Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Brit for Scottish Independence

I am British. My homeland is the collection of Islands in the North East Atlantic that include the mainlands of England, Scotland and Wales as well as a glorious array of smaller, windswept, salt-sprayed islands. My story is that of Britons, Picts, Celts, Angles, Romans, Saxons, Norsemen, Normans and millennia’s worth of immigrants who made these places their home. I love, as home, the warm seas of the Channel and the golden sands around Cape Wrath, the violent rocks of Tryfan and the rolling hills near my Midlands birthplace, I love Bennachie which I can see from my window and I love London, Edinburgh and Birmingham in which I have worked or played. Therefore I do not consider myself thoroughly “English”, for my adult life has been spent almost entirely in Scotland; and I cannot consider myself exclusively “Scottish” for my formative roots lie elsewhere. I am, I feel, British.
            But with a year to go before we vote on the matter, I am increasingly persuaded that the 300 year-old political union we call the United Kingdom is not for me. In debates about independence we are faced with enough red herrings to start a fish market of petty diversion. ‘Will we be more prosperous?’ goes the most well-rehearsed refrain, as if we can make anything but flimsy short-term predictions. How will our long-term relationship with Europe and the outside world develop? As if we know the answer either for Scotland or the UK. And at its most banal, which currency will we use? Seriously. We know, as even Darling has conceded, that Scotland can thrive economically as an independent state, and we can't know to what extent.
These questions are couched in the pursed-lipped rhetoric of “voting with head not heart” while they disguise a much more decisive question for ourselves and for our neighbours: what nation-state face or faces do we want to present in the world? This is a question that strikes to the heart of who we think we are. For all my Britishness, there can be no denying that Scotland has a radically different political culture from Westminster and that this is simply unrepresented in the international arena.
Perhaps more important is that which is represented there. Some will look at the map of the world showing the countries the Britain has invaded, most of which occurred under the Union Flag, and revel in our influence. Whether or not these countries have, in general, been positively influenced by our interventions (and I think not) is beside the point: our long-lost imperial might has left us with an anachronistic, habitual recourse to force which has seen us involve ourselves most recently and catastrophically in the affairs of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and, but for a reluctant war-weariness of the Westminster parliament, Syria, all of which have been great for the UK arms industry and disastrous for the people affected. We make our dealings with Europe a matter of short-term self-interest rather than a project of community-building. Worst of all, the UK preaches as if its prosperity emerged out of mere good fortune or divine right rather than the force of the gunboat. As anyone knows who has lived in countries whose miserable fates were written by British colonial administrators, the UK is seen sitting in the corner of the international community like an aggrieved and unpredictable drunkard, derided in hushed tones, occasionally feared because of his strong pals and fearsome tools, but rarely respected.
Britain, however, by which I mean the people of these islands with their cultural wealth and history of negotiated neighbourliness, does command a measure of respect, as do its English, Scottish and Welsh constituent communities. I therefore believe that independence not only allows for Scotland to project itself more respectably in the world, and thus generate much greater self-respect at home within its political culture, but that the same could be true of England. A British land with its peoples, represented by different nation states, known for their good neighbourliness, for their participation as equals in the international community rather than their tedious bluster, for their artistic, mercantile, intellectual and (perhaps especially) political creativity: this is the vision of independence I support and it is a vision that could belong to Brits like me as much as thoroughgoing Scots.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Syria vote: have we finally buried Blair?

Last night’s parliamentary vote against the principle of military intervention in Syria is a cause for modest celebration. Of course, a devastating escalation of this proxy war will still more than likely ensue for as long as the anti-regime axis of the US, the Gulf states and Turkey refuses to contemplate any process involving Assad, despite the passionate support he enjoys from some Syrians. Thus the suffering of Syrians will continue and may get tragically much worse. There should therefore be no party, and there should certainly be less of the party politicking that left such a nasty taste after the vote.
           
Nevertheless, this wasn’t simply a token gesture, it was an encouraging precedent. With the militaristic and anti-democratic poison of Blairism still coursing through the veins of our body politic, one would naturally fear that executives would feel emboldened to act with similarly catastrophic disregard for the popular will, whether on genuinely liberal interventionist principle or in pursuit of strategic self-interest, political capital or lucrative markets for the UK arms industry. Cameron, to his great credit, agreed immediately to recognise Parliament’s vote as an expression of the people’s will, and thus as binding. While he’s getting a roasting in today’s press for the damage done to his authority, he has played an important role in boosting parliamentary authority and making our democracy a little more robust.
           
Perhaps more importantly, the vote may also suggest a correction of the British self-image: no longer are we willing to play the hapless Robin to America’s Batman. Our would-be heroic interventions have compounded the suffering of Iraqis and Libyans while stymying the development of sustainable and inclusive government that secures the rights of these countries’ minorities, for which the history of democracy suggests the need for an authoritarian starting point.

For now, our role in this conflict will be more circumscribed but it can be constructive: instead of leading a Quixotic charge we must add our modest voice to those urging de-escalation. Notwithstanding the voracious appetite for regime change among Gulf Sunnis, there must be a peace process that involves all sides, not because Assad is worthy of any redemption but because the alternative is a zero-sum game in which Syria’s minorities fear their extinction.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Edinburgh Marathon race report

Despite a rather disappointing finishing time I'm feeling quite positive after today's Edinburgh Marathon. It's a funny one: as my friend Roy pointed out, distance running is subject to so many variables that the runner, especially the unsupported amateur, is never really in control of his or her performance. The providence of terrain, weather and microbiological vagaries make this quintessentially solitary pursuit something of an ensemble piece after all.

For me it began to unravel last weekend, after a training programme that I thought was going swimmingly. Having misread my training plan and set off on a 12-miler rather than the eight allotted by Hal Higdon's website, I was quickly prancing on my toes due to the abrasion of my new shoes against my ankle. It was sore and bleeding, but up on my toes I could manage. I hadn't quite realised how much I was compensating alas, and the next few days I suffered with very tight and sore calfs. So this morning as I stood at the start line (in perfect running weather it has to be conceded) I was vaguely aware that my legs felt like lead. I hoped this was just my bad angel whispering malevolently into my ear and felt quite buoyant from the gun, running to the perimeter of Holyrood park to the cheers of wonderful local support.

The first mini disaster however was a couple of miles thereafter when the Compede with which I'd dressed my ankles detached from the left and my shoe began once again to attack. "Fool!" cackled the bad angel, while my good angel coughed politely. Why hadn't I double dressed it? And why for that matter had I left it so late to get new shoes? Stopping to stuff a large plaster roughly in place, I set off again with what felt like a few hundred people passing me.

I would have to get used to that. I felt like my legs were simply not complying with my mind and my under-taxed cardiovascular system. At seven miles they felt achey and one of my angels said, "When you ran your PB last year, you didn't notice the first 13 miles."

I think, after all, that was the voice of my good angel: if I was toiling so early I had to surrender my target time and my PB and work on finishing without injury or misery.

People pass me at a steady stream. Bad angel pipes up: "Behold your descent down the food chain! Eagle to seagull."

Mile 10: "Fish."

Mile 13 "Worm."

Fortunately, my good angel won out: "A very sensible run! How blessed you are to participate in this celebration of life, this carnival of movement! How lovely to receive from these supporters with their festive drums and jelly babies! (Perhaps you should abandon that Camel Back though, which is bouncing around on your back and hurting like hell?)"

(Mile 17, a man painted all green passes me. "Plankton.")

And then bad angel gave up. My iPhone, which was giving me pace updates ran out of battery at mile 20 but by then I wasn't overly bothered. It deserted me midway through Dizzee Rascal's 'Butterfly' so I probably deserved it. I enjoyed the refreshing attention of a kid standing upon his front wall and gleefully showering willing runners with his supersoaker. My legs just rolled onwards, sore and at capacity, but never feeling like they'd give way, and "the engine" was just ticking over pleasantly.

The support at the end was wonderful again, and gave me a little injection to a sprint finish. Coming in at 3:21:00 I felt it could all have been a lot worse, despite being nearly a minute per mile behind my target.

There's another reason I feel OK about this race too: love. I am always rather conscious that this fundraising and training for a marathon can be a bit self-indulgent, but so many people gave me such encouragement for it in any case. Whether in terms of money for the Mental Health Foundation, patience with my training (Mrs Box!), accommodation in Edinburgh from old friends, kind words from so many of you and a quite delightful blessing an as yet unmet friend in California wrote, I just felt an enormous sense of presence with others. Not such an unsupported amateur after all: thanks for indulging me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

For academic boycott of Israeli institutions

My old-fashioned liberalism raises its fists combatively at the words “academic boycott”, words I can only utter with the face of one sucking on a lemon. It would never have occurred to me that a cessation of conversation, a walking away, a final judgement could be a good thing.

Except, some Palestinians and Israelis have called for it, and after years of devil’s advocacy against pro- and anti-boycott activists, academics, students, and observers, I’m pretty much persuaded.

I never had any argument with the idea that Israeli academic institutions are complicit in the Occupation: that some of them have (proportionally tiny) departments where a genuine conversation about Zionism does take place is no more a justification of the institutions in question than pointing out that Guantanamo inmates occasionally have a view of the sea. But I didn’t buy the idea that it’s always best to do something rather than nothing: what will boycott actually achieve, I wondered, other than isolating some potential voices for change?

Putting aside most of the well-rehearsed arguments on both sides, that for boycott hinges for me on two claims. Firstly, academic institutions in Israel are, it is asserted by boycotters, in some way susceptible to change that sets them apart from, say, Saudi or North Korean institutions. Meanwhile, the argument for boycott also depends on demonstrating that engagement with them is not the probable agent of this change, and in fact works to make such change less likely rather than more likely.

It is Israel’s self-projection as the front-line of Western Modernity in a clash of civilisations that makes the first claim compelling (and part of the reason why, for example, there is more high-profile critique of Israel than, say, Saudi Arabia in the first place). Of course, many Israeli institutions have high academic standards and are capable of producing world-class research which benefits and has benefited humanity. Israeli academics are integrated into knowledge exchanges with global academia founded on a system of peer-review. Of course this system’s (a)morality, founded on the depersonalised rigour of critique and counter-critique, does not require that institutions distance themselves from the violence much of their work produces, so long as it is sufficiently rational.

In any case, the prospect of being isolated from this system may unnerve university administrators and academics, for whom the global academy is a source of legitimacy. Such isolation may indeed provoke professors of engineering, chemistry, history, archaeology and so on to consider the applications of their work or the validity of the discourses upon which their work and that of their colleagues is based, and reassess their relationship with the specific violence of Occupation. If there is any hope of change within Israeli academic discourse, then this hope should animate us.

But if these institutions are in fact susceptible to change, then surely it is worth engaging with them to make this change more likely, encouraging dissident voices as they challenge their students and colleagues? I don’t think so. An engineering lecturer whose work contributes to equipping the IDF is not somehow pointed towards radical self-criticism by the engagement of other engineers within his or her discipline, and certainly not by the presence of a motivated anti-Zionist social scientist the other side of campus.

Within the disciplines in which structural critique is more prominent - principally the humanities, social sciences and philosophy - could a a majority of fellow Israeli scholars not be prompted towards such self-critique through debate? Indeed, is not the dissidence of those Israeli academics who already expose the fatal delusions of Israeli discourse also the product of the Israeli academy? If so, the boycott argument fails. Alas, it is a hard case to make. More likely, where dissidents are active in the academy they are active against an overwhelming institutional and national consensus which preserves them almost as curiosities, supposed evidence of genuine pluralism and a legal-rational basis for public policy which is manifestly absent in Israel and the territories it controls. While they may do considerable good in their own teacher-pupil relations and through their research, in institutional terms they are arguably a fig leaf concealing the hegemony of a discourse structurally oriented towards the perpetuation of violence. Thus they should be encouraged as individuals and together, but we need not accept that their legitimacy as intellectuals stems in any way from the Israeli academy which employs them.

Importantly, the boycott argument has consistently advocated engagement with Israeli academics on an individual basis, thus it is not a cessation of conversation. However boycott is a refusal to accept the authenticating seal of approval of any Israeli institution the lion-share of whose research and human output serves to reinforce the discourses, technologies and policies of violence which we must resist.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Arise Sir Box!

On many counts I agree with republicans. There are clearly several good reasons for criticising the monarchy as an institution, and indeed the royal family (gasp!) both for what they do and what they don't do.

In fact, a little over a decade ago as a schoolboy, I felt strongly enough to incur the visual daggers of all and sundry as I refused to stand for the national anthem in a packed graduation hall. Without any ill-feelings towards Elizabeth, I just didn't think blood was a good reason for power.

Blood, reason and power. We'll come back to them. Suffice to say, I largely couldn't fault the logic of Polly Toynbee's impassioned and elegant plea for common sense in the Guardian last week, which was earnest enough to avoid the positivist self-righteousness that can characterise such counterblasts.

But, in the end, I disagree with her. Let's start with the most immediate and tangible reason: Jubilee weekend was remarkable, and for republicans I'd imagine quite depressing. Forget cliches of national pride and shared heritage, I mean what we we actually felt and saw together over the weekend, providing we weren't too reasonable to have fun: people at my sister-in-law's street party were talking to and laughing with some of their neighbours for the first time, the scary bloke on their street was sponged in the stocks, and as if to underline the carnivalesque reordering of the norm, there was a living room laid out on the pavement. It was wonderful community.

I confess, I still had to fight the urge to protest all this goodwill on the basis that the monarchy makes no sense. But people, quite rightly, would have looked pityingly at me and opened another bottle of wine. Nobody was there because they love the hereditary principle or yearn for the dark(er) days of Empire. They certainly weren't there because they like how our princes lubricate arms deals with dictators.

They instead responded warmly to the visceral call of a particular and personal myth, effective precisely because it appeals at every level to something embodied rather than abstracted. The fact that this outpouring all revolved around one so obviously like us, flesh and (red) blood, neuroses and desires - a matriarch, a little old lady indeed - makes it something one can drink to with neither frenzied patriotism nor mocking irony. Power is always human, always relational and, therefore, always mortal. Subject as we are to abstracted discourses of law, rights and governance, we are constantly being encouraged to forget that. 

So Jubilee weekend was an immersive Feast of Fools, but inverted a second time in which, without setting ourselves apart and above, we toast Her Majesty, a kind of insurgency of flesh and blood against the absolute claims of legal writ. To say it is visceral is not to say it isn't reflexive: how can doing crazy things like toasting the nation's favourite granny wearing an inflatable crown be anything else? But personalised power, largely symbolic as it is in the UK, engages our sense of blood, and reminds us of the provisionality and humanity of all power. It is the check-and-balance upon reason.

Importantly, it is very hard to think of anything that common sense, or indeed legal rational government at its logical conclusion, could birth that would provide for such a coming together across boundaries, except shared tragedy or shared struggle, neither of which can be celebrated without very decisive exclusion. Certainly it would have been a whole lot more offensive if such an outpouring had occurred for an arbitrary abstraction like 'Britain' or 'the government' or some victory in a propagandised war. No idea should make a totalising claim on me.

A person, however, well they do have a claim on me, on us, and through this absurdly mythologised set-apart person we experience nationhood as a living body rather than an eternal, irresistible club.

At heart, then, I resist the notion of a purely rational state, of common-sense coercion, a state that we should accept because it manifestly has the reason-affirmed right to do its thing. At best we should give two cheers to the claims of states, including ours, insomuch as they justify their being and doing according to irresistible law and reason.

So yes, in a world full of abstracted and supposedly transparent power, personalised authority even of a symbolic nature is absurd. But my suggestion is that this absurdity mitigates in a small way some of what Žižek calls subjective violence, that invisible but relentless coercion that proceeds under the veil of transparency and self-evident normality. Far from blinding us, perhaps our monarchy helps us to see.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lenten listening - Accelerate by R.E.M.

Upon release R.E.M.’s penultimate album was greeted with something akin to relief. For a start it’s a genuine band album, by far the leanest, most direct and rockiest record in their 30 year history. Peter Buck’s guitar reasserts itself to take the band toward a heavier expression of its new wave roots. Mike Mills all-rounder contributions of bass and backing vocals sound fresh and lively, and Stipe, rather than blending into the background, returns a serrated edge to his voice largely missing since New Adventures in Hi-Fi. There’s an almost characteristic lull in the middle of the set, but no bad songs, and two exquisite numbers, both among their punkiest, close the album. Both sound unmistakably like R.E.M. at their most irresistibly rockstar, while quite unlike anything they’ve done before. Relevant 25 years in? Not 'alf.

Best track: Horse to Water

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lenten listening - Against by Sepultura

Sepultura embraced the loss of Max Cavalera by tailoring their sound to bring out the best of replacement vocalist Derrick Green. The result is Against, presenting an earthier, woodier, dare I say rootsier sound than late-Cavalera era Seps. This isn’t to suggest it’s not heavy: as well as their trademark variation of groove metal, at one point (Reza) the band launches into speed thrash and Green’s magnificent pipes rise to the challenge. But his USP is an ability to turn his voice more effectively to a greater range of textures than Cavalera, sometimes growling a rap-cum-recitative, sometimes incanting mysteriously, sometimes even singing, always with great effect. And crucially, when he lets rip it's with more richness and security, if with less punch than Max possesses. Although it would seem churlish to note an improvement in the lyrics with the arrival of a native English speaker, this also played a role in recreating Sepultura in a more thoughtful image that has since served them well. Is Against as good as Roots or Chaos AD or Arise? No, but it’s a more than adequate successor and ensured the survival of a great metal band.

Best Track: Old Earth

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lenten listening - American Splendor by Various Artists

The soundtrack album of this quirky movie delivers an equally unusual combination of songs: acoustic jazz and blues, film score and some decidedly odd American string band music with ukuleles, slide guitar and even theremins to the fore. There is also a priceless version of Marvin Gaye’s Ain’t That Peculiar by Chocolate Genius, as well as the original. It’s a fun mix, and connects to the movie’s hyperrealist depiction of a obsessive, flawed stoic.

Best track: 'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If IDo (Jay McShann)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Lenten listening - All Is War by Fun-da-mental

There was a lot of hype surrounding this album when it came out: either Fun-da-mental were the direct mouthpiece of Al Qaida or they were the leaders of an emerging consciousness in the British underclass, breathlessly compared to Public Enemy. Where All Is War deserves comparison with Apocalypse 91... is in its prophetic shock factor. Aki Nawaz holds up a mirror to some of the dominant discourses within British society in the same way as Chuck D did in the States, discomforting white Britain with an alternative image of itself. This is delivered in Urdu, Arabic, Spanish, English and Zulu, through African, Asian and European musical styles, and through some provocative characters and caricatures participating in a poetry slam to the death. Despite this, the streamlined power of opener I Reject is followed by some pretty overwrought and disjointed music, and for all its eclecticism most of the tracks wear themselves out with awkward rhymes or the juicing of one idea until it is but a husk. Still, there are good moments and when accompanied by a little humour (“Dream team Salah ud-Din” Nawaz raps gleefully at one point) his rage begins to connect.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lenten listening - Adore by Smashing Pumpkins

Adore is quite beautiful. Elegiac melodies range over lush progressions and Billy Corgan’s rasp softens to a compellingly fragile utterance, his thoughtful lyrics narrating loss, longing and perhaps a glimmer of hope. Most of the tracks are simply crafted, and although they cast a large shadow in the light of sweeping synth drones and electronica, they are but little songs and retain their intimacy. If anything the album’s a bit too long, not that there are any poor songs but there isn’t the variation to warrant quite so much of the same. This is my only criticism of an otherwise excellent album.

Best track: Blank Page

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lenten listening - ...And Justice For All by Metallica

...And Justice For All is infamous for its diluted sound: Kirk Hammett lets rip on lead hoover, Lars Ulrich beats the crap out of some upturned tupperware, and newbie Jason Newstead makes the tea, for all that you can hear his bass. This characterisation has some truth in it but it isn’t the whole story. In fact, this is a collection of songs at least as strong as Master of Puppets, and James Hetfield’s voice sounds stronger and more versatile than ever. Every song on the album is carefully crafted, imaginatively but unpretentiously varying time signatures and tempi, and although most tracks are long they are not self-indulgent. The result is that ...And Justice For All has aged far better than even the best of its contemporaries, despite its production weaknesses. Also, on a personal note, it’s an album that will for ever remind me of Metallica’s 1999 tour for S&M, in which they played much of their 80s material for the first time in a years - but live there were no hoovers and tupperware, just blisteringly heavy thrash played by the masters of that art.

Best track: Shortest Straw

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lenten Listening: Attack of the Grey Lantern by Mansun

This is one of those pre-OK Computer albums that I’ve always thought of as inseparable from its time, but that's not to say it's exactly typical. It draws heavily upon Suede and late 80s new-wave, for example, but Mansun's glam and indie personae are only ever approximations which morph just as soon as you think you’ve spotted something you recognise. Rich orchestral strings give way to echoey guitars and drum loops, vocals are at times gentle and soaring, at others abrasive, with wry lyrics about odd characters, and there are some pleasingly strange samples and song transitions. Consequently, in the context of the album, their version of a radio-friendly Britpop blast, Egg Shaped Fred, emerges as an ironic, almost weary commentary on the real thing. There are no perfect, timeless songs on the album, but this is an unusual, wide-ranging but coherent, and sometimes wonderful record.

Best track: The Chad Who Loved Me

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lenten listening: American Idiot by Green Day

I don’t know whether American Idiot counts as Green Day’s best album or not, but it’s pretty close to perfect if you take it on its own terms. I can’t imagine every fan was happy when they decided to make a concept album about suburban ennui, but they managed to do so without any filler. Lyrically it’s interesting, with each song capturing something slightly different about life in the Bush era, from the personal (Whatsername) to the cosmic (Boulevard of Broken Dreams) via the social-political (American Idiot). More importantly, it's a great rock album and continues Warning’s journey away from four-chord jingly-ness towards a more epic sound which, fortunately, is just as energetic as ever.

Best track: Jesus of Suburbia Medley

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lenten listening: Accident of Birth by Bruce Dickinson

Early on Accident of Birth, Bruce Dickinson occasionally commits the cardinal metal sin: blandness, no more so than on the tiresome bawl Starchildren. In fact, before track five, little of note happens on the album except one decent guitar solo in Taking the Queen. This despite a lot of huffing a puffing from Bruce, in which the famous vibrato serves only to highlight that he’s not singing anything of note. Fortunately this changes with the compelling Darkside of Aquarius, which never lingers too long on a good idea, and a straightforward rocker Road to Hell, which allows his legendary pipes to deliver with reckless abandon. Man of Sorrows is an epic, and on the subsequent title track he finds his voice over a heavier base, even if the songwriting remains a bit laboured. Once or twice, great moments tend to dissipate in ill thought-out changes of pace, or unconvincing production ideas, like the BVs in The Magician. Fortunately, three superb and quintessentially Bruce Dickinson songs greatly enhance the album at the end - Welcome to the Pit, Omega, and the awesome closer Arc of Space. But his follow up, A Chemical Wedding, is darker, leaner, melodically more interesting and heavier. Start there.

Best track: Welcome to the Pit

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lenten listening: Amandla by Miles Davis

I’m not a Cool-era purist by any means. I love Miles Davis’ edgy Bitches Brew and the electric explorations of some of the greats, notably Herbie Hancock. Still, I find Amandla easy to admire and hard to love. This is mostly to do with the deployment of every 1980s production idea in the book, which at the distance of 20-odd years does more to obscure the shimmering Miles Davis trumpet improvs than to showcase them. And the powerful title promises an edge that I still haven’t really found in the album. Still there are moments when the harmonies are gorgeous enough to redeem gratuitous slap bass or echoey overdriven guitar way back in the mix. The album is best where Davis and his foil in any given break spa with freedom and abandon, breathing life into a somewhat synthetic-sounding set. In contrast, Mr Pastorius, which closes the album, is uniquely uninhibited, and to my ears its classic sound is more vital and fresh than nostalgic, especially in the context of the foregoing attempts at fusion.

Best track: Mr Pastorius

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lenten listening: August and Everything After by Counting Crows

There aren’t many things to dislike about this album. The voice of Adam Duritz can sound a little affected, and this occasionally grates, but he usually gets away with it because his lyrics, tunes and band are so darn fine. And when he relaxes into a song, such as on Rain King, a really engaging voice emerges. As for those lyrics, what impresses is his use of concrete images and scenarios, rather than hiding behind esoteric and inscrutable fragments. Although this means his tales feel deeply personal and rooted in place, this is never alienating precisely because he brings the listener into his world so effectively. Finally, the production is right on the money, without a fill or backing vocal out of place, with everything tight enough to maintain energy without sapping the songs of their rootsy appeal.

Best track: Sullivan Street

Friday, March 09, 2012

Lenten listening: Alright, Still by Lily Allen

Lily Allen’s take on London and (mostly loveless) love is smart and funny, and her unique sound makes me want to listen and to like her. The pastichey production (Ronson et al of course) is successfully cartoonish, with the exception of the half-arsed britpop of Take What You Take. But in the end this is a bit of an unhappy album. She proclaims her freedom from lovers who have done her wrong with style, acerbic wit, and a dose of straight up abuse, but she does so in six out of the first seven songs. The last of these, Shame For You is the best of the bunch and winningly exuberant, but this fixation on bad men becomes quite wearing before you get to it. The single, Littlest Things, is something of a catharsis at track eight then, because it makes sense of the album as a whole in its matter of fact vulnerability and tender reflection on the gnawing memory of a lost lover -whom in this case she actually misses. Thus it connects. Overall, she captures her world pretty well, but thank God it’s not my world.

Best track: Shame For You

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Lenten listening: The Art of the Baroque Trumpet, Vol. 2, by Various Artists

I have a few lovely collections from Naxos which showcase lesser known examples of Early - or at least earlier - music. This one, performed by Niklas Eklund, is one of my favourites, perhaps because his playing is so extraordinarily evocative of the human voice. The instrument alights upon notes smoothly and effortlessly, like the voice of a great countertenor, never insecure or precarious, and with a kind of lightness of articulation that makes the modern valved instrument blush. Many of the pieces themselves, written by lesser-known or completely unknown anonymous composers, come from the cusp of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. I found myself imagining a mythical time of pre-adolescent modernity, not entirely disdainful of its medieval parent, but optimistic about the world and where it's going.

Best track: Girolamo Fantini’s Sonata No.8

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Lenten listening: Angel Dust by Faith No More

This album is disturbing and brilliant. Cheery doses of funky slap bass and wah-wah vamps add a kind of perverse bounce to Faith No More’s sometimes ear-haemorrhaging heaviness. And I haven’t heard a voice so blood-curdling and smoky-sweet in such rapid rotation as Mike Paton’s. That this disorienting record never allows the listener to stay in any kind of comfort zone isn’t to suggest even a hint of prog-stuffiness. Where it is eclectic it is gleefully so, often to the point of parody (redneck monologue, pipe organs, and that cover of Easy to close the album). But this always adds to the twisted fun rather than detracting from it. Listening to it in its 20th year, its clear that everything that was melodically interesting and unhinged (though punkier and more accessible) in, say, System of a Down, had been mastered by Faith No More years earlier.

Best track: Kindergarten

Occupation as Sin

So I got a little feedback on my Tweet of Hanna Katancho’s statement that the Occupation is a sin:

Mr X: Does thatr include the sin of US occupying Mexican territories? How about Muslim occupying the Temple Mount?

@MideastMC: Q1, possibly; Q2, category error. Should Isr leave WB and be Jewish democracy; annex it, and forget J majority; or ditch dem claim?

Mr X: So also Occupation Of Scotland and Wales by English, Elzas by France, And almost every other nation on earth...Why Q2 differnt?


I’m hoping one of us is misunderstanding the other, so thought I’d bring this off Twitter for the sake of space.

It seems that the word ‘Occupation’ here is being applied to several different things.
  1. Conquest, in which territory from one sovereign entity is taken by force by another (7th Century Islamic conquest, England-Wales, US-Mexico).
  2. Building within a newly conquered land but on unused property (Al Aqsa Mosque built on Byzantine rubbish dump, itself built on Hadrian’s temple on site of Jewish temple).
  3. Political union with a disparity of power (Britain [i.e. England and Wales] and Scotland to form Great Britain according to 1707 treaty).

    To this list we should add the various Israeli activities which have been called Occupation:
  4. The assertion of sovereignty by force over a land in which the majority of people reject that sovereignty (as in 1948).
  5. The political and military control of a territory not fully annexed wherein the inhabitants lack recourse in the political apparatus of the occupying power (as in 1967-present).
  6. Forced displacement of people from land to which they have prior legal claim (as in 1948-present).

Although these are all (except perhaps for category two) injustices per se, with category two being a function of category one injustice, I think Katanacho was referring to categories five and six. This matters because the reason we ought not to call for Jewish immigrants to leave who have settled in the land with the legal cover afforded by category four, is because category six is a moral imperative rather than a legal one.

In material terms it matters little whether the West Bank is run by a Palestinian ‘Authority’ or an Israeli Government. What matters is that people who live in this land have the freedom to live, move, work, tend their land, be secure in their homes, and have the ability to hold the power to which they are subject to account and change the regime and government which controls its apparatus.

The Israeli Occupation (category five proceeding through category six) is to be resisted in so much as there is a population subject to a power without having equal rights as subjects/citizens. Israel has to make a choice, will it assert its sovereignty over the West Bank fully and give its residents full and equal rights within the polity, or will it cede sovereignty to a fully sovereign Palestinian state with a fully autonomous Palestinian Government?

Does that answer your question Mr X? Please feel free to Tweet me if you want to remain anonymous on this thread.

Christ at the Checkpoint 2012

Christ at the Checkpoint has been subject to huge opposition - Google it if you can stomach slander. I can testify to the graciousness and inspirational patience and love of organisers and speakers alike. Please support it by visiting the website and tuning in to some of the talks.

The highlight for me so far was Munther Isaac's talk, which will be available on the website soon. Don't miss it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Lenten listening: Absolution by Muse

Muse make nothing but spectacular music, complete with virtuoso piano, thunderous guitars and more irony-free theatre than the Phantom of the Opera. That they are also the best arena-filling live band of their generation makes them a genuine phenomenon. If there’s one criticism of them that sticks, it is that Matt Belamy’s Thom Yorke-isms sometimes come across as overwrought and a bit dull. That’s true of the first third of Absolution, but with the change of pace at the start of Falling Away with You the album begins to feel more differentiated and textured, paving the way for a collection of seven immense songs as accomplished as any they’ve ever written.

Best track: Butterflies and Hurricanes

Monday, March 05, 2012

Lenten listening: Abandon by Abandon

This five-track is a worthwhile addition to the collection of even CCM-suspicious music fans. Opener Providence is arresting and blisteringly performed, but wait for tracks 3 and 4 to launch away from merely appealing WYSIWYG alt-rock into really promising territory. With mid-tempo worship song All Because of You and Prodigal Son-inspired Here Waiting, Abandon demonstrate an ability to craft good songs into great performances, produced to perfection and not to death. The hooks are catchy, the lyrics meaningful, and the breaks and builds artfully constructed. They sound like a band that have brought gig-tested songs into the studio rather than vice versa. 

Best track: Here Waiting

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Lenten listening: Around the Sun by R.E.M.

R.E.M. have often suffered from being widely listened to but rarely heard, and never more so than with this record. Almost universally panned, Around the Sun actually consists of invariably good songs, a point borne out by how they sound live. Admittedly, this is not a band record as such, and its energy is sometimes exhausted by production which smoothes a few of the edges that make R.E.M R.E.M. Still, listen through the polish to some elegant and intimate lyrics, sweet if restrained melodies, and some of Michael Stipe’s most giving vocal performances.

Best track: Wanderlust

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Lenten listening: About a Boy by Badly Drawn Boy

I don’t buy many soundtracks. This one came bundled with my wife when we got married. But it’s actually rather excellent. The stand-out pop tunes, Silent Sigh and Something to Talk About, are eminently hummable, although it’s Damon Gough’s instinct for the cinematic that really makes this album rewarding on repeated listens. His is a playful, George Martin-esque kind of drama, best evidenced in the instrumentals but in fact definitive throughout, notably in the gorgeously orchestrated song Above You, Below Me.

Best track: Above You, Below Me

Friday, March 02, 2012

Lenten listening: Alone in the Dark by Steph Macleod

Steph Macleod’s voice is one of the most instantly recognisable I’ve heard. In this, his debut EP, he deals only obliquely with his artistically formative experience of coming off the streets, going dry and meeting Jesus. For me this increases its appeal rather than lessening it. The luscious title track is a tender acoustic love song, at once effortless and earnest. This is possibly surpassed in emotional intensity by track two, Grace, in the voice of a tormented killer wrestling with his conscience in isolation and fear, paranoid and desperate. And you know that when he switches from first to third person - “Is he gonna jump or shall we push him?” - he’s singing about voices he still has no difficulty hearing. Of course, an artist struggling with darkness is hardly a rarity, but it’s the combination of pain-forged rawness with an almost wide-eyed guilelessness as the colour returns to his world, that makes listening to Steph Macleod’s so life-giving.

Best track: Grace

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Lenten listening: A-Lex by Sepultura

On this 18-track epic, bracing thrash gives way to unselfconscious silliness (Beethoven medley anyone?) yet remains thoroughly satisfying throughout. In both veins this is unmistakeable Sepultura, sounding more comfortable in their metallic skins than ever. Occasionally there is a tendency towards riff tetris, in which every 8-bar chunk slots a little predictably into the next, but somehow this never becomes enervating. In fact, as a unit it is the most coherent album Sepultura have released since the departure of Max Cavalera, and several of the songs deserve to be Seps classics.

Best track: The Treatment.

Lenten listening

Part of my Lent thing is to listen to music. Really listen. Listen like I listened when I was a kid and could only afford one CD every blue moon. Listen even when I think I've decided such and such an album isn't very good, but it's there so I should give it another go.

You see, sometimes I prefer discovering new music to listening to music I already have. So I've set myself a rule: I can't listen to any album beginning with B until I've listened to everything beginning with A. You'd be surprised how rewarding it's been already, having listened to seven albums beginning with A!

And strangely, something that someone said recently in the wake of Whitney Houston's death has stuck with me, about how we tend to disrespect and certainly fail to appreciate the artists that impart colour to our lives. So I'm going to post some reviews here and on Amazon to say thanks! Why not?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Obama's monumental error

If you'd asked me even three weeks ago whether Palestinians seemed interested in the statehood bid at the UN, I'd have said not really. But it seems that America's masochistic diplomacy has quickened the long dormant Palestinian street.

Jericho residents march in support of the 194 bid, Wednesday.


When I was first in Palestine in 2004, politics was regularly the first thing people talked about. Over the past couple of years people's weariness and justified cynicism seemed to have won the day. But during the past couple of weeks, there has been a palpable change, people immediately asking me what I think about the statehood bid, and increasingly going on to express their own qualified support for it. Barnaby Phillips on Al Jazeera just cited a poll showing 80% support for the bid.

This support is invariably coupled with an almost amused reference to Obama's rapid descent from 'Yes we can!' to 'No you can't'. His sanctimonious lecture about a shortcut to peace was not only offensive in its replication of Lieberman's narrative, reminiscent in fact of his pre-election AIPAC speech, but it was painfully patronising. People here know that they are contending with facts on the ground not with UN decisions on paper, and the 89 binding resolutions Israel has ignored testify to the limitations of the latter.

"We want a state in Palestine, not a seat in New York" one person in Jericho told me as he strapped a flag to a lamppost.

But what are their options? As is often said, you can't talk about the division of a pie with an interlocutor whose mouth is full and whose hands are already on the remainder. Obama dismissing the school bully and the little kid to sort it out by themselves is an outrageous snub that people feel acutely here.

Worse than this, instead of punishing Netanyahu for his intransigence and demonstrating that US aid comes at a price, it has given him free reign to pursue that which he has single-mindedly pursued since taking office: a state of play on the ground in which Palestine is literally nothing but a nearby market for Israeli goods, populated by people with no rights and no representation. To say this is unsustainable is, sadly, optimistic.

A balloon flying over Bethlehem Sunday.


Of course, the statehood bid was never in itself going to solve this, and poses more questions than it answers, not least with regard to the representation of diaspora Palestinians. However, it has successfully demonstrated the imbalance of power, the sheer asymmetry of the imagined conflict here, and the extent to which Israel has all the cards.

America's hapless and weak intervention has not disguised this reality. Contrast Obama's sermon, or that of the sickeningly mealy mouthed David Cameron, with the morally consistent, forthright, and common-sensical speech of Turkish PM Erdogan. No-one will be fooled. Even the Israeli press has been confused, assuming there will be a sting in the tail. I'm not so hopeful.

But America's increasingly incompetent support for manifest injustice may have the effect of galvanising a previously wearied and divided people for whatever comes next.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Persistence and resistance in Palestinian Christian uses of scripture

The metaphor of the Bible as a contested territory is not original. NT Wright uses it powerfully at the start of his epic New Testament and the People of God. In the light of this image, it is possible to see the attempts of Palestinian Christians to settle upon an interpretation of scripture, one that does not concede to the interpretations of those who think their land really belongs to the Jews, as an important textual intifada.

Arguably, however, this struggle - as with many resistance movements - threatens to make the most impoverished even less secure in their textual land. The Palestinian farmer turfed off their land is less concerned by where borders fall and sovereignty is asserted than by retaining the rights derived from the fact that he grew up on the land, has made the land fruitful, and expects his children to inherit the fruit.

Likewise, the textual felah is the Palestinian Christian who does not have the time or language with which to engage in protracted debates about the meaning of various texts, but who cares deeply about the Bible as addressed to them as Christians, and who performs it every Sunday through liturgy. This person is under threat as much from the exclusive focus upon interpretation as from a specific exclusive interpretation itself.

Performing scripture in worship is to claim it as one's own canon. To say 'it means so-and-so...and that's all that matters' is to rob others with different interpretations, and to rob those for whom interpretation is secondary. Contesting the Bible as territory, subject to the interpretations of the most gifted theologians, is perhaps necessary, but it is not the only way to claim this land. Does not the person born in a land, tilling it despite its rocks and thorns, have an inalienable claim to it that does not depend upon the territorial compromises of the powerful? Can Palestinian theologians begin by affirming this relationship while engaging the interpretative enemy? Can we say at the outset that the person who uses scripture to worship God has an inalienable claim to that scripture that is not dependent upon their intellectual assessment of it?

One evangelical friend summed it up like this for me:

"When you interpret only, the text is away from you - you don't own it. When you chant it you own it. From time to time I go to the Orthodox for a wedding or funeral, and when I saw them chant Psalm 91 they were with tears in their eyes. For them if it is about Israel, it is about them. The Old Testament is their text as much as the New."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bethlehem's "marginalised minority"?

Rowan Williams recently described the Christians of Bethlehem as a "marginalised minority". This is not only incorrect, but possibly a damaging comment to those it aims to help.

Of course, the Archbish should be commended for using his good offices to highlight the difficulties Christians face in a number of places in the region, about which he clearly knows a great deal. But to characterise Bethlehem as "very definitely a place where Christians are a marginalised minority"seems to be gratuitous hyperbole.

Certainly, some Christians here do contribute anecdotes to a narrative of persecution for which there will be a ready and well-resourced audience in the West. This position may be the outworking of frightening or alienating experiences, of which there are undoubtedly some, though very often even these concrete examples are drawn from Jerusalem's charged melting pot, not Bethlehem. What's more, in other Palestinian towns such as Nablus, which used to have a healthy Christian minority, Christian communities may indeed face extinction, and Christians here are aware of that.

But it seems to me that the Palestinian Authority and other stakeholders in Palestinian public life bend over backwards to demonstrate the distinctively Christian character of Bethlehem and its satellite towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Regardless of more altruistic motivations, it would be politically masochistic for them to do otherwise as the Palestinian national cause benefits a great deal internationally from being recognised as more than a Muslim struggle.

This political will might be demonstrated by three very different examples: the official and ecumenical endorsement of Bethlehem Bible College's 'Christ at the Checkpoint' Conference last year at which Salam Fayyad himself spoke; the reservation of the Mayoralty of the town to a Christian; and the appearance of Hamas officials at the Syriac Orthodox church in Bethlehem immediately after the massacres in Iraq and Egypt over the Christmas season explicitly to reject sectarian violence. Whether or not this is the outworking of genuine fraternal feeling is to some extent beside the point.

I might tentatively add another impression from the field. Where I have heard Christians express a sense of insecurity in Bethlehem specifically, it often seems somewhat reminiscent of the kind of defensiveness of established local populations in the face of immigration. The reason for the loss of a Christian majority here is of course related to the respective fertility of different communities and to emigration, but one mustn't forget that the population of Bethlehem was swollen by mostly Muslim refugees in 1948. The 'old families' of Bethlehem do not always look with affection upon them, and even some in-comer Christians drawn from families who arrived in the 20th Century have reported ill-feeling toward them from the established Christian families of Bethlehem. Tellingly, the attitude of Nablus Christians, among whom I lived for a couple of months in 2004, was never as defensive as that which sometimes I encounter here.

Promoting this narrative is risky. I recall recently listening to priest Jamal Khader (also Dean of Bethlehem University) assert the need to think of Palestinian Christians here not as a minority at all. I understood him to be saying that Western and local Christian anxiety about the plight of Palestinian Christians in particular, as opposed to Palestinians in general, may contribute to their 'othering' in the eyes of Muslims, and thus potentially undermine their persistence in the land which is presumably the Archbishop's goal. Some Christians may have a short-term interest in being thus othered, but Father Jamal would suggest, I think, that most do not.

Christian Palestinian sociologist Bernard Sabella has found that Christians leave the town for one overwhelming reason: economic hardship as a result of the occupation. This is wholly borne out by my interviews and informal conversations with Christians here, even those who are defensive and most aggressively sectarian. The Archbishop wishes to help Christians here, clearly, and in order to do this he must continue to challenge the Occupation and the theologies which support it, without giving succour to the defensiveness and Islamophobia which can prove dangerously divisive.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Multiculturalism revisited

The massacre of dozens of young people in Norway was evidently motivated by some perverted attempt to protect a national, European or even Christendom 'identity' in the face of a perceived encroachment of an Islam bent on world domination.
Bearing in mind how reminiscent this paranoia is of early 20th Century anti-Semitism, we should be very careful to reflect on how our dominant discourses may contribute to the formation of modes of thinking which make hatred, fear and ultimately extremist violence, even mass violence, seem necessary to some. 
I’m not simply talking about the obvious candidates, those whom Breivik cited in his manifesto such as jihadwatch et. al. Europe’s leaders of late have played a populist frostiness towards immigrants, and attacking a government’s laxity in the face of immigration has become the norm for oppositions. Of course, leaving aside France where a disturbing authoritarianism has taken hold of the mainstream, the consensus is not explicitly anti-immigrant or culturally chauvinist as such. When Merkel announces that “multiculturalism has failed” or Cameron proclaims its consequences as deep segregation, it’s hard outright to dismiss their thinking. 
Where they transgress however is in insisting upon adoption of a centrally-defined identity as a prerequisite to immigration. The right to cohabit in a space becomes about being one sort of person and not another sort, rather than abiding by the law which demarcates officially acceptable behaviour. That this provides fertile soil for racist ideology and fear-filled hatred is clear. 
Furthermore, there is a naivete to the post-multiculturalism consensus as a measure of multiculturalism is a fact of life. Taking culture to be all of the socially communicated symbols and norms a person integrates into their psychological development, the cultures of an Anglican aristocrat in Yorkshire, a Liverpudlian Catholic docker and a North London Jewish shopkeeper in 1910 would have seemed as mutually unintelligible (and potentially threatening to one another) as any of the combinations in our globalised 21st Century. The interaction of such different people has led to the demise of some group identities and the flourishing of new ones, and that's natural.
Cameron likes to allude to hospitality which involves a measure of reciprocity. He’s right, but do we want people, in return for hospitality (a right which of course has been won through the blood of colonised peoples), to pledge allegiance to the Queen or assert a centrally-defined British identity which will be as foreign to the people on my terraced street in Insch as to Afar nomads? Of course not, and the point is that it is the people on my street that will be actually providing hospitality, not ‘Britain’ or ‘Europe’.
The goal is not integration or assimilation and certainly not segregation, but is willing participation in local community life, perhaps even through the expression of origin cultures. This is no less difficult than it is necessary, and it certainly cannot be enforced from the centre. Instead, it falls to local communities to find ways of including the other, making space for and hearing from new arrivals and working out how different cultures can benefit one another. While it is unclear how national or European-wide policy-making can make this happen, unlike perhaps more accountable and democratic local government, I believe that the prevailing national identity discourse is hugely risky. It makes this kind of urgent hospitality to the other seem unnecessary or even treacherous, and a change of tone is overdue.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Chutzpah

I can't quite believe what we just saw between Obama and Netanyahu. The former's careful diplomatic hospitality was met with a forthright and quite unmistakeable snub.

Every issue with which the so-called peace negotiations are apparently concerned was effectively pushed off the table. Obama's call last night for contiguous 1967 (-based) borders was flatly contradicted by the PM. Obama's recognition that the US will have to deal with whomsoever the Palestinians elect was met with Netanyahu again contradicting him by saying there can be no peace agreement with, er, the people they're fighting.

Meanwhile, the biggest refugee problem in the world was equated with the counter-expulsion of Jews by Arab countries who were of course 'absorbed' by a country needing an ethnoreligiously defined Jewish majority. Plucky little Israel was invoked despite the manifest military supremacy which they enjoyed from day one. And of course, the fact that Palestinians are still being forced from their land to make way for the last old fashioned Eurocolonialist project was completely ignored. It was a masterclass in shameless hasbara.

Had you told me this is what Netanyahu was going to do beforehand I would have said great - Obama won't stand for another such insult, surely?

I wish I could be sure.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Palestine: Obama's second chance

Obama's much lauded 2009 speech in Cairo was encouraging if only because it ended the 'them and us' rhetoric which characterised two terms of 'crusading' Bush incitement.

And precisely for this reason the complete lack of initiative shown by his regime on the Middle East has been as much an insult to the intelligence of Palestinians as it has been a disappointment to their aspirations.

Despite Netanyahu's constant nose-thumbing, the US has singularly failed to reign in the vulgar - at times brutal - excesses of a militarised state which feels it can act with impunity, let alone advance an idea which promises to break the deadlock.

Obama's speech today certainly fails to do the latter, but we should perhaps dare to hope that it hints at the former. All he is doing is taking America closer to positions established in international law, and more importantly, to the moral claims of people who have been systematically forced from their lands by American tax money.

Streamers and fireworks are of course not in order, but contra Hamas, Obama has made an implicit promise long absent in American presidential discourse: we will not accept or support Israel's effective claim to Palestinian lands occupied since 1967.

We must not expect an end to the mealy-mouthed urging of restraint on both sides or the chumminess with a man whose hands are soaked in Palestinian blood and whose mind appears addled by fear and power. Still, rattled perhaps by the moral weight of Sunday's protests, he has drawn a line in the sand which is clear to all sides.

A promise gives him a second chance, and if he keeps it he may well lose his office. He would prove himself a more impressive character for it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Intifada 2.0?

Black flags in advance of Nakba Day in Bethlehem this week.
According to news reports and coffee shop chatter, forthcoming Nakba Day demonstrations will launch a new intifada. Thanks to social networking, this time it's organised from the outset.

Facebook groups and apparently viral SMS messages are calling for Sunday's demos to be the start of what proponents hope will be the Palestinian Spring. There's even a promo video.

Palestinian Muslims pray on the pavement after Israeli police bar all under-45s from the Old City of Jerusalem today.
Following the qualified successes of the Arab Spring, Palestinians are being encouraged to recommence the concerted resistance characteristic of the first and second intifadas and, despite the reservations of many, some are hoping and believing that this time it really could work. The inspiration from Egypt is that no repression can be total in the electronic age - although Mubarak wasn't quite as adept at e-Hasbara as his Israeli counterparts.

In any case, there are two problems with this. The first is that it may just be what Netanyahu has been crying out for: a chance to delegitimise Palestinian attempts at declaring statehood (though Palestinians will point out that statehood in a territory as unviable as the West Bank cannot really be worth the wait). The second is that, despite the new unity deal, Palestinians do not share an endgame other than desiring the freedom to live normal lives.

Oh, and there's a third problem. Fatah/Hamas. One appears compromised and visionless, and one is etched on the mind for its defenestration of opponents.

The ball is obviously in Israel's court and, as Stephen Sizer points out, the question it still won't answer is this: of the Occupied Territories, Democracy, and Jewish statehood, which are you willing to give up? Hopefully, the Third Intifada will force the question rather than burying it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Apologies to Tam

When Tam Dalyell described Tony Blair as 'by far the worst' Prime Minister he'd observed from the Commons benches, I put it down to (not uncharacteristic) hyperbole. After all, my first job as a sabbatical-elect at Edinburgh was to take him to task for describing Blair as 'unduly influenced by a Jewish cabal'.

However, on Blair I should have taken him more seriously. In addition to what we already knew, only this week we learned the following:
  • That, while telling Bush that his government was intent on regime change in Iraq, he was telling his officers quite the opposite.
  • That his government was lending material support to brutal suppression of dissent in Gaza.
  • That his government's unprecedented civil liberties encroachments were, surprise surprise, unnecessary - a 'symbol of hypocrisy' around the world, no less.
And now he is lecturing the Egyptians, whose government's oppression his did nothing to alleviate, on the benefits of gradual modernisation.

Tam, you were absolutely right. And, likewise, you were right when you said: 'that since Mr Blair [went] ahead with his support for a US attack without unambiguous UN authorisation, he should be branded as a war criminal and sent to The Hague.' That he used a progressive social democratic movement to do all of this compounds the crime.

But, rather than writing the man off as a vicious lying weasel with blood on his hands, we should seriously ask whether his messiah complex clouded his judgement. Can 'diminished responsibility' be taken into account in a war crimes trial?

Friday, January 21, 2011

UK won't recognise unilaterally declared state?

Putting aside the fact that the two-state solution is less viable now than airborne pigs, Alistair Burt's comments that Britain won't 'recognize a [Palestinian] state that does not have a capital, and doesn’t have borders' is absurd.

For a start, one doesn't fail to recognise Eritrea because it has a border dispute with Ethiopia. Statehood and final status are different things. Burt's comments are even more preposterous in the light of Israel's own failure to define its borders, while the UK effectively recognises Tel Aviv as Israel's capital, in denial of its claims to Jerusalem. One should assume that, according to Burt's logic, Israel shouldn't be recognised as a state.

Of course, all of this ignores the facts on the ground. What kind of state would Salam Fayyad be declaring? Would residents of the West Bank settlements accept residency of Palestine? Would Palestine have control of its own borders, roads and natural resources? Would they control tourism on the Dead Sea? If not, then you can call it a state or, in the words of one 1990s Israeli government hawk, 'fried chicken', it's no real change.

If the international community genuinely wants to see a two state solution work, negotiated or unilaterally declared, then it will involve material support for a potentially bloody transition, and there doesn't seem to be any enthusiasm for that.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Given up on the Grauniad

Has the proudly independent Guardian recreated itself in the image of any Murdoch paper circa-2002?

I fear so. Take today's headline:

Revealed: Lib Dems planned before election to abandon tuition fees pledge

It turns out that the Lib Dems considered what would happen if they ended up in coalition talks with the Tories and decided tuition fees wouldn't be a deal-breaker. Judging by what they managed to get out of the Tories, I'd say fair enough.

The Guardian headline of course paints the Lib Dems as conniving sons of bitches who screwed us to get into power. But this compromising is precisely the kind of politics that they, and we Greens, have effectively been campaigning for by supporting PR, and they seem reasonably good at it. Labour were authoritarian, militaristic and incompetent, and their worst policies were quickly overturned. Yet the left which they completely betrayed seems to be running back to them, with the Guardian leading the charge. It used to be the Times that would be the New Labour banner-waver, but the Guardian has made its peace with the pseudo-left simply because they aren't Tory. That they're echoing the Daily Mail in bashing the Lib Dems should give us some pause.

Don't get me wrong, the economic direction of the Coalition is, I think, very dangerous. I would much prefer to be criticising this. Instead I find myself defending the Lib Dems from misguided criticism that threatens to end the prospect of electoral reform for a generation.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

New blog

Just to let you know that I'm starting a new Anthropology-oriented blog here. I don't intend it to be too weighty or dense but more of a repository of reflections from the field. Hope you like it.

I haven't yet decided whether or not to keep boxologies up and running.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The normalisation of fascism in France?

I don't use the F-word lightly. I have no wish to dilute the horror of fascist ideologies by associating them with just-a-wee-bit conservative politicians: to do so is too easy and probably counterproductive. But from this distance the current French regime seems clearly to be 'on the spectrum'. Fascism views the nation as a natural reality possessed of an absolute identity, and is willing to deploy coercive violence against dissident individuals to retain this identity. Simply put, the law is being deployed to reinforce the notion that some people groups are the right kind and others are the wrong kind.

At the same time as the high-profile Roma scandal is making the headlines, the suppression of the Israeli boycott campaign progresses apace. I received an email from the French EuroPalestine campaign which highlights the forthcoming trial of Alima Boumediene-Thiery, a member of the French Senate, because she participated in a BDS action in Paris a year ago. This constitutes, apparently, "incitement to racial hatred" as well as a breach of the curious statute: “discrimination against the Israeli nation”. The notorious plaintiff is Sammy Ghozlan whose apparent assessment of Judge Richard Goldstone is that he is "scum" and "a bastard", and who compares Obama to Pharoah who "transformed the Jewish people into slaves". He's entitled to express his opinions, but the irony is his astoundingly mainstream crusade to silence the BDS campaign.

The trial is something of a test case and some fear it is politically motivated. Boumediene-Thiery has been active on issues relating to immigration, Islam and Islamophobia, prison conditions and so on, all rather hot issues in Europe's latest pariah state. She is also an outspoken critic of successive Israeli regimes, having secured the successful vote in the European Parliament in 2002 on suspending the preferential commercial agreement between Europe and Israel.

Meanwhile, activists themselves are due to be in court to defend (wait for it) the posting of this video on their EuroPalestine site. Apparently Ma'asara mayor Mahmoud Suleiman's comments are "criminal" and EuroPalestine are therefore complicit.

Sympathisers in France are being asked to repost the video on their sites and being urged to write to the State Prosecutor requesting that they too can stand trial.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Peace talks, you say?

The majority of Palestinians have no representation at the talks.
Israel’s representatives are currently engaged in acts of war against the Palestinian people even as they sit at the table.
Abbas has nothing to give or concede except Palestinian legal rights – everything else has already been conceded.
Netanyahu has much to gain in making a gesture toward peace and blaming Abbas and coalition partners when nothing happens.
Unlike the Mitchell who brokered the Good Friday Agreement, this Mitchell has done nothing to address the asymmetry of power and voice.
Any sustainable two-state final status agreement would require third party military reinforcement, and no-one’s offered it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Doing the right thing

Earlier this week Caroline Lucas asked the Government whether it intends to launch a public inquiry into the fatal toxic waste dump in Côte d'Ivoire in 2006, in which British companies are implicated. She received a dismissive negative from Richard Benyon, a DEFRA Under Secretary of State.

Just thought you'd like to know.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Islamic Republic plays catch up

So we heard nothing from Tehran for most of last week as Turkey stole their thunder in the rhetorical war against Zionism. And what's more, Turkey commanded the world's sympathy in a way Iran somehow never has.

Now they're attempting to catch up, realising that being caught on the wrong side of this spat makes them look ridiculous. Unfortunately, it puts the Gaza protestors in a tricky diplomatic position. Ahmadinejad and his completely counterproductive sabre-rattling is the object of scorn among many Palestinians I've spoken to, whose memories of being a pawn in an regional scramble for a piece of the pie have not faded. "They're Zionists too", as one friend put it, referring to the region's powers.

The Free Gaza Movement will surely never accept the cover of the Iranians, but such an offer may create a damaging fault-line between those who believe that such a military defence is an overdue and legitimate assertion of Palestinian sovereignty, and those whose desire is for continued nonviolent civil disobedience in the hope that, as with South Africa, the truth will out. If even one skipper decides he wants to take the Iranians up on their offer, an exchange in the Eastern Med between Israel and Iran seems dangerously likely.

Iran's intervention could therefore be the Macguffin that advances the plot of Israeli victimhood in the international community, and consigns this moment of momentum and opportunity to history. But we shall see.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Peretz: Israel not as bad as Iraq suicide bombers

Marty Peretz's remarkable article in the New Republic shows just how close to the bottom of the barrel Israel's apologists have to scrape this week, and we should perhaps be encouraged by that.

He writes: "I am sorry to break the gloom, but I don’t think that the death of nine highly aware intruders into a war zone is actually a tragedy. The death by suicide bombing of an old woman in a mosque in Iraq or of more than 75 people at a volleyball game in Pakistan … these are true human catastrophes. But the fate of the Islamic jihadists was a mishap, nothing more than a mishap".

The number of errors is striking: the boats were not in a war zone, they were in international waters; the dead were nonviolent activists acting in self-defence, although if he wants to call this "jihad" so be it; thirdly, contrary to his suggestion that nobody would say Israel started it, to claim anything other than that Israel began the fighting is ludicrous. In any case, when does the fighting begin? When the concussion grenades are fired? When pirates actually board a ship? Or when those on the ship attempt to prevent their access?

That such a wilfully lazy presentation of events should be allowed in the proudly Zionist NR is no surprise. But it is astounding that an article should be printed in which Israel is being compared favourably with suicide bombers in Iraq, even if such an implication is presumably inadvertent.

So let's spell it out for Mr Peretz. The suicide bombers in Iraq are the enemies of every government in the world, they are viewed by the international community of the empowered as criminals and they are being pursued by the world's mightiest military. Israel, meanwhile, is the largest recipient of US aid, a "good friend" (as we are reminded with nauseating regularity) of the Western economic powers, a trading partner, and, as the refrain goes, 'the Middle East's only democracy'.

Israel: 'the West' in miniature?
Which brings us to the key point. I have heard Israelis describe their borders as the point at which the West meets the East. In an unabashed claim to orientalist we-feeling, Israel portrays itself as 'our' outpost 'over there'.

The cultivation of solidarity between Israel and their Euro-American allies on cultural grounds can be observed in self-presentation at home and abroad, and this is not wholly cynical. Israel's image of itself is as a 'Jewish state', and Jews and Judaism have contributed immeasurably to our cultural life (as they have, incidentally, to Islamic and Middle Eastern culture). What's more, the powerful in Israel are almost exclusively Euro-Americans. The symbiotic link between Israel and the West is manifested materially but it is bound up deeply in a shared imagination.

But in its Zionist incarnation, as Akiva Orr ably demonstrates, Israel retains less of the Jewish than of the imperial. Zionism makes more sense as a Eurocolonialist endeavour than as a nation's pursuit of self-determination. Its ability to use the rule of law toward ethnic cleansing is, I suppose, the civilisationist project distilled.

And that, alongside the material support of our governments, is why honesty with regard to Israel is of the utmost urgency: we are very directly complicit in their abuses. I have argued elsewhere that Zionism simply could not have prevailed without the support of Westerners, especially enthusiastic Christians. So when we criticise Israel it is not because they behave worse than the Burmese Junta or Kim Jong Il or Al-Qaida militants. It is because of our investment in their crimes.

The parallels with apartheid South Africa are compelling and we should perhaps heed Yitzhak Leor's bold argument that Israel's is the more barbaric of the two systems. The resilience of black resistance was eventually met by the robust (if derided) support of people in the most complicit countries, including the UK. Monday's horror may yet prove not to have been in vain if it motivates the kind of clear thinking necessary to draw Israel's day-to-day strangling of the invisible other, and our prejudicial sympathy, into the light.

Marty Peretz has lent us a hand.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Flotilla's last stand

You may know that one ship, the MV Rachel Corrie, was delayed in port for technical reasons. She has departed and you can follow her progress here.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Will this stand?

Israel has long used terror on the populations under its control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This I have witnessed with my own eyes and the historical record is pretty clear. And yet I confess to being astounded by this morning's attack of a Free Gaza Movement convoy in international waters, in which 10 humanitarian activists appear to have been killed.

Israel's public information on fatal incidents is often wrong, and often changes once the facts become undeniable, as happened with the killing of two Palestinians at Awarta in the spring. But on this occasion even their immediate spin is feeble. The people whose boat we just boarded in international waters to thwart their effort to bring humanitarian aid into Gaza again..."were dead set on confrontation"!

This is not a typical oppressive state. This is not Saudi Arabia, North Korea or Burma, whose regimes brutalise their own. This is a belligerent anomaly whose agenda is the slow but irrevocable crushing of those who dare to have roots in the land they have conquered, who will be starved out if they cannot be driven out, who will be legislated off their land if they don't accept the law of the almighty incomers.

The story of states is almost always soaked in blood: Israel's birth is nothing compared to that of the USA. Our countries have no moral high ground. But if we care about justice and freedom we should no longer be cowards in the face of the vile acts perpetrated in the name of the Middle East's only "democracy". If Obama has any guts, this is his moment to prove it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Freedom and watermelons

Caroline Lucas described the 2010 Westminster manifesto as "left-wing plus", an apt description of a boldly redistributive platform, causing some to compare the party to a watermelon: green on the outside but deep red where it matters.

We should indeed view our party's contribution in essentially materialist terms, concerned firstly with the most sustainable solution to the basic economic problem of scarce resources and (supposedly) limitless demand. What's more, if we lose sight of the materialist grounds of politics there is the danger of becoming dangerously authoritarian or quixotic and irrelevant.

And I would add that, if we are socialists, we should be quite unrecognisable as such to the rhetoricians of class struggle, of big, centralised statism, and of bureaucratic unionism. We should not be a party that despises markets, neither should we deny the elegance of the price mechanism, even if we are rightly suspicious of their use in capitalist quasi-libertarianism. In fact, it is perfectly possible to articulate our aspirations in libertarian terms, because there is nothing neutral or natural about the disconnect of people from land, of wealth from the production of resources. Any interventions to restore this link could justifiably be viewed in terms of responding to market failure.

Importantly the shared core of Green politics is actually quite simple: a belief in entropy, a belief that growth is far from an adequate indicator of prosperity, that we now have to refuse to keep growing and growing if we don't want to undermine the ability of our species to live freely and securely on planet earth. Is this socialist? Well it's anti-capitalist, but I'd not like to go much further than that. The manifesto was exciting precisely because it took such a broad view of freedom, understanding that sanctifying economic growth in a world governed by entropy is a system of collective masochism in which the poorest suffer first.

Of course, the Green Party should be a place wherein we find space for the conversations that are not being had elsewhere, about the effective hierarchy of rights, about personhood (animal rights, abortion, bioethics), about the role of nations and supranationalism in a world that needs localism more than ever.

However any policy positions in these areas shouldn't define us as much as our profoundly countercultural economic position. Beyond that, our other distinctive could be hospitality to a genuine plurality of views.