Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve

Yesterday I pruned the vine in sleet and hail, the snow line dropped lower and the cold made the Yorkshire coast seem mild. Today, the rain stopped. It was a dry morning, but with low grey clouds and a bleak wind. Down at the front there were waves rolling in and a sense of desolation unique to seaside towns out of season. I drove to Lafkos, the location of the nearest cash machine. Snow lay on the roofs still, the air was colder and the wind sharper. The church bells were tolling for a funeral. Large white flowered wreaths stood by the door. Sharply dressed undertakers lounged around outside smoking, sheltering from the wind.

The road down from Lafkos provides the best views in the area of the peninsula snaking round hugging the sea protectively; it is always breathtaking. And then the clouds began to lift, the snow on Mount Pelion glowed bright and the sky turned blue. Tonight there will be a frost and tomorrow is forecast to bring some welcome sunshine. The world is turning and that a spring and summer will follow is the only certainty.

Friends will be round soon to share a meal and see in the New Year. I will not be sorry to see the end of 2008, a bad year for me. So at midnight when the neighbours step out on to their doorsteps and blast into the air with their shotguns and the patter of pellets on the patio signify, in this part of the world at least, that Persephone is considering her return, alcohol fuelled hope will swell for another year. I shall raise my glass to my friends and to the readers of this blog to wish you all a Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cold and wet

It has been raining solidly for the past two days. In one sense that is good. After two dry winters in succession, this one has been wet and the ground is soft under foot. Water supplies are being replenished and the trees are drinking deep. It reminds me of the childhood Christmases I used to spend with my uncle in North Wales; cold and wet with damp stone walls, being warmed by open fires, and walking over dramatic hills, covered in ferns that held droplets of moisture, twinkling at their tips. Except this time the hills I look out to are dotted with olive groves and the village gardens are full of citrus trees laden with brightly coloured fruit.

The orange tree on the patio is not an ordinary one. It is a Bergamot. The oil derived from their skins is what is used to flavour Earl Grey tea. They are not for eating raw, the oranges are very bitter and the Greeks use them to make γλικό, spoon sweets of fruit in thick sugary syrup. They will boil the oranges three times, discarding the water, to take away the sharpness.

However, we English like the combination of bitter and sweet and Bergamot make one of the glories of our cuisine, a quite magnificent marmalade, heady with smoky Earl Grey flavour and deliciously tangy as an acidic sharpness cuts through the sugar.

So today we have been picking oranges and making marmalade and the whole house is aromatic with the unique citrus smell of Bergamot. It is very easy to do.

Each batch takes a dozen large oranges. You peel them and then squeeze the juice into a large pan. The pips and pith are bundled in muslin and hang in the liquid as it cooks. Shred the skins to taste, I like mine chunky. Then simmer for around two hours in three litres of water.

When they are soft you add a kilo of sugar and boil until the liquid reaches setting point and then you decant it into jars to set, topped with a circle of greaseproof paper.

Now comes the difficult bit; you have to wait before you can eat it. Ah, but when you do … it might even inspire me to post something serious.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bah humbug

A Happy Christmas to all who read this blog, including any festively challenged friends, and greetings to all the people I forgot to send cards to.

Ho, ho, ho – or, as they say in Greece, χο, χο, χο

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Yesterday the snow came to the mountains leaving the slopes of Mount Pelion with patches of white. The day was bright, the sun warm, but with a piercing cold wind.

Great thoughts will have to wait a little longer and you will have to make do with pictures.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The answer ...

… is a lemon. More precisely, the first lemons on the tree I planted. I have an absurd sense of pride and squeezing one to dress the lettuce salad was a symbolic moment of achievement. And that is the extent of today's great thoughts on the condition of the world.

It is a cold wet day, snow is forecast, but I expect it will only fall in the mountains. Travelling through Athens on a bus after another day of protests you could see precisely nothing. No demonstrators, no banners, simply a big city getting on with everything that big cities do; people travelling to work, opening shops, clearing rubbish, normal humdrum things. And here in the countryside all is quiet, even the cockerel is hiding from the rain that drips from the skeletal frame of the klimataria and the bare sticks that were a vine in summer.

With the brain in a state of suspended animation, it is time to retreat to the olive wood log fire.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The great escape

Off to Greece this evening. Subsequent posting may be light.

Καλές Υιορτές !

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Magic and reality

Apparently Norm goes mad in his attic at regular intervals. It is all down to magical thinking.
The capacity to hold rational thoughts alongside irrational intuitions is part of the mind's design. Even if we deny belief in the supernatural - in ghosts, say, or astrology - we are all inclined towards magical thinking and superstition. It's a frame of mind that one direction opens out to a dream world of myth and imagination and the other leads to practical creativity in the arts and sciences. The dark side is mental illness.
So what is this example? Peter Singer writes,

Throughout his tenure as South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki rejected the scientific consensus that Aids is caused by a virus, HIV, and that anti-retroviral drugs can save the lives of people who test positive for it. Instead, he embraced the views of a small group of dissident scientists who suggested other causes for Aids.

Mbeki stubbornly continued to embrace this position even as the evidence against it became overwhelming.
This delusion is now estimated to have resulted in 365,000 premature deaths.

And there are so many more. Here's Charlie Brooker from a while back.

It's hard enough to successfully operate a video shop with a staff of three, for Christ's sake, let alone slaughter thousands and convince the world someone else was to blame.

That's just one broad objection to all the bullshit theories. But try suggesting it to someone in the midst of a 9/11 fairytale reverie, and they'll pull a face and say, "Yeah, but ... " and start banging on about some easily misinterpreted detail that "makes you think" (when it doesn't) or "contradicts the official story" (when you misinterpret it). Like nutbag creationists, they fixate on thinly spread, cherry-picked nuggets of "evidence" and ignore the thundering mass of data pointing the other way.

Then there was George Monbiot only last week.
In his fascinating book Carbon Detox, George Marshall argues that people are not persuaded by information. Our views are formed by the views of the people with whom we mix. Of the narratives that might penetrate these circles, we are more likely to listen to those that offer us some reward. A story that tells us that the world is cooking and that we'll have to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is less likely to be accepted than the more rewarding idea that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by scheming governments and venal scientists, and that strong, independent-minded people should unite to defend their freedoms.
Anthony Cox joins in the debunking too.
Ian Hislop was interviewed by Radio 5 Live’s Simon Mayo on Friday. In a discussion about the Eye’s campaigning journalism Mayo brought up the Eye’s coverage of MMR vaccine. The Eye published a special edition about MMR in May of 2002 subtitled “The story so far: a comprehensive review of the MMR vaccination/autism controversy”. It was an appalling piece of scare-mongering journalism ... Here are the views of David Elliman and Helen Bedford ...

...Understandably, much space is given to the harrowing accounts of parents who believe that the triple vaccine caused their child’s autism. However, the overwhelming evidence suggesting no link between the vaccine and autism and bowel problems is either not mentioned or dismissed out of hand, while the suggestion of a link is given uncritical prominence.
Some of these notions simply produce hot air and hours of harmless fun for obsessive bloggers, some, like Mbeki's, do real damage to real people. And we are all prone to it, however rational we may think ourselves to be.

Here's Singer again, talking much sense:
The lessons of this story are applicable wherever science is ignored in the formulation of public policy. This does not mean that a majority of scientists is always right. The history of science clearly shows the contrary. Scientists are human and can be mistaken. They, like other humans, can be influenced by a herd mentality, and a fear of being marginalised. The culpable failure, especially when lives are at stake, is not to disagree with scientists, but to reject science as a method of inquiry.
Now I must get one of these games of patience out otherwise tomorrow will go badly. If I move that red eight ...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Crisis and change

The protests in Greece are not over. English language Greek blogs make for some interesting reading at the moment. In Thessaloniki, Teacher Dude posts some of his impressive photojournalism as well as his thoughts, whilst My Big Fat Greek Life and Surviving Athens have contrasting views on the riots. In the mainstream media there were two longer commentaries this weekend, Helena Smith in the Observer and Maria Margaronis' eloquent piece in the Guardian, where she wrote,
The teenagers and twenty-somethings who have come close to toppling the Greek government are not the marginalised: this is no replay of the riots that convulsed Paris in 2005. Many are sons and daughters of the middle classes, shocked at the killing of one of their own, disgusted with the government's incompetence and corruption, enraged by the broken promises of the education system, scared at the prospect of having to work still harder than their exhausted parents.
Much of this commentary is specifically about Greece, but it also illustrates something much more generic. The economic model that has been the elite consensus for around thirty years is collapsing. The experiment in privatisation, marketisation and deregulation that had replaced the post-war social democratic settlement is in crisis.

The shock of the credit crunch has focused minds and the media on the nature of unregulated finance, but, arguably, the social consequences of the change in political economy have been felt for far longer. Of course it was the poorest who were the first to be hit.

In the developing world, public provision was drastically diminished by the effects of Structural Adjustment Packages in the wake of the world debt crisis. In this country, the loss of employment and the erosion of the welfare state had a devastating impact on communities locked in a downward spiral. Nick Davies wrote in Dark Heart, his 1997 book of social reportage, about the Hyde Park area in Leeds:
And yet, repeatedly, the people of Hyde Park told the City Council team that they wanted to improve themselves. Among the workless, 86.5 per cent said that the wanted to go back to school or college. Lone parents had the same message: 69.7 per cent of them wanted more education. But few of them obtained it. They had no one to look after their children, they lacked the essential qualifications, some of them could not read or write, many of them could not afford it or could not find college places. So, they were stuck. The welfare state that might once have helped them was no longer able to do so.

It had retreated like an exhausted mother, too tired to offer her children anything but indifference.
I have always appreciated that passage as it gives the lie to the notion that the under-representation of working class people in education is due solely to their 'low aspirations' rather than the structural failings of our public services.

However, apparently these are middle class protests. How can a middle class that has prospered be discontented? Here the answer is generational. For the past few years there has been the unedifying sound of privileged people pulling ladders up behind them. For instance, in higher education, ministers who owe their position to full grants and, often, adult education, have been busy ensuring that those benefits are not extended to their children or grandchildren in order to avoid questioning their faith in low personal taxation.

There certainly is a belief that increased public provision is both desirable and possible, but also one that it is unaffordable unless partly funded through greater productivity (doing more with less) and that grim euphemism, efficiency gains. The result in higher education has been rising staff-student ratios and pressure on staff recruitment; it is now not just a middle class profession, but also a very middle aged one. Ally this to the costly introduction of managerial models throughout the public sector and the squeeze is on.

In post-school education, the result has been a mantra about transferring the costs of education directly to the beneficiaries through higher fees and a system of loans. This amounts to a poll tax on the student. Whatever the outcome of your degree - social worker or merchant banker - you pay the same. This has been justified by dubious theories, such as 'the knowledge economy', or by distinctly dodgy statistics about the average earnings premium a graduate can expect. The consequence of such thinking is that, at all levels, education is now being mainly seen in instrumental and economic terms.

So what if the expected benefit never emerges? What happens when people who have invested heavily in the degree that should be the passport to gainful employment end up out of work or in menial, low paid and temporary jobs? The other benefits of education hardly matter when all that it has been sold on is a passport to wealth rather than wisdom. And, of course, UK universities have been subsidising themselves with the higher fees of overseas students, many of them Greek, paying for degrees that may have little or no market value.

Yet this is not all. One of the drivers of neo-liberalism has been the effective marketing of a particular type of materialism. What if people stop wanting it? Say they want a different type of prosperity instead, one based on greater economic security and on collective goods. Margaronis again,
Instead of education, values and understanding, the young are being sold an aspirational "lifestyle" they can't afford, which many of them don't want.
The market may be deciding against the market.

I have no doubt that the demand for clever, useful technology and nice clothes will continue, consumerism is not dead, nor do I think that there is any desire for a lessening of personal liberty. Instead, patterns of demand may change, and none more so than in political choice, the preferred ideas of political economy. To the incomprehension of mainstream leaders, popular solutions to the ongoing crisis may well be found in libertarian forms of social democracy or even, heaven forbid, democratic socialism. And, if so, we may see more than a struggle for the restoration of middle class privilege, instead this could be the starting point for the emergence of a more egalitarian polity.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A cultural icon

The actress Kathy Staff has died. She played one of those fictional characters whose name has passed into popular usage. When I had a problem with my leg earlier this year the bandage slipped and wrinkled. The nurse glanced at it and said, "look at that Nora Batty".

A symbol of wrinkled stockings and indomitable northern womanhood, Nora Batty was straight from the northern comic tradition, an affectionate parody of a ferocious domestic matriarch. Who needs glamour?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Light and dark

To the lasting horror of the critics, the wonderfully naff Mamma Mia, is now the biggest selling DVD of all time. I can understand the charms, especially given the backdrop of the warm, sunny Greek islands. However, I watched another DVD last night, also filmed in Greece. It wasn't the same.

The Weeping Meadow is the first in a planned trilogy of films by Theo Angelopoulos and is an unremitting tragedy, a howl of grief at the brutalities of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Its backdrop is the plains of Northern Greece, all scenes were filmed in winter, and deals with the fate of Greek exiles who fled from Odessa in 1919. It is visually stunning and atmospheric, and its themes are both epic and intimate. I was uncomfortable with its unremitting bleakness, a frame of mind reflected by the absence of spring or summer, though it is a fine piece of work with a memorable score by Eleni Karaindrou.

Angelopoulos was consciously exploring the experience of his mother's generation, one that spanned most of the Twentieth Century. Modern Greek history is a troubled one of exile, dispossession, civil war, invasion and dictatorship before the achievement of democracy. Sometimes when I walk through the village where my house is, I wonder at the lives of the old people sitting together and gossiping on their chairs dragged out of their houses on to the street. If there is a political message to The Weeping Meadow it is that the gains of post-war western democracy are not to be lightly dismissed but to be protected and built upon. And perhaps us western baby boomers should be a little more aware of our historical privilege and the good fortune of our birth.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

1834 and all that

The passing of the New Poor Law Amendment Act did more to sour the hearts of the labouring population, than did the privations consequent on all the actual poverty of the land. Rightly, or wrongly, may be a subject of discussion, but the fact is undeniable, that the labourers of England believed that the new poor law was a law to punish poverty; and the effects of that belief were, to sap the loyalty of the working men, to make them dislike the country of their birth, to brood over their wrongs, to cherish feelings of revenge, and to hate the rich of the land.

Samuel Kydd - shoemaker in the 1830's writing in1857.
James Purnell has announced his new welfare reform white paper. The Tories describe the proposals as "almost identical" to their own.
Unveiling the plans in the Commons, Purnell said that most people on incapacity benefit would be required to attend job interviews and the unemployed would be expected to do four weeks' full-time activity after a year out of work. Pilot schemes would require them to work full time for their benefits after two years.
(Surely some mistake here, if they are working full-time aren't they wages not benefits and why aren't they going to be paid the minimum wage?)

Come back less eligibility, all is forgiven.

On the riots

However much I love being in Greece, I am an outsider and the riots only betray my ignorance. The crisis continues and reading some of the reporting and comment now coming out of the country I am struck by two predominant sentiments. One is the general sense of horror and despair at the events, the other is anger, in particular at the current Nea Dimokratia government, but also at the state of Greek politics in general.

In the mainstream media, Helena Smith seems to captures the mood well, whilst the blogosphere has produced this passionate piece of angst from Hope Dies Last. On Comment is Free, the Liberal Democrat, Antonis Papasolomontos, writes harshly about the rioters, making the observation that, "The majority of Greeks, whatever their grievances, are welcoming, kind and passionate people, hugely proud of their history and of their status as Europeans", a view I can endorse. However, it sits very uneasily with his cod sociological observation that the blame for the disurbances lie in "the Greeks' cultural psyche, their attraction to collective disobedience", as if conformity and dutiful submission to authority are necessarily democratic virtues and their converse an automatic trigger for violence. That there might be some rationality to "disobedience" is suggested by this Economist article from September about the failings of the Karamanlis government.

I don't know enough to comment other than to make a general observation that there seems to be a parallel with Britain in the 1980's when discontent about urban policing spilled out in localised rioting across the country. That rioting took place in the context of a right wing government dismantling a social and economic settlement that was the product of an earlier social democratic consensus, leading to increasing unemployment. Recent events have indicated that certain aspects of that restructure were mistaken and policy reversals are now taking place. Just perhaps, this might throw a light on the current Greek experience as well.


As if on cue,
A mile away, a 27-year-old waitress had joined a peaceful protest outside the parliament building. Declining to be named, she told me she had been demonstrating since the trouble began because she was "fed up with life here".

"I have two degrees but I am a waitress. There is no opportunity for young people here any more but I don't think this is confined to Greece. The economic situation leaves a lot of young people across Europe feeling bleak and hopeless."

The case for a renewed European social democratic settlement in the wake of the banking crisis is becoming compelling. And in a nod to Shuggy,

"The weather is changing. It's getting colder. That will finish it sooner than the police can," she said
See here too. And here (via)


Kostas Gemenis writes in Open Democracy

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

What it is all about

Just back home, slightly the worse for wear, from a lovely night out for a curry and drinks with wonderful work colleagues. The restaurant was boisterous with a Christmas do for the staff of The Sandpiper, a new pub in Welton, East Yorkshire. The landlord boomed out that he was giving out awards, one was a bottle of sparkling wine. The winners? The other customers that had to put up with them tonight - us. Nice.

Then we got our taxi home, driven by a Romanian. He wanted to study at the University but was told that his impeccable English wasn't quite good enough and he was advised to do more study and apply again. We gave him all the right contacts (i.e. me) to get him on adult education courses in January. He seemed thrilled. I hope he emails and we can get him going on something good.

One of my friend's sayings when she is down is, "what's it all about?". And this is what it's all about. A bit of generosity, support, appreciation and a hand up to anyone we can give it to. It might not seem much, but it can make someone's day, or, perhaps, as with our taxi driver, change their lives. It goes under many names, decency will do for now.

Monday, December 08, 2008

I'm dreaming of ...

... a peaceful Christmas.

Off to Greece in a couple of weeks for Christmas. It could be an interesting trip. Ian Bone is certainly getting excited.

Me? I am getting old. I am looking forward to this instead.

Just heard that there is a lot of destruction around Syntagma with shops and banks on fire and looting going on. Worrying.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Contention and peace

It is time for me to delve into my memories again, this time about Israel/Palestine. I am supportive of Israel and vehement in my opposition to anti-Semitism, including its current murderous manifestation in fascistic Islamist movements and their gruesome western apologists. Yet support for Israel should not result in the neglect of the Palestinian people's experience, of their rights and their own unique national history. And that recent history is one of dispossession.

There is not space here to discuss the development of Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel, but the displacement and dispossession of one people was the consequence of the national liberation of another, a liberation that took place under the shadow of genocide. Hanging over the whole conflict has been a fundamental failure. The United Nations promised partition into an Arab and Israeli state. The plan was not enforced and a combination of great power diplomacy and Arab regional ambitions meant that no Palestinian state was created. It is 60 years overdue.

It is now over twenty years since I was a volunteer English teacher in the Occupied Territories. I wasn't there for long but what I saw and heard then are some of my most vivid memories. There were the families I met where old men showed me their treasured deeds and the keys to the houses they had fled, kept in the main room as shrines to the dream of return, there were the families I visited in the ramshackle camps and was treated to overwhelming Arab hospitality by people living in shocking poverty, and there were the conversations, some chilling – "we need another Hitler to rid us of the Jews"; one, with a single man suspiciously living in a remote location, "all who arrived before 1918 can stay, the rest must go"; another family chorused, "six million were never killed" – some guilt inducing – "you take your photographs, but what do you bring us?" – the majority though were all the same – "there must be two states living in peace with good relations". It is the opportunity that has yet to be grasped and it is still there even though conditions have deteriorated further.

I remember too visiting the universities and the self-help projects, the women's education centres, the craft schemes, all, ironically, allowed to grow under the occupation when Palestinian education and development had been stifled by the Jordanians. And there were new opportunities that some people had never known, for instance I remember guiding the blind woman who was studying to be a lawyer back to the bus stop. I also remember the tear gas, the roadblocks and the harassment. I remember, too, running when the shooting was about to start and of the old woman in traditional Palestinian dress, a load on her head, walking deliberately, without changing her slow pace, through a cloud of tear gas and emerging unmoved from the other side, forcing an army jeep to swerve.

Then there was the vegetable market in Ramallah, a huge covered barn of a place, packed with stalls. There were my favourite sellers. One was 'cucumber man'. I taught him the English for cucumber whilst he tried to teach me the Arabic. Every time I walked in he would leap out from behind his stall with his permanent three-day stubble and toothless grin and shout "cucumbeeerrr!!!", brandishing one wildly above his head. The other was the fig seller. The first time I bought off him he glared at me – " British or American"? "British". "Good", he shouted adding an extra handful of fruit to my bag, " the British are our friends. Americans …", he turned his head and spat expressively on the ground, a respectable distance from my feet.

And it was in the vegetable market you saw the settlers. They were able to move more freely in those pre-intifada days and they were unmistakable, dressed in shorts with machine guns slung over their shoulders, usually sporting a New York accent. They were scary and bitterly resented. They would happily use the guns too, just as the local kids would throw rocks at their cars after they had left the city and were on the open road. They were not Hebron settlers though.

Hebron has more than religious significance for both peoples. It is a symbol of the cycles of violence that remain unbroken. In 1929 it was the scene of a massacre. Sixty-seven Jews were murdered by Arab mobs. It was an old community, without connection to the new immigration that started in 1881 and had intensified after the First World War following the Balfour Declaration. It was an easy target. The survivors were expelled cruelly; the historic Jewish presence was no more.

When Hebron fell under Israeli occupation in 1967 and the settler movement began, the restitution of the Jewish community was an obvious and deeply symbolic act. In different times it could have been a symbol of reconciliation; instead it was a provocation. The community was not the same as the one that had been murdered and removed, but consisted of the ultra-right. The constant security that had to be provided for the settlers made life ever more difficult for the Palestinian inhabitants. And the settlements spawned their own massacre too. They were the home of Baruch Goldstein.

Now they are in the news again, some activists are being removed from an illegally occupied house. Will sent me this excellent post by Aryeh Cohen – and make sure you watch the video clips.
Language is often a casualty of tyranny and terror. The house in Hebron which bears a sign which reads “God gave Israel to the Jews” is called the “House of Peace” by the Jewish community of Hebron.

The website of the Jewish community of Hebron has videotapes of the forced evacuation of the house which most of the media calls the “house of contention” and they call the house of peace. The footage is fascinating, in the way that a car wreck is fascinating. Sometime around two and a half minutes into the first clip, someone starts calling the Israeli soldiers “Nazis”. About a minute later somebody calls them “an occupying army.” The settlers wail and scream and curse the soldiers for forcibly evicting them from their homes. Their homes of a day, a week, several months. They run into the power of the IDF with the hubris of those who know that they won’t really be harmed. This is not the way the IDF evacuates Palestinians. … When the IDF evacuates Palestinians and destroys their homes, the rifles are cocked, the safeties are off and fingers are on the triggers. The Palestinians are marched out of their homes in their underwear and their homes are bulldozed. Palestinians don’t get to scream at the IDF face to face, as the Judaists from Hebron do.

The comparison is telling, the self-pity of the privileged against the fear of the occupied - and of the occupiers. But that is not the only point. The settlers, after putting up that show, can give up their ideological struggle and make a life anywhere in Israel or they can continue their protected existence as outriders for an aggressive, rightist, religious nationalism. The Palestinians have nowhere.

I keep repeating the following almost as a mantra whenever I am asked for my views. To be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli is not a contradiction. There is an identity of interest in a viable two state solution and a breaking of the cycles of war, violence and oppression. It is what the bulk of the people want on both sides. It is what the irridentist nationalists on both sides oppose and will do all they can to wreck.

This solution has been a possibility since 1948. It needs to be grasped. Sixty years is too long. Only then can the long, slow process of national reconciliation begin.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Peace in our time

After the carnage comes the solidarity as peace marches and vigils take place in Mumbai to reject terrorism. It seems to be a good time to post some personal reflections on the ambiguity of peace movements and peace politics.

In the 1980's I did a part-time MA in Peace Studies at Bradford University. The choice of course was down to sheer opportunism, it was about keeping a temporary job I had been lucky enough to get. It wasn't a bad option in the end, the degree was stimulating and well-taught. It also brought me into touch with peace activists. I felt that they fell into three broad categories.

The first were what I would call hard pacifists and believers in non-violence. They rejected war as inherently inhuman and wished to build non-violence as an alternative form of political action, believing in its power and potential. They asked difficult and important questions, had no illusions about what they faced, were not apologists and many of them worked in conflict mediation, community development or non-violent resistance, sometimes in areas of considerable danger. They had my respect even if, ultimately, I couldn't share their faith.

Secondly, there were the ideologists. There was a strong feminist element who associated war solely with patriarchy, though the majority were drawn from the Guardian reading classes. The intellectual contortions the Guardianistas went through to explain the innocence of Stalinism were something to behold. They were hideously certain. Whatever it was, it was America's fault. The arguments about this regressive form of reactionary 'leftism' have been well-rehearsed over the last few years and there is no need to go into them yet again here. These people are the ones who now cleave to 'anti-imperialism' and, even in the wake of last week's horrors, some still creep out of the woodwork.

Finally, there were the monomaniacs. Nice, kind, respectable people for whom all that mattered was 'Peace'. No details, just 'Peace'. What was that 'Peace'? It seemed to be rooted in their own egoism, an outcrop of their peaceful nature. Despite being on a highly academic course they had a profound anti-intellectualism. Peace was something inherent, not something to be studied, analysed and thought about. Self confident, self-righteous and often embarrassingly patronising, they were good-hearted and profoundly wrong. At heart, their commitment seemed to be an emanation of a deadly combination of wishful thinking with liberal guilt and fear. 'If we stop being beastly to these nice people then they won't harm us. After all, they are not nearly as horrid as people say'. They are the people who are taken in by vile regimes and who swallow the sophistry whole, whilst political prisoners are tortured out of sight.

The Professor during my time there, James O'Connell, liked to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins:

When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allow
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo
He comes to brood and sit.

"He comes with work to do" and it is hard work too. There is an untold history in many conflicts of the work of the non-violent activists, of mediators, and negotiators trying to break cycles of violence. Amidst the greatest of horrors there are courageous humanitarian acts that saved countless individual lives. Outside the ranks of the committed, there are other heroes too, compelled by who knows what, to work hard for the common good; teachers, medics, trade unionists, journalists, human rights workers, builders and engineers. They are the creators of a peaceful civil order, they are the workers for social justice, without which it is a poor peace indeed. And this is the moment when an absolute pacifism fails, for all its supposed morality.

When faced with something as malignant as a fascistic movement in power, with its celebration of sadism, most peace making activity ceases. Individual resistance may keep hope alive, but unless harnessed to a force capable of defeating a tyranny, it will be a single flame in the night. There was a common, glib one-liner that did the rounds some years ago - 'fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity'. It is trite and utterly untrue. Not to resist evil is a sure way of ensuring that it remains undisturbed and murderously destructive of human welfare. Troops can be workers for peace too. This does not mean that violence is a perpetual good or an eternally liberating force, it is utterly dependent on the situation in which it is used and the cause for which it is deployed. Hence the need for hard questions.

The rest of my activists are hard at work at the moment too. One lot will be inventing tortuous arguments about how objectively it is all the fault of the USA or relapsing into the spurious complexity of conspiracy. The others will be dreaming their fluffy pink dreams of cooing doves as they sit at the feet of bloody dictators, gazing up with admiring benevolence, hoping for that piecemeal peace. And in doing so, both will betray the real workers for peace, the fighters for peace, and all our patient hopes for a peaceful world. Given power, they are dangerous.


About time someone said it:
On meeting Cameron, Obama was, according to diplomatic sources, "distinctly unimpressed", contrary to some reports (excitedly spun by the Conservatives) which suggested that the two men had formed an instant "bond". Instead, I have been told, Obama exclaimed of Cameron after their meeting: "What a lightweight!"
Named that Tory in one.

And now see Olly as well

Gleefully nicked from Tom Freeman

Democratiya 15

The central struggle in Afghanistan is not the war with 'the Taliban.' It is a struggle against poverty, illiteracy, and slavery. It's a struggle against an Islamic variation of all the totalitarian, xenophobic, obscurantist and misogynist currents that it has been the historic mission of the left to fight and to defeat.
Terry Glavin in the latest Democratiya. Amongst the rest, Peter Tatchell writes admiringly of Edward Carpenter (one of the best known of those around the late 19th century radical movement, though, to my mind, not the most interesting) and Eric Lee argues for the centrality of trade unionism to the new American Presidency.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


One of the great voices of the Civil Rights Movement has died.

Read Jude Rogers here and the performance the article refers to is here.

Monday, December 01, 2008

New or old?

Anthony Giddens thinks that the response to the financial crisis does not mean that the New Labour project is dead.

This is odd. In his mercifully short book, The Third Way, Giddens wrote earlier that the reason for the need to 'modernise' social democracy was that,
...the left, of course, has always been linked to socialism and, at least as a system of economic management, socialism is no more.
Now, it seems that he is saying that it is the prevailing neo-liberal consensus on political economy which is finished:
The world won't be the same again - the period of deregulation, involving minimal governmental oversight of economic affairs, is over. We are into new territory.
Doesn't this mean that the intellectual foundations of the 'project' have shifted towards a different model of social democracy? To be fair to Giddens, he always did talk of the need to regulate financial markets, however, surely the key to New Labour was the acceptance of, and adaptation to, the Thatcherite settlement.

In one sense though Giddens is right. Those writing New Labour's obituaries are overlooking the continuing trajectory of social policy and an undiminished enthusiasm for the marketisation of public services. For those of us who were never Blairites, the fight is still on. Changing economic policies have yet to produce a serious rethink of the analysis that underpinned 'modernisation'.

Whatever, Giddens has made sure that he will always be on the right side of history. If you define New Labour, as he does, simply as "being prepared to think afresh and innovate", then anything and everything is, and will forever be, New Labour. This vagueness will not do. Politics cannot be simply defined as the practice of novelty. Instead it is rooted in different understandings of both what is and what should be. I think that my innovations may be somewhat different to his and that the next election may not simply depend on the effectivenes or otherwise of the rescue of the banks.