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.