Sunday, January 25, 2009

Layer 117 Hail To The Chief: Barak Obama

This should have been posted last Tuesday, 20th January.

More than a million people turned out in Washington DC for the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. Millions around the world watched it live on TV. History was well and truly made.

A day to savour, and remember. People spoke about sheer, unrestrained joy, but the new president’s first speech focused on the work ahead, and the grim resolve needed to achieve what needs to be done.

He spoke of indicators of crisis, and worn out dogmas. He said the time has come to set aside childish things. He reminded us that all people are equal and all are free. He said greatness must be earned, especially if you happen to be the most prosperous and powerful nation on earth

He warned that the time has passed for putting off unpleasant decisions. There’s a need to transform schools and colleges to meet the demands of a new age

The stale political arguments no longer apply. Without a watchful eye the market can spin out of control.

He pointed to a future of peace and dignity for all people. He said power alone cannot protect us. Neither does it entitle us to do as we please.

He promised greater cooperation and friendship between nations, and between people of different faiths, and indeed non-believers. Mutual respect!

He spoke of the spirit of service, the willingness to find meaning in something greater than ourselves. He spoke of kindness, selflessness, courage, and nurture. He spoke of human values, of the need for honesty and hard work. He looked forward to a return to these truths, and a new era of responsibility. He reminded us of the need for hope, and virtue.



What a laugh! Dick Cheney had injured his back, clearing out his office, and he turned up for the ceremony in a wheelchair. What an image - Dr Strangelove! Wire rimmed glasses and all. The ultimate mad fascist! If we didn’t know it before, it was very obvious in that one image. He didn’t quite raise his right arm in a Nazi salute, or call for the bombing of the Rooskies, but he didn’t need to. We know already how his mind works.

So now Dick and his gang must get down to the task of plotting Obama’s downfall. Those guys will never give up, or go away, or change their spots.

And now the critics and the cynics will begin the business of shooting down the naïve fools who somehow believe that this really is the dawning of a new, liberal America, one that creates peace and harmony throughout the world, and works for justice and prosperity for all. To all those who say rejoice! - Obama is the Messiah! - they say, get real you idiots - he’s not going to do much at all, he’s just going down the middle of the road, just returning to a sort of Democratic Keynesianism, just pulling back from costly and illegal wars, nothing else.

But these people, these critics, miss the point. The reason so many people are rejoicing is not just because Obama is black, though that in itself is something to celebrate, and not even that he’s a liberal, though he is indeed that rare creature in modern American politics.

No - it’s simply that the best guy won, and that America finally has a president who is intelligent, who has real values, and a real vision for a decent society for all. It has a leader who’s not a stupid, warmongering conservative who sincerely believes that it’s OK to bend the world to the will of corporate and military America, and to bully other countries into doing what it wants.

America finally has a leader who genuinely wants to recreate a country that can feel proud of itself, that other nations can look up to or at least want to associate with; a country that works with other countries, rather than bullies, threatens and coerces everyone it can’t actually bribe or buy.

This is something to celebrate.


Scumbag Britain: A Country To Be Ashamed Of.

Meanwhile, back in stupid Britain, here’s three examples of what a nasty, ignorant, mean, uncaring and thoroughly dumb country we’ve become, totally without concern for the wellbeing of the elderly, and totally focused on increasing corporate profits at the expense of all else. It’s becoming incredible what complete arseholes we are in terms of sheer corporate greed and negligence, and the inability and unwillingness of the State to do anything about it.

1) On Monday I couldn’t find any paperwork relating to my mum’s house insurance so I phoned the company my mum thought she used - let’s call it Norfolk Union - to make enquiries.

I was told her policy had expired 2 years ago. Oh really? I said. And how much had she been quoted to renew the policy? £300 they said.

Mum felt dreadful because it was another example of her forgetfulness and inability to manage. She’s terrified of losing all her marbles and having to go into a home.

On Wednesday a letter arrived from Norfolk Union saying they were denying her the insurance claim on her television that had recently gone up in smoke because the dealer who’d sold her a new TV had taken the old one away and it wasn’t available for inspection.

So I phoned Norfolk Union and said look, why is mum being told she can’t claim on her TV on the grounds that it’s been disposed of, when as far as I know she doesn’t even have a valid policy to cover it?

Oh no, they said, she has a household contents policy that’s valid for another 5 months.

So how come I was assured two days ago that she had no such policy? We don’t know, they said - it’s quite clear on our computers that whilst her previous policy ran out two years ago, we started her off on a new policy when she phoned us two months after the old policy had expired. And how much does she pay for her current policy? £245 per year.

So of course I went ballistic and said I wanted to make a formal complaint about how much time I’d wasted on Monday, phoning around for quotations, knowing that £300 was a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a buildings and contents policy in mum’s area, when all along mum already had a valid policy.

Having gone from one person to the other up the complaints ladder I eventually spoke to someone who was very apologetic and said he’d be prepared to match Esure’s quotation for £125 when mum’s policy came up for renewal in May.

I told him that not only would I not consider using his company again, on account of the sheer amount of wasted time and hassle I’d incurred on Monday, I expected the return of the entire £245 that this year’s policy had cost - on the grounds that his colleague had told me on Monday that mum no longer had a policy. I said I also expected some compensation for the wasted time and effort, and the stress caused to mum and me.

He was sympathetic, said he understood perfectly why I felt aggrieved, and said he’s need to speak to his manager. When he phoned back he said all things considered they’d be prepared to offer £100 compensation, plus return £77 that was due as a rebate on the unexpired policy.

But would my mum have been able to do any of this, left to her own devices? No - she’d have paid the £300 to renew the policy that hadn’t even expired. As for her managing to get competitive quotes from the Internet or whatever - jolly old price comparison websites! - forget it.

2) It turns out that mum’s been overdrawn on her Lloyds current account since last May, even though she has considerable savings in her Lloyds savings account (earning interest of 0.75%). Naturally she’s been paying a considerable amount of interest, plus penalties, on the overdrawn amount, which has reached nearly £1,000.

Mum and I spent most of the morning trying to find bank statements for both her accounts for the past seven months, without success. She doesn’t know where she’s put them, or even whether she’s received any statements. I phoned my sister, who I’d thought was keeping an eye on things, but she said she had no idea where they were. And no, she hadn’t taken them from mum’s, on one of her infrequent visits.

And had mum’s local, friendly, caring bank manager phoned mum to talk to her about why she’d stopped transferring money from her savings account into her current account so that she could pay her standing orders? About why she was allowing herself to be so overdrawn when she had plenty of money in the account dad’s occupational pension goes into? Did they FUCK! What they’d actually done was to raise my mum’s overdraft limit, without telling her, so that the amount she was overdrawn could continue to mount up.

To add insult to injury, when I phoned the “customer care” number to discuss the matter, to ask about the current balances, to ask them to send duplicate statements, they said they’d need to speak to my mum to go through “security questions” before they could do anything. And when mum said she couldn’t tell them the number on her Visa card because she couldn’t find the card, they said they couldn’t do anything to help. Why? Procedures!

So of course I demanded to speak to a senior manager or a complaints officer, and after another hour on the phone they’d agreed to give me the figures, send duplicates, transfer money between accounts, etc. What’s more, it turns out that they haven’t even sent mum a statement on her savings account since last May. Why not? Don’t know.

They then took 20 minutes trying to get their ‘system’ to agree to send mum a new statement immediately. At one point I said look, can’t you just deal with it tomorrow as I have to get on with making dinner for mum? Oh no, she said, we can only deal with it if we have the customer on the phone.

Eventually I said thank you very much for agreeing to help me sort things out, but you’d have just left mum sitting in a state of complete ignorance and anxiety if I hadn’t pursued the matter and demanded to have it dealt with at a higher level. Of course.

3) It transpires that mum has allowed her ‘card account’ in the Post Office to build up to several thousand pounds, on which she gets no interest whatsoever. This is the account her state pension gets paid into. So I phoned the Post Office’s ‘customer services’ and said, don’t you have a savings account that this money could be transferred into, so that she can earn interest on it? Yes we do, they said, but those accounts are run by a different part of the organisation. So mum can’t transfer money from one account into the other? Yes, but she’ll have to take it out in cash in order to transfer it. But that’s not the kind of transfer I’m talking about, and in any case she can’t leave the house these days. Too bad.


Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious

Lord Turner, Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, last night delivered “a devastating critique of how the banking system has put Britain into a crisis”.

He’s come out and said the banking system needed to be completely overhauled, that it was completely unfit for purpose, that the banks should not have been allowed to create an incredible and unsustainable bubble based on inflated property prices and huge amounts of lending without having sufficient deposits from savers to back up the loans. “Banks have to build up deposits in the good times, so they’re protected when there’s a downturn.”

Duh! We fucking knew this years ago! We’ve been aware of what was happening to the ‘sub-prime market’ in mortgages, and how it was likely to impact on the financial system several years ago. Why didn’t someone do something about it before the shit hit the fan?

Someone like the Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, for example? Or wasn’t it his duty to speak out and raise these issues when there was still time to do something sensible and constructive? Or is he only now aware of these issues, in which case how is he qualified to be the Chairman of the Financial Services Authority?

As Will Hutton said in his Observer column this week - “These are the grimmest economic circumstances since the 1930s. Lives and businesses are being wrecked. [Government and bankers] hope that we can muddle through, looking for “green shoots” of recovery and doing little radical. But after last week the government - and the opposition - have to get serious. Britain is on the edge.”

And as someone else said, in the context of Obama becoming President, leaders must make good use of crises. As I’ve said previously, the Shock Doctrine can also be used for the benefit of the world. Don’t just ask these fucking bankers to kindly stop paying themselves huge bonuses, and suggest they please start using the bailout money to help small businesses and ordinary consumers who can’t pay their bills. Nationalise the banks, since their shares are now worth fuck all anyway, and tell them that from now on the profits they make won’t be creamed off by their managers and shareholders - profits will be used for the benefit of us all. What’s wrong with that?

Springwatch 2.

I’ve now seen two mature camellias down mum’s road that are already in full, glorious bloom, plus some heathers and hebes. Mum’s own camellia is a little late this year, probably because it’s growing in a raised bed situated under her porch, and hasn’t been watered since . . . the last time I watered it.

Layer 116 The Bad Dad Blogger, Green Shoots, Cogs in the Machine and Going Bankrupt.

This should have been posted last Monday, 19th January.

Springwatch 1

Some hapless and dopey junior minister in our hapless and dopey government last week fell into the trap set for her by a radio interviewer and said, yes indeed, she thought she could see a few green shoots of recovery in the midst of this recession - which as we all know is just beginning to pick up speed, prior to plunging our economy into deflation and the first great depression of the 21st Century.

I thought about this as I walked to the shops this morning, and saw the green shoots of the crocuses and daffodils that are starting to appear. I thought about it some more when I saw the newspaper headlines about our banks needing more billions to bale them out, and the possibility that Britain could soon be effectively bankrupt.

It’s a useless metaphor to begin with, the idea of green shoots. Our economy is nothing like a garden in which green shoots appear, after which flowers grow, then blossom, and then die back again. The economy is in reality like a machine, an enormous vehicle perhaps, like a bus or a train, on which ride children with their carers, plus retired people, who depend on the effective working of the machinery in order to travel comfortably and safely on their journey.

The adult working population are the components of the machine - the nuts and bolts, the cogs, the axles, the springs, the cables, the pulleys, the tubes, the washers, the injectors, the valves, the connecting rods, the pistons, the cylinder liners, the switches, the sensors, the hoses, the tyres and the various fluids and liquids that flow within it.

If any of those components fails or gets damaged then the machine doesn’t work properly, or breaks down. Our machine has broken down, and is slowing to a standstill. It’s barely ticking over. Whoever programmed the software in the engine management system - in the microprocessors that govern the engine’s operations - was a fuckwit.

You can extend the metaphor to the entire world economy, whose management software was written by the fuckwits of the Chicago School of economics and their acolytes. And now we’re all fucked.

Oh well - maybe lessons have been learnt, and maybe we now have a chance to start from scratch, and completely rethink what we want to machine to do, and re-programme it so that it functions effectively and sustainably for the benefit of the entire planet.

It’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be big money, the fat cats and the tax havens versus We the People, the Disunited Nations and our efforts to re-regulate capitalism.

Today is Obama’s inauguration day.


Bad Dad

I’m a bad dad. I’ve finally left my son to take care of himself. After weeks of fetching and carrying, of waiting on him hand and foot, particularly the foot that has several broken bones in it, I’ve run away to see my mum and to see what I can do for her.

Quite a bit, as it happens. She had nothing substantial in her fridge or freezer, and her house insurance had expired two years ago, it transpires. She needs a lot of care - now that her mental faculties are so diminished. Thank goodness these days she’s no longer depressed, and she can laugh a little at her foibles and infirmities.

But how come the agencies that are supposed to take care of her, who are paid to take care of her, have been taking so little care? How come no-one has a little checklist and says to these elderly, infirm individuals - ‘Have you renewed your property insurance? Why haven’t you got fresh food in the house? Don’t you think it’s not a good idea to live entirely on meals on wheels and their paltry offerings? Have you forgotten how to use the electronic bath seat? Has anyone bothered to show you how to use the handset on your new digital television? Do you really want the volume to be on maximum the whole time? Have you checked the battery on the smoke alarm recently? Don’t you think this worn-out crackling telephone needs replacing.’

I guess I also have some questions to ask my sister.


In many ways I’ve always been a bad dad. I’ve never managed to find the time and energy to give my children all the attention they needed, and still need. Like most parents, maybe, but that’s no excuse.

Any parent that works full-time in a profession, a business, or any organisation, is like a cog in a machine. You work because you have to work. You turn because you’re attached to a spindle or an axle, which turns because another cog is making it turn, and you in turn, in the act of turning, force other spindles and other cogs to turn. We’re all part of some vast clockwork world. We’re all doing what we do because the machine is set up in order to make us do it. And if we crack up or disintegrate then we just get replaced. And the world, and all of its little cogs and spindles, just carries on spinning.

It’s a huge challenge for anyone to take real control of their own lives, and live according to their real needs and the needs of their dependents. It’s an even bigger challenge if you’ve painstakingly built your own organisation or business, and you feel responsible for the wellbeing and professional development of large numbers of people, plus their families, plus those who benefit from the work you do and the services you provide. There’s a very powerful incentive to stick around and continue to direct and develop the organisation and its members, regardless of its costs and its wear and tear on you personally.


Salam Pax

I read last week that the Baghdad Blogger, aka Salam Pax, is returning to his home city, to resume his life there. He’s now a fully-fledged journalist, and I look forward with interest to his despatches.


Plus Ça Change . . .

Consider these paragraphs from an article in the Guardian, and stick with them to the end, even if, at first sight, they don’t seem to be saying anything that you don’t already know or agree with:

It is impossible to doubt that genuine anti-semitism - racial antipathy towards Jews - is resurgent in Europe and even, in some circles, becoming respectable.

Many of the remarks that Jewish critics denounce as anti-semitic are, in reality, criticisms of Israel or its government.

In this country, only the Guardian and Independent deal thoroughly with what is taking place, and display real sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. Elsewhere a lot of space is given to apologias for Israeli conduct, some of which reveal a contempt for Palestinian human rights that invites the most baleful of historical comparisons.

It is a tribute to Israeli propaganda success that many commentators seem happy to regard as just a possible peace deal that would leave Israel in control of settlements and strategic roads in a Palestinian state. It is a measure of how far matters have gone that when Ariel Sharon announced the closure of some settlements in Gaza, it was hailed as a historic breakthrough.

In the eyes of some of us, even the Oslo accords promised no realistic prospect of a viable Palestinian society. They represented the outer limit of what Israeli liberals believed they could sell to their own nation, but they offered the Palestinians no chance of economic, social or political lift-off because the terms denied any hope of self-respect.

I reply to every reader's letter accusing me of anti-semitism because the issue seems so important. They make the cardinal error of identifying the Jewish people with the Israeli government, wilfully confusing anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. Often, they seem to demand that the behaviour of Israel should be judged by a special standard, that allowed the likes of Sharon and Netanyahu a special quota of excesses, in compensation for past sufferings.

For many years, Israelis in debating difficulties have played a decisive trump: "You have no right to criticise our actions, because of the Holocaust." Ruthless exploitation of the Holocaust card has been successful in deflecting much international criticism, especially from European democracies.

Charges of anti-semitism are not infrequently levelled against the growing number of Jews who express dismay about the behaviour of the Israeli government; they are "self-hating Jews", who betray their own kin. Yet surely it is those who make such cruel allegations who bring shame upon themselves.

Jewish genius through the centuries has been reflected in the highest intellectual standards. Attempts to equate anti-Zionism, or even criticism of Israeli policy, with anti-semitism reflect a pitiful intellectual sloth, an abandonment of reasoned attempts to justify Israeli actions in favour of moral blackmail. In the short run, such intimidation is not unsuccessful, especially in America. Yet in the long term, grave consequences may ensue. In much of the world, including Europe, a huge head of steam is building against Israeli behaviour.

More than a few governments are cooperating less than wholeheartedly with America's war on terror because they are unwilling to be associated with what they see as an unholy alliance of the [Israeli and American] governments. One of Germany's most distinguished postwar leaders expressed to me a few months ago his frustration that, as a German, he is unable to vent his feelings about the wickedness of what is being done in Israel's name.

I feel a commitment to the Jewish people, founded on awareness partly of their history, partly of their genius. Yet I see no reason why this should prevent me from asserting that the policies [of their government] bring shame upon Israel.

It is ironic that Israel's domestic critics - former intelligence chiefs and serving fighter pilots - have shown themselves much braver than overseas Jews. If Israel persists with its current policies, and Jewish lobbies around the world continue to express solidarity with repression of the Palestinians, then genuine anti-semitism is bound to increase. Herein lies the lobbyists' recklessness. By insisting that those who denounce the Israeli state's behaviour are enemies of the Jewish people, they seek to impose a grotesque choice.

The Israeli government's behaviour to the Palestinians breeds a despair that finds its only outlet in terrorism. No one can ever criticise the Jewish diaspora for asserting Israel's right to exist. But the most important service the world's Jews can render to Israel today is to persuade its people that the only plausible result of their government's behaviour is a terrible loneliness in the world.

I came across this article whilst browsing through Oxzen’s extensive library of newspaper cuttings this week. It was written by Max Hastings on March 11th, 2004, under the strapline, “Israel’s repression of the Palestinian people is fuelling a resurgence of anti-semitism.”

That’s right - nearly 5 years ago. I re-read it yesterday, shortly after seeing TV pictures showing parts of Gaza where Israeli armoured bulldozers had systematically flattened huge areas of houses and flats that hadn’t already been flattened by Israeli missiles and shells.

Children were sitting on concrete blocks and on piles of rubble amongst the wreckage of what used to be their homes, prior to this latest assault. No wonder some of them had tears rolling down their cheeks. It’s enough to make anyone weep.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Layer 115 War Crimes, Ditching Trident, Indiscriminate Slaughter, Civil Servants, Uncivilised Conduct and Progressive Values.

Reported on Radio 4 this morning:

The United Nations Relief Agency has for the first time used the term ‘War Crimes’ when referring to Israeli actions in Gaza.

Reported in the Guardian yesterday:

“Trident is a waste of money, say ex-military leaders.”

Britain's nuclear submarines are "completely useless" against modern warfare, and the £20bn spent on renewing them is a waste of money, retired senior military officers said yesterday.

The former head of the armed forces Field Marshal Lord Bramall, backed by two senior generals, argued that the huge sums being spent on replacing the delapidated submarines that carry the Trident ballistic missiles could be better used to buy conventional weapons which are badly needed by the armed forces.

"Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism," the group said in a letter to the Times. "Our independent deterrent has become ­virtually irrelevant, except in the context of domestic politics."

Retired army general Lord Ramsbotham, one of the signatories, said he wanted to restart the debate over the renewal of ­Trident, which was approved by the House of Commons in March 2007, despite a large rebellion by Labour MPs.

Ramsbotham told BBC2's Newsnight programme: "We argue that it is conventional weapons we now need. Their pinpoint accuracy, their ability to help our forces in the sort of conflicts that are taking place is something which means you have to question the huge expense of Trident, which is limiting what we can do."

The fact is that Trident is an inappropriate weapons system. You can't see Trident being used against something like nuclear blackmail by international terrorism. It is a cold war weapon. It is not a weapon for the situation where we are now."

Ramsbotham said he was "quite certain" that some serving members of the military shared his doubts. He added that the government's decision to renew ­Trident was driven more by political considerations than by the true requirements of national defence.

Also in the Guardian:

Simon Jenkins has a wonderfully radical and visionary column, headed ‘Indiscriminate slaughter from the air is a barbarism that must be abolished’, in which he proposes that the world should declare air-launched bombs and long-distance shells to be illegal under the 1983 Geneva convention. Extracts:

The tragedy in Gaza surely marks the time when the world declares air-launched bombs and long-distance shells to be illegal under the 1983 Geneva convention. They should be on a par with chemical munitions, white phosphorous, cluster bombs and delayed-action land mines. They pose a threat to non-combatants that should be intolerable even in the miserable context of war.

If gas, landmines, chemical weapons and cluster munitions are now banned - a ban broadly obeyed by most civilised armies - why not aerial bombardment? Instead, bombing is becoming ever more prevalent.

The Israelis have responded to the Hamas bombardment of their towns with a far heavier bombardment of Gaza. Both endanger civilians to a degree that cannot be other than criminal. That human shield tactics may be involved is no excuse: the law does not permit the killing of innocents in the hope of reaching the guilty. The bombing of urban infrastructure is an act of terror.

In an extraordinary article on these pages yesterday, David Miliband declared the title "war on terror" to be "misleading and mistaken".

Did Miliband protest when Tony Blair reportedly pleaded with George Bush to be the first to bomb Kabul in 2001? Is this the same Miliband who sat silent as a member of the government that supported "shock and awe"?

The truth is that the war Miliband is still waging against militant Islam has been conducted largely by weapons of terror, namely bombs and long-distance artillery shells. They have killed untold thousands of non-combatants since the "war" began in 2001 - a violence far more devastating than the Israelis have inflicted on Gaza - destroying unimaginable numbers of homes.

In Afghanistan the American commander, David Petraeus, is said to regard his own side's bombing of villages and wedding parties as utterly counterproductive. Yet once forces are deployed, with ground and air in partnership, they seem beyond all command and control. They illustrate Liddell Hart's comment on military technology, that "the progress of weapons has outstripped the minds of those who wield them".

In the complex politics of war, these weapons are like torture. They numb moral sensibility and do harm beyond all justification of victory. They should be abolished. If we wish to kill other people for whatever reason, we should use only weapons that kill the right ones.


A Progressive Shock-Doctrine?

Digby Jones has apparently said that half of those employed in the civil service are a waste of space and should be sacked. It’s a pity he didn’t moderate his eye-catching phrases and limit himself to saying that he’s not talking about the thousands of hard-working people in the lower ranks. He only came into contact with the upper reaches when he was a junior minister, and he’d almost certainly be justified in saying that hundreds of those upper ranks are over-paid, time-serving, dull, vision-free, toadying creeps who traipse from meeting to meeting and spend all their time talking round in circles, contributing nothing to the national well-being.

The topmost ranks surround themselves with over-paid and useless yes-men and women, covering their backs and making sure they offload tasks, and outsource the blame when things go wrong. The problem is we don’t have politicians with sufficient calibre and determination to change this state of affairs. What we have is toadying politicians who surround themselves with ‘bright’ young advisers whose main interest is in playing the system that exists for their own comfort and benefit.

There’s probably no way out of this. Our national culture is fragmented and encourages self-promotion and self-interest. There’s no national consensus towards agreed ideals and goals. There’s still a war, and there will continue to be a war, between Thatcherites and the social democratic Left, between neo-conservatives and progressives, between people with money and property and those without, between Mail readers and Guardian readers, between BBC lovers and Sky/Fox lovers, between haves and have-nots, between the stupid and the enlightened.

Since 1979 the Stupid Party and its values has been in the ascendant in this country, thanks to Thatch and NuLabour (Thatch-lite). Which is why our society is increasingly unequal, unfair, violent, exploitative, over-stressed, spiritually barren and unhappy. Its economy is fucked.

I’m almost at the point of being past caring, but not quite. Not quite yet. The next four years are make or break for decency, genuine democracy and enlightened values. Either the Left uses this opportunity to develop a kind of reverse shock-doctrine, or we can all just forget about peace, justice and harmony. At least in Britain.

But then who cares about Britain? Why waste our time trying to fight against the power of the wealthy and the ignorant and the Establishment in a place where the entire national culture is geared towards the stupid values of quiz shows, celebrity, flash, bling, glamour, greed, property, soaps, football, show-biz and fame. Grumpy old man? Moi?

The point is, it’s not quite like this in the rest of the world. And it’s to these other places that progressives need to look for sustenance, hope and optimism. Countries that run decent education systems for the benefit of their pupils, countries with decent public services run by highly motivated professionals, countries with top civil servants whose promotion is due to merit and their proven ability to make a positive difference, countries with sustainable and competently-run economies, financial systems and governments. Countries that haven’t dumbed down to the extent that this one has, thanks to its ignorant media, its shameless politicians, and its brainwashed and grasping, spiritless and soulless citizens.

Thank goodness that standards have continued to rise and enlightenment is still on the agenda in places like Denmark, Finland, Japan, Germany and France, none of which supported the ‘war on terror’, squandered their national budgets pursuing such nonsense, or fell into the orbit of the neo-conservative ascendancy that’s continued to grip the USA and the UK, amongst plenty of other places.

We’re talking here about countries that don’t equate ‘attainment’ in academic timed tests with genuine education, that didn’t allow their financiers to fuck their economies, that don’t squander money on illegal wars, that don’t allow an elite minority to become obscenely wealthy at the expense of an increasingly-impoverished majority.

Thank goodness such countries still exist and form the core of a civilised international community. Thank goodness we can still look elsewhere for models of progressive social-democratic civilised life.

Democratic socialists, social democrats and other pacifist progressives throughout the world must now seize the moment and act collectively to alter the balance of power, nullify the neo-conservative hegemony, take back proper democratic control of our financial, commercial and industrial systems, redistribute wealth, restore peace and order to international relations, and promote enlightened values. We now have every possible reason to do it, so let’s just do it. If not now, when?


As for the Heathrow expansion - let’s not go there.


Ken Livingston has on his LBC programme this morning some lunatic right-wing member of the London Assembly, Brian Coleman, who’s a full-time councillor in Barnet, much admired by West London taxi drivers, it seems, who actually says he admires George Bush and his administration and would vote for another four years of Bush and neo-conservatism if he could. See what I mean? Fucked.

This twat also defended what the Israeli forces have been doing in Gaza, and tried to use the usual bullshit about “Well what would you do if Hamas was firing missiles at London?” Thankfully Ken was ready for that and immediately retorted that we DID have the IRA bombing London but we didn’t attack them in their hiding places in Belfast and Derry with Apache gunships, missile-firing drones, F16s, tanks and long-range artillery. We’re not THAT uncivilised. Yet.

Back to the war crimes.


A good friend sent me this today:

Interesting quotes from Gerald Kaufman this week:

"My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town . . . a German soldier shot her dead in her bed. My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza. The present Israeli government ruthlessly and cynically exploit the continuing guilt from gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians.”

Kaufman compared the Hamas militants in Gaza to Jewish resistance fighters during the Second World War, saying: "The spokeswoman for the Israeli army, Major Leibovich, was asked about the Israeli killing of, at that time, 800 Palestinians. The total is now 1,000. She replied instantly that '500 of them were militants’. That was the reply of a Nazi. I suppose the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants."


There were some more good letters in the Guardian yesterday. Read them at:


Israel must lose. It is not enough to call for another ceasefire, or more humanitarian assistance. It is not enough to urge the renewal of dialogue and to acknowledge the concerns and suffering of both sides. If we believe in the principle of democratic self-determination, if we affirm the right to resist military aggression and colonial occupation, then we are obliged to take sides... against Israel, and with the people of Gaza and the West Bank.

We must do what we can to stop Israel from winning its war. Israel must accept that its security depends on justice and peaceful coexistence with its neighbours, and not upon the criminal use of force.

We believe Israel should immediately and unconditionally end its assault on Gaza, end the occupation of the West Bank, and abandon all claims to possess or control territory beyond its 1967 borders. We call on the British government and the British people to take all feasible steps to oblige Israel to comply with these demands, starting with a programme of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

This is signed by over 300 people, mainly academics.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Layer 114 Miliband and the School Bully, the Dracula Tendency, Results Factories, and Evil Spawn.

So our youthful-looking Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has finally had the nerve to say publicly that Bush’s idea of a “War on Ter’r” is a load of nonsense, extremely unhelpful, counterproductive, etc, and he’s pleased that Obama is going to close Guantanamo Bay. It’s a bit like a child who’s heard that the playground bully has been expelled from the school, who then turns round and starts telling everyone he never really liked George and didn’t really want to be his mate and his henchman when he was going round beating everybody up. He knew it was a bad thing to do. In fact he now wants to talk to everybody and be their friend.

Well maybe it’s true that NuLabour hasn’t actually used the phrase “War on Terror” since 2006, as has been reported on TV and in the press, but it’s a bit late in the day to come out and draw attention to the fact that it was an imbecilic concept, and an excuse for bullying on a global scale. And it’s a bit late in the day to start saying we need to have a proper dialogue with those who take issue with the Shock Doctrine, or those who oppose the voodoo economics known as globalisation, those who reject neo-colonialism, etc.

Yes, of course it’s better late than never to make these statements, but Miliband must surely see that he, and NuLabour Mark II, just look stupid and pathetic, like they’re clinging to the coat tails of, and going along with, whoever’s the current big beast in the jungle.

Obama had the courage to say from the very start that the idea of a War on Terror was wrong-headed, and that invading Iraq was just plain wrong, for a variety of reasons. That took real courage and integrity - speaking truth to power, especially when the vast majority of Americans just went along with their government’s propaganda and their thirst for instant revenge for the Twin Towers. Such a pity that the Blair/Brown axis and NuLabour couldn’t manage it.

And neither could Miliband, at the time it was happening. Having been a close aid to Blair in Downing Street for so many years, and obviously politically very ambitious, he calculated that his political career was best served by deferring to his master and keeping schtum. And now he thinks the time is right to admit that it was a stupid concept and a useless policy. After all, George has already come out and said it was a mistake!

He’s been a silly boy, young David.. He was flattered by Blair’s patronage, and the nepotism he enjoyed, as Blair and then Brown gave him one promotion after another and facilitated his meteoric rise within the government. He should have been more patient, had the courage of his convictions, trusted in his innate ability to give him success in his political career in the long run, and he should have shown that he had the integrity and courage to speak truth to power, because now he can never achieve the stature of an Obama. Never, ever.

He ought to have realised that showing your integrity by speaking the truth will always be a requirement for anyone who aspires to be a true statesman, rather than a party apparatchik. He should have understood that in the long run you forfeit the trust and the support of the people if you even once participate as a member of the dominant mob, the gang of the playground bully, and fail to show that your conscience is your sole master.

He was no conscientious objector. He has the blood and the ruined lives of thousands of innocent people on his hands. Probably hundreds of thousands. And there’s no going back from that. He’s probably a very nice man. But he was a political prat.

Only 4 more days to Obama’s inauguration.


The Dracula Tendency

The Guardian’s science correspondent reports that Victorian novels helped us to evolve into nicer people, according to scientists:

“Their research suggests that classic British novels from the 19th century not only reflect the values of Victorian society, they also shaped them. Archetypal novels from the period extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted cooperation and affability against individuals' hunger for power and dominance. For example in George Eliot's Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke turns her back on wealth to help the poor, while Bram Stoker's nocturnal menace, Count Dracula, comes to represent the worst excesses of aristocratic dominance.

They found that leading characters fell into groups that mirrored the cooperative nature of a hunter-gatherer society, where individual urges for power and wealth were suppressed for the good of the community.

The effect of such moralistic literature was to uphold and instil a sense of fairness and altruism in society at large, the researchers claim in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. "By enforcing these norms, humans succeed in controlling 'free riders' or 'cheaters' and they thus make it possible for genuinely altruistic genes to survive within a social group," they write.

In this context I suppose David Miliband could be seen as a sort of miniature and somewhat youthful Heathcliffe, or even a non-charismatic Mr Darcy - a conflicted character, admired by some, but struggling to cope with both good and bad traits.


Results Factories

Meanwhile NuLabour’s mismanagement of education grinds remorselessly onward. Polly Curtis, the Guardian’s education editor, reports that schools have been accused of ‘hot housing’ to get results. Tell us something we didn’t already know, dear Polly.

Apparently figures released yesterday reveal a leap in the numbers of pupils who took their exams early in November, thereby allowing a resit for any failures - “a tactic that is being encouraged increasingly across the country by heads desperate to rise in the league tables.”

"Some pupils have taken the same GCSE exam up to three times in the space of a year, the Guardian has learned.

Teachers' leaders have blamed the government's pressure on headteachers to improve results and move up the school league tables for the increased focus on exams that was putting children under stress and detracting from the depth of their learning.

Last year the government announced that any schools where fewer than 30% of pupils achieved at least five good GCSEs - including in English and maths - faced closure unless there were improvements within three years.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: "League tables have got all out of proportion and schools will now do all they can to improve their place. Early entry is one way they are doing it. Other ways include focusing on the pupils on the C-D border. We're in danger of producing a set of statistics that no longer accurately reflect pupils' progression but the work the schools can do to improve their scores."

Perry Beeches school in Birmingham has adopted early entry for its entire GCSE group, with nearly all of its pupils sitting their English exams a year early and maths six months early. The pupils were allowed to retake, or sit a harder paper to improve their result.

Liam Nolan, the school's head, said: "We are an exam factory, I have no issue with that. However, this is about the students. They've got to pass these exams to give themselves every opportunity in life."

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said: "Retakes are bad for kids. There's a poisonous combination of parental pressure and league-table pressure to get as high a score as possible. There are kids who are ready to take their exams early but it should be on the basis of their readiness rather than part of a process to get the results.

"What it does is focus on the examination results rather than the use of English and maths across the curriculum - it's for the sake of the exam itself ... examination result-driven decisions to hot-house kids into taking an exam early are damaging."

A DCSF spokesperson said, “We are not aware of widespread issues with students being unduly pushed to take GCSEs early”.

Well now that you ARE aware of it - what ARE you going to do about it, you bastards?

We know what they’ll do about it. Nothing. They don’t give a shit about the wellbeing of pupils What they’re continuing to do is bully and threaten schools with closure if they don’t meet their government-set targets. So why shouldn’t the schools feel comfortable with being branded as results factories? That’s all they are. At least that headteacher had the integrity to admit it, even if he is a total tosser for engaging with the very idea.

Yesterday Ed Balls repeated what his illustrious macho predecessor Blunkett said all those years ago - poverty is no excuse for failure, and failure to reach the government’s targets will result in the closure of schools and the sacking of their staff. Fucking Stalinist. His lapdog Jim Knight, our schools’ minister, predictably yapped on about “the excuses culture”.

I can’t wait to see these arseholes disappear into well-deserved obscurity. There can’t be any excuses now for failure to promote the real interests and the wellbeing of pupils. Hot housing and a failure to understand how to run a decent education system cannot be excused. They’ve had 11 years to learn from the likes of Finland and Denmark how to promote real education and the professionalism of teachers. They’ve learned nothing at all, the dullards. All we have is more Blunkettism, and Stalinist demands to meet production targets. These people are evil spawn of the devil, and no mistake.

More Evil Spawn

Talking of which, we learned yesterday that Israel’s armed forces managed to blow up and destroy the one place in Gaza they really didn’t want to hit - a relief warehouse within the United Nations compound in which there was a huge store of humanitarian supplies - mainly food and medicine. There also happened to be 200 refugees within the compound. An Israeli spokesman admitted this was a mistake, but said something along the lines of, “Oh well, these things happen. Our soldiers are under a lot of pressure, you know.”

Actually, they said it was a “grave mistake”. Pity it’s not their own graves they’re talking about. This is actually the only thing the Israeli hard-liners care about - having to dig the graves of their own soldiers. Nothing else impacts on their attitude or their tactics. The recent attack on Lebanon proved this, when heavy casualties caused by well-armed militias forced their withdrawal.

The United Nations are said to be furious about this latest incident. It’s going to be interesting to see what action they take, because some sort of action is surely now inevitable. They’ve already passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire, and Israel’s taken no notice of it, as we knew would happen. So what happens next?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Layer 113 Equality, Social Mobility, Education, Harman’s Law and War Crimes.

Social mobility and inequality seem to be the buzz words this week. And about time too. Lots of talk about why very bright working class kids with decent exam results who still fail to get into the best jobs or enter the professions.

The Observer’s editorial on social mobility said this,

A [government] review of barriers to working-class entry into the professions, revealed in this week's paper, will examine - alongside a forthcoming white paper into social mobility - some of the more insidious factors behind inequality, particularly those that encourage and sustain cosy networks. Increasingly, the first step in building a career - from the law to the theatre - is to secure work experience, often via placements that go unadvertised. These hidden ladders are more likely to be seized by the children of the professional classes, kept informed through friends and contacts of their parents.

[And if they do find a placement]would [they] have the requisite presentational skills to best exploit the stint? For even the straight-A pupil might find herself left behind by her better-connected and more articulate peer. Schools with large working-class intakes are to be encouraged to develop pupils' self-esteem, confidence and articulacy.

While all the social skills in the world are not going to propel bright children into the professions if they do not have the necessary qualifications - the poorest children remain three times less likely than their wealthier contemporaries to secure good GCSEs - this seems a positive idea.

What’s so shameful about our society and our school system is that it’s taken till now for our newspaper and political elite to start seeing the need to “develop pupils' self-esteem, confidence and articulacy”. This is so appalling, it’s hard to know where to begin.

From the mid-sixties there was an effort by the teaching profession to educate children in Primary schools in a way that allowed them to develop all of their intelligences - personal, social, emotional and spiritual, and become people who had high degrees of self-confidence, and well-developed powers of self-expression, creativity and imagination..

That movement slowed down dramatically when the National Curriculum was introduced, and those on the right of the political spectrum (politicians and teachers, Labour and Tory) began a largely successful campaign to denigrate the innovations of Plowden and the ‘progressives’, and return schools to Victorian methodology, with a disintegrated curriculum and didactic rote-learning.

The so-called ‘child-centred’ movement ground to a complete halt when SATs and league tables were introduced, along with a punitive inspection regime. A few schools stood firm and fought hard to maintain their focus on the actual personal wellbeing and learning needs of their children, but there were virtually no new schools joining the movement towards a more enlightened education system.

And no wonder. ‘Standards’ were now all that mattered, which meant focusing all of a school’s efforts on cramming and preparing children for tests, if you wanted to cover your back and remain in the profession, i.e. not be sacked, especially if you practiced your profession in a working class community with large numbers of disadvantaged children who struggled in Primary school to cope with the demands of meaningless, decontextualised and demotivating test preparation.

So now there are voices suggesting that these working class children should be allowed and encouraged to develop “self-esteem, confidence and articulacy”. I hope one day all the bastards who have colluded in preventing them for all these years from developing those crucial psychological strengths and intelligences, those key factors in the development of resilience and enjoyment of life, will be held to account.

But we know they won’t, don’t we? We know they’ll do whatever they’re told to do; they’ll go whichever way the wind blows, and claim that they were only obeying orders, and so cover their backs. Such clever bastards.


What’s also shocking is that commentators and politicians are advocating more emphasis on PHSE (knowing that Alexander and Rose are about to publish these recommendations in their Primary reviews) because it will help more working class kids to compete for entry into the professions. What about the rest of them? What about those who prefer entry into walks of life that are ‘non-professional’? Don’t they also need and benefit from having all of their intelligences and competencies developed to high levels? Or don’t they matter, as usual?

The Observer’s editorial was headed, “At last, in idea that encourages upward mobility”. Leaving aside the fact that such ideas have been around for a very long time, and the ‘at last’ only applies to New Labour, it’s sickening that their only interest in such ideas is that they might benefit the aspirational few that might wish to enter the professions and become ‘upwardly mobile’. It’s not enough, you see, for anyone to be content with being a member of the ‘working classes’, to be a plumber, a secretary or a mere classroom assistant, for example, even though we live in an age when even ‘professionals’ are mere wage slaves, working to targets and production quotas set by the bosses, using production methods (‘The Literacy Strategy’, ‘Grammar for Writing’, didactic teaching) that are prescribed and demanded by the elites in Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster.


As far as those elites are concerned, anyone who wishes to remain a member of the working classes and chooses to live in a working class community must be a moron. Their idea of success in life, as far as kids in working class communities are concerned, is for kids to get a fistful of exam passes and migrate to the middle class suburbs where they can live a life of glorious isolation within a nuclear family.

They have no idea of communities where kinship and neighbourliness are part of an everyday reality. They have no idea about, let alone respect for, working class solidarity, mutual support and friendship.

Last December 19th, Lynsey Hanley, author of ‘Estates: An Intimate History’, wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian, under the heading, “A better life shouldn’t mean leaving your peers”. I agree with that key idea, though the piece itself is somewhat muddled and confusing. Nevertheless, she has some valid thoughts, and it’s worth reading her piece. Here’s an extract:

This week's Cabinet Office publication on raising aspirations among young people living in deprived areas rightly made a connection between their desire to stay on at school after 16 and the strength of their social bonds. If entire peer groups show no inclination to stay on, individuals within those groups find it extraordinarily difficult to go against the grain. No one wants "a shit life", which is how I heard one such man describe it, but getting out of one requires resources that the group to which they've gravitated lacks: self-confidence, skills and a lack of loyalty. The creed of "us" against "them" remains powerful.

The service economy, reliant on strong communication skills and consensus-building, favours the feminine. By contrast, as researchers from Cardiff University found, many young men growing up in former industrial areas cannot stand the humiliation of such work and prefer to stay unemployed.

Yet they must either stay unemployed for life, or cave in to minimum-wage work, if they are to stay within the community that raised and which supports them. To find better work they must leave, whether by going to university or by moving, effectively, to the south-east. This is why the northern cities highlighted in the Cabinet Office paper are still leeching people to the south.
But if young people are encouraged to develop aspirations to attend university, to broaden their horizons and to have new experiences, they will almost certainly have to leave their neighbourhoods in order to do so. In areas of strong social bonds - where everyone does the same thing and where there is no threat to the collective sense of what "people like us" are able or unable to do - leaving will cause a rupture. They have to be able to manage the often passive, sometimes forceful, rejection it entails.

What I am saying is that social mobility is painful. If inducements to move "upwards" are delivered from the top down to individuals, rather than generated within communities, those who leave behind their peers may never again feel entirely comfortable in any social group. The old group will express its hurt at "how you've changed"; the new one will seem blithe and over-entitled. No one wants to waste their life. No one wants their lives to be petty and aimless. Everyone wants, in some way, to be productive. The goal of the Cabinet Office team must be that no one pays over the odds for the privilege.


What we need to keep in mind is that our governing and managing elites see leaving your peers as essential, if you’re to have a ‘better life’, join the rat race, etc. Which is why their only model for educational success has been the getting of the GCSEs and A Levels (to the exclusion of all else) that will put young people on some escalator to higher education and the professions, banking, big business, etc, thereby earning the salary levels that will enable them to migrate to the soulless suburbs, commuter towns and elite neighbourhoods. All else is failure and a ‘shit life’.


Liam Byrne, MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Minister for the Cabinet Office, is in the spotlight. Crazy job description, crazy guy. Readers of this blog will be aware that Oxzen is no fan of NuLabour, to say the least, but Byrne seems an interesting guy, and a good speaker. He went to an Essex comprehensive school that suffered badly in the days when Thatcher systematically under-invested in education, and state schools were under-staffed, shabby places. He has two children who are in Primary school.

This week Mr Byrne has been popping up everywhere, from Radio 4 to Newsnight, talking about the need to invest lots more in Nursery and Early Years education, in apprenticeships, and in measures (see above) that will give the children of working class families better access to the professions.

He’s also taking about ensuring that more jobs are created that have skills training attached.

All of which is very welcome, but should have been tackled by NuLabour a decade ago.


Harman’s Law?

On Tuesday this week Polly Toynbee’s column in the Guardian was one of the most positive and uplifting I’ve read in weeks, if not months. Please read it. Obama’s election was the last time I felt so positive.

In it she’s commenting on the social mobility White Paper, and says,

Here comes startling news. The social mobility white paper published today will propose legislation of extraordinary radicalism - simple, fundamental and profound. It should have been Labour's guiding light for the last 11 years - but better late than never.

The government will create a new over-arching law creating a duty on the whole public sector to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. This single legal duty will stand as the main frame from which all other equality legislation flows. Race, gender and disability injustices are all subsets of the one great inequality - class. It trumps them all. The gap between rich and poor in Britain is greater than in almost all rich nations, putting the UK with the United States among the most unequal.

This new duty to narrow the gap would permeate every aspect of government policy. Its possible ramifications are mind-bogglingly immense - as astonishing as Tony Blair's promise to abolish child poverty: it will make that pledge more achievable by 2020.

Harriet Harman, the head of the government's equality office, is the architect of the new law and will outline its meaning and importance in a speech to the Fabian Society's annual conference on Saturday. Business secretary Peter Mandelson will speak at the Fabian event too, which should be interesting. Harman fought a long and successful battle for cabinet support, with virtually all agreeing with enthusiasm to its inclusion in today's white paper, though with some notable opposition. The only bill it could be included in is the imminent equalities bill, making equality itself the prime objective. One cabinet member described it with relish as "socialism in one clause".

Harman's law will be considerably more significant than the new social mobility review chaired by the resurrected Alan Milburn. Trying to get more people from poor backgrounds into the top professions is a reasonable endeavour: the army, medicine, the law, politics, media and most professions are dominated by the privately educated. Finding ways to get bright pupils from poor families into internships and work experience to reach top occupations will no doubt help to slightly rebalance the odds for a few. Geoffrey Vos QC, former head of the Bar Association, who sits on the Milburn review, chairs the Social Mobility Foundation which helps high-flying pupils on free school meals into top-rank professions.

But the evidence, globally, is that little progress can be made until the country as a whole is more equal. Inequality is the root cause of social immobility. However, politicians of all parties are happiest talking about "opportunity", pulling the ablest up the ladders - without too many questions asked about why the ladders are so steep, and why the distance is so great from bottom to top. It is a great deal less controversial than talk of narrowing the gap itself.

Harman's law gets to the root of the question. Only by making the whole country fundamentally fairer will equal opportunities follow. What might it mean? All will depend on the legal detail. Will it be an aspiration or will it have legal teeth? It will certainly mean every public authority will have to ensure that how it spends money and how it fixes its priorities sets a course towards narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Poor children might need to have much more spent on their education per head than the better-off do. Sure Start toddlers might need more funds than older children. It might mean local lotteries to see that all children get equal access to the best schools. Poor parts of a borough might attract more services to pull them up to the standards of richer areas.

Imagine how this law might bite on central government - what might it require of the Treasury? Tax credits and benefits would rise to lift families over the poverty threshold. The Low Pay Commission would set the minimum wage at a level that narrowed the pay gap, instead of falling behind. Public sector pay would rise for the lowest grades, all the cleaners, carers, dinner ladies, porters and clerks earning less than a living wage. "It is our task in government to play our part in fashioning a new social order with fairness and equality at its heart," Harriet Harman will say on Saturday. "We want to do more than just provide 'escape routes' out of poverty for a talented few. We want to tackle the class divide."

If not now, when? Custodians of the citadels of wealth have wrecked the economy, their folly damaging the chances of poor school leavers - while their own offspring will be unscathed. There is no better time to embark on Harman's "new social order".


Gaza Again

It seemed incredible when it started, that Israel was prepared to slaughter 300 Palestinians and destroy large amounts of property and infrastructure in revenge for largely ineffectual rocket attacks. But we’re now up to more than 1,000 killed, a great many of whom are women and children, with schools and homes shelled and hit with missiles whenever the army decided there might be members of Hamas sheltering within them.

This week I heard an Israeli spokesman say to a radio interviewer, “What would you do if London was hit by rockets?” Such a pity that the interviewer didn’t have the wit to say, “Look mate, London was hit hard by IRA bombs, but we didn’t see fit to shell and rocket Catholic communities and kill innocent men, women and children in revenge”. And we didn’t imagine we could defeat the IRA by killing all of them, even if we did try to imprison them all in H blocks.

Peace is only achievable, in situations where people have genuine grievances, through the use of restraint, dialogue and compromise, predicated on a spirit of non-violence and reconciliation.

There’s now widespread talk about how the international community can deal with Israel’s war crimes and breaches of humanitarian law. The Guardian had a front page column, headed, “Demands grow for Gaza war crimes investigation”. Please read it.

Monday’s Guardian had 3 excellent letters, from Edward John, David Freeman and Miles Halpin. Please read them as well:



Monday's paper also had the following, in its editorial about the presidential transition:

Mr Obama intends to flood the world with diplomats rather than pilotless drones. But here too he will have to be selective. The search for peace in Palestine must come higher up his agenda. After what has happened in Gaza in the past fortnight, saying that Israel has the right to defend itself is not enough. The US has to reset the parameters within which the next Israeli prime minister, probably a Likud one, operates. Washington can do this. It provides the smart bombs, the X-band radar and the spare parts of the F-16s that Israel uses. Israel should be told: if you use our weapons, you play by our rules.


Lasantha Wickrematunga

There was an incredible piece in Tuesday’s Guardian by a Sri Lankan newspaper editor who lived and died in the service of truth. You must read it.

This extraordinary article by the editor of the Sri Lankan Sunday Leader was published three days after he was shot dead in Colombo.

“But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.”


Andrew Marr

Just when I was convinced that Andrew Marr is one our best and brightest journalists and commentators, he says this (in a programme on 'kindness'):

"Sexuality is profoundly selfish and self-centred."

Duh! Is this man a mere onanist?


Prince Harry

I can’t be bothered writing anything about Prince Harry. It can’t be easy growing up a Prince, in a barmy Royal family, within a racist, bigoted and ignorant group of peers. Even Prince Siddartha had to leave home and go wandering alone in the world in order to find enlightenment and Buddhahood.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Layer 112 More Balls, the Spirit of the East, Missing Heads, Gaza and Olympic Transformation.

This blog should have been posted 24 hours ago.

More Balls and the NPQMP.

It’s very gratifying to see that the secretary of state has taken up my suggestion to create a national professional qualification for directors of children’s services - “Balls orders intensive training for children’s services directors in wake of Baby P tragedy”, was the Guardian headline. He’s also gone with Oxzen’s idea that people who take on this arduous and possibly ridiculous post must have experience in both education and social services.

Presumably they should have a track record of outstanding performance in both those professions. This will be interesting. But what a pity they didn’t see the need to train these people properly BEFORE forcing local authorities to restructure their hierarchies. And Balls is still blabbing on about ‘driving up standards’. Well - it sounds so macho doesn’t it, dearie? Such a pity the rest of us can’t find a way of driving up standards among politicians.

They could certainly benefit from some national professional qualification for members of parliament. They could all make a start on some in-service training by reading books like The Shock Doctrine and The New Learning Revolution.


Talking of the Tao, I watched a prog on BBC2 last night - part of a series called Around the World in 80 Religions - which focused on Eastern religions. There was some stunning photography, some fabulous footage of mountains and temples and festivals, but I felt dismayed and appalled by the complete Christian idiot who’d got the presenting gig. What a total pillock. A waste of space. The ultimate ‘trendy’ vicar. A complete poser and ignoramus with regard to Taoism, Buddhism and Confucius. What a missed opportunity - if only the commentary and the commentator had matched the standards of the visuals.

School Leadership

The Guardian reported yesterday on £100,000 salaries failing to attract candidates for headship.

England and Wales face a chronic shortage of headteachers this year, despite state schools advertising £100,000 salaries for some posts. Schools are struggling to fill posts at a time when increasing numbers are expected to retire, according to the annual survey of headship vacancies by analysts Education Data Surveys (EDS).

John Howson, director of EDS, said, “"Teachers are put off by the bureaucracy and the workload. We are on a cliff edge with so many teachers retiring in the next few years."

What does this tell us about our bogus and bankrupt government policies?

This isn’t a new story, of course. The Guardian alone reported on this problem several times throughout 2008.

Economics and Finance

There was a curious column by the normally dependable Simon Jenkins in the Guardian yesterday, in which he concludes that the world economic crisis will just blow itself out and business (and consumerism) will get back to normal. He decries the idea that 2008 will mark the end of Thatcherism, or the beginning of the collapse of capitalism, or the dawn of socialism. “The present crisis will pass and the current punditry will be seen a silly and damaging exercise in talking down confidence.”

He could be right, of course, but I sincerely hope not. For the sake of all of us, but particularly the less well-off, and in the name of social justice, this must be a time when the insane ideas of the Chicago School of economics, and of the political right generally with regard to unfettered capitalism, are shown to be as bankrupt as . . . well, the banks.

The thing that’s offering some hope that this will be the case is that politics in both the US and Europe in 2009 will be driven by people who are of the political centre who seem to understand that unbridled capitalism is a busted flush. Hidden away at the bottom of page 29 of the Guardian yesterday was an article headed, “Sarkozy and Merkel tell US that Europe will lead way towards 'moral' capitalism”.

This is an incredibly important story, so why’s it got so little prominence?

The leaders of France and Germany today issued a stark warning to Washington and the global financial community that Europe would lead the way in restructuring the global financial system and ushering in a more "moral" form of capitalism.

Both leaders stressed the need for Europe to play a significant role at the summit of G20 nations in London in April, when the group of leading and emerging countries will hammer out ways of reinforcing the architecture of global regulation.

Sarkozy gave a characteristically frank verdict on the role of the US in future negotiations. "Let's be clear: in the 21st century it is no longer a single nation who can say what we must do, what we must think," he said, adding that Britain's place in the economic discussions was with her European allies "and not just with the US".

Speaking at a conference in Paris on the future of capitalism, the leaders of the EU's powerhouse member states agreed on the need to make long-term changes to the old financial order, which Sarkozy said had been "perverted" by an "amoral" form of unbridled finance capitalism. Hailing the "return of the state", the right-wing market liberal said he hoped a more responsible model of global finance would emerge from the wreckage of the current crisis.

Merkel, also a centre-right conservative, said she would "react very strongly" if attempts were made to block tighter regulation.

"Once everything is going better, the financial markets will tell us, you politicians don't need to get involved because everything is working again," she said. "I will stay firm, we must not repeat the mistakes of the past."

Calling for the creation of a new economic council to run along the lines of the UN Security Council, the chancellor said she was also in favour of a sustainable economy "world charter" which would set out new rules for long-term financial management.

The Associated Press report says that Sarkozy and Merkel are calling for a new form of capitalism.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the system "cannot continue as it is" and called for better-regulated financial markets.

Measures will be taken at the G-20 meeting in London on April 2, Sarkozy promised, saying "we cannot accept the status quo."

Merkel said the International Monetary Fund has not managed to regulate global capitalism, and she called for the creation of an economy body at the United Nations, similar to the Security Council, to judge government policy.

Speaking at the conference, European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said "global rules" on government aid to companies would be "helpful."

"A closer network of competition systems is slowly emerging after decades of work," she said.
Sarkozy blamed financial speculators for encouraging a system fueled on debt. He called financial capitalism based on speculation "an immoral system" that has "perverted the logic of capitalism."

"It's a system where wealth goes to the wealthy, where work is devalued, where production is devalued, where entrepreneurial spirit is devalued," he said.

But no more: "In capitalism of the 21st century, there is room for the state," he said.
Tony Blair called for a new financial order based on "values other than the maximum short-term profit."

Which is interesting, since I don’t remember the bastard B-Liar saying any such thing when he was running the government. Talk about the wisdom of hindsight. Will Hutton said all of this in 1995, in The State We’re In, but NuLabour paid it not the least bit of attention.

The Financial Times’ report says,

President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday warned the US and the banking industry not to thwart European efforts to tighten financial regulations this year.
In a blunt message to Barack Obama, the incoming US president, the French and German leaders made clear that the European Union was determined to set the agenda for the G20 summit in London on April 2.

The summit of leading and emerging economies will discuss ways of strengthening the architecture of global financial regulation.

Ms Merkel told the conference that she would “react very strongly” if the financial community tried to block government efforts to tighten regulation. “We must not repeat the mistakes of the past,” she said.

The German chancellor wanted the capitalist system that emerged from the financial crisis to resemble Germany’s cherished social market economy.

Considering that Merkel is described as a conservative, this says it all about how far to the Right NuLabour had dragged Britain.

Transforming East London

The Guardian had a wonderful centre-pages photograph yesterday showing an aerial view of the Olympic site in the vicinity of the main stadium - the whole place looking like a hive of activity. To the right of the photo you can see the high-level footpath/cyclepath that’s still open, and from which you can see clearly into the site. You can access this footpath from the River Lea, and I strongly recommend a visit to see the work in progress, regardless of what anyone may think about the Olympic movement and its ludicrous costs - this is a hugely important moment in the history of the East End.

Bombs, Bullets, Rockets and Shoes.

The United Nations has voted for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza (with only the USA abstaining), but the assault on the Palestinians continues, with no reduction in the shelling and bombing whatsoever. It’s Israel against the world, with only the USA abstaining.

15,000 people gathered in Hyde Park yesterday (Saturday) to protest against the Israeli bullying and butchery and shelling of schools. Demonstrators marched on the Israeli embassy, many of them carrying shoes for the purpose of throwing thereof. That Iraqi guy has really started something.

Naomi Klein is urging the rest of the world to treat Israel like the apartheid state it has become, and impose cultural isolation and economic sanctions. In the past I’d have said that it would be impossible to get the USA to go along with sanctions, so forget it - it can’t happen. But with Obama running the country - who knows? No doubt his people could at least say to the Israelis in private that if the rest of the world wants sanctions then he won’t try to scupper them, which means at least abstaining on the issue, which will require the USA to not engage in sanctions-busting. The Israelis would then find ways themselves to beat sanctions, but they surely won’t want to go on being the pariah of the entire planet forever, shunned and locked inside the fortress they’ve created.

A good friend pointed out to me today that it’s a fundamental law of nature and psychology that those who are bullied will later become bullies themselves. Quite.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Layer 111 Gaza

Radio 4 said the headline on the front page of today’s Independent is “WHY?”

Whereas The Guardian’s is “Gaza’s Day of Carnage - 40 Dead as Israelis Bomb Two UN Schools”.

Coincidentally, the first thing I did when I woke up this morning was take a break from reading Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ from cover to cover and go straight to Chapter 21, “Losing The Peace Incentive: Israel As Warning.”

“Since 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion, [global] spending has been going up on both fighter jets and executive jets rapidly and simultaneously, which means that the world is becoming less peaceful while accumulating significantly more profits.

Today, global instability does not just benefit a small group of arms dealers; it generates huge profits for the high-tech security sector, for heavy construction, for private health care companies treating wounded soldiers, for the oil and gas sectors, - and of course for defence contractors.

The scale of the revenues at stake is certainly enough to fuel an economic boom. Lockheed Martin, whose former vice president chaired the committee loudly agitating for war in Iraq, received $25 billion of US taxpayers dollars in 2005 alone. [This] sum exceeded the gross domestic product of 103 countries, including Iceland, Jordan, and Costa Rica . . . [and] was also larger than the combined budgets of the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Interior, the Small Business Administration and the entire legislative branch of government.

The recent spate of disasters has translated into such spectacular profits that many people around the world have come to the same conclusion: the rich and powerful must be deliberately causing the catastrophes so they can exploit them.

The truth is at once less sinister and more dangerous. An economic system that requires constant growth, while bucking almost all serious attempts at . . . regulation, generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological or financial. [!!!!!!!!!]

The appetite for easy, short-term profits offered by purely speculative investment has turned the stock, currency and real estate markets into crisis-creation machines . . . [!!!!!]

Our common addiction to dirty, non-renewable energy sources keeps other kinds of emergencies coming: natural disasters . . . and wars waged for control over scarce resources, which in turn create terrorist blowback . . .

Given the boiling temperatures, both climatic and political, future disasters need not be cooked up in dark conspiracies. All indications are that simply by staying the current course, they will keep coming with ever more ferocious intensity.[!!!!!! - this was written in pre-credit crisis 2007] Disaster generation can therefore be left to the market’s invisible hand. This is one area in which it actually delivers.

Large oil companies have bankrolled the climate-change-denial movement for years . . . Several influential Washington think tanks . . . are heavily funded by weapons and homeland security contractors, which profit directly from these institutes’ ceaseless portrayal of the world as a dark and menacing place, its troubles responsive only to force. The homeland security sector is becoming increasingly integrated with media corporations, a development with Orwellian implications.

It certainly makes sound business sense. The more panicked our societies become, convinced that there are terrorists lurking in every mosque, the higher the news ratings soar, the more biometric IDs and liquid-explosive-detection devices the complex sells, and the more high-tech fences it builds.

If the dream of the open, borderless “small planet” was the ticket to profits in the nineties, the nightmare of the menacing, fortressed Western continents, under siege from jihadists and illegal immigrants, plays the same role in the new millennium.

The only prospect that threatens the booming disaster economy on which so much wealth depends - from weapons to oil to engineering to surveillance to patented drugs - is the possibility of achieving some measure of climatic stability and geopolitical peace.

Israel and the Standing Disaster Apartheid State

The ever-adaptable market has changed to fit the new status quo - instability is the new stability. In discussions of this post-9/11 economic phenomenon, Israel is often held up as a sort of Exhibit A. Wars and terrorist attacks have been increasing, but the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange has been rising to record levels right alongside this violence. Israel’s economy has never been stronger, with 2007 growth rates rivalling those of China and India.

What makes Israel interesting as a guns-and-caviar model is not only that its economy is resilient in the face of major political shocks such as the 2006 war with Lebanon or Hamas’s 2007 takeover of Gaza, but also that Israel has crafted an economy that expands markedly in direct response to escalating violence.

The reasons for Israeli industry’s comfort level with disaster are not mysterious. Years before US and European companies grasped the potential of the global security boom, Israeli technology firms were busily pioneering the homeland security industry, and they continue to dominate the sector today.

Israel has 350 corporations dedicated to selling homeland security products, and 30 new ones entered the market in 2007. From a corporate perspective, this development has made Israel a model to be emulated in the post-9/11 market. From a social and political perspective, however, Israel should serve as something else - a stark warning.

The fact that Israel continues to enjoy booming prosperity, even as it wages war against its neighbours and escalates the brutality in the occupied territories, demonstrates just how perilous it is to build an economy based on the premise of continual war and deepening disasters.

Israel’s current ability to combine guns and caviar is the culmination of a dramatic shift in the nature of its economy over the past fifteen years, one that has had a profound and little-examined impact on the parallel disintegration of the prospects for peace. The last time there was a credible prospect of peace breaking out in the Middle East was in the early nineties, a time when a powerful constituency of Israelis believed that continued conflict was no longer an option.

Two factors that contributed to Israel’s retreat into unilateralism are little understood and rarely discussed, both related to the unique ways that the Chicago School free-market crusade played out in Israel.

One was the influx of [up to a million] Soviet Jews, which was a direct result of Russia’s shock therapy experiment. The other was the flipping of Israel’s export economy from one based on traditional goods and high technology to one disproportionately dependent on selling expertise and devices relating to counterterrorism. Both factors were greatly disruptive of the Oslo process: the arrival of Russians reduced Israel’s reliance on Palestinian labour and allowed it to seal in the occupied territories, while the rapid expansion of the high-tech security economy created a powerful appetite inside Israel’s wealthy and most powerful sectors for abandoning peace in favour of fighting a continual, and continuously expending, War on Terror.

[Thanks to Yeltsin] Over the course of the 1990s, roughly 1 million Jews left the former Soviet Union and moved to Israel. They now make up more than 18% of Israel’s total Jewish population . . . It would be the equivalent to all of Greece moving to France.

This demographic transformation upended the [peace process’s] already precarious dynamic. Before the arrival of the Soviet refugees [the Israeli economy] could no more survive without Palestinian labour than California could run without Mexicans. Roughly 150,000 Palestinians left their homes in Gaza and the West Bank every day and travelled to Israel to clean streets and build roads . . . Each side depended on the other economically . . .

Then, just as Oslo came into effect, this deeply interdependent relationship was abruptly severed. [There was] a new pool of cheap labour. Suddenly, Tel Aviv had the power to launch a new era in Palestinian relations. On March 30, 1993, Israel began its policy of ‘closure’, sealing off the border between Israel and the occupied territories, often for days and weeks at a time, preventing Palestinians from getting to their jobs and selling their goods. Closure began as a temporary measure, ostensibly as an emergency response to the threat of terrorism. It quickly became to new status quo, with territories sealed off not just from Israel but from each other, policed through an ever more elaborate and demeaning system of checkpoints.

1993 . . . was the year the occupied territories were transformed from run-down dormitories housing the underclass of the Israeli state into suffocating prisons. In this same period, between 1993 and 2000, the Israeli settlers living in the occupied territories doubled their numbers. Israel also continued to claim key water reserves in the West Bank, feeding the settlements and diverting scarce water back to Israel.

Israelis . . . elected Ariel Sharon and started building what they call the security barrier, and Palestinians call the Apartheid Wall . . .

[There was] a 10.7% increase in military spending, partially financed by cutbacks in social services. The government also encouraged the tech industry to branch out from [ICT] into security and surveillance. It was the perfect marriage of the Likud Party’s hawkishness and its radical embrace of Chicago School economics . . .

Israel’s pitch to North America and Europe was straightforward: the War on Terror you are just embarking on is one we have been fighting since our birth. Let our high-tech firms and privatised spy companies show you how it’s done.

The country’s defence exports in 2006 reached a record $3.4 billion, making Israel the fourth largest arms dealer in the world, larger than the UK. Its technology sector, much of it linked to security, now makes up 60% of all exports.

Len Rosen, a prominent Israeli investment banker, told Fortune magazine, “It’s security that matters more than peace”. It is not an exaggeration to say that the [global] War on Terror industry saved Israel’s faltering economy, much as the disaster capitalism complex helped rescue the global stock markets.

It is not a coincidence that the Israeli state’s decision to put ‘counterterrorism’ at the centre of its export economy has coincided precisely with its abandonment of peace negotiations, as well as a clear strategy to reframe its conflict with the Palestinians not as a battle against a nationalist movement with specific goals for land and rights but rather as part of the global War on Terror - one against illogical, fanatical forces bent only on destruction.

As has been the case on previous Chicago School frontiers, Israel’s post-9/11 growth spurt has been marked by the rapid stratification of society between rich and poor inside the state. The security buildup has been accompanied by a wave of privatisations and funding cuts to social programmes that has virtually annihilated the economic legacy of Labour Zionism and created an epidemic of inequality the likes of which Israelis have never known. In 2007, 24.4% of Israelis were living below the poverty line, with 35.2% of all children in poverty - compared with 8% of children twenty years earlier.

Clearly the Israeli economy no longer had reason to fear war . . . In 2006, the year of the devastating war with Lebanon and also the bloody escalation in the West Bank and Gaza following the election of Hamas, Israel’s overall economy grew by a staggering 8 percent - more than triple the growth rate of the US economy in the same period. The Palestinian economy, meanwhile, contracted by between 10 and 15 percent in 2006, with poverty rates reaching close to 70 percent.

This recipe for endless worldwide war is the same one that the Bush administration offered as a business prospectus to the nascent disaster capitalism complex after September 11. It is not a war that can be won by any country, but winning is not the point. The point is to create ‘security’ inside fortress states bolstered by endless low-level conflict outside their walls. In a way, it is the same goal as the private security companies have in Iraq: secure the perimeter, protect the principal.

Baghdad, New Orleans and ‘Sandy Springs’ provide glimpses of a kind of gated future built and run by the disaster capitalism complex. It is in Israel, however, that this process is most advanced: an entire country has turned itself into a fortified gated community, surrounded by locked-out people living in permanently excluded red zones. This is what a society looks like when it has lost its economic incentive for peace and is heavily invested in fighting and profiting from an endless and unwinnable War on Terror. One part looks like Israel; the other part looks like Gaza.

In April 2007, US soldiers began implementing a plan to turn several volatile Baghdad neighbourhoods into ‘gated communities’, surrounded by checkpoints and concrete walls, where residents would be tracked using biometric technology.

After it becomes clear that Baghdad is never going to be Dubai . . . Plan B is to settle into another Colombia or Nigeria - never-ending war, fought in large measure by private soldiers and paramilitaries, damped down just enough to get the natural resources out of the ground, helped along by mercenaries guarding the pipelines, platforms and water reserves.

It has become commonplace to compare the militarised ghettos of Gaza and the West Bank, with their concrete walls, electrified fences and checkpoints, to the Bantustan system in South Africa, which kept blacks in ghettos and demanded passes when they left . . . But the Bantustans were essentially work camps, a way to keep African labourers under tight surveillance and control so they would work cheaply in the mines. What Israel has constructed is a system designed to do the opposite: to keep workers from working, a network of open holding pens for millions of people who have been categorised as surplus humanity.

This discarding of 25 to 60 percent of the population has been the hallmark of the Chicago School crusade since the ‘misery villages’ began mushrooming throughout the [South American] Southern Cone in the seventies. In South Africa, Russia and New Orleans the rich build walls around themselves. Israel has taken this disposal process a step further: it has built walls around the dangerous poor.


ISBN 978-0-141-02453-0

“The only book of the last few years in American publishing that I would describe as a mandatory must-read. Literally the only one."-Rachel Maddow

I’m not only advocating that everybody should go out and buy a copy of The Shock Doctrine, I suggest that everyone buys a second copy and gives it to a friend, with the proviso that the friend also buys a copy and passes it on to a friend, and so on.

We may not all agree with every single word in the book, but we can use it as the basis for a damn good discussion and debate.


You also need a copy of Today’s G2, or you should download from the Guardian’s website its main article, which is by Oxford professor of international relations, Avi Shlaim. In case you might wonder whether Naomi is given to exaggeration or hype, it’s important to recognise that Prof. Shlaim makes the same points and draws the same conclusions.


The only way to make sense of Israel's senseless war in Gaza is through understanding the historical context. Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. British officials bitterly resented American partisanship on behalf of the infant state. On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by "an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders". I used to think that this judgment was too harsh but Israel's vicious assault on the people of Gaza, and the Bush administration's complicity in this assault, have reopened the question.

I write as someone who served loyally in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s and who has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I utterly reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. The aim was to establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic and military control over the Palestinian territories. And the result has been one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.

Gaza, however, is not simply a case of economic under-development but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development. To use the Biblical phrase, Israel turned the people of Gaza into the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, into a source of cheap labour and a captive market for Israeli goods. The development of local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the economic underpinnings essential for real political independence.

Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era. Jewish settlements in occupied territories are immoral, illegal and an insurmountable obstacle to peace. They are at once the instrument of exploitation and the symbol of the hated occupation. In Gaza, the Jewish settlers numbered only 8,000 in 2005 compared with 1.4 million local residents. Yet the settlers controlled 25% of the territory, 40% of the arable land and the lion's share of the scarce water resources. Cheek by jowl with these foreign intruders, the majority of the local population lived in abject poverty and unimaginable misery. Eighty per cent of them still subsist on less than $2 a day. The living conditions in the strip remain an affront to civilised values, a powerful precipitant to resistance and a fertile breeding ground for political extremism.

Sharon presented the withdrawal from Gaza as a contribution to peace based on a two-state solution. But in the year after, another 12,000 Israelis settled on the West Bank, further reducing the scope for an independent Palestinian state. Land-grabbing and peace-making are simply incompatible. Israel had a choice and it chose land over peace.

Israel's settlers were withdrawn but Israeli soldiers continued to control all access to the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air. Gaza was converted overnight into an open-air prison. From this point on, the Israeli air force enjoyed unrestricted freedom to drop bombs, to make sonic booms by flying low and breaking the sound barrier, and to terrorise the hapless inhabitants of this prison.

America and the EU shamelessly joined Israel in ostracising and demonising the Hamas government and in trying to bring it down by withholding tax revenues and foreign aid. A surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed.

As so often in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes. Israel's propaganda machine persistently purveyed the notion that the Palestinians are terrorists, that they reject coexistence with the Jewish state, that their nationalism is little more than antisemitism, that Hamas is just a bunch of religious fanatics and that Islam is incompatible with democracy. But the simple truth is that the Palestinian people are a normal people with normal aspirations. They are no better but they are no worse than any other national group. What they aspire to, above all, is a piece of land to call their own on which to live in freedom and dignity.

Aggressive American neoconservatives participated in the sinister plot to instigate a Palestinian civil war. Their meddling was a major factor in the collapse of the national unity government and in driving Hamas to seize power in Gaza in June 2007 to pre-empt a Fatah coup.

Israel's cynical leaders could also count on apathy and impotence of the pro-western Arab regimes and on blind support from President Bush in the twilight of his term in the White House. Bush readily obliged by putting all the blame for the crisis on Hamas, vetoing proposals at the UN Security Council for an immediate ceasefire and issuing Israel with a free pass to mount a ground invasion of Gaza.

As always, mighty Israel claims to be the victim of Palestinian aggression but the sheer asymmetry of power between the two sides leaves little room for doubt as to who is the real victim.

The resort to brute military force is accompanied, as always, by the shrill rhetoric of victimhood and a farrago of self-pity overlaid with self-righteousness. In Hebrew this is known as the syndrome of bokhim ve-yorim, "crying and shooting".

Israel had the right to act in self-defence but its response to the pinpricks of rocket attacks was totally disproportionate. The figures speak for themselves. In the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire. On the other hand, in 2005-7 alone, the IDF killed 1,290 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children.

Whatever the numbers, killing civilians is wrong. This rule applies to Israel as much as it does to Hamas, but Israel's entire record is one of unbridled and unremitting brutality towards the inhabitants of Gaza.

Israel restricted drastically the number of trucks carrying food, fuel, cooking-gas canisters, spare parts for water and sanitation plants, and medical supplies to Gaza. It is difficult to see how starving and freezing the civilians of Gaza could protect the people on the Israeli side of the border. But even if it did, it would still be immoral, a form of collective punishment that is strictly forbidden by international humanitarian law.

Israel's objective is not just the defence of its population but the eventual overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza by turning the people against their rulers. And far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year-old blockade that has brought the inhabitants of Gaza, now 1.5 million, to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

The Biblical injunction of an eye for an eye is savage enough. But Israel's insane offensive against Gaza seems to follow the logic of an eye for an eyelash.

This brief review of Israel's record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with "an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders". A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practises terrorism - the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it. Israel's real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones.


This letter, from Sabby Sagall of the Camden Palestine Solidarity Campaign, appeared in yesterday’s Guardian:

Israeli leaders' claim to be merely defending their people from Hamas rocket attacks is disingenuous. Since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 in what all observers described as free and fair elections, Israel has adopted three basic policies. First, adopting sanctions against the new Palestinian government, including withholding tax receipts and imprisoning 44 Hamas MPs. Second, tightening its blockade of Gaza in June 2007, after Hamas took power to forestall an attempted military coup by Fatah, backed by Israel and the US. Third, breaking the recent six-month truce by killing several Hamas activists on 5 November.

What other conclusion can we draw except that Israel is doing what it has always done - provoking the Palestinians, thus giving Israel the excuse for a disproportionate retaliation? Israel is attempting to destroy the Hamas government, as it once tried to eliminate the Fatah regime, so that it can then claim it has no partner for peace. Israel has never wanted peace except on its own terms - which do not include a viable Palestinian state. Short of this, it has always preferred a state of permanent semi-war. Meanwhile, the colonisation of the West Bank continues apace. This, and Israel's brutality towards the people of Gaza, indicates that its ultimate aim, which it has never abandoned, is a Palestine without Palestinians, completing the ethnic cleansing begun in 1948.


Primary Rules for Interesting Lessons - Guardian letters page.

And finally, two excellent letters on education, from yesterday’s paper.

I am surprised that your coverage of the chief inspector of schools, Christine Gilbert, and her comments about dull teaching failed to mention the main cause of why dull teaching occurs (Ofsted's new mission - to get rid of boring teachers, 5 January).

It is not because dull people become teachers. Most student teachers start out enthusiastic. The reason far more lessons are routine than when I trained as a teacher is that now there is in place a rigid tracking and testing regime that remorselessly marginalises creativity and fun. The whole Sats apparatus has been grotesquely wasteful and demotivating. Children are most engaged when lessons are challenging and fun. Being constantly drilled for tests causes the very disenchantment Gilbert highlights.

First, primary-school children should be liberated - as their secondary school counterparts have been - from this stultifying Sats apparatus. Second, a much more creative curriculum based on reading, inquiry and investigation should be introduced. The main responsibility for that shift lies with policy-makers rather than teachers.

Alan Gibbons


So the latest crackdown is on boring teachers, is it? This comes from a government that has done its best to remove every scrap of initiative and imagination from the teaching profession. Not that long ago teachers were free to write their own syllabuses to make them relevant to their pupils' abilities and interests, and were free to use any teaching style they wished. Now not only does the government, through the national curriculum, dictate the content of what must be taught but also the way in which it is taught (the sacrosanct three-part lesson). Of course it's boring.

And for Ofsted to criticise teachers for "endlessly preparing for tests", bearing in mind that the first Ofsted judgment on every school is based on its performance in these tests - well, it's enough to make you choke on your cornflakes.

Bob Epton
Brigg, North Lincolnshire