Monday, January 26, 2015

Hope and caution

“If Syriza doesn’t send the first person who tries to bribe them, even for a single euro, straight to the prosecutor, we’re finished,” says Kyrios Dimitris, 71, who runs an efficient food bank in working-class Nea Ionia.
I can't think of a political party coming to power facing a more difficult prospect. Syriza carries wild, extravagant hopes against huge obstacles. Disillusionment is inevitable and hard deals have to be done. Germany's economic stringency is foremost in people's minds, but there is also an internal enemy, the need to tackle not only the institutional weakness of the Greek state, but also the entrenched network of interests, embedded corruption, clientalism and the divisions that linger from the civil war. Maria Margaronis sums it up.
Yet that’s not the only thing that explains Syriza’s rise. Over the past five years, Greece has begun to change, and Syriza has changed with it. In the early months of the crisis, you were either against the troika or in the “reformist” camp, which meant you were signed up to the neoliberal agenda of Greece’s creditors. Now the party that rallied the crowds by railing against the troika has also turned its attention to what’s rotten at home. Syriza has reclaimed the idea of reform for the left, reframing it in terms of a fair, egalitarian welfare state.
 It has also promised what may be the most essential and most difficult thing: to end high-level corruption and cut the apron strings that bind Greece’s political parties with the banks and media emperors. “Even if we could, we don’t want to go back to 2009,” Tsipras said on Thursday. “We need you behind us to put an end to corruption, tax evasion, bribes and clientelist politics.”
There won't be miracles. Maybe there will be successes. But the consequences of failure could be profound.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


I am back in the UK and Greece is back in the headlines as the Eurozone crisis refuses stubbornly to subside in line with optimistic forecasts. This time the eyes are on the early Greek election and the probable win by an improbable left coalition.

This was an election that neither Germany nor the Greek government wanted, yet that is what their actions produced. Marcus Walker and Marianna Kakounaki, writing in the Wall Street Journal, provide a superb blow-by-blow account of how it happened.

The infographic provided by the WSJ also gives an insight in why Syriza are ahead in the polls. Taxes up sevenfold from 2009; GDP down by 25% since 2008; 83.9% drop in the stock market since 2008; 25.8% unemployment; 23.1% at risk of poverty. It is true that Greece now has a primary budget surplus - in the midst of a slump - yet the result of austerity economics is that debt has risen, not fallen. Austerity has failed, as it usually does.

Syriza is a symptom of what is happening throughout Europe. The support base of traditional political parties is collapsing. Rather than being a rebellion against the political system, it marks a rejection of a model of political economy. It is an inchoate intellectual revolution that wishes to re-establish Keynesianism as the basis of economic policy making, the model that mainstream parties had abandoned.

So does Greece herald a sea-change? Syriza have little bargaining power. EMU is secured against any Greek default. Greece can be isolated or ejected without bringing down the system. What Greece needs, investment and debt relief, is not on the table. It is hard to be optimistic, except that the flaws remain; Europe is facing recession and deflation. Who knows what a crack will open up, or what will emerge from it? 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Je suis toujours Charlie

Maybe I was a bit complacent in my previous post. There is a sense of desperation out there. How does a bunch of people who have idealised radical Islamism as some form of liberation theology deal with the murders in Paris? Of course, they could change their mind, but that might be asking a bit much. No, instead they have used three tactics to justify themselves to themselves and to continue feeling virtuous.

The first tactic is sneering. There has been some horrible stuff written about the people putting "Je suis Charlie" as their Facebook status or on Twitter. It talks about how using the slogan is false, easily forgotten afterwards, achieves nothing and diverts people from real action, or, more insidiously, how it only resonates because it chimes in with their inner 'islamophobia'. I'll tell you what it really is a sign of - people who know right from wrong. It is a moral spasm. Faced with something recognisably evil, people did what they could. Changing an avatar is possible, changing the world is out of their reach.

Secondly, they mount a diversion. I keep seeing stuff urging me to demand that Muslims should not be asked to apologise for the massacre. Of course they bloody shouldn't. Rupert Murdoch might have gone off on one and I know it is fashionable to apologise for everything under the sun (maybe I should find an Italian and say sorry for Boudicca's massacre of the Romans at Camulodunum), but they had nothing to do with it! Murdoch's a tosser. That's it. Over and done with. Now how about what matters?

Finally, after the obligatory hand-wringing, they blame the victims. Let's all smear Charlie Hebdo. Here are a few examples. Anne Norton, author of a pretty good book on Leo Strauss and a dire one on Islam and politics, writes:
#jesuischarlie might be meant as solidarity. But it calls for an identity bounded by bigotry. Charlie Hebdo is a scurrilous rag, willfully offensive, that defended the powerful by attacking the weak.
Has she read it? Probably not.

Then there was an unpleasant cartoon from Joe Sacco published by the Guardian. It was what you would expect from a 'yes, but ...' piece. It conflates political Islamism with all Muslims (just as the right do), puts the blame for the attack on provocative cartoons rather than on a malign ideology, Abu Ghraib gets a spot, it implies that only Muslims are attacked and that Jews are given a free pass, and ends with a sideswipe at Zionism.  Predictable and wrong in so many ways.

And here's a piece that at least tries to add some historical perspective about the long French tradition of scurrilous and offensive satire. "At last", I thought. Then I read this:
Charlie Hebdo certainly trades in such racially incendiary images; a cover once depicted the sex slaves of Boko Haram as screaming, pregnant welfare queens. In their defence, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo would say that they mock everyone equally. But in a racially stratified society, making fun of novelist Michel Houellebecq for his smoking and drinking is hardly the same as conflating sex slaves in Africa with welfare recipients in France.
Except they bloody didn't! That cover was attacking the French right for their accusation that refugees deliberately get pregnant to get welfare benefits. So they get raped by Boko Haram solely to get benefits do they? That's what Charlie Hebdo was saying. It is powerful, anti-racist stuff. There is another explanation of a frequently misrepresented cover here. Do these people think or do some basic research before playing follow my leader and repeating the same misinterpretations? Obviously not.

All three of these and many more are promulgating the line that Charlie Hebdo was a racist magazine that was, at best, apolitical and nihilistic, or, more commonly, racist and islamophobic, a right-wing anti-Muslim hate rag. How convenient. They obviously had it coming to them.

The only problem is that every word is untrue. It took an astonished, baffled and horrified French leftist to try and explain. Olivier Tonneau gets the critics' method spot on - "Charlie Hebdo, ... was often “analyzed” in the British press on the sole basis, apparently, of a few selected cartoons." Knowledge of French politics? Ability to read French? Clearly not required for authoritative punditry.

So, now listen to what he has to say.
It might be worth knowing that the main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the shooting was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece).  Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.
And the money line:
This being clear, the attack becomes all the more tragic and absurd: young French Muslims of Arab descent have not assaulted the numerous extreme-right wing newspapers that exist in France (Minute, Valeurs Actuelles) who ceaselessly amalgamate Arabs, Muslims and fundamentalists, but the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism.
Let's be clear about what happened. A far-right death squad broke into the offices of a radical left paper and shot dead unarmed journalists and artists. They executed a Muslim policeman, split up and took hostages ready for a shoot-out. One of them went to a kosher supermarket to kill Jews, purely because they were Jews - I've noticed that fascists seem to like that sort of thing.

And all these leftists and commentators can think of doing is excusing the killers and smearing the victims. And when they do, they are not just betraying their friends and allies, they are betraying the millions of Muslims around the world that these theocratic thugs are killing. They are betraying the Muslims who try and resist. They are betraying the thousands of Nigerians slaughtered by Boko Haram. They are betraying the murdered children of Peshawar. They are betraying the people of Iraq and Syria currently being overwhelmed by oppression, murder, slavery, rape and genocide. And they are betraying the basic moral decency of those who go and stand in vigils, write poetry, display pencils as a symbol, and write "je suis Charlie" wherever they can in countries all round the world.

Just what goes on in their heads?

A website has been set up to provide translations and explain the political context of Charlie Hebdo cartoons in order to answer the uninformed criticism. It can be found here.

Friday, January 09, 2015


As you would suspect, the usual people are saying the usual things. I can't be bothered to dignify their ordure with links. There are the covert sympathisers, such as Galloway. Then there are the 'murder can never be defended, but ...' apologists, Richard Seymour is one of the worst examples - part of a far left that is slowly vanishing up its own orifice rather than face up to the fact that they have made a colossal error in allying with Islamists. The far right blame immigration - Nigel Farage being spectacularly insensitive. And, of course, there is the anguished reasonableness of the reasonable anguished, desperately seeking a therapists couch to confess their sins and accept the blame. But this time round, they seem to be in the minority. There are more and more pieces that get it right. I will just quote one, from the New Yorker. George Packer's eloquence nails it.
The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists. 
They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades. It’s the same ideology that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding for a decade under a death sentence for writing a novel, then killed his Japanese translator and tried to kill his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher. The ideology that murdered three thousand people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The one that butchered Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam, in 2004, for making a film. The one that has brought mass rape and slaughter to the cities and deserts of Syria and Iraq. That massacred a hundred and thirty-two children and thirteen adults in a school in Peshawar last month. That regularly kills so many Nigerians, especially young ones, that hardly anyone pays attention.
 Maybe, just maybe, we have reached a tipping point. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


Stone me

The last voice-over of Oliver Stone's film Platoon always struck me as the ultimate in self-absorption.
I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us. 
I think that the Vietnamese might demur.

It is an example of a pathological narcissism that can only see the world as a reflection of the actions of the United States, an America that is villainous and malign. This anti-imperialism is the most imperialist thinking of all, it places the USA at the centre of the world and the rest are merely its accomplices or victims. And it means that any creep or criminal who opposes them dons the mantle of heroism. And in Stone's mind now, the latest champion of the people is none other than Vladimir Putin. Putin won an award elsewhere too.
Vladimir Putin has been named the 2014 Person of the Year by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an award given annually to the person who does the most to enable and promote organized criminal activity. 
Putin was recognized for his work in turning Russia into a major money-laundering center; for enabling organized crime in Crimea and in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine; for his unblemished record of failing to prosecute criminal activity; and for advancing a government policy of working with and using crime groups as a component of state policy.
What a hero. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

This is a lovely article about a lovely unsentimental, sentimental song. Twenty five years ago. As you get older, time always surprises you. Another Christmas, another year. Have a good one.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A ghost story

Telling tales about spooks and spirits is a Christmas tradition, so here is my contribution - a YouTube of a TV programme. It is a supposed investigation into a haunted house. It is terrible, absolute rubbish, it stinks.

My favourite moment is the one when, after the dodgy medium has been chuntering away throwing out guesses, the "historian" emerges from her eavesdropping and confirms that he has got a date right. Spooky! How on earth would anyone know the date of the English Civil War if they hadn't been told it by a dead catholic priest? After that they all sit in the dark, knock things over and scare each other. The only saving grace is that I am not sure how seriously all the participants took it. If they did, god help us!

But I love it. Because there are metaphorical ghosts there. They are my memories. This was my Uncle's house. I spent long childhood holidays there, together with a few family Christmases. It was derelict when he bought it and he spent the twenty years until his death in 1982 renovating it, embellishing it with some false flourishes that the film seemed to be particularly taken with.

I have slept in that four-poster bed many times and never been hauled out of it by a poltergeist. As for the "Cromwell Room", there were no flickering lights when I stayed there. And I used to like the cellars, they were light and airy with big windows to the front as the house is built into a hill.

There are no ghosts. We only have the science of human perception and a literary tradition. It is a tradition that has been associated with Christmas since Victorian times. So if you want to be seasonal, read the best, the ghost stories of M R James. But do remember they aren't real. And sleep tight.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The answer is ...

Back in Greece. The rain has been heavy and the citrus fruit is ripening. I have been doing some proper writing, so have neglected the blog. Sorry to my diminishing band of readers. To start me off again, here are three things to which there are no satisfactory answers.

1. If we want Members of Parliament to behave more like normal human beings, why do we moan when they do? I mean, who wouldn't play Candy Crush during a mind-numbingly boring meeting if they could?

2. If this country could make Fifty Shades of Grey a best seller, showing that we are perves and not prudes at heart, what on earth does the censorious establishment think it is doing drawing up an arbitrary list of practices that are to be banned from British porn, even if they are available everywhere on the internet? (And just what were those meetings like when they were drawing up their list?) At least it sparked the best protest ever, though only half the participants could speak out.

3. When we will see top football clubs treat their supporters with respect rather than an obedient cash cow? This report on the treatment of a Manchester United supporter who was the victim of extreme police brutality in Rome is shocking.
In the most shocking footage a woman in her early-20s is filming with her camera until a policeman snatches it and his colleagues wade in. Three hit her in the face. A fourth strikes her with his truncheon. She disappears and the legal documents filed by Imusa state that is her being flung down a stairwell …  
Trio Medusa went to Old Trafford to hand the woman a new camera loaded with goodwill messages, including Francesco Totti asking her not to be put off from visiting Rome again. “We would like to apologise for the treatment you received and we hope it has not damaged the opinion you and your fellow supporters have of our city,” Totti tells her. “We would also like to invite you back to the Olympic stadium and treat you as our special guest.” ...  
As for the woman who went to see her football team in the Eternal City and took a beating from the local police, she is Carly Lyes from Rusholme … and, when United did eventually get in contact, it was not in the circumstances you might imagine. In 2010, during protests about the club’s ownership, she lifted one of those banners that were popular at the time, saying “Love United, Hate Glazer”. She was thrown out and the club allege she was “disorderly”. Carly has been banned from Old Trafford for life.
The answer is a lemon.

Friday, December 05, 2014

A tribute

To the late Jeremy Thorpe. You have to be old enough to know what this is all about.

We had real political scandals in those days. MP's expenses - pah!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

England our England

What would an English fascism look like?

I can't see it strutting around in uniforms. Nor would it adopt any of these fancy theoretical doctrines - they are far too European. As for all this modernism and talk of the future, no way would that appeal. Instead, its utopia would be smaller, more modest, rooted in the past. It wouldn't care if that past existed or not, as long as it sounded familiar and cosy. It would be self-effacing and modest. Fascism feeds on the idea that all will be well if one or other of a group of people are removed from our presence. An English version would only seek to get rid of sufficient of them. It wouldn't be one for ambitious, teutonic efficiency. Just enough will do. Others will be able to remain - in their proper place of course. It would be careless with democracy, it never had much time for it. It would expect deference, obedience and, above all, respect for authority. Our rights would be English, not human - whatever that means. It would have some exotic friends who do speak piffle from time to time, but you have to admit old boy, they do have a point. Its language would be uncomplicated. You would be able to call a spade a spade without any of this politically correct circumlocution. It would seek power without the glory. And above all it would be suburban. It would not speak for the cosmopolitan or the rural, but for the semi-detached sprawl, for respectability and convention.

And that is why we should confront UKIP rather than pander to it.

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


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.