Archive for October, 2008

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There’s one born-again every minute

October 21, 2008

You have to pass a driving test before you are allowed to drive a car; but you don’t have to know the first thing about politics to have a say in who gets to run the country (any country where governments are elected). Which leads to the kind of situation such as that in the US, where candidates get elected because they have been born again (there’s one born-again every minute), or because the candidate in question comes up with the best one-liners (supplied, of course, by a team of highly-paid script-writers, copywriters, PR experts, psychologists and astrologers) in a TV debate.

There are major differences between the US and Britain when it comes to electing leaders. In the US, candidates garner support by drawing the public’s attention to how intelligent, experienced, cool, qualified, and great in general they are. In Britain, candidates get support by expressing humility, modesty, and self-effacement. For a British politician to say: “When I am elected Prime Minister…” would be political suicide. It would be seen as arrogant and presumptuous. In the US, by contrast, any politician running for office who used the phrase: “If I am elected…” would be seen as weak, dithering and lacking in self-confidence.

No British politician would dream of citing Joe the plumber as an example of the country’s economic woes. In Britain plumbers earn more than Members of Parliament and live in luxurious villas with high walls and armed security guards at the gate. And while economic recessions come and go, people will always call a plumber when their sink gets blocked or their toilet overflows.

In the US, aspirants to high political office do not hesitate to wheel out their wives, children, and family pets for “media opportunities”. In Britain, the families of politicians are regarded as a liability and an embarrassment, and are kept locked away in secret dungeons until after the elections have taken place. (Tony Blair was a notable exception to this rule; which just goes to prove how sensible a rule it is.)

In the US, leadership contests are settled by having a shoot-out at the OK corral. In Britain, the dilemma for would-be replacements is to make it abundantly clear to all and sundry that they want the top job and are prepared to kill to get it, whilst being careful not to express anything other than sincere and wholehearted support for the person whose job they are after.

To get back to the American electorate (and, to be fair, the British electorate isn’t all that far behind in the sucker vote stakes), perhaps a solution would be to require all would-be voters to pass a basic intelligence and current affairs test. It wouldn’t have to be difficult. Polls have revealed that large swathes of the American public believe that Europe is a country, the London Underground is a branch of Al Qaeda, George W. Bush is doing a great job, Saddam Hussein personally organized the 9-11 attacks, America won the war in Vietnam, and almost every important invention – from the telephone to the internet – was invented by an American.

(Where on earth are they getting their information? Ah, yes: Fox news.)

A few simple questions would quickly eliminate electoral applicants whose IQ didn’t quite make it into double digits; and that in itself would represent a major advance. Question 1 could be something along the lines of: “What planet are you on?”

America is a big place. Can it really be so hard to find a candidate who is intelligent, sane, well-educated, non-racist, non-xenophobic, non-born-again, and filthy rich? Well, okay; that last criterion might eliminate a few people. But still, suitable candidates for the US presidency are as rare as Higgs bosons in a particle accelerator.

But at least Americans are getting to elect their leader, which is more than can be said for the people of Britain, who have been lumbered, through no fault of their own, with arguably the most ineffectual Prime Minister in British history – foisted on them by Tony Blair as revenge for their rejection of him.

I don’t think anyone doubts Gordon Brown’s sincerity. He obviously has great faith in his own sense of destiny, and sees himself as a great British statesman. Unfortunately, his inflated opinion of himself is not shared by the vast majority of the British people, who didn’t elect him, don’t like him, and don’t want him as their Prime Minister. Any normal, non-megalomaniac person would take the hint and withdraw gracefully from the fray; but Brown is determined to persevere in the face of overwhelming unpopularity, presumably in the belief that people will eventually come around to him. That will happen when pigs fly and Republican politicians learn how to pronounce the word nuclear.

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Psychic TV

October 21, 2008

I have been asked to co-appear in a 3-part documentary-style show (“organic” was the term they used) on BBC television with British illusionist Derren Brown. The “flexible plot” – as outlined to me by the show’s producer/director Heenan Bhatti – calls for Derren and myself to take to the road in search of mysteries – unsolved murders, missing persons cases and so on – in need of resolution. The idea is that Derren would approach the case from his psychological, “mental magic” perspective, while I would attempt to get to the truth using my psychic profiling skills.
It sounds interesting. It might even work as a regular TV series, if it was handled properly.

However…

I haven’t done any TV for years. It’s not because I wouldn’t like to, or because I’m not asked. It’s because almost every show that’s ever been made on “the paranormal” has been – in my opinion, anyway – complete dross. TV producers seem to “lose the plot” whenever they set out (probably with the best intentions) to make programmes dealing with this subject.  That’s why there’s a message on my website advising media researchers that I’m not interested in taking part in TV programmes unless they are “original and thought-provoking” – which, of course, deters 99% of them, because most psychic-related programmes fall firmly into the “duh!” category.

Even so, I still receive one or two proposals every week, usually from Japanese television companies who seem to be obsessed with the paranormal. (That and bottom-smacking.) Most of the concepts that TV producers “run past” me are mind-bogglingly lame. So I usually refer them to Uri Geller. I did that once when I was asked to co-present a show with Sir David Frost called “Beyond Belief”. I thought the proposed format stank, and that the “psychics” they’d lined up to take part were indeed “beyond belief” (as it turned out I was right on both counts), so I politely declined and said: “Why don’t you get Uri Geller to do it?” If they realized that I was being ironic they didn’t care –  because they did get Geller to do it! (Geller, by the way, threatened to sue me a few years ago for suggesting that he was a fraud.)

There are several problems inherent in making TV programmes about the paranormal. In the UK there is the “balance” issue. This means that producers of programmes on psychic or paranormal topics will come in for a barrage of flak from various TV watchdog groups if they are seen to be “promoting” belief in, or acknowledging the existence of the paranormal (bizarrely, however, they produce religious programmes; so they have no problem with supernatural forces, only with paranormal ones!). In practice, this means that if someone makes a programme which appears to support or confirm the reality of some paranormal event or ability, they must also, in the interest of “balance”, include someone who will set out a counter argument – for example, a magician or professional “debunker” who will make the argument against the reality of the phenomenon in question and demonstrate how it can be replicated using trickery.

Most people are not aware that highly-organized groups of dedicated skeptics target producers of programs on psychic topics with various demands as to how the programme should be made.  In most cases they will insist that a magician representing the skeptical viewpoint – who can “explain” how the phenomena or abilities in question could be attributable to trickery – also take part. Their mission is to attack and undermine any and all claims of psychic abilities (often, unfortunately, by attacking the character of the person making, investigating or reporting these claims). For example, Wikipedia articles on paranormal topics are routinely and systematically trashed by dedicated skeptics if they appear to accept the reality of psychic abilities.

Another problem with television is that it is a medium which relies to a large extent on results on demand. Especially, of course, in a studio setting; and even moreso with a live audience. The viewers (or audience members) want to see something paranormal happen, and they want to see it now. Time is money, and there are deadlines to be met. And psychics – if they are genuine – are rarely able to “perform” at the drop of a hat. Psychic impressions come in their own time; and sometimes they don’t come at all.

TV companies can’t afford to waste time on psychics who can’t produce instantaneous and reliable results; and so they turn to performers who can: which is why most of the psychics you see on TV are frauds – albeit highly entertaining ones.

Another problem with the mainstream media is that psychics are expected to stay “in character” and “on theme” at all times. Or, to put it another way, they are rigidly typecast. Psychics are popularly depicted as detached, unworldly characters, with no interest in or knowledge of subjects like politics, business, science and current affairs – and that’s how TV and radio producers want them to be.

I remember one radio show producer in London went bananas when, in the course of an interview (I had been invited to talk about “anything you like”), I criticized the policies of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and made reference to the fact that the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant was pumping 2 million gallons of toxic radioactive waste into the Irish Sea every day, and that there was an abnormally high level of leukemia among children living along the east coast of Ireland. He accused me of “ruining his show” and said, “You’re supposed to talk about ghosts and extrasensory perception, not nuclear bloody waste!”
Politics was a different “slot”.

All of which explains why I am wary of doing television. The box really is a box, and as a psychic you’re expected to fit into it, snugly. But most of the shows on the box – and especially shows dealing with the paranormal – are, in the words of the old Malvina Reynolds song, “all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same”.

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The interestingfulness is terrific

October 20, 2008

“May you live in interesting times” is an old Chinese curse. Has there ever been a more interesting – or, to be more accurate, bizarre – period than the first decade of the 21st century? We’ve had the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq over non-existent WMD, the execution of Saddam Hussein (the fall guy in every sense), war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic turning up as a Rasputinesque holistic therapist with a bushy beard, warble gloaming, evidence of water on mars, and – perhaps most unthinkable of all – a black man well on the way to becoming president of the United States. And now – just in case we didn’t have enough on our plate – we are suddenly having to deal with a global financial meltdown. Things are becoming more “interesting” by the day, it seems. And this past week has been exceptionally interesting and eventful. In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally found his calling. God came down to him while he was sitting on his potty wondering why the British public didn’t like him (“They just don’t appreciate the Brown stuff”) and said: “Gordon, I have chosen you to lead the global crusade to correct the credit crunch and avert a madmaxian apocalypse.” “But how, Lord?” “Take money from the public and use it to enrich the bankers.” “But, Lord – that’s what we’ve always done.” “Yes, but now you can do it and say that you’re saving the world from Armageddon.” “Thank you God. You know, if I manage it carefully, I should be able to do quite a bit with a hundred zillion quid….” Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sarah Palin revealed further details of her plan for dealing with the Russians: “Look, it’s only a short sled ride from where I live to Russia. Heck, with a really good high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight I could probably shoot Vladimir Putin from my bedroom window.” She also outlined her solution to the global financial crisis: “What we need to do is go back to using fur pelts as the basic trading commodity. That way, we won’t have to rely on foreign oil.” It’s been a bad week for Seve Ballesteros, who this week was told by surgeons that he has a tumor the size of a… well, a golf ball. And an even worse week for far-right politician Joerg Haider, who was killed in a car crash that was, to all appearances, a complete accident. Even before the crash occurred, Mossad was vehemently denying any involvement. Ironically, Haider was driving the latest model of Hitler’s “People’s Car” when he veered too far to the right and left the road (and the planet). The only good news of the past week also came from Germany, where a farmer underwent a successful double arm and hand transplant. He told reporters how happy he was to be able to play the trombone again. Or something along those lines.