Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Crime and passion

I was at the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Sunday. It was a great day out with friends. The rebuilt stadium is impressive. Escalators took you up to your seats high in the stands. Stewards were everywhere, every part of the design regulated the flow of people and made overcrowding impossible. Seats were comfortable and spacious. Outside, the policing was efficient and good natured. The queues for the underground were well managed, making sure that the platforms and the trains were not overcrowded. Even the train announcer cracked jokes at the fans over the tannoy.

At a semi-final twenty-seven years ago the authorities managed to kill ninety six people. At last, at long last, the killings have been declared unlawful. Prosecutions may follow. This superb report from David Conn, one of our best football writers, is damning. Read it all.

Now look at the pictures, not just the awful ones of the mayhem and the dead. Look at the ground. See the shallow steps that fans stood on, where even craning your neck you could only get an obscured glimpse of the game. And then there are those fences. Cages for fans, penned in on either side and prevented from getting to the safety of the pitch, away from the carnage. It isn't in this report, but one of the most poignant pictures shows empty spaces on the terracing adjacent to the pens where people were being crushed to death. If they had been able to move there, no one would have died. The same goes for being able to evacuate onto the pitch. The standing areas in Hillsborough were a crumbling, squalid death trap.

Manslaughter happened that day because of two things. The first was an attitude of uncomprehending hatred of football fans by those who ran the game and a political elite who had yet to find supporting a club to be a vote-winning fashion icon. The response to the real problem of the violence of the minority was punitive to everyone, the innocent majority included. Grounds were changed to be like prison camps and facilities were rarely upgraded. They were an emanation of the way ordinary fans were despised.

The second was a managerial culture that favoured mediocrity and the exercise of authority over intelligence and expertise. Being both a boot licker and a bully was the way to promotion. I have often seen this phenomenon in education, though there the cost can be measured in careers and qualifications, not in corpses.

After the deaths came another crime, a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Like all conspiracies, it soon unravelled. But it still took twenty-seven years of struggle for the authorities to finally, and reluctantly, concede their guilt.

I have been in a bad crush once. It was outside a first division football ground in London in the early seventies. The gates had been closed with queues of people still outside. The game was not televised (no league games were then) and it wasn't all ticket. A narrow street leading to the ground was packed as people funnelled in to try and get into the ground. Once you are in a crush you are helpless, swept one way and then another. The police had lost control and a frightened police horse was trapped in the entry with us. At last I was was pushed towards wrought iron gates. At first I was grateful to be able to breathe through them, then the pressure intensified painfully until the locks gave way. They burst open and the crowd stumbled through them into the wide open forecourt and car park that we could see but couldn't reach. Nobody fell. We were safe. I was young then. I got through the turnstiles, into the ground and watched the game, but when I looked down my shirt was torn and all the buttons had been ripped off. Looking back, I know that we were all lucky.

It is so different today. There is much wrong with modern football. The economics of the game leave a nasty taste. TV matches are nearly all on pay-per-view. Fans are locked out of ownership of the clubs they love. We need safe standing, after all we have it already as people stand in nominal seating areas. There is the creeping gentrification and the ubiquitous corporate takeover. Then there is the expense. It wasn't cheap to go to Wembley. But then again, I would rather be treated as a cash cow than as cattle going to slaughter.

My only worry today is about getting a ticket for the final.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Paranoia

It's time to move into the realm of post-reality politics. I stumbled across this thanks to a former student. Anonymous, that bunch of mask wearing hackers, posted an article about the sad death of a New York Times journalist. To them, and the post that was their source, this was not tragic, but sinister.

You see the woman had, according to them, been murdered by strangulation and she had written an article exposing,
Project MKUltra, often referred to as the CIA’s mind control program, was the code name given to an illegal program of experiments on human subjects, designed and undertaken by the the CIA."
The conclusion was obvious:
Is it possible that Ms. Kershaw stumbled upon some new information that made her dangerous? Considering the speed at which the capabilities of psychotronic weapons has improved, the possibility is extremely high.
Except for a couple of things. She wasn't murdered. She wasn't even strangled. It appears from her obituary that she ended her own life due to the pain of a chronic illness. And that article? She wrote it in 2008. It is about how the proliferation of 'mind control' sites on the internet can reinforce and perpetuate delusions. It isn't about MKUltra at all. Ironically, it is about mental health. Judging by these posts, she had a point. She didn't write any more on this either; she mainly wrote about real estate.

I mention this because it is an extreme version of another tendency to move beyond evidence. It has been showing up all over the place in the wake of the Panama Papers, and especially the mention of David Cameron. Why bother with the detailed research and dissection of hard evidence when you can fall back onto generalised mistrust and make things up? But when you do, you damage your cause irreparably. Effective opposition requires forensic accuracy. On the whole, reality is prosaic. To pretend it isn't is to completely undermine your case and be accused of wild hysteria, mainly because you are being wildly hysterical. For an individual, losing touch with reality may do little harm unless it is seriously psychotic; for a political movement, it is deadly.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Modernity

Football fan message boards aren't usually inspiring. But this thread was:
What made me most proud about yesterday ......was that a man wearing make-up and heels could do a lap of honour and get a standing ovation at a football ground in 21st century Britain.
One reason why we live in a better world than the one I grew up in.


Eddie Izzard. Marathon man.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Against morality

My recent contact with the National Health Service made me return to this article. The author is a Finnish American citizen, Anu Partanen, who gets constantly questioned about the strong welfare state in Finland. People keep telling her that it all sounds nice, but the social solidarity of Nordic countries, which is the bedrock of welfare states, doesn't exist in the USA and so the level of taxation to support comprehensive welfare systems wouldn't be possible. Her answer is simple:
But this vision of homogenous, altruistic Nordic lands is mostly a fantasy. The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship. Rather, Nordic people have made their decisions out of self-interest. Nordic nations offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble. This is what Americans fail to understand: My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me. 
Yes, the real argument for welfare states is self-interest. They are a good idea. For you. You benefit directly and indirectly. If not in the present, in the future. It's obvious.

Why is the NHS politically untouchable (though infinitely reorganisable)? The answer is easy. We all use it. Birth, death, childhood, and old age are universal. And we all get ill. Sometimes those illnesses are life threatening and because of the NHS you don't die or become bankrupt. The point is that we think about us, our families and friends. We don't get carried away by a warm fuzzy feeling as we watch belligerent drunks at bus stops or neo-Nazi thugs parading in the streets thinking, "Isn't it wonderful that they are protected by the NHS." No, we think isn't it a bloody good idea that if one of these bastards takes a swing at us we can get patched up at the local hospital. The ultimate, total justification for all welfare provision is self-interest.

So why then do we insist on framing the debate in moral terms? Because that is what we do on both the left and right.

The left version is that a civilised society should care for the weakest and most vulnerable of our society. It's a charitable impulse that is sometimes described as social justice. It's also a moral belief that I share. The trouble is that it invites the response, 'why should I pay for someone else?' The left replies by calling the objectors greedy or selfish, a moral condemnation. This may be true, but calling someone greedy doesn't stop them being greedy, so the argument becomes pointless.

Right wing moral arguments are all about who deserves support and who deserves 'encouragement.' They divide the world into the deserving and undeserving poor or 'strivers and shirkers.' The result is a two track welfare policy. There is charity for the deserving, but sanctions for the undeserving. Those sanctions are dressed up in moral language as a way of encouraging people to get into work and save themselves from sin. Things like the 'bedroom tax' encourage people to give up living in larger homes and move into smaller, and mainly non-existent, accommodation. It's critics all focus on the moral arguments about spare rooms being used for disabled equipment and other such scandals, rarely on the policy itself.

This might appease the greedy, but it creates problems and undermines the case for welfare states. And, of course, the boundaries are never clear cut. The Tories have got into huge trouble by attacking Tax Credits, which go to low paid people in work, and benefits for the disabled. Both groups are seen as 'deserving' and rebellions in their own party has forced them to backtrack. We have even seen tentative attempts to introduce morality into the NHS with suggestions to exclude the obese or smokers from treatment unless they change their wicked ways. The anomalies and inconsistencies are so great that these seem to have faded away.

I have another suggestion. Let's bin all the moral arguments. And although I do think that there are strong collective and economic arguments for welfare provision, let's not bother with those either. Instead we should make the case for the individual benefit of good public services and comprehensive social insurance to everybody. Though collective means are the instrument to ensure security, the result is enhanced individual liberty. In that way, we are drawn towards universalism instead of judgemental conditionality, and to schemes like universal citizens' incomes, which have been advocated on both the left and right.

Then what would matter is that political debate on public service will not be about morality, but quality. This was something that New Labour understood, but then they blew it by thinking that good quality could be delivered through the imposition of centralised managerial control and grotesque bureaucracy.

The key to building the sort of social democratic consensus on wider welfare that has sustained the NHS is to see it as a system that benefits us as individuals, rather something that is done to others on the basis of disputable moral grounds. 

All's well that ends well

For all the talk of heath crises I think that we should remember one thing. In the developed world we live longer, healthier lives than ever before in human history. Dangerous conditions can be remedied and lives saved. This isn't down to fad diets, health cranks, latter day versions of snake oil, or the like. It is down to scientific research, 'big pharma,' and modern medicine. In short - it's progress. Here's to it and may it be widely shared.

Looking forward to my pal coming home tomorrow.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Priorities

When someone who is close to you is seriously ill and has undergone major surgery, hospital visits take precedence over blogging. But never, ever doubt the value of the NHS. Maybe that, tangentially, will be the subject of the next post when I resume.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Language games

I have known for a long time that some feminists have wanted to call history 'herstory' instead. I always found it silly. Now this report points out that students are writing it as 'hxstory' to make it a gender neutral term. I despair.

Let's get this right, if history meant 'his story' it would be spelt 'hisstory.' It isn't. It's spelt 'hi story,' which makes it the beginning of an over-familiar email to the past. But this isn't the real lunacy. Rather than being PC, these zealots are being culturally biased and, in particular, linguistically anglocentric. The word history derives from the Greek, ιστοριά (istoria). Greek nouns, as in most languages are gendered. Ιστοριά is feminine! It is η ιστοριά. So because of English transliteration they have assumed that a feminine noun is masculine, merely because it contains the letters 'his.'

Just because one word contains the letters that make up another, it doesn't mean that this defines the origin and meaning of the original word. Let's take the Lincolnshire town of Scunthorpe as an example. The four letter word it famously contains is not a description of the town's inhabitants - perhaps.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Trumbo

After continual urging by a friend I went to see the film Trumbo, a biopic of the experiences of the Hollywood screen writer, Dalton Trumbo, under McCarthyism. It's a fine film. It does what others rarely do and portrays writing as hard, solitary and neurotic work. Superbly written, it has humour without comedy, tragedy without pathos, and sentiment without schmaltz. It's a very intelligent film.

Trumbo had been a member of the Communist Party and was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, imprisoned for contempt of Congress and subsequently blacklisted. He and his colleagues continued writing under assumed names. Trumbo even won two Oscars that way.

There are two historical points that the film highlighted for me. The first is that though the American Communist Party was a thoroughly grisly Stalinist party, the people who joined were mainly decent in intention. They were egalitarian and humanitarian. Some were doctrinaire, though many others were anything but. The ones who weren't ideologues were instinctive socialists, not intellectually convinced Stalinists. That said, I have much stronger sympathies with the anti-Stalinist left than I do with people who became fellow travellers. Emma Goldman, George Orwell, Max Shachtman, Dwight MacDonald and others should have done enough to enlighten anyone harbouring illusions, as should the fate of the great, great Russian writers who disappeared into the Gulag. But even so, it was naivety and the human capacity for self-delusion that brought them into a movement that promised nirvana even as it delivered terror.

However, the main point is that Stalinism and the onset of the Cold War posed a challenge to American liberalism. Faced with a choice between liberalism and authoritarian nationalism, they chose the latter. McCarthyism was utterly illiberal, even borrowing it's own version of the show trial. It was ugly, paranoid and sinister. Lives were wrecked and people died - not in the way that they did under Stalin, but it was miserable enough and a stain on American history. Faced with a test, liberalism failed.

And so it fell to these Communists and socialists, whose own efforts would have landed them in the gulags in the Soviet Union, to defend the right to free speech and the First Amendment. They became the liberals and the symbol of American democratic values.

The Hollywood of Trumbo's era produced the great liberal film, like, for example, the exploration of small-town racism in Bad Day at Black Rock. This one is an admirable addition to the genre about one of its finest exponents.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Opinionated

I have been reading opinion pieces on Jeremy Corbyn obsessively. The trouble is, they are all the same depending on the politics of who wrote them. So here is a complete guide to journalism so that you don't have to wade through it all.

Trigger warning: Contains bad language and disrespectful comments.

1. Corbynistas:

He's so wonderful, not like all the others. He's different. The press are all biased, MPs are all Blairites (spit!). Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. Everybody loves him really. St Jeremy, can we buy you a bike?

2. Old Labour left (i)

Shame its him, but we're there. Let's make the best of it. It's our chance comrades.

3. Old Labour left (ii)

Fuck, we're doomed!

4. Old Labour centre

Fuck, we're doomed! What are we going to do about it?

5. Old Labour right

Bring me the head of Jeremy Corbyn.

6. New Labour ultras

Mwaaaaaaaaaaa!

7. Conservatives

This is a tragedy for a great party, but then again ...



Finally. The electorate has spoken:

Who's that weirdo? 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Lesvos

This is a touching story linking the experience of exile and migration over generations, and of hard lives and human kindness.
“Dear Lord, we never expected this: people coming through the storm,” says Maritsa. “As soon as they step off the boat they say prayers and kiss the ground; it's unbelievable. They're to be pitied. And there are so many babies, tiny little things. It breaks your heart to see the babies in such a sorry state, trembling with cold.”
Be sure to watch the video.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

A load of crap

I can't remember James Bond doing this. Apparently, Stalin spied on Mao by having his shit analysed.
According to recent reports, former Soviet agent Ivor Atamanenko claims Stalin had ordered Mao to be fed well during his ten days of closely supervised “hospitality”. Mao was also asked to use a special toilet, where his excrement was collected daily and sent to a secret lab for analysis.
I don't know what they found in it, but Freud would have had a field day with this emanation of the international proletarian brotherhood. 

Monday, February 01, 2016

Toppling Cecil.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oxford University has left me cold. Not that I could possibly deny that he was one of the more hideous figures of British colonial history, but it seems to me to be a bit of self-indulgent tokenism. I've never been keen on iconoclasm.

Though a better social mix at Oxford may improve the diversity of newspaper columnists, real educational inequality is far wider, like, er, between Oxbridge and the rest. That concerns me more.

That said, there is a problem at elite institutions. It must be twenty years or so since I went to a conference on widening access to higher education at the University of Cambridge, but it encapsulated the problem nicely. At the conference dinner, they wheeled out one of the progressive academics who rounded up her speech by saying, "As for ethnic minorities, we have no problem with those. After all, we have educated the sons and daughters of princes and prime ministers from all over the world." Oh dear. I don't think she quite got this equality lark.

I am certain that things have improved since then, but these are the attitudes that must fall, not a Victorian statue.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Baleful Labour

I like this piece by Time Bale, he seems to get a lot right, though I would put some things a bit stronger than him.

I agree that
Labour cannot possibly win, nor even come close to winning, the next election unless it somehow gets shot of Corbyn in pretty short order.
Indeed, if he lasts very much longer as leader then there is every chance that Labour will gift the Tories control of government for a decade or more to come.
Yes, I do think it's this bad.

I also think he gets Corbyn's supporters right:
The ecstatic Labour delegates sitting around me in the Brighton Centre listening to Jeremy Corbyn give his first party conference speech as leader were lovely people. But they were utterly deluded. 
I would add two other points. First, Corbyn comes from what has been called the "regressive left." I have vehemently and consistently opposed it ever since I started writing this blog. Just because he has surprisingly become leader of the Labour Party, it makes no difference at all. Someone who has taken paid gigs spreading Russian and Iranian state propaganda, or who has shared platforms and promoted the views of fascists and anti-Semites purely because they are anti-western, has, to my mind, committed crimes against the very principles that the left stand on. This is unforgivable.

Secondly, well, he's a bit crap, isn't he? I mean, everything he touches turns to poo. Outside the politics, there is a genuine competence issue. As Attlee is supposed to have said to John Parker to explain why he sacked him in 1946, "Not up to the job."

That bit is easy, but Bale doesn't leave it there.
That said, there is clearly something to the Corbynite critique of what the Labour Party had become by 2010 and continued to be right the way through to its second defeat on the trot in 2015. Talk of millions of lost voters (the exact figure seems to vary depending on how left-wing those citing it see themselves as) may be overblown. But Blair and Brown undoubtedly presided over a hollowing out of the party's support, particularly in parts of the working class that might once have been seen as Labours core vote ..... Put bluntly, its thirteen years in power had made the Labour party's mainstream lazy. Rather than continuing forcefully to make the case that their ideas were practically and even morally superior to those of the left, they simply fell back on the argument that those ideas made them more electable.
Again I would go further. This wasn't laziness, it was incoherence. Anyone who has ploughed through Anthony Giddens' Third Way books would know that there was a lack of ideas at all, whether they were practically and morally superior or not. Instead we had an acceptance of Thatcherite political economy, justified by conventional wisdom, and completed with a heavy dose of grisly managerialism.

The crucial issue is political economy. It is not enough to decry an ill-defined 'austerity' or 'neoliberalism,' instead Labour needs a reworked social democracy that appeals to swing voters and to disillusioned and disengaged working class voters. This is not going to be easy, but it is necessary. Corbyn's knee-jerk leftism and Blairite smugness about their electoral victories - stripped of analysis or context of why those wins happened - is not enough. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Policy v politics

The decision over the renewal of Trident is one of those areas where politics trumps sensible policy making. This has always been the case. The politics of nuclear deterrence is dominated by political symbolism rather than strategic thinking.

Looking back to the Cold War, nuclear deterrence was a restraint. The consequences of adventurism were too devastating to risk a full-scale confrontation. But there is a flaw in the theory of deterrence. A deterrent has to be credible if it is to deter. To be credible it must be useable and ready to be used. The old theory of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is still popularly held, but was never credible. The idea that you would respond to an attack by destroying human civilisation - yours and the aggressors - is genuinely mad. That is why the main nuclear strategy was a war fighting one based on a ladder of escalation up to a first strike to take out the other side's own nuclear weapons before they can use them. It is a credible deterrent, but one with huge risks. If that primary deterrence fails, then the only way a war can be won is to strike first. The first level of deterrence encourages restraint, the second escalation. This was always the concern of more thoughtful critics of nuclear weapons. So there is a case for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament. It isn't the one we normally hear though. Even so, because of nuclear proliferation, there still is a case for a deterrent based on a limited retaliatory capacity. We hear that argument a lot more.

But what about Britain's independent nuclear deterrent? It isn't fully independent and its military value is limited. Within the army, in particular, voices have been raised about whether the cost would be better spent on conventional forces. Further afield, there is another line that says that as we are under the NATO nuclear umbrella, the money would be better spent elsewhere and that employment would be better served by investment in non-military manufacturing. There is a real argument for a rethink. The problem is that this argument is buried under political symbolism. After all, British nuclear arms were always a political rather than a military weapon.

They were developed by the post-war Labour government primarily to keep British influence with the United States, but were opposed by the left. Since then, British nuclear weapons have become a cause, rather than a policy. And that cause has been a constant source of division, from Bevan's 1957 conversion to being a supporter of Britain's nuclear status, through 1980s unilateralism and up to today's split over Trident renewal.

The politicisation of nuclear weapons has prevented a rational discussion of policy. This was one area that would benefit from bi-partisanship. But the Conservatives have a vested interest in being the party of nuclear defence. They can paint a non-nuclear policy as both weak and extremist at the same time. There is no enthusiasm amongst the electorate for nuclear disarmament, it is a vote loser, and so the struggle in the Labour Party is over a symbol of both left/right control and electability. Military policy is merely an afterthought.

Today's Trident debate is the same. Trident renewal is opposed by the left, supported by the right and by the unions representing defence workers. The Conservatives sit back and watch gleefully. Once again, politics has prevailed.

Mind you, Corbyn has come up with a compromise - submarines on patrol with missiles without warheads. Another great idea. It makes no military sense, no economic sense and will be electorally unpopular. Again, the suggestion is political. This time it's the machine politics of the pork barrel - throwing an expensive and useless project at key supporters to appease them. Or perhaps Colin Talbot's more surreal explanation is the best one. Whatever, my head is in my hands once more.

Back to ...

Back to Manchester to be laid low by a succession of viruses and back to the nineteen eighties, at least that is what it has felt like as Jezza and the Corbynistas set about being a new romantic revival band. Yes, all the old favourites are back; nuclear disarmament, the Falklands, a looming Labour defeat. Except, I was young then and now I'm not. Bugger.

Thursday, December 31, 2015