Sunday, December 22, 2013

Soylent Green

Out with the old, in with the new.

Chris Huhne has written an unpleasant article about the allocation of resources vis-a-vis the young and the old. What upsets me, and being over sixty I have a stake in this fight, is not so much the debate as the attitude that defines one group of people as being of less worth than others. And, as expected, the wrinkled cliché about the old is rolled out - "They are the past, not the future."

The statement is nonsense. Both young and old are the present. The difference between them is that the young may, if they are lucky, have a longer future ahead of them, but they have little in the way of a past. History and experience lies with the old. Are they really of so little value? Should Churchill not have become Prime Minister in 1940 at the age of sixty-eight, giving way to some neophyte instead? Well, yes according to Huhne, because us oldies are selfish and shortsighted, we do not care about the future because we have none.

I can see it all now. Children, grandchildren? Nah, don't give a toss. The environment? Who cares? And even worse, we vote. Shocking behaviour. It makes our interests too politically sensitive to touch. And my, with all the infirmities of old age, aren't we expensive. There is the small matter of the fact that older people have worked and paid taxes for forty or fifty years. They have paid for their benefits. But that doesn't matter, does it?

It is the prejudiced nastiness of the article that depresses me the most. Macho grandstanding and stupid, unsubstantiated generalisations pile one on top of the other. The assumption that money is wasted on the old is the attitude that led to the destruction of adult education for older adults. And yes, the old were once young, just as the young will be old. We are not fixed in time. Our assets will become theirs and they will, in turn, want the services that we have now. People are on the same journey, their needs change. That is all. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Fighting ignorance

There is nothing as pleasing as an informed and enraged rant

And just to re-iterate, this type of bollocks kills people.

Via and hat tip to Snoopy

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anti-Socialist Dwarf

That's me:
All facts go to clearly prove that Ryley is a thrice-cursed traitor without an equal in the world, who had desperately worked for years to destabilize and bring down the DPRK. The hateful and despicable nature of these anti-party, anti-state and unpopular crimes will be fully disclosed in the course of the trial. No matter how much water flows under the bridge and no matter how frequently a generation is replaced by new one, the lineage of Paektu will remain unchanged and irreplaceable.
Yes, you too can be denounced by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with this new denunciation generator. Fun for all the family (except uncles).

Thanks to Terry.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


What links widening participation to higher education, the Euro crisis and welfare reform? The answer is a bit of psychology.

This little article got me thinking. It starts by generalising about how we all tend to see ourselves as above average, but I was more interested in what it goes on to discuss, the extrinsic incentives bias. Apparently, our sense of superiority over others is reinforced by the supposed nobility of our motives. We do things because we are intrinsically motivated to do so. We see others as needing extrinsic motivation - such as a financial incentive or a proverbial kick up the backside. And this is what links the items in my apparently disparate list.

So, widening participation was a big part of my job in Hull, but I was constantly irritated by the assumption that we needed to raise the aspirations of working class people. They were seen as deficient in motivation and, as a result, needed to, well, be like us - nice, aspirational and middle class. This was to be incentivised by painting a rosy picture of the monetary rewards for escaping from their class. We couldn't accept the notion that they were in no way deficient, but were excluded by the nature of institutions that needed reform to be able to meet their aspirations.

Then there is the Euro crisis and those lazy, corrupt, Mediterranean types with their, horror of horrors, siestas. Why can't they be more like the hard-working Northern Europeans, driven by their intrinsic Protestant work ethic? A little austerity will be salutary medicine to make them change their ways.

And in welfare reform, to ensure our superiority we invent convenient fictions like 'dependency culture'.  This is something that has to be broken by intervention, work experience and benefit sanctions. Only then can work-shy scroungers be made to get up and get jobs. And won't they be grateful to us for our 'tough love'.

I do not think that psychology is as important a political force as ideology and interests, but you can see why such programmes have appeal. We are very comfortable with the notion of the inadequacy of others. Then again, those others are looking back and thinking the same about us, and often with good reason.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Seasonal cheer

Christmas is coming. It is a season for giving, but wait. Hard on the heels of him trashing Christmas presents - Are we so bored, so affectless, that we need to receive this junk to ignite one last spark of hedonic satisfaction? - George Monbiot has decided that having nice things "is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It's associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships." 

Thanks George, I used to like my iPad, but I better burn it before the fiendish contraption plunges me into a pit of despair.

This comes after Rebecca Smithers passed on the The Wild Network's recommendation to give your kids a stick for Christmas. I have never been a great fan of Christmas, but all I can think when I read this is, 'what a bunch of smug, puritanical, miserable bastards'.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Conflicting ideas

This post is a spin-off from both work in progress on a paper on Peter Kropotkin's stance in the First World War (he supported the allied effort to the dismay of many of his anarchist colleagues) and some debates with friends over Syria. It is an attempt to create a rough and ready typology to categorise the responses to wars and conflict. I am interested in the way that, though circumstances are different and are never analogous, the intellectual arguments about how to respond are unchanging. There is a spectrum that runs through from non-intervention into some form of full engagement. As always, the real world is not as neat as that and there are areas of overlap. Nevertheless, it helps me, at least, find my way through the mountains of articles that conflicts generate. Let's start with non-intervention.

One of the founding documents on liberal thinking about conflict is Kant's essay on Perpetual Peace. One of his preliminary articles contains the following:
No State Shall by Force Interfere with the Constitution or Government of Another State
For what is there to authorize it to do so? The offense, perhaps, which a state gives to the subjects of another state? Rather the example of the evil into which a state has fallen because of its lawlessness should serve as a warning. 
Although Kant qualifies this, "But it would be quite different if a state, by internal rebellion, should fall into two parts, each of which pretended to be a separate state making claim to the whole. To lend assistance to one of these cannot be considered an interference in the constitution of the other state" (in other words saying that you should take sides in a civil war), it has been taken as an absolute principle by non-interventionists.

Non-intervention is the policy of anti-war activists. Its justification spreads from anti-imperialism on the left, through the isolationism of the right, to the anti-statism of libertarians. Such pure abstentionism is not neutral. Non-interference when you have the power to influence the outcome of a conflict always favours the strongest side and generally ensures that it can prevail over the weaker. As such, it can be based as much upon realpolitik as principle.

The idea that one can simply stand aside from any conflict and let it take its course, however many innocent victims there are, is amoral as a general principle. This is one reason why it is often justified by elaborate sophistries. More practically, non-intervention has been diluted by forms of limited engagement intended to avoid participation in a conflict, mitigate its worst effects and to steer it to a peaceful resolution. The two main ones are appeasement and containment.

Appeasement avoids entanglement by using diplomacy to remove the causes or worst effects of an existing conflict in order to avoid military action. It recognises the legitimacy of the aggressor and seeks to strike a deal that would give it limited gains in return for some restraint. Containment again recognises the legitimacy of an aggressor, but only on the territory it currently holds. 'Thus far and no more', is its mantra. Both involve the threat of military force against transgression, but both also leave a tyrannical regime in place, free to oppress its own people.

There is a final strand of non-intervention, one that sounds nice and civilised, humanitarian aid as an alternative to military and diplomatic action. It is a demand to help refugees, support the displaced, provide medical aid and do nothing about the cause of that displacement. In many cases it is all that some nations can do and it is most welcome. However, limiting all action solely to that, even when more can be done, may enable its advocates to claim the moral high ground, but is the continuation of abstentionism by other means.

All these are conservative doctrines, in that they do not challenge the status quo or seek 'regime change'. But that does not mean that they can never be wise. Everything depends on the specific circumstances and the potential risks involved.

As for interventionism, there are several very different types of interventionist ideas. I am going to start by being provocative by arguing that pacifism can be interventionist. I can say this because I would always make a big distinction between anti-war sentiment and pacifist thought. Pacifists adhere to a concept of positive peace. Peace is the outcome of just social relations and the absence of violence, not merely the avoidance of war at any cost. And so pacifists do not indulge in the apologism of anti-war activists. They want to change the status quo, they do want to overthrow tyrants, it is just that they see the use of war to do so as, at best, counter-productive and, at worst, the greater evil. Instead they propose non-violent action.

Non-violent direct action and organisation to confront oppressors requires extraordinary courage, self-sacrifice and a commitment to social change. Seeing a unity between means and ends, pacifists refuse to use violence to achieve peaceful ends. It is heroic, but I am not a pacifist and I think that pacifists have got it spectacularly wrong on many occasions. Pacifists have to pick their enemies carefully too, some would treat them with murderous contempt.

There are times that force has to be used to confront the overwhelming violence of despotic states and psychopathic insurgencies. Kant's narrow criterion has been widened now to include, rightly in my view, the responsibility to protect, armed intervention to prevent the abuse of human rights. Intervention involves one or both of two policies, economic sanctions and military action. Both inflict suffering on the people who are the victims of the regime as well as on the regime itself, but may well be necessary to bring down the regime or to end a war by aiding the victory of one side over another. Again, the scope and extent of the action depends entirely on the situation and the prospects for success. Of course, what happens next is an equally crucial question and involves more than a commitment to policing, but to reconciliation and nation building. And, again, intervention can be both wise and foolish. We can never escape the need to make judgements.

Interventions can also be conservative in intent. For instance, the Soviet Union's interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were designed to preserve deeply unpopular regimes against the actions of the people. The United States, too, has propped up many a dictator. With the end of the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, we have seen a difference, with American action to overthrow tyranny and replace it with democracy. It was a welcome change, not that anti-imperialists appear to have noticed.

So, from my perspective as a 'keyboard warmonger', I would tend towards advocating intervention where it aims to protect people from the brutality of their own governments or fascistic militias and, where possible, to support the people's hopes to escape oppression. It is not conservative. And so to Syria.

Syria gives us examples of the failure of both intervention and non-intervention. When demonstrations broke out against Assad's police state, he turned the tanks on the demonstrators and transformed a protest into a revolution. Seeing that Assad was in trouble, his main allies, Russia and Iran, poured in weapons and sent Hezbollah fighters to his aid. Whilst the regime certainly had the brutality, it had neither the popular legitimacy nor the competence to put down the rising. This intervention turned the revolution into a civil war.

The only other power that mattered, the USA, sat on its hands. And in its absence, the space left vacant was filled by jihadis opening a third front. Then came the chemical weapons attack on Ghouta. It appeared that the US was about to take an interventionist stance. It hesitated, as if paralysed by caution, then jumped at the opportunity that was opened up for it by Russia and, later, Iran; appeasement. A limited deal on Syrian chemical weapons and on Iranian nuclear development allowed it to step back from military intervention. The jihadis grew in strength, the killing continued unabated, the humanitarian catastrophe got worse and Syria imploded. It is a classic example of policy failure. The victims are the hundred thousand dead and the millions displaced, lives lost and devastated as the world looks away.

Action has become more difficult and we do not know the consequences that will flow from a failed state in the strategic heart of the Middle East. Somehow, I don't think that they will be what any of the decision-makers would have hoped for.

Friday, December 06, 2013

City of water

Hull was awash last night. A record 5.8 metre tidal surge was held up by the barrier on the Humber, but still parts of the city and surrounding areas flooded as the river overcame all the defences. Some of the city blacked out as power failed. The main through road, the Clive Sullivan Way, was under water and was closed. All trains out were cancelled as the main westerly rail line runs right by the river. And who thought it might be a good idea to have a day-trip over to see friends yesterday? Yes, you guessed right.

I got increasingly anxious about my train back, checked on the internet in the bar I was in and saw it was cancelled. The information on the web site was limited. I tried to ring the station, but it was hard to find the right number. Every one I rang gave out a similar long taped message. All asked you to ring National Rail Enquiries, so I did. An Indian voice answered. The conversation was not easy.

"Where are you travelling from?"


"I am sorry, I can't quite get that name, where is it?"


"Where, sorry?"

"Hull ... 'Ull ... Hawl," every possible pronunciation.

"Could you spell that for me."

"H U L L"

She then proceeded to read what was on the web site and said that they had no further updates. I had tried to phone somewhere a mile away and had ended up in Bangalore. I couldn't believe it, surely they hadn't outsourced train information to India? Yes they have. The BBC reported:
A union representing UK call centre workers has criticised the chief executive of National Rail Enquiries for saying that Indian staff were better than their British counterparts.Rail enquiries chief executive Chris Scoggins said the service could be improved if outsourced to India.He said the move could also save rail firms up to £25m over several years.But Amicus union said: "This attitude is an example of the idiocy of moving the inquiry service 10,000 miles away."
It is the curse of the call centre. Stressed staff may be able to answer general queries, but in a crisis or for anything that needs some local knowledge they are useless and end up being abused by frustrated customers, whose real anger should be directed at the management who think that all we need is an underpaid person reading a prepared script and calling us customers instead of passengers.

I used my initiative, got down to the station early and spoke to the station staff face-to-face. They were fantastic. I was given information and when the situation changed, Selby station had closed as well and the replacement buses were stuck in the chaos, they ordered taxis to take the passengers to Leeds. All the time they were calm, helpful and friendly, even though one had a house near the river and was worried. They got us home eventually. And I bet they are paid peanuts too.

This was a microcosm of the British economy. Stupid management cutting costs by any means they can devise and the poor bloody infantry who actually do the job making it work in spite of it all. It is time we abandoned the cult of the manager in favour of investing in the worker; the local expert who knows what is going on and can make things happen. Now that would make a refreshing change.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The party's over

And what a party it was. I was there as it wound up under a stunning sunset in front of 74,400 people on a cold Manchester afternoon.

One of the failings of Rugby League has always been the weakness of the international game, but this World Cup gave it a tremendous boost with record crowds. Although the stubborn problem still remains that one nation is a long way ahead of all others. Even worse, that nation is Australia.

That a powerful New Zealand side was so comprehensively beaten in the final is a sign that, though progress is being made there is still a long way to go to provide good international competition. There are only two national sides, England and New Zealand, that can compete with the Kangaroos, and even then they rarely win. And that does not make for compelling viewing.

But this year the crowds rolled up, the final was a sell-out and the only disappointment was the very limited coverage by the BBC. The lesser sides provided some thrilling matches and the New Zealand v England semi-final was a heart-breaking classic. It was a superb, celebratory festival for the game. Let's hope that this time it is a platform for serious long-term international development that the game needs and deserves.

Now for something completely naff:

Saturday, November 30, 2013


Alan Posener grumbles about the German electoral system.
Since the SPD, the Left and the Greens already hold a majority in parliament, the temptation for Gabriel to break with Merkel in, say, two years to form a "red-red-green" coalition with himself as chancellor could become irresistible. And then Germany will be in real trouble. As I said, in other countries you get more or less the government you voted for. Not here.
Er ... well if they have a majority in Parliament in a proportional system, then a majority did vote for them. More people voted for the CDU than for any single one of these parties by a long way, but aggregate their votes and they represent the choices of more people.

This lamentation rehashes the fashionable pessimism of the wealthy. Raising the minimum wage is derided as a sop to anti-capitalist feeling, whilst he moans that, "Germany is over-reliant on industry and underperforms in services". (This when German industry has given us Bosch and Volkswagen and services gave us the banking crisis and tax avoidance*. Each to his own I suppose).

The heart of the article is annoyance that the right did not win outright, so he longs for a system that might have made it possible. And here there are two broad choices. The first sees elections as a way of producing a single party government composed of the largest single minority, the other as one that ensures that a government is made up of parties that can aggregate a majority of electoral choices. Germany, and most other democracies, have the latter, sometimes hedged round with conditions and judgements about acceptability to keep out anti-democratic parties. Britain has the former, though that too can produce coalition as we now know only too well. And as we also know, the nature of that coalition depends on how supine the minority partners are.

*And yes I know that is unfair, but it is a good line. Tough.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


There was something heart-warming about hearing the words, "ner, we dern't have Cerke, sorry, we only have Pepsi." It meant I was back in Hull, if only briefly for football, feeling guilty about not having the time to contact friends before we rushed back after the match. What is more, I was supporting the opposition.

It was my first visit since the announcement of the City of Culture award, a perfect occasion for football fans' love of ridicule. Hull City supporters sang, "You're only here for the culture", Palace fans replied with, "City of Culture, you're having a laugh". They stood no chance. The City crowd sang back, "We're cultured and we know we are", followed by a chorus of, "We're only here for the concert". The Palace fans laughed and gave them a round of applause, totally outshone by one of the charms of this strangely loveable place; self-deprecating pride.

I am glad they won the award. It is deserved. After years of being stereotyped as somewhere that represents the worst of everything, a poor, Northern backwater, Hull is being celebrated for all the good things that flourish in, well, poor, Northern backwaters. If you, like me, think that the worst of Britain is the twee, gentrified places and the deadening suburbs, you will appreciate Hull.

All promotional videos are corny, but I still liked the one below. Much marketing of towns and cities is based on the theme of, 'it's not like that really', almost apologising for them. They like to pretend that working class places are really middle class at heart. Hull didn't go for that line. Well, it couldn't do that with a straight face. It is sanitised, of course, but it made a virtue of being down-to-earth; celebrating the poetry of ordinariness in a place that is anything but ordinary.

Most people who go there, whatever their initial impressions, know one thing. Hull grows on you. And I will be back very soon to see my pals before I head off to Greece for Christmas. It always feels good, even if circumstances took me away. And sometimes I feel an ache that I don't live there any more.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


The world is too strange to be sinister

Here we go again

"They are pressing us to adopt policies that are crazy"
Yes, the Troika of lenders are back in Greece.
"There is no way the economy can stabilise if they keep pushing us to cut more and more," said Prof Gikas Hardouvelis, who was in charge of economic policy under the previous, technocratic government. "In my view, the economy is about to stabilise and it could easily be undone if they keep insisting on more measures," he added.
 The killer statistic that measures the success of austerity in reducing debt is this one:
Greece's debt-to-GDP level would reach about 179% this year compared with 120% when the country received its first bailout in May 2010.
 I wonder if the Troika use the same appointment methods as the Co-op Bank.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Doing nothing

There are two unlikely political coalitions in foreign affairs. The first is between neo-conservatives and the anti-totalitarian left. Though differing widely on social issues and political economy, they found a commonality in their opposition to tyrannical governments and support for popular demands for democracy. In addition, they saw the rise of far-right, ultra-violent theocracy as a major danger.

The second was also a marriage of convenience. Traditional conservatives wanted stability at any cost. Change, particularly revolutionary change, was an anathema. Foreign entanglements were none of our business. Isolationist tendencies and cautious diplomacy towards limited ends were their hallmark. They found allies on the left too. From anti-militarists to anti-imperialists, their policy mainstay was to avoid war at any cost. Jihadi movements were seen to be either a temporary aberration, a product of western actions, or, horrifyingly, an anti-imperialist ally. And with Syria, it is this coalition that is in the political ascendency.

The first group has been pushed to the margins. This is because the change they advocated through intervention has not proved straightforward, a lack of patience that ignores the gains and highlights the difficulties, and a failure to think about the consequences of non-intervention. Stability sometimes has a terrible price tag for the people it is inflicted on. The interventionist coalition's relegation has led to an abandonment of commitments, a scaling down of involvement and an acceptance of the rule of barbarism abroad, whilst abstaining from any 'quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing'. Yes, we have been here before.

This combination of stability at any cost and the avoidance of war at any cost has produced paralysis in the face of the Syrian tragedy. Ironically, it has also led people who are quick to preach revolution at home to run a mile when confronted with a real one abroad. And Syria is a real revolution. Excuses are trotted out and very strange alliances forged. Amongst all the arguments and speculation we rarely see consideration of the consequences of inaction. What on earth would Iraq be like with Saddam still in power? What horrors would the Taliban still be visiting on the Afghan people? Would this be stability? Would it be peace? In Syria, we now know.

The left/conservative coalition have wriggled out of every commitment and let the Assad regime, armed by Russia and supplied with fighters by Hezbollah, inflict grotesque violence on the Syrian people for the crime of demanding change in an oppressive police state. And at the point when protest turned to uprising, there was a choice. Support the revolution or let it run its course unaided. With UN action blocked by counter-revolutionary states, the west chose the latter with Obama leading from behind once more.

Revolutions are messy affairs. Whatever their early ideals, they can result in unseemly power struggles and the settling of old scores. There can be unintended consequences and they can unleash further repression instead of liberation. To back them is a gamble. But when there is a popular rebellion against such an unambiguously evil regime, how can you refrain from some sort of solidarity when the consequences of standing by were being made perfectly clear by the regime's tanks, planes, torturers and death squads? Yet there was one more twist to the plot. Jihadists have filled the space opened up by non-intervention. Apologists for the Assad regime and the anti-intervention coalition could not believe their luck. They had their reason now, a 'there are no good sides' argument. Incredibly, it takes an essay on a pacifist organisation's web site, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, to point out that this is not true. The good side are the Syrian people and their autonomous self-organisation. They deserve solidarity as they persist in the face of murder.

In the meantime, the FSA, the closest to a secular, democratic opposition force, are begging for support as they face a war on two fronts against a murderous state supported by Hezbollah and mainly foreign militias allied to Al Qaeda. So far, none has been forthcoming. The fear of an islamist victory in Syria is the reason given to deny support to the only non-islamist force.

And the legacy that the abstention of the democratic world is leaving behind is suspicion, hatred and a deep sense of betrayal. The loudest voices calling for intervention are Syrian. But as they are met with mumbled sophistries, Syria slowly dies. And the consequences of inaction are made clear in these two pieces. First, Terry Glavin follows up his four part reportage from the refugee camps in Jordan by concluding that:
From the Mediterranean Sea at Latakia to Anbar province in the Iraqi desert, the vast swath of the Middle East where Syria used to be is now just a patchwork of jihadist mini-emirates, regime-held enclaves, warlord fiefdoms and small pockets of democratic resistance under the control of the Free Syrian Army. This is the “worst-case scenario” we’ve been hearing about for the past two years... 
Syria is gone.
Sara Assaf is more chilling
Today I can't help thinking that if the whole world let us down and if the only way left to stand against Assad is empowering those jihadists, well then yes, what other choice do we really have? Today I understand why many across the Arab world share this same sentiment. Today I grasp why Sunni terrorism is prospering so quickly to fight Shiite terrorism. The atrocious images stemming daily from Syria are simply fueling a sense of injustice stronger sometimes than any voice of reason. The West has in parallel failed to effectively support the moderate forces across this region. Extremism and radicalism are thus gaining momentum over tolerance and moderation. The "guy next door" who suddenly disappears – only for his parents to know days later that he's fighting inside Syria – is becoming more and more of a common story here. The Sunni mainstreamer who used to cheer moderate leader Saad Hariri and who now follows a jihadist sheikh is also a pattern we see more of in Lebanon.  
To the West I say: Expect a whole new breed of terrorists in the decades to come. Because of your inaction, and somewhat complicity, terrorism is blossoming inside Syria and the whole region. And it won't remain "inside" for long.
Seen in this light, the caution of Western foreign policy appears reckless in the extreme.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Different worlds

I suppose I live in two places. I spend much more time in Greece since my retirement. After a brief trip for some warm autumn weather and wrestling with Greek bureaucracy, I got back to the chill of Manchester. Living these lives is rather like having two coats. One is sumptuous, warm and attractive. It fits well, even if it rubs in places. The other is old, shabby and lets in the cold. But it has these useful little pockets and is so familiar that I can't quite bring myself to throw it away. This week I have been dressed scruffily. Never more so than in enjoying the Rugby League World Cup.

The success of the tournament has been ensured by a surprising outbreak of sanity by the organisers. The matches have been played at the right venues at the right times and at the right price. It has been marketed well and there has been much community involvement with amateur choirs singing at all events and local schools participating in pre-match events. Big crowds have resulted. I was at a full house in Leigh to watch terrifying South Sea Island tackling as Tonga took on the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands may even have won their first ever World Cup game if it had not been for two strange mistakes - playing the ball facing the wrong way and throwing the ball away over the line.

Then to Salford's new, poorly situated stadium, wearing my Swinton shirt of course, to watch the USA lose to Scotland. What a lovely unpretentious sport it is. And that was brought home by the sad death of Steve Prescott. He would have been remembered simply as a good player if it had not been for cancer. The diagnosis spurred him on to defying his prognosis and plunging into formidable acts of fundraising, setting up his own Steve Prescott Foundation. There will be tributes at every game and all of them will be wholehearted.

Urban Northern England seems a long way from Pelion in rural Greece, but it has its own charms. I suppose two coats suit me at the moment until one finally wears out.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

In Greece

This is an unexciting post. All I am doing is admiring the first mandarin oranges on the tree that I planted a few years ago, with an empty and inefficient brain.

The weather is unseasonably warm, perfect for half-heartedly tidying the garden and making salads. Today it was beetroot.

This is very easy to make. To do it Greek-style, buy fresh beetroot with the stalks and the leaves still attached. These are an integral part of the dish and it is always sad to go into a shop in the UK to see that they have all been trimmed off. Of course, the condition of the leaves will also tell you how fresh the vegetable is.

Trim the stalks and leaves and boil the beets in salted water for around 40 minutes, depending on size. In the meantime, chop the stalks and leaves, then add to the pan with the beets for another 20 minutes. Peel and slice the beets, place them on a dish with the cooked stalks and leaves, dress with olive oil and red wine vinegar - heavy on the vinegar, it takes loads without becoming too acid - and, this is the trick, garnish with thin slices of garlic. Let it stand to absorb the flavours and enjoy.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Stolen goods

Christopher Hitchens made the case better than this piece from Henry Porter, which begins curiously by stating his disagreement with Hitchens on everything else. But the argument is well made and I liked this:
It’s enough to say that a return of these sculptures would be a magnificent gesture to world culture and to the Greek people themselves. These works, commissioned and executed nearly 2,500 years ago, have meaning for all mankind, but they also lie at the core of Greek identity and self-esteem. 
It would be a small act of solidarity in troubled times. Give them back.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Nobel winners

The peace process swings into action. Talks may or may not begin in Geneva as Assad and Putin become partners for peace. The chemical weapons inspectors are doing sterling work in dismantling Syria's stockpile of weaponry. We can relax, sit back with our copy of the Guardian and feel satisfied that we have stopped any precipitate forceful intervention now that progress is being made towards a settlement.

And the people of Ghouta must be so relieved that the threat of chemical attack has been lifted and that, instead, they are merely being slowly, systematically and deliberately starved to death.

It is always the children who die first, with protruding ribs and swollen bellies, their eyes seemingly too large for their skulls. If you can bear to read them, there are distressing reports here and, even more passionately, here. There is a cogent condemnation of western inaction here.

What to do? Up to now the west has stood aside whilst grotesque crimes against humanity were committed, setting their non-intervention up against the active support for Assad from Russia and Iran. The lack of help for the opposition has made space for murderous jihadi loons recruited from international networks, much to the horror of ordinary Syrians. The chemical attack on Ghouta changed all that. Now there is a diplomatic process that has given Assad some respectability, bought him time and deprives him of his chemical arsenal whilst allowing him to use any other weapon at his disposal to continue the slaughter. And it is not just the killing, millions have been displaced into inadequate camps as winter sets in. This is a major humanitarian catastrophe. Which policy is the worse?

And Syrians are angry.  Razan Zaitouneh writes:
Syrians will not forget that the international community forced the regime to dismantle its chemical weapons, yet could not force it to break the siege on a city where children are dying out of hunger on a daily basis. “Could not” is not an accurate word for what has happened and what is happening; “did not want” or “did not have the interest” might be more accurate. The Syrians will not forget that.
Who knows what consequences will flow from such a policy failure?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Passing thoughts

It was a bleak afternoon. Rain lashed the concrete shelter on the station platform as I set out for a journey to Hull. A woman bearing the unmistakable signs of mental health problems and poor diet, wearing inadequate, cheap clothing, stumbled in and began talking incessantly. She was joined by two men. I wore my privilege silently as the words flooded out about court orders, rent arrears, the bedroom tax, irrational bureaucracy, petty injustices and the general impossibility of life on the margins.

And there were the contradictions. "They want to kick out English people to make way for foreigners". "Aye, they say twenty thousand Romanians are coming soon". We never learnt who "they" are. We never do. Then, "everyone must vote Labour to get rid of the bedroom tax". "Vote Labour whenever you can".

As I listened, intruding into their lives as an eavesdropper and uncomfortable voyeur, I couldn't help but think that the Britain lodged in the minds of the political elite is nothing more than a fiction. Their policies are directed towards a world that doesn't exist. They pontificate about the evils of a dependency culture, which, in reality, is little more than a harassed, undignified scramble for survival. And by living in the land of fantasy, not only are they ineffective, they are cruel.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Second chance blues

If you want to know why I am sitting here writing a blog post rather than working at the job that I loved, was rather good at, and, at only 61 (but a child), am more than capable of doing, read this article.

It is mainly about the Open University, but this was not the only way people accessed second chance education later in life. At Hull we used to run part-time degree and sub-degree courses in hundreds of locations both directly and in partnership with employers, trade unions and the voluntary sector. But, along with many other universities' lifelong learning departments, it is no more. The only reason is the changes to university funding. And contrary to the sub-editor's heading to Laura McInerney's piece, the damage was done by successive governments, including Labour administrations.

We all remember the presentation evenings; those moving affirmations of the value of learning. McInerney does too:
There's nothing quite so electrifying as watching families jump to their feet when mum, dad, or even great-gran takes to the stage. The years of juggled childcare, jobs and family finances melt away as the graduate beams down from the stage, amazed that their moment has come. And in the audience you see the cavalry: the proud partner who poured endless cups of tea, the parents who babysat, the children who hugged mum the morning of her exams and almost made her cry when they said: "We love you whatever."
And now departments have closed and fees have escalated. Mature student numbers are down and part-time enrolments have shrunk by as much as 40%. The reason is simple. The somewhat dubious bargain of early debt to be repaid by a lifetime's earnings premium does not apply when you are older. If you have a mortgage or rent to pay, children to feed and educate, elderly parents to care for, the money for education must come lower on your list of priorities, even if you are on an average income. Second chance learning already entails sacrifices, but if the cost is too high and the debts pile up, then it can't be afforded by anyone with adult commitments. Anyone who has worked in adult education knows how price sensitive it is.

The relentless focus on education for younger people has masked the vandalism of adult education in all its guises. It is a tragedy. As McInerney concludes:
People who slipped through the education net first time around do not need mawkish sentimentality. They need low-cost options for accessing higher education. If they, and their families, have the determination to do all the rest of the hard work, the least they can expect is that politicians on both sides will fight to support them.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hey babe!

Today the Guardian made my heart soar with this line:
I'm a slim, 31-year-old woman attracted to older, obese men
Yes, I knew it. A sex god; that is what I am. She lets herself down a bit by worrying that she is sick, but I can reassure her. She is not sick, she is wise and has great taste in us hunks. After all:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Oh dear

He's really lost it now, hasn't he? John Pilger was part of the mood music of my youth - angry about Vietnam, Cambodia and East Timor, together with injustices wherever he saw them, all described in clear, accessible prose. But now?

Let's take the last two Guardian pieces. The first argued that the attack on Syria had been long planned because, "With al-Qaida now among its allies, and US-armed coupmasters secure in Cairo, the US intends to crush the last independent states in the Middle East: Syria first, then Iran."

Engineered by "John Kerry, with his own blood-soaked war record" (presumably not when Kerry was active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War and testifying against the war before Congress), after reducing "Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare", "whether or not Bashar al-Assad or the 'rebels' used gas in the suburbs of Damascus", the "liberal fascists" in the US administration seized the opportunity to ... er ... do nothing. Oh.

Never mind. It is probably because they are planning something more dastardly instead. They are indeed. They are preparing to invade China. Yes, I had to read his response to the Kenya massacre several times, but that is what he is suggesting. And at that moment I realised that he had abandoned reason and become a theological thinker. Let me explain.

I don't say this because he is indulging in the fashionable embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood as a liberation movement, instead it is because he has ceased to look at cause and consequence and instead fits all events into a pre-determined faith system. In this case it is one that sees the source of all evil in the world as the result of the actions of a single diabolic entity, the United States.

What is curious is that this belittles the very people he claims to speak for. They bear no responsibility for their actions, they have no free will, no struggles of their own; they are merely pawns in a great game moulded by the consequences of a brutal imperialism. This is the condescension of an imperialist mindset, employed in reverse.

The old battles of the freethought movement to replace theology with reason still need to be fought. But in the meantime, how on earth does this stuff get published? Don't answer. I know why. It's in the Guardian.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Excuses, excuses

Well I suppose someone has to do it;
A forcible instance favourable to polygamous relations consists in the great preponderance of females, brought about by wars and other unwholesome employments of men, and the effect of political government generally. If exclusiveness were rigidly enforced, the greater number of women would be compelled to live and die without a single experience of the pleasures of love. The amount of mental and physical suffering thus caused would not be compensated for by the observance of any amount of what is called morality, for morals that injure health are a superstition and a sham, and it is the duty of everyone to violate such as opportunities permit.
 Henry Seymour (1888). Individualist anarchist and a bit of a shagger it seems.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Crap towns

For the last ten years Hull has been saddled with the crap town title. The injustice rankled. This year the competition organisers have done much better. The crappest town in the UK is ... London.
The city's trump card was undoubtedly its most affluent parish, Mayfair: "Its inhabitants are virtually without exception the biggest shower of needy, self-important bumwipes in London, with a self-pity complex and misplaced sense of entitlement to match."

Friday, October 04, 2013

Pots and kettles

A charge of hypocrisy is no defence. Just because the pot is black, it doesn't mean that the kettle isn't. But when the pot is as black as this, it becomes funny. The Mail's attempt to portray the anti-Stalinist Ralph Miliband as a Stalinist is more than unpleasant, it is downright embarrassing given the very real history of the paper's crush on Hitler.

This is an excellent post from a source that the Mail used in its sloppy and lazy 'research' for its hatchet job, John Simkin of Spartacus Educational. He details the entanglement of the late Lord Rothermere with the Nazis, now fully supported by the opening of MI5 and MI6 files. This is a classic example of a smear rebounding by exposing a truth about a genuine fellow traveller with fascism. Lord Rothermere; the man who loved Britain so much he went to live in the Bahamas once the War started. Oops.

Thanks to Anne via Facebook

Tuesday, October 01, 2013


The arguments about the Daily Mail's unpleasant smearing of Ralph Miliband and, by association, of his son continue. The obvious points have been made, particularly the one about ignoring Miliband's war service in the Royal Navy, seeing action at the Normandy landings, in favour of a cherry picked piece of juvenilia from an earlier diary to 'prove' what his views were. I would have marked down any student who produced something so academically shabby. Norm provides an eloquent personal defence here.

But there is something else that disturbs me. Miliband was a Marxist and that is the main reason the right think that they have something to beat his son with. This is dangerous because it marks an attempt to introduce the notion that a set of commonly held, critical beliefs is somehow anti-British; thereby importing the US concept of un-American activities. This is staking out the claim that only holders of a certain ideology should be seen as proper citizens. And, of course, he was Jewish. Is this inconsequential or is it an echo of the Mail's pre-war roots supporting fascism and appeasement? 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Useless toil

It's party conference time when amidst all the bluster and the carefully orchestrated comments, the seasonal cry of help for small businesses and cutting red tape is heard. Well I can suggest one way of helping them would be by stopping the harassment of the unemployed. Let me explain.

I was talking to a friend who works in a small firm. They may need to take on a new member of staff in a fairly junior position. My friend was in despair. By advertising in the job centre the firm will get hundreds of applications, hardly any of them suitable or meeting the criteria for the post. It takes hours and hours to sort through them, time they could do without wasting. The reason for this is that claimants have to hit their targets for job search activities and so apply for everything going, especially at times like this when employment is scarce.

This is a brilliant example of the dysfunctions of bureaucracy. To prove that claimants are morally worthy to receive the benefits that they, in most cases, have already paid for out of their taxation, they have to meet a target that satisfies bureaucratic bean counters. The result is that they engage in a totally useless and meaningless activity, applying for multiple jobs regardless of criteria. But amongst the chorus of sternly paternal state guidance, nobody seems to think of what happens at the other end, to the poor employers who have to wade through mountains of unsuitable applications.

And this applies throughout the system. The focus is on the claimant, satisfying the Daily Mail that undeserving scroungers can be forced to become the deserving poor through forced labour. But what about those organisations that are supposed to take them on? There has already been a few scandals and very bad publicity for some supermarkets who used unpaid claimants to stack shelves as part of the Work Programme. I'm not sure they would be too keen this time round.

I am all for actively helping people, but this means individual support, personal guidance and helping them get suitable employment or education and training for a change of direction. This is good for both sides. Instead, there is a political race as to who can best reflect the unforgiving attitudes towards the poor that they themselves have helped produce. It results in a colossal waste of time for everybody. Someone please save us from poorly researched populism.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Blood sport

The people's game that kills the people.
Every year, almost 400,000 Nepalese men and women leave their towns and villages for jobs overseas. More than 100,000 head to Qatar, where a booming construction industry and insatiable appetite for cheap labour has been fuelled by its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, celebrated by the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his wife, pictured below. Yet instead of the salaries and prospects they have been promised, many of these workers are led into a web of exploitation, corruption and deceit and, increasingly, slavery and death.
There is more.

The decision to give the World Cup to Qatar stank. It now smells worse. FIFA should be ashamed, but then they seem to have none.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Peace news

So what is action that promotes peace really like? Here are two examples. On the one hand we have the continuing round of negotiations opened by the Russian proposal on Syrian chemical weapons. This has had the press salivating at the prospect of their favourite panacea, a negotiated peace agreement by all sides. The reality is perfectly encapsulated by Douglas Feith:
Clever dictators will realize that they can barter their chemical-weapons arsenals to buy time to crush an insurrection and then rebuild the arsenal after the population has been pacified. 
This is what comes of focusing on what Mr. Obama legalistically calls the "international norms" barring chemical weapons use. By choosing not to tackle the difficult strategic and humanitarian challenges posed by the Syrian civil war, the president is now rewarding the very offenses that he said he wanted to punish. In the name of arms control, he is incentivizing the proliferation of chemical weapons. In the name of international law, he is undermining respect for treaties. In the name of U.S. interests, he is emboldening America's enemies.
Then there is this. Grass roots humanitarian assistance for, and solidarity with, the victims of grotesque state violence:
Reuters reports Syrians are growing increasingly aware of extensive Israeli efforts to treat victims of the two and a half year conflict raging inside the Arab country. 
Israel set up a field hospital early in the conflict. Within a few months Syrians were being transported to regular Israeli hospitals – to the point where one northern hospital became a key hub for treatment – and stories were filtering out about care being provided to everyone from Syrian fighters to wounded children.
Who knows what the long term effects of such help will be in shaping attitudes towards a resolution of the wider Middle East conflict?

So there we have it. The machinations of statesmen against the dedication of medical professionals. And what is the greatest threat to those who inflict barbarous cruelties on human beings to preserve their power? I think that Assad gives the game away. He has welcomed the Russian proposals, but as for Israeli medical treatment:
For all the advantages it brings of excellent medical care, it is a journey fraught with risk for those who fear the wrath of President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “There was one man, where I am from, who was treated in Israel. The regime forces killed his three brothers,” the teenage girl’s mother said. “They will kill my sons and my husband if they ever find out we were here.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sick joke

There is a piece of political humour floating around the Internet. I have been sent it several times. It isn't funny. I find it revolting.
"Syrian President Assad crossed a red line. He used chemical weapons. Using harmful chemicals to hurt your own people – who does he think he is, Monsanto?"
Bill Maher
I know that it was intended to attack Monsanto rather than comment on Syria, but despite being a neat line, it is as contemptible as it is glib. Why?

Let's unpack this. "Harmful chemicals"; "hurt your own people"? Chemical weapons aren't "harmful chemicals"; they don't "hurt". They are indiscriminate weapons designed to deliver an agonising death to as many people as possible. They were deliberately used in the most recent case to empty a strategic suburb, which the army had been unable to control, by killing the people who lived there. They had been used in violation of international law specifically to challenge that red line and to terrorise a population by showing that the thugs who run the regime have no limits to their barbarity. It was an act that said, 'cross us and we will kill everyone. No one will help you.'

You can't make a joke about this level of horror. Whatever you think of the controversial claims about Monsanto, if you read the harrowing accounts of the sadistic brutality of the Syrian government it is impossible to associate the two without belittling grotesque crimes against humanity. The bare facts are easily available and are deeply shocking. This is from an impassioned plea by Yassin al-Haj Saleh in the New York Times.
While the world has dithered, Syrians have experienced unprecedented violence. Around 5,000 Syrians were killed in 2011. About the same number are now being killed each month. The regime has targeted lines outside bakeries; it has used Russian cruise missiles to bomb densely populated areas; and local activists say they have documented 31 occasions when it has used chemical weapons (United States officials have confirmed only some of these attacks).
Countless Syrians, among them women and children, have been subjected to arbitrary detention, rape and torture. A staggering seven million people — one-third of Syria’s population — are now displaced, either internally or externally. 
The personal experiences are even more revealing than the figures. I recommend people explore this resource to access Syrian writing on the catastrophe to understand the sheer scale of the grief and anger.

But this 'joke' is also very interesting. It is deeply revealing about the juvenile, narcissistic and self-centred liberal mind-set as it confronts the worst humanitarian crisis of this century. It says, 'we are the real victims, corporations are the real enemy, ours is the real struggle'. And it is this attitude that underpins one of the great foreign policy failings of our time, the decision to postpone action to pursue chemical weapons control in isolation, whilst blustering about futile attempts at a negotiated settlement that does not challenge the legitimacy of a criminal regime. In the meantime, Russian arms flood in and Assad is left free to escalate the slaughter. A device has been found to make dithering sound worthy.

And, of course, we have the Stop the War crowd trying to prevent any Western action to bring an end to the systematic murder. Again, they are self-centred – 'our wars are worse than yours'. I actually agree that we should stop the war, albeit a different one. Here is Yassin al-Haj Saleh again:
We Syrians are human beings of this world, and the world must stop the Assad regime from killing us. Now.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A fool and his money ...

... are soon parted.

Well let's hope so because it is published today, but is expensive. This is one of the depressing features of academic publishing. If you can hang on, there will be a paperback in eighteen months, but in the meantime order it for your affluent library. If you waste your life reading this blog, you will certainly want to read the book.

It is cheaper direct from Bloomsbury than from Amazon (they only have one copy left in stock - I rather think that it is because they only had one in there in the first place).

Follow the links to the series too, there is some good stuff in there.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

World peace

If the new Russian sponsored proposal to quarantine Syria's chemical weapons succeeds, the world can breathe a sigh of relief. America will not strike and Assad will be confined to using tanks, planes, missiles, shelling, bombing, sniper fire, death squads, torture, and sadistic murder to kill Syrians in increasing numbers with no worries about some pesky intervention to stop him. That will be nice.

Monday, September 02, 2013

"I mentioned it once ..."

"... but I think I got away with it." Syria that is.

Amongst the self-congratulations doing the rounds for the wisdom of Parliament in defying the government and voting boldly to do nothing, something is missing. We are hearing much about the revival of democracy, Britain's place in the world, the reassertion of the power of Parliament, the respective performances of the party leaders, and on and on; so much so that you could almost forget that this was about Syria. This piece is a typical example; all about Britain, rampaging through contentious history without overmuch concern for scholarship and finally including one line; "It is right that people feel we should do something about the Assad regime", whilst not bothering to mention that the decision was not do anything about the Assad regime.

Don't bother reading it. Read this instead. It is by a Syrian who is also a British citizen. Alisar Iram writes:
This article has two voices: my voice as a Syrian and my voice as a British citizen. My duality is a duality of vision and culture. Since the chemical attack, life has been very tough because the British Media became unhinged and the British TV channels choked to death with conflicting points of view and more often than not, with distorted, confused or absurd speculations, forecasts, expectations and a mumbo jumbo of truths, half truths, lies, allegations and misleading conclusions which politicians, members of Parliament, political and strategic analysts of every known and unknown orientation, party and affiliation have been presenting to a gaping, puzzled public.
The article fingers the demeaning attitudes that underly the arguments of the anti-war brigade:
...the West does see us, the other, as less than human, people living at the margins of the civilized world, ready to butcher, rape and pillage. They see the armed men, the rogue presidents and the dreadful bearded shabiha of both sides, but they do not see the millions of women, children, peaceful young men and pitiful old men, they do not see the refugees, the starving and the disabled by war. It is those they would be defending if they strike, not Al-Qaeda or the Islamists who have converged like vulture on Syria because of the failure of its regime to defend it instead of annihilating its citizens and cities, thus adding to the Syrian tragedy another horrific dimension.*
And finally,
Some are advocating that they are morally bound not to interfere in a civil war. Is this a civil war? Assad unleashed warplanes, helicopter gunships, ballistic missiles, cluster bombs, white phosphorous bombs, TNT-filled barrel bombs and surface-to-surface missiles, including Scud missiles, not to mention hunger, imprisonment, rape and torture against his people, ending with chemical warfare, yet the world watched indifferently with its morality intact. Please drop the word civil from civil war. This is a war against children, women and the vulnerable. This is a naked, savage, ruthless war against those who are weaker, a war that is spawning and attracting all the evils and all the evil men and the criminals of the world. ... The Price of International inaction is the quagmire we find ourselves immersed in now.
If there was one other thing that disappointed me, particularly from the Labour Party, it was the failure to develop and propose an alternative strategy. The motion in front of them was feeble, Obama's proposal for military action was nothing more than half-hearted tokenism. This was one reason to reject it. But to simply replace it with inaction is unconscionable. Parliament replaced inadequacy with negligence. The consequences remain to be seen.

*For some excellent reportage on the Islamist presence in Syria read this piece by Elizabeth O'Bagy from the Wall Street Journal.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Carry on killing

Something inside me felt queasy at the sight of an MP punching the air in delight that Britain will do nothing to impede the mass killing in Syria. It didn't feel like a moment for joy.

This was a rerun of an old argument; one clouded by rhetoric about peace. It began in the 1870s with the response to the Bulgarian Atrocities. The Peace Society found itself caught between its own campaigning against the massacres, carried out by the Ottoman Turks, and its determination to oppose the liberal interventionists who wished to support Russia against the Turks when they declared war in 1877. Here we see the first manifestation of the dilemmas of deploring the actions of a government and rejecting the means to end them. It is a recipe for inaction. Peace and non-intervention became interlinked.

And we haven't moved on. The same arguments were rehearsed over the Boer War and split the anarchist movement in World War One. They had a disastrous manifestation as the intellectual underpinning of the appeasement of Hitler and have reappeared countless times in the post war period. Their hand maidens are apologia and sophistry, but the main problem that dogs these 'peace' activists is their understanding of the word peace. The vote has been seen as a victory for peace campaigners. Unfortunately we have few of those; we have a noisy and self-righteous anti-war movement that spans both left and right. They define their position purely negatively, usually on the basis of the non-involvement of their own countries in war, regardless of the consequences. They were the winners.

If peace is seen as positive, based on equitable social relations and the absence of violence, then a peace movement has to face the realities of the grotesque, deliberately sadistic, mass murder being visited on the Syrian people by their own government. Pacifists will demand that resistance is non-violent, but they will still want and will take direct action, often at great personal risk. Peace activists who believe in just war will advocate the use of military force to end acts of barbarity.

I heard little of this from the opponents of military action in the debate, merely isolationism and sophistries about the preference for a negotiated diplomatic settlement that is not possible. It is an excuse for doing nothing. The confrontation here dramatically exposes their bluster when faced with reality. Labour's abandonment of principled internationalism is one of its most shameful, opportunistic moments. It may yet come back to haunt it. The suffering of the Syrian people demands justice, an end to the regime and the opportunity to rebuild civil society despite the many obstacles in the way; positive peace. I see little chance of that happening without the use of force to defend them.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


The August full moon against the church tower.

After the perfect sunset.

This is a beautiful place.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sweet reason

There is so much data out there, both anecdotal and gathered through systematic study. Anyone who has struggled with their weight would be able to confirm it. Diets do not work permanently; the weight always goes back on. Dieting leads to an unhealthy obsession with food. You can never lose weight beyond a certain point; and that point is never quite low enough. People are different; there are many who guzzle all day and sink the pints at night who remain disturbingly slim. Your shape changes with age. All of these point to explanations for obesity that are both more individualised and more complex. Yet in the popular imagination we are locked into a simplistic, moral narrative. Fat is the product of sin. We haven't left the medical model of the Middle Ages. And so I read this long article about recent research into obesity with increasing interest.

David Berreby swiftly disposes of the moral dimension in both its punitive and profitable manifestations:
Moral panic about the depravity of the heavy has seeped into many aspects of life, confusing even the erudite.
Followed by:
Hand-in-glove with the authorities that promote self-scrutiny are the businesses that sell it, in the form of weight-loss foods, medicines, services, surgeries and new technologies.
But then he raises an awkward fact:
Consider, for example, this troublesome fact, reported in 2010 by the biostatistician David B Allison and his co-authors at the University of Alabama in Birmingham: over the past 20 years or more, as the American people were getting fatter, so were America’s marmosets. As were laboratory macaques, chimpanzees, vervet monkeys and mice, as well as domestic dogs, domestic cats, and domestic and feral rats from both rural and urban areas. In fact, the researchers examined records on those eight species and found that average weight for every one had increased. The marmosets gained an average of nine per cent per decade. Lab mice gained about 11 per cent per decade. Chimps, for some reason, are doing especially badly: their average body weight had risen 35 per cent per decade. Allison, who had been hearing about an unexplained rise in the average weight of lab animals, was nonetheless surprised by the consistency across so many species. ‘Virtually in every population of animals we looked at, that met our criteria, there was the same upward trend,’ he told me.
Unless laboratory mice were secret sinful binge eaters who had obtained the keys to the cage and could open a fridge, clearly there is something more going on. Berreby gives us an overview of some of the latest theories including a kind of anti-imperialist study of obesity by Jonathan CK Wells, described by Berreby as "the only one I’ve ever read that references both receptor pathways for leptin and data on the size of the Indian economy in the 18th century".

This is all fascinating stuff and should make people pause before engaging in self-punishment or buying into the latest, expensive diet fad. But it won't. We are locked into persistent moral explanations that are fundamentally religious in form. For the wages of sin is weight. Sin can only be forgiven through repentance and suffering. That suffering leads us to eternal bliss - being thin. Only it doesn't. So we have to repent and suffer all over again, whilst the naturally slim gaze down on us with the inherent superiority of the elect and condemn us for our moral squalor.

This way of thinking is pervasive. It is inherent in the economics of austerity and approaches to the Eurozone crisis (see my previous post). All of which brings me to one of my historical subjects, something that I want to write more on - the Freethought movement. Its nineteenth century manifestation saw it as the incubator of radicalism as it sought to remove religious and dogmatic thinking. It is intriguing that by the end of the century many radicals abandoned it and became enamoured with mysticism in what James Webb called the "Flight from Reason". Annie Besant's defection from the National Secular Society to Madame Blavatsky's weird cult, Theosophy, is a prime example. It is from there that we can trace many of the arcane features of modern ideas, from New Age romantic lunacies to the egregious conspiracy thinking of the various 'truth' movements infecting the Internet. Seemingly radical, most of these are deeply reactionary.

Seen in this way, fat is more than a feminist issue. Our thinking on obesity illustrates much deeper concerns about the way we see the world and about our political as well as our personal lives. There are medical and social reasons for attempting weight loss, just don't expect it to last or make you happy. Only being happy can do that. And one of the best ways to be happy is to abandon the sense of shame, guilt and sin that is our intellectual heritage and that can prove so profitable to those bright-eyed evangelists who wish to sell us some nonsense masquerading as salvation.

Hat tip: John Angliss

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Southern comfort

As someone who spends a lot of time in southern Europe and who has learnt to appreciate the benefits of the siesta, I enjoyed this piece from Ed Vulliamy in praise of the Mediterranean lifestyle. It was romanticised certainly, but I like this observation:
And so our August holidays on cobblestones and land where the vine grows become very weird, as people go to play at the way of life their leaders – maybe even they – are destroying. Many of those from Britain, America, Germany and elsewhere this weekend setting off to savour the southern life are the politicians, bankers, lawyers, managers, civil servants, thinktank "brains" – newspaper columnists indeed – who have decided, generally if not individually, that our Anglo-American way of capitalism is the only way to go. Fuelled, it sometimes feels, more by some combination of cocaine, Red Bull and Viagra than aromatic coffee, a cool aperitif and an afternoon snooze.
Once again, we are back in the land of Eurozone crisis as morality drama. The lazy, laid-back latin lifestyle may be pleasurable, but has to be abandoned, regrettably, in favour of adopting the superior northern work ethic. It is easy to think like this as one sits in a comfy chair by the sea, sipping wine and enjoying the fresh food, but only as long as you ignore the early mornings, late nights and relentless hard work that those feckless Med-types have to put in to provide you with your leisure.

The reality is that this is another manifestation of what Michael Young satirised in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young saw meritocracy, a term he coined, as dangerous because it justified material inequality on the basis of the supposed superior qualities and virtues of the privileged. Reducing poverty simply became a matter of reforming the poor to be more like 'us'. Poverty was the result of their failings. Young rejected this. He saw inequality as mainly the product of class, family, inheritance, luck, power and exploitation. Young's point was that the whole idea of meritocracy was a self-serving fiction that encouraged those that initially benefitted from social mobility to pull the ladder up behind them as they felt that their good fortune was solely the result of their personal qualities and not the institutions that supported and promoted them. This way of thinking undermines rival concepts of social solidarity and informs a punitive policy of economic reform as a response to crisis.

August is a tired month. The grass is crisp and dry; trees and plants show the strain of their summer growth and are beginning to take on an autumnal look; waiters and shopkeepers have heavy bags under their eyes as they ceaselessly serve weary workers refreshing themselves in the late summer sun. But most of all, Greece, together with much of southern Europe and Ireland as well, are exhausted by the battering of austerity and its manifest failures. It is time that the austerians took a little nap, ate a leisurely lunch and thought, 'no, I can't be bothered; let's give them a break.' 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Culture and crisis

‘ can you live in a country that doesn’t care about lies?’
Two longer pieces, both worth reading in full. First, is George Szirtes' Guardian article on the attempt to control culture in Hungary by its proto-fascist government.
In a country where party politics has always sought to control the cultural field, the aim of such war is to wipe out, or at least quarantine, the opposition, its ideology, its language, its notions of independence, and – in the case of the current administration – to impose an all-consuming patriotic line whereby only one version of Hungary is allowed to exist.
Secondly, Roy Foster writes a coruscating account of the Irish economic crisis and its consequences where he notes:
In Ireland’s past history, a coming change has often been heralded first in the cultural sphere. This is most obvious in the early years of the 20th century, when innovations in drama, literature and Gaelic revivalism presaged a wider radical critique of the status quo, eventually displacing constitutional nationalism altogether. In the view of WB Yeats, who was centrally involved, the ‘long gestation’ of the Irish revolution was grounded in a seismic shift of literature and art.
And here lies hope. Foster concludes,
The answers are not coming from the politicians, nor from any other sector of the shellshocked Irish establishment. It seems likely that the questions will be raised, and responses floated, from elsewhere, from what Yeats called ‘the cellars and garrets’, where artists and social radicals mingle on the margins of respectable life. Whether the evident anger that fuels them will be transmuted into the mainstream of Irish life, or find its own outlet, remains to be seen.
And there is hope for Hungary too, unless those cellars and garrets are to be replaced by prison cells.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The silly season

It is August. Nothing happens. The papers reflect this in stories about turtles disguised as hamburgers. This is the only way to explain the following two items:
The proportion of people prepared to back the Tory team for economic competence has soared to 40% from 28% in June.
Presumably this is based on a staggeringly impressive growth rate of 0.6% and the start of an artificially manufactured property boom of the type that got us all in the mess in the first place.

And they will be dancing in the streets of Athens tonight:
Greece recession eases but not enough to boost tax revenue
Fabulous news. This means the economy SHRANK by only 4.6% in the last quarter; a triumph for the policy of austerity.

What was that phrase about the tyranny of low expectations again?

Monday, August 05, 2013

War in History

Keith Lowe has reviewed three academic books exploring the experience of soldiers in the Second World War (on American GIs in France, Allied deserters and one based on the diaries of troops who fought in the Pacific war). He starts by insisting that the dominant view of the War is that it was a 'good war'.
Since that day, the vast majority of books, films and TV programmes about the war have perpetuated this fairy tale. In the US the second world war is still called “the Good War” and the men who fought it are known as “the greatest generation”. The Allies are portrayed as a “band of brothers” who fought their way fearlessly into the devil’s lair and lived to tell the tale. The Axis powers, by contrast, are defined by the atrocities they perpetrated: the Rape of Nanjing, the Myanmar railway, the Holocaust. Everyone else – Jews, prisoners of war, the French resistance, and so on – is given the role of the damsel in distress: violated, rescued, and ultimately grateful.
Here we have the mocking tone aimed at those beguiled by an illusion, whilst, despite some important disclaimers, preparing the ground for an exercise in moral equivalence. Of course this view is a travesty of reality and perhaps that is why it doesn't exist outside the realms of popular fiction and the deceptions of the political propagandist. Most of the topics examined have been subject to serious historical (and literary - Slaughterhouse Five and Catch 22 to name but two) reappraisal for many years. It is a classic straw man.

Lowe is quite clear that, "Serious historians have always been sceptical of such mythmaking" and "that No credible historian is ever likely to question the value of the central Allied aim to bring down the Nazi regime". These reservations are welcome, but his review still promotes the myth and invites us to conclude that the books are trying to say that 'they were really all as bad as each other'; a view that he only partly distances himself from.

I think that there are two reasons why we should not be caught in this trap of moral equivalence. The first is that the behaviour of some armies, regardless of private reservations, was qualitatively and quantitatively worse than that of others. Compare the "tsunami of male lust" launched by GIs in France with the mass rape of Germans by the Russian Army, for example. That is even before we get on to the issue of the level of participation of Nazi troops in the holocaust.

Secondly, Lowe quotes from Aaron Moore's study of the Pacific War as seen through the diaries of participants.
Likewise the idea that the Japanese had a monopoly on cruelty is also revealed as a myth. Moore recounts dozens of instances of American soldiers acting every bit as brutally as the Japanese, including hacking prisoners to death, beheading them, and keeping dried Japanese ears or fingers as gruesome mementoes of combat. As Moore baldly states: “in this regard Americans were no different than their counterparts in East Asia.” In fact, the legendary Japanese refusal to surrender was largely due to fear of torture by the Americans rather than out of any particular fanaticism.
This passage obscures a critical issue; whether such cruelties were the result of soldiers' personal response to the horrors of combat, or whether they were the systematic product of ideology and policy.

Ultimately, the review falls into a trap of its own making. War is not good. The experience of war brings out examples of abhorrent brutality, desperate fear, extraordinary courage, sadistic revenge and, at times, acts of breathtaking virtue, such as those who risked their lives to rescue Jews. But it is not good. This is not how we should be evaluating war. No, the critical issue is not whether a war was good, but whether it was necessary.

Historical examination of the actions and motivations of individual combatants make for compelling history. They delve into human behaviour under the most extreme conditions and they show what we can expect to occur in any war. But they do not tell us anything like as much about the necessity of a particular war. Ultimately, the macro consequences of what would flow from the victory of one side or another matter more for our judgement than the horrors implicit in the practice of war. Seen in this light, our picture of the Second World War as a necessary war remains undisturbed.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Your health

Another heartening report.
But a new paper in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggests that — for reasons that aren't entirely clear — abstaining from alcohol does tend to increase one's risk of dying, even when you exclude former problem drinkers. The most shocking part? Abstainers' mortality rates are higher than those of heavy drinkers. 
Moderate drinking, which is defined as one to three drinks per day, is associated with the lowest mortality rates in alcohol studies. Moderate alcohol use (especially when the beverage of choice is red wine) is thought to improve heart health, circulation and sociability
In other words, pleasure is good for you. Enjoy irresponsibly.