Tuesday 30 June 2009

UCU does something right

Credit where it's due: the Universities and Colleges Union seems to be doing the right thing (for a change) with regard to the situation in Iran.

On Saturday UCU general secretary Sally Hunt represented the union at a protest outside the Iranian embassy, as part of the Justice for Iranian Workers campaign.

The UCU has also condemned the Iranian government's arrest of 70 university professors, as part of the crackdown on opposition protestors.

Here's a video about the workers' rights campaign from the International Transport Workers' Federation (ignore the misleading date at the top):

Sunday 28 June 2009

It's not over

Video of today's protests in Tehran (via):

Saturday 27 June 2009

Women and the Iranian uprising

A couple of articles that undermine the image of women as simply passive victims of oppression in Iran:

Tracy Clark-Flory on the long history of Iranian women's political involvement and resistance to the regime: 'Hell hath no fury like three decades of women scorned.'

And Azadeh Moaveni writes that 'to anyone who has lived in Iran in recent years, women's fierceness in the face of authority is not particularly new.'

Friday 26 June 2009

Memories of Michael

So farewell then, Michael Jackson. I heard the news of his cardiac arrest, followed shortly afterwards by confirmation that he'd died, late last night, as I was taking a final look at the Huff Post. I've been surprised how much his death has affected people who are surely too young to remember him in his hey-day: our teenage son and daughter were quite upset this morning, and the young woman at the Sainsbury's checkout shook her head on seeing my newspaper and told me she still couldn't believe it.

Conversely, I'm too old for Michael Jackson to have meant much to me (though he was about the same age as me). When I was growing up in the '70s, we prog rock / glam / punk fans dismissed the Jackson Five as bubblegum soul, a kind of black version of the Osmonds. When Michael's solo fame arrived in the '80s, my tastes had moved on to jazz and 'world' music. It's only very recently, and mainly through my son's interest in soul and R'n'B, that I've come to appreciate the quality of the early Jackson Five material.

Michael Jackson did play a small part in the soundtrack of my life, however. In the early '80s, H. and I went to see David Bowie perform at the Milton Keynes Bowl. It was a stiflingly hot day, and the great man was extremely late arriving (I think his helicopter touched down in the early evening, when we'd been expecting him around 2.00). To keep us happy, the DJ played the same tracks over and over throughout the afternoon, and the one I remember most is 'Billie Jean', its compelling Quincy Jones-produced riff building up anticipation for Bowie's belated appearance.

On the way home from the concert, I proposed to H. and she said 'yes'. This year, we're celebrating our 25th anniversary. When we were in Miami Beach earlier this year, as part of our celebrations, this man pleased us no end by playing 'Billie Jean' , and some other great early '80s sounds, as we sat by the pool. Wherever he's deejaying today, I'm sure he's in mourning, and playing Michael Jackson songs on a continuous loop.

Thursday 25 June 2009

'Thank God for Barack Obama'

Reza Aslan on the Daily Show (via Nico):

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Reza Aslan
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

What's really happening in Iran?

Was it really a massacre - or just more of the same routine brutality we've come to expect from the Iranian security forces? Here's the ever-excellent Rachel Maddow with a slightly different account of yesterday's events - and a discussion with Reza Aslan about the regime's increasing stranglehold on communication.

(At one point the video playing in the background appears to show a passing office worker getting beaten by police, simply because he's using his mobile phone. One of the theories as to why Neda was targeted is because she was speaking on the phone at the time: that, and the murderous misogyny of the clerical-fascist militia, of course.)   


Wednesday 24 June 2009

'This was exactly a massacre'

There are unconfirmed reports of massive violence today by Iranian security forces against demonstrators in Baharestan Square in Tehran.

Here's Azarmehr:
Despite all the security measures and the confusion on whether Moussavi has called for the people to gather outside the Islamic Assembly in Baharestan Sq or not, people have started to converge towards the square. Many are wearing black arm bands and holding pictures of Neda.

One girl has been shot already and not known whether she is alive or dead.
It gets much, much worse. CNN has a terrifying eye-witness account here (can't seem to embed the video at the moment). An extract from the transcript (via):
I was going towards Baharestan with my friend. This was everyone, not just supporters of one candidate or another. All of my friends, they were going to Baharestan to express our opposition to these killings and demanding freedom. The black-clad police stopped everyone. They emptied the buses that were taking people there and let the private cars go on. We went on until Ferdowsi then all of a sudden some 500 people with clubs came out of [undecipherable] mosque and they started beating everyone. They tried to beat everyone on [undecipherable] bridge and throwing them off of the bridge. And everyone also on the sidewalks. They beat a woman so savagely that she was drenched in blood and her husband, he fainted. They were beating people like hell. It was a massacre. They were trying to beat people so they would die. they were cursing and saying very bad words to everyone. This was exactly a massacre... 

More evidence here (warning: extremely graphic images), including confirmation of reports that militia are using axes against male demonstrators and beating women with metal pipes.
Update 2
Finally managed to embed the video with the eyewitness account:

Tuesday 23 June 2009

French connection

Yesterday, French president Nicolas Sarkozy said this:

The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement.

Is there any secular liberal or feminist who, in their heart of hearts, does not believe this, and who doesn’t agree with Sarkozy that women swathed in black from head to toe are ‘prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity’ ?

If not, then what’s the problem, and why are the French president’s comments being reported as ‘controversial’?

Perhaps it's because he also said that the burqa ‘will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic’. In other words, he moved from declaring a perfectly reasonable point of view – to arguing that this opinion should be enforced by law.

My immediate response when I heard about Sarkozy's speech was a divided one. On the one hand, I thought this was yet another example of a rather absurd politician exceeding the bounds of his authority, and found it worrying that states might abrogate the power to decide what people could or couldn't wear. On the other hand, I found it refreshing to hear a political leader say out loud what most secular liberals think, but are usually afraid to declare in public for fear of upsetting fundamentalists, or (in the case of politicians) losing the votes of 'faith communities'. 

Those who are tempted to condemn Sarkozy’s views as right-wing or 'Islamophobic' need to be aware of the context. According to the BBC, his remarks were a response ‘to a call last week by a group of 65 cross-party MPs, led by the Communist Andre Gerin, who wants a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the spread of the burqa in France.' Apparently Gerin believes that the burqa 'amounts to a breach of individual freedom on our national territory'. And the French human rights minister, Reme Yede, who is herself a Muslim, has said she would be prepared to contemplate a ban 'if it was aimed at protecting women who wore a burqa against their will'.

What's that? Left-wingers and liberal Muslims taking a stand against religious fundamentalism and defending individual liberty and women's rights? They certainly do order things rather differently in France, don't they?


To the memory of Neda Agha-Soltan, born 1982, died 20 June 2009. 

A philosophy student, Neda was sitting in her car in traffic on Kargar Avenue, Tehran, last Saturday, with her music teacher. They were on their way to attend a march protesting against the conduct of the Iranian presidential election. Having got out of the car because of the excessive heat, Neda was deliberately targeted and shot in the chest by a member of the Basij, the plainclothes religious militia.

May she rest in peace and may her death not have been in vain.

(Via here  here and here)

Monday 22 June 2009

Iran: theocracy, misogyny and sexual repression

There's a great post by Nora Mulready over at Harry's Place, about the nastiness of the Iranian regime, and the lengths to which some sections of the left will go to avoid criticising it:

Over the last three years I have had hundreds of conversations with people about life in Iran. I have long believed Iran’s to be a deeply repressed society in which freedom is curtailed in the name of religion and by an assortment of ‘holy men.’ I was initially bemused when talking to people about this, good people with solid left wing principles, and having my criticisms dismissed as those of a ‘cultural imperialist,’ ‘a neo-con,’ ‘an islamaphobe,’ to name a few terms thrown my way. As time went on and I realised that these weren’t, sadly, the views of the odd person here and there on the left, but those of the left’s mainstream, I moved from bemused to shocked, to saddened and then to angry.

Looking at a society where it is codified into law that a women is worth half a man, where the morality police prowl the streets arresting men and women for such ‘unIslamic’ behaviour as holding hands, where stoning is still an allowed punishment for adultery, where children can be hanged, where being gay is a crime, I found the stance of my so called comrades on the left to be unforgivable. I also found it ridiculous. I honestly could not believe that anyone could look at this society and say that people had chosen to live like this – but it became clear that is exactly what they believed. And worse than that, despite the desperate cries for freedom we are seeing now, some of them still do.

I think Nora's absolutely right to use the word 'repressed' to describe Iranian society, and to highlight its oppression of women and obsession with sexual behaviour. Since writing this post on Saturday, I've been unable to get the picture of Neda, shot to death by the religious militia, out of my head, nor to forget the claim of an eyewitness that her murder, as she stood watching a demonstration, was cold, calculating and deliberate. Putting it together with the clips I posted here and here of security forces and government supporters beating up unarmed female demonstrators, not to mention Iran's notorious record of legalised violence towards women, and you can't help wondering about the pathological roots of this institutionalised hatred of women. 

Could it be that 'repressed', in a specific, clinical sense, is exactly the word to describe the 'holy men' who rule Iran? And does their vicious misogyny stem from the puritanical repression of sexuality that is part and parcel of their twisted religious outlook?  Christopher Hitchens has a great quote from a young Iranian:

I went to the last major Ahmadinejad rally and got the whiff of what I imagine fascism to have been all about. Lots of splotchy boys who can't get a date are given guns and told they're special.

As Hitchens comments: 'It's hard to better this [...] as an evocation of the rancid sexual repression that lies at the nasty core of the "Islamic republic"'.

Theocracy, sexual repression and violence towards women often seem to go hand in hand. Think of Cromwell's Puritans and their vicious campaign of 'witch' burning, or Franco's fondness for summarily hanging female Republican prisoners. This may sound like another puff for Ophelia's new book, but can anyone name me a political system, in which religious institutions have a major role, that does not oppress women? And can anyone doubt that there's a close link between theocratic sexism and the sexual repression that infects fundamentalist religiosity?

Sunday 21 June 2009

Bearing witness

A lot of hits today, thanks to a link to this post by CNN. Makes me feel I'm doing something worthwhile, helping to get the news of what's happening on the streets of Iran to as wide an audience as possible. 

For more regular updates, new readers should take a look at these sites:

'Don't be afraid, we are all together'

After yesterday's murderous violence by the regime, there were fears that the Iranian green revolution might have stalled, and that opposition supporters would be afraid to come out on the streets today. This video (via Andrew) appears to show this not to be the case, and gives cause for hope. (More here).

Apparently they're chanting: 'Natarsid! Natarsid! Mah hameh bah ham hastim!' ('Don't be afraid, don't be afraid, we are all together!')  and then 'Marg bar Dictator!' ('Death to the dictator!')

'Please let the world know'

Gene has the story behind yesterday's video of a young woman murdered by the Iranian religious police. This appears to be an eye-witness account:

At 19:05 June 20th

Place: Karekar Ave., at the corner crossing Khosravi St. and Salehi st.

A young woman who was standing aside with her father watching the protests was shot by a basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house. He had clear shot at the girl and could not miss her. However, he aimed straight her heart. I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim’s chest, and she died in less than 2 minutes.

The protests were going on about 1 kilometers away in the main street and some of the protesting crowd were running from tear gass used among them, towards Salehi St.

The film is shot by my friend who was standing beside me.

Please let the world know.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Iranian riot police beat up women demonstrators

Via Nico Pitney: more evidence of the misogyny of the Iranian regime. Riot police beat up defenceless women protestors in Shiraz today. As Nico says:

What is so shocking about many of these videos is that the armed police are willing to attack completely defenseless bystanders. This video, apparently from the university in Shiraz, shows police not in any immediate danger walking up to veiled women who are leaning against a fence and raising their batons above their heads, threatening them, and then occassionally striking them. It is pure brutality.

Murdered by the religious police

Extremely disturbing footage of the shooting of a young woman demonstrator by the Basij in Tehran today. Apologies for the graphic nature of the video, but the world needs to see the reality of this vile regime. Andrew's right: this is just what fascism looks like:

A day of destiny

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Iran today. (Via)

Friday 19 June 2009

Repression and hope

"If they continue they will be receiving other consequences, behind the scenes." (Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, 19 June 2009)

Perhaps these videos (via azarmehr) give some idea of what he means. I apologise in advance if you find them distressing, but it's important that the world sees the brutality of the regime for what it is.

The first clip shows Basij religious police attacking people in their houses:

The second video shows a young woman being beaten up by a crowd of regime supporters:

Meanwhile, the Guardian has compensated for Seamus Milne's predictably appalling article on Iran by publishing this excellent piece by Azadeh Moaveni, one of the best things I've read on the background to the reform movement. Moaveni is particularly good on the misogyny of the regime. Writing about the 2007 crackdown on 'un-Islamic' dress, she states: 'Though the campaign targeted young men as well, authorities singled out women with particular brutality'. But the key role played by women in this week's protests has given her cause for hope:

Of all the images I've seen emerging from Iran this week, those of fiery women beating policemen and leading protests have moved me the most. Throughout the past decade, Iran's extraordinarily sophisticated and well-educated women have sought for peaceful change through the existing system. Accounting for 60% of university students, Iranian women emerge from university armed with career expectations and modern attitudes toward their role in family and society. They have patiently petitioned the state to grant them more equitable rights before the law. But at each opportunity, they have been treated with contempt. Their vibrant presence in these protests is signalling to the government that they will not tolerate its discrimination and disdain any longer.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Loach, Garaudy and the reactionary left

Via Poumista, and of relevance to these two posts: I came across this piece at Principia Dialectica about censorship-loving film director Ken Loach's support for Oliver Besancenot's new French anti-everything party. I loved the description of Loach as 'the Ken Barlow of film', and this summary of the Respect-supporting film-maker's oeuvre made me chuckle:
Loach is an exponent of dire social-realism, all kitchen sink docudramas, he always aims for the lowest common denominator. His films are as erotic as an old Soviet Union tractor, and as funny as an evening in Butlin's. The scenario dished out by Loach is all very simple, a sort of manichean world point of view:

Palestinians: good
Israelis: bad
The North of England: good
The South of England: bad
Chavez: good
Work: very good (he doesn't even allow tea breaks when shooting his boring films)
Money: bad
Man: bad
Woman: good

The list is endless.
Speaking of the reactionary left: the same site also has news of French Stalinist-turned-Islamist Roger Garaudy, about whom I wrote in this post, who apparently has turned up in Spain:

A certain Roger GARAUDY, once the chief ideologue of the French Communist Party, wayback in the sixties and seventies now lives in the best part of Cordoba, ie. the old town, and in some style. He has become a fundamentalist muslim, and a negationist to boot, who denies the Holocaust ever took place. As Nick Griffin calls it the HOLOHOAX!  Garaudy would like to see Israel wipped off the face of the world. Garaudy’s odyssey is  thus a strange one - or is it? It seems he always needed authoritarian beliefs in his poor life. Once he worshipped Stalin and Lenin, now it is Muhammad.

The strange thing is that we're still surprised by these alliances of extreme left and extreme right, and by the ease of movement between secular and religious totalitarianisms.

Spirit of inquiry

The government's partial climbdown over whether to hold the Iraq war inquiry in public adds an impression of muddle and incompetence to the appearance of political cynicism that surrounded the original decision. This new move reinforces the sense that the decision was rushed through for no other reason than to appease unruly backbenchers and dampen down the 'Gordon must go' campaign. At a time when the reputation of politicians is at an all-time low, how can making important national decisions for blatantly self-serving reasons, rather than basing them on principle, do anything but make matters worse? (Mind you, the Tories are no better: for the party that, when last in power, burdened teachers and pupils with a raft of testing and inspection to declare its belated opposition to SATS was an act of pure political hypocrisy and cynical vote-chasing).

As for the Iraq inquiry itself, although I'm not opposed in principle, I wonder exactly what purpose it will serve. Those who have been most vociferous in calling for it appear to be an uneasy alliance of two groups. On the one hand are the trenchant 'stoppers' of the Lose The War Coalition who won't be happy with anything less than a full-scale condemnation of the decision to topple Saddam. The other group is made up of those who have lost relatives in the conflict and demand to know why their loved ones died. But public enquiries don't exist to provide vindication for the opponents of government policy, or (hard though it may be to accept it) therapeutic closure for the bereaved. I suspect neither group will be satisfied, whatever the outcome.

(Cross-posted at Common Endeavour)

We just want to be normal, ctd.

Sorry, Mr. Fisk, but do these women look like they're supporting the continuation of a theocratic Islamic republic?

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Fisk unfisked

Who'da thunk it? Robert Fisk, whose name is literally a byword for mealy-mouthed reporting of all things anti-western, may turn out to be a hero of journalism, defying the Iranian government ban to stay in the country and report from the frontline of the uprising. And there's no sign in his report of any Fiskian attempt to play down the scale of what he's witnessed: he estimates that at least a million attended Sunday's opposition march. Interestingly, Fisk describes one demonstration where he saw the army protecting protestors from the Basij (religious) militia:

In fact at one point, Mousavi's supporters were shouting 'thank you, thank you' to the soldiers.

One woman went up to the special forces men, who normally are very brutal with Mr Mousavi's supporters, and said 'can you protect us from the Basij?' He said 'with God's help'.

It was quite extraordinary because it looked as if the military authorities in Tehran have either taken a decision not to go on supporting the very brutal militia - which is always associated with the presidency here - or individual soldiers have made up their own mind that they're tired of being associated with the kind of brutality that left seven dead yesterday - buried, by the way secretly by the police - and indeed the seven or eight students who were killed on the university campus 24 hours earlier.

Quite a lot of policeman are beginning to smile towards the demonstrators of Mr Mousavi, who are insisting there must be a new election because Mr Ahmadinejad wasn't really elected. Quite an extraordinary scene.

That sounds promising. There's just the faintest whiff of Fiskishness right at the end of his report, where he claims that the uprising is 'absolutely not' against the Islamic republic or the Islamic revolution:

It's clearly an Islamic protest against specifically the personality, the manner, the language of Ahmadinejad. They absolutely despise him but they do not hate or dislike the Islamic republic that they live in.

Hmm. That's not how it looks from here. It may be that Mousavi and his supporters are playing a clever game, using the language of the Islamic revolution to ensure that they don't alienate the mass of the population, and don't provoke a backlash by the clerics (see this post). But those of us who long to see a modern, secular democracy emerge in Iran (and see the yearning for it in the faces, banners and chants of the mostly young protestors) live in hope of a deeper change. 

Support the green revolution in Iran

This blog has gone green, in solidarity with the pro-reform movement in Iran.

See here, here, and here.

The revolution will be twittered

Rachel Maddow discusses citizen journalism in Iran with Nico Pitney, who's live-blogging the uprising for Huffington Post:

Tuesday 16 June 2009

A liberal revolution? (or: 'We just want to be normal')

With events moving so fast in Iran, what we really need is a direct web feed from what looks increasingly like a popular uprising against the repressive theocratic regime. The next best thing is Andrew Sullivan's regular posts, especially (if you can stomach it) those labelled 'This is what fascism looks like'. There's live-blogging of the uprising over at the Huffington Post too. And Harry's Place is doing a pretty good job from this side of the water.  Among the more considered responses to the post-election turmoil, this from Hitchens is worth a look. 

I'm a great admirer of Maryam Namazie's work for secularism and women's rights, but I suspect (and hope) her endorsement of the call by the Worker-communist Party of Iran for a 'revolutionary movement' - led by itself, naturally - to replace the Islamic regime with a socialist republic will fall on deaf ears. As Danny Postel writes in his 2006 book, Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism:
(T)he parlance of 'revolution' is far from the lips of Iranians today. Iranians are understandably turned off by revolution-speak, given the 'revolutionary' regime they've been living under since 1979, but also - and this is critical - because of the general failure of the revolutionary Left in Iran.
Postel quotes Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi:
The leftist, anti-imperialist ideas of the 1970s have given way to a more pragmatic discourse about economic and political dignity based on Western models of secular democracy. Iranian youth largely dismiss the radical ideas of their parents' generation, full of half-baked leftism, Marxist economics, Third World anti-imperialism, Islamist radicalism and varying shades of utopian totalitarianism. 'We just want to be normal', is typical of what hundreds of students have told me. 'We're tired of radicalism'.
Moreover, as Postel recalls, some sections of the Iranian left 'forged outright alliances with Khomeini's forces', something that, as dissident Iranian writer Faraj Sarkohi remarks, 'is firmly engraved on the memory of the Iranian people'. What united the Islamist and ultra-leftist wings of the Iranian revolution was their virulent hostility to liberalism, with 'Death to liberalism!' a popular slogan alongside 'Death to America!'  Arguably, the anti-liberalism of the revolutionary Iranian left contributed to the Islamic ascendancy.

In place of revolutionary leftism, Postel notices a revival of interest in liberal ideas among the new generation of Iranians, with the writings of Arendt, Popper and Kolakowski popular among younger intellectuals (see this post).

If this uprising is successful, perhaps the neocons' predictions will be frustrated and it will be Iran, not Iraq, that one day provides the model of liberal democracy for the Middle East. We live in hope.

Thanks to The New Centrist for recommending Michael Totten's excellent coverage of events at his blog, and at the Commentary site. Totten also links to this site which includes fascinating video footage of the latest events in Iran. After all the brutality and repression of recent days, this video of demonstrators and police standing silently together is strangely surreal but somehow reassuring:

Monday 15 June 2009

Brutality and humanity in Tehran

While the world holds its breath for the final outcome of Iran's disputed election, and the huge demonstrations in support of reform give cause for hope, this video offers evidence both of the brutality of the current regime, and the survival of common humanity in the midst of political conflict. It shows police motorcyclists charging a crowd of demonstrators, but watch it to the end and see some of those same demonstrators rescuing a bruised and battered policeman from the crowd:

Sunday 14 June 2009

In memoriam

It’s been a strange fortnight. My father-in-law died two weeks ago - on my birthday as it happens. (In Through the children’s gate: a home in New York, which I’m reading at the moment, Adam Gopnik relates how the attacks of 9/11 occurred as he was celebrating his daughter’s birthday, ensuring that the two anniversaries were entwined in the ensuing years. The same will now be true of my own birthday and the more domestic catacylsm of my father-in-law’s death.) He was in his 80s and had a long-term condition, but he was living a comparatively normal life at home, and his passing was a reminder that all deaths are experienced as sudden by those close to the deceased. 

The relationship between a father-in-law and son-in-law is a peculiar one. In the early days of my marriage to H., I often felt I was living through a real-life version of Harry Enfield’s famous caricature of the relationship, captured in the catchphrase, ‘You don’t want to do it like that’. It didn’t help that H’s father was something of a perfectionist, albeit a gentle and forgiving one. In checking up on their son-in-laws’ performance,  I suppose fathers are really saying, in a roundabout way, that nothing is too good for their daughters. I’m sure I’ll be the same when my turn comes.

My father-in-law and I could not have been more different. He was Conservative, I was Labour; he was deferentially royalist, I was vehemently republican; he was rural, I was urban; he loved sport, I had no interest in it; he was practical, I was cackhanded and cerebral. H’s parents were the first Conservatives I’d known up close. My parents sometimes voted Tory, but their conservatism was alleviated by their socially-concerned Methodism, which occasionally induced them to vote Liberal. For my parents, voting Conservative and reading the Daily Mail seemed to be part of the inevitable package of differentiating themselves from their working- class East End roots, rather than anything more deliberate. H’s father, by contrast, was a proud member of his local Conservative association, who took his politics from the opinion pages of the Telegraph.

His conservatism, with both a big and small ‘c’, was rooted in a long tradition of rural, working-class deference, overlaid by the personal experience of transition to suburban, lower middle-class comfort and respectability, the result of promotion through the ranks of the nationalised industry for which he worked. There was a time, in my callow Marxian youth, when I would have dismissed his social and political attitudes as merely a tool for reproducing an entrenched class hierarchy. But it’s hard to maintain this stance when faced with a living, breathing representative of such views, for whom they are a way of giving value and meaning to the events of his life.  Instead, I grew to respect these opinions that were so radically different from my own and to appreciate the very real qualities that went with them. My father-in-a-law was, as many people who knew him have remarked since he died, a true gentleman: not just in the externalities of his dapper dress sense (he always wore a tie, even to wash the car), but in his grace, kindness and consideration for others.

I learned to keep quiet when dinner-table conversation turned to the royal family, or the trade unions, in the same way that I tend to refrain from discussing religion when my more evangelically-minded relatives are around. (Not that my father-in-law was an unthinking reactionary. He got on well with the union leaders with whom he dealt as a manager, and they respected him as a fair and decent man. And I remember him having his doubts about the Tories in the dying days of the Major administration: on a walk to the paper shop, he told me that he thought the British people were right to want a change, though he didn’t think they were ready to vote Labour.) Perhaps I should have been more honest and spoken up for what I believed in; but I’ve always preferred a quiet life, and I was keen to fit in and be accepted by my in-laws, rather than be characterised by them as a wild radical.

Over time, my father-in-law and I learned to accommodate ourselves to each other in other ways too. I don't know whether he mellowed with age, or I simply got better at those wretched practical tasks, but by the end I was a regular recipient of his praise, and looked forward to his ‘You've made a good job on it’, spoken in the country accent he retained to the end. Coming from such a perfectionist, I knew it was sincere. I shall miss him.

Saturday 13 June 2009

Hope Not Hate

Think this is the most constructive way to oppose fascism? Think again. Then go to this website and, at the very least, sign the petition

At last, an honourable use for the slogan, 'Not in my name'.

Buy this book and support the freedom to offend

Rosie Bell wrote a great post the other week (which I've only just caught up with) about the craven spinelessness of publishers with regard to Does God Hate Women? - the new book on religious misogyny by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom. Apparently Verso were going to publish the book, until they realised it would be critical of Islam, and as Rosie says 'Verso has a soft spot for Islam, which, they think, is a buttress against American imperialism' (see this post). Then Continuum stepped into the breach but, just a week before publication, they too began to get cold feet, having sent the book for review to an 'ecumenicist' specialising in 'Muslim-Christian relations'. Shades here of The Jewel of Medina, not to mention The Satanic Verses, and confirmation of Kenan Malik's recent warning about the 'internalised fatwa'.

As Rosie says, this kind of anticipatory censorship will have its greatest impact, not on western writers like Ophelia and Jeremy who view Islam from the outside, but on 'those who write from within - the liberalisers, the reformers, the feminists, the novelists, the historians. They will write and no one will dare to publish them'.

Does God Hate Women? was due to be published on 4th June and it's available at Amazon, so I assume Continuum recovered their courage at the last minute. You can order the book, and support the freedom to criticise religion, by following the link below.

See Rosie's comment below (and the updated post on her blog) for clarification of what actually happened - i.e. it seems the whole controversy was stirred up by the Sunday Times, looking for a sensational story. It doesn't change the basic point: journalists (like politicians in the Wilders case) now assume that there will be a 'backlash' against any move that 'offends' Muslims, and rent-a-quote fundamentalists are always on hand to oblige, thus creating the very outcry that the media has anticipated.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Bring back Blair?

This seemed like a good idea, recalling what I said here, but then this made me think again, reminding me of this criticism of this speech.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Fighting fascism, then and now

The government of Spain has decided to honour surviving British and Irish veterans of the International Brigade by granting them Spanish citizenship. Questioned on the Today programme this morning about why he left his home in the East End of London to fight for a country of which he knew little, 94 year old Sam Lesser recalled the fear of fascism spreading through Europe at the time. But, he added, we didn't have to leave home to find out about fascism: we had experienced it here, on our own streets.

Seventy years later, fascism is once again stalking the streets of Britain, not to mention its town halls and the corridors of the European Parliament. According to the Guardian report, Sam Lesser is 'still angry that the British government did nothing to help the Spaniards'. Not only that, he's 'furious...that the fascist, xenophobic propaganda he had to endure as a  young man is again being preached by 'Sir Oswald Mosley's heirs and successors'.

Let's hope that the current generation is as courageous in confronting the menace of the BNP as Lesser and his generation were in standing up to Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.

This is the first of my posts to be cross-posted at Common Endeavour, a new broadly Labour-supporting site that I heartily recommend.

Monday 8 June 2009

Tom Paine, hero of the Enlightenment

Two hundred years ago today Tom Paine - the British radical writer who was also one of the founding fathers of the United States - died in Greenwich Village, New York City. He was 72 years old. Only six people attended his funeral. But two centuries later, it was Paine whom America's first African-American president invoked at his inauguration. According to John Nichols:
Barack Obama is weaving the pamphleteer into the fabric of America's twenty-first century. On the eve of his inauguration, Obama declared his hope that "the dream of our founders will live on in our time." But which of the founders would be worthy of quotation in the inaugural address, to be heard by all the world as an affirmation of that dream's highest values? A slaveholder president? A drafter of the Constitution, which compromised the ideal that all men are created equal? No, Obama turned to the outlier who recognized not only what America was at its founding but what it might be. Speaking of a "return to these truths" of the American experiment, the new president invoked Paine as an inspiration for our times: "Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet...it." Obama quotes Paine frequently, recognizing--implicitly if not yet explicitly, as some of us hope he will--that no founder anticipated his presidency or the true meaning of the word "change" as well as the itinerant rebel who promised that "America ever is what she thinks herself to be."
As Nichols says, Paine 'condemned slavery, argued for the rights of women and imagined social democracy'. In an age when most accepted the divine right of kings, he 'objected to organised religion and championed freethinking'. In these days when the legacy of the Enlightenment is under threat from both the religious right and the reactionary left, we need him more than ever.

There's more on the Paine anniversary here (thanks to Kellie for the link)

Saturday 6 June 2009

Support Simon Singh: keep libel laws out of science

I've just added the 'Keep libel laws out of science' button to the bottom of this page. See here for the original story about the British Chiropractic Association's legal moves to silence science writer Simon Singh's challenge to claims about the efficacy of their treatments. And go to the Sense about Science site for more information on the campaign to defend Singh. I'm not a scientist, but this looks like a clear case of academic and intellectual freedom under attack. It also makes a mockery of the UK's antiquated and illiberal libel laws.

A sad day for union democracy and academic freedom

Back in February I urged UCU members to vote for candidates for election to the union's National Executive Committee who would stand up to the pro-boycott far left. Last week, Jon Pike, chair of Engage and elected NEC member, described attempts by the SWP/UCU Left to block calls for a ballot of members before any boycott is introduced. Now, sadly, Jon has resigned from the committee, in response to its resolution in support of an academic boycott of Israel, in defiance of the majority of the union's members. In his letter of resignation, Jon writes:

Whether or not such resolutions can be implemented, or have been declared void, their adoption is a violation of the democratic principle that the union ought to represent its membership.

It will be said that the UCU, on behalf of its membership, and on behalf of the academic community in Britain, would wish to push for an academic boycott of Israel, but is prevented from doing so by legal means.

This claim is entirely false. The members have not supported such a proposal, and they have not been asked their views.

In their reaction to Jon's resignation, Norman Geras and Eve Gerrard speak for many:

Jon's presence on the executive council meant that there was a courageous voice trying to bring the union to an understanding of what it was doing, and how ruinous for union values, and for the membership, its trajectory was and is. That voice is now gone from the NEC, which is even more than before given over to the pernicious ideology of the SWP and its sympathizers, who are utterly unrepresentative of the Union membership and of academics more broadly.

Honour to Jon, who has fought with great resilience and intelligence for the preservation of democracy, academic freedom and anti-racism in the union; dismay and a sense of chill for academics - Jewish and others - who share those values; yet deeper discredit for the union itself, whose overwhelming and febrile obsessions about Israel and 'Zionists' may now be irremediable.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Looking for common ground on abortion

I've been working up to writing a post about abortion, but I've been held back, mainly by my own conflicted feelings about the issue, but also (to be honest) by a fear of alienating those with whom I usually find myself in agreement. I've been mulling it over since President Obama's speech at Notre Dame University, in which he sought to identify common ground between the 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' camps, arguing (rightly, I think) that nobody is actually 'pro-abortion' and suggesting that both sides should work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. I've also been reading Sean Michael Winters' book, Left at the Altar: How the Democrats lost the Catholics and how the Catholics can save the Democrats, which I hope to discuss more fully another time, and which (among other things) charts the ways in which the issue has driven a wedge between the Democratic Party and their 'natural' constituency among Catholic voters.

Even so, I wasn't going to add my modest contribution to the debate, until the shocking murder of Dr. George Tiller at the weekend, and the reaction to it by people on both sides of this most divisive of issues. The shooting of Tiller - in church, in front of his wife and other members of the congregation - defies superlatives of outrage: it was a cold-blooded act of domestic terrorism, a sacrilege, even (if you believe in such things). Those who encourage such actions by their rhetoric, or seek to minimise their horror, should look to their consciences. Winters argues that the use by anti-abortion campaigners of the 'sanctity of life' argument would be more convincing if they were equally outraged by the death penalty. How much more should they condemn murder in the name of religion?

However, I think it would be a huge mistake to conclude that Tiller's murder means Obama's attempt to find a middle position on the issue is foolhardy, though some on both sides have sought to dismiss it as such. After the Notre Dame speech we saw his valiant effort scorned by some pro-life commentators, and in today's Guardian, it's treated with equal disdain by Sara Paretsky, speaking for the other side. I've been an avid fan of Paretsky's Chicago-based crime novels, though they did become rather predictable after a while: something of the suspense was lost when you realised it was always going to be capitalism that was ultimately to blame. But I think her column today, which employs specious arguments and rhetorical sleight-of-hand, demonstrates that it's not only anti-abortionists who stand in the way of mutual understanding.

I have no quarrel with the title of Paretsky's piece - 'Terror in the name of Jesus' - as I think it's important to give things their rightful name: and Tiller's murder was as much an act of terrorism as the actions of Islamist extremists. But the article's sub-heading, whether the author's fault or that of an attention-seeking subeditor, is unnecessarily confrontational, suggesting that this event 'underlines that there is no common ground with anti-abortion zealots'. This is a red herring: it's not with the extremists who firebomb clinics that Obama is hoping to find points of agreement, but with the majority of Americans who polls tell us are against abortion. 

After an opening paragraph in which Paretsky points out that the killing of Dr Tiller was the climax of a long campaign of violence against him and his clinic, she begins her second paragraph with this sentence: 'The National Council of Catholic Bishops, the National Right to Life Committee, Operation Rescue, and other groups opposed to women's reproductive health and privacy are almost all headed by men.' Maybe the piece has been heavily edited, but this reference to the gender of those who disagree with her is a complete non sequitur. And the claim that all of these groups are motivated by a hostility to women is tendentious in the extreme. Paretsky then compounds this rhetorical sloppiness by going on to enumerate the violent acts committed 'by followers of these and other groups'. Is she really saying that murder and arson can be blamed on 'followers' of the Catholic Bishops' Council? That's like saying that the violent protests in this country against Jerry Springer: The Opera were carried out by 'followers' of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It's a dishonest attempt to pin the most heinous crimes of extreme anti-abortion militants on the thousands of ordinary religious people (and many non-religious people) who have reservations about abortion.

A couple of paragraphs later, Paretsky has this to say about Obama's approach to the issue:

In Barack Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame – preceded by protests from Roman Catholic bishops because he is pro-choice – the president urged pro-choicers to find common ground with anti-abortion zealots. I do not know how you find common ground with someone who says you deserve to die. For such people, women are not as deserving of rights as the foetuses they may carry .

Once again, this is specious and underhand. Yes, Obama's speech was preceeded by protests from some Catholics, but many others supported the invitation and it received a warm response from its mostly Catholic audience. And again, he didn't say anything about finding common ground with 'zealots', but with people of good faith on both sides. Ramping up the rhetoric, Paretsky accuses abortion opponents of believing that women 'deserve to die'. As for the last sentence, it's completely illogical. Most thoughtful people would concede that the abortion issue is a difficult one because it entails a clash of competing rights: the supposed right of the foetus / unborn child to life, and the apparent right of a woman to control her own fertility. To suggest that all pro-lifers think women have no rights in the matter is as misleading as dismissing pro-choicers as not caring about the rights of the unborn.

Towards the end of the article Paretsky says she hopes that the death of Dr Tiller 'begins a real search for common ground', though she is not optimistic. It has to be said that her own style of argumentation hardly helps, and serves to demonstrate that pro-choice campaigners can be as one-sided and irrational (if not as lethal) as some of their pro-life opponents.

As proof that the two sides can find common ground, here are pro-choice secular liberal Keith Olbermann and pro-life Catholic conservative Andrew Sullivan sharing their horror at Tiller's death and the extremist rhetoric that encourages such crimes: