and services. Some readers grumbled about this, so the newspapers agreed to put a little box around the advertisements so that no one would think the newspaper actually stood by any of the claims being made in them. Although the box around adverts was just a thin line of ink, it served an important purpose. Without it, it was possible for Democracy to become Imperilled. Democracy was also a relatively new invention, but a very important one. In Democracy, ordinary people are allowed to say what they want and then the government has to do it, because the country really belongs to the ordinary people. This is very similar to Communism where everything also belongs to the ordinary people, but in Communism the government carries out the will of the people without remembering to ask what it is first. Also the food is not so good. Given the choice, most people prefer Democracy (but of course under Communism, nobody takes the trouble to find that out). One worry with Democracy is the concern that only important people really understand how to make big decisions and know what is going on in the world. If true, there is a danger that ordinary people will vote for the wrong thing by accident or because they are very confused or slow witted. Many leaders worry that this is in fact the case. To help with this, politicians make the questions they ask the ordinary people quite simple. They have narrowed it down to a single question in which they ask whether the ordinary people would like them to do some more governing and the people can say no if they want and then someone else gets a chance. This is very simple but there is still the problem of the ordinary people accidentally deciding the wrong thing, so it is important that ordinary people read newspapers, so as not to put the wrong politicians in charge. This is where the line of ink round adverts comes in. If it wasn't there, bad politicians could give some money to the newspaper who could report that they had checked out these bad politicians and found them actually to be very good people and full of excellent ideas, so everyone should vote for them. Hence ink boxes. Unfortunately for democracy, Capitalism (which was the invention that had allowed the British Empire to stop the sun setting on it) brought with it Consumerism, wherein everyone thinks too much about buying things. In Consumerism, everything has to be fun and 'the latest thing' and no one has any self control or wants to be bored. And this is a problem, because many newspapers are of quite a boring nature. One solution was to include photographs of naked ladies in the newspapers, just inside the front cover, so that everyone would think, well this isn't so bad, and would keep reading. This was partly successful, although on average it worked better with men readers than women, but it wasn't enough, especially as television had been invented and now news seemed even more boring by comparison. The next solution that was tried was to apply Democracy to the news, by putting on more news stories that people liked and not harping on about the dull ones so much. The problem with this was that instead of applying Democracy, the news people accidentally applied Consumerism instead and now they were forced to make the news fun. So, many news stories became about celebrities. If those celebrities were also naked ladies, then that was ideal. There was also room for gruesome news because people always feel compelled to listen to grisliness in case things have got so bad that they need to move to a different country. So the news people would combine celebrity news with the most gruesome events they could find. This gave ordinary people the impression that life was made up of a fifty-fifty mix of naked celebrities and horrible murders, and it didn't help them choose a good government either, but it was fun. Sadly, it was also expensive, so the TV news had to make money through adverts too - and they had to say when the adverts were on, so you wouldn't confuse it with the actual news, but they used commercial breaks for that rather than ink boxes because of the different way television works. For a while things went well, but then someone realised that very famous celebrities are known all over the world, so it was pointless to have lots of local newspapers, TV and radio stations chasing them. They could be chased much better by big, international media companies. That also worked well with the gruesome murders, because even though local murders are best, people will still pay attention to a horrible murder a long way away, if it is really very grisly (or it involves some celebrities). Now, with everyone's money being spent on Consumerism, lots of companies did very well and the news media were no exception. Unfortunately, some countries had rules about what those media companies could do and this was considered Restrictive. For instance, there might be a rule that one person couldn't buy up all the news, TV and radio stations in a town because then they might get tempted to tell everyone something that wasn't true, and then because it was on all the radio and TV stations and also in the newspapers everyone might believe it. So laws were passed and those laws were bad for the economy. That's because when ordinary people do things it doesn't show up properly in economic figures but if companies can get ordinary people to hand money over to them then that does show up in figures and the economy is improved. So the media companies grumbled to the governments of the world that things were unfair and there were too many laws stopping them, but the governments had their own problems and weren't convinced. The leaders said: what if the media companies get too powerful and tell lies and everyone believes them and so maybe the laws should stay. But the media companies kept grumbling, and one group of politicians (mainly made up of people who liked to run big businesses) said, well, if we were in power we would help but you'd still have to behave. And the media companies said OK, we'll behave, you'll see. And after that both sides became the best of friends. This system worked well because the politicians could make sure that no lies were told on the news by threatening to change the laws back to what they used to be which would mean pulling apart the big media companies, so the big media companies knew to behave, and many of them got very large indeed and joined up with other big businesses. In some countries the media even got money directly from the government instead of from adverts so they had extra reasons not to tell lies about the things the politicians paid attention to (which was mainly news about themselves). Because of the way this agreement worked, it was probably a good thing that the news was about grisliness and celebrities both for reasons of being accurate and because that kept everyone happy. If the news had been about which big media companies were misbehaving it might have been a problem because all the people reporting the news worked for big media companies and so they might have got into trouble with their bosses for telling on them or not been allowed to tell in the first place. It might also be a problem if the news had to talk about the politicians because under the current system the politicians could get cross with them. Because the politicians were still in charge of keeping the laws from bothering the news companies, the news companies tried not to say anything too rude about them. By this time of course, most news companies were so large that they weren't really afraid of the politicians but even so they tried to make sure their news about politicians was mainly Juicy Scandals and reporting on individual bad politicians rather than complaining about bigger things and having the risk of annoying a whole lot of politicians at once and maybe starting a big row. So in theory, the only two problems with this system was that news about media companies and news about the government would both be a bit ropey and unreliable - which was sort of OK because no one cared about that sort of news - but then the other big businesses had an idea. Since politicians could threaten the news companies with laws, big businesses realised they could do some threatening of their own and they had something that was better than laws, which was money. Big businesses spent a lot of money on adverts and without that money the newspapers wouldn't be able to afford ink and paper and the TV companies wouldn't be able to afford the modern equivalent of ink and paper that TV uses. If big businesses were unhappy with the news they could give their advert money to someone else and see whether that helped. In fact it helped a lot because there were no longer any news companies who could survive without lots of money from adverts. Even the newspapers spent a lot more money than they made from selling their papers. So now the problem with this system included all big business, plus the government, which was still OK because no one was paying attention to those areas. And then things got even worse because big business realised that if adverts worked on ordinary people and the money from adverts helped them get their way with the news people, then maybe adverts were the answer to everything. They tried using adverts on the government. The media companies had managed to get some nicer laws from the government and now other companies wanted nicer laws too which were less Restrictive. Plus, because of the way the figures worked, it would be good for the economy, even if ordinary people were a bit worse off. So big businesses started making adverts about themselves for the benefit of politicians and this was called 'lobbying'. This was so successful that it in turn gave politicians the idea of having their own adverts to persuade ordinary people to think well of them, which was very clever, except that they didn't have any money for it. So big businesses very kindly offered to help with that and donate money to politicians to spend on adverts but on the understanding that things were not so Restrictive in future, and they winked when they said this. So by now everyone was using adverts on everyone else and nobody could be rude about anyone important without lots of trouble for all concerned. And all this would have been absolutely fine but then the world had a crisis. In fact there were three crisises. One was wars, which had been unpopular for a while, but that was only because they were Restrictive and bad for the economy. Once a way was found to make sure the money spent on wars went to big business no one minded (except ordinary people because they had to pay for it and also they tended to be the ones the war was on). The second problem was poor people of which there were too many and this can lead to Unrest, which is bad for everyone and so politicians preferred not to talk about it. And thirdly there was a problem with the atmosphere and weather in that it was no longer working properly because of smoke and pollution. These three things needed a lot of sorting out but no one wanted to be the first to bring it up because no one wanted to be blamed for it. The media companies would sometimes drop hints but they couldn't blame the government, big business or their bosses so these hints were not very good. The only hope for the world was Santa and/or Book Tokens (which are another Christmas tradition). All the big disasters that weren't being talked about on the news were getting made into books because that was safe as no one reads depressing books about things going all horribly wrong except perhaps other people writing similar depressing books. But during Christmas there is often time for ordinary people to have some respite from their toiling and to sit in comfy chairs. This is an ideal time for them to read books if they have any or if Santa has brought them some. Even if he hasn't specifically brought books there might be Book Tokens which are popular with Aunts - or even five pound notes which are nearly as good. These should be swapped for books by the following authors so that there can be many more Christmases and ordinary people can make sure that the many large crisises around the world are gradually fixed. And in conclusion: Happy Christmas and God Bless Us, every one.
Baghdad Burning by Riverbend
The more time one spends reading Riverbend (a young woman who lives in Baghdad) the more it becomes clear that dropping bombs on her or shooting at her family is not the right way to behave.
Anything by Joseph Stiglitz
It seems more than a coincidence that the world contains two good things that end in 'iglitz' but it's true. Joseph Stiglitz has a Nobel prize in being good at economics and he used to advise Pres. Clinton and the World Bank on What's Best. Without reading his books it might not be clear why everyone else in the world gets so cross with The West.
Anything by Naomi Klein
There are many reasons to read books by Naomi Klein besides the obvious one of wanting to go out with her. But given that she is married, perhaps it's best to focus on the messages of vital importance in her writing.
Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer
A lot of people thought that invading Iraq was a bit out of character for America. Stephen Kinzer very amiably tells the story of the other fourteen governments the US has overthrown in the last century or so.
Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins
I really can't decide if he's telling the truth, but if he is we should all be very cross. And he certainly does a grand job of tying together economic, military and foreign policy with stuff about secret agents.
Iraq Confidential by Scott Ritter
One of the excuses for accidentally invading Iraq was that 'everyone believed' they had stacks of evil weapons. Scott Ritter knew they didn't and he tried to tell everyone. But what would he know? He was only the American in charge of the U.N. Weapons Inspection Team for most of the Nineties.
Anything by Greg Palast
I can't pin down Greg Palast's style. I suspect his body produces some sort of natural amphetamine. Whatever, he's an incredible investigative journalist. One of about three left on the planet.
Noam Chomsky's political writing
He seems to write a couple of books per week, but not without good reason. All sorts of things start to make sense after reading Chomsky - and not in a loony, paranoid way. (Understanding Power is the most reader-friendly that I've read.)
The Great Unravelling by Paul Krugman
He's the sane one at the New York Times and knows A Fair Bit about how money works.
Anything by Amy Goodman
Or better still, get your daily news from her by listening to DemocracyNow.org. If I had more gumption, I would go and work for her.
Gore Vidal's political writing
His fiction is a little bit (cough) grown-up for my liking but his political thoughts are super and don't make me blush as much.
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
It turns out that history isn't just rich white gentlemen having disputes. I was not told this in school.
The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk
It's a bit cheeky recommending this as I'm only halfway through it, but in my defence it's blimin' huge. R. Fisk is also on the very short list of journalists I'm inclined to trust.