Saturday, December 31, 2011


I had my suspicions before, now I have the proof. Santa is a Nazi.

UPDATE for Mikeovswintonneedstogotospecsavers. Another angle - open palm, short fingers. Even more suspicious.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Latins and Teutons

So why can't the Greeks be more like the Germans? That should sort all the problems out, surely.

Matthew Iglesias writes in Slate:
Blaming the whole mess on the comparative torpor of Latins places a convenient moral framework around complicated economic questions, and affirms prior beliefs about who does and doesn’t work hard ... It’s true that Germans and Greeks work very different amounts, but not in the way you expect. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average German worker put in 1,429 hours on the job in 2008. The average Greek worker put in 2,120 hours. In Spain, the average worker puts in 1,647 hours. In Italy, 1,802. The Dutch, by contrast, outdo even their Teutonic brethren in laziness, working a staggeringly low 1,389 hours per year.
 He continues with an old truth:
 ... countries aren’t rich because their people work hard. When people are poor, that’s when they work hard.
As Amartya Sen has written
... cultural generalizations ... can ... present astonishingly limited and bleak understandings of the characteristics of the human beings involved. When a hazy perception of culture is combined with fatalism about the dominating power of culture, we are, in effect, asked to be the slaves of an illusory force.
Hat tip John

Sunday, December 18, 2011

In Greece

It is good to be back in Greece. After months of disaster stories in the press, it is reassuring to see that it still exists and that the village has splashed out on a new public Christmas decoration. The old metal tree-shaped frame on the jetty has given way to a wooden boat draped with sailcloth and illuminated by fairy lights. Village gossip persists, the people are still here, the winter is mild and pleasant, even if the skies are grey and the sea is splashing over the paraleia as the weather gets cooler. The lane is still firm under foot, the legacy of a warm, dry autumn, the grass has hardly grown and only the clover has flourished. The citrus trees are in fruit, the bright colours of the pitted skins contrasting with their dark green leaves.

Yet the crisis is real enough and it continues unresolved, consuming its human sacrifices that signally fail to propitiate the gods of the markets. The sigh of relief at a half-formed and ill-constructed non-solution will soon give way to the inevitable failure and then ... ? Who knows? All I can say is that this is a country that deserves better and that for some unfathomable reason the stillness of a mild winter's night, broken only by the crackling of olive wood burning in the grate, brings me happiness.

The world has lost two fine democratic voices this week in Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens, both exceptional writers, both intolerant of stupidity and totalitarianism. The contrast between their vigorous and thoughtful urgency with the stumbling, indecisive ideological orthodoxy of the EU is disturbing. Watching European leaders in action reminds me that it is not just evil that is banal, so is banality and it too carries its own dangers. There is nothing barbaric about our European elites, but they are careless. And European democracy is one thing not to be careless with.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The year of the dog

Hitler, Stalin (twice), Gandhi, Churchill, Nixon, Mark Zukerberg - all have been Time magazine's Person of the Year. Now they are joined by ... Loukanikos the Greek riot dog.

Well, this year's award is really a collective one to all the protesters who have challenged the established order all over the world, but Loukanikos gets an honourable mention and a picture spread.

Starting with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia that kicked off the Arab Spring and ending with the protests against the fraudulent elections in Russia, this has been an extraordinary year when the quiescence of a population cowed by fear or sated by the excesses of consumerism can no longer be taken for granted. Time's decision not to nominate a single person is down to their view that this year "leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top". Perhaps, given the quality of political leadership we have seen lately, the selection of a dog in preference to any of this uninspiring bunch of presidents and prime ministers is all that needs to be said.

Hat tip KTG

Monday, December 12, 2011


There is a superb, angry summary of the Erozone summit agreement by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Torygraph of all places.
Europe will now have its austerity union, a revamped Stability Pact. Budgets will be vetted "ex ante". Structural deficits will be capped at 0.5pc of GDP. Sinners will be punished automatically once they break the 3pc limit, and submit to suzerainty. Commissars will tell them how to treat trade unions, what to tax, and what to spend.
It is not remotely a fiscal union. There will be no joint debt issuance, no EU treasury, no shared budgets, and no fiscal transfers to regions in trouble.
 And, making the obvious point that this non-union is the flawed solution to the wrong problem:
This is not at root a debt crisis. By endorsing fiscal fetishism, EU leaders are silently colluding in the Neo-Calvinist illusion that budget excess caused the debacle. They know this to be untrue. Ireland ran surpluses for years, reducing its public debt to 12pc of GDP at one stage (Germany is 82pc). Spain ran a surplus of 2pc of GDP. Italy has long had a primary surplus.
It is a trade and capital flow crisis, a regional variant of the US-China imbalance. The damage was hidden during the boom by cheap German, Dutch, and French capital -- and cheap Asian and Mid-East capital rotated through London banks -- flowing into southern Europe. It was cruelly exposed as soon as creditors shut off credit.
In other words, debts and deficits are the symptoms of a systemic crisis, not its cause.

So what is going on? A rehashing of Herbert Hoover, the rediscovery of the economics of Pierre Laval or a "Medieval leech-cure treatment" that "can only drain the lifeblood from large parts of wasted Euroland"? This will not end well.

Thanks to Alan

Saturday, December 10, 2011


So Britain is out in the cold as it stands aside from a deal to impose a permanent winter of austerity on a Europe that craves summer. Cameron has upset everybody by vetoing a treaty imposing the wrong remedy on the basis of a wrong diagnosis even though he agrees with the diagnosis and is busy applying the same wrong remedy to the British economy.

Here is Paul Krugman:
Maybe it was always thus, but the relentless wrong-headedness of the Europeans, their insistence on seeing their crisis as something it isn’t, and responding with actions that deepen the real crisis, has been a wonder to behold.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Literature, history and conflict

I found this fascinating interview with the Israeli novelist, David Grossman, on Normblog. Grossman is a writer whom I admire and I found his latest novel, To the End of the Land, memorable and haunting. Its structure is irregular, it does not offer any type of conclusive ending, instead it is a picture of relationships on a journey, falling through space and time. It is a meditation on ordinary lives shaped by conflict, uneasily escaping from and reconciling with reality by turn.

Norm highlights the concluding paragraph:
There is something in literature so contrary to the general dimension of war. War is all about effacing the other and self-effacement; it’s all about generalizations and sweeping definitions and demonizations. Writing is about specifying individuals, being very attentive to them and caring for them. It insists on nuances.
 This is interesting enough, but, I was drawn to something he said earlier:
We live in a very violent region, which makes people react sometimes in a terrible way ... We are all prisoners and imprisoned. The difficulty of being a human being, being a mentsch even, in such an inhumane and anti-mentsch reality, it’s an environment that is so poisoned with hatred and fears and prejudices and racism that one fights hard in order not to surrender to [these poisons]. It is so tempting to surrender to this way of thinking: demonizing the other, idealizing ourselves, believing the other understands only the language of power and therefore we have to, against our will of course, treat them only with vigor—all of these unbearable ways of seeing reality, which in a way are realizing themselves, it’s a kind of self-fulfilling way of looking at the world.

...It’s not only an abstract thought here; it’s very practical. People are challenged to make sharp, immediate decisions in order to stay alive, especially when they serve in the army. All these extreme dilemmas, which are really dilemmas for Greek tragedies, they are our daily bread, ours and the Palestinians. It is so hard to mitigate all these contrary urges and pressures and yearnings to remain human. Sometimes I compare it to walking in the middle of a huge storm with only one candle in your hand. How do you keep it lit? How do you protect it?
The importance of history as a discipline stands out, developing a narrative that expresses and explains the collective experience of both peoples. On all sides it is assailed by pseudo-history as propaganda, selecting and distorting to support one side or another, to provide a narrative that comforts prejudice, feeds contempt and breeds hatred.

But the drama of conflict, the instinct for survival, the choices that each individual makes with all the consequences that flow from them, what has the historian to say? Yes, it is possible to write about ironies, coincidences, misunderstandings; but fear and grief, or, what Grossman builds his novel on, the absolute terror of the possibility of grief? It is there that we need our artists, maybe walking hand-in-hand with historians, for what they can do is explain the reality of individual experience. Both explore a different dimension of truth and, at its best, history is a profoundly literary subject.

Does it make a difference? Here is the conclusion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 1970 Nobel Prize Lecture:
We shall be told: what can literature possibly do against the ruthless onslaught of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his METHOD must inexorably choose falsehood as his PRINCIPLE. At its birth violence acts openly and even with pride. But no sooner does it become strong, firmly established, than it senses the rarefaction of the air around it and it cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk. It does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.

And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false actions! Let THAT enter the world, let it even reign in the world - but not with my help. But writers and artists can achieve more: they can CONQUER FALSEHOOD! In the struggle with falsehood art always did win and it always does win! Openly, irrefutably for everyone! Falsehood can hold out against much in this world, but not against art.
Grossman is more cautious:
Stories today cannot change reality; they unfortunately cannot change the world. Literature doesn’t have representatives in power centers, or financial markets, or parliament, or army headquarters. But maybe it can help us so that this world cannot change us.
If Solzhenitsyn is too bombastic, Grossman is too bashful. Totalitarian regimes have long understood that they need to suppress art in favour of kitsch, one of the great achievements of humanity is that they have always failed.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Capitalism is doomed (perhaps)

The tide has turned, Tunbridge Wells is now in occupation:


"We met the Church Warden last night, who happened to be a very convivial chap, the following morning we met the Vicar, who seemed to somewhat sympathy with our cause, however in the last hour, at apprx 12:30 midday today (being Thursday) the Police have shown up, although the Police have been wonderfully friendly, I do believe that they perceive that there may be an issue with regards to us remaining on this site."

 Via Wealden Progressive Movement

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Sunday sanity

Why the public sector also pays for the private sector - in a neat dialogue from Tim Harford:
This is a modern economy. Everybody pays for everybody else’s salary, except the subsistence farmers and survivalists, who look after themselves
Nice, read it all.

Monday, November 28, 2011

In trouble

Funny how the idea of paying more for longer to get less hasn't been the most successful of sales pitches. But you know it is failing badly when things like this happen:
A head teacher praised by David Cameron in June for not closing her school during industrial action says she will strike for the first time in her life.
Hat tip to John

Friday, November 25, 2011

The season's over

So what better way to review it than by using Lego (er, are you quite sure about that?).

Thursday, November 24, 2011


According to this report, The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority is taking in hand (oo er missus) the dreadful, subversive crime of sending sexy texts. It is intending to filter out rude words and phrases such as "monkey crotch" and "flogging the dolphin". I know I am getting old, but am I missing something here? Do you know anyone who has used these terms to inflame the desire of someone they fancy?

They have also banned the phrase "athlete's foot". The erotic possibilities of a crusty fungus between the toes have been lost to me up until now. All explanations will be gratefully (perhaps) received.

Thanks to Steve

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A night at the opera

No, not this:

It was this one instead:

Both are magic in their own ways, but they aren't quite the same.

On Friday night I saw Northern Opera's production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades (or Pique Dame) at The Lowry in Salford. It is a dark tale of obsession and passion, where love brings nothing but torment for the lovers. From the moment the curtain goes up, showing Herman on stage alone, the ominous overture fades and we see a condemned man. At each turn of the plot he is offered a choice to back down and choose happiness, yet every time he obeys the instinct of a gambler and risks all to gain all. Death wins.

It was a decent enough production with some strong performances and did justice to such a powerful melodrama.  But the highlight for me was the youth of the audience. There were plenty of grey hairs there (such as mine), but also younger people and a couple of school trips in the near full-house. So the best moment for me was walking out of the theatre, feeling breathless from the emotion of the experience, and seeing a scruffy young lad of about thirteen or fourteen, his eyes shining, turn round to his mates and say in a thick Salford accent, "That was OK that was. Especially at the end where he dies". High culture (to use that dreadful phrase), is only elitist in that the elite confine it to themselves. Beauty is impervious to class.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Two classics on one day from the pages of The Dictators' Friend, sometimes known as the Guardian comments pages.

First up, Mehdi Hasan finds it oh so reasonable that with everyone being really nasty to Iran (I wonder why that is), it is no wonder that they want nuclear weapons. Well who wouldn't? Not that there is any evidence of them actually trying to get them, perish the thought. Of course, he doesn't mention that the nature of the regime might just give a few causes for concern. The classic is when he writes, without even a hint of irony,
On Tuesday, around 1,000 Iranian students formed a human chain around the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Israel". 
Hmm ... if I were American or Israeli I think I would be feeling a bit queasy about that and conceivably I might think that it is rather a good idea to stop Iran acquiring the means of actually delivering that death.

Another who is feeling got at is that reasonable chap Mr Assad. Those bullies in the Arab League have turned on him, but at least he has got Jonathan Steele to stick up for him by telling them to desist and to proffer mediation instead of condemnation and isolation.  Of course he is duly critical of Syria:

The Assad regime has made mistake after mistake. Stunned by the first protests this spring, it turned too quickly to force. 

Erm, "too quickly"? Does that mean that it would have been OK if they waited a bit before shooting thousands of people?  And of course it was a "mistake", not a crime.

Whatever you think the right response should be and even if you think that the current policy is wrong, it is perfectly possible to to argue the case without throwing your moral compass in the bin and turning a blind eye to murder. The question is how we deal with repression, tyranny and vile ideologies, not how we minimise their crimes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Crime without punishment

Misha Glenny puts up a defence of Papandreou from a different angle and hints that his downfall may have had something to with the actions of a corrupt Greek oligarchy that "have mobilised hysterical media outlets which they own in order to denounce and undermine Mr Papandreou at every opportunity, aware he is the least pliable among Greece’s political elite".

His description of an elite that has dodged taxation, salted big money abroad and hovers ready to pick up bargains in the sale of assets, in part enforced by the results of their own corruption, gives another reason why the Channel 4 programme, Go Greek for a Week, was so misjudged. Glenny is simply pointing out that the actions of bus drivers might be a tad less important than those of the super-rich.

Glenny is coruscating about the EU's toleration of corruption, but now that seems to be matched by an intolerance of democracy. Governments headed by unelected bankers, including members of the far right, seem all the rage. Heather Stewart is not impressed:
Of course, the fig leaf is that Berlusconi's Yale-trained successor, Mario Monti, will lead a "technocratic" government that will implement drastic spending cuts and necessary structural reforms to nurse the economy back to health. Exactly the same story is being told about ex-central banker Lucas Papademos in Greece. But there are two major flaws in this argument. First, there's no such thing as a harmless, neutral technocrat; and second, the plan they are toting won't work.
She uses a new report from Research on Money and Finance to, yet again, reiterate the points that seem lost on policy makers.
Greece has offered up the scalps of 30,000 civil servants, raised taxes, cut public sector salaries and put a cornucopia of state assets up for sale. The result? A cumulative 10% decline in output through 2010 and 2011, and an unemployment rate of 18.4%. Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio has actually risen, not fallen, since the "rescue" package was implemented, and forecasts from the commission show debt hitting a Japanese-style 198% of GDP by 2013. On its own terms, the programme has been self-defeating.
And still they persist. Careless about democracy, blind to evidence and turning their backs on evident corruption, they carry on regardless in a self-congratulatory way until the next inevitable failure. As to the consequences, the only thing that is sure is that the oligarchs will not be the ones suffering.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

History lessons

One piece of commentary on the Euro crisis is getting rather tiresome. The obsession of the German Bundesbank with fiscal constraint is constantly being put down to the memory of the hyper-inflation of 1923, which we are then swiftly told led to the rise of Hitler.

This is bad history. Not only is the economic position of Germany today completely different from the Germany that emerged from defeat in the First World War, making the analogy ridiculous, but it was not the inflation crisis that lead to Hitler's accession to power ten years after it ended. Hitler came to power at the peak of an unemployment crisis, precipitated by a deflationary global recession, exacerbated by the very orthodox policies that are being imposed throughout the Eurozone.

I dislike the use of historical analogies as a substitute for proper analysis. But if you are going to use them, please pick the right one.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


I expected to be irritated by Channel 4's Go Greek for a Week. I wasn't disappointed. Actually, there were a few fleeting moments of decent analysis from good commentators, but they were buried in the cliché and stereotyping of the rest. The programme became an attempt to use some of the more dismal tricks of reality TV to lay the blame for the whole of the Greek budgetary crisis on malpractice, rather than trade imbalances, exchange rate inflexibility and austerity programmes (OK, not quite as easy as to dramatise with a hairdresser and bus driver, I'll give them that. Though I seem to remember Robert Tressell doing it rather well with house painters). I also grimaced at the way good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon honesty was compared to the cunning, underhand practices of those pesky Mediterranean types.  But the most egregious part was the statistical trick they played.

You would have thought that if you wanted to compare the earnings of a bus driver in Greece with a bus driver in the UK you would, er, compare the earnings of a bus driver in Greece with a bus driver in the UK. No. That's not the way they did it. Instead, they took the bonuses and allowances of a Greek bus driver and calculated them as a percentage of the Greek average wage. They then worked out what that percentage would amount to if it was calculated against UK average earnings (they are higher than Greek ones). They then took that amount in cash, handed it to our bus driver and said to him that was the extra weekly earnings he would get under the Greek system. At no stage did they say what the respective figures for average earnings are, nor did they say what the Greek bus driver's basic salary was before the additions. Ben Goldacre would be having fits.

There was no need for this distortion, Greeks themselves are as critical of the abuses mentioned. But you came away with the impression of Greeks living a life of idle luxury; lazy, over-paid and dishonest as well as being the main cause of the economic crisis.  Needless to say it hasn't gone down well in Greece itself and so they have made a version of their own:

Hat Tip KTG

Friday, November 04, 2011

Greece is the word

And it is on everyone's lips at the moment. I got the conclusion to my last post on the crisis spectacularly wrong, so here are three links to articles that are worth reading, though they may be no more reliable.

First up is a post on Naked Capitalism, not one of my regular sources, by investment analysts Marshall Auerback and Rob Parenteau. It takes on the conventional wisdom about Greece with gusto:
Historically, Greeks have been very good at constructing myths. The rest of the world? Not so great, if the current burst of commentary on the country is anything to go by. Reading the press, one gets the impression of a bunch of lazy Mediterranean scroungers, enjoying one of the highest standards of living in Europe while making the frugal Germans pick up the tab. This is a nonsensical propaganda.
And, after an assault on 'faith-based economics' and 'Fiscal Austerians', they make a clear point about economic union:
What is most remarkable to us is that the largest net exporter, Germany, does not appear to recognize that its insistence on fiscal austerity for all of its neighbors will cook its own golden egg-laying goose. If Germany wants to run a perpetual current account surplus in order to pursue their Asian-like mercantilist, export-led growth strategy, then some other nation, or group of nations must be prepared to run current account deficits ad infinitum. Which means issuing liabilities ad infinitum to the current account surplus nation in order for the current account deficit nations to spend more than they earn on tradeable goods and services. What this means is that default is inevitable unless there is a policy or price mechanism that encourages the current account surplus nation to reinvest the reserves they earn in foreign trade back into productive, income generating capital equipment in the trade deficit nations. This much is elementary international economics, but somehow it completely eludes Berlin.
The German Chancellor and her Finance Minister like to say that no real economic union is possible if one party to the union (Greece) works shorter hours and takes longer holidays than another (Germany). What she should say is that no real economic union is possible if the governing plutocrats of ALL nations ... consistently evade their fair share of the cost of that party’s own state expenditure, expecting the union either to pay the bill itself, or to force the bottom 90% to pay it. And there is no real economic union (or any hope of a future political union) if current account surpluses are not properly and sustainably recycled into the trade deficit nations. It would be as absurd as Texas perpetually insisting on running trade surpluses with the other 49 American states. 
Then, from the other wing of the political spectrum, Anthony Barnett defends Papandreou and his attempt to hold a referendum (well someone has to I suppose) in Open Democracy. He was shocked by the vitriolic language used about the referendum plan and the tactics used to undermine it:
According to the BBC, after "Mr Papandreou told reporters in Cannes his referendum would in effect be a vote on whether Greece should remain in the euro...  the European Commission said if Greece left the European single currency, it would have to leave the European Union as well: "The treaty doesn't foresee an exit from the eurozone without exiting the EU," spokeswoman Karolina Kottova told a briefing in Brussels.
Since when was it that you could be in the EU like Denmark or the UK and not in the Euro but that if you left the Euro you would have to exit the EU as well? This was heavy duty blackmail.
Finally, The Economist makes an astute point:
Mr Papandreou has created an almighty mess, but he is better cast as the messenger than the villain. He was not to blame for the summit’s shortcomings.
 It too is critical of austerity,
The euro zone’s emphasis on austerity rather than structural reforms has aggravated Greece’s political woes. Instead it should favour medium-term fiscal consolidation. The creditor nations could boost domestic demand, to provide a bigger market for debtors’ exports. Most of all, they should dispel the threat of contagion by putting the ECB’s balance-sheet behind the debt of solvent governments, like Italy and Spain. Throughout this crisis, creditors—particularly Germany—have worried about being too soft on the euro zone’s weaklings, for fear that they would go slow on reform. Mr Papandreou has shown that they also need to worry about being too austere.
 Auerback and Parenteau use far less measured tones:
Myth-making at the expense of the Greeks does not serve anybody’s interests, as there will be a cascade of defaults everywhere, and a Soviet style collapse in incomes, hardly an enticing prospect for the global economy. Not an attractive ending, but this is the kind of outcome which the troika’s self-serving, immoral and cruel policies could lead to before long. The Greeks, and the vast majority of Europe’s citizens, can surely do better than this. The existing policy path is literally bankrupt and bankrupting, and this game of chicken cannot go on for much longer.
"Self-serving, immoral and cruel"? "Bankrupt and bankrupting"? These words from a hedge fund manager and an investment analyst, the heart and soul of the market that must be appeased through blood sacrifice? If ever there was a sign of something seriously wrong, this is it.

What will happen is anyone's guess, but if you want a better illustration of Andrew Rawnsley's comment about the Occupy protests, "The protesters shun formal leaders and hierarchies – and I also don't see why they should be criticised for this at a time when conventional leaders and hierarchies have been so conspicuously useless", then I would like to see one.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Not anonymous

I wasn't expecting the non-controversy of the Shakespeare authorship question to impinge on me, but I have been researching the life of an English individualist anarchist, Henry Seymour, with my friend Dan (who does nearly all the work). The final phase of Seymour's active life was spent as the editor of Baconiana, a publication of the Francis Bacon Society, predominantly devoted to proving that Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare. So we have to deal with it and discuss it in whatever we end up writing.

At least it is fashionable now that Hollywood has joined the fray with the new film Anonymous, rehashing another theory, first proposed by J. Thomas Looney (really), that it was the Earl of Oxford who wrote the plays, despite him dying before some were written. A minor point like that does little to dissuade determined advocates and I suppose that the one thing going for Seymour and his ilk is that Francis Bacon was actually alive at the time. Though that is about all, mind you.

The definitive debunking of the anti-Stratfordians, as they have become known, is James Shapiro's Contested Will, but for a good condensed read here is a splendid despairing review by Stephen Marche in the New York Times. It is full of great lines like, "The movie is certainly overflowing with those superactorly British actors who tend to make you feel that you should be enjoying their performances even when you’re not." And this one, "Let me assure everybody that Shakespeare professors are absolutely incapable of operating a conspiracy of any size whatsoever. They can’t agree on who gets which parking spot. That’s what they spend most of their time intriguing about." And Marche goes into battle for more than Shakespeare.
Counternarratives have an inevitable appeal: wouldn’t it be cool if there were yetis? If the United States Army were keeping extraterrestrial remains in the Nevada desert? If aliens with powers beyond our imagination built the pyramids? If Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare but actually this, like, lord who had to keep his identity secret? 

You don’t have to be a truther or a birther to enjoy a conspiracy theory. We all, at one point or another, indulge fantasies that make the world seem more dangerous, more glamorous and, simultaneously, much more simple than it actually is. But then most of us grow up. Or put down the bong. Or read a book by somebody who is familiar with both proper historical methodology and the facts. 
This attraction to the outlandish is relatively harmless when confined to the outer reaches of the Internet or self-reinforcing societies. The real damage occurs when it begins to enter the mainstream, as Marche makes abundantly clear.
We hear politicians opine on their theories about climate change and evolution as a way of displaying how little they know. When Rick Perry compared climate-change skeptics like himself to Galileo in a Republican debate, I dearly wished that the next question had been “Can you explain Galileo’s theory of falling bodies?” Of all the candidates with their various rejections of the scientific establishment, how many could name the fundamental laws of thermodynamics that students learn in high school? Healthy skepticism about elites has devolved into an absence of basic literacy. 

... Along with a right-wing antielitism, an unthinking left-wing open-mindedness and relativism have also given lunatic ideas soil to grow in. Our politeness has actually led us to believe that everybody deserves a say. The problem is that not everybody does deserve a say. Just because an opinion exists does not mean that the opinion is worthy of respect. Some people deserve to be marginalized and excluded.
What is remarkable is the resilience of these fantasies. For example, October hasn't been a good month for the legion of obsessive climate change sceptics. It saw the publication of the report of Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project (BEST). There was no shock at all in the findings, they confirmed the accuracy of the temperature data showing the increasing warming of the planet, including the much abused "hockey stick", that climate scientists have been producing for decades. What was missing from the TV reports in this country is the most important point of all. The study had been set up by a scientist, though not a climatologist, who brought some expertise and respectability to global warming denial, Richard Muller. He was a climate change sceptic. And he has proved to be a good scientist. When faced with the evidence he changed his mind.

As for the die-hards, one of them made a big mistake. Anthony Watts came out with this widely reported statement about BEST when it started. "I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong". Well it did and did he? Don't be silly, of course not.* That isn't what happens. People hold fast to their ideas and try and rationalise away the reality. And it will be the same with anti-Stratfordians and all the other advocates of crazy, convoluted, if superficially attractive ideas. What may be consoling or even just fun is still wrong if it is actually, well, wrong. But once there is a congruence between conspiracy thinking, economic interests and political power, what passes as harmless idiocy can become very dangerous indeed. And that, simply, is why truth matters. And Shakespeare's authorship matters too, especially to people like me who believe that talent, even genius, is not the sole preserve of the upper classes.

*For a full account see here and there is a neat video here.
The Marche review is via here

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Changing times

Sarkozy and Merkel are not overjoyed, the markets are panicking, the Greek reaction is uncertain, but the decision of Papandreou to put the bailout plan to a referendum is the first real challenge to the assumptions of the European policy-making elite arising from somewhere other than the streets. Amongst the prognostications of doom, Larry Elliott stands out as a voice of optimism, though not about austerity.
There is not the remotest possibility of austerity working, because the impact of such savage cuts is to depress the economy, increasing the deficit rather than cutting it, adding to pressure for still further austerity.
It is certainly risky, but suddenly, from being the supplicant subject to the control of the Troika, Greece has remembered the old adage about debt.  If you owe the bank a hundred thousand pounds you have a problem; if you owe the bank a hundred million pounds, the bank has a problem.

Larry Elliott again:
Greece is now a bigger problem for Europe than Europe is for Greece. The short-term outlook for Greece is going to be bad inside or outside the single currency, but the balance of risks is different for the other 16 members of monetary union. For them, the calculation is simple: would it be better to cut the Greeks some slack in order to prevent a disorderly default creating a domino effect across the eurozone? Or should they take a tough line, threatening to cut off all support in the event of a no vote? That is what is known as a no-brainer.
... All this is pretty obvious. What is perhaps less obvious is that Greece now has immense power as a result of its predicament. It has the rest of the world by the short and curlies.
 Is this the moment that reality finally forces a change of policy?


In answer to my question, no.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The ostrich dies for nothing

In 1806 Pfhul had been one of those responsible for the plan of campaign that culminated in Jena and Austerstadt; but in the outcome of that war he did not see the slightest evidence of the fallibility of his theory. On, the contrary, to his mind the disaster was entirely due to the deviations that were made from his theory ... Pfhul was one of those theoreticians who are so fond of their theory that they lose sight of the object of that theory - its application in practice. His passion for theory made him hate all practical considerations, and he would not hear of them. He even rejoiced in failure, for failures resulting from departures in practice from abstract theory only proved to him the accuracy of his theory.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.
And so to the Eurozone. Will Hutton writes:
... last Wednesday was a watershed moment – when the euro's future looked more certain and the Europeans began to reshape their continent, in particular the financial and political architecture in which their economies will function. They are leaving the 19th-century nation state behind and creating something new. It is a political construct that operates as a self-help club so that each member is stronger and has more freedom of action than it would outside, but for which membership is going to require tough and well-policed terms.
Tough and well-policed eh? I rather think that Hutton's enthusiasm gets the better of him, mistaking centralisation of power for federal integration. The view from much of Greece is of an economic dictat that will impose endless austerity. Maybe this is overstated and the debt write down certainly gives some breathing space. But what this deal does not seem to do is to reform the structural problems of monetary union and redistribute trade imbalances (as Yanis Varoufakis argues here). Instead it still suggests that the cause of the crisis lies in the moral failures of the peripheral states, requiring the constant supervision of the enlightened technocrats at the centre, whatever their previous record.

Even that would be acceptable if it were not for one thing. The theory - austerity and orthodoxy. Faced with the incontrovertible evidence of failure, they are insisting on implementing their plan with a renewed intensity, even as the social fabric of the indebted nations tears apart. A sustained recovery in Europe requires more than wishful thinking that this time the plan must surely work, especially if properly enforced. The elite economic consensus is running on to the rocks of reality. Will they change course?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mystic Plump

I feel that I can now go public with the amazing prediction given to me by my spirit guide who has been chatting to the late Eddie Waring. England will not win the Four Nations Rugby League competition. I hope I am wrong, but ...

The first round of matches was this weekend and I was at both. Australia comfortably beat New Zealand in a frighteningly tough match at Warrington on Friday. The game was not much of a spectacle. Australia's tactics were dour, grinding out their win without ever displaying the skills that they have in abundance. The most depressing aspect was the use of the latest fad down under, wrestling your opponent in the tackle and on the ground to slow the play-the-ball. This is, obviously, against both the laws and the spirit of the game and negates the speed and skill of backs, rewarding power and strength instead. Disappointingly, it was tolerated throughout by the English referee who let the game slow down to a brutal crawl. Even so, Australia looked awesomely strong and will only get better.

On Saturday, England played the far weaker Welsh side and won comfortably without convincing. The latest move to try and beat the Australians by picking Australians for the English side doesn't seem to have made much difference, even with addition of a scrum half who had previously played internationally for the New Zealand Maoris, but has now convinced the International Board that he is a West Yorkshire Maori. The big test will be Wembley next week, though I won't be going.

The public has supported the games well, both were sell-outs. A full Warrington usually rocks with noise, but it was eerily quiet as the fans were nearly all neutrals. Leigh had their reward for building a smart new stadium, which will also host Swinton's matches next season until our new ground is finally built. They haven't got the traffic management sorted out for big attendances though. I managed to get in to the ground seconds after kick off after taking ninety minutes to travel the ten miles from my home. The Rugby League is hoping for a respectable turn out at Wembley too for a double header and even if England lose they can still make the final by beating New Zealand at Hull. It would be great to get that far, but winning the trophy? If that happens I will eat my ouija board.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Good is better than good

What would you expect if you went to see a play written by someone who died early of pneumonia, probably as a result of his habit of writing naked in a polystyrene lined garden shed? I hoped for something special and that's what I saw on Monday night. It was the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre's fine production of C P Taylor's Good.

The play is thirty years old now, but is still fresh, entertaining too, even if it is about such uncompromising material as the Holocaust. On the surface, the device of rewriting Faust, with a literature professor as the main protagonist, and then charting his slow entrapment by the Nazis from opportunism to complicity could be banal. But not when it is written as a tragicomedy. Nor when it is also an examination of friendship, neuroses and a unique psychosis where, instead of hearing voices, the professor is haunted by snatches of popular tunes.

Of course that is just a device for telling the story. The real theme is the human complexity of what we call inhumanity. It is about how the good become evil whilst still remaining good, at least in their own minds, sustaining their self-image through sophistries. The central theme of the play is that there is an objective reality, one that is tangible, observable and knowable. Experience is not a fiction or a dream, let alone a discourse. The phenomenon that it explores is that when faced with clear and unambiguous evil, good people set out to deceive themselves.

The process starts with incomprehension; 'It isn't as bad as all that, they don't really mean it, it is only for show'. It is painfully hard for any sane human being to immediately grasp the nature of evil. But then, as reality becomes ever more unavoidable, people hide from the truth and with each twist and turn of the path leading to horror, evasion requires greater sophistication, convoluted argument and dense clouds of verbiage. More chillingly, self-deception can lead to complicity, drawing people in ever more deeply through both self-interest and moral cowardice until that instant when the real cannot be dodged and the truth becomes utterly, unavoidably clear. This is the moment of damnation.

At the heart of the play is a lecture delivered by the professor that is Taylor's statement of purpose, except that it is a negative image, a reversal of all he is writing about. It is a soliloquy on the need to remove 'Jewish humanism' from literature, to break with the idea of the novel as an exploration of individual experience, to replace it with a glorification of the collective – to subjugate a person's life to the margins, to render a person meaningless. Taylor is the 'Jewish humanist' par excellence, his drama explores and explains through the lives of ordinary people caught up in a demonic regime.

And he is so apposite about the sophistries, the apologetics and the evasions – how we drown in the stuff! Elaborately written shit. Elegant exhortations to murder – historical necessity, race survival, the will of god, eliminate this or that group of persons and we will have the perfect world. There is no objective truth, everything is relative. It wasn't my fault, they didn't suffer, there was no alternative, I was only obeying orders. And, above all, - it was all their fault, they brought it on themselves. And some of the most noisome ordure emanates from the phalanxes of tame academics, writing in impenetrable prose posing as profundity, making barbarity seem reasonable. How many graves have been filled by this stuff?

Good is a memorable play, a fine piece of drama, but when I got home there was a final piece of irony. I glanced at the programme where there was an interview with the director ending with a discussion of the play's contemporary relevance. She is quoted as saying,
"Someone once said that GOOD is a play about moral compromise in a political fog, which I think is a reasonably good description of the series of actions following 9/11 that led us to go to war in Iraq. And the fostering of a largely irrational fear targeted at lazily identified ethnic groups in the wake of that event goes to the heart of what the play is about." 
Actually, I think that is a lousy description of the play. It isn't about moral compromise, it is about the abandonment of morality, and the fog is not "political", it is one invented to conceal an only too clear political reality. But it is the rest that struck me. The sentiment is manifest; Muslims are the new Jews. Except they aren't.

The "War on Terror" is not an attack on all Muslims because they are brown-skinned or because of an abstract hatred derived from some seriously weird racist pathology. It isn't an attack on Muslims at all. Instead it is aimed at a particular theocratic political movement that sees mass murder as a religious duty, is violently misogynistic, calls for the execution of homosexuals, has embraced every genocidal anti-Semitic trope that the Nazis adopted (except, for obvious reasons, the myth of the Aryan race) and now denies the Holocaust, despite showing some apparent relish at the though of killing Jews.

I have no doubt she is a good person. I have seen concrete evidence that she is a damn fine theatrical director. It is just that she too has taken the Guardianista route of apologia, averting her eyes to the reality of evil – to the horrors of the decapitations, the stonings, the public hangings and of the suicide bombs – to the hatred and dehumanisation of Jews – just what Taylor was writing about. Yes indeed, the play is more than relevant to today.

Good is brilliant. Go and see it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

No shit Sherlock

Robert Peston has come up with the least surprising opening paragraph of the year.
The current European Union and International Monetary Fund plan to revive the Greek economy and its finances has failed.
Well I never. Who would have thought it?

As the Financial Times writes that the write down on Greek debt may need to be as high as 60%, Peston quotes from a report by international lenders:
The situation in Greece has taken a turn for the worse, with the economy increasingly adjusting through recession and related wage-price channels, rather than through structural reform-driven increases in productivity.
 Thankfully, Peston provides a translation:
Greece's austerity programme is succeeding in impoverishing Greek people with little in the way of discernible benefits to the Greek private sector and the capacity of Greece to start earning its way in the world.
 Or as Larry Elliott puts it:
The insistence that the remedy for a depression caused by austerity is yet more austerity explains why people are taking to the streets. In Athens, if not in Brussels, Frankfurt or Berlin, they understand that this is the economics of the madhouse.

Friday, October 21, 2011


It is one of my catchphrases. Since my early retirement I keep telling people in a quavering voice, "I'm a pensioner, y' know". Being a pensioner isn't quite the same as sinking back into senility, gazing at a blank TV screen. It can be rather active; somewhat more active and less lucrative if you are a Greek pensioner. There was more disturbing violence in Athens yesterday as the crisis drags on, with Eurozone leaders paralysed through disagreement, whilst the anger on the streets at yet more austerity measures continues and the increasing anxieties about the seriousness of the situation spread throughout governments and financial institutions alike. Martin Wolf makes the most pertinent point in the Financial Times:
What, after all, is the incentive for the Greeks to reform their government and economy if the benefits accrue to creditors indefinitely? Next to none.
Fools who lent money, without asking questions, deserve to share in the pain. They should not expect Greeks to rescue them from their folly, after the fact. 
Meanwhile, Keep Talking Greece agonises over the violence and some irritating comments submitted on her site. Her conclusion:
What do you do if you have no income? You go and demonstrate, you raise your voice against the laws and parliament bills that delete you from the list of living human beings. Or you sit at home and count your cups in the board, deeply depressed. Or you fight with your wife and beat your children. Or if you live in a social state, you sit on your couch and enjoy social benefits. Until the time the doctors declare you’re officially dead. Physically. Then metaphorically, you’ve been  dead for many years, because you never left your couch, raised your voice and fought for your rights.
In the meantime, as a result of my less arduous retirement activity of combining a rather a large amount of part-time teaching at the moment with some research, I stumbled across this wonderful post from Andrew Whitehead about the old political anthem, The Land Song. You should take the time to listen to the unique recording from 1910 embedded on both his site and in the piece he wrote for History Workshop Online.
Hark the sound is spreading from the East and from the West,
Why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?
Make them pay their taxes on the land just like the rest,
The land was meant for the people.
There is something touching about these old political songs. Is it simply the poignancy of their naivety, the enormous faith they have in the marvels to be worked by their chosen reform? I am not sure, I think that there is more than that. Popular song, and particularly marching tunes, are the accompaniment to action. They are the demotic art form of people shaping their own lives and destinies. The optimism is palpable.

The Land Song became a Liberal Party anthem, but it's provenance is earlier and lies in 19th Century Radical Liberalism, specifically in the Single Tax campaign of Henry George, part of the radical milieu of the time that brought together socialists, liberals, individualists and anarchists amongst others. It was an enormously creative period and I never lose my fascination with the intellectual ferment of the era. (I have posted before on radical liberalism here and here.)

I suppose it is the refrain that reminds me most of Greece today:
Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?
Why indeed? And this points to the fact that the Euro crisis is not just a financial crisis, but one of democracy. One where the vote seems to be powerless against the institutional might of the Troika*. I despair that political leaders seem oblivious to this danger as the indecision persists. And so the demonstrations and strikes continue, not only as a reminder of deep discontents caused by the crisis, but also of an expression of something more, life itself. To be active not passive. To not stand by. To be human.

Here is Paul Berman writing about Occupy Wall Street:
Yes, yes, at Occupy Wall Street the madmen, the madwomen, the Groaners and the neo-Muggletonians will eventually have their day, and the movement will be ruined ... So the movement will stumble and fall, and a lot of young people will feel a little embittered and distraught.
Yet he continues:
That day will come. But not yet! Meanwhile there are realities to proclaim and feelings to vent. Occupy Wall Street and its sleeping-bag neo-hippies and its costumed street thespians and the touchingly hand-written placards and generally the display of eccentricity and impudence have focused America’s attention for a fleeting moment on economic wrongs and inequalities. How wonderful!
Wonderful indeed. And the thread that joins the Georgists to Greece is one of optimism, the assertion of popular pride and the profound hope that something better will emerge from the ruins of today.
The army now is marching on, the battle to begin,
The standard now is raised on high to face the battle din,
We’ll never cease from fighting ‘til victory we win,
And the land is free for the people.
*The European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB)
Hat tip to Dan for the Whitehead link.


Once of Steve Job's worst ideas.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


When I worked in adult education in Manchester, over twenty years ago now, we had a number of students with mental health problems. Occasionally they were difficult people, but mostly they were delightful. One, who became a member of our pub quiz team, used to write letters to politicians and anyone in authority, all of which could be tactfully described as odd. I learnt to judge a politician by the replies that were sent. Most were of the standard 'thank you now go away' variety. Yet there were many more that were kind, supportive and simply nice. Only once did a single prominent politician take a letter seriously and sent a reply that was almost indistinguishable from the original.

I often think of that and of the time taken out of a busy life to simply be kind. It is a corrective to our overly cynical view of politicians. What they could never know is how much it meant to my student to be treated with respect and dignified with a proper reply. He was always proud and delighted. Whatever political differences I may have with them, I will always think back to those letters and recognise the decency that remains.

This was brought to mind by this lovely story, now all over the internet, about Christopher Hitchens, an eight-year-old aspiring freethinker and her request for recommended reading. It is more commonplace to be nice to a child, especially such a precociously intelligent one, than to an adult with mental health issues, but how much easier it would be for a celebrity to be either patronising or dismissive. Now, assailed by Christians because of her new found celebrity, she has found her own voice:
I've read the Bible and frankly it's ALL scary!!! You have to learn that sometimes kids need to boost their intellectual capability and look beyond God! 
In all, I take heart that the cause of freethought is alive and well in Texas and I have learnt something else, that one of the authors I admire can be added to my roll call of politicians as someone prepared to take the time to be kind. It is a special type of decency.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Simply grand

Manchester has an unjust (well, partially anyway) reputation for rain. Yesterday it lived up to its stereotype as a solid, persistent drizzle seeped down from dismal skies. The worst weather for running rugby and on the day of Rugby League's Grand Final at Old Trafford as well. Still, I was there with 69,000 others in a noisy crowd of families and drunks (and occasionally drunk families) for the annual occasion that decides the Super League champions.

It looked like it would be a close game, the top two teams had been knocked out at the semi-final stage, so third played fifth. And it was fifth placed Leeds who won it by playing exciting rugby in wet conditions, blitzing the more conservative St Helens in the last ten minutes of a high quality encounter.

I had mixed feelings about the result, a win for Leeds is never popular in these parts. Also, this was St Helens' fifth consecutive Grand Final defeat, a painful record for some fine players and for the fans an ordeal of dashed hopes. However, there were big pluses. The match was won by scintillating attack as well as awesome defence, something that used to be a Saints trademark. Most of all, it was won by a British coach. Australian coaches have raised the standard of the game over the years, but now there is a tendency not even to look at good British coaches and instead to farm out jobs to untried Australian assistant coaches on the grounds of their nationality alone. Occasionally the decision comes up trumps with the likes of Tony Smith or Ian Millward, but often it produces an identikit unimaginative approach of power and defence at the expense of the flair that was typical of the British game. So for the game to be decided by two moments of sublime skill and speed by a 5' 5" British scrum half, Rob Burrow, made the day for me. All the tries are here - enjoy.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

What a mess

Larry Elliot finds the only possible explanation for the Euro crisis in Lewis Carroll.
The climax of Alice in Wonderland is the courtroom scene in which the issue is "Who stole the tarts?" In the case of the eurozone, the easy answer is that it is Greece, which failed to play by the rules, borrowing too much and cooking the books so that the rest of the members of the single currency club were ignorant of the dire state of the Hellenic public finances. In fact, the real culprit is Germany, which has failed to appreciate that for monetary union to work, the big creditor nations have a responsibility to help the debtor nations by expanding domestic demand. The German political class appears to believe both that every country in the euro area can be as competitive as Germany and that Germany, in those circumstances, will continue to run a massive trade surplus. That's a logical absurdity the Reverend Dodgson would certainly have appreciated.
In the meantime, faced with the need for action, finance ministers have, once again, decided to dither.

What of the people caught up in this? Well, never underestimate their resourcefulness or their sense of justice. But for every positive action there are also the consequences of despair. Then again, where does the welfare of people fit into the world view of the technocrats trying to fix the economy of Wonderland?

More through the looking glass here.


Friday, September 30, 2011


Back from a fascinating trip to that well-known centre of anarchist agitation - Tunbridge Wells. Well, in the late Nineteenth Century it was the place where the first British anarchist newspaper was produced. These days perhaps it isn't quite as lively. I am tired, so my thoughts turn to garlic ... seriously they do. Watch this:

How to Peel a Head of Garlic in Less Than 10 Seconds from on Vimeo.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

No alternatives?

Let’s get this straight. The Greek economy — and with it the Euro — is disintegrating because Greek politicians are implementing austerity, not because they are failing to.
Ann Pettifor
Despite all this, we should remember that Greece represents a mere 2% of the European economy. It is just not worth this huge polarising crisis or incredible psychodrama. The Germans and the European Central Bank are treating this not as a straightforward economic issue of indebtedness and default but as a morality play in which the Greeks must be punished.
Susan George 
 Greece's great economic crisis has been a gradual war of attrition. Massive job losses, tax increases and galloping inflation have sapped the nation's energy and, increasingly, Greeks no longer believe what their politicians say. With cuts instead being blamed for slashing consumption, deepening recession and missing deficit-reducing goals, austerity is seen as a pointless exercise that far from exiting the country from crisis has exacerbated its plight.
Helena Smith
Austerity is not the only option, it is a choice to make the poor pay for a crisis they did not cause.
Owen Tudor
The problem has been the unwillingness to refinance first Greece, then Ireland, then Portugal. Their share in the euro area public debt to GDP ratio is ridiculously low:  cancelling the debt would have been less painful.
Riccardo Bellofiore

There are choices, but they are not easy.

Friday, September 23, 2011


This is a revealing report about football's attempt to try and deal with homophobia.
The makers of an educational DVD that aims to raise awareness of homophobia in football have expressed their frustration at not being able to secure the support of a gay Premier League player they asked to take part in the film ... 

"We approached him thorough a third party and felt quite confident of getting him involved [in the DVD]. But he ultimately refused. There is a log jam in regards to this issue, a final taboo which, in the short term at least, does not appear close to breaking. We're certainly not going to out anyone against their will but, at the same time, getting gay footballers involved would make a big difference in tackling this issue."
The film makers couldn't even get a straight footballer to appear, whilst the Professional Footballer's Association indulged in the sort of sophistry that prevents change, blaming the crowds rather than taking any responsibility for giving a lead themselves.
... the PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor, suggested that post-Fashanu, and despite its increasingly diverse nature, British football remains too hostile a territory for players to even associate themselves with homosexuality. "It would be unfair to ask an individual to back a campaign like this in case they got targeted by crowds," Taylor said. "It's a macho environment and we believe the time would be more appropriate when crowds are more civilised." 
 Now if football is macho, what about Rugby League? Footballers roll around on the floor for hours when they break a fingernail, whilst in last month's Rugby League Challenge Cup Final one player played most of the game with a badly broken finger where the bone was sticking out through the flesh (in a handling game!) and another came back on to finish the match after dislocating his shoulder. Tough - you bet.

So when Gareth Thomas, the openly gay Welsh Rugby player, switched to play League he got loads of stick in the dressing room - not for being gay, but for having played Union. And when Castleford fans gave him homophobic abuse, the club was instantly fined. It wasn't all plain sailing, Thomas was still prepared to be a pioneer and he talks about it superbly in this marvellous profile. But both he (and other players who have come out), together with the Rugby League were not prepared to hide and have taken a stand against prejudice.

And if that is admirable, then what about Sheffield Eagles? They had a float at the Manchester Gay Pride parade. They also backed the Rugby League's "Homophobia - Tackle it!" campaign by wearing a special shirt with the slogan on it in their home game against Widnes. Tonight they got their just reward, beating Leigh to win a place in the Championship Grand Final from fourth place.

Football's global reach gives it a unique possibility to act as an agent for change. It is able to reach into societies where rampant homophobia is supported by government legislation, yet is reluctant to take a stand on an issue that matters to millions of players and fans world-wide. Not for the first time, it has a lot to learn from Rugby League.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Milking blood

What is going to happen to Greece?  When austerity was embarked upon as a response to the horrendous deficit, critics didn't demur about the need for reform and the reduction of the Greek sovereign debt. However, they argued that austerity at a time of recession was not the way to do it and that the social and economic consequences of austerity programmes in a contracting economy could be dire. Without investment, measures to promote growth and with Greece lacking the ability to adjust their exchange rate, a policy of increasing competitiveness through 'internal devaluation' (reducing living standards) would shrink demand in a time of recession thereby, they argued, raising costs and lowering the income of the Greek state. The resulting sharp economic downturn would end up increasing the deficit. David Blanchflower has called this a "death spiral". Guess what has happened? Spot on. The response - more of the same? Yep, you got that right too.

Why should that be so?  Chris Dillow sees moral and political pressures preventing a number of perfectly feasible solutions, leading to the horrible indecision of European policy makers. I would highlight the extraordinary strength of the ideological belief in the economic consensus in the face of its failure. Larry Elliott, who had long predicted the implosion of both the banking system and the Euro from a social democratic perspective, echoing Vince Cable's war-time rhetoric, remembers Beveridge and calls for a rejection of the dominant model of political economy, something that Cable eschews:
Our political masters should look at the current benighted state of Britain and conclude that it is time to start planning for a post-crisis world. They need to accept that the model of the past quarter-century was unfit for purpose. That's what Beveridge concluded in 1942. He would come to the same conclusion today.
Across Europe, the mainstream left has conspicuously failed to construct and articulate alternatives, offering little hope for change. They have failed the most important political challenge presented to them for a generation. In the meantime, ordinary Greeks are in despair and social pressures mount.

I think back to the 80s. Then the debt crisis belonged to the developing world. It didn't seem to matter so much to the wealthy nations in those days and rarely found its way to the front pages or produced embarassing political rhetoric at party conference time. The solutions that the IMF imposed were the same as the ECB are insisting on today. The writer, Susan George, published a powerful book on it, A Fate Worse than Debt, and made a TV documentary of the same name. I remember the end of the film. It featured an interview with Julius Nyerere.* He concluded,
You know, there is a limit to the cow. The cow only has so much milk. You can't go on milking the blood, you'll be in trouble. And at present, they're really milking blood from the South. These countries can't pay it - so they'll collapse.
 Just how much milk is left in the Greek economy? 

*Transcript here

Friday, September 16, 2011

Decline and fall

When I was younger I remember reading the journalism of John Pilger with some admiration. His style was exemplary and I was particularly taken with his work on Cambodia. This was the time when the UN refused to recognise the government installed by Vietnam after the invasion that ended the genocide. Instead, they gave the Cambodian seat to the representatives of the Khmer Rouge, then busy mounting a terrorist campaign from the border with Thailand with covert support from the West and China. Pilger's exposure of the horrors of Pol Pot's regime and his support for the intervention that brought it down made an impression. Even if he was too uncritical of the Vietnamese, he was an eloquent advocate of a successful humanitarian intervention that was being opposed by powers locked into a cynical foreign policy. Then something began to go wrong.

It really started with the civil war in Yugoslavia and his opposition to Western action against Serbia.  Where now was his belief in humanitarian intervention? The only way he could maintain consistency was to distort the evidence in order to say that this intervention was somehow not the same as Vietnam's, not merely mistaken or inauthentic, but in some way duplicitous. Instead of exposing massacres and human rights abuses, as he had in Cambodia, he indulged in denying them in the teeth of overwhelming evidence. In doing so, he started down a dark path that leads away from evidence, truth and a commitment to expose the evils of the malign, to a place of mirrors where the crimes of those you are inclined to support are miraculously transformed to become all the fault of those that you oppose. It is the paranoia of partisanship. He was not alone on this journey and his descent continued through international crisis after crisis until we reach Libya. Even the UN decision to support the revolution against a gruesome dictatorship could not disturb this mindset and when I read a piece he published on the Stop the War Coalition's site, I knew he was lost. Even by the baleful standards of  that organisation, it slumps into the gutter.

For Pilger, the Libyan revolution "is a coup by a gang of Muammar Gaddafi's ex cronies and spooks in collusion with Nato", who "told journalists what they needed to know: that Gaddafi was about to commit "genocide", of which there was no evidence" (apart from the thousands of unarmed demonstrators killed already, Gaddafi's direct threat, the aircraft bombing rebel areas indiscriminately and the tanks rolling into Beghazi, together with the impassioned pleas of those about to die - but then that's what happens when you abandon truth in favour of prejudice). But it gets worse. The revolution - oops, sorry - "revolution", was down to "Nicholas Sarkozy, a Napoleonic Islamophobe whose intelligence services almost certainly set up the coup against Gaddafi". Why? No prizes for guessing.
"Nato attacked Libya to counter and manipulate a general Arab uprising that took the rulers of the world by surprise. Unlike his neighbours, Gaddafi had come to power by denying western control of his country's natural wealth. For this, he was never forgiven, and the opportunity for his demise was seized in the usual manner, as history shows".
Of course, there are a few inconvenient facts glossed over here, like the fact that Gaddafi was gleefully handing control of his country's natural wealth to the West in return for rehabilitation and that the UN (it was a legal intervention led by NATO and mandated by a UN resolution) dithered for ages about whether to do what the increasingly desperate revolutionaries were asking for. Rather than manipulating the revolution, they saved it from certain defeat. For those of us with longer memories, this makes a refreshing change.

All this would be bad enough, yet there is something worse lurking underneath. Missing voices. The voices of ordinary Libyans. Certain that the reason why the UN provided air support for the Libyan revolution is counterfeit, the likes of Pilger have to dismiss the explosions of joy at the end of Gaddafi's regime. And, ironically, by doing so they are infantalising the people, seeing them as manipulable subjects of the imperial powers, incapable of expressing their own feelings and taking action for themselves. And it makes me wonder just who are the imperialists now.

It is a curious journey that Pilger has undertaken. But it is one that shows what happens when you abandon critical thought to allow a predetermined narrative to overcome any commitment to principle you might have once had and try to shoehorn a messy reality into a tidy explanation that suits your prejudices. Thinking back to my early admiration, I can only see it as a tragedy, not a farce.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I left Greece on the thirteenth, arriving back in Manchester the temperature was 13C. I am certain that those numbers should be the other way round. A cheery weather man on the TV said it would go up to 18C tomorrow. That was the temperature at night when I started to feel a bit chilly. I am cold.

Taking a charter flight from Skiathos to Manchester is an easy way to travel. I caught a tourist boat one-way to the island, with the captain's wife being very jolly and welcoming after she had phoned me the night before to say that a party had booked and that it would be running. There weren't many of them. A small group of Eastern Europeans were swaying in time to the Lady Ga Ga CD playing over the boat's loudspeakers on a blazingly hot day as we swayed past some gorgeous island scenery before pulling into the main town's harbour. Then to the airport.

As we sat on the tarmac with the cabin doors open, hot air flooding in, a fly buzzed into the aircraft and settled on a single hair of a balding man's head. The doors closed and the fly spent the journey going up and down the plane. There seemed to be something utterly tragic about it. Its short life, instead of being spent in heat and a surfeit of rapidly decaying organic material, perfect for a satisfactory insect existence, was going to end on a dismally cold runway in Manchester. At least I knew what I was doing.

Thirteen looks like a distant aspiration today as the drizzle falls and the skies lower. The forecast for tonight is for it to drop to five.  My liking for Greece is not solely based on the weather, though it doesn't half help. I just can't help wondering why, when the great human migration out of Africa took place, they didn't stop at the Mediterranean and think, 'this will do fine'.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Cat on windowsill

Here is a picture of a Greek cat on a windowsill.

Doesn't look much like Hitler, or Stalin, nor even Pol Pot. Do you think it will catch on?


It is a glorious September here.  The skies are cloudless, the fruit trees are laden. Though the temperature is in the 30s there is an autumnal softness to the heat. Now the holidays are over, the crisis can resume.

There are threats that the next tranche of the bailout will not be paid (meaning that the government could run out of money in October), strikes and demonstrations are starting again, there have been riots in Thessaloniki - by both protesters and football hooligans - whilst the perversity of EU trade imbalances are shown by the strangest story of the week, Greece spent €1.5 million importing olive oil from Germany!

The Euro crisis has neither gone away, nor has it been solved. Policy makers' extraordinary faith in austerity is being challenged by those who are expected to be austere. And still the sums don't add up.

Looking out at the tranquillity of late summer in Pelion it is hard to see the economic storm brewing, but the dénouement is looming. The Cheshire Cat has posted a good analytical piece on the black comedy of orthodoxy. His conclusion?
The Euro is a badly built road on an impossible terrain. Flattening everything may succeed in forcing Euro economies to converge towards a desolate landscape of abandoned businesses.  The strength of Europe has been its rich diversity; its weakness its inability to accept diversity.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


So now we know what 'bringing Gaddafi in from the cold' really meant.  Not just nice profitable deals, the renouncing of weapons of mass destruction and the dubious enrichment of academic institutions, it also meant rendition, torture and chummy communications and collaboration with some of the worst criminals of the regime.

It is called 'realism' in the jargon, the pursuit of interests at the expense of principles. It used to be called appeasement and generally ended in things like the Second World War, but we don't use words like that any more for anything other than propaganda purposes. Nowadays it is seen in things like the attempt to talk with the Taliban as part of a strategy of withdrawal - I think 'reconciliation' is the preferred word here.

The opposition to this is principled internationalism, supporting people against oppression, even if there are short-term costs and considerable risks. In Libya, the popular revolution forced a choice between the two and, to the credit of the governments who enabled the UN resolution, the old policy of accommodation fell. The regime's defeat became inevitable, even if the future of Libya remains uncertain.

One of the things that this whole affair shows is just what is possible if you give a tyrant the gift of secure and supported tyranny. This raises questions about those who accuse Western interventions of bad intention, such as being 'all about oil'.  Compare the benefits of cosying up to amenable dictators with the risks you run trying to overthrow them. Even if naked self-interest is part of the mix of motivations when making the choice to intervene, so too is a sense of principle, without which governments would have let Gaddafi crush the revolution with public hand-wringing and the continuation of private deal-making. And when that principle is absent, all we are left with is the acceptance of cash and the awarding of degrees, played out to the distant echo of the screams of the tortured.