Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ships and rats 2

Tomorrow is the last day before I take early retirement and desert the University of Hull. One more day in full employment, one more day in the company of my many friends in the Centre, one more day in my office - a former bedroom in a converted terrace house, looking out on some parking spaces and the trees that surround us, now filled with bare shelves and empty box files - just one more day.

It will be emotional; adult education is an emotional business, the stuff of dreams and fears, of changing lives. And tomorrow the emotions will be very mixed. I am distraught at leaving, upset that it is necessary, relieved to be starting out again and happily excited by the future.

I tried to find a suitably slick YouTube to mark the occasion, but instead settled on the this, Leaving Teaching, by the late Canadian poet George Johnston. It is beautiful, perceptive, and lyrical. He sees his retirement as a little death, a recognition of the sufficiency of life.

Sod that! Despite the temptation, I shall not "deteriorate amid bucolic dreams". Retiring is not about teaching my heart to die, but to live. Domestic happiness will be the basis for the revival of my restless energy. Life remains to be grabbed and so I will continue teaching part-time, start writing seriously and ignore the inevitable disintegration of age, holding to the conviction that I remain as gorgeous as any gilded youth. And for long spells I will go to Greece, sit under the vine or by the olive wood fire and be gloriously, sensuously alive. I may even continue to blog.

Nothing can break the friendships I made or my huge repect for the people of the City of Hull, some of whom drop by here. Leaving will be hard, arriving will be fun.

(Thanks to Aphroula for the link to the poem)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rats, ships etc

As the iceberg looms, this says much about the New Labour project:
Lord Mandelson has disclosed that he is ready to accept a job under a future Conservative government.
Oh yes, the 'big tent' with its ideological vacuum is great vehicle for personal ambition. Besides anyone who use a phrase like, "asset base" to describe his work experience should be barred from office on the basis of failing the fit and proper jargon test. Depressing.


One thing about moving is the way that you revisit your past as part of the process. And as I shift hundreds of books from Hull to Manchester, I see the people and places that are intertwined with them. I remember the houses where I first read them, the people who gave them to me or told me that I must read them. I think back to the times when I was a student and of the groups I have taught. Then there are those I have known who have written some of them, all remembered as I turn the pages and look at the spines before placing them in a cardboard box to be relocated to another set of shelves.

So, together with Norm, I despair of the endless 'death of the book' guff that infects the media. And when he points out that the reason for the persistence of bookshelves is not exhibitionism but utility, I would add that they are also a map of your life. Books are objects of emotional attachment; of love, friendship, interest and irritation - and sometimes guilt - 'I will get around to reading it one day' will probably be my dying words.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sometimes ...

...there are moments. I was with friends from work and Dennis. We pretended we were having a meal out for my birthday, but we all knew it was because I am going away. And he had painted me a picture - semi abstract and swirling, snake like. He had named it, "a bookworm". I know what it meant and I know that wherever I am, for the rest of my days, that painting will be there, surrounded by books. A reminder, not just of Dennis, but of the power of adult education; a life saved and a life well lived.

An icy chill

With my retirement and move coming up horrifyingly quickly, I have little time to do anything but to re-post any good things I see. And this is good; a top photographer engages with global warming through dramatic photography of the retreat of glaciers.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

An ageing plump

Another year older today so before going out for a birthday meal I though I would post something touching and sentimental. I know Karen will like it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The struggle continues

From Iran
The unusual thing is that these basijis are now wearing black-cloth masks to hide their identity from passers-by.....previously it was the demonstrators who wore masks but now it is the basijis who are forced to do so - as citizens will beat them up and burn their motorcycles if they catch them alone somewhere."
It's not over, even if it isn't in the headlines.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Catholic tastes

Bits of a dead nun are attracting crowds. Andrew Brown doesn't think this is odd.
If anyone thinks this is strange and medieval, they should perhaps ask themselves what happens when football trophies are put on display today.
I tell you what happens. Fans think, 'oh good, my team won the cup. Hooray'. They don't think, 'I'm cured'. (Mind you, if a Rugby League trophy appeared at Swinton, it would be a bloody miracle).

Amidst the St Thérèse fridge magnets, there are always the hopeful, the tragic and the gullible.
One woman said that she became pregnant, after being told she could not, when she prayed to St Thérèse.
I'm sorry, but I think she must have been doing something else as well.

Come back the Enlightenment, all is forgiven.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Support and supporters

Ben Cohen is quick off the mark with the UN Human Rights Council's report on the Gaza conflict, which was released yesterday, seeing it as a distortion. At 575 pages I certainly haven't read it all and, no doubt, never will.

The report gives the official Israeli army objectives for the operation:
The Operation was limited to what the IDF believed necessary to accomplish its objectives: to stop the bombardment of Israeli civilians by destroying and damaging the mortar and rocket launching apparatus and its supporting infrastructure, and to improve the safety and security of Southern Israel and its residents by reducing the ability of Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza to carry out future attacks. (para 1196)
Much hangs on the interpretation of the term "supporting infrastructure". I would have thought that a military understanding would be in terms of command and control, supply lines and the like. Yet the report states:
It is not far-fetched for the Mission to consider that Israel regards very large sections of the Gazan civilian population as part of the “supporting infrastructure”. (para 1206)
In paragraph 1680 the report goes one stage further and talks about how the "Mission considers the plan to have been directed, at least in part, at a different target: the people of Gaza as a whole".

The interchangeability of the words "section" and "whole" is an imprecision that is both shoddy and disturbing, and it is this breathtaking exaggeration that Cohen picks up on, saying,
This claim - essentially, that Israel was waging war against every man, woman and child in Gaza - is just astounding.
He then attempts to refute it through an analysis of casualty statistics and quotes Richard Kemp speaking about the attempts made to avoid civilian deaths. But does this miss the point?

To answer the question we have to go back to the term "supporting infrastructure". The report suggests that the Israeli interpretation was that this meant the Hamas movement itself, hardly unreasonable given the nature of an organisation partial to lobbing missiles at civilian populations. In its wake comes more dubious assertions. The report suggests that because Hamas were clear election winners, Israel saw the voters themselves as legitimate targets (para 1206). This is highly problematic, as is the interpretation of the quoted statement by Deputy Chief of Staff, Dan Harel that the IDF were hitting Hamas government structures as "the intentional targeting of civilian objects" (para 1208). How far can a belligerent organisation like Hamas really be seen as civilian?

Just when you think that the Mission is clutching at straws, then comes this. The report sees the strategy followed in Gaza as being precisely in line with the so called Dahiya Doctrine, something that in the past has been used as an example of Israel's inherent wickedness by the anti-Zionists, but which has also drawn sharp criticism from the pro-Israeli left. The stated aim of this strategy is not to kill people but destroy their infrastructure. This assertion is supported by some disturbing statements by leading politicians:
On 6 January 2009, during the military operations in Gaza, Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai stated: "It [should be] possible to destroy Gaza, so they will understand not to mess with us”. He added that “it is a great opportunity to demolish thousands of houses of all the terrorists, so they will think twice before they launch rockets”. "I hope the operation will come to an end with great achievements and with the complete destruction of terrorism and Hamas. In my opinion, they should be razed to the ground, so thousands of houses, tunnels and industries will be demolished”. He added that "residents of the South are strengthening us, so the operation will continue until a total destruction of Hamas [is achieved]. (para 1200)
And in paragraph 1201,
On 2 February 2009, after the end of the military operations, Eli Yishai went on: “Even if the rockets fall in an open air or to the sea, we should hit their infrastructure, and destroy 100 homes for every rocket fired.”
It seems that some politicians, at least, if correctly quoted, were not overly fussy about distinguishing between the physical infrastructure of Hamas and the population as a whole. The report continues:
It is in the context of comments such as these that the massive destruction of businesses, agricultural land, chicken farms and residential houses has to be understood. In particular, the Mission notes the large-scale destruction that occurred in the days leading up to the end of the operations. During the withdrawal phase it appears that possibly thousands of homes were destroyed. (para 1203)
If the target was the lives of the civilian population, if it was the war of extermination stubbornly lodged in the imaginations of anti-Israeli propagandists, then it is clear that the casualty statistics are of the utmost relevance; there would have been slaughter on an appalling scale. If the target was civilian infrastructure, then they are less important (except, of course, for the utter misery caused) for understanding the nature of the war. Instead we would need to look at the extent and nature of the damage to Gaza's homes, roads, farms and factories.

From what I have read, the report's language is slippery and the elision between lives, property and civilian infrastructure leaves it open to misuse and misreporting by apologists and accusers alike. What is more, this obstructs a proper analysis of the events and the examination of the appropriateness or otherwise of the assault. The harrowing pictures we saw on our TV screens are lost from view behind the smokescreen of imprecision as the partisans get to work. Whether this was the product of bad drafting or bad faith is something I cannot answer.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bad arguments

An accusation of bad faith is a neat way of dodging an argument. It claims the moral high ground and avoids saying anything substantive. There was a perfect example today in the obituary of Norman Borlaug, the scientist behind the Green Revolution.
The long-term cost of depending on Borlaug's new varieties, said eminent critics such as ecologist Vandana Shiva in India, was reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to pests. Not only did Borlaug's "high-yielding" seeds demand expensive fertilisers, they also needed more water. Both were in short supply, and the revolution in plant breeding was said to have led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers.

Borlaug had a robust reply. He acknowledged that his Green revolution had not "transformed the world into Utopia", but added that western environmental lobbyists were often elitists. "They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger," he said. "If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertiliser and irrigation canals, and be outraged that fashionable elitists were trying to deny them these things."

Ah, three sins in one. "Western" - obviously a crime, only partly offset by Shiva actually being Indian. "Elitist" - of course, especially if they are environmentalists and fashionable. Now for the killer - remote from reality, without compassion or experience, unlike him of course.

This neatly sidesteps the main claim of his critics, that the Green Revolution had a devastating impact on the rural poor and the landless in the developing world. Thus, whilst output rose, the technology favoured global commercial monopolies, adversely affected the distribution of wealth, and meant that poverty increased and systemic hunger grew alongside food surpluses. It is a serious criticism rooted in a different model of development economics, the real experiences of rural communities and anger at the dispossession, destitution and starvation of the poor. It is not a spurious indulgence of ignorant hippies.

Borlaug was a serious and important figure and I am not qualified to offer a judgement on the debate. However, I wince at the description of bluster as "robust". (Mind you that was as nothing compared to this mess, with which the Guardian, once again, surpassed itself).

For an overview of Shiva's views, here she is speaking in the United States earlier this year (with the occasional dubious rhetorical flourish of her own). It's worth fifty minutes of your time.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The season's over

Of the many changes Rugby League keeps making, the one they got right was the play off system. Each end of season is now packed with dramatic matches on which the whole year turns. Swinton just managed to sneak into them, then failed heroically in their elimination fixture at Oldham. But what a game! Length of the field tries, dramatic mistakes at crucial times, no little skill and tough, bruising tackling as players gave everything. Both sides had to fight back from deficits and the result was in balance until the final hooter.

Sport can do that sometimes, leave you with a smile on your face, even in defeat, and fill you with admiration for human endeavour and the exercise of skills that you could never hope to possess. It has its own aesthetic. I have booked my Grand Final tickets; one day, perhaps, it will be for Swinton ... well sport is also a vehicle for dreams.

Things you can learn ...

... from the Internet.

In 1936 music hall comedian Hector Thaxter became the first man to say “Arse” on the radio.

Well I never.

Quote of the weekend

From Thomas Keneally

"I like older women, but now they're younger than I am"

I'm getting to know what he means.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Free speech

It was this news that got me to revisit an old draft post that I never got around to finishing. It seems to be time to start thinking about free speech again.

Freedom of speech, thought and conscience is central to a civilised society. If you doubt it, look at any country without it or where it is severely curtailed, where people are murdered for trying to tell the truth, locked up and facing a show trial for reporting the inconvenient resistance of an outraged people, or even worn down with the daily banality of pretence at obeisance to an official truth, as beautifully described by Czeslaw Milosz:
Informing ... is the basis of each man's fear of his fellow-men. Work in an office or factory is hard not only because of the amount of labor required, but even more because of the need to be on guard against omnipresent and vigilant eyes and ears. After work one goes to political meetings or special lectures, thus lengthening a day that is without a moment of relaxation or spontaneity. The people one talks with may seem relaxed and careless, sympathetic and indignant, but if they appear so, it is only to arouse corresponding attitudes and to extract confidences which they can report to their superiors.
So why then are we being so pusillanimous about defending free speech, why are we so feeble in the face of those who would destroy it, why do we accord the same status to lies that we do to truth, why do we invite its enemies on to Question Time?

For me the answer is that the liberalism of our days is not robust, combative, radical; it is complacent, lazy, deluded. It thinks that you can effectively confront fascism with reasoned arguments.

Have these liberals learnt nothing from history? Reasoned debate can only take you so far. And, though they happily quote John Stuart Mill they don't seem to have thought much about what he actually had to say.

Mill's essay On Liberty offers a splendid defence of freedom of thought:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
This is superficially straightforward. One person's right, by definition, imposes a duty on others, and specifically on governments, to respect it. Here the right to free speech imposes a duty not to deny such a right to anyone, whatever their opinion. However, it does not entail a duty to broadcast their views. These two are often confused. Just because you may not criminalise views you despise, it does not mean that you have to put them on your TV screens.

The right to free speech implies a negative duty to refrain from suppression, censorship and prosecution. It is not a positive obligation to promote, facilitate and host opinions that you, or any institution you may be a member of, find obnoxious. And that applies as much to a public body. The law may insist on a party political broadcast, but appearing on a politically based entertainment programme? No, that is not a legal obligation, it is, rather, an editorial choice. And there is a suspicion that audience size may just have been a factor in the decision.

But there is more. Mill provides three main utilitarian justifications for liberty of speech. The first two, that its restriction is an assumption of infallibility on the part of the censor and that the opinion suppressed may, in fact, be true are commonplace. It is his third that I find the most interesting.
Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience
In other words, Mill has a dialectical theory of truth; it emerges, develops and is refined by the conflict of ideas. More than that, without contest, it dies. So what duty does this impose on others? I would argue that it most certainly doesn't insist on quiescence, let alone acceptance, instead it creates a duty to be a partisan on behalf of truth. Freedom of speech is an active and combative concept.

So how is that combat to take place? I am certain that Mill had in mind the civilized contest of the debating chamber and the printing press. These were the instruments of his time. I am equally sure that he was talking about the necessity of contest in doctrine rather than the disputation of clear and incontrovertible empirical fact. However, in his reliance on human reason alone, he is on much weaker ground. Reason founders on the rock of irrational belief and malign ideologies. Truth may win out in the long term, as I think Mill assumed, but in the short term it can be overwhelmed, leaving behind a pile of corpses.

An example. The Civil Rights campaigners of the 60's did not sit with white racists in the TV studios and debate with them until they saw sense. They sat at segregated lunch counters, registered to vote, took to the streets, faced the beatings and the jailings, and risked their lives until they forced the federal government to confront the reality of segregation and take action as consciences stirred. That activism was both an exercise of free speech and of the duty to confront. Out of that struggle came desegregation, if not equality. Engaging with peoples' emotions, their gut instincts, their consciences, is a way of springing their reason into action.

The BNP is searching for legitimacy. It is their tactic, as it was Hitler's during his accession to power (together with control of the streets by force). The act of denying them legitimacy, as in not inviting them to appear as respectable guests of TV programmes, does not infringe their free speech, no one is stopping them printing material, holding meetings on premises where people are prepared to admit them, or removing their sites from the internet. No, it is in itself a symbolic act of free speech. It says that 'your views are not acceptable', 'you may have won seats in elections, but we will only give you the barest minimum that the law insists on', it says to the whole of society, 'they are illegitimate'. It is a militant assertion of common values. It is, once more, the exercise of the duty to contest.

Then again, my attempt to redefine speech as action leads me into pitfalls. How far do we go? Is terrorism free speech? By engaging with emotion do we thereby abandon reason? On closer examination, Mill's principles, too, appear slippery and imprecise. This shows that principle can only take you so far. We cannot escape the need for moral choice, to make a judgement. Such moral judgements may be based on instinctive emotion, a sense of right and wrong, but that too is grounded in real historical experience. And how much experience do we need?

I see us facing a choice between a passive and active liberalism. The one is based on the assumption that reason will prevail, it is urbane and civilised. The other comes from a sense of alarm at the power of an irrational evil that needs to be confronted. It accepts the necessity of free speech but refuses any notion of moral equivalence and equal legitimacy. Its faith in the power of reason is limited. It urges action. And every time I read and re-read Mill, especially in the light of the conflicts of his day, I am convinced that he was an activist.

So, to what Voltaire didn't say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, we should add "and I take up the duty to confront, condemn, ridicule and, if I choose, ignore or take action against dangerous lies and nonsense. And, what is more, I feel no compunction to help you spread them". It appears the BBC thinks otherwise.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The bridge of thighs

It's a bit like a seance. Now Will doesn't have a blog he is channelling from the other world through those of us still blogging. Paulie picked up these defences of the BBC from him, a consistent theme of his blog.

My tip of the week was certainly dear to my heart:

Could big thighs protect against heart disease?
Stop trying to slim down those thunder thighs – they may be protecting you from major health problems, according to new research. Surprisingly, it found that people with thinner-than-average thighs may have a higher risk of heart problems or an earlier death.
Hmm... this item might be a case for Ben Goldacre.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


It's chucking it down - again. The heating is on - again. At least I don't live on Skye. That would test George's poetic appreciation of rain. Here is my 10-10 pledge. I will cut down my flying; I will fly to Greece once and bloody stay there.

What about work? Why work? (Ta Will)