Thursday, May 31, 2007

Universities and Israel

The Universities and Colleges' Union have issued a 'clarification' of the vote at yesterday's congress. The main web page states

The motion passed at UCU congress on Wednesday 30 May calls for a process of providing information and engaging in dialogue. It does not call directly for an academic boycott of any Israeli institutions. The National Executive Committee will in the near future be considering what action it should take in relation to all the motions passed at congress.

You can read the main statement by using the link in the first sentence. I am not sure that I am much the wiser, but the following does make sense:

'Today's motion on boycott means all branches now have a responsibility to consult all of their members on the issue and I believe that every member should have the opportunity to have their say. The earlier motion means that any future calls for a boycott must pass key tests before a boycott can implemented.'

So I guess that means that those who oppose the boycott, as I do, now have the chance to lobby their own branch and I have written to my branch officers today. With this fudge I would hope that the boycott is dead, but only if enough people make their views known!

Reading the text of the motions on Engage, this is hardly a disinterested campaign.

Congress instructs the NEC to
* circulate the full text of the Palestinian boycott call to all branches/Las for information and discussion;
* encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions;
* organise a UK wide campus tour for Palestinian academic/educational trade unionists;
* issue guidance to members on appropriate forms of action

Members please vote.


Shalom Lappin provides a detailed response to the boycott motion and urges a tactic of resignation and organisation. His piece is on Normblog here. It is worth reading and careful consideration. I think my initial thoughts were too optimistic.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


The Hull Peace Conference on Friday was certainly stimulating. One of the frustrations of my job is that the administrative demands tend to squeeze out academic work and so attending a conference like this was a joy. (I really regret that a teaching commitment will prevent me getting to London for this week’s Euston Manifesto Conference, I hope that some who read this blog will be there.)

The theme of the conference was democratic peace and much of it was about democracy promotion. There were a number of thoughtful papers which all rested on the strong correlation between peace and democracy. The star speaker though had to be Johan Galtung. He is founder and director of TRANSCEND and the Peace Research Institute amongst others. Now in his seventies he is still involved in speaking, publishing, and active conflict mediation. I am sorry that there is no text to link to, so this is a report based on my notes alone. I am wholly responsible for any errors and, of course, the opinions expressed are solely my own

I have used Galtung’s writings, particularly those on violence, in my teaching for many years. By developing the idea of structural violence he draws the boundaries widely and develops the idea of positive peace as being something that confronts violence in all its manifestations, including social injustice. It is a powerful analysis. On the day, he was charismatic, talked with authority and humour, and, blessed relief, did not use PowerPoint. And I thought what he had to say was terrible.

He started well enough by saying that we tend to use a fallacious concept of conflict prevention and that we can’t prevent conflict, only violence. Conflict, for Galtung, is a 'fantastic challenge' and it finds its resolution in the creation of a 'new reality' that 'transcends and transforms' the situation. It demands creativity and imagination, something most politicians and bureaucrats are completely lacking in. But then I could see where we were heading when he said that there was no solution to conflict 'in exporting your own society'. My worst suspicions were confirmed, he was going to argue against democratisation.

He next discussed mediation, which he argued is a process based on equity between the parties and a recognition of the validity of the other. The essence of peace is some type of equity, it is the 'process and the solution'. This is an obvious and important principle where an intrinsic equity exists. However, Western policy was, he said, based on arrogance, self righteousness, inequity, and imposition. Though he stringently opposed democracy prevention and felt that the slogan of the anti-war movement should have been, 'no to war and yes to democracy in Iraq', he took pertinent criticisms of the oligarchic tendencies of democracy into a realm inhabited by the followers of Noam Chomsky, that democracy and human rights are the ideological premises of the CPLD club – Christian – Protestant – Liberal – Democratic.

He then came out with what I felt were dubious assertions, dodgy statistics, and even flirted with conspiracy theory, suggesting that the real reason for the Iraq war was to secure oil and materials for the coming war with China! There was so much I could fisk on but I will concentrate on a few examples, ones where he used some of the rhetorical tricks of the politicians he professed to despise.

The first ploy is a neat one, most of his talk rested on it. He kept stressing that the two essential parts of a process of peaceful conflict resolution are that the parties approach each other with equity and that each recognises the validity of the other. If you say that the position of one party to the conflict is one that does not recognise the validity of the other, you have defined them as illegitimate. As a result, equity and mutual recognition are used to create inequity and illegitimacy. Hmm… clever.

Now here comes the crunch. According to Galtung, the West’s thinking is dominated by a self righteousness that undermines that equity and respect. 'Hard readings of the Abrahamic religions' have, apparently, given us a concept of good and evil and we are in the grip of this. It makes us unbearably self-righteous and we are, therefore, incapable of recognising the validity of the other. Instead we try and impose a model of our own society. Thus the West is inescapably in the wrong unless it can undergo a profound cultural change.

Hold on. So this concept of good and evil doesn’t exist anywhere else? It doesn’t come from human moral conscience? Surely, a distinction between good and bad is an essential part of the process of building any society. Galtung was certainly judgemental about the USA and Britain. Must democracy approach violent and repressive totalitarianism as an equal without making a judgement? Are all morals relative? Surely we have to make a judgement over when equity and mutual recognition are appropriate and when they are absurd.

By using this trick he also plays games with moral agency. Galtung entered the familiar territory of seeing 9/11 as an ‘unsurprising’ response to American actions rather than a horrendous act of arbitrary mass murder of innocent people inspired by a lunatic, fascistic ideology. It is a position that I find preposterous. Whatever the level of conflict faced, is a sane response the slaughter of civilians going about their daily routine? Are there indeed ‘no innocents’? I can find no justifications and I would call it evil, but then is that merely my self-righteousness speaking?

The import of all this is that we may not say that murder is wrong, that torture is wrong, that fascism is wrong, that theocracy is wrong, that genocide is wrong and that action must be taken as this is arrogant and a result of our hard Abrahamism. I refuse to see human rights as an imposed ideology. I view them as an expression of our common humanity, of our compassion for others and as the unity that binds, rather than as an instrument of the governments that divide.

The next tricks he used were in his adept ways of deflecting questions. One woman asked about real dilemmas caused by the challenge of Islamism, his answer was words to the effect, ‘that is the argument of the establishment’. Indeed, but what about the substance of the question? It was left unanswered. Of course, the provenance of an argument may have some bearing on its interpretation, but it does not alter its substance. Just because it is the argument of the establishment does not mean, on this occasion, that it is not right.

Then I asked a question. Mine was about an earlier comment about the Versailles Treaty. He had played another trick. Using the point that he made about the need to always see something good in the opposition, even Hitler, he said that if the Versailles treaty had been renegotiated in 1932, Hitler would not have come to power in 1933. First, it is impossible to prove or disprove a counterfactual so we cannot know whether he is right or not. However, the Versailles Treaty seems to have had less bearing on Weimar elections than economics. The rise of the Nazis rested on an economic crisis and mass unemployment in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, leading to a loss of faith in democratic politics by a substantial part of the electorate. So, a revision of Versailles may or may not have affected the popularity of the Nazis. Unprovable assertions, of course, make a weak basis for an argument and another of his devices was the habitual use of counterfactuals throughout the talk.

He then stated that, as a consequence, ‘Hitler was elected to power in a coalition with 52% of the votes’. This is not true. The Nazi party stood as a single party and not as part of a coalition and had lost two million votes in the second election of 1932. It seemed that they had missed their chance. Although still the largest party, they gained only a third of the votes. It was at that point that Franz von Papen made his fateful mistake. He tried to negotiate a coalition with Hitler and then persuade President Hindenburg that he could deliver a majority in the Reichstag. Hitler would not go into any coalition unless he was offered the Chancellorship and all the mainstream party leaders would not countenance the fact. Kurt von Schleicher could have continued as Chancellor with a minority government supported by the President’s emergency powers. Papen broke ranks to serve his own ambitions and offered Hitler the deal that he could be Chancellor and that Papen would be Vice-Chancellor. He then sold the package to Hindenburg on the basis that Hitler would be powerless and that he would control him from the Vice Chancellorship. Hitler was not elected to power; he was placed there by an elite coup.

So, Galtung’s history was wrong (and it is very basic history indeed) but it made his case stronger. And it played yet another trick. The example he used was to explain something good in the opposition’s case, even Hitler’s. But that was not what he was talking about. He was suggesting a way to stop Hitler coming to power. This is where my question came in. I asked what happens if the attempt fails and Fascism comes to power with a desire for war? This was a bit tricky because, of course, Britain did precisely what Galtung suggested. It renegotiated Versailles in a process of appeasement, thereby strengthening fascism and enabling Hitler to dominate central Europe and dismember democratic Czechoslovakia against the wishes of its government and people. The result was the Second World War. This was hardly a howling success for peace and reconciliation.

So how did he deal with my question? He didn’t, he dodged it. He answered on the United States, saying, in an ironic tone, that it was probably not the example I had expected. Dead right it wasn’t, I had asked about Hitler! Once again, he had played a trick. He had diverted the discussion away from an area that was weak in his argument (this took some cheek when he had earlier emphasised the necessity to honestly acknowledge error). However, he did something else. He played the guilt by association card by morally equating the USA with Nazi Germany (and he used some spurious statistics on combat deaths to actually imply that America was worse). This is ridiculous by any standard, whatever the failings of the US government.

He followed this up by pointing out that there were good things about Saddam. He mentioned three positives. I can only remember two as my notes are incomplete; one was the creation of a welfare state and the other was improved women’s rights. Both are true though both were the creation of the Ba’ath party before Saddam came to power as part of a process of totalitarian mobilisation and secular modernisation. Arguably, Saddam’s disastrous rule actually weakened them. But even if it was true that Saddam was Iraq’s Beveridge, surely the development of a reign of terror, systematic torture, mass executions, collective punishments, purges modelled on his hero Stalin, the launching of an unprovoked and bloody war against Iran which ruined the country, the invasion of Kuwait, the systematic murder and ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, the slaughter of the southern Shi’a, the draining of the marshes, the endemic corruption and cult of personality and the creation of a regime whose rationale was the practice of systematic violence against its people might just outweigh the benefits of a welfare state? I notice too that welfare did not extend to the bullets that were used in executions; the victim’s families were billed for the cost.

If Galtung was saying that these strengths should form the basis of a post-Saddam settlement then we are in complete agreement. If they are really a version of ‘at least he made the trains run on time’ or a way of legitimating his power then we are ardent opponents.

There was so much else that was dubious on Israel/Palestine, Iran, Algeria, etc.. He was deeply one sided. But let’s get back to his central point. That conflict resolution rests on equity.

I am certainly no Blairite, but I vehemently refute that there is any equity between contemporary Britain and the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, the genocidal and psychopathic regimes in the world – the Pol Pots, Hitlers, Stalins, Saddams, Amins and, moving only a notch down the scale, the grotesque Mugabes. It is intellectually shabby to equate America, for all its failings, with the Nazis. The people who suffer under such tyrannies yearn for liberation and long for our flawed democracies. They do not care about what Galtung denounces; they want the killing stopped, by force if necessary. As I listened I felt that Galtung was betraying the principles his work was founded on and especially his theories of violence and of positive peace. He used to be right. The work of peace movements is to resist and end violence, not conflict, nor even war. Now he wants to resist the use of war to end violence. To his credit, Galtung is an interventionist, though one based on peaceful mediation. However, I cannot see how we can mediate between people and psychopaths without prolonging and legitimating their rule.

In questions and interjections, Galtung repeatedly asked how we would end Britain’s ‘belligerence’. OK it is my turn to be unfairly selective, but this piece in Saturday’s Guardian is from one of the countries where this belligerence imposed our values, Sierra Leone.

Augustus Kamara, a news editor for the state news agency, spent much of the conflict in hiding. Even today, he sobs when he relives the stress of trying to keep his family alive. "I would not be here speaking to you [if not for] all these risks Tony Blair took, because it was a political risk intervening where you know some of your troops will die," he said.

When his wife gave birth to a boy in 2001, Mr Kamara named him after his hero. Tony-Blair Kamara is six years old.

Would Galtung deny young Tony-Blair Kamara his life and liberty?

Pamela Bone gets all Abrahamic in really nice piece on the universality of human rights here . (via Norm)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Norm Geras is my hero

Why? Not for his excellent blog, nor for his recommendations for Jazz CDs and books, nor for his academic output, not even for his role in the Euston Manifesto. No, what matters to a person of a certain shape is food. The bank holiday weekend meant that I could venture out for a curry on Sunday. He had mentioned the Great Kathmandu on Burton Road in his blog so it was time to cross the canal into South Manchester and see for myself. The meal was magnificent and I am salivating at the memory. Wonderful. I am forever in his debt.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


In between the marking there have been some gems to read this week. Pride of place goes to the paper Norm delivered as an excuse to miss one of the most unwatchable Cup Finals I can remember. It is important because it is part of the process of addressing the perceptive lament in Nick Cohen's latest column.

However far it is from achieving power, a serious political ideology has to have a positive programme to live. For example, it is perfectly possible to imagine what a green government would do, while realising that the greens cannot conceivably win an election. By contrast, the Labour left talked at length about what it wouldn't do - keep British troops in Iraq or Afghanistan - but had no coherent principles, no guiding programme.

I hope to comment on the paper when I have had longer to study it.

I also finished reading a rather splendid little book on the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey following the Lausanne Treaty in the 1920's. Twice a Stranger is not an academic text and, as a result, is a gripping read with some nice bits of oral history. It concludes with a discussion of the problems of homogeneous ethnic nationalism as an organising principle and the rediscovery of multi-ethnicity, especially in the EU. It is also critical of both the official and romanticised versions of Greek and Turkish history. In that sense it is more than a popular history but a reflection on interesting themes.

Tomorrow it is the first Hull Peace Conference on the theme of democracy and peace. One of the speakers is Johan Galtung. It will be interesting to see the positions that are taken. No doubt I shall blog on it, watch this space.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A sense of achievement

I have only just found this -

Critics say modern philosophy is a useless waste of time. They are wrong. At its best, modern philosophy tells us how to waste time usefully.

This is all down to "constructive procrastination", which is

... an amazing strategy ... that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish, and the good use they make of time.


The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

Hmm ... I still think that I better get back to my marking

The battle for liberal secularism

News from the front line -

From Sweden

From England

Spot the difference.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Friday, May 11, 2007

It's all going to the dogs ...

I know it is only one of those hackneyed 'what foreigners think of us' pieces, but I liked this observation by Tim Dowling:

Despite its comparative cosiness, Britain has an unshakable view of itself as a nation that is forever falling to pieces. If you watch the television you see a crumbling health service, falling educational standards, rampant gun crime, infrastructural chaos, economic meltdown and a fractured civilisation well beyond repair. Look out the window, and you see someone throwing a stick for a dog. This might not seem like such a great advertisement for a country, unless you have lived some place where it's the other way round.

We are lucky in many ways. Shame about the weather.

"... an anarchy of many different voices"

That is Norm's description of the blogosphere in this excellent, reflective post. He concludes,

"Long may this great and noisy multitude flourish".

Here, here Norm.

Bye, bye

The papers are full of Tony Blair's impending departure. Retrospectives abound. Most are either tendentious or reverential, some are stupid, all are tedious. The arguments for and against have been rehearsed and are stale. The long wait for historical assessment begins.

I do not intend to add to this guff. Instead, I would like to simply record my deep sense of loss, even grief, over the death of John Smith.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Rugby League – and decency

Swinton finally found some form today, demolishing Gateshead by 58 points to 12. The nicest part of the day though was off the pitch. Every year supporters, led by the redoubtable and spectacularly loyal John Spellman, do a sponsored walk in aid of leukaemia research in memory of Ian Skeetch, a player who died from the disease at an age when he should still have been playing.

Today the cheque was presented to the charity by Mike Gregory, the Warrington and Great Britain loose forward, who coached Swinton briefly before moving on to Wigan. He seemed on the brink of a great coaching career until his own tragedy struck. An insect bite caused a mysterious disease and today he is nearly totally paralysed.

Rugby League doesn't have the pretensions of football, players and officials mingle quite happily with the fans and Gregory watched the match in his wheelchair, with his family around him, at the front of the stand a couple of rows away. RL people have turned out to support him and here he was supporting leukaemia research.

It brought back my finest memory of him, a length of the field try in the Sydney Football Stadium as Great Britain broke a long duck against the Aussies. You can see it here, the last of a medley of vintage tries from the 80's. Great moments and wonderful skills from people who are not living in Cheshire mansions and who have never forgotten their roots.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

“It’s all about life and death …”

... the countryside, that is. This was one of the themes of The Lie of the Land on Channel 4 tonight. It turned out to be a stunning, morally complex, film.

I actually came to Hull on the back of working in rural adult education to run a project in North Yorkshire and have written both on the project and on rural social exclusion. Gradually, I have been sucked back into the urban environment but three things this week reminded me of why rurality is a pressing political topic, and one that is mostly ignored by the mainstream media.

Molly Dineen’s fine film showed agriculture squeezed by profit-hungry supermarkets' retail monopoly and the new policy of a Labour government that curiously “favours the landowner over the farmer”. It was a lament for what was being lost; independent farmers – natural Tories in many ways – self-reliant and being strangled by an arcane bureaucratic subsidy system, which gives large amounts of cash to the biggest landowners at the expense of the food producer. Apparently unconcerned with food security, Britain is now content to be a food importer.

I have also supervised a dissertation this year from our Scarborough campus about the decline in the Scarborough fishing industry. One of the best sections is a description of the culture clash between DEFRA officials and the small, independent fishermen and their families at a ‘consultation’ meeting. Once again, strangled by quotas that do nothing for conservation, small-scale fisheries have collapsed.

Both showed people with an intimate knowledge of their trades being confronted with a bureaucracy that controls their lives, speaks a different language, and knows little of what they do. And when power is invested in the ignorant, the knowledgeable lose.

The third thing was Dispatches on Channel 4 this Monday. It looked at the losers from the process of the massive economic growth underway in India. Despite an annoyingly upbeat conclusion, it showed graphically that, unsurprisingly, it is the poor who benefit least. What was most striking was the loss of livelihood, apparently deliberate, of small independent, subsistence farmers. They are being squeezed by debt, land loss to industry, and a policy of commercialisation of agriculture. Government ministers talked blithely of moving hundreds of millions into industrial employment. The reality is that they will end up semi-destitute in the slums and shanties that surround the great cities.

All these are symptoms of a global rural crisis that dispossesses the poor and bankrupts the small producer. As more and more agricultural land is taken out of production and turned into industrial estates, housing or simply picturesque leisure parks for affluent urbanites, a question looms; what are we to eat?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Do you want to be a star?

The daughter of my good friends in Greece has started a new internet venture showcasing international talent. Will be the next internet success story? If so, remember you heard it here first.

P.S. I liked the juggler

Hacking Democracy again

Simon Ardizzone writes in the Guardian of the dangers of electronic voting, currently being piloted in local elections. He argues that, "the technology being used is fundamentally insecure and unreliable".

The idea that the political problem of low turnout is susceptible to a technological fix is facile in the extreme and his conclusion is impeccable:

But what is really bizarre about these pilots is that they invert the normal use of secrecy and openness in elections. You can vote in public using a phone or the internet, where anyone can see your choice and may buy your vote or even tell you how to vote. And yet when it comes to counting, instead of laying the ballots out on a table where everyone can see them, the votes will be counted inside a computer protected by commercial secrecy laws. Imagine a trial where the evidence was heard in secret, but the jury deliberated in public.

Without the privacy of the vote and the openness of a public count, we have no way of knowing if the results really are the will of the people. And without that knowledge, we cannot be certain that we really do have a democracy.