Saturday, January 30, 2010

Friday, January 29, 2010

More on History

In this post I took up the issue of the misuse of history by Baltic ultra-nationalists who are promoting the notion that fascism and communism are equivalents, rather than being contrasting variants of totalitarianism, in order to hide politically inconvenient complicity in the Holocaust. Now, David Neiwert, a journalist specialising in the American right, has pointed to the recent expansion by a Glen Beck documentary/rant on Fox News of a long-standing thesis, which argues that fascism sprang from the socialist movement, into one that goes much further, asserting that American liberalism and fascism are intrinsically linked. And yes, just to complete a full house of false analogies, they did manage to wangle the word 'holocaust' into the title ("The Revolutionary Holocaust: Live Free Or Die").

It is a very easy trick to play. First of all make your definition as wide as possible. A precise definition will not catch all that you want to be caught by it. Then blur important distinctions and assert that anything that is vaguely authoritarian, or even statist, is objectively fascist. Highlight all the commonalities, ignore all the differences and thus 'prove' that they are the same. In that way you can make nonsense appear credible.

It also helps if there is a vague connection to some reputable history and there have been scholarly studies of the origins of fascism and its relationship to all kinds of radical and ecological thought. These overlaps are interesting. However, a few shared assumptions or common origins do not make ideologies identical and, as ideas and movements develop, very different beasts emerge.

The current basis of all this is yet another piece of best-selling polemical history, Jonah Goldberg's oxymoronic Liberal Fascism (to my horror given a surprisingly appreciative review by Nick Cohen). The book has long been a target of Neiwert's and now George Mason University's History News Network has invited a scholarly response. There is little support. The latest contribution to be posted, an open letter from Matthew Feldman in response to Goldberg's self-defence, is utterly damning.
So let me be totally clear in rejoinder: I have no agenda, and genuinely have no desire to slander you personally. But it needs to be said, loud and clear: your book is just ridiculous.
More substantial contributions, including Feldman's original review, can be read here, here, here and here.

Whilst Michael Leeden mounts a partial defence, he admits that the book "is
a work of political theory, not a history". Leeden also reckons that, "Despite the provocative title, he's not saying that liberalism is the same as fascism". Beck and Fox quite clearly have no such scruples, mounting an exercise in guilt by association and using this as a platform to question the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. After the Muslim terrorist death panel angles, they can now claim that he is a Marxist and a fascist simultaneously.

It is this deliberate, systematic and infectious undermining of Obama, sometimes based on lies, innuendo, breathtakingly false analogies and closet racism, that drags this debate about the merits of a book into the political arena and highlights this comment of Feldman's:
Furthermore, I believe, Liberal Fascism is also dangerous. ... I say again: your book is manna from heaven for actual, ideological, revolutionary, radical right-wing, ultra-nationalistic fascists.
Once again, history is being misused as a justification for a wild and vicious political assault. Sometimes the debate becomes so absurd that you can't imagine anyone taking it seriously. However, you then read things like this:

The onward march of Fox News, the relentlessly rightwing channel that has revolutionised American television news by making it overtly partisan, has been boosted by an opinion poll that suggests it is the most trusted news operation in the country.

Almost half of all Americans surveyed in the poll of 1,151 registered voters said they trusted Fox News. That is a notably larger vote of confidence than the 39% who said they trusted Fox's great rival CNN, and vastly more than the credibility ratings of the traditional news networks ABC News (31%), CBS News (32%) and NBC News (35%).


Obama strikes me as a cautious centrist with some social democratic leanings, hardly deserving of the ludicrous rhetoric, conspiracy theories and monstrous distortions of the raving right. I suppose they haven't 'discovered' a link between him and Charles Manson yet, but give them time. And as the mood music changes, disillusioned liberals are joining in the chorus, making me distinctly uneasy that a deliberate attempt to sabotage the first African American presidency may yet prove successful and dash the hopes of a small amelioration of the lives of the poor. And in this instance a defence of the legitimacy of an elected president is also a defence of the proper use of history.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Just how much can an ageing fat man take? If the football wasn't heart stopping enough, it was knocked into insignificance by tonight. This is one of the pleasures of being back in Manchester, I was able to go to the Bridgewater Hall for the second concert in the Mahler cycle. Being the second, it was Symphony No. 2 - The Resurrection. What a performance it was, bringing out all the theatricality and drama as well as its subtlety and complexity. The applause was thunderous. You can hear a recording of the concert on BBC Radio 3 on April 12th. I am still breathless.

I find the beauty of the first movement overwhelming, it tears at you with its intensity. And then it builds to the climactic finale - a depiction of the Last Judgement, though not an orthodox one. As Mahler described it,
...there are no sinners, no just. None is great, none small. There is no punishment and no reward. An overwhelming love illuminates our being. We know and we are.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Culture wars

And war is the right word.
"After eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 406 death threats, 179 assaults, and four kidnappings, people are still in denial. They say, 'Well, this was just some wingnut guy who just decided to go blow up somebody.' Wrong. This was a cold-blooded, brutal, political assassination that is the logical consequence of 35 years of hate speech and incitement to violence by people from the highest levels of American society, including but in no way limited to George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Bill O'Reilly, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson."
A must read by John H Richardson on the life under siege of the last late-term abortion doctor working in the United States and the terrorism of the Christian right.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Good moaning

It is like birdsong in the Greek spring, a constant accompaniment to English life. Moaning, incessant moaning. Cameron spouting drivel about "broken Britain"; the papers full of accounts of the alienated misery of modern human relationships caused solely by email; of why bloggers coarsen everyday life; of how the English language has been ruined by texting. Then there was the snow - why oh why are we not in a constant state of readiness for the sort of extreme weather that hits us once every thirty years or so and lasts three weeks at most?

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the Guardian, here comes Simon Jenkins - moaning - moaning about archaeology. Yes, archaeology. Or as he likes to think of it, the worship of relics.
The BBC relic department (once called history) now incants hourly radio plugs for MacGregor's 100 objects show. ... MacGregor speaks of his museum objects in hushed and reverential tones, so as to enhance their aura of holiness. ... The objects are like icons behind a Byzantine screen, over which we hear only the chant of the saintly MacGregor.
It's only a bloody radio programme, and rather a neat one at that. Then there is more ...
Museums have given this object worship a metaphysical clutter like that of the 8th-century Council of Nicaea, which ordained that no church could be consecrated without a true relic. ... Museum staff are trained to behave as acolytes to their objects, swearing allegiance to the gods of authenticity and locationism. They don their chasubles and scrape, analyse, clean and study – the meanest shard taking on a spirit that passes mortal understanding.
And on and on, until we get to the final reason why we apparently go in for all this relic worship. I bet you can guess. Dead right, it is all the fault of the internet.
The craving for authentic objects is another manifestation of the longing for the real, for an escape from the tyranny of the lighted screen, the keyboard, the world wide web. When the eye rises blearily from the LED it seeks reality above all else, something not machined, not plasticated, not back-lit, not plugged into the wall.
No, please god no.

I do historical research and I never get over the sheer, visceral thrill of actually touching original documents. But there is a difference. Just because I am holding a letter written by Peter Kropotkin does not mean that I think that I am going to be cured of whatever ailment is affecting me, miraculously lose weight or be swept up into heaven. Instead, there is an historical interest in the contents certainly, but there is something more, a sense of the reality of the past, of real lives with their own ideas and aesthetics, with their practical, everyday concerns, the very stuff of history. Then there is the excitement of research, of unearthing something new, clarifying ideas, the sheer pleasure of intellectual inquiry. It is brilliant, and anything that conveys that thrill to others is something to be encouraged and celebrated, not sneered at with a self-satisfied intellectual disdain at the inadequacy of the lower orders.

So here is a resolution for the day. Stop it. Stop moaning. Stop it right now. And I will stop moaning about people moaning too.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Defending history

In an intriguing article on CiF, Dovid Katz takes the Conservative Party to task for their extraordinary decision to ally with some of the most bizarre, authoritarian and ultra-nationalist far right groups in the European Parliament, seemingly to appease anti-EU sentiment in the party. It is an act of gross irresponsibility for a party that seeks to govern and will no doubt count for absolutely nothing in the coming election campaign.

However, this is not the main subject of the piece. Instead Katz is concerned about a rewriting of history, the equating of Stalinist oppression with the Holocaust in the so called "double genocide" model that sees the Nazi genocide committed against the Jews as equal to Stalin's endeavour to eradicate national identity in the non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union. He sees it as an attempt to mitigate Nazism by "insisting that communism's evils be proclaimed "equal" to Nazism by all of Europe, and trashing the Allied war effort as one that did nothing but replace one tyranny with another "equal" one in the east".

Katz isn't trying to diminish the crimes of Stalinism, he is pointing out that this supposed equivalence has been propagated to hide some rather awkward evidence of complicity in the holocaust.
In the case of the countries in the far east of the European Union, the Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), there is a reluctance to own up to any complicity with the Holocaust. The percentages of their Jewish populations killed (mid-90s) were the highest in Europe. Further west, collaboration had meant ratting to the Gestapo or taking neighbours to the train station to be deported. In these countries, it meant something different. Many thousands of enthusiastic local volunteers did most of the actual shooting of their country's Jewish citizens, whose remains lie scattered in hundreds of local killing pits. In Lithuania and Latvia, the butchery started before the Nazis even arrived.
The ultra nationalist account is seeking to conceal this by turning the perpetrators into victims, this time of a second "genocide".

I am always concerned by historical attempts to make qualitative judgements between unambiguous evils - was Stalin worse than Hitler (thereby implying one was actually better), was Fascism the same as Communism etc. – as they are either a form of sloppy shorthand or an attempt to dissemble. Nor is it enough to quantitatively evaluate regimes by counting the corpses (there are always corpses; many, many corpses). Katz is clear that what we have here is not laziness, but a clever and deliberate attempt at eradicating inconvenient facts from a nationalist narrative. And, what is more, that has meant turning on the victims themselves.
Then, in May 2008, at the lowpoint of modern Lithuanian history, armed police came looking for two incredibly valorous women veterans: Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky (born 1922), librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and Rachel Margolis (1921), a biologist and Holocaust scholar. Margolis is especially loathed by proponents of the "double genocide" industry because she rediscovered, deciphered and published the long-lost diary of a Christian Pole, Kazimierz Sakowicz. Sakowicz, witness to tens of thousands of murders at the Ponar (Paneriai) site outside Vilnius, recorded accurately that most of the killers were enthusiastic locals. Now resident in Rechovot, Israel, she is unable to return to her beloved hometown in Lithuania for fear of prosecutorial harassment.
The falsification of history by the powerful is rarely good for the health of either witnesses or serious writers and historians.

This is not to say that we cannot make meaningful comparisons about the generalities of different regimes. We have an excellent conceptual tool to do just that, totalitarianism, a concept that I have defended here and here against the attempt to extend it so far as to render it meaningless. Certainly both Fascism and Communism were totalitarian, but the specifics of their historical roots, the source of their support, motivation of their supporters and their ideological aims were markedly different. The trouble is that the term is often not used analytically, but as abuse or simply for playing a game of guilt by association. And the moment that happens, history slips across the border into propaganda. That is when it is used to hide things, things that matter, things like the criminal singularity of the attempt to exterminate every Jewish, man, woman and child in Europe through industrial slaughter, together with the inconvenient identity of some of those who did the killing.

I have been re-reading Mark Mazower's history of Europe in the Twentieth Century, Dark Continent. He is very clear about the distinctions between Fascism and Communism and makes a strong argument that Fascism was not an aberration, "National Socialism, in particular, fits into the mainstream not only of German but also of European history far more comfortably than most people would like to admit". This made it a more potent threat to democracy across the continent than Communism. His book is a warning against complacency and to stop us hiding from the reality and continuing threat of barbarism. He quotes Hannah Arendt,
"We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury into oblivion".
She is right and there are examples closer to home. Recently, the idea of a post-left has gained some currency. It emerged out of a critique of what has also been referred to as a red/brown alliance between some far left groups and jihadi theocrats. I have no problem with the description and condemnation of these political factions, I just want to know what is particularly novel about them.

To me the idea of a post-left is an evasion of a discussion of long-standing anti-Semitic and totalitarian discourses within the left. It offers a nice and convenient view that the left was pure and innocent before the Stop the War Coalition came along. This is not so and if we are to realise the emancipatory aims of left thinking, we have to acknowledge, study and counter the darker side too, the one that led to the Gulags, one that has a very long history indeed.

Dishonest history plays games like this. It does things like diminish the uniqueness of the Holocaust and its grotesque historical specificity. Nor does it help us understand the other horrors of our recent past – the Stalins, Maos, Pol Pots, Saddams and many others. They may be united by the deliberate practice of misery and death, but they were not the same, nor were they equivalents, and, most certainly, one was not worse than the others. They were different, distinct variants of totalitarianism.

Most casual comment is not dishonest, it is sloppy. But sloppy history has its perils too. We should guard against the falsifications that allow our defences to slip against new enemies of liberty. This does not just mean the noisy threat of theocratic terrorism, but something more insidious, a growing anti-democratic, ultra nationalist right, something much more in tune with the dark side of European history. Potentially more dangerous and capable of success (just as long as it can just get round those little awkward historical facts that might make people think twice), this tendency is something that the Tory Party has shamefully chosen to work with in the European Parliament.

Given the penchant for the systematic distortion of history, the practice of good historical enquiry and debate has an important role to play in the defence and advancement of democratic societies. Cicero's famous maxim seems apt:
Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labours of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge
(Thanks to the man with no blog)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Conspiracy latest

Heavy marking means light posting, but now I have finished most of it with a huge sigh of relief. So after opening the paper today I have time to share with you the shocking new revelation about the extent of the conspiracy that those damn Elders keep going (with a bit of help from the Illuminati, a bunch of Aliens, the Anti-Christ of course, oops nearly forgot the Masons, then there is always the reptilian Boxcar Willie). Yes, the Taliban are theirs too. Sort of. Perhaps.

Friday, January 08, 2010


In June of last year a young Frenchwoman jumped off the sixth floor balcony of her sister's flat in London holding her five-month-old baby in her arms. Both were killed.

A tragedy, but one with a reason. Let Jenni Russell take up the story.
Christelle fitted no stereotype. She was a 32-year-old Frenchwoman living in Hackney who had lived in Britain since she and her sister moved here in 1997. In May 2008 she graduated from London's Metropolitan University with a degree in philosophy. At about the same time she discovered she was pregnant. She looked for work while claiming jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit. Then in December 2008, the advisers at the jobcentre told her she no longer qualified for jobseeker's allowance. According to the Department for Work and Pensions the fact that she was within 11 weeks of giving birth disqualified her from being an active jobseeker. She was told to apply for income support instead.

What no one warned her was that European nationals who claim income support must provide more proof of residence than jobseekers have to. All a jobseeker needs do is show they are looking for work. Income support is only given if the claimant can prove that for the previous five years they have been either in work, searching for work, studying, or self-sufficient. Christelle had an eight-month period in 2003 when she said she had been working in a cafe but had no employment records to prove it. Her claim was turned down.

Once that happened, the welfare state stopped operating. Her housing benefit was automatically withdrawn. The state, having decreed she was not in a fit condition to look for work, took no further interest in how the penniless mother of a new baby was going to survive.

This is how it ends. All the endless measures aimed at tightening the rules on claimants and foreigners in an attempt to appease the supposed, and probably fictional, atavistic appetites of the electorate, all the cosying up to the the editors of the right wing press, all the creation of increasingly labyrinthine bureaucratic rules, they all result in two broken bodies lying on a Hackney pavement.

And now we turn to the 'coup' that failed - the last ditch attempt to oust the Prime Minister. I may have missed it, but I can't recall any debate about what the Labour Party should be and what would change under a new leader. Was there a discussion of alternative ideas, philosophies and policies? Was there any mention of how to create a better Britain, one forged from the best traditions of the Labour movement, one that would not lead someone to choose death over destitution? Not as far as I could see. Instead all the talk was of who would be most likely to win an election, of who is in and who is out, of factions and intrigues.

Court politics. That is what we are left with, court politics.

Jenni Russell concluded,

I don't believe this is a stance a civilised society can justify. It pitches foreign-born mothers back into a Victorian-style existence in which pregnancy may mean destitution and disgrace.

I agree. And as the ghastly prospect of a prolonged election campaign, dripping with platitudes, looms, don't expect to hear anything about the suicide of a young mother and how we should ensure that something as grotesquely tragic never happens again. It wouldn't do to disturb the formulaic answers and sloganising with the lives and deaths of real people. Would it?

Snow business

I suppose it makes a change from drizzle.

Picture from NASA

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Tone deaf

The Times Higher reports
Staff at the University of Leeds have been told to "demonstrate their positivity" and even use "some gentle wit" when composing official documents.

New "tone-of-voice guidelines" have been drawn up to help employees "write more creatively and effectively" and create "a strong verbal identity that we all understand".

"Words are our most powerful tool," says the 30-page document, which has been sent to all staff. "What's more they're free, available and ready to use."

The guide includes a list of university principles - "collaboration", "challenge", "generosity" and "excellence" - which it says should "come through in the content of our language and the messages we try to communicate".
Leeds? Have they been to Yorkshire, home to the Geoff Boycott charm school? Well, I suppose that the connection of universities to their locality can be tangential. Even so, the attempt to turn academics, cynical moaners par excellence, into a bunch of beaming Moonies seems doomed to failure.

The guidelines continue, without any sense of irony,
The university is "down to earth ... in touch and relevant", the document says, warning academics and others against "falling back on tired old clichés" in their communications.
Like, 'positivity', 'challenge', 'excellence', 'relevant', etc?

I despair.

Via Norm

Blues and reds

It is a sign of the times that the best football journalist of our times concentrates on the game's finances. Yesterday David Conn produced two excellent articles about the fortunes of the two top flight Manchester clubs, United and City. I am old enough to remember the 1968 season when they formed the top two in the First Division (though in the wrong order) and in subsequent years neither club fared particularly well until United finally found a manager able to transform potential into achievement, to reconstruct the club, deliver its first title in twenty-five years and then move on to dominate the era of the Premiership. It won't last. It never does. Players and managers age and move on, mistakes are made and even a club as big as United was relegated in the 70s. City's history has been more chequered still.

Now the two clubs stand as contrasting models of what has become of football. City supporters may be delighted at the moment, but I would argue that both models are disastrous for the game as a whole. City are certainly winners. They are now owned by an oil-rich Middle East elite who are pouring money in with little regard to losses. Despite the talk of long-term sustainability, it is hard to see it happening even in the medium term, not least because the flood of money has inflated the already ludicrously high level of transfer fees, agent payments and player salaries. In the meantime, United too have fallen into foreign ownership, though of a very different kind.

Manchester United were actually sustainable, successful and debt free. Then they were taken over by American owners. Now their debt has reached £700 million and they are liable for interest payments of £263 million over the past three years. Where has the debt come from? It was a leveraged buyout. This is the money borrowed by the owners to buy the club. United are in colossal debt in order to buy themselves.

United's owners are now trying to refinance and continually looking to raise money to service the debt. Supporters are one source. Top price season tickets have risen from £550 to £931. The other day there were spare seats available and I thought about going until I saw the price of £53. Forget it. I can't afford to go.

These figures are mind-boggling. Media and fashion have fuelled a gentrification of the sport at the expense of the fans who are becoming cash cows for a plutocratic elite. The game itself is still compelling, the players capable of great skill, the passion in the community for the game is intense. Everything is alive and well ... except the nagging doubts about both the ethics and economics of a game which, not least by me, is being watched more on the television.

Let's not get misty eyed about the past. It was great queueing up to pay 2/6d to watch Best, Charlton and Law. But the view was bad, the grounds uncomfortable and unsafe, crowd violence was rampant and the clubs themselves were the playthings of local businessmen with feudal attitudes and monstrous egos. The response to hooliganism was to fence the crowd in, treating supporters with contempt, as cattle to be controlled. Those fences killed.

Something had to change, but not this. Sport is one of those areas of life where irrational attachments enrich and entertain, where the fans have a sense of identity and of ownership of their club. Yet it is a dream. Us fans own nothing. We are at best customers, at worst voyeurs of the goings on of the super rich, certainly at the top level. In the crises that followed the deaths at Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough the model of reform mirrored the global attraction to turbo-capitalism. There are other models. Community ownership might not be a wholly viable option for top level sport, but there is also the European social model followed in Germany, where admission prices have been kept down, safe standing areas remain and the game is booming, though with one exception. Without the vast sums being poured in by plutocrats and media, the best players are elsewhere, most notably in England and Spain.

So there is a tension between success and stability. The English Premiership have chosen the high cost, ultra capitalist route. Smug in their satisfaction at the quality of what they keep referring to as 'the product', they ignore the sustainability of a model that rests on the benefaction of the capricious super rich or welcomes in the corporate asset stripper. It is horribly reminiscent of the financial services industry before the credit crunch. The German model certainly seems more robust in the long term and, for me, it would mean that I could still go to games and indulge an old obsession. Thank god for Rugby League.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Another view

Strong winds have blown the mists away, the paraleia is flooded and covered with debris washed in from the sea again, and the views have been spectacular in the clear air - here looking towards the city of Volos from the village of Lafkos. The weather continues to be mild, despite the breeze.

Tomorrow night we will drive back to Athens to catch an early morning flight on Monday. Then a different reality will hit. I prefer this one.

Major argument

"The argument that someone is a bad man is an inadequate argument for war and certainly an inadequate and unacceptable argument for regime change."
John Major quoted in today's Guardian.

I can think of some people who may disagree.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year

I intended to post something more substantial for the New Year, but I haven't quite managed it and there is no hope of doing so today.

New Year's Eve was another glorious day, filled with warm sunshine. The clear air had given way to soft mists filling the gaps between islands, mountains and sea. There was no wind. The sea was calm, decorated with ripples of light, and dolphins leapt from the water in the bay. The temperature rose.

By late afternoon the heat of the sun departs and the evening becomes crisp and cold. The fire is lit and then friends arrive armed with many bottles of wine. As midnight approaches the locals lose patience and begin letting off firecrackers and firing guns in the air. The moment the New Year is officially here, the house is rocked by explosions. Our neighbour, the local butcher, is throwing thunderflashes from his front porch, pausing only to let off a couple more barrels from his shotgun. Abandoning my friends, I wander up the lane, glass in hand, through the smoke and the patter of shotgun pellets. "Chronia polla, Costa!" "Kali chronia, yeitona!" I am beckoned in for wine, offered the opportunity to fire off some more shotgun rounds (wisdom prevailed, I refused), join his family and friends and am given home made wine and kokoretsi. Meat from a butcher's table is a privilege to be savoured. Several glasses later and even fuller than before I rejoin my friends for cards, cake and yet more wine. I like this place.

So today, all I want to do is to gently sober up, do much digesting, sit in the sun and continue to thwart the desire of the bread eating cat to move in ... oh yes, and to wish anyone reading this blog a brilliant 2010.