Thursday, November 26, 2015

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The 18th Brumaire of Jeremy Corbyn

Just who thought it was a good idea to quote Mao? Which demented spin doctor approved the waving of 'the little red book'? Who? Dear god, who?

I still think my comparison in the post below is valid, but it needs to be qualified with that old quote about history repeating itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Old Labour - a futile defence

In the dim distant past, Tony Blair made a self-pitying speech about having scars on his back from trying to change the public sector and complained about being held back by the "forces of conservatism." I guess he meant me. I remember life under New Labour as a constant struggle against stupid policies introduced with either macho posturing about tough choices or hand-wringing whining about how we must compete with China. The idea that my opposition was conservative rankled. Certainly in my field of adult education, I was a vociferous advocate of reform; it was the government's specific changes that I opposed.

Years passed, and, when I expressed alarm at the prospect of Corbyn leading the Labour Party, I was shocked when someone called me 'red Tory scum.' It wasn't so much the scum I objected to, but Tory? Now, anyone who is against Corbyn's leadership gets a far worse insult, the most objectionable name in the Corbynista demonology – 'Blairite.'

Reflecting on it all in a state of existential despair, I suddenly thought, 'that's odd, they're doing the same thing.' And it became clear that though doctrinally different, the Corbyn and Blair factions had something in common.

Blairites were convinced that they held the secret to electoral victory. It's a formula they had worked out and bottled that they think can be applied whatever the circumstances. As true meritocrats (in the original satirical sense of the term as coined by Michael Young) they see their election victories solely as a result of their superior efforts. They don't think of themselves as the beneficiaries of a specific time in history. The cards fell right for them as the Conservative Party self-destructed. They played their hand well, but it was a good one.

Their method was to say that they were not the Labour Party. They ran against themselves and became New Labour. The Blairites seemed to dislike their own party. They talked about 'big tent' politics, which meant including voters and parties to the right of Labour alone. Traditional voters could be safely ignored, as they had 'nowhere else to go'. (They did, as it turns out, they went home. Turnout crashed).

Three election victories, each more unconvincing than the last, gave them confidence. They clung to a post hoc rationalisation that the reason that they won so big in 1997 was because of the policies that they adopted after they won. They forgot that some of what they promised before the election was different. And this blinded them to their subsequent electoral decline that left them vulnerable to a Tory revival. They were lucky again. The Tory Party extended the franchise for their leadership contests to all members and elected a new leader with a whopping 60% of the vote. They chose Ian Duncan Smith. Which brings me round to Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn has nothing like as good a hand electorally, but that is not his priority anyway. He too has run against his party. He also doesn't like them. Instead of offering victory by compromising principles, he offers principles by compromising victory. But what are his principles? Are they Labour principles? Well, on foreign policy, certainly not. But again there is a parallel. Blair schmoozed to corporations and made friends with Rupert Murdoch. Corbyn cuddled up to any anti-Western regime, however grim, and allied with theocratic fascists. Both sided with Labour's natural enemies, though it has to be said that Putin and Hamas make Murdoch look like Father Christmas.

Ultimately, both Blairites and Corbynistas opposed 'actually existing' Labour and wanted to reform it in their own image. Both claimed novelty - New Labour or a 'new, kinder, gentler politics' (the practice seems somewhat different). Both saw themselves as the sole repository of political virtue. Both actively disliked the bulk of the party that they led. This had consequences. Blairite control freakery reduced the role of activists and it became a shell party, an organisation for sustaining the leadership. This opened up the possibility of change if a surge of new members could be recruited to support it, something Labour enabled through its new method of electing the leader. And that is why Corbyn won. His new activists, organised through groups like Momentum, are also trying to restructure the membership to make it the party of a different type of loyalist.

This self-loathing strikes me as odd. So what is it they dislike (apart from anyone having the temerity to disagree with them)?  I think that the answer lies in Labour's history. Labour was always a coalition. It was formed in 1900 as a coalition of trade unions with the three socialist parties. But even those parties were very different. The largest, the Independent Labour Party, was non-doctrinaire, The Social Democratic Federation was Marxist, while The Fabian Society was technocratic. There is no coherent ideology that is authentically Labour. We have seen Labour cabinets that have included Cripps and Bevan with Bevin and Dalton, and later, Foot and Benn with Jenkins and Healey. Coalition has always been the nature of the beast.

Coalitions are not nice, cosy arrangements that produce a sensible consensus. They are pits of rivalry, hatred, and mutual recrimination, punctuated by periods of power struggle. Policy emerges through dialectic rather than reasoned agreement. The Labour Party has never been an easy place and has always been fractious. Problems emerge when one faction is dominant to the complete exclusion of the others. Then party loyalty becomes factional loyalty. This isn't a straight right/left split. One of New Labour's most ferocious early critics was the former deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, a figure from the right. Within New Labour, the Brown/Blair split poisoned relations. Under Corbyn, around 90% of the Parliamentary Party are dissidents, including many on the left. This is factional politics.

New Labour was at least recognisable as part of the mainstream, the Corbyn faction is a tiny fringe group. Blair also had the advantage of being able to offer electoral success, Corbyn is facing almost certain electoral oblivion. Blair was more secure and could win support from those outside his immediate circle, though some of the centre left was uneasy. Corbyn's support lies mainly outside Parliament, but, given the change in voting rules, he looks to be unremovable in the short term.

There are differences between the two. An established faction is more secure than an insurgent one. As a result, it can be more tolerant of difference, more inclusive, and make for more congenial, if condescending, company in disagreement. While Blairites were established and experienced insiders, Corbynistas are part of an insurgency. They have a more conspiratorial mindset, are distrustful and hostile. Michael White's judgement that "Jeremy Corbyn is a very nice man, nice but naive. Some of those around him are neither," applies in spades to his supporters. I know some who are lovely people, good friends even, but others can be abusive brutes. It all reminds me of a section of Jonathan Rose's wonderful book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, where he discusses the Communist Party's failure to win working class support.
Put bluntly, the trouble with Marx was Marxists, whom British workers generally found to be dogmatic, selfish, and antiliterary. ... British working people judged Marxism by Marxists they knew, and concluded, with good reason, that such people were not going to make a better world.
They are making Labour another 'nasty party' and it will have the same result. The parallel with Ian Duncan Smith does not look far fetched. Neither were credible prime ministerial candidates. Both were symbols of membership revolt against 'the establishment.' Neither could win. IDS was removed, opening the way for Cameron and a slow Tory revival. Corbyn's fate, in the far more loyal Labour Party, is unclear.

So here I am, a Labour member, on-and-off, for decades who was disillusioned by Blair, but who is now homeless and unwelcome under Corbyn. So what's the solution?

Labour faces big problems. Scotland is gone, dominated by the SNP. The Blairite tactic of targeting swing voters in marginal constituencies, trying to win back supporters from the Tories is absolutely necessary. Power cannot be won without it, but is it enough? Corbyn's strategy of concentrating on the core vote, young voters and increasing the turnout amongst the working class electorate, even if it worked, could not win a general election on its own. It could only give Labour larger majorities in seats they already hold. Labour needs to be able to do both, and that suggests that the mainstream Labour coalition doesn't look such a bad idea after all. What Labour must not do under any circumstances is to confuse the views of the members with that of the voters. Many in the Corbyn camp think that the leader's popularity with party members reflects support in the electorate as a whole. They are wrong. The Tories are opening up a big lead in the polls. This is a mistake that the Blairites did not make, as they over-obsessed about focus groups and market testing.

My hope is that a revival of the old Labour coalition would be possible, making someone like me on the old left feel happy about paying my membership dues. And maybe, just maybe, the Labour Party will stop reacting to every defeat with factional power grabs. But to do this requires a change in the leadership as soon as is practicable and hope for the return of uneasy party unity and toleration of diversity. Some are beginning to advocate a formal split, abandoning Labour to the Corbynista faction and forming a new party. It strikes me as suicidal. The British electoral system punishes splits. New Labour may come to regret abandoning their flirtation with proportional representation before 1997. But then carrying on and making the best of it is equally suicidal. If there is no change and Labour blunders on, then the future looks bleak for a long time ahead.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Capability Corbyn

One of my reservations about Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party is not over policy, but competence. His reaction to the Paris atrocity has not put my mind at rest. The latest sense of alarm came from his answer to a question about a shoot-to-kill policing policy. He has good reason to oppose it as an automatic policy after Northern Ireland and the death of de Menezes in the aftermath of 7/7. But that wasn't what he was asked.

I have listened to the interviews and it couldn't have been clearer. In one, he had manoeuvred, not very convincingly, through some awkward questions on his attitude to ISIS. Then the interviewer gave him what Americans call a softball question, one that is easy to answer. He was asked if he would order the police or army to shoot dead a gunman who was killing innocent people. He waffled about being opposed to a shoot-to-kill policy in general. That wasn't the question. So the interviewer clarified it to make it clear she was referring to a single specific incident and not a general policy. He repeated the mantra, with his usual tone of irritation when questioned, and added something about not bringing war to the streets. The answer he should have given is simple. He should have said yes.

First of all, it would be perfectly legal as an act of self-defence. Secondly, he wouldn't have to order it anyway as it would fall under the normal rules of engagement. And if he was worried about the principle, here's Gandhi - yes, Gandhi - writing in 1926:
Even manslaughter may be necessary in certain cases. Suppose a man runs amuck and goes furiously about sword in hand, and killing any one that comes his way, and no one dares to capture him alive. Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded a benevolent man.
(Young India, 4-11-'26, pp. 384-85)
It was a straightforward opportunity to reassure the public and sound responsible in the wake of a shocking attack in France that showed that there is also a clear threat to the people of this country. Instead he equivocated. In effect, he was saying to the voters that if they were attacked he would rather they were killed than kill the gunman. I don't think that's a vote-winner.

Politicians say stupid things, but leadership is a team. So what were his media advisers doing? Rather than instantly clarifying his position and coaching him in what to say instead, they let him repeat it and then repeat it again to a hostile Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. What is more, it was a meeting that included one of his biggest critics whose niece had been caught up in the Paris massacre, thankfully without being harmed. He had a personal stake in this. The meeting did not go well. If this is anything like an accurate account, it sounds a disaster. This is the price of appointing a posh ex-Stalinist from the Guardian as your media adviser, rather than a tabloid-savvy fixer.

Everything has been pulled back today. Hilary Benn has restated a more credible policy and Corbyn's position has been duly refined, but the damage has already been done. 

It's ironic. I have talked to people about Corbyn who have been concerned by his foreign policy but thought that domestically a move to the left was necessary and welcome. They felt that domestic politics was far more important. Yet, the first major test of his leadership turns out to be a profoundly serious crisis in foreign affairs. I totally disagree with his views, but I would hope that at least he would be able to state his position at a time of crisis with a modicum of competence.  

I hate to say it, but this is horribly reminiscent of my years in education on the occasions we have made an unsuitable appointment as a principal. I have been to those meetings. I have helped in the Hilary Benn style rescue operations. Politics and political ideas are an area of dispute, but the ability to do the job should be a given. I hope he and his team learn, but I don't think this one is going away.

Monday, November 16, 2015


The atrocity in Paris was so awful and the stories so heartbreaking that you would have thought there might be a pause for thought, for some deeper reflection and for the evidence to emerge before embarking on the latest round of speculative bollocks. But no. First out of the blocks were the anti-Muslim fantasists and the anti-immigration right. They were followed rapidly by the self-hating left, beautifully satirised by Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar here:
“Nope. We created you. We installed a social and economic system that alienates and disenfranchises you, and that’s why you did this. We’re sorry.”

“What? Why are you apologizing? We just slaughtered you mercilessly in the streets. We targeted unwitting civilians – disenfranchisement doesn’t even enter into it!”

“Listen, it’s our fault. We don’t blame you for feeling unwelcome and lashing out.”

“Seriously, stop taking credit for this! We worked really hard to pull this off, and we’re not going to let you take it away from us.”

“No, we nourished your extremism. We accept full blame.”

“OMG, how many people do we have to kill around here to finally get our message across?”
But what I dislike most are the cynics. They sneer at people changing their Facebook profile pictures or posting statements expressing their sympathy. Yet this is all most people can do. It is a moral act; an act that is both individual and collective. It says, 'we are with you, the victims, and against the terrorists. The action was evil and we have to find some way of saying it.' It is a fine gesture, even if a small one, from people remote from the event and unable to influence it. And it is that same impulse that transforms others, who had the misfortune to be there, into heroes. If you want to understand more about humanity, look beyond the crime itself and what you will see is an ocean of kindness responding to a sea of barbarism. This survivor's account has gone viral and in it she too pays tribute to that human impulse.
But being a survivor of this horror lets me able to shed light on the heroes. To the man who reassured me and put his life on line to try and cover my brain whilst i whimpered, to the couple whose last words of love kept me believing the good in the world, to the police who succeded in rescuing hundreds of people, to the complete strangers who picked me up from the road and consoled me during the 45 minutes I truly believed the boy i loved was dead, to the injured man who i had mistaken for him and then on my recognition that he was not Amaury, held me and told me everything was going to be fine despite being all alone and scared himself, to the woman who opened her doors to the survivors, to the friend who offered me shelter and went out to buy new clothes so i wouldnt have to wear this blood stained top, to all of you who have sent caring messages of support - you make me believe this world has the potential to be better. to never let this happen again. but most of this is to the 80 people who were murdered inside that venue, who weren't as lucky, who didnt get to wake up today and to all the pain that their friends and families are going through. I am so sorry. There's nothing that will fix the pain.
So fuck your sneering, fuck your irony. This is not the time for cynicism.

One of the most irritating themes is the one that keeps mentioning how the same attention was not given to other outrages, such as the Beirut bomb. The posts usually start with some line that the 'mainstream media' (another sneer) won't tell you this. Of course this isn't true, the authors just haven't bothered to look at the multitude of reports everywhere. This happens a lot. However, they are right about one thing. It won't get as much coverage here as Paris will. But because of this, they insinuate that the grief is insincere, inauthentic, and implicitly racist. By mourning Paris and not Beirut you are a heartless imperialist. European lives are worth more to you. What this is designed to do is not to include the horror in Lebanon, but to invalidate the grief and anger over France. It is about neutralising the response. It's political, obviously, but it's also dishonest. Let me explain.

I live in Eccles. This is the home town of Alan Henning, the taxi driver and volunteer aid worker murdered by ISIS in Syria. Even today there are impeccably maintained memorials to him all over the town. Yellow ribbons are still tied to houses and railings, replaced regularly when spoiled by the rain, and each bearing a personal message. Does this mean that because Henning alone is commemorated Eccles is a town of heartless bastards who are uninterested in the appalling deaths of the other hostages? No. Henning was a neighbour, one of us, and so the mourning is more intense and personal, even amongst those who were not his among his friends and family. It is a universal phenomenon, what touches you most is what is close to you. How can it be otherwise? Everyone knows it. The people of Lebanon will be more concerned with their own victims than they will be about the dead in France. There is no harm in that.

George Szirtes summed it up perfectly in a Facebook post. I hope he will not mind me quoting him here.
Grief is not politics. One does not choose between griefs and cast one's vote for this grief over that. It is not competitive and it is low politics to compare griefs. Grief and shock are feelings that one may or may not feel. Grief is not a zero sum game. You cannot say to people: if you feel more grief for one thing than another you are not allowed to feel either.
The endless theorising without evidence, the shoehorning of a monstrous crime into a preordained ideological framework, the denigration of popular sentiment, all make me so angry. Part of the reason why I react so strongly is more personal. Much of my anger is aimed at my younger self, who, decades ago, would have fallen for some of this guff and repeated it earnestly. That was before I learnt to think and to have respect for a popular, if sentimental, morality that instinctively understands what is best in humanity.

À nous la liberté 

Saturday, November 14, 2015


It's fascism. Not foreign policy, or refugees, or any such stupidity. It's fascism. Solidarity with its opponents at all times and wherever.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Having a laugh

When I was a student I remember turning up to seminar wearing a badge saying, "Je suis Marxiste tendance Groucho."
My tutor looked at me and said, "Some Marxists would find that offensive."
I replied, "I can't be doing with anyone without a sense of humour."
He then launched into a mini-lecture on the importance of humour as a method of transcendence in existentialist philosophy. Serious stuff this comedy.

I was reminded of this when I read this piece by the novelist, Jonathan Coe. Though he hangs it on Martin Amis' snooty attack on Jeremy Corbyn, his essay has little to do with the Corbyn leadership. Instead it is a cautionary tale of where humourless politics can take us.
 … 2015 might well go down in history as the year in which humanity lost its sense of humour, and became more stupid as a result. It was the year that began with French humorists being gunned down for drawing cartoons, continued with the bizarre spectacle of distinguished American writers declining to express solidarity with the murdered cartoonists, and encompassed, along the way, the curious case of the Nobel-prizewinning scientist whose ill-advised joke cost him his academic post and his reputation. 
Coe's main observation is that most humour has "some sort of incongruity at ... heart." And that "it is this ability to recognise the juxtaposition of disparate concepts, and to draw meaning from the juxtaposition, that we seem to be losing." In other words political discourse is becoming horribly literal. Take away the ambiguity of humour and you feed a voracious appetite for offence. This isn't to defend someone like Bernard Manning. Humour can be offensive and when it is, it fails to be funny. Manning's humour was cruelty disguised.

No, humour does something else. Sometimes it can be "the only possible response to a situation," however bleak, "the last defence of humanity when it has had everything else stolen from it." At other times it is a marvellous way of engaging the intellect. I used humour throughout my teaching. My theory was: if they laugh, they learn. It is thoughtful and intelligent. But if the heart of humour is finding incongruity funny, it becomes a wonderful political tool for puncturing pomposity and pretence. Here are some favourite examples. Dr Strangelove made us laugh at a nuclear apocalypse. It did so by showing that even the most fool-proof system can still be undone by the limitless foolishness of individual human beings. Chaplin's The Great Dictator is a deliberate parody that transcended propaganda. But for me the most subversive take on power has to be the portrayal of Rufus T Firefly in the film Duck Soup. You see; I am still a Groucho Marxist at heart.

A Manichaean world-view that can admit no ambiguity is one that can be highly destructive, humour based on "laughing at the misfortunes of others" can be a source of persecution, but finding the world funny is different. Laughing at human fallibility and absurdity can be liberating. Black humour can takes us into darkness and barbarity in a way that is impossible to dismiss. It rescues humanity from horror. But most importantly, if, however vehement our opinions and righteous our anger, we can stop and laugh then we are capable of creating a humane politics in a way that the humourless cannot.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cause and effect

The appointment of Seumas Milne as Labour's director of strategy and communications has certainly stirred things up, pitching some Labour people into despair. They have a point. But this isn't why I am posting. Instead, I am interested in the way extracts from an article on the murder of Lee Rigby have been used. Milne's critics all quote this line.
Rigby was a British soldier who had taken part in multiple combat operations in Afghanistan. So the attack wasn't terrorism in the normal sense of an indiscriminate attack on civilians.
At this point, in pour in his defenders, including Owen Jones on Twitter. They point out that Milne followed this up by writing,
The killing of an unarmed man far from the conflict, however, by self-appointed individuals with non-violent political alternatives, isn't condoned by any significant political or religious tradition.
 And so the criticism is deemed to be unfair. Milne is not defending the crime.

The problem is that both sides, in trying to score partisan points, are missing the point of the article. Of course Milne condemns the murder. The worse the crime, the stronger his argument is. He was not defending it as being justified, instead he was arguing about what caused it.

These articles are all the same. They are written to a formula and are utterly tedious. You know exactly what they are going to say. There is always a disclaimer - 'this act was horrible, terrible, unconscionable, can't be condoned etc, etc.' This is then followed by an explanation of why this horrible act is really the fault of anyone other than the people who committed it or the ideas that animated them. In this case it is all the result of the wars waged by the West "in the Muslim world." 
To say these attacks are about "foreign policy" prettifies the reality. They are the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others ... 
And then off we go into a furious rant directed against the political elites, while the barbaric nature of the murder is taken to show how evil our governments must be to have provoked it. 

This is what you find in all articles of this type. They aren't always about blaming the victims, they are about making the perpetrators into victims. It is the playground excuse, 'they made me do it.' And of course that means ignoring a fascistic, theocratic ideology whose adherents inflict horrible death on their opponents. After all, look at the grim casualty statistics during the period known as the war on terror. The vast majority of civilians who have been killed or maimed have met their fate at the hands of these far right Islamist movements, and most have been Muslims.

This is old ground. But going back over it again makes me even more concerned that a formulaic writer from the Guardian, responsible for some dreadful and, at times, wilfully ignorant journalism pandering to the prejudices of the liberal middle classes, is the person who has been chosen to reconnect the Labour Party to its grass roots, and to reanimate its electoral support and media profile. I am not hopeful.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bringing home the bacon

There has been a lot of fun poked at the World Health Organisation classifying bacon as carcinogenic. The Daily Mash was quickly in on it:
Following claims that bacon is ‘unhealthy’, angry mobs gathered outside clinics, laboratories and hospitals chanting ‘death to the men in white coats’ and ‘whoever defames the pig should be executed’.
Bill McKay, from Dorchester, said he would rather disembowel himself than live without bacon, the only meat to be approved by the Vegetarian Society.
He added: “We’ve taken a lot of shit from these people over the years. Perhaps the time has come to throw our health experts in jail.”
Rona Cameron, head of bacon sandwiches at the Vegetarian Society, said: “I love pigs, they’re intelligent and sensitive, but these so-called ‘experts’ are deranged, neo-Nazi perverts.”
Wayne Hayes, bacon director at the Bacon Institute, said: “Bacon transforms men into incredibly sensitive and generous lovers and guarantees women the longest and most intense orgasms imaginable.”
That smell of cooking bacon ... one of the most wonderful aromas in the world and something I miss when I'm in Greece. Almost the first thing I have when I get back is a bacon butty. That is why the killer bacon scare has so little traction and lots of ridicule. We certainly don't want it to be unhealthy, but it is more than wishful thinking. Our experience is telling us that there is something wrong with the whole idea. Our instinctive reaction highlights a serious issue, the problems with both the classification of risk and the reporting of research in the media.

This piece explains the classification issues well.
Here’s the thing: These classifications are based on strength of evidence not degree of risk.
Two risk factors could be slotted in the same category if one tripled the risk of cancer and the other increased it by a small fraction. They could also be classified similarly even if one causes many more types of cancers than the other, if it affects a greater swath of the population, and if it actually causes more cancers.
So these classifications are not meant to convey how dangerous something is, just how certain we are that something is dangerous.
But they’re presented with language that completely obfuscates that distinction.
The reporting follows this. It talks bluntly about a substance causing disease, yet rarely about it merely increasing the risk of that disease. When risk is mentioned it gives a percentage figure for the increase in that risk, but rarely says how great the original number was or what the increase is a percentage of. And for bacon, it is tiny, as Tom Chivers explains.
According to Cancer Research UK, 64 people out of every 100,000 can expect to develop colorectal cancer per year. Taken crudely, the IARC’s report suggests that eating 50g of bacon every day would raise your risk from 64 in 100,000 to 72 in 100,000, or from 0.064% to 0.072%. Over a lifetime, your risk is about 5%, according to the NHS; eating 50g of processed meat a day will raise that to about 6%.
 Smoking and bacon are lumped together, despite radically different health impacts.

There is a bigger problem here too. I remember teaching a third year group in social history and we were looking at health statistics on the home front in the First World War. When I asked the students, none had done statistics at any level, and nobody even knew the difference between causation and correlation. It goes much wider than statistics. Simple logical fallacies were foreign territory to many students, they fell for them all and repeated them with depressing regularity. I used to hammer away at the need to teach analytical thinking, simple logic, basic statistics and the like as an integral part of degrees. Although I taught one module on a degree in Hull that covered this ground, I was mainly ignored.

When I see the utter bollocks that is posted on social media, the distorted misattributed quotations stuck onto viral memes, and the blatant falsehoods that should be obvious to anyone who was aware of simple cognitive biases, I am more convinced than ever that the purpose of education is the one that Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner advocated in an old book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.
Try this: in the early 1960’s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required for a person to be a 'great writer'. As the interviewer offered a list of various possibilities, Hemmingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked, 'Isn't then any one essential ingredient that you can identify?' Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.' 

It seems to us that, in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today's world. One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of 'crap '. Our intellectual history is a chronicle of the anguish and suffering of men who tried to help their contemporaries see that some part of their fondest beliefs were misconceptions, faulty assumptions, superstitions and even outright lies. The mileposts along the road of our intellectual development signal those points at which some person developed a new perspective, a new meaning, or a new metaphor. We have in mind a new education that would set out to cultivate just such people - experts at 'crap detecting'.
And those skills have never been needed more.

In the meantime, carry on frying.

Thanks to Anthony for the links

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Depression part two

What can you say about Syria? It's a crime scene: a crime of both commission and neglect.

The commission is by the Assad regime and its gruesome allies. The neglect is by those who should have stood against it, but failed.

There are two positions that have informed this neglect. First, there is the persistent argument of anti-war activists from the 19th century onward that non-intervention is essential for peace and that military action can only exacerbate conflict, not resolve it. This presumption is shared on both the right and left. The second is the old 'realist' perspective that what matters is the interests of nation states. Combine the two, by seeing non-intervention as being in the national interest, and the result is paralysis.

And this is what we have at the present. Non-interventionism is resurgent. Alex Salmond gave a horrible, disingenuous speech in its support at the SNP conference. Labour's leadership is now ideologically committed to non-intervention. Appointing Seumas Milne to be director of communications and strategy compounds this with a heavy dose of apologism as a rationale for doing nothing. At the same time, realists are brushing off their 'Assad as a force for stability' routine, insisting that a murderous dictatorship is a regrettable necessity.

Inaction where action is possible leaves a vacuum. The assumption is that what will fill the gap will be relatively benign. This is not necessarily the case. I always felt that the decision not to take action against Assad after his use of sarin gas on civilians was one of the worst foreign policy mistakes so far this century. It signalled that, even in extreme cases of human rights violations, there was little chance of meaningful opposition. It was a green light. In Britain, it was Miliband that led the flight from action. Corbyn's leadership will only harden the position, though dissent is stirring in Labour's ranks.

Perhaps realists should be brushing off their old notions about world order and the balance of power, because serial abstentions from involvement is changing it, as this superb analysis by John Bew from September argues. And who knows where it is leading us. I am not optimistic, and in the meantime the humanitarian catastrophe gets worse.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Depression part one

The violence in Israel has sparked the usual depressing flood of memes on social media, accompanied by the standard opinion pieces and accusations of media bias. They all are the much the same, whichever side they come from. Either they are totally one-sided, in that they don't mention the actions of the other side at all, or they play a game of justification by saying that one side is solely reacting to the violence of the other. The first is obviously propaganda, whilst the second has the veneer of fair comment it ignores a crucial factor. It is not enough to say that any action is simply a reaction to another. The nature of the reaction is a choice. 

That choice has two dimensions. The moral one is most often commented on, but the other dimension is political. A pattern of co-ordinated violence is never arbitrary. It is not only chosen to intimidate its target, but to impress its own side and consolidate the power of its organisers. Violence is a tactic to counter the narrative of peace, which in this conflict means compromise, acceptance and mutual recognition. It is deliberate. It is the tactic of those who want to fight until they achieve whatever they deem to be a victory, to live in a bloody comfort zone of antagonism and hatred, rather than make the sacrifices and meet the profound challenges of finding an agreement.

I don't want to play these games of blame and recrimination. I want moral clarity and to stand for peace in desperate times.

Season's end

73,000 fans with all the noise and razzmatazz of the Grand Final marked the end of the season for club rugby league last Saturday. It was fitting that a close, dramatic game should end with Leeds completing the domestic treble. There is a test series against New Zealand still to come and I am really looking forward to my first visit to the Olympic Stadium in London for the second test, but it has been a momentous season as it saw the return of promotion and relegation to and from Super League. The result was that nobody was promoted and nobody relegated. That might seem odd, but with it all based on an extended play-off series, promotion from the championship has to be won on the pitch against the bottom Super League sides. The next step is clear. The failure of Championship sides to make it shows the need for strengthening that division and ensuring that any club that comes up has the strength to make a go of it. This will happen and the result will be thrilling and eclipse the dire stagnation of the franchising years. For all its cloth-cap, homespun image, rugby league is one of the most progressive and experimental sports. Let's hope this latest move persists and becomes the success it deserves to be.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Cutting justice

This report was on Channel Four News tonight.

It is a horrible case. Their child was taken away because of suspected abuse after the parents took it to hospital, worried about a health problem. It was put up for adoption against their will. A criminal case was brought and they were able to prove that the marks on their baby were symptoms of disease, not abuse, and were cleared. Not only were the couple wrongly accused of a crime, they were accused of a crime that never happened.

The criminal courts had done their job, but they will never get their child back, because the case in the family court had already taken place and their child had been adopted. The obvious question is why was that evidence not presented at the earlier hearing? The answer is money. They could not afford legal representation. They had to represent themselves and were without the resources to investigate the case and bring in expert witnesses. Cuts had swept away their right to legal aid. This is the heart of the tragedy.

This is what the cuts really mean; innocent loving parents losing their child for life - losing their child for no reason at all - losing their child to a simple diagnostic error.

In a report by Louise Tickle on an attempt by a judge to help people forced to represent themselves, the judge noted,
In one three-month period last year, 80% of private family law cases saw at least one party trying to fight their case without any legal representation at all.
 And from a year ago, this piece points out:
The number of family law cases involving children in which neither party has legal representation has nearly doubled in the last year, a report by official auditors has found.
The knock-on effect has been to increase costs to the taxpayer because cases without lawyers can take 50% longer, the report by the National Audit Office (NAO) concludes.
The findings, released on Thursday, come weeks after a senior judge accused the government of washing its hands of the problem it had created by failing to provide legal aid for parents in child custody cases.
Yes, depriving people of proper representation is MORE expensive. There are no savings. Instead we are left with injustice and personal tragedy.

This is not another scandal about child protection. There are plenty of those, whether of ignoring abuse or over-zealously pursuing the innocent. Mistakes are inevitable. What matters is the opportunity people have to rectify them. That cannot happen without professional advice and advocacy.

The heavy cuts to legal aid are not a peripheral issue. They are central to a basic principle of democratic societies, equality before the law. Amongst the anti-lawyer rhetoric employed by the government lies the ruins of justice. And all we can see is the pain of ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who have simply been unlucky. What a mean spirited and ungenerous government it is to destroy lives in such a casual way and to remove the opportunity of redress against the state when it is the state that is in error. And for what?

Hands off!

Austerity threatens tsipouro. 
A close relative of the Greek spirit ouzo, tsipouro has become increasingly popular during the recession as an affordable alternative to imported drinks, but is now facing a tax increase under European Union rules that could almost double its price.
Coming on top of a raft of other tax increases the government is planning to pay off debts, the news is a disaster for Tyrnavos, a farming town in central Greece famous for its production of tsipouro (pronounced TSEE-poo-roh).
Please note, all tourists now have a duty to double their consumption of the magic stuff. I will do my best to take the lead. You won't regret it (or remember it either).

Monday, October 05, 2015


I grew up in South London. It is anything but a rugby league area, but as a youngster I used to stay in on Tuesday evenings to watch the BBC2 Floodlight Trophy, a rugby league competition specially created for television. I remember too the second half of league matches shown live on BBC's Grandstand on Saturday afternoons, pitched up against ITV's professional wrestling. It wasn't much more than a curiosity, though my friends and I liked to do what so many young kids still do, bad impressions of TV stars. Frequently, we picked up on the unmistakable voice of the rugby league commentator Eddie Waring, who became a northern parody to the disgust of real fans. The first word of our take-offs in mock-Yorkshire brogue was always, "Swinton." I couldn't guess what was to come.

I moved north in 1976. Though I have always missed some things about London, I gained far more than I lost. I suppose the most surprising gift the north gave me was the chance to adopt rugby league with all the passion of a convert. Living not far away, it seemed natural to start going to Swinton and they were soon my team - for the next thirty years and counting.

It wasn't the easiest of choices, but somehow it felt natural. What followed was serial disappointment lifted by short periods of hope before being pitched back into despair. Yesterday the hope was there again, and this time it feels like the club is finally being run properly and maybe the despair is being put behind us. All we need is a stadium back in Swinton to end our exile since the sale of Station Road.

And what a day yesterday was. I am still breathless. How do you follow the drama of winning the semi final by one point in a breathtaking game? The answer should be obvious. Win the final by one point in an even more dramatic, heart stopping game. It was magnificent entertainment, with thirty years of agony packed into those eighty minutes.

There was an unusual highlight too. It came after the match. In comments on a previous post about the semi final, Simon Pottinger picked up on how our number thirty, Josh Barlow, didn't celebrate immediately, but went over to console the York players. This time, after the final hooter sounded, a middle aged fan ran on to the pitch with a banner. Stewards grabbed him, he struggled and the police moved forward to make an arrest. Josh Barlow ran up, all smiles, put his arm around the fan's shoulders, persuaded the stewards into letting him go and sweet talked the police into taking no action. Barlow then led him back to the stands, took his banner when it was offered to him, and paraded it with the team. And there it is, being held up in front of the ecstatic Swinton fans.

I have always said that my favourite Swinton player of all time is Les Holliday. I think that he will now be joined by Josh Barlow for two moments of pure class on two of the best afternoons I can remember as a Swinton fan. What a player, what a team, what a sport.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Musical interlude

Talk Dirty to Me, played as a traditional Klezmer, complete with the rap translated into Yiddish. There are times the internet is magic.

Via  Postmodern Jukebox