Wednesday, 30 April 2008
Monday, 28 April 2008
Friday, 25 April 2008
Discovering Mor Karbasi
You can hear four tracks by Mor Karbasi here, and here's a video of the singer at the 2006 Simcha on the Square in Trafalgar Square:
Moderate Muslims fight back
It is amazing that the foundation, which includes advisers such as Paddy Ashdown, Sheikh BaBikr Ahmed BaBikr, the Rev Giles Fraser, Catherine Fieschi and Professor Timothy Garton Ash, can be reduced to "neocon ex-extremists". Sardar goes even further: Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Bukhari, a great man of peace who spoke at our launch, is described as a "neocon Sufi" despite his dedication to campaigning for cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis and his anti-war message.
Meanwhile Yasmin Alibhai-Brown announces another encouraging development: the launch on 1st May of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which will no doubt attract similar brickbats from Sardar et al. Look out for the Guardian comment piece on 2nd May explaining that the new organisation is a neocon front and unrepresentative of 'real' Muslim opinion.
Footnote: I found Alibhai-Brown's piece via Butterflies and Wheels, which also carries Sardar's original diatribe. I confess to being a little confused on finding the latter there, just as I was perturbed to come across Michael Parenti's apologia for Chinese policy in Tibet at the same site a couple of weeks ago. I'm all for websites featuring a range of opinion, but B&W's usual policy is to carry pieces which reflect its editors' relentless battle against woolly thinking - or else stories that point up the absurdities of various forms of irrationalism. Since both Parenti's and Sardar's articles appear to be prime examples of the 'fashionable nonsense' against which B&W struggles, I wonder if there's been a change of policy. I think we should be told.
Of saints and secularists
Glancey's article caught my attention, in part because I've been researching my family history recently and have discovered that my Scottish-born great-great-great grandparents lived in the Charing Cross area in the 1830-40s, and that my 3 x great grandmother was buried at St. Martins.
But I was also interested because the church is dedicated to St. Martin of Tours who was, as Glancey reminds us, 'a fourth-century Roman cavalry officer turned Christian ascetic and preacher', and is 'the patron saint of beggars and soldiers.' The church's current work with the homeless (which runs alongside its more familiar functions as a cultural venue and tourist attraction) seems to be an attempt to follow in the footsteps of its saintly patron.
If I were ever to resolve my arguments with Christianity and experience a rebirth of faith, I'd probably take Martin of Tours as my patron saint. Not necessarily because of his charity towards beggars, and certainly not on account of his soldiering. Rather, it would be because of his lesser-known reputation as one of the first Christian advocates of the separation of church and state. I found this out recently via the wonders of Wikipedia, which tells the story of Martin's involvement in the affair of the Priscillianists, an obscure sect condemned by Rome as heretics:
Priscillian and his supporters had fled, and some bishops of Hispania, led by Bishop Ithacius, brought charges before Emperor Magnus Maximus. Although greatly opposed to the Priscillianists, Martin hurried to the Imperial court of Trier on an errand of mercy to remove them from the secular jurisdiction of the emperor. At first, Maximus acceded to his entreaty, but, when Martin had departed, yielded to the solicitations of Ithacius and ordered Priscillian and his followers to be beheaded, the first Christians executed for heresy. Deeply grieved, Martin refused to communicate with Ithacius, until pressured by the Emperor.
For insisting that the Church had no business using the power of the secular state to enforce matters of belief, Martin of Tours deserves to be the patron saint, not only of soldiers and beggars, but also of secularists - that's if secularists can have patron saints.
Mind you, Christians named Martin are not short of right-on patron saints to choose from. The other popular option is the Peruvian St. Martin de Porres, who has the additional coolness factor of being the first black saint in the Americas, as well as all the usual stuff about dedicating his life to the poor. Not only that, he's probably the only saint to have a piece of music written about him by a jazz legend: Mary Lou Williams' 'Black Christ of the Andes'.
Williams, who played with some of the jazz greats in the '20s and '30s, underwent a conversion to Catholicism in the 1950s and went on to write three masses, as well as the hymn to St. Martin. Friday quiz question: which other jazz legend converted to Catholicism more recently? Answer: Dave Brubeck, who became a Catholic in 1980, reportedly after a musical setting of the 'Our Father' came to him in a dream.
Friday fun and games
Thursday, 24 April 2008
Sardar uses 'neocon' label to smear ex-extremists
Monday, 21 April 2008
Who are the real 'defectors' from the left?
If you can really view someone who leaves an imperialist, anti-semitic, anti-democratic, ultra-religious party like Hizb ut-Tahrir and comes out in favour of democracy and religious tolerance as a defector moving rightwards, then it shows your political - not to mention, moral - compass is in urgent need of repair.
Oliver Kamm joins the fray here.
Friday, 18 April 2008
Communism and post-communism in Italy
Because communism in Italy was always an entire culture. There were the 'Feste dell'Unita' in summer, which were not only about sitting outside on long benches and drinking, singing and dancing; but there were always book stands selling tomes from Einaudi publishers and writers, actors and directors would always step up onto the podium to discuss things. Almost everything which Italy contributed - on an international level as well - to post-war culture, originated in this communist culture, which was an alternative world on Italian soil. Neorealism in film and literature, the tragic black and white epiphanies of Rossellini or De Sica, the return to dialect and local language traditions – none of this would have happened without the background of communist ideas.
I've posted before about my own youthful affection for the eurocommunism of the PCI (which Eric Hobsbawm once described as his spiritual home), the only survivor of whose cultural legacy is the newspaper l'Unita, with its title banner still proudly announcing 'Quotidiano fondato da Antonio Gramsci il 12 febbraio 1924'.
Actually, it's not strictly true to say that no communists won seats in these elections. Certainly, the far-left grouping La Sinistra - L'Arcobaleno (The Left - The Rainbow), which included the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation Party), failed to gain any seats. But the PRC are a minority party of hardliners who broke away when the PCI relaunched itself as the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left) in 1991.
The Democratic Party of the Left, later the Democrats of the Left, joined Romani Prodi's centre-left Olive Tree Coalition for the 2006 general election. In 2007 the party dissolved itself (along with a number of other left-wing and centrist parties) into the new Democratic Party, led by Walter Veltroni. The new party, which resembles a mainstream European social-democratic party, came second in the recent election, after Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, winning about 239 seats in the lower house and 130 seats in the Senate.
So while it's true to say there are no longer any representatives in the Italian parliament who ran as communists, there are plenty there who have done so in the past, and probably still share some of those old Gramscian ideals, even if they now use rather different language to describe their politics.
If I were Italian, I'd vote Partito Democratico and I certainly have no time for the quasi-Stalinist politics of the Communist Refoundation Party. It has to be admitted, though, that the latter do have some of the more colourful candidates - Nichi Vendola, for example. An old-fashioned communist who is also a faithful Catholic, he somehow managed to get himself elected president of the ultra-conservative region of Puglia, despite being openly gay. Only in Italy...
Barack fights back (again)
Thursday, 17 April 2008
The unsavoury side of anti-communism
Belated view from my window
Wednesday, 16 April 2008
On liberal 'condescension'
That's from Stuff White People Like , a website on which I currently fritter away far too much of my time (and which of course should really be called 'Stuff White Liberals Like'). It provides a humorous sidelight on a topic that's been getting a lot of coverage since Barack Obama's 'bitter' speech: the supposed condescension of liberals towards ordinary folks.
Of course, the irony is that Obama is African-American, but since giving the speech he's been turned into an honorary white-liberal-elitist by his detractors. Here's Michael Weiss, for example, glossing the candidate's comments (which I reproduced in full here):
Thus in one fell swoop does Barack Obama label a good portion of the electorate (those “small towns” are not confined to Pennsylvania) resentful, racist, gun-toting Bible nuts—misguided souls in need of someone like himself to shepherd them out of their miserable condition.
Drawing on a famous phrase of E.P.Thompson's, Weiss accuses Obama of 'enormous condescension' towards voters. As I said in my previous post on this topic, I believe Obama's comments were poorly chosen, but I think Michael is guilty of over-interpretation here. I don't see how any commentator who considers Obama's comments in the context of his whole campaign, not to mention the context of the whole speech, can come to the conclusion that he's an elitist. The point was well made yesterday by that icon of blue-collar America, Bruce Springsteen, who has endorsed Obama:
At the moment, critics have tried to diminish Senator Obama through the exaggeration of certain of his comments and relationships. While these matters are worthy of some discussion, they have been ripped out of the context and fabric of the man's life and vision, so well described in his excellent book, Dreams of My Father, often in order to distract us from discussing the real issues: war and peace, the fight for economic and racial justice, reaffirming our Constitution, and the protection and enhancement of our environment.
Weiss broadens his critique to include writers like Thomas Frank, on whose analysis of working-class voting habits Obama's comments were clearly based:
Implicit in this theory, of course, is that the proles are too benighted to know their own interests, and that ultimately unelected left-leaning politicians have these always in mind.
Whether or not you agree with Frank's conclusions, it's surely a mistake to dismiss all such left-wing attempts to understand working-class conservatism as inherently patronising. To be sure, there's plenty of condescension towards the working class to be found in sections of the Left, particular among those whom Weiss has elsewhere described as 'poseur leftists' or 'faux-cialists' who are impatient with the proletariat for not fulfilling their historic role. But to me, there's a world of difference between the crude elitism of the 'false consciousness' brigade, and the more nuanced, empathetic - dare I say Gramscian? - attempts by a Frank or an Obama to understand why poor voters support parties that act against their interests. It's not all that different from Thompson's own analysis of 19th century Methodism, in which he is able to see both positive and negative elements.
Part of the problem is that Obama's sentence (and it was only one sentence, after all) rather clumsily ran together a number of very different kinds of things that people take refuge in when times are hard. There's a world of difference between religion (which Obama himself 'clings' to), gun ownership (about which he, and his detractors, are more ambivalent) and anti-immigrant sentiment (which most people find distasteful).
Even so, as I said before, I find Obama's clumsy honesty more attractive than the fake hands-thrown-up-in-horror reactions of his political opponents, who probably share his thinking but are careful not to air their thoughts in public. Eugene Robinson captures this well:
Clinton spent the weekend bashing Barack Obama for not seeming to be enough of a regular guy -- not for any actual deficit of regular-guyness, mind you, but for giving the impression that such a deficit might exist.
This whole sideshow began when Obama committed what she portrayed as the apparently unforgivable sin of trying to describe the resentment felt by some working-class Americans, venturing that "they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
This seemed "elitist . . . and, frankly, patronizing," Clinton charged. Never mind whether it actually was elitist, patronizing or, for that matter, inaccurate. No, the eagle-eyed Clinton took dead aim at a different target: the impression Obama might have given.
Clinton's argument assumes that "regular" is a synonym for "unsophisticated" -- that to communicate with voters who have not attained a certain income or education level, a candidate has to put on an elaborate disguise and speak in words of one syllable.
So tell me: Who's being patronizing?
An unlikely feminist hero
Monday, 14 April 2008
Yet another Cape Verdean star
For the complete interview, follow this link to the artist's website.
'She knows better. Shame on her.'
Campaign trail no place for political analysis?
Here's how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by -- it's true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter). [...]
But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, Obama's analysis here is similar to that advanced by Thomas Frank in What's the matter with Kansas? (published in the UK as What's the matter with America?). Like Frank's book, Obama's speech suggests thoughtful empathy, rather than elitist contempt, for the problems faced by working-class Americans. But, as Barack is now discovering, the nuanced critique of the political analyst doesn't translate well to the 24-hour news cycle. Someone in his campaign should have remembered that, in a saturation-coverage election, you can't say something about one group of voters to another group elsewhere in the country, without the first group finding out what you've been saying about them. To have said these things in San Francisco of all places, and in the week before a Pennsylvania primary whose outcome will depend on those working-class votes, was an unusual misjudgement for this usually surefooted campaign.
Those who wish Obama well have to hope that, as with his major speech on race last month, the voters will prefer honesty over the milking-it-for-all-its-worth duplicity of the Clinton campaign. In response to Obama's comments, Hillary has reinvented herself yet again, this time - improbably - as a devout, gun-toting, hard-drinking working-class gal. There are signs, though, that even some of Hillary's core demographic - white women - are growing tired of the way she has run her campaign.
Sunday, 13 April 2008
Blaming Israel and the West for the ills of the Arab world
Saturday, 12 April 2008
The big clunking fist strikes again
Friday, 11 April 2008
Cardinal wants privileged place for faith in public policy
The Guardian highlights the apparent contrast with his Anglican counterpart's recent sympathetic mutterings about Sharia law, citing the Cardinal's argument that multiculturalism has 'destroyed the unity that once held Britain together'. But both archbishops are really saying the same thing: that religion should be accorded pride of place in public debates, even though the majority of the population doesn't practise any kind of faith.
The Cardinal is probably right when he says that 'people are looking for a common good in this country' and asking 'What is it that binds British people together?' (Gordon Brown and his ministers seem to wring their hands over this question at least once a week, and come up with increasingly worrying answers - first oaths of allegiance to the Crown, and now proposals to militarise our schools.) But Murphy O'Connor is surely wrong to argue that 'there is no other heritage than the Judaeo-Christian heritage in this country' and that to abandon it and replace it with a 'totally secular view of life' would lead the nation down 'a very dangerous path'.
One grows a bit weary of banging on about this, but even if we acknowledge the important role played by religion in the early centuries of this nation's life, it's undeniable that many of the core values that we now accept as essentially British (or European, or American) developed out of a secularist criticism of religious authority, and often in the teeth of opposition from religious establishments - whether we're talking about freedom of belief and expression, or female suffrage and women's rights more generally.
And while it's nice of the Cardinal to acknowledge the Jewish and well as Christian foundations of our shared values (something you wouldn't have caught a Catholic leader doing fifty years ago), it makes you wonder how long it will be before religionists are arguing for a privileged position for Britain's 'Judaeo-Islamo-Christian heritage'. I confidently predict it's a phrase that will trip off the tongue of Rowan Williams or some other muddled multifaithist before the decade is out.
Thursday, 10 April 2008
Free Tibet: from feudalism as well as Chinese tyranny
Holiday reading 3
My only criticism would be that it suffers at times from the tendency of first-time novelists to chuck in everything they know, and from an inability to resist stories that take the narrative off at odd tangents, not all of which are satisfactorily brought to a conclusion. And there's one howler, which undermines the reader's trust in the author's historical research. One episode is set in Russia on Christmas Eve: trouble is, the date is given as December 24, when it's common knowledge that the Russians celebrate Christmas in the first week of January.
Errors of a more trivial nature marred my enjoyment of another book - Sarfraz Manzoor's Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock 'n' Roll. This time the mistakes were the fault of the publisher, not the author: the book was spattered with spelling and punctuation errors, inconsistency in use of capitals, and at least one sentence which even a cursory re-reading would have revealed as making no sense at all. I noted a similar sloppiness on the part of Jonathan Cape when reviewing Andrew Anthony's book; this time the culprit was Bloomsbury, another supposedly reputable publishing company.
As for the book itself, I quite enjoyed Manzoor's autobiographical account of growing up in Luton in the 70s and 80s. The author's initial claim to fame was based on his fanatical enthusiasm for the music of Bruce Springsteen, and the supposed disparity with his British Asian identity. The Boss's lyrics are woven through this book, used as chapter titles and as sounding-boards for the narrator's conflicted feelings about family and identity as he's growing up. It's a lively account, though the thematic rather than chronological structure sometimes confuses. The sheer poverty experienced by many Asian migrants to Britain forty or so years ago comes across strikingly.
However, I thought the book lacked a clear focus. A closer focus on the experience of following Bruce and the inevitable tensions with a conservative Asian upbringing might have made it more coherent. The attempt to broaden the focus to deal with British Asian, and more specifically 'Muslim' identity, in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7, is less successful. I suspect the publishers saw an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon of 'Muslim memoirs' and encouraged Manzoor to go well beyond his usual musical and cultural concerns. Incidentally, the dustjacket's focus on religion jars a little: the book isn't about Manzoor's 'constant battle to reconcile being both British and Muslim': religion is hardly mentioned and the author makes no reference to being a practising Muslim. Rather, it's really about a tension between cultural identities: British and Pakistani, European and Asian. This creeping substitution of 'Muslim' for Asian or Pakistani plays into the hands of those fundamentalists who want Islam to be treated as an ethnicity or identity rather than simply a religion, and as something essential and ineradicable rather than a matter of individual choice.
And I finally got round to reading Linda Grant's When I Lived in Modern Times. I warmed immediately to its first-person narrative, which had the ease and directness of some of my favourite American authors, and which most British novelists somehow struggle to achieve. However, my enthusiasm cooled as the book progressed. Although I found the material fascinating, and particular passages - especially the final, melancholic return to Israel after long absence - very powerful, overall I thought the book lacked sufficient thematic focus and organisation. It was interesting to read Linda Grant in the Guardian last Thursday, writing about the way that some readers have misinterpreted the book as autobiography and have been disappointed to discover that it's 'made up.' The trouble is, it reads like autobiography. It's replete with the kind of detailed observation that seems drawn from first-hand experience, but which doesn't have much thematic consequence. The 'unity' of the book is the unity of a life, not of theme, which is a bold strategy in fiction, but also disconcerting for the reader.
The last of my poolside books was George Crile's Charlie Wilson's War, on which the recent Aaron Sorkin/Mike Nichols film was based. I'm still reading it, so a detailed review will have to wait.
Friday, 4 April 2008
The relevance of King and Kennedy, 40 years on
And here's a brief excerpt:
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Democratic political analyst Ron Klain weaves together memories of the events of April '68 with the current US election campaign, and particularly the forthcoming Indiana primary, in an opinion piece in today's New York Times:
With so many people despairing of the long and hard-fought Democratic primary campaign this year, it’s worth remembering what happened 40 years ago, on April 4, 1968, during the last time that the Indiana primary was this significant.
Klain describes Kennedy's extemporised speech that night as 'one of the great speeches in American history.' He also claims that it had an immediate practical impact:
Riots, fires and violence broke out in more than 100 cities in the United States that night — but not in Indianapolis. A park and a memorial to nonviolence now stand at the spot where Kennedy’s words made such an incredible difference that night.
And Klein believes these events have a contemporary relevance:
Forty years later, whenever I hear people say that a politician’s speeches don’t matter, that campaigns are a waste and that the sort of conflict we have in the 2008 Democratic primary is “destructive,” I think of Robert Kennedy’s words in Indianapolis that night — a speech that would have never happened but for the hard-fought, highly competitive 1968 primary campaign — and the millions of people like me who were inspired by them and their impact on that city.
For all the complexity and conflict in the 2008 race, the anniversary of the Kennedy speech reminds us that campaigns can leave lasting legacies of activism and idealism. I see it in my own children this year, a son who is a rabid “Obamafan,” and a teenage daughter who is a devoted “Hillarista.” They are part of a new generation, for whom the 2008 campaign will be their “1968” — the start of a lifetime of involvement and participation in politics. With the Democratic Party set to nominate the first-ever major party African-American or female candidate this year, we are not just remembering history — and the vision of social change that Robert Kennedy so brilliantly set forth on April 4, 1968 — we are living it.
Or as Barack Obama might say (via Deval Patrick): Don't tell me words don't matter.