Like a lion (4)

I was in my early twenties when I became a Zionist, or at least a strong Zionist sympathiser; I had a long conversation with a friend who’d just come back from a year on a moshav, I read Amos Oz’s In the land of Israel and that was it, I was sold. What I understood by Zionism was fairly bare-bones: I asked myself, did I think that Jews had a right to have some sort of permanent presence in what used to be Palestine? I had thought that ultimately the answer was No, but now I thought it was Yes; I had been anti-Zionist, now I was pro-Zionist.

Spoiler: it didn’t last very long. I dwell on these juvenile ruminations because they highlight something significant about Zionism: it has meant different things at different times, and may mean different things to different people. My new-found commitment to the idea of a Jewish national home didn’t in any way affect my opposition to racism: the Zionism I supported was a Zionism with equal rights for all, without discrimination in employment and housing, and certainly without anyone’s houses getting bulldozed. I hadn’t really stopped to think what such a Zionism might look like on the ground; perhaps something like the 1947 UN borders? For now, in any case, I thought that one could oppose arbitrary arrests, disproportionate use of force, the occupation of the West Bank and so forth, while still maintaining a commitment to Zionism – just as long as Zionism was defined in these minimalistic, ultra-liberal terms; call it Zionism(L).

One good thing that came out of my Zionist(L) period was an awareness of the importance of symbols of Jewish identity, and of the symbolic importance of Zionism to a great many Jews; they’re very different things, but for a lot of people they have quite similar associations. This in turn means that anyone critiquing Zionism needs to take the utmost care to avoid any suggestion that they’re attacking Jewish identity more generally. These people failed this test resoundingly; it’s hard not to see this as a genuine example of an overlap between Left anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. Even if we agree that support for “Balfour” is one of the policies for which Theresa May should be denounced – and, while I sympathise with the logic, it’s not a ditch I’d personally choose to die in – the Star of David ‘earring’ added to the picture suggests that the problem is Judaism as well as Zionism, or else that there is no difference between the two. Either way, this isn’t acceptable.

But what’s going on here – how does this train of thought work? What’s going on when somebody feels genuine outrage at some reported crime committed by the IDF and vandalises a synagogue in protest? Or when somebody denounces the Jewish/Zionist lobby, or hints that the Jewish population of a country are a pro-Israeli Fifth Column? Alternatively, what’s going on when somebody praises the state of Israel – then tells Jews to go there and get out of his country?

What’s going on, in each of these cases, is that Jews in the Diaspora are being identified with the state of Israel, which is then constructed as an enemy (making Jews a proxy target) or as alien (making Jews also aliens). The question then is how these anti-Jewish attitudes relate to the emphatically pro-Jewish position we’ve just been discussing – the argument that, since Zionism is the nationalism of the Jewish people, anti-Zionism is effectively a form of anti-semitism, and an attack on the Jews’ national home is an attack on all Jews. Surely this, too, identifies Jews in the Diaspora with the state of Israel, enlisting them in its support no matter what. (In the words of the World Jewish Congress, “Jews around the world are proud of Israel’s achievements over the last 60 years and support those who continue to build and defend Israel.”) This is a very dangerous route to go down. If an acquaintance tells me that he is a fan of the Miramax production company and its cinematic oeuvre, I’ll expect to hear positive things about the company’s successes and the business acumen of the Weinstein brothers – but I’ll also expect to hear some reflection on the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and if I don’t hear it I’ll feel quite entitled to ask him why not. These Montreal Jews, visiting an Israeli development project in Kenya, felt pride in Israel, having had “a taste of the country’s idealism, creativity, and commitment to tikkun olam [‘repairing the world’, making the world a better place]”. Would it also be reasonable to expect Jewish visitors to Gaza or the West Bank to feel shame in Israel? If you’re asserting a proprietary connection with a nation’s achievements, others may well feel that you should also take ownership of its crimes.

Zionism may thus clear a path for a certain kind of antisemitism, blaming Jews in general for the crimes of the state of Israel. Nor is this simply an opportunistic misidentification, a flag of convenience for pre-existing racism. It’s worth recalling that, historically, Zionism has had a very equivocal relationship with antisemitism. Herzl, working as a journalist, reported on the Dreyfus trial in 1894 and concluded:

In Paris … I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to “combat” anti-Semitism

The sentiment echoes the early Zionist Leon Pinsker, who wrote in 1882

Judeophobia … is not peculiar to particular races but is common to the whole of mankind … Judeophobia is a psychic aberration. As a psychic aberration it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years it is incurable.

The early Zionists took as their starting-point the idea that antisemitism was both universal and immutable; that the Jewish people could only be safe to live as Jews by establishing their own homeland and defending it against all comers. The corollary is that those Jews who remained in the Diaspora would not be safe to live as Jews; they would only ever be living among enemies, either concealing their identity or else relying on a tolerance that could be withdrawn at any time. If we think ourselves back to the period when Herzl and Pinsker were writing – the period of the First Aliyah, the very beginning of Zionist settlement in Palestine – we can see that there’s a curious reversal being worked here. A newly-established colony, numbering a few tens of thousands and surrounded by sworn enemies, stands for security and permanence; millions of Jews, living among their neighbours for centuries, represent a precarious settlement that could collapse at any moment. The Holocaust gave this image a terrible credibility, clearly – but this story doesn’t begin or end in the 1940s. This way of looking at the world underlay Zionism in the 1890s, and it underlies Zionism now.

At a deep level, Zionism believes in a world where antisemitism is both universal and incurable, a world where Jews can only hope to live as Jews if they are in their own homeland. This belief is impossible to disprove, as pessimism tends to be: They may be treating you as equals now, but who’s to say what they’ll do next year? Do you know what they’re saying about you behind closed doors? (I remember a Jewish friend saying how, after 9/11, they’d increased security at his son’s school in Cheshire; people were “waiting for the other shoe to drop”, he told me, perfectly seriously.) The underlying message is that Jews don’t really belong here, wherever ‘here’ is: to deny the right of Jews to live as citizens in the Diaspora. This also tends to deny the validity of Diaspora Jewish experience, even to challenge the distinct identity of Diaspora Jews as Jews. Uri Avnery, who I quoted in the previous post, was born as Helmut Ostermann in inter-war Germany; his family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine after Hitler came to power, when he was nine years old. He took a Hebrew name as soon as he was legally able to do so. He commented in 2013:

The changing of names symbolized a basic ideological attitude. Zionism was based on a total negation of the Jewish Diaspora, its way of living, its traditions and expressions. … As a pupil in an elementary school in Palestine I was imbued with this contemptuous attitude. Everything “exilic” was beneath contempt: the Jewish shtetl, Jewish religion, Jewish prejudices and superstitions. We learned that “exilic” Jews were engaged in “air businesses” – parasitical stock exchange deals that did not produce anything real, that Jews shunned physical work, that their social setup was a “reverse pyramid”, which we were to overturn by creating a healthy society of peasants and workers.

The nationalism of the new state-to-be was seen as superseding the Jewish identity that had gone before – even the Jewish religion:

In my company in the Irgun underground, and later in the Israeli army, there was not a single kippah-wearing fighter … The prevalent doctrine was that religion had indeed played a useful role throughout the centuries in holding Jews together and enabling the survival of the Jewish people, but that now Hebrew nationalism had taken over that role, making religion redundant. Religion, it was felt, would soon die out. Everything good and healthy was Hebrew – the Hebrew community, Hebrew agriculture, Hebrew kibbutzim, the “First Hebrew City” (Tel Aviv), the Hebrew underground military organizations, the future Hebrew state. Jewish were “exilic” things like religion, tradition and useless stuff like that.

The revelation of the true horror of the Holocaust – and the brutal and near-total destruction of that “exilic” Jewish world – complicated and qualified this world view, but it did not entirely disappear. There are stories of Holocaust survivors being greeted, on arrival in Israel, not with sympathy but with puzzled contempt: how could they have let that happen to them? Among people who had been born or brought up in Mandatory Palestine, quasi-racial epithets like ‘sheep’ and – more brutally – ‘soap’ were widely used. We see here that same reversal of perspective: a new and precarious colonial settlement is the secure home for the Jews and the centre of their new, healthy, Hebrew life; the Diaspora, global in scale and nearly 2,000 years old, is a passing experiment that was always doomed to fail, Himmler merely the inevitable return of Haman to finish the job.

The Zionist reversal of perspectives has led to an odd duality to the relationship between Zionism and the Diaspora, with the latter regarded both with affection – as Israel’s extended family – and with antagonism and contempt. The difference between the two is the difference between seeing the Diaspora as Israel’s support network and seeing it as making its own claim to be the home(s) of the Jewish people, as it was throughout the centuries dividing the Fall of the Temple from the first Yishuv. The possibility that the Jews of the Diaspora are the Jewish people – the mainstream(s) of Jewish society and culture – is the possibility that Zionism cannot countenance. The result, ironically, is to make the position of Diaspora Jews less secure than it might have been, both by ‘officially’ devaluing their own culture and traditions and by associating Jewish people with the actually-existing state of Israel – an association which, as we’ve seen, can’t reasonably be confined to the good news about Israel. In Britain, the number of reported anti-semitic attacks rose during and after the 2014 Gaza conflict. Looking at this association, it’s easy to deplore the disgusting racism of attacks on visibly Jewish targets, just as it’s easy to understand the very widespread anger at the reported actions of the IDF. What’s missing from this bifurcated analysis is the crucial third element which bridges the two – the association between Israel and Jews in general. That association is weakened by assertions of Diaspora culture and identity, but it’s made firmer and stronger by every assertion that Jews (in general) support those who defend Israel, or that any attack on Zionism is an attack on all Jews.

Zionism today effectively means the state of Israel and its interests – particularly what it considers its security interests. This is problematic, to put it mildly. One of the more idiotic points made in response to Priti Patel’s ‘holiday’ was that nobody would have cared if she’d had a series of secret meetings in Belgium. To make the most obvious and banal points, Belgian society and politics are deeply divided and polarised, to the point where it was impossible to form a government for most of 2010 and 2011; if Patel had decided to wade in to Belgian politics on a freelance basis, that could be viewed very dimly indeed. In any case, any government minister who met a series of high-level foreign politicians without informing the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister would be acting in an outrageously improper way, whether the nation in question was Israel, Belgium or San Marino.

More importantly, of course, Israel isn’t Belgium. Belgium wasn’t founded ex nihilo within living memory and doesn’t occupy large swathes of territory illegally; there is no Wikipedia page listing the countries that do and don’t recognise Belgium; equally, there’s no such organisation as “Conservative Friends of Belgium” (let alone an organisation with a paid staff and membership encompassing most of the Parliamentary Tory Party). Israel is different. Zionists don’t deny this, although sometimes acknowledging it bends their arguments into odd shapes. Consider this from the ADL:

Deeper bias against Israel and Jews may also be evident when Israel is held to a different standard than any other country in the world. Such an example is when critics of Israel question or deny Israel’s right to exist. No one questions France or China or Iran’s right to exist, simply because there is disagreement with their policies. Why then should it be acceptable for only the Jewish state’s legitimacy, or Jewish nationalism to be a subject for discussion? … A more complex manifestation is when critics of Israel advocate policies which would effectively lead to the demise of the Jewish character of the state – such as calls for a “one-state solution’ for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or demand the unqualified right of return for all Palestinian refugees. These measures potentially affect all Jews who have a religious, spiritual or nationalist connection to the Jewish homeland and would lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Although some advocates may not appreciate the destructive consequences of these policies, these policies are anti-Jewish in their impact.

If you thought you might have reason to question or deny Israel’s right to exist – given that its existence in its current form, unlike those of France or China or Iran, is predicated on the continuing exclusion and disenfranchisement of millions of people – hard luck; the ADL are way ahead of you. The state of Israel is different – so different that reforming it, so as to make it more like all the others, would involve policies [that] are anti-Jewish in their impact. Demanding justice for the Palestinians is anti-semitic, even if you’re too naive to appreciate the destructive consequences yourself. If it’s good for Israel, it’s good for the Jews; if it’s not good for Israel – what are you, a Nazi?

Coming back to my starting point, Zionism(L) – a Zionism of liberal politics and equal rights, a Zionism that would look to making amends for the Nakba, never mind the 1967 occupations – does not exist as a political force (Avnery’s Gush Shalom is perhaps the closest thing to it). To favour Zionism now is to favour the territorial expansionism and anti-Arab racism of a series of Likudnik-led governments – an unapologetic form of Revisionist Zionism, made all the more brutal by the reality of entrenched and unchallenged power. To say that Stuart Polak and Priti Patel are Zionists is to say that they support Zionism in this, real-world, form – call it Zionism(R).

Perhaps Zionism(L) can be upheld without contradiction to one’s liberal and anti-racist principles – some would deny this, but I’m inclined to be generous to Zionism(L)’s adherents, not least because they include my former self. What is certain is that upholding Zionism(R) requires one of two things. One is to knowingly suspend all other principles in favour of whatever brings any immediate benefit to the state of Israel and the Jewish citizens of Israel; the other is to operate in a state of denial, following unsustainable arguments into self-contradiction and confusion. The ADL text quoted above is a minor example of the latter style; the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter gives us confusion on a grand scale. In one way we should be grateful, I suppose; at least it’s better than the alternative.

 

 

 

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Like a lion (3)

A therapist friend of mine used to say that when a client hit on something uncomfortable they’d often retreat in a cloud of verbiage – of course when I say my mother punished me I’m talking about times when I’d done something wrong, and anyway I don’t know if punish is really the right word… She used to call it ‘squid-ink’. And that’s what most of the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter is. If anti-Zionists did consistently demonise Zionism and talk in antisemitic conspiracy theories; if the state of Israel wasn’t a settler-colonialist project; if all comparisons with the Nazis were not only offensive but self-evidently invalid; if the Jewish people had always been Zionists; if Israel had genuine claims outstanding against the Palestinian people; if all of those things were true, we could all agree with this letter. But if all of those things were true, we’d be living in a very different world. (If you were right, I’d agree with you, as Steven Zaillian has Oliver Sacks say in Awakenings.) If you hold to the key position these authors are advancing, you can comfort yourself – and perhaps trip up an unwary opponent – by making some of these superficially argument-winning statements. But it’s a short-term hit; eventually you’re going to have to come back down to earth and advance propositions that can actually be defended.

Which is more or less what the authors do with their conclusion:

Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. We believe that anti-Zionism, with its antisemitic characteristics, has no place in a civil society.

That sub-clause is yet more befuddling squid-ink – if anti-Zionism has antisemitic characteristics, it’s wrong because antisemitism is wrong; if it’s wrong in itself, it doesn’t matter what its characteristics are – but the rest of it is reasonably clear. This is the ‘key position’ I referred to just now, and it goes something like this:

  1. The Jewish people are a nationality.
  2. All nationalities have the right to self-determination.
  3. Nationalisms are the political vehicle of national self-determination.
  4. Zionism is the nationalism of the Jewish people.
  5. The right to national self-determination is inalienable and is generally supported.
  6. Only someone who hated a particular nationality would deny its right to national self-determination.
  7. Therefore, only someone who hated the Jewish people would oppose Zionism.
  8. Therefore, all anti-Zionism is an expression of antisemitism.

This is a solid and substantial argument: five premises, each of them quite credible, and three conclusions that follow from them logically, driving to the inexorable conclusion that anti-Zionism does indeed have no place in a civil society. (Odd phrase – did they mean “in a civilised society”, or possibly “in civil society”? That letter really could have used another draft, or somebody else to draft it.)

How would I counter this argument? Firstly – point 1 – to say that the Jewish people are a nationality is deeply ahistorical. As we’ve already seen, the Jewish diaspora had lived and perpetuated itself, physically, culturally and intellectually, for 1700 years or more before anyone started to think in terms of what we’d now recognise as a ‘nation’ – and it was another century before anyone applied the new language of ‘nationhood’ to the Jewish people. For most of that period, the belief that the Jews came from Judaea meant about as much, in practical terms, as the belief that Caucasians came from the Caucasus, or Gypsies from Egypt. Uri Avnery:

Jews are basically an ethnic-religious world-wide community which has existed for 2500 years without the need for a homeland. Even at the time of the [autonomous Jewish] Hasmonean kingdom, most Jews lived outside Palestine. Their abstract connection with Eretz Israel is like the connection of Indonesian and Malian Muslims with Mecca – a holy place to be mentioned in prayers and an object of pilgrimage, but not claimed as a sovereign earthly possession. … Israeli nationalism, on the other hand, is rooted in a physical homeland, bound up with national sovereignty and citizenship – concepts foreign to religion.

Here and now, of course, it’s quite possible to think of the Jewish people in terms of nationhood; it’s also possible to see Muslims in those terms, or African Americans. Nationalities aren’t given; the construction of a nationality is a political project, like the construction of any other political subject. The political project of Zionism has been remarkably successful, but this isn’t because it’s in some sense ‘true’ – there is no underlying pre-political reality for it to be a true reflection of.

There’s also a more fundamental problem in asserting that ‘Jewish’ is a nationality, which Avnery’s last sentence touches on: how does this relate to the Israeli nationality? Israeli governments have no problem equating one with the other, offering Israeli citizenship to Jews wherever they are. For Jews who don’t have Israeli citizenship and don’t intend to acquire it, this equation of Jewishness and the state of Israel is more problematic – not least because taking it literally would immediately call into question their commitment to their actual nationality. (This is why, in practice, anti-semites often have no problem giving at least verbal support to Zionism and the state of Israel; if your dream is to build a national home for your own nationality, the affirmation that Jews are their own nationality – and that they have their own, suitably remote, national home – may well seem fitting, not to say convenient.) Zionism can only be the nationalism of Jews in the Diaspora, in the normal sense of the word ‘nationalism’, to the extent that they are genuinely willing to throw their existing nationality overboard and become Israeli citizens. As Avnery points out, Herzl’s own vision for the proposed Judenstaat was that “all the Jews who wished to do so would settle in Israel” – and that all other Jews would “assimilate in their host nations and cease being Jews”. A mass aliyah of this kind might be good for Israel, but it would be a disaster for many of the countries where Jews live at present – and I dread to think what chain of events might bring it about.

The only other way for Zionism to function as Jewish nationalism is for the meaning of ‘nationalism’ to change, becoming something existing partly or mainly in the imagination (and hence unlike Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”, which are created and sustained through shared experiences). To the extent that this is the case – to the extent that the state of Israel has become, in its turn, “a holy place to be mentioned in prayers and an object of pilgrimage” – there is a genuine continuity between Diaspora Zionism and the dreams of all the centuries of exile; but it’s a continuity of the reverential imagination, not of politics. (Interestingly, Anderson talks of ‘pilgrimage’ (secular as well as religious) as one of the practices through which a sense of a nation is established. However, he’s talking about shared experiences of travelling from, as well as to, the same place – Argentinian functionaries making hajj to Madrid or Indian Civil Servants to London.)

Secondly, even if we had established that the Jewish people constitued a nationality, we’d need to establish that nationalities are generally regarded as having the right to national self-determination (points 2 and 5). This is harder than it might look. Is there general support for the secession of Catalonia, or Scotland, or Lombardy, or Cornwall? There certainly isn’t general support for the establishment of a Kurdish nation, and that‘s been on the world’s agenda pretty much since the time of the Balfour Declaration (the Treaty of Sèvres sketched out possible borders for an independent Kurdistan in 1920). This is a ‘treason doth never prosper’ situation; the right to national self-determination is generally recognised, if and when it’s achieved. (Who would try to reunite Czechoslovakia now or recreate federal Yugoslavia?) Prior to self-determination being achieved, or at least becoming politically achievable, the rights of would-be secessionists aren’t generally recognised at all – and their ‘nationalities’ are downgraded accordingly in the world’s eyes.

Nor is it an affront to the rights of a minority nationality if observers decline to support their rights as a nation. Given that nationalities are political constructions, I can regret the secession of nation A from federation B without denying anybody the right to anything. It’s not the case – whatever a Scottish nationalist might tell you – that a Scottish citizen of Britain is and always was innately a Scot, whose occasional performances of the role of British citizen are an inauthentic masquerade; nor is it the case that that person is and always was innately a Briton. Simply, someone who identifies as Scottish-and-not-British (Catalan-and-not-Spanish, Kurdish-and-not-Turkish, Cornish-and-not-English, etc) is constructing their identity in terms of one collective political subject, when they could have done so in terms of another. The choice that person makes may be quite deeply rooted in their life experience – it may not be something they can put on and take off like a party rosette – but it’s still something they do, not something they are. As such I can affirm their right to do it while still, in some cases, finding it regrettable and wishing they’d chosen the other option. I can even sympathise with the choice itself, while still regretting the fact that they’re pursuing that particular choice at this particular time, in this particular way, with these particular consequences.

So:

  1. Zionism constructs the Jewish people as a nationality, in ways that are real for people who act on that basis, and real in the consequences of those actions. However, no nationality is ‘real’ in the sense of existing in nature, and the Jewish nationality is no exception. Moreover, to be Jewish is only fully a nationality, in conventional terms, in the life experience of people who become citizens of Israel.
  2. All nationalities have the right to self-determination, in the sense that all nationalities that successfully achieve self-determination are acknowledged as having had the right to do so. (Nothing succeeds like success.) Nationalities that have not achieved self-determination are generally not regarded as having the right to do so, and in consequence are often not regarded as genuine nationalities.
  3. Nationalisms are the political vehicle of national self-determination, and of the constitution of national political subjects.
  4. Zionism is the nationalism of those Jewish people who make aliyah and become citizens of Israel. It is also a part-imaginary version of nationalism for many other Jews, with some continuities with the religious symbolism of Zion and Jerusalem (see point 1).
  5. The right to national self-determination is generally supported, for those nationalities that have achieved it (see point 2). However, national self-determination may not be the best solution to any given political problem, and it is possible to find the choice of a nationalist solution regrettable without denying anyone’s right to choose it. Moreover, it is possible to sympathise with the choice of a nationalist solution while also believing that the pursuit of that solution, in a particular situation, is regrettable and should be opposed.
  6. There are many reasons to oppose a national minority’s exercise of its right to national self-determination, and to oppose the construction of a collective national subject among people who have not yet recognised themselves as a nationality.
  7. Therefore, there are many reasons to oppose Zionism.
  8. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that anti-Zionism is motivated by antisemitism, and hence no reason to rule it to be illegitimate. Robert Cohen: “to oppose Zionism in the past or today is a perfectly valid and ethical intellectual position to hold whether you are Palestinian, Jewish or a member of the Labour Party. Saying it has no place in civil society does [the authors] no credit and displays a lack of intellectual honesty.”

Is that it? Not quite.

 

Like a lion (2)

Let’s have a proper look at the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter about anti-Zionism. The first thing to say is that, while there is an argument there, there’s also an awful lot of confusion and rhetorical inflation. This may just be because Howard Jacobson – who seems to be the lead author – is a muddled thinker and a windy writer, but I think it also has something to do with the subject.

The trouble starts with the first introduction of anti-Zionism:

constructive criticism of Israeli governments has morphed into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of so-called anti-Zionism

Either anti-Zionism is a genuine position being used opportunistically as a façade – a ‘cloak’ – for antisemitism (cf the Doctors’ Plot), or the name ‘anti-Zionism’ is a polite label for antisemitism (“so-called anti-Zionism”). Can’t be both; you can’t ‘cloak’ antisemitism in antisemitism-with-another-name. What anti-Zionism is, in the authors’ eyes, remains unclear.

demonisation of Zionism itself – the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state

But ‘Zionism’ (itself) isn’t equivalent to what follows the hyphen. In fact they’re three distinct, if related, things – a political ideology (Zionism), that ideology’s core belief (a Jewish homeland) and its concrete institutional expression (the state of Israel). This matters, because it’s possible to hold that core belief while also believing that the existing state of Israel is a monstrosity, or even that the historical development of Zionism has gone badly astray. Not to mention the fact that it’s possible to challenge and oppose Zionism – even to deny that the Jewish people have the right to a homeland – without demonising Zionism.

Accusations of international Jewish conspiracy and control of the media … support false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism, and the promotion of vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism

Despite its phrasing, this is three separate charges, not one – and they’re not all equally strong. Yes, the racist myths of a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ live on – there are still people wibbling on about the Rothschilds and (God help us) the Protocols, some of whom believe themselves to be on the Left. Those myths, and those people, need to be challenged; this, though, doesn’t give a free pass to the actual lobbying efforts which are carried out by the Israeli state and its allies, some of which –  like most lobbying – go under the radar. (Anyone still maintaining that all talk of a “Zionist lobby” is Protocols-level antisemitism will have to explain who the Conservative Friends of Israel are and what they hope to achieve.)

I’m less sure about false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism. Zionism was conceived as a colonialist project, to be implemented by arrangement with the great powers of the day. Here’s Theodor Herzl, writing in 1896:

Should the Powers declare themselves willing to admit our sovereignty over a neutral piece of land, then the Society [of Jews] will enter into negotiations for the possession of this land. Here two territories come under consideration, Palestine and Argentine[sic]. … The Society of Jews will treat with the present masters of the land, putting itself under the protectorate of the European Powers … If His Majesty the Sultan [Abdul Hamid II] were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.

In the event the Ottoman Empire[sic] didn’t survive World War I. Its spoils were divvied up between the French and British empires[also sic]; the latter, anticipating that it would have control of Palestine when the music stopped, declared in 1917 that His Majesty’s Government

view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and [would] use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country

(Shame about that ‘clear understanding’; really should have got it in writing.)

In any case, from 1896 to 1948 Zionism was, precisely, a colonialist project to be carried out on land held by imperialists. Even after 1948 – and especially after 1967 – Zionism continued to be a colonialist project, inasmuch as it was carried forward by the continual establishments of ‘settlements’ on land held by force. The idea that equating Zionism with ‘colonialism and imperialism’ is a slur – let alone that it’s straightforwardly ‘false’ – is quite bizarre; it’s a very surprising proposition for two historians to put their names to. I can only imagine that the underlying logic here is something like the Forward article which attempted to rehabilitate Christopher Columbus from charges that he “brought nothing but misfortune and suffering to the indigenous Americans”, by likening him to Herzl as “a visionary looking for a safe home for the Jewish people”. There’s colonialism and then there’s colonialism in a good cause – quite different.

As for the third point on the list – vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism – again, we need to be careful (a great deal more careful than the writers of the letter were, frankly). What are “vicious, fictitious parallels”? The argument seems to be that parallels between Israel and the Nazis can only be sustained by falsifying the evidence, and are only advanced with the intention of causing offence. I think this is mostly – but not entirely – unsustainable. Drawing an analogy between two things isn’t saying that they’re the same: to say that X is like Y in certain ways is also to say that it’s unlike Y in other ways. So, for instance, there’s a parallel between the Nazis setting up internment camps for political enemies in 1933 and the British interning their political enemies in South Africa (1900) and Northern Ireland (1971); there are also lots of differences between those situations. Still, interning people without due process is something the Nazis did, and that parallel may give us a reason to think twice about our own government doing it. Were the Israeli government’s actions in putting Gaza “on a diet” comparable to the Nazis’ starvation of the Polish ghettoes? There does seem to be a point of similarity; you may think that similarity is outweighed by so many dissimilarities as to be irrelevant, but I don’t think it can be ruled out of court.

The big dissimilarity, of course, is the Holocaust, which may be held to override and delegitimate any smaller parallels. In particular, if you hold the view (advanced by historians such as Lucy Dawidowicz) that the Nazis came to power already intent on the extermination of the Jews, then it’s clear that the Nazi regime was out on its own in the genocidal evil stakes, and almost no other government can be compared to it – not Stalin’s, not Mao’s, not the British in India and certainly not Israel. (I say ‘almost’ – there’s some evidence that the Khmer Rouge were planning genocide from the start.) But even this isn’t as solid a distinction as we might want it to be. The ‘functionalist’ school of historians – people like Christopher Browning – dispute the ‘intentionalism’ of Dawidowicz and others: the ‘functionalists’ argue that the Nazis came to power wanting to rule a Europe with no Jews, and that the Holocaust as we now know it developed out of a whole series of short-term expedients to bring this about. The Nazis on this reading were certainly never humanitarians – at best they were indifferent to whether Jews lived or died – but genocide was the means, not the end. What they wanted, at least from 1939 (arguably from 1933), was land, only without some of the people who lived on it. This reading clearly makes parallels with other regimes more available, and more troubling.

Of course, drawing any analogy between Israel and the Nazis is grossly offensive to Jews who support Israel – which is to say, the great majority of Jews – and for that reason I think non-Jews should avoid doing so; I’d even go so far as to say that for a non-Jew to publicly and deliberately use this parallel, despite the offence it is bound to cause, suggests an indifference to Jewish feelings which verges on antisemitism. That said, the offensiveness of the parallel isn’t news to anyone; in fact, it’s precisely why people use it – Jewish people very much included. My experience of arguments about Zionism conducted mostly among Jews is that Godwin’s Law is in full effect, in a fairly fast-acting form; Nazi parallels are freely thrown around on all sides, including sides that non-Jews might not even know about. (Amos Oz, in In the land of Israel, recalls seeing graffiti in an Orthodox area of Jerusalem likening the Labour Mayor to Hitler – Teddy Kollek, that is, not Ken Livingstone.) Invading and occupying land illegally? Just like a Nazi! Threatening the security of Israel and the survival of the Jewish people? Just what the Nazis wanted! Betraying the Jewish faith itself by worshipping the goyim naches of a nation-state? No better than the Nazis! And so on, to the point where it’s quite hard to believe that anyone involved is hearing this stuff for the first time, or taking genuine offence – least of all, incidentally, when the offensive conduct complained of seems to consist of quoting Himmler on the topic of Nazi racial policy. But this is of its nature an argument within the Jewish community. Speaking as a non-Jew, I’m happy to forswear comparisons between Israel and the Nazis myself, and leave them to it.

Back to Jacobson and friends:

Zionism — the longing of a dispersed people to return home — has been a constant, cherished part of Jewish life since AD70.

The Jews have always been Zionist. Who knew?

In its modern form Zionism was a response to the centuries of persecution, expulsions and mass murder in Christian and Muslim worlds

Oh, wait. What we now call Zionism is the modern form of Zionism. So they’ve always been Zionist, only in different ways – and specifically not in the way that we know. So earlier forms of ‘Zionism’ weren’t actually what we now call Zionism. Only they were Zionism, because… um.

[Zionism’s] revival was an assertion of the right to exist in the face of cruelty unique in history.

Or was it that the Jews used to be Zionist, and then they weren’t, but now they are again?

As you can see, the confusion level ramps up at just the point where the argument becomes most tendentious. Certainly the idea of a Return – the idea of Zion – has been part of Jewish life since the destruction of the Temple, if not the Babylonian Captivity; but that’s very different from saying that Zionism has been. Zionism translated the idea of Zion into the language of political nationalism, and aimed to implement it (as we’ve seen) under the auspices of European imperialism; it couldn’t reasonably have arisen before the early nineteenth century, and in any case historically didn’t arise before the 1890s.

It’s also worth noting that, while Zionism certainly did flourish as a response to organised antisemitism, it was far from being the only response. While Dawidowicz’s own sympathies were with Zionism, her superb book The War Against the Jews shows very clearly that Zionists were a minority in occupied Poland (the European country with the largest Jewish population before the Holocaust and the greatest losses as a result of it, approaching three million). To be more precise, Dawidowicz’s account suggests that there were three main organised groups within the Polish Jewish community: Zionists, Orthodox Jews and the socialist Bund, which called for Jews to organise as Jews within their own nations. The Bund – which by this stage only existed in Poland – was all but wiped out by the Holocaust; this led to the tragic irony of its effective erasure from history, enabling contemporary Zionists to present their own political forebears as the authentic voice of the Jewish people.

We hope that a Palestinian state will exist peacefully alongside Israel. We do not attempt to minimalise[sic] their suffering nor the part played by the creation of the state of Israel.

As Robert Cohen points out, this is mealy-mouthed in the extreme. It’s not so much that Palestinian ‘suffering’ was exacerbated by the creation of the state of Israel, more that it was its direct and inevitable consequence. “How could the project of Jewish national return with Jewish majority control of the land ever have been achieved without the displacement of the majority people already living there? … the 1948 Nakba was Zionism in action”. A supporter of present-day Israel expressing sympathy for Palestinian suffering can’t help looking a bit like the Walrus weeping for the oysters.

Yet justice for one nation does not make justice for the other inherently wicked.

Indeed, and quite the contrary – justice for one is justice for all; justice for the people of Palestine must necessarily mean justice for the people of Israel. Similarly, justice for the poor can only come through justice for the rich. To say that you’ve had justice doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve received – or kept – what you wanted, though. But this doesn’t seem to be the idea of justice that the authors have in mind. Rather, the suggestion seems to be that people who have repeatedly seen their land confiscated, their leaders assassinated, their towns demolished and their children imprisoned nevertheless still owe something to the state that’s done all this, and that it’s only fair to keep them waiting for justice until they’ve delivered it. Again, it’s hard to identify with this position. If ‘position’ is the word.

Next: if it isn’t a position, what is it?

Like a lion (1)

You may have noticed that there’s been a bit of a push on anti-semitism recently, particularly anti-semitism on the Left. In fact, almost exclusively anti-semitism on the Left; a startlingly blatant example of right-wing anti-semitism – Nigel Farage’s assertion that American Jews exert an influence disproportionate to their numbers – got very little comment. Perhaps it’s just my social media bubble, but I don’t recall seeing a single demand for Henry Bolton to dissociate himself from Farage or expel him from UKIP, let alone for the Right in general to put its house in order.

But the fact that they’ve got a real problem that’s being ignored doesn’t mean that our problem, which isn’t being ignored, isn’t real. There are, still, some people who fall for ‘the socialism of fools’, some whose opposition to capital warps into a belief in Rothschild conspiracy theories, some who conflate Judaism with Zionism and hold the Jewish people accountable for all the crimes of the state of Israel. For Marc Wadsworth to use the phrase ‘hand in hand‘ with reference to Ruth Smeeth MP may not have been a glaring example of anti-semitism on the Left – or an example at all – but that’s not to say that anti-semitism on the Left doesn’t exist; it does, and it needs dealing with.

But, as that example suggests, we need to be clear what it is we’re dealing with. Accusing a Jewish Labour MP of being in cahoots with the Daily Telegraph may be offensive (it was certainly unwelcome), but it’s not in itself a “Jewish conspiracy” libel – any more than saying that a Jewish man tried to push past you is, in itself, evoking a “pushy Jew” stereotype. And I can agree with “Bob from Brockley” (on Twitter) that calling Priti Patel a “Zionist bitch” is unacceptable, without sharing his apparent belief that this is, in itself, “anti-semitic language”. Stalinist attacks on Zionism, for instance at the time of the Doctors’ Plot, used a critique of Zionism as political cover for antisemitism; this tactic was outrageous then and would be outrageous now. But this – the use of ‘Zionist’ as a codeword for ‘Jewish’ – is precisely what remains to be proved in the case of the “Zionist b____” tweet; and it seems unlikely, particularly given that Patel herself is not Jewish. Similarly, Marc Wadsworth’s accusers seem to have assumed that he wouldn’t have used the term ‘hand in hand’ to criticise a non-Jewish political opponent sharing information with a Telegraph journalist, while the accusation against Matt Waddup of UCU seem to rest on the assumption that he wouldn’t have used the word “push” about a non-Jewish gatecrasher who attempted to barge past him. This, in both cases, seems unlikely, to put it mildly.

So there’ s a second point here: there is a bit of a push on this stuff, and it isn’t necessarily in response to actual problems on the ground. (Which, just to reiterate, is not to say that there aren’t any problems on the ground. It wouldn’t be justifiable to respond to racist attacks by banning the EDL – that’s not to say that there aren’t any racist attacks.)

Which brings us back to Priti Patel, the disgraced former international development minister.

What a holiday that was, eh? Let’s hope she took pictures!

What leaps out at me – beyond the obvious fact that somebody was clearly trying to make an end run around her own government, and that she and others had put a great deal of work into making this happen – is the appearance in two separate meetings of “growing anti-Semitism within UK politics” or words to that effect; indeed, these are pretty much the only references to British politics.

Is British politics a place of “growing anti-Semitism”? Huge if true, as they say. But I wonder if something else is going on here.

A few days ago the Times printed a letter from Howard Jacobson, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Simon Schama. But this wasn’t about anti-Semitism. Rather than interrupt every other line so as to pull it apart in in tedious and counter-productive detail, I’ll give the full text of the letter here. (I’ll go through it in tedious and counter-productive detail in the next post.)

In this centenary year of the Balfour Declaration we are troubled by the tone and direction of debate about Israel and Zionism within the Labour Party.

We are alarmed that, during the past few years, constructive criticism of Israeli governments has morphed into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of so-called anti-Zionism. We do not object to fair criticism of Israeli governments, but this has grown to be indistinguishable from a demonisation of Zionism itself – the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, and the very existence of a Jewish state. Although anti-Zionists claim innocence of any antisemitic intent, anti-Zionism frequently borrows the libels of classical Jew-hating. Accusations of international Jewish conspiracy and control of the media have resurfaced to support false equations of Zionism with colonialism and imperialism, and the promotion of vicious, fictitious parallels with genocide and Nazism. How, in such instances, is anti-Zionism distinguishable from antisemitism?

Such themes and language have become widespread in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. So far the Labour leadership’s response has been derisory. It is not enough to denounce all racisms in general when this specific strain rages unchecked.

Zionism — the longing of a dispersed people to return home — has been a constant, cherished part of Jewish life since AD70. In its modern form Zionism was a response to the centuries of persecution, expulsions and mass murder in Christian and Muslim worlds that continued from the Middle Ages to the mid-20th century. Its revival was an assertion of the right to exist in the face of cruelty unique in history.

We do not forget nor deny that the Palestinian people have an equally legitimate, ancient history and culture in Palestine nor that they have suffered wrongs that must be healed. We hope that a Palestinian state will exist peacefully alongside Israel. We do not attempt to minimalise their suffering nor the part played by the creation of the state of Israel. Yet justice for one nation does not make justice for the other inherently wicked. Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. We believe that anti-Zionism, with its antisemitic characteristics, has no place in a civil society.

So there you go: when we say “anti-semitism” we may also mean “anti-Zionism” – because Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, and why would anyone oppose that other than out of antisemitism? And when we say “growing anti-semitism within UK politics” we may also be talking about the fact that, for the first time since the establishment of the state of Israel, one of the two major British political parties is led by people who have sympathies with Palestine. You say “oh, Jeremy Corbyn”; I say “growing anti-semitism”.

Does this work? Find out in part 2!

Spoiler: no, of course it doesn’t, but it takes more unpacking than you might think.

Out of the dark

Since the election, I’ve been wondering about what actually happened – how good a result was it really for Labour? and how bad a result for the Tories? Also, what about Mansfield? A certain kind of centre-left commentator has made hay out of Labour’s loss to the Tories of Mansfield and a few other seats (Derbyshire NE, Middlesbrough S, Stoke-on-Trent S and Walsall N); all of these, along with the by-election loss of Copeland, had been held by Labour for twenty years or more – considerably more in some cases. It’s all very well winning these places like Canterbury and Lincoln and Stroud, the thinking seems to run, but look what’s happening out there in the real Labour seats! Six losses plays 27 gains (in England), but look at the quality of those losses – if we can’t stem the drift of Labour’s core vote to the Tories, flukey wins in Sheffield Hallam and Kensington (majority: 0.03%) aren’t going to save us in the long run.

So what can we say about the 2017 result – and what is going on in places like Mansfield? I’ve been playing around with the figures, and (in the immortal words of Anya Christina Emmanuella Jenkins) I’ve got a theory. But first, let’s ask the real question about what happened in 2017, which is: what happened in 2015? What kind of status quo did that leave us with, and what kind of movement had there been to get us there?

Here goes. The dataset I’m working with consists of all seats in England that were held by either the Tories or Labour when the music stopped: every seat is either a hold (by Tory or Labour) or a gain (ditto). Here’s the overall picture for 2015, as compared with 2010:

X axis: change in the Tory share of the electorate since 2010; Y axis: change in the Labour share of the electorate. (These are not vote shares in the usual sense. I’ve done it this way because I’m interested in how changes in turnout affect the figures.)

Pink triangles: Labour holds; red squares: Labour gains; pale blue diamonds: Tory holds; blue squares: Tory gains.

All clear? As for the trendline, it’s for the Labour holds. I used a polynomial trendline because the curve makes it look like a better fit to the data; I’ve no idea whether there’s any mathematical justification for doing this with data like these.

A few things jump out at us from this chart. One is that 2015 was a substantially better election for the Tories than for Labour: the majority of seats fall in the range from -5% to +5% (Labour vote) and 0 to +5% (Tory vote). Another is that the different series occupy pretty much the same space. There’s some clustering – the seats where the Labour vote fell were mostly held or won by the Tories, and vice versa – but there’s also a lot of overlap: there are Labour holds where the Labour vote fell further than in any seat the Tories won. Oddly, almost all the Tory wins are seats where the Labour vote didn’t fall; they’re clustered in the 0 to +5%/o to +5% box. Labour wins are much more widely distributed. It’s also noticeable that a substantial minority of Labour seats – holds as well as wins – show a really large increase in the Labour vote, 10% and up.

But there’s no show without Punch, and there’s no telling the story of the 2015 election without UKIP. The following chart tells the same story about the same seats, but with the electoral shares for UKIP (and the BNP) added to the Tories for a single ‘Right’ share; I’ve also added the Greens’ share of the electorate to Labour’s. The result looks a bit different:

Now ‘Left’ votes are clustered in the 0 to +5% range, with smaller numbers in the +5% to +10% and +10% to +15% ranges – but ‘Right’ votes are almost entirely in the +5% to +10% range, with a scattering in the +10% to +15% range and above. It’s also noticeable that there are substantial numbers of Tory holds, and even wins, where the Left vote has risen by 5% and more. What we see here, I think, is the collapse of the Lib Dem vote – leading to increases in Left and Right votes – together with the UKIP surge, producing a substantial swing to the Right. This in turn leads both to Tory wins and to Tory holds, where UKIP put the lid on a rise in the Labour vote.

But it’s hard to say much more than that, from these data, about the seats that changed hands. Here are the Labour wins:

Labour won seats in 2015 with changes in the Left vote ranging from +4% to +24%, and in the Right vote from -7% to +8%; it’s hard to make out much of a pattern here, other than that it took a really substantial rise in the Left vote to counteract a rise in the Right vote. In the bottom right corner – Left vote +4%-+8%, Right vote +5%-+9% – the overlap is really substantial, with all four types of seat represented and some contradictory patterns: Chester gained by Labour (Left +5.5%, Right +6.3%); Lewes gained by the Tories (Left +6.5%, Right +5.3%).

Here are all the Tory gains:

Not many Tory gains are to the ‘northwest’ relative to a Labour gain, or above it on the trendline (i.e. showing a higher Left increase and a lower Right). But plenty of them are above a Labour hold, and every one of them is above at least one Tory hold. Two lessons for 2015: firstly, in terms of the swing to the Right, seats that the Tories could actually gain in 2015 looked very much like any other seat; secondly, there was a big swing to the Right. Another election fought by the same parties and on the same ideological battleground could have been very difficult for Labour.

So what happened this year? In terms of Labour and Tory, this happened:

A different box with different corners: still a substantial Tory increase (0-10%) but now the main Labour cluster lies between 5% and 10%. There’s a definite inverse relation between changes in the Labour and Tory votes, with falls in the Tory vote mostly corresponding to higher rises in the Labour vote and the lowest Labour rises corresponding to the higher Tory rises. There are only three seats in England where the Labour vote actually fell in 2017 – one Lib Dem gain (not shown here) and two Tory holds, Richmond Park and Waveney. The first of these was a Lib Dem target; in the second, the Labour vote fell between 2015 and 2017 by 0.5% of the electorate, or 268 votes.

But what about the Left-Right picture?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the collapse of UKIP. Or, to look at it in a more positive light, a swing to the Left. If the Tory vote was mostly clustered between 0 and +10% relative to 2015, the Right vote as a whole is almost entirely contained between 0 and -10%. Labour gains are mostly within the -3% to -6% (Right) and +5% to +10% (Left) bracket, suggesting a combination of a direct swing to the Left and greater mobilisation of Left voters. This impression is confirmed by the clustering of the Labour and Tory holds; intriguingly, Labour holds, as compared to Tory holds, tend to have a higher increase (or lower decrease) in the Right vote as well as, more predictably, the Left vote.

And the Tory gains? I’m coming to them. (That weird one over on the left of the chart – Left up 6.4%, Right down 7.7% – is Clacton, gained from UKIP.) Here are the Labour gains, or most of them; there’s also another anomaly, which I’ll come back to.

That trendline is (still) the trendline for Labour holds; it’s interesting how many Labour gains are bang on it, not to mention how many are below it (i.e. how many seats were gained from the Tories despite the Left performing worse than they tended to do in seats Labour held). If I were a Tory this chart would worry me quite a lot; not only are Labour gains interspersed among Tory holds – as Tory gains were among Labour holds in 2015 – but most of them are below the trendline. This suggests that more focused mobilisation next time could really pay off. Turnout was up generally as against 2015, but the increase in turnout was highest in seats Labour held – and lowest in seats the Tories held.

But of course none of this answers the question we began with, the question Labour absolutely must answer if it’s ever to form a governmentget centre-left commentators off its back: what was going on in Mansfield? This. This is what was going on:

The highest blue square is Southport – a Tory gain from the Lib Dems on a three-way split, and hence not really part of the story I’m telling here (apart from noting that Labour pushed the Lib Dems into third place, where in 2015 the Lib Dems held the seat and Labour were not only third, but less than 2% ahead of UKIP). Moving down, the next blue square you come to is Stoke-on-Trent South – Left +6.9%, Right +0.004%[sic]. UKIP didn’t put up a candidate in Stoke-on-Trent South, having got the votes of 12.2% of the electorate in 2015; the Tory electoral share rose by 12.2% and they fluked a win.

The other five seats – Mansfield, Derbyshire NE, Middlesbrough S, Walsall N and Copeland – are best defined by their relation to the ‘Labour hold’ trendline: they’re a long way below it. Looking at the details, Middlesbrough S had no UKIP candidate and a rise in the Tory vote which didn’t quite fill the gap, as witness the drop of 0.9% in the Right vote; the other four all saw a collapse in the UKIP vote together with a rise in the Tory vote which more than compensated for it. Meanwhile the combined Labour and Green vote also went up, but only by between 2% and 3%. This, more than anything, is what singles out those five seats: there was a nationwide trend for Labour-held seats – involving the Left vote rising by between 6% and 12% while the Right vote fell by anything up to 8% – and they’re way below it. These are the outliers; they’re the ones that haven’t performed the way they should have done. It would take some intellectual contortions to argue that it’s the five underperforming losses – rather than the 27 gains or the 200 holds – that are typical of Corbyn’s Labour or crucial to its future. It’s hard not to feel that a bit more mobilisation could have made all the difference – Derbyshire NE has the biggest Tory majority of the five, and 1500 more Labour votes would have made it a Labour hold; 600 would have done the job for Mansfield. A few more Labour votes and they’d have been back in the main cluster – which is to say, a few more Labour votes and they’d look like all the other Labour holds.

As for why these five seats under-performed, different constituencies will have different stories, but it is striking that two of the five – Copeland and Middlesbrough S – were represented in 2015 by MPs who left Parliament rather than fight an election under Corbyn’s leadership (Jamie Reed and Tom Blenkinsop respectively). Of the three MPs who did stand in 2017, David Winnick (Walsall N) had forecast electoral disaster if Corbyn remained leader, while Natascha Engel (Derbyshire NE) is on record as being a fan of Maurice Glasman. Alan Meale (Mansfield) has a radical past but does not appear to have placed his views on Corbyn on the record – although the notorious 2016 ‘league table‘ placed him in the ‘Core group negative’ column, with Ben Bradshaw and Gloria de Piero. (Another ‘Core group negative’ was Rob Flello of Stoke-on-Trent South, who publicly called on Corbyn to resign after the EU referendum.) Even if these MPs strained every sinew to get Labour returned in 2017 – as I’m quite prepared to believe that they did – their opposition to Corbyn’s leadership was no secret; and in our current, quasi-presidential political culture, that was bound to cost the party votes (if they don’t support him, why should I?).

It’s noticeable, finally, just how unusual an area those five seats are in. They’re in the -1% to +5% (Right), 0 to +3% (Left) box, along with only eight other seats: two Tory holds, five Labour holds… and one Labour win. (For completeness, the Labour holds are Ashfield, Leigh, Hull W, West Bromwich W and Bolsover. The last of these was singled out by John Mann MP in his own “Labour heartland” polemic; Mann’s own seat, Bassetlaw, is just outside the box, on Right -1.1%, Left +2.5%. The lesson Mann draws, incidentally, is that “[t]he Labour Party is nothing if it does not represent the aspirations of the white working class in industrial areas”, therefore Corbyn must condemn the IRA, endorse shoot-to-kill and drop his opposition to nuclear weapons. I guess the workers of Bolsover mainly aspire to shoot terrorists and bomb North Korea.)

I think the main lesson of this corner of the chart is that, when you’re in a four-party system with differential levels of mobilisation, and when you haven’t got the momentum of a good chunky electoral mobilisation campaign behind you, electoral politics in a plurality-based system can be very chancy indeed. Looking at the four rightmost seats on that chart and reading from left to right: Right +2.2%, Left +2.5% gets you Ashfield; Right +3.1%, Left +2.5% gets you Copeland (Tory gain (relative to 2015)); Right +3.3%, Left +2.2% gets you Thornbury and Yate (Tory hold); and Right +4.4%, Left +1% gets you Jared O’Mara MP. Sheffield Hallam was also a seat where Labour was under-performing relative to the national trend, presumably because nobody had prioritised it as a potential target; Labour’s vote rising just enough, and the Tories taking just enough of a bite out of the Lib Dem vote, gave us a Labour majority of 2000 and a new MP whom nobody had expected, himself included.

What happened in Sheffield Hallam? Nick Clegg lost it. What happened in Mansfield? Alan Meale lost it. The Labour vote on June 8th? 40%; up 9.6% on 2015. (To put it another way, 27.5% of the electorate voted Labour in 2017, the highest share of the electorate the party has achieved since 1997; the comparable figure for 2015 was 20.2% (up from 18.9% in 2010).) Who won that? We did; the Labour party united behind its elected leader did it. The mean level of Labour support over the twenty opinion polls conducted since the beginning of September? 41.9%. Will it go higher? Yes.

Correction – in an earlier draft I misidentified the MP for Copeland, who left Parliament for a job in the nuclear power industry and triggered a by-election rather than continue to serve his constituents under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, as John Mann rather than Jamie Reed. John Mann has been MP for Bassetlaw since 2001; he was re-elected in 2017 with 52.6% of the vote on a 66.5% turnout.

 

A kind of solution

You’ve probably seen this:

I think it’s a work of genius, not least because of the way it anticipates an obvious objection from some of those hostile to its message – well, you may not be British, but I am, far back as you like… (Which indeed I could say myself, although there is a question mark over one of my great-grandfathers.) Anticipates and sidesteps it: you may indeed be British, son-of-British, son-of-British, etc, but every one of your glorious British ancestors almost certainly had to deal at some point with people who “moved in and unsettled the neighbours”. It’s true that there are quite long periods of English history when nobody was “moving in”, but all of them predate Queen Victoria – and who (apart from the Duke of Devonshire) has any sense of who ‘they’ were that far back? Overall, it’s a brilliant reframing of immigration, that fully earns its closing opposition of love and openness to fear and isolation. Good to have you with us, Jigsaw.

You may not have seen this, more sceptical response:

The reaction to Professor Goodwin’s comment hasn’t been entirely positive; Ian Dunt (no pinko he) contrasted the reception given to people defending immigration (“they should maybe dial it down a bit”) and people attacking immigration (“we should understand their legitimate concerns”). Other commenters took the opportunity to attack the perceived tendency in British political academia – personified by Goodwin and Rob Ford – to put out a conceptual Welcome mat for the UKIP/Brexit mindset, by arguing that UKIP weren’t racist, or else that UKIP supporters weren’t racist, or that attacking UKIP as racist would be a bad idea. (Update: on Twitter, Ford has clarified that his position is the third of these (“attacking UKIP as racist may not be the most effective way to counter their appeal”), together with a heavily qualified version of the second: viz. that the majority of UKIP supporters aren’t (or weren’t) racist, although there were more racists among UKIP supporters than among supporters of most other parties.)

I briefly got into this argument myself, asking – fairly pointedly – whether there was still a constituency of White working-class racists whose sensibilities we on the Left needed to be careful of. I wasn’t able to pursue the argument at length on Twitter – partly for time reasons, partly because, come on, it’s Twitter – so here’s what I was getting at.

1. The collapse of UKIP changes everything

Goodwin and Ford are some of the more prominent intellectually respectable advocates of what I’ll call the “legitimate concerns” model: the model of British politics that says that anti-immigration attitudes run both wide and deep in Britain, particularly among White working-class voters, to the point where any frontal attempt to call (or root) them out would be disastrously counter-productive. As if to say, yes, these people have some dreadful attitudes, but what can you do? Confront them? Good heavens, you don’t want to do that I’ve seen Ulster Unionists written about in similar boys-will-be-boys tones, not to mention (going back a few years) Serbian nationalists. The “legitimate concerns” model was based, it seems to me, on the existence of what grew to seem like a fact of nature between 2004 and 2015: a substantial and consistent vote preference for UKIP, expressed at general elections and in opinion polls as well as at European Parliament elections, generally putting UKIP in a solid third place with 15%-25% of the vote. Now that we’re back to a world of two-party polarisation – with Labour and the Tories between them accounting for 80-85% of voting intentions, while UKIP are down at 4%-5% and fighting the Greens for fourth place – that model isn’t required and should, I believe, be abandoned.

Note that I’m not saying that the model doesn’t work. If I said that model A (theirs) worked before the collapse of the UKIP vote but model B (mine) works now, I’d actually be disqualifying both models, theirs and mine. A lot of things have changed since 2016, but the very nature of reality itself isn’t one of them. Any model has to be capable of explaining the low as well as the high UKIP vote, and I’m sure that the “legitimate concerns” model – tweaked with a Brexit vote here and a ‘hostile environment’ there – can pass the test. (With May discredited, her party divided and the government patently foundering, why is the Tory vote so stubbornly high? Well, if you look at it this way…)

It’s not that the model doesn’t work; lots of models work. What the model lost, when the great UKIP threat went up in smoke, wasn’t its correspondence with reality, but something more fundamental and easily overlooked: the reason for us to choose it in the first place. It was a good enough reason, in its time. The Rise of UKIP was a great story (in retrospect) and an alarming one (in prospect): a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand in 1997 (a <3% combined vote for UKIP and the Referendum Party); a European breakthrough in 2004, consolidated in 2009 and built on in 2014; recognition by the pollsters in 2012, with vote shares at 15% or above from 2014 to 2016; second places in Labour seats in 2015, with the threat of a major breakthrough next time round… It cried out for explanation, before it was too late – and, to be fair, if you want to explain the fact that large numbers of people have switched to a party with policies A and B, hypothesising that large numbers of people have a strong preference for policies A and B isn’t the most ridiculous idea.

But something happened in 2017 that suggested that this phenomenon no longer needed explaining. (In fact it had started happening in 2015, in Oldham West.) Not to put too fine a point on it, the phenomenon that was crying out for an explanation isn’t there any more. People – some people – may still say Yes when they’re asked if they’re worried about immigration or political correctness or whatever, but the loss of a vehicle for those resentments makes them far less significant. How many people would have voted to re-criminalise homosexuality under Heath? to bring back the rope under Thatcher? to re-nationalise the railways under Blair? A fair chunk of people in each case; quite probably a majority of voters for the respective governing party. It didn’t matter, because there was no credible political subject constituted around demands like those, and consequently no electoral threat to the party in power. UKIP, and the respect with which UKIP was treated for so long, gave credibility to an unstable bundle of right-wing populist themes, ranging from vague nationalistic nostalgia to outright anti-Muslim racism; but that’s over now. It isn’t even correct to speak (as I did just now) of the loss of a vehicle for those resentments. UKIP’s right there, with a brand new badger-strangling leader; what’s happened is that it’s been abandoned by a large majority of its former supporters. And if those people don’t think it’s important to articulate their political identity in those terms, neither should we.

In short, if what was happening between 2004 and 2015 looked quite a bit like the constitution of a new White British nationalist political subject, what’s happened since 2015… doesn’t. I can understand why you might have wanted to start from there, then, but I really don’t think you should want to have started from there, now.

2. OK, so what has happened?

Since 2015? Two things – and they’re things we all know about; this isn’t Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World here. On one hand, the Brexit vote gave UKIP and its supporters everything that they, ostensibly, wanted. Note that qualification: Article 50 in and of itself doesn’t get us to banning the hijab or teaching kids about Agincourt or allowing smoking in pubs or bringing back the old money, or whatever. But leaving the EU was what it was all supposed to be about – and leaving the EU we, apparently, are. And UKIP now stands revealed as a contradictory formation. On one hand, it clearly isn’t (wasn’t?) a single-issue party: look at all the imperial nostalgia, all the xenophobic scaremongering, all the authoritarian table-thumping, all the bad-faith ‘free speech’ nonsense (you can’t say that any more…). There are forward-looking liberal democracies outside the EU and reactionary authoritarian states within it: we could in theory leave and be like Norway, or remain and be like Hungary. (In theory we could even advocate Leave as socialists.) UKIP stood for many things; occasional eccentricities aside, those issues form an unstable but reasonably coherent ideological constellation, and the simple fact of the UK being or not being a member state of the EU is far from central to it. And yet, on the other hand, UKIP was a single-issue party – the clue’s in the name – and, for the large majority of its supporters, once that issue was achieved the party was of no further use. If UKIP’s policies formed a loose ideological bundle, leaving the EU was the string that held the bundle together. Take that away and even the true believers fall apart.

The other key factor in the unravelling of UKIP has six syllables; three words, but the first one’s a small word. (Hint: begins with O.) Jeremy Corbyn has done something that hasn’t been done for a very long time, and has certainly never been dreamt of in the last twenty years: he’s signalled the intention of making Labour a genuinely left-wing party and making the next Labour government a genuinely left-wing government, dedicated to advancing the interests of working people at the expense of those of business. As I’ve documented on this blog, a statement of intent from the leader’s office is nowhere near enough to transform the Labour Party – that’s going to be a long job – but, ironically, it is enough to transform the electoral spectrum. As of June 2017, you can divide 90% of the British public into three roughly equal-sized groups: a bit less than 30% who think Corbyn’s ambitions for Britain sound great and will vote Labour to help make them happen; a bit less than 30% who think they’re a very bad idea and will vote Tory to prevent them; and a bit more than 30% who really weren’t joking when they said they didn’t care about politics. The only hopes of setting, or framing, or even tilting the agenda, from outside the old two-party system, lie with the parties voted for by the other 10% of the population. But half of that 10% is made up of Lib Dems, and most of what’s left consists of voters for Northern Irish parties or Scottish or Welsh nationalists; UKIP are nowhere. They did score solid second places in both the Oldham and Stoke by-elections – in Stoke Central they even increased their vote – but of course that’s not what they were aiming for. They thought they could win, and they weren’t alone; lots of commentators – from John Harris to Stephen Bush – thought they had a chance. And, who knows, under David Miliband or Liz Kendall they might have had a chance. Under Corbyn, no.

(On a side note, I genuinely had to stop and think for a moment to remember Liz Kendall’s name. That’s showbusiness!)

3. OK, but what happened before that?

Before 2015? What happened before 2015 can be told quite briefly. There are always ideologies – coherent bodies of ideas about how society works and how it should be organised – outside the bounded spectrum of permissible political views that we think of as the mainstream. If you’re a Green or an anarchist or a White supremacist or a Trotskyist or an Irish Republican or a Nozickian minarchist or an absolute pacifist or a small-r republican or a radical feminist or an anti-imperialist (to name but ten), you know that you’re unlikely ever to hear your spokespeople interviewed on Newsnight, or not without a lot of leading questions and interruptions. (And if eight of those unpalatably extreme viewpoints are broadly on the Left and only two on the Right, well, that just shows how clever Leftists are at coming up with new labels for themselves, doesn’t it – People’s Front of Judea, ho ho.)

What happened in the late 1990s was that the spectrum of political legitimacy was redefined and narrowed – delegitimising some previously habitable territory on both left and right – by New Labour, which then proceeded to occupy the whole of the reduced spectrum it had staked out. The Tories were boxed in; their only choices were to occupy (what was now) an unpalatable ‘far Right’ area or fight New Labour on (what was now) its own turf. Small wonder that they couldn’t return to power until the weird, Mule-like conjunction of a global financial crisis, a Blair-alike Old Etonian leader and a 23% vote for the Lib Dems, cruelly outplaying Labour at the “culturally liberal apolitical centrism” game. (It’s easy to forget just how strong the Lib Dem vote in 2010 was. Six million people voted Lib Dem in 2010 – that’s a million more than voted for any party other than Labour and Conservative in 2017.)

The other thing that happened in the late 1990s was the formation of James Goldsmith’s anti-EU vanity project, the Referendum Party. Insignificant as this was at the time, it marked the beginning of a period when the strongest and most vocal opposition to New Labour would come from a force determined to make its home in those disreputable ‘far Right’ badlands. Indeed, its location, off to the right of respectability, is one explanation for the ideological heterogeneity of UKIP: as David Cameron and Charles Kennedy competed with Blair on his chosen terrain of business-friendly social liberalism, UKIP was free to pick up all the rejected right-wing policies it could carry – and their supporters with them. Hence, too, the post-Brexit meltdown. It turns out that this wasn’t a whole new political identity, melding Islamophobia, British nationalism, social libertarianism and reactionary nostalgia within an overall anti-EU framework, as exciting as that might have been for political scientists. Rather, it was a loose alliance between believers in Islamophobia (and leaving the EU), British nationalism (and leaving the EU), smoking in pubs (and leaving the EU) and bringing back the old money (and leaving the EU), and the announcement that Britain was in fact leaving the EU took away the one thing that had been holding them all together.

What this doesn’t explain is why it was the UKIP area that provided the strongest and most vocal opposition to New Labour, and not some other politically-excluded school of thought. We don’t have that many Nozickian minarchists or absolute pacifists, to be fair, but both the far Left and the Greens have been substantial presences on the British political spectrum for the last forty years. Why did the right-of-Conservative area acquire the cachet of ‘respectable rebels’ and attract the enduring fascination of political scientists, centre-left journalists and BBC Question Time – to the point where it seemed to acquire much more substance than it ever really had – while the left-of-Labour area remained out in the cold, branded and outcast forever like Edmund? Why – let me put this another way – was respectability bestowed on people openly advocating policies which would make nobody’s life any better but only fuel ignorance and hatred while causing misery on a large scale, when people calling for ecologically-sound public investment and mixed-economy social democracy were either ignored or treated like apologists for Pol Pot?

I can’t answer that question. What I can say is that that is what happened: a phantasmal new political subject was conjured out of little more than the foul winds howling around the rightward extreme of the legitimate political spectrum, and given substance by a perverse determination to take it seriously, while studiously ignoring anything that might have been happening over at the leftward extreme. It worked for many years – too many – but now, I think, the game is up. Since the election, only two polls (out of 36) have put Labour below 40%; the average of the last ten has the Tories on 39.4% and Labour on 42%. Are the White working-class British nationalists going to come down from the hills and eat our lunch, as Labour’s middle-class liberal cosmopolitan bias costs it dear among its traditional supporters? To answer that question, it’s worth asking another: what would it look like if the answer was No? In such a world, might we see Labour with a solid lead over the Tories and UKIP in complete disarray, perhaps?

Returning to Professor Goodwin and Jigsaw: what to do if potential Labour voters start voicing legitimate concerns focused on immigration? The answer’s the same as it ever was: first and foremost, find out what those concerns actually are (rule of thumb: if they are legitimate, they won’t be about immigration – and vice versa). Ask if they vote at elections and if they support Labour, and give them good reasons for doing both; if you think they’re being racist, tell them so and tell they why. Treat them as you would anyone else, in other words – as potential allies, to be challenged, persuaded and won over. The only reason to treat them – and their incorrect opinions – with any more deference than that was the suspicion that they were part of something much bigger. We’ve entertained that suspicion for far too long; there’s no reason to continue with it now.

A song of the past

Glen Newey died on the 30th of September, unexpectedly and far too soon (he was 56). Glen and I were acquaintances at best – our contacts between 1982 and 2017 amounted to one brief email exchange and a vague commitment to meet up when it was possible. I didn’t know him particularly well before 1982, come to that.

However, we were at the same Cambridge college for the same three years, and he did make an impression on me then. He certainly stood out. I remember thinking he looked like something out of Cold Comfort Farm – big-boned, raw complexion, blank, unyielding stare – and being surprised to hear through friends that he was one of the brighter and more hard-working students in his subject group, almost certainly heading for a First. To talk to he was reserved and brusque; he didn’t say much or invite small talk. (To talk to he was hard work, to be honest. Mind you, so was I.) He told me once he’d grown up in Guernsey. What was it like? I asked. “A shithole,” he said, then gave a small smile.

It was fourteen years after leaving Cambridge when I saw Glen’s name again, in the letters column, and subsequently in the main body, of the LRB. From his earliest review – of Habermas’s Between Facts and Norms – he had a distinctive style, a kind of punk donnishness. This isn’t just a matter of interleaving tightly-worded argument with references to Harry Secombe and the Great Train Robbery (“eligible conceptions of the good are unlikely to include those of Ronald Biggs”); Terry Eagleton would do as much. Glen went further, as in his reminiscences of a trip to Berlin:

In deference to the BSE brouhaha, posters in every public eatery in town vouchsafed that the dead quadruped on offer was rein deutscher Herkunft – of pure German origin; grim photos in Der Spiegel showed British bovines being shoved into Topf-style incinerators. Irony, or even memory, was at a discount.

The relentless tastelessness of the Nazi allusions here was very Glen, as was the combination of circumlocution and brutality with which it was delivered. When a reader from Frankfurt complained a couple of issues later, Glen declared himself “happy to make with the smoking calumet”, continuing:

I count Germans among my closest friends, some of whom I stay with when in Berlin. My Significant Other herself hails from the tribe – indeed, her mother is a proud alumna of the Hitler Youth’s female branch, with memorabilia which she showed off to me when I was first presented for her approval.

He then pointed out the flaw in his correspondent’s logic. He had fun.

A few years later, an article on the royal family – memorably headed “About as Useful as a String Condom” – gave Glen’s punk-donnish style free rein. Some correspondents found it a bit much, and I was inclined to agree. Well, sort of.

Letters, 20 February 2003
You describe Glen Newey as a reader in politics rather than Reader in Politics (LRB, 23 January). From this, and from his cheerful pee-po-belly-bum-drawers prose style, I infer that he is a first-year undergraduate shaping up for a career as president of the students’ union. It’s not too soon for him to learn some useful lessons.

First, to label a columnist more talented than yourself as ‘drek’, and a political journalist more serious than yourself as vacuous, may not convince your readers that you yourself are free from these defects. Second, it is a long time since anyone believed that abolition of the monarchy necessarily guaranteed the achievement of a democratic and egalitarian society. [continues]
– Anne Summers

(Along the way, Glen had characterised Jonathan Freedland as ‘vacuous’ and Julie Burchill as ‘drek’. Seems fairly mild, to be honest.)

Letters, 6 March 2003
I can set Anne Summers’s mind at rest on one point (Letters, 20 February): Glen Newey served his time as a first-year undergraduate several years ago, in a cohort including such eminences as Anatol Lieven and myself (parsing that last clause is left as an exercise for the reader). Like Summers and others, I found the style of Newey’s piece on the monarchy distracting; it suggested a sustained and ultimately rather laborious attempt to disguise his native tones as those of an intellectual Richard Littlejohn. Ars est celare artem, of course, but another time I’d rather have more of Glen’s own voice and less from his ars.
– Phil Edwards

I know, it’s dreadful. (Even the formulation is wrong – logically it should be ‘and’, not ‘but’.) By way of context, I was 42, I was midway through my doctorate, I was supporting myself as a freelance journalist – mainly writing opinion columns in computing magazines – and applying for interviews for academic jobs, none of which I got. So when the opportunity presented itself to demonstrate that I, too, could put a Cambridge education to the service of being rude in ornate language, of course I jumped at it. Not that it did me any good, and I’m not sure how I thought it would. Sympathetic magic, really; might as well flag down a flying saucer.

And that’s almost all I can say about Glen Newey. He went on writing for the LRB and became an established presence on the LRB blog. (And hey, I’ve written for the LRB blog too! Twice!) He did dial it down – a bit – but never lost that relish for épater le bourgeois, and épater la galérie while he was about it. It was seldom gratuitous. He knew that sometimes – more often than you might think – people need a bit of a shock to see things how they are; sometimes – more often than you might think – telling things how they are is shocking. Our paths crossed briefly a few years later, when he was at Keele and I was applying for a job there; we couldn’t arrange to meet on the day of the interview, though, and I didn’t get the job, so that was that. No ending; the story just stops.


Brian Barder died on the 19th of September. Brian started blogging in 2003; he was in his late sixties and a retired diplomat. When I started the forerunner of this blog, a couple of years later, Brian’s was one of the first I added to my blogroll. Back in the glory days of blogging (circa 2006-8), I commented regularly on his posts and he occasionally on mine, sometimes pursuing our debates through email. I agreed with him strongly on the merits and limits of the international legal order, in particular its lack of support for interventionist adventurism; I also shared his Old Labour loyalties and his heartfelt disdain for the New Labour crew, then very much in power.

We disagreed on other things; in particular, Brian took (what I would call) the conventional view that “terrorists” are beyond any conceivable pale, and that for states to take terrorist actors into account in any way when pursuing their own interests would be tantamount to succumbing to blackmail. I argued the opposing position at some length – pointing out, for example, that if an organised crime syndicate has recently started operating in a certain country, that country’s government will naturally take account of this fact when deciding whether to grant new casino licences, if only by managing things so as to frustrate the crime syndicate. Brian was immovable: the only principled response to terrorism was to say “I see no ships”. (And I’m not saying that he was wrong, necessarily. Certainly organised crime syndicates don’t set out to influence governments in the way that terrorist groups do.)

I was twenty-six years Brian’s junior, as well as having neither qualifications nor experience in a field where he had both; I’m sure he sometimes found my questions and comments impertinent or gauche. For all that, I found him almost invariably wise, thoughtful and kind, and was hugely gratified when he endorsed my readings of international law (most recently in 2013, with regard to R2P and Syria). If there was sometimes a touch of de haut en bas graciousness in there, he carried it off well.

Some time in the late 2000s, the glory days of blogging ground to a halt. When the music stopped I found that, as well as posting a lot less often, I was reading and replying to an almost completely different group of bloggers. So, farewell then, James C-M, Justin McK and Jarndyce; hello, Rodent, WbS and Splinty. A few bloggers from the first group made it into the second, and Brian was one of them. Brian last commented here in 2016, while my last comment at his place is as recent as June this year.

By then, however, a new and more serious disagreement between us had arisen. Old Labour though he was, Brian was never especially left-wing, and he had no time whatever for Jeremy Corbyn or his supporters. As well as distrusting Corbyn on foreign and defence policy – no small matters for a former diplomat – I think Brian simply couldn’t be doing with Corbyn as a politician; for him, I think Corbyn’s failure to control the PLP betrayed lack of power, charisma or both, while his personal scruffiness and penchant for mass meetings were the mark of a dilettante extremist.

I myself had opted for Corbyn even before I thought he had any chance of winning the leadership, and hadn’t seen any reason to waver in my support since then – certainly not since the election, in which Corbyn’s leadership was genuinely impressive. Given another couple of years I think even Brian might have been won round. Sadly, he didn’t have another couple of years. I’d known since earlier this year that Brian was suffering from a life-changing illness, but it barely even crossed my mind that the outcome might be worse than that. 83 is what we used to call ‘a good age’, but it doesn’t make the news of his passing any less of a shock. He leaves a gap in my life, even though I never met him, and I can only commiserate with all those who knew him much better than I did.

NB I didn’t ‘Sir’ Brian in life – entirely with his approval – and don’t intend to start now.

Cheers then mate

Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of the Labour Party.

What is the Labour Party? Fundamentally, it’s an institution. Institutions – local councils, charities, the BBC, the Museum of Science and Industry – have two key properties. First, they stand for something – corporate mission statements are a backhanded homage to the sense of ‘mission’ that a true institution always already has. Second, they perpetuate themselves: they keep themselves going, so that they can do the things they believe in. But, of course, institutions aren’t alive: everything they ‘do’ or ‘believe’ is mediated through people, specifically people occupying particular roles and sharing a particular institutional culture. What the British Museum believes is what the Director of the British Museum believes – and vice versa. There’s a certain way of criticising politicians that counterposes ‘idealism’ to ‘careerism’, but in reality they’re two sides of the same coin: the classic occupier of an institutional role is, precisely, a careerist idealist.

Any time an institution gets a new ‘leader’, that person will find that it already has an institutional culture and a good supply of people occupying institutional roles. This is all the more the case if the institution is articulated across multiple levels of authority and/or geographical locations. Changing an institution’s culture is a slow and laborious process; it’s one of the things that differentiates an institution from a business, or a Leninist party. The Labour Party is not a corporation (or even a university), and Jeremy Corbyn is not its CEO (or vice-chancellor): it was never going to be possible for Corbyn to wipe the slate and inaugurate Year Zero of Corbynite Labour. However much support Corbyn had, there were far too many people throughout the party who had careers or were building careers, occupied institutional roles or hoped to occupy them, on the basis of a culture and ideals very different from his. (And I stress ‘ideals’; these are all good Labour people that we’re talking about, let’s not forget.)

Just how slow and laborious it is to turn an institution around will depend on what the institution is like, in two respects. Any institution is more or less democratic; it either is or isn’t possible for pressure from below to cause a change of policy, a change of overall leadership, a change in the occupancy of a specific middle-ranking role. The more democratic an institution is, the more susceptible it is to sudden changes of direction; a democratic institution is more open to real social mobilisations, and more vulnerable to infiltration when no broader mobilisation is going on. At the same time, any institution is more or less bureaucratic. Bureaucracy is an inherently conservative tendency: it tends to keep the institution running in much the same way. A bureaucratic institution is better able to weather periods of low social mobilisation, but risks being left behind by periods of high mobilisation. Democratic institutions take new leaders straight from the street; established office-holders live with the awareness that they may be out of touch, and that the remedy may be for them to stand aside or be pushed aside. Bureaucratic institutions wear newcomers down slowly, turning this year’s spiky radical into next year’s smooth operator; newcomers live with the awareness that existing office-holders are doing a fine and principled job, and that they will just have to wait their turn. Democratic cultures tend to radicalism; bureaucracies tend to conservatism, and sometimes they tend pretty hard that way. When I first came to Manchester, the Labour council had a (left-wing) Labour opposition group, many of whose members were suspended from the party twice or three times. In 1984 the numbers shifted and the opposition group took over the council, which duly became a byword in the tabloids for anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid advocacy and for the municipal ‘loony left’ generally. The leader of the group was Graham Stringer. Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis, eh?

When Corbyn was elected leader, I was surprised by the failure of most of Labour’s MPs and power-holders to fall in behind the new boss. (I say ‘surprised’; ‘outraged’ would be another word, or ‘disgusted’.) This was naive of me; I should have realised that the change at the top was only the beginning of a process of democratic renewal in the party. Maybe I’m still naive, but what has continued to surprise and disappoint me is the strength of the bureaucratic resistance to that democratic renewal. When the rank outsider has won on the first ballot (and won again when challenged); when the party’s membership has grown and kept on growing; when the Labour general election vote has risen after everyone expected it to collapse – doesn’t that suggest to even the most sceptical observer that something’s going on out there? And might this not be a time to start working with the new leader and his supporters, rather than paying lip service to our numbers and our ‘energy’ and then fighting us for every office and every vote? Apparently not. It’s taken two years even to reorganise the National Executive Committee so that the leadership – and the membership – will have a fighting chance of getting their way, and that change won’t actually take effect for another year; it’s trench warfare all the way down. Which, incidentally, explains an awful lot of the negative stories about Corbyn. “Damaging Labour split”? People are organising against the leadership. “Labour in chaos”? People are organising against the leadership and talking to the press. “Corbyn misses crucial vote”? People are organising against the leader, and on this occasion they’ve managed to outmanoeuvre him. And so on.

And so it came to pass that, when my local branch held its annual election of officers and delegates to the constituency party, a number of delegates signalled their allegiances and intentions through key phrases in our personal statements: things like “I support Jeremy Corbyn” and “I support the party’s manifesto”. That’s the ludicrous position I personally found myself in – effectively running as a left-wing outsider, on a platform consisting of supporting the party’s elected leader and its agreed manifesto. And so it was that, when the votes were counted, I and other ‘Corbynites’ got absolutely rinsed. Existing office-holders, as well as being protected by a variety of – doubtless entirely rulebook-compliant – procedural devices, were given the opportunity to assure the meeting that things were going swimmingly under the current management and that no kind of renewal was needed, or if it was that they were the best people to manage it; most of the votes went 55/45 or 60/40 in their favour; and the outsiders between them ended up with one officer (an uncontested position), and a total of four delegates out of 17. All of which isn’t going to make anyone lose sleep, or divert the local party from its present, comfortable course.

Corbyn stands for turning Labour into an active, outward-looking, campaigning party, and that’s one of the things that’s attracted all of those new members. Is that going to happen while local parties are managed by the same people who were managing them three years ago – people whose political culture and ideals are very different from Corbyn’s? It doesn’t seem likely. And if the local party was working with Momentum, agitating to get suspensions of good comrades reversed, holding political discussions, working to build the party in target seats and generally contributing to the renewal of the party nationally, would that be such a terrible thing? Terrible enough to make it worth organising to secure practically every post for a safe candidate? I really don’t understand the mentality here. I’m temperamentally rather conservative (I’m a folk singer, for goodness’ sake), so I can certainly see the appeal of not rocking the boat unnecessarily as a general principle. But there’s such a thing as moving with the times – and the times have been moving rather quickly since September 2015.

So, no – Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the leader of the Labour Party; at best he’s the leader in name only (LINO?). He is the leader of a movement whose membership is numerically dominant within the Labour Party, and which wants to transform the Labour Party. Unfortunately that movement, despite its numbers and its association with the elected leader, is currently being blocked by office-holders with an excessive attachment to the status quo and/or insufficient attachment to democratic principle. But I’m sure that won’t always be the case. Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of the Labour Party – yet.

To you, with regard

So what have I been writing about, these last couple of months (to a lack of interest which has, frankly, exceeded my low expectations)?

Well, I’ve been thinking about death; about the way that death affects us and appears to us; and about what we can infer from that about life and how to live it. Just the big stuff, then.

In post 1 I talked about the impassable, indescribable devastation that is being bereaved, before mentioning a curious experience which I and others have had after losing a loved one, and which seems oddly to be evoked in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. As I said in post 3, it’s as if for a moment someone is telling us “it’s all right”; let’s not beat about the bush, it’s as if they’re telling us “it’s all right”. I talked about this in more depth in post 8, suggesting a possible psychological mechanism for it while also accounting for my sense that it’s an essentially benign, constructive experience.

More broadly, what’s interesting about experiences like these is what they tell us about how we imagine personal survival, or rather how we imagine personhood: that intuitive sense of individual identity as something essential and even indestructible. I talked about this sense of there being an irreducible core of individual identity – the soul, roughly speaking – in post 2, with a bit of help from Neil Hannon. In post 4 I contrasted Emily Brontë’s frankly panpsychist articulation of her own sense of irreducible identity with Robyn Hitchcock’s frankly materialist version; I discussed these, together with George Eliot’s unsatisfactory but intriguing attempt to square the circle (eternal life, but not for people), in post 5.

As well as being a useful corrective to the mystical individualism of Emily Brontë, George Eliot’s social perspective – her sense that we may live on through our influence and our contribution to the continuing life of the human race – connects with another intuition: the sense that, if we are each an individual with a unique identity, it is possible for us to develop those identities while living together. The sense, in other words, that it is possible for humanity, as a whole, to be humane; to be kind. I pursued this sense in post 6 through some of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, as well as relating it to the person-centred psychology of Carl Rogers (Rogers and Vonnegut are a good fit).

All of which is a kind of backdrop for the thought-experiment which I’d been carting around since last December, which I revealed to the world in post 7 and then debunked in post 9. Post 7: suppose that we survive eternally after death, our identities formed by the life journey we completed before dying. Wouldn’t we find ourselves suddenly in the benign presence of everyone there is – our worst enemies included? And doesn’t this give us the strongest incentive to live at once the fullest life and the best, kindest life we possibly can? (See the post to have it set out in detail.) Post 9: suppose, conversely, that our life journeys come to a full stop when we die and our unique identities are mercilessly snuffed out; doesn’t this indescribable, impassable devastation find its repressed reflection in fantasies of eternal, harmonious, individual survival? And doesn’t the ridiculous horror of death actually give us an even stronger incentive to live a fuller and a kinder life, while we can? Again, see the post to get the detail (and for a rebuttal of the Atheism Fallacy of which I am rather proud).

On a personal(!) note, I started this series rationally convinced that the Heaven fantasy I’d come up with was just that, a fantasy; all the same, I found it a very appealing fantasy, and did wonder if dwelling on it over several weeks was going to induce some sort of conversion experience. I’m glad I risked it; here at the end of the series I’m more certain than before that this life is all we get. If we want a moment worth waiting for, we’re going to have to make it.

 

To you, with regard (9)

Let’s put the lid on this series, and when I say ‘put the lid’ I mean ‘pull the rug’. (This is the hand, the hand that takes…)

A number of things follow from the thought-experiment I’ve been developing. If, after you die, you are going to be uniquely and recognisably you for eternity, it follows that you should spend whatever life you’ve got becoming the best you that you can – the most fulfilled, the most fully actualized, the version of you that you would want to be if you had the choice. You are, after all, not going to get another chance; once round the circuit and that’s what you’ve got – that’s what you are – for ever and ever and ever. Secondly, if you’re going to be you for eternity along with everyone else, it follows that everyone else is going to count for exactly as much as you do. Moreover, on that immaterial, timeless plane their equal value with you will be inescapably obvious; empathy won’t be optional, over yonder. This rules out pursuing (what may appear to be) self-fulfilment by hurting other people, as doing so will land you with an eternity of apologies – an eternity of genuine pain, really. Thirdly, if everyone’s around forever, it follows that everyone who has ever lived or ever will live is (always already) around forever: when you check in, you’ll be rapidly introduced to your grandparents and great-grandparents, but also to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in whatever level of fulfilled self-actualization they (will eventually have) achieved before (they will have eventually) died. And it pretty much follows from this that, if you ever get the feeling that somebody up there likes you, you’re right, and you may well be feeling Somebody’s empathetic vibrations. (Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.) Only that Somebody isn’t Him, it’s just them; to put it another way, it’s just us.

Put all of that together and it follows fairly directly that – to quote myself – it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

Now, let’s say that none of this is true. Syllogism: animals die, their bodies rot, and no trace of them is ever perceived again; human beings are animals; therefore… Alternatively: everything that exists can be observed in some reliable and predictable way; evidence of survival after death has never been reliably and predictably observed; therefore… Let’s say that death is the end – of everything we know, think of or can imagine. No eternal presence; no timeless, dimensionless tuning-fork note; no reuniting with lost ones, meeting heroes, apologising to enemies; no warm buzz of omnidirectional empathy. Our existence through time isn’t superseded (sublated) into eternity, it comes to a stop and is cancelled in a single terminal moment. Our unique identity isn’t perfected and eternally preserved, it’s lost amid a million others and eventually forgotten, with a million others. What follows from that? Where’s your laundry list of moral precepts now?

One answer – widely attributed to atheists but mainly espoused by depressives, cynics, libertines and revolutionaries – is that if nothing lasts, nothing matters: you’re never going to be held to account for what you do, so why not do whatever you want? What’s interesting about this answer is the bad faith that lurks within its apparent logic. Look at the disjunct between the two groups I mentioned just now – those who are supposed to believe that they can do whatever they like without any comeback, and those who actually hold this belief and act on it. Revolutionaries and suicides believe that there is no future; suicides and cynics believe that nothing they do really matters; cynics and libertines believe that conventional morality is bullshit; libertines and revolutionaries believe that their own goals and desires are the truest morality. Most people in those groups probably do share the two key beliefs that death is the end and that there is no God to sit in judgment on us – but this basic atheist credo clearly doesn’t get us all the way to suicidal depression, revolutionary fervour or libertinism, or even to outright cynicism. On the contrary, one can believe that human life is made all the more precious – and the challenge of living fully together all the more important – by the fact that there is no life beyond this one and no chance of coming back for another try: you get what you get, and that’s it.

Hence the suggestion of bad faith. To spell it out, if we’re saying that if nothing lasts, nothing matters what we’re actually saying is that if nothing we can know lasts longer than human life – and if there is no agency higher than human life – then nothing matters more than my own decisions and impulses. Syllogistically, I would be bound by a higher morality in my dealings with other people if there were a God or an afterlife; there is no God or afterlife; therefore… The problem with this train of thought is that, unless you’re going through a crisis of faith, the belief that there is no eternity and no God doesn’t come as news: if you hold that belief, you already believe that that’s how the world is. But this means that the first half of the syllogism collapses: it’s like saying “if 0=1, morality is true”. (Don’t take my word for it, check it yourself – can’t argue with the maths.) What you’re really saying is, lots of people tell us what to do on the basis that there’s something higher and more permanent than the lives of people in society; there isn’t; therefore we can do as we like. It’s bad logic, apart from anything else: you’re jumping over the step where you establish that the lives of people in society don’t have any intrinsic value.

Which brings us back to our laundry list. If each individual is unique and intrinsically valuable, but each one of us is snuffed out, annihilated, when we die; if each person’s life is a unique journey to self-actualization, but each journey stops, never to be resumed, at the instant of death, however soon it comes; what follows from that? (Apart from a strong urge to put back my head and howl like a dog for my father, for my mother, for Madeleine, for Les, for every friend and relative who’s gone before and been taken too soon.) If my life is this bizarre hybrid of a treasure and a bad joke, and if everyone else is in the same position as I am (and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t), then surely Eliot Rosewater had it right:

At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

What I’m suggesting is that the whole idea of unique individual souls living on eternally – an idea which I’ve developed in a particular way in these posts, but which in itself is fairly uncontroversial among Christians – is an inverted reflection of the unbearable reality of death: death which ends time and extinguishes the individual. But this cuts both ways. Assume, in a kind of melancholic fantasy, that there is a God and a Heaven but that human life has no access to any of it – that some other beings are up there casting down their crowns around a glassy sea, while we poor homo sapiens die and rot – and certainly our lives would seem to be of little account. If there is nothing but human life (bounded by death), though, the scale we need to be working on is, precisely, the scale of human life bounded by death. And if, while we’re here, we’re each unique and valuable; and if, while it continues, each person’s life is a journey of self-actualization; and if each individual is ridiculously fragile and each life is absurdly unrepeatable; then it seems to follow – with, if anything, even more force – that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people.

And when we die?

Tonight we fly
Over the houses
The streets and the trees
Over the dogs down below
They’ll bark at our shadows
As we float by on the breeze

Tonight we fly
Over the chimneytops
Skylights and slates
Looking into all your lives
And wondering why
Happiness is so hard to find

Over the doctor, over the soldier
Over the farmer, over the poacher
Over the preacher, over the gambler
Over the teacher, over the rambler
Over the rambler
Over the lawyer,
Over the dancer, over the voyeur,
Over the builder and the destroyer,
Over the hills and far away

Tonight we fly
Over the mountains
The beach and the sea
Over the friends that we’ve known
And those that we now know
Over their homes
And those who we’ve yet to meet
We’ll fly

Over the fathers
Over the mothers

And when we die
Over the sisters
Over the brothers

Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad
Over the children
Over the lovers

If heaven doesn’t exist?
What will we have missed?
Over the hills and far away
This life is the best we’ve ever had.

If you have been, thanks for reading these posts. I may publish a short round-up with links to earlier posts, but apart from that I’m not intending to continue the series. Normal service – i.e. closely-argued political nitpicking – will resume shortly.

To you, with regard (8)

And the voice said: “This is the hand, the hand that takes…”

Location: a busy street in a south Manchester suburb, on a sunny Saturday morning. We see PHIL coming out of a newsagent, a hessian shopping bag in one hand. A passer-by accosts him.
VOICE: Phil, could I have a word?
PHIL recognises the voice, turns towards it and answers without thinking.
PHIL: Sure, what’s it about? Oh, wait…
Seeing the bystander who had addressed him, PHIL freezes and shrinks back. His mouth moves uncertainly before he speaks again.
PHIL: You… I’m sorry, have we met? I know Jan had family, but…
The bystander returns PHIL’s baffled gaze with an expression combining patience, impatience and amusement.
BYSTANDER: Phil, it’s all right. You can say what you see. What was your immediate reaction when you heard my voice?
PHIL: I thought you were Jan.
BYSTANDER: And what was the one possibility you utterly refused to consider?
PHIL: That you were Jan.
JAN: Well, then. Which way are you headed?

PHIL and JAN walk up the road in silence. Eventually PHIL finds his voice again.
PHIL: So, you wanted a word?
JAN: Thought you were never going to ask. You’ve been thinking about regret.
It’s not a question.
PHIL: Well, since you… And thinking I’d never see you again… I mean, we had that disagreement… more of a misunderstanding really… and I never went to see you when you were in the… before…
JAN: Before I died, no – no, you didn’t. It’s all right, don’t worry.
PHIL: Don’t worry? That’s just it – if I was worrying I could do something about it. I’m a bit past worry.
JAN: You’re not, though – that’s the point. You’re not even on the same track as worry. I’m not explaining it very well – have a word with this gentleman.
They are approaching a bridge over a canal. A path branches off from the pavement to run down beside the canal. A FAIR-HAIRED MAN, wearing flared jeans and an embroidered waistcoat, has just pushed past them onto the path.
JAN: Not so fast! Peter, a word?
PETER BELLAMY stops, turns and grudgingly walks back to join them.

PHIL: You’re… you’re actually him. You’re actually Peter Bellamy. I don’t know what to say.
PB: Stop there, I should, you’ve already given me my next publicity campaign. “Peter Bellamy – He’s Actually Him.” How can I ever repay you. Don’t answer that, for God’s sake. My amazing talent of actually being Peter Bellamy doesn’t seem to pull the crowds somehow.
JAN: Come on, Peter, give it up – stop pretending that stuff still matters. Actually it’s regret that I was wanting to talk to you about – I was wondering if you could say a few words on the subject to my friend here.
PB: Oh, very well. [To PHIL] I guess you regret never having met me, or even seen me, when you could.
PHIL: Well, yes. I mean, I was thirty years old when you… I wasn’t into folk back then, but I’d been into Steeleye Span…
PB: You said it, not me. Go on.
PHIL: I had Pentangle albums, I’d gone to Lark Rise… But somehow I never even heard your name till much, much later. I’d heard one track by the Young Tradition, but I didn’t get it at the time – I just thought you sounded like a bunch of mad Yorkshire reactionaries who were determined to make themselves sound as antiquated as possible.
PB: Did we record with the Watersons? I don’t remember.
PHIL: I didn’t have a very good ear for accents. So when I found out what I’d missed – how much I’d missed – who I’d missed… It felt like claiming that I was into classical music when I’d been living round the corner from J.S. Bach and never known.
PB: You weren’t, though, were you? Living round the corner, I mean. Going to the same folk clubs, whatever.
PHIL: Well, no, our paths didn’t cross, that was…
PB: And you were talking in the pluperfect, which is a dead giveaway.
PHIL: Sorry?
PB: “How much I had missed” – pluperfect. You’re thinking in the pluperfect, and that’s why you’re wrong – and that’s why it’s all right. For a start you’ve got to distinguish between ‘losing’ and ‘having lost’. Losing is when you’re clinging on to the rockface and feeling it slip away from under your fingers; lost is when you’re falling, or when you’ve fallen, and it’s all over. Losing is sitting by the phone all day with the growing certainty that it isn’t going to ring; lost is remembering that day a year later. Or you can think of it in terms of songs. Take Reynardine or the Recruited Collier – some song that you sang a couple of times when you were just getting started and never thought about since.
PHIL: And will probably never sing again.
PB: And will probably never sing again – exactly. That’s lost. But you learned those songs, once – you learned the lines, forgot the lines, struggled to remember the lines, got them, lost them again, learned them again… That’s losing.
PHIL: I suppose so. But where are we going with this?
PB: I was planning on a bit of a walk by the canal, but since your friend roped me in… No, the point is: how do you feel about not knowing the second verse of Reynardine, or the penultimate verse of The Recruited Collier?
PHIL: I’d never really thought about it. Nothing, really – I don’t make any claim to know those songs.
PB: Although you did once?
PHIL: I did once, but they’re gone. They mean nothing to me.
PB: And those are songs you used to know. Suppose you heard that there were some interesting songs in a book you’ve never seen, and that the only copy’s been lost?
PHIL: That would be sad, but I wouldn’t regret it personally – that would be like taking responsibility for something that never happened or never could happen.
PB: And yet you think you regret not meeting someone you never could meet, not hearing music you never had any chance to hear. It may be sad – it might have been good if those things had happened – but there’s nothing there to regret. Your life is your life; what happened, happened. It’s all right. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to resume my walk, and if you won’t excuse me I’m afraid I’m going anyway. Val de ree, and so forth.

PHIL and JAN are standing side by side on the bridge over the canal, leaning over the parapet and looking out into nothing. For a few minutes nobody speaks. Eventually PHIL sighs.
PHIL: That’s reassuring up to a point, but surely there are things to regret in situations like…
JAN: Like mine?
PHIL: Yes! We shouldn’t have fallen out, I should have explained myself better, I should have made more of an effort… All those things I could have done, and now I can’t.
JAN: Now you can’t. Tell me, what would you think of a religious leader who said that everyone had a moral duty to avoid anger, pride, lust and the rest of them at all times? No exceptions – anyone who committed any of those sins, even inside their head, would be drummed out of the church. What would you think of that approach?
PHIL: I’d think that was cruel and exploitative, as it’s a standard that almost everyone is bound to fail.
JAN: Almost everyone, yes. And what would you think of the idea that everyone has a moral duty to go back in time, after they’ve sinned, and avoid committing the sinful act?
PHIL: I’d think that was ridiculous – you can’t have a moral duty to do something impossible.
JAN: No indeed. And you can’t have a duty towards someone who doesn’t exist. Maybe you did the wrong things back there, or not enough of the right things, and maybe you’ll want to do better if you’re in a similar situation in future. But you haven’t got anything to regret. You don’t owe me anything – how could you?
PHIL: So maybe I did owe you something…
JAN: And maybe I was well aware of that. Or maybe I thought you owed me something different from what you thought you owed me; maybe I would still have thought you owed me, even if you’d done everything you thought you ought to do. Whatever. The point is, that story’s over now. You can’t owe Jan something if there isn’t any Jan for you to owe anything to. Try and do better another time, but apart from that, go on, go in peace. It’s just you now.
PHIL: I suppose… when someone dies, we lose the person, but we also lose the whole entanglement of expectations and obligations and shared understandings and misunderstandings and grudges and guilt that grows up around a relationship over time. Laying all of that down, letting it all blow away, isn’t the same as having the other person actually tell you they don’t care about any of it, but it could feel like that. I suppose it’s the difference between a debt being settled and a debt being cancelled – which is to say, if you’re the one with the debt, there is no difference. Losing somebody is pain, but there’s also a release: a chance to wipe the slate, let all the nonsense go, see the person as they were and feel your affection for them as it was. A chance to hear those words –
PHIL straightens up, steps back from the parapet of the bridge, looks around. He is alone.
PHIL: “It’s all right. It’s really all right.”

To you, with regard (7)

BUFFY:
Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form… but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about dimensions or theology or any of… but I think I was in heaven.
After Life (BtVS S6E3), script by Jane Espenson

Right, that’s enough background reading. Here’s the thought-experiment that sparked all this off, when I wandered into it late last year. Let’s assume that there is such a thing as Heaven, and let’s assume that conventional wisdom about Heaven has more or less got it right. By which I mean, not the clouds or the harps or the pearly gates or any of that apparatus, but the basic setup. What do we ‘know’ about Heaven? (I’m leaving Hell out of consideration for the time being, although I will come back to it. For now let’s just assume that everyone goes to the same place.) There are two key things, I think. One is that we go to Heaven as individuals – identifiable individuals, even; you are still you, your grandfather is still the person he was, and so on. The other is that Heaven is a place out of time; it’s eternal.

But what does ‘eternal’ mean?

Here there are many many sheep
And the people only sleep
Or awake to tell how gory and gruesome was their end
And I don’t have many friends
And it’s really very clean
And I’m thinking:

Juliet, you broke our little pact!
Juliet, I’m never coming back.

Up here in Heaven without you
I’m here in Heaven without you
Up here in Heaven without you
It is Hell knowing that your health
Will keep you out of here
For many many years
– Sparks, “Here in Heaven”

Well, it doesn’t mean that. Eternity can’t mean that time passes, for everyone but you, and you see it pass – watching while your children and grandchildren grow old, waiting for your double-crossing lover to get hit by a bus, etc. Why not? Because if you see it passing, it is passing for you (“oh look, now my widow’s got a new man – wonder if this one will last”); it’s just that its passage matters less to you, not least because you’ve got an infinite supply of it. And that would open up a whole range of possibilities which, I think, take Heaven in the ‘wrong’ – counter-intuitive – direction. For a start, if time can pass in Heaven, things can happen – and that means that Heaven can change, which probably isn’t something we want to allow. Take C.S. Lewis’s ‘worlds within worlds’ vision of Heaven in The Last Battle:

About half an hour later—or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here—Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. … Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia….”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

Further up and further in! But those woods – I can’t help thinking of Minecraft. Could you cut down the trees? Could you use the wood to make things? Could you cut down all the trees, pave Paradise and put up… well, presumably not. But what if you’d been a handyman in life and building an infinitely extensible log cabin was your idea of heavenly bliss? What if there were lots of people like you? Come to that, what if you had really happy memories of a car park and wanted to recreate that in heaven? Really, there’s no way of having large numbers of people coexisting, over indefinitely long time periods, without conflict developing and leading to at least relative unhappiness.

This is the case even if we aren’t talking about resource conflicts – in other words, even if we drop the rivers and woods and sea and mountains and assume there’s nothing there but people, perhaps sitting on clouds. Being reunited with lost friends and relatives has always seemed like one of the most appealing things about Heaven, closely followed by the chance to meet and get to know the heroes you never did know in this life. But if it all takes time, it could get awfully frustrating: what if Guy Debord or John Lennon wanted to talk to someone else (their own lost friends and relatives, maybe)? What if there were so many people wanting to talk to Picasso or Gandhi that you ended up getting stuck in a celestial signing queue? (“So amazing to finally meet you! Love your work!” “Yeah, great. Thanks. Who’s next?”) It starts to look as if Ron Mael had the right idea all along – eternity, if you think of it in terms of endless amounts of time, would get boring.

So eternity has to mean, not infinite time, but no time (Uchronia?) – and not a hack like “waking up to the same day over and over again” (which, as we know, would get a bit nightmarish after a while) but actually no time passing. When I imagine this kind of infinite stasis I picture the sound of a tuning fork: after the first impact it suddenly sounds as if that tone has always been there and will never fade away – 100% sustain, no attack or decay. Nothing happens, nothing changes. What’s interesting about this is that if there is no time, there can be no energy and hence no matter – whatever it is they do, sub-atomic particles take time to do it (or: they do it within a four-dimensional space-time reference frame). This in turn means no space; imagine space with no photons to traverse it and no matter to bend it out of shape, and what you’ve got isn’t just a void but a dimensionless void.

In Heaven, then, there is no space or time; there’s no light, no matter to be lit by it and no void to be dark. But there are (ex hypothesi) people – identifiable individuals; after spending however-many years looking out through a pair of eyes down here, your consciousness and character – whatever makes you you – is translated at death onto this timeless, spaceless plane. Now what? What logically follows from these (not particularly outlandish) premises about the afterlife?

You’re Already There. We know that there’s no time in Heaven. But that must mean, not just that when you arrive you’re there forever, but that when you arrive you will have been there forever. Which means that Heaven’s always already populated, not just with everyone who’s ever lived, but with everyone who ever will have lived. That family reunion will reunite you not just with your long-lost ancestors but with your descendants, even those born long after you died. For they too will, eventually, die – which means, from the perspective of eternity, their death has already been taken into account.

We Are What We Will Have Been (so we must be careful what we will have been). There are no concertinas in Heaven (yes, I know) – mainly because there’s no space, no matter and no time. But if I were to die tomorrow I would – theoretically – enter Heaven as the kind of person who plays concertina, and be that person for eternity; I’d also be the kind of person who had acquired that kind of musical knowledge at a fairly advanced age, and regretted not having done anything about it earlier. Whereas if I’d died ten years ago I would have (eternally) been the kind of person who vaguely wanted to learn another instrument and regretted not doing anything about it. In this way of thinking, the fulfilment that you’ve achieved by the time you die is yours for eternity – and so are the regrets you die with. If what you are – eternally – is in some way determined by the life you’ve lived, it’s pretty important to live a good life, whatever ‘good’ means in this context.

Try Not to Sin. The specific idea of sin, as distinct from ideas of wicked or wrongful action, is that a sin is something that goes on your record: your sins weigh you down. To paraphrase the previous point, if who you are for eternity is who you are when you die, you don’t want to die with too much on your conscience. So if it’s a good idea to get round to the things you keep meaning to get round to, it’s also a good idea not to do things you’ll regret – a category that includes things you think you shouldn’t be doing. This would also suggest a reason for thinking that suicide is a bad idea – it might get you there a bit sooner, but you’re better off staying here a bit longer and arriving in a better state, if that’s possible.

Getting to Know You. There isn’t a lot to do in Heaven, but why would there be? There’s no time and no space and no matter; as such, there are no material wants, no scarcity and no competition. There’s no advantage to be gained over anyone else, no risks and no opportunities, nothing to hope for and nothing to fear; there’s nothing to buy or sell, nothing to organize for or take part in. What there is is people: everyone who has ever lived or will ever have lived. Think of those long conversations with strangers, at the heel of a party or in the middle of a long journey, when there’s nothing to do but talk – about yourselves, what you’ve been doing, where you’re going, what you care about and hope for. Imagine having that kind of conversation with your Mum and Dad (finally); and with your long-lost ancestors, and with your descendants; and with your heroes; and with the people who slighted you and let you down in life, and with the people you slighted and let down. Not to mention total strangers – all those unique, irreplaceable individuals who happened never to come into contact with you. The moment of entering Heaven would feel like the longest and most exhaustive ‘meet and greet’ anyone could imagine. And the moment of entering Heaven would also be the eternity of being in Heaven.

Time (And/Or Something Else) Heals All Wounds. If you would meet and get to know multiple billions of people in a moment out of time (or an aeon), you would also be changed in the process: a single, irreversible and unavoidable process of change. Imagine what happens, in this model, when somebody dies feeling hatred for others, or any of a number of other emotions that wouldn’t have any function in Heaven. What are you going to feel towards the rest of humanity, when you’re sharing eternity with them (with no material wants, no advantage to be gained over anyone else, etc)? Nothing but curiosity, wonderment, fellow-feeling and love, surely; something a bit richer than Vonnegut’s two mutually-triggering signals of presence and recognition, but in that basic form. If someone dies after a life of feeling nothing but love and benign curiosity towards all their fellow humans, they’re basically going to fit right in. (Not that my thought experiment is telling you how to live your life, or anything.) But if someone dies after killing another person, or multiple other people – what would that reunion be like? Imagine Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting“:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

Like that, but not ending – as the poem ends, a couple of lines later – in a sleep that envelopes both the dreamer and the dead man in his dream. Like that, in fact, but not ending at all. Imagine going to your death a righteous, ideologically-justified killer, and then meeting your victims individually and getting to know them, to the point where you can experience the equal value of each one’s life with your own. Imagine the horror of that. Learning to relate to people you’d hated, feared and wronged, and relate to them as valued equals; feeling hatred, fear and righteous anger, then feeling the horror of what those emotions had led to and feeling them boil away; feeling the weight of what you’d done, perhaps for the first time; feeling the burden of guilt and feeling that in turn burn away in a kind of acid bath of pain, sorrow and forgiveness. Imagine that whole process condensed into an instant, so that your experience of entering Heaven would be an experience of hatred, confusion, horror, self-hatred, guilt and pain, culminating in love, acceptance and fellow-feeling. Then imagine that instant smeared out across the infinite expanse of eternity.

Now generalise from killers to everyone who’s ever done anyone any harm.

Heaven Is Other People, Hell Is Just You. Everyone, on this model, basically gets forgiven – what is there not to forgive anyone for, when everyone concerned is a massless, positionless entity on a timeless plane? – but the pathway to forgiveness runs through guilt and horror. Horror, that is, at yourself and the harm you did to others when you were alive: the more harm, the more horror. Have I just reinvented Hell? Hell, no (if you’ll pardon the expression) – but Purgatory, maybe. It’s a process of love and acceptance, fundamentally; it’s just that, for some people, getting to love and acceptance would in itself be an ordeal.

Lonely Planet. So Heaven would be this humanity-sized static hum of mutual recognition signals and general benevolence, coloured to a greater or lesser extent by the anguish caused by each person’s own deeds while alive. The good end happily and the bad – the bad also end happily, but with more difficulty. Moreover, given that the whole of the human race is represented on the eternal plane, what we have there in aggregate is total knowledge of the course of every human life, together with the capacity (or at least the certain knowledge that somebody has or had the capacity) to change or have changed any detail at any time. Benevolence towards humanity combined with omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence (exercised through human agency): out there in Uchronia, the timeless human race as a whole loves you, wishes you well, knows exactly what you’re going to do and can transform your life at any moment, although it doesn’t generally intervene directly in this world. What does that remind you of?

This model of Heaven – which is to say, a couple of ‘common knowledge’ precepts about Heaven taken to their logical conclusion – seems not only to work without God but to culminate in something with properties that are very much those of God (if we set aside the whole world-creating part – and even that works metaphorically). We can even imagine, pushing the conceptual boat out a bit further, that subjective experience of (awareness of? contact with?) the benevolent eternal background hum of humanity could be mistaken for awareness of, or contact with, God.

To sum up, then: if you take it that individual identity survives death, and that it does so on an eternal plane, it follows that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

(And the truth is as great as belief is.)

NEXT: So I said, “OK. Who is this really?”

To you, with regard (6)

Humanity is what we are: we’ve all benefited from other people being humane, we’ve all been humane to others, nothing comes more naturally.

Humanity is an accomplishment: even though everyone can treat others humanely and everyone deserves to be treated humanely, most people, most of the time, don’t and aren’t.

Humanity is utopian: a society where everyone was humane to everyone else all the time would have to be a subsistence-farming commune or something (and we suspect that it would get dull after a while).

The frustrating sense that all three of these statements are true – that society would be so much better if it were built on the care that we naturally, unthinkingly feel for family and close friends, but that this would be a titanic undertaking and we’re unlikely ever to see it – runs through a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. There’s a character – I can’t remember which character or even which book – who decides to go and live in Indianapolis; he knows nothing about the city, but he’s read that Indiana was the first state to give Native Americans the vote and he thinks that whoever lives in a place like that must be pretty decent people. He arrives in Indianapolis in mid-winter; not knowing anyone and with nowhere to go, he spends the night on a bench at the bus station and freezes to death.

A similar story in a non-political vein, from Slapstick:

I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as “common decency”. I treated somebody well for a little while, or even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in return. Love need not have anything to do with it. …

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous. I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please – a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

And, from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, here’s the blessing that Eliot Rosewater imagines himself pronouncing over newborn twins in lieu of a conventional baptism:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

The quiet frustration in that ‘God damn it’ always chokes me up – as if to say, it’s not hard; it really shouldn’t be hard.

Someone else who grappled with the challenge of kindness was the psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Here’s a statement of his therapeutic credo, from a 1957 paper.

For constructive personality change to occur, it is necessary that these conditions exist and continue over a period of time:

  1. Two persons are in psychological contact.
  2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.
  3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.
  4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client.
  5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client.
  6. The communication to the client of the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved.

No other conditions are necessary. If these six conditions exist, and continue over a period of time, this is sufficient. The process of construc- tive personality change will follow.

There’s a certain amount of throat-clearing and scene-setting there, as you can see. For our purposes the key conditions are the ones listed above as 3, 4 and 5 – what the therapist needs to do, or more precisely how the therapist needs to be. (Rogers and his followers later generalised this model to other settings, notably education (where what was at issue is not so much ‘constructive personality change’ as personal growth).)

The three key attributes, then, are congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding. Congruence can also be thought of as genuineness: the point is not that you feel perfectly integrated into the situation you’re in, but that you’re not managing the situation by faking or putting on a performance; you’re integrated in the sense that there’s no break between the ‘you’ who’s in the situation and the ‘you’ who you feel you are. So you don’t censor your reactions or tailor what you say to the role you’re playing; if you’re bored or frustrated, you ‘bring it in’. Empathic understanding means that you try to appreciate the way that the client’s feeling and get a sense of how they’re responding to the place that they’re in. Unconditional positive regard, lastly, is just that: the words, at least, need very little translation. The concept can be hard to get across, though: the idea of helping your patient feel good about herself, whatever she brings to you, can seem a bit counter-intuitive (let alone applying the idea to students). But the idea isn’t to approve of everything your client does, so much as to convey love and support for what she is – a good person, deep down, or at any rate someone with the capacity to be a good person. Unconditional positive regard is another way to talk about having faith in someone. Rogerian therapy is about sending an unhappy person the message that it’s possible to express one’s feelings spontaneously and honestly without worrying about it (congruence), that their feelings are worth feeling and expressing (empathic understanding), and that the world is a better place for having them in it (unconditional positive regard).

Back to Vonnegut; The Sirens of Titan this time.

It is the tension between the hot hemisphere of day-without-end and the cold hemisphere of night-without-end that makes Mercury sing. Mercury has no atmosphere, so the song it sings is for the sense of touch. …

There are creatures in the deep caves of Mercury. The song their planet sings is important to them, for the creatures are nourished by vibrations. They feed on mechanical energy. The creatures cling to the singing walls of their caves. In that way, they eat the song of Mercury. …

There is no need for a circulatory system in the creatures. They are so thin that life-giving vibrations can make all their cells tingle without intermediaries.  The creatures do not excrete. The creatures reproduce by flaking. The young, when shed by a parent, are indistinguishable from dandruff. There is only one sex. Every creature simply sheds flakes of his own kind, and his own kind is like everybody else’s kind. There is no childhood as such. Flakes begin flaking three Earthling hours after they themselves have been shed. They do not reach maturity, then deteriorate and die. They reach maturity and stay in full bloom, so to speak, for as long as Mercury cares to sing. There is no way in which one creature can harm another, and no motive for one’s harming another. Hunger, envy, ambition, fear, indignation, religion, and sexual lust are irrelevant and unknown.

The creatures have only one sense: touch. They have weak powers of telepathy. The messages they are capable of transmitting and receiving are almost as monotonous as the song of Mercury. They have only two possible messages. The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.

The first is, ”Here I am, here I am, here I am.”

The second is, ”So glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are.”

“The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.” It’s not hard.

NEXT: so, where’s all this going?

 

To you, with regard (5)

All I ever been is me
All I know is I
And I will turn to nothing
In the second that I die

– Robyn Hitchcock, telling it like it (spoiler) probably is.

What interests me about that formulation is that the scepticism about the afterlife goes along with a strong sense of self – an awareness that whatever any one of us has experienced, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, ‘I’ have always been there. Whoever you are, there’s a unique consciousness looking out at the world through your eyes; it’s you, it always has been and it always will be – until you aren’t any more.

So on one level Robyn Hitchcock has a surprising amount in common with Emily Brontë: they both express a fascinated, wondering awareness of what it is to be here, what it is to be an ‘I’. On another level, of course, their disagreement is pretty fundamental. Emily Brontë envisages, not only her own removal from the scene, but the disappearance of the world, the sun, the universe; and she looks on it all with equanimity:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

For what thou art is also right here:

Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

She pictures God as ‘resting’ by stepping his energy down to the level of creatures such as her – very much as matter effectively slows down spacetime from its default setting of c – while at the same time linking them back up to the source of all energy. Consciousness of self, for Emily Brontë, is consciousness of something immeasurably – infinitely – greater than her physical existence. Death is nothing to fear, because strictly speaking there is no death to fear: all there is is return to the source, reuniting the spark of creative power that looked out through her eyes with the vastness of the power that had created the world she saw.

When I was doing English Language O Level one of the exercises we had to do was ‘précis’. Tell me what this 500-word piece is saying, in 100 words; when you’ve done that, do it again in 50 words. Generally the source texts were on the flowery side; you’d get very good at skipping to the end of sentences, then working back through the sub-clauses and checking if any of them were needed. George Eliot’s poem reminded me of that. It’s 43 lines long, and a précis would look something like this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live

In good deeds, deep thoughts and generous impulses.

That’s heaven: to continue to have an effect in the world
Helping to make people’s lives better and better,
Ultimately bringing about the ideal state of affairs
Which we failed to achieve in our lives.
After the body dies, our better self
(Generous, contemplative, religious)
Will live on.

May I reach that purest heaven
Inspiring others to good and generous thoughts
(Lots of others, including people I don’t know).
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

Apologies to any George Eliot fans or poetry-lovers, but I think that’s the gist of it. Here’s the question (and you can check back with the original): what kind of survival is George Eliot talking about here? “So to live is heaven”, “This is life to come”, “that purest heaven”; is the ‘choir invisible’ Heaven? Or is it some more diffuse blending into the enspirited natural world, such as might appeal to a panpsychist like Emily Brontë or the young Wordsworth?

I think the answer is ‘neither of the above’. This poem is often linked to the closing lines of Middlemarch:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

And, I think, rightly so. George Eliot’s imagination was social, as full of people as Emily Brontë’s was full of landscape. She envisages herself as living on, in a pure and near-eternal state, among other people, for as long as other people exist – or rather, through other people. Read the poem through carefully and you’ll see that there’s no reference to continuing subjective survival, no sense that Mary Anne Evans’s consciousness will continue after the heart in Mary Anne Evans’s body has stopped beating. The continuing existence George Eliot hopes for – the glorious, near-eternal, purest-Heavenly continuing existence – is the continuing existence of her influence on other people, as experienced by those people in their own lives. She hopes to have been a good enough person for her memory to inspire other people to be good, and to have been a wise enough person for her insights to help other people to be wise. And – this is the crucial, very George-Eliot-ian point – she recognises and gives thanks for all the other people who have already gone before: all the other people whose good deeds have inspired her to be good, whose insights have helped her to have insights of her own. She presents the history of humanity as a continuing story of collective improvement, continually renewed, and continually spurred on by the example of those who have gone before. It’s a big picture; something well worth aspiring to be part of. But it offers no glimmer of hope for the person who was looking out through Mary Anne Evans’s eyes. Yes, we will go on, as a species – not forever, but for a good while yet. But the same can’t be said for you as an individual: when you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s also worth noting briefly that, as well as there being no sense of personal survival, there’s no reference to God here – you aren’t there, and neither is anyone else (just us).

Schematically:

Robyn Hitchcock Emily Brontë George Eliot
Where do we start from? Me (“All I know is I”) Me and God (“Life, that in me hast rest”) Us; society, humanity
What happens after death? Nothing; we cease to exist There is no death, only reunion with God Nothing, but people remember us
Is God there? No Yes, and He’s right here too! No
Is there any point?
No, there’s just this life Yes, but it’s a mystery Yes, people will remember us

Three views of personal immortality or only two? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that Robyn Hitchcock has written about death and the afterlife several times, usually not in quite such clear-cut terms; perhaps “Where do you go when you die?” was a response to over-enthusiastic readings of some of his earlier work on the subject. Well, call me over-enthusiastic, but I have to say I prefer this (musically as well as in other ways).

When I was dead I wasn’t interested in sex
I didn’t even care what happened next
I was free as a penny whistle
And silent as a glove
I wasn’t me to speak of
Just a thousand ancient feelings
That vanished into nothing
Into love

NEXT: science fiction, with space travel and everything!

Not saying, just saying

I’ll get back to the poetry shortly. I just wanted to put down a memory that was stirred by the Anne Marie Morris furore. The evidence that the phrase is common currency in some circles – despite having been so thoroughly lost to the language more generally as to cause both offence and bafflement when Morris used it – is compelling and, frankly, odd. If people (some people) were using a word that’s now streng verboten in normal usage, but using it for the sake of a familiar and resonant idiom, that would be one thing. Using it for the sake of an idiom from the Old (American) South, and one that’s so unfamiliar that most people commenting aren’t entirely sure what it means or whether Moss was even using it correctly – well, it’s odd, and that’s the polite word for it.

A few people have taken to Twitter with memories of hearing an aged relative use the phrase forty years ago, to be met with pursed lips or worse from the speaker’s younger and more enlightened relations. I had a faint memory myself of hearing my mother use the phrase – or rather, quote someone else using it – in a context that made it quite clear that the point of using it was to say that word. But I couldn’t remember the details until just now, when the whole thing bubbled gloopily up to the surface. So here you go.

When my younger sister went to secondary school, my mother got a part-time job, working for the civil service. We lived near Croydon, so what that meant was working for the Home Office in Lunar House, where the immigration applications were processed. I was in Sixth Form at the time and was frequently at home when my mother came home in the early afternoon; I remember we used to have a cup of tea and share a Caramel bar. They had a huge backlog of applications at the time, and it seemed to be growing faster than they could bring it down. Still, they had a pretty good time of it, up there in Lunar House. One Christmas my mother let me come along to see the ‘cabaret’ they’d laid on for the staff party. One man dragged up as Tammy Wynette and led the room in a rousing chorus of “S B Y M” (sic; I never knew why he resorted to initials). Another dropped his trousers at one point to reveal Union Jack underpants. My mother said afterwards that he was the office racist – and an open member of the National Front – and the general thinking was that he probably wore them most days.

But if he was known as the office racist, that does suggest that he was the only one… well, maybe. I certainly remember my mother saying that the level of racism among the Immigration Officers who worked at ports and airports was much, much worse; predictably, Underpants Man was hoping to get transferred (promoted?) out of that office to an IO role. She herself genuinely couldn’t be doing with racism; it’d be silly to imagine that a middle-class White British woman of her generation “didn’t have a racist bone in her body”, as people like to say, but she’d certainly decided some time ago that racism was something she didn’t intend to indulge, in herself or others. This was when the NF were at their height, and when people were organising against them – RAR, the ANL; my mother was a member of Christians Against Racism And Fascism, who struck me as the nicest group of well-meaning Guardian-readers you could hope to meet. Their mailings always seemed to arrive torn and crumpled, all the same. Can’t be too careful, eh?

The other thing about my mother was that she tended to attract people who wanted someone to talk to. There was a rather posh young Black man in the office who confided in her quite regularly, although she was never quite sure how much he was confiding, or how much he knew he was confiding. He would often go for walks at night, just around and about, and sometimes he would meet another man and they’d have a nice chat; it was all very pleasant. One night he met a charming little man who bought him a drink and then gave him a watch. (He showed my mother the watch; it looked good.) We were convinced he was going to get beaten up or worse one of these nights, but happily he never did.

Then there was a very respectable but rather loud Black woman, who also latched on to my mother (perhaps the level of racism in the office was a bit higher than I thought) but who my mother didn’t take to. And this, in case you’ve been wondering, is where we get back to the point – for it was she who used the ‘woodpile’ phrase. As my mother told it, she dropped it – or dragged it – into conversation, quite deliberately and emphatically – “…that’s the N in the W!” (No mystery why I resorted to initials there.) It may even have been applied to herself, talking about some situation where she would stand out or where her presence would be a giveaway – “…and I’d be the N in the W!” Either way, she drove home the exclamation mark by giving her audience a hard stare – as if to say, “anyone offended? are you offended? I don’t know why, because I’m not offended!

It was alright in the 1970s, as they say. I remember this story because of my mother’s reaction when she retold it: disgust, for the most part, but tempered by a kind of grudging respect for the cost and complexity of the manoeuvre this woman had carried out. Not only was she pitching for acceptance by endorsing a prejudice that could – would – be turned against her; she was doing so by endorsing a collective denial that it existed or mattered, in the certain knowledge that the denial was a lie. That’s cold, and it’s low, and it’s desperate and sad – but you could also say it’s smart, and you could certainly say it’s self-denying. (Costly signalling, in short.)

Anyway: that was 1977 or 1978 – around 40 years ago, either way. And back then, in comfortable Tory-voting Croydon, the phrase “N in the W” had a distinct and easily-recognised function: it was what you said when you wanted to signal that you were a member of the group that agreed to deny that racism existed. That signal in turn served a definite purpose: it guaranteed that your racism wouldn’t be challenged and – more importantly – it let the rest of the group know that you wouldn’t challenge their racism.

So when Tories react to being caught using this phrase by denying outright that it’s in any way racist, or else by insisting that they didn’t mean to offend anyone, we shouldn’t really be surprised. That’s the point of using the phrase in the first place – to deny that racism is racism (look, it’s just a word!), or else to deny that it’s offensive (look, nobody’s upset!). Once one or both of those flags have been run up, we can relax; we know we’re among friends and we can speak freely. If you know what I mean.

To you, with regard (4)

Three views on personal survival after death. (I was holding this post back until I had time to write some commentary, but if I do it this way you can decide what you think about them before I tell you what I think.) They date respectively from 1845, 1867 and 1998.

So: have a read of this.

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Got that?

Now, take a breath and have a go at this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.

So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed, and agonised
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better – saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shaped it forth before the multitude
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reference more mixed with love –
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread for ever.

This is life to come,
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

And you know what to do with this:

Homework question: was that in fact three different views of personal survival, or only two? If two of them agree, which two?

To you, with regard (3)

Not the Victorian poetry – I’ll get to that soon – but a footnote to part 1. In that post I wrote briefly about the Beatitudes, ‘blessed are they that mourn’ in particular :

where the meek inherit the earth and the merciful are shown mercy, what mourners are to be endowed with is ‘comfort’; specifically, the Greek says that they will be visited or called upon

Karl Dallas on Peter Bellamy:

We met for the last time on November 5, 1990. It is surprising to me, in retrospect, that though we had been close for a quarter-century … I’d never done what I could call a “proper” interview with the man I’d always regarded as the primus inter pares of the post-MacColl revival.

We settled down on a Monday afternoon for a trawl through all those 25 years, talking about influences, pursuing that endless and ultimately fruitless search for a definition of folksong. Playing back the tapes today, the man lives again in my head as I transcribe the over two hours of conversation, the chuckles and belly laughs, the way he could bat a question back at me like a Wimbledon champion going for game-set-and-match, the muscular integrity of the man.

He was bitter over some things, and I felt his bitterness was wrongheaded, telling him so. That difference spilled over into the interview as published in Folk Roots, and after it appeared he sent me an annotated copy of it, indicating where he felt I had got it wrong. I was hurt by his criticism (we critics aren’t used to subjects who bite back) and for the first time I felt estranged from him. We never met again, and when he died I wondered (as I am sure must many of us) what part I might have played in his decision to take his own life. Of course, each of us has the right to end our story as we wish; to deny that right is to deny our very humanity, I do feel. But the guilt remains.

Looking back, as I re-play the tapes, I have to admit that the article I wrote was a great missed opportunity. By concentrating upon his strictures upon the folk scene (and some of its leading protagonists), I missed the greatness of the man, his enormous humanity, his wonderful contribution to the joy that this process we miscall a revival has given us all. At the funeral, I was still in shock, burdened by guilt. As I knelt in the chapel, I felt Peter’s very presence. He seemed surrounded by light. And I distinctly heard his words, in that unmistakable blend of Norfolk vowels and English grammar-school education. “It’s all right,” he seemed to be saying. “It’s really all right.”

I felt something similar – although much less intense – after my friend Les died recently. Although he was a huge influence on me musically, we were never at all close, partly because we didn’t agree on the types of music we really valued. I wasted a lot of energy alternately resenting not being in with Les’s musical ‘in crowd’ and reproaching myself for not making more of an effort to join in. Ideally I should have talked about it with Les, but he was never particularly voluble – and how do you talk to someone about the fact that you’ve never been close? Anyway, I was fortunate to be among the musicians at the get-together after Les’s funeral, where there was a small display of pictures of Les through the years, many from long before I’d known him. As I looked at the pictures, all that resentment and self-reproach came churning back up like indigestion. But then I felt… not Les’s presence or anything like that, but I did feel precisely those words: It’s all right. It’s really all right.

I remember, too, the evening of the day I heard my friend Madeleine had died; I had a whisky and a hot bath, and suddenly nothing was wrong, everything was perfectly, blissfully all right. It wasn’t just exhaustion (or alcohol); I remember reflecting on how strange this feeling was, even wondering vaguely if it was a stage of grieving that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had missed. I went to bed and slept like a contented child. (Then in the morning it all began again, of course.)

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

I’m not insisting on the reality of these experiences. To put it another way, I absolutely am insisting on the reality of these experiences – they did really happen – but I’m not insisting there was anybody there but me. I do think there’s something interesting here, though.

To you, with regard (2)

THE STORY SO FAR. At the back end of last year (shortly before reading The Thing Itself) I had a weird idea – and though the dream was very small, it would not leave me…

A riddle:

I’m the darkness in the light
I’m the leftness in the right
I’m the rightness in the wrong
I’m the shortness in the long
I’m the goodness in the bad
I’m the saneness in the mad
I’m the sadness in the joy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the ghost in the machine
I’m the genius in the gene
I’m the beauty in the beast
I’m the sunset in the east
I’m the ruby in the dust
I’m the trust in the mistrust
I’m the Trojan horse in Troy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the tiger’s empty cage
I’m the mystery’s final page
I’m the stranger’s lonely glance
I’m the hero’s only chance
I’m the undiscovered land
I’m the single grain of sand
I’m the Christmas morning toy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the world you’ll never see
I’m the slave you’ll never free
I’m the truth you’ll never know
I’m the place you’ll never go
I’m the sound you’ll never hear
I’m the course you’ll never steer
I’m the will you’ll not destroy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the half truth in the lie
I’m the Why not? in the Why?
I’m the last roll in the die
I’m the old school in the tie
I’m the Spirit in the Sky
I’m the Catcher in the Rye
I’m the twinkle in her eye
I’m Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly”
Well, who am I?

Apparently Neil Hannon’s Mum got the answer straight away; I suspect his Dad did too.

NEXT: late Romantic poetry, Rogerian psychotherapy and The Sirens of Titan. Not necessarily in that order.

To you, with regard (1)

Bear with me; the next few posts are going to be a bit weird. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say up front that my position on personal survival after death is pretty much that set out in the Magnetic Fields song “No”:

Is there a man in heaven looking out for you?
Is there a place dead loved ones go?
Is there a source of wisdom that will see you through?
Will there be peace in our time?
NO

But a thought experiment got hold of me a few months ago, and I’d like to explore it here. I’ll start with a couple more quotations.

It is useless for me to describe to you how terrible Violet, Klaus and even Sunny felt in the time that followed. If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.
– Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
μακάριοι οἱ πενθοῦντες ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται
– Matthew 5:4 (King James version and original)

‘Blessed’. It’s not saying that those who mourn will be all right in the end, it’s singling them out – along with the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart and poor in spirit – for bounty and privilege in the world that is to come. But where the meek inherit the earth and the merciful are shown mercy, what mourners are to be endowed with is ‘comfort’; specifically, the Greek says that they will be visited or called upon. (It’s the same verb stem as ‘paraclete’, a word widely used to refer to the Holy Spirit and literally meaning ‘the one that is summoned’.)

‘Blessed’, though. What’s that about?

NEXT: still no idea, but here’s some music.

In another country

It’s now just over a year on from the assassination of Jo Cox. Since the election, the national mood seems utterly changed. For the first time since the murder, I’m beginning to lose the sense that it was a wake-up call to the worst and most carefully hidden corners of the English collective unconscious (look! somebody’s stood up to those people! somebody’s hit back!). At least, perhaps it wasn’t only that.

But the Pontyclun Van Hire attack reminds us that we’re not out of the woods yet. So, in a different way, do the horrors of Grenfell Tower – the superhuman efforts of unpaid volunteers, and of an underfunded, overstretched fire service; the local council endeavouring to limit its liabilities to the inconvenient proles, if necessary by shipping them out of town;  the borderline-illegal pennypinching decisions that made the fire possible, apparently made by an Arm’s Length Management Organisation [sic], operating without adequate regulatory oversight. Something I wrote just after Jo Cox’s assassination – and just before the EU Referendum – seems relevant again:

Think levers: if I hate the boss who ignored the union and cut my pay, or the people who got their guy elected to the committee, or the people who got their policy passed, or the party that got their candidate elected, the emotion I’m feeling is expressed within a framework of action and accountability. I hate people who have used political mechanisms to change things to my disadvantage, and I can do something about that: I can use those same mechanisms myself. Take those mechanisms away, though, and where have you got to put your hatred? Talk about hating the boss in a non-union shop and you get funny looks – people know there’s nowhere for that antagonism to go (or nowhere that doesn’t end badly for them) and they learn not to express or even feel it.

In a world with no available, usable, everyday politics, it’s hard – or pointless, which amounts to the same thing – to hate people who have direct power over you. What happens instead is that hatred gets channelled onto safe targets, which means targets that aren’t going to hit back: either because they’re unreachably distant (those faceless Brussels eurocrats!) or because they’re powerless. And that’s what migrants are – like asylum seekers, benefit claimants, convicted criminals, terror suspects, Travellers: they’re people you can kick down against when you’re angry, without any concern that they might kick back at you. You’re angry, you feel hatred, you kick down. Politics turns into a different kind of lever-pulling – the lever pressed by the laboratory rat that delivers a food pellet or a jolt of electric pleasure.

I can’t tell you how distraught and angry I was after Jo Cox was assassinated. … I thought, this is where we are now. This is the world we’re living in. And I thought, no quarter. No compromise. No useless leniency. It took me [three days] to calm down. Even now, I think there’s a lot of sense in what Ken wrote five years ago, after a greater – but horribly similar – crime:

“Two things have to come out of this: first, the mainstream left and labour movements have to take seriously security and self-defence; second, the mainstream right must be made to pay a heavy political price for this atrocity. As Gramsci wrote 90 years ago, in a world now lost: War is War.”

So: no quarter for those who deal with racists, white supremacists, imperial revanchists; for those who promote racist myths and xenophobic lies; for those who call their opponents traitors or liken them to Nazis. That doesn’t mean violence, I hasten to add, but it means no acceptance, no tolerance, no compromise; no laughing at their jokes, no appealing to their better nature, no sympathetic tutting at how far they’ve fallen. These people are our enemies, and this is a serious business – if we treat it as a game, we’ll be playing to their rules.

But this isn’t – despite some appearances to the contrary – a struggle against racists and Fascists. It’s more complex than that and more interesting. Racism is both a handicap – a map with the wrong borders marked in – and a morbid symptom of powerlessness; needless to say, it’s a symptom whose development doesn’t threaten those in power, and may even be encouraged by them. (New Labour did push back against overt racism, admittedly – but when do you think the very real concerns shtick got started?) As for Fascists, they’re simply the shock troops of the Right; their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.

The struggle the working class are caught up in is the same one that constituted us as a class-in-itself to begin with, and it’s one in which the enemy has not ceased to be victorious (to quote Benjamin). If the class is ever to act as a class-for-itself, it will need to be clear as to what its interests are, and who does and doesn’t oppose them. In the last analysis, racism and xenophobia – and other degenerate, lever-pressing forms of politics – are a distraction from the identification of the working class’s real concerns. (Which is also why our response to those who foment racism and lies should be so obdurate; think of them as ideological plague-spreaders.)

“As for Fascists … their appearance on the scene tells us only that the legitimate Right is weaker than we thought, the Left is stronger than we thought, or both.” I wrote that line without much reflection – it just felt right. Conceptually, that is; it didn’t immediately feel like an accurate description of the world, either then or when the referendum result came in. Now, though, I wonder – not whether the Right is weak, but how deep (and wide) the weakness of the Right runs.

To Do (For Everyone)

  1. Rise like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number
  2. Get involved
  3. Learn some committee procedure

There’s going to be a lot to do.

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