Just like they said they would

There’s a point in some political arguments where opposition turns into personal antagonism, which itself is liable to turn into smouldering, resentful bitterness – normally I wouldn’t think anything of it, but seeing that he’s one of those people…. We’re lucky in this country – as compared with, say, the USA – that it’s very rare for people to view other people’s political allegiances as this kind of personal threat or affront. I’ve had Tory friends, and while I’m quite sure they thought I had idiotic and dangerous ideas, I never had any sense that they thought I was a dangerous idiot. (Is there an inverse correlation between levels of political activism and the tendency to take politics personally?)

There are exceptions, of course. The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was one; Ireland has often been another. I remember one day in 1988 when the office where I worked ground to a halt for a morning while we debated the ‘Death on the Rock’ shootings in Gibraltar – and Michael Stone’s attack on the victims’ funeral in Milltown cemetery. Everyone had an opinion – and a strong one, which coloured their view of anyone who disagreed. Not that many people did. The view with regard to Gibraltar was that the SAS commando were reacting on the spur of the moment to an imminent threat, and had no choice but to act as they did; I was in a minority of two in dissenting from this. The view with regard to Milltown, on the other hand, was that there were all kinds of murderous headcases on both sides, and Michael Stone might well have been working for the IRA to gain them public sympathy by making them look like victims. I was in a minority of two on this one as well, although I had a different fellow-dissenter this time. Things were a bit tense in that office for the next few days.

But not as tense as they must have been in a lot of other workplaces, a short hop from Holyhead. My other memory of 1988 is the New Statesman column which reprinted a poem in praise of Stone that was circulating in Loyalist areas of Northern Ireland – a broadsheet, really. It consisted mainly of a list of the various Sinn Fein worthies who were at the cemetery, each of them described as panicking, running away, soiling his pants and so forth as the noble Stone took them on. (A completely fanciful description, incidentally – Martin McGuinness for one reacted by heading towards Stone, showing what can only be called courage under fire.) The poem ended by apostrophising Stone:

Your brave deed today
Against Sinn Fein/IRA
Put you top of the heap – BOY YOU’RE GREAT!

Michael Stone was a folk hero in certain circles – a symbol of intransigent opposition to the ‘Shinners’. And this despite the fact that this symbol had not only attempted to murder McGuinness and Gerry Adams while they attended a funeral, but succeeded in killing three other mourners.

Eighteen years on, Stone is clearly a troubled man:

“Michael had become obsessed with the idea that the IRA were going to shoot him with the gun they captured from him [at Milltown] before any peace deal was finally concluded. That is why he turned against the Good Friday agreement after initially supporting it. He was totally paranoid and receiving treatment.”

“He saw a deal between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein coming, and he believes there will not be a deal until he is dead. He has been trying to get put in jail for about the past nine months.”

There are two bitter ironies here. On one hand, Stone’s current state of mind isn’t a million miles from a rational response to his particular situation; if he is paranoid, he’s got more than most to be paranoid about. On the other, his current condition isn’t so far removed from a state of mind which – as that poem suggests – many people over many years have been quite happy to condone, even celebrate. Quoting from the same piece in the Times:

He wrote a book and launched a career as an artist, mainly based on his notoriety. The signature on the back of paintings was the print of his right index finger, which he told buyers was “Michael Stone’s trigger finger”.

It’s no problem, you can’t have it

Robert Skidelsky, author in 1975 of a rather nasty biography of Oswald Mosley (on which I’ve commented before & will do again), is going strong as a cross-bench peer and occasional newspaper commentator. Witness this piece in last Friday’s Indie:

The elements of a “whole Middle East” peace settlement are easy to see, though they will be hard to achieve. These elements include: a federal Iraq, with an agreed formula for sharing out the country’s oil resources between the three main provinces; a fully-independent Palestinian state roughly within the 1967 borders, with an internationally-patrolled demilitarised zone along Israel’s borders; a phased withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East in return for a guarantee of an uninterrupted oil supply; a nuclear free zone, without which Iran will never give up its nuclear ambitions (but Israel will have to give up its bomb as well); finally, a reactivation of the suspended customs union between Israel and Palestine, with a phased extension to Jordan and the Lebanon, and with a “Marshall Aid”-style programme to get it started, as happened in Europe in 1948.

Such ideas may seem crazily unrealistic. But sometimes crazy ideas are the only realistic ones: it is the cautious people who are the real crazies.

There’s a false opposition in that last sentence, or rather a dishonest and wishful conflation of two separate oppositions. I’m reminded of something Terry Eagleton wrote in the current LRB:

the fixed is not necessarily to be regretted, or the fluid to be celebrated. Capitalism is endlessly fluid, whereas the demand that the Israelis stop mistreating the Palestinians should be unwavering. The belief that the malleable is always preferable to the immovable is a postmodern cliché. There is a good deal about human history which ought not to alter (educating our children, for example), and quite a lot of change which is deeply undesirable. Change and permanence are not related to each other as radicalism is to conservatism.

The opposition between change and continuity is not the same thing as the opposition between the cause of righting injustices and the cause of preserving them – and it doesn’t do anyone any favours to pretend that it is the same thing, unless there’s anyone whose interests are served by confusion. Similarly, the opposition between radicalism and caution is not the same thing as the opposition between what can realistically be achieved and what can’t. Boldness of vision may be a political virtue (the Skidelsky who worshipped at the shrine of Mosley certainly thought it was) but boldness alone doesn’t overrule reality. On the contrary, the truly bold vision is the one which identifies a real opportunity for change and formulates it in way that makes it realisable. The true critique of political caution, in some historical conditions, is precisely that it isn’t adequate to reality.

But those conditions can’t be conjured by an act of philosophical will – or by the exercise of imperial force. Under current conditions, Skidelsky’s ‘crazily unrealistic’ ideas suggest nothing so much as a longing for somebody – or a lot of uniformed somebodies – to get stuck in and cut the knot of rebarbative reality. But the point is not to erase our starting conditions but to work within them. Debord had it right, again: “A critique seeking to go beyond the spectacle must know how to wait.”

Never be your woman

Will:

Yesterday I was giving a talk on the egocentricity of the digital revolution … and afterwards stood around chatting to some media lecturers, all seemingly left wing intellectuals. They were dolefully discussing how their students showed no interest in criticising brainless, celebrity-obsessed and pornographic magazines, deeming it to be purely a matter of choice what one reads, and whether a woman chooses to be photographed naked. One of these academics said that it is only around five years since every class contained at least one out-spoken feminist, but that these have either disappeared, or been silenced by a new majoritarian view that it is arrogant/pretentious to take up political positions in such a way.

Five years. The Blair government has coincided with an important generational-cultural shift, just as the Wilson government did 30 years earlier. If racism and sexism started to become unacceptable in the late 60s, thanks to a post-war generation that refused to accept them, then perhaps the defence of rights started to become unacceptable in the late 90s thanks to a post-Thatcher generation that refuses to accept it, on the basis that political rights arrogantly trump consumer rights.

Today the newspapers report that sexual harassment of teachers and pupils in schools is widespread, and that girls are starting to accept sexist language as the norm … Have I simply dragged some value set from the distant past, which I want to see imposed upon this new social avant garde? My sense of frustration about this is doubtless no more morally sincere or keenly felt than that of the 60s conservatives, who despaired at what the kids were doing then. In each case, a moral gulf opens up, and politics struggles in vain to bridge it.

If history really is repeating itself, expect to see a ‘conservative’ backlash, whereby those born between 45-79 seize power and attempt to force some traditional values on the youth (more or less what we’re already seeing, even from Ken Livingstone), followed by a bright new political dawn around 2020, in which a young fresh-faced child of Thatcher marches down Downing Street in a hoodie, swigging from an alco-pop, and announcing in faux-cockney tones that he’s a pretty straight guy who used to be into 50 Cent.

The horror, the horror.

I don’t know about the last paragraph – I just kept it in because it’s funny. The part about sexism is interesting, though. Here’s a comment I posted on Will’s blog:

I am not a Hegelian… oh all right then, I’m a recovering Hegelian… but I think there’s more historical cunning at work than your academic friends allow. As little as thirty years ago, it was widely assumed that women’s only roles were to be decorative and look after children; women who ‘made it in a man’s world’ were freakish oddities. (When Thatcher became leader of the Tory Party, a popular slogan on the left was ‘Ditch the Bitch’. Right on, brother.) If seventies feminists did a lot of shouting, they had a lot to shout about.

So it’s true on one level that magazines like Nuts and FHM take us back forty years, to the days of Titbits and Reveille – and it’s true that pornographic imagery is degrading, oppressively so when it’s ubiquitous. But it’s also true that some of the core feminist arguments have been won, or at least conceded. The very language in which these students defend those magazines reflects the radical liberalism of mainstream feminism, or of the mainstreaming of feminism: why shouldn’t a woman be a doctor/bus-driver/MP/astronaut? why shouldn’t a woman go where she likes and wear what she likes? why shouldn’t a woman take her clothes off for the cameras if she wants to?

Feminism also meant a much harder set of arguments, having to do with dignity rather than freedom of action. These are questions of what’s good for women as women – and, more importantly, who gets to decide. I’d say that the problem on this front isn’t that the gains of women’s liberation have been rolled back, so much as that they were never really made. “Women shouldn’t have to look sexy all the time” is a fine liberal argument – it’s a subset of the belief that nobody should have to do anything. “Women shouldn’t be expected to look sexy” is another matter, and finds a lot of liberals on the other side of the fence – after all, why shouldn’t people have expectations of one another, and why shouldn’t people sometimes choose to comply with other people’s expectations?

It’s an argument which was never really won – and, I would argue, it’s come back to bite us in the shape of the hijab debate. Twice over, in fact: advocates of hijab play a distorted and sexist version of the dignity argument (“why should a woman be expected to put herself on display?”) while advocates of other people’s right to wear hijab play a version of liberalism that seems equally distorted by sexism (“why shouldn’t a woman have the right to shield herself from prying eyes?”).

So I think you can add to your list of prophecies that feminism will be back, but it won’t be so liberal next time. And it’ll probably be wearing a pinafore dress over jeans. (Why do people do that? Women mainly.)


While I’m in philosophical mode, a swift plug for Clive‘s dissection of Blair’s weird and sinister maunderings on the ‘social contract’, which he seems to want to replace with… well, an actual contract (only this time round they would impose it on us, not the other way round). I rarely succeed in getting through Blair’s statements, what with being overcome by outrage, panic or sheer pedantic irritation (no, look, it doesn’t mean that). Fortunately Clive is made of sterner stuff.


Q: Why is the Italian government letting convicted fraudsters out of prison?
A: It’s all because of the Christian Democrats.
Q: But the Christian Democrats ceased to exist over a decade ago, didn’t they?
A: Indeed they did, my knowledgeable questioner. But they’re still making the political weather.
Q: Oh. What’s that about then?
A: Read “Open up the nicks“, new from me at the Sharpener. The second in a six-monthly series of commentaries on Italian politics. Possibly more interesting than it sounds. (I can’t really tell – I mean, it sounds pretty interesting to me…)

They don’t know about us

Some dystopian thoughts on data harvesting, usage tracking, recommendation engines and consumer self-expression. First, here’s Tom, then me:

“This is going to be one of the great benefits of ambient/pervasive computing or everyware – not the tracking of objects but the tracking and collating of you yourself through objects.”

This sentence works just as well with the word ‘benefits’ replaced by ‘threats’. It all depends who gets to do the tracking and collating, I suppose.

Now here’s Max Levchin, formerly of Paypal, and his new toy Slide (via Thomas):

If Slide is at all familiar, it’s as a knockoff of Flickr, the photo-sharing site. Users upload photos, which are displayed on a running ticker or Slide Show, and subscribe to one another’s feeds. But photos are just a way to get Slide users communicating, establishing relationships, Levchin explains.

The site is beginning to introduce new content into Slide Shows. It culls news feeds from around the Web and gathers real-time information from, say, eBay auctions or Match.com profiles. It drops all of this information onto user desktops and then watches to see how they react.

Suppose, for example, there’s a user named YankeeDave who sees a Treo 750 scroll by in his Slide Show. He gives it a thumbs-up and forwards it to his buddy” we’ll call him Smooth-P. Slide learns from this that both YankeeDave and Smooth-P have an interest in a smartphone and begins delivering competing prices. If YankeeDave buys the item, Slide displays headlines on Treo tips or photos of a leather case. If Smooth-P gives a thumbs-down, Slide gains another valuable piece of data. (Maybe Smooth-P is a BlackBerry guy.) Slide has also established a relationship between YankeeDave and Smooth-P and can begin comparing their ratings, traffic patterns, clicks and networks.

Based on all that information, Slide gains an understanding of people who share a taste for Treos, TAG Heuer watches and BMWs. Next, those users might see a Dyson vacuum, a pair of Forzieri wingtips or a single woman with a six-figure income living within a ten-mile radius. In fact, that’s where Levchin thinks the first real opportunity lies – hooking up users with like-minded people. “I started out with this idea of finding shoes for my girlfriend and hotties on HotOrNot for me,” Levchin says with a wry smile. “It’s easy to shift from recommending shoes to humans.”

If this all sounds vaguely creepy, Levchin is careful to say he’s rolling out features slowly and will only go as far as his users will allow. But he sees what many others claim to see: Most consumers seem perfectly willing to trade preference data for insight. “What’s fueling this is the desire for self-expression,” he says.

Nick:

I’m not sure that I see, in today’s self-portraits on MySpace or YouTube or Flickr, or in the fetishistic collecting of virtual tokens of attention, the desire to mark one’s place in a professional or social stratum. What they seem to express, more than anything, is a desire to turn oneself into a product, a commodity to be consumed. And since, as I wrote earlier, “self-commoditization is in the end indistinguishable from self-consumption,” the new portraiture seems at its core narcissistic. The portraits are advertisements for a commoditized self

Granny Weatherwax:

“And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is. … People as things, that’s where it starts.”

More precisely, that’s where some extraordinarily unequal and dishonest social relationships can start.

Remembering Judy Garland [1]

From the memoirs of Sir Frederick William Jefferson Bodine.

I’ll never forget Judy Garland. So few artistes have the compassion that she so often showed. That poor man, I remember she said to me once – he’s been cleaning all those windows and now he’s leaning on a lamp post at the corner of the street, doesn’t he ever get to sit down? She actually sought out George Formby and sent him a note, with a signed photograph and a rather nice armchair. I don’t know what became of it, though, I never actually worked with George.

Our paths did cross once, now I think of it, over a matter of pastiche and travesty rights. Remember young Alfie Gainsborough? Much the finest ex-Services George Formby impressionist of his day, on the Wirral circuit at least. To begin with he didn’t have the clothes for the part, you see, and after a time we made a feature of it – we got him billed as ‘Khaki’ Gainsborough. Worked like a charm – they loved him in Heswall, I can tell you. (Well, they clapped.)

Anyway, Alfie lugged his ukulele up and down the A540 for a couple of years, but after a while he decided to look further afield. So we relaunched him in France. He had to make a few changes, obviously: the uke had to go, for a start. The songs got a lot slower, and of course their lyrics had to be translated into French, pretty much in their entirety. Even then, they didn’t really take to him. Eventually I realised the name was giving us problems: we’d changed everything else, but Alfie was still going out with an English name. So out went ‘Khaki’ Gainsborough and in came ‘Serge’ Gainsbourg.

The rest of course is history: where Heswall led, the Left Bank could only follow. As time went by Alfie had more and more difficulties adapting the old George Formby material; he often told me he was working on a new version of ‘the window song’, but nothing ever came of it. That said, one of Alfie’s biggest hits was adapted from an old Formby number, albeit one that George’s people would never let him release – it was called “When I’m Between Your Kidneys”. Racy little number, as I recall.

That was with the Birkin girl, of course. Lovely girl – daughter of a judge, I believe. She’d known Alfie back home, you see, and quite by chance she ran into him in Paris one day. She was quite taken aback by his appearance, apparently, and she blurted out, “Qu’est-ce que c’est donc de quoi il s’agit dans l’ensemble, Alfie?” She was concerned that he’d become a little too French, you see; she wanted him to lose the strings of onions, you know, and the stripey jumper, and the red wine and the Gauloises and the womanising. I suppose one out of five isn’t too bad.

Marvellous career, he had, Alfie – influential in all sorts of ways. Take young Whitney Houston – she’d never have had that big hit of hers if not for Alfie. She actually jotted down the first draft straight after their meeting; it was originally called “I Will Always Love You (If You’ll Get This Ghastly Frenchman Out Of My Face)”. But do you know, ‘the window song’ evaded Alfie to the last. In the end he handed it over to an old Forces friend who’d also set up on the Continent – Jack ‘Clanger’ Bell (or ‘Clanger’ Brel as he preferred to be known by that time). Old Clanger turned it round in no time:

Les oiseaux noirs du désespoir
Ne chantent pas seulement pour toi -
Ils chantent doucement pour moi,
Quand je lave les fenêtres!

“The black birds of despair sing sweetly for me, when I’m cleaning windows” – rather nice in its way. They wouldn’t have it in Hoylake, mind you. Funny thing, years later little Dirk McCartney got hold of that song and tried to translate it back into English. Missed the whole point, though – lost the windows for one thing. No professionalism, these youngsters.

Just the power to charm

Dave:

In a post yesterday, I pointed out that Tony Blair – currently in Pakistan to meet president Pervez Musharraf – at least did not feel the need to salute the military dictator’s ‘courage, strength and indefatigability’, as George Galloway famously did on meeting Saddam Hussein.

But I’ve just heard the World at One on Radio Four. There was Blair, praising Musharraf’s ‘courage and his leadership in taking Pakistan on this journey of change and modernisation’.

Modernisation, eh? This touches on something Chris wrote recently:

[the] invocation of modernity is one of Blair’s common rhetorical tropes … Managerialists like Blair don’t like the language of value judgment and choices. So they try to pass these off as things that are inevitable, modern. David Marquand has said that this is the “myth” of New Labour:
There is one modern condition, which all rational people would embrace if they knew what it was. The Blairites do know. It is on that knowledge that their project is based, and by it that their claim to power is validated.

One more quote, this one from myself back in 1997:

Perhaps the strongest theme in the repertoire of New Labour – certainly the most inspirational – is that one word: New. Curiously, among the true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. (This combination of ideas also enables the party’s ideologues to claim that Labour’s policies had to change because they were ‘old’: a deeply dishonest presentation of a transformation which was entirely political, and by no means inevitable.)

Like David Marquand, I think there’s more going on here than ‘managerialism’. ‘Modern’, in its New Labour usage, reminds me strongly of the old Communist term ‘progressive’. Both terms have an emptily circular quality – the leaders of New Labour (or the CP) call for commitment to the progressive cause (or modern values), but the only way to find out if a specific policy is modern (or progressive) is to ask if it’s supported by the leadership of the Party (or the Party leadership). At the same time, however, progress (or modernity) is seen as a real political value, rousing genuine commitment – even fervour – in Party loyalists. To be modern, as Marquand suggests, is to be cutting with the grain of history. Things are changing, in ways nobody can resist; great forces of historical change are working their purpose out in the world. (The pseudo-religious language is deliberate; Christopher Hill suggested in The world turned upside down that one way to understand the Puritanical sense of being part of a blessed revolutionary elect may be to think of the Marxist sense of working for the forces of historical progress. And, perhaps, vice versa.) ‘Modernisation’ (or ‘progress’) is both a world-historical force and a tangible fact; the only question is whether we are going to let ourselves be crushed by the steamroller or climb aboard – and, posed in those terms, the question answers itself.

But the emptiness of the concept remains. In 2006 as in 1997, for Blair to describe something as ‘modern’ means nothing more specific than that he supports it and anyone who opposes it is deluded. The positive content of ‘modernity’, in other words, is all in the type of commitment it evokes; the term itself is purely rhetorical, and can be applied to any policy, any regime, any change, any resistance to change. What interests me about Blair’s invocations of ‘modernity’, in other words, is not the indiscriminateness with which he sprays them around, but the reverse. If we could track the specific ideas, things and people Blair has identified as ‘modern’ over the years, I suspect it would give us a pretty good picture of how Blair’s thinking has evolved – and of which specific all-powerful historical forces have populated his personal cosmology at different times. In 1997 ‘modernity’ had something to do with Thatcherism; now, apparently, it has something to do with Pervez Musharraf.

Mistakes were made

The incomparable Emma Brockes has turned music critic:

The orchestral arrangements for [the ballet] Chroma were commissioned last year by Richard Russell, head of the XL record label, as a gift to the White Stripes’ Jack and Meg White. Three of their songs, The Hardest Button To Button, Aluminium and Blue Orchid, were re-arranged by Joby Talbot of Joy Division

I’ve commented before now on my admiration for Joby Talbot; he’s a bright lad. But he was never a member of Joy Division – not least because the band ceased to exist when he was nine years old. A howler like that could be quite embarrassing for Ms Brockes (and her editors). It’s just as well nobody’s likely to read this stuff. It’s only a ballet review, after all.

On the front page. Of the Saturday edition.

Everything new is old again

Printed in iSeries NEWS UK, February 2006

Everybody’s talking about Web 2.0! Web 2.0 offers a whole new way of looking at the Web, a whole new way of developing applications and a whole new way of making enough money to retire on for some irritating bunch of American students who dream up applications you can’t see the point of anyway! Web 2.0 is different because it’s a whole new departure from the old ways of doing things – and what makes it new is that it’s so different.

Web 2.0 breaks all the rules. The rigid document-based format of HTML became a universal computing standard in the early days of the Internet, some time around Web 0.9 [Can we check this? - Ed]. Web 2.0 emerged when a few pioneering developers broke with this orthodoxy, insisting that a page-based document markup language like HTML was better adapted to marking up page-based documents than to running high-volume transaction processing systems. With the industry still reeling from the shockwaves of this revelation, an alternative approach was unveiled. The key Web 2.0 methodology of AJAX – Asynchronous Javascript And XML – breaks the dominance of the HTML page. Now, applications can be built using pages which are dynamically reshaped, driven by back-end databases and the program logic defined by developers. Screen input fields can even be highlighted or prompted individually, without needing to refresh the entire screen! It’s this kind of innovation that makes Web 2.0 so different.

What’s more, it’s new. Web 2.0 is not in any way old – it’s not even similar to anything old! Some people have compared the excitement about Web 2.0 with the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. It’s true that Web 2.0 is likely to involve the proliferation of new companies which you’ve never heard of, and most of which you’ll never hear of again. However, there are three significant differences. The typical dotcom company raised big money from investors, spent it, then got bought out for small change by an established business. By contrast, the typical Web 2.0 company raises small change from investors, spends it, then gets bought out for big money by an established dotcom business. Secondly, dotcoms usually had a speculative long-term business case and a meaningless name interspersed with capital letters; they also used buzzwords beginning with a lower-case e. By contrast, Web 2.0 companies generally have a speculative short-term business case and a meaningless name interspersed with extraneous punctuation marks; also, their buzzwords tend to begin with a lower-case i. Finally, Web 2.0 is quite different from the dotcom boom, which took place in the late 1990s and so is now quite old. Web 2.0, on the other hand, is new, which in itself makes it different.

Above all, Web 2.0 is here to stay. In the wake of the dotcom boom, dozens of unprepared startups crashed and burned. As the painful memories of WebVan and boo.com faded, little remained of the brave new world of e-business: these days there are only a couple of major players in each of the main e-business niche areas, and some of them are subsidiaries of bricks-and-mortar businesses, which is cheating. By contrast, the big names of Web 2.0 are all around us. In the field of tagging and social networking alone, there’s the innovative picture tagging and social networking company Flickr (now owned by Yahoo!); there’s the groundbreaking bookmark tagging and social networking company del.icio.us (now owned by Yahoo!); and let’s not forget the unprecedented social network tagging company Dodgeball (now owned by Google). Meanwhile blogging, that quintessential Web 2.0 tool, guarantees that fresh new voices will continue to be heard, thanks in no small part to quick-and-easy blog hosting companies like Blogger (now owned by Google) and the new kid on the block, Myspace (now owned by Rupert Murdoch).

Web 2.0 is new, it’s different, and above all, it’s here – and it’s here to stay! So get down and get with it and get hep to the Web 2.0 scene, daddy-o! [Can we check this as well? - Ed] Don’t say ‘programming’, say ‘scripting’! Don’t say ‘directory’, say ‘tags’! Don’t say ‘DoubleClick’, say ‘Google AdSense’!

And don’t say ‘hype’. Please don’t say that.

Got a web between his toes

Now that Nick has read the last rites for Web 2.0, perhaps it’s safe to return to a question that’s never quite been resolved.

To wit: what is Web 2.0? (We’ve established that it’s not a snail.) Over at What I wrote, I’ve just put up a March 2003 article called “In Godzilla’s footprint“. In it, I asked similar questions about e-business, taking issue with the standard rhetoric of ‘efficiency’ and ‘empowerment’. I suggested that e-business wasn’t – or rather isn’t – a phenomenon in its own right, but the product of three much larger trends: standardisation, automation and externalisation of costs. (Read the whole thing.)

Assuming for the moment that I called this one correctly – and I find my arguments pretty persuasive – what of Web 2.0? More of the same, only featuring the automation of income generation (AdSense) and the externalisation of payroll costs (‘citizen journalism’)? Or is there more going on – and if so, what?

Update 16/11

It would be remiss of me not to give any pointers to my own thinking on Web 2.0. So I’m republishing another column at What I wrote, this time from February of this year. Most of you will probably have seen it the first time round, when it appeared in iSeries NEWS UK, but I think it’s worth giving it another airing. Have a gander.

In Godzilla’s footprint

Published in e-Pro magazine, March 2003

Monster movies never give you a good view of the monster until halfway through. Representing Godzilla through one enormous footprint — or even one enormous foot — is a good way of building up suspense. It’s also realistic: if Godzilla came to town, one scaly foot would be all that most people ever saw.

Some things are so big they’re hard to see. Although e-business is making some huge changes to the way we live and work, we don’t often think about where it’s coming from and why. Asked to identify trends driving e-business, analysts tend to resort to general statements about business efficiency or customer empowerment. Alternatively, we get the circular argument which identifies e-business as a response to competitive pressures—pressures which are intensified by the growth of e-business.

The real trends driving the evolution of e-business are at once more specific and more far-reaching. Moreover, these trends affect everyone from the B2C customer at home to the IBM board of directors, taking in the hard-pressed WebSphere developer on the way.

The first trend is standardization. On the client side, there is now only one ‘standard’ browser. A friend of mine recently complained about a site which was not rendering properly (in Navigator 7.0). The Webmaster — presumably a person of some technical smarts — replied, “This is not a problem with our site, but your browser. I am running Windows 98 with IE 5.50 and everything displays perfectly.” At the back end, conversely, the tide of standards rolls on—from CORBA to XML to SOAP to ebXML. Interoperability between servers is too important for any company, even Microsoft, to stand in its way.

Whether standards are set by mutual agreement or by the local 800-pound gorilla is secondary; however it’s achieved, standardization has fostered the development of e-business, and continues to do so. The effect is to commoditize Web application servers and development tools; this in turn promotes the development of a single standard application platform, putting ‘non-standard’ platforms and environments under competitive pressure. From OS/400 to Windows 2000, platforms which diverge from the emerging Intel/Linux/Apache norm are increasingly being forced to justify themselves.

The second trend is automation. Since the dawn of business computing, payroll savings have been an ever-present yardstick in justifying IT projects. E business continues this trend with a vengeance. Whether you’re balancing your bank account or making a deal for office supplies in a trading exchange, you’re interacting with an IT system where once — only a few years ago — you would have had to deal with a human being. The word processor was the end of the line for shorthand typists; e-business is having a similar effect on growing numbers of skilled clerical employees. The next step, promised by Microsoft and IBM alike, is an applications development framework so comprehensive that business analysts and end users will be able to generate entire systems: even application development will be automated. (No, I don’t believe it either, but are you going to bet against IBM and Microsoft?)

The third trend is externalization of costs. Not long ago, if you asked a shop to deliver to your home, you could expect to see a van with the name of the shop on the side. Place an order online today, and your goods may well be delivered by a self-employed driver working with a delivery service contracted to an order fulfillment specialist. Talk of ‘disintermediation’ as a trend in e-business is wide of the mark. By offering more agile, flexible and transparent inter-business relationships, e business makes it possible for intermediaries to proliferate, each contracting out its costly or inconvenient functions. On the B2C front, meanwhile, operating costs are increasingly passed on to the customer: I sometimes spend far longer navigating a series of Web forms than it would take to give the same details to a skilled employee.

A drive for standardization, forcing all platforms into a single generic framework; automation for all, cutting jobs among bank tellers and programmers alike; businesses concentrating ruthlessly on core functions, passing on costs to partners and customers. These trends have had a huge impact on IT and society at large — and there’s more to come. In the e-business world, we’re all in Godzilla’s footprint.

Still wearing flares

Do you have some jeans that you really love,
Ones that you feel so groovy in ?
You don’t even mind if they start to fray
That only makes them nicer still

I don’t have a lot in common with Donovan Leitch, but I can agree with him on this one. I wore the jeans that I really love last weekend, briefly – they were £5 from Dunne’s Stores and worth every penny – but I had to change out of them later; the fraying certainly makes them nicer still in my eyes, but it’s reached a point where few other people are likely to share this view.

In short, they’re now my decorating jeans. For wearing outside the house, they had to be replaced some time ago, even at the cost of another fiver. (It’s a good five years since I stopped paying proper money for jeans. Not having a permanent job will do that.) On that occasion Dunne’s Stores came up with a bit of a curate’s egg: a pair of jeans whose cloth is a pleasure to behold in both weight and texture, but whose cut features a high waist and what I believe professional tailors refer to as a huge baggy arse. I tried to persuade myself I’d get used to the style, but it was no good – I had to haul the waistband up to my navel, which left me feeling as if I was auditioning for the Drifters.

So it was back to the mostly-reliable Dunne’s Stores, where a “20% off” promotion gave me a third pair of jeans for a mere £3.20. (I know, but I wasn’t going to argue.) The cloth isn’t as nice this time round, but at least the waist is where it ought to be. The cut of this pair does have one disconcerting feature, though: the leg’s got a slight flare.

I haven’t worn flares since 1977. For the benefit of readers who don’t immediately understand that statement (I know that some will), 1977 was when everything changed: music changed (both what it sounded like and who could make it); politics changed (what mattered and who could say so); and, perhaps most enduringly, trousers changed. Robert Elms said once that punk was first and foremost a trouser revolution, and I have to admit that the slimy little soulboy has a point. I was wearing flares in 1972 (and the kids I looked up to were wearing big flares). I was wearing flares in 1975; at my sister’s wedding in that year I wore a brushed denim suit with aircraft-carrier lapels and, yes, big flares. I was forcibly reminded of that suit this summer – the evidence is preserved in my sister’s wedding photographs, a set of which we found when we were sorting out my mother’s things. (Not visible in the picture is a pair of fudge-brown platform shoes with chocolate-brown piping, of which I was enormously proud. Those were different times.)

Come 1977, I was still wearing flares – at least at the beginning of the year. And, if you were around at the time, so were you. The flares, the wide lapels, even the platform soles became mainstream after a while; the soberest ‘business suit’ would have broad lapels and a discreet flare. One of the less obvious changes made by punk was to banish the flare and return jacket lapels to their previous modest, Graham Parker-ish proportions. Punk, in short, didn’t just change what the kids wore; it changed what the next generation of kids wore, and even what the kids’ parents wore. By 1979, if you were wearing flares, you were by definition still wearing flares. It’s hard to imagine any subsequent wave of musical fashion – the cocktails and zoot suits of the early 1980s, say, or the tatty jeans and lumberjack shirts of grunge – having effects as far-reaching as this.

The 1970s, it seems to me, really were different times. Looking through my mother’s old photographs – and there were plenty of them; even the ones taken by my father go back to 1950 – I was suddenly struck by how different the clothes didn’t look. Show me a flared trouserleg and an acre of lapel, and I immediately know we’re in the early 1970s – but where were the blatantly obvious fashion statements which signalled the 1960s, the 1950s, even the 1980s? Before and after the 1970s, people just seemed to be wearing stuff.

There’s a school of fashion writing, associated in particular with men’s tailoring, which I find unutterably boring; I just don’t understand how Elms (among many others) can get excited about the presence of four cuff-buttons instead of three, or about a chalk stripe being 1/12th of an inch across instead of 1/16th. A set of those tiny differences adds up to a whole different style, I realise that – and consequently much of the history of fashion is ultimately about these tiny differences. I realise that, but it doesn’t move me. Why should I choose between white and pale blue when I’d rather choose turquoise? Why should I agonise over switching from dove-grey to battleship-grey, when I could be wearing jet black with a purple lining? And if I couldn’t, why not?

The history of counter-cultural fashion (hippie, punk, goth) is the history of sweeping challenges like these, just as the history of mainstream fashion isn’t. Perhaps what happened in the 1970s – something that may never have happened before or since – was that the boldness of a particular counter-cultural fashion went so unchallenged for so long that it actually permeated the mainstream. (It’s only a shame it had to be that particular fashion.)

Or perhaps I’m just more conscious of fashions that were around when I was a teenager.

The curse of the underground

I’ve started another blog, What I Wrote. As well as being a homage to the second greatest double-act ever, it’s a home for relatively long-format stuff that I’ve written but not blogged – articles for the radical press, columns for small-circulation magazines, position papers for now-defunct organisations, and various pieces that somebody should have published but nobody did. Not that I’m trying to put you off or anything. There’s going to be some funny stuff in there too.

I’ve kicked it off with two pieces, one written in 1997 about why I hadn’t just voted Labour and one from 1993 about the former Yugoslavia. I’ll be updating it a couple of times a week – I’ve got what’s technically known as a bunch of stuff to draw on – so stay tuned, or indeed subscribed.

Business, community, discipline

Business, Community, Discipline: the Strange Triumph of New Labour

Written 12th May 1997; not published

I didn’t vote Labour on May 1st. At my first general election in 1979 I voted Liberal, an early tactical voter in Conservative Croydon South. I found out afterwards that the Labour candidate had lost his deposit: every vote did count after all. Ever since then I’d voted Labour at every opportunity.

But not this time, and probably never again. Of course, nobody on the Left has been enthusiastic about the Labour Party for some years. Personally I’d been alarmed by the way the party was going ever since Kinnock’s leadership – one long series of retreats before the supposed power of the Right, as ineffectual as it was inglorious. But New Labour is something else entirely. The party leadership’s refusal to give even token support to strikers; their determination to ingratiate the party with big business; their approval of punitive and divisive social policies; their frankly Stalinist approach to the party’s membership – all these were qualitatively new features of the party under Blair and Mandelson, and all of them would have made it very difficult for me to give the party my vote.

I knew for certain that I wasn’t going to vote Labour a few days into the election campaign. I was listening to the 6.00 news on the radio. The Liberal Democrats had launched their manifesto: a good, worthy, unambitious programme of reform, with spending pledges to be funded by raising the top rate of income tax to 50p and the basic rate to 24p (rates lower than those in force during Thatcher’s first term). Gordon Brown’s response was, perhaps, predictable: using the voice of fiscal rectitude – an undertaker’s drone – he denounced the Liberal Democrats’ ‘irresponsible tax plans’. A couple of minutes later, up popped Tony Blair himself, explaining in gleeful tones that while the Scottish electorate might vote for a parliament with tax-raising powers, if Labour controlled the parliament they wouldn’t use them. Under Labour nobody was going to pay any more income tax, no matter what.

At this point my despair at hearing Gordon Brown take over, verbatim, a classic Tory argument against the Left turned into anger. Swearing at the radio isn’t big or clever, and I’ll spare you the details. At that moment, though, I felt that I’d caught a glimpse of something Tony Blair really believes in, something New Labour really stands for; and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Exhibits B and C followed soon after, while I was trying to make up my mind between the Liberal Democrats and the Socialist Labour Party (no Green candidate, unfortunately). Tony Blair told a newspaper that he believed in redistribution, “but not in the sense of taking a few quid from one group of people and giving it to people on benefit”; he went on to talk vaguely about ‘creating opportunity’. Blair is in favour of redistribution, in other words, but against taking anything away from anybody; a remarkable logical contortion, reminiscent of new Labour MP Chris Pond’s statement that “you can’t solve the problem of poverty by throwing money at it”. A few days later, Blair announced – though ‘pledged’ now seems to be the verb of choice – that the proceeds from the Wednesday Lottery would go into general public spending rather than being earmarked for charities, the arts et al.

At one level the connection between the two is obvious, and it was drawn by the Tories immediately – much good it did them. It’s the deeper connection that concerns me. A flat-rate tax, like the Poll Tax, is inherently regressive. You could make a flat-rate tax still more unjust by contriving for people with higher incomes to avoid paying it altogether, while exhorting the worse-off to make up the shortfall. This miracle of economic inequity is, of course, what the Tories created with the National Lottery – but even they never tried to encourage participation as a national duty, as Blair has now done. And this while setting his face against any rise in income tax – which is, of course, an inherently progressive tax.

“New Labour: making the rich richer and the poor poorer”. Labour don’t talk in precisely these terms, of course. They seem to have three main themes: business, renewal and the community. The first of these almost goes without saying: no one could doubt that Blair’s main priority is a strong economy, a thriving ‘UK plc’ (ugh). This has some important implications. Any commitment to social democracy as Tawney defined it – overriding the requirements of the economy in certain areas for the good of society – had been beaten out of Labour by the time of the 1992 election, fought under the banner of ‘when resources allow’. What is new about Blair is that this loss of what had been a defining principle is now being happily embraced, flaunted as a sign of the very newness of New Labour. Labour will get things done not through government intervention or even public spending – pre-emptively frozen at Tory levels – but through co-operation with the private sector; this translates as sweetheart deals with major companies beginning with B (BT, BP, BA…) BT, as we know, will connect schools to the Internet, in return for a relaxation of the rules regulating its operations. The company gets its business, the schools get their connections and everyone’s happy – except perhaps the employees and customers of a privately-owned and ill-regulated monopoly, free to pursue a higher dividend without fear of government disapproval.

Perhaps the strongest theme in the repertoire of New Labour – certainly the most inspirational – is that one word: New. Curiously, among the true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. (This combination of ideas also enables the party’s ideologues to claim that Labour’s policies had to change because they were ‘old’: a deeply dishonest presentation of a transformation which was entirely political, and by no means inevitable). Freed from the uphill struggle to build support for left-wing policies, New Labour’s managerial apparat can bring their new brooms to bear on running the country. Labour can then re-emerge as the party of a cool-headed, unillusioned managerialism: it shares all the Tories’ basic presuppositions, but without their feverish ideological baggage. It is in this context that some of Labour’s proposed reforms can best be understood. Any halfway competent right-wing government would have signed the Social Chapter, and several have. Similarly, the notion that the mere existence of a minimum wage is bad for business could only be taken seriously under Thatcherism. Renewal, in short, means a new lease of life for the status quo.

A few policies in Labour’s programme do hold out some hope for a genuine democratic renewal – an overhaul of Britain’s archaic and undemocratic structures of government. The Scottish Parliament, the promised referendum on electoral reform, House of Lords reform, the Freedom of Information Act: all of these could herald major and beneficial changes in the way Britain is governed. However, extreme scepticism is still in order in all these areas. We can hardly ignore Blair’s expressed intentions for the Scottish Parliament or his personal opposition to PR: openings in these areas may be created by Labour, but they will have to be exploited despite Labour. While restrictions on hereditary peers are welcome, Blair seems more than happy to stock the House of Lords with government appointees – a policy which hardly addresses the second chamber’s democratic deficit. Any Freedom of Information Act, finally, will face enormous pressure for exemptions from three main quarters: the police, the security services (‘national security’) and the business community (‘commercial confidentiality’). These are not groups which the incoming government has any experience of facing down – or opposing.

The community – ‘the decent society’, in Blair’s words – is a strong theme but a vague one. In its positive form it has little content which isn’t shared across the political spectrum, post-Thatcher Tories excluded. Yes, there is such a thing as society; yes, a sense of community is important; yes, it is good for people to be active in their communities. There’s nothing there that wouldn’t be endorsed by Women Against Pit Closures or the anti-roads protesters, or for that matter by the BNP. The hard questions – what kind of society, what kind of community, what kind of activity – are never addressed. Only in its negative form do the contours of the decent society start to become clear. Parents should spend twenty minutes a night reading to their children (Blunkett); parents should bring their children up to respect the police (Straw). Single motherhood is not just a difficult lifestyle; it is wrong and should be discouraged (Blair). “YOUNG OFFENDERS WILL BE PUNISHED” (Labour campaign poster). Blunkett proposes to deal with training scheme refuseniks by cutting 40% of their benefit; Straw’s views on ravers and beggars are too well known to go into here. The rhetoric of ‘community’ announces a punitive, moralistic, openly divisive social policy, whose main function is to create and stigmatise outsiders: people who don’t play by the rules, people who don’t pull their weight; people who don’t fit in.

One final distinguishing feature is New Labour’s keen interest in power. Never has a government been led by a group so adept at entrenching its own power within the ruling party. While membership drives are encouraged, members once recruited are treated as plebiscitary cannon-fodder, in the best democratic centralist tradition. Whatever the wording of the questions, in last year’s ‘policy consultation exercise’ there were really only two options: give the leadership a blank cheque, or make the party look divided. It would take a large, widespread and determined opposition to the leadership to raise any sizeable vote for the second option. The ‘Labour into Power’ proposals for reorganising the party seem designed to prevent any such opposition from arising or expressing itself: the proposed reforms to the annual conference and the NEC effectively remove the only points in the existing structure where ordinary members can make themselves heard. Under the proposals, the party’s current policy-making structure is replaced by a pyramid of ‘Policy Forums’ culminating in a Joint Policy Committee – ‘joint’ as between the NEC and the Cabinet – chaired by Blair. Given an adequate supply of motivated party loyalists, a structure like this positively lends itself to the imposition of the leadership’s line, as any veteran of a democratic centralist party will attest. The machinery to ensure a continuing supply of apparatchiks is already in place: from the Blairite ginger group around the magazine Renewal, through the machine for grooming New Labour cadres whose house organ is Progress, to the Blair-friendly network of Scottish local authority fixers known simply as The Network. As for Labour MPs, late last year the Parliamentary Labour Party approved a new code of conduct. Among the new provisions is an undertaking not to do or say anything which would “bring the party into disrepute” – a clause with unbounded disciplinary potential. The Cabinet, we can be sure, will be policed as it was under Thatcher: by the quiet word and the unattributable briefing. The treatment given to Clare Short in the Shadow Cabinet (“Clare’s in a hole and she should stop digging”) is a sign of things to come; the appointment of Peter Mandelson as Minister without Portfolio is a sure sign that those things are, indeed, coming.

Clearly Blair is not simply right-wing, in the sense that Gaitskell and John Smith were right-wingers: indeed, Blair has dismissed the Gaitskellites as the right wing of ‘old socialism’. To find another Labour leader so eager to meet the Conservative agenda halfway you would have to go back as far as the leader of another neologism, National Labour; and Blair, unlike Macdonald, has taken almost the whole of the Labour Party with him. Moreover, New Labour has to be seen as a coherent ideological project: it is not simply a combination of Thatcherite values with rhetoric harking back to pre-Thatcher civilities (like the SDP), still less a stratagem undertaken in order to win an election. (There is more than one way to skin that particular cat). That said, the question of how to describe New Labour may be best left open. Capitalism in a rational, corporatist form; a prescriptive communitarian moralism; organisational authoritarianism; and an insistent rhetoric of the ‘new’, the ‘modern’. What does this add up to?

Another question is how long it can last. New Labour offers no principled opposition to the Thatcherite virtues of ambition, acquisitiveness and self-centredness; its communitarian policies are promoted precisely as complementary to the ‘enterprise culture’. This extraordinary occupation of Tory territory may explain, paradoxically, the sheer magnitude of Labour’s victory over the Tories: once the Tories had discredited themselves completely, there was nothing to stop a Tory voter going over to Labour. The problem is obvious: by abandoning the hard work of building a majority for genuinely reforming policies (even within the party) Labour have left themselves no defence against an equally massive swing at the next election. Once the Tories’ problems with sleaze and Europe subside, and Black Wednesday fades in the national memory, we can expect a revival of the natural party of Thatcherism – perhaps with rediscovered paternalist tendencies to set against New Labour’s enthusiasm for the free market.

The tragedy of New Labour is that the transformation rested on – and exploited – a huge mass of passive, even grudging support, loaned to the Blairites on the grounds that this was the only way to get rid of the Tories; and that it was almost certainly unnecessary even in those terms. The Guardian’s Martin Kettle is a loyal Blairite, currently afloat in post-election euphoria; when Blair introduced first names to Cabinet meetings Kettle commented, “we seem almost to be living in a cultural revolution”. During the election campaign, Kettle speculated on what would have happened if John Smith had lived. He concluded that Smith’s Labour Party would have lost in 1997, beset by Tory attacks on Smith’s tax plans, his links with the unions and Monklands. The morning after the election, Kettle delivered himself of a new analysis: the polls had been right all along, victory was never in doubt, there was nothing the Tories could have done. The electorate, he said, had decided after Black Wednesday that the Tories must go; nothing could have saved them from that point on. I find this considerably more persuasive than the alternative, and can’t help wondering if a small majority under Smith might have proved preferable to a Blair landslide.

If this seems a perverse or premature judgment, consider what we already know about the Blair agenda. Patriotism; alliances with big business; attacks on unconventional lifestyles. Closure of ‘failing’ schools by central diktat; compulsory childcare classes for irresponsible parents. Restrictions on the right to strike; restrictions on welfare payments; no tax rises for the middle classes; more money from the Lottery. Oh, and the party conference will be made ‘more like a rally’. It doesn’t look like a country I’ve ever wanted to live in – let alone a programme I could ever vote for.

As it turned out I voted Socialist Labour: not out of any enthusiasm for the party or its dirigiste daydream of a programme, but simply because they were prepared to speak the language of social justice. The Liberal Democrats might have got my vote, for similar reasons, but that their candidate had come out in support of the second runway at Manchester Airport – a particularly pressing example of unsustainable development. Meanwhile in Croydon South, the Tory got in again; but this time Labour came second, with the almost universal 10% swing. I wish I could be happier about that.

Neither Belgrade nor Sarajevo

Written for the Socialist Society, 1992-3.

At present everyone from Baroness Thatcher to Socialist Outlook seems to agree on the subject of Serbia. Serbia has caused the break-up of Yugoslavia; Serb forces are committing war crimes in Bosnia; Serbia must be punished. Some socialists have put forward a dissenting view. Serbia, the last remnant of Yugoslavia, is a socialist state; the Serbs have legitimate grievances; in any case, Serbia is not solely responsible for the carnage in Bosnia. Through analysis of current events and the history which lies behind them, I intend to show that the “dissenting” arguments are both factually and politically wrong. I shall also examine the main objections to the “consensus” perspective and propose some priorities for the current situation.

Prehistory: Yugoslavia before 1945

The first state called Yugoslavia was created in 1919: a unitary state with strong continuities with the pre-war state of Serbia. Serb domination was pronounced, especially after parliament was suspended in 1929. The Cyrillic alphabet, used by Serbs and not Croats, was imposed throughout the country; the people of Macedonia and Montenegro were renamed as “south Serbs” and “coastal Serbs” respectively. (Compare the Turkish government’s designation of the Kurds as “mountain Turks”).

In 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis. A Serbian and a Croatian state were set up. The Independent State of Croatia or NDH, ruled by Ante Pavelic’s clerical-fascist Ustasha forces, is rightly notorious. The Ustashe, who numbered perhaps three hundred in total, were given charge of all the territory inhabited by Croats, including the whole of present-day Bosnia. This territory they undertook to cleanse of non-Croats – Serbs and, secondarily, Jews – by a systematic combination of forcible conversion to Catholicism, expulsion and murder. The extent and ferocity of the Ustasha’s anti-Serbian atrocities shocked observers from the SS; the massacres were halted by the Italian Fascists.

Serbs were the largest nationality among the Partisans, who were organised throughout Yugoslavia and on a multi-ethnic basis. The other main resistance force was a Serbian royalist organisation, the Chetniks; the name was taken from a military corps active before the First World War in the conquest of the province of Kosovo, who were noted for their savagery towards the area’s Albanian population. The Chetniks withdrew from anti-Nazi operations after a reprisals order was issued by Hitler; instead they concentrated their efforts on non-Serbian groups, whom they accused of betraying Serbia. Their targets included the Partisans, against whom they co-operated with the collaborationist State of Serbia and even, in 1942, the Ustasha. The war left a legacy of ethnic bitterness which has never dissipated.

Federal unity, 1945-1987

Post-1945 Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia) plus the “autonomous provinces” of Vojvodina and Kosovo. The latter were a means of representing national minorities within Serbia. The majority population of Vojvodina is composed of Magyars and Romanians; the Albanians of Kosovo, for their part, were by 1990 the fourth most numerous nationality in the federation. The federal Presidency had eight members, one from each republic or province; the role of President (and hence the casting vote) was rotated annually between the eight.

The internal boundaries of post-war Yugoslavia were drawn so as to favour self-determination for national and sub-national, rather than supra-national (pan-Serb or pan-Croat) groups. State unity would complement national plurality: a double emphasis which served to legitimate both the republican governments and the Communist Party. However, the appeal to ethnicity brought its own problems. Apart from the Slovenes, none of the recognised national groups was confined to one republic, or formed a conclusive majority of the population within it. Both points apply with particular force to Serbia. Of all groups, Serbs were most widely spread through the federation; of all republics, Serbia had the largest number of different national minorities.

“Srbija je ustala”: 1987-1991

Throughout the 1980s Serbian national anxiety mounted, particularly with regard to Kosovo, historically regarded as the “cradle” of the Serbs. Demonstrations demanding republic status for Kosovo were violently suppressed. An open letter issued in 1986 accused Kosovar Albanians of deliberately outbreeding Serbs and alleged “genocide” of Serbs within Kosovo, a claim for which no evidence existed. The letter was signed by members of the Belgrade dissident milieu, including the writer Dobrica Cosic (who was president of the rump federation of Serbia and Montenegro until he was ousted by Milosevic supporters in 1993).

In 1987 Slobodan Milosevic took power within the Serbian Communist Party on an aggressive nationalist programme. The Party and the press were subjected to tight control. In 1989 Milosevic forced the resignation of the Communist Party leaderships of Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro and their replacement by his allies. This manoeuvre represented a redefinition of Serbia along ethnic Serb lines; it also gave Serbia four of the eight votes on the federal presidency. A cult of personality developed around Milosevic, seen as the saviour of the Serbian people.

In 1990 Croatia’s first multi-party elections were won by the main right-wing nationalist force, Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). Tudjman called for Croatia to have greater autonomy within the federation. In reaction Serb militias seized control of border areas and cut road links to the rest of Croatia. Croat nationalism had been dormant since a liberal nationalist movement was suppressed by the federal government in the 1970s; now it had revived in response to its Serb mirror image. Misha Glenny witnessed two crowds, one Serb, one Croat, chanting identical slogans. “Serbia has risen”: “Srbija je ustala”. “Croatia has risen”: “Hrvatska je ustala”.

The Milosevic regime had given Serbia a hegemonic position within Yugoslavia and imposed an ethnic Serb definition of Serbia. The rest of the federation was left in little doubt of Milosevic’s ultimate goal: a new Yugoslavia, remade along pan-Serb lines. Milosevic was supported by Serb nationalist forces in Bosnia and Croatia, which were being supplied with weaponry by the Yugoslav Army (JNA). In a vote on secession following Bosnia’s first multi-party elections Bosnian Serb representatives abstained en masse. Throughout the federation, Serb political leaders rejected the authority of any republic but Serbia, while at the same time proclaiming their loyalty to the federal government. It is against this background that the secessions of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and finally Bosnia can be understood.

Independence and war, 1991-

After Croatia’s secession, Croatian Serb militias rebelled once more. Their efforts were now directed less against the centre and more against Croats living in Serb-dominated areas. Local Croat forces responded in kind. At the same time, the Yugoslav Army (JNA) invaded Croatia and Slovenia, ostensibly to preserve the unity of the federation; the main effect was to give JNA firepower to Serb militias in Croatia. The (Croatian) President of Yugoslavia ordered the army to withdraw, to no effect. The four Serbian and Montenegrin members of the federal presidency subsequently expelled the members representing the republics which had seceded – without, however, recognising the secessions.

Local Serb campaigns for ethnic purity and the JNA campaign for national unity rapidly became indistinguishable. Croat as well as Serb militias are active in Bosnia and Croatia, but the two are barely comparable. Unlike the independent republics, which remain subject to a UN arms embargo imposed on the former Yugoslavia, Serb forces have the weaponry of the former JNA at their disposal; the former JNA in Bosnia has even redesignated itself the army of the Bosnian Serbs. Croat forces control a sixth of Bosnia; Serb forces control two-thirds, and a third of Croatia. (It may be worth emphasising that no aggression has taken place within Serbia – at least, none against Serbs). Available evidence suggests that “ethnic cleansing” is being carried out more extensively and systematically by Serb forces than Croats, in Bosnia and Croatia.

Undeniably Croat forces have committed war crimes in Bosnia; undeniably, Serbs in Croatia suffer official and unofficial discrimination – as well as the activities of unofficial nationalist militias. However, the weight of the evidence is clear. Hundreds of thousands have been made homeless, tens of thousands killed, in the war in Bosnia and Croatia. The vast majority of these are accounted for by Serb forces. Pan-Serb nationalists, using the name of Communism, tried to control Yugoslavia and destroyed it in the attempt. In its place they are building a racially-pure Greater Serbia by force of arms and calling it Yugoslavia.

Objections

“But the Serbs are being demonised!”

This is true, but should come as no surprise: as we know, the West periodically sets up a former client as demon of the week. Last year’s “holocaust” allegations against Serb forces, coming after five years of untroubled co-operation with the Milosevic regime, fit this pattern all too well. The “demonisation” argument is politically irrelevant. The task for the Left is not to befriend whichever demon happens to be in the frame, but to analyse the situation on our own terms.

“But these people are fascists!”

Some analysts of the invasion of Croatia depict Croatia as a fascist state. This clearly mandates support for its (appropriate) antagonist, the Stalinist regime of Serbia: for Vukovar read Stalingrad. The picture dissolves on examination. Franjo Tudjman (who held a general’s rank with the Partisans) is an anti-semite and an apologist for the 1941 regime; he leads a clerical-nationalist government, which is unofficially defended by neo-fascist militias. It’s not a pleasant picture, but it’s not fascism.

It’s also not unique. Tudjman’s apologias for a Nazi-installed regime are repugnant, but even views like these are unpleasantly commonplace in the former Soviet states, from Latvia to Romania. Nor are neo-fascist elements on the fringes of government a Croatian speciality: Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian MP and head of a paramilitary force, has proposed solving the “Croatian problem” by cutting the throats of all the Croats. Belgrade routinely accuses the Tudjman government of planning a repeat of 1941, but there is no evidence of this. Discrimination against Serbs in Croatia exists, it is deplorable and it should be stopped. This, though – at a time when a third of Croatia is under armed Serb control – cannot be the only demand which is made.

The conflict in Bosnia has been analysed in similar terms, by tarring Bosnia’s elected government with the brush of Muslim fundamentalism. This story is even more at variance with reality. Although President Alija Izetbegovic advocated an Islamic state twenty years ago, an Islamic state is not what he proposed in 1991 or what the government which he led attempted to set up. Izetbegovic’s Cabinet contains – or contained – representatives of the Serb and Croat communities; his government was based on a parliamentary coalition with, of all groups, the main Serb party. A parliamentary party supported by 44% of the population could hardly do more in the cause of consensus; most parties in that position elsewhere in Europe would do much less. The argument that the Serb and Croat armed campaigns in Bosnia are a legitimate act of resistance to an oppressive government – implicitly endorsed by the Geneva talks, which set Izetbegovic on the same footing as the Bosnian Serb and Croat warlords – is entirely untenable.

As for Serbia’s credentials for representing the enlightened Left against the forces of Islamic and fascist reaction, it should be obvious from the above that these are fairly thin. The argument that state ownership and a one-party monopoly of power indicate a socialist state is dubious at best. The Milosevic programme, combining those elements with a leader cult, territorial expansionism and racial discrimination, has been aptly summed up in the phrase “national socialism”.

Proposals

Arguments against Western intervention of any kind are untenable. Non-intervention, in the current situation, would amount to intervening in support of the status quo. We saw Western “non-intervention” in action in 1991, when recognition of Croatia was being withheld on the grounds that it would “prolong the fighting” – better a quick defeat, presumably. The West is bound to affect the situation; we can at least argue for its influence to be exercised in pursuit of principled goals.

There are four immediate priorities. The most urgent is to restore the territorial integrity of Bosnia and the authority of the Bosnian government. This will entail securing the withdrawal or disarming of the “Bosnian Serb” JNA and any other external forces, Serbian or Croatian. Territorial gains made by force must be treated as illegitimate by the international community and reversed wherever possible – rather than, as in UN-administered Croatia, being effectively ratified. Secondly, Macedonia should be recognised immediately. Thirdly, the arms embargo currently in force against all the former Yugoslav republics should be lifted with regard to Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia. Lastly, it should be impressed on Croatia that Western democracies do not look kindly on apologists for fascism – a point which could have been made a bit more often in the past.

The “fragmentation” of the former Yugoslavia is not to be feared. After Tito some evolution of the political situation towards greater national and regional autonomy was inevitable; to the extent that this development takes place peacefully it should be welcomed, in predominantly Serb regions of Croatia as much as in predominantly Albanian regions of Serbia. However, this form of development should not be confused with the politics of armed irredentism and ethnic purity, which has been encouraged on all sides by the Milosevic programme. Self-government, for the former Yugoslav republics and the distinct regions within them, is a positive goal; armed conquest of territory, ethnic exclusivism and attempts to merge with existing nations are not. (The point would hardly be worth making, but for Vance and Owen’s attempt to ratify the latter under the guise of the former). All the nations of the former Yugoslavia should be judged on how far they deliver both regional autonomy and minority representation at national level: a criterion which Bosnia’s elected government meets adequately, Croatia’s poorly and Serbia’s not at all.

As for meeting the grievances of the Serbs, that should be one consequence of following these policies. We do the Serbs no favours by assuming that the only Serb interest is a Greater Serbia. However, any just settlement will inevitably aggrieve pan-Serb nationalists; the only settlement which would assuage their grievances would be a version of the 1919 Yugoslavia, a unitary state with a Serb ruling class. The attempt to restore that state is an enterprise with no political merits, which is doing nothing but harm to the nations of the former Yugoslavia.

List of sources omitted

The sound of the keys as they clink

Back here, I wrote:

my children are far closer to being ‘colour-blind’ than I’ll ever be. The other day my son got picked on in the swimming pool; we asked him to describe the kids who did it, and when we asked him whether they had brown skin he said “yes, but why do you ask?” That told us.

What I didn’t mention, probably because it hadn’t happened yet, was the sequel: a note from the police, passed on through the school, to the effect that they’d be interested to take a statement from my son, particularly given that there was a possible racist motive. (My son said he just wanted to forget about the whole thing, so we let it drop.)

So there’s one obvious reason to be sceptical about Manchester councillor Eddy Newman’s letter to Saturday’s Graun:

The study to which you refer suggests that Asbos are used disproportionately against ethnic-minority groups. In Manchester, by contrast, about one in 10 of Asbos include conditions banning racist abuse, threats or harassment. In this way Asbos can be used to combat racism and promote community cohesion.

The two sets of ASBOs – “used disproportionately against ethnic-minority groups” and “include conditions banning racist abuse” – aren’t mutually exclusive. But even if they were, there’s an even more obvious reason for scepticism: put simply, the fact that 10% of ASBOs have anti-racist strings attached says nothing about the other 90%. But the numbers are less important than the mood music. Let’s not worry about how ASBOs have been used – think about all the good things they can be used for! Never mind the evidence, just think of all the bad people out there – and trust us to deal with them.

Over the weekend I was also gobsmacked (like Jamie) by Nick Cohen’s latest:

For the first time in British history, there are asylum seekers who could attack the country which gave them sanctuary. I don’t think people realise how unparallelled this change is.

For the first time in British history, by gum. Never before have murderous foreigners lurked among us, plotting anarchy and destruction under cover of our fabled British hospitality. The Fenians in Victorian England don’t count, obviously – nor do the revolutionary exiles who converged on England from across Europe and beyond in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Conrad thought they were pretty threatening – The Secret Agent even has a suicide bomber as one of its central characters – but he was obviously exaggerating. There was a great deal of alarm about German exiles in Britain when the Great War broke out, but all that was just hysteria, obviously. Same with the Russian revolutionary exiles, around the same time. Sidney Street? A storm in a teacup. Things got a bit more lively in the late 1930s, mind you:

In September 1939 there were a total of 71,600 registered enemy aliens in Britain. On the outbreak of the Second World War the police arrested a large number of Germans living in Britain. The government feared that these people might be Nazi spies pretending to be refugees. They were interned and held in various camps all over Britain. Like other refugees they were eventually appeared before tribunals which classified them into three different groups. ‘A’ class aliens were interned, whereas ‘B’ class aliens were allowed to leave the camps but had certain restrictions placed upon their movements. The vast majority of refugees were identified as ‘C’ class aliens and were allowed to go free. When Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies on 10th May 1940, Italians living in Britain were also interned. This included 4,000 people with less than twenty years’ residence in Britain.

But still, there’s no comparison: For the first time in British history, there are asylum seekers who could attack the country which gave them sanctuary. Or if it’s not quite the first time in history, well, never mind. Just think about all the bad people out there, and trust us to deal with them.

I used to read Nick Cohen regularly; I used to think of Eddy Newman as a reliable voice of the municipal Left (he’s a solid Old Labour councillor from way back, one of a very few Manchester councillors to have built a personal reputation in the Stringer period and hung on to it). These are strange times for the Left – it’s easy to forget just how strange.

Update 7/11

As Andrew points out in comments, Nick is a troubled man:

When, at the age of 13, he found out that his kind and thoughtful English teacher voted Conservative, he nearly fell off his chair: ‘To be good, you had to be on the Left.’ Today he’s no less confused.

I’ll say he is.

Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam that stands for everything the liberal-Left is against come from a section of the Left? After the American and British wars in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansers, why were men and women of the Left denying the existence of Serb concentration camps? Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal-Left, but not, for instance, China, the Sudan, Zimbabwe or North Korea? Why can’t those who say they support the Palestinian cause tell you what type of Palestine they would like to see? After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a liberal literary journal as in a neo-Nazi rag?

I can actually sympathise with parts of this; back in the early 1990s those of us who thought the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was worth defending against armed Serb irredentism seemed to be in a very small minority on the Left. Seeing sizeable swathes of the Left apparently signing up for the Genocidal Bastard Fan Club (and no, the RCP wasn’t its only chapter by any means) isn’t an experience you forget.

But if I’m not with Neil Clark, I’m not with Nick either. This synopsis is sloppily written even by the standards of its kind (I don’t recall any “American and British war” in Bosnia, apart from anything else), but as far as I can tell Nick’s main concern isn’t that the Left has chosen some dodgy causes lately. He’s not even harping on the Left’s wilful blindness to the historically unprecedented menace of the lurking foreign mad bomber. For whatever reason, the point Nick really seems to want to make is that supporting the Palestinian cause is wrong. Or rather, it may be right, but only if you a) support several other causes as well b) oppose the politicians Palestinians actually elect and c) oppose criticism of Israel. (Like Andrew, I really hope that last line isn’t a reference to Mearsheimer and Walt. I’m tempted to dismiss the idea out of hand – you’d have to be wearing a very strong prescription indeed to see a ‘sinister conspiracy of Jews’ in M&W’s LRB piece, let alone to imagine that it could appear in a ‘neo-Nazi rag’ – but the reference to ‘a liberal literary journal’ is disquieting.)

A Left critique of the Gleichschaltung of the ‘anti-imperialists’ might have been useful and telling; unfortunately it looks as if Nick has found another cause to be gleichgeschaltet by. These are, as I was saying, strange times for the Left. As Victor Serge never wrote:

- What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?
- What, already?

Simplify, reduce, oversimplify

An interesting post on ‘folksonomies’ at Collin Brooke’s blog prompted this comment, which I thought deserved a post of its own.

I think Peter Merholz‘s coinage ‘ethnoclassification’ could be useful here. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think we can see all taxonomies (and ultimately all knowledge) as the product of an extended conversation within a given community: in this respect a taxonomy is simply an accredited ‘folksonomy’.

However, I think there’s a dangerous (but interesting) slippage here between what folksonomies could be and what folksonomies are: between the promise of the project of ‘folksonomy’ (F1) and what’s delivered by any identifiable folksonomy (F2). (You can get into very similar arguments about Wikipedia 1 and Wikipedia 2 – sometimes with the same people.) Compared to the complexity and exhaustiveness of any functioning taxonomic scheme, I don’t believe that any actually-existing ‘folksonomy’ is any more than an extremely sketchy work in progress.

For this reason (among others), I believe we need different words for the activity and the endpoint. So we could contrast classification with Peterme’s ‘ethnoclassification’, on one hand, and note that the only real difference between the two is that the former takes place within structured and credentialled communities. On the other hand, we could contrast actual taxonomies with ‘folksonomies’. The latter could have very much the same relationship with officially-credentialled taxonomies as classification does with ethnoclassification – but they aren’t there yet.

The shift from ‘folksonomy’ to ‘ethnoclassification’ has two interesting side-effects, which I suspect are both fairly unwelcome to folksonomy boosters (a group in which I don’t include Thomas Vander Wal, ironically enough). On one hand, divorcing process and product reminds us that improvements to one don’t necessarily translate as improvements in the other. The activity that goes into producing a ‘folksonomy’, as distinct from a taxonomy, may give more participants a better experience (more egalitarian, more widely distributed, more chatty, more fun) but you wouldn’t necessarily expect the end product to show improvements as a result. (You’d expect it to be a bit scrappy, by and large.) On the other hand, divorcing process from technology reminds us that ethnoclassification didn’t start with del.icio.us; the aggregation of informal knowledge clouds is something we’ve been doing for a long time, perhaps as long as we’ve been human.

A taxonomy of terror

I attended part of a very interesting conference on terrorism last week. The organisers intend to launch a network and a journal devoted to ‘critical terrorism studies’, a project which I strongly support. As the previous blog entry suggests, I’ve studied a bit of terrorism in my time – and I’m very much in favour of people being encouraged to approach the phenomenon critically, which is to say without necessarily endorsing the definitions and interpretive frameworks offered by official sources.

However, it seems to me that the nature of the object of study still needs to be defined – and defined at once more precisely and more loosely. In other words, I don’t believe there’s much common ground between someone who thinks of terrorism in terms of gathering intelligence on the IRA, and someone who maintains that George W. Bush is a bigger terrorist than Osama bin Laden; I don’t think it’s particularly productive to try to find common ground between those two images of terrorism, or to simply allow them to coexist without defining the differences between them. On the other hand, I don’t see much mileage in a ‘purist’ Terrorism Studies which would focus solely on groups akin to the IRA – or in an alternative purism which would concentrate on terror attacks by Western governments.

A third approach offers to resolve the gap between these two – although I should say straight away that I don’t believe it does so. This approach is that of terrorism as an object of discourse: what is under analysis is not so much an identifiable set of actions, or types of action, as the texts and utterances which purport to analyse and describe terrorism. The effect is to turn the analytical gaze back on the governmental discourse of terrorism, which in turn makes it possible to contrast the official image of the terrorist threat with data from other sources; an interesting example of this approach in practice is Richard Jackson’s paper Religion, Politics and Terrorism: A Critical Analysis of Narratives of “Islamic Terrorism” (DOC file available from here).

I think this is a powerful and constructive approach – my own thesis (as yet unpublished) includes some quite similar work on Italian left-wing armed groups of the 1970s, whose presentation in both the mainstream and the Communist press was heavily shaped by differing ideological assumptions. But I think it should be recognised that it’s an approach of a different order from the other two. To combine them would be to mix ontological and epistemological arguments – to say, in other words, That’s what is officially labelled terrorism, but this is real terrorism. (Or: That’s what they call terrorism, but this is what we know to be the reality of terrorism.) The problem with this is that it implies a commitment to a particular idea of real terrorism, without actually suggesting a candidate. At best, this formulation frees the analyst to retain his or her prior commitments, bolstered with added ontological certitude. At worst, it suggests that real terrorism is the inverse of officially labelled terrorism – or at least that there is no possible overlap between officially labelled terrorism and real terrorism. This is surely inadequate: a critical approach should be able to do more with the official version than simply reverse it.

I believe that the study of terrorism must include all of these elements, and recognise that they may overlap but don’t coincide. In other words, it must include the following:

  1. Organised political violence by non-state actors: ‘terrorism’ as a political intervention (call it T1)
  2. Indiscriminate large-scale attacks on civilians: terror as a tactic, in warfare or otherwise (T2)
  3. The constructed antagonist of the War on Terror: ‘Terrorism’ as object of discourse (T3)

We can think of it as a three-circle Venn diagram, with areas of intersection between each pair of circles and a triple intersection in the middle.

What is immediately apparent about this list is how little of the field of terrorism falls into all three categories. The (white) triple intersect – mass killing of civilians by a non-state political actor, officially labelled (and denounced) as terrorism – is represented by a relatively small number of horrific events, chief among them September 11th. By contrast, much of what students of terrorism – myself included – would like to be able to look at under that name falls into only two categories, or even one. The (red) intersect of T1 and T3, most obviously, is represented by those acts by armed groups which are officially denounced but don’t involve mass killing of civilians: the ‘execution’ of Aldo Moro and the IRA’s Brighton bomb, for example. The use of terror tactics by non-governmental death squads, such as the Nicaraguan Contras and the Salvadorean ORDEN militia, falls into the blue intersect of T1 and T2. The use of state terror by official enemies and ‘rogue states’ – such as the Syrian Hama massacre or Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the people of Halabja – falls into the green intersect of T2 and T3. And this is without considering all those activities which fall into only one category: T1 (magenta) alone, activities by armed groups which fall below the radar of the discourse of ‘terrorism’ (a large and interesting category); T2 (cyan) alone, terror tactics used by states and not denounced as terrorism; and T3 (yellow) alone, officially-denounced ‘terrorism’ which involves neither an organised armed group nor a mass attack on civilians.

I don’t, myself, see any problem with studying all three of these categories – or rather, all seven. I hope the remit of the new Critical Terrorism Studies is broad enough to encompass all of these without imposing an artificial unity on them. Paramilitary fundraising in Northern Ireland cannot be studied in the same way as the attack on Fallujah or press reporting of the ‘ricin plot’; each of these deserves to be studied, however, and the different approaches appropriate to studying them can only strengthen the field.

These are your favourite things

I undertook last night to defend Torchwood against its critics. Having seen last night’s episode I’m less enthusiastic about this task than I was – about the kindest thing that could be said about episode 3 is that it was a load of old tosh. Still, I feel much more kindly disposed towards the series than Justin or Dave – and some of their criticisms strike me as not so much unfair as irrelevant.

I’ll set the scene with a couple of Russell T. Davies’ earlier hits.

DOCTOR: Look at these people, these human beings, consider their potential. From the day they arrive on this planet and blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do… no, hold on… sorry, that’s the Lion King… but the point still stands!

HOMELESS MAN: Big Issue?
VINCE: Yes, it is! Unrequited love – it never has to grow old and it never has to die!

A lot of Davies’s dialogue – a lot of his best dialogue – is like this: elaborate, tasteless and entirely unbelievable, but at the same time moving, funny and enthusiastic.

Especially enthusiastic. Davies’s imaginative world has three consistent features, all of which play in the direction of upbeat. There’s faith: faith in love and desire (which are seldom far apart); faith in emotions, and letting them out and acting on them; and ultimately an optimistic faith in people. Nothing is more characteristic of Davies than his setting a vision of the end of the world, in the eponymous Doctor Who episode, five billion years in the future:

DOCTOR: You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you’re going to get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. Like maybe you survive.

Then there’s sex. For Davies there’s always sex – he’s described it as the single most basic plot driver, whatever the plot is. The promise that Torchwood delivers on (or at least promises to deliver on) was made by Doctor Who as long ago as Captain Jack’s first appearance, and as recently as the Doctor’s parting with Rose. (And remember the Doctor and Rose tumbling out of the Tardis into Victorian Scotland? Why were they so unsteady on their feet – and why were they giggling so much?)

The third key element of Davies’s vision – and the one which seems to have given Dave and Justin the most trouble – goes back, I think, to Davies’s early days as a screenwriter for children’s TV. It’s a quality which Torchwood and Doctor Who share with Buffy and Serenity but not with Star Trek, let alone Star Wars. It’s a kind of unencumbered, disrespectful, not-quite-adult lightness, flippancy even. This is partly about the dialogue – you don’t ask whether a line is credible, you ask whether it sounds good in performance – but it also goes deeper, to the level of character. You don’t say, What does the willingness to do this say about Character X? or How will Character X handle the consequences? You say, Would Character X do this? What about you – would you? What about if you could get away with it, would you then? The characters aren’t burdened with foresight or moral reflection, and the writing doesn’t take up the slack with foreshadowing or ominous sound effects. They do what they do, and the consequences come along later to bite them – or not, as it suits the plot. And what they do is what you would do, if you weren’t too inhibited, too boring, too grown-up. I felt quite comfortable with this element of Torchwood – or rather, I wasn’t consciously aware of it – until I read Dave’s comment

The writing team has a low opinion of their creation’s integrity; three out of six are office thieves.

and Justin’s:

A member of the Torchwood team is revealed (in a *hilarious* scene) in the opening episode as a bisexual rapist who traps his victims using an alien aftershave he’s borrowed from work that makes him irresistible.

Office thieves? Rapist? They borrow stuff from work (including the said alien atomiser which induces immediate desire in anyone who gets a whiff). Sure, they’ve been told not to do it – but with stuff like that lying around, well, you would, wouldn’t you?

Youth, sex and optimism: the trio embodied in Queer as Folk in under-age Nathan, amoral Stuart and the eternally hopeful Vince, and subsequently rolled into one in David Tennant’s Casanova, John Barrowman’s Jack Harkness and (most strikingly) Tennant’s Doctor. This isn’t a world where gains are wiped out by their cost, where dilemmas are unresolvable or where darkness means more than the absence of light. It’s a bright and mostly beautiful world, where external threats needs to be resisted because people matter – and people matter because of their capacity to love. It’s also a world brought to us in a hectic patchwork of action scenes, character development, horror, plot exposition, character-based comedy, backstory exposition, beautiful camerawork and moments of calm, still wonder.

It’s not Our Friends in the North; it’s not even ER. It’s not trying to be. But what it does, it does well. At its worst it’s tosh (albeit beautifully-executed tosh), but at its best it’s good.

Update 31/10

Whoa, comments! Sod the politics (and the music), Whoblogging is obviously the way to go.

There’s some interesting stuff coming out. Jonn:

“So far the pattern seems to be that a) the Torchwood team have moral compasses that are spinning wildly; b) Gwen is already getting corrupted by it all (look at the shooting range scene); c) Jack isn’t nearly as concerned about these missteps as he should be

but I trust the moral grey area stuff to be going somewhere. In fact I suspect it’s what the show is going to be all about.”

biscit:

“Torchwood are supposed to be acting in humankind’s best interests- they keep a lid on things because others can’t be trusted. But the thing is can they? This isn’t subtle extrapolating, the question is more or less baldly asked by Gwen, a policewoman brought in to be the team’s moral compass.

This is a post watershed show, there is scope for the central characters to be devious and amoral.”

A couple of preliminary thoughts. Firstly, I think RTD is a genuinely amoral writer, partly because he sees morality as anti-sex and partly because he likes people. In other words, I think he’d argue that if you just wind people up and let them go it’ll work out for the best, probably, for most people – and that even if it doesn’t always work out well it’s still a better alternative than trying to control them. So I don’t think an RTD character is ever going to be riven with self-doubt – or if they are they’ll probably grow out of it (cf. Vince). Secondly, there’s a question of genre (and in this respect I stand by the comparison with Buffy); you could even say that a basic character makeup of looking for fun and acting without forethought (but learning from the consequences) is a genre convention for this kind of drama.

That said, even I found the shooting-range scene hard to take. I haven’t seen lethal violence made to look so attractive since the Matrix – and even that didn’t make it look so sexy.

So, I dunno. Two basic possibilities, I suppose. Perhaps it really is just the Double-Deckers with added sex and guns, in which case I’d reluctantly concede that RTD may have pushed the young/sexy/optimistic thing a bit too far into amorality – and amoral nastiness at that. Or perhaps there’s some dark stuff coming, but it’s not really being foreshadowed – which would fit with the lack of overt morality and the “act first, reflect later” thing. (Let’s not forget, the first episode included a character who’d become a serial killer for the love of Torchwood – and who killed herself onscreen. That’s pretty dark.)

The big question for me is what they’re going to do with Captain Jack – the second and third episodes have suggested that he’s not the best person to look after the kids he’s surrounded himself with, what with being an amoral bisexual seducer, but also that he’s so damn attractive that you probably wouldn’t care. Gwen’s relationship with her partner – who’s been laboriously established as a boring old Welsh spud – is going to be one to watch, I think.

One last update 2/11

It occurred to me today – not that I’m brooding over this obsessively or anything – that the key to Captain Jack may be that odd scene with Gwen where he told her that he couldn’t die, and added that if he could find “the right kind of doctor” he might become mortal again. We all spotted the D-word, of course, but was there something else going on there? Why would somebody who’d just survived being shot in the head want to be mortal again? What this suggests to me is that, despite all the tall buildings and general Neoish posturing, the Captain Jack we’re seeing is damaged goods. He’s survived a major trauma (none more major) and been abandoned by his closest friends – and now, perhaps, he’s trying to outrun the effects by turning stress into duty (“Gotta be ready!”).

Alternatively, perhaps it really is just a load of old tosh.

Driving aloud

He was writing in 1959 (and he was wrong about the helicopters), but Debord got driving right:

A mistake made by all urban planners is to consider the private car (and its by-products, such as the motorcycle) as essentially a means of transport. In reality, it is the most notable material symbol of the notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread throughout society.

Isolated and in charge, every driver is (in fantasy at least) being driven, being transported; every man his own chauffeur! Every driver is a privileged being, someone superior to everything else in sight. Get these dead bodies off my racetrack! I wonder whether cycling incarnates – or, less ambitiously, symbolises – an alternative notion of happiness. I sense that it could: the obdurate materiality of cycling – the unavoidable contact with the road and the weather, not to mention the effort it takes to get anywhere – suggests a much more physically engaged, and much more egalitarian, vision of travel than driving can ever be. (The same goes for walking and for public transport, pretty much.)

But driving isolates. I feel similarly about wearing headphones in public – which these days I almost never do, train journeys excepted. One of the most uncanny musical experiences I’ve had occurred when I was sitting on a bus with the Gang of Four’s third album on my walkman:

Everybody is in too many pieces
No man’s land surrounds our desires
To crack the shell we mix with others
Some lie in the arms of loversThe city is the place to be
With no money you go crazy
I need an occupation
You have to pay for satisfaction

We live as we dream, alone
To crack the shell we mix with others
Some flirt with fascism
Some lie in the arms of lovers

It was an extraordinary combination: on one hand there was the power of the music – Hugo Burnham’s drumming is mixed really high on that track – and the awful minatory aptness of the lyrics; on the other, there was the awareness that, vast and all-embracing as the sound was for me, nobody else could hear itWe live as we dream, alone – never more so than when listening to music on headphones.

Or listening to music in a car – and when I’m driving, alone, I almost always have music on. (If you’re going to be locked into a dream of mechanical omnipotence, you might as well control the soundtrack.) Some songs work particularly well for me. For short and familiar journeys, a particular kind of lyric can be good. About eighteen years ago I discovered Prefab Sprout’s first album (Swoon) and loved it instantly. What I responded to was the lyrics, and particularly the sense that Paddy McAloon didn’t care whether anyone understood them or not:

Are they happy to see you? No,
You always bring trouble.
Cast a shadow on Mexico -
Denial doesn’t change facts.

Unlike Wire (say) the disjointedness didn’t seem showy or self-indulgent; I felt that he knew perfectly well what he was talking about, and if nobody else got the point, too bad for everybody else. (Prefab Sprout’s subsequent albums have nothing like this wilfully cryptic quality, more’s the pity, although you can hear a bit of it on McAloon’s peculiar solo album I trawl the Megahertz.)

I got something like the same vibe from “To you alone” by the much-lamented Beta Band, which for some time was a fixture for short journeys in town:

She’s like the snow-capped trees in my jigsaw,
Loose at the seams with inferior dreams
She’s like a fool that you meet in the heart store
Hand in the pail and the blacker the veil,
The blacker the veil…

I have no idea what Steve Mason is talking about here, but when you listen to the track he seems to know. And after a few listens they’re great lyrics to sing, talk or mutter along to, half-consciously, while the other half of your consciousness deals with the same old traffic lights and gear-changes.

The other great boon for town driving is the song that makes the experience seem more exciting than it really is (which mostly, after all, it really isn’t). Volume is important here. The Dandy Warhols’ “We used to be friends” works well, particularly if you can time it so that the car is at least in motion when the bass kicks in. Super Furry Animals’ “Ice hockey hair” is also good, particularly for journeys that don’t last much longer than its 6:57 duration.

Motorway driving is another matter – apart from anything else, most of the time there’s no point picking out individual tracks. But I can think of a few recurring situations which have their own ideal soundtrack.

For beautiful but long and unchanging stretches of motorway, particularly where the road curves gently in one direction or the other for miles at a stretch, so that you can watch an evenly-spaced series of vehicles ahead of you passing down the curve like beads on a wire: The Divine Comedy, “Eric the Gardener”. Orchestrated by Joby Talbot, this song is built around a six-note phrase which repeats, unaltered, throughout the song’s 8 minutes and 26 seconds (not counting a patch towards the end where it fades out before coming back in). All this while oceanic strings sweep over you, like nothing so much as that J.G. Ballard short story where somebody has the experience of drowning in the hugely-amplified sound of a kiss. The lyrics are about a metal-detector enthusiast (viz. Eric), and about history, and how history has always got to the world before you:

Dig deep and dig some more
Dig to the planet’s core
Dig till you’ve gone out of your mind
But all you will ever really find
Is Eric the gardener

Chilling and strange, and beautiful – and mesmeric, and very long.

For driving down a stretch of unfamiliar motorway after realising you’ve missed the junction you wanted, not knowing how far it is until the next roundabout but wanting to get there as quickly as possible, in the rain: Ed Kuepper, “Today Wonder”. From the album of the same name – which is a record of some casual and unhurried sessions with guitar and drumkit – “Today Wonder” consists mainly of a medley of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp” and Eric Burdon’s “White Houses”; Burdon has recorded “Hey Gyp”, so I should imagine he came up with the medley first. I don’t know how many chords Ed Kuepper plays in “Today Wonder”, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if the answer was ‘two’; he’s the kind of guitarist who doesn’t seem to play a chord the same way twice. The effect here is of a dense, hypnotically repetitive pattern of strumming, overlaid with a shifting range of augmentations and pulls and, er, other things you can do to jazz up a guitar chord. It’s great – all the more so when combined with the yearning, frustrated and frankly rather pissed-off sound of Kuepper’s vocals:

Gonna buy you a Ford Mustang
Gonna buy you a wedding ring
Gonna buy you a mansion on a hill
If you’ll just give me some of your love
Please give me some of your love

For driving down an unfamiliar motorway in the dark, uncomfortably aware that you don’t know where you are or how to get to where you want to go, but stubbornly convinced that the next junction will give you enough information to tell whether you’re going the right way or not, or failing that the one after next: the Doors, “Break on through”. Or just about anything else by the Doors, within reason. It can be an unforgettable experience. I drove about sixty miles listening to the Doors’ Greatest Hits, once. I was only going from Reading to Bracknell.

For the M25, and in particular for sitting stock still in the second of four lanes, in the sun, completely surrounded by equally stationary traffic, but unable to relax for a second in case the queue started to move again as it had done several minutes ago: Soft Machine, “Facelift”. Or, more generally, the wonderful Hux double CD of [the] Soft Machine’s BBC sessions from 1967 to 1971 – but there’s something about the sheer self-confidence and abrasiveness of “Facelift” that makes it particularly relaxing, somehow.

There’s a fugal, “go away, I’m busy” quality to this and to several of the other tracks I’ve listed here; I’m not sure if that’s what makes them particularly well suited to driving, which is fundamentally a rather strange, alienated experience. I’m not sure whether they assuage or exacerbate it, either. As my use of words like ‘hypnotic’ up there suggests, part of what’s going on here is that the music gives part of your mind something to chew on while the rest concentrates on manoeuvring a large and solid lump of metal at high speed. Perhaps this is a dangerous luxury, and driving in near-silence would induce the driver to devote all of his or her attention to the road. Or perhaps, in the world behind the windscreen, silence just creates more scope for free-association and daydreaming – perhaps the driver with music on is actually less distracted, by virtue of having something to concentrate against.

It’s a strange world, the world we drive in, but it’s a world that can change (and may soon have to). Debord:

The breaking up of the dialectic of the human milieu in favor of cars (the projected motorways in Paris will entail the demolition of thousands of houses and flats although the housing crisis is continually worsening) masks its irrationality under pseudopractical justifications. But it is practically necessary only in the context of a specific social set-up. Those who believe that the particulars of the problem are permanent want in fact to believe in the permanence of the present society.

Step right up and show your face

The following letter appeared in the 20th October Independent.

Sir: My fellow countrymen seem bewildered by the niqab, a bewilderment rapidly turning into anger and repulsion; but it is just a simple garment with a simple purpose.Every other person in Britain has been affected by infidelity, and it all boils down to either party having been charmed by someone else, hence losing interest. Britons are so used to this reality that they view any means of prevention, however logical, as absurd and futile.

Dress code plays an integral part in the promotion of fidelity in a society. Islam seeks to preserve the family and quash promiscuity. Immodest dress is a direct cause of this vice. As for men, in Islam they need to be in the world of work for most of their day, and wearing similar clothing would be a major impediment. Islam prescribes this formula as the only way to attain harmony and peace in marital life.

Do commentators and politicians honestly believe an extra garment worn only outside the house means a woman loses her meaning, her value, her self? This is a backward and oppressive concept which amazingly is being referred to as “progressive” and “empowering”.

A woman in niqab is not a mere shadow; she has family and friends who know and appreciate her. They are the only people she is concerned with and who should be concerned with her. A friend of mine complained: “For God’s sake, I have a great life, I have a family, friends, go to parties, and everyone I know knows me. The only people who I haven’t been quality-stamped by is the public, and I don’t see why I need to be.”

I and many other Muslim women view the present furore as nothing but a politicised version of being nosey.

Women’s faces should be concealed, lest they charm another woman’s husband. Promiscuity is a vice. Sex is dangerous. Sex is caused by women’s attractiveness to men.

Men need to be in the world of work. Women don’t.

A woman’s family and (presumably female) friends are the only people she is concerned with and who should be concerned with her.

I grew up in a society which had been deeply affected by the achievements of the women’s liberation movement and its successors. As a result, I grew up in a society where attitudes like those expressed in this letter would be laughed at, or at best treated with pity and scorn. I don’t respect these attitudes or the practices which derive from them; I don’t believe they deserve respect. I believe they’re an insult both to women and to men, and should be criticised on those grounds.

This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be tolerated. The most worrying thing about the current furore about the veil is that the difference between tolerance and respect seems to have been forgotten or obscured, on both sides of the debate. Defenders of the niqab argue that it’s just one more outwardly visible sign of religious observance, like a crucifix or a turban, and should be respected as such; I don’t need to restate my disagreement with this position. But critics of the niqab go to the opposite extreme, arguing not only that the niqab is objectionable but that women should be asked – or compelled – to remove it. I detest the niqab – come to that, I’m not at all keen on hijab in general, which seems to me to embody very much the same set of sexist assumptions – but I was shocked and offended by Jack Straw’s casual revelation that he asks niqab-wearers to unveil. I find myself in qualified agreement with this columnist from the Arab News:

Mrs. Azmi was suspended not because she is Muslim but because she is unable to perform her job to the standard that parents have a right to expect for their children. If she believes that it is her religious duty to wear the full-face veil — as she does — then clearly she cannot be asked to remove it, but neither can she expect to teach in a mixed-gender environment. I have no doubt that Aishah Azmi is a dedicated and capable teacher but she should be teaching at a single-gender school where she can be free to teach without a face cover. Clearly she knows this since she did not wear a face covering to her job interview at the school.There are a host of jobs that Muslims cannot undertake. Some, like wine tasting, are out of bounds for men and women. Others, like being a lifeguard, are out of bounds for veiled women. It is in the nature of the job. It is ludicrous to cry racial discrimination because the job we wish to do is incompatible with our religious customs.

One final note on the sexism of the niqab. Apparently Aishah Azmi was happy to teach a class of children unveiled, as long as she could replace the veil if a male member of staff came into the room. Picture the scene: a man comes into the room, the woman hides her face. What message does that send to the girls in the class? What message does it send to the boys?

PS Fortuitously, Brian (who didn’t grow up in the 1970s) has been thinking along similar lines.

Update 23/10
Rob, in comments: “to tolerate something requires that you disapprove of it”

Interesting angle. Apparently on Question Time the other night the idea that this is historically a tolerant society (and so why should we have a problem with this?) got a lot of play. My first reaction to hearing this was to laugh out loud – we may live in a society which respects non-white and non-Christian cultures now, but it sure as hell wasn’t like that in the 1960s and 1970s, to go back no further than that. (Flicker of sympathy for the anti-Islamophobia lobby at this point. On the anti-racism front we’ve come a long way, in quite a short time.)

But tolerance – in the sense of “I think the way you live is wrong but you’ve got a right to carry on doing it, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else” – probably is better-rooted in this society than intolerance (“I know the way you live is wrong and you’ve got to stop it right now”). And it’s intolerance, of course, which Straw and Kelly play to. All very communitarian, in New Labour’s understanding of the word – compare Cameron’s ostentatious tolerance of ‘hoodies’.

(There’s a difference between tolerance (public attitude) and toleration (official stance), but since Straw & co are effectively playing both ends – evoking intolerance in support of decreased toleration – the difference may not make much difference in this case.)

Update 30/10

DUKE.
Is this the witness, friar?
First let her show her face, and after speak.

MARIANA.
Pardon, my lord; I will not show my face
Until my husband bid me.

DUKE.
What! are you married?

MARIANA.
No, my lord.

DUKE.
Are you a maid?

MARIANA.
No, my lord.

DUKE.
A widow, then?

MARIANA.
Neither, my lord.

DUKE.
Why, you are nothing then: neither maid, widow, nor wife?

LUCIO.
My lord, she may be a punk; for many of them are neither maid,
widow, nor wife.

[From Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1. 'Punk' = prostitute]

Karen Armstrong (via Rob) makes some excellent points drawing on her own experience of veiling as a member of a Catholic religious community [sic], a group which has attracted its own share of opprobrium in this country:

When my order was founded in the 1840s, not long after Catholic emancipation, people were so enraged to see nuns brazenly wearing their habits in the streets that they pelted them with rotten fruit and horse dung. Nuns had been banned from Britain since the Reformation; their return seemed to herald the resurgence of barbarism.

She also brings out the history of governmental and imperial oppression which official demands to un-veil bring with them. It’s as well to be reminded that reactionary customs may be a resource of resistance to the coercion of state-sponsored liberalism.

And yet, and yet. There’s a large hole in Armstrong’s argument; she ignores or obscures the crucial difference between the nun’s veil and the niqab. To take the veil is to devote oneself to God: it’s an emblem of withdrawal from any kind of involvement with society or with men, and of being set apart from the great majority of women. To become a nun, in a time when the options for women are defined by their relationship with a man (maid, widow [or] wife – or prostitute), was to refuse a role in a gender-defined social structure; for some women it could be an act of self-determination, even rebellion. To put on the niqab is an act of religious duty, and it’s an emblem of withdrawal from involvement with male-dominated society, but these similarities are deceptive. The niqab-wearer’s withdrawal from society goes along with a continuing relationship with one man (and his children). It’s a way of living within the framework of maid, widow or wife, not withdrawing from it – and its advocates recommend it for all women, even (or especially) those women who are already actively refusing to live a life defined by gender roles. If putting on the niqab is a rebellion, it’s a rebellion against self-determination. In many respects it’s the polar opposite of the nun’s veil.

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