Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Banged up

Michele Hanson wrote an impassioned piece in yesterday's Guardian about the realities of life in 'the country's biggest women's correctional facility', as a corrective to recent claims by the Prison Officers' Association that prisoners have a cushy time of it. One of Hanson's friends worked for a time in the prison:

I trailed round the prison one day with Rosemary and it didn't look much fun to me. It was baking hot, and as it was the officers' training day, all inmates were locked up sweltering in their cells, the air growing increasingly foetid, what with the sweat and the open lavatories. In their despair, inmates would crap into plastic bags and hurl them out of the windows. Who wants to live through summer stuck next to a filled lavatory? Outside rats gambolled among the piles of muck thrown from the windows: leftover dinners and all sorts of nastiness.

About twenty years ago my job involved visiting prisoners due for imminent release at the very same 'correctional facility', as well as at its male equivalent just down the road, where conditions were if anything much worse. Reading Hanson's complaints about cancelled education classes, or lack of officers to escort prisoners to them, made me think that very little had changed.

Tony Blair was right to steer Labour away from pseudo-leftish romanticisation of offenders, and to call for equal toughness on 'crime and the causes of crime'.  Crime impacts disproportionately on the poor and the vulnerable. But one of the marks of a decent society is surely the way it treats prisoners, and the conditions in many of our prisons are still frankly inhumane.

Most people walking down Parkhurst Road or Caledonian Road in north London probably don't give much thought to what goes on behind those high walls. But, as Hanson says, once you've had a glimpse inside, it's hard to be complacent: 'Pop into the library or walk to the shops in the sun, and there is the ghastly hulk of a building with all those women stuck inside wasting their lives'. 

According to the excellent charity Women in Prison, 70% of women prisoners have mental health problems, 37% have committed suicide, 20% were in care as children, and at least 50% claim to have been victims of childhood abuse. The most common offences for which women are sent to prison are theft and handling stolen goods - which often means (particularly in London) being duped into being a drug mule. 

Read the whole article here.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Poolside Passion

Friday's Guardian included extracts by composer James Macmillan (whom I mentioned in these posts) from a diary that he kept while working on his latest piece, 'The Passion' - 'from his earliest thoughts to the final days of rehearsal'. 

Macmillan's diary entry for July 24 2007 reads as follows:

My family and I are on holiday in Italy. I'm spending my time relaxing but also doing a bit of composing. The family doesn't seem to mind, or perhaps they know better than to try and change me. But I've decided to take a break from The Passion, and instead have brought a few smaller works that have been building up subconsciously for some time. Hopefully I'll just step straight back into The Passion when I get home.

Now here's the thing. We were on holiday in Italy at exactly the same time last year. And for a couple of the days we were there, the man on the sunbed behind me was shuffling some pages of manuscript paper and scribbling furiously. Aha, I thought, a composer at work. It's the kind of thing you remember, when everybody else is engrossed in the latest Dan Brown or lost in their personal iPod world. And come to think of it, he did look a bit like the photo of James Macmillan in the Guardian.

So, James, if you read this and it was you, in Costa Merlata, Puglia, last summer: I was the one who kept walking nonchalantly by and trying to take a peek at what you were writing, and it was our children who kept jumping in the pool and disturbing your musical reverie. Oh, and while I'm at it, do you still describe yourself as Catholic Marxist? Just asking.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Discovering Mor Karbasi

Thanks to a glowing review of her debut album in today's Guardian, I've just discovered the music of London-based Israeli-born singer Mor Karbasi. If you like Yasmin Levy, I guarantee you'll love Karbasi, who also mixes Ladino, Flamenco and Arabic influences, but whose voice is somewhat 'lighter' and her songs perhaps slightly more accessible on a first listen than Levy's.

You can hear four tracks by Mor Karbasi here, and here's a video of the singer at the 2006 Simcha on the Square in Trafalgar Square:

Moderate Muslims fight back

Some of those involved in launching the Quilliam Foundation have responded to Ziauddin Sardar's ludicrous attempt to dismiss them as a bunch of neocons. Here's Maajid Nawaz:

It is amazing that the foundation, which includes advisers such as Paddy Ashdown, Sheikh BaBikr Ahmed BaBikr, the Rev Giles Fraser, Catherine Fieschi and Professor Timothy Garton Ash, can be reduced to "neocon ex-extremists". Sardar goes even further: Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Bukhari, a great man of peace who spoke at our launch, is described as a "neocon Sufi" despite his dedication to campaigning for cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis and his anti-war message.

Meanwhile Yasmin Alibhai-Brown announces another encouraging development: the launch on 1st May of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which will no doubt attract similar brickbats from Sardar et al. Look out for the Guardian comment piece on 2nd May explaining that the new organisation is a neocon front and unrepresentative of 'real' Muslim opinion.

Footnote: I found Alibhai-Brown's piece via Butterflies and Wheels, which also carries Sardar's original diatribe. I confess to being a little confused on finding the latter there, just as I was perturbed to come across Michael Parenti's apologia for Chinese policy in Tibet at the same site a couple of weeks ago. I'm all for websites featuring a range of opinion, but B&W's usual policy is to carry pieces which reflect its editors' relentless battle against woolly thinking - or else stories that point up the absurdities of various forms of irrationalism. Since both Parenti's and Sardar's articles appear to be prime examples of the 'fashionable nonsense' against which B&W struggles, I wonder if there's been a change of policy. I think we should be told.

Of saints and secularists

Reading Bob's post about forgetting to celebrate St. George's Day (I did too - only being reminded of it by the garish red and white flags in our local card shop window), and then this article by Jonathan Glancey about the re-opening of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, has sent me off into a reverie about patron saints...

Glancey's article caught my attention, in part because I've been researching my family history recently and have discovered that my Scottish-born great-great-great grandparents lived in the Charing Cross area in the 1830-40s, and that my 3 x great grandmother was buried at St. Martins.

But I was also interested because the church is dedicated to St. Martin of Tours who was, as Glancey reminds us, 'a fourth-century Roman cavalry officer turned Christian ascetic and preacher', and is 'the patron saint of beggars and soldiers.' The church's current work with the homeless (which runs alongside its more familiar functions as a cultural venue and tourist attraction) seems to be an attempt to follow in the footsteps of its saintly patron.

If I were ever to resolve my arguments with Christianity and experience a rebirth of faith, I'd probably take Martin of Tours as my patron saint. Not necessarily because of his charity towards beggars, and certainly not on account of his soldiering. Rather, it would be because of his lesser-known reputation as one of the first Christian advocates of the separation of church and state. I found this out recently via the wonders of Wikipedia, which tells the story of Martin's involvement in the affair of the Priscillianists, an obscure sect condemned by Rome as heretics:

Priscillian and his supporters had fled, and some bishops of Hispania, led by Bishop Ithacius, brought charges before Emperor Magnus Maximus. Although greatly opposed to the Priscillianists, Martin hurried to the Imperial court of Trier on an errand of mercy to remove them from the secular jurisdiction of the emperor. At first, Maximus acceded to his entreaty, but, when Martin had departed, yielded to the solicitations of Ithacius and ordered Priscillian and his followers to be beheaded, the first Christians executed for heresy. Deeply grieved, Martin refused to communicate with Ithacius, until pressured by the Emperor.

For insisting that the Church had no business using the power of the secular state to enforce matters of belief, Martin of Tours deserves to be the patron saint, not only of soldiers and beggars, but also of secularists - that's if secularists can have patron saints.

Mind you, Christians named Martin are not short of right-on patron saints to choose from. The other popular option is the Peruvian St. Martin de Porres, who has the additional coolness factor of being the first black saint in the Americas, as well as all the usual stuff about dedicating his life to the poor. Not only that, he's probably the only saint to have a piece of music written about him by a jazz legend: Mary Lou Williams' 'Black Christ of the Andes'.

Williams, who played with some of the jazz greats in the '20s and '30s, underwent a conversion to Catholicism in the 1950s and went on to write three masses, as well as the hymn to St. Martin. Friday quiz question: which other jazz legend converted to Catholicism more recently? Answer: Dave Brubeck, who became a Catholic in 1980, reportedly after a musical setting of the 'Our Father' came to him in a dream.

Friday fun and games

Norm has tagged me for this random sentences game thingy. Here's what you have to do:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

My nearest book: Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. The sixth, seventh and eighth sentences on page 123 are:

The sensation that travel brings? I have it by going from Lisbon to Benfica, and have it more intensely than one who goes from Lisbon to China, because if the freedom isn't in me, then I won't have it no matter where I go. 'Any road,' said Carlyle, 'this simple Entepfuhl road, will lead you to the end of the World'.

My turn to tag. My five tag-ees (if this is their kind of thing - and as someone with a deep antipathy to chain letters and emails, I'll understand if it's not) are: Andrew, Bob, Roland, Paul and David.

Footnote: This is probably breaking the rules of the game, but what I found interesting about doing this is that my randomly-chosen three sentences make perfect sense on their own. But wrenched from their original context, they convey a very different meaning to that intended by the author. This is cheating, but here's the omitted ninth sentence:

But the Entepfuhl road, if it is followed all the way to the end, returns to Entepfuhl; so that Entepfuhl, where we already were, is the same end of the world we set out to find.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Sardar uses 'neocon' label to smear ex-extremists

Ziauddin Sardar dislikes all the fuss being made about repentant Muslim extremists. His main point has some merit: that lionising those who have belatedly renounced violence draws attention away from the 'overwhelming majority' of Muslims 'who never had a moment's doubt that Islam gives no sanction for such murderous and misguided perversion of belief'. And he has some useful things to say about the British government's misguided (if well-meaning) attempts to influence the religious beliefs of British Muslims. 

But I get the impression that, underneath it all, Sardar just finds the likes of Ed Husain (British Muslims who renounce root-cause thinking and refuse to dismiss liberty and equality as western constructs) an awkward embarrassment and is casting around for excuses to undermine them. Hence the tell-tale scattering of the all-purpose 'neocon' label throughout his article: the ex-extremists have the backing of 'neocon luminaries' (so they must be wrong), and moderate Muslims who work with the government are part of (what else?) a 'neocon Sufi order'.

Finally Sardar falls back on the hoary old argument that Islamic extremism in Britain is not a religious but a political issue, the result of social deprivation and the consumer culture. And no prizes for guessing what Sardar thinks is the biggest problem: 'Most of all, British foreign policy has a direct bearing on nurturing British extremism'.

The real reason why Sardar dislikes those he calls 'neocon ex-extremists' so much is that they deny this link and point instead to the pernicious influence of a reactionary religio-political ideology. As with Seamus Milne's memorable put-down of Ed Husain as a 'neocon pinup boy', there's an element of Uncle Tom-ism involved here. Muslim public figures are OK as long as they espouse the party-line of Muslim victimhood and reflexive anti-westernism. The moment they step out of line and dare to forge an independent path, they have to be tarred with the dismissive brush of neoconservatism.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Who are the real 'defectors' from the left?

I was all set to write a riposte to David Edgar's peculiar article about left-wing 'defectors', but Andrew Anthony has saved me the trouble. Edgar's idiosyncratic list of writers who have supposedly moved to the right (when, of course, it is the left that has moved away from them) includes not only the usual suspects - Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, Anthony himself, but (incredibly) Ed Husain. As Anthony says:

If you can really view someone who leaves an imperialist, anti-semitic, anti-democratic, ultra-religious party like Hizb ut-Tahrir and comes out in favour of democracy and religious tolerance as a defector moving rightwards, then it shows your political - not to mention, moral - compass is in urgent need of repair.

Oliver Kamm joins the fray here.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Communism and post-communism in Italy

While we're on the subject of the Italian Left, I hadn't realised that the recent elections saw the complete disappearance of communists from both chambers of the Italian parliament. Gustav Seibt mourns their passing:

Because communism in Italy was always an entire culture. There were the 'Feste dell'Unita' in summer, which were not only about sitting outside on long benches and drinking, singing and dancing; but there were always book stands selling tomes from Einaudi publishers and writers, actors and directors would always step up onto the podium to discuss things. Almost everything which Italy contributed - on an international level as well - to post-war culture, originated in this communist culture, which was an alternative world on Italian soil. Neorealism in film and literature, the tragic black and white epiphanies of Rossellini or De Sica, the return to dialect and local language traditions – none of this would have happened without the background of communist ideas.


I've posted before about my own youthful affection for the eurocommunism of the PCI (which Eric Hobsbawm once described as his spiritual home), the only survivor of whose cultural legacy is the newspaper l'Unita, with its title banner still proudly announcing 'Quotidiano fondato da Antonio Gramsci il 12 febbraio 1924'.

Actually, it's not strictly true to say that no communists won seats in these elections. Certainly, the far-left grouping La Sinistra - L'Arcobaleno (The Left - The Rainbow), which included the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation Party), failed to gain any seats. But the PRC are a minority party of hardliners who broke away when the PCI relaunched itself as the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left) in 1991.

The Democratic Party of the Left, later the Democrats of the Left, joined Romani Prodi's centre-left Olive Tree Coalition for the 2006 general election. In 2007 the party dissolved itself (along with a number of other left-wing and centrist parties) into the new Democratic Party, led by Walter Veltroni. The new party, which resembles a mainstream European social-democratic party, came second in the recent election, after Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, winning about 239 seats in the lower house and 130 seats in the Senate.

So while it's true to say there are no longer any representatives in the Italian parliament who ran as communists, there are plenty there who have done so in the past, and probably still share some of those old Gramscian ideals, even if they now use rather different language to describe their politics.

If I were Italian, I'd vote Partito Democratico and I certainly have no time for the quasi-Stalinist politics of the Communist Refoundation Party. It has to be admitted, though, that the latter do have some of the more colourful candidates - Nichi Vendola, for example. An old-fashioned communist who is also a faithful Catholic, he somehow managed to get himself elected president of the ultra-conservative region of Puglia, despite being openly gay. Only in Italy...

Barack fights back (again)

After what most commentators agree was a poor performance in a shallow debate, Obama fights back. His put-down of Hillary Clinton is all the more effective for being delivered with humour and style:

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The unsavoury side of anti-communism

As I mentioned in this post, I'd intended to wait until I finished George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War before I posted about it. But I've stopped reading the book half-way through (maybe only temporarily), having grown heartily sick of its endless parade of macho congressmen, rabid anti-communists and bloodthirsty mujahadeen. 

I started out well-disposed towards the book. I haven't seen the recent film of the same name, but was already feeling quite defensive towards it, having heard one too many right-on reviews complaining that it didn't draw the 'correct' conclusions about the supposed blowback from America's support of the Afghan rebels. Having recently read Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, I knew that you couldn't draw a straight line from US backing for the mujahadeen to the rise of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban a decade or so later. Wright's book demonstrates that bin Laden's rag-tag army of volunteers was almost comically peripheral to the defeat of the Russians. At the same time, Wright shows that the US had little choice but to support any force that would halt the Soviet advance to the Gulf and their potential control of the Arabian oilfields.

For the first few chapters of Crile's book, I was intrigued by the character of Charlie Wilson, a Democratic congressman with impeccable liberal credentials, who just happened to be a dedicated anti-communist to boot. (Some would argue that he was an anti-communist because he was a true liberal.) It's a combination we're not used to in Europe, where dedicated anti-communist views have tended to be found mostly on the right. But with my 'progressive anti-totalitarian' hat on, I was interested to see how things played out in the US context.

However, Wilson's anti-communism, and his one-man campaign to arm the Afghan rebels, led him into alliances with some distinctly unsavoury characters, including ultra-rightist millionaires and CIA agents with CVs that included propping up South American dictatorships, rigging elections in Italy, and working for the Greek colonels. My sympathies for their efforts to defeat Soviet totalitarianism diminished as I realised that these were the same people who funded the Contras and engineered the invasion of Grenada. Even Wilson himself had championed Somoza, as a bulwark against communism. Now he and his fellow conspirators were throwing in their lot with Pakistan's General Zia for similar reasons.

E.P.Thompson once wrote an essay (sorry, I can't find the reference right now) in which he argued that anti-communism (in its rabid, dictator-supporting form) was as great a menace to the world as Stalinist communism. This was back in the days when memories of the CIA's overthrow of Allende's democratically elected government and its support for a clutch of murderous autocrats from El Salvador to the Philippines were fresh in people's minds. As I went on with Crile's account, I began to wonder if Thompson might not have been right.

I wrote here about my gradual disillusionment with the Sandinista revolution, but I'd still take Ortega and his cronies, for all their faults, in preference to the Contra death squads supported by Wilson and his friends. Closer to home, I still think the PCI (which more closely resembled the British Labour left than it did the Soviet CP) would have made a better job of running post-war Italy than the corrupt cabal of Christian Democrats propped up by the CIA. Greece is a trickier case: Mark Mazower's brilliant book suggested that the wartime communist resistance, for all its bravery against the Nazis, would probably have turned the country into another Albania, or at least another Yugoslavia, had they come to power. 

But as you read about the CIA's anti-communist exploits down  the years, you find yourself asking: couldn't they have found some nice centrist liberal or social democratic party to support as a bulwark against communism, rather than yet another military thug whose regime was often at least as repellent as the Stalinists? 

These days, I'm happy to describe myself as a member of the anti-totalitarian left. But Crile's book, and Wilson's story, remind me why I still feel uncomfortable with the label 'anti-communist'.

Belated view from my window

With apologies to Andrew Sullivan's regular feature, here's the view from my window, when I was on holiday a couple of weeks ago. My only excuse for featuring it is that I took the photo, I'm quite pleased with it, and I've just uploaded it to my computer.
The view from my window: Corralejo, Fuerteventura, early morning, 1st April 2008.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

On liberal 'condescension'

White people spend a lot of time of worrying about poor people. It takes up a pretty significant portion of their day. They feel guilty and sad that poor people shop at Wal*Mart instead of Whole Foods, that they vote Republican instead of Democratic, that they go to Community College/get a job instead of studying art at a University. It is a poorly guarded secret that, deep down, white people believe if given money and education that all poor people would be EXACTLY like them. In fact, the only reason that poor people make the choices they do is because they have not been given the means to make the right choices and care about the right things.

That's from Stuff White People Like , a website on which I currently fritter away far too much of my time (and which of course should really be called 'Stuff White Liberals Like'). It provides a humorous sidelight on a topic that's been getting a lot of coverage since Barack Obama's 'bitter' speech: the supposed condescension of liberals towards ordinary folks.

Of course, the irony is that Obama is African-American, but since giving the speech he's been turned into an honorary white-liberal-elitist by his detractors. Here's Michael Weiss, for example, glossing the candidate's comments (which I reproduced in full here):

Thus in one fell swoop does Barack Obama label a good portion of the electorate (those “small towns” are not confined to Pennsylvania) resentful, racist, gun-toting Bible nuts—misguided souls in need of someone like himself to shepherd them out of their miserable condition.

Drawing on a famous phrase of E.P.Thompson's, Weiss accuses Obama of 'enormous condescension' towards voters. As I said in my previous post on this topic, I believe Obama's comments were poorly chosen, but I think Michael is guilty of over-interpretation here. I don't see how any commentator who considers Obama's comments in the context of his whole campaign, not to mention the context of the whole speech, can come to the conclusion that he's an elitist. The point was well made yesterday by that icon of blue-collar America, Bruce Springsteen, who has endorsed Obama:

At the moment, critics have tried to diminish Senator Obama through the exaggeration of certain of his comments and relationships. While these matters are worthy of some discussion, they have been ripped out of the context and fabric of the man's life and vision, so well described in his excellent book, Dreams of My Father, often in order to distract us from discussing the real issues: war and peace, the fight for economic and racial justice, reaffirming our Constitution, and the protection and enhancement of our environment.

Weiss broadens his critique to include writers like Thomas Frank, on whose analysis of working-class voting habits Obama's comments were clearly based:

Implicit in this theory, of course, is that the proles are too benighted to know their own interests, and that ultimately unelected left-leaning politicians have these always in mind.

Whether or not you agree with Frank's conclusions, it's surely a mistake to dismiss all such left-wing attempts to understand working-class conservatism as inherently patronising. To be sure, there's plenty of condescension towards the working class to be found in sections of the Left, particular among those whom Weiss has elsewhere described as 'poseur leftists' or 'faux-cialists' who are impatient with the proletariat for not fulfilling their historic role. But to me, there's a world of difference between the crude elitism of the 'false consciousness' brigade, and the more nuanced, empathetic - dare I say Gramscian? - attempts by a Frank or an Obama to understand why poor voters support parties that act against their interests. It's not all that different from Thompson's own analysis of 19th century Methodism, in which he is able to see both positive and negative elements.

Part of the problem is that Obama's sentence (and it was only one sentence, after all) rather clumsily ran together a number of very different kinds of things that people take refuge in when times are hard. There's a world of difference between religion (which Obama himself 'clings' to), gun ownership (about which he, and his detractors, are more ambivalent) and anti-immigrant sentiment (which most people find distasteful).

Even so, as I said before, I find Obama's clumsy honesty more attractive than the fake hands-thrown-up-in-horror reactions of his political opponents, who probably share his thinking but are careful not to air their thoughts in public. Eugene Robinson captures this well:

Clinton spent the weekend bashing Barack Obama for not seeming to be enough of a regular guy -- not for any actual deficit of regular-guyness, mind you, but for giving the impression that such a deficit might exist.


This whole sideshow began when Obama committed what she portrayed as the apparently unforgivable sin of trying to describe the resentment felt by some working-class Americans, venturing that "they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
This seemed "elitist . . . and, frankly, patronizing," Clinton charged. Never mind whether it actually was elitist, patronizing or, for that matter, inaccurate. No, the eagle-eyed Clinton took dead aim at a different target: the impression Obama might have given.

Robinson concludes:

Clinton's argument assumes that "regular" is a synonym for "unsophisticated" -- that to communicate with voters who have not attained a certain income or education level, a candidate has to put on an elaborate disguise and speak in words of one syllable.

So tell me: Who's being patronizing?

An unlikely feminist hero

Gary Thompson, at 51 the oldest British serviceman to die in Afghanistan or Iraq, went back to the RAF as a reservist after a career in business. Why? In February he told a local newspaper:

I have five daughters, three of whom are at university. I want women in Afghanistan to be given the same opportunities that my daughters have had. It means I can come back and say I have played my part in trying to make that happen.

Thompson was killed, with fellow airman Graham Livingstone, 23, when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in Daman district, Afghanistan.

Gary Thompson was the same age as I am when he died. For all my passionate support for women's rights, I doubt if I could do what he did. Sometimes feminist heroes are to be found in the unlikeliest places.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Yet another Cape Verdean star

How is it that Cape Verde, a tiny archipelago of islands off the west African coast, keeps producing such amazing (female) singers? Following in the wake of Cesaria Evora, Lura and Sara Tavares comes Mayra Andrade, who has just won the Radio 3 World Music Newcomer Award for 2008. 

Andrade was actually born in Cuba and has lived in Senegal, Angola and Germany, as well as Cape Verde, and is now based in Paris. Not surprisingly, the music on her debut album, Navega, is a rich mix of African, European and Brazilian influences. 

As this extract from a recent interview (conducted in French, and mixed with concert footage) shows, as well as being a hugely talented singer and songwriter, Mayra Andrade is also utterly charming:


For the complete interview, follow this link to the artist's website.

'She knows better. Shame on her.'

Barack fights back. And he's good:


Campaign trail no place for political analysis?

Barack Obama's comments about 'bitter' working-class voters continue to be squeezed for every last drop of political juice by the Clinton and McCain campaigns. Here's what Obama actually said:

Here's how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter). [...]

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, Obama's analysis here is similar to that advanced by Thomas Frank in What's the matter with Kansas? (published in the UK as What's the matter with America?). Like Frank's book, Obama's speech suggests thoughtful empathy, rather than elitist contempt, for the problems faced by working-class Americans. But, as Barack is now discovering, the nuanced critique of the political analyst doesn't translate well to the 24-hour news cycle. Someone in his campaign should have remembered that, in a saturation-coverage election, you can't say something about one group of voters to another group elsewhere in the country, without the first group finding out what you've been saying about them. To have said these things in San Francisco of all places, and in the week before a Pennsylvania primary whose outcome will depend on those working-class votes, was an unusual misjudgement for this usually surefooted campaign.

Those who wish Obama well have to hope that, as with his major speech on race last month, the voters will prefer honesty over the milking-it-for-all-its-worth duplicity of the Clinton campaign. In response to Obama's comments, Hillary has reinvented herself yet again, this time - improbably - as a devout, gun-toting, hard-drinking working-class gal. There are signs, though, that even some of Hillary's core demographic - white women - are growing tired of the way she has run her campaign.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Blaming Israel and the West for the ills of the Arab world

I was looking forward to the feature on contemporary Arab literature in yesterday's Guardian Review section. But my enjoyment was spoilt when I read the introductory piece by Ahdaf Soueif (missing, strangely, from the online version) which, while acknowledging the many problems facing the Arab world and Arab writers in particular, seemed determined to blame these on outside influences.

For example, Soueif described Israel as 'a stone thrown into the heart of the Arab world, the ripples from which, far from fading away, are building into a tidal wave.' This peculiar metaphor seems to suggest that Jews are an alien intrusion in the Middle East (ignoring their continuous presence in Palestine and other 'Arab' lands for more than two thousand years), while there is a distinct note of Ahmadinejadian menace in the analogy of the 'tidal wave' (sweeping away what, or whom, exactly?).

The Egyptian-born novelist also argues that 'for Arabs today there is...the overwhelming sense of being the targets of a new western imperialism.' But where is this 'imperialism' to be found, exactly? Whatever your opinion of recent conflicts, can a campaign to liberate a country from a brutal dictator, or UN-backed support for a democratic government against an extremist sect that harbours mass murderers be described as 'imperialist'? Doesn't 'imperialism' imply a desire to stick around and hold on to territory: whereas western governments are currently agonising about how to effect a speedy withdrawal from the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In short, rather than confronting the real causes of the many obstacles facing Arabs (including writers) - not least the flourishing of reactionary homegrown ideologies such as Ba'athism and Islamism - Soueif prefers to indulge in the easy cop-out of blaming the Arab world's problems on those familiar demons, Israel and the West.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

The big clunking fist strikes again

It appears that Gordon Brown, for all his vaunted affection for the USA, doesn't share my addiction to the American media. If he did, he would have known not to schedule an official visit to the States in the same week as the Pope, of all people, not to mention in the immediate run-up to the Pennsylvania primary. The chances of Gordon grabbing the headlines during his visit, and thus making up for his current familiarity-deficit among the American public, are consequently minimal, while the possibility of being overshadowed by the pontiff, and thus made to look second-rate rather than like a major world leader, is very real.

And what can you say about Brown's decision to hire Mark Penn to revive his political fortunes? Why would a left-of-centre leader, wishing to refresh his public image, look to a recently-discredited consultant who has not only mismanaged a presidential campaign but also been caught out in a money-making conflict of interest? Does Gordon think that British people don't follow events in the US and are unaware of Penn's sordid legacy? And if, as seems increasingly likely, Obama secures the nomination, what does it do for UK-US or Labour-Democrat relations if the PM has been consorting with the architect of Hillary Clinton's negative kitchen-sink campaign?

Gordon Brown has never been as deft an operator as his predecessor - the 'big clunking fist' was an unintentionally (?) accurate prediction by Blair - but he seems to be losing whatever political instincts he once had.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Cardinal wants privileged place for faith in public policy

Here we go again. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor thinks that our old friend 'aggressive secularism' is gaining ground in the UK. Not only that, he wants to roll back the tide of secularisation by ensuring that Christian leaders maintain their 'privileged position over the representatives of other faiths' in contributing to public policy.

The Guardian highlights the apparent contrast with his Anglican counterpart's recent sympathetic mutterings about Sharia law, citing the Cardinal's argument that multiculturalism has 'destroyed the unity that once held Britain together'. But both archbishops are really saying the same thing: that religion should be accorded pride of place in public debates, even though the majority of the population doesn't practise any kind of faith.

The Cardinal is probably right when he says that 'people are looking for a common good in this country' and asking 'What is it that binds British people together?' (Gordon Brown and his ministers seem to wring their hands over this question at least once a week, and come up with increasingly worrying answers - first oaths of allegiance to the Crown, and now proposals to militarise our schools.) But Murphy O'Connor is surely wrong to argue that 'there is no other heritage than the Judaeo-Christian heritage in this country' and that to abandon it and replace it with a 'totally secular view of life' would lead the nation down 'a very dangerous path'.

One grows a bit weary of banging on about this, but even if we acknowledge the important role played by religion in the early centuries of this nation's life, it's undeniable that many of the core values that we now accept as essentially British (or European, or American) developed out of a secularist criticism of religious authority, and often in the teeth of opposition from religious establishments - whether we're talking about freedom of belief and expression, or female suffrage and women's rights more generally.

And while it's nice of the Cardinal to acknowledge the Jewish and well as Christian foundations of our shared values (something you wouldn't have caught a Catholic leader doing fifty years ago), it makes you wonder how long it will be before religionists are arguing for a privileged position for Britain's 'Judaeo-Islamo-Christian heritage'. I confidently predict it's a phrase that will trip off the tongue of Rowan Williams or some other muddled multifaithist before the decade is out.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Free Tibet: from feudalism as well as Chinese tyranny

Apropos of this post, in which I shared my conflicted feelings about the Tibetan issue: I see Butterflies and Wheels links to this article, which dispels some of the myths about Tibet as a peace-loving Shangri La prior to the Chinese takeover. Much of what the article has to say about the feudalism, superstition and cruelty that flourished in this supposed Buddhist paradise is undoubtedly accurate. The only drawback is that the piece is written by Michael Parenti, a notorious Milosevic apologist with an apparent nostalgia for Stalinism, who characteristically lets the Chinese regime off extremely lightly. Surely it's possible to be critical of Tibet's feudalist past without lending moral support to the totalitarian cultural vandalism wrought by Beijing? Conversely, calling for self-determination for Tibet is not the same as endorsing a return to religious authoritarianism.

Holiday reading 3

Our brief Easter holiday in the sun provided an opportunity for some intensive poolside reading. Having read some rave reviews on the internet of Alan Furst's World War 2 spy novels , I decided to take along Night Soldiers, which I think was his first book. For left-leaning political history junkies, it's a must, taking in as it does the rise of fascism in Europe, the Russian NKVD, the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance, not to mention the origins of the American OSS. Furst manages to combine a wealth of historical and political detail with a pacy spy story, which is no mean feat.

My only criticism would be that it suffers at times from the tendency of first-time novelists to chuck in everything they know, and from an inability to resist stories that take the narrative off at odd tangents, not all of which are satisfactorily brought to a conclusion. And there's one howler, which undermines the reader's trust in the author's historical research. One episode is set in Russia on Christmas Eve: trouble is, the date is given as December 24, when it's common knowledge that the Russians celebrate Christmas in the first week of January.

Errors of a more trivial nature marred my enjoyment of another book - Sarfraz Manzoor's Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock 'n' Roll. This time the mistakes were the fault of the publisher, not the author: the book was spattered with spelling and punctuation errors, inconsistency in use of capitals, and at least one sentence which even a cursory re-reading would have revealed as making no sense at all. I noted a similar sloppiness on the part of Jonathan Cape when reviewing Andrew Anthony's book; this time the culprit was Bloomsbury, another supposedly reputable publishing company.

As for the book itself, I quite enjoyed Manzoor's autobiographical account of growing up in Luton in the 70s and 80s. The author's initial claim to fame was based on his fanatical enthusiasm for the music of Bruce Springsteen, and the supposed disparity with his British Asian identity. The Boss's lyrics are woven through this book, used as chapter titles and as sounding-boards for the narrator's conflicted feelings about family and identity as he's growing up. It's a lively account, though the thematic rather than chronological structure sometimes confuses. The sheer poverty experienced by many Asian migrants to Britain forty or so years ago comes across strikingly.

However, I thought the book lacked a clear focus. A closer focus on the experience of following Bruce and the inevitable tensions with a conservative Asian upbringing might have made it more coherent. The attempt to broaden the focus to deal with British Asian, and more specifically 'Muslim' identity, in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7, is less successful. I suspect the publishers saw an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon of 'Muslim memoirs' and encouraged Manzoor to go well beyond his usual musical and cultural concerns. Incidentally, the dustjacket's focus on religion jars a little: the book isn't about Manzoor's 'constant battle to reconcile being both British and Muslim': religion is hardly mentioned and the author makes no reference to being a practising Muslim. Rather, it's really about a tension between cultural identities: British and Pakistani, European and Asian. This creeping substitution of 'Muslim' for Asian or Pakistani plays into the hands of those fundamentalists who want Islam to be treated as an ethnicity or identity rather than simply a religion, and as something essential and ineradicable rather than a matter of individual choice.

And I finally got round to reading Linda Grant's When I Lived in Modern Times. I warmed immediately to its first-person narrative, which had the ease and directness of some of my favourite American authors, and which most British novelists somehow struggle to achieve. However, my enthusiasm cooled as the book progressed. Although I found the material fascinating, and particular passages - especially the final, melancholic return to Israel after long absence - very powerful, overall I thought the book lacked sufficient thematic focus and organisation. It was interesting to read Linda Grant in the Guardian last Thursday, writing about the way that some readers have misinterpreted the book as autobiography and have been disappointed to discover that it's 'made up.' The trouble is, it reads like autobiography. It's replete with the kind of detailed observation that seems drawn from first-hand experience, but which doesn't have much thematic consequence. The 'unity' of the book is the unity of a life, not of theme, which is a bold strategy in fiction, but also disconcerting for the reader.

The last of my poolside books was George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War, on which the recent Aaron Sorkin/Mike Nichols film was based. I'm still reading it, so a detailed review will have to wait.

Friday, 4 April 2008

The relevance of King and Kennedy, 40 years on

It's forty years today since the assassination of Martin Luther King. It's forty years, too, since Robert Kennedy, rejecting police warnings, decided to go ahead with a scheduled campaign stop in downtown Indianopolis, where he informed the shocked crowd of King's death. There are a number of clips of Kennedy's announcement on Youtube. This one's probably the best of the bunch, if you can ignore the Italian subtitles:

And here's a brief excerpt:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Democratic political analyst Ron Klain weaves together memories of the events of April '68 with the current US election campaign, and particularly the forthcoming Indiana primary, in an opinion piece in today's New York Times:

With so many people despairing of the long and hard-fought Democratic primary campaign this year, it’s worth remembering what happened 40 years ago, on April 4, 1968, during the last time that the Indiana primary was this significant.

Klain describes Kennedy's extemporised speech that night as 'one of the great speeches in American history.' He also claims that it had an immediate practical impact:

Riots, fires and violence broke out in more than 100 cities in the United States that night — but not in Indianapolis. A park and a memorial to nonviolence now stand at the spot where Kennedy’s words made such an incredible difference that night.

And Klein believes these events have a contemporary relevance:

Forty years later, whenever I hear people say that a politician’s speeches don’t matter, that campaigns are a waste and that the sort of conflict we have in the 2008 Democratic primary is “destructive,” I think of Robert Kennedy’s words in Indianapolis that night — a speech that would have never happened but for the hard-fought, highly competitive 1968 primary campaign — and the millions of people like me who were inspired by them and their impact on that city.

For all the complexity and conflict in the 2008 race, the anniversary of the Kennedy speech reminds us that campaigns can leave lasting legacies of activism and idealism. I see it in my own children this year, a son who is a rabid “Obamafan,” and a teenage daughter who is a devoted “Hillarista.” They are part of a new generation, for whom the 2008 campaign will be their “1968” — the start of a lifetime of involvement and participation in politics. With the Democratic Party set to nominate the first-ever major party African-American or female candidate this year, we are not just remembering history — and the vision of social change that Robert Kennedy so brilliantly set forth on April 4, 1968 — we are living it.

Or as Barack Obama might say (via Deval Patrick): Don't tell me words don't matter.

Normal service resuming soon

Just back from a brief holiday. Normal blogging will resume in a few days, so watch this space. In the meantime, thanks to those who sent good wishes on the occasion of this blog's first birthday. And, while you're waiting for new stuff, check out my debate with Roland and the New Centrist - on which candidate Euston Manifesto supporters should back in the US election - at the end of this post.  And on the same subject, check out this post from Bob, as well as the debate in the comments that follow. Meanwhile, the New Centrist and Chinese in Vancouver have picked up on my post about Tibet.