Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On writing

I have been confined to the loft writing a paper/article. It has been a bit of a struggle and made me think about the process. Basically, it is weird. I used to think that Orwell's line was the best:
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
But now he has been surpassed by Robert De Niro at the Oscars.
The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.
Yes. Spot on Robert.

I would have left it at that if it hadn't been for a horrible piece of contemptuous arrogance by Hanif Kureishi. A professor of creative writing describing creative writing classes as a waste of time is a classic example of biting the hand that feeds you. It craved a robust response. And Tim Clare was robust indeed; and wise; and funny. Read it all, it is well worth your time. It is relevant to more than creative writing as well. It is a wonderful, touching post about education as a whole and one that everyone who teaches should read and digest. The money line is this:
So it may come as a surprise to learn that I agree with Mr Kureishi, insofar as a creative writing course probably is a waste of time, if your tutors have been picked on the basis of literary prestige and not on their ability – or willingness – to teach a fucking class.
Hat tipped towards Alan and George 

A discerning reader

Well, a reader anyway. At least there's one.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Smoke gets in your eyes

I am having some work done on my house. The builder's name is Joe. He has never heard of Joe the Esso Blue dealer. In fact, he has never heard of Esso Blue.

Of course, when he started out Joe was not the dealer.

But then, by the time he launched his recording career, he was.

I'm getting old, aren't I?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


It has been one hell of a week after a friend collapsed with a brain tumour. After rushing around, I am now catching up with reading and whilst scanning the papers two bits of news struck me. The first was the continuing problems at RBS and the Co-op Bank, with accompanying stories about the vast salaries and bonuses given to their senior managers, despite the mess. The second was the announcement of a pay freeze for health service staff. The conclusion is obvious.

This is about more than economic inequity, it is about the value structure of hierarchical societies. The health professionals, from paramedics in the ambulance to the surgeon who operated, were magnificent; empathetic as well as efficient. The care my friend has received cannot be faulted. But where do the rewards and the esteem go - to managers. Management does matter and good management does make a difference. So does bad management. The good ones ensure that people can do their jobs, the bad ones stop them. But, ultimately, what matters is the job and the people who do it. Yet the ideology of managerialism reduces them to chess pieces, to be manipulated at will. Their position is servile, but they are all we care about and without them lives can be lost. They are the ones we need.

Instead of judging people on the work they do, we reward them for where they stand in the hierarchy. And the skills needed to get to those positions are not the ones that save lives.

And a supplementary thought: The technology and pharmacology involved in saving someone's life is awesome. Those who promote 'alternative remedies' or ludicrous (and profitable) sales of sugar pills masquerading as drugs, all the while decrying conventional medicine, can kill.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Continuing crisis

The attention span of the British media is not long. The Crimean crisis rumbles on, but has slipped out of the headlines. But interesting things are being written for inexpert eyes like mine. The third of Timothy Snyder's pieces on Ukraine is here. This time he is focusing on Russian propaganda and makes two points. The first is to do with its role in the internal coherence of the regime. The second is about how it is not necessarily about changing minds, but setting the agenda for reportage. I thought this was perceptive:
Plenty of people in the West now spread Russian propaganda, sometimes for money, sometimes from ignorance, and sometimes for reasons best known to themselves. Those who repeat the Russian propaganda conceits do not need to convince everyone, only to set the terms of debate. If people in free societies have their discussions framed for them by rulers of unfree societies, then they will not notice the history unfolding around them (a revolution just happened in Europe!) or sense the urgency of formulating policy in a desperate situation (a European country has just invaded another!). Propaganda can serve this technical purpose no matter how absurd it is.
Snyder is keen to point out that this is a national revolution against an oppressive kleptocracy, not a nationalist coup against Russia, something that is backed up here. This site is well worth exploring for voices coming from inside the revolution.

Of course, the only way farcical propaganda like the stuff Russia is coming out with can begin to set an agenda is if there is something, however small, to point to as 'evidence'. In comments on the other posts, Snoopy points out that, though the Russian account is "bullshit", we should be cautious of the role of the far right and points to this report from David Stern, which is a fair summary of what his contacts are telling him. Stern points out that ambitious, minority far right parties are a European, not merely Ukrainian, phenomenon, not least in Russia. But the aftermath of a revolution may give them opportunities. He comments,
Their role in ousting the president and establishing a new Euromaidan-led government should not be exaggerated... nor should their involvement be played down, especially now they have assumed key ministerial posts. Euromaidan officials are not fascists, nor do fascists dominate the movement.Contrary to some claims, ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers are not being attacked or under threat of violence. And anti-Semitism has played absolutely no role in the demonstrations and government.
That said, Snyder may well be indulging in wishful thinking about the threat of the far right, particularly if we look towards events in Hungary. However, to characterise this as a fascist coup is the equivalent of equating all anti-austerity opinion in Greece with Golden Dawn. Stern is also realistic in pointing out that,
... even though the far right are a minority, for their numbers they have played an outsized, though not decisive, role.
Stern concludes,
Svoboda are not violent fascists and may change with time. But as Ukraine's crisis grows, and the far right helps patrol Kiev's streets in "self-defence units," they bear close watching. Very close.
Snyder's conclusion is concerned with the links between Russian propaganda and Russian authoritarianism and adventurism.
The costs of what Russia has done are very real, for Europe, for Ukraine, and for Russia itself. Russian propaganda has elegantly provided a rationale for Russian tactics and articulately defined a Russian dream for Ukraine. But in the end propaganda is all that unites the tactics and the dream, and that unity turns out to be wishful. There is no actual policy, no strategy, just a talented and tortured tyrant oscillating between mental worlds that are connected only by a tissue of lies. Putin faces a choice: use far more violence, in the hope that another surge will finally make the dream come true, or seek an exit in which he can claim some victory—which would be wise but deflating. He appears to feel the weight of this choice.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Proceeds of crime

1. Petty theft:

Aditya Chakrabortty on senior university management:
Forming before our eyes is a new breed of academic fat cat. Except that, with a handful of exceptions, these academics stopped teaching or researching decades ago and now bob about from campus to campus: cutting here, screwing things up there before moving on to the next debacle. 
...In good times, they justify mega-pay as the going rate for "talent". In bad times, they just take the cash.
Sounds vaguely familiar somehow.

2. Grand larceny

Ben Judah on Russian attitudes to the West:
Putin’s inner circle no longer fear the European establishment. They once imagined them all in MI6. Now they know better. They have seen firsthand how obsequious Western aristocrats and corporate tycoons suddenly turn when their billions come into play. They now view them as hypocrites—the same European elites who help them hide their fortunes.  
We are not talking big money. But very big money. None other than Putin’s Central Bank has estimated that two thirds of the $56 billion exiting Russia in 2012 might be traceable to illegal activities. Crimes like kickbacks, drug money or tax fraud. This is the money that posh English bankers are rolling out the red carpet for in London.
So bankers, the London property market and Chelsea Football Club are all receivers of stolen goods.

Welcome to the new kleptocracy.

Monday, March 03, 2014


Hours of malicious fun await.

Make your own gay Putin with Putin Gay Dress-Up

Support our fight against Russian anti-gay laws! On June 30 last year Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law an “anti-gay propaganda” bill, which made it illegal to engage in any behavior that could be considered “gay propaganda.” wants to make a playful stand against homosexual discrimination and legal actions taken under the regional anti-LGBT propaganda laws. And it is really happening! In St. Petersburg in particular, activists and performers, including international superstars like Madonna and Lady Gaga, have faced fines and legal proceedings for expressing support for the local LGBT community. One individual was arrested and fined in St. Petersburg for holding a sign supporting LGBT rights that sated simply “Gay is Normal.” Six LGBT activists were also detained in front of the State Children's Library in Moscow in July with another “Gay is Normal” banner. And at the end of July, four Dutch videographers filming a documentary on LGBT rights in Russia were briefly detained under the federal law, supposedly for interviewing LGBT youth, and then released and deported on a technicality.  
Unacceptable! If you agree, support our fight, dress-up your own gay Putin and share with the world!
Thanks to C-J

Ukraine: propaganda and reality

Two more articles on Ukraine that are worth your time. I cannot comment on the situation in general, not having the expertise. I liked both these articles because they told me I was right not to. But they deal with something that does interest me, how arguments are constructed and transmitted, often against empirical evidence. Both address the propaganda being bandied about at the moment and are by people who do have considerable expertise on Ukraine and its history.

Timothy Snyder, author of a well-recieved history of Ukraine in the Second World War, follows up an earlier article with this piece in the New York Review of Books. It is a passionate defence of the revolution against its presentation as a nationalist or fascist coup, as repeated in the western world by those like the unlovely combination of Lyndon LaRouche, Ron Paul and the Guardian.

Instead, he argues:
... it was a classic popular revolution. It began with an unmistakably reactionary regime. A leader sought to gather all power, political as well as financial, in his own hands. ... The country, Ukraine, was in effect an oligarchy, where much of the wealth was in the hands of people who could fit in one elevator. But even this sort of pluralism, the presence of more than one very rich person, was too much for the leader, Viktor Yanukovych. He wanted to be not only the president but the oligarch-in-chief. ... Tens of billions of dollars simply disappeared from the state budget.  
It is hard to have all of the power and all of the money at the same time, because power comes from the state, and the state has to have a budget. If a leader steals so much from the people that the state goes bankrupt, then his power is diminished. Yanukovych actually faced this problem last year. And so, despite everything, he became vulnerable, in a very curious way. He needed someone to finance the immediate debts of the Ukrainian state so that his regime would not fall along with it.
For Snyder, the uprisisng is a diverse popular struggle against kleptocracy.

The second, by Anton Shekhovtsov, is a more detailed rebuttal of another article. He links to a petition on by specialists on the Ukrainian far-right that makes for telling reading.
While we are critical of far right activities on the EuroMaidan, we are, nevertheless, disturbed by a dangerous tendency in too many international media reports dealing with the recent events in Ukraine. An increasing number of lay assessments of the Ukrainian protest movement, to one degree or another, misrepresents the role, salience and impact of Ukraine’s far right within the protest movement. Numerous reports allege that the pro-European movement is being infiltrated, driven or taken over by radically ethnocentrist groups of the lunatic fringe. Some presentations create the misleading impression that ultra-nationalist actors and ideas are at the core or helm of the Ukrainian protests. Graphic pictures, juicy quotes, sweeping comparisons and dark historical references are in high demand. They are combined with a disproportionate consideration of one particularly visible, yet politically minor segment within the confusing mosaic that is formed by the hundreds of thousands of protesters with their different motivations, backgrounds and aims.
Their conclusion has universal application,
...we call upon all those who have either no particular interest for, or no deeper knowledge of, Ukraine to not comment on this region’s complicated national questions without engaging in some in-depth research. ... Reporters who have the necessary time, energy and resources should visit Ukraine, or/and do some serious reading on the issues their articles address. Those who are unable to do so may want to turn their attention to other, more familiar, uncomplicated and less ambivalent topics. This should help to avoid, in the future, the unfortunately numerous clichés, factual errors, and misinformed opinion that often accompany discussions of events in Ukraine.
Reporters doing proper research? Whatever next.