Sunday, 18 December 2011

R.I.P. Cesaria Evora (1941 - 2011)

So farewell then, Cesaria Evora. That's two people dying in two days who've meant a lot to me. Everyone's linking to the classic morna songs like 'Sodade', but I rather like her more uptempo Afro-
Cuban material:


In memoriam Hitch

One of my heroes dies, and I'm lost for words. But you could do worse than read the wonderful tributes by Terry Glavin, Nick Cohen, Ian McEwan, Francis Wheen, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Weiss, Roya Hakakian, Graydon Carter, and Peter Hitchens.  I'm sure there'll be more.

Monday, 12 December 2011


Why no recent posts? Well, it could be because I’m spending more time these days twittering and updating my Facebook status than blogging. Or it might be that the original purpose behind this blog, to work out what I really thought about politics, religion, culture, etc. no longer feels quite so urgent. On the other hand, it's possible that my opinions on these topics are in such a state of flux that I'm finding it increasingly difficult to pin them down, even in something as transient and insubstantial as a blogpost. More mundanely, it could just be that I’ve just been too darn busy with other stuff...

Anyway, I’m planning a relaunch of sorts in the New Year. In the meantime, you’re welcome to join me on Twitter or Facebook, or if you’re so inclined, to check out my family history and 'academic' blogs (though the latter's a bit somnolent too). And Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Holidays, whatever. 

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Justice delayed

This verdict had nothing to do with the actual evidence. It's all about la faccia, face. They had to convict her. Now, with the conviction, everyone has saved face, the judiciary, the prosecutors and police have been vindicated. There will be an appeal and she will be acquitted, and that will be done to satisfy the Americans. Then everybody will be happy. Of course, Amanda and Raffaele will be in prison for another two years, but that's a small matter compared to the careers of so many important people.
That was the prescient opinion of one 'highly-connected' Italian, quoted by US writer Douglas Preston, nearly two years ago.

You read it here first.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Nine links for the tenth anniversary

One week on, here's a round-up of some of the best blog posts and articles marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11, with brief quotes:

Those who perpetrated these acts were – and are – in the dark.  And there is no light in them. They chose to pursue petty and irrational hatreds promoted to insane levels. These they nurtured in tandem with a sense of victimhood (characteristically an excuse for childishness when not used as a spur to constructive action). They chose killing other human beings rather than at least accepting the right of those others to live. They could have chosen joy and wonder. And they are owed no more respect than any other violent criminals who get off on hatred, selfishness and killing.
You would've thought that watching mass murder - committed in the name of love and God - live on television would've invited humility into the hearts of my friends who considered themselves enlightened progressives.
They deserved it, you see. They had it coming. It was inevitable.
Norm on Seamus Milne:
People were revolted by his own reaction and that of his co-thinkers neither principally because of the causal hypothesis they offered nor principally because of their immediate policy recommendations. It was, rather, the use of a causal story to put the central emphasis of blame for 9/11 - just a day or two after the event - not on those who had planned and organized the attack and those who had carried it out but on...America.
We must stop apologising for our own position. We did not cause 9/11 and we did not give rise to the ideology and narrative represented by Al Qaida, based on the perversion of Islam. We have to be confident and prepared for a generation-long struggle. This battle is far from over but it is too fundamental to allow a defeat.
Osama Bin Laden once said that the West’s problem is to find people willing to die for our values, while his problem is to hold back people willing to die for his.
We must prove him wrong – let this be the memorial for all those innocents who died on 9/11, 2001.
Poumista remembers another fascist attack:
Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the horrific attacks on New York and Washington, carried out by far right Islamists [...] 9/11 is of course also the anniversary of the 1973 military coup in Chile, which replaced Allende's elected government with one of the most brutal dictatorships of our time.
For what it's worth, I believe that President Bush's response was right, at least in the counterattack he launched on Saddam and the Taliban. War against dictatorship, theocracy and fascism was worth doing, 9/11 or no.
10 years ago in Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form. Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie.
The threat’s still from the same ideology and the same narrative, which is based on a perverted view of religion and which regards cultures and faiths as in fundamental conflict with each other. And there are two ways of life in the world today, this is why I say that the big divide in politics today is not so much left versus right as much as open versus closed.
And these people, you know, their view of the process of globalisation – and they’re very adept at using its tools by the way – they regard that as basically wrong, and contrary to their belief system, and they’ll fight very hard against us who want an open attitude of mind, and that’s the battle. Now I believe we will win it but it’s going to take time, and as I say, the struggle goes on, for sure.
Mourn the dead. Fight for the living. No surrender.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

By the dawn's early light

Ten years on, despite the grainy footage, I still find this early expression of transatlantic solidarity deeply moving. America, our thoughts and prayers are with you again today.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Shot by both sides

The statement which Peter Tatchell posted yesterday, about his participation as a visibly gay man in last Saturday's anti-EDL demonstration, is so good, and says so many things that have needed saying, that I'm reproducing it in full below. I’m a supporter of ‘Hope not hate’, but my response to their regular calls for action to halt EDL marches through areas like Tower Hamlets is often one of ‘Yes, but…’ Yes, by all means protest the hateful behaviour of racist thugs, but at the same time, please be equally firm in your condemnation of the fundamentalist militants who pose just as much of a threat to the people of these areas. The lack of such condemnation by anti-racists, and even worse, the explicit or implicit support given to Islamists by some on the left, is surely one of the factors driving some people away from conventional politics and into the arms of the extreme right.

One of the most disappointing, if predictable, aspects of Tatchell's account is the hostile reaction to his 'Gays and Muslims unite!' placard from supposedly left-wing marchers, who responded with 'dirty looks' and even accusations of 'racism' and 'fascism' - against Peter Tatchell, of all people. But it was high time that somebody of stature on the left spoke out about the climate of intolerance, not only of homosexuality but also of freedom of expression and lifestyle, being spread by religious fundamentalists in some parts of East London.

I salute Tatchell's characteristic bravery in taking his principled arguments into the metaphorical lion's den, at the risk of being, in Howard Devoto's immortal words, shot by both sides (see footnote). I'm glad he was able to win over some initially hostile and homophobic Muslims, but I do query his attempt to preach the virtues of 'true' Islam to believers. Peter may be right that ‘love and compassion' are core Islamic values and that's there's nothing in the Quran that sanctions discrimination against gay people. However, (1) attempts to legislate on what's 'core' in someone else's religion are always doomed, (2) there are a lot of other things in the Quran, as in the scriptures of other faiths, that do encourage intolerance, if people want to find them, (3) surely what matters is not holy writ but ‘facts on the ground’ – e.g. the fact that there’s not a majority-Muslim country where it’s safe to be openly gay, and (4) it's for Muslims themselves to decide, and to demonstrate by their actions, whether the 'core' of their faith is going to be tolerance or intolerance, compassion or repression.

Statement by Peter Tatchell, Director of the human rights campaign group, the Peter Tatchell Foundation: 
Like many other people, I went to last Saturday's protest in East London first and foremost to oppose the far right English Defence League and to defend the Muslim community against EDL thuggery.
But I also wanted to stand in solidarity with Muslims who oppose far right Islamists. These fundamentalists threaten and intimidate the Muslim community; especially fellow Muslims who don't conform to their harsh, intolerant interpretation of Islam. To varying degrees, both the Islamists and the EDL menace Muslim people.
In addition, I wanted to be visible as a gay man, to demonstrate that East London is not and never will be a "Gay-Free Zone" and to show that most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are not anti-Muslim; that there are LGBTs who want to work in solidarity with Muslim people to oppose all prejudice, discrimination and violence.
To these ends, my human rights campaign colleague Ashley McAlister and I joined the anti-EDL protest, carrying double-sided placards which read on one side: "Stop EDL & far right Islamists. No to ALL hate" and on the other side: "Gays & Muslims UNITE! Stop the EDL".  
We got dirty looks from a small number of left-wing and LGBT anti-EDL protesters, some of whom said explicitly that our placards were "insensitive...provocative...inappropriate...divisive"  and that I am "racist...fascist...anti-Muslim."
There was also hostility from a minority of Muslims who were part of the anti-EDL demonstration, including attempts to snatch and rip my placard. These fanatics mostly objected to the slogan: "Gays & Muslims UNITE! Stop the EDL". I was surrounded several times throughout the day by angry Muslim youths who ordered me: "You must remove this placard...You can't walk here with these words...We don't allow gays in this area...Gays are not permitted here...We don't have gays in Tower Hamlets."
When I suggested that LGBT Muslims must also be defended against the EDL, I was told: "Gays can't be Muslims...We will never accept them (LGBT Muslims)...They can't come around here...We won't allow it."
My response was to engage with these Muslims hotheads and argue against them. The discussions got very heated; at times even menacing and scary. There were moments when I thought I was going to be physically attacked. Thankfully, this did not happen, probably because there were police nearby and, more significantly, because several Muslims intervened to defend my right to be there and to express my viewpoint. Some Muslims even thanked me for joining the anti-EDL protest.
In the course of the arguments, I diffused the hostility of quite a few Muslim critics. I suggested that love and compassion were core Islamic values and that even if Muslims personally disapproved of homosexuality there is nothing in the Qu'ran that sanctions hatred or discrimination against LGBT people. Several eventually agreed that homophobia was wrong. Some shook my hand and parted with a more 'live and let live' attitude - a big improvement on their initial response.
This change in attitude as a result of Ashley and I being willing to engage in dialogue was really positive and inspiring. It shows how important and effective such an engagement can be. We need more of it.
Interestingly, there was very little overt, identifiable Muslim hostility to our placard slogan:
"Stop EDL & far right Islamists. No to ALL hate." There were a few nasty, aggressive looks but that's all. Indeed, several Muslims indicated that they also oppose the Islamist far right.  They realise that extremist groups like Islam4UK and Hizb ut-Tahrir, which want to establish a religious dictatorship, threaten the human rights of mainstream Muslims. These fundamentalists have a similar bigoted agenda to the EDL and BNP.
Our experience on Saturday is further evidence that we need an East End Gay Pride that goes through the heart of the Muslim community in E1, to engage with the Muslim communities and build mutual understanding.
Interestingly, there were lots of LGBT protesters against the EDL. But I never saw a single one with a gay badge, placard, t-shirt or rainbow flag. It was as if they'd all gone back in the closet. Why? Normally, on other demos, they always proclaim their LGBT identity. How strange. Ashley McAlister and I were the only visibly gay protesters in the entire anti-EDL demonstration.
The people who called for the anti-EDL protest to be called off were mistaken. In the absence of a visible counter-protest, the EDL would have been able to rally unchallenged and claim a victory. It would have sent the wrong signal if the EDL had been permitted to claim any part of East London as its own.
Saturday's peaceful protest against the EDL was important because it showed that most of our communities are united in solidarity and that we will not be divided by the hate-mongering of the far right.
What too many anti-fascists refuse to acknowledge is that Islamist fundamentalism mirrors the right-wing ideology of the EDL (and the BNP). In fact, the Islamist goals are much more dangerous. They want to establish a theocratic tyranny, ban trade unions and political parties and deny women equal human rights. They endorse hatred and violence against Jewish, Hindu and LGBT people. Muslims who don't follow their particular brand of Islam would face severe persecution in their Islamist state. These fanatical sects condone terrorism and the suicide bombing of innocent civilians. Not even the BNP and EDL are this extreme.
The failure of many people on the Left to speak out against Islamist fundamentalism is de facto collusion with extremism and a betrayal of the Muslim majority. It also creates a political vacuum, which the EDL is seeking to exploit and manipulate.
Some anti-fascists argue that we should not condemn the Islamists because this will fuel anti-Muslim sentiment. Wrong. Protesting against the fundamentalists and defending mainstream Muslims is actually the most effective way to undermine Islamophobia. 
In the absence of a left-wing critique of the Islamist far right, the EDL is able to pose as the sole critic of Islamist extremism and to mount indiscriminate attacks on the whole Muslim community.
This silence and inaction by many on the left is objectively (albeit unintentionally) colluding with both fundamentalist fanaticism and anti-Muslim prejudice.  
To be credible and effective, opponents of the EDL need to be consistent by also taking a stand against right-wing Islamists. Only this way can we offer a principled alternative to the EDL that isolates and targets the extremists without demonising the whole Muslim population.


For those who are too young to understand the Devoto reference:

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The days grow short...

My favourite recording of this classic Sarah Vaughan number:

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

A not very rapid response to the riots

Apologies for the lateness of this. I started to write something in the immediate aftermath of the riots, but didn't manage to finish it before leaving for a week in Cornwall. Still, reflection in tranquillity is sometimes preferable to hasty reaction...

First, some recommendations. If you didn't get round to reading them at the time, the following responses to the events of two weeks ago are certainly worth reading (though I don't necessarily agree with everything they say): from Norm, Kenan, Michael, Luke, Martin, Katharine and Rosamicula. Plus any comment by David Lammy or Chuka Umunna, two black Labour MPs who (in my view) had a 'good' crisis. More recently, Tony Blair's intervention is characteristically insightful, while Nick Cohen's report on the judicial response gives pause for thought.

You'll notice that two of my links are to self-identified Tory commentators, and it has to be said that the capacity to talk sense about the riots crossed party lines - as did the tendency to spout dangerous nonsense. In the remainder of this post, I wanted to make three points about some liberal-left responses to the wave of looting, arson and violence that gripped English cities earlier this month. This doesn't mean I'm uncritical of conservative reactions, but 'the Left' is my parish, so to speak, and I have an interest in the healthiness or otherwise of its discourse.

1. There's nothing progressive about lawlessness and disorder.

The rule of law is one of the basic conditions of liberty. Law and order are valued by the vast majority of working people, especially those with relatively little personal power, since it means they have some protection against life’s unpredictability and it makes it possible for them to get on with the important business of earning a living and looking after their families. Conversely, the breakdown of social order affects the poor and powerless disproportionately, as Tony Blair famously said. There’s nothing romantic, or even vaguely ‘progressive’, about chaos and disorder on the streets. When there’s riot and mayhem, it’s the powerless, those who have no one and nothing to protect them, who suffer most. In situations of lawlessness and disorder, the powerful – those who have the numbers, the muscle, the weapons - rule the roost.

The left, in reacting to events such as those we've seen this summer, is rightly alert to the actions of the obviously powerful, the agents of state power – whether police, judges or politicians – but often blind and insensitive to the actions of other, less legitimately powerful groups – gangsters, criminals, bullies. The powerless need the law, and a degree of social order, to protect them from abuses by these powerful non-state actors. There's an analogy here with the debate over the proposed banning of the burqa, where much left rhetoric was devoted to the wrongs of the state telling women what they could wear, while often failing to address the power (and occasional violence) of community and religious leaders, not to mention fathers and brothers, in imposing their will on women and girls.

2. Looking the other way

There's been an awful lot of 'whataboutery' in discussion of the riots. It's a familiar rhetorical habit among some sections of the left: if a problem arises that doesn’t easily fit the usual categories, the tendency is to avoid facing up to the awkwardness by immediately deflecting attention on to supposedly far greater evils elsewhere. This is particularly apparent when those we have hitherto seen as passive victims of oppression, or even as the bearers of our revolutionary hopes, turn out to be aggressors and offenders themselves. So, at the height of the Cold War, leftists tended to deflect criticism of human rights abuses in the Soviet Union by pointing to the abuse of 'economic' rights under our own system. After 9/11 and 7/7, the characteristic response of a section of the left was to avoid blaming the actual culprits by switching the focus to the ‘real' terrorists in our own governments, or to expend energy criticising those governments' reactions to the attacks. 

The 'whataboutery' and 'looking the other way' in the aftermath of the recent riots took two forms. The most immediate and instantaneous was the tendency to undercut criticism of the rioters by reminding people of the 'looting' of the nation's assets by bankers and by dishonest politicians fiddling their expenses. The effect, if not the intention, of this knee-jerk rhetorical strategy was to minimise the crimes of those who smashed, burned and looted properties in London, Manchester and elsewhere: after all, weren't 'the kids' just following the example of the politically and economically powerful? To which the obvious response is: two wrongs don't make a right, and if you condemned the 'thieving' bankers, you should condemn these street thieves and vandals just as vigorously. And again, if you think the bankers 'got away' with their less blatant 'looting', then in a democratic society there are legitimate means of redress, including campaigning for changes in the law and electing a government that will address such abuses. As for the implication that politicians got away with their looting of the nation's coffers: try telling that to the former MPs currently sweating out sentences at Her Majesty's pleasure. The rule of law in a democratic society prescribes legal and political redress for social wrongs, not tit-for-tat wrongdoing.

The second, slightly delayed example of 'whataboutery' became evident after our political leaders did what we pay them to do, and began to formulate responses to the wave of urban criminality. Rather than offering a substantive critique of that response, too many on the left reacted with sneering reminders of the antics of the Bullingdon Club - and even managed to drag up evidence of Nick Clegg's misspent youth. Again, even if it wasn't intended, the effect was to distract attention from and undercut condemnation of the rioters. The sub-text seemed to be, if our political masters got up to similar pranks in their youth, then this vandalism and looting can't be all that bad - and, more insidiously, 'Who are you to talk?' The answer to the latter question is, of course, they are our elected leaders and it's their job at times like this to speak and act on our behalf - regardless of their own personal shortcomings. To question the legitimacy of democratic leaders in the middle of a crisis is to give unnecessary comfort to criminals.

3. Causes, explanations and excuses

Finally, a word about causation, though Norm has said much of what needs to be said on this point. The same confusion has infected discussion of the riots' underlying causes as befuddles debates about terrorism. There's a confusion between different types of causes - proximate and long-term - and between causes, explanations and excuses. Imagine for a moment that the burning and looting of this last month had been carried out by roaming gangs of BNP or EDL supporters, perhaps targeting Asian, black or Jewish homes and businesses - a not unlikely scenario, I'm sure you'll agree. What kind of discussion might then have followed about underlying causes, blame, and responsibility? I guess there would still have been some talk about poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity in white, working-class communities, but I guarantee there would be far less of it than we've seen recently, and much more blaming of the perpetrators and condemnation of their ideas, morality and shared culture - and quite rightly so. Nor would we be hearing so much about 'the kids' going 'too far' or about 'understandable' reactions to government policies - which in this case would be policies on immigration, migrant workers, housing policy, etc.  

In other words, social and economic factors would certainly be seen as long-term contributory 'causes', but no one, certainly on the left, would seek to explain or even less excuse racist violence on these grounds. One commentator (I can no longer find the link) made the facile point that, if you look at a map of the recent riots, you'll notice that none of them happened in wealthy areas. Well, if you look at a map of racist attacks and demonstrations, they're not usually in leafy areas either. What does that tell you? Nothing. Except that some on the left still see the poor and powerless as mindless dopes reacting reflexively to their economic circumstances, rather than as social actors capable of making moral choices.

This doesn't exhaust everything I want to say about these events, and I'm sure it won't be my last word on the subject. But it will do for now.

Note: a version of this post can now be found over at Huffington Post UK - my first post for them

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

'I'm ashamed to be a Hackney person'

'She's working hard to make her business work, and then you lot want to go and burn it out - for what?'

An ordinary Hackney resident on last night's madness:

Friday, 22 July 2011

Boa viagem

Will be in this part of the world for a couple of weeks, with limited internet access, so the blog will be in recess until mid-August.

Friday, 15 July 2011

From anniversaries to anti-imperialism: some links

Here are some things you might have missed over the last week or so...

On the sixth anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, Jonathon Narvey is disappointed to find that most of the videos of the event posted at Youtube reproduce discredited conspiracy theories:
How will historians look back on the years when a global network of religious fanatics began ratcheting up their indiscriminate slaughter of innocents living in the West? As memory recedes, the more lazy among them will increasingly rely on the plentiful video resources made ubiquitous and accessible over the Internet. Conspiracy theories may become more mainstream only because these obsessive kooks seem to working a lot harder than the rest of us to get their own twisted narrative out.
Meanwhile, over at the excellent A Girl, a Blog and a Life In-Between, Princess Pana pays tribute to those who were murdered, posting brief but moving biographies of the innocent victims. She writes:
These were the ordinary Londoners and visitors whose lives were cruelly destroyed on 7th July 2005. These are the people who are missed by sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and partners. They were innocents going about their everyday lives who represent the diversity and dynamism of the great World City that London is. The bombers looked them in the eye and decided their lives were not important. We need to say back that these were important lives, lives that cast a real shadow and count.
Also marking the anniversary, Kenan Malik reflects on the part played by a misconceived policy of communalist multiculturalism in fostering homegrown jihadism:
Politicians effectively abandoned their responsibility to engage directly with minorities, subcontracting it out to often reactionary 'leaders.' If the prime minister wanted to get a message to the 'Muslim community,' he called in the council or visited a mosque. Rather than appealing to Muslims as British citizens, politicians preferred to see them as people whose primary loyalty was to their faith and who could be politically engaged only by other Muslims. As a result religious — and Islamist — figures gained new legitimacy in their own neighborhoods and came to be seen by the wider society as the authentic voice of British Muslims.
As Kenan notes, it wasn't always thus:
Today 'radical' in an Islamic context means someone who is a religious fundamentalist. Thirty years ago it meant the opposite: a secularist who challenged both racism in the streets and the power of the mosques. Secularism was once strong within Muslim communities, but it has been squeezed out by the new relationship between the state and religious leaders.
More positively, Michael Weiss writes about the important contribution of British ex-jihadists, such as Shiraz Maher, to the continuing fight against Islamist terrorism (subscription required for full article):
London has [...] produced a commodity that the United States hasn’t yet—rehabilitated Islamists who’ve said goodbye to all that and lived to tell and write about about it. For a Western establishment that often can’t tell Hamas from its elbow, these ex-Islamists have added invaluable insights into how an obscurantist ideology can be preempted and defeated.
Similarly, the news that some British Muslim women have started a campaign against religiously-inspired violence and abuse is encouraging. As they say in their declaration:
We believe, as Muslim women, we can no longer sit in silence while we watch the name of our faith being used to justify crimes. We believe it is our duty to make our voices heard and to reclaim our faith so that it is no longer hijacked by individuals and organisations who in the name of Islam incite and carry out violent acts of hatred and extremism and whose sole aim is to create a broken world.
In Italy, too, women are organising against sexism and discrimination, galvanised into action by sordid revelations about Berlusconi's treatment of women. The new movement 'Se ne ora quando' ('If not now, when', which obviously takes its inspiration from here) held a rally this week in Siena, where it was heartening to see placards in support of female political prisoners in Iran: a rare but encouraging example of western feminists protesting against the institutional sexism of the Islamic Republic.

Still on liberal-left responses to the phenomenon of jihadism: Gita Sahgal provides a detailed analysis of the Amnesty / Cageprisoners affair which led to her departure from the organisation. And Alan Johnson marks the anniversary of another terrorist attack - the hijacking of Air France Flight 139 to Entebbe - and its legacy for the Left. According to Alan, the roots of today's anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist Left lie in 'the worldview cultivated in the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s':
In the decidedly non-calloused hands of this largely student, spectacularly arrogant, but largely know-nothing New Left, an already-authoritarian Marxism became completely unmoored from the working class, the West, and democracy and moored instead to ideologies of the noble savage, fantasies of 'Third World Revolution' and an irrational belief in the redemptive power of violence. The New Left saw the world in a very peculiar way. A third world 'periphery' was pitted against the metropolitan 'center' and 'good' oppressed nations were at war with 'bad' oppressor nations. 'Camp' replaced 'class' as the track along which a great deal of left-wing thought would now run.
Much of what is said and done by today’s left—including its anti-Zionism—is unintelligible without grasping that when 'anti-imperialist struggle displaced 'class struggle' as the organizing category of thought and the basis of political identity, the result was a hybrid political phenomenon that the Germans call linksfaschismus, or left-fascism.
This Haaretz article punctures some of the myths that have grown up around the Entebbe episode, but Johnson's thesis about the confluence of extreme-left and extreme-right influences in both the Sixties and contemporary far Left remains sound, and is something I've written about before. To end on a more hopeful note: Alan Johnson suggests that there was another legacy from the Entebbe affair, besides this twisted version of anti-imperialism. Hearing about the treatment of Jewish passengers by the hijackers, Joschka Fischer, then active on the revolutionary left, 'began his long journey back from madness':
Open self-recrimination and painful rethinking led him to develop a decent, antitotalitarian, and social democratic leftism. Later, as German foreign secretary, he was comfortable standing up for a Palestinian state while angrily confronting Yasir Arafat in person about the bombing of a Tel Aviv disco. This is the other legacy of the '68ers - the spread of a human rights culture, a refusal to accept the exclusion of minorities, liberal interventionism in the face of enormity, mutual recognition and two states for two traumatized peoples in Israel and Palestine, and the search for a global covenant in a world of staggering inequalities.
Stop press: if you want to read more from Alan on the deformations of the pseudo-Marxist left, his definitive take-down of Slavoj Zizek is in the new issue of Jacobin.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Go Fourth

Happy Independence day to all my American readers.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Left book club

If you’re writing a book about the state of progressive politics, and you’re casting around for a catchy title, the rule of thumb seems to be: find a stock phrase that includes the word ‘left’ and suggests a punning reference to your topic - then add a sub-title that explains what your book is really about. The locus classicus, in Britain at any rate, is of course Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way - where the main title neatly alludes to the two meanings of the word ‘left’: what exactly is the left these days? and what remains of the left?

The nearest US equivalent is Michael Tomasky’s Left for Dead: The Life, Death and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America (American publishers love long sub-titles), where once again, there’s a clever play on the double meaning of ‘left’. However, my favourite example of the genre is Michael Sean Winters’ book about the falling-out between progressives and the Church: Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats (an even longer subtitle). You can imagine some editor dancing round the room when s/he came up with that one. 

But with these three stock phrases spoken for, where are new authors to find eye-catching titles for their explorations of the condition of liberal politics? Here are a few back-of-the- envelope ideas I came up with, which prospective scribblers should feel free to borrow. On the other hand, if you want to join in with this little diversion, you're welcome to add suggestions of your own. Here goes:

'Left on the Shelf: Socialism and the Single Person'

'Left Out: the Gay Voice in Progressive Politics'

'Left in the Dark: Labour and the Energy Crisis'

'Left Back' (or Outside Left, or Inside Left): Soccer and Socialism (with its companion volume: 'Outside Right: Extremism on the Terraces')

And, on reflection, I think Tomasky’s choice of title is a waste. Surely ‘Left for Dead’ would be much more appropriate for a book about radicalism in the undertakers’ union?

Finally, to get really cheeky:

'Left Behind: Pippa Middleton’s Radical Past'

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The week's links

A few things that may have passed you by in the last seven days or so:

As Labour ponders its leadership and its electoral prospects, Luke Akehurst calls for a greater sense of pride in what the party achieved in power:
Every time I walk through the ward where I am a councillor, one of the most deprived wards in England, I see what Labour did for the poorest people in society: refurbished social housing, a brand new city academy where a failing school stood, a primary school rebuilt with BSF money, another new secondary school being built under a contract Ed Balls signed off, safer neighbourhood coppers and PCSOs put there by Ken Livingstone. Lives of my constituents which are still tough and sometimes desperate but lived a little safer, a little warmer, a little more prosperous and a little more full of hope and opportunity because of Labour.
Balls and Livingstone are not my favourite Labour politicians, to say the least, but I'm in general agreement with what Luke says here. The other Ed should take note: putting distance between yourself and the achievements of New Labour is not necessarily a winning strategy. Elsewhere, this was the week that the Guardian published the speech that the Other Brother would have made had he been crowned leader, in which he echoed Luke's sentiments:
Last year Gordon read out a list of what had been achieved – by him, by Tony, by all of us. Two million new jobs. The ban on handguns. The Winter Fuel Allowance. 80 000 more nurses. Free museums. Rights of recognition for trade unions and the end of the union ban at GCHQ. And the small matter of peace in Northern Ireland. 
Just because we lost doesn't mean they are wrong. We clapped those changes in our country last year and we should clap them again, because if we don't defend our record no one will. 
Meanwhile, elements of the British left continue to make the wrong call when it comes to the Arab spring. Germaine Greer poured scorn on the suggestion that Gaddafi's soldiers were raping civilians, but thinks that British troops should not be deployed to Libya because there's no guarantee they won't become a 'rape squad' on the prowl. Hugo Schmidt is not impressed. I don't completely agree with his first sentence, but I think he's right about where the real fight for women's rights is happening today:

A single British soldier fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan or Al Qaeda does more for women’s rights than Greer has done in her entire life. That is worth bearing in mind, as is the fact that there is a small band of radicals who genuinely are fighting for the emancipation of women – women such as Nonie Darwish, Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to name only some of the most prominent – who deserve our maximum support and solidarity, and yet do not receive anywhere near the fawning treatment that Greer does. 
Last week I quoted Mick Hulme's weaselly scepticism about the crimes of Ratko Mladic. This week's shameful apologia for repression comes from Alastair Crooke, who writes fawningly of Bashar al-Assad as 'a young leader...not ossified by time and convention' who 'really does believe in reform'. This fondness for the Syrian dictator seems to derive from the latter's endorsement of Crooke's own pet causes: 'Assad had opposed the war in Iraq and has supported the resistance in Palestine'. Nick Cohen is not won over:
Read the whole piece and you will recognise an astute work of propaganda that plays subtle tricks with considerable skill. The author seduces the reader by offering entrance to a privileged world of insider knowledge. He manipulates the belief, common among intelligent people, that events are more complicated than they appear. The simple-minded may hear of the troops of a dictatorship massacring civilians and think the dictator an evil man. We, by flattering contrast, know that the world is not black and white but coloured in shades of grey. Naïve westerners believe that Assad is just another vicious dictator, but he allows us to see that Assad is not a monster but a man who recognises the need for reform, who is admired around the region for his foreign policy and so on.
And Nick has his own explanation for Crooke's position:
He runs an organisation called Conflicts Forum, which aims to promote the Islamist cause. (His commitment to religious reactionaries, incidentally, probably explains his enthusiasm for the Syrian Baathists. Although they are nominally secular, they give logistical and financial support to Hamas and Hezbollah.)
This week, we discovered that the 'gay girl in Damascus', the supposed Syrian blogger who had apparently been kidnapped by the regime, was in fact a straight American man living in Edinburgh who created the persona as a mouthpiece for his own propaganda purposes. His confession was hardly apologetic: 'This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.' As Ethan Zuckerman comments: 'it’s hard to imagine a more orientalist project than a married, male American writer masquerading as a Syrian lesbian to tell a story about oppression and democratic protest.'

If you want to understand what's really going on in Syria, you could do worse than read the Henry Jackson Society's report on the country's nascent opposition movement, summarised here by Michael Weiss. He concludes: 'The evidence suggests that this revolution is the most liberal and Western-friendly of any of the Arab Spring uprisings. That it's also the least supported by the West is a tragedy.' Michael was also on BBC News this week, cutting through the regime propaganda to provide an excellent summary of the current situation.

Optimism about the prospects for a democratic revolution in Syria should be tempered by the realisation that demonstrations on a similar scale in Iran two years ago have done little to weaken the grip of the regime. In fact, the abuse of human rights has worsened, as these statistics from the British Embassy in Tehran attest. Last week, United4Iran and Move4Iran staged a quietly eloquent flashmob in a Paris metro station to mark the anniversary of the country's stolen election:

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Comedy bore

This story (£) is so replete with opportunities for mockery that I would have dismissed it as a spoof, had it not appeared in the august pages of the Times. Apparently the 'godfathers of modern comedy', aka the team behind '80s television series The Comic Strip, are to get back together for a one-off production, scheduled for the autumn. The subject of this long-awaited comedy special? Why, it's 'Tony Blair and the aftermath of the Iraq war':
The Hunt for Tony Blair, a 1950s-style film noir spoof, sees the former prime minister charged with murder and on the run from the police.
According to Jay Hunt, chief creative officer at Channel 4, who commissioned the programme, 'it promises to be a very daring and utterly irreverent romp':
Comic Strip defined comedy for a generation and it's a real coup to have the team back tackling one of the most controversial subjects of our time in a way that only they can'.
'Daring'? 'Irreverent'? 'Controversial'? The 'Tony Blair war criminal' line has been the tired cliche of 'Comment is Free' columns and North London dinner table conversation for half a decade, as well as the stock-in-trade of the anti-Blair mandarins and Daily Mail writers who refuse to accept the conclusions of  a string of public inquiries. In other words, it's the establishment view: nothing 'controversial' about it. And nothing new about it either. The Iraq war was in 2003, for heaven's sake.

In other words, the subject is as dated and washed-up as the Comic Strip veterans themselves, who include Rik Mayall, Robbie Coltrane and Jennifer Saunders. By associating themselves with this project, the scourges of 'Thatch' now appear as outmoded as Les Dawson.

One might ask why they couldn't find a more 'controversial' focus for their comic rage in the contemporary political scene. Aren't there enough oppportunities for political satire in the u-turns and fallings-out of the Cameronians and Cleggites? And with everything that's happening in the Arab world, wouldn't it be more 'daring' and 'irreverent' to satirise Assad or Ahmadinejad, rather than the easy target of a prime minister who left office four years ago? Or is this comic targeting of Blair yet another example of the fashionable faux-left habit of responding to real abuses of power by looking in the other direction?

And what does it say about the once 'cutting-edge' Channel 4 that it's promoting this predictable project by a group of has-beens, which is designed to confirm rather than challenge the prejudices of its audience, as a major television event?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Something for Sunday morning

Some Vassilis Tsabropoulos (on piano, expertly accompanied by Arild Andersen on double bass and John Marshall on drums) to chase away those wet weekend blues:

Saturday, 11 June 2011

From Grayling to Glasman, and Ken to Noam: the week in links

Here's a few things you might have missed this week:

Terry Eagleton's description of A.C.Grayling's plan for a new college of the humanities as 'odious' is fairly typical of a certain strain of left-ish outrage (though, as we know, Eagleton has a personal animus against Grayling, Dawkins, and their 'old-fashioned Whiggish rationalism'). As Max Dunbar writes: 'From far left reaction you would have thought that Lord Voldemort himself had risen from his Horcruxes to set up a Slytherin Academy of Pure Evil (with Dark Arts BTec)'. And Max agrees that, certainly in Eagleton's case, 'there is an ideological thing going on':

Grayling and Dawkins, another lecturer at Evil University, are hated by Eagleton and similar far left academics, because they stand up to the religious right. Eagleton's big objection to Evil University is apparently that there will be no theology department, and that Tariq Ali will not be able to get a job there.
Reluctant as I am to link to spiked online, I also liked Brendan O'Neill's response:
It is ‘odious’, ‘repugnant’, ‘parasitic’, ‘hypocritical’, a ‘travesty’, a ‘money-grubbing’ scheme, and ‘it would be better all-round if its doors never opened’. Wow. What is it? A whorehouse? A Satanic church? A junk-food chain that specialises in feeding fat straight into children’s veins via a drip? In fact it’s a proposed new London-based university, called the New College of the Humanities, which says it will teach students the best of literature, culture and history for a fee of £18,000 a year. And yet judging from the unhinged coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had proposed opening a Ratko Mladic fanclub in Islington.
As Tony Blair said, in his interview (£) with the Times this week'Let a thousand flowers bloom!...Should it be right that people come forward with new ideas and new concepts? Of course.'

In the same interview, Blair was fairly dismissive of the nascent 'Blue Labour' movement: 'I'd be worried about indulging a nostalgia...The way the Labour Party wins, is if it's at the cutting edge of the future, is if it's modernising. It won't win by a Labour equivalent of warm beer and old maids bicycling'. Alex Massie agrees, and is suspicious of what he sees as the anti-liberalism of 'Blue Labour' and 'Red Toryism' alike: 'The spiritual renewal Glasman and Blond seem to think is necessary is, one suspects, a scolds' agenda that's the antithesis of a liberal live-and-let-live approach.' My own response would be more ambivalent, but I think Massie is probably right to conclude that Glasman and Blond - and cultural pessimist John Gray, with whom he associates them - are responding to something 'jittery, sceptical, distrusting and coercive' in the public mood. 

Also on the future of Labour and the left, Paul Anderson's reflections on being a 'Labour reformist libertarian socialist' in a cold climate are well worth a read. Though generally in favour of self-organisation and 'do-it-yourself socialist initiatives', Anderson sees the priority now as defending the social-democratic state:
In an ideal world, I'd like to see co-ops running the local buses and democratic housing associations controlling most rented living spaces – but in the absence of a revolution, which isn't on the agenda, the only context in which it could happen would be a big, generous, redistributive social-democratic state that taxed the rich and used the proceeds to forge a more equal and democratic society. I want that state, I want it now, and I want it more than I want my windows cleaned by a profit-sharing workers' collective.
According to Nick Cohen, the fortunes of the Left aren't going to revive until it cuts its ties to the 'disastrous and hypocritical ideology' represented by the likes of Ken Livingstone. Reflecting on Ed Miliband's unsuccessful attempt to get Jewish voters to support Livingstone's mayoral candidacy, Cohen writes:
I do not know what subterranean currents swirl in the Livingstone psyche, and have no particular desire to find out. But ever since he embraced Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the grim theologian who advises the Muslim Brotherhood, he has provided on the record evidence of his political predilections. Livingstone is a candidate for public office who is happy to engage with men who are not only antisemites, but support wife beating, the execution of gays and the murder of Muslims who exercise their right to change their faith or abandon religion completely.
On the subject of pseudo-leftist fondness for authoritarian extremists, Michael Deibert wonders if the indictment of Ratko Mladic for genocide will cause those - like Chomsky - who denied Serbian war crimes to undergo a change of heart:
With Ratko Mladic, predator and killer, now in custody, Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and the others who have sought to deny justice to the victims of Bosnia's killing fields should apologize to those victims for working so long to make the justice they sought less, not more, likely.
Don't hold your breath. And in case you thought that far-left attempts to explain away tyranny and genocide were a thing of the past, take a look (if you can bear it) at this disgusting reaction to the arrest of Mladic by spiked online's Mick Hume. I told you I didn't like linking to them.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Something for the weekend

In January, Newsweek included Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a list of America's 'dying cities'. This beautifully filmed and expertly choreographed community video, featuring 3,000 local residents, was the city's response (via Roland):

Friday, 3 June 2011

Moving the goalposts

This was the week that my union, the University and College Union, responded to criticisms that its obsession with Israel was effectively anti-Semitic - by trying to change the definition of anti-Semitism. As Eve Garrard writes in an excellent post over at Norm’s blog:

This Orwellian resolution of political disputes by way of linguistic fiat is particularly contemptible in an academics' union, since academics are supposed to have some knowledge of how argument works, and how intellectually empty it is to support an argument by distorting the meanings of the terms you use.  

Ben Gidley, in a long and thoughtful piece at the Dissent blog, agrees:

As an academic who studies racism, I find it bizarre that my union cannot accept that there is even the faintest possibility that institutional racism might exist in our own ranks, even after a series of clearly documented incidents and a shocking number of resignations by Jewish members who perceive it as such. This motion, if passed, will in fact legitimate racism in the union and stop any allegation of anti-Semitism—in debates or in the workplace—from being taken seriously.  

And Ben provides this pithy summary: ‘By alleging that Jews are merely crying anti-Semitism to stop people talking about Israel, the UCU leadership cries Israel to stop people talking about anti-Semitism.’ Over at LabourList, Rob Marchant adds: ‘the subtext is crystal clear: anti-Semitism is often not genuine and raised merely to win arguments as matter of bad faith.’ Rob sees the UCU motion as worrying evidence of a wider trend:
We spend a lot of time rightly criticising the white racists of the BNP and the EDL. But it’s high time we confronted those who condone those other kinds of racism around us. Before they really start to hurt the credibility, and the ethos, of the whole Labour movement.
Or before decent leftists, and union members, give up on the UCU completely, as some have already done - like Goldsmiths historian Ariel Hessayon who announced his resignation from the union today:

For my own part, I am an historian whose research interests and writings include studies of attitudes towards Jews and secret Jews in early modern England.  I have also looked at the ways in which modern histories of Jews and antisemitism reflect the present day concerns of their authors.  Based on my professional expertise, I have no doubt that the politically motivated rejection of the EUMC working definition has antisemitic implications.  
Accordingly, I cannot in good conscience remain a member of a union that countenances the antics of such extremists; fanatics who seem at best oblivious and at worst disdainful of the consequences of their single-minded obsession: Israel.

Meanwhile, from north of the border comes news that West Dunbartonshire Council has decided to ban books by Israeli authors from its libraries. Like the campaign against Ahava, this boycott has some pretty nasty historical overtones: after all, who were the last people to close down Jewish shops and ban books by Jewish authors?

And finally, on a similar note, I was angered and saddened by this report on the peddling of virulent anti-Israel propaganda by ‘progressive’ Christian groups such as Pax Christi (of which I was once, in a half-remembered life, a member). The one-sidedness of ‘liberal’ Christians in their response to the Israel-Palestine conflict is something I’ve written about before and plan to analyse more fully in a forthcoming post.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Something for the weekend

Some gentle jazz to wake up to (very slowly), on this overcast Bank Holiday Saturday. A beautiful version of Caetano Veloso's 'Dom de iludir', by Stefano Bollani (piano), Jesper Bodilsen (double bass) and Morten Lund (drums).


Friday, 27 May 2011

Taliban tactics in Tower Hamlets

I’m not sure why I’ve been so affected by the story of Gary Smith, the east London RE teacher who was assaulted by four Islamic extremists because they disapproved of him teaching religion to Muslim girls. Perhaps it was the sheer ferocity of the attack, in which a Stanley knife, an iron rod and a block of cement were used, and which left Smith with a fractured skull and a permanently scarred face.

Maybe I was taken aback by the unexceptional nature of what this ordinary schoolteacher did to arouse such naked violence. It’s not entirely clear precisely what Azad Hussain, Akmol Hussein, Simon Alam and Sheikh Rashid found objectionable about Smith’s teaching: whether it was the fact that he presumed to talk about Islam when he’s not himself a Muslim, or that he was teaching religion in an open-minded way rather than in the form of indoctrination (one of the accused railed against him for ‘putting thoughts in people’s minds’), or simply that he was exposing young women to the same kind of curriculum that’s available to young men. Whichever it was, none of these things is unusual in the British education system, and Gary Smith was only doing what thousands of teachers up and down the country do every day.

Maybe it’s that sense of familiarity, the feeling that Gary Smith was viciously assaulted for doing the kind of things that I’ve done myself – that sickening sense that it could have been me – that’s got to me. After all, I used to work in the East End - not in schools, but in colleges and community education projects, with young men and women from a diversity of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Back then (in the ‘80s), it never occurred to me to censor what I taught for ‘religious’ reasons, or out of fear of some kind of jihadist blowback.

I felt another kind of familiarity, too, as I read the shocking reports of the attack on Gary Smith. The thugs who were convicted of the assault came from places - Shadwell, Mile End, Wapping, Whitechapel - that have a deep resonance for me. These were the places where my Georgian and Victorian ancestors lived, where they were born, baptised, married, and worked – as shoemakers, carpenters, labourers, clerks. Indeed, one of my great great grandfathers had a boot and shoe shop in Burdett Road, Mile End, where the attack took place. Many of my forebears were members of a religious minority, too – they were Baptists and Methodists, drawn to these London suburbs because they were tolerant of Dissenters – but I can’t imagine them beating up those who disagreed with their particular versions of Christianity.

Then again, perhaps this event stood out because of its striking similarity with another story that I read this week - about the murder by the Taliban of an Afghan headmaster, simply because he had the effrontery to teach girls in his school. The two accounts had much in common: there was the same warped sense of religious self-righteousness, the same absolute denial of equal rights to women and girls, the same murderous violence in the name of religion.  Suddenly those Daily Mail scare stories about the ‘London Taliban’ didn’t seem so off the wall.

Finally, I suppose I was left perplexed about what would – and should – be the response of liberals to this kind of incident. I imagine if there’d been an attack of similar ferocity by four EDL or BNP thugs, against a local imam or mosque instructor, say, then we would have seen (quite rightly) liberals and anti-racists mobilising and marching through the area in solidarity. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything of the kind in support of Gary Smith. Where is the outcry from the teaching unions against this assault on one of their number, simply for doing his job? Has anyone planned a march through Tower Hamlets in support of freedom of expression or the educational rights of young women?

Perhaps I’m expecting too much, and maybe I’m getting overly emotional about a rare and isolated incident. But then I read that, in the same part of east London, religiously-inspired anti-gay posters and threats against homosexuals are on the rise, as are the pressures on young women to ‘cover up’, and advertising hoardings have been routinely vandalised. I don’t live in the area, and I can no longer claim to know it well, and for all I know most teachers, gays, and women in Tower Hamlets still feel safe to go about their normal business, express their sexuality, and wear what they want, without fear of what happened to Gary Smith.

But if not, then it’s something the left ought to take seriously. It’s a good thing that liberals and anti-fascists line up with ordinary Muslims to protest against the intolerance of the EDL. But we shouldn’t forget that one of the reasons the EDL is able to gain traction is because of what people perceive, maybe unfairly, as the silence and habit of looking-the-other-way from the liberal establishment in the face of militant Islam. Let’s not forget that those who tried to silence Gary Smith, and those who threaten others because of their ideas, their gender or their sexuality, are fascists too - clerical fascists - and anti-fascists should as vehement and determined in condemning and campaigning against them as we are in opposing the EDL and the BNP.


This article is of related interest, though I don't agree with the author that it's all the fault of Labour, or that it's a symptom of the decline of Christianity.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Something for the weekend

What else, on this day of days?


Mind you, the problem with these fundamentalists is not that they know the Bible too well - it's that they don't know it well enough. Haven't they read Matthew 24.36? 'But of that day and hour no one knoweth, not the angels of heaven, but the Father alone.' (Douay-Rheims translation)

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Closed conference

If you’d been in the San Francisco Bay Area last month, you might have been tempted to drop in on this event:

Or maybe not. A closer look at the conference programme would have given you pause. The event seems to have drawn its inspiration from a Huffington Post article by one M. J. Rosenberg, which ‘summed-up possibly for the first time and in clear fashion the primary motivations behind the increasing intensity of the Islamophobes’ campaign’. The programme note goes on:

Rosenberg's analysis makes a connection between domestic Islamophobia production and dissemination in the US and foreign policy objectives related to the Muslim world, which centers on fomenting hate and bigotry at home so as to create the needed condition for continued support of militarism and endless war abroad.

The organisers then make the following claim:

At present the airwaves, news, TV shows and centers of culture production are filled with Islamophobic content thus making racism directed at Muslims and Islam a fully sanctioned discourses [sic] affecting American Muslims as well as shaping foreign policy discourses.
In response to these developments, ‘the conference will seek to document the ideological, institutional and financial interests entangled in the production and dissemination of Islamophobic contents in the US and in Europe and exploring the primary desired outcomes, in the short and long terms.’

In other words, if it was an open-minded, diverse, academic exploration of the causes of anti-Muslim prejudice you were looking for – then think again. The organisers of this event had clearly made up their minds in advance, and their programme reads like a political manifesto rather than an academic prospectus. You can just tell there wouldn’t have been much point attending if, for example, you thought it was something of an overstatement to claim that the airwaves are 'filled with Islamophobic content' or if, whatever your opinion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you believed they were motivated by something other than hatred of Muslims. Or if you suspected that the very notion of ‘Islamophobia’ might have been dreamed up (‘produced’, to use the conference’s preferred jargon), or at the very least exploited, by fundamentalists seeking to constrain criticism of their beliefs.

Then again, your interest in attending this event might have been somewhat undermined by reading that ‘the conference will bring together researchers, academics, community advocates and representatives of the Organization of Islamic Conference’. Even if you knew nothing about the latter group, a quick Google search would have thrown up some rather worrying information: such as that its political headquarters is in Tehran, that a virulently antisemitic speech at one of its conferences received a standing ovation, and that this was the outfit that tried to persuade the UN to introduce a ‘defamation of religion’ law that would have effectively outlawed criticism of Islam. You might begin to wonder what a responsible academic institution, let alone one one with a 'liberal' reputation, was doing collaborating with an organisation of this nature.

And finally, you might question why a ‘Centre for Race and Gender’ was devoting its resources to an 'Islamophobia project' in the first place. Surely a more urgent priority would be to analyse the racism (antisemitism, repression of ethnic and religious minorities) and sexism (honour killings, forced marriage,  absence of civil rights for women) perpetrated in the name of Islam - which are arguably both more widespread and more deadly than the prejudices of supposed 'Islamophobes'?

All in all, this absurd conference is a striking illustration of a number of things that are wrong with the postmodern academic 'left'.  Firstly, there’s the ingrained habit of responding to any new development that doesn't fit its existing narrative - in this case, the growth of radical Islam - by looking studiously in the opposite direction. Secondly, and related to this, is the tendency to trace the blame for any problem in the world to the sins of the West, and the United States in particular: so it's our racism that's the cause of all these wars, not their terrorism. And thirdly, there's the temptation to see any anti-western movement - in this case the blatantly patriarchal, anti-free-speech OIC - as objectively progressive - as, in postmodern feminist Judith Butler's notorious phrase about Hamas and Hezbollah, 'part of the global left'.

Alan Johnson analysed this pseudo-leftist cast of mind earlier this week, in a post over at the World Affairs site:
After 1989, and especially after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the old idea that Stalinism (its crimes notwithstanding) was objectively progressive against the West, morphed into the idea that all opposition to 'US imperialism' or 'Empire' was a 'resistance' or 'multitude' that must be (its crimes notwithstanding) supported, or at least not opposed energetically.
This pro-tyrant left thinks it holds the key to the entire world in the palm of its hand. If America is opposed to a tyrant, then—there is some dubious logic here, but this really is the crucial move—the tyrant must be opposing America. And—this is the last stretch, stay with me—therefore the tyrant is an 'anti-imperialist' and, objectively, 'progressive.'
The programme for the 'Islamophobia Production' conference' ends with this promise: 'The papers presented at the conference will be published in UC Berkeley’s Islamophobia Studies Journal inaugural edition Fall, 2011'. I can hardly wait. That a respectable university even publishes something called 'Islamophobia Studies' (do you think they have a parallel 'Islamist Studies' journal?) is yet anther symptom of the sorry decadence of the academic 'post-left'.

(H/T Martin Kramer via Facebook)

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Programmed to pray?

Spot the non-sequiturs in this story from last Thursday's Times (behind paywall):

Human beings are predisposed to believe in God and the afterlife, according to a study by academics at the University of Oxford.
The findings of a three-year, £1.9 million research project suggest that there is an inbuilt bias in the mind towards seeing the world in religious or spiritual terms. This means that public life will always have a strong religious dimension, and that religion will always have an impact on public life, the project leaders say.
 “It means you cannot separate religion and public life,” said Roger Trigg, a philosophy professor and co-director of the project. Professor Trigg, from the Ian Ramsey Centre in the Theology Faculty at Oxford, said: “The mind is open to supernatural agency. There are lots of explanations. It is certainly linked to basic cognitive architecture, in other words, the way we think.”

So, it appears researchers have discovered that humans have an innate predisposition towards religious belief. I’m not qualified to assess the validity of this finding. But I’m curious as to how this leads automatically to the conclusion that ‘religion will always have an impact on public life’. How on earth did 'public life' sneak in there?

The term is, of course, taken straight from the current highly-charged debates about the place of religion in society, and this is very much a political rather than a scientific claim. One of the tropes of anti-secularist discourse has been that secularists and atheists are actively seeking to exclude religion from ‘public life’, or from something called ‘the public square’. It’s become one of those truisms for which little evidence is ever produced. As Helena Kennedy said last week about the Coalition’s constant claim that the Labour government left the economy in a terrible mess, if you repeat something often enough, people will eventually come to believe it (even in the absence of evidence and argument), and it will become part of 'common sense'. In the religion and secularism debate, we're used to a variety of weary familiar tropes of this kind: so, the ‘new’ atheism is always ‘militant’, secularism essentially ‘aggressive’, and liberalism is just as ‘fundamentalist’ as some forms of religion.

Returning to the Oxford research: As Deborah Cameron said in a recent radio debate with Simon Baron-Cohen, about supposedly ‘inbuilt’ gender differences, it’s not that the findings of neuroscience are necessarily ‘wrong’, it’s rather that neuroscientists claim too much for them. They over-ambitiously seek to draw a straight line from some aspect of our biological make-up to attitudes and activities that are deeply embedded in human culture, society and history. Listening to researchers of this ilk (and despite its  theological patina, this research on religion is clearly making claims of a neuroscientific nature), you get the impression that thousands of years of history, social organisation and cultural development, not to mention philosophical reflection, count for nothing, and that our behaviour is directly determined by our genes or our brain cells, as if we lived in a laboratory rather than in complex, multi-layered human societies.

Professor Trigg almost concedes this:

He said that it was too simplistic to talk in terms of being “hard-wired” or “programmed” to believe in God, however. Environmental factors also applied, and humans were not naturally monotheistic. The supernatural instinct could manifest in polytheism or other belief systems as well. 

Well, it's a relief to learn that we're not all programmed to be Christians or Muslims. However, an implied admission of the project's hubris comes later:
The research has raised philosophical questions, such as why it is that if God does exist, he makes it so difficult for humans to believe in him or her. “It is not obvious,” Professor Trigg said. “Others might say it would be an encroachment on human freedom if we were too forced to believe in God.”
It’s not clear how an academic research project, even one lasting three years and costing nearly two million pounds, ever thought it was going to solve philosophical and theological problems that have mystified humankind for millenia.

As I say, I don't feel qualified (not being a neuroscientist) to evaluate the findings of these studies, but even a humble scholar of the humanities and social sciences like me can see that there might be a problem with aspects of their methodology. For example:

One study by Emily Reed Burdett and Dr Barrett at Oxford suggested that children below the age of five found it easier to believe in some superhuman properties than to understand similar human limitations. Children were asked whether their mother would know the contents of a box into which she could not see. Those aged three believed that their mother and God would always know the contents, but by the age of four many started to understand that their mothers were not all-seeing and all-knowing while continuing to believe in an all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agent such as God.

As every sociologist, or psychologist with an ounce of sociocultural awareness, will tell you, there's simply no way of identifying some 'instinctive' understanding of the world that precedes involvement in a social world of shared ideas and values. Even 'children under five' - especially those with the ability to understand and answer a researcher's questions - have acquired language, which comes imprinted with a mass of cultural assumptions.

This study begs as many questions as it answers. Where, we might ask, did these children derive their concept of 'God' as an 'all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agent'? Are we supposed to believe that's 'inbuilt' too? 

One of the researchers involved in this particular study continued:

This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist. Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact. If we look at why religious beliefs and practices persist in societies across the world, we conclude that individuals bound by religious ties might be more likely to co-operate as societies. Interestingly, we found that religion is less likely to thrive in populations living in cities in developed nations where there is already a strong social support network.

Or, one might add, where religious ideas have been challenged by science or bycompeting philosophies. Again, this supposed finding ignores cultural and social differences between societies and historical periods, in its overweening attempt to identify ahistorical, decontextualised commonalities, and thus to prove the universality - and universal usefulness - of religion.

None of which is to deny the legitimate role of faith in public life. But when religion is forced to fall back on arguments about the social value of faith, rather than attempting to prove its truthfulness, and when theology turns to neuroscience to support its claims, it's a sign of weakness rather than strength, and of desperation rather than confidence.