Saturday, June 30, 2007

Global warming?

June is turning into a beast of a month. After the floods in Hull, forest fires are raging worryingly close to the house in Greece. Some 10% of Pelion's beautiful woodland has been lost. Planes and helicopters are fighting the fires. We can do nothing but wait and hope.

News from my friends. The temperature has dropped, giving some respite. Our village and surrounding area is untouched. A small fire caused by motorised tricycle carrying building materials toppling over was promptly dealt with. The anxiety is relieved but there is grief at the beautiful countryside that has been lost until nature starts to regenerate. Report here.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Roman holiday

'In Italy we blow our nose with dollars'. This was a response to a tourist who offered too little for having his photograph taken with a man dressed as a centurion outside the Coliseum. Bruised and battered, his companion nursing a broken foot, they wisely departed for Umbrian vineyards. The Guardian reports,

It would not be the first time Rome's modern centurions have resorted to violence. Arrests were made in 2003 after an argument between rival bands of costumed Romans over turf rights outside the Colosseum resulted in a fist fight in front of tourists.

I am off to Greece. Pericles v Caligula - no contest!

In contrast to Hull

Greece has had the worst heatwave for 110 years, temperatures in some parts reaching 46C. It is cooling down now - a mere 32C in South Pelion, blissfully warm. The sun is actually out in Hull. It is 17C with more rain forecast for the weekend. The Greek heatwave beats floods by a mile. I need summer. Not long now ...

And Scribbles agrees
And the big downside. Forest fires all over Greece, including a bad one in Pelion. See here

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A picture speaks ...

... about life engulfed by horror. New pictures of Anne Frank have been published here. There is something unbearingly poignant about these simple holiday snaps taken before Europe descended into barbarism. 'Never forget' - and never stop regretting our failure to eradicate the curse of genocide from the world.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

After the floods

Another use for wellies here

1938 and all that

Ian Buruma writes a curious piece in the Guardian. Starting with Bernard Kouchner’s advocacy of humanitarian intervention, he raises doubts by erecting a straw man; that opponents of Ba’athism and Islamism are making a mistake because they are drawing parallels with the appeasement of Germany in 1938.

I agree that the use of historical analogies is dangerous and I do not use the term ‘Islamofascism’ myself, yet there are things in his article that worried me. Take this,

But the term "Islamofascism" was not coined for nothing. It invites us to see a big part of the Islamic world as a natural extension of nazism. Saddam, hardly an Islamist, and President Ahmadinejad of Iran are often described as natural successors to Hitler.

Actually, no. The term ‘Islamofascism’ was coined to describe a particular political movement, Islamism, which evinces many of the characteristics of Fascism. Saddam’s Ba’athism was not described as this. It was seen as a form of secular totalitarianism. Writers like Paul Berman have located Islamism and Ba'athism within a broader totalitarian tradition that opposes universal human rights and at times descends into irrationalist death cults. This is a far more sophisticated analysis than just saying, ‘Oh look – the new Hitler’.

Then there is the imprecision. Who are these people who ‘often’ describe Ahmadinejad and Saddam as the ‘natural successors to Hitler’? I rarely come across them. However, my main objection is that he is playing the trick of extension. Even if people use Hitler as an analogy (in my view mistakenly), they do not mean it to be a precise analogy of the military threat posed by Nazi Germany, but a short-hand term for evil.

More alarming is this statement,

If we were less haunted by memories of appeasing the Nazi regime people might not be so concerned about human rights.

If that were the case then at least some good emerged from Munich. We should be concerned with human rights and we always have been. The agitation over the Bulgarian atrocities in 1876 certainly wasn’t the product of 1938! I am delighted if anyone sees human rights as indivisible, universal and a vital interest of all.

He continues,

But the prospect of an Islamised Europe is remote. We are not living a replay of 1938.

He is perfectly correct, though no one claims we are. But should we not be concerned with the Islamist coup in Gaza? Should we not be appalled by the mass slaughter being carried out by the suicide murderers, the bombers, the kidnappers and decapitators? Should we not express our solidarity with those who would defend human rights and build civic institutions that can withstand the onslaught of such organised violence? Apparently not; as long as it doesn’t happen in Europe. Certainly, there is no chance of an Islamist takeover of the West, but that won’t stop them using extreme violence. They positively celebrate arbitrary murder of Westerners and would enthusiastically welcome more. It strikes me that the position he takes is both insular and amoral.

Buruma is writing this as a critic of Neoconservative foreign policy and in opposition to what he refers to as ‘the blind cheering on of a sometimes foolish power embarked on unnecessary wars that cost more lives than they were intended to save’. However, it is perfectly possible to do this without misrepresenting the critics of Islamism. In fact he commits the same offence that he accuses others of committing. He uses a sweeping generalisation to condemn others of using a sweeping generalisation. Instead we should be thankful for those who are prepared to stand for universal human rights. The debate we need to have should be about the practical steps to be taken to uphold them.

Monday, June 25, 2007

It's raining, it's pouring ...

And Hull is cut off. OK by developing world standards this is small beer, but for us it is pretty spectacular. Fatman towers is still dry and the drains are just about coping but this is expected to go on until 4.00 a.m. Watch this video from the Hull Daily Mail.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Deputy Harman

There is a rather curious non-welcome to Harriet Harman on Oliver Kamm’s site. I am not a fan of Harman but one of Kamm's indicators of her supposed incompetence was her weakness in defending Government cuts in single parent benefit for new claimants, a policy originally proposed by the previous Conservative administration. He wrote that, ‘Ms Harman's incoherent attempt to defend the measure on the Today programme was damaging for her and for the Government’.

Hold on Oliver, is defending the indefensible a sign of competence? Seeing as Labour had virulently opposed the proposed cuts in opposition, could anyone have mounted a sustained defence against their own criticisms of the previous government’s policy? It was utterly impossible to appear as anything other than hypocritical and dissembling.

He also writes that, ‘The measure had scant budgetary significance, but symbolism’. What an indicator of remoteness from ordinary people this is! I can assure you that the measure had profound ‘budgetary significance’ for poor lone parents – just the people that the Labour Party were supposed to defend.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Our Shirl

Those of you who watched Shirley Williams' lamentable performance on Question Time might be interested to see this account of anti-Rushdie protesters in Kashmir from the Hindustan Times.

Scores of demonstrators on Thursday marched through the centre of this Jammu and Kashmir capital to protest India born author Salman Rushdie being knighted by the British government...

Syed Ali Geelani who heads the hardline faction of the separatist Hurriyat Conference said: "The award to Rushdie by the British government is a highly mischievous act as it hurts the sentiments of millions of Muslims across the world."

The line about offending millions of Muslims was the one that Williams trotted out (and that Christopher Hitchens rightly called 'contemptible') as the justification for calling Rushdie's knighthood a mistake. It puts her in some interesting company, but just read this account again. How many people turned out in this volatile region? Millions? Thousands? Hundreds? No. 'Scores'. My suspicion is that nobody gives much of a toss other than far-right Islamists and British 'liberals'. Contemptible gets it just about right.

(link from the incomparable Olly)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Surely ...

... this can't be for real. This site is a must for the devout.

(via Counago and Spaves) (though Will points out he got there first)

If only ...

I am tired, unbelievably tired. Sometimes I think it is the years that are catching up on me in a demanding job, but at others I blame the labyrinthine bureaucracy of education. At times like this I turn longingly to the work of educational idealists who gave us a tantalising vision of what might have been.

The following quotation comes from the great Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes and is a favourite that speaks to me now. Geddes' anarchism is poorly understood by much of the secondary literature. However, he was a friend of Kropotkin (who taught for him on adult education summer schools!) and close to Elisée Reclus. Amongst his many projects and schemes was the initial design for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The administration block was tiny and tucked away at the back. When questioned on this his response was:

Universities do not exist to be administered. The Administration exists only to serve Universities. Though records are indispensable and regulations may be useful, even necessary; the true regulation of the University comes from the mind, conscience, and character of those who make it up. Hence I have segregated the administrators … for when they usurp the central position of a University, as so often in Britain or America, they become the very worst of masters.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Having emerged from a meeting where someone used the phrase "brigading together all the interventions", I was in deep crisis. Then I opened an email with the summary of the feedback from the students on the free elective I teach on Anarchism. Joy! These are a few samples (they haven't had their results yet, just in case you were wondering) .

• This module is so much fun it shouldn’t be legal
• Ryley is a legend!!!
• Tutor is proper good, always happy and enthusiastic

Glowing with pride, I slipped the comments into an email to a former student who is just about to graduate. She replied,

"last point, needs slight alteration:
tutor is proper good, always happy and enthusiastic, as long as the lecture is after midday and he's had at least one bottle of red wine the night before."

Hmm ...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Memories are made of ...

... mainly undeleted expletives. I like memoirs and have a penchant for Anarchist ones. They often display an unrecorded and distinctive history. I have just moved out of the 19th Century and read Ian Bone's, Bash the Rich. Bone is one of the founders of Class War magazine, an icon of the eighties and a scarcely controlled explosion of rage. It is not my type of Anarchism and Bone would probably have me down as a "wanker". I read the book with some dislike at the nihilism, sometimes finding it difficult to tell the difference between politics and football hooliganism.

I was going to reflect this unease in the post but something made me change my mind. I was going to say that all I admired was his parents, solid old Labour types. But then, by the end of the book so did he.

"Like a lot of my generation of radicals I didn't like my country very much. ... I'd support anyone against us. This was incomprehensible to my mum and dad who'd fought and lived through the war and were proud to be British, patriotic and Labour. They seemed almost as bad as the Tories."

Then he saw them collect for the miners and reflected on seeing them at a Remembrance service, his dad wearing a poppy next to his 'coal not dole badge'. Bone movingly writes,

"How could I not go with them. I saw them standing there together in the wind, a tear in my dad's eye. Dignified, respectable working class people with noble aspirations. Labour people. ... I read Orwell on the war years and studied the radical journalism of the Daily Mirror and Picture Post. There was a feeling of betrayal and disgust with the aristocracy and Tory government that had appeased Hitler. ... The next year, I wore a poppy. I didn't hate England any more."

Bone had talked earlier in the book about the need for a street insurrection (look at Baghdad or Gaza today if you want to see what one of those looks like) by the end he is closer to Malatesta's hostility to arbitrary violence in the famous quotation written the day before his death,

He who throws a bomb and kills a pedestrian, declares that as a victim of society he has rebelled against society. But could not the poor victim object: 'Am I society?'

And so we are left with a picture of a more thoughtful character and his small army of erudite, if bizarre, punks. There are times when he is extremely funny. I liked the bit about him comforting an animal rights activist who accidentally trod on and killed one of the laboratory rats he had just 'liberated' ('he had to die to be free') and if you want to really understand the terminal weirdness of the left in the 80's read his account of a meeting addressed by Tony Benn and Ted Knight, which Class War broke up in retaliation for Ted Knight's eviction of squatters. The platform sent in a squad of New Agers to surround the Class War punks to sing peace songs to defuse their violence!

His excoriation of the SWP is magnificent. This is spot on.

Delusional triumphalism has been refined to perfection by the SWP which keeps its members in a permanent state of retarded ejaculation by news of a cleaners' strike in Barnoldswick, five papers sold in Rugby, or a tide of global events interpreted by the leadership as proof that their cogent analysis of capitalism has, yet again, been demonstrated correct by events. Those who believe they hold the truth are always delusional.

I liked too the way he understood that many young miners involved in the strike had no desire to go back to a life of exploitation.

I was at a miners' rally in Islington Town Hall addressed by Arthur Scargill. He was preceded by a passionate speech by a miner's wife: 'My father died of silicosis, his brother of pneumoconiosis, my husband was disabled in a pit accident, my brother has white finger - but I'll fight for that future for my children and my children's children'. Tumultuous applause from the Islington class tourists of the left. We looked across at our comrades from the Fitzwilliam pit sitting across the hall. They grinned at us, pulling their fingers across their throats in cut throat manner - rather die than suffer that shit again. Imagine how cheated and disgusted the Islington lefties would have been if one of the Fitzwilliam boys had stood up and replied 'fuck that for a lark'.

As for the characters - there is Mad Mark who wanted to blow up the whole South East of England because "it would get in the papers"; Cynthia Payne's sex workers; the monk in full habit from an East End monastery who had always wanted "to be in a riot"; the young punk who told a meeting of radical feminists that he took his washing home to his mum because she "liked to do it"; and the serious revolutionary who addressed a hall asking his audience to face the reality of imprisonment or even death and invited those who were not willing to share this dedication to leave the room. In a few minutes he was on his own.

The trouble is that before you get to these gems you have to wade through more 'give the fuckers what they deserve' and 'fucking CND wankers' than is good for anyone's health. I just cannot share in the hedonism of violence and as for Bone's prodigious drinking - that pisses me off because he doesn't put on any bloody weight.

Ultimately, I find the celebration of violence disturbing, unpleasant and counter-productive. At times he abandons most of his thoughtfulness for atavistic expressions of class hatred that comes close to claiming that anyone of anything other than a proletarian background is inescapably tainted. He seemed happy to embrace a range of movements, simply because they are radical and involved in direct action rather than being based on an admirable set of beliefs.

That said, I still found things that I liked. Firstly, his unashamed and highly visible class hatred is crude but it does at least confront and attempt to de-legitimate the contemporary celebration of plutocracy. I also enjoyed the way he took apart the awfulness of much of the far left and exposed some of the sterility of what has passed for left debate. Finally, the irreverence is a guilty pleasure, I should disapprove but I still laugh.

I don't think 'Bash the Rich' offers anything as a way forward for the left, which for me needs to be rooted in his mum and dad's tradition of democratic socialism and for the rediscovery of the libertarianism that you find in early Fabianism before the statist technocracy of the Webbs came to dominate. Bone's hedonism sits awkwardly with this intensely moral position, though I am sometimes too close to him for comfort in my detestation of puritanism. It is just the embrace of violence that I find disturbing, and the easy assumption that it is a vehicle for Anarchism ignores the dynamics that violence creates, it is a creator of misery par excellence.

The quality of the book is based on the fact that Bone is a talented tabloid journalist, hugely entrepreneurial and with a sense of humour that sometimes manages to escape from his excesses. He self-consciously sees in himself in the long working class tradition of riot and caustic ribaldry that became smothered by Victorian respectability. If you want to see a precursor then there is the 19th Century activist and self publishing Dan Chatterton, pamphleteer and sole author, printer and seller of Chatterton's Commune: The Atheistic, Communistic Scorcher. It is pure Class War, but if you want to read it you have to go to the British Library where a complete set is preserved in the rare books section. Chatterton carefully placed each edition in the library for posterity, without it we would not have a record of his voice. Bone is luckier.

The problem with his writing is that for me he does not speak for and to the working class but only to a section of it. He had high hopes of the riots of the 80's, but I remember being in Liverpool at the time of the Toxteth riots in 1981. I had a girlfriend there and I travelled to see her on the night of the riot. Not having much money I walked from the station to her place. When I got there she was amazed that the riot hadn't stopped me. "What riot"?, I replied. I walked a few hundred yards from the events and hadn't noticed a thing. I can be spectacularly dozy at times, but it just shows how limited and localised the events were. The next day was the ill-fated royal wedding. We walked through the aftermath of the street fighting on a bright warm day. There were burnt out cars, toppled lamp posts and police on every corner. You could smell the tension. Then, looking both to the left and right, you could see another type of street party. The terraced streets surrounding the troubled estates were decked with bunting and union jacks as ordinary working class people celebrated the wedding. The rioters were a minority of alienated youth augmented by more affluent opportunistic looters. It wasn't even the start of an insurrection.

That some of the left is in a sorry state at the moment, with its disgusting apologies for fascism, moral equivocation, and social authoritarianism, is more than evident. However, the left has to speak to all and to do that it needs a cacophony of voices - Marxists and Liberals, Individualists and left Libertarians - and, above all it needs middle class wankers and academic tossers like myself and I am sorry, we will not be saying the same things. Class hatred is simply not enough.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Everyone is doin' it

So I might as well too.

This magnificent quote comes from Scottish Wholesale Co-operative Republic - a northerly outpost of Kropotkin. Hakmao has posted it as has Will in comments. Personally, I think that groups of people should band together, chant it in unison, the rhythm marked by the ting of finger cymbals, with incense burning and crystals waving. They should seek out New Age lunatics and infiltrate their minds through the power of ritual and thereby save them from a life of dowsing.

Michael Bywater in his book Lost Worlds, on 'The Wisdom of the Ancients.'

"The Ancients knew little and understood less. They scratched a living and died like dogs. Gripped by an uncomprehending egocentricity, they believed that the world had been made for them, and they believed that by a crude process of extrapolation: when they needed something, they made it. Finding themselves in a world which suited them to a remarkable degree, they assumed that it had been made for them; obviously, by someone much like them, but much bigger. Unable to understand any laws other than the law of will, they assumed that when something happened in nature, it happened because Nature commanded it. The river dried up because they had offended it; the volcano erupted because the Volcano Giants had not been placated; the harvest failed because someone--this is a bit of a leap of faith, but it leads eventually to Christianity, so it's all okay in the end--had not had his heart torn out and then been ripped limb from limb and his blood poured onto the soil.

In short, the Ancients spent what thinking time they had trying to make phenomenological bricks without ontological straw. They were wrong about almost everything, hopelessly confused sequence and causation, left the scantiest record of their thinking, and croaked in short order.

So why do a significant number of people, even now, believe not only in the bits of the Wisdom of the Ancients that we know about (like astrology) but also that there is a huge corpus of lost wisdom which, if only we could find it, would guarantee us a future of bliss, with no wars or sadness or cancer ever again, a world of birdsong and crystal and......In our dreams. Specifically, in our dream that the world was created perfect, and has been drifting away from perfection ever since. The silver swan unlocks her silent throat--the initiates will spot Orlando Gibbons' great madrigal, the others get a pretty image, everyone's happy. Those who believe in the Wisdom of the Ancients disbelieve in any progress in human understanding.......In truth, it is not the Wisdom of the Ancients that we have lost; it's any fathoming of their true Ignorance."

Thursday, June 14, 2007


“It was a symbolic and practical gesture which shows them that the world hasn’t forgotten them. We’ll do all we can to help them serve their communities and get some proper independent unions in place to protect themselves.”

The Fire Brigades Union not only donated two fire engines to the Iraqi fire service but six volunteers drove them there. The full story can be downloaded as a colourful pdf here. It is a wonderful read. Trade Unionism at its very best.

(via the Drink Soaked Trots with thanks to Scribbles)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Judes still in obscurity

I don’t think that there is any mystery about education. I hate the phrase “ability to benefit” that is often used in discussions on widening participation. Most people can get a degree if they really want to. But, as in many other walks of life, you occasionally meet people whose academic ability is striking. Often they are older students, though I suppose that will always be the case if you work in adult education. They are usually different. I have been talking to someone just like that tonight. You get the same sense of desire and ambition mixed with intellect and sometimes a little insecurity. Increasingly what you find is another emotion – frustration. Tonight’s conversation was typical. “Why don’t you do a PhD?” I’d love to but can’t afford it”.

I share the same frustration that this talent is being lost. We need the unusual, original, and passionate voices that are excluded. Most mature students have other commitments that mean that they cannot study full time, but what about part-time study? It is increasingly more expensive and there is little in the way of support available. If part-time postgraduate learning prices out the self-funding and, particularly, the working class student, academia will be the loser and the risk is that the excellent and exceptional will be left outside, thinking of what might have been.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Art and religion – part 2

In the post below I discussed the intersection of religion, art and politics. The topic came up again this Monday in a Guardian profile of John Tavener by Charlotte Higgins. The word that I would have used to describe his music up until now was 'uninteresting'. Then I read this.

Tavener, though, is fantastically disarming. When he starts talking about his music being written through divine agency and having visions brought on by chatting to Apache medicine men and what a bad idea the Enlightenment was, part of you wants to snort with derision. The other part realises that, however batty it all sounds, he means it, and it's real for him.

Don’t come over all post-modern Charlotte, all of you should snort with derision. It may be real to him, but this does not mean that it is real. It doesn’t sound batty, it is batty. However, thanks to your article I now have a new word for his music – and it isn’t batty – it is Traditionalist.

Traditionalism is not well known as an ideology but its influences crop up now and then. Tavener is quite explicit about the link when he is quoted as saying that he “had a kind of vision from the Sufi Frithjof Schuon”. Schuon was an important Traditionalist figure who, in his later years, was obsessed with native Americans, mixing their customs with his bizarre version of Sufi Islam. Tavener also talks of “a visionary to whom the Virgin Mary would appear, always naked”, reflective of Schuon’s Maryamiyya cult and his 'primordial gatherings' when women would dance naked in front of him!

All this might sound like depressing, if harmless, New Age drivel or hippy ramblings, but Traditionalism is an ideology with deep roots and a far more dubious history. Though it is not exclusively right wing, it has had links with the far right, especially Italian Neo-Fascist terrorism, and with fringe Islamist movements. If you want to read more about it there is a super book by Mark Sedgwick, Against the Modern World, which I reviewed for Democratiya here. Sedgwick runs a good web site on Traditionalism too.

Rather than just finding the music tedious, I now understand that there is something sinister underpinning it and my dislike is political as much as artistic.


Democratiya 9 is out. There is a short piece of mine in there but the item I am most looking forward to reading is Nick Cohen on George Orwell. Once again it all looks superb.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Motivational management

From a leaked memo

“So Lead me, Follow me or Get out of my way; Success is how we bounce when we are on the bottom.”

And there is more. Deeply, deeply embarrassing ...

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

This is my excuse anyway

Normblog's writer's choice feature this week is a brilliant little piece on Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle by Frank Cottrell Boyce. I particularly liked this:

What the journal describes is a clever young man with time to kill in an amazing place, a brilliant mind at play. In an age of attainment targets, critical paths and self-assessment, it's a radiant reminder of the profound importance of idleness and irresponsibility.

Oh well, back to work.

Human rights and wrongs

Eric Hobsbawm published an extract from his forthcoming book, Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism, in the Observer on Sunday. It is copyright protected so is not on line.

Slipped into a long essay on the decline of empire, I found the following deeply depressing paragraph:

... the historical experience of Nazi Germany has eliminated racial/ethnic claims to superiority from polite discourse. However, the tacit Western claim of superiority remains and finds expression in the conviction that our values and institutions are superior to others and may, or even should, be imposed on them to their benefit, if necessary by force of arms.

Once again, the same limp arguments are implied; democracy and human rights are linked through guilt by association with imperialism and fascism, humanitarian intervention and international law are described as Western impositions. What always strikes me about this lazy discourse are the missing voices. You will find it repeated by Western critics, by the leaders of conservative movements, and by dictators and their apologists. But do the people of Zimbabwe reject democracy as a Western imposition, do gays in Iran resent the idea of social equality, do persecuted minorities reject the liberal value of tolerance, and do women the world over refuse female emancipation?

Until the voices of the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed are heard, this casual rejection for others of what we are fortunate enough to take for granted for ourselves will continue to be voiced and will influence the ideas of those who should know better.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Art and religion

There has been a nice debate over at the Drink Soaked Trots on religion, started by Shuggy’s open letter to Christopher Hitchens. In some of the comments, most notably the one from George Szirtes, the relationship between religion and art was brought up. My very personal take is that where religion and art meet there is a triangular relationship between theology, aesthetics, and politics. And great art, for me, is subversive, not ironic.

This doesn’t mean that I do not appreciate the music of Richard Strauss or even Wagner, though I tend to agree with Thomas Beecham that Wagner “has his moments. But then again he also has his half hours”. Subversion is a way of making you question the world. In this broad sense of the term, engagement with art changes your way of thinking, often in subtle ways. As a political animal and an atheist, my attention is drawn to the political ethic of the theology expressed by religious art and my appreciation and enjoyment is often strongly related to this. So Bryan Ferry, there is no worthwhile Nazi art! And as for Damien Hirst’s revolting celebration of plutocracy …

Two musical examples spring to mind. There can be nothing as rooted in superstitious wishful thinking than the idea of the afterlife. Elgar is currently much in vogue as it is the 150th anniversary of his birth. I like much of his music but his oratorio on the journey of a soul after death, The Dream of Gerontius, leaves me cold. I can admire the beauty of the music; it is just that the theology expresses a deeply conservative Anglo-Catholicism based on submission to, and judgement by, an all powerful supernatural God, which I find abhorrent. At times it even seems unconsciously comical – all those souls moaning in purgatory. In contrast, I love Mahler’s second symphony, The Resurrection. Mahler takes us through pained, banal, and exquisite music to lead us, with ever approaching tension, to the last judgement. The trumpets sound, the dead rise and then … there is no judgement. There are no saved, no damned just an eternal universal love, affirmed by the joyous choral ending. The music is beautiful and so is the theology, it is against authority, intrinsically egalitarian, and it certainly is subversive.

In literature, Oscar Wilde is a prime example of this triangular relationship. The most neglected aspect of his work, to my mind, is his libertarian communism. He writes directly about this is his essay, The Soul of Man under Socialism, which advocates the liberation of humanity from property and the artist from the constraints of convention. However, I think that he was a miniaturist at heart and he reaches near perfection in his short stories. His children’s tales are touching and, with their moral clarity and emotional beauty, profoundly moving. The Selfish Giant is a perfect fable of Christian communism. (I one heard it read on Radio 4 as I drove back to Hull, they announced that it would be preceded by a documentary explaining its context. As the story is about a garden, they ran a programme on Victorian garden plants! Dumbing down or historical ignorance – take your pick.) However much the story moves me, it will never convert me to Christianity, or Communism for that matter, but I can empathise with an ethic that is fundamentally subversive to the established order and is undeniably rooted in virtue.

These examples support part of what Shuggy was saying. I am an atheist, I find the concept of God faintly ludicrous, the non-existence of a deity is the one certain part of my moral outlook. Organised religion, either through established churches or through cults, can vary from a form of totalitarianism to a theatre of the absurd. Yet religious belief can inspire supreme acts of virtue and courage and sublime art. I would argue that it can only do that when it directly addresses our own experiences of love and loss, and, more importantly, our sense of compassion and social justice. When religion speaks for the poor and powerless, in whatever form it takes, it can be a force for good. When it questions orthodoxy and engages with complexity it can be a vehicle for great art. When it is the authorised code of the powerful or the simplistic and literal agency of a cult of violence, it can be evil.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The generation game

The last of my aunts died this week. As a late child of a second marriage, my parents’ generation would be the grandparents of most people my age. Schooled in Edwardian England and scarred by war, they were a powerful presence, but now they have finally slipped into history.

And what of us, the perpetually ungrateful privileged? We have lived through unprecedented peace and prosperity, a liberal peace built from war and shaped by social democracy and labour movements, as much as by liberal capitalism. Whilst it helps to have been white, male and middle class (and we could have done without Thatcher) these have been good times.

It is obvious that our liberal peace is worth promoting and defending against those that would kill in order to plunge us into some imagined past or bright new future. But there is something more important than that. This world can only survive as something other than a gated community. It has to be shared and so the cornerstone of belief for those of us who identify with the left must be in the promotion of a growing, and global, social and economic equality, something that we are in danger of carelessly throwing away in an expression of the selfishness of the lucky generation.