Saturday, 25 July 2009

Going west

Tomorrow we're off to St. Ives. Normal blogging will resume around 3rd August.

United for Iran

Today is a global day of action in solidarity with the people of Iran. Here's Reza Aslan:

A saint of social action

Every now and then I read about someone who has managed to combine in their life elements that remain fragmented and conflicted in my own - and to accomplish things that make the achievements of ordinary mortals seem trifling. Yesterday's Guardian carried an obituary for Vicente Ferrer, who fought for the POUM during the Spanish Civil War and was imprisoned by Franco, then trained to be a Jesuit priest, with the idea of 'helping others':

In 1952 he volunteered to go to India. At first he devoted himself to his spiritual development in Pune, but, surrounded by desolation, he soon moved from reflection to action. He started with a school and 12 acres of land at Manmad, north-east of Mumbai. In an arid area, he persuaded farmers to dig wells, offering them oil and wheat while they dug. Then, the digger of one well would help another, in a system Ferrer termed "linked brotherhood".

He was to spend the rest of his life in India, entering into conflict with landowners and political bosses because of his co-operative methods, emphasis on education and challenges to the caste system and to the subjugation of women. He lived and worked among the poorest, especially the dalits (untouchables), who lacked all rights and were mostly illiterate.

Ferrer's approach was rather different from that other European missionary in India, Mother Theresa:

"Misery and suffering are not meant to be understood, but to be solved," and "I've declared war on pain and suffering" were two phrases that helped him raise money, not just from leftwing Catholics (he was never friends with the church hierarchy, who were unrepresented at his funeral) but from a wide base of donors.

His achievements seem to have been nothing short of heroic:

By the time of Ferrer's death, his foundation had opened and supported 1,700 village schools, serving 125,000 children and employing 2,000 teachers, and three general hospitals with 1,300 staff. It had planted 3m trees and opened libraries, an Aids clinic and family-planning clinics. It organised wells and irrigation schemes. Several projects focus on women, especially dalits, whose lives are blighted by constant childbearing, rape and murder.

If you have to have saints, then Ferrer sounds like a pretty good candidate.

Friday, 24 July 2009


We're off to Cornwall at the weekend, and while we're away we'll be celebrating a special wedding anniversary. That's my only excuse for posting this nuptially-themed video (plus it's Friday afternoon, and I'm a sucker for these viral things):

The pathology of Chavismo

Via Mick: a fascinating and deeply troubling analysis of state-sponsored anti-semitism in Venezuela:
Over the past four years, Venezuela has witnessed alarming signs of state-directed anti-Semitism, including a 2005 Christmas declaration by President Hugo Chávez himself: “The World has enough for everybody, but some minorities, the descendants of the same people that crucified Christ, and of those that expelled Bolívar from here and in their own way crucified him. . . . have taken control of the riches of the world.”
The article also highlights other pathological features of Chavez' authoritarian ideology, including rabid homophobia and a habit of characterising opponents of the regime, as 'escuálidos' or 'squalids', 'a Spanish term that connotes not only dirtiness and abjection, but also flimsiness, wimpiness, and scrawniness.' Moreover: 'What Chavista opponents—be they escuálidos, patos, or Gringo-Zionist-Imperialists—have in common is shit. Chávez routinely calls his opponents “plastas” (“lumps of shit”).' Freud would have a field day.

The authors of the Boston Review article, Claudio Lomnitz and Rafael Sánchez, point to another aspect of Chavez' rule that is distinctly reminiscent of totalitarian regimes:
Instead of political parties, representative institutions, and, above all, ideologies, Chavismo manifests as a physical relationship between the people and Chávez, with, as Chávez himself describes, love as the potent glue connecting them.Thus during the recent campaign for the referendum to abolish presidential term limits, the widespread slogan,Amor con amor se paga” (“love must with love be repaid”), which captures the notion that Chávez’s love for the people comes with a corresponding obligation.

As Lomnitz and Sánchez explain: 'The problem with substituting rights with a language of love is that dissent suggests lack of love, or ingratitude, or a sign of allegiance to a foreign enemy: capitalism, the “Euro-Gringo imperialism,” or even, for Chávez, Zionist-Fascist-Euro-Gringo Imperialism.'

We've been here before, I think. As the authors of the article conclude: 'When a regime relies on populism, military uniforms, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, it is time to worry.'

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Kolakowski continued

A couple more Kolakowski-related recommendations:

Norm defends Marx against Oliver's Kolakowski-inspired dismissal of his legacy


Michael Weiss gives his own take on the Polish philosopher's spat with E.P.Thompson.

(Incidentally, I haven't looked in on Michael's blog for a while: I'd also recommend his recent posts on - inter alia - Kruschev, Byron and - going back a bit - the subversion of the UN Human Rights Council by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.)

A different kind of Palestinian refugee

A female journalist from Gaza has been granted asylum in Britain. Some extracts from her case:

Whilst writing at university, she developed an interest in “gender understanding” [...] She became deeply concerned and aware of gender issues. She in fact became recognised as a “woman’s rights advocate”. Her focus was always on how women were being affected. She was concerned with improving the situation for Palestinian women.


The Appellant became much exercised about the influence of Hamas, especially when they took power in Gaza in June 2007 and this continues to affect her. [...] From June 2007 until the present, she gradually came to realise that Hamas was not only a political institution or party, but much more than that. Gaza has slowly become an Islamic republic and is transforming into an extremist environment.


Having an opinion contrary to Hamas is tantamount to supporting Israel. During the course of her evidence, she explained that she was, for example, strongly opposed to the use of suicide bombers to murder Israeli civilians. She is strongly opposed to the politics of Hamas. She characterises them as self-destructive, violent and counter productive.


She cannot return to Gaza and at the same time write or express anti-Hamas views without being accused of being a betrayer by not supporting Hamas. Nor can she return and remain quiet about what she believes in and write what she wishes to write. She cannot support Hamas and write positively about them. She wishes to continue to express her views and would not be able to do this without fear of persecution were she to be returned to Gaza.


A woman with her views would be seen as strongly anti-Hamas. She has studied for a long time in the West and has appreciated life there, especially as far as equality between men and women are concerned. Gazan women are told that they are to be killed if they refuse to follow the Islamic expectation that women cover up.


She recalled the early years of the establishment of Hamas and how acid was used to terrorise women and force them to wear the hijab. Many were beaten and abused because they refused to conform.


The Appellant asserts that during the last few years, Hamas has been more rigid and fundamentalist than ever. Wearing the hijab is universally implemented in secondary schools. It is even widely spread in elementary schools. Girls as young as seven wear it. She believes that imposing a law compelling the wearing of a hijab degrades those women who do not want to conform to the code. She asserts that she stands for what she believes in and does not want to have to compromise her views. Her refusal to wear a hijab is a further “core issue” on her return as she would be spotted as a non-conformist Palestinian woman. She will be confronted by men and asked to cover up.


The issue of the hijab is only one aspect of her ‘feminist’ stances. She would continue working for human rights and women’s rights, which contradicts Hamas’s ideology. The effect of returning her would be to oblige her to change from an independent, motivated and ambitious role model to a subordinated wife whose only dream is to produce as many children as possible. She would be seriously harmed or killed for standing up for her own beliefs.

Anyone on the left, and especially any feminist, who persists in the insane illusion that Hamas is somehow 'part of the global left', should read the whole thing.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Saint Che

The Guardian does its bit today for the canonisation of Che Guevara, getting all excited about newly-discovered photos of the Cuban martyr 'as you've never seen him before - in colour' (!), and publishing an interview with his daughter, Aleida, which is a piece of shameless hagiography. Interviewer Libby Brooks is clearly smitten:
Guevara's legacy, she tells me, is his life. "My father knew how to love, and that was the most beautiful feature of him – his capacity to love." She touches my arm. "To be a proper revolutionary, you have to be a romantic. His capacity to give himself to the cause of others was at the centre of his beliefs – if we could only follow his example, the world would be a much more beautiful place."
The article is a slice of uncritical propaganda that could have been lifted directly from the literature of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, which is organising Aleida Guevara's trip to Britain, and whose contact details are helpfully given at the end of the article. Che comes across as an idealistic visionary and man of the people who still found time (don't they always?) to be a doting father. The only villain in the story is, of course, the United States and its 'vicious embargo' (not in quote marks in the original).

Nowhere does Brooks offer any challenge to Aleida's portrayal of her father as some kind of secular saint, or suspect that she is being used as a channel for Cuban state propaganda. You'll search in vain in the article for any reference to the darker side of Che's personality: for example,his Stalinist politics (he was a great admirer of North Korea), his persecution of homosexuals, or his cold-blooded execution of political opponents.

For a proper understanding of what life is like under the claustrophobic regime inaugurated by Guevara and Castro, and for an example of true Cuban heroism, you'd do better to follow Yoani's brave blog.

Kolakowski collection

There's a terrific guest post by Andrew Murphy over at Harry's Place, about Leszek Kolakowski, who died last Friday. Andrew links to Christopher Hitchens' thoughts on the great Polish thinker, which you can find here. I also recommend this post by The New Centrist, who in turn links to this fascinating conversation between Kolakowski and Danny Postel (whose work I recommended here).

I didn't know much about Kolakowski before this week, but reading about him has made me want to track down his magnum opus, Main Currents of Marxism, which in Hitchens' words 'constitutes one of the most searching investigations of the worldview that had dominated his youth' (i.e. Communism) and which Andrew Murphy claims 'did more to kick in the doors of the wretched Soviet Union than given credit for.'

These tributes to Kolakowski appeared around the same time that I was reading Slavoj Žižek's article in the London Review of Books, which I quoted in this post yesterday. Unfortunately, the remainder of the piece doesn't live up to the promise of that excerpt, consisting as it does of a tedious analysis of the current global situation from a pessimistic (not to say Manichean) Marxist perspective. In Žižek's view, any apparently positive characteristics (democracy, liberty) in present-day western societies are simply a sham, an illusion concealing an unreformable capitalist monolith. Reading Žižek (and about Kolakowski) brought home to me that I am no longer (if I ever really was) a Marxist - or at least not that kind of Marxist.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Iran: murder and a military coup

Further to this post, in which I reported the rumour that Iranian prison guards had raped and murdered Taraneh Mousavi, a young female demonstrator: sadly, the story appears to have been true.

Elsewhere, Michael Slackman endorses claims that what occurred in Iran after the recent elections was actually a coup, led by the increasingly-powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps:
From its origin 30 years ago as an ideologically driven militia force serving Islamic revolutionary leaders, the corps has grown to assume an increasingly assertive role in virtually every aspect of Iranian society.


The corps has become a vast military-based conglomerate, with control of Iran’s missile batteries, oversight of its nuclear program and a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching into nearly every sector of the economy. It runs laser eye-surgery clinics, manufactures cars, builds roads and bridges, develops gas and oil fields and controls black-market smuggling, experts say.
Apparently, the Revolutionary Guards' influence has grown under Ahmadinejad:
Since 2005, when he took office, companies affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards have been awarded more than 750 government contracts in construction and oil and gas projects, Iranian press reports document. And all of its finances stay off the budget, free from any state oversight or need to provide an accounting to Parliament.
The financial interests of the corps have been linked directly to the Iranian government’s foreign policy: 'Iran may well have remained silent on the attacks on Uighur Muslims in China this month in part because Beijing is one of the main trading partners with the corps.'

Slackman quotes Iran expert Rasool Nafisi as stating that the country is no longer, strictly speaking, a theocracy: 'It is a regular military security government with a facade of a Shiite clerical system.'

So much for the claims of western apologists for the regime that Ahmadinejad is some kind of champion of the poor and his opponents merely the 'gilded youth' of Tehran. (In the words of Slavoj Žižek, leftists supporters of Ahmadinejad are 'saddest of all', since they assume 'patronisingly, that Ahmadinejad is good enough for the backward Iranians: they aren’t yet sufficiently mature to be ruled by a secular left.')

Ironic, isn't it, that supposedly radical leftists like Milne and Galloway have ended up defending the actions of a military-industrial-financial elite against a mass popular arising.

Obama asks bloggers for help

Following on from this post, it seems a more positive attitude to blogging might prevail on the other side of the pond:

In a reflection of a legislative strategy that has left no stone unturned, President Barack Obama on Monday called on like-minded bloggers to help his administration keep the heat on lawmakers to pass health care reform.


In a roughly 25-minute session with a handful of prominent progressive bloggers, the president also asked for help combating disinformation about his health care plan.

"I know the blogs are best at debunking myths that can slip through a lot of the traditional media outlets," he said. "And that is why you are going to play such an important role in our success in the weeks to come."

You can read accounts of the meeting by some of the bloggers who took part here and here.

Can you imagine the equivalent happening over here: Gordon Brown calling in (say) Norm, Chris, Bob and the guys from Harry's Place for a little chat? Don't hold your breath.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Even more anon

On Thursday I took the New Statesman's senior political editor Mehdi Hasan and human rights academic Conor Gearty to task for their ill-informed generalisations about bloggers and blogging.

Prompted by my post, Bob has been looking into Hasan's background, with interesting results. And Minnie in the comments to his post claims that the NS's new political editor was a member of the C4 team that screened last year's Christmas Day message from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some commenters have described Hasan's political views as 'sixth form'. My son is about to enter the sixth form, and I would suggest this is an insult to sixth formers everywhere. The Ahmadinejad stunt was positively pre-adolescent, motivated as it was by a childish desire to shock the grown-ups ('What can we do that's a really radical alternative to all that royal stuff? I know! Let's provide a platform for a Holocaust denier and reactionary clerical fascist!')

As for Gearty, an anonymous commenter reminds me that he was one of the signatories to the one-sided and simplistic 'Israel must lose' letter in the Guardian last (see here, and also Bob again).

Friday, 17 July 2009

It's been a long time coming

Signing off at the end of the week with this Sam Cooke classic. Mainly because my son was playing it non-stop yesterday (he's got his dad's good taste in music). But it's also dedicated to the long-suffering people of Iran.

Today in Tehran

It's not over.

Superb hour-by-hour coverage of today's events in Tehran can be found at Huffington Post, Raye Man Kojast?, Azarmehr's blog, and even the good old Guardian, which just this morning (print edition only) was being dismissive about 'Mousavi's green revolution that never was'.

On a darker note, and of relevance to this post about the misogyny and sexual violence of the Iranian regime: Shirin Sadeghi discusses unconfirmed reports that at least one young female protestor may have been brutally raped while in custody.

Meanwhile, Norm writes about rumours that western governments have given the green light to Israel for a military strike against Iran, in return for concessions on settlement policy. Whilst understanding the threat posed to Israel by a nuclear-armed Iran, I can't think of any action better designed to unite the divided Iranian people, bolster its reactionary regime, and turn the hostility of the world away from the ayatollahs and towards Israel and the west. May wiser counsels prevail.

Thou shalt join in

This is the kind of thing that sends me running for cover:

Imagine a summer's day on which millions of us, throughout the UK, sit down to have lunch together, with our neighbours in the middle of our streets, around our tower blocks and on every patch of common ground. The food, entertainment and decorations we will have either grown, cooked, or created ourselves. This will be a day to break bread with our neighbours, to put a smile on Britain's face.

Ever since I heard about The Big Lunch, I've been nervously dreading the knock at the door, announcing that some enterprising individual has organised an event in our street. And from time to time, I've checked the website, where you can find out if there's a lunch near you. Oh, the relief of reading that 'there are currently no lunches on your street'. It's just a couple of days away now: I think I can probably relax.

What's wrong with me? Am I some kind of misanthrope, or are my introverted tendencies coming to the fore again? Maybe I'm just reacting against growing up in a Methodist church where 'Thou shalt join in' was the eleventh commandment. (One of the things that attracted me to Catholicism in my early twenties was the opportunity to slip anonymously into a back pew, then slip out again at the end without being asked earnestly if I was new to the area, or besieged with invitations to stay for coffee, or come along to the sports and social club on Thursday night). It's probably a combination of my Nonconformist upbringing and socialist politics that make me feel I ought to join in with community activities of this kind, and guilty that I'd rather stay at home and read a good book.

But recently I've discovered a more elevated way of rationalising my reaction to this kind of thing. I've been reading Jane Jacobs' 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which argues for the virtues of organic city life against both contemporary urban planning and modern suburbia. One of the characteristics of the 'good' city, according to Jacobs, is that it enables social interaction without everyone knowing your business:

Cities are full of people with whom, from your viewpoint, or mine, or any other individual's, a certain degree of contact is useful or enjoyable; but you do not want them in your hair. And they do not want you in theirs either.

Jacobs lays great emphasis on the value of privacy:

Privacy is precious in cities. It is indispensable. Perhaps it is precious and indispensable everywhere, but most places you cannot get it. In small settlements everyone knows your affairs. In the city everyone does not – only those you choose to tell will know much about you. This is one of the attributes of cities that is precious to most city people…and it is a gift of great-city life deeply cherished and jealously guarded.

This isn't to argue for the net curtain culture of suburbia. In Jacobs' view, what's remarkable about the city is its ability to combine a respect for privacy with enjoyable social contact:

A good city street neighbourhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around. This balance is largely made up of small, sensitively managed details, practiced and accepted so casually that they are normally taken for granted.

The important thing to stress here is the informal and voluntary nature of these social interactions - Jacobs gives many examples, drawn from the experience of her own street in Greenwich Village. But she is emphatically against any attempts to stage-manage a sense of community:

‘Togetherness’ is a fittingly nauseating name for an old ideal in planning theory. This ideal is that if anything is shared among people, much should be shared. ‘Togetherness’…works destructively in cities. The requirement that much shall be shared drives city people apart.

Elsewhere, she elaborates on this paradox - that official initiatives (or semi-official ones, like The Big Lunch) to 'organise' togetherness often have the unintended consequence of driving people back inside their little boxes:

The…common outcome in cities, where people are faced with the choice of sharing much or nothing, is nothing….If mere contact with your neighbous threatens to entangle you in their private lives, or entangle them in yours….the logical solution is absolutely to avoid friendliness or casual offers of help. Better to say thoroughly distant.

Although she is writing about a particular inner city environment, I would argue that Jacobs' arguments have universal validity.

Lest you still think I'm a curmudgeonly misanthrope, let me enter in my defence the fact that I do, actually, belong to a number of communities: my family, first and foremost, then various overlapping communities of interest associated with my work, not to mention the virtual communities of like-minded bloggers and fellow family historians. And I am a member of some local, geographically-based communities - based around our children's schools and my musical interests, for example. But the crucial thing is that these, too, are voluntary and purposive, rather than arising from the accident of living on the same street.

Attempts to recreate a chimeric sense of local community, like The Big Lunch, are misguided and backward-looking. They are of a piece with Gordon Brown's paternalist-communitarian version of New Labourism, in which 'community' is offered as a means of creating social cohesion and mediating social inequalities and differences. As an adult educator working on disadvantaged estates in the 1980s, I resented the way in which 'community' seemed to be offered as a sop or compensation for poverty and unemployment. The middle classes had education, resources, mobility, but the poor were expected to stay put and be satisfied with a 'sense of community'.

So when I hear the word 'community', particularly when some government agency or social entrepreneur is seeking to impose it on the rest of us, I reach for my (metaphorical) net curtains and double-bolted front door.

Incidentally, the BBC coverage of The Big Lunch includes this 'then and now' look at a street that last held a street party in 1977, for the Silver Jubilee. The reporter's questions are of the leading, 'Do you think things are worse now than they were then?' kind, but the clips of the original party are fascinating - they look like they come from another age. To people who don't remember the Seventies, they must seem as ancient as my parents' photos of their VE Day street parties did to me when I was growing up. Watching the video, I suddenly felt rather old:

Thursday, 16 July 2009

More anon

Brett at Harry's Place has been having a bit of a ding-dong with Mehdi Hasan, the new Senior Editor (Politics) at the New Statesman. The substance of their disagreement needn't detain us, fascinating though it is: if you want to follow their argument, you can start here and work backwards.

What interested me was the attitude to bloggers and blogging that emerged in Hasan's reply to Brett, which begins like this:
Dear 'Brett' (do you have a surname? Or do you all of you 'bloggers' hide behind first-name-only, cowardly, online identities?)
It continues in similar vein. A couple of choice quotes:
My favourite bits from your 'post' is 1) when you try and cite your own random, unread blogging as evidence...

If you were a proper journalist, and not a self-appointed rumour-monger...
And Hasan signs off: 'Thanks for your time and for your lies'.

We might note in passing the evidence displayed here of the continuing decline of a once-great journal of the democratic left. A senior editor at the New Statesman indulging in cheap shots and bitchy ad hominem insults, not to mention grammatical errors ('my favourite'?): this person is the replacement for Martin Bright?

But notice above all the sneering condescension towards the blogosphere that oozes from every line: the superior quote marks around 'blogger' and 'post' as if these were the newly-minted jargon of some inconsequential johnny-come-lately activity; the assumption that blogging can't be compared to 'proper' journalism (like the pseudo-leftish whining of the kind served up by the NS these days?); and the dismissal of bloggers as 'self-appointed' commentators (as if Hasan and the Pilgers and Alis who fill his pages are not).

As an anonymous blogger myself, I was particularly interested in Hasan's claim that not signing your full name to a blog post is inherently 'cowardly'. It put me in mind of a similar assertion by Conor Gearty in last week's Tablet (only accessible with a subscription, unfortunately). Writing in support of the court decision that police blogger 'Night Jack' has no right to maintain his anonymity, Gearty states:
Whatever the rationale, the consequence of such anonymity is often the abandonment of restraint: there are few more depressing activities than to read the spleen vented under such cover in the blogosphere, a world full of quaintly named experts on everything whose certainty is invariably matched by their anger and in whose mind known figures in the real world are (through stupidity, corruption or venality) always falling far short of what is required of them - a mistake/failure which (it is implied) the bloggers would certainly not make themselves if they were to turn their talented selves to the matter in hand.
Like Hasan's reply to Brett, Gearty's piece drips with condescension, and I would maintain, displays a similar ignorance of that against which it rails. To be blunt, as someone who reads a wide range of blogs on a daily basis, I simply fail to recognise the caricature presented here. If you glance to the right of this column, you'll see about 45 blogs listed in my blogroll, of which around one third are anonymous or semi-anonymous. I'd challenge Gearty to find one recent post from among them that displays the kind of unrestrained anger that he assumes is in the nature of blogging. On the contrary, I'd wager you won't come across a more fair-minded, well-informed and thoughtful bunch of commentators. Of course, none of us is perfect, and we all have our moments of spleen-venting, but then that's true of journalists and other print commentators too. It's like judging newspaper journalism on the basis of the Sun, or assuming that all TV political commentary is like Fox. ('A world full of quaintly named experts on everything whose certainty is invariably matched by their anger': sounds like the average tabloid or cable TV newsroom.) And as both Gearty and Hasan themselves demonstrate, sweeping generalisations on the basis of minimal evidence are hardly the preserve of bloggers.

As for the issue of anonymity, it's one that I've thought about a great deal. I've often toyed with revealing my identity but, like a number of others in this corner of the blogosphere, I've decided that being anonymous gives me the freedom to explore ideas, particularly about controversial political issues, without alienating myself from my 'real life' friends and colleagues. This is not to make elevated claims about threats to free speech, but it remains true (as I've often suggested on this blog) that a certain kind of pseudo-left consensus dominates academia and the public services, and it can be hard for those of us who work there to publicly step outside it, even tentatively.

Having said that, I would agree with Gearty that bloggers who want to cast aspersions on the reputation of public figures should declare their identity, in order to level the playing field. The irony of the Harry's Place / New Statesman dust-up is that it was the semi-anonymous blogger Brett who put forward a fair and reasonable argument, while the high-profile print journalist Hasan was the one who responded with exactly the kind of unrestrained, personalised venom of which he and others accuse anonymous bloggers.

Perhaps one day I'll reveal my secret identity to the world: I've already told a couple of trusted fellow-bloggers. But I doubt I'll go as far as the blessed Norm, who recently posted photos of himself in the very act of blogging.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Aux armes, citoyens!

Like Modernity, I forgot to mark Bastille Day yesterday (though, lowbrow that I am, I did take a peek at the photos of the Sarkozys getting frisky at the official celebrations). And like Mod, I'm a sucker for the Marseillaise, especially this version from Casablanca. (Thought for the day: All men secretly wish they were Victor Laszlo, are lucky if they have the odd moment of nobility like Rick, but most of the time end up behaving like Captain Renault.)

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Normal service will be resumed

Apologies for light posting at the moment. Felt a bit off colour at the start of the week, and everything I want to post about requires more mental energy than I have right now. Hope to have more verve, and time, later in the week.

In the meantime, here are a few recommendations with a Middle Eastern flavour:

Raye Man Kojast? on the funeral of Sohrab Aarabi, murdered by the Iranian government

Kellie's latest round-up of other news from Iran

Michael Totten on the future of Iraq, with stories and photos from his recent visit

and The Plump on Peter Preston on Afghanistan.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Something soulful for the weekend

Some Solomon Burke to see in the weekend. No particular reason, except that it's Friday afternoon, and this track has been going round in my head, ever since we watched the final episode of Season 3 of The Wire last week. It's played over a terrific montage of scenes that ties together the various narrative threads of the series.

We're now deeply into the boxed set of Season 4, which in my humble opinion is the best so far. So as not to spoil things for those of you watching the programme on BBC2, where Season 3 isn't due to end until next week, this particular video features a static backdrop. If you want to watch the original season finale, you can find it here.

Iranian regime loves locking up young women

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has called on the Iranian government to release 23-year-old lecturer Clotilde Reiss, who has been held in the notorious Evin prison since 1st July, accused of espionage:

"Do you think my country would be so naive and shorthanded as to send a 23-year-old woman to spy in Iran? That's stupid, it's not possible," he told reporters during a visit to Lebanon. "This accusation doesn't hold up," said Kouchner."This young woman is innocent," he said of Reiss, a French lecturer at the Isfahan Technical University in central Iran, jailed in Iran on charges of espionage. "The innocent must be released. The innocent must be freed."

Kouchner shouldn't have been surprised. The Iranian regime seems to have a lurid propensity for locking up young women: when it's not beating them up, condemning them to death, or shooting them down in the streets. I've just finished reading Shirin Ebadi's autobiography, in which she tells the story of her friend Soraya, 'a truly beautiful young woman', who had the misfortune to be stopped by the morality police while on a road trip with some male friends. They too were accused of being spies, seemingly because some of them had studied abroad. The judge, a cleric, threatened to have Soraya whipped and thrown in gaol, but then offered her an alternative: 'Isn't it a shame...for a girl as intelligent as you to go to prison, to run around with these young men? If you confess, I'll take you as a temporary wife myself.' And in Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi describes the fate of one young woman whose attractiveness meant that she was repeatedly re-arrested and put in prison, where she was subject to sexual abuse by the repressed young men of the religious police.

As I've said before, this appears to be a religio-political system built on misogyny and what Hitchens accurately describes as 'rancid sexual repression'. May Clotilde Reiss soon be freed and this vile and anachronistic regime thrown on the rubbish tip of history.

(Via Raye Man Kojast? - which also has excellent coverage of yesterday's protests)

Balancing beatitude

Some time ago I wrote about the Vatican's controversial decision to beatify hundreds of priests, monks and nuns killed by left-wing militias during the Spanish Civil War, noting that it was a pity they overlooked the clergy executed by Franco, including those accused of being Basque nationalist sympathisers.

Now it seems the Church has gone some way towards correcting the imbalance, by holding a ceremony tomorrow to honour the Basque martyrs. It's a shame, though, that this is an initiative of the local Basque bishops, and doesn't have official Vatican backing. Still, as Splintered Sunrise says, its nice to see the Church doing the right thing, and gratifying that the move will 'greatly annoy ... the Franco nostalgics'.

(Via Poumista)

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Back on the streets

Via Nico Pitney, two videos of pro-reform demonstrations in Tehran today: