Sunday, September 30, 2007

League v Union - only one winner

I actually watched my first Rugby Union World Cup game, Wales v Fiji, on Saturday and found it quite entertaining, with more running and passing and less kicking away of possession than most Union games I have seen. I suppose it is not really right to compare League and Union as they are different sports, even if they emerged from the same roots, but what struck me was how slow the game was and the lack of physical intensity compared to League at its best. And this weekend it was certainly at its best. Hull v Wigan on Saturday night was a thriller but nothing could cap Saint Helens v Leeds for speed, skill and brutal tackling. It was awesome. I am sorry Union fans (especially Hak Mao), but for sheer spectacle and raw athleticism nothing can beat League. I am still breathless contemplating it. Roll on the Grand Final - my tickets are in the post.


There is a small piece on the BBC web site on the revival of interest in the 13th century Sufi poet and mystic Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi in Afghanistan.

An interview with Professor Abdulah Rohen gives an insight into the totalitarian hostility to aesthetics,

He says the advent of communism in Afghanistan brought poetry into disfavour because it was seen as backward-looking.

Then the Taleban attempted to crush Sufism and outlawed all music, but Prof Rohen says it has since regained huge popularity.

Rumi himself put it more succinctly,

Only sweet-voiced birds are imprisoned. Owls are not kept in cages.

Friday, September 28, 2007

No boycott

The UCU has announced that a boycott of Israeli academic institutions would be unlawful and so the whole farce has been called off. My one regret is that it has happened this way instead of being defeated comprehensively by the membership in a ballot, which would have been highly likely. Boycotters may now pretend they lost out in their campaign to a legal technicality, but let us not forget that it was the argument they lost and, as a result, trade unionism has won.

Sally Hunt is quoted as saying, 'we may also, where possible, play a positive role in supporting Palestinian and Israeli educators and in promoting a just peace in the Middle East,' a sentiment we can all echo.

Shalom Lappin disagrees with my reservation and sounds a note of caution in his welcoming of the decision.

The great escape

There is a gem of an obituary in the Torygraph of a Major Sir Hamish Forbes. He won the MC and military MBE for courage and persistence, rather than success, in escaping from German POW camps.

Amongst the many failed ploys that Steve McQueen would have sacked the scriptwriters for suggesting were the time he disguised himself as a Danish ballet dancer and the occasion when 'he and a South African Air Force officer cut their way out of their cells using hacksaw blades wrapped in rubber piping concealed up their back passages, only to be discovered by an under-officer on a visit to the latrines'. Priceless - and admirable.

Bournemouth fashion week

Patrick Wintour reports from the Labour Party Conference,

Gordon Brown left Bournemouth last night having completed a daring incursion into Tory heartlands, stealing item after item of Conservative clothing until it was unclear if anything was going to be left at all in David Cameron's wardrobe next week.

From security to patriotism to the deportation of criminal immigrants, concerns over TV violence and the promise of more matrons to tackle dirty hospitals, Mr Brown's team at times was in danger of morphing into William Hague, or more precisely Michael Howard circa 2005.

Whilst I have no doubt that this is a devastatingly effective electoral tactic, the old leftie in me can't help wondering if this is quite what Keir Hardie had in mind.

Hard - dead hard

I watched the National League One Rugby League play-off match between Widnes and Halifax on the television earlier tonight. A Halifax forward fell awkwardly in a heavy tackle and broke his ankle. What did he do? He actually got to his feet afterwards and played the ball before collapsing to the ground again. Frightening. At times it is an awesome sport.

Ideology and terror

My specialism is in the history of political thought and so I am rarely dismissive of the importance of ideas and ideologies. Norm links to an excellent short piece by Raymond Ibrahim, editor and translator of the Al Qaeda Reader. It makes the point that the justificatory rhetoric of Islamist terrorism, which is directed outwards, is in sharp contrast to the predominantly theological discussions in Arabic addressed to its followers and that the latter need to be taken seriously in understanding the movement. It is worth reading in full here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The future

An adult education student asks to do another course at the same level.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The end of the line?

Peter Kingston reports that the numbers of people taking adult education classes has dropped by one million over the last two years. It doesn't take a genius to work out why:

The causes of the decline in student numbers are pretty much agreed: the severe reduction of the amount of public money allowed for courses outside the three priority areas, coupled with the government's expectation that colleges charge higher fees for courses.

It is exactly what every single adult education provider predicted. Now there is to be a new review of adult learning and the government has responded positively.

The inquiry was welcomed by John Denham, the secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills. "I think there's a very good debate to be had about how we continue to ensure that we get as many people as possible with the ability to enjoy that sort of learning - learning very often for its own sake but which brings a lot of personal and social benefits," he says.

This is the same John Denham who wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on September 7th this year instructing them to make a change to funding that will effectively end much adult education in Universities. Designed to redirect £100 million of funding per year, the measure is a technical one that removes institutional funding for students taking courses at the same or lower levels than qualifications they already hold. It has been misrepresented in the press as ending support for taking second degrees but that is based on a narrow, stereotypical view of University adult education. What it means for us is that a huge programme of short courses, which we built up over the last seven or eight years into something special, will be decimated overnight. As I read Denham's letter I knew I was looking at the end of my career.

Adult learning is complex. People join in at all ages, from different backgrounds and study for different purposes. Some keep attending classes over several years. For many it is about more than learning, it is their lifeline. Our programme is all at level 4 (1st year undergraduate level), so those who have a previous qualification at this level or above will now be barred. This is a lot of people, but losing them isn't the only effect this new rule will have. Because the classes are so mixed, stripping out students with prior qualifications will make the numbers too low to be viable and everyone will miss out, including those trying higher education for the first time.

Although it is becoming a cliché, it is true that progression in lifelong learning is a climbing frame rather than a ladder, allowing people to move in many directions instead of just progressively upwards. Now the government seems to have adopted an increasingly narrow definition of purpose in education, one that relates solely to paid employment, and to a strictly limited notion of progression.

This is illustrated by Denham’s address to Universities UK a week later. Calling, perversely, for more flexible opportunities for mature students, he is reported as saying, "We need relationships that are appropriate, whether with large multinational businesses or small local firms." Note - not with trade unions, not with community groups, not with the voluntary sector, but only with employers. We work with all these and all want to promote learning for different purposes, not just employment. Many are just as vital to our society and economy, such as well-being, health, community development, association and, god forbid, pleasure.

The government’s position seems to be that you can have one crack at learning at a particular level in your life and for anything else you will have to pay full cost or, if your learning is work related, your employers should fund you. The problem is, learners cannot and employers will not pay.

I went back and looked at David Blunkett’s Green Paper, The Learning Age, issued in the first flush of the new Labour government. It recognises that, “People learn for a variety of reasons; it could be to change career, to increase earning power, to update skills, or simply for the joy of learning itself” (1.3). It calls for “universities, higher and further education to be beacons of learning in their local communities” (4.28). I couldn't agree more. However, looking at recent developments, it is hard not to conclude that the government have now narrowed their approach and no longer seek to enable a ‘learning age’.

Adult education likes to describe itself as a movement rather than a service. It implicitly recognises that it serves a broader social purpose. If you look at its history, you can trace its emergence through the working-class autodidact tradition, the trade unions and voluntary groups. The Universities played a key role early on, with the extension movement challenging narrow models of higher education and championing inclusion and learning for all. It was also one of the forces that helped give rise to the Labour Party. How ironic then that New Labour's custodianship of adult education should have been such a disaster, an act of cultural vandalism even, discarding a century of investment in a few short years.

So what is left? Well, we are not going down without a fight and campaigning is starting. Even if we fail to overturn the decision not all programmes will go, though they will be much diminished. The opportunity for a first degree later in life is still there. Perhaps one of the most hopeful signs is that informal learning and self-help groups are springing up again. The autodidact tradition is being reinvented. As for me, my future is uncertain. There is one thing I do know. I won't be able to fill my time with adult education classes.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


An edited version of the President of Columbia University's introduction to Ahmadinejad.

"... a petty and cruel dictator" - "... brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated" - "... yearning to express the revulsion for what you stand for"

Thanks to sandbasher in comments at the Drink-soaked Trots.

Will links to a good article by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post here.


It is freshers week. There is something utterly charming about it. The campus is bustling with young people, fresh faced, eager and optimistic as their adult lives commence. Mature students walk around with a bravado that conceals their nervous excitement.

After a while it will be back to normal.


Over at the Drink-soaked Trots, Will induced a sense of despair by referring us to a post by a Jewish lesbian in praise of Ahmadinejad. The problem is that this egregious lunacy is also repeated, with softer emollient language, in the mainstream media. Take this by James Caroll in yesterday's International Herald Tribune.

Ahmadinejad is notorious for having denied the Holocaust, threatened Israel, and demonized America. He is also the elected president of a nation that stands, together with the United States, on the edge of an abyss.

This style relies heavily on words like 'but', 'however' and 'also' in order to qualify the earlier requisite, if half-hearted, disapproval. Having established the legitimacy of the theocracy, he then goes on to blame its existence on - America.

The extremist Ahmadinejad rode to power on Iranian reactions to the steady insult from America.

And so the Iranian president should have been allowed to visit Ground Zero so that all could exclaim, "Let solidarity be the meaning of this place". Solidarity? With a regime like this?

(And follow the links here - be careful with one, there is a link to a site with a shocking photo, though the post is well designed so that you have to scroll down to see it - I didn't - or explore some of the stories here. And so on ...)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Judgement night

I have blogged before on the film, 'Hacking Democracy', written, co-produced and co-directed by my nephew, here, here, here and here. Tonight he is sitting nervously in the Sheraton Hotel and Towers, New York City - the venue for this year's news and documentary Emmy Awards. The film is one of four nominees in the category of Outstanding Investigative Journalism - Long Form.

There is hot competition and getting the nomination alone is fantastic, but I would love him to win it! I will update with news later.

He didn't win. It went to a documentary called Sex Slaves. A great achievement none the less.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

In praise of email

Simon Jenkins takes the modern world to task with an intemperate attack on email. Norm gives a sensible defence here, arguing that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the technology at all, it just needs using properly. I would go further and celebrate email. Forget the quill pen merchants, email can bring great joy.

Firstly, there is the liberation. Jenkins writes menacingly of 'the dreaded send button, itching to be pressed'. Instead I see the adored delete button, begging you to commit the message to oblivion. It isn't just the pleasure of eradication that elates, it is the contemplation of the alternative.

The worst blitz of spam is nothing to the phone call that wakes you up as you recover from a night of dedicated binge drinking, when, to your horror, you discover it is from some telesales team somewhere offering you something you neither want nor need, or, even worse, a customer relations advisor in India asking you about the service you received last week, when you can't even remember what it was you bought. Just as you go to give them a mouthful, you realise that the person is an underpaid wage slave doing a crap job and your conscience kicks in, you relent and tell them where to go nicely. With spam you can recover fully, pour another glass and hit delete with a flourish, accompanied by the foulest invective in the world with no worries. It is deeply satisfying.

And what about the people who send you interminable emails about complete bollocks. Delete them instantly and smile with relief because if they weren't able to send them to you they would have done something far worse; they would have talked to you. Hemmed in a corner by a determined bore you can search all you like for a delete button - it doesn't exist. You are doomed to hear their latest theory and nothing can save you other than extreme physical violence. And this is the point. These people don't do letters. You have a simple choice - an easy to delete email or at least forty-five minutes of hell.

But there is so much more. I keep in touch with old friends through email and have made new ones who I would not have met any other way. I have debated and developed ideas, supported others and received help myself. I have had instant conversations with friends even though we are hundreds of miles apart. You can save and file the messages you value without clogging drawers with crumbling paper. It is quick, cheap, easy and always legible. On top of which, I value writing and reading and now the world has started writing again; the art of correspondence has been revived. Even the much reviled text speak shows an amazing inventiveness with language, not that I have got a clue what anyone is saying. When the phone rings, I groan, but when I have mail in my inbox, I feel a tingle of anticipation. Email gives me reminders, connects me with people and alerts me to new things to read, gems I would have missed otherwise. And all this is delivered to me personally, wherever I may be in the world. It is wonderful. And, finally, without the daily advice that floods in, I hate to think just how much smaller my penis would be.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Moderation in all things

Conor Foley has a studiously moderate piece on CiF that concludes,

The liberal left also need to nail their colours more firmly to the mast. We always seems to be at our weakest when thinking about foreign policy issues and all too often allow ourselves to be seduced by easy cliches (sic) and simplistic notions. This is part of the reason why we are so often impatient with diplomacy and multilateral institutions during crises such as Darfur. But defending these also now represents the best chance there is for ensuring a peaceful end to impasse. This needs to be stated more loudly in the days ahead.

Apart from the easy cliché about nailing colours to masts, this seems to be a defence of prevarication rather than 'courage in our convictions'. Rather than being 'seduced by ... simplistic notions', left impatience over Darfur is based on something more important. Every delay, every wasted day or month when nothing is done, costs the lives and homes of hundreds and thousands of people. Mass murder continues uninhibited whilst diplomacy grinds on. The victims cry out for action. Sometimes patience is not a virtue but a vice.


It is my birthday today. Fifty-five. How can someone as young as me actually be in my mid fifties? And as I gaze at the stranger in the mirror, I realise I have lost my youth. Is it down the back of the sofa? Is it with my car keys? Did I throw it out with the rubbish? No, it is gone. Age may creep up and surprise you, but the fact that it does is far, far better than the alternative.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Prime suspect

Andrei Lugovoy, subject of an extradition request over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko has launched his political career as a candidate for Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s singularly inappropriately named Liberal Democrat party (they are neither). The Scotsman, amongst others, reports on Zhirinovsky’s bizarre behaviour at a press conference. When asked about the murder case he hit the monster rant button:

"Britain, you keep the whole world soaked in blood" … "You are all accomplices, all of you are bandits and criminals, your whole government together with your Queen"

A suitable case for the men in white coats or the takeover of a Premiership football club one would have thought, but not if you turn to the Scotsman’s comment boxes.

'He is correct. The UK is run by gangsters and criminals. They speak slang, or jargon or spin as it is now called'.

'Gob (sic) Bless Us - Everyone - the man's absolutely right'.

'We act like the Americans in that we limit who can be extradited. So, in that regard we, and the Americans, are cheats and bandits'.

'It's near impossible to conceive a worse legal and justice system than Scotland's'.

'From this it appears to be the UK who is preventing a trial'.

'Do we really think the Russian system is less credible than any here, especially after last weeks fiascos'?

Is there any hope at all?

Hat tip Will


The Mail (sorry, I really don’t read it) adds some more of his ravings:

"Britain will disappear under the water one day" ... "And it will serve you right ... Even your sheep die every day and every hour due to your sickening British policies."

Sheep? What is that all about?

Avast ye

Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. The Internet has much to answer for.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A tale of three PhDs

On his own site and at the Drink-soaked Trots Francis Sedgemore rightly gets indignant about an awful, self-indulgent 'PhD survival guide' written by Patrick Tomlin in the Guardian. I must admit to a certain amusement at the exposure of the limits of Francis' libertarianism - 'procrastinating research students who should be horsewhipped daily by their supervisors' - otherwise I agree with every expletive.

There is only one thing I would add, and it is best illustrated by three stories, all of mature students. First, there is my friend June, who I used to work with in a Further Education college. She set out on a part-time PhD in her 60's and got there this year; a tribute to her determination in the face of adversity. Then there is Pam, who took a huge pay cut to take a secondment to work on a project with a half-time PhD and has nearly completed in time. Finally, there is mine. Despite numerous attempts I was never able to get funding and so I embarked on the long (very), arduous, and expensive, part-time route, fitting my studies around increasingly demanding jobs. I got it last year, thanks to a period of study leave for which I will always be grateful. The sacrifices of time and money that all three of us made show a barely sane devotion to learning, which is not something particularly evident from Tomlin's piece. Us three have made it, others have not.

If there is one thing this country is good at it is moaning. However, this national characteristic is utterly revolting in the mouths of the privileged. Opportunities for people to undertake post-graduate study are unjustly limited. I know highly able people who would kill for the opportunity Tomlin has, but they cannot afford to do it. Not only that, if his article is anything to go by, I suspect that they are far more able than him. If he wants to work properly and finish his thesis then I have only one piece of advice. Don't rely on threatening cups of tea, get up every morning and realise how utterly, totally privileged you are. Just consider that your position as a research student at Oxford is not down to your wonderful talent but to time and chance, the same factors that have denied your opportunities to others of great ability. Tomlin, you have it easy. Your good fortune confers a duty to use it responsibly, and a little humility would not go amiss.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A book - and an essay

I enjoy the book pages of Saturday's Guardian. They are everything that the comment pages have not been for a very long time, a source of intelligent debate. This week's edition saw it at its best and at its worst. First, the bad news.

I have never had much time for John Gray ever since I made the terrible mistake of reading Straw Dogs. He has gone through many manifestations - originally a libertarian advocate of the New Right, then a social democratic critic of the New Right, at present he is at his least convincing as a misanthropic scourge of Enlightenment values. If there is one common theme running through his writing it is relish at the prospect of impending disaster. Unsurprisingly, he therefore turned out to be the reviewer of Naomi Klein's dreams. I was also underwhelmed by Klein's No Logo (you should hear it pronounced in a Hull accent - it sounds like Ner Lerger), and, though I haven't read her new book, it appears to have enough apocalyptic guff in it to give Gray a severe 'touch of the dooms'.

The neo-liberal order is already facing intractable problems. The Iraq war may have allowed another experiment in shock therapy, but a failed state has been created as a result of which Gulf oil - which a former chair of the US joint chiefs of staff accurately described as "the jugular vein of global capitalism" - is less secure than before. Faced with defeat in Iraq, the Bush administration seems to be gearing up for an assault on Iran - a desperate move that would magnify the existing catastrophe many times over. At the same time financial crisis has reached into the American heartland as an implosion in speculation-driven credit markets has started to spread throughout the system. It is impossible to know how these crises will develop, but it is hard to resist the suspicion that disaster capitalism is now creating disasters larger than it can handle.

However critical I may be of the 'Neo-liberal' elite consensus, I would not choose Gray, nor Klein for that matter, as my advocates of choice.

Now for the good. David Grossman has a long essay on literature and the Holocaust. It is worth reading in full. His central aim in his own writing was, 'To write not about the death and the destruction, but about life, about what the Nazis destroyed in such a habitual, industrial, mass-minded way'. Thus, his essay is a humanist meditation on the uniqueness and value of indivdual life and the importance of literature in our understanding of it. The essay is all the more poignant given the loss of his son in the war in Lebanon.

It concludes beautifully,

The secret allure and the greatness of literature, the secret that sends us to it over and over again, with enthusiasm and a longing to find refuge and meaning, is that literature can repeatedly redeem for us the tragedy of the one from the statistics of the millions. The one about whom the story is written, and the one who reads the story.

Read it all.

George Szirtes discusses the same reviews and makes a pertinent criticism of one other, which I did not mention, of a book arguing for a one state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, a notion I was critical of here.

The season's over

It is for Swinton - stuffed by 30 points in a poor performance in the play-offs at Oldham. It is now time for a long close season of speculation and hope, a phenomenon that all sport fans will recognise and share, despite experience showing its utter futility. It's fun though.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Miscarriages of justice

Forget the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four, this must be the ultimate case:

A CASE on behalf of Jesus Christ has come knocking on Kenya's High Court door, lodged by a fervent Christian group that wants his conviction declared null and void and his crucifixion illegal.

Though cases to right historical wrongs are far from unusual around the world, Kenya's Friends of Jesus (FOJ) has reached back two millennia in what may redefine the quest for closure.

The petition was filed on Monday with the court registrar, raising a novel set of legal quandaries - not the least of which involves the statute of limitations and whether the high court has jurisdiction over the Son of God.

The report continues,

They want "the court to declare Jesus's trial null and void ... because the (ancient) court that convicted him was not properly constituted, the prosecutors violated the law of the time and the trial was a sham", Mr Indindis said.

The FOJ's lawyer Humprey Odanga said Jesus's crucifixion was a wrongful punishment for a trial based on charges of "blaspheming the Holy Spirit'' and should be corrected by modern law.

My laughter at the complete absurdity of it all stopped suddenly when I read this justification for the court action:

"Jesus was lynched by Jewish mobs. That was illegal. It was abuse of office, malicious prosecution, fabrication of evidence, judicial misconduct and goes against the principle of natural justice.''

So, once again, literalist religious fundamentalism leads us back on the murderous path of anti-Semitism. Now, what was Christopher Hitchens saying?

Hat tip Gill not Will

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Taking Dawkins to task

Adam Roberts provides a more complex, nuanced review of Richard Dawkins' much hyped and somewhat simplistic book, The Fascism Delusion.

... Though he accuses Fascism of being an extremism; he flatly refuses to acknowledge the extremist bias of his own non-Fascist position. He is also blind to the obvious truth that his beloved non-Fascists have killed just as many people as have Fascists—more, indeed. Why doesn’t Dawkins focus his polemic on them? The reason is that a peculiar hysterical hostility to the very idea of Fascism blinds him. (He claims for instance that ‘non-Fascists don’t do evil in the name of non-Fascism’, which would be news to all the senior Fascists hanged by the Nuremberg anti-Fascist trials). All ideals – political, transcendent, human, or invented – are capable of being abused. And knowing this, we need to work out what to do about it, rather than lashing out uncritically at Fascism. But Dawkins cannot understand this.

Read it all here (and don't forget to scan some of the comments - dumb or what?)

Hat tip Will - again - bless


Read in conjunction with Tristram Hunt on ‘the new atheist orthodoxy‘.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Hitchens, Roth and decency

Time for a literary diversion. Sometimes a bad review can be deeply satisfying and my thanks go to Will for pointing out this stinker.

I can't comment on the novel itself because I haven't read Roth, and after that, I don't want to. I have too much respect for Hitchens' literary tastes. From the review, the book appears to be a misanthropic picture of life as sordid, squalid and miserable. An obligatory part of this world view is a depiction of revolting sex. Stripped from the context of erotica, it is almost impossible to write a description of sex that isn't either unconsciously comic or generally disgusting. This is why the Bad Sex in Literature Award continues to flourish and amuse. However, this style of writing uses it to signify the debased nature of the human condition, though Hitchens suggests that 'Roth has degraded the Eros-Thanatos dialectic of some of his earlier work and is now using his fiction, first to kill off certain characters and to shoot the wounded, and second to give himself something to masturbate about'.

As an antidote to this form of literary self-indulgence, it is nice to read something that celebrates life, not as something easy, but in ways that convey respect, dignity and affection. The reading that reminded me of this tonight was not a new novel or biography; it was drawn from the blogosphere. Freens in Springburn has taken the opportunity to enlarge upon the memories of his grandfather. I found it a touching reminder of the beauty of a life lived well.

Almost forty years after his death, he is still a presence: with me are the memories of his quotations, the aroma of his pipe tobacco (like aromatic liquorice), his hand-tied fishing flies, his broad, flat bunnets, his pawky humour, and, still, as I listen to digitally-remastered CDs of Björling singing Nessun Dorma or Questa o quella or La donna e mobile, I raise a dram to the memory of a great and abiding influence and a good and decent man.

That one paragraph is worth a thousand pages of loathsome middle class angst.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Martin Kelner writes, 'why 15 a side, when you can have a perfectly decent game of rugby with just 13'? Kelner supports Swinton. Good lad.

And this is Nessun Dorma

But not by Pavarotti. Freens in Springburn, inspired by his autodidact grandfather, reckons Jussi Björling was better. After he commented on the post below, I scrambled over to YouTube and found Björling's spine-tingling version of Nessun Dorma. Listen to this.

Make up your own mind, but I am with Freens.


Pavarotti's classic 1972 recording is also on YouTube. I am wavering. Listen to it here

Only one reader is remotely interested ...

... but Swinton are in the National League Two play offs. Sneaked in by beating Workington who helped us by having one sent off and three in the sin bin (at the same time!). Don't think we will see a repeat appearance in the Grand Final though. Going to Oldham Mike?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Fat man pays tribute to a fat man

From 1979. And it isn't Nessun Dorma.

Sentimental, a little corny, and exquisite

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Always look on the bright side of life

Over at CiF Madeleine Bunting witters on about the idea, often advanced against Hitchens, Dawkins and co., that non-belief is as dangerous as dogmatic faith. I have never quite got my head round the argument that thinking that the belief in absolute ideologies (in both their secular and religious forms) is dangerous is, in itself, a dangerous belief in an absolute ideology.

Nevertheless, after some meanderings round the ideas of myth and belief, it doesn't take long for her to descend into a characteristic celebration of miserabilism.

Just because secular societies have junked religious mythology, doesn't mean they don't have myths - the ones they have developed to replace the religious can be deeply destructive - celebrity, consumerist aspirations that material wealth brings happiness, the winner takes all. These are myths which cause untold unhappiness in lives - and the impulse to deaden such emotions through alcohol or drugs.

Wow, it must be hell (sorry) to be an atheist. Except I am one. And I am not 'blighted by dissatisfaction, disappointment and frustration'. Well I am a bit - and this glass of brandy is helping - but it isn't the myth of celebrity and consumerism that gets to me, nor even reading a Madeleine Bunting article, it is the cold hard reality of the proliferation of bureaucracy in education. In other words, happiness and disappointment are rooted far more in reality than myth.

Some may find consolation in religion, myth or faith, fine for them. I cannot. Instead, I have friends, books, music, Swinton Rugby League Club (perhaps not), Greece and this blog. All of them have a material existence, they are real. 'Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' are enough for me. None are achievable without living in a successful society, and that too, for me, means dealing in reality rather than faith.

Root causes

German police have arrested three Islamists who allegedly planned 'to ram "massive" car bombs into Frankfurt airport' and/or 'to blow up hundreds of people in German airports, discotheques and restaurants' and/or 'to blow up US targets in Germany'. Two of the people in custody are German nationals who converted to this particular version of political Islam.

Now remind me, if Madrid was caused by Spanish involvement in Iraq, if 7/7 was caused by British involvement in Iraq, what was the attitude of the German government to the war?

A suitable case for a boycott?

The Greek Olympic Committee said Wednesday it had accepted an offer from Israel for experts and 10,000 trees to help repair damage caused by fires on Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games.

That's another place off the Respect holiday itinerary.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Democratiya 10

The new edition of Democratiya is out and is as stimulating as ever.

Terry Glavin shares the pain of a terrible review of the book of a friend with whom he disagrees and I have dipped my toe in the water by reading Dave Rich's excellent review of Ed Husain's, The Islamist (together with Inside the Global Jihad by Omar Nasiri & Gordon Corera).

I like Husain's book and have posted on it here, and this review is an excellent rebuff to Sunny Hundal's side-swipe* in his CIF piece yesterday, compounded by his link to a sneering article by Ali Eteraz.

Rich is respectful and perceptive. The key section for me is how he deals with those who argue that the 'root cause' of terrorism lies in the foreign policies of Western powers.

Husain and Nasiri both write about a time when the recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the War on Terror and the second Palestinian Intifada were not available for people to cite as 'root causes' of terrorism, but the 1990s were not short of alternatives. The first Iraq war, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir were all conflicts that caused genuine grievances amongst Muslims. But it requires an ideology and an organisation to take these transitory political triggers and convert them into the rationale for radicalism and violence.

Quite so. Read it all.

* Will takes a characteristically more robust exception to Hundal's article at the Drink-soaked Trots

Monday, September 03, 2007

Let them smoke dope

Peter Preston finds a tough solution to the latest panic about under-age drinking - in Utah.

A true Salt Lake strategy would go much further.

It would make the age limit 21, rigorously enforced. It would take drink off the shelf at Tesco and Sainsbury's, reserving booze for many fewer state-registered off-licences, open 10am to 6pm weekdays (as in Sweden) and sanctioned by a national register, rigorously inspected. It would raise the prospect of tying the right to drive to a family-imposed necessity for sobriety. (Why allow 15-year-olds found drunk in the street even to learn to drive a few years later unless they've cleaned up their act?) It would be pressure, pressure, pressure to reach the tough core of a tough drinking problem.

Yikes. Authoritarian or what? Us over-age drinkers wouldn't be having much fun, only able to buy drink when we are at work. There is one flaw in this. There are other mind-altering substances to take the place of booze that are easily available any time.

As for me - I need a drink.

Oh, lonesome me

Conor Foley is feeling lonely in his political space over on Comment is Free. After reading it, I am not really surprised. There are many odd propositions in there, for instance I hate the idea that left social policy is based on 'liberal compassion' rather than hard-won rights, but this is really curious:

The main division on the left over foreign policy 25 years ago was between multilateralists, who favoured peace through a system of collective security and a strengthening of multilateral institutions, and unilateralists, who argued that Britain should act as a vanguard example. However, since the invasion of Iraq was a clear violation of international law, its supporters now argue that the existing legal system should be scrapped, or dramatically altered, and that multilateral institutions, such as the UN, should be sidelined from the debate about when resort to armed force is justified.

He starts with debates within the left over nuclear deterrence and then morphs seamlessly into a topic that has nothing to do with it, Iraq. Leaving aside the continuing debate over the legality of the war, this non-sequitor is a total misrepresentation. If the war was illegal, then those supporting it would argue that the law is inadequate to handle humanitarian intervention. The clear implication is that international law should be reformed and strengthened, not scrapped.

In the comments thread on another CIF piece by Sunny Hundal he elaborates,

The Euston Manifesto also calls for an overhaul of the entire international legal system to make it easier for states to attack one another.

This is what the Euston Manifesto actually says,

We stand for an internationalist politics and the reform of international law—in the interests of global democratization and global development. Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the "common life" of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a "responsibility to protect".

In other words the Manifesto is calling for a limit to state sovereignty based on a clear definition of human rights. Calling for collective action to protect individuals from torture and murder is hardly scrapping the existing legal system and sidelining multilateral institutions, let alone making it easier for states to attack each other. It is the creation of international law that puts the rights of the citizen ahead of the rights of the State. How can anyone on the left object to that?

Thanks to Will for pointing out the post and the comment in his own unique style

Sunday, September 02, 2007


One of the pleasures of sport is a malicious delight in the travails of your nearest rivals. Swinton won 14-12 today in a tense match played in foul weather. Despite dominating possession and territory, a determined Hunslet side led for most of the match. A late try finally gave the Lions a deserved win to put us in a play-off spot. However, the big news of the day was Hull Kingston Rovers' amazing victory in the Hull derby. Why? It meant that Salford are relegated.

There was more to it this time than local rivalry. First, as a resident of Hull, I am delighted to see both Hull clubs in Super League. The East Hull club, Rovers, have had a bit of a raw deal as financial crisis took them down to the old Third Division. Meanwhile Hull FC were rescued from their troubles by a 'merger' with the Gateshead Thunder club, whose backers were not able to make it pay after one year. Then they had a new stadium built by the council to house themselves and Hull City, whilst Rovers still struggled. Now the two teams are back with the same ferocious rivalry that dominated Rugby League in the early 1980's .

However, most important of all, this is one in the eye of the opponents of promotion and relegation as, once again, the promoted side has stayed up (see my April post). Not that it will make much difference, Rugby League seems determined to press ahead with a franchise system for the top division. Many of the Rugby League's dafter schemes end up short-lived, I hope this goes the same way.

Choosing sides

The Observer reports on the extraordinary story of the Germans who fought the Nazis with Britain. One of them recalls,

'We were very aware of the generosity and compassion of Britain. We owed a debt to this country for saving our lives. I wasn't opposed to Germany, but I certainly was interested in fighting the Nazis.'

Whoever coined the phrase, 'my country right or wrong', didn't reckon on the intellectual clarity and morality of these remarkable individuals.

Blogging and the English Language

Robert McCrum misuses Orwell to damn blogging with faint praise. He concludes,

From the Orwellian point of view, it is the violence the internet does to the English language as much as its challenge to the journalistic infrastructure that is the biggest anxiety.

Leaving aside the fine writers, poets, academics, journalists and unpublished aspirants who blog, has he ever read any post-modernist theory? Even the worst blogger is an amateur compared to that systematic attempt at Englishicide.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

A Greek tragedy

The significance of the fires to the Greek nation is profound. There is a beautifully written account by Helena Smith here, whilst Sofka Zinovieff, author of the charming memoir Eurydice Street, is also worth reading here on a disaster that continues to distress all lovers of that country.