Category Archives: blogology

Oh, Mr Tony Blair

There were a couple of interesting tweetstorms today discussing the record of the New Labour governments, sparked off by Ken Loach’s article in defence of Jeremy Corbyn. Here’s one list of New Labour’s achievements, reassembled from Tweets by @iamhamesh :

introducing the national minimum wage and establishing the low pay commission, the human rights act, more than doubling the number of apprenticeships, tripled spending on our NHS, 4 new med schools, 42400 extra teachers, 212000 more support staff, scrapped section 28, introduced civil partnerships, doubled overseas aid budget, sure start, lifted 900000 pensioners out of poverty, good friday agreement, tax credits, equality and human rights commission, reduced the number of people waiting over six months for an operation from 284000 to almost zero by 2010, 44000 doctors, 89000 nurses, beating the kyoto target on greenhouse gases, stopped milosevic, winter fuel allowance, climate change act, decreased homelessness by 73%, free eye tests for over 60s, 16000 more police officers, extended the opening hours of over three quarters of GP practices, free prescriptions for cancer patients, removed the majority of hereditary peers, free part-time nursery place for every three-four yo, paid annual leave to 28 days per year, paternity leave, doubled education funding, increased the value of child benefit by over 26%, food standards agency, equality act, FOI act, increased university places, helped end the civil war in sierra leone, crossrail, paid annual leave to 28 days per year, paternity leave, doubled education funding, increased the value of child benefit by over 26%, food standards agency, equality act, FOI act, increased university places, helped end the civil war in sierra leone, crossrail, rural development programme, EMA, free bus passes for over 60s, devolution, banned cluster bombs, ban on grammar schools,£20bn in improvements to social housing conditions, longest period of sustained low inflation since the 1960s, heart disease deaths down by 150000, cancer deaths down by 50000, removed the minimum donations limit from gift aid, reduced the number of people on waiting lists by over 500000, waiting times fell to a maximum of 18 weeks (lowest ever levels), oversaw the rise in the number of school leavers with five good GCSEs from 45% to 76%, young person’s job guarantee, pension credit, cut long-term youth unemployment by 75%, doubled the number of registered childcare spaces, disability rights commission, free school milk & fruit, raised legal age of buying cigarettes to 18, banned tobacco advertising in magazines, newspapers and billboards, free entry to galleries and museums, 2009 autism act, new deal for communities programme (£2bn), electoral commission, halved the number of our nukes, free television licences for those aged 75+, EU social chapter, free breast cancer screening, record low A&E waiting times, reintroduced matrons, hunting act, banned testing of cosmetics on animals, department of international development, reduced class sizes, 93000 more 11-year-olds achieving in numeracy each year, London 2012,10 years of continuous economic growth, NHS direct, healthier school meals, access to life saving drugs for HIV and AIDS, points-based immigration system, equalised age of consent, smoking ban, public interest test, crime down 45% since 1995, and wrote off up to 100% of debt owed by poorest countries.

Well, that’s just hard to read. Let’s see if subheadings can make it any clearer.

Employment and welfare

introducing the national minimum wage and establishing the low pay commission, more than doubling the number of apprenticeships, sure start, lifted 900000 pensioners out of poverty, tax credits, winter fuel allowance, decreased homelessness by 73%, free part-time nursery place for every three-four yo, paid annual leave to 28 days per year, paternity leave, increased the value of child benefit by over 26%, young person’s job guarantee, pension credit, cut long-term youth unemployment by 75%, doubled the number of registered childcare spaces, disability rights commission, new deal for communities programme (£2bn), free television licences for those aged 75+, EU social chapter, rural development programme,  free bus passes for over 60s, £20bn in improvements to social housing conditions


tripled spending on our NHS, 4 new med schools, reduced the number of people waiting over six months for an operation from 284000 to almost zero by 2010, 44000 doctors, 89000 nurses, free eye tests for over 60s, extended the opening hours of over three quarters of GP practices, free prescriptions for cancer patients, heart disease deaths down by 150000, cancer deaths down by 50000, reduced the number of people on waiting lists by over 500000, waiting times fell to a maximum of 18 weeks (lowest ever levels), free school milk & fruit, raised legal age of buying cigarettes to 18, banned tobacco advertising in magazines, newspapers and billboards, 2009 autism act, free breast cancer screening, record low A&E waiting times, reintroduced matrons, NHS direct, access to life saving drugs for HIV and AIDS, smoking ban


>42400 extra teachers, 212000 more support staff, doubled education funding, increased university places, oversaw the rise in the number of school leavers with five good GCSEs from 45% to 76%, free entry to galleries and museums, reduced class sizes, 93000 more 11-year-olds achieving in numeracy each year, healthier school meals, EMA, ban on grammar schools

Law and justice

the human rights act, scrapped section 28, introduced civil partnerships, equality and human rights commission, 16000 more police officers, equality act, FOI act, equalised age of consent, public interest test, crime down 45% since 1995

Foreign policy and defence

doubled overseas aid budget, good friday agreement, stopped milosevic, helped end the civil war in sierra leone, department of international development, wrote off up to 100% of debt owed by poorest countries, banned cluster bombs,


beating the kyoto target on greenhouse gases, climate change act, food standards agency, hunting act, banned testing of cosmetics on animals


removed the majority of hereditary peers, electoral commission, crossrail, removed the minimum donations limit from gift aid, London 2012, 10 years of continuous economic growth, points-based immigration system, devolution, longest period of sustained low inflation since the 1960s

It’s an odd mixture: the list includes some things that may or may not be the government’s doing (the drops in heart and cancer deaths); some that definitely would have happened whoever had been in power (the crime drop, London 2012); some that you’d expect from a government of any colour (free breast cancer screening); some that could easily be reversed by the next government (the ‘ban’ on grammar schools); some that never came to anything to begin with (the Electoral Commission); and some that weren’t necessarily good ideas anyway (Sierra Leone, points-based immigration, the smoking ban).

But it would be churlish to deny that there’s a lot of good stuff in there. New Labour In Genuine Improvements To People’s Lives Shock.

Exhibit B is a briefer tweetstorm from @natt:

for me, it was never just about Iraq, or tuition fees, it was the deliberate adoption of the rhetoric of the far right on immigration that gave us the proto-fascists of today, cutting benefits to single parents as their first major social policy when in office, an audience[sic] of corruption from Expressive[sic] through Mandelson and tennis partners and Blunkett’s having to resign in disgrace twice, anti-social behaviour laws that criminalised speech and rudeness and disproportionately affected poor people, the leading lights of New Labour, Blunkett & Reid, doing TV interviews to scupper any chance of a LD / Lab coalition in 2010, Control Orders used on people not found guilty of an offence, constant pushing for longer and longer detention without trial, the language of “Our schools are swamped,” “I’m afraid of women in the veil,” and “the immigration system isn’t fit for purpose”, Alan Milburn’s part-privatisation of the NHS, and the ‘reforms’ without which the 2012 HSCA wouldn’t have been possible, year after year of terrible PFI deals that have crippled our ability to invest for the future, the privatisation of air traffic control and the closure of post offices and the services post offices provided to rural communities, “British jobs for British people,” the managerialisation of politics that had led to large swathes of disaffected voters

Four main charges there: moralistic attacks on some of the poorest people in society; unbridled and rather self-satisfied authoritarianism on crime, terrorism and ASB; the tacit endorsement of ‘white working class’ racism; and complicity with, if not outright promotion of, the neo-liberal erosion of public services. Is it possible that a government that (at least after 2001) massively increased spending on health, education and welfare could also have opened the door to the private sector and run classic right-wing campaigns against yobs, benefit scroungers and unintegrated ethnic minorities? You’d better believe it.

Good or bad, all this is with several years’ hindsight, of course. So what did people think about New Labour at the time? Well, here’s what I thought in 1994:

It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). … What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds … Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails … Labour will probably just cease to exist.

And in 1997:

The party leadership’s refusal to give even token support to strikers; their determination to ingratiate the party with big business; their approval of punitive and divisive social policies; their frankly Stalinist approach to the party’s membership – all these [are] qualitatively new features of the party under Blair and Mandelson … Any commitment to … overriding the requirements of the economy in certain areas for the good of society had been beaten out of Labour by the time of the 1992 election, fought under the banner of ‘when resources allow’. What is new about Blair is that this loss of what had been a defining principle is now being happily embraced, flaunted as a sign of the very newness of New Labour. Labour will get things done not through government intervention or even public spending – pre-emptively frozen at Tory levels – but through co-operation with the private sector …

the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. … Any halfway competent right-wing government would have signed the Social Chapter, and several have. Similarly, the notion that the mere existence of a minimum wage is bad for business could only be taken seriously under Thatcherism. …

A few policies in Labour’s programme do hold out some hope for a genuine democratic renewal … The Scottish Parliament, the promised referendum on electoral reform, House of Lords reform, the Freedom of Information Act: all of these could herald major and beneficial changes in the way Britain is governed. However, extreme scepticism is still in order … openings in these areas may be created by Labour, but they will have to be exploited despite Labour. …

The community – ‘the decent society’, in Blair’s words – is a strong theme but a vague one. In its positive form it has little content which isn’t shared across the political spectrum … Only in its negative form do the contours of the decent society start to become clear. Parents should spend twenty minutes a night reading to their children (Blunkett); parents should bring their children up to respect the police (Straw). Single motherhood is not just a difficult lifestyle; it is wrong and should be discouraged (Blair). “YOUNG OFFENDERS WILL BE PUNISHED” (Labour campaign poster). Blunkett proposes to deal with training scheme refuseniks by cutting 40% of their benefit; Straw’s views on ravers and beggars are too well known to go into here. The rhetoric of ‘community’ announces a punitive, moralistic, openly divisive social policy, whose main function is to create and stigmatise outsiders: people who don’t play by the rules, people who don’t pull their weight; people who don’t fit in. …

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

And in 2001 (written a few days before the General Election):

Imagine a Tory government. This government does what Tories do: it privatises what it can, for instance, then invites private companies into the public sector, paying them with assets that belonged to schools and hospitals. The government cuts income tax and corporation tax; it passes a raft of illiberal social legislation; it makes it more expensive to go to university and harder to claim unemployment benefit. (It also extends licensing hours, but I suppose everyone’s got to have one good idea.)

Now imagine that, after nearly two decades, this government is replaced. Then imagine that the new government maintains and extends every one of the policies I’ve just described. Imagine that, after four years, it asks for a mandate to continue along the same lines, taking policies introduced by the Tories further than the Tories ever dreamed. Finally, imagine that millions of loyal Labour voters – people who stood by the Labour Party through the Thatcher years, who voted Labour under Smith and Kinnock and Foot – go out and vote for this government, giving it another four years in power.

Then stop imagining, because that’s what’s going to happen on Thursday.

It wasn’t just Iraq, in other words; it really wasn’t just Iraq. Although since you’ve mentioned it, here’s what I wrote about New Labour in 2005, shortly before that year’s General Election:

As far as I’m concerned, this is a single-issue election – and the issue is New Labour. Iraq matters – the government’s duplicity over Iraq matters hugely – but these things matter because they shine a light on what this government is really like. This government has pulled a whole range of foul and insane and alarming strokes in the last four years, but they’ve always been able to talk their way out of trouble (particularly when they were talking to people who weren’t directly affected). Iraq is the moment when this government ceases to have the benefit of the doubt; from this point on, there is nothing they can say that we will ever believe. The trouble is, they’re still there. They’re still occupying the centre ground of British politics, and reshaping it in their own unsavoury, authoritarian, crony-capitalist image; they’re still sustained by having the Left vote in an armlock. … They have to be shifted – and if they can’t be shifted, they have to be shaken up. … Don’t hold your nose: inhale the stink. If something smells bad, you don’t have to take it.

The people who took this country into Iraq aren’t just asking us to ignore what they did; they’re actually asking us to put our trust in them all over again. The fact that those people are New Labour makes it all the more blatant – New Labour’s all about trust. Or rather, it’s about trust, ruthlessly efficient machine politics, Economist-reading power-worship and motivational-poster managerialism – but the greatest of these is trust. You could sum up the basic proposition in one line: “It’s not Old Labour. It’ll work. Trust me.” The trouble with this is that if you lose trust, you’ve lost everything.

they’ve always been able to talk their way out of trouble (particularly when they were talking to people who weren’t directly affected). Hmm.

So, yes, there were some good people involved in those Labour governments, and yes, they did some genuinely good things. But the charge sheet is long: the crony capitalism, the abandonment of the unions, the embrace of Murdoch, the privatisation, the moralistic authoritarianism, the counter-terror laws, the ASB laws, the disregard for democracy, the attacks on unpopular minorities, the temporising with racism and bigotry, the complicity in illegal wars of aggression… And, at the end of it all, the inexorable decline of the Labour vote (and its complete collapse in Scotland). Loach:

It was their Labour party, not Corbyn’s, that lost Scotland, lost two elections and has seen Labour’s vote shrink inexorably. Yet they retain a sense of entitlement to lead. They have tolerated or endorsed the erosion of the welfare state, the dereliction of the old industrial areas, public services cut back and privatised, and the illegal war that caused a million or more deaths and terrorised and destabilised Iraq and its neighbours.

Accusing the government that brought us Sure Start, the EMA, tax credits and the rest of tolerating “the erosion of the welfare state” is harsh. But when you look at the extension of welfare conditionality during the New Labour years – and when you consider that the removal of tax credits was the hill on which Liz Kendall was prepared to let her leadership bid die – it’s not all that unfair. The other charges seem pretty straightforwardly accurate.

But Ken Loach wasn’t writing about the history of New Labour. What’s more important now is the damage that all those years of putting up with this weird parasitical pseudo-Left – even supporting it, for the sake of electing a government with a red rosette – did to the Labour movement’s moral and political compass. More than anything, we need renewal; we need to take our political bearings, as the left always has, from the needs of working people. September 2015 was a start, but only a start; we need to keep our nerve and push ahead.

One final quotation from 2005:

We’re living in a strange, muted, deadened political landscape, where many of the most important questions go unanswered or unasked. I don’t for a moment believe that this is our historical condition, that we’re beached in some Fukuyamaesque arrivals lounge at the end of History; I believe it’s the calm before the storm breaks. The question is how it will break.

I guess we know the answer to that one now.


As you can see, I’ve changed the title of this blog (although not the URL). I’ve got a bad habit of picking titles and catchphrases which are resonant but gloomy – the title of my book is a classic example. “The gaping silence never starts to amaze” is a nice line (it’s from a fairly obscure song by the Nightingales) but I thought we could all do with something a bit more upbeat. “In a few words, explain what this site is about.” says the WordPress rubric; I think the new title and strapline are a bit more informative, too.

The reference is to a song which a friend reminded me of (inadvertently as it turned out). I first heard it at a local folk club about a year ago, and it’s grown on me since then. It seems like a good song for where we are now; where we’ve been since the 16th of June last, really.

Spitfires (Chris Wood)
Sometimes in our Kentish summer
We still see Spitfires in the sky
It’s the sound.

We run outside to catch a glimpse
As they go growling by
It’s the sound…

There goes another England:
Sacrifice and derring do
And a victory roll or two.

From the drawing board to the hand of the factory girl
Upon the lathe
It’s the sound…

It’s ordinary men and women
With an ordinary part to play.

Theirs was a gritty England:
“Workers’ Playtime” got them through
And an oily rag or two.

But sometimes I hear the story told
In a voice that’s not my own
It’s the sound…

It’s a Land of Hope and Glory voice
An Anglo klaxon overblown
It’s the sound…

Theirs is another England:
It hides behind the red white and blue.
Rule Britannia? No thankyou.

Because when I hear them Merlin engines
In the white days of July
It’s the sound…

They sing the song of how they hung a little Fascist out to dry.

Statues dressed in stars

A couple of quick thoughts, or irritations. Very different sources, but I think they’ll turn out to be connected; let’s find out.

First irritation: this piece from yesterday. Slightly edited quote:

Some believe the Richmond Park defeat could catapult [Labour] into an electoral crisis as the Lib Dems gain support in pro-Remain and historically Conservative areas, while Ukip gains confidence among working-class voters in Labour’s heartlands of the north and Midlands.

“We do have two different strong pulls. There are metropolitan seats, in London, Manchester and Leeds; they are strongly pro-EU. Then equally, there are dozens and dozens of seats which are working class, where many did not vote to remain. There’s no doubt it’s difficult to balance the two,” [said] a senior Corbyn ally

None of these statements are obviously self-contradictory, but the combination is hard to make sense of. Are Manchester and Leeds not Labour heartlands in the North? Come to that, does Labour actually have heartlands in the Midlands? (Birmingham certainly isn’t a Labour city in the same way Manchester is, not to mention Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield…) Yes, there are dozens of constituencies which have a working-class majority and were majority Leave, but equally there are lots of majority Leave constituencies that are mainly middle-class; come to that, there are lots of working-class people who are rock-solid Tory, and there always have been (where else did the figure of Alf Garnett came from?).

FourFive different ways of dividing the country are uneasily superimposed in the passage I’ve quoted. There’s geography (rather hazily understood); there’s class; there’s Labour loyalty (solid, wavering, non-existent); there’s Leave vs Remain. Then there’s the fourthfifth layer, which has the weakest moorings in reality but the strongest in emotion: the anti-‘metropolitan’ leftist cultural cringe, which says that anything that happens (a) in London or (b) among people who read the Guardian is shallow, inauthentic and to be discounted. Put them all together and you get a horribly clear picture of the divided opposition to the Tories: divided between solid Labour heartland voters, who voted Leave because they’re working class and are just asking to be poached by UKIP, and shallow metropolitan socialists, who are likely to drift off to the Lib Dems because they’re middle-class Remainers with no Labour roots. It’s a clear picture, a simple picture and a picture that’s almost completely unreliable. Unfortunately it seems to be immune to counter-evidence – see e.g. Oldham West, just twelve months ago. (Working-class majority-Leave Labour heartland voters don’t drift off anywhere, but give Labour an increased majority? Naah, that would never happen.)

Viewed from the perspective of a (not very active) Labour Party member – and with Oldham W in the back of my mind – these prophecies of doom are reminiscent of those crime surveys where they ask people if they think crime is a major problem, then ask whether they think crime is a major problem in their area. This invariably results in much lower figures, as people effectively reality-check their opinions against what they’ve seen and heard (the local news included). Similarly, my own immediate reading of the threat of a Lib Dem/UKIP pincer movement was maybe in some places, but it’s never going to happen round here. Round here – in Manchester – the council recently went from 95-1 (Labour/defrocked independent ex-Labour) to 96-0, and then back to 95-1 (Labour/Lib Dem). At the last round of council elections, there were lots of council seats where the Lib Dems are in second place, but they were mostly really bad second places. And yes, there were lots of other council seats – in parts of Manchester with fewer Guardian readers – where the Kippers were in second place; but again, we’re mostly talking really bad second places. At those elections, the Lib Dems threw everything they had – including the former local MP – at two council seats, and won one of them. They’ve got a pretty good ground game, but their cadre is thin – too many young enthusiasts, not enough old hacks – and the number of members they can deploy isn’t great. Maybe they’ll make it two out of 96 next time round, or even three. I can’t see it happening myself (Labour didn’t let that one seat go easily; our runner-up got more votes than several of the winning candidates in other wards) – but even if they do pull it off, so what? Without an Alliance-style surge in membership and self-belief, the LDs are never going to be in a position to target and win more than a handful of seats on the City Council. As for the Kippers, the most they can say about last time – in a vote held a month and a half before the EU Referendum – is that there were three seats in which their candidate took nearly half as many votes as the winning (Labour) candidate. Even then – when their support in the polls was running a good 5% higher than it is now – they couldn’t overcome their weaknesses: their ground game is poor, their membership’s never amounted to a great deal and their cadre’s basically non-existent. (Such is Labour’s grip on Manchester, even former Tories joining UKIP aren’t likely to be former Tory councillors. There hasn’t been an elected Tory councillor in Manchester since 1995 – and the last time they won a seat from another party was 1988.)

Thinking about voting behaviour I get something of the same double vision as those crime survey respondents. Out there, in all those other places, I’m prepared to concede that people may think like Leavers or Remainers and vote for the Leave-iest or most Remainful candidate they can find. Round here, though, not so much. Round our way, it’s more a matter of organised political machines, or the lack of ditto; who’s organising the door-knocking, who’s getting the posters distributed, who’s going round one more time on the morning of the vote and then once more in the evening. It’s about getting the vote out, in other words; it’s about reminding people that there’s an election on, that there’s a candidate for our party standing, and that there are good reasons to support that candidate. It’s an exercise in organised capillary political communication, one-to-one interactions on a mass scale. And it’s something parties do; barring the odd Martin Bell or Richard Taylor candidacy, it’s something only parties do. Support for political parties is always going to wax and wane, but the speed at which those changes happen in a given area is inversely related to the strength of party support in that area – and that’s directly related to the health of the local party and the resources it can mobilise.

Ultimately, it’s about two different ways of thinking about politics. To the extent that the Labour vote consists of the people who have a personal investment in a particular set of policies and in the leader who puts them forward, the Labour vote is genuinely threatened by Brexit: if what you want is a leader who will campaign to overturn the referendum result – or a leader who will campaign to have it carried out – it’s not at all obvious that Jeremy Corbyn is the man for you. But, to the extent that the Labour vote is a function of the number of people in an area who would say that they ‘are’ Labour, on one hand, and the members and other resources available to the local party, on the other… maybe not. To the extent that we’re talking about organised party politics, that is, and not about some kind of vacuous narcissistic popularity contest (who’s the leader for me?).

Second irritation. I found out that Fidel had died through the medium of Twitter (him and David Bowie, now I come to think of it). I was on my way out, but I thought I’d take a moment to make my feelings on the matter clear.

If you want it at greater length, Corbyn’s tribute contains nothing I disagreed with. (Paul Staines & others made hay with “for all his flaws”, of course – but then, they would, wouldn’t they?)

Some time later I read Owen Jones’s take; as with the piece I quoted at the start, this gave me the odd experience of not quite being able to disagree with any of the individual statements, but wanting to throw the whole thing across the room.

Socialism without democracy, as I wrote yesterday when I caused offence, isn’t socialism. It’s paternalism with prisons and persecution.


Many of the people uncritically praising Cuba’s regime are tweeting about it. Practically no-one in Cuba can read these tweets, because practically no-one has the internet at home … sympathisers of Cuba’s regime would never tolerate or endure the political conditions that exist there … is it really acceptable to expect others to endure conditions you wouldn’t yourself?

Yes, but I’m not sure that was exactly what I was…

There are democratic radical leftists in Cuba, and they warn that “the biggest obstacle for democratic socialist activists may be reaching people who, disenchanted with the Stalinist experience, believe in purely market-based solutions.”

Well, second biggest, after being massively outgunned by groups with an interest in those “purely market-based solutions” and the means to impose them. But yes, decades of Stalinism is the kind of thing that tends to give socialism a bad name. And decades of Stalinism plus some uncritical tweets – that ‘practically no-one in Cuba’ will read – is even worse, presumably.

Championing Cuba in its current form will certainly resonate with a chunk of the radical left, but it just won’t with the mass of the population who will simply go — aha, that’s really the sort of system you would like to impose on us. Which it isn’t.

Sorry, are we still talking about Fidel Castro?

From the top: there’s a difference between defining what you want to achieve in the world and recognising something someone else has achieved. Socialism-the-thing-I-want-to-achieve certainly wouldn’t look a lot like Cuba, but we’re not talking about me or my ideals. If you’ve taken an offshore resort colony and turned it into a country with state ownership of industry, universal healthcare and universal education – and maintained it in the face of massive opposition and resource starvation – I’d say what you’ve achieved deserves to be called socialism and you deserve to be congratulated for it. It’s a form of socialism to which I’m personally bitterly opposed, but at the end of the day I’d rather be poor under a socialist tyranny than starving and illiterate under colonial tyranny. That – putting it in its most hostile terms – is the change Fidel made, and he doesn’t deserve to be vilified for it.

As for ‘uncritically praising Castro’s Cuba’, if this means ‘praising Castro’s Cuba and explicitly denying that any criticism is possible’, then fine, I’m agin it. In the present context, though, I suspect it meant something more along the lines of ‘praising Castro’s achievements on the occasion of his death, without also taking care to get some criticisms into the 140 characters’. In which case, I think Owen’s inviting me to take a purity test, and I frankly decline the invitation. When I – and others – responded to Castro’s death with tributes and expressions of solidarity, without pausing (in our 140 characters) to condemn press censorship and the harassment of political opponents, was it really likely that we either (a) didn’t know that Castro’s Cuba had carried out these things or (b) supported them? We can expect the Right to insinuate that (a) or more probably (b) must be true, but I think we can expect better from the Left – or, for that matter, from anyone prepared to use a bit of common sense. (If you know a prominent character to have done something awful and you meet a self-confessed supporter of that character, do you start by assuming that they approve of the awful thing? Think carefully. (Or think Cromwell.))

The final quote is just odd. Perhaps “championing Cuba in its current form” would resonate with the radical Left, perhaps not; I don’t know. (I don’t much care what the radical Left thinks, and I don’t intend to champion Cuba anyway.) But it’s the next part of the argument where Owen really goes wrong. We can’t possibly know what “the mass of the population” thinks; more to the point, we can’t be guided by what people already think. Politics isn’t about putting forward policies that match what people think; it’s about identifying what’s needed and campaigning for that. You certainly need to get a sense of what people are thinking, but only so that you know how much effort you’ll need to put in to get them to support what you believe to be right. Sometimes you’ll be in tune with the public mood, sometimes you’ll need to reframe your campaign in terms that connect with how people are thinking, sometimes your policies will just be downright unpopular. Sometimes you’ll be pushing at an open door (funding the NHS), sometimes the door will be closed so hard it’s not worth pushing (abolishing the monarchy). But you start with what you believe to be right, not with what you believe to be potentially popular; still less by doing what Owen’s actually proposing – ditching anything that looks as if it might be interpreted as being similar to something unpopular.

To put it another way: Owen, this isn’t about you. It’s not about the credibility of the British left, it’s not how the Labour Party can win back “the mass of the population”, and it’s not about making sure that the political stance of prominent Internet leftists is specified in sufficient detail to be beyond critique, at least to the satisfaction of those prominent Internet leftists themselves (it’s not as if the Right aren’t going to attack you anyway). What it’s about is paying tribute to somebody who made a big, positive difference in the world on the sad occasion of his death, and having the decency to reserve whatever else we could say about the guy to a later date.

Again, it comes back to two ways of looking at politics, I think. There’s a frame of reference within which the correct response to Fidel’s death, and the correct view of his achievements, is radiantly clear, and it’s the frame of reference that goes like this: OK, so which side are you on? Allende or Pinochet? The Sandinistas or the Contras? Apartheid or the ANC? (Not questions which the contemporary Right can answer without blushing, or so you’d have thought.) Then there’s a frame of reference that says that we – the Left – can’t be seen to be overlooking this, condoning that, failing to denounce the other, we must always be mindful of the need to maintain our principles on the one hand, without losing touch with the public on the other hand, and so we must move on from the old and discredited whatever it was, while not overlooking the and so on and so forth. To return to my first point, one of these sounds like it’s based in actual political struggles. The other sounds like it’s based in – well, vacuous narcissistic personality contests (where’s the Left for me?).

If Brexit tells us anything it’s that weightless decisions – individual decisions based on nothing more than mood, individual preference, popularity – are bad decisions. We need a lot more politics in this world – in the sense of people getting together and working for their goals, using existing machinery where necessary – and a lot less attitudinising and questing for the perfect platform.

Say what you’ll say

I read a restaurant review once in which the service was described as ‘pleasantly relaxed and unhurried’. I think we’ve all been to places like that. It’s also a good way of looking at my blogging routine, which is so pleasantly unhurried these days that I rarely get to a burning issue until (checks calendar… blimey) four or five days after everyone else.

The chances are you’ve formed your own opinion on the Livingstone affair, and even if you haven’t you’ve almost certainly read enough Livingstone-related blog posts to be going on with. (I’ll list some of the better pieces I’ve seen at the end of this post, in a spirit of old-school “Web logging”.) But I’m going to make a couple of points about it anyway, focusing mainly on the conversational dynamics of what’s gone on.

On racism and racists

When I was at school it wasn’t exactly OK to be racist – but then, it wasn’t exactly OK to run in the corridor or grow your hair long. It was more that open expressions of racism were frowned on in polite society; when we weren’t on our best behaviour, hearing racist attitudes expressed was entirely unsurprising. Widespread awareness that this kind of ambient racism was in fact not OK, anywhere, came much later. But something odd seems to have happened, over the generation or so that it’s taken to internalise the wrongness of racism. You’d think awareness of the danger of racism would bring a real humility with it, an attitude of “We know that racism is bad, but we also know that it was normal for so long that we’ve all effectively breathed it in, and any one of us may sometimes reproduce it in our thoughts and words”. Humility and self-doubt are tough to live with, though, and the stance that seems more common is “We know that racism is bad, and this knowledge protects us from ever being racist.” Which in turn leads easily to “We all know that racism is bad, so anyone who exhibits racism must have chosen it deliberately” – and so on down to “The problem of racism is the problem of (those) racist people, it’s nothing to do with us”. From humility to smug intolerance in three short steps.

I think this is bad news. Racism doesn’t live in a few bad people’s brains, it lives in images and attitudes and ways of thinking. Today’s 18-year-olds may leave school without a racist thought in their heads – and I think to a large extent they actually do; there is a real, generational foundation for the attitudes I sketched out above – but they’re soon reading papers and watching programmes produced by 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds, just like the rest of us. Racism can stay in the cultural groundwater for a long time. I’m not suggesting that we’re all cultural dupes, hapless victims of the racist tropes swirling around in a culture we never made; I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a racist. I don’t have to wrestle with my conscience for very long before applying the label of ‘racist’ to Nick Griffin, say, or Boris Johnson. But I do think it’s facile at best, and dangerous at worst, to assume that someone who’s made a racist statement is ipso facto a racist.

I also think that people’s motivations for doing so aren’t always pure. Consider two possible responses to a racist statement made by somebody not previously considered to be a racist – let’s call them Len.

ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. We need to tell him it’s not OK.
DAVE (a defender): Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like Len, my political ally and personal friend.
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound racist. We need to tell Len that making racist statements isn’t OK.
ALEX: Let’s do just that. I’ll draft something and get it over to you.
DAVE: Thankyou for raising this issue. I’m glad that we could discuss it constructively, despite being political opponents.


ALEX (an accuser): Len, my long-time opponent, has made a racist statement. Len’s a racist!
DAVE (a defender): No, you’ve got that wrong. Len’s my political ally and personal friend; he’s no racist. What did he say?
ALEX: [explains]
DAVE: Oh dear, that does sound… But I’m sure Len isn’t a racist.
ALEX: Yeah, right! I’ve just told you what he said.
ALAN (another accuser): What did I tell you, Alex? They’re in denial about their own racism!
DAVE: No, hang on. Perhaps Len did say something he shouldn’t have said, perhaps it was a bit racist…
ALAN: Oh, so it’s OK as long as it’s only a bit racist. Very convenient!
ALEX: So you admit it was racist. You admit you’re defending a racist. What does that say about you?
DEREK (another defender): Look, Dave isn’t a racist. He was just trying to explain…
ALAN: That’s right, he was trying to explain away racism. Thanks for admitting it!
[continues indefinitely]

You get the idea – and I think you’d agree that in the last few days we’ve seen a lot more of scenario 2 than scenario 1. Which is unfortunate, as escalating from attacking a person’s actions to attacking that person as a person is one of the most counter-productive things you can possibly do – at least, it’s counter-productive if what you’re trying to do is to address those actions and put them right. The trouble is – and I’m reminded here of the awful truth about the Toclafane – it’s fun. Writing somebody a letter in the hope that they’ll change their ways in future is no fun at all, compared to the compulsive thrill of logic-twisting, question-begging and name-calling. These days, of course, every Alex and Alan who’s spoiling for a fight can mix it in 140-character instalments, with the added gratification of tag-team validation from all the other Alans and Alexes who identify with them on the issue of the day.

The dinosaur bone problem

When you do get stuck in a type-2 scenario, there’s a tendency to reach for the evidence and slap it down on the metaphorical table – see? see what they actually said? you can’t call them a racist/deny they’re a racist now! I recently baled out of an argument along very much these lines, when I realised that the other person and I were both quoting the same couple of lines at each other, each of us convinced that they proved our own position without the need to say more. The problem is that you can’t reliably infer motivation, let alone character, from a single action; you need a course of action to work with, a pattern of behaviour. (This even applies to single actions which seem to carry a fairly blunt and unequivocal message. Somebody burning a Union flag in public probably isn’t motivated by British patriotism, but are they: anarchists? Irish Republicans? Islamic extremists? disillusioned former patriots? apolitical provocateurs? police spies? Place your bets!)

On the basis of what Ken Livingstone said last Thursday, everyone from John Mann to Mark Regev has claimed that Ken is an anti-semite. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of people (see links at the end of this post) have argued back that there’s no reason to imagine that Ken’s an anti-semite, and plenty of reasons to think otherwise. But the claims and counter-claims have rested on the same evidence – sometimes grotesquely distorted, admittedly, but not always by any means. The problem is that we’re all looking at a fragment of evidence and inferring something much bigger from it, like cartoon paleontologists reconstructing a dinosaur from a single bone. And it depends which dinosaur you’re expecting to find. If you already believe that Livingstone’s an anti-semite, some weird statement about Hitler supporting Zionism fits right in to your mental model – you don’t even have to look at it closely. If you believe, as I do, that he’s no such thing, then it doesn’t look like a statement made by an anti-semite. Actually it looks more as if somebody who’s never shown any sign of holding anti-semitic attitudes – and who has stated that anti-semitism is as unacceptable as any other type of racism – had decided to say something grossly offensive to Zionists for cheap shock value, while discounting the offence it would predictably cause to Jews more widely. Because the sad fact is, that’s how racism works. It says, those people are different from you, so you don’t need to care about them; if you want to lash out, lash out at them. And it stays in the groundwater for a long time.

So one person can look at last Thursday’s interview and come away thinking that Ken’s a left-wing anti-semite who’s said something anti-semitic (confirmation!), while I come away thinking he’s a solid if unreliable socialist who’s said something anti-semitic (aberration!). The question is, what would I and this person have thought about Ken last Wednesday, if we’d been asked? Presumably I would have said he was a solid if unreliable socialist, and the other person would have said he was a left-wing anti-semite. The evidence made no difference, in other words. (Well, it made me think Ken was even less reliable than I’d thought, so there is that.) There is a ‘tipping-point’ narrative that gets trotted out on occasions like this – surely now we must realise that these aren’t just random aberrations: the aberrations are the pattern! The idea of changing your opinion of somebody on this basis, suddenly realising that you’re looking at a black cat with white patches and not vice versa, does have a kind of narrative plausibility : one unfortunate lapse by an otherwise blameless individual; two unfortunate lapses by an otherwise blameless individual; three unfortunate – hang on a minute! But I’m not sure how often it actually happens. Certainly you’ll rarely see a first-hand account from the ‘surely now‘ merchants. They say that what they’re describing ought to be a tipping point for their readers, but they’re way ahead of us; they sussed out whoever-it-is ages ago. (Has Nick Cohen ever said anything positive about Ken Livingstone?)

It goes back to what I think of as rule 1 of online debate – in fact, rule 1 of debate in general (apart from a few very specialised settings): Nobody’s above it all. Don’t expect consistent application of unchanging principles from anyone; everyone attacks their enemies, everyone defends their friends. I think we all basically know this; it’s the reason why something like the partial implosion of the SWP a few years back was big enough news to make the national press. Normally you go to Mark Steel to see the Right get a savage satirical tweaking, but Left attacks Right isn’t news; Left attacks Left is. It follows, incidentally, that calling on one’s opponents to disown this outrageous shyster or denounce that bit of cynical manoeuvring on their own side is utterly futile (at least on the surface – I’ll come back to this). If they were going to denounce their friends and allies, they wouldn’t have those friends and allies in the first place – and they wouldn’t be your opponent.

Why we fight

I got bullied on Twitter a bit back. I’m not going to make a big deal of it – it only really bothered me for a couple of hours, and I had kicked it off by saying something really unusually stupid; lots of people regularly endure worse, with less provocation. But it was interesting, if nothing else. It wasn’t pleasant to see two people happily chatting about how ludicrously, contemptibly wrong I was – still less so when the retweets started – but what really sticks in my mind is the mental state it put me in, which was one of obsessive second-guessing. I’d spend fifteen minutes at a time thinking of the objection or the defence I was going to put forward and working out how I was going to phrase it, then thinking of how they might reply to it, then scrapping my original objection and mentally rewording it – then thinking of ways they might counter that, thinking of possible replies to their replies, and so on. I felt like a mouse on a wheel; whenever I thought I was getting somewhere, moments later I’d have second thoughts and realise that if I said that they could still put me in the wrong, and I’d have to start again. Fortunately I was ‘away from keyboard’ for most of the evening in question, so most of these objections and defences never made it to the screen; eventually I managed to ignore it, and eventually it went away. But it wasn’t fun.

I think this gets at something about bullying, or at least one kind of bullying. It can be summed up in two statements: you’ve got to say something and what you say will be wrong. Just as abuse works by offering false reassurance (you’re contemptible/you know I love you), bullying offers false hope: nothing you’ve said up to now has been any good, but come on, let’s see what you’ve got… bzzt, wrong again! Bullying doesn’t depend on the existence of a relationship involving power, though. Some forms of bullying – e.g. in the workplace – do exploit an existing imbalance of power, but I think it’s far more characteristic for bullying to create its own power relation. The school bully doesn’t generally start out in a position of power or privilege over his or her victims, after all. Like school bullying, social media bullying is something anyone can do, given an appropriate victim; like school bullying, it looks ephemeral and trivial when viewed from outside; and like school bullying, it can have very real consequences.

Now: what’s the difference between this model of bullying and what’s going on in scenario 2 up yonder?

I’m not pitching for sympathy for Ken Livingstone – I don’t even feel sympathy for Ken Livingstone. But I think it’s useful to think of some of the reaction to those interviews in terms of bullying. To set the scene, never forget just how unprecedented Jeremy Corbyn’s election last year was. When I was active on the Left, a while ago, there was a big, broad ‘democratic socialist’ area for us to work in, well over to the Left of the then party leadership (er, Kinnock and Hattersley – I did say it was a while ago). I was in the Socialist Society; we were in in a similar sort of area to Chartist and Tribune and ILP and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and the New Statesman, give or take a bit of Labour Party chauvinism on the part of the first two. The Fabians, the Christian Socialists and the Graun were off to our right a bit; over to our Left were the Campaign Group and related hard-liners. We had good relations with some of the hard Left types (Benn), less good with others (Vlad Derer) and some we didn’t really want to talk to anyway (Scargill). Beyond them were the Trots, with the same three-way division; the ISG talked to us, the Mils didn’t, and nobody really wanted to talk to the SWP.

That was in the late 80s and early 90s. We know what happened to the Labour Party soon after that – how Roy Hattersley, for example, found that he’d moved from the Right of the Labour Party to the Left without changing any of his beliefs. The comfortable and well-populated democratic socialist area which the Socialist Society used to occupy is an extreme-left desert now, way out beyond Hattersley – the centre has shifted, and all those left-of-centre groups and publications have shifted with it, or else shut up shop. Bear in mind that, as a result, the Labour leadership has no dependable friends in the media (the Daily Mirror is probably the closest thing). The Graun and the New Statesman are still, by contemporary standards, left of centre; which is to say, they think the elected leader of the Labour Party is a dangerous extremist and feel a lot more comfortable with his sworn enemies.

Because not everyone has chased the ‘centre’ of the party to the Right. Out beyond where we were, there they still are: through everything that’s happened to the Left, Corbyn and Dennis Skinner and a few others kept saying what they’d believed all along, and kept being re-elected. Till finally the ‘centre’ could not hold – at least, it didn’t mean anything any more – and rough old Jeremy’s hour came round at last. The Labour Party of the late 80s looks like a commune of utopian socialists compared to its current incarnation, but even then there was no shortage of people who hated the Campaign Group almost as much as they hated the Tories. How the Right and ‘centre’ of the party must feel now, at having an unreconstructed Campaign Group member as leader – it must be dreadful for them. Really, I can almost sympathise.

Back to bullying. The point is that, however much the Right and ‘centre’ hated last year’s election result, there was nothing that Labour MPs could actually do about Corbyn, other than banging their desk lids at him (or pointedly refusing to bang their desk lids, or whatever that bit of nonsense was). And there was nothing that their friends in the media could do about it, other than wringing their hands, promoting backbench rebels and talking down the party’s prospects. Now, after all their laborious and ineffectual attempts to undermine him, Corbyn’s party enemies and their media friends have finally struck gold: someone’s actually done something wrong. And they are not going to let it go – the fact that it only benefits the Tories, even the fact that it was actually started by the Tories, means nothing beside the chance to get some hits in on the Left. In a dark moment I wondered if the attack on Naz Shah was actually planned as a set-up: take a young and inexperienced politician, pressurise her until she admits to what you want her to admit to, then sit back and wait for someone to walk into the trap of trying to defend her against unfair criticism (what do you mean, unfair? are you denying what she did? perhaps you’re the real problem…) If so, it succeeded beyond all expectations.

Pace Vaclav Havel, living in truth isn’t the power of the powerless. The power of the powerless is bullying somebody else powerless: for as long as you’re asking the questions, you’re the one in charge. But by the same token, a bully is someone who can’t get what he or she really wants. Don’t get angry with John Mann, feel sorry for him. (He’d hate that.)

This land is my land

I’ll end this overlong and overdue post with a couple of rays of hope, interspersed with something that doesn’t look like one at all: gloom sandwich. The first is the point I’ve just touched on: bullying considered as the power of the powerless. Bullying is horrible to endure – it has that obsessional, mouse-wheel quality of soaking up all your time and attention – but it’s not cost-free for the bully him- or herself; it takes up at least some of the bully’s time and attention, without actually getting them anywhere, or doing anything apart from disempowering the victim. Every bully has something they would much rather achieve – they would rather you would just shut up, or just not be there; it’s only because they can’t achieve that that they settle for bullying you. You don’t follow someone around, getting in his face and making a scene in public, if you can stop him saying what he’s saying; you don’t demand somebody clarify their position on X, their views of the implications of their position on X, their views on someone else’s interpretations of the implications of cont’d p. 94 if you can hold them to account for something they’ve actually done.

Not all the anti-Corbyn machinations can be described as bullying – some of them are much more serious (Jarvis, Reeves), as well as being much less noisy. But when you see a lot of people being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant with no obvious goal or game plan, it’s worth considering that they’re being relentlessly aggressive and unpleasant because they’ve got no obvious goal or game plan. If they’re shouting at Corbyn, it’s because they can’t touch him: force an election and he’ll win again; try to change the rules and Corbyn’s supporters will block it. The only way Corbyn’s leadership of the party is going to end is if he resigns of his own accord – and bullying isn’t going to make that happen. (This is someone who’s been a politician since 1974; I think we can assume he’s developed a fairly thick skin over the years.) People like Mann – and their friends in the media – are making a noise for the sake of making a noise, because there’s nothing more effective that they can do.

But if Corbyn isn’t going to go away, neither is the issue that sparked all this off. Speaking as an ex-Zionist (long story, another time), I don’t think it will really do to say that 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, therefore attacks on Zionism are tantamount to attacks on (most) British Jews. Zionism is a body of ideas, irrespective of how widely it’s held, and the expression of views opposed to it has to be legitimate. I’d hazard a guess that at least 72% of the population of Cheadle are staunch believers in capitalism, but we wouldn’t say that selling Socialist Worker in Cheadle should be banned because of the offence it might cause. (At least, I hope we wouldn’t.) At the same time, I don’t think it will really do to say that Zionism is just a body of ideas, or that Israel is just a nation state like any other. There’s an element of naivety – or even bad faith – in saying, in effect, “so 72% of British Jews identify as Zionists, so what?”. However much we might sympathise with the diasporist minority, however much we might wish there were more Bundists around, we need to recognise that support for the state of Israel – and investment in the dream of Zionism, as realised (however imperfectly) in the state of Israel – runs both broad and deep in the Jewish community. At the same time – coming back to my starting point – opposition to Zionism is a valid political position, and it’s one which is becoming increasingly vocal and visible. The two aren’t going to be reconciled by holding an inquiry or reaching an agreement on which terms can and can’t be used. On one side, support for a national home for a persecuted minority; on the other, opposition to an aggressive and unlawful occupying power. Nobody wants to oppose a national home for a persecuted minority, whatever Jonathan Freedland thinks, and I should hope that nobody wants to support an aggressive and unlawful occupying power, but avoiding both is harder than it sounds. (Note at the foot of Freedland’s piece: The illustration that originally accompanied this piece has been removed because it included a representation of the shape of Israel that failed to distinguish between Israel itself and the territories it has occupied since 1967.) There’s a real and intractable conflict here – which is only to be expected, considering that there’s a real and intractable conflict on the ground.

The good news (finally) is that, pace Freedland, this isn’t a conflict over the existence of the state of Israel – how could it be? – but over the direction of travel. (As political debate usually is.) Is Israel going to continue the direction of the last 49 years – more annexations, more settlements, more segregation, more collective punishment of the Palestinian people – or will there, finally, be a change of course? I’m optimistic; the strength of the international movement for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions is growing, and I don’t think it’ll be too long before Western governments see Israel very much as they saw South Africa in the 1980s – i.e. as a vital international ally which they continue to support in public, while recognising the need to put on the pressure behind closed doors. I think change is coming, and I suspect that when it does come it will come quite quickly. (1985: Thatcher describes sanctions against South Africa as a “tiny, tiny, tiny” concession to Commonwealth pressure. 1990: Mandela walks free.) So perhaps the bullying, illogic and assorted scenario-2 behaviour which so often accompanies accusations of anti-semitism is itself a sign of weakness (see also Fraser v UCU).

That’s all very well, but how am I going to fill the next two hours?

Here are some of the better pieces on the Livingstone brouhaha. I’m going to list them in date order, for simplicity and also to track how the story developed. I’m not going to defend every statement in every one of them (why would I?), but I do pretty much agree with everything in this list & think it’s worth reading – which isn’t the case for some of the stuff linked in the body of the post.

25th April
Open Democracy, “New accusations of antisemitism thrown at the left are flimsy”
Jamie Stern-Weiner on the Oxford University Labour Club and NUS anti-semitism stories. (Guido Fawkes exposed Naz Shah’s two-year-old Facebook post the following day.)

27th April
Open Democracy, “Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t got an ‘antisemitism problem’. His opponents do.”
Jamie Stern-Weiner provides a comprehensive overview of incidents of Labour Party anti-semitism, real and fabricated. Essential background reading.

28th April
Electronic Intifada, “How Israel lobby manufactured UK Labour Party’s anti-Semitism crisis”
Asa Winstanley goes into detail on the roots of the Oxford University Labour Club story.
Leninology, “The ‘anti-semitism’ panic”
Leninology, “Pitch forks at the ready”
Richard Seymour has been all over this from early on. The second of these pieces responds to Ken Livingstone’s intervention.
Guardian, “The elephant in the room in Labour’s antisemitism row”
By Keith Kahn-Harris; one of the few really worthwhile MSM pieces on all of this.

29th April
Open Democracy, “The multiple truths of the Labour antisemitism story”
Really excellent piece by Adam Ramsay – essential reading.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Ken Livingstone: gobshite yes, anti-semite no”
Does what it says on the tin.

30th April
Leninology, “Where the twain meet”
Richard Seymour does some serious thinking about anti-Zionism and anti-semitism.
lives; running, “The friends I want to have, and the friends I don’t”
Thoughtful, personal piece by Dave Renton.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Jonathan Freedland’s plea”
An acerbic, evidence-based response to Freedland.

1st May
Crooked Timber, “Antisemitism in the Labour Party – what’s going on?”
Long, thoughtful, considered piece from Dan Davies – essential reading. Even the comment thread went well to begin with.

3rd May
Whitey on the Moon, “Our Plea to Jonathan Freedland: Treat Israel As You Would Any Other Colonial State”
Excellent counter-argument to Freedland’s ‘plea’.
Jamie Stern-Weiner, “Labour’s phoney ‘anti-semitism’ scandal: the liars behind the lies”
Jamie has a go at Dan Hodges and Hugo Rifkind. Particularly interesting for the comments, in which Rifkind has a go right back.
Leninology, “Yes, it is a witch-hunt”
“no one is ‘innocent’, all of us have been politically impure. So the existence of real problems, where they exist, may provide the occasion or raw material for a witch-hunt, but it is not its point, and it is not a justification”
Open Democracy, “The American Jewish scholar behind Labour’s ‘antisemitism’ scandal breaks his silence”
Jamie Stern-Weiner interviews Norman Finkelstein. Essential reading.

TCM 8 – Too many friends

There’s something accidental about the Corbyn campaign; nobody, from Jeremy on down, expected it to be like this. On his own admission, Corbyn wasn’t chosen as a sure-fire election-winner (even an internal party election-winner) but because somebody needed to represent the Left and, broadly speaking, it was his turn. So Corbyn wasn’t grooming himself for this campaign for years beforehand (or months, for that matter). With that in mind, I’ve been braced for things to get nasty in the media, to at least “Ralph Miliband Hated Britain” levels of nastiness. You can’t be an active and committed left-winger for forty years without leaving a few hostages to fortune, and making a lot of enemies who will be only too happy to exploit them. To my great surprise – if not downright bemusement – it hasn’t really happened. Obviously the Telegraph and the Mail haven’t been particularly friendly, and the New Statesman‘s been downright vicious, but all that is pretty much par for the course. (Shame about the Staggers.) I remember how the media monstered Livingstone, Benn and Tatchell, and this is nothing like that; in fact I think even Neil Kinnock would have reason to feel Corbyn was getting off lightly.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen the beginnings of a fresh wave of attacks on Corbyn, nastier and potentially more effective than anything he’s been hit with before. I say ‘potentially’; I don’t know whether this stuff is reaching an audience to speak of, and suspect it may just be rallying a group of people who already think that way. It is nasty, though, and it doesn’t seem to be dying down. But the attackers, weirdly enough, aren’t the Mail or the Murdoch press, or Peter Mandelson or Tristram Hunt, or even John Sodding McTernan (although, classy as ever, he has tagged along). These attacks are coming from… Euston.

You read that right: it’s the Euston Manifesto crowd – the street-fighters of Standpoint, the intellectual wing of Engage. In terms of the people involved it’s Aaro and Nick, and it’s Harry’s Place and Left Foot Forward, and Norm sadly can’t be with us but we have some self-styled Gerasites (some of them surely too young to have had much overlap with the great man). In terms of the themes, it’s all about opposition to reactionary Islamists and anti-semites, considered as the first duty of any leftist with a brain and a conscience – all the more so when those people present themselves to the untrained eye as Muslim radicals and anti-Zionists. And in terms of method it’s all about denunciation, dissociation, denouncing anyone who fails to dissociate and dissociating from anyone who fails to denounce; it’s all about will you condemn and why didn’t he condemn and why haven’t you condemned him; it’s all about guilt by association, guilt by implication, guilt by omission and in some cases guilt by analogy (would you say the same about…). It’s also not about condemning or denouncing or pronouncing guilt at all – dear me no, heaven forfend! No, it’s just a matter of raising questions. Then demanding answers, then raising them again, then asking why they haven’t been answered – and then starting again and raising the question of what we can conclude from the failure to answer the original questions.

Basically it’s too, too 2006 to put a finger on. It’s an odd little social formation. I mean, I’m sure it’s possible to be vigilant against anti-semitism on the Left without being a smug, tedious bully, and I honestly don’t know why the two should tend to go together; all I know is that over the last decade they have done. The experience of arguing with these people is not rewarding, to say the least; weirdly, it reminds me of nothing so much as trying to argue with devotees of Chomsky.

What of our man Corbyn? Well, it seems he’s been hanging out with some nutters. It seems that he’s attended a Palestinian solidarity event organised by Deir Yassin Remembered – a group which the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had themselves broken with, due to the group’s associations with Holocaust denial. It also seems that he’s praised an Interpal organiser warmly and without qualification, despite this person having denounced homosexuality as a sin on a par with paedophilia.

Now, if you start from the position that the Left is rife with anti-semitism and pro-Islamism, and your stock in trade is denouncing the implications of this, calling for dissociation from that and raising questions about the other, obviously you’ll eat all this up with a big spoon; from that point of view none of this is very surprising. The phrase ‘tediously predictable’ comes to mind. But on another level it still puzzles me. Why does all this matter, even to those for whom it evidently does matter? Bob from Brockley emphasises that the DYR story “does not mean Corbyn is an anti-semite (and no one serious is saying so)”; James Bloodworth is even more emphatic, assuring us that “I genuinely believe that Corbyn does not have an antisemitic bone in his body”. Which is fair enough; if there were evidence that Corbyn was anti-semitic – that he had contributed to identifiably anti-semitic campaigns or voted for identifiably anti-semitic policies, at some point in his 40-year political career – presumably these writers and those they quote would be all over it. As for gay rights, to my knowledge nobody’s even gone to the effort of affirming that they sincerely don’t believe Corbyn is homophobic – that dog isn’t going to hunt.

So why does it matter? If there’s a mismatch between the moral worth of someone’s words and that of their public, consequential deeds, surely we only need to worry if it’s the words that are the good part. If a Labour leftist works with a homophobe or sits next to a racist – sod it, if a Labour MP counts a homophobe as a personal friend and attends an event organised by a racist – and then goes right on voting against racism and homophobia, why should we care?

A variety of answers have been given to this question, none of which I really find persuasive. Bloodworth’s article is peculiar, and I tend to feel he protests too much: if he genuinely didn’t believe Corbyn was an antisemite, surely he wouldn’t think it necessary to pass judgment on whether his ‘excuses’ for apparently associating with anti-semites ‘stand up’, or whether his ‘denials’ were sufficiently ‘forceful or convincing’. We’re back to the same question: what does Corbyn have to excuse or deny, other than the anti-semitism of which nobody’s accusing him? Bloodworth doesn’t tell us: by the end of his article Corbyn’s just some guy, an eccentric with erratic judgment, no harm done. The real problems are the public indifference to foreign policy which makes his career possible (“a politician can at present take almost any position on foreign affairs and get away with it”) and the other candidates’ failure to challenge him; this “shows that the Labour party – and the left more generally – no longer takes antisemitism seriously”. But, but… if Corbyn isn’t an anti-semite – and we all agree that he isn’t – then… It’s all a bit “Brutus is an honourable man” – of course Corbyn’s not anti-semitic, nobody’s saying he’s anti-semitic, but still, you know… when you look at the evidence… kind of makes you think… not saying just saying… Faugh.

As for ‘Bob’, he finds Corbyn’s association with DYR “really worrying”, but – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – why?

Corbyn should have abided by the PSC decision [to break with DYR] and kept well away from them. That he didn’t says something very depressing about him – either that he doesn’t believe serious anti-racists when they talk about Holocaust denial, or he doesn’t care.

I don’t believe these are the only two possible interpretations, but for now let’s pick the second one: let’s assume that Corbyn, while not himself a racist, genuinely ‘doesn’t care’ whether his friends and associates adhere to lunatic racist fantasies. It seems pretty unlikely, but for the sake of argument let’s go there. Now: why would this matter? If this weirdly, stupidly, distressingly tolerant attitude doesn’t actually affect the causes Corbyn campaigns for or the policies he votes for – which apparently it doesn’t – then how can it matter? Turning it round, if this attitude doesn’t find any expression what Corbyn actually does – the effect he has on the world as a politician – perhaps it’d make more sense to conclude that he doesn’t actually hold it. Perhaps there’s a third option as well as ‘doesn’t believe’ and ‘doesn’t care’ – something along the lines of ‘cares as much about Holocaust denial as the next sane person, but took the judgment call on this occasion that the PSC decision didn’t justify his breaking with a group with which he’d previously formed political and personal links’.

A third critique of Corbyn in this area is encapsulated in an argument I had on Twitter the other night, and which I’ve Storified here. It’s the argument from moral consistency: if Corbyn were a true opponent of bigotry he’d oppose it at all times and in all places, and not only when (say) voting in the House of Commons. I suggested in response that Corbyn might be guilty of nothing worse than compartmentalising – in this case, thinking of a homophobic Islamist as a good guy and a solid ally within the context of Palestinian solidarity work, as in that context the guy presumably was. This was met with a flurry of would you say the same about (what if Corbyn was saying nice things about somebody from Golden Dawn? what then, eh?) and the oracular pronouncement “‘Compartmentalising’ is a pretentious way of saying ‘hypocrisy’.” Well, that’s me told. (And the three-for-one accusation that one is not only (1) saying something unacceptable but (2) trying to hide it and (3) putting on airs is very Euston. Tom’s learnt from the masters.)

I find this quite bizarre. As I say in the Storify story, compartmentalising surely means nothing more than living life without applying a single set of ethico-political criteria to every encounter. Not only is this something which pretty much everybody does pretty much all the time, it’s something that politicians need to do more than most: just to get the job done, they need to be capable of a certain amount of inconsistency, insincerity and bluff, to put forward imperfect and inconstant policy positions as if they believed in them deeply and personally, to make multiple different audiences feel they’ve heard what they wanted to hear. Taken seriously and consistently – applied everywhere all the time – the demand for moral consistency is deeply unworldly: it’s not something you’d ask from your friends, colleagues or employers, let alone from anyone aspiring to be a political operator. If the same standard is weaponised and applied selectively – if, say, we demand moral consistency of our opponents while proclaiming that our allies are already exhibiting it – it’s just rhetoric and can be ignored.

In short(!) the Eustonite charges against Corbyn aren’t, ultimately, all that; in terms of denunciation and delegitimation we’re still facing the B team. They seem to boil down to smears and insinuations, the selective application of unachievable or inappropriate moral standards, and a vague sense of worry and depression. I take the third of these – as expressed by ‘Bob’ – the most seriously; in another post I’ll come back to an issue which I think it points to, and which may also underlie the other two types of attack. For now, here’s what I made of the Euston Manifesto back in April 2006. Share and enjoy.

A Doctor writes

I’ve tagged this post ‘flummery’, which I think was the category I chose for chatty and personal posts of no enduring value. As well as ‘flummery’ I find I’ve got categories for ‘drollery’, ‘foolishness’, ‘idiocy’ and ‘tosh’, not to mention ‘saying the thing that is not’; I must have had distinct purposes for each of those, although I’m not sure now what they are.

It’s a while since I last posted here; there ought to be a third ‘Dangerous decisions’ post, for one thing. Over the last month I’ve been working on a long and autobiographical post, which I began in an attempt to answer the question “why all this legal stuff?”. It’s got so long (and so autobiographical) that I’m now planning on breaking it up into sections and publishing it on another blog.

Also, I’ve recently been reminded that I’ve written a book – or, more to the point (and rather to my surprise, if I’m honest) that it’s still selling. For new readers, my book (publisher’s page) is an academic hardback on the radical social movements of late-1970s Italy and their relationship with the Italian Communist Party; I called it ‘More work! Less pay!’ and chose a rather dramatic cover image, which you can see to the right of this post. Shall we hear a bit more about the book before we go on? I think we shall.

In the mid-1970s, a wave of contentious radicalism swept through Italy. Groups and movements such as ‘Proletarian Youth’, ‘Metropolitan Indians’ and ‘the area of Autonomy’ practised new forms of activism, confrontational and often violent. Creative and brutal, intransigent and playful, the movements flourished briefly before being suppressed through heavy policing and political exclusion.

‘More work! Less pay!’ is the first full-length study in English of these movements. Building on Sidney Tarrow’s ‘cycle of contention’ model and drawing on a range of Italian materials, it tells the story of a unique and fascinating group of political movements, and of their disastrous engagement with the mainstream Left. As well as shedding light on a neglected period of twentieth century history, this book offers lessons for understanding today’s contentious movements (‘No Global’, ‘Black Bloc’) and today’s ‘armed struggle’ groups.

I’m afraid that both the cover image and, more importantly, the title were ill-chosen – partly because you basically have to read the entire book to discover what they refer to, but mainly because the phrase “more work, less pay” is, frankly, a bit of a downer. I don’t believe in magic, but I do think that words are powerful: if you were choosing between my book and one called Chimes of freedom or A brighter tomorrow or ‘Rich, lads, we’re rich!’, I think the negative connotations of my title could easily nudge it down the list. And when you’re dealing with academic hardback prices, it’s not going to be on thousands of lists to start with. (An academic paperback might be – but that would mean selling out the hardback print run.)

Still, when it came out it did sell quite a few copies – albeit not enough to sell out the print run – and apparently the publisher is still getting orders coming in. Good! (And if your nearest academic library doesn’t have a copy, why not?) Interestingly enough, several of the sales were ebooks, going for a bit less than the hardback; these (as far as I can tell) are library ebooks, made available through the Manchester Scholarship Online service. I’m in two minds about this; it means more eyes on my work, which is good, but it doesn’t bring the paperback edition any closer.

In other news, I’m horribly stuck. (In terms of writing, that is – real life is trundling along.) I’ve got no teaching this week – and I’m on a part-time contract anyway – so I resolved at the start of the week to clear some admin, get some student support in place, check the rest of the term’s teaching, answer emails as they come in obviously… and then devote myself to writing. Proper writing, that is – as distinct from ‘student support’ and ‘answering emails’, which between them involved writing about three and a half thousand words. Writing, hurrah!

Or maybe not. I’m partway through a paper (with a deadline) which is on a topic that passionately interests me, and I can’t think where the argument’s supposed to go; I go blank when I look at it. It’s a real block; I’ve always had difficulty motivating myself to write when deadlines were a long way away, but this is worse. I think part of the trouble is just that it is a topic that passionately interests me – all through the years I worked in IT, I did the autodidact thing: I would seize on scraps of time (evenings, lunch-hours, the bus to and from work) to read, and write, about the stuff that interested me in the way that work didn’t. And here I am, writing about precisely what interests me, in work time – well, I did some of that too, but here I am doing it for work. It seems to set the bar much higher – if I fail at this, where do I go?

Academia seems to be a weirdly scary place, albeit that it’s indoor work with no heavy lifting and no micro-management. (I remember the reaction of a colleague when the department we were in piloted timesheets for lecturers. Fresh out of IT, I just thought “yes, that’s a timesheet”; I was on the point of explaining how five minutes was roughly 0.01 of a standard day, so if you thought of it in terms of multiples of five minutes… Then I saw the expression on my colleague’s face: it combined affronted horror with an element of genuine bafflement. The pilot wasn’t a success.) There’s not much danger that your boss will tell you to get something done yesterday, but you will be strongly encouraged to seek out opportunities to shine – and, when it comes to it, you may just sputter out. (All very gouvernementale.) The nightmare scenario isn’t that your boss sets you an impossible task, in other words – it’s that you do. The glory’s all yours, if it’s recognised; so is the ignominy.

Oh well, back to the old drawing board. Wish me whatever it is that enables a climber to avoid looking down. Luck, possibly.

A moment worth waiting for

I’ve been pleased by the response to the last couple of posts, including the corrections to my theology (cosmogony?) offered by a couple of commenters – although they do tend to undermine the argument I was making, so I’m not going to update the post to address them. The second post – the one derived from comments on Crooked Timber – was a bit more uneven; I think there’s some good stuff there (if I say so myself) but also some stuff that deserved the challenges it got from the CT sceptics. I’m going to use this space to think about which was which.

1. The Good Bits (I think)

faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

I think this is true – more importantly, I think it’s the right way round – but it’s only part of the truth; that phrase expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing is carrying an awful lot of weight, and getting a bit squashed by it. And what is the “value” of death? At a subjective level, surely, death is the greatest and most terrible challenge to everything we value, as well as being a universal and inescapable fact. “Expressing a sense of the value” is a coffee-morning phrase for something much more problematic and difficult – “the value of death” cashes in, roughly speaking, as she’s gone and I will never, ever see her again – and where the hell does that leave me?

But that’s also something people do with religion.

What do you do when the old man’s gone –
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song –
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). … The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

The thing is, I think that being human is deeply, deeply problematic – why wouldn’t it be? Thinking meat – what’s that about? House a reflective consciousness in a simian brain and you’re bound to get a bit of friction. I think churches are a good place to take those problems and work with them – although not the only place, obviously. Atheists would say that the fact that churches rely on a belief in God is a bug; I think the fact that they house practices that produce a belief in God is a feature, and an interesting one.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people. … We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to [saying that non-believers are] “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”.

The idea of holding a belief without asserting that people who denied that belief were wrong provoked a lot of resistance, but I think it’s still a valid point. Saying “I believe X, but I’m not going to say that X-deniers are wrong” is a way of saying that, in a particular (and important) area, it’s not up to me to decide what’s correct or incorrect; I may never know what’s correct or incorrect, or if I was told I might not understand. It’s a Horatio moment – a way of saying that there are more things in heaven and earth than our philosophy dreams of.

One of the most valuable things religion does, I think, is to confront the believer with something they cannot possibly understand. What this is is secondary; what’s important is the feeling of being at the limit of your understanding and being at peace with that. Because life will throw things at you that permanently exceed your understanding, and the ability to be at peace with them will serve you well.

Believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day. In which context, I like the idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

This also provoked a bit of resistance, mostly along the lines of “I trust the people who have given me good reason to trust them”. (Yes, I remember being young and in love.) Maybe some people do go through life up- and downgrading everyone they deal with, divulging a bit more or a bit less personal information, allowing themselves a bit more or less spontaneous emotional engagement. I think that sounds like Hell, and I don’t think it’s the way most people live. The belief in God is a lot like the belief that your partner loves you, or that the people you work with aren’t going to stitch you up – it’s not so much a belief as a commitment to choose to believe, an orientation of trustful commitment, extended in the case of religion to the universe and all that surrounds it. And I think there’s something to be said for that.

2. A little light pushback

“Religion certainly does provide comfort to a lot of people in difficult situations, but does that make it a good thing? Follow the ‘opiate of the people’ analogy – opiates bring vital relief to people in severe pain, but we don’t think being a junkie is a good way to live your life. Perhaps religious beliefs are good to have when you need a comforting illusion, but they’re illusions that should be abandoned as soon as you feel mentally strong enough.”

My answer to this one is that I don’t think religious beliefs are comforting in any easy sense. The most comforting thing I heard from anyone in religious clothing after my mother died was something along the lines of “It’s time to let go” – as if to say, You’ve run into a wall that you can’t get past; perhaps you should turn round now and go home. (Not that going home was just a matter of going home, if you see what I mean.) I don’t think anybody told me my mother was watching over me or that I’d see her again, and if they had I wouldn’t have believed it. Religion, for me, is something that takes you to the very edge of abandonment and despair, and stays with you there.

And in any case, just how much comfort can those ‘comforting’ beliefs really be, even if you manage to believe them? I’ve been to a couple of funerals where the continuing existence of the departed was emphasised heavily, and I felt that every restatement was prefixed by a tacit This certainly doesn’t appear to be true, but by God, it’s worth at least trying to believe. Anyone committed to believing that their departed parent was having a high old time up there, strumming a harp and chatting with Einstein, would also be committed to believing that something that appeared to be unbearable and incomprehensible actually made sense, except that it made sense in some way that couldn’t be understood either. Which isn’t that comfortable a place to be – in fact, I think it’s pretty much on the edge of abandonment and despair. But with a sense of not being alone there.

“Is it really a good thing to be confronted by something you can’t possibly understand? Doesn’t that associate religion rather strongly with ignorance and lack of curiosity? For that hit of blissful non-comprehension, wouldn’t it be quicker just to believe that God made the world in seven days? Never mind that you don’t understand how it happened – it’s a religious truth, so it’s meant to be incomprehensible!”

I’ll take this one on: yes, it is a good thing to be confronted by something you can’t possibly understand. It’s good to look at something you don’t understand and realise you don’t understand it (as distinct from thinking that if you don’t understand it it must be nonsense). It’s also good to learn more and understand more. But there will always be something you don’t understand, and there will always be some things you can’t understand. I think that’s a good thing to recognise. The alternative is to think that there isn’t anything that, in principle, you couldn’t understand. That might work for the law of torts or the Keynesian multiplier, but it wouldn’t do you much good with “why does everything die?”

“Fine, but you don’t need religion for that – just a reasonably well-developed sense of wonder and humility.”

Never said you did need it – just that religion is, often, a carrier of those things.

3. The less good bits

Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it. … Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff.

That ‘of course’ is doing rather a lot of work – or perhaps it’d be truer to say that it’s avoiding rather a lot of work. There’s a real problem here. I argued that religious ‘truths’ aren’t incompatible with scientific fact, because where they make factual propositions they’re not presented as law-like statements. Nobody’s saying that people who die generally rise again after three days, quite the reverse – Christians believe that Christ’s resurrection was miraculous precisely because it was an exception to the laws of death and decomposition. And it’s these localised, miraculous exceptions – at most – which believers are asked to commit to, and which they grapple with more or less effectively. But there’s no particular reason why the package of religious ‘exceptions’ should be limited to those relating directly to the life of Jesus. What about the plagues of Egypt? What about Aaron’s rod? What about God speaking to Abram? Come to that, what about the creation of the world in seven days? We know that this isn’t how the cosmos looks as if it works, but after all, this is an exception to all those rules…

I haven’t got an answer to this one, except to say that there’s nothing in Christianity to stop you travelling relatively light. Figurative interpretations of the Bible have a much longer history in Christianity than literal readings; by the time you’ve finished grappling with impossible beliefs and finding ways to believe in them, you may well come to the conclusion that God worked in his mysterious way through the Big Bang, the Nile flooding cycle and various other things, and generally kept his powder dry for the big performance in 30 AD. (In the immortal words of Wikipedia: “30 April – After being condemned to death by the Jewish court known as the Sanhedrin Jesus of Nazareth is crucified at Golgotha[citation needed]“.)

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion  – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

The weasel words here are “your daily life”. Anyone who believes in the ultimate overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat, say, is unlikely to find much evidence for the underpinnings of this belief in their daily life, but if they follow the news for more than a day or two they’ll find enough. Whether evidence of God working his purpose out will also be apparent is more debatable. Perhaps the point that needed developing here was what was meant by a belief in God, or by orienting your life by way of such a belief. In other words, the question is not whether class struggle is a reality, but whether it’s a good framework for judging whether things are going well or badly. Similarly with a belief in God, and the beliefs that follow from it – above all the belief that humanity was made in the image of God, which makes each human life enormously valuable. And yes, you can find Christians campaigning against abortion on these grounds, but also against euthanasia, against the death penalty, against war, against poverty and political programmes that entrench it. Hence Christian Aid’s marvellous slogan, “We believe in life before death”.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Again, you don’t need religion for any of this (and, again, I’m not religious myself) – you just need a belief in people. But religion is, often, a carrier of that belief.

For me, religion is a way of dealing with the incomprehensible – and sometimes incomprehensibly terrible – facts of human life, a way of honouring things in life that seem to need honouring, and a way of giving due respect to people. Or rather, it’s one particularly specialised example of a family of cultural practices which offer ways of doing these things. It’s not a bad thing.

Falling to bits, gloriously

This post at Crooked Timber sparked an interesting and only intermittently acrimonious debate about whether religious belief is inherently irrational or self-contradictory, and how best to combat religious reactionaries. I got stuck in and ended up essentially playing a Christian on the Internet, despite not being one in real life. It was an interesting debate, though, and really made me think. Here are some of my comments. (Italics are other people’s comments; I’ve included links to their original comments as well as to mine.) Discussion centred on four inter-related topics:

  • the relationship of faith and practice (and by extension the relative importance of the two)
  • the truth-status of religious claims (if someone believes that Jesus was the son of God, are they committed to believing that someone who doesn’t believe that is wrong?)
  • whether beliefs grounded in faith set themselves above rational argument, so that a Christian can always end the debate by saying “it’s what I believe“; and
  • whether reactionary claims made in the name of religion are a good reason for arguing against religion, or (as I argued) a good reason for not doing so.

It’s a bit of a comment-dump – or rather, it is a comment-dump, slightly rearranged – but parts of it may prove interesting.

1. Who are these people and why do they do it?

I’ve been playing with the idea that religion is a practice first, a faith second and a set of factual propositions third. First, you commit yourself to a certain way of living, a certain set of practices (even if that’s no more demanding than going to church once a week and saying ‘Yes’ if somebody asks if you’re a Christian, it’s still a different way of living). Second, in the context of those practices and in the company of others who share that commitment, you experience (or learn to experience) a sense of the sacred, of reverence for something numinous. Third, as part of the work you do to maintain that way of living and recreate that experience, you submit yourself to the mental discipline of believing what your church asks you to believe. Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it.The atheist’s view of religion often seems to centre on the third step, which is much the least fundamental. To the atheist’s question You believe that? a Christian will often answer “Well, I try to.” (Spufford: “Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed”, emph. added.) And believing religious propositions can mean grappling with them, trying to make them make sense, rather than simply believing them literally. (It was a Bishop of the Church of England who described the Biblical story of the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”.)

Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff. But there’s plenty of room to argue against those beliefs while still taking religious practice & religious community to be valuable forms of social life and granting some validity to subjective religious experience. You won’t find any stronger opponent of reactionary right-wing Christians than a radical left-wing Christian.

Faith which wasn’t accompanied by the possibility of doubt wouldn’t be faith, it’d be (subjectively) certain knowledge – just as the belief that Christ rose from the dead wouldn’t be at all remarkable if we didn’t simultaneously hold the belief that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible.As for what faith is, as I said above I believe that religious practice comes first, the experience of collective reverence for the numinous second and commitment to factual propositions a slow & often troubled third – as if to say, if worshipping Jesus together with these people works as it clearly does (for me), then perhaps I should take what these people say about Jesus to be true, however impossible it seems. Saying that faith is wrong because it entails believing six impossible things before breakfast didn’t work on Tertullian and it doesn’t work much better now.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express

Reminds me of a couple of lines from Jethro Tull which have lodged in my mind (potency of cheap music and all that) –

What do you do when the old man’s gone –
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song –
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). I think that’s psychologically quite powerful – and it reminds me in turn of Roy Bhaskar’s strictures on the image of “a magic transportation into a realm free of determination, as imagined by both utopian and so-called ‘scientific’ socialists”, to which he counterposed a project of “transition from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

This is where Christians and their defenders really annoy me. Sure it is easy to poke holes in the arguments of naive rationalists, but the validity of those criticisms do not justify the jump to “Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior”.

I’m defending Christians, but I’m certainly not advocating that anyone convert – I’m not a Christian myself. I think religious practice can play a valuable part in people’s lives, just as practices like living in a commune, hanging out with artists, writing music, political campaigning, folk dancing and psychotherapy can do for other people. I think all these things can get you to somewhere similar, and that it’s somewhere worth going to; I don’t think you need to be religious to have a “religious experience”. I do think that being religious can be a way of getting there, and that for a lot of people it’s as good as any other, or even better.

the atheist asks why faith and you reply … what exactly?

My one-sentence answer is that faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and that collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

Now, you can live a happy and productive life without ever going to Midnight Mass, and you can be a devout believer and a horrendous, miserable fuck-up. You can get through life perfectly well without publicly giving value to the big things in life; you can give value to the big things in life in non-religious ways which don’t ‘feel’ sacred; you can get an experience of the sacred without being formally religious. A world without religion wouldn’t be a world without any of the valuable things currently borne by religion. But those things are real, and they are borne by religion.

it seems to me inherently dangerous (because it exposes you to exploitation),

Believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day. In which context, I like the idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

Any Christian believes that God sees more and knows more than any human being, including him- or herself. All statements about God are approximations; prayer is an orientation to something unknowable, something outside ourselves. So the truth of a statement like “Jesus is the son of God” is, more or less by definition, one element of a greater truth that we don’t and, as human beings, can’t fully comprehend. For all we know, someone could go through life denying the divinity of Jesus and yet picking up more bits of that truth than a staunch Christian. If that’s a possibility, what sense would it make to say that they were wrong to say Jesus wasn’t the son of God? Christians believe they understand a bit of God’s nature and they believe they’re genuinely oriented towards it, but they don’t know.

The emotional response that the religious experience promotes, on the other hand, is not to feel sad, but rather to feel guilty. To feel like you are a bad, terrible, awful fuck-up of a person, who deserves, who needs to be punished. Any mercy here is, in fact, the tyrant suspending the doom he himself has pronounced.

First off, you’re clearly talking about Christianity specifically, not religion in general. More importantly, while I won’t deny that some churches do put a heavy stress on the experience of guilt, I think it’s actually a distortion of the Christian message, which is much more about forgiveness. Paraphrasing from memory, Rowan Williams said once, “People think that when they leave religion behind they’re leaving sin and guilt, but if you look at the papers you see that sin and guilt and condemnation are alive and well. What people leave behind when they turn away from God is forgiveness, the sense that our sins won’t burden us forever.”

Repentance/forgiveness/redemption is one of the most psychologically powerful and rewarding experiences we go through. And, if the person you’ve wronged will forgive you, so much the better, but what if they don’t – or what if you’ve lost touch, or they’ve died? I think a large part of the appeal of Christianity is right there.

2. Do they really believe all that stuff?

God isn’t an empirically testable proposition, and neither is the Kantian categorical imperative or the emergence of the proletariat as a class-for-itself or the maximisation of subjective utility. I believe that people who find it useful to talk in terms of proletarian self-awareness could in principle find common ground with people who talk in terms of rational utility maximisation, given a lot of work and good will on both sides; I also believe that in practice that conversation tends never to happen, for good reasons. (What is impossible, on the other hand, is finding empirical proof that one set of ideas is the truth about reality and the other isn’t.) I don’t think religious belief is any different.

And yes, that does commit me to believing that common ground could be found between people who find it useful to talk in terms of God and people who talk in terms of a Godless universe, given a lot of work and good will on both sides. In practice, of course, that’s a conversation that really doesn’t tend to happen.

there are some fairly basic propositions that one would have to say “yes, that is correct” in order to be a Christian, and therefore that people who think something different are incorrect

Yes and no – i.e. yes to the first statement, no to the second. The idea that there are many ways to God is very widely held among religious believers – probably more widely than the idea that everyone has to convert or be damned. Even C.S. Lewis, when he wrote his version of the Day of Judgement in the Last Battle, has some believers in the Calormene death-god Tash end up being saved on the grounds that they would have believed in Aslan if they’d had the chance – and his theology wasn’t exactly liberal. Christians know that they’re saved by their belief in Christ, but they’re also aware (well, many of them are) that they don’t know the mind of God and hence can’t know that everyone else is damned.

Aslan judges some [Calormenes] – and not others – to have been good enough to be saved, which must mean that “worships Aslan” isn’t a necessary condition of “good enough to be saved”. In any case, the “sea of faith”/”many paths to God” mentality is very widespread among your actual believers.

Transubstantiation and the resurrection aren’t factual statements about how the world works – anyone who believes in them also knows perfectly well that this isn’thow the world works. That makes religious faith a very particular type of ‘denial’ – a belief that universal physical laws are/were suspended in this one place, or rather a commitment to holding that belief.

Some of the discussion here defends what religion could be, with beliefs that are inconsequential, metaphorical mush, and ignores what (Christian) religion more commonly is, an acceptance of certain claims as boldface “truth”.

Firstly, general physical truths – those fossils actually are relics of Noah’s Flood – are in no way core to Christianity; lots of Christians reject them totally. Reading the Bible literally is a very modern idea. Christ’s Resurrection isn’t really a “boldface truth” – everyone who believes it literally happened also believes it was a unique exception to the boldface truths of death and decomposition. Secondly, holding those two contradictory beliefs together leads directly into what you denigrate as “metaphorical mush”, which is much more common – much more normal – among Christians than you seem to think. If you were to ask a Christian (sympathetically) what they really think happened on Easter Sunday or on the road to Emmaus, I think you’d get a ‘metaphorical’ answer as often as not.

Of course, if you ask for boldface truths and to hell with the metaphor – yes, yes, never mind “in a kind of a way”, never mind “they had a real experience of something”, did he come back to life or didn’t he? – boldface truths are what you’re going to get. All the more so if your starting question was “are Christians so stupid or ignorant as to believe that a three-day-old corpse can come back to life?”

this “many ways to God” thing is trying to have your mushy cake and eat it.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people.Atheists on this thread seem to be asking whether it’s possible to be a Christian and have both a heart and a brain; when we answer Yes, they say Ah, but we’re talking about being a rigorously consistent Christian. Newsflash – there’s no such thing. Apart from anything else, rigorously consistent with what? There are two separate Creation stories, only one of which features Adam’s rib (the other has one of my all-time favourite lines from the Bible, “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them”). The Gospels tell three versions of one set of stories and one radically different set of stories; you can’t believe them all, they can’t all have happened. And so on. The Bible, and a fortiori Christianity, isn’t about the-book-is-on-the-table statements of fact.

There are plenty of devout Christians, firm believers in the divinity of Christ, who nevertheless believe that not everyone who doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ is damned. I can back this up, as well. God is omniscient, we’re not. God sees who he’s admitting to Heaven, we don’t. We can know that we’re saved, which gives us good reason to convert people if we can. However, we can’t know that everyone who misses out on the Good News is damned, or that there’s no other way for God to make himself known to them.

This is perfectly good Christian theology – as well as being a belief held more or less articulately by lots and lots of Christians – and it seems to me that it’s a substantial improvement on believing that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is damned. That belief is a massive stumbling-block for anyone who believes in an omnipotent and benevolent God; in my experience it’s only embraced willingly by people who want God all to themselves and haven’t really got the point of the Gospels at all.

What you can’t logically do, if you believe that Jesus was the son of God, is think that other people believing something directly contradictory to that (ie that Jesus is not the son of God) are also correct. Ergo, they are wrong.

They appear wrong from our vantage-point, which we know to be imperfect. It would be the height of arrogance to say that they are wrong. Besides, what work is ‘wrong’ doing here? There’s been no objection to “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may do just as much good in the world”, or to “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may still be saved”. Why are those acceptable, and yet “I’m a Christian but I’m not going to say that non-Christians are wrong” is the badge of lily-livered pusillanimity that doesn’t deserve the name of religion?

We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”. Which is not a “mushy”, “woolly” or “uncommitted” position, although it does have a certain humility.

Do Christians believe it’s possible for people to return from the dead? No.
Do Christians believe that Jesus did return from the dead? Yes.

[NB when I wrote this I’d forgotten all about the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the faithful at the end of days, and was thinking in terms of people coming back from the dead here and now. The physical impossibility of resurrection from the dead is the main point here.]

At the risk of C. S. Lewis-esque reductivism, it seems to me that this contradiction gives you a range of possibilities:

1. Christians are all too stupid to realise it’s a contradiction.
2. Christians don’t really believe it and are all lying when they say they do.
3. Christians are all batshit crazy, only all in the same or similar ways.
4. Christians go through a particular mental process which they call ‘belief’ or ‘faith’.

1. is plainly not true, 2. seems improbable, and 3. is basically a less flattering description of 4. And that mental process is what I’ve been describing.

3. You can’t argue with a Christian – or can you?

Once you have conceded that “I feel it in my heart”, “this makes emotional sense to me” or “this makes me a better person” are adequate justifications for the conclusion that there is a higher intelligence behind the universe or that souls exist, you have given away any intellectual tools to criticize somebody who feels it in their heart that homosexuals should be stoned.

This is an “I refute it thus” moment, surely. If this were the case, the only way a believing Christian could respond to the vilest things done in the name of Xtianity would be to say “who knows whether this is God’s will or not, let us pray”. Fortunately that isn’t the case – there is quite spirited debate among Christians about exactly what it is that God would have believers do in the world. You could say they’re being inconsistent, but I don’t think they’d agree – they’d say they’re witnessing as Christians, and arguing with fellow-Christians is part of that (as it has been since St Paul). You’d end up in the position of an atheist telling religious believers that they’re not religious enough.

you still have not shown me where religions can move beyond arguing, actually resolve their differences and decide on anything unless they refer to a set of otherwise universally recognized cognitive tools that, consistently applied, shows their very religion to be indefensible

I don’t believe “religions” do anything. I believe that Christians can have difficult, intense and productive discussions about what their shared faith requires them to do, and that those discussions can – with some difficulty – be extended to people who aren’t Christians. This obviously means that being a Christian involves more cognitive faculties than direct reference to inward conviction. I don’t accept that using those cognitive faculties would necessarily involve those Christians becoming atheists, for the simple reason that it plainly doesn’t: you can be a Christian and an intellectual. And I don’t think this should surprise us, any more than we’d be surprised to discover that an intellectual can also be a phenomenological existentialist.Your rationalism doesn’t do the work you want it to. You can show (that word again) that pi doesn’t equal 3 and that crop rotation makes sense, and argue those propositions down to number theory & molecular chemistry respectively. You can’t show that “religion is not based on anything more than fantasy”, any more than you can show that to be true of phenomenological existentialism, Kantian jurisprudence or revolutionary anarchism. You can certainly show that you can’t ground religion in scientific enquiry, but nobody here is saying that you can.

Reason is good for these areas where I use it daily, but not for these my cherished beliefs*. Why? Because that is different. It just is

Christians do use reason, they just don’t apply the scientific method to the foundation of their beliefs. Neither do philosophers, political thinkers or anyone else who thinks ethics and morality are worth arguing about. You can’t find the Holy Spirit with an ammeter; you can’t find class consciousness or the Husserlian epoche that way, either. It doesn’t make those things any less real and interesting & worth arguing about, for those who think they’re real and interesting & worth arguing about. (Those who don’t are free to argue about other things.)

I explicitly wrote that there are indeed ways of knowing, if you will, that aren’t scientific in the narrow sense, such as mathematics, deductive logic, moral philosophy, economics, history, art history, etc.

But the thing is, these areas all have more or less well-defined ways of deciding when a proposition is dead wrong.

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion in this respect – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

There are lots of bad ways to be religious. Elevating revelation over reason is – not always but often – a very bad idea; cherry-picking scripture so as to give your own prejudices divine sanction is a bad thing to do; and treating God like a lucky rabbit’s foot (“please let the bus come now!”) is silly and childish. But it’s possible to argue against all of those things from a religious standpoint, and people do.

4. What about the bad guys?

the fact that religious claims are grounded in something other than rational enquiry doesn’t preclude believers from engaging in rational debate. Arguing that rational debate isn’t consistent with religious belief, and that Christians should therefore abandon either one or the other, is essentially criticising real Christians for not living up to your image of them. In real life the conversation between the liberal believer (L) and the homophobe (H) would go something like this:

H: “Jesus said we should kill homosexuals!”
L: No, he didn’t.
H: “Well, OK, not as such, but he did say [bullshit argument relying heavily on selective quotation]“
L: [Refers back to text and demolishes bullshit argument]
H: “But I just know that Jesus would say we should kill homosexuals!”
L: Well, I really think you ought to consider that you’re mistaken, because that goes against everything we know about Jesus. When did you start thinking this? Are you sure you’re not working out some of your own issues?
H: “But I’ve had a personal revelation! Jesus appeared to me and told me!”
L: I think you need help.

No different from the same kind of argument between a liberal rationalist and a rationalist homophobe – just replace Jesus with Darwin, say.

it remains true that large numbers of people, some of them important, do make truth claims about the state of the world based on their ancient poetry, and try to make life tougher for the rest of us on the authority of these claims. They need to be fought, and if the blowback from that fight upsets the nice club members who don’t actually cause problems for others, I’m genuinely sorry

Those people need to be fought with the “nice club members” on your side. If you’re fighting the NCMs as well, you’re fighting the wrong enemy.

What you need to do is pick your fights. If you’re fighting Creationism, fight Creationism. If you’re fighting sexism, fight sexism. In both cases you’ll have lots of Christians on your side. If you’re fighting the doctrine that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary… er, why, exactly?

Restrictions on abortion? Discrimination against gays? Lots of Christians oppose both. As for televangelists, there’s a reason people like Oral Roberts found their own churches. Campaign against what you want to campaign against, and I can pretty much guarantee that some Christians will be campaigning alongside you. Campaign against Christianity, and not only do you lose those potential allies, you get bogged down in side-arguments with people like me.

If you’re fighting televangelist scumbags, the many, many Christians who (a) believe in the power of prayer and (b) despise televangelist scumbags are not your enemy.

In his statement, [the Bishop of Down and Connor] doesn’t try to make any logical arguments we could address, he just states that abortion is against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

So we say, off the top of my head, “There is nothing in his statement to suggest that closing this clinic would result in better outcomes for women; women desperate to terminate a pregnancy will always find a way, and the closure of this clinic would simply help to drive abortion services back underground. I may not be qualified to argue Catholic doctrine with the Bishop, but I know something about the realities of women’s lives, and I am quite certain that more women – and more children – will suffer avoidable pain and misery if this clinic is closed than if it is left open.”

Or you could say, “Women have a right to abortion services on demand, and no old man in a silly hat is going to tell us otherwise just because some old book tells him so.” Which do you think would go over better to a largely Catholic audience? It’s all about picking your fights, and picking your enemies.

Lots of Christians do believe horrible and hateful things. Somebody once told me that Mother Teresa would be eternally damned unless she converted to the right form of Christianity before she died, the form of Christianity that had got her out into the slums of Calcutta not being the right one. On one level that’s angels on the head of a pin – what happens after anyone dies has never really interested me* – but it could have real effects; anyone who thought having the right beliefs was that important would presumably prioritise funding missionaries over funding famine relief.

So a kind of bigoted narrowness does, for many people, go along with belief in Christianity (go, as they say, figure). But here’s the thing: if bigotry always goes with religious belief and seldom appears without it, then religion’s your enemy. If bigotry sometimes goes with religious belief and sometimes with other beliefs, then bigotry’s your enemy – and un-bigoted religious believers are among your allies.

*In and of itself, that is, as I don’t believe that anything does. I do think what people believe about salvation and damnation is interesting & often very revealing.

To round it off I’ll just borrow a couple of other people’s comments, this time presented without any editing.

Zora 10.07.12 at 11:33 pm

I’m an American Zen Buddhist, in a sangha that doesn’t demand much in the way of faith. I’m not required to believe in a god — only in the efficacy of Zen practice. Or rather, that it’s worth trying out the practice. From that standpoint, the passionate denunciations of the atheists just whiz right past me. They’re not talking about me.

Yet I also find that I can read Christian or Muslim religious writings and say, “Yes, that’s SO.” I take God or Allah as a metaphor for those who need to experience their practice as a human relationship. The emotions evoked by this metaphor are powerful and useful. I recognize them. God is not my metaphor of choice, it does not resonate, but I cannot deny that it works for many people.

Isn’t that what Spufford is saying? That Christianity, as a practice, can cultivate love, compassion, serenity, acceptance of what must be endured. I understood what he said, and agreed — despite starting from an entirely different viewpoint.

Bruce Wilder 10.09.12 at 10:31 pm

The outside / inside dichotomy might be applied differently depending on whether you think the stress, in the OP title — Francis Spufford and the inner life of belief — should be placed on “belief” or “inner life”.

The very notion that the individual might have an inner experience — inalienable, subjective, private and owned — of which she needs to make sense, and which might, despite its seeming material inaccessibility to shared social observation, contain both a longing for, and a means of connection to the whole, of which the individual is an ephemeral part, whether that “whole” is a family, a society, a political state, a living planet or a universe, . . . seems curiously remote from the problems of political deliberation or ethical behavior.

Like others in the thread, I am troubled by the religious grasping at arbitrarily chosen, and apparently loosely held, “beliefs”, and using passionate “faith” in those supposed “beliefs” as a cudgel with which to bully others in various political disputes, or as a personal dispensation from personal shame or ethical responsibility. Putting those resentments against religion aside, the honoring of personal, inner experience, intrigues me.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express. I sometimes make the point in comments, that political arguments often take the form, not of a logical proposition like a syllogism, but of an hypnotic trance induction. We long to be hypnotized, to put aside our rationalizing, defensive consciousness; and, in persuading others, we instinctively play on this longing to be, literally, open to ideas and values.

If I come to the aid and comfort of a friend, who has experienced a tragedy or an accident, I don’t offer scientific analysis. I offer reassurance, touting “beliefs” which are objectively false as factual propositions, but are, nonetheless, aimed at repairing the person’s healthy narcissism. I am thinking of commonplace nonsense, like, “you are so lucky that the accident was not so much worse . . . ” It is important to hear that you are “lucky” — most especially, when you have been confronted with incontrovertible evidence that you are not — that you belong, that you are part of the whole, that you have as much right and purpose in being here, as the rocks, and the daffodils and the bugs and the stars.

We do a lot of this seeking after inner comfort and transcendant meaning, and not just in formally religious settings. I suppose that this is what people are mostly doing in a Tony Robbins seminar. It is why a business executive reads the Harvard Business Review. Maybe, following Aristotle, it is what we find in a great tragic drama. Or, what people seek, and sometimes, find in mind-altering drugs; or at AA meetings. It is what people want from magic or thinking about ESP and extra-terrestrials, or from sexual intercourse. It is what the coach is providing the team every day in practice, and in a pre-game pep talk.

I have listened to religious people, struggle with the concepts, say, of Darwinian evolution, and sense that their concern is that they are being asked to give up some necessary element of a favorite fairy tale, which has helped them find meaning or motivation in the necessary disciplining of their scarier impulses. They really don’t have to do molecular genetics or cure cancer (where factual and theoretical beliefs about evolution might have some purchase), but they do have to refrain from cheating their employers or killing their mother-in-laws, and hide their fear of being cheated by their employers or being killed by their mother-in-laws. If the universe doesn’t have an inherent moral structure of natural law and an all-observing God, well, then how can we justify ethical self-restraint in ourselves or expect ethical self-restraint from strangers?

I’m not always sure what the point would be in engaging people on the factualness of religious belief. I was raised in a Catholic tradition, which, following Thomas Aquinas, regards religious faith as focused on propositions, which are beyond factual refutation or confirmation, by definition. Of course, the bullying — exemplified by claims of papal infallibility — is front and center, as well. And, then there’s the hypocrisy — if that’s even the right word, for the disowned emergence of the darkest impulses — of sexual molestation or Mother Theresa making nice with the dictators of Haiti. The pragmatic case for religious belief or practice seems curiously difficult to put — the bridge to ethics or politics a mirage in the desert’s shimmering distance.

A man he may grow

Michael Rosen’s written a long and thoughtful piece about his experience of the grammar school system in the 1950s. I don’t know if it’s going to appear in print or on a higher-profile blog, but at the moment it’s just a post on his own blog – and he’s such a prolific poster that it’s going to roll off the bottom of the front page at any moment.

So catch it while you can – it’s a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the debate around grammar schools, or interested in debates about selective education, or secondary education in general. And anyone who’s got kids at school, has kids at school or is ever likely to. And anyone who went to a grammar school, or a selective school, or a comprehensive, or a secondary modern… Basically, you should read this.

It rings so many bells, both positively and negatively (really? we didn’t do that) that I’m tempted to live-blog my reactions to it, but that would be rather self-indulgent. I’ll just mention one small detail of Rosen’s story. He mentions that he was born in 1946, his mother’s second son, and that she died in 1976, aged 55. My own mother had her 55th birthday in 1976; I had my 16th. The coincidence of one date, and the differences of the others, raise all sorts of questions. I can’t begin to imagine my life if my mother had died in her 50s; it was hard enough when it did happen, thirty years later. Then: is it easier for an adult to lose a parent who dies relatively young? Then: easier than what?

But back to school, and a detail of Rosen’s story that sparked off a problem-solving train of thought. He writes:

the pass rate for the 11-plus wasn’t the same for boys and girls and it wasn’t the same from area to area. That’s to say, it panned out at the time that girls were generally better than boys at passing this exam. However, the places for boys and girls was split evenly between us. Somehow or another they engineered what was in reality something like a 55-45% split into a 50-50% cent split. Clearly, some five per cent of girls were serious losers in this and some five per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

But that last sentence can’t be right.

Say for the sake of simplicity that the children taking the test were evenly divided between boys and girls, rather than being 49:51 or 48:52. Then we want to know how many kids passed, and then how many were pushed up or down to even up the figures. Another thing I learned from Rosen’s post is that the pass rate varied from region to region(!), depending on the availability of grammar school places(!!), but let’s forget that for the moment and assume that about one in five passed the 11-plus (in fact the proportion ranged from 30% down to 10%).

So we’ve got, oh, let’s say 10,000 kids, made up of 5,000 boys and 5,000 girls, and 2,000 of them are going to Grammar School, the lucky so-and-so’s. Now, 55% of those 2,000 – 1,100 – are girls, and only 900 are boys. So we need to balance things up, and we skim off the dimmest 100 girls who passed and promote the brightest 100 boys who didn’t (each and every one of whom is officially less bright, and hence less able to benefit from grammar school, than the 100 girls we’ve just sent to the secondary mod, but we avert our eyes at this point).

So that’s 5% of girls demoted, 5% of boys promoted? No – it’s 100/5000, or 2%. When you massage that 55% down to 50%, the 5% that’s lost is 5% of the cohort that passed the exam (male and female), not of the girls (passed and failed). You could also say that the really serious losers – the ones who have been unfairly discriminated against even by the system’s own standards – are 100 out of the 1,100 girls who passed: roughly 9.1%. The serious gainers, on the other hand, are 100 out of the 4,100 boys who failed, roughly (reaches for calculator) 2.4%.

So there you go: applied maths for real-world problem-solving.

Clearly, some two per cent of girls (or nine per cent of the girls who passed the exam) were serious losers in this and some two per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

At which point I feel a bit like Babbage correcting Tennyson, but it’s right, dammit. And besides, without the maths I wouldn’t have arrived at the figure of nine per cent – for the girls who passed the eleven-plus but were artificially failed to even up the numbers – which is pretty shocking.

Let’s eat some toast

This blog seems to have ground to a halt rather. I’ve been busy (haven’t we all), and a lot of the spare time I have has been taken up by 52 Folk Songs (which is going well, but I don’t want to go on about it here again). Even the beer blog has been quiet, although not as quiet as this one – having a definite focus seems to help (“haven’t written anything about beer lately…”)

Anyway, I just wanted to say that if you’re not reading Michael Rosen’s blog, give it a go. It’s terrific. He’s got a lot to say, and it’s all good, or at least interesting; it’s mostly about education, but don’t let that put you off if you think you’re not interested in ‘education’. I wish he’d enable comments on it – he writes some really thought-provoking stuff, leaving me at least with nowhere for the provoked thoughts to go – but at the rate he’s posting at the moment it’s probably wise not to.

I don’t know Mike Rosen, although I have argued with him on blogs (mostly not about education). Like a lot of people, I first saw his name attached to children’s poetry, and children’s poetry of a particular kind. Now, I write (one doesn’t write about something, one just writes), and when I was at school I wrote a lot of poems; not because the teachers (or anyone else) wanted me to, but because it was something I enjoyed, felt I could do well, took pride in doing well. (Three slightly different things. I’ll come back to that.) And also because my older sister did and I admired her for it. I was an inquisitive reader and we had lots of books around the place – books we all valued, boringly grown-up books, weirdly grown-up books and (I think quite importantly) books that nobody valued at all; books we all thought a bit ridiculous, that were just there. (My mother’s incomplete Sociology degree had left her with a copy of Criminal Behaviour, by Reckless. What a book. Never once got it off the shelf.) What with the Important New Poetry anthologies and the Ridiculous Old Poetry anthologies, I read or skimmed through quite a bit of poetry, and I got interested in how you write poetry. So I wrote sonnets (both kinds) and villanelles (the proper tetrameter kind) and got into Gerard Manley Hopkins, and recovered from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and (after reading a bit of Shakespeare) got quite accomplished at iambic pentameter; it reached the point where I could turn it out at will, to length, with hardly any strain and quick as speech, or hardly any slower. Only a few of my poems rhymed, but most of them scanned, and the ones that didn’t scan I was generally going for a Ted Hughes-ish solemnity, a “hear the silence around the words” kind of effect.

So that was poetry, and it was something I could do; I enjoyed doing it, enjoyed feeling I could do it well, took pride in doing it well. For a studious middle-class child – or perhaps I just mean “for me” – the thought of me taking pride in something I could do came with a definite corollary, which was that there were lots of other people (or kids) out there who couldn’t do what I could do. And this didn’t bother me greatly; if anything, I thought of all the things those kids could do (centring on sport and respect) and thought, well, at least I’ve got this. The thought of writing poetry being a way into reflective & creative language use – and reflective & creative language use being something that everyone can benefit from doing, especially children, the earlier the better – didn’t cross my mind. If it had, I would probably just have thought “they’ll be sorry…

Then along came this Rosen character with his “poems” that just look like somebody’s sat down and started writing – or not even that, just like somebody’s stood up and opened their mouth. Along came Rosen and “poems” that anyone could write. Seriously, anyone. You didn’t have to understand poetry first, you didn’t have to read poetry first, you didn’t have to make your language fit a metric grid (should be metrical, need to work on that) – you could just write about stuff, and that was poetry! I was appalled.

The rest of the story can be told quite quickly. I was wrong.

He was right (about the whole writing poetry being a way into reflective & creative language use thing).

And he’s still being right – or at least interesting – about a bunch of things, mainly but not exclusively related to education.

Read the blog, it’s great.

No fear, Cavalier

A quick plug: my post on the recent Italian referendum, A Slap in the Face, is now up on the LRB blog. Excerpt:

[Berlusconi] has always known how to stitch an alliance together and how to get an election won. In his heyday he was both the boss of a powerful political machine and the figurehead of a broad alliance, incorporating the successors to the Christian Democrat and neo-Fascist parties as well as the xenophobic populists of the Lega Nord. That alliance has gradually flaked away; most of the post-Fascists and ex-Christian Democrats have abandoned Berlusconi and regrouped as a centre-right ‘Third Pole’. The ability to win now seems to have deserted him as well.

Share and enjoy!

Your mercury mouth

No prizes for guessing the theme of this lyrics quiz, which is a kind of follow-up to Rob’s. With a couple of exceptions these aren’t memorable lines in themselves, but a lot of them are in the vicinity of memorable lines; I think overall it’s pretty easy.

  1. And the whole world is on your case
    – “Make you feel my love” (JaneyG)
  2. Come here and step into the light
    “Highway 61 revisited” (ejh)
  3. Don’t tell her it isn’t so
    – “If you see her say hello” (Rob)
  4. Even the nobles get properly handled
    “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (skidmarx)
  5. He was staring into space
    – “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (chjh)
  6. He wasn’t too small and he wasn’t too big
    – “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” (JaneyG)
  7. Hunted like a crocodile
    “Shelter from the Storm” (chjh)
  8. I know that Fortune is waiting to be kind
  9. I wait for them to interrupt
    – “I want you” (Rob)
  10. I’m a generous bomb
    “Please Mrs Henry”
  11. I’ve been to gay Paree
    – “Not dark yet” (Rob)
  12. It makes you feel violent and strange
    “No time to think”
  13. It’s so hard to get on
    – “Visions of Johanna” (ejh)
  14. Ninety-nine years he just don’t deserve
    – “Percy’s song” (Rob)
  15. One bird book and a buzzard and a crow
    – “Tiny Montgomery” (chjh)
  16. She’s so hard to recognise
    – “True love tends to forget” (JaneyG)
  17. There’s a new day at dawn
    “Where are you tonight? (Journey through dark heat)” – chjh
  18. When the children were babies
    – “Sara” (chjh)
  19. White ladder all covered with water
    – “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall” (Rob)
  20. You weren’t really from the farm
    – “(Sooner or Later) One of Us Must Know” (ejh)

Answers in comments.

Bonus question: what’s true (at the time of writing) of “All Along The Watchtower”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” but no other songs? And which three songs are most likely to be added to this list?

Update 7 down, 13 to go (or 9 and 11 if Chris chips in his two guesses). Not that it helps, but #8 has been one of my favourite Dylan songs ever since I first heard it, at a folk club about five years ago; that folk club is also the only place I’ve ever heard #1, although I understand it’s become a bit of a standard. Apart from those, the only songs on the list with folkie connections are #4, #14 and #19; in the case of #7 I suspect a debt to “Lakes of Pontchartrain” (“If it weren’t for the alligators I’d sleep out in the wood”), but that may be a stretch.

Update 2 Ten of the remaining 13 songs first appeared on record within one five-year period. Hell of a period.

Update 3 9 down, 11 to go. (Five-year period: nine of the remaining 11.) Chris, do you want to take #7? (Never mind, chjh nabbed it.)

Update 4 7 left. Apart from #10, which chjh spotted as being on the Basement Tapes, they’re on five different albums, three of which have already had a track named (two tracks in one case).

Update 5 6 left; five different albums (including the Basement Tapes), two of which have already had a track named. (Nothing else off BotT, in other words.)

Update 6 Not done yet, but we’re getting there. Thanks to JaneyG for naming both the sublime “TLTTF” (there is some great stuff on Street Legal) and the ridiculous “MGNTATA” (the next line is “Ahhh…. think I’ll call it a pig”). Incidentally, the clues to the bonus questions, and my reply to comment 2, are all on this page (clicking on the titles is not required).

Absolutely final update Beans spilt. Sorry nobody got “Mississippi”; it’s a fantastic song, particularly if you hear it sung by somebody who’s still got a voice. “No Time To Think” is a great song, too – once again, I strongly recommend Street Legal, particularly the remastered CD (the mix of the original LP was dreadful).

The supplementary questions were about live performances. “All Along The Watchtower”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” are the only songs Dylan has played live over 1,000 times – nearly 2,000 for the first two of them. Coming up on the rails with 900+ are “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”. “Please Mrs Henry”, “Tiny Montgomery” and “No Time To Think” have never been played live by Dylan; more intriguingly, “Percy’s Song” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” are among the songs that he’s played live precisely once.

He’ll drop you where you stand

I can’t help wondering where, exactly, Norm is going with this one (quote reordered but not reworded).

Israel’s killing of Ahmed Yassin:

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: “I condemn the targeted assassination of Ahmed Yassin. Such actions are not only contrary to international law but they do not help the search for a peaceful solution.”

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, described the assassination as “very, very bad news”.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: “Israel is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing and we condemn it. It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”

Killing Bin Laden:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed Osama bin Laden’s death as a key turning point in the struggle against terrorism.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: “I would like to congratulate the U.S., pay tribute to its determination and efficiency in reducing the threat posed by terrorists and underline the close cooperation between the EU and U.S. in the fight against terrorism.”

Prime Minister David Cameron said that bin Laden’s death would “bring great relief” around the world.

And so on (the page linked also cites reactions from France, Norway, Brazil, Japan and the Vatican).

We could consider explanations for this apparent disparity that Norm and his source overlook. Most obviously, bin Laden was an effectively stateless individual who was waging (or perhaps had waged) a transnational campaign of political violence against multiple states. There was no obvious single cause around which negotiations or a peace process might have been initiated; no internationally recognised grievance on which bin Laden was recognised as a spokesman; no mass movement to demand negotations with bin Laden; and no actual or aspiring state-level actor in whose name bin Laden could have negotiated. The contrast with Ahmed Yassin is glaring. Whatever else he did, Yassin was an actor in the struggle for Palestinian statehood – a cause that most of the world recognises as worthy, and which most of the world hopes can be resolved peacefully. Some enemies, in other words, are better qualified to be shot down like dogs than others. Moreover, sometimes shooting down your enemies like dogs is just bad politics, exacerbating a situation that wiser tactics could ameliorate (“It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”) There’s also a third explanation, which I’m afraid is probably just as significant as the other two: the world is wearily accustomed to the US going pretty much where it wants and doing pretty much what it wants, and doesn’t even bother to protest about it. However, this licence seems only to extend to one nation at a time. We could call that inconsistency, or we could just be thankful for small mercies.

But let’s, for the sake of argument, scrub out all those objections to the equivalence Norm is proposing here; let’s just say that in 2004 one country rubbed out an evil terrorist mastermind, in 2011 another country bumped off another evil terrorist mastermind, and the world’s reactions were strikingly different. What’s the implication? When we heard about the assassination of Yassin, should we have rejoiced at that news? And what’s the implication of that? Norm has always denounced the use of double standards where Israel is concerned, so presumably the lesson of Abbottabad is that it should be open season for evil terrorist masterminds wherever they may be. State see terrorist, state kill terrorist. No man, no problem. And if people say it’s unjust, or it’s not lawful, or it’s just bad politics… oh, please

Terrorism is scary stuff – the clue’s in the name – but it’s never worried me as much as counter-terrorism, and this argument of Norm’s reminds me of why that is. As it happens, I do draw a lesson from the Abbottabad execution, if that’s what it was (if it’s true that four people were killed, only one of whom had drawn a weapon, a better word might be ‘massacre’). I haven’t bothered blogging about it before now, partly because it seemed pretty obvious but mainly because Dave had said it already. But maybe it could do with saying again: state-sponsored assassination is wrong. State lawlessness is not a protection against individual lawlessness: rather, it’s far more dangerous, partly because of the vastly greater resources that the state has at its disposal and partly because a law-governed society depends on the state itself being governed by law (as Jeremy Waldron has argued, the rule of law is prior to the concept of law).

If you subscribe to a kind of extreme Hobbesian view of the state, in which the sovereign has both the power to make law and the power of life and death, so that a correctly targeted state killing must be legal – it’s his state, his rules – then you shouldn’t have any problem with the death of Sheikh Yassin, or Osama bin Laden, or for that matter Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Danny McCann. I didn’t think Norm held that view, though, and – more to the point – I can’t see any good reason why anyone would. So where is that argument going?

An extremist scrape

Our Margit declares if hoo’d cloas to put on,
Hoo d go up to Lundun an’ see the young Queen,
An if things didn’t alter when hoo had been,
Hoo swears hoo would fight, blood up to th’een.
Hoo’s nought agen t’queen, but hoo likes a fair thing,
An’ hoo says hoo can tell when hoo’s hurt.
– “The Four Loom Weaver” (trad., 1830s)

Well, I didn’t go – partly influenced, I confess, by dystopian fantasies of mass kettling – and it went off brilliantly:

a wonderful, spirited, and conviction-driven multitude of ordinary people, representative of the British population in their diversity, marched in their hundreds of thousands.In doing so, they made it clear – we made it clear – that we simply will not accept the dismantling of our welfare state and public services

And I’m not going to qualify that. The march went off brilliantly. Half a million people, give or take, assembled in the middle of the capital to protest against the government’s attack on public services. Activists, burnt-out veterans and absolute beginners, they came from all over the country – from the post-industrial northwest to the Tory shires – and they marched together. It was a truly remarkable march and it went off brilliantly.

Shall we look at that picture again?

I was right the first time: that was what last Saturday looked like. Cheerful, united, determined and very, very large.

If you stop here you won’t miss much. Continue reading

Smoke lingers

Recent email, lightly edited:

Many thanks for entering this year’s Orwell Prize. The longlists will be announced next Wednesday, 30th March, at 7pm.

For the first time this year, we will be holding a special event to celebrate the longlist announcement. Drinks from 6.30pm will be followed by the announcements at 7pm and a special discussion on blogging featuring previous winner, Richard Horton (police blogger, ‘Jack Night’) and one of this year’s judges, David Allen Green (‘Jack of Kent’), chaired by Jean Seaton (director of the Prize).

The event will take place at […] The event is FREE – if you would like to come, please email […]

We hope that the event will be a fitting celebration of all of this year’s entrants. Many wonderful books, great journalists and brilliant bloggers unfortunately won’t make it onto the longlists – but we want to celebrate all the excellent writing which has come in, and say thank you for making the Prize what it is.

Do feel free to share the invitation with colleagues and friends.

I guess that’s a No, then. Nice of them to make it a free event, though – asking people to pay to come and hear their name not being read out really would be adding insult to injury.

Update 31/3/11 Yes, it was a No. Congratulations to Laurie, Dave and especially Anton – well-deserved. What some of the other names are doing there is anybody’s guess. Daniel Hannan?

After “No Cuts!” the marchers’ favourite slogan was “Fairness!” Alright, then. How about parity between public and private sector pay? Or job security? Or pensions? How about being fair to our children, whom we have freighted with a debt unprecedented in peacetime? How about being fair to the boy who leaves school at 16 and starts paying taxes to subsidise the one who goes to university? How about being fair to the unemployed, whom firms cannot afford to hire because of the social protection enjoyed by existing employees?

Conservative pigging Home?

Whilst the Prime Minister David Cameron has secured a resounding success in persuading Arab governments to support intervention in Libya, the anti-war coalition has – unsurprisingly – been busy voicing its support for murderous dictatorship. A large gang of them congregated outside Downing Street in Whitehall last Thursday evening and handed out spurious and demagogic leaflets whilst waffling on about western imperialism. … The coalition is a cross-section of fruitcakes, loonies and closet masochists, mostly.

(I like the ‘mostly’. Judicious, dude)

And then – on the ‘Left’ – there’s Molly Bennett, who works for a Labour MP and writes about his constituents: they seem to be mostly “whingers”, several of them are “nutters” (some of whom she names), and one of them (also named) is an “enormously fat man” who gets around using a “fatmobile”, ho ho. What puzzles me about this blog is not so much how it’s got longlisted as why Ms Bennett’s employer hasn’t demanded that she take it down toot sweet. (Unless there is no Molly Bennett and it’s actually Chris Morris. That would make sense.)

I’m not the greatest fan of George Orwell – I think he was a dreadful old fraud who mistook unquenchable self-loathing for staunch radicalism – but his worst enemies would admit that he wrote well. He wrote clearly, and with some insight into the overtones of his imagery and the limitations of his arguments; and he wrote humanely, by and large (as long as nobody mentioned vegetarians). About the only connection between Orwell and the blogs I’ve quoted is that it would have been fun to see him take them apart.

What with our culture

With some misgivings, I’m planning on entering some posts for the ridiculously-named Orwell Prize this year. (I hate popularity contests generally, and this one seems more pretentious than most – and, as Phil says, this year at least there is only going to be only one winner. But I could do with getting a few more eyes on this blog – it’s currently getting less attention than my beer blog, which doesn’t seem right.)

So here are the posts I’m planning on entering.

Paint the words upon the wall (25th April)
“Quick quiz, aimed particularly at any readers who are outside the UK (or who don’t go past phone boxes very often). Each of the following slogans has been used in street advertising by one of the main political parties contesting this election … But can you match the slogan to the party?” (They were all Conservative Party slogans in the “Big Society” vein.)

Imitation of life (30th April)
“Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.” (I conclude that Duffy’s remarks were deeply confused, and that racism was actually all that held them together.)

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday (5th May)
“In the last post I revisited the series of posts I wrote before the last election, arguing that Labour supporters should vote for parties to the left of Labour – a category in which I included the Lib Dems. (I voted Green on the day.) This time round, I’m seriously considering voting Labour. So what’s changed?”

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript (9th June)
“Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. … Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever. This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as ‘deep tribal reasons’?”

Bashkohuni! (26th June)
“Speaking of Albania…” (On the difference between Marxism as a scientific method and Marxism as guarantor of historical correctness.)

Late in the evening (30th June)
“I agree with Ken Clarke, up to a point.” (On the prison population and the danger of over-applying cost-benefit analysis in sentencing.)

A gift from the Queen (10th November)
“I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days … and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.)” (On patrotism, the necessity of unthinking loyalty in the armed forces and the danger of unthinking loyalty to the armed forces.)

Jolly little nothing (25th November)
“A number of people have been all over the latest from the Odious Clegg. Clegg’s big idea is to contrast ‘old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens’. Old progressives believe in redistribution; new progressives believe in social mobility.” (More on the Lib Dems, this time starting from a truly dreadful thinkpiece by a leader who is clearly way out of his depth.)

Look who bought the myth
“‘we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.’ – Tim Farron MP” (I’m surprised nobody else picked up on this astonishing piece of Lib Dem chutzpah. The post wrote itself.)

Scant evanescent things (23rd December)
“Is there anything to say at this stage about Vince Cable and his supposed lack of impartiality?” (Damn right there was.)

Three pre-election posts (one about the Tories and two about Labour); seven post-election, including one about patriotism, one about class consciousness, one about Tory penal policy – and four about the Lib Dems, bless ’em. All, naturally, written in prose like a window-pane, by a plain and unillusioned man who reports things as he sees them (I find it’s simpler in the long run). If that lot doesn’t win the Orwell Prize, I won’t be at all surprised.

Heave a sigh

How long do you leave a blog before you stop reading it, or take it out of your RSS feed? I currently follow 29 blogs; some (e.g.) I’m willing to leave for weeks or months between posts, because when they do post I know it’ll be worth reading. (A new post from Luke would be appreciated, though.)

But I’m saying goodbye to Splintered Sunrise. The blog hasn’t been updated since September the 2nd, and it seems unlikely that it will be now. As you who read this may well already know, something a bit odd happened to Splinty’s blog a few months before it shut down. Like most of his regular commenters, I saw Splinty firstly as a socialist blogger and secondly as a good source on what was going on in Ireland; his occasional polemics against the National Secular Society were just some of the padding that came with the package, of no more significance than his appalling taste in music or his occasional lapses into Cyrillic. Besides, I am myself the son of a preacher man (well, a lay reader man), and I didn’t have much of a problem with the occasional argument to the effect of “these militant secularists don’t understand how religious people think”. Some time around mid-year, this type of argument started to dominate Splinty’s blog; at the same time, there was a shift in the claims being made. We began to read posts that could be summed up as “these unbelievers don’t understand how Catholics think”, which had me squirming a little – and then “these so-called liberals don’t understand how true Catholics think”, which had me looking for the exit. And then, suddenly, silence fell. My immediate assumption was that Splinty had realised that he was espousing two radically different bodies of ideas – or, at least, that he was talking to two radically different audiences – and had retired, in a certain amount of bemusement, to work out how to reconcile them. This theory got a bit of a knock from the discovery that Splinty had resurfaced on the one-line Web, where he continues to post like the proverbial bandit – and never gets the opportunity to set out his views at length, or gets challenged to justify them in detail. So I guess that’s a happy ending of sorts.

I’m also going to stop checking on Rob Knox’s intermittent but frequently brilliant blog Law and Disorder (even the URL is an education). Rob’s last post on that blog reads, in part: “So, anyway, I have made a New Year’s resolution to try and post much more frequently, we’ll see if this actually comes about”. It’s dated 18th January 2010. I look forward to reading the book on international law that he will indubitably end up writing.

On the other hand, I am going to start reading Between the Hammer and the Anvil (which I currently catch up on every couple of weeks, very much the way I read XKCD) and Bad Conscience (which I read when it’s linked from Stumbling and Mumbling, i.e. quite often).

Finally, does anyone know what’s happened to Liam Mac Uaid’s blog? It’s currently coming up as “deleted”, which is surprising and a bit alarming. I’m hoping it will resurface in another form before too long (sectarian joke about relaunching with new name and slightly larger membership goes here).

Thou art my darling

Well, this is odd.

Back in January 2008 I started keeping beer tasting notes on the blog. Repeatedly updating that post rapidly became a pain, so I hived off the tasting notes to a separate page, which turned into a series of pages; quite soon after that, I started a dedicated beer blog and put the pages on there.

Earlier this year – on the 10th of August, to be precise – I started putting posts up on Oh Good Ale. Traffic was pretty slow to begin with, but once I’d got the blog listed on a couple of aggregators and exchanged comments with a few other beer bloggers it soon settled down to a regular 10-50 hits a day.

Then I posted this.

Here’s the last week’s stats on the Gaping Silence:

23/11: 40
24/11: 37
25/11: 34
26/11: 43
27/11: 66
28/11: 37
29/11: 82 (so far)

And on Oh Good Ale:

23/11: 11
24/11: 30
25/11: 7
26/11: 25
27/11: 19
28/11: 89
29/11: 1288 (so far)

It’s been linked, it’s been tweeted, it’s sparked a debate on an American beer forum (To be fair, when reading a UK blogger’s opinion on beer, you have to take into account the effects of insular dwarfism). In the immortal words of Sandeesh off the Apprentice, like influenza and e. coli, it’s gone viral.

I’ve always thought 100 hits in a day was good going on this blog, and on Oh Good Ale I don’t think I’ve ever even reached that. And now look at it. If I’m not getting asked to say something about beer on Radio 4 by the end of the week, I won’t be at all surprised.

Anyway, why am I even talking to you lot? My beer people await…*

*Joke. Honest. This will always be my main blog. And I’ll try and put a word in for The Gaping Silence over there, promise.

All your bedroom queries

Nice to see WorldbyStorm lighting on the Passage the other weekend. I started composing a comment after I’d listened to a couple of the tracks and rapidly realised I had far too much to say. Only one thing for it, really…

For a band by whom I own virtually nothing – one 7″ single, bought long after the event, plus one track on a ubiquitous compilation – the Passage have meant a remarkable amount to me. I think this is largely because the band crossed my path on four separate occasions – which, in fact, corresponded to four distinct versions of the band (there were six in all).

First, there was “New Love Songs”. Continue reading

Playing across the river

Here’s a meme of sorts, for anyone who’s interested.

1. Which blogs did you read regularly when you first started blogging?

The first blog I read regularly was Tom Watson‘s, of all things. It was the run-up to the 2005 election and I was one of the people pushing (at least within blogworld) for anti-Labour tactical voting; Tom Watson is a pretty good blogger for an MP, and – being a Labour MP – took a fairly straight-up-and-down “vote Labour to stop the Tories” line, which was fun to argue with. I started my own blog when my comments started getting too long, and started leaving comments and links on a bunch of related blogs – Blood and Treasure, Chicken Yoghurt, Europhobia, the Yorkshire Ranter, the Jarndyce Blog (defunct).

2. Which blogs do you read regularly now?

These days, on the other hand, my main hangouts are Aaronovitch Watch, Splintered Sunrise, CT and Daniel’s blog, although I do still read the Ranter and B&T. (Edit: since I began this post I’ve had to give up on Splintered, or at least start reading with a very long spoon. The comments threads there, in particular, have changed overnight from a thoroughly congenial environment to, well, something else.)

3. Which blogs have you stopped reading, and why?

I’ve tried to find some kind of political trajectory in the blogs I’ve spent a lot of time on over the years – Tom Watson to Gauche to Dave to Socialist Unity to AaroWatch, what’s that, right to left? Labour loyalist to not actually anti-Labour as such? anti-Trot to, er, slightly less anti-Trot? The fact that three of my favourite political blogs – Liam, Splinty (when he’s on form) and Cedar Lounge – write about Ireland may also be significant, or it may just be that I like the way they write.

Another couple of categories of blog I’ve stopped following are easier to identify. I used to run two separate blogs, one of them devoted to what was then work-related stuff; this was in what retrospectively looks like an odd period in my career, when I was heavily into ethnoclassification (a.k.a. ‘folksonomy’), the Semantic Web, ontology modelling and so forth. (A philosopher friend remarked that the entire ‘ontology’ project was doomed to confusion the moment they adopted that term – ‘ontology’ in this context signifies a logically-structured and locally complete set of inter-related terms, the mental universe of a particular discipline or application. An epistemology, in other words.)

Anyway, I spent quite a while looking for pointers on this brave new world of software-enabled social networking, while also looking for stuff to write about on my work blog and looking for something to read in between working. At one point I started writing a series of posts debunking the then-fashionable image of the “Long Tail”, and was at once downcast and relieved to discover that Tom Slee had done it all already. (Tom’s a fine blogger and I strongly recommend his book.) Nick Carr gave me several “oasis in the desert of hype” moments; he also gave me personally some useful advice when I was looking for writing work, for which much thanks. I used to read Dave Rogers with more attention than he solicited; he oscillated unpredictably between LiveJournal-ish chat, testy common sense and flashes of real wisdom. I discovered Maciej Ceglowski’s Idle Words by way of his “Dabblers and Blowhards” essay taking down a writer called Paul Graham, which is (a) much more widely applicable and (b) hilarious. (It occurs to me that a lot of my favourite bloggers from this period were (or are) essentially anti-boosters; people who react to the latest from Clay Shirky or Chris Anderson or Dave Sifry with varying proportions of scepticism, irritation and laughter. On Clay specifically, this from Tom is brilliant.)

At some point I noticed that most of my work blog feed was American (or Canadian), while almost all my home blogs were British (or Irish); at a later and less definite point I more or less decided to make a policy of this. So when I stopped reading blogs (from the world of software-enabled social networking) at work, none of the transatlantic blogs I’d been reading made it onto my feed at home (even if they weren’t all about s.-e. s. n.) It was an arbitrary decision, only really justified by the fact that my home feed was quite long enough as it was. I sometimes miss reading these blogs regularly, & sometimes check back on them. The blog from this period I look back on with most fondness is Shelley Powers’s Burningbird, which is currently running as five or six separate blogs but at that stage was all in one place. I can understand the decision to split it up – as a single blog it must have been taxing and challenging on quite a personal level – but from my selfish perspective as a reader I miss the single BB; it combined green politics, software development, feminism, the Semantic Web, personal experience and photography in some extraordinarily rich and powerful ways.

The other main category of blogs I’ve stopped reading consists of blogs that have stopped appearing. Short of dropping off the Web altogether, like the Jarndyce Blog, it’s not always clear when a blog has gone silent for good; I guess in practice it’s partly a matter of how long different readers are prepared to wait for the next post. Martyn Connell’s beer blog Zythophile went quiet for half of last year before coming to life again – I unsubbed at the time and had a six-month backlog by the time I caught on. I’m keeping Rob on the list for now, despite his silence for most of this year, in the hope that he’s also just resting; as far as I can see there’s nobody else doing what he used to do with that blog (viz. blogging a Marxist engagement with the legal form). By contrast, both Ellis and Justin put a fairly definite full stop to their blogs (although Ellis went on to do something not quite completely different). They’re both fine writers and these were both great blogs, which made me feel there were people out there doing the kind of thing I wanted to do with a blog. Saying any more than that seems both pointless and impertinent.

4. What blog did you start reading most recently?

My most recent addition to the RSS feed list is Jon Boden’s A Folk Song A Day, which does more or less what it says on the tin and does it rather well. But that isn’t really a blog so much as a project exploiting blog software. My latest blog discovery is Luke Roelofs’ superb (and exhaustingly prolific) Majestic Equality. Despite its title – taken from that Anatole France quote about the law – Luke’s blog is not devoted to a Marxist engagement with the legal form (although I wouldn’t be surprised if he gave it a go). What Luke does is to argue from first principles, taking a standpoint informed by Marx and Spinoza, and tackling questions like these:

What is meant in calling a prediction of the future, or a political theory making such predictions, ‘utopian’?

what goes on in someone’s mind when they help someone else with something?

is a human society possible, in which individuals will, except in very exceptional circumstances, be able to act without violating any genuine value, given sufficient wisdom?

It’s a bit like what Stumbling and Mumbling might look like if the more challenging arguments were followed through instead of grinding to a halt in a sputter of rhetorical questions – and it were written by a Canadian anarchist instead of a writer on the Investors’ Chronicle. Strongly recommended. For a taster, try these three posts on the deceptively intuitive concept of “violence”.

5. List every blog you’ve ever contributed to.

Actually Existing. I started blogging in March 2005, as a spinoff from the arguments on Tom Watson’s blog; my first post (digging out some material from 1997 which I hadn’t known what to do with) was rapidly followed by this bit of navel-gazing and this post, which before it was chewed up by Blogger was quite a decent bit of psephology. Another nine “how should we vote” posts followed, all concluding that we shouldn’t vote Labour. In the circumstances I don’t think that was wrong.

Apparently… (later Cloud Street). My work blog, set up later in March 2005. “I’ve started this blog as a place to collect my thoughts on user-centred ontologies, ethnoclassification, folksonomies, emergent semantics and so on.” They can’t touch you for it. First post: a reply to a comment on a blog post by Clay Shirky, taking a sceptical view of the claims then being made for Wikipedia.

What I wrote. A short-lived attempt to use Blogger to showcase (or park) some offline writing which I thought could use a wider audience. All three of these were merged into The Gaping Silence in March 2007, or November 2006 if you believe What I wrote.

Then there was the 2005 UK Election Roundup group blog (which no longer exists) and its larger, shinier, more ambitious but ultimately less coherent successor, The Sharpener (link goes to a list of all my posts). The Sharpener started well, with a bunch of us between us publishing at least one good post every day, but ultimately foundered because none of us were really sure what its identity was. I think in retrospect we should have been able to work “not Left but not anti-Left” into a USP – it would certainly be unique – but we couldn’t even agree on that much. The alternative was simply to be the politics blog that was open to everyone who wanted to write on a politics blog that was open to everyone who wanted, etc, but that wasn’t enough in the end to keep regulars motivated or stop occasional contributors from drifting away. The new Sharpener? LibCon for dedication, Fistful for variety, AaroWatch for attitude.

But my first blog, or blog-like thing, dates from 2003. On May 28 I put up the first two instalments of

A life in theatreland, clubland, Hollywoodland and the Land of Green Ginger: the memoirs of Sir Frederick Bodine.

and waited for the plaudits to start rolling in, if that’s what plaudits do. Oh well. The title of the blog was Remembering July Garland. An introductory post explained all:

“Ditch the rainbow song!”

The words were mine, all those many years ago; those sad, misguided words were mine. Fortunately for all concerned, my advice was ignored, as it would be so often in the future. But that’s another story for another day.

Of course, dear Judy didn’t ditch ‘the rainbow song’; indeed, it would be associated with her name for many years to come. It affords me a crumb of solace to note that the song was heavily edited before recording, eliminating most if not all of the elements to which I had objected. Even the title had to change – “Have yourself a merry little rainbow”, what sense does that make? None! None, I say!

These, then, are my memories of a life in the green room; a life which I can truly say has been lived among the stars; a life that’s full, in which I’ve travelled each and every byway. But more, much more than this.

I tried to place Sir Frederick’s memoirs with some of the top publishing houses, but sadly without success. (To be precise, I ran them past someone at Word (who said “very nice, but no thanks”) and someone at Mojo (who said “not really us, try Word“).) My dreams of finding fame and fortune as the Bodine amanuensis were dashed. But it was fun while it lasted.

Perhaps it was the drink talking, but at one point I asked old Morrie what had gone wrong – why wasn’t he the big star he used to be? He wasn’t best pleased, I can tell you. He glared at me, brandished an old Smiths 12″ and said, with great aplomb, “Sir Frederick, I’m still big – it’s just the records that have got small.”

I apologised, of course, and Morrie was soon his old charming self again. Apparently the restricted dimensions of CD packaging are a genuine concern for him.

Another couple of blogs need mentioning for the sake of completeness, although my song lyrics blog isn’t one of them (it’s invitation-only, and besides I haven’t updated it for ages.)

Oh Good Ale. At the beginning of 2008 I started keeping beer tasting notes in this post. My notes on beer rapidly outgrew the post and turned into a static page, and subsequently into their own dedicated blog. I‘m planning to turn have just turned the “tasting notes” posts back into static pages, after which I’ll and I may now start writing the occasional post and turn it into a real blog.

¡Vivan Las Caenas! This doesn’t really qualify as a blog I’ve contributed to, as there’s absolutely nothing there; I snagged the WordPress domain name late one night, not realising that I wouldn’t be able to unsnag it. The plan is to spruce it up a bit and put longer, retrospective posts up there – “My life as a military historian”, that kind of thing; either that or an issue-by-issue overview of my involvement with Red Pepper. Or both. The reference is to the revolutionary(?) slogan shouted at the beginning and end of my favourite film – and, indirectly, to the materialist idea that our lives are built in and through circumstances we didn’t create, and have been since before we started thinking about it. Structure determines agency, and agency would be pretty empty if it didn’t. Of course, at the moment it’s all I can do to post here occasionally and keep Oh Good Ale updated, so whether anything will ever appear on ¡VLC! is something of a moot point.

So there you go. Here are the questions again:
Tell us about…

  1. the blogs you read regularly when you started blogging
  2. the blogs you read regularly now
  3. some blogs you’ve stopped reading (and why)
  4. the blog you’ve started reading most recently
  5. every blog you’ve ever contributed to

Have at it!

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