Wednesday 22 December 2010

Blue Labour?

The usual apologies for lack of recent posts. The run-up to Christmas ('or Advent, as we used to call it' - copyright Brian Redhead, Today programme, circa 1985) has been particularly hectic this year, but I'll try to post more regularly in 2011.

I wanted belatedly to recommend this post by Jeff Weintraub (also on the Dissent blog) which introduced me to the work of the recently ennobled Maurice Glasman, whom I hadn't come across before. Glasman, who coined the term 'Blue Labour' to signify 'a deeply conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity' has been closely involved with London Citizens and was apparently the architect of Gordon Brown's stirring (but belated) pre-election speech to the organisation. Glasman, who is himself Jewish, founded a programme to encourage interfaith understanding, and his work draws in part on Catholic social teaching.

As a lapsed Catholic and ex-member of the Christian Socialist Movement, and now as an agnostic secular humanist who is a little suspicious of the importation of faith into the political arena - but at the same time hoping for a renaissance of thoughtful, progressive religion - I'm fascinated by, but wary of, this kind of thinking - and find myself wondering how blue socialism differs from Philip Blond's red toryism. As when reading accounts of Catholic involvement in progressive politics in the US, I admire the concern with social justice, but wonder what happens to the liberal emphasis on individual freedom and the kind of rights  - for women, and for sexual and other minorities - that religious organisations, and indeed most forms of communitarian politics, have traditionally had little time for?

These questions will have to wait until the New Year, but in the meantime here's Maurice Glasman (with Jon Cruddas) at the Compass 'Good Society' conference in November this year (via):

A New Political Economy for the Good Society - Maurice Glasman from Social Europe Journal on Vimeo.


Kind of relevant to the above, a priceless quote via Facebook from Martin Meenagh: 'As for the "Big Society", like Communitarianism, it's dumbed down Catholic social thinking with a condom on.'

Oh - and another Facebook friend reminds me that 'apologies for lack of recent posts' (see above) is one of John Rentoul's blogging no-no's. So, apologies for the apology.

Monday 6 December 2010

'Don't buy from Jews' is back

From Denis McShane: one of the best arguments I've read against boycotting Israel. Here's an extract:

Kauft nicht bei Juden – “Don’t buy from Jews” – is back. The call to boycott Jewish commerce is Europe’s oldest political appeal. Once again, as the tsunami of hate against Israel rolls out from the Right and the Left, from Islamist ideologues to Europe’s cultural elites, the demand is to punish the Jews. That the actions of the Israeli government are open to criticism is a fact. But what are the real arguments? 
Firstly, that Israel is wrong to defy international law as an occupying force on the West Bank. But what about Turkey? It has 35,000 soldiers occupying the territory of a sovereign republic – Cyprus. Ankara has sent hundreds of thousands of settlers to colonize the ancient Greekowned lands of northern Cyprus. Turkey has been told again and again by the UN to withdraw its troops. Instead, it now also stands accused of destroying the ancient Christian churches of northern Cyprus.
Does anyone call for a boycott of Turkey, or urge companies to divest from it? No. Only the Jews are targeted.
Or take India; 500,000 Indian soldiers occupy Kashmir. According to Amnesty International, 70,000 Muslims have been killed over the past 20 years by these soldiers and security forces – a number that far exceeds the Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the same period. But the Islamic ideologues focus on Jews, not Indians.
May we talk of the western Sahara and Morocco, or Algeria’s closure of the border there, making life far worse than that of Palestinians in Ramallah or Hebron? No, better not.
Voltaire – anti-Semite that he was – should be alive today to mock the hypocrisy of the new high priests calling anathema on the heads of Jews in Israel.

You can read the whole thing here.

And this, belatedly, was my own small contribution to last week's 'Buy Israeli Goods' day, organised by Stand With Us International:

Tuesday 30 November 2010

What the Dickens

As part of my campaign to re-engage with classic fiction, I've been re-reading David Copperfield, and finding myself astonished once again at the genius of Dickens. However, I was shocked to discover that this puts me in pretty appalling company. Apparently Anwar al-Awlaki, chief theoretician of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, became an avid admirer of Dickens during his incarceration in Yemen, having been forbidden to read Islamic texts:
I read Hard Times thrice. So, I ordered more Charles Dickens and read Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and his masterpiece: David Copperfield. I read this one twice.
How anyone could immerse themselves in these rich, humane narratives and still plan the mass murder of innocents is an unfathomable mystery. Or it would be, if we didn't already have the image imprinted in our minds of SS officers listening to Mozart and Beethoven after a day's work at the concentration camp.

The extract from al-Awlaki's defunct blog occurs in Shiraz Maher's revealing analysis of the latest issue of AQAP's propaganda rag, Inspire, which I came across via Christopher Hitchens' article on airport security in Slate. Both are required and sobering reading.


Weary of the anti-American anti-Israel reactionary chic of The Guardian, I've been experimenting with other daily papers. Recently, I've been giving The Independent a whirl (well, it does have John Rentoul, Steve Richards and Julie Burchill).

But the Indy's coverage of the Wikileaks saga has given me a distinct sense of déja vu. Yesterday's front page headline: 'Deceits, plots, insults: America laid bare'. And today's: 'Now we know. America really doesn't care about injustice in the Middle East'. A fair and balanced account of American foreign policy? I don't think so. Messrs. Milne and Steele couldn't have done better (Ah, I see: today's cover story is by Robert Fisk. That explains it.)

I shall seriously consider taking my custom elsewhere. But where...?

Monday 15 November 2010

It's all our fault - again

When more than fifty innocent people were massacred in a Baghdad church two weeks ago, most analysts concluded that the perpetrators were al Qaeda operatives, probably from outside Iraq. But William Dalrymple thinks he knows who’s really responsible for this outrage, and for the recent bomb attacks on Christian suburbs of the city.

I’ll give you a clue: it’s a four-letter word beginning with ‘B’. And for Dalrymple, any Bush will do. Dubya, obviously, since it was he who, by removing Saddam Hussein from power, ‘created a highly radicalised pro-Iranian sectarian killing field, where most of the Iraqi Christian minority has been forced to flee abroad’. Did Bush manage this all by himself, I hear you ask? What about the sectarian killers themselves, or their Iranian backers: don’t they share some responsibility for the violence? Apparently not, since they don’t merit a mention in Dalrymple’s unipolar blame game.

But Dubya’s dad doesn’t escape responsibility either. ‘Before Bush senior took on Saddam for the first time in 1991, there were more than a million Christians in Iraq.’ Notice that, for Dalrymple, this 'taking on' of Saddam comes entirely out of the blue, as if the US president were the sole originator of the first Gulf War. You’d never know that the US intervention, at the head of an international coalition backed by the UN, was in response to Saddam’s unprovoked invasion of a neighbouring country. It’s difficult to see the connection, either, between this action and the declining numbers of Christians in Iraq. Dalrymple’s method here is the familiar nudge-nudge guilt-by-association of the root-causer.

But inevitably, it’s Bush 2 who is made to carry most of the burden for the fate of Iraq’s Christian community: ‘Of the 800,000 Christians still in Iraq when Dubya unleashed the US army on Saddam for the second time, two thirds have fled the country.’ Again, note the implication of direct cause and effect, and the careful elimination of any other causal factors or responsible agents.

Dalrymple, in passages that recall the fair-minded historian he used to be, does have some interesting things to say about the gradual depletion of the Christian population in Iraq over the centuries, but his main focus is on recent events:

This haemorrhage accelerated after the ill-judged post-9/11 Anglo-American adventures in the Islamic world, and particularly after Bush used the word crusade, which in the eyes of many Muslims implicated the Arab Christians in a wider crusader assault on the Muslim world.

‘Unleashed’ ‘ill-judged’ ‘assault’: Dalrymple's hostility to western policy since 9/11 couldn't be plainer. ‘Adventures’ conjures up, as it is meant to, Victorian imperialist forays into the Middle East and Asia, a theme of much of Dalrymple’s recent historical writing. As with the reference to Kuwait, the intention is to construe these interventions as strategies to advance western interests, rather than as legitimate responses to murderous attacks by others, whether Saddam or al Qaeda.

To cap it all, we’re led to believe that it was the use of a single word – ‘crusade’ – by Bush junior which somehow sealed the fate of Arab Christians. This smacks of the justification offered by those who attacked the Baghdad church. They held innocent Iraqi Christians 'responsible' for the almost-burning of the Koran by an obscure Christian pastor in Florida. It's the logic of the playground bully: your friend called me a rude word, so now I'm going to beat you up. Does Dalrymple agree that Islamic extremists are crazy and irrational when they justify their actions in this way? If he does, I think he should say so, rather than lending credibility to their warped logic.

Of course, even many who suported the invasion of Iraq would agree that the aftermath was poorly prepared for and badly managed, and that Bush and his administration must bear some responsibility for the chaos and destruction that followed in its wake. But even if the planning and management of Iraq's reconstruction had been superb, it can be argued that the ethnic and religious tensions held in check by decades of repression would inevitably have risen to the surface once Saddam had gone. Even if Saddam had been removed by an orderly UN-sanctioned intervention, some kind of communal violence was bound to follow, as those who had been disenfranchised by the dictatorship took revenge on those who had oppressed them - and that's without allowing for the malign interference of Iraq's neighbours, waiting in the wings with their own territorial and ideological agendas. Only another military dictatorship could possibly have suppressed those unleashed forces, and I don't think Dalrymple is arguing that would have been preferable. Or maybe he thinks it would have been better if Saddam had been left in place, and the Christians had continued to enjoy their apparent privileges under his rule?

What's really striking about Dalrymple's argument is the utter failure to attach any blame for the attacks against Christians, or the wider post-invasion violence, to the actual perpetrators, or their international sponsors. So keen is he to hold Bush (and Blair, of course) uniquely responsible for all the evils in the region, and to see the west as the source of all its problems, that he works overtime to remove all sense of agency from Iraqi insurgent groups, al Qaeda and their proxies, and the Iranian regime.

Occasionally Dalrymple's own sources work against him, as when he quotes Lebanese professor Kamil Salibi as saying that there's 'a feeling of fin de race among Christians all over the Middle East. It's a feeling that 14 centuries of having all the time to be smart, to be ahead of the others, is long enough'. Strangely, for a historian, Dalrymple himself fails to locate the current problems of Iraqi Christians in this wider historical context of the slow departure of Christians from a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Palestine.

Yes, of course, the turmoil created by recent wars has accelerated the process. But surely the elephant in the room in Dalrymple's argument is the rise of militant Islam, with its fierce intolerance not only of Christianity, but of any other religion besides its own fundamentalist creed. Some have suggested that the current experience of Christians in majority-Muslim countries parallels that of the Jews, including the once-substantial Jewish population of Iraq, who were forced out of Arab countries after the Second World War by rising Islamic intolerance and antisemitism.

As always, it seems odd for a writer like Dalrymple, who bangs on endlessly about the legacy of colonialism, to adopt a rhetorical strategy which, with a kind of lofty intellectual imperialism, denies agency or rational responsibility to non-western actors, and sees them as capable only of reacting mindlessly to the actions of the west.

Sunday 14 November 2010

In memoriam

Polish composer Henryk Gorecki has died, aged 76. His most popular work, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, was inspired by the graffiti carved on the wall of a Gestapo prison by an 18 year old girl: 'Mamma do not cry. Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always'.

This video, which superimposes images of those murdered by the Nazis, seems appropriate on this day of Remembrance. I'm posting it in honour of all victims of fascism, and of all those who fought and died to defeat it.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Progress, primitivism and the politics of 'Avatar'

There was a fascinating exchange on yesterday's Today programme, about a planned scientific expedition to Paraguay. Fascinating, because it exemplified some key trends in current debates about 'culture' and 'progress'.

On one side of the argument was Professor Richard Lane, director of science at the Natural History Museum, which is sponsoring the expedition. Lane was measured, thoughtful, weighing up the benefits and risks of the venture, very much the voice of academic, scientific reason. On the other side was Benno Glauser, director of an indigenous people’s protection group, who argued that the expedition should be called off, because of the threat it poses to communities who have never had any contact with the outside world.

Glauser suggested, somewhat melodramatically, that any contact between the expedition and these indigenous groups would be tantamount to 'genocide'. This was primarily due to the risk of exposure to western diseases, a risk that was disputed by Professor Lane. But there was another, deeper layer to Glauser's concern. He was also worried that any meeting between these hitherto isolated communities and the representatives of western modernity would lead to the breakdown of what he called their 'life model'. He proceeded to elaborate on this in glowing terms, claiming that these indigenous people 'live in complete interdependence with nature', that 'they have a principle of life which is a principle of minimal intervention' in which 'the world protects them as long as they protect the world'.

In other words, Glauser painted a picture of life among isolated indigenous communities in Paraguay as some kind of ecological Eden. By implication, he cast the civilisation represented by the expedition - scientific, modern, western - in entirely negative terms, as a threat or pollutant to this paradisal scene. The echoes of James Cameron's Avatar seemed almost deliberate. (Mischievously, I also wondered how Glauser could speak with such certainty about the way of life of these groups, if they have never had any contact with the outside world.)

Listening to the exchange, it struck me that two hundred years ago, the terms of the debate would have been completely reversed. At the height of colonial expansion and missionary zeal, it was the world of the indigenous tribes that would have been viewed negatively - as backward, godless, darkened by ignorance - and western civilisation as advanced, enlightened, in possession of truth. In the last century, secularised versions of this discourse - both capitalist and communist - held sway, with the prevailing wisdom on all sides being that exposure to modern medicine, scientific knowledge, mechanical methods and so forth, would bring enormous benefits to the lives of 'primitive' peoples.

Even half a century ago - in the Sixties - the dominant paradigm for representing the needs of Third World people was 'development', the notion that lives could be infinitely improved by providing access to modern farming methods, industrial production, safer childbirth, etc.

Since then, as Benno Glauser’s argument (and the popularity of films like Avatar) demonstrates, there has been a massive loss of confidence in ‘progress’ and in 'western' ideas and values (the very labelling of them as 'western', rather than as universal and an aspiration for everyone, is symptomatic). Running alongside this has been the rise of a culturalism that reifies the values and way of life of communities (particularly if those communities are non-western and 'other') as static and almost sacred, together with a relativism that tends to see all cultures as equally valid and therefore beyond rational criticism.

Both trends are evident in the fulminations of cultural commentators such as the Guardian's Madeleine Bunting, with her hand-wringing about the shortcomings of modern civilisation - the individualism, the consumerism, the shallowness - and wondering whether, perhaps, the religious fundamentalists might not have a point - and after all, who are we to judge?

Of course, this kind of thing is not new. Alongside a rhetoric of reason and scientific advance, liberal progressivism has always included a romanticising strain, a tendency to idealise the primitive and the 'other'. Indeed - to get pretentious for a moment - maybe what we are seeing in the rise of the new eco-primitivism (not to mention the new pro-faithism) is the revenge of Romanticism on the Enlightenment. But I digress...

Returning to Benno Glauser's glorification of indigenous 'culture': I notice there was no mention of any less desirable features in the lives of these isolated hunter-gatherers. I wonder what their life expectancy is, or what proportion of their offspring survive infancy? How many of them die from unexplained diseases, and how many of their women are worn down by a constant round of childbirth, or their men by a life devoted to the exhausting daily search for sustenance?

Let’s imagine for a moment that the Natural History Museum's expedition goes ahead and that, despite its best efforts, it makes 'accidental' contact with one of these indigenous groups, which leads in turn to an opening-up of that community to the outside world. Now, imagine that in about fifty years' time the grand-daughter of one of those tribesmen, who has had the opportunity to leave her native village to go to school and then university, has become (say) a pioneering medical researcher, or an acclaimed novelist, or a globetrotting politician. Would the likes of Benno Glauser still argue that her life would have been better if the expedition had not happened, if contact had not been made, and she had been compelled to lead the same kind of life as her mother and her grandmother?

To be sure, if contact is made, there will be losses as well as gains. And those responsible need not to repeat the mistakes of previous incursions, ensuring that rapacious developers and mad-eyed missionaries are kept at bay, and that the rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples are respected. But how strange it would have seemed to progressives of earlier times to argue that indigenous people should be forbidden access to the benefits of modernity - and that every effort should be made to deny them the right to choose for themselves the kind of lives they wish to lead.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Sanctified sounds

There's enough of the residual Catholic in me to note that today is the feast of St. Martin de Porres, one of the cooler saints in the calendar. The illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and an ex-slave, Juan Martin de Porres was born in Lima, Peru, in 1579, and spent his life in the service of the poor. He was the first black saint from the Americas and is the patron of people of 'mixed race'. (Celebrating him seems particularly pertinent under this disappointingly Eurocentric papacy, which has seen Benedict XVI appoint a disproportionate number of European cardinals to oversee a church 40% of whose members live in Latin America and 25% in Africa and Asia.)

As I've remarked before, were I ever to resolve my arguments with Christianity, St. Martin de Porres would be a prime candidate for my patron saint, though he'd have to battle it out with St. Martin of Tours, whom I admire for his early advocacy of the separation of church and state (after the execution of a group of heretics, he protested that the church was wrong to use the power of the secular state to enforce matters of belief).

An additional coolnesss factor attaching to St. Martin de Porres is the fact that, to my knowledge, he's the only saint to have had an album dedicated to him by a jazz legend: Black Christ of the Andes by the great Mary Lou Williams. Here's the opening track:

Tuesday 2 November 2010

'We will go to paradise if we kill you'

In a small town in America an obscure, unrepresentative Christian clergyman talks about burning a book. Six weeks later, thousands of miles away, Islamic militants exact their revenge: the cold-blooded murder of more than fifty innocent churchgoers. That’s what seems to have happened in the appalling al-Qaida-linked massacre of Catholic worshippers in Baghdad on Sunday.

Rarely has the full, murderous madness of jihadist ideology been so blatantly exposed as in the words of the terrorists who carried out this atrocity, hence my extended quotation from Martin Chulov's Guardian report below.

Note, if you will, that the attackers make no reference to avenging the occupation of Iraq, or ‘western foreign policy’. Rather, the massacre of dozens of utterly blameless people is seen as the price to be exacted for the destruction – no, not even that, but the threatened destruction – of some printed pages. Note also how, in this contorted logic, the choice of target is justified because the victims are ‘infidels’ – people who have the audacity to believe something different from their Islamist attackers – and are therefore already bound for hell, whereas the attackers themselves, who claim that their massacre of the innocents is ‘halal’ – permissible under religious law – appear to trust in a god who rewards with 'paradise' those who shoot and bomb whole families to death.

Some liberals have baulked at using the term 'clerical fascism' to describe the ideology of Islamism. But surely the closest analogy between what happened this weekend at Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad is with Nazi revenge massacres of village populations, or Ustase 'cleansing' of ethnic and religious minorities. Somehow, though, the invocation of divine approval for this latest outrage makes it seem, if anything, even more terrible:

At sunset yesterday, Raghada al-Wafi walked excitedly to mass with news for the priest who married her a month ago. Tonight, exactly 24 hours later, she returned to the Our Lady of Salvation church – this time carried by her family in a coffin that also contained her unborn child.

Today the priest who blessed her marriage and pregnancy minutes before he was killed will also be buried, as will several dozen other members of his congregation – all of them slain by terrorists in an attack that has drawn condemnation from around the world and left the fate of Iraq's beleaguered Christian community evermore uncertain .

Fifty-eight people, most of them worshippers from the Chaldean Catholic community, are confirmed to have been killed in the massacre, which was carried out by al-Qaida-aligned gunmen, some of whom claimed to be avenging a foiled move by a small-town US pastor to burn the Qur'an.

Survivors spoke of religious taunts, random killings and then a gunman slaughtering hostages en masse as the Iraqi army stormed the church to end the four-hour siege.

Ghassan Salah, 17, had just arrived for the Sunday night service with his mother, Nadine, and brother, Ghaswan, when the gunmen burst through the cathedral's huge wooden doors. "All of you are infidels," they screamed at the congregation. "We are here to avenge the burning of the Qur'ans and the jailing of Muslim women in Egypt."

Then the killing began. Ghassan and seven other survivors described to the Guardian a series of events that have broken new ground in a country that has become partly conditioned to violence throughout eight years of war. Thar Abdallah, the priest who married al-Wafi was first to be killed – shot dead where he stood. Gunmen then sprayed the church with bullets as another priest ushered up to 60 people to a small room in the back.

Mona Abdullah Hadad, 62, was in church with her family when the gunmen started shooting. "They said, 'We will go to paradise if we kill you and you will go to hell'," she said. "We stood beside the wall and they started shooting at the young people. I asked them to kill me and let my grandson live, but they shot him dead and they shot me in the back."


"They said it was 'halal' to kill us," said Hannah, whose 10-year-old son was shot in the back. "They hated us and said we were all going to die."

Witnesses interviewed consistently said that some of the gunmen spoke Arabic in a non-Iraqi dialect, supporting a government claim that the operation was foreign-backed. It was carried out in the name of an umbrella group for global jihad causes, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, which has previously targeted Christians and churches, but on a much smaller scale.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Rally to restore what?

I'm a regular viewer of The Daily Show (or at least, the edited, day-late version we get over here) but I sometimes think the acclaim for Jon Stewart as the liberal saviour of political television is overblown. We often find ourselves switching off at the first commercial break. Stewart's opening monologue/rant can be hilarious, but the fake news reports involving other cast members are frequently juvenile and embarrassing, allowing a single 'joke' to run on far too long. And Stewart's 'interviews' with politicians and other assorted celebrities tend to be wasted opportunities: frustratingly brief bouts of comedic joshing in the interests of book or movie promotion.

Having said all that, I wished Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's 'Rally to Restore Sanity' (held yesterday in Washington's National Mall) well, even if I agreed with some commentators that its effect on the Democratic vote, so close to the mid-term elections, might not be entirely positive. I didn't watch all of the coverage, but I found these comments on the event instructive:

Here's P.Z.Myers expressing disappointment that the rally turned into a plea for 'moderation' in political tone, rather than anything more substantial:
I don't want moderation, especially when the only people who will listen to Stewart and Colbert are the people on our shared side of the political aisle. I can understand where they're coming from; people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Andrew Breibart are poison, Fox News is a propaganda organ without bounds working for the far right-wing, we've got evangelical Christians demanding the installation of a theocracy, and on and on and on. But who, exactly, do Stewart and Colbert regard as the equivalent of Beck and Limbaugh on the left? Is it Rachel Maddow? Amy Goodman? Keith Olbermann?
In other words, the rally could be seen as reinforcing the sense that has pervaded not only this mid-term election campaign, but the first two years of the Obama administration, that Democrats and liberals haven't found the language or the courage to fight back against the lies and insinuations of the Republican right. Myers concludes:
I was left cold by the fuzziness of the event. It could have been great; instead of embracing an apolitical perspective and saying nothing at all about values, it could have been a rally for moderation that emphasized the actual values that moderates hold: we believe in tolerance for people of different ethnicities and religious views and sexual preferences, we believe in building an egalitarian social and economic infrastructure, we believe in privacy and personal freedoms, etc., etc., etc., and they could have held to the theme of the rally by advocating rational argument and unified, organised activism within the system to advance those goals...but they didn't. There was no purpose given other than a generic insistence that we all get along nicely.
As for that plea for a focus on 'tolerance', it would have helped if the rally organisers hadn't included a performer who has expressed the most outrageously intolerant opinions. Appearing onstage in the National Mall was Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, who is on record as supporting the fatwah against Salman Rushdie and wishing the author dead.

So, as well as reflecting the US left's failure to find a positive political message with which to hit back at the Tea Party movement, the rally also demonstrated characteristic liberal naivety towards Islamism (some of this naivety was on display in the rush to support the Ground Zero 'mosque' in reaction to rightist intolerance). Someone with Yusuf Islam's views should not have been invited to appear at a rally in favour of moderation and tolerance: his opinions are the exact mirror image of the rightist extremism of Glenn Beck et al that the event was organised to oppose.

Also recommended: the other Martin (Meenagh) on the rally and the congressional elections.

And via Pootergeek, confirmation from Nick Cohen of the culpability and duplicity of Mr. Islam/Stevens.

Friday 29 October 2010

Impressions of LA

We arrived home from our half-term trip to Los Angeles yesterday afternoon. Here are some hastily-composed impressions, and a round-up of some of the things we did.

Our first impression of LA, coming in from the airport along the freeway last Saturday afternoon, was of an endless, repetitive, low-rise sprawl, spread out along grid lines, and made up of fast-food joints, small stores, malls, and rather-down-at heel tracts of housing. From time to time this sprawl would be interrupted, quite suddenly, by something very different - like the long avenues of palm trees and neat lawns of Beverly Hills, the bawdy glitz of Hollywood, or the shiny towers of Downtown. Seen from a hotel window, the place seemed vast and difficult to grasp.

On Sunday morning we went out to Santa Monica, arriving at the iconic pier just as the sun broke through, bathing even the tacky rides and concession stands in cheerful light. In one direction, white surf broke on the golden sands stretching northwards to Malibu. In the other direction, where we walked, were Angelenos enjoying games of beach volleyball, doing yoga, setting up picnics. We strolled in the sunshine, dodging the cyclists and skateboarders, until we reached the clutter of craft stalls and eccentric entertainers that is Venice Beach, a place that reminds you of the tackier and less glamorous side of the hippy era. Then it was on to the Third Street Promenade, uncannily like Lincoln Road in Miami, for shopping and lunch. Later, on the way back to the hotel, we stopped outside the Beverly Wilshire and walked up Rodeo Drive, with its glassy shrines to conspicuous consumption. The Art Deco of buildings like the Beverly Hills City Hall was rather more interesting.

Monday dawned wet and gloomy, but by the time we headed out it had become another light-filled LA day. This was our Hollywood day, beginning with an excellent guided tour of the Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards, followed by the predictable photos in front of the Hollywood sign. Then it was time to inspect the stars along the Walk of Fame and the historic handprints outside the Chinese Theater.

Most of Tuesday was taken up with our tour of the Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank. It's difficult to pick out highlights, but I was particularly fascinated by the mid-western town, where the same buildings have served multiple purposes in different films and programmes over the years. We looked around a wood-framed 'house', for example, which appeared in East of Eden and The Shootist, but (much more significantly for our offspring) also served as the home of Ross and Monica Geller's parents in Friends. The tour included a visit to the set of Two and a Half Men, which was 'resting' this week: just as well, as its star, Charlie Sheen, was busy smashing up his hotel room in Manhattan. We'd tried and failed to get tickets to The Ellen Show, and were frustrated to learn that Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were appearing that day - we saw the massive extra security as we went past the sound stage. They were in LA to lend their support to Barbara Boxer's campaign in the upcoming mid-terms. We thought at first it might be Jimmy Carter, who was in town to promote his new book: they were giving out tickets to his appearance on Bill Maher's show on Hollywood Boulevard.

On Wednesday, before our flight home, we visited The Grove, shopping mall to the rich and famous, where we saw a TV chat show being filmed, stocked up on US political and historical books at Barnes & Noble, and got our daughter's iPhone fixed by a nice tech guy at the Apple Store.

Regular readers will know my penchant for, indeed my skill at, spotting celebrities when we're on holiday. So who did we see in LA? Well, that might have been Jimmy Smits going into a restaurant in Santa Monica, but it was definitely Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifianiakis walking through the lobby of our hotel, where they were promoting their new movie, Due Date. They walked right past that English actor who was in Love Actually - you know, the one who takes the photos at his best friend's wedding, when he's secretly in love with the bride, what's his name - Andrew Lincoln. But best of all was finding ourselves having breakfast at the next table to Colombian politician and former hostage Ingrid Betancourt (whom I wrote about here), who I'm pleased to say was enjoying the kind of breakfast that must have seemed like a distant dream during her six years of captivity in the jungle.

By the time we left, our initial wariness of LA had turned into something like easy familiarity, even excitement at its radiant light and hectic energy. A final recommendation: my literary accompaniment for the trip was David Thomson's anecdotal, out-of-left-field but completely compelling history of Hollywood, and by extension of Los Angeles, The Whole Equation.


Turns out Andrew Lincoln was probably in town to promote the new TV series The Walking Dead in which he has a starring role (there's an interview in today's Sunday Times).

Thursday 21 October 2010

I'd be safe and warm...

The sky may not be grey but all the leaves will soon be brown, and it certainly feels like a winter's day out there. Time for some California dreamin', in honour of our imminent trip to Los Angeles, which will mean things are quiet around here for a week or so.

Love the crazy bath-dancing on this Sixties TV show:

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Chile: mine rescue stirs memories

For those of us whose political views began to be formed in the 1970s, watching last week’s coverage of the Chilean mine rescue was a strange experience. On the one hand, it was wonderful to have some good news at last from that benighted corner of Latin America. On the other hand, it was difficult to hear about the part played in the rescue effort by the Chilean military, and to see those familiar helmets and uniforms, without recalling the assault on La Moneda Palace, the torture of prisoners in the Santiago Stadium, and the hundreds who ‘disappeared’ after Pinochet’s brutal coup.

Instinctively, one was suspicious too of the smiling face of Chilean president Sebastian Pinera, used as we are to doubting the democratic credentials of Latin American (and especially Chilean) leaders, particularly when they are also right-wing billionaires. However, it turns out Pinera was elected in a transparently fair election (he even featured a gay couple in one of his election ads), making him the first democratically-elected right-wing Chilean leader in more than half a century. (Which is not to say that he's beyond reproach.)

At the same time, the sight of Bolivian president Evo Morales watching the rescue efforts alongside Pinera was a reminder of the complex and contradictory history of struggles for progressive change in the Americas. On the one hand, the presence of Morales was a sign of hope: here was an elected socialist leader, from an indigenous, working-class background, standing side-by-side with an elected Chilean conservative. On the other hand, it was difficult to forget that this was a man who has allied himself with authoritarian populist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and who, with Chavez, has cosied up to some of the most reactionary figures in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It seems that Morales regards US capitalism as the ‘worst enemy’ of humanity and the centre of the real 'axis of evil' in the world. Understandable, perhaps, given America's Cold War-era support for right-wing dictators in his part of the world. But this anti-American and anti-imperialist stance has led Morales, like Chavez, into some peculiar political contortions. Only this week, Morales criticised the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, and the Literature Prize to Mario Vargas Llosa. Apparently the Bolivian president believes that both decisions are 'suspect' because the two men are 'imperialist' and have the same 'tendencies' as that other great enemy of the people, Barack Obama.

This attitude of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' - however reactionary and despotic the latter may be - has overtones of 'progressive' apologies for Stalinism in the 1930s. It doesn't matter that both Xiaobo and Vargas Llosa have stood up for progressive values of liberty and human rights: they have dared to criticise actually-existing 'socialism', whether in China or Cuba. So they must be 'anti-imperialist' and therefore anathema.

Of course, this double-think is not a new phenomenon on the Latin American left. After all, some of the great heroes of the Chilean left (and my heroes too, back in the day), such as Pablo Neruda and Victor Jara, regularly visited Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and never uttered a word of criticism of those countries' regimes. The only difference between then and now is that today's Latin American far-leftists line up not with Stalinists but with reactionary Islamists.

Perhaps one day the people of countries like Bolivia, Venezuela and Chile will get the truly democratic and reforming governments they deserve, free from the tyranny of caudillos, whether of left or right.

Anyway, time for a bit of political and musical nostalgia. Although I'm no longer sympathetic to its anti-Americanism or its idealisation of Castro, Guevera and the Sandinistas, this from the Clash seems appropriate:

Sunday 17 October 2010

Festival of light?

I see there's a campaign by some Catholics to 'reclaim' Hallowe'en as a festival of 'light' and to encourage parents to dress their children as saints, rather than witches and demons. Someone on Twitter responded angrily that one of the reasons he'd converted to Catholicism was precisely because of the faith's capacity to incorporate elements of paganism. That wasn't quite the case for me, but part of the motivation for my own short-lived conversion in my early twenties was a desire to escape the bland, happy-clappyness of evangelical Christianity - which now seems to be infecting even the Catholic church. (The biographer John Cornwell writes of his shock on going to Mass for the first time in decades and being invited to sing 'Happy Birthday to Jesus'...)

Evangelicalism seemed to me to have no place not only for the darker side of life, but also for ordinary, messy human emotions. By contrast, the rituals of Catholicism grounded as they were in the cycle of the seasons and in basic human needs, spoke of a more rounded and realistic view of human nature. If you've ever been to a modern evangelical funeral, you'll know what I mean. Grieving seems to be regarded as some kind of failure of faith: you're supposed to smile and be happy that your loved one is now with Jesus, not focus on your own feelings of loss, however devastating. There seems to be little recognition that to experience the dawn, you first have to face the darkness of night, that every Easter needs its Good Friday...

Paradoxically, of course, there's nothing Catholic about contemporary celebrations of Hallowe'en, at least not in Britain and North America. The 'Day of the Dead' festivals in Catholic countries such as Mexico are of a rather different order. But Hallowe'en belongs to an older, grimmer brand of evangelical Christianity, with its roots in the Calvinism of the kirk and the puritanism of Salem. When I was a child in '60s Essex, celebrations of Hallowe'en were almost unknown. The first we knew of it was when a friend who had moved down from Scotland invited me to a party at his house, and I was introduced to the alien rituals of apple-bobbing and pumpkin carving. Now, of course, the influence of American popular culture has made the festival ubiquitous. It's still a shock, though, to be in the States in the week before Hallowe'en, as we have been for the past two years - first in San Francisco, then in Washington DC - and to see virtually every house in Pacific Heights or Georgetown bedecked with multiple pumpkins, and to see skeletons, ghosts and witches dancing from every window.

Given the puritan roots of Hallowe'en, it's odd to witness the modern campaign against it led by evangelicals, or (as I would argue) resulting from the 'evangelicalisation' of other branches of Christianity, including Catholicism. However, it seems to me that both the roots of Hallowe'en, and the current opposition to it, lie in the same strangely literal and superficial understanding of evil (viz. the ridiculous conservative Christian campaign against Harry Potter, despite the Christian-influenced message of the books). Given all the real wickedness in the world - the cruelty, oppression and exploitation that are the daily diet of the news media - it seems perverse in the extreme to take fright at a bit of harmless magic and devilry. By campaigning against Hallowe'en, modern Christians are revealing the persistence of their own naive belief in a literal devil, and their odd lack of confidence in the power of light to banish that imaginary darkness.

Thursday 14 October 2010

About the design...

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed yet another change of design template here at M In The M. A few points to make here:

1) I was feeling guilty at having copied Bob from Brockley's template and, since we tend to hang around with the same (virtual) people, I thought I'd save any confusion.

2) H., my OH, doesn't look in on this blog very often, but when she does, she invariably comments detrimentally on the silhouetted birds in the top right-hand corner of my former template: apparently they look 'very Hallmark'.

3) I really don't like any of the new Blogger designs and don't understand why they had to get rid of the old functional-but-clean look, but I find this one offends my senses least (for now). OK?

Fiction, family history and Defoe

Apologies for the absence of posts. I’ve been experimenting with other social media, for work and pleasure.

In my non-screen time, I’ve got back into reading fiction. This may seem a strange admission for an Eng. Lit. graduate, but over the past couple of years most of my reading has been non-fiction: history, biography, political memoirs. It used to be that H. was the non-fiction reader, and I the passionate absorber of contemporary novels, particularly if they were of southern European or Latin American provenance. But more recently, you’d have found us sitting side by side in bed, swapping quotations from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln book, or the most recent analysis of the Obama campaign, or the latest selection from Alastair Campbell’s diaries, with nary a novel between us.

But in recent weeks I’ve experienced a renewed and increasing hunger for fiction. I put this down partly to my adventures in family history. H. has tried and failed to see the appeal of genealogy – it reminds her too much of tedious family discussions of the ‘old days’ when she was a child – but I’m something of an addict. It’s not so much the construction of family trees or the dry cataloguing of births, marriages and deaths that grabs me, so much as the opportunities offered for imaginatively re-entering the past. Over the past couple of years, thanks to my ancestors, I’ve found myself mentally transported, to 18th century rural Aberdeenshire, Georgian Soho, and early Victorian Bethnal Green.

It struck me recently that this passion to enter into other times and places is rather similar to the appeal of fiction, and perhaps my historical researches have simply substituted for novel-reading in satisfying this part of me. However, history can only take you so far. At a certain point, you find yourself wanting to enter the imaginative worlds of those you are researching, and this is where fiction comes back in. For example, the pursuit of my forebears through the streets and alleys of London in the first half of the 19th century has left me with a desire to re-read Dickens.

So, as I say, I’ve started to read fiction again. Since (for now) it’s the 18th century that fascinates me above all, and since my literary studies left a huge gap in my knowledge of poetry and fiction between the 17th and 19th centuries (thank you, Dr. Leavis), I’ve begun there. My starting-point has been Defoe – partly because the London Dissenting milieu that he inhabited fascinates me, for family and other reasons, and partly because I’ve never actually read him properly. I’ve just finished re-reading Robinson Crusoe. I say ‘re-reading’, but I think I only ever read a cut-down children’s edition before, supplemented by the legendary ‘60s television series, whose haunting theme has been running through my head while I’ve been reading.

For nostalgics of a certain age, here's that theme tune and a short extract from the programme. Imagine it's 1965, and you've just come in from school:

It’s been fascinating to read one of the earliest English novels and to see how different the author’s concerns were from those of later writers. There's no build-up to dramatic events, they just happen out of the blue, and Defoe seems entirely uninterested in elements of the story that would absorb us – such as Crusoe’s feelings on re-entering civilisation, or Friday’s adaptation to European society. And whereas modern readers hope and anticipate that the story will culminate in a dramatic rescue (rather like our expectations surrounding the narrative of the Chilean miners this week), Defoe treats this event in a matter-of-fact way and allows the novel to tail off into an anti-climactic ‘further adventures’ episode. Plus, I don’t remember the casual racism, acquiescence in slavery and advocacy of European imperialism from the children’s edition or TV series….

I’ve now moved on to Moll Flanders, and plan to work my way forward in time, plugging the gaps in the leaky vessel of my literary knowledge until I reach the more familiar territory of the 19th century. I might get to Dickens in time for Christmas...

Sunday 26 September 2010

It's Ed, by a whisker

Some initial thoughts on the result of the Labour leadership contest.

The vote was so close that it's difficult to read too much into it. A difference of just over 1% between Ed and Dave Miliband, after four rounds of voting, hardly marks a decisive option for one candidate or a clear rejection of the other.

On first preferences, David Miliband gained the support of 111 Labour MPs and MEPs, while Ed garnered 84. Among Labour Party members, David won 55,905 and Ed 37,980. This means that Ed Miliband now has to lead a parliamentary party, the majority of whom wanted his brother to win. And to win the support of a membership who would rather have had a different leader.

What swung it for Ed was the fact that, firstly, a clear majority of affiliated members - union members - preferred him to his brother. Secondly, he won a mathematical majority among the alternative choices of those who voted for other candidates. David led his brother in the first three rounds of voting - by a narrowing margin, admittedly. It was only when the alternative preferences of Ed Balls, the last candidate to drop out, were added in, that Ed Miliband managed to squeeze ahead by a whisker.

It may sound like sour grapes, but this does raise the question of whether the alternative voting system is either fair or effective. If the election had been run on a first-past-the-post system, then David might well won, since he gained the most first preference votes. Certainly, the experience of this election will give some of us pause for thought when it comes to voting on AV for national elections next May.

Inevitably, the question of the electoral college system, and particularly the union vote, has also come under scrutiny, and will continue to do so as activists and journalists pick over the result in the next few days. The debate began on Twitter soon after the result was announced, with some denouncing what they saw as a return of the block vote, others pointing out that union members voted as individuals not en bloc, and still others questioning why union members who were not full party members should have such influence over who leads the Party. There have already been calls for reform of the system, with Oliver Kamm tweeting to the effect that MPs should elect the leader, since it's they who have to work with him or her.

I'm an instinctive democrat, but you can take the diffusion of power too far. Leaders have to lead, and this can be difficult if they start with a perception that those they need to lead most directly - their fellow MPs, and then the mass membership who will work for their election to government - would rather be led by someone else. We've still got direct elections to the Shadow Cabinet to come, which seems even more of a nonsense, potentially saddling the new leader with people with whom he disagrees politically, or can't get on with temperamentally.

Insofar as you can draw any political conclusions from the leadership election, it would appear that a small majority of the Party was motivated by a desire to break with the Blair years and opted instead for someone who presented himself as a 'change' from New Labour. Ed Miliband certainly acknowledged the achievements of New Labour during his campaign, but attempted (not always convincingly) to distance himself from its less popular actions, such as the war in Iraq. At the same time, he tacked to the left and appealed to Old Labour tribalism so as to distinguish himself from his brother. While David argued that Labour should renew itself by listening to what the country at large was saying, Ed gave the impression that he believed the way forward was for the Party to consult its own members and return to its core values and traditions.

Ed's approach echoed that of his erstwhile mentor, Gordon Brown, when he was itching to take over the reins from Tony Blair a few years ago. And in some quarters, Miliband's victory will be seen as the revenge of the Brownites. The worry is that, in seeking to distance itself from the legacy of Blair, the Party has chosen another Gordon Brown, and is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past three years. To be sure, Ed doesn't seem to share Gordon's personal shortcomings, but he appears to go along with Brown's belief that the path to renewal - and electoral victory - lies in ditching much of the New Labour baggage and carving out a more conventional left-of-centre political and economic path. In the last chapter of A Journey, which I'm reading at the moment, Tony Blair argues forcefully that this, combined with his lack of a sure political instinct, was Brown's big mistake during his short tenure as prime minister.

It's all left me wondering if Labour is now in a similar position to the Tories in the mid-1990s. Like the Conservatives then, today's Labour Party seems to be struggling to find its direction after a long period in power under a hugely successful, but controversial and contentious, leader. On this reading, Gordon Brown was to Labour what John Major was to the Conservatives: a rather ineffectual successor to an exceptional prime minister. It took the Tories four further changes of leader to find someone who could renew the party and move it on from Thatcherism. Let's hope that Labour gets over its version of Blair Derangement Syndrome rather sooner.

Finally, I feel bitterly disappointed for David Miliband, who threw himself heart and soul into the leadership contest and, in my view, was far and away the best candidate. He may go down in history as the best leader Labour never had. Ask yourself: which of the candidates was best equipped to take the fight to the Tories from day one, and which of them were Cameron and Clegg most afraid of facing at PMQs when Parliament returns. Now, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the Coalition will be sharpening their sneers and jibes about Labour being controlled by the unions, just like the bad old days.

What did for David, in the end, was timing. He was ready to lead by the time Tony Blair left office, and in my view would have been a brilliant and natural successor. But there was the whole ugly business of 'Gordon's turn,' together with a gathering disillusionment, in the party if not in the country, with Blair and those associated with him. There's a passage in the Blair book in which David asks Tony whether he should run against Gordon, and you can see why he baulked at splitting the party and alienating the powerful cabal of Brownites. Then there was the opportunity to spark a leadership election when Brown's premiership hit rough waters, and again, the decision must have been agonising. It was as though the Party had to see the whole destructive Brown psychodrama through to its bitter end, before it was ready to make a fresh start with a new leader. Then, when the opportunity finally and inevitably came, David will have been seen by some as yesterday's man, whereas his brother (who in reality had been just as implicated in New Labour, and part of the failed Brown experiment, to boot) was able to come across as new, fresh and untainted by all these past machinations.

I may be wrong - I hope I am - but, despite the elation of the moment yesterday, it looks as though Labour still has a long and difficult path back to power.

Don't miss my fellow Blair-fan Julie's take on the election result here.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Burning questions

I don't have much sympathy for the men who burned copies of the Koran in a pub car park in Gateshead, and I suspect they weren’t motivated by high-minded rationalist scepticism. But the fact that they were arrested for their actions worries me. Still more concerning is the fact that the charge was inciting racial hatred. As I’ve grown weary of saying, Islam is a religion, not a ‘race’, and to conflate the two is to play into the hands of militants and fundamentalists who seek to shut down criticism of their faith.

As in a number of recent cases involving supposed religious ‘offence’, it looks like the authorities didn’t like what was going on, were worried about what it might lead to, and then cast around for a law which roughly fitted the ‘crime’. The religious hatred laws seemed not to cover this kind of eventuality, so why not try the race hatred laws instead?

As for the argument that to burn a book was deliberately to ‘incite’ hatred or violence, we’ve been here before, I think. The best response to this I’ve read was from Kenan Malik, in a comment on this post:

I agree that Qur’an burners are mindless idiots. I disagree that it would have been OK for them to have been arrested for ‘incitement’, even had they done it front of a mosque. There are two notions of incitement that all too often get conflated. The first is incitement in the sense of directly persuading others to commit violence. The second is incitement in the sense of causing offence that provokes others to be violent. Incitement in the first sense should be illegal. Incitement in the second sense should not.

It is incitement in the second sense that has been one of the prime drivers behind censorship in recent years – people being prevented from doing something because it might cause offence and hence provoke others into violence. Think of the debates around Bezhti or Fitna or The Jewel of Medina.

Take Wilders. He is a reactionary idiot and Fitna a crude anti-Muslim film designed to provoke. That is immaterial. He was originally banned from Britain because, in the government’s words, his ‘statements about Muslims and their beliefs… would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK.’ But Wilders was a threat to public security only insofar as some of his critics may have been provoked enough to respond with violence. But then they, not Wilders, should have been held responsible. It would have been neither logical nor just to have penalized Wilders not for his actions but for actions others may have taken against him.

Remember that many held Salman Rushdie responsible for the violence that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses because he ‘must have known the offence it would cause’. Indeed Matthew Taylor made the very argument when I gave a talk last year at the RSA. Most of us would say that it is immaterial whether or not Rushdie knew the offence he would cause. Those who caused the violence, and only they, were responsible for that violence, however provoked they might have felt. The same goes for any violence that might follow the showing of Fitna or the burning of the Qur’an.

Burning the Qur’an in front of a mosque is clearly close to the line. Its intention would obviously be simply to provoke, and one could argue that it is similar to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. There is, however, a difference. Shouting ‘fire’ in a theatre when there is no fire is to induce people to take a certain action (to rush for the exit) that is rational, inevitable but will cause mayhem. The theatre goers are not responsible for the mayhem, the person who shouted ‘fire’ is. Burning a Qur’an in front of a mosque will undoubtedly provoke a response from believers. But in this case the believers have a choice in how they react, and so are responsible if they respond in a violent way. Even in this case, in other words, it is vital that we keep distinct the two different notions of incitement.

Mind you, we should be grateful to the masked goons in Gateshead for raising some interesting philosophical and theological questions. There was a brief flutter of debate on Twitter, for example, about whether burning an English translation of the Koran (as seems to have happened in this case) was as sacrilegious as destroying one in the original Arabic. If, as Muslims believe, the Koran is sacred because it contains the actual, directly-dictated words of God, then maybe versions in other languages are somehow less inspired? Doesn’t the fact that Muslims pray in Arabic confirm this literalism?

Another Twitterer wondered if deleting a copy of the Koran from his Kindle would be as offensive as burning a printed version, and whether it would similarly count as a criminal offence. Obviously a joke, but one that again raises questions about what counts as ‘sacred’, and which points up the absurdity of religious literalism and fundamentalism.

Monday 20 September 2010

What I wish the Pope had said..

Despite the extreme lapsedness of my Catholicism, and my disagreement with Benedict XVI on a number of issues including gay rights and women priests, I have followed the papal visit to Britain closely, and confess to being quite affected by it. At the same time, despite my avowed secularism, I have felt increasingly hostile to the tone and content of much of the opposition to the visit.

Taking the latter first. I found many of the banners and chants at the ‘Protest the pope’ demonstrations distasteful and gratuitously offensive. In addition, I got the impression that many of the protestors started from a position of visceral anti-Catholicism, and then made a grab at any issue that lent support to their hatred. It was certainly odd to see liberal humanists making common cause with fundamentalist Protestants and Paisleyites.

Since there is no conclusive evidence that the current pontiff covered up priestly abuse, the whole ‘arrest the pope’ charade was pointless. The issue with which I had most sympathy was the church’s attitude to homosexuality, but that would have been more effective without the tasteless banners. And I couldn’t for the life of me see what Richard Dawkins and his band of atheists were doing at the protest. By all means disagree intellectually with Christians about the existence or otherwise of God, but don’t deny them their right to celebrate their faith. And that was my other objection to the protestors: they seemed like intolerant party-poopers whose aim was really to stop those they disagreed with from expressing their beliefs in peace.

Turning to the pope himself, obviously some of his comments about ‘aggressive secularism’ were unfortunate, to say the least, and the ‘atheism leads to Nazism’ quote was an unnecessary gift to his critics – and the headline-seeking news media. But if you listen to, or read, his complete speeches and homilies – whether at Holyrood, Bellahouston or Westminster Hall – they were rather more measured and thoughtful than you’d think, and much of what was quoted has been taken out of context.

Having said that, there are some things I wish the pope had said, but didn't, and if it’s not too presumptuous or disrespectful, I’d like to suggest a few of them here. For example, here’s what he might have said to his Catholic and Christian listeners:

My brothers and sisters, some of you seem unduly exercised by the outbursts and antics of various secularists and atheists in your land. I have heard your representatives talk repeatedly of ‘aggressive’ secularism, and of a ‘new’ or ‘militant’ atheism. But there is nothing new about hostility to the faith, and using such language makes it look as though you are trying to dismiss their criticisms without responding to them. The Church flourishes when it encounters healthy opposition: conversely, lack of criticism makes us lazy and complacent. So welcome these challenges, and be confident in your response to them. And before you criticise the 'aggression' of your atheist brothers and sisters, consider whether you too have ever been aggressive or intolerant of dissent in your own Christian faith.

Try, also, once in a while, to see things from your opponents' point of view. Ask yourself: why might atheism and secularism being enjoying a revival just now? Might it be because unbelievers have legitimate fears, following various terrorist outrages and death threats against writers and artists in the name of religion, about the growth of an aggressive religious fundamentalism that threatens their basic freedoms? You may protest that these threats do not come, in the main, from Christians: but how often have you rushed to 'understand' the actions of those who bomb, riot and burn when they feel religious 'offence', rather than standing up, alongside your secular fellow citizens, for the human values that you both share?

Then again, I have heard some of you talk of persecution and of your faith being banished from the public square. Frankly, I am astonished - 'gobsmacked' is I believe the appropriate word in your language - when I hear such talk. Here I am, in a country where the upper chamber of your parliament includes Christian bishops as of right, where your church schools are partly funded by the taxes of unbelievers, where your services and sermons have guaranteed slots on television and radio, and where your politicians make regular obeisance to 'faith communities' and 'faith leaders'. How Christians in some other lands - Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea - might wish for such 'persecution'! I endorse what my brother Christian, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote recently: Christians in the west should stop whining and campaign instead for believers who are truly persecuted elsewhere in the world. I seem to remember that Our Lord warned us to expect persecution, and went so far as to say that we would be blessed if men despised and rejected us. Can you imagine the martyrs of the faith asking for special privileges from the state, as some of you have done? In other words: dial it down a bit, my brothers and sisters, or as your own young people might say: just chill, OK?

And this is what I wish the pope had said to Britain's majority of non-believers:

My brothers and sisters beyond the Church, there is much that divides us, but as a guest in your land, I would not presume to lecture you. Instead, I want to emphasise today what we share in common - I as a Christian, you as atheists, agnostics, humanists and members of other faiths. I want to acknowledge the great good that you have done, and continue to do, and what your fellow non-believers have achieved over the centuries for the good of humanity. On this visit I have already praised the great Christian philanthropists of this land, such as Wilberforce and Nightingale, but it would be wrong of me to overlook the good work done by the secular heroes of your country, who have done so much to advance human dignity and equality. And yes, in humility I acknowledge that humanists have often led the way, for example in advancing the rights of women and minorities, in promoting freedom of thought and expression, in care for the environment, where we in the Church have followed belatedly and yes, have sometimes blocked the way. We need to learn from you, as much as you from us.

And although I have often criticised the secularisation of society, today I want to acknowledge the value of a true secularism, of a separation of church and state which guarantees freedom to believe, or not believe. For it is only in such an atmosphere of freedom that true faith, freely chosen faith, can flourish. My fellow Christians in other parts of the world, in countries where they are in the minority, know the value of such a secularism. And I want to humbly acknowledge the failures of my own Church in the past, our willingness to support authoritarian and oppressive regimes, whether in Spain or Latin America - regimes which some of you rightly campaigned against - simply because they bore the name 'Catholic', while they suppressed the basic human freedoms which humanists, whether secular or Christian, should hold dear.

Where we differ, of course, is that I, as a Christian, while holding that liberty of conscience and freedom of expression are fundamental and the precondition for a fully human life, believe that they are not sufficient. As Christians, we believe that secular humanism is not enough, that it cannot provide answers to the fundamental questions about our existence, its purpose and that of the universe. On this we must agree to differ, and indeed to continue to converse and to listen to each other. But let me end on a positive note, by thanking you, my secular humanist brothers and sisters, for reminding us believers of the great value of human freedom, and of the equality and dignity of all human beings, whatever their race, gender or lifestyle. I look forward, while I am here in your country, to a dialogue marked by agreement on what we have in common, and where we disagree, by respect for each other's opinions.

Here endeth the lesson.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Religion and historical realism

I’m still thoroughly absorbed by the Blair book. I've just ploughed through the dense and closely-argued chapters about Iraq, which are a must-read for those who refuse to allow that there were any legitimate reasons for going to war. For the most part, I find myself sympathetic to the narrative, but one or two sentences have jarred. It could be me being nit-picky, but I believe these things matter.

In the course of a long explanation of the background to 9/11 and the rise of jihadi fundamentalism, Blair offers a thumbnail sketch of the history of Islam, charting how in the 7th century the new faith was seen as a reform movement when Christianity had become corrupted by sectarianism and power. Apparently, Islam ‘was in part an attempt to take the Abrahamic faiths back to their roots and develop them into a principled, rational and moral way forward for the world.’

Fair enough. But then the next sentence reads: ‘The message of the Prophet was given to him by the angel Gabriel from God – the Koran therefore being the direct recital of the word of God.’ Notice how that sentence is not prefaced by the phrase ‘Muslims believe that…’ or ‘According to Islam…’ Rather, it runs on from, and is given the same credence, as the preceding historical narrative. Now, as I say, I could be accused of over-sensitivity here. You could argue that the style of A Journey is populist, informal, switching between registers and that the ‘Muslims believe…’ bit is implied.

But I’m not so sure. The author does, after all use the term ‘the Prophet’, and earlier writes about ‘the Prophet Mohammed’. The Christian equivalent would be describing Jesus as ‘the Saviour’ or using the term ‘Our Lord’ or ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. And later in the book, Blair states that the fundamentalists have perverted the ‘truth’ of Islam. Truth? But I thought Tony Blair was a Christian? What does he mean by saying that Islam is ‘true’: does he believe that Mohammed really was sent by God, and that his message (which, as I understand it, contradicts that of Christianity in important respects) was somehow divinely inspired?

As regular readers will be aware, I’m a huge Blair fan. I didn’t always agree with his domestic policies (academy schools would be a case in point): in fact, I must be one of the few people who admire him more for his foreign than for his domestic achievements. One area in which I’ve often found myself in disagreement with him is the matter of religion. I don’t mean his decision to become a Catholic. I regarded that as a genuine and legitimate choice, and loathed the mean-spirited and ignorant media commentary that accompanied its announcement. But where I part company with him is in his pro-faithism and multi-faithism, his support for the notion that any faith is better than no faith, that all faiths are somehow ‘one’ and are preferable to the supposed empty secularism of modern society.

It’s this kind wishy-washy attitude that seems to lie behind the uncritical statements about Islam in A Journey (not that Blair isn’t severely critical of the fundamentalist forces that he sees as perverting Islam’s ‘truth’). I remember detecting a similar attitude when reading Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, where (once again) the supernatural ‘events’ of Mohammed’s life were treated with the same historical realism as wars, population movements, etc. It was rather like reading a history of Europe that gave the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection the same credibility as the fall of Rome or the Hundred Years War. Or a history of America that accorded Joseph Smith’s reception of the golden plates of the Book of Mormon a similar status to the Boston Tea Party or the Battle of Gettysburg.

Whether writers fall into this way of writing about Islam out of plain fear, or just fear of offending, I wouldn’t like to say. Given the likely outcry, or worse, if they were to suggest that the Koran might be a human creation, or the story of Mohammed partly legendary, perhaps they are just opting for an easy life. Maybe they just want to make sure their books get published (rather than burned) in the Middle East and Asia. It occurs to me that a sign of real progress and reform in the so-called ‘Muslim world’ would be if a book that treated the history of Islam in the same way that Christianity has been treated in western books for the past two hundred years - as one belief system among many - could be published and sold openly in those countries.

I may be wrong, and maybe such publications are already available in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran. If so, do let me know, and I stand to be corrected.

Monday 13 September 2010

'It's not about them. It's about us.'

The debate about Christian attitudes to Israel continues apace in the comments thread to my Greenbelt post. I've promised to say more, at some point, on why I think anti-Zionism has taken root among religious 'progressives', but by way of an introduction to that vexed topic, I thought I would make reference to the thoughts of one M.Gove.

Inspired by my close encounter with the Secretary of State for Education whilst on holiday in Portugal, I've been reading Celsius 7/7, his spirited critique of western responses to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. Although I'm as fierce a critic as anyone of Gove's educational policies, and I don't agree with every word in the book, I found it a surprisingly insightful and historically well-informed analysis of the roots of jihadi violence and of both left and right-wing reactions to it.

Despite his Conservatism, Gove knows his stuff when it comes to the history of the Left (apparently he was a Labour supporter in his youth), and his explanation of how progressives moved from enthusiasm for the fledgling state of Israel to outright anti-Zionism is convincing. Some of it can be explained by Israel's economic and military successes, which put at risk its 'victim' status in the minds of some western supporters. More important, though (in Gove's view) were changes in the nature and outlook of the radical Left - and later the wider liberal Left. He traces these back to 1968, the New Left and the influence of the Frankfurt School, which saw the emphasis shifting from opposition to capitalism and the fight for economic equality to struggles around culture, identity and national liberation:
Instead of history being viewed as a matter of class conflict, it was increasingly seen as an anti-colonial, anti-Western process. The place of the proletariat in the affections of the Left, as a group onto whom fantasies of revolution could be projected, was assumed by the non-Western peoples of the globe.
An overly simplistic analysis, perhaps, but there's surely some truth in Gove's claim that during this period many on the Left moved away from agitating for economic improvement for the working-class at home, and became absorbed in 'a perpetual quest for new victims onto whom they could project their need to feel righteous anger'. And increasingly, as Gove says, 'the cause that has proved the most useful in satisfying this emotional need has been the Palestinian movement'.

This is not to say that the Palestinian case is without merit, or that the Palestinians don't have a claim to statehood. But Gove argues that the reason why this cause 'absorbs so much more political energy than any other campaign for justice' is 'not about them. It's about us'. He continues:
The reason the Palestinian cause is so central to modern left-wing activity [...] is because it is the contemporary rallying point for the dominant radical impulse of our time - anti-Westernism. And attachment to the Palestinian cause is an emotionally satisfying and morally exalted way of attacking Israel - the country that is the West's front line, the state that embodies Western values in a region and at a time where they are under particularly vicious assault.
Now, as I wrote recently, I'm uncomfortable with talk of defending 'Western' values, as if democracy, freedom of expression and belief, and the rights of women and minorities, were the exclusive property of Europe and America. I believe these are universal aspirations, and in fact that labelling them as 'Western' is to play into the hands of those religious fundamentalists and secular 'anti-imperialists' who want us to believe that supporting (say) gay rights in Iran or women's education in Afghanistan is somehow 'colonialist'.

But, having said that, I think Gove's central thesis is a sound one. As to why religious progressives, in particular, have bought into the 'Israel-bad-Palestinians-good' narrative: that involves (I believe) a whole other layer of historical, theological and psychological explanation. Which will have to wait for another post.

Thursday 9 September 2010

No book burning - but no excuse for violence

I don't believe that any books are 'sacred'. The Qu'ran, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Tibetan Book of the Dead - all are human products and should be treated as such. In a free society no book, whether secular or religious, should be protected from criticism, ridicule or even condemnation if necessary. But talk of burning books of any kind makes me nervous and summons up some pretty unpleasant historical memories (see above).

So I hope Pastor Terry Jones cancels his plan to burn copies of the Qu'ran on the anniversary of 9/11. He is perfectly within his constitutional rights to do so (something the Pakistani government doesn't seem to understand), but it would be wise of him to desist. It would provide one more excuse (as if they needed it) for Islamist militants to run riot and terrorise the innocent. You can imagine the scene in cities across the 'Muslim world', as the usual 'rage boys', to use Hitch's coining, 'spontaneously' congregate in front of the cameras, miraculously supplied with American flags to tear and burn (where's their respect for other people's sacred totems?).

But let's be clear. If Jones goes ahead with his mindless stunt, and innocent people get killed in Asia or the Middle East, those deaths won't be his 'fault.' The blame will lie entirely with the perpetrators and their warped ideology, which sees every slighting of their beliefs as justification for murder and mayhem. In their fundamentalism and intolerance, Pastor Jones and the Islamists are mirror images of each other.

Update: 11th September

Predictably, authoritarian and corrupt leaders in the Middle East and Asia have leapt on the protest bandwagon, to bolster their own support. It was astonishing, and a little absurd, that President Karzai of Afghanistan used his annual Eid message to condemn the actions of an insignificant and unrepresentative clergyman halfway across the world. And his claim that 'insulting the Koran is an insult to nations' was patently ridiculous and designed to stoke the dangerous fires of protest.

Meanwhile, the protesting crowds in Afghanistan and elsewhere are said to be outraged just by the 'idea' of burning their holy book, even if it doesn't actually transpire. Watching and reading the reports last night, I thought I detected a note of disappointment in the protestors' reaction to the news that Pastor Jones may not, after all, go ahead with his book burning.

Finally, on this of all mornings, it struck me that the saddest consequence of this whole affair (so far) is that, on the anniversary of the terror attacks on New York and Washington, it has focused attention on the twisted fundamentalist ideology that inspired those outrages, rather than on the thousands of innocent victims and those who still grieve for them.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Watch this space

Prompted by Eve's and Wesley's comments on my post about Greenbelt, I'm planning a longer piece on Israel and the Christian Left. In the meantime, do take a look at this post - on Christian friends and foes of Israel - over at Seismic Shock.

From a bridge to a journey

I've coming to the end of David Remnick's The Bridge, which sets the rise of Barack Obama in the context of the long struggle for civil rights. If you've read Dreams From My Father, Game Change and David Plouffe's book about the 2008 campaign, and think you know everything there is to know about Obama's background and his historic run for the presidency, then think again. Remnick is particularly good on Obama's political formation in Chicago and his relationship with an older generation of African-American politicians.

After Remnick, I had a whole stack of books lined up and waiting to be read. Before we went on holiday I was halfway through re-reading The Making of the English Working Class, then there was that book about Tom Paine I started in St. Ives, not to mention the thick tome that is Wolf Hall, which I took to Portugal but never quite got round to reading, and which still sits on the floor by the bed unopened, like a reproach.

But I'm afraid they'll all have to wait. For, like half the nation, I have succumbed to the siren call of Mr. Tony and bought my half-price copy of A Journey from Waterstones. Yesterday I took the book on a long train journey and was immediately hooked. Don't believe those who say Blair has a dull literary style. He may not be Doris Kearns Goodwin or Robert Caro, or even Barack Obama, but it's an absolutely riveting read. If, like me, you are fortunate to have a partner who is as obsessed with politics as you are, and if you have the kind of relationship where you are always reading out bits of your books to each other, then you'll find Blair's book impossible. You'll be wanting to read all of it to each other. In fact, I almost bought H. her own copy so that we could read it at the same time: I could hardly wait for her to share the experience with me.

Maybe it's just me. After all, I did re-join the Labour Party the day after Blair was elected leader, and my political trajectory - from the Bennite Left to a kind of progressive centrism - has tended to follow his. Leafing through the photos in the book, it struck me that even our hairstyles have moved in a similar direction, from unkempt long locks in Seventies, via the blow-dried Eighties, to the receding hairline with touches of grey today. I'm sure those who find Blair politically and personally anathema wouldn't enjoy the book half as much as I'm doing.

Mind you, there are some odd passages in the book. Most reviews have mentioned the explicit sexual passages, but there are other parts where the author seems unaware of his own double entendres. Surely any sub-editor who had a passing acquaintance with Freud should have taken a red pencil to this paragraph about Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, with its only half-acknowledged phallic imagery:
During the course of the conversation [with Campbell] I discovered something I hadn't been a hundred per cent of previously: he had clanking great balls. This was someone you would have to pull back, not push forward [...] He and Peter Mandelson might fight (and my goodness they did, occasionally literally), but in tandem they would be as formidable a political force as could be imagined. Peter would slip into the castle through a secret passageway and, by nimble footwork and sharp and incisive thrusts of the rapier, cleave his way through to the throne room. Meanwhile, Alastair would be a very large oak battering ram destroying the castle gates, and neither boiling pitch nor reinforced doors would keep him out.
I'm sure I'll have more to say as I read on. For now: back to the book...