Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Sporting lives

It's time for some good news.

Rebirth - born again in Blackpool.


That's what it felt like as Swinton contested the first iPro Sports Cup Final for League 1 Rugby League clubs.


We lost, but there was a great turnout of Swinton fans with banners and balloons. We kicked up one hell of a racket. And it felt really good. The sun shone and the sky was dressed in Swinton colours. You could sense that at last this great old club is reviving. It is run soundly now, with a new company and fan representation on the board. There is an active supporters' trust. It's a club we can all get behind. After more than two decades of homelessness, everyone knows that we need a ground back in Swinton. If that happens the future is bright - bright blue.

Flowering - fans demanding the impossible and getting it.

FC United of Manchester, a non-league club created and owned by its fans, born out of despair, formally opens its new stadium with a friendly - against Benfica! David Conn, the best writer on football, has written a lovely piece on the club. It concludes beautifully:
At the trial game one supporter, Michelle Noonan, called over to Brown. “I can’t stop crying,” she said. Asked why, she was quiet for a while. Then she replied: “Because I can’t believe that out of so much anger and hatred we have made something so good.”
Reunion - first love and football.

I have lived for many years in Manchester where I discovered Rugby League and Swinton. I also watched football and went to see Manchester United, mainly sporadically, though I did have a season ticket for a few years before giving it up with a sense of growing disgust. The economics of it offended me, but it was the way supporters were both exploited and patronised, treated as cash cows to be berated if they tried to complain, that meant that the relationship could not be a happy one. The crass commercialism and "global brand exploitation" had turned something romantic into something ugly. The Glazers' takeover and financial dealings would have seen me off completely, but I had gone before then. I could have been tempted by FC United, but it wasn't in my heart.

As I have blogged before, I grew up in South London and I fell in love with Crystal Palace early in life. I knew I had to go back. I was returning home - to Palace - to first love. The experience was intense.

It felt more ethical too as Palace were in the Championship, but just as I started going they won the play-offs against the odds and were promoted to a place amongst the plutocrats. Remarkably, they have stayed there and this season finished tenth. Yesterday, they honoured one of their longest serving players, the Argentinian goalkeeper, Julian Speroni with a testimonial. Speroni donated all the receipts to charity. Dominic Fifield wrote a smashing profile of the man and summed up the Palace experience totally:
Speroni often ends up pinching himself when he contemplates the journey he has made from Saavedra, Buenos Aires to the Premier League via Dundee. Or, putting the geography to one side, to mid-table in the most watched league in world football via one relegation, a painful administration and 11 different managers – permanent, interim or caretaker – at Palace alone.
But things have changed since that administration five years ago, and whilst the way FC United is run may be the ideal model, Palace is the next best thing. There is a supporters' trust, though it's not part of the ownership structure. But the consortium that took the club out of administration is led by a lifelong fan. He talks emotionally about his first match here, a game I was at too and remember well. He runs the club, but does not take a salary. It appears that the temptation of an American takeover has been resisted. The club is debt free, profitable, sustainable and determined to stay that way. The rapport with the fans, including the lunatics in the Holmesdale End, is excellent and watching Palace is a boisterous, noisy experience. It feels great to be back, even if distance restricts the times I can go to see them.

Nemesis.

Always save the best news until last.
Two criminal probes into corruption at football's governing body Fifa are under way, after seven senior officials were arrested in Zurich on US charges...
 Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan - Mr Blatter's rival for the Fifa presidency - described the arrests as "a sad day for football".
It isn't a sad day, it's a great day. It's a great day for the slave labourers dying on Qatari building sites, it's a great day for the countries deprived of World Cup profits and left with expensive white elephants of rotting stadia, it's a great day for the ordinary fan whose pockets are picked by corrupt plutocrats exploiting their love of the game. It's late - too late - it may achieve little, but it has happened. Let's celebrate.

And while we raise our glasses, let's glance over our shoulders at other examples of the what the world can be - at Swinton, FC United and Crystal Palace - at all those fan run and owned clubs - at the German football model - all the while remembering that sport matters, it is part of our culture and history, and that another world is possible.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Queer ducks

I can now formally announce that the world has gone mad. Or at least a section of it. Or an intersection. An abstract from a conference run by Left Forum.
Animal rights are often seen as subordinate to or even the opposite of human rights. But what if we flipped the picture, seeing the world from the point of view of queer ducks and LGBTQ people alike oppressed by hierarchical binaries? Our all-queer panel of animal liberation activists will cover not only intersections among speciesism and homo/transphobia but also the exciting possibilities opened up by a fully ecological activist praxis. Presentations: "Born Wrong” by Christopher-Sebastian McJetters -- An examination of how violence against animals perpetuates anti-gay bullying, erasing nonhuman identities also erases queer identities, and hyper-masculinity in American gay culture cultivates speciesism. "Decolonizing the Dominant Diet” by Brandie Skorker -- A challenge to socially constructed dietary desires that are rooted in oppressive histories while leading to environmental catastrophes. "Human Rights as Animal Rights” by Pattrice Jones -- A “queering” of the notion of animal rights to encompass human rights and thereby enliven struggles for social and environmental justice through the restoration of social and material ecologies. 
Quack!
Thanks to MJ, our wobbly Francophone friend

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Unforgettable

"You have to remember that most people lead very humdrum lives." That was a comment Peter Mandelson threw out to justify New Labour's continuation of the Conservative government's Millennium Dome project in a contrived 1999 TV documentary. He went on to say that people deserved the opportunity to have one extraordinary experience in life, which the Dome would provide. It was a perfect example of elite condescension.

At the time, I swore at the TV. Now I would tell Mandelson to go and see New Perspectives' production of my old friend Tim Elgood's latest play, Unforgettable. It welcomes us into ordinariness. The stage is set with respectably fashionable furniture from the early sixties, and we enter into the action through the aftermath of a subdued, suburban funeral with a finger buffet of indifferent vol-au-vents and sherry served from a cut glass decanter. We meet a brother and sister, Jed and Rosie, both in their sixties, both moderate failures, unexceptional in many ways. They are the only characters. And slowly they draw you into their world, a world that is both banal and beautiful.

The play hinges on Jed and Rosie's decision to care for their mother who has Alzheimer's, but it isn't really about dementia. And though the main theme explores the complexity of their relationship, this isn't the whole story either. The play is a tragicomedy. So is life. No life can have a happy ending and all must end. As the play repeats often, life is too short. Negotiating it is difficult. Yet we laugh and enjoy ourselves for as long as we can. We must.

Tim's gift as a writer is his ability to show that the prosaic is profound and there is an emotional intensity to the play, brought out by the fine acting and intelligent direction. He writes with affection, but without sentimentality. He never preaches. And the story that reveals itself as the evening progresses is one that we recognise as, in essence, our own.

Obviously given the subject matter, the play explores the nature of memory, especially through the use of evocative music, but what I found most compelling was the way that Unforgettable was a meditation on kindness. Even if it is masked by an acid, and wickedly funny, tongue, kindness is the unifying principle that held Jed and Rosie together, as it does us all. And this is what made me think of Mandelson. The reduction of the passions of life, death, birth, love and human kindness to a "humdrum" existence that can be elevated by a day out in a giant, corporate-sponsored plastic tent, is demeaning. This play is a complete rebuttal.

I enjoyed the jokes, found the humour cathartic, but was deep in thought by the end. It is a sympathetic and sensitive portrayal of ordinary lives facing difficult and common dilemmas that engages its audience on several levels. Those lives are important, those experiences intense. And as I left the theatre and strolled to the pub, still gripped by the emotional power of the play, I couldn't help thinking that the experience of seeing Unforgettable was so, well, memorable.

Monday, May 18, 2015

On and on

I'm back in the UK and it is cold. Being in more immediate touch with the British media, I am becoming acutely aware of the fact that nobody does a post-mortem like the Labour Party.

It combines the calm control of Lance-Corporal Jones,


the optimism of Private Frazer,


with more common-or-garden political practices.



Amongst the cries of "we were too left wing," "we were too right wing" or, even more bewilderingly, "we were too left wing for England and too right wing for Scotland," together with the Blairite calls for the return of the king from over the water or one of his anointed, there are some small voices of sanity.

First of all, Jon Trickett did something that few do, he looked at the figures. Most rely on impressions based, at best, on seats, but more often on pre-existing prejudices. And he comes up with something interesting.
In a minor tidal wave of what looks like pre planned statements, a group of commentators have argued that what lost the election was a failure to tap into the hopes of “aspirational” voters.
However, there is not a shred of evidence for their argument. The explanations for our defeat are deeper than this simplistic assessment.
The truth is that Labour recovered amongst middle class voters but has suffered a cataclysmic decline among working class voters.
That, together with the politics of nationalism, certainly did for Labour in Scotland, but also badly affected them in marginal constituencies elsewhere, particularly in the Midlands.

He also punctures the myth of the electoral triumphalism of New Labour by pointing out something anybody could see if they looked at the figures: "In 2005 ... Labour had lost 4 million voters since the election in 1997."

This isn't reassuring. As John Harris points out in the next outbreak of sanity, this is a common feature of social democratic parties across Europe. And in this country he comes to similar conclusions to Trickett:
...Labour’s vote share had been sliding since 2001. Even the supposedly wizard-like Tony Blair managed only 35.2% of the popular vote (a mere 22% of the whole electorate) in 2005 – and one only need visit any number of supposed Labour “heartlands” to understand what that decline now actually means. In those places, it’s instantly obvious that this is not just a crisis for centre-left politicians, but the left-behind people and places many of them are meant to speak for. Go to the South Wales valleys, or the post-industrial north-east: in the midst of a lot of generalised hopelessness, there is no real enthusiasm for Labour, limp support reducible to ancestor-worship (“I vote for them because my grandad did”), and among most people under 30, no idea of the values the party claims to stand for.
Economically left behind and politically ignored, these communities have turned to demagogic anti-immigration movements, hence UKIP's inroads into the Labour vote. Coffee mugs are no answer.

John Cruddas, who has an axe to grind, having written the manifesto and headed a policy review that was completely ignored, wants the party to try and recover those forgotten voters (and non-voters). As he explained in an interview with Toby Helm, the strategy Labour adopted was uninspiring.
Radical, far-reaching work produced by his policy review was ready to be taken up, he now says, but was left to gather dust by those around Miliband, who opted instead for their minimalist, safety-first offer, and a few “free money bribes” such as the energy price freeze, which failed to add up to a convincing, overarching national story.
He is also an advocate of rebuilding Labour as a social movement through community development and activism. It is damned hard work, as anyone who has worked in a community setting will tell you, but it isn't enough on its own. You have to make a difference too. You have to deliver on your work to be trusted. It is the right thing to do, but it won't bring instant results.

The elephant in the room is what caused these communities to get left behind in the first place, political economy. Nobody seems to be talking about it. Having conceded the basics since 1997, it is hard to build a convincing alternative narrative that can be sold. Part of the problem is that we are locked into the discussion of political ideas on the idea of a right/left spectrum. It is as if ideas can be quantified. Our language is imbued with terms like "the centre ground," implying the ability to split the difference between opposites. In reality, we have distinct theories of how an economy works, not a sliding scale of leftness and rightness. Labour needs to recover an alternative that they can show will work for the excluded and included alike - for all the people they speak for. That is not an easy task at all and it is not going to happen if the Party continues to think in clichés.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Awkward facts

There will be acres of commentary on the election in the next few days. A lot of it will be saying the same things and reading personal prejudices into the headline results. The narrative will be a surprise Tory triumph and a dismal Labour defeat. Old enmities will be dusted down, favourite policies will be advanced and everyone will have a theory about the reason why it happened. They will all focus on Parliamentary seats won and lost, very few will bother to look at the voting figures. If they did they would see a much more complicated picture.

The culprit is the electoral system, but not in the way UKIP seized upon it, comparing their 12.7% and one seat with the SNP's 4.7% and 56 seats. It is a false comparison. UKIP is a national party, whereas the SNP is a regional party, only standing in Scotland where they did exceptionally well. Any proportional system, other than a strict party list, factors in geographic representation and local constituencies. Under the single transferable vote, with multi-member constituencies, the result may have looked similar, though UKIP could have picked up a few more seats where they came second if they were garnering second and third preferences. Given the nature of UKIP, they may not have got that many, but that is only speculation. The Green Party might have done a lot better. The problems with the system lie elsewhere.

First, the Conservatives won a secure majority of 12 with only 36.9% of the vote, a weak performance. They gained 24 seats, but they only increased their share of the vote from 2010 by 0.8%. Labour did badly, there is no doubt about that, they lost 26 seats, yet look at the voting figures. Labour increased its share of the vote by 1.5% - more than the Tories managed. They had improved from the last election! And this is despite the miscalculations that exacerbated their Scottish disaster. However, they hadn't improved enough or in the right places. Despite this, the recriminations have started and Miliband has resigned as leader.

Labour really needs this introspection. Its platform and presentation was unimpressive. It has to develop a coherent social policy and a revamped, social democratic, political economy. 30.4% is poor for a party aspiring to be a party of government. But it still was an improvement on last time and sometimes recovery from a very low base takes time - like from 1997 to 2010 for instance. And the Tories didn't do much better. There is no need come over all apocalyptic just yet.

Secondly, the really big change was the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. They were the only major party to lose support. Their vote declined by 15.2% and they lost 49 seats. Now that was spectacular. They had been growing over the years on the basis of tactical voting, another by-product of the voting system. They became the vehicle for anti-Tory voting to lock the Conservatives out of constituencies that might have been naturally theirs. But then they went into coalition with them and the anti-Tory rationale disappeared overnight - as did their support. Doesn't look like such a smart move today, does it? With this big a collapse, the overall result depends on where these votes go and one of the things it appears to have done is to open up natural Tory constituencies as Conservative gains.

The other factor was turnout. 66.1% isn't good. Compare it to the Scottish independence referendum for example. This was an election without widespread enthusiasm. It is why it smelt of 1992 to me and I went to bed last night before the exit poll (Greece is two hours ahead of the UK) fully expecting a Conservative win, though not an overall majority. Labour hadn't done enough, was unconvincing and, without enthusiasm driving change, we tend to end up with stasis. However well the campaign went, they rarely make any difference at all. The die was cast much earlier.

And finally, I want to give two cheers to the polls. Yes they were wrong, but all polls are published with the caveat of a 3% margin of error either way. If they were overstating Labour by 3% and understating the Conservatives by 3%, they weren't that far out. The real fault with the polls was not their accuracy, but our willingness to believe in them as absolutely correct measures rather than being an approximation.

So we have a new single party government thanks to the distortions of our electoral system. Although the Tories were unambiguous winners as the largest minority, they did relatively poorly. We have an opposition locked into a process of re-evaluation and internal struggle. It sounds like a free pass. But have you seen some of those Tory backbench obsessives? The majority isn't that big and it won't be an easy ride. The opportunity is there but only if the Labour Party can develop a coherent programme and generate the energy and enthusiasm for change. And they have to do it in the right places to win seats in an arbitrary electoral system. Otherwise we are in for a long haul.

One big happy family

That's what the two codes of rugby are supposed to be now after that little family row that only lasted a hundred years of persecution or so. Except old habits die hard, it seems.
Rugby league players in the United Arab Emirates have been told the league president Sol Mokdad has been arrested as part of a rugby union campaign to have the 13-man game shut down.
 Come back Vichy ...

Silver linings

As any reader would imagine, I am not a happy bunny today, even if I was unsurprised by the result. But every cloud and all that ...

Two great results from the general election:

1. Farage lost. And he resigned as UKIP leader just as he said he would, though he did say that he may well stand as a candidate in the autumn leadership election (I am not sure that is what is normally meant by a resignation, but there we go). More importantly, it marked the defeat of the latest attempt to build a Powellite party in Britain.

2. Galloway lost. And he delivered a suitably bizarre losing speech whilst still wearing that strange hat (a white, Scottish Catholic blaming his defeat by an Asian woman on racism is novel). This too marked the defeat of something bigger, an attempt to create a populist and communalist political movement in alliance with ultra-conservatives and Islamists. The great joy is that he was comprehensively defeated by a Muslim feminist with a history of fighting discrimination.

It is nice to know that however many dark corners there are, Britain isn't that nasty.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Last tango with Charlie

I was going to leave the American spat about the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo alone, but then I came across this article. It didn't rehearse the old arguments, but said something new. Vladislav Davidzon, a Russian-American living in Paris, picks up on the American intellectual context of the PEN boycott with insight and verve. His target is the parochialism of American bourgeois prissiness. And there are some great lines in his piece:
 …as an American writer living in Paris, one has the acute feeling of being a witness to the moral and intellectual self-immolation of the American intelligentsia. 

 “Their account of Charlie Hebdo is like a Google-translated version of Rabelais,” the American writer Lauren Elkin lamented. 

Stale prudishness was mistaken for solidarity with the oppressed. 
 And even amongst the defence there was,
 ...the older strain of American prurience lurking in the rhetoric of the magazine’s American defenders … a ritual of bourgeois ideological self-abnegation, lacking all esprit and vitality. 
There is a lot more in the piece to chuckle at, but he nails it. Charlie Hebdo's literary critics were utterly humourless, morally censorious, and, well, depressingly conventional. It's bloody puritanism again. Some selected cartoons (all any of them saw) offended their sensibilities, even if they had been correctly interpreted. The cartoons weren't "punching down," they were punching them.

It is the suburbanisation of politics and it is everywhere. A middle class sense of propriety and constraint, linked to a paralysing fear of life, means we debate in semi-detached shackles. Argument is infused with anxiety about saying the wrong thing, thereby stepping outside the bounds of convention. What has happened is that the convention has replaced the cause and it is the cause that matters.

If you want to understand the demagogic appeal of Nigel Farage, it is because he deliberately breaks these rules, but does so in order to destroy the cause. In this way he appears subversive, but he is the ultimate suburban. He wishes to license the expression of the petty hatreds and prejudices that liberals are trying to outlaw. He is the other side of the same dismal coin.

It's time to realise that liberation is fun, equality can be fought for with humour and that free and happy societies are not the products of the denial of pleasure. Liberty is the product of a love of life, not a moral disapproval of the bits we enjoy. And irreverence has long been the weapon of the oppressed. This is why Davidzon provides the best defence of Charlie Hebdo that I have read. He writes:
Charlie Hebdo is, let it be said, utterly joyous and carnal fun for anyone with an anarchic sense of mirth. It is vital and scabrous and it skewers all religious and political pieties with equal glee. Descended from the glorious genealogical tradition of Honoré Daumier and the bande dessinée, the planar blocky design is all thickened line and sensuousness. The covers are strikingly designed in a creamy pastel palette. It is true that the cartoons do range all along the spectrum in quality, but many of them are uproarious, witty, and shrewd. They characterize the convention of sublime take-no-prisoners political savagery and sexual bawdiness that has always run through French political tradition, and which simply does not exist in American politics. Many of Charlie’s targets richly deserve the mocking opprobrium. The entire project is permeated with sex and libidinous fidelity to the bodily appetites. It is earthy rather than “vulgar.” 

Monday, May 04, 2015

Equality and the law

One of the basic principles of liberal democracy is equality before the law. At a bare minimum it insists that the law applies equally to all citizens. Though true in theory, the practice is different if people do not have access to advice and representation to find their way through the complexities, to understand their rights, and to have someone to articulate their case on their behalf in ways that the inexpert might find difficult. If the barrier to obtaining representation is money, then this fundamental democratic principle is undermined, confining justice to the wealthy. This is the whole rationale behind legal aid and local authority funded law centres. And this is also why the cuts to the system is a national scandal that has gone virtually unnoticed.

The Conservative Party's approach to public services is a curious one. The standard complaint of "marketisation" is raised at every turn as if the struggle is between free-market ideologues and those who feel that there are areas that should be immune from market competition. But in legal aid, as in other areas, this is not what the Tories are doing. They are actually reducing competition in favour of issuing a smaller number of state-approved contracts, limiting the choice of clients. And by doing so, they are bureaucratising what was a relatively simple system, restricting its availability and increasing its cost to the user.

Legal aid is not a sexy political area and lawyers are not an appealing political cause, unless you realise that nobody goes into criminal law for the money - where pay is poor and commitment high - or if your luck runs out and you find that you join the minority of people who need legal help. It has been absent from the election campaign until recently when an open letter to the Guardian tried to raise the issue. It is worth quoting from it at length.

In 2010, annual expenditure for the civil and criminal justice system stood at approximately £2bn per annum, which equates to the cost of running the NHS for a fortnight. Spending was falling and was not spiralling out of control. Now, after two years of an unprecedented programme of cuts, the level of spending is down to approximately £1.5bn per annum. The effect of the cuts is reflected in eye-watering statistics. From 2012-13 to 2013-14, debt cases fell from 81,792 to 2,423 and in clinical negligence from 2,859 to 114. In employment law, legally aided cases fell from 16,154 to six in the same period. The huge increase in employment tribunal fees has meant that people without deep pockets have little to no protection against unscrupulous employers. We know that cuts disproportionately affect women and, sure enough, the government’s own figures show an 80% drop in the number of women taking employment cases to tribunal. Funding in family law cases dropped by 60%, causing a predicted rise in unrepresented defendants, a trend now also starting to be seen in the criminal courts.

What the figures do not convey is the sheer human misery of being unable to get legal advice. GPs report a large increase in the number of patients who would have been assisted by advice on benefits, employment, debts and housing. Cuts to legal aid are literally making people sick.
To its credit, Labour has responded, but my how cautiously. It is promising to make it easier to get legal aid for victims of domestic abuse. On the radical upheaval of the system, it is silent. And here we see another problem. Labour only feels it can act where the recipient is uncontentiously deserving. It is a further sign of the erosion of the basic principle of universality towards the provision of services based on the idea of moral worth.

If conventional moral sanctimony is the determinant of support, it is hardly surprising that criminal law defendants are an easy target. But this is the whole point of universality. Access to a service is there irrespective of moral judgement. It is based on a different concept of justice. And in doing so it stands the best chance of reaching everyone who needs it. Once discretion enters into the equation, services go to those best able to negotiate the system. And what that usually means is that the people who need them most miss out.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The obvious

This, from is really excellent. You need to know who he is.
I’m the Irish guy who writes for Charlie Hebdo. I’m conscious that this sounds like the beginning of a joke. Frankly, it’s beginning to feel a little like that too. 
 And he continues,
Much of this anti-Charlie prissiness comes from how the magazine has been typified in the Anglo press. ie, idiotically for the most part. An infinity of pundits have made blithe diagnoses of general knavishness while not speaking any French at all.

This bears repeating. No. French. At. All. The point about language is absolutely crucial. Indeed, it may well be the only real point. It is so preposterous that it makes my head spin. How can you make any sensible judgement about Charlie if you cannot read it?
Quite.

And people should read the whole of this article too. It's in English.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Telling lies

I give up. I really do. At least the stupidity of the authors deciding to boycott PEN America's free speech award to Charlie Hebdo has been widely condemned, but some of the mealy-mouthed defences that have been put up are incredible. PEN itself, eloquently "rejecting the assassin's veto," has at least acknowledged the magazine's stated aim as being to "reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority of radical extremists to place broad categories of speech off limits", even if it does hedge them with standard conditionalities about offence and not needing to "endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons." Of course the prize for the absolute worst defence, laden with slanders, is in the Guardian. Where else could it be? Here are some of the corkers -
"The satirical weekly has indeed published racist, sexist or offensive cartoons"; "there is no honour in caricaturing the marginalised"; "what Charlie Hebdo now represents – namely sneering and dismissive attitudes towards immigrants across Europe"; "the original decision rather smacks of a white, privileged, smug and superior establishment coming together in solidarity with a publication that some regard as racist.
 Bloody hell; this is a defence?

It is perfectly obvious that all this crap is the result of a deliberate, viral smear campaign. The far left orchestrated it to cover their embarrassment after their beloved far right theocrats committed a mass murder of unarmed leftists and Jews. They launched a campaign of calculated lies in the English-speaking world. And how they succeeded. The truth is that Charlie Hebdo is anti-fascist, anti-racist, forcibly pro-immigrant, and pro-Palestinian. It campaigns against austerity, poverty, inequality and for workers' rights. It is the total opposite of how it has been painted. It is a paper of the radical left. It isn't particularly obsessed with Islamism either, as this infographic, published by Le Monde back in February, makes clear.

Yes, that's right. Out of five hundred and twenty three covers over ten years, Islam only featured seven times. Charlie Hebdo even took the piss out of sport six times more often! Yet its leftist enemies are trying to paint it as an Islamophobic hate rag.

This despicable and indecent propaganda could only work in the English-speaking world. Where else would you find people in such numbers who couldn't be bothered to read the magazine itself, who can't read French and who know nothing of French politics or the prominent incidents that were being satirised. Where else, on the basis of such lazy ignorance, would individuals and news outlets be willing to self-righteously parrot lies?

The authors that protested PEN's award talked of the magazine's "cultural intolerance." Well how about their cultural ignorance? Even without mentioning their moral failure in the face of murder, they stand condemned as a bunch of bloody Francophobes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Trouble at t' uni

Marina Warner, Alex Preston and Terry Eagleton have mounted the barricades on the streets of higher education to repel the barbarians storming the ivory towers.

The worst and most hyperbolic defence is mounted by Eagleton. High on rhetoric and low on fire-power, he doesn't stand a chance. But the other two have something more substantial to say and Marina Warner's contribution, a follow up to an earlier piece, is particularly thoughtful. But even so, some of their aim is awry. It is clear that something has gone wrong in higher education. I agree; I have lived through it. The question is, what?

First, let's get this straight, being an academic is a privileged job. Even given the difficulties and pressures, being an academic is still a privileged job. For a variety of reasons I took an early retirement. There isn't a day when I don't miss it. There isn't a day when I don't wonder about my decision and think about whether I could or should have held on. Here, in a Greek spring, I can see the attractions of a pension more clearly than I can on a wet day in Manchester, but being an academic is most definitely a privileged job and I was lucky to have been one.

Now, let's look at some of their targets.

1. The war on the humanities.
The main evidence for this is that teaching grant was removed from all humanities subjects and they are now funded through fees alone. However, STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) still get some grant. Sounds suspiciously like bias, but it isn't really. Under the new funding regime, with most universities charging top-level fees, humanities subjects got more money per student than before. The problem was that STEM subjects are more expensive to teach and the humanities are more popular. They were in danger of getting less funding. The conclusion was obvious. STEM subjects were at risk. The logic for any university was to pack it with cheaper humanities students. The market had to be modified. Maintaining some teaching grant was a way of ensuring that STEM subjects were not lost, not an act of anti-humanities prejudice.

2. Marketisation.
Because of fees, university teaching is now funded on the basis of the number of students universities recruit. Before the new system, it was funded on the basis of the number of students universities recruited.

3. Privatisation.
All that the new funding system has done is to transfer some funding from the state to the student through higher fees and loans. But the fees are still funded up front by the state and it is likely that many of the loans will be unpaid. There is no sign of the state withdrawing and it is still determined to try and use the tools at its disposal to shape university provision, often for the worse.

4. Bureaucracy.
Yes, it has increased and how. But, part of this increase was necessary. If you want to understand why, read the classic essay, The Tyranny of Structurelessness. For example, when I was a student in the late 70s and early 80s I had no idea why a particular mark was applied to my work. Now we have assessment criteria that can be used to explain why and to challenge judgements if necessary. Clear regulations and information benefits students, but does increase administration. The cosy informal arrangements of an elite system were convenient but exclusive. A mass system needs structure.

5. The rising number of administrators.
This is certainly an indicator of increasing bureaucracy. But what would happen if the number weren't going up? Academics would have to do it all! Administrators should enable academics to be academics by handling much of the paperwork. That is what they are there for. My main complaint was that I didn't have enough administrative support, not too much.

6. Instrumental education and vocationalism.
I actually don't mind if students get a job as a result of their studies.

7. The neo-liberal university.
I am not sure what that means. Neo-liberalism is a theory of economics, not education. If it means that universities are shaped by the dominant political and economic paradigm, what's new about that?

Many complaints consist of ill-defined "boo words" or of things that don't stand up to much scrutiny. But something is still wrong. Very wrong. Crass and poorly thought out policies can be worked around creatively, the real problem is implementation.

Clearer regulation was needed, but this much? An emphasis on helping students to get work and some vocational content isn't a bad idea, but it has translated to a sneering attitude to the arts and humanities and a mad rush to build prestigious business schools and overseas campuses that can sometimes lose money. The various research assessment exercises have been poorly conceived, mitigate against good quality work, are stupidly bureaucratic and have led to the under-valuing of teaching. And there has been a real victim, whether by design or by neglect. Part-time study and adult education have been decimated by the new funding regime.

I have overstated the case for the defence because I wanted to say that there was a rational basis to policy, however poorly designed it turned out to be. I have also brushed away a genuine complaint about the failure to think about the purpose of higher education, other than making a simplistic and dubious causal link between numbers of graduates and economic prosperity. There has been a real external pressure to turn centres of learning and community resources into diploma factories. But the main complaints from academics are about impossible workloads, stress, bullying, exhaustion, casualisation and the erosion of employment rights. This is the result of practice, not policy. And so we have to go back to looking at the old culprit of managerialism.

The exaltation of the manager is one aspect of the ideology, as is the cult of leadership (though I thought that rather fell out of fashion after the nineteen thirties). Both have led a trend away from democratic governance of institutions. However, of prime importance is bureaucracy. Rather than seeing it as either irrational, a manufacturer of "bullshit jobs," or as the product of an excess of zeal, it is important to grasp that bureaucracy is an instrument of power. It doesn't impose structure, but control. Structure needs administration, not bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a weapon in the battle against autonomy and it is the restriction of autonomy and independent judgement in favour of institutional control that is hurting.

Stalin understood it well. Controlling the bureaucracy rather than commanding the support of the people is the way to power. We are not building neo-liberal institutions, which, after all, would be liberal, but proto-Stalinist ones camouflaged with a veneer of consultations and meetings, endless meetings, giving an illusion of democracy. And there is an irony here. Getting to a position of power does not require competence or even eloquence, all you need is a certain amount of self-regard and cunning. Once there, managers are protected by closed circles of self-interest and the decline of accountability in a managerial institution. At its worst, the results are not impressive. You get a lemming-like following of fashionable policies, from chasing after dodgy money to the current cowardice in defending free speech, whilst the most consistent effect is the rocketing of Vice Chancellor's pay, mirroring the cash grab in the corporate sector.

I know of good managers in good institutions. I understand the pressures that institutions face and the uncertainties that go with funding changes. These can lead to unpalatable choices. But the working lives of academics are outside their control in a way that they used not to be, whilst their managers are less constrained and better paid. It is not a formula for happiness.

Even so, even in these difficult times, never forget that being an academic is a privileged job, that university teaching can be a joy and that the intangible rewards are immense. I miss being one. I miss it intensely.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Twenty years

It is twenty years since Father Ted was first broadcast. Unbelievable. And this is a marvellous feature commemorating it.

What about Ted and reality though?
Some years after Father Ted ended, Linehan and Mathews ran into a real-life priest – always a sticky moment for the men who had portrayed Catholicism as a joke and the Vatican as an all-night disco party. Ted was intended to be crazy and absurd, they said. Nobody really thinks priest are like that. “Lads,” the cleric confided, “you don’t know the half of it.”

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Satire is dead

I emerged from the fog of a bad cold in an unseasonally chilly Greece and, now recovered, picked up the Guardian. Or was it the The Daily Mash? Has the Guardian become a self parody?

First up was a strange rant about how the cause of jihadi radicalism in Britain is apparently, er, David Cameron. Oh. Well, he "got away with bombing Libya (with barely a thought for the poor Libyans ...)" - other than responding to the Libyans' increasingly desperate requests to bomb Libya of course, or, to be more precise, bomb the Libyan army that was busy killing them. But since then he has encouraged jihadis by calling "for the overthrow of the secular Syrian government" and "to demonise it out of all proportion" (with 200,000 dead, overflowing torture chambers and around nine million displaced I want to know what would be proportionate in the demonisation stakes). But he had a clinching argument. He insisted that we "remember, this is the same President Assad who was having tea with the Queen in 2006." Of course, I had forgotten. How could I be so silly?

So was this pro-Assad propaganda a Seumas Milne column or by someone from the SWP or the Stop the War Coalition? No, it wasn't a stopper, it was a former British ambassador. I think that the diplomatic service may need to look at their recruitment policies.

So, with a mounting sense of despair I turned to the next article. It was by Naomi Wolf. Please tell me, why does anybody publish Naomi Wolf? Anyway, it started off as a robust defence of free speech, even if her history was embarrassingly wrong. According to her, "Before 1857 it was quite difficult to get arrested for speech in England." Tell that to John Wilkes (1763), Francis Burdett (1820) or Richard Carlile (1819), to mention only the most prominent cases, and it would be helpful to know that the offence of seditious libel had been part of the common law since 1606. Never mind, the main thrust of the argument might have been superficial, but it is a fair point that government restrictions on speech usually fail to suppress ideas. Except that she too is writing about jhadi radicalism and suffers from the standard liberal under-estimation of an ideology that exhorts people to murder strangers and obliterate free speech with violence.

Wolf doesn't bother to get to grips with harm principle, that free speech can be restricted where it can cause harm to others (like 'let's nip off to Iraq, crucify people, throw gays off buildings and rape a few slaves'), nor does she really engage with the fact that most policy makers feel that any response to jihadism has to be multi-layered, combining a range of different measures. Instead, she offers the Mrs Merton solution - "Now, let's have a heated debate..."
If you look at what actually worked in history, you would not be arresting people for “Muslim extremist” thought or antisemitic cartoons, however unpleasant: you would be holding well-covered, widely translated public debates between moderate Muslim critics of extremism and extremist voices, or between Muslim extremist religious advocates and western rabbis or secularists – and tweeting, Facebooking, televising, and commenting on the debate in real time.
 Is this for real? Are you sure it is a serious newspaper? 

I put it down and stared out of the window as a brightly coloured woodpecker flitted between trees before settling on the apple tree and tapped at the bark, its bright red head moving rapidly in a cold breeze. It beat reading the Guardian hands down.