Friday 31 October 2008

Five Days in San Francisco: Part One

We arrived home on Thursday from our half-term trip to San Francisco. In the next few posts I'll be reporting on our visit, during which your humble blogger not only saw the sights of one of America's great cities, but also listened to some of the country's top political commentators discussing the presidential election, mingled with guests assembling for a Hollywood premiere, and had a close encounter with the Speaker of the House.

We arrived on an unseasonably hot Saturday afternoon, exhausted from the ten-hour flight, but somehow with enough energy to make an initial foray down Powell Street, accompanied by the hum and clang of cable cars, to the humid bustle of Union Square. 

First impressions, as we sat beneath the looming towers of the Westin St. Francis Hotel (made famous by Dashiel Hammett), surrounded by Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany's: a bit like New York City, but with palm trees. That evening we had our first meal in the city, joining the Saturday night downtown crowd at the deservedly popular Scala's Bistro on Powell Street.

Still on UK time, we woke early on Sunday and strolled through the deserted Financial District to the waterside, where the organic food shops and restaurants in the Ferry Building were just opening up, and the Pacific Ocean was becalmed as we looked out towards the Bay Bridge.

Then we dodged the joggers on the sidewalk, not to mention a biker rally thundering by, as we continued round to the tacky tourist hub of Fisherman's Wharf, where preparations were in train for a pre-Halloween pumpkin festival. Unable to face any of the kitsch eating-places here, we turned inland towards Washington Square. Our plan was to have brunch at Mama's, which had been recommended by a friend, but we were too impatient and too hungry to put up with the long queues outside, so instead tried Cafe Divine on the opposite corner of the square. It turned out to be an excellent choice: I loved the food, the informal ambience, the chance to watch the slow, Sunday morning traffic of North Beach drifting by.

From Washington Square we walked along Columbus Avenue, North Beach's main drag, looking in on the National Shrine of St Francis and its recent addition,  an exact re-creation of the Porziuncula in Assisi, before crossing at the intersection to visit the City Lights bookstore. Although it was quite something to find ourselves in the spiritual home of the Beats, and the poetry section was predictably well-stocked, there was far too much Chomsky and Parenti and way too many 9/11 conspiracy theory books on the politics shelves (which pointedly made no concessions to the current election) for my liking.

The Italian restaurants and lamp posts painted in the colours of the Italian flag soon gave way to the hanging lanterns and red banners of Chinatown, as we walked up Grant Avenue in the direction of our hotel. The two neighbourhoods came together in a funeral procession that passed by: an Italianate band from a North Beach mortuary led a hearse topped by a portrait of a deceased resident of Chinese origin. The diversity of San Francisco is one of the most striking things about the city: not only the ethnic diversity, but also the stark differences between neighbourhoods (Italian/Chinese, affluent/poor, fashionable/seedy) and the way they often merge quite suddenly into each other. 

In the words of Herb Caen: 'It's the indescribable conglomeration of beauty and ugliness that makes San Francisco a poem without meter, a symphony without harmony, a painting without reason - a city without an equal'.

Thursday 23 October 2008

West Coast delay

It's going to be quiet around here for a few days, as I'll be crossing the Atlantic on my first visit to what a local Obama activist recently described as 'the darkest blue of cities in the bluest state of the red, white and blue United States'. I'm looking forward to seeing how the election looks from over there, as it enters its penultimate nail-biting week. Back at the end of next week.

Footnote: If you're wondering, the title of this post is a reference to an episode in the cruelly short-lived TV drama, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

The virtues of utopianism

'He linked so many different causes. He was a gay man, friendly with feminist women. He was opposed to vivisection, a socialist who supported animal rights. He was interested in mysticism, wrote for the Fabians but had anarchist sympathies...He was a visionary who was very interested in practical solutions.'

That's Edward Carpenter, described by Sheila Rowbotham, who has just published a long-awaited biography of the late-Victorian poet, philosopher and activist.  Carpenter is one of my heroes, so Rowbotham's book will certainly be added to my Christmas wish list. I very much enjoyed her memoir of Sixties radicalism, so have high expectations for the new book.

The other day, in an exchange of comments with Eve Garrard about this post, I wrote about the dangers of utopianism on the religious left. As a counter-balance, it's worth remembering the positive contribution of visionary thinkers such as Carpenter to progressive change: many of his opinions were considered outlandish in his day but are now accepted wisdom. One of my many bones of contention with gloom-and-doom merchant John Gray, whose Black Mass I'm still struggling through, is his blanket hostility to all forms of utopianism. Instead, I tend to agree with something that the Plump wrote some months ago about Carpenter, Whitman and their ilk:

'The left they belonged to was far from orthodox, it experimented with a range of ideas, many of which were hardly impressive, but others provide insights that are relevant to a libertarian left and laid the foundation for modern sexual politics. At a time of left realignment the rediscovery of what became marginalised traditions is of more than academic interest.'

Blogging obsessions

This conversation about blogging between Andrew Sullivan and Mark Ambinder is fascinating. I particularly like the bit towards the end when Andrew describes the neurotic compulsion to blog - and the difficulty - for his readers as well as himself - of taking a break. He mentions the time a couple of months back when regular readers grew anxious because no posts appeared on his site for a day or so - had Andrew died, was he ill, had he been fired? I have to confess: I was one of those readers, nervously checking in every few hours to see if he was back.

During this prolonged election period, looking in on The Daily Dish has become part of my daily (at times hourly) ritual, usually right after I check the New York Times site and the Huffington Post. Obsessive, moi? Sometimes I forget the transatlantic time delay and, around midday UK time, find myself silently willing Andrew to wake up and start typing (he usually does, quite early: today he was online at 7.18 am EST). 

As Andrew says, when this election is finally over, whatever the outcome, some of us are probably going to collapse with nervous exhaustion. Here's the video of the discussion:

Monday 20 October 2008

Convert or die

A week after the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain held a conference on apostasy, there's  a reminder that denying people the right to choose their beliefs is not confined to Islam. According to the Observer: 'Hundreds of Christians in the Indian state of Orissa have been forced to renounce their religion and become Hindus after lynch mobs issued them with a stark ultimatum: convert or die.' The report carries a telling quote from a local representative of Vishwa Hindu Pariashad (the World Hindu Council): 'This is a Hindu community. Everyone can stay here, as long as they are part of that community'.

This kind of lethal religious intolerance may seem a long way from the current state of affairs in Britain, but it's the logical endpoint of a communalism that persists in viewing religion as a fixed aspect of a person's identity rather than as a matter of private belief, that believes each community should be governed by its own religious laws, and maintains that particular geographical areas can be identified with particular faiths.

Meanwhile, if you've got a couple of hours to spare, the video footage of the apostasy conference is well worth a browse -  speakers included the fearless and heroic Maryam Namazie, Mina Ahadi and Ibn Warraq, as well as A.C.Grayling and Richard Dawkins. Incidentally, making it possible for a wider audience to share in events of this kind is surely one of the great cultural successes of the Web, and a riposte to the pessimists who claim that the internet is dumbing down the culture. (The Democratiya channel at Youtube is another great source of intellectual stimulation for those of us who don't get out much).

Shuggy makes some good points about religion and secularism, in response to a topsy-turvy piece by Andrew Brown on the Ex-Muslims' conference mentioned above. Brown insists on treating religious belief and secularism as if they're the same kind of thing, insisting that just as believers shouldn't impose their faith on the rest of us, nor should secularists. As often happens in these pieces defending a privileged role for religion in public life, Brown's article shows a complete misunderstanding of what secularism is. It's not a separate belief system: it's the belief that in a free and plural society, private belief and public politics should be kept well apart. 

Friday 17 October 2008

Joe the plumber encounter shows Barack at his best

Barack Obama's encounter with 'Joe the plumber' and John McCain's relentless exploitation of the episode in the final US presidential debate have been widely seen as scoring points for the Republican cause. But I interpreted the Democratic candidate's campaign-trail conversation with this sceptical, Republican-leaning voter rather differently. What stood out for me watching the video of this episode was Obama's empathy and curiosity about the lives of ordinary citizens, his ability to listen, his willingness to reach out to those who disagree with him, and his formidable command of the details of economic policy - a combination of qualities that is rare in a national politician. If all goes well on November 4th, Americans will be fortunate indeed to have this man as their president. Judge for yourself:

Tuesday 14 October 2008

The dangers of politics as faith

Regular readers will be aware of my longstanding interest in the relationship between progressive politics and religious belief. In my Methodist youth I was a member of the Christian Socialist Movement, and in my brief Catholic phase I was an avid supporter of liberation theology. Now, as an agnostic secular humanist who retains an interest in and occasional attraction to belief, I'm nostalgic for the civilised dialogue that once existed between progressive humanists and liberal believers, and frustrated at the barriers to dialogue thrown up by religious commentators who complain about 'aggressive secularism' and 'Enlightenment fundamentalism' , and these days prefer to express solidarity with believers of other faiths, however illiberal they might be.

However, even when I was an active believer and card-carrying Christian socialist, I was frequently annoyed at the tendency of some left-wing believers to identify with the most extreme leftist positions. I remember, when the CPGB was going through its painful death throes in the late 1980s, that among the minority who held fast to the Stalinist true faith were a number who had been, or still were, religious believers - I seem to recall that one of their leading figures was an ex-nun. More recently I came across a website called 'Agenda for Prophets' which supposedly 'seeks to articulate a prophetic Catholic perspective on Church affairs and on wider social, cultural and political issues', but whose 'root-cause' response to the events of 9/11 and 7/7 could have been penned by George Galloway, and which links to the writings of anti-semitic conspiracy theorist James Petras.

I think this phenomenon can be explained partly by the fact that authoritarian faith and authoritarian politics tend to attract the same kind of psychological type. Many former Catholics have ended up as communists, and vice versa, and some have even tried to hold on to both faiths at the same time. I recognise something of the same tendency in myself, though my preference has been to identify with orthodox religious or political organisations (becoming a Catholic in my 2os, playing around on the fringes of the CP in my 30s) and then take up a liberal or dissenting position (Vatican 2 Catholic, Eurocommunist) within the security of that orthodoxy. 

In addition, I think that the political positions adopted by leftist believers often derive from an idealism and moralism that favours political figures who offer the 'purest' form of political faith. As a consequence, I think they are rarely interested in the boring, mundane business of strategy and political compromise, and tend to transpose their religious fervour to the very different realm of politics. Hence category errors such as Tony Benn's notorious claim that revising Clause 4 was tantamount to daring to rewrite the Ten Commandments. And as with some secular leftists, this politics-as-faith can lead to often naive and gullible identification with some pretty unsavoury characters.
I was reminded of all this the other day when I read a letter in the Catholic weekly, The Tablet (subscription required), from Hugh O'Shaughnessy, a left-wing Catholic journalist who writes on Latin American affairs. His letter complains about criticism of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez in recent editions of the magazine, and in particular suggestions that the latter has been exhibiting dictatorial tendencies. O'Shaughnessy comments on Chavez' recent expulsion from the country of two officials from the organisation Human Rights Watch. While acknowledging that the move was a 'diplomatic blunder' (note: not a moral or ethical one), he damns the group's recent report on Venezuela as 'patently biased and unfair' and advises that HRW should be 'more careful about its allegations, given its funding from US agencies, its staff links with the former Pinochet dictatorship, and the widespread feeling in the Middle East that it is biased against the Palestinians and in favour of their Israeli occupiers.'

Let's try to unpack what O'Shaughnessy is saying here. Firstly, he seems to imply that being funded by US agencies automatically disqualifies HRW from commenting on human rights in Venezuela and means that we can disregard their criticisms of Chavez. This kind of smearing-by-association has become a favourite rhetorical tactic on the 'anti-imperialist' left. It used to be the case that you had to work the scare word 'neocon' into your smear, but now apparently any link to the US is enough to disqualify you. Never mind that HRW's concerns about human rights in Chavez' Venezuela have been echoed by Amnesty International and other organisations with no explicit ties to the US.

As for the Pinochet link, I'm no expert on HRW and can't comment. When it comes to the group's work in the Middle East, I've found as many internet sites complaining about anti-Israel as pro-Israel bias. But for a certain kind of leftist these days, being both pro-American and pro-Israeli is a slam dunk: it means anything you say can be disregarded. 

As someone who is well-respected for his writings about the crimes of the Pinochet regime, O'Shaughnessy should surely be more alert to the dictatorial tendencies of politicans like Chavez. Since reading his letter to the Tablet, I've come across other articles that he's written about the Venezuelan leader which suggest a failure to recognise that in Latin America authoritarianism isn't confined to regimes on the political right.

I'd welcome comments from anyone who can either substantiate or refute O'Shaugnessy's accusations about Human Rights Watch.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Acting across party lines

This afternoon on Radio5Live, Simon Mayo interviewed actor Ron Silver, who plays political strategist Bruno Gianelli in The West Wing. For those who share my interest in this kind of trivia, here's yet another example of life imitating art, or maybe vice versa. In an early series of the programme, Bruno is an advisor to Jed Bartlet, the Democratic president, in his campaign for re-election, whereas in a later series he has, as they say, crossed the aisle and is working for Republican presidential candidate Arnie Varnick.

It turns out that Silver has followed a similar trajectory in real life, starting out as an active Democrat, and ending up supporting George W. Bush and speaking at the Republican National Convention. Silver regards himself as a 'Joe Lieberman Democrat' whose heroes are FDR, Kennedy and Scoop Jackson, but whose party loyalties were sorely put to the test after 9/11. Writing on his blog, the actor disavows the predictable 'neocon' label preferring to style himself a 'revolutionary liberal'. 

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Added to the blogroll: Cafe Turco

Thanks to ModernityBlog, I've just discovered Sarah Franco's Cafe Turco blog, which I shall be adding to my blogroll. Sarah's home town is Lisbon (though she bravely blogs in English) and there's plenty on her site about the city and its culture to keep lusophiles like me happy. However, Sarah's principal topic is Serbia, which she's researching for her Master's thesis. In a recent post she explained why she chose the Balkans, and along the way had some interesting things to say about the dominance of a certain kind of anti-imperialist group-think in academia, as well as in journals like Le Monde Diplomatique, to which I used to subscribe but whose kneejerk anti-westernism and americophobia I too find increasingly hard to stomach:

It was in 1998-1999, and when the war in Kosovo started, my professor of International Relations decided to ask the students what was their opinion about the war. My teenage colleagues seemed to agree that Clinton was using Serbia to clean up his image because of the Monica Lewinsky affair. Then I said that, if the Serbs were oppressing the Albanians the way they were, then I was in favour of the war. My professor, who had made no comments on the Lewinsky affair thesis, then said that this thing of international relations was not about good feelings but about interests. My colleagues all laughed. That was when I started developing my aversion for theorists that handpick their cases so that it fits what they think reality is. That was also when I stopped reading Le Monde Diplomatique and developing my disgust for anti-imperialism rhetorics. This small episode in which both my colleagues and my professors proudly displayed both their ignorance and their lack of commitment to ethical values made me realize that when we defend positions that are based in ethical standards we must be very well prepared to resist the pressure of the horde of stupids who think they know best because they read Chomsky and Project Censored. That too was a challenge worth taking.

Thursday 2 October 2008


Imagine you're a teacher and you ask a student whether she believes climate change is a man-made problem. And this is the answer you get:

You know there are - there are man's activities that can be contributed to the issues that we're dealing with now, these impacts. I'm not going to solely blame all of man's activities on changes in climate. Because the world's weather patterns are cyclical. And over history we have seen change there. But kind of doesn't matter at this point, as we debate what caused it. The point is: it's real; we need to do something about it.

If you were teaching a science class, you might question the student's grasp of the facts. If you were teaching debating skills, you'd probably worry about her ability to construct an argument: surely a person's beliefs about the causes of climate change will determine what they think ought to be done about it?

And if you were this student's English teacher, you'd certainly challenge her ability to put together a meaningful sentence: 'man's activities that can be contributed to'? 'blame all of man's activities on changes in climate'? Did she really mean to say that climate change is responsible for human actions, rather than vice versa?

The worrying thing is, the person who gave this garbled and illogical answer is no school student, but a candidate for the vice-presidency of the world's most powerful country. OK, so she may have got flustered in the heat of the interview, but shouldn't candidates for high office be able to give meaningful answers to questions from relatively mild interviewers such as Katie Couric?

After 8 years of Bushisms, who would've thought the Republicans would put up a candidate who makes W. seem articulate? Or is it 'elitist' to expect political leaders to have a basic grasp of the English language? Most members of Congress, or local state legislatures - most people you know - could have given better answers than Palin to Couric's questions about the environment, the economy, or the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, as the hour of the VP debate draws near, here's a strategy that hadn't occurred to me: get your surrogates to cast last-minute doubts on the impartiality of the moderator.