Monday, March 28, 2011

Burkes and Paines

As the Arab rebellions continue across the region, it is as if a legion of Tom Paines are sweeping through the Middle East. I haven't seen the demonstrators waving copies of The Rights of Man, but their sentiments seem to match entirely Paine's support for democratic revolutions to destroy the old autocracy; "Man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of Government".

For every Paine there seems to be an Edmund Burke*; anti-revolutionary, distrusting radical enthusiasms, advocating slow, incremental change. They are becoming more visible as a result of the UN intervention in Libya, though they had always been there, expressing reservations about the revolutions themselves, often making their governments hesitant. They don't ostensibly support the existing regimes, but would prioritise stability over rapid change.

A few Burkes are drawn into denial if not outright apologism. For example, Richard Falk can actually write,

The main pretext given for the intervention was the vulnerability of Libyan civilians to the wrath of the Gaddafi regime. But there was little evidence of such wrath beyond the regime's expected defence of the established order, although admittedly being here undertaken in a brutal manner, which itself is not unusual in such a situation.

But mostly they produce this sort of stuff from Abdelkader Benali - it could be seen as a Western plot, it looks like a tribal war between rival regions, better to have a broader coalition, more Arab involvement is needed, etc., etc. Sometimes the sceptics give credence to regime propaganda, raising the spectre of Al Qaeda or the risk that something could go terribly wrong in the aftermath. Thankfully in Libya, the Paines seized the day at the last minute, though the Burkes still rumble on about not exceeding the UN resolution or not backing regime change, rather than accepting that whilst Gaddafi remains so does the threat to civilian lives. This caution produces talk about a cease fire or even partition, both of which would cement Gaddafi's position in the west and allow him to regroup and rearm. Neither policies have a great pedigree, though both are wonderful excuses for inaction.

And so the debate over Libya is much the same as the one Burke and Paine had over France in the 1790s; the radical, democratic activist against the cautious, conservative reformist. One of the odd things is how conservatism seems to have infected the left, whilst some on the right have become revolutionary sympathisers.

I am temperamentally disposed to be a Paine, so I dislike this cautious conservatism. In Libya it played for time when there was none left, hoping for a fait accompli, meaning that western governments could wring their hands over the coming repression without having to actually do anything about it. And what really strikes me is that the whole critique is based on a pessimistic assessment of what might be, not what actually is. They are fearful, when reality often tells a different story.

There are strengths to a Burkean analysis. Revolutions can go very wrong indeed, especially when informed by impossibilist ideologies. Yet this is not what is happening in the Middle East. What is being demanded is something humdrum, the dignity of an ordinary life lived in the sort of polities that people have seen on satellite TV, on YouTube, or experienced as students in the west. A type of regime where 250,000 people can march against a government policy and even indulge in some minor rioting, without deaths, shooting, arbitrary arrests and torture. They want something that we live with and take for granted, usually grumbling about the harshness of our lot all the while.

This maybe our everyday reality, but we tend to forget that it too needed to be fought for. Here in Manchester we remember our own massacre, nearly two hundred years ago, of peaceful demonstrators demanding the vote. Far more recently we have experienced fascism, war and genocide. We know that there is much that can go wrong, that victory comes with imperfections. We can be certain that once new regimes are in place that there will be a longer struggle for women's emancipation, something that always lags behind when male public freedom often means continuing female public and private oppression. Women's liberation needs its own activism and mobilisation. Even so, today, when we see people struggling and dying to bring down the nasty police states that they were born into and to claim their own imperfect freedom, their own slice of normality, the least we can do is offer some practical solidarity, abandon faux neutrality and search for the Tom Paine inside us.

*Sometimes this should be confused with a berk. For those that don't know, the word 'berk' comes from Cockney rhyming slang - Berkeley Hunt ...

Thursday, March 24, 2011


"No matter how vast the skyscrapers and powerful the cannon, no matter how limitless the power of the State, no matter how mighty the empire, all this is only mist and fog and - as such - will be blown away. Only one true force continues to evolve and live; and this force is liberty. To a human, to live means to be free."
Vasily Grossman
Everything Flows

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Choosing sides

In another restatement of conservative isolationism, Simon Jenkins writes,
It is a mystery why Cameron chose Libya for his exercise in neocon "destiny shaping". There are a dozen other candidates that might have succumbed sooner to his aggression.
There is no mystery at all. There is one reason and one reason alone. It is simply because the people who made the popular revolution against Gaddafi asked for it. Once it became clear that the response to anti-regime protests in Libya was to be a massacre of the demonstrators, they asked for western intervention, without troops on the ground or an occupation, to support and protect them. After they had taken up arms as the dictatorship declared war on its people, faced with certain defeat by superior fire-power and only too aware of Gaddafi's promise not to be merciful, they begged for it.

There were only two possible responses that could have been given. Yes, we will offer support on precisely the terms you have requested, with all the uncertainties and difficulties that may follow. Or no, you are on your own, with all the terrible certainties about the consequences for the people.

Cameron, Sarkozy, Obama and the United Nations did not choose Libya, the Libyan people chose them. There are people I know, like and respect (this does not include Simon Jenkins by the way) who think we should have said no. But I, for one, was overwhelmingly relieved that we said yes.

Read Faud Ajami here
The warrant came from the Libyan people who pleaded for help and made a case for that help by their own bravery. These were not people sitting on the sidelines, or idling their time away in exile. They were men and women in a long captivity anxious to reclaim their tormented country.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Apparently the misery index is now at its highest point since ... er ... the last time the Tories were in power. Here is Faisal Islam of Channel 4 News:
The concept of the “Misery Index” is a simple economic concept that adds the ills of inflation and unemployment together into a single measure of our financial despondency. Today’s figures mean that in February 2011 it hit the highest level since Oct ’92 just after Britain was forced out of the ERM (and the then Chancellor was advised by a young Tory hotshot called David Cameron).
So at a time of gathering gloom, international crisis and natural disaster, compounded by deeply irritating news coverage and someone filling my wheelie bin with builder's rubble, how about some reasons for me to be cheerful.

The Arab revolutions are hanging on in there (with a little belated help from their friends). Hull has displayed its best republican traditions by being the only city in the UK not to host a street party for the royal wedding (actually, to be precise, nobody has applied for a license - good Yorkshire folk won't waste money on a bit of paper allowing them to get pissed when they can do it for nowt). Swinton Rugby League Club are on the up, winning again, with supporters coming back and being fun to watch (a grand old club is reviving; we just need that new stadium). I already have my pension. And finally, there is a very welcome new life in the world.

Yep, I can find reasons to be cheerful - hope you can too.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


It is like the first cuckoo in spring. Any action by the west, NATO or the UN is inevitably heralded by a batty column from Robert Fisk. Today's is a pearler.

As far as I can follow the tortuous logic and weird non-sequiturs, he asserts that the intervention is all about regime change (hmm... I thought that is what revolutions were usually about), oil and western hypocrisy. Then ... oh yes ... these are only "rebels" in scare quotes, it is really all about tribalism, Gaddafi has support in Tripoli, it could all fail as well, something worse could follow and, finally, he asks why don't we deal with other tyrants (when, if we did, we would see an identical column from him condemning it in the same terms) etc., etc., etc.

This is lazy blogging, fish in a barrel stuff, but he isn't alone and it seems to me that he is typical of the critics of the UN decision on Libya. They abdicate judgement in favour of cynicism.

Non-intervention in any conflict is not an act of neutrality, it ensures the victory of the strongest. Though there have been unsuccessful and only partially successful interventions in the past, there have also been some catastrophic non-interventions. Every situation involves risks and requires judgements to be made. There is the utilitarian calculation as to both the possible effectiveness and feasibility of intervention. However, the most important one is not merely a calculation of self-interest, though that always plays a part, but a moral, political and humanitarian one - the need to stand with those who demand liberty and democracy in the face of fascism and to oppose the mass murder of citizens by their own governments. The judgement made by the UN was undoubtedly, if belatedly, the right one. Let us hope it works.

Friday, March 18, 2011

From the jaws of defeat

Libyans in Benghazi demonstrate their agreement with the Stop the War Coalition.

More scenes from the Libyan Youth Movement here.

And just in case you wonder why, read this from yesterday:
The global community must act to stop Gaddafi and his forces reaching Benghazi. If he gets here, he will kill everyone.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Marc Abrahams writes:
In 1995, the Ig Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to two surgeons who painstakingly assembled a study called Rectal Foreign Bodies: Case Reports and a Comprehensive Review of the World's Literature. Those case reports involve, among other items: seven light bulbs; a knife sharpener; two flashlights; a wire spring; a snuff box; an oil can with potato stopper; 11 different forms of fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs; a jeweller's saw; a frozen pig's tail; a tin cup; a beer glass; and one patient's remarkable ensemble collection consisting of spectacles, a suitcase key, a tobacco pouch and a magazine.
Which, rather worryingly from a psychoanalytical point of view, brought to mind this item from Greece.

That’s a really huge radish! It weights seven kilos! Farmer Stavros Stavrianoudakis grew it in his farm in the Agioi Deka area on the island of Crete.
Now that would bring tears to your eyes.


So after the great Arab revolution comes the great Arab repression. The catalyst is the failure to support the Libyan uprising. If the USA can not only stand by and allow such an unambiguously evil act to take place, but also block others' frantic attempts to secure help, then dictators the world over can sleep soundly and let loose their security forces. We still don't know what the final outcome will be yet, though it seems clear that thousands of brave people who wished to live in dignity and freedom will die cruel deaths simply for wanting something that we take for granted.

This was a great historical opportunity, a chance for a momentous transformation of the Middle East. The failure to understand this, welcome it without reservation and then to take action to support it is a crime. Obama is not the first Nobel peace laureate to have blood on his hands.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Black comedy

I now realise that Pontius Pilate was showing solidarity. Marvellous.
Solidarity with those fighting for their democratic and national freedom is our obligation. We can best discharge it by demanding that the government at long last takes its hands off the Middle East and its people, leaving them to settle accounts with their own rulers.
Surely that should read, 'leaving rulers to settle accounts with their own people' (ed).

The Middle East doesn't seem to agree:
The Arab League endorsed the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya on Saturday and recognized the fledgling rebel movement seeking to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi as the country’s legitimate government, increasing pressure on Western powers to intervene

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Crime news

Bill Neely reports:
The town, 30 miles from Tripoli, fell to Gaddafi's son Khamis, who runs the 32nd Brigade, described by US diplomats as the best trained and best armed of all Gaddafi's forces. They're also known as the Deterrent Battalion and they are now involved in a second and rather more chilling clean-up operation.

They are sweeping through Zawiya, rounding up young men they suspect might have been involved in the rebellion. As we left, we saw one young man inside a speeding jeep, bloodstains on his shirt and a soldier virtually standing on him. Troops are going house to house, according to one resident, rounding up dozens of suspects. We talked to one man who said: "People are being arrested for no reason, people who stayed in their homes for the whole seven days of the fighting. You cannot imagine what is happening here."
And as the rebels beg for assistance, NATO and the EU, taking their lead from the United States, have boldly and resolutely decided to do nothing.

Whereas a former US Air Force Chief of Staff thinks replicating the successful no-fly zone over Northern Iraq would be "easy", the Obama administration sees nothing but difficulties whilst, "The director of national intelligence declared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a chilling example of self-fulfilling prophecy, that 'over the longer term Qaddafi will prevail.'"

One can only hope that Neely is right when he says, " Zawiya may prove a pyrrhic victory for the Great Leader". If he is wrong, heaven knows what horrors will be unleashed on the Libyan people.

The failure to grasp the significance of the revolutions sweeping the Arab world is bad enough, but the fatalistic acceptance of the triumph of violence over liberty is shocking. There is no sense of America remotely understanding where its real interests lie.

And if Gaddafi does win you can see it all now. There will be a brief period of quarantine and then respected journals and earnest editorials will pronounce that there are signs of reform, that a new generation is in charge, that there are 'moderate elements' gaining ground. And whilst this blather smothers the screams emanating from the torture chambers, trade deals will be done, the regime will be 'brought in from the cold', universities will, no doubt nervously, eye the offer of money for prestigious new buildings before snatching the cash and making some self-righteous pronouncement about 'building bridges'.

All the while Arab eyes will be turned towards this masquerade, filled with hate. They will have learned one thing from this woeful inaction; that the West is an enemy of freedom and a friend to tyrants. And they will not forget.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


"My wife scored zero points ...The test was a total waste of time; it was all physically orientated, nothing about her mental state. They asked things like 'Can you brush your teeth?' How that relates to mental health issues is beyond me. It was overthrown at tribunal. I can only describe it as mental torture; she was a mental wreck after it."

"I am waiting for a tribunal, but I'm told that it won't be before June, because there are so many people waiting. I'm stuck on the £65 benefit until then," a woman with ME said, and began to cry.
Just a few quotes from evidence given to the work and pensions select committee at a public meeting about the new work capability assessment for eligibility for disability benefits. This is just the latest in a long series of media reports about the way the test is failing comprehensively. Here we have a toxic mix of outsourcing, incompetence, lack of expertise, spending cuts and a loaded political agenda about 'ending the sick-note culture' running up against a determination not to lose political face by actually listening to the truth. I can't help feeling that a 'scrounger' driven agenda is little more than institutional cruelty.

In the meantime the select committee has come up with a startling new idea:
The chair, Dame Anne Begg (Labour, Aberdeen South), said this was the first time in her nine years on the committee that MPs had ventured out and talked to real people. "We should do this kind of thing more," she said.
I always like the notion of "real people". It makes you wonder what the others are. Surreal people probably, after all we currently have government in the style of Dali.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


Tonight I watched the superb film, Sophie Scholl, about the arrest and execution of members of the White Rose Group, part of the German resistance to Hitler. It is an intelligent, understated and beautifully written film.

As I viewed it, I could not help but think of the hundreds of similar dramas being played out in prison cells and torture chambers across the globe - right now - as I type this. I also watched the news tonight with irritation and frustration as a foreign policy 'expert' talked of the danger of a no-fly zone in Libya. He said that immediately Gadaffi knew about it he would place human shields by the anti-aircraft guns or move them near to schools or hospitals, preventing an attack on air defences without which a no-fly zone could not succeed. He failed to explain how an anti-aircraft gun in Tripoli could stop planes from protecting the rebels from air attack in Benghazi.

I have seen and read so many excuses for inaction in recent days whilst Gadaffi uses the time to cement his power and organise his security forces to defend the regime. Yet, as Christopher Hitchens puts it,
Doing nothing is not the absence of a policy; it is, in fact, the adoption of one. "Neutrality" favors the side with the biggest arsenal. "Nonintervention" is a form of interference. If you will the end—and President Barack Obama has finally said that Qaddafi should indeed go—then to that extent you will the means.
And in this vacuum of inaction who knows how many brave protesters, Libyan Sophie Scholls, are facing their own premature deaths or incarceration in unspeakable places for the crime of demanding freedom whilst the democracies dither.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Academic affairs

He's not the first and no doubt not the last,

It’s evidence of a towering intellect at work – an aspect of Saif’s personality we know escaped people who met him and even tried to teach him.
And the odd million quid made no difference at all, obviously. The tangled morality drama continues with revelations about Anthony Giddens' jolly to Libya, the fruits of which you can read here.* He won't be the only one cringing at the moment, Benjamin Barber's "recipe for peace and partnership" will be a piece he will regret for ever more.

This is much more than a story about gullibility, it reflects the difficulties faced by universities as they are driven to find funding from ever more dubious sources and an associated abandoning of an academic ethic in favour of a commercial one. The dilemmas are often real enough, would I have turned down that sort of money for adult education? Mind you, I doubt if the proceeds of the systematic looting of a nation would ever be offered to anything so humble and this points to something else.

The use of prestigious educational institutions to enhance the reputations of dodgy regimes is a lot cheaper, and far more respectable, than buying a football club and is an opportunity made more available by the amoral temptations inherent in unpredictable and inadequate funding. But this is not all. These deals only come to those at the top of the system and are grasped often as a way of keeping the elite in the elite. I can't see a queue of Russian oligarchs and Gulf State potentates lining up to buy Swinton Rugby League Club. Morals are being abandoned to hold on to status as much as to maintain financial viability. After all, status and power are such comfortable bedfellows.

At least one leader has fallen, yet the main one clings on and no PR company will help him, only Western dithering and available fire-power matters here.

*And if you think that is embarrassing try reading The Third Way.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Barcelona of the North

That was one slogan the marketing people dreamt up to sell Hull to the world. Yesterday, on a grey, cool early spring day it was more Alfred Hitchcock than Luis Bunuel.

But, my, was it good to be back and see all my old friends. Hull is a great place, lovely people, distinctively quirky.

When I left my old job over a year ago I was distraught at what I had lost - not just leaving behind a long career in adult education, but the 'troika nights' in a local curry house, the chats about jazz and rugby league in the house of a friend instead of doing what I was supposed to do and teach him how to use his computer, the early evening meals at Pave in splendid company. I needn't have worried. They are still there, as are my friends, waiting to be enjoyed. And today, back in Manchester, I'm still smiling.