Saturday, September 29, 2012

Playing with fire

Two disturbing reports:

From Greece.

From Spain.

What are they doing? With no sign that they are learning, conflagration becomes more possible.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Other voices

One of the problems with the left's monomania about Israel and the grim determination of 'anti-imperialists' to see everything through the prism of a malign US foreign policy is that it gives us a distorted picture of the aspirations and opinions of ordinary people in the Middle East and beyond. This is mirrored by some apologists for the Israeli right and especially those other rightists who indulge in clash of civilisation fantasies that picture all Muslims as an undifferentiated, savage horde, even if it is a stereotype that islamists and some of the worst regimes in the region seem keen to live up to. Yet in the midst of all this are real people who are utterly disenchanted with the totalitarian fantasies of their oppressors and the cowardice of their apologists in the west.

This book review highlights a collection of essays that allows them to speak. I particularly liked this comment:
Indeed, while Iran, being mainly Persian, is not part of the Arab world, some of the book's most vivid writing comes from there, courtesy of a young Iranian who, after reading George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, realises he is living in his very own religious dystopia. It is, he says, a "perennially self-righteous society", allowing its rulers to justify extraordinary acts of brutality. "While you (in the West) are fighting for the rights of pandas over there, people are still being stoned to death in my country."  He writes that many Iranians are now so fed up of religious rule that if the regime ever falls, “Iran will form the biggest community of atheists on the planet."
We shouldn't be surprised at the existence of these views, after all they have made a whole series of revolutions, even if the consequences remain unknown.

This is symptomatic of the way blinkered and averted eyes fail to spot the obvious. Here Lauryn Oates discusses the latest bout of murderous, manufactured rage and once again tries to make it plain that it is a result of "an obsession over the desecration of symbols, rather than the desecration of people." As she also points out, "no one commits more violence against Muslims than other Muslims, crimes met with a deafening silence. Often this violence is blatantly defamatory of Islam, as when the Taliban sent suicide bombers into crowded Muslim religious ceremonies."

All those muddled accusations of western-centric orientalism are betrayals of the voices of ordinary people in despair at being the victims of the political ambitions of ideologues and kleptocratic elites alike. This myopia is itself the ultimate in western-centrism, seeing America and Israel as the source of all evil, and in orientalism, asserting that the peoples of the Middle East acquiesce in their own oppression because it is somehow authentic. Instead of judging the acts themselves, they define them on the basis of who carried them out. And in doing so they knit together a blanket of verbiage that muffles the cries of those who want a better life; one that is freer, not subject to arbitrary cruelty, and one that is as ordinary and commonplace as those lived by the apologists who condemn them to a live as the perpetual exotic victim, whilst elevating their worst oppressors to the iconic status of heroic liberators.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Integrate or disintegrate

Mark Mazower perfectly summarises the dilemmas facing the EU in the wake of the Euro crisis:
In short, unless there is a plan for integration that prioritises recovery and growth, what we may end up with is not a Europe that is a "democratic federation of nation states" at all but a gradual unwinding of the entire integration process. A prospect to make some Eurosceptics rejoice, no doubt, but replete with dangers of its own. 
Europeans thus have a tough choice to make: the historic preservation of their national institutions, or greater co-operation and derogation of powers. If, as the Dutch elections suggested last month, they would still mostly opt for the latter then the real argument becomes about the nature of the new institutions, their powers and the philosophy behind them.
"The philosophy behind them"... at last someone is pointing out that it is not so much the institutional arrangements that matters, but the model of political economy that underpins them. A completely coherent fiscal union dedicated to doing precisely the wrong thing is not going to help.

But then he finishes on a most peculiar note
What a sad commentary on the state of British diplomacy that what David Cameron's government thinks about this remains entirely irrelevant.
No, surely what he should have written is, 'thank god that the state of British diplomacy means that what David Cameron's government thinks about this remains entirely irrelevant'. Letting Austerity Osborne and the Etonians loose on Greece? Spare them that, please.

Beyond a joke

This is getting ridiculous.
A 27-year-old man has been arrested by Greek police for what the authorities called "malicious blasphemy," according to a HuffPost translation of a press release.
Police allege that the man managed a Facebook page that lampooned the deceased Eastern Orthodox monk Elder Paisios, a widely popular religious figure, using the name "Gerontas (Elder) Pastitsios."
Pastitsios is a Greek pasta dish, and the page parodied the monk and his work in the vein of Pastafarianism, a lighthearted, satirical movement that promotes irreligion. In a screen shot of the group's Facebook page, which now appears to have been removed from the social network, Elder Paisios is shown with a plate of pastitsios.
Yet another example of the current craze for privileging religion above any other belief system, placing it above criticism - and note too the possible link with the far right. And as there are calls for a UN sponsored world wide blasphemy law, this is a reminder that such a law is only a way of allowing governments to punish the incredibly innocent.

Sign the petition here.

And remember to treat the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster with proper respect.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Finger wagging

There is nothing like a bit of violence to send people scuttling for the cover of some semi-apologetics. Whilst the violence has been dutifully deplored all round, it has been accompanied by much hand-wringing about the importance of not denigrating religious beliefs (a bit difficult if you are an atheist like me). This isn't just a failure to stand up for free speech, it concedes that the cause of the troubles was religious offence. By now it should be evidently clear that the YouTube riots were less the result of the rage caused by a naff video clip and more about the continuing attempt at grabbing power by the far right in Islamic countries. And in one place anyway they seem to have won. The minds of much of the commentariat and several foreign offices have fallen into their hands with little resistance.

For example this is a really strange outbreak of isolationism, its contradictions splendidly taken apart by Norm here. But it was the conclusion that got to me:
Islamists need to stop attacking the west, and issuing fatwas against those outside the Islamic belief system. Likewise, the west needs to solve its own problems, rather than insisting on interfering in the affairs of Muslims, while failing to admit that previous interference might have provoked much of the "Muslim rage" that westerners find so "medieval". In fact, the finger-wagging criticism from Islamaphobic zealots is just more of the "We know what's best; you do what you're told" attitude that has already caused such mayhem. It is time for both parties to get a grip.
The assumptions underlying it are the same old stuff. The west is primarily to blame, we have no right to criticise and that if we do it is another example of colonial arrogance. This is, of course, the narrative of the Islamic far right, with the exception of the exhortation to leave us alone and just kill your own people. They would rather like to kill some of us as well.

Of course this 'neutrality' is nothing of the sort. It is a way of accommodating, rather than confronting some spectacularly nasty politics. It is at one with the 'talk with the Taliban' conventional wisdom. Eager to hear the voices of those who would use a suicide bomb to kill skateboarding children, they are deaf to the cries of the Muslim majority being assailed by these political movements. Believe it or not, a fair number of ordinary Muslims rather like the idea of not being oppressed by savage tyrants and appreciate the chance of living in a country that respects civil liberties and human rights. And on occasions they can make their views known:
As fires blazed and protesters danced in the ruined compound of a vanquished jihadist militia, I watched as the citizens of the Libyan city of Benghazi staged a dramatic display of raw people power. Numbed by the murder of an American ambassador in their city, furious with jihadist militias lording it over them and frustrated by a government too chaotic and intimidated to react, ordinary Benghazians took matters into their own hands.
These are the people we should be standing with, the majority. But then solidarity with them would be Islamophobic finger wagging, wouldn't it.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


You should be careful what you say on Twitter.  Gary Schofield the former Hull, Leeds and Great Britain centre/stand off, was so dismissive about Wakefield Trinity's chances that he tweeted before the Rugby League season began that he would run naked around Belle Vue (Wakefield's ground) if they made the play-offs.

They did and so did he.


This video is not a pretty sight.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Simon Tisdall has identified those responsible for the awful murders in Benghazi. No surprises for guessing where the blame lies;
... responsibility may also be traced back, directly or indirectly, to those in London, Paris, Brussels and Washington who launched last year's Nato intervention in Libya with insouciant disregard for the consequences.
(The same way as those who criticised the support for the revolution had "insouciant disregard" for the consequences of not intervening? Just saying ...)

The whole article can be boiled down to two points:

1. Don't be fooled by any of the things that have gone right, only look at the remaining problems because I feel relieved and happy that we are doomed after all.

2. If we had let Gaddafi slaughter them all (and a few tens of thousands of others) and reestablish his kleptocratic reign of terror, they wouldn't have been around to kill US embassy staff. Wouldn't that have been nice?

Oh well, it's the Guardian after all ...

In the meantime, here are some others who chorus 'not in our name.'


A much more interesting piece of analysis from Hisham Matar here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


How long does it take to recognise failure? What amount of reality is necessary to overwhelm our defensiveness and conquer our cognitive dissonance? What does it take for us to look at something and say, 'sorry, I made a complete bollocks of that'? Judging by Eurozone policies, it needs something of Himalayan proportions.

By the terms it set itself, austerity has failed. Greece should have been growing modestly by now; instead it is contracting at an accelerating rate. There isn't even a sign of growth, there is no remission from the bad economic news, previously viable private enterprises are closing, fascist thugs not only beat up immigrants on the street, they also get elected to parliament, and there are signs of growing hunger - yes hunger - in what should be an affluent, European nation.

Of course the crisis is being felt differentially and an outsider would see little other than the same lovely country and people. Amongst the tales of the despair of the poor and of capital flight by the rich are others of initiative and enterprise, but underneath there are reports of a deepening pessimism.

This excellent post shows where the bailout money goes - straight back to the donors. This is not a rescue of profligate Greeks, but of imprudent financial institutions, in order to shore up a flawed monetary union.

And despite the failure, they still can't lose the habit. The ECB may now be offering to buy bonds to keep down borrowing costs, but as a condition of doing that they are insisting on ... yes, you guessed, it more austerity. At times like this they should turn to the wisdom of Homer - Homer Simpson that is. "If at first you don't succeed, give up."

Hat tip Marcus Walker

Monday, September 10, 2012

In need

What a world of mixed-up values and reprehensible morals. Where our Members of Parliament kick 12 bells out of vulnerable people but allow the extraordinarily wealthy to leap through tax loopholes designed to protect their already huge stash...  
This issue is not about so-called 'scroungers', who - aside from it being a vile, dehumanising term that should be beneath us - are few and far between. Let us not forget that the fraud disability rate is less than one per cent. No, the issue is the basic human needs that this Government is failing to take care of.

From an angry report on disability benefit in the Daily Mail. Yes, the Daily Mail. Indeed, that Daily Mail.

More too in these reports about poverty in the UK, from food banks, through child poverty, to blatantly exploitative loan sharks.

From my comfortable semi-retirement in my second home in Greece I look at both the countries that I have a stake in and wonder what sort of world is being created and whether the political elites have a clue about the consequences of their policies. Are they deluded? Or perhaps they just don't care.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

American football

This footballer knows how to write to a politician about gay marriage.

I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland's state government. Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level.

It gets better.  How I wish that when I had written to my MP in the past about adult education I had thought to use the phrase, "Holy fucking shitballs".


What is the connection between female orgasms and climate change denial? This sounds like the start of a very dubious joke, but actually it isn't. The two were linked in my mind by a couple of very different articles that I read recently.

First up is a wonderfully savage review by Suzanne Moore of Naomi Wolf's new book about, what else, the vagina. There is a lot of malicious pleasure to be had in a stinking review of a book that probably deserves it. Moore set about putting the boot in in a way that would have been far more satisfying than any orgasm. She is particularly rude about Wolf's dipping into neuroscience, "more clueless than someone who has failed her chemistry GCSE but has two TED talks on her iPhone" (ouch!).  And continues,
Yet again we see neuroscience in the hands of the layperson being fused to very determinist ends. Thus neural pathways are formed, chemicals just do one thing, hormones rule. Actual scientists don't think so simplistically, however many rats they have tickled to orgasm.
So we are back in the morass caused by the misuse of misunderstood science; inexpertise leading to a simplistic, 'scientific' conclusion. It is a bad habit, trying to pick out bits of half-digested information to suit a predetermined theory and thereby claim some sort of scientific validity for it. The second article takes on the more serious issue of climate change denial and of a media tendency to abandon any requirement for a modicum of knowledge to help promote the mistrust of expertise by the inexpert. It is a very similar process.

Jay Griffiths writes
Society understands the architecture of academia and knows there are relevant qualifications in different fields, and the media accepts the idea of specialisations and accords greater respect to those with greater expertise. With one exception: climate science. 
When it comes to this academic discipline, it seems that if you are a specialist in public sector food-poisoning surveillance or possess a zoology doctorate on sexual selection in pheasants, editors will seek your contrarian views more avidly than if you have qualifications in climate science and a lifetime's professional expertise. The press is further littered with climate "heretics" almost all of whom have academic backgrounds in history, literature, and the classics with a diploma in media studies. (All these examples are true.) One botanist trying to argue that glaciers were advancing took his data (described as simply false by the World Glacier Monitoring Service) from a former architect.
What these 'sceptics' have in common is the self-image of being enlightened heretics, a Galileo complex. The problem is that their heresy is only lightly adorned by learning. In fact, they are repeating well-worn clichés that have been long disposed of and, though they see themselves as rugged individualists, they are really conservative conformists promoting a vested interest.

So let's think a bit more about expertise. We have a popular image floating around of the lone maverick genius. It doesn't really work that way. A flash of individual insight often can start the process off, but the accumulation of evidence prior to that has already pointed the way. The development of knowledge is as much collective as it is individual. This is why peer review is important. It doesn't guarantee that you are right, but it does point out when you are talking bollocks. This isn't an example of the wisdom of crowds, but of collective expertise harnessed to a common purpose. And this is why scientific consensus is important.

Of course expertise does not confer infallibility. Experts get things wrong, often badly. But that doesn't mean that they are invariably wrong, or that non-experts are more likely to be right. I have always felt that there is no necessary correlation between a position in an organisational hierarchy and expertise, but again that isn't to say that we should give equal respect to those with a smattering of knowledge leavened with a vivid imagination, because they are somehow more 'authentic' or demotic.

I like the way Griffiths ends up
The author has fallen victim to the Galileo fallacy. Just because Galileo was a heretic doesn't make every heretic a Galileo.
And what is more, Galileo was seeking to overturn dogma with data, research and observation. Climate change sceptics are trying to overturn data, research and observation with dogma.

In the meantime, here is an exasperated expert.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Against hysteria

This book looks interesting, one for my post-writing reading list. I have been troubled by the way in which a legitimate concern over jihadi movements has morphed into a general intellectual incoherence. Parts of the left have embraced an apologism for some unspeakable theocratic monsters for fear of being 'Islamophobic', whilst the far right has mobilised into 'football hooligans against Muslims'.  As for the rest, either an embarrassed and faintly patronising silence reigns or the attention rightly paid to Islamist organisations crowds out a broader anti-racism. This book seems to take the sensible line of looking at Muslim immigration in the context of the usual patterns of migration and assimilation, using good empirical evidence and discussing the external political pressures that they are facing.

I suppose it particularly struck home as I am currently re-reading the anarchist Rudolph Rocker's memoir, The London Years, about the organisation of Jewish immigrant labour, which also took place at a time of terrorism, or 'outrage' as it was then known. This was again associated in the popular imagination with foreign immigrants and agitators. History never provides exact parallells, but there are echoes of today's moral panics and political confusions to be found in the sweatshops of19th century London.

Here is a short video of the author discussing it.

And a review from Terry Glavin here.