Friday, April 29, 2011

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Jason Burke, whose book on Al-Qaeda is one that I would recommend, has sometimes been misread as minimising the threat of Jihadi Islamism.  In fact, what he has always emphasised is its danger. That danger is, paradoxically, the result of what he sees as its organisational weakness and ideological strength. He argues that Al-Qaeda as an idea has not built a conventional underground network, instead it has spread an ideology of terror that has attracted adherents capable of acting semi-independently, which makes it hard to detect and stop. So It was good to read this from him today.
The events of this spring have shown that Bin Laden and his cronies are definitively drifting to the geographic, political, cultural and ideological margins of the Islamic world. Their attempt to radicalise and mobilise hundreds of millions of people has failed. Crowds shouting slogans of democracy, not of violence, have succeeded in forcing the departure of two dictators and shaken several more. The Arab spring started with a public self-immolation, an act of spectacular violence which impressed because it harmed no other and was thus a clear repudiation of the suicide attacks of the last decade. The few statements from al-Qaida's leadership or affiliate groups have sounded tired and irrelevant.
Whilst in no way minimising the possibility of murderous mayhem emerging from the ideologically deranged, or of the continued threat of organised groups such as the Taliban, the decline of the attraction of Jihadi ideas is to be hugely welcomed. And this is the key point. The Arab spring marks a rejection of both the dominant narratives in the Middle East. A new generation has experienced nothing but corruption and oppression from all the variants of pan-Arab nationalism and now the minority, dissident Islamist narrative is seen as a bitter opponent of the liberties the people are desperate to experience. These revolutions represent the defeat of Islamism not its opportunity.

So why then the caution, why the 'we do not know who these people are' cliché, why do we give credence to the desperate claims of tyrants that they are the ones holding back the forces of terror? Every day we are seeing people displaying the most extraordinary courage to try and win ordinary, democratic freedoms. This is democracy's moment in the Middle East and we should be supporting it by whatever means possible.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Useless idiots

It has been often noted that one of the consolations of religion is the pleasure it affords in the contemplation of the eternal torments of the non-believer. As an atheist, I do not have that to fall back on. Instead I have Greece. From here I can post items about glorious weather and the beauties of nature, hoping to annoy everyone I know back in the urban drizzle of England. Except that from Saturday onwards, as England basked in glorious sunshine, a cold wind has brought torrential rain and has covered the mountains in snow. This has not put me in a good mood.

My irritation increased when I saw the prominence given to this group in the Guardian. I don't know where they come from these 'useful idiots', the dupes who crawl in obeisance to every grotesque tyranny, who take their 'fact-finding' tours with sanctimonious seriousness and make solemn pronouncements that they 'have seen the future and it works', whilst blocking their ears to the screams emanating from the people. They have no need to take pleasure in the torments of the afterlife when they can perceive those inflicted on the living as both exaggerated and understandable.

However grotesque and murderous a regime, however obvious its attempt to create an hereditary kleptocracy, it will always find its apologists and they will invariably dignify their language by describing themselves as campaigners for 'peace'. The peace they advocate is one where a regime can systematically rob, torture and murder its own people unmolested and out of sight. They make the categorical error that Solzhenitsyn described brilliantly in his essay Peace and Violence,
The 'peace-war' opposition embodies a logical fault. The whole of the thesis is opposed to only a part of the anti-thesis. War is a mass phenomenon - concentrated, clamorous and clear-cut, but it is by no means the only expression of unceasing world-wide violence. The logically balanced and genuine moral opposites are peace-violence.
And the worst is often "systematic state violence" against its own people. And so,
Peace will then be served not by those who count upon the good nature of the men of violence, but by those who are incorruptible, unbending and tireless in their insistence on the rights of the persecuted, the oppressed and the murdered.
These people are no peace activists and they are not just apologists, they are warriors. They are part the battle of language, partisans fighting for the Gaddafi regime with the weapon of words, something that Syrian protesters have pointed out is a key element of any struggle.
The more killings and brutality there is in the street, the more the lies and misleading information. It’s like they are interconnected in a way. Kill, then lie to justify the killing, then lie again to set the stage for more killing.
Mind you, despite being undermined by the farcical blindness of their own propaganda, the cautious hesitancy and the bureaucratic legalism of the UN mission might just do this group's job for them.

Ah well, at least the sun shone briefly this morning until the clouds gathered once more, threatening rain.

Friday, April 15, 2011


With all the focus on the Middle East, the continuing economic crisis in the Eurozone has taken a back seat, but the recession is still taking its toll. Now the women of Greece are rising up, which is apparently more than their men are.
More and more of my female friends increasingly complain about the deceasing performance of their husbands and boy friends. These women, whether married, in relationship or singles, they all unanimously blame the economic crisis and the austerity measures for the poor libido performances.
The solution? Sue the IMF and various assorted politicians for the "physical and emotional stress" of "limitations on activity". And they should beware. As far as politics and sex are concerned, Greek women have form.

The serious point is that as the Arab peoples risk all for political freedom and the sort of life we take for granted, there is another struggle going on. This may be more about subsistence and security in prosperous societies, rather than the desperate courage being shown to bring down regimes built on systematic torture and murder, but it is none the less significant - a challenge to the economic consensus that should be the counterpart of the fight for political liberty.

In the meantime, there seems to be a problem with the celebrated Greek male machismo. You have to worry that the economic crisis isn't making them a little bit, well, English.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


I say this to everyone who turns their nose up at my favourite €2 for 1.5 litre bottle of Retsina. You can't tell the difference.
Wine costing less than £5 a bottle can have the same effect on the palate as those priced up to six times as much, a psychological taste challenge suggests.
People might just be able pick out the home made stuff in an old plastic Fanta bottle that I bought for very little in Argalasti market one day, I will give you that. But for anything else you need a real expert.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Greek philosophy

“We must go from this life saturated with fun, sex and food”.
Eleonora Meleti, a Greek TV entertainer.
Treading in the footsteps of Epicurus.


Saturday, April 09, 2011

Looking backwards

It appears that Madeleine Bunting wishes to emotionally bond with Ed Milliband, something that gives me a brief pang of sympathy for the man. However, I could see where she was coming from when she wrote,
But there was – and is – another account of betrayal in which a liberal elite, smugly superior in their metropolitan progressivism, championed globalisation and sold ordinary working people down the river.
Although she skates perilously on the thin ice of a patronising view of the now mythologised white working class, she does see the landscape of insecurity and exploitation on the horizon before crashing through the surface into the freezing waters of 'Blue Labour', to my mind a weird combination of William Cobbett, G K Chesterton and Catholic guilt. This mélange of collectivism and social conservatism is the latest 'big thing' and has depressingly attracted the main spokesman for the social democratic left, John Cruddas. As for Bunting and her key theme? It’s nostalgia.
What does a politics of nostalgia amount to? Cruddas, again, offers pointers: "People yearn for respect, belonging, identity, tradition. They yearn to fight against their insecurity." Jonathan Rutherford talks of a "conservative socialism". What they look back to are strands of early Labour thinking that shared much with Toryism – Romantic, popular, rooted in working-class experience of dispossession and English. But these strands fell by the wayside, marginalised by both liberalism, technocratic statism and internationalism.
Yikes, there is a lot of contradictory stuff packed in there but rather than try and untangle it, I want to explain why I think that nostalgia makes for lousy politics.

1. Nostalgia is not history; it is not even memory. It is a fiction, an invented past. And it is a confection created in the image of a present ideology. A politics rooted in make-believe is hardly convincing.

2. Nostalgia can be totalitarian. The imposition of a fabricated past can be more oppressive than the attempt to create a futurist utopia. Al Qaeda is a perfect example – hey guys, we had so much fun back in the seventh century.

3. It matters what you are nostalgic for: loon pants, Doris Day, the Third Reich? One person’s nostalgia is another’s nausea.

4. We are all nostalgics. We all look back on better times, at least we do when we reach a certain age. We long for our lost youth; and they were better times – we had energy, libido and hair. The trouble is that our personal nostalgia is rooted in our particular era. A politics that offers us eternal youth in a time of our choosing is hardly practical.

5. The reason many things have changed is because they were crap. It is called progress because it is, er, progress.

6. The beneficiaries of change are hardly likely to opt for nostalgia. Oops, there goes the women’s vote.

7. Nostalgia tends towards either an acceptance or a minimisation of conflicts, injustices, hierarchies and oppression; not because they are right, but because they took place in a mythical past that can now be presented to us as something inherently superior to the present.

Instead of nostalgia we need to grasp its opposites. These aren’t futurism and modernism; the opposites of nostalgia are history and experience, both of which require judgement and analysis, not a cosy warm glow. These certainly have an emotional resonance – their own celebrations in custom and music, their own literature - but don’t mistake that emotional attachment with the morass of Chestertonian nostalgia. It is sharp, analytical and angry. And, above all, it is real.

This then points to two things in Bunting’s article that are worth exploring, resistance to change and security.

Resistance to change is important, it can defend what we value, but it is always selective. It is an old cliché that people don’t like change. Human beings are actually very good at accepting change that benefits them and rejecting it when it does harm. Many working class struggles against change were not against 'progress' per se, they were fought against innovations aimed at breaking their power or reducing their standards of living in order to benefit others. Handloom weavers did not fight to preserve the picturesque, they wanted to keep their independence and income and in losing they were plunged into the wage slavery of the factories. So a politics of resistance to change is one that has to be based on a sharp analysis of competing interests and has to ally itself to reform, change for the better, as well. Many of the great political struggles of our times have been for change - civil and political rights, female emancipation for example - not against it.

Her identification of the problem of insecurity is also interesting. However, Bunting seems to be talking about it in terms of anomie, whereas to me, security is not predominantly a social or cultural concept, it is economic. Health care, housing, welfare, education, good pensions – all eminently affordable in rich societies – are what create security. And economic security does not necessarily reinforce conventional values; it gives us freedom. With security we lose the fears that keep us subservient and beholden to others, we can choose the ways we wish to live. Anyway, it is no place of a political party to lecture us about our private lives and besides, any political initiative trying to promote a particular way of life is doomed to failure. Remember 'Back to Basics'?

I can’t help feeling that this whole malarkey is a way of avoiding hard analysis in favour of an undifferentiated conservatism. Change is not a single thing; it is contradictory and deeply embedded in the everyday conflicts of our lives. It is based on the real interests of real people and they may not be identical. Once you accept that, nostalgia, rather than being a basis for a revival of the left, instead becomes a soggy ideological blanket that smothers the important political choices that we should be making right now.

Hat tip Steve

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Marketing degrees

It appears that the government is floundering as its policy of allowing flexible university fees up to £9,000 is not leading to a competitive market, but to a cartel. Most are going for the maximum amount and threatening to bust the budget for the payment of up-front fees.

With an inelastic demand currently exceeding supply, this would be likely. But there is more to it than that. A university education is being marketed as an economic asset and price is not just a measure of demand, but one of quality and status. A lower fee is a symbol of low status. If you are going to dress to impress would you wear Armani or Asda?

Once again we see the contradictions inherent in seeing universities as diploma factories for the purpose of individual gain for a minority of young people. And the big losers are things like adult education, incapable of sustaining higher fees, and those who want a more open, egalitarian university system, addressing a whole range of new markets rooted in access and social equity. This unseemly scramble for maximum income is at the expense of diversity and imagination. Sadly, the dreamers have been defeated - for now.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Pelion spring

Spring is the best season in Greece. There is a little chill in the breeze, but the sun is warm. Evenings are cool and the weather can be changeable, though when the sun is out everything comes to life, insects, goats, birds and chainsaws.

There is nothing timid about spring here, it doesn't leave dusty, half open buds lingering around, waiting for the occasional bout of snow and frost to pass. It goes for it with vigour; all the trees rush into leaf and blossom at slightly different times, as if each is waiting its turn so as not to overload the senses.

Everyone's mood is lifted, all is a brilliant green and the light is clear. Soon the nightingales will arrive filling the cool air with song to set against the barking of the dogs as one person walking past a house sets off a chain reaction, echoing round the hills.

Peace and quiet? Whoever thought the countryside is quiet. Certainly not on a perfect day in the Greek spring.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Friday, April 01, 2011

The cruellest month

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Which just goes to show that T S Eliot was, at heart, a miserable bugger.

April is here, with light and promise and ... er ... cool grey skies. Never mind, on Sunday I will be off to Greece again for a month, yet another sign of the privileged existence of someone with an occupational pension and a part-time job.

For the first time in ages I will be sorry to miss watching Swinton Rugby League Club as us Lions fans have the culture shock of a winning team playing dazzling rugby. Last week's 68-24 win away at Oldham was a treat. And there is spring in the air for Widnes as well, as the Rugby League has announced that they will be promoted to Super League at the end of this season. They might even promote Halifax too. It has yet to be decided where the chill wind of relegation will settle. Sports fans may note that this is a rather odd decision to announce at the very beginning of the season, before we know who has won or lost, but this is Rugby League after all and the game has always shown a certain administrative flair.

And as my thoughts turn to Greece with the news there of continuing strikes, small acts of terrorism and economic gloom, I am reminded of our own problems, vastly overshadowed by the events in the Middle East. The extraordinary rebirth of treasury orthodoxy has been joined by structural adjustment in the Eurozone with predictable consequences. But I shall sit in the warm sun with cheap wine amidst blossom and wild flowers and be grateful for the accident of my birth, a baby boomer, the generation that had it better than most.

Hopes and dreams

I suppose crass Second World War analogies have a new lease of life as Libya produces its very own Rudolph Hess. One can only hope that this time it really does presage the collapse of the regime. Elsewhere, there is greater uncertainty. The courage shown by those confronting the Syrian regime is breathtaking, born of the same hunger for change and liberty, with no sign of the regime cracking under the pressure. This is from a new web site that should be essential reading.

Like all his fellow dictators, the Syrian president speaks to his public as if addressing children. So Assad does not talk sense or logic. Instead he discusses reform priorities and gives the example of bread and freedom to convince us that food is more important than liberty and to tell us that he won’t lift the emergency law.

He neglects to recognise that the regime stole people’s food through instituting the emergency law. The absence of freedom legitimised and helped the robbery. If Assad had to chose between a daily luxury meal in prison – the Saidnaya military prison, for instance – and regular food in liberty, what would he chose? But his regime does not give us a choice. It steals the people’s food and keeps them in a big jail at the same time.

We only hope that Assad’s speech is not the opening shot in a series of large-scale massacres and arrests, because that seems to be the subtext of his message.