Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In praise of muddle

The latest article from Paul Berman on what he sees as the third phase of the Arab Spring is worth reading, if only to reinforce the point that the main opponents of Islamist politics are Muslims.
So it is not true that, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood speaks for society as a whole. Nor does Islamist ideology, with its invocations of superstition and its exaltations of obedience, express the Egyptian “street.” Nor does the Brotherhood possess the canny ability to bend history to its will... Nor is it true that, in Tunisia, the reputedly more moderate version of the Brotherhood, Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party, has offered a sounder alternative ... A great many Tunisians have evidently had their fill... Nor is it true that radical Islamists, given the chance to rule on their own, can succeed in spreading their beliefs to the rest of society. On the contrary. Not in Mali, anyway.
Revolutions are usually confused, messy and pluralistic. The resulting power vacuum gives organised groups the opportunity to simplify the situation. The Islamic far right was well placed and tactically astute enough to mount a power grab. Now, if Berman is right, it faces another messy, pluralistic challenge.

This has confused sections or Western left/liberal opinion. In the wake of the end of the Cold War their greatest fear was of the 'tyranny' of American hegemony. Their polar opposites were the neo-conservatives who celebrated and sought to promote just such a hegemonic outcome as "the end of history." Both created a range of fantasy politics stretching from the "Clash of Civilisations," through a romanticised anti-imperialism, to the conspiracy theories of the "New World Order." And Islamists profited. Neatly sidestepping their theocratic authoritarianism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism and barking mad world view, whilst engaging in ever more elaborate apologias, some of the left sought the comfort of a tidy bi-polar world by embracing radical Islam. And even today, Islamists can be assured of a good press in the house journals of the liberal/left. The world they have created is one where America (always bad) is confronted by anti-imperialists (always good). It is easy. You know which side you are on and every political conflict can be neatly placed in one drawer or the other.

There is one problem. Tidiness is not the human condition. When a large section of people, the very ones who have been neatly filed under the heading 'Muslim (good),' start saying 'we don't want these bastards to rule us,' this world view breaks down.

Instead, there are a range of political positions that welcome ambiguity and messiness. For instance, it is possible to be hugely critical of aspects of United States society and politics without seeing it as the ultimate evil. You don't have to be an advocate of American hegemony to argue that liberal democracy is far better than either fascism or the latest fad of murderously psychopathic theocracy. Nor do you have to be an imperialist neo-con to think that humanitarian intervention by the West is preferable to standing aside and watching systematic murder take place. Rather than a neat world, we should be looking for a moral one. Not in the sense of the 'morality' of social conformism and sexual repression. The morality I would advocate is that of human rights, of emancipation, of liberty. Torture is wrong, mass murder is wrong, vile punishments for non-crimes conjured from the fantasies of sex-obsessed theologies are wrong - the list goes on and on. Our guide is not a vision of an ordered world, but of conscience, an instinctive sense of what is right. Peter Kropotkin put it well, "A man who possessed no trace of such instincts would be a monster."

And there are monsters in this world. They need confronting and opposing. This leads us to make choices, to side with lesser evils, to kill to save other lives. We cannot escape difficult judgements through the application of neatness.

Aside from the unshakeable principle of moral clarity, maybe we should embrace pluralism, enjoy the muddled and infuriating complexity of human life, whilst dealing with the myriad of unpredictable problems that it throws up as people shape their own lives. After all, this is what we mean by liberty.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The fat of the land

Any fat person will tell you the same thing. It is perfectly possible to be fat and healthy. It is just as possible to be thin and ill. Morbid obesity is dangerous. There are some health problems associated with being overweight, just as there are with any number of physical and genetic dispositions. However, these are not automatic. Some people put on weight, others don't. The number of times I wanted to lurk with a sawn off shotgun outside a bone-thin, binge-eating colleague's office and demand that he hands over his metabolism are innumerable. Yes, psychological problems do produce eating disorders of all types. Dieting only works temporarily and however brutal one is with one's self, it seems to be impossible to shrink beyond a certain weight and it is ever harder to maintain it. And as you get older ... well, the phrase middle-aged spread wasn't conjured out of thin air. All the while, even a passing acquaintance with history would make you aware that this is nothing new. All this we know. We repeat it often. We are rarely believed.

What many thin people, politicians and journalists will tell you instead is that it is 'all your fault fatty'. So too will the vested interests in the vast diet industry. They make you feel bad, so that they (at a price) will make you feel good again. My advice is to cut out the middle man and just feel good anyway.

One of my interests is the 19th Century secular Freethought movement. It wasn't strictly atheist, though most activists were, it aimed to remove religious and superstitious forms of thinking, rather than belief. Obesity is a classic example. Fat is sin. Those who started out thin and became fat have fallen. Those of us who have always been amongst the stout carry the burden of original sin. Salvation is at hand though, but only if you embrace virtue and self-sacrifice. Saints and prophets preach at you to mend your gluttonous ways and follow the true path of abstinence. Those who shed the pounds ascend to glory, those whose flab hangs heavy are the damned. All I can say is, bollocks to that and pass the pies.

Tuesday's Guardian, prompted by the publication of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges report on obesity, was full of people seeking to lead us from our wicked ways. A sinner who has truly repented bore witness to the misery and degradation in which we wallow and tried to lead us to the promised land. Then, in the middle of the swamp of lunacy usually known as the comments section, there was a still, small voice of sanity. Charlotte Cooper wrote of the report's recommended actions:

These interventions are ineffective – or worse – because they treat "the obese" as an abstract, pathological population instead of a group of actual people who are part of the social fabric. They consider weight loss to be the ultimate remedy for every health and social problem associated with fatness, even though it is almost impossible to maintain in the long-term for most people, including those who have undergone surgical interventions. What is sad about this is that people tend to blame themselves when weight loss fails. 
Although they are well-meaning, AoMRC's proposals are not about health promotion, but contribute to a narrative of blame, punishment, prejudice, stigma and anti-fat scapegoating that is horribly familiar.

Cooper goes on to suggest some deeply radical suggestions, like encouraging fat people to keep fit and healthy by being nice to them and offering them things to do that are pleasurable (sadly, the pub isn't on her list). Who would have thought of that? Bit of a soft option for the blighters, eh?

I followed her profile and discovered that Cooper blogs here. It is rather fun to read, even if it is slightly odd to find the male, heterosexual me included in aspects of queer feminist theory. So one Dr Fat now takes the opportunity to say to another, keep spreading the good word. Cheers.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


It is the second anniversary of the Libyan uprising. Here are two reports that are worth reading. Both record the anxieties, failings and uncertainties of the country emerging from the Gadaffi years. Both call for patience and hope that it will be given. Yet the theme is the same from the stories they tell. First, Chris Stevens writes:
Cab driver Ishmail Shebani has two flags on his taxi, the Libyan tricolour fluttering alongside the blue and yellow of the Amazigh, a Berber people in the western mountains who endured persecution under Gaddafi. The revolution, he says, means he can give Amazigh names to his children, something banned under Gaddafi. 
"I'll tell you why it's better now," he said. "I get Gaddafi guys in my cab complaining that they lost the revolution, and they don't mind being open about it. But if Gaddafi had won, the rebels would be too scared to complain out loud."
Then, Martin Rose tells us a tale of three desks to illustrate the post-revolutionary work of the British Council and observes:
The real energy of Libya today, though, is in the extraordinary feeling of elation and moral vigour that many of its people have about them. Another colleague said to me, “It’s not just that we’ve overthrown a dictatorship – we’ve wiped it out as though it had never been. No one talks about Gaddafi – and it’s a great pity so many of the books about the revolution seem really to be about him more than the tuwar who overthrew him, and what has happened since.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In praise of enthusiasm

Finding the remains of Richard III in a car park has spawned the usual litany of jokes, resulted in journalists rapidly revisiting their school history and has produced the odd bit of sneering too. What struck me about this extraordinary discovery is that it marked the triumph of the obsessive amateur.

These obsessives come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes armed with an impregnable self-confidence in their own lack of expertise and a masterly command of massively detailed bollocks, they launch into the murky waters of conspiracy theory or climate change denial. But there are others who become formidable independent researchers and they can produce more interesting work than the stuff that gets churned out by the academic treadmill. History is a particularly fruitful area.

Working in adult education I learned to ignore the advice that was always being offered - 'there are loads of local history societies here, you should put on a local history course.' No you shouldn't. They will bomb. The members of these societies will enrol in droves and then all drop out within a week or two when they realise that they know far more than the tutor. And their approach is different too. They are less interested in the type of broader analysis that grabs an academic historian, instead they want to know about people and places. Local characters, landmark buildings, the lives of people working in local trades and industries, stately homes and workhouses, reminiscences of childhoods lived long ago are what inspire them to beaver away in archives, sometimes with remarkable results.

The 'King Richard was Innocent' brigade straddles both camps. The conspiracy they are trying to unravel is a Tudor one, but their research is formidable. And without them Richard's body would never have been found, even if it did disprove their theory that the King's spinal deformity was another example of Tudor mud slinging. However, they could not have done it without the work of professional archaeologists. This was a symbiosis of professional expertise and the research of enthusiasts.

My own research is mainly in the nineteenth century - the era of the enthusiastic amateur. Their writings are fun to read. And it makes me think that the absorption of research by the academy is not wholly beneficial. Above all, academic language can be a form of exclusivity; a private, inaccessible code - and incredibly dull. So the sheer enjoyment of watching academics working with a decidedly dotty amateur to produce spectacular results reinforces my general prejudices about the importance of popular education and the fact that we should value what those outside the system can offer.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013


If there is one book that I will never cease to recommend it is the wonderful study of working class self-education by Jonathan Rose with the somewhat awkward title of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. You will find in it the history of popular enthusiasm for literature and learning and the organisations it spawned. In time, these organisations formed the basis for our system of adult education, both inside and outside universities. Their incorporation into the state education system provided security of funding, nationwide access and public investment, until it began to be taken away again.

The thing is that when institutions closed and buildings were sold off, it was not just the public funding that was lost, but the legacy of centuries of private, voluntary contribution was also disposed of. It was an act of theft from previous generations. But the demand for adult education remains. People are still passionate about learning and so we are seeing a new system emerging in embryo. It is like being back in the late nineteenth century. The latest is the free university movement, where more enlightened institutions have allied with voluntary effort to begin to reproduce a new version of the old university extension movement.

This is greatly to be welcomed, but I hope I can be forgiven a churlish thought; wouldn't it have been better not to have done away with the original system in the first place?

Friday, February 01, 2013

Keeping fit

I liked this idea from a splendid new book by James C Scott:
One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality.  Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay 'in shape' so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is 'anarchist calisthenics'. Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it is only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you'll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you'll be ready.
And you don't even have to wear Lycra.