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...

Saturday 4 September 2010

Decency, propaganda and the left

A couple of quick recommendations:

In case you missed it, there's been a great discussion about the state of the Left, 'decent' and otherwise, going on over at Bob's place. Scroll down - there's some good stuff in the comments thread.

I'm probably late to the party on this one too, but if you haven't already done so, check out The Propagandist, a new-ish anti-totalitarian site which has some great contributors, including the excellent Terry Glavin and Eamonn McDonagh, whose names will be familiar to readers of this blog.

The Propagandist describes itself as a 'magazine...for political junkies, thinking conservatives and the anti-fascist left'. Some on the Left may be uncomfortable cosying up to conservatives, thinking or otherwise, but it made me think of a comment in the above-mentioned debate, which annoyingly I can't now find, about the big divide in contemporary politics being between those who wish to defend Western values and those who seek to undermine them.

I'm uncomfortable with talk of 'Western' values, just as I am with claims about standing up for 'Judaeo-Christian' ideas (on which more another time, perhaps). I think it plays into the hands of cultural relativists, and I'd prefer to talk about defending democracy, pluralism and freedom of thought and expression - which I believe are universal rather than specifically 'Western' values. But the commenter has a point. There is a serious threat to what might broadly be called liberal values from, on the one hand, the authoritarian pseudo-left (e.g. Chavez' Venezuela) and on the other hand the fundamentalist religious right (e.g. Ahmadinejad's Iran and its proxies in Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.).

A crucial division in our politics exists between those, on one side, who recognise this threat and think it's worth resisting, and on the other side those who don't think the threat is serious and/or aren't convinced that Enlightenment values are worth defending. At such a time, alliances sometimes cross traditional political boundaries, and left-wing anti-fascists will find common ground (for now) with liberal conservatives in the battle against totalitarian pseudo-leftism and clerical fascism.

Hence the link-up between 'thinking conservatives' and left-wing anti-fascists at The Propagandist. If you agree with them that the big issue of our time is the threat to liberty and progress from fundamentalist authoritarians, you'll probably like the site. If on the other hand, you believe that America, Israel and 'the West' are the cause of all the world's current woes, then you'd probably better give it a miss.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Christian spokesman gives partial response to Hebron killings

As a kind of footnote to the last post: I see that Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, has condemned the killing of four Israeli civilians (the report says 'settlers' but some accounts use the term as a way of dehumanising or diminishing the innocence of the victims) near Hebron. 'At a time when Palestinian and Israeli leaders are beginning negotiations, the extremists who encourage and legitimize violence must not be allowed to succeed', said Rev. Tveit.

All well and good, but Tveit is also reported to have said that he 'rejects any use of violence as a means to gain the much-desired and needed peace for this region'. The implication seems to be that the murderous means employed by the gunman who shot to death two men and two women, one of them pregnant, may have been questionable, but his purpose ('peace') was probably worthy.

However, it's clear that the nature and timing of the attack were designed to derail any chance of a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, brokered by the Americans. Hamas, which first condoned and then accepted responsibility for the killings, wants the peace talks to fail, because they would legitimise the 'moderate' Palestinian Authority and undermine its own Islamist agenda. In other words, 'peace' couldn't be further from the minds of Gaza's fundamentalist leaders.

The remainder of Rev. Tveit's comments also failed to show a balanced understanding of the reasons for continuing friction in the Middle East. He stated that 'to bring security to both Israelis and Palestinians, the negotiations must stop the occupation and all the injustices that ordinary Palestinians experience every day.' Fair enough, but Tveit signally failed to make any equivalent demands of the Palestinians and their allies. 'Security' will surely only be achieved when Palestinians, particularly in Hamas-controlled Gaza, desist from rocket and suicide bomb attacks that target innocent civilians, and recognise Israel's right to exist, and when Iran ceases to provide the campaign to 'wipe Israel from the map' (in Ahmadinejad's memorable phrase) with moral and material assistance.

Incidentally, will those Western apologists who argued that we should 'do business' with Hamas as the 'legitimate' government of Gaza now condemn its deliberate targeting of civilians, and perhaps call for an international inquiry? And will they tell us what they make of these pictures, which appear to show Palestinians in Gaza openly celebrating the Hebron murders? Partners for 'peace'....?