BrainDead

I’m very surprised, given the circle of people I know, that no-one pointed out the TV series Braindead to me. In fact it’s only because of an Amazon Video recommendation — one that was actually aimed at my wife (who uses our Amazon Video account far more than I do) that I saw it at all. I’ve not heard anyone talking about it at all.

Which is a shame, because it’s really rather impressive at doing what it did.

Braindead is, roughly speaking, a series for people who liked The West Wing but wished more of the characters had their heads explode or had their brains eaten by alien insects. It was broadcast on CBS in the US, and on Amazon Prime over here, last year, but was cancelled after one season. This is a shame, as it’s by far the most emotionally accurate series about politics I’ve seen in a long time.

The basic premise of the series is a simple one — Laurel Healey, a wannabe filmmaker who’s short of money and so working in the office of her brother, a centrist Democrat senator, discovers that a new species of alien insects is crawling into people’s ears, eating half their brains, and taking control over them. The people they take over remain more or less the same as they were, but politically more extreme than they were, with a taste for smoothies, and a love of the song “You Might Think” by the Cars. Sometimes, if they’re unlucky, their heads will explode because of a buildup of alien insect farts.

The main fun of the series comes from the collision of genres — much of the drama is the conventional stuff of US political dramas, with one of the big overarching plots of the thirteen episodes being an attempt to get enough Senate votes together to pass a bipartisan finance bill while also trying to figure out what gotchas have been planted in it by the other side. But then, in the middle of an argument about the stuff of normal politics, insects will crawl out of the ears of two senators and have sex with each other, before crawling back into their brains.

It’s very much a series aimed at geeks — the “previously on BrainDead” recap at the beginning of each episode isn’t a standard montage, but a song written and performed by Jonathan Coulton (I’m not very familiar with his work, but I’ve always had the impression he was one of those Professional Geeks. The songs are quite good though, especially when, later in the series, they start to bear less and less relation to the previous episode, in one case recapping an episode of Gunsmoke instead). There are lots of Spaced-style shots referencing classic films, too; the most obvious one is probably the homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but my favourite is a scene in episode three that recreates a moment from 2001: A Space Odyssey, while I also laughed at a recreation of a sex scene from Eyes Wide Shut, with Michael Moore replacing Tom Cruise.

But its real strength actually comes from the same place as its greatest weakness. The show’s basic political stance is that of The West Wing and other centre-fetishism shows — that everyone even slightly to the left or right of the current establishment political consensus is absolutely crazy, and that the highest, noblest, most principled possible calling in politics is to hack procedural rules in such a way that you can convince your opponents to agree to a 5% budget increase for the Centers for Disease Control in return for concessions on education funding. Or whatever.

There were several points in the series where I cringed at the portrayal of Obama/Clinton-style Democrats as the most utterly principled people in existence, but what’s worse is that the makers of the series don’t actually seem to even know what the opinions of the people they’re satirising are. The most radical, extreme, left-wingers in the show? They want to protect arts funding and stop animal testing, and they talk a lot about how great Scandinavian social democracy is. Meanwhile the show’s Big Bad, Senator Red Wheatus (played wonderfully by Tony Shalhoub, whose performance really holds the show together) is a Trump-supporting hard right Republican, and he does at least want to start an unnecessary war in Syria, which is accurate as far as it goes, but he’s also the kind of person who will say patronisingly to black characters “I do believe black lives matter” — not a phrase that even most of the *moderate* Republicans will use. At the same time, both the right-winger wanting to start a war and the left-winger wanting to protect NPR and Sesame Street are “as bad as each other”.

So the most extreme leftists in this worldview are somewhere close to Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband, while the most extreme rightists have no politics at all and certainly wouldn’t ever be racist. I have greater extremes of left *and right* on my Twitter feed.

And yet. And yet…

Even if it doesn’t understand the people it’s satirising, and even if it falls into the false-equivalency trap, what BrainDead does do, really, really well, is to evoke the horrible, terrifying feeling created by the victories of the fascist populism that seems to have taken over the Anglosphere recently. The feeling of looking at half the people in your country preparing to vote for someone who has no aims other than greed and destruction. The terror at the loss of a world which, for all its problems, was at least comprehensible, and its replacement with a world which will cheerfully vote for someone who talks like half his brain’s been eaten away by insects and his head’s full of alien farts.

And to be fair to it, it also at least *tries* to undercut its own centrism — sometimes very effectively. There’s a whole episode in which Laurel has been detained by the FBI for waterboarding (by a torturer who owes a lot to Michael Palin’s character in Brazil), and whether she’ll be tortured or not depends on the outcome of a Senate subcommittee meeting. The stable, simple, understandable system is a predictable machine, but one that can and will chew people up and hurt them.

BrainDead may well be, for all its myriad flaws, the work of art which speaks most to my own emotional experience of the world for the last year, and it’s well worth watching for that. The amazing thing is that the show was developed in late 2015 — some of the resonances in it make more sense now, in 2017, than the writers could have known.
It can be viewed on Amazon

Postscript for those for whom representation matters: the principal characters of the series are all white, but there are a large number of black characters. I don’t recall any LGBT characters being present in the series, though one man may have been coded as gay. The gay-coded man was also one of three autistic-coded characters, none of whom were straight white men (the other two were a middle-aged female entomologist and a black chess-genius conspiracy-theorist who’s one of the main supporting characters). Most (but not, I think, all) episodes pass Bechdel.

And a few notes of specific triggers that people I know who may want to watch this have — the series contains intimate partner violence, some scenes that while not depicting rape show something that could hit the same emotional buttons, and the mention of a dog being euthanised.

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All I’m Going to Say on this Election Here

That title may surprise some of you, but I’m serious. I plan on having one post, and one post only, on here about the election, at least up until election day itself. I have already had an intense two-month by-election campaign, and the prospect of another six weeks of politicking has made me feel near-suicidal. (And of course the fact that we still don’t know if the by-election will go ahead — meaning Jackie or whoever may be elected to a dissolved parliament and have to stand for re-election a month later — shows how much thought the Tories give to the North…) I may change my mind, of course, but the plan right now is that this is it.

And the atmosphere has become feral at the moment. Yesterday I saw the announcement of the General Election, went out and did a round of leafletting, and thought to myself “I’ll write a nice post about progressive tactical voting when I get back — with the Tories this bad everyone will at least come together and be sensible about minimising the damage”.

By the time I got back home, two Labour MPs had said they refused to back Corbyn as Prime Minister, Corbyn had called for mandatory reselection in the next few weeks, and everyone had decided that Tim Farron is an evil homophobe (as always, I take my views on LGBT stuff from people who will be affected by it. This statement by the chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems, who’s a friend, represents what the majority of LGBT+ people I know think of him. This, by Zoe O’Connell, another friend who’s one of the threefour out trans people currently elected to office, adds to that. I don’t want to tell you you’re wrong if you think differently — I’m a cishet man who cannot and should not speak over LGBT+ people in this — but I know enough LGBT+ activists who think this way that it would take some strong evidence to convince me otherwise — I’m listening to them, because as a cishet man that’s all I should do).

Basically, everyone on the left and centre-left had turned into a circular firing squad determined to hand the Tories the biggest majority possible because of stupid fucking purity tests and narcissism-of-small-differences shit.

And I can’t take that kind of argument right now, at least not here. So I’m going to talk politics on Twitter, still, but after this one post I won’t be doing any political blogging until election day. (If nothing else, I don’t know if Patreon money for politics posts would count as campaign money or something like that, during an election period, so I’m not going to take that risk).

So here’s what I’ve got to say. Note that all members of political parties are banned from ever saying publicly that someone should vote for another party. So I’m not going to tell anyone to vote for anyone other than the Lib Dems.

But we live under a first-past-the post system, and as Al Ewing put it on Twitter today “I’m a single-issue voter. My single issue is reducing the Tory majority.”

I can largely agree with that. More precisely, I have three issues, in descending order of importance — stopping Brexit, getting a decent electoral system, and keeping the Tories out. I care about a *LOT* of other things, but those are the top three. Where I live, in Manchester Gorton, keeping the Tories out is not an issue, as FPTP stops them, so it’s down to the top two. Happily, Jackie Pearcey, the Lib Dem candidate, is on my side on both the top two and on a lot of other things.

Now, the important thing here is that the main reason the Tories won a majority at the last election is what’s called “tactical unwind” — people who had previously voted tactically going back to their party of choice. If in just *five* Tory/Lib Dem marginals Labour voters had voted tactically for the Lib Dem, the Tories wouldn’t have won a majority. I haven’t looked so closely at Lab/Con marginals to see if that’s true for non-tactical-voting Lib Dems, but I suspect it is.

Five seats. If 733 Lab voters in Eastbourne, 883 in Lewes, 1495 in Thornbury & Yate, 2017 in Twickenham, and 2834 in Kingston & Surbiton, had voted differently — 7,962 people, just 0.012% of the population — there’d have been no Tory majority in 2015, and none of the horrors of the last couple of years would have happened.

Which is not to blame those people. It’s the Lib Dems’ fault we didn’t persuade them. And as I said, there are undoubtedly a similar number of Lib Dem voters who could have swung Tory seats to Labour. We all do our best when voting to decide between a whole lot of factors, and no-one can predict the future. I’m just pointing out that under this stupid system, which I will do anything I can to change, tactical voting matters *a lot*.

So I’d suggest that anyone who wants to change things do something simple. Look at your constituency — not just last election, but the last two or three, because last time was an outlier in all sorts of weird ways — and see which candidates have a chance.

Then have a think about what issues matter to you, and where you rank all the parties — or local candidates if they differ from their party, because there are people in every party who somehow manage to disagree with it on every issue.

My ranking of the parties, for what it’s worth — based on the criteria I give above (stop Brexit, reform voting, not-a-Tory — the latter of which covers a lot of stuff about liberalism, the NHS, etc which I’d include separately if Brexit wasn’t such a massive issue, but all of which matter) goes:
1) Lib Dem
2) Green
[3) If I were in Scotland or Wales: SNP/Plaid]
3) Labour
4) Conservative
5) UKIP

Then look down your ranked list til you hit the first candidate who has a chance in your constituency, and vote that way. Short of a ranked voting system, we have to act like we’ve already got one.

For me, that means voting in the General Election for Jackie Pearcey, because she’d be first on my list while Afzal Khan would be third. And in the Mayoral election, where we get to rank our top two, it means voting for Jane Brophy first and Will Patterson (the Green candidate) second (the Mayoral is purely on local issues, but my ranking comes out the same, because people who agree on stuff tend to agree on other stuff, which is why we have parties at all).

Now, I understand one final concern many Labour people might have about voting Lib Dem to keep Tories out, which is what happens if there’s a hung parliament? Will the Lib Dems go into coalition again?

Well, the thing is, it’s up to the party members. If a coalition is on offer, it requires a special conference and a two-thirds vote of the membership for the party to agree to it. Not the leader. Not the MPs. The whole membership (or that portion which can get to a special conference at short notice — a few thousand people, anyway).

Now, I can’t tell you for sure what the members would decide, and anyone who says they can is lying. If nothing else, we got something like ten thousand new members *yesterday*, and I have no idea what they think. But I discussed this a lot at conference last month, and the sentiment I got from everyone I talked to was the same: “the only way I’ll vote for a coalition again, with any party, is if the very first bill it passes is ‘revoke Article 50 and implement STV as the voting system for all future elections'”.

Even Nick Clegg — the single most right-wing current Lib Dem MP, and the most pro-Tory of all of them — was asked about it recently. The quote:

Clegg said it was “completely out of the question” for his party to enter a coalition with the Tory party because of hard Brexit, but suggested that a shift back to more tactical voting could provide a comeback for the left of British politics.

“If it becomes obvious next election that the overwhelming task is to destroy the Conservative government – that is umbilically linked to hard Brexit,” he said, then it would be “flamingly obvious” to Labour in the south-west that the Lib Dems had the best chance of victory and to Lib Dems in the north that Labour did.

He argued that the politicians who drove the decision to leave the EU had plans for mass deregulation after Brexit was complete.

Now, we will have a hard time getting rid of the Tories this election. They’re polling remarkably high. But national polls don’t predict local results. Parties of the left can, and should, be willing to fight each other where the Tories can’t win — I’m in Manchester, and I’m going to campaign for Jackie Pearcey where I live (and probably also for John Leech in the constituency next door) because she’d be better than the local Blairite Labourbot. And I don’t expect Labour to stop campaigning to defeat Jackie here either.

But the people who need defeating nationally are the Tories and those Labour MPs — the Kate Hoeys, Graham Stringers, and Gisela Stuarts — who would be at home in UKIP. There’s not enough time to arrange a proper progressive alliance, even if one were possible or desirable longer-term, but right now, we all need to think about how our local votes affect the bigger picture and act accordingly.

And that’s the last I’m planning to say on this blog about politics until June 8 (unless the Gorton by-election does go ahead, in which case there may be a celebratory or depressed post on May 5).

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Resharing My Post-Election Depression Playlist

This is a playlist I created two years ago just after the disastrous 2015 election. Seemed appropriate to reshare it now.
Tracklist is:

George Hardy The Land Song
Tom Robinson Band Winter of 79
The Bonzo Dog Band No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Gets In
David Steel I Feel Liberal Alright
Steve Earle Jerusalem
Buffalo Springfield For What It’s Worth
The Imagined Village Hard Times Of Old England Retold
Klaus Nomi After The Fall
The Millennium It Won’t Always Be The Same
Pulp Common People
The Kinks Dead End Street
The Specials Ghost Town
Woody Guthrie This Land Is Your Land

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*Sigh*

You know when I said “The Gorton by-election is now into its final few weeks (the fourth of May is the election date), and so I should have more writing time again shortly, and I hope to go back to this blog being daily.”

Yeah.

Two days is a long time in politics.

This election is more important than any in my lifetime. Vote to stop May’s Brexit destruction of the UK. I hope you vote Lib Dem, and will not advocate voting for anyone else, but look at the candidates in your area, ask yourself which one will stop this mess, and vote for them. I’m confident that will be Lib Dem more often than not, but ask the question.

Proper post when my anxiety attack has stopped.

Meanwhile, if you’re in Manchester, get yourself to 815 Stockport Road. We’ve been campaigning for weeks already, we have leaflets and posters and everything you need. Until your local party gets into gear, help ours.

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Security Issue with Parliament Petitions Website

This is only a minor issue, but one I thought people should be aware of…

While the website at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions says “We won’t publish your personal details anywhere or use them for anything other than this petition”, it *is* still possible for someone to find out if you’ve signed a particular petition, if they know your name, email address, and postcode.

If you sign a petition, what happens is you get redirected to a page saying “please check your email” — you’re sent an email with a link in it to click, to confirm that the person associated with the email account actually wants to sign.

But if you sign a petition that has already been signed someone using that email address, you see this instead:

Image of a web form with “You cannot sign this petition again” in red over the email address

This means that if anyone wants to know if you’ve signed a particular petition, they can go and find out, just by entering your details.

Now, this is a minor issue, and can’t be used on a major scale — but it’s still revealing your personal data, and I can think of circumstances where someone would not want that data revealed.

The solution is easy — just have the website *always* redirect to the “check your email” page, and send out another email saying “you have already signed this petition”. That simultaneously stops anyone from finding your data, and also lets you know that someone’s been trying to use your name and email address. Quite why they’ve chosen to do something which I’m pretty sure is in breach of the Data Protection Act instead, I don’t know…

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Linkblogging for 17/4/17

Just a few links today, but they’re all very good ones…

Nick Barlow wrote a blog post I was going to write, about the idea of a new centre party, but better than I would have written it, so now I don’t need to.

The ableist, racist, and classist underpinnings of “laziness”.

A *really* good piece on the difference between the Kirk of the original Star Trek and his perception in popular culture and the reboot films.

Unfortunately, while Kirk was great, the actor who played him is an arse. How William Shatner betrayed autistic people.

An ex-Tory, who campaigned for Iain Duncan Smith in 2001, writes about Brexit. I disagree with quite a bit, obviously, but there’s a lot of *really* good stuff in here too.

A classic I may have linked here when it was originally posted, but which has been circulating again — anthropological field notes on the Lib Dems. Thankfully some of the worst stuff in this has changed, or is changing, but it made me cringe-laugh four years ago and did again when I just reread it.

Wesley Osam uses a review of Ben Aaronovitch’s The Hanging Tree to talk about many of the problems with serialised stories as they’re currently practiced (this is, incidentally, one of the big reasons I’m against the principle of the Best Series Hugo and will be No Awarding it).

And Obverse Books have announced a new series of books, The Silver Archive, which will be a companion series to The Black Archive, looking at non-Doctor Who genre TV (with a fairly fluid definition of genre — one of the books is on Steptoe & Son), starting next year. I’m writing one on The Strange World of Gurney Slade which will be out in about eighteen months. For the full list of titles to be released in 2018-20, see Obverse’s website.

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Plans for the Next Few Weeks

The Gorton by-election is now into its final few weeks (the fourth of May is the election date), and so I should have more writing time again shortly, and I hope to go back to this blog being daily.

However, part of the reason I’ve not been posting is that I’ve been doing non-blog writing. My second novel should be out in the next week or two. This one’s self-published, and shorter than the first — it’s only 40,000 words or so, and it’s a Dennis Wheatley pastiche. I’m in the final stages of the copy-editing and so forth, and I should have it out before the end of the month. Patreon backers will be getting it free, and so will blog readers — but the latter will have to wait. I’ll be serialising it, one chapter a week, over the next ten months or so. If that works for getting people to buy the book, I’ll do it with future books.

I’ve also been working on another book — the final volume of the Beach Boys books. That should also be out this month, with luck. That contains the reviews I’ve posted here, but also essays on the Good Vibrations box, The Pet Sounds Sessions, Endless Harmony, Ultimate Christmas, Hawthorne CA, Pet Sounds Live In London, The Smile Sessions, Made In California, Live: The 50th Anniversary Tour, The Big Beat 1963, Live In Sacramento, Keep An Eye On Summer, No Pier Pressure (a heavily revised version of the review I wrote at the time), Brian Wilson and Friends, Beach Boys’ Party! Uncovered and Unplugged, and Live In Chicago 1965. That’s going to be a BIG book, and again Patreon backers will get it for free.

I’m *hoping* both of those will be out by the end of the month, but I’m *guaranteeing* they’ll both be out by the end of May.

After those, I’m planning on a few other things. I’m working on a third novel (the “techno-cosy” I’ve spoken about before and posted draft excerpts from) and I’m going to start the regular Batman posts on Mindless Ones again.

So, stuff is happening.

For the next couple of weeks, expect more Hugo posts, a Patreon-only comics post, and more analysis of the Gorton by-election, assuming my health bears up.

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