Tuesday 31 March 2009

Rant for the day

I just heard an educational 'expert' on 5 Live claiming that most parents would prefer their children to go to a school that was safe and well-ordered, rather than one that had high academic standards. 

Since when were these mutually exclusive? It's like saying that most people would prefer a hospital that was comfortable rather than one that cured you, or a restaurant that was clean to one that served nice food. 

For a school, being safe and well-ordered shouldn't be an option: it should go without saying. It's not the job of a school to provide a safe environment for children, any more than providing clean tables is the primary function of a restaurant. The job of a school is to educate all children to the highest possible standards. 

I wouldn't get so worked up by the opinion of a lone expert if it wasn't typical of a worrying trend. I wrote in this post about the tendency of some government advisors to set up a false dichotomy between an emphasis on 'wellbeing' and a focus on attainment (and to prefer the former). And as I wrote here, I predict that the result will be state education becoming reduced to therapy and 'skills' for the working class, while private schools carry on providing middle class kids with the knowledge they need to reproduce their social advantages.

And just in case it's not clear: this is not a reactionary call for a return to 'traditional' education, but a lament for the loss of a radical socialist vision of education as personal and social transformation, and of high aspirations for all.

Rant over.

Thursday 26 March 2009

Harry Potter as a 'Ziono-Hollywoodist' plot

Seems like the Islamists are as perturbed by the boy wizard as their fellow-fundamentalists on the Christian right. But these Iranian conspiracy theorists can't even get their facts straight. Rowling's books don't advocate the pure blood of a master race - that's precisely what Potter and his friends are fighting against, and the books offer a biting satire on racism and fascism, including the politico-religious kind represented by the current Iranian regime. 

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Liberal paper gives pride of place to illiberal voices (again)

Sorry, everything's about the dear old Guardian (the paper we hate to love) today. The government's change of direction on cuddling up to 'moderate' Islamists, led by Hazel Blears, has attracted plaudits from anti-totalitarian democrats and progressives. 

So how did our leading liberal broadsheet choose to cover the news? With a double-page spread (you only get the lead story online) topped with this headline: 'Standoff with Muslim body overshadows new anti-terror launch', followed by 'analysis' by (who else?) Madeleine Bunting headed 'The government may be the only loser in this dispute', a photo captioned 'Hazel Blears's stance over the MCB is seen by some as grandstanding...' (by whom exactly?), and a selection of 'community voices' which includes those well-known voices of reason and moderation Salma Yaqoob of Respect and Ibrahim Hewitt of Hamas-linked charity Interpal. 

In other words, the Guardian thinks the story isn't the government's long overdue move to severe links with dodgy religious spokesmen, but the 'reaction' to it - and then, only the reaction of the excluded extremists and their apologists.

Fair and balanced?

Guilt by association

Am I being over-sensitive, or does anyone else find Steve Bell's cartoon, in today's Guardian, offensive?

It's the subliminal associations of this image that make me uncomfortable. When I first saw the picture, which sets an innocent domestic scene against the backdrop of a wall surmounted by barbed wire, it made me think immediately of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne's novel about a young boy who is unaware of his father's work as the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp. The depiction of the two children, with their blond hair, Aryan looks and Thirties-style clothing, only reinforced this parallel, making me think the resonance was deliberate.

So rather than being a legitimate critique of Israel's military tactics in Gaza, I think Bell's cartoon allies itself with the distasteful - and yes, antisemitic - comparisons made by some critics between the actions of the Jewish state and the Nazi Holocaust. Or is it just me...

(Update: As Kellie points out in the comments below, and as I should have known, the cartoon explicitly references a WWI propaganda image, so maybe it was 'just me'...But deliberate or not, those other resonances were certainly there for me, and may have been for others, at however subliminal a level...)

Here's a short video by way of a response:

New Labour losing its way on education (again)

Today's front page Guardian headline - 'Pupils to study Twitter and blogs in primary shake-up' - is the kind of thing we've come to expect from the Daily Mail, rather than the 'serious' broadsheet press. As is the story below it, based as it is on leaked government 'plans' for the school curriculum. 

The real story (if there is one) is about proposals to allow teachers greater flexibility in deciding, within a broad framework, what they're going to teach - which should mark a refreshing change from two decades of ministerial prescription. 

The stuff about Twitter is a bit of a worry, though, and (if true) is further evidence of the tendency of the Brown administration to latch on to the latest trend (appointing celebrity chefs and TV psychologists as advisers is another example) in a vain attempt to court fading popularity. The Guardian claims the plans would ensure that children 'leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of communication'. But children don't need to be 'taught' these things: increasingly they know more about them than their teachers. And Wikipedia? If our children's schools are anything to go by, teachers already encourage an over-reliance on dubious internet sources for homework, rarely trusting their pupils to take home an actual book (now I'm beginning to sound like the Mail...)

I'm not too worked up about plans to let teachers choose which periods of history they focus on, which could mean (as the Guardian puts it, in shock-horror terms) that schools wouldn't be 'required' to teach the Victorians or the Second World War. But our offspring are fed up to the teeth with these topics, having returned them repeatedly throughout their primary and early secondary years. ('We haven't got to interview Grandma about her war work again, have we?')

I'm more concerned about the planned focus on 'health and well-being', which will apparently include lessons on diet and teaching children 'how to negotiate in their relationships'. More evidence of governmental paternalism and the therapeutic turn in education....

As John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, has said, this rag-bag of proposals looks like an uneasy mixture of responding to passing trends on the one hand and giving into political pressure on the other. Not much sign of a coherent plan to prepare children for informed, democratic citizenship in changing times....

Monday 23 March 2009

Blog birthday

This blog is two years old today. It's been quite a year: at some points I wondered if I would ever again post about anything other than US presidential politics. Looking back, I notice that my themes and concerns haven't changed much during the year, only come into sharper focus: the need to defend liberty, secularism, reason and progress against totalitarianism, theocracy, irrationalism and reaction seems as urgent as ever.

It's been a year in which I've discovered some great new blogs and greatly expanded my network of virtual comrades and friends. So, to all of you who have remained loyal through a year of Obama-mania, ranting about religion, and lambasting of Brownian New Labour - thanks for your patience. And special thanks to those who have taken the trouble to comment on what I've written, and linked to my stuff on their own blogs.

Friday 20 March 2009

The Taliban's war on schoolchildren

You often read about the number of civilian deaths caused by NATO forces in Afghanistan. It seems the US special forces 'have a reputation for raiding Afghan houses in the middle of the night, on the basis of intelligence that can be accurate or inaccurate, causing a disproportionate number of civilian casualties,' though many more innocent deaths are the result of air strikes. 

But I don't think anyone has ever accused the international task force of deliberately targeting non-combatants. Their Taliban opponents are very different, however, according to this account of an attack on a primary school in Asadabad. Seven children were killed and thirty-four wounded. Kristen Rouse, who served with the US Army National Guard in Afghanistan, says that it never occurred to her that the Taliban would target schoolchildren:

But we soon learned that the Taliban routinely burned school buildings, assassinated teachers, and even singled out the children themselves for maiming, dismemberment and attack. As the Taliban see it, boys should not be educated beyond rote learning of narrow theology, and girls must not be educated at all. The Asadabad atack - although one of the most severe to date - was hardly unique.

Now the news that the Pakistani government have conceded control of the Swat Valley to the Taliban, who proceeded to shut down nearly 200 schools, is giving Rouse sleepless nights. She's unhappy that American officials appear not have objected to the deal, and she reports that many of her fellow-veterans are also 'outraged' at the thought of the US negotiating with the Taliban:

as if they were just another Afghan political party and not a criminal gang that inflicts and enforces the most extreme ignorance, poverty and violence upon innocent people - upon schoolchildren.

(Via Norm).

Tuesday 17 March 2009

RIP Ron Silver

Ron Silver, the actor who played Bruno Gianelli in The West Wing, and whose on-screen aisle-crossing echoed his real-life political trajectory (see this post), has died. There's a tribute from Paul Begala here.

Friday 13 March 2009

Celebrity mountain climbing

There are red noses on cars, the children have paid a pound not to wear school uniform, and lots of people are doing silly things in the street. Yes, it's Comic Relief day again. Sharing a house with two teenagers means that the raucous background to our early morning routine is Radio 1's Chris Moyles show, so this week we've been following the progress of Chris and the other celebs as they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for the cause.

Last night, we watched the BBC documentary of their exploits. It was an impressive feat, and you can't deny the courage of those who took part, or the genuineness of their commitment to the charities they were supporting. The programme forced you to view this motley collection of presenters, DJs and performers, many of whom you might previously have  dismissed as superficial or egotistical, in a somewhat different light. Moyles, for example, whose endless bloke-down-the-pub patter (and reluctance to play any actual music) normally irritates me no end, came across as genuinely funny and warmhearted, while Cheryl Cole continued her transition in the public's imagination from not-very-talented and quick-tempered reality show winner to beautiful-but-kindly big sister who can remain radiant at 15,000 feet. And who would have thought that 'our very own, the gorgeous Alesha Dixon' (copyright Brucie, 2008) had such a filthy cackle of a laugh?

At the same time, the documentary included rather too many scenes of well-dressed and well-fed celebrities visiting clinics to emote over dying children, in which the African patients and staff had mostly silent, passive parts. And the shots of the famous participants doing the obligatory 'tearing up' , as they watched similarly upsetting scenes on film, imported the shallow emotionality of the X-Factor, entirely inappropriately.

At times, I wondered what had happened to the determination of those alternative comedians who set up Comic Relief, to do things differently: to raise money in a way that didn't objectify the recipients and instead saw them as active participants in achieving social justice. Couldn't Africans have been involved in this project on a more equal footing, rather than as objects of tearful sympathy, or as the team of porters making sure that the celebrities' portaloos were erected before they reached camp? And couldn't they have found a few more black celebrities to take part (Alesha was the only one), to remove the sense of these few heroic white people going to great lengths to help all those poor black people?

As I say, none of this is to detract from the achievement of those who took part in this or other Comic Relief exploits today, or from the very real good that the money raised will do. A reminder that, away from all the celebrity gushing, Comic Relief is still funding some challenging and important work, can be found in this  article by Johann Hari.

Memories of the miners' strike

All these political anniversaries are starting to make me feel old. Last year it was the 40th anniversary of the '68 events, which prompted the first sparks of political consciousness in my adolescent self, and now it's 25 years since the miners' strike, an altogether more problematic memory.

This week's media coverage has brought back personal memories - of collectors with their buckets and 'Coal Not Dole' badges on the streets of London, and of driving through the Dartford Tunnel and being shocked to see the police preventing strike supporters from travelling northwards. And it's reawakened the conflicted feelings I had at the time. On the one hand, instinctive sympathy for the miners and their families combined with equally visceral anger at the coldheartedness of Thatcher and MacGregor, as well as horror at the tactics of the police. But at the same time, sheer frustration at the bloodymindedness and political cackhandedness of Arthur Scargill.

The anniversary has seen Scargill emerging on to the airwaves again after a long silence, and it's been odd hearing that stubborn, strident voice after all these years. He's so right in some aspects of his retrospective analysis, and so wrong in others. He's taken the opportunity to lambast not only the Tories and the Coal Board, but also Neil Kinnock, Labour leader at the time. Now Kinnock has responded, in equally vehement terms. Accusing the miners' leader of 'suicidal vanity', he suggests that the latter walked into Thatcher's carefully laid trap by seeking outright confrontation, and argues that if Scargill had agreed to a national ballot, he could have won over public opinion and given legitimacy to the strike.

It's an argument I found sympathetic at the time, and still think is right. But Scargill had no head for this kind of long-term strategic thinking. He's in a long line of ego-driven 'leaders' on the British left - in their very different ways, George Galloway and Tony Benn are also examples - who prefer grandstanding and gestural oppositionalism to the less glamorous business of building alliances and making strategic compromises.

On the issue of the ballot, Scargill, the maverick pseudo-revolutionary, was wrong, and Mick McGahey, his Communist vice-president, was right. The problem with Scargill, it might be said, was not that he was (as the tabloids delighted in jeering) a Marxist - but that he wasn't enough of one.

(More on the anniversary from Bob here)

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Jacqui Smith - the nation's headmistress?

Moving on from spying on our emails and banning foreign politicans she doesn't agree with, the nation's nanny-in-chief - sorry, the home secretary - is turning her attention to the makers of clothers, computer games and videos that she believes are 'inappropriate' for young girls. Announcing a three-month 'fact-finding review' into the 'sexualisation' of teenage and pre-teen girls, Jacqui Smith declared: 'It is time the manufacturers saw the writing on the wall over this and stopped producing these sort of things for young girls'.

Well yes, maybe it is, and as the parent of a 14 year old girl I'm not completely unsympathetic to such arguments. But I wonder what power Smith thinks the government has to tell industry what it can and can't produce? And if it has no such power, then won't this review be just another expensive exercise in paternalistic moralising? Smith's tut-tutting reminds me of the regular missives sent out by my daughter's headmistress, bemoaning the rising hemlines of pupils' skirts. Except that a headteacher has a legitimate role in determining what can be worn within a school, whereas the home secretary has no business trying to influence the fashion and consumption decisions of the nation's teenagers and their parents.

The review is being touted as part of an initiative to tackle violence against women and girls, on the pretext that there might be a link with the sexualisation of young girls. But this is spurious, and risks reinforcing the deeply reactionary assumption that victims of rape and sexual violence are 'asking for it' if they dress in a sexualised manner. By focusing on the behaviour of young women - the potential victims - Smith's review will inevitably draw attention away from the real roots of abuse - the attitudes and behaviour of a minority of men. It's the persistence of certain kinds of masculinity, and not the mutations of contemporary young femininity, that should be the focus of policy-makers' attentions.

Realism and artifice in bohemia

We were in London again at the weekend, this time to see Jonathan Miller's new production of La Boheme at the English National Opera. Now, although I'm a fairly keen listener to opera on CD, I've been to very few live performances, so what follows is by no means an expert review.

As with our visit to the RSC the week before, our expectations had been lowered by some of the reviews, which suggested that Miller's translation of the drama to a sepia-tinted 1930s Paris had drained the production of much of its glamour and colour. I half-agreed. The opening and closing acts, set in the garret shared by the struggling young artists and writers, were rather dull on the eye. But I thought the staging for the middle two acts, and especially Act 2's monochrome re-creation of a Parisian cafe, was quite stunning.

A bigger problem, for me, was the tension between Miller's attempt to infuse the opera with naturalism and the intrinsic artificiality of the operatic genre. Whether as a result of directorial planning or inherent acting ability, the performances of Hanan Alattar as Musetta and Roland Wood as Marcello, and the interactions between them, were dynamic and engaging. But although Alfie Boe as Rodolfo and Melody Moore as Mimi turned in musically perfect performances, their relationship was rarely convincing. In contrast to the attempted realism of the setting, the two lovers hardly looked at each other. And although she's obviously an accomplished singer, it took a leap of the audience's imagination to see Moore as a frail Mimi, or to believe that her polished articulation was that of a poor seamstress.

I see that Boe sang Rodolfo in Baz Luhrmann's Broadway production of the opera - and I wonder whether Luhrmann's knowing artificiality actually suits the genre better than Miller's half-achieved realism.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Links: from fascism to flashmobs

Not much time for posting this week, but here are some links to be going on with:
  • A great piece from Peter Tatchell on the need for (and lack of ) western left-wing solidarity with progressive, secular forces opposing theocratic rule in Iran
  • Sarah Franco on worrying reminders of fascism in Berlusconi's Italy
  • And altogether more frivolously, these photos from Andrew suggest I was premature in my dismissal of flashmobbing - it's morphed (pardon the pun) into something else.
Finally, as if you needed reminding, the new issue of Democratiya can be found here.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Vendetta against Goodwin is empty populism, not socialism

I'm glad I'm not the only person on the left who finds the government's attempt to shame Sir Fred Goodwin into giving back his pension deeply sordid. I have no great sympathy for the former RBS boss, but I think the response of ministers, and of Harriet Harman in particular, has illustrated some of the worst features of New Labour under Gordon Brown.

The government's resort to trial by media has demonstrated, yet again, the shallow populism of the Brown administration, with its resort to headline-catching gestures a meagre substitute for its loss of any real connection with its former popular base. It's also an example of its characteristic control-freakery, the belief that government has the right to intervene whenever it sees something going on that it doesn't like. (The Wilders case was, arguably, another example: we don't like this man's views, so let's ban him.) And finally it reveals the government's moralising, puritanical instincts, which lead it to be suspicious of - and seek to rein in - the pleasures of private individuals.

I may not like Sir Fred's behaviour. I may believe that he contributed directly  to the collapse of RBS and therefore to the nation's current economic woes. I may think that he acted greedily and with crass insensitivity by insisting on drawing his whole pension, and at the ridiculously early age of 50 (we should all be so lucky). But those are my private opinions.  If I were a government minister, I would have no business using the power of the state to impose those views on another private individual (Goodwin), who worked until recently for a private institution.

Yes, I know the government is bailing out Goodwin's bank with public money, and I agree that our money shouldn't be used to give excessive rewards to bank officials. But Goodwin's pension plan appears to have been approved before the bailout, and agreed by government ministers: it can't be taxed retrospectively. And in her statements about the affair, Harriet Harman has gone beyond saying that tax-payers' money shouldn't fund large pensions - she said that she thinks pensions of this size are unjustified in themselves, whoever is funding them. Thus the darker side of Labour's nonconformist roots, the side that is resentful and disapproving of the pleasures of the rich, reveals itself. 

You don't overcome inequality by conducting vendettas against individual cases of private wealth (in fact it could be argued that the current campaign is a sideshow distracting attention from Labour's failure to reduce inequality). That's not socialism, it's just empty populism.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Brush up your Shakespeare

We were in London yesterday. Not for the Convention on Modern Liberty, though we passed by the place where Henry Porter et al were holding forth on the state of the nation. Nor for the flash mob pillow-fight in Hyde Park. (Incidentally, don't you agree that this craze has passed its sell-by date? The mass freeze in Grand Central Station was stylish, and the T-mobile dance-in at Liverpool Street a joy to behold, but now that everyone's in on the joke, hasn't this pastime lost whatever coolness it once had?)

No, we were in town to see the RSC's production of The Taming of the Shrew, which is currently at the Novello Theatre. As a literature graduate, I'm ashamed to admit that it's not a play I know well. In fact, until yesterday most of my knowledge of the plot was derived from repeat viewings of the 1953 film of Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, a long-time favourite in our house. Our expectations of the play had been lowered by some pretty dismal reviews, and by discovering (after booking) that the director was Conall Morrison, who directed the unrelentingly grim Macbeth that we saw at Stratford in 2007.

The verdict? Well, the RSC always deliver a quality production and fantastic performances, and it's difficult to go completely wrong with Shakespeare, even in such a problematic play as this one. But you certainly couldn't accuse Morrison of lightness of touch, or of leaving the audience in any doubt about the points he's trying to make. In this production, he lays on the theme of male misogyny and predatory sexuality with a trowel. As in his Macbeth, Morrison has added an additional scene before the dialogue begins, and once again it serves to reinforce his message in no uncertain terms. Instead of Shakespeare's framing scene in an inn, we witness a lewd stag-night/boys' night out, complete with pole dancers and a blow-up doll. 

The second half of the play is particularly bleak in its depiction of male sexual cruelty, and Morrison rarely misses an opportunity to disgust his audience. The brilliant comedy, played with great gusto by a fantastic cast, goes some way to relieving the grimness of the director's vision. I wasn't sure, though, whether the final scene, in which Petruchio is left (almost) naked and vulnerable on stage, did much to undercut the feminine submissiveness of Kate's final speech. From such an impressive line-up of actors, it seems invidious to single out particular performances, but Michelle Gomez as Kate was spirited and intense and appeared emotionally drained at the end, while among the minor characters Keir Charles was a wonderfully comic Tranio.

The programme for the show was good value too, with a piece on the language of gender politics by one of my academic heroes, Deborah Cameron, an informative article by Robert Henke about the influence of commedia dell'arte on Shakespeare, and an extract from Jack Holland's history of misogyny which, refreshingly didn't hesitate to include 'veiling, seclusion and clitoridectomy' as symptoms of contemporary misogyny.

Anyway, after all that gloom and intensity, here's some light relief from Kiss Me Kate: