Friday, 29 February 2008

Arcadian anarchy at the National Gallery

What's a national art gallery for? Is its function simply to stage exhibitions that attract big crowds - or does it have a responsibility to introduce the public to lesser-known works of art, even if it means fewer people coming through the door?

Apparently they haven't exactly been queuing around the block at the National Gallery recently. Now the gallery is about to take a chance with an exhibition devoted, as the Guardian puts it, 'to an art movement of which even the organisers admit few have ever heard: the late 19th-century Italian divisionists.'

The gallery's director Nicholas Penny mounts a vigorous defence of his strategy:

I don't like to make a simple distinction between blockbusters and academic shows. But mostblockbusters are actually showing people what they already know. I think that a major gallery should be prepared to introduce people to something they know nothing about.

I agree, especially as I think many people will find the work of the divisionists, who combined anarchist and socialist politics with arcadian imagery, something of a revelation. I wrote here about seeing a similar exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York last summer, and particularly about the work of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. It's a fair bet that some of da Volpedo's work will feature in the forthcoming exhibition at the National Gallery. If so, it'll be well worth going. In the meantime, here are three examples of da Volpedo's work to whet the appetite:

And for a YouTube selection of his paintings, click here.

Men in big hats for Obama

On second thoughts, perhaps every campaign can tolerate a little bit of kitsch. Let's hope this does the trick in Texas:


Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Tory leader speaks out against communalism

I need to take a deep breath before writing this but (gulp) David Cameron has actually said something sensible. Speaking at a debate hosted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Tory leader said the following:

For too long we've caved in to more extreme elements by hiding under the cloak of cultural sensitivity. For too long we've given in to the loudest voices from each community, without listening to what the majority want. And for too long, we've come to ignore differences - even if they fly in the face of human rights, notions of equality and child protection - with a hapless shrug of the shoulders, saying, 'It's their culture isn't it? Let them do what they want'.

And in a reference to the recent row involving the Archbishop of Canterbury he added:

The reality is that the introduction of sharia law for Muslims is actually the logical endpoint of the now discredited doctrine of state multiculturalism, seeing people merely as followers of certain religions rather than individuals in their own right within a common community.

Even the most sceptical listener would be hard put to interpret this as the usual coded Conservative race-speak: and in fact, the Commission's chair, Trevor Phillips, recently praised Cameron for attempting to 'deracialise the issue of immigration'.

I still believe that Cameron's conversion from Hooray-Henry Thatcherite to centrist liberal is skin-deep, and it would be easy to dismiss this intervention as tactical - just words. But to quote Barack Obama (quoting Deval Patrick): Don't tell me words don't matter. In public discussion of issues of 'race', the fact that the Tories have moved from nativist rhetoric to a discourse of equality and rights should be warmly welcomed. And it would be good to hear politicians of the left making the same kind of criticisms of communalism and segregation, and speaking up in similar terms for universal human rights.

Can the excitement of the US election be reproduced in Britain?

"Can we change the metropolitan borough of Wirral? Yes, we can!"

Jonathan Freedland imagines transplanting the American model of party primaries - 'currently catalysing such drama Stateside' - to Britain, with selection processes for local parliamentary candidates thrown wide open:

I can see the appeal of the primary idea. Indeed, I would be delighted to see it extended to the job that matters most: party leader. Imagine how much more solid a mandate Gordon Brown would rest on now if he had had to win the votes of declared Labour voters in successive contests, first in wintry, rural Lincolnshire, then in tiny Rutland before a Super Thursday of contests in sunny Cornwall, delegate-rich London and pivotal Yorkshire.

But Freedland is wary of British politicians 'cherry-picking' the attractive bits of the American system without broader reform:

In the US case, if primaries work, they work not in isolation but because they are embedded in a radically different approach to political parties, and even to democracy and sovereignty. We can't scrape off the tasty icing of primaries unless we're prepared to import the entire democratic cake.

This would include a clear separation of powers, which Freedland believes would 'entail a political earthquake':

Either we would have a directly elected PM, admitting the presidential nature of our current system and letting the Commons act as a check on Downing Street. Or we could fully elect the second chamber, at a time other than the general election, and ensure it acts like a separate legislature, holding the executive to account.

Freedland's argument - with which I find myself in broad agreement - echoes what he wrote last year about government plans for a 'national day' to celebrate 'Britishness'. He suggested then that, in countries such as France and the US, festivities of this kind tend to commemorate political upheavals that have created a sense of shared national identity. As he put it:

We can't just skip that awkward bit and jump straight to the barbecue and bunting. No, first we have to have a political change of our own. That doesn't mean bringing out the guillotine. It could be the bloodless drafting, at long last, of our own written constitution. If such a document established a British republic, so much the better.

For an example of the potential of the US primary elections - and an electrifying candidate - to galvanise popular feeling, take a look at this video. According to The Field:

Texas Republicans have worked overtime to make it harder for key Democratic voting groups to vote and be represented fairly. The redistricting games they’ve played are infamous. And for the Prairie View A&M University precincts, they put the early-polling place more than seven miles from the school.

So what did the students in this video do? They shut down the highway as they marched seven miles to cast their votes on the first day of early voting.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Male sexuality in the dock

Levi Bellfield was convicted yesterday of murdering two female students he stalked at bus stops in London. He was also found guilty of the attempted murder of a third woman and is suspected of carrying out 20 other attacks on women. The conviction comes 3 days after Mark Dixie was found guilty of the vicious, sexually-motivated murder of Sally Anne Bowman, and 4 days after Steve Wright was told he will spend the rest of his life in prison for the killing of five women in Suffolk.

Last week the Guardian carried an obituary of the American historian and chronicler of gay life Allan Berube. In 1993 Berube gave evidence to the Senate hearings into the US military's policy of barring gay men and lesbians. He argued that the problem that should be investigated was not homosexual behaviour, but heterosexual masculinity.

It's easy to dismiss this as po-mo rad-fem posturing. But after the depressing news of the past week, you begin to wonder...

Monday, 25 February 2008

He's got the mo

Obama-phobics look away now. I know, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, but what the heck. Once again via Andrew Sullivan, here are two more musical tributes to Barack. The first, 'Si, Se Puede Cambiar', is a Spanish riff on Obama's catchphrase. Its anti-war rhetoric won't appeal to everyone:

And here are the seven-year-old Rockabelles with 'We Got The Mo':

Simplification no substitute for analysis when criticising religion

As regular readers of this blog will know, despite my youthful flirtation with Catholicism and continuing love-hate relationship with religion, I hold no particular brief for the institutional Catholic Church. But reading Gareth McLean’s remarks in his Guardian TV preview on Friday, I began to wonder if James MacMillan had a point when he wrote (in an article I mentioned here) of ‘the gross oversimplification and caricature that serves as an understanding of religion, particularly Catholic Christianity, in so much that passes for criticism and analysis’.

Previewing a programme about Latin America, McLean wrote that in that part of the world the Church ‘did what it does: sided with the powerful - inevitably right-wing, often murderous - and oppressed the oppressed’. Thus the complex history of Catholicism in the Americas is reduced to a soundbite, and the witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, Sister Dorothy Stang and many others who stood up for human rights and as a result were murdered by the ‘powerful’, is suppressed. McLean then blames the 'institutionalised misogyny' of the Church for the continuing ban on abortion in Nicaragua. Now, while few will claim that the Church has a shining record on women’s rights - and wherever you stand on the abortion issue - can the Church’s position really be attributed to misogyny rather than a stubborn, if misguided, belief in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception?

OK, so it was only a TV preview and I have no particular wish to defend the Catholic Church, whether in Latin America or elsewhere. But McLean's casual, one-sided outburst was remarkable in a newspaper that has adopted a notably softly-softly stance towards religion in recent times. Of course, that indulgence has been extended mainly to Islam. Can you imagine a Guardian columnist getting away with similar sideswipes, without the usual caveats and cultural-relativist explanations, at Islam: ‘Islam does what it always does, oppresses the oppressed’ or 'the institutionalised misogyny of Islam’?

McLean’s comments are a reminder of the old adage that anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the Left. Of course, that was in the days before anti-Semitism became the anti-Semitism of the Left.

ENO 'Mikado' doesn't quite conquer anti-G&S prejudice

When H. and I first met we found that one of the things we had in common was a deep antipathy to Gilbert and Sullivan. For me, their work conjured up too many memories of stodgy Methodist amateur dramatics, while H. declared it was the kind of music liked by scientists (such were the snobberies of twentysomething arts graduates).

Strange then to find ourselves at the Coliseum on Saturday for the English National Opera's revival of Jonathan Miller's Mikado. The production was hugely enjoyable. I loved the Twenties-style black and white design which, together with the programme notes, brought out affinities with Astaire-Rogers and Marx Brothers movies. Ko-Ko declaring his 'love' for the battleaxe Katisha could almost have been Groucho fawning over Margaret Dumont, while the same character's comically delayed first entrance was a dead ringer for the opening scene of Animal Crackers. There were some fantastic individual performances too, most notably Richard Suart as a hugely funny Ko-Ko, stepping into the part created for the original Miller production by Eric Idle (his 'little list', regularly updated with audience contributions via the ENO website, included topical digs at Derek Conway and Mohammed al-Fayed). And I thought Sarah Tynan was delightful as Yum-Yum: a true operatic star in the making.

In recent years it has become modish to declare a (possibly ironic, postmodern-ish) liking for 'G&S'. None other than the great Aaron Sorkin has revealed his affection for their work by featuring songs in both The West Wing and Studio 60, and I notice that Jo Brand is starring in a new production of The Pirates of Penzance. But for all its qualities, the ENO Mikado didn't quite make Gilbert and Sullivan fans of us. Beneath the witty songs and the sharp satire, their plot and characters remain doggedly one-dimensional and incapable of engaging the deeper sympathies of an audience. Much as I enjoyed our outing to the Coliseum, it didn't make me want to rush out and buy the soundtrack. Instead, I hurried home and put on a CD of The Marriage of Figaro: now there's proper operatic comedy for you. Thirty years on, I'm still a snobby arts graduate at heart.

More 'West Wing' similarities

Revisiting Season 6 of The West Wing on DVD over the weekend, we noticed a couple more similarities with this year's real-life presidential race. During the New Hampshire primary, Matt Santos is accused of plagiarising rival John Hoynes' speeches: it turns out that they've been using the same political consultant (Josh Lyman's former girlfriend Amy). The campaign in Iowa focuses on the candidates' support or otherwise for ethanol production. The McCain-like Republican candidate Arnie Vinick opposes subsidies for ethanol and refuses to swallow his doubts in the interest of stirring up votes, ditching his prepared speech at the last minute. This is where art differs from life: in real-life John McCain, also a long-time sceptic on ethanol, flip-flopped in Iowa, suddenly declaring himself a 'strong' ethanol supporter.

Our general impression, returning to The West Wing after a long absence? I never thought I'd say this but, at the moment, real (political) life is far more interesting.

Friday, 22 February 2008

'Love is what Fidel feels for the people'

I wrote here about how my disillusionment with the Sandinista revolution began when I realised that its much-praised mass literacy campaign was more like Stalinist indoctrination than Freirean consciousness-raising. It seems that education policy in Castro's Cuba has followed a similar path. Here's Jon Lee Anderson writing in today's Guardian:

In the early 90s, when I was living in Havana with my family, my eldest daughter, Bella, who was then about six years old, came home from school one afternoon in a state of excitement. She asked me, in Spanish: "Daddy, do you know what 'amor' means?" I feigned ignorance. Taking a deep breath, Bella recited: "Amor es lo que Fidel siente para el pueblo" - "Love is what Fidel feels for the people."

Careful not to show my dismay, I congratulated Bella on her feat of memorisation, and she beamed with pride. She was, understandably, very pleased with her educational achievement.

The Havana primary school that Bella attended was the Eliseo Reyes, named after one of the Cuban guerrilla fighters who accompanied Ernesto "Che" Guevara on his final expedition to Bolivia and who died with him there, fighting for the cause of Marxist revolution. Posted over the school's front door was a wooden sign that read Muerte a Traidores - Death to Traitors.

Bella's school primer had little symbols illustrating each letter of the alphabet. "F", for instance, symbolised "fusil" (rifle), and "T" stood for "tank". The book was sprinkled with Fidel's sayings on the importance of education, study and revolutionary duty. There were pictures too. One depicted a youthful Fidel riding into Havana on a tank. Another showed him in the heat of battle, commanding Cuban troops during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. In the schoolbook, Fidel Castro was always referred to simply as "Fidel".

Inevitably, during the three years we lived in Cuba, Fidel became both a familiar figure and a totemic one to my children - half grandfather, half God. With his deeds and aphorisms the stuff of daily fare, and his face and voice omnipresent on nightly television, they came to understand that El Jefe Maximo was the ultimate guiding hand that controlled their lives and those of everyone around them. He represented the past and the present, and the future too. Fidel, somehow, was Cuba.

Now who does that remind you of?

Mosques, airports, neighborhoods and entire cities were named after him. A military arch erected in Baghdad in 1989 was modeled on his forearms and then enlarged 40 times to hold two giant crossed swords. In school, pupils learned songs with lyrics like “Saddam, oh Saddam, you carry the nation’s dawn in your eyes.”

The entertainment at public events often consisted of outpourings of praise for Mr. Hussein. At the January 2003 inauguration of a recreational lake in Baghdad, poets spouted spontaneous verse and the official translators struggled to keep up with lines like, “We will stimulate ourselves by saying your name, Saddam Hussein, when we say Saddam Hussein, we stimulate ourselves.”

While Mr. Hussein was in power, his statue guarded the entrance to every village, his portrait watched over each government office and he peered down from at least one wall in every home. His picture was so widespread that a joke quietly circulating among his detractors in 1988 put the country’s population at 34 million — 17 million people and 17 million portraits of Saddam.


But hang on - weren't there some good things about Castro's Cuba? Didn't he give them the best health care system in Latin America? Perhaps. But then, Iraq under Saddam supposedly had some of the best hospitals in the Middle East.

I'm not saying that Castro's dictatorship was in the same league as Saddam's reign of terror and butchery. But a personality cult is a personality cult, never mind whether it's dressed up in left-wing or right-wing clothing (though those military uniforms do look remarkably similar). And whether in Castro's Cuba, Ortega's Nicaragua or Chavez' Venezuela the same truth holds: socialism minus liberty (sooner or later) equals tyranny.

Plagiarism charge rebounds on Hillary

Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in. It's change you can Xerox.

So said Hillary Clinton in last night's televised debate with Barack Obama, to groans from the audience. She won applause, though, for her closing remarks:

You know, whatever happens, we're going to be fine. You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we'll be able to say the same thing about the American people. And that's what this election should be about.

Sounds familiar?

What's not at stake are any of us. All of us are going to be just fine no matter what happens in this election. But what's at stake is whether America is going to be fine.
(John Edwards, 31.12.07)

I want to say this to everyone: with Elizabeth, with my family, with my friends, with all of you and all of your support, this son of a millworker's gonna be just fine. Our job now is to make certain that America will be fine.
(John Edwards, 30.01.08)


Thursday, 21 February 2008

Cheesiness versus cool on the campaign trail

OK, so you shouldn't select a presidential candidate on the basis of his/her perceived coolness - still less the ability of his/her supporters to produce cool campaign songs. But surely you can read something into the sheer squirm-making cheesiness of these unofficial videos from the Clinton camp:

By complete contrast, here are a couple of unofficial tributes from Obama supporters - the first ('Yes We Can') featuring of Black Eyed Peas, Herbie Hancock, John Legend and Scarlett Johannsen, and the second ('Fired Up Ready to Go') produced by the Bergevin Brothers and featuring Matt Cameron from Pearl Jam and the Total Experience Gospel Choir. Enjoy:

(All originally via Andrew Sullivan)

Obama/Santos: life imitating art imitating life

Seems I'm not the only one to have noticed the similarities between Obama's candidacy and the fictional presidential campaign of The West Wing's Matt Santos. Jonathan Freedland mentions some of the coincidences I highlighted back in January: 'a young, charismatic candidate from an ethnic minority, daring to take on an establishment workhorse with a promise to transcend race and heal America's partisan divide', and on the Republican side 'an older, maverick senator from the American west whose liberal positions on some issues had earned the distrust of the party's conservative base'. And Freedland adds a further coincidence that I missed: both John McCain and his fictional counterpart, Arnie Vinick, have to battle for the nomination against a preacher from the Christian right.

But here's the twist. Rather than this being a case of life imitating art, as we all thought, it turns out it's actually the other way round. According to Freedland:

When the West Wing scriptwriters first devised their fictitious presidential candidate in the late summer of 2004, they modelled him in part on a young Illinois politician - not yet even a US senator - by the name of Barack Obama.

"I drew inspiration from him in drawing this character," West Wing writer and producer Eli Attie told the Guardian. "When I had to write, Obama was just appearing on the national scene. He had done a great speech at the convention [which nominated John Kerry] and people were beginning to talk about him."

Attie, who served as chief speechwriter to Al Gore during the ill-fated 2000 campaign and who wrote many of the key Santos episodes of the West Wing, put in a call to Obama aide David Axelrod.

"I said, 'Tell me about this guy Barack Obama.'"

With the Latino actor Jimmy Smits already cast for the show, Attie was especially keen to know how rising star Obama approached the question of his race. Axelrod's answers helped inform Santos's approach to his own Hispanic identity.

"Some of Santos's insistence on not being defined by his race, his pride in it even as he rises above it, came from that," Attie said.

The scriptwriter also borrowed from Obama's life the notion of a superstar candidate. "After that convention speech, Obama's life changed. He was mobbed wherever he went. He was more than a candidate seeking votes: people were seeking him. Some of Santos's celebrity aura came from that."

But as the real-life battle for the Democratic nomination approaches its climax, life has begun to imitate art, with the story of Obama's ascendancy eerily paralleling the West Wing narrative:

In the TV show, Santos begins as the rank outsider up against a national figure famous for standing at the side of a popular Democratic president. There are doubts about Santos's inexperience, having served just a few years in Congress, and about his ability to persuade voters to back an ethnic minority candidate - even as his own ethnic group harbour suspicions that he might not identify with them sufficiently.

But the soaring power of his rhetoric, his declaration that the old divisions belong in the past and his sheer magnetism, ensure that he comes from behind in a fiercely close primary campaign and draws level with his once all-commanding opponent. Every aspect of that storyline has come true for Barack Obama. Axelrod, now chief strategist for the Obama campaign, recently joked in an email to Attie: "We're living your scripts!"

As Freedland concludes:

Obama aides will be hoping that the West Wing's prophetic streak holds: Santos eventually emerged as the Democratic nominee from a brokered convention - and went on to win the presidency.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

'The simplistic banalities of the modern progressive elites'

Kind-of-apropos of what I wrote in this post about fake radicalism: composer James Macmillan reflects on what he terms 'the simplistic banalities of the modern progressive élites' and their influence on the arts:

This has nothing to do with a love of life, a love of the poor or the outsider, but all to do with a love of transgression. It becomes addictive and in the past has led artists as much to the extreme Right as to the far Left. Childish ‘anti-bourgeois’ militancy has no political intelligence or moral fibre. Witness, for example, Harold Pinter’s descent into infantilism every time he mentions the United States, or for that matter decides to write poetry. Rather than being ridiculed for the embarrassing doggerel-merchant he has become, he is lauded to the highest by his fellow-travellers, easily impressed by easy rhetoric and equally determined to maintain their favoured positions in the back-slapping arts establishment.

I think a 'love of transgression' and 'childish anti-bourgeois militancy' is a fairly accurate description of much of what passes for 'radical' comment in the pages of the Guardian these days. And I think he's right that this kind of fake radicalism can easily end up supporting the extreme right: hence the spectacle of 'revolutionary' leftists cosying up to Islamists.

Macmillan compares today's Left unfavourably both with the Communist Party which he joined in his youth, and with the tradition of Scottish Catholic Labourism which surrounded him as he grew up. He's mad at the modern Left for undermining the latter:

The cherished values of generations, the foundation of correct, well-ordered structures and relationships were under attack from a formidable foe. The traditional family and education, sexual mores, artistic aspirations, religious belief — all were now seen as coercive strategies of the powerful, designed to enforce conformity and slavish obedience.

The ‘progressive’ liberalism of the new Left, its destructive atheistic iconoclasm, was miles away from the vision of the early Scottish socialists such as John Wheatley, Manny Shinwell and James Maxton.

There's an echo here of Nick Cohen's criticism of the contemporary Left for abandoning the 'decent' values of its radical past. But Macmillan's critique is given a particular twist by his avowed Catholicism and wider dislike of secular leftism: 'As a Catholic artist I am sick of the smug ignorance, the gross oversimplification and caricature that serves as an understanding of religion, particularly Catholic Christianity, in so much that passes for criticism and analysis.'

This is where I part company with Macmillan. In seeking to hold on to a nostalgic attachment to the Catholic-tinged socialism of his youth, he finds a different -ism to blame for the decline of the Left - liberalism: 'The destruction visited on schools and universities, the degradation of the media, the vulgarisation of culture, the deliberate and planned dismantling of the family — all this is a result of liberalism, not socialism.' Not to mention, of course, those other products of liberalism: religious toleration, gender equality, anti-discrimination legislation, etc, etc.

Though I agree with much of what Macmillan has to say about the contemporary Left, I'm uncomfortable with this socially conservative, anti-liberal critique. A glance back at the history of the twentieth-century should be sufficient warning against any attempt to detach socialism from liberalism. And we know the dangers of Catholic-inspired anti-liberal social movements.


Migrants will have to prove commitment to 'shared values'

The government wants migrants who wish to settle permanently in the UK to 'prove their worth' before being given permission to remain. Some of the proposals announced today by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith are fairly uncontentious: few would disagree that would-be British citizens should be required to learn English and make some kind of contribution to the economy.

But other elements of the plan have a faintly sinister ring. Smith states that migrants 'would need to demonstrate their contribution to society beyond simply working and paying taxes.' Meaning what exactly? The Home Secretary elaborated: 'The rights and benefits of citizenship will be available to those who can demonstrate a commitment to our shared values and a willingness to contribute to our community. ' Apparently newcomers will find their route to citizenship 'accelerated' if they can prove they are 'active' citizens. According to the BBC report: 'This would include proof of charity work, involvement in the local community and letters from referees.'

There are several problems with all of this. First of all, what exactly are 'our' shared values, and how can you effectively demonstrate a 'commitment' to them? We don't have a written constitution or bill of rights, and even if we did, should those who disagree with elements of them not have the right to live here? What 'shared values' do members of (say) the SWP, the BNP, the Anglican church and the National Secular Society have in common? The only values that we currently expect citizens to adhere to are those enshrined in the law, and surely not breaking the law of the land is the only commitment to shared values that a free society can ask of its members?

Secondly, requiring prospective citizens to prove their worth by participating in 'charity work' or 'involvement in the local community' is a further example of New Labour's communitarian centralism which, like its oxymoronic plans for 'compulsory volunteering' by young people - seeks to impose a particular, currently-fashionable model of 'active citizenship' on the population by government fiat. It's behavioural micro-management of a particularly illiberal kind - and I write as a social democrat and card-carrying Labour supporter, not an anti-state libertarian.

Thirdly, requirements of this kind will be open to all kinds of abuse. Imagine the market that will develop in fake references 'proving' community involvement, or the hundreds turning up to 'volunteer' at charity shops or as school governors so they can get their 'active citizenship' stamp, then disappearing - or worse, signing on for such activities out of a sense of compulsion and creating headaches for the genuine volunteers. Finally, it's surely unjust to impose on new migrants demands that are not directed at existing citizens. As a British citizen since birth, I've never been called upon (thank goodness) to demonstrate my 'commitment to shared values' or to prove that I am an 'active' citizen.

I can understand the anxieties that have prompted these proposals, not least the concern, in the wake of recent terrorist plots, about the tiny minority of migrants who take advantage of our open, liberal society and use it as a base for plotting actions that undermine it. I'm certainly in favour of anything that would advance integration and break down the walls of ethnic or religious sectarianism. As I've said before, a bill of rights and written constitution would certainly help. But in a free society, it's not for the government to dictate the values or behaviours - beyond adherence to the law of the land - of its members.

For more on tests for prospective citizens, see Norm .

Inspiration from Obama, sour grapes from Clinton

Following her heavy defeat in yesterday's Wisconsin primary, Hillary Clinton provided an object lesson in how not concede graciously:

The Obama campaign had waited, generously, for Clinton to give her concession speech before Barack began his victory oration. But when they saw that she was using the opportunity to return to her usual negative attacks, they changed their minds. Embarrassingly for Hillary, the networks cut away from her speech while she was still in full flow, and went instead with Obama's speech in Houston, in which he tempered his usual visionary rhetoric with more detailed policy plans, and demonstrated why he has begun to chip away at his rival's support among women and working-class voters. If you've got 45 minutes or so to spare, and you want to be inspired, watch the whole thing:

Should the liberal press provide a platform for reactionaries?

To what extent should liberal, left-of-centre publications provide a platform for illiberal or reactionary opinions? It could be argued that it’s a fundamentally liberal strategy to offer a space in which differing points of view can be debated. And some might suggest that, when leftish social democracy is the governing orthodoxy, the radical press should encourage voices that challenge the status quo, even when that challenge comes from the right.

But even if we accept these arguments (and I’m not sure that I do), it’s one thing for a left-of-centre newspaper or magazine to spice up its pages with occasional pieces by writers who challenge its readers’ liberalism. It’s another to make those writers your commentators of choice, or to offer them regular, high-profile columns. And it’s something else again to select from among those right-of-centre, illiberally-inclined commentators the most cranky and reactionary voices. One of the reasons for my gradual falling out of love with the New Statesman was its decision to offer regular columns to the likes of Anne Widdicombe and Amanda Platell. As if these people don’t already get enough exposure in the Spectator, Telegraph and Daily Mail.

The past couple of days have provided further evidence of the Guardian’s apparent desire to turn itself from the voice of the liberal-left into a mouthpiece for reactionaries and crackpot conspiracy theorists. Who did they choose to comment on Kosovo’s independence yesterday? None other than John Laughland, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and apologist for Slobodan Milosevic who has also written warm words about Jean-Marie lePen, and who David Aaronovitch has accurately described as 'PR man to Europe's nastiest regimes'. And who was given pride of place today to reflect on the passing of Fidel Castro? Ignacio Ramonet, who co-wrote a book with the ex-dictator and whose column is the purest hagiography:‘He has a tremendous moral and ethical sense…passionate about the environment..a normal man, albeit one who is incredibly hard working’. Nothing here about Castro's undemocratic 49-year stranglehold on power or his regime's Stalinist repression of political dissent.

By consistently giving preferential treatment to illiberal, anti-democratic and reactionary voices in its comment pages, the Guardian has forfeited the right to be described as a liberal or left-of-centre newspaper. At the same time, its editorial strategy reflects a wider malaise in the contemporary British left, specifically a tendency to mistake knee-jerk opposition to America and supporting any movement that opposes the west, however reactionary and undemocratic, for genuine radicalism.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Good sense and nonsense in the sharia debate

Theo Hobson has some useful insights into the Rowan Williams sharia affair. Writing in the Tablet he argues against the thesis that the archibishop is a natural liberal who has been led astray by the demands of his office:

His advocacy of the rights of gay Christians during the 1990s was misleading: it made him seem the liberal he never really was. He was always an Anglo-Catholic above all. He sought to develop and update the open, liberal side of this tradition, but not in a way that might jeopardise its integrity.

Above all, he refused to combine Anglo-Catholicism with a general liberal agenda. Indeed he revived the Anglo-Catholic suspicion of secular liberalism that dates back to Newman. The liberal state, in this view, offers itself as an alternative community of salvation; it tempts us into supposing that we can dispense with the Church, or at least water it down, and develop a more progressive form of Christianity. This leads to weak forms of Christianity that are unable to resist dangerous ideologies: most obviously, the liberal Protestants of Germany embraced Nazism. It is Williams' anti-liberal ecclesiology that is the root cause of the present controversy. In a sense it's not really about sharia law, or Islam: it's about the relationship between a Catholic conception of the Church and liberalism.

For Williams, authentic Christianity occurs within a clearly defined social body, an "ethical community" as he has sometimes put it. Without this, Christian culture will be dispersed by the cold winds of secularism. There is a need for strong resistance to the various negative spirits of the age: consumerism, celebrity, hedonism and so on, and this resistance can only occur within an alternative social world, walled off from mainstream culture.

Only from within a religious subculture can secular modernity be seen for what it is: dehumanising. He has referred to secularism's "unspoken violence", and to modernity as "an atmosphere in which people become increasingly formless, cut off from what could give their lives ... some kind of lasting intelligibility". He sees secular liberalism as a quietly nihilistic force that robs human life of full significance, as a demonically subtle tyranny that looks and feels like freedom.

This theme was prominent in the Dimbleby Lecture that he gave almost exactly five years ago: it is perhaps the key to understanding his agenda last week. He argued that secular culture always serves material agendas (someone's desire to sell you something, someone's desire for your vote); it shuns comprehensive visions of human good. Religion addresses the whole human being, it puts all short-term concerns into perspective. A religious tradition "makes possible a real questioning of the immediate agenda of society, the choices that are defined and managed for you by the market".

He sees his role, then, as defender of the various subcultural spaces that resist the logic of secularism, the enclaves within our culture where fully human meaning is made. And of course these are not only Christian. In a curious way his vision echoes Prince Charles' declaration that he would like to be the defender of faith rather than the faith. He wants to be the defender of the endangered cultural space that insists on the priority of God. If the Muslim form of such space is tied up with sharia law, we must try to accommodate this.

The problem with this idea of his role is that he heads an institution with a logic that is at variance with it. The Church of England cannot really be described as a subcultural space in which secular liberalism is resisted. Because it is the established Church of a society that is liberal, and largely secular, it is strange for its leader to speak of secular liberalism as the enemy. Whether he likes it or not, Williams does not just represent the card-carrying members of faith communities: he also represents the huge amount of Britons who are semi-Christian or post-Christian; people who see Christianity and liberalism as complementary.

Such people (most of the nation) are sympathetic to Christianity but sceptical of religious institutions. They want a liberal form of Christianity to lurk in the background of national identity - in order to bless liberalism rather than contest it. It is rash to dismiss this desire as muddled or hypocritical, for it is rooted in British history: our liberalism and our version of Protestantism developed side by side. Liberal Protestantism is basic to our national identity, although people don't tend to think of it as "liberal Protestantism" but as "our Christian heritage" and "our liberal tradition".

This is what Williams seems not to grasp, or chooses not to. It sets him apart from the figures I likened him to earlier, Temple, Ramsey and Runcie. For these Anglo-Catholics had an instinctive understanding that the British people will only tolerate an established Church that is sympathetic to liberalism; they saw the necessity of working with this national religious instinct, rather than seeking to antagonise and deconstruct it.

The anger that Williams has unleashed is not just down to Islamophobia. It is also a lament for the liberal Anglican culture that has been slowly collapsing for a decade or two, and has all but been lost. Such is my regard for Williams' intellect that I suspect that he knew that he was drawing attention to this, initiating a new debate about whether a liberal established Church is still meaningful. He is saying, in his deep, gentle voice: "Perhaps it's time to consider whether the old religious set-up is still what most of us really want."

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the same magazine, the normally level-headed Clifford Longley endorses Williams' dystopian vision of contemporary secular society:

But the real clash visible in the media this week was not Christianity versus Islam, but religion versus secularism. If Dr Williams analysed carefully much of the press comment, he would have observed that the rule of thumb was something like “the more Islamic they are, the more dangerous”. To the secularist, however, this is just an example of a more general principle – that all religions are dangerous; the more so, the more seriously their adherents take them. So the real question for Dr Williams is not how does British Islam live with British secularism, but how does the Church of England do so? From Lambeth Palace the apparatus of the Anglican establishment may look solid and enduring. Establishment shelters Anglicanism from the full force of the secular prevailing wind. But the Catholic adoption agency issue last year was a significant straw in that wind. It signified that it is secular values, not those enshrined in the common law, that are becoming the dominant cultural determinant of British society. Those values are utilitarian. It is a world where ends justify means, where talk of the sacredness of life is scoffed at and human rights are the subject of mere fashion, human autonomy in the pursuit of pleasure is the only worthwhile value and no one is neighbour to another. It is indeed the job of religions – Anglican, Jewish, Catholic,Muslim and the rest – to be a threat to those values. And not to apologise for it.

Longley misinterprets what secularists have said about this issue. It's not that we think religions are more dangerous the more seriously their adherents take them. Rather, the danger increases to the extent that religion seeks to interfere and exert power in the political sphere. And it's disingenuous of him to portray the Catholic gay adoption agency affair as a battle between 'utilitarian' values and a religious vision of the sacredness of human life. Rather, it was a contest between equality and tolerance for diverse lifestyles on the one hand, and (religiously-motivated) intolerance and prejudice on the other. To describe contemporary Britain as a society in which human rights are the subject of 'mere fashion' is to discredit the long and noble (and mostly secular) struggle to enshrine universal rights of liberty and equal treatment in law: a struggle in which religious institutions have been enemies as often as they have been allies.

Longley comes over all Buntingesque in his doomladen opinion of secular society as driven by nothing more than 'the pursuit of pleasure' - echoing Hobson's characterisation of Williams' vision of a world obsessed with 'consumerism, celebrity, hedonism'. Needless to say, this characterisation is absurdly reductive, ignoring the enormous diversity of motives and interests that guide the secular majority of the population. Atheist writers such as Dawkins and Hitchens are often accused of misrepresenting the diversity of religious belief and portraying all believers as rabid fundamentalists. Christian commentators like Longley and Williams are in danger of an even greater reductionism, mistaking one strand of the dynamic plurality that is secular society for the whole. In the process, they close down any possibility of dialogue with secular liberalism - as Hobson rightly suggests, the unspoken belief-system of the majority - and retreat into the defensive redoubt of religionism, forging dubious alliances against modernity with reactionaries of other faiths.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Obama vs McCain: it's already begun

After his clean sweep of the Potomac primaries, another blistering victory speech from Barack Obama. He tackles head-on the criticism that he offers nothing but empty rhetoric and pious hope. And he offers a taste of how he would square up to his likely Republican opponent:

Meanwhile, McCain demonstrates that he too will be a formidable contender and offers a more humane - and infinitely more articulate - conservatism than that of George Bush:

Could this be the most intelligent US presidential election in a long time?

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Britain to lose its only jazz radio station - again

Seems like I spoke too soon. After only 9 months in operation, theJazz is being shut down. Apparently its owners, GCap Media, owners of Classic FM, don't think digital radio can turn a profit. Never mind the station's steadily improving output, growing listenership, and praise from the critics. Just like Jazz FM before it, theJazz is being sacrificed on the altar of advertising profits. With the loss of theJazz, the number of radio stations in the UK dedicated to jazz is reduced yet again: from one to zero.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Christian leader calls for separate courts for Muslims

The Archbishop of Canterbury thinks the adoption of Sharia law in the UK is 'unavoidable':

Dr Williams told BBC Radio 4's World at One that the UK has to 'face up to the fact' that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system. Dr Williams argues that adopting some aspects of Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court. He says Muslims should not have to choose between 'the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty'.

He went on (in words that even Private Eye would find hard to parody): 'An approach to law which simply said - there's one law for everybody - I think that's a bit of a danger.'

This is so ludicrous that it invites caricature rather than serious critique. In another life I worked in rehabilitation projects for ex-offenders. Quite a few of them didn't 'relate' to the British legal system either: perhaps we should have 'faced up to the fact' and let them adopt a different legal code instead? As for 'maintaining social cohesion' : this seems to mean 'let's not do anything that might upset the fundamentalists'. Maybe we should repeal our gay equality laws: that would certainly help to maintain social cohesion among conservative Christians.

More seriously, Williams' 'stark' opposition of cultural loyalty and state loyalty suggests, insidiously, that the legal systems of free societies express local prejudices rather than universal principles. In which case, one community's legal code is as good as any other's. This is cultural relativism, and multicultural communalism, run amok. In a free, democratic society, citizens should be loyal to the laws of the land. If cultural mores conflict with those laws, then individuals and groups have the option of campaigning to change the law, but only by majority agreement. Or maybe they should face up to the possibility that the culture itself needs to change - incidentally, Williams seems to subscribe to a very old-fashioned view of culture as a fixed package, immune to the influences of a plural and changing society.

Then again, to treat individuals solely on the basis of their presumed religious identity is reductive - and patronising - in the extreme. Is the identity of 'Muslim' - whether adopted voluntarily or attributed by others - to be privileged above other identities - including that of British citizen? And what about those who are identified as Muslims but wish to have nothing to do with a legal code which, for all its trumpeted benefits, is undoubtedly patriarchal and illiberal?

As I argued here, many of Williams' recent statements reflect the same kind of envy/fascination with Islam to be found in the writings of other erstwhile liberal christians such as Madeleine Bunting, Karen Armstrong and William Dalrymple, in which a bend-over-backwards spirit of 'understanding' towards other religionists (however illiberal) overrides any lingering commitment to universal liberal principles. The Archbishop's statement today - like his argument last week  for a new, improved law of blasphemy - is yet more evidence of his dangerous political naivety and further ammunition for those who wish to see religion's privileged role in the public square reduced.

Update: Friday

The reaction to Dr Williams' comments has been overwhelmingly - and reassuringly - negative. Tabloid hostility was inevitable, but the Guardian and Independent offer more thoughtful dismissals of the archbishop's flawed argument. Interesting to see Paul Vallely in the latter echoing something I said here about Williams failing to realise that, as archbishop, he can't get away with saying the kind of things he would have written as an academic theologian - I think that's part of his problem, but by no means the whole of it.

Reassuring, too, that Williams' crazy communalism has been roundly condemned by all the main political parties, though I wish government spokespeople had focused more on the plain wrongheadedness and illiberalism of his proposal, rather than its impracticality, and that the PM's spokesman, instead of saying that Brown 'believes that British laws should be based on British values' - which to my mind opens up the whole laws-are-culturally-relative can of worms - had emphasised the grounding of our legal system in universal notions of human rights.

There's some good stuff on the blogs too. This from David T at Harry's Place:

Isn't there something particularly pathetic about a Bishop in a church which - in theory - exists to evangelise, shilling on behalf of the theocratic politics of another religion, which wishes to write their version of 'god's will' into law?

And this from Bob:

What are we to say if a given population, for example, claims that marital rape or female genital mutilation or polygamy is the morality of their 'culture', and that given the 'stark alternatives of cultural loyalty of state loyalty' they choose cultural loyalty? Surely we should contest that right rather than say it is 'inevitable' that there need to be plural legal frameworks.

I liked this from Shuggy:

You don't have to a 'relate' to a legal system; it isn't like your goddam mother-in-law where you have to try and get along - just following rules will do.

And like me, Mick finds Williams' statement so ludicrous as virtually to invite ridicule. He appends this fictional ending to the archbishop's interview:

'As it happens I am not in my right mind: that's why I come out with this rubbish. Ha ha! Sorry about that. Do you like my new cassock? It's embroidered silk, you know. I had it made especially. No one else can wear one of these. Certainly not the Archbishop of York. When I chant very loudly, God makes it light up to show how much He loves me. Shall I show you?'

At this point the interview was terminated, and the Archbishop was led away, singing 'Jesus wants me for a sunbeam'.

Further update: Friday afternoon

The Anglican bishop of Hulme, the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, has been all over the media sticking up for his boss - a pretty lonely task today. He criticised the 'disgraceful' way in which the archbishop has been 'ridiculed' and 'lampooned' by some. I'm sorry, Mr Lowe, but when you say 'An approach to law which simply said - there's one law for everybody - I think that's a bit of a danger' you kind of lampoon yourself. 

As for Lowe's defence that 'We have probably one of the greatest and brightest archbishops of Canterbury we have had for many a long day'. Well, intellectual brilliance and staggering political naivety sometimes go together. And reputations for greatness and brightness can be lost as well as won.

In the interview I heard, Lowe described Rowan Williams as 'the spiritual leader of the nation' - and thus permitted to pronounce on matters concerning other faiths beside his own. I'm sorry, but he's not my spiritual leader - nor, for that matter, is he the spiritual leader of the nation's Catholics, Methodists, Jews, Buddhists or atheists. His comments on sharia law, together with his recent arguments in favour of a new blasphemy law, provide powerful evidence for disestablishing the minority Anglican church and doing away with its asburdly privileged position in public discourse.

Elsewhere: it warms the heart that some of the most articulate critiques of the archbishop's statement have come from fellow believers. The progressive Christian website Ekklesia is 'concerned that the Church of England, recognising the untenability of privileges it still claims as an Established Church, is now seeking to create a broader "multi-faith establishment" where "the same problems will be replicated across a wider and more complex arena."'

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Friday, 1 February 2008

Obama on Bush - and the alternative

Obama responds to Bush's State of the Union address - and implicitly to those of his critics who claim he's all vision and no substance:

Archbishop calls for new, improved blasphemy law

When the government persuaded Labour backbenchers not to back a recent Lib Dem amendment that would have abolished the blasphemy law, it promised to introduce proposals of its own. However, it said that it wanted to consult the Church of England first.

Now we know what that means. The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he has no objection to the repeal of the law against blasphemy (he argued that it was 'unworkable', rather than accepting that it's just plain wrong in a free society, but I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies). However, Dr. Williams made it clear that he wants something in return. He argues that whatever replaces the law should 'send a signal' about what is acceptable. 

'Replaces' ? Ah, I see: as far as the C of E is concerned, the debate is not about abolishing what Lib Dem MP Evan Harris called 'this outdated, illiberal and discriminatory law', but about improving it. It seems what they're after is a replay of the debate (which they lost) over the Racial and Religious Hatred Act.

The Archbishop calls for legislation that punishes 'thoughtless and, even if unintentionally, cruel styles of speaking and acting.'  This is wrong on so many levels. Firstly, in a free society, the presumption should be in favour of freedom of expression, with any curtailment having to be argued for on a case by case basis. Secondly, we already have laws that protect against language that stirs up violence and hatred against particular groups. Thirdly, blasphemy laws don't protect people, they protect God. In a plural society in which there are multiple notions of the divine, it's absurd and impractical to have laws that defend any or all of them. And, from a religious perspective, it can be argued that God doesn't need legal protection: to argue that this is necessary is surely a sign of the weakness of religion rather than its strength.

As Norm says of Williams' proposal: 'Not so much out of the frying pan and into the fire as out of the aforesaid utensil into a raging conflagration - of the type, even, dear to certain kinds of wrathful believer.' The government should resist any pressure by the religious establishment to sneak in a new, improved blasphemy law by the back door, and stick by its intention to abolish it completely. Religious interest groups can't have a veto against this long overdue legislation. Sometimes it seems as though the Church just can't let go of its last vestiges of political power.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, we see an example of what can happen when religious groups are allowed to determine the limits of free expression. 23 year old journalist Sayed Pervez Kambaksh has been sentenced to death by a religious court for distributing 'blasphemous' material. His offence? Downloading material from the internet about the role of women in Islamic societies.

All credit to the Independent for its high-profile campaign on behalf of Kambaksh. Make sure you sign the petition here.