Monday, June 28, 2010

Layer 328 . . . A Win and a Loss, A National Disgrace, and a Game in Crisis

Summer's truly here. It's still 27 degrees at 10.30 pm, and out in the garden there's still blue in the sky, with children's voices drifting through the semi-darkness from distant houses and gardens. It's the first really hot evening of the year.

The unexpected good news is that the English cricketers have defeated the Aussies for the third time out of three this week in the 5-game one-day tournament. Ponting looked pig-sick at such a comprehensive series defeat.

The expected bad news, if you're any kind of realist, is that England have been thoroughly trashed by Germany and knocked out of the World Cup. The writing was on the wall in letters ten feet high, and it duly happened. The commentariat should feel thoroughly ashamed, having tried to talk up England's chances of winning these past few days. The pundits were rubbish. They never had a shred of evidence to support their assertions that England would win - not just this one match, but the final also.

So how was your England v Germany party? Or were you one of those who prefer to suffer in solitude and silence - alone with your TV and free to rant and swear . . . and despair. Fortunately for me, my children invited themselves round to watch the game on my HD TV, and I had the pleasure of having grandchildren around to distract me from the awfulness of England's efforts.

It's not that I'd expected England to win - far from it. In a way I don't even care if they win. But what I do expect is to be entertained by a team playing imaginatively and competently. And did I expect them to do that? Of course not. Grandchildren are much more entertaining.

Not only are England a bad team - they're just a collection of past-it and never-had-it individuals. In many cases they're well past it.

It's a law of nature that the first to mature and blossom will be the first to fade and wilt. At the age of 16 Rooney looked like a bloke of twenty something. He's now prematurely balding and playing without pace or panache. Most of the others are well past their sell-by dates too.

It has to be said also that their preparation, tactics and management were abysmal. Joe Cole had 28 minutes on the pitch in this last game, having had virtually no match practice in the group games. How on earth was he supposed to do well?

Peter Crouch never even made it on to the pitch in ANY of the games, in spite of being the team's most prolific scorer for some two or three years. Capello ignored him from start to finish in these finals. Instead he threw Emile Heskey, who never scores, into the action after it became clear that it was a question of either score goals or say goodbye. Defoe looked sharper than Rooney but it was Defoe who was substituted for Heskey. Lunacy.

Chris Waddle popped up on the radio, ranting very effectively about all the stuff we know is wrong with English football - its organisation, funding, management, coaching methods and so on. Well said Chris. Check out the Radio 4 Today (Monday) website for a replay of Waddle's points, and passion. Round about 8.30.


Will anything now change? Will English football (ie the Premiership) become anything other than an offshoot of the City and the Stock Exchange? Of course not. The selling off of football clubs to ruthless capitalist bastards who somehow manage to get control of the clubs with shedloads of debt which they somehow load on to the clubs themselves will continue to happen. That's why the Premiership exists - to make money for wise guys, insiders and fat cats. Why on earth would anyone in charge of this set-up volunteer to change it when they're getting personally rich because of it?

So well done Germany, with your supporter-owned clubs, your low admission charges and your sensible wage structures. You may not have the most watchable domestic football in the world, but you still produce quantities of intelligent, competent, thoughtful, well-motivated  players who play a damned fine game of football. You played well, scored 4 excellent goals (again) and gave the neutrals something to cheer, unlike Brazil and Portugal. Let alone France, Italy and England.

Japan for the Cup!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Layer 327 . . . The World Cup Runneth Over, and Lessons We Must Learn

Two weeks in, and it's half way house. The group stages are complete and we now know the 16 teams that will compete during the next two weeks en route to the final.

Not France (disgraced and shambolic). Not Italy (out-played - and serves them right for electing Berlusconi). For the first time ever the two previous finalists have been knocked out at the group stage.

England have come through by the skin of their undeserving teeth. Played three games against very average opposition and scored only two goals. And it's not like the Slovenian team were markedly worse.

The commentariat have been stupidly positive about England's efforts against Slovenia. The truth is that apart from Milner's superb cross that led to Defoe's shinned goal there was still a complete lack of wit, imagination, creativity and originality, let alone skill, in their play. It's all very well going on about greater effort and passion, but these alone won't win anything.

I heard an interesting theory that pre-tournament training at altitude (especially at the end of a long and tiring season?) can actually make your players MORE tired and LESS sharp in the short term. Let's hope this is the explanation for the complete uselessness of the likes of Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard, and that they'll now begin to re-acclimatise and return to whatever passes for normal, given that Rooney hasn't actually scored for England for literally years.

In boxing they talk about fighters losing their "hunger". Young boxers invariably come from mean city streets where use of the fists and physical strength are the sole means for many young men to guarantee a sense of self-worth and self-esteem - as a means of enforcing their will and desire.

England's footballers - this 'golden generation' - have never been 'hungry', either literally or metaphorically. Over-paid, over-coached, over-praised - their biggest issues are fearing mistakes and remembering what they've been programmed to do. Footballing robots. Hence lack of initiative, lack of spontaneity, lack of creativity.

Even as school kids they're over-coached and taught to follow orders. They fear being dropped from the team if they disregard the coach's instructions. Older readers might remember some notable players who hardly ever played for England because they were deemed to be unreliable and eccentric. It's a question of balance.

Nowadays you step out of line at your peril, even if you're John Terry. Pay attention kids - look and learn. Keep your mouth shut. Your ideas are not wanted, not welcomed, not needed. Industrial management has come to international football. Systems are all. Management strategies and policies rule - OK? England's manager gets £6m a year. It's City culture versus the spirit of the game.

Even the Brazilians seem to be suffering. Their game against Portugal was a disgrace. 0 - 0!!

And so sad England stagger on, with a desperate commentariat doing their best to see positives where there are currently virtually none. Today's the day of the Big One - England v Germany. Again.

Have England recovered from their altitude training? Will Rooney rediscover his mojo? Will Capello be smart enough to play Crouch and Joe Cole? Will Johnson and Milner fulfill their potential?

Maybe England should learn from the Japanese. Oxzen has already commented on the Japanese ( Layer 320). When England played them in a warm-up game last month it took a couple of unlucky own goals to defeat Japan - since England were completely unable to score a goal for themselves. It's worth repeating:

"The (Japanese Samurai) idea seems to be that with genuine effort, experience and application anyone can become good at performing skills and arts that demand high levels of fitness, balance, coordination, anticipation and flair. The Japanese football team seem to have taken hold of this attitude. Shame about the English."

In their last group game the Japanese team scored not one but two superb goals direct from free kicks - the only country to score a spectacular goal from a free kick in this World Cup. Honda managed to smash his kick through a narrow gap created by a Japanese player moving out of the wall, and Endo curled his kick beautifully right around the Danish wall later in the half, after Honda had faked the Danes into placing their wall too far to the left. And this was with a ball that's supposed to be unbendable and practically uncontrollable. It was wonderful to behold.

Here's another Honda special:

The other outstanding thing about Japan's play has been their ball control, again with a ball that's supposedly hard to control. Towards the end of the game against Denmark Honda in particular showed a staggering ability to take the ball in his stride and do things with it that only the likes of Ronaldo are supposed to be able to do. The way he created the third goal, and handed it on a plate to his colleague, was an absolute joy.

My conclusion is that if the Japanese can go from nothing at all to such high levels of skill in just a few years then England should take note and start asking how they can begin to emulate the Japanese.

How to stay calm in a tight spot? How to maintain full concentration? How to play without fear? How to apply imagination, spontaneity and creativity, and add them to discipline, effort, application, skill and determination? How to create empathy between team members? How to improve physical coordination?

Forget Total Football. Bring on Zen and the Art of Football, or Taotal Football.

PS Oxzen is sick and tired of listening to Eurocentric commentators being patronising about Asian and African teams, in a kind of watered-down Ron Atkinson way. Someone should pay attention to their comments and really take them to task about it.

PPS On Desert Island Discs this morning - Tony Adams - "As a young player I didn't know how to deal with life outside of football. The outside world was scary. So I drank." Spiritual Intelligence?

To his credit, Big T now talks about being an 'emotional cripple', and praises others for being emotionally intelligent.

"I now try to live usefully and walk humbly".

He also chose as his favourite track, "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life." Good man.


Don't forget the return of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue:

Half a day left to listen to the previous programme.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Layer 326 . . . A Gathering Storm, Voodoo Economics, the Budget, the Banks and Will Hutton

It feels like the lull before the storm. Summer's here; people are gearing up for their holidays, shopping as usual, having barbeques, watching endless dull matches broadcast in glorious HD live from the World Cup . . . and endless edited 'highlights' of these low-scoring, tedious, defence-dominated affairs. England are crap. Scotland, Wales and the Irelands aren't even there. Wimbledon fortnight starts tomorrow. The weather forecast is good.

Except on the economic front, which most people recognise and experience as the financial and personal wellbeing front. We're talking here about people struggling to stay in jobs and striving to keep up with household expenses. People with no savings; people with large debts. The cold front is approaching, with gale force winds likely throughout Britain, and much of Europe.

The economic storm is going to begin on Tuesday, with the coalition's first 'emergency' budget. You weren't aware there's an emergency? Do try to keep up.

It's an emergency conjured into existence by right wing politicians and their media friends who seem to be winning the battle to convince gullible people that governments can no longer maintain spending on public services at current levels, even though the loss of thousands of public sector jobs will deflate demand in the economy and throw even more people out of jobs in the service sector and what's left of the manufacturing sector. And so on, in a downward spiral. It's the Shock Doctrine, which thrives on 'emergencies'. It's Disaster Capitalism.

It's the same old Thatcherite/Chicago School remedy of slashing public spending on decent public services - all dressed up as "necessity" because of what the "financial markets" might do to us. Voodoo economics still rule, OK?

There was a time, when the financial crash first happened, that Keynesian economics looked likely to regain predominance, but that was before the European Right (including those in Germany now) began to see a way to keep on keeping on, with the banking sector permanently bailed out, guaranteed and subsidised by we, the people, and no-one even demonstrating against it.

In this we begin to look like post-Soviet Russia, with the people only too happy to keep schtum provided there's 'stability' in the country under a recognisable and somewhat 'legitimate' political elite who seem to know what they're talking about. It's a kind of heads in the sand politics, under a Westminster coalition of public schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates doing all the things they've been taught to do by their Chicago School trained professors in their PPE lectures, seminars and tutorials.

Will Hutton continues to shed light on all of this in his Observer columns. Here are some extracts from last week's column, which focuses on banking, posted here in the hope that the reader will hyperlink to Will's column and read it in its entirety:

The banks have refused to mend their ways. Beware the next crash

After the crisis there were cries of 'never again'. But the glacial pace of reform leaves us all in imminent danger

It was the biggest bank bail out in British history, and it came with scarcely believable costs. A trillion pounds of tax-payer support; a trillion pounds of lost output. After a disaster of this magnitude you might have expected some collective soul-searching by both banks and government. There has been far too little. Instead we risk a repeat – our banking system is as disconnected from real wealth generation as ever.

The return to business as usual – bonuses, trading in derivatives, the organising of banking as an exercise in which money is made from money – is breathtaking and depressing. And so, given the recent buoyant profit figures reported by our banks, is the easy money.

Labour delivered the minimum reform it could get away with, subcontracting responsibility to the Financial Services Authority. As the crisis broke in May 2008 it commissioned an inquiry populated entirely by industry insiders, chaired by the now chair of Lloyds, Sir Win Bischoff, to examine how the City could become more internationally competitive. When it reported a year later, it recommended little or no change. The conclusions were tamely accepted by the most risk-averse group of senior politicians in the Labour party's history.

The poverty of action is inexcusable.

Without substantial and far-reaching reform a second crisis is almost inevitable within 10-25 years. And next time we would be overwhelmed as a country.

Most industries that had undergone such a near-death experience – along with such a high probability of a recurrence – would be taking precautions. Not banking. Instead of building up its reserves aggressively, it is carrying on paying salaries at pre-crash levels.

As worrying is the lack of reform to the business model of banking built up over the last 10 or 15 years. Barclays, RBS and HSBC each boasts more than 1,000 subsidiaries – most of which are secret vehicles created to warehouse lending or direct financial flows in artificial ways, whose purpose, as one official told me off the record, is essentially deception – to avoid tax or regulation or whose complexity is designed so that in an emergency all a government can do is write a blank bail-out cheque.
[In other words, the fucking banks have got us over a barrel, and there's nothing we can do about it. The Masters of the Universe have got planet Earth right where they want it.]

The IMF don't say it, but it would just take a market rumour and there would be panic. British banks have £1 trillion wrapped up in derivatives – a business that Nouriel Roubini, the economist who predicted the crash, thinks should be as closely regulated as guns because they are no less dangerous.

But progress on financial reform – nationally and internationally – is glacial. Part of the reason is the fiendish complexity that western governments allowed their banks to create, and part is the jealous defence of alleged national banking interests by governments. But nobody should underestimate the banks' own powerful interest in resisting reform – and their lobbying is powerful and well-financed.

The status quo is bad news not just because of the risk of another crash. British banks shamefully neglect enterprise, entrepreneurship, investment and innovation. Only 3% of cumulative net lending in the decade up to the crash went to manufacturing; three quarters went to commercial real estate and residential mortgages. Lord Adair Turner, chair of the FSA, says that collectively manufacturers borrow no more than they deposit with banks. De facto, it is a sector from which the banks have largely disengaged. The result – devastated industries and sky-high property prices.

Reform has to be multi-pronged. Almost everybody accepts that banks need to carry more capital, except getting international agreement on how much is close to impossible.

Britain needs more banks, transparent banks and safer banks that really contribute to the British economy – and it needs to have the chutzpah to go it alone if necessary. The coalition government, Cable says, is committed to change, and a banking commission to investigate what and how is about to be announced. The question is whether anyone will have the courage to do what needs be done.


Will's column in today's paper says:

There is no logic to the brutish cuts that George Osborne is proposing

The chancellor constantly cites Sweden and Canada as models, but at least they tried to energise their economies

This week's budget brings on an awesome economic and political moment. The former Labour government had already committed to a greater and faster reduction in the budget deficit than any British government in modern times. The coalition government wants to do more; to nearly eliminate a structural budget deficit of 8% of national output – some £116bn – in five years. Moreover, it wants spending cuts to take 80% of the load. No country has ever volunteered such austerity. It is as tough a package of retrenchment as the IMF imposed on Greece, a country on the brink of bankruptcy. It is twice as tough as the famously harsh measures Canada took between 1994 and 1997. It is three times tougher than Sweden's measures between 1993 and 1995. In British terms, it is immeasurably tougher than what we did after the IMF crisis in 1976 or after the ERM crisis in 1992.

If we are going to embark on such a course, there has to be a national consensus that it is right. What is proposed, if we are to believe the pre-budget speeches and leaks, is the closest to an economic scorched earth policy we will ever have lived through. If it is to work, we have to be prepared to accept not just enormous economic sacrifice, but to regard it as legitimate. There has to be complete honesty about why the measures are being taken. The reasons have to be unanswerable. The economics must be unimpeachable. The measures themselves have to be extremely skilfully implemented and seen to be fair.

This is not the case just now. Of course the structural deficit has to be eliminated. But Britain has time to make the change. Sweden took 15 years to lower some departmental spending by 20%, not the five years the government plans. We are not in the position of Greece. Britain has a diversified economy. Our cumulative national debt is not large by international standards. Uniquely, the term structure of our debt is very long – around 14 years. Most of this year's debt will be sold to British domiciled individuals and companies, so the international sovereign debt crisis has much less impact on us. The level of interest on the national debt in five years' time as a share of national output is more than manageable. These are the truths about the situation; to claim otherwise creates distrust.

I don't think either coalition partner is aware of how high the stakes are being raised, the degree to which they are unnecessarily backing themselves into a corner, and how much the ground has to be prepared before launching the country on the unprecedented path they plan. For example, each of the counter-arguments I have raised needs to be carefully argued against, not shouted down by hysterical remarks about the sovereign debt crisis or references to private lectures from the not infallible governor of the Bank of England.

The lack of necessity over what is planned could knock the Lib Dems back to where the Liberal party was in the 1950s – a party of the margins – and irredeemably rebrand the Conservatives as the nasty party. The revival of liberal conservatism and the hopes raised by this unique experiment in coalition government will collapse.

George Osborne's aggression is hard to understand. The forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the outgoing Labour government's plans were both credible and more than tough enough to arrive at budgetary sustainability. To go beyond them with between £24bn and £50bn of extra spending cuts and tax rises, as is rumoured for Tuesday, is unconscionable and will rightly be challenged. The ground has not been laid; the economics are dubious even for deficit hawks; the support tiny; the implications dire.

It is not too late for a change of course or, at the very least, to reproduce the best of what the Canadians and Swedes did. In neither country was deficit reduction portrayed as a necessity to keep a triple A credit rating on government debt, nor as a vendetta against a "bloated" public sector, as the coalition has suggested. Rather, the measures were sold as a vital period of pain in order to create a platform for much-needed public spending growth in the future.

Osborne is said to have studied the Canadian experience, hence his call for a period of national consultation between Tuesday's budget and the autumn's spending review, copying what was done in Ottawa. The trouble is that the terms of the consultation preclude any genuine consultation; the assumption is that spending is bad, the state needs to be smaller, nothing is more important than a triple A credit rating, and the British way of life has to change.

It is folly. Not every penny of public spending is well spent. There has to be restraint and the deficit must be lowered. Wages, pensions and welfare transfers must take a short-term hit, as they did in Canada and Sweden. But the government should also be investing in our future. It should be raising taxes on those best able to contribute. Every department should share in the pain.

I am surprised at the Liberal Democrats. They have an obligation to their party, their tradition and the coalition to argue more fiercely for a better presented, fairer, more legitimate and more balanced approach to deficit reduction than the one that is promised. And what is proposed is no good for the Tories either. Number 10 and the Treasury believe the worst can be offset by aggressively low interest rates and more quantitative easing. They will work to a degree. But what is proposed still risks everything. Politicians pay the price with lost office. Millions of British will pay a higher price – the needless squandering of their lives.


Back on the football front, Terry Eagleton wrote this for the Guardian,

Football: a dear friend to capitalism

The World Cup is another setback to any radical change. The opium of the people is now football

If the Cameron government is bad news for those seeking radical change, the World Cup is even worse.

If every rightwing thinktank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football. No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up, bar socialism. And in the tussle between them, football is several light years ahead.

Modern societies deny men and women the experience of solidarity, which football provides to the point of collective delirium. Most car mechanics and shop assistants feel shut out by high culture; but once a week they bear witness to displays of sublime artistry by men for whom the word genius is sometimes no mere hype. Like a jazz band or drama company, football blends dazzling individual talent with selfless teamwork, thus solving a problem over which sociologists have long agonised. Co-operation and competition are cunningly balanced. Blind loyalty and internecine rivalry gratify some of our most powerful evolutionary instincts.

In a social order denuded of ceremony and symbolism, football steps in to enrich the aesthetic lives of people for whom Rimbaud is a cinematic strongman. The sport is a matter of spectacle but, unlike trooping the colour, one that also invites the intense participation of its onlookers. Men and women whose jobs make no intellectual demands can display astonishing erudition when recalling the game's history or dissecting individual skills. Learned disputes worthy of the ancient Greek forum fill the stands and pubs. Like Bertolt Brecht's theatre, the game turns ordinary people into experts.

Like some austere religious faith, the game determines what you wear, whom you associate with, what anthems you sing and what shrine of transcendent truth you worship at. Along with television, it is the supreme solution to that age-old dilemma of our political masters: what should we do with them when they're not working?

Over the centuries, popular carnival throughout Europe, while providing the common people with a safety valve for subversive feelings – defiling religious images and mocking their lords and masters – could be a genuinely anarchic affair, a foretaste of a classless society.

With football, by contrast, there can be outbreaks of angry populism, as supporters revolt against the corporate fat cats who muscle in on their clubs; but for the most part football these days is the opium of the people, not to speak of their crack cocaine. Its icon is the impeccably Tory, slavishly conformist Beckham. The Reds are no longer the Bolsheviks. Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished. And any political outfit that tried it on would have about as much chance of power as the chief executive of BP has in taking over from Oprah Winfrey.


Any diehard readers who have come this far can now enjoy Sabine Rennefanz's column on Merkel's Paralysis:

Germans are awaiting the fate of their hopeless coalition with resignation. The obituaries are in

All the hopes of the German government now rest on Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller. They aren't members of the cabinet, they're the new stars of the national football team. If anybody could, they might turn the destiny of Chancellor Angela Merkel's hopeless coalition.

If they win the World Cup in South Africa, the whole country will party relentlessly and nobody will worry any more about the disastrous government. At least that's a possibility. It has worked before: poor governments have carried on thanks to a wave of football fever. "Drink beer, watch football," said one Christian Democratic Union member of parliament the other day, when he was asked by a journalist how to survive the following weeks.

Germany has a similar coalition to Britain's: an agreement between the conservative CDU and the liberal Free Democratic party.

There has been constant infighting, disagreement – chaos. Cabinet members refer to each other as "Gurken" (cucumbers) or "Wildsau" (wild boar). Merkel's once ideal partner, the pro-business FDP has turned out to be a nightmare.

While the CDU has become a modern conservative party with a strong interest in social equality, gay rights and environmental protection, the FDP is stuck in the 1980s and is a single-topic party: it wants to cut tax, or at least block tax rises. Under the guidance of its erratic leader, Guido Westerwelle, the foreign secretary, its members happily ignored the pressing problems of the international financial crisis.

And up to now, the coalition has managed to disagree on everything – the budget, health reform, how to help the struggling carmaker Opel.

The most recent low point was last week, when Merkel and Westerwelle presented what they called a "saving package". They want to save E80bn by 2014, mainly by cutting social spending, and support for poor parents and the long-term unemployed. It read like the wish list of the FDP. There was an immediate cry of outrage – and not only from the opposition. CDU members found the package socially imbalanced, they said, claiming that wealthier people do not contribute at all. About 20,000 people demonstrated at the weekend against the proposed cuts in Berlin, and the papers published obituaries of the coalition government. "Aufhören!" ("Stop!") reads the cover headline this week of the German news magazine Der Spiegel, above a picture of a troubled-looking Merkel and Westerwelle.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Layer 325 . . . Empathy, Social and Spiritual Intelligence, Saving the World, Enlightenment, Matt Harvey and Ben Howard

Matt Harvey
's a poet who used to be a regular on Radio 4's Saturday Live. The poems he's written for the programme can still be seen on its website:

It's difficult to choose favourites - all of them are gems.

I saw Matt performing live for the first time on Saturday evening, and he was well worth missing the England game for. For me the best part of the show was his performance of Empath Man - a contemporary superhero he's created who tackles crimes and emergencies by using his "advanced listening skills and his ability to stay open and vulnerable in tight situations . . ." - Empath Man

Website - - Torquay Boys - on Transition Towns  -  Buying Curtains


The point of mentioning the above, before I got carried away by memories of Matt's performance, is the importance of empathy and social intelligence. It's something Oxzen has gone into previously, over a year ago -  -  A Force To Be Reckoned With

In yesterday's Guardian Madeleine Bunting wrote another excellent article on Big Issues - Empathy and Enlightenment:

Can empathy save us?

We need to live very differently, argues a bold new text. And that calls for nothing less than a revolution of the mind

Hail the 21st-century Enlightenment. Ideas don't come much bigger

It makes a change to lift eyes from the detail of coalition agreements or the chances in the World Cup and take on board an analysis of the grand sweep of human history, new scientific insights into human nature, and how we can ensure our survival. This is the territory explored in a pamphlet calling for a "21st-century Enlightenment" to be published this week.

[As I write this I'm half-listening to a programme I'm recording from BBC-HD called 'Wild China', part of which  focuses on Tibetan Buddhism and its concern with enlightenment . . . ]

It's an intriguing set of ideas pulled together by Matthew Taylor, in part to sketch out what an institution founded in the 18th-century Enlightenment [the RSA] ought to be doing – the answer being to generate the 21st-century Enlightenment, and this is now the new strapline for the Royal Society of Arts. No small ambition here.

The questions that underlie Taylor's pamphlet are echoed in the soul-searching around Labour's defeat: what do words such as liberal or progressive mean, and what kind of politics do they require?

"Progress in human knowledge and culture" is the slogan emblazoned round the RSA's auditorium. But can we still have faith in an idea of progress when the very inventions and ways of life that were thought would bring it about – market capitalism and individual freedom – are wreaking unprecedented environmental destruction?

We need to live very differently, and that requires thinking very differently. What's required is another revolution of the mind, a paradigm shift in human consciousness.

This is where [Taylor] becomes quietly optimistic. He believes this is possible to achieve – though not easy. The first source of his optimism lies in the research emerging from fields such as neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, showing how deeply social our brains are. The perception of us as sovereign individuals, making independent and rational decisions, is a delusion; we are profoundly influenced by those around us, and prey to emotions which we only partly understand.

Just as the scientific insights of the 17th century led to the Enlightenment's profound shifts in the understanding of the individual, and the idea that the social order could and should be changed, so Taylor hopes science can prompt dramatic shifts in self-awareness, in how we understand human behaviour so that we replace individualism with more socially connected relationships of solidarity.

The second source of his optimism relies on heavy borrowing from the recently published The Empathic Civilisation, in which Jeremy Rifkin argued that history is marked by human beings' increasing empathy for others – which can be briefly summarised as from family to tribe to nation. The question is whether our capacity for empathy can expand to the human species, the globe and the biosphere in time to prevent the destruction of the environmental resources on which we depend. Empathy can save us, believes Taylor; it is vital to negotiations on how we share out natural resources, and vital to ensure harmonious co-existence on a crowded planet. But he acknowledges: "There are reasons to ask whether the process of widening human empathy has stalled, and just at the time we need to accelerate it."

If it has stalled in Britain, and it clearly has, it's in no small measure due to the changes in classroom practice in places like England, where teaching, in many of our schools, has again become a business of teacher-centred cramming for tests instead of a child-centred process which allows pupils to interact and collaborate in their learning so that their social and emotional intelligences are allowed and encouraged to develop.

But what of spiritual intelligence? Bunting goes on to say this:

The third element essential to the 21st-century Enlightenment is a "reassertion of the fundamentally ethical dimension of humanism", argues Taylor. What kind of human beings we want to be, what kind of society we want, are always ethical questions, he insists. Again, he cites scientific research that shows how deeply rooted ethical understanding is in the human brain.

Ethical reasoning and debate need to be resurrected. We need an ethics that challenges the dominant logics of market, bureaucracy, and scientific and technological development. Just because something will sell doesn't mean it should be sold; just because something can be discovered and developed doesn't mean it should be – now so painfully evident in the Gulf of Mexico disaster. It's a powerful, urgent argument.

Does this amount to a credible account of the possibility of future human progress? Although intrigued, I'm sceptical of the claims made for empathy, and anxious that arguments for ethics may fail to gain traction.

"Intrigued"? I find this conclusion very strange, and out of keeping with the whole tone of this piece. You have to wonder whether Madeleine has actually read Daniel Goleman's books on social intelligence and emotional intelligence? If so, what the hell is there to disagree with there? It's not a question of "making claims" for empathy. It exists. Without it we can't begin to develop what Buddhists call lovingkindness.

Has she read anything by the Dalai Lama, or anything on Buddhist Ethics? Is she even aware of the concept of spiritual intelligence? If even our leading journalists and intellectuals are lacking in such fundamental forms of understanding, then what hope is there for us becoming a more enlightened society?

Without emotional, social and spiritual intelligence there can be no enlightenment. Without enlightenment there can be little human progress. Without an education system that enables young people to develop these key intelligences, as well as creativity and imagination, we have no prospect of becoming a more enlightened society.


Ben Howard

Ben Howard apparently dropped out of a journalism degree in order to pursue a career as a singer, musician and composer. He shared a gig last weekend with fellow Totnesian Matt Harvey, and played a great acoustic set in Dartmouth in company with a double bass player and a cellist (India Bourne) who also sang backing vocals.

Ben's a young guy who's rapidly maturing as an artist, as can be seen by a number of videos and audios on sites like YouTube. The quality of the vocal harmonies and musical arrangements, as well as the playing, seems to go up in leaps and bounds. None of what's currently on the Internet is as good as what he's currently doing, but it's worth checking out all the same, and it's well worth trying to see him play live. - These Waters

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Layer 324 . . . The LRB, Dreyfus, Zola, Truth, Justice, Blind Faith and Constructive Criticism

I’ve said this before, but for people who enjoy having their minds stretched and their thoughts stimulated by writing which has depth, clarity, wit, insight and originality the London Review of Books is a fortnightly treat.

Non-subscribers can access a fair amount of its content on-line, such as this superb article by Jacqueline Rose, which can also be viewed on the LRB website as a video lecture:

Her main concern is with the recent events involving Israel and Gaza, and with (mis)uses of State power generally. She uses the case of Alfred Drefus, and the subsequent trial of Emile Zola, to illustrate the way in which individuals can be persecuted by the State, and the way in which brave individuals can, and should, stand up for truth and justice in the face of overwhelming State power and public prejudice.

These quotes will give a flavor, but the piece ought to be read in its entirety.

What is a collective passion? And is it something we should want, or get excited about?

It remains to be seen whether [Obama’s] rhetoric can fully triumph over the crushing anomie of state bureaucracy and the realities of political power. And that is not to speak of the lethal counter-enthusiasm, the ugly, race-tinted hatreds also provoked by the election of the first black president, the dogs baying on the White House lawn.

Our era seems only rarely to be capable of marshalling collective affect in the direction of the common good. As Tony Judt has eloquently argued on several occasions over the past year and in his new book, Ill Fares the Land, the sense of mass belonging which characterised European and American politics from the late 19th century well into the last, doesn’t seem to be there any longer.

In an interview with Kristina Bozic in this paper, he laments what he sees as a failure of political vocabulary, the absence of a language that could inspire ‘collective ideals around which we can gather, around which we can get angry together, around which we can be motivated collectively, whether on the issue of justice, inequality, cruelty or unethical behaviour’.

One million marched against the war in Iraq: it made no difference. There is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between the people and those who claim to represent them. As the last 18 months have so brutally testified, the anti-globalisation movement, though it is testament to something of what Judt is calling for, has had no effect on the clout and corruption of international finance across the world. Action on climate change seems to be in freefall. With no apparent awareness of the irony, we will save the banks before – or rather instead of – saving the world.

We have lost our capacity for political rage. Can passion be stronger than power? Do we want it to be?

Imagine now the Palais de Justice in Paris in February 1898. Emile Zola has been charged with libelling the army in his famous letter, which we know today under the title ‘J’accuse’ (it was a stroke of genius of the editor of L’Aurore, the left-wing paper in which it appeared, to splay these words in a bold headline across the front page). Zola wrote the letter in response to the acquittal of Major Esterhazy, a low-life womanising swindler, who had been exposed as the true author of the bordereau or missive that had precipitated the affair. Discovered in a wastepaper basket at the German Embassy in Paris by a cleaner working for French intelligence, the bordereau revealed that classified military information was being passed from France to Germany. Wrongly – wilfully, as it turned out – it had been attributed to the young Jewish artillery captain, the rising star at the headquarters of the General Staff of the French army, Alfred Dreyfus.

To put it simply, Dreyfus had been framed. In 1894, he was court-martialled, convicted of treason and then in 1895 deported to Devil’s Island, the tiniest of three tiny Iles du Salut, or Salvation Islands, off the coast of French Guiana, where the climate was so intense that to be sent there was considered a death sentence. By the time of Zola’s trial, Dreyfus had already been languishing on the island for three years, in inhuman conditions. It almost killed him (he had also been kept in complete ignorance of the campaign to free him). He would remain there for more than a year until he was brought home for his 1899 retrial, at which he would be reconvicted ‘with extenuating circumstances’ by a court set up by the army to vindicate itself. Given that by then everyone knew he was innocent, this was in many ways a more shocking conviction than that of 1894.

Zola was sparked into his famous protest when Esterhazy walked free. As the world watched the events in France with growing dismay, Zola, along with the rapidly expanding number of Dreyfusards, had believed that the inevitable conviction of Esterhazy would be the beginning of redemption. Instead, it was a whitewash for Esterhazy and for the army.
Dreyfus would finally be pardoned in 1899, fully exonerated and reinstated in the army in 1906, and made an officer of the Légion d’honneur in the First World War . . .

What can the whole affair teach us in the process about public passion? I will track the main strands of the affair as I see them: the struggle for justice, the corruption of state and army, the outpouring of anti-semitism and the fate of the Jews. But the lessons I draw from them, the ways I see them combined, may not – by the end – be those most obviously expected.

What happens if . . . we run the line: because of Dreyfus, therefore justice, or rather the struggle for justice, crucially for the Jews a universal and endless affair? Today, following Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008-9, the question of justice in relation to Israel has become a burning international issue. What happens if, like Bernard Lazare, a key player in the affair, we make justice a defining priority of what it might mean to be a Jew?

The affair has three heroes: Zola, the less known Colonel Picquart, one of Dreyfus’s few defenders inside the army, and Bernard Lazare, the Jewish socialist-anarchist and critic who was the first to speak out publicly in Dreyfus’s defence. But we should also add a fourth: the radical, little-known literary journal La Revue blanche.

Dreyfus knew that he had been framed because he was a Jew. ‘My only crime is to be a Jew,’ he stated to the Cherche-Midi prison director, Commandant Forzinetti, as Forzinetti led him back after his first conviction; the fact that he looked like a ‘madman’ and could not be calmed persuaded Forzinetti, before anyone else, of his innocence.

The publication of ‘J’accuse’ in 1898, and Zola’s subsequent trial, were the occasion for the most vicious outpouring of anti-semitism across France. The day after the letter was published, anti-Jewish riots, attracting up to 4000 people in each town, broke out in Nantes, Nancy, Rennes, Bordeaux, Moulins, Montpellier, Angoulême, Tours, Poitiers, Toulouse, Angers, Rouen, Châlons and Saint-Malo, as well as in Paris. Jewish shops were attacked, synagogues besieged, Jews were assaulted in the street, effigies of Dreyfus and Zola were burned.
Imagine then the extraordinary spectacle of an army officer – a colonel no less – who had previously been considered an anti-semite, stepping to the defence of Dreyfus, and pressing his innocence at the General Staff. If Zola’s courage is remarkable and duly famous, Colonel Picquart, less known to posterity, can equally be described as a hero of the affair. It was Picquart who discovered that the writing on the bordereau, the sole piece of evidence against Dreyfus, corresponded with Esterhazy’s. He had originally believed in Dreyfus’s guilt, but faced with the evidence, he put prejudice to one side. When General Gonse said to him, ‘What do you care if that Jew rots on Devil’s Island?’ Picquart replied: ‘What you are saying, General, is abominable. I will not in any event take this secret with me to the grave.’

From the moment of his discovery, Picquart stopped at nothing, including, for ten years, jeopardising his own career, in his attempts to redeem an injustice which he saw as threatening the integrity, if not the existence, of France as a nation. For that he was hated, far more indeed than Dreyfus himself.

For Picquart, blind faith in army and/or nation was the enemy of justice and truth. If he did not quite raise this opposition to the level of an abstraction, nothing makes its import clearer and more powerful than the Dreyfus affair. Nor, given the army’s final and total climbdown, does anything show quite so clearly the price it had to pay for its own machinations, cover-up and self-deception. The army lied. And once its prestige and standing had been compromised by the first lie – the wrongful accusation of Dreyfus – it became even more important for it to lie over and over again. Crushed by defeat in the war with Prussia and the loss as a consequence of Alsace-Lorraine (home to both Dreyfus and Picquart), the army had to be infallible. That is why many anti-Dreyfusards believed that, even if Dreyfus was innocent, there must be no second trial. Reading the accounts of the affair is to watch an army dig itself deeper and deeper into a morass of its own making . . .

When we consider the issue of justice in relation to Dreyfus, a central question must therefore be – as it still is today – whose justice are we talking about? Under interrogation at Zola’s trial, Major Ravary of the Paris military tribunal declared in an extraordinary outburst: ‘Military justice does not proceed like your justice.’

There were indeed two justices, two conceptions of duty and honour, two mentalities, two nations of France.’ This distinction between summary military justice and the due process of law still has its advocates. In the words of Scott Brown, the Republican elected to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in January: ‘It’s time we stopped acting like lawyers and started acting like patriots’ (he was arguing against court trials for alleged terrorists).

The contemporary parallels don’t stop there, and certainly reach British shores. On grounds of national security, the state prosecutors argued that the most incriminating evidence against Dreyfus, which in fact did not exist, could not be revealed in court. David Miliband recently used exactly the same argument to justify withholding details of Great Britain’s policy on and, the evidence suggests, complicity in rendition and torture. National security as the cover for the erosion of civil liberties is something we have all become familiar with since 9/11. This is to take matters one step further, however: national security, more straightforwardly, as the brazen cover for state secrecy and – I think we can confidently say – lies. (Begley gives a stunning account of these parallels with Dreyfus in relation to torture and whistleblowing.)

In all of this France’s humiliation by Prussia in 1870 was crucial, since it had insinuated the idea of treachery into a nation which, like any other nation, could not bear to see itself as responsible for its own defeat. That was why having someone who could be accused of treason was such a consolation. Idolisation of the army was the cover for catastrophe. This is also an essential lesson of the affair. There is no army more dangerous or ruthless, more prone to internal corruption, than one haunted by failure. It is often under conditions of disaster, past or threatened, that an army turns into a god.

‘I thought there was a better way to serve a cause than to wrap oneself in blind faith’: Picquart’s words at Zola’s trial received the strongest support from what might appear at first glance to be an unexpected quarter. La Revue blanche, an eclectic literary journal, founded in 1889, was home to some of Proust’s earliest writing and boasted Blum as one of its foremost contributors. Up until 1898, it seemed to share no aesthetic or ethical principles, no communal identity, except, perhaps – for some of its writers – the sense, in the words of one historian, ‘of belonging to the race of Israelites’. Thadée Natanson, its proprietor, was a Jew and friend of Reinach’s. Its writers included Gustave Kahn, Julien Benda and Bernard Lazare. On 1 February 1898, two weeks after the publication of ‘J’accuse’, the Revue published a ‘Protestation’ of its belief that Dreyfus was the victim of a judicial error and of its ‘nausea’ at the affair. La Revue blanche, one of the few public forums in which Jews were willing to speak out in defence of Dreyfus, provides a context which allows me to ask two questions which are, as I see it, among the most important legacies of the affair: what is an intellectual, and what is a Jew?

Almost overnight, the Revue went from being a literary journal whose only manifesto was not to have one, to a publication in the service of a political cause. In an outburst that nothing could have led one to anticipate, La Revue blanche picked up Zola’s baton and ran with it.
In the eyes of the Revue, it was the writer’s role to redeem the political disaster engulfing France: ‘Justice, like charity, like solidarity, must always be able to count on writers.’ It knew it was sticking its neck out. A basic mindset had taken hold of the country: unconditional faith in nation and army; a belief that any challenge to the army threatened the stability of all national institutions and would fatally weaken the country; and finally, the deepest suspicion of intellectual life, a hatred, in the words of Robert Gauthier, key chronicler of the affair, ‘of free inquiry masquerading as a call to action’ (to my mind, this is just about the best definition of anti-intellectualism you could hope to get). ‘To tolerate that an external force of intellectuals, professors, writers and unaccountable journalists – that is, the force of mere opinion – be allowed to exert pressure on decisions taken by our authorities, is to open the door to subversion,’ Gauthier wrote. For any public intellectual, a huge unintended compliment.
To write like this in 1900 was to attack a sacred object. More than a century later, there are parts of the world where it still is. ‘The famous special honour of the army,’ the Revue retorted to the anti-Dreyfusards in 1898, ‘is a cover for the privilege of lying, of treachery, of thieving with glory and assassinating with impunity’ (amazingly, they were not sued). France had become a military state: ‘All at once, we can see the state, in its terrifying power as military state … The rule of law is over … The despotism of the sword has begun.’ The government was no more than a ‘vain shadow, fading away in the face of the generals’. The Revue could already discern the seeds of a totalitarianism which would come to fruition in 1940 (the Israeli historian Ze’ev Sternhell has described the anti-Dreyfusard League of Patriots as the first proto-fascist organisation). France had submitted to the yoke of its generals. The rule of law was in thrall to the army, which had been raised to a ‘theocratic’, ‘sacerdotal’ principle, idealising itself in direct proportion to the violence it was meting out, and not just to its own soldiers: ‘To prove our indomitable courage, we go off and kill defenceless negroes … prey to the murderous insanity that fatally seizes a man with weapons.’ ‘Scrape beneath your national patriotism,’ Lucien Herr wrote in an open letter to Barrès in 1898, ‘you will find haughty, brutal, conquering France, pig-headed chauvinism … the native hatred of everything that is other.’ There was no way to stand back, the Revue insisted, ‘without degrading parts of the soul’. I think this can fairly be described as ‘counter-hegemonic’ discourse blissfully running away with itself and I found myself silently cheering in the British Library when I came across it.

Although many of the writers at La Revue blanche, as well as its proprietor, were Jewish, they did not write as Jews. ‘It was in spite of his origins,’ Proust’s biographer Jean-Yves Tadié writes, ‘that a Jewish intellectual took the side of Dreyfus.’ The fight for justice, the critique of ethnic hatred, the case for Dreyfus, were all mounted in the name of universal humanitarian values in which we can already see the outlines of today’s human rights discourse.

What happened in France at the turn of the century was in many ways a forerunner of Vichy. But it is not the only story, and those who tell it risk blinding themselves to what Israel as the nation for the Jewish people did to the Palestinians in order to become a nation, and no less to what Israel has become. If the only lesson we learn from anti-semitism is more and more anti-semitism – of necessity, eternally, and as the core and limit of Jewish life – then we have learned nothing. A different version of the story would instead take from the Dreyfus affair a warning against an over fervent nationalism, against infallible armies raised to the level of theocratic principle, against an ethnic exclusivity that blinds a people to the other peoples of the world, and against governments that try to cover up their crimes.

Judge Richard Goldstone . . . was chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda between 1994 and 1996. In 1991, at the request of Nelson Mandela, he chaired an inquiry into South Africa’s political violence. None of which requires us to excuse his actions as a judge under South Africa’s apartheid regime (of course detractors who seek to highlight this era make no mention of Israel’s deep military involvement with that regime).

[Goldstone and his co-authors have published Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories – Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.]

To my mind, the Goldstone Report . . . affords Israel a unique possibility, I would say an obligation, to take responsibility for its own actions and to recognise the injustice of those actions, not just during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-9, but on a daily basis against the Palestinian people. There will always be a better way to serve a country ‘than to wrap oneself in blind faith’. All comparisons are invidious, but we could say that we already have our Zola. We already have ‘J’accuse’.

‘I belong to the race of those,’ Lazare said, ‘who were first to introduce the idea of justice into the world’:
All of them, each and every one, my ancestors, my brothers, wanted, fanatically, that right should be done to one and all, and that the scales of the law should never be tipped in favour of injustice. For that, over centuries, they cried out, sang, wept, suffered, despite the outrages, despite the insults spat at them. I am one of them and wish to be so. And that being the case, don’t you think I am right to speak of those whom you haven’t even dreamed of?

For me, there is finally no more important lesson to be learned from the Dreyfus affair.


In this week’s LRB there’s another article that has some relevance to the above.


Diarmaid MacCulloch reviews:

Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius
Oxford, 811 pp, £25.00, February 2010

Having given a positive review to the first part of this book, which does exactly what it says on the label, MacCulloch says this:

So far, so admirable in Julius’s long account; yet already one is struck by the difference between medieval murderousness, Tudor literary stereotypes of a people far away, and the later uncomfortable relationship between a majority Anglican culture and the minorities which it found itself forced to tolerate – Jews alongside Protestant Nonconformists and Roman Catholics, who made matters even more annoying for Anglicans at various periods with the swelling crowds of alien immigrants who were still more obviously not One of Us. Indeed, Roman Catholics have been much more consistently feared and abused in post-Reformation England than Jews. If everything that Julius chronicles over the centuries is anti-semitism, then anti-semitism starts to resemble that definition of a camel as a horse designed by a committee.

Then at p. 441 the reader encounters a turn in Julius’s book: ‘And so we come to the fourth of the English anti-semitisms.’ The rest of his work is devoted to directing the feelings of revulsion aroused in any right-thinking reader by what has gone before towards an equal revulsion from any criticism of the modern state of Israel. [My emphasis] Some of that criticism might indeed be seen as anti-semitic: it comes from Islamist groups who echo the malice of President Ahmadinejad in denying the truth of the Holocaust or advocating the annihilation of Israel. But Julius seems to regard any criticism of the policies of Israeli governments as impermissible. It is difficult to see how one could make any pained remark about the ‘Security Wall’ or Israeli settlements in the West Bank or the behaviour of the IDF in Gaza without incurring his censure; in fact, even Jews who criticise such episodes are classed as anti-semitic in Julius’s taxonomy. Plaintively, in his long and commendably confessional introduction, he remarks that the anti-semitism of which he seeks to construct a portrait ‘overstates, on every occasion, and beyond reason, any case that could be made against Israel’s actions or policies’.

Yet Julius’s own assumptions seem the mirror-image of this bogeyman: on his extended argument, there can be no reasonable case for criticising Israel constructively. Surely, given our species’ record of folly, selfishness and stupidity stretching over millennia, no polity in the long history of humanity has been in the enviable position of standing beyond criticism. Julius, who is nothing if not a superb rhetorician, is fond of the rhetorical device of concessio: that is, stating his opponents’ case in order to give an appearance of balance, and then ignoring it. He is, additionally, not above using the subset of that same rhetorical device which dismisses a strong counter-opinion as a ‘tedious riposte’ – what may be termed the ‘that old chestnut’ gambit.
There seems no place for a candid friend of Israel in this account of a long history when a territorial state of Israel did not exist, followed by a very different period when it has existed. Recently, as I dealt with a large volume of mail reacting to my presentation of A History of Christianity on television, it became apparent that one of the greatest sources of offence that I had given was to stand in Auschwitz-Birkenau and remind Christians of the centuries-old heritage of anti-semitism festering in the memories of countless ordinary 20th-century Christians. This poison led not just Germans but Lithuanians, Poles and many others gleefully to perpetrate bestial cruelties on helpless Jews who had done them no harm. Without the Christian centuries of characterising the Jews as Christ-killers, the Nazis would not have been so easily able to manipulate otherwise decent people. Many viewers, otherwise sympathetic to some of my criticisms of the Christian past, found this too much to take, and said so, often forcefully; equally forceful was my response in providing them with chapter and verse on the subject. Might I have saved myself the bother, and simply referred them to Anthony Julius’s account of anti-semitism? Regrettably, I couldn’t, at least not without a health-warning that in this long book a good deal of sound historical analysis is spoiled by a non-sequitur.


On a much lighter note, but still on the theme of constructive criticism:

Sex and the City 2 may just be the most radical and challenging film of the year, says Victoria Coren in the Observer.

What have you heard about Sex and the City 2? That it's bad? Let me tell you: this may be the most radical, challenging film ever made.

The first oddness of the film comes from the fact that the creators of the TV series were evidently kidnapped, bound and hidden in a cupboard while the entire project was taken over by the hardline, religious right.

Misogynists . . . have been quick to explain how much they dislike the characters in the film: venal, vacuous slags, the lot of them. Commentators have written this up as though it is their own unique take. But this is Hollywood, the great manipulator: if your misogyny is tickled, that's because it is an intensely misogynistic movie. If you despise the women, it is because the film wants you to despise the women.

It would be impossible not to. Samantha (Kim Cattrall), once a confident, funny female character who enjoyed casual sex, is, in this film, demeaned, humiliated and punished like no woman has been since the great days of the Victorian novel. She is made grotesque.

Meanwhile, her friends race around in an unnecessary fleet of gas-guzzling Mercedes, shrieking and salivating over hotel suites and shoes. Their souls are gone; nothing remains but cold, hard acquisition.

This must all be tremendously satisfying for those who disapproved of the single, self-motivated and sexually liberated women from the series. Look how it all turned out! The married ones find some happiness, once they surrender to joblessness and stop questioning their husbands' lust for large-breasted young nannies, but the one who stayed single? Ah, yes, she has developed into a desperate, shameful old whore.

Hence my assumption of a takeover by the American Christian right. As an ending to the story of these women, it reads like an extreme Calvinist pamphlet.

In order to hammer home the women's vapid, degenerate existence, the story takes them out of New York and contrasts them with normal, right-thinking people . . . It takes them to the United Arab Emirates.

The film confirms the darkest prejudices of the man or woman who despises sexually liberated New Yorkers . . . In one stunning metaphorical moment, the four chums are trapped in a souk, endangered, and dressed insensitively in shorts and plunging tops. Their escape comes – freedom is theirs – when they climb into burqas. Thus, its message is both the most conservative and the most radical we have seen in a Hollywood movie, possibly ever.

This morality tale appears to have the enormous ambition, the brave and culturally groundbreaking aim, of building bridges between religious extremists of east and west.

Sadly, it will take more than a rubbish film with bad puns to bring those groups together.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Layer 323 . . . Italy, Dartington College, Deficit Hawks, Tony Benn, Statistics, the Coalition, Media Cynicism, Gaza and the Flotilla


Solidarity Needed

Things in Italy are so bad that journalist and researcher Benedetta Brevini felt the need to publish this plea for Europe-wide help:

"Unpopular ideas can be silenced and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban," wrote George Orwell in his preface to Animal Farm in 1943. And I thought the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, had a tight enough grip on public opinion without the need for any "official ban".

Berlusconi controls roughly 80% of Italian free-to-air television channels, in a country where just 20% of the population reads newspapers. Did he really need to impose any further constraint on freedom of speech? A draft law that is going to be approved by the parliament in the following weeks will gag the last few, daring news outlets that exert oversight on the government.


Why should we listen to deficit hawks?

Calls to cut social security come from economists who want to line Wall Street pockets with money from ordinary workers

by Dean Baker

If the market had been allowed to run its course Goldman, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and many other major banks would have been bankrupt, leaving their shareholders and creditors out of luck and their top executives walking the unemployment lines. There are reasons that this outcome would have been undesirable for the economy as a whole, but there is a big difference between the Tarp blank check and doing nothing. If the politicians and their accomplices in the economics profession had not overwhelmed the public with fear, we could have ensured that the bankers suffered from the crisis that they had themselves created.

With the banks back on their feet, the Wall Street crew and their accomplices in the economics profession are again feeling their oats. They are insisting that we have to put our hopes for economic recovery on the back burner. Instead, we have to focus on deficit reduction. The reason is that we have to soothe financial markets.

The claim is that if we don't act aggressively now to reduce the budget deficit then the "bond vigilantes" will start a run on US debt just as they have recently done with Greece. This is supposed to make us so scared that we will accept large cuts in social security and in other important programmes.

. . . . .

The third reason not to take the deficit hawks argument seriously is simply that it is bad economics. The country needs deficit spending to sustain demand until private demand recovers from the collapse of the housing bubble. This is basic logic – and the prestigious positions of many of the deficit hawks will not allow them to repeal the rules of logic.

The deficit hawks are not concerned about national insolvency; they are not worried about soaring inflation; they are worried about how to take every last penny from ordinary workers and give it to the Wall Street crew. That is what the Tarp was about and this is what the latest crusade to reduce the deficit is all about. Now they want to go after workers' social security because, as Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke said: "That is where the money is." The fact that workers have paid for these benefits doesn't matter at all to the Wall Street crew.

So, if you feel like giving all your money to the Wall Street gang, then you should take the deficit hawks seriously. But, if you think that people who are not Wall Street millionaires have rights too, then get out the pitchforks and send the deficit hawks and their economist accomplices running.


Letters to my Grandchildren - Tony Benn on Midweek - R4

TB spoke well, as ever, about still being an idealist at the age of 85.

He talked about 2 flames that still burn brightly - Hope, & Anger against injustice.

As a diarist I have chronicled the time through which I have lived in meticulous detail: but all that is history. What matters now is the future for those who will live through it. The past is the past but there may be lessons to be learned which could help the next generation to avoid mistakes their parents and grandparents made. Certainly at my age I have learned an enormous amount from the study of history - not so much from the political leaders of the time but from those who struggled for justice . . .

Every generation has to fight the same battles as their ancestors had to fight, again and again, for there is no final victory and no final defeat. Two flames have burned from the beginning of time - the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope. If this book serves its purpose it will fan both flames.


Dartington College of Arts

 A threat to its identity?

Will Dartington College's quirky character survive its move to the metropolis of Falmouth?


Peter Mortimore
used to be a number-cruncher and some sort of  researcher in the last days of the ILEA - as head of its research and statistics department. Figures and data are his big thing.

Educational research 'speaks the truth to power' and ministers must listen if their policies are to be effective

In this crappy little article in this week's education section he states the bleeding obvious about politicians but fails to draw any decent conclusions about the uselessness of academia in general.

Politicians' speeches are peppered with references to research and evidence-based policy. Less often discussed are the details of who commissioned and paid for the research and whether findings have been subjected to peer-review.

It is timely, therefore, that a report, Instinct or Reason: How Education Policy is Made and How we Might Make it Better, has been produced by the CfBT (Centre for British Teachers) Education Trust. It concludes that, since the 1970s, much education policy has been influenced less by the strength of evidence, than by political ideology, prime ministerial likes and dislikes and the views of political advisers.

Based on interviews with, and the memoirs of, former ministers and meetings with civil servants, thinktank policy wonks, academics, and trade union officials, the report explores both the overt and covert reasons for many of the initiatives and frequent changes of policy in education over the last 40 years.

The authors argue that the media, ideology, particularly the belief in the efficacy of the market, and an increasing awareness of international comparison data – have a disproportionate influence on decisions. They suggest this influence has been considerably more powerful than that of academic researchers, who have often been viewed with suspicion. They make the point that, the longer they have been in power, the more governments feel able to disregard evidence.

Well, Pete me old mate, I think we all have good reasons to pay not much attention to academics. Take a look at your inanely grinning photo at the top of your column, for instance. "Why are politicians suspicious of academics?" It's not just the politicians, matey.

Peter says, "Good policymaking needs a sound research base." I think it needs a lot more than that, unless we're just talking about anticipating birth rates, the need for school places, etc.

The only research worth having in education is what people like those from CLPE, for example, do collaboratively by way of action research with practicing teachers. This has nothing to do with number-crunching and is based on painstaking observation of classroom practice, and an understanding of teaching and learning, the needs of children, and clear objectives for educating all of the intelligences. Academics tend not to know about this stuff, any more than politicians do.

Mortimore has no experience or in-depth understanding whatsoever of the difficulties and challenges of running a good school. Fact.


Jenni Russell wrote a good column this week:

The coalition deserves better than the media's infantilising cynicism

Instead of clear appraisal, the coalition faces the ritual negativity that is an utterly destructive part of our collective life

David Cameron and Nick Clegg have been mocked for their talk of the new politics. But the media have been remarkably dense about recognising that this politics really is different from the adversarial, two-party system we have grown accustomed to.

This grudging, myopic approach is bad for all of us. It infantilises and depresses us. It means that the new government isn't getting the credit it should for its sense of energy and purpose, and its many good decisions; taking more of the low-paid out of tax, rolling back the database state, cancelling the third runway, and giving us much more information about how public money is spent. Nor, more importantly, is it getting a constructive engagement from its critics on how to make all the tough decisions, on welfare, revenue and cuts.


David Grossman, an Israeli writer, published this superb column, translated for the Guardian today. It deserves to be read in full by anyone who gives a shit about the violence, the loss of life, and the stalemate in the Middle East.

The Gaza flotilla attack shows how far Israel has declined

No explanation can justify or whitewash the crime that was committed, and no excuse can explain away the stupid actions of the government and the army. Israel did not send its soldiers to kill civilians in cold blood; this is the last thing it wanted. Yet, a small Turkish organisation, fanatical in its religious views and radically hostile to Israel, recruited to its cause several hundred seekers of peace and justice, and managed to lure Israel into a trap, because it knew how Israel would react, knew how Israel is destined and compelled, like a puppet on a string, to react the way it did.

Israel's actions are but the natural continuation of the shameful, ongoing closure of Gaza, which in turn is the perpetuation of the heavy-handed and condescending approach of the Israeli government, which is prepared to embitter the lives of a million and a half innocent people in the Gaza Strip, in order to obtain the release of one imprisoned soldier, precious and beloved though he may be; and this closure is the all-too-natural consequence of a clumsy and calcified policy, which again and again resorts by default to the use of massive and exaggerated force, at every decisive juncture, where wisdom and sensitivity and creative thinking are called for instead.

Somehow, all these calamities – including Monday's deadly events – seem to be part of a larger corruptive process afflicting Israel. One has the sense that a sullied and bloated political system, fearfully aware of the steaming mess produced over the years by its own actions and malfunctions, and despairing of the possibility to undo the endless tangle it has wrought, becomes ever more inflexible in the face of pressing and complicated challenges, losing in the process the qualities that once typified Israel and its leadership – freshness, originality, creativity.


These pieces, by Amos Oz, an Israeli novelist and founder of the Peace Now movement, and by Lauren Booth, are also worth a read:

Layer 322 . . . Hopper, Laws, Ashley, Balls, Conservative Pretenders, Gaza, Deficit Hawks and Lessons in Economics

Style and Substance

Dennis Hopper died this week. A strange guy. I'd never heard of him before Easy Rider, and his character in that film was certainly HIM - a money-oriented bastard making lots of cash from flogging hard drugs whilst masquerading as some kind of spiritual freewheeling hippy on wheels.

Whereas the Peter Fonda and the Jack Nicholson characters clearly had depth and something  to say about life, about freedom and the state of humanity, you had the feeling about Hopper that he didn't really give a shit about anything except taking care of business and looking after himself. He reminded me of quite a few people who were students at that time - growing their hair and dressing in denim but essentially on their way to making as much money as possible through the pursuit of cruddy careers in accountancy and business.

In real life Hopper spent many years addicted to hard drugs and booze, and was an anti-liberal paid-up Republican far-right-supporting nihilist. He also liked guns. Not a very attractive character. What the hell's a 'hell-raiser' anyway? A loud-mouthed drunken egomaniac. About as far from hippy ideals as you can get.

Hardly in the same class as Hopper, but David Laws is another anti-liberal dressed up as a Liberal caring sharing good guy. He's a City man through and through, an Orange Book believer in Chicago-school neo-liberal economics. It seems it was only his sexual proclivities that kept him away from entering politics as a Conservative.

And then there's the strange case of Jackie Ashley, who this week shed her left-wing political make-up and came out as a defender of the indefensible - Sex and the City 2. This film has been widely panned as a total dog of a movie - about four women who used to be strong characters in favour of freedom and fun, now reduced to hankering after marriage and endless shopping trips in places like Abu Dhabi. Ashley is a waste of space. She defends these women's indulgence in frivolity and air-headed materialism on the grounds that such escapism is no worse that men's indulgence in football and gadgets.

Nobody sensible should be mad enough to pay extortionate amounts of cash to see a bunch of millionaire footballers running around a football pitch for 90 minutes, agreed, but nobody should enjoy the sight of grown women doing stupid stuff either. Weird, Jackie.

And finally we come to the other weirdos of the week - the other style over substance attention-seekers vying for the leadership of the Labour party. A feature on Ed Balls in G2 was just as vacuous as the man himself, who had nothing interesting to say at all. This is a man who didn't even realise that you need to go to Paddington and not Euston in order to catch a train to Swindon. Duh!


Lots of interesting comments here, prompted by this piece, and by Iain Duncan Smith's proposals.

It's surely a mistake for those who see themselves as anti-Tory to attack someone like IDS when he's a lone Tory voice making at least some constructive points about work and poverty.

For example, when he says, "If you are unemployed, and you come from a family that is unemployed, all you can see when you think about work is risk", he's surely not mistaken. He's talking about thousands of people who receive benefits and are likely at present to lose those benefits as soon as they take a job, no matter how temporary that job may be, no matter whether they will be able to cope with its demands, and therefore could soon find themselves having to go through all the hassles of re-applying for their benefits.

IDS seems to be saying, let's allow people to keep their benefits for some time until it's established that they have some job security, and are doing work for which they have some capacity, some aptitude and perhaps even some liking. I know from personal experience within my own family just how hard it can be for people to cope with being laid off several times within a matter of weeks or months from jobs they'd understood to be long-term .

Secondly, the author of this piece says, "In fact, very few are materially better off unemployed, as there are numerous financial incentives to ensure that taking a job is financially rewarding. Jobcentre advisers are trained to offer "better-off calculations" that detail claimants' potential earnings from these benefits."

What this is failing to address is that financial benefits are only part of the equation when someone's deciding whether to take certain, usually low-paid, jobs. Being unemployed and cash-poor, but time-rich, for example, which might permit a poor but pleasant lifestyle, especially if it involves being able to offer more care for one's children and elders, may also be a key factor. And we shouldn't forget that those who are unemployed, time-rich and claiming benefits also have more opportunity to do odd days of work for cash in hand.

If I understand him correctly IDS is proposing to help create a fairer society partly by persuading parliament to approve measures that will allow those on benefits to keep most of what they earn when they take a job, without any fear of losing their benefits, for a reasonable stretch of time. This is surely the only way to get people to give up an unemployed and cash in hand lifestyle - to make work pay and to make people significantly better off by taking even a low paid job.

It's only by finding a niche in the world of work that people can acquire the habit of working and a desire to acquire further skills. I believe IDS, through his work with his Centre for Social Justice, genuinely believes that it's worth the state spending more on the unemployed, or rather, not immediately grabbing back state benefits when people start work, in order to spend less on unemployment in the long run. He sounds to me as though he means it when he says that it's wrong for people to pay back proportionately more to the state when they start work than even those on 50% income tax are paying.

If I'm wrong about this, then maybe this is an idea that the Labour party ought to consider, and maybe should have considered already. If I'm right, then let's give IDS the credit he deserves.


Labour leadership hustings: Lead resistance to the cuts

We must again become a grassroots social movement


Labour leadership hustings: I voted against the Iraq war

We need to rediscover our sense of moral purpose


Why should we listen to deficit hawks?

Calls to cut social security come from economists who want to line Wall Street pockets with money from ordinary workers


David Laws's life goal was to cast people out of work

I regret the manner of his fall, but he wasn't honest with public money, while his cuts agenda is terrifying to contemplate


Lift the Gaza blockade

The suffering is shocking. And nobody will benefit from the radicalism that confinement engenders


Gaza: From blockade to bloodshed

Nothing has done more to establish Israel's status as a pariah state among its neighbours than the actions of its armed forces


This state-hating free marketeer ignores his own failed experiment

Matt Ridley, the former head of Northern Rock, is peddling theories riddled with blame-shifting and excruciating errors


In a financial crisis, what counts is what works

Free-market capitalism has imploded, and Europe's moment has not come: big-picture explanations of the world rarely hold good for long

This is an excellent piece by Larry Elliott, the Guardian's economics editor. Heavy stuff, but worth persevering with for the quality of his analysis and his conclusion:

The postwar era of strong trade unions, full employment policies and capital controls produced stronger, more equitable growth than three decades of deregulation, liberalisation and flexible labour markets. The more integrated Europe has become, the worse it has performed.

China and India prove that it is possible to thrive without a meta-narrative. Both countries have systems of managed capitalism fully in the tradition of the mixed economies that prevailed in the west during the heyday of social democracy. What counts is what works. There is a lesson in that somewhere.