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Date: 31/12/11

The Year Of The Feral Overclass

Warning: very, very long post follows. Bring sandwiches - and a tent.

"The time has come...to talk of many things".

In deference to the arbitrary sequence of numbers we use to tally off our limited days in the world, it is time for that one piece in the year which the reader does not particularly want to read, and its author does not especially want to auth.

And yet, the sense of our approaching the end of something - even though we will be, in the normal run of things, no different on one-one as we were on thirty-one-twelve - compels anyone with a consciousness to look back, to take stock, to describe and - possibly - to prescribe; what was done, what will be done, what should be done. And 2011 should not be allowed to escape this measurement, if only as a sort of existential punishment for what it allowed to occur on its watch.

I will start with myself, if only because it's readily at hand.

Anyone reading through this site over the past twelve months will probably gather that I have had a shit year on the whole. Certainly more ordurious than any before it that I can remember.

It is, however, necessary to at least attempt to put it in some sort of context and comparison, even if only as some sort of balm for the psychic wounds caused by the passage of 2011.

Note: If much of the following seems disjointed, then that's because it was written that way. More than once in the last two or three days I have started putting this piece together, only to have to - at times literally - walk away from it. It is still unsettling to me to trawl through the detritus of my own self in search of something which might make some sort of sense to anyone, myself included.

I have a friend. Our relationship is conducted entirely via e-mail, due to her being four thousand miles away. This is the second stage of our friendship, as we first started communicating with each other via that antedeluvian method of pen and paper way back in the early 1980s. We then lost touch with each other, mostly because neither of us could remember whose turn it was to write and to have sent two letters in a row without a response to the first one would have appeared to demonstrate impatience or pushiness, and hence was a no-no. The hiatus in our correspondence continued until about eight years ago when - by a combination of modern technology and a chance remark online - we ended up with each other's e-mail addresses. The correspondence since then has been somewhat intermittent - one or two exchanges a year - but worthwhile all the same.

I mention her because she seems to fall into that category of unfortunate people to whom one could refer as 'mayhem magnets'. This means that when I e-mail her at the end of every year bemoaning my own misfortunes, it transpires that she has had a lousier year than I have. This year has been no exception, although for obvious reasons I won't go into detail. I just wish I didn't have to keep relying on her calamities for a sense of perspective on my own problems.

So, that old phrase 'count your blessings' comes into play. Soppy, sentimental mush as it is, here are mine from 2011:

And yet, for all that the above might be valid reasons for a certain degree of satisfaction, I still don't feel that they balance out the down side of the year.

Regular readers will recall that I started the year getting over a strange virus-like condition which had rendered me bed-bound through the whole of Christmas. I was also still in the middle of a battle with no less than three layers of management at work over their persistent refusal to accept certain important legal and employment rights which I had. These two sets of circumstances were, I see in retrospect, almost certainly related; the latter creating the conditions for the former.

What the latter definitely also fed into - and what the former may also have had something to do with - was what started to overcome me in January. It is difficult even at this remove to write cogently or coherently about how a completely external event - namely, the imprisonment of Edward Woollard - should have triggered such a reaction in my own psyche; one which, indeed, continues in some form to this day. All that can be said with any degree of accuracy is that whatever feelings of inferiority, powerlessness or inadequacy which were doubtless already present covertly in my mind became overt in an act of transferance. If he were to find out about this, he would doubtless feel very uneasy about it, as if he had been got at by a dybbuk. Luckily for him, he almost certainly doesn't know; and besides which, he has more pressing and real matters to concern himself with.

One thing I have been determined to do from the outset, however, is to not hide any of this. If I have not actually embraced my current status, I am at least willing to be seen holding hands with it in public. And so I say without any hesitation: I suffer from mental illness. This, of course, makes most people uncomfortable. The stigma attached to such conditions is so deeply rooted in our society - a hangover, in my view, from the days of the dominance of religious thinking whereby those who were in some way or another unconventional in their behaviour were deemed to be possessed by demons (if you doubt this, consider that many so-called 'primitive' societies have tended to respect or revere their loonies. Much like the United States today, in fact, although without electing them to office quite as often) - that even reference to them is still considered 'not quite right'. Let's make it as plain as we can. Psychiatric disturbance is an illness. Like all other illnesses, it has biological, biochemical or organic roots. It merely affects that particular organ rather than any other.

This is not the general view, however, and ignorance - wilful or otherwise - is not only disobliging to those of us who suffer from such conditions, it can be actively perilous, especially when that ignorance is to be found in people who hold great power over our lives. Such as the infamous case of Joe Paraskeva, handed a sentence of indeterminate incarceration in a prison for committing a fairly minor criminal act whilst in the throes of a major bi-polar trauma. This at the hands of a judge who discarded all evidence presented to him which didn't suit his prejudices.

But then, in that, that particular judge was not alone. Which brings me to wider matters in this happy land of the Untied Condom of Great Austeria.

For 2011 has been The Year Of The Feral Overclass, the year in which those who hold positions of dominance in our land - be it polticial, economic, social or cultural - have shown not only their increasing sociopathy, but their near-psychopathic determination to hang on to that dominance in whatever way they think they can get away with.

So it is that a government devoid of any genuine mandate can seek to impose policies which not only benefit primarily or solely a narrow sectional interest - that of their own class and those who fund their causes - but which actively discriminate, with varying degrees of indifference or callousness, against those who have been deemed to be least able - or least likely - to fight back, or against those individuals or groups whom it would be thought easiest to demonise.

And lo, it came to pass that a deliberate campaign of abuse and vituperation channelled through their friends in the corpulent media has enabled the social atrocity of the Work Capability Assessment - run by a company with no experience in the field, and employing people ill-qualified to make the decisions a fair society should demand of them - to continue unabated, cheered on by think-tankers, grubby newspaper columnists and the mass of 'right-minded' people (as found in the comments pages of the press). That not only has a substantial proportion of the decisions handed down by the fake 'expertise' of ATOS (for it is they) been overturned - although not without a convoluted and draining appeal process - without the perpetrators suffering any financial loss, but that large numbers of those who undergo the assessment process simply withdraw from the benefit system altogether (not because they are fraudulent claimants, just that they simply can't face any more); that all this goes on - even to the point of the terminally ill being told to 'take up their beds and work', and to a government minister publicly wishing to force people undergoing debilitating chemotherapy to seek employment - without much sense of general outrage is due more than anything else to the deliberate targeting of the long-term ill and the disabled by using the "my brother-in-law told me down the pub last night" tactic of smear. Thus it is that the tiny minority who do abuse the system are waved in the face of the cash-straitened public as if they - the abusers - were the norm rather than the exception. Once you have demonised that category, even out of all proportion to any real harm they may be doing, it makes it far easier to spread the insinuation to cover everyone in the more general group of genuine claimants. Such a process of rendering them as somehow 'other' makes it far easier to do things to that far larger group which might generate general anger were you to do so from, as it were, a standing start. It is a tactic as old as the earliest pogrom you can think of, and it still works, as a soi-disant Prime Minister who cut his teeth shilling on behalf of a purveyor of garbage television would know very well.

That such a campaign has succeeded to a worryingly large degree not only in turning some categories of claimant against others, but also in a clear rise in the number of cases of public verbal and physical abuse of the chronically ill and disabled is indicative of the deeply malinformed nature of the public and of the ease with which people can be made to fight one another like rats in a sack whilst those who own the sack throw same in the canal and walk away relieved of a burden which - should they possess such a thing as a conscience - they might otherwise find vaguely troubling.

In all this, it is worth bearing one thing in mind; it may not be you today, but it could very well be you tomorrow, or the day after at the latest. If you do not defend those on the shitty end of this particular stick now, it is merely a matter of time before that stick is thrust at you. And, as Niemöller told us only too clearly, by then it will be too late.

Despite the general appearance of the current régime that running a drunken orgy in a brothel with a bar in it would be a fatal test of their organisational ability, those comprising our governmental structures are quite clearly embarked on a campaign which is nakedly ideological. The aim - far more even than in the days of their great teacher the Thatcher-being - is firstly to render all public provision of the services necessary for us validly to claim that we live in a developed, civilised and humane society increasingly unattractive by gradually - or not so gradually - strangling their financial resources; and then, using the understandable public dissatisfaction with that bare-bones provision, utilising that unease to justify handing over whatever may be left of those services to private corporations or to what has become known, euphemistically, as the 'third sector', i.e. charities. In this way, our health service - not the envy of the world, but at least a model which others have sought to copy - has its budget reduced, and those running it are 'encouraged' to treat more and more private-sector queue-jumpers. Similarly the schools and colleges, having been urged to become more like businesses - something which the suits running many colleges and universities needed little encouragement to do, inflating as that process does their own sense of power, importance and bank balance - are being handed over to just about any group, be they simply the middle-class Pushies or any assortment of religious nuts, in order to seek to mould children into tomorrow's dynamic, thrusting executive class or next year's mindless spouters of superstition. Social services, probation services, prisons; nothing is deemed to be beyond the reach of the Cash Converter mentality of a governing clique for whom nothing is held of any utility unless a price tag can be attached to it. Especially if that price tag is attractive to the very individuals or groups which fund your own pet political projects.

We are clearly being pushed back to a model of provision of services which is not merely pre-1945, but pre-1919 as well. For clearly it would be impudent and impious to expect the go-getting classes to have to share 'their' benefits with the lesser breeds outwith The Elect. So access to what there is left of decent service provision will increasingly be confined to those with the wherewithal, with those not so well favoured with the Pushy gene, or from the 'wrong' sort of background, being forced to rely on the cheap and not-so-cheerful resources provided by your local Lady Bountifuls; where such provision exists, of course, and dependent on whether your poverty is Deserving or Undeserving (faked religiosity might help to secure assistance as well). Thus a multi-tiered system - with much of the customary bollo about 'choice' and 'flexibility', natch - is being developed all around us, whereby the very best of nineteenth-century Christianity will be the underpinning ethos, namely, viz. and to whit, "To those who have it shall be given, and those who have not, it shall be taken away.".

And should you wish to express your strongest disapproval of what is being done to you, ostensibly in the name of 'helping' you, you are faced with two equally unattractive alternatives: either peaceful, 'legitimate' protest of the "we'll march from A to B blowing whistles and handing out flyers" variety; or more direct or imaginative methods which involve causing actual inconvenience or even consternation to those who set themselves over us.

In the first version, the unattractiveness comes from the safe and certain knowledge that it will achieve about 0.5 per cent of fuck all. Even if you are able to claim from first-hand encounters that the public is on your side, that vast majority of said public who sit at a distance from your demonstration can be safely deluded into thinking otherwise with slanted reporting from those self-same media outlets to which I referred before - the 'embedded reporters' of the land's Establishment - who, whilst they may claim to record events impartially, can always be relied upon to use just the right words to give a clear indication to anyone capable of independent thought precisely what their position is. So, in the same way that union ballots for action can be described as lacking in legitimacy by reference to the turnout figures (conveniently failing to mention that no government has held power in London on a majority even of the votes cast since the days of the concocted 'National' government of Stanley Baldwin in 1931), so too can the general public be regularly reassured that these people shambling down Oxford Street or wherever are of no consequence because they are 'militants' or 'anarchists' or 'trust fund ingrates', and may therefore safely be disregarded, even if they are, in fact, the teachers, nurses or support workers upon whom a humane society has to depend. This enables those who rule totally to ignore what is going on, even if it's marching past their office windows.

In the second alternative, the lack of allure is due entirely to the awareness of what the consequences are likely to be for you personally and/or your family, not just now but for years or decades to come. Because if the Overclass has had an avatar or tutelary spirit in 2011, it has been in the form of an arrogant, elderly, upper-middle-class dolt dressed up like a very worn stuffed toy. Yes, that form of wildlife known as the Greater Wigged Bastard has thrived this year as it has not for some considerable time. 'Judicial Activism' - that great bugbear of the Right when members of the judiciary occasionally exhibit any tendency to hold the powerful to the same rules as the rest of us - has abounded. And yet that same Right has been silent as they witnessed case after case where offences which would have merited little more than a caution had they occurred on a typical pissed-up Friday night in any city or town in The Sacred Realm were punished by custodial sentences which varied from the eyebrow-raising to the eye-watering. Throw a fire extinguisher off a roof and not hit anyone, and it's thirty-two months in HMYOI Feltham for you, my lad. Sit on a car bonnet and try to poke the future king's floozy with a stick, and it's sixteen months in the jug. Throw a thin placard stick in the general direction of a cop after you've spent hours being kettled, shoved and manhandled by his colleagues, and it's a twelvemonth in chokey.

These were egregious enough abuses of power, but they were small fare indeed compared to what followed what is euphemistically called the 'unrest' of early August.

(A brief word on that while we're here; apart from the obviously damnable cases where actual people were actually harmed, my one knock against the rioters - other than uncertainty as to the real motives of some of them - was that they were dumb enough to take a dump in their own nests. One piece of advice to anyone tempted to try it in the future: if you're going to, then first of all march on the wealthiest part of your city - Kensington and Chelsea, say - and do it there. That's where The Man resides, and you'll have far greater impact there than you will by trashing the kebab house down your street or the local discount shoe outlet).

That another shooting of another young non-white man (quite possibly unarmed) was going to spark trouble is, of course, a given. That what happened in a particularly disadvantaged part of north London should produce its echoes elsewhere in that city and in others should not surprise anyone other than the disingenuous. Despite the official version, this was not mindless copycatting: people away from the original conflict saw or otherwise found out about it, felt that same anger and resentment arise in themselves, and decided to follow suit.

The fallout was eminently predictable, but went far further than anyone other than the irremediably cynical would have predicted. The faux shock of politicians was foreseeable enough; that, after all, is what they're there for. What took things to a whole new - and, to my mind, dangerous - level was the direct attempts at interference in judicial decision-making. By this, I don't simply mean that people (if one may call them that) such as Cameron and May stated quite openly that they wanted everyone - but everyone - who was involved, however peripherally, in the évènements to be thrown in prison regardless of the facts of each case; but also that what amounted to an instruction (although officially described as 'advice') went out to the whole of the judiciary effectively freeing them from the necessity of adhering to long-established sentencing guidelines and giving them carte blanche to do more or less as they pleased within the limits of the letter of the law.

The result of this was just as predictable; Crown Court judges and that curious breed of halflings called 'District Judges' (previously known as 'Stipendiary Magistrates' - a more accurate indication of their status) started handing out custodial sentences like a determined pervert handing out sweeties. Sentences of many months for such heinous crimes against humanity such as taking two bottles of water from a supermarket which had been looted by other people quite some time before; sentences of in excess of one to two years for such undermining of the public morals as tossing a spent toy smoke-bomb into the gutter; and, most egregiously, most disturbingly, most frighteningly, sentences of three to four years for posting something on a website - a length of sentence usually reserved for kidnappers, serious sex offenders and killer motorists.

And all this in the name of 'protecting the public', 'making an example', 'sending a message', and all the other footling cant which tends to issue from the lips of the comfortably untouchable when dealing with those they consider beneath them.

There's an old saying, usually attributed to Bismarck, that the two things you should never watch being made are sausages and laws. In 2011, observing how laws are administered has been an equally queasy experience. In the same way that the police have become - in no small measure by their own willing acquiesence - essentially a paramilitary force for those who hold power, so too the English judiciary (although regarded still in some quarters in the same way that they were portrayed by Beachcomber and A P Herbert decades ago, as packages of eccentricity, irascibility and unworldliness) now seem to have allowed themselves - again, with a troubling degree of overt willingness - to become the shock troops of the overclass.

And again, as with the first category of action I referred to all those paragraphs ago, the emetic extremism of the Bench can be spun to the public by politicians, pundits and reporters alike as being exactly what was needed to keep the more discomfiting elements in society firmly in their places; the firm smack of discipline (or, conceivably, vice versa), being 'tough', 'cracking down'; all these can be presented to the easily misleadable as being absolutely essential to stop all decent, hard-working, law-abiding, cliché-ridden folk from being murdered in their beds every night of the year.

This is completely to miss - indeed, wilfully to do so - the after-effects of the actions of professional and semi-professional members of the judiciary. I have, as a result of this past year's stories and the interest (which some would call 'morbid', but which I call at worst 'pathological' in the strict and literal sense of the term), become very interested in judicial and penal policy in this country and elsewhere. I cannot in all conscience say that what I have found out gives me any feelings other than that of despair. Having gone on about it often enough during the year, I will confine myself here to one aspect of current policy alone.

If we are to operate within the boundaries of what a rational person would consider to be civilised values, one of the prerequisites is a judicial and penal system which is both measured and fair. Leaving aside the unfairness by which, all too often, the justice you get may depend heavily on how much you can afford to pay for it (another aspect of what I wrote of earlier, especially with the ongoing curtailment of Legal Aid), surely it would be considered reasonable that for alleged breaches of the law, the proper forum for determination of guilt or innocence is a properly-constituted court; that the correct procedure for convicting someone is after a fairly-conducted trial; and that the only valid punishment is that reached by the presiding officer within boundaries set by law, reason and balance.

Nowadays, however, that is not what happens. All too often, the sentence of the court is merely the first stage of a system of officially-sanctioned disadvantage which can - and all too frequently does - not merely actively prevent any real possibility of rehabilitation of the offender, but sets them up for an entire lifetime of under-attainment.

Take the case of one of the Facebook 'rioters'. He will be in prison for at least two years. When he comes out, he will be jobless and almost certainly homeless as well. Finding somewhere to live will be difficult for him, and expensive for the rest of us, as he will almost certainly end up in sub-standard accomodation for which a private landlord will be charging us whatever he can get away with. Employment - at least of the lawful kind - will be at best a remote possibility thanks to his having to declare his conviction on all applications for the rest of his life. The Criminal Records Bureau will do for the rest of his prospects. And so, his chances of making a productive and useful life for himself - should he wish to do so - will either be made very difficult or completely stymied at every turn. And this is for someone in his mid-twenties, remember. So, would it really be any surprise to know that the re-offending rate in this country is between fifty and seventy-five per cent within two years of conviction? Or that - if a recent report is to be believed - about a third of Jobseeker's Allowance claimants have criminal convictions?

Not that it matters to the 'right-thinking', of course. Point out to them that it costs between £35k and £70k to keep one person in prison for one year and they won't turn a hair; they'll simply blame the cost on plasma-screen TVs in cells, or ping-pong tables, rather than on the number of prisons which have to be maintained and the number of screws who have to be employed to run them. As with the disabled, categorise a group as somehow 'other' - even other than human - and you can stop bothering your silly little head about them and get back to watching the celebrity chefs. So long as it's not you or yours - this time.

This isn't about being soft on, or nice towards, crims; it's about the sort of society we want to live in. Unfortunately, most people - or, at least, those who shout the loudest - seem not to wish to recognise this, preferring instead to think with their lower intestines rather than the organ nature provides for the purpose. This may be all very satsifying to the emotions and to the prejudices; but ultimately it is not only unhelpful but counter-productive.

But hell, I've gone on too much about this, haven't I? Let's turn to the rest of the world.

But then, both here and there it has been a bad year for democracy, hasn't it?

I can hear you scratching your head from here. "How", you say, "can it be a bad year for democracy? I mean, we've had that Arab Strap thingy, haven't we? You know, where people from the Maghreb to the Gulf stood proud and erect in order to bring down the pricks who ruled them?"

Well, let's see what happened.

And the ongoing outrages against civilisation known as Saudi Arabia and Israel continue to act with total impunity. Dissidents may be beheaded, adulteresses stoned, children shot down in the streets, land colonised and boats (even ones carrying US citizens) stormed in open-seas piracy, but so long as the oil keeps flowing, and so long as the dollars flood through AIPAC to 'our' kind of candidates, then that's all for the best, isn't it?

And what, while we're on the subject, of The Land Of The Twee itself? I cannot be disillusioned with Obama, if only because I was never illusioned with him in the first place. He has combined the ethical weakness of Clinton with the slightly well-intentioned cowardice of Carter, but without the will-to-power of the former or the folksy, down-home charm of the latter. The President Of Change became the President Of No-Change in a length of time which was short even by the low standards of Democrat presidents; the military attacks on other countries, the suborning of governmental systems world-wide, the 'targeted assassinations' (with their concomitant 'collateral damage', natch), even the illegal wire-taps, interceptions, detentions and torture; all have continued unabated and unabashed from the Bush-Cheney era. The President Of Hope became the President Of Bob Hope (that is, long dead after an even longer period of decrepitude), whereby the poor continue to get poorer, the rich richer; where home repossessions are turning his country into trailer-park and soup-kitchen theme parks. And all because Obama - as correctly identified by Bill Maher - is so desperate for love from a Republican Party which has long since become the natural home for every crazy, batshit fundamentalist and fake-libertarian neo-liberal dogmatist from Wasila to Miami.

Decide that you are going to make a point and stand up and say that this state of affairs cannot continue, and what happens? Oh, you can pitch your tent in a public space, wave amusing placards and talk as much as you like. You'll be tolerated for a few days, but then your mayor and police chiefs (under the guidance and co-ordination of the Department of Fatherland Security) will - as if the First Amendment had never been invented - use crimes (usually concocted) and misapplied health and safety concerns to justify your being beaten, tasered, pepper-sprayed, held for the maximum permitted time without charge, then dragged into court to be processed by a judge who is from the same class as the people you have been protesting against, who will rubber-stamp the demands of the prosecutors from the same stratum of power and throw you into the anal-rape factory of the private prison system for a disproporionate length of time.

And if you see evidence that your country's government has committed - or is complicit in the commission of - crimes against humanity, and you furnish the evidence to the world, then the people of your land will not laud you as a beacon for freedom; no, they will insist that you be held in solitary confinement and in conditions which amount to cruel and degrading treatment under federal and international law for nearly a year, until even the US Marines feel some lingering sense of shame in the face of public awareness of what they are doing. But they will then seek to put you on trial for breaches of that old stand-by of the tyrant, 'national security', with a minimum demand that you spend the rest of your natural life in a military prison.

Such has been the fate of Bradley Manning, whose pre-trial hearing took place only after a year and a half's imprisonment, and whose inevitable court martial will, alas, be followed by the inevitable conviction and official vengeance. After all, that nice Mr Obama says that Manning is guilty, so he must be - after all, even Republicans are not disagreeing with President No-Balls on this one!

Not that we can afford to be too sniffy here in Europe, because it is on our own continent where the most worrying events have taken place in recent weeks. Here - where we have clear and vivid living memories, east and west, of a time when there was tyranny abroad - we have seen democratically-elected governments (however inept or bent they may have been) in Athens and Rome replaced by soi disant technocracies headed by figures who were acceptable to the international financial system. Italy's experiment in democracy has thereby come to an end after scarcely sixty years, and Greece's after little more than a generation.

Even in those countries whose people still retain - at least nominally - control over who ostensibly governs them, the same anti-democratic forces can be seen at work. No government in Europe - with the possible exception of Iceland, which in the global scale of things is seen not to matter very much - can be allowed to hold office unless it adheres rigidly to the requirements of casino capitalism. Deficits can only be run to defend currency speculators; public money can only be spent on measures which prop up banks whose incompetence or criminality have made them otherwise liable for the consequences of their actions; taxes can only be levied on those without the wit or wherewithal to dodge them. In the name of an ideological conformity every bit as rigid in its way as the Juche of the Kim dynasty, all means must be directed to the upholding of the existing power structure; all means must be used in its defence, be those means legal, political, social, cultural or even religious (witness - as it were - the dithering of England's state church in the face of protestors camped outside its precious property; what would Jesus do? Apart from be arrested by the Met and sectioned by a judge who had dined well at the Inns Of Court that day, of course).

So at the turning of another year (and I can only echo the sentiments of the ever-admirable Philip Challinor) we find ourselves much where we were a twelvemonth ago, only more so.

Is there hope still for the year ahead? Well, there is no indication that economically things are going to improve. Quite the converse, as the politics of social sectarianism and hate have still not yet worked their way fully through the system to affect a large proportion of 'ordinary' people. Once they do, we may some day look back at 2011 as a time of comparative tranquility.

One thing is for sure; we will not lack for bread-and-circus distractions. Not only do we have the amusing prospect of the Olympic corporate conference and cheatfest, but yet another Royal Occasion, that of Sixty Glorious Years Of The New Elizabethan Age, which must be good news for manufacturers of tat from Haerbin to Haikou.

As for the rest of it, well, what then? Will the various forms of protest which have manifested themselves in 2011 endure into 2012 or beyond? I most sincerely hope so, but I have my doubts. For one thing, we have in our various lands publics with very short attention spans; unless there is some sort of escalation of what we have seen in recent months, then people's interest will start to waver. But any sort of escalation could be neutralised by one of two counter-actions by the holders of power (or, more likely, by both in combination): firstly, a ramping up of the propaganda battle, in which the embedded corporate media (despite them having been seriously discredited in the past year) will be used even more determinedly to channel - with various degrees of obliquity - the Official Authorised Version of what is going on, and of what is permitted to be done, said or even thought; and, secondly, the full weight of the security, enforcement and penal apparatus being used to chill, squash and punish any manifestation of discontent which looks as though it may succeed in changing hearts and minds where and how it matters.

Not that, in the main, this will be done with any great degree of overtness. Those who rule us are corrupt, venal and ruthless; but they are not generally stupid. They will know what they can get away with, and how. They have the techniques and the nous to play the general masses' emotions like a fish on a line. They have succeeded in doing this to a remarkable degree of success so far, and we should not depend on them doing any worse in the year ahead - the standard occasional mis-step or mis-speak notwithstanding. The enemy is clever, and those of us who seek a society which is fair, equitable, just and civilised must be at least as clever in our own direction.

If we can do this, by whatever means, then we may be in a better position at the end of next year than we are now. But the odds - like the power structures against which we fight - are firmly against us. But that is no reason not to fight. There is too much at stake to lay up our colours in the temples of despair.

So that I don't end the year on a note of gloomy malediction, allow me to conclude by nominating my Man Of The Year.

(Just to make it clear to the Sisterhood: I'm using the word 'Man' here in its generic sense).

All such awards have their inbuilt biases, of course, but this is my blog so what the hell.

I could have followed the herd and named Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose public suicide was the trigger for the Arab Spring. But he's dead and what he died for has not necessarily come to pass.

I could have chosen someone like Scott Olsen, the ex-US Marine who was shot in the head by a cop in Oakland, leading to brain injury and speech impairment. But he was just one of many who faced the wrath of out-of-control police around the world this year.

Some, having read this site throughout the year, might even have expected me to select Edward Woollard; but he did a very stupid and dangerous thing which - although the punishment he has faced was undeniably extreme (and he still doesn't appear to have been released) - nonetheless deserved the sanction of law.

Instead, I have chosen Damon Fowler as my Man Of The Year. To recap, Damon Fowler is a young man from a town called Bastrop in north-eastern Louisiana. Back in the spring, as his high-school graduation ceremony drew nigh, he discovered that there were plans to include a Christian prayer as part of the ceremony. This is a 'tradition' at the school, which no-one had previously challenged, despite the fact that it was a clear violation of the US Constitution's provisions on the separation of State and religion.

When he e-mailed his school's principal to point this out, and to ask that - in the light of settled law on the matter - the prayer be withdrawn, the school - having consulted its attorney - realised that he was right and, with some reluctance, pulled the prayer, replacing it with what was termed a 'moment for reflection'.

Once news of this got out, the reaction against Damon Fowler was swift and thoroughly nasty. The school's officials used the tame local media to smear him; the local 'just plain folks' swarmed all over the comments columns of the local hack-rag to cheer on the shower of shit being thrown at him; his class-'mates' began a campaign of scorn, mockery, verbal abuse and threats of physical violence; and, most shamefully, his mother and step-father - members of a particularly weird Christian sect - took away his internet access and his mobile phone so that he couldn't keep in touch with - and seek support from - his elder brother, a fellow atheist who lived hundreds of miles away from him.

More was to follow. The evening before Graduation Day, Bastrop High held something called 'Class Night', which seems to be a combination of prize-giving ceremony and dry-run for the following day's ceremonials.

One student, who had been assigned to deliver a speech of welcome, but who had also been advised that giving out a prayer was a legal and constitutional no-no, nonetheless got up and recited one; one which went on for a good three minutes. At the end of this unlawful display of epic bad manners, almost all of those present in the audience cheered and applauded loudly.

The graduation ceremony duly took place on the Friday evening. Damon Fowler - who could have been forgiven for staying away, given the threats to his safety - showed his courage by insisting on being present. As with the previous evening, one of the graduating class stood up and prayed, and the school must have known in advance that she was going to do it. The 'moment for reflection' lasted all of four seconds before it was totally undermined by group-think. More sinisterly, the school's principal had made a public statement earlier in the day saying that they were having to engage additional security officers because of a perceived threat from all those nasty, godless scum who had contacted the school to protest at its illegal behaviour and its treatment of Damon Fowler. More deviously still, the school had attempted to rearrange the order in which the students went up on stage to receive their diplomas, so as to ensure that Fowler was the last one up and, therefore, an easier target for further abuse from the herd (the school was dissuaded from following through on this after a strongly-worded complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation). And, to add one final insult, the ceremony included a special award to the teacher who had waded into print earlier in the week to slag off Fowler in the hack-rag I mentioned before.

In the days following such a celebration of inbred redneck ignorance, Fowler made it known that he was moving to Texas to stay with his brother (if Texas is liberal by comparison, what does that make Bastrop? Discuss). Not that he had much choice by then, as his mother and step-father had slung all of his belongings out onto the front porch, prior to skipping town for what they claimed was a vacation.

Throughout all this upheaval and trauma, Damon Fowler exhibited courage, determination, dignity and integrity. Far more so than those who claim to be 'Christian', but whose knowledge of the ideas of Jesus is not so much 'selective' as 'non-existent'. Given all that he lost - if losing your place in a society as full of hate as Bastrop, La. seems to be can be counted in the 'Loss' column - he has proven himself more worthy of admiration that any self-proclaimed 'righteous' person. For that reason, over twelve hundred people - mostly atheists and other freethinkers - contributed to a fund to help Damon through college, thus once again disproving the notion that you can't be altruistic if you don't believe in either a hairy, bearded sky-thunderer or a cosmic saffron-clad muffin.

For his fortitude and his determination to adhere to what his human reason and conscience guided him to do, therefore, Damon Fowler is my Man Of The Year.

Photo of Damon Fowler

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I'm aware at the end of all this that it must have been a long and difficult read. May I comfort you with the thought that it was long and difficult to write as well? And that, in reflecting a long and difficult year, it was positively isomorphic with the year it was describing?

No? Oh well. Bugger you then, dear. Happy New Year.