Sunday, December 30, 2012

The reason why

Michael Moynihan points out the obvious when discussing the latest round of conspiracist nonsense:
In the mid-1990s, during the infancy of the World Wide Web, a visit to my local university library demonstrated that the Internet would be both a great tool of liberation and a megaphone for the fantastically mad. That small bank of Internet-connected computer terminals was reliably occupied by a few student researchers and an army of honking, snorting, flaky-skinned cranks, furiously posting to Internet bulletin boards.
Then there are others who just like pictures of cats.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Seasonal nothings

The village is incredibly quiet at this time of year and Christmas Day broke with the sound of a few birds, dogs barking, cats shouting for food and now the buzzing of insects as a few sunny days have broken into the solid rain we have had and has woken them up. I have been particularly inactive due to a bad back. With so many jobs to do in the garden and the need to lug huge logs around for the fire, how did I do it? Reading.

Settling down on the sofa and engrossed, I failed to notice my bad position until the spasm hit. Ouch. My only excuse for such an unvirile fate is that the book is huge, a hardback edition of Les Miserables in a wonderfully vivid translation by Julie Rose. It is a vast, sprawling melodrama, interspersed with meditations on philosophy and history, all underpinned by a burning anger about injustice. My one surprise is how anyone could pick it up and think to themselves, "that would make a good musical."

Oh well, back to the roaring wood fire before being with friends tonight. Hope you have a peaceful or riotous time, whatever suits.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hypocritically misleading

I suppose it was inevitable that someone in the Guardian would use the horrible Sandy Hook school massacre as a device to attack American foreign policy. Step forward George Monbiot.

The accusation is one of hypocrisy; that Obama reacts with grief and horror at the Connecticut murders, but not at the death of children in drone strikes in Pakistan. The trouble with hypocrisy is that it shows up inconsistency, but doesn't tell us much about the virtues or otherwise of the incidents themselves.

Monbiot admits that there is a difference in that American drones are not deliberately targeting children, although he calls the deaths "Obama's murders" as if they were, but he is right to say that the death of innocents is an almost certain consequence of the attacks. The problem is that he doesn't trouble himself too much with who the Americans are targeting, the various Pakistani Taliban groups. And they too kill children, not as an act of individual derangement, nor, to use that disgusting phrase, as 'collateral damage', but as a deliberate policy.

The attempted murder of MalalaYousafzai for the crime of campaigning for education for girls is the most celebrated example at the moment, but a quick Google search reveals a horrendous list. Here are a few headlines: Taliban kill six children in Dera; Pakistan school bus attack kills teacher and three children; The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility Saturday for a blast that killed seven people, including three children, during a Shiite religious processionA Taliban suicide bomber has struck a Shia Muslim procession near Pakistan's capital, killing 23 people ...; At least 62 people were wounded by the blast, including six police officers. Eight of the dead and wounded were children...; and as if that isn't enough children are trained as suicide bombers in a callous act of child abuse - Pakistani Taliban's indoctrinated child bombers.

This isn't a case of 'yes buttery' but a plea to see the event as a whole. American actions are actually aimed at killing child killers, yet in doing so they can miss their targets and kill children themselves. This is a real conflict with real consequences and real dilemmas. Monbiot's cheap emoting, "The children of north-west Pakistan, it seems, are not like our children. They have no names, no pictures, no memorials of candles and flowers and teddy bears," gets us nowhere, after all everyone mourns their own more deeply even if they are horror-struck by the deaths of others. No, the real debate is how to protect the children of Pakistan; how to prevent the murder of Shia and of children who demand education. And maybe drones are not the way, maybe the risks are too high. There has been a long strategic debate over the effectiveness of air warfare. But it has also to be admitted that the Taliban are not models of child protection and maybe there are no good options, only ones that aren't as bad as others. The very worst outcome would be a Taliban victory. To dress a conflict in the cloak of the moral certainty of the wickedness of one's own side whilst turning a blind eye to the crimes of our opponents does no good at all - not least for the children of Pakistan.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

To Greece

I'm heading south for winter in a couple of days. A Christmas in Greece beckons. To get in the mood I have been listening to a CD given as a reward for a sumptuous summer barbecue. The recording is the setting of some of the poems of Nikos Kavvadias to music by Thanos Mikroutsikos, both famous in Greece but little known elsewhere (and certainly not by me). The music lets the poetry speak.

So, with many, many thanks to Konstantinos, here is the title track of the album, Ο Σταυρός του Νότου (The Southern Cross) with an English translation of Kavvadias' poem taken from here.


In the nor-wester the waves boiled;
we were both bent over the map.
You turned and told me how in March
you'd be in other latitudes.

A Chinese tatoo drawn on your chest;
however you burn it, it won't come off.
They said that you had loved her once
in a sudden fit of blackest fever.

Keeping watch by a barren cape
and the Southern Cross behind the braces.
You're holding coral worry-beads
and chewing bitter coffee beans.

I took a line on Alpha Centaurus
with the azimuth compass one night at sea.
You told me in a deathly voice:
"Beware of the stars of Southern skies".

Another time from that same sky
you took lessons for three whole months
with the captain's mulatto girl
in how to navigate at night.

In some shop in Nosy Be
you bought the knife - two shillings it cost -
right on the equator, exactly at noon;
it glittered like a lighthouse beam.

Down on the shores of Africa
for some years now you've been asleep.
You don't remember the lighthouse now
or the delicious Sunday sweet.

By request

I don't know why I do this. I should leave Israel/Palestine alone because I am tired. I am not alone. For some reason the conflict seems to have been elevated to the defining issue of our age, generating extraordinary passions. A commenter on a previous post, Dave Zeglen, asked for my opinions as to why. So once more I am going to take a deep breath and plunge into the murky waters. This time, I will be more personal. After all, how can I discuss it without saying what attracted me to the subject.

So how did I get into it? Rather unusually, I came to the conflict without an axe to grind. I knew little of it, but I had an uncle who had served in the British army in Palestine and who was always full of stories about his time there. He had many to tell, including the one about the award of the Dickin medal to his dogs who saved his life from a terrorist attack. When I was at university it seemed like a great idea to write on the end of the Mandate for my undergraduate dissertation. I discovered quite quickly that the Foreign Office archives at Kew were a better source than my uncle, but I was hooked. It was simply so interesting, so unique.

I then jumped at the chance to be a volunteer tutor, teaching English to Palestinians in the West Bank. It was an extraordinary experience, but though I developed a profound sympathy for the Palestinian case I was uneasy about some of the opinions I heard. The unease continued when I got back and went to a few meetings organised mainly by left groups. I was appalled at those who appeared to have adopted the Palestinian cause as their own, with scant regard for Palestinians themselves, and were trying to shoehorn it into an ideological box that made no sense and bore little relation to reality. At the same time I was reading some dreadful historical distortions by apologists for Israel, yet when I turned to accounts that were sympathetic to Palestinians they were equally twisted. The two historical discourses were mirror images, each trying to refute the validity of the experience of the other, sometimes denying things that I had seen with my own eyes. It was even more interesting, if perplexing, so I continued to read.

This was the point when I realised that history was being used as a weapon in a struggle, not as an intellectual inquiry. As a corrective, I attempted to pursue research into the British Mandate after World War II and the professor who was supervising it described the era beautifully in the context of the late 1940s as "a crisis of the second rank, but of the first noise." He felt that Bevin's attention was all on the bigger issue of creating NATO, thereby committing the USA to the defence of Western Europe rather than return to isolationism. Palestine was an intractable nuisance. My view was that, contrary to the propaganda lines being spun, the British had done their best to resolve the contradictions that they themselves had created, before a fit of pique and imperial exhaustion led them to refuse to police the UN partition plan that they opposed. The result was another example of the failure of non-intervention as the civil war took hold in the months before the declaration of independence launched the first Arab/Israeli war.

I never completed the research, though I think that I still hold to the view I held then. Instead, I did a taught Masters before changing tack away from international history and into intellectual history. Yet, the interest always remained, as did the "second rank, first noise" label. Clearly the conflict is of the first rank to the protagonists, where it dominates lives and provides far too many premature deaths, but why should it be so to those who are not intimately involved? And why the passion, sound and fury to the exclusion of all else?

I can think of a few reasons, compassion for the victims, the romantic echoes of all those religious studies classes at school, but these are not the main things. There are prosaic reasons such as the simple fact that it is so interesting, but many of the obsessives don't want to see the complexities and ambiguities. Then it is in many ways our crisis, part of the former British Empire, though also haunted by the dark shadows of European history. It is also a great one for the media. The place is so small that you can be reporting from the front line in the morning and be back in a five star hotel for the evening.

None of these really satisfy. Instead, we surely have to see its prominence as part of our troubled relationship with Jewish people. And where do we start with this? Perhaps from an unaccustomed place. There is a deep strand of philo-Semitism within British politics and ideas. Often romantic, influenced by the emphasis placed on the Old Testament by the Protestant Reformation, it attracted a range of prominent figures. Balfour is the obvious example, converted to Zionism through meeting Weizmann in Manchester during his 1906 election campaign. There were others, Lloyd-George certainly and, most notably, Churchill, recently honoured by a monument in Jerusalem. Yet the main philo-Semites were on the political left. Yes, the left. The establishment of a Jewish state was one of the great causes of the left and remained so until the 1960s. In my early years teaching in adult education I taught many of the elderly veterans of that period, people who remembered as children putting a halfpenny in the blue box on the mantlepiece to go towards the Jewish National Fund's purchase of land in Palestine, Labour activists who felt a deep solidarity with their fellow Jewish activists and even one who remembered that 1906 election and the joy in his Liberal household at the defeat of the Tory Balfour, a former Prime Minister. And then there were those whose Eastern European accents were not wholly obscured by Mancunian tones. They were the ones who got out, the survivors. They too were leftists, solid Labour voters every one.

It is hard to imagine now. Everything has changed. Part of this can be explained by an awareness of the displacement of the Palestinians and a growing sympathy with their plight. This was something the philo-Semites either ignored or wished away. Much too is down to the change in emphasis of the far left, turning away from the futility of revolution in the Western democracies and instead seeing the anti-colonial liberation movements as their new vanguard. This move has been beautifully captured by Paul Berman in his best book, Power and the Idealists. In turn, this has led to the expression of a romanticised Arabism, ignoring the deep authoritarianism and regressive politics of the existing Arab states. Perhaps the most astonishing by-product has been the embrace of the Islamist far right by the western far left. But again, this is not the only source of the current passions. Contiguous with philo-Semitism was the persistence of deep, cultural and historic anti-Semitism. It becomes easy to see Jews as an ultimate villain if this is your heritage. And this too penetrated the left.

I have come across anti-Semitic tropes over and over again in my research. The most common is the association of Jews with finance capitalism. This in turn feeds into the idea of a Jewish world conspiracy, of the hook-nosed puppeteer pulling the strings of the hapless politicians, of the cabals of plotters exploiting the workers. And even without considering the descent into the Nazi horrors, we have our own blood-stained history lurking in the background. This is not to say that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, far from it. Instead, the echoes of the past makes a demonisation of the Jewish state intellectually comfortable. There are those who are scrupulous about avoiding stereotypes and racist narratives, but this does not apply to the comments boxes of newspapers' web sites and popular blogs. There Zionism has become a hate word describing an evil that is unmistakably Jewish. Seeing the depth of this hatred is chilling. Would the sheer vehemence of opinions be the same if anti-Semitism had never existed? I doubt it.

And so we have a tendency to look on the conflict as one between heroes and villains of our own making, not between two peoples, each with their own nationalisms, in conflict over land. Nationalism can be an unlovely thing, but it can also be very necessary at times. If there are two people who need the right to national self-determination more than Israelis and Palestinians, I have yet to meet them. And this is what the two-state solution offers, not an end to the histories of these peoples, but a starting point. And who knows what will emerge as the years roll by and settled, democratic nations share cultural links, commercial transactions, environmental protection and trade union solidarities. Perhaps, one day people will look back at today and find the blood letting somehow inconceivable. But most of all, I hope that Jews and Arabs will cease to be heroes and villains in the eyes of the onlookers and simply become human beings, because therein lies the politics of sanity.


Finally, to the people who visit my comments boxes; argue away, but I won't join in. I am tired and am going off to Greece to think profound thoughts about the Eurozone crisis and my neighbour's goats. This has certainly been a discussion of the first noise in a scarcely read blog and I have had enough ... well, until the next time ... perhaps ...

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The tyranny of analogy

Sometimes we are not the prisoners of history, but of the stories we tell about it. We take highly specific situations and try and understand them through historical analogies, many of which are neither appropriate or even good history. This is the theme of a long and stimulating piece on the Eurozone by Antony Beevor, who gives few conclusions but asks some interesting questions.

At the moment there is a cliché doing the rounds about the conditions in Greece comparing them to the Weimar Republic. Leaving aside the curious notion of looking for precedents in German rather than Greek history, it is a completely different situation, both domestically and internationally. The analogy is tempting because of the current political instability, deflationary economics and the rise of the far right, though at this stage in an economic crisis the Nazis were getting 37% of the vote, not Golden Dawn's 7%. This is not being complacent, the situation is indeed dire, it is just that it does not help to try and understand it by reference to the Second World War.

 I certainly do not agree with everything Beevor writes but this is spot on, "reinforcing failure through obstinacy has always tended to turn a crisis into a catastrophe." And continually referring back to World War II is a way of dealing with the wrong crisis, the one we had rather than the one that exists now.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Losing the plot

Why does the Israel/Palestine conflict send everybody gaga? No other conflict generates quite as much sound and fury. The only thing to rival it for the sheer volume of posts is cats. I get lots of those too. The recent violence in Gaza resulted in my social media and news feeds being overwhelmed by more and more guff supporting one side or the other. Much of it was dismal. At the time of the last major action in Gaza, I wrote a post about the general fallacies to be found in commentaries on the crisis. Everything that I said then could have been repeated ten times over for the latest events - especially about misleading analogies.  Please don't put pictures of Hitler or swastikas on everything. It isn't clever and it isn't funny, just wrong.

This time round there was more. The first thing to say is that I wouldn't criticise comments from those who were actually involved in the events. If you are sitting under a projectile stuffed with high explosives, you have every good reason for hysteria and a very particular perspective. It is the cheerleaders standing on the sidelines that bother me. Both sides have them and they are destructive.

These are the three common fallacies that stood out:

1. The discussion of motives.  Never accept the ostensible reason for something when you can dream up another one. There are two types of fabrication, the Machiavellian and the atavistic.

The Machiavellis have a stock way of arguing. You know the sort of thing: "what this is really about is ..."  Now fill in the blanks to suit your particular outlook: elections, hegemony, revenge, land grabs, internal politics, etc, etc, and that is before we get to all the conspiracy stuff. Most of it is guesswork informed by prejudice. Unless you are knowledgeable, please stop it.

Atavistic commentators tend to attribute motives to the inherent and decidedly unpleasant characteristics of the side that they oppose. I got tired of seeing all Palestinians being conflated with Hamas, as if every Arab was a thuggish, far-right theocrat. But that was as nothing to the anti-Semitism. Sometimes it was chillingly overt, but much of the time it was unconscious. Yet unconscious anti-Semitism is not innocuous, far from it. By absorbing common anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes people can produce a casual, unaware racism that can be pervasive and more dangerous than the ravings of a drooling bigot. So before you are tempted to comment anywhere, please read this excellent guide as to how to avoid it. Steve Bell could certainly have done with it.

Atavism is another way of expressing that reprehensible slogan, much beloved by terrorists through the ages, that "there are no innocents."

2. Moral agency. Most of the cheerleaders spent their time arguing for the innocence of their particular side, denying any responsibilities for their actions. "What choice did we have?" "We have a right to resist/respond." This is a way of dodging the real argument, which is not about whether, but how. The whole discussion should have been about the choice of options facing each protagonist. Once they have chosen a particular route then they know that there are consequences to that choice. That isn't to say that any specific choice may be wrong, merely that the responsibility for that choice and its consequences rests with the people who chose to follow that path.

3. Paranoia. I hate to think of the number of times I saw posts about incidents saying things like, "the mainstream media are not reporting any of this" at the same time as it was plastered all over the headlines and being shown as the main item on TV news. Another popular formula, usually accompanied by a YouTube clip, goes something like, "what they don't teach you in school." Sometimes they are right. They don't teach you that in schools because it is complete and absolute bollocks. I am rather in favour of that as a general educational policy. Sometimes though, they do teach it in schools, but they also include the awkward bits the clip missed out that gives the whole thing a different meaning.

The main way this pathology was expressed was through the constant accusations of media bias, particularly against the BBC - from both sides. There are two points to make here. Some reports were slanted and some downright poor. However, the problem lay with those individual reports, not necessarily with the output as a whole. People were inclined to cherry-pick the items that annoyed them and then use them to say that this 'proves' that the media are institutionally biased against one side or the other. They didn't tend to realise that to show bias of that nature, you have to establish a clear pattern or a consistent preponderance of one type of argument over another. That might be easy enough where the Guardian is concerned, but trickier for the BBC. Given the frequency with which both sides complained of some BBC reports, it seems that the main feature of their output was inconsistency. There is a really lazy argument that says that if you annoy both sides then you must have got it about right. It shows nothing of the sort. It can show that you have got everything incredibly wrong. However, in this case I thought this inconsistency tended to reflect two things. The first was the particular leanings or failings of the reporter, the second was the situation the report was compiled in. The perspective in Sderot will be very different from that in Gaza. What none of them showed was that they were out to get you.

The ceasefire resulted in a pause in the death and destruction. It also seemed to drain the energy of the cheerleaders and the internet subsided into a background hum of communication rather than the crescendo of commentary the violence provoked. And in the relative quiet, voices of sanity and expertise made themselves heard. Here are two, one from each side, not solely talking about the crimes of the other, but reflecting on the faults and dilemmas of their own sides. These exercises in mental honesty are the still, small voice of the solution, heard only in moments of calm. First is Michael Waltzer on Israel's paradox and, secondly from the Arab side, Nasser Weddady calls for "a new resistance movement – to resist being co-opted by Islamists and nationalists whose price for belonging requires betraying core human values." These should be read by everyone, especially the cheerleaders.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Absence makes ...

...the reader desperate for more pearls of wisdom from a fat man? Or perhaps go away, never to return. Anyway, the big gap in posting was due to the fact that I had to complete the manuscript for my book, Making Another World Possible: Anarchism, Anti-capitalism and Ecology in Late 19th and Early Twentieth Century Britain, which Bloomsbury are due to bring out in the Summer.

Of course, that was:

After completing it, I needed pleasure and to catch up on real life.  Finally, I can now turn my idle fancy towards a little light blogging.

I suppose the big news while I was away is that Greece has been saved!  The EU have finally agreed to release the funds for the bailout.  As far as I can see there are only two minor flaws to the package:
1. It won't work
2. It will make the situation worse

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.