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.

Don’t go changing

I recently read Alison Lurie’s New York Review of Books article on C.S. Lewis and Narnia. It’s worth reading, if you haven’t seen it; her Guardian article includes some of the same material but is much shorter.

This, in particular, leapt out at me:

Many readers have been infuriated by Lewis’s final condemnation of Susan Pevensie, the former wise and gentle Queen Susan, as “no longer a friend of Narnia.” In The Last Battle she is cast out of Paradise forever because at twenty-one she speaks of her earlier experiences as only a childhood fantasy, and is “too keen on being grown up” and “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Apart from the fact that these seem very minor sins, it is hard to believe that Susan could have changed that much and forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. Apologists have claimed that her banishment was necessary to demonstrate that even those who have once been saved can fall from grace. Nevertheless it has seemed deeply unfair to many readers that Edmund, Susan’s younger brother, who has betrayed the others to the White Witch, is allowed to repent and stay in Narnia, while Susan, whose faults are much less serious, is not given the opportunity.

It’s not a new criticism, but I think Lurie’s wording is particularly forceful: it is hard to believe that Susan could have … forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. What this brings home to me – the last phrase in particular – is that, if Aslan is (more or less) Christ, then Susan had been as much a Christian as the other three children; if belief in Aslan equates (roughly) to Christian salvation, then Susan had been saved. But nylons and lipstick and invitations were enough to damn her – quite literally, as the Last Battle ends with Aslan enacting the final division of sheep and goats.

There’s an interesting defence of Lewis on this point on a blog written by two Christians:

Lewis is at this point deliberately illustrating a very Christian contrast, between the forgiveness Jesus holds out to even the very worst person who turns away from their sin, and the rejection Jesus promises for those who finally reject him:

I tell you that any sinful thing you do or say can be forgiven. Matthew 12:31 (CEV)The master will surely come on a day and at a time when the servant least expects him. That servant will then be punished and thrown out with the ones who only pretended to serve their master. Matthew 24:50-51 (CEV)

Jesus himself told a story about the jealousy that this free offer of forgiveness arouses in some people, in Matthew 20:1-16. The idea of unmerited forgiveness does seem “unfair” to us, but it is also unfair to accuse Lewis of carelessness in this instance, where he is in fact being careful to follow what Jesus taught.

It’s a fair point, but it doesn’t go far enough. The real problem is that, in order to illustrate this contrast, Lewis put a traitor to Aslan in the role of repentant sinner, and made his despiser of God a young woman who liked going to parties. In other words, as Lurie says, Lewis ‘allowed’ Edmund but not Susan to repent. The same contrast could just as well have been worked in reverse, with the committed opponent of Aslan turned away from salvation and the worldly backslider seeing the error of her ways. Susan even had form in the matter of backsliding and redemption: one of her main functions in Prince Caspian is to doubt Aslan and then regain her belief in him. But by the time of The Last Battle, Susan’s worldly unbelief seems to have hardened, in Lewis’s mind, into something worse: she ends up in very much the same position as the characters in the Last Battle who genuinely opposed Aslan. Admittedly we don’t actually see her being cast out into the darkness – but we certainly don’t see her in the Narnia-beyond-Narnia which is Lewis’s final vision of Heaven. She doesn’t even end up marooned in Heaven while not believing in it, the ironic fate of a group of selfish and mistrustful dwarfs – they’re good-hearted underneath, presumably.

So what’s going on here? Philip Pullman got this mostly right:

Susan … is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.

(Lewis: When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown-up.) Susan hasn’t simply taken sides against Aslan rather than for him; she’s changed, in a way that takes her right out of the Narnian picture. The adult Susan is somebody for whom belief in Aslan – i.e. Christianity – is neither a good thing nor a particularly bad one; she doesn’t think in those terms. And this transition, for Lewis, is far worse than the transition from virtue to sin. Not to care about sin is the truly unforgivable sin – which is to say, it’s the sin which determines the sinner not to seek forgiveness. And, for Lewis, the desire to be very grown-up, and in particular the desire to be a grown woman, is incompatible with caring about sin – so into the outer darkness with Queen Susan.

I think this is just how it was for Lewis – which in turn makes you wonder about how his mind worked. What kind of religion is it that makes indifference to itself the worst possible sin? Or rather, indifference to religion – the ranks of the saved, at the end of The Last Battle, include lifelong worshippers of Tash (the bloodthirsty god of the swarthy Calormenes), but no atheists (with the possible exception of those dwarfs). The bad news is that being good doesn’t get you into Heaven unless you’re also a believer; the good news is that it doesn’t much matter what you’re a believer in. To believe in something is the main thing: something beyond; something other; something not here. To do good is a good thing – which is reasonably uncontroversial; say what you will about Christianity, it’s hard to argue that Love thy neighbour as thyself is bad advice (particularly when coupled with the “Good Samaritan” gloss on the ‘neighbour’ part). But doing good for no other reason than that it’s a good thing isn’t virtue; to be virtuous, good deeds need to be done for the sake of something utterly removed from the people they actually benefit. To be virtuous, in other words, is to do good not because it’s good but because it’s right: to judge your actions by criteria entirely different from the question of whether other people benefit or suffer from them.

It’s this abstract, disciplined calculus of virtue which is threatened by the onset of nylons and lipstick and invitations. For Lewis, growing up – becoming a sexual being, not to put too fine a point on it – was a fall from grace, not because adulthood meant living in sin but because it meant living in the world. The world we know, Lewis believed, is only a poor shadow of a real world we can only know through the imagination. As early as the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis rhapsodises about the vividness, intensity and power of Narnian experience, then cautions his readers that, regretfully, we had never experienced anything like it and never would. (Neither had he, of course.) The land where the three good Pevensies go, at the end of The Last Battle, is described as brighter and more vivid – more real – than even Narnia. Lewis’s vision recalls the sad but ghastly words of Christina Rossetti in “In the bleak midwinter”:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold him
Nor Earth sustain
Heaven and Earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign

To be a Christian, for Rossetti, is to worship God and commit oneself to Him, in the consciousness that our God is greater than anything we know and anything we can imagine. God has no imaginable connection with the world; the Incarnation is more tragic than glorious, and more pathetic than tragic. In this perspective, to withdraw from immediate sensuous engagement with the world – and to devote oneself to oceanic fantasies of being ever more utterly abased, ever more utterly known, ever more utterly forgiven – was not a retreat from reality but a closer approach to it. Further up and further in!

If that’s what Narnia stands for, I’m with Susan. As Pullman says, Lewis’s version of Christianity is not only shot through with racist, sexist and elitist attitudes; at a much more fundamental level, it’s ‘anti-life’.

Serene machine

There’s a lot to dislike about Serenity, but…

Actually, no – there’s not much to dislike about Serenity. (Joss Whedon’s address to the fans, now, that is dislikeable. It’s three parts you-guys-are-great motivational pitch, two parts my-mental-horizons-are-expanding-right-now! Emersonian wonderment and one of saving irony; it’s very American, in other words. But you can always ignore it and just watch the film.)

Serenity does have one big flaw and one major weakness. The flaw is closely related to one of the film’s great strengths: the dialogue. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon gave the world an unprecedented three-way hybrid – genre-based action crossed with teen heartache, presented in language as mannered and frivolous as Wilde. (Sure, it looks easy now…) Serenity is coming from the same world, only with grownups instead of teenagers and outer space instead of the occult. But the language… Here are two excerpts:

- This landing is gonna get pretty interesting.
- Define “interesting”.
- “Oh God oh God we’re all going to die”?

This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.

There’s a scene early on in Good morning Vietnam, when Robin Williams’ manically free-associating DJ first lets rip. After a few minutes he finds a gap in his stream of consciousness big enough to fit a record in; then he kills the mike, looks up and says “Too much?” For a moment it’s as if Robin Williams is seeking reassurance from the director of the film. Of course it wasn’t too much, it wasn’t that kind of film; in real life it would have been enough to get the guy suspended from army radio pending psychiatric reports, but never mind. (The true story on which GMV was based is a quieter affair, by all accounts.) But either one of the lines quoted above verges on too much, and using them both in the same scene tips the film momentarily from ‘adventure film with gags’ to ‘Airplane with SFX’. Joss Whedon’s a fine writer, particularly with regard to the cracking of wise, but as a director he needs to rein that writer in.

Still, there really isn’t a lot to dislike about Serenity – and there is a lot to like, starting with the great majority of the dialogue. I liked the odd, sketched-in back-story, and the way the names of the characters ranged from Star Trek-standard (‘Inara’, ‘Shepherd Book’, ‘Fanty and Mingo’) to just plain standard (‘Malcolm Reynolds’). I liked the ventures into Andre Norton ‘space Western’ territory (two genres, count ‘em), and the way Whedon is clearly conscious of going there: at one point our heroes are driving across a semi-desert planet pursued by a gang of savages who want to kill them, and sure enough, arrows begin thudding into the ship. (Possibly spears, but the resonance was there.) I liked the technology, which has a solid, grungey, Chris-Foss-with-rust quality to it: the ship being chased through the scrub looks like nothing so much as a JCB, albeit one which (to paraphrase Douglas Adams) is flying through the air in exactly the way a JCB doesn’t.

I also liked the acting, even if there were too many characters to keep track of – as the Star Trek films have shown, you can’t do as much with an ensemble cast over the length of a film as you can across a series. (Most of the problems with the film, major and minor, come back to it being a spinoff from Whedon’s cancelled TV series Firefly, which had the same setting and most of the same cast; to put it more bluntly, the trouble with the film is that it is a film and not a TV series.) I particularly liked what were effectively the two male leads, the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Operative (who wasn’t in Firefly) and Nathan Fillion as Mal (who was). Before Firefly Fillion was in Buffy, towards the end – he played Caleb, the backwoods hellfire preacher who had gone to the bad and kept on going. Personally I didn’t think much of him, but I think now the problem was more with the character than the actor. Mal is a great character. He gives the impression of blundering through life without much to sustain him but his determination to keep on blundering through, and of being the captain of the ship for no real reason other than that somebody had to do it. That, and a deep but unfussed love for the ship and its crew, and the determination to keep the show on the road for as long as possible. It’s the ordinary bloke as leader, essentially; it appealed to me. Fillion brings it off well, particularly the anti-heroic moments where Mal’s inner shallows come out:

- Zoe, the ship is yours. Remember, if anything happens to me, or you don’t hear from me within the hour… you take this ship and you come and you rescue me.

- Do you want to run this ship?
- Yes!
- Well… you can’t!

He also delivers one particularly fine line of dialogue which I won’t quote – it’s the last line of the last deleted scene on the DVD. It’s a good scene – an exception to the general rule that deleted scenes were deleted for a reason.

As for the film’s major weakness, it’s the plot. Without giving away too much, the film sets up a horrifically evil force early on, apparently as part of the back-story scenery. Much later, this force turns out to be centrally involved in the main plot of the film, in an entirely unexpected way. I was left feeling that there was something wrong about this – it didn’t seem to work as a feature-film plot motor. I don’t know if any of the plot of the film figured in Firefly, but it seem to me that what Whedon gave us wasn’t so much a plot as a story arc – a theme which could run underneath a series of plots, occasionally affecting the way they developed, before being resolved at the end of a series. (Think “Dawn as the Key” or “Faith and the Mayor”.) If you take that out, the plot of Serenity boils down to two people chasing each other – and in the end they both get away.

But perhaps we wouldn’t want it any other way: a good plot has a resolution, and resolutions end things. Even Buffy ended, after the total implosion of Sunnydale, with the casual revelation that there was another Hellmouth out there (Cleveland, apparently). Harry Shearer once said that the reason Hollywood studios don’t get comedy is that in comedy you don’t want your characters to go on a journey or learn a lesson – you want them stuck, like Laurel and Hardy on the steps with their piano, and you want them to stay stuck. Something similar applies to genre fiction, perhaps. Having met Mal and his crew, I feel about them very much as I do about Buffy – I don’t want to know how they got to be ‘brown coats’, and I certainly don’t want to know about what happened after they gave it all up and settled down. But I wouldn’t mind another story about them flying the ship, going where they go, doing what they do. This one was fun.

You young people

100 years ago:

To be blunt, the problem is a large majority of Labour MPs in the Commons; it’s only going to be addressed by reducing that majority.But what would that get us, apart from making the Whips work for a living and preventing another disaster like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which isn’t nothing)? The obvious answer is, of course, “Blair out”. I wonder about this; I wonder if anything short of a hung parliament would loosen the man’s grip on power. But let’s go with it: on May 6th Labour is returned with a majority of 35 (say), and on May 7th the knives are out for Blair. And then what?

When I first started thinking about this scenario I came up with all sorts of possibilities involving four- or five-way internecine warfare within the Labour Party: Blairites vs Brownites vs Old Labour (right) vs OL (Campaign Group) vs OL (left but anti-CG)… It could get extremely messy, and extremely interesting in terms of who would come out owing favours to whom. It won’t, though, for the simple reason that Blairites are serious about power (as, indeed, are Brownites). As soon as Brown emerged as the front runner (i.e. almost immediately) the Sensational Tony Blair Machine Without Tony would swing behind him, and it would all be over bar the shouting.

Blairites vs Brownites vs Old Labour (right) vs OL (Campaign Group) vs OL (left but anti-CG)… I don’t know what possessed me to nominate ‘Old Labour (right)’ as a runner – most of them jumped ship to either Blair or Brown long ago – but apart from that I think I called it pretty well. ‘Old Labour, left but not Campaign Group’ won’t have their own candidate, but the way they break between the other non-McDonnell candidates will be interesting and may be significant. Watch for the apologias: Alan Johnson is still a trade unionist at heart; Why Brown/Cruddas is the dream ticket

The last couple of sentences, though… how wrong you can be. There’s a song by Peter Hamill which sums up a certain kind of anti-political cynical populism, the kind of sentiment which seems at once radical and common-sense (a combination I always distrust):

Politicians fight it out on the conning-tower
But they all agree not to rock the boat

That’s just the trouble with populism: no imagination. I don’t see much sign of that gentleman’s agreement in the Labour Party at the moment. I see factions fighting like rats in a sack, and be damned to what happens to the country (or other countries) as a result. It’s one of those moments when political spectacle starts to present itself as such – compelling but distant, autonomous and utterly unaccountable – so brazen is its participants’ disdain for their audience, the voters. It’s disgusting, but it’s still fascinating. Equally: it’s fascinating, but it’s still disgusting.

Top tip for any would-be late entrant in the contest: change your name by deed poll to None Of The Above. You’d walk it.

171.69

The British land speed record currently stands at 300.3 mph. It doesn’t look as if Richard Hammond will be the driver to break it.

If ‘driver’ is the word. News coverage of the Hammond story has stressed how unlike a car, in any familiar sense of the word, was the thing that Hammond tried and failed to guide down a track. Apparently there’s some form of steering, but apart from that you’ve got a jet engine and some parachutes and, er, that’s it.

No disrespect to the neurally-injured Hammond, but I can’t help feeling that’s not driving. Parry Thomas, now, there was a driver. He was also the chief engineer of Leyland Ltd, but it’s as a driver that he’ll be remembered, or deserves to be. He was the last driver to set the (world) land speed record on a racetrack (Brooklands, where else?); in one extraordinary contemporary film-clip, Thomas’s long-nosed 1920s racer scoots casually past everything else on the track, looking for all the world as if everyone else was standing still.

But there were limits to what you could do on a circuit, and Thomas (along with rivals like Malcolm Campbell) needed space. Hence his choice of the seven-mile beach at Pendine in South Wales, where in 1926 he pushed the record up to 169.30 mph and then to 171.02 (or, in some accounts, 172.33). His car Babs was a heavily-modified Higham Special, bought from the estate of the racing driver Louis Zborowski (killed at Monza in 1924); Thomas even fitted pistons of his own design.

Enter Campbell, who in January 1927 took the record back with a speed of 174.22 mph (or possibly 174.88). In response Thomas took Babs back to Pendine. On the 3rd of March 1927, at a speed of anything up to 180 mph, he lost control of Babs; the car skidded off course, turned over and crashed, killing him instantly.

Babs was buried in the sand, and since then the beach has never again been used for speed trials. There was some talk of mounting a British land speed record attempt there in 2007, supposedly to tie in with the eightieth anniversary of Campbell’s 174 mph; it may not come to anything, particularly after Hammond’s crash. Personally, I’d have thought another eightieth was a bit more pressing.

Babs was buried in the sand, anyway, but it didn’t stay there. In 1969 the car was dug up by a local enthusiast who wanted to rebuild it; my family lived in Pendine at the time, and I vividly remember the exhumation. I remember that my father, who was the Senior Administrative Officer on the local military base, was involved in some capacity – although, thinking about it now, it was probably a “here comes the SAO, look busy” kind of capacity. Eventually Babs was rebuilt, and it now takes pride of place in the Museum of Speed a mile or so down Pendine Sands. It’s well worth a look if you’re passing – and Pendine is well worth passing. (No, I mean it’s well worth passing that way in order to visit… never mind.)

I’d like to say that Parry Thomas was the last British holder of the land speed record, or the last to break the record in Britain, or the last to do so in something even vaguely resembling a car, or something – but history’s not that neat. Nevertheless, you don’t break land speed records these days in a car with a piston engine, and you certainly don’t do it in Britain. Parry Thomas’s death may not have ended an era, but it was very much of an era, and one which doesn’t seem much less distant now than Stephenson’s Rocket.

Footnote: the speed in the title comes from the Tea Set’s 1979 tribute to Thomas. I haven’t seen it anywhere else; all the sources I’ve seen set Thomas’s record-breaking speed either lower or higher. He was going pretty bloody fast, anyway.

Just to keep you from danger

An open-and shut case?

The charge alleges the force “failed to conduct its undertaking, namely the investigation, surveillance, pursuit and detention of a suspected suicide bomber, in such a way as to ensure that the person not in its employment (namely Jean Charles de Menezes) was not thereby exposed to risks to his health or safety”.

Apparently not.

In a statement released after the hearing, the Met said the prosecution was based on actions taken by officers facing “extraordinarily difficult circumstances” on that day. It said they were “not criminal acts” and that the officers had the support of the force.It went on: “The decision to defend the case has been reached after the most careful consideration. It is not about diminishing the tragedy of Jean Charles de Menezes’ death.

“We see it as a test case not only for policing in London but for the police service nationally. It also has implications for the general public in that it concerns the ability of the police service to protect the public at large when carrying out armed operations.

“We also profoundly question whether health and safety at work legislation, originally designed over 30 years ago to protect employees in the workplace or those affected by commercial enterprises, is the right ‘vehicle’ for evaluating the actions of an emergency service in relation to decisions made during fast-time, life-at-risk anti-terrorist policing operations.”

There are a couple of interesting aspects to this. One is the apparent absence of wiggle room in the charge brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. Whether ‘criminal acts’ were committed, whether officers faced difficult circumstances or whether the individuals responsible enjoy the support of the force: these are not issues. The CPS isn’t even asking whether the risk to the public posed by police action was avoidable, let alone whether it was in some sense acceptable. The question is whether the Metropolitan Police, collectively, conducted anti-terrorist operations in such a way as to avoid endangering the life of Jean Charles de Menezes. Defending the Met against that charge isn’t a brief I’d like to take.

That said, it seems unlikely that the Met’s defence case will rest on the claim that they didn’t put de Menezes at risk. One line of defence is hinted at by the (otherwise baffling) comment that the case concerns the ability of the police service to protect the public at large. As a member of the public at large, that’s very much my own view of the prosecution, and one reason why I’d like it to succeed. The police statement presumably intends a different inference: to convict the people responsible for de Menezes’ death, by implication, would make it harder for the police to protect the public at large. We shouldn’t hold one death against them – after all, another time that guy running for the train with a Metro under his arm might actually be a suicide bomber, and if they couldn’t shoot him down like a dog we’d all be sorry. Well, maybe.

The Met’s other line of defence concerns the appropriateness of Health and Safety legislation. I’m in two minds about this. On one hand, you can see their point – this isn’t legislation that was drafted with police work in mind, and to have it apply to anti-terrorist policing seems particularly incongruous. On the other, the argument against having it apply seems shaky. Should the police be exempted from a duty of care towards the public – or at least, a duty not to put the public’s lives at risk? Should armed police? It’s not an appealing thought. As for this specific case, criminal charges against the officers responsible a prosecution for corporate manslaughter would be more conventional – but, since that isn’t likely to happen offence doesn’t exist in English law, a Health and Safety prosecution is hard to argue with. [Thanks to Chris for pointing out the obvious problem with my initial thoughts. It was late.]

So it’s an odd case, but I think the charge is fundamentally sound – and, as it stands, unchallengeable. My only real misgivings concern what happens when it gets to court (not until next January); I hope for the best and fear the worst. In particular, I fear that the Met and its allies in the press will play up the novelty of a Health and Safety prosecution – conveniently ignoring the absence of any other prosecution – and harp on the vital importance of anti-terrorist work. At worst, the Met could end up laughing the case out of court – and securing themselves a Get Out Of Jail Free card in the process, against the day they screw up again and kill another innocent passer-by.

Mind how you go.

The people with the answers

Nick:

Larry Sanger, the controversial online encyclopedia’s cofounder and leading apostate, announced yesterday, at a conference in Berlin, that he is spearheading the launch of a competitor to Wikipedia called The Citizendium. Sanger describes it as “an experimental new wiki project that combines public participation with gentle expert guidance.”The Citizendium will begin as a “fork” of Wikipedia, taking all of Wikipedia’s current articles and then editing them under a new model that differs substantially from the model used by what Sanger calls the “arguably dysfunctional” Wikipedia community. “First,” says Sanger, in explaining the primary differences, “the project will invite experts to serve as editors, who will be able to make content decisions in their areas of specialization, but otherwise working shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary authors. Second, the project will require that contributors be logged in under their own real names, and work according to a community charter. Third, the project will halt and actually reverse some of the ‘feature creep’ that has developed in Wikipedia.”

I’ve been thinking about Wikipedia, and about what makes a bad Wikipedia article so bad, for some time – this March 2005 post took off from some earlier remarks by Larry Sanger. I’m not attempting to pass judgment on Wikipedia as a whole – there are plenty of good Wikipedia articles out there, and some of them are very good indeed. But some of them are bad. Picking on an old favourite of mine, here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the Red Brigades, with my comments.

The Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse in Italian, often abbreviated as BR) are

The word is ‘were’. The BR dissolved in 1981; its last successor group gave up the ghost in 1988. There’s a small and highly violent group out there somewhere which calls itself “Nuove Brigate Rosse” – the New Red Brigades – but its continuity with the original BR is zero. This is a significant disagreement, to put it mildly.

a militant leftist group located in Italy. Formed in 1970, the Marxist Red Brigades

‘Marxist’ is a bizarre choice of epithet. Most of the Italian radical left was Marxist, and almost all of it declined to follow the BR’s lead. Come to that, the Italian Communist Party (one of the BR’s staunchest enemies) was Marxist. Terry Eagleton’s a Marxist; Jeremy Hardy’s a Marxist; I’m a Marxist myself, pretty much. The BR had a highly unusual set of political beliefs, somewhere between Maoism, old-school Stalinism and pro-Tupamaro insurrectionism. ‘Maoist’ would do for a one-word summary. ‘Marxist’ is both over-broad and misleading.

sought to create a revolutionary state through armed struggle

Well, yes. And no. I mean, I don’t think it’s possible to make any sense of the BR without acknowledging that, while they did have a famous slogan about portare l’attacco al cuore dello stato (‘attacking at the heart of the state’), their anti-state actions were only a fairly small element of what they did. To begin with they were a factory-based group, who took action against foremen and personnel managers; in their later years – which were also their peak years – the BR, like other armed groups, got drawn into what was effectively a vendetta with the police, prioritising revenge attacks over any kind of ‘revolutionary’ programme. You could say that the BR were a revolutionary organisation & consequently had a revolutionary programme throughout, even if their actions didn’t always match it – but how useful would this be?

and to separate Italy from the Western Alliance

Whoa. I don’t think the BR were particularly in favour of Italy’s NATO membership, but the idea that this was one of their key goals is absurd. If the BR had been a catspaw for the KGB, intent on fomenting subversion so as to destabilise Italy, then this probably would have been high on their list. But they weren’t, and it wasn’t.

In 1978, they kidnapped and killed former Prime Minister Aldo Moro under obscure circumstances.

Remarkably well-documented circumstances, I’d have said.

After 1984′s scission

This is just wrong – following growing and unresolvable factionalism, the BR formally dissolved in October 1981.

Red Brigades managed with difficulty to survive the official end of the Cold War in 1989

This is both confused and wrong. Given that there was a split, how would the BR have survived beyond 1981 (or 1984), let alone 1989? As for the BR’s successor groups, the last one to pack it in was last heard from in 1988.

even though it is now a fragile group with no original members.

Or rather, even though the name is now used by a small group about which very little is know, but which is not believed to have any connection to the original group (whose members are after all knocking on a bit by now).

Throughout the 1970’s the Red Brigades were credited with 14,000 acts of violence.

Good grief. Credited by whom? According to the sources I’ve seen, between 1970 and 1981 Italian armed struggle groups were responsible for a total of 3,258 actions, including 110 killings; the BR’s share of the total came to 472 actions, including 58 killings. (Most ‘actions’ consisted of criminal damage and did not involve personal violence.) I’d be the first to admit that the precision of these figures is almost certainly spurious, but even if we doubled that figure of 472 we’d be an awful long way short of 14,000.

I’m not even going to look at the body of the article.

I think there are two main problems here; the good news is that Larry’s proposals for the neo-Wikipedia (Nupedia? maybe not) would address both of them.

Firstly, first mover advantage. The structure of Wikipedia creates an odd imbalance between writers and editors. Writing a new article is easy: the writer can use whatever framework he or she chooses, in terms both of categories used to structure the entry and of the overall argument of the piece. Making minor edits to an article is easy: mutter 1984? no way, it was 1981!, log on, a bit of typing and it’s done. But making major edits is hard – you can see from the comments above just how much work would be needed to make that BR article acceptable, starting from what’s there now. It would literally be easier to write a new article. What’s more, making edits stick is hard; I deleted one particularly ignorant falsehood from the BR article myself a few months ago, only to find my edit reverted the next day. (Of course, I re-reverted it. So there!)

Larry’s suggestion of getting experts on board is very much to the point here. Slap my face and call me a credentialled academic, but I don’t believe that everyone is equally qualified to write an encyclopedia article about their favourite topic – and I do think it matters who gets the first go.

Secondly, gaming the system. Wikipedia is a community as well as an encyclopedia. I’ll pass over Larry’s suggestion that Wikipedia is dysfunctional as a community, but I do think it’s arguable that some behaviours which work well for Wikipedia-the-community are dysfunctional for Wikipedia-the-resource. It’s been suggested, for instance, that what really makes Wikipedia special is the ‘history’ pages, which take the lid off the debate behind the encyclopedia and let us see knowledge in the process of formation. It follows from this that to show the world a single, ‘definitive’ version of an article on a subject would actually be a step backwards: The discussion tab on Wikipedia is a great place to point to your favorite version … Does the world need a Wikipedia for stick-in-the-muds? W. A. Gerrard objects:

Of what value is publicly documenting the change history of an encyclopedia entry? How can something that purports to be authoritative allow the creation of alternative versions which readers can adopt as favorites?If an attempt to craft a wiki that strives for accuracy, even via a flawed model, is considered something for “stick-in-the-muds”, then it’s apparent that many of Wikipedia’s supporters value the dynamics of its community more than the credibility of the product they deliver.

I think this is exactly right: the history pages are worth much more to members of the Wikipedia community than to Wikipedia users. People like to form communities and communities like to chat – and edits and votes are the currency of Wikipedia chat. And gaming the system is fun (hence the word ‘game’). Aaron Swartz quotes comments about Wikipedia regulars who delete your newly[-]create[d] article without hesitation, or revert your changes and accuse you of vandalis[m] without even checking the changes you made, or who “edited” thousands of articles … [mostly] to remove material that they found unsuitable. This clearly suggest the emergence of behaviours which are driven more by social expectations than by a concern for Wikipedia. The second writer quoted above continues: Indeed, some of the people-history pages contained little “awards” that people gave each other — for removing content from Wikipedia.

Now, all systems can be gamed, and all communities chat. The question is whether the chatting and the gaming can be harnessed for the good of the encyclopedia – or, failing that, minimised. I’m not optimistic about the first possibility, and I suspect Larry Sanger isn’t either. Larry does, however, suggest a very simple hack which would help with the second: get everyone to use their real name. This would, among other things, make it obvious when a writer had authority in a given area. I don’t entirely agree with Aaron’s conclusion:

Larry Sanger famously suggested that Wikipedia must jettison its anti-elitism so that experts could feel more comfortable contributing. I think the real solution is the opposite: Wikipedians must jettison their elitism and welcome the newbie masses as genuine contributors to the project, as people to respect, not filter out.

This is half right: Wikipedia-the-community has produced an elite of ‘regulars’, whose influence over Wikipedia-the-resource derives from their standing in the community rather than from any kind of claim to expertise. I agree with Aaron that this is an unhealthy situation, but I think Larry was right as well. The artificial elitism of the Wikipedia community doesn’t only marginalise the ‘masses’ who contribute most of the original content; it also sidelines the subject-area experts who, within certain limited domains, have a genuine claim to be regarded as an elite.

I don’t know if the Citizendium is going to address these problems in practice; I don’t know if the Citizendium is going anywhere full stop. But I think Larry Sanger is asking the right questions. It’s increasingly clear that Wikipedia isn’t just facing in two directions at once, it’s actually two different things – and what’s good for Wikipedia-the-community isn’t necessarily good for Wikipedia-the-resource.

I am nine

Here are some of the things that happened when I was nine (give or take a couple of months either way), and which I remember. (I’m using the BBC site rather than Wikipedia, which doesn’t seem to have much British news from that far back.)

Apollo 11 (I remember watching the landing)
The introduction of the 50p coin (I remember ten-bob notes, anyway)
Apollo 12 (I watched that too; I thought this was what life was going to be like)
The first jumbo jets
Apollo 13 (whoa, bad news)
The World Cup
Ted Heath winning an election (vaguely)

And, er, that’s it. I have no memory of (among other things) Chappaquiddick, the murder of Sharon Tate, the Chicago Eight, the Piazza Fontana bomb, Ian Smith declaring UDI or the PFLP hijacking four airliners and blowing them up. (Quite a year, really.)

The first political event I remember? Probably the Aberfan disaster, when I was six. World events didn’t really impinge, although I do remember answering a question at school about plagues by suggesting that you could have a plague of gorillas; there seemed to have been a lot on the news about gorillas recently. My first poem, written at the age of eight on a prescribed theme of ‘sunset’, was about refugees from a ‘bloody war’ ‘far away’ (who didn’t get much joy out of the aforementioned sunset). I was taken to see the headmistress on the strength of it; these days they’d probably call Social Services.

It’s probably not surprising that my musical memories of 1969-70 are a lot clearer. But I mean, a lot clearer. I remember

Thunderclap Newman, “Something In The Air”
(I thought this was wonderful)
Zager & Evans, “In The Year 2525″
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bad Moon Rising”
Bobby Gentry, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”
the Archies, “Sugar Sugar”
Rolf Harris, “Two Little Boys”
(I hated this with a passion)
Edison Lighthouse , “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”
(as with the Thunderclap Newman, I thought this was v. meaningful and moving)
Lee Marvin, “Wanderin’ Star”
(I hated this too)
Simon & Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Dana, “All Kinds Of Everything”
(and I wasn’t too keen on this one)
Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit In The Sky”
England World Cup Squad, “Back Home”
Christie, “Yellow River”
(a friend at school was born in Hong Kong; this song was the bane of his life)
Mungo Jerry, “In The Summertime”
(this was absolutely the best thing ever)

In other words, I’ve got distinct and in some cases vivid memories of just about every number one single in the period. I could even say I remember

Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg, “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus”

inasmuch as I clearly remember watching Top of the Pops the week it was Number One. (At least, I remember the studio audience dancing for three minutes in silence in a darkened studio, but I think memory must be exaggerating slightly.)

Pop music goes back earlier than politics, too. The earliest pop music I remember would have to be the Honeycombs’ “Have I the right”; it was number one the week I turned four (two years before Aberfan). And it still sounds wonderful.

Then there was

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, “Tears Of A Clown”

It’s just outside the period – after Elvis singing the ghastly “The wonder of you”, which followed “In the summertime” – but the memory’s too vivid to pass by. Not so much the song (fabulous though it is) as the accompanying performance by Pan’s People. I can’t remember the details, but I know I fell in love with one of the People there and then. (The pretty one, you know.)

But by then I was ten, which is quite another story.

No more toys for grown-up boys
When I am ten I’ll remember when
I was nine and had a wonderful time
I’ll look back nostalgically…

Back in the garage

I have begun to see what I think is a promising trend in the publishing world that may just transform the industry for good.

Paul Hartzog‘s Many-to-Many post on publishing draws some interesting conclusions from the success of Charlie Stross’s Accelerando (nice one, Charlie). but makes me a bit nervous, partly because of the liberal use of excitable bolding.

What I am suggesting is happening is the reversal of traditional publishing, i.e. the transformation of the system in which authors create and distribute their work. In the old system, it is assumed that the publishing process acts as a quality control filter … but it ends up merely being a profit-capturing filter.
[...]
Conversely, in the new system, the works are made available, and it is up to the community-at-large to pass judgement on their quality. In the emerging system, authors create and distribute their work, and readers, individually and collectively, including fans as well as editors and peers, review, comment, rank, and tag, everything.

Setting aside the formatting – and the evangelistic tone, something which never fails to set my teeth on edge – this is all interesting stuff. My problem is that I’m not sure about the economics of it. It’s not so much that writers won’t write if they don’t get paid – writers will write, full stop – as that writers won’t eat if they don’t get paid: some money has to change hands some time. If the kind of development Paul is talking about takes hold, I can imagine a range of more-or-less unintended consequences, all with different overtones but few of them, to this jaundiced eye, particularly desirable:

  1. Mass amateurisation means that nobody pays for anything, which in turn means that nobody makes a living from writing; this is essentially the RIAA/BPI anti-filesharing nightmare scenario, transposed to literature
  2. Mass amateurisation doesn’t touch the Dan Brown/Katie Price market, but gains traction in specialist areas of literature to the point where nobody can make a living from writing unless they’re writing for the mass market; this is Charlie Gillett’s argument for keeping CDs expensive (and the line the BPI would use against filesharing if they had any sense)
  3. Downloads like Accelerando function essentially as tasters and people end up buying just as many actual books, if not more; this scenario will also be familiar from filesharing arguments, as it’s the line generally used to counter the previous two
  4. Mass amateur production becomes a new sphere of economic activity, linked in with and subordinate to the major mainstream operators: this is the MySpace scenario (at least, the MySpace makes money for Murdoch scenario)
  5. Mass amateur production becomes a new sphere of non-economic activity, with a few star authors subsidised by publishing companies for the sake of the cachet they bring: the open source scenario
  6. Mass amateur production becomes a new sphere of economic activity, existing on the margins and in the shadows, out of the reach of the major mainstream operators: the punk scenario (or, for older readers, the hippie scenario)

We can dismiss the first, RIAA-nightmare scenario. The third (‘tasters’) would be bearable, although it wouldn’t go halfway to justifying Paul’s argument. Most of the rest look pretty ghastly to me. Perhaps Paul is thinking in terms of the last scenario or something like it – but in that case I’d have to say that his optimism is just as misplaced, for different but related reasons, as the pessimism of the first scenario (although a new wave of garage literature would be a fine thing to see).

The trouble with making your own history is that you don’t do it in circumstances of your own choosing. The participatory buzz of Web 2.0 tends to eat away at the structural and procedural walls that stop people getting their hands on stuff – but that can just mean that only the strongest and highest walls are left standing. Besides, walls can be useful, particularly if you want to keep a roof over your head.

We’re all together now, dancing in time

Ryan Carson:

I’d love to add friends to my Flickr account, add my links to del.icio.us, browse digg for the latest big stories, customise the content of my Netvibes home page and build a MySpace page. But you know what? I don’t have time and you don’t either…

Read the whole thing. What’s particularly interesting is a small straw poll at the end of the article, where Ryan asks people who actually work on this stuff what social software apps they use on a day-to-day basis. Six people made 30 nominations in all; Ryan had five of his own for a total of 35.

Here are the apps which got more than one vote:

Flickr (four votes)
Upcoming (two)
Wikipedia (two)

And, er, that’s it.

Social software looks like very big news indeed from some perspectives, but when it’s held to the standard of actually helping people get stuff done, it fades into insignificance. I think there are three reasons for this apparent contradiction. First, there’s the crowd effect – and, since you need a certain number of users before network effects start taking off, any halfway-successful social software application has a crowd behind it. It can easily look as if everyone‘s doing it, even if the relevant definition of ‘everyone’ looks like a pretty small group to you and me.

Then there’s the domain effect: tagging and user-rating are genuinely useful and constructive, in some not very surprising ways, within pre-defined domains. (Think of a corporate intranet app, where there is no need for anyone to specify that ‘Dunstable’ means one of the company’s offices, ‘Barrett’ means the company’s main competitor and ‘Monkey’ means the payroll system.) For anyone who is getting work done with tagging, in other words, tagging is going to look pretty good – and, thanks to the crowd effect, it’s going to look like a good thing that everyone‘s using.

Thirdly, social software is new, different, interesting and fun, as something to play with. It’s a natural for geeks with time to play with stuff and for commentators who like writing about new and interesting stuff – let alone geek commentators. The hype generates itself; it’s the kind of development that’s guaranteed to look bigger than it is.

Put it all together – and introduce feedback effects, as the community of geek commentators starts to find social software apps genuinely useful within its specialised domain – and social software begins to look like a Tardis in reverse: much, much bigger on the outside than it is on the inside.

That’s not to say that social software isn’t interesting, or that it isn’t useful. But I think that in the longer term those two facets will move apart: useful and productive applications of tagging will be happening under the commentator radar, often behind organisational firewalls, while the stuff that’s interesting and fun to play with will remain… interesting and fun to play with.

This is the first verse

Nothing much here lately. Just to stop the grass growing, here’s another 25-first-lines thing: song titles and artists in comments, please. This one’s a bit different, as you’ll see. Some more obscure than others; there are a couple I’d be particularly pleased for somebody to get, and one which would probably earn you a pint (it’s from a privately-produced CD by a friend of mine). (A couple of bona fide Chart Hits, too.)

Update 4/9/06 An email from Tina bags the last easy ones, plus a couple of difficult ones. (Hi Tina!) The rest are all a bit on the obscure side, I’d say – not that I’d mind being proved wrong. Have at it.

Update 13/9/06 All remaining beans spilled.

  1. A certain kind of love, I’d say
    - Soft Machine (Rob)
  2. A long time ago, we used to be friends
    - Dandy Warhols (Tina)
  3. Bonfires in forests, lamplights in houses, all obscured
    - Graham Coxon (Tina)
  4. By a waterfall, I’m calling you
    - the Bonzo Dog Band (Rob)
  5. Colin Zeal knows the value of mass appeal
    - Blur (Tina)
  6. For years unspotted, Henri Dupont wheeled his barrow in Marseilles
    - Barry Booth (lyrics by Terry Jones)
  7. Give me your love and I’ll give you the perfect lovesong
    - the Divine Comedy (John)
  8. I can see clearly now the rain has gone
    - Jimmy Ruffin (JJ)
  9. I don’t know what to do with my life, should I give it up and make a new start?
    - Buzzcocks (Jamie)
  10. I often dream of trains when I’m alone
    - Robyn Hitchcock (Tina)
  11. I stand by the building in the pouring rain
    - the Mekons
  12. Inside of me, take as much as you can find of me
    - David McComb
  13. It’s happened before, most likely it will happen again
    - Ed Kuepper
  14. Jacqueline was seventeen, working on a desk
    - Franz Ferdinand (Biscit)
  15. Loving you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful
    - the Charlatans (Syd)
  16. Mother Mary and the morning wonder, take me home
    - the Earlies
  17. Nothing you could say could tear me away from my guy
    - Mary Wells (and subsequently Aretha Franklin, among others) – Alex
  18. Put your hands on the wheel, let the Golden Age begin
    - Beck (Justin)
  19. Red rain is falling down
    - Peter Gabriel (JJ)
  20. Señor, Señor, can you tell me where we’re heading?
    - Bob Dylan (Rob)
  21. Sometimes love is friendly
    - Hilary Bichovski
  22. This time we almost made the pieces fit, didn’t we girl?
    - Jimmy Webb (Brian)
  23. Waste of time – it’s all a waste
    - Peter Blegvad
  24. Well, it seems like the funky days are back again
    - Cornershop (Rob)
  25. You rolled into town like an unscheduled train
  26. - Nothing Painted Blue

Never return again

It’s been a bad week for deaths. Arthur Lee died last Thursday. If you drew a line from Brian Wilson’s ice-cream symphonies to Dylan’s lyrical manifestoes, you’d meet the Arthur Lee of Forever Changes right in the middle. Arthur Lee was a great artist, responsible for some of the strangest and most beautiful moments in recorded music. His best years were well behind him when he died – but then, I would have said something similar in December 1980, and that was still a dreadful loss. So is this.

On the same day that I heard about Arthur Lee, I read that Pierre Vidal-Naquet had died (thanks, Paul). Vidal-Naquet was a great scholar, a lifelong political activist, a consistent left-libertarian and an equally consistent challenger of historical revisionism – no small matter on the French ultra-left, sadly. He leaves a gap which it’s hard to see any one person filling. (Writing that line reminds me of yet another recent departure, for whom it’s just as valid: Murray Bookchin, who died the day before Vidal-Naquet. Hard times for left-libertarians.)

But I have to say that none of these losses affected me as much as a fourth. Bob Smithies, who died the same day as Arthur Lee, was a gifted photographer, a Manchester Guardian man and a local TV personality. But more, much more than this, he was Bunthorne, compiler of some of the best crosswords I’ve ever attempted to solve. Bunthorne didn’t go in for the kind of themed crossword which John Graham (“Araucaria”) made his own, or for Araucaria’s meticulous distribution of easy and hard clues. The puzzle as a whole, for Bunthorne, took second place to the clue. Here Bunthorne had two specialities. One was the vast, sprawling anagram of thirty or forty letters, spread over six or seven separate lights and immediately identifiable by the liberal use of punctuation marks and contractions. The other is harder to describe, but can be summed up as “clues that don’t look like clues”: sequences of words which make a kind of sense, but seem to supply either far too little information for solving purposes or far too much (the page linked above features a celebrated example of the latter: “Amundsen’s forwarding address” (4)).

Solving a crossword clue (for me at least) is primarily a matter of letting my mind work on it while I’m doing something else; the answer generally comes to me fully-formed, leaving me to work out how the subsidiary indications fit in afterwards. Still, there are clues that you can solve by mental brute force, decoding the subsidiary indications one after another and trying to make a word from what comes out (between the points, that’ll be compass points, maybe it begins with N and ends with S?”). It’s a perfectly valid way to set a puzzle; most of Araucaria’s puzzles could in theory be solved entirely by this approach, without any relegation to the mental back-burner. Not Bunthorne’s. I’ve never known a setter whose clues were so unamenable to the methodical approach or so insistent on being solved in a flash of (delayed) realisation. There was a teasing, gnomic quality to the best of Bunthorne’s clues: you knew you were being told something; you knew you didn’t – yet – know what it was; and you knew that thinking wouldn’t help. You couldn’t say, afterwards, how you’d worked it out, because you hadn’t. Every Bunthorne clue solved was a small but mysterious victory.

And now it’s over: there will never be another Bunthorne crossword. Bob Smithies has left a gap – and, unlike the other three people I’ve mentioned, he’s left a gap in my life personally. I hate that feeling, particularly at the moment. It’s been four months now but I still miss my mother, in much the same sense that somebody in a liferaft misses being on board ship. I’ve lost people before now and felt there was a gap in my mental skyline, but this time it’s more as if the ground’s gone.

Death just doesn’t seem like something we’re equipped to deal with. Tolkien wrote somewhere that he’d realised, after seeing friends killed around him in the First World War, that death was the great paradox: on one hand, for a loved one to die is the worst and most unbearable thing that can happen; on the other, death is absolutely universal and absolutely unavoidable, the one thing which we can say with certainty will happen to everyone who’s been spared it so far. Crushingly unbearable yet universal and inevitable: how can that be? Apparently the story of Aragorn and Arwen began as an attempt to deal with this paradox, as it were by taking a God’s eye view. If love, among mortal beings, leads to the worst pain imaginable, how could an immortal love a mortal? But if love is divine and mortals are worthy of it, how could an immortal not? To put it more simply and without the elves: how can love be worth the pain?

The answer is, I suppose, that it is because we need it to be – or else that it isn’t but we still need it to be, because the only alternative which would be even halfway comfortably numb would be a life without love, and that would be unbearable in itself. Shortly after a friend died, a couple of years ago, I saw a prize example of stoner-philosophy graffiti, which nearly sums all this up:

LOVE + PAIN = LIFE WHICH LEEDS TO DEAF

Nearly, but not quite – life also leeds to birf (and a whole new round of LOVE + PAIN), as eny fule kno.

The cold in our eyes

Is it anti-semitic to criticise Israel? Is it anti-semitic to criticise Zionism? Is it anti-semitic, even, to oppose Zionism – to believe that the state of Israel (as established in 1948) was a thoroughly bad idea which should be replaced by something better?

To put it another way, does anti-semitism lead coherently to opposing Zionism – would we expect somebody who hated Jews also to hate the state of Israel? Because, if this logical entailment is invalid, it follows that the reverse inference – from anti-Zionism to anti-semitism – also falls. To put it crudely, if you can find me one Jew-hater who doesn’t also hate the idea of Jews having their own state, then we can no longer assume that anti-Zionism follows from anti-semitism.

Sir Oswald, would you care to comment?

[anti-semitism is] a very old growth in British soil especially with people who come from the countryside when they come into contact with Jews. It is probably latent in the racial or traditional consciousness of a great many of these men. I am not arguing the merits of it. You may think me a great scoundrel for indulging in this and for developing it as much as we have, but there is something in it … [My solution] is constructing a national home for them which would put an end to all this friction it engenders which is as harmful to the Jews as it is to us. It changes his character into a gangster and arouses in us a certain brutality and it is bad for the Jew and bad for us.

From the records of Mosley’s appeal against detention as a fifth columnist, 1940 (quoted in the Skidelsky biography).

Now, Oswald Mosley is not the most reliable witness, even (or especially) on his own account. Skidelsky portrays him (apparently without realising it) as a monster of arrogance and sadism, utterly without loyalty or scruples, consistent only in his drive for personal dominance. If Zionist sympathies would make it easier for him to get out of jail, Zionist sympathies he would have. Nevertheless, it’s a coherent argument he makes here. If British Fascists attacked British Jews, their objection was not to Jews per se but to the ‘friction’ which inevitably results when Jews live among Gentiles (T.S. Eliot had developed a similar argument). Since Fascists are primarily concerned with building their own homogeneous nation, there’s no obvious reason to object to the formation of a Jewish nation by some of the Jews who were excluded from the Fascist fatherland; indeed, Fascists might offer Jewish nationalism a distant brotherly welcome.

I don’t know what Mosley would have said about the invasion of Lebanon; it’s entirely possible that his anti-semitism would have triumphed, and that he’d have been prominent among the critics of Israel. That said, it’s clear that there’s a line leading directly from hatred of British Jews to approval of a Jewish national home – and that it was possible, without any kind of contradiction, to oppose the presence of Jews in Britain and approve of their presence, under suitably nationalist auspices, in Palestine.

So, you can say that criticism of the Lebanon operation is anti-Israeli; you can even say it’s anti-Zionist (some of it certainly is). But don’t even think of saying it’s anti-semitic.

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