Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Layer 217 Chomsky, Hutton, Hyde, Toynbee and One To Avoid.

A couple of friends have recently said they often read the magazine The Week as a good way to keep up with what's happening in the world. I agree - it's well edited and it gives a clear digest of current events, interesting topics and the best media reports.

In the spirit of The Week here's a mention of some recent pieces in the papers, beginning at the genius end of what's being said:

'US foreign policy is straight out of the mafia'

Noam Chomsky is the west's most prominent critic of US imperialism, yet he is rarely interviewed in the mainstream media. Seumas Milne meets him
Noam Chomsky is the closest thing in the English-speaking world to an intellectual superstar. A philosopher of language and political campaigner of towering academic reputation, who as good as invented modern linguistics, he is entertained by presidents, addresses the UN general assembly and commands a mass international audience. When he spoke in London last week, thousands of young people battled for tickets to attend his lectures, followed live on the internet across the globe . . .

Chomsky is America's most prominent critic of the US imperial role in the world, which he has used his erudition and standing to expose and excoriate since Vietnam.

Like the English philosopher Bertrand Russell, who spoke out against western-backed wars until his death at the age of 97, Chomsky has lent his academic prestige to a relentless campaign against his own country's barbarities abroad – though in contrast to the aristocratic Russell, Chomsky is the child of working class Jewish refugees from Tsarist pogroms. Not surprisingly, he has been repaid with either denunciation or, far more typically, silence.

Chomsky supported Obama's election campaign in swing states, but regards his presidency as representing little more than a "shift back towards the centre" and a striking foreign policy continuity with George Bush's second administration. "The first Bush administration was way off the spectrum, America's prestige sank to a historic low and the people who run the country didn't like that." But he is surprised so many people abroad, especially in the third world, are disappointed at how little Obama has changed. "His campaign rhetoric, hope and change, was entirely vacuous. There was no principled criticism of the Iraq war: he called it a strategic blunder.

The veteran activist has described the US invasion of Afghanistan as "one of the most immoral acts in modern history", which united the jihadist movement around al-Qaida, sharply increased the level of terrorism and was "perfectly irrational – unless the security of the population is not the main priority". Which, of course, Chomsky believes, it is not.

He argues that since government officials first formulated plans for a "grand area" strategy for US global domination in the early 1940s, successive administrations have been guided by a "godfather principle, straight out of the mafia: that defiance cannot be tolerated. It's a major feature of state policy." "Successful defiance" has to be punished, even where it damages business interests, as in the economic blockade of Cuba – in case "the contagion spreads".

He describes himself as an anarchist or libertarian socialist, but often sounds more like a radical liberal – which is perhaps why he enrages more middle-of-the-road American liberals who don't appreciate their views being taken to the logical conclusion.

But for an octogenarian who has been active on the left since the 1930s, Chomsky sounds strikingly upbeat. He's a keen supporter of the wave of progressive change that has swept South America in the past decade ("one of the liberal criticisms of Bush is that he didn't pay enough attention to Latin America – it was the best thing that ever happened to Latin America"). He also believes there are now constraints on imperial power which didn't exist in the past: "They couldn't get away with the kind of chemical warfare and blanket B52 bombing that Kennedy did," in the 1960s. He even has some qualified hopes for the internet as a way around the monopoly of the corporate-dominated media.

Will Hutton

Discarded mobiles, wire-taps and Mr Bigs. Welcome to Wall Street
Imagine The Sopranos, The Wire and Gordon Gekko's Wall Street all rolled into one. You don't have to: the FBI has just broken one of the largest-ever insider dealing rings in Wall Street. It wire-tapped its way into a seedy world of secret tips, kickbacks and disposable, pre-paid mobile phones. A network including staff of New York law firms, hedge funds and share-trading companies, with links extending to top Plcs, investment banks and consultancies has been revealed. Five people have pleaded guilty, while others maintain their innocence.

The reputation of the financial markets is already at rock bottom. The crash, the bailouts and the extravagant bonuses have convinced ordinary Americans as much as us ordinary Brits that morality and fair play are not values much  found in the financial markets. And now there is this.

In 1720, the London stock exchange was a minor casino that represented a fraction of Britain's GDP.  Now, the value of the assets traded outstrips world GDP many, many times. The financial markets and their values have become the most dominant economic force on the planet. They give capitalism its culture. If London and New York financiers are part of a casino that is crooked, only fools and the naive continue to play by the rules.

Financial services now constitute a kind of tax on the real economy as well as distorting its priorities; short-termism and the search for impossibly high returns are rife. The culture, of which systematic insider trading is part, is having a growing impact on business ethics.

Most people in the financial markets start with a working moral compass, but retaining it becomes ever harder. Capitalism had its origins in a Protestant commitment to saving and investment, along with the Enlightenment commitment to truth. Great companies still have a strain of moral purpose; they seek to do something great from which they make profits. Today's financial markets mock such sentiments. Their destructiveness and awesome power goes well beyond the credit crunch. This culture of amorality reaches everywhere . . .

Marina Hyde

Sit back and await the joy of Simon the singing canary

With its top-class cast and horribly fascinating location there could scarcely be any more to love about the Mann saga
In the supermarket yesterday, I wondered how many enforced bathroom visits Mark Thatcher had rushed to make since hearing the news that the organiser of the failed Equatorial Guinea coup in 2004 had been pardoned – he's out, and he's still singing like an amphetamine-charged canary! – and I almost had to sit down in the canned goods aisle at the gorgeousness of it all.


Polly Toynbee

Brown, a tax convert? Hard to believe, but let's hope so

A Tobin transaction tax would be a bold, sensible, social democratic move – so it's a shock to hear the prime minister backing it
After the crash Brown needed a public reckoning, a time to say: "The world has changed and so have I. Like other leaders and most economists in the boom years I got things wrong. I should have regulated more, not less. Our new industrial policy acknowledges that I relied too much on the financial sector. When the facts change, I change my mind. As everyone should, I learn from experience, and now I see what must be done. Not only was the whole economy unbalanced by the dominance of finance, but the rewards were too unfairly shared in the boom years; we must ensure the pain of these hard times is born by the broadest shoulders."

Without some explanation of his intellectual journey, any change of direction will be seen as the frantic opportunism of a drowning man. Proposing a Tobin tax just doesn't fit the Gordon Brown story. As chancellor he did not conduct a progressive tax policy. He eased tax for the richest, while taxing the middle more.

Brown thought it enough to use the proceeds of tax for progressive purposes, without redistributing tax itself. As a result Britain became less equal, and income and wealth were shared less fairly. Instead of shifting attitudes to appreciate the social value of tax, he colluded with an anti-tax ideology that calls all tax a burden.

That is why his sudden espousal of the Tobin tax looks unconvincing. It doesn't belong in his back story – unless he redefines that story as a journey of rediscovery of lost social democratic tax ideas. Then he might take people with him: because his Tobin tax should be a roof-raising, banker-bashing, debt-defying, public-service-saving, rabble-rouser of a political winner.

And here's One To Avoid . . .

The touchline timeline

Just as in my childhood, winning or losing together remains a basic lesson on the great field of life

It's Peter Preston, of course, who writes in a lazy little column this week about watching his grandson play football, and has some useless thoughts on . . . nothing really. It's writing for writing's sake. It's what he does. The only explanation for the continuation of his regular column in the Guardian must be that it was part of his retirement package from his editorship of the paper, and essential to maintaining his self-esteem and ego – that his thoughts are still read and appreciated. Well they're not. At least not by anyone with half a brain.

“Here I am, back on the touchline again.
That's one of my grandsons in the centre of the defence . . .

The world of the touchline is frozen in time – and your heart bleeds a little as you sample it again.

Ahhhh . . .Still the bleeding heart liberal, then?

The real fields of dreams have no stands, no roaring crowds – just a few dozen kids, with dads and mums doing their stuff . . . somehow showing they care.
And Peter really cares! So Pete – What is point? (I really miss the Paul Whitehouse character in Down The Line.) We're back on one of Pete's old favourites, of course - smack the teacher. All teachers. Cos they're all the same really, are they not? The regular common or garden State school variety of teacher, that is.

Earnest teachers – invoking the policies of two decades ago that saw school playing fields sold off to supermarkets and competitive games shunned because they involved losing as well as winning – will wince over even a trickle of testosterone. Some 72% of kids on the latest government research don't get a regular chance at teamwork, 81% will never play anything against another school. Yoga and juggling are much in individual vogue.
Well we all know how useless yoga is! Never catch Pete and his pals doing any bloody yoga. Or their grandchildren, if he's got any say in it.

But the central pitch of existence still teaches many useful things. It shows you in a trice who's good and who never can be better than mediocre.
Does it? Once a crap footballer, always a crap footballer? Here's a man who always thinks in absolutes – you're either 'good' or 'bad', or 'never better than mediocre'. At anything, presumably.

Does it hurt, though, to know early on that you're an also-ran, that you'll never have the X factor that brings riches and renown in train?

No, not really, because that isn't the true point whenever little lads trot out to show what they can do; because being part of something is a quite different feeling; because winning or losing together, whatever teacher says, is one of the basic lessons for those on the great field of life – and for those strung out, shouting, clapping, cheering, above all involved, along its eternal touchlines.
Where to start with this bullshit? They're not 'trotting out' to 'show what they can do'. They're on the pitch to enjoy a game of football. Ideally they don't need to show anyone anything. Not even their grumpy old grandparents, or their over-ambitious parents.

Here's a man who perhaps wasn't able to amass what most people in his circle would call riches, but who was always chasing 'renown'. So clearly he had to have some kind of X factor to become a successful journalist and an editor of a newspaper, and so clearly Pete can't be considered an 'also-ran'. Whereas in reality he's just a pathetic has-been, except maybe in the kind of social circles where grumpy old men are the norm, and flailing around with reactionary and badly-informed opinions gets you some sort of status and 'renown'.

As a young teacher I used to spend at least one weekday after-school session per week and every Saturday morning coaching the school football team and taking them to matches. Brother J and I did it together, and he was always hugely enthusiastic, come rain or shine. In the summer we did cricket.

Preston doesn't realise – why would he? - that all over the country there are still lots of teachers who do these things, in spite of the fact that the demands on teachers are now massive in terms of preparation, marking, assessment,  record keeping, staff meetings, on the job training, curriculum leadership, professional reading & correspondence, and assorted meetings with colleagues, parents, etc. And how could anyone even suggest that teachers should feel obliged to involve themselves in sports (or any other extra-curricular activity such as drama, music and singing) when they're already working in the evenings and weekends at keeping up with their regular workloads? Work-life balance is a joke when you're just doing your regular job as a teacher.

What a lot of schools do nowadays, and what my old school still does, is employ specialist coaches to work with children on various sports – football, basketball, netball, tennis, cricket, volleyball, etc. Of course Preston knows nothing about any of this. “Wince over even a trickle of testosterone” indeed.

The man's a total ignoramus. Testosterone Pete. Not least because he's still stuck with the myth that because a few misguided teachers in a few places did make some waves about not liking competitive games, and argued the case for involving more children in collaborative rather than competitive games, that this somehow represented all teachers.

And it certainly wasn't the teachers that sold off school sports grounds. Of course you can't expect Fleet Street Pete to know any of this. He's the original Private Eye Lunchtime O'Booze, or one of them. At least that's what he shounds like these days. He's shurely got to go. Bleating into his cups about his childhood polio and his land of lost content.

In a way I feel bad about being so critical of someone who's so pitiful, but what the hell – he started it! He shouldn't talk such shit about subjects he knows nothing about. He should show some more respect  to teachers and to people who do more for kids than he's ever done. And it's not like he's going to read this blog anyway.

The truth is that if  “72% of kids on the latest government research don't get a regular chance at teamwork” then it's because of people like P Preston esq, who have beaten on about “the standards agenda” and raising test scores to the exclusion of practically all else. These days there are probably more kids in after-school “booster classes” learning how to perform tricks for academic tests than kids doing after-school sports, thanks to the fear of ruthless reactionaries like Preston and his gang who see life only in terms of successes, failures and also-rans; who think that getting to Oxbridge etc is the be-all and end-all, who think there's “no excuse for failure”.

And then they bleat on about the benefits of learning about collaboration and not getting “regular chances at teamwork”. That's right Mr Preston – make education and the learning process as individualistic and competitive as you possibly can and then rue the fact that kids don't develop social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, which is precisely what this “teamwork” amounts to.

Thank goodness there are some good teachers who see the benefits of allowing their pupils to actually learn collaboratively and don't rely on competitive team sports to develop these other vital intelligences. Roll on the day when we all realise that the gaining and expanding of human knowledge is best done as a collaborative effort, and one in which everyone can and should participate, whether or not we are intellectually gifted and academically  talented.

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