Saturday, February 27, 2010

Retro chic

It's a bit like the Eighties. Now the Tories have a serious chance of winning the next election, satirical stuff based on a visceral hatred of them is emerging like the bulbs you planted last year and forgot about. Here is the latest.


Friday, February 26, 2010

If in doubt ...

Just post a YouTube (with or without a glib one-liner) when you have nothing to say.

This is for any of you who have the misfortune to buy tubs of Tzatziki from the supermarket. They are usually foul, whilst the real thing is gorgeous and is cheap and easy to make. This is a pretty good method.

Some tips - buy real imported Greek yoghurt not "Greek Style" and leave to chill in the fridge an hour before serving. It works perfectly well without the dill. Also, you can squeeze the cucumber between two plates if you prefer and some cooks like to give it a sharpness by adding half a teaspoon of white wine vinegar. Adjust all the ingredients to taste, but don't overdo the dill.

That's the sort of incisive blogging you would expect from a fat man.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


The ability of people to delude themselves for the best of reasons and with the best of intentions, even when those closest to them try and point out the folly of their ways, is encapsulated by this tragic story from The Washington Post.

Oh Kil-nam has only one thing to say about himself, "I am a fool".

Monday, February 22, 2010

Life at the top

It was all there in the Observer on Sunday, spread over several pages - the temper tantrums, the paranoia, the contempt for rivals, the violent behaviour, the desperate need to control. An excellent piece on Sir Alex Ferguson.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Slow, slow...

...and even slower. I have been going to the Mahler cycle in Manchester. Last Saturday was the massive Third Symphony, this Thursday it was the Fourth. Wonderful music and some excellent playing, but, especially on Thursday, the tempo was so slow. Long lingering performances are meant to wring every ounce of emotion and drama out of the music. For me, all they do is misrepresent it. The awkward and the lively becomes smooth and sonorous. It is as if the Alps are being depicted as the Pennines.

When I came home after the concert I searched YouTube and found a 1939 recording of a live performance given by the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg. Mengelberg knew and worked with Mahler and heard Mahler himself conduct the symphony in 1904. The faster pace throughout is striking. And for those of you familiar with the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, a tender love song often rendered as tragic, most famously and ravishingly in Visconti's film of Death in Venice, should listen to this astonishing 1926 recording, again by Mengelberg.

It has been endemic in classical music although now the trend towards authentic performance is beginning to restore a faster tempo, but popular music has had the same treatment. Wailing and vocal pyrotechnics have displaced melody. The attempt to re-interpret standards simply by showing off is everywhere. It isn't always bad though, occasionally it can be stunning and compellingly dramatic, so sit back and enjoy this spectacular performance by the legendary Whitley Euston.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Like father, like son

Another J K Galbraith, the one that is still alive, has written a piece questioning the conventional wisdom on the need for austerity programmes as a response to the fallout from the financial crisis. It is a general restatement of the Keynesian principles his father advocated continuously.
In truth, the deficit/debt uproar is a deliberate effort to sidetrack attention, to defeat the will of the electorates in the US, as well as Greece among others, who stubbornly insist on effective action, economic recovery and financial reform.
Of course electorates are capable of wishing for the impossible, but it is a real point that democratic practice is undermined where there is an elite consensus on political economy that dictates policy, regardless of the wishes of electorates and representatives. I do not have the expertise to contribute, but my sense of unease at the triumph of economic orthodoxy and the near absence of alternatives in mainstream debate continues.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Colin Ward

Colin Ward has died. For those who are unaware of his life and work, he was an anarchist writer, thinker and activist. Ironically for someone who opposed the technocratic and elitist Fabian tradition, the best obituary I have seen so far is on the Fabian Society's blog, Next Left.

Ward wrote on social policy, especially housing, as well as anarchism and was a good historian too, particularly on the social history of working class self-organisation. He was also one of the few who acknowledged his debt to one of my great interests, Patrick Geddes.

There is always a sense of sadness when someone whose work you have read with interest and enjoyment over the years dies. Yet he has left behind a large body of thoughtful and thought-provoking work that is well worth exploring. It is in its own way a small stake in immortality.

Monday, February 15, 2010


The deplorable standards of numeracy in the, er, Conservative Party are on display again. According to a new Tory report, 54% of under eighteen-year-old young women in the most deprived areas are likely to become pregnant. The real figure is 5.4%.

I blame the teachers.

Jolly holidays

I like travel. It can be enormous fun and a lot of people make their living out of it. Yet there are times it makes me uneasy, especially in out of the way places where there is a narrow dividing line between economic benefit and exploitation. And then there is the question of travel to countries with oppressive regimes. Not only does it bolster the regime and normalise it in the eyes of the world, but there is something nauseous about having fun in the location of someone else's misery.

Every Sunday the British papers like to fulfil our fantasies about finding Arcadia in a nicely packaged brochure with their travel supplements. They have a tendency to see the world as the plaything of the affluent and to distance themselves from the awkward questions of ethics, though sometimes they nod towards ecology with features on 'sustainable travel'. The trouble is that after many years of publishing they are running out of places. So, in the search for novelty, the latest holiday destination was given the full treatment this Sunday - North Korea - yes, North Korea.

The report was restrained and made it perfectly clear that if the reporter had not pulled her punches her guides would have been in deep trouble. Yet, why go there? And why end the report with this incomprehensible statement?
But then if there's one thing that going to North Korea teaches you, it's that everything, all of life, is just perspective.
Eh? It just makes you wonder what other idyllic paradise they are going to promote next.

Oh. It's Burma. I give up.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Valentine's Day. Where else could you spend it other than the romantic heart of West Yorkshire, Batley? Ah, the joys of standing on the terraces on a bleak, grey winter's day, munching a meat and potato pie, watching Swinton Lions Rugby League Club lose by 46 points to 10. Sigh.

By the way, where are all my cards?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Just or unjust

In Open Democracy, Bob Brecher argues that the debate over the legality or otherwise of the Iraq war needs to be put into the context of the moral judgements implied by Just War Theory. I have no problem with that, but his description of what constitutes a just war is highly problematic.
So what makes a war just? Based on the idea that individuals have a right of self-defence, the theory was developed in response to Christianity’s problems with always turning the other cheek. It proposes one set of conditions that apply to going to war (ius ad bellum); and another to the conduct of war (ius in bello) ...

...the only war that can be just is a purely defensive one fought against the combatants of an aggressor and using minimal force.
I am really rusty on the topic, but I have never seen the idea that the sole criterion for a just war was self-defence. This could be associated with libertarian and individualist thought, with its emphasis on negative liberty and non-coercion, but not the just war tradition. Brecher is right to say the the doctrine originated as a way of defining the circumstances in which Christians could partake in war. And, more generally, it has developed as a critique of absolute pacifism, arguing that in some circumstances the undoubted evils of war are outweighed by the benefits it can bring. However, surely it is about advancing justice rather than simply defending against aggression, even if the two are sometimes contiguous.

When doubts are raised like this I always find it useful to look at the core texts, so I turned to the writings of Thomas Aquinas, one of the major sources of classical Just War Theory. In the Summa Theologica he wrote the following (and if you want to skip reading it, it says that a just war boils down to three things; right authority, right cause and right intent).
In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Rm. 13:4): "He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil"; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Ps. 81:4): "Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner"; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): "The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority."

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says (Questions. in Hept., qu. x, super Jos.): "A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly."

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [*The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine's works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1]): "True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good." For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): "The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war."
So, according to the classical theory, a just cause for war is not simply self-defence but "one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly". In other words, aggressive war can be waged to rectify wrongs. A just war is a conflict between justice and injustice, between good and evil.

By restricting the notion of a just war to one waged as self-defence, regardless of what is being defended and who is attacking, the concept becomes divorced from the very thing it is supposed to uphold, justice. As a result, Brecher creates a number of problems for himself. Some are surely errors. He views Israel's 1967 war as the only just war it has fought as it was a defensive war (it was a pre-emptive strike by Israel) whereas he implies that the war of 1973 (which he describes as an attack on Israel's Arab enemies) was unjust despite the fact that the war was launched as a surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria. Others arise from contentious interpretations. However, the strangest is this: follows from the central characteristic of a just war -- that it can be only defensive – that there can be no such thing as a just war. World War II, for instance, the least controversial of any war with a claim to being just, was not a just war. Only the war fought by the Allies was just; the war fought by the Nazis and their allies was clearly unjust. For only “the Allies’ war” was a defensive one; “the Nazis’ war” was aggressive. To the extent that any and every war is at once aggressive and defensive, “the war itself”, so to speak, cannot be just.
Eh? Surely a just war is one where one of the protagonists is confronting injustice, not one that has justice on both sides, an obvious absurdity. It is a theory that identifies whether one side to a conflict can be supported against the other, so this hair splitting misses the point. It renders the concept meaningless. So why is he arguing the case? Well, it seems that he has some polemical intent.
Even allowing that just war theory allows intervention on behalf of innocent others, and not just in literal self-defence, there is no post-1945 equivalent of “the Allied World War II”. Every war fought by “the West” has been aggressive; none has been a purely defensive response to attack. Even if one regards the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon as an act of war – itself a highly controversial claim, cynically insisted upon by the United States government precisely in order to be able to claim (however unwarrantedly) that its so-called war on terror was a just war – the West’s response cannot be justified by just war theory. For retaliation is one thing, defence another ...
Ah. "Cynically", "controversial", "unwarrantedly", "so-called"; a neat collection of value laden terms that take us into familiar territory, the de-legitimation of all Western action since the Second World War. Rather than using theory to inform the debate about the specific virtues or iniquities of each individual case, the article uses it to make a blanket condemnation of all of them. And Just War Theory was developed as a tool to help us make difficult judgements about conflicts, not to avoid them.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

SAPs ...

...or structural adjustment progammes, familiar to many of the developing world's indebted nations and now coming to a European country near you. As Greece, a country dear to my heart, reels from the financial pages into headline news, its plight highlights the austerity policies now being advocated as a response to the recession. I am not an economist, but I teach history and we are currently discussing the economic crises of the 1930s. This makes me alarmed at the dominance of orthodox economic thinking, with its associated social costs, as the favoured response to continued financial market speculation. These are a few recent pieces worth reading:

Here is Larry Elliott, first on Greece and the European Union, and then on warnings about the future emanating from the Repubic of Ireland, "Ireland's suffering offers a glimpse of Britain's future under the Tories". Helena Smith reports on the mood in Greece itself. Whilst Joseph Stiglitz pleads for support. Finally, an English blogger living in Thessaloniki posts on poverty in Greece in the context of the crisis.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The forces of conservatism

The days are bleak, the mood is downcast. Cold winds are blowing from the North. Though it is not seasonal affective disorder, but the news emanating from the office of Peter Mandelson that is driving those of us involved with higher education to despair.

Some of my favourite blogs have captured the zeitgeist perfectly, though Paul Anderson takes it too far by being tempted to write semi-approvingly of the latest guff from cultist Frank Furedi. (I haven't read it, though I know the style - erect a giant straw man from the flimsiest of materials drawn from petty discontents and attack it in such a way as to make the prejudices of the Daily Mail seem reasonable to people who should know better.)

The mood is conservative and that is not surprising. Preserving our work from the destruction wreaked on it by neo-liberal radicals (and yes, Thatcherism in its old and new guises is radical) is in itself a leftist position. It may be defensive, but it is desperately trying to protect and conserve that which is under threat. I am with them all the way. Except...

There is something that leaves me uneasy about defending the status quo when I am critical of much of it. I am uncomfortable about our attempts to defend "vulnerable subjects such as music and history" in terms of transferable skills and employability. I would love to see a more aggressive stance against the cuts, which would pose an alternative vision of the university as something more socially open, egalitarian and with lifelong learning at its heart. I would like to feel that universities really do want to widen participation, to become part of their local communities and not to be diploma factories for middle class school-leavers.

For now, the barricades will have to be mounted to try and protect what we have and latter day Tony Blairs will be able to label us as "the forces of conservatism" as they grumble about the scars on their backs caused by our, no doubt failed, attempts to preserve some of the things we value. University adult education has already been decimated, we wait to see what will be next. A list of cuts that includes job losses, raised part-time fees, campus closures and reduced bursaries does not bode well. And here is the irony:
The policy adopted by the government is in stark contrast to the response in the US where President Obama this week proposed a 31% increase in education spending for next year in order to combat unemployment and develop skills.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

An artefact of no significance

A fragment of Hitler's carpet has been found in North Yorkshire (yes really). It will go on display at the Green Howards Regimental Museum in Richmond.

They don't say if there are any tooth marks.


Give the dog a bone

Or something more satisfying perhaps?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Just Fine

My Union, the UCU, in the wake of the continuing rows over a proposed academic boycott of Israel, have at least made a token effort at addressing the issue of anti-Semitism. It is worth reading Robert Fine's speech in full. This was particularly apt.
The struggle for justice for Palestinians and the struggle against antisemitism often seem worlds apart but this is not so. They belong to one another and draw from the same sources. As far as justice for Palestinians is concerned, the antisemitism question is not a red herring. It is a key to breaking out of the current impasse.
It should be easy to grasp, but I despair when I find the Palestinian cause being let down by people whose understanding is limited, whose historical knowledge negligible and propagandistic, and who comfortably elide from anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism. The Palestinians need better friends than that.

Via Jim D