Tuesday 29 September 2009

Jefferson and the Motoons

Second historical quotation of the day. From what Oliver Kamm argues is 'the most significant document of the Enlightenment', the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, proposed by Thomas Jefferson in 1779 and adopted in 1786:
No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion.
That surely includes being free to 'profess, and by argument to maintain their opinions' about religion. As Oliver writes in another piece, it's a freedom that has been undermined by the decision of Yale University Press to exclude all illustrations of Mohammed from Jytte Klausen's scholarly account of the Motoons episode. Yale appears to endorse the restricted version of freedom of expression articulated by a UN spokesperson after Islamic extremists reacted to the Danish cartoons with violent protests: 'We believe freedom of the press entails responsibility and discretion, and should respect the beliefs and tenets of all religions.' As Oliver says:
That principle is moderate, balanced and pernicious. The idea that people’s beliefs, merely by being deeply held, merit respect is grotesque. A constitutional society upholds freedom of speech and thought: it has no interest in its citizens’ feelings. If it sought to protect sensibilities, there would be no limit to the abridgements of freedom that the principle would justify.
Jefferson! Thou shouldst be living at this hour.

Lincoln on the teabaggers

The first Republican president's challenge to those who would question the legitimacy of a democratically elected government:
I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.
Abraham Lincoln, May 1861

Monday 21 September 2009

We miss you Tony, cont'd

When he's not blathering on about faith, Tony Blair still talks a lot of sense. Interviewed today on MSNBC's Morning Joe, he had some characteristically forthright things to say about Afghanistan and the Middle East. Some nuggets:

There is a virus of extremism and there are two potential strategies to deal with it….one is to try and manage it, the other is to try and eradicate it. Personally, I think you have no option but to try and eradicate it.

We’ve got to understand we are in a long, protracted struggle. This was a generation growing, this extremism, and it may take us a generation to knock it out. But if we leave it, it will not stay dormant.

One thing’s just very clear. For Israel, it would be intolerable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I think the issue for us is how can we make sure, and let us hope so diplomatically, that we can prevent that happening.

Here's the whole interview. The pretext is his report for the UN on climate change, but if you just want to hear the foreign policy stuff, it kicks in about half way through:

Thursday 17 September 2009

Carter, 'race' and the right

I've been trying to think of something incisive to say about Jimmy Carter's claim that much of the opposition to President Obama is motivated by racism. However, Andrew Sullivan has now written a thoughtful and balanced account of the episode, and I agree with almost everything he says.

Just a few reflections to add:

I think Carter had half a point (as far as I can tell, as a mere transatlantic observer). Some, but by no means all, of the most rabid anti-Obama rhetoric has a racial undertone.

But I think he was characteristically naive and unhelpful to express it in the way he did, and at this delicate moment in the health care debate. As Sullivan says, the former president's political touch remains 'eternally off-key' (as we've seen in his ham-fisted interventions in the Middle East). Thanks to Carter, Obama had to spend precious time during his weekend TV interviews discussing 'race', when he'd rather have been making the argument for his health care plan. And bringing the issue up now plays into the hands of those who want to characterise him as 'the black president', rather than as a president for all Americans.

I half-agree with those who see nothing new in angry demonstrators questioning the legitimacy of an elected president. Bush had it from the left, and Clinton got it from an equally outraged right. And challenges to the legitimacy of an administration aren't necessarily based on race. In Britain, the Tory resentment against incoming Labour governments has often been class-based, deriving from a sense that they are the 'natural' party of leadership.

But even if race is only one (possibly minor) factor in the 9/12, tea-party, town-hall protest movement, some aspects of the movement remain extremely worrying. When demonstrators carry signs comparing the president to Hitler, and threaten 'Next time we'll bring guns', it's not only Nancy Pelosi who fears a return to the political violence of the Seventies.

Incidentally, watching the story develop from this side of the Atlantic has made me reflect on how different the recent histories of Britain and America have been. Over here, we just don't have any equivalent of the culture wars that have riven the States in the last couple of decades. And our extreme right wing is now confined to fringe parties that (despite some recent electoral successes) remain a pariah in mainstream politics (compare this to the US, where the lunatic right finds a regular cheerleader in a major cable news channel).

The day after Carter's interview, I heard Boris Johnson being interviewed on the floor of the New York stock exchange, giving support to Obama's call for greater regulation of financial services. I was reminded of Polly Toynbee's claim that, whatever else you think of New Labour, Blair's government at least moved British politics to the centre and established something of a social democratic consensus. Now, even Cameron has to be careful to express support for the NHS if he wants to win power. Can you imagine a leading Republican supporting financial regulation or public funding for health care?

Finally, check out these interviews with some of the tea party protestors at last Saturday's demonstration in Washington (via Englishman in New York). Sometimes, having fun at the expense of the Christianist far right is just too easy:

Monday 7 September 2009

Anarchism: responding to the responses

I’m grateful to everyone who has responded so far to my recent challenge, and has taken the time, either in the comments or on their own blogs, to explain their attachment to anarchism. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend following the links. I found the responses extremely enlightening, and they’ve provided me with a rich menu of names, references and links to follow up in due course. As the Plump said in his comment, I need to do some reading.

A few brief and inconclusive comments way of a response to the responses (and in the hope of prompting further debate):

As I read the responses, the fundamental appeal of anarchism seems to be that (in the words of The New Centrist) it’s ‘the only form of radical socialism that takes liberty – in the classical sense – and individual freedom seriously’. Or as others have said, anarchism is about ‘equality in liberty’. For most of my respondents, anarchism appears to offer an appealing alternative to the anti-democratic, centralizing tendencies of communism. It provides a way of holding on to radical ideas of societal change, in the wake of the implosion of State socialism, and/or personal disillusionment with communism.

I share my anarcho-phile comrades' disillusionment with state socialism, and their desire to recapture the emphasis on liberty at the heart of the progressive movement. But I suppose my question back to them is: what’s wrong with the long and honourable tradition of democratic socialism? I’d agree that the liberal, self-organising and voluntarist strain in that tradition has often been buried beneath bureaucratism and paternalism, but isn’t attempting to recover it more realistic than the romantic insurrectionism of anarchism?

Which leads me to a further question. Anarchist critics of state socialism claim it’s the centralism of the latter that lead inevitably to tyranny – but isn’t tyranny just as much the result of communism’s insurrectionism, which it shares with anarchism? Isn’t the belief that radical change can only come by sweeping away all vestiges of the old order inherently authoritarian, and doesn’t it always result in coercion of some kind? TNC quotes Michael Seidman on the way in which, historically, some anarchists have used coercion to initiate collectives. Isn’t the kind of revolutionary change envisioned by anarchists intrinsically coercive, and therefore likely to have illiberal consequences?

As Roland says, anarchism on anything other than a local scale is unlikely to work, since ‘its adherents must accept that their voluntary cooperative community cannot survive, or it will force the dissidents into line.’ And TNC writes that ‘when utopian ideals are implemented they lead to dystopian realities.’ He believes that Hobbes was right: ‘Human beings need the State in order to have what we know as civilization’. You don’t have to be a Hobbesian pessimist about human nature to agree – maybe just a realist. The Plump pointed to a basic tenet of anarchism that seems to be part of its appeal: the belief that ‘people are able to organise themselves without external coercion.’ Without coercion, perhaps, but not without organisation.

Maybe my distrust of anarchism, and my preference for the slow, grinding business of peaceful democratic change – the long march through the institutions – derives from my early experiences, whether in evangelical splinter groups or in ‘radical’ workplaces, which have left me with a distrust of purists and utopians. Or perhaps they're the outcome of even earlier experiences, as the quiet child in the classroom or playground, sensing that, in the absence of proper structures and due process, it was always the loudest and most shrill voices that held sway, and that those processes, however flawed, were the only way of ensuring that the quieter voices got heard.

These disconnected comments probably reflect my ignorance of anarchist thinking, and I'm happy to have the gaps in my understanding pointed out....Let the debate continue.

Friday 4 September 2009

Keith Waterhouse, R.I.P.

The death of Keith Waterhouse has just been announced.

Despite his later self-reinvention as a florid-faced Daily Mail columnist of the 'We're all going to hell in a handcart' variety, he'll be best remembered for his earlier work, especially the screenplay for Whistle Down The Wind in which Alan Bates plays an escaped murderer hiding in a barn, mistaken for Christ by some local children (best line: 'He's not Jesus, he's just a feller!'), and of course for the immortal Billy Liar.

Confession time: I played the title role in a best-forgotten amateur production in Manchester in the early Eighties. I think the reason I got the part was that the only other person in the cast of the right age was an ex-public schoolboy whose attempt at a Yorkshire accent was even more execrable than mine. Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie did a rather better job: