Friday, 28 November 2008

You couldn't make it up (?)

This sounds too much like a Private Eye parody to be true. It seems that an 'alternative' carol service was held at St. James's Piccadilly on Wednesday evening, in support of the Palestinian cause and in protest at Israeli policies. The words of some traditional Christmas favourites were apparently adapted for the occasion, as in this example:

While shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
Some occupying soldiers came
And bulldozed all around

'Fear not,' said one, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind
We will not do any harm
For we are good and kind

We're forced to confiscate your land
To build ourselves a fence
To keep our people safe from all
Your people's violence

Some fields will stay, although cut off
But access won't be banned
Yes, permits we will give to you
To visit your own land.

As I say, it's just the kind of nonsense you might find in a Dave Spart column or the Alternative Rocky Horror Service Book, so I'm wary about taking it too seriously. I couldn't find any mention of the service on the church's website, and there's a danger of being taken in by left-wing, secular versions of all those 'Post Office bans Christmas'  kind of stories. But I did wonder why there wasn't a verse about the shepherds being disturbed by a Katyusha rocket attack...

On the other hand, if the story has any truth, it's yet another example of the willingness of well-meaning but naive progressive-religious types to be taken in by pseudo-leftist posturing, and to adopt one-sided positions on the Israeli-Palestine question. Thankfully, not all Christians are amused.

(Via Red Maria, whose blog I discovered today by way of Shiraz Socialist)

Mumbai and the theology of death

What on earth can one say about the horrific events in Mumbai? Reading accounts of this latest massacre of the innocents, I was struck above all by the nihilism and sheer inhumanity of the terrorists. Never has the Al-Qaeda boast, 'You love life and we love death', seemed so fitting. While British and American passport-holders appear to have been targeted in at least one location, and the assault on a Jewish centre can hardly be accidental, it's the indiscriminate nature of the attack that stays in the mind. Indians and foreigners, Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Jews - all were regarded as legitimate targets by these coldhearted  fanatics.

At the Leopold Cafe, 'five men wielding AK-47 rifles charged in and opened fire without asking anyone to identify themselves. They lobbed hand grenades at the horrified onlookers'. At a busy railway terminus, 'gunmen shot up the reservation counter of the station, randomly sprayed passengers, believed to be entirely composed of Indian travellers and commuters, and fled.' In the lobby of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, according to Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim who was there, 'a gunman appeared in front of us, carrying machine-gun type weapons. And he just started firing at us'.

At lunchtime today, I listened to an insensitive, boneheaded Radio 4 presenter asking the Indian ambassador whether, given that the Mumbai attackers were probably Islamists, his government should now start attending seriously to the grievances of its Muslim population, as Britain had to do after 7/7.  It's enough to make you weep.  In something he wrote after 9/11, but which I can't find right now, Christopher Hitchens recalled asking some Chilean exile friends whether they were tempted to launch a similar attack on America, after the CIA-backed overthrow of Allende. They were horrified at the thought. Genuine radicals, those whose radicalism arises from a love of humanity and rage at inequality and injustice, don't tend to see the mass murder of innocent people as a legitimate tactic. The murderers of Mumbai, like the Baader-Meinhof killers that I wrote about the other day, were not reacting to 'grievances', unless they were grievances imagined in their twisted theology of victimhood, but acting out the logical dictates of a nihilistic and death-loving ideology. 

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The delusions of Father D'Escoto

Further evidence today of the tendency among some 'progressive' Christians to identify with the more extreme stances of the pseudo-left. Harry's Place reports that UN General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto, a former Roman Catholic priest, Nicaraguan foreign minister and holder of the Lenin Prize, has described Israel as an apartheid state and called for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions. This is the same Miguel D'Escoto who rushed to embrace Ahmadinejad after his antisemitic speech to the Assembly back in September. And if you were a Christian priest with any awareness of the history of Catholic antisemitism, would you be so crass as to use the word 'crucify' to describe Israel's treatment of the Palestinians?

Baader-Meinhof, terrorism and antisemitism

The release from prison of Christian Klar, one of the leaders of the Baader-Meinhof gang, and the appearance of a new film about the German terrorist faction, have focused renewed attention on a dark chapter in the history of the European left. The New Centrist links to a timely article by Jeffrey Herf, 'The Age of Murder: Ideology and Terror in Germany', which is worth reading in full. Herf enables us to see the Red Army Faction not only in the context of the development of the '60s New Left, but also in the specific context of German political history, with its repeated themes of antisemitism and totalitarian violence.

It's ironic, to say the least, that far left sects such as Baader-Meinhof justified their use of revolutionary violence on the basis of the supposed fascist tendencies of capitalist postwar Europe, when (as Herf shows) their own ideology and actions exhibited many of the symptoms of fascist reaction, including a love of symbolic violence and an increasing tendency towards antisemitism, demonstrated in their alliance with Palestinian terror groups and their notorious treatment of Jewish passengers during the Entebbe hijacking.  Herf suggests that the antisemitism of the German far left, and particularly its caricature of Israelis as 'new Nazis' in their treatment of the Palestinians (sound familiar?), can be seen as part of the complex and tortuous process of expunging collective national guilt about the Holocaust.

I haven't seen The Baader Meinhof Complex but, if the reviews are to be believed, it conveys a rather heavy-handed message about the need to understand the underlying causes of terror, and draws predictable parallels with contemporary responses to Islamist terrorism. However, Herf's article is a reminder that the terrorists of the Red Army Faction and the perpetrators of 9/11 and 7/7 were similar, not in their experience of injustice and an idealistic desire to liberate oppressed humanity, but in their shared background as educated, middle-class ideologues, driven by an inflexible dogmatism and without a scintilla of human feeling towards those they were 'liberating', many of whom were among their victims.

One of the most poignant features of Herf's piece is his detailed listing of the innocent victims of Baader-Meinhof violence, something he argues has been missing from many accounts of the events, with their tendency to glamorise the perpetrators. This quotation from Gabriele von Lutzau, a stewardess on the hijacked Lufthansa flight to Mogadishu, when asked if she wished to meet one of her former captors in order to discuss her motives, can stand as a riposte to all those who urge us to try to 'understand' terrorism:

I'm not interested in the background, in her history or in understanding her. This woman acted without a single moment of humanity. Her attitude was 'we are better than you. We're going the righteous way against Western imperialism'. Her distorted view of reality is not one I ever want to face again.'

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Rhetoric vs. reality in Venezuela

It appears that Hugo Chavez might not be as wildly popular as we had been led to believe. According to a New York Times report from Caracas:

From the hardened slums of this city to some of Venezuela's most popular and economically important states, many of President Hugo Chavez's supporters deserted him in regional elections, showing it is possible to challenge him in areas where he was once thought invincible.

And this wasn't a revolt of the privileged. Chavez did badly in some of the poor urban areas that might have been expected to support him:

In Petare, a sprawling area of slums on the eastern fringe of Caracas, long lines at polling stations snaked into alleyways on Sunday as voters delivered the area, part of a municipality long considered a Chavez bulwark, to Carlos Ocariz, a mild-mannered 37-year-old engineer.

'We punctured the myth that only Chavez can be a champion of the poor', said Eduardo Ramirez, 61, a political activist in Petare who campaigned for Mr. Ocariz.

'Chavez's rhetoric is one thing,' he said, 'but the reality is another when he  does nothing to stop the bloodshed on our doorstep.'

Among the losers in the elections was Mario Silva, the host of a programme on state television 
that regularly attacks Chavez's opponents. It was Silva who was in the news recently for his habit of broadcasting the cellphone conversations of opposition politicians.

The Venezuelan leader's reaction to the results should give pause for thought to those, like Tariq Ali, who have faith in Chavez's 'commitment to a democratically embedded social process'. Appearing on state television on Monday night, Chavez warned the opposition: 'Don't think you control Petare'. And with Silva trailing in the polls in Carobobo state, the president threatened to mobilise tanks in the area in the event of his ally's defeat.

Previous posts on Chavez and his apologists here , here , here , here , here and here.

As if threatening to use tanks against those who refuse to vote for you wasn't evidence enough of illiberal tendencies: Mick reports that Venezuela was one of only two non-Islamic countries (the other was that shining beacon of democracy, Belarus) to vote for a new UN anti-free-speech resolution outlawing the 'defamation' of religion.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Blogroll update

Restored to the blogroll: Terry Glavin (removed some time back due to prolonged silence), if only for his impressive reporting from Afghanistan, and for photos like this which speak volumes:

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Michael Tomasky on the US Left

I've been reading Michael Tomasky's Left for Dead: the life, death and possible resurrection of progressive politics in America. Writing way back in 1996, Tomasky often comes across like an American version of Nick Cohen avant la lettre. Although the book was published pre-Bush, pre-9/11, and pre-Obama, it still has insightful things to say about the wrong turnings taken by the US left, which turn out to be remarkably similar to some of the wrong turnings taken by the British and European left. 

I particularly liked the chapter on identity politics, entitled 'E Unum Pluribus' (OK, so the Latin grammar is wrong when you reverse it like this, but never mind), and the book's main plea, as I read it, is for a return to a progressive universalism based on Enlightenment values. It remains to be seen whether the Obama victory represents the kind of political realignment and revival of liberal-left values that Tomasky was hoping for all those years ago.

In the meantime, I'm hoping that Tomasky will be among those tempted to write up his coverage of the recent presidential electon in book form. There's already a slew of hot-off-the-press volumes available at Amazon, but most of them are by hack writers you've never heard of. The only 'proper' journalist who's so far owned up to writing a book on the campaign is MSNBC's Chuck Todd (for British readers: he's like an American version of Peter Snow, but with a real understanding of politics, and without the histrionics), and a documentary film that has followed the Obama campaign for the last two years is due out in the spring. On the basis of his classic account of Hillary Clinton's run for Senate, which I wrote about in this post, if Tomasky were to decide to pitch in and publish something about the presidential race, it would definitely be the one to read. How about it, Michael?

More on Tomasky here and here.

Some disconnected (?) thoughts on education

The Fat Man links to a scathing article by John Holford about the British government's utilitarian approach to higher education, evidenced in their appointment of an HE 'user consultation group' dominated by employers and with no representation from either academia or the trade unions. As Holford says, the attitude of the current administration is a betrayal of the 'generous, human and liberal' vision of education advanced by Labour luminary R.H.Tawney. Key quote from Holford:

No 'user' will speak for local communities; none for schools or hospitals; none for the old; none for charities or the voluntary sector; none for social movements; none for ethnic minorities; none for ordinary working people; none even for local authorities.

All this is, I regret, in keeping with recent government approaches to the role of higher education. Universities must not just play a part in 'driving up' skills: serving the economy is now their raison d'etre.

Yesterday's You and Yours on Radio 4 had a phone-in discussion on access to higher education. There was much talk about the 'value' of a degree, in which the general assumption seemed to be that going to university was solely about improving your job prospects. Many of the calls were from parents, who (partly as a result of changed funding arrangements) seem increasingly to view themselves as the consumers of higher education. Along with this new consumerism goes a growing demand for value for money: many of the callers were irate about the (low) number of hours of direct tuition received by their offspring, and no amount of fine talk about education being as much about learning as teaching, or about the autonomous learner, was going to satisfy them.

Finally, last week I attended a briefing about the government's new Children's Plan. There seemed to be a shift towards viewing the task of the school as promoting children's 'wellbeing', and a general downplaying of the emphasis on standards and attainment. I felt a bit conflicted about this. While I agree that schools should be concerned with the welfare of the whole person, I worry about any dilution of their primary focus on learning. There was also a lot of emphasis on learning having to be 'fun', which is all very well, but students also need to discover that understanding often comes about as the result of hard work and struggle. As with the 'happiness' agenda, to which it's linked, I tend to think that a sense of 'wellbeing' is one of the by-products of the insight, understanding and skills that education brings, not its direct aim.

There's probably a connection between these thoughts, but I don't have the time or energy to join the dots right now...

I've just come across this piece on the politics of 'wellbeing' by Pat Kane, from back in February 2007, in which he joins up the dots between the Gradgrindian 'appplied Presbyterianism' of Gordon Brown, evidenced in the government's vision of work as the solution to all social ills, and the paternalism of the 'happiness' agenda pushed by 'bureaucrat of bliss' Lord Layard. Couple of nice slogans from Kane: 'support our autonomy, don't prescribe our happiness', and 'get your hands off my soul'.

Monday, 17 November 2008

The limits of blowback theory

It would appear that the election of the first African-American president has been followed by a 'white backlash', with at least 200 'hate-related' incidents being reported.  According to the Christian Science Monitor:

In rural Georgia, a group of high-schoolers gets a visit from the Secret Service after posting 'inappropriate' comments about President-elect Barack Obama on the Web. In Raleigh, N.C., four college students admit to spraying race-tinged graffiti in a pedestrian tunnel after the election. On Nov. 6, a cross burns on the lawn of a biracial couple in Apolacon Township, Pa.

To be consistent, the Guardian's comment pages will need to cover this story in the following manner. Madeleine Bunting will have to write a hand-wringing explanation of how the attacks are an inevitable reaction to the 'provocation' of Obama's election, while urging us to understand the hurt feelings of a minority that has experienced systematic discrimination against its white supremacist beliefs. Jonathan Steele will surely need to remind us that these incidents have nothing to do with a supposed racist 'ideology', but instead have their root cause in the complex interplay of disadvantage and prejudice suffered by white people. And Seamus Milne will conclude that we shouldn't blame the perpetrators of the attacks but rather the American people, for having dared to elect a black president: in other words, as always, America is to blame.

Friday, 14 November 2008

'The stink of a looming betrayal'

At the Guardian/NYRB event that we attended in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, there seemed to be general approval among the panel for the idea of negotiating with the Taliban, and a welcome for news that the Bush government appeared to be  considering this path. At the time, this made me feel distinctly uncomfortable, though I couldn't quite say why. 

Now Terry Glavin's compelling report from Afghanistan has spelt out in stark terms why talking to the fundamentalist sect that oppressed the Afghani people and provided a safe haven to the perpetrators of 9/11 would be a mistake:

Among Kabul's human rights activists, student leaders and women's rights groups, the big fear isn't the spectre of Taliban militias rolling back into Kabul. The much greater threat comes from places like Washington, Tehran and Islamabad. It's the clamour for a backroom deal with the Taliban (with President Hamid Karzai's signature on it for the sake of appearances). The stink of a looming betrayal is everywhere, and Kabulis, betrayed so many times before, can smell it a mile away.

Glavin goes on to describe the emerging civil society that would be put at risk by any accommodation with the Taliban. He acknowledges that the security situation in Kabul is still far from ideal:

But there is also the new, real-world Kabul, out in the streets, where the bazaars are bursting with life and commerce, and raucous laughter erupts from back alleys where men sit around TV sets watching Afghan talk shows. This is the Kabul the Taliban hates so bitterly. Every morning, the streets are filled with schoolchildren. Even in the dingiest parts of this bomb-blasted metropolis, among the rickety vendors' stalls that sell cow heads and sheep guts, you can't turn a corner without coming upon another newly opened computer school, or a long line of unveiled women waiting for their literacy classes to open for the day.

Writing in the Guardian two days after the US election, Jonathan Steele urged Barack Obama to go back on his campaign promise to reinforce the fight against the Taliban: 'Nato's tentative new policy of talking to the Taliban should be expanded, so that foreign troops can be withdrawn from the south', he wrote. 'The trend should be to bring troops out, not send more in'. But then Steele also believes Obama should repudiate the war against terrorism, which he maintains is merely a 'technique...not an ideology'.

Let's hope that the President Elect is not swayed by these siren voices, and maintains his resolve to 'finish our mission in Afghanistan', not run away from it - for the sake of those unveiled women students in Kabul.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Two new blog discoveries

One of the great things about the blogosphere is the endless chain of connexions that can lead to new discoveries each time you go online. Via this post at Harry's Place, I found my way to Marc Cooper's excellent blog, including this post which skewers Judith Butler's sniffy response to Obama's victory and also links to some great pictures from the campaign trail. And thanks to the blogroll over at On A Raised Beach, I came across Matt Sellwood's blog, Anglo-Buddhist Combine. Matt, a former Green Party councillor, describes himself as an Anglican Buddhist communist. He sounds just as mixed-up as me.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

America in the World

Don't know much about it yet, but this new British-based initiative to combat anti-Americanism looks like it's worth supporting. Shame they got David Cameron to do the launch, though.

More Mormon insensitivity

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been criticised for using its considerable financial muscle to quash the marriage rights of gay people (latest updates here and here). Now the Mormons are under fire for trampling on the religious rights of the dead.

Despite being an undeniable boon to family historians, the Mormon habit of retrospectively baptising their ancestors has always seemed weird to outsiders. But when this extends to proxy baptisms of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, it becomes downright offensive. Ernest Michel, honorary chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, speaking on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, claimed that the practice played into the hands of Holocaust deniers:

They tell me that my parents' Jewishness has not been altered but...100 years from now, how will they be able to guarantee that my mother and father of blessed memory who lived as Jews and were slaughtered by Hitler for no other reason than they were Jews, will someday not be identified as Mormon victims of the Holocaust?

Seems like a good time to replay this little gem. The theology lesson starts around 4 minutes 45 seconds in:

A lifelong Mormon explains why Proposition 8 made her leave the church, and protestors rally outside the Mormon temple in New York. Best placard award: 'Brigham Young had 55 wives. I just want one'.

Olbermann on 'horrible' Prop 8 vote

Keith Olbermann's impassioned journalistic style is easily satirised, but I'm a fan and I loved the moment last Tuesday night when, his voice filled with emotion, Olbermann announced that MSNBC was ready to call the election for Barack Obama. 

Olbermann's latest 'Special Comment', directed at the supporters of Proposition 8, struck me as slightly lower-key than usual (perhaps he was stung by Ben Affleck's impersonation on Saturday Night Live) but it was still powerful and heartfelt, and I agreed with every word. Money quote:

This isn't about yelling, and this isn't about politics, and this isn't really just about Prop-8. And I don't have a personal investment in this: I'm not gay, I had to strain to think of one member of even my very extended family who is, I have no personal stories of close friends or colleagues fighting the prejudice that still pervades their loves.

And yet to me this vote is horrible. Horrible. Because this isn't about yelling, and this isn't about politics. This is about the....human heart, and if that sounds corny, so be it.

A marginal saint?

Today is St. Martin's Day, the feast of St. Martin of Tours, soldier, friend to the poor and, as I mentioned in this post, an early advocate of the separation of church and state. 

The feast of 'Sintmaarten' is a big deal in the Netherlands, apparently.In Portugal, according to Sarah at Cafe Turco, the period around St. Martin's Day is thought of as a time 'when the weather gets warmer and sunnier before Autumn definitely comes'. Even in Britain, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the term 'Saint Martin's Summer' was used in the past to refer to the 'brief warm spell' around this time of year, before the winter months began in earnest. 

Hmm. For the last few days this corner of the country has witnessed lowering skies and torrential downpours. Today is forecast to be 'windy with showers'. 

Update at 9.45 am
The sun is now shining, for the first time in days. Saints alive! But unfortunately it's not warm enough for the beach (see comment from Sarah below).

Sunday, 9 November 2008

MSM belatedly notice 'West Wing' similarities

Of relevance to this post: the mainstream media finally catch on to what everyone else has been talking about for months, bless 'em: 

Saturday, 8 November 2008

New links

Added to my resources list:, the new website of the Office of the US President-elect, a promising sign that the inclusive, internet-powered style of the Obama campaign will continue as they prepare for government.

Added to my blogroll: a direct link to Michael Tomasky's blog at 'Comment is Free', one of the best commentaries on the campaign and an indispensable day-by-day guide to the coming transition.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Bishops fail to deter Catholics from voting for Obama

Via Norm: a breakdown of how different religious groups voted in the US presidential election (percentages for Obama on the left, McCain on the right):

45 54 Protestant
54 45 Catholic
78 21 Jewish
24 74 Evangelical Christians

Norm sees an important message in the overwhelming Jewish vote for Obama (if nothing else, it demonstrates that those who tried to alienate Jewish voters by misrepresenting the Democratic candidate as anti-Israel failed miserably). Others have pointed to the slight swing to Obama among evangelical Christians: younger evangelicals seemed positively to like his message, while the rest were just never very keen on McCain. Could this mark the begin of the end for the religious right as a political force?

I was encouraged by the fact that Obama won the majority of the Catholic vote (something that devout Catholic John Kerry failed to do in 2004), despite the best efforts of some members of the hierarchy to convince their flock that voting for the pro-choice Obama was equivalent to endorsing homicide and might even imperil their immortal souls. In the end, it seems that most Catholic voters preferred to support the candidate whose position echoed Catholic teaching on a whole range of moral and social issues, rather than follow those who, once again, tried to turn the election into a referendum on a single issue - abortion. For these voters it must also be gratifying that the vice-president-elect is, like Kerry and Ted Kennedy, a devout but liberal-minded Catholic.

Obama Santos story enters new phase

Via Huffington Post: a report that the authorities have acted swiftly to tighten security around the Obama family home. According to the Chicago Sun-Times: 'Hyde Park Blvd. next to the Obama family home is now closed for a block on either side of the house in addition to Obama's own street being closed off'. (Is that why you can't access 'street view' on Google Maps for the section of Hyde Park Boulevard closest to the Obama house, or am I just being paranoid?)

West Wing cognoscenti will remember that in the final season, following Matt Santos' victory in the presidential election, his wife initially insisted that she and the children would continue living in the family home in Houston. She changed her mind when security staff presented her with plans for securing their street, which included installing guard posts at either end. 

A lot of people have found their way to this blog in the last few days by googling 'Obama Santos' or similar, so to help them, here's a round-up of my posts on the many eerie similarities between the real-life and fictional presidential candidates (I'm sure it won't be the last one, as we look forward to the 8th season of The West Wing - sorry, the Obama presidency):

Looks like we have the next instalment already. Apparently Obama's chief-of-staff-to-be Rahm Emanuel was the inspiration for WW character Josh Lyman, who as everyone knows was appointed by Matt Santos as chief of staff (or 'the Leo role' as we Westwingers describe it) at the end of Season 7, having served as his campaign manager and before that as deputy chief of staff in the Bartlet White House.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Lazy anti-Americanism in charity's reaction to Obama win

In a recent post I wrote about the tendency of many progressive Christians to identify with the some of the wackier fringes of the left, particularly when it comes to lazy anti-Americanism. I came across another example today, in the reaction of Christine Allen, executive director of Progressio (formerly the Catholic Institute for International Relations) to the election of Barack Obama.

After quoting Allen's entirely laudable aspiration that an Obama-led government would be 'an opportunity to build new relationships and partnerships between countries' and lead to 'real dialogue between leaders of North and South', the Progressio website adds this:

In Muslim countries too, says Allen, people hear America talk of 'freedom and democracy' but their experience is of occupying forces and Guantanomo Bay. 'For too long this has smacked of hypocrisy', says Allen. 'Our hope is that the message and the reality of US actions are integrated in a new, more collaborative approach to foreign policy'.

While heartily endorsing the hope that the new president will act swiftly to close Guantanomo, and swallowing my irritation at the term 'Muslim countries' [see footnote], this is surely too onesidedly anti-American for the leader of a (presumably) politically neutral charity. Nothing here about the US coming to the aid of the Muslim populations of Bosnia and Kosovo, liberating the Muslims of Afghanistan from the inhuman tyranny of the Taliban, or (whatever you think of the decision to go to war) helping to establish the first democratic elections in Iraq for decades. Nothing, either, about the miserable lack of 'freedom and democracy' in most of the 'Muslim world', if we have to use that archaic term. I wonder what Christine Allen has in mind when she talks about a more 'collaborative' approach to foreign policy: precisely which advocates of 'freedom and democracy' among governments in the Middle East would she like the new US government to 'collaborate' with?

Footnote: re. my annoyance at the term 'Muslim countries'. Nations, like neighbourhoods, do not have a religion. A majority of the population may subscribe to a particular faith - hence my preference for the compromise term 'Muslim-majority countries', if we have to mention religion at all. But to identify a whole country with a religion is to disenfranchise those of other faiths or none who live there - not something the director of a Christian charity, of all people, should be doing, surely. We don't any longer (unless we're the present Pope, or a member of the religious right) refer to Britain or America as Christian countries, so let's not fall into the same trap when it comes to other faiths. This may seem pedantic, but to adopt this habit is to lend succour to the Islamists, who (like their Christianist counterparts in the west) would love to roll back the separation of religion and the state, in public discourse as well as in political practice.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The victory speech

A classic speech for an historic moment.  A couple of points:

Michael Tomasky must have the power of prophecy. When we heard him speak last week in San Francisco, he suggested that Obama's first act as president should be to visit the state where he scored the lowest vote, and tell them he would be their president too. Here's an excerpt from Obama's speech last night:

To those Americans who support I have yet to earn: I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too.

And to those liberal interventionists and anti-totalitarian progressives who still have doubts about president-elect Obama's foreign policy, mark these words:

To those who would tear the world down: we will defeat you.

A transformational moment

I woke at 5 this morning, UK time, hardly daring to turn on the radio, still fearful of disappointment. When I finally plucked up courage, I heard Barack Obama, speaking to a crowd, his voice sounding tired and sombre. What was this - a concession speech? a victory celebration? It wasn't clear. Then I switched on the laptop and the words gradually swam into focus...McCain concedes...record turnout...overwhelming victory...and, almost unbelievably, President-elect Obama.

So, finally, after two years of campaigning, it was all over. Farewell then, and good riddance, to 3 a.m. phone calls, bittergate, hockey moms and Joe the Plumber. It's time to turn the page. A new chapter in American history starts here.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Decision time

A lovely photo by Chris Hondros of an Ohio State University student voting in the presidential election today (via).

'30 Rock': it gets better

A propos of this post (which seems to have scored more hits, especially in the States, than anything else I've posted in a while - thanks,, Andrew over  at Wongablog agrees with my assessment of McCain's performance and the odd dissonance with his campaign persona.

Tina Fey's Palin impersonation has led Andrew to check out 30 Rock. Same here: and I agree with him that the first series takes a while to get going. Initially, I was disappointed that the show failed to live up to its glowing reviews. 'Best TV comedy since Friends'? Hardly. One of the things I admire about the best US comedy shows is the way they present sympathetic characters in believable story-lines - unlike many of their British equivalents, with their tired cardboard stereotypes - as well as making you laugh. In fact, the comic impact is often enhanced because you believe in, and empathise with, the characters. By contrast, the characters in 30 Rock often come across as two-dimensional, and the situations in which they find themselves merely wacky set-ups for clever one-liners.

The good news is, it gets better. When we were in the US last week, we bought the second season on DVD, and it's much funnier. The characters have greater depth and the political in-jokes are sharper, as is the use of cameo celebrity appearances. 

As for Andrew's comment about Tina Fey's effect on left-wing heterosexual males: I couldn't agree more.

You say Obaaama...

I wonder why Jon Snow insists on pronouncing the Democratic presidential candidate's surname as 'ObAMMA', as in Alabama, rather than 'ObAAMA', as in drama, like everyone else? He was at it again last night, on Channel 4 News, and most distracting it was too.

I once had a Sunday school teacher who pronounced Esau as 'Esoo', and at university I knew someone who repeatedly pronounced Evelyn Waugh as 'Evelyn Woe', even when everyone else in the room was using the correct pronunciation.

I've often wondered how people with this idiosyncrasy manage not to be swayed by those around them. Does it signify a failure in listening skills (unlikely in Snow's case) or a supreme self-confidence, perhaps deriving from a certain kind of class background (which does ring true for Jon)?

Monday, 3 November 2008

One day to change the world

On the eve of the US election, Andrew Sullivan sets out at length why those who believe in American democracy, and take seriously the internal and external threats ranged against it, should support Barack Obama for president. Closing quote:

(T)here is something about his rise that is...supremely American, a reminder of why so many of us love this country so passionately and are filled with such grief at what has been done to it and in its name. I endorse Barack Obama because I will not give up on America, because I believe in America, and in her constitution and decency and character and strength.

And the world needs that America now as much as it ever has. Can we start that healing, that rebirth, tomorrow?

Yes. We. Can.

Know hope:

Wear your poppy with pride - but not too early

Is it just me, or are Remembrance Day poppies appearing earlier every year? We're still a week away from the actual day, but politicians and newsreaders have been sporting poppies in their lapels since mid-October. In fact, there seems to be a kind of more-patriotic-than-thou competition among public figures, to see who can be first with their display of nationalistic pride.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not knocking the Poppy Appeal itself. Quite the opposite. Despite a brief youthful dalliance with the white poppy crowd, I'm a firm believer in this expression of remembrance for those who served their country in the past, and gratitude to those who are still doing so, particularly in the frontline of the difficult fight against Islamist terror in Afghanistan. It's just that I think extending the period when poppies are worn runs the risk of cheapening the occasion, rather like (if you'll forgive the trivial comparison) those Comic Relief red noses you used to see on cars months after the event.

So let's reclaim this important national ritual from the look-at-how-serious-and-patriotic-I-am brigade and resolve, while donating generously to the appeal, to wear our poppies only in the few days leading up to Remembrance Sunday, thus preserving its sombre uniqueness.

Did 'SNL' show us the 'real' John McCain?

John McCain was genuinely funny in his Saturday Night Live appearance (alongside Tina Fey, reprising her Sarah Palin impression, one hopes for the last time) at the weekend. He demonstrated that if (as I fervently hope) this presidential thing doesn't work out for him, he could have an alternative career as a comedian, or at the very least as a genial chat-show host.

Perhaps it's simply that McCain performs well when he's given a good script, and the role allotted to him in this campaign by Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis is one that runs counter to his real strengths. Anyway, as Andrew Sullivan wrote after McCain's equally hilarious performance at the Al Smith Dinner, it's of no consequence: this amiable, self-mocking version of John McCain isn't running for office this year. Instead, the American people have been presented with an increasingly erratic, impulsive and shameless politician who doesn't deserve to win.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Five Days in San Francisco: Part Four: MOMA, MLK, Maupin, 'Milk' - and Pelosi

Tuesday, our last full day in San Francisco, began with a visit to the Yerba Buena Arts complex, just south of Market Street. We walked past the stunning new Contemporary Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind (about whom I wrote here):

We then crossed the gardens to view the Martin Luther King memorial:

But our main destination this morning was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The guide books are right to say that the gallery's permanent collection struggles to live up to the building in which it's housed. SF MOMA's main strength lies in mid-twentieth century pop art, though the famous Jeff Koons sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimp wasn't on display when we visited. I was more interested in the small selection of Post-Impressionist and Expressionist works on view, including a temporary exhibition of Paul Klee's sketchbooks. There were also some good pieces by Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and I liked this Vermeer-ish work by Gerhard Richter:

In the afternoon we decided to visit Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower, going via Battery Street so that our fifteen-year-old son could make a pilgrimage to Linden Lab, home of Second Life. Then it was a steep climb up the Filbert Steps, accompanied by parrots chirping in the trees above, passing hillside houses that could have served as locations for Tales Of The City (Maupin lived around here while writing the books). 

We didn't actually go up the Coit Tower, but the views from the surrounding gardens were breathtaking, and it was good to see the Rivera-inspired murals around the base of the tower, their social realism a reminder of San Francisco's radical heritage.

Returning to our hotel, we found ourselves mingling with security men in shades and earpieces, as limousines drew up and disgorged guests arriving for that evening's world premiere of Milk at the Castro Theater. The movie is based on Randy Shilts' biography of Harvey Milk, the gay San Franciscan district supervisor who was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, in 1978. I had brought the book along to read on the flight, having already seen the brilliant documentary film by Rob Epstein.  We retreated to the relative quiet of the hotel lounge, seating ourselves in a strategic position so we could see any celebrities who might happen to stroll through the lobby.

As we sat there, I noticed a familiar face, not to mention a familiar cream pantsuit, at a nearby table. It was none other than Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, taking afternoon tea with a couple of associates. She may have been there for the premiere, or simply passing through her home congressional district. Either way, it took a long time for us to catch the attention of the waitress, who was understandably preoccupied attending to the needs of the most powerful female politician in the country.

That evening, as we set out for a meal downtown, the Milk guests were assembling in the hotel lobby, waiting for their transport to the movie. Unfortunately the premiere had been sold out weeks before, so we were unable to join them. We didn't spot any more celebrities, but we did notice a large number of 'No on 8' badges.

On Wednesday morning, we did some last-minute shopping in Union Square before a final lunch at Scala's, and then got ready to leave for the airport. As we sped down the freeway, the driver had the car radio tuned to KCSM, the Bay Area jazz station that I often listen to via the internet when I'm working at home. Then there was one final celebrity sighting before take-off: in the departure lounge we saw a man and woman being filmed as they walked backwards along the moving walkway. I was informed by my son that the man was Tay Zonday, who apparently is some kind of Youtube star, probably recording his new video.

And so it was farewell to sunny San Francisco, and back to the wind and snow of England. We hadn't managed to do everything we wanted in our brief visit - Golden Gate Park, Haight-Ashbury and the Civic Center will have to be on the itinerary for a future visit. At the end of the day, H. and I are probably more East Coast than West Coast kind of people, but the five days we spent in this sparklingly diverse muddle of a city had been enormously enjoyable and endlessly stimulating.

Five Days in San Francisco: Part Three: the Guardian/NYRB event

A few weeks before our visit to San Francisco, we found out that the Commonwealth Club would be hosting a panel discussion of the presidential election in the city during our stay, in association with the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, to mark the new collaborative arrangement between the two publications. The panel was to be chaired by Bob Silvers, founder and co-editor of the NYRB, and would include NYRB regular contributor Thomas Powers,  New York Times columnist Frank Rich, Guardian journalist Martin Kettle, and the editor of Guardian America, Michael Tomasky (whose work I praised in this post). For US political obsessives like us, this was just too good to be true, and we wasted no time in booking tickets for the event online.

So last Monday evening we joined about 250 others in the ballroom of the JW Marriott, just off Union Square, to hear what these commentators had to say about the state of the race, with just a week to go before election day. It was an illuminating if frustratingly short discussion: the event was being recorded for a radio programme and had a one-hour cut-off time, which meant that it ended just as it started to get interesting. This being a left-ish panel, and a fairly liberal audience, there was eager, but nervous anticipation of an Obama victory, and much cautious use of the subjunctive: 'If the polls turn out to be accurate, if he should win ...' etc.

A few highlights: Tom Powers believed that the main problem facing a new president would be Afghanistan, which he thought had the potential to turn into a military and political quagmire, comparable to Russia's experience in that country, or to Vietnam. He made the interesting conjecture that, since John McCain spent most of the Vietnam war in a Hanoi gaol, he failed to experience at firsthand either the deep opposition to the war back home, or the huge social changes that took place in his absence.

Martin Kettle spoke about the reaction to the election abroad, claiming that if the rest of the world had a vote, it would have already elected Barack Obama. He talked about the depth of anti-American sentiment in Europe and elsewhere, arguing that it predated the Bush administration, and seemed to suggest that one of the new president's responsibilities would be to counter this negative attitude. In my opinion, Kettle failed to acknowledge that anti-Americanism might not be solely the fault of the US, or the role of publications like his own in stoking its flames.

Answering a question about the so-called Bradley effect, as to whether white voters would support a black candidate in the secrecy of the polling booth, Frank Rich cited the evidence of the primaries and asked rhetorically, why won't people take 'yes' for an answer? Michael Tomasky said that the Obama campaign was the most disciplined political operation he had witnessed in his many years of covering elections, and drew applause with his response to the question as to what would be his first act if he were the new president. Obama-like, he said he would immediately travel to the state where he had won he fewest votes and give a speech in which he stated that he was their president too and that he would be be a president for all Americans.

You can hear the podcast of the event here, see Michael Tomasky and Frank Rich in conversation after the event in this 'Tomasky Talk' on the Guardian website (I know it was the same evening, since they're wearing the same clothes as when we saw them), watch Tomasky and Kettle in conversation at one of their next stops here, and read Kettle making some of the points he made in the discussion in this article.

It was fascinating to be in America in pre-election week, and to watch the wall-to-wall TV coverage 'live', rather than served up in predigested extracts via the internet. There was perhaps less evidence of election fever on the streets than we had expected, though I overheard a few tantalising snatches of conversation in shops and on street corners, and it was interesting to see at firsthand the way national and local issues mingle in American elections. For every Obama-Biden sign in an apartment window (this being San Francisco, there were very few McCain-Palin ones), there were as many appeals to vote for X for district supervisor, or to support or oppose this or that proposition. The number of propositions on which Californians were being asked to express an opinion seemed endless: while we were there, the San Francisco Chronicle helpfully listed them for its readers, and I seem to recall there were about a dozen numbered propositions and as many denoted by letters. The most contentious, of course, is Proposition 8, which aims to ban gay marriage, and about which liberal San Francisco is much exercised.

We failed miserably in our attempt to bring back any Obama memorabilia from our trip, unable in the short time we were there to find out where everyone was getting their badges and bumper stickers. The nearest we came was this display of election trivia in Borders, which included a McCain doll and Obama playing-cards:

And I liked this creative defacing of the new iPod ad which we came across on Chestnut Street:

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Five Days in San Francisco: Part Two

On Monday, our second full day in San Francisco, we were determined to get a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. The morning fog hung over the tops of buildings as we made our way up Nob Hill, past the city's smartest hotels and past Grace Cathedral, a vast, perfect replica of a medieval Gothic cathedral (as with the fake Porziuncula, my reaction was: impressive, but why bother?). We then turned into Hyde Street, which runs north all the way to the waterfront. The route was more up and down than we had bargained for, but it was interesting to walk through laid-back Russian Hill, and to pass by the zig-zag bends of Lombard Street

It was still misty and cool when we reached Ghirardelli Square, a former chocolate factory turned into an upscale shopping centre, where we stopped for coffee. We then traced a route westward around Fort Mason until we came to the Marina district, from which we got our first views of the bridge, its rust-red towers shimmering in the pale blue sky, as the fog finally cleared away. 

It being a working day, the area was quiet, with just the odd dog walker and guy with a fishing rod on the waterside path. Seeing us struggling with the map, a local cyclist stopped and pointed out the way to the nearest shops and restaurants. So we turned inland, gawping at the exclusive residences lining the streets back from the marina, until we hit Chestnut Street, with its attractive mix of affluence and edginess: this neighbourhood shopping street has its own Apple Store and two branches of Gap, not to mention a glut of trendy eateries. Purely by chance, we hit on the Grove cafe for lunch, and once again found we had made the right choice.

Rather recklessly, we decided to walk back through Pacific Heights, climbing the precipitously steep hill of Filmore Street as far as the intersection with California Street, then up and down all the way back to Nob Hill and onward to our hotel. The effort was worth it: on the way, we passed some attractive examples of San Francisco Victoriana, many of them extravagantly decked out for Halloween. Many of these buildings would have made an ideal location for a horror movie about the deserted house at the end of the street.

We returned early to our hotel, to prepare ourselves for the evening's excursion to the Commonwealth Club of California: about which more in the next post.