Monday, 28 July 2014

MH17 passengers victims of a preventable war

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Cuba - not the easiest place from which to follow world news.  The internet is restricted and slow, wifi scarcely exists and the English language edition of the island’s only daily newspaper, Granma, publishes mainly stagnant propaganda on behalf of the Castro brothers. 

As a result, I’ve had to catch up with the tragic story of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine on its scheduled route between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, resulting in almost 300 deaths.  Western countries and the current authorities in Kiev claim that the passenger plane was struck by a missile fired by ‘pro-Russian’ forces and supplied by Russia.  These allegations are refuted by the separatists and have drawn a flat denial from the government in Moscow.

For the time being, it is difficult to determine the exact truth.  Investigators from the Netherlands are struggling to access the crash site, which lies in territory fiercely contested by both sides in Ukraine’s civil war.  It is certainly likely enough that the plane was mistaken for a Ukrainian military aircraft and shot down.  It is also possible that the US government is manipulating intelligence information, to distort aspects of the incident deliberately, for propaganda purposes.

Whatever the precise details, this loss of life is another tragic result of war.  The eastern part of Ukraine has become an out and out warzone within Europe, with all the dreadful consequences which that entails.  There are dangers now in the air above the contested region, as well as on the ground.  Human Rights Watch says that forces loyal to the facto government in Kiev have been launching unguided Grad missiles aimed at suburbs around Donetsk and at the weekend there were reports of more civilian casualties.

War causes chaos, misery and death, often indiscriminately and almost always impacting civilians directly.  Its effects can easily spill out beyond the confines of the warzone.

It is easy to cast Vladimir Putin as the villain whose nationalist ambitions have plunged Ukraine into anarchy and Russia’s opportunism when it annexed Crimea was one of the defining moments of the crisis.  However, it was not Putin's government that sponsored ‘regime change’ on the streets of Kiev, targeting a President who was, for all his faults, elected democratically.

Ukrainians, whether they look to Washington or Moscow, are victims of governments which have used them as the rope in a political ‘tug of war’, resulting in a vicious civil conflict.  They have been joined now in their victimhood by the passengers of flight MH17.  

Monday, 7 July 2014

Northern Ireland blogging nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

I spent a little while over the weekend slimming down the ‘blog roll’ of websites on the right hand side of this page.  The majority of links were either defunct or more or less disused.  It made me think, if the ‘weblog’ is not dying, its best days are certainly behind it. 

Of course, my own site has become a fitful affair.  There are times when a visitor might expect to see tumbleweed blow across their screen, rather than a fresh new article, and when I do post, the number of hits is negligible. 

I’ve never had an enormous interest in theoretical discussions about blogging as a medium.  Personally, if I hadn’t written blog-posts, I would have written something else.  I would have pitched my material to newspapers, or offered articles to magazines, or squirreled them away in notebooks.

I didn’t start a blog because I wanted to be a blogger.  I started a blog because I enjoyed writing.

Still, all those dead and dismembered links caused more than a twinge of nostalgia.  Five years ago, when Three Thousand Versts was short-listed for the Orwell Prize, there was a rich network of blogs writing about politics in Northern Ireland.  Most of them are no longer active. 

On the pro-Union side, A Pint of Unionist Lite is gone, but not forgotten.  O’Neill’s informative and interesting posts remain available online, although the site is disused.  The same is true of Everything Ulster, although beano’s ‘EU hiatus’ has lasted now for over six years.  Burke’s Corner, which tackled philosophy and politics from a Burkean perspective, has attracted a squatter, while Redemption’s Son left behind few traces.  Its writer, Richard Cairns, like Lee Reynolds, the author of Ultonia, has moved on to bigger and better things.  Nothing remains of the hilarious Bobballs either, so far as I can see.

There were many others too.  It took quite a deal of virtual pruning to get rid of them all.  Some were good, lively sites but others were fairly boring party political blogs - little more than adverts for aspiring politicians.

On the nationalist side there is a similar pattern.  El Blogador has disappeared.  Splintered Sunrise, once very regularly updated, has remained dormant since 2012.  O’Conall Street didn’t outlive the political career of its writer, Conall McDevitt. 

Nationally, the picture is not much different.  Even the ‘blogfather’, Iain Dale, closed down his celebrated Iain Dale’s Diary, in 2011, although he does have a very slick site elsewhere which includes blogposts, but is more of a shop window for his media empire.

I’m not sure the closure of so many blogs indicates a lack of interest in the topics they cover.  It has more to do with social media and the trajectory of debate online.  Many websites and discussion forums have struggled or closed down altogether because the focus of readers and posters has switched to Twitter.  That’s unfortunate, because blogs allow for longer and more thoughtful writing.

Before the internet, to make a contribution to a debate, usually through a newspaper, magazine or journal, the writer had to order and present his or her thoughts so that an editor would deem them publishable.  The web ensured that anyone could contribute, but, with blogs and, to a lesser extent, forums, to attract readers and to get them to read your post, it had to be more or less readable.

Twitter, by contrast, allows people to spill their guts, instantly, about any topic.  There’s no price whatsoever to offering up your opinion to the masses.  You don’t need any knowledge, you don’t need to write especially coherently and you certainly don’t need to have anything worth saying.  It takes next to no mental effort - just two working fingers and an electronic device.

I suppose we should celebrate the ‘democratisation’ of debate, or some similar mumbo-jumbo.  After all, on Twitter and Facebook, one person’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s, irrespective of expertise, knowledge or intellectual capacity.   

There was, however, an element of excitement about being among the first wave of weblogs to capture attention in Northern Ireland, which it would be a pity to forget.  Those blogs formed something of a network of ideas, with bloggers bouncing off each other’s posts, debates taking place across multiple sites and playing out over many thousands of words.         

What it all amounted to, who knows?  But it was fun, while it lasted.

To the retired bloggers; wouldn’t it be great if it could all happen again someday?  To the survivors who keep plugging away, fair play, but it’s just not the same as it used to be.

Disclaimer: Just because I didn't mention your blog, doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy it!  Either you're still blogging or it slipped my mind!  

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The US never has been and never will be a football country

Why have so many neutrals been supporting the USA in this World Cup?  There is a natural tendency to back an underdog, but remember that the United States contains 330 million people. 

Some people clearly think, deep down, that the greatest sport in the world needs to be endorsed by Americans, to have truly global credentials.  Let’s be clear, the fact that the United States has never taken to football is a reflection on that country's sporting predilictions, rather than the greatest game in the world.

The US took over 90 minutes to be beaten by a small European nation with an average World Cup pedigree and that has now been taken as some type of triumph.  It really isn’t.

Football has no need to proselytise.  It already is the world’s game.  It has no requirement to expand into any new territories, because the ‘new territories’ are the freakish exception, rather than the rule. 

Meanwhile, sport in the US is generally a poor spectacle.  ‘World’ competitions span one country, cobbled out of dreadful stop-start pass-times, brought to prominence because they allow television advertisers a great deal of time to flog their wares.  Baseball may have some merits, but gridiron?   

Let them get on with it.  Football doesn’t need the US, nor does it need Qatar.  It is a sport founded on tradition, where the allegiance of supporters passes through generations.  Its heartlands are in Europe, South America, Africa, parts of Central America and parts of Asia.  There, the faithful will not be dissuaded by the vagaries of a single tournament.

If you have been supporting 'that' country and you are a genuine supporter from elsewhere, you ought to have known better. It isn’t a football nation and it never will be.  Americans will always call the sport ‘soccer’.  They’ll always associate it with teenage girls.  They’ll continue to prefer their ridiculous pass-times.  Let them get on with it.