European Stupidity

european stupidity

'European Stupidity', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on politics.

European Stupidity

I lived in Russia for a year. Life was good. Rent was reasonable, internet was dirt-cheap and super-fast, eating out was incredible and there was quality food everywhere – Tatar, Tajik, Georgian, Uzbek, you name it, you could find it, and it was low-cost and delicious. In winter, it was minus 35 degrees out but my house was boiling hot. I had to turn the heating down to minimum. Yes, it was a good year. To be fair, I was on a European wage and wanted for nothing, but even with a thousand dollars a month in Russia you could live well. For many Russians, working for half that, I’m aware that life is not so easy. Perhaps they face the same problems that I face now, living in Italy, where month to month making ends meet is a struggle. I pay fifty per cent more on rent than I did in Russia for an even shittier apartment. Internet is three times the price and slower. Monthly phone costs are double. Food costs are also double. Bills, forget about it. Last winter I had gas bills coming for 150 a month, and this on a self-employed wage, where I’m making a third of what I did when I lived in Kazan. Yeah, you might call me stupid for leaving, and you might be right.

Now we’re hearing about Europe’s ‘energy crisis’ and talk is of rocketing gas prices. According to the article linked, gas prices have surged in Europe by 600 per cent this year. What does that mean if I stay in Italy? You do the maths. It’s unsustainable.

I am astonished at European shortsightedness regarding their independence energy-wise. For years the Europeans have allowed themselves to be bullied by the Americans over the Nord Steam project, our US ‘friends’ across the water concerned about the evolution of the European-Russian partnership and the threat to transatlantic relations (read ‘domination’). Also, if Europe gets it gas from Russia, who’s gonna buy that US LNG at four times the price? European MEPs (in American pockets, perhaps) even went so far back in January as to demand that the European Parliament put a stop to work on the Nord Stream 2 project. Why? Ostensibly, because of the supposed Novichok attack on Alexei Navalny. Who gives a fuck about Navalny? It’s just more shit to fling at Russia, like that other fiasco, the whole slippery, suspect Skripal affair. Throw enough shit and some of it will stick. Meanwhile, as Europe cries ‘Energy crisis!’ and simultaneously tries to put a stop to the project that might solve said crisis, the rest of us are left wondering how we’re going to heat ourselves this winter.

No, I’m leaving. Life in Europe is untenable. Where am I gonna go? I’m not going back to Ireland anyway, where the housing crisis is in full swing, the cause of which is the government’s refusal to stop vulture funds from buying up all the property for the rental market, driving up prices and leaving families all over the country unable to climb on the property ladder.

Nope, it’s out of Europe for me. Maybe Georgia. I don’t drink anymore, but if I did, I’d be sitting over there with a half-litre of that lush amber wine, watching Europe implode, collapsing under the yoke of its idiotic policymakers. But hey, with enough khinkali and kharcho in my belly, I won’t even need to heat my apartment.

To see books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 ‘European Stupidity’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

A toxic white male, a feminist and a trans woman walk into a bar…

toxic white male transgender

'A toxic white male, a feminist and a trans woman walk into a bar...', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on politics.

A toxic white male, a feminist and a trans woman walk into a bar...

A long time ago and on shores I have long since left, I studied comparative literature at Glasgow University for four years. In my second year there we watched a lovely, poignant little movie called Ma Vie en Rose as part of a semester on ‘Identity’. It’s probably well-known in the transgender community, relating the tale of a young boy who decides he wants to (or is born to) live as a girl. Such a compelling character the kid plays it’s impossible not to root for Ludovic, as he (she – already with the pronouns) goes up against the prejudices of society and even his own family in a quest to discover his true self. If I recall correctly, prescribed reading for the movie was Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, a text which precipitated quite a profound shift in my outlook at the time. I haven’t read Butler since I left university and don’t know if her work is still relevant to the field of gender studies (it was a central text of the discipline fifteen years ago) but I presume it is. I no longer keep up to date with academia, and when I do dip my toes in it’s usually with nostalgia and with no more than a desire to titillate my own intellectual curiosity.

The transgender debate is unavoidable these days. It’s a minefield fraught with danger, so it’s with some trepidation that I venture in, armed with only a smattering of gender theory and feminist ideology, and the unwieldy, bungling attitude of the white male. I can almost guarantee that, if you are possessed of socio-political sensitivity of any sort and to any degree, I will find a way to offend you, and if you are such an individual, I urge to you to turn around now and exit my bastardised academic musings. But please make no mistake, even if I seem to make light of the subject matter (‘toxic’ – I warned you), I am in no way suggesting there isn’t a place for the discussion. I’m only sharing my opinion on the matter, unwelcome as it may be for some. I’m also for inclusion, plain and simple, as long as it remains within the bounds of reason.   

I was turned onto to the debate after reading an article on RT about the academic Kathleen Stock, a lecturer at the University of Sussex, who is facing fierce opposition on and off campus from the transgender community for her varied and long list of ‘thought crimes’. Kathleen Stock is a feminist (but of which stripe, there are so many!?), what some have termed a ‘terf’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminist). Just what is it about Kathleen Stock’s academic beliefs that has the trans community up in arms? Well, from my own brief and limited research, it seems to be her assertion that gender identity does not trump biological sex, in particular around issues of law and policy. In order to examine this, it’s necessary to explore what precisely the trans community object to in this belief. One of the more common arguments around this issue is whether trans women should be allowed to use the same changing rooms as those who were born (biologically) women. It’s a fair question, and I don’t claim to speak for all women. But I’m quite sure that, if many women would be comfortable sharing an intimate space with trans women, many would not. We’re talking about penises in a female-only space here, to be clear. Kathleen Stock has stated that ‘many trans women are still males with male genitalia, many are sexually attracted to females, and they should not be in places where females undress or sleep in a completely unrestricted way’. From a purely logical perspective (and for me, science will always trump theory), I find it hard to disagree with her. I mean, you may think like a woman, act like a woman, and feel like a woman, but with that dangling appendage (cock) between your legs, do you think the lady at the locker next to you feels the same way? (Don’t forget the cock, reader. Keep your eyes on the cock.)

Or there’s the athletics debate, in which transgender people fight for their right to compete among the gender of their choice and not the one they were assigned at birth. Trans women born as men (and gender re-assigned) up against biological women – seems unfair, no? I mean, is the science at all in doubt?

Sigh. I dunno. Gender Trouble was an enlightening book for me and I remain swayed by its assertions to this day, the central tenet of which can be summed up in the following quote:

‘The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as a constituted social temporality.’

Put more simply, gender is not fixed but rather a ‘stylized repetition of acts’. You put it on and take it off much like you would a shirt or a blouse. It’s performative, a show. Gender then becomes manifold, a universe in which a hundred, a thousand, different permutations are possible. Much like the ever evolving 2SLGBTQQIA+ acronym. (As British rapper Zuby jibed, ‘Headbutting the keyboard is now a sexuality’.)

Lawmakers will ultimately decide whether trans women get the right to use female bathrooms, and frankly, whatever is decided, one or the other group of people is gonna be left disaffected. Gender may be a performance, but we can’t pretend to ignore the stark, fleshy realities of the body. The emotional cannot erase the physical. And if you barge your way into those female spaces which may not entirely welcome you, aren’t you simply re-adopting aggressive male modes and mannerisms which you have, by the repurposing of your gender, done your best to leave behind?      

P.S. We can still see your cock.

(Yep. It’s still there.)   

To see books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 ‘A toxic white male, a feminist and a trans woman walk into a bar…’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

Lockdown Australia and ‘the production of deviance’

lockdown australia

'Lockdown Australia and 'the production of deviance'', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on politics.

Lockdown Australia and 'the production of deviance'

If you’ve been following global news recently then you can’t fail to have seen the pictures from a lockdown protest in Melbourne that showed police officers knock a 70-year-old woman to the ground and spray her point-blank with pepper spray or some equally toxic variant. Two police officers, to be exact. A week later at a rally for construction workers who were protesting the vaccine mandate, the police seemed remarkably unwilling to meet the protestors face to face, until a confrontation between workers and union representative forced them to move in. They did so using armoured vehicles, counter-terrorism officers, tear gas and rubber bullets. Were police actions on both occasions heavy-handed, or a justified response to civil disorder?

It’s impossible to take a reading on the political and social temperature of a country from a few isolated events, but the incidents certainly seem indicative of things having reached boiling point on the streets of Australia’s major cities. But is it an entirely grassroots response? In an article for Counterpunch a week ago, Ben Debney asked if Australia’s lockdown was being manipulated by right-wing corporate lobbies, representatives of those institutions that would benefit most from the lifting of all lockdown measures and the restoration of the economy to its full (pre-pandemic) capacity. This is something I can neither confirm nor deny, but his suppositions are worthy of consideration. With only a cursory glance, the parallel goals of the two camps (anti-lockdown protestors and the corporations) seem self-evident enough: people want an end to restrictions and to get back to normal life, and the suits want to get the economic wheels rolling again. The lockdowns, as they stand, represent a serious constraint on the capacity of the corporations to maintain the free-market economy; the social costs aren’t of concern to them, merely the bottom line. Essentially, back to normal means back to business. I am not challenging any of this but merely repeating Debney’s assertions.

The production of deviance

What I found interesting about the piece is how it was framed. Debney asks whether the anti-lockdown movement arose from the construction of a ‘moral panic, or episodes of hysteria characterised by preoccupations with more or less spurious existential threats’. Who Debney suggests might be responsible for said ‘panic’ you may gather from the previous paragraph, but I think it would be misleading to suggest that the panic is solely the result of some external and nefarious jiggery-pokery. As with most (if not all) social movements, they arise from genuine social or societal threats and concerns and are then hijacked by those interests with which they have some form of common goal. Take the outbreak of the war on Syria, for example, which appeared to start as street-level protests in support of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, but was soon expertly hijacked by Western intelligence agencies. Or more recently, the BLM movement, which, after it had gained momentum, was overrun by a whole assortment of anarchists, socialists, and even out-and-out vandals, pillagers and looters.

But what if we reverse Debney’s logic to ask an equally pertinent question: What of the concerns of millions worldwide that government responses to the pandemic also constitute the construction of ‘episodes of hysteria characterised by preoccupations with more or less spurious existential threats’? Because, looking back on it, isn’t that how it felt? Weren’t we all somehow convinced that the world was in grave peril, that we were quite possibly on the brink of a mass extinction? Speaking for myself, I was afraid for a while. Then later, after it had begun to die down, I began to wonder why we got so worked up about the flu.

The construction of such narratives, Debney states, is dependent on ‘the production of deviance’. In the case of the anti-lockdown protests, the deviance is suspicion and revolt against mainstream media and the nanny state. And in the case of government response to the pandemic? The virus, of course. The ultimate bogeyman, a gremlin of unprecedented proportions. In regards to the application of meaning, however, the question is: to whom is the pandemic ‘deviant’? As Debney correctly asserts, the meaning of ‘deviance’ (or any political narrative) is ‘characteristically subjective and depends on who has the power to impose their interpretation of what or who is deviant’. So now we have a whole soup of differently interpreted meanings in which to wade through: the governments say the virus is deviant and must be contained with lockdowns, distancing and vaccinations; the people say the governments and media are deviant because they’re forcing an impossible, unliveable mandate upon them. Now the people protest! Suddenly (for the government) the people are deviant for resisting. Deviance must be suppressed! Deviance must be eradicated! See the impossible cycle into which we are flung?

What follows is a whole rigmarole of shouting and finger-pointing and very little self-reflection. It’s easy to point the finger. And yes, I do believe that people have legitimate grievances that need to be aired. In the Western sphere, however, there is little to no self-examination on the part of governments to see if indeed their actions are not contributing to this vicious cycle, a tendency only reinforced by a complicit mainstream media. A quick search (in the Western media) on government responses to the virus shows a lot of finger-pointing at other ‘regimes’ and how the pandemic may be contributing to authoritarianism (see here and here, for example) in countries like Hungary, Russia, Egypt, Uganda and the Philippines, but very little reflection on the response of Western governments, countries like France, the US and Italy, where vaccine mandates and passports are already impinging in untold ways on everyday life. Yet these measures are real (living in Italy, I speak from experience).

The threat of totalitarianism

Perhaps you believe that our governments are benign. Maybe you are convinced that, essentially, they still have our best interests at heart. And maybe you are right. Yet can we deny the possibility that there are shadowy elements in governments around the world that see only opportunity in the crisis? Who, in search of increasing control, are perhaps looking at what China has done with electronic IDs and the social credit system and rubbing their clammy hands in glee at the thought of it, at the pure and frightening totality of the system? To go back to Australia, in Oz they have now introduced electronic contact-tracing systems, implemented the closure of borders, imposed overseas travel bans and mandatory quarantine, placed restrictions on movement and gatherings. And now that all of this infrastructure is in place, do you believe that it will simply be dismantled when the crisis comes to an end? (If it ever does. An outcome, incidentally, which the pharmaceutical industry is going all out to prevent.)

Make up your own mind. Most of the world is in one of several camps at the moment anyway, each with their own set of grievances, each with their own proscribed definitions of ‘morality’ and ‘power’ and ‘threat’. ‘Anti-this’, ‘anti-that’. The list is endless. Oh, and ‘deviance’. It’s around every corner, hiding in every corporate cheque book and every government mandate, and in every anti-vaxxer group on Facebook and in every worker’s union. Even in the virus itself. Deviance is everywhere, and everywhere one group is pitted against the rest, all fighting the other’s own brand of deviancy.

It is my curse (or perhaps my blessing?) that I’m rather fond of ‘deviance’. It’s a word that has always elicited a conniving grin in me, a feeling of camaraderie, a feeling that deviance is somehow a kin, a friend. I like deviance. I consider it healthy, even necessary. My only regret is that, being a lonely blogger and not having the power to assign my own meaning to the word, my own particular conception of what constitutes ‘deviance’ is meaningless and empty. However, there is power in numbers. So what else remains but to close rank with your particular stripe of deviant and dig your heels in? It’ll come to a head, and sooner or later, one or the other group will prevail. When the tear gas clears, we’ll find out which.     

To see books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 ‘Lockdown Australia and ‘the production of deviance”, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

Why I’m not getting the vaccine (presented via the Rumsfeldian matrix)

not getting the vaccine

'Why I'm not getting the vaccine', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on politics.

Why I'm not getting the vaccine (presented via the Rumsfeldian matrix)

I wasn’t gonna write this at all. The noise on the subject was deafening, but since it’s died down somewhat I’m throwing it out there. There’s still a lot of vitriol against people who choose not to take the medicine (though to be fair, some of them deserve the flak). In light of that, here’s my case. I’m not shouting or waving a placard in anyone’s face. I’m laying it out as succinctly and respectfully as I can. Have at me if you must.

1.  Known knowns: Natural immunity

I caught it, and was fortunate in that it manifested no worse than a mild flu, and within five days the symptoms had fully gone. I spent a further month in self-isolation before I was given the all-clear.

Interestingly, the chief of the NIPH (Norwegian Institute of Public Health) has said that henceforth in Norway COVID will be classified as a variety of flu, a move which I applaud. It seems to me the sanest policy decision since this whole thing started.

I had it back in December, which means (theoretically) that I’m still protected by my own naturally acquired antibodies and, judging by the experiences of those I know (family who’ve had a double shot and have still caught it), no more or less susceptible than anyone else. But what of the variations, you dummy? I had it, and I lived. I’m confident I’ll live next time (and I’ve no doubt there’ll be a next time). And if I get it again, I’ll behave responsibly just like I did the first time around. I’m aware that not everyone who catches it is as fortunate as I was.

2. Known unknowns: The long and winding road

Where’s it gonna end? Nobody knows, it seems, and they keep rolling out the medicine. Some countries are on their fourth dose at this stage, vaccinated up the yin-yang and the active cases showing no signs of slowing. Monthly shots? Weekly? Pfizer’s working on a daily pill, if you can believe that. Nope. For me, the pharmaceutical companies have become mercenary and are out to milk this for all its worth. If they were serious about ending it they would force the companies to offer their jabs at cost and make testing free. Instead, I have to pay a hundred euros each time I want a full antigen test, and this in year when (forced out of full-time employment) I’m struggling to pay the bills and even feed myself. A hundred euros is groceries for a single person (living in Europe and on a very tight budget) for two weeks, to put it in perspective.

I’ll take a test if I feel ill in order to protect those closest to me, but I am otherwise withdrawing my participation from the COVID shark economy to the full extent of my ability. I will not be bled dry in order to line the pockets of the Pfizer board of directors.

3. Unknown knowns: Gun to the temple 

 A selfish reason? Perhaps, but one I feel strongly about nonetheless. Coercion. It was admitted a couple of weeks ago by the national health chief of Israel (caught off-mic) that COVID passports were about coercion, plain and simple, and that there was no epidemiological reason for them at all. Who likes to have their arm twisted? So far, in my country of residence (Italy), I can no longer work, use public transport, drink in a café or eat in a restaurant, attend a school or college (if I had any reason to do so), go to a gallery or museum or indoor gathering, without a ‘green pass’. And all this despite the fact that I’m healthy and virus-free. I’m already a second-class citizen. Many of us are living under an effective system of segregation because of our refusal to subject ourselves to the needle. In my opinion, there are flagrant ethical and moral violations at play here, and these controls are nothing but a brute, kneejerk response the situation. I have serious concerns with how easily these measures were thrust upon ‘democratic’ societies, and with what violence they continue to be applied.    

4. Unknown unknowns: Health reasons 

This is in fact my first reason for not getting the vaccine, but it’s here at number four because I didn’t want it to overshadow the others and render them moot. Autoimmunity. My body turned against me in 2016 and I was pretty seriously ill for a year or two, but by changing my lifestyle, habits and diet, I’ve been drug-free and stable for three years. But I’m still very careful about what I put into my body. Since I can no longer attend the gym, I’ve dropped six kilos in the last year and am not as strong as I was. Right now, I feel like I’m on a knife edge health-wise. Am I about to inject myself with a new vaccine for something which I’ve had and have recovered from with zero hardship? Absolutely not. Regardless of what you believe, it’s a fact that people (and in particular those with underlying conditions) have had complications and even died from the vaccine, so I’m not taking the chance.

For me, COVID is the known known. Vaccines are the unknown unknown. My choice is as simple as it gets.

To see books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 ‘Why I’m not getting the vaccine’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

The Clinton Mafia back in Belfast

the clinton roadshow

'The Clinton Mafia back in Belfast', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on politics.

The Clinton Mafia back in Belfast

I still remember standing in Royal Avenue, Belfast in 1995, with a couple of hundred thousand others who’d turned up for the first visit of the Clinton Mafia, all of us there to see Bill turn on our Christmas tree lights. The atmosphere was jovial; I remember the crowd cheekily ribbing the then-president after some offhand reference to his daughter, Chelsea. We liked Bill. We gave him a warm welcome. Bill was a hit, touring the Falls and Shankill, getting out of his limo to shake hands with the working folk. Yes, Bill was not so grand that he turned his nose up at the regular Joe.  

This was, of course, years before he bombed Sudan and later Yugoslavia in order to kill all speculation about the warm, wet places into which he liked to stick his cigars. And back then, the Lolita Express was still only the secret folly of a rampant, happy paedo. That said, I get the impression that Clinton’s warm charisma still overshadows his misadventures. I sense no real hostility towards him from the general public. He has held onto his reputation, criticism for him confined to those corners of the internet that are populated mostly by those branded ‘conspiracists’. Regardless, Bill seems to have withdrawn from the public eye of late. The face of the Clinton Mafia is now Hillary, who recently set foot in Belfast again to accept the chancellorship of Queen’s University, the first woman to do so in its history. Her inauguration was overshadowed by a group of fringe protestors who heckled her from the gates of the university with cries of “War criminal scumbag!”, “Pure evil!”, and, bizarrely, “Yankee!”. The only thing that upsets me about these protests is that they were not more widely attended or vocally supported. I think her appointment to such a position is an act of incredibly wilful ignorance and folly. But what can I do? It’s all too easy for people like the Clintons to whitewash their reputations, people who, like the Bushes and the Bidens of this world, seem to me nothing more than an organized cartel who hold on to their position at the top of the establishment by a combination of inherited privilege, money, political thuggery and the deceptive face of philanthropy.

Yes, as you may be intuiting at this point, I have my own particular dislike for her, a dislike that borders on loathing. Much of it stems from that video of her gloating over the death of Gaddafi. What was the guy’s crime, does anyone remember? He seemed like a weird dude to me, but undeserving of the death that Clinton’s jihadis inflicted upon him. Among the countless war crimes of the 21st century, the US-French destruction of Libya should be considered one of the worst, and yet it’s already mostly forgotten, consigned to the memory hole of collective forgetting. We don’t care to dwell on such things.

Lots of things get lost down the memory hole these days. Queens University, we hope, is suffering from some form of collective amnesia. How else would they be convinced that the appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the position of chancellor was a good idea? I’ll come clean, I was under the mistaken impression that ‘chancellor’ was merely a titular role. I did a quick check. I was wrong. A chancellor, in fact, is ‘ultimately responsible to the president for all academic, fiscal, and administrative matters at the campus’. Fiscal, you say? Do please tell us more, Queen’s…

Despite their best attempts to maintain a squeaky clean image, speculation has been rife over the years about the shady business dealings of the former first family. The Clinton Foundation, for example (that many in Washington and beyond consider nothing but a political slush fund), the organisation that looked so dodgy on paper that the Clintons’ lawyers and even their own daughter thought was corrupt. And Uranium One – anyone recall that? Russian money flowing into Clinton coffers… make up your own mind. To the council of Queen’s University, I ask, ‘Who are you in bed with?’

I do wonder what shady financial arrangements were birthed from that diabolical union. I might even feel ashamed, but I never studied there myself. I left my home city and went to Glasgow to get my degree. Glasgow doesn’t have a celebrity chancellor, to my knowledge, and for that, I’m grateful. I don’t believe the appointment of Clinton to her role does anything at all to improve the academic rigour of the North’s ‘most prestigious’ university. If anything, it only degrades it.

I worked in Belfast City Cemetery some years ago and heard a story while I was there about an unfortunate young lad who was assaulted in Falls Park by a crowd of hoods sniffing glue. The youth was attacked, beaten and had a broom handle shoved into his rectum. An appalling thing for anyone to suffer. But if those gluebags are still out there, I’d like to suggest that there’s one woman newly arrived in Belfast who may be deserving of such an introduction.

Karma and all that, you know…

To see books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 ‘The Clinton Mafia back in Belfast’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

White-collar narcos: The respectable face of the junk trade

white collar narcos

'White-collar Narcos: The Respectable Face of the Junk Trade', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on history.

White-collar Narcos: The Respectable Face of the Junk Trade

The accumulations of wealth created by a succession of historic drug trades have been among the primary foundations of global capitalism and the modern nation-state itself. Indeed, it may be argued that the entire rise of the West, from 1500 to 1900, depended on a series of drug trades.

(Trocki, Carl; Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy (Routledge, 1999), p.xii

The British East India Company and Jardine Matheson

Sugar, slavery and opium. These are the three things the British Empire was built on and the foundation of its wealth and power. The institutionalised trade in drugs goes way back. By the early 1800s, opium was one of the biggest marketable commodities in the world and the foundation of European trade in Asia. Global capitalism arose as a side effect of the (entirely legal) trade in opium and was the stuff that the nations of Britain, Holland, Portugal and America were using to grow their trade bases and expand their economic power. How was it that narcotics came to be the foundation stone of a global economy and an immense force in international politics? Simple. The same way that today the pharmaceutical companies in the US are raking in billions a year from the completely legal sale of opioids (heroin, in other words), back then they set out to create a drug ‘epidemic’ of a magnitude never before seen, an operation which they pulled off with unprecedented success. They got the world hooked then peddled narcotics till they were shitting silver. Some would call it astute business practice.

The British were not responsible, however, for introducing opium to Asia. The Portuguese discovered opium in India in the seventeenth century and by the early 1800s had a significant trade with China, and by 1677 the Dutch East India Company had the monopoly on opium trade with Java and much of the Malay Peninsula. But it was when the British expanded into the trade in the late eighteenth century that there was an explosion in the quantity of opium flooding Asia. Coming to view opium as an answer to the trade deficit with China, Britain really set things moving. Having discovered tea in the 1800s, Britain pretty quickly became reliant on the stuff, a predilection that went hand in hand with their taste for sugar, which was being produced in vast quantities using stolen land (plantations) and stolen labour (slaves) in the West Indies. The problem was that there was so much silver flowing out of the state coffers for the purchase of tea that there was a massive trade imbalance, known as the ‘tea remittance’.

Enter opium.

Writing in Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy, Carl Trocki states that,

‘…it seems that there is one key ingredient necessary to create a true drug “epidemic”: In addition to exotic introduction and changes in production, the commercialisation of drug production, trade and marketing seem to have been crucial.’ (Trocki, p.xii)

The British used their huge trading bases in Calcutta and Bombay to develop the production and trade, and soon there were inhuman quantities of the drug leaving the country. ‘Patna’ opium (from Bihar in India) became synonymous with the British East India Company and was the most highly regarded product of its day. It was enough to see the logo on the side of a crate to guarantee quality. Between 1810 and 1820, about 10,000 chests (600–700,000 kg) were being imported annually into China. Not all of it was British. A huge amount of American ships were plying a trade in Turkish opium (exported from Smyrna), and the Dutch and Portuguese were in on it too, but no opium was as prized or as desirable as the British product. 

In 1813, the British East India Company lost its trade monopolies as a result of parliamentary acts passed at home, and this is when private interest stepped into the fray. William Jardine and James Matheson were two Scotsmen who set up company in Canton in 1832 in order to take advantage of the economic climate. Jardine Matheson & Co still exists today, with an immense portfolio trading in property, hotels, automotive, food and much else besides. Their total revenue in 2019 was some 40 billion dollars. Yet they started out exclusively in opium. By 1838, they had helped to increase the annual import of opium into China to almost 40,000 chests (almost 3 million kilos). It was around this time when the Chinese authorities decided that Jardine and Matheson and other ‘barbarians’ would have to be expelled from Chinese soil for the suffering they were inflicting upon the country. The Emperor decided to appeal to Queen Victoria to ‘reign in’ her subjects, and a letter was sent but was lost in the mail. Receiving no reply, the Emperor ordered all opium in Canton to be seized and dumped in the bay. Over 20,000 chests of opium were destroyed, the total value around two million pounds. It was then that William Jardine, recently returned to Britain, took up the cause of reparations. Wielding his not-insignificant influence, he harried the British Government, the Foreign Office and the British public to his cause, and to cut a long story short, the First Opium War was launched against China in 1841, leading the Chinese to sign the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, in which Hong Kong was ceded to the British and several Chinese ports were forced to open to European trade in opium and all else besides. 

The Sacklers and the Opioid Crisis   

I hadn’t heard of the Sacklers until a few weeks ago when I read an article that led me to the HBO documentary, The Crime of the Century. It seems the Sackler family kept a high profile in the arts and education with a very heavy investment in philanthropy, but in business they liked to fly under the radar. The Sacklers (if you’ve been living under a rock like me) are the biggest name in the opioid crisis that has rocked the States in the last few decades. In 1952, the Sackler brothers bought the small pharmaceutical company, Purdue-Frederick, which was turned into Purdue Pharma in 1987 after the death of Arthur. In 1996, Purdue first released OxyContin onto the market. OxyContin is a variation of oxycodone, an opioid used to treat severe pain. Opioids (another variation of which is fentanyl) are derived directly from the alkaloids found in the opium poppy. Make no mistake, this is heroin, just by another name. (Heroin, incidentally, has an established history in the West: It’s the brand name for a variation of morphine that was trademarked by the Bayer pharmaceutical company in 1895.)

Having unleashed OxyContin onto the market, Purdue wasted no time in developing ‘the commercialisation of drug production, trade and marketing’, and from its release in 1996 to 2000, the company’s annual revenue increased from 48 million to 1.1 billion dollars. Prescriptions rose from 670,000 in 1997 to 6.2 million in 2002. Fast forward a few years to 2017, and the number of prescriptions for (all) opioids in the US was 191 million. Talk about creating an epidemic. The number of deaths from opioid overdose from 1999 to 2017 is quoted at over 200,000. All of the above was facilitated and made possible by what are essentially white-collar drug peddlers. The numbers above are only for prescription-related deaths and do not count those who died from illegal narcotics. Once the epidemic was set in motion, the US then became victim to illicit opioids manufactured in Mexico and China and imported into the country.

Where it gets sinister is with the ‘Ensuring patient access and drug enforcement act’ of 2014. With the opioid crisis in full swing, the DEA was at war with the pharmaceutical companies, in some instances shutting down distributors directly in order to slow the output of opioids onto the street. The act, also known as the Marino Bill, was drafted by a former lawyer for the DEA who knew exactly the kind of language with which to pepper it, and with a smattering of bribes to congressmen and women, the bill was pushed through, enabling the industry to tie the hands of the DEA and ensure continual and unrestricted access to the markets. Big pharma was once again free to peddle their narcotics. Much like William Jardine had rallied the British government to go to war with China to protect the opium trade, the pharmaceutical companies bought the US government so that their business could continue unabated.

One of the most pernicious, yet well-organized and profitable drug trades that has ever existed.

That’s how Trocki described the (primarily British) European drug trade in Asia that almost destroyed entire countries. Yet the quote above may well have been a tagline for the HBO documentary, attributed to the Sacklers and the owners of the major pharmaceutical companies involved in manufacturing the modern opioid epidemic.

Corruption isn’t new, it’s been around ever since political systems first arose. But it’s a sad fact that money, everywhere and at any time, is the major deciding factor when it comes to political policy, and, indeed, justice. What’s the difference between William Jardine and Lo Aqui, or Richard Sackler and El Chapo, for instance? Essentially, nothing. One wears a suit and the face of respectability, the other is vilified. All are high-level dealers. Junk peddlers, nothing more.

Accountability? Not something you need to worry about if you’re a narco but buy your shirts from the same tailor as your local politician.    

To see books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 ‘White-collar narcos: the respectable face of the junk trade’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

9/11, the TV show we could not turn off

9/11, the TV show

'9/11, the TV show we could not turn off', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on history.

9/11, the TV show we could not turn off

Where was I? On the Camino de Santiago of all places, a walk which, along one of its many routes at least, spans the entire breadth of Spain. I’d flown into Bilbao a short time before and had made my way to the French Pyrenees, where in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port I prepared for the 770 kilometre walk to Santiago de Compostela.

It must have been about a month in, but somewhere around Leon, I got up one morning to go and get coffee. Walking days start early, so it was around seven when I found a little café and sat down. There was a small fifteen-inch television in the place and news played on repeat, the footage that of the plane smashing into the first tower. I caught the eye of the café owner and the two of us stared at each other in disbelief. That’s all I remember of the event and its aftermath.

A few years back a British journalist got into hot water for calling it the greatest televisual event of all time (or something to that effect), but in one sense that’s what it was. No Hollywood production could rival it for pure exhilarating violence; it was ‘spectacular’, in the true and original (etymological) sense of the word.

It was Jean Baudrillard who penned the essay ‘The Gulf War did not take place’ (PDF link for those interested), a piece about how the entire war was only given concrete reality by a furious and sustained propaganda campaign. I cannot comment on what extent American lives are shaped by the media (my guess is quite considerably), but it seems striking to me now that media-driven American war now became the war on America, the event announced also with a televisual extravaganza, perhaps the greatest ever seen. After that, who could oppose the subsequent twenty-year global war of terror where millions of (mostly Muslim) lives were lost to the fury of America’s thirst for revenge, a war (or series of wars) which, in retrospect, seemed to have been in the planning for quite some time?

My own views on 9/11 probably now border on the prosaic. I find the official narrative to be a piece of absurd contrivance. It seems to me that the event could not have happened without its own fair amount of (internal) advanced planning. That the towers fell as a result of controlled demolition seems beyond doubt, and once that is established, one is forced down a whole series of scary rabbit holes. But who cares? Twenty years later, the story has been buried in the rubble and no one much wants to go digging anymore. People’s attention span is short and there’s always another atrocity to hypnotise us for a few short seconds, and if no tragedy exists, then we’ll find some other inane bullshit to latch onto. Transgender weightlifters, for example. And tomorrow, the story will be much the same: Who cares?

I hope that the people of New York and America find out the truth one day, and not so far down the line that the response is the one I have paraphrased above. But it’s, what, fifty years since Kennedy was shot? And by the time the truth is admitted to by the state (10, 20, or 100 years from now), there will be nobody around who truly gives a damn. But I also hope that the cycle of ‘blood for blood’ comes to an end, too; the 200 dead Afghans in Kabul only a few weeks ago would suggest we are far from there yet and it shows no sign of slowing.

We live in a visual world and we are mostly anaesthetized to media depictions of violence. But whereas we in the West see most of our massacres onscreen, those in the global East are well-used to carrying their bleeding dead in their arms. Other than army personnel, 9/11 was the first and only time that the people of the US were subjected up close to warfare, and for that reason it leaves such a massive psychological imprint on modern lives and will likely do so for years to come.

We do not live war, but for one brief moment in 2001, we all did. But largely because of neo-colonialist policies by Western governments, there are those in the world who live with it continually. We suffered once, they suffer daily, weekly, yearly. And if we don’t like it, all we have to do is turn off our TV. They don’t have the luxury.

*

Artwork: ‘Empire Fallen’ by Babul Miah, age 17, from the book “The Day Our World Changed: Children’s Art of 9/11.”

To see books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 ‘9/11, the TV show we could not turn off’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

Art and cultural appropriation

art and cultural appropriation

'Art and cultural appropriation', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on art and politics.

Art and cultural appropriation

A few weeks ago there was story in the news about a home chef who was attacked by a journalist and woman of colour for the crime of writing a book on Asian cuisine. The journalist in question (a feminist, no less) ripped into the author, incensed that a white woman had the audacity to ‘write a cookbook about dumplings and noodles’. The woke attack backfired and a torrent of hate mail was unleashed upon the poor journalist, who had the gall after the event to go public and beg her readers to fund the therapy she so desperately needed to recover from the psychological damage the hate mail had inflicted upon her. In my opinion, much of the flak she took was well-deserved. Whether her attack on the author was the result of a stunt to grab reactionary liberal readers to her blog or simply a gross error of judgement, such presumption deserved to be ripped apart. All that said, to err is to be human, and we hope she found the funds she needs for the $130-per-hour therapist in order to rebuild her oh-so-delicate ego.

We’ve heard a lot about cultural appropriation in the last few years, the phenomenon just one thread of the huge and complex subject of identity politics, something which I’ll confess now to know very little about. What does interest me though, as a writer and creator, is the question: Where are the lines? Are there any, do they exist at all? Well, they most probably do on some level, so in order not to cross any, I’m going to limit my answer to my own sphere of experience, which is fiction. For me, it boils down to the following: As an artist, to what extent can I cross cultural (and, indeed, gender, sexual, class and social) boundaries in my art?

The answer to me is clear: Everything is permissible. With one simple caveat.

There are examples of bad writing in every genre: bad literary fiction, bad sci-fi, bad romance. Some writers are simply poor writers, and much of it comes down to throwing your work out there too soon or without putting in the requisite hours. Sure, some writers are gifted. Most are not. For many, it is simply about putting in the time. What is it they say? You need to do something for at least 10,000 hours before you even get close to mastery? Well, if that’s the case, it’s as true of writing as it is of anything else – do something enough, you’ll get pretty good at it eventually. Speaking from experience, I was so eager after I’d finished writing my first novel that I couldn’t wait to get it out there. Ignoring that it was trash, I hadn’t even the patience to edit it properly before I was sending it off to agents. Yeah, it pays to wait.

The problem with writing people and culture badly, however, is not simply a question of the craft. It is a question of empathy. As an artist, you are entitled to write from within any culture you choose, be it a novel about a Latina immigrant from Honduras or a peasant tea-picker in North Korea, a poor traveller kid from a Dublin slum or an embattled queer activist in Uganda. As an artist, it is entirely your right to explore the human condition from whatever angle you see fit. The caveat, though, is that you write as a human. As long as you are a human being capable of feeling empathy for others, then you can write who you like. Anyone, anywhere. And don’t be misled by the word ‘empathy’; writing with empathy does not mean that you write only about compassion and love and sadness and warmth, but about rage, hatred, jealousy and madness, if they are pertinent to your work. You can’t shy away from tackling the more unpalatable aspects of existence simply because they’re challenging. It’s your duty and right as an artist to wade in, even if it means getting lost.

I’ve been writing for just over three years and have written male and female characters of all stripes. Do I always nail it? Almost certainly not, but I’m entitled to give it a shot. To err is to be human. I’m alright with getting it a bit wrong, because failure is an essential part of our condition. But so is perseverance. So if I fail this time, I’ll try again, and maybe next time I’ll be closer to the mark. And what can my failure do but deepen my own sense of humanity?

To see books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 ‘Art and cultural appropriation’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

A Whore’s Song, new novella from Ultan Banan

"A Whore's Song", new novella from Black Tarn. Indie publishing for mad seekers.

A Whore's Song

I tighten the garrotte around Hilden’s neck. I’m sitting on his back, riding him like a mule, my legs tight around his hips so he can’t bring himself off against the bed. He’s fighting me, but he knows I know best. I am more powerful than him anyway. His body, pale and unsubstantial, squirms below me but I keep him under control. The cord has cut of circulation to his brain and he’s suffering mild hypoxia. He’s also experiencing an increased blood flow to his little tool (believe me, it’s nothing to write home about). His prick will be swollen, agonisingly so. His head is red and puffed up and I see his eyes close, the lights going out, so I loosen the garrotte and let him sink to the bed. He moans, begs. I lean in and let my lips brush against the back of his neck. He smells nice, which is something, at least. Bankers are usually well turned out. They spend money on themselves. I tease the lobes of his ear with my mouth, then I proceed to pour in the poison, the sweet poison, taught to me by the Madame herself, the poisons that are the source of her power… rituals, mantras — magic some might call it, but it’s a very simple and natural thing. Words have power. And whores with words are the most powerful of all.

a whore's song

Available now

For books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 Extract from ‘A Whore’s Song’, from Black Tarn Publishing. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing

Taliban bad. Save the women!

taliban bad

'Taliban bad. Save the women!', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on politics.

Taliban bad. Save the women!

 

“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”

Yeah, it does feel like that sometimes. Right now, for instance. You look at the pages of any UK or US newspaper today, and you may be having flashbacks to around the early 2000s, right about the time when Blair and Bush were sounding the drums of war on Afghanistan. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember much how it went the first time round. It went something like this:

The USA was attacked in September 2001. Blame was immediately assigned to Osama Bin Laden, a mujahideen harboured by Afghanistan. Afghanistan (which was conveniently on a list of countries that was being targeted by the US for regime change) found itself in the Empire’s crosshairs. The bombing started. The propaganda campaign went into full swing, and all those who justifiably weren’t convinced by the wild and implausible 9/11 story, or who simply didn’t have the stomach for another American war, were assaulted with tales of Taliban wickedness, particularly against the poor women of Afghanistan, who lived lives of abject misery under the boot of the evil, hairy, patriarchal terrorists. Once the West was suitably enraged, our boys moved in and the Taliban went into hiding, and a CIA-trained neo-colonial government was installed in their wake. Hurrah! And they all lived happily ever after.

Well, not so much.

Twenty years later and the evil, hairy terrorists are back. And what of the women? Well, the Western liberal warmongers are terrified for them all over again:

Thank the Lord for our armchair warriors, eh? (Note where the article appearing on CNBC originates: The Brookings Institution.)

Do I sound facetious? Well, I’m not sure how else to respond to this outpouring of crocodile tears. Where were the voices of protest against the illegal military occupation in the first place? Opposition to the bombing of weddings, hundreds of women and children killed by Reaper drones? I don’t recall too much noise on that. What about the CIA heroin trade, hmm? Any takers? Nah, all quiet.

There’s noise, but it’s all about the bad, hairy terrorists. Get this – Ahmad Massoud, leader of the NRF (National Resistance Front, a hastily assembled anti-Taliban movement) was given an editorial spread in the Washington Post to beg for help from his handlers to fight the Taliban. If you don’t know who Ahmad Massoud is, it may be enough to know that he received training at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (yes, read MI6 asset). What can you gather from this, then? Well, you wouldn’t be far wrong if you surmised that there are elements of British and US intelligence who are still convinced that they can rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and who are now disseminating their propaganda in the Western media to bring about public consensus on the issue. And along with all that, we’ll see more renting of garments and gnashing of teeth over the plight of the poor women of Afghanistan.

Let me be clear: Do I believe that the women who live under Taliban rule have a hard life? Yes, absolutely. Do I wish that those who desire to escape, could? Yes. But will I lend an ear to any more appeals from the Guardian on raising awareness about their plight? No, fuck off. I’m done with the sleek and covert war propaganda. This is what I would say to war hawks, those insidious pricks who huddle and slither in the background and seem to have access to all the major media houses: It’s not your fucking country. Leave it alone, stay out. Just like you did in Iraq and Libya (even if I’m not convinced the same cunts are still up to some underhand shit in those countries), leave it to the Afghans to sort out the shitshow you’ve dropped on their doorstep. The last twenty shameful years in Afghanistan is one slice of history that does not need repeating.

To see books from Black Tarn Publishing, follow the link below:

 ‘Taliban bad. Save the women!’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.