Thursday 29 May 2008

New issue of Democratiya

The summer issue of Democratiya is out and as always there's plenty to recommend. Themes running through the issue include the legacy of '68 and the current state of the Left. Russell Berman's piece on the deformations of the academic Left is particularly good, and is complemented by David Hirsh's critique of the anti-Israeli academic boycott campaign. Alan Johnson's interview with Matthias Kunzel, author of Jihad and Jew Hatred, is also not to be missed. Gabriel Noel-Brahm analyses what he calls the 'post-Left', but I think I agree with Norm's misgivings about the use of this term. (Mind you, it would be useful to have an agreed descriptor for what others have variously called the roccoco left, indecent left, reactionary left, faux-cialists or poseur Marxists - i.e. those on the left who explain every new terrorist/fundamentalist outrage as a 'reaction' to western policy and see America as the main evil in the world. Any suggestions?)

Monday 26 May 2008

Guardian report of Finkelstein ban misleading and mischievous

You may not agree with Israel's decision to refuse entry to controversial US academic Norman Finkelstein - and I tend to think such bans should only be applied to those whose speech or writing inflame violence. But the Guardian's reporting of the event was disingenuous, not to say deliberately mischievous.

All the reports I've read agree that Finkelstein was denied entry because of his well-publicised contacts with Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation that recently launched an aggressive war against Israel. So the article's headline - 'US academic deported and banned for criticising Israel'- whether written by reporter Toni O'Loughlin or added by a sub-editor - was a blatant lie. It's the kind of headline you expect from a partisan blog post, not from a serious national newspaper with a reputation (?) for objective reporting.

Almost as misleading was O'Loughlin's sly suggestion of a parallel between Finkelstein's expulsion and the case of Ilan Pappe, who resigned last year from his post at Haifa University after endorsing an international campaign for an academic boycott of Israel. Pappe left his post voluntarily and the only threat to free speech in that case came from Pappe himself, when he supported the boycott.


There are now links to this post over at Engage and at Harry's Place. I'd refer Levi9909 aka Mark Elf from Jews san Frontieres, who has left a comment below, to David T's post at the latter. I won't get into a debate with Mark about the pros and cons of the Finkelstein ban - as I said above, I instinctively recoil from all such restrictions on freedom of speech and movement. But I stand by what I said about the dishonesty and misinformation of the Guardian report. They may have taken the bare facts of the case from the Israeli media, but the headline was just plain wrong, and the parallel with the completely different case of Ilan Pappe was misleading. Final point: critics of the admittedly questionable Israeli action should be wary of making a human rights cause celebre out of Norman Finkelstein, whose comments praising sectarian Islamist militia Hezbollah were a disgrace.

Further update

More on all of this and another link at Flesh is Grass.

Sunday 25 May 2008

Communalism gone mad

Update on the Scientology protest outrage: apparently common sense has prevailed and all charges against the 15 year old protester have been dropped. Marina Hyde wrote an excellent piece on the affair in yesterday's Guardian. It's very funny (mind you, it's impossible to write about the tenets of Scientology without raising a loud guffaw), but also rather worrying, throwing light as it does on overtures towards the barmy cult by the Metropolitan police, in the interests of building links with the 'diverse' community they serve. Apparently the Met feel the need to meet regularly with 'community leaders' - which includes leaders of the miniscule but immensely wealthy Scientology 'community'.  As Hyde retorts:

Please not the old 'community leaders' flannel..It often keeps me awake that I have got to this stage in my life without knowing who my community leader is...If you've ever felt 'community leaders' is a fatuous expression used to describe suspiciously self-selecting people, then you must find it stretched to breaking point when applied to the community of people who believe they're surrounded by alien spirits.

Like the recent failed campaign by the West Midlands police against the Channel 4 'Undercover Mosque' documentary - when they should have been prosecuting the firebrand preachers uncovered by the programme - this sorry affair demonstrates the dangers of a communalist approach to matters of religion and culture. The job of the police is to uphold the freedoms of the whole population, not to protect the easily-wounded sensibilities of special interest groups.

Friday 23 May 2008

On Eagleton, obscurity and adult education

Reading The Plump's two posts on Terry Eagleton's characteristically odd article in the Guardian reminded me that I had meant to write something about it myself. Now I don't need to, as I think the Fat Man has said it all, and Norm has added something on the oddly oblique nature of Eagleton's discourse. What is it about these roccoco leftists (copyright Bob) that they won't say clearly what they mean?  

I'll just add a couple of things. One is that I found it a bit rich to read Eagleton's belated invocation of the name of Raymond Williams, his erstwhile teacher and mentor, whose work he callowly trashed in his early writings on literary theory. Give me Williams' socialist humanism over Eagleton's abstract theory-driven version of Marxism any day. And lastly, I recommend what The Plump has to say in his second post about adult education, and particularly about offender education.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Teenage protester arrested for telling the truth

It seems a 15 year old protester is facing prosecution for refusing to take down a banner that accused Scientology of being a 'cult'. The police warned him that he was infringing section five of the Public Order Act which 'prohibits signs which have representations or words which are threatening, abusive or insulting'.

Now, either the police are being over-zealous in their interpretation of the law - or the law is a bad one and needs to be repealed forthwith. Either way, the case represents a serious threat to freedom of expression. In the way they are enforcing the Act, the authorities are granting greater protection against 'offence' to religious groups than they would to other bodies. Does any one believe the protester would have been bothered by the police if he'd been accusing a political party of being a 'cult'?

Using the law in this way seems like a back-door way of re-introducing the controversial parts of the religious hatred bill that were thrown out by Parliament in 2006. The government should act swiftly to clarify the law and protect freedom of expression against the prickly sensitivities of religionists.

The Merriem-Webster online dictionary gives this as one of the definitions of a cult: 'A religion or sect considered to be false unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader'. Scientologists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists take note. 

Ambivalence about the armed forces

What to make of the government's plans to encourage people to show greater respect for the military - for example, by instituting an annual armed forces day and making it illegal to discriminate against people in military uniform? My instinctive reaction is a positive one. Like many left-ish supporters of liberal interventionism, I've gained a new respect for the self-sacrifice of military personnel in the cause of liberty and democracy - in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and yes, even Iraq. And I've been angered by media stories of abusive behaviour towards returning servicemen and women by people venting their displeasure with government foreign policy.

But it's difficult to let go, completely, of the anti-militarism that was part of my political formation. I grew up in the long shadow of anti-colonial struggles, protests over Vietnam, and conspiracy theories about generals plotting coups against Labour governments that veered too far to the left. I've been reading Jerry White's brilliant book about London in the 19th century, and it's reminded me just how long-standing is this hostility to the military in the English radical tradition. It's another outcome of our absence of a national 'revolutionary moment'. I may be idealising republican nations here, but if you're American or French it's surely much easier to see the military as on the side of the people, rather than servants of the crown or the ruling class.

I draw the line, though, at Gordon Brown's proposal to set up army cadet forces in state comprehensives. I went to a grammar school in the '70s and we pinkish politicos loathed the CCF. Our worst fears were confirmed when the school regiment, battalion or whatever it was put on a show for some visiting military dignitaries, and a crowd of scruffy sixth-formers were coralled into staging a noisy demonstration, so that the cadets could demonstrate their skills in keeping public order. That seemed to say it all about the army as defender of the status quo.

Brown's plan is another example - like his proposal for more school sport, Britishness classes and compulsory volunteering - of his tendency to use schools as a forcing-ground for a kind of regressive muscular patriotism. I suspect he also sees these proposals as a continuation of the Blair-Clinton strategy of occupying your enemy's ground - tough on crime, etc - to undermine conservative accusations of being too soft.

The trouble is that Brown, with his political tin ear, doesn't realise that the game has changed. Thanks to ten years of New Labour (and thanks, largely, to Tony Blair), the Tories have had to move on to traditional Labour territory and conform to a new social-democratic consensus. The danger for Labour now (see yesterday's post on the Crewe campaign) is that they will come across as more reactionary and populist than the new, improved Cameronian Conservatives.

Monday 19 May 2008

Clintonesque tactics in Crewe

As a Labour supporter for the best part of 35 years, the party's tactics in the Crewe by-election make me want to weep. Rather than debate their Conservative opponent on the issues, local activists have taken to following him around dressed in top hat and tails, in a crude attempt to mock his class background. The trouble is, although Tory hopeful Edward Timpson is a scion of the famous shoe-shop owning family, he doesn't fit the stereotype into which Labour are trying to force him: his parents fostered more than 80 children and he himself is a family lawyer specialising in the welfare of vulnerable children.

Even worse than this brainless class warfare has been Labour's attempt to play 'dog-whistle' politics with the issues of crime and immigration. According to John Harris, campaigners have been distributing a spoof 'Tory candidate application form'. Sample questions: 'Do you live in a big mansion house?' 'Have you and your Tory mates on the council been soft on yobs and failed to make our streets safer?' and (it gets worse, much worse) 'Do you oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card?'

Some time back I bemoaned the fact that Gordon Brown was planning to hire Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's inept and discredited election strategist. Could the Crewe campaign be the first sign of Penn's impact on Labour thinking? After all, the parallels with the Clinton campaign are remarkable: an attempt to caricature an opponent in crude class terms rather than engage him on the issues, a willingness to exploit people's worst fears rather than appeal to their better instincts, and even (given that the Labour candidate is the daughter of the recently deceased incumbent) a Clintonesque assumption that an office should be passed on to another family member as of right.

Another sign, if any were needed, that Labour needs a complete change of strategy - and leadership - if it's to avoid being trounced by the Cameronians at the next election. Come on, David Miliband, what are you waiting for?

Saturday 17 May 2008

A backlash book for boys

Remind me never to watch any programmes featuring Neil Oliver (a 'TV archaeologist', apparently), who was on Radio 5 yesterday afternoon spouting some of the most naive and reactionary garbage about gender roles that I've heard in a long time.

It seems Oliver has written a book called Amazing Tales for Making Men out of Boys, stuffed full of stories of the kind of male heroism that the author thinks we've lost and ought to recover. As in all such backlashes against contemporary trends, there's a tiny scintilla of truth in Oliver's argument that, in the creation of the 'new' man, we've discarded some of the things that were admirable about the 'old' version: a sense of duty, responsibility to others, etc. But in suggesting that we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, Oliver seeks to re-import some pretty murky bathwater, such as the notion that boys and girls need clearly defined gender roles, that real men don't cry, and that staying home and looking after the kids is women's work. And he tends to come pretty unstuck once interviewers push him on the implications of his argument for gender equality.

Another problem with Oliver's tales of old-fashioned masculinity is that most of them derive from the age of empire, and in his historical and political naivety he fails to see how supposedly timeless values such as duty and self-sacrifice were actually bound up with ideas of conquest, exploitation and racial superiority. In fact, Oliver's attempt to recreate an outmoded colonial-era masculinity neatly combines the themes of two other recent books that also get my goat: The Dangerous Book for Boys, and that book whose title escape me but which I see every time I'm in Smiths, by a Dad who wanted a 'real' history book for his kids, full of kings, queens and dates of battles, etc.  Yes, I know the former is written in a post-modernish between-quotes sort of way. But there does seem to be a lot of nostalgia about for a pre-feminist, sweaty-armpits kind of masculinity with patriotic overtones.

Hearing Oliver interviewed reminded me that there are two books I'd really like to see (write?): a book for boys about growing up that is pro-feminist and honest about gender and sexuality, and a history book that tells the progressive story of Britain, i.e. with the likes of Tom Paine, the Chartists and suffragettes as its heroes, rather than Nelson, Wellington and Scott of the Antarctic.

Wednesday 14 May 2008

Act of God? Blame the West

You'd think the Burmese cyclone would be one event that really couldn't be blamed on 'the West'. After all, this was an act of God/nature, made worse by the (in)action of a home-grown military junta, and in whose aftermath western nations have been queuing up to offer humanitarian aid.

But you'd be wrong. Over the past few days, the usual suspects have been going through ever more mind-boggling intellectual contortions, eager to find a way of attributing some responsibility for the disaster to western democracies. So labyrinthine are their arguments that it's difficult to work out if the likes of Simon Tisdall and Simon Jenkins are criticising western governments for not intervening more directly, or for wanting to intervene in the first place. 

There was a particularly gruesome example of this kind of hand-wringing, overlaid with sanctimonious religious guilt-tripping, on yesterday's 'Thought for the Day', in which Rev John Bell played the familiar anti-colonialist card in order to help us to 'understand' the Burmese government's reluctance to accept aid from the West. In Bell's twisted version of events, it wasn't so much the brutality of the regime that was to blame for the plight of the Burmese people, as the sanctions imposed on it by the West. And it was our 'cultural ignorance' that was the barrier to the country accepting western aid, not the cruelty or self-interest of the generals.

As always, commentators who adopt this invertedly-racist (because it denies agency to anyone but white westerners) line of thinking let themselves off the hook of actually proposing any solution to the problem. So - Simon, Simon, John - if you were the British or the US government, what would you do?

Thank goodness that some can see through these rhetorical posturings. Read Norm on Simon Tisdall's twisted logic here, and David Aaronovitch's characteristically forthright call for intervention here.

Seems I wasn't the only one to find that 'Thought for the Day' repellent. Here's Norm on a 'rank piece of apologetics.'

Seven songs

Bob has tagged me for this 'Seven songs' thing that's going around (serves me right for targeting him for that sentences game). So this is what you have to do:

List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.

Here we go then. Here are seven songs that are going round in my head these days, in no particular order (and sorry that, unlike Bob, I lack the technical know-how to provide links to audio clips):

Bruce Springsteen, 'Girls In Their Summer Clothes' . A characteristic mix of acute social observation and seasonal intensity, with just a hint of middle-aged masculine wistfulness with which I painfully identify.
Arild Andersen, Vassilis Tsabropoulos and John Marshall, 'Pavane'. A lovely jazz reworking of Ravel, arranged (and with some beautiful piano playing) by Tsabropoulos.

Moby, 'Ooh Yeah'. OK, it may be (brilliantly) annoying, but it's the first track on the free disc given away with last week's 'Sunday Times' and I can't get it out of my head.

Vanessa Carlton 'A Thousand Miles'. Because when you're a parent, the songs that live in your head are frequently those played by your children, and my daughter has just taught herself to play this on the piano (and the video, with Carlton and her baby grand travelling down what looks like the Pacific Coast Highway, is fun).

Mariza, 'Ha uma musica do povo'. Watching Mariza perform this song, with words by the great Fernando Pessoa, at the 'Concerto em Lisboa', always bring me out in goosebumps.

Todd Gustavsen Trio, 'Being There'. The kind of languid piano jazz that calms the soul and puts you in mind of long wine-filled summer evenings.

Barry Ryan, 'The Colour of My Love'. A wild card. I don't know if it's spring-time nostalgia, or the 40th anniversary of its release, but just lately I've been revisiting this poignant reminder of youth and first love.

I tag (with absolutely no compulsion involved) : Shuggy, Paul at Mars Hill, Lisa at Rullsenberg Rules, Daniel at The Stark Tenet, Tom, Peter and Paulie.

Obama's foreign policy not quite what the Left ordered

Jonathan Steele is full of praise for Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy and attributes it to the candidate having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. witnessing at close quarters 'the cynical face of the US empire'. But he makes an exception in the case of Obama's declared support for Israel, as demonstrated in his condemnation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's view 'that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam'.

It's odd. Steele cites Obama's positions on Iraq and Iran as evidence of his independent judgement, but on Israel he regards him as having 'chosen to made large-scale compromises' and as the passive victim of the 'pro-Israel lobby'. Steele can't accept that Obama's position on all of these issues might result from the same progressive political instincts and values. While he claims to be excited about the prospect of 'a black person in the Oval Office,' Steele will only really be happy if that person falls in line with the tired agendas of the 'anti-imperialist' Left.

Friday 9 May 2008

Ernie, Bert and Barack

This one's for my youngest brother, who I know occasionally looks in on this blog, and who used to be my excuse for watching 'Sesame Street' (via):

Faith and doubt in dialogue

This, from the Archbishop of Westminster, is an encouraging sign:

I would want to encourage people of faith to regard those without faith with deep esteem because the hidden God is active in their lives as well as the lives of those who believe...Believers need to recognise that they have something in common with those who do not believe. But it is no less true that unbelievers might benefit from recognising that there is something of the believer in every person. Believers and non-believers need to recognise and understand each other better, more accurately, more appreciatively.

That's Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, eschewing his usual acerbic criticism of 'aggressive secularism' and advocating constructive dialogue with atheists. As regular readers of this blog will know, one of the features of contemporary Christianity that most dismays me is its demonisation of secularism and its retreat into defensive solidarity with believers of other faiths, regardless of their fundamentalism, against the raging hordes of 'militant atheism'. So it's good to see the possibility of a rational conversation between belief and doubt being re-opened. Let's hope it's followed through, on both sides.

You can read the whole thing here.

Friday 2 May 2008

Sex, race, class, politics

David Cameron has been trying to persuade northern English voters that he's no 'namby-pamby': with some success, it would seem. Meanwhile, in the US Democratic primary campaign, Barack Obama has been attempting to overcome the perception that he is something of a 'wimp'.

Much of the coverage of the primary campaign has inevitably focused on issues of gender and race - not surprising, given that Clinton and Obama are, respectively, the first serious female and non-white candidates for their party's nomination. But the discussion has tended to be quite simplistic and (dare I say, without turning off those of you whose antennae are trained to pick up the merest hint of academic post-modernism) essentialist: will men vote for a woman, can white voters be persuaded to support an African-American candidate, etc.

Less attention has been paid to the ways in which gender, in particular, has become a key factor in shaping public perceptions of both candidates, regardless of their actual identity. As the gender theorists say, masculinity and femininity are not so much fixed, biological attributes, as clusters of meaning that float around in the cultural atmosphere, and get tangled up with other sets of meanings.

The set of meanings that gender got tangled up with in Pennsylvania was class. So the fuss following Obama's 'bitter' speech, and more trivially his weak performance in the bowling alley, was simultaneously about him being not only elitist and 'out of touch' with the working class, but also somehow not a 'real' man.

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton, who previously had no qualms about capitalising on her femininity by shedding tears in New Hampshire and complaining about the 'big boys' ganging up on her, overhauled her image in Pennsylvania and emerged as a keen hunter and hard drinker. In other words: not only as apparently more working-class than Obama - but also as somehow more masculine. (Incidentally, did the young Ms. Rodham ever dream, when she was working for a radical law firm in the '60s, that one day she'd be running for president - as the redneck candidate?)

We saw something similar happen in 2004, when Karl Rove's campaign to get George Bush re-elected managed to paint John Kerry as effete - once again, a term that has gender as well as class overtones - when contrasted with George W. the good old southern boy. This despite Kerry's war record and Bush's cosseted upbringing. 

And, as the campaign against Kerry showed, this particular cluster of meanings around masculinity and working-classness also contains a racial component. In Kerry's case, it was his French tastes that did for him, enabling Rove and his associates to portray the candidate not only as elitist and wimpish, but also as somehow alien and unAmerican. In the case of the Clinton/GOP attacks on Obama, I think the racial element is more insidious, since attacks on the masculinity of black men have long been part of the toolkit of racism. 

I wonder why it's become so important for modern political candidates in the US and UK, whether they're biologically male or female, to prove their masculinity to the public? And why, at a time when traditional, working-class masculinity is said to be increasingly redundant, is it such an outdated form of masculine toughness that has to be proven?  Finally, in a period of heightened awareness about gay rights, surely terms such as 'namby-pamby', 'wimp' and 'effete', which disparage public figures by making implicit suggestions about their sexuality, should be well and truly binned?