Monday, November 24, 2014

Back in Blighty

Greece has its eccentricities, but it would be hard pushed to match the surrealism of politics here. When I got back the news was dominated by the amazing revolt against the political class signified by the, er, reelection of the existing Conservative MP for Rochester. OK he stood for reelection because he had jumped ship from the Tories to UKIP, a party further to the right, but he is still the same former barrister and banker as ever. Then he declared that, "The radical tradition, which has stood and spoken for the working class, has found a new home in Ukip." Oh.

So, how did the Labour Party leadership react? Miliband sacked one of his few remaining allies for tweeting a picture of a house and spoke passionately about respecting white vans.

I give up.

PS. At least Andrew Rawnsley talks some sense here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tourism

I'm off to Greece on Friday for a short trip, but will return for a longer stay in December. I don't think this extra visit was the result of the latest marketing ploy by the Greek National Tourism Organisation (EOT). At first their new video was criticised for being hackneyed, all about mythology and ancient Greece again. Starting it with a picture of New York was odd, but fitted the storyline. Yet then there was the inclusion of a clip from Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Yes, those Olympics. Not brilliant either to show a beautiful night-time beach scene in Australia (!?!). This was followed by accusations of plagiarism too with the use of unlicensed and unaccredited photos. Oh dear.

All has been put right and EOT has issued a statement. It didn't help much and is savagely demolished here. You can see why Greeks despair sometimes. Even so, its a great place in its own way. Go there and spend your money. Greece needs it and you won't regret it.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Memory and history

I wasn't impressed by the original article about the First World War commemorative installation at the Tower of London, but all the indignant moralising about it didn't do much for me either. However, it did provoke a response and Jonathan Jones replied to his critics here. I liked it when he wrote,
What can make a difference is our historical understanding of the Great War, its causes and consequence. History is worth far more than the illusion of memory, when none of us today actually have a memory of being soldiers in 1914-18.
History is a collective memory, but is just as fallible and contested as an individual one. And that is where Jones goes wrong. He sees the history of the First World War as unproblematic.
Popular history has been invaded by revisionists who tell us that far from being lions led by donkeys in a futile bloodbath, the British soldiers who fought from 1914-18 were fighting, as the propaganda at the time claimed, to defend democracy from militarist authoritarian Germany. 
I believe this fashionable view of the first world war to be historically unjustified. I’ve been interested in its history ever since I spent too many hours as an 18-year-old reading up to win a history entrance scholarship at Cambridge – no, before that, since seeing that photo of an unburied corpse on the cover of Taylor’s book. The best current work on the origins of the first world war, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, is a 562-page analysis that does not pander to instant explanations. He demonstrates the absurdity of seeing Germany as the unique culprit and reveals the complex process of diplomatic folly that started the war.
I have not read Clark's book, but I doubt if it is the last word. So let's take apart that revisionist jibe.

The historiography of the war is a topic in itself. It started in the immediate post-war period with an account based on German guilt. The war had begun when Germany invaded Belgium and France as part of a co-ordinated attack on Russia. German culpability seemed clear. But then the emphasis on pre-war diplomacy was given a boost by the publication of diplomatic papers as a revisionist process set in. Socialists had always seen the origins of the war as lying in imperialism in general rather than the act of a single guilty power, whilst the idea of the war as a "futile bloodbath" was first propagated by the inter-war peace movement. It also had the unintended consequence of encouraging the appeasement of Hitler. The notion of the war being a catastrophic blunder by the great powers, an accidental war, was encouraged by Albertini's major study of its origins, published in English in 1953. However, it wasn't long before the debate was opened up again. An odd combination of the very right wing historian, Alan Clark (who admitted to, at best, misattributing the lions led by donkeys quote), with the pacifist left popularised the "futile bloodbath" argument once more and gave us Joan Littlewood's "O What a Lovely War" in 1963. But in 1961 the case for German culpability had been restated as well, this time in Germany itself, by Fritz Fischer. And the debate has raged on to this day.

Revisionism has succeeded revisionism from 1914 onwards. For instance, I have just written about the anarcho-communist revolutionary Peter Kropotkin's position in the First World War. He supported it, to the horror of many of his comrades. He had warned about the dangers posed by a German state unified under the principles of Prussian militarism for more than a decade before the war began and fully expected Germany to start a European war. Once France had been invaded he called for solidarity with their right of self-defence and military action to destroy German militarism. The idea that this was a just war wasn't "propaganda," it was a ferocious controversy, even taking place within the the revolutionary left!

So, this is no recent invasion by propagandists, but a continuation of an unresolved debate about the war. That there is no consensus suggests that we are faced with ambiguity rather than a definitive history that should be propagated by works of art.

Secondly, Jones makes a common error when he elides between the causes of the war and the experience of it. And what was that experience? Horrific, certainly. We have plenty of evidence for that. But the social history of the trenches is not straightforward at all. With all the correspondence and memoirs of participants we have a huge archive of material and it too is ambiguous. I am uneasy with any account that treats participants as unthinking victims, simply because so many of them weren't. They were driven by propaganda, certainly, but also by duty, family and a belief in a cause, particularly the defence of Belgium. So what was it that made people (including Wilfred Owen) return to the trenches willingly, even if they could have been invalided out? Was it duty or the intensity of the experience and the deep comradeship with their fellow soldier, a profound love that could be found nowhere else? There is evidence for this as well.

Again, there is no single answer. The war, especially on the western front, was terrible. But then war is not good, war is horror, but sometimes it is necessary. And if it was necessary, shouldn't we honour those who experienced that horror?

In the end, we don't have a single objective truth about the war and its participants. Victims or heroes? A necessary war or a crime against humanity? Cases can be made for both. So is it right that a "true work of art about the first world war would need to be as obscene as cancer," a kind of pacifist realism, or should it reflect that ambiguity, try not to be didactic, and provoke reflection and debate? Do the poppies do that? I haven't seen them so I can't say.

I want to end on a note of semi-agreement. The centenary of 1914 does not need politicised sentimentality, it does need history. The ongoing debate is its real memorial, the archives and library shelves a living memory. As for art, my personal view is that ambiguity and dialectics, informed by respect, should win out over certainty.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Prohibition

My local pub used to be great for serving after time. It was fun drinking there until the early hours. Then they changed the licensing laws so that pubs could stay open legally. Everybody went home at eleven. Legalised late opening meant that the pub closed earlier.

Banning something is often the best ways of encouraging it. So, this report came as no surprise.
The Home Office comparison of international drug laws, published on Wednesday, represents the first official recognition since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that there is no direct link between being “tough on drugs” and tackling the problem.
It only takes a casual glance to see that 'the war on drugs' has been a colossal failure. Addiction is a medical, not a criminal affliction. And though we focus on the tragic cases of deaths caused by people having no control over dosage, never knowing whether they drug they take has been adulterated or is pure, the real tragedy is further down the supply chain where organised crime is at its most ruthless.

Read this and then tell me that we should not decriminalise the use and control the supply and production of drugs.
No newspaper dares to publish the truth about the drug lords in Tamaulipas. Those who break the silence on Twitter and Facebook are marked for death.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Reflections on evil

Here are two articles that discuss the relationship between liberalism and evil. The first, by John Gray, was published this week. The second was first published in 1940 and has been reissued on the New Republic website as part of their centenary. In it Lewis Mumford reflects on American isolationism at the outbreak of the Second World War. They are chalk and cheese.

Let's take John Gray first. He is a master of pessimism. He seems to revel in gloom. So it is unsurprising to see an essay from him that ends like this:
Our leaders have helped create a situation that their view of the world claims cannot exist: an intractable conflict in which there are no good outcomes.
He is talking about the Middle East of course and ISIS. And his theme is that liberalism has failed as it cannot comprehend evil. This is because,
... evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.
Whereas,
Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind.
Gray once wrote a book called Straw Dogs. I think that Straw Men might be more appropriate here. He defines liberalism solely as being synonymous with a particular notion of inevitable progress. This idea may be held by some liberals, but they also believe in liberty, human rights, democracy, etc. And rather than predict the inevitable withering away of evil, liberalism tends to eschew eschatology. Rights and liberties are ends in themselves, to be guarded and protected. If the propensity for evil is a constant, then liberalism proposes a way in which it can be confronted and contained.

And the essay contains other puzzling statements, such as this:
A cynic is someone who knowingly acts against what he or she knows to be true.
Er, no. That isn't the definition of a cynic, it is the definition of an idiot. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a cynic as,
One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder.
Seeing as Gray goes on to describe Tony Blair as,
Too morally stunted to be capable of the mendacity of which he is often accused
I don't think that calling him a cynic would be unreasonable.

The essay ranges over many areas, there are a few points of agreement, but all the way through you know where it is leading. And sure enough, you stumble through it to a commonplace and ill-informed conclusion. And at that point you realise that the whole piece is simply an over-long Simon Jenkins column or a more academic Russell Brand video. You know the stuff; it is all our fault, imperial hubris, an unwinnable war, we have failed, we have made it all worse, and the familiar conservative dismissal of the capacity of other peoples for democratic governance.
There is no factual basis for thinking that something like the democratic nation-state provides a model on which the region could be remade
 Although Gray does write,
Given the west’s role in bringing about the anarchy in which the Yazidis, the Kurds and other communities face a deadly threat, non-intervention is a morally compromised option. If sufficient resources are available – something that cannot be taken for granted – military action may be justified.
It only leads to a sorrowful, pro-Assad position.
In Syria, the actual alternatives are the survival in some form of Assad’s secular despotism, a radical Islamist regime or continuing war and anarchy.
He may start from a position that recognises the persistence of evil, but ends with one that accepts it.

Lewis Mumford answered him perfectly - seventy-four years earlier.

Mumford is an interesting writer. He was a disciple (his term) of Patrick Geddes, although their only meeting was a disaster,  and he took forward and developed many of Geddes' ideas for a future generation. He was writing from within an alternative left tradition that had spun off from late 19th century anarchism and ecology. What appalled him about the liberalism of his day was its failures in opposing fascism and its tendency to make accommodations with evil, rather than confront it. The liberals in his sights were people just like John Gray.

Mumford and Gray would agree on a number of things. For instance, Mumford also deprecated the blind optimism of the liberal idea of progress. Both Gray and Mumford share a contempt for the idea that evil is simply the product of bad institutions. Instead, both agree on its persistence and existence within human personality, not simply as a product of social arrangements. But there the similarity ends. Gray surrenders, Mumford picks up his weapons and heads for the barricades.

Mumford did not see liberalism as a unified doctrine, he described two distinct elements. The first, "ideal liberalism",
... arose long before modern capitalism: they were part of a larger human tradition ... humanist traditions of personal responsibility, personal freedom and personal expression ... The most important principles in liberalism do not cling exclusively to liberalism: what gives them their strength is their universality and their historical continuity.
I got little sense of this ideal from Gray's essay. But he certainly concurred with the second of Mumford's elements. This is historically specific, deriving from the intellectual, commercial and scientific revolutions of the late eighteenth century onwards. He calls it "Pragmatic liberalism", which he describes as:
... vastly preoccupied with the machinery of life. It was characteristic of this creed to overemphasize the part played by political and mechanical invention, by abstract thought and practical contrivance. And accordingly it minimized the role of instinct, tradition, history; it was unaware of the dark forces of the unconscious; it was suspicious of either the capricious or the incalculable, for the only universe it could rule was a measured one, and the only type of human character it could understand was the utilitarian one.
And Mumford and Gray are in agreement about the liberal underestimation of evil:
Evil for the pragmatic liberal has no positive dimensions: he conceives it as a mere lack of something whose presence would be good.
And there Gray leaves the argument; sorrowfully, resigned and pessimistic. Faced by the threat of fascism, Mumford saw the universal values of ideal liberalism as something that needed to be fought for, just as much contemporary liberal opinion hurried to the illusionary safety of the isolationist bunker.
The liberal's notion that reasoning in the spirit of affable compromise is the only truly human way of meeting one's opponent overlooks the important part played by force and grace. And his unctuous notion that evil must not be seriously combated because the person who attempts to oppose it may have to use physical force ... is a gospel of despair ... it means in practice turning the world over to the rule of the violent, the brutal and the inhuman, who have no such fine scruples, because the humane are too dainty in their virtue to submit to any possible assault on it.
What is more, the emphasis on cold, dispassionate calculation without engaging the emotions undermines judgement,
... this liberal suspicion of passion is partly responsible for the liberal's ineptitude for action.
And so Mumford concluded,
In a disintegrating world, pragmatic liberalism has lost its integrity but retained its limitations. The moral ardor of the eighteenth century liberals, who faced difficult odds, strove mightily, risked much, has gone. The isolationism that is preached by our liberals today means fascism tomorrow. Their emphasis upon mere security today ... means the acceptance of despotism tomorrow. While their complacency, their emotional tepidity, their virtuous circumspectness, their unwillingness to defend civilization with all its faults and all its capacity for rectifying those faults, means barbarism tomorrow. Meanwhile, the ideal values of liberalism lack support and the human horizon contracts before our eyes. While the barbarians brazenly attack our civilization, those who should now be exerting every fiber to defend it are covertly attacking it, too. On the latter falls the heavier guilt.
It is an accusation that can be made today. Except there is plenty of passion, but it is pointing in the wrong direction. Rather than confront evil, we excuse it and blame ourselves.

There are parts of Mumford's article that have dated, but much of it is strikingly modern. Then again, these arguments are not new. They have been going on since the nineteenth century with the Peace Society's acrobatics over the Bulgarian Atrocities. Though nothing will ever change the minds of die-hard anti-war activists and writers, I sense the tide is turning. When an oppressed nation like the Kurds takes up arms to defeat a threat from a genocidal insurgency that beheads an Eccles taxi driver, is intent on bringing back slavery and is re-introducing crucifixion as a method of public execution, it isn't hard to know what side to be on. Previous opponents of western action are now calling for solidarity and military support. They have seen a clear, unambiguous evil, impervious to reason. It is obvious that it has to be defeated.

And if Mumford is right and these values are universal, it is our struggle too. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Adult education - another rant

It's a nice profile and it is good to see Alan Tuckett's work for adult education recognised in this piece by Peter Wilby. It starts by tackling a common stereotype that is often used to denigrate adult learning and whilst he disposes of it neatly, it still sets the agenda. So much of our time has been spent trying to justify adult education's utility against charges of irrelevance, fired against it by both left and right, that we tend to undersell the reality.

And this startled me as well:
Sir John Daniel, former assistant director-general for education at Unesco, once said that adult educators had the reputation of being “boring, sanctimonious, backward-looking and paternalist”.
Eh? In thirty years of working in adult education I have never met such a bunch of enthusiastic, creative and entrepreneurial lunatics. OK, I know of one or two who were capable of making you lose the will to live, but they were never successful. Adult education is market driven. If you are boring, the students drop out and the classes close. You have to be good to survive. This is another misperception, a prejudice held in total contradiction to the reality of doing the job. The whole of my career was spent trying to counter these popular myths that were constantly turned against us.

The picture of adult education that, "It’s just flower arranging, tap dancing, Pilates, lonely old folk going to dusty classrooms to learn about the Tudors", was never the whole truth. There may have been a time in the post-war boom when so-called 'leisure classes' were the most visible part of our provision, but it is atypical of our history. Political radicalism, social egalitarianism and adult education marched together as part of a movement for emancipation; the Mechanics Institutes, working class autodidacts and self-improvement associations, the university extension movement, the WEA, trade union education, the residential colleges, Birkbeck and so on, were all constructed in the belief that what we now tend to call lifelong learning was central to the creation of a better society and to the development of individuals and communities. It was a cause.

And we lost this sense of mission, together with its language, and with them went the provision, as Wilby makes clear in an understated way. Fighting back with utilitarian justifications was always going to seem to be special pleading. We need to recover that vision of human possibility, though I fear it is too late.

I had a glimpse of just how much adult education is a deep human need today when my window cleaner tried to recruit me for his pub quiz team. He was intrigued by the number of books he saw in the house and thought I might help them win things. He described how he reads anything and everything, sitting in bed every night with a factual book, learning. He loves learning things, anything. Adult education's problem is that this is seen as having no utility, a private pleasure maybe, but never a public good. I see it as something more, as a human right. And we're losing it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The company he keeps

Nigel Farage's new best friend:
Korwin-Mikke, whose party has two remaining MEPs and received 7.5% support in Poland during May’s European parliamentary elections, is one of the most outspoken figures within the far-right groupings of parliament. 
In July, he declared in English that the minimum wage should be “destroyed” and said that “four million niggers” lost their jobs in the US as a result of President John F Kennedy signing a bill on the minimum wage in 1961. He went on to claim that 20 million young Europeans were being treated as “negroes” as a result of the minimum wage. He refused to apologise and was fined 10 days of allowances for his comments. 
Korwin-Mikke has also called for the vote to be taken away from women, has claimed that the difference between rape and consensual sex is “very subtle” and said that Adolf Hitler was “probably not aware that Jews were being exterminated”.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Manufacturing a rant

One of my pet hates is Noam Chomsky. It is pointless picking up a book by him as you know exactly what he will say without having the chore of reading his deathly prose. In Manufacturing Consent he paints a doleful picture of people being deliberately manipulated by systematic mass indoctrination. He knows, is absolutely certain, that if only people stopped watching football they would agree with him. It is the standard delusion of political certainty.

And it is everywhere. After the Scottish referendum, ludicrous conspiracy theories saying that the vote had been rigged emanated from the 'yes' camp, alongside assertions that voters had been scared by the dishonest propaganda of 'no' campaigners and influenced by the 'bias' of the BBC. How about admitting that there were real, rational reasons for voting no, that it was a conscious choice, and not falling back on the line that people were fooled?

There are so many elements to this way of thinking - holding an orthodoxy that admits no doubt, wishful thinking, even sheer paranoia. Chomsky's fan club is prone to claiming that his views are being deliberately silenced and marginalised despite his many books, newspaper articles, respectful TV interviews, documentary films, magazine front covers and, of course, his prestigious academic post. And this is just one example of many.

I find this disrespectful to ordinary people who aren't as simple-minded and gullible as assumed, but more importantly, this way of thinking lacks any form of self-criticism and is sealed off from reality. Sometimes the failings are yours, not others' - it is entirely possible for you to be wrong. I wonder just who it is that is being brainwashed.

It is quite true that sometimes a minority view is right, is morally justified, yet is also marginalised and berated. But is this solely the product of deliberate indoctrination? There is a clear bias towards inertia in relatively peaceful and prosperous societies, mass dissent is the product of crisis. Propaganda will only work when it tallies with the real, material experience of the uncommitted and with their pre-existing prejudices. Otherwise they will just get on with enjoying their lives.

There is an element of truth in that we are all influenced by the media, especially when we lack detailed knowledge. And mainstream media will always tend towards an acceptance of the status quo, but this doesn't tell the whole story. This isn't some monolithic system of mass manipulation, it has competitors in the influence business and they are doing quite nicely. So let's forget the manufacture of consent and talk about the manufacture of distrust instead. This poses as anti-establishment and portrays itself as 'talking truth to power'. Much of it isn't. It is often the powerful and the powerless allied in talking bollocks. Instead of reason, we have a world-weary cynicism that absolves us of the need for evidence or thought. Here are three examples.

Complementary medicine may have no proven clinical worth, but it is a multi-billion pound industry. Given that it doesn't have to support costly clinical trials or use expensive ingredients, the profit margins must be huge. Instead of evidence, the pedlars of woo have only to assert some magical, sciencey sounding claims and throw in a bit of unsubstantiated anecdotal evidence to get people to part with their dosh. The most potent weapon in their armoury is the denigration of 'big pharma'. They do this deliberately, using carefully constructed techniques that they know will not work on sceptics like me. Those videos and articles with long rambling preambles before they get to the crunch are designed to turn away sceptics but reel in the true believers who are likely to make a purchase at the end. And it is not just the ordinary punter that they go for, people like the Tory MP, David Tredinnick wants to hand over wads of public money to herbalists, homeopaths and astrologers.

Secondly, I saw one of these on-line petitions circulated about fur farming. It had the standard gruesome picture of animal suffering and called for signatures on a petition to a well-known clothing store to end the use of fur in its products. I looked at some of the on-line discussions. One commenter made a factual observation. The firm that was being petitioned doesn't use any fur and never has. Everything they sell is faux fur. It is already their policy. This wasn't enough for another who wrote that the company was lying. The reason was that this individual once had a coat of theirs, singed its faux-fur collar and it 'smelt like hair'. Cognitive dissonance or what?

Finally, and this is most important, there is the blanket distrust of politicians. This is reinforced daily. 'They are all the same', 'they are only in it for themselves', etc, etc. This is manifestly untrue of all, but certainly true of some - as could be said of all professions (the reason I taught is because they paid me, even if I was dedicated to adult education. Being paid for writing is proving more elusive). But it is this mood that the likes of UKIP feed off. They play at being the plucky outsider taking on the establishment - even if they look remarkably like the establishment to me. Cynicism is the playground of the demagogue.

And so we need to once again fall back on sceptical, critical thinking. We should be shouting to all who will hear that complementary medicine is nothing if not capitalism at its most exploitative, that firms do not use more expensive materials secretly so that they can satisfy their cruelty, and that UKIP is a right-wing, populist movement as cynical as the cynicism it feeds off.

Excessive distrust of institutions is as corrosive as slavish adherence to the powerful. Both are human traits, reinforced by the marketing industry, but neither are wholly successful. You may be able to fool sufficient of the people sufficient of the time to make a few bob, there are others out there who can spot a charlatan a mile off. Liberal democracies are not populated by automatons waiting to be enlightened, but by human beings with all their cognitive weaknesses mixed in with intellectual strengths. Oddly, it is those like the Chomsky devotees who turn out to be most unthinking disciples of all. Maybe all they are doing is talking about themselves.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Gobbledygook

This post will only really interest people involved with academia. However, I really liked this piece from Steven Pinker based on his new book. For those of us who have suffered trying to read some of the indigestible prose that seeps out of universities, he attempts to explain a mystery, "Why Academics Stink at Writing".

He doesn't indulge in the fashionable view that obscurity is the product of appearing to be profound when you have nothing to say, instead he puts it down to something more simple. Clear writing is difficult.
When Calvin explained to Hobbes, "With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog," he got it backward. Fog comes easily to writers; it’s the clarity that requires practice.
Absolutely! And this brings me to one of my favourite, and usually completely ignored, big speeches. Students need good training in how to write - as well as how to think critically and spot rhetorical devices and dodgy arguments. And good writing means clarity obviously, but also something else - finding a voice, something distinctive, a way of expressing themselves that is their own and expresses what they want to say, not what the institution wishes to hear. And this is the bit that usually gets me into trouble, I think that the training should be a compulsory and accredited part of all degrees. Instead of being an add-on, it should be central. Not many academics agree.

Clear writing involves techniques that can be taught and learnt. How well they are used is something else and depends on the individual, but it is perfectly possible for good students to be let down by bad writing. Help is made available for all students, it is getting much better, but it is usually voluntary and when I see courses in academic writing being offered, I want to run one on how not to write like an academic. The trouble is, and I have been just as much at fault in doing this myself, we tend to give students a formula instead of a framework. The results are dull, endless repetitions of the same essays.

And all this applies to academics too - in spades. Pinker points out some common flaws - all of which can be found in my writing - that should be avoided. It is a guide that I will use. But if the foundations are laid properly at undergraduate level, we should be spared the awful tedium of an essential article in the Journal that Nobody in their Right Mind Should Read.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

In Eccles

From trees and lamposts, houses and street signs, a smattering of yellow.





The Middle East conflict is not remote here. It matters.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Fifty years on


I can remember it still, the wooden seats, the crowd filling the open terraces on three sides, the magic of seeing a stadium lit up at night by what would now be considered inadequate floodlighting, a fragment of play lingers in my mind and, of course, the score. I was 12 years old. My birthday treat was to be taken to my first ever football match. On September 30th 1964, Crystal Palace played Charlton in a midweek Second Division match at Selhurst Park. Palace won by three goals to one. I was there and I still have the programme.



I have blogged before on my football watching inconstancy. I hadn't been to Selhurst for decades, though had started to go to local away games. But when I saw that Palace were at home last Saturday, September 27th 2014, three days short of the fiftieth anniversary of that first match, I knew I had to go. But why? Nostalgia, certainly, but it isn't the whole story. This post is not only about me; it is about the meaning of sport.

Sport is on the front line in the battle against the puritans who see it as the enemy of seriousness and piety. They are right. It is a popular rebellion against their petty-minded bigotry and joyless earnestness. Here is a classic example from a transcript of Noam Chomsky talking about his book, Manufacturing Consent, to an adoring and appreciative audience.
Take, say, sports -- that's another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing … it offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance. … That keeps them from worrying … about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. … why I am cheering for my team? It … doesn't make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it's a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements -- in fact, it's training in irrational jingoism. 
This shallow, deterministic tosh is typical of the person who needs to find a reason why their dislike of sport is morally superior to the pleasure other people take in it. It views less elevated people as dupes, incapable of choice. Oh dear, the poor deluded heathens are in need of enlightenment. Rather than say that they don't like it, the Chomskys of this world see enjoying sport as a moral defect or, worse, false consciousness. They couldn't half do with lightening up. It is snobbishness, in this case striking a left-wing pose. As for the bulk of the people themselves, they have little desire to be the obedient foot soldiers for a well-rewarded, tenured academic. They would rather watch Match of the Day.

As far as I am concerned, the best book ever written about any sport is CLR James' Beyond a Boundary. It is about cricket, but its analysis is universal. His cricketing prowess and love of the game made James question aspects of his Marxist politics.
In my private mind, however, I was increasingly aware of large areas of human existence that my history and politics did not seem to cover. What did men live by? What did they want? What did history show that they wanted? Had they wanted then what they wanted now? The men I had known, what had they wanted? What exactly was art and what exactly culture?
His answer?
A glance at the world showed that when the common people were not at work, one thing they wanted was organized sports and games. They wanted them greedily, passionately.
And what is more, he noticed that the growth and codification of sport coincided with demands for popular democracy.
The conjunction hit me as it would have hit few of the students of society and culture in the international organization to which I belonged. Trotsky had said that the workers were deflected from politics by sports. With my past I could not accept that.
So James elaborated on his theme of popular aesthetics, culture and belonging through sport, together with the pleasure it gives. He saw the cricket establishment as a vehicle for racism, but also saw the game as the weapon that defeated it. Organised sport can be conservative, yet it can be transformed by the individual genius of the genuinely great player. It reflects society and changes it. Sport is dynamic, fluid, adaptable and it genuinely deserves the epithet, popular. But I would add something else. Watching sport, being a live audience, is another performance. It is participatory and belongs wholly to the spectators. A crowd is not a flock of sheep bleating to orders. It is a group of people doing what they want in the way they want. On this level it is an expression of communal comradeship and at Palace these days it is particularly noticeable. There is no need to have designated 'singing areas' as at some more fashionable grounds. All the stands sing. They were even standing in the directors' box clapping their hands over their heads as the whole ground rocked to the Palace theme tune of Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five. This tradition is fifty years old too, invented by the spectators. The record came out in January 1964 and when they played it at the ground all the young kids standing at the front banged the advertising hoardings in time to the refrain. It caught on and has never gone away.

But it is the second, individual level that mattered most to me last weekend. Supporting Palace was the glue that held together the friendship of three old school chums. But when life and distance intervened, both the football and the friends faded away to become fond memories and drunken anecdotes. Until the internet that is. When we found each other again the only way we could think of meeting up was to go to a match. And it was all still there. Born again.

There is a nagging ache of regret about the missing years (and genuine pain at having never been at those few occasions when Palace have played big games at Wembley), but it is overwhelmed by the sheer joy of being back with my old friends and my old team. It is a parable of a prodigal without resentment. I took the time out when in London to revisit the homes and haunts of my youth. I was often confused by the distortions of memory that had changed the geography in my mind – foreshortening distance and losing locations – sometimes making it a struggle to find my way around. But it made me happy. I was reassuring myself about my past – a suburban, South London childhood and early adulthood that was incongruous with my current life and something that my inner Chomsky had derided as being somehow 'inauthentic'. It is all still there, it is part of who I am and it is where I came from. And I can look back with affection, despite the restless discontent that drove me to move to Manchester. Though I live in the north, follow the wonderful sport of Rugby League - avidly worshipping at the temple of disappointment that is Swinton Lions - harbour other sporting soft spots and spend five months of the year in Greece, I am still a South London Palace fan. That's me. I've come home.

The weather was warm and the day of the match was made perfect by a two-nil win. But the most symbolic moment was a chance encounter in the club shop. A woman, maybe in her mid to late fifties, was buying souvenirs for her grandchildren. We chatted. She looked at me and said, "This is my very first time. I have never been to a game before". Her eyes were shining and her voice resonated with excitement. Just as mine did – fifty years ago.

For all its crass commercialism and hype, for all the obscene economics and horrible hangers-on, and for all the ways in which sport can reflect the worst as well as the best of our society, this is the pleasure that football still gives. CLR James was right. The Chomskys of this world can keep their sneering as they dream of a demos made to their own orders. The rest of us will carry on partying, feeling glad all over.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Return of the fat man

Sometimes life takes over. Back to the UK and every bit of gadgetry that you have become reliant on, phones, fridges, cars and even doorbells decide to break simultaneously. In Greece customer care is an alien concept, so you get back to the UK and find out it is worse (if not quite as creatively haphazard). Ah well, most is fixed now, so, as therapy, I am returning to the keyboard.

A very strange and special weekend looms, but first, I had to get a new phone. The most interesting part was talking to the shop assistant, who was very helpful. It started when he told me about the quality assurance questions I would be texted. Cue big speech about managerialism, using customer satisfaction as a way to control staff, lack of autonomy in the workplace and the importance of unions to help individuals meet the collective power of the corporation on more equal terms. He was interested so we drifted on to political economy and then I left before I got him the sack. Yet there was one thing that made me sad. In the past, I would given him my contact details and enrolled him onto an adult education course. He would have done well, he was curious and eager. His life would have changed. But there are hardly any left. It was a glimpse of what we have lost, or rather, what has been taken from us.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Football crazy

The economics are obscene, but football is part of my life that will not go away and I will be obsessing about results and making big speeches as usual to the despair of my friends. But let's just dwell on that obscenity for a bit with Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace Supporter Trusts. They ask a simple question, "how can a game, rich with so much money, still be so greedy?" Ticket prices are exorbitant.
But the facts are clear. More money than ever before is in football yet it still goes in through one bank account and out to top up others people's already bulging bank balances. Supporters’ wallets remain empty. Supporters still find themselves getting nothing back.
Loyalty creates inelastic demand, but so does fashion. And fashions change. Will the football bubble burst and does that mean that the people who really love the game will begin to reap some of the rewards out of necessity? The German model of majority fan ownership, safe standing and cheap entry prices hasn't done too badly has it?


The full statement is here and will no doubt appear on the other trusts' web sites in due course.

Autumn

Summer is melting away here in Pelion. It is still warm, but there have been bursts of heavy rain, the air is damp and humid and the temperature has dropped down to the mid-twenties. This is might be like a British heatwave, but the sensation of weather is comparative and I have got used to the heat.

Autumn is a calm season. The vegetable garden is on its last legs and the plants are withering. Nature looks tired and stressed, the leaves on the walnut and plane trees are spotted with brown though the rain is sending shoots of green up through the scorched earth. The quince trees are heavy with fruit, but soon they will be gone. I shall pick a few before I leave to ripen. I reckon the neighbours will have the rest.

And next week I will be back in the UK, slipping into my other life. It isn't an unpleasant thought, but who couldn't miss the beauty and the wildlife? Manchester it isn't.

Thanks a million

Blogger stats now tell me that I have had a million page views. Even if most were spambots, it feels like some sort of milestone. But, then again, visits are going down - though I think that this is true of all blogs - and my posting has become much more sporadic. Blogging has had its moment in the sun. This one was hardly stellar, especially since the lamented but unavoidable loss of the DSTPFW but I shall continue - for the time being anyway.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The enemies of reason

I have just finished reading the late James Webb's The Occult Underground. For a book first published in 1971, it has worn quite well. It was originally published as The Flight from Reason and that is a far better description of its theme, but a much less marketable title. In an area that I do know about, late 19th century radical thought, he made loads of mistakes – for example, Geddes was not a mystical thinker, Gandhi was already a vegetarian when he came to London, Kropotkin did not flee Russia after a murder, etc. - and his topic, the revival of esoteric thought, has been the subject of earlier and later study. For example, both Orwell and Adorno wrote about the links between mystical thought and the far right, whilst the occult nature of Nazism has spawned a library of books. But there is something quite fun about reading a book that kicked off a sceptical look at mysticism and its broader place in the history of ideas, not just the far right, especially one that has such a promising line at the beginning:
The neglected genius is a familiar figure of mythology; but there are those neglected lunatics who are worthy of study. 
And my, were they lunatics. According to Webb, they blended a half understood Eastern philosophy into a "sort of spiritual porridge." Political utopians and romantic nationalists fed from the same trough. Fake spiritualists, believers in mesmerism, frauds and charlatans pulled in believers by the score. Sects proliferated - schismatic Protestants, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of a reinvented neo-paganism, deluded ghost-hunters and psychical researchers, mainstream religious revivalists, and many others. And if you want an example of the intellectual contortions they went through, look at this tragi-comic example of how Annie Besant reconciled her conversion to Theosophy and belief in reincarnation with the theory of evolution, in this case using "clairvoyant investigations" to discover her own personal evolution into becoming human.
The evolutionary leap was taken when Mrs. Besant was incarnated in a large, monkey-like body, in which form she was particularly attached to an entity already human, who was to become the Buddha. One night the Buddha and his family were attacked by savages. During the ensuing fight, the Besant-monkey saved the Buddha at the cost of its own life. The aspirations of this relatively humble creature provoked a stream of cosmic reactions so that "in the very moment of dying the monkey individualizes, and thus he dies – a man." 
Blimey! Have you noticed that most believers' imagined past lives are usually those of significant or interesting people? They rarely see themselves as humdrum. What I find sad about Besant is that she had been a formidable campaigner for women's' rights and contraception, a socialist and trade unionist, organising the female workers of the Bryant and May match company in their celebrated 1888 strike, active in working class education and secretary of the National Secular Society for seventeen years. Then she fell for Blavatsky's facile, perennialist nonsense.

And this is why the book still has an appeal today. I groan when I see supposed leftists come out with pseudo-scientific rubbish about GM crops, form alliances with Islamists, flirt with anti-Semitism, indulge in paranoid conspiracy theories, and talk in hushed, reverential tones about ancient wisdoms and authentic, 'natural' cures. How on earth did this happen? Mainstream studies see this as down to the influence of Romanticism and the idea of nature. Paul Berman has fingered what he called irrational death cults as one of the inspirations behind Islamist terrorism, but Webb did more, giving us a speculative structural explanation of why the occult should explode into life at the end of the nineteenth century, seeing the growth of irrational thought as the product of an intellectual sea change.
The occult is rejected knowledge. It may be knowledge that is actively rejected by an Establishment culture, or knowledge which voluntarily exiles itself from the courts of favor (sic) because of its recognized incompatibility with the prevailing wisdom. The word "occult" means "hidden", and in this idea lies the key to the occult's forbidding appearance. Something may be hidden because of its immense value, or reverently concealed from the prying eyes of the profane. But this hidden thing may also have achieved its sequestered position because the Powers That Be have found it wanting. Either it is a threat and must be buried, or simply useless and so is forgotten. 
For centuries, reason and science were an insurgent force against establishment religion and the power of the nobility. But then, in an intellectual revolution, they became orthodoxy. The victory was not clear-cut, there were fudges and compromises, but Darwin had overthrown god. Science as a method of enquiry, as opposed to a body of knowledge, had prevailed. The long struggle between Plato's idealism and Aristotle's materialism for pre-eminence was over. Aristotle had won.

Esoteric mysticism, The Tradition as Webb called it, became the opposition; rejected knowledge. And so it flourished as an act of rebellion, by both conservatives and radicals, as anti-establishment thought. Freed from the constraints of orthodoxy, it fragmented into many weird and wonderful ideologies. And so religious reaction, conspiracy thought, political utopianism, and the like all share a common root, fear and revulsion of the new age of reason.

Take Pseudo-science, for example. Webb wrote:
The pseudo-sciences, in fact, are not sciences at all, but offshoots of an approach which is similar to the Tradition, even if there is no direct connection. It is, therefore, not merely rejection from the Establishment which pushes homeopaths into the arms of the occultists, but a fundamental kinship.
And Webb gave a key role in this transformation into radical respectability to Theosophy.
In the last analysis the achievement of H.P.B. (Helena Petrovna Blavatsky) was to make what seems today a markedly eccentric society part of the "progressive" thought of the late 19th century. 
Later writers have tried to be break away from what they saw as Webb's manichean view of the opposition of esotericism and reason. For example, Marco Pasi wrote:
 … these occult organizations offered a social space where new conceptions of culture and society could be formulated and experimented with. This would be in itself a good reason – if there were no other – to argue that occultism, as part of the larger historical body of esotericism, has contributed significantly to the shaping of modernity, verging, in this case, rather towards the progressive, liberal pole of the cultural and political spectrum. 
I don't think Webb would have demurred, but he might also have pointed out that belief in bollocks is not a necessary precondition for social and cultural experimentation.

Webb's occult net was spread wide, perhaps too wide, but in looking at mystical underpinnings of even secular ideas, he was echoing the nineteenth century freethought movement, which sought to secularise ways of thinking, not just reject religious ideas. And when one looks at New Age ramblings, deep green primitivism, neo-feudal traditionalism and the deep distrust of science that comes out of climate change deniers, anti-vaccination campaigners and the opponents of GMOs, you can see that they share a common theological and eschatological mind-set. Rather than the hard task of using reason and science to further human emancipation, they chose to challenge and bury them under a pile of mystical 'woo' - reaction posing as radicalism. Some of this is harmless enough, but we are also seeing its malign, totalitarian side in murderous action in Iraq and elsewhere at the moment. Reason may no longer be an insurgent against the establishment, but it now has a counter-insurgency to fight.