Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ranting the night away

Peter Morici explaining why William Hague was talking "crap" about Greece.

Dr Peter Morici (mp3)

Whilst the Cheshire Cat has a good old go at much greater length here.

Thanks to Harry Barnes for the sound clip

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Science and anti-science

As part of my current research I have been reading about the popular working class campaign against compulsory vaccination for smallpox in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today we would see it as a moral panic of the kind stirred up over MMR. It would be easy to see the campaign as little more than an historical curiosity and a reflection of popular ignorance, especially given the successful eradication of this fatal and disfiguring disease. But we have to beware of anachronism; in the nineteenth century there were rational grounds for opposition. True there were propagandistic scare stories and the tendency of campaigners to claim that most infant mortality was down to vaccination. However, the practice of vaccination was different, consisting of the insertion of lymph in a wound created with a lancet and using arm-to-arm vaccination, both of which had the potential for cross infection and carried risks in their own right. With no understanding of the working of the immune system, the procedure was based on observation rather than explanation, it was open to objection and criticism in the light the of common, though wrong, medical assumptions of the day.

But this was not all. There were political reasons for resistance as well. This was mainly due to opposition to compulsion. Libertarian sentiment was strong in Victorian Britain, the state was mistrusted as a hostile instrument class rule, the accumulation of fines for non compliance was crippling and the campaign eventually wrung a conscientious objection provision out of the government that began to defuse the opposition. If the campaign was to show one thing, it was that co-option rather than compulsion was necessary for an effective public health policy.

The other main reason for opposition was a distrust of the medical profession as a vested interest that gained financially from the state enforcement of vaccination. Victorian and Edwardian attitudes to the medical profession were profoundly suspicious. Not only were doctors seen as the partners of an oppressive state, they were thought to be malevolent practitioners of dubious remedies and gruesome practices. Popular preference was for folk medicine and quack cures, again not as irrational a choice given the state of medical knowledge of the time, though still ineffective. Reading on, I was struck by how this attitude has persisted, even today when medical knowledge has been transformed. And this same Victorian sentiment is at the heart of a modern, and politically potent, anti-science movement that is growing, paradoxically, at a time when scientific knowledge is securely empirically grounded after more than a century of research and technological progress.

At the heart of anti-science is distrust, particularly of experts (the word is frequently enclosed within scare quotes), with all the the nineteenth century prejudices manifesting themselves. History is repeating itself as farce, certainly, but one tinged with tragedy.

Though this sentiment has persisted in relatively harmless, if exasperating, ways with New Age lunacies and those depressing promoters of 'ancient wisdoms' on the fringes of the Green movement, it is now being used with increasing success by wealthy and powerful interests. It is one of the extraordinary phenomena of our times that people who become multi-millionaires by selling bogus 'therapies' that are not only completely ineffective, but can also be positively dangerous, are more trusted by some than the modern medical profession. As this superb report makes clear, pseudo-science, like HIV denial, kills.

The same happens with climate change denial where the result of sixty years of careful scientific research is being challenged by an elaborate fiction. As is well documented, even more so since the story about leaked documents from the Heartlands Institute broke, this fiction is being maintained by lavish funding from major corporations. This is not surprising. What is frankly astonishing is that they are getting away with pretending that modestly paid academics are the vested interest that have to be challenged, not big business. This campaign is so successful that climate scientists now regularly receive hate mail, personal threats and attacks on their professional standing. Fear is seeping in and, unless this is vigorously challenged, may begin to close down free discussion.

At the same time, religious fundamentalism is not content with its increasingly violent culture wars and profession of offence, it is following the same tactics as the climate deniers to spread doubt about evolution. Creationism is on the march and trying to gain a place within school curricula, though thankfully the resistance to this is strong.

Part of the problem is that anti-science has appropriated the language of radicals. Yet, this time, whilst portraying themselves as courageous iconoclasts speaking truth to power in a determined attempt to advance human knowledge, we have wealthy and powerful interests speaking lies to an increasingly bewildered truth in pursuit of their own profits. This is not popular resistance, it is the manipulation of sentiment by wealthy, powerful and power seeking interests. Posing as sceptics, they seek to replace the open debate of science with dogma. They speak with an authoritarian voice.

Of course they know what they are doing, this is a highly professional campaign. In a world built on the division of labour, the main thing that binds us together is trust, trust in the expertise of others. The exercise that is being carried out by anti-science is an attempt to transfer trust from one group of people to another in the pursuit of profit and power.

The quack healer, the climate change denier, the creationist are all like the cowboy builder who comes round to your house, sucks air between his teeth and then shakes his head sadly whilst criticising everyone else for not knowing what they were doing. Flattering you for your wisdom in finding him, he gives you a lower quote though always seems to find a way to say that because of unforeseen difficulties it will cost a little bit more than he first thought. Of course he will be found out when the work begins to fall apart, but by then he has your money. And when you try and chase him up, he can't be found. Although your trust has gone, so has he.

This coalition exploits our fears, promotes doubt where there is none and pretends to champion the ordinary person against 'the system' that, in reality, is not their enemy. It works by undermining trust and promoting ignorance. A sentiment that was the reflection of popular concerns in the nineteenth century has been transformed in the twenty-first into an instrument to persuade people to support causes that will enrich others at their expense.

So aids patients die, thinking that they have done something clever by coming off their medication, global warming continues, whilst climate scientists are harried by obsessives, and reason dies a little until we have to face reality. And genuine alternatives, the ones that we need so desperately, are sidelined as Victorian fears, rational enough in their day, are resurrected as profitable wishful thinking in a world that needs truth. We should not abandon genuine scepticism or questioning, after all that is the cornerstone of science itself, but there are times that we need to remember that 'experts' are called experts simply because they are.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Attitude

A great, angry piece by Suzanne Moore picks up on the assumptions about work and unemployment being promoted by the insufferably earnest Ian Duncan Smith (aka IDS - or in a moment of supreme lunacy when he was briefly a disastrous leader of the Conservative Party, "the quiet man").
...right now we have an elite telling lazy scroungers to buck up. Yes, clean toilets, pick cabbages, move towns, sit in call-centre barns, smile enough to make Mary Portas types think you care. In short, deliver the service, that those who have never served, demand. Know your place.

I guess IDS knew his place at Sandhurst just as I once knew mine. Until I realised that most menial work leads to more menial work. The idea that this is the stepping stone is as much of a fantasy as The X Factor. The stepping stone is education. That's what makes you free, not work.
In each previous period of large-scale unemployment we saw a rapid growth in enrolment in adult education. Now, the service is decimated and, probably due to the contradictions and confusions in the new funding regime for higher education, there is a sharp decline in applications to universities from mature students. Without an opportunity for second (or even third, fourth or fifth) chance education, what hope is there other than a life drifting from crap job to crap job?

Adult education was, amongst so many other things, an engine for social mobility and, if you are into supply-side economics, by helping to produce a skilled, critical and articulate workforce could be seen as a driver of economic growth. But here is the problem. Articulate? Critical? In a managerialist workplace? Oh no we can't be having that. Much better to send them to that nice multi-millionaire who has been stuffed with large wads of government cash for ... well not a lot it now seems. She gives them what they really need; servility training. After all, servility is the new assertiveness.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beauty

I love my Kindle, but somehow Amazon's web site just doesn't have the same appeal as these - twenty of the most beautiful bookshops in the world.

Ancient

Modern
And Greek















One reason why the book will always be with us.

Thanks to Mieke

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sexy music

Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy was a fitting climax to Friday's BBC Philharmonic concert. It's finale, an orgasmic orchestral crescendo, accompanied by the the thundering of the Bridgewater Hall's organ, left one emotionally spent.


This is especially so as it followed the languorous sensuality of Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune, based on Mallarmé's erotic and savage poem*.
Of stifling heat that suffocates the morning
Save from my flute, no waters murmuring

I adore you, wrath of virgins - fierce delight
Of the sacred burden's writhing naked flight
From the fiery lightning of my lips that flash
With the secret terror of the thirsting flesh
The concert was recorded and will be broadcast on Radio 3. There is no date yet; listen out for it. The earth might move for you too.

*Click on page 38 for the full English translation next to the original French text.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Making sense

It has taken me a long time to get around to mentioning this intriguing blog post by the anarchist anthropologist and activist, David Graeber.  Though there is much more of interest packed in a short piece, his main purpose, apart from plugging his new book, is to discuss "how to write a book that would still be scholarly, but not academic", one that addresses big questions for a wider audience. Having suffered frustration and tedium whilst wincing at the pain inflicted on the English language by academic writing, I am in full sympathy with him. But he also manages to pinpoint what can go wrong with much that it is produced for a wider readership.
At least in the English-speaking world, there have been two dominant approaches taken by scholars trying to reach a broader audience. One might be deemed the Pop Mode ... In Pop Mode, one affects an accessible and breezy style, much easier to understand than ordinary academic prose, but, rather than seriously challenging one’s audiences’ assumptions, essentially provides them with reasons they never would have thought of to continue to believe what they already assume to be true... The alternative is the exact opposite. I’ll dub it the Delphic or Oracular mode ... Here the aim is usually to challenge as many common-sense assumptions as possible, but also, to do it in a style even more obscure than ordinary academic writing—so obscure, in fact, that its very obscurity generates a kind of charismatic authority, as devotees spend untold hours of their lives arguing with one another about what their favorite Great Thinker might have actually been on about.
Instead, Graeber tried to tackle the problem by writing something accessible that did challenge assumptions and by doing so he identified three good tips for any aspiring writer: "be an even more conscientious scholar, don’t waste time arguing with other academics unless there’s a reason to, and entertaining digressions are okay, especially, if clearly marked as such".

But it was this line that really caught my attention:
Good scholarship is more appreciated by popular audiences than academic ones. This is a bit scandalous but I have found it to be true.
All this brought me back to my days in adult education. The style of writing that he describes is precisely the way we tried to teach. Though we aimed to be accessible, however difficult the subject matter (in the humanities and social sciences anyway) the first and most important thing we always had to remember was that we must never patronise our students. They want the real thing, not some watered down content delivered in childish tones. They would not let you get away with second-rate tosh. What this means is that your material has to be academically impeccable, well organised so that it is presented logically and, most importantly, explained and discussed in such a way as to make it intelligible to everyone. Clarity of explanation is the key to demystification; popularisation is not dumbing down.

When I worked at Hull University's Centre for Lifelong Learning, we had a corny slogan using the Centre's acronym; CLL - Changing Learners Lives. It was rather effective as a marketing tool because it told the truth. Good adult education is subversive in the broadest sense of the word. This is because it questions conventional wisdom and actually that was half the fun of it. So yes we challenged too.

As for anecdotes, well I often though that there was a narrow dividing line between my teaching style and stand-up. Funny stories have been the mainstay of many of my classes. I used to justify this by saying, "if they laugh, they learn". I have a horrible feeling that the real reason may have been less about altruism and more to do with the pleasures of performing.

So Graeber has given me some personal affirmation, right at the moment when I face the scary task of turning my doctoral research into something that people might actually want to read and even pay for. What's more, the commonality of our approaches could point to a more subversive notion; conventional academia itself may act as a barrier to popular education, one that us adult educators kept trying to breach. Seen by this light, widening participation is not a question of admissions procedures or, using the patronising phrase that always grated, of 'raising aspirations', it is about the culture of the academy and its inability to communicate beyond the walls of its closed world. Adult education is in sad retreat, we are a beaten and much diminished bunch. But we will return. The demand is always there and it keeps re-emerging, sometimes in the least expected circumstances. And if it challenges, makes people think, can speak in ways that can reach out beyond the selective demands of the modern diploma factory and, yes, even make people laugh, it will succeed in transforming the lives of future generations.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Greece

... what's really at stake here is not Greece's identity but Europe's. All eyes are fixed on Athens, but the way out of the crisis requires a choice about what kind of Europe we want. The one we have now, with its deep structural inequalities and its rigid adherence to a failed economic ideology, protects neither democracy nor human rights. Stiff-necked and punitive, it prefers to eat its children.

Maria Margaronis

Friday, February 10, 2012

Clarity

This piece by Colin Shindler about the fluctuating historic relationship between the left and Israel is well worth reading. The conclusion is superb, comparing contemporary leftist positions with the one taken by Jean-Paul Sartre, even if I wish that Sartre's Arab sympathies had been formed as much by the Palestinian experience as they were by Algeria.
Jean-Paul Sartre bypassed the psychological maelstrom. He remembered the round-up of Parisian Jews in 1942 and their deportation to the east. For that reason, he was pro-Israel. He also remembered the struggle of Algeria's FLN against the French colons. For that reason, he was pro-Arab. This double legacy, he argued, meant that the responsibility of the left was to create space for dialogue and to facilitate negotiations between the two sides.
Sartre’s plea has been forgotten, to be replaced by an ideological checklist to determine which sort of Israeli a pro-Palestinian leftist can speak to. Talk not to your opponents, only to your fellow-travellers. It is an impoverishing regression. 
Impoverished. A perfect summation of the repetitive sterility of most left commentary on Israel/Palestine.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The world turned upside down

For good left-wing views on current affairs there is only one place. Er ... The Daily Telegraph??

First, some trenchant opposition to neoliberalism that the mainstream left is signally failing to articulate, especially when commenting on Cameron's stance in the EU.
Very quickly: some of you will have seen that Greece’s tax revenue from VAT collapsed by 18.7pc in January from a year earlier.
Nobody can seriously blame tax evasion for this. It has happened because 60,000 small firms and family businesses have gone bankrupt since the summer.
The VAT rate for food and drink rose from 13pc to 23pc in September to comply with EU-IMF Troika demands. The revenue effect has been overwhelmed by the contraction of the economy.
Overall tax receipts fell 7pc year-on-year.
This is a damning indictment of the EU-imposed strategy. Greece is chasing its tail. The budget deficit is stuck near 8pc to 9pc of GDP because the economic base is shrinking so fast.
Secondly, a forensic dissection and comprehensive demolition of the latest drivel from Seumas Milne on Syria.
But Milne’s suffocating “anti-imperialist” worldview leads to a deeply unpleasant moral equivalence between a reluctantly militarising opposition and unyielding regime. This leads to some absurd conclusions. Such as the idea that poor, misunderstood Russia is simply protecting itself from Western depredations. “Russian officials have privately assured opposition leaders that the quarrel is with the US, not them,” Milne tells us. That’s a relief, then. Those being slaughtered in Homs don't know how lucky they are.
Supporting revolutions, opposing neoliberalism; that's the Telegraph for you. Really.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A new low

Russia vetoes the UN resolution condemning Syria. At the same time it is arming Assad and mounting its own dodgy mission to the regime, whilst there is no let up in the shelling of Homs. As anti-Putin protests continue at home after accusations of widespread electoral fraud, the St Petersburg parliament is trying to pass a law "that will make it illegal for any person to write a book, publish an article or speak in public about being gay, lesbian, bi or transgender". 

Every dedicated Guardian reader will know what is coming next. Yes, you got it. An article from Vladimir Putin about building Russian democracy.
Society went through a difficult process of development. And this enabled us all, working together, to drag the country out of the mire, to revive the state, and restore the sovereignty of the people, which is the basis of true democracy.
 Good grief.

Comment here from 1898.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Priestley thoughts

It may be a bit corny and the favourite of every regional rep and local amateur dramatic society, but I had never seen J B Priestley's An Inspector Calls until last night. As it was touring, I though I had to go.

The play is a bit didactic, though the socialist subversion of the whodunnit genre is clever and is carried along by the gripping quality of Priestley's writing. The National Theatre's revival, with its inventive set and effects, is terrific. It enhanced rather than imposed on the original. It was a stark and atmospheric evocation of the whole theme of class conflict.

What the play hangs on is that, even when confronted with the full evidence of the human cost of their exploitation, the bourgeoisie will invent reasons to ignore it, find nice little justifications to continue enjoying their privileged, destructive lives and hide from the looming consequences of war and revolution. And, of course, by doing so, they seal their own fate.

And here also hangs the irony. The première of the play was held in Moscow in 1945; in the charnel house of Stalinism at its height. And here too is the evidence of how some of the left intelligentsia, motivated by anger at injustices at home, blocked their ears and averted their eyes from the purges, the camps, the torture chambers, the brutal exploitation of the Russian working class in their own name and the gathering clouds of a new wave of anti-Semitism, aimed at "rootless cosmopolitans". They too found reasons why they could ignore it, continue with their earnest activism and not face the realities of a world they idolised.

None of this detracts from the quality of the play, nor of its analysis that the comforts of bourgeois existence rested on economic and personal exploitation, coupled with a callous disregard for workers, all informed by an individualist philosophy that masked their own class collaboration. Instead it points to an ongoing human and political dilemma, a capacity for self-delusion and an ability to avoid inconvenient truths and their possible consequences.

And as I write this on my Apple Mac computer, I can click on a tab that brings up an article describing the real lives of the real people who made it in China and swiftly pass over to the next web page, the Apple Store, where I will consider purchasing my next shining new toy.