Wednesday, March 24, 2004

"... And answer came there none ..."

Isn’t Crooked Timber amazing? Aren’t we all fortunate to live in an era when such mighty intellectual machinery can be set in motion to tackle what is, quite obviously, by far the single most important and interesting question about the death of the Hamas Godfather Ahmed Yassin? And what might that question be? It's this: is “removal” quite the mot juste for the manner of Yassin's going, or is “assassination” the “correct” word because - er, well, because one of the writers at Crooked Timber asserts that it is? Come now: how can anyone fail to be deeply impressed by such sophistication (whether that's to be understood in its 18th-century sense or in its 21st-century sense being, of course, another matter)? How can any of the rest of us bear to go on blogging at all when the greatest minds of the blogosphere have already said all that there is to say?

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Bloggers versus Terrorism’s Useful Idiots

Once again other bloggers have beaten us to it, this time on the latest examples of jaw-droppingly foolish, albeit interestingly varied drivel from David Hirst, Robert Fisk, George Monbiot and John Pilger. We thank Scott Burgess (at The Daily Ablution), Michele (via the same) and Norm Geras for taking the trouble to fisk them, again in interestingly varied ways.
We also thank Norm for alerting us to this article by Andrew Anthony, which serves to show, first, that not everyone who opposed the war in Iraq was a fool and, second, that the Guardian is not entirely given over to appeasers and apologists. (If we’ve sometimes given a contrary impression, on either of these points, that’s because we’ve sometimes received a contrary impression. No doubt we should try harder to heed the advice of Grandma in The Catherine Tate Show: “Fackin’ chill aht!”)
Still ... the weather’s getting better, Mahler’s Fifth is on our CD player, and we have work to do and nothing else to blog about. There’s also the depressing consideration that many times more readers will come across the work of the five journalists we’ve mentioned than will ever see the online writings of the three bloggers. It’s especially at times like this, and on issues like this - so important that they seem to need commenting on, so enormous that no comment will affect them - that we find ourselves thinking, again, about blogging and the wider world. Here’s a thought-provoking excerpt from a comment placed by Nick at 4 Glengate on one of his own posts (though we’d replace “political activity” and “politics” with just “life”):

“... please don’t assume that this blog is the only, or even the most important, aspect of my political activity. It’s not, it’s among the least important - it’s a place to let off steam and discuss things that don’t have a forum in practical day-to-day politics. And it means I get to debate with people on the other side of the world, which is cool, and a privilege that previous generations of socialists couldn't have dreamed of. But it’s still only a blog. The real world is somewhere else.”

Monday, March 22, 2004

Once More on the Anti-War Clowns

We’re leaning towards banning ourselves from even mentioning the anti-war movement, as there are plenty of more interesting and more important subjects to blog about, and we’ve said enough (maybe too much) about them already. But even if we do impose a self-denying ordinance on ourselves - some day - that’s no reason not to link to others who’ve produced things that are well worth reading.
One such is James Lileks (link in sidebar -->). The fact that many on the extreme left of the blogosphere hate him and his website counts in his favour as far as we’re concerned, and, though we don’t kid ourselves that he’s any kind of socialist, let alone a Marxist, on his good days he’s a very acute and entertaining observer of the “left”’s dementia and bullshit. In particular, today’s “bleat” is spot on (and the photograph of an especially disgusting placard displayed in San Francisco last Saturday has to be seen to be believed). Highlights of the text include:

“... The other day a variety of people gathered in various cities to say, in essence, put it back. The Movement to Reinstall Saddam commemorated the first anniversary of the Iraq campaign by expressing their outrage at the loss of an ally in the war against America. These people are the fringe of the left; yes. They are the Klan without the sheets. Worse: they don’t have the inbred moonshine-addled mah-pappy-hated-nigras-an-I-hate-’em-too dense-as-a-neutron-star stupidity of your average Kluxer. They didn’t come to this level of stupidity naturally. They had to work at it. I’m sure you’ll find ... people who have cool jobs in San Francisco, people who get grants, write code, run the coffee-frother at a funky bookstore, and have no problem marching alongside someone who spells Israel with a swastika instead of an S.”

“... So what were all these people against, exactly? A free press in Iraq. Freedom to own a satellite dish. Freedom to vote. A new Constitution that might actually be worth the paper on which it’s printed. Oil revenues going to the people instead of Saddam, or French oligopolies. Freedom to leave the country. Freedom to demonstrate against the people who made it possible for you to demonstrate.”

“... These people marched to protest the premature bestowal of freedom by exterior forces. Better the Iraqi people live under the boot for 20 years, and rise up and get slaughtered and rise up again and slaughter those who killed their kin, than have Bush push the FF button and get it over with now. Better they suffer for the right reasons than live better for the wrong ones.”

“... These people want ‘freedom’, but only for themselves. Freedom to preen. Freedom to flatter themselves that they are somehow committing an act of bravery by Speaking Truth to Power. But they’re speaking Nonsense to Indifference. Pictures of Bush as Hitler sieg-heiling away would get them killed if this was truly the country they insist it is. Nothing will happen to them. They know it. They would be killed for doing this in Saddam’s Iraq, of course; they know that too. Doesn’t matter. Bush is worse than Saddam, in the macro sense. Saddam’s sins are an inconvenient obstacle; hard to defend the fellow, but you have to concentrate on the real villains here, the people who truly threaten progressive transnational peace and solidarity and justice and human rights and – What? Did we march on the first anniversary of Saddam gassing the Kurds? I don’t understand the question.”

Stop the War? or just Stop the World, We Want to Get Off?

Fairly Busy Evening

Lots of blogs visited - including the (to our eyes) oddly hyphenated Anti-Podean Journal, which has some interesting posts on New Zealand politics and has been kind enough to link to us - but not much to blog about, beyond recommending the following:

(1) Via Marcus at Harry’s Place, this editorial from the Scotsman, which reviews what would be very likely to be happening now in Iraq if there had been no war, and concludes as follows:

“A poll of Iraqis last week indicated that the majority of them believe life in their country has improved compared with a year ago. Let theirs be the final verdict.”

If only the anti-war loudmouths, who claim so unconvincingly to be democrats, could accept that anyone’s verdict but their own, on any subject, was final ...

(2) This response to the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the “spiritual leader” - or, more aptly, the “Godfather” - of Hamas, in which Oliver Kamm rightly criticises both Jack Straw and Javier Solana, and points to the terrible and unenviable tasks that would face any Israeli government, not just the present one.
Do we need to add that we do not support the present Israeli government, and would very much like to see it replaced by a more congenial one? Do we also need to add that the choice is up to Israeli voters, not to anyone else? The fact that it even occurs to us that such statements of the obvious may be necessary, in order to forestall misinterpretation, is itself a sad commentary on the state of the current “debate” about Israel, in which basic facts about its liberal democratic polity and the serious threats to its very existence - and the lives of most of its citizens, Jewish and Arab - are deliberately obscured by unrelenting and hysterical rhetoric that exaggerates the crimes committed in its name (and, yes, some of them are crimes) in order to misrepresent it as a fascist or racist state far worse than any of its enemies.

(3) Following on from our post yesterday about British universities, this column by Professor John Sutherland, who teaches English at University College, London, in which he tells the sad story of one former student who fell through the cracks in the system, but also suggests, plausibly, that those cracks are beginning to be filled.

Lazy Afternoons

We should definitely be working, we could even be blogging, but every afternoon this week will be taken up with watching old John Wayne films on BBC2. It’s a difficult job, but someone has to do it.
Yes, of course, Wayne was a right-wing Republican who would have regarded people like us as enemies of all he held dear, and - which matters more now that he’s gone - he gave far too many lazy performances in far too many bad films. And yet ...
Consider today’s offering, Tall in the Saddle (1944), also starring Gabby Hayes, who seems to have spent his entire career portraying (possibly being) the local drunk. The plot is standard twaddle about a legacy, mistaken identity and the like, and serves as little more than a pretext for entertaining dialogue and for rich monochrome camerawork that is impressive even on a small screen (much as the fairly similar plot of, say, Way Out West matters much less than Laurel and Hardy’s routines within it). It was also striking that at several points, in conversation with Latino characters, Wayne speaks what seemed to us to be word-perfect Spanish, which - combined with his predilection for marrying Mexican women, and the undoubted depth and range of his knowledge of the history of the Western US - suggests that he wasn’t the one-dimensional racist bastard his detractors still make him out to be.
Anyway, here’s some of the dialogue (initials indicating the actors, because it hardly matters what the characters’ names were):

Barkeep: Him! [i.e. GH] He’s nothin’ but a grumpy old cuss.
JW: I like grumpy old cusses. If I live long enough I hope to be one myself.


GH: Then they’ll bring their gosh-darned “law and order” with them.
JW: What’s so wrong with law and order?
GH: Depends who’s dishing it out ...


JW: I reckon it’s good to know where you belong. I wish I knew.

Acknowledging that Wayne at his worst could be intolerable, we’d suggest that this is Wayne at his best, enacting the kind of role he clearly excelled at - the thoughtful loner who’s courteous to all, but subservient to none - in an era when the questions that undoubtedly needed to be asked about such a stereotype weren’t being asked by anyone within earshot either of Wayne himself or of his fans. It’s a persona that can look dated and inadequate now, but it does have resonance in the real world, and it never was as simple or as shallow as some critics have deemed it to be. In even better films - such as Stagecoach, The Searchers or True Grit - it’s displayed with a subtlety and depth that still put the slick acting, and slicker scripting, of most mainstream films to shame. We wouldn’t go so far as to say Je t’aime, John Wayne, but nor would we deny that his better films remain rewarding, if necessary despite their intent rather than because of it.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

“Al Qaeda is not winning the war, but we could still lose it if we fail to unite”

Via A Fistful of Euros, here is a refreshingly clear statement of basic common sense on Al Qaeda, Europe and the eerily and memorably misprinted “Untied States”, from (it says here) “a senior adviser to IFRI, the French Institute of International Relations”. Being a liberal democrat, rather than a Marxist, the writer seems, rather naively, to take the much-vaunted differences between the US parties at face value, and also indulges in the fantasy that “the world is not a safer place” as a result of the liberation of Iraq, as if (to cite only one set of examples) the dictatorships in Libya, Syria and Iran were still behaving now exactly as they did up to March 2003. But it’s worth reading even so.
The posts here, by Scott Martens, a stalwart of A Fistful of Euros, are also well worth reading, but we’re not sure what to call the site they appear on: a sub-blog? a sidebar blog? a blogstra? a blogplement? (Ouch! Even we’re appalled by that last one.)

The Current State of British Universities

Over at EnviroSpin Watch, Philip Stott takes a break from discomfiting fanatical Greens and fanatical anti-Greens alike to comment on “things academical”:

“As a group, we academics can whinge with the best of British farmers, there are more prima donnas among us than at the Royal Opera House, and our stubborn ability to declare that we are unable to change anything is worthy of a 1970s shop steward. I recall with wry amusement the despair of one embattled head of college who quoted General de Gaulle on his alleged impotence in trying to manage so many different cheeses.”

However, what starts off looking as if it might become a predictable rant by a retired academic, about how much better things were in his day, turns out to be nothing of the kind. Stott doesn’t take the easy option of retreating into some lost “golden age”, but fixes his eye on what is happening right now. Inter alia (as too many academics say when they think “Among other things” is too vulgar):

“up to one third of academic staff are seriously considering quitting the profession ...”

“New Labour ... wants to swamp universities with neglected fee-paying students to fund the research for which it is otherwise unable and unwilling to find the money.”

“... the hatred between departments and between academic subjects ... must rank in maliciousness with the legendary competition between Whitehall departments and civil servants ...”

“... then, of course, there are the research and teaching rankings of the universities, from the ever-pompous and self-important Russell Group to poor, concrete-cracking colleges that wouldn’t know a large research grant if it hit them ...”

“Misogyny and anti-undergraduate snobbishness remain deeply rooted in academe ...”

It’s true that none of us has been anywhere near a British university for about ten years, but we have enough relatives and friends who are still involved in education (whether as staff or as students) to convince us that Stott has hit several nails on the head. There is, however, one contemporary development that he does not mention but that gives us, at least, grounds for hope: the unplanned and largely unpredicted expansion in the numbers of “mature” students entering higher education. In Britain that means students over 25 (or is it 24 now? the jargon isn’t fixed). While the politicians, the officials and the media have continued to think of universities as places for the education of younger people - whom nobody is quite brave enough to call, though it would be logical, “immature” students - thousands of older people, above all women who are seeking to re-enter the workforce after bringing up children, are quietly and determinedly helping to change the nature of the “student body”; the amounts of laziness, pretentiousness and sheer uselessness that a minority of academics have been able to get away with for years; and, indirectly, the very status of universities in British society. A 38-year-old woman who has already thought, seen and done more in 20 years of adulthood than most of the lecturers she is expected to be awed by presents challenges to conventional ways of doing things that even the stroppiest 18-year-old, fresh from school, cannot. The same woman, leaving university three years later, is likely to take with her into the wider world (and note, again, how everyone avoids the logical corollary that universities form a narrower world) a healthy scepticism about what universities can provide that is necessarily “better” than what is provided by vocational courses.
We can’t predict exactly what impact thousands of such women, and their male counterparts, will eventually have on the attitudes of the general public, but we can at least hope that they will help to inject a greater realism into the unending debate. Universities never were the paradises (literally, “walled gardens”) of earnest enlightenment and “the fascination of what’s difficult” (Yeats) that their more fanatical defenders make them out to be, even in the startlingly recent era when a very small minority of the population had anything to do with them. For one thing, we know from our own direct observations that it’s easier for students and lecturers alike to get away with doing absolutely nothing educational at the Russell Group universities (the “leading” research institutions) than at most others, especially if they went to the “right” schools, have the “right” connections and display the “right” mannerisms. Nor, however, are universities the citadels of subversion and decadence that their detractors, including many working-class parents of 18-year-olds, still imagine them to be (if only they were ...). As Stott says, “... we academics ... have been unable to organise any semblance of a common front, policy, or concept of what ‘a university’ is ...” - but that’s partly because the universities vary so much, reflecting the variations in the society they affect to be disinterested observers of but are, of course, compromised participants in. Which is all the more reason to make a serious effort to find out what a university is in the minds of the non-academics who, one way or another, pay for it all - not as a marketing exercise, nor as a campaign to transform universities into pseudo-factories or quasi-supermarkets, but in recognition of the fact that universities are too important, politically, economically and culturally, to be left entirely to their own devices.
We hope that wondering what the purposes of universities are, and should be, doesn’t make us sound too much like Charles Clarke, the current Education Secretary, whom two of us remember well from his days as a big name in the “United Left” (yes, it was an oxymoron even then) at a certain well-known institution in eastern England. But even radicals turned Blairites occasionally ask the right questions - it’s the answers they tend to get wrong.

Voices from the English Underground, 1961-1971 (2)

Just one of those voices today, but it’s a powerful one that isn’t listened to nearly as much as it should be.
David Widgery (1947-92), whose adventures shuttling between (as he put it) “psychedelia and the left” are only hinted at here, moved on from the SLL (which itself ended up as the Workers Revolutionary Party) to become one of the more open and creative minds in the International Socialists - which is what the “Socialist” “Workers” “Party” called itself before it took, first, a “workerist” turn (1976) and then, more recently, a nosedive into its current state of being so cynical and opportunistic that it might as well be Stalinist, and so totally repulsive as an advertisement for the “left” that it might as well be funded by the CIA. Widgery, however, who was also a GP in the East End of London, became an expert on Surrealism and popular music (including, for instance, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith), and, crucially, retained his lively sense of humour, deserves better than to be appropriated by such scum. His books, which are well worth searching out, include (in addition to those mentioned here) his anthology The Left in Britain, 1956-68 (Penguin, 1976), already mentioned on this blog, and a collection of essays and articles, Preserving Disorder (Pluto Press, 1989).
Take it away, Dave ...

David Widgery: “... I had joined the wrong Communist Party branch. It had actually been heavily infiltrated by Trotskyists and I was expelled almost immediately in a mass purge: ‘You, you and you - out!’ They included me by mistake, but I became an honorary Trotskyist simply by being expelled, and I went through this rapid Trotskyfication in the SLL [Socialist Labour League], which was a very tough, quite proletarian, doctrinaire group. I had about a year of that: lots of meetings - you had to learn off by heart the five reasons why James Burnham betrayed the Fourth International - lots of paper-selling, things like that. Quite educational, and it inoculated me against that sort of fanaticism ever since. You had to learn what Marx said and what Lenin said and what dialectical materialism is, and so on. Something that everyone should go through - but only once, and not for very long.”

David Widgery again: “... So I hooked up with [Allen] Ginsberg and was rather taken over by that and thought it was all rather good. At that time he was going through a very intense mystical thing, but we were all moving rather more politically, because of the influence of Vietnam. He was very much: ‘Everyone must make love tonight, everyone must meditate, the Viet Cong must join with the Americans and suck each other’s cocks’ - and that really wasn’t what we were saying. We were saying that the Vietnamese must beat the Americans, so there was this - discrepancy.”

[More to follow, including more from Dave W.]

Stumbling upon Englightenment (sic)

Given the sheer size and variety of the mass media, and the customary ways in which those media operate, it’s not easy to find anything that isn’t already burdened with advance publicity, which in turn inevitably evokes one’s preconceptions. This can be a boon, if only financially. For example, previews, reviews and associated interviews have warned us off numerous films that we might otherwise have wasted money, and time, on. But then it’s all the more pleasing to stumble across things that we’ve never heard of and have no preconceptions about. Gattaca, for example, was even more impressive, and moving, for being totally unexpected, though we’re still not sure how we managed to avoid reading or seeing anything about it beforehand. Although it’s harder to practise than ever, serendipity still has a lot to be said for it.
Here’s another example. While looking for information on Denis Diderot (for work, not for blogging) we came across this interview with Alan Charles Kors, whom we’d never heard of before, the editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, which ditto. One of the pleasures of surfing the net is coming across just such items as this (or, for that matter, the pieces found via A Fistful of Euros and Hak Mao, and linked to in previous posts today, whose authors are also unknown to us). We should perhaps feel a bit guiltier about having no idea who Kors is, but it does mean that we can enjoy what he has to say, and recommend it, without being distracted by strictly irrelevant questions - what’s his view on the Iraq war? is he a conservative or a liberal? is he good to his students/ his dog/ his friends/ his colleagues? Whatever about all that, Kors’s answers serve as an excellent introduction to the main themes of the European Enlightenment, which we keep referring to here but haven’t bothered to try to define (something else we might have felt guiltier about). We also liked the typo in the - oh, you know, that thing at the very top of the page - the title bar?
Stumbling on ...

[Today’s BGM: Shostakovich’s quartets, performed by the Fitzwilliam Quartet]

Convivencia versus the Cult of Death

Via Hak Mao, here is the first post-Madrid article we’ve seen that even mentions Ceuta and Melilla, in the course of explaining what we’d wrongly hoped was bloody obvious: that Al Qaeda are much less concerned about election results, or other such merely secular and transient matters, than about the “recovery” of al-Andalus (Iberia) for (horrible irony) a fanatical cult that nobody in medieval al-Andalus would have recognised as Islamic. Read the whole thing, especially if you’ve never heard of Ceuta and Melilla, and/or want to know more about al-Andalus, the land that gave the world the still not fully realised vision of convivencia.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Iraq - One Year After

by Eamonn Fitzgerald at (suitably enough) Rainy Day

[reproduced, in full, without permission, but with gratitude for his saying what needs to be said, today of all days, and for saying it so well]

One year after, there is no “popular resistance” to the coalition forces who liberated the long-suffering people of Iraq from the crime syndicate known at the Baath Party. The vast majority of Iraqis are glad Saddam is gone.
One year after, a rag-bag assortment of terrorists are killing their fellow Muslims at random in Iraq because they have failed miserably to impact the coalition militarily. The way of the suicide bomber leads unto the grave.
One year after, the professional gloomsayers are still filling their newspaper columns and TV slots with bleak predictions about Iraq. The Arab street is not paying any attention, however.
One year after, Iraq has joined such moderate regional states as Turkey, Jordan and Israel in an attempt to escape a repressive past and embrace a modern present. The Syrian dictator, the Iranian theocrat and the Saudi autocrat and their thuggish enforcers have cause for concern.
One year after, the Iraqis are concentrating on constructing a civil society with a leadership whose priorities do not include invading their neighbours, developing weapons of mass destruction and ripping off the country’s natural resources. The criminal enterprise known as the “Oil for Food Program” will never be repeated.
One year after, Colonel Gaddafy has handed over Libya’s store of deadly weapons and A.Q. Khan’s role in selling Pakistani nuclear technology has been exposed. The collateral benefits of regime change are substantial.
One year after, the world owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the United States for its determination to reform the Middle East. The job has just begun.
Will Iraqis demonstrate on their streets a decade from now and shout anti-American slogans while doing so? More than likely. That’s human nature; one mustn’t expect gratitude. After all, Americans fought and died in Europe during the 20th century to save France from Germany (twice), and save Germany from Fascism and Communism, but hatred of America is a reflex action in both countries. Still, the French and the Germans who rant and rave are able to do so in freedom. Just as the Iraqis can now do. Hitler didn’t triumph, Stalin didn’t succeed, Saddam lost. One year after, this is a better world.

Lindsey German, we salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability

There are two great photos and one pointed comment at Semi-skimmed today. The “lying liars” are not restricted to the right wing of the US Republican Party.

Move On Up - to What, Exactly?

Our first post today carried a link to Harry’s Place, where the eponym and his colleagues are promoting the slogan “Do Something for Iraq” as an alternative to the (literally and metaphorically) washed-out parades of the anti-war nincompoops. Nick at 4 Glengate has also responded to Harry’s campaign:

“we can, at least, agree that on this point we can move on together, pro-war left and anti-war left (or, at least, some of us can).”

Well, yes, sort of.

When it comes to doing something for Iraq, what counts most is not what anyone in the West, still less any number of bloggers, may want to see done, but what the Iraqi people themselves want done. Not being Iraqis, we’re less confident than certain commentators are that we can speak in their name (though we can read opinion polls and watch the TV news as carefully as they can, and in some cases, quite clearly, much more carefully). However, if we were Iraqis we might well be asking ourselves what exactly can or should be done for us by western “leftists”, who did not just shut the fuck up and get out of the way when our country was being liberated from dictatorship, but actively opposed that very liberation, only to turn round afterwards and ask to be taken seriously as old friends of Iraq from way back, sincerely concerned to promote the best interests of its people. We might grudgingly concede some of them them some trust, even some respect, but it would be understandable if we were less easily convinced than they would like us to be.

After that little thought experiment, here’s another. What would be the most appropriate response to a surgeon who refused to take part in a life-saving operation, did his or her best to obstruct the work of his colleagues and to misrepresent the results, and then vociferously demanded to be consulted about the course of post-operative treatment? “Are you a total hypocrite, or just incapable of thinking clearly?” is merely the most polite of the appropriate responses that occur to us.

Reality Check

On a day that has already been disfigured by fools, ignoramuses and admirers of dictatorship cluttering up the streets of all too many cities in the West - but not, be it emphasised, the streets of any cities in Iraq - it’s important to focus on the concrete and the everyday, and resist being distracted by the windy rhetoric spouted by those who are either stupid enough to believe what they are yelling, cynical enough to exploit the gullible, or demented enough to advocate appeasing terrorists and reneging on the Enlightenment.
Take, for instance, that much-abused buzzword “multiculturalism”. This vignette of a day out in Canberra says more about the lived meaning of the word than any number of earnest academic tracts; and William Dalrymple’s marvellous riposte to the vastly overrated V.S. Naipaul goes beyond the merely literary to remind us why multiculturalism matters, and what achievements it has been capable of.

Seventy-two Years On, Happiness is ...

Anthony Cox at Black Triangle draws our attention to this quotation from Bertrand Russell:

“Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the Earth’s surface relatively to other matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill-paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.”

Anthony then suggests that the results of this recent survey by the City and Guilds Institute (on a webpage with perhaps the longest URL we’ve yet come across) make it appear “that Russell’s theory is under attack”. Hmm ...
The survey is very interesting in any case, but we’re not at all sure that its findings are inconsistent with Russell’s generalisation. “Learning new things”, “being your own boss” and “fulfilling an ambition”, all of which are, predictably, highly valued by the survey’s respondents, are surely a lot more likely to be experienced by those who tell others what to do than by those who are told what to do, often without being told why and without having any chance to question or vary their instructions. After all, Russell was commenting on the employer/employee relationship - whether the employees in question are “blue collar” or “white collar” - rather than on the special case of self-employed “trade professionals”, who form the target group for much of the City and Guilds Institute’s sterling work in vocational training. (That work, by the way, matters far more, to the economy and to society, than its low profile and low status would suggest, but neither the Institute nor its clients can be blamed for the fact that so many British people are still so easily impressed by the mere holding of a university degree.)
More to the point, a bourgeois socialist of Russell’s rather high-minded but well-meaning type - let alone a Marxist - would see the difference between the job satisfaction of the self-employed and the dissatisfaction of most of the employed as supporting an argument for (at the very least) some increase in workers’ participation in decision-making, permitting workers some experience of “being your own boss”. But Russell was writing in 1932, not 2004. The fact that hardly anyone on the “left” these days talks about workers’ participation at all - never mind the workers’ control that used to be the central goal of much left-wing activity - is just another indication of how far today’s smug pseudo-Marxists and abstraction-befuddled “radicals” have strayed from any form of socialism that the pioneers of the left (Marxist and non-Marxist alike) would recognise.
It does not surprise us that - to use the phraseology of Clause 4, removed from the Labour Party’s Constitution long after the party had effectively ceased to believe in it - “workers by hand” tend to be more satisfied with their work than “workers by brain”. But the distinctions among different types of worker matter less than the condition that still unites all workers, whether they know it or not - that is, the fact that capitalism (to continue the quotation from Clause 4) deprives them of

“the full fruits of their labour and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service”.

The phraseology may seem dusty and old-fashioned, but there’s more wisdom and more practical relevance there than in any of the cretinous and vicious slogans that were being chanted on the streets of London and other cities earlier today.

Bertrand Russell (and Olaf Stapledon) Would Have Loved This

One way to get a proper perspective - not just on the liberation of Iraq, or the foolishness of those who opposed it, but on every single thing ever thought, imagined, said or done by any human being - is to look at these pictures, taken in May last year. One of them is “the first image of Earth ever taken from another planet that actually shows our home as a planetary disc” - and note that phrase “our home”, used here, not as a piece of tendentious ultraleft nonsense, but as a simple statement of a basic fact. (If you want the full effect, and don’t mind waiting while it downloads, click on the link “R05-00763.gif” near the bottom of the page.) Who needs religion, when technology and imagination - those uniquely human phenomena rightly praised by the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment - can bring us wonders like this?

That Fifth Anniversary in Kosova

Over the next few days there will probably be even more references, in those media that cover Kosova in any depth, to the fifth anniversary of something or other that happened in a province that - tellingly - is one of the few territories in the world better known by the name that a minority of its population uses than by the name used for centuries by the historically substantial majority. But which event is it the fifth anniversary of?
We note that the final attempt at "ethnic cleansing" of the Kosovar Albanians was launched by the former Serbian regime five years ago today, in line with a concerted state policy ruthlessly pursued for 12 years before that - and thus long pre-dating either the creation of the Kosova Liberation Army (1996) or the criminally slow awakening of western interest in what was really happening in the former Yugoslavia.
Others, of course, prefer to emphasise the bombing of Serbian targets by NATO planes, and to assert that the bombing somehow "caused" the attempted genocide. But the bombing started four days later ...
From which one or other of just two conclusions can be drawn: either NATO has got much further with its research into time travel than anyone has yet realised, or many of the people who present themselves as experts on Kosova are fools, liars or worse.

Do Something for Iraq

Visit Harry’s Place for suggestions; point and laugh at the anti-war clowns, and their misguided followers; hope on their behalf that they never experience even a fraction of the suffering that they were willing to see continuing indefinitely in Iraq (and, before that, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova and too many other places); or ignore the whole sorry business and enjoy your Saturday. But, if you can and to the extent you can, do something for Iraq.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Brevity is the Soul of Something or Other

After the meander of our previous post, a small but fairly deep pool.
According to Arthur C. Clarke, in Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds! (HarperCollins, 1999), this is the shortest story that Ernest Hemingway ever wrote:

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Touching, manipulative, or both?

Identities in Question

As the “left” has succumbed to collective amnesia about class, various forms of “identity politics” have been invented to fill the vaccuum. In yet another of those ironies that history keeps dumping on us all, those who once complained that class was a narrow, limiting, distorting category, incapable of capturing the richness and variety of human experience (or, at any rate, of their experience) now seek to impose fixed categories - gender, “race”, ethnicity, sexuality and the rest - that have already become just as narrow, limiting and distorting as class identities ever were. At least the notion of class allowed for changes to take place, as individuals shifted from one class, or one “class fraction”, to another. Now we are assured that anatomy, or skin colour, or cultural conditioning equals destiny - and that such “postmodern” stereotyping is necessarily more advanced and more sophisticated than the stereotyping it replaces, yet, strikingly, closely resembles.
Postmodernist assumptions in turn feed into “postcolonial” attitudes, and thus into the institutions created both to defend the interests of minorities - which is, on the whole, a job well worth doing - and to police the self-definition of members of such minorities - which is, again on the whole, a job that is not only not worth doing, but is inevitably ineffective anyway. A case in point is Chongryun, one of the two rival organisations that claim to represent the Korean minority in Japan - and it was this fascinating article about Chongryun that got us thinking about these issues again.
[Brief glossary, if needed: the ROK is the Republic of Korea (South Korea); the DPRK is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea); pachinko, the most popular form of gambling in Japan, is “a mixture between slot machine and pinball”; “the nail that stands out ...” is the first half of a Japanese proverb that ends “... gets hammered down”.]
The article usefully sketches in the background:

“At the peak [of Japan’s colonial rule in Korea] more than two million Koreans came to Japan, some freely, many forced. Most hastened home after liberation in 1945, but about 700,000 stayed on, only to face a new dilemma. In a now sundered homeland two rival regimes fought for their loyalty. Despite being geographically southerners, the vast majority chose the North ... these North Koreans of southern origin became ‘communist’ capitalists. Their profits helped Chongryun to build an entire Korean education system, even a university. They also aided, traded with, and invested in North Korea ... Politically, unity plus language-based nationalism gave Chongryun the upper hand against its pro-ROK rival, Mindan, which was usually split into pro-government and dissident camps.”

The article also points to the problems that all organisations claiming to represent minorities have to resolve one way or another:
- defining the minority in question in the first place (but in relation to which majority? - consider, for instance, the difference, which the provincial government of Quebec often ignores, between the Québécois, who form the francophone majority in that province, and hundreds of thousands of francophone Canadians who live as minorities in other provinces);
- gaining recognition from the government, as well as from specific agencies involved in education, health, housing and so on (but recognition as what? - consider “Catholic” versus “Nationalist” vs “Irish-speaker” within the various institutions of Northern Ireland);
- maintaining reliable sources of funding and support, while avoiding both absorption into the state machine (in the “host” country or in the “home” country) and capture by business or other sectional interests (legal or otherwise) - assuming that it’s even possible to walk such a tightrope for long without falling off; and
- above all, maintaining plausibility as being genuinely representative of the whole minority, not just of an elite or some other specially well-placed or unusually vocal minority within the minority (who, for example, elected the people who appear regularly on television and in newspapers to tell the rest of us what, in their opinion, all or most British Muslims think?).
Chongryun’s rivalry with Mindan has created complications that their counterparts in other countries do not have to face, and that reflect the enduring tragedy of the division of the Korean peninsula. However, its entanglements with business interests, with the demands of the education system and, above all, with the maintenance of an identity to which its members are expected to conform are characteristic of many similar organisations around the world.
So too, sooner or later, is its present fate, as described in the article:

“Younger Koreans born in Japan speak mainly Japanese. Most would rather integrate than be the nail that stands out: up to 10,000 a year seek naturalisation. Chongryun schools face falling rolls, while its university teaches less ‘Kim Il-sung-ism’ and more computing. Japan’s long recession has hit pachinko profits and other businesses. Chongryun’s banks are in trouble, and may even be bailed out by Tokyo ... [and] while the ROK is pushing Tokyo to give Koreans the vote, the DPRK and Chongryun resist such integration.”

It is this unstoppable change from generation to generation that makes us think of King Canute failing to command the waves, and then makes us wonder if “identity politics”, which once seemed to offer such bright prospects for a “left” that lost its way in the 1970s and 1980s, really has much of a future. The crucial feature of organisations such as Chongryun and Mindan is that they are voluntary, not compulsory. If even the people they claim to represent no longer feel that they are being adequately represented by them, what is there left for them to do that is worth doing?
What, then, of the “integration” of minorities, with all its side-effects, including - at best - making majorities much more tolerant, better informed and less insular? If (and, of course, it’s a very big “if” indeed) the passage of time brings with it the gradual development of a more diverse and sophisticated culture, genuinely open to all the residents of a given country, and then a transition from narrow ethnic or cultural identities to more universalistic ideological or even (let’s hope ...) class identities, how could anyone who identifies themselves as socialist, or liberal, object?
However, no minority anywhere can hope to withstand the pressures of an intolerant and repressive majority, and we would not want anything we’ve said so far to be taken as casting doubt on the principle that minority rights still need to be recognised and protected. The practice of “identity politics” by minorities and their more or less plausible representatives is only part of the picture: there’s also the “identity politics” of majorities. What is happening in Kosova right now (to take just one example) indicates what “identity politics”, based on carefully nurtured pseudo-historical myths that have been disseminated by a repressive state for decades on end, can lead to. Considering how the Kosovar Albanians were routinely treated when they were a minority within Serbia, it is no surprise at all - though it is certainly regrettable, and inexcusable - that some of them are behaving intolerantly and violently now that they feel that they belong to a majority.
In the end, what makes “identity politics”, at least as it is usually understood and practised, so dangerous and so self-defeating is this: it cannot take account of the fact that each individual human being belongs, not to any fixed majority, nor to to any single minority, but to a majority in respect of some aspects of their identity and to various minorities in respect of others - and even these will vary over time and according to circumstances. Which means that we’ve come a long way round, via Japan, the two Koreas and Kosova, to the banal conclusion that human beings are individuals and deserve to be respected as such - and that, as a celebrated member of several minorities once put it, “Individualism ... is what through socialism we are to attain” (quibble: we'd have said "individuality"). Well, banal as it may be, it’s not a bad position to take a stand on.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Parallel Universe

We had a fascinating time, earlier today, discussing science fiction with someone who read Olaf Stapledon’s neglected classic Last and First Men soon after it was first published, in 1930. We came home to look through the Guardian and soon alighted, as if on a missive from Sedna itself, on this letter from Tony Benn ...
The fact that Benn needs little or no introduction, being a hero to most of the British “left”, a bugbear to much of the British right and one of the few British politicians known outside this country, is in itself an indication of the horrible mess the “left” has got itself into. This is a man who, having actively opposed all practical attempts to restore democracy and human rights in one country with a Muslim plurality (Bosnia-Herzegovina), a nearby province with a large Muslim majority (Kosova), as well as two states with Muslim majorities (Afghanistan and Iraq), has the gall to present himself as a democrat, a campaigner for human rights and a friend to Muslims everywhere. Now he presumes to tell the readers of the Guardian, all too many of whom will lap up his every word, that the Commons majority that voted to liberate Iraq is out of touch with the people because - wait for it - 48 per cent of the British population supported that decision and 41 per cent didn’t. Er ...
Let’s imagine for a moment that in the 1640s the Levellers - whom Benn often prattles about, but almost as often wilfully confuses with the very different group known as the True Levellers, or Diggers - won power in England, suppressed both the royalists and the Puritans, and introduced annual parliaments, elected by some kind of proportional representation. Then fast forward to 2003, and a vote on whether to liberate the people of Iraq or, as Benn and his fans wished, to leave them to suffer indefinitely under Ba’ath rule. In this imaginary Parliament 48 per cent of MPs vote for war, 41 per cent vote against. Would Benn denounce that as “undemocratic”? Of course he would - since he clearly no longer understands what democracy is, or that among its requirements are a willingness and a capacity to fight its enemies.
Of course, none of this would matter if Benn was no more than a retired politician with yet another volume of his diaries to concentrate his failing powers on. In fact, however, Benn is President of the Stop the War Coalition, which, apparently unable to grasp the fact that the war stopped in April last year, is now preparing to march on Saturday 20th to demand the withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq - presumably, given that George Galloway and Tariq Ali are among Benn’s Vice Presidents, in order to allow the Islamofascist and Ba’athist “resistance” to seize power. Just to compound the sense of unreality, members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, on whose website there appeared the superb argument in favour of socialist morality that we linked to in our previous post, are planning to march with these deluded and dangerous reactionaries.
Who needs science fiction when so many apparently intelligent and doubtless terribly sincere and earnest people talk and act as if they already lived in a parallel universe? Or has the invasion of the body-snatchers already happened?

[BGM: Michael Nyman's BGM for Gattaca ...]