Thursday, January 30, 2014


Of course it is Anelka. Nothing to do with ... er, this:

A hate-filled protest took place on the streets of Paris on Sunday, with thousands of marchers chanting, "Jew, France is not for you."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Can I get these words out painlessly? Simon Jenkins - a good article? Surely not. I don't think that I have ever put these words together before. Oh well, here goes.

Simon Jenkins has written a nearly good article in today's Guardian. OK, there are a few of his pet obsessions, sweeping statements, some dubious economics and the conclusion has a comforting familiarity to it, but the main thrust is spot on. The context is the response to the Channel 4 'reality' show, Benefits Street, but what Jenkins points out is that we are all on benefits, the rich more than anyone. He writes:
We are all on the game; some of us are just smarter at concealing it. I have a book on my shelf by the Americans Mark Zepezauer and Arthur Naiman called Take the Rich Off Welfare. It glares down at me whenever I think of writing about poverty. It shows how well-heeled Americans, starting in the Reagan years, cornered the lion's share of public spending. They had capital depreciations, fiscal reliefs, muni bonds, fuel subsidies, bailouts, price supports, cultivated waste and tax frauds. It was called "wealthfare".
This was no leftwing tract. It merely pointed out that "wealthfare costs the American taxpayer some three and a half times the cost of welfare for the poor". The relentlessness of the rich lobbying Congress for tax breaks and subsidies meant "the US government today functions mostly as a huge Robin Hood in reverse". If there is money going begging, those who beg loudest get most.
And some of the things these scroungers get up to are shocking,
Running down the Guardian's interactive guide, Visualising Whitehall, I am not sure what is meant by "corporate development, change delivery, compliance strategy". They sound like upmarket benefits scrounging to me.
This is the missing element in the depressing coverage of the welfare state, that it goes far beyond health and services for the poor to the extent that we are all beneficiaries and that those who gain the most are the already wealthy. Whilst the poor are subject to stringent examination and moral censure, the bulk of the benefits paid to the rich and to corporations never seem to catch the eye of The Daily Mail.

There are two critical responses to this state of affairs. Jenkins is undoubtedly in the anti-subsidy lobby. The other accepts the necessity of subsidy and spending, but questions the equity of its distribution, its priorities, and the competence and probity of governments in spending wisely.

Whatever, those who scream 'scrounger' loudest, who resent paying taxes the most, would do well to sit back and calculate just how well they are doing out of a system that is massively skewed in their favour.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Wishful thinking

Snoopy has wandered through the groves of scientific research and has picked a beautiful bowl of cherries. He concludes:
If you are already a lazy, dirty couch potato, beer-swilling and coffee-guzzling smoker with a passion for oversleeping, fatty foods, unmade beds, computer games, cursing and abusing self like mad - you are on the right way to health and happiness. Actually, why would you need more happiness when you have all these things on the list - beats me.
How reassuring.

Friday, January 17, 2014


There are two types of activists on the political left. The first group is the one we see more frequently - the protestor, demonstrator, occupier. They are the people who take direct action, run risks, face arrest and become the public faces of dissent. In violent regimes these acts of civil disobedience and mass protest take a special kind of courage.

The second group is less visible. It consists of community development organisers and grass-roots educationalists; of people who build projects, work with the homeless and the victims of violence, support the marginalised, run alternative economic programmes such as credit unions and LETS schemes, and do the research that shows precisely what is happening in the real world, whatever the public perception may be.

I wouldn't privilege one over the other. I think that both are complementary to each other. But things go wrong when the first group divorce themselves from the second. That allows activism to be based on ideological fictions. One prominent example today is the section of the anti-war movement that opposes all western military action and justifies this in terms of it always being a disaster, sometimes accompanied by atavistic views of the people and nation. Which brings me to Afghanistan and this splendid, detailed rebuttal of the negativity of press reporting. Lauryn Oates is a Canadian working in health, education and human rights in Afghanistan. She is a prime example of the second group of activist and this is what she has to say:
The extent of the transformation is so drastic that it's difficult to articulate, but suffice to say it has given me every reason for ardent optimism. Today in Afghanistan, people live longer and better, they are on average wealthier, better educated and healthier. More of them have access to clean water and sanitation facilities. 
 Roads have been paved, homes rebuilt, police trained, and parks re-opened. Women are in the work force, the parliament, the universities, and the media. Major changes in attitudes and opinions on topics like whether a woman should be able to run for president are recorded in the annual Surveys of the Afghan People, from The Asia Foundation. 
...a minuscule minority of Afghans sympathize with the Taliban ... Indeed, my own experience has been that the overwhelming majority of Afghans -- in the West, North, South and East -- loathe the Taliban, and greatly fear the terror they continue to subject civilians to. The challenges that remain are significant and they are copiously documented elsewhere and do not require repeating here. But the challenges should not overshadow the progress, and what can be concluded from the state of affairs in Afghanistan today is that Afghanistan is far better off today than it was in in 2001. 
That's one victory, if not a military war won.
It is worth reading it all, especially if you are one of those other activists who call for disengagement and withdrawal. A little reality would do you no harm.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


I'm back in the UK, catching up with chores whilst a gas fitter installs a new boiler downstairs, discovering fresh problems all the while. He is pleasant, capable and efficient, but this is turning into a three day job as thirty-year-old systems need significant modification. All I can think of for the blog is to pass on two bits of good reading.

I nearly didn't read the first one because of the heading it was given, Prisoner X and the British Guantanamo Bay, complete with pictures of anti-Guantanamo protestors. But the article has nothing at all to do with the terrorism, it is a personal piece on teaching in prisons and the strain of a difficult encounter. It is thoughtful and, once again, emphasises the importance of adult education.

Secondly, this old post from a rarely updated blog has gone viral. It touched a nerve. I have just seen it, many months late, as a friend shared it on Facebook. Called, Seven Reasons Why You Should Stop Bitching About People On Benefits; with the money line - "Being unemployed is not a crime. I know that must come as a shock to you, but I’m afraid it’s true".

Tuesday, January 07, 2014


The First World War began in August 1914. The centenary has started in January 2014. Perhaps this one really will be over by Christmas. I hope so, because centenaries usually mean the hijacking of history and the early kick-off promises a deluge of dubious reportage.

The commemoration has begun with some ferocious fighting. Michael Gove has spotted a left-wing academic plot to denigrate the brave British Tommy by pushing a particular line about the War as a pointless waste of life. On the other side of no-man's-land, Richard Evans has been launching telling counter attacks and here is the latest:
And who are these people who are peddling "leftwing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders"? Step forward, please, Professor Niall Ferguson, a self-styled right-winger whose book The Pity of War argues that it was wrong for Britain to enter the war in 1914 and claims that the British government of the day should have left the continental powers to slug it out among themselves. Step forward, please, Sir Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, whose trenchant criticisms of British generals such as Sir John French in his latest book Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 yield nothing in their severity to the coruscating attacks levelled at Sir Douglas Haig and other leaders of the British army by the late Conservative MP Alan Clark in his book The Donkeys, a term used to describe the British military performance in the war ("lions led by donkeys", was a phrase he attributed to a German commentator but later admitted he had invented himself).
Oh dear. But then Gove has always been better at preaching rigour than practicing it and he certainly suffers from the politician's malaise of being unable to distinguish between declaration and reality. To announce that it is so, does not make it true. Ever since I was first confronted with the history of World War I as an undergraduate in the late '70s, the War was taught as problematic, with multiple contesting interpretations. Whether these involved the social history of the home front, the experience of the trenches, the quality of leadership, the political controversies of the times, or, in particular, the causes of the War, I have never come across teaching that referred to the history as settled. It has always been taught as a continuing debate.

Of course, the image that Gove picks on does exist. It emerged at the end of the War, partly as a legacy of anti-war activists and the Russian Revolution, but mainly as a result of the remarkable literature of a generation who had been participants - Owen, Sassoon, Remarque, Graves - who captured, what Owen called, the pity of war. It became politicised by the inter-war peace movement. It probably is the dominant view in the popular imagination. But in academia? I don't think so.

So once again, Gove has turned his artillery on a straw man, whilst the massed ranks of historians, even those of whom he approves such as Margaret MacMillan, are replying with some murderous fire. Perhaps the centenary will be fun after all.

Sunday, January 05, 2014


There is a moment in the film Dr Strangelove when Peter Sellers' gloriously over the top depiction of the badly disabled, German nuclear scientist of dubious political allegiance really hits home. One of his arms leaps up of its own accord into a Nazi salute only for Strangelove to force it down again with his other one. It looks very much like the quenelle, the new anti-Semitic gesture that made its debut on the football pitch courtesy of Nicolas Anelka. His protestations of innocence, that he thought it anti-system and not anti-Jewish, are like those of its originator, the 'anti-Zionist' French comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, utterly unconvincing.

But this disingenuous defence is more alarming when it becomes clear that the perpetrators are being sucked into anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, where Jews, sorry, Zionists, are seen as an integral and dominant part of that very system (the one that made Anelka a multi-millionaire of course). It is a form of delusional political thought, something that appeals to the narcissism of the self-defined 'radical'. And it is pervasive. Liel Leibovitz describes the attraction and the dangers beautifully:
The garçons who quenelled by a large photograph of Anne Frank aren’t going to be mended by more or better education. They are creatures of the age and children of the Internet, driven by emotion, prone to extremism, allergic to nuance. They’re political idiots, and they gravitate mainly to figures who lay it on thick with fantasies, conspiracies, and hatred. They’re not as likely to elect a new madman as they are to consistently reject the solid institutions on which democracy depends...
Leibovitz concludes,
Hate, like the quenelle itself, is self-explanatory and irredeemable. If we stay vigilant, if we continue to cultivate the values that define us, and if we refuse to trivialize hate because it appears as a goofy post on Twitter or Facebook, we may someday defeat it.
When I look at much social media, I despair. It is stuffed with pseudo-science, itself linked to conspiracist thought and the financial interests of snake oil merchants. It is filled with an obsession with Israel that not only goes way beyond the reality of of the conflict, but also obscures the real interests of the Palestinians. It overflows with fantastic ramblings about secret elites. This is not a sign of mental health. Anti-Semitism is not sane. Even worse, a detachment from reality marginalises the real stuff of politics. Social justice is just not as sexy. But then reality never is as much fun as the dark corners of the human brain, but is considerably less dangerous.

Friday, January 03, 2014


The meaning of New Year changes as you age. Nostalgia begins to eclipse anticipation. Astonishment at how long ago everything was predominates. And there is a touch of melancholy in realising that your generation is making way for the next one.

These thoughts were prompted by a post from George Szirtes about retiring from teaching. Education is a simple process over complicated by theorists and George's description is perfect.
Shaw told the world that those who can, do and that those who can't, teach. It was a cruel thing to say. Almost everyone has taught: all the great masters of visual art had their schools, most writers had friends to whom they looked for criticism and advice. That is, in essence, all teaching is. It is a sort of friendship based on common interest within a framework. The friendship may well continue once the framework falls away. It is a human exchange based on curiosity, generosity, wit, and close attention.
I retired this academic year and have not found it easy. I have always enjoyed working and it is strange doing so little formal work. But what George points to is what I really miss; the friendships, transient or otherwise, and the exchanges.

Now contrast Shaw's elitist sneering with the idealism of Elisée Reclus in his essay The Ideal and Youth:
The discoveries of science bring with them happiness so exalted that every mean consideration must degrade them. To know lays upon us the obligation to teach. 
I have to say that I was rather fond of the "mean consideration" of my salary and the pension comes in handy too, but I know what he means. Teaching and learning are both integral to human communications. What time has removed is the framework, opening it to younger ambitions. And so, a new year reminds me of loss, but looks forward to finding a new framework for the human exchange that still obsesses me.